Part 4 out of 4
chromatic scales of colour; combinations meant to vulgarise the
rainbow; sinfonies and fugues; the twittering of birds and the great
peace of dewy nature; maidenhood in her awakening innocence;
"The Dawn in June." The Master rested content.
A week later came an order from Sybil, including "an entirely
original ball-dress,--unlike any other sent to America." Mr. Worth
pondered, hesitated; recalled Sybil's figure; the original pose of her
head; glanced anxiously at the map, and speculated whether the
New York Herald had a special correspondent at Dahomey; and at
last, with a generosity peculiar to great souls, he duplicated for
"Miss S. Ross, New York, U.S. America," the order for "L'Aube,
Mois de Juin."
The Schneidekoupons and Mr. French, who had reappeared in
Washington, came to dine with Mrs. Lee on the evening of the
ball, and Julia Schneidekoupon sought in vain to discover what
Sybil was going to wear. "Be happy, my dear, in your ignorance!"
said Sybil; "the pangs of envy will rankle soon enough."
An hour later her room, except the fireplace, where a wood fire
was gently smouldering, became an altar of sacrifice to the Deity
of Dawn in June. Her bed, her low couch, her little tables, her
chintz arm-chairs, were covered with portions of the divinity,
down to slippers and handkerchief, gloves and bunches of fresh
roses. When at length, after a long effort, the work was complete,
Mrs. Lee took a last critical look at the result, and enjoyed a glow
of satisfaction. Young, happy, sparkling with consciousness of
youth and beauty, Sybil stood, Hebe Anadyomene, rising from the
foam of soft creplisse which swept back beneath the long train of
pale, tender, pink silk, fainting into breadths of delicate primrose,
relieved here and there by facings of June green--or was it the blue
of early morning? --or both?
suggesting unutterable freshness. A modest hint from her maid that
"the girls," as women-servants call each other in American
households, would like to offer their share of incense at the shrine,
was amiably met, and they were allowed a glimpse of the divinity
before she was enveloped in wraps. An admiring group, huddled in
the doorway, murmured approval, from the leading "girl," who was
the cook, a coloured widow of some sixty winters, whose
admiration was irrepressible, down to a New England spinster
whose Anabaptist conscience wrestled with her instincts, and who,
although disapproving of "French folks," paid in her heart that
secret homage to their gowns and bonnets which her sterner lips
refused. The applause of this audience has, from generation to
generation, cheered the hearts of myriads of young women starting
out on their little adventures, while the domestic laurels flourish
green and fresh for one half hour, until they wither at the threshold
of the ball-room.
Mrs. Lee toiled long and earnestly over her sister's toilet, for had
not she herself in her own day been the best-dressed girl in New
York?--at least, she held that opinion, and her old instincts came to
life again whenever Sybil was to be prepared for any great
occasion. Madeleine kissed her sister affectionately, and gave her
unusual praise when the "Dawn in June" was complete. Sybil was
at this moment the ideal of blooming youth, and Mrs. Lee almost
dared to hope that her heart was not permanently broken, and that
she might yet survive until Carrington could be brought back. Her
own toilet was a much shorter affair, but Sybil was impatient long
before it was concluded; the carriage was waiting, and she was
obliged to disappoint her household by coming down enveloped in
her long opera-cloak, and hurrying away.
When at length the sisters entered the reception-room at the British
Legation, Lord Skye rebuked them for not having come early to
receive with him. His Lordship, with a huge riband across his
breast, and a star on his coat, condescended to express himself
vigorously on the subject of the "Dawn in June." Schneidekoupon,
who was proud of his easy use of the latest artistic jargon, looked
with respect at Mrs. Lee's silver-gray satin and its Venetian lace,
the arrangement of which had been conscientiously stolen from a
picture in the Louvre, and he murmured audibly, "Nocturne in
silver-gray!"--then, turning to Sybil--"and you? Of course! I see! A
song without words!" Mr. French came up and, in his most
fascinating tones, exclaimed, "Why, Mrs. Lee, you look real
handsome to-night!" Jacobi, after a close scrutiny, said that he took
the liberty of an old man in telling them that they were both
dressed absolutely without fault. Even the Grand-Duke was struck
by Sybil, and made Lord Skye introduce him, after which
ceremony he terrified her by asking the pleasure of a waltz. She
disappeared from Madeleine's view, not to be brought back again
until Dawn met dawn.
The ball was, as the newspapers declared, a brilliant success.
Every one who knows the city of Washington will recollect that,
among some scores of magnificent residences which our own and
foreign governments have built for the comfort of cabinet officers,
judges, diplomatists, vice-presidents, speakers, and senators, the
British Legation is by far the most impressive.
Combining in one harmonious whole the proportions of the Pitti
Palace with the decoration of the Casa d'Oro and the dome of an
Eastern Mosque, this architectural triumph offers extraordinary
resources for society. Further description is unnecessary, since
anyone may easily refer back to the New York newspapers of the
following morning, where accurate plans of the house on the
ground floor, will be found; while the illustrated newspapers of the
same week contain excellent sketches of the most pleasing scenic
effects, as well as of the ball-room and of the Princess smiling
graciously from her throne. The lady just behind the Princess on
her left, is Mrs. Lee, a poor likeness, but easily distinguishable
from the fact that the artist, for his own objects, has made her
rather shorter, and the Princess rather taller, than was strictly
correct, just as he has given the Princess a gracious smile, which
was quite different from her actual expression. In short, the artist is
compelled to exhibit the world rather as we would wish it to be,
than as it was or is, or, indeed, is like shortly to become. The
strangest part of his picture is, however, the fact that he actually
did see Mrs. Lee where he has put her, at the Princess's elbow,
which was almost the last place in the room where any one who
knew Mrs. Lee would have looked for her.
The explanation of this curious accident shall be given
immediately, since the facts are not mentioned in the public
reports of the ball, which only said that, "close behind her Royal
Highness the Grand-Duchess, stood our charming and aristocratic
countrywoman, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, who has made so great a
sensation in Washington this winter, and whose name public
rumour has connected with that of the Secretary of the Treasury.
To her the Princess appeared to address most of her conversation."
The show was a very pretty one, and on a pleasant April evening
there were many places less agreeable to be in than this. Much
ground outside had been roofed over, to make a ball-room, large as
an opera-house, with a daïs and a sofa in the centre of one long
side, and another daïs with a second sofa immediately opposite to
it in the centre of the other long side. Each daïs had a canopy of
red velvet, one bearing the Lion and the Unicorn, the other the
American Eagle. The Royal Standard was displayed above the
Unicorn; the Stars-and-Stripes, not quite so effectively, waved
above the Eagle. The Princess, being no longer quite a child, found
gas trying to her complexion, and compelled Lord Skye to
illuminate her beauty by one hundred thousand wax candies, more
or less, which were arranged to be becoming about the
Grand-ducal throne, and to be showy and unbecoming about the
opposite institution across the way.
The exact facts were these. It had happened that the
Grand-Duchess, having been necessarily brought into contact with
the President, and particularly with his wife, during the past week,
had conceived for the latter an antipathy hardly to be expressed in
words. Her fixed determination was at any cost to keep the
Presidential party at a distance, and it was only after a stormy
scene that the Grand-Duke and Lord Skye succeeded in extorting
her consent that the President should take her to supper. Further
than this she would not go. She would not speak to "that woman,"
as she called the President's wife, nor be in her neighbourhood.
She would rather stay in her own room all the evening, and she did
not care in the least what the Queen would think of it, for she was
no subject of the Queen's. The case was a hard one for Lord Skye,
who was perplexed to know, from this point of view, why he was
entertaining the Princess at all; but, with the help of the
Grand-Duke and Lord Dunbeg, who was very active and smiled
deprecation with some success, he found a way out of it; and this
was the reason why there were two thrones in the ball-room, and
why the British throne was lighted with such careful reference to
the Princess's complexion. Lord Skye immolated himself in the
usual effort of British and American Ministers, to keep the two
great powers apart. He and the Grand-Duke and Lord Dunbeg
acted as buffers with watchful diligence, dexterity, and success. As
one resource, Lord Skye had bethought himself of Mrs. Lee, and
he told the Princess the story of Mrs. Lee's relations with the
President's wife, a story which was no secret in Washington, for,
apart from Madeleine's own account, society was left in no doubt
of the light in which Mrs. Lee was regarded by the mistress of the
White House, whom Washington ladles were now in the habit of
drawing out on the subject of Mrs. Lee, and who always rose to the
bait with fresh vivacity, to the amusement and delight of Victoria
Dare and other mischief-makers.
"She will not trouble you so long as you can keep Mrs. Lee in your
neighbourhood," said Lord Skye, and the Princess accordingly
seized upon Mrs. Lee and brandished her, as though she were a
charm against the evil eye, in the face of the President's party. She
made Mrs. Lee take a place just behind her as though she were a
lady-in-waiting. She even graciously permitted her to sit down, so
near that their chairs touched. Whenever "that woman" was within
sight, which was most of the time, the Princess directed her
conversation entirely to Mrs. Lee and took care to make it evident.
Even before the Presidential party had arrived, Madeleine had
fallen into the Princess's grasp, and when the Princess went
forward to receive the President and his wife, which she did with a
bow of stately and distant dignity, she dragged Madeleine closely
by her side. Mrs. Lee bowed too; she could not well help it; but
was cut dead for her pains, with a glare of contempt and hatred.
