On or about 12 April 1888, a gaunt Scottish man, recovering from a “sharp attack” of tuberculosis at Saranac Lake, in rural New York state, wrote to his favorite American author, then resident in Connecticut. “I shall be from Thursday next for about a week in the St. Stephen’s Hotel, East 11th Street, N.Y. (pray keep the address secret—I cannot see many people), where if you are in the way, I should be rejoiced to see you . . .” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson to the author of what he called Huckleberry.
Samuel Clemens replied immediately from Hartford: “I will run down and see you . . . and thank you for writing Kidnapped and Treasure Island . . .”
And indeed Mark Twain did take the train down to see Stevenson, sometime between 18 April and the end of that month, when Stevenson left Manhattan to begin his cross-country jaunt (by train) to San Francisco, from which he sailed away to his beloved South Seas for the rest of his brief life. Twain later wrote in his glorious and underappreciated Autobiography that he and Stevenson met on a bench in Washington Square and spent much time together discussing everything under the sun. Twain noted they spent “an hour or more” talking; the anonymous historian of the old Albert Hotel on 11th Street, where Twain once delivered a speech to the Male Teachers Association of the City of New York, stated firmly (without attribution) that it was five hours, from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon, “telling stories to one another, regardless of wives, lunch, and doctors . . . next day the doctor informed Mrs. Stevenson that R.L.S. seemed like another man.”
Two of the most popular writers in the world that year, seeking each other out, for “an hour or more”—let us assume far more, given each man’s fame as a conversationalist and raconteur, and their genuine and heartfelt regard for one another’s work—of what they surely must have known in their hearts was the single chance they would get in this life to explore each other’s minds and energies and characters and dreams.
But what did they say?
Stevenson never recorded his memories of the day, though surely he talked about it happily that night with his wife Fanny, over a bottle of their beloved Bordeaux; Twain made no other mention of it than the brief reference in his memoirs, many years later; there are no real or faux claims of witness by passersby, adulants, or fabulists; but those lost bright hours on a bench in Washington Square have fascinated me all my life, since I was a boy riveted by the verve and clash and ring of Stevenson’s books, and the wit and fury and laughter of Twain’s, and many times I have wondered what they said, and how they laughed, and how each man must have realized, within minutes, that here on a bench with him on a lovely morning, sprawled and smiling, was one of the most interesting, eloquent, thoughtful, passionate, entertaining souls on the face of the earth, a fellow light and glory of language and literature, a fellow master of their subtle craft, a close companion in the ancient storytellers’ guild.
They must have each smiled with a deep and amazed pleasure that here on a bench in a park was even more of a man than either had hoped the other might be. How rare it is that someone is all or more of what we hoped he was, and how satisfying and thrilling that Sam Clemens really was Mark Twain, witty and hilarious and a deft razor brandished against pomposity and lie and jingo, and that the legendary Stevenson—Louis to his friends and family—was a man of such charm and charisma, such wry humor and oceanic heart, such gentle curiosity and cheerful imaginative flights, such small ego and large patience, that when he died his best friend Sidney Colvin would note quietly that, while the world mourned the great artist, those who knew him mourned the greater man, with whom a bottle of wine and an hour without appointments were all the ingredients you needed for the most wonderful table talk you ever heard.
“That beautiful, bountiful being,” as Henry James called his friend Stevenson, sat on a bench in a sunny park one day, with perhaps the finest, funniest, most piercing writer America ever produced from its rich wild soil, for two hours, or three, or five.
But what did they say?
Let us make the day 25 April 1888—the Feast of Saint Mark, also a renowned author. April that year was a remarkably cold month by New York City standards—the mean temperature that month was a mere 49 degrees, the coldest spring for many years—but we will heat the day in deference to Stevenson, who suffered from lung complaints and would never be happier or healthier physically than in the sun-shot islands of the Pacific.
Stevenson, an avid and tireless walker when healthy, is first to Washington Square, let’s say; he chooses a bench in the northwest corner, near Macdougall Street, to be fed by the early sun. Twain, also an energetic walker, steps off his train, strides down 11th Street to the Hotel Saint Stephen, and there discovers that Mr. Stevenson has left word at the desk that should his distinguished visitor from Connecticut seek him out, he should look for him in the park, dreaming and dawdling on a bench, as the concierge dutifully repeats Mr. Stevenson’s instructions. Twain strolls down Fifth Avenue, gazing with affection and pleasure at the bustle and whir; he would himself live variously in New York from 1900 to 1908 (Ninth Street, Tenth Street, the Bronx), and he visited the city as often as he could, to deliver speeches and to see his dear friend President Ulysses Grant, up on 66th Street.
With an old river pilot’s instinct for the right course, Twain turns west when he enters the park, and to his great pleasure spies a thin smiling man, beautifully dressed, on a bench. “His long face and lank hair and dark complexion and musing and melancholy expression seemed to fit [him] justly and harmoniously,” wrote Twain later, “and the altogether of it seemed especially planned to gather the rays of your observation and focalize them upon Stevenson’s special distinction and commanding feature, his splendid eyes. They burned with a smouldering rich fire under the pent-house of his brows . . .”
Stevenson is thirty-seven years old this morning, Twain forty-two. In the past four years Stevenson has written four masterpieces (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses), Twain two (Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi), though Twain has also founded a publishing house, written a hilarious account of his muddled two weeks as a Confederate soldier, and dashed off a third lesser but entertaining novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In a couple of months Stevenson will sail into the Pacific, never to return, eventually encountering his early death at forty-four, and burial atop a mountain in his beloved Samoa; in a few years Twain will be bankrupt, harrowed by the death of his wife and two more of his four children, and haunted by what he called the dark side of his moon; but not today, not this bright crisp April morning, as he smiles and steps forward to shake the hand of a writer he admires with all his heart. Stevenson, the soul of courtliness, rises to reach for Twain’s hand, and then they sit, half-facing each other, Stevenson full in the burgeoning morning light and Twain half-shadowed, both of them grinning with genuine pleasure and wonder that this incredible moment has actually come to pass.
And they begin.
Stevenson, conscious that he has invited the older man to this meeting, and conscious too that he is the stranger and Twain the native on home ground, is first to speak:
“I cannot tell you how much I have anticipated this meeting, and how grateful I am that you have made the long journey for the small pleasure of my company,” he says—perhaps; but Twain is too delighted at the moment, and perhaps too American, to stand on ceremony: “The honor is mine, Mr. Stevenson,” he might reply, “for I adore and admire your books, and have long thought that the pleasure of a good conversation would be an unattainable mountain, a river never to be navigated.” They both laugh, and away they go, first about how much they like each other’s books—Stevenson has read Huckleberry four times: “I . . . read it straight through, began again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break,” as he had written to Twain. Louis’s father Thomas Stevenson, on discovering his son’s copy of Roughing It while visiting his only child, reported that he had had to put it aside because it was too funny; “I was frightened, I was positively frightened,” said the senior Stevenson; “it cannot be safe for a man of my time of life to laugh so much.”
Twain is equally full of compliments; he thanks Stevenson again for writing Kidnapped and Treasure Island, for drawing those glorious and extraordinary stories into the world and putting them on paper for everyone to read, for making tales that had thrilled a million children and then millions more; and then they find themselves deeply engaged in quizzing each other about the making of fiction, the seeds of it, the subsequent hard craft, the stops and starts, the planning and polishing. Both men begin their books and essays and stories in bursts, and ride this first wild energy as fast and far as it will go; both then suffer doldrums and languors, and have to double and redouble their efforts to go on in the same vein and tone, forcing themselves to the desk from will rather than joy until the fire rekindles. Both write more from an emotional key, as it were, than from any planned or deliberate narrative urge; both are subject to withering criticism about inconsistency from book to book and even from section to section in a single book, although as Stevenson says—not smiling so broadly as before—“is it not unfair and unjust, that a reader, even one draped in a reviewer’s fine cynicism, should expect the same achievement, from books as disparate one to another as men are one from another? And how soon, sir, do we learn the same hand that pours torrents and waterfalls of praise for one book, showers brickbats and complaints upon the next?”
