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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter VI

The Gilded Age

Chapter VI


We skip ten years and this history finds certain changes to record.

Judge Hawkins and Col. Sellers have made and lost two or three moderate
fortunes in the meantime and are now pinched by poverty. Sellers has two
pairs of twins and four extras. In Hawkins's family are six children of
his own and two adopted ones. From time to time, as fortune smiled, the
elder children got the benefit of it, spending the lucky seasons at
excellent schools in St. Louis and the unlucky ones at home in the
chafing discomfort of straightened circumstances.

Neither the Hawkins children nor the world that knew them ever supposed
that one of the girls was of alien blood and parentage: Such difference
as existed between Laura and Emily is not uncommon in a family. The
girls had grown up as sisters, and they were both too young at the time
of the fearful accident on the Mississippi to know that it was that which
had thrown their lives together.

And yet any one who had known the secret of Laura's birth and had seen
her during these passing years, say at the happy age of twelve or
thirteen, would have fancied that he knew the reason why she was more
winsome than her school companion.

Philosophers dispute whether it is the promise of what she will be in
the careless school-girl, that makes her attractive, the undeveloped
maidenhood, or the mere natural, careless sweetness of childhood.
If Laura at twelve was beginning to be a beauty, the thought of it had
never entered her head. No, indeed. Her mind wad filled with more
important thoughts. To her simple school-girl dress she was beginning to
add those mysterious little adornments of ribbon-knots and ear-rings,
which were the subject of earnest consultations with her grown friends.

When she tripped down the street on a summer's day with her dainty hands
propped into the ribbon-broidered pockets of her apron, and elbows
consequently more or less akimbo with her wide Leghorn hat flapping down
and hiding her face one moment and blowing straight up against her fore
head the next and making its revealment of fresh young beauty; with all
her pretty girlish airs and graces in full play, and that sweet ignorance
of care and that atmosphere of innocence and purity all about her that
belong to her gracious time of life, indeed she was a vision to warm the
coldest heart and bless and cheer the saddest.

Willful, generous, forgiving, imperious, affectionate, improvident,
bewitching, in short--was Laura at this period. Could she have remained
there, this history would not need to be written. But Laura had grown to
be almost a woman in these few years, to the end of which we have now
come--years which had seen Judge Hawkins pass through so many trials.

When the judge's first bankruptcy came upon him, a homely human angel
intruded upon him with an offer of $1,500 for the Tennessee Land. Mrs.
Hawkins said take it. It was a grievous temptation, but the judge
withstood it. He said the land was for the children--he could not rob
them of their future millions for so paltry a sum. When the second
blight fell upon him, another angel appeared and offered $3,000 for the
land. He was in such deep distress that he allowed his wife to persuade
him to let the papers be drawn; but when his children came into his
presence in their poor apparel, he felt like a traitor and refused to
sign.

But now he was down again, and deeper in the mire than ever. He paced
the floor all day, he scarcely slept at night. He blushed even to
acknowledge it to himself, but treason was in his mind--he was
meditating, at last, the sale of the land. Mrs. Hawkins stepped into the
room. He had not spoken a word, but he felt as guilty as if she had
caught him in some shameful act. She said:

"Si, I do not know what we are going to do. The children are not fit to
be seen, their clothes are in such a state. But there's something more
serious still.--There is scarcely a bite in the house to eat"

"Why, Nancy, go to Johnson----."

"Johnson indeed! You took that man's part when he hadn't a friend in the
world, and you built him up and made him rich. And here's the result of
it: He lives in our fine house, and we live in his miserable log cabin.
He has hinted to our children that he would rather they wouldn't come
about his yard to play with his children,--which I can bear, and bear
easy enough, for they're not a sort we want to associate with much--but
what I can't bear with any quietness at all, is his telling Franky our
bill was running pretty high this morning when I sent him for some meal--
and that was all he said, too--didn't give him the meal--turned off and
went to talking with the Hargrave girls about some stuff they wanted to
cheapen."

"Nancy, this is astounding!"

"And so it is, I warrant you. I've kept still, Si, as long as ever I
could. Things have been getting worse and worse, and worse and worse,
every single day; I don't go out of the house, I feel so down; but you
had trouble enough, and I wouldn't say a word--and I wouldn't say a word
now, only things have got so bad that I don't know what to do, nor where
to turn." And she gave way and put her face in her hands and cried.

