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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter IX

The Gilded Age

Chapter IX


Washington dreamed his way along the street, his fancy flitting from
grain to hogs, from hogs to banks, from banks to eyewater, from eye-water
to Tennessee Land, and lingering but a feverish moment upon each of these
fascinations. He was conscious of but one outward thing, to wit, the
General, and he was really not vividly conscious of him.

Arrived at the finest dwelling in the town, they entered it and were at
home. Washington was introduced to Mrs. Boswell, and his imagination was
on the point of flitting into the vapory realms of speculation again,
when a lovely girl of sixteen or seventeen came in. This vision swept
Washington's mind clear of its chaos of glittering rubbish in an instant.
Beauty had fascinated him before; many times he had been in love even for
weeks at a time with the same object but his heart had never suffered so
sudden and so fierce an assault as this, within his recollection.

Louise Boswell occupied his mind and drifted among his multiplication
tables all the afternoon. He was constantly catching himself in a
reverie--reveries made up of recalling how she looked when she first
burst upon him; how her voice thrilled him when she first spoke; how
charmed the very air seemed by her presence. Blissful as the afternoon
was, delivered up to such a revel as this, it seemed an eternity, so
impatient was he to see the girl again. Other afternoons like it
followed. Washington plunged into this love affair as he plunged into
everything else--upon impulse and without reflection. As the days went
by it seemed plain that he was growing in favor with Louise,--not
sweepingly so, but yet perceptibly, he fancied. His attentions to her
troubled her father and mother a little, and they warned Louise, without
stating particulars or making allusions to any special person, that a
girl was sure to make a mistake who allowed herself to marry anybody but
a man who could support her well.

Some instinct taught Washington that his present lack of money would be
an obstruction, though possibly not a bar, to his hopes, and straightway
his poverty became a torture to him which cast all his former sufferings
under that held into the shade. He longed for riches now as he had ever
longed for them before.

He had been once or twice to dine with Col. Sellers, and had been
discouraged to note that the Colonel's bill of fare was falling off both
in quantity and quality--a sign, he feared, that the lacking ingredient
in the eye-water still remained undiscovered--though Sellers always
explained that these changes in the family diet had been ordered by the
doctor, or suggested by some new scientific work the Colonel had stumbled
upon. But it always turned out that the lacking ingredient was still
lacking--though it always appeared, at the same time, that the Colonel
was right on its heels.

Every time the Colonel came into the real estate office Washington's
heart bounded and his eyes lighted with hope, but it always turned out
that the Colonel was merely on the scent of some vast, undefined landed
speculation--although he was customarily able to say that he was nearer
to the all-necessary ingredient than ever, and could almost name the hour
when success would dawn. And then Washington's heart world sink again
and a sigh would tell when it touched bottom.

About this time a letter came, saying that Judge Hawkins had been ailing
for a fortnight, and was now considered to be seriously ill. It was
thought best that Washington should come home. The news filled him with
grief, for he loved and honored his father; the Boswells were touched by
the youth's sorrow, and even the General unbent and said encouraging
things to him.--There was balm in this; but when Louise bade him good-
bye, and shook his hand and said, "Don't be cast down--it will all come
out right--I know it will all come out right," it seemed a blessed thing
to be in misfortune, and the tears that welled up to his eyes were the
messengers of an adoring and a grateful heart; and when the girl saw them
and answering tears came into her own eyes, Washington could hardly
contain the excess of happiness that poured into the cavities of his
breast that were so lately stored to the roof with grief.

All the way home he nursed his woe and exalted it. He pictured himself
as she must be picturing him: a noble, struggling young spirit persecuted
by misfortune, but bravely and patiently waiting in the shadow of a dread
calamity and preparing to meet the blow as became one who was all too
used to hard fortune and the pitiless buffetings of fate. These thoughts
made him weep, and weep more broken-heartedly than ever; and be wished
that she could see his sufferings now.

There was nothing significant in the fact that Louise, dreamy and
distraught, stood at her bedroom bureau that night, scribbling
"Washington" here and there over a sheet of paper. But there was
something significant in the fact that she scratched the word out every
time she wrote it; examined the erasure critically to see if anybody
could guess at what the word had been; then buried it under a maze of
obliterating lines; and finally, as if still unsatisfied, burned the
paper.

