Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXCII

“Following the Equator”

Mark Twain himself has written with great fulness the story of that traveling — setting down what happened, and mainly as it happened, with all the wonderful description, charm, and color of which he was so great a master. We need do little more than summarize then — adding a touch here and there, perhaps, from another point of view.

They had expected to stop at the Sandwich Islands, but when they arrived in the roadstead of Honolulu, word came that cholera had broken out and many were dying daily. They could not land. It was a double disappointment; not only were the lectures lost, but Clemens had long looked forward to revisiting the islands he had so loved in the days of his youth. There was nothing for them to do but to sit on the decks in the shade of the awnings and look at the distant shore. In his book he says:

We lay in luminous blue water; shoreward the water was green-green and brilliant; at the shore itself it broke in a long, white ruffle, and with no crash, no sound that we could hear. The town was buried under a mat of foliage that looked like a cushion of moss. The silky mountains were clothed in soft, rich splendors of melting color, and some of the cliffs were veiled in slanting mists. I recognized it all. It was just as I had seen it long before, with nothing of its beauty lost, nothing of its charm wanting.

In his note-book he wrote: “If I might, I would go ashore and never leave.”

This was the 31 st of August. Two days later they were off again, sailing over the serene Pacific, bearing to the southwest for Australia. They crossed the equator, which he says was wisely put where it is, because if it had been run through Europe all the kings would have tried to grab it. They crossed it September 6th, and he notes that Clara kodaked it. A day or two later the north star disappeared behind them and the constellation of the Cross came into view above the southern horizon. Then presently they were among the islands of the southern Pacific, and landed for a little time on one of the Fiji group. They had twenty-four days of halcyon voyaging between Vancouver and Sydney with only one rough day. A ship’s passengers get closely acquainted on a trip of that length and character. They mingle in all sorts of diversions to while away the time; and at the end have become like friends of many years.

On the night of September 15th-a night so dark that from the ship’s deck one could not see the water — schools of porpoises surrounded the ship, setting the water alive with phosphorescent splendors: “Like glorified serpents thirty to fifty feet long. Every curve of the tapering long body perfect. The whole snake dazzlingly illumined. It was a weird sight to see this sparkling ghost come suddenly flashing along out of the solid gloom and stream past like a meteor.”

They were in Sydney next morning, September 16, 1895, and landed in a pouring rain, the breaking up of a fierce drought. Clemens announced that he had brought Australia good-fortune, and should expect something in return.

Mr. Smythe was ready for them and there was no time lost in getting to work. All Australia was ready for them, in fact, and nowhere in their own country were they more lavishly and royally received than in that faraway Pacific continent. Crowded houses, ovations, and gorgeous entertainment — public and private — were the fashion, and a little more than two weeks after arrival Clemens was able to send back another two thousand dollars to apply on his debts. But he had hard luck, too, for another carbuncle developed at Melbourne and kept him laid up for nearly a week. When he was able to go before an audience again he said:

“The doctor says I am on the verge of being a sick man. Well, that may be true enough while I am lying abed all day trying to persuade his cantankerous, rebellious medicines to agree with each other; but when I come out at night and get a welcome like this I feel as young and healthy as anybody, and as to being on the verge of being a sick man I don’t take any stock in that. I have been on the verge of being an angel all my life, but it’s never happened yet.”

In his book Clemens has told us his joy in Australia, his interest in the perishing native tribes, in the wonderfully governed cities, in the gold-mines, and in the advanced industries. The climate he thought superb; “a darling climate,” he says in a note-book entry.

Perhaps one ought to give a little idea of the character of his entertainment. His readings were mainly from his earlier books, ‘Roughing It’ and ‘Innocents Abroad’. The story of the dead man which, as a boy, he had discovered in his father’s office was one that he often told, and the “Mexican Plug” and his “Meeting with Artemus Ward” and the story of Jim Blaine’s old ram; now and again he gave chapters from ‘Huck Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’. He was likely to finish with that old fireside tale of his early childhood, the “Golden Arm.” But he sometimes told the watermelon story, written for Mrs. Rogers, or gave extracts from Adam’s Diary, varying his program a good deal as he went along, and changing it entirely where he appeared twice in one city.

Mrs. Clemens and Clara, as often as they had heard him, generally went when the hour of entertainment came: They enjoyed seeing his triumph with the different audiences, watching the effect of his subtle art.

One story, the “Golden Arm,” had in it a pause, an effective, delicate pause which must be timed to the fraction of a second in order to realize its full value. Somewhere before we have stated that no one better than Mark Twain knew the value of a pause. Mrs. Clemens and Clara were willing to go night after night and hear that tale time and again, for its effect on each new, audience.