"Poor child, don't grieve so. I never thought that of Johnson. I am
clear at my wit's end. I don't know what in the world to do. Now if
somebody would come along and offer $3,000--Uh, if somebody only would
come along and offer $3,000 for that Tennessee Land."

"You'd sell it, S!" said Mrs. Hawkins excitedly.

"Try me!"

Mrs. Hawkins was out of the room in a moment. Within a minute she was
back again with a business-looking stranger, whom she seated, and then
she took her leave again. Hawkins said to himself, "How can a man ever
lose faith? When the blackest hour comes, Providence always comes with
it--ah, this is the very timeliest help that ever poor harried devil had;
if this blessed man offers but a thousand I'll embrace him like a
brother!"

The stranger said:

"I am aware that you own 75,000 acres, of land in East Tennessee, and
without sacrificing your time, I will come to the point at once. I am
agent of an iron manufacturing company, and they empower me to offer you
ten thousand dollars for that land."

Hawkins's heart bounded within him. His whole frame was racked and
wrenched with fettered hurrahs. His first impulse was to shout "Done!
and God bless the iron company, too!"

But a something flitted through his mind, and his opened lips uttered
nothing. The enthusiasm faded away from his eyes, and the look of a man
who is thinking took its place. Presently, in a hesitating, undecided
way, he said:

"Well, I--it don't seem quite enough. That--that is a very valuable
property--very valuable. It's brim full of iron-ore, sir--brim full of
it! And copper, coal,--everything--everything you can think of! Now,
I'll tell you what I'll, do. I'll reserve everything except the iron,
and I'll sell them the iron property for $15,000 cash, I to go in with
them and own an undivided interest of one-half the concern--or the stock,
as you may say. I'm out of business, and I'd just as soon help run the
thing as not. Now how does that strike you?"

"Well, I am only an agent of these people, who are friends of mine, and
I am not even paid for my services. To tell you the truth, I have tried
to persuade them not to go into the thing; and I have come square out
with their offer, without throwing out any feelers--and I did it in the
hope that you would refuse. A man pretty much always refuses another
man's first offer, no matter what it is. But I have performed my duty,
and will take pleasure in telling them what you say."

He was about to rise. Hawkins said,

"Wait a bit."

Hawkins thought again. And the substance of his thought was: "This
is a deep man; this is a very deep man; I don't like his candor; your
ostentatiously candid business man's a deep fox--always a deep fox;
this man's that iron company himself--that's what he is; he wants that
property, too; I am not so blind but I can see that; he don't want the
company to go into this thing--O, that's very good; yes, that's very
good indeed--stuff! he'll be back here tomorrow, sure, and take my offer;
take it? I'll risk anything he is suffering to take it now; here--I must
mind what I'm about. What has started this sudden excitement about iron?
I wonder what is in the wind? just as sure as I'm alive this moment,
there's something tremendous stirring in iron speculation" [here Hawkins
got up and began to pace the floor with excited eyes and with gesturing
hands]--"something enormous going on in iron, without the shadow of a
doubt, and here I sit mousing in the dark and never knowing anything
about it; great heaven, what an escape I've made! this underhanded
mercenary creature might have taken me up--and ruined me! but I have
escaped, and I warrant me I'll not put my foot into--"

He stopped and turned toward the stranger; saying:

"I have made you a proposition, you have not accepted it, and I desire
that you will consider that I have made none. At the same time my
conscience will not allow me to--. Please alter the figures I named to
thirty thousand dollars, if you will, and let the proposition go to the
company--I will stick to it if it breaks my heart!" The stranger looked
amused, and there was a pretty well defined touch of surprise in his
expression, too, but Hawkins never noticed it. Indeed he scarcely
noticed anything or knew what he was about. The man left; Hawkins flung
himself into a chair; thought a few moments, then glanced around, looked
frightened, sprang to the door----

"Too late--too late! He's gone! Fool that I am! always a fool! Thirty
thousand--ass that I am! Oh, why didn't I say fifty thousand!"

He plunged his hands into his hair and leaned his elbows on his knees,
and fell to rocking himself back and forth in anguish. Mrs. Hawkins
sprang in, beaming:

"Well, Si?"

