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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XLI

The Gilded Age

Chapter XLI


Henry Brierly was at the Dilwortby's constantly and on such terms of
intimacy that he came and went without question. The Senator was not an
inhospitable man, he liked to have guests in his house, and Harry's gay
humor and rattling way entertained him; for even the most devout men and
busy statesmen must have hours of relaxation.

Harry himself believed that he was of great service in the University
business, and that the success of the scheme depended upon him to a great
degree. He spent many hours in talking it over with the Senator after
dinner. He went so far as to consider whether it would be worth his
while to take the professorship of civil engineering in the new
institution.

But it was not the Senator's society nor his dinners--at which this
scapegrace remarked that there was too much grace and too little wine--
which attracted him to the horse. The fact was the poor fellow hung
around there day after day for the chance of seeing Laura for five
minutes at a time. For her presence at dinner he would endure the long
bore of the Senator's talk afterwards, while Laura was off at some
assembly, or excused herself on the plea of fatigue. Now and then he
accompanied her to some reception, and rarely, on off nights, he was
blessed with her company in the parlor, when he sang, and was chatty and
vivacious and performed a hundred little tricks of imitation and
ventriloquism, and made himself as entertaining as a man could be.

It puzzled him not a little that all his fascinations seemed to go for so
little with Laura; it was beyond his experience with women. Sometimes
Laura was exceedingly kind and petted him a little, and took the trouble
to exert her powers of pleasing, and to entangle him deeper and deeper.
But this, it angered him afterwards to think, was in private; in public
she was beyond his reach, and never gave occasion to the suspicion that
she had any affair with him. He was never permitted to achieve the
dignity of a serious flirtation with her in public.

"Why do you treat me so?" he once said, reproachfully.

"Treat you how?" asked Laura in a sweet voice, lifting her eyebrows.

"You know well enough. You let other fellows monopolize you in society,
and you are as indifferent to me as if we were strangers."

"Can I help it if they are attentive, can I be rude? But we are such old
friends, Mr. Brierly, that I didn't suppose you would be jealous."

"I think I must be a very old friend, then, by your conduct towards me.
By the same rule I should judge that Col. Selby must be very new."

Laura looked up quickly, as if about to return an indignant answer to
such impertinence, but she only said, "Well, what of Col. Selby, sauce-
box?"

"Nothing, probably, you'll care for. Your being with him so much is the
town talk, that's all?"

"What do people say?" asked Laura calmly.

"Oh, they say a good many things. You are offended, though, to have me
speak of it?"

"Not in the least. You are my true friend. I feel that I can trust you.
You wouldn't deceive me, Harry?" throwing into her eyes a look of trust
and tenderness that melted away all his petulance and distrust. "What do
they say?"

"Some say that you've lost your head about him; others that you don't
care any more for him than you do for a dozen others, but that he is
completely fascinated with you and about to desert his wife; and others
say it is nonsense to suppose you would entangle yourself with a married
man, and that your intimacy only arises from the matter of the cotton,
claims, for which he wants your influence with Dilworthy. But you know
everybody is talked about more or less in Washington. I shouldn't care;
but I wish you wouldn't have so much to do with Selby, Laura," continued
Harry, fancying that he was now upon such terms that his, advice, would
be heeded.

"And you believed these slanders?"

"I don't believe anything against you, Laura, but Col. Selby does not
mean you any good. I know you wouldn't be seen with him if you knew his
reputation."

"Do you know him?" Laura asked, as indifferently as she could.

"Only a little. I was at his lodgings' in Georgetown a day or two ago,
with Col. Sellers. Sellers wanted to talk with him about some patent
remedy he has, Eye Water, or something of that sort, which he wants to
introduce into Europe. Selby is going abroad very soon."

Laura started; in spite of her self-control.

"And his wife!--Does he take his family? Did you see his wife?"

"Yes. A dark little woman, rather worn--must have been pretty once
though. Has three or four children, one of them a baby. They'll all
go of course. She said she should be glad enough to get away from
Washington. You know Selby has got his claim allowed, and they say he
has had a run, of luck lately at Morrissey's."