From Australia to New Zealand — where Clemens had his third persistent carbuncle, 138 and again lost time in consequence. It was while he was in bed with this distressing ailment that he wrote Twichell:

138 [In Following the Equator the author says: “The dictionary says a carbuncle is a kind of jewel. Humor is out of place in a dictionary.”]

I think it was a good stroke of luck that knocked me on my back here at Napier instead of in some hotel in the center of a noisy city. Here we have the smooth & placidly complaining sea at our door, with nothing between us & it but 20 yards of shingle —& hardly a suggestion of life in that space to mar it or to make a noise. Away down here fifty-five degrees south of the equator this sea seems to murmur in an unfamiliar tongue — a foreign tongue — a tongue bred among the ice-fields of the antarctic — a murmur with a note of melancholy in it proper to the vast unvisited solitudes it has come from. It was very delicious and solacing to wake in the night & find it still pulsing there. I wish you were here — land, but it would be fine!

Mrs. Clemens and himself both had birthdays in New Zealand; Clemens turned sixty, and his wife passed the half-century mark.

“I do not like it one single bit,” she wrote to her sister. “Fifty years old-think of it; that seems very far on.”

And Clemens wrote:

Day before yesterday was Livy’s birthday (underworld time) & tomorrow will be mine. I shall be 60 — no thanks for it!

From New Zealand back to Australia, and then with the new year away to Ceylon. Here they were in the Orient at last, the land of color, enchantment, and gentle races. Clemens was ill with a heavy cold when they arrived; and in fact, at no time during this long journeying was his health as good as that of his companions. The papers usually spoke of him as looking frail, and he was continually warned that he must not remain in India until the time of the great heat. He was so determined to work, however, and working was so profitable, that he seldom spared himself.

He traveled up and down and back and forth the length and breadth of India — from Bombay to Allahabad, to Benares, to Calcutta and Darjeeling, to Lahore, to Lucknow, to Delhi — old cities of romance — and to Jeypore — through the heat and dust on poor, comfortless railways, fighting his battle and enjoying it too, for he reveled in that amazing land — its gorgeous, swarming life, the patience and gentleness of its servitude, its splendid pageantry, the magic of its architecture, the maze and mystery of its religions, the wonder of its ageless story.

One railway trip he enjoyed — a thirty-five-mile flight down the steep mountain of Darjeeling in a little canopied hand-car. In his book he says:

That was the most enjoyable time I have spent in the earth. For rousing, tingling, rapturous pleasure there is no holiday trip that approaches the bird-flight down the Himalayas in a handcar. It has no fault, no blemish, no lack, except that there are only thirty-five miles of it, instead of five hundred.

Mark Twain found India all that Rudyard Kipling had painted it and more. “INDIA THE MARVELOUS” he printed in his note-book in large capitals, as an effort to picture his thought, and in his book he wrote:

So far as I am able to judge nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. “Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.”

Marvelous India is, certainly; and he saw it all to the best advantage, for government official and native grandee spared no effort to do honor to his party — to make their visit something to be remembered for a lifetime. It was all very gratifying, and most of it of extraordinary interest. There are not many visitors who get to see the inner household of a native prince of India, and the letter which Mark Twain wrote to Kumar Shri Samatsinhji, a prince of the Palitana state, at Bombay, gives us a notion of how his unostentatious, even if lavish, hospitality was appreciated.

DEAR KUMAR SAHIB — It would be hard for me to put into words how much my family & I enjoyed our visit to your hospitable house. It was our first glimpse of the home of an Eastern Prince, & the charm of it, the grace & beauty & dignity of it realized to us the pictures which we had long ago gathered from books of travel & Oriental tales. We shall not forget that happy experience, nor your kind courtesies to us, nor those of her Highness to my wife & daughter. We shall keep always the portrait & the beautiful things you gave us; & as long as we live a glance at them will bring your house and its life & its sumptuous belongings & rich harmonies of color instantly across the years & the oceans, & we shall see them again, & how welcome they will be!

We make our salutation to your Highness & to all members of your family — including, with affectionate regard, that littlest little sprite of a Princess —& I beg to sign myself

Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

BENARES, February 5, 1896.

They had been entertained in truly royal fashion by Prince Kumar, who, after refreshments, had ordered in “bales of rich stuffs” in the true Arabian Nights fashion, and commanded his servants to open them and allow his guests to select for themselves.

With the possible exception of General Grant’s long trip in ’78 and ’79 there has hardly been a more royal progress than Mark Twain’s trip around the world. Everywhere they were overwhelmed with honors and invitations, and their gifts became so many that Mrs. Clemens wrote she did not see how they were going to carry them all. In a sense, it was like the Grant trip, for it was a tribute which the nations paid not only to a beloved personality, but to the American character and people.

