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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XLVII

The Gilded Age

Chapter XLVII


Philip's first effort was to get Harry out of the Tombs. He gained
permission to see him, in the presence of an officer, during the day,
and he found that hero very much cast down.

"I never intended to come to such a place as this, old fellow," he said
to Philip; "it's no place for a gentleman, they've no idea how to treat a
gentleman. Look at that provender," pointing to his uneaten prison
ration. "They tell me I am detained as a witness, and I passed the night
among a lot of cut-throats and dirty rascals--a pretty witness I'd be in
a month spent in such company."

"But what under heavens," asked Philip, "induced you to come to New York
with Laura! What was it for?"

"What for? Why, she wanted me to come. I didn't know anything about
that cursed Selby. She said it was lobby business for the University.
I'd no idea what she was dragging me into that confounded hotel for.
I suppose she knew that the Southerners all go there, and thought she'd
find her man. Oh! Lord, I wish I'd taken your advice. You might as
well murder somebody and have the credit of it, as get into the
newspapers the way I have. She's pure devil, that girl. You ought to
have seen how sweet she was on me; what an ass I am."

"Well, I'm not going to dispute a poor, prisoner. But the first thing is
to get you out of this. I've brought the note Laura wrote you, for one
thing, and I've seen your uncle, and explained the truth of the case to
him. He will be here soon."

Harry's uncle came, with; other friends, and in the course of the day
made such a showing to the authorities that Harry was released, on giving
bonds to appear as a witness when wanted. His spirits rose with their
usual elasticity as soon as he was out of Centre Street, and he insisted
on giving Philip and his friends a royal supper at Delmonico's, an excess
which was perhaps excusable in the rebound of his feelings, and which was
committed with his usual reckless generosity. Harry ordered, the supper,
and it is perhaps needless to say, that Philip paid the bill.

Neither of the young men felt like attempting to see Laura that day,
and she saw no company except the newspaper reporters, until the arrival
of Col. Sellers and Washington Hawkins, who had hastened to New York
with all speed.

They found Laura in a cell in the upper tier of the women's department.
The cell was somewhat larger than those in the men's department, and
might be eight feet by ten square, perhaps a little longer. It was of
stone, floor and all, and tile roof was oven shaped. A narrow slit in
the roof admitted sufficient light, and was the only means of
ventilation; when the window was opened there was nothing to prevent the
rain coming in. The only means of heating being from the corridor, when
the door was ajar, the cell was chilly and at this time damp. It was
whitewashed and clean, but it had a slight jail odor; its only furniture
was a narrow iron bedstead, with a tick of straw and some blankets, not
too clean.

When Col. Sellers was conducted to this cell by the matron and looked
in, his emotions quite overcame him, the tears rolled down his cheeks and
his voice trembled so that he could hardly speak. Washington was unable
to say anything; he looked from Laura to the miserable creatures who were
walking in the corridor with unutterable disgust. Laura was alone calm
and self-contained, though she was not unmoved by the sight of the grief
of her friends.

"Are you comfortable, Laura?" was the first word the Colonel could get
out.

"You see," she replied. "I can't say it's exactly comfortable."

"Are you cold?"

"It is pretty chilly. The stone floor is like ice. It chills me through
to step on it. I have to sit on the bed."

"Poor thing, poor thing. And can you eat any thing?"

"No, I am not hungry. I don't know that I could eat any thing, I can't
eat that."

"Oh dear," continued the Colonel, "it's dreadful. But cheer up, dear,
cheer up;" and the Colonel broke down entirely.

"But," he went on, "we'll stand by you. We'll do everything for you.
I know you couldn't have meant to do it, it must have been insanity, you
know, or something of that sort. You never did anything of the sort
before."

Laura smiled very faintly and said,

"Yes, it was something of that sort. It's all a whirl. He was a
villain; you don't know."

"I'd rather have killed him myself, in a duel you know, all fair. I wish
I had. But don't you be down. We'll get you the best counsel, the
lawyers in New York can do anything; I've read of cases. But you must be
comfortable now. We've brought some of your clothes, at the hotel. What
else, can we get for you?"

Laura suggested that she would like some sheets for her bed, a piece of
carpet to step on, and her meals sent in; and some books and writing
materials if it was allowed. The Colonel and Washington promised to
procure all these things, and then took their sorrowful leave, a great
deal more affected than the criminal was, apparently, by her situation.

The colonel told the matron as he went away that if she would look to
Laura's comfort a little it shouldn't be the worse for her; and to the
turnkey who let them out he patronizingly said,

"You've got a big establishment here, a credit to the city. I've got a
friend in there--I shall see you again, sir."

By the next day something more of Laura's own story began to appear in
the newspapers, colored and heightened by reporters' rhetoric. Some of
them cast a lurid light upon the Colonel's career, and represented his
victim as a beautiful avenger of her murdered innocence; and others
pictured her as his willing paramour and pitiless slayer. Her
communications to the reporters were stopped by her lawyers as soon as
they were retained and visited her, but this fact did not prevent--it may
have facilitated--the appearance of casual paragraphs here and there
which were likely to beget popular sympathy for the poor girl.

