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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter V

The Gilded Age

Chapter V


Il veut faire secher de la neige au four et la vendre pour du sel blanc.


When the Boreas backed away from the land to continue her voyage up the
river, the Hawkinses were richer by twenty-four hours of experience in
the contemplation of human suffering and in learning through honest hard
work how to relieve it. And they were richer in another way also.
In the early turmoil an hour after the explosion, a little black-eyed
girl of five years, frightened and crying bitterly, was struggling
through the throng in the Boreas' saloon calling her mother and father,
but no one answered. Something in the face of Mr. Hawkins attracted her
and she came and looked up at him; was satisfied, and took refuge with
him. He petted her, listened to her troubles, and said he would find her
friends for her. Then he put her in a state-room with his children and
told them to be kind to her (the adults of his party were all busy with
the wounded) and straightway began his search.

It was fruitless. But all day he and his wife made inquiries, and hoped
against hope. All that they could learn was that the child and her
parents came on board at New Orleans, where they had just arrived in a
vessel from Cuba; that they looked like people from the Atlantic States;
that the family name was Van Brunt and the child's name Laura. This was
all. The parents had not been seen since the explosion. The child's
manners were those of a little lady, and her clothes were daintier and
finer than any Mrs. Hawkins had ever seen before.

As the hours dragged on the child lost heart, and cried so piteously for
her mother that it seemed to the Hawkinses that the moanings and the
wailings of the mutilated men and women in the saloon did not so strain
at their heart-strings as the sufferings of this little desolate
creature. They tried hard to comfort her; and in trying, learned to love
her; they could not help it, seeing how she clung, to them and put her
arms about their necks and found-no solace but in their kind eyes and
comforting words: There was a question in both their hearts--a question
that rose up and asserted itself with more and more pertinacity as the
hours wore on--but both hesitated to give it voice--both kept silence--
and--waited. But a time came at last when the matter would bear delay no
longer. The boat had landed, and the dead and the wounded were being
conveyed to the shore. The tired child was asleep in the arms of Mrs.
Hawkins. Mr. Hawkins came into their presence and stood without
speaking. His eyes met his wife's; then both looked at the child--and as
they looked it stirred in its sleep and nestled closer; an expression of
contentment and peace settled upon its face that touched the mother-
heart; and when the eyes of husband and wife met again, the question was
asked and answered.

When the Boreas had journeyed some four hundred miles from the time the
Hawkinses joined her, a long rank of steamboats was sighted, packed side
by side at a wharf like sardines, in a box, and above and beyond them
rose the domes and steeples and general architectural confusion of a
city--a city with an imposing umbrella of black smoke spread over it.
This was St. Louis. The children of the Hawkins family were playing
about the hurricane deck, and the father and mother were sitting in the
lee of the pilot house essaying to keep order and not greatly grieved
that they were not succeeding.

"They're worth all the trouble they are, Nancy."

"Yes, and more, Si."

"I believe you! You wouldn't sell one of them at a good round figure?"

"Not for all the money in the bank, Si."

"My own sentiments every time. It is true we are not rich--but still you
are not sorry---you haven't any misgivings about the additions?"

"No. God will provide"

"Amen. And so you wouldn't even part with Clay? Or Laura!"

"Not for anything in the world. I love them just the same as I love my
own: They pet me and spoil me even more than the others do, I think.
I reckon we'll get along, Si."

"Oh yes, it will all come out right, old mother. I wouldn't be afraid to
adopt a thousand children if I wanted to, for there's that Tennessee
Land, you know--enough to make an army of them rich. A whole army,
Nancy! You and I will never see the day, but these little chaps will.
Indeed they will. One of these days it will be the rich Miss Emily
Hawkins--and the wealthy Miss Laura Van Brunt Hawkins--and the Hon.
George Washington Hawkins, millionaire--and Gov. Henry Clay Hawkins,
millionaire! That is the way the world will word it! Don't let's ever
fret about the children, Nancy--never in the world. They're all right.
Nancy, there's oceans and oceans of money in that land--mark my words!"

The children had stopped playing, for the moment, and drawn near to
listen. Hawkins said:

"Washington, my boy, what will you do when you get to be one of the
richest men in the world?"

"I don't know, father. Sometimes I think I'll have a balloon and go up
in the air; and sometimes I think I'll have ever so many books; and
sometimes I think I'll have ever so many weathercocks and water-wheels;
or have a machine like that one you and Colonel Sellers bought; and
sometimes I think I'll have--well, somehow I don't know--somehow I ain't
certain; maybe I'll get a steamboat first."

"The same old chap!--always just a little bit divided about things.--And
what will you do when you get to be one of the richest men in the world,
Clay?"

