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Mark Twain's Which was the Dream? And other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years
By John S. Tuckey
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1966 The Mark Twain Company
All rights reserved.
Which Was the Dream?
FROM MRS. ALISON X.'S DIARY.
March 1, 1854, morning.—It will be a busy day. Tom and the servants and a carpenter or two have already begun to set up the stage and scenery in the north end of the picture gallery for Bessie's play—first dress rehearsal to-night. There will be two more before the great occasion—Bessie's eighth birthday—the 19th. The scenery and costumes have cost a great sum, and are very beautiful. It will be a fine show to see that company of pretty children clothed in those rich habits. Tom tried to design Bessie's costume himself; dear man, he is daft about the child; about both of them, indeed. He is vain of the play, and says it is wonderful; and it is, perhaps, for a child of eight to have conjured out of her small head. It lacks coherence, of course, and it has some rather startling feats in it, even for magicians and fairies to do; still it is a remarkable little play, all things considered, and is adorably naive and quaint.
Tom has often promised me to write a little sketch of his life for the children to have when we are gone, but has always put it off and put it off; but as soon as I suggested that he write it in honor of Bessie's birth-day, that was quite another matter and he was full of it at once. I think I ought to be jealous; anything that Bessie wants, Bessie can have, but poor mamma has to put up with a kiss and a postponement. Of course Tom would find some opportunity in the matter to show Bessie off. He will write the sketch in shorthand tonight, and between this and the birthday Bessie will turn it into long hand, with a little of my help, and then, on the birthnight, after the ball and the play, she—
Mid-afternoon. Dear me, these interruptions! It is a busy day, sure enough. I don't get time to turn around or get a moment's rest, they keep after me so with their How shall we do this? and how shall we do that? and so on. Tom is going to be tired out before night, the way he is working. But he says he won't. And he has devised a surprise of some kind or other for the end of the evening. As soon as the night's rehearsals of the fancy dances and the play are over I am to bring Bessie and Jessie to his study, and then he—
8 p.m. What a darling flock it is! They have all arrived at last, with their troop of mothers. It is going to be a beautiful sight. The gallery never looked so brilliant before, nor so grand and spacious; and it will look finer than ever on the birth-night, with five hundred handsome people in it and all the military and naval uniforms, and the Diplomatic Body in their showy clothes. Washington is a good place for clothes....
I went to the study, and looked in through the glass door. Tom was at his task—since how long, I don't know. He was drowsy, I could see that; I knew he would be tired. But his pen was going. His cigar was lying on the table, and while I looked he fell asleep for a second and his nodding head drooped gradually down till his nose was right over the ascending film of cigar smoke. It woke him with a violent start and a sneeze, and he went straight on with his work again, and I hurried away, amused, to my room, to get a moment's rest before beginning my long task of superintending the costuming of the little people and directing the series of rehearsals.... A note—from the White House. The President invites himself for this evening! This is an honor. And it is all for Bessie, none of it for Tom. This it is, to be a Chief Magistrate's small sweetheart. Someday it will make the child proud to be able to say that once a President of the United States broke the laws of etiquette that hedge his station for love of her. If he—"Coming!" I am getting tired of that word.
MAJOR GENERAL X.'S STORY.
Alice (short for Alison) Sedgewick and I (Thomas X.,) were born in the little town of Pawpaw Corners, in the State of Kentucky, I in 1820, she in 1826. When she was five and I eleven, we became engaged. I remember it very well, and so does she. It was the first time we had ever met; for it was only just then that her family had moved into our neighborhood from the other side of the town. We met on the way to school, on a pleasant morning in the early summer time—April, I should say; perhaps toward the end of it. It would be about that time I think, for it was warm enough for even boys connected with "quality" families to begin to hope for leave to go barefoot. The damp was stewing out of the ground, the grass was springing briskly, the wild flowers were thick, and in the woods on Murray Hill early in the mornings there was a musical riot of bird-song in place of the stillness that had reigned there so long. All the common boys had been barefoot for as much as a week already, and were beginning to mock at us for "Miss Nancys," and make fun of us for being under our mother's thumbs and obliged to be unmanly and take care of our health like girls. I had been begging my mother for leave, but she would not give it. She said we were as good blood as the best in the town—good old Virginian stock, like the Sedgewicks and the Dents—and she would not allow her boy to take second place to any offshoot of theirs. She said that I could come out barefoot when Billy Dent and Jeff Sedgewick did, and not a day before. Billy Dent was the county Judge's son, and Mr. Sedgewick was the principal lawyer and had run for Congress once. Mr. Sedgewick was Alice's father and Jeff's uncle, and had a large farm in the country, and owned more negroes than any other man in the town; and Jeff was a playmate of mine, although I had never seen his cousin until now.
