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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XIX

The Gilded Age

Chapter XIX


Mr. Harry Brierly drew his pay as an engineer while he was living at the
City Hotel in Hawkeye. Mr. Thompson had been kind enough to say that it
didn't make any difference whether he was with the corps or not; and
although Harry protested to the Colonel daily and to Washington Hawkins
that he must go back at once to the line and superintend the lay-out with
reference to his contract, yet he did not go, but wrote instead long
letters to Philip, instructing him to keep his eye out, and to let him
know when any difficulty occurred that required his presence.

Meantime Harry blossomed out in the society of Hawkeye, as he did in any
society where fortune cast him and he had the slightest opportunity to
expand. Indeed the talents of a rich and accomplished young fellow like
Harry were not likely to go unappreciated in such a place. A land
operator, engaged in vast speculations, a favorite in the select circles
of New York, in correspondence with brokers and bankers, intimate with
public men at Washington, one who could play the guitar and touch the
banjo lightly, and who had an eye for a pretty girl, and knew the
language of flattery, was welcome everywhere in Hawkeye. Even Miss Laura
Hawkins thought it worth while to use her fascinations upon him, and to
endeavor to entangle the volatile fellow in the meshes of her
attractions.

"Gad," says Harry to the Colonel, "she's a superb creature, she'd make a
stir in New York, money or no money. There are men I know would give her
a railroad or an opera house, or whatever she wanted--at least they'd
promise."

Harry had a way of looking at women as he looked at anything else in the
world he wanted, and he half resolved to appropriate Miss Laura, during
his stay in Hawkeye. Perhaps the Colonel divined his thoughts, or was
offended at Harry's talk, for he replied,

"No nonsense, Mr. Brierly. Nonsense won't do in Hawkeye, not with my
friends. The Hawkins' blood is good blood, all the way from Tennessee.
The Hawkinses are under the weather now, but their Tennessee property is
millions when it comes into market."

"Of course, Colonel. Not the least offense intended. But you can see
she is a fascinating woman. I was only thinking, as to this
appropriation, now, what such a woman could do in Washington. All
correct, too, all correct. Common thing, I assure you in Washington; the
wives of senators, representatives, cabinet officers, all sorts of wives,
and some who are not wives, use their influence. You want an
appointment? Do you go to Senator X? Not much. You get on the right
side of his wife. Is it an appropriation? You'd go 'straight to the
Committee, or to the Interior office, I suppose? You'd learn better than
that. It takes a woman to get any thing through the Land Office: I tell
you, Miss Laura would fascinate an appropriation right through the Senate
and the House of Representatives in one session, if she was in
Washington, as your friend, Colonel, of course as your friend."

"Would you have her sign our petition?" asked the Colonel, innocently.

Harry laughed. "Women don't get anything by petitioning Congress; nobody
does, that's for form. Petitions are referred somewhere, and that's the
last of them; you can't refer a handsome woman so easily, when she is
present. They prefer 'em mostly."

The petition however was elaborately drawn up, with a glowing description
of Napoleon and the adjacent country, and a statement of the absolute
necessity to the prosperity of that region and of one of the stations on
the great through route to the Pacific, of the, immediate improvement of
Columbus River; to this was appended a map of the city and a survey of
the river. It was signed by all the people at Stone's Landing who could
write their names, by Col. Beriah Sellers, and the Colonel agreed to have
the names headed by all the senators and representatives from the state
and by a sprinkling of ex-governors and ex-members of congress. When
completed it was a formidable document. Its preparation and that of more
minute plots of the new city consumed the valuable time of Sellers and
Harry for many weeks, and served to keep them both in the highest
spirits.

In the eyes of Washington Hawkins, Harry was a superior being, a man who
was able to bring things to pass in a way that excited his enthusiasm.
He never tired of listening to his stories of what he had done and of
what he was going to do. As for Washington, Harry thought he was a man
of ability and comprehension, but "too visionary," he told the Colonel.
The Colonel said he might be right, but he had never noticed anything
visionary about him.

"He's got his plans, sir. God bless my soul, at his age, I was full of
plans. But experience sobers a man, I never touch any thing now that
hasn't been weighed in my judgment; and when Beriah Sellers puts his
judgment on a thing, there it is."

Whatever might have been Harry's intentions with regard to Laura, he saw
more and more of her every day, until he got to be restless and nervous
when he was not with her.

