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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XLIV

The Gilded Age

Chapter XLIV


"It's easy enough for another fellow to talk," said Harry, despondingly,
after he had put Philip in possession of his view of the case. "It's
easy enough to say 'give her up,' if you don't care for her. What am I
going to do to give her up?"

It seemed to Harry that it was a situation requiring some active
measures. He couldn't realize that he had fallen hopelessly in love
without some rights accruing to him for the possession of the object of
his passion. Quiet resignation under relinquishment of any thing he
wanted was not in his line. And when it appeared to him that his
surrender of Laura would be the withdrawal of the one barrier that kept
her from ruin, it was unreasonable to expect that he could see how to
give her up.

Harry had the most buoyant confidence in his own projects always; he saw
everything connected with himself in a large way and in rosy lines. This
predominance of the imagination over the judgment gave that appearance of
exaggeration to his conversation and to his communications with regard to
himself, which sometimes conveyed the impression that he was not speaking
the truth. His acquaintances had been known to say that they invariably
allowed a half for shrinkage in his statements, and held the other half
under advisement for confirmation.

Philip in this case could not tell from Harry's story exactly how much
encouragement Laura had given him, nor what hopes he might justly have of
winning her. He had never seen him desponding before. The "brag"
appeared to be all taken out of him, and his airy manner only asserted
itself now and then in a comical imitation of its old self.

Philip wanted time to look about him before he decided what to do.
He was not familiar with Washington, and it was difficult to adjust his
feelings and perceptions to its peculiarities. Coming out of the sweet
sanity of the Bolton household, this was by contrast the maddest Vanity
Fair one could conceive. It seemed to him a feverish, unhealthy
atmosphere in which lunacy would be easily developed. He fancied that
everybody attached to himself an exaggerated importance, from the fact of
being at the national capital, the center of political influence, the
fountain of patronage, preferment, jobs and opportunities.

People were introduced to each other as from this or that state, not from
cities or towns, and this gave a largeness to their representative
feeling. All the women talked politics as naturally and glibly as they
talk fashion or literature elsewhere. There was always some exciting
topic at the Capitol, or some huge slander was rising up like a miasmatic
exhalation from the Potomac, threatening to settle no one knew exactly
where. Every other person was an aspirant for a place, or, if he had
one, for a better place, or more pay; almost every other one had some
claim or interest or remedy to urge; even the women were all advocates
for the advancement of some person, and they violently espoused or
denounced this or that measure as it would affect some relative,
acquaintance or friend.

Love, travel, even death itself, waited on the chances of the dies daily
thrown in the two Houses, and the committee rooms there. If the measure
went through, love could afford to ripen into marriage, and longing for
foreign travel would have fruition; and it must have been only eternal
hope springing in the breast that kept alive numerous old claimants who
for years and years had besieged the doors of Congress, and who looked as
if they needed not so much an appropriation of money as six feet of
ground. And those who stood so long waiting for success to bring them
death were usually those who had a just claim.

Representing states and talking of national and even international
affairs, as familiarly as neighbors at home talk of poor crops and the
extravagance of their ministers, was likely at first to impose upon
Philip as to the importance of the people gathered here.

There was a little newspaper editor from Phil's native town, the
assistant on a Peddletonian weekly, who made his little annual joke about
the "first egg laid on our table," and who was the menial of every
tradesman in the village and under bonds to him for frequent "puffs,"
except the undertaker, about whose employment he was recklessly
facetious. In Washington he was an important man, correspondent, and
clerk of two house committees, a "worker" in politics, and a confident
critic of every woman and every man in Washington. He would be a consul
no doubt by and by, at some foreign port, of the language of which he was
ignorant--though if ignorance of language were a qualification he might
have been a consul at home. His easy familiarity with great men was
beautiful to see, and when Philip learned what a tremendous underground
influence this little ignoramus had, he no longer wondered at the queer
appointments and the queerer legislation.

Philip was not long in discovering that people in Washington did not
differ much from other people; they had the same meannesses,
generosities, and tastes: A Washington boarding house had the odor of a
boarding house the world over.

Col. Sellers was as unchanged as any one Philip saw whom he had known
elsewhere. Washington appeared to be the native element of this man.
His pretentions were equal to any he encountered there. He saw nothing
in its society that equalled that of Hawkeye, he sat down to no table
that could not be unfavorably contrasted with his own at home; the most
airy scheme inflated in the hot air of the capital only reached in
magnitude some of his lesser fancies, the by-play of his constructive
imagination.

"The country is getting along very well," he said to Philip, "but our
public men are too timid. What we want is more money. I've told
Boutwell so. Talk about basing the currency on gold; you might as well
base it on pork. Gold is only one product. Base it on everything!
You've got to do something for the West. How am I to move my crops?
We must have improvements. Grant's got the idea. We want a canal from
the James River to the Mississippi. Government ought to build it."

It was difficult to get the Colonel off from these large themes when he
was once started, but Philip brought the conversation round to Laura and
her reputation in the City.

