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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XVIII

The Gilded Age

Chapter XVIII


Eight years have passed since the death of Mr. Hawkins. Eight years are
not many in the life of a nation or the history of a state, but they
maybe years of destiny that shall fix the current of the century
following. Such years were those that followed the little scrimmage on
Lexington Common. Such years were those that followed the double-shotted
demand for the surrender of Fort Sumter. History is never done with
inquiring of these years, and summoning witnesses about them, and trying
to understand their significance.

The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that
were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the
social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the
entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of
two or three generations.

As we are accustomed to interpret the economy of providence, the life of
the individual is as nothing to that of the nation or the race; but who
can say, in the broader view and the more intelligent weight of values,
that the life of one man is not more than that of a nationality, and that
there is not a tribunal where the tragedy of one human soul shall not
seem more significant than the overturning of any human institution
whatever?

When one thinks of the tremendous forces of the upper and the nether
world which play for the mastery of the soul of a woman during the few
years in which she passes from plastic girlhood to the ripe maturity of
womanhood, he may well stand in awe before the momentous drama.

What capacities she has of purity, tenderness, goodness; what capacities
of vileness, bitterness and evil. Nature must needs be lavish with the
mother and creator of men, and centre in her all the possibilities of
life. And a few critical years can decide whether her life is to be full
of sweetness and light, whether she is to be the vestal of a holy temple,
or whether she will be the fallen priestess of a desecrated shrine.
There are women, it is true, who seem to be capable neither of rising
much nor of falling much, and whom a conventional life saves from any
special development of character.

But Laura was not one of them. She had the fatal gift of beauty, and
that more fatal gift which does not always accompany mere beauty, the
power of fascination, a power that may, indeed, exist without beauty.
She had will, and pride and courage and ambition, and she was left to be
very much her own guide at the age when romance comes to the aid of
passion, and when the awakening powers of her vigorous mind had little
object on which to discipline themselves.

The tremendous conflict that was fought in this girl's soul none of those
about her knew, and very few knew that her life had in it anything
unusual or romantic or strange.

Those were troublous days in Hawkeye as well as in most other Missouri
towns, days of confusion, when between Unionist and Confederate
occupations, sudden maraudings and bush-whackings and raids, individuals
escaped observation or comment in actions that would have filled the town
with scandal in quiet times.

Fortunately we only need to deal with Laura's life at this period
historically, and look back upon such portions of it as will serve to
reveal the woman as she was at the time of the arrival of Mr. Harry
Brierly in Hawkeye.

The Hawkins family were settled there, and had a hard enough struggle
with poverty and the necessity of keeping up appearances in accord with
their own family pride and the large expectations they secretly cherished
of a fortune in the Knobs of East Tennessee. How pinched they were
perhaps no one knew but Clay, to whom they looked for almost their whole
support. Washington had been in Hawkeye off and on, attracted away
occasionally by some tremendous speculation, from which he invariably
returned to Gen. Boswell's office as poor as he went. He was the
inventor of no one knew how many useless contrivances, which were not
worth patenting, and his years had been passed in dreaming and planning
to no purpose; until he was now a man of about thirty, without a
profession or a permanent occupation, a tall, brown-haired, dreamy person
of the best intentions and the frailest resolution. Probably however
the, eight years had been happier to him than to any others in his
circle, for the time had been mostly spent in a blissful dream of the
coming of enormous wealth.

He went out with a company from Hawkeye to the war, and was not wanting
in courage, but be would have been a better soldier if he had been less
engaged in contrivances for circumventing the enemy by strategy unknown
to the books.

It happened to him to be captured in one of his self-appointed
expeditions, but the federal colonel released him, after a short
examination, satisfied that he could most injure the confederate forces
opposed to the Unionists by returning him to his regiment. Col. Sellers
was of course a prominent man during the war. He was captain of the home
guards in Hawkeye, and he never left home except upon one occasion, when
on the strength of a rumor, he executed a flank movement and fortified
Stone's Landing, a place which no one unacquainted with the country would
be likely to find.

