Read CHAPTER XXVIII of The Gilded Age, free online book, by Mark Twain, on

Whatever may have been the language of Harry’s letter to the Colonel, the information it conveyed was condensed or expanded, one or the other, from the following episode of his visit to New York: 

He called, with official importance in his mien, at No. ­ Wall street, where a great gilt sign betokened the presence of the head-quarters of the “Columbus River Slack-Water Navigation Company.”  He entered and gave a dressy porter his card, and was requested to wait a moment in a sort of ante-room.  The porter returned in a minute; and asked whom he would like to see?

“The president of the company, of course.”

“He is busy with some gentlemen, sir; says he will be done with them directly.”

That a copper-plate card with “Engineer-in-Chief” on it should be received with such tranquility as this, annoyed Mr. Brierly not a little.  But he had to submit.  Indeed his annoyance had time to augment a good deal; for he was allowed to cool his heels a frill half hour in the ante-room before those gentlemen emerged and he was ushered into the presence.  He found a stately dignitary occupying a very official chair behind a long green morocco-covered table, in a room with sumptuously carpeted and furnished, and well garnished with pictures.

“Good morning, sir; take a seat ­take a seat.”

“Thank you sir,” said Harry, throwing as much chill into his manner as his ruffled dignity prompted.

“We perceive by your reports and the reports of the Chief Superintendent, that you have been making gratifying progress with the work. ­We are all very much pleased.”

“Indeed?  We did not discover it from your letters ­which we have not received; nor by the treatment our drafts have met with ­which were not honored; nor by the reception of any part of the appropriation, no part of it having come to hand.”

“Why, my dear Mr. Brierly, there must be some mistake, I am sure we wrote you and also Mr. Sellers, recently ­when my clerk comes he will show copies ­letters informing you of the ten per cent. assessment.”

“Oh, certainly, we got those letters.  But what we wanted was money to carry on the work ­money to pay the men.”

“Certainly, certainly ­true enough ­but we credited you both for a large part of your assessments ­I am sure that was in our letters.”

“Of course that was in ­I remember that.”

“Ah, very well then.  Now we begin to understand each other.”

“Well, I don’t see that we do.  There’s two months’ wages due the men, and ­”

“How?  Haven’t you paid the men?”

“Paid them!  How are we going to pay them when you don’t honor our drafts?”

“Why, my dear sir, I cannot see how you can find any fault with us.  I am sure we have acted in a perfectly straight forward business way. ­Now let us look at the thing a moment.  You subscribed for 100 shares of the capital stock, at $1,000 a share, I believe?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“And Mr. Sellers took a like amount?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well.  No concern can get along without money.  We levied a ten per cent. assessment.  It was the original understanding that you and Mr. Sellers were to have the positions you now hold, with salaries of $600 a month each, while in active service.  You were duly elected to these places, and you accepted them.  Am I right?”


“Very well.  You were given your instructions and put to work.  By your reports it appears that you have expended the sum of $9,610 upon the said work.  Two months salary to you two officers amounts altogether to $2,400 ­about one-eighth of your ten per cent. assessment, you see; which leaves you in debt to the company for the other seven-eighths of the assessment ­viz, something over $8,000 apiece.  Now instead of requiring you to forward this aggregate of $16,000 or $17,000 to New York, the company voted unanimously to let you pay it over to the contractors, laborers from time to time, and give you credit on the books for it.  And they did it without a murmur, too, for they were pleased with the progress you had made, and were glad to pay you that little compliment ­and a very neat one it was, too, I am sure.  The work you did fell short of $10,000, a trifle.  Let me see ­$9,640 from $20,000 salary $2;400 added ­ah yes, the balance due the company from yourself and Mr. Sellers is $7,960, which I will take the responsibility of allowing to stand for the present, unless you prefer to draw a check now, and thus ­”

“Confound it, do you mean to say that instead of the company owing us $2,400, we owe the company $7,960?”

“Well, yes.”

“And that we owe the men and the contractors nearly ten thousand dollars besides?”

“Owe them!  Oh bless my soul, you can’t mean that you have not paid these people?”

