was approaching. The schoolmaster, always severe, grew severer and more exacting than ever, for he wanted the school to make a good showing on “Examination” day. His rod and his ferule were seldom idle now – at least among the smaller pupils. Only the biggest boys, and young ladies of eighteen and twenty, escaped lashing. Mr. Dobbins’s lashings were very vigorous ones, too; for although he carried, under his wig, a perfectly bald and shiny head, he had only reached middle age, and there was no sign of feebleness in his muscle. As the great day approached, all the tyranny that was in him came to the surface; he seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings. The consequence was, that the smaller boys spent their days in terror and suffering and their nights in plotting revenge. They threw away no opportunity to do the master a mischief. But he kept ahead all the time. The retribution that followed every vengeful success was so sweeping and majestic that the boys always retired from the field badly worsted. At last they conspired together and hit upon a plan that promised a dazzling victory. They swore in the sign-painter’s boy, told him the scheme, and asked his help. He had his own reasons for being delighted, for the master boarded in his father’s family and had given the boy ample cause to hate him. The master’s wife would go on a visit to the country in a few days, and there would be nothing to interfere with the plan; the master always prepared himself for great occasions by getting pretty well fuddled, and the sign-painter’s boy said that when the dominie had reached the proper condition on Examination Evening he would “manage the thing” while he napped in his chair; then he would have him awakened at the right time and hurried away to school.
In the fulness of time the interesting occasion arrived. At eight in the evening the school-house was brilliantly lighted, and adorned with wreaths and festoons of foliage and flowers. The master sat throned in his great chair upon a raised platform, with his blackboard behind him. He was looking tolerably mellow. Three rows of benches on each side and six rows in front of him were occupied by the dignitaries of the town and by the parents of the pupils. To his left, back of the rows of citizens, was a spacious temporary platform upon which were seated the scholars who were to take part in the exercises of the evening; rows of small boys, washed and dressed to an intolerable state of discomfort; rows of gawky big boys; snowbanks of girls and young ladies clad in lawn and muslin and conspicuously conscious of their bare arms, their grandmothers’ ancient trinkets, their bits of pink and blue ribbon and the flowers in their hair. All the rest of the house was filled with non-participating scholars.
The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and sheepishly recited, “You’d scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the stage,” etc. – accompanying himself with the painfully exact and spasmodic gestures which a machine might have used – supposing the machine to be a trifle out of order. But he got through safely, though cruelly scared, and got a fine round of applause when he made his manufactured bow and retired.
A little shamefaced girl lisped, “Mary had a little lamb,” etc., performed a compassion-inspiring curtsy, got her meed of applause, and sat down flushed and happy.
Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into the unquenchable and indestructible “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down in the middle of it. A ghastly stage-fright seized him, his legs quaked under him and he was like to choke. True, he had the manifest sympathy of the house but he had the house’s silence, too, which was even worse than its sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom struggled a while and then retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak attempt at applause, but it died early.
“The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” followed; also “The Assyrian Came Down,” and other declamatory gems. Then there were reading exercises, and a spelling fight. The meagre Latin class recited with honor. The prime feature of the evening was in order, now – original “compositions” by the young ladies. Each in her turn stepped forward to the edge of the platform, cleared her throat, held up her manuscript (tied with dainty ribbon), and proceeded to read, with labored attention to “expression” and punctuation. The themes were the same that had been illuminated upon similar occasions by their mothers before them, their grandmothers, and doubtless all their ancestors in the female line clear back to the Crusades. “Friendship” was one; “Memories of Other Days”; “Religion in History”; “Dream Land”; “The Advantages of Culture”; “Forms of Political Government Compared and Contrasted”; “Melancholy”; “Filial Love”; “Heart Longings,” etc., etc.
A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of “fine language”; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brainracking effort was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is not sufficient to-day; it never will be sufficient while the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable.
Let us return to the “Examination.” The first composition that was read was one entitled “Is this, then, Life?” Perhaps the reader can endure an extract from it:
“In the common walks of life, with what delightful emotions does the youthful mind look forward to some anticipated scene of festivity! Imagination is busy sketching rose-tinted pictures of joy. In fancy, the voluptuous votary of fashion sees herself amid the festive throng, ‘the observed of all observers.’ Her graceful form, arrayed in snowy robes, is whirling through the mazes of the joyous dance; her eye is brightest, her step is lightest in the gay assembly.
“In such delicious fancies time quickly glides by, and the welcome hour arrives for her entrance into the Elysian world, of which she has had such bright dreams. How fairy-like does everything appear to her enchanted vision! Each new scene is more charming than the last. But after a while she finds that beneath this goodly exterior, all is vanity, the flattery which once charmed her soul, now grates harshly upon her ear; the ballroom has lost its charms; and with wasted health and imbittered heart, she turns away with the conviction that earthly pleasures cannot satisfy the longings of the soul!”
