Chapter XXXIII, page 2

By Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
From The Gilded Age (1873).


He was a man of paramount influence at home, for he was public spirited, he was chief of the fire department, he had an admirable command of profane language, and had killed several "parties." His shirt fronts were always immaculate; his boots daintily polished, and no man could lift a foot and fire a dead shot at a stray speck of dirt on it with a white handkerchief with a finer grace than he; his watch chain weighed a pound; the gold in his finger ring was worth forty five dollars; he wore a diamond cluster-pin and he parted his hair behind. He had always been, regarded as the most elegant gentleman in his territory, and it was conceded by all that no man thereabouts was anywhere near his equal in the telling of an obscene story except the venerable white-haired governor himself. The Hon. Higgins had not come to serve his country in Washington for nothing. The appropriation which he had engineered through Congress for the maintenance, of the Indians in his Territory would have made all those savages rich if it had ever got to them.

The Hon. Mrs. Higgins was a picturesque woman, and a fluent talker, and she held a tolerably high station among the Parvenus. Her English was fair enough, as a general thing--though, being of New York origin, she had the fashion peculiar to many natives of that city of pronouncing saw and law as if they were spelt sawr and lawr.

Petroleum was the agent that had suddenly transformed the Gashlys from modest hard-working country village folk into "loud" aristocrats and ornaments of the city.

The Hon. Patrique Oreille was a wealthy Frenchman from Cork. Not that he was wealthy when he first came from Cork, but just the reverse. When he first landed in New York with his wife, he had only halted at Castle Garden for a few minutes to receive and exhibit papers showing that he had resided in this country two years--and then he voted the democratic ticket and went up town to hunt a house. He found one and then went to work as assistant to an architect and builder, carrying a hod all day and studying politics evenings. Industry and economy soon enabled him to start a low rum shop in a foul locality, and this gave him political influence. In our country it is always our first care to see that our people have the opportunity of voting for their choice of men to represent and govern them--we do not permit our great officials to appoint the little officials. We prefer to have so tremendous a power as that in our own hands. We hold it safest to elect our judges and everybody else. In our cities, the ward meetings elect delegates to the nominating conventions and instruct them whom to nominate. The publicans and their retainers rule the ward meetings (for every body else hates the worry of politics and stays at home); the delegates from the ward meetings organize as a nominating convention and make up a list of candidates--one convention offering a democratic and another a republican list of incorruptibles; and then the great meek public come forward at the proper time and make unhampered choice and bless Heaven that they live in a free land where no form of despotism can ever intrude.

Patrick O'Riley (as his name then stood) created friends and influence very, fast, for he was always on hand at the police courts to give straw bail for his customers or establish an alibi for them in case they had been beating anybody to death on his premises. Consequently he presently became a political leader, and was elected to a petty office under the city government. Out of a meager salary he soon saved money enough to open quite a stylish liquor saloon higher up town, with a faro bank attached and plenty of capital to conduct it with. This gave him fame and great respectability. The position of alderman was forced upon him, and it was just the same as presenting him a gold mine. He had fine horses and carriages, now, and closed up his whiskey mill.

By and by he became a large contractor for city work, and was a bosom friend of the great and good Wm. M. Weed himself, who had stolen $20,600,000 from the city and was a man so envied, so honored,--so adored, indeed, that when the sheriff went to his office to arrest him as a felon, that sheriff blushed and apologized, and one of the illustrated papers made a picture of the scene and spoke of the matter in such a way as to show that the editor regretted that the offense of an arrest had been offered to so exalted a personage as Mr. Weed.

Mr. O'Riley furnished shingle nails to, the new Court House at three thousand dollars a keg, and eighteen gross of 60-cent thermometers at fifteen hundred dollars a dozen; the controller and the board of audit passed the bills, and a mayor, who was simply ignorant but not criminal, signed them. When they were paid, Mr. O'Riley's admirers gave him a solitaire diamond pin of the size of a filbert, in imitation of the liberality of Mr. Weed's friends, and then Mr. O'Riley retired from active service and amused himself with buying real estate at enormous figures and holding it in other people's names. By and by the newspapers came out with exposures and called Weed and O'Riley "thieves,"--whereupon the people rose as one man (voting repeatedly) and elected the two gentlemen to their proper theatre of action, the New York legislature. The newspapers clamored, and the courts proceeded to try the new legislators for their small irregularities. Our admirable jury system enabled the persecuted ex-officials to secure a jury of nine gentlemen from a neighboring asylum and three graduates from Sing-Sing, and presently they walked forth with characters vindicated. The legislature was called upon to spew them forth--a thing which the legislature declined to do. It was like asking children to repudiate their own father. It was a legislature of the modern pattern.

