The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

XVI. The Pilot

For Samuel Clemens these were happy days–the happiest, in some respects, he would ever know. He had plenty of money now. He could help his mother with a liberal hand, and could put away fully a hundred dollars a month for himself. He had few cares, and he loved the ease and romance and independence of his work as he would never quite love anything again.

His popularity on the river was very great. His humorous stories and quaint speech made a crowd collect wherever he appeared. There were pilot-association rooms in St. Louis and New Orleans, and his appearance at one of these places was a signal for the members to gather.

A friend of those days writes: “He was much given to spinning yarns so funny that his hearers were convulsed, and yet all the time his own face was perfectly sober. Occasionally some of his droll yarns got into the papers. He may have written them himself.”

Another old river-man remembers how, one day, at the association, they were talking of presence of mind in an accident, when Pilot Clemens said:

“Boys, I had great presence of mind once. It was at a fire. An old man leaned out of a four-story building, calling for help. Everybody in the crowd below looked up, but nobody did anything. The ladders weren’t long enough. Nobody had any presence of mind–nobody but me. I came to the rescue. I yelled for a rope. When it came I threw the old man the end of it. He caught it, and I told him to tie it around his waist. He did so, and I pulled him down.”

This was a story that found its way into print, probably his own contribution.

“Sam was always scribbling when not at the wheel,” said Bixby, “but the best thing he ever did was the burlesque of old Isaiah Sellers. He didn’t write it for print, but only for his own amusement and to show to a few of the boys. Bart Bowen, who was with him on the “Edward J. Gay" at the time, got hold of it, and gave it to one of the New Orleans papers.”

The burlesque on Captain Sellers would be of little importance if it were not for its association with the origin, or, at least, with the originator, of what is probably the best known of literary names–the name Mark Twain.

This strong, happy title–a river term indicating a depth of two fathoms on the sounding-line–was first used by the old pilot, Isaiah Sellers, who was a sort of “oldest inhabitant” of the river, with a passion for airing his ancient knowledge before the younger men. Sellers used to send paragraphs to the papers, quaint and rather egotistical in tone, usually beginning, “My opinion for the citizens of New Orleans,” etc., prophesying river conditions and recalling memories as far back as 1811. These he generally signed “Mark Twain.”

Naturally, the younger pilots amused themselves by imitating Sellers, and when Sam Clemens wrote abroad burlesque of the old man’s contributions, relating a perfectly impossible trip, supposed to have been made in 1763 with a Chinese captain and a Choctaw crew, it was regarded as a masterpiece of wit.

It appeared in the “True Delta” in May, 1859, and broke Captain Sellers’s literary heart. He never wrote another paragraph. Clemens always regretted the whole matter deeply, and his own revival of the name afterward was a sort of tribute to the old man he had thoughtlessly and unintentionally wounded.

Old pilots of that day remembered Samuel Clemens as a slender, fine- looking man, well dressed, even dandified, generally wearing blue serge, with fancy shirts, white duck trousers, and patent-leather shoes. A pilot could do that, for his surroundings were speckless.

The pilots regarded him as a great reader–a student of history, travels, and the sciences. In the association rooms they often saw him poring over serious books. He began the study of French one day in New Orleans, when he had passed a school of languages where French, German, and Italian were taught, one in each of three rooms. The price vas twenty- five dollars for one language, or three for fifty. The student was provided with a set of conversation cards for each, and was supposed to walk from one apartment to another, changing his nationality at each threshold. The young pilot, with his usual enthusiasm, invested in all three languages, but after a few round trips decided that French would do. He did not return to the school, but kept the cards and added text- books. He studied faithfully when off watch and in port, and his old river note-book, still preserved, contains a number of advanced exercises, neatly written out.

Still more interesting are the river notes themselves. They are not the timid, hesitating memoranda of the “little book” which, by Bixby’s advice, he bought for his first trip. They are quick, vigorous records that show confidence and knowledge. Under the head of “Second high-water trip–Jan., 1861 ’Alonzo Child,’” the notes tell the story of a rising river, with overflowing banks, blind passages, and cut-offs–a new river, in fact, that must be judged by a perfect knowledge of the old–guessed, but guessed right.

Good deal of water all over Cole’s Creek Chute, 12 or 15 ft. bank–could have gone up above General Taylor’s–too much drift . . . .

Night–didn’t run either 77 or 76 towheads–8-ft. bank on main shore Ozark chute.

To the reader to-day it means little enough, but one may imagine, perhaps, a mile-wide sweep of boiling water, full of drift, shifting currents with newly forming bars, and a lone figure in the dark pilot- house, peering into the night for blind and disappearing landmarks.

