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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866
A Commission to the Sandwich Islands
by Paine, Albert Bigelow


Whatever his first emotions concerning the success of "Jim Smiley's Frog" may have been, the sudden astonishing leap of that batrachian into American literature gave the author an added prestige at home as well as in distant parts. Those about him were inclined to regard him, in some degree at least, as a national literary figure and to pay tribute accordingly. Special honors began to be shown to him. A fine new steamer, the Ajax, built for the Sandwich Island trade, carried on its initial trip a select party of guests of which he was invited to make one. He did not go, and reproached himself sorrowfully afterward.

If the Ajax were back I would go quick, and throw up my correspondence. She had fifty-two invited guests aboard--the cream of the town--gentlemen and ladies, and a splendid brass band. I could not accept because there would be no one to write my correspondence while I was gone.

In fact, the daily letter had grown monotonous. He was restless, and the Ajax excursion, which he had been obliged to forego, made him still more dissatisfied. An idea occurred to him: the sugar industry of the islands was a matter of great commercial interest to California, while the life and scenery there, picturesquely treated, would appeal to the general reader. He was on excellent terms with James Anthony and Paul Morrill, of the Sacramento Union; he proposed to them that they send him as their special correspondent to report to their readers, in a series of letters, life, trade, agriculture, and general aspect of the islands. To his vast delight, they gave him the commission. He wrote home joyously now:

I am to remain there a month and ransack the islands, the cataracts and volcanoes completely, and write twenty or thirty letters, for which they pay as much money as I would get if I stayed at home.

He adds that on his return he expects to start straight across the continent by way of the Columbia River, the Pend Oreille Lakes, through Montana and down the Missouri River. "Only two hundred miles of land travel from San Francisco to New Orleans."

So it is: man proposes, while fate, undisturbed, spins serenely on.

He sailed by the Ajax on her next trip, March 7 (1866), beginning his first sea voyage--a brand-new experience, during which he acquired the names of the sails and parts of the ship, with considerable knowledge of navigation, and of the islands he was to visit--whatever information passengers and sailors could furnish. It was a happy, stormy voyage altogether. In 'Roughing It' he has given us some account of it.

It was the 18th of March when he arrived at Honolulu, and his first impression of that tranquil harbor remained with him always. In fact, his whole visit there became one of those memory-pictures, full of golden sunlight and peace, to be found somewhere in every human past.

The letters of introduction he had brought, and the reputation which had preceded him, guaranteed him welcome and hospitality. Officials and private citizens were alike ready to show him their pleasant land, and he fairly reveled in its delicious air, its summer warmth, its soft repose.

Oh, islands there are on the face of the deep
Where the leaves never fade and the skies never weep,

he quotes in his note-book, and adds:

Went with Mr. Damon to his cool, vine-shaded home; no careworn or eager, anxious faces in this land of happy contentment. God, what a contrast with California and the Washoe!

And in another place:

They live in the S. I.--no rush, no worry--merchant goes down to his store like a gentleman at nine--goes home at four and thinks no more of business till next day. D--n San F. style of wearing out life.

He fitted in with the languorous island existence, but he had come for business, and he lost not much time. He found there a number of friends from Washoe, including the Rev. Mr. Rising, whose health had failed from overwork. By their direction, and under official guidance, he set out on Oahu, one of the several curious horses he has immortalized in print, and, accompanied by a pleasant party of ladies and gentlemen, encircled the island of that name, crossed it and recrossed it, visited its various battle-fields, returning to Honolulu, lame, sore, sunburnt, but triumphant. His letters home, better even than his Union correspondence, reveal his personal interest and enthusiasms.

I have got a lot of human bones which I took from one of these battle-fields. I guess I will bring you some of them. I went with the American Minister and took dinner this evening with the King's Grand Chamberlain, who is related to the royal family, and though darker than a mulatto he has an excellent English education, and in manners is an accomplished gentleman. He is to call for me in the morning; we will visit the King in the palace, After dinner they called in the "singing girls," and we had some beautiful music, sung in the native tongue.

It was his first association with royalty, and it was human that he should air it a little. In the same letter he states: "I will sail in a day or two on a tour of the other islands, to be gone two months."

'In Roughing It' he has given us a picture of his visits to the islands, their plantations, their volcanoes, their natural and historic wonders. He was an insatiable sight-seer then, and a persevering one. The very name of a new point of interest filled him with an eager enthusiasm to be off. No discomfort or risk or distance discouraged him. With a single daring companion--a man who said he could find the way--he crossed the burning floor of the mighty crater of Kilauea (then in almost constant eruption), racing across the burning lava floor, jumping wide and bottomless crevices, when a misstep would have meant death.

By and by Marlette shouted "Stop!" I never stopped quicker in my life. I asked what the matter was. He said we were out of the path. He said we must not try to go on until we found it again, for we were surrounded with beds of rotten lava, through which we could easily break and plunge down 1,000 feet. I thought Boo would answer for me, and was about to say so, when Marlette partly proved his statement, crushing through and disappearing to his arm-pits.

They made their way across at last, and stood the rest of the night gazing down upon a spectacle of a crater in quivering action, a veritable lake of fire. They had risked their lives for that scene, but it seemed worth while.

His open-air life on the river, and the mining camps, had prepared Samuel Clemens for adventurous hardships. He was thirty years old, with his full account of mental and physical capital. His growth had been slow, but he was entering now upon his golden age; he was fitted for conquest of whatever sort, and he was beginning to realize his power.

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