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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter I

The Gilded Age

Chapter I


June 18--. Squire Hawkins sat upon the pyramid of large blocks, called
the "stile," in front of his house, contemplating the morning.

The locality was Obedstown, East Tennessee. You would not know that
Obedstown stood on the top of a mountain, for there was nothing about the
landscape to indicate it--but it did: a mountain that stretched abroad
over whole counties, and rose very gradually. The district was called
the "Knobs of East Tennessee," and had a reputation like Nazareth, as far
as turning out any good thing was concerned.

The Squire's house was a double log cabin, in a state of decay; two or
three gaunt hounds lay asleep about the threshold, and lifted their heads
sadly whenever Mrs. Hawkins or the children stepped in and out over their
bodies. Rubbish was scattered about the grassless yard; a bench stood
near the door with a tin wash basin on it and a pail of water and a
gourd; a cat had begun to drink from the pail, but the exertion was
overtaxing her energies, and she had stopped to rest. There was an ash-
hopper by the fence, and an iron pot, for soft-soap-boiling, near it.

This dwelling constituted one-fifteenth of Obedstown; the other fourteen
houses were scattered about among the tall pine trees and among the corn-
fields in such a way that a man might stand in the midst of the city and
not know but that he was in the country if he only depended on his eyes
for information.

"Squire" Hawkins got his title from being postmaster of Obedstown--not
that the title properly belonged to the office, but because in those
regions the chief citizens always must have titles of some sort, and so
the usual courtesy had been extended to Hawkins. The mail was monthly,
and sometimes amounted to as much as three or four letters at a single
delivery. Even a rush like this did not fill up the postmaster's whole
month, though, and therefore he "kept store" in the intervals.

The Squire was contemplating the morning. It was balmy and tranquil,
the vagrant breezes were laden with the odor of flowers, the murmur of
bees was in the air, there was everywhere that suggestion of repose that
summer woodlands bring to the senses, and the vague, pleasurable
melancholy that such a time and such surroundings inspire.

Presently the United States mail arrived, on horseback. There was but
one letter, and it was for the postmaster. The long-legged youth who
carried the mail tarried an hour to talk, for there was no hurry; and in
a little while the male population of the village had assembled to help.
As a general thing, they were dressed in homespun "jeans," blue or
yellow--here were no other varieties of it; all wore one suspender and
sometimes two--yarn ones knitted at home,--some wore vests, but few wore
coats. Such coats and vests as did appear, however, were rather
picturesque than otherwise, for they were made of tolerably fanciful
patterns of calico--a fashion which prevails thereto this day among those
of the community who have tastes above the common level and are able to
afford style. Every individual arrived with his hands in his pockets;
a hand came out occasionally for a purpose, but it always went back again
after service; and if it was the head that was served, just the cant that
the dilapidated straw hat got by being uplifted and rooted under, was
retained until the next call altered the inclination; many' hats were
present, but none were erect and no two were canted just alike. We are
speaking impartially of men, youths and boys. And we are also speaking
of these three estates when we say that every individual was either
chewing natural leaf tobacco prepared on his own premises, or smoking the
same in a corn-cob pipe. Few of the men wore whiskers; none wore
moustaches; some had a thick jungle of hair under the chin and hiding the
throat--the only pattern recognized there as being the correct thing in
whiskers; but no part of any individual's face had seen a razor for a
week.

These neighbors stood a few moments looking at the mail carrier
reflectively while he talked; but fatigue soon began to show itself,
and one after another they climbed up and occupied the top rail of the
fence, hump-shouldered and grave, like a company of buzzards assembled
for supper and listening for the death-rattle. Old Damrell said:

"Tha hain't no news 'bout the jedge, hit ain't likely?"

"Cain't tell for sartin; some thinks he's gwyne to be 'long toreckly,
and some thinks 'e hain't. Russ Mosely he tote ole Hanks he mought git
to Obeds tomorrer or nex' day he reckoned."

"Well, I wisht I knowed. I got a 'prime sow and pigs in the, cote-house,
and I hain't got no place for to put 'em. If the jedge is a gwyne to
hold cote, I got to roust 'em out, I reckon. But tomorrer'll do, I
'spect."

