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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XIII

The Gilded Age

Chapter XIII


         What ever to say be toke in his entente,
         his langage was so fayer & pertynante,
         yt semeth unto manys herying not only the worde,
         but veryly the thyng.
                             Caxton's Book of Curtesye.

In the party of which our travelers found themselves members, was Duff
Brown, the great railroad contractor, and subsequently a well-known
member of Congress; a bluff, jovial Bost'n man, thick-set, close shaven,
with a heavy jaw and a low forehead--a very pleasant man if you were not
in his way. He had government contracts also, custom houses and dry
docks, from Portland to New Orleans, and managed to get out of congress,
in appropriations, about weight for weight of gold for the stone
furnished.

Associated with him, and also of this party, was Rodney Schaick, a sleek
New York broker, a man as prominent in the church as in the stock
exchange, dainty in his dress, smooth of speech, the necessary complement
of Duff Brown in any enterprise that needed assurance and adroitness.

It would be difficult to find a pleasanter traveling party one that shook
off more readily the artificial restraints of Puritanic strictness, and
took the world with good-natured allowance. Money was plenty for every
attainable luxury, and there seemed to be no doubt that its supply would
continue, and that fortunes were about to be made without a great deal of
toil. Even Philip soon caught the prevailing spirit; Barry did not need
any inoculation, he always talked in six figures. It was as natural for
the dear boy to be rich as it is for most people to be poor.

The elders of the party were not long in discovering the fact, which
almost all travelers to the west soon find out; that the water was poor.
It must have been by a lucky premonition of this that they all had brandy
flasks with which to qualify the water of the country; and it was no
doubt from an uneasy feeling of the danger of being poisoned that they
kept experimenting, mixing a little of the dangerous and changing fluid,
as they passed along, with the contents of the flasks, thus saving their
lives hour by hour. Philip learned afterwards that temperance and the
strict observance of Sunday and a certain gravity of deportment are
geographical habits, which people do not usually carry with them away
from home.

Our travelers stopped in Chicago long enough to see that they could make
their fortunes there in two week's tine, but it did not seem worth while;
the west was more attractive; the further one went the wider the
opportunities opened.

They took railroad to Alton and the steamboat from there to St. Louis,
for the change and to have a glimpse of the river.

"Isn't this jolly?" cried Henry, dancing out of the barber's room, and
coming down the deck with a one, two, three step, shaven, curled and
perfumed after his usual exquisite fashion.

"What's jolly?" asked Philip, looking out upon the dreary and monotonous
waste through which the shaking steamboat was coughing its way.

"Why, the whole thing; it's immense I can tell you. I wouldn't give that
to be guaranteed a hundred thousand cold cash in a year's time."

"Where's Mr. Brown?"

"He is in the saloon, playing poker with Schaick and that long haired
party with the striped trousers, who scrambled aboard when the stage
plank was half hauled in, and the big Delegate to Congress from out
west."

"That's a fine looking fellow, that delegate, with his glossy, black
whiskers; looks like a Washington man; I shouldn't think he'd be at
poker."

"Oh, its only five cent ante, just to make it interesting, the Delegate
said."

"But I shouldn't think a representative in Congress would play poker any
way in a public steamboat."

"Nonsense, you've got to pass the time. I tried a hand myself, but those
old fellows are too many for me. The Delegate knows all the points.
I'd bet a hundred dollars he will ante his way right into the United
States Senate when his territory comes in. He's got the cheek for it."

"He has the grave and thoughtful manner of expectoration of a public man,
for one thing," added Philip.

"Harry," said Philip, after a pause, "what have you got on those big
boots for; do you expect to wade ashore?"

"I'm breaking 'em in."

The fact was Harry had got himself up in what he thought a proper costume
for a new country, and was in appearance a sort of compromise between a
dandy of Broadway and a backwoodsman. Harry, with blue eyes, fresh
complexion, silken whiskers and curly chestnut hair, was as handsome as
a fashion plate. He wore this morning a soft hat, a short cutaway coat,
an open vest displaying immaculate linen, a leathern belt round his
waist, and top-boots of soft leather, well polished, that came above his
knees and required a string attached to his belt to keep them up. The
light hearted fellow gloried in these shining encasements of his well
shaped legs, and told Philip that they were a perfect protection against
prairie rattle-snakes, which never strike above the knee.

The landscape still wore an almost wintry appearance when our travelers
left Chicago. It was a genial spring day when they landed at St. Louis;
the birds were singing, the blossoms of peach trees in city garden plots,
made the air sweet, and in the roar and tumult on the long river levee
they found an excitement that accorded with their own hopeful
anticipations.

