Democracy An American Novel by Henry Adams
To tie a prominent statesman to her train and to lead him about like a tame bear, is for a young and vivacious woman a more certain amusement than to tie herself to him and to be dragged about like an Indian squaw. This fact was Madeleine Lee's first great political discovery in Washington, and it was worth to her all the German philosophy she had ever read, with even a complete edition of Herbert Spencer's works into the bargain. There could be no doubt that the honours and dignities of a public career were no fair consideration for its pains. She made a little daily task for herself of reading in succession the lives and letters of the American Presidents, and of their wives, when she could find that there was a trace of the latter's existence. What a melancholy spectacle it was, from George Washington down to the last incumbent; what vexations, what disappointments, what grievous mistakes, what very objectionable manners! Not one of them, who had aimed at high purpose, but had been thwarted, beaten, and habitually insulted! What a gloom lay on the features of those famous chieftains, Calhoun, Clay, and Webster; what varied expression of defeat and unsatisfied desire; what a sense of self-importance and senatorial magniloquence; what a craving for flattery; what despair at the sentence of fate! And what did they amount to, after all?
They were practical men, these! they had no great problems of thought to settle, no questions that rose above the ordinary rules of common morals and homely duty. How they had managed to befog the subject! What elaborate show-structures they had built up, with no result but to obscure the horizon! Would not the country have done better without them? Could it have done worse? What deeper abyss could have opened under the nation's feet, than that to whose verge they brought it?
Madeleine's mind wearied with the monotony of the story. She discussed the subject with Ratcliffe, who told her frankly that the pleasure of politics lay in the possession of power. He agreed that the country would do very well without him. "But here I am," said he, "and here I mean to stay." He had very little sympathy for thin moralising, and a statesmanlike contempt for philosophical politics. He loved power, and he meant to be President.
That was enough.
Sometimes the tragic and sometimes the comic side was uppermost in her mind, and sometimes she did not herself know whether to cry or to laugh.
Washington more than any other city in the world swarms with simple-minded exhibitions of human nature; men and women curiously out of place, whom it would be cruel to ridicule and ridiculous to weep over. The sadder exhibitions are fortunately seldom seen by respectable people; only the little social accidents come under their eyes. One evening Mrs. Lee went to the President's first evening reception. As Sybil flatly refused to face the crowd, and Carrington mildly said that he feared he was not sufficiently reconstructed to appear at home in that august presence, Mrs. Lee accepted Mr. French for an escort, and walked across the Square with him to join the throng that was pouring into the doors of the White House. They took their places in the line of citizens and were at last able to enter the reception-room. There Madeleine found herself before two seemingly mechanical figures, which mlght be wood or wax, for any sign they showed of life. These two figures were the President and his wife; they stood stiff and awkward by the door, both their faces stripped of every sign of intelligence, while the right hands of both extended themselves to the column of visitors with the mechanical action of toy dolls. Mrs. Lee for a moment began to laugh, but the laugh died on her lips. To the President and his wife this was clearly no laughing matter. There they stood, automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them. Madeleine seized Mr. French by the arm.
"Take me somewhere at once," said she, "where I can look at it. Here! in the corner. I had no conception how shocking it was!"
Mr. French supposed she was thinking of the queer-looking men and women who were swarming through the rooms, and he made, after his own delicate notion of humour, some uncouth jests on those who passed by. Mrs. Lee, however, was in no humour to explain or even to listen. She stopped him short:--
"There, Mr. French! Now go away and leave me. I want to be alone for half an hour. Please come for me then." And there she stood, with her eyes fixed on the President and his wife, while the endless stream of humanity passed them, shaking hands.
What a strange and solemn spectacle it was, and how the deadly fascination of it burned the image in upon her mind! What a horrid warning to ambition!
And in all that crowd there was no one besides herself who felt the mockery of this exhibition. To all the others this task was a regular part of the President's duty, and there was nothing ridiculous about it. They thought it a democratic institution, this droll a ping of monarchical forms. To them the deadly dulness of the show was as natural and proper as ever to the courtiers of the Philips and Charleses seemed the ceremonies of the Escurial. To her it had the effect of a nightmare, or of an opium-eater's vision, She felt a sudden conviction that this was to be the end of American society; its realisation and dream at once. She groaned in spirit.