Lord Skye, who was acting as cavalier to the President's wife, was
panic-stricken, and hastened to march his democratic potentate
away, under pretence of showing her the decorations. He placed
her at last on her own throne, where he and the Grand-Duke
relieved each other in standing guard at intervals throughout the
evening. When the Princess followed with the President, she
compelled her husband to take Mrs. Lee on his arm and conduct
her to the British throne, with no other object than to exasperate
the President's wife, who, from her elevated platform, looked
down upon the cortège with a scowl.
In all this affair Mrs. Lee was the principal sufferer. No one could
relieve her, and she was literally penned in as she sat. The Princess
kept up an incessant fire of small conversation, principally
complaint and fault-finding, which no one dared to interrupt. Mrs.
Lee was painfully bored, and after a time even the absurdity of the
thing ceased to amuse her.
She had, too, the ill-luck to make one or two remarks which
appealed to some hidden sense of humour in the Princess, who
laughed and, in the style of royal personages, gave her to
understand that she would like more amusement of the same sort.
Of all things in life, Mrs. Lee held this kind of court-service in
contempt, for she was something more than republican--a little
communistic at heart, and her only serious complaint of the
President and his wife was that they undertook to have a court and
to ape monarchy.
She had no notion of admitting social superiority in any one,
President or Prince, and to be suddenly converted into a
lady-in-waiting to a small German Grand-Duchess, was a terrible
blow. But what was to be done? Lord Skye had drafted her into the
service and she could not decently refuse to help him when he
came to her side and told her, with his usual calm directness, what
his difficulties were, and how he counted upon her to help him out.
The same play went on at supper, where there was a
royal-presidential table, which held about two dozen guests, and
the two great ladies presiding, as far apart as they could be placed.
The Grand-Duke and Lord Skye, on either side of the President's
wife, did their duty like men, and were rewarded by receiving from
her much information about the domestic arrangements of the
White House. The President, however, who sat next the Princess at
the opposite end, was evidently depressed, owing partly to the fact
that the Princess, in defiance of all etiquette, had compelled Lord
Dunbeg to take Mrs. Lee to supper and to place her directly next
the President. Madeleine tried to escape, but was stopped by the
Princess, who addressed her across the President and in a decided
tone asked her to sit precisely there. Mrs.
Lee looked timidly at her neighbour, who made no sign, but ate his
supper in silence only broken by an occasional reply to a rare
remark. Mrs. Lee pitied him, and wondered what his wife would
say when they reached home. She caught Ratcliffe's eye down the
table, watching her with a smile; she tried to talk fluently with
Dunbeg; but not until supper was long over and two o'clock was at
hand; not until the Presidential party, under all the proper
formalities, had taken their leave of the Grand-ducal party; not
until Lord Skye had escorted them to their carriage and returned to
say that they were gone, did the Princess loose her hold upon Mrs.
Lee and allow her to slip away into obscurity.
Meanwhile the ball had gone on after the manner of balls. As
Madeleine sat in her enforced grandeur she could watch all that
passed. She had seen Sybil whirling about with one man after
another, amid a swarm of dancers, enjoying herself to the utmost
and occasionally giving a nod and a smile to her sister as their eyes
met. There, too, was Victoria Dare, who never appeared flurried
even when waltzing with Lord Dunbeg, whose education as a
dancer had been neglected. The fact was now fully recognized that
Victoria was carrying on a systematic flirtation with Dunbeg, and
had undertaken as her latest duty the task of teaching him to waltz.
His struggles and her calmness in assisting them commanded
respect. On the opposite side of the room, by the republican
throne, Mrs. Lee had watched Mr. Ratcliffe standing by the
President, who appeared unwilling to let him out of arm's length
and who seemed to make to him most of his few remarks.
Schneidekoupon and his sister were mixed in the throng, dancing
as though England had never countenanced the heresy of
free-trade. On the whole, Mrs. Lee was satisfied.
If her own sufferings were great, they were not without reward.
She studied all the women in the ball-room, and if there was one
prettier than Sybil, Madeleine's eyes could not discover her. If
there was a more perfect dress, Madeleine knew nothing of
dressing. On these points she felt the confidence of conviction. Her
calm would have been complete, had she felt quite sure that none
of Sybil's gaiety was superficial and that it would not be followed
by reaction. She watched nervously to see whether her face
changed its gay expression, and once she thought it became
depressed, but this was when the Grand-Duke came up to claim his
waltz, and the look rapidly passed away when they got upon the
floor and his Highness began to wheel round the room with a
precision and momentum that would have done honour to a
regiment of Life Guards. He seemed pleased with his experiment,
for he was seen again and again careering over the floor with Sybil
until Mrs. Lee herself became nervous, for the Princess frowned.
After her release Madeleine lingered awhile in the ball-room to
speak with her sister and to receive congratulations. For half an
hour she was a greater belle than Sybil. A crowd of men clustered
about her, amused at the part she had played in the evening's
entertainment and full of compliments upon her promotion at
Court. Lord Skye himself found time to offer her his thanks in a
more serious tone than he generally affected. "You have suffered
much," said he, "and I am grateful." Madeleine laughed as she
answered that her sufferings had seemed nothing to her while she
watched his. But at last she became weary of the noise and glare of
the ball-room, and, accepting the arm of her excellent friend Count
Popoff, she strolled with him back to the house. There at last she
sat down on a sofa in a quiet window-recess where the light was
less strong and where a convenient laurel spread its leaves in front
so as to make a bower through which she could see the passers-by
without being seen by them except with an effort. Had she been a
younger woman, this would have been the spot for a flirtation, but
Mrs. Lee never flirted, and the idea of her flirting with Popoff
would have seemed ludicrous to all mankind.
He did not sit down, but was leaning against the angle of the wall,
talking with her, when suddenly Mr. Ratcliffe appeared and took
the seat by her side with such deliberation and apparent sense of
property that Popoff incontinently turned and fled. No one knew
where the Secretary came from, or how he learned that she was
there. He made no explanation and she took care to ask for none.
She gave him a highly-coloured account of her evening's service as
lady-in-waiting, which he matched by that of his own trials as
gentleman-usher to the President, who, it seemed, had clung
desperately to his old enemy in the absence of any other rock to
Ratcliffe looked the character of Prime Minister sufficiently well
at this moment. He would have held his own, at a pinch, in any
Court, not merely in Europe but in India or China, where dignity is
still expected of gentlemen.
Excepting for a certain coarse and animal expression about the
mouth, and an indefinable coldness in the eye, he was a handsome
man and still in his prime. Every one remarked how much he was
improved since entering the Cabinet. He had dropped his
senatorial manner. His clothes were no longer congressional, but
those of a respectable man, neat and decent. His shirts no longer
protruded in the wrong places, nor were his shirt-collars frayed or
soiled. His hair did not stray over his eyes, ears, and coat, like that
of a Scotch terrier, but had got itself cut. Having overheard Mrs.
Lee express on one occasion her opinion of people who did not
take a cold bath every morning, he had thought it best to adopt this
reform, although he would not have had it generally known, tot it
savoured ot caste. He made an effort not to be dictatorial and to
forget that he had been the Prairie Giant, the bully of the Senate. In
short, what with Mrs. Lee's influence and what with his
emancipation from the Senate chamber with its code of bad
manners and worse morals, Mr. Ratcliffe was fast becoming a
respectable member of society whom a man who had never been
in prison or in politics might safely acknowledge as a friend.
Mr. Ratcliffe was now evidently bent upon being heard. After
charting for a time with some humour on the President's successes
as a man of fashion, he changed the subject to the merits of the
President as a statesman, and little by little as he spoke he became
serious and his voice sank into low and confidential tones. He
plainly said that the President's incapacity had now become
notorious among his followers; that it was only with difficulty his
Cabinet and friends could prevent him from making a fool of
himself fifty times a day; that all the party leaders who had
occasion to deal with him were so thoroughly disgusted that the
Cabinet had to pass its time in trying to pacify them; while this
state of things lasted, Ratcliffe's own influence must be
paramount; he had good reason to know that if the Presidential
election were to take place this year, nothing could prevent his
nomination and election; even at three years' distance the chances
in his favour were at least two to one; and after this exordium he
went on in a low tone with increasing earnestness, while Mrs. Lee
sat motionless as the statue of Agrippina, her eyes fixed on the
"I am not one of those who are happy in political life. I am a
politician because I cannot help myself; it is the trade I am fittest
for, and ambition is my resource to make it tolerable. In politics
we cannot keep our hands clean. I have done many things in my
political career that are not defensible. To act with entire honesty
and self-respect, one should always live in a pure atmosphere, and
the atmosphere of politics is impure.
Domestic life is the salvation of many public men, but I have for
many years been deprived of it. I have now come to that point
where increasing responsibilities and temptations make me require
help. I must have it. You alone can give it to me. You are kind,
thoughtful, conscientious, high-minded, cultivated, fitted better
than any woman I ever saw, for public duties. Your place is there.
You belong among those who exercise an influence beyond their
time. I only ask you to take the place which is yours."
