Part 1 out of 4
Democracy An American Novel
by Henry Adams
First published anonymously, March 1880, and soon in various
unauthorized editions. It wasn't until the 1925 edition that Adams
was listed as author. Henry Adams remarked (ironically as usual),
"The wholesale piracy of Democracy was the single real triumph
of my life."--it was very popular, as readers tried to guess who the
author was and who the characters really were. Chapters XII and
XIII were originally misnumbered.
FOR reasons which many persons thought ridiculous, Mrs.
Lightfoot Lee decided to pass the winter in Washington. She was
in excellent health, but she said that the climate would do her
good. In New York she had troops of friends, but she suddenly
became eager to see again the very small number of those who
lived on the Potomac. It was only to her closest intimates that she
honestly acknowledged herself to be tortured by ennui. Since her
husband's death, five years before, she had lost her taste for New
York society; she had felt no interest in the price of stocks, and
very little in the men who dealt in them; she had become serious.
What was it all worth, this wilderness of men and women as
monotonous as the brown stone houses they lived in? In her
despair she had resorted to desperate measures. She had read
philosophy in the original German, and the more she read, the
more she was disheartened that so much culture should lead to
After talking of Herbert Spencer for an entire evening with a very
literary transcendental commission-merchant, she could not see
that her time had been better employed than when in former days
she had passed it in flirting with a very agreeable young
stock-broker; indeed, there was an evident proof to the contrary,
for the flirtation might lead to something--had, in fact, led to
marriage; while the philosophy could lead to nothing, unless it
were perhaps to another evening of the same kind, because
transcendental philosophers are mostly elderly men, usually
married, and, when engaged in business, somewhat apt to be
sleepy towards evening. Nevertheless Mrs. Lee did her best to turn
her study to practical use. She plunged into philanthropy, visited
prisons, inspected hospitals, read the literature of pauperism and
crime, saturated herself with the statistics of vice, until her mind
had nearly lost sight of virtue. At last it rose in rebellion against
her, and she came to the limit of her strength. This path, too,
seemed to lead nowhere. She declared that she had lost the sense
of duty, and that, so far as concerned her, all the paupers and
criminals in New York might henceforward rise in their majesty
and manage every railway on the continent. Why should she care?
What was the city to her? She could find nothing in it that seemed
to demand salvation. What gave peculiar sanctity to numbers?
Why were a million people, who all resembled each other, any way
more interesting than one person? What aspiration could she help
to put into the mind of this great million-armed monster that
would make it worth her love or respect? Religion? A thousand
powerful churches were doing their best, and she could see no
chance for a new faith of which she was to be the inspired prophet.
Ambition? High popular ideals? Passion for whatever is lofty and
pure? The very words irritated her. Was she not herself devoured
by ambition, and was she not now eating her heart out because she
could find no one object worth a sacrifice?
Was it ambition--real ambition--or was it mere restlessness that
made Mrs. Lightfoot Lee so bitter against New York and
Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, American life in general and
all life in particular? What did she want? Not social position, for
she herself was an eminently respectable Philadelphian by birth;
her father a famous clergyman; and her husband had been equally
irreproachable, a descendant of one branch of the Virginia Lees,
which had drifted to New York in search of fortune, and had found
it, or enough of it to keep the young man there. His widow had her
own place in society which no one disputed. Though not brighter
than her neighbours, the world persisted in classing her among
clever women; she had wealth, or at least enough of itto give her
all that money can give by way of pleasure to a sensible woman in
an American city; she had her house and her carriage; she dressed
well; her table was good, and her furniture was never allowed to
fall behind the latest standard of decorative art. She had travelled
in Europe, and after several visits, covering some years of time,
had retumed home, carrying in one hand, as it were, a green-grey
landscape, a remarkably pleasing specimen of Corot, and in the
other some bales of Persian and Syrian rugs and embroideries,
Japanese bronzes and porcelain. With this she declared Europe to
be exhausted, and she frankly avowed that she was American to
the tips of her fingers; she neither knew nor greatly cared whether
America or Europe were best to live in; she had no violent love for
either, and she had no objection to abusing both; but she meant to
get all that American life had to offer, good or bad, and to drink it
down to the dregs, fully determined that whatever there was in it
she would have, and that whatever could be made out of it she
would manufacture. "I know," said she, "that America produces
petroleum and pigs; I have seen both on the steamers; and I am
told it produces silver and gold. There is choice enough for any
Yet, as has been already said, Mrs. Lee's first experience was not a
success. She soon declared that New York might represent the
petroleum or the pigs, but the gold of life was not to be discovered
there by her eyes.
Not but that there was variety enough; a variety of people,
occupations, aims, and thoughts; but that all these, after growing to
a certain height, stopped short. They found nothing to hold them
up. She knew, more or less intimately, a dozen men whose
fortunes ranged between one million and forty millions. What did
they do with their money? What could they do with it that was
different from what other men did? After all, it is absurd to spend
more money than is enough to satisfy all one's wants; it is vulgar to
live in two houses in the same street, and to drive six horses
abreast. Yet, after setting aside a certain income sufficient for all
one's wants, what was to be done with the rest? To let it
accumulate was to own one's failure; Mrs. Lee's great grievance
was that it did accumulate, without changing or improving the
quality of its owners. To spend it in charity and public works was
doubtless praiseworthy, but was it wise? Mrs. Lee had read enough
political economy and pauper reports to be nearly convinced that
public work should be public duty, and that great benefactions do
harm as well as good.
And even supposing it spent on these objects, how could it do
more than increase and perpetuate that same kind of human nature
which was her great grievance? Her New York friends could not
meet this question except by falling back upon their native
commonplaces, which she recklessly trampled upon, averring that,
much as she admired the genius of the famous traveller, Mr.
Gulliver, she never had been able, since she became a widow, to
accept the Brobdingnagian doctrine that he who made two blades
of grass grow where only one grew before deserved better of
mankind than the whole race of politicians. She would not find
fault with the philosopher had he required that the grass should be
of an improved quality; "but," said she, "I cannot honestly pretend
that I should be pleased to see two New York men where I now see
one; the idea is too ridiculous; more than one and a half would be
fatal to me."
Then came her Boston friends, who suggested that higher
education was precisely what she wanted; she should throw herself
into a crusade for universities and art-schools. Mrs. Lee turned
upon them with a sweet smile; "Do you know," said she, "that we
have in New York already the richest university in America, and
that its only trouble has always been that it can get no scholars
even by paying for them? Do you want me to go out into the streets
and waylay boys? If the heathen refuse to be converted, can you
give me power over the stake and the sword to compel them to
come in? And suppose you can? Suppose I march all the boys in
Fifth Avenue down to the university and have them all properly
taught Greek and Latin, English literature, ethics, and German
philosophy. What then? You do it in Boston. Now tell me honestly
what comes of it. I suppose you have there a brilliant society;
numbers of poets, scholars, philosophers, statesmen, all up and
down Beacon Street. Your evenings must be sparkling. Your press
must scintillate. How is it that we New Yorkers never hear of it?
We don't go much into your society; but when we do, it doesn't
seem so very much better than our own. You are just like the rest
of us. You grow six inches high, and then you stop. Why will not
somebody grow to be a tree and cast a shadow?"
The average member of New York society, although not unused to
this contemptuous kind of treatment from his leaders, retaliated in
his blind, common-sense way. "What does the woman want?" he
said. "Is her head turned with the Tulieries and Marlborough
House? Does she think herself made for a throne? Why does she
not lecture for women's rights? Why not go on the stage? If she
cannot be contented like other people, what need is there for
abusing us just because she feels herself no taller than we are?
What does she expect to get from her sharp tongue? What does she
know, any way?"
Mrs. Lee certainly knew very little. She had read voraciously and
promiscuously one subject after another. Ruskin and Taine had
danced merrily through her mind, hand in hand with Darwin and
Stuart Mill, Gustave Droz and Algernon Swinburne. She had even
laboured over the literature of her own country. She was perhaps,
the only woman in New York who knew something of American
history. Certainly she could not have repeated the list of Presidents
in their order, but she knew that the Constitution divided the
goverument into Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary; she was
aware that the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice were
important personages, and instinctively she wondered whether they
might not solve her problem; whether they were the shade trees
which she saw in her dreams.
Here, then, was the explanation of her restlessness, discontent,
ambition,--call it what you will. It was the feeling of a passenger
on an ocean steamer whose mind will not give him rest until he
has been in the engine-room and talked with the engineer. She
wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to
touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to
measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power. She
was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery
of democracy and government. She cared little where her pursuit
might lead her, for she put no extravagant value upon life, having
already, as she said, exhausted at least two lives, and being fairly
hardened to insensibility in the process. "To lose a husband and a
baby," said she, "and keep one's courage and reason, one must
become very hard or very soft. I am now pure steel. You may beat
my heart with a trip-hammer and it will beat the trip-hammer back
Perhaps after exhausting the political world she might try again
elsewhere; she did not pretend to say where she might then go, or
what she should do; but at present she meant to see what
amusement there might be in politics.
Her friends asked what kind of amusement she expected to find
among the illiterate swarm of ordinary people who in Washington
represented constituencies so dreary that in comparison New York
was a New Jerusalem, and Broad Street a grove of Academe. She
replied that if Washington society were so bad as this, she should
have gained all she wanted, for it would be a pleasure to
return,--precisely the feeling she longed for. In her own mind,
however, she frowned on the idea of seeking for men. What she
wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests
of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at
Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and
uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces
of government, and the machinery of society, at work. What she
wanted, was POWER.
Perhaps the force of the engine was a little confused in her mind
with that of the engineer, the power with the men who wielded it.
Perhaps the human interest of politics was after all what really
attracted her, and, however strongly she might deny it, the passion
for exercising power, for its own sake, might dazzle and mislead a
woman who had exhausted all the ordinary feminine resources.
But why speculate about her motives? The stage was before her,
the curtain was rising, the actors were ready to enter; she had only
to go quietly on among the supernumeraries and see how the play
was acted and the stage effects were produced; how the great
tragedians mouthed, and the stage-manager swore.
