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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXIV

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXIV


The capital of the Great Republic was a new world to country-bred
Washington Hawkins. St. Louis was a greater city, but its floating.
population did not hail from great distances, and so it had the general
family aspect of the permanent population; but Washington gathered its
people from the four winds of heaven, and so the manners, the faces and
the fashions there, presented a variety that was infinite. Washington
had never been in "society" in St. Louis, and he knew nothing of the ways
of its wealthier citizens and had never inspected one of their dwellings.
Consequently, everything in the nature of modern fashion and grandeur was
a new and wonderful revelation to him.

Washington is an interesting city to any of us. It seems to become more
and more interesting the oftener we visit it. Perhaps the reader has
never been there? Very well. You arrive either at night, rather too
late to do anything or see anything until morning, or you arrive so early
in the morning that you consider it best to go to your hotel and sleep an
hour or two while the sun bothers along over the Atlantic. You cannot
well arrive at a pleasant intermediate hour, because the railway
corporation that keeps the keys of the only door that leads into the town
or out of it take care of that. You arrive in tolerably good spirits,
because it is only thirty-eight miles from Baltimore to the capital, and
so you have only been insulted three times (provided you are not in a
sleeping car--the average is higher there): once when you renewed your
ticket after stopping over in Baltimore, once when you were about to
enter the "ladies' car" without knowing it was a lady's car, and once
When you asked the conductor at what hour you would reach Washington.

You are assailed by a long rank of hackmen who shake their whips in your
face as you step out upon the sidewalk; you enter what they regard as a
"carriage," in the capital, and you wonder why they do not take it out of
service and put it in the museum: we have few enough antiquities, and
it is little to our credit that we make scarcely any effort to preserve
the few we have. You reach your hotel, presently--and here let us draw
the curtain of charity--because of course you have gone to the wrong one.
You being a stranger, how could you do otherwise? There are a hundred
and eighteen bad hotels, and only one good one. The most renowned and
popular hotel of them all is perhaps the worst one known to history.

It is winter, and night. When you arrived, it was snowing. When you
reached the hotel, it was sleeting. When you went to bed, it was
raining. During the night it froze hard, and the wind blew some chimneys
down. When you got up in the morning, it was foggy. When you finished
your breakfast at ten o'clock and went out, the sunshine was brilliant,
the weather balmy and delicious, and the mud and slush deep and all-
pervading. You will like the climate when you get used to it.

You naturally wish to view the city; so you take an umbrella, an
overcoat, and a fan, and go forth. The prominent features you soon
locate and get familiar with; first you glimpse the ornamental upper
works of a long, snowy palace projecting above a grove of trees, and a
tall, graceful white dome with a statue on it surmounting the palace and
pleasantly contrasting with the background of blue sky. That building is
the capitol; gossips will tell you that by the original estimates it was
to cost $12,000,000, and that the government did come within $21,200,000
of building it for that sum.

You stand at the back of the capitol to treat yourself to a view, and it
is a very noble one. You understand, the capitol stands upon the verge
of a high piece of table land, a fine commanding position, and its front
looks out over this noble situation for a city--but it don't see it, for
the reason that when the capitol extension was decided upon, the property
owners at once advanced their prices to such inhuman figures that the
people went down and built the city in the muddy low marsh behind the
temple of liberty; so now the lordly front of the building, with, its
imposing colonades, its, projecting, graceful wings, its, picturesque
groups of statuary, and its long terraced ranges of steps, flowing down
in white marble waves to the ground, merely looks out upon a sorrowful
little desert of cheap boarding houses.

So you observe, that you take your view from the back of the capitol.
And yet not from the airy outlooks of the dome, by the way, because to
get there you must pass through the great rotunda: and to do that, you
would have to see the marvelous Historical Paintings that hang there,
and the bas-reliefs--and what have you done that you should suffer thus?
And besides, you might have to pass through the old part of the building,
and you could not help seeing Mr. Lincoln, as petrified by a young lady
artist for $10,000--and you might take his marble emancipation
proclamation, which he holds out in his hand and contemplates, for a
folded napkin; and you might conceive from his expression and his
attitude, that he is finding fault with the washing. Which is not the
case. Nobody knows what is the matter with him; but everybody feels for
him. Well, you ought not to go into the dome anyhow, because it would be
utterly impossible to go up there without seeing the frescoes in it--and
why should you be interested in the delirium tremens of art?

