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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter LX

The Gilded Age

Chapter LX


For some days Laura had been a free woman once more. During this time,
she had experienced--first, two or three days of triumph, excitement,
congratulations, a sort of sunburst of gladness, after a long night of
gloom and anxiety; then two or three days of calming down, by degrees--
a receding of tides, a quieting of the storm-wash to a murmurous surf-
beat, a diminishing of devastating winds to a refrain that bore the
spirit of a truce-days given to solitude, rest, self-communion, and the
reasoning of herself into a realization of the fact that she was actually
done with bolts and bars, prison, horrors and impending, death; then came
a day whose hours filed slowly by her, each laden with some remnant,
some remaining fragment of the dreadful time so lately ended--a day
which, closing at last, left the past a fading shore behind her and
turned her eyes toward the broad sea of the future. So speedily do we
put the dead away and come back to our place in the ranks to march in the
pilgrimage of life again.

And now the sun rose once more and ushered in the first day of what Laura
comprehended and accepted as a new life.

The past had sunk below the horizon, and existed no more for her;
she was done with it for all time. She was gazing out over the trackless
expanses of the future, now, with troubled eyes. Life must be begun
again--at eight and twenty years of age. And where to begin? The page
was blank, and waiting for its first record; so this was indeed a
momentous day.

Her thoughts drifted back, stage by stage, over her career. As far as
the long highway receded over the plain of her life, it was lined with
the gilded and pillared splendors of her ambition all crumbled to ruin
and ivy-grown; every milestone marked a disaster; there was no green spot
remaining anywhere in memory of a hope that had found its fruition; the
unresponsive earth had uttered no voice of flowers in testimony that one
who was blest had gone that road.

Her life had been a failure. That was plain, she said. No more of that.
She would now look the future in the face; she would mark her course upon
the chart of life, and follow it; follow it without swerving, through
rocks and shoals, through storm and calm, to a haven of rest and peace or
shipwreck. Let the end be what it might, she would mark her course now--
to-day--and follow it.

On her table lay six or seven notes. They were from lovers; from some of
the prominent names in the land; men whose devotion had survived even the
grisly revealments of her character which the courts had uncurtained;
men who knew her now, just as she was, and yet pleaded as for their lives
for the dear privilege of calling the murderess wife.

As she read these passionate, these worshiping, these supplicating
missives, the woman in her nature confessed itself; a strong yearning
came upon her to lay her head upon a loyal breast and find rest from the
conflict of life, solace for her griefs, the healing of love for her
bruised heart.

With her forehead resting upon her hand, she sat thinking, thinking,
while the unheeded moments winged their flight. It was one of those
mornings in early spring when nature seems just stirring to a half
consciousness out of a long, exhausting lethargy; when the first faint
balmy airs go wandering about, whispering the secret of the coming
change; when the abused brown grass, newly relieved of snow, seems
considering whether it can be worth the trouble and worry of contriving
its green raiment again only to fight the inevitable fight with the
implacable winter and be vanquished and buried once more; when the sun
shines out and a few birds venture forth and lift up a forgotten song;
when a strange stillness and suspense pervades the waiting air. It is a
time when one's spirit is subdued and sad, one knows not why; when the
past seems a storm-swept desolation, life a vanity and a burden, and the
future but a way to death. It is a time when one is filled with vague
longings; when one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote
solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, What is the use of
struggling, and toiling and worrying any more? let us give it all up.

It was into such a mood as this that Laura had drifted from the musings
which the letters of her lovers had called up. Now she lifted her head
and noted with surprise how the day had wasted. She thrust the letters
aside, rose up and went and stood at the window. But she was soon
thinking again, and was only gazing into vacancy.

By and by she turned; her countenance had cleared; the dreamy look was
gone out of her face, all indecision had vanished; the poise of her head
and the firm set of her lips told that her resolution was formed.
She moved toward the table with all the old dignity in her carriage,
and all the old pride in her mien. She took up each letter in its turn,
touched a match to it and watched it slowly consume to ashes. Then she
said:

"I have landed upon a foreign shore, and burned my ships behind me.
These letters were the last thing that held me in sympathy with any
remnant or belonging of the old life. Henceforth that life and all that
appertains to it are as dead to me and as far removed from me as if I
were become a denizen of another world."

She said that love was not for her--the time that it could have satisfied
her heart was gone by and could not return; the opportunity was lost,
nothing could restore it. She said there could be no love without
respect, and she would only despise a man who could content himself with
a thing like her. Love, she said, was a woman's first necessity: love
being forfeited; there was but one thing left that could give a passing
zest to a wasted life, and that was fame, admiration, the applause of the
multitude.

And so her resolution was taken. She would turn to that final resort of
the disappointed of her sex, the lecture platform. She would array
herself in fine attire, she would adorn herself with jewels, and stand in
her isolated magnificence before massed, audiences and enchant them with
her eloquence and amaze them with her unapproachable beauty. She would
move from city to city like a queen of romance, leaving marveling
multitudes behind her and impatient multitudes awaiting her coming.
Her life, during one hour of each day, upon the platform, would be a
rapturous intoxication--and when the curtain fell; and the lights were
out, and the people gone, to nestle in their homes and forget her, she
would find in sleep oblivion of her homelessness, if she could, if not
she would brave out the night in solitude and wait for the next day's
hour of ecstasy.

So, to take up life and begin again was no great evil. She saw her way.
She would be brave and strong; she would make the best of, what was left
for her among the possibilities.

She sent for the lecture agent, and matters were soon arranged.

