THE SIGN OF THE SHELL
Out from under the shadows stepped a gray figure.
THE road to the hotel wound upward, and on either side of it palmettos rustled noisily beside still and somber cedars.
Out from under their shadows stepped a gray figure with a crown of glistening white hair. He walked lightly and looked about him with an air of interested and unconscious expectancy. As he came nearer the hotel veranda we recognized the shaggy eyebrows, the delicately arched nose, the drooping mustache. Indeed, we had realized his personality the first moment that his figure had emerged from the semi-tropical background. He could be no other than Mark Twain. He passed up the steps and into the hotel, his head held a little to one side, inquiringly. We heard a soft drawling voice for a moment and then a carriage clattered up to the veranda, bringing other guests, and we lost him.
For it was the day when the unsteady but regular steamer brought us, once in ten days, news and passengers from the world. Two weeks before, we, the Lady Mother and I, had crossed the stormy sea, a sea so stormy that the short voyage of forty-five hours seemed an eternity cutting us off from our previous existence. This feeling of finality had given a mysterious attraction to the green islands which rose gently out of the sea before us on the early morning of the third day. This, and the change from bleak and wintry December to glorious glowing summer, made us suspect that we were under the spell of some lovely enchantment. This suspicion be came settled conviction as our boat, so pathetically small in the New York dock, suddenly loomed up into stately proportions as she picked her way through the treacherously smiling channel. She had a wary but important air as she turned and twisted between the tiny islets, and then drew up majestically alongside the little wharf. And this conviction was deepened into happy acceptance when we drove over white coral roads, bordered with palmettos and royal palms, when we saw banana groves and twenty-foot oleander hedges, when we breathed the fragrance of magnolias and caught glimpses of gleaming white houses through thick tropical foliage, and white roads winding up little hillsides, and when there flashed before us a dash of white spray.
There could be no doubt of it. A fairy had touched us with her magic wand, and we were again in the dreamy, happy days of the Golden Age.
The great rambling hotel.
The great rambling hotel which was to be our home stood half a mile from the dock and down close by the shore. It was the only largewooden building on the island, and that in itself was a distinction. Its long verandas looked out over the blue waters of the harbor, and sail-boats came clustering about the stone pier, hoping to tempt unwary guests.
Soon after coming to the Happy Island I found a companion and a playmate. It made little difference that Margaret's skirts were short and mine long, or that she wore her hair down and I wore mine up, and that she looked twelve years old while I only felt twelve. All this mattered little, for she had one of those understanding souls that knows with keen and sure intuition many things that others learn slowly and uncertainly. So she accepted me as her playmate, and we took long walks together, and exchanged confidences, and wove wonderful tales of magic and adventure and were quite content.
As a usual thing, Margaret and I felt but a languid interest in the passengers who came, for they did not invade our world. But on the morning that Mark Twain arrived, we felt an unusual thrill, and we wondered if we might not see him once in a while.
Until that day there had been very few guests, for it was the first of the year and the beginning of the season. But now the dining room took on a distinctly populated appearance.
Margaret's table was not far from ours, and that day she was sitting alone. Presently Mark Twain came in, and as he reached her table he stopped and spoke to her. He not only spoke to her, but had a conversation with her. I knew, then, that he had recognized her as one of the choice souls of the earth.
They went in the donkey cart.
As soon as Margaret had finished her luncheon, she came over to our table, her sweet face beaming, and said: "That nice old gentleman is Mr. Clemens, and he is so funny. He pretended to know me, and he wants me to ride with him in the donkey-cart this afternoon, but I told him I had an engagement with you, and couldn't go."
I told her I would release her from her engagement with me, for it was an honor to be invited to go with Mr. Clemens, an honor which she ought not lightly to forego. Then she told me in detail the conversation she had had with him.
He had said, after a moment of apparent hesitation, and in a tone of surprise, "Why, how do you do? I am very much ashamed of myself, but I believe I've forgotten your name."
Margaret: How do you do? I'm afraid I don't know you.
Mr. Clemens (reproachfully): Have you forgotten me? I remember you very well. Your name is Janet.
Margaret: Oh, no, sir: It isn't Janet.
Mr. Clemens: I beg your pardon. I have a very bad memory. Oh! now it comes to me. You are Dorothy.
Margaret (entering into the spirit of the interview): I'm afraid you have a bad memory, sir, a very bad one!
Mr. Clemens (undaunted): Now, that 's too bad. I was sure I would remember -- I think it must be -- Margaret.
Margaret: Yes, that's my name.
Mr. Clemens: But I'm very much grieved that you should have forgotten me. I think you ought to have some sort of a memorandum of me, so that the next time we meet I shouldn't be subjected to the same humiliating experience. [Here Mr. Clemens took a little pink shell out of his pocket and gave half of it to Margaret.] Take this and guard it carefully, and every time we meet hence forward you can show me your half of the shell and I will show you mine, and if they match I shall know it 's you and you will know it's I!
Of course Margaret gleefully agreed, and as proof she showed me her half of the shell, repeating appreciatively: "Isn't he a dear, funny man! "
And just here, although not in chronological order, I must relate the after-history of the divided shell.
Some time afterwards Mr. Clemens had two pretty gold-enameled replicas of the shells made, and he presented one of them to Margaret. The other he hung on his watch-fob. Many months later Margaret went to visit Mr. Clemens in his Connecticut home. When the carriage drove up to the door Mr. Clemens was there to welcome his little friend, but Margaret looked at him gravely, hesitated a little, and then said: "Do you know if there is a nice old gentleman, by the name of Mr. Clemens, living here?" Mr. Clemens answered by drawing out his shell and showing it to her. She had hers in her hand. She compared them for a moment. Her face lighted up with a mischievous smile, and she ran into his outstretched arms, saying: "Why! you are Mr. Clemens!"
Return to book index
Proceed to next chapter (Chapter Two)