One must keep up one’s character. Earn a character first if you can, and if you can’t, then assume one. From the code of morals, I have been following and revising and revising for seventy-two years I remember one detail. All my life I have been honest – comparatively honest. I could never use money I had not made honestly – I could only lend it.
Last spring I met General [Nelson A.] Miles again, and he commented on the fact that we had known each other thirty years. He said it was strange that we had not met years before, when we had both been in Washington. At that point I changed the subject, and I changed it with art. But the facts are these:
I was then under contract for my Innocents Abroad, but did not have a cent to live on while I wrote it. So I went to Washington to do a little journalism. There I met an equally poor friend, William Davidson*, who had not a single vice, unless you call it a vice in a Scot to love Scotch. Together we devised the first and original newspaper syndicate, selling two letters a week to twelve newspapers and getting $1 a letter. That $24 a week would have been enough for us – if we had not had to support the jug.
But there was a day when we felt that we must have $3 right away – $3 at once. That was how I met the General. It doesn’t matter now what we wanted so much money at one time for, but that Scot and I did occasionally want it. The Scot sent me out one day to get it, He had a great belief in Providence, that Scottish friend of mine. He said: “The Lord will provide.”
I have given up trying to find money lying about, and was in a hotel lobby in despair, when I saw a beautiful unfriended dog. The dog saw me, too, and at once we became acquainted. Then General Miles came in, admired the dog, and asked me to price it. I priced it at $3, He offered me an opportunity to reconsider the value of the beautiful animal, but I refused to take more than Providence knew I needed. The General carried the dog to his room.
Then came in a sweet little middle-aged man, who at once began looking around the lobby.
“Did you lose a dog?” I asked. He said he had.
“I think I could find it,” I volunteered, “for a small sum.”
“‘How much?'”he asked. And I told him $3.
He urged me to accept more, but I did not wish to outdo Providence. Then I went to General’s room and asked for the dog back He was very angry, and wanted to know why I had sold him a dog that did not belong to me.
“That’s a singular question to ask me, sir,” I replied. “Didn’t you ask me to sell him? You started it.” And he let me have him. I gave him back his $3 and returned the dog, collect, to its owner. That second $3 I carried home to the Scot, and we enjoyed it, but the first $3 , the money I got from the General, I would have had to lend.
The General seemed not to remember my part in that adventure, and I never had the heart to tell him about it.
“General Miles and the Dog.”
Twain, Mark. Mark Twain’s Speeches. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1910. p. 394 – 396.
* Twain sometimes struggled to recall his friend William Swinton’s last name, or the transcriber struggled with it. In Twain’s December 1907 autobiographical contribution to the North American Review he referred to Swinton as “Clinton” while here he, or the person transcribing the speech, records Swinton as “Davidson.”
ED Note: The most definitive account of Twain’s relationship with Swinton in Washington is in the most recent Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 on page 280 – 281, AD 15 January 1906.
Special thanks to the good folks at the Mark Twain Project who sent along three letters Swinton sent Clemens (Twain) in the fall of 1883! In Swinton’s appeal to Twain for a contribution to a new weekly he appealed to the memory of their Washington bohemian days…