The Clemens family had made one or two moves since its arrival in Hannibal, but the identity of these temporary residences and the period of occupation of each can no longer be established. Mark Twain once said:
“In 1843 my father caught me in a lie. It is not this fact that gives me the date, but the house we lived in. We were there only a year.”
We may believe it was the active result of that lie that fixed his memory of the place, for his father seldom punished him. When he did, it was a thorough and satisfactory performance.
It was about the period of moving into the new house (1844) that the Tom Sawyer days — that is to say, the boyhood of Samuel Clemens — may be said to have begun. Up to that time he was just Little Sam, a child — wild, and mischievous, often exasperating, but still a child — a delicate little lad to be worried over, mothered, or spanked and put to bed. Now, at nine, he had acquired health, with a sturdy ability to look out for himself, as boys will, in a community like that, especially where the family is rather larger than the income and there is still a younger child to claim a mother’s protecting care. So “Sam,” as they now called him, “grew up” at nine, and was full of knowledge for his years. Not that he was old in spirit or manner — he was never that, even to his death — but he had learned a great number of things, mostly of a kind not acquired at school.
They were not always of a pleasant kind; they were likely to be of a kind startling to a boy, even terrifying. Once Little Sam — he was still Little Sam, then — saw an old man shot down on the main street, at noonday. He saw them carry him home, lay him on the bed, and spread on his breast an open family Bible which looked as heavy as an anvil. He though, if he could only drag that great burden away, the poor, old dying man would not breathe so heavily. He saw a young emigrant stabbed with a bowie-knife by a drunken comrade, and noted the spurt of life-blood that followed; he saw two young men try to kill their uncle, one holding him while the other snapped repeatedly an Allen revolver which failed to go off. Then there was the drunken rowdy who proposed to raid the “Welshman’s” house one dark threatening night — he saw that, too. A widow and her one daughter lived there, and the ruffian woke the whole village with his coarse challenges and obscenities. Sam Clemens and a boon companion, John Briggs, went up there to look and listen. The man was at the gate, and the warren were invisible in the shadow of the dark porch. The boys heard the elder woman’s voice warning the man that she had a loaded gun, and that she would kill him if he stayed where he was. He replied with a ribald tirade, and she warned that she would count ten — that if he remained a second longer she would fire. She began slowly and counted up to five, with him laughing and jeering. At six he grew silent, but he did not go. She counted on: seven — eight — nine — The boys watching from the dark roadside felt their hearts stop. There was a long pause, then the final count, followed a second later by a gush of flame. The man dropped, his breast riddled. At the same instant the thunderstorm that had been gathering broke loose. The boys fled wildly, believing that Satan himself had arrived to claim the lost soul.
Many such instances happened in a town like that in those days. And there were events incident to slavery. He saw a slave struck down and killed with a piece of slag for a trifling offense. He saw an abolitionist attacked by a mob, and they would have lynched him had not a Methodist minister defended him on a plea that he must be crazy. He did not remember, in later years, that he had ever seen a slave auction, but he added:
“I am suspicious that it is because the thing was a commonplace spectacle, and not an uncommon or impressive one. I do vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained together lying in a group on the pavement, waiting shipment to a Southern slave-market. They had the saddest faces I ever saw.”
It is not surprising that a boy would gather a store of human knowledge amid such happenings as these. They were wild, disturbing things. They got into his dreams and made him fearful when he woke in the middle of the night. He did not then regard them as an education. In some vague way he set them down as warnings, or punishments, designed to give him a taste for a better life. He felt that it was his own conscience that made these things torture him. That was his mother’s idea, and he had a high respect for her moral opinions, also for her courage. Among other things, he had seen her one day defy a vicious devil of a Corsican — a common terror in the town-who was chasing his grown daughter with a heavy rope in his hand, declaring he would wear it out on her. Cautious citizens got out of her way, but Jane Clemens opened her door wide to the refugee, and then, instead of rushing in and closing it, spread her arms across it, barring the way. The man swore and threatened her with the rope, but she did not flinch or show any sign of fear. She stood there and shamed him and derided him and defied him until he gave up the rope and slunk off, crestfallen and conquered. Any one who could do that must have a perfect conscience, Sam thought. In the fearsome darkness he would say his prayers, especially when a thunderstorm was coming, and vow to begin a better life in the morning. He detested Sunday-school as much as day-school, and once Orion, who was moral and religious, had threatened to drag him there by the collar; but as the thunder got louder Sam decided that he loved Sunday-school and would go the next Sunday without being invited.
Fortunately there were pleasanter things than these. There were picnics sometimes, and ferry-boat excursions. Once there was a great Fourth-of-July celebration at which it was said a real Revolutionary soldier was to be present. Some one had discovered him living alone seven or eight miles in the country. But this feature proved a disappointment; for when the day came and he was triumphantly brought in he turned out to be a Hessian, and was allowed to walk home.
