Democracy An American Novel by Henry Adams
In the middle of April a sudden social excitement started the indolent city of Washington to its feet. The Grand-Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Baden-Hombourg arrived in America on a tour of pleasure, and in due course came on to pay their respects to the Chief Magistrate of the Union. The newspapers hastened to inform their readers that the Grand-Duchess was a royal princess of England, and, in the want of any other social event, every one who had any sense of what was due to his or her own dignity, hastened to show this august couple the respect which all republicans who have a large income derived from business, feel for English royalty. New York gave a dinner, at which the most insignificant person present was worth at least a million dollars, and where the gentlemen who sat by the Princess entertained her for an hour or two by a calculation of the aggregate capital represented. New York also gave a ball at which the Princess appeared in an ill-fitting black silk dress with mock lace and jet ornaments, among several hundred toilets that proclaimed the refined republican simplicity of their owners at a cost of various hundred thousand dollars. After these hospitalities the Grand-ducal pair came on to Washington, where they became guests of Lord Skye, or, more properly, Lord Skye became their guest, for he seemed to consider that he handed the Legation over to them, and he told Mrs. Lee, with true British bluntness of speech, that they were a great bore and he wished they had stayed in Saxe-Baden-Hombourg, or wherever they belonged, but as they were here, he must be their lackey. Mrs. Lee was amused and a little astonished at the candour with which he talked about them, and she was instructed and improved by his dry account of the Princess, who, it seemed, made herself disagreeable by her airs of royalty; who had suffered dreadfully from the voyage; and who detested America and everything American; but who was, not without some show of reason, jealous of her husband, and endured endless sufferings, though with a very bad grace, rather than lose sight of him.
Not only was Lord Skye obliged to turn the Legation into an hotel, but in the full enthusiasm of his loyalty he felt himself called upon to give a ball. It was, he said, the easiest way of paying off all his debts at once, and if the Princess was good for nothing else, she could be utilized as a show by way of "promoting the harmony of the two great nations." In other words, Lord Skye meant to exhibit the Princess for his own diplomatic benefit, and he did so. One would have thought that at this season, when Congress had adjourned, Washington would hardly have afforded society enough to fill a ball-room, but this, instead of being a drawback, was an advantage. It permitted the British Minister to issue invitations without limit. He asked not only the President and his Cabinet, and the judges, and the army, and the navy, and all the residents of Washington who had any claim to consideration, but also all the senators, all the representatives in Congress, all the governors of States with their staffs, if they had any, all eminent citizens and their families throughout the Union and Canada, and finally every private individual, from the North Pole to the Isthmus of Panama, who had ever shown him a civility or was able to control interest enough to ask for a card. The result was that Baltimore promised to come in a body, and Philadelphia was equally well-disposed; New York provided several scores of guests, and Boston sent the governor and a delegation; even the well-known millionaire who represented California in the United States Senate was irritated because, his invitation having been timed to arrive just one day too late, he was prevented from bringing his family across the continent with a choice party in a director's car, to enjoy the smiles of royalty in the halls of the British lion. It is astonishing what efforts freemen will make in a just cause.
Lord Skye himself treated the whole affair with easy contempt. One afternoon he strolled into Mrs. Lee's parlour and begged her to give him a cup of tea.
He said he had got rid of his menagerie for a few hours by shunting it off upon the German Legation, and he was by way of wanting a little human society. Sybil, who was a great favourite with him, entreated to be told all about the ball, but he insisted that he knew no more than she did. A man from New York had taken possession of the Legation, but what he would do with it was not within the foresight of the wisest; trom the talk of the young members of his Legation, Lord Skye gathered that the entire city was to be roofed in and forty millions of people expected, but his own concern in the affair was limited to the flowers he hoped to receive.
"All young and beautiful women," said he to Sybil, "are to send me flowers.
I prefer Jacqueminot roses, but will accept any handsome variety, provided they are not wired. It is diplomatic etiquette that each lady who sends me flowers shall reserve at least one dance for me. You will please inscribe this at once upon your tablets, Miss Ross."
To Madeleine this ball was a godsend, for it came just in time to divert Sybil's mind from its troubles. A week had now passed since that revelation of Sybil's heart which had come like an earthquake upon Mrs. Lee. Since then Sybil had been nervous and irritable, all the more because she was conscious of being watched. She was in secret ashamed of her own conduct, and inclined to be angry with Carrington, as though he were responsible for her foolishness; but she could not talk with Madeleine on the subject without discussing Mr. Ratcliffe, and Carrington had expressly forbidden her to attack Mr. Ratcliffe until it was clear that Ratcliffe had laid himself open to attack. This reticence deceived poor Mrs. Lee, who saw in her sister's moods only that unrequited attachment for which she held herself solely to blame. Her gross negligence in allowing Sybil to be improperly exposed to such a risk weighed heavily on her mind. With a saint's capacity for self-torment, Madeleine wielded the scourge over her own back until the blood came. She saw the roses rapidly fading from Sybil's cheeks, and by the help of an active imagination she discovered a hectic look and symptoms of a cough. She became fairly morbid on the subject, and fretted herself into a fever, upon which Sybil sent, on her own responsibility, for the medical man, and Madeleine was obliged to dose herself with quinine. In fact, there was much more reason for anxiety about her than for her anxiety about Sybil, who, barring a little youthful nervousness in the face of responsibility, was as healthy and comfortable a young woman as could be shown in America, and whose sentiment never cost her five minutes' sleep, although her appetite may have become a shade more exacting than before. Madeleine was quick to notice this, and surprised her cook by making daily and almost hourly demands for new and impossible dishes, which she exhausted a library of cookery-books to discover.
