MARK TWAIN TELLS ABOUT PAWNBROKERS
Relates How He Advised a Friend to Commit Suicide.
SAID HE WAS "ONLY A POET"
It Was at the Annual Meeting of the University Settlement Society - Other Prominent Speakers.
At the annual meeting of the University Settlement Society, held yesterday afternoon in the society's house, at Rivington and Eldridge Streets, there gathered a large crowd, mostly composed of patronesses and patrons of the organization from uptown. Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) was the principal speaker, and he talked for a full three-quarters of an hour - longer, he said, than he planned, for the audience insisted upon interrupting him their laughter after almost every remark. William H. Baldwin, Jr., Chairman of the Committee of Fifteen, also made a speech, in which he talked of the city's responsibility for the proper rearing of children in the crowded sections. Seth Low presided over the meeting. Dr. Franklin H. Giddings, Professor of Sociology in Columbia University, delivered an address of the subject of how efforts to uplift people of the poorer classes should be directed. Mrs. Edward R. Hewitt made a report on the settlement work in the east side, and Mrs. Bond Thomas told how the charitable work of the various clubs in the west side was progressing. The report of Head Worker James B. Reynolds dealt with the general doings of the society. Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century Magazine, talked extemporaneously just before the meeting was adjourned.
In introducing Mark Twain, President Low said that the humorist had just whispered to him that the meeting should be adjourned at this point. Mr. Twain began by telling why he made such a request.
MARK TWAIN'S ADDRESS.
"It was because I had nothing to do and you had," he said. "I was thinking of you, for I myself would like to talk for two or three hours, as usual. I was reared to think of others always - never of myself; and I have ever tried to spread that doctrine - by proxy."
He continued by remarking upon the fact that the older men grew the more they became convinced of their overpowering ignorance, for until a few days ago he himself had not even heard of the University Settlement. But he had studied and had found that he knew of nothing which could be compared to it in usefulness, because it was a charity that carried to its beneficiaries no humiliation.
"The speakers before me," he said, "have told how you have to drive pupils away from your schools instead of into them. It was not that way in my young days. When I came down here this afternoon I saw in the building a dancing class. The cost of a lesson, I was told, was 2 cents. It is well to make people pay for what they get. That is why your charity does not humiliate. By the way, the reason I never learned to dance was because these schools for that art charged money.
"I saw downstairs, too, a pawnshop that you have in the house. This is a great advantage. The ordinary pawnbroker is allowed to collect from his patrons an enormous percentage; he fleeces the straggling stranger. I have paid much to them. Just now I saw a man pledge a watch in your shop for two dollars. He wanted the money only for a fortnight, and the price charged for the loan for that time was only a penny. I wish I could have gotten such terms when I was young. The reason I speak so feelingly on the subject of pawnshops is that I once had a romance which was closely connected with an establishment of the kind. The other day I was looking through that autobiography, the one on which I have been working for a long time, so that the world might soon be blessed with accurate information about me, when I came across an incident that I had written several years before. It was something that happened in San Francisco a long time ago.
At that time I was a newspaperman. I was out of a job. I had a friend who was a poet, but, as he could not sell his poems, he also had nothing to do for a living. There was a love passage in the incident, but I will spare you that and leave you to read it in my book. Well, my friend, the poet, said to me that his life was a failure. I said I thought so too. We consulted. He thought suicide would be a good thing. I couldn't lie, so I again agreed with him. My advice was positive. It was somewhat disinterested, but there were a few selfish motives behind it. As a reporter, I knew that a good 'scoop' would get me employment, and so I wanted him to kill himself without letting anybody but me know about the deed. Then I could sell the news and get a new start in life. Thus it was that, largely for his own good and partly for mine, I urged him not to delay in doing the thing. I kept the idea in his mind. You know, there is no dependence in a suicide - he may change his mind.
"He insisted that the best way for him to take his departure was to blow out his brains. I responded that this was an extravagant method, that we could not afford it. I told him that, as we were financially crippled, we could not buy the revolver. Then he wanted a knife. To that I objected, too, on the same grounds. At last he mentioned drowning, and asked me what I thought of it. I said that it was a very good way, except that he was a fine swimmer, and I did not know whether it would turn out well on this account. But I consented to the plan, seeing no better one in sight.
A MIRACULOUS EVENT.
"To the water we went. I went with him because I wanted to see that the thing was done right. You know the curiosity some people have. When we reached the shore of the sea a wonderful thing happened.
"He was all ready to take the fatal leap. I was ready to see him do it. Providence interposed. From out the ocean, borne, perhaps, from the other side of the Pacific, there was washed up on the sand at our feet a gift - a gift that the sea had been tossing around for weeks, maybe, waiting for us to come down to the coast and receive it. What was it? It was a life preserver.
"Now, you can imagine the complications that arose. The plan to do the suicide act by the drowning method fell through with a crash. With that life preserver, you see, he might have stayed in the water for weeks. I couldn't afford to wait that long. Suddenly I had an idea. That was no trouble for me, for I have the habit of having them often. 'Pawn the preserver and get a revolver,' I cried. The preserver was a good one. To be sure, the ocean had kept it for us a long time, and it had a few holes in it, but yet it was good enough to pawn somewhere. We sought the pawnbroker. He wanted 10 percent a month on the loan from the life preserver. I didn't object, for I never expected to try to get it out again. All I wanted was a revolver - quick.
"The pawnbroker gave us an old derringer, which is a kind of pistol that has but one barrel and shoots a bullet as big as a hickory nut. It was the only firearm he would let us have. Then he grew suspicious, wanted to know what we were going to do with the derringer. I drew him aside. 'My friend is a poet,' I said, 'and he wants to kill himself with it.' Upon which he replied: 'Oh, well, if he is only a poet, it is well. God speed him.'
"We went out and loaded the pistol. Just then I had some qualms about staying to see the act of my friend. I hadn't objected to witnessing a drowning, but this shooting was different; the drowning might have been looked upon as accidental, but not so with this. But I calmed myself, for when I suggested that I might go away he grew uneasy and acted as though he would not carry out his purpose if I did not stay beside him. So I stayed. He placed the barrel at his temple. He hesitated. In spite of all I could do I waxed impatient. 'Pull the trigger!' I cried. He pulled it. The ball went clean through his head. I held my breath. Then I found that the bullet had cleaned out all the gray matter. It had made a new man of him. Before he shot that shot he was nothing but a poet. Now he is a useful citizen. The ball just carried the poetic faculty out of the back door. Ever since then, although I am aware that I assisted him in the crime for selfish ends, I have been wishing that I might again help some other poet, or many of them, in the same way.
"So you see what a good thing a pawnbroker is. I am going to tell all the poets I know where your shop is located. Of course, you have lots of other good things in your establishment besides the pawnshop, and I have been thinking of sending you my check to help along your work. But I have decided, instead, to send to your library a lot of those books of mine that I hear one of your small boys has dubbed "Strawberry Finn."
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search