Chapter XII
 

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. Ratcliffe!"

Sybil sprang to her feet with a cry: "And have you told him so?" she asked.

"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 judgment.

Nevertheless her tactics answered their object of checking Sybil's vehemence. Her sobs came to an end, and she presently rose with a quieter air.

"Madeleine," said she, "do you really want to marry Mr. Ratcliffe?"

"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 sister.

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 own good.

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 change it?"

Mrs. Lee, looking at her with more surprise than ever, could not force herself to speak; but she shook her head slowly and decidedly.

"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 now!"

"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 acquaintance.

"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 decidedly hostile.

"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 thing alone.

"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 Ratcliffe.

"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, "John Carrington."

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; perhaps Mr.

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 conscience.

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 villainy?

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 with herself.

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 fatigue.

"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 some sleep."

"I am not going to bed till you do, Maude!" replied Sybil, with quiet obstinacy.

"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 forward:

"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."