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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXXII

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXXII



Washington's delight in his beautiful sister was measureless. He said
that she had always been the queenliest creature in the land, but that
she was only commonplace before, compared to what she was now, so
extraordinary was the improvement wrought by rich fashionable attire.

"But your criticisms are too full of brotherly partiality to be depended
on, Washington. Other people will judge differently."

"Indeed they won't. You'll see. There will never be a woman in
Washington that can compare with you. You'll be famous within a
fortnight, Laura. Everybody will want to know you. You wait--you'll
see."

Laura wished in her heart that the prophecy might come true; and
privately she even believed it might--for she had brought all the women
whom she had seen since she left home under sharp inspection, and the
result had not been unsatisfactory to her.

During a week or two Washington drove about the city every day with her
and familiarized her with all of its salient features. She was beginning
to feel very much at home with the town itself, and she was also fast
acquiring ease with the distinguished people she met at the Dilworthy
table, and losing what little of country timidity she had brought with
her from Hawkeye. She noticed with secret pleasure the little start of
admiration that always manifested itself in the faces of the guests when
she entered the drawing-room arrayed in evening costume: she took
comforting note of the fact that these guests directed a very liberal
share of their conversation toward her; she observed with surprise, that
famous statesmen and soldiers did not talk like gods, as a general thing,
but said rather commonplace things for the most part; and she was filled
with gratification to discover that she, on the contrary, was making a
good many shrewd speeches and now and then a really brilliant one, and
furthermore, that they were beginning to be repeated in social circles
about the town.

Congress began its sittings, and every day or two Washington escorted her
to the galleries set apart for lady members of the households of Senators
and Representatives. Here was a larger field and a wider competition,
but still she saw that many eyes were uplifted toward her face, and that
first one person and then another called a neighbor's attention to her;
she was not too dull to perceive that the speeches of some of the younger
statesmen were delivered about as much and perhaps more at her than to
the presiding officer; and she was not sorry to see that the dapper young
Senator from Iowa came at once and stood in the open space before the
president's desk to exhibit his feet as soon as she entered the gallery,
whereas she had early learned from common report that his usual custom
was to prop them on his desk and enjoy them himself with a selfish
disregard of other people's longings.

Invitations began to flow in upon her and soon she was fairly "in
society." "The season" was now in full bloom, and the first select
reception was at hand that is to say, a reception confined to invited
guests. Senator Dilworthy had become well convinced; by this time, that
his judgment of the country-bred Missouri girl had not deceived him--it
was plain that she was going to be a peerless missionary in the field of
labor he designed her for, and therefore it would be perfectly safe and
likewise judicious to send her forth well panoplied for her work.--So he
had added new and still richer costumes to her wardrobe, and assisted
their attractions with costly jewelry-loans on the future land sale.

This first select reception took place at a cabinet minister's--or rather
a cabinet secretary's mansion. When Laura and the Senator arrived, about
half past nine or ten in the evening, the place was already pretty well
crowded, and the white-gloved negro servant at the door was still
receiving streams of guests.--The drawing-rooms were brilliant with
gaslight, and as hot as ovens. The host and hostess stood just within
the door of entrance; Laura was presented, and then she passed on into
the maelstrom of be-jeweled and richly attired low-necked ladies and
white-kid-gloved and steel pen-coated gentlemen and wherever she moved
she was followed by a buzz of admiration that was grateful to all her
senses--so grateful, indeed, that her white face was tinged and its
beauty heightened by a perceptible suffusion of color. She caught such
remarks as, "Who is she?" "Superb woman!" "That is the new beauty from
the west," etc., etc.

Whenever she halted, she was presently surrounded by Ministers, Generals,
Congressmen, and all manner of aristocratic, people. Introductions
followed, and then the usual original question, "How do you like
Washington, Miss Hawkins?" supplemented by that other usual original
question, "Is this your first visit?"

These two exciting topics being exhausted, conversation generally drifted
into calmer channels, only to be interrupted at frequent intervals by new
introductions and new inquiries as to how Laura liked the capital and
whether it was her first visit or not. And thus for an hour or more the
Duchess moved through the crush in a rapture of happiness, for her doubts
were dead and gone, now she knew she could conquer here. A familiar face
appeared in the midst of the multitude and Harry Brierly fought his
difficult way to her side, his eyes shouting their gratification, so to
speak:

"Oh, this is a happiness! Tell me, my dear Miss Hawkins--"

"Sh! I know what you are going to ask. I do like Washington--I like it
ever so much!"

"No, but I was going to ask--"

"Yes, I am coming to it, coming to it as fast as I can. It is my first
visit. I think you should know that yourself."

And straightway a wave of the crowd swept her beyond his reach.

