Excerpt: Where the Light Enters

January 1, 1884

Dear Auntie, Dear every one of you,

The Swiss greet each other on New Year’s Eve with this saying: ‘Rutscht gut rein ins neue Jahr!’ If I understand correctly this means ‘I wish you a good slide into the New Year,’ which I suppose makes sense, given the snow and the mountains and the amount of Schnapps consumed during New Year’s Eve celebrations.  For some reason no one can explain, pigs are considered good luck at the New Year, and thus this small offering in India ink rather than pink marzipan.

Aunt Quinlan is not, I trust, sliding anywhere, but sitting snug in the parlor wrapped in the blue shawl that brings out the color of her eyes, with the rest of you gathered all around. How we would like to be there with you to wish you good health and happiness in this new year 1884. With all my heart I wish those things for you.

Cap was especially sad to miss Mrs. Lee’s traditional New Year’s Eve turkey dinner. Apparently that particular bird is unknown in the Alps. But do not fear: we are served good food in abundance. Mrs. Fink is not quite so talented as Mrs. Lee, but still we are eating regularly and very well.

All is calm just now, as Cap is napping. Pip is tucked up against Cap’s shoulder with his nose pressed against the pulse point just below the left ear, an attentive little dog with the instincts of a nurse. This means that I have a short while to write without pauses for cross examination.

Do you remember how Cap told us he wouldn’t miss practicing law? As it turns out, he could only make that claim because he knew he would still have me to practice on. Whatever I write, to whomever I am writing, if I don’t send it off to the post before he realizes what I am up to, he insists that I read every sentence to him. His contribution to my letters consists of suggestions for alternate phrasing and, on occasion, challenges to my reasoning, memory or grammar. More than once I have been tempted to throw the ink pot at his head (this seems to be a family tradition, established by Aunt Quinlan shortly before her first marriage when she hit Uncle Ballentyne in the forehead with some kind of pot, if I remember the story correctly). Fortunately Cap always stops just short of inciting me to violence. And then he finds some way to make me laugh.

We might have known that a stay in a sanatorium, no matter how secluded and hemmed in by alpine glaciers, would not put an end to his curiosity. Even the mycobacterium tuberculosis bacillus has not accomplished so much. He is still working his way through the clinic’s medical library and every publication that deals, however peripherally, with diseases of the lung. At this point I believe he knows as much about tuberculosis as I do. Luckily Dr. Zängerle is better informed than I.

If Cap is not strong enough on a given day to hold a book, I am pressed into reading aloud. Even when he can read and write for himself, my assistance is required for interrogation on medical terminology (though that happens less often as his studies progress). This often involves forays into Latin and Greek etymology and anatomical texts and illustrations. His lungs are failing but his mind is as acute as ever.

Your letter dated December 9th arrived this morning, taken down so diligently by Mrs. Lee in her careful script. Today we also had a letter from Conrad about the custody hearing. The news is distressing, to say the least. If only I had something useful to say or contribute beyond the letters I write. Until there is some decision from the court I will assume that things will take a reasonable and just end, and the children will stay on Waverly Place with Anna and Jack, where they belong.

I’m sorry to say that my weekly report on Cap’s condition is also not what I would hope. A few days ago his right lung collapsed. In an otherwise healthy person, a collapsed lung will often right itself in time, with bed rest and breathing exercises. In advanced pulmonary tuberculosis it is quite common, far more critical, and rarely resolved. In Cap’s case the collapse was not fatal because Dr. Zängerle was so quick. With Dr. Messmer’s assistance he inserted a drainage tube between Cap’s ribs and into the pleura, with the end result that his lung did re-inflate. The tube remains in place despite the fact that there are serious complications that could arise from this artificial opening, but as you are aware, medical science is an exercise in constant juggling of risks and benefits.

