Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LVI

Back to the States

In the mean time Clemens had completed his plan for sailing, and had arranged with General McComb, of the Alta California, for letters during his proposed trip around the world. However, he meant to visit his people first, and his old home. He could go back with means now, and with the prestige of success.

“I sail to-morrow per Opposition — telegraphed you to-day,” he wrote on December 14th, and a day later his note-book entry says:

Sailed from San Francisco in Opposition (line) steamer America, Capt. Wakeman, at noon, 15th Dec., 1866. Pleasant sunny day, hills brightly clad with green grass and shrubbery.

So he was really going home at last! He had been gone five and a half years — eventful, adventurous years that had made him over completely, at least so far as ambitions and equipment were concerned. He had came away, in his early manhood, a printer and a pilot, unknown outside of his class. He was returning a man of thirty-one, with a fund of hard experience, three added professions — mining, journalism, and lecturing — also with a new name, already famous on the sunset slopes of its adoption, and beginning to be heard over the hills and far away. In some degree, at least, he resembled the prince of a fairy tale who, starting out humble and unnoticed, wins his way through a hundred adventures and returns with gifts and honors.

The homeward voyage was a notable one. It began with a tempest a little way out of San Francisco — a storm terrible but brief, that brought the passengers from their berths to the deck, and for a time set them praying. Then there was Captain Ned Wakeman, a big, burly, fearless sailor, who had visited the edges of all continents and archipelagos; who had been born at sea, and never had a day’s schooling in his life, but knew the Bible by heart; who was full of human nature and profanity, and believed he was the only man on the globe who knew the secret of the Bible miracles. He became a distinct personality in Mark Twain’s work — the memory of him was an unfailing delight. Captain “Ned Blakely,” in ‘Roughing It’, who with his own hands hanged Bill Noakes, after reading him promiscuous chapters from the Bible, was Captain Wakeman. Captain “Stormfield,” who had the marvelous visit to heaven, was likewise Captain Wakeman; and he appears in the “Idle Excursion” and elsewhere.

Another event of the voyage was crossing the Nicaragua Isthmus — the trip across the lake and down the San Juan River — a, brand-new experience, between shores of splendid tropic tangle, gleaming with vivid life. The luxuriance got into his note-book.

Dark grottos, fairy festoons, tunnels, temples, columns, pillars, towers, pilasters, terraces, pyramids, mounds, domes, walls, in endless confusion of vine-work — no shape known to architecture unimitated — and all so webbed together that short distances within are only gained by glimpses. Monkeys here and there; birds warbling; gorgeous plumaged birds on the wing; Paradise itself, the imperial realm of beauty-nothing to wish for to make it perfect.

But it was beyond the isthmus that the voyage loomed into proportions somber and terrible. The vessel they took there, the San Francisco, sailed from Greytown January 1, 1867, the beginning of a memorable year in Mark Twain’s life. Next day two cases of Asiatic cholera were reported in the steerage. There had been a rumor of it in Nicaragua, but no one expected it on the ship.

The nature of the disease was not hinted at until evening, when one of the men died. Soon after midnight, the other followed. A minister making the voyage home, Rev. J. G. Fackler, read the burial service. The gaiety of the passengers, who had become well acquainted during the Pacific voyage, was subdued. When the word “cholera” went among them, faces grew grave and frightened. On the morning of January 4th Reverend Fackler’s services were again required. The dead man was put overboard within half an hour after he had ceased to breathe.

Gloom settled upon the ship. All steam was made to put into Key West. Then some of the machinery gave way and the ship lay rolling, helplessly becalmed in the fierce heat of the Gulf, while repairs were being made. The work was done at a disadvantage, and the parts did not hold. Time and again they were obliged to lie to, in the deadly tropic heat, listening to the hopeless hammering, wondering who would be the next to be sewed up hastily in a blanket and slipped over the ship’s side. On the 5th seven new cases of illness were reported. One of the crew, a man called “Shape,” was said to be dying. A few hours later he was dead. By this time the Reverend Fackler himself had been taken.

“So they are burying poor ‘Shape’ without benefit of clergy,” says the note-book.

General consternation now began to prevail. Then it was learned that the ship’s doctor had run out of medicines. The passengers became demoralized. They believed their vessel was to become a charnel ship. Strict sanitary orders were issued, and a hospital was improvised.

Verily the ship is becoming a floating hospital herself — not an hour passes but brings its fresh sensation, its new disaster, its melancholy tidings. When I think of poor “Shape” and the preacher, both so well when I saw them yesterday evening, I realize that I myself may be dead to-morrow.

Since the last two hours all laughter, all levity, has ceased on the ship — a settled gloom is upon the faces of the passengers.

By noon it was evident that the minister could not survive. He died at two o’clock next morning; the fifth victim in less than five days. The machinery continued to break and the vessel to drag. The ship’s doctor confessed to Clemens that he was helpless. There were eight patients in the hospital.

But on January 6th they managed to make Key West, and for some reason were not quarantined. Twenty-one passengers immediately deserted the ship and were heard of no more.

“I am glad they are gone. D— n them,” says the notebook. Apparently he had never considered leaving, and a number of others remained. The doctor restocked his medicine-locker, and the next day they put to sea again. Certainly they were a daring lot of voyagers. On the 8th another of the patients died. Then the cooler weather seemed to check the contagion, and it was not until the night of the 11th, when the New York harbor lights were in view, that the final death occurred. There were no new cases by this time, and the other patients were convalescent. A certificate was made out that the last man had died of “dropsy.” There would seem to have been no serious difficulty in docking the vessel and landing the passengers. The matter would probably be handled differently to-day.

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