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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXVIII

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXVIII


Whatever may have been the language of Harry's letter to the Colonel,
the information it conveyed wars condensed or expanded, one or the other,
from the following episode of his visit to New York:

He called, with official importance in his mien, at No.--Wall street,
where a great gilt sign betokened the presence of the head-quarters of
the a Columbus River Slack-Water Navigation Company." He entered and
gave a dressy porter his card, and was requested to wait a moment in a
sort of ante-room. The porter returned in a minute; and asked whom he
would like to see?

"The president of the company, of course."

"He is busy with some gentlemen, sir; says he will be done with them
directly."

That a copper-plate card with "Engineer-in-Chief" on it should be
received with such tranquility as this, annoyed Mr. Brierly not a little.
But he had to submit. Indeed his annoyance had time to augment a good
deal; for he was allowed to cool his heels a frill half hour in the ante-
room before those gentlemen emerged and he was ushered into the presence.
He found a stately dignitary occupying a very official chair behind a
long green morocco-covered table, in a room with sumptuously carpeted and
furnished, and well garnished with pictures.

"Good morning, sir; take a seat--take a seat."

"Thank you sir," said Harry, throwing as much chill into his manner as
his ruffled dignity prompted.

"We perceive by your reports and the reports of the Chief Superintendent,
that you have been making gratifying progress with the work.--We are all
very much pleased."

"Indeed? We did not discover it from your letters--which we have not
received; nor by the treatment our drafts have met with--which were not
honored; nor by the reception of any part of the appropriation, no part
of it having come to hand."

"Why, my dear Mr. Brierly, there must be some mistake, I am sure we wrote
you and also Mr. Sellers, recently--when my clerk comes he will show
copies--letters informing you of the ten per cent. assessment."

"Oh, certainly, we got those letters. But what we wanted was money to
carry on the work--money to pay the men."

"Certainly, certainly--true enough--but we credited you both for a large
part of your assessments--I am sure that was in our letters."

"Of course that was in--I remember that."

"Ah, very well then. Now we begin to understand each other."

"Well, I don't see that we do. There's two months' wages due the men,
and----"

"How? Haven't you paid the men?"

"Paid them! How are we going to pay them when you don't honor our
drafts?"

"Why, my dear sir, I cannot see how you can find any fault with us. I am
sure we have acted in a perfectly straight forward business way.--Now let
us look at the thing a moment. You subscribed for 100 shares of the
capital stock, at $1,000 a share, I believe?"

"Yes, sir, I did."

"And Mr. Sellers took a like amount?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. No concern can get along without money. We levied a ten per
cent. assessment. It was the original understanding that you and Mr.
Sellers were to have the positions you now hold, with salaries of $600 a
month each, while in active service. You were duly elected to these
places, and you accepted them. Am I right?"

"Certainly."

"Very well. You were given your instructions and put to work. By your
reports it appears that you have expended the sum of $9,610 upon the said
work. Two months salary to you two officers amounts altogether to
$2,400--about one-eighth of your ten per cent. assessment, you see; which
leaves you in debt to the company for the other seven-eighths of the
assessment--viz, something over $8,000 apiece. Now instead of requiring
you to forward this aggregate of $16,000 or $17,000 to New York, the
company voted unanimously to let you pay it over to the contractors,
laborers from time to time, and give you credit on the books for it.
And they did it without a murmur, too, for they were pleased with the
progress you had made, and were glad to pay you that little compliment--
and a very neat one it was, too, I am sure. The work you did fell short
of $10,000, a trifle. Let me see--$9,640 from $20,000 salary $2;400
added--ah yes, the balance due the company from yourself and Mr. Sellers
is $7,960, which I will take the responsibility of allowing to stand for
the present, unless you prefer to draw a check now, and thus----"

"Confound it, do you mean to say that instead of the company owing us
$2,400, we owe the company $7,960?"

"Well, yes."

"And that we owe the men and the contractors nearly ten thousand dollars
besides?"

"Owe them! Oh bless my soul, you can't mean that you have not paid these
people?"

"But I do mean it!"