The speaker bunched his thick lips together like the stem-end of a tomato
and shot a bumble-bee dead that had lit on a weed seven feet away.
One after another the several chewers expressed a charge of tobacco juice
and delivered it at the deceased with steady, aim and faultless accuracy.

"What's a stirrin', down 'bout the Forks?" continued Old Damrell.

"Well, I dunno, skasely. Ole, Drake Higgins he's ben down to Shelby las'
week. Tuck his crap down; couldn't git shet o' the most uv it; hit
wasn't no time for to sell, he say, so he 'fotch it back agin, 'lowin' to
wait tell fall. Talks 'bout goin' to Mozouri--lots uv 'ems talkin' that-
away down thar, Ole Higgins say. Cain't make a livin' here no mo', sich
times as these. Si Higgins he's ben over to Kaintuck n' married a high-
toned gal thar, outen the fust families, an' he's come back to the Forks
with jist a hell's-mint o' whoop-jamboree notions, folks says. He's tuck
an' fixed up the ole house like they does in Kaintuck, he say, an' tha's
ben folks come cler from Turpentine for to see it. He's tuck an gawmed
it all over on the inside with plarsterin'."

"What's plasterin'?"

"I dono. Hit's what he calls it. 'Ole Mam Higgins, she tole me.
She say she wasn't gwyne to hang out in no sich a dern hole like a hog.
Says it's mud, or some sich kind o' nastiness that sticks on n' covers up
everything. Plarsterin', Si calls it."

This marvel was discussed at considerable length; and almost with
animation. But presently there was a dog-fight over in the neighborhood
of the blacksmith shop, and the visitors slid off their perch like so
many turtles and strode to the battle-field with an interest bordering on
eagerness. The Squire remained, and read his letter. Then he sighed,
and sat long in meditation. At intervals he said:

Missouri. Missouri. Well, well, well, everything is so uncertain."

At last he said:

"I believe I'll do it.--A man will just rot, here. My house my yard,
everything around me, in fact, shows' that I am becoming one of these
cattle--and I used to be thrifty in other times."

He was not more than thirty-five, but he had a worn look that made him
seem older. He left the stile, entered that part of his house which was
the store, traded a quart of thick molasses for a coonskin and a cake of
beeswax, to an old dame in linsey-woolsey, put his letter away, an went
into the kitchen. His wife was there, constructing some dried apple
pies; a slovenly urchin of ten was dreaming over a rude weather-vane of
his own contriving; his small sister, close upon four years of age, was
sopping corn-bread in some gravy left in the bottom of a frying-pan and
trying hard not to sop over a finger-mark that divided the pan through
the middle--for the other side belonged to the brother, whose musings
made him forget his stomach for the moment; a negro woman was busy
cooking, at a vast fire-place. Shiftlessness and poverty reigned in the
place.

"Nancy, I've made up my mind. The world is done with me, and perhaps I
ought to be done with it. But no matter--I can wait. I am going to
Missouri. I won't stay in this dead country and decay with it. I've had
it on my mind sometime. I'm going to sell out here for whatever I can
get, and buy a wagon and team and put you and the children in it and
start."

"Anywhere that suits you, suits me, Si. And the children can't be any
worse off in Missouri than, they are here, I reckon."

Motioning his wife to a private conference in their own room, Hawkins
said: "No, they'll be better off. I've looked out for them, Nancy," and
his face lighted. "Do you see these papers? Well, they are evidence
that I have taken up Seventy-five Thousand Acres of Land in this county-
think what an enormous fortune it will be some day! Why, Nancy, enormous
don't express it--the word's too tame! I tell your Nancy----"

"For goodness sake, Si----"

"Wait, Nancy, wait--let me finish--I've been secretly bailing and fuming
with this grand inspiration for weeks, and I must talk or I'll burst!
I haven't whispered to a soul--not a word--have had my countenance under
lock and key, for fear it might drop something that would tell even these
animals here how to discern the gold mine that's glaring under their
noses. Now all that is necessary to hold this land and keep it in the
family is to pay the trifling taxes on it yearly--five or ten dollars--
the whole tract would not sell for over a third of a cent an acre now,
but some day people wild be glad to get it for twenty dollars, fifty
dollars, a hundred dollars an acre! What should you say to" [here he
dropped his voice to a whisper and looked anxiously around to see that
there were no eavesdroppers,] "a thousand dollars an acre!

