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 mistress.
"I think it will do now, Sybil," said she, surveying the
"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,
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
Madeleine was sober in her tastes. She wasted no money. She made
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, almost gay in her company. The gaiety was of a
very quiet 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 native raw material, sir?" asked she,
fresh from a reading of Dickens, and his famous picture of American
"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 yet."
"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
"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 there. 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 in Illinois, and after a
long struggle he rose with the wave. He would not do the same thing
"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
"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
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 you know."
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
equalled 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
"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 eyes:
"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.