This desperate appeal to Mrs. Lee's ambition was a calculated part
of Ratcliffe's scheme. He was well aware that he had marked high
game, and that in proportion to this height must be the power of
his lure. Nor was he embarrassed because Mrs. Lee sat still and
pale with her eyes fixed on the ground and her hands twisted
together in her lap. The eagle that soars highest must be longer in
descending to the ground than the sparrow or the partridge. Mrs.
Lee had a thousand things to think about in this brief time, and yet
she found that she could not think at all; a succession of mere
images and fragments of thought passed rapidly over her mind,
and her will exercised no control upon their order or their nature.
One of these fleeting reflections was that in all the offers of
marriage she had ever heard, this was the most unsentimental and
businesslike. As for his appeal to her ambition, it fell quite dead
upon her ear, but a woman must be more than a heroine who can
listen to flattery so evidently sincere, from a man who is
pre-eminent among men, without being affected by it. To her,
however, the great and overpowering fact was that she found
herself unable to retreat or escape; her tactics were disconcerted,
her temporary barriers beaten down.
The offer was made. What should she do with it?
She had thought for months on this subject without being able to
form a decision; what hope was there that she should be able to
decide now, in a ball-room, at a minute's notice? When, as
occasionally happens, the conflicting sentiments, prejudices, and
passions of a lifetime are compressed into a single instant, they
sometimes overcharge the mind and it refuses to work. Mrs. Lee
sat still and let things take their course; a dangerous expedient, as
thousands of women have learned, for it leaves them at the mercy
of the strong will, bent upon mastery.
The music from the ball-room did not stop. Crowds of persons
passed by their retreat. Some glanced in, and not one of these felt a
doubt what was going on there. An unmistakeable atmosphere of
mystery and intensity surrounded tfle pair. Ratcliffe's eyes were
fixed upon Mrs. Lee, and hers on the ground. Neither seemed to
speak or to stir. Old Baron Jacobi, who never failed to see
everything, saw this as he went by, and ejaculated a foreign oath of
frightful import. Victoria Dare saw it and was devoured by
curiosity to such a point as to be hardly capable of containing
After a silence which seemed interminable, Ratcliffe went on: "I
do not speak of my own feelings because I know that unless
compelled by a strong sense of duty, you will not be decided by
any devotion of mine. But I honestly say that I have learned to
depend on you to a degree I can hardly express; and when I think
of what I should be without you, life seems to me so intolerably
dark that I am ready to make any sacrifice, to accept any
conditions that will keep you by my side."
Meanwhile Victoria Dare, although deeply interested in what
Dunbeg was telling her, had met Sybil and had stopped a single
second to whisper in her ear: "You had better look after your sister,
in the window, behind the laurel with Mr. Ratcliffe!" Sybil was on
Lord Skye's arm, enjoying herself amazingly, though the night was
far gone, but when she caught Victoria's words, the expression of
her face wholly changed. All the anxieties and terrors of the last
fortnight, came back upon it. She dragged Lord Skye across the
hall and looked in upon her sister. One glance was enough.
Desperately frightened but afraid to hesitate, she went directly up
to Madeleine who was still sitting like a statue, listening to
Ratcliffe's last words. As she hurriedly entered, Mrs. Lee, looking
up, caught sight of her pale face, and started from her seat.
"Are you ill, Sybil?" she exclaimed; "is anything the matter?"
"A little--fatigued," gasped Sybil; "I thought you might be ready to
"I am," cried Madeleine; "I am quite ready. Good evening, Mr.
Ratcliffe. I will see you to-morrow. Lord Skye, shall I take leave of
"The Princess retired half an hour ago," replied Lord Skye, who
saw the situation and was quite ready to help Sybil; "let me take
you to the dressing-room and order your carriage." Mr. Ratcliffe
found himself suddenly left alone, while Mrs. Lee hurried away,
torn by fresh anxieties. They had reached the dressing-room and
were nearly ready to go home, when Victora Dare suddenly dashed
in upon them, with an animation of manner very unusual in her,
and, seizing Sybil by the hand, drew her into an adjoining room
and shut the door. "Can you keep a secret?" said she abruptly.
"What!" said Sybil, looking at her with open-mouthed interest;
"you don't mean--are you really--tell me, quick!"
"Yes!" said Victoria relapsing into composure; "I am engaged!"
"To Lord Dunbeg?"
Victoria nodded, and Sybil, whose nerves were strung to the
highest pitch by excitement, flattery, fatigue, perplexity, and terror,
burst into a paroxysm of laughter, that startled even the calm Miss
"Poor Lord Dunbeg! don't be hard on him, Victoria!" she gasped
when at last she found breath; "do you really mean to pass the rest
of your life in Ireland? Oh, how much you will teach them!"
"You forget, my dear," said Victoria, who had placidly enthroned
herself on the foot of a bed, "that I am not a pauper. I am told that
Dunbeg Castle is a romantic summer residence, and in the dull
season we shall of course go to London or somewhere. I shall be
civil to you when you come over. Don't you think a coronet will
look well on me?"
Sybil burst again into laughter so irrepressible and prolonged that
it puzzled even poor Dunbeg, who was impatiently pacing the
It alarmed Madeleine, who suddenly opened the door. Sybil
recovered herself, and, her eyes streaming with tears, presented
Victoria to her sister:
"Madeleine, allow me to introduce you to the Countess Dunbeg!"
But Mrs. Lee was much too anxious to feel any interest in Lady
Dunbeg. A sudden fear struck her that Sybil was going into
hysterics because Victoria's engagement recalled her own
disappointment. She hurried her sister away to the carriage.
THEY drove home in silence, Mrs. Lee disturbed with anxieties
and doubts, partly caused by her sister, partly by Mr. Ratcliffe;
Sybil divided between amusement at Victoria's conquest, and
alarm at her own boldness in meddling with her sister's affairs.
Desperation, however, was stronger than fear. She made up her
mind that further suspense was not to be endured; she would fight
her baffle now before another hour was lost; surely no time could
be better. A few moments brought them to their door. Mrs. Lee
had told her maid not to wait for them, and they were alone. The
fire was still alive on Madeleine's hearth, and she threw more
wood upon it. Then she insisted that Sybil must go to bed at once.
But Sybil refused; she felt quite well, she said, and not in the least
sleepy; she had a great deal to talk about, and wanted to get it off
her mind. Nevertheless, her feminine regard for the "Dawn in
June" led her to postpone what she had to say until with
Madeleine's help she had laid the triumph of the ball carefully
aside; then, putting on her dressing-gown, and hastily plunging
Carrington's letter into her breast, like a concealed weapon, she
hurried back to Madeleine's room and established herself in a chair
before the fire. There, after a moment's pause, the two women
began their long-deferred trial of strength, in which the match was
so nearly equal as to make the result doubtful; for, if Madeleine
were much the cleverer, Sybil in this case knew much better what
she wanted, and had a clear idea how she meant to gain it, while
Madeleine, unsuspicious of attack, had no plan of defence at all.
"Madeleine," began Sybil, solemnly, and with a violent palpitation
of the heart, "I want you to tell me something."
"What is it, my child?" said Mrs. Lee, puzzled, and yet half ready
to see that there must be some connection between her sister's
coming question and the sudden illness at the ball, which had
disappeared as suddenly as it came.
"Do you mean to marry Mr. Ratcliffe?"
Poor Mrs. Lee was quite disconcerted by the directness of the
attack. This fatal question met her at every turn. Hardly had she
succeeded in escaping trom it at the ball scarcely an hour ago, by a
stroke of good fortune for which she now began to see she was
indebted to Sybil, and here it was again presented to her face like a
pistol. The whole town, then, was asking it.
Ratcliffe's offer must have been seen by half Washington, and her
reply was awaited by an immense audience, as though she were a
political returning-board. Her disgust was intense, and her first
answer to Sybil was a quick inquiry:
"Why do you ask such a question? have you heard anything,--has
anyone talked about it to you?"
"No!" replied Sybil; "but I must know; I can see for myself without
being told, that Mr. Racliffe is trying to make you marry him. I
don't ask out of curiosity; this is something that concerns me
nearly as much as it does you yourself. Please tell me! don't treat
me like a child any longer! let me know what you are thinking
about! I am so tired of being left in the dark!
You have no idea how much this thing weighs on me. Oh, Maude,
I shall never be happy again until you trust me about this."
Mrs. Lee felt a little pang of conscience, and seemed suddenly to
become conscious of a new coil, tightening about her, in this
wretched complication. Unable to see her way, ignorant of her
sister's motives, urged on by the idea that Sybil's happiness was
involved, she was now charged with want of feeling, and called
upon for a direct answer to a plain question.
How could she aver that she did not mean to marry Mr. Ratcliffe?
to say this would be to shut the door on all the objects she had at
heart. If a direct answer must be given, it was better to say "Yes!"
and have it over; better to leap blindly and see what came of it.
Mrs. Lee, therefore, with an internal gasp, but with no visible sign
of excitement, said, as though she were in a dream:
"Well, Sybil, I will tell you. I would have told you long ago if I had
known myself. Yes! I have made up my mind to marry Mr.
Sybil sprang to her feet with a cry: "And have you told him so?"
"No! you came and interrupted us just as we were speaking. I was
glad you did come, for it gives me a little time to think. But I am
decided now. I shall tell him to-morrow."
