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Mark Twain > The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson > Chapter 4

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

Chapter 4


The Ways of the Changelings


Adam and Eve had many advantages, but the principal one was,
that they escaped teething.

--Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar


There is this trouble about special providences--namely, there is
so often a doubt as to which party was intended to be the beneficiary.
In the case of the children, the bears, and the prophet,
the bears got more real satisfaction out of the episode than
the prophet did, because they got the children.

--Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar



This history must henceforth accommodate itself to the change which
Roxana has consummated, and call the real heir "Chambers" and the
usurping little slave, "Thomas `a Becket"--shortening this latter
name to "Tom," for daily use, as the people about him did.

"Tom" was a bad baby, from the very beginning of his usurpation.
He would cry for nothing; he would burst into storms of devilish
temper without notice, and let go scream after scream and squall
after squall, then climax the thing with "holding his breath"--
that frightful specialty of the teething nursling, in the throes of
which the creature exhausts its lungs, then is convulsed with noiseless
squirmings and twistings and kickings in the effort to get its breath,
while the lips turn blue and the mouth stands wide and rigid,
offering for inspection one wee tooth set in the lower rim of a hoop
of red gums; and when the appalling stillness has endured until one
is sure the lost breath will never return, a nurse comes flying,
and dashes water in the child's face, and--presto! the lungs fill,
and instantly discharge a shriek, or a yell, or a howl which bursts the
listening ear and surprises the owner of it into saying words which
would not go well with a halo if he had one. The baby Tom would claw
anybody who came within reach of his nails, and pound anybody he could
reach with his rattle. He would scream for water until he got it,
and then throw cup and all on the floor and scream for more.
He was indulged in all his caprices, howsoever troublesome and
exasperating they might be; he was allowed to eat anything he wanted,
particularly things that would give him the stomach-ache.

When he got to be old enough to begin to toddle about and say broken
words and get an idea of what his hands were for, he was a more
consummate pest than ever. Roxy got no rest while he was awake.
He would call for anything and everything he saw, simply saying,
"Awnt it!" (want it), which was a command. When it was brought,
he said in a frenzy, and motioning it away with his hands,
"Don't awnt it! don't awnt it!" and the moment it was gone he set up
frantic yells of "Awnt it! awnt it!" and Roxy had to give wings to
her heels to get that thing back to him again before he could get time
to carry out his intention of going into convulsions about it.

What he preferred above all other things was the tongs.
This was because his "father" had forbidden him to have them lest
he break windows and furniture with them. The moment Roxy's back
was turned he would toddle to the presence of the tongs and say,
"Like it!" and cock his eye to one side or see if Roxy was observed;
then, "Awnt it!" and cock his eye again; then, "Hab it!" with another
furtive glace; and finally, "Take it!"--and the prize was his.
The next moment the heavy implement was raised aloft; the next,
there was a crash and a squall, and the cat was off on three legs to
meet an engagement; Roxy would arrive just as the lamp or a window
went to irremediable smash.

Tom got all the petting, Chambers got none. Tom got all the delicacies,
Chambers got mush and milk, and clabber without sugar. In consequence Tom
was a sickly child and Chambers wasn't. Tom was "fractious," as Roxy
called it, and overbearing; Chambers was meek and docile.

With all her splendid common sense and practical everyday ability,
Roxy was a doting fool of a mother. She was this toward her child--
and she was also more than this: by the fiction created by herself,
he was become her master; the necessity of recognizing this relation
outwardly and of perfecting herself in the forms required to express
the recognition, had moved her to such diligence and faithfulness in
practicing these forms that this exercise soon concreted itself into habit;
it became automatic and unconscious; then a natural result followed:
deceptions intended solely for others gradually grew practically
into self-deceptions as well; the mock reverence became real reverence,
the mock homage real homage; the little counterfeit rift of separation
between imitation-slave and imitation-master widened and widened,
and became an abyss, and a very real one-- and on one side of it
stood Roxy, the dupe of her own deceptions, and on the other stood
her child, no longer a usurper to her, but her accepted and
recognized master. He was her darling, her master, and her deity
all in one, and in her worship of him she forgot who she was and
what he had been.

