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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter LI

The Gilded Age

Chapter LI


December 18--, found Washington Hawkins and Col. Sellers once more at the
capitol of the nation, standing guard over the University bill. The
former gentleman was despondent, the latter hopeful. Washington's
distress of mind was chiefly on Laura's account. The court would soon
sit to try her, case, he said, and consequently a great deal of ready
money would be needed in the engineering of it. The University bill was
sure to pass this, time, and that would make money plenty, but might not
the, help come too late? Congress had only just assembled, and delays
were to be feared.

"Well," said the Colonel, "I don't know but you are more or less right,
there. Now let's figure up a little on, the preliminaries. I think
Congress always tries to do as near right as it can, according to its
lights. A man can't ask any fairer, than that. The first preliminary it
always starts out on, is, to clean itself, so to speak. It will arraign
two or three dozen of its members, or maybe four or five dozen, for
taking bribes to vote for this and that and the other bill last winter."

"It goes up into the dozens, does it?"

"Well, yes; in a free country likes ours, where any man can run for
Congress and anybody can vote for him, you can't expect immortal purity
all the time--it ain't in nature. Sixty or eighty or a hundred and fifty
people are bound to get in who are not angels in disguise, as young Hicks
the correspondent says; but still it is a very good average; very good
indeed. As long as it averages as well as that, I think we can feel very
well satisfied. Even in these days, when people growl so much and the
newspapers are so out of patience, there is still a very respectable
minority of honest men in Congress."

"Why a respectable minority of honest men can't do any good, Colonel."

"Oh, yes it can, too"

"Why, how?"

"Oh, in many ways, many ways."

"But what are the ways?"

"Well--I don't know--it is a question that requires time; a body can't
answer every question right off-hand. But it does do good. I am
satisfied of that."

"All right, then; grant that it does good; go on with the preliminaries."

"That is what I am coming to. First, as I said, they will try a lot of
members for taking money for votes. That will take four weeks."

"Yes, that's like last year; and it is a sheer waste of the time for
which the nation pays those men to work--that is what that is. And it
pinches when a body's got a bill waiting."

"A waste of time, to purify the fountain of public law? Well, I never
heard anybody express an idea like that before. But if it were, it would
still be the fault of the minority, for the majority don't institute
these proceedings. There is where that minority becomes an obstruction--
but still one can't say it is on the wrong side.--Well, after they have
finished the bribery cases, they will take up cases of members who have
bought their seats with money. That will take another four weeks."

"Very good; go on. You have accounted for two-thirds of the session."

"Next they will try each other for various smaller irregularities, like
the sale of appointments to West Point cadetships, and that sort of
thing--mere trifling pocket-money enterprises that might better, be
passed over in silence, perhaps, but then one of our Congresses can never
rest easy till it has thoroughly purified itself of all blemishes--and
that is a thing to be applauded."

"How long does it take to disinfect itself of these minor impurities?"

"Well, about two weeks, generally."

"So Congress always lies helpless in quarantine ten weeks of a session.
That's encouraging. Colonel, poor Laura will never get any benefit from
our bill. Her trial will be over before Congress has half purified
itself.--And doesn't it occur to you that by the time it has expelled all
its impure members there, may not be enough members left to do business
legally?"

"Why I did not say Congress would expel anybody."

"Well won't it expel anybody?"

"Not necessarily. Did it last year? It never does. That would not be
regular."

"Then why waste all the session in that tomfoolery of trying members?"

"It is usual; it is customary; the country requires it."

"Then the country is a fool, I think."

"Oh, no. The country thinks somebody is going to be expelled."

"Well, when nobody is expelled, what does the country think then?"

"By that time, the thing has strung out so long that the country is sick
and tired of it and glad to have a change on any terms. But all that
inquiry is not lost. It has a good moral effect."

"Who does it have a good moral effect on?"

"Well--I don't know. On foreign countries, I think. We have always been
under the gaze of foreign countries. There is no country in the world,
sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do. There is no
country in the world whose representatives try each other as much as ours
do, or stick to it as long on a stretch. I think there is something
great in being a model for the whole civilized world, Washington"

"You don't mean a model; you mean an example."

"Well, it's all the same; it's just the same thing. It shows that a man
can't be corrupt in this country without sweating for it, I can tell you
that."

"Hang it, Colonel, you just said we never punish anybody for villainous
practices."

"But good God we try them, don't we! Is it nothing to show a disposition
to sift things and bring people to a strict account? I tell you it has
its effect."

"Oh, bother the effect!--What is it they do do? How do they proceed?
You know perfectly well--and it is all bosh, too. Come, now, how do they
proceed?"

"Why they proceed right and regular--and it ain't bosh, Washington, it
ain't bosh. They appoint a committee to investigate, and that committee
hears evidence three weeks, and all the witnesses on one side swear that
the accused took money or stock or something for his vote. Then the
accused stands up and testifies that he may have done it, but he was
receiving and handling a good deal of money at the time and he doesn't
remember this particular circumstance--at least with sufficient
distinctness to enable him to grasp it tangibly. So of course the thing
is not proven--and that is what they say in the verdict. They don't
acquit, they don't condemn. They just say, 'Charge not proven.' It
leaves the accused is a kind of a shaky condition before the country,
it purifies Congress, it satisfies everybody, and it doesn't seriously
hurt anybody. It has taken a long time to perfect our system, but it is
the most admirable in the world, now."