That consummate artist in passion allowed him to believe that the
fascination was mainly on his side, and so worked upon his vanity, while
inflaming his ardor, that he scarcely knew what he was about. Her
coolness and coyness were even made to appear the simple precautions of a
modest timidity, and attracted him even more than the little tendernesses
into which she was occasionally surprised. He could never be away from
her long, day or evening; and in a short time their intimacy was the town
talk. She played with him so adroitly that Harry thought she was
absorbed in love for him, and yet he was amazed that he did not get on
faster in his conquest.

And when he thought of it, he was piqued as well. A country girl, poor
enough, that was evident; living with her family in a cheap and most
unattractive frame house, such as carpenters build in America, scantily
furnished and unadorned; without the adventitious aids of dress or jewels
or the fine manners of society--Harry couldn't understand it. But she
fascinated him, and held him just beyond the line of absolute familiarity
at the same time. While he was with her she made him forget that the
Hawkins' house was nothing but a wooden tenement, with four small square
rooms on the ground floor and a half story; it might have been a palace
for aught he knew.

Perhaps Laura was older than Harry. She was, at any rate, at that ripe
age when beauty in woman seems more solid than in the budding period of
girlhood, and she had come to understand her powers perfectly, and to
know exactly how much of the susceptibility and archness of the girl it
was profitable to retain. She saw that many women, with the best
intentions, make a mistake of carrying too much girlishness into
womanhood. Such a woman would have attracted Harry at any time, but only
a woman with a cool brain and exquisite art could have made him lose his
head in this way; for Harry thought himself a man of the world. The
young fellow never dreamed that he was merely being experimented on; he
was to her a man of another society and another culture, different from
that she had any knowledge of except in books, and she was not unwilling
to try on him the fascinations of her mind and person.

For Laura had her dreams. She detested the narrow limits in which her
lot was cast, she hated poverty. Much of her reading had been of modern
works of fiction, written by her own sex, which had revealed to her
something of her own powers and given her indeed, an exaggerated notion
of the influence, the wealth, the position a woman may attain who has
beauty and talent and ambition and a little culture, and is not too
scrupulous in the use of them. She wanted to be rich, she wanted luxury,
she wanted men at her feet, her slaves, and she had not--thanks to some
of the novels she had read--the nicest discrimination between notoriety
and reputation; perhaps she did not know how fatal notoriety usually is
to the bloom of womanhood.

With the other Hawkins children Laura had been brought up in the belief
that they had inherited a fortune in the Tennessee Lands. She did not by
any means share all the delusion of the family; but her brain was not
seldom busy with schemes about it. Washington seemed to her only to
dream of it and to be willing to wait for its riches to fall upon him in
a golden shower; but she was impatient, and wished she were a man to take
hold of the business.

"You men must enjoy your schemes and your activity and liberty to go
about the world," she said to Harry one day, when he had been talking of
New York and Washington and his incessant engagements.

"Oh, yes," replied that martyr to business, "it's all well enough, if you
don't have too much of it, but it only has one object."

"What is that?"

"If a woman doesn't know, it's useless to tell her. What do you suppose
I am staying in Hawkeye for, week after week, when I ought to be with my
corps?"

"I suppose it's your business with Col. Sellers about Napoleon, you've
always told me so," answered Laura, with a look intended to contradict
her words.

"And now I tell you that is all arranged, I suppose you'll tell me I
ought to go?"

"Harry!" exclaimed Laura, touching his arm and letting her pretty hand
rest there a moment. "Why should I want you to go away? The only person
in Hawkeye who understands me."

"But you refuse to understand me," replied Harry, flattered but still
petulant. "You are like an iceberg, when we are alone."

Laura looked up with wonder in her great eyes, and something like a blush
suffusing her face, followed by a look of langour that penetrated Harry's
heart as if it had been longing.

"Did I ever show any want of confidence in you, Harry?" And she gave him
her hand, which Harry pressed with effusion--something in her manner told
him that he must be content with that favor.

It was always so. She excited his hopes and denied him, inflamed his
passion and restrained it, and wound him in her toils day by day. To
what purpose? It was keen delight to Laura to prove that she had power
over men.

Laura liked to hear about life at the east, and especially about the
luxurious society in which Mr. Brierly moved when he was at home. It
pleased her imagination to fancy herself a queen in it.

"You should be a winter in Washington," Harry said.