In babyhood Tom cuffed and banged and scratched Chambers unrebuked,
and Chambers early learned that between meekly bearing it and
resenting it, the advantage all lay with the former policy.
The few times that his persecutions had moved him beyond control
and made him fight back had cost him very dear at headquarters;
not at the hands of Roxy, for if she ever went beyond scolding
him sharply for "forgett'n' who his young marster was," she at
least never extended her punishment beyond a box on the ear.
No, Percy Driscoll was the person. He told Chambers that under no
provocation whatever was he privileged to lift his hand against his
little master. Chambers overstepped the line three times, and got
three such convincing canings from the man who was his father and
didn't know it, that he took Tom's cruelties in all humility after that,
and made no more experiments.

Outside the house the two boys were together all through
their boyhood. Chambers was strong beyond his years, and a good fighter;
strong because he was coarsely fed and hard worked about the house,
and a good fighter because Tom furnished him plenty of practice--
on white boys whom he hated and was afraid of. Chambers was his
constant bodyguard, to and from school; he was present on the
playground at recess to protect his charge. He fought himself into
such a formidable reputation, by and by, that Tom could have changed
clothes with him, and "ridden in peace," like Sir Kay in Launcelot's armor.

He was good at games of skill, too. Tom staked him with marbles to
play "keeps" with, and then took all the winnings away from him.
In the winter season Chambers was on hand, in Tom's worn-out clothes,
with "holy" red mittens, and "holy" shoes, and pants "holy" at the
knees and seat, to drag a sled up the hill for Tom, warmly clad,
to ride down on; but he never got a ride himself. He built snowmen
and snow fortifications under Tom's directions. He was Tom's patient
target when Tom wanted to do some snowballing, but the target couldn't
fire back. Chambers carried Tom's skates to the river and strapped
them on him, the trotted around after him on the ice, so as to be on
hand when he wanted; but he wasn't ever asked to try the skates himself.

In summer the pet pastime of the boys of Dawson's Landing was to
steal apples, peaches, and melons from the farmer's fruit wagons--
mainly on account of the risk they ran of getting their heads laid
open with the butt of the farmer's whip. Tom was a distinguished adept
at these thefts--by proxy. Chambers did his stealing, and got the
peach stones, apple cores, and melon rinds for his share.

Tom always made Chambers go in swimming with him, and stay by him as
a protection. When Tom had had enough, he would slip out and tie knots
in Chamber's shirt, dip the knots in the water and make them hard to undo,
then dress himself and sit by and laugh while the naked shiverer tugged
at the stubborn knots with his teeth.
    
Tom did his humble comrade these various ill turns partly out of
native viciousness, and partly because he hated him for his
superiorities of physique and pluck, and for his manifold cleverness.
Tom couldn't dive, for it gave him splitting headaches.
Chambers could dive without inconvenience, and was fond of doing it.
He excited so much admiration, one day, among a crowd of white boys,
by throwing back somersaults from the stern of a canoe, that it wearies
Tom's spirit, and at last he shoved the canoe underneath Chambers while
he was in the air--so he came down on his head in the canoe bottom;
and while he lay unconscious, several of Tom's ancient adversaries saw
that their long-desired opportunity was come, and they gave the false heir
such a drubbing that with Chamber's best help he was hardly able to drag
himself home afterward.

When the boys was fifteen and upward, Tom was "showing off" in the river
one day, when he was taken with a cramp, and shouted for help.
It was a common trick with the boys--particularly if a stranger
was present--to pretend a cramp and howl for help; then when the
stranger came tearing hand over hand to the rescue, the howler would
go on struggling and howling till he was close at hand, then replace
the howl with a sarcastic smile and swim blandly away, while the
town boys assailed the dupe with a volley of jeers and laughter.
Tom had never tried this joke as yet, but was supposed to be trying
it now, so the boys held warily back; but Chambers believed his master
was in earnest; therefore, he swam out, and arrived in time,
unfortunately, and saved his life.

This was the last feather. Tom had managed to endure everything else,
but to have to remain publicly and permanently under such an obligation
as this to a nigger, and to this nigger of all niggers--this was too much.
He heaped insults upon Chambers for "pretending" to think he was in
earnest in calling for help, and said that anybody but a blockheaded
nigger would have known he was funning and left him alone.