“And ash and coals on the head of the poor author,” says Twain, “for having the impossible temerity to not write exactly as well as our man the critic deems that he should, whether the critic knows a hawk from a handsaw or not, or has ever even attempted such a difficult badger of a thing as a book, and the poor bedraggled author only doing what little he could to catch the tail of the tale.”
“A lovely phrase, that,” says Stevenson; “the tail of the tale. How hard to grasp, how easily fled, how quick to slip back into the shadows from whence it came; was it Coleridge who lost a vast and wonderful poem, when interrupted?”
“You know better than I do, there,” says Twain; “I am up on only a handful of my fellow Americans, whereas I believe you are a university man, and studied law to boot, did you not?”
“To boot—I love the language here,” says Stevenson, smiling again. “I did study the law, yes, briefly and badly, minimally and carelessly—quite literally so, as I did not care a fig for it, and shucked its dank mantle as soon as humanly possible, to the great dismay and despair of my poor father.”
“He wanted you to be a lawyer?”
“First he hoped I would follow him as an engineer,” says Stevenson, “a profession for which my paternal side was much renowned, especially with lighthouses, where we were, I may say, brilliant; but when I proved a poor engineer, more interested in the way light fell on lighthouses than how it fell from them, he pointed me sternly toward the law; yet that took no root either in my thin soil, and I fell so far as to become an author, a jot and tittle above cutpurse and body snatcher. At least I did not tumble all the way to the artistic dungeon, wherein actors caper and playwrights work their dark magic.”
This makes Twain laugh out loud, for he had ostensibly worked on a play, with Bret Harte, although he always claimed he played billiards while Harte wrote, the smoke from Twain’s cigar being the whole and sum of his contributions to the script; and Stevenson too by then had tried his hand at three plays, none a success, and all, as he said, failures with fine bloodlines but too many heads. Is a play like a novel or a poem, a thing that can be hatched and sculpted by one hand only? Is it necessarily the case that the more authors of a piece of work, the less its quality?
“Perhaps this is a mathematical equation,” says Twain; “two authors means half as good a work, and three authors means its greatest use artistically is as tinder for the fire in the hearth as you return, the lesson unhappily learned, to the happily solitary writing of your novels. Imagine five authors at work on one work! and thus civilization rocked, defrocked ministers sprinting naked through the bushes, and no cigars to be found for love or money.”
Which makes Stevenson laugh; he is a cigarette man, always with one alight “except when coughing or kissing,” as he says; and he takes this chance to light one, as Twain with a sigh of pleasure lights a cigar. For a moment they enjoy the lovely haul of first smoke in silence, and then Stevenson asks after Twain’s wife and children: are they well, all healthy, the children launched on joyous and nutritious pathways, your wife an ocean of warmth and affection? “Indeed yes,” says Twain; “the lovely Olivia and I are graced with three daughters, each more lively and intelligent and kindhearted than the other two, and all of us ruled by the pacific hand and heart of their mother; we are as healthy as can be expected, given the parlous state of the paternal finances; if only the patriarch of this clan had bent his small talents to epic crime, and been a politician, say, we would be wading through small seas of coins to get to the parlor from the kitchen. But no; the poor father chose literature, or it chose him, and the family lives from book to book—a state of affairs not unlike a boat lurching from one rocky islet to another, hoping to find fields of plenty on each, but sentenced immediately again to the flimsy ship of Mrs. Twain’s tumultuous husband’s inky labor at his writing desk.”
“I know too well that ship, being that sort of schooner myself,” says Stevenson, again with half the smile he wore a moment ago; “though for me only two children depend on my halting pen, Mrs. Stevenson having lost a son before we met and courted; but her two living children are mine through and through now, a boy and a girl; or properly a young man and a young woman, I should say; though I miss the boyishness of the young man, with whom I felt young again also, and sprawled on the floor on rainy days, drawing whatever came into our heads, and spinning tales from those fictions; indeed that is how Treasure Island was born.”
“Then,” says Twain, “the world and I owe that boy thanks beyond measure; perhaps we can elect him President of America one day, although I suppose that is as much penance and punishment as it is elevation and adulation. I have a very good friend who was President of the United States, poor fellow, and he says it will be the death of him yet; he still cannot sleep well, even years after he left the throne, for all the arrows and daggers in his back. He plucks them out on Saturdays, as a regular thing, cursing as he goes, in a most colorful and amazing fashion. I forgot to say he had also been in the Army, and so studied cursing at the university level. In our country the very finest cursing is heard among those who work with horses, the editors of newspapers, military men of every rank and stripe, and small children in Arkansas. Children there are taught to curse in the cradle, for religious reasons, I believe, and a wonderful number of them go on to edit newspapers, and conduct small wars for profit.”
Stevenson grins; he has heard much of this Mark Twain, who can swerve cheerfully from the most lucid remark to the most surreal in a moment, and all delivered with a rare good humor and panache that somehow removes the sting from even the most searing truths; but he finds himself more interested in the private Clemens than in the public Twain, and so returns to that which he suspects he and Twain hold most closely in common, the small, rich, warm countries of their families. And so, he says, “three daughters; did you wish for a boy also? Do you dream of a last child, a sweet and sudden son?”
Twain smokes for a moment, meditatively, turning away from Stevenson a little, into the sunlight; Stevenson notices glints of silver in the tumble of hair at his temples.
“I had a son,” says Twain quietly. “We had a son. Langdon. He would be seventeen now. The oldest child, chaffing his sisters. Susy is fifteen, Clara thirteen, Jean seven. I do sometimes see him in the kitchen, suddenly hoisting little Jean up to touch the ceiling. He was not even two when he died. I saw him, or what I imagined him to be, the other day, outside the house. A tall boy, pale. A sidelong smile, a black coat slightly too small for him; you could see his long bony wrists beyond his cuffs. His mother says she does not see him or imagine him but I think she does and cannot bring herself to tell me. She thinks I am imagining the boy as I imagine the characters, the brief wraiths, in my books but I tell her this is not so. There are some things between a man and his wife that are difficult to speak of.”
“As I know also,” says Stevenson.
A pause while they smoke and think.
“He was not yet two? Langdon?”
“A sickly boy who had not yet walked before he died,” says Twain. “And it was a day in April when his death first appeared. As I know better than anyone. I took him for a ride in a carriage. An icy day. I wrapped him up tightly but was absorbed by driving and did not check overmuch on his wrappings and robes; and then when we arrived home I found that his robes had slipped and he had been near naked to the freezing wind the whole time! And me laughing at the first shivering robins huddled in the tinkling grass, the children scuffling to school in coats as big as bears! Eight weeks later he was dead; and I know who killed him. The doctors say it was diphtheria, and Livy says so too, and she says I carry on too much about it, and I am selfish and coldhearted to do so, but I saw that boy’s blue lips, and I know who painted them blue, and wrote the first lines of his death. His lips were blue after he died, too.”
Eleven o’clock, and the bells at Saint Joseph’s Church near Sixth Street peal and echo.
“And your own father?” asks Stevenson. “You were close? I cannot say that I was close to my father, though I loved him dearly; he was not what you would call a warm man. We fought bitterly when I was young, and I disappointed him at every turn for many years. Sometimes I wonder if some of the warmth he might have evinced had been sapped from him by the son who so disappointed him; but I could do no less than try to be a man of as much true substance as he was himself; albeit in a whole other direction than he would have had me sail.”
