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It was a numerous company--eighteen or twenty perhaps. Of these some five or six were ladies, who sat wedged together in a little phalanx by themselves. All the knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming; very few words were spoken; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost in self-defence, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time to-morrow morning, and it had become high time to assert the first law of nature. The poultry, which may perhaps be considered to have formed the staple of the entertainment--for there was a turkey at the top, a pair of ducks at the bottom, and two fowls in the middle--disappeared as rapidly as if every bird had had the use of its wings, and had flown in desperation down a human throat. The oysters, stewed and pickled, leaped from their capacious reservoirs, and slid by scores into the mouths of the assembly. The sharpest pickles vanished, whole cucumbers at once, like sugar-plums, and no man winked his eye. Great heaps of indigestible matter melted away as ice before the sun. It was a solemn and an awful thing to see. Dyspeptic individuals bolted their food in wedges; feeding, not themselves, but broods of nightmares, who were continually standing at livery within them. Spare men, with lank and rigid cheeks, came out unsatisfied from the destruction of heavy dishes, and glared with watchful eyes upon the pastry. What Mrs Pawkins felt each day at dinner-time is hidden from all human knowledge. But she had one comfort. It was very soon over.
When the colonel had finished his dinner, which event took place while Martin, who had sent his plate for some turkey, was waiting to begin, he asked him what he thought of the boarders, who were from all parts of the Union, and whether he would like to know any particulars concerning them.
'Pray,' said Martin, 'who is that sickly little girl opposite, with the tight round eyes? I don't see anybody here, who looks like her mother, or who seems to have charge of her.'
'Do you mean the matron in blue, sir?' asked the colonel, with emphasis. 'That is Mrs Jefferson Brick, sir.'
'No, no,' said Martin, 'I mean the little girl, like a doll; directly opposite.'
'Well, sir!' cried the colonel. 'THAT is Mrs Jefferson Brick.'
Martin glanced at the colonel's face, but he was quite serious.
'Bless my soul! I suppose there will be a young Brick then, one of these days?' said Martin.
'There are two young Bricks already, sir,' returned the colonel.
The matron looked so uncommonly like a child herself, that Martin could not help saying as much. 'Yes, sir,' returned the colonel, 'but some institutions develop human natur; others re--tard it.'
'Jefferson Brick,' he observed after a short silence, in commendation of his correspondent, 'is one of the most remarkable men in our country, sir!'
This had passed almost in a whisper, for the distinguished gentleman alluded to sat on Martin's other hand.
'Pray, Mr Brick,' said Martin, turning to him, and asking a question more for conversation's sake than from any feeling of interest in its subject, 'who is that;' he was going to say 'young' but thought it prudent to eschew the word--'that very short gentleman yonder, with the red nose?'
'That is Pro--fessor Mullit, sir,' replied Jefferson.
'May I ask what he is professor of?' asked Martin.
'Of education, sir,' said Jefferson Brick.
'A sort of schoolmaster, possibly?' Martin ventured to observe.
'He is a man of fine moral elements, sir, and not commonly endowed,' said the war correspondent. 'He felt it necessary, at the last election for President, to repudiate and denounce his father, who voted on the wrong interest. He has since written some powerful pamphlets, under the signature of "Suturb," or Brutus reversed. He is one of the most remarkable men in our country, sir.'
'There seem to be plenty of 'em,' thought Martin, 'at any rate.'
Pursuing his inquiries Martin found that there were no fewer than four majors present, two colonels, one general, and a captain, so that he could not help thinking how strongly officered the American militia must be; and wondering very much whether the officers commanded each other; or if they did not, where on earth the privates came from. There seemed to be no man there without a title; for those who had not attained to military honours were either doctors, professors, or reverends. Three very hard and disagreeable gentlemen were on missions from neighbouring States; one on monetary affairs, one on political, one on sectarian. Among the ladies, there were Mrs Pawkins, who was very straight, bony, and silent; and a wiry-faced old damsel, who held strong sentiments touching the rights of women, and had diffused the same in lectures; but the rest were strangely devoid of individual traits of character, insomuch that any one of them might have changed minds with the other, and nobody would have found it out. These, by the way, were the only members of the party who did not appear to be among the most remarkable people in the country.
Several of the gentlemen got up, one by one, and walked off as they swallowed their last morsel; pausing generally by the stove for a minute or so to refresh themselves at the brass spittoons. A few sedentary characters, however, remained at table full a quarter of an hour, and did not rise until the ladies rose, when all stood up.
'Where are they going?' asked Martin, in the ear of Mr Jefferson Brick.
'To their bedrooms, sir.'
'Is there no dessert, or other interval of conversation?' asked Martin, who was disposed to enjoy himself after his long voyage.
'We are a busy people here, sir, and have no time for that,' was the reply.
So the ladies passed out in single file; Mr Jefferson Brick and such other married gentlemen as were left, acknowledging the departure of their other halves by a nod; and there was an end of THEM. Martin thought this an uncomfortable custom, but he kept his opinion to himself for the present, being anxious to hear, and inform himself by, the conversation of the busy gentlemen, who now lounged about the stove as if a great weight had been taken off their minds by the withdrawal of the other sex; and who made a plentiful use of the spittoons and their toothpicks.
It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to THEM!
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Martin Chuzzlewit -- by Charles Dickens