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 Magnan.'
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 fro
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 parlour 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 a 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
'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 weathers.
'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 starving—Francois
'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 and then!
'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 paid up."
'This struck us as cold. Every face was blank with dismay. We realised
that our circumstances were desperate, now. There was a long silence.
Finally, Millet said with a sigh:
'"Nothing occurs to me—nothing. Suggest something, lads."
'There was no response, unless a mournful silence may be called a
response. Carl got up, and walked nervously up and down a while, then
'"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 that,
'"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
'"I? I wish somebody would come along and offer us a cabbage for it—you'd
'"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
'"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, and then—"
'"No, bandage his heels; his brains have been settling for weeks—I've
'"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 recognised 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 his project:
'"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
'"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 name against the coming great
day. Claude and I were to separate, and scatter abroad over France.
'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 recognise that? Well, he taught me! I should think I ought
to know my trade!"
'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
'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. He said:
'"No! Why, it is Millet's, sure enough! I don't know what I could have
been thinking of. Of course I recognise 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 hundred
'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 day.
'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
'"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 the event.
'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 everywhere.
'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
'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 for ever, carried
'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 shovelled 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 wonderful!'
'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.'