Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/Gene, a "Success of Curiosity"


The fact was, poor Eugene was no business man and, unlike Mrs. Clemens, pretty Mrs. Field, as far as I could make out, had no eye or head for business either. His London writings hardly ever appealed to a more international audience than Chicago and the West, willy-nilly, furnished. Syndicating was in its infancy and the papers printed nothing but news and again news. Even the New York Herald's Sunday edition contained hardly a line unconnected with the news of the day. And Eugene said himself he was no newsmonger. Then London society, or near-society, tried to make him out a funny man. He was much in demand as a diner-out, and like an honest man, paid for his dinners and suppers in "his own coin," stories and jokes.

These stories were all extravaganzas of the most extravagant kind. "I talked to the duchesses as I talk to my children when in pinafores," he used to tell me, "and the harder I lie, the more natural my American yarns sound to them, for their ignorance of America is as profound as mine of Mars."

Poor Gene, I am afraid, often accepted dinner invitations "to save grubbing at home," for his finances were on the downgrade most of the time. In his talks with American friends he often regretted having left Chicago, "where one can always make a touch, if not at the office, then in the Clark Street Emporium" (meaning Mike McDonald's saloon). And all the time his health severely suffered from the damp and wet, the sleet and raw winds, the river fogs and the smoke fogs.

"I thought if I got away from coffee and Chicago pies, my stomach would act decently again," he moaned sometimes; "but the eternal tea of Britain is as bad as our coffee, and its meat pies are even more alluring and digestion-disturbing. I will never get well until I can pay a cook a hundred dollars a week and a doctor fifty to tell me what to avoid."

There was a tendency in London then, among literary people and others, to treat American men of letters not with scant courtesy exactly, but as successes of curiosity. Eugene felt that after a while and it made him sore on London and made him long still more for the fleshpots of Chicago. Of course he returned a broader-minded and a better informed man, but consider the cost to him! The English climate, so healthful to Londoners as to make the town's death rate the lowest in Europe, wrecked what was left of Eugene's frail health. But for London he might have lived ten or more years longer. Yet he never could forgive Bennett for turning him down, though I often explained to him that his application may have never reached Bennett's own desk.

In a measure, too, Eugene Field was responsible for many of his discomforts in London, for he allowed a friend to select most dismal quarters for him and stuck to them instead of getting out and moving to one of the suburbs. "Richmond would be the place for you," we often told him.

"I am the Duke of Bedford's tenant," he joked, "and his Grace is pleased to have my name on his rent roll, so what can I do?" And then he would go into the Bedford family history and count up its fortunes, its land, and estates, in London and out. "Ah," he would say, "it stands to reason that among Bedford's ancestors were no penny-a-liners or blue stockings."