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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
LII. 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
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.