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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
VI. A New Home
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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
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
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.
--[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.]