"But I have no acquaintances there."

"Don't know any of the families of the congressmen? They like to have a
pretty woman staying with them."

"Not one."

"Suppose Col. Sellers should, have business there; say, about this
Columbus River appropriation?"

"Sellers!" and Laura laughed.

"You needn't laugh. Queerer things have happened. Sellers knows
everybody from Missouri, and from the West, too, for that matter. He'd
introduce you to Washington life quick enough. It doesn't need a crowbar
to break your way into society there as it does in Philadelphia. It's
democratic, Washington is. Money or beauty will open any door. If I
were a handsome woman, I shouldn't want any better place than the capital
to pick up a prince or a fortune."

"Thank you," replied Laura. "But I prefer the quiet of home, and the
love of those I know;" and her face wore a look of sweet contentment and
unworldliness that finished Mr. Harry Brierly for the day.

Nevertheless, the hint that Harry had dropped fell upon good ground, and
bore fruit an hundred fold; it worked in her mind until she had built up
a plan on it, and almost a career for herself. Why not, she said, why
shouldn't I do as other women have done? She took the first opportunity
to see Col. Sellers, and to sound him about the Washington visit. How
was he getting on with his navigation scheme, would it be likely to take
him from home to Jefferson City; or to Washington, perhaps?

"Well, maybe. If the people of Napoleon want me to go to Washington, and
look after that matter, I might tear myself from my home. It's been
suggested to me, but--not a word of it to Mrs. Sellers and the children.
Maybe they wouldn't like to think of their father in Washington. But
Dilworthy, Senator Dilworthy, says to me, 'Colonel, you are the man, you
could influence more votes than any one else on such a measure, an old
settler, a man of the people, you know the wants of Missouri; you've a
respect for religion too, says he, and know how the cause of the gospel
goes with improvements: Which is true enough, Miss Laura, and hasn't been
enough thought of in connection with Napoleon. He's an able man,
Dilworthy, and a good man. A man has got to be good to succeed as he
has. He's only been in Congress a few years, and he must be worth a
million. First thing in the morning when he stayed with me he asked
about family prayers, whether we had 'em before or after breakfast.
I hated to disappoint the Senator, but I had to out with it, tell him we
didn't have 'em, not steady. He said he understood, business
interruptions and all that, some men were well enough without, but as for
him he never neglected the ordinances of religion. He doubted if the
Columbus River appropriation would succeed if we did not invoke the
Divine Blessing on it."

Perhaps it is unnecessary to say to the reader that Senator Dilworthy had
not stayed with Col. Sellers while he was in Hawkeye; this visit to his
house being only one of the Colonel's hallucinations--one of those
instant creations of his fertile fancy, which were always flashing into
his brain and out of his mouth in the course of any conversation and
without interrupting the flow of it.

During the summer Philip rode across the country and made a short visit
in Hawkeye, giving Harry an opportunity to show him the progress that he
and the Colonel had made in their operation at Stone's Landing, to
introduce him also to Laura, and to borrow a little money when he
departed. Harry bragged about his conquest, as was his habit, and took
Philip round to see his western prize.

Laura received Mr. Philip with a courtesy and a slight hauteur that
rather surprised and not a little interested him. He saw at once that
she was older than Harry, and soon made up his mind that she was leading
his friend a country dance to which he was unaccustomed. At least he
thought he saw that, and half hinted as much to Harry, who flared up at
once; but on a second visit Philip was not so sure, the young lady was
certainly kind and friendly and almost confiding with Harry, and treated
Philip with the greatest consideration. She deferred to his opinions,
and listened attentively when he talked, and in time met his frank manner
with an equal frankness, so that he was quite convinced that whatever she
might feel towards Harry, she was sincere with him. Perhaps his manly
way did win her liking. Perhaps in her mind, she compared him with
Harry, and recognized in him a man to whom a woman might give her whole
soul, recklessly and with little care if she lost it. Philip was not
invincible to her beauty nor to the intellectual charm of her presence.

The week seemed very short that he passed in Hawkeye, and when he bade
Laura good by, he seemed to have known her a year.

"We shall see you again, Mr. Sterling," she said as she gave him her
hand, with just a shade of sadness in her handsome eyes.

And when he turned away she followed him with a look that might have
disturbed his serenity, if he had not at the moment had a little square
letter in his breast pocket, dated at Philadelphia, and signed "Ruth."


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