"Yes! at last I have reached the end! We shall grow to be wax images, and our talk will be like the squeaking of toy dolls. We shall all wander round and round the earth and shake hands. No one will have any object in this world, and there will be no other. It is worse than anything in the 'Inferno.' What an awful vision of eternity!"
Suddenly, as through a mist, she saw the melancholy face of Lord Skye approaching. He came to her side, and his voice recalled her to reality.
"Does it amuse you, this sort of thing?" he asked in a vague way.
"We take our amusement sadly, after the manner of our people," she replied; "but it certainly interests me."
They stood for a time in silence, watching the slowly eddying dance of Democracy, until he resumed:
"Whom do you take that man to be--the long, lean one, with a long woman on each arm?"
"That man," she replied, "I take to be a Washington department-clerk, or perhaps a member of Congress from Iowa, with a wife and wife's sister. Do they shock your nobility?"
He looked at her with comical resignation. "You mean to tell me that they are quite as good as dowager-countesses. I grant it. My aristocratic spirit is broken, Mrs. Lee. I will even ask them to dinner if you bid me, and if you will come to meet them. But the last time I asked a member of Congress to dine, he sent me back a note in pencil on my own envelope that he would bring two of his friends with him, very respectable constituents from Yahoo city, or some such place; nature's noblemen, he said."
"You should have welcomed them."
"I did. I wanted to see two of nature's noblemen, and I knew they would probably be pleasanter company than their representative. They came; very respectable persons, one with a blue necktie, the other with a red one: both had diamond pins in their shirts, and were carefully brushed in respect to their hair. They said nothing, ate little, drank less, and were much better behaved than I am. When they went away, they unanimously asked me to stay with them when I visited Yahoo city."
"You will not want guests if you always do that."
"I don't know. I think it was pure ignorance on their part. They knew no better, and they seemed modest enough. My only complaint was that I could get nothing out of them. I wonder whether their wives would have been more amusing."
"Would they be so in England, Lord Skye?"
He looked down at her with half-shut eyes, and drawled: "You know my countrywomen?"
"Hardly at all."
"Then let us discuss some less serious subject."
"Willingly. I have waited for you to explain to me why you have to-night an expression of such melancholy."
"Is that quite friendly, Mrs. Lee? Do I really look melancholy?"
"Unutterably, as I feel. I am consumed with curiosity to know the reason."
The British minister coolly took a complete survey of the whole room, ending with a prolonged stare at the President and his wife, who were still mechanically shaking hands; then he looked back into her face, and said never a word.
She insisted: "I must have this riddle answered. It suffocates me. I should not be sad at seeing these same people at work or at play, if they ever do play; or in a church or a lecture-room. Why do they weigh on me like a horrid phantom here?"
"I see no riddle, Mrs. Lee. You have answered your own question; they are neither at work nor at play."
"Then please take me home at once. I shall have hysterics. The sight of those two suffering images at the door is too mournful to be borne. I am dizzy with looking at these stalking figures. I don't believe they're real.
I wish the house would take fire. I want an earthquake. I wish some one would pinch the President, or pull his wife's hair."
Mrs. Lee did not repeat the experiment of visiting the White House, and indeed for some time afterwards she spoke with little enthusiasm of the presidential office. To Senator Ratcliffe she expressed her opinions strongly. The Senator tried in vain to argue that the people had a right to call upon their chief magistrate, and that he was bound to receive them; this being so, there was no less objectionable way of proceeding than the one which had been chosen. "Who gave the people any such right?" asked Mrs.
Lee. "Where does it come from? What do they want it for? You know better, Mr. Ratcliffe! Our chief magistrate is a citizen like any one else. What puts it into his foolish head to cease being a citizen and to ape royalty?
Our governors never make themselves ridiculous. Why cannot the wretched being content himself with living like the rest of us, and minding his own business? Does he know what a figure of fun he is?" And Mrs. Lee went so far as to declare that she would like to be the President's wife only to put an end to this folly; nothing should ever induce her to go through such a performance; and if the public did not approve of this, Congress might impeach her, and remove her from office; all she demanded was the right to be heard before the Senate in her own defence.
Nevertheless, there was a very general impression in Washington that Mrs.
