Certainly this was a heavenly place for a little boy, the farm of Uncle John Quarles, and the house was as wonderful as its surroundings. It was a two-story double log building, with a spacious floor (roofed in) connecting the two divisions. In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady, breezy pavilion, and sumptuous meals were served in the lavish Southern style, brought to the table in vast dishes that left only room for rows of plates around the edge. Fried chicken, roast pig, turkeys, ducks, geese, venison just killed, squirrels, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, prairie-chickens—the list is too long to be served here. If a little boy could not improve on that bill of fare and in that atmosphere, his case was hopeless indeed. His mother kept him there until the late fall, when the chilly evenings made them gather around the wide, blazing fireplace. Sixty years later he wrote of that scene:
I can see the room yet with perfect clearness. I can see all its buildings, all its details: the family-room of the house, with the trundle-bed in one corner and the spinning-wheel in another a wheel whose rising and falling wail, heard from a distance, was the mournfulest of all sounds to me, and made me homesick and low- spirited, and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead; the vast fireplace, piled high with flaming logs, from whose ends a sugary sap bubbled out, but did not go to waste, for we scraped it off and ate it; . . . the lazy cat spread out on the rough hearthstones, the drowsy dogs braced against the jambs, blinking; my aunt in one chimney-corner and my uncle in the other smoking his corn-cob pipe; the slick and carpetless oak floor faintly mirroring the flame tongues, and freckled with black indentations where fire-coals had popped out and died a leisurely death; half a dozen children romping in the background twilight; splint-bottom chairs here and there—some with rockers; a cradle —out of service, but waiting with confidence.
One is tempted to dwell on this period, to quote prodigally from these vivid memories—the thousand minute impressions which the child’s sensitive mind acquired in that long-ago time and would reveal everywhere in his work in the years to come. For him it was education of a more valuable and lasting sort than any he would ever acquire from books.
Nevertheless, on his return to Hannibal, it was decided that Little Sam was now ready to go to school. He was about five years old, and the months on the farm had left him wiry and lively, even if not very robust. His mother declared that he gave her more trouble than all the other children put together.
“He drives me crazy with his didoes, when he is in the house,” she used to say; “and when he is out of it I am expecting every minute that some one will bring him home half dead.”