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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXXVIII

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXXVIII


         Now this surprising news caus'd her fall in 'a trance,
         Life as she were dead, no limbs she could advance,
         Then her dear brother came, her from the ground he took
         And she spake up and said, O my poor heart is broke.

                             The Barnardcastle Tragedy.

"Don't you think he is distinguished looking?"

"What! That gawky looking person, with Miss Hawkins?"

"There. He's just speaking to Mrs. Schoonmaker. Such high-bred
negligence and unconsciousness. Nothing studied. See his fine eyes."

"Very. They are moving this way now. Maybe he is coming here. But he
looks as helpless as a rag baby. Who is he, Blanche?"

"Who is he? And you've been here a week, Grace, and don't know? He's
the catch of the season. That's Washington Hawkins--her brother."

"No, is it?"

"Very old family, old Kentucky family I believe. He's got enormous
landed property in Tennessee, I think. The family lost everything,
slaves and that sort of thing, you know, in the war. But they have a
great deal of land, minerals, mines and all that. Mr. Hawkins and his
sister too are very much interested in the amelioration of the condition
of the colored race; they have some plan, with Senator Dilworthy, to
convert a large part of their property to something another for the
freedmen."

"You don't say so? I thought he was some guy from Pennsylvania. But he
is different from others. Probably he has lived all his life on his
plantation."

It was a day reception of Mrs. Representative Schoonmaker, a sweet woman,
of simple and sincere manners. Her house was one of the most popular in
Washington. There was less ostentation there than in some others, and
people liked to go where the atmosphere reminded them of the peace and
purity of home. Mrs. Schoonmaker was as natural and unaffected in
Washington society as she was in her own New York house, and kept up the
spirit of home-life there, with her husband and children. And that was
the reason, probably, why people of refinement liked to go there.

Washington is a microcosm, and one can suit himself with any sort of
society within a radius of a mile. To a large portion of the people who
frequent Washington or dwell where, the ultra fashion, the shoddy, the
jobbery are as utterly distasteful as they would he in a refined New
England City. Schoonmaker was not exactly a leader in the House, but he
was greatly respected for his fine talents and his honesty. No one would
have thought of offering to carry National Improvement Directors Relief
stock for him.

These day receptions were attended by more women than men, and those
interested in the problem might have studied the costumes of the ladies
present, in view of this fact, to discover whether women dress more for
the eyes of women or for effect upon men. It is a very important
problem, and has been a good deal discussed, and its solution would form
one fixed, philosophical basis, upon which to estimate woman's character.
We are inclined to take a medium ground, and aver that woman dresses to
please herself, and in obedience to a law of her own nature.

"They are coming this way," said Blanche. People who made way for them
to pass, turned to look at them. Washington began to feel that the eyes
of the public were on him also, and his eyes rolled about, now towards
the ceiling, now towards the floor, in an effort to look unconscious.

"Good morning, Miss Hawkins. Delighted. Mr. Hawkins. My friend, Miss
Medlar."

Mr. Hawkins, who was endeavoring to square himself for a bow, put his
foot through the train of Mrs. Senator Poplin, who looked round with a
scowl, which turned into a smile as she saw who it was. In extricating
himself, Mr. Hawkins, who had the care of his hat as well as the
introduction on his mind, shambled against Miss Blanche, who said pardon,
with the prettiest accent, as if the awkwardness were her own. And Mr.
Hawkins righted himself.

"Don't you find it very warm to-day, Mr. Hawkins?" said Blanche, by way
of a remark.

It's awful hot," said Washington.

"It's warm for the season," continued Blanche pleasantly. "But I suppose
you are accustomed to it," she added, with a general idea that the
thermometer always stands at 90 deg. in all parts of the late slave
states. "Washington weather generally cannot be very congenial to you?"

"It's congenial," said Washington brightening up, "when it's not
congealed."

"That's very good. Did you hear, Grace, Mr. Hawkins says it's congenial
when it's not congealed."

"What is, dear?" said Grace, who was talking with Laura.

The conversation was now finely under way. Washington launched out an
observation of his own.

"Did you see those Japs, Miss Leavitt?"

"Oh, yes, aren't they queer. But so high-bred, so picturesque. Do you
think that color makes any difference, Mr. Hawkins? I used to be so
prejudiced against color."

"Did you? I never was. I used to think my old mammy was handsome."

"How interesting your life must have been! I should like to hear about
it."

Washington was about settling himself into his narrative style,
when Mrs. Gen. McFingal caught his eye.

"Have you been at the Capitol to-day, Mr. Hawkins?"

Washington had not. "Is anything uncommon going on?"

"They say it was very exciting. The Alabama business you know.
Gen. Sutler, of Massachusetts, defied England, and they say he wants
war."

"He wants to make himself conspicuous more like," said Laura.
"He always, you have noticed, talks with one eye on the gallery, while
the other is on the speaker."

"Well, my husband says, its nonsense to talk of war, and wicked.
He knows what war is. If we do have war, I hope it will be for the
patriots of Cuba. Don't you think we want Cuba, Mr. Hawkins?"

"I think we want it bad," said Washington. "And Santo Domingo. Senator
Dilworthy says, we are bound to extend our religion over the isles of the
sea. We've got to round out our territory, and--"

Washington's further observations were broken off by Laura, who whisked
him off to another part of the room, and reminded him that they must make
their adieux.

"How stupid and tiresome these people are," she said. "Let's go."