This was not said with the air or one wnose heart beat warmly at
the thought of confessing her love. Mrs. Lee spoke mechanically,
and almost with an effort. Sybil flung herself with all her energy
upon her sister; violently excited, and eager to make herself heard,
without waiting for arguments, she broke out into a torrent of
entreaties: "Oh, don't, don't, don't! Oh, please, please, don't, my
dearest, dearest Maude! unless you want to break my heart, don't
marry that man! You can't love him! You can never be happy with
him! he will take you away to Peonia, and you will die there! I
shall never see you again! He will make you unhappy; he will beat
you, I know he will! Oh, if you care for me at all, don't marry him!
Send him away! don't see him again! let us go ourselves, now, in
the morning train, before he comes back. I'm all ready; I'll pack
everything for you; we'll go to Newport; to Europe--anywhere, to
be out of his reach!"
With this passionate appeal, Sybil threw herself on her knees by
her sister's side, and, clasping her arms around Madeleine's waist,
sobbed as though her heart were already broken. Had Carrington
seen her then he must have admitted that she had carried out his
instructions to the letter. She was quite honest, too, in it all. She
meant what she said, and her tears were real tears that had been
pent up for weeks. Unluckily, her logic was feeble. Her idea of Mr.
Ratcliffe's character was vague, and biased by mere theories of
what a Prairie Giant of Peonia should be in his domestic relations.
Her idea of Peonia, too, was indistinct. She was haunted by a
vision of her sister, sitting on a horse-hair sofa before an air-tight
iron stove in a small room with high, bare white walls, a
chromolithograph on each, and at her side a marble-topped table
surmounted by a glass vase containing funereal dried grasses; the
only literature, Frank Leslie's periodical and the New York Ledger,
with a strong smell of cooking everywhere prevalent. Here she saw
Madeleine receiving visitors, the wives of neighbours and
constituents, who told her the Peonia news.
Notwithstanding her ignorant and unreasonable prejudice against
western men and women, western towns and prairies, and, in short,
everything western, down to western politics and western
politicians, whom she perversely asserted to be tue lowest ot all
western products, there was still some common sense in Sybil's
idea. When that inevitable hour struck for Mr.
Ratcliffe, which strikes sooner or later for all politicians, and an
ungrateful country permitted him to pine among his friends in
Illinois, what did he propose to do with his wife? Did he seriously
suppose that she, who was bored to death by New York, and had
been able to find no permanent pleasure in Europe, would live
quietly in the romantic village of Peonia? If not, did Mr. Ratcliffe
imagine that they could find happiness in the enjoyment of each
other's society, and of Mrs. Lee's income, in the excitements of
Washington? In the ardour of his pursuit, Mr. Ratcliffe had
accepted in advance any conditions which Mrs. Lee might impose,
but if he really imagined that happiness and content lay on the
purple rim of this sunset, he had more confidence in women and in
money than a wider experience was ever likely to justify.
Whatever might be Mr. Ratcliffe's schemes for dealing with these
obstacles they could hardly be such as would satisfy Sybil, who, if
inaccurate in her theories about Prairie Giants, yet understood
women, and especially her sister, much better than Mr. Ratcliffe
ever could do. Here she was safe, and it would have been better
had she said no more, for Mrs. Lee, though staggered for a moment
by her sister's vehemence, was reassured by what seemed the
absurdity of her fears. Madeleine rebelled against this hysterical
violence of opposition, and became more fixed in her decision.
She scolded her sister in good, set terms--
"Sybil, Sybil! you must not be so violent. Behave like a woman,
and not like a spoiled child!"
Mrs. Lee, like most persons who have to deal with spoiled or
unspoiled children, resorted to severity, not so much because it
was the proper way of dealing with them, as because she knew not
what else to do. She was thoroughly uncomfortable and weary. She
was not satisfied with herself or with her own motives. Doubt
encompassed her on all sides, and her worst opponent was that
sister whose happiness had turned the scale against her own
Nevertheless her tactics answered their object of checking Sybil's
vehemence. Her sobs came to an end, and she presently rose with a
"Madeleine," said she, "do you really want to marry Mr.
"What else can I do, my dear Sybil? I want to do whatever is for
the best. I thought you might be pleased."
"You thought I might be pleased?" cried Sybil in astonishment.
"What a strange idea! If you had ever spoken to me about it I
should have told you that I hate him, and can't understand how you
can abide him. But I would rather marry him myself than see you
marry him. I know that you will kill yourself with unhappiness
when you have done it. Oh, Maude, please tell me that you won't!"
And Sybil began gently sobbing again, while she caressed her
Mrs. Lee was infinitely distressed. To act against the wishes of her
nearest friends was hard enough, but to appear harsh and unfeeling
to the one being whose happiness she had at heart, was intolerable.
Yet no sensible woman, after saying that she meant to marry a man
like Mr. Ratcliffe, could throw him over merely because another
woman chose to behave like a spoiled child.
Sybil was more childish than Madeleine herself had supposed. She
could not even see where her own interest lay. She knew no more
about Mr. Ratcliffe and the West than if he were the giant of a
fairy-story, and lived at the top of a bean-stalk. She must be treated
as a child; with gentleness, affection, forbearance, but with
firmness and decision. She must be refused what she asked, for her
Thus it came about that at last Mrs. Lee spoke, with an appearance
of decision far from representing her internal tremor.
"Sybil, dear, I have made up my mind to marry Mr. Ratcliffe
because there is no other way of making every one happy. You
need not be afraid of him. He is kind and generous. Besides, I can
take care of myself; and I will take care of you too. Now let us not
discuss it any more. It is broad daylight, and we are both tired out."
Sybil grew at once perfectly calm, and standing before her sister,
as though their rôles were henceforward to be reversed, said:
"You have really made up your mind, then? Nothing I can say will
Mrs. Lee, looking at her with more surprise than ever, could not
force herself to speak; but she shook her head slowly and
"Then," said Sybil, "there is only one thing more I can do. You
must read this!" and she drew out Carrington's letter, which she
held before Madeleine's face.
"Not now, Sybil!" remonstrated Mrs. Lee, dreading another long
struggle. "I will read it after we have had some rest. Go to bed
"I do not leave this room, nor will I ever go to bed until you have
read that letter," answered Sybil, seating herself again before the
fire with the resolution of Queen Elizabeth; "not if I sit here till
you are married. I promised Mr. Carrington that you should read it
instantly; it's all I can do now." With a sigh, Mrs. Lee drew up the
window-curtain, and in the gray morning light sat down to break
the seal and read the following letter:--
"Washington, 2nd April.
"My dear Mrs. Lee, "This letter will only come into your hands in
case there should be a necessity for your knowing its contents.
Nothing short of necessity would excuse my writing it. I have to
ask your pardon for intruding again upon your private affairs. In
this case, if I did not intrude, you would have cause for serious
complaint against me.
"You asked me the other day whether I knew anything against Mr.
Ratcliffe which the world did not know, to account for my low
opinion of his character. I evaded your question then. I was bound
by professional rules not to disclose facts that came to me under a
pledge of confidence. I am going to violate these rules now, only
because I owe you a duty which seems to me to override all others.
"I do know facts in regard to Mr. Ratcliffe, which have seemed to
me to warrant a very low opinion of his character, and to mark him
as unfit to be, I will not say your husband, but even your
"You know that I am executor to Samuel Baker's will. You know
who Samuel Baker was. You have seen his wife. She has told you
herself that I assisted her in the examination and destruction of all
her husband's private papers according to his special death-bed
request. One of the first facts I learned from these papers and her
explanations, was the following.
"Just eight years ago, the great 'Inter-Oceanic Mail Steamship
Company,' wished to extend its service round the world, and, in
order to do so, it applied to Congress for a heavy subsidy. The
management of this affair was put into the hands of Mr. Baker, and
all his private letters to the President of the Company, in press
copies, as well as the President's replies, came into my possession.
Baker's letters were, of course, written in a sort of cypher, several
kinds of which he was in the habit of using. He left among his
papers a key to this cypher, but Mrs. Baker could have explained it
without that help.
"It appeared from this correspondence that the bill was carried
successfully through the House, and, on reaching the Senate, was
referred to the appropriate Committee. Its ultimate passage was
very doubtful; the end of the session was close at hand; the Senate
was very evenly divided, and the Chairman of the Committee was
"The Chairman of that Committee was Senator Ratcliffe, always
mentioned by Mr. Baker in cypher, and with every precaution. If
you care, however, to verify the fact, and to trace the history of the
Subsidy Bill through all its stages, together with Mr. Ratcliffe's
report, remarks, and votes upon it, you have only to look into the
journals and debates for that year.
"At last Mr. Baker wrote that Senator Ratcliffe had put the bill in
his pocket, and unless some means could be found of overcoming
his opposition, there would be no report, and the bill would never
come to a vote. All ordinary kinds of argument and influence had
been employed upon him, and were exhausted. In this exigency
Baker suggested that the Company should give him authority to
see what money would do, but he added that it would be worse
than useless to deal with small sums. Unless at least one hundred
thousand dollars could be employed, it was better to leave the
"The next mail authorized him to use any required amount of
money not exceeding one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Two
days later he wrote that the bill was reported, and would pass the
Senate within forty-eight hours; and he congratulated the Company
on the fact that he had used only one hundred thousand dollars out
of its last credit.
"The bill was actually reported, passed, and became law as he
foretold, and the Company has enjoyed its subsidy ever since. Mrs.