The capitol is a very noble and a very beautiful building, both within
and without, but you need not examine it now. Still, if you greatly
prefer going into the dome, go. Now your general glance gives you
picturesque stretches of gleaming water, on your left, with a sail here
and there and a lunatic asylum on shore; over beyond the water, on a
distant elevation, you see a squat yellow temple which your eye dwells
upon lovingly through a blur of unmanly moisture, for it recalls your
lost boyhood and the Parthenons done in molasses candy which made it
blest and beautiful. Still in the distance, but on this side of the
water and close to its edge, the Monument to the Father of his Country
towers out of the mud--sacred soil is the, customary term. It has the
aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off. The skeleton of a
decaying scaffolding lingers about its summit, and tradition says that
the spirit of Washington often comes down and sits on those rafters to
enjoy this tribute of respect which the nation has reared as the symbol
of its unappeasable gratitude. The Monument is to be finished, some day,
and at that time our Washington will have risen still higher in the
nation's veneration, and will be known as the Great-Great-Grandfather of
his Country. The memorial Chimney stands in a quiet pastoral locality
that is full of reposeful expression. With a glass you can see the cow-
sheds about its base, and the contented sheep nimbling pebbles in the
desert solitudes that surround it, and the tired pigs dozing in the holy
calm of its protecting shadow.

Now you wrench your gaze loose, and you look down in front of you and see
the broad Pennsylvania Avenue stretching straight ahead for a mile or
more till it brings up against the iron fence in front of a pillared
granite pile, the Treasury building-an edifice that would command respect
in any capital. The stores and hotels that wall in this broad avenue are
mean, and cheap, and dingy, and are better left without comment. Beyond
the Treasury is a fine large white barn, with wide unhandsome grounds
about it. The President lives there. It is ugly enough outside, but
that is nothing to what it is inside. Dreariness, flimsiness, bad taste
reduced to mathematical completeness is what the inside offers to the
eye, if it remains yet what it always has been.

The front and right hand views give you the city at large. It is a wide
stretch of cheap little brick houses, with here and there a noble
architectural pile lifting itself out of the midst-government buildings,
these. If the thaw is still going on when you come down and go about
town, you will wonder at the short-sightedness of the city fathers, when
you come to inspect the streets, in that they do not dilute the mud a
little more and use them for canals.

If you inquire around a little, you will find that there are more
boardinghouses to the square acre in Washington than there are in any
other city in the land, perhaps. If you apply for a home in one of them,
it will seem odd to you to have the landlady inspect you with a severe
eye and then ask you if you are a member of Congress. Perhaps, just as a
pleasantry, you will say yes. And then she will tell you that she is
"full." Then you show her her advertisement in the morning paper, and
there she stands, convicted and ashamed. She will try to blush, and it
will be only polite in you to take the effort for the deed. She shows
you her rooms, now, and lets yon take one--but she makes you pay in
advance for it. That is what you will get for pretending to be a member
of Congress. If you had been content to be merely a private citizen,
your trunk would have been sufficient security for your board. If you
are curious and inquire into this thing, the chances are that your
landlady will be ill-natured enough to say that the person and property
of a Congressman are exempt from arrest or detention, and that with the
tears in her eyes she has seen several of the people's representatives
walk off to their several States and Territories carrying her unreceipted
board bills in their pockets for keepsakes. And before you have been in
Washington many weeks you will be mean enough to believe her, too.

Of course you contrive to see everything and find out everything. And
one of the first and most startling things you find out is, that every
individual you encounter in the City of Washington almost--and certainly
every separate and distinct individual in the public employment, from the
highest bureau chief, clear down to the maid who scrubs Department halls,
the night watchmen of the public buildings and the darkey boy who
purifies the Department spittoons--represents Political Influence.
Unless you can get the ear of a Senator, or a Congressman, or a Chief of
a Bureau or Department, and persuade him to use his "influence" in your
behalf, you cannot get an employment of the most trivial nature in
Washington. Mere merit, fitness and capability, are useless baggage to
you without "influence." The population of Washington consists pretty
much entirely of government employee and the people who board them.
There are thousands of these employees, and they have gathered there from
every corner of the Union and got their berths through the intercession
(command is nearer the word) of the Senators and Representatives of their
respective States. It would be an odd circumstance to see a girl get
employment at three or four dollars a week in one of the great public
cribs without any political grandee to back her, but merely because she
was worthy, and competent, and a good citizen of a free country that
"treats all persons alike." Washington would be mildly thunderstruck at
such a thing as that. If you are a member of Congress, (no offence,) and
one of your constituents who doesn't know anything, and does not want to
go into the bother of learning something, and has no money, and no
employment, and can't earn a living, comes besieging you for help, do you
say, "Come, my friend, if your services were valuable you could get
employment elsewhere--don't want you here? "Oh, no: You take him to a
Department and say, "Here, give this person something to pass away the
time at--and a salary"--and the thing is done. You throw him on his
country. He is his country's child, let his country support him. There
is something good and motherly about Washington, the grand old benevolent
National Asylum for the Helpless.