“Much the same for me,” says Twain. “Though my father died when he was not yet fifty and I was only eleven, and I cannot say I ever knew him well. A man of wonderfully upright principle and behavior and rightly celebrated for his honesty and equity; yet a man so admired outside the house for unwavering principle can be something of a cold and unassailable peak inside the house. He was a judge, and a lawyer, too, the poor man. And your father?”
“An engineer,” says Stevenson—“and there is another topic for us to consider over a bottle of wine: ‘Fathers of established and secure professions must inherently emit sons of neither virtue. Discuss.’ ”
Twain grins. “My mother, though, was a different soul, fond of circuses and carnivals, quick to laugh,” he says. “She’s a dear, quite alive, although now she looks so forbiddingly stern in the face that ships and eagles quail at the sight. It’s a mask, though. Yours?”
“Much the same for me,” says Stevenson, “as my new friend Mr. Clemens says. My mother is alive, stern, witty, and about to travel to the ends of the earth with me and mine, nothing in particular binding her to the ancestral homeland; and I suspect she too yearns to see the sun more than but the once a year—twice in leap years. I do not know about your Missouri, but I can tell you that for all my deep and abiding love of Scotland I am not loathe to leave its mud and wet and winter fevers, not to mention a cold religiosity that chills every bit as much as a cutting wind. I am for the islands of the South Seas as soon as I can go there, and no man ever anticipated a voyage more than I do this one.”
They smoke a bit, smiling.
“I have been to the Sandwich Islands,” says Twain, “more than twenty years ago that was, and I see and smell and feel it even in my sleep. I can still smell the flowers, if I concentrate, and I have been sentenced to some social events so grindingly dull that soon I found myself in a corner, adrift on seas of island flowers, and have to be forcibly snapped back to the polite swamp at hand. I was in the islands a hundred days when I was young, and I felt younger by the day, and had I stayed longer soon I would have been again a mewling babe.”
“I have dreamed of the South Seas since I was a small boy,” says Stevenson; “my nurse told me stories and into my soul they went, setting a direction for me, always west with the sun. And there are days when I think the parade and litany of my physical afflictions have all been finally in service to the voyage in happy prospect at last; had I not been continually ill I would not have had the urge and excuse to make my way across your continent into the sunnier and bluer one. We’ll have a schooner, you know, chartered for my wife and children and mother, with a captain and two crewmen; certainly there’s room for a second novelist, if you would like to come?”
“With all my heart, sir, with all my heart,” says Twain, and for an instant Stevenson sees beneath the mask of the man where humor and sadness and yearning and love and pain all grapple and swirl like creatures on an ocean reef; and then Twain smiles and says, “But of course I cannot; the press of many matters—a few of them crucial, and four of them the beings I love most in this world, Livy and the girls. I cannot, Mr. Stevenson, I cannot; but to have been invited with such an open generosity, with such an honest kindness, is a pleasure and an honor that not even such a master as you, perhaps, could articulate.”
“You must not call me Mr. Stevenson, now that we have been friends for an entire hour,” says Stevenson, smiling. “My friends and family call me Louis.”
“Not Robert? Robbie, like your countryman Burns? Or Bob, as we would say here?”
“In my case my cousin Robert is the Bob Stevenson.”
“And do call me Sam,” says Twain. “I have so become Mark Twain that now I can count on my fingers those few who call me the name my mother gave me, and used like a broom, sometimes, bless her. I think she is the only one who ever called me Samuel, and that only when she was in high dudgeon and me in high misdemeanor, or was overly muddy in the parlor, where only the clean and holy were allowed, neither of which I ever was.”
“Sam it is,” says Stevenson, smiling. “And you will call me Louis? I can only imagine the look on Mrs. Stevenson’s face when I tell her I spent the morning on a bench in the park with a cheerful fellow named Sam; and the change that will come over her when I say that the rest of the world knows him as Mark Twain. For a moment she will accuse me as usual of consorting with each and every ruffian who happens by, and then discover that this particular ruffian is the most American of men, and the most excellent of authors.”
“The most ruffianly of ruffians, I would say,” says Twain. “That’s another whole hour’s discussion, however, the peculiar American character; could it be, as I have often thought, that our national character is equal parts thief, liar, rogue, flatterer, flimflam artist, gunslinger, footpad, and holy roller, with the occasional and minimal scattering of heroic and honest salt? Certainly I have met great men in America, and great women too, and great children, come to think of it, but many is the day when I think the most scurrilous street thief is our proper president, if he can but spin out a good string of lies with confidence and eloquence. But probably it’s too much to hope for, that a decent thief would be an able liar also. Usually those crucial talents are parsed a little more gingerly by the Almighty, and are rarely to be found in the same man; although there are notable exceptions, like Congress.”
“And the Scottish character?” says Stevenson. “How shall I list the ingredients: a dash of mud, a lash of freezing rain, a certain grim parsimony, a deep and abiding suspicion of any and all religions other than your exact own, with the very deepest suspicion and murderousness reserved for recalcitrants and freethinkers in your own brooding sect; a predilection to violence generally; a fear of spices and flavorfulness in your food; a weakness for strong drink; a terror of bright colors in your clothing; and a wonderfully consistent urge to reduce and destroy the best among you, for their temerity in rising to their divinely inspired talents? We slaughter our own princes, and haul our greatest poets back down into the muck, while elevating the dourest among us, and worshipping not a generous God but rather an ungenerous Mammon; and we make a virtue out of ungenerosity to boot. I can say from the very bottom of my heart that no man on earth loves his native Scotland as much I do, and misses it when he is away from its shores, and dreams of its winds and redolences, its songs and graces; but to love deeply does not mean to miss its horrors and greeds; and more and more these days I think that I will not see it again, and so will miss it more. But I must confess I am so frail a vessel in body that to live there again would find me soon a dead man, and thus all the more popular.”
“Now, the admirable Mrs. Stevenson,” says Twain, changing tack, “she is the soul of courtesy, the paragon of beauty, the most alluring of visions, the wittiest of women, the apex and zenith of her gender, and a compass point for ours, I assume? How did you meet her?”
“I saw her through a window in France,” says Stevenson; “now there is a sentence both you and I could chivvy along into a wonderful story, I would wager. She was dining with a large group, and I was just coming up to the inn after walking all day in the hills, and I glanced through the window and was utterly transfixed—not so much by her beauty, although she was and is a very attractive woman, but by her spirit, her verve, her magnetic sense of herself. My cousin Bob was there and he accuses me to this day of high melodrama because I leapt through the open window, and bowed, and swept off my hat to this most riveting and alluring creature, yet I can and do testify that it was no conscious or deliberate act on my part, but a sudden and powerful urge to present myself to her attention, to communicate immediately, rather than wait another minute and maunder through the social niceties. And I can report with great pleasure that she saw me immediately as I saw her, and we understood each other completely in that first moment; I do not say it was love at first sight, but something deeper—some intimacy, some thorough apprehension, as if we had been parted from a previous connection, and were now happily rejoined.”
“A properly dashing tale,” says Twain, with a grin; “Stevensonian, one might say. And how much a mark of your unique literary quality that you have become an adjective. The same cannot be said of me—I have yet to read something referred to as Twainian, or Twainesque, let alone Clemmensian.”
This makes them both laugh out loud and the pigeons at their feet startle and burble. A policeman hears their laughter and glances over; but two well-dressed gentlemen reposing on a bench set off no alarms, so he turns back to his rounds.
