By Steven Dexheimer
Part Three: The Third Guest
“My sincere apologies for being late,” said Benjamin Franklin bustling in. “I had a previous engagement with a most charming young woman, and I lost all track of time. But alas, I am after all, in the prime of senility.”
A burst of laughter erupted from the den as I took Franklin’s coat and beaver hat and hung them up on the coat rack.
“Hmm, it sounds like the festivities have begun in earnest,” he said, adjusting his glasses. I ushered him toward the jocular mayhem.
“Gentlemen,” I announced, waving my hand dramatically towards Franklin, “our final guest has arrived.” Lincoln and Clemens both stood.
“By Jing,” breathed Lincoln, stepping forward, and offering his hand. “Dr. Franklin, an honor to meet you.”
Franklin genially took Lincoln’s hand and shook it.
“The pleasure is mine, good sir,” replied the old gentleman. Clemens came up as well and shook Franklin’s hand.
“How did you manage to locate this old fellow?” Clemens asked me as he and Lincoln seated themselves again. I offered my chair to Franklin who nodded his thanks.
“Well,” Franklin said, addressing Clemens, “when I heard that I would be in the presence of a couple first class story-tellers, I could not resist the invitation!”
“And you’re no slouch when it comes to telling a good yarn,” Clemens said. Franklin nodded in appreciation at the compliment.
“High praise from you indeed, Mr. Clemens.”
“However,” Clemens continued, “I do have a bone to pick with you concerning one matter in particular.”
“Oh?” said Franklin, slightly surprised. “What would that be?”
“Well, it’s your peculiar talent of inventing maxims and aphorisms.”
“Why? What is wrong with my maxims?”
“If you only knew the suffering that was inflicted upon me when I was a young boy,” Clemens shook his head in mock sadness. “I couldn’t act on a single natural instinct without tripping over one of your…sayings!”
“For example?” inquired Franklin with a raised eyebrow and a slight smile playing on his lips.
“Well,” Clemens drawled, “say that a boy buys himself two cents worth of peanuts. Then his father says, ‘Remember what Franklin said, my son: “A groat a day’s a penny a year.”’ And now all the fun has gone out of those peanuts.”
“I see,” said Franklin.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I interjected, “but what is a ‘groat’?”
“A groat was an old English coin. It was roughly worth about four pennies,” said Franklin. “And,” he went on, turning to Clemens, “my actual saying was: ‘He that spends a groat a day idly, spends idly above six pounds a year.’ You see, it makes more sense that way.”
“Yes, fine,” said Clemens, slightly irritated, “but it still proves my point.”
“Now,” Clemens continued, “say that boy wants to spin a top when he is done with his work. His father will come up and say: ‘“Procrastination is the thief of time.’ And if the boy does something virtuous, he gets nothing for it because…”
“Let me guess,” Franklin jumped in, “‘Virtue is its own reward.’”
“Exactly! And do you know how much sleep I lost as a child because of your ‘Early to bed and early to rise, make a man healthy and wealthy and wise?’ My parents used to have me up before nine o’ clock every morning. Now, if they had let me take my natural rest, where would I be now?”
“It boggles the mind,” Franklin said with a mischievous grin. “However, it appears that there is a slight misinterpretation of my meaning. I find nothing wrong in leisure activities when work is done. After all, a life of leisure and a life of laziness are two different things.”
“I agree,” said Clemens.
“Now as to your longing desire to sleep well past daybreak, I have no sympathy. For myself, all I can say is that there will be sleeping enough in the grave. Employ thy time well, Mr. Clemens, if thou meanest to gain leisure.”
“Dr. Franklin, can I interest you in something to drink?” I asked.
“Why yes, I am rather parched.” He cleared his throat.
“What’s your pleasure?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have mead, would you?”
“Um, no,” I said, not even sure what mead was. “I have beer though.”
“Excellent!” replied Franklin. “I shall have that!”
“One beer, coming up.”
Clemens raised his hand.
“Could you make that two?” I went to the kitchen and returned with two bottles of beer. I pulled off the caps and handed a bottle to Franklin and Clemens. Franklin took a swig, swallowed, and smiled. He raised his bottle as if to make a toast.
“Without meaning to sound sacrilegious, kind gentlemen, I believe that beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
“Amen,” said Clemens.
“Although,” Lincoln said with a grin, raising his own glass of water, “If memory serves, I recall the Scriptures mentioning that beer leads to brawling.”
