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Mark Twain > Life On The Mississippi > Chapter 53

Life On The Mississippi

Chapter 53

                            My Boyhood's Home

WE took passage in one of the fast boats of the St. Louis and St. Paul
Packet Company, and started up the river.

When I, as a boy, first saw the mouth of the Missouri River, it was twenty-two
or twenty-three miles above St. Louis, according to the estimate of pilots;
the wear and tear of the banks have moved it down eight miles since then;
and the pilots say that within five years the river will cut through and
move the mouth down five miles more, which will bring it within ten miles
of St. Louis.

About nightfall we passed the large and flourishing town
of Alton, Illinois; and before daylight next morning the town
of Louisiana, Missouri, a sleepy village in my day, but a brisk
railway center now; however, all the towns out there are
railway centers now. I could not clearly recognize the place.
This seemed odd to me, for when I retired from the rebel army
in '61 I retired upon Louisiana in good order; at least in good
enough order for a person who had not yet learned how to retreat
according to the rules of war, and had to trust to native genius.
It seemed to me that for a first attempt at a retreat it was
not badly done. I had done no advancing in all that campaign
that was at all equal to it.

There was a railway bridge across the river here well sprinkled
with glowing lights, and a very beautiful sight it was.

At seven in the morning we reached Hannibal, Missouri, where my boyhood
was spent. I had had a glimpse of it fifteen years ago, and another glimpse
six years earlier, but both were so brief that they hardly counted.
The only notion of the town that remained in my mind was the memory
of it as I had known it when I first quitted it twenty-nine years ago.
That picture of it was still as clear and vivid to me as a photograph.
I stepped ashore with the feeling of one who returns out of a
dead-and-gone generation. I had a sort of realizing sense of what
the Bastille prisoners must have felt when they used to come out
and look upon Paris after years of captivity, and note how curiously
the familiar and the strange were mixed together before them.
I saw the new houses--saw them plainly enough--but they did not
affect the older picture in my mind, for through their solid bricks
and mortar I saw the vanished houses, which had formerly stood there,
with perfect distinctness.

It was Sunday morning, and everybody was abed yet. So I passed
through the vacant streets, still seeing the town as it was,
and not as it is, and recognizing and metaphorically shaking
hands with a hundred familiar objects which no longer exist;
and finally climbed Holiday's Hill to get a comprehensive view.
The whole town lay spread out below me then, and I could mark and fix
every locality, every detail. Naturally, I was a good deal moved.
I said, 'Many of the people I once knew in this tranquil refuge of my
childhood are now in heaven; some, I trust, are in the other place.'
The things about me and before me made me feel like a boy again--
convinced me that I was a boy again, and that I had simply been
dreaming an unusually long dream; but my reflections spoiled all that;
for they forced me to say, 'I see fifty old houses down yonder,
into each of which I could enter and find either a man or a woman
who was a baby or unborn when I noticed those houses last, or a
grandmother who was a plump young bride at that time.'

From this vantage ground the extensive view up and down the river,
and wide over the wooded expanses of Illinois, is very beautiful--
one of the most beautiful on the Mississippi, I think; which is
a hazardous remark to make, for the eight hundred miles of river
between St. Louis and St. Paul afford an unbroken succession
of lovely pictures. It may be that my affection for the one in
question biases my judgment in its favor; I cannot say as to that.
No matter, it was satisfyingly beautiful to me, and it had this
advantage over all the other friends whom I was about to greet again:
it had suffered no change; it was as young and fresh and comely and gracious
as ever it had been; whereas, the faces of the others would be old,
and scarred with the campaigns of life, and marked with their griefs
and defeats, and would give me no upliftings of spirit.

An old gentleman, out on an early morning walk, came along, and we
discussed the weather, and then drifted into other matters. I could not
remember his face. He said he had been living here twenty-eight years.
So he had come after my time, and I had never seen him before.
I asked him various questions; first about a mate of mine in Sunday school--
what became of him?

