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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXXIV

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXXIV


When Laura had been in Washington three months, she was still the same
person, in one respect, that she was when she first arrived there--that
is to say, she still bore the name of Laura Hawkins. Otherwise she was
perceptibly changed.--

She had arrived in a state of grievous uncertainty as to what manner of
woman she was, physically and intellectually, as compared with eastern
women; she was well satisfied, now, that her beauty was confessed, her
mind a grade above the average, and her powers of fascination rather
extraordinary. So she, was at ease upon those points. When she arrived,
she was possessed of habits of economy and not possessed of money; now
she dressed elaborately, gave but little thought to the cost of things,
and was very well fortified financially. She kept her mother and
Washington freely supplied with money, and did the same by Col. Sellers--
who always insisted upon giving his note for loans--with interest; he was
rigid upon that; she must take interest; and one of the Colonel's
greatest satisfactions was to go over his accounts and note what a
handsome sum this accruing interest amounted to, and what a comfortable
though modest support it would yield Laura in case reverses should
overtake her.

In truth he could not help feeling that he was an efficient shield for
her against poverty; and so, if her expensive ways ever troubled him for
a brief moment, he presently dismissed the thought and said to himself,
"Let her go on--even if she loses everything she is still safe--this
interest will always afford her a good easy income."

Laura was on excellent terms with a great many members of Congress, and
there was an undercurrent of suspicion in some quarters that she was one
of that detested class known as "lobbyists;" but what belle could escape
slander in such a city? Fairminded people declined to condemn her on
mere suspicion, and so the injurious talk made no very damaging headway.
She was very gay, now, and very celebrated, and she might well expect to
be assailed by many kinds of gossip. She was growing used to celebrity,
and could already sit calm and seemingly unconscious, under the fire of
fifty lorgnettes in a theatre, or even overhear the low voice "That's
she!" as she passed along the street without betraying annoyance.

The whole air was full of a vague vast scheme which was to eventuate in
filling Laura's pockets with millions of money; some had one idea of the
scheme, and some another, but nobody had any exact knowledge upon the
subject. All that any one felt sure about, was that Laura's landed
estates were princely in value and extent, and that the government was
anxious to get hold of them for public purposes, and that Laura was
willing to make the sale but not at all anxious about the matter and not
at all in a hurry. It was whispered that Senator Dilworthy was a
stumbling block in the way of an immediate sale, because he was resolved
that the government should not have the lands except with the
understanding that they should be devoted to the uplifting of the negro
race; Laura did not care what they were devoted to, it was said, (a world
of very different gossip to the contrary notwithstanding,) but there were
several other heirs and they would be guided entirely by the Senator's
wishes; and finally, many people averred that while it would be easy to
sell the lands to the government for the benefit of the negro, by
resorting to the usual methods of influencing votes, Senator Dilworthy
was unwilling to have so noble a charity sullied by any taint of
corruption--he was resolved that not a vote should be bought. Nobody
could get anything definite from Laura about these matters, and so gossip
had to feed itself chiefly upon guesses. But the effect of it all was,
that Laura was considered to be very wealthy and likely to be vastly more
so in a little while. Consequently she was much courted and as much
envied: Her wealth attracted many suitors. Perhaps they came to worship
her riches, but they remained to worship her. Some of the noblest men of
the time succumbed to her fascinations. She frowned upon no lover when
he made his first advances, but by and by when she was hopelessly
enthralled, he learned from her own lips that she had formed a resolution
never to marry. Then he would go away hating and cursing the whole sex,
and she would calmly add his scalp to her string, while she mused upon
the bitter day that Col. Selby trampled her love and her pride in the
dust. In time it came to be said that her way was paved with broken
hearts.