"Well you may open your eyes and stare! But it's so. You and I may not
see the day, but they'll see it. Mind I tell you; they'll see it.
Nancy, you've heard of steamboats, and maybe you believed in them--of
course you did. You've heard these cattle here scoff at them and call
them lies and humbugs,--but they're not lies and humbugs, they're a
reality and they're going to be a more wonderful thing some day than they
are now. They're going to make a revolution in this world's affairs that
will make men dizzy to contemplate. I've been watching--I've been
watching while some people slept, and I know what's coming.

"Even you and I will see the day that steamboats will come up that little
Turkey river to within twenty miles of this land of ours--and in high
water they'll come right to it! And this is not all, Nancy--it isn't
even half! There's a bigger wonder--the railroad! These worms here have
never even heard of it--and when they do they'll not believe in it.
But it's another fact. Coaches that fly over the ground twenty miles an
hour--heavens and earth, think of that, Nancy! Twenty miles an hour.
It makes a main's brain whirl. Some day, when you and I are in our
graves, there'll be a railroad stretching hundreds of miles--all the way
down from the cities of the Northern States to New Orleans--and its got
to run within thirty miles of this land--may be even touch a corner of
it. Well; do you know, they've quit burning wood in some places in the
Eastern States? And what do you suppose they burn? Coal!" [He bent over
and whispered again:] "There's world--worlds of it on this land! You
know that black stuff that crops out of the bank of the branch?--well,
that's it. You've taken it for rocks; so has every body here; and
they've built little dams and such things with it. One man was going to
build a chimney out of it. Nancy I expect I turned as white as a sheet!
Why, it might have caught fire and told everything. I showed him it was
too crumbly. Then he was going to build it of copper ore--splendid
yellow forty-per-cent. ore! There's fortunes upon fortunes of copper ore
on our land! It scared me to death, the idea of this fool starting a
smelting furnace in his house without knowing it, and getting his dull
eyes opened. And then he was going to build it of iron ore! There's
mountains of iron ore here, Nancy--whole mountains of it. I wouldn't
take any chances. I just stuck by him--I haunted him--I never let him
alone till he built it of mud and sticks like all the rest of the
chimneys in this dismal country. Pine forests, wheat land, corn land,
iron, copper, coal-wait till the railroads come, and the steamboats!
We'll never see the day, Nancy--never in the world---never, never, never,
child. We've got to drag along, drag along, and eat crusts in toil and
poverty, all hopeless and forlorn--but they'll ride in coaches, Nancy!
They'll live like the princes of the earth; they'll be courted and
worshiped; their names will be known from ocean to ocean! Ah, well-a-
day! Will they ever come back here, on the railroad and the steamboat,
and say, 'This one little spot shall not be touched--this hovel shall be
sacred--for here our father and our mother suffered for us, thought for
us, laid the foundations of our future as solid as the hills!'"

"You are a great, good, noble soul, Si Hawkins, and I am an honored woman
to be the wife of such a man"--and the tears stood in her eyes when she
said it. "We will go to Missouri. You are out of your place, here,
among these groping dumb creatures. We will find a higher place, where
you can walk with your own kind, and be understood when you speak--not
stared at as if you were talking some foreign tongue. I would go
anywhere, anywhere in the wide world with you I would rather my body
would starve and die than your mind should hunger and wither away in this
lonely land."

"Spoken like yourself, my child! But we'll not starve, Nancy. Far from
it. I have a letter from Beriah Sellers--just came this day. A letter
that--I'll read you a line from it!"

He flew out of the room. A shadow blurred the sunlight in Nancy's face--
there was uneasiness in it, and disappointment. A procession of
disturbing thoughts began to troop through her mind. Saying nothing
aloud, she sat with her hands in her lap; now and then she clasped them,
then unclasped them, then tapped the ends of the fingers together;
sighed, nodded, smiled--occasionally paused, shook her head. This
pantomime was the elocutionary expression of an unspoken soliloquy which
had something of this shape:

