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

          Now this surprising news caus’d her fall in ’a trance,
          Life as she were dead, no limbs she could advance,
          Then her dear brother came, her from the ground he took
          And she spake up and said, O my poor heart is broke.

The Barnardcastle Tragedy.

“Don’t you think he is distinguished looking?”

“What!  That gawky looking person, with Miss Hawkins?”

“There.  He’s just speaking to Mrs. Schoonmaker.  Such high-bred negligence and unconsciousness.  Nothing studied.  See his fine eyes.”

“Very.  They are moving this way now.  Maybe he is coming here.  But he looks as helpless as a rag baby.  Who is he, Blanche?”

“Who is he?  And you’ve been here a week, Grace, and don’t know?  He’s the catch of the season.  That’s Washington Hawkins ­her brother.”

“No, is it?”

“Very old family, old Kentucky family I believe.  He’s got enormous landed property in Tennessee, I think.  The family lost everything, slaves and that sort of thing, you know, in the war.  But they have a great deal of land, minerals, mines and all that.  Mr. Hawkins and his sister too are very much interested in the amelioration of the condition of the colored race; they have some plan, with Senator Dilworthy, to convert a large part of their property to something another for the freedmen.”

“You don’t say so?  I thought he was some guy from Pennsylvania.  But he is different from others.  Probably he has lived all his life on his plantation.”

It was a day reception of Mrs. Representative Schoonmaker, a sweet woman, of simple and sincere manners.  Her house was one of the most popular in Washington.  There was less ostentation there than in some others, and people liked to go where the atmosphere reminded them of the peace and purity of home.  Mrs. Schoonmaker was as natural and unaffected in Washington society as she was in her own New York house, and kept up the spirit of home-life there, with her husband and children.  And that was the reason, probably, why people of refinement liked to go there.

Washington is a microcosm, and one can suit himself with any sort of society within a radius of a mile.  To a large portion of the people who frequent Washington or dwell where, the ultra fashion, the shoddy, the jobbery are as utterly distasteful as they would he in a refined New England City.  Schoonmaker was not exactly a leader in the House, but he was greatly respected for his fine talents and his honesty.  No one would have thought of offering to carry National Improvement Directors Relief stock for him.

These day receptions were attended by more women than men, and those interested in the problem might have studied the costumes of the ladies present, in view of this fact, to discover whether women dress more for the eyes of women or for effect upon men.  It is a very important problem, and has been a good deal discussed, and its solution would form one fixed, philosophical basis, upon which to estimate woman’s character.  We are inclined to take a medium ground, and aver that woman dresses to please herself, and in obedience to a law of her own nature.

“They are coming this way,” said Blanche.  People who made way for them to pass, turned to look at them.  Washington began to feel that the eyes of the public were on him also, and his eyes rolled about, now towards the ceiling, now towards the floor, in an effort to look unconscious.

“Good morning, Miss Hawkins.  Delighted.  Mr. Hawkins.  My friend, Miss Medlar.”

Mr. Hawkins, who was endeavoring to square himself for a bow, put his foot through the train of Mrs. Senator Poplin, who looked round with a scowl, which turned into a smile as she saw who it was.  In extricating himself, Mr. Hawkins, who had the care of his hat as well as the introduction on his mind, shambled against Miss Blanche, who said pardon, with the prettiest accent, as if the awkwardness were her own.  And Mr. Hawkins righted himself.

“Don’t you find it very warm to-day, Mr. Hawkins?” said Blanche, by way of a remark.

“It’s awful hot,” said Washington.

“It’s warm for the season,” continued Blanche pleasantly.  “But I suppose you are accustomed to it,” she added, with a general idea that the thermometer always stands at 90 deg. in all parts of the late slave states.  “Washington weather generally cannot be very congenial to you?”

“It’s congenial,” said Washington brightening up, “when it’s not congealed.”

“That’s very good.  Did you hear, Grace, Mr. Hawkins says it’s congenial when it’s not congealed.”

“What is, dear?” said Grace, who was talking with Laura.

The conversation was now finely under way.  Washington launched out an observation of his own.

“Did you see those Japs, Miss Leavitt?”

“Oh, yes, aren’t they queer.  But so high-bred, so picturesque.  Do you think that color makes any difference, Mr. Hawkins?  I used to be so prejudiced against color.”

“Did you?  I never was.  I used to think my old mammy was handsome.”

“How interesting your life must have been!  I should like to hear about it.”

Washington was about settling himself into his narrative style, when Mrs. Gen. McFingal caught his eye.

“Have you been at the Capitol to-day, Mr. Hawkins?”

Washington had not.  “Is anything uncommon going on?”

“They say it was very exciting.  The Alabama business you know.  Gen. Sutler, of Massachusetts, defied England, and they say he wants war.”

“He wants to make himself conspicuous more like,” said Laura.  “He always, you have noticed, talks with one eye on the gallery, while the other is on the speaker.”

“Well, my husband says, its nonsense to talk of war, and wicked.  He knows what war is.  If we do have war, I hope it will be for the patriots of Cuba.  Don’t you think we want Cuba, Mr. Hawkins?”

“I think we want it bad,” said Washington.  “And Santo Domingo.  Senator Dilworthy says, we are bound to extend our religion over the isles of the sea.  We’ve got to round out our territory, and ­”

Washington’s further observations were broken off by Laura, who whisked him off to another part of the room, and reminded him that they must make their adieux.

“How stupid and tiresome these people are,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

They were turning to say good-by to the hostess, when Laura’s attention was arrested by the sight of a gentleman who was just speaking to Mrs. Schoonmaker.  For a second her heart stopped beating.  He was a handsome man of forty and perhaps more, with grayish hair and whiskers, and he walked with a cane, as if he were slightly lame.  He might be less than forty, for his face was worn into hard lines, and he was pale.