Straightway, all the papers were filled with her name, and all the dead
walls flamed with it. The papers called down imprecations upon her head;
they reviled her without stint; they wondered if all sense of decency was
dead in this shameless murderess, this brazen lobbyist, this heartless
seducer of the affections of weak and misguided men; they implored the
people, for the sake of their pure wives, their sinless daughters, for
the sake of decency, for the sake of public morals, to give this wretched
creature such a rebuke as should be an all-sufficient evidence to her and
to such as her, that there was a limit where the flaunting of their foul
acts and opinions before the world must stop; certain of them, with a
higher art, and to her a finer cruelty, a sharper torture, uttered no
abuse, but always spoke of her in terms of mocking eulogy and ironical
admiration. Everybody talked about the new wonder, canvassed the theme
of her proposed discourse, and marveled how she would handle it.

Laura's few friends wrote to her or came and talked with her, and pleaded
with her to retire while it was yet time, and not attempt to face the
gathering storm. But it was fruitless. She was stung to the quick by
the comments of the newspapers; her spirit was roused, her ambition was
towering, now. She was more determined than ever. She would show these
people what a hunted and persecuted woman could do.

The eventful night came. Laura arrived before the great lecture hall in
a close carriage within five minutes of the time set for the lecture to
begin. When she stepped out of the vehicle her heart beat fast and her
eyes flashed with exultation: the whole street was packed with people,
and she could hardly force her way to the hall! She reached the ante-
room, threw off her wraps and placed herself before the dressing-glass.
She turned herself this way and that--everything was satisfactory, her
attire was perfect. She smoothed her hair, rearranged a jewel here and
there, and all the while her heart sang within her, and her face was
radiant. She had not been so happy for ages and ages, it seemed to her.
Oh, no, she had never been so overwhelmingly grateful and happy in her
whole life before. The lecture agent appeared at the door. She waved
him away and said:

"Do not disturb me. I want no introduction. And do not fear for me; the
moment the hands point to eight I will step upon the platform."

He disappeared. She held her watch before her. She was so impatient
that the second-hand seemed whole tedious minutes dragging its way around
the circle. At last the supreme moment came, and with head erect and the
bearing of an empress she swept through the door and stood upon the
stage. Her eyes fell upon only a vast, brilliant emptiness--there were
not forty people in the house! There were only a handful of coarse men
and ten or twelve still coarser women, lolling upon the benches and
scattered about singly and in couples.

Her pulses stood still, her limbs quaked, the gladness went out of her
face. There was a moment of silence, and then a brutal laugh and an
explosion of cat-calls and hisses saluted her from the audience. The
clamor grew stronger and louder, and insulting speeches were shouted at
her. A half-intoxicated man rose up and threw something, which missed
her but bespattered a chair at her side, and this evoked an outburst of
laughter and boisterous admiration. She was bewildered, her strength was
forsaking her. She reeled away from the platform, reached the ante-room,
and dropped helpless upon a sofa. The lecture agent ran in, with a
hurried question upon his lips; but she put forth her hands, and with the
tears raining from her eyes, said:

"Oh, do not speak! Take me away-please take me away, out of this.
dreadful place! Oh, this is like all my life--failure, disappointment,
misery--always misery, always failure. What have I done, to be so
pursued! Take me away, I beg of you, I implore you!"

Upon the pavement she was hustled by the mob, the surging masses roared
her name and accompanied it with every species of insulting epithet;
they thronged after the carriage, hooting, jeering, cursing, and even
assailing the vehicle with missiles. A stone crushed through a blind,
wounding Laura's forehead, and so stunning her that she hardly knew what
further transpired during her flight.

It was long before her faculties were wholly restored, and then she found
herself lying on the floor by a sofa in her own sitting-room, and alone.
So she supposed she must have sat down upon the sofa and afterward
fallen. She raised herself up, with difficulty, for the air was chilly
and her limbs were stiff. She turned up the gas and sought the glass.
She hardly knew herself, so worn and old she looked, and so marred with
blood were her features. The night was far spent, and a dead stillness
reigned. She sat down by her table, leaned her elbows upon it and put
her face in her hands.

Her thoughts wandered back over her old life again and her tears flowed
unrestrained. Her pride was humbled, her spirit was broken. Her memory
found but one resting place; it lingered about her young girlhood with a
caressing regret; it dwelt upon it as the one brief interval of her life
that bore no curse. She saw herself again in the budding grace of her
twelve years, decked in her dainty pride of ribbons, consorting with the
bees and the butterflies, believing in fairies, holding confidential
converse with the flowers, busying herself all day long with airy trifles
that were as weighty to her as the affairs that tax the brains of
diplomats and emperors. She was without sin, then, and unacquainted with
grief; the world was full of sunshine and her heart was full of music.
From that--to this!

"If I could only die!" she said. "If I could only go back, and be as I
was then, for one hour--and hold my father's hand in mine again, and see
all the household about me, as in that old innocent time--and then die!
My God, I am humbled, my pride is all gone, my stubborn heart repents--
have pity!"

When the spring morning dawned, the form still sat there, the elbows
resting upon the table and the face upon the hands. All day long the
figure sat there, the sunshine enriching its costly raiment and flashing
from its jewels; twilight came, and presently the stars, but still the
figure remained; the moon found it there still, and framed the picture
with the shadow of the window sash, and flooded, it with mellow light; by
and by the darkness swallowed it up, and later the gray dawn revealed it
again; the new day grew toward its prime, and still the forlorn presence
was undisturbed.

But now the keepers of the house had become uneasy; their periodical
knockings still finding no response, they burst open the door.

The jury of inquest found that death had resulted from heart disease, and
was instant and painless. That was all. Merely heart disease.

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