The occasion did not pass without "improvement" by the leading journals;
and Philip preserved the editorial comments of three or four of them
which pleased him most. These he used to read aloud to his friends
afterwards and ask them to guess from which journal each of them had been
cut. One began in this simple manner:--

     History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of
     the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken
     fragments of antique legends. Washington is not Corinth, and Lais,
     the beautiful daughter of Timandra, might not have been the
     prototype of the ravishing Laura, daughter of the plebeian house of
     Hawkins; but the orators add statesmen who were the purchasers of
     the favors of the one, may have been as incorruptible as the
     Republican statesmen who learned how to love and how to vote from
     the sweet lips of the Washington lobbyist; and perhaps the modern
     Lais would never have departed from the national Capital if there
     had been there even one republican Xenocrates who resisted her
     blandishments. But here the parallel: fails. Lais, wandering away
     with the youth Rippostratus, is slain by the women who are jealous
     of her charms. Laura, straying into her Thessaly with the youth
     Brierly, slays her other lover and becomes the champion of the
     wrongs of her sex.

Another journal began its editorial with less lyrical beauty, but with
equal force. It closed as follows:--

     With Laura Hawkins, fair, fascinating and fatal, and with the
     dissolute Colonel of a lost cause, who has reaped the harvest he
     sowed, we have nothing to do. But as the curtain rises on this
     awful tragedy, we catch a glimpse of the society at the capital
     under this Administration, which we cannot contemplate without alarm
     for the fate of the Republic.

A third newspaper took up the subject in a different tone. It said:--

     Our repeated predictions are verified. The pernicious doctrines
     which we have announced as prevailing in American society have been
     again illustrated. The name of the city is becoming a reproach.
     We may have done something in averting its ruin in our resolute
     exposure of the Great Frauds; we shall not be deterred from
     insisting that the outraged laws for the protection of human life
     shall be vindicated now, so that a person can walk the streets or
     enter the public houses, at least in the day-time, without the risk
     of a bullet through his brain.

A fourth journal began its remarks as follows:--

     The fullness with which we present our readers this morning the
     details of the Selby-Hawkins homicide is a miracle of modern
     journalism. Subsequent investigation can do little to fill out the
     picture. It is the old story. A beautiful woman shoots her
     absconding lover in cold-blood; and we shall doubtless learn in due
     time that if she was not as mad as a hare in this month of March,
     she was at least laboring under what is termed "momentary insanity."

It would not be too much to say that upon the first publication of the
facts of the tragedy, there was an almost universal feeling of rage
against the murderess in the Tombs, and that reports of her beauty only
heightened the indignation. It was as if she presumed upon that and upon
her sex, to defy the law; and there was a fervent, hope that the law
would take its plain course.

Yet Laura was not without friends, and some of them very influential too.
She had in keeping a great many secrets and a great many reputations,
perhaps. Who shall set himself up to judge human motives. Why, indeed,
might we not feel pity for a woman whose brilliant career had been so
suddenly extinguished in misfortune and crime? Those who had known her
so well in Washington might find it impossible to believe that the
fascinating woman could have had murder in her heart, and would readily
give ear to the current sentimentality about the temporary aberration of
mind under the stress of personal calamity.

Senator Dilworthy, was greatly shocked, of course, but he was full of
charity for the erring.

"We shall all need mercy," he said. "Laura as an inmate of my family was
a most exemplary female, amiable, affectionate and truthful, perhaps too
fond of gaiety, and neglectful of the externals of religion, but a woman
of principle. She may have had experiences of which I am ignorant, but
she could not have gone to this extremity if she had been in her own
right mind."

To the Senator's credit be it said, he was willing to help Laura and her
family in this dreadful trial. She, herself, was not without money, for
the Washington lobbyist is not seldom more fortunate than the Washington
claimant, and she was able to procure a good many luxuries to mitigate
the severity of her prison life. It enabled her also to have her own
family near her, and to see some of them daily. The tender solicitude of
her mother, her childlike grief, and her firm belief in the real
guiltlessness of her daughter, touched even the custodians of the Tombs
who are enured to scenes of pathos.

Mrs. Hawkins had hastened to her daughter as soon as she received money
for the journey. She had no reproaches, she had only tenderness and
pity. She could not shut out the dreadful facts of the case, but it had
been enough for her that Laura had said, in their first interview,
"mother, I did not know what I was doing." She obtained lodgings near,
the prison and devoted her life to her daughter, as if she had been
really her own child. She would have remained in the prison day and
night if it had been permitted. She was aged and feeble, but this great
necessity seemed to give her new life.

The pathetic story of the old lady's ministrations, and her simplicity
and faith, also got into the newspapers in time, and probably added to
the pathos of this wrecked woman's fate, which was beginning to be felt
by the public. It was certain that she had champions who thought that
her wrongs ought to be placed against her crime, and expressions of this
feeling came to her in various ways. Visitors came to see her, and gifts
of fruit and flowers were sent, which brought some cheer into her hard
and gloomy cell.

Laura had declined to see either Philip or Harry, somewhat to the
former's relief, who had a notion that she would necessarily feel
humiliated by seeing him after breaking faith with him, but to the
discomfiture of Harry, who still felt her fascination, and thought her
refusal heartless. He told Philip that of course he had got through with
such a woman, but he wanted to see her.

Philip, to keep him from some new foolishness, persuaded him to go with
him to Philadelphia; and, give his valuable services in the mining
operations at Ilium.

The law took its course with Laura. She was indicted for murder in the
first degree and held for trial at the summer term. The two most
distinguished criminal lawyers in the city had been retained for her
defence, and to that the resolute woman devoted her days with a courage
that rose as she consulted with her counsel and understood the methods of
criminal procedure in New York.

She was greatly depressed, however, by the news from Washington.
Congress adjourned and her bill had failed to pass the Senate. It must
wait for the next session.

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