"No," he said, "I haven't noticed much. We've been so busy about this
University. It will make Laura rich with the rest of us, and she has
done nearly as much as if she were a man. She has great talent, and will
make a big match. I see the foreign ministers and that sort after her.
Yes, there is talk, always will be about a pretty woman so much in public
as she is. Tough stories come to me, but I put'em away. 'Taint likely
one of Si Hawkins's children would do that--for she is the same as a
child of his. I told her, though, to go slow," added the Colonel, as if
that mysterious admonition from him would set everything right.

"Do you know anything about a Col. Selby?"

"Know all about him. Fine fellow. But he's got a wife; and I told him,
as a friend, he'd better sheer off from Laura. I reckon he thought
better of it and did."

But Philip was not long in learning the truth. Courted as Laura was by a
certain class and still admitted into society, that, nevertheless, buzzed
with disreputable stories about her, she had lost character with the best
people. Her intimacy with Selby was open gossip, and there were winks
and thrustings of the tongue in any group of men when she passed by.
It was clear enough that Harry's delusion must be broken up, and that no
such feeble obstacle as his passion could interpose would turn Laura from
her fate. Philip determined to see her, and put himself in possession of
the truth, as he suspected it, in order to show Harry his folly.

Laura, after her last conversation with Harry, had a new sense of her
position. She had noticed before the signs of a change in manner towards
her, a little less respect perhaps from men, and an avoidance by women.
She had attributed this latter partly to jealousy of her, for no one is
willing to acknowledge a fault in himself when a more agreeable motive
can be found for the estrangement of his acquaintances. But now, if
society had turned on her, she would defy it. It was not in her nature
to shrink. She knew she had been wronged, and she knew that she had no
remedy.

What she heard of Col. Selby's proposed departure alarmed her more than
anything else, and she calmly determined that if he was deceiving her the
second time it should be the last. Let society finish the tragedy if it
liked; she was indifferent what came after. At the first opportunity,
she charged Selby with his intention to abandon her. He unblushingly
denied it.

He had not thought of going to Europe. He had only been amusing himself
with Sellers' schemes. He swore that as soon as she succeeded with her
bill, he would fly with her to any part of the world.

She did not quite believe him, for she saw that he feared her, and she
began to suspect that his were the protestations of a coward to gain
time. But she showed him no doubts.

She only watched his movements day by day, and always held herself ready
to act promptly.

When Philip came into the presence of this attractive woman, he could not
realize that she was the subject of all the scandal he had heard. She
received him with quite the old Hawkeye openness and cordiality, and fell
to talking at once of their little acquaintance there; and it seemed
impossible that he could ever say to her what he had come determined to
say. Such a man as Philip has only one standard by which to judge women.

Laura recognized that fact no doubt. The better part of her woman's
nature saw it. Such a man might, years ago, not now, have changed her
nature, and made the issue of her life so different, even after her cruel
abandonment. She had a dim feeling of this, and she would like now to
stand well with him. The spark of truth and honor that was left in her
was elicited by his presence. It was this influence that governed her
conduct in this interview.

"I have come," said Philip in his direct manner, "from my friend
Mr. Brierly. You are not ignorant of his feeling towards you?"

"Perhaps not."

"But perhaps you do not know, you who have so much admiration, how
sincere and overmastering his love is for you?" Philip would not have
spoken so plainly, if he had in mind anything except to draw from Laura
something that would end Harry's passion.

"And is sincere love so rare, Mr. Sterling?" asked Laura, moving her foot
a little, and speaking with a shade of sarcasm.

"Perhaps not in Washington," replied Philip,--tempted into a similar
tone. "Excuse my bluntness," he continued, "but would the knowledge of
his love; would his devotion, make any difference to you in your
Washington life?"

"In respect to what?" asked Laura quickly.

"Well, to others. I won't equivocate--to Col. Selby?"

Laura's face flushed with anger, or shame; she looked steadily at Philip
and began,

"By what right, sir,--"

"By the right of friendship," interrupted Philip stoutly. "It may matter
little to you. It is everything to him. He has a Quixotic notion that
you would turn back from what is before you for his sake. You cannot be
ignorant of what all the city is talking of." Philip said this
determinedly and with some bitterness.

It was a full minute before Laura spoke. Both had risen, Philip as if to
go, and Laura in suppressed excitement. When she spoke her voice was
very unsteady, and she looked down.

"Yes, I know. I perfectly understand what you mean. Mr. Brierly is
nothing--simply nothing. He is a moth singed, that is all--the trifler
with women thought he was a wasp. I have no pity for him, not the least.
You may tell him not to make a fool of himself, and to keep away. I say
this on your account, not his. You are not like him. It is enough for
me that you want it so. Mr. Sterling," she continued, looking up; and
there were tears in her eyes that contradicted the hardness of her
language, "you might not pity him if you knew my history; perhaps you
would not wonder at some things you hear. No; it is useless to ask me
why it must be so. You can't make a life over--society wouldn't let you
if you would--and mine must be lived as it is. There, sir, I'm not
offended; but it is useless for you to say anything more."

Philip went away with his heart lightened about Harry, but profoundly
saddened by the glimpse of what this woman might have been. He told
Harry all that was necessary of the conversation--she was bent on going
her own way, he had not the ghost of a chance--he was a fool, she had
said, for thinking he had.

And Harry accepted it meekly, and made up his own mind that Philip didn't
know much about women.

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