"I don't know, sir. My mother--my other mother that's gone away--she
always told me to work along and not be much expecting to get rich, and
then I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't get rich. And so I reckon
it's better for me to wait till I get rich, and then by that time maybe
I'll know what I'll want--but I don't now, sir."

"Careful old head!--Governor Henry Clay Hawkins!--that's what you'll be,
Clay, one of these days. Wise old head! weighty old head! Go on, now,
and play--all of you. It's a prime lot, Nancy; as the Obedstown folk say
about their hogs."

A smaller steamboat received the Hawkinses and their fortunes, and bore
them a hundred and thirty miles still higher up the Mississippi, and
landed them at a little tumble-down village on the Missouri shore in the
twilight of a mellow October day.

The next morning they harnessed up their team and for two days they
wended slowly into the interior through almost roadless and uninhabited
forest solitudes. And when for the last time they pitched their tents,
metaphorically speaking, it was at the goal of their hopes, their new
home.

By the muddy roadside stood a new log cabin, one story high--the store;
clustered in the neighborhood were ten or twelve more cabins, some new,
some old.

In the sad light of the departing day the place looked homeless enough.
Two or three coatless young men sat in front of the store on a dry-goods
box, and whittled it with their knives, kicked it with their vast boots,
and shot tobacco-juice at various marks. Several ragged negroes leaned
comfortably against the posts of the awning and contemplated the arrival
of the wayfarers with lazy curiosity. All these people presently managed
to drag themselves to the vicinity of the Hawkins' wagon, and there they
took up permanent positions, hands in pockets and resting on one leg; and
thus anchored they proceeded to look and enjoy. Vagrant dogs came
wagging around and making inquiries of Hawkins's dog, which were not
satisfactory and they made war on him in concert. This would have
interested the citizens but it was too many on one to amount to anything
as a fight, and so they commanded the peace and the foreign dog coiled
his tail and took sanctuary under the wagon. Slatternly negro girls and
women slouched along with pails deftly balanced on their heads, and
joined the group and stared. Little half dressed white boys, and little
negro boys with nothing whatever on but tow-linen shirts with a fine
southern exposure, came from various directions and stood with their
hands locked together behind them and aided in the inspection. The rest
of the population were laying down their employments and getting ready to
come, when a man burst through the assemblage and seized the new-comers
by the hands in a frenzy of welcome, and exclaimed--indeed almost
shouted:

"Well who could have believed it! Now is it you sure enough--turn
around! hold up your heads! I want to look at you good! Well, well,
well, it does seem most too good to be true, I declare! Lord, I'm so
glad to see you! Does a body's whole soul good to look at you! Shake
hands again! Keep on shaking hands! Goodness gracious alive. What will
my wife say?--Oh yes indeed, it's so!--married only last week--lovely,
perfectly lovely creature, the noblest woman that ever--you'll like her,
Nancy! Like her? Lord bless me you'll love her--you'll dote on her--
you'll be twins! Well, well, well, let me look at you again! Same old--
why bless my life it was only jest this very morning that my wife says,
'Colonel'--she will call me Colonel spite of everything I can do--she
says 'Colonel, something tells me somebody's coming!' and sure enough
here you are, the last people on earth a body could have expected.
Why she'll think she's a prophetess--and hanged if I don't think so too--
and you know there ain't any, country but what a prophet's an honor to,
as the proverb says. Lord bless me and here's the children, too!
Washington, Emily, don't you know me? Come, give us a kiss. Won't I fix
you, though!--ponies, cows, dogs, everything you can think of that'll
delight a child's heart-and--Why how's this? Little strangers? Well
you won't be any strangers here, I can tell you. Bless your souls we'll
make you think you never was at home before--'deed and 'deed we will,
I can tell you! Come, now, bundle right along with me. You can't
glorify any hearth stone but mine in this camp, you know--can't eat
anybody's bread but mine--can't do anything but just make yourselves
perfectly at home and comfortable, and spread yourselves out and rest!
You hear me! Here--Jim, Tom, Pete, Jake, fly around! Take that team to
my place--put the wagon in my lot--put the horses under the shed, and get
out hay and oats and fill them up! Ain't any hay and oats? Well get
some--have it charged to me--come, spin around, now! Now, Hawkins, the
procession's ready; mark time, by the left flank, forward-march!"

And the Colonel took the lead, with Laura astride his neck, and the
newly-inspired and very grateful immigrants picked up their tired limbs
with quite a spring in them and dropped into his wake.