"Oh, con-found the con-founded--con-found it, Nancy. I've gone and done
it, now!"

"Done what Si for mercy's sake!"

"Done everything! Ruined everything!"

"Tell me, tell me, tell me! Don't keep a body in such suspense. Didn't
he buy, after all? Didn't he make an offer?"

Offer? He offered $10,000 for our land, and----"

"Thank the good providence from the very bottom of my heart of hearts!
What sort of ruin do you call that, Si!"

"Nancy, do you suppose I listened to such a preposterous proposition?
No! Thank fortune I'm not a simpleton! I saw through the pretty scheme
in a second. It's a vast iron speculation!--millions upon millions in
it! But fool as I am I told him he could have half the iron property for
thirty thousand--and if I only had him back here he couldn't touch it for
a cent less than a quarter of a million!"

Mrs. Hawkins looked up white and despairing:

"You threw away this chance, you let this man go, and we in this awful
trouble? You don't mean it, you can't mean it!"

"Throw it away? Catch me at it! Why woman, do you suppose that man
don't know what he is about? Bless you, he'll be back fast enough to-
morrow."

"Never, never, never. He never will comeback. I don't know what is to
become of us. I don't know what in the world is to become of us."

A shade of uneasiness came into Hawkins's face. He said:

"Why, Nancy, you--you can't believe what you are saying."

"Believe it, indeed? I know it, Si. And I know that we haven't a cent
in the world, and we've sent ten thousand dollars a-begging."

"Nancy, you frighten me. Now could that man--is it possible that I--
hanged if I don't believe I have missed a chance! Don't grieve, Nancy,
don't grieve. I'll go right after him. I'll take--I'll take--what a
fool I am!--I'll take anything he'll give!"

The next instant he left the house on a run. But the man was no longer
in the town. Nobody knew where he belonged or whither he had gone.
Hawkins came slowly back, watching wistfully but hopelessly for the
stranger, and lowering his price steadily with his sinking heart. And
when his foot finally pressed his own threshold, the value he held the
entire Tennessee property at was five hundred dollars--two hundred down
and the rest in three equal annual payments, without interest.

There was a sad gathering at the Hawkins fireside the next night. All
the children were present but Clay. Mr. Hawkins said:

"Washington, we seem to be hopelessly fallen, hopelessly involved. I am
ready to give up. I do not know where to turn--I never have been down so
low before, I never have seen things so dismal. There are many mouths to
feed; Clay is at work; we must lose you, also, for a little while, my
boy. But it will not be long--the Tennessee land----"

He stopped, and was conscious of a blush. There was silence for a
moment, and then Washington--now a lank, dreamy-eyed stripling between
twenty-two and twenty-three years of age--said:

"If Col. Sellers would come for me, I would go and stay with him a while,
till the Tennessee land is sold. He has often wanted me to come, ever
since he moved to Hawkeye."

"I'm afraid he can't well come for you, Washington. From what I can
hear--not from him of course, but from others--he is not far from as bad
off as we are--and his family is as large, too. He might find something
for you to do, maybe, but you'd better try to get to him yourself,
Washington--it's only thirty miles."

"But how can I, father? There's no stage or anything."

"And if there were, stages require money. A stage goes from Swansea,
five miles from here. But it would be cheaper to walk."

"Father, they must know you there, and no doubt they would credit you in
a moment, for a little stage ride like that. Couldn't you write and ask
them?"

"Couldn't you, Washington--seeing it's you that wants the ride? And what
do you think you'll do, Washington, when you get to Hawkeye? Finish your
invention for making window-glass opaque?"

"No, sir, I have given that up. I almost knew I could do it, but it was
so tedious and troublesome I quit it."

"I was afraid of it, my boy. Then I suppose you'll finish your plan of
coloring hen's eggs by feeding a peculiar diet to the hen?"

"No, sir. I believe I have found out the stuff that will do it, but it
kills the hen; so I have dropped that for the present, though I can take
it up again some day when I learn how to manage the mixture better."

"Well, what have you got on hand--anything?"

"Yes, sir, three or four things. I think they are all good and can all
be done, but they are tiresome, and besides they require money. But as
soon as the land is sold----"

"Emily, were you about to say something?" said Hawkins.

