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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter LXI

The Gilded Age

Chapter LXI


Clay Hawkins, years gone by, had yielded, after many a struggle, to the
migratory and speculative instinct of our age and our people, and had
wandered further and further westward upon trading ventures. Settling
finally in Melbourne, Australia, he ceased to roam, became a steady-going
substantial merchant, and prospered greatly. His life lay beyond the
theatre of this tale.

His remittances had supported the Hawkins family, entirely, from the time
of his father's death until latterly when Laura by her efforts in
Washington had been able to assist in this work. Clay was away on a long
absence in some of the eastward islands when Laura's troubles began,
trying (and almost in vain,) to arrange certain interests which had
become disordered through a dishonest agent, and consequently he knew
nothing of the murder till he returned and read his letters and papers.
His natural impulse was to hurry to the States and save his sister if
possible, for he loved her with a deep and abiding affection. His
business was so crippled now, and so deranged, that to leave it would be
ruin; therefore he sold out at a sacrifice that left him considerably
reduced in worldly possessions, and began his voyage to San Francisco.
Arrived there, he perceived by the newspapers that the trial was near its
close. At Salt Lake later telegrams told him of the acquittal, and his
gratitude was boundless--so boundless, indeed, that sleep was driven from
his eyes by the pleasurable excitement almost as effectually as preceding
weeks of anxiety had done it. He shaped his course straight for Hawkeye,
now, and his meeting with his mother and the rest of the household was
joyful--albeit he had been away so long that he seemed almost a stranger
in his own home.

But the greetings and congratulations were hardly finished when all the
journals in the land clamored the news of Laura's miserable death.
Mrs. Hawkins was prostrated by this last blow, and it was well that Clay
was at her side to stay her with comforting words and take upon himself
the ordering of the household with its burden of labors and cares.

Washington Hawkins had scarcely more than entered upon that decade which
carries one to the full blossom of manhood which we term the beginning:
of middle age, and yet a brief sojourn at the capital of the nation had
made him old. His hair was already turning gray when the late session of
Congress began its sittings; it grew grayer still, and rapidly, after the
memorable day that saw Laura proclaimed a murderess; it waxed grayer and
still grayer during the lagging suspense that succeeded it and after the
crash which ruined his last hope--the failure of his bill in the Senate
and the destruction of its champion, Dilworthy. A few days later, when
he stood uncovered while the last prayer was pronounced over Laura's
grave, his hair was whiter and his face hardly less old than the
venerable minister's whose words were sounding in his ears.

A week after this, be was sitting in a double-bedded room in a cheap
boarding house in Washington, with Col. Sellers. The two had been living
together lately, and this mutual cavern of theirs the Colonel sometimes
referred to as their "premises" and sometimes as their "apartments"--more
particularly when conversing with persons outside. A canvas-covered
modern trunk, marked "G. W. H." stood on end by the door, strapped and
ready for a journey; on it lay a small morocco satchel, also marked "G.
W. H." There was another trunk close by--a worn, and scarred, and
ancient hair relic, with "B. S." wrought in brass nails on its top;
on it lay a pair of saddle-bags that probably knew more about the last
century than they could tell. Washington got up and walked the floor a
while in a restless sort of way, and finally was about to sit down on the
hair trunk.

"Stop, don't sit down on that!" exclaimed the Colonel: "There, now that's
all right--the chair's better. I couldn't get another trunk like that--
not another like it in America, I reckon."

"I am afraid not," said Washington, with a faint attempt at a smile.

"No indeed; the man is dead that made that trunk and that saddle-bags."


"Are his great-grand-children still living?" said Washington, with levity
only in the words, not in the tone.

"Well, I don't know--I hadn't thought of that--but anyway they can't make
trunks and saddle-bags like that, if they are--no man can," said the
Colonel with honest simplicity. "Wife didn't like to see me going off
with that trunk--she said it was nearly certain to be stolen."

"Why?"

"Why? Why, aren't trunks always being stolen?"

"Well, yes--some kinds of trunks are."

"Very well, then; this is some kind of a trunk--and an almighty rare
kind, too."

"Yes, I believe it is."

"Well, then, why shouldn't a man want to steal it if he got a chance?"

"Indeed I don't know.--Why should he?"

"Washington, I never heard anybody talk like you. Suppose you were a
thief, and that trunk was lying around and nobody watching--wouldn't you
steal it? Come, now, answer fair--wouldn't you steal it?

"Well, now, since you corner me, I would take it,--but I wouldn't
consider it stealing.

"You wouldn't! Well, that beats me. Now what would you call stealing?"

"Why, taking property is stealing."

"Property! Now what a way to talk that is: What do you suppose that
trunk is worth?"

"Is it in good repair?"

"Perfect. Hair rubbed off a little, but the main structure is perfectly
sound."

"Does it leak anywhere?"

"Leak? Do you want to carry water in it? What do you mean by does it
leak?"

"Why--a--do the clothes fall out of it when it is--when it is
stationary?"

"Confound it, Washington, you are trying to make fun of me. I don't know
what has got into you to-day; you act mighty curious. What is the matter
with you?"

