He spoke of Henry's death and little Langdon's, and charged himself with both. He declared that for years he had filled Mrs. Clemens's life with privations, that the sorrow of Susy's death had hastened her own end. How darkly he painted it! One saw the jester, who for forty years had been making the world laugh, performing always before a background of tragedy.
But such moods were evanescent. He was oftener gay than somber. One morning before we settled down to work he related with apparent joy how he had made a failure of story-telling at a party the night before. An artist had told him a yarn, he said, which he had considered the most amusing thing in the world. But he had not been satisfied with it, and had attempted to improve on it at the party. He had told it with what he considered the nicest elaboration of detail and artistic effect, and when he had concluded and expected applause, only a sickening silence had followed.
"A crowd like that can make a good deal of silence when they combine," he said, "and it probably lasted as long as ten seconds, because it seemed an hour and a half. Then a lady said, with evident feeling, 'Lord, how pathetic!' For a moment I was stupefied. Then the fountains of my great deeps were broken up, and I rained laughter for forty days and forty nights during as much as three minutes. By that time I realized it was my fault. I had overdone the thing. I started in to deceive them with elaborate burlesque pathos, in order to magnify the humorous explosion at the end; but I had constructed such a fog of pathos that when I got to the humor you couldn't find it."
He was likely to begin the morning with some such incident which perhaps he did not think worth while to include in his dictations, and sometimes he interrupted his dictations to relate something aside, or to outline some plan or scheme which his thought had suggested.
Once, when he was telling of a magazine he had proposed to start, the Back Number, which was, to contain reprints of exciting events from history--newspaper gleanings--eye-witness narrations, which he said never lost their freshness of interest--he suddenly interrupted himself to propose that we start such a magazine in the near future--he to be its publisher and I its editor. I think I assented, and the dictation proceeded, but the scheme disappeared permanently.
He usually had a number of clippings or slips among the many books on the bed beside him from which he proposed to dictate each day, but he seldom could find the one most needed. Once, after a feverishly impatient search for a few moments, he invited Miss Hobby to leave the room temporarily, so, as he said, that he might swear. He got up and we began to explore the bed, his profanity increasing amazingly with each moment. It was an enormously large bed, and he began to disparage the size of it.
"One could lose a dog in this bed," he declared.
Finally I suggested that he turn over the clipping which he had in his hand. He did so, and it proved to be the one he wanted. Its discovery was followed by a period of explosions, only half suppressed as to volume. Then he said:
"There ought to be a room in this house to swear in. It's dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that."
A moment later, when Miss Hobby returned, he was serene and happy again. He was usually gentle during the dictations, and patient with those around him--remarkably so, I thought, as a rule. But there were moments that involved risk. He had requested me to interrupt his dictation at any time that I found him repeating or contradicting himself, or misstating some fact known to me. At first I hesitated to do this, and cautiously mentioned the matter when he had finished. Then he was likely to say:
"Why didn't you stop me? Why did you let me go on making a jackass of myself when you could have saved me?"
So then I used to take the risk of getting struck by lightning, and nearly always stopped him at the time. But if it happened that I upset his thought the thunderbolt was apt to fly.