Baker also informed me that to her knowledge her husband gave
the sum mentioned, in United States Coupon Bonds, to Senator
"This transaction, taken in connection with the tortuousness of his
public course, explains the distrust I have always expressed for
him. You will, however, understand that all these papers have been
destroyed. Mrs. Baker could never be induced to hazard her own
comfort by revealing the facts to the public. The officers of the
Company in their own interests would never betray the transaction,
and their books were undoubtedly so kept as to show no trace of it.
If I made this charge against Mr. Ratcliffe, I should be the only
sufferer. He would deny and laugh at it. I could prove nothing. I
am therefore more directly interested than he is in keeping silence.
"In trusting this secret to you, I rely firmly upon your mentioning it
to no one else--not even to your sister. You are at liberty, if you
wish, to show this letter to one person only-- to Mr. Ratcliffe
himself. That done, you will, I beg, burn it immediately.
"With the warmest good wishes, I am, "Ever most truly yours,
When Mrs. Lee had finished reading this letter, she remained for
some time quite silent, looking out into the square below. The
morning had come, and the sky was bright with the fresh April
sunlight. She threw open her window, and drew in the soft spring
air. She needed all the purity and quiet that nature could give, for
her whole soul was in revolt, wounded, mortified, exasperated.
Against the sentiment of all her friends she had insisted upon
believing in this man; she had wrought herself up to the point of
accepting him for her husband; a man who, if law were the same
thing as justice, ought to be in a felon's cell; a man who could take
money to betray his trust. Her anger at first swept away all bounds.
She was impatient for the moment when she should see him again,
and tear off his mask. For once she would express all the loathing
she felt for the whole pack of political hounds. She would see
whether the animal was made like other beings; whether he had a
sense of honour; a single clean spot in his mind.
Then it occurred to her that after all there might be a mistake;
Ratcliffe could explain the charge away. But this thought only laid
bare another smarting wound in her pride. Not only did she believe
the charge, but she believed that Mr. Ratcliffe would defend his
act. She had been willing to marry a man whom she thought
capable of such a crime, and now she shuddered at the idea that
this charge might have been brought against her husband, and that
she could not dismiss it with instant incredulity, with indignant
contempt. How had this happened? how had she got into so foul a
complication? When she left New York, she had meant to be a
mere spectator in Washington. Had it entered her head that she
could be drawn into any project of a second marriage, she never
would have come at all, for she was proud of her loyalty to her
husband's memory, and second marriages were her abhorrence. In
her restlessness and solitude, she had forgotten this; she had only
asked whether any life was worth living for a woman who had
neither husband nor children. Was the family all that life had to
offer? could she find no interest outside the household? And so,
led by this will-of-the-wisp, she had, with her eyes open, walked
into the quagmire of politics, in spite of remonstrance, in spite of
She rose and paced the room, while Sybil lay on the couch,
watching her with eyes half shut. She grew more and more angry
with herself, and as her self-reproach increased, her anger against
Ratcliffe faded away. She had no right to be angry with Ratcliffe.
He had never deceived her. He had always openly enough avowed
that he knew no code of morals in politics; that if virtue did not
answer his purpose he used vice. How could she blame him for
acts which he had repeatedly defended in her presence and with
her tacit assent, on principles that warranted this or any other
The worst was that this discovery had come on her as a blow, not
as a reprieve from execution. At this thought she became furious
She had not known the recesses of her own heart. She had honestly
supposed that Sybil's interests and Sybil's happiness were forcing
her to an act of self-sacrifice; and now she saw that in the depths
of her soul very different motives had been at work: ambition,
thirst for power, restless eagerness to meddle in what did not
concern her, blind longing to escape from the torture of watching
other women with full lives and satisfied instincts, while her own
life was hungry and sad. For a time she had actually, unconscious
as she was of the delusion, hugged a hope that a new field of
usefulness was open to her; that great opportunities for doing good
were to supply the aching emptiness of that good which had been
taken away; and that here at last was an object for which there
would be almost a pleasure in squandering the rest of existence
even if she knew in advance that the experiment would fail. Life
was emptier than ever now that this dream was over. Yet the worst
was not in that disappointment, but in the discovery of her own
weakness and self-deception.
Worn out by long-continued anxiety, excitement and sleeplessness,
she was unfit to struggle with the creatures of her own
imagination. Such a strain could only end in a nervous crisis, and
at length it came:
"Oh, what a vile thing life is!" she cried, throwing up her arms
with a gesture of helpless rage and despair. "Oh, how I wish I were
dead! how I wish the universe were annihilated!" and she flung
herself down by Sybil's side in a frenzy of tears.
Sybil, who had watched all this exhibition in silence, waited
quietly for the excitement to pass. There was little to say. She
could only soothe.
After the paroxysm had exhausted itself Madeleine lay quiet for a
time, until other thoughts began to disturb her. From reproaching
herself about Ratcliffe she went on to reproach herself about Sybil,
who really looked worn and pale, as though almost overcome by
"Sybil," said she, "you must go to bed at once. You are tired out. It
was very wrong in me to let you sit up so late. Go now, and get
"I am not going to bed till you do, Maude!" replied Sybil, with
"Go, dear! it is all settled. I shall not marry Mr. Ratcliffe. You
need not be anxious about it any more."
"Are you very unhappy?"
"Only very angry with myself. I ought to have taken Mr.
Carrington's advice sooner."
"Oh, Maude!" exclaimed Sybil, with a sudden explosion of energy;
"I wish you had taken him!"
This remark roused Mrs. Lee to new interest: "Why, Sybil," said
she, "surely you are not in earnest?"
"Indeed, I am," replied Sybil, very decidedly. "I know you think I
am in love with Mr. Carrington myself, but I'm not. I would a great
deal rather have him for a brother-in-law, and he is so much the
nicest man you know, and you could help his sisters."
Mrs. Lee hesitated a moment, for she was not quite certain
whether it was wise to probe a healing wound, but she was anxious
to clear this last weight from her mind, and she dashed recklessly
"Are you sure you are telling the truth, Sybil? Why, then, did you
say that you cared for him? and why have you been so miserable
ever since he went away?"
"Why? I should think it was plain enough why! Because I thought,
as every one else did, that you were going to marry Mr. Ratcliffe;
and because if you married Mr. Ratcliffe, I must go and live alone;
and because you treated me like a child, and never took me into
your confidence at all; and because Mr.
Carrington was the only person I had to advise me, and after he
went away, I was left all alone to fight Mr. Ratcliffe and you both
together, without a human soul to help me in case I made a
mistake. You would have been a great deal more miserable than I
if you had been in my place."
Madeleine looked at her for a moment in doubt. Would this last?
did Sybil herself know the depth of her own wound? But what
could Mrs. Lee do now?
Perhaps Sybil did deceive herself a little. When this excitement
had passed away, perhaps Carrington's image might recur to her
mind a little too often for her own comfort. The future must take
care of itself. Mrs. Lee drew her sister closer to her, and said:
"Sybil, I have made a horrible mistake, and you must forgive me."
NOT until afternoon did Mrs. Lee reappear. How much she had
slept she did not say, and she hardly looked like one whose
slumbers had been long or sweet; but if she had slept little, she had
made up for the loss by thinking much, and, while she thought, the
storm which had raged so fiercely in her breast, more and more
subsided into calm. If there was not sunshine yet, there was at least
stillness. As she lay, hour after hour, waiting for the sleep that did
not come, she had at first the keen mortification of reflecting how
easily she had been led by mere vanity into imagining that she
could be of use in the world. She even smiled in her solitude at the
picture she drew of herself, reforming Ratcliffe, and Krebs, and
Schuyler Clinton. The ease with which Ratcliffe alone had twisted
her about his finger, now that she saw it, made her writhe, and the
thought of what he might have done, had she married him, and of
the endless succession of moral somersaults she would have had to
turn, chilled her with mortal terror. She had barely escaped being
dragged under the wheels of the machine, and so coming to an
untimely end. When she thought of this, she felt a mad passion to
revenge herself on the whole race of politicians, with Ratcliffe at
their head; she passed hours in framing bitter speeches to be made
to his face.
Then as she grew calmer, Ratcliffe's sins took on a milder hue;
life, after all, had not been entirely blackened by his arts; there was
even some good in her experience, sharp though it were. Had she
not come to Washington in search of men who cast a shadow, and
was not Ratcliffe's shadow strong enough to satisfy her? Had she
not penetrated the deepest recesses of politics, and learned how
easily the mere possession of power could convert the shadow of a
hobby-horse existing only in the brain of a foolish country farmer,
into a lurid nightmare that convulsed the sleep of nations? The
antics of Presidents and Senators had been amusing--so amusing
that she had nearly been persuaded to take part in them. She had
saved herself in time.
She had got to the bottom of this business of democratic
government, and found out that it was nothing more than
government of any other kind. She might have known it by her
own common sense, but now that experience had proved it, she
was glad to quit the masquerade; to return to the true democracy of
life, her paupers and her prisons, her schools and her hospitals. As
for Mr. Ratcliffe, she felt no difficulty in dealing with him.
Let Mr. Ratcliffe, and his brother giants, wander on their own
political prairie, and hunt for offices, or other profitable game, as
Their objects were not her objects, and to join their company was
not her ambition. She was no longer very angry with Mr. Ratcliffe.