“Only if the drinker is immoderate in his consumption,” Franklin replied amiably. “Contrary to popular belief, I do find temperance a virtue, although I must admit, it is easier said than done.”
“They talk about beer in the Bible?” Clemens was intrigued. “How did I miss that?”
“You are well-versed in the Scriptures then, Mr. Lincoln,” said Franklin. Lincoln nodded.
“It was one of the few books my family possessed when we lived in Kentucky and Indiana. The Good Book was ingrained in my mind from my youth, and has yet to forsake me in my old age.”
“Ah, but,” said Franklin, leaning forward in his seat, “the question is, do you truly believe in what you so freely quote?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “It seems obvious that…”
“…That Mr. Lincoln was a product of his times,” cut in Franklin. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. President, but the usage of Scripture in public discourse was a commonplace thing, as it was in my time.”
“That is true,” said Lincoln.
“I was under the impression that you were a bit of a skeptic when it came to religion,” Clemens said.
“Well,” Lincoln said, speaking slowly and deliberately, “it is true that I’ve never been a member of any Christian church, but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures.”
“Really?” Clemens said, with a raised eyebrow. “Not once?”
“Oh, I might have been a bit skeptical in my youth. I read a great deal of Paine and Voltaire. I was, and am, a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson…” Lincoln nodded toward Franklin who in turn raised his bottle in salute.
“A brilliant man, Mr. Jefferson,” Franklin said, and took a sip of his beer.
“I was, for lack of a better term, a disciple of Reason. I was intrigued by Enlightenment thinkers, such as you, Dr. Franklin.” Franklin beamed.
“Mr. Lincoln seems to appreciate my writings,” he said, turning to Clemens. “It’s a shame you can’t share that sentiment.” Clemens just rolled his eyes and heaved an exaggerated sigh.
“As you may well understand,” Lincoln continued, “the Christian religion doesn’t quite fit the mold of Reason. Many people I knew were perfectly willing to toss the Christian faith aside, but I could never quite leave it alone. There were things that Reason couldn’t explain to my satisfaction. I needed to find an answer that I could live with.”
“And did you find that answer?” Franklin asked.
“Yes, and no,” said Lincoln, with a sad smile. “I finally came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to find all the answers that I was looking for. Some things I would just have to take on faith. That was what I told my friend Josh Speed when he came to visit me in Washington one time. He saw me reading my Bible, and he said:
‘Well Abe, if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’ And I told him:
‘You are wrong, Speed. Take this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith and you will live and die a happier and better man.’ Well, I can’t say that I was any happier or a better man than my friend, but I did find strength and comfort in the Scriptures. What with the war and the death of my son…” Lincoln heaved a sigh, his once humorous face now masked with melancholy, “there were times that I was driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go…” Lincoln drifted off into silence. For a short while, no one spoke. Then Lincoln took a deep breath, looked up, and with a small smile said “I am reminded of a story…”
“You see, there was this preacher, an old-line Baptist, who was dressed in coarse linen pantaloons, and shirt of the same material. The pants, manufactured after the old fashion, with baggy legs, and a flap in the front, were made to attach to his frame without the aid of suspenders.
“A single button held his shirt in position, and that was at the collar. He rose up in the pulpit, and with a loud voice announced his text thus: ‘I am the Christ whom I shall represent to-day.’
“Now about this time a little blue lizard ran up his roomy pantaloons. The old preacher, not wishing to interrupt the steady flow of his sermon, slapped away on his leg, expecting to stop the intruder, but his efforts were in vain, and the little fellow kept on ascending higher and higher.
“Continuing the sermon, the preacher loosened the central button which graced the waistband of his pantaloons, and with a kick, off came that easy-fitting garment.
“But, meanwhile, Mr. Lizard had passed the equatorial line of the waistband, and was calmly exploring that part of the preacher’s anatomy which lay underneath the back of his shirt.
“Things were now growing interesting, but the sermon was still grinding on. The next movement on the preacher’s part was for the collar button, and with one sweep of his arm off came the tow linen shirt.
“The congregation sat for an instant as if dazed; at length one old lady in the rear part of the room rose up, and, glancing at the excited object in the pulpit, shouted at the top of her voice: ‘If you represent Christ, then I’m done with the Bible.’”
Lincoln slapped his knee and roared with laughter, as did the rest of us, mostly out of relief that the serious moment had blown over.