“And the admirable Mrs. Clemens?” asks Stevenson. “You met as children, perhaps, passing each other in boats on your momentous Mississippi? She descended from heaven in a carriage, drawn by swans and eagles?”
“Believe it or not, the first time I laid eyes on her face she was in the hands of another man, who loved her dearly,” says Twain with a grin. “A shocking state of affairs. But this was her brother Charlie, who carried her picture with him everywhere, even onto a boat; which is where I spied the future Mrs. C for the first time, and was swooned and addled forevermore. I did finally meet the actual angelic person soon thereafter, and proposed within the week; but she turned me down flat; I was an old man somewhat past the age of thirty and she was only a mile past twenty. So I turned to the only tool I possessed then or now, Louis, my friend, and courted her by . . .”
“Letters!” said Stevenson with a laugh. “Many the man who has turned to his pen to say what he could not mumble in person, myself included. And your letters did the trick?”
“Eventually,” says Twain, “although it was a hard slog for a bit—she thought she would not marry so as to care for her parents all their lives; her parents were not overly or especially impressed with grizzled Mr. Clemens, of whom they had heard such wild stories; and it came to the point where I had to give up strong drink for a while, to prove my mettle; and then, even worse, smoking; and then a scarifying week when I not once but twice did attend church services, and barely survived; and then, worst of all, I had to give up foul and vulgar language. A man who cannot curse freely is utterly unmanned, I feel; he has no vent in case of overheating. I knew men, when I was in Nevada, who had given up swearing, and allowed their interior pressure to build to such a pitch and degree that they exploded, sir, right in the street, as sudden and cataclysmic as burst boilers, terrifying the horses and delighting the children.”
Twelve o’clock, say the bells of Saint Joseph’s.
“Should we pause for lunch?” asks Stevenson, and Twain says, “me, personally, Louis, for all that I love my gourmanderies and victuals, and for all that we are surrounded by the finest oysters in sizes and flavors and manners of cookery beyond our halting imaginations . . . me, personally, I would prefer to stay benched, and plunged in good talk, and let lunch arrive when it will, even if it changes into its evening jacket and calls itself supper.”
“I agree,” says Stevenson. “Where shall we steer our talk then? The thickets of religion, the vagaries of politics, the niceties of society, the benchness of the bench? Or the rich soil and loam of talk itself? For myself I love nothing better than a free hour and a good friend, and a bottle to bridge the two, and let the talk go fancy-free; the only more pleasant prospect is a second hour and twice the number of bottles, I suppose.”
This makes Twain laugh out loud; he has heard much of this Robert Louis Stevenson, whose talk flows with wit and dodge, leap and humor, unposed poignancy and unstudied poetry, and Twain takes a long, close look at the man; thin as half a rail, but somehow twice as alert and alive as other men, a glint in his eye and a smile on his face even as he coughs slightly too long; he will not live to be an old man, this one, thinks Twain; but holds his tongue.
“But I will steer the ship a moment, if you will allow it,” says Stevenson; “I have always wanted to ask you about your stories, and the manner of their making, and the seed and spark of them, and how it is, speaking as one inky laborer to another, that you hone and polish your stuff to achieve that wonderfully direct tone and voice you have; I should very much like to hear you along these lines, even as I know full well that talking about writing is the shadow of the thing itself; in me the urge flows or does not flow, the lamp is bright or dim, and my poor craft is only to shape the irresistible urge when it chooses to present itself; and there are dark days when I think it will not come, or that my craft is too small to shape anything but stories for headlong boys and readers too infirm to rise from their sick-beds and reach for my betters on the shelf.”
“Well, I know those days, I know them well,” says Twain, “indeed I do; will I ever write anything so good as the books I have written of boys and rivers, rivers and boys? But before I bemoan my own misgivings I must deflate and quash yours; for I do not believe there is a writer in the world with the energy and dash of your books, the ring of truth and courage, the wild flow of the story at the same time as the deep wisdom beneath, just as a river carries one story on the surface and a deeper one below; what I would give for an ounce of the way the smell of the sea rises straight from the pages of Treasure Island, and the ring of swords from Kidnapped!”
“Ah, you honor me,” says Stevenson, half-standing to bow; “but I would give all of my small gifts for half an ounce of your immediacy, your artful artlessness; no man ever wrote more as we truly speak than you, be it in the mouth of a character or in your own essays and articles; even your letters, sir, bristle and sing, and rustle and thrill with humor; and no man ever more perfected the art of provoking laughter while slipping in the dart of honest and uncomfortable truth, as a harpoon is whirled into the whale; so that your readers are startled and surprised to find their hearts shivered, their minds engaged, their souls enlivened, from what they thought was merely caper and comedy. I believe, in fact, that you are first among all writers to discover the best means for dismantling the wall between reader and writer, so to speak; that wall anciently erected in defense by the reader who fully expects to be lectured or educated, or worst of all enlightened, while all he wanted was to be entertained; and all readers are deeply suspicious, even while reading an adventure story or the account of a journey, that they will be waylaid by lesson, or collared by a sudden sermon, as a man is lashed by an unexpected snake. But you, my friend, you have found a way to set aside the old dichotomy between elevating literature, which is almost always bland and tasteless and dull beyond the reach of words to measure its flavorlessness, and dashing entertainment, which is flashy and savory but almost always without any depth and substance or any attempt to grapple with the heart. I salute you, sir; and did I have a hat, it would be at this very moment doffed in general amazed celebration, admiration, respect, and applause.”
This makes Twain laugh, and jump up from the bench and doff his hat, for he does have a hat. In fact, he is rather an aficionado of hats, and he fully enjoys the pomp and theater of hats, their donning and doffing, the way they can be swept off, or tilted back, or hauled down grimly over a baleful stare, or used as sunscreens when a young river pilot on the Mississippi, say, is wrestling with a setting sun and a big river in full and brilliant sheen, the combination composing an epic glare beyond all human comprehension, through which the young pilot must safely steer his ship, excuses be damned, or court disaster or, even worse, the growled disapprobation of his senior pilot, who already considered the kid too damned young, untutored, hirsute, high-spirited, gregarious, garrulous, literate, humorous—and Missourian, to boot.
“I do much savor the American language,” continued Stevenson, “and even in the brief months I have traveled your country I have concluded that to say Americans speak English is incorrect; rather they speak American, an entirely different and endlessly colorful tongue, with dialects and subsidiary rivulets too populous to name. Similarly Scottish, I suppose, although there we have our own original Gaelic, now much crushed and suppressed by the imperial centuries, but still extant and alive and muscular, and informing the manner in which we speak the language that came to us bristling and bloody from the south; and I have heard many words in what we might call an intermediate language between Scots Gaelic and Scots English, a third tongue; and it might happen that someday we are said to be speaking neither the aboriginal language of my country nor the conqueror’s tongue, but something called simply Scottish.”
“And imagine that same energetic effect in all the nations said to be speaking English but really bending the tongue to their own purposes and stories,” said Twain; “Australia, for example, and Ireland, and Canada, and the nation of the Maoris, and the Sandwich Islanders, some of whom staunchly maintained to me while I was there that they would someday reclaim their own nationality, while remaining the best of friends with the United States; and I would not bet against them, as they are a stalwart and musical people. Probably they will pull off a quiet revolution somehow with music and flowers, and change the face of history without the powers and authorities being aware of it. You can never ascribe enough cupidity and stupidity to powers and authorities, I believe.”
