The cats were on the corner of the roof above the arbor, and Jim cautiously worked his way in that direction. The roof was not very steep. He was doing well enough until he came to a place where the snow had melted until it was nearly solid ice. He was so intent on the cats that he did not notice this, and when he struck his heel down to break the crust nothing yielded. A second later Jim's feet had shot out from under him, and he vaulted like an avalanche down the icy roof out on the little vine-clad arbor, and went crashing through among those candypullers, gathered there with their pans of cooling taffy. There were wild shrieks and a general flight. Neither Jim nor Sam ever knew how he got back to their room, but Jim was overcome with the enormity of his offense, while Sam was in an agony of laughter.
"You did it splendidly, Jim," he drawled, when he could speak. "Nobody could have done it better; and did you see how those cats got out of there? I never had any idea when you started that you meant to do it that way. And it was such a surprise to the folks down-stairs. How did you ever think of it?"
It was a fearful ordeal for a boy like Jim Wolfe, but he stuck to his place in spite of what he must have suffered. The boys made him one of them soon after that. His initiation was thought to be complete.
An account of Jim Wolfe and the cats was the first original story Mark Twain ever told. He told it next day, which was Sunday, to Jimmy McDaniel, the baker's son, as they sat looking out over the river, eating gingerbread. His hearer laughed immoderately, and the story-teller was proud and happy in his success.
THE BEGINNING OF A LITERARY LIFE
Orion's paper continued to go downhill. Following some random counsel, he changed the name of it and advanced the price--two blunders. Then he was compelled to reduce the subscription, also the advertising rates. He was obliged to adopt a descending scale of charges and expenditures to keep pace with his declining circulation--a fatal sign. A publisher must lead his subscription list, not follow it.
"I was walking backward," he said, "not seeing where I stepped."
In desperation he broke away and made a trip to Tennessee to see if something could not be realized on the land, leaving his brother Sam in charge of the office. It was a journey without financial results; yet it bore fruit, for it marked the beginning of Mark Twain's literary career.
Sam, in his brother's absence, concluded to edit the paper in a way that would liven up the circulation. He had never done any writing--not for print--but he had the courage of his inclinations. His local items were of a kind known as "spicy"; his personals brought prompt demand for satisfaction. The editor of a rival paper had been in love, and was said to have gone to the river one night to drown himself. Sam gave a picturesque account of this, with all the names connected with the affair. Then he took a couple of big wooden block letters, turned them upside down, and engraved illustrations for it, showing the victim wading out into the river with a stick to test the depth of the water. When this issue of the paper came out the demand for it was very large. The press had to be kept running steadily to supply copies. The satirized editor at first swore that he would thrash the whole journal office, then he left town and did not come back any more. The embryo Mark Twain also wrote a poem. It was addressed "To Mary in Hannibal," but the title was too long to be set in one column, so he left out all the letters in Hannibal, except the first and the last, and supplied their place with a dash, with a startling result. Such were the early flickerings of a smoldering genius. Orion returned, remonstrated, and apologized. He reduced Sam to the ranks. In later years he saw his mistake.
"I could have distanced all competitors even then," he said, "if I had recognized Sam's ability and let him go ahead, merely keeping him from offending worthy persons."
Sam was subdued, but not done for.