Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXV

Love-Making and Adventure

Of course, life with Brown was not all sorrow. At either end of the trip there was respite and recreation. In St. Louis, at Pamela’s there was likely to be company: Hannibal friends mostly, schoolmates — girls, of course. At New Orleans he visited friendly boats, especially the John J. Roe, where he was generously welcomed. One such visit on the Roe he never forgot. A young girl was among the boat’s guests that trip — another Laura, fifteen, winning, delightful. They met, and were mutually attracted; in the life of each it was one of those bright spots which are likely to come in youth: one of those sudden, brief periods of romance, love — call it what you will the thing that leads to marriage, if pursued.

“I was not four inches from that girl’s elbow during our waking hours for the next three days.”

Then came a sudden interruption: Zeb Leavenworth came flying aft shouting:

“The Pennsylvania is backing out.”

A flutter of emotion, a fleeting good-by, a flight across the decks, a flying leap from romance back to reality, and it was all over. He wrote her, but received no reply. He never saw her again, never heard from her for forty-eight years, when both were married, widowed, and old. She had not received his letter.

Even on the Pennsylvania life had its interests. A letter dated March 9, 1858, recounts a delightfully dangerous night-adventure in the steamer’s yawl, hunting for soundings in the running ice.

Then the fun commenced. We made fast a line 20 fathoms long, to the bow of the yawl, and put the men (both crews) to it like horses on the shore. Brown, the pilot, stood in the bow, with an oar, to keep her head out, and I took the tiller. We would start the men, and all would go well till the yawl would bring up on a heavy cake of ice, and then the men would drop like so many tenpins, while Brown assumed the horizontal in the bottom of the boat. After an hour’s hard work we got back, with ice half an inch thick on the oars. Sent back and warped up the other yawl, and then George (George Ealer, the other pilot) and myself took a double crew of fresh men and tried it again. This time we found the channel in less than half an hour, and landed on an island till the Pennsylvania came along and took us off. The next day was colder still. I was out in the yawl twice, and then we got through, but the infernal steamboat came near running over us. . . . We sounded Hat Island, warped up around a bar, and sounded again — but in order to understand our situation you will have to read Dr. Kane. It would have been impossible to get back to the boat. But the Maria Denning was aground at the head of the island — they hailed us — we ran alongside, and they hoisted us in and thawed us out. We had then been out in the yawl from four o’clock in the morning till half past nine without being near a fire. There was a thick coating of ice over men, and yawl, ropes and everything else, and we looked like rock-candy statuary.

This was the sort of thing he loved in those days. We feel the writer’s evident joy and pride in it. In the same letter he says: “I can’t correspond with the paper, because when one is learning the river he is not allowed to do or think about anything else.” Then he mentions his brother Henry, and we get the beginning of that tragic episode for which, though blameless, Samuel Clemens always held himself responsible.

Henry was doing little or nothing here (St. Louis), and I sent him to our clerk to work his way for a trip, measuring wood-piles, counting coal-boxes, and doing other clerkly duties, which he performed satisfactorily. He may go down with us again.

Henry Clemens was about twenty at this time, a handsome, attractive boy of whom his brother was lavishly fond and proud. He did go on the next trip and continued to go regularly after that, as third clerk in line of promotion. It was a bright spot in those hard days with Brown to have Henry along. The boys spent a good deal of their leisure with the other pilot, George Ealer, who “was as kindhearted as Brown wasn’t,” and quoted Shakespeare and Goldsmith, and played the flute to his fascinated and inspiring audience. These were things worth while. The young steersman could not guess that the shadow of a long sorrow was even then stretching across the path ahead.

Yet in due time he received a warning, a remarkable and impressive warning, though of a kind seldom heeded. One night, when the Pennsylvania lay in St. Louis, he slept at his sister’s house and had this vivid dream:

He saw Henry, a corpse, lying in a metallic burial case in the sitting-room, supported on two chairs. On his breast lay a bouquet of flowers, white, with a single crimson bloom in the center.

When he awoke, it was morning, but the dream was so vivid that he believed it real. Perhaps something of the old hypnotic condition was upon him, for he rose and dressed, thinking he would go in and look at his dead brother. Instead, he went out on the street in the early morning and had walked to the middle of the block before it suddenly flashed upon him that it was only a dream. He bounded back, rushed to the sitting-room, and felt a great trembling revulsion of joy when he found it really empty. He told Pamela the dream, then put it out of his mind as quickly as he could. The Pennsylvania sailed from St. Louis as usual, and made a safe trip to New Orleans.

A safe trip, but an eventful one; on it occurred that last interview with Brown, already mentioned. It is recorded in the Mississippi book, but cannot be omitted here. Somewhere down the river (it was in Eagle Bend) Henry appeared on the hurricane deck to bring an order from the captain for a landing to be made a little lower down. Brown was somewhat deaf, but would never confess it. He may not have understood the order; at all events he gave no sign of having heard it, and went straight ahead. He disliked Henry as he disliked everybody of finer grain than himself, and in any case was too arrogant to ask for a repetition. They were passing the landing when Captain Klinefelter appeared on deck and called to him to let the boat come around, adding:

“Didn’t Henry tell you to land here?”