The party went to the Southern Hotel, where the great Duff Brown was very
well known, and indeed was a man of so much importance that even the
office clerk was respectful to him. He might have respected in him also
a certain vulgar swagger and insolence of money, which the clerk greatly
admired.

The young fellows liked the house and liked the city; it seemed to them a
mighty free and hospitable town. Coming from the East they were struck
with many peculiarities. Everybody smoked in the streets, for one thing,
they noticed; everybody "took a drink" in an open manner whenever he
wished to do so or was asked, as if the habit needed no concealment or
apology. In the evening when they walked about they found people sitting
on the door-steps of their dwellings, in a manner not usual in a northern
city; in front of some of the hotels and saloons the side walks were
filled with chairs and benches--Paris fashion, said Harry--upon which
people lounged in these warm spring evenings, smoking, always smoking;
and the clink of glasses and of billiard balls was in the air. It was
delightful.

Harry at once found on landing that his back-woods custom would not be
needed in St. Louis, and that, in fact, he had need of all the resources
of his wardrobe to keep even with the young swells of the town. But this
did not much matter, for Harry was always superior to his clothes.
As they were likely to be detained some time in the city, Harry told
Philip that he was going to improve his time. And he did. It was an
encouragement to any industrious man to see this young fellow rise,
carefully dress himself, eat his breakfast deliberately, smoke his cigar
tranquilly, and then repair to his room, to what he called his work, with
a grave and occupied manner, but with perfect cheerfulness.

Harry would take off his coat, remove his cravat, roll up his shirt-
sleeves, give his curly hair the right touch before the glass, get out
his book on engineering, his boxes of instruments, his drawing paper,
his profile paper, open the book of logarithms, mix his India ink,
sharpen his pencils, light a cigar, and sit down at the table to "lay out
a line," with the most grave notion that he was mastering the details of
engineering. He would spend half a day in these preparations without
ever working out a problem or having the faintest conception of the use
of lines or logarithms. And when he had finished, he had the most
cheerful confidence that he had done a good day's work.

It made no difference, however, whether Harry was in his room in a hotel
or in a tent, Philip soon found, he was just the same. In camp he would
get himself, up in the most elaborate toilet at his command, polish his
long boots to the top, lay out his work before him, and spend an hour or
longer, if anybody was looking at him, humming airs, knitting his brows,
and "working" at engineering; and if a crowd of gaping rustics were
looking on all the while it was perfectly satisfactory to him.

"You see," he says to Philip one morning at the hotel when he was thus
engaged, "I want to get the theory of this thing, so that I can have a
check on the engineers."

"I thought you were going to be an engineer yourself," queried Philip.

"Not many times, if the court knows herself. There's better game. Brown
and Schaick have, or will have, the control for the whole line of the
Salt Lick Pacific Extension, forty thousand dollars a mile over the
prairie, with extra for hard-pan--and it'll be pretty much all hardpan
I can tell you; besides every alternate section of land on this line.
There's millions in the job. I'm to have the sub-contract for the first
fifty miles, and you can bet it's a soft thing."

"I'll tell you what you do, Philip," continued Larry, in a burst of
generosity, "if I don't get you into my contract, you'll be with the
engineers, and you jest stick a stake at the first ground marked for a
depot, buy the land of the farmer before he knows where the depot will
be, and we'll turn a hundred or so on that. I'll advance the money for
the payments, and you can sell the lots. Schaick is going to let me have
ten thousand just for a flyer in such operations."

"But that's a good deal of money."

"Wait till you are used to handling money. I didn't come out here for a
bagatelle. My uncle wanted me to stay East and go in on the Mobile
custom house, work up the Washington end of it; he said there was a
fortune in it for a smart young fellow, but I preferred to take the
chances out here. Did I tell you I had an offer from Bobbett and Fanshaw
to go into their office as confidential clerk on a salary of ten
thousand?"

"Why didn't you take it ?" asked Philip, to whom a salary of two thousand
would have seemed wealth, before he started on this journey.

"Take it? I'd rather operate on my own hook;" said Harry, in his most
airy manner.

A few evenings after their arrival at the Southern, Philip and Harry made
the acquaintance of a very agreeable gentleman, whom they had frequently
seen before about the hotel corridors, and passed a casual word with. He
had the air of a man of business, and was evidently a person of
importance.

The precipitating of this casual intercourse into the more substantial
form of an acquaintanceship was the work of the gentleman himself, and
occurred in this wise. Meeting the two friends in the lobby one evening,
he asked them to give him the time, and added:

"Excuse me, gentlemen--strangers in St. Louis? Ah, yes-yes. From the
East, perhaps? Ah; just so, just so. Eastern born myself--Virginia.
Sellers is my name--Beriah Sellers.