What all this means, as I think you will know, is that he is not improving. I can admit to you that I never believed that alpine air and fortified nutrition would reverse the damage to his lungs, but I did hope that it would slow the progress of the disease. As it may have done. In any case, I am where I belong, here with him. He will leave me too soon, but until that day I will make the most of every moment.

Cap is stirring. It is a relief when he is able to fall into a deep sleep; for that short time he looks more like the boy I first met when I came to Waverly Place almost twenty years ago. He was so alive, I could never have imagined him like this. Now I must close this letter before he demands that I read it to him.

With all my love and affection your devoted niece, cousin, auntie and friend  



Post Script: We have had a letter from Margaret, who is in Greece with her boys. Travel does seem to suit her very well.  There was also a long letter from Lucy, with news of her latest adventures.

Post Script for Mrs. Lee:  The sight of your handwriting on an envelope gives us both such pleasure. Most of all we look forward to the small notes and observations you provide in the margins. It is almost like hearing your voice, which might be the thing I miss most. Please give our love to Mr. Lee and your family.

And for Lia: To answer the question added to the end of Auntie Q’s last letter, yes, the housekeeper’s name really is Hannelore Fink. In German ‘fink’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it does in English.

Mark Twain on April Fool’s Day 1885

From PUCK. 23 December 1885.

I came across a newspaper article today while researching plot notes: MARK TWAIN IN A RAGE. THE VICTIM OF AN APRIL FOOL JOKE.

Pranks were popular in the 19th century, but it’s rare that you come across one described. Certainly not in this kind of detail.  I have edited this for length.  

It’s not surprising that Mark Twain was a curmudgeon about autographs.  I imagine him glaring at anybody so bold as to ask. 

Also of possible interest: I often find the best names in this kind of news report. Bloodgood Cutter, for example. I doubt even Rowling could top that one.

APRIL 4, 1884. 
Special Dispatch to The Times. Hartford, April 3.
Mark Twain, ot this city, has been made the victim of a practical Joke and is fairly crazy. Tuesday morning, April Fools’ Day, he was surprised to receive a bundle of over one hundred letters by mail and later on that day received three hundred more, and up to last night had over a bushel of them scattered on a billiard table table at his home. Every letter asked the humorist for his autograph.
It seems that the Joke originated In the brain of George W. Cable, the novelist. Knowing that the particular abhorrence of Mr. Clemens was the autograph collector and that of all things detestable in this world the great humorist most detested being pestered for his signature, Mr. Cable conceived the Idea of a simultaneous attack on Mark and sent to one hundred and fifty of the [Twain’s] friends a circular requesting each of them to forward to the eminent wit on the 31st of March the most supplicatory request for his autograph they could concoct.
In addition to the communications of T. B. Aldrich and H. C. Bunner letters of a similar sort were forwarded by Richard W. Gilder, of the Century, George Cary Eggleston, Lawrence Hutton, Julian Hawthorne, Robert M. Johnson, James R. Osgood, M. W. Drake and scores of other well-known men of letters. To say that Twain was wild is putting it mildly.
The story was too good to be kept, however, and today It was on the lips of everyone. Some even went so far as to positively affirm that Mr. Clemens had actually challenged Mr. Cable to a duel and also several of the others, but such is not fact. The victim has taken a more cold-blooded view of the matter and now proposes to have a number of the letters published, hoping thereby to bring ridicule on the heads of the Jokers.
The following are a few of specimens received.
  • John Hay writes Irom Cleveland. He wants Mark Twain to take a leisure hour or two and copy for him a few hundred lines of “Young’s Night Thoughts” and an equal amount from Pollock’s ” Course of Time.”
  • Clara Louise Kellogg sends a dainty note from the Clarendon Hotel, New York, asking for an autograph, and Clara’s mother writes that she is really suffering for one.
  • Henry Irving sends a typical letter from the Brevoort House, saying; “The possession of an autograph of my dear Mark Twain is a matter of life and death wllh me.
  • Ellen Terry’s application is brief and to the point. She asks: “Will youn write your name for me?”
  • Napoleon Sarony writes over the dash of the pen that X X he calls his trademark.
  •  Edmund Clarence Stedman’s letter Is a good burlesque of the average school girl who fills In her spare time in writing to noted people for their autographs. Many of the words are underscored and sugar  Mr. Clemens with such sentences as: “My favorite American author” and “your well – known kindness.” Mr. Stedman not only solicits both kinds of Mr. Clemens’ signature,  but wants a sentiment in his handwriting or a few pages from “Roughing It,” “The Prince Abroad,” or “The Innocents and the Pauper.”
  • H. C. Bunner, of Pack, wants an autograph for his two weeks old granddaughter, adding: “The little Innocent abroad in this strange world of ours will value your gift when she is old enough to appreciate it.”
  • Joe Howard, Jr., recalls meeting meeting Mr. Clemens twenty – four years ago In front of the New York City Hall and then makes an appeal for the autograph.
  • Thomas W. Knox’s request comes from the Lotos Club. He has a royal commission from the King of Slam for autographs for the King’s two hundred and fifty-eight children. Colonel Knox suggests that the order had better be billed for three hundred, as the King’s family is increasing.
  • Stephen Fiske wants a Mark Twain autograph for a friend who is going abroad who wishes to take It along as a mascot, and Mrs. Fiske modestly spells the name “Clements” and solicits one hundred and sixty autographs for a church fair booth.
  • Henry Ward Beecher starts his missive by mentioning that he Is a very curmudgeon about answering autograph letters. Mr. Beecher sends a gilt  edged card with a formal demand for an autograph.
  • R. W. Johnson, of the Century, applies by postal card as follows: “Could you let me have an autograph for a lame boy whose mother has interested him in things spiritual by encouraging him to make an autograph collection to be rallied for at a fair, the proceeds to go to the Society for the Suppression of the Toy Pistol ?”
  • Bloodgood H. Cutter, the Long Island farmer-poet, makes his request in very poor rhyme.
  • Frank Jenkins, writing on University Club paper, wants to secure enough Clemens autographs to start out seven daughters as autograph fiends.
  • Marshal Kinney, of Hartford, wants one at the bottom of a check.  