Presently they were ranged about an old-time fire-place whose blazing
logs sent out rather an unnecessary amount of heat, but that was no
matter-supper was needed, and to have it, it had to be cooked. This
apartment was the family bedroom, parlor, library and kitchen, all in
one. The matronly little wife of the Colonel moved hither and thither
and in and out with her pots and pans in her hands', happiness in her
heart and a world of admiration of her husband in her eyes. And when at
last she had spread the cloth and loaded it with hot corn bread, fried
chickens, bacon, buttermilk, coffee, and all manner of country luxuries,
Col. Sellers modified his harangue and for a moment throttled it down to
the orthodox pitch for a blessing, and then instantly burst forth again
as from a parenthesis and clattered on with might and main till every
stomach in the party was laden with all it could carry. And when the
new-comers ascended the ladder to their comfortable feather beds on the
second floor--to wit the garret--Mrs. Hawkins was obliged to say:

"Hang the fellow, I do believe he has gone wilder than ever, but still a
body can't help liking him if they would--and what is more, they don't
ever want to try when they see his eyes and hear him talk."

Within a week or two the Hawkinses were comfortably domiciled in a new
log house, and were beginning to feel at home. The children were put to
school; at least it was what passed for a school in those days: a place
where tender young humanity devoted itself for eight or ten hours a day
to learning incomprehensible rubbish by heart out of books and reciting
it by rote, like parrots; so that a finished education consisted simply
of a permanent headache and the ability to read without stopping to spell
the words or take breath. Hawkins bought out the village store for a
song and proceeded to reap the profits, which amounted to but little more
than another song.

The wonderful speculation hinted at by Col. Sellers in his letter turned
out to be the raising of mules for the Southern market; and really it
promised very well. The young stock cost but a trifle, the rearing but
another trifle, and so Hawkins was easily persuaded to embark his slender
means in the enterprise and turn over the keep and care of the animals to
Sellers and Uncle Dan'l.

All went well: Business prospered little by little. Hawkins even built a
new house, made it two full stories high and put a lightning rod on it.
People came two or three miles to look at it. But they knew that the rod
attracted the lightning, and so they gave the place a wide berth in a
storm, for they were familiar with marksmanship and doubted if the
lightning could hit that small stick at a distance of a mile and a half
oftener than once in a hundred and fifty times. Hawkins fitted out his
house with "store" furniture from St. Louis, and the fame of its
magnificence went abroad in the land. Even the parlor carpet was from
St. Louis--though the other rooms were clothed in the "rag" carpeting of
the country. Hawkins put up the first "paling" fence that had ever
adorned the village; and he did not stop there, but whitewashed it.
His oil-cloth window-curtains had noble pictures on them of castles such
as had never been seen anywhere in the world but on window-curtains.
Hawkins enjoyed the admiration these prodigies compelled, but he always
smiled to think how poor and, cheap they were, compared to what the
Hawkins mansion would display in a future day after the Tennessee Land
should have borne its minted fruit. Even Washington observed, once, that
when the Tennessee Land was sold he would have a "store" carpet in his
and Clay's room like the one in the parlor. This pleased Hawkins, but it
troubled his wife. It did not seem wise, to her, to put one's entire
earthly trust in the Tennessee Land and never think of doing any work.

Hawkins took a weekly Philadelphia newspaper and a semi-weekly St. Louis
journal--almost the only papers that came to the village, though Godey's
Lady's Book found a good market there and was regarded as the perfection
of polite literature by some of the ablest critics in the place. Perhaps
it is only fair to explain that we are writing of a by gone age--some
twenty or thirty years ago. In the two newspapers referred to lay the
secret of Hawkins's growing prosperity. They kept him informed of the
condition of the crops south and east, and thus he knew which articles
were likely to be in demand and which articles were likely to be
unsalable, weeks and even months in advance of the simple folk about him.
As the months went by he came to be regarded as a wonderfully lucky man.
It did not occur to the citizens that brains were at the bottom of his
luck.

His title of "Squire" came into vogue again, but only for a season; for,
as his wealth and popularity augmented, that title, by imperceptible
stages, grew up into "Judge;" indeed' it bade fair to swell into
"General" bye and bye. All strangers of consequence who visited the
village gravitated to the Hawkins Mansion and became guests of the
"Judge."

Hawkins had learned to like the people of his section very much. They
were uncouth and not cultivated, and not particularly industrious; but
they were honest and straightforward, and their virtuous ways commanded
respect. Their patriotism was strong, their pride in the flag was of the
old fashioned pattern, their love of country amounted to idolatry.
Whoever dragged the national honor in the dirt won their deathless
hatred. They still cursed Benedict Arnold as if he were a personal
friend who had broken faith--but a week gone by.

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