The death of little Margaret was the final misfortune that came to the Clemens family in Florida. Doubtless it hastened their departure. There was a superstition in those days that to refer to health as good luck, rather than to ascribe it to the kindness of Providence, was to bring about a judgment. Jane Clemens one day spoke to a neighbor of their good luck in thus far having lost no member of their family. That same day, when the sisters, Pamela and Margaret, returned from school, Margaret laid her books on the table, looked in the glass at her flushed cheeks, pulled out the trundle-bed, and lay down.
She was never in her right mind again. The doctor was sent for and diagnosed the case “bilious fever.” One evening, about nine o’clock, Orion was sitting on the edge of the trundle-bed by the patient, when the door opened and Little Sam, then about four years old, walked in from his bedroom, fast asleep. He came to the side of the trundle-bed and pulled at the bedding near Margaret’s shoulder for some time before he woke. Next day the little girl was “picking at the coverlet,” and it was known that she could not live. About a week later she died. She was nine years old, a beautiful child, plump in form, with rosy cheeks, black hair, and bright eyes. This was in August, 1839. It was Little Sam’s first sight of death — the first break in the Clemens family: it left a sad household. The shoemaker who lived next door claimed to have seen several weeks previous, in a vision, the coffin and the funeral-procession pass the gate by the winding road, to the cemetery, exactly as it happened.
Matters were now going badly enough with John Clemens. Yet he never was without one great comforting thought — the future of the Tennessee land. It underlaid every plan; it was an anodyne for every ill.
“When we sell the Tennessee land everything will be all right,” was the refrain that brought solace in the darkest hours. A blessing for him that this was so, for he had little else to brighten his days. Negotiations looking to the sale of the land were usually in progress. When the pressure became very hard and finances were at their lowest ebb, it was offered at any price — at five cents an acre, sometimes. When conditions improved, however little, the price suddenly advanced even to its maximum of one thousand dollars an acre. Now and then a genuine offer came along, but, though eagerly welcomed at the moment, it was always refused after a little consideration.
“We will struggle along somehow, Jane,” he would say. “We will not throw away the children’s fortune.”
There was one other who believed in the Tennessee land — Jane Clemens’s favorite cousin, James Lampton, the courtliest, gentlest, most prodigal optimist of all that guileless race. To James Lampton the land always had “millions in it”— everything had. He made stupendous fortunes daily, in new ways. The bare mention of the Tennessee land sent him off into figures that ended with the purchase of estates in England adjoining those of the Durham Lamptons, whom he always referred to as “our kindred,” casually mentioning the whereabouts and health of the “present earl.” Mark Twain merely put James Lampton on paper when he created Colonel Sellers, and the story of the Hawkins family as told in The Gilded Age reflects clearly the struggle of those days. The words “Tennessee land,” with their golden promise, became his earliest remembered syllables. He grew to detest them in time, for they came to mean mockery.
One of the offers received was the trifling sum of two hundred and fifty dollars, and such was the moment’s need that even this was considered. Then, of course, it was scornfully refused. In some autobiographical chapters which Orion Clemens left behind he said:
“If we had received that two hundred and fifty dollars, it would have been more than we ever made, clear of expenses, out of the whole of the Tennessee land, after forty years of worry to three generations.”
What a less speculative and more logical reasoner would have done in the beginning, John Clemens did now; he selected a place which, though little more than a village, was on a river already navigable — a steamboat town with at least the beginnings of manufacturing and trade already established — that is to say, Hannibal, Missouri — a point well chosen, as shown by its prosperity to-day.
He did not delay matters. When he came to a decision, he acted quickly. He disposed of a portion of his goods and shipped the remainder overland; then, with his family and chattels loaded in a wagon, he was ready to set out for the new home. Orion records that, for some reason, his father did not invite him to get into the wagon, and how, being always sensitive to slight, he had regarded this in the light of deliberate desertion.
“The sense of abandonment caused my heart to ache. The wagon had gone a few feet when I was discovered and invited to enter. How I wished they had not missed me until they had arrived at Hannibal. Then the world would have seen how I was treated and would have cried ‘Shame!’”
This incident, noted and remembered, long after became curiously confused with another, in Mark Twain’s mind. In an autobiographical chapter published in The North American Review he tells of the move to Hannibal and relates that he himself was left behind by his absentminded family. The incident of his own abandonment did not happen then, but later, and somewhat differently. It would indeed be an absent-minded family if the parents, and the sister and brothers ranging up to fourteen years of age, should drive off leaving Little Sam, age four, behind.4
4 [As mentioned in the Prefatory Note, Mark Twain’s memory played him many tricks in later life. Incidents were filtered through his vivid imagination until many of them bore little relation to the actual occurrence. Some of these lapses were only amusing, but occasionally they worked an unintentional injustice. It is the author’s purpose in every instance, so far as is possible, to keep the record straight.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00