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Mark Twain > The Prince and the Pauper > Chapter II

The Prince and the Pauper

Chapter II

Tom's early life.

Let us skip a number of years.

London was fifteen hundred years old, and was a great town--for that day.
It had a hundred thousand inhabitants--some think double as many. The
streets were very narrow, and crooked, and dirty, especially in the part
where Tom Canty lived, which was not far from London Bridge. The houses
were of wood, with the second story projecting over the first, and the
third sticking its elbows out beyond the second. The higher the houses
grew, the broader they grew. They were skeletons of strong criss-cross
beams, with solid material between, coated with plaster. The beams were
painted red or blue or black, according to the owner's taste, and this
gave the houses a very picturesque look. The windows were small, glazed
with little diamond-shaped panes, and they opened outward, on hinges,
like doors.

The house which Tom's father lived in was up a foul little pocket called
Offal Court, out of Pudding Lane. It was small, decayed, and rickety,
but it was packed full of wretchedly poor families. Canty's tribe
occupied a room on the third floor. The mother and father had a sort of
bedstead in the corner; but Tom, his grandmother, and his two sisters,
Bet and Nan, were not restricted--they had all the floor to themselves,
and might sleep where they chose. There were the remains of a blanket or
two, and some bundles of ancient and dirty straw, but these could not
rightly be called beds, for they were not organised; they were kicked
into a general pile, mornings, and selections made from the mass at
night, for service.

Bet and Nan were fifteen years old--twins. They were good-hearted girls,
unclean, clothed in rags, and profoundly ignorant. Their mother was like
them. But the father and the grandmother were a couple of fiends. They
got drunk whenever they could; then they fought each other or anybody
else who came in the way; they cursed and swore always, drunk or sober;
John Canty was a thief, and his mother a beggar. They made beggars of
the children, but failed to make thieves of them. Among, but not of, the
dreadful rabble that inhabited the house, was a good old priest whom the
King had turned out of house and home with a pension of a few farthings,
and he used to get the children aside and teach them right ways secretly.
Father Andrew also taught Tom a little Latin, and how to read and write;
and would have done the same with the girls, but they were afraid of the
jeers of their friends, who could not have endured such a queer
accomplishment in them.

All Offal Court was just such another hive as Canty's house. Drunkenness,
riot and brawling were the order, there, every night and nearly all night
long. Broken heads were as common as hunger in that place. Yet little
Tom was not unhappy. He had a hard time of it, but did not know it. It
was the sort of time that all the Offal Court boys had, therefore he
supposed it was the correct and comfortable thing. When he came home
empty-handed at night, he knew his father would curse him and thrash him
first, and that when he was done the awful grandmother would do it all
over again and improve on it; and that away in the night his starving
mother would slip to him stealthily with any miserable scrap or crust she
had been able to save for him by going hungry herself, notwithstanding
she was often caught in that sort of treason and soundly beaten for it by
her husband.

No, Tom's life went along well enough, especially in summer. He only
begged just enough to save himself, for the laws against mendicancy were
stringent, and the penalties heavy; so he put in a good deal of his time
listening to good Father Andrew's charming old tales and legends about
giants and fairies, dwarfs and genii, and enchanted castles, and gorgeous
kings and princes. His head grew to be full of these wonderful things,
and many a night as he lay in the dark on his scant and offensive straw,
tired, hungry, and smarting from a thrashing, he unleashed his
imagination and soon forgot his aches and pains in delicious picturings
to himself of the charmed life of a petted prince in a regal palace. One
desire came in time to haunt him day and night: it was to see a real
prince, with his own eyes. He spoke of it once to some of his Offal
Court comrades; but they jeered him and scoffed him so unmercifully that
he was glad to keep his dream to himself after that.

He often read the priest's old books and got him to explain and enlarge
upon them. His dreamings and readings worked certain changes in him, by-
and-by. His dream-people were so fine that he grew to lament his shabby
clothing and his dirt, and to wish to be clean and better clad. He went
on playing in the mud just the same, and enjoying it, too; but, instead
of splashing around in the Thames solely for the fun of it, he began to
find an added value in it because of the washings and cleansings it

Tom could always find something going on around the Maypole in Cheapside,
and at the fairs; and now and then he and the rest of London had a chance
to see a military parade when some famous unfortunate was carried
prisoner to the Tower, by land or boat. One summer's day he saw poor Anne
Askew and three men burned at the stake in Smithfield, and heard an ex-
Bishop preach a sermon to them which did not interest him. Yes, Tom's
life was varied and pleasant enough, on the whole.

By-and-by Tom's reading and dreaming about princely life wrought such a
strong effect upon him that he began to ACT the prince, unconsciously.
His speech and manners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the
vast admiration and amusement of his intimates. But Tom's influence
among these young people began to grow now, day by day; and in time he
came to be looked up to, by them, with a sort of wondering awe, as a
superior being. He seemed to know so much! and he could do and say such
marvellous things! and withal, he was so deep and wise! Tom's remarks,
and Tom's performances, were reported by the boys to their elders; and
these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty, and to regard him as a
most gifted and extraordinary creature. Full-grown people brought their
perplexities to Tom for solution, and were often astonished at the wit
and wisdom of his decisions. In fact he was become a hero to all who
knew him except his own family--these, only, saw nothing in him.

Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court! He was the
prince; his special comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries, lords
and ladies in waiting, and the royal family. Daily the mock prince was
received with elaborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom from his romantic
readings; daily the great affairs of the mimic kingdom were discussed in
the royal council, and daily his mimic highness issued decrees to his
imaginary armies, navies, and viceroyalties.

After which, he would go forth in his rags and beg a few farthings, eat
his poor crust, take his customary cuffs and abuse, and then stretch
himself upon his handful of foul straw, and resume his empty grandeurs in
his dreams.

And still his desire to look just once upon a real prince, in the flesh,
grew upon him, day by day, and week by week, until at last it absorbed
all other desires, and became the one passion of his life.

One January day, on his usual begging tour, he tramped despondently up
and down the region round about Mincing Lane and Little East Cheap, hour
after hour, bare-footed and cold, looking in at cook-shop windows and
longing for the dreadful pork-pies and other deadly inventions displayed
there--for to him these were dainties fit for the angels; that is,
judging by the smell, they were--for it had never been his good luck to
own and eat one. There was a cold drizzle of rain; the atmosphere was
murky; it was a melancholy day. At night Tom reached home so wet and
tired and hungry that it was not possible for his father and grandmother
to observe his forlorn condition and not be moved--after their fashion;
wherefore they gave him a brisk cuffing at once and sent him to bed. For
a long time his pain and hunger, and the swearing and fighting going on
in the building, kept him awake; but at last his thoughts drifted away to
far, romantic lands, and he fell asleep in the company of jewelled and
gilded princelings who live in vast palaces, and had servants salaaming
before them or flying to execute their orders. And then, as usual, he
dreamed that HE was a princeling himself.

All night long the glories of his royal estate shone upon him; he moved
among great lords and ladies, in a blaze of light, breathing perfumes,
drinking in delicious music, and answering the reverent obeisances of the
glittering throng as it parted to make way for him, with here a smile,
and there a nod of his princely head.

And when he awoke in the morning and looked upon the wretchedness about
him, his dream had had its usual effect--it had intensified the
sordidness of his surroundings a thousandfold. Then came bitterness, and
heart-break, and tears.

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