"Now what can the girl mean? Of course she likes Washington--I'm not
such a dummy as to have to ask her that. And as to its being her first
visit, why bang it, she knows that I knew it was. Does she think I have
turned idiot? Curious girl, anyway. But how they do swarm about her!
She is the reigning belle of Washington after this night. She'll know
five hundred of the heaviest guns in the town before this night's
nonsense is over. And this isn't even the beginning. Just as I used to
say--she'll be a card in the matter of--yes sir! She shall turn the
men's heads and I'll turn the women's! What a team that will be in
politics here. I wouldn't take a quarter of a million for what I can do
in this present session--no indeed I wouldn't. Now, here--I don't
altogether like this. That insignificant secretary of legation is--why,
she's smiling on him as if he--and now on the Admiral! Now she's
illuminating that, stuffy Congressman from Massachusetts--vulgar
ungrammatcal shovel-maker--greasy knave of spades. I don't like this
sort of thing. She doesn't appear to be much distressed about me--she
hasn't looked this way once. All right, my bird of Paradise, if it suits
you, go on. But I think I know your sex. I'll go to smiling around a
little, too, and see what effect that will have on you"

And he did "smile around a little," and got as near to her as he could to
watch the effect, but the scheme was a failure--he could not get her
attention. She seemed wholly unconscious of him, and so he could not
flirt with any spirit; he could only talk disjointedly; he could not keep
his eyes on the charmers he talked to; he grew irritable, jealous, and
very, unhappy. He gave up his enterprise, leaned his shoulder against a
fluted pilaster and pouted while he kept watch upon Laura's every
movement. His other shoulder stole the bloom from many a lovely cheek
that brushed him in the surging crush, but he noted it not. He was too
busy cursing himself inwardly for being an egotistical imbecile. An hour
ago he had thought to take this country lass under his protection and
show her "life" and enjoy her wonder and delight--and here she was,
immersed in the marvel up to her eyes, and just a trifle more at home in
it than he was himself. And now his angry comments ran on again:

"Now she's sweetening old Brother Balaam; and he--well he is inviting her
to the Congressional prayer-meeting, no doubt--better let old Dilworthy
alone to see that she doesn't overlook that. And now its Splurge, of New
York; and now its Batters of New Hampshire--and now the Vice President!
Well I may as well adjourn. I've got enough."

But he hadn't. He got as far as the door--and then struggled back to
take one more look, hating himself all the while for his weakness.

Toward midnight, when supper was announced, the crowd thronged to the
supper room where a long table was decked out with what seemed a rare
repast, but which consisted of things better calculated to feast the eye
than the appetite. The ladies were soon seated in files along the wall,
and in groups here and there, and the colored waiters filled the plates
and glasses and the, male guests moved hither and thither conveying them
to the privileged sex.

Harry took an ice and stood up by the table with other gentlemen, and
listened to the buzz of conversation while he ate.

From these remarks he learned a good deal about Laura that was news to
him. For instance, that she was of a distinguished western family; that
she was highly educated; that she was very rich and a great landed
heiress; that she was not a professor of religion, and yet was a
Christian in the truest and best sense of the word, for her whole heart
was devoted to the accomplishment of a great and noble enterprise--none
other than the sacrificing of her landed estates to the uplifting of the
down-trodden negro and the turning of his erring feet into the way of
light and righteousness. Harry observed that as soon as one listener had
absorbed the story, he turned about and delivered it to his next neighbor
and the latter individual straightway passed it on. And thus he saw it
travel the round of the gentlemen and overflow rearward among the ladies.
He could not trace it backward to its fountain head, and so he could not
tell who it was that started it.

One thing annoyed Harry a great deal; and that was the reflection that he
might have been in Washington days and days ago and thrown his
fascinations about Laura with permanent effect while she was new and
strange to the capital, instead of dawdling in Philadelphia to no
purpose. He feared he had "missed a trick," as he expressed it.

He only found one little opportunity of speaking again with Laura before
the evening's festivities ended, and then, for the first time in years,
his airy self-complacency failed him, his tongue's easy confidence
forsook it in a great measure, and he was conscious of an unheroic
timidity. He was glad to get away and find a place where he could
despise himself in private and try to grow his clipped plumes again.

When Laura reached home she was tired but exultant, and Senator Dilworthy
was pleased and satisfied. He called Laura "my daughter," next morning,
and gave her some "pin money," as he termed it, and she sent a hundred
and fifty dollars of it to her mother and loaned a trifle to Col.
Sellers. Then the Senator had a long private conference with Laura, and
unfolded certain plans of his for the good of the country, and religion,
and the poor, and temperance, and showed her how she could assist him in
developing these worthy and noble enterprises.

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