"Ah! by the way--New York, did you say? That reminds me; just met some
gentlemen from your State, a week or two ago--very prominent gentlemen--
in public life they are; you must know them, without doubt. Let me see--
let me see. Curious those names have escaped me. I know they were from
your State, because I remember afterward my old friend Governor Shackleby
said to me--fine man, is the Governor--one of the finest men our country
has produced--said he, 'Colonel, how did you like those New York
gentlemen?--not many such men in the world,--Colonel Sellers,' said the
Governor--yes, it was New York he said--I remember it distinctly.
I can't recall those names, somehow. But no matter. Stopping here,
gentlemen--stopping at the Southern?"

In shaping their reply in their minds, the title "Mr." had a place in it;
but when their turn had arrived to speak, the title "Colonel" came from
their lips instead.

They said yes, they were abiding at the Southern, and thought it a very
good house.

"Yes, yes, the Southern is fair. I myself go to the Planter's, old,
aristocratic house. We Southern gentlemen don't change our ways, you
know. I always make it my home there when I run down from Hawkeye--my
plantation is in Hawkeye, a little up in the country. You should know
the Planter's."

Philip and Harry both said they should like to see a hotel that had been
so famous in its day--a cheerful hostelrie, Philip said it must have been
where duels were fought there across the dining-room table.

"You may believe it, sir, an uncommonly pleasant lodging. Shall we
walk?"

And the three strolled along the streets, the Colonel talking all the way
in the most liberal and friendly manner, and with a frank open-
heartedness that inspired confidence.

"Yes, born East myself, raised all along, know the West--a great country,
gentlemen. The place for a young fellow of spirit to pick up a fortune,
simply pick it up, it's lying round loose here. Not a day that I don't
put aside an opportunity; too busy to look into it. Management of my own
property takes my time. First visit? Looking for an opening?"

"Yes, looking around," replied Harry.

"Ah, here we are. You'd rather sit here in front than go to my
apartments? So had I. An opening eh?"

The Colonel's eyes twinkled. "Ah, just so. The country is opening up,
all we want is capital to develop it. Slap down the rails and bring the
land into market. The richest land on God Almighty's footstool is lying
right out there. If I had my capital free I could plant it for
millions."

"I suppose your capital is largely in your plantation?" asked Philip.

"Well, partly, sir, partly. I'm down here now with reference to a little
operation--a little side thing merely. By the way gentlemen, excuse the
liberty, but it's about my usual time"--

The Colonel paused, but as no movement of his acquaintances followed this
plain remark, he added, in an explanatory manner,

"I'm rather particular about the exact time--have to be in this climate."

Even this open declaration of his hospitable intention not being
understood the Colonel politely said,

"Gentlemen, will you take something?"

Col. Sellers led the way to a saloon on Fourth street under the hotel,
and the young gentlemen fell into the custom of the country.

"Not that," said the Colonel to the bar-keeper, who shoved along the
counter a bottle of apparently corn-whiskey, as if he had done it before
on the same order; "not that," with a wave of the hand. "That Otard if
you please. Yes. Never take an inferior liquor, gentlemen, not in the
evening, in this climate. There. That's the stuff. My respects!"

The hospitable gentleman, having disposed of his liquor, remarking that
it was not quite the thing--"when a man has his own cellar to go to, he
is apt to get a little fastidious about his liquors"--called for cigars.
But the brand offered did not suit him; he motioned the box away, and
asked for some particular Havana's, those in separate wrappers.

"I always smoke this sort, gentlemen; they are a little more expensive,
but you'll learn, in this climate, that you'd better not economize on
poor cigars"

Having imparted this valuable piece of information, the Colonel lighted
the fragrant cigar with satisfaction, and then carelessly put his fingers
into his right vest pocket. That movement being without result, with a
shade of disappointment on his face, he felt in his left vest pocket.
Not finding anything there, he looked up with a serious and annoyed air,
anxiously slapped his right pantaloon's pocket, and then his left, and
exclaimed,

"By George, that's annoying. By George, that's mortifying. Never had
anything of that kind happen to me before. I've left my pocket-book.
Hold! Here's a bill, after all. No, thunder, it's a receipt."

"Allow me," said Philip, seeing how seriously the Colonel was annoyed,
and taking out his purse.

The Colonel protested he couldn't think of it, and muttered something to
the barkeeper about "hanging it up," but the vender of exhilaration made
no sign, and Philip had the privilege of paying the costly shot; Col.
Sellers profusely apologizing and claiming the right "next time, next
time."

As soon as Beriah Sellers had bade his friends good night and seen them
depart, he did not retire apartments in the Planter's, but took his way
to his lodgings with a friend in a distant part of the city.

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