She had no wish to insult him, or to quarrel with him. What he had
done as a politician, he had done according to his own moral code,
and it was not her business to judge him; to protect herself was the
only right she claimed. She thought she could easily hold him at
arm's length, and although, if Carrington had written the truth, they
could never again be friends, there need be no difficulty in their
remaining acquaintances. If this view of her duty was narrow, it
was at least proof that she had learned something from Mr.
Ratcliffe; perhaps it was also proof that she had yet to learn Mr.
Two o'clock had struck before Mrs. Lee came down from her
chamber, and Sybil had not yet made her appearance. Madeleine
rang her bell and gave orders that, if Mr. Ratcliffe called she
would see him, but she was at home to no one else. Then she sat
down to write letters and to prepare for her journey to New York,
for she must now hasten her departure in order to escape the gossip
and criticism which she saw hanging like an avalanche over her
When Sybil at length came down, looking much fresher than her
sister, they passed an hour together arranging this and other small
matters, so that both of them were again in the best of spirits, and
Sybil's face was wreathed in smiles.
A number of visitors came to the door that day, some of them
prompted by friendliness and some by sheer curiosity, for Mrs.
Lee's abrupt disappearance from the ball had excited remark.
Against all these her door was firmly closed. On the other hand, as
the afternoon went on, she sent Sybil away, so that she might have
the field entirely to herself, and Sybil, relieved of all her alarms,
sallied out to interrupt Dunbeg's latest interview with his Countess,
and to amuse herself with Victoria's last "phase."
Towards four o'clock the tall form of Mr. Ratcliffe was seen to
issue from the Treasury Department and to descend the broad steps
of its western front.
Turning deliberately towards the Square, the Secretary of the
Treasury crossed the Avenue and stopping at Mrs. Lee's door, rang
the bell. He was immediately admitted. Mrs. Lee was alone in her
parlour and rose rather gravely as he entered, but welcomed him as
cordially as she could. She wanted to put an end to his hopes at
once and to do it decisively, but without hurting his feelings.
"Mr. Ratcliffe," said she, when he was seated- "I am sure you will
be better pleased by my speaking instantly and frankly. I could not
reply to you last night. I will do so now without delay. What you
wish is impossible. I would rather not even discuss it. Let us leave
it here and return to our old relations."
She could not force herself to express any sense of gratitude for his
affection, or of regret at being obliged to meet it with so little
To treat him with tolerable civility was all she thought required of
Ratcliffe felt the change of manner. He had been prepared for a
struggle, but not to be met with so blunt a rebuff at the start. His
look became serious and he hesitated a moment before speaking,
but when he spoke at last, it was with a manner as firm and
decided as that of Mrs. Lee herself.
"I cannot accept such an answer. I will not say that I have a right to
explanation,--I have no rights which you are bound to respect,--but
from you I conceive that I may at least ask the favour of one, and
that you will not refuse it. Are you willing to tell me your reasons
for this abrupt and harsh decision?"
"I do not dispute your right of explanation, Mr. Ratcliffe. You have
the right, if you choose to use it, and I am ready to give you every
explanation in my power; but I hope you will not insist on my
doing so. If I seemed to speak abruptly and harshly, it was merely
to spare you the greater annoyance of doubt. Since I am forced to
give you pain, was it not fairer and more respectful to you to speak
at once? We have been friends. I am very soon going away. I
sincerely want to avoid saying or doing anything that would
change our relations."
Ratcliffe, however, paid no attention to these words, and gave
them no answer. He was much too old a debater to be misled by
such trifles, when he needed all his faculties to pin his opponent to
the wall. He asked:--
"Is your decision a new one?"
"It is a very old one, Mr. Ratcliffe, which I had let myself lose
sight of, for a time. A night's reflection has brought me back to it."
"May I ask why you have returned to it? surely you would not have
hesitated without strong reasons."
"I will tell you frankly. If, by appearing to hesitate, I have misled
you, I am honestly sorry for it. I did not mean to do it. My
hesitation was owing to the doubt whether my life might not really
be best used in aiding you. My decision was owing to the certainty
that we are not fitted for each other.
Our lives run in separate grooves. We are both too old to change
Ratcliffe shook his head with an air of relief. "Your reasons, Mrs.
Lee, are not sound. There is no such divergence in our lives. On
the contrary I can give to yours the field it needs, and that it can
get in no other way; while you can give to mine everything it now
wants. If these are your only reasons I am sure of being able to
Madeleine looked as though she were not altogether pleased at this
idea, and became a little dogmatic. "It is no use our arguing on this
Ratcliffe. You and I take very different views of life. I cannot
accept yours, and you could not practise on mine."
"Show me," said Ratcliffe, "a single example of such a divergence,
and I will accept your decision without another word."
Mrs. Lee hesitated and looked at him for an instant as though to be
quite sure that he was in earnest. There was an effrontery about
this challenge which surprised her, and if she did not check it on
the spot, there was no saying how much trouble it might give her.
Then unlocking the drawer of the writing-desk at her elbow, she
took out Carrington's letter and handed it to Mr. Ratcliffe.
"Here is such an example which has come to my knowledge very
lately. I meant to show it to you in any case, but I would rather
Ratcliffe took the letter which she handed to him, opened it
deliberately, looked at the signature, and read. He showed no sign
of surprise or disturbance. No one would have imagined that he
had, from the moment he saw Carrington's name, as precise a
knowledge of what was in this letter as though he had written it
himself. His first sensation was only one of anger that his projects
had miscarried. How this had happened he could not at once
understand, for the idea that Sybil could have a hand in it did not
occur to him. He had made up his mind that Sybil was a silly,
frivolous girl, who counted for nothing in her sister's actions. He
had fallen into the usual masculine blunder of mixing up smartness
of intelligence with strength of character. Sybil, without being a
metaphysician, willed anything which she willed at all with more
energy than her sister did, who was worn out with the effort of life.
Mr. Ratcliffe missed this point, and was left to wonder who it was
that had crossed his path, and how Carrington had managed to be
present and absent, to get a good office in Mexico and to baulk his
schemes in Washington, at the same time. He had not given
Carrington credit for so much cleverness.
He was violently irritated at the check. Another day, he thought,
would have made him safe on this side; and possibly he was right.
Had he once succeeded in getting ever so slight a hold on Mrs. Lee
he would have told her this story with his own colouring, and from
his own point of view, and he fully believed he could do this in
such a way as to rouse her sympathy. Now that her mind was
prejudiced, the task would be much more difficult; yet he did not
despair, for it was his theory that Mrs. Lee, in the depths of her
soul, wanted to be at the head of the White House as much as he
wanted to be there himself, and that her apparent coyness was
mere feminine indecision in the face of temptation. His thoughts
now turned upon the best means of giving again the upper hand to
her ambition. He wanted to drive Carrington a second time from
Thus it was that, having read the letter once in order to learn what
was in it, he turned back, and slowly read it again in order to gain
time. Then he replaced it in its envelope, and returned it to Mrs.
Lee, who, with equal calmness, as though her interest in it were at
an end, tossed it negligently into the fire, where it was reduced to
ashes under Ratcliffe's eyes.
He watched it burn for a moment, and then turning to her, said,
with his usual composure, "I meant to have told you of that affair
myself. I am sorry that Mr. Carrington has thought proper to
forestall me. No doubt he has his own motives for taking my
character in charge."
"Then it is true!" said Mrs. Lee, a little more quickly than she had
meant to speak.
"True in its leading facts; untrue in some of its details, and in the
impression it creates. During the Presidential election which took
place eight years ago last autumn, there was, as you may
remember, a violent contest and a very close vote. We believed
(though I was not so prominent in the party then as now), that the
result of that election would be almost as important to the nation
as the result of the war itself. Our defeat meant that the
government must pass into the blood-stained hands of rebels, men
whose designs were more than doubtful, and who could not, even
if their designs had been good, restrain the violence of their
followers. In consequence we strained every nerve. Money was
freely spent, even to an amount much in excess of our resources.
How it was employed, I will not say.
I do not even know, for I held myself aloof from these details,
which fell to the National Central Committee of which I was not a
member. The great point was that a very large sum had been
borrowed on pledged securities, and must be repaid. The members
of the National Committee and certain senators held discussions
on the subject, in which I shared. The end was that towards the
close of the session the head of the committee, accompanied by
two senators, came to me and told me that I must abandon my
opposition to the Steamship Subsidy. They made no open avowal
of their reasons, and I did not press for one. Their declaration, as
the responsible heads of the organization, that certain action on my
part was essential to the interests of the party, satisfied me. I did
not consider myself at liberty to persist in a mere private opinion
in regard to a measure about which I recognized the extreme
likelihood of my being in error. I accordingly reported the bill, and
voted for it, as did a large majority of the party. Mrs. Baker is
mistaken in saying that the money was paid to me. If it was paid at
all, of which I have no knowledge except from this letter, it was
paid to the representative of the National Committee. I received no
money. I had nothing to do with the money further than as I might
draw my own conclusions in regard to the subsequent payment of
the campaign debt."