"So one of those long stupid investigations always turns out in that lame
silly way. Yes, you are correct. I thought maybe you viewed the matter
differently from other people. Do you think a Congress of ours could
convict the devil of anything if he were a member?"

"My dear boy, don't let these damaging delays prejudice you against
Congress. Don't use such strong language; you talk like a newspaper.
Congress has inflicted frightful punishments on its members--now you know
that. When they tried Mr. Fairoaks, and a cloud of witnesses proved him
to be--well, you know what they proved him to be--and his own testimony
and his own confessions gave him the same character, what did Congress do
then?--come!"

"Well, what did Congress do?"

"You know what Congress did, Washington. Congress intimated plainly
enough, that they considered him almost a stain upon their body; and
without waiting ten days, hardly, to think the thing over, the rose up
and hurled at him a resolution declaring that they disapproved of his
conduct! Now you know that, Washington."

"It was a terrific thing--"there is no denying that. If he had been
proven guilty of theft, arson, licentiousness, infanticide, and defiling
graves, I believe they would have suspended him for two days."

"You can depend on it, Washington. Congress is vindictive, Congress is
savage, sir, when it gets waked up once. It will go to any length to
vindicate its honor at such a time."

"Ah well, we have talked the morning through, just as usual in these
tiresome days of waiting, and we have reached the same old result; that
is to say, we are no better off than when we began. The land bill is
just as far away as ever, and the trial is closer at hand. Let's give up
everything and die."

"Die and leave the Duchess to fight it out all alone? Oh, no, that won't
do. Come, now, don't talk so. It is all going to come out right. Now
you'll see."

"It never will, Colonel, never in the world. Something tells me that.
I get more tired and more despondent every day. I don't see any hope;
life is only just a trouble. I am so miserable, these days!"

The Colonel made Washington get up and walk the floor with him, arm in
arm. The good old speculator wanted to comfort him, but he hardly knew
how to go about it. He made many attempts, but they were lame; they
lacked spirit; the words were encouraging; but they were only words--he
could not get any heart into them. He could not always warm up, now,
with the old Hawkeye fervor. By and by his lips trembled and his voice
got unsteady. He said:

"Don't give up the ship, my boy--don't do it. The wind's bound to fetch
around and set in our favor. I know it."

And the prospect was so cheerful that he wept. Then he blew a trumpet-
blast that started the meshes of his handkerchief, and said in almost his
breezy old-time way:

"Lord bless us, this is all nonsense! Night doesn't last always; day has
got to break some time or other. Every silver lining has a cloud behind
it, as the poet says; and that remark has always cheered me; though--
I never could see any meaning to it. Everybody uses it, though, and
everybody gets comfort out of it. I wish they would start something
fresh. Come, now, let's cheer up; there's been as good fish in the sea
as there are now. It shall never be said that Beriah Sellers--
Come in?"

It was the telegraph boy. The Colonel reached for the message and
devoured its contents:

"I said it! Never give up the ship! The trial's, postponed till
February, and we'll save the child yet. Bless my life, what lawyers
they, have in New-York! Give them money to fight with; and the ghost of
an excuse, and they: would manage to postpone anything in this world,
unless it might be the millennium or something like that. Now for work
again my boy. The trial will last to the middle of March, sure; Congress
ends the fourth of March. Within three days of the end of the session
they will be done putting through the preliminaries then they will be
ready for national business: Our bill will go through in forty-eight
hours, then, and we'll telegraph a million dollar's to the jury--to the
lawyers, I mean--and the verdict of the jury will be 'Accidental murder
resulting from justifiable insanity'--or something to, that effect,
something to that effect.--Everything is dead sure, now. Come, what is
the matter? What are you wilting down like that, for? You mustn't be a
girl, you know."

"Oh, Colonel, I am become so used to troubles, so used to failures,
disappointments, hard luck of all kinds, that a little good news breaks
me right down. Everything has been so hopeless that now I can't stand
good news at all. It is too good to be true, anyway. Don't you see how
our bad luck has worked on me? My hair is getting gray, and many nights
I don't sleep at all. I wish it was all over and we could rest. I wish
we could lie, down and just forget everything, and let it all be just a
dream that is done and can't come back to trouble us any more. I am so
tired."

"Ah, poor child, don't talk like that-cheer up--there's daylight ahead.
Don't give, up. You'll have Laura again, and--Louise, and your mother,
and oceans and oceans of money--and then you can go away, ever so far
away somewhere, if you want to, and forget all about this infernal place.
And by George I'll go with you! I'll go with you--now there's my word on
it. Cheer up. I'll run out and tell the friends the news."

And he wrung Washington's hand and was about to hurry away when his
companion, in a burst of grateful admiration said:

"I think you are the best soul and the noblest I ever knew, Colonel
Sellers! and if the people only knew you as I do, you would not be
tagging around here a nameless man--you would be in Congress."

The gladness died out of the Colonel's face, and he laid his hand upon
Washington's shoulder and said gravely:

"I have always been a friend of your family, Washington, and I think I
have always tried to do right as between man and man, according to my
lights. Now I don't think there has ever been anything in my conduct
that should make you feel Justified in saying a thing like that."

He turned, then, and walked slowly out, leaving Washington abashed and
somewhat bewildered. When Washington had presently got his thoughts into
line again, he said to himself, "Why, honestly, I only meant to
compliment him--indeed I would not have hurt him for the world."


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