"I was afraid of it--was afraid of it. Trying to make our fortune in
Virginia, Beriah Sellers nearly ruined us and we had to settle in
Kentucky and start over again. Trying to make our fortune in Kentucky he
crippled us again and we had to move here. Trying to make our fortune
here, he brought us clear down to the ground, nearly. He's an honest
soul, and means the very best in the world, but I'm afraid, I'm afraid
he's too flighty. He has splendid ideas, and he'll divide his chances
with his friends with a free hand, the good generous soul, but something
does seem to always interfere and spoil everything. I never did think he
was right well balanced. But I don't blame my husband, for I do think
that when that man gets his head full of a new notion, he can out-talk a
machine. He'll make anybody believe in that notion that'll listen to him
ten minutes--why I do believe he would make a deaf and dumb man believe
in it and get beside himself, if you only set him where he could see his
eyes tally and watch his hands explain. What a head he has got! When he
got up that idea there in Virginia of buying up whole loads of negroes in
Delaware and Virginia and Tennessee, very quiet, having papers drawn to
have them delivered at a place in Alabama and take them and pay for them,
away yonder at a certain time, and then in the meantime get a law made
stopping everybody from selling negroes to the south after a certain day
--it was somehow that way--mercy how the man would have made money!
Negroes would have gone up to four prices. But after he'd spent money
and worked hard, and traveled hard, and had heaps of negroes all
contracted for, and everything going along just right, he couldn't get
the laws passed and down the whole thing tumbled. And there in Kentucky,
when he raked up that old numskull that had been inventing away at a
perpetual motion machine for twenty-two years, and Beriah Sellers saw at
a glance where just one more little cog-wheel would settle the business,
why I could see it as plain as day when he came in wild at midnight and
hammered us out of bed and told the whole thing in a whisper with the
doors bolted and the candle in an empty barrel. Oceans of money in it-
anybody could see that. But it did cost a deal to buy the old numskull
out--and then when they put the new cog wheel in they'd overlooked
something somewhere and it wasn't any use--the troublesome thing wouldn't
go. That notion he got up here did look as handy as anything in the
world; and how him and Si did sit up nights working at it with the
curtains down and me watching to see if any neighbors were about. The
man did honestly believe there was a fortune in that black gummy oil that
stews out of the bank Si says is coal; and he refined it himself till it
was like water, nearly, and it did burn, there's no two ways about that;
and I reckon he'd have been all right in Cincinnati with his lamp that he
got made, that time he got a house full of rich speculators to see him
exhibit only in the middle of his speech it let go and almost blew the
heads off the whole crowd. I haven't got over grieving for the money
that cost yet. I am sorry enough Beriah Sellers is in Missouri, now, but
I was glad when he went. I wonder what his letter says. But of course
it's cheerful; he's never down-hearted--never had any trouble in his
life--didn't know it if he had. It's always sunrise with that man, and
fine and blazing, at that--never gets noon; though--leaves off and rises
again. Nobody can help liking the creature, he means so well--but I do
dread to come across him again; he's bound to set us all crazy, of
coarse. Well, there goes old widow Hopkins--it always takes her a week
to buy a spool of thread and trade a hank of yarn. Maybe Si can come
with the letter, now."

And he did:

"Widow Hopkins kept me--I haven't any patience with such tedious people.
Now listen, Nancy--just listen at this:

     "'Come right along to Missouri! Don't wait and worry about a good
     price but sell out for whatever you can get, and come along, or you
     might be too late. Throw away your traps, if necessary, and come
     empty-handed. You'll never regret it. It's the grandest country--
     the loveliest land--the purest atmosphere--I can't describe it; no
     pen can do it justice. And it's filling up, every day--people
     coming from everywhere. I've got the biggest scheme on earth--and
     I'll take you in; I'll take in every friend I've got that's ever
     stood by me, for there's enough for all, and to spare. Mum's the
     word--don't whisper--keep yourself to yourself. You'll see! Come!
     --rush!--hurry!--don't wait for anything!'

"It's the same old boy, Nancy, jest the same old boy--ain't he?"

"Yes, I think there's a little of the old sound about his voice yet.
I suppose you--you'll still go, Si?"

"Go! Well, I should think so, Nancy. It's all a chance, of course, and,
chances haven't been kind to us, I'll admit--but whatever comes, old
wife, they're provided for. Thank God for that!"

"Amen," came low and earnestly.

And with an activity and a suddenness that bewildered Obedstown and
almost took its breath away, the Hawkinses hurried through with their
arrangements in four short months and flitted out into the great
mysterious blank that lay beyond the Knobs of Tennessee.

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