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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter VIII

The Gilded Age

Chapter VIII


         --Whan pe horde is thynne, as of seruyse,
         Nought replenesshed with grete diuersite
         Of mete & drinke, good chere may then suffise
         With honest talkyng----
                                 The Book of Curtesye.

         MAMMON. Come on, sir. Now, you set your foot on shore
         In Novo Orbe; here's the rich Peru:
         And there within, sir, are the golden mines,
         Great Solomon's Ophir!----
                                 B. Jonson

The supper at Col. Sellers's was not sumptuous, in the beginning, but it
improved on acquaintance. That is to say, that what Washington regarded
at first sight as mere lowly potatoes, presently became awe-inspiring
agricultural productions that had been reared in some ducal garden beyond
the sea, under the sacred eye of the duke himself, who had sent them to
Sellers; the bread was from corn which could be grown in only one favored
locality in the earth and only a favored few could get it; the Rio
coffee, which at first seemed execrable to the taste, took to itself an
improved flavor when Washington was told to drink it slowly and not hurry
what should be a lingering luxury in order to be fully appreciated--it
was from the private stores of a Brazilian nobleman with an
unrememberable name. The Colonel's tongue was a magician's wand that
turned dried apples into figs and water into wine as easily as it could
change a hovel into a palace and present poverty into imminent future
riches.

Washington slept in a cold bed in a carpetless room and woke up in a
palace in the morning; at least the palace lingered during the moment
that he was rubbing his eyes and getting his bearings--and then it
disappeared and he recognized that the Colonel's inspiring talk had been
influencing his dreams. Fatigue had made him sleep late; when he entered
the sitting room he noticed that the old hair-cloth sofa was absent; when
he sat down to breakfast the Colonel tossed six or seven dollars in bills
on the table, counted them over, said he was a little short and must call
upon his banker; then returned the bills to his wallet with the
indifferent air of a man who is used to money. The breakfast was not an
improvement upon the supper, but the Colonel talked it up and transformed
it into an oriental feast. Bye and bye, he said:

"I intend to look out for you, Washington, my boy. I hunted up a place
for you yesterday, but I am not referring to that,--now--that is a mere
livelihood--mere bread and butter; but when I say I mean to look out for
you I mean something very different. I mean to put things in your way
than will make a mere livelihood a trifling thing. I'll put you in a way
to make more money than you'll ever know what to do with. You'll be
right here where I can put my hand on you when anything turns up. I've
got some prodigious operations on foot; but I'm keeping quiet; mum's the
word; your old hand don't go around pow-wowing and letting everybody see
his k'yards and find out his little game. But all in good time,
Washington, all in good time. You'll see. Now there's an operation in
corn that looks well. Some New York men are trying to get me to go into
it--buy up all the growing crops and just boss the market when they
mature--ah I tell you it's a great thing. And it only costs a trifle;
two millions or two and a half will do it. I haven't exactly promised
yet--there's no hurry--the more indifferent I seem, you know, the more
anxious those fellows will get. And then there is the hog speculation--
that's bigger still. We've got quiet men at work," [he was very
impressive here,] "mousing around, to get propositions out of all the
farmers in the whole west and northwest for the hog crop, and other
agents quietly getting propositions and terms out of all the
manufactories--and don't you see, if we can get all the hogs and all the
slaughter horses into our hands on the dead quiet--whew! it would take
three ships to carry the money.--I've looked into the thing--calculated
all the chances for and all the chances against, and though I shake my
head and hesitate and keep on thinking, apparently, I've got my mind made
up that if the thing can be done on a capital of six millions, that's the
horse to put up money on! Why Washington--but what's the use of talking
about it--any man can see that there's whole Atlantic oceans of cash in
it, gulfs and bays thrown in. But there's a bigger thing than that, yes
bigger----"

"Why Colonel, you can't want anything bigger!" said Washington, his eyes
blazing. "Oh, I wish I could go into either of those speculations--I
only wish I had money--I wish I wasn't cramped and kept down and fettered
with poverty, and such prodigious chances lying right here in sight!
Oh, it is a fearful thing to be poor. But don't throw away those things
--they are so splendid and I can see how sure they are. Don't throw them
away for something still better and maybe fail in it! I wouldn't,
Colonel. I would stick to these. I wish father were here and were his
old self again--Oh, he never in his life had such chances as these are.
Colonel; you can't improve on these--no man can improve on them!"