The story of that East Indian sojourn alone would fill a large book, and Mark Twain, in his own way, has written that book, in the second volume of Following the Equator, an informing, absorbing, and enchanting story of Indian travel.

Clemens lectured everywhere to jammed houses, which were rather less profitable than in Australia, because in India the houses were not built for such audiences as he could command. He had to lecture three times in Calcutta, and then many people were turned away. At one place, however, his hall was large enough. This was in the great Hall of the Palace, where durbars are held, at Bombay.

Altogether they were two months in India, and then about the middle of March an English physician at Jeypore warned them to fly for Calcutta and get out of the country immediately before the real heat set in.

They sailed toward the end of March, touched at Madras and again at Ceylon, remaining a day or two at Colombo, and then away to sea again, across the Indian Ocean on one of those long, peaceful, eventless, tropic voyages, where at night one steeps on deck and in daytime wears the whitest and lightest garments and cares to do little more than sit drowsily in a steamer-chair and read and doze and dream.

From the note-book:

Here in the wastes of the Indian Ocean just under the equator the sea is blue, the motion gentle, the sunshine brilliant, the broad decks with their grouped companies of talking, reading, or game-playing folk suggestive of a big summer hotel — but outside of the ship is no life visible but the occasional flash of a flying-fish. I would like the voyage, under these conditions, to continue forever.

The Injian Ocean sits and smiles
So sof’, so bright, so bloomin’ blue,
There aren’t a wave for miles an’ miles
Excep’ the jiggle of the screw.

— KIP.

How curiously unanecdotical the colonials and the ship-going English are — I believe I haven’t told an anecdote or heard one since I left America, but Americans when grouped drop into anecdotes as soon as they get a little acquainted.

Preserve your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but not live.

Swore off from profanity early this morning — I was on deck in the peaceful dawn, the calm of holy dawn. Went down, dressed, bathed, put on white linen, shaved — a long, hot, troublesome job and no profanity. Then started to breakfast. Remembered my tonic — first time in 3 months without being told — poured it into measuring-glass, held bottle in one hand, it in the other, the cork in my teeth — reached up & got a tumbler — measuring-glass slipped out of my fingers — caught it, poured out another dose, first setting the tumbler on wash-stand — just got it poured, ship lurched, heard a crash behind me — it was the tumbler, broken into millions of fragments, but the bottom hunk whole. Picked it up to throw out of the open port, threw out the measuring-glass instead — then I released my voice. Mrs. Clemens behind me in the door.

“Don’t reform any more. It is not an improvement.”

This is a good time to read up on scientific matters and improve the mind, for about us is the peace of the great deep. It invites to dreams, to study, to reflection. Seventeen days ago this ship sailed out of Calcutta, and ever since, barring a day or two in Ceylon, there has been nothing in sight but the tranquil blue sea & a cloudless blue sky. All down the Bay of Bengal it was so. It is still so in the vast solitudes of the Indian Ocean — 17 days of heaven. In 11 more it will end. There will be one passenger who will be sorry. One reads all day long in this delicious air. Today I have been storing up knowledge from Sir John Lubbock about the ant. The thing which has struck me most and most astonished me is the ant’s extraordinary powers of identification — memory of his friend’s person. I will quote something which he says about Formica fusca. Formica fusca is not something to eat; it’s the name of a breed of ants.

He does quote at great length and he transferred most of it later to his book. In another note he says:

In the past year have read Vicar of Wakefield and some of Jane Austen — thoroughly artificial. Have begun Children of the Abbey. It begins with this “Impromptu” from the sentimental heroine:

“Hail, sweet asylum of my infancy! Content and innocence reside beneath your humble roof and charity unboastful of the good it renders . . . . Here unmolested may I wait till the rude storm of sorrow is overblown and my father’s arms are again extended to receive me.”

Has the ear-marks of preparation.

They were at the island of Mauritius by the middle of April, that curious bit of land mainly known to the world in the romance of Paul and Virginia, a story supposed by some in Mauritius to be “a part of the Bible.” They rested there for a fortnight and then set sail for South Africa on the ship Arundel Castle, which he tells us is the finest boat he has seen in those waters.

It was the end of the first week in May when they reached Durban and felt that they were nearing home.

One more voyage and they would be in England, where they had planned for Susy and Jean to join them.