ON the first of December, Mrs. Lee took the train for Washington,
and before five o'clock that evening she was entering her newly
hired house on Lafayette Square. She shrugged her shoulders with
a mingled expression of contempt and grief at the curious
barbarism of the curtains and the wall-papers, and her next two
days were occupied with a life-and-death struggle to get the
mastery over her surroundings. In this awful contest the interior of
the doomed house suffered as though a demon were in it; not a
chair, not a mirror, not a carpet, was left untouched, and in the
midst of the worst confusion the new mistress sat, calm as the
statue of Andrew Jackson in the square under her eyes, and issued
her orders with as much decision as that hero had ever shown.
Towards the close of the second day, victory crowned her
forehead. A new era, a nobler conception of duty and existence,
had dawned upon that benighted and heathen residence. The
wealth of Syria and Persia was poured out upon the melancholy
Wilton carpets; embroidered comets and woven gold from Japan
and Teheran depended from and covered over every sad
stuff-curtain; a strange medley of sketches, paintings, fans,
embroideries, and porcelain was hung, nailed, pinned, or stuck
against the wall; finally the domestic altarpiece, the mystical Corot
landscape, was hoisted to its place over the parlour fire, and then
all was over. The setting sun streamed softly in at the windows,
and peace reigned in that redeemed house and in the heart of its
"I think it will do now, Sybil," said she, surveying the scene.
"It must," replied Sybil. "You haven't a plate or a fan or coloured
scarf left. You must send out and buy some of these old
negro-women's bandannas if you are going to cover anything else.
What is the use? Do you suppose any human being in Washington
will like it? They will think you demented."
"There is such a thing as self-respect," replied her sister, calmly.
Sybil--Miss Sybil Ross--was Madeleine Lee's sister. The keenest
psychologist could not have detected a single feature quality which
they had in common, and for that reason they were devoted
friends. Madeleine was thirty, Sybil twenty-four. Madeleine was
indescribable; Sybil was transparent. Madeleine was of medium
height with a graceful figure, a well-set head, and enough
golden-brown hair to frame a face full of varying expression. Her
eyes were never for two consecutive hours of the same shade, but
were more often blue than grey. People who envied her smile said
that she cultivated a sense of humour in order to show her teeth.
Perhaps they were right; but there was no doubt that her habit of
talking with gesticulation would never have grown upon her unless
she had known that her hands were not only beautiful but
expressive. She dressed as skilfully as New York women do, but in
growing older she began to show symptoms of dangerous
unconventionality. She had been heard to express a low opinion of
her countrywomen who blindly fell down before the golden calf of
Mr. Worth, and she had even fought a battle of great severity,
while it lasted, with one of her best-dressed friends who had been
invited--and had gone--to Mr. Worth's afternoon tea-parties. The
secret was that Mrs. Lee had artistic tendencies, and unless they
were checked in time, there was no knowing what might be the
consequence. But as yet they had done no harm; indeed, they
rather helped to give her that sort of atmosphere which belongs
only to certain women; as indescribable as the afterglow; as
impalpable as an Indian summer mist; and non-existent except to
people who feel rather than reason. Sybil had none of it. The
imagination gave up all attempts to soar where she came. A more
straightforward, downright, gay, sympathetic, shallow,
warm-hearted, sternly practical young woman has rarely touched
this planet. Her mind had room for neither grave-stones nor
guide-books; she could not have lived in the past or the future if
she had spent her days in churches and her nights in tombs. "She
was not clever, like Madeleine, thank Heaven." Madeleine was not
an orthodox member of the church; sermons bored her, and
clergymen never failed to irritate every nerve in her excitable
system. Sybil was a simple and devout worshipper at the ritualistic
altar; she bent humbly before the Paulist fathers. When she went to
a ball she always had the best partner in the room, and took it as a
matter of course; but then, she always prayed for one; somehow it
strengthened her faith. Her sister took care never to laugh at her on
this score, or to shock her religious opinions. "Time enough," said
she, "for her to forget religion when religion fails her." As for
regular attendance at church, Madeleine was able to reconcile their
habits without trouble. She herself had not entered a church for
years; she said it gave her unchristian feelings; but Sybil had a
voice of excellent quality, well trained and cultivated: Madeleine
insisted that she should sing in the choir, and by this little
manoeuvre, the divergence of their paths was made less evident.
Madeleine did not sing, and therefore could not go to church with
Sybil. This outrageous fallacy seemed perfectly to answer its
purpose, and Sybil accepted it, in good faith, as a fair working
principle which explained itself.
Madeleine was sober in her tastes. She wasted no money. She
made no display.
She walked rather than drove, and wore neither diamonds nor
brocades. But the general impression she made was nevertheless
one of luxury. On the other hand, her sister had her dresses from
Paris, and wore them and her ornaments according to all the
formulas; she was good-naturedly correct, and bent her round
white shoulders to whatever burden the Parisian autocrat chose to
put upon them. Madeleine never interfered, and always paid the
Before they had been ten days in Washington, they fell gently into
their place and were carried along without an effort on the stream
of social life.
Society was kind; there was no reason for its being otherwise. Mrs.
Lee and her sister had no enemies, held no offices, and did their
best to make themselves popular. Sybil had not passed summers at
Newport and winters in New York in vain; and neither her face nor
her figure, her voice nor her dancing, needed apology. Politics
were not her strong point. She was induced to go once to the
Capitol and to sit ten minutes in the gallery of the Senate. No one
ever knew what her impressions were; with feminine tact she
managed not to betray herself But, in truth, her notion of
legislative bodies was vague, floating between her experience at
church and at the opera, so that the idea of a performance of some
kind was never out of her head. To her mind the Senate was a
place where people went to recite speeches, and she naively
assumed that the speeches were useful and had a purpose, but as
they did not interest her she never went again. This is a very
common conception of Congress; many Congressmen share it.
Her sister was more patient and bolder. She went to the Capitol
nearly every day for at least two weeks. At the end of that time her
interest began to flag, and she thought it better to read the debates
every morning in the Congressional Record. Finding this a
laborious and not always an instructive task, she began to skip the
dull parts; and in the absence of any exciting question, she at last
resigned herself to skipping the whole. Nevertheless she still had
energy to visit the Senate gallery occasionally when she was told
that a splendid orator was about to speak on a question of deep
interest to his country. She listened with a little disposition to
admire, if she could; and, whenever she could, she did admire. She
said nothing, but she listened sharply. She wanted to learn how the
machinery of government worked, and what was the quality of the
men who controlled it. One by one, she passed them through her
crucibles, and tested them by acids and by fire.
A few survived her tests and came out alive, though more or less
disfigured, where she had found impurities. Of the whole number,
only one retained under this process enough character to interest
In these early visits to Congress, Mrs. Lee sometimes had the
company of John Carrington, a Washington lawyer about forty
years old, who, by virtue of being a Virginian and a distant
connection of her husband, called himself a cousin, and took a
tone of semi-intimacy, which Mrs. Lee accepted because
Carrington was a man whom she liked, and because he was one
whom life had treated hardly. He was of that unfortunate
generation in the south which began existence with civil war, and
he was perhaps the more unfortunate because, like most educated
Virginians of the old Washington school, he had seen from the
first that, whatever issue the war took, Virginia and he must be
ruined. At twenty-two he had gone into the rebel army as a private
and carried his musket modestly through a campaign or two, after
which he slowly rose to the rank of senior captain in his regiment,
and closed his services on the staff of a major-general, always
doing scrupulously enough what he conceived to be his duty, and
never doing it with enthusiasm. When the rebel armies
surrendered, he rode away to his family plantation--not a difficult
thing to do, for it was only a few miles from Appomatox--and at
once began to study law; then, leaving his mother and sisters to do
what they could with the worn-out plantation, he began the
practice of law in Washington, hoping thus to support himself and
them. He had succeeded after a fashion, and for the first time the
future seemed not absolutely dark. Mrs. Lee's house was an oasis
to him, and he found himself, to his surprise, aimost gay in her
company. The gaiety was of a very qulet kind, and Sybil, while
friendly with him, averred that he was certainly dull; but this
dulness had a fascination for Madeleine, who, having tasted many
more kinds of the wine of life than Sybil, had learned to value
certain delicacies of age and flavour that were lost upon younger
and coarser palates. He talked rather slowly and almost with effort,
but he had something of the dignity--others call it stiffness--of the
old Virginia school, and twenty years of constant responsibility
and deferred hope had added a touch of care that bordered closely
on sadness. His great attraction was that he never talked or seemed
to think of himself. Mrs. Lee trusted in him by instinct. "He is a
type!" said she; "he is my idea of George Washington at thirty."
One morning in December, Carrington entered Mrs. Lee's parlour
towards noon, and asked if she cared to visit the Capitol.
"You will have a chance of hearing to-day what may be the last
great speech of our greatest statesman," said he; "you should
"A splendid sample of our na-tive raw material, sir?" asked she,
fresh from a reading of Dickens, and his famous picture of
"Precisely so," said Carrington; "the Prairie Giant of Peonia, the
Favourite Son of Illinois; the man who came within three votes of
getting the party nomination for the Presidency last spring, and
was only defeated because ten small intriguers are sharper than
one big one. The Honourable Silas P.
Ratcliffe, Senator from Illinois; he will be run for the Presidency
"What does the P. stand for?" asked Sybil.
"I don't remember ever to have heard his middle name," said
"Perhaps it is Peonia or Prairie; I can't say."
"He is the man whose appearance struck me so much when we
were in the Senate last week, is he not? A great, ponderous man,
over six feet high, very senatorial and dignified, with a large head
and rather good features?" inquired Mrs. Lee.
"The same," replied Carrington. "By all means hear him speak. He
is the stumbling-block of the new President, who is to be allowed
no peace unless he makes terms with Ratcliffe; and so every one
thinks that the Prairie Giant of Peonia will have the choice of the
State or Treasury Department. If he takes either it will be the
Treasury, for he is a desperate political manager, and will want the
patronage for the next national convention."
Mrs. Lee was delighted to hear the debate, and Carrington was
delighted to sit through it by her side, and to exchange running
comments with her on the speeches and the speakers.
"Have you ever met the Senator?" asked she.
"I have acted several times as counsel before his committees. He is
an excellent chairman, always attentive and generally civil."
"Where was he born?"
"The family is a New England one, and I believe respectable. He
came, I think, from some place in the Connecticut Valley, but
whether Vermont, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts, I don't
"Is he an educated man?"