Tom's enemies were in strong force here, so they came out with their
opinions quite freely. The laughed at him, and called him coward,
liar, sneak, and other sorts of pet names, and told him they meant
to call Chambers by a new name after this, and make it common
in the town--"Tom Driscoll's nigger pappy,"--to signify that he
had had a second birth into this life, and that Chambers was the author
of his new being. Tom grew frantic under these taunts, and shouted:

"Knock their heads off, Chambers! Knock their heads off!
What do you stand there with your hands in your pockets for?"

Chambers expostulated, and said, "But, Marse Tom, dey's too
many of 'em--dey's--"

"Do you hear me?"

"Please, Marse Tom, don't make me! Dey's so many of 'em dat--"

Tom sprang at him and drove his pocketknife into him two or three
times before the boys could snatch him away and give the wounded lad
a chance to escape. He was considerably hurt, but not seriously.
If the blade had been a little longer, his career would have ended there.

Tom had long ago taught Roxy "her place." It had been many a day now
since she had ventured a caress or a fondling epithet in his quarter.
Such things, from a "nigger," were repulsive to him, and she had been
warned to keep her distance and remember who she was. She saw her
darling gradually cease from being her son, she saw THAT detail
perish utterly; all that was left was master--master, pure and simple,
and it was not a gentle mastership, either. She saw herself sink from the
sublime height of motherhood to the somber depths of unmodified slavery,
the abyss of separation between her and her boy was complete.
She was merely his chattel now, his convenience, his dog, his cringing
and helpless slave, the humble and unresisting victim of his capricious
temper and vicious nature.

Sometimes she could not go to sleep, even when worn out with fatigue,
because her rage boiled so high over the day's experiences with her boy.
She would mumble and mutter to herself:

"He struck me en I warn't no way to blame--struck me in de face,
right before folks. En he's al'ays callin' me nigger wench, en hussy,
en all dem mean names, when I's doin' de very bes' I kin.
Oh, Lord, I done so much for him--I lif' him away up to what he is--
en dis is what I git for it."

Sometimes when some outrage of peculiar offensiveness stung her to
the heart, she would plan schemes of vengeance and revel in the fancied
spectacle of his exposure to the world as an imposter and a slave;
but in the midst of these joys fear would strike her; she had made him
too strong; she could prove nothing, and--heavens, she might get sold
down the river for her pains! So her schemes always went for nothing,
and she laid them aside in impotent rage against the fates,
and against herself for playing the fool on that fatal September day
in not providing herself with a witness for use in the day when such a
thing might be needed for the appeasing of her vengeance-hungry heart.

And yet the moment Tom happened to be good to her, and kind--
and this occurred every now and then--all her sore places were healed,
and she was happy; happy and proud, for this was her son, her nigger son,
lording it among the whites and securely avenging their crimes
against her race.

There were two grand funerals in Dawson's Landing that fall--the fall
of 1845. One was that of Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex,
the other that of Percy Driscoll.

On his deathbed Driscoll set Roxy free and delivered his idolized
ostensible son solemnly into the keeping of his brother, the judge,
and his wife. Those childless people were glad to get him.
Childless people are not difficult to please.

Judge Driscoll had gone privately to his brother, a month before,
and bought Chambers. He had heard that Tom had been trying to get
his father to sell the boy down the river, and he wanted to prevent
the scandal--for public sentiment did not approve of that way of treating
family servants for light cause or for no cause.

Percy Driscoll had worn himself out in trying to save his great
speculative landed estate, and had died without succeeding.
He was hardly in his grave before the boom collapsed and left his
envied young devil of an heir a pauper. But that was nothing; his uncle
told him he should be his heir and have all his fortune when he died;
so Tom was comforted.

Roxy had no home now; so she resolved to go around and say good-by to
her friends and then clear out and see the world--that is to say,
she would go chambermaiding on a steamboat, the darling ambition of her
race and sex.

Her last call was on the black giant, Jasper. She found him chopping
Pudd'nhead Wilson's winter provision of wood.

Wilson was chatting with him when Roxy arrived. He asked her how she
could bear to go off chambermaiding and leave her boys; and chaffingly
offered to copy off a series of their fingerprints, reaching up to their
twelfth year, for her to remember them by; but she sobered in a moment,
wondering if he suspected anything; then she said she believed she
didn't want them. Wilson said to himself, "The drop of black blood in
her is superstitious; she thinks there's some devilry, some witch business
about my glass mystery somewhere; she used to come here with an old
horseshoe in her hand; it could have been an accident, but I doubt it."

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