'He graduated with honor in an Eastern college, wandered off into
the world somewhere, succeeded at nothing, passed out of knowledge
and memory years ago, and is supposed to have gone to the dogs.'

'He was bright, and promised well when he was a boy.'

'Yes, but the thing that happened is what became of it all.'

I asked after another lad, altogether the brightest in our village
school when I was a boy.

'He, too, was graduated with honors, from an Eastern college;
but life whipped him in every battle, straight along, and he died
in one of the Territories, years ago, a defeated man.'

I asked after another of the bright boys.

'He is a success, always has been, always will be, I think.'

I inquired after a young fellow who came to the town to study
for one of the professions when I was a boy.

'He went at something else before he got through--went from medicine
to law, or from law to medicine--then to some other new thing;
went away for a year, came back with a young wife; fell to drinking,
then to gambling behind the door; finally took his wife and two young
children to her father's, and went off to Mexico; went from bad
to worse, and finally died there, without a cent to buy a shroud,
and without a friend to attend the funeral.'

'Pity, for he was the best-natured, and most cheery and hopeful
young fellow that ever was.'

I named another boy.

'Oh, he is all right. Lives here yet; has a wife and children,
and is prospering.'

Same verdict concerning other boys.

I named three school-girls.

'The first two live here, are married and have children;
the other is long ago dead--never married.'

I named, with emotion, one of my early sweethearts.

'She is all right. Been married three times; buried two husbands,
divorced from the third, and I hear she is getting ready to marry
an old fellow out in Colorado somewhere. She's got children scattered
around here and there, most everywheres.'

The answer to several other inquiries was brief and simple--

'Killed in the war.'

I named another boy.

'Well, now, his case is curious! There wasn't a human being
in this town but knew that that boy was a perfect chucklehead;
perfect dummy; just a stupid ass, as you may say.
Everybody knew it, and everybody said it. Well, if that very
boy isn't the first lawyer in the State of Missouri to-day,
I'm a Democrat!'

'Is that so?'

'It's actually so. I'm telling you the truth.'

'How do you account for it?'

'Account for it? There ain't any accounting for it,
except that if you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you
don't tell them he's a damned fool they'll never find it out.
There's one thing sure--if I had a damned fool I should know
what to do with him: ship him to St. Louis--it's the noblest
market in the world for that kind of property. Well, when you
come to look at it all around, and chew at it and think it over,
don't it just bang anything you ever heard of?'

'Well, yes, it does seem to. But don't you think maybe it
was the Hannibal people who were mistaken about the boy,
and not the St. Louis people'

'Oh, nonsense! The people here have known him from the very cradle--
they knew him a hundred times better than the St. Louis idiots could
have known him. No, if you have got any damned fools that you want
to realize on, take my advice--send them to St. Louis.'

I mentioned a great number of people whom I had formerly known.
Some were dead, some were gone away, some had prospered,
some had come to naught; but as regarded a dozen or so of the lot,
the answer was comforting:

'Prosperous--live here yet--town littered with their children.'

I asked about Miss ----

Died in the insane asylum three or four years ago--never was out of it
from the time she went in; and was always suffering, too; never got
a shred of her mind back.'

If he spoke the truth, here was a heavy tragedy, indeed.
Thirty-six years in a madhouse, that some young fools might have some fun!
I was a small boy, at the time; and I saw those giddy young ladies come
tiptoeing into the room where Miss ---- sat reading at midnight by a lamp.
The girl at the head of the file wore a shroud and a doughface,
she crept behind the victim, touched her on the shoulder,
and she looked up and screamed, and then fell into convulsions.
She did not recover from the fright, but went mad. In these days it
seems incredible that people believed in ghosts so short a time ago.
But they did.

After asking after such other folk as I could call to mind,
I finally inquired about MYSELF:

'Oh, he succeeded well enough--another case of damned fool.
If they'd sent him to St. Louis, he'd have succeeded sooner.'

It was with much satisfaction that I recognized the wisdom
of having told this candid gentleman, in the beginning,
that my name was Smith.

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