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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866
XV. A Young Ben Franklin
by Paine, Albert Bigelow


For a third time death had entered the Clemens home: not only had it brought grief now, but it had banished the light of new fortune from the very threshold. The disaster seemed complete.

The children were dazed. Judge Clemens had been a distant, reserved man, but they had loved him, each in his own way, and they had honored his uprightness and nobility of purpose. Mrs. Clemens confided to a neighbor that, in spite of his manner, her husband had been always warm-hearted, with a deep affection for his family. They remembered that he had never returned from a journey without bringing each one some present, however trifling. Orion, looking out of his window next morning, saw old Abram Kurtz, and heard him laugh. He wondered how anybody could still laugh.

The boy Sam was fairly broken down. Remorse, which always dealt with him unsparingly, laid a heavy hand on him now. Wildness, disobedience, indifference to his father's wishes, all were remembered; a hundred things, in themselves trifling, became ghastly and heart-wringing in the knowledge that they could never be undone. Seeing his grief, his mother took him by the hand and led him into the room where his father lay.

"It is all right, Sammy," she said. "What's done is done, and it does not matter to him any more; but here by the side of him now I want you to promise me----"

He turned, his eyes streaming with tears, and flung himself into her arms.

"I will promise anything," he sobbed, "if you won't make me go to school! Anything!"

His mother held him for a moment, thinking, then she said:

"No, Sammy; you need not go to school any more. Only promise me to be a better boy. Promise not to break my heart."

So he promised her to be a faithful and industrious man, and upright, like his father. His mother was satisfied with that. The sense of honor and justice was already strong within him. To him a promise was a serious matter at any time; made under conditions like these it would be held sacred.

That night--it was after the funeral--his tendency to somnambulism manifested itself. His mother and sister, who were sleeping together, saw the door open and a form in white enter. Naturally nervous at such a time, and living in a day of almost universal superstition, they were terrified and covered their heads. Presently a hand was laid on the coverlet, first at the foot, then at the head of the bed. A thought struck Mrs. Clemens:

"Sam!" she said.

He answered, but he was sound asleep and fell to the floor. He had risen and thrown a sheet around him in his dreams. He walked in his sleep several nights in succession after that. Then he slept more soundly.

Orion returned to St. Louis. He was a very good book and job printer by this time and received a salary of ten dollars a week (high wages in those frugal days), of which he sent three dollars weekly to the family. Pamela, who had acquired a considerable knowledge of the piano and guitar, went to the town of Paris, in Monroe County, about fifty miles away, and taught a class of music pupils, contributing whatever remained after paying for her board and clothing to the family fund. It was a hard task for the girl, for she was timid and not over-strong; but she was resolute and patient, and won success. Pamela Clemens was a noble character and deserves a fuller history than can be afforded in this work.

Mrs. Clemens and her son Samuel now had a sober talk, and, realizing that the printing trade offered opportunity for acquiring further education as well as a livelihood, they agreed that he should be apprenticed to Joseph P. Ament, who had lately moved from Palmyra to Hannibal and bought a weekly Democrat paper, the Missouri Courier. The apprentice terms were not over-liberal. They were the usual thing for that time: board and clothes--"more board than clothes, and not much of either," Mark Twain used to say.

"I was supposed to get two suits of clothes a year, like a nigger, but I didn't get them. I got one suit and took the rest out in Ament's old garments, which didn't fit me in any noticeable way. I was only about half as big as he was, and when I had on one of his shirts I felt as if I had on a circus tent. I had to turn the trousers up to my ears to make them short enough."

There was another apprentice, a young fellow of about eighteen, named Wales McCormick, a devilish fellow and a giant. Ament's clothes were too small for Wales, but he had to wear them, and Sam Clemens and Wales McCormick together, fitted out with Ament's clothes, must have been a picturesque pair. There was also, for a time, a boy named Ralph; but he appears to have presented no features of a striking sort, and the memory of him has become dim.

The apprentices ate in the kitchen at first, served by the old slave-cook and her handsome mulatto daughter; but those printer's "devils" made it so lively there that in due time they were promoted to the family table, where they sat with Mr. and Mrs. Ament and the one journeyman, Pet McMurry--a name that in itself was an inspiration. What those young scamps did not already know Pet McMurry could teach them. Sam Clemens had promised to be a good boy, and he was, by the standards of boyhood. He was industrious, regular at his work, quick to learn, kind, and truthful. Angels could hardly be more than that in a printing-office; but when food was scarce even an angel--a young printer angel--could hardly resist slipping down the cellar stairs at night for raw potatoes, onions, and apples which they carried into the office, where the boys slept on a pallet on the floor, and this forage they cooked on the office stove. Wales especially had a way of cooking a potato that his associate never forgot.

