Whitewashing the Fence
from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"
by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and
brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was
young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a
spring in every step. The locust-trees were in bloom and the fragrance of
the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above
it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a
Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.
appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled
brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep mel-
ancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine
feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing,
he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the
operation; did it again; compared the in- significant whitewashed streak
with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a
tree-box discouraged. Jim came skipping out at the gate with a tin pail,
and singing Buffalo Gals. Bringing water from the town pump had always
been hateful work in Tom's eyes, before, but now it did not strike him so.
He remembered that there was company at the pump. White, mulatto, and
negro boys and girls were always there waiting their turns, resting,
trading playthings, quarrelling, fighting, skylarking. And he remembered
that although the pump was only a hundred and fifty yards off, Jim never
got back with a bucket of water under an hour -- and even then some- body
generally had to go after him. Tom said:
Jim, I'll fetch the water if you'll whitewash some."
shook his head and said:
Mars Tom. Ole missis, she tole me I got to go an' git dis water an' not
stop foolin' roun' wid anybody. She say she spec' Mars Tom gwine to ax me
to whitewash, an' so she tole me go 'long an' 'tend to my own business --
she 'lowed SHE'D 'tend to de whitewashin'."
never you mind what she said, Jim. That's the way she always talks. Gimme
the bucket -- I won't be gone only a a minute. SHE won't ever know."
I dasn't, Mars Tom. Ole missis she'd take an' tar de head off'n me. 'Deed
She never licks anybody -- whacks 'em over the head with her thimble --
and who cares for that, I'd like to know. She talks awful, but talk don't
hurt -- anyways it don't if she don't cry. Jim, I'll give you a marvel.
I'll give you a white alley!"
began to waver.
alley, Jim! And it's a bully taw."
Dat's a mighty gay marvel, I tell you! But Mars Tom I's powerful 'fraid
ole missis --"
besides, if you will I'll show you my sore toe."
was only human -- this attraction was too much for him. He put down his
pail, took the white alley, and bent over the toe with absorbing interest
while the bandage was being unwound. In another moment he was flying down
the street with his pail and a tingling rear, Tom was whitewashing with
vigor, and Aunt Polly was retiring from the field with a slipper in her
hand and triumph in her eye. But
Tom's energy did not last. He began to think of the fun he had planned for
this day, and his sorrows multiplied. Soon the free boys would come
tripping along on all sorts of delicious expeditions, and they would make
a world of fun of him for having to work -- the very thought of it burnt
him like fire. He got out his worldly wealth and examined it -- bits of
toys, marbles, and trash; enough to buy an exchange of WORK, maybe, but
not half enough to buy so much as half an hour of pure freedom. So he
returned his straitened means to his pocket, and gave up the idea of
trying to buy the boys. At this dark and hopeless moment an inspiration
burst upon him! Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.
took up his brush and went tranquilly to work. Ben Rogers hove in sight
presently -- the very boy, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been
dreading. Ben's gait was the hop-skip-and-jump -- proof enough that his
heart was light and his anticipations high. He was eating an apple, and
giving a long, melodious whoop, at intervals, followed by a deep-toned
ding- dong-dong, ding-dong-dong, for he was personating a steamboat. As he
drew near, he slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far
over to star- board and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and
circumstance -- for he was personating the Big Missouri, and considered
himself to be drawing nine feet of water. He was boat and captain and
engine-bells combined, so he had to imagine himself standing on his own
hurricane-deck giving the orders and executing them:
her, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling!" The headway ran almost out, and he drew
up slowly toward the sidewalk.
up to back! Ting-a-ling-ling!" His arms straightened and stiffened
down his sides.
her back on the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow! ch-chow-wow!
Chow!" His right hand, mean- time, describing stately circles -- for
it was representing a forty-foot wheel.
her go back on the labboard! Ting-a-ling- ling! Chow-ch-chow-chow!"
The left hand began to describe circles.
the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Stop the labboard! Come ahead on the
stabboard! Stop her! Let your outside turn over slow! Ting-a-ling-ling!
Chow-ow-ow! Get out that head-line! LIVELY now! Come -- out with your
spring-line -- what're you about there! Take a turn round that stump with
the bight of it! Stand by that stage, now -- let her go! Done with the
engines, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling! SH'T! S'H'T! SH'T!" (trying the
went on whitewashing -- paid no attention to the steamboat. Ben stared a
moment and then said: "Hi-YI! YOU'RE up a stump, ain't you!"
answer. Tom surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist, then he
gave his brush another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before.
Ben ranged up alongside of him. Tom's mouth watered for the apple, but he
stuck to his work. Ben said:
old chap, you got to work, hey?"
wheeled suddenly and said:
it's you, Ben! I warn't noticing."
-- I'm going in a-swimming, I am. Don't you wish you could? But of course
you'd druther WORK -- wouldn't you? Course you would!"
contemplated the boy a bit, and said:
do you call work?"
ain't THAT work?"
resumed his whitewashing, and answered care- lessly:
maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom
come, now, you don't mean to let on that you LIKE it?"
brush continued to move.
it? Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance
to whitewash a fence every day?"
put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept
his brush daintily back and forth -- stepped back to note the effect --
added a touch here and there -- criticised the effect again -- Ben
watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more
absorbed. Pres- ently he said:
Tom, let ME whitewash a little."
considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:
-- no -- I reckon it wouldn't hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly's awful
particular about this fence -- right here on the street, you know -- but
if it was the back fence I wouldn't mind and SHE wouldn't. Yes, she's
awful particular about this fence; it's got to be done very careful; I
reckon there ain't one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do
it the way it's got to be done."
-- is that so? Oh come, now -- lemme just try. Only just a little -- I'd
let YOU, if you was me, Tom."
I'd like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly -- well, Jim wanted to do it,
but she wouldn't let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn't let Sid.
Now don't you see how I'm fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and
anything was to happen to it --"
shucks, I'll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say -- I'll give you the
core of my apple."
here -- No, Ben, now don't. I'm afeard --"
give you ALL of it!"
gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart.
And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the
retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs,
munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was
no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to
jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had
traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and
when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to
swing it with -- and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the
middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in
the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the
things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of
blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't
unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin
soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one
eye, a brass door- knob, a dog-collar -- but no dog -- the handle of a
knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.
had had a nice, good, idle time all the while -- plenty of company -- and
the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn't run out of
whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.
said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had
discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it -- namely, that
in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to
make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise
philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended
that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play
consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him
to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a
tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only
amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse
passenger- coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer,
because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were
offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they
boy mused awhile over the substantial change which had taken place in his
worldly circumstances, and then wended toward headquarters to report.