Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XIV

The Passing of John Clemens

Judge Clemens, who time and again had wrecked or crippled his fortune by devices more or less unusual, now adopted the one unfailing method of achieving disaster. He endorsed a large note, for a man of good repute, and the payment of it swept him clean: home, property, everything vanished again. The St. Louis cousin took over the home and agreed to let the family occupy it on payment of a small interest; but after an attempt at housekeeping with a few scanty furnishings and Pamela’s piano — all that had been saved from the wreck — they moved across the street into a portion of the Virginia house, then occupied by a Dr. Grant. The Grants proposed that the Clemens family move over and board them, a welcome arrangement enough at this time.

Judge Clemens had still a hope left. The clerkship of the Surrogate Court was soon to be filled by election. It was an important remunerative office, and he was regarded as the favorite candidate for the position. His disaster had aroused general sympathy, and his nomination and election were considered sure. He took no chances; he made a canvass on horseback from house to house, often riding through rain and the chill of fall, acquiring a cough which was hard to overcome. He was elected by a heavy majority, and it was believed he could hold the office as long as he chose. There seemed no further need of worry. As soon as he was installed in office they would live in style becoming their social position. About the end of February he rode to Palmyra to be sworn in. Returning he was drenched by a storm of rain and sleet, arriving at last half frozen. His system was in no condition to resist such a shock. Pneumonia followed; physicians came with torments of plasters and allopathic dosings that brought no relief. Orion returned from St. Louis to assist in caring for him, and sat by his bed, encouraging him and reading to him, but it was evident that he grew daily weaker. Now and then he became cheerful and spoke of the Tennessee land as the seed of a vast fortune that must surely flower at last. He uttered no regrets, no complaints. Once only he said:

“I believe if I had stayed in Tennessee I might have been worth twenty thousand dollars to-day.”

On the morning of the 24th of March, 1847, it was evident that he could not live many hours. He was very weak. When he spoke, now and then, it was of the land. He said it would soon make them all rich and happy.

“Cling to the land,” he whispered. “Cling to the land, and wait. Let nothing beguile it away from you.”

A little later he beckoned to Pamela, now a lovely girl of nineteen, and, putting his arm about her neck, kissed her for the first time in years.

“Let me die,” he said.

He never spoke after that. A little more, and the sad, weary life that had lasted less than forty-nine years was ended: A dreamer and a moralist, an upright man honored by all, he had never been a financier. He ended life with less than he had begun.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05