And so forth and so on. There was a buzz of gratification from time to time during the reading, accompanied by whispered ejaculations of “How sweet!” “How eloquent!” “So true!” etc., and after the thing had closed with a peculiarly afflicting sermon the applause was enthusiastic.
Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had the “interesting” paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a “poem.” Two stanzas of it will do:
“A MISSOURI MAIDEN’S FAREWELL TO ALABAMA
“Alabama, good-bye! I love thee well!
But yet for a while do I leave thee now!
Sad, yes, sad thoughts of thee my heart doth swell,
And burning recollections throng my brow!
For I have wandered through thy flowery woods;
Have roamed and read near Tallapoosa’s stream;
Have listened to Tallassee’s warring floods,
And wooed on Coosa’s side Aurora’s beam.
“Yet shame I not to bear an o’erfull heart,
Nor blush to turn behind my tearful eyes;
’Tis from no stranger land I now must part,
’Tis to no strangers left I yield these sighs.
Welcome and home were mine within this State,
Whose vales I leave – whose spires fade fast from me
And cold must be mine eyes, and heart, and tête,
When, dear Alabama! they turn cold on thee!”
There were very few there who knew what “tête” meant, but the poem was very satisfactory, nevertheless.
Next appeared a dark-complexioned, black-eyed, black-haired young lady, who paused an impressive moment, assumed a tragic expression, and began to read in a measured, solemn tone:
“Dark and tempestuous was night. Around the throne on high not a single star quivered; but the deep intonations of the heavy thunder constantly vibrated upon the ear; whilst the terrific lightning revelled in angry mood through the cloudy chambers of heaven, seeming to scorn the power exerted over its terror by the illustrious Franklin! Even the boisterous winds unanimously came forth from their mystic homes, and blustered about as if to enhance by their aid the wildness of the scene.
“At such a time, so dark, so dreary, for human sympathy my very spirit sighed; but instead thereof,
‘My dearest friend, my counsellor, my comforter and guide—
My joy in grief, my second bliss in joy,’ came to my side.
She moved like one of those bright beings pictured in the sunny walks of fancy’s Eden by the romantic and young, a queen of beauty unadorned save by her own transcendent loveliness. So soft was her step, it failed to make even a sound, and but for the magical thrill imparted by her genial touch, as other unobtrusive beauties, she would have glided away unperceived – unsought. A strange sadness rested upon her features, like icy tears upon the robe of December, as she pointed to the contending elements without, and bade me contemplate the two beings presented.”
This nightmare occupied some ten pages of manuscript and wound up with a sermon so destructive of all hope to non-Presbyterians that it took the first prize. This composition was considered to be the very finest effort of the evening. The mayor of the village, in delivering the prize to the author of it, made a warm speech in which he said that it was by far the most “eloquent” thing he had ever listened to, and that Daniel Webster himself might well be proud of it.
It may be remarked, in passing, that the number of compositions in which the word “beauteous” was over-fondled, and human experience referred to as “life’s page,” was up to the usual average.
Now the master, mellow almost to the verge of geniality, put his chair aside, turned his back to the audience, and began to draw a map of America on the blackboard, to exercise the geography class upon. But he made a sad business of it with his unsteady hand, and a smothered titter rippled over the house. He knew what the matter was, and set himself to right it. He sponged out lines and remade them; but he only distorted them more than ever, and the tittering was more pronounced. He threw his entire attention upon his work, now, as if determined not to be put down by the mirth. He felt that all eyes were fastened upon him; he imagined he was succeeding, and yet the tittering continued; it even manifestly increased. And well it might. There was a garret above, pierced with a scuttle over his head; and down through this scuttle came a cat, suspended around the haunches by a string; she had a rag tied about her head and jaws to keep her from mewing; as she slowly descended she curved upward and clawed at the string, she swung downward and clawed at the intangible air. The tittering rose higher and higher – the cat was within six inches of the absorbed teacher’s head – down, down, a little lower, and she grabbed his wig with her desperate claws, clung to it, and was snatched up into the garret in an instant with her trophy still in her possession! And how the light did blaze abroad from the master’s bald pate – for the sign-painter’s boy had gilded it!