The president rose and walked the floor like a man in bodily pain. His
brows contracted, he put his hand up and clasped his forehead, and kept
saying, "Oh, it is, too bad, too bad, too bad! Oh, it is bound to be
found out--nothing can prevent it--nothing!"

Then he threw himself into his chair and said:

"My dear Mr. Brierson, this is dreadful--perfectly dreadful. It will be
found out. It is bound to tarnish the good name of the company; our
credit will be seriously, most seriously impaired. How could you be so
thoughtless--the men ought to have been paid though it beggared us all!"

"They ought, ought they? Then why the devil--my name is not Bryerson, by
the way--why the mischief didn't the compa--why what in the nation ever
became of the appropriation? Where is that appropriation?--if a
stockholder may make so bold as to ask."

The appropriation?--that paltry $200,000, do you mean?"

"Of course--but I didn't know that $200,000 was so very paltry. Though I
grant, of course, that it is not a large sum, strictly speaking. But
where is it?"

"My dear sir, you surprise me. You surely cannot have had a large
acquaintance with this sort of thing. Otherwise you would not have
expected much of a result from a mere INITIAL appropriation like that.
It was never intended for anything but a mere nest egg for the future and
real appropriations to cluster around."

"Indeed? Well, was it a myth, or was it a reality? Whatever become of
it?"

"Why the--matter is simple enough. A Congressional appropriation costs
money. Just reflect, for instance--a majority of the House Committee,
say $10,000 apiece--$40,000; a majority of the Senate Committee, the same
each--say $40,000; a little extra to one or two chairman of one or two
such committees, say $10,000 each--$20,000; and there's $100,000 of the
money gone, to begin with. Then, seven male lobbyists, at $3,000 each--
$21,000; one female lobbyist, $10,000; a high moral Congressman or
Senator here and there--the high moral ones cost more, because they.
give tone to a measure--say ten of these at $3,000 each, is $30,000; then
a lot of small-fry country members who won't vote for anything whatever
without pay--say twenty at $500 apiece, is $10,000; a lot of dinners to
members--say $10,000 altogether; lot of jimcracks for Congressmen's wives
and children--those go a long way--you can't sped too much money in that
line--well, those things cost in a lump, say $10,000--along there
somewhere; and then comes your printed documents--your maps, your tinted
engravings, your pamphlets, your illuminated show cards, your
advertisements in a hundred and fifty papers at ever so much a line--
because you've got to keep the papers all light or you are gone up, you
know. Oh, my dear sir, printing bills are destruction itself. Ours so
far amount to--let me see--10; 52; 22; 13;--and then there's 11; 14; 33--
well, never mind the details, the total in clean numbers foots up
$118,254.42 thus far!"

"What!"

"Oh, yes indeed. Printing's no bagatelle, I can tell you. And then
there's your contributions, as a company, to Chicago fires and Boston
fires, and orphan asylums and all that sort of thing--head the list, you
see, with the company's full name and a thousand dollars set opposite--
great card, sir--one of the finest advertisements in the world--the
preachers mention it in the pulpit when it's a religious charity--one of
the happiest advertisements in the world is your benevolent donation.
Ours have amounted to sixteen thousand dollars and some cents up to this
time."

"Good heavens!"