"Gad," said the Colonel afterwards, "the Landing is the key to upper
Missouri, and it is the only place the enemy never captured. If other
places had been defended as well as that was, the result would have been
different, sir."

The Colonel had his own theories about war as he had in other things.
If everybody had stayed at home as he did, he said, the South never would
have been conquered. For what would there have been to conquer? Mr.
Jeff Davis was constantly writing him to take command of a corps in the
confederate army, but Col. Sellers said, no, his duty was at home. And
he was by no means idle. He was the inventor of the famous air torpedo,
which came very near destroying the Union armies in Missouri, and the
city of St. Louis itself.

His plan was to fill a torpedo with Greek fire and poisonous and deadly
missiles, attach it to a balloon, and then let it sail away over the
hostile camp and explode at the right moment, when the time-fuse burned
out. He intended to use this invention in the capture of St. Louis,
exploding his torpedoes over the city, and raining destruction upon it
until the army of occupation would gladly capitulate. He was unable to
procure the Greek fire, but he constructed a vicious torpedo which would
have answered the purpose, but the first one prematurely exploded in his
wood-house, blowing it clean away, and setting fire to his house. The
neighbors helped him put out the conflagration, but they discouraged any
more experiments of that sort.

The patriotic old gentleman, however, planted so much powder and so many
explosive contrivances in the roads leading into Hawkeye, and then forgot
the exact spots of danger, that people were afraid to travel the
highways, and used to come to town across the fields, The Colonel's motto
was, "Millions for defence but not one cent for tribute."

When Laura came to Hawkeye she might have forgotten the annoyances of the
gossips of Murpheysburg and have out lived the bitterness that was
growing in her heart, if she had been thrown less upon herself, or if the
surroundings of her life had been more congenial and helpful. But she
had little society, less and less as she grew older that was congenial to
her, and her mind preyed upon itself; and the mystery of her birth at
once chagrined her and raised in her the most extravagant expectations.
She was proud and she felt the sting of poverty. She could not but be
conscious of her beauty also, and she was vain of that, and came to take
a sort of delight in the exercise of her fascinations upon the rather
loutish young men who came in her way and whom she despised.

There was another world opened to her--a world of books. But it was not
the best world of that sort, for the small libraries she had access to in
Hawkeye were decidedly miscellaneous, and largely made up of romances and
fictions which fed her imagination with the most exaggerated notions of
life, and showed her men and women in a very false sort of heroism. From
these stories she learned what a woman of keen intellect and some culture
joined to beauty and fascination of manner, might expect to accomplish in
society as she read of it; and along with these ideas she imbibed other
very crude ones in regard to the emancipation of woman.

There were also other books-histories, biographies of distinguished
people, travels in far lands, poems, especially those of Byron, Scott and
Shelley and Moore, which she eagerly absorbed, and appropriated therefrom
what was to her liking. Nobody in Hawkeye had read so much or, after a
fashion, studied so diligently as Laura. She passed for an accomplished
girl, and no doubt thought herself one, as she was, judged by any
standard near her.

During the war there came to Hawkeye a confederate officer, Col. Selby,
who was stationed there for a time, in command of that district. He was
a handsome, soldierly man of thirty years, a graduate of the University
of Virginia, and of distinguished family, if his story might be believed,
and, it was evident, a man of the world and of extensive travel and
adventure.

To find in such an out of the way country place a woman like Laura was a
piece of good luck upon which Col. Selby congratulated himself. He was
studiously polite to her and treated her with a consideration to which
she was unaccustomed. She had read of such men, but she had never seen
one before, one so high-bred, so noble in sentiment, so entertaining in
conversation, so engaging in manner.

It is a long story; unfortunately it is an old story, and it need not be
dwelt on. Laura loved him, and believed that his love for her was as
pure and deep as her own. She worshipped him and would have counted her
life a little thing to give him, if he would only love her and let her
feed the hunger of her heart upon him.

The passion possessed her whole being, and lifted her up, till she seemed
to walk on air. It was all true, then, the romances she had read, the
bliss of love she had dreamed of. Why had she never noticed before how
blithesome the world was, how jocund with love; the birds sang it, the
trees whispered it to her as she passed, the very flowers beneath her
feet strewed the way as for a bridal march.