That broke up the meeting. The boys were avenged. Vacation had come.
joined the new order of Cadets of Temperance, being attracted by the showy character of their “regalia.” He promised to abstain from smoking, chewing, and profanity as long as he remained a member. Now he found out a new thing – namely, that to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. Tom soon found himself tormented with a desire to drink and swear; the desire grew to be so intense that nothing but the hope of a chance to display himself in his red sash kept him from withdrawing from the order. Fourth of July was coming; but he soon gave that up – gave it up before he had worn his shackles over forty-eight hours – and fixed his hopes upon old Judge Frazer, justice of the peace, who was apparently on his death-bed and would have a big public funeral, since he was so high an official. During three days Tom was deeply concerned about the Judge’s condition and hungry for news of it. Sometimes his hopes ran high – so high that he would venture to get out his regalia and practise before the looking-glass. But the Judge had a most discouraging way of fluctuating. At last he was pronounced upon the mend – and then convalescent. Tom was disgusted; and felt a sense of injury, too. He handed in his resignation at once – and that night the Judge suffered a relapse and died. Tom resolved that he would never trust a man like that again.
The funeral was a fine thing. The Cadets paraded in a style calculated to kill the late member with envy. Tom was a free boy again, however – there was something in that. He could drink and swear, now – but found to his surprise that he did not want to. The simple fact that he could, took the desire away, and the charm of it.
Tom presently wondered to find that his coveted vacation was beginning to hang a little heavily on his hands.
He attempted a diary – but nothing happened during three days, and so he abandoned it.
The first of all the negro minstrel shows came to town, and made a sensation. Tom and Joe Harper got up a band of performers and were happy for two days.
HAPPY FOR TWO DAYS.
Even the Glorious Fourth was in some sense a failure, for it rained hard, there was no procession in consequence, and the greatest man in the world (as Tom supposed), Mr. Benton, an actual United States Senator, proved an overwhelming disappointment – for he was not twenty-five feet high, nor even anywhere in the neighborhood of it.
A circus came. The boys played circus for three days afterward in tents made of rag carpeting – admission, three pins for boys, two for girls – and then circusing was abandoned.
A phrenologist and a mesmerizer came – and went again and left the village duller and drearier than ever.
There were some boys-and-girls’ parties, but they were so few and so delightful that they only made the aching voids between ache the harder.
Becky Thatcher was gone to her Constantinople home to stay with her parents during vacation – so there was no bright side to life anywhere.
The dreadful secret of the murder was a chronic misery. It was a very cancer for permanency and pain.
Then came the measles.
ENJOYING THE VACATION.
During two long weeks Tom lay a prisoner, dead to the world and its happenings. He was very ill, he was interested in nothing. When he got upon his feet at last and moved feebly down-town, a melancholy change had come over everything and every creature. There had been a “revival,” and everybody had “got religion,” not only the adults, but even the boys and girls. Tom went about, hoping against hope for the sight of one blessed sinful face, but disappointment crossed him everywhere. He found Joe Harper studying a Testament, and turned sadly away from the depressing spectacle. He sought Ben Rogers, and found him visiting the poor with a basket of tracts. He hunted up Jim Hollis, who called his attention to the precious blessing of his late measles as a warning. Every boy he encountered added another ton to his depression; and when, in desperation, he flew for refuge at last to the bosom of Huckleberry Finn and was received with a Scriptural quotation, his heart broke and he crept home and to bed realizing that he alone of all the town was lost, forever and forever.
And that night there came on a terrific storm, with driving rain, awful claps of thunder and blinding sheets of lightning. He covered his head with the bedclothes and waited in a horror of suspense for his doom; for he had not the shadow of a doubt that all this hubbub was about him. He believed he had taxed the forbearance of the powers above to the extremity of endurance and that this was the result. It might have seemed to him a waste of pomp and ammunition to kill a bug with a battery of artillery, but there seemed nothing incongruous about the getting up such an expensive thunder-storm as this to knock the turf from under an insect like himself.
By and by the tempest spent itself and died without accomplishing its object. The boy’s first impulse was to be grateful, and reform. His second was to wait – for there might not be any more storms.
The next day the doctors were back; Tom had relapsed. The three weeks he spent on his back this time seemed an entire age. When he got abroad at last he was hardly grateful that he had been spared, remembering how lonely was his estate, how companionless and forlorn he was. He drifted listlessly down the street and found Jim Hollis acting as judge in a juvenile court that was trying a cat for murder, in the presence of her victim, a bird. He found Joe Harper and Huck Finn up an alley eating a stolen melon. Poor lads! they – like Tom – had suffered a relapse.
last the sleepy atmosphere was stirred – and vigorously: the murder trial came on in the court. It became the absorbing topic of village talk immediately. Tom could not get away from it. Every reference to the murder sent a shudder to his heart, for his troubled conscience and fears almost persuaded him that these remarks were put forth in his hearing as “feelers”; he did not see how he could be suspected of knowing anything about the murder, but still he could not be comfortable in the midst of this gossip. It kept him in a cold shiver all the time. He took Huck to a lonely place to have a talk with him. It would be some relief to unseal his tongue for a little while; to divide his burden of distress with another sufferer. Moreover, he wanted to assure himself that Huck had remained discreet.