"He got a kind of classical education at one of the country colleges
I suspect he has as much education as is good for him. But he went
West very soon after leaving college, and being then young and
fresh from that hot-bed of abolition, he threw himself into the
anti-slavery movement m Illinois, and after a long struggle he rose
with the wave. He would not do the same thing now."
"He is older, more experienced, and not so wise. Besides, he has
no longer the time to wait. Can you see his eyes from here? I call
them Yankee eyes."
"Don't abuse the Yankees," said Mrs. Lee; "I am half Yankee
"Is that abuse? Do you mean to deny that they have eyes?"
"I concede that there may be eyes among them; but Virginians are
not fair judges of their expression."
"Cold eyes," he continued; "steel grey, rather small, not unpleasant
in good-humour, diabolic in a passion, but worst when a little
suspicious; then they watch you as though you were a young
rattle-snake, to be killed when convenient."
"Does he not look you in the face?"
"Yes; but not as though he liked you. His eyes only seem to ask the
possible uses you might be put to. Ah, the vice-president has given
him the floor; now we shall have it. Hard voice, is it not? like his
eyes. Hard manner, like his voice. Hard all through."
"What a pity he is so dreadfully senatorial!" said Mrs. Lee;
"otherwise I rather admire him."
"Now he is settling down to his work," continued Carrington. "See
how he dodges all the sharp issues. What a thing it is to be a
Yankee! What a genius the fellow has for leading a party! Do you
see how well it is all done? The new President flattered and
conciliated, the party united and given a strong lead. And now we
shall see how the President will deal with him. Ten to one on
Ratcliffe. Come, there is that stupid ass from Missouri getting up.
Let us go."
As they passed down the steps and out into the Avenue, Mrs. Lee
turned to Carrington as though she had been reflecting deeply and
had at length reached a decision.
"Mr. Carrington," said she, "I want to know Senator Ratcliffe."
"You will meet him to-morrow evening," replied Carrington, "at
your senatorial dinner."
The Senator from New York, the Honourable Schuyler Clinton,
was an old admirer of Mrs. Lee, and his wife was a cousin of hers,
more or less distant. They had lost no time in honouring the letter
of credit she thus had upon them, and invited her and her sister to a
solemn dinner, as imposing as political dignity could make it. Mr.
Carrington, as a connection of hers, was one of the party, and
almost the only one among the twenty persons at table who had
neither an office, nor a title, nor a constituency.
Senator Clinton received Mrs. Lee and her sister with tender
enthusiasm, for they were attractive specimens of his constituents.
He pressed their hands and evidently restrained himself only by an
effort from embracing them, for the Senator had a marked regard
for pretty women, and had made love to every girl with any
pretensions to beauty that had appeared in the State of New York
for fully half a century. At the same time he whispered an apology
in her ear; he regretted so much that he was obliged to forego the
pleasure of taking her to dinner; Washington was the only city in
America where this could have happened, but it was a fact that
ladies here were very great stickiers for etiquette; on the other
hand he had the sad consolation that she would be the gainer, for
he had allotted to her Lord Skye, the British Minister, "a most
agreeable man and not married, as I have the misfortune to be;"
and on the other side "I have ventured to place Senator Ratcliffe,
of Illinois, whose admirable speech I saw you listening to with
such rapt attention yesterday. I thought you might like to know
him. Did I do right?"
Madeleine assured him that he had divined her inmost wishes, and
he turned with even more warmth of affection to her sister: "As for
you, my dear--dear Sybil, what can I do to make your dinner
agreeable? If I give your sister a coronet, I am only sorry not to
have a diadem for you. But I have done everything in my power.
The first Secretary of the Russian Legation, Count Popoff, will
take you in; a charming young man, my dear Sybil; and on your
other side I have placed the Assistant Secretary of State, whom
And so, after the due delay, the party settled themselves at the
dinner-table, and Mrs. Lee found Senator Ratcliffe's grey eyes
resting on her face for a moment as they sat down.
Lord Skye was very agreeable, and, at almost any other moment of
her life, Mrs. Lee would have liked nothing better than to talk with
him from the beginning to the end of her dinner. Tall, slender,
bald-headed, awkward, and stammering with his elaborate British
stammer whenever it suited his convenience to do so; a sharp
observer who had wit which he commonly concealed; a humourist
who was satisfied to laugh silently at his own humour; a
diplomatist who used the mask of frankness with great effect; Lord
Skye was one of the most popular men in Washington. Every one
knew that he was a ruthless critic of American manners, but he had
the art to combine ridicule with good-humour, and he was all the
more popular accordingly. He was an outspoken admirer of
American women in everything except their voices, and he did not
even shrink from occasionally quizzing a little the national
peculiarities of his own countrywomen; a sure piece of flattery to
their American cousins. He would gladly have devoted himself to
Mrs. Lee, but decent civility required that he should pay some
attention to his hostess, and he was too good a diplomatist not to
be attentive to a hostess who was the wife of a Senator, and that
Senator the chairman of the committee of foreign relations.
The moment his head was turned, Mrs. Lee dashed at her Peonia
Giant, who was then consuming his fish, and wishing he
understood why the British Minister had worn no gloves, while he
himself had sacrificed his convictions by wearing the largest and
whitest pair of French kids that could be bought for money on
Pennsylvania Avenue. There was a little touch of mortification in
the idea that he was not quite at home among fashionable people,
and at this instant he felt that true happiness was only to be found
among the simple and honest sons and daughters of toil. A certain
secret jealousy of the British Minister is always lurking in the
breast of every American Senator, if he is truly democratic; for
democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by
the people, for the benefit of Senators, and there is always a danger
that the British Minister may not understand this political principle
as he should. Lord Skye had run the risk of making two blunders;
of offending the Senator from New York by neglecting his wife,
and the Senator from Illinois by engrossing the attention of Mrs.
Lee. A young Englishman would have done both, but Lord Skye
had studied the American constitution. The wife of the Senator
from New York now thought him most agreeable, and at the same
moment the Senator from Illinois awoke to the conviction that
after all, even in frivolous and fashionable circles, true dignity is in
no danger of neglect; an American Senator represents a sovereign
state; the great state of Illinois is as big as England--with the
convenient omission of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, India,
Australia, and a few other continents and islands; and in short, it
was perfectly clear that Lord Skye was not formidable to him, even
in light society; had not Mrs. Lee herself as good as said that no
position equaHed that of an American Senator?
In ten minutes Mrs. Lee had this devoted statesman at her feet. She
had not studied the Senate without a purpose. She had read with
unerring instinct one general characteristic of all Senators, a
boundless and guileless thirst for flattery, engendered by daily
draughts from political friends or dependents, then becoming a
necessity like a dram, and swallowed with a heavy smile of
ineffable content. A single glance at Mr. Ratcliffe's face showed
Madeleine that she need not be afraid of flattering too grossly; her
own self-respect, not his, was the only restraint upon her use of
this feminine bait.
She opened upon him with an apparent simplicity and gravity, a
quiet repose of manner, and an evident consciousness of her own
strength, which meant that she was most dangerous.
"I heard your speech yesterday, Mr. Ratcliffe. I am glad to have a
chance of telling you how much I was impressed by it. It seemed
to me masterly. Do you not find that it has had a great effect?"
"I thank you, madam. I hope it will help to unite the party, but as
yet we have had no time to measure its results. That will require
several days more." The Senator spoke in his senatorial manner,
elaborate, condescending, and a little on his guard.
"Do you know," said Mrs. Lee, turning towards him as though he
were a valued friend, and looking deep into his eyes, "Do you
know that every one told me I should be shocked by the falling off
in political ability at Washington? I did not believe them, and since
hearing your speech I am sure they are mistaken. Do you yourself
think there is less ability in Congress than there used to be?"
"Well, madam, it is difficult to answer that question. Government
is not so easy now as it was formerly. There are different customs.
There are many men of fair abilities in public life; many more than
there used to be; and there is sharper criticism and more of it."
"Was I right in thinking that you have a strong resemblance to
Daniel Webster in your way of speaking? You come from the same
neighbourhood, do you not?"
Mrs. Lee here hit on Ratcliffe's weak point; the outline of his head
had, in fact, a certain resemblance to that of Webster, and he
prided himself upon it, and on a distant relationship to the
Expounder of the Constitution; he began to think that Mrs. Lee
was a very intelligent person. His modest admission of the
resemblance gave her the opportunity to talk of Webster 's oratory,
and the conversation soon spread to a discussion of the merits of
Clay and Calhoun. The Senator found that his neighbour--a
fashionable New York woman, exquisitely dressed, and with a
voice and manner seductively soft and gentle--had read the
speeches of Webster and Calhoun. She did not think it necessary to
tell him that she had persuaded the honest Carrington to bring her
the volumes and to mark such passages as were worth her reading;
but she took care to lead the conversation, and she criticised with
some skill and more humour the weak points in Websterian
oratory, saying with a little laugh and a glance into his delighted
"My judgment may not be worth much, Mr. Senator, but it does
seem to me that our fathers thought too much of themselves, and
till you teach me better I shall continue to think that the passage in
your speech of yesterday which began with, 'Our strength lies in
this twisted and tangled mass of isolated principles, the hair of the
half-sleeping giant of Party,' is both for language and imagery
quite equal to anything of Webster's."
The Senator from Illinois rose to this gaudy fly like a huge,
two-hundred-pound salmon; his white waistcoat gave out a mild
silver reflection as he slowly came to the surface and gorged the
hook. He made not even a plunge, not one perceptible effort to tear
out the barbed weapon, but, floating gently to her feet, allowed
himself to be landed as though it were a pleasure. Only miserable
casuists will ask whether this was fair play on Madeleine's part;
whether flattery so gross cost her conscience no twinge, and
whether any woman can without self-abasement be guilty of such
shameless falsehood. She, however, scorned the idea of falsehood.
She would have defended herself by saying that she had not so
much praised Ratcliffe as depreciated Webster, and that she was
honest in her opinion of the old-fashioned American oratory. But
she could not deny that she had wilfully allowed the Senator to
draw conclusions very different from any she actually held. She
could not deny that she had intended to flatter him to the extent
necessary for her purpose, and that she was pleased at her success.
Before they rose from table the Senator had quite unbent himself;
he was talking naturally, shrewdly, and with some humour; he had
told her Illinois stories; spoken with extraordinary freedom about
his political situation; and expressed the wish to call upon Mrs.