Laura heard all this in a kind of stupor, looking straight at Harry,
without seeing him. Is it possible, she was thinking, that this base
wretch, after, all his promises, will take his wife and children and
leave me? Is it possible the town is saying all these things about me?
And a look of bitterness coming into her face--does the fool think he can
escape so?

"You are angry with me, Laura," said Harry, not comprehending in the
least what was going on in her mind.

"Angry?" she said, forcing herself to come back to his presence.
"With you? Oh no. I'm angry with the cruel world, which, pursues an
independent woman as it never does a man. I'm grateful to you Harry;
I'm grateful to you for telling me of that odious man."

And she rose from her chair and gave him her pretty hand, which the silly
fellow took, and kissed and clung to. And he said many silly things,
before she disengaged herself gently, and left him, saying it was time to
dress, for dinner.

And Harry went away, excited, and a little hopeful, but only a little.
The happiness was only a gleam, which departed and left him thoroughly,
miserable. She never would love him, and she was going to the devil,
besides. He couldn't shut his eyes to what he saw, nor his ears to what
he heard of her.

What had come over this trilling young lady-killer? It was a pity to see
such a gay butterfly broken on a wheel. Was there something good in him,
after all, that had been touched? He was in fact madly in love with this
woman.

It is not for us to analyze the passion and say whether it was a worthy
one. It absorbed his whole nature and made him wretched enough. If he
deserved punishment, what more would you have? Perhaps this love was
kindling a new heroism in him.

He saw the road on which Laura was going clearly enough, though he did
not believe the worst he heard of her. He loved her too passionately to
credit that for a moment. And it seemed to him that if he could compel
her to recognize her position, and his own devotion, she might love him,
and that he could save her. His love was so far ennobled, and become a
very different thing from its beginning in Hawkeye. Whether he ever
thought that if he could save her from ruin, he could give her up
himself, is doubtful. Such a pitch of virtue does not occur often in
real life, especially in such natures as Harry's, whose generosity and
unselfishness were matters of temperament rather than habits or
principles.

He wrote a long letter to Laura, an incoherent, passionate letter,
pouring out his love as he could not do in her presence, and warning her
as plainly as he dared of the dangers that surrounded her, and the risks
she ran of compromising herself in many ways.

Laura read the letter, with a little sigh may be, as she thought of other
days, but with contempt also, and she put it into the fire with the
thought, "They are all alike."

Harry was in the habit of writing to Philip freely, and boasting also
about his doings, as he could not help doing and remain himself.
Mixed up with his own exploits, and his daily triumphs as a lobbyist,
especially in the matter of the new University, in which Harry was to
have something handsome, were amusing sketches of Washington society,
hints about Dilworthy, stories about Col. Sellers, who had become a well-
known character, and wise remarks upon the machinery of private
legislation for the public-good, which greatly entertained Philip in his
convalescence.

Laura's name occurred very often in these letters, at first in casual
mention as the belle of the season, carrying everything before her with
her wit and beauty, and then more seriously, as if Harry did not exactly
like so much general admiration of her, and was a little nettled by her
treatment of him.

This was so different from Harry's usual tone about women, that Philip
wondered a good deal over it. Could it be possible that he was seriously
affected? Then came stories about Laura, town talk, gossip which Harry
denied the truth of indignantly; but he was evidently uneasy, and at
length wrote in such miserable spirits that Philip asked him squarely
what the trouble was; was he in love?

Upon this, Harry made a clean breast of it, and told Philip all he knew
about the Selby affair, and Laura's treatment of him, sometimes
encouraging him--and then throwing him off, and finally his belief that
she would go, to the bad if something was not done to arouse her from her
infatuation. He wished Philip was in Washington. He knew Laura, and she
had a great respect for his character, his opinions, his judgment.
Perhaps he, as an uninterested person whom she would have some
confidence, and as one of the public, could say some thing to her that
would show her where she stood.