“Huck, have you ever told anybody about – that?”
“You know what.”
“Oh – ’course I haven’t.”
“Never a word?”
“Never a solitary word, so help me. What makes you ask?”
“Well, I was afeard.”
“Why, Tom Sawyer, we wouldn’t be alive two days if that got found out. You know that.”
Tom felt more comfortable. After a pause:
“Huck, they couldn’t anybody get you to tell, could they?”
“Get me to tell? Why, if I wanted that half-breed devil to drownd me they could get me to tell. They ain’t no different way.”
“Well, that’s all right, then. I reckon we’re safe as long as we keep mum. But let’s swear again, anyway. It’s more surer.”
So they swore again with dread solemnities.
“What is the talk around, Huck? I’ve heard a power of it.”
“Talk? Well, it’s just Muff Potter, Muff Potter, Muff Potter all the time. It keeps me in a sweat, constant, so’s I want to hide som’ers.”
“That’s just the same way they go on round me. I reckon he’s a goner. Don’t you feel sorry for him, sometimes?”
“Most always – most always. He ain’t no account; but then he hain’t ever done anything to hurt anybody. Just fishes a little, to get money to get drunk on – and loafs around considerable; but lord, we all do that – leastways most of us – preachers and such like. But he’s kind of good – he give me half a fish, once, when there warn’t enough for two; and lots of times he’s kind of stood by me when I was out of luck.”
“Well, he’s mended kites for me, Huck, and knitted hooks on to my line. I wish we could get him out of there.”
“My! we couldn’t get him out, Tom. And besides, ’twouldn’t do any good; they’d ketch him again.”
“Yes – so they would. But I hate to hear ’em abuse him so like the dickens when he never done – that.”
“I do too, Tom. Lord, I hear ’em say he’s the bloodiest looking villain in this country, and they wonder he wasn’t ever hung before.”
“Yes, they talk like that, all the time. I’ve heard ’em say that if he was to get free they’d lynch him.”
“And they’d do it, too.”
The boys had a long talk, but it brought them little comfort. As the twilight drew on, they found themselves hanging about the neighborhood of the little isolated jail, perhaps with an undefined hope that something would happen that might clear away their difficulties. But nothing happened; there seemed to be no angels or fairies interested in this luckless captive.
The boys did as they had often done before – went to the cell grating and gave Potter some tobacco and matches. He was on the ground floor and there were no guards.
His gratitude for their gifts had always smote their consciences before – it cut deeper than ever, this time. They felt cowardly and treacherous to the last degree when Potter said:
“You’ve been mighty good to me, boys – better’n anybody else in this town. And I don’t forget it, I don’t. Often I says to myself, says I, ‘I used to mend all the boys’ kites and things, and show ’em where the good fishin’ places was, and befriend ’em what I could, and now they’ve all forgot old Muff when he’s in trouble; but Tom don’t, and Huck don’t – they don’t forget him,’ says I, ‘and I don’t forget them.’ Well, boys, I done an awful thing – drunk and crazy at the time – that’s the only way I account for it – and now I got to swing for it, and it’s right. Right, and best, too, I reckon – hope so, anyway. Well, we won’t talk about that. I don’t want to make you feel bad; you’ve befriended me. But what I want to say, is, don’t you ever get drunk – then you won’t ever get here. Stand a litter furder west – so – that’s it; it’s a prime comfort to see faces that’s friendly when a body’s in such a muck of trouble, and there don’t none come here but yourn. Good friendly faces – good friendly faces. Git up on one another’s backs and let me touch ’em. That’s it. Shake hands – yourn’ll come through the bars, but mine’s too big. Little hands, and weak – but they’ve helped Muff Potter a power, and they’d help him more if they could.”
Tom went home miserable, and his dreams that night were full of horrors. The next day and the day after, he hung about the court-room, drawn by an almost irresistible impulse to go in, but forcing himself to stay out. Huck was having the same experience. They studiously avoided each other. Each wandered away, from time to time, but the same dismal fascination always brought them back presently. Tom kept his ears open when idlers sauntered out of the court-room, but invariably heard distressing news – the toils were closing more and more relentlessly around poor Potter. At the end of the second day the village talk was to the effect that Injun Joe’s evidence stood firm and unshaken, and that there was not the slightest question as to what the jury’s verdict would be.
