Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/An English Lover of Kings and a Hater


"Look at those fools going to pieces over old Doc Johnson—call themselves Americans and lick-spittle the toady who grabbed a pension from the German King of England that hated Americans, tried to flog us into obedience and called George Washington traitor and scoundrel."

Thus spoke Mark Twain in the Doctor Johnson room of the Cheshire Cheese, the Strand, where the old thoroughfare becomes "the Street of Ink" or Newspaper Row, and while we were enjoying the famous meat pie served there on certain days of the week.

"You are pleased to occupy Miss Evelyn's seat," whispered James the waiter, looking at Mark.

"Miss Evelyn—what?" demanded our friend.

James blushed. "Miss Evelyn, why—Miss Evelyn, the beautiful young American lady who came with the millionaire, Mr. Harry Thaw. While she was in London I always had to keep for her the seat under the Doctor's portrait on pie-day."

"Not because she loved Johnson better, but because she liked being in the limelight worse," commented Mark.

"Of course," he continued, "no Englishman misses doing the kowtow to Johnson when he's got half a chance, but of our own people, coming to the Cheese, ninety-nine per cent. do so because they don't know the man, and the others because they feel tickled to honor a writer a hundred and fifty years or so after he is good and rotten."

"Read Johnson plentifully, I suppose," mocked Bram Stoker, famous as author, critic, barrister and Henry Irving's associate.

"Not guilty—never a written word of his," answered honest Mark. "I gauge Johnson's character by his talks with that sot Bozzy, whom foolish old Carlyle called the greatest biographer ever because, I suppose, Bozzy interviewed Johnson on such momentous questions as: 'What would you do, sir, if you were locked up in the Tower with a baby?'"

"Well, what would you do," asked Bram.

"Throw it out of the window to a passing milkman, if it was weaned and if there was no cow around," said Mark.

When the merriment had subsided, Mark continued the slaughter of Johnson: "Why, he was a man who would have called brother a cannibal island king who had eaten a Jesuit, while he would have mobilized the whole British fleet against savages who dined off an Episcopalian."

"And if they had fried a Bishop of the established Church down in the Pacific?"

"Ask me something easier," answered Mark. "For all I know Johnson may have been the guy who invented a seething lake of fire and brimstone de luxe for married couples who had loved wisely and too well on a Christian holiday."

"Boldly stolen from Voltaire," suggested Bram.

"No, I read about the lake in one of Anatole France's weekly essays in 'Le Temps,' but there was no reference to Johnson, of course.

"Speaking of Voltaire—I don't remember that he mentioned Johnson in his English Letters, though he did take the trouble (in Eighteenth Century French ignorance) to call Shakespeare 'a drunken savage,' 'an amazing genius' and 'an indecent buffoon who had rendered English taste a ruined lady for two hundred years to come.'"

"Date's quite correct, as I once pointed out to poor Gene Field," interrupted Stoker. He called for a slate—they had no paper at the Cheese—and scrawled:

"Opening of the Lyceum Theatre under Henry Irving and Bram Stoker 1878
Death of Shakespeare 1616
Interval 262."

"As you see," added Bram, "Voltaire was out only a little more than half a century. And what's half a century when the Oxford Dodo—if the moths hadn't eaten him—would now be seven and twenty trillions years old? But go on with your Voltaire, Mark."

"You mean Johnson," said Mark; "how he would have cackled had he known that Voltaire got his start in literature by the library he bought as a youngster out of Ninon de l'Enclos' two thousand livres bequest. 'Authorship reared on a wench's patrimony,' I hear him expectorate, and George Rex would have been tickled to death, for Johnson, he would have argued, has now extracted the sting from the Frenchman's description of Kings, as 'a pack of rogues and highwaymen.'"

As he was speaking Mark grabbed hold of his elbow, indulging in a grimace of pain. "What's the date?" he demanded abruptly.

"August 25th."

"Late, as usual," said Mark with mock mournfulness. "True friends of mankind and haters of intolerance have their rheumatism or colic on August 24th, the day of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Voltaire always timed his boils so and got a rash or the itch on May 14th for good measure."

"What happened on May 14th?"

"Why, you ignoramus, on May 14th, in the year I have forgot, the humanest and royalest of kings, Henri IV, was assassinated by a damned monk."