Lee, if he could ever hope to find her at home.
"I am always at home on Sunday evenings," said she.
To her eyes he was the high-priest of American politics; he was
charged with the meaning of the mysteries, the clue to political
hieroglyphics. Through him she hoped to sound the depths of
statesmanship and to bring up from its oozy bed that pearl of
which she was in search; the mysterious gem which must lie
hidden somewhere in politics. She wanted to understand this man;
to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young
physiologists use frogs and kittens. If there was good or bad in
him, she meant to find its meaning.
And he was a western widower of fifty; his quarters in Washington
were in gaunt boarding-house rooms, furnished only with public
documents and enlivened by western politicians and
office-seekers. In the summer he retired to a solitary, white
framehouse with green blinds, surrounded by a few feet of
uncared-for grass and a white fence; its interior more dreary still,
with iron stoves, oil-cloth carpets, cold white walls, and one large
engraving of Abraham Lincoln in the parlour; all in Peonia,
Illinois! What equality was there between these two combatants?
what hope for him? what risk for her? And yet Madeleine Lee had
fully her match in Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe.
MRS. Lee soon became popular. Her parlour was a favourite haunt
of certain men and women who had the art of finding its mistress
at home; an art which seemed not to be within the powers of
everybody. Carrington was apt to be there more often than any one
else, so that he was looked on as almost a part of the family, and if
Madeleine wanted a book from the library, or an extra man at her
dinner-table, Carrington was pretty certain to help her to the one or
the other. Old Baron Jacobi, the Bulgarian minister, fell madly in
love with both sisters, as he commonly did with every pretty face
and neat figure. He was a witty, cynical, broken-down Parisian
roué, kept in Washington for years past by his debts and his
salary; always grumbling because there was no opera, and
mysteriously disappearing on visits to New York; a voracious
devourer of French and German literature, especially of novels; a
man who seemed to have met every noted or notorious personage
of the century, and whose mmd was a magazine of amusing
information; an excellent musical critic, who was not afraid to
criticise Sybil's singing; a connoisseur in bric-à-brac, who laughed
at Madeleine's display of odds and ends, and occasionally brought
her a Persian plate or a bit of embroidery, which he said was good
and would do her credit. This old sinner believed in everything
that was perverse and wicked, but he accepted the prejudices of
Anglo-Saxon society, and was too clever to obtrude his opinions
He would have married both sisters at once more willingly than
either alone, but as he feelingly said, "If I were forty years
younger, mademoiselle, you should not sing to me so calmly." His
friend Popoff, an intelligent, vivacious Russian, with very
Calmuck features, susceptible as a girl, and passionately fond of
music, hung over Sybil's piano by the hour; he brought Russian
airs which he taught her to sing, and, if the truth were known, he
bored Madeleine desperately, for she undertook to act the part of
duenna to her younger sister.
A very different visitor was Mr. C. C. French, a young member of
Congress from Connecticut, who aspired to act the part of the
educated gentleman in politics, and to purify the public tone. He
had reform principles and an unfortunately conceited maimer; he
was rather wealthy, rather clever, rather well-educated, rather
honest, and rather vulgar. His allegiance was divided between Mrs.
Lee and her sister, whom he infuriated by addressing as "Miss
Sybil" with patronising familiarity. He was particularly strong in
what he called "badinaige," and his playful but ungainly attempts
at wit drove Mrs.
Lee beyond the bounds of patience. When in a solemn mood, he
talked as though he were practising for the ear of a college
debating society, and with a still worse effect on the patience; but
with all this he was useful, always bubbling with the latest
political gossip, and deeply interested in the fate of party stakes.
Quite another sort of person was Mr. Hartbeest Schneidekoupon, a
citizen of Philadelphia, though commonly resident in New York,
where he had fallen a victim to Sybil's charms, and made efforts to
win her young affections by instructing her in the mysteries of
currency and protection, to both which subjects he was devoted.
To forward these two interests and to watch over Miss Ross's
welfare, he made periodical visits to Washington, where he
closeted himself with committee-men and gave expensive dinners
to members of Congress. Mr. Schneidekoupon was rich, and about
thirty years old, tall and thin, with bright eyes and smooth face,
elaborate manners and much loquacity. He had the reputation of
turning rapid intellectual somersaults, partly to amuse himself and
partly to startle society. At one moment he was artistic, and
discoursed scientifically about his own paintings; at another he
was literary, and wrote a book on "Noble Living," with a
humanitarian purpose; at another he was devoted to sport, rode a
steeplechase, played polo, and set up a four-in-hand; his last
occupation was to establish in Philadelphia the Protective Review,
a periodical in the interests of American industry, which he edited
himself, as a stepping-stone to Congress, the Cabinet, and the
Presidency. At about the same time he bought a yacht, and heavy
bets were pending among his sporting friends whether he would
manage to sink first his Review or his yacht. But he was an
amiable and excellent fellow through all his eccentricities, and he
brought to Mrs. Lee the simple outpourings of the amateur
A much higher type of character was Mr. Nathan Gore, of
Massachusetts, a handsome man with a grey beard, a straight,
sharply cut nose, and a fine, penetrating eye; in his youth a
successful poet whose satires made a noise in their day, and are
still remembered for the pungency and wit of a few verses; then a
deep student in Europe for many years, until his famous "History
of Spain in America" placed him instantly at the head of American
historians, and made him minister at Madrid, where he remained
four years to his entire satisfaction, this being the nearest approach
to a patent of nobility and a government pension which the
American citizen can attain. A change of administration had
reduced him to private life again, and after some years of
retirement he was now in Washington, willing to be restored to his
old mission. Every President thinks it respectable to have at least
one literary man in his pay, and Mr. Gore's prospects were fair for
obtaining his object, as he had the active support of a majority of
the Massachusetts delegation. He was abominably selfish,
colossally egoistic, and not a little vain; but he was shrewd; he
knew how to hold his tongue; he could flatter dexterously, and he
had learned to eschew satire. Only in confidence and among
friends he would still talk freely, but Mrs. Lee was not yet on those
terms with him. These were all men, and there was no want of
women in Mrs.
Lee's parlour; but, after all, they are able to describe themselves
better than any poor novelist can describe them. Generally two
currents of conversation ran on together--one round Sybil, the
other about Madeleine.
"Mees Ross," said Count Popoff, leading in a handsome young
foreigner, "I have your permission to present to you my friend
Count Orsini, Secretary of the Italian Legation. Are you at home
this afternoon? Count Orsini sings also."
"We are charmed to see Count Orsini. It is well you came so late,
for I have this moment come in from making Cabinet calls. They
were so queer! I have been crying with laughter for an hour past."
"Do you find these calls amusing?" asked Popoff, gravely and
diplomatically. "Indeed I do! I went with Julia Schneidekoupon,
you know, Madeleine; the Schneidekoupons are descended from
all the Kings of Israel, and are prouder than Solomon in his glory.
And when we got into the house of some dreadful woman from
Heaven knows where, imagine my feelings at overhearing this
conversation: 'What may be your family name, ma'am?'
'Schneidekoupon is my name,' replies Julia, very tall and straight.
'Have you any friends whom I should likely know?' 'I think not,'
says Julia, severely. 'Wal! I don't seem to remember of ever having
heerd the name. But I s'pose it's all right. I like to know who calls.'
I almost had hysterics when we got into the street, but Julia could
not see the joke at all."
Count Orsini was not quite sure that he himself saw the joke, so he
only smiled becomingly and showed his teeth. For simple,
childlike vanity and self-consciousness nothing equals an Italian
Secretary of Legation at twenty-five. Yet conscious that the effect
of his personal beauty would perhaps be diminished by permanent
silence, he ventured to murmur presently:
"Do you not find it very strange, this society in America?"
"Society!" laughed Sybil with gay contempt. "There are no snakes
in America, any more than in Norway."
"Snakes, mademoiselle!" repeated Orsini, with the doubtful
expression of one who is not quite certain whether he shall risk
walking on thin ice, and decides to go softly: "Snakes! Indeed they
would rather be doves I would call them."
A kind laugh from Sybil strengthened into conviction his hope that
he had made a joke in this unknown tongue. His face brightened,
his confidence returned; once or twice he softly repeated to
himself: "Not snakes; they would be doves!" But Mrs. Lee's
sensitive ear had caught Sybil's remark, and detected in it a certain
tone of condescension which was not to her taste.
The impassive countenances of these bland young Secretaries of
Legation seemed to acquiesce far too much as a matter of course in
the idea that there was no society except in the old world. She
broke into the conversation with an emphasis that fluttered the
"Society in America? Indeed there is society in America, and very
good society too; but it has a code of its own, and new-comers
seldom understand it. I will tell you what it is, Mr. Orsini, and you
will never be in danger of making any mistake. 'Society' in
America means all the honest, kindly-mannered, pleasant-voiced
women, and all the good, brave, unassuming men, between the
Atlantic and the Pacific. Each of these has a free pass in every city
and village, 'good for this generation only,' and it depends on each
to make use of this pass or not as it may happen to suit his or her
fancy. To this rule there are no exceptions, and those who say
'Abraham is our father' will surely furnish food for that humour
which is the staple product of our country."
The alarmed youths, who did not in the least understand the
meaning of this demonstration, looked on with a feeble attempt at
acquiescence, while Mrs.
Lee brandished her sugar-tongs in the act of transferring a lump of
sugar to her cup, quite unconscious of the slight absurdity of the
gesture, while Sybil stared in amazement, for it was not often that
her sister waved the stars and stripes so energetically. Whatever
their silent criticisms might be, however, Mrs. Lee was too much
in earnest to be conscious of them, or, indeed, to care for anything
but what she was saying. There was a moment's pause when she
came to the end of her speech, and then the thread of talk was
quietly taken up again where Sybil's incipient sneer had broken it.
Carrington came in. "What have you been doing at the Capitol?"
"Lobbying!" was the reply, given in the semi-serious tone of
"So soon, and Congress only two days old?" exclaimed Mrs. Lee.
"Madam," rejoined Carrington, with his quietest malice,
"Congressmen are like birds of the air, which are caught only by
the early worm." "Good afternoon, Mrs. Lee. Miss Sybil, how do
you do again? Which of these gentlemen's hearts are you feeding
upon now?" This was the refined style of Mr. French, indulging in
what he was pleased to term "badinaige." He, too, was on his way
from the Capitol, and had come in for a cup of tea and a little
human society. Sybil made a face which plainly expressed a
longing to inflict on Mr. French some grievous personal wrong, but
she pretended not to hear. He sat down by Madeleine, and asked,
"Did you see Ratcliffe yesterday?"