Philip saw the situation clearly enough. Of Laura he knew not much,
except that she was a woman of uncommon fascination, and he thought from
what he had seen of her in Hawkeye, her conduct towards him and towards
Harry, of not too much principle. Of course he knew nothing of her
history; he knew nothing seriously against her, and if Harry was
desperately enamored of her, why should he not win her if he could.
If, however, she had already become what Harry uneasily felt she might
become, was it not his duty to go to the rescue of his friend and try to
save him from any rash act on account of a woman that might prove to be
entirely unworthy of him; for trifler and visionary as he was, Harry
deserved a better fate than this.

Philip determined to go to Washington and see for himself. He had other
reasons also. He began to know enough of Mr. Bolton's affairs to be
uneasy. Pennybacker had been there several times during the winter, and
he suspected that he was involving Mr. Bolton in some doubtful scheme.
Pennybacker was in Washington, and Philip thought he might perhaps find
out something about him, and his plans, that would be of service to Mr.
Bolton.

Philip had enjoyed his winter very well, for a man with his arm broken
and his head smashed. With two such nurses as Ruth and Alice, illness
seemed to him rather a nice holiday, and every moment of his
convalescence had been precious and all too fleeting. With a young
fellow of the habits of Philip, such injuries cannot be counted on to
tarry long, even for the purpose of love-making, and Philip found himself
getting strong with even disagreeable rapidity.

During his first weeks of pain and weakness, Ruth was unceasing in her
ministrations; she quietly took charge of him, and with a gentle firmness
resisted all attempts of Alice or any one else to share to any great
extent the burden with her. She was clear, decisive and peremptory in
whatever she did; but often when Philip, opened his eyes in those first
days of suffering and found her standing by his bedside, he saw a look of
tenderness in her anxious face that quickened his already feverish pulse,
a look that, remained in his heart long after he closed his eyes.
Sometimes he felt her hand on his forehead, and did not open his eyes for
fear she world take it away. He watched for her coming to his chamber;
he could distinguish her light footstep from all others. If this is what
is meant by women practicing medicine, thought Philip to himself, I like
it.

"Ruth," said he one day when he was getting to be quite himself,
"I believe in it?"

"Believe in what?"

"Why, in women physicians."

"Then, I'd better call in Mrs. Dr. Longstreet."

"Oh, no. One will do, one at a time. I think I should be well tomorrow,
if I thought I should never have any other."

"Thy physician thinks thee mustn't talk, Philip," said Ruth putting her
finger on his lips.

"But, Ruth, I want to tell you that I should wish I never had got well
if--"

"There, there, thee must not talk. Thee is wandering again," and Ruth
closed his lips, with a smile on her own that broadened into a merry
laugh as she ran away.

Philip was not weary, however, of making these attempts, he rather
enjoyed it. But whenever he inclined to be sentimental, Ruth would cut
him off, with some such gravely conceived speech as, "Does thee think
that thy physician will take advantage of the condition of a man who is
as weak as thee is? I will call Alice, if thee has any dying confessions
to make."

As Philip convalesced, Alice more and more took Ruth's place as his
entertainer, and read to him by the hour, when he did not want to talk--
to talk about Ruth, as he did a good deal of the time. Nor was this
altogether unsatisfactory to Philip. He was always happy and contented
with Alice. She was the most restful person he knew. Better informed
than Ruth and with a much more varied culture, and bright and
sympathetic, he was never weary of her company, if he was not greatly
excited by it. She had upon his mind that peaceful influence that Mrs.
Bolton had when, occasionally, she sat by his bedside with her work.
Some people have this influence, which is like an emanation. They bring
peace to a house, they diffuse serene content in a room full of mixed
company, though they may say very little, and are apparently, unconscious
of their own power;

Not that Philip did not long for Ruth's presence all the same. Since he
was well enough to be about the house, she was busy again with her
studies. Now and then her teasing humor came again. She always had a
playful shield against his sentiment. Philip used sometimes to declare
that she had no sentiment; and then he doubted if he should be pleased
with her after all if she were at all sentimental; and he rejoiced that
she had, in such matters what he called the airy grace of sanity. She
was the most gay serious person he ever saw.

Perhaps he waw not so much at rest or so contented with her as with
Alice. But then he loved her. And what have rest and contentment to do
with love?

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