“Well Mr. President,” said Franklin, wiping a tear from his eye, “I think that I can relate to your spiritual pilgrimage.” He took a drink, cleared his throat and continued.
“My parents had given me religious impressions early on and brought me through a pious childhood. But when I was barely fifteen, I began doubting several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read. Some books that railed against Deism fell into my hands. It happened that they produced an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them. The arguments of the Deists that were quoted appeared to me much stronger than the opposition. In short, I soon became a Deist. I still retain much of my Deist views. But the longer I live, the more convinced I become that God governs in the affairs of men.”
“How about you, Mr. Clemens?” I asked.
“Ah,” said Clemens, sitting back in his chair, “I was wondering when this conversation would get to me. Such a heavy topic…May I impose on your hospitality and beg another fine cigar from you?”
I nodded and went to fetch another.
“I grew up in the Presbyterian faith, very conservative, very Calvinistic. Fire and brimstone raining upon our heads every Sunday morning. Thank you,” he said, accepting the offered cigar.
“You have mentioned that you were a skeptic,” I said. “Why is that?”
“I think it’s the rampant hypocrisy of the Christian religion. Well…I should be fair—of religion in general.” Clemens rose from his chair and began to pace as he spoke, his cigar smoke trailing him like an opaque pennant. “Honestly, I think if Christ were here on earth now, the last thing he would be is a Christian.” He paused and drew on his cigar. “I don’t think one particular religion holds the monopoly on truth, morals, or wisdom. The confidence in knowing that another man’s religion is folly tells me to suspect that my own is too.”
“And your view of the Scriptures?” inquired Franklin, an intent look on his face.
“It is full of interest, I must admit.” Clemens took another deep drag on his cigar. “It has noble poetry in it, some clever fables, some blood-drenched history, some good morals, a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.” Lincoln, Franklin, and I fell into an awkward silence. Clemens stopped his pacing and looked around at us. “Is something the matter?”
“Oh no,” said Franklin with a small smile, “just waiting for the lightning strike.”
“An interesting choice of words coming from you, Dr. Franklin,” said Lincoln, with a smile also playing across his lips.
“You know, all my life I have had a mortal dread of lightning,” said Clemens with a wry grin. “Now you know why.” He heaved a sigh. “But what do I know of spiritual matters? Gentlemen, I am a great and sublime fool,” Clemens said, returning to his seat. “But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect.”
The clock on the wall chimed the hour. Lincoln glanced up at it, rose from the recliner, and stretched.
“I’m afraid that it’s time for me to mosey on. Gentlemen, this has been a pleasure chewing the fat with you all,” Lincoln said as he shook hands with Franklin and Clemens. “We should do this again soon.”
I walked with Lincoln to the front door. As he put on his coat he said, “I want to thank you for bringing this little shindig together. It was quite a treat, I must say.”
“Thank you for coming,” I replied. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m sure the others can say the same.”
“Well,” Lincoln drawled, his long fingers reaching for his hat, “I have always tried to pluck a thistle and plant a flower wherever the flower would grow in thought and mind. Goodbye, son.” He shook my hand, then left.
I returned to the den where Clemens was in the midst of another spirited roasting of Dr. Franklin.
“…a chance to fly your kite on Sunday, all you had to do was to hang a key on the string and pretend to be fishing for lightning.”
“So much for my great contribution to science,” Franklin smiled and winked at me. I shook my head.
“And,” Clemens continued, “if anyone happened upon you unexpectedly when you were catching flies, or making mud pies, or sliding on a cellar-door, you would just look wise, rip out a maxim, and walk off with your nose in the air and your hat on backwards, trying to appear absent-minded and eccentric.”
Franklin just laughed.
“Oh, you exaggerate Mr. Clemens.”
“Of course I do,” Clemens said grinning broadly. “How else do you think I got published?”
“Yes. You have employed your talents well…and often.” Franklin laughed as he rose to his feet.
“Well, as much as I enjoy being treated to Mr. Clemens’ barrage of savage wit, I really must be going. After all, fish and visitors stink after three days.”
“Have we been here that long?” Clemens grinned at me, standing and stretching.
As I watched the two men from my front window as they strolled down the sidewalk, laughing and bickering amiably, I marveled at what I had been a part of. What a story this would make! I decided to put my notes in order right away while the experience was still fresh. It was that last thought that froze me.
With a growing sense of anxiety, I hurried back into the den and reached for the notebook I had by my side the entire time. It was blank.