"Yes," said Madeleine; "he was here last evening with Mr.
Carrington and one or two others."
"Did he say anything about politics?"
"Not a word. We talked mostly about books."
"Books! What does he know about books?"
"You must ask him."
"Well, this is the most ridiculous situation we are all in. No one
knows anything about the new President. You could take your oath
that everybody is in the dark. Ratcliffe says he knows as little as
the rest of us, but it can't be true; he is too old a politician not to
have wires in his hand; and only to-day one of the pages of the
Senate told my colleague Cutter that a letter sent off by him
yesterday was directed to Sam Grimes, of North Bend, who, as
every one knows, belongs to the President's particular crowd.
--Why, Mr. Schneidekoupon! How do you do? When did you come
"Thank you; this morning," replied Mr. Schneidekoupon, just
entering the room. "So glad to see you again, Mrs. Lee. How do
you and your sister like Washington? Do you know I have brought
Julia on for a visit? I thought I should find her here.
"She has just gone. She has been all the afternoon with Sybil,
She says you want her here to lobby for you, Mr. Schneidekoupon.
Is it true?"
"So I did," replied he, with a laugh, "but she is precious little use.
So I've come to draft you into the service."
"Yes; you know we all expect Senator Ratcliffe to be Secretary of
the Treasury, and it is very important for us to keep him straight on
the currency and the tariff. So I have come on to establish more
intimate relations with him, as they say in diplomacy. I want to get
him to dine with me at Welckley's, but as I know he keeps very shy
of politics I thought my only chance was to make it a ladies'
dinner, so I brought on Julia. I shall try and get Mrs. Schuyler
Clinton, and I depend upon you and your sister to help Julia out."
"Me! at a lobby dinner! Is that proper?"
"Why not? You shall choose the guests."
"I never heard of such a thing; but it would certainly be amusing.
Sybil must not go, but I might." "Excuse me; Julia depends upon
Miss Ross, and will not go to table without her."
"Well," assented Mrs. Lee, hesitatingly, "perhaps if you get Mrs.
Clinton, and if your sister is there And who else?"
"Choose your own company."
"I know no one."
"Oh yes; here is French, not quite sound on the tariff, but good for
what we want just now. Then we can get Mr. Gore; he has his little
hatchet to grind too, and will be glad to help grind ours. We only
want two or three more, and I will have an extra man or so to fill
"Do ask the Speaker. I want to know him."
"I will, and Carrington, and my Pennsylvania Senator. That will do
Remember, Welckley's, Saturday at seven."
Meanwhile Sybil had been at the piano, and when she had sung for
a time, Orsini was induced to take her place, and show that it was
possible to sing without injury to one's beauty. Baron Jacobi came
in and found fault with them both. Little Miss Dare--commonly
known among her male friends as little Daredevil--who was
always absorbed in some flirtation with a Secretary of Legation,
came in, quite unaware that Popoff was present, and retired with
him into a corner, while Orsini and Jacobi bullied poor Sybil, and
fought with each other at the piano; everybody was talking with
very little reference to any reply, when at last Mrs. Lee drove them
all out of the room: "We are quiet people," said she, "and we dine
at half-past six."
Senator Ratcliffe had not failed to make his Sunday evening call
Lee. Perhaps it was not strictly correct to say that they had talked
books all the evening, but whatever the conversation was, it had
only confirmed Mr. Ratcliffe's admiration for Mrs. Lee, who,
without intending to do so, had acted a more dangerous part than if
she had been the most accomplished of coquettes. Nothing could
be more fascinating to the weary politician in his solitude than the
repose of Mrs. Lee's parlour, and when Sybil sang for him one or
two simple airs--she said they were foreign hymns, the Senator
being, or being considered, orthodox--Mr. Ratcliffe's heart yearned
toward the charming girl quite with the sensations of a father, or
even of an elder brother.
His brother senators very soon began to remark that the Prairie
Giant had acquired a trick of looking up to the ladies' gallery. One
day Mr. Jonathan Andrews, the special correspondent of the New
York Sidereal System, a very friendly organ, approached Senator
Schuyler Clinton with a puzzled look on his face.
"Can you tell me," said he, "what has happened to Silas P.
Ratcliffe? Only a moment ago I was talking with him at his seat on
a very important subject, about which I must send his opinions off
to New York to-night, when, in the middle of a sentence, he
stopped short, got up without looking at me, and left the Senate
Chamber, and now I see him in the gallery talking with a lady
whose face I don't know."
Senator Clinton slowly adjusted his gold eye-glasses and looked up
at the place indicated: "Ah! Mrs. Lightfoot Lee! I think I will say a
word to her myself;" and turning his back on the special
correspondent, he skipped away with youthful agility after the
Senator from Illinois.
"Devil!" muttered Mr. Andrews; "what has got into the old fools?"
and in a still less audible murmur as he looked up to Mrs. Lee,
then in close conversation with Ratcliffe: "Had I better make an
item of that?"
When young Mr. Schneidekoupon called upon Senator Ratcliffe to
invite him to the dinner at Welckley's, he found that gentleman
overwhelmed with work, as he averred, and very little disposed to
converse. No! he did not now go out to dinner. In the present
condition of the public business he found it impossible to spare the
time for such amusements. He regretted to decline Mr.
Schneidekoupon's civility, but there were imperative reasons why
he should abstain for the present from social entertainments; he
had made but one exception to his rule, and only at the pressing
request of his old friend Senator Clinton, and on a very special
Mr. Schneidekoupon was deeply vexed--the more, he said, because
he had meant to beg Mr. and Mrs. Clinton to be of the party, as
well as a very charming lady who rarely went into society, but who
had almost consented to come.
"Who is that?" inquired the Senator.
"A Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, of New York. Probably you do not know
her well enough to admire her as I do; but I think her quite the
most intelligent woman I ever met."
The Senator's cold eyes rested for a moment on the young man's
open face with a peculiar expression of distrust. Then he solemnly
said, in his deepest senatorial tones:
"My young friend, at my time of life men have other things to
occupy them than women, however intelligent they may be. Who
else is to be of your party?"
Mr. Schneidekoupon named his list.
"And for Saturday evening at seven, did you say?"
"Saturday at seven."
"I fear there is little chance of my attending, but I will not
absolutely decline. Perhaps when the moment arrives, I may find
myself able to be there. But do not count upon me--do not count
upon me. Good day, Mr.
Schneidekoupon was rather a simple-minded young man, who saw
no deeper than his neighbours into the secrets of the universe, and
he went off swearing roundly at "the infernal airs these senators
give themselves." He told Mrs.
Lee all the conversation, as indeed he was compelled to do under
penalty of bringing her to his party under false pretences.
"Just my luck," said he; "here I am forced to ask no end of people
to meet a man, who at the same time says he shall probably not
come. Why, under the stars, couldn't he say, like other people,
whether he was coming or not?
I've known dozens of senators, Mrs. Lee, and they're all like that.
They never think of any one but themselves."
Mrs. Lee smiled rather a forced smile, and soothed his wounded
feelings; she had no doubt the dinner would be very agreeable
whether the Senator were there or not; at any rate she would do all
she could to carry it off well, and Sybil should wear her newest
dress. Still she was a little grave, and Mr. Schneidekoupon could
only declare that she was a trump; that he had told Ratcliffe she
was the cleverest woman he ever met, and he might have added
the most obliging, and Ratcliffe had only looked at him as though
he were a green ape. At all which Mrs. Lee laughed
good-naturedly, and sent him away as soon as she could.
When he was gone, she walked up and down the room and
thought. She saw the meaning of Ratcliffe's sudden change in tone.
She had no more doubt of his coming to the dinner than she had of
the reason why he came. And was it possible that she was being
drawn into something very near a flirtation with a man twenty
years her senior; a politician from Illinois; a huge, ponderous,
grey-eyed, bald senator, with a Websterian head, who lived in
Peonia? The idea was almost too absurd to be credited; but on the
whole the thing itself was rather amusing. "I suppose senators can
look out for themselves like other men," was her final conclusion.
She thought only of his danger, and she felt a sort of compassion
for him as she reflected on the possible consequences of a great,
absorbing love at his time of life.
Her conscience was a little uneasy; but of herself she never
thought. Yet it is a historical fact that elderly senators have had a
curious fascination for young and handsome women. Had they
looked out for themselves too? And which parties most needed to
be looked after?
When Madeleine and her sister arrived at Welckley's 's the next
Saturday evening, they found poor Schneidekoupon in a temper
very unbecoming a host.
"He won't come! I told you he wouldn't come!" said he to
Madeleine, as he handed her into the house. "If I ever turn
communist, it will be for the fun of murdering a senator."
Madeleine consoled him gently, but he continued to use, behind
Mr. Clinton's back, language the most offensive and improper
towards the Senate, and at last, ringing the bell, he sharply ordered
the head waiter to serve dinner.
At that very moment the door opened, and Senator Ratcliffe's
stately figure appeared on the threshold. His eye instantly caught
Madeleine's, and she almost laughed aloud, for she saw that the
Senator was dressed with very unsenatorial neatness; that he had
actually a flower in his burton-hole and no gloves!
After the enthusiastic description which Schneidekoupon had
given of Mrs.
Lee's charms, he could do no less than ask Senator Ratcliffe to take
her in to dinner, which he did without delay. Either this, or the
champagne, or some occult influence, had an extraordinary effect
upon him. He appeared ten years younger than usual; his face was
illuminated; his eyes glowed; he seemed bent on proving his
kinship to the immortal Webster by rivalling his convivial powers.
He dashed into the conversation; laughed, jested, and ridiculed;
told stories in Yankee and Western dialect; gave sharp little
sketches of amusing political experiences.
"Never was more surprised in my life," whispered Senator Krebs,
of Pennsylvania, across the table to Schneidekoupon. "Hadn't an
idea that Ratcliffe was so entertaining."
And Mr. Clinton, who sat by Madeleine on the other side,
whispered low into her ear: "I am afraid, my dear Mrs. Lee, that
you are responsible for this.