Tom was out late, that night, and came to bed through the window. He was in a tremendous state of excitement. It was hours before he got to sleep. All the village flocked to the court-house the next morning, for this was to be the great day. Both sexes were about equally represented in the packed audience. After a long wait the jury filed in and took their places; shortly afterward, Potter, pale and haggard, timid and hopeless, was brought in, with chains upon him, and seated where all the curious eyes could stare at him; no less conspicuous was Injun Joe, stolid as ever. There was another pause, and then the judge arrived and the sheriff proclaimed the opening of the court. The usual whisperings among the lawyers and gathering together of papers followed. These details and accompanying delays worked up an atmosphere of preparation that was as impressive as it was fascinating.
Now a witness was called who testified that he found Muff Potter washing in the brook, at an early hour of the morning that the murder was discovered, and that he immediately sneaked away. After some further questioning, counsel for the prosecution said:
“Take the witness.”
The prisoner raised his eyes for a moment, but dropped them again when his own counsel said:
“I have no questions to ask him.”
The next witness proved the finding of the knife near the corpse. Counsel for the prosecution said:
“Take the witness.”
“I have no questions to ask him,” Potter’s lawyer replied.
A third witness swore he had often seen the knife in Potter’s possession.
“Take the witness.”
Counsel for Potter declined to question him. The faces of the audience began to betray annoyance. Did this attorney mean to throw away his client’s life without an effort?
Several witnesses deposed concerning Potter’s guilty behavior when brought to the scene of the murder. They were allowed to leave the stand without being cross-questioned.
Every detail of the damaging circumstances that occurred in the graveyard upon that morning which all present remembered so well was brought out by credible witnesses, but none of them were cross-examined by Potter’s lawyer. The perplexity and dissatisfaction of the house expressed itself in murmurs and provoked a reproof from the bench. Counsel for the prosecution now said:
“By the oaths of citizens whose simple word is above suspicion, we have fastened this awful crime, beyond all possibility of question, upon the unhappy prisoner at the bar. We rest our case here.”
A groan escaped from poor Potter, and he put his face in his hands and rocked his body softly to and fro, while a painful silence reigned in the court-room. Many men were moved, and many women’s compassion testified itself in tears. Counsel for the defence rose and said:
“Your honor, in our remarks at the opening of this trial, we foreshadowed our purpose to prove that our client did this fearful deed while under the influence of a blind and irresponsible delirium produced by drink. We have changed our mind. We shall not offer that plea.” [Then to the clerk:] “Call Thomas Sawyer!”
A puzzled amazement awoke in every face in the house, not even excepting Potter’s. Every eye fastened itself with wondering interest upon Tom as he rose and took his place upon the stand. The boy looked wild enough, for he was badly scared. The oath was administered.
“Thomas Sawyer, where were you on the seventeenth of June, about the hour of midnight?”
Tom glanced at Injun Joe’s iron face and his tongue failed him. The audience listened breathless, but the words refused to come. After a few moments, however, the boy got a little of his strength back, and managed to put enough of it into his voice to make part of the house hear:
“In the graveyard!”
“A little bit louder, please. Don’t be afraid. You were—”
“In the graveyard.”
A contemptuous smile flitted across Injun Joe’s face.
“Were you anywhere near Horse Williams’s grave?”
“Speak up – just a trifle louder. How near were you?”
“Near as I am to you.”
“Were you hidden, or not?”
“I was hid.”
“Behind the elms that’s on the edge of the grave.”
Injun Joe gave a barely perceptible start.
“Any one with you?”
“Yes, sir. I went there with—”
“Wait – wait a moment. Never mind mentioning your companion’s name. We will produce him at the proper time. Did you carry anything there with you.”
Tom hesitated and looked confused.
“Speak out, my boy – don’t be diffident. The truth is always respectable. What did you take there?”
“Only a – a – dead cat.”
There was a ripple of mirth, which the court checked.
“We will produce the skeleton of that cat. Now, my boy, tell us everything that occurred – tell it in your own way – don’t skip anything, and don’t be afraid.”
Tom began – hesitatingly at first, but as he warmed to his subject his words flowed more and more easily; in a little while every sound ceased but his own voice; every eye fixed itself upon him; with parted lips and bated breath the audience hung upon his words, taking no note of time, rapt in the ghastly fascinations of the tale. The strain upon pent emotion reached its climax when the boy said:
“—and as the doctor fetched the board around and Muff Potter fell, Injun Joe jumped with the knife and—”
Crash! Quick as lightning the half-breed sprang for a window, tore his way through all opposers, and was gone!