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

Col.  Selby had just come to Washington, and taken lodgings in Georgetown.  His business was to get pay for some cotton that was destroyed during the war.  There were many others in Washington on the same errand, some of them with claims as difficult to establish as his.  A concert of action was necessary, and he was not, therefore, at all surprised to receive the note from a lady asking him to call at Senator Dilworthy’s.

At a little after three on Wednesday he rang the bell of the Senator’s residence.  It was a handsome mansion on the Square opposite the President’s house.  The owner must be a man of great wealth, the Colonel thought; perhaps, who knows, said he with a smile, he may have got some of my cotton in exchange for salt and quinine after the capture of New Orleans.  As this thought passed through his mind he was looking at the remarkable figure of the Hero of New Orleans, holding itself by main strength from sliding off the back of the rearing bronze horse, and lifting its hat in the manner of one who acknowledges the playing of that martial air:  “See, the Conquering Hero Comes!” “Gad,” said the Colonel to himself, “Old Hickory ought to get down and give his seat to Gen. Sutler ­but they’d have to tie him on.”

Laura was in the drawing room.  She heard the bell, she heard the steps in the hall, and the emphatic thud of the supporting cane.  She had risen from her chair and was leaning against the piano, pressing her left hand against the violent beating of her heart.  The door opened and the Colonel entered, standing in the full light of the opposite window.  Laura was more in the shadow and stood for an instant, long enough for the Colonel to make the inward observation that she was a magnificent Woman.  She then advanced a step.

“Col.  Selby, is it not?”

The Colonel staggered back, caught himself by a chair, and turned towards her a look of terror.

“Laura?  My God!”

“Yes, your wife!”

“Oh, no, it can’t be.  How came you here?  I thought you were ­”

“You thought I was dead?  You thought you were rid of me?  Not so long as you live, Col.  Selby, not so long as you live;” Laura in her passion was hurried on to say.

No man had ever accused Col.  Selby of cowardice.  But he was a coward before this woman.  May be he was not the man he once was.  Where was his coolness?  Where was his sneering, imperturbable manner, with which he could have met, and would have met, any woman he had wronged, if he had only been forewarned.  He felt now that he must temporize, that he must gain time.  There was danger in Laura’s tone.  There was something frightful in her calmness.  Her steady eyes seemed to devour him.

“You have ruined my life,” she said; “and I was so young, so ignorant, and loved you so.  You betrayed me, and left me mocking me and trampling me into the dust, a soiled cast-off.  You might better have killed me then.  Then I should not have hated you.”

“Laura,” said the Colonel, nerving himself, but still pale, and speaking appealingly, “don’t say that.  Reproach me.  I deserve it.  I was a scoundrel.  I was everything monstrous.  But your beauty made me crazy.  You are right.  I was a brute in leaving you as I did.  But what could I do?  I was married, and ­”

“And your wife still lives?” asked Laura, bending a little forward in her eagerness.

The Colonel noticed the action, and he almost said “no,” but he thought of the folly of attempting concealment.

“Yes.  She is here.”

What little color had wandered back into Laura’s face forsook it again.  Her heart stood still, her strength seemed going from her limbs.  Her last hope was gone.  The room swam before her for a moment, and the Colonel stepped towards her, but she waved him back, as hot anger again coursed through her veins, and said,

“And you dare come with her, here, and tell me of it, here and mock me with it!  And you think I will have it; George?  You think I will let you live with that woman?  You think I am as powerless as that day I fell dead at your feet?”

She raged now.  She was in a tempest of excitement.  And she advanced towards him with a threatening mien.  She would kill me if she could, thought the Colonel; but he thought at the same moment, how beautiful she is.  He had recovered his head now.  She was lovely when he knew her, then a simple country girl, Now she was dazzling, in the fullness of ripe womanhood, a superb creature, with all the fascination that a woman of the world has for such a man as Col.  Selby.  Nothing of this was lost on him.  He stepped quickly to her, grasped both her hands in his, and said,

“Laura, stop! think!  Suppose I loved you yet!  Suppose I hated my fate!  What can I do?  I am broken by the war.  I have lost everything almost.  I had as lief be dead and done with it.”

The Colonel spoke with a low remembered voice that thrilled through Laura.  He was looking into her eyes as he had looked in those old days, when no birds of all those that sang in the groves where they walked sang a note of warning.  He was wounded.  He had been punished.  Her strength forsook her with her rage, and she sank upon a chair, sobbing,

“Oh! my God, I thought I hated him!”

The Colonel knelt beside her.  He took her hand and she let him keep it.  She, looked down into his face, with a pitiable tenderness, and said in a weak voice.

“And you do love me a little?”

The Colonel vowed and protested.  He kissed her hand and her lips.  He swore his false soul into perdition.

She wanted love, this woman.  Was not her love for George Selby deeper than any other woman’s could be?  Had she not a right to him?  Did he not belong to her by virtue of her overmastering passion?  His wife ­she was not his wife, except by the law.  She could not be.  Even with the law she could have no right to stand between two souls that were one.  It was an infamous condition in society that George should be tied to her.

Laura thought this, believed it; because she desired to believe it.  She came to it as an original propositions founded an the requirements of her own nature.  She may have heard, doubtless she had, similar theories that were prevalent at that day, theories of the tyranny of marriage and of the freedom of marriage.  She had even heard women lecturers say, that marriage should only continue so long as it pleased either party to it ­for a year, or a month, or a day.  She had not given much heed to this, but she saw its justice now in a dash of revealing desire.  It must be right.  God would not have permitted her to love George Selby as she did, and him to love her, if it was right for society to raise up a barrier between them.  He belonged to her.  Had he not confessed it himself?

Not even the religious atmosphere of Senator Dilworthy’s house had been sufficient to instill into Laura that deep Christian principle which had been somehow omitted in her training.  Indeed in that very house had she not heard women, prominent before the country and besieging Congress, utter sentiments that fully justified the course she was marking out for herself.

They were seated now, side by side, talking with more calmness.  Laura was happy, or thought she was.  But it was that feverish sort of happiness which is snatched out of the black shadow of falsehood, and is at the moment recognized as fleeting and perilous, and indulged tremblingly.  She loved.  She was loved.  That is happiness certainly.  And the black past and the troubled present and the uncertain future could not snatch that from her.

What did they say as they sat there?  What nothings do people usually say in such circumstances, even if they are three-score and ten?  It was enough for Laura to hear his voice and be near him.  It was enough for him to be near her, and avoid committing himself as much as he could.  Enough for him was the present also.  Had there not always been some way out of such scrapes?

And yet Laura could not be quite content without prying into tomorrow.  How could the Colonel manage to free himself from his wife?  Would it be long?  Could he not go into some State where it would not take much time?  He could not say exactly.  That they must think of.  That they must talk over.  And so on.  Did this seem like a damnable plot to Laura against the life, maybe, of a sister, a woman like herself?  Probably not.  It was right that this man should be hers, and there were some obstacles in the way.  That was all.  There are as good reasons for bad actions as for good ones, ­to those who commit them.  When one has broken the tenth commandment, the others are not of much account.

Was it unnatural, therefore, that when George Selby departed, Laura should watch him from the window, with an almost joyful heart as he went down the sunny square?  “I shall see him to-morrow,” she said, “and the next day, and the next.  He is mine now.”

“Damn the woman,” said the Colonel as he picked his way down the steps.  “Or,” he added, as his thoughts took a new turn, “I wish my wife was in New Orleans.”