Lord Skye's ball and Sybil's interest in it were a great relief to Madeleine's mind, and she now turned her whole soul to frivolity. Never, since she was seventeen, had she thought or talked so much about a ball, as now about this ball to the Grand-Duchess. She wore out her own brain in the effort to amuse Sybil. She took her to call on the Princess; she would have taken her to call on the Grand Lama had he come to Washington. She instigated her to order and send to Lord Skye a mass of the handsomest roses New York could afford. She set her at work on her dress several days before there was any occasion for it, and this famous costume had to be taken out, examined, criticised, and discussed with unending interest. She talked about the dress, and the Princess, and the ball, till her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, and her brain refused to act. From morning till night, for one entire week, she ate, drank, breathed, and dreamt of the ball. Everything that love could suggest or labour carry out, she did, to amuse and occupy her sister.
She knew that all this was only temporary and palliative, and that more radical measures must be taken to secure Sybil's happiness. On this subject she thought in secret until both head and heart ached. One thing and one thing only was clear: if Sybil loved Carrington, she should have him. How Madeleine expected to bring about this change of heart in Carrington, was known only to herself. She regarded men as creatures made for women to dispose of, and capable of being transferred like checks, or baggage-labels, from one woman to another, as desired. The only condition was that he should first be completely disabused of the notion that he could dispose of himself. Mrs. Lee never doubted that she could make Carrington fall in love with Sybil provided she could place herself beyond his reach. At all events, come what might, even though she had to accept the desperate alternative offered by Mr. Ratcliffe, nothing should be allowed to interfere with Sybil's happiness. And thus it was, that, for the first time, Mrs. Lee began to ask herself whether it was not better to find the solution of her perplexities in marriage.
Would she ever have been brought to this point without the violent pressure of her sister's supposed interests? This is one of those questions which wise men will not ask, because it is one which the wisest man or woman cannot answer. Upon this theme, an army of ingenious authors have exhausted their ingenuity in entertaining the public, and their works are to be found at every book-stall. They have decided that any woman will, under the right conditions, marry any man at any time, provided her "higher nature" is properly appealed to. Only with regret can a writer forbear to moralize on this subject. "Beauty and the Beast," "Bluebeard," "Auld Robin Gray," have the double charm to authors of being very pleasant to read, and still easier to dilute with sentiment. But at least ten thousand modern writers, with Lord Macaulay at their head, have so ravaged and despoiled the region of fairy-stories and fables, that an allusion even to the "Arabian Nights" is no longer decent. The capacity of women to make unsuitable marriages must be considered as the corner-stone of society.
Meanwhile the ball had, in truth, very nearly driven all thought of Carrington out of Sybil's mind. The city filled again. The streets swarmed with fashionable young men and women from the provinces of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, who gave Sybil abundance of occupation. She received bulletins of the progress of affairs. The President and his wife had consented to be present, out of their high respect for Her Majesty the Queen and their desire to see and to be seen. All the Cabinet would accompany the Chief Magistrate. The diplomatic corps would appear in uniform; so, too, the officers of the army and navy; the Governor-General of Canada was coming, with a staff. Lord Skye remarked that the Governor-General was a flat.
The day of the ball was a day of anxiety to Sybil, although not on account of Mr. Ratcliffe or of Mr. Carrington, who were of trifling consequence compared with the serious problem now before her. The responsibility of dressing both her sister and herself fell upon Sybil, who was the real author of all Mrs. Lee's millinery triumphs when they now occurred, except that Madeleine managed to put character into whatever she wore, which Sybil repudiated on her own account. On this day Sybil had reasons for special excitement. All winter two new dresses, one especially a triumph of Mr.
Worth's art, had lain in state upstairs, and Sybil had waited in vain for an occasion that should warrant the splendour of these garments.
One afternoon in early June of the preceding summer, Mr. Worth had received a letter on the part of the reigning favourite of the King of Dahomey, directing him to create for her a ball-dress that should annihilate and utterly destroy with jealousy and despair the hearts of her seventy-five rivals; she was young and beautiful; expense was not a consideration. Such were the words of her chamberlain. All that night, the great genius of the nineteenth century tossed wakefully on his bed revolving the problem in his mind. Visions of flesh-coloured tints shot with blood-red perturbed his brain, but he fought against and dismissed them; that combination would be commonplace in Dahomey. When the first rays of sunlight showed him the reflection of his careworn face in the plate-glass mirrored ceiling, he rose and, with an impulse of despair, flung open the casements. There before his blood-shot eyes lay the pure, still, new-born, radiant June morning. With a cry of inspiration the great man leaned out of the casement and rapidly caught the details of his new conception. Before ten o'clock he was again at his bureau in Paris. An imperious order brought to his private room every silk, satin, and gauze within the range of pale pink, pale crocus, pale green, silver and azure. Then came 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 clutch at.
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 ground:
"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 herself.
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 go home."
"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?"
"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 Dare.
"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 corridor outside.
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.