“Or here’s a thought,” says Stevenson. “Could it be that languages not only reflect the peoples and nations and clans and tribes that speak them, but catch also at some crucial and idiosyncratic aspect of the people itself? And could it be that languages are cold and warm like the weathers and climates in which they are spoken? I have traveled some east and west, not widely, but I might say well, and have been fascinated by the intonations and pacings and rhythms of speech even in my limited perambulations; I can only imagine how riveting the changes south to north; and indeed one of the things I most anticipate in the south seas is a plethora of languages in which to swim and discern; it seems to me that one of the most subtle and sweet of pleasures for a traveler is the fresh musics in his ear, of voices and stories, sounds and songs, all unknown to his previous experience, and all as new to him as to a baby, no matter how ancient they may be to their own native place.”
Again Twain thinks to himself, this is the Robert Louis Stevenson of legend and lore, his dark eyes burning and his quick wondrous wit leaping here and there, free as a hawk. What a pleasure to sit and revel in company like this!
Which is just what Stevenson has been thinking; and he says so, with a smile: “What a real and genuine pleasure this is, Sam Clemens, to sit with a mind and heart like yours, and bask in it for an hour; I would not want to be too close a friend to you for fear of being burnt by such a sun, and shriveled, and thus become a raisin of a man, thinner than my current skeletal corporation.”
Twain laughs; but he thinks too of friends, and how some are deep and dear and others friends you can only have for an hour, before the conversation flags and the ships of common interest sail off in their own directions.
“Who are your dear friends,” asks Twain, “the ones you miss most, the ones who when you see them you immediately resume the zest, without the slightest rebuilding of the amiable structure?”
“Fanny, of course,” says Stevenson; “for all that she has dark and stormy weathers, I trust her soul with all of mine, and her mind is a fascinating country no man will ever be able to wholly explore, though he spend a lifetime in the journey. And Colvin—my friend Sidney Colvin—he is that sort of friend, immediate and entertaining and deep, and when I see him we strike up our common music as if we had just left the room a moment ago, to see the sudden snowfall from separate windows. My cousin Bob; how lucky a man when those he loves are also those he likes; the latter not at all a necessary consequence of the former, of course. Baxter and Mrs. Sitwell, perhaps; and a few others whose work like yours I much admire, and found to my delight that the mind behind the pen was just as piercing as the prose; my friend Henry James, for example. And my poor Henley, who has been my dear friend for many years, and now is my friend no more; he has stung me and mine too deeply, insulting Mrs. Stevenson and so the whole nation of my family, and I have cut the cord; but it stings me to the quick to do so, for I have loved that man, and admired his courage, and spent a thousand happy hours with him. It is a death, a sundered friendship, and I will mourn that death all my days, I think. But what of you? A thousand friends, stretching from sea to starry sea, and lining each of the rivers of the Americas?”
“Best and deepest?” says Twain with a smile—“you mean the ones to whom you would lend your last cigar, your best carriage, your second-best horse, your third-best pen? Well, the estimable Mrs. Clemens, first and best, with whom I have the same trust and absorption that my friend Louis has with his Yankee bride. And Twichell, certainly—that is to say, the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell, master of Asylum Hill Church, which I have many times pointed out to him makes him king of the crazy, minister to the mad; I could not last a month, I think, without that man’s humor. And Dean Howells, and Charles Warner, with whom I have worked, if one can say to be working, while laughing so. And my dear David Gray of Buffalo, the gentlest and sweetest of men, the best friend I had while sentenced to the snowy wastes of that city, a mere stone’s throw from the Arctic pole. And I cannot forget my beloved Tom Blankenship; he was that necessary and glorious friend of childhood and youth, when what you need most in an unruly world is a friend slightly more willing to commit disorder than even you are; and that was certainly my Tom.”
“I suppose the very best friend of my youth was my nurse Miss Cunningham,” says Stevenson; “my stern and merry Cummy, who was the only friend I had on many a dark night when I thought I would cough my soul right out, and die a shivering boy, never to be even a young man, let alone the ancient mariner I have now become; and over the years I have thought that perhaps she was my dearest friend also because she was the sister I did not have, the brother I did not have, the burly and adventurous playmate I did not have, being an unburly and unadventurous and lonely lad; and while she was even sterner in the Scottish religion than my father, who wore it like a dank shroud, still, she was also at the same time the very soul of laughter and romance, and o! the books she read to me, when wild stories from books were my very life! It is Cummy I must credit for making me the inky man I became; either a great feat on her part, or a small crime against lovely literature; but that is an account for readers to draw, not writers, isn’t that so, Sam?”
One o’clock, say the bells of Saint Joseph’s; Twain and Stevenson, content, stimulated, satiated for a moment with ideas and remarks and observations and ponderings and witticisms and thinking and speaking, lean back and light up; Twain tips his hat down over his eyes and for all the world seems to be asleep, though he is not; and Stevenson, with his wonderful eye for the ocean of adventure that every moment presents, watches the world go by; a parade and procession of the most interesting remarkable creatures and beings—as usual, as always, the endless river of gift, as he says later to Twain, who nods, and says something about the Author of It All.
“The bells, the bells,” says Stevenson; “so many churches and so many bells, and each church bitter against the others, for the temerity to believe there is another road, another path, another way in which to pray. And you—a religious man?”
“Heavens no,” says Twain, laughing. “No man ever thought religion such a profitable and hilarious dodge as I do; I think it is the greatest achievement of man, that he has created so very many religions, each more of a mountebank and charlatan than the last, and the oldest of them the most experienced and practiced of scoundrels. The greatest thieves in human history? Religionists. The greatest and most efficient murderers? Religionists. The most amazing and deft and brilliant sellers of snake oil and illusions, lies and twisted truths, empty promises and empty wells? The religionists, of every sort and stripe. Pick your religion as you will, choose its hallowed title out of a hat, and I could instanter tell you a story of such craven greed and bloody sin that your hair would curl up, sing a song, and claim acreage in Oklahoma. No crime was ever so thorough, efficient, enduring, immortal, and brazen as religion; and heaven help the man who is fool enough to call the circus a circus! I like a good joke as much or more than the next man, and there has never been a better jest in this world than the plethora of shrill religions each claiming to be the one-and-only door to remote heaven, the rest be literally damned; but when I think of all the millions of children of every color and shade whose heads are filled with vengeful and nonsensical excuses for the decapitation and dismembering of their fellow beings, for their crime of having another name for the unbelievable and unprovable, why, I grow red about the furnace door, and do commence to rage and blow. As Livy says, if only all the folks who think of Mr. Twain as the avuncular humorist, the twinkly comedian, the country sage, or the cheerful and entertaining raconteur were to hear him roaring in the parlor about the murderous villainy of religionists—who are given a run for their crimes only by the whopping liars in politics—why, Mr. Twain’s reputation would be desiccated quicker than you can kill a cat with a cannon.”
“Mrs. Twain,” says Stevenson with a smile, “is surely a woman of surpassing discernment and eloquence, to see and say her husband so.”
“It is also the case,” says Twain (who is not quite done with his dudgeon), “that no man has more genuine and heartfelt respect for the good that religions accomplish than I do, and real admiration for the few great souls who actually do that good—the patient ministers and generous priests, the gentle brave sisters, the many devout souls who flout common sense by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and harboring those who have no roof or refuge—those who do what their religions pretend to want but so rarely accomplish, what with the bickering and backbiting and crusades and pogroms—those people I admire and salute, and I have met them, indeed I have, Twichell among them—but they are so rare as to be a species apart, and soon evolution will make an end of them, their bones to be uncovered by future Darwins and mounted in museums as exceptional specimens, which indeed they were.”
