The Complete Works of Mark Twain


 
 
Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XVI

The Gilded Age

Chapter XVI


While Ruth was thus absorbed in her new occupation, and the spring was
wearing away, Philip and his friends were still detained at the Southern
Hotel. The great contractors had concluded their business with the state
and railroad officials and with the lesser contractors, and departed for
the East. But the serious illness of one of the engineers kept Philip
and Henry in the city and occupied in alternate watchings.

Philip wrote to Ruth of the new acquaintance they had made, Col. Sellers,
an enthusiastic and hospitable gentleman, very much interested in the
development of the country, and in their success. They had not had an
opportunity to visit at his place "up in the country" yet, but the
Colonel often dined with them, and in confidence, confided to them his
projects, and seemed to take a great liking to them, especially to his
friend Harry. It was true that he never seemed to have ready money,
but he was engaged in very large operations.

The correspondence was not very brisk between these two young persons,
so differently occupied; for though Philip wrote long letters, he got
brief ones in reply, full of sharp little observations however, such as
one concerning Col. Sellers, namely, that such men dined at their house
every week.

Ruth's proposed occupation astonished Philip immensely, but while he
argued it and discussed it, he did not dare hint to her his fear that it
would interfere with his most cherished plans. He too sincerely
respected Ruth's judgment to make any protest, however, and he would have
defended her course against the world.

This enforced waiting at St. Louis was very irksome to Philip. His money
was running away, for one thing, and he longed to get into the field,
and see for himself what chance there was for a fortune or even an
occupation. The contractors had given the young men leave to join the
engineer corps as soon as they could, but otherwise had made no provision
for them, and in fact had left them with only the most indefinite
expectations of something large in the future.

Harry was entirely happy; in his circumstances. He very soon knew
everybody, from the governor of the state down to the waiters at the
hotel. He had the Wall street slang at his tongue's end; he always
talked like a capitalist, and entered with enthusiasm into all the land
and railway schemes with which the air was thick.

Col. Sellers and Harry talked together by the hour and by the day. Harry
informed his new friend that he was going out with the engineer corps of
the Salt Lick Pacific Extension, but that wasn't his real business.

"I'm to have, with another party," said Harry, "a big contract in the
road, as soon as it is let; and, meantime, I'm with the engineers to spy
out the best land and the depot sites."

"It's everything," suggested' the Colonel, "in knowing where to invest.
I've known people throwaway their money because they were too
consequential to take Sellers' advice. Others, again, have made their
pile on taking it. I've looked over the ground; I've been studying it
for twenty years. You can't put your finger on a spot in the map of
Missouri that I don't know as if I'd made it. When you want to place
anything," continued the Colonel, confidently, "just let Beriah Sellers
know. That's all."

"Oh, I haven't got much in ready money I can lay my hands on now, but if
a fellow could do anything with fifteen or twenty thousand dollars,
as a beginning, I shall draw for that when I see the right opening."

"Well, that's something, that's something, fifteen or twenty thousand
dollars, say twenty--as an advance," said the Colonel reflectively, as if
turning over his mind for a project that could be entered on with such a
trifling sum.

"I'll tell you what it is--but only to you Mr. Brierly, only to you,
mind; I've got a little project that I've been keeping. It looks small,
looks small on paper, but it's got a big future. What should you say,
sir, to a city, built up like the rod of Aladdin had touched it, built up
in two years, where now you wouldn't expect it any more than you'd expect
a light-house on the top of Pilot Knob? and you could own the land! It
can be done, sir. It can be done!"

The Colonel hitched up his chair close to Harry, laid his hand on his
knee, and, first looking about him, said in a low voice, "The Salt Lick
Pacific Extension is going to run through Stone's Landing! The Almighty
never laid out a cleaner piece of level prairie for a city; and it's the
natural center of all that region of hemp and tobacco."

"What makes you think the road will go there? It's twenty miles, on the
map, off the straight line of the road?"

"You can't tell what is the straight line till the engineers have been
over it. Between us, I have talked with Jeff Thompson, the division
engineer. He understands the wants of Stone's Landing, and the claims of
the inhabitants--who are to be there. Jeff says that a railroad is for-
the accommodation of the people and not for the benefit of gophers; and
if, he don't run this to Stone's Landing he'll be damned! You ought to
know Jeff; he's one of the most enthusiastic engineers in this western
country, and one of the best fellows that ever looked through the bottom
of a glass."