“But I do mean it!”

The president rose and walked the floor like a man in bodily pain.  His brows contracted, he put his hand up and clasped his forehead, and kept saying, “Oh, it is, too bad, too bad, too bad!  Oh, it is bound to be found out ­nothing can prevent it ­nothing!”

Then he threw himself into his chair and said: 

“My dear Mr. Brierson, this is dreadful ­perfectly dreadful.  It will be found out.  It is bound to tarnish the good name of the company; our credit will be seriously, most seriously impaired.  How could you be so thoughtless ­the men ought to have been paid though it beggared us all!”

“They ought, ought they?  Then why the devil ­my name is not Bryerson, by the way ­why the mischief didn’t the compa ­why what in the nation ever became of the appropriation?  Where is that appropriation? ­if a stockholder may make so bold as to ask.”

The appropriation? ­that paltry $200,000, do you mean?”

“Of course ­but I didn’t know that $200,000 was so very paltry.  Though I grant, of course, that it is not a large sum, strictly speaking.  But where is it?”

“My dear sir, you surprise me.  You surely cannot have had a large acquaintance with this sort of thing.  Otherwise you would not have expected much of a result from a mere initial appropriation like that.  It was never intended for anything but a mere nest egg for the future and real appropriations to cluster around.”

“Indeed?  Well, was it a myth, or was it a reality?  Whatever become of it?”

“Why the ­matter is simple enough.  A Congressional appropriation costs money.  Just reflect, for instance ­a majority of the House Committee, say $10,000 apiece ­$40,000; a majority of the Senate Committee, the same each ­say $40,000; a little extra to one or two chairman of one or two such committees, say $10,000 each ­$20,000; and there’s $100,000 of the money gone, to begin with.  Then, seven male lobbyists, at $3,000 each ­$21,000; one female lobbyist, $10,000; a high moral Congressman or Senator here and there ­the high moral ones cost more, because they. give tone to a measure ­say ten of these at $3,000 each, is $30,000; then a lot of small-fry country members who won’t vote for anything whatever without pay ­say twenty at $500 apiece, is $10,000; a lot of dinners to members ­say $10,000 altogether; lot of jimcracks for Congressmen’s wives and children ­those go a long way ­you can’t sped too much money in that line ­well, those things cost in a lump, say $10,000 ­along there somewhere; and then comes your printed documents ­your maps, your tinted engravings, your pamphlets, your illuminated show cards, your advertisements in a hundred and fifty papers at ever so much a line ­because you’ve got to keep the papers all light or you are gone up, you know.  Oh, my dear sir, printing bills are destruction itself.  Ours so far amount to ­let me see ­10; 52; 22; 13; ­and then there’s 11; 14; 33 ­well, never mind the details, the total in clean numbers foots up $118,254.42 thus far!”


“Oh, yes indeed.  Printing’s no bagatelle, I can tell you.  And then there’s your contributions, as a company, to Chicago fires and Boston fires, and orphan asylums and all that sort of thing ­head the list, you see, with the company’s full name and a thousand dollars set opposite ­great card, sir ­one of the finest advertisements in the world ­the preachers mention it in the pulpit when it’s a religious charity ­one of the happiest advertisements in the world is your benevolent donation.  Ours have amounted to sixteen thousand dollars and some cents up to this time.”

“Good heavens!”

