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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XV

The Gilded Age

Chapter XV


Eli Bolton and his wife talked over Ruth's case, as they had often done
before, with no little anxiety. Alone of all their children she was
impatient of the restraints and monotony of the Friends' Society, and
wholly indisposed to accept the "inner light" as a guide into a life of
acceptance and inaction. When Margaret told her husband of Ruth's newest
project, he did not exhibit so much surprise as she hoped for. In fact
he said that he did not see why a woman should not enter the medical
profession if she felt a call to it.

"But," said Margaret, "consider her total inexperience of the world, and
her frail health. Can such a slight little body endure the ordeal of the
preparation for, or the strain of, the practice of the profession?"

"Did thee ever think, Margaret, whether, she can endure being thwarted in
an, object on which she has so set her heart, as she has on this? Thee
has trained her thyself at home, in her enfeebled childhood, and thee
knows how strong her will is, and what she has been able to accomplish in
self-culture by the simple force of her determination. She never will be
satisfied until she has tried her own strength."

"I wish," said Margaret, with an inconsequence that is not exclusively
feminine, "that she were in the way to fall in love and marry by and by.
I think that would cure her of some of her notions. I am not sure but if
she went away, to some distant school, into an entirely new life, her
thoughts would be diverted."

Eli Bolton almost laughed as he regarded his wife, with eyes that never
looked at her except fondly, and replied,

"Perhaps thee remembers that thee had notions also, before we were
married, and before thee became a member of Meeting. I think Ruth comes
honestly by certain tendencies which thee has hidden under the Friend's
dress."

Margaret could not say no to this, and while she paused, it was evident
that memory was busy with suggestions to shake her present opinions.

"Why not let Ruth try the study for a time," suggested Eli; "there is a
fair beginning of a Woman's Medical College in the city. Quite likely
she will soon find that she needs first a more general culture, and fall,
in with thy wish that she should see more of the world at some large
school."

There really seemed to be nothing else to be done, and Margaret consented
at length without approving. And it was agreed that Ruth, in order to
spare her fatigue, should take lodgings with friends near the college and
make a trial in the pursuit of that science to which we all owe our
lives, and sometimes as by a miracle of escape.

That day Mr. Bolton brought home a stranger to dinner, Mr. Bigler of the
great firm of Pennybacker, Bigler & Small, railroad contractors. He was
always bringing home somebody, who had a scheme; to build a road, or open
a mine, or plant a swamp with cane to grow paper-stock, or found a
hospital, or invest in a patent shad-bone separator, or start a college
somewhere on the frontier, contiguous to a land speculation.

The Bolton house was a sort of hotel for this kind of people. They were
always coming. Ruth had known them from childhood, and she used to say
that her father attracted them as naturally as a sugar hogshead does
flies. Ruth had an idea that a large portion of the world lived by
getting the rest of the world into schemes. Mr. Bolton never could say
"no" to any of them, not even, said Ruth again, to the society for
stamping oyster shells with scripture texts before they were sold at
retail.

Mr. Bigler's plan this time, about which he talked loudly, with his mouth
full, all dinner time, was the building of the Tunkhannock, Rattlesnake
and Youngwomans-town railroad, which would not only be a great highway to
the west, but would open to market inexhaustible coal-fields and untold
millions of lumber. The plan of operations was very simple.

"We'll buy the lands," explained he, "on long time, backed by the notes
of good men; and then mortgage them for money enough to get the road well
on. Then get the towns on the line to issue their bonds for stock, and
sell their bonds for enough to complete the road, and partly stock it,
especially if we mortgage each section as we complete it. We can then
sell the rest of the stock on the prospect of the business of the road
through an improved country, and also sell the lands at a big advance,
on the strength of the road. All we want," continued Mr. Bigler in his
frank manner, "is a few thousand dollars to start the surveys, and
arrange things in the legislature. There is some parties will have to be
seen, who might make us trouble."

"It will take a good deal of money to start the enterprise," remarked Mr.
Bolton, who knew very well what "seeing" a Pennsylvania Legislature
meant, but was too polite to tell Mr. Bigler what he thought of him,
while he was his guest; "what security would one have for it?"

Mr. Bigler smiled a hard kind of smile, and said, "You'd be inside, Mr.
Bolton, and you'd have the first chance in the deal."

This was rather unintelligible to Ruth, who was nevertheless somewhat
amused by the study of a type of character she had seen before.
At length she interrupted the conversation by asking,

"You'd sell the stock, I suppose, Mr. Bigler, to anybody who was
attracted by the prospectus?"