They were turning to say good-by to the hostess, when Laura's attention
was arrested by the sight of a gentleman who was just speaking to Mrs.
Schoonmaker. For a second her heart stopped beating. He was a handsome
man of forty and perhaps more, with grayish hair and whiskers, and he
walked with a cane, as if he were slightly lame. He might be less than
forty, for his face was worn into hard lines, and he was pale.

No. It could not be, she said to herself. It is only a resemblance.
But as the gentleman turned and she saw his full face, Laura put out her
hand and clutched Washington's arm to prevent herself from falling.

Washington, who was not minding anything, as usual, looked 'round in
wonder. Laura's eyes were blazing fire and hatred; he had never seen her
look so before; and her face, was livid.

"Why, what is it, sis? Your face is as white as paper."

"It's he, it's he. Come, come," and she dragged him away.

"It's who?" asked Washington, when they had gained the carriage.

"It's nobody, it's nothing. Did I say he? I was faint with the heat.
Don't mention it. Don't you speak of it," she added earnestly, grasping
his arm.

When she had gained her room she went to the glass and saw a pallid and
haggard face.

"My God," she cried, "this will never do. I should have killed him, if I
could. The scoundrel still lives, and dares to come here. I ought to
kill him. He has no right to live. How I hate him. And yet I loved
him. Oh heavens, how I did love that man. And why didn't he kill me?
He might better. He did kill all that was good in me. Oh, but he shall
not escape. He shall not escape this time. He may have forgotten. He
will find that a woman's hate doesn't forget. The law? What would the
law do but protect him and make me an outcast? How all Washington would
gather up its virtuous skirts and avoid me, if it knew. I wonder if he
hates me as I do him?"

So Laura raved, in tears and in rage by turns, tossed in a tumult of
passion, which she gave way to with little effort to control.

A servant came to summon her to dinner. She had a headache. The hour
came for the President's reception. She had a raving headache, and the
Senator must go without her.

That night of agony was like another night she recalled. How vividly it
all came back to her. And at that time she remembered she thought she
might be mistaken. He might come back to her. Perhaps he loved her,
a little, after all. Now, she knew he did not. Now, she knew he was a
cold-blooded scoundrel, without pity. Never a word in all these years.
She had hoped he was dead. Did his wife live, she wondered. She caught
at that--and it gave a new current to her thoughts. Perhaps, after all--
she must see him. She could not live without seeing him. Would he smile
as in the old days when she loved him so; or would he sneer as when she
last saw him? If be looked so, she hated him. If he should call her
"Laura, darling," and look SO! She must find him. She must end her
doubts.

Laura kept her room for two days, on one excuse and another--a nervous
headache, a cold--to the great anxiety of the Senator's household.
Callers, who went away, said she had been too gay--they did not say
"fast," though some of them may have thought it. One so conspicuous and
successful in society as Laura could not be out of the way two days,
without remarks being made, and not all of them complimentary.

When she came down she appeared as usual, a little pale may be, but
unchanged in manner. If there were any deepened lines about the eyes
they had been concealed. Her course of action was quite determined.

At breakfast she asked if any one had heard any unusual noise during the
night? Nobody had. Washington never heard any noise of any kind after
his eyes were shut. Some people thought he never did when they were open
either.

Senator Dilworthy said he had come in late. He was detained in a little
consultation after the Congressional prayer meeting. Perhaps it was his
entrance.

No, Laura said. She heard that. It was later. She might have been
nervous, but she fancied somebody was trying to get into the house.

Mr. Brierly humorously suggested that it might be, as none of the members
were occupied in night session.

The Senator frowned, and said he did not like to hear that kind of
newspaper slang. There might be burglars about.

Laura said that very likely it was only her nervousness. But she thought
she world feel safer if Washington would let her take one of his pistols.
Washington brought her one of his revolvers, and instructed her in the
art of loading and firing it.

During the morning Laura drove down to Mrs. Schoonmaker's to pay a
friendly call.

"Your receptions are always delightful," she said to that lady, "the
pleasant people all seem to come here."

"It's pleasant to hear you say so, Miss Hawkins. I believe my friends
like to come here. Though society in Washington is mixed; we have a
little of everything."

"I suppose, though, you don't see much of the old rebel element?" said
Laura with a smile.

If this seemed to Mrs. Schoonmaker a singular remark for a lady to make,
who was meeting "rebels" in society every day, she did not express it in
any way, but only said,

"You know we don't say 'rebel' anymore. Before we came to Washington I
thought rebels would look unlike other people. I find we are very much
alike, and that kindness and good nature wear away prejudice. And then
you know there are all sorts of common interests. My husband sometimes
says that he doesn't see but confederates are just as eager to get at the
treasury as Unionists. You know that Mr. Schoonmaker is on the
appropriations."

"Does he know many Southerners?"

"Oh, yes. There were several at my reception the other day. Among
others a confederate Colonel--a stranger--handsome man with gray hair,
probably you didn't notice him, uses a cane in walking. A very agreeable
man. I wondered why he called. When my husband came home and looked
over the cards, he said he had a cotton claim. A real southerner.
Perhaps you might know him if I could think of his name. Yes, here's his
card--Louisiana."

Laura took the card, looked at it intently till she was sure of the
address, and then laid it down, with,

"No, he is no friend of ours."

That afternoon, Laura wrote and dispatched the following note. It was in
a round hand, unlike her flowing style, and it was directed to a number
and street in Georgetown:--

     "A Lady at Senator Dilworthy's would like to see Col. George Selby,
     on business connected with the Cotton Claims. Can he call Wednesday
     at three o'clock P. M.?"

On Wednesday at 3 P. M, no one of the family was likely to be in the
house except Laura.

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