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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCLVI. Honors from Oxford
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Clemens made a brief trip to Bermuda during the winter, taking Twichell
along; their first return to the island since the trip when they had
promised to come back so soon-nearly thirty years before. They had been
comparatively young men then. They were old now, but they found the
green island as fresh and full of bloom as ever. They did not find their
old landlady; they could not even remember her name at first, and then
Twichell recalled that it was the same as an author of certain
schoolbooks in his youth, and Clemens promptly said, "Kirkham's Grammar."
Kirkham was truly the name, and they went to find her; but she was dead,
and the daughter, who had been a young girl in that earlier time, reigned
in her stead and entertained the successors of her mother's guests. They
walked and drove about the island, and it was like taking up again a
long-discontinued book and reading another chapter of the same tale. It
gave Mark Twain a fresh interest in Bermuda, one which he did not allow
to fade again.
Later in the year (March, 1907) I also made a journey; it having been
agreed that I should take a trip to the Mississippi and to the Pacific
coast to see those old friends of Mark Twain's who were so rapidly
passing away. John Briggs was still alive, and other Hannibal
schoolmates; also Joe Goodman and Steve Gillis, and a few more of the
early pioneers--all eminently worth seeing in the matter of such work as
I had in hand. The billiard games would be interrupted; but whatever
reluctance to the plan there may have been on that account was put aside
in view of prospective benefits. Clemens, in fact, seemed to derive joy
from the thought that he was commissioning a kind of personal emissary to
his old comrades, and provided me with a letter of credentials.
It was a long, successful trip that I made, and it was undertaken none
too soon. John Briggs, a gentle-hearted man, was already entering the
valley of the shadow as he talked to me by his fire one memorable
afternoon, and reviewed the pranks of those days along the river and in
the cave and on Holliday's Hill. I think it was six weeks later that he
died; and there were others of that scattering procession who did not
reach the end of the year. Joe Goodman, still full of vigor (in 1912),
journeyed with me to the green and dreamy solitudes of Jackass Hill to
see Steve and Jim Gillis, and that was an unforgetable Sunday when Steve
Gillis, an invalid, but with the fire still in his eyes and speech, sat
up on his couch in his little cabin in that Arcadian stillness and told
old tales and adventures. When I left he said:
"Tell Sam I'm going to die pretty soon, but that I love him; that I've
loved him all my life, and I'll love him till I die. This is the last
word I'll ever send to him." Jim Gillis, down in Sonora, was already
lying at the point of death, and so for him the visit was too late,
though he was able to receive a message from his ancient mining partner,
and to send back a parting word.
I returned by way of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, for I wished
to follow that abandoned water highway, and to visit its presiding
genius, Horace Bixby,--[He died August 2, 1912, at the age of 86]--still
alive and in service as pilot of the government snagboat, his
headquarters at St. Louis.
Coming up the river on one of the old passenger steam boats that still
exist, I noticed in a paper which came aboard that Mark Twain was to
receive from Oxford University the literary doctor's degree. There had
been no hint of this when I came away, and it seemed rather too sudden
and too good to be true. That the little barefoot lad that had played
along the river-banks at Hannibal, and received such meager advantages in
the way of schooling--whose highest ambition had been to pilot such a
craft as this one--was about to be crowned by the world's greatest
institution of learning, to receive the highest recognition for
achievement in the world of letters, was a thing which would not be
likely to happen outside of a fairy tale.
Returning to New York, I ran out to Tuxedo, where he had taken a home for
the summer (for it was already May), and walking along the shaded paths
of that beautiful suburban park, he told me what he knew of the Oxford
Moberly Bell, of the London Times, had been over in April, and soon after
his return to England there had come word of the proposed honor. Clemens
privately and openly (to Bell) attributed it largely to his influence.
He wrote to him:
DEAR MR. BELL,--Your hand is in it & you have my best thanks.
Although I wouldn't cross an ocean again for the price of the ship
that carried me I am glad to do it for an Oxford degree. I shall
plan to sail for England a shade before the middle of June, so that
I can have a few days in London before the 26th.
A day or two later, when the time for sailing had been arranged, he
overtook his letter with a cable:
I perceive your hand in it. You have my best thanks. Sail on
Minneapolis June 8th. Due in Southampton ten days later.
Clemens said that his first word of the matter had been a newspaper
cablegram, and that he had been doubtful concerning it until a cablegram
to himself had confirmed it.
"I never expected to cross the water again," he said; "but I would be
willing to journey to Mars for that Oxford degree."
He put the matter aside then, and fell to talking of Jim Gillis and the
others I had visited, dwelling especially on Gillis's astonishing faculty
for improvising romances, recalling how he had stood with his back to the
fire weaving his endless, grotesque yarns, with no other guide than his
fancy. It was a long, happy walk we had, though rather a sad one in its
memories; and he seemed that day, in a sense, to close the gate of those
early scenes behind him, for he seldom referred to them afterward.
He was back at 21 Fifth Avenue presently, arranging for his voyage.
Meantime, cable invitations of every sort were pouring in, from this and
that society and dignitary; invitations to dinners and ceremonials, and
what not, and it was clear enough that his English sojourn was to be a
busy one. He had hoped to avoid this, and began by declining all but two
invitations--a dinner-party given by Ambassador Whitelaw Reid and a
luncheon proposed by the "Pilgrims." But it became clear that this
would not do. England was not going to confer its greatest collegiate
honor without being permitted to pay its wider and more popular tribute.
Clemens engaged a special secretary for the trip--Mr. Ralph W. Ashcroft,
a young Englishman familiar with London life. They sailed on the 8th of
June, by a curious coincidence exactly forty years from the day he had
sailed on the Quaker City to win his great fame. I went with him to the
ship. His first elation had passed by this time, and he seemed a little
sad, remembering, I think, the wife who would have enjoyed this honor
with him but could not share it now.