The recommendation was not undeserved. There was nothing that Jeff
wouldn't do, to accommodate a friend, from sharing his last dollar with
him, to winging him in a duel. When he understood from Col. Sellers.
how the land lay at Stone's Landing, he cordially shook hands with that
gentleman, asked him to drink, and fairly roared out, "Why, God bless my
soul, Colonel, a word from one Virginia gentleman to another is 'nuff
ced.' There's Stone's Landing been waiting for a railroad more than four
thousand years, and damme if she shan't have it."

Philip had not so much faith as Harry in Stone's Landing, when the latter
opened the project to him, but Harry talked about it as if he already
owned that incipient city.

Harry thoroughly believed in all his projects and inventions, and lived
day by day in their golden atmosphere. Everybody liked the young fellow,
for how could they help liking one of such engaging manners and large
fortune? The waiters at the hotel would do more for him than for any
other guest, and he made a great many acquaintances among the people of
St. Louis, who liked his sensible and liberal views about the development
of the western country, and about St. Louis. He said it ought to be the
national capital. Harry made partial arrangements with several of the
merchants for furnishing supplies for his contract on the Salt Lick
Pacific Extension; consulted the maps with the engineers, and went over
the profiles with the contractors, figuring out estimates for bids.
He was exceedingly busy with those things when he was not at the bedside
of his sick acquaintance, or arranging the details of his speculation
with Col. Sellers.

Meantime the days went along and the weeks, and the money in Harry's
pocket got lower and lower. He was just as liberal with what he had as
before, indeed it was his nature to be free with his money or with that
of others, and he could lend or spend a dollar with an air that made it
seem like ten. At length, at the end of one week, when his hotel bill
was presented, Harry found not a cent in his pocket to meet it. He
carelessly remarked to the landlord that he was not that day in funds,
but he would draw on New York, and he sat down and wrote to the
contractors in that city a glowing letter about the prospects of the
road, and asked them to advance a hundred or two, until he got at work.
No reply came. He wrote again, in an unoffended business like tone,
suggesting that he had better draw at three days. A short answer came to
this, simply saying that money was very tight in Wall street just then,
and that he had better join the engineer corps as soon as he could.

But the bill had to be paid, and Harry took it to Philip, and asked him
if he thought he hadn't better draw on his uncle. Philip had not much
faith in Harry's power of "drawing," and told him that he would pay the
bill himself. Whereupon Harry dismissed the matter then and thereafter
from his thoughts, and, like a light-hearted good fellow as he was, gave
himself no more trouble about his board-bills. Philip paid them, swollen
as they were with a monstrous list of extras; but he seriously counted
the diminishing bulk of his own hoard, which was all the money he had in
the world. Had he not tacitly agreed to share with Harry to the last in
this adventure, and would not the generous fellow divide; with him if he,
Philip, were in want and Harry had anything?

The fever at length got tired of tormenting the stout young engineer, who
lay sick at the hotel, and left him, very thin, a little sallow but an
"acclimated" man. Everybody said he was "acclimated" now, and said it
cheerfully. What it is to be acclimated to western fevers no two persons
exactly agree.

Some say it is a sort of vaccination that renders death by some malignant
type of fever less probable. Some regard it as a sort of initiation,
like that into the Odd Fellows, which renders one liable to his regular
dues thereafter. Others consider it merely the acquisition of a habit of
taking every morning before breakfast a dose of bitters, composed of
whiskey and assafoetida, out of the acclimation jug.

Jeff Thompson afterwards told Philip that he once asked Senator Atchison,
then acting Vice-President: of the United States, about the possibility
of acclimation; he thought the opinion of the second officer of our great
government would be, valuable on this point. They were sitting together
on a bench before a country tavern, in the free converse permitted by our
democratic habits.

"I suppose, Senator, that you have become acclimated to this country?"

"Well," said the Vice-President, crossing his legs, pulling his wide-
awake down over his forehead, causing a passing chicken to hop quickly
one side by the accuracy of his aim, and speaking with senatorial
deliberation, "I think I have. I've been here twenty-five years, and
dash, dash my dash to dash, if I haven't entertained twenty-five separate
and distinct earthquakes, one a year. The niggro is the only person who
can stand the fever and ague of this region."

The convalescence of the engineer was the signal for breaking up quarters
at St. Louis, and the young fortune-hunters started up the river in good
spirits. It was only the second time either of them had been upon a
Mississippi steamboat, and nearly everything they saw had the charm of
novelty. Col. Sellers was at the landing to bid thorn good-bye.

"I shall send you up that basket of champagne by the next boat; no, no;
no thanks; you'll find it not bad in camp," he cried out as the plank was
hauled in. "My respects to Thompson. Tell him to sight for Stone's.
Let me know, Mr. Brierly, when you are ready to locate; I'll come over
from Hawkeye. Goodbye."