When Washington reached home, he recognized at once how serious his
father's case was. The darkened room, the labored breathing and
occasional moanings of the patient, the tip-toeing of the attendants and
their whispered consultations, were full of sad meaning. For three or
four nights Mrs. Hawkins and Laura had been watching by the bedside; Clay
had arrived, preceding Washington by one day, and he was now added to the
corps of watchers. Mr. Hawkins would have none but these three, though
neighborly assistance was offered by old friends. From this time forth
three-hour watches were instituted, and day and night the watchers kept
their vigils. By degrees Laura and her mother began to show wear, but
neither of them would yield a minute of their tasks to Clay. He ventured
once to let the midnight hour pass without calling Laura, but he ventured
no more; there was that about her rebuke when he tried to explain, that
taught him that to let her sleep when she might be ministering to her
father's needs, was to rob her of moments that were priceless in her
eyes; he perceived that she regarded it as a privilege to watch, not a
burden. And, he had noticed, also, that when midnight struck, the
patient turned his eyes toward the door, with an expectancy in them which
presently grew into a longing but brightened into contentment as soon
as the door opened and Laura appeared. And he did not need Laura's
rebuke when he heard his father say:

"Clay is good, and you are tired, poor child; but I wanted you so."

"Clay is not good, father--he did not call me. I would not have treated
him so. How could you do it, Clay?"

Clay begged forgiveness and promised not to break faith again; and as he
betook him to his bed, he said to himself: "It's a steadfast little
soul; whoever thinks he is doing the Duchess a kindness by intimating
that she is not sufficient for any undertaking she puts her hand to,
makes a mistake; and if I did not know it before, I know now that there
are surer ways of pleasing her than by trying to lighten her labor when
that labor consists in wearing herself out for the sake of a person she
loves."

A week drifted by, and all the while the patient sank lower and lower.
The night drew on that was to end all suspense. It was a wintry one.
The darkness gathered, the snow was falling, the wind wailed plaintively
about the house or shook it with fitful gusts. The doctor had paid his
last visit and gone away with that dismal remark to the nearest friend of
the family that he "believed there was nothing more that he could do"--
a remark which is always overheard by some one it is not meant for and
strikes a lingering half-conscious hope dead with a withering shock;
the medicine phials had been removed from the bedside and put out of
sight, and all things made orderly and meet for the solemn event that was
impending; the patient, with closed eyes, lay scarcely breathing; the
watchers sat by and wiped the gathering damps from his forehead while the
silent tears flowed down their faces; the deep hush was only interrupted
by sobs from the children, grouped about the bed.

After a time--it was toward midnight now--Mr. Hawkins roused out of a
doze, looked about him and was evidently trying to speak. Instantly
Laura lifted his head and in a failing voice he said, while something of
the old light shone in his eyes:

"Wife--children--come nearer--nearer. The darkness grows. Let me see
you all, once more."

The group closed together at the bedside, and their tears and sobs came
now without restraint.

"I am leaving you in cruel poverty. I have been--so foolish--so short-
sighted. But courage! A better day is--is coming. Never lose sight of
the Tennessee Land! Be wary. There is wealth stored up for you there--
wealth that is boundless! The children shall hold up their heads with
the best in the land, yet. Where are the papers?--Have you got the
papers safe? Show them--show them to me!"

Under his strong excitement his voice had gathered power and his last
sentences were spoken with scarcely a perceptible halt or hindrance.
With an effort he had raised himself almost without assistance to a
sitting posture. But now the fire faded out of his eyes and be fell back
exhausted. The papers were brought and held before him, and the
answering smile that flitted across his face showed that he was
satisfied. He closed his eyes, and the signs of approaching dissolution
multiplied rapidly. He lay almost motionless for a little while, then
suddenly partly raised his head and looked about him as one who peers
into a dim uncertain light. He muttered:

"Gone? No--I see you--still. It is--it is-over. But you are--safe.
Safe. The Ten-----"

The voice died out in a whisper; the sentence was never finished. The
emaciated fingers began to pick at the coverlet, a fatal sign. After a
time there were no sounds but the cries of the mourners within and the
gusty turmoil of the wind without. Laura had bent down and kissed her
father's lips as the spirit left the body; but she did not sob, or utter
any ejaculation; her tears flowed silently. Then she closed the dead
eyes, and crossed the hands upon the breast; after a season, she kissed
the forehead reverently, drew the sheet up over the face, and then walked
apart and sat down with the look of one who is done with life and has no
further interest in its joys and sorrows, its hopes or its ambitions.
Clay buried his face in the coverlet of the bed; when the other children
and the mother realized that death was indeed come at last, they threw
themselves into each others' arms and gave way to a frenzy of grief.


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