“I join in your general suspicion of organized religions,” says Stevenson; “indeed we might spend another whole hour on the thesis that the more organized and coherent a religion, the less efficacious and honest it is, and the more it becomes essentially a large insurance concern, its energies and resources turned more to stasis and security than to wonder and worship; is it not the case that the larger the religion, the less it is childlike in its celebration of the profligate gifts showered upon us by One we cannot name? And I might posit that the more we are like children as religionists, the truer we are to that which is good and honest in the religious urge, which is to say awe, and humility, and gratitude that we are alive and drawing breath in a world so filled with wonders that we discover new and startling creatures every day, as regular as clockwork, and at that have barely plumbed the greatest of mysteries: the sea. Indeed, we might be said as a species to have barely dipped our toes in an ocean of wonders, and yet we stand in the shallows arguing about the toes, while the ocean stands endless and unsung before us.”
“You are a believer, then? A religionist?”
“In your phrase, no man has more respect and affection and even love than I do for the faith of my youth, my Presbyterianism,” says Stevenson; “it is the faith of my fathers, of my friends, of my poor battered country; and there are many in it I hold in the highest esteem, and much in it I savor and treasure for deep wisdom and discipline in living; yet before I was twenty I could see its cruelty and huddled bile, its deep and desperate fear of so much of what I found sweet and glorious in life; and I put it aside, with some regret and more familial agony than I care to remember; in particular my father was greatly hurt, and to have caused that mortal wound in him is my own sin to bear. Yet I could not be but honest with him, and with you, when I say that I find religions finally shallow and thin, at best awkward jackets for energies beyond their reach and ken; but beneath them, Sam, beneath them! There, down below the staid and violent façade of churchliness, is some precious and wondrous thing that I do believe in, with all my heart and soul. So it is that I pray, and my family too, but not to any religion’s God. I do believe in something for which we do not yet and will probably never have decent words; we can call it what we will, and argue bitterly about the inaccuracy of the other man’s name for it, but to misname a thing does not mean it does not exist; and I believe, yes I do, in some deep, wild, sweet thing that drives us at our best, that is closest to being seen when we see love at work and play—and not just romantic love, but that much bigger and wider love that is friendship, and honest talk, and reaching for the bruised and battered, and lifting them toward light and hope.”
“I do believe in that, yes, I do, and I will call it God, for want of a better word, and I will honor and salute it in any form when I see it genuinely encapsulated, from the words and actions of the Christ to the prostrations of the Hindoos, and everything in between that seeks to celebrate that which we know to be incontrovertibly so, and equally inarguably beyond our piddling ownership, control, possession, and understanding; and while I am sure there are those who would say that this is a difference between us, that I believe and you do not, I say there is no difference between Sam and Louis on that score at all, for I have read you closely, I have heard your voice and perhaps something of your soul in your work, and I am convinced that we see and believe the same mysterious brilliant thing. How ironic that two authors can sit on a bench, two men of untrammeled garrulity, men who swim in seas of words and throw them about in bales for their very bread, and neither of us knows the right word for this thing; yet it is there.”
A long pause, a startled silence; for Twain is deeply moved, and partly so at Stevenson’s piercing acumen. Twain the unbeliever will wrestle desperately with God the rest of his days, grappling and attacking, roaring and snarling, sneering and enraged, and deep down desperate for something to see him through his years of utter darkness, after the early deaths of three children and his wife. Stevenson will grow ever more alert to that which is holy, and furious at that which is merely religious; and when he dies, people of various colors will come to pray over him, in prayers of various languages, to gods and deities as dense as the stars; and they will account their friend Tusitala, the teller of stories, a man holy beyond the scrabble of any religion.
“I am beginning to think,” says Twain after a while, “that while we are on this bench, we are allowed the wonderful conversation possible; are we in a story, do you think, and the bench magic, so that when we arise the spell will be broken?”
“I would like to meet the author of that tale,” says Stevenson; “he or she I would have to account my master, and perhaps even yours, for while I can with great effort spin a story that mesmerizes briefly, I cannot make one that will give the same shimmer of pleasure over years that this day will give me. The best story I can carpenter together gives pleasure of the moment, the hour, the day or two it takes to read the book, if the reader plunges in and stays with it to the end, in one large draught; but then the story fades and recedes.”
“Yet,” says Twain, “at least we made our stories, we spun them, we absorbed and interested and entertained their readers, not to mention ourselves; and perhaps we did much more, don’t you think?”
“So I would very much like to think,” says Stevenson, “although I have dark days when I think all I have done is peacock briefly on a small stage, largely for my own benefit and amusement, whirling about in a storm of ink and paper to no real avail or effect: the mere caperings of a jester, no more of an artist than an urchin in the street with a dancing dog, and the child twice the artist for having half the ego about the whole performance.”
“Ah, but here I can finally correct you,” says Twain, smiling, “for I can tell you without fear of contradiction that your work has not only immensely entertained, but has caused the deepest and most uncomfortable thought as well; no man can read Jekyll and not stare at his own darkness, his own greed, his own dark seed; no man can read that and not find two faces in his mirror the next morning, and both truly his, as he knew full well, but never admitted before; and it was you alone who wrote that, which will be read for as long as there are books and people to read them. Surely you know this, and sip from it when you are thirsty?”
“I find,” says Stevenson slowly, “that my euphoria at a well-made book is brief, a matter of days at most, and then I am again a man in search of his better work, to which I aspire but cannot command; I am at the mercy of my fancy, whether or not the bailiff is at the door, or the editor roaring at my delay; and if I had a gold coin for every story I have begun and abandoned in despair at my lack of ability to tell it well, I should be richer than my countryman Carnegie, able to buy all of New York City with a wave of the hand.”
“I know that hour well, all too well,” says Twain; “I know that hour more intimately than its brighter cousin, the hour that flies past in a minute when you are so absorbed in the work, and the story writing itself without a hitch or a pause. But I suppose the latter is the price for the former, that we could not ever enjoy those perfect mornings when the pen can barely keep up with the sprint of the story, if we did not suffer afternoons when every line seems foolish and lugubrious, fatuous homily or overstuffed sermon, with characters leaden puppets wholly unwilling to move unless yanked to and fro as we would move logs or horses; and if you are like me, the more I push them to do my will, the less life they have on the page; and rather than kill them altogether, I must quit, and stomp about, and use foul language, and pretend to be deep in thought, while actually terrified that whatever small well I had is finally grown dry—as I suppose, deep in my heart, I am always afraid will happen. I suppose deep in my heart I am always a boy in a dusty town on the river with not the slightest idea what he is to do for a living, and not the slightest gifts for business or schooling; all I ever really wanted to do was be a river pilot, and once that profession was closed it has been scratch and scrape since. Often, when in low moments, I am afraid I will be found out as a humbug, and Mark Twain unmasked to reveal only the bumbler Clemens, who never held a real job in his life for more than a week or two; I was a terrible printer, and prospector, and soldier, and I worry that I am not so much of a husband or father either; though I was, I will say with cheerful confidence, a good river pilot.”
“I hear those low tones also,” says Stevenson, “those dark chimes of the bell; did I not also fail at every profession, one after another, disappointing everyone who loved me—until now, when my only remunerative labor is to weave the airiest of lies at epic length, and send the result posthaste to the printer? It is the smallest of gifts I was given, to be a fabulist, and many are the nights when I think I have come to the bottom of the inkwell; I seem to be working ever harder for the artless fantasies that once came so thick and fast I could hardly get half of them down on paper before they fled away again, and so had to choose the brightest among the flock and bat the rest away with one hand while writing furiously with the other. It may be, even, that this sea voyage I so desire, of which I have dreamt so many years and now find thrillingly in prospect, is only another way to distract myself from the loss of whatever brief talent it was that was set into my cradle with a rattle, a blanket, and the hills of superstitions that come with being born a Scot. Yet even if that is the case, away to the vast waters I go! And with a will, with a smile, Sam; perhaps here too we are cut from the same cloth, that we both dreamed of great waters as boys, and went upon them as men, and wrote of them as much as we could, and never ceased to dream of them, and probably will do so on our very last days.”