I had my new summer suit on, that morning—yellow nankeens —and was proud; proud of the clothes, but prouder still because I was barefoot; the first "quality" boy in the town to be "out." I had been showing off before Jeff and Billy, and making them green with envy: for they had supposed it was by my mother's permission that I was barefoot—supposed it from something I had said, I think. But I knew where my shoes were, and could find them when I wanted to go home.
The schoolhouse stood on a small bare hill, and at that time there was a thicket at the bottom of it, with a clear stream rippling through it; and it was just there that I came upon Alison. She was the dearest and prettiest little thing I had ever seen, and I loved her from that very moment. She had a broad leghorn hat on, with a wide red satin ribbon around it, the long ends dangling down behind; and her little short frock was of thin white summer stuff, and a piece of that same ribbon was tied around her waist for a belt. In one hand she had a Webster spelling-book and first reader, and in the other she had the last winter-apple that was left over.
I wanted to speak to her, but I was all in a quiver and did not know how to begin. She looked timidly up at me out of her brown eyes, then dropped them, and stood there before me silent. I had a marble in my hand—it was a white alley that I had just got in a trade for a China that was so worn that you could hardly see the stripes on it—and my excitement made my hand tremble, and it fell on the ground near by. It was precious property, but I would not take my eyes off that pretty little creature long enough to pick it up; but worked my right foot toward it and closed my toes over it and took it in their grip. That interested her, and broke the ice. She said—
"I didn't know anybody could do that but my cousin Jeff and our Jake. Can you walk with it so? They can."
"Oh, yes—it's easy; anybody can do it."
I made a step or two. Then with my foot I threw up the marble and caught it in my hand.
She was bursting with admiration, and tried to clap her hands, but they were too full of things. She cried out—
"Oh, do it again—do it again!"
"Shucks, that's nothing—look at this."
I gripped the marble in the toes of my right foot, balanced myself on my left, swung my right forward once or twice, to get impulse, then violently upward and backward, and sent the marble well up into the air above our heads, then made a spring and caught it as it came down.
She was mine! I saw it in her eyes. Her look was the concentrated look which Europe cast upon Napoleon after Austerlitz. She impulsively reached out the apple to me and said—
"There. You may have it all for your own."
"No, not all of it—we'll have it together. First, you'll take a bite, and then I'll take a bite, and then you'll take a bite, and then—"
I held it to her mouth, she took her bite, then I took mine, and munching we sauntered into the thicket, along the worn path, I holding her by her left hand. And by the stream we sat down together, and took bites turn about, and contentedly munched and talked. I told her my name, she told me hers, and the name of her kitten and its mother's, and some of their habits and preferences and qualities, and I told her how to dig fishing-worms, and how to make a pin-hook, and what to do to keep awake in church, and the best way to catch flies; and at last I asked her if she was engaged, and explained it to her; and when she said she was not, I said I was glad, and said 1 was not; and she said she was glad; and by this time we had munched down to the core, and I said now we could find out if everything was going to come out right and we get married. So then I took out the apple-seeds one by one and laid them in her small palm, and she listened with deep interest and grave earnestness while I delivered the fateful word that belonged with each:
"One I love, two I love, three I love I say;
Four I love with all my heart, and five I cast away;
Six he loves—"
"And do you, Tom?"
"Yes. Are you glad?"
"Yes, Tom. Go on."
"Seven she loves—do you, Alice?"
"Yes, Tom. Go on."
"Eight they both love—and they do, don't we, Alice?"
"Yes, Tom. Keep on."
"Nine he comes, ten he tarries—"
"What is tarries, Tom?"
"Oh, never mind—t'isn't so, anyway—eleven he courts, and twelve he marries! There, that settles it! It's the very last seed, Alice, dear, and we are going to get married, sure; nothing can ever prevent it."
"I'm so glad, Tom. Now what do we have to do?"
"Nothing but just kiss. There—another—and one more. Now it's fixed. And it'll stay forever. You'll see, dearie."
And it did stay forever. At least it has stayed until this day and date, March 1, 1854; and that is twenty-three years.