"O, certainly, serve all alike," said Mr. Bigler, now noticing Ruth for
the first time, and a little puzzled by the serene, intelligent face that
was turned towards him.

"Well, what would become of the poor people who had been led to put their
little money into the speculation, when you got out of it and left it
half way?"

It would be no more true to say of Mr. Bigler that he was or could be
embarrassed, than to say that a brass counterfeit dollar-piece would
change color when refused; the question annoyed him a little, in Mr.
Bolton's presence.

"Why, yes, Miss, of course, in a great enterprise for the benefit of the
community there will little things occur, which, which--and, of course,
the poor ought to be looked to; I tell my wife, that the poor must be
looked to; if you can tell who are poor--there's so many impostors. And
then, there's so many poor in the legislature to be looked after," said
the contractor with a sort of a chuckle, "isn't that so, Mr. Bolton?"

Eli Bolton replied that he never had much to do with the legislature.

"Yes," continued this public benefactor, "an uncommon poor lot this year,
uncommon. Consequently an expensive lot. The fact is, Mr. Bolton, that
the price is raised so high on United States Senator now, that it affects
the whole market; you can't get any public improvement through on
reasonable terms. Simony is what I call it, Simony," repeated Mr.
Bigler, as if he had said a good thing.

Mr. Bigler went on and gave some very interesting details of the intimate
connection between railroads and politics, and thoroughly entertained
himself all dinner time, and as much disgusted Ruth, who asked no more
questions, and her father who replied in monosyllables:

"I wish," said Ruth to her father, after the guest had gone, "that you
wouldn't bring home any more such horrid men. Do all men who wear big
diamond breast-pins, flourish their knives at table, and use bad grammar,
and cheat?"

"O, child, thee mustn't be too observing. Mr. Bigler is one of the most
important men in the state; nobody has more influence at Harrisburg.
I don't like him any more than thee does, but I'd better lend him a
little money than to have his ill will."

"Father, I think thee'd better have his ill-will than his company. Is it
true that he gave money to help build the pretty little church of
St. James the Less, and that he is, one of the vestrymen?"

"Yes. He is not such a bad fellow. One of the men in Third street asked
him the other day, whether his was a high church or a low church? Bigler
said he didn't know; he'd been in it once, and he could touch the ceiling
in the side aisle with his hand."

"I think he's just horrid," was Ruth's final summary of him, after the
manner of the swift judgment of women, with no consideration of the
extenuating circumstances. Mr. Bigler had no idea that he had not made a
good impression on the whole family; he certainly intended to be
agreeable. Margaret agreed with her daughter, and though she never said
anything to such people, she was grateful to Ruth for sticking at least
one pin into him.

Such was the serenity of the Bolton household that a stranger in it would
never have suspected there was any opposition to Ruth's going to the
Medical School. And she went quietly to take her residence in town, and
began her attendance of the lectures, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world. She did not heed, if she heard, the busy and
wondering gossip of relations and acquaintances, gossip that has no less
currency among the Friends than elsewhere because it is whispered slyly
and creeps about in an undertone.

Ruth was absorbed, and for the first time in her life thoroughly happy;
happy in the freedom of her life, and in the keen enjoyment of the
investigation that broadened its field day by day. She was in high
spirits when she came home to spend First Days; the house was full of her
gaiety and her merry laugh, and the children wished that Ruth would never
go away again. But her mother noticed, with a little anxiety, the
sometimes flushed face, and the sign of an eager spirit in the kindling
eyes, and, as well, the serious air of determination and endurance in her
face at unguarded moments.

The college was a small one and it sustained itself not without
difficulty in this city, which is so conservative, and is yet the origin
of so many radical movements. There were not more than a dozen
attendants on the lectures all together, so that the enterprise had the
air of an experiment, and the fascination of pioneering for those engaged
in it. There was one woman physician driving about town in her carriage,
attacking the most violent diseases in all quarters with persistent
courage, like a modern Bellona in her war chariot, who was popularly
supposed to gather in fees to the amount ten to twenty thousand dollars a
year. Perhaps some of these students looked forward to the near day when
they would support such a practice and a husband besides, but it is
unknown that any of them ever went further than practice in hospitals and
in their own nurseries, and it is feared that some of them were quite as
ready as their sisters, in emergencies, to "call a man."

If Ruth had any exaggerated expectations of a professional life, she kept
them to herself, and was known to her fellows of the class simply as a
cheerful, sincere student, eager in her investigations, and never
impatient at anything, except an insinuation that women had not as much
mental capacity for science as men.

