Clemens defends the moral rectitude of telling the occasional white lie. A fine letter concerning his story, "Was it Heaven? Or Hell?" that appeared the previous month in the Christmas issue of Harper's Magazine. The premise of the tale is that the sin of lying is excusable under certain circumstances. At the end of the story the reader is left not knowing "the angel of the Lord's" decision regarding the eventual destination of the liars, the last sentence being: "Was it Heaven? Or Hell?"
Here Clemens defends his story by recalling a real-life experience within his own family: "Yes, I know—as do you, and many others—but there are thousand upon thousand who believe they know that the answer was the other one. Thousands! — indeed three are several millions of them. And they would be prompt to say, too, that in excusing the lying done in that tale I brought a judgment upon myself [i.e., the serious illnesses plaguing his family]. The story was published on Xmas Day. On that day my wife had been lying feeble & helpless in bed nearly 5 months, & it has been 3 months since I or any one except a daughter [Clara], the doctor, and a trained nurse had seen her face; on that Xmas Day my other daughter [Jean] was lying near to death in a remote part of the house, (pneumonia) [careted in], and the diligent lying of the tale as going on! The mother [Livy] does not suspect that for three weeks there has been another trained nurse in the house. She thinks Jean (the sick daughter) is having fine times outside with the neighboring young people, skating, skeeing, tobogganing—the other daughter gives her a full account of it every day. ... Yesterday she [Livy] spoke of a play, and said 'Send miss Lyon with Jean to the matinee tomorrow.' I came very near saying 'Why, Jean can hardly sit up in bed, yet' — but I caught myself in time and gave the promise."
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