Let me hurry on to say that it did not happen. I dare say he realized my unfitness for the work, and the far greater appropriateness of conferring the honor on General Grant, for in the end he gave him the assignment, to my immeasurable relief.
It was a magnificent occasion. That spacious hall was hung with bunting, the stage was banked and festooned with decoration of every sort. General Grant, surrounded by his splendidly uniformed staff, sat in the foreground, and behind was ranged a levee of foremost citizens of the republic. The band played "America" as Mark Twain entered, and the great audience rose and roared out its welcome. Some of those who knew him best had hoped that on this occasion of his last lecture he would tell of that first appearance in San Francisco, forty years before, when his fortunes had hung in the balance. Perhaps he did not think of it, and no one had had the courage to suggest it. At all events, he did a different thing. He began by making a strong plea for the smitten city where the flames were still raging, urging prompt help for those who had lost not only their homes, but the last shred of their belongings and their means of livelihood. Then followed his farcical history of Fulton, with General Grant to make the responses, and presently he drifted into the kind of lecture he had given so often in his long trip around the world- retelling the tales which had won him fortune and friends in many lands.
I do not know whether the entertainment was long or short. I think few took account of time. To a letter of inquiry as to how long the entertainment would last, he had replied:
I cannot say for sure. It is my custom to keep on talking till I get the audience cowed. Sometimes it takes an hour and fifteen minutes, sometimes I can do it in an hour.
There was no indication at any time that the audience was cowed. The house was packed, and the applause was so recurrent and continuous that often his voice was lost to those in its remoter corners. It did not matter. The tales were familiar to his hearers; merely to see Mark Twain, in his old age and in that splendid setting, relating them was enough. The audience realized that it was witnessing the close of a heroic chapter in a unique career.
AN INVESTMENT IN REDDING
Many of the less important happenings seem worth remembering now. Among them was the sale, at the Nast auction, of the Mark Twain letters, already mentioned. The fact that these letters brought higher prices than any others offered in this sale was gratifying. Roosevelt, Grant, and even Lincoln items were sold; but the Mark Twain letters led the list. One of them sold for forty-three dollars, which was said to be the highest price ever paid for the letter of a living man. It was the letter written in 1877, quoted earlier in this work, in which Clemens proposed the lecture tour to Nast. None of the Clemens-Nast letters brought less than twenty-seven dollars, and some of them were very brief. It was a new measurement of public sentiment. Clemens, when he heard of it, said:
"I can't rise to General Grant's lofty place in the estimation of this country; but it is a deep satisfaction to me to know that when it comes to letter-writing he can't sit in the front seat along with me. That forty-three-dollar letter ought to be worth as much as eighty-six dollars after I'm dead."
A perpetual string of callers came to 21 Fifth Avenue, and it kept the secretary busy explaining to most of them why Mark Twain could not entertain their propositions, or listen to their complaints, or allow them to express in person their views on public questions. He did see a great many of what might be called the milder type persons who were evidently sincere and not too heavily freighted with eloquence. Of these there came one day a very gentle-spoken woman who had promised that she would stay but a moment, and say no more than a few words, if only she might sit face to face with the great man.