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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XL

The Gilded Age

Chapter XL


         Open your ears; for which of you will stop,
         The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?
         I, from the orient to the drooping west,
         Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
         The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
         Upon my tongues continual slanders ride;
         The which in every, language I pronounce,
         Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

                                             King Henry IV.

As may be readily believed, Col. Beriah Sellers was by this time one of
the best known men in Washington. For the first time in his life his
talents had a fair field.

He was now at the centre of the manufacture of gigantic schemes,
of speculations of all sorts, of political and social gossip.
The atmosphere was full of little and big rumors and of vast, undefined
expectations. Everybody was in haste, too, to push on his private plan,
and feverish in his haste, as if in constant apprehension that tomorrow
would be Judgment Day. Work while Congress is in session, said the
uneasy spirit, for in the recess there is no work and no device.

The Colonel enjoyed this bustle and confusion amazingly; he thrived in
the air of-indefinite expectation. All his own schemes took larger shape
and more misty and majestic proportions; and in this congenial air, the
Colonel seemed even to himself to expand into something large and
mysterious. If he respected himself before, he almost worshipped Beriah
Sellers now, as a superior being. If he could have chosen an official
position out of the highest, he would have been embarrassed in the
selection. The presidency of the republic seemed too limited and cramped
in the constitutional restrictions. If he could have been Grand Llama of
the United States, that might have come the nearest to his idea of a
position. And next to that he would have luxuriated in the irresponsible
omniscience of the Special Correspondent.

Col. Sellers knew the President very well, and had access to his presence
when officials were kept cooling their heels in the Waiting-room. The
President liked to hear the Colonel talk, his voluble ease was a
refreshment after the decorous dullness of men who only talked business
and government, and everlastingly expounded their notions of justice and
the distribution of patronage. The Colonel was as much a lover of
farming and of horses as Thomas Jefferson was. He talked to the
President by the hour about his magnificent stud, and his plantation at
Hawkeye, a kind of principality--he represented it. He urged the
President to pay him a visit during the recess, and see his stock farm.

"The President's table is well enough," he used to say, to the loafers
who gathered about him at Willard's, "well enough for a man on a salary,
but God bless my soul, I should like him to see a little old-fashioned
hospitality--open house, you know. A person seeing me at home might
think I paid no attention to what was in the house, just let things flow
in and out. He'd be mistaken. What I look to is quality, sir. The
President has variety enough, but the quality! Vegetables of course you
can't expect here. I'm very particular about mine. Take celery, now--
there's only one spot in this country where celery will grow. But I an
surprised about the wines. I should think they were manufactured in the
New York Custom House. I must send the President some from my cellar.
I was really mortified the other day at dinner to see Blacque Bey leave
his standing in the glasses."

When the Colonel first came to Washington he had thoughts of taking the
mission to Constantinople, in order to be on the spot to look after the
dissemination, of his Eye Water, but as that invention; was not yet quite
ready, the project shrank a little in the presence of vaster schemes.
Besides he felt that he could do the country more good by remaining at
home. He was one of the Southerners who were constantly quoted as
heartily "accepting the situation."

"I'm whipped," he used to say with a jolly laugh, "the government was too
many for me; I'm cleaned out, done for, except my plantation and private
mansion. We played for a big thing, and lost it, and I don't whine, for
one. I go for putting the old flag on all the vacant lots. I said to
the President, says I, 'Grant, why don't you take Santo Domingo, annex
the whole thing, and settle the bill afterwards. That's my way. I'd,
take the job to manage Congress. The South would come into it. You've
got to conciliate the South, consolidate the two debts, pay 'em off in
greenbacks, and go ahead. That's my notion. Boutwell's got the right
notion about the value of paper, but he lacks courage. I should like to
run the treasury department about six months. I'd make things plenty,
and business look up.'"

The Colonel had access to the departments. He knew all the senators and
representatives, and especially, the lobby. He was consequently a great
favorite in Newspaper Row, and was often lounging in the offices there,
dropping bits of private, official information, which were immediately,
caught up and telegraphed all over the country. But it need to surprise
even the Colonel when he read it, it was embellished to that degree that
he hardly recognized it, and the hint was not lost on him. He began to
exaggerate his heretofore simple conversation to suit the newspaper
demand.

People used to wonder in the winters of 187- and 187-, where the
"Specials" got that remarkable information with which they every morning
surprised the country, revealing the most secret intentions of the
President and his cabinet, the private thoughts of political leaders,
the hidden meaning of every movement. This information was furnished by
Col. Sellers.

When he was asked, afterwards, about the stolen copy of the Alabama
Treaty which got into the "New York Tribune," he only looked mysterious,
and said that neither he nor Senator Dilworthy knew anything about it.
But those whom he was in the habit of meeting occasionally felt almost
certain that he did know.