No.  It could not be, she said to herself.  It is only a resemblance.  But as the gentleman turned and she saw his full face, Laura put out her hand and clutched Washington’s arm to prevent herself from falling.

Washington, who was not minding anything, as usual, looked ’round in wonder.  Laura’s eyes were blazing fire and hatred; he had never seen her look so before; and her face, was livid.

“Why, what is it, sis?  Your face is as white as paper.”

“It’s he, it’s he.  Come, come,” and she dragged him away.

“It’s who?” asked Washington, when they had gained the carriage.

“It’s nobody, it’s nothing.  Did I say he?  I was faint with the heat.  Don’t mention it.  Don’t you speak of it,” she added earnestly, grasping his arm.

When she had gained her room she went to the glass and saw a pallid and haggard face.

“My God,” she cried, “this will never do.  I should have killed him, if I could.  The scoundrel still lives, and dares to come here.  I ought to kill him.  He has no right to live.  How I hate him.  And yet I loved him.  Oh heavens, how I did love that man.  And why didn’t he kill me?  He might better.  He did kill all that was good in me.  Oh, but he shall not escape.  He shall not escape this time.  He may have forgotten.  He will find that a woman’s hate doesn’t forget.  The law?  What would the law do but protect him and make me an outcast?  How all Washington would gather up its virtuous skirts and avoid me, if it knew.  I wonder if he hates me as I do him?”

So Laura raved, in tears and in rage by turns, tossed in a tumult of passion, which she gave way to with little effort to control.

A servant came to summon her to dinner.  She had a headache.  The hour came for the President’s reception.  She had a raving headache, and the Senator must go without her.

That night of agony was like another night she recalled.  How vividly it all came back to her.  And at that time she remembered she thought she might be mistaken.  He might come back to her.  Perhaps he loved her, a little, after all.  Now, she knew he did not.  Now, she knew he was a cold-blooded scoundrel, without pity.  Never a word in all these years.  She had hoped he was dead.  Did his wife live, she wondered.  She caught at that ­and it gave a new current to her thoughts.  Perhaps, after all ­she must see him.  She could not live without seeing him.  Would he smile as in the old days when she loved him so; or would he sneer as when she last saw him?  If be looked so, she hated him.  If he should call her “Laura, darling,” and look so!  She must find him.  She must end her doubts.

Laura kept her room for two days, on one excuse and another ­a nervous headache, a cold ­to the great anxiety of the Senator’s household.  Callers, who went away, said she had been too gay ­they did not say “fast,” though some of them may have thought it.  One so conspicuous and successful in society as Laura could not be out of the way two days, without remarks being made, and not all of them complimentary.

When she came down she appeared as usual, a little pale may be, but unchanged in manner.  If there were any deepened lines about the eyes they had been concealed.  Her course of action was quite determined.

At breakfast she asked if any one had heard any unusual noise during the night?  Nobody had.  Washington never heard any noise of any kind after his eyes were shut.  Some people thought he never did when they were open either.

Senator Dilworthy said he had come in late.  He was detained in a little consultation after the Congressional prayer meeting.  Perhaps it was his entrance.

No, Laura said.  She heard that.  It was later.  She might have been nervous, but she fancied somebody was trying to get into the house.

Mr. Brierly humorously suggested that it might be, as none of the members were occupied in night session.

The Senator frowned, and said he did not like to hear that kind of newspaper slang.  There might be burglars about.

Laura said that very likely it was only her nervousness.  But she thought she world feel safer if Washington would let her take one of his pistols.  Washington brought her one of his revolvers, and instructed her in the art of loading and firing it.

During the morning Laura drove down to Mrs. Schoonmaker’s to pay a friendly call.

“Your receptions are always delightful,” she said to that lady, “the pleasant people all seem to come here.”

“It’s pleasant to hear you say so, Miss Hawkins.  I believe my friends like to come here.  Though society in Washington is mixed; we have a little of everything.”

“I suppose, though, you don’t see much of the old rebel element?” said Laura with a smile.

If this seemed to Mrs. Schoonmaker a singular remark for a lady to make, who was meeting “rebels” in society every day, she did not express it in any way, but only said,

“You know we don’t say ‘rebel’ anymore.  Before we came to Washington I thought rebels would look unlike other people.  I find we are very much alike, and that kindness and good nature wear away prejudice.  And then you know there are all sorts of common interests.  My husband sometimes says that he doesn’t see but confederates are just as eager to get at the treasury as Unionists.  You know that Mr. Schoonmaker is on the appropriations.”

“Does he know many Southerners?”

“Oh, yes.  There were several at my reception the other day.  Among others a confederate Colonel ­a stranger ­handsome man with gray hair, probably you didn’t notice him, uses a cane in walking.  A very agreeable man.  I wondered why he called.  When my husband came home and looked over the cards, he said he had a cotton claim.  A real southerner.  Perhaps you might know him if I could think of his name.  Yes, here’s his card ­Louisiana.”

Laura took the card, looked at it intently till she was sure of the address, and then laid it down, with,

“No, he is no friend of ours.”

That afternoon, Laura wrote and dispatched the following note.  It was in a round hand, unlike her flowing style, and it was directed to a number and street in Georgetown: ­

     “A Lady at Senator Dilworthy’s would like to see Col.  George Selby,
     on business connected with the Cotton Claims.  Can he call Wednesday
     at three o’clock P. M.?”

On Wednesday at 3 P. M, no one of the family was likely to be in the house except Laura.