The wages received by this great hive of employees are placed at the
liberal figure meet and just for skilled and competent labor. Such of
them as are immediately employed about the two Houses of Congress, are
not only liberally paid also, but are remembered in the customary Extra
Compensation bill which slides neatly through, annually, with the general
grab that signalizes the last night of a session, and thus twenty per
cent. is added to their wages, for--for fun, no doubt.

Washington Hawkins' new life was an unceasing delight to him. Senator
Dilworthy lived sumptuously, and Washington's quarters were charming--
gas; running water, hot and cold; bath-room, coal-fires, rich carpets,
beautiful pictures on the walls; books on religion, temperance, public
charities and financial schemes; trim colored servants, dainty food--
everything a body could wish for. And as for stationery, there was no
end to it; the government furnished it; postage stamps were not needed--
the Senator's frank could convey a horse through the mails, if necessary.

And then he saw such dazzling company. Renowned generals and admirals
who had seemed but colossal myths when he was in the far west, went in
and out before him or sat at the Senator's table, solidified into
palpable flesh and blood; famous statesmen crossed his path daily; that
once rare and awe-inspiring being, a Congressman, was become a common
spectacle--a spectacle so common, indeed, that he could contemplate it
without excitement, even without embarrassment; foreign ministers were
visible to the naked eye at happy intervals; he had looked upon the
President himself, and lived. And more; this world of enchantment teemed
with speculation--the whole atmosphere was thick with hand that indeed
was Washington Hawkins' native air; none other refreshed his lungs so
gratefully. He had found paradise at last.

The more he saw of his chief the Senator, the more he honored him, and
the more conspicuously the moral grandeur of his character appeared to
stand out. To possess the friendship and the kindly interest of such a
man, Washington said in a letter to Louise, was a happy fortune for a
young man whose career had been so impeded and so clouded as his.

The weeks drifted by;--Harry Brierly flirted, danced, added lustre to the
brilliant Senatorial receptions, and diligently "buzzed" and "button-
holed" Congressmen in the interest of the Columbus River scheme; meantime
Senator Dilworthy labored hard in the same interest--and in others of
equal national importance. Harry wrote frequently to Sellers, and always
encouragingly; and from these letters it was easy to see that Harry was a
pet with all Washington, and was likely to carry the thing through; that
the assistance rendered him by "old Dilworthy" was pretty fair--pretty
fair; "and every little helps, you know," said Harry.

Washington wrote Sellers officially, now and then. In one of his letters
it appeared that whereas no member of the House committee favored the
scheme at first, there was now needed but one more vote to compass a
majority report. Closing sentence:

     "Providence seems to further our efforts."
         (Signed,) "ABNER DILWORTHY, U. S. S.,
                         per WASHINGTON HAWKINS, P. S."

At the end of a week, Washington was able to send the happy news,
officially, as usual,--that the needed vote had been added and the bill
favorably reported from the Committee. Other letters recorded its perils
in Committee of the whole, and by and by its victory, by just the skin of
its teeth, on third reading and final passage. Then came letters telling
of Mr. Dilworthy's struggles with a stubborn majority in his own
Committee in the Senate; of how these gentlemen succumbed, one by one,
till a majority was secured.

Then there was a hiatus. Washington watched every move on the board, and
he was in a good position to do this, for he was clerk of this committee,
and also one other. He received no salary as private secretary, but
these two clerkships, procured by his benefactor, paid him an aggregate
of twelve dollars a day, without counting the twenty percent extra
compensation which would of course be voted to him on the last night of
the session.

He saw the bill go into Committee of the whole and struggle for its life
again, and finally worry through. In the fullness of time he noted its
second reading, and by and by the day arrived when the grand ordeal came,
and it was put upon its final passage. Washington listened with bated
breath to the "Aye!" "No!" "No!" "Aye!" of the voters, for a few dread
minutes, and then could bear the suspense no longer. He ran down from
the gallery and hurried home to wait.

At the end of two or three hours the Senator arrived in the bosom of his
family, and dinner was waiting. Washington sprang forward, with the
eager question on his lips, and the Senator said:

"We may rejoice freely, now, my son--Providence has crowned our efforts
with success."

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