And the last the young fellows saw of the Colonel, he was waving his hat,
and beaming prosperity and good luck.

The voyage was delightful, and was not long enough to become monotonous.
The travelers scarcely had time indeed to get accustomed to the splendors
of the great saloon where the tables were spread for meals, a marvel of
paint and gilding, its ceiling hung with fancifully cut tissue-paper of
many colors, festooned and arranged in endless patterns. The whole was
more beautiful than a barber's shop. The printed bill of fare at dinner
was longer and more varied, the proprietors justly boasted, than that of
any hotel in New York. It must have been the work of an author of talent
and imagination, and it surely was not his fault if the dinner itself was
to a certain extent a delusion, and if the guests got something that
tasted pretty much the same whatever dish they ordered; nor was it his
fault if a general flavor of rose in all the dessert dishes suggested
that they hid passed through the barber's saloon on their way from the
kitchen.

The travelers landed at a little settlement on the left bank, and at once
took horses for the camp in the interior, carrying their clothes and
blankets strapped behind the saddles. Harry was dressed as we have seen
him once before, and his long and shining boots attracted not a little
the attention of the few persons they met on the road, and especially of
the bright faced wenches who lightly stepped along the highway,
picturesque in their colored kerchiefs, carrying light baskets, or riding
upon mules and balancing before them a heavier load.

Harry sang fragments of operas and talked abort their fortune. Philip
even was excited by the sense of freedom and adventure, and the beauty of
the landscape. The prairie, with its new grass and unending acres of
brilliant flowers--chiefly the innumerable varieties of phlox-bore the
look of years of cultivation, and the occasional open groves of white
oaks gave it a park-like appearance. It was hardly unreasonable to
expect to see at any moment, the gables and square windows of an
Elizabethan mansion in one of the well kept groves.

Towards sunset of the third day, when the young gentlemen thought they
ought to be near the town of Magnolia, near which they had been directed
to find the engineers' camp, they descried a log house and drew up before
it to enquire the way. Half the building was store, and half was
dwelling house. At the door of the latter stood a regress with a bright
turban on her head, to whom Philip called,

"Can you tell me, auntie, how far it is to the town of Magnolia?"

"Why, bress you chile," laughed the woman, "you's dere now."

It was true. This log horse was the compactly built town, and all
creation was its suburbs. The engineers' camp was only two or three
miles distant.

"You's boun' to find it," directed auntie, "if you don't keah nuffin
'bout de road, and go fo' de sun-down."

A brisk gallop brought the riders in sight of the twinkling light of the
camp, just as the stars came out. It lay in a little hollow, where a
small stream ran through a sparse grove of young white oaks. A half
dozen tents were pitched under the trees, horses and oxen were corraled
at a little distance, and a group of men sat on camp stools or lay on
blankets about a bright fire. The twang of a banjo became audible as
they drew nearer, and they saw a couple of negroes, from some neighboring
plantation, "breaking down" a juba in approved style, amid the "hi, hi's"
of the spectators.

Mr. Jeff Thompson, for it was the camp of this redoubtable engineer, gave
the travelers a hearty welcome, offered them ground room in his own tent,
ordered supper, and set out a small jug, a drop from which he declared
necessary on account of the chill of the evening.

"I never saw an Eastern man," said Jeff, "who knew how to drink from a
jug with one hand. It's as easy as lying. So." He grasped the handle
with the right hand, threw the jug back upon his arm, and applied his
lips to the nozzle. It was an act as graceful as it was simple.
"Besides," said Mr. Thompson, setting it down, "it puts every man on his
honor as to quantity."

Early to turn in was the rule of the camp, and by nine o'clock everybody
was under his blanket, except Jeff himself, who worked awhile at his
table over his field-book, and then arose, stepped outside the tent door
and sang, in a strong and not unmelodious tenor, the Star Spangled Banner
from beginning to end. It proved to be his nightly practice to let off
the unexpended seam of his conversational powers, in the words of this
stirring song.

It was a long time before Philip got to sleep. He saw the fire light,
he saw the clear stars through the tree-tops, he heard the gurgle of the
stream, the stamp of the horses, the occasional barking of the dog which
followed the cook's wagon, the hooting of an owl; and when these failed
he saw Jeff, standing on a battlement, mid the rocket's red glare, and
heard him sing, "Oh, say, can you see?", It was the first time he had
ever slept on the ground.

< Back
Forward >












Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors


Mark Twain. Copyright 2008, mtwain.com
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.