A sweet, compassionate smile played about the Colonel's features, and he
leaned over the table with the air of a man who is "going to show you"
and do it without the least trouble:

"Why Washington, my boy, these things are nothing. They look large of
course--they look large to a novice, but to a man who has been all his
life accustomed to large operations--shaw! They're well enough to while
away an idle hour with, or furnish a bit of employment that will give a
trifle of idle capital a chance to earn its bread while it is waiting for
something to do, but--now just listen a moment--just let me give you an
idea of what we old veterans of commerce call 'business.' Here's the
Rothschild's proposition--this is between you and me, you understand----"

Washington nodded three or four times impatiently, and his glowing eyes
said, "Yes, yes--hurry--I understand----"

----"for I wouldn't have it get out for a fortune. They want me to go in
with them on the sly--agent was here two weeks ago about it--go in on the
sly" [voice down to an impressive whisper, now,] "and buy up a hundred
and thirteen wild cat banks in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois and
Missouri--notes of these banks are at all sorts of discount now--average
discount of the hundred and thirteen is forty-four per cent--buy them all
up, you see, and then all of a sudden let the cat out of the bag! Whiz!
the stock of every one of those wildcats would spin up to a tremendous
premium before you could turn a handspring--profit on the speculation not
a dollar less than forty millions!" [An eloquent pause, while the
marvelous vision settled into W.'s focus.] "Where's your hogs now?
Why my dear innocent boy, we would just sit down on the front door-steps
and peddle banks like lucifer matches!"

Washington finally got his breath and said:

"Oh, it is perfectly wonderful! Why couldn't these things have happened
in father's day? And I--it's of no use--they simply lie before my face
and mock me. There is nothing for me but to stand helpless and see other
people reap the astonishing harvest."

"Never mind, Washington, don't you worry. I'll fix you. There's plenty
of chances. How much money have you got?"

In the presence of so many millions, Washington could not keep from
blushing when he had to confess that he had but eighteen dollars in the
world.

"Well, all right--don't despair. Other people have been obliged to begin
with less. I have a small idea that may develop into something for us
both, all in good time. Keep your money close and add to it. I'll make
it breed. I've been experimenting (to pass away the time), on a little
preparation for curing sore eyes--a kind of decoction nine-tenths water
and the other tenth drugs that don't cost more than a dollar a barrel;
I'm still experimenting; there's one ingredient wanted yet to perfect the
thing, and somehow I can't just manage to hit upon the thing that's
necessary, and I don't dare talk with a chemist, of course. But I'm
progressing, and before many weeks I wager the country will ring with the
fame of Beriah Sellers' Infallible Imperial Oriental Optic Liniment and
Salvation for Sore Eyes--the Medical Wonder of the Age! Small bottles
fifty cents, large ones a dollar. Average cost, five and seven cents for
the two sizes.

"The first year sell, say, ten thousand bottles in Missouri, seven
thousand in Iowa, three thousand in Arkansas, four thousand in Kentucky,
six thousand in Illinois, and say twenty-five thousand in the rest of the
country. Total, fifty five thousand bottles; profit clear of all
expenses, twenty thousand dollars at the very lowest calculation. All
the capital needed is to manufacture the first two thousand bottles--
say a hundred and fifty dollars--then the money would begin to flow in.
The second year, sales would reach 200,000 bottles--clear profit, say,
$75,000--and in the meantime the great factory would be building in St.
Louis, to cost, say, $100,000. The third year we could, easily sell
1,000,000 bottles in the United States and----"

"O, splendid!" said Washington. "Let's commence right away--let's----"

"----1,000,000 bottles in the United States--profit at least $350,000--
and then it would begin to be time to turn our attention toward the real
idea of the business."

"The real idea of it! Ain't $350,000 a year a pretty real----"

"Stuff! Why what an infant you are, Washington--what a guileless, short-
sighted, easily-contented innocent you, are, my poor little country-bred
know-nothing! Would I go to all that trouble and bother for the poor
crumbs a body might pick up in this country? Now do I look like a man
who----does my history suggest that I am a man who deals in trifles,
contents himself with the narrow horizon that hems in the common herd,
sees no further than the end of his nose? Now you know that that is not
me--couldn't be me. You ought to know that if I throw my time and
abilities into a patent medicine, it's a patent medicine whose field of
operations is the solid earth! its clients the swarming nations that
inhabit it! Why what is the republic of America for an eye-water
country? Lord bless you, it is nothing but a barren highway that you've
got to cross to get to the true eye-water market! Why, Washington, in
the Oriental countries people swarm like the sands of the desert; every
square mile of ground upholds its thousands upon thousands of struggling
human creatures--and every separate and individual devil of them's got
the ophthalmia! It's as natural to them as noses are--and sin. It's
born with them, it stays with them, it's all that some of them have left
when they die. Three years of introductory trade in the orient and what
will be the result? Why, our headquarters would be in Constantinople and
our hindquarters in Further India! Factories and warehouses in Cairo,
Ispahan, Bagdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Yedo, Peking, Bangkok, Delhi,
Bombay--and Calcutta! Annual income--well, God only knows how many
millions and millions apiece!"