The hills and woods around Hannibal where, with his playmates, he roamed almost at will were never disappointing. There was the cave with its marvels; there was Bear Creek, where, after repeated accidents, he had learned to swim. It had cost him heavily to learn to swim. He had seen two playmates drown; also, time and again he had, himself, been dragged ashore more dead than alive, once by a slave-girl, another time by a slaveman — Neal Champ, of the Pavey Hotel. In the end he had conquered; he could swim better than any boy in town of his age.
It was the river that meant more to him than all the rest. Its charm was permanent. It was the path of adventure, the gateway to the world. The river with its islands, its great slow-moving rafts, its marvelous steamboats that were like fairyland, its stately current swinging to the sea! He would sit by it for hours and dream. He would venture out on it in a surreptitiously borrowed boat when he was barely strong enough to lift an oar out of the water. He learned to know all its moods and phases. He felt its kinship. In some occult way he may have known it as his prototype — that resistless tide of life with its ever-changing sweep, its shifting shores, its depths, its shadows, its gorgeous sunset hues, its solemn and tranquil entrance to the sea.
His hunger for the life aboard the steamers became a passion. To be even the humblest employee of one of those floating enchantments would be enough; to be an officer would be to enter heaven; to be a pilot was to be a god.
“You can hardly imagine what it meant,” he reflected once, “to a boy in those days, shut in as we were, to see those steamboats pass up and down, and never to take a trip on them.”
He had reached the mature age of nine when he could endure this no longer. One day, when the big packet came down and stopped at Hannibal, he slipped aboard and crept under one of the boats on the upper deck. Presently the signal-bells rang, the steamboat backed away and swung into midstream; he was really going at last. He crept from beneath the boat and sat looking out over the water and enjoying the scenery. Then it began to rain — a terrific downpour. He crept back under the boat, but his legs were outside, and one of the crew saw him. So he was taken down into the cabin and at the next stop set ashore. It was the town of Louisiana, and there were Lampton relatives there who took him home. Jane Clemens declared that his father had got to take him in hand; which he did, doubtless impressing the adventure on him in the usual way. These were all educational things; then there was always the farm, where entertainment was no longer a matter of girl-plays and swings, with a colored nurse following about, but of manlier sports with his older boy cousins, who had a gun and went hunting with the men for squirrels and partridges by day, for coons and possums by night. Sometimes the little boy had followed the hunters all night long and returned with them through the sparkling and fragrant morning fresh, hungry, and triumphant just in time for breakfast.
So it is no wonder that at nine he was no longer “Little Sam,” but Sam Clemens, quite mature and self-dependent, with a wide knowledge of men and things and a variety of accomplishments. He had even learned to smoke — a little — out there on the farm, and had tried tobacco-chewing, though that was a failure. He had been stung to this effort by a big girl at a school which, with his cousin Puss, he sometimes briefly attended.
“Do you use terbacker?” the big girl had asked, meaning did he chew it.
“No,” he said, abashed at the confession.
“Haw!” she cried to the other scholars; “here’s a boy that can’t chaw terbacker.”
Degraded and ashamed, he tried to correct his fault, but it only made him very ill; and he did not try again.
He had also acquired the use of certain strong, expressive words, and used them, sometimes, when his mother was safely distant. He had an impression that she would “skin him alive” if she heard him swear. His education had doubtful spots in it, but it had provided wisdom.
He was not a particularly attractive lad. He was not tall for his years, and his head was somewhat too large for his body. He had a “great ruck” of light, sandy hair which he plastered down to keep it from curling; keen blue-gray eyes, and rather large features. Still, he had a fair, delicate complexion, when it was not blackened by grime or tan; a gentle, winning manner; a smile that, with his slow, measured way of speaking, made him a favorite with his companions. He did not speak much, and his mental attainments were not highly regarded; but, for some reason, whenever he did speak every playmate in hearing stopped whatever he was doing and listened. Perhaps it would be a plan for a new game or lark; perhaps it was something droll; perhaps it was just a commonplace remark that his peculiar drawl made amusing. Whatever it was, they considered it worth while. His mother always referred to his slow fashion of speaking as “Sammy’s long talk.” Her own speech was still more deliberate, but she seemed not to notice it. Henry — a much handsomer lad and regarded as far more promising — did not have it. He was a lovable, obedient little fellow whom the mischievous Sam took delight in teasing. For this and other reasons the latter’s punishments were frequent enough, perhaps not always deserved. Sometimes he charged his mother with partiality. He would say:
“Yes, no matter what it is, I am always the one to get punished”; and his mother would answer:
“Well, Sam, if you didn’t deserve it for that, you did for something else.”