"Oh, yes. Perhaps the biggest thing we've done in the advertising line
was to get an officer of the U. S. government, of perfectly Himmalayan
official altitude, to write up our little internal improvement for a
religious paper of enormous circulation--I tell you that makes our bonds
go handsomely among the pious poor. Your religious paper is by far the
best vehicle for a thing of this kind, because they'll 'lead' your
article and put it right in the midst of the reading matter; and if it's
got a few Scripture quotations in it, and some temperance platitudes and
a bit of gush here and there about Sunday Schools, and a sentimental
snuffle now and then about 'God's precious ones, the honest hard-handed
poor,' it works the nation like a charm, my dear sir, and never a man
suspects that it is an advertisement; but your secular paper sticks you
right into the advertising columns and of course you don't take a trick.
Give me a religious paper to advertise in, every time; and if you'll just
look at their advertising pages, you'll observe that other people think a
good deal as I do--especially people who have got little financial
schemes to make everybody rich with. Of course I mean your great big
metropolitan religious papers that know how to serve God and make money
at the same time--that's your sort, sir, that's your sort--a religious
paper that isn't run to make money is no use to us, sir, as an
advertising medium--no use to anybody--in our line of business. I guess
our next best dodge was sending a pleasure trip of newspaper reporters
out to Napoleon. Never paid them a cent; just filled them up with
champagne and the fat of the land, put pen, ink and paper before them
while they were red-hot, and bless your soul when you come to read their
letters you'd have supposed they'd been to heaven. And if a sentimental
squeamishness held one or two of them back from taking a less rosy view
of Napoleon, our hospitalities tied his tongue, at least, and he said
nothing at all and so did us no harm. Let me see--have I stated all the
expenses I've been at? No, I was near forgetting one or two items.
There's your official salaries--you can't get good men for nothing.
Salaries cost pretty lively. And then there's your big high-sounding
millionaire names stuck into your advertisements as stockholders--another
card, that--and they are stockholders, too, but you have to give them the
stock and non-assessable at that--so they're an expensive lot. Very,
very expensive thing, take it all around, is a big internal improvement
concern--but you see that yourself, Mr. Bryerman--you see that, yourself,
sir."

"But look here. I think you are a little mistaken about it's ever having
cost anything for Congressional votes. I happen to know something about
that. I've let you say your say--now let me say mine. I don't wish to
seem to throw any suspicion on anybody's statements, because we are all
liable to be mistaken. But how would it strike you if I were to say that
I was in Washington all the time this bill was pending? and what if I
added that I put the measure through myself? Yes, sir, I did that little
thing. And moreover, I never paid a dollar for any man's vote and never
promised one. There are some ways of doing a thing that are as good as
others which other people don't happen to think about, or don't have the
knack of succeeding in, if they do happen to think of them. My dear sir,
I am obliged to knock some of your expenses in the head--for never a cent
was paid a Congressman or Senator on the part of this Navigation Company."

The president smiled blandly, even sweetly, all through this harangue,
and then said:

"Is that so?"

"Every word of it."

"Well it does seem to alter the complexion of things a little. You are
acquainted with the members down there, of course, else you could not
have worked to such advantage?"

"I know them all, sir. I know their wives, their children, their babies
--I even made it a point to be on good terms with their lackeys. I know
every Congressman well--even familiarly."

"Very good. Do you know any of their signatures? Do you know their
handwriting?"

"Why I know their handwriting as well as I know my own--have had
correspondence enough with them, I should think. And their signatures--
why I can tell their initials, even."

The president went to a private safe, unlocked it and got out some
letters and certain slips of paper. Then he said:

"Now here, for instance; do you believe that that is a genuine letter?
Do you know this signature here?--and this one? Do you know who those
initials represent--and are they forgeries?"

Harry was stupefied. There were things there that made his brain swim.
Presently, at the bottom of one of the letters he saw a signature that
restored his equilibrium; it even brought the sunshine of a smile to his
face.

The president said:

"That one amuses you. You never suspected him?"

"Of course I ought to have suspected him, but I don't believe it ever
really occurred to me. Well, well, well--how did you ever have the nerve
to approach him, of all others?"

"Why my friend, we never think of accomplishing anything without his
help. He is our mainstay. But how do those letters strike you?"

"They strike me dumb! What a stone-blind idiot I have been!"

"Well, take it all around, I suppose you had a pleasant time in
Washington," said the president, gathering up the letters; "of course you
must have had. Very few men could go there and get a money bill through
without buying a single"

"Come, now, Mr. President, that's plenty of that! I take back everything
I said on that head. I'm a wiser man to-day than I was yesterday, I can
tell you."

"I think you are. In fact I am satisfied you are. But now I showed you
these things in confidence, you understand. Mention facts as much as you
want to, but don't mention names to anybody. I can depend on you for
that, can't I?"

"Oh, of course. I understand the necessity of that. I will not betray
the names. But to go back a bit, it begins to look as if you never saw
any of that appropriation at all?"