He never talks so to the Senate."
Nay, he even rose to a higher flight, and told the story of President
Lincoln's death-bed with a degree of feeling that brought tears into
their eyes. The other guests made no figure at all. The Speaker
consumed his solitary duck and his lonely champagne in a corner
without giving a sign.
Even Mr. Gore, who was not wont to hide his light under any kind
of extinguisher, made no attempt to claim the floor, and applauded
with enthusiasm the conversation of his opposite neighbour.
Ill-natured people might say that Mr. Gore saw in Senator Ratcliffe
a possible Secretary of State; be this as it may, he certainly said to
Mrs. Clinton, in an aside that was perfectly audible to every one at
the table: "How brilliant! what an original mind! what a sensation
he would make abroad!" And it was quite true, apart from the mere
momentary effect of dinner-table talk, that there was a certain
bigness about the man; a keen practical sagacity; a bold freedom
of self-assertion; a broad way of dealing with what he knew.
Carrington was the only person at table who looked on with a
perfectly cool head, and who criticised in a hostile spirit.
Carrington's impression of Ratcliffe was perhaps beginning to be
warped by a shade of jealousy, for he was in a peculiarly bad
temper this evening, and his irritation was not wholly concealed.
"If one only had any confidence in the man!" he muttered to
French, who sat by him.
This unlucky remark set French to thinking how he could draw
Ratcliffe out, and accordingly, with his usual happy manner,
combining self-conceit and high principles, he began to attack the
Senator with some "badinaige" on the delicate subject of Civil
Service Reform, a subject almost as dangerous in political
conversation at Washington as slavery itself in old days before the
war. French was a reformer, and lost no occasion of impressing his
views; but unluckily he was a very light weight, and his manner
was a little ridiculous, so that even Mrs. Lee, who was herself a
warm reformer, sometimes went over to the other side when he
talked. No sooner had he now shot his little arrow at the Senator,
than that astute man saw his opportunity, and promised himself the
pleasure of administering to Mr.
French punishment such as he knew would delight the company.
Reformer as Mrs. Lee was, and a little alarmed at the roughness of
Ratcliffe's treatment, she could not blame the Prairie Giant, as she
ought, who, after knocking poor French down, rolled him over and
over in the mud.
"Are you financier enough, Mr. French, to know what are the most
famous products of Connecticut?"
Mr. French modestly suggested that he thought its statesmen best
answered that description.
"No, sir! even there you're wrong. The showmen beat you on your
But every child in the union knows that the most famous products
of Connecticut are Yankee notions, nutmegs made of wood and
clocks that won't go. Now, your Civil Service Reform is just such
another Yankee notion; it's a wooden nutmeg; it's a clock with a
show case and sham works. And you know it! You are precisely
the old-school Connecticut peddler. You have gone about peddling
your wooden nutmegs until you have got yourself into Congress,
and now you pull them out of your pockets and not only want us to
take them at your own price, but you lecture us on our sins if we
Well! we don't mind your doing that at home. Abuse us as much as
you like to your constituents. Get as many votes as you can. But
don't electioneer here, because we know you intimately, and we've
all been a little in the wooden nutmeg business ourselves."
Senator Clinton and Senator Krebs chuckied high approval over
this punishment of poor French, which was on the level of their
idea of wit. They were all in the nutmeg business, as Ratcliffe said.
The victim tried to make head against them; he protested that his
nutmegs were genuine; he sold no goods that he did not guarantee;
and that this particular article was actually guaranteed by the
national conventions of both political parties.
"Then what you want, Mr. French, is a common school education.
You need a little study of the alphabet. Or if you won't believe me,
ask my brother senators here what chance there is for your
Reforms so long as the American citizen is what he "You'll not get
much comfort in my State, Mr. French," growled the senator from
Pennsylvania, with a sneer; "suppose you come and try."
"Well, well!" said the benevolent Mr. Schuyler Clinton, gleaming
benignantly through his gold spectacles; "don't be too hard on
French. He means well.
Perhaps he's not very wise, but he does good. I know more about it
than any of you, and I don't deny that the thing is all bad. Only, as
Mr. Ratcliffe says, the difficulty is in the people, not in us. Go to
work on them, French, and let us alone."
French repented of his attack, and contented himself by muttering
to Carrington: "What a set of damned old reprobates they are!"
"They are right, though, in one thing," was Carrington's reply:
"their advice is good. Never ask one of them to reform anything; if
you do, you will be reformed yourself."
The dinner ended as brilliantly as it began, and Schneidekoupon
was delighted with his success. He had made himself particularly
agreeable to Sybil by confiding in her all his hopes and fears about
the tariff and the finances. When the ladies left the table, Ratcliffe
could not stay for a cigar; he must get back to his rooms, where he
knew several men were waiting for him; he would take his leave of
the ladies and hurry away. But when the gentlemen came up nearly
an hour afterwards they found Ratcliffe still taking his leave of the
ladies, who were delighted at his entertaining conversation; and
when at last he really departed, he said to Mrs. Lee, as though it
were quite a matter of course: "You are at home as usual
to-morrow evening?" Madeleine smiled, bowed, and he went his
As the two sisters drove home that night, Madeleine was unusually
Sybil yawned convulsively and then apologized:
"Mr. Schneidekoupon is very nice and good-natured, but a whole
evening of him goes a long way; and that horrid Senator Krebs
would not say a word, and drank a great deal too much wine,
though it couldn't make him any more stupid than he is. I don't
think I care for senators." Then, wearily, after a pause: "Well,
Maude, I do hope you've got what you wanted. I'm sure you must
have had politics enough. Haven't you got to the heart of your great
American mystery yet?"
"Pretty near it, I think," said Madeleine, half to herself.
SUNDAY evening was stormy, and some enthusiasm was required
to make one face its perils for the sake of society. Nevertheless, a
few intimates made their appearance as usual at Mrs. Lee's. The
faithful Popoff was there, and Miss Dare also ran in to pass an
hour with her dear Sybil; but as she passed the whole evening in a
corner with Popoff. she must have been disappointed in her object.
Carrington came, and Baron Jacobi. Schneidekoupon and his sister
dined with Mrs. Lee, and remained after dinner, while Sybil and
Julia Schneidekoupon compared conclusions about Washington
society. The happy idea also occurred to Mr. Gore that, inasmuch
as Mrs. Lee's house was but a step from his hotel, he might as well
take the chance of amusement there as the certainty of solitude in
his rooms. Finally, Senator Ratcliffe duly made his appearance,
and, having established himself with a cup of tea by Madeleine's
side, was soon left to enjoy a quiet talk with her, the rest of the
party by common consent occupying themselves with each other.
Under cover of the murmur of conversation in the room, Mr.
Ratcliffe quickiy became confidential.
"I came to suggest that, if you want to hear an interesting debate,
you should come up to the Senate to-morrow. I am told that
Garrard, of Louisiana, means to attack my last speech, and I shall
probably in that case have to answer him. With you for a critic I
shall speak better."
"Am I such an amiable critic?" asked Madeleine.
"I never heard that amiable critics were the best," said he; "justice
is the soul of good criticism, and it is only justice that I ask and
expect from you."
"What good does this speaking do?" inquired she. "Are you any
nearer the end of your difficulties by means of your speeches?"
"I hardly know yet. Just now we are in dead water; but this can't
In fact, I am not afraid to tell you, though of course you will not
repeat it to any human being, that we have taken measures to force
Certain gentlemen, myself among the rest, have written letters
meant for the President's eye, though not addressed directly to him,
and intended to draw out an expression of some sort that will show
us what to expect."
"Oh!" laughed Madeleine, "I knew about that a week ago."
"About your letter to Sam Grimes, of North Bend."
"What have you heard about my letter to Sam Grimes, of North
ejaculated Ratcliffe, a little abruptly.
"Oh, you do not know how admirably I have organised my secret
service bureau," said she. "Representative Cutter cross-questioned
one of the Senate pages, and obliged him to confess that he had
received from you a letter to be posted, which letter was addressed
to Mr. Grimes, of North Bend."
"And, of course, he told this to French, and French told you," said
Ratcliffe; "I see. If I had known this I would not have let French
off so gently last night, for I prefer to tell you my own story
without his embellishments. But it was my fault. I should not have
trusted a page.
Nothing is a secret here long. But one thing that Mr. Cutter did not
find out was that several other gentlemen wrote letters at the same
time, for the same purpose. Your friend, Mr. Clinton, wrote; Krebs
wrote; and one or two members."
"I suppose I must not ask what you said?"
"You may. We agreed that it was best to be very mild and
conciliatory, and to urge the President only to give us some
indication of his intentions, in order that we might not run counter
to them. I drew a strong picture of the effect of the present
situation on the party, and hinted that I had no personal wishes to
"And what do you think will be the result?"
"I think we shall somehow manage to straighten things out," said
"The difficulty is only that the new President has little experience,
and is suspicious. He thinks we shall intrigue to tie his hands, and
he means to tie ours in advance. I don't know him personally, but
those who do, and who are fair judges, say that, though rather
narrow and obstinate, he is honest enough, and will come round. I
have no doubt I could settle it all with him in an hour's talk, but it
is out of the question for me to go to him unless I am asked, and to
ask me to come would be itself a settlement."
"What, then, is the danger you fear?"
"That he will offend all the important party leaders in order to
conciliate unimportant ones, perhaps sentimental ones, like your
friend French; that he will make foolish appointments without
taking advice. By the way, have you seen French to-day?"
"No," replied Madeleine; "I think he must be sore at your treatment
of him last evening. You were very rude to him."
"Not a bit," said Ratcliffe; "these reformers need it. His attack on
me was meant for a challenge. I saw it in his manner.
"But is reform really so impossible as you describe it? Is it quite
"Reform such as he wants is utterly hopeless, and not even
Mrs. Lee, with much earnestness of manner, still pressed her
"Surely something can be done to check corruption. Are we for
ever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians? Is a respectable
government impossible in a democracy?"
Her warmth attracted Jacobi's attention, and he spoke across the
room. "What is that you say, Mrs. Lee? What is it about
All the gentlemen began to listen and gather about them.
"I am asking Senator Ratcliffe," said she, "what is to become of us
if corruption is allowed to go unchecked."
"And may I venture to ask permission to hear Mr. Ratcliffe's
reply?" asked the baron.
