Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

1907-1910

Chapter CCLVI

Honors from Oxford

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, 179 still alive and in service as pilot of the government snagboat, his headquarters at St. Louis.

179 [He died August 2, 1912, at the age of 86]

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 matter.

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.

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