“With,” says Twain, “our beloved wives and children huddled weeping by the bed, our dearest friends in the parlor solemn and somber, and a mob of lawyers stealing everything not bolted to the floor or bound round with magical contractual chains and cables. And me dreaming of the river, and you the ocean. Two waterlogged boys to the very last.”
Two o’clock, say the bells of Saint Joseph; and both the men on the bench can feel the later hour in the shift of the sun.
“Well, now,” says Stevenson, “we have spoken of love and literature, seas and stars, fathers and religions, fears and friends, tongues and languages, characters and nations; what remains for us to wax wise and eloquent about? We have not spoken of dogs and wines, swords and songs, sins of omission and commission . . . where shall we steer our talk now? Shall we revel in the low, or dutifully climb to elevated parts?”
“Given those options, I would without fail vote for the low,” says Twain cheerfully, “the low being where the best people and the best stories do reside; I find that too much educated talk gives me the faints, and when the talk soars to the rarified air of moral philosophy, why, soon your pocket has been picked and you are face-first in the street, probably without your best boots too. I have had better discussions with horses than I have with moral philosophers, who are always right quick and ready to tell you what you should do, while they are playing pat-a-cake with thy neighbor’s wife and hatching schemes to fleece the little lambs. I can safely say that I have never been poorly advised or led astray or heard a scurrilous word from a horse, and so conclude that horses have the highest and most refined sense of moral philosophy that I know. This may not be so for the other animals, of course, with whom I have had less discourse. I suspect the cattle, and I would not be shocked to discover the turtles a race of roaring criminals, and I wonder too about our confident friends, the crows; but there I cast a stone that perhaps ought not be thrown, and I notice too that a large member of the crow tribe over there is looking sharply at me, and will probably soon report this to headquarters. Do not be startled to read in the papers, some months hence, when you are ensconced on a bucolic island under the swaying palm, that the American author Mark Twain has been kidnapped by a mob of crows and taken to their most secret and innermost lair, where he is subjected to moral philosophy all day and night, and is not expected to survive.”
This makes Stevenson laugh aloud; and again, with a deep pang, he thinks what an extraordinary pleasure these few hours have been, and how sad it will be to stand up and walk away, as they eventually must; but not yet, not yet. And he says so aloud to Twain: “What a riveting, stimulating, entertaining, absolutely warm pleasure this has been, to sit with you, to talk freely and deeply, to begin as strangers and finish as friends; I cannot thank you enough for your grace in coming all the way from your home to see me here; I would bow in the most sincere and heartfelt gratitude, but I also feel that once we leave this bench we leave the moment, and away it flees, present turned to past in the wink of an eye. And perhaps I do know you now, when I say that no men so love the lives they live as we do; but I am in no hurry at all to leave these hours, all dappled with laughter and festooned with good talk as with a hundred lamps.”
“Nor I, nor I,” says Twain; “and usually I am just the sort of man to realize with a start that I must be dashing for the train or else miss some crucial and important assignation; although I notice it is hardly ever me who considers it crucial. For me crucial means Livy and the girls, and important is a sufficient supply of cigars and whiskey and billiard balls, and everything else claiming those titles can go hang and cure in the shed. Though I would not have missed this day for the world, and might well elevate it up to the alpinic crucial; but then you would be equivalent to the Clemens daughters, and have to adopt frocks and pinafores; Mrs. Stevenson will almost certainly disapprove.”
“I have the unreasonable but certain feeling,” says Stevenson, “that we will not have this chance again, for some reason; perhaps for many reasons; and that saddens me, for to have the chance, once or twice a year, to sit with you and talk of cabbages and kings, would be among the deepest pleasures I can imagine.”
“And shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and whether pigs have wings,” says Twain, smiling; “that’s one thing we have not talked about, Louis—other writers, like the blessed and saintly Mr. Carroll, whose book I have read many and many a time to the girls. I suppose we could spend an hour discussing writers we love, and those we detest, and those we are supposed to admire but find so deadly dull that you fall asleep before even the whole title of the work can be spoken aloud.”
“O, let’s not spend that hour,” says Stevenson, smiling. “For all that there are many writers, present company certainly included, whose work I adore, and for all that we would have a zestful hour, such is finally a discussion for scholars and critics, and I am neither. I could not offer the slightest perceptive observation about narrative and structure, style and context; the best I could do is shout with joy over one book, and yawn in dismay over another; I have no scholarly bent at all myself, and am a writer only because of the irrepressible urge to write. It wells up as it will, and I grasp it by the tail, and am rushed and whirled about by it for a day, a week, and can only try to write as fast and well as I can, before the storm dies.”
“Can you edit yourself, or rewrite, with any of that first energy?”
“Only if I do so immediately on the heels of the storm,” says Stevenson; “for example with Jekyll, although there I must say it was Fanny who saw that the first version was not right and needed to be recast, which I did immediately, shutting myself in my room to do so; and that first fire was just hot enough still that the story came clear the second time, to my utter relief. I threw the first one in the actual fire so as not to be tempted to farm the same soil.”
“Mrs. Stevenson is your first reader? You trust her implicitly?”
“Absolutely so,” says Stevenson, “although I will confess to you that I was furious when she called the first Jekyll to task—but she was right. I remember our boy Lloyd was a little frightened at my temper, though; yet another sin chalked against me, to frighten a child, and over a mere fairy story too.”
“Mrs. Clemens, bless her soul, performs the same saintly task for me, and I trust her judgment better than my own, although I would be happy to let a little more of the lewd and vulgar through the door; but she will have none of it, and scours them away with a broom. I have asked her, for love of me, to curse just a little, as she rides them out of town on a rail, but she will not do me that honor for love or money, both of which I have offered, too.”
“I will say,” muses Stevenson, “while we are talking books, that I also love your essays and tales, as well as your bound volumes; and I am told that the stage is yet another of your expert arts; whereas I would not set foot on a stage for even the best wines. I have tried to write for the stage, but to perform or declaim upon it is wholly beyond my powers.”
“I do it for the money,” says Twain, “though I will confess I enjoy it very much; laughter is such a balm and a buoy, and there are nights when the laughter of the audience fills me like a jug, enough to last a week, if I am judicious with the stuff. But I cannot allow it to be said that I am any sort of actor, or thespian, or orator; whatever skills I wield on the boards are those I gained in bars and boats, joints and stables, coaches and cabins; I have listened close to many gifted liars and mountebanks, and lifted a great deal of their pacing and patter. I sometimes think that is the truest American genius, the beautiful and shapely lie. So very many of us are so very good at it, that sometimes you wonder if there is a real America at all, or if we are actually Canada in mufti, wearing an American mask complete with buffalo horns and turkey beards.”
“And poetry,” says Stevenson; “do you not write any at all? I do not believe I have ever read a poem of yours; though I am not the best-read of men.”
“Nor will you ever read a poem of mine,” says Twain; “I do not have that art, and am not sad at the lack; nothing is quite so bad, in the literary vein, as a bad poem; the worst essay, the most awful novel, the most head-scratching short story, the most muddled hare-brained newspaper piece, can’t measure up to the awfulness of the awful poem; the bad poem, poor creature, is such a concentration and distillation of the deadliest of literary sins that you want to shoot the bedraggled thing as a gesture of mercy. I did so myself many a time, when I was a young man in Nevada and California, and so learned to use the pistol: not too well, mind you, but well enough to draw a bead on a poem from twenty paces, and hit it right in the pentameter, three out of five times; and here and there I even caught one running, and dropped it with a clean shot. Mrs. Clemens, however, forbids weaponry in our home, what with the children gadding about, and so I am deprived of that fine pleasure, though I have privately promised the girls a lesson in shooting if we can but find the right book of poems about love and flowers.”