"We saw nearly ten thousand dollars of it--and that was all. Several of
us took turns at log-rolling in Washington, and if we had charged
anything for that service, none of that $10,000 would ever have reached
New York."

"If you hadn't levied the assessment you would have been in a close place
I judge?"

"Close? Have you figured up the total of the disbursements I told you
of?"

"No, I didn't think of that."

"Well, lets see:

Spent in Washington, say, ........... $191,000
Printing, advertising, etc., say .... $118,000
Charity, say, ....................... $16,000

             Total, ............... $325,000

The money to do that with, comes from--
Appropriation, ...................... $200,000

Ten per cent. assessment on capital of
     $1,000,000 ..................... $100,000

             Total, ............... $300,000

"Which leaves us in debt some $25,000 at this moment. Salaries of home
officers are still going on; also printing and advertising. Next month
will show a state of things!"

"And then--burst up, I suppose?"

"By no means. Levy another assessment"

"Oh, I see. That's dismal."

"By no means."

"Why isn't it? What's the road out?"

"Another appropriation, don't you see?"

"Bother the appropriations. They cost more than they come to."

"Not the next one. We'll call for half a million--get it and go for a
million the very next month."--"Yes, but the cost of it!"

The president smiled, and patted his secret letters affectionately. He
said:

"All these people are in the next Congress. We shan't have to pay them a
cent. And what is more, they will work like beavers for us--perhaps it
might be to their advantage."

Harry reflected profoundly a while. Then he said:

"We send many missionaries to lift up the benighted races of other lands.
How much cheaper and better it would be if those people could only come
here and drink of our civilization at its fountain head."

"I perfectly agree with yon, Mr. Beverly. Must you go? Well, good
morning. Look in, when you are passing; and whenever I can give you any
information about our affairs and pro'spects, I shall be glad to do it."

Harry's letter was not a long one, but it contained at least the
calamitous figures that came out in the above conversation. The Colonel
found himself in a rather uncomfortable place--no $1,200 salary
forthcoming; and himself held responsible for half of the $9,640 due the
workmen, to say nothing of being in debt to the company to the extent of
nearly $4,000. Polly's heart was nearly broken; the "blues" returned in
fearful force, and she had to go out of the room to hide the tears that
nothing could keep back now.

There was mourning in another quarter, too, for Louise had a letter.
Washington had refused, at the last moment, to take $40,000 for the
Tennessee Land, and had demanded $150,000! So the trade fell through,
and now Washington was wailing because he had been so foolish. But he
wrote that his man might probably return to the city soon, and then he
meant to sell to him, sure, even if he had to take $10,000. Louise had a
good cry-several of them, indeed--and the family charitably forebore to
make any comments that would increase her grief.

Spring blossomed, summer came, dragged its hot weeks by, and the
Colonel's spirits rose, day by day, for the railroad was making good
progress. But by and by something happened. Hawkeye had always declined
to subscribe anything toward the railway, imagining that her large
business would be a sufficient compulsory influence; but now Hawkeye was
frightened; and before Col. Sellers knew what he was about, Hawkeye, in a
panic, had rushed to the front and subscribed such a sum that Napoleon's
attractions suddenly sank into insignificance and the railroad concluded
to follow a comparatively straight coarse instead of going miles out of
its way to build up a metropolis in the muddy desert of Stone's Landing.

The thunderbolt fell. After all the Colonel's deep planning; after all
his brain work and tongue work in drawing public attention to his pet
project and enlisting interest in it; after all his faithful hard toil
with his hands, and running hither and thither on his busy feet; after
all his high hopes and splendid prophecies, the fates had turned their
backs on him at last, and all in a moment his air-castles crumbled to
ruins abort him. Hawkeye rose from her fright triumphant and rejoicing,
and down went Stone's Landing! One by one its meagre parcel of
inhabitants packed up and moved away, as the summer waned and fall
approached. Town lots were no longer salable, traffic ceased, a deadly
lethargy fell upon the place once more, the "Weekly Telegraph" faded into
an early grave, the wary tadpole returned from exile, the bullfrog
resumed his ancient song, the tranquil turtle sunned his back upon bank
and log and drowsed his grateful life away as in the old sweet days of
yore.

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