IS HE LIVING OR IS HE DEAD?
BY MARK TWAIN
I was spending the month of March 1892, at
Mentone, in the Riviera. At this retired
spot one has all the advantages, privately,
which are to be had publicly at Monte Carlo
and Nice, a few miles farther along. That
is to say, one has the flooding sunshine,
the balmy air, and the brilliant blue sea,
without the marring additions of human
pow-wow and fuss and feathers and display.
Mentone is quiet, simple, restful,
unpretentious; the rich and the gaudy do
not come there. As a rule, I mean, the
rich do not come there. Now and then a
rich man comes, and I presently got
acquainted with one of these. Partially
to disguise him I will call him Smith.
One day, in the Hotel des Anglais, at the
second breakfast, he exclaimed:
"Quick! Cast your eye on the man going out
at the door. Take in every detail of him."
"Do you know who he is?"
"Yes. He spent several days here before you
came. He is an old, retired, and very rich
silk manufacturer from Lyons, they say, and
I guess he is alone in the world, for he
always looks sad and dreamy, and doesn't
talk with anybody. His name is Theophile
I supposed that Smith would now proceed to
justify the large interest which he had
shown in Monsieur Magnan; but, instead, he
dropped into a brown study, and was apparently
lost to me and to the rest of the world
during some minutes. Now and then he passed
his fingers through his flossy white hair,
to assist his thinking, and meantime he
allowed his breakfast to go on cooling. At
last he said:
"No, it's gone; I can't call it back."
"Can't call what back?"
"It's one of Hans Andersen's beautiful
little stories. But it's gone from me. Part
of it is like this: A child has a caged
bird, which it loves, but thoughtlessly
neglects. The bird pours out its song
unheard and unheeded; but in time, hunger
and thirst assail the creature, and its
song grows plaintive and feeble and finally
ceases--the bird dies. The child comes,
and is smitten to the heart with remorse;
then, with bitter tears and lamentations,
it calls its mates, and they bury the bird
with elaborate pomp and the tenderest grief,
without knowing, poor things, that it isn't
children only who starve poets to death and
then spend enough on their funerals and
monuments to have kept them alive and made
them easy and comfortable. Now--"
But here we were interrupted. About ten
that evening I ran across Smith, and he
asked me up to his parlor to help him smoke
and drink hot Scotch. It was a cosy place,
with its comfortable chairs, its cheerful
lamps, and its friendly open fire of seasoned
olive-wood. To make everything perfect,
there was the muffled booming of the surf
outside. After the second Scotch and much
lazy and contented chat, Smith said:
"Now we are properly primed--I to tell a
curious history, and you to listen to it. It
has been a secret for many years--a secret
between me and three others; but I am going
to break the seal now. Are you comfortable?"
"Perfectly. Go on."
Here follows what he told me:
"A long time ago I was a young artist--a very
young artist, in fact--and I wandered about
the country parts of France, sketching here
and sketching there, and was presently joined
by a couple of darling young Frenchmen who
were at the same kind of thing that I was
doing. We were as happy as we were poor, or
as poor as we were happy--phrase it to suit
yourself. Claude Frere and Carl Boulanger--these
are the names of those boys; dear, dear fellows,
and the sunniest spirits that ever laughed at
poverty and had a noble good time in all
"At last we ran hard aground in a Breton
village, and an artist as poor as ourselves
took us in and literally saved us from
"What! the great Francois Millet?"
"Great? He wasn't any greater than we were,
then. He hadn't any fame, even in his own
village; and he was so poor that he hadn't
anything to feed us on but turnips, and even
the turnips failed us sometimes. We four
became fast friends, doting friends,
inseparables. We painted away together
with all our might, piling up stock, piling
up stock, but very seldom getting rid of
any of it. We had lovely times together;
but, O my soul! how we were pinched now
"For a little over two years this went on.
At last, one day, Claude said:
"'Boys, we've come to the end. Do you
understand that?--absolutely to the end.
Everybody has struck--there's a league
formed against us. I've been all around
the village and it's just as I tell you.
They refuse to credit us for another
centime until all the odds and ends are
"This struck us as cold. Every face was
blank with dismay. We realized that our
circumstances were desperate, now. There
was a long silence. Finally, Millet said
with a sigh:
"'Nothing occurs to me--nothing. Suggest
"There was no response, unless a mournful
silence may be called a response. Carl got
up, and walked nervously up and down awhile,
"'It's a shame! Look at these canvases:
stacks and stacks of as good pictures as
anybody in Europe paints--I don't care
who he is. Yes, and plenty of lounging
strangers have said the same--or nearly
"'But didn't buy,' Millet said.
"'No matter, they said it; and it's true,
too. Look at your "Angelus" there! Will
anybody tell me--'
"'Pah, Carl--my "Angelus!" I was offered
five francs for it.'
"'Who offered it?'
"'Where is he?'
"'Why didn't you take it?'
"'Come--don't all speak at once. I thought
he would give more--I was sure of it--he
looked it--so I asked him eight.'
"'He said he would call again.'