Mrs. Lee listened to all this with intense interest. Not until this
moment had she really felt as though she had got to the heart of
politics, so that she could, like a physician with his stethoscope,
measure the organic disease. Now at last she knew why the pulse
beat with such unhealthy irregularity, and why men felt an anxiety
which they could not or would not explain. Her interest in the
disease overcame her disgust at the foulness of the revelation. To
say that the discovery gave her actual pleasure would be doing her
injustice; but the excitement of the moment swept away every
other sensation. She did not even think of herself. Not until
afterwards did she fairly grasp the absurdity of Ratcliffe's wish that
in the face of such a story as this, she should still have vanity
enough to undertake the reform of politics. And with his aid too!
The audacity of the man would have seemed sublime if she had
felt sure that he knew the difference between good and evil,
between a lie and the truth; but the more she saw of him, the surer
she was that his courage was mere moral paralysis, and that he
talked about virtue and vice as a man who is colour-blind talks
about red and green; he did not see them as she saw them; if left to
choose for himself he would have nothing to guide him. Was it
politics that had caused this atrophy of the moral senses by disuse?
Meanwhile, here she sat face to face with a moral lunatic, who had
not even enough sense of humour to see the absurdity of his own
request, that she should go out to the shore of this ocean of
corruption, and repeat the ancient rôle of King Canute, or Dame
Partington with her mop and her pail. What was to be done with
such an animal?
The bystander who looked on at this scene with a wider knowledge
of facts, might have found entertainment in another view of the
subject, that is to say, in the guilelessness ot Madeleine Lee. With
all her warnings she was yet a mere baby-in-arms in the face of the
great politician. She accepted his story as true, and she thought it
as bad as possible; but had Mr.
Ratcliffe's associates now been present to hear his version of it,
they would have looked at each other with a smile of professional
pride, and would have roundly sworn that he was, beyond a doubt,
the ablest man this country had ever produced, and next to certain
of being President. They would not, however, have told their own
side of the story if they could have helped it, but in talking it over
among themselves they might have assumed the facts to have been
nearly as follows: that Ratcliffe had dragged them into an
enormous expenditure to carry his own State, and with it his own
re-election to the Senate; that they had tried to hold him
responsible, and he had tried to shirk the responsibility; that there
had been warm discussions on the subject; that he himself had
privately suggested recourse to Baker, had shaped his conduct
accordingly, and had compelled them, in order to save their own
credit, to receive the money.
Even if Mrs. Lee had heard this part of the story, though it might
have sharpened her indignation against Mr. Ratcliffe, it would not
have altered her opinions. As it was, she had heard enough, and
with a great effort to control her expression of disgust, she sank
back in her chair as Ratcliffe concluded. Finding that she did not
speak, he went on:
"I do not undertake to defend this affair. It is the act of my public
life which I most regret--not the doing, but the necessity of doing. I
do not differ from you in opinion on that point. I cannot
acknowledge that there is here any real divergence between us."
"I am afraid," said Mrs. Lee, "that I cannot agree with you."
This brief remark, the very brevity of which carried a barb of
sarcasm, escaped from Madeleine's lips before she had fairly
intended it. Ratcliffe felt the sting, and it started him from his
studied calmness of manner.
Rising from his chair he stood on the hearthrug before Mrs. Lee,
and broke out upon her with an oration in that old senatorial voice
and style which was least calculated to enlist her sympathies:
"Mrs. Lee," said he, with harsh emphasis and dogmatic tone, "there
are conflicting duties in all the transactions of life, except the
However we may act, do what we may, we must violate some
All that can be asked of us is that we should guide ourselves by
what we think the highest. At the time this affair occurred, I was a
Senator of the United States. I was also a trusted member of a
great political party which I looked upon as identical with the
nation. In both capacities I owed duties to my constituents, to the
government, to the people. I might interpret these duties narrowly
or broadly. I might say: Perish the government, perish the Union,
perish this people, rather than that I should soil my hands! Or I
might say, as I did, and as I would say again: Be my fate what it
may, this glorious Union, the last hope of suffering humanity, shall
Here he paused, and seeing that Mrs. Lee, after looking for a time
at him, was now regarding the fire, lost in meditation over the
strange vagaries of the senatorial mind, he resumed, in another line
of argument. He rightly judged that there must be some moral
defect in his last remarks, although he could not see it, which
made persistence in that direction useless.
"You ought not to blame me--you cannot blame me justly. It is to
your sense of justice I appeal. Have I ever concealed from you my
opinions on this subject? Have I not on the contrary always
avowed them? Did I not here, on this very spot, when challenged
once before by this same Carrington, take credit for an act less
defensible than this? Did I not tell you then that I had even
violated the sanctity of a great popular election and reversed its
result? That was my sole act! In comparison with it, this is a trifle!
Who is injured by a steamship company subscribing one or ten
hundred thousand dollars to a campaign fund? Whose rights are
affected by it? Perhaps its stock holders receive one dollar a share
in dividends less than they otherwise would. If they do not
complain, who else can do so? But in that election I deprived a
million people of rights which belonged to them as absolutely as
their houses! You could not say that I had done wrong. Not a word
of blame or criticism have you ever uttered to me on that account.
If there was an offence, you condoned it! You certainly led me to
suppose that you saw none. Why are you now so severe upon the
This shot struck hard. Mrs. Lee visibly shrank under it, and lost her
composure. This was the same reproach she had made against
herself, and to which she had been able to find no reply. With
some agitation she exclaimed:
"Mr. Ratcliffe, pray do me justice! I have tried not to be severe. I
have said nothing in the way of attack or blame. I acknowledge
that it is not my place to stand in judgment over your acts. I have
more reason to blame myself than you, and God knows I have
blamed myself bitterly." The tears stood in her eyes as she said
these last words, and her voice trembled.
Ratcliffe saw that he had gained an advantage, and, sitting down
nearer to her, he dropped his voice and urged his suit still more
"You did me justice then; why not do it now? You were convinced
then that I did the best I could. I have always done so. On the other
hand I have never pretended that all my acts could be justified by
abstract morality. Where, then, is the divergence between us?"
Mrs. Lee did not undertake to answer this last argument: she only
returned to her old ground. "Mr. Ratcliffe," she said, "I do not want
to argue this question. I have no doubt that you can overcome me
in argument. Perhaps on my side this is a matter of feeling rather
than of reason, but the truth is only too evident to me that I am not
fitted for politics. I should be a drag upon you. Let me be the judge
of my own weakness! Do not insist upon pressing me, further!"
She was ashamed of herself for this appeal to a man whom she
could not respect, as though she were a suppliant at his mercy, but
she feared the reproach of having deceived him, and she tried
pitiably to escape it.
Ratcliffe was only encouraged by her weakness.
"I must insist upon pressing it, Mrs. Lee," replied he, and he
became yet more earnest as he went on; "my future is too deeply
involved in your decision to allow of my accepting your answer as
final. I need your aid.
There is nothing I will not do to obtain it. Do you require
affection? mine for you is boundless. I am ready to prove it by a
life of devotion. Do you doubt my sincerity? test it in whatever
way you please. Do you fear being dragged down to the level of
ordinary politicians? so far as concerns myself, my great wish is to
have your help in purifying politics. What higher ambition can
there be than to serve one's country for such an end?
Your sense of duty is too keen not to feel that the noblest objects
which can inspire any woman, combine to point out your course."
Mrs. Lee was excessively uncomfortable, although not in the least
She began to see that she must take a stronger tone if she meant to
bring this importunity to an end, and she answered:--
"I do not doubt your affection or your sincerity, Mr. Ratcliffe. It is
myself I doubt. You have been kind enough to give me much of
your confidence this winter, and if I do not yet know about politics
all that is to be known, I have learned enough to prove that I could
do nothing sillier than to suppose myself competent to reform
anything. If I pretended to think so, I should be a mere worldly,
ambitious woman, such as people think me. The idea of my
purifying politics is absurd. I am sorry to speak so strongly, but I
mean it. I do not cling very closely to life, and do not value my
own very highly, but I will not tangle it in such a way; I will not
share the profits of vice; I am not willing to be made a receiver of
stolen goods, or to be put in a position where I am perpetually
obliged to maintain that immorality is a virtue!"
As she went on she became more and more animated and her
words took a sharper edge than she had intended. Ratcliffe felt it,
and showed his annoyance. His face grew dark and his eyes looked
out at her with their ugliest expression. He even opened his mouth
for an angry retort, but controlled himself with an effort, and
presently resumed his argument.
"I had hoped," he began more solemnly than ever, "that I should
find in you a lofty courage which would disregard such risks. If all
tme men and women were to take the tone you have taken, our
government would soon perish. If you consent to share my career, I
do not deny that you may find less satisfaction than I hope, but you
will lead a mere death in life if you place yourself like a saint on a
solitary column. I plead what I believe to be your own cause in
pleading mine. Do not sacrifice your life!"
Mrs. Lee was in despair. She could not reply what was on her lips,
that to marry a murderer or a thief was not a sure way of
diminishing crime. She had already said something so much like
this that she shrank from speaking more plainly. So she fell back
on her old theme.
"We must at all events, Mr. Ratcliffe, use our judgments according
to our own consciences. I can only repeat now what I said at first. I
am sorry to seem insensible to your expressions towards me, but I
cannot do what you wish. Let us maintain our old relations if you
will, but do not press me further on this subject."
Ratcliffe grew more and more sombre as he became aware that
defeat was staring him in the face. He was tenacious of purpose,
and he had never in his life abandoned an object which he had so
much at heart as this. He would not abandon it. For the moment, so
completely had the fascination of Mrs.
