He had plenty of money now. He could help his mother with a liberal hand, and could put away fully a hundred dollars a month for himself. He had few cares, and he loved the ease and romance and independence of his work as he would never quite love anything again.
His popularity on the river was very great. His humorous stories and quaint speech made a crowd collect wherever he appeared. There were pilot-association rooms in St. Louis and New Orleans, and his appearance at one of these places was a signal for the members to gather.
A friend of those days writes: "He was much given to spinning yarns so funny that his hearers were convulsed, and yet all the time his own face was perfectly sober. Occasionally some of his droll yarns got into the papers. He may have written them himself."
Another old river-man remembers how, one day, at the association, they were talking of presence of mind in an accident, when Pilot Clemens said:
"Boys, I had great presence of mind once. It was at a fire. An old man leaned out of a four-story building, calling for help. Everybody in the crowd below looked up, but nobody did anything. The ladders weren't long enough. Nobody had any presence of mind--nobody but me. I came to the rescue. I yelled for a rope. When it came I threw the old man the end of it. He caught it, and I told him to tie it around his waist. He did so, and I pulled him down."
This was a story that found its way into print, probably his own contribution.
"Sam was always scribbling when not at the wheel," said Bixby, "but the best thing he ever did was the burlesque of old Isaiah Sellers. He didn't write it for print, but only for his own amusement and to show to a few of the boys. Bart Bowen, who was with him on the "Edward J. Gay" at the time, got hold of it, and gave it to one of the New Orleans papers."
The burlesque on Captain Sellers would be of little importance if it were not for its association with the origin, or, at least, with the originator, of what is probably the best known of literary names--the name Mark Twain.
This strong, happy title--a river term indicating a depth of two fathoms on the sounding-line--was first used by the old pilot, Isaiah Sellers, who was a sort of "oldest inhabitant" of the river, with a passion for airing his ancient knowledge before the younger men. Sellers used to send paragraphs to the papers, quaint and rather egotistical in tone, usually beginning, "My opinion for the citizens of New Orleans," etc., prophesying river conditions and recalling memories as far back as 1811. These he generally signed "Mark Twain."
Naturally, the younger pilots amused themselves by imitating Sellers, and when Sam Clemens wrote abroad burlesque of the old man's contributions, relating a perfectly impossible trip, supposed to have been made in 1763 with a Chinese captain and a Choctaw crew, it was regarded as a masterpiece of wit.
It appeared in the "True Delta" in May, 1859, and broke Captain Sellers's literary heart. He never wrote another paragraph. Clemens always regretted the whole matter deeply, and his own revival of the name afterward was a sort of tribute to the old man he had thoughtlessly and unintentionally wounded.
Old pilots of that day remembered Samuel Clemens as a slender, fine- looking man, well dressed, even dandified, generally wearing blue serge, with fancy shirts, white duck trousers, and patent-leather shoes. A pilot could do that, for his surroundings were speckless.
The pilots regarded him as a great reader--a student of history, travels, and the sciences. In the association rooms they often saw him poring over serious books. He began the study of French one day in New Orleans, when he had passed a school of languages where French, German, and Italian were taught, one in each of three rooms. The price vas twenty- five dollars for one language, or three for fifty. The student was provided with a set of conversation cards for each, and was supposed to walk from one apartment to another, changing his nationality at each threshold.