Washington was so dazed, so bewildered--his heart and his eyes had
wandered so far away among the strange lands beyond the seas, and such
avalanches of coin and currency had fluttered and jingled confusedly down
before him, that he was now as one who has been whirling round and round
for a time, and, stopping all at once, finds his surroundings still
whirling and all objects a dancing chaos. However, little by little the
Sellers family cooled down and crystalized into shape, and the poor room
lost its glitter and resumed its poverty. Then the youth found his voice
and begged Sellers to drop everything and hurry up the eye-water; and he
got his eighteen dollars and tried to force it upon the Colonel--pleaded
with him to take it--implored him to do it. But the Colonel would not;
said he would not need the capital (in his native magnificent way he
called that eighteen dollars Capital) till the eye-water was an
accomplished fact. He made Washington easy in his mind, though, by
promising that he would call for it just as soon as the invention was
finished, and he added the glad tidings that nobody but just they two
should be admitted to a share in the speculation.

When Washington left the breakfast table he could have worshiped that
man. Washington was one of that kind of people whose hopes are in the
very, clouds one day and in the gutter the next. He walked on air, now.
The Colonel was ready to take him around and introduce him to the
employment he had found for him, but Washington begged for a few moments
in which to write home; with his kind of people, to ride to-day's new
interest to death and put off yesterday's till another time, is nature
itself. He ran up stairs and wrote glowingly, enthusiastically, to his
mother about the hogs and the corn, the banks and the eye-water--and
added a few inconsequential millions to each project. And he said that
people little dreamed what a man Col. Sellers was, and that the world
would open its eyes when it found out. And he closed his letter thus:

"So make yourself perfectly easy, mother-in a little while you shall have
everything you want, and more. I am not likely to stint you in anything,
I fancy. This money will not be for me, alone, but for all of us.
I want all to share alike; and there is going to be far more for each
than one person can spend. Break it to father cautiously--you understand
the need of that--break it to him cautiously, for he has had such cruel
hard fortune, and is so stricken by it that great good news might
prostrate him more surely than even bad, for he is used to the bad but
is grown sadly unaccustomed to the other. Tell Laura--tell all the
children. And write to Clay about it if he is not with you yet. You may
tell Clay that whatever I get he can freely share in-freely. He knows
that that is true--there will be no need that I should swear to that to
make him believe it. Good-bye--and mind what I say: Rest perfectly easy,
one and all of you, for our troubles are nearly at an end."

Poor lad, he could not know that his mother would cry some loving,
compassionate tears over his letter and put off the family with a
synopsis of its contents which conveyed a deal of love to then but not
much idea of his prospects or projects. And he never dreamed that such a
joyful letter could sadden her and fill her night with sighs, and
troubled thoughts, and bodings of the future, instead of filling it with
peace and blessing it with restful sleep.

When the letter was done, Washington and the Colonel sallied forth, and
as they walked along Washington learned what he was to be. He was to be
a clerk in a real estate office. Instantly the fickle youth's dreams
forsook the magic eye-water and flew back to the Tennessee Land. And the
gorgeous possibilities of that great domain straightway began to occupy
his imagination to such a degree that he could scarcely manage to keep
even enough of his attention upon the Colonel's talk to retain the
general run of what he was saying. He was glad it was a real estate
office--he was a made man now, sure.

The Colonel said that General Boswell was a rich man and had a good and
growing business; and that Washington's work world be light and he would
get forty dollars a month and be boarded and lodged in the General's
family--which was as good as ten dollars more; and even better, for he
could not live as well even at the "City Hotel" as he would there, and
yet the hotel charged fifteen dollars a month where a man had a good
room.

General Boswell was in his office; a comfortable looking place, with
plenty of outline maps hanging about the walls and in the windows, and
a spectacled man was marking out another one on a long table. The office
was in the principal street. The General received Washington with a
kindly but reserved politeness. Washington rather liked his looks.
He was about fifty years old, dignified, well preserved and well dressed.
After the Colonel took his leave, the General talked a while with
Washington--his talk consisting chiefly of instructions about the
clerical duties of the place. He seemed satisfied as to Washington's
ability to take care of the books, he was evidently a pretty fair
theoretical bookkeeper, and experience would soon harden theory into
practice. By and by dinner-time came, and the two walked to the
General's house; and now Washington noticed an instinct in himself that
moved him to keep not in the General's rear, exactly, but yet not at his
side--somehow the old gentleman's dignity and reserve did not inspire
familiarity.


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