By Steven Dexheimer
Part Two: The Second Guest
A white-haired, mustachioed man stood at my doorstep in a white linen suit and smoking a cigar, the smell of which was overwhelmingly rancid. The man must have read the displeasure in my face, because he removed the cigar from his mouth, carefully snuffed it out on my front step, and put the un-smoked portion in his coat pocket.
“Sorry about the cigar,” Sam Clemens said as he stepped through the door and shook my hand. “I should have asked before I lit up. An old habit, you know.” I took his offered hat and hung it up on the coat rack.
“I don’t mind having cigars smoked in my house,” I said. “In fact I bought a box of them for this very occasion. It’s just that…” I gestured to his coat where his cigar was. He grinned in understanding.
“It’s just that you’re particular in your brands. That’s understandable. Actually, I didn’t like the smell of my cigars at first, but I’ve become accustomed to it. In fact, I prefer it.”
“Well,” I said, “you are more than welcome to smoke my cigars.”
“I might take you up on that offer,” said Clemens as I led him toward the den. “And you’ll be happy to know, that I do smoke in moderation.”
“Really?” I said. “I never heard you to be a man of moderation.”
“It’s the truth,” Clemens stopped, putting up his hands in mock solemnity. “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.” I laughed.
Lincoln was intently reading his biography when Clemens and I walked in. He looked up, closed the book, and stood.
“Mr. President,” I said, “I don’t believe you’ve met Sam Clemens before.” The two men shook hands.
“No,” said Clemens, “I did His Excellency the favor of staying out west during his presidency. He had the Civil War to contend with, he didn’t need me to add to his troubles.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Clemens,” said Lincoln, “I have heard much about you.” Clemens looked at me and made a comical grimace. “I understand that you were acquainted with Artemis Ward.”
A smile spread across the humorist’s face.
“Ah yes, he was quite an inspiration to me. I saw him give a lecture in Virginia City once and laughed my head nearly clean off!”
“He’s a powerful funny man,” agreed Lincoln with a grin.
“He told me that you were a great admirer of his,” Clemens replied.
“Yes, I quite enjoyed his books. They were rather a tonic for me during our country’s great trouble.”
“I can’t imagine what you must have gone through,” I said. Lincoln nodded gravely.
“It was a fearful strain on me, true enough” he sighed. “If I couldn’t have laughed once and a while, I would’ve died…” An awkward silence fell as Clemens and I looked at each other. Lincoln interpreted the silence correctly. “Well,” he said, smiling, “at least I would have died in a different, and less dramatic, form.”
“I take it you don’t mind mention of your, um…” I trailed off.
“…Of my assassination?” Lincoln shook his head. “No, I don’t mind it. Although,” he continued with a sly grin and rubbing the back of his head, “the topic does tend to give me a headache.” Clemens rolled his eyes as Lincoln let out a bark of laughter.
“Mr. Lincoln,” said Clemens disgustedly, “that was a terrible joke…and I resent the fact that you came up with it before I did.”
Grabbing my notebook and pen from my writing desk, I moved to another chair and sat. Lincoln returned to the armchair, Clemens took a seat at my ever-cluttered desk.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” I said to Clemens, “would you like something to drink?”
“I’m content for now. Although, I wouldn’t mind taking you up on that offer of a cigar.”
“Coming right up,” I said, reaching up to a shelf for my box of cigars.
“You don’t mind if I smoke, do you Mr. President?” inquired Clemens as he received his cigar. Lincoln shook his head.
“I wouldn’t deny you the pleasure of your vice.”
Clemens produced a match, lit his cigar, and puffed on it contentedly.
“It’s probably not the best of habits to hold on to,” said Clemens. He blew a cloud of smoke, and then added, “Still, I haven’t got a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices.”
“That reminds me,” said the President, “of the time I was on a stagecoach to Washington. This was during my brief career as a congressman. There was this rough looking fellow sitting next to me who offered me a ‘CEE-gar,’ as he called it. Well, I told him that I didn’t smoke; that I really had no vices to speak of. He didn’t say anything for a while. At last, he grunted and said to me: ‘It’s been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.’ ”
It was Clemens’ turn to chuckle. He released another plume of smoke.
“When I was a youth,” Clemens began, “I used to take all kinds of pledges. I’d do my very best to keep them, but I never could.” He shook his head in mock sadness. “Once, I vowed to smoke only one cigar a day, but my desire persecuted me so badly that within the week I found myself hunting for larger and larger cigars to smoke. Within a month, my cigars had grown to such proportions that I could have used them as a crutch…so to speak. Well, it seemed to me that a one cigar limit was no real help to a person, so I dropped the pledge on its head and, well, resumed my liberty.” He grinned and puffed while Lincoln and I laughed.
“I’m sorry to backtrack,” I said to Clemens, “but I’m curious to know how you and Artemis Ward met. I assume that wasn’t his real name.” Clemens grinned mischievously.
“Ah yes, we scribbler of lies love to hide behind our nom de plume, don’t we?”
“Would you prefer that we address you as Mr. Twain?” Clemens waved a languid hand.
“I answer to either name. Sam was good enough for my mother, but no matter. Now where were we?”
I repeated my inquiry.
“Well,” he drawled slowly, “as I said before, I saw Artemis, Charles Browne if you wish to know his Christian name, give a lecture in Virginia City, and I loved it! I was inspired by it! So after the lecture I introduced myself, and heaped a wagon load of praise upon his head. He seemed to like that, so I then offered to show him the town and he agreed. Our first stop was the saloon where we sampled the beverages. Four hours later, we were as drunk as skunks.” He paused meditatively, and drew on his cigar.
“Then what happened?” I asked. He shook his head.
“Can’t remember,” he said flatly.
Lincoln howled with laughter. Clemens gave a comical shrug. “I honestly don’t recall anything we did after that, although we were informed the next morning by some citizens that we did end up seeing Virginia City. Apparently, in our state of inebriation, I led the great Artemis Ward on a rooftop tour of the town.”
Lincoln was laughing, slapping his thigh, and wiping the tears that were coursing down his craggy cheeks.
“And then what happened?” I asked, choking on my own laughter.
“The town constable came out and threatened to blast us off with a shotgun filled with rock salt!”
At that, Lincoln doubled over in his chair and was gasping for air. I was slumped back on my seat clutching the stitch in my side. Clemens was grinning broadly, pleased at his audience’s reaction.
“Now, this was the story that was told to me by some of the, ahem, so-called, trustworthy citizens of Virginia City. For all I know, they were just stringing me along. I wouldn’t put it passed them.”
It was a while before we regained our composure. I heard a knock at the front door. I left Lincoln and Clemens chatting amiably while I went to open it.