I will skip a good many years, now. They were filled to the brim with the care-free joys of boyhood, and were followed by four happy years of young manhood, spent at the Military Academy of West Point, whence I was graduated in the summer of 1841, aged 21 years. All those years were a part of my life, it is true, yet I do not count them so. By my count they were merely a preparation for my life—which began in 1845 with my marriage. That was my supreme event; that was happiness which made all previous happinesses of little moment; it was so deep and real that it made those others seem shallow and artificial; so gracious and so divine that it exposed them as being earthy and poor and common. We two were one. For all functions but the physical, one heart would have answered for us both. Our days were a dream, we lived in a world of enchantment. We were obscure, we were but indifferently well off, as to money, but if these were lacks we did not know it, at least did not feel it.
In 1846 our little Bessie was born—the second great event in my life. A month later, my wife's father died; within the week afterward coal was discovered on his land and our poverty—to exaggerate the term a little—disappeared in a night. Presently came the war, and through a film of proud tears my Alison, holding our little Bessie up to lock, saw her late unnoted 2d lieutenant, U.S.A., march for Mexico, colonel of a regiment of volunteers. In a little while she began to see his name in the war news, among the crowd of other names; then she saw it gradually and steadily separate itself from the crowd and grow more and more isolated, conspicuous, distinguished; and finally saw it hoisted aloft among the great head-lines, with Scott's and Taylor's for sole company; and in these days it was become as common as theirs upon the world's tongue, and it could be uttered in any assemblage in the land and be depended upon to explode a mine of enthusiasm. She was a proud woman, and glad; and learned to practice deceit, to protect her modesty and save the exultation in her heart from showing in her face—pretending not to hear, when she passed along, and there was a sudden stir upon the pavement, and whispers of, "There—look—the wife of the boy General!" For I was by many years the youngest of that rank in our armies.
And more was to come; the favors of fortune were not exhausted yet. There came a stately addition to that remark—"wife of the boy General—United States Senator—the youngest that was ever elected." It was true. The brief war over, I learned the news from the papers while I was on my way home.
And Alice was a proud woman again when her late obscure 2d lieutenant entered our village and drove, at the Governor's side, through the massed country multitudes, under triumphal arches, in a rain of rockets, and glare-of Greek fire, and storm of cannon-blasts, and crash of bands and huzzahs, to the banquet prepared in his honor; and proud once more when he rose at her side, there, and she saw the house rise at him and fill the air with a snow-tempest of waving napkins and a roar of welcoming voices long continued; and proud yet once more when he made his speech, and carried the house with him, sentence by sentence to the stirring close, and sat down with a dazzling new reputation made. (Her own dear words, and a pardonable over-statement of the facts.)
Those were memorable days, marvelous days for us. More than ever we seemed to be living in a world of enchantment. It all seemed so strange, indeed so splendidly impossible, that these bounties, usually reserved for age, should be actually ours, and we so young; for she was but 22 and I but 28. Every morning one or the other of us laughed and said, "Another day gone, and it isn't a dream yet!" For we had the same thought, and it was a natural one: that the night might rob us, some time or other, and we should wake bereaved.
We built a costly and beautiful house in Washington, and furnished it luxuriously. Then began a life which was full of charm for both of us. We did not have to labor our way into society with arts and diplomacies, our position was already established and our place ready for us when we came. We did not need to court, we were courted. We entertained freely, and our house was the meeting ground for all who had done anything, for all who were distinguished in letters, the arts, in politics and fashion, and it was almost the common home of Clay, Webster, Benton, Scott, and some of the other men of conspicuous fame. Alison's beauty and youth attracted all comers to her, and her sterling character and fine mind made them her friends.
And she was the gratefulest creature that ever was. Often she would take my face between her hands, and look into my eyes, and say—
"How dear you are! and it is you that have given me all this wonderful life. But for you I should be nothing—nothing at all. I am so proud of you; so proud, and so glad that you are mine, all mine."
It was her wealth that made this choice life possible; but she always put her hand on my lips when I said that, and would not listen; and said my fame and deeds would have been sufficient.
We are happy, we are satisfied. Fortune has done all for me that was in her power. She would have added the last possible distinction, but was defeated by the Constitution. I should be President and First Citizen of the United States now, if I were of lawful age. It is not I that say this immodest thing—ask your mother. It seems decreed, past all doubt, that I shall ascend to that high post three years hence, but we will not talk of that now, dear; there is no hurry.
Excerpted from Mark Twain's Which was the Dream? And other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years by John S. Tuckey. Copyright © 1966 The Mark Twain Company. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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