"They really say," said one young Quaker sprig to another youth of his
age, "that Ruth Bolton is really going to be a saw-bones, attends
lectures, cuts up bodies, and all that. She's cool enough for a surgeon,
anyway." He spoke feelingly, for he had very likely been weighed in
Ruth's calm eyes sometime, and thoroughly scared by the little laugh that
accompanied a puzzling reply to one of his conversational nothings. Such
young gentlemen, at this time, did not come very distinctly into Ruth's
horizon, except as amusing circumstances.

About the details of her student life, Ruth said very little to her
friends, but they had reason to know, afterwards, that it required all
her nerve and the almost complete exhaustion of her physical strength,
to carry her through. She began her anatomical practice upon detached
portions of the human frame, which were brought into the demonstrating
room--dissecting the eye, the ear, and a small tangle of muscles and
nerves--an occupation which had not much more savor of death in it than
the analysis of a portion of a plant out of which the life went when it
was plucked up by the roots. Custom inures the most sensitive persons to
that which is at first most repellant; and in the late war we saw the
most delicate women, who could not at home endure the sight of blood,
become so used to scenes of carnage, that they walked the hospitals and
the margins of battle-fields, amid the poor remnants of torn humanity,
with as perfect self-possession as if they were strolling in a flower
garden.

It happened that Ruth was one evening deep in a line of investigation
which she could not finish or understand without demonstration, and so
eager was she in it, that it seemed as if she could not wait till the
next day. She, therefore, persuaded a fellow student, who was reading
that evening with her, to go down to the dissecting room of the college,
and ascertain what they wanted to know by an hour's work there. Perhaps,
also, Ruth wanted to test her own nerve, and to see whether the power of
association was stronger in her mind than her own will.

The janitor of the shabby and comfortless old building admitted the
girls, not without suspicion, and gave them lighted candles, which they
would need, without other remark than "there's a new one, Miss," as the
girls went up the broad stairs.

They climbed to the third story, and paused before a door, which they
unlocked, and which admitted them into a long apartment, with a row of
windows on one side and one at the end. The room was without light, save
from the stars and the candles the girls carried, which revealed to them
dimly two long and several small tables, a few benches and chairs, a
couple of skeletons hanging on the wall, a sink, and cloth-covered heaps
of something upon the tables here and there.

The windows were open, and the cool night wind came in strong enough to
flutter a white covering now and then, and to shake the loose casements.
But all the sweet odors of the night could not take from the room a faint
suggestion of mortality.

The young ladies paused a moment. The room itself was familiar enough,
but night makes almost any chamber eerie, and especially such a room of
detention as this where the mortal parts of the unburied might--almost be
supposed to be, visited, on the sighing night winds, by the wandering
spirits of their late tenants.

Opposite and at some distance across the roofs of lower buildings, the
girls saw a tall edifice, the long upper story of which seemed to be a
dancing hall. The windows of that were also open, and through them they
heard the scream of the jiggered and tortured violin, and the pump, pump
of the oboe, and saw the moving shapes of men and women in quick
transition, and heard the prompter's drawl.

"I wonder," said Ruth, "what the girls dancing there would think if they
saw us, or knew that there was such a room as this so near them."

She did not speak very loud, and, perhaps unconsciously, the girls drew
near to each other as they approached the long table in the centre of the
room. A straight object lay upon it, covered with a sheet. This was
doubtless "the new one" of which the janitor spoke. Ruth advanced, and
with a not very steady hand lifted the white covering from the upper part
of the figure and turned it down. Both the girls started. It was a
negro. The black face seemed to defy the pallor of death, and asserted
an ugly life-likeness that was frightful.

Ruth was as pale as the white sheet, and her comrade whispered, "Come
away, Ruth, it is awful."

Perhaps it was the wavering light of the candles, perhaps it was only the
agony from a death of pain, but the repulsive black face seemed to wear a
scowl that said, "Haven't you yet done with the outcast, persecuted black
man, but you must now haul him from his grave, and send even your women
to dismember his body?"

Who is this dead man, one of thousands who died yesterday, and will be
dust anon, to protest that science shall not turn his worthless carcass
to some account?

Ruth could have had no such thought, for with a pity in her sweet face,
that for the moment overcame fear and disgust, she reverently replaced
the covering, and went away to her own table, as her companion did to
hers. And there for an hour they worked at their several problems,
without speaking, but not without an awe of the presence there, "the new
one," and not without an awful sense of life itself, as they heard the
pulsations of the music and the light laughter from the dancing-hall.

When, at length, they went away, and locked the dreadful room behind
them, and came out into the street, where people were passing, they, for
the first time, realized, in the relief they felt, what a nervous strain
they had been under.

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