Being now wealthy and distinguished, Mr. O'Riley, still bearing the legislative "Hon." attached to his name (for titles never die in America, although we do take a republican pride in poking fun at such trifles), sailed for Europe with his family. They traveled all about, turning their noses up at every thing, and not finding it a difficult thing to do, either, because nature had originally given those features a cast in that direction; and finally they established themselves in Paris, that Paradise of Americans of their sort.--They staid there two years and learned to speak English with a foreign accent--not that it hadn't always had a foreign accent (which was indeed the case) but now the nature of it was changed. Finally they returned home and became ultra fashionables. They landed here as the Hon. Patrique Oreille and family, and so are known unto this day.

Laura provided seats for her visitors and they immediately launched forth into a breezy, sparkling conversation with that easy confidence which is to be found only among persons accustomed to high life.

"I've been intending to call sooner, Miss Hawkins," said the Hon. Mrs. Oreille, but the weather's been so horrid. How do you like Washington?"

Laura liked it very well indeed.

Mrs. Gashly--"Is it your first visit?"

Yea, it was her first.

All--"Indeed?"

Mrs. Oreille--"I'm afraid you'll despise the weather, Miss Hawkins. It's perfectly awful. It always is. I tell Mr. Oreille I can't and I won't put up with any such a climate. If we were obliged to do it, I wouldn't mind it; but we are not obliged to, and so I don't see the use of it. Sometimes its real pitiful the way the childern pine for Parry-- don't look so sad, Bridget, 'ma chere'--poor child, she can't hear Parry mentioned without getting the blues."

Mrs. Gashly--"Well I should think so, Mrs. Oreille. A body lives in Paris, but a body, only stays here. I dote on Paris; I'd druther scrimp along on ten thousand dollars a year there, than suffer and worry here on a real decent income."

Miss Gashly--"Well then, I wish you'd take us back, mother; I'm sure I hate this stoopid country enough, even if it is our dear native land."

Miss Emmeline Gashly--"What and leave poor Johnny Peterson behind?" [An airy genial laugh applauded this sally].

Miss Gashly--"Sister, I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself!"

Miss Emmeline--"Oh, you needn't ruffle your feathers so: I was only joking. He don't mean anything by coming to, the house every evening-- only comes to see mother. Of course that's all!" [General laughter].

Miss G. prettily confused--"Emmeline, how can you!"

Mrs. G.--"Let your sister alone, Emmeline. I never saw such a tease!"

Mrs. Oreille--"What lovely corals you have, Miss Hawkins! Just look at them, Bridget, dear. I've a great passion for corals--it's a pity they're getting a little common. I have some elegant ones--not as elegant as yours, though--but of course I don't wear them now."

Laura--"I suppose they are rather common, but still I have a great affection for these, because they were given to me by a dear old friend of our family named Murphy. He was a very charming man, but very eccentric. We always supposed he was an Irishman, but after be got rich he went abroad for a year or two, and when he came back you would have been amused to see how interested he was in a potato. He asked what it was! Now you know that when Providence shapes a mouth especially for the accommodation of a potato you can detect that fact at a glance when that mouth is in repose--foreign travel can never remove that sign. But he was a very delightful gentleman, and his little foible did not hurt him at all. We all have our shams--I suppose there is a sham somewhere about every individual, if we could manage to ferret it out. I would so like to go to France. I suppose our society here compares very favorably with French society does it not, Mrs. Oreille?"

Mrs. O.--"Not by any means, Miss Hawkins! French society is much more elegant--much more so."

Laura--"I am sorry to hear that. I suppose ours has deteriorated of late."

Mrs. O.--"Very much indeed. There are people in society here that have really no more money to live on than what some of us pay for servant hire. Still I won't say but what some of them are very good people--and respectable, too."

Laura--"The old families seem to be holding themselves aloof, from what I hear. I suppose you seldom meet in society now, the people you used to be familiar with twelve or fifteen years ago?"

Mrs. O.--"Oh, no-hardly ever."

Mr. O'Riley kept his first rum-mill and protected his customers from the law in those days, and this turn of the conversation was rather uncomfortable to madame than otherwise.

Hon. Mrs. Higgins--"Is Francois' health good now, Mrs. Oreille?"

Mrs. O.--(Thankful for the intervention--"Not very. A body couldn't expect it. He was always delicate--especially his lungs--and this odious climate tells on him strong, now, after Parry, which is so mild."