It is unfortunate that no photographic portrait has been preserved of Sam Clemens at this period. But we may imagine him from a letter which, long years after, Pet McMurry wrote to Mark Twain. He said:

If your memory extends so far back, you will recall a little sandy- haired boy--[The color of Mark Twain's hair in early life has been variously referred to as red, black, and brown. It was, in fact, as stated by McMurry, "sandy" in boyhood, deepening later to that rich, mahogany tone known as auburn.]--of nearly a quarter of a century ago, in the printing-office at Hannibal, over the Brittingham drugstore, mounted upon a little box at the case, pulling away at a huge cigar or a diminutive pipe, who used to love to sing so well the expression of the poor drunken man who was supposed to have fallen by the wayside: "If ever I get up again, I'll stay up--if I kin." . . . Do you recollect any of the serious conflicts that mirth-loving brain of yours used to get you into with that diminutive creature Wales McCormick--how you used to call upon me to hold your cigar or pipe, whilst you went entirely through him?

This is good testimony, without doubt. When he had been with Ament little more than a year Sam had become office favorite and chief standby. Whatever required intelligence and care and imagination was given to Sam Clemens. He could set type as accurately and almost as rapidly as Pet McMurry; he could wash up the forms a good deal better than Pet; and he could run the job-press to the tune of "Annie Laurie" or "Along the Beach at Rockaway," without missing a stroke or losing a finger. Sometimes, at odd moments, he would "set up" one of the popular songs or some favorite poem like "The Blackberry Girl," and of these he sent copies printed on cotton, even on scraps of silk, to favorite girl friends; also to Puss Quarles, on his uncle's farm, where he seldom went now, because he was really grown up, associating with men and doing a man's work. He had charge of the circulation--which is to say, he carried the papers. During the last year of the Mexican War, when a telegraph-wire found its way across the Mississippi to Hannibal--a long sagging span, that for some reason did not break of its own weight--he was given charge of the extras with news from the front; and the burning importance of his mission, the bringing of news hot from the field of battle, spurred him to endeavors that won plaudits and success.

He became a sort of subeditor. When the forms of the paper were ready to close and Ament was needed to supply more matter, it was Sam who was delegated to find that rather uncertain and elusive person and labor with him until the required copy was produced. Thus it was he saw literature in the making.

It is not believed that Sam had any writing ambitions of his own. His chief desire was to be an all-round journeyman printer like Pet McMurry; to drift up and down the world in Pet's untrammeled fashion; to see all that Pet had seen and a number of things which Pet appeared to have overlooked. He varied on occasion from this ambition. When the first negro minstrel show visited Hannibal and had gone, he yearned for a brief period to be a magnificent "middle man" or even the "end-man" of that combination; when the circus came and went, he dreamed of the day when, a capering frescoed clown, he would set crowded tiers of spectators guffawing at his humor; when the traveling hypnotist arrived, he volunteered as a subject, and amazed the audience by the marvel of his performance.

In later life he claimed that he had not been hypnotized in any degree, but had been pretending throughout--a statement always denied by his mother and his brother Orion. This dispute was never settled, and never could be. Sam Clemens's tendency to somnambulism would seem to suggest that he really might have taken on a hypnotic condition, while his consummate skill as an actor, then and always, and his early fondness of exhibition and a joke, would make it not unlikely that he was merely "showing off" and having his fun. He could follow the dictates of a vivid imagination and could be as outrageous as he chose without incurring responsibility of any sort. But there was a penalty: he must allow pins and needles to be thrust into his flesh and suffer these tortures without showing discomfort to the spectators. It is difficult to believe that any boy, however great his exhibitory passion, could permit, in the full possession of his sensibilities, a needle to be thrust deeply into his flesh without manifestations of a most unmesmeric sort. The conclusion seems warranted that he began by pretending, but that at times he was at least under semi-mesmeric control. At all events, he enjoyed a week of dazzling triumph, though in the end he concluded to stick to printing as a trade.

We have said that he was a rapid learner and a neat workman. At Ament's he generally had a daily task, either of composition or press-work, after which he was free. When he had got the hang of his work he was usually done by three in the afternoon; then away to the river or the cave, as in the old days, sometimes with his boy friends, sometimes with Laura Hawkins gathering wild columbine on that high cliff overlooking the river, Lover's Leap.

He was becoming quite a beau, attending parties on occasion, where old- fashioned games--Forfeits, Ring-around-a-Rosy, Dusty Miller, and the like--were regarded as rare amusements. He was a favorite with girls of his own age. He was always good-natured, though he played jokes on them, too, and was often a severe trial. He was with Laura Hawkins more than the others, usually her escort. On Saturday afternoons in winter he carried her skates to Bear Creek and helped her to put them on. After which they skated "partners," holding hands tightly, and were a likely pair of children, no doubt. In The Gilded Age Laura Hawkins at twelve is pictured "with her dainty hands propped into the ribbon-bordered pockets of her apron . . . a vision to warm the coldest heart and bless and cheer the saddest." The author had the real Laura of his childhood in his mind when he wrote that, though the story itself bears no resemblance to her life.

They were never really sweethearts, those two. They were good friends and comrades. Sometimes he brought her magazines--exchanges from the printing--office--Godey's and others. These were a treat, for such things were scarce enough. He cared little for reading, himself, beyond a few exciting tales, though the putting into type of a good deal of miscellaneous matter had beyond doubt developed in him a taste for general knowledge. It needed only to be awakened.

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