Stevenson, laughing, says, “Now I must confess I have committed a book of poems, even two or three, although only the one has ever sold more than a few copies.”
“But that one,” says Twain, “is not Poetry; I know and love and esteem the Child’s Garden, and that is a book of sweet, honest songs, a book of chant and litany, a book with laughter and love in every page, and not once a mannered prance or a posed tableau of words—not once. That book is a book of small stories set to cheerful music, it seems to me, and like Carroll’s book it has the greatest of virtues, that it makes children smile and laugh and chant along with it; nothing could be the mark of literary quality more than that, to make a child thrill.”
“Which is why Huckleberry and his dear friend Tom Sawyer are great also, of course,” says Stevenson, “as great as any books ever written in America, I believe; and I would not be surprised if that will always be the case, however long your nation lives, which I pray will be long; I wholly admire a nation founded on independence of thought and action, knuckling to no king or committee, though I do quietly wonder that there are still many among you who consider it wholly unfair not to be allowed to enslave another man, and earn their bread from his sweat and not their own. Even from Scotland I have wondered if your war is altogether over, twenty years later.”
“A good question, and a sad one to ask, and sadder to answer,” says Twain quietly. “That is the blackest sin on our national soul, and centuries will pass, I fear, before it is wholly expunged, if ever. We began in slaughter and slavery, and it will be long before we are able even to be honest about our birth pains; men tell themselves such wonderful lies about courage and heroism, to cover the truths they know about murder and rapine; wars are the best for that, although there are so many rich examples. Even I, a sort of glorified newspaper clerk, know some of the deep rage of men called on their crimes: old Huckleberry has been causing a ruckus since he was born, on account of his calling things by their true names, God forbid; and soon enough, I predict, he will get into more trouble, for having the temerity to treat a black man like a man, despite the patent evidence of that man’s skin that he is a lesser animal altogether, and should properly be strapped into leather trace, and put in the fields to work, lowing when he is hungry, to be killed and eaten when the larder grows windy.”
“Our national sin,” says Stevenson, “also quietly, is perhaps religious rage; I am not the only man to puzzle over why it is that the selfsame religions claiming God’s grace and benediction are first in line to slaughter a man who professes to believe in some other way; but although I am not the only one confused at this, I can claim to be the man most furious at it; it mars my love for my country, in the same way as another nation’s yoke mars Scotland’s spirit and future, for all I esteem and admire England. There will come a day when the long arms of English kings no longer reach Scotland, and we stand on our own, for once united in purpose, perhaps, rather than divvied into shrill tiny fiefdoms by a dozen bloody chieftains; it was our own greed, perhaps, that led to our fall—the fact that one Scot would always betray the others for money, and this very greed too is a deep and persistent sin among us; but I pray that someday this will not be the case, and there will be the Scotland so many of us have dreamed over the long centuries. I will not live to see it; but the thought of it alone is enough to lift my spirit. I also have the feeling that the further I travel from Scotland, the more I will love it, and ever my head will swirl not with the zephyrs of the seas but the mists of glens and burns. Probably I will be buried on an obscure island, deep and deep in the arms of the sea, but on my stone there will be a thistle, sure, so that the birds and insects, at least, will know once there was a Scotsman, and here lie his bones, though his dreams were ever of his hills.”
Three o’clock, say the bells of Saint Joseph; the two men look at each other, but neither says a word; they each lean back, Twain lights a new cigar, and Stevenson lights a new cigarette from the stump of his last one.
There is so much they will not get to now, as the sun slips behind them and the temperature gently declines. Stevenson will not speak of his deep anger at the reckless soldier who begot his stepchildren, and abandoned them; nor will he be able to shape some confused gratitude to the man, for being so terrible a husband and father that his wife and children were open to Stevenson’s love. He will not speak of his bleak years as a young man, and his inchoate feeling that his life will not be long; he will not speak of his secret fear that he has already written his best; he will not speak of his secret annoyance that his wife Fanny increasingly wants him to write that which will raise the most money, not that which pleases him best for the depth and zest of the story.
Twain will not speak of his brother Henry, hideously battered and burned in a steamship explosion, Sam weeping helplessly over his body, Henry not even twenty years old; or of his sister Margaret, dead at age nine, or brother Benjamin, dead at age nine, or brother Pleasant, dead before he even had a birthday.
They will not speak of editors good and bad, friends true and greedy, the joys of excellent boots, the pleasures of a fire and a book and a house of sleeping children. They will not talk of visions and apparitions, tumultuous dreams, voices speaking to them from storms and forests. They will not talk of how each of them fears the confident lie, the bravura sham, the smiling hollow shell and sell of public life in their beloved countries, nor of how each, secretly in his heart, fears the slow dissolution of that which made those countries fine and great: courage and honesty, overthrown by mammon and its willing slaves.
They will not talk of their struggles to be men after writing such famous boys, their insistence on being only themselves when so many others wish them to be who and what they wrote. They will not speak of ego and arrogance, of how they need to post grim daily sentries against their own worst selves, the selves who so desperately wish to be as witty and charming as the public assumes them to be, of the dangerous shadow-line between capering on the page and capering in public, nor of the necessary drudge of reminding themselves every morning, staring into the mirror, that they are neither wise nor great, but only men deft at maneuvering dreams on paper with pens—a feat and accomplishment by no means a hundredth as virtuous as those of the best mother or teacher, or carriage-driver, or attentive policeman, or river pilot . . . though how very much higher their achievement, they will not say, than that of an editor, or a bishop, or, lowest of all, your average and avaricious senator.
They will not speak of the deep pleasure of finding a man exactly in the same position as oneself, a man who understands the joys and fears of your craft because that is his passion and love and absorption also, who also rose from nothing to be a master at this one thing, and knows full well it is a thing of air and fancy, subject to public whim and critical idiocy and utter misapprehension, just as likely never to be published as to soar around the world into a hundred languages and a million souls.
So very much they will not say, do not have time now to say; and each man knows it, measured in the dwindling glimmer of his tobacco; soon enough the world must again be attended to, in its grace and muddle, its thrash and bustle; Twain must be uptown to see poor General Grant about his memoirs, Stevenson must be back to the hotel, to his family and his sunny brief future; but not yet, not quite yet.
They finish their smokes at exactly the same instant, drop them to the stones, and laugh at the synchronicity; then they both stand, again in just the same instant, and shake hands with warmth, and look at each other with genuine affection and respect and delight—and with something else, some other feeling for which neither has a name, although both, in later years, may often think of this very moment and try to find a word for it: almost a musical tone, Stevenson could think, on his veranda in Samoa—as if we discovered with astonishment that we were in the same key, even on the same chord; or Twain could think, in his billiard room in Connecticut, it was like meeting a brother you never knew you had, and like discovering, within a startled moment, that everything joyous and genuine you could hope for in this unexpected new brother was completely there, most surpassingly and blessedly so . . . now that would be what the religionists call a miracle, and I can say, with real amazement, that it happened to me.
To us, thinks Stevenson, on his veranda, as the fruit bats float by at dusk, it happened to us, to both of us; I believe that we both felt that way, as we shook hands and prepared to part, to leave that sweet bench forever; and he smiles, and lights a fresh cigarette from the stump of his last one, just as Samuel Clemens, half a world away, smiles and lights a fresh cigar; both of their mustachioed grins showed broad and pleasurable in the flare of flame, and then returned to the darkness.