Lee got the control of him, he would rather have abandoned the
Presidency itself than her. He really loved her as earnestly as it was
in his nature to love anything. To her obstinacy he would oppose
an obstinacy greater still; but in the meanwhile his attack was
disconcerted, and he was at a loss what next to do. Was it not
possible to change his ground; to offer inducements that would
appeal even more strongly to feminine ambition and love of
display than the Presidency itself? He began again:--
"Is there no form of pledge I can give you? no sacrifice I can
make? You dislike politics. Shall I leave political life? I will do
anything rather than lose you. I can probably control the
appointment of Minister to England. The President would rather
have me there than here. Suppose I were to abandon politics and
take the English mission. Would that sacrifice not affect you? You
might pass four years in London where there would be no politics,
and where your social position would be the best in the world; and
this would lead to the Presidency almost as surely as the other."
Then suddenly, seeing that he was making no headway, he threw
off his studied calmness and broke out in an appeal of almost
equally studied violence.
"Mrs. Lee! Madeleine! I cannot live without you. The sound of
your voice--the touch of your hand--even the rustle of your
dress--are like wine to me. For God's sake, do not throw me over!"
He meant to crush opposition by force. More and more vehement
as he spoke he actually bent over and tried to seize her hand. She
drew it back as though he were a reptile. She was exasperated by
this obstinate disregard of her forbearance, this gross attempt to
bribe her with office, this flagrant abandonment of even a pretence
of public virtue; the mere thought of his touch on her person was
more repulsive than a loathsome disease. Bent upon teaching him
a lesson he would never forget, she spoke out abruptly, and with
evident signs of contempt in her voice and manner:
"Mr. Ratcliffe, I am not to be bought. No rank, no dignity, no
consideration, no conceivable expedient would induce me to
change my mind.
Let us have no more of this!"
Ratcliffe had already been more than once, during this
conversation, on the verge of losing his temper. Naturally
dictatorial and violent, only long training and severe experience
had taught him self-control, and when he gave way to passion his
bursts of fury were still tremendous. Mrs. Lee's evident personal
disgust, even more than her last sharp rebuke, passed the bounds of
his patience. As he stood before her, even she, high-spirited as she
was, and not in a calm frame of mind, felt a momentary shock at
seeing how his face flushed, his eyes gleamed, and his hands
trembled with rage.
"Ah!" exclaimed he, turning upon her with a harshness, almost a
savageness, of manner that startled her still more; "I might have
known what to expect!
Mrs. Clinton warned me early. She said then that I should find you
a heartless coquette!"
"Mr. Ratcliffe!" exclaimed Madeleine, rising from her chair, and
speaking in a warning voice almost as passionate as his own.
"A heartless coquette!" he repeated, still more harshly than before;
"she said you would do just this! that you meant to deceive me!
that you lived on flattery! that you could never be anything but a
coquette, and that if you married me, I should repent it all my life.
I believe her now!"
Mrs. Lee's temper, too, was naturally a high one. At this moment
she, too, was flaming with anger, and wild with a passionate
impulse to annihilate this man. Conscious that the mastery was in
her own hands, she could the more easily control her voice, and
with an expression of unutterable contempt she spoke her last
words to him, words which had been ringing all day in her ears:
"Mr. Ratcliffe! I have listened to you with a great deal more
patience and respect than you deserve. For one long hour I have
degraded myself by discussing with you the question whether I
should marry a man who by his own confession has betrayed the
highest trusts that could be placed in him, who has taken money
for his votes as a Senator, and who is now in public office by
means of a successful fraud of his own, when in justice he should
be in a State's prison. I will have no more of this. Understand, once
for all, that there is an impassable gulf between your life and mine.
I do not doubt that you will make yourself President, but whatever
or wherever you are, never speak to me or recognize me again!"
He glared a moment into her face with a sort of blind rage, and
seemed about to say more, when she swept past him, and before he
realized it, he was alone.
Overmastered by passion, but conscious that he was powerless,
Ratcliffe, after a moment's hesitation, left the room and the house.
He let himself out, shutting the front door behind him, and as he
stood on the pavement old Baron Jacobi, who had special reasons
for wishing to know how Mrs. Lee had recovered from the fatigue
and excitements of the ball, came up to the spot.
A single glance at Ratcliffe showed him that something had gone
wrong in the career of that great man, whose fortunes he always
followed with so bitter a sneer of contempt. Impelled by the spirit
of evil always at his elbow, the Baron seized this moment to sound
the depth of his friend's wound. They met at the door so closely
that recognition was inevitable, and Jacobi, with his worst smile,
held out his hand, saying at the same moment with diabolic
"I hope I may offer my felicitations to your Excellency!"
Ratcliffe was glad to find some victim on whom he could vent his
rage. He had a long score of humiliations to repay this man, whose
last insult was beyond all endurance. With an oath he dashed
Jacobi's hand aside, and, grasping his shoulder, thrust him out of
the path. The Baron, among whose weaknesses the want of high
temper and personal courage was not recorded, had no mind to
tolerate such an insult from such a man. Even while Ratcliffe's
hand was still on his shoulder he had raised his cane, and before
the Secretary saw what was coming, the old man had struck him
with all his force full in the face. For a moment Ratcliffe staggered
back and grew pale, but the shock sobered him. He hesitated a
single instant whether to crush his assailant with a blow, but he felt
that for one of his youth and strength, to attack an infirm
diplomatist in a public street would be a fatal blunder, and while
Jacobi stood, violently excited, with his cane raised ready to strike
another blow, Mr. Ratcliffe suddenly turned his back and without a
word, hastened away.
When Sybil returned, not long afterwards, she found no one in the
On going to her sister's room she discovered Madeleine lying on
the couch, looking worn and pale, but with a slight smile and a
peaceful expression on her face, as though she had done some act
which her conscience approved. She called Sybil to her side, and,
taking her hand, said:
"Sybil, dearest, will you go abroad with me again?"
"Of course I will," said Sybil; "I will go to the end of the world
"I want to go to Egypt," said Madeleine, still smiling faintly;
"democracy has shaken my nerves to pieces. Oh, what rest it would
be to live in the Great Pyramid and look out for ever at the polar
SYBIL TO CARRINGTON "May 1st, New York.
"My dear Mr. Carrington, "I promised to write you, and so, to keep
my promise, and also because my sister wishes me to tell you
about our plans, I send this letter. We have left Washington--for
ever, I am afraid--and are going to Europe next month.
You must know that a fortnight ago, Lord Skye gave a great ball to
the Grand-Duchess of something-or-other quite unspellable. I
never can describe things, but it was all very fine. I wore a lovely
new dress, and was a great success, I assure you. So was
Madeleine, though she had to sit most of the evening by the
Princess--such a dowdy! The Duke danced with me several times;
he can't reverse, but that doesn't seem to matter in a Grand-Duke.
Well! things came to a crisis at the end of the evening. I followed
your directions, and after we got home gave your letter to
Madeleine. She says she has burned it. I don't know what happened
afterwards--a tremendous scene, I suspect, but Victoria Dare
writes me from Washington that every one is talking about M.'s
refusal of Mr. R., and a dreadful thing that took place on our very
doorstep between Mr. R. and Baron Jacobi, the day after the ball.
She says there was a regular pitched battle, and the Baron struck
him over the face with his cane. You know how afraid Madeleine
was that they would do something of the sort in our parlour. I'm
glad they waited till they were in the street. But isn't it shocking!
They say the Baron is to be sent away, or recalled, or something. I
like the old gentleman, and for his sake am glad duelling is gone
out of fashion, though I don't much believe Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe
could hit anything. The Baron passed through here three days ago
on his summer trip to Europe. He left his card on us, but we were
out, and did not see him. We are going over in July with the
Schneidekoupons, and Mr. Schneidekoupon has promised to send
his yacht to the Mediterranean, so that we shall sail about there
after finishing the Nile, and see Jerusalem and Gibraltar and
Constantinople. I think it will be perfectly lovely. I hate ruins, but I
fancy you can buy delicious things in Constantinople. Of course,
after what has happened, we can never go back to Washington. I
shall miss our rides dreadfully. I read Mr. Browning's 'Last Ride
Together,' as you told me; I think it's beautiful and perfectly easy,
all but a little. I never could understand a word of him before--so I
never tried. Who do you think is engaged? Victoria Dare, to a
coronet and a peat-bog, with Lord Dunbeg attached. Victoria says
she is happier than she ever was before in any of her other
engagements, and she is sure this is the real one. She says she has
thirty thousand a year derived from the poor of America, which
may just as well go to relieve one of the poor in Ireland.
You know her father was a claim agent, or some such thing, and is
said to have made his money by cheating his clients out of their
claims. She is perfectly wild to be a countess, and means to make
Castle Dunbeg lovely by-and-by, and entertain us all there.
Madeleine says she is just the kind to be a great success in London.
Madeleine is very well, and sends her kind regards. I believe she is
going to add a postscript. I have promised to let her read this, but I
don't think a chaperoned letter is much fun to write or receive.
Hoping to hear from you soon, "Sincerely yours, "Sybil Ross."
Enclosed was a thin strip of paper containing another message
from Sybil, privately inserted at the last moment unknown to Mrs.
"If I were in your place I would try again after she comes home."
Mrs. Lee's P.S. was very short--
"The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of
our countrymen would say I had made a mistake."