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Mark Twain was doing nothing when I called upon him in his Vienna hotel, if the leisurely discussion of a post-prandial cigar may be taken in that light. He says himself that he is doing nothing -- "diligent idleness" he calls it -- so I have the very highest authority for my assertion. He is, in fact, resting from his literary labours. The first consignment of his new book from the London publisher lay before him, redolent of scarcely-dry ink, and the twinkle in his humorous eye seemed to be beaming unusually as I broached the delicate subject of his critics.
Mark Twain said he had only seen a few notices, but they were all couched in highly satisfactory terms. He had, in fact, every reason to be pleased with the way in which his critics had handled him and his work. The conversation turned upon the adaptability of great cities for the purposes of literary inspiration. The great humorist was dead against them; one city like another in this respect. The difficulty was to be able to seclude oneself.
"It depends, of course, a great deal upon the individual," added Mark Twain sententiously. "But if a man has to work he can't attend to his visitors as he would like. I never try to escape callers -- it wouldn't be courteous; but when I am at work it is impossible for me to receive. In fact, I never know who does call -- my wife attends to all that, and makes the necessary arrangements. To interrupt my work to see people, and to continue where I left off, is for me impossible. I simply must go right on while I am in the mood. But that reminds me. I am amazed at what people can do in London. Just see a literary man at work there. He goes right straight along, but when you wish it he will break off and see you, and then return to his work again. I could learn to do that, perhaps, but I've never tried. Have I my idle moments? Well, there must always be a process of what I might call unconscious cerebration going on, even if one does not put pen to paper. There was a time when I did not do a stroke for nine months," added my interlocutor, reminiscently, and I found myself broadly grinning in anticipation of a "suttle goak," but turned it off in a hurry as I saw a cloud of sadness gather upon his features. "It was a time of mourning for us when my only comfort centred around that lonely grave, and I thought how best I could gain surcease from my overwhelming sorrow. I shut myself entirely up for those long months. But my mind did not lie fallow. It was just like when writing a book you come to a full stop -- when for want of material or owing to uncertainty as to the form the plot shall take, the pen must be put down. Depend upon it, time alone is wanting. Everything is shaping itself unconsciously in your mind, and by-and-bye you will find you have got that which you have been waiting for and you can go ahead again. After those nine months I worked for three months incessantly.
"What I am doing now is in the way of trifling sketches -- memoirs, if you like to call them such. They are not for publication. I don't intend to do anything for publication for at least another three years. I have heaps of such. I received a letter the other day from America saying: 'O! you are hard at work. I see you are writing a lot of things. That is an error. These memoirs I have been writing for years -- a little bit at a time. I like writing them; they refresh me in a great many ways."
Between the long and steady puffs of smoke from fragrant cigars that punctuated Mark Twain's words with the regularity of a machine, there was ample time to squeeze in a question or two about the impressions he had received on his recent travels.
"The only real value of travelling is to find anything better than what you have at home," observed Mark Twain in his familiar staccato.
"If you have any criticisms you should keep them to yourself. I make, of course, a distinction. I would not apply that to an unknown man travelling through a strange country. I think he has the privilege of saying what he pleases. Whatever hospitality he has received he has bought and paid for. But if he's known, why, he is receiving unbought hospitality from military officials and civilians alike, and he has no right to criticise that hospitality. I have, therefore, confined myself in my book rather to opinions than assertions. For instance, I never saw Cecil Rhodes, and what I have said about him is rather a collection of the opinions which prevail in South Africa. When a cat looks at a king, it has a perfect right to its impressions, and to express them, but neither the cat nor I have any right to claim that they are valuable after being expressed. My impression of Cecil Rhodes," and here the great American took several leisurely puffs at his cigar before he ventured to continue, "is that he is a great man and a bad one. He is the most commanding figure in the British Empire outside England itself. That is my impression, my opinion -- it is not an assertion.
In reply to my question as to how he had found English audiences, Mark Twain said he had been rubbing shoulders with them ever since 1873. "I have always found them for my purposes entirely satisfactory, i. e., they respond to me just as I would like them to. The conditions being equal, American and English audiences will respond in exactly the same way; but the conditions are not always the same. The difference is this: Here and there and yonder the American audience will do just what the English audience does -- receive you with welcome and when you come upon the stage, and remain all along uncritical to the end. That is particularly the English audience -- and also, as a rule, the American one -- say for half the time; but for the other half, why, it doesn't make any difference how well you are known to the audience, they are going to criticise until they find out whether or not you are acceptable to them. And then they are just as generous as you can wish. That is the difference; you don't have to convert the English audience."
The distinguished humorist was beginning to put on an absorbed look, and guessing rightly that he had still a mind to put in some more work at his desk that day -- though, by the way, Mark Twain generally writes on his knee -- I rose to take my leave. Mark Twain had only that day received his latest photographs, and kindly committed one to my care. He said the camera had treated him just as gently as his critics had, though he was afraid he made a bad subject for the photographer, for whom he had very little patience. The photographers tell me he is just the gentlest and most obliging of subjects, with the patience that was Job's. But Mark Twain is fond of libelling himself.
T. W. B. W.