This weblog first got going in 2003. For many years I posted at least once a day, usually on writing and craft themes, but I also reviewed novels and movies and did some autobiographical writing. Traffic here was lively for quite a long time.

Maybe five years ago now I started to slow down, in an effort to cut back on my wondrous collection of procrastination techniques. Now I rarely post here. If there’s news about a reading or new publication, I put that up on FaceBook, where I have two focal points: my own page, under Rosina Lippi, where I post about my personal life and politics, and the Sara Donati page, which is mostly about my work, the novels, writing advice.  On the Sara page I try to avoid the political, and mostly succeed. There is also the website for the Gilded Hour and its sequel. That’s where I am trying to collect all the research and bits and pieces that go into the novels set in Manhattan in the 1880s. 

Because this weblog is so old, it is cranky. There are lots of small problems and bigger problems that can’t really be fixed because it’s arthritic. After some thought, I’ve decided not to close it, but to streamline. What I hope to achieve is a collection of posts written between 2003 and now that people have found useful or interesting or funny.  I will keep any post that deals with writing and craft questions for writing fiction, and I will keep the memoir series. But otherwise, a lot of slashing and burning will be going on. 

This will take me a while to pull off, but before I get started I wanted to give my constant readers a chance to voice their thoughts and opinions. Some of you have really been here since 2003, and if there’s something you’d like to see me keep, I’d like to hear about that. 

Once I get started I will take down the weblog while I hack away at it, but I will keep all y’all updated via the Sara page on FaceBook

One of the problems I hope to fix by doing this has to do with commenting. You may be able to comment on this post, or gremlins may thwart you. I will cross post this to the Sara Donati page on FaceBook, where you are also free to make your opinions heard. If you have any, of course.