Henry Clemens became the Sid of Tom Sawyer, though Henry was in every way a finer character than Sid. His brother Sam always loved him, and fought for him oftener than with him.
With the death of Benjamin Clemens, Henry and Sam were naturally drawn much closer together, though Sam could seldom resist the temptation of tormenting Henry. A schoolmate, George Butler (he was a nephew of General Butler and afterward fought bravely in the Civil War), had a little blue suit with a leather belt to match, and was the envy of all. Mrs. Clemens finally made Sam and Henry suits of blue cotton velvet, and the next Sunday, after various services were over, the two sauntered about, shedding glory for a time, finally going for a stroll in the woods. They walked along properly enough, at first, then just ahead Sam spied the stump of a newly cut tree, and with a wild whooping impulse took a running leap over it. There were splinters on the stump where the tree had broken away, but he cleared them neatly. Henry wanted to match the performance, but was afraid to try, so Sam dared him. He kept daring him until Henry was goaded to the attempt. He cleared the stump, but the highest splinters caught the slack of his little blue trousers, and the cloth gave way. He escaped injury, but the precious trousers were damaged almost beyond repair. Sam, with a boy’s heartlessness, was fairly rolling on the ground with laughter at Henry’s appearance.
“Cotton-tail rabbit!” he shouted. “Cotton-tail rabbit!” while Henry, weeping, set out for home by a circuitous and unfrequented road. Let us hope, if there was punishment for this mishap, that it fell in the proper locality.
These two brothers were of widely different temperament. Henry, even as a little boy, was sturdy, industrious, and dependable. Sam was volatile and elusive; his industry of an erratic kind. Once his father set him to work with a hatchet to remove some plaster. He hacked at it for a time well enough, then lay down on the floor of the room and threw his hatchet at such areas of the plaster as were not in easy reach. Henry would have worked steadily at a task like that until the last bit was removed and the room swept clean.
The home incidents in ‘Tom Sawyer’, most of them, really happened. Sam Clemens did clod Henry for getting him into trouble about the colored thread with which he sewed his shirt when he came home from swimming; he did inveigle a lot of boys into whitewashing, a fence for him; he did give Pain-killer to Peter, the cat. There was a cholera scare that year, and Pain-killer was regarded as a preventive. Sam had been ordered to take it liberally, and perhaps thought Peter too should be safeguarded. As for escaping punishment for his misdeeds in the manner described in that book, this was a daily matter, and the methods adapted themselves to the conditions. In the introduction to Tom Sawyer Mark Twain confesses to the general truth of the history, and to the reality of its characters. “Huck Finn was drawn from life,” he tells us. “Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual — he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew.”
The three boys were — himself, chiefly, and in a lesser degree John Briggs and Will Bowen. John Briggs was also the original of Joe Harper in that book. As for Huck Finn, his original was Tom Blankenship, neither elaborated nor qualified.
There were several of the Blankenships: there was old Ben, the father, who had succeeded “General” Gains as the town drunkard; young Ben, the eldest son — a hard case with certain good traits; and Tom — that is to say, Huck — who was just as he is described in Tom Sawyer: a ruin of rags, a river-rat, an irresponsible bit of human drift, kind of heart and possessing that priceless boon, absolute unaccountability of conduct to any living soul. He could came and go as he chose; he never had to work or go to school; he could do all things, good or bad, that the other boys longed to do and were forbidden. He represented to them the very embodiment of liberty, and his general knowledge of important matters, such as fishing, hunting, trapping, and all manner of signs and spells and hoodoos and incantations, made him immensely valuable as a companion. The fact that his society was prohibited gave it a vastly added charm.
The Blankenships picked up a precarious living fishing and hunting, and lived at first in a miserable house of bark, under a tree, but later moved into quite a pretentious building back of the new Clemens home on Hill Street. It was really an old barn of a place — poor and ramshackle even then; but now, more than sixty years later, a part of it is still standing. The siding of the part that stands is of black walnut, which must have been very plentiful in that long-ago time. Old drunken Ben Blankenship never dreamed that pieces of his house would be carried off as relics because of the literary fame of his son Tom — a fame founded on irresponsibility and inconsequence. Orion Clemens, who was concerned with missionary work about this time, undertook to improve the Blankenships spiritually. Sam adopted them, outright, and took them to his heart. He was likely to be there at any hour of the day, and he and Tom had cat-call signals at night which would bring him out on the back single-story roof, and down a little arbor and flight of steps, to the group of boon companions which, besides Tom, included John Briggs, the Bowen boys, Will Pitts, and one or two other congenial spirits. They were not vicious boys; they were not really bad boys; they were only mischievous, fun-loving boys-thoughtless, and rather disregardful of the comforts and the rights of others.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00