Nevertheless, on his return to Hannibal, it was decided that Little Sam was now ready to go to school. He was about five years old, and the months on the farm had left him wiry and lively, even if not very robust. His mother declared that he gave her more trouble than all the other children put together.
“He drives me crazy with his didoes, when he is in the house,” she used to say; “and when he is out of it I am expecting every minute that some one will bring him home half dead.”
He did, in fact, achieve the first of his “nine narrow escapes from drowning” about this time, and was pulled out of the river one afternoon and brought home in a limp and unpromising condition. When with mullein tea and castor-oil she had restored him to activity, she said: “I guess there wasn’t much danger. People born to be hanged are safe in water.”
She declared she was willing to pay somebody to take him off her hands for a part of each day and try to teach him manners. Perhaps this is a good place to say that Jane Clemens was the original of Tom Sawyer’s “Aunt Polly,” and her portrait as presented in that book is considered perfect. Kind-hearted, fearless, looking and acting ten years older than her age, as women did in that time, always outspoken and sometimes severe, she was regarded as a “character” by her friends, and beloved by them as, a charitable, sympathetic woman whom it was good to know. Her sense of pity was abnormal. She refused to kill even flies, and punished the cat for catching mice. She, would drown the young kittens, when necessary, but warmed the water for the purpose. On coming to Hannibal, she joined the Presbyterian Church, and her religion was of that clean-cut, strenuous kind which regards as necessary institutions hell and Satan, though she had been known to express pity for the latter for being obliged to surround himself with such poor society. Her children she directed with considerable firmness, and all were tractable and growing in grace except Little Sam. Even baby Henry at two was lisping the prayers that Sam would let go by default unless carefully guarded. His sister Pamela, who was eight years older and always loved him dearly, usually supervised these spiritual exercises, and in her gentle care earned immortality as the Cousin Mary of Tom Sawyer. He would say his prayers willingly enough when encouraged by sister Pamela, but he much preferred to sit up in bed and tell astonishing tales of the day’s adventure — tales which made prayer seem a futile corrective and caused his listeners to wonder why the lightning was restrained so long. They did not know they were glimpsing the first outcroppings of a genius that would one day amaze and entertain the nations. Neighbors hearing of these things (also certain of his narrations) remonstrated with Mrs. Clemens.
“You don’t believe anything that child says, I hope.”
“Oh yes, I know his average. I discount him ninety per cent. The rest is pure gold.” At another time she said: “Sammy is a well of truth, but you can’t bring it all up in one bucket.”
This, however, is digression; the incidents may have happened somewhat later.
A certain Miss E. Horr was selected to receive the payment for taking charge of Little Sam during several hours each day, directing him mentally and morally in the mean time. Her school was then in a log house on Main Street (later it was removed to Third Street), and was of the primitive old-fashioned kind, with pupils of all ages, ranging in advancement from the primer to the third reader, from the tables to long division, with a little geography and grammar and a good deal of spelling. Long division and the third reader completed the curriculum in that school. Pupils who decided to take a post-graduate course went to a Mr. Cross, who taught in a frame house on the hill facing what is now the Public Square.
Miss Horr received twenty-five cents a week for each pupil, and opened her school with prayer; after which came a chapter of the Bible, with explanations, and the rules of conduct. Then the A B C class was called, because their recital was a hand-to-hand struggle, requiring no preparation.
The rules of conduct that first day interested Little Sam. He calculated how much he would need to trim in, to sail close to the danger-line and still avoid disaster. He made a miscalculation during the forenoon and received warning; a second offense would mean punishment. He did not mean to be caught the second time, but he had not learned Miss Horr yet, and was presently startled by being commanded to go out and bring a stick for his own correction.
This was certainly disturbing. It was sudden, and then he did not know much about the selection of sticks. Jane Clemens had usually used her hand. It required a second command to get him headed in the right direction, and he was a trifle dazed when he got outside. He had the forests of Missouri to select from, but choice was difficult. Everything looked too big and competent. Even the smallest switch had a wiry, discouraging look. Across the way was a cooper-shop with a good many shavings outside.
