Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter IV

Beginning a Long Journey

It was not a robust childhood. The new baby managed to go through the winter — a matter of comment among the family and neighbors. Added strength came, but slowly; “Little Sam,” as they called him, was always delicate during those early years.

It was a curious childhood, full of weird, fantastic impressions and contradictory influences, stimulating alike to the imagination and that embryo philosophy of life which begins almost with infancy. John Clemens seldom devoted any time to the company of his children. He looked after their comfort and mental development as well as he could, and gave advice on occasion. He bought a book now and then — sometimes a picture-book — and subscribed for Peter Parley’s Magazine, a marvel of delight to the older children, but he did not join in their amusements, and he rarely, or never, laughed. Mark Twain did not remember ever having seen or heard his father laugh. The problem of supplying food was a somber one to John Clemens; also, he was working on a perpetual-motion machine at this period, which absorbed his spare time, and, to the inventor at least, was not a mirthful occupation. Jane Clemens was busy, too. Her sense of humor did not die, but with added cares and years her temper as well as her features became sharper, and it was just as well to be fairly out of range when she was busy with her employments.

Little Sam’s companions were his brothers and sisters, all older than himself: Orion, ten years his senior, followed by Pamela and Margaret at intervals of two and three years, then by Benjamin, a kindly little lad whose gentle life was chiefly devoted to looking after the baby brother, three years his junior. But in addition to these associations, there were the still more potent influences Of that day and section, the intimate, enveloping institution of slavery, the daily companionship of the slaves. All the children of that time were fond of the negroes and confided in them. They would, in fact, have been lost without such protection and company.

It was Jennie, the house-girl, and Uncle Ned, a man of all work — apparently acquired with the improved prospects — who were in real charge of the children and supplied them with entertainment. Wonderful entertainment it was. That was a time of visions and dreams, small. gossip and superstitions. Old tales were repeated over and over, with adornments and improvements suggested by immediate events. At evening the Clemens children, big and little, gathered about the great open fireplace while Jennie and Uncle Ned told tales and hair-lifting legends. Even a baby of two or three years could follow the drift of this primitive telling and would shiver and cling close with the horror and delight of its curdling thrill. The tales always began with “Once ‘pon a time,” and one of them was the story of the “Golden Arm” which the smallest listener would one day repeat more elaborately to wider audiences in many lands. Briefly it ran as follows:

“Once ‘Pon a time there was a man, and he had a wife, and she had a’ arm of pure gold; and she died, and they buried her in the graveyard; and one night her husband went and dug her up and cut off her golden arm and tuck it home; and one night a ghost all in white come to him; and she was his wife; and she says:

“W-h-a-r-r’s my golden arm? W-h-a-r-r’s my golden arm? W-h-a-r-r’s my g-o-l-den arm?”

As Uncle Ned repeated these blood-curdling questions he would look first one and then another of his listeners in the eyes, with his bands drawn up in front of his breast, his fingers turned out and crooked like claws, while he bent with each question closer to the shrinking forms before him. The tone was sepulchral, with awful pause as if waiting each time for a reply. The culmination came with a pounce on one of the group, a shake of the shoulders, and a shout of:

“YOU’VE got it!’ and she tore him all to pieces!”

And the children would shout “Lordy!” and look furtively over their shoulders, fearing to see a woman in white against the black wall; but, instead, only gloomy, shapeless shadows darted across it as the flickering flames in the fireplace went out on one brand and flared up on another. Then there was a story of a great ball of fire that used to follow lonely travelers along dark roads through the woods.

“Once ‘pon a time there was a man, and he was riding along de road and he come to a ha’nted house, and he heard de chains’a-rattlin’ and a-rattlin’ and a-rattlin’, and a ball of fire come rollin’ up and got under his stirrup, and it didn’t make no difference if his horse galloped or went slow or stood still, de ball of fire staid under his stirrup till he got plum to de front do’, and his wife come out and say: ‘My Gord, dat’s devil fire!’ and she had to work a witch spell to drive it away.”

“How big was it, Uncle Ned?”

“Oh, ‘bout as big as your head, and I ‘spect it’s likely to come down dis yere chimney ‘most any time.”

Certainly an atmosphere like this meant a tropic development for the imagination of a delicate child. All the games and daily talk concerned fanciful semi-African conditions and strange primal possibilities. The children of that day believed in spells and charms and bad-luck signs, all learned of their negro guardians.

But if the negroes were the chief companions and protectors of the children, they were likewise one of their discomforts. The greatest real dread children knew was the fear of meeting runaway slaves. A runaway slave was regarded as worse than a wild beast, and treated worse when caught. Once the children saw one brought into Florida by six men who took him to an empty cabin, where they threw him on the floor and bound him with ropes. His groans were loud and frequent. Such things made an impression that would last a lifetime.

Slave punishment, too, was not unknown, even in the household. Jennie especially was often saucy and obstreperous. Jane Clemens, with more strength of character than of body, once undertook to punish her for insolence, whereupon Jennie snatched the whip from her hand. John Clemens was sent for in haste. He came at once, tied Jennie’s wrists together with a bridle rein, and administered chastisement across the shoulders with a cowhide. These were things all calculated to impress a sensitive child.

In pleasant weather the children roamed over the country, hunting berries and nuts, drinking sugar-water, tying knots in love-vine, picking the petals from daisies to the formula “Love me-love me not,” always accompanied by one or more, sometimes by half a dozen, of their small darky followers. Shoes were taken off the first of April. For a time a pair of old woolen stockings were worn, but these soon disappeared, leaving the feet bare for the summer. One of their dreads was the possibility of sticking a rusty nail into the foot, as this was liable to cause lockjaw, a malady regarded with awe and terror. They knew what lockjaw was — Uncle John Quarles’s black man, Dan, was subject to it. Sometimes when he opened his mouth to its utmost capacity he felt the joints slip and was compelled to put down the cornbread, or jole and greens, or the piece of ‘possum he was eating, while his mouth remained a fixed abyss until the doctor came and restored it to a natural position by an exertion of muscular power that would have well-nigh lifted an ox.

Uncle John Quarles, his home, his farm, his slaves, all were sources of never-ending delight. Perhaps the farm was just an ordinary Missouri farm and the slaves just average negroes, but to those children these things were never apparent. There was a halo about anything that belonged to Uncle John Quarles, and that halo was the jovial, hilarious kindness of that gentle-hearted, humane man. To visit at his house was for a child to be in a heaven of mirth and pranks continually. When the children came for eggs he would say:

“Your hens won’t lay, eh? Tell your maw to feed ’em parched corn and drive ’em uphill,” and this was always a splendid stroke of humor to his small hearers.

Also, he knew how to mimic with his empty hands the peculiar patting and tossing of a pone of corn-bread before placing it in the oven. He would make the most fearful threats to his own children, for disobedience, but never executed any of them. When they were out fishing and returned late he would say:

“You — if I have to hunt you again after dark, I will make you smell like a burnt horn!”

Nothing could exceed the ferocity of this threat, and all the children, with delightful terror and curiosity, wondered what would happen — if it ever did happen — that would result in giving a child that peculiar savor. Altogether it was a curious early childhood that Little Sam had — at least it seems so to us now. Doubtless it was commonplace enough for that time and locality.

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