It must not be supposed that the Colonel in his general patriotic labors
neglected his own affairs. The Columbus River Navigation Scheme absorbed
only a part of his time, so he was enabled to throw quite a strong
reserve force of energy into the Tennessee Land plan, a vast enterprise
commensurate with his abilities, and in the prosecution of which he was
greatly aided by Mr. Henry Brierly, who was buzzing about the capitol and
the hotels day and night, and making capital for it in some mysterious
way.

"We must create, a public opinion," said Senator Dilworthy. "My only
interest in it is a public one, and if the country wants the institution,
Congress will have to yield."

It may have been after a conversation between the Colonel and Senator
Dilworthy that the following special despatch was sent to a New York
newspaper:

     "We understand that a philanthropic plan is on foot in relation to
     the colored race that will, if successful, revolutionize the whole
     character of southern industry. An experimental institution is in
     contemplation in Tennessee which will do for that state what the
     Industrial School at Zurich did for Switzerland. We learn that
     approaches have been made to the heirs of the late Hon. Silas
     Hawkins of Missouri, in reference to a lease of a portion of their
     valuable property in East Tennessee. Senator Dilworthy, it is
     understood, is inflexibly opposed to any arrangement that will not
     give the government absolute control. Private interests must give
     way to the public good. It is to be hoped that Col. Sellers, who
     represents the heirs, will be led to see the matter in this light."

When Washington Hawkins read this despatch, he went to the Colonel in
some anxiety. He was for a lease, he didn't want to surrender anything.
What did he think the government would offer? Two millions?

"May be three, may be four," said the Colonel, "it's worth more than the
bank of England."

"If they will not lease," said Washington, "let 'em make it two millions
for an undivided half. I'm not going to throw it away, not the whole of
it."

Harry told the Colonel that they must drive the thing through, he
couldn't be dallying round Washington when Spring opened. Phil wanted
him, Phil had a great thing on hand up in Pennsylvania.

"What is that?" inquired the Colonel, always ready to interest himself in
anything large.

"A mountain of coal; that's all. He's going to run a tunnel into it in
the Spring."

"Does he want any capital?", asked the Colonel, in the tone of a man who
is given to calculating carefully before he makes an investment.

"No. Old man Bolton's behind him. He has capital, but I judged that he
wanted my experience in starting."

"If he wants me, tell him I'll come, after Congress adjourns. I should
like to give him a little lift. He lacks enterprise--now, about that
Columbus River. He doesn't see his chances. But he's a good fellow, and
you can tell him that Sellers won't go back on him."

"By the way," asked Harry, "who is that rather handsome party that's
hanging 'round Laura? I see him with her everywhere, at the Capitol, in
the horse cars, and he comes to Dilworthy's. If he weren't lame, I
should think he was going to run off with her."

"Oh, that's nothing. Laura knows her business. He has a cotton claim.
Used to be at Hawkeye during the war.

"Selby's his name, was a Colonel. Got a wife and family.
Very respectable people, the Selby's."

"Well, that's all right," said Harry, "if it's business. But if a woman
looked at me as I've seen her at Selby, I should understand it. And it's
talked about, I can tell you."

Jealousy had no doubt sharpened this young gentleman's observation.
Laura could not have treated him with more lofty condescension if she had
been the Queen of Sheba, on a royal visit to the great republic. And he
resented it, and was "huffy" when he was with her, and ran her errands,
and brought her gossip, and bragged of his intimacy with the lovely
creature among the fellows at Newspaper Row.

Laura's life was rushing on now in the full stream of intrigue and
fashionable dissipation. She was conspicuous at the balls of the fastest
set, and was suspected of being present at those doubtful suppers that
began late and ended early. If Senator Dilworthy remonstrated about
appearances, she had a way of silencing him. Perhaps she had some hold
on him, perhaps she was necessary to his plan for ameliorating the
condition the tube colored race.

She saw Col. Selby, when the public knew and when it did not know.
She would see him, whatever excuses he made, and however he avoided her.
She was urged on by a fever of love and hatred and jealousy, which
alternately possessed her. Sometimes she petted him, and coaxed him and
tried all her fascinations. And again she threatened him and reproached
him. What was he doing? Why had he taken no steps to free himself?
Why didn't he send his wife home? She should have money soon.
They could go to Europe--anywhere. What did she care for talk?

And he promised, and lied, and invented fresh excuses for delay, like a
cowardly gambler and roue as he was, fearing to break with her, and half
the time unwilling to give her up.

"That woman doesn't know what fear is," he said to himself, "and she
watches me like a hawk."

He told his wife that this woman was a lobbyist, whom he had to tolerate
and use in getting through his claims, and that he should pay her and
have done with her, when he succeeded.

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