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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XIII. The Gentler Side
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|His associations were not all of that lawless breed. At his school (he
had sampled several places of learning, and was now at Mr. Cross's on the
Square) were a number of less adventurous, even if not intrinsically
better playmates. There was George Robards, the Latin scholar, and John,
his brother, a handsome boy, who rode away at last with his father into
the sunset, to California, his golden curls flying in the wind. And
there was Jimmy McDaniel, a kind-hearted boy whose company was worth
while, because his father was a confectioner, and he used to bring candy
and cake to school. Also there was Buck Brown, a rival speller, and John
Meredith, the doctor's son, and John Garth, who was one day to marry
little Helen Kercheval, and in the end would be remembered and honored
with a beautiful memorial building not far from the site of the old
Furthermore, there were a good many girls. Tom Sawyer had an
impressionable heart, and Sam Clemens no less so. There was Bettie
Ormsley, and Artemisia Briggs, and Jennie Brady; also Mary Miller, who
was nearly twice his age and gave him his first broken heart.
"I believe I was as miserable as a grown man could be," he said once,
Tom Sawyer had heart sorrows too, and we may imagine that his emotions at
such times were the emotions of Sam Clemens, say at the age of ten.
But, as Tom Sawyer had one faithful sweetheart, so did he. They were one
and the same. Becky Thatcher in the book was Laura Hawkins in reality.
The acquaintance of these two had begun when the Hawkins family moved
into the Virginia house on the corner of Hill and Main streets.--[The
Hawkins family in real life bore no resemblance to the family of that
name in The Gilded Age. Judge Hawkins of The Gilded Age, as already
noted, was John Clemens. Mark Twain used the name Hawkins, also the name
of his boyhood sweetheart, Laura, merely for old times' sake, and because
in portraying the childhood of Laura Hawkins he had a picture of the real
Laura in his mind.]--The Clemens family was then in the new home across
the way, and the children were soon acquainted. The boy could be tender
and kind, and was always gentle in his treatment of the other sex. They
visited back and forth, especially around the new house, where there were
nice pieces of boards and bricks for play-houses. So they played
"keeping house," and if they did not always agree well, since the
beginning of the world sweethearts have not always agreed, even in
Arcady. Once when they were building a house--and there may have been
some difference of opinion as to its architecture--the boy happened to
let a brick fall on the little girl's finger. If there had been any
disagreement it vanished instantly with that misfortune. He tried to
comfort her and soothe the pain; then he wept with her and suffered most
of the two, no doubt. So, you see, he was just a little boy, after all,
even though he was already chief of a red-handed band, the "Black
Avengers of the Spanish Main."
He was always a tender-hearted lad. He would never abuse an animal,
unless, as in the Pain-killer incident, his tendency to pranking ran away
with him. He had indeed a genuine passion for cats; summers when he went
to the farm he never failed to take his cat in a basket. When he ate, it
sat in a chair beside him at the table. His sympathy included inanimate
things as well. He loved flowers--not as the embryo botanist or
gardener, but as a personal friend. He pitied the dead leaf and the
murmuring dried weed of November because their brief lives were ended,
and they would never know the summer again, or grow glad with another
spring. His heart went out to them; to the river and the sky, the sunlit
meadow and the drifted hill. That his observation of all nature was
minute and accurate is shown everywhere in his writing; but it was never
the observation of a young naturalist it was the subconscious observation
of sympathetic love.
We are wandering away from his school-days. They were brief enough and
came rapidly to an end. They will not hold us long. Undoubtedly Tom
Sawyer's distaste for school and his excuses for staying at home--usually
some pretended illness--have ample foundation in the boyhood of Sam
Clemens. His mother punished him and pleaded with him, alternately. He
detested school as he detested nothing else on earth, even going to
church. "Church ain't worth shucks," said Tom Sawyer, but it was better
As already noted, the school of Mr. Cross stood in or near what is now
the Square in Hannibal. The Square was only a grove then, grown up with
plum, hazel, and vine--a rare place for children. At recess and the noon
hour the children climbed trees, gathered flowers, and swung in grape-
vine swings. There was a spelling-bee every Friday afternoon, for Sam
the only endurable event of the school exercises. He could hold the
floor at spelling longer than Buck Brown. This was spectacular and
showy; it invited compliments even from Mr. Cross, whose name must have
been handed down by angels, it fitted him so well. One day Sam Clemens
wrote on his slate:
Cross by name and cross by nature
Cross jumped over an Irish potato.
He showed this to John Briggs, who considered it a stroke of genius. He
urged the author to write it on the board at noon, but the poet's
ambition did not go so far.
"Oh, pshaw!" said John. "I wouldn't be afraid to do it.
"I dare you to do it," said Sam.
John Briggs never took a dare, and at noon, when Mr. Cross was at home at
dinner, he wrote flamingly the descriptive couplet. When the teacher
returned and "books" were called he looked steadily at John Briggs. He
had recognized the penmanship.
"Did you do that?" he asked, ominously.
It was a time for truth.
"Yes, sir," said John.
"Come here!" And John came, and paid for his exploitation of genius
heavily. Sam Clemens expected that the next call would be for "author,"
but for some reason the investigation ended there. It was unusual for
him to escape. His back generally kept fairly warm from one "frailing"
to the next.
His rewards were not all of a punitive nature. There were two medals in
the school, one for spelling, the other for amiability. They were
awarded once a week, and the holders wore them about the neck
conspicuously, and were envied accordingly. John Robards--he of the
golden curls--wore almost continuously the medal for amiability, while
Sam Clemens had a mortgage on the medal for spelling. Sometimes they
traded, to see how it would seem, but the master discouraged this
practice by taking the medals away from them for the remainder of the
week. Once Sam Clemens lost the medal by leaving the first "r" out of
February. He could have spelled it backward, if necessary; but Laura
Hawkins was the only one on the floor against him, and he was a gallant
The picture of that school as presented in the book written thirty years
later is faithful, we may believe, and the central figure is a tender-
hearted, romantic, devil-may-care lad, loathing application and longing
only for freedom. It was a boon which would come to him sooner even than
he had dreamed.