"'Thunder and lightning! Why, Francois--'
"'Oh, I know--I know! It was a mistake,
and I was a fool. Boys, I meant for the
best; you'll grant me that, and I--'
"'Why, certainly, we know that, bless
your dear heart; but don't you be a fool
"'I? I wish somebody would come along and
offer us a cabbage for it--you'd see!'
"'A cabbage! Oh, don't name it--it makes
my mouth water. Talk of things less trying.'
"'Boys,' said Carl, 'do these pictures lack
merit? Answer me that.'
"'Aren't they of very great and high merit?
Answer me that.'
"'Of such great and high merit that, if an
illustrious name were attached to them, they
would sell at splendid prices. Isn't it so?'
"'Certainly it is. Nobody doubts that.'
"'But--I'm not joking--isn't it so?'
"'Why, of course it's so--and we are not
joking. But what of it. What of it? How
does that concern us?'
"'In this way, comrades--we'll attach an
illustrious name to them!'
"The lively conversation stopped. The faces
were turned inquiringly upon Carl. What
sort of riddle might this be? Where was an
illustrious name to be borrowed? And who
was to borrow it?
"Carl sat down, and said:
"'Now, I have a perfectly serious thing to
propose. I think it is the only way to keep
us out of the almshouse, and I believe it
to be a perfectly sure way. I base this
opinion upon certain multitudinous and
long-established facts in human history.
I believe my project will make us all rich.'
"'Rich! You've lost your mind.'
"'No, I haven't.'
"'Yes, you have--you've lost your mind.
What do you call rich?'
"'A hundred thousand francs apiece.'
"'He has lost his mind. I knew it.'
"'Yes, he has. Carl, privation has been
too much for you, and--'
"'Carl, you want to take a pill and get
right to bed.'
"'Bandage him first--bandage his head,
"'No, bandage his heels; his brains have
been settling for weeks--I've noticed it.'
"'Shut up!' said Millet, with ostensible
severity, 'and let the boy have his say.
Now, then--come out with your project,
Carl. What is it?'
"'Well, then, by way of preamble I will
ask you to note this fact in human history:
that the merit of many a great artist has
never been acknowledged until after he
was starved and dead. This has happened
so often that I make bold to found a law
upon it. This law: that the merit of every
great unknown and neglected artist must
and will be recognized, and his pictures
climb to high prices after his death. My
project is this: we must cast lots--one
of us must die.'
"The remark fell so calmly and so unexpectedly
that we almost forgot to jump. Then there
was a wild chorus of advice again--medical
advice--for the help of Carl's brain; but
he waited patiently for the hilarity to
calm down, and then went on again with
"'Yes, one of us must die, to save the
others--and himself. We will cast lots.
The one chosen shall be illustrious, all
of us shall be rich. Hold still, now--hold
still; don't interrupt--I tell you I know
what I am talking about. Here is the idea.
During the next three months the one who
is to die shall paint with all his might,
enlarge his stock all he can--not pictures,
no! skeleton sketches, studies, parts of
studies, fragments of studies, a dozen
dabs of the brush on each--meaningless, of
course, but his, with his cipher on them;
turn out fifty a day, each to contain some
peculiarity or mannerism, easily detectable
as his--they're the things that sell, you
know, and are collected at fabulous prices
for the world's museums, after the great
man is gone; we'll have a ton of them
ready--a ton! And all that time the rest
of us will be busy supporting the moribund,
and working Paris and the dealers--preparations
for the coming event, you know; and when
everything is hot and just right, we'll
spring the death on them and have the
notorious funeral. You get the idea?'
"'N-o; at least, not qu--'
"'Not quite? Don't you see? The man doesn't
really die; he changes his name and vanishes;
we bury a dummy, and cry over it, with all
the world to help. And I--'
"But he wasn't allowed to finish. Everybody
broke out into a rousing hurrah of applause;
and all jumped up and capered about the room
and fell on each other's necks in transports
of gratitude and joy. For hours we talked
over the great plan, without ever feeling
hungry; and at last, when all the details
had been arranged satisfactorily, we cast
lots and Millet was elected--elected to die,
as we called it. Then we scraped together
those things which one never parts with
until he is betting them against future
wealth--keepsake trinkets and suchlike--and
these we pawned for enough to furnish us a
frugal farewell supper and breakfast, and
leave us a few francs over for travel, and
a stake of turnips and such for Millet to
live on for a few days.
"Next morning, early, the three of us cleared
out, straightway after breakfast--on foot,
of course. Each of us carried a dozen of
Millet's small pictures, purposing to market
them. Carl struck for Paris, where he would
start the work of building up Millet's fame
against the coming great day. Claude and I
were to separate, and scatter abroad over
"Now, it will surprise you to know what an
easy and comfortable thing we had. I walked
two days before I began business. Then I
began to sketch a villa in the outskirts
of a big town--because I saw the proprietor
standing on an upper veranda. He came down
to look on--I thought he would. I worked
swiftly, intending to keep him interested.