Mrs. Clemens, eager for letters, writes of her disappointment in not finding one from Susy. The reports from Quarry Farm had been cheerful, and there had been small snap-shot photographs which were comforting, but her mother heart could not be entirely satisfied that Susy did not send letters. She had a vague fear that some trouble, some illness, had come to Susy which made her loath to write. Susy was, in fact, far from well, though no one, not even Susy herself, suspected how serious was her condition.

Mrs. Clemens writes of her own hopefulness, but adds that her husband is often depressed.

Mr. Clemens has not as much courage as I wish he had, but, poor old darling, he has been pursued with colds and inabilities of various sorts. Then he is so impressed with the fact that he is sixty years old. Naturally I combat that thought all I can, trying to make him rejoice that he is not seventy . . . .

He does not believe that any good thing will come, but that we must all our lives live in poverty. He says he never wants to go back to America. I cannot think that things are as black as he paints them, and I trust that if I get him settled down for work in some quiet English village he will get back much of his cheerfulness; in fact, I believe he will because that is what he wants to do, and that is the work that he loves: The platform he likes for the two hours that he is on it, but all the rest of the time it grinds him, and he says he is ashamed of what he is doing. Still, in spite of this sad undercurrent, we are having a delightful trip. People are so nice, and with people Mr. Clemens seems cheerful. Then the ocean trips are a great rest to him.

Mrs. Clemens and Clara remained at the hotel in Durban while Clemens made his platform trip to the South African cities. It was just at the time when the Transvaal invasion had been put down — when the Jameson raid had come to grief and John Hares Hammond, chief of the reformers, and fifty or more supporters were lying in the jail at Pretoria under various sentences, ranging from one to fifteen years, Hammond himself having received the latter award. Mrs. Hammond was a fellow-Missourian; Clemens had known her in America. He went with her now to see the prisoners, who seemed to be having a pretty good time, expecting to be pardoned presently; pretending to regard their confinement mainly as a joke. Clemens, writing of it to Twichell, said:

A Boer guard was at my elbow all the time, but was courteous & polite, only he barred the way in the compound (quadrangle or big open court) & wouldn’t let me cross a white mark that was on the ground — the “deathline,” one of the prisoners called it. Not in earnest, though, I think. I found that I had met Hammond once when he was a Yale senior & a guest of General Franklin’s. I also found that I had known Captain Mein intimately 32 years ago. One of the English prisoners had heard me lecture in London 23 years ago. . . .

These prisoners are strong men, prominent men, & I believe they are all educated men. They are well off; some of them are wealthy. They have a lot of books to read, they play games & smoke, & for a while they will be able to bear up in their captivity; but not for long, not for very long, I take it. I am told they have times of deadly brooding and depression. I made them a speech — sitting down. It just happened so. I don’t prefer that attitude. Still, it has one advantage — it is only a talk, it doesn’t take the form of a speech . . . . I advised them at considerable length to stay where they were — they would get used to it & like it presently; if they got out they would only get in again somewhere else, by the look of their countenances; & I promised to go and see the President & do what I could to get him to double their jail terms. . . . We had a very good sociable time till the permitted time was up &. a little over & we outsiders had to go. I went again to-day, but the Rev. Mr. Gray had just arrived, & the warden, a genial, elderly Boer named Du Plessis, explained that his orders wouldn’t allow him to admit saint & sinner at the same time, particularly on a Sunday. Du Plessis descended from the Huguenot fugitives, you see, of 200 years ago — but he hasn’t any French left in him now — all Dutch.

Clemens did visit President Kruger a few days later, but not for the purpose explained. John Hayes Hammond, in a speech not long ago (1911), told how Mark Twain was interviewed by a reporter after he left the jail, and when the reporter asked if the prisoners were badly treated Clemens had replied that he didn’t think so, adding:

“As a matter of fact, a great many of these gentlemen have fared far worse in the hotels and mining-camps of the West.”

Said Hammond in his speech: “The result of this was that the interview was reported literally and a leader appeared in the next morning’s issue protesting against such lenience. The privations, already severe enough, were considerably augmented by that remark, and it required some three or four days’ search on the part of some of our friends who were already outside of jail to get hold of Mark Twain and have him go and explain to Kruger that it was all a joke.”

Clemens made as good a plea to “Oom Paul” as he could, and in some degree may have been responsible for the improved treatment and the shortened terms of the unlucky reformers.

They did not hurry away from South Africa. Clemens gave many readings and paid a visit to the Kimberley mines. His note-book recalls how poor Riley twenty-five years before had made his fatal journey.

It was the 14th of July, 1896, a year to a day since they left Elmira, that they sailed by the steamer Norman for England, arriving at Southampton the 31st. It was from Southampton that they had sailed for America fourteen months before. They had completed the circuit of the globe.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00