Poor Washington gradually woke up to the fact that he too was an
intellectual marvel as well as his gifted sister. He could not conceive
how it had come about (it did not occur to him that the gossip about his
family's great wealth had any thing to do with it). He could not account
for it by any process of reasoning, and was simply obliged to accept the
fact and give up trying to solve the riddle. He found himself dragged
into society and courted, wondered at and envied very much as if he were
one of those foreign barbers who flit over here now and then with a self-
conferred title of nobility and marry some rich fool's absurd daughter.
Sometimes at a dinner party or a reception he would find himself the
centre of interest, and feel unutterably uncomfortable in the discovery.
Being obliged to say something, he would mine his brain and put in a
blast and when the smoke and flying debris had cleared away the result
would be what seemed to him but a poor little intellectual clod of dirt
or two, and then he would be astonished to see everybody as lost in
admiration as if he had brought up a ton or two of virgin gold. Every
remark he made delighted his hearers and compelled their applause; he
overheard people say he was exceedingly bright--they were chiefly mammas
and marriageable young ladies. He found that some of his good things
were being repeated about the town. Whenever he heard of an instance of
this kind, he would keep that particular remark in mind and analyze it at
home in private. At first he could not see that the remark was anything
better than a parrot might originate; but by and by he began to feel that
perhaps he underrated his powers; and after that he used to analyze his
good things with a deal of comfort, and find in them a brilliancy which
would have been unapparent to him in earlier days--and then he would make
a note, of that good thing and say it again the first time he found
himself in a new company. Presently he had saved up quite a repertoire
of brilliancies; and after that he confined himself to repeating these
and ceased to originate any more, lest he might injure his reputation by
an unlucky effort.

He was constantly having young ladies thrust upon his notice at
receptions, or left upon his hands at parties, and in time he began to
feel that he was being deliberately persecuted in this way; and after
that he could not enjoy society because of his constant dread of these
female ambushes and surprises. He was distressed to find that nearly
every time he showed a young lady a polite attention he was straightway
reported to be engaged to her; and as some of these reports got into the
newspapers occasionally, he had to keep writing to Louise that they were
lies and she must believe in him and not mind them or allow them to
grieve her.

Washington was as much in the dark as anybody with regard to the great
wealth that was hovering in the air and seemingly on the point of
tumbling into the family pocket. Laura would give him no satisfaction.
All she would say, was:

"Wait. Be patient. You will see."

"But will it be soon, Laura?"

"It will not be very long, I think."

"But what makes you think so?"

"I have reasons--and good ones. Just wait, and be patient."

"But is it going to be as much as people say it is?"

"What do they say it is?"

"Oh, ever so much. Millions!"

"Yes, it will be a great sum."

"But how great, Laura? Will it be millions?"

"Yes, you may call it that. Yes, it will be millions. There, now--does
that satisfy you?"

"Splendid! I can wait. I can wait patiently--ever so patiently. Once I
was near selling the land for twenty thousand dollars; once for thirty
thousand dollars; once after that for seven thousand dollars; and once
for forty thousand dollars--but something always told me not to do it.
What a fool I would have been to sell it for such a beggarly trifle! It
is the land that's to bring the money, isn't it Laura? You can tell me
that much, can't you?"

"Yes, I don't mind saying that much. It is the land.

"But mind--don't ever hint that you got it from me. Don't mention me in
the matter at all, Washington."

"All right--I won't. Millions! Isn't it splendid! I mean to look
around for a building lot; a lot with fine ornamental shrubbery and all
that sort of thing. I will do it to-day. And I might as well see an
architect, too, and get him to go to work at a plan for a house. I don't
intend to spare and expense; I mean to have the noblest house that money
can build." Then after a pause--he did not notice Laura's smiles "Laura,
would you lay the main hall in encaustic tiles, or just in fancy patterns
of hard wood?"

Laura laughed a good old-fashioned laugh that had more of her former
natural self about it than any sound that had issued from her mouth in
many weeks. She said:

"You don't change, Washington. You still begin to squander a fortune
right and left the instant you hear of it in the distance; you never wait
till the foremost dollar of it arrives within a hundred miles of you,"--
and she kissed her brother good bye and left him weltering in his dreams,
so to speak.

He got up and walked the floor feverishly during two hours; and when he
sat down he had married Louise, built a house, reared a family, married
them off, spent upwards of eight hundred thousand dollars on mere
luxuries, and died worth twelve millions.

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