Mrs. H:--"I should think so. Husband says Percy'll die if he don't have a change; and so I'm going to swap round a little and see what can be done. I saw a lady from Florida last week, and she recommended Key West. I told her Percy couldn't abide winds, as he was threatened with a pulmonary affection, and then she said try St. Augustine. It's an awful distance--ten or twelve hundred mile, they say but then in a case of this kind--a body can't stand back for trouble, you know."

Mrs. O.--"No, of course that's off. If Francois don't get better soon we've got to look out for some other place, or else Europe. We've thought some of the Hot Springs, but I don't know. It's a great responsibility and a body wants to go cautious. Is Hildebrand about again, Mrs. Gashly?"

Mrs. G.--"Yes, but that's about all. It was indigestion, you know, and it looks as if it was chronic. And you know I do dread dyspepsia. We've all been worried a good deal about him. The doctor recommended baked apple and spoiled meat, and I think it done him good. It's about the only thing that will stay on his stomach now-a-days. We have Dr. Shovel now. Who's your doctor, Mrs. Higgins?"

Mrs. H.--"Well, we had Dr. Spooner a good while, but he runs so much to emetics, which I think are weakening, that we changed off and took Dr. Leathers. We like him very much. He has a fine European reputation, too. The first thing he suggested for Percy was to have him taken out in the back yard for an airing, every afternoon, with nothing at all on."

Mrs. O. and Mrs. G.--"What!"

Mrs. H.--"As true as I'm sitting here. And it actually helped him for two or three days; it did indeed. But after that the doctor said it seemed to be too severe and so he has fell back on hot foot-baths at night and cold showers in the morning. But I don't think there, can be any good sound help for him in such a climate as this. I believe we are going to lose him if we don't make a change."

Mrs. O. "I suppose you heard of the fright we had two weeks ago last Saturday? No? Why that is strange--but come to remember, you've all been away to Richmond. Francois tumbled from the sky light--in the second-story hall clean down to the first floor--"

Everybody--"Mercy!"

Mrs. O.--Yes indeed--and broke two of his ribs--"

Everybody--"What!"

Mrs. O. "Just as true as you live. First we thought he must be injured internally. It was fifteen minutes past 8 in the evening. Of course we were all distracted in a moment--everybody was flying everywhere, and nobody doing anything worth anything. By and by I flung out next door and dragged in Dr. Sprague; President of the Medical University no time to go for our own doctor of course--and the minute he saw Francois he said, 'Send for your own physician, madam;' said it as cross as a bear, too, and turned right on his heel, and cleared out without doing a thing!"

Everybody--"The mean, contemptible brute!"

Mrs. O--"Well you may say it. I was nearly out of my wits by this time. But we hurried off the servants after our own doctor and telegraphed mother--she was in New York and rushed down on the first train; and when the doctor got there, lo and behold you he found Francois had broke one of his legs, too!"

Everybody--"Goodness!"

Mrs. O.--"Yes. So he set his leg and bandaged it up, and fixed his ribs and gave him a dose of something to quiet down his excitement and put him to sleep--poor thing he was trembling and frightened to death and it was pitiful to see him. We had him in my bed--Mr. Oreille slept in the guest room and I laid down beside Francois--but not to sleep bless you no. Bridget and I set up all night, and the doctor staid till two in the morning, bless his old heart.--When mother got there she was so used up with anxiety, that she had to go to bed and have the doctor; but when she found that Francois was not in immediate danger she rallied, and by night she was able to take a watch herself. Well for three days and nights we three never left that bedside only to take an hour's nap at a time. And then the doctor said Francois was out of danger and if ever there was a thankful set, in this world, it was us."

Laura's respect for these, women had augmented during this conversation, naturally enough; affection and devotion are qualities that are able to adorn and render beautiful a character that is otherwise unattractive, and even repulsive.

Mrs. Gashly--"I do believe I would a died if I had been in your place, Mrs. Oreille. The time Hildebrand was so low with the pneumonia Emmeline and me were all, alone with him most of the time and we never took a minute's sleep for as much as two days, and nights. It was at Newport and we wouldn't trust hired nurses. One afternoon he had a fit, and jumped up and run out on the portico of the hotel with nothing in the world on and the wind a blowing liken ice and we after him scared to death; and when the ladies and gentlemen saw that he had a fit, every lady scattered for her room and not a gentleman lifted his hand to help, the wretches! Well after that his life hung by a thread for as much as ten days, and the minute he was out of danger Emmeline and me just went to bed sick and worn out. I never want to pass through such a time again. Poor dear Francois--which leg did he break, Mrs. Oreille!"