When the Colonel went away they were engaged to be married, as soon as he
could make certain arrangements which he represented to be necessary, and
quit the army. He wrote to her from Harding, a small town in the
southwest corner of the state, saying that he should be held in the
service longer than he had expected, but that it would not be more than a
few months, then he should be at liberty to take her to Chicago where he
had property, and should have business, either now or as soon as the war
was over, which he thought could not last long. Meantime why should they
be separated? He was established in comfortable quarters, and if she
could find company and join him, they would be married, and gain so many
more months of happiness.

Was woman ever prudent when she loved? Laura went to Harding, the
neighbors supposed to nurse Washington who had fallen ill there.
Her engagement was, of course, known in Hawkeye, and was indeed a matter
of pride to her family. Mrs. Hawkins would have told the first inquirer
that. Laura had gone to be married; but Laura had cautioned her; she did
not want to be thought of, she said, as going in search of a husband; let
the news come back after she was married.

So she traveled to Harding on the pretence we have mentioned, and was
married. She was married, but something must have happened on that very
day or the next that alarmed her. Washington did not know then or after
what it was, but Laura bound him not to send news of her marriage to
Hawkeye yet, and to enjoin her mother not to speak of it. Whatever cruel
suspicion or nameless dread this was, Laura tried bravely to put it away,
and not let it cloud her happiness.

Communication that summer, as may be imagined, was neither regular nor
frequent between the remote confederate camp at Harding and Hawkeye, and
Laura was in a measure lost sight of--indeed, everyone had troubles
enough of his own without borrowing from his neighbors.

Laura had given herself utterly to her husband, and if he had faults, if
he was selfish, if he was sometimes coarse, if he was dissipated, she did
not or would not see it. It was the passion of her life, the time when
her whole nature went to flood tide and swept away all barriers. Was her
husband ever cold or indifferent? She shut her eyes to everything but
her sense of possession of her idol.

Three months passed. One morning her husband informed her that he had
been ordered South, and must go within two hours.

"I can be ready," said Laura, cheerfully.

"But I can't take you. You must go back to Hawkeye."

"Can't-take-me?" Laura asked, with wonder in her eyes. "I can't live
without you. You said-----"

"O bother what I said,"--and the Colonel took up his sword to buckle it
on, and then continued coolly, "the fact is Laura, our romance is played
out."

Laura heard, but she did not comprehend. She caught his arm and cried,
"George, how can you joke so cruelly? I will go any where with you.
I will wait any where. I can't go back to Hawkeye."

"Well, go where you like. Perhaps," continued he with a sneer, "you
would do as well to wait here, for another colonel."

Laura's brain whirled. She did not yet comprehend. "What does this
mean? Where are you going?"

"It means," said the officer, in measured words, "that you haven't
anything to show for a legal marriage, and that I am going to New
Orleans."

"It's a lie, George, it's a lie. I am your wife. I shall go. I shall
follow you to New Orleans."

"Perhaps my wife might not like it!"

Laura raised her head, her eyes flamed with fire, she tried to utter a
cry, and fell senseless on the floor.

When she came to herself the Colonel was gone. Washington Hawkins stood
at her bedside. Did she come to herself? Was there anything left in her
heart but hate and bitterness, a sense of an infamous wrong at the hands
of the only man she had ever loved?

She returned to Hawkeye. With the exception of Washington and his
mother, no one knew what had happened. The neighbors supposed that the
engagement with Col. Selby had fallen through. Laura was ill for a long
time, but she recovered; she had that resolution in her that could
conquer death almost. And with her health came back her beauty, and an
added fascination, a something that might be mistaken for sadness. Is
there a beauty in the knowledge of evil, a beauty that shines out in the
face of a person whose inward life is transformed by some terrible
experience? Is the pathos in the eyes of the Beatrice Cenci from her
guilt or her innocence?

Laura was not much changed. The lovely woman had a devil in her heart.
That was all.

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