One had blown across and lay just in front of him. It was an inspiration. He picked it up and, solemnly entering the school-room, meekly handed it to Miss Herr.
Perhaps Miss Horr’s sense of humor prompted forgiveness, but discipline must be maintained.
“Samuel Langhorne Clemens,” she said (he had never heard it all strung together in that ominous way), “I am ashamed of you! Jimmy Dunlap, go and bring a switch for Sammy.” And Jimmy Dunlap went, and the switch was of a sort to give the little boy an immediate and permanent distaste for school. He informed his mother when he went home at noon that he did not care for school; that he had no desire to be a great man; that he preferred to be a pirate or an Indian and scalp or drown such people as Miss Horr. Down in her heart his mother was sorry for him, but what she said was that she was glad there was somebody at last who could take him in hand.
He returned to school, but he never learned to like it. Each morning he went with reluctance and remained with loathing — the loathing which he always had for anything resembling bondage and tyranny or even the smallest curtailment of liberty. A School was ruled with a rod in those days, a busy and efficient rod, as the Scripture recommended. Of the smaller boys Little Sam’s back was sore as often as the next, and he dreamed mainly of a day when, grown big and fierce, he would descend with his band and capture Miss Horr and probably drag her by the hair, as he had seen Indians and pirates do in the pictures. When the days of early summer came again; when from his desk he could see the sunshine lighting the soft green of Holliday’s Hill, with the purple distance beyond, and the glint of the river, it seemed to him that to be shut up with a Webster’s spelling-book and a cross old maid was more than human nature could bear. Among the records preserved from that far-off day there remains a yellow slip, whereon in neat old-fashioned penmanship is inscribed:
MISS PAMELA CLEMENS
Has won the love of her teacher and schoolmates by her amiable deportment and faithful application to her various studies.
E. Horr, Teacher.
If any such testimonial was ever awarded to Little Sam, diligent search has failed to reveal it. If he won the love of his teacher and playmates it was probably for other reasons.
Yet he must have learned, somehow, for he could read presently and was soon regarded as a good speller for his years. His spelling came as a natural gift, as did most of his attainments, then and later.
It has already been mentioned that Miss Horr opened her school with prayer and Scriptural readings. Little Sam did not especially delight in these things, but he respected them. Not to do so was dangerous. Flames were being kept brisk for little boys who were heedless of sacred matters; his home teaching convinced him of that. He also respected Miss Horr as an example of orthodox faith, and when she read the text “Ask and ye shall receive” and assured them that whoever prayed for a thing earnestly, his prayer would be answered, he believed it. A small schoolmate, the balker’s daughter, brought gingerbread to school every morning, and Little Sam was just “honing” for some of it. He wanted a piece of that baker’s gingerbread more than anything else in the world, and he decided to pray for it.
The little girl sat in front of him, but always until that morning had kept the gingerbread out of sight. Now, however, when he finished his prayer and looked up, a small morsel of the precious food lay in front of him. Perhaps the little girl could no longer stand that hungry look in his eyes. Possibly she had heard his petition; at all events his prayer bore fruit and his faith at that moment would have moved Holliday’s Hill. He decided to pray for everything he wanted, but when he tried the gingerbread supplication next morning it had no result. Grieved, but still unshaken, he tried next morning again; still no gingerbread; and when a third and fourth effort left him hungry he grew despairing and silent, and wore the haggard face of doubt. His mother said:
“What’s the matter, Sammy; are you sick?”
“No,” he said, “but I don’t believe in saying prayers any more, and I’m never going to do it again.”
“Why, Sammy, what in the world has happened?” she asked, anxiously. Then he broke down and cried on her lap and told her, for it was a serious thing in that day openly to repudiate faith. Jane Clemens gathered him to her heart and comforted him.
“I’ll make you a whole pan of gingerbread, better than that,” she said, “and school will soon be out, too, and you can go back to Uncle John’s farm.”
And so passed and ended Little Sam’s first school-days.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00