We have already mentioned the delight of the Clemens children in Uncle John Quarles’s farm. To Little Sam it was probably a life-saver. With his small cousin, Tabitha,6 just his own age (they called her Puss), he wandered over that magic domain, fording new marvels at every step, new delights everywhere. A slave-girl, Mary, usually attended them, but she was only six years older, and not older at all in reality, so she was just a playmate, and not a guardian to be feared or evaded. Sometimes, indeed, it was necessary for her to threaten to tell “Miss Patsey” or “Miss Jane,” when her little charges insisted on going farther or staying later than she thought wise from the viewpoint of her own personal safety; but this was seldom, and on the whole a stay at the farm was just one long idyllic dream of summer-time and freedom.
6 [Tabitha Quarles, now Mrs. Greening, of Palmyra, Missouri, has supplied most of the material for this chapter.]
The farm-house stood in the middle of a large yard entered by a stile made of sawed-off logs of graduated heights. In the corner of the yard were hickory trees, and black walnut, and beyond the fence the hill fell away past the barns, the corn-cribs, and the tobacco-house to a brook — a divine place to wade, with deep, dark, forbidden pools. Down in the pasture there were swings under the big trees, and Mary swung the children and ran under them until their feet touched the branches, and then took her turn and “balanced” herself so high that their one wish was to be as old as Mary and swing in that splendid way. All the woods were full of squirrels — gray squirrels and the red-fox species — and many birds and flowers; all the meadows were gay with clover and butterflies, and musical with singing grasshoppers and calling larks; there were blackberries in the fence rows, apples and peaches in the orchard, and watermelons in the corn. They were not always ripe, those watermelons, and once, when Little Sam had eaten several pieces of a green one, he was seized with cramps so severe that most of the household expected him to die forthwith.
Jane Clemens was not heavily concerned.
“Sammy will pull through,” she said; “he wasn’t born to die that way.”
It is the slender constitution that bears the strain. “Sammy” did pull through, and in a brief time was ready for fresh adventure.
There were plenty of these: there were the horses to ride to and from the fields; the ox-wagons to ride in when they had dumped their heavy loads; the circular horsepower to ride on when they threshed the wheat. This last was a dangerous and forbidden pleasure, but the children would dart between the teams and climb on, and the slave who was driving would pretend not to see. Then in the evening when the black woman came along, going after the cows, the children would race ahead and set the cows running and jingling their bells — especially Little Sam, for he was a wild-headed, impetuous child of sudden ecstasies that sent him capering and swinging his arms, venting his emotions in a series of leaps and shrieks and somersaults, and spasms of laughter as he lay rolling in the grass.
His tendency to mischief grew with this wide liberty, improved health, and the encouragement of John Quarles’s good-natured, fun-loving slaves.
The negro quarters beyond the orchard were especially attractive. In one cabin lived a bed-ridden, white-headed old woman whom the children visited daily and looked upon with awe; for she was said to be a thousand years old and to have talked with Moses. The negroes believed this; the children, too, of course, and that she had lost her health in the desert, coming out of Egypt. The bald spot on her head was caused by fright at seeing Pharaoh drowned. She also knew how to avert spells and ward off witches, which added greatly to her prestige. Uncle Dan’l was a favorite, too-kind-hearted and dependable, while his occasional lockjaw gave him an unusual distinction. Long afterward he would become Nigger Jim in the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn tales, and so in his gentle guilelessness win immortality and the love of many men.
Certainly this was a heavenly place for a little boy, the farm of Uncle John Quarles, and the house was as wonderful as its surroundings. It was a two-story double log building, with a spacious floor (roofed in) connecting the two divisions. In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady, breezy pavilion, and sumptuous meals were served in the lavish Southern style, brought to the table in vast dishes that left only room for rows of plates around the edge. Fried chicken, roast pig, turkeys, ducks, geese, venison just killed, squirrels, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, prairie-chickens — the list is too long to be served here. If a little boy could not improve on that bill of fare and in that atmosphere, his case was hopeless indeed. His mother kept him there until the late fall, when the chilly evenings made them gather around the wide, blazing fireplace. Sixty years later he wrote of that scene:
I can see the room yet with perfect clearness. I can see all its buildings, all its details: the family-room of the house, with the trundle-bed in one corner and the spinning-wheel in another a wheel whose rising and falling wail, heard from a distance, was the mournfulest of all sounds to me, and made me homesick and low-spirited, and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead; the vast fireplace, piled high with flaming logs, from whose ends a sugary sap bubbled out, but did not go to waste, for we scraped it off and ate it; . . . the lazy cat spread out on the rough hearthstones, the drowsy dogs braced against the jambs, blinking; my aunt in one chimney-corner and my uncle in the other smoking his corn-cob pipe; the slick and carpetless oak floor faintly mirroring the flame tongues, and freckled with black indentations where fire-coals had popped out and died a leisurely death; half a dozen children romping in the background twilight; splint-bottom chairs here and there — some with rockers; a cradle — out of service, but waiting with confidence.
One is tempted to dwell on this period, to quote prodigally from these vivid memories — the thousand minute impressions which the child’s sensitive mind acquired in that long-ago time and would reveal everywhere in his work in the years to come. For him it was education of a more valuable and lasting sort than any he would ever acquire from books.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55