"My reply," said Ratcliffe, "is that no representative government
can long be much better or much worse than the society it
represents. Purify society and you purify the government. But try
to purify the government artificially and you only aggravate
"A very statesmanlike reply," said Baron Jacobi, with a formal
bow, but his tone had a shade of mockery. Carrington, who had
listened with a darkening face, suddenly turned to the baron and
asked him what conclusion he drew from the reply.
"Ah!" exclaimed the baron, with his wickedest leer, "what for is
my conclusion good? You Americans believe yourselves to be
excepted from the operation of general laws. You care not for
experience. I have lived seventy-five years, and all that time in the
midst of corruption. I am corrupt myself, only I do have courage to
proclaim it, and you others have it not. Rome, Paris, Vienna,
Petersburg, London, all are corrupt; only Washington is pure!
Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no
society which has had elements of corruption like the United
States. The children in the street are corrupt, and know how to
The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and
the States' legislatures and the judges. Everywhere men betray
trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public
funds. Only in the Senate men take no money. And you gentlemen
in the Senate very well declare that your great United States,
which is the head of the civilized world, can never learn anything
from the example of corrupt Europe. You are right--quite right!
The great United States needs not an example. I do much regret
that I have not yet one hundred years to live. If I could then come
back to this city, I should find myself very content--much more
than now. I am always content where there is much corruption, and
ma parole d'honneur!"
broke out the old man with fire and gesture, "the United States will
then be more corrupt than Rome under Caligula; more corrupt than
the Church under Leo X.; more corrupt than France under the
As the baron closed his little harangue, which he delivered directly
at the senator sitting underneath him, he had the satisfaction to see
that every one was silent and listening with deep attention. He
seemed to enjoy annoying the senator, and he had the satisfaction
of seeing that the senator was visibly annoyed. Ratcliffe looked
sternly at the baron and said, with some curtness, that he saw no
reason to accept such conclusions.
Conversation flagged, and all except the baron were relieved when
Sybil, at Schneidekoupon's request, sat down at the piano to sing
what she called a hymn. So soon as the song was over, Ratcliffe,
who seemed to have been curiously thrown off his balance by
Jacobi's harangue, pleaded urgent duties at his rooms, and retired.
The others soon afterwards went off in a body, leaving only
Carrington and Gore, who had seated himself by Madeleine, and
was at once dragged by her into a discussion of the subject which
perplexed her, and for the moment threw over her mind a net of
"The baron discomfited the senator," said Gore, with a certain
"Why did Ratcliffe let himself be trampled upon in that manner?"
"I wish you would explain why," replied Mrs. Lee; "tell me, Mr.
Gore--you who represent cultivation and literary taste
hereabouts--please tell me what to think about Baron Jacobi's
speech. Who and what is to be believed? Mr.
Ratcliffe seems honest and wise. Is he a corruptionist? He believes
in the people, or says he does. Is he telling the truth or not?"
Gore was too experienced in politics to be caught in such a trap as
this. He evaded the question. "Mr. Ratcliffe has a practical piece of
work to do; his business is to make laws and advise the President;
he does it extremely well. We have no other equally good practical
politician; it is unfair to require him to be a crusader besides."
"No!" interposed Carrington, curtly; "but he need not obstruct
crusades. He need not talk virtue and oppose the punishment of
"He is a shrewd practical politician," replied Gore, "and he feels
first the weak side of any proposed political tactics."
With a sigh of despair Madeleine went on: "Who, then, is right?
How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the
world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast
becoming perfect. Both cannot be right. There is only one thing in
life," she went on, laughing, "that I must and will have before I die.
I must know whether America is right or wrong. Just now this
question is a very practical one, for I really want to know whether
to believe in Mr. Ratcliffe. If I throw him overboard, everything
must go, for he is only a specimen."
"Why not believe in Mr. Ratcliffe?" said Gore; "I believe in him
myself, and am not afraid to say so."
Carrington, to whom Ratcliffe now began to represent the spirit of
evil, interposed here, and observed that he imagined Mr. Gore had
other guides besides, and steadier ones than Ratcliffe, to believe
in; while Madeleine, with a certain feminine perspicacity, struck at
a much weaker point in Mr.
Gore's armour, and asked point-blank whether he believed also in
what Ratcliffe represented: "Do you yourself think democracy the
best government, and universal suffrage a success?"
Mr. Gore saw himself pinned to the wall, and he turned at bay with
almost the energy of despair:
"These are matters about which I rarely talk in society; they are
like the doctrine of a personal God; of a future life; of revealed
religion; subjects which one naturally reserves for private
reflection. But since you ask for my political creed, you shall have
it. I only condition that it shall be for you alone, never to be
repeated or quoted as mine. I believe in democracy. I accept it. I
will faithfully serve and defend it. I believe in it because it appears
to me the inevitable consequence of what has gone before it.
Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to a
higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilisation aims at this
mark. We want to do what we can to help it. I myself want to see
the result. I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction
society can take that is worth its taking; the only conception of its
duty large enough to satisfy its instincts; the only result that is
worth an effort or a risk. Every other possible step is backward,
and I do not care to repeat the past. I am glad to see society
grapple with issues in which no one can afford to be neutral."
"And supposing your experiment fails," said Mrs. Lee; "suppose
society destroys itself with universal suffrage, corruption, and
"I wish, Mrs. Lee, you would visit the Observatory with me some
evening, and look at Sirius. Did you ever make the acquaintance of
a fixed star? I believe astronomers reckon about twenty millions of
them in sight, and an infinite possibility of invisible millions, each
one of which is a sun, like ours, and may have satellites like our
planet. Suppose you see one of these fixed stars suddenly increase
in brightness, and are told that a satellite has fallen into it and is
burning up, its career finished, its capacities exhausted? Curious,
is it not; but what does it matter? Just as much as the burning up of
a moth at your candle."
Madeleine shuddered a little. "I cannot get to the height of your
philosophy," said she. "You are wandering among the infinites,
and I am finite."
"Not at all! But I have faith; not perhaps in the old dogmas, but in
the new ones; faith in human nature; faith in science; faith in the
survival of the fittest. Let us be true to our time, Mrs. Lee! If our
age is to be beaten, let us die in the ranks. If it is to be victorious,
let us be first to lead the column. Anyway, let us not be skulkers or
grumblers. There! have I repeated my catechism correctly? You
would have it! Now oblige me by forgetting it. I should lose my
character at home if it got out. Good night!"
Mrs. Lee duly appeared at the Capitol the next day, as she could
not but do after Senator Ratcliffe's pointed request. She went
alone, for Sybil had positively refused to go near the Capitol again,
and Madeleine thought that on the whole this was not an occasion
for enrolling Carrington in her service. But Ratcliffe did not speak.
The debate was unexpectedly postponed.
He joined Mrs. Lee in the gallery, however, sat with her as long as
she would allow, and became still more confidential, telling her
that he had received the expected reply from Grimes, of North
Bend, and that it had enclosed a letter written by the
President-elect to Mr. Grimes in regard to the advances made by
Mr. Ratcliffe and his friends.
"It is not a handsome letter," said he; "indeed, a part of it is
positively insulting. I would like to read you one extract from it,
and hear your opinion as to how it should be treated." Taking the
letter from his pocket, he sought out the passage, and read as
follows: "'I cannot lose sight, too, of the consideration that these
three Senators' (he means Clinton, Krebs, and me) are popularly
considered to be the most influential members of that so-called
senatorial ring, which has acquired such general notoriety. While I
shall always receive their communications with all due respect, I
must continue to exercise complete freedom of action in
consulting other political advisers as well as these, and I must in
all cases make it my first object to follow the wishes of the people,
not always most truly represented by their nominal
representatives.' What say you to that precious piece of
"At least I like his courage," said Mrs. Lee.
"Courage is one thing; common sense is another. This letter is a
studied insult. He has knocked me off the track once. He means to
do it again. It is a declaration of war. What ought I to do?"
"Whatever is most for the public good." said Madeleine, gravely.
Ratcliffe looked into her face with such undisguised delight--there
was so little possibility of mistaking or ignoring the expression of
his eyes, that she shrank back with a certain shock. She was not
prepared for so open a demonstration. He hardened his features at
once, and went on:
"But what is most for the public good?"
"That you know better than I," said Madeleine; "only one thing is
clear to me. If you let yourself be ruled by your private feelings,
you will make a greater mistake than he. Now I must go, for I have
visits to make. The next time I come, Mr. Ratcliffe, you must keep
your word better."
When they next met, Ratcliffe read to her a part of his reply to Mr.
Grimes, which ran thus: "It is the lot of every party leader to suffer
from attacks and to commit errors. It is true, as the President says,
that I have been no exception to this law. Believing as I do that
great results can only be accomplished by great parties, I have
uniformly yielded my own personal opinions where they have
failed to obtain general assent. I shall continue to follow this
course, and the President may with perfect confidence count upon
my disinterested support of all party measures, even though I may
not be consulted in originating them."
Mrs. Lee listened attentively, and then said: "Have you never
refused to go with your party?"
"Never!" was Ratcliffe's firm reply.
Madeleine still more thoughtfully inquired again: "Is nothing more
powerful than party allegiance?"
"Nothing, except national allegiance," replied Ratcliffe, still more
TO tie a prominent statesman to her train and to lead him about
like a tame bear, is for a young and vivacious woman a more
certain amusement than to tie herself to him and to be dragged
about like an Indian squaw. This fact was Madeleine Lee's first
great political discovery in Washington, and it was worth to her all
the German philosophy she had ever read, with even a complete
edition of Herbert Spencer's works into the bargain. There could be
no doubt that the honours and dignities of a public career were no
fair consideration for its pains. She made a little daily task for
herself of reading in succession the lives and letters of the
American Presidents, and of their wives, when she could find that
there was a trace of the latter's existence. What a melancholy
spectacle it was, from George Washington down to the last
incumbent; what vexations, what disappointments, what grievous
mistakes, what very objectionable manners! Not one of them, who
had aimed at high purpose, but had been thwarted, beaten, and
habitually insulted! What a gloom lay on the features of those
famous chieftains, Calhoun, Clay, and Webster; what varied
expression of defeat and unsatisfied desire; what a sense of
self-importance and senatorial magniloquence; what a craving for
flattery; what despair at the sentence of fate! And what did they
amount to, after all?