Mrs. O.--"It was his right hand hind leg. Jump down, Francois dear, and show the ladies what a cruel limp you've got yet."

Francois demurred, but being coaxed and delivered gently upon the floor, he performed very satisfactorily, with his "right hand hind leg" in the air. All were affected--even Laura--but hers was an affection of the stomach. The country-bred girl had not suspected that the little whining ten-ounce black and tan reptile, clad in a red embroidered pigmy blanket and reposing in Mrs. Oreille's lap all through the visit was the individual whose sufferings had been stirring the dormant generosities of her nature. She said:

"Poor little creature! You might have lost him!"

Mrs. O.--" O pray don't mention it, Miss Hawkins--it gives me such a turn!"

Laura--"And Hildebrand and Percy--are they-are they like this one?"

Mrs. G.--"No, Hilly has considerable Skye blood in him, I believe."

Mrs. H.--"Percy's the same, only he is two months and ten days older and has his ears cropped. His father, Martin Farquhar Tupper, was sickly, and died young, but he was the sweetest disposition.--His mother had heart disease but was very gentle and resigned, and a wonderful ratter." --[** As impossible and exasperating as this conversation may sound to a person who is not an idiot, it is scarcely in any respect an exaggeration of one which one of us actually listened to in an American drawing room-- otherwise we could not venture to put such a chapter into a book which, professes to deal with social possibilities.--THE AUTHORS.]

So carried away had the visitors become by their interest attaching to this discussion of family matters, that their stay had been prolonged to a very improper and unfashionable length; but they suddenly recollected themselves now and took their departure.

Laura's scorn was boundless. The more she thought of these people and their extraordinary talk, the more offensive they seemed to her; and yet she confessed that if one must choose between the two extreme aristocracies it might be best, on the whole, looking at things from a strictly business point of view, to herd with the Parvenus; she was in Washington solely to compass a certain matter and to do it at any cost, and these people might be useful to her, while it was plain that her purposes and her schemes for pushing them would not find favor in the eyes of the Antiques. If it came to choice--and it might come to that, sooner or later--she believed she could come to a decision without much difficulty or many pangs.

But the best aristocracy of the three Washington castes, and really the most powerful, by far, was that of the Middle Ground: It was made up of the families of public men from nearly every state in the Union--men who held positions in both the executive and legislative branches of the government, and whose characters had been for years blemishless, both at home and at the capital. These gentlemen and their households were unostentatious people; they were educated and refined; they troubled themselves but little about the two other orders of nobility, but moved serenely in their wide orbit, confident in their own strength and well aware of the potency of their influence. They had no troublesome appearances to keep up, no rivalries which they cared to distress themselves about, no jealousies to fret over. They could afford to mind their own affairs and leave other combinations to do the same or do otherwise, just as they chose. They were people who were beyond reproach, and that was sufficient.

Senator Dilworthy never came into collision with any of these factions. He labored for them all and with them all. He said that all men were brethren and all were entitled to the honest unselfish help and countenance of a Christian laborer in the public vineyard.

Laura concluded, after reflection, to let circumstances determine the course it might be best for her to pursue as regarded the several aristocracies.

Now it might occur to the reader that perhaps Laura had been somewhat rudely suggestive in her remarks to Mrs. Oreille when the subject of corals was under discussion, but it did not occur to Laura herself. She was not a person of exaggerated refinement; indeed, the society and the influences that had formed her character had not been of a nature calculated to make her so; she thought that "give and take was fair play," and that to parry an offensive thrust with a sarcasm was a neat and legitimate thing to do. She some times talked to people in a way which some ladies would consider, actually shocking; but Laura rather prided herself upon some of her exploits of that character. We are sorry we cannot make her a faultless heroine; but we cannot, for the reason that she was human.

She considered herself a superior conversationist. Long ago, when the possibility had first been brought before her mind that some day she might move in Washington society, she had recognized the fact that practiced conversational powers would be a necessary weapon in that field; she had also recognized the fact that since her dealings there must be mainly with men, and men whom she supposed to be exceptionally cultivated and able, she would need heavier shot in her magazine than mere brilliant "society" nothings; whereupon she had at once entered upon a tireless and elaborate course of reading, and had never since ceased to devote every unoccupied moment to this sort of preparation. Having now acquired a happy smattering of various information, she used it with good effect--she passed for a singularly well informed woman in Washington. The quality of her literary tastes had necessarily undergone constant improvement under this regimen, and as necessarily, also; the duality of her language had improved, though it cannot be denied that now and then her former condition of life betrayed itself in just perceptible inelegancies of expression and lapses of grammar.








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