“Oh, yes.  Perhaps the biggest thing we’ve done in the advertising line was to get an officer of the U. S. government, of perfectly Himmalayan official altitude, to write up our little internal improvement for a religious paper of enormous circulation ­I tell you that makes our bonds go handsomely among the pious poor.  Your religious paper is by far the best vehicle for a thing of this kind, because they’ll ‘lead’ your article and put it right in the midst of the reading matter; and if it’s got a few Scripture quotations in it, and some temperance platitudes and a bit of gush here and there about Sunday Schools, and a sentimental snuffle now and then about ’God’s precious ones, the honest hard-handed poor,’ it works the nation like a charm, my dear sir, and never a man suspects that it is an advertisement; but your secular paper sticks you right into the advertising columns and of course you don’t take a trick.  Give me a religious paper to advertise in, every time; and if you’ll just look at their advertising pages, you’ll observe that other people think a good deal as I do ­especially people who have got little financial schemes to make everybody rich with.  Of course I mean your great big metropolitan religious papers that know how to serve God and make money at the same time ­that’s your sort, sir, that’s your sort ­a religious paper that isn’t run to make money is no use to us, sir, as an advertising medium ­no use to anybody ­in our line of business.  I guess our next best dodge was sending a pleasure trip of newspaper reporters out to Napoleon.  Never paid them a cent; just filled them up with champagne and the fat of the land, put pen, ink and paper before them while they were red-hot, and bless your soul when you come to read their letters you’d have supposed they’d been to heaven.  And if a sentimental squeamishness held one or two of them back from taking a less rosy view of Napoleon, our hospitalities tied his tongue, at least, and he said nothing at all and so did us no harm.  Let me see ­have I stated all the expenses I’ve been at?  No, I was near forgetting one or two items.  There’s your official salaries ­you can’t get good men for nothing.  Salaries cost pretty lively.  And then there’s your big high-sounding millionaire names stuck into your advertisements as stockholders ­another card, that ­and they are stockholders, too, but you have to give them the stock and non-assessable at that ­so they’re an expensive lot.  Very, very expensive thing, take it all around, is a big internal improvement concern ­but you see that yourself, Mr. Bryerman ­you see that, yourself, sir.”

“But look here.  I think you are a little mistaken about it’s ever having cost anything for Congressional votes.  I happen to know something about that.  I’ve let you say your say ­now let me say mine.  I don’t wish to seem to throw any suspicion on anybody’s statements, because we are all liable to be mistaken.  But how would it strike you if I were to say that I was in Washington all the time this bill was pending? and what if I added that I put the measure through myself?  Yes, sir, I did that little thing.  And moreover, I never paid a dollar for any man’s vote and never promised one.  There are some ways of doing a thing that are as good as others which other people don’t happen to think about, or don’t have the knack of succeeding in, if they do happen to think of them.  My dear sir, I am obliged to knock some of your expenses in the head ­for never a cent was paid a Congressman or Senator on the part of this Navigation Company.”

The president smiled blandly, even sweetly, all through this harangue, and then said: 

“Is that so?”

“Every word of it.”

“Well it does seem to alter the complexion of things a little.  You are acquainted with the members down there, of course, else you could not have worked to such advantage?”

“I know them all, sir.  I know their wives, their children, their babies ­I even made it a point to be on good terms with their lackeys.  I know every Congressman well ­even familiarly.”

“Very good.  Do you know any of their signatures?  Do you know their handwriting?”

“Why I know their handwriting as well as I know my own ­have had correspondence enough with them, I should think.  And their signatures ­why I can tell their initials, even.”

The president went to a private safe, unlocked it and got out some letters and certain slips of paper.  Then he said: 

“Now here, for instance; do you believe that that is a genuine letter?  Do you know this signature here? ­and this one?  Do you know who those initials represent ­and are they forgeries?”

Harry was stupefied.  There were things there that made his brain swim.  Presently, at the bottom of one of the letters he saw a signature that restored his equilibrium; it even brought the sunshine of a smile to his face.

The president said: 

“That one amuses you.  You never suspected him?”

“Of course I ought to have suspected him, but I don’t believe it ever really occurred to me.  Well, well, well ­how did you ever have the nerve to approach him, of all others?”

“Why my friend, we never think of accomplishing anything without his help.  He is our mainstay.  But how do those letters strike you?”

“They strike me dumb!  What a stone-blind idiot I have been!”

“Well, take it all around, I suppose you had a pleasant time in Washington,” said the president, gathering up the letters; “of course you must have had.  Very few men could go there and get a money bill through without buying a single”

“Come, now, Mr. President, that’s plenty of that!  I take back everything I said on that head.  I’m a wiser man to-day than I was yesterday, I can tell you.”

“I think you are.  In fact I am satisfied you are.  But now I showed you these things in confidence, you understand.  Mention facts as much as you want to, but don’t mention names to anybody.  I can depend on you for that, can’t I?”