But such nights were not all there was of piloting. There were glorious nights when the stars were blazing out, and the moon was on the water, and the young pilot could follow a clear channel and dream long dreams. He was very serious at such times–he reviewed the world’s history he had read, he speculated on the future, he considered philosophies, he lost himself in a study of the stars. Mark Twain’s love of astronomy, which never waned until his last day, began with those lonely river watches. Once a great comet blazed in the sky, a “wonderful sheaf of light,” and glorified his long hours at the wheel.

Samuel Clemens was now twenty-five, full of health and strong in his courage. In the old notebook there remains a well-worn clipping, the words of some unknown writer, which he may have kept as a sort of creed:

HOW TO TAKE LIFE.–Take it just as though it was–as it is–an earnest, vital, and important affair. Take it as though you were born to the task of performing a merry part in it–as though the world had awaited for your coming. Take it as though it was a grand opportunity to do and achieve, to carry forward great and good schemes to help and cheer a suffering, weary, it may be heartbroken, brother. Now and then a man stands aside from the crowd, labors earnestly, steadfastly, confidently, and straightway becomes famous for wisdom, intellect, skill, greatness of some sort. The world wonders, admires, idolizes, and it only illustrates what others may do if they take hold of life with a purpose. The miracle, or the power that elevates the few, is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the promptings of a brave, determined spirit.

Bixby and Clemens were together that winter on the “Child,” and were the closest friends. Once the young pilot invited his mother to make the trip to New Orleans, and the river journey and a long drive about the beautiful Southern city filled Jane Clemens with wonder and delight. She no longer shad any doubts of Sam. He had long since become the head of the family. She felt called upon to lecture him, now and then, but down in her heart she believed that he could really do no wrong. They joked each other unmercifully, and her wit, never at a loss, was quite as keen as his.


Preface  •  I. The Family of John Clemens  •  II. The New Home, and Uncle John Quarles’s Farm  •  IV. Education Out of School  •  V. Tom Sawyer and His Band  •  VI. Closing School-Days  •  VII. The Apprentice  •  VIII. Orion’s Paper  •  IX. The Open Road  •  X. A Wind of Chance  •  XI. The Long Way to the Amazon  •  XII. Renewing an Old Ambition  •  XIII. Learning the River  •  XIV. River Days  •  XV. The Wreck of the “Pennsylvania”  •  XVI. The Pilot  •  XVII. The End of Piloting  •  XVIII. The Soldier  •  XIX. The Pioneer  •  XX. The Miner  •  XXI. The Territorial Enterprise  •  XXII. “Mark Twain”  •  XXIII. Artemus Ward and Literary San Francisco  •  XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”  •  XXV. Hawaii and Anson Burlingame  •  XXVI. Mark Twain, Lecturer  •  XXVII. An Innocent Abroad, and Home Again  •  XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”  •  XXIX. The Visit to Elmira and Its Consequences  •  XXX. The New Book and a Wedding  •  XXXI. Mark Twain in Buffalo  •  XXXII. At Work on “Roughing It”  •  XXXIII. In England  •  XXXIV. A New Book and New English Triumphs  •  XXXV. Beginning “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVI. The New Home  •  XXXVII. “Old Times,” “Sketches,” And “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVIII. Home Pictures  •  XXXIX. Tramping Abroad  •  XL. “The Prince and the Pauper”  •  XLI. General Grant at Hartford  •  XLII. Many Investments  •  XLIII. Back to the River, With Bixby  •  XLIV. A Reading-Tour With Cable  •  XLV. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  •  XLVI. Publisher to General Grant  •  XLVII. The High-Tide of Fortune  •  XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things  •  XLIX. Kipling at Elmira. Elsie Leslie. The “Yankee”  •  L. The Machine. Good-By to Hartford. “Joan” Is Begun  •  LI. The Failure of Webster & Co. Around the World. Sorrow  •  LII. European Economies  •  LIII. Mark Twain Pays His Debts  •  LIV. Return After Exile  •  LV. A Prophet At Home  •  LVI. Honored by Missouri  •  LVII. The Close of a Beautiful Life  •  LVIII. Mark Twain at Seventy  •  LIX. Mark Twain Arranges for His Biography  •  LX. Working With Mark Twain  •  LXI. Dictations at Dublin, N. H.  •  LXII. A New Era of Billiards  •  LXIII. Living With Mark Twain  •  LXIV. A Degree From Oxford  •  LXV. The Removal to Redding  •  LXVI. Life at Stormfield  •  LXVII. The Death of Jean  •  LXVIII. Days in Bermuda  •  LXIX. The Return to Redding  •  LXX. The Close of a Great Life

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The boys' life of Mark Twain: The story of a man who made the world laugh and love him
By Albert Bigelow Paine
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