Yes, sir. If you are willing, I will go to St. Louis. That will make
another mouth less to feed. Mrs. Buckner has always wanted me to come."

"But the money, child?"

"Why I think she would send it, if you would write her--and I know she
would wait for her pay till----"

"Come, Laura, let's hear from you, my girl."

Emily and Laura were about the same age--between seventeen and eighteen.
Emily was fair and pretty, girlish and diffident--blue eyes and light
hair. Laura had a proud bearing, and a somewhat mature look; she had
fine, clean-cut features, her complexion was pure white and contrasted
vividly with her black hair and eyes; she was not what one calls pretty--
she was beautiful. She said:

"I will go to St. Louis, too, sir. I will find a way to get there.
I will make a way. And I will find a way to help myself along, and do
what I can to help the rest, too."

She spoke it like a princess. Mrs. Hawkins smiled proudly and kissed
her, saying in a tone of fond reproof:

"So one of my girls is going to turn out and work for her living! It's
like your pluck and spirit, child, but we will hope that we haven't got
quite down to that, yet."

The girl's eyes beamed affection under her mother's caress. Then she
straightened up, folded her white hands in her lap and became a splendid
ice-berg. Clay's dog put up his brown nose for a little attention, and
got it. He retired under the table with an apologetic yelp, which did
not affect the iceberg.

Judge Hawkins had written and asked Clay to return home and consult with
him upon family affairs. He arrived the evening after this conversation,
and the whole household gave him a rapturous welcome. He brought sadly
needed help with him, consisting of the savings of a year and a half of
work--nearly two hundred dollars in money.

It was a ray of sunshine which (to this easy household) was the earnest
of a clearing sky.

Bright and early in the morning the family were astir, and all were busy
preparing Washington for his journey--at least all but Washington
himself, who sat apart, steeped in a reverie. When the time for his
departure came, it was easy to see how fondly all loved him and how hard
it was to let him go, notwithstanding they had often seen him go before,
in his St. Louis schooling days. In the most matter-of-course way they
had borne the burden of getting him ready for his trip, never seeming to
think of his helping in the matter; in the same matter-of-course way Clay
had hired a horse and cart; and now that the good-byes were ended he
bundled Washington's baggage in and drove away with the exile.

At Swansea Clay paid his stage fare, stowed him away in the vehicle, and
saw him off. Then he returned home and reported progress, like a
committee of the whole.

Clay remained at home several days. He held many consultations with his
mother upon the financial condition of the family, and talked once with
his father upon the same subject, but only once. He found a change in
that quarter which was distressing; years of fluctuating fortune had done
their work; each reverse had weakened the father's spirit and impaired
his energies; his last misfortune seemed to have left hope and ambition
dead within him; he had no projects, formed no plans--evidently he was a
vanquished man. He looked worn and tired. He inquired into Clay's
affairs and prospects, and when he found that Clay was doing pretty well
and was likely to do still better, it was plain that he resigned himself
with easy facility to look to the son for a support; and he said, "Keep
yourself informed of poor Washington's condition and movements, and help
him along all you can, Clay."

The younger children, also, seemed relieved of all fears and distresses,
and very ready and willing to look to Clay for a livelihood. Within
three days a general tranquility and satisfaction reigned in the
household. Clay's hundred and eighty or ninety, dollars had worked a
wonder. The family were as contented, now, and as free from care as they
could have been with a fortune. It was well that Mrs. Hawkins held the
purse otherwise the treasure would have lasted but a very little while.

It took but a trifle to pay Hawkins's outstanding obligations, for he had
always had a horror of debt.

When Clay bade his home good-bye and set out to return to the field of
his labors, he was conscious that henceforth he was to have his father's
family on his hands as pensioners; but he did not allow himself to chafe
at the thought, for he reasoned that his father had dealt by him with a
free hand and a loving one all his life, and now that hard fortune had
broken his spirit it ought to be a pleasure, not a pain, to work for him.
The younger children were born and educated dependents. They had never
been taught to do anything for themselves, and it did not seem to occur
to them to make an attempt now.

The girls would not have been permitted to work for a living under any
circumstances whatever. It was a southern family, and of good blood;
and for any person except Laura, either within or without the household
to have suggested such an idea would have brought upon the suggester the
suspicion of being a lunatic.

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