I received a note from him at the time of his last visit to the United States, in which he said that a friend from the western part of the country was giving him a dinner at Delmonico's to precede his sailing in the early morning on his voyage home. The company was to be large and all good friends, and he had the positive assurance that there would be no speaking, and wished I would come.
The dinner was everything that could be desired. The company was a wonderful one of distinguished representatives of American life. The hours passed along rapidly and joyously, as many of these original men contributed story, racy adventure, or song.
Suddenly the host arose and said: "Gentlemen, we have with us to-night--" Of course, that meant an introductory speech about Irving and a reply from the guest. Irving turned to me, and in his deepest and most tragic Macbeth voice said: "God damn his soul to hell!" However, he rose to the occasion, and an hour or so afterwards, when everybody else had spoken, not satisfied with his first effort, he arose and made a much better and longer speech. He was an admirable after-dinner speaker as well as an unusual actor. His wonderful presentations, not only of Shakespeare's but of other dramas, did very much for the stage both in his own country and in ours.
Those who heard him only in his last year had no conception of him in his prime. In his later years he fell into the fault, so common with public speakers and actors, of running words together and failing to articulate clearly. I have known a fine speech and a superior sermon and a great part in a play ruined because of the failure to articulate clearly. The audience could not follow the speaker and so lost interest.
Sir Henry told me a delightful story about Disraeli. A young relative of Irving's took orders and became a clergyman in the Established Church. At the request of Irving, Disraeli appointed this young man one of the curates at Windsor.
One day the clergyman came to Irving in great distress and said: "The unexpected has happened. Every one has dropped out, and I have been ordered to preach on Sunday."
Irving took him to see Disraeli for advice. The prime minister said to the young clergyman: "If you preach thirty minutes, Her Majesty will be bored. If you preach fifteen minutes, Her Majesty will be pleased. If you preach ten minutes, Her Majesty will be delighted."
"But," said the young clergyman, "my lord, what can a preacher possibly say in only ten minutes?"