“No, sir.”

Captain. Klinefelter turned to Sam:

“Didn’t you hear him?”

“Yes, sir.”

Brown said: “Shut your mouth! You never heard anything of the kind.”

By and by Henry came into the pilot-house, unaware of any trouble. Brown set upon him in his ugliest manner.

“Here, why didn’t you tell me we had got to land at that plantation?” he demanded.

Henry was always polite, always gentle.

“I did tell you, Mr. Brown.”

“It’s a lie.”

Sam Clemens could stand Brown’s abuse of himself, but not of Henry. He said: “You lie yourself. He did tell you.”

Brown was dazed for a moment and then he shouted:

“I’ll attend to your case in half a minute!” and ordered Henry out of the pilot-house.

The boy had started, when Brown suddenly seized him by the collar and struck him in the face.15 Instantly Sam was upon Brown, with a heavy stool, and stretched him on the floor. Then all the bitterness and indignation that had been smoldering for months flamed up, and, leaping upon Brown and holding him with his knees, he pounded him with his fists until strength and fury gave out. Brown struggled free, then, and with pilot instinct sprang to the wheel, for the vessel had been drifting and might have got into trouble. Seeing there was no further danger, he seized a spy-glass as a weapon.

15 [In the Mississippi book the writer states that Brown started to strike Henry with a large piece of coal; but, in a letter written soon after the occurrence to Mrs. Orion Clemens, he says: “Henry started out of the pilot-house — Brown jumped up and collared him — turned him half-way around and struck him in the face! — and him nearly six feet high — struck my little brother. I was wild from that moment. I left the boat to steer herself, and avenged the insult — and the captain said I was right.”]

“Get out of this here pilot-house,” he raged.

But his subordinate was not afraid of him now.

“You should leave out the ‘here,’” he drawled, critically. “It is understood, and not considered good English form.”

“Don’t you give me none of your airs,” yelled Brown. “I ain’t going to stand nothing more from you.”

“You should say, ‘Don’t give me any of your airs,’” Sam said, sweetly, “and the last half of your sentence almost defies correction.”

A group of passengers and white-aproned servants, assembled on the deck forward, applauded the victor.

Brown turned to the wheel, raging and growling. Clemens went below, where he expected Captain Klinefelter to put him in irons, perhaps, for it was thought to be felony to strike a pilot. The officer took him into his private room and closed the door. At first he looked at the culprit thoughtfully, then he made some inquiries:

“Did you strike him first?” Captain Klinefelter asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“What with?”

“A stool, sir.”


“Middling, sir.”

“Did it knock him down?”

“He — he fell, sir.”

“Did you follow it up? Did you do anything further?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What did you do?”

“Pounded him, sir.”

“Pounded him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you pound him much — that is, severely?”

“One might call it that, sir, maybe.”

“I am deuced glad of it! Hark ye, never mention that I said that. You have been guilty of a great crime; and don’t ever be guilty of it again on this boat, but — lay for him ashore! Give him a good sound thrashing; do you hear? I’ll pay the expenses.”16

16 [“Life on the Mississippi.”]

Captain Klinefelter told him to clear out, then, and the culprit heard him enjoying himself as the door closed behind him. Brown, of course, forbade him the pilothouse after that, and he spent the rest of the trip “an emancipated slave” listening to George Ealer’s flute and his readings from Goldsmith and Shakespeare; playing chess with him sometimes, and learning a trick which he would use himself in the long after-years — that of taking back the last move and running out the game differently when he saw defeat.

Brown swore that he would leave the boat at New Orleans if Sam Clemens remained on it, and Captain Klinefelter told Brown to go. Then when another pilot could not be obtained to fill his place, the captain offered to let Clemens himself run the daylight watches, thus showing his confidence in the knowledge of the young steersman, who had been only a little more than a year at the wheel. But Clemens himself had less confidence and advised the captain to keep Brown back to St. Louis. He would follow up the river by another boat and resume his place as steersman when Brown was gone. Without knowing it, he may have saved his life by that decision.

It is doubtful if he remembered his recent disturbing dream, though some foreboding would seem to have hung over him the night before the Pennsylvania sailed. Henry liked to join in the night-watches on the levee when he had finished his duties, and the brothers often walked the round chatting together. On this particular night the elder spoke of disaster on the river. Finally he said:

“In case of accident, whatever you do, don’t lose your head — the passengers will do that. Rush for the hurricane deck and to the life-boat, and obey the mate’s orders. When the boat is launched, help the women and children into it. Don’t get in yourself. The river is only a mile wide. You can swim ashore easily enough.”

It was good manly advice, but it yielded a long harvest of sorrow.

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