"Well, I'll tell you, old friend. I am almost happy. I am, indeed.
It wasn't Clay's telegram that hurried me up so and got me ready to start
with you. It was a letter from Louise."

"Good! What is it? What does she say?"

"She says come home--her father has consented, at last."

"My boy, I want to congratulate you; I want to shake you by the hand!
It's a long turn that has no lane at the end of it, as the proverb says,
or somehow that way. You'll be happy yet, and Beriah Sellers will be
there to see, thank God!"

"I believe it. General Boswell is pretty nearly a poor man, now. The
railroad that was going to build up Hawkeye made short work of him, along
with the rest. He isn't so opposed to a son-in-law without a fortune,
now."

"Without a fortune, indeed! Why that Tennessee Land--"

"Never mind the Tennessee Land, Colonel. I am done with that, forever
and forever--"

"Why no! You can't mean to say--"

"My father, away back yonder, years ago, bought it for a blessing for his
children, and--"

"Indeed he did! Si Hawkins said to me--"

"It proved a curse to him as long as he lived, and never a curse like it
was inflicted upon any man's heirs--"

"I'm bound to say there's more or less truth--"

"It began to curse me when I was a baby, and it has cursed every hour of
my life to this day--"

"Lord, lord, but it's so! Time and again my wife--"

"I depended on it all through my boyhood and never tried to do an honest
stroke of work for my living--"

"Right again--but then you--"

"I have chased it years and years as children chase butterflies. We
might all have been prosperous, now; we might all have been happy, all
these heart-breaking years, if we had accepted our poverty at first and
gone contentedly to work and built up our own wealth by our own toil and
sweat--"

"It's so, it's so; bless my soul, how often I've told Si Hawkins--"

"Instead of that, we have suffered more than the damned themselves
suffer! I loved my father, and I honor his memory and recognize his good
intentions; but I grieve for his mistaken ideas of conferring happiness
upon his children. I am going to begin my life over again, and begin it
and end it with good solid work! I'll leave my children no Tennessee
Land!"

"Spoken like a man, sir, spoken like a man! Your hand, again my boy!
And always remember that when a word of advice from Beriah Sellers can
help, it is at your service. I'm going to begin again, too!"

"Indeed!"

"Yes, sir. I've seen enough to show me where my mistake was. The law is
what I was born for. I shall begin the study of the law. Heavens and
earth, but that Brabant's a wonderful man--a wonderful man sir! Such a
head! And such a way with him! But I could see that he was jealous of
me. The little licks I got in in the course of my argument before the
jury--"

"Your argument! Why, you were a witness."

"Oh, yes, to the popular eye, to the popular eye--but I knew when I was
dropping information and when I was letting drive at the court with an
insidious argument. But the court knew it, bless you, and weakened every
time! And Brabant knew it. I just reminded him of it in a quiet way,
and its final result, and he said in a whisper, 'You did it, Colonel, you
did it, sir--but keep it mum for my sake; and I'll tell you what you do,'
says he, 'you go into the law, Col. Sellers--go into the law, sir; that's
your native element!' And into the law the subscriber is going. There's
worlds of money in it!--whole worlds of money! Practice first in
Hawkeye, then in Jefferson, then in St. Louis, then in New York! In the
metropolis of the western world! Climb, and climb, and climb--and wind
up on the Supreme bench. Beriah Sellers, Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court of the United States, sir! A made man for all time and eternity!
That's the way I block it out, sir--and it's as clear as day--clear as
the rosy-morn!"

Washington had heard little of this. The first reference to Laura's
trial had brought the old dejection to his face again, and he stood
gazing out of the window at nothing, lost in reverie.

There was a knock-the postman handed in a letter. It was from Obedstown.
East Tennessee, and was for Washington. He opened it. There was a note
saying that enclosed he would please find a bill for the current year's
taxes on the 75,000 acres of Tennessee Land belonging to the estate of
Silas Hawkins, deceased, and added that the money must be paid within
sixty days or the land would be sold at public auction for the taxes, as
provided by law. The bill was for $180--something more than twice the
market value of the land, perhaps.

Washington hesitated. Doubts flitted through his mind. The old instinct
came upon him to cling to the land just a little longer and give it one
more chance. He walked the floor feverishly, his mind tortured by
indecision. Presently he stopped, took out his pocket book and counted
his money. Two hundred and thirty dollars--it was all he had in the
world.

"One hundred and eighty . . . . . . . from two hundred and
thirty," he said to himself. "Fifty left . . . . . . It is enough
to get me home . . . .. . . Shall I do it, or shall I not? . . .
. . . . I wish I had somebody to decide for me."

The pocket book lay open in his hand, with Louise's small letter in view.
His eye fell upon that, and it decided him.

"It shall go for taxes," he said, "and never tempt me or mine any more!"

He opened the window and stood there tearing the tax bill to bits and
watching the breeze waft them away, till all were gone.

"The spell is broken, the life-long curse is ended!" he said. "Let us
go."

The baggage wagon had arrived; five minutes later the two friends were
mounted upon their luggage in it, and rattling off toward the station,
the Colonel endeavoring to sing "Homeward Bound," a song whose words he
knew, but whose tune, as he rendered it, was a trial to auditors.


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