Occasionally he fired off a little ejaculation
of approbation, and by-and-by he spoke up
with enthusiasm, and said I was a master!
"I put down my brush, reached into my
satchel, fetched out a Millet, and pointed
to the cipher in the corner. I said, proudly:
"'I suppose you recognize that? Well, he
taught me! I should think I ought to know
"The man looked guiltily embarrassed, and
was silent. I said, sorrowfully:
"'You don't mean to intimate that you don't
know the cipher of Francois Millet!'
"Of course he didn't know that cipher; but
he was the gratefullest man you ever saw,
just the same, for being let out of an
uncomfortable place on such easy terms.
"'No! Why, it is Millet's, sure enough! I
don't know what I could have been thinking
of. Of course I recognize it now.'
"Next, he wanted to buy it; but I said that
although I wasn't rich I wasn't that poor.
However, at last, I let him have it for eight
"Yes. Millet would have sold it for a pork
chop. Yes, I got eight hundred francs for
that little thing. I wish I could get it
back for eighty thousand. But that time's
gone by. I made a very nice picture of that
man's house, and I wanted to offer it to him
for ten francs, but that wouldn't answer,
seeing I was the pupil of such a master,
so I sold it to him for a hundred. I sent
the eight hundred francs straight to Millet
from that town and struck out again next
"But I didn't walk--no. I rode. I have
ridden ever since. I sold one picture
every day, and never tried to sell two.
I always said to my customer:
"'I am a fool to sell a picture of Francois
Millet's at all, for that man is not going
to live three months, and when he dies his
pictures can't be had for love or money.'
"I took care to spread that little fact as
far as I could, and prepare the world for
"I take credit to myself for our plan of
selling the pictures--it was mine. I
suggested it that last evening when we
were laying out our campaign, and all
three of us agreed to give it a good
fair trial before giving it up for some
other. It succeeded with all of us. I
walked only two days, Claude walked
two--both of afraid to make Millet
celebrated too close to home--but Carl
walked only half a day, the bright,
conscienceless rascal, and after that
he travelled like a duke.
"Every now and then we got in with a
country editor and started an item
around through the press; not an item
announcing that a new painter had been
discovered, but an item which let on
that everybody knew Francois Millet;
not an item praising him in any way,
but merely a word concerning the present
condition of the 'master'--sometimes
hopeful, sometimes despondent, but always
tinged with fears for the worst. We
always marked these paragraphs, and
sent the papers to all the people who
had bought pictures of us.
"Carl was soon in Paris and he worked
things with a high hand. He made friends
with the correspondents, and got Millet's
condition reported to England and all
over the continent, and America, and
"At the end of six weeks from the start,
we three met in Paris and called a halt,
and stopped sending back to Millet for
additional pictures. The boom was so
high, and everything so ripe, that we
saw that it would be a mistake not to
strike now, right away, without waiting
any longer. So we wrote Millet to go to
bed and begin to waste away pretty fast,
for we should like him to die in ten
days if he could get ready.
"Then we figured up and found that among
us we had sold eighty-five small pictures
and studies, and had sixty-nine thousand
francs to show for it. Carl had made the
last sale and the most brilliant one of
all. He sold the 'Angelus' for twenty-two
hundred francs. How we did glorify him!--not
foreseeing that a day was coming by-and-by
when France would struggle to own it and
a stranger would capture it for five
hundred and fifty thousand, cash.
"We had a wind-up champagne supper that
night, and next day Claude and I packed
up and went off to nurse Millet through
his last days and keep busybodies out
of the house and send daily bulletins
to Carl in Paris for publication in the
papers of several continents for the
information of a waiting world. The sad
end came at last, and Carl was there in
time to help in the final mournful rites.
"You remember that great funeral, and
what a stir it made all over the globe,
and how the illustrious of two worlds
came to attend it and testify their sorrow.
We four--still inseparable--carried the
coffin, and would allow none to help.
And we were right about that, because it
hadn't anything in it but a wax figure,
and any other coffin-bearers would have
found fault with the weight. Yes, we same
old four, who had lovingly shared privation
together in the old hard times now gone
forever, carried the cof--"
"We four--for Millet helped to carry his
own coffin. In disguise, you know. Disguised
as a relative--distant relative."
"But true, just the same. Well, you remember
how the pictures went up. Money? We didn't
know what to do with it. There's a man in
Paris to-day who owns seventy Millet
pictures. He paid us two million francs for
them. And as for the bushels of sketches
and studies which Millet shoveled out
during the six weeks that we were on the
road, well, it would astonish you to know
the figure we sell them at nowadays--that
is, when we consent to let one go!"
"It is a wonderful history, perfectly
"Yes--it amounts to that."
"Whatever became of Millet?"
"Can you keep a secret?"
"Do you remember the man I called your
attention to in the dining room to-day?
That was Francois Millet."
"Scott! Yes. For once they didn't starve
a genius to death and then put into other
pockets the rewards he should have had
himself. This song-bird was not allowed
to pipe out its heart unheard and then
be paid with the cold pomp of a big
funeral. We looked out for that."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~