“Oh, of course.  I understand the necessity of that.  I will not betray the names.  But to go back a bit, it begins to look as if you never saw any of that appropriation at all?”

“We saw nearly ten thousand dollars of it ­and that was all.  Several of us took turns at log-rolling in Washington, and if we had charged anything for that service, none of that $10,000 would ever have reached New York.”

“If you hadn’t levied the assessment you would have been in a close place I judge?”

“Close?  Have you figured up the total of the disbursements I told you of?”

“No, I didn’t think of that.”

“Well, lets see: 

“Which leaves us in debt some $25,000 at this moment.  Salaries of home officers are still going on; also printing and advertising.  Next month will show a state of things!”

“And then ­burst up, I suppose?”

“By no means.  Levy another assessment”

“Oh, I see.  That’s dismal.”

“By no means.”

“Why isn’t it?  What’s the road out?”

“Another appropriation, don’t you see?”

“Bother the appropriations.  They cost more than they come to.”

“Not the next one.  We’ll call for half a million ­get it and go for a million the very next month.” ­“Yes, but the cost of it!”

The president smiled, and patted his secret letters affectionately.  He said: 

“All these people are in the next Congress.  We shan’t have to pay them a cent.  And what is more, they will work like beavers for us ­perhaps it might be to their advantage.”

Harry reflected profoundly a while.  Then he said: 

“We send many missionaries to lift up the benighted races of other lands.  How much cheaper and better it would be if those people could only come here and drink of our civilization at its fountain head.”

“I perfectly agree with you, Mr. Beverly.  Must you go?  Well, good morning.  Look in, when you are passing; and whenever I can give you any information about our affairs and pro’spects, I shall be glad to do it.”

Harry’s letter was not a long one, but it contained at least the calamitous figures that came out in the above conversation.  The Colonel found himself in a rather uncomfortable place ­no $1,200 salary forthcoming; and himself held responsible for half of the $9,640 due the workmen, to say nothing of being in debt to the company to the extent of nearly $4,000.  Polly’s heart was nearly broken; the “blues” returned in fearful force, and she had to go out of the room to hide the tears that nothing could keep back now.

There was mourning in another quarter, too, for Louise had a letter.  Washington had refused, at the last moment, to take $40,000 for the Tennessee Land, and had demanded $150,000!  So the trade fell through, and now Washington was wailing because he had been so foolish.  But he wrote that his man might probably return to the city soon, and then he meant to sell to him, sure, even if he had to take $10,000.  Louise had a good cry-several of them, indeed ­and the family charitably forebore to make any comments that would increase her grief.

Spring blossomed, summer came, dragged its hot weeks by, and the Colonel’s spirits rose, day by day, for the railroad was making good progress.  But by and by something happened.  Hawkeye had always declined to subscribe anything toward the railway, imagining that her large business would be a sufficient compulsory influence; but now Hawkeye was frightened; and before Col.  Sellers knew what he was about, Hawkeye, in a panic, had rushed to the front and subscribed such a sum that Napoleon’s attractions suddenly sank into insignificance and the railroad concluded to follow a comparatively straight coarse instead of going miles out of its way to build up a metropolis in the muddy desert of Stone’s Landing.

The thunderbolt fell.  After all the Colonel’s deep planning; after all his brain work and tongue work in drawing public attention to his pet project and enlisting interest in it; after all his faithful hard toil with his hands, and running hither and thither on his busy feet; after all his high hopes and splendid prophecies, the fates had turned their backs on him at last, and all in a moment his air-castles crumbled to ruins abort him.  Hawkeye rose from her fright triumphant and rejoicing, and down went Stone’s Landing!  One by one its meagre parcel of inhabitants packed up and moved away, as the summer waned and fall approached.  Town lots were no longer salable, traffic ceased, a deadly lethargy fell upon the place once more, the “Weekly Telegraph” faded into an early grave, the wary tadpole returned from exile, the bullfrog resumed his ancient song, the tranquil turtle sunned his back upon bank and log and drowsed his grateful life away as in the old sweet days of yore.