They were practical men, these! they had no great problems of
thought to settle, no questions that rose above the ordinary rules of
common morals and homely duty. How they had managed to befog
the subject! What elaborate show-structures they had built up, with
no result but to obscure the horizon! Would not the country have
done better without them? Could it have done worse? What deeper
abyss could have opened under the nation's feet, than that to whose
verge they brought it?
Madeleine's mind wearied with the monotony of the story. She
discussed the subject with Ratcliffe, who told her frankly that the
pleasure of politics lay in the possession of power. He agreed that
the country would do very well without him. "But here I am," said
he, "and here I mean to stay." He had very little sympathy for thin
moralising, and a statesmanlike contempt for philosophical
politics. He loved power, and he meant to be President.
That was enough.
Sometimes the tragic and sometimes the comic side was
uppermost in her mind, and sometimes she did not herself know
whether to cry or to laugh.
Washington more than any other city in the world swarms with
simple-minded exhibitions of human nature; men and women
curiously out of place, whom it would be cruel to ridicule and
ridiculous to weep over. The sadder exhibitions are fortunately
seldom seen by respectable people; only the little social accidents
come under their eyes. One evening Mrs. Lee went to the
President's first evening reception. As Sybil flatly refused to face
the crowd, and Carrington mildly said that he feared he was not
sufficiently reconstructed to appear at home in that august
presence, Mrs. Lee accepted Mr. French for an escort, and walked
across the Square with him to join the throng that was pouring into
the doors of the White House. They took their places in the line of
citizens and were at last able to enter the reception-room. There
Madeleine found herself before two seemingly mechanical figures,
which mlght be wood or wax, for any sign they showed of life.
These two figures were the President and his wife; they stood stiff
and awkward by the door, both their faces stripped of every sign of
intelligence, while the right hands of both extended themselves to
the column of visitors with the mechanical action of toy dolls.
Mrs. Lee for a moment began to laugh, but the laugh died on her
lips. To the President and his wife this was clearly no laughing
matter. There they stood, automata, representatives of the society
which streamed past them. Madeleine seized Mr. French by the
"Take me somewhere at once," said she, "where I can look at it.
Here! in the corner. I had no conception how shocking it was!"
Mr. French supposed she was thinking of the queer-looking men
and women who were swarming through the rooms, and he made,
after his own delicate notion of humour, some uncouth jests on
those who passed by. Mrs. Lee, however, was in no humour to
explain or even to listen. She stopped him short:--
"There, Mr. French! Now go away and leave me. I want to be
alone for half an hour. Please come for me then." And there she
stood, with her eyes fixed on the President and his wife, while the
endless stream of humanity passed them, shaking hands.
What a strange and solemn spectacle it was, and how the deadly
fascination of it burned the image in upon her mind! What a horrid
warning to ambition!
And in all that crowd there was no one besides herself who felt the
mockery of this exhibition. To all the others this task was a regular
part of the President's duty, and there was nothing ridiculous about
it. They thought it a democratic institution, this droll a ping of
monarchical forms. To them the deadly dulness of the show was as
natural and proper as ever to the courtiers of the Philips and
Charleses seemed the ceremonies of the Escurial. To her it had the
effect of a nightmare, or of an opium-eater's vision, She felt a
sudden conviction that this was to be the end of American society;
its realisation and dream at once. She groaned in spirit.
"Yes! at last I have reached the end! We shall grow to be wax
images, and our talk will be like the squeaking of toy dolls. We
shall all wander round and round the earth and shake hands. No
one will have any object in this world, and there will be no other.
It is worse than anything in the 'Inferno.' What an awful vision of
Suddenly, as through a mist, she saw the melancholy face of Lord
Skye approaching. He came to her side, and his voice recalled her
"Does it amuse you, this sort of thing?" he asked in a vague way.
"We take our amusement sadly, after the manner of our people,"
she replied; "but it certainly interests me."
They stood for a time in silence, watching the slowly eddying
dance of Democracy, until he resumed:
"Whom do you take that man to be--the long, lean one, with a long
woman on each arm?"
"That man," she replied, "I take to be a Washington
department-clerk, or perhaps a member of Congress from Iowa,
with a wife and wife's sister. Do they shock your nobility?"
He looked at her with comical resignation. "You mean to tell me
that they are quite as good as dowager-countesses. I grant it. My
aristocratic spirit is broken, Mrs. Lee. I will even ask them to
dinner if you bid me, and if you will come to meet them. But the
last time I asked a member of Congress to dine, he sent me back a
note in pencil on my own envelope that he would bring two of his
friends with him, very respectable constituents from Yahoo city, or
some such place; nature's noblemen, he said."
"You should have welcomed them."
"I did. I wanted to see two of nature's noblemen, and I knew they
would probably be pleasanter company than their representative.
They came; very respectable persons, one with a blue necktie, the
other with a red one: both had diamond pins in their shirts, and
were carefully brushed in respect to their hair. They said nothing,
ate little, drank less, and were much better behaved than I am.
When they went away, they unanimously asked me to stay with
them when I visited Yahoo city."
"You will not want guests if you always do that."
"I don't know. I think it was pure ignorance on their part. They
knew no better, and they seemed modest enough. My only
complaint was that I could get nothing out of them. I wonder
whether their wives would have been more amusing."
"Would they be so in England, Lord Skye?"
He looked down at her with half-shut eyes, and drawled: "You
know my countrywomen?"
"Hardly at all."
"Then let us discuss some less serious subject."
"Willingly. I have waited for you to explain to me why you have
to-night an expression of such melancholy."
"Is that quite friendly, Mrs. Lee? Do I really look melancholy?"
"Unutterably, as I feel. I am consumed with curiosity to know the
The British minister coolly took a complete survey of the whole
room, ending with a prolonged stare at the President and his wife,
who were still mechanically shaking hands; then he looked back
into her face, and said never a word.
She insisted: "I must have this riddle answered. It suffocates me. I
should not be sad at seeing these same people at work or at play, if
they ever do play; or in a church or a lecture-room. Why do they
weigh on me like a horrid phantom here?"
"I see no riddle, Mrs. Lee. You have answered your own question;
they are neither at work nor at play."
"Then please take me home at once. I shall have hysterics. The
sight of those two suffering images at the door is too mournful to
be borne. I am dizzy with looking at these stalking figures. I don't
believe they're real.
I wish the house would take fire. I want an earthquake. I wish
some one would pinch the President, or pull his wife's hair."
Mrs. Lee did not repeat the experiment of visiting the White
House, and indeed for some time afterwards she spoke with little
enthusiasm of the presidential office. To Senator Ratcliffe she
expressed her opinions strongly. The Senator tried in vain to argue
that the people had a right to call upon their chief magistrate, and
that he was bound to receive them; this being so, there was no less
objectionable way of proceeding than the one which had been
chosen. "Who gave the people any such right?" asked Mrs.
Lee. "Where does it come from? What do they want it for? You
know better, Mr. Ratcliffe! Our chief magistrate is a citizen like
any one else. What puts it into his foolish head to cease being a
citizen and to ape royalty?
Our governors never make themselves ridiculous. Why cannot the
wretched being content himself with living like the rest of us, and
minding his own business? Does he know what a figure of fun he
is?" And Mrs. Lee went so far as to declare that she would like to
be the President's wife only to put an end to this folly; nothing
should ever induce her to go through such a performance; and if
the public did not approve of this, Congress might impeach her,
and remove her from office; all she demanded was the right to be
heard before the Senate in her own defence.
Nevertheless, there was a very general impression in Washington
Lee would like nothing better than to be in the White House.
Known to comparatively few people, and rarely discussing even
with them the subjects which deeply interested her, Madeleine
passed for a clever, intriguing woman who had her own objects to
gain. True it is, beyond peradventure, that all residents of
Washington may be assumed to be in office or candidates for
office; unless they avow their object, they are guilty of an
attempt--and a stupid one--to deceive; yet there is a small class of
apparent exceptions destined at last to fall within the rule. Mrs.
Lee was properly assumed to be a candidate for office. To the
Washingtonians it was a matter of course that Mrs. Lee should
marry Silas P. Ratcliffe. That he should be glad to get a
fashionable and intelligent wife, with twenty or thirty thousand
dollars a year, was not surprising. That she should accept the first
public man of the day, with a flattering chance for the
Presidency--a man still comparatively young and not without good
looks--was perfectly natural, and in her undertaking she had the
sympathy of all well-regulated Washington women who were not
possible rivals; for to them the President's wife is of more
consequence than the President; and, indeed, if America only
knew it, they are not very far from the truth.
Some there were, however, who did not assent to this good-natured
though worldly view of the proposed match. These ladies were
severe in their comments upon Mrs. Lee's conduct, and did not
hesitate to declare their opinion that she was the calmest and most
ambitious minx who had ever come within their observation.
Unfortunately it happened that the respectable and proper Mrs.
Schuyler Clinton took this view of the case, and made little
attempt to conceal her opinion. She was justly indignant at her
cousin's gross worldliness, and possible promotion in rank.
"If Madeleine Ross marries that coarse, horrid old Illinois
said she to her husband, "I never will forgive her so long as I live."
Mr. Clinton tried to excuse Madeleine, and even went so far as to
suggest that the difference of age was no greater than in their own
case; but his wife trampled ruthlessly on his argument.
"At any rate," said she, "I never came to Washington as a widow
on purpose to set my cap for the first candidate for the Presidency,
and I never made a public spectacle of my indecent eagerness in
the very galleries of the Senate; and Mrs. Lee ought to be ashamed
of herself. She is a cold-blooded, heartless, unfeminine cat."
Little Victoria Dare, who babbled like the winds and streams, with
utter indifference as to what she said or whom she addressed, used
to bring choice bits of this gossip to Mrs. Lee. She always affected
a little stammer when she said anything uncommonly impudent,
and put on a manner of languid simplicity. She felt keenly the
satisfaction of seeing Madeleine charged with her own besetting
sins. For years all Washington had agreed that Victoria was little
better than one of the wicked; she had done nothing but violate
every rule of propriety and scandalise every well-regulated family
in the city, and there was no good in her. Yet it could not be
denied that Victoria was amusing, and had a sort of irregular
fascination; consequently she was universally tolerated. To see
Mrs. Lee thrust down to her own level was an unmixed pleasure to