Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XVII

The Hannibal “Journal”

Orion returned from St. Louis. He felt that he was needed in Hannibal and, while wages there were lower, his expenses at home were slight; there was more real return for the family fund. His sister Pamela was teaching a class in Hannibal at this time. Orion was surprised when his mother and sister greeted him with kisses and tears. Any outward display of affection was new to him.

The family had moved back across the street by this time. With Sam supporting himself, the earnings of Orion and Pamela provided at least a semblance of comfort. But Orion was not satisfied. Then, as always, he had a variety of vague ambitions. Oratory appealed to him, and he delivered a temperance lecture with an accompaniment of music, supplied chiefly by Pamela. He aspired to the study of law, a recurring inclination throughout his career. He also thought of the ministry, an ambition which Sam shared with him for a time. Every mischievous boy has it, sooner or later, though not all for the same reasons.

“It was the most earnest ambition I ever had,” Mark Twain once remarked, thoughtfully. “Not that I ever really wanted to be a preacher, but because it never occurred to me that a preacher could be damned. It looked like a safe job.”

A periodical ambition of Orion’s was to own and conduct a paper in Hannibal. He felt that in such a position he might become a power in Western journalism. Once his father had considered buying the Hannibal Journal to give Orion a chance, and possibly to further his own political ambitions. Now Orion considered it for himself. The paper was for sale under a mortgage, and he was enabled to borrow the $500 which would secure ownership. Sam’s two years at Ament’s were now complete, and Orion induced him to take employment on the Journal. Henry at eleven was taken out of school to learn typesetting.

Orion was a gentle, accommodating soul, but he lacked force and independence.

“I followed all the advice I received,” he says in his record. “If two or more persons conflicted with each other, I adopted the views of the last.”

He started full of enthusiasm. He worked like a slave to save help: wrote his own editorials, and made his literary selections at night. The others worked too. Orion gave them hard tasks and long hours. He had the feeling that the paper meant fortune or failure to them all; that all must labor without stint. In his usual self-accusing way he wrote afterward:

I was tyrannical and unjust to Sam. He was as swift and as clean as a good journeyman. I gave him tasks, and if he got through well I begrudged him the time and made him work more. He set a clean proof, and Henry a very dirty one. The correcting was left to be done in the form the day before publication. Once we were kept late, and Sam complained with tears of bitterness that he was held till midnight on Henry’s dirty proofs.

Orion did not realize any injustice at the time. The game was too desperate to be played tenderly. His first editorials were so brilliant that it was not believed he could have written them. The paper throughout was excellent, and seemed on the high road to success. But the pace was too hard to maintain. Overwork brought weariness, and Orion’s enthusiasm, never a very stable quantity, grew feeble. He became still more exacting.

It is not to be supposed that Sam Clemens had given up all amusements to become merely a toiling drudge or had conquered in any large degree his natural taste for amusement. He had become more studious; but after the long, hard days in the office it was not to be expected that a boy of fifteen would employ the evening — at least not every evening — in reading beneficial books. The river was always near at hand — for swimming in the summer and skating in the winter — and once even at this late period it came near claiming a heavy tribute. That was one winter’s night when with another boy he had skated until nearly midnight. They were about in the middle of the river when they heard a terrific and grinding noise near the shore. They knew what it was. The ice was breaking up, and they set out for home forthwith. It was moonlight, and they could tell the ice from the water, which was a good thing, for there were wide cracks toward the shore, and they had to wait for these to close. They were an hour making the trip, and just before they reached the bank they came to a broad space of water. The ice was lifting and falling and crunching all around them. They waited as long as they dared and decided to leap from cake to cake. Sam made the crossing without accident, but his companion slipped in when a few feet from shore. He was a good swimmer and landed safely, but the bath probably cost him his hearing. He was taken very ill. One disease followed another, ending with scarlet fever and deafness.

There was also entertainment in the office itself. A country boy named Jim Wolfe had come to learn the trade — a green, good-natured, bashful boy. In every trade tricks are played on the new apprentice, and Sam felt that it was his turn to play them. With John Briggs to help him, tortures for Jim Wolfe were invented and applied.

They taught him to paddle a canoe, and upset him. They took him sniping at night and left him “holding the bag” in the old traditional fashion while they slipped off home and went to bed.

But Jim Wolfe’s masterpiece of entertainment was one which he undertook on his own account. Pamela was having a candy-pull down-stairs one night — a grown-up candy-pull to which the boys were not expected. Jim would not have gone, anyway, for he was bashful beyond belief, and always dumb, and even pale with fear, in the presence of pretty Pamela Clemens. Up in their room the boys could hear the merriment from below and could look out in the moonlight on the snowy sloping roof that began just beneath their window. Down at the eaves was the small arbor, green in summer, but covered now with dead vines and snow. They could hear the candymakers come out, now and then, doubtless setting out pans of candy to cool. By and by the whole party seemed to come out into the little arbor, to try the candy, perhaps the joking and laughter came plainly to the boys up-stairs. About this time there appeared on the roof from somewhere two disreputable cats, who set up a most disturbing duel of charge and recrimination. Jim detested the noise, and perhaps was gallant enough to think it would disturb the party. He had nothing to throw at them, but he said:

“For two cents I’d get out there and knock their heads off.”

“You wouldn’t dare to do it,” Sam said, purringly.

This was wormwood to Jim. He was really a brave spirit.

“I would too,” he said, “and I will if you say that again.”

“Why, Jim, of course you wouldn’t dare to go out there. You might catch cold.”

“You wait and see,” said Jim Wolfe.

He grabbed a pair of yarn stockings for his feet, raised the window, and crept out on the snowy roof. There was a crust of ice on the snow, but Jim jabbed his heels through it and stood up in the moonlight, his legs bare, his single garment flapping gently in the light winter breeze. Then he started slowly toward the cats, sinking his heels in the snow each time for a footing, a piece of lath in his hand. The cats were on the corner of the roof above the arbor, and Jim cautiously worked his way in that direction. The roof was not very steep. He was doing well enough until he came to a place where the snow had melted until it was nearly solid ice. He was so intent on the cats that he did not notice this, and when he struck his heel down to break the crust nothing yielded. A second later Jim’s feet had shot out from under him, and he vaulted like an avalanche down the icy roof out on the little vine-clad arbor, and went crashing through among those candypullers, gathered there with their pans of cooling taffy. There were wild shrieks and a general flight. Neither Jim nor Sam ever knew how he got back to their room, but Jim was overcome with the enormity of his offense, while Sam was in an agony of laughter.

“You did it splendidly, Jim,” he drawled, when he could speak. “Nobody could have done it better; and did you see how those cats got out of there? I never had any idea when you started that you meant to do it that way. And it was such a surprise to the folks down-stairs. How did you ever think of it?”

It was a fearful ordeal for a boy like Jim Wolfe, but he stuck to his place in spite of what he must have suffered. The boys made him one of them soon after that. His initiation was thought to be complete.

An account of Jim Wolfe and the cats was the first original story Mark Twain ever told. He told it next day, which was Sunday, to Jimmy McDaniel, the baker’s son, as they sat looking out over the river, eating gingerbread. His hearer laughed immoderately, and the story-teller was proud and happy in his success.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05