Then the stranger discloses his ax, and you are ashamed of yourself and your race. Six repetitions will cure you. After that you interrupt the compliments and say, "Yes, yes, that's all right; never mind about that. What is it you want?"
But you and I are in the business ourselves. Every now and then we carry our ax to somebody and ask a whet. I don't carry mine to strangers--I draw the line there; perhaps that is your way. This is bound to set us up on a high and holy pinnacle and make us look down in cold rebuke on persons who carry their axes to strangers.
I do not know how to answer that stranger's letter. I wish he had spared me. Never mind about him--I am thinking about myself. I wish he had spared me. The book has not arrived yet; but no matter, I am prejudiced against it.
It was a few days later that he added:
I wrote to that man. I fell back upon the old Overworked, polite lie, and thanked him for his book and said I was promising myself the pleasure of reading it. Of course that set me free; I was not obliged to read it now at all, and, being free, my prejudice was gone, and as soon as the book came I opened it to see what it was like. I was not able to put it down until I had finished. It was an embarrassing thing to have to write to that man and confess that fact, but I had to do it. That first letter was merely a lie. Do you think I wrote the second one to give that man pleasure? Well, I did, but it was second-hand pleasure. I wrote it first to give myself comfort, to make myself forget the original lie.
Mark Twain's interest was once aroused by the following:
DEAR SIR,--I have had more or less of your works on my shelves for years, and believe I have practically a complete set now. This is nothing unusual, of course, but I presume it will seem to you unusual for any one to keep books constantly in sight which the owner regrets ever having read.
Every time my glance rests on the books I do regret having read them, and do not hesitate to tell you so to your face, and care not who may know my feelings. You, who must be kept busy attending to your correspondence, will probably pay little or no attention to this small fraction of it, yet my reasons, I believe, are sound and are probably shared by more people than you are aware of.
Probably you will not read far enough through this to see who has signed it, but if you do, and care to know why I wish I had left your work unread, I will tell you as briefly as possible if you will ask me. GEORGE B. LAUDER.
Clemens did not answer the letter, but put it in his pocket, perhaps intending to do so, and a few days later, in Boston, when a reporter called, he happened to remember it. The reporter asked permission to print the queer document, and it appeared in his Mark Twain interview next morning. A few days later the writer of it sent a second letter, this time explaining:
MY DEAR SIR,--I saw in to-day's paper a copy of the letter which I wrote you October 26th.
I have read and re-read your works until I can almost recall some of them word for word. My familiarity with them is a constant source of pleasure which I would not have missed, and therefore the regret which I have expressed is more than offset by thankfulness.
Believe me, the regret which I feel for having read your works is entirely due to the unalterable fact that I can never again have the pleasure of reading them for the first time.
Your sincere admirer, GEORGE B. LADDER.
Mark Twain promptly replied this time: DEAR SIR, You fooled me completely; I didn't divine what the letter was concealing, neither did the newspaper men, so you are a very competent deceiver. Truly yours, S.