Lee would like nothing better than to be in the White House. Known to comparatively few people, and rarely discussing even with them the subjects which deeply interested her, Madeleine passed for a clever, intriguing woman who had her own objects to gain. True it is, beyond peradventure, that all residents of Washington may be assumed to be in office or candidates for office; unless they avow their object, they are guilty of an attempt--and a stupid one--to deceive; yet there is a small class of apparent exceptions destined at last to fall within the rule. Mrs. Lee was properly assumed to be a candidate for office. To the Washingtonians it was a matter of course that Mrs. Lee should marry Silas P. Ratcliffe. That he should be glad to get a fashionable and intelligent wife, with twenty or thirty thousand dollars a year, was not surprising. That she should accept the first public man of the day, with a flattering chance for the Presidency--a man still comparatively young and not without good looks--was perfectly natural, and in her undertaking she had the sympathy of all well-regulated Washington women who were not possible rivals; for to them the President's wife is of more consequence than the President; and, indeed, if America only knew it, they are not very far from the truth.
Some there were, however, who did not assent to this good-natured though worldly view of the proposed match. These ladies were severe in their comments upon Mrs. Lee's conduct, and did not hesitate to declare their opinion that she was the calmest and most ambitious minx who had ever come within their observation. Unfortunately it happened that the respectable and proper Mrs. Schuyler Clinton took this view of the case, and made little attempt to conceal her opinion. She was justly indignant at her cousin's gross worldliness, and possible promotion in rank.
"If Madeleine Ross marries that coarse, horrid old Illinois politician,"
said she to her husband, "I never will forgive her so long as I live."
Mr. Clinton tried to excuse Madeleine, and even went so far as to suggest that the difference of age was no greater than in their own case; but his wife trampled ruthlessly on his argument.
"At any rate," said she, "I never came to Washington as a widow on purpose to set my cap for the first candidate for the Presidency, and I never made a public spectacle of my indecent eagerness in the very galleries of the Senate; and Mrs. Lee ought to be ashamed of herself. She is a cold-blooded, heartless, unfeminine cat."
Little Victoria Dare, who babbled like the winds and streams, with utter indifference as to what she said or whom she addressed, used to bring choice bits of this gossip to Mrs. Lee. She always affected a little stammer when she said anything uncommonly impudent, and put on a manner of languid simplicity. She felt keenly the satisfaction of seeing Madeleine charged with her own besetting sins. For years all Washington had agreed that Victoria was little better than one of the wicked; she had done nothing but violate every rule of propriety and scandalise every well-regulated family in the city, and there was no good in her. Yet it could not be denied that Victoria was amusing, and had a sort of irregular fascination; consequently she was universally tolerated. To see Mrs. Lee thrust down to her own level was an unmixed pleasure to her, and she carefully repeated to Madeleine the choice bits of dialogue which she picked up in her wanderings.
"Your cousin, Mrs. Clinton, says you are a ca-ca-cat, Mrs. Lee."
"I don't believe it, Victoria. Mrs. Clinton never said anything of the sort."
"Mrs. Marston says it is because you have caught a ra-ra-rat, and Senator Clinton was only a m-m-mouse!"
Naturally all this unexpected publicity irritated Mrs. Lee not a little, especially when short and vague paragraphs, soon followed by longer and more positive ones, in regard to Senator Ratcliffe's matrimonial prospects, began to appear in newspapers, along with descriptions of herself from the pens of enterprising female correspondents for the press, who had never so much as seen her. At the first sight of one of these newspaper articles, Madeleine fairly cried with mortification and anger. She wanted to leave Washington the next day, and she hated the very thought of Ratcliffe. There was something in the newspaper style so inscrutably vulgar, something so inexplicably revolting to the sense of feminine decency, that she shrank under it as though it were a poisonous spider. But after the first acute shame had passed, her temper was roused, and she vowed that she would pursue her own path just as she had begun, without regard to all the malignity and vulgarity in the wide United States. She did not care to marry Senator Ratcliffe; she liked his society and was flattered by his confidence; she rather hoped to prevent him from ever making a formal offer, and if not, she would at least push it off to the last possible moment; but she was not to be frightened from marrying him by any amount of spitefulness or gossip, and she did not mean to refuse him except for stronger reasons than these. She even went so far in her desperate courage as to laugh at her cousin, Mrs.
Clinton, whose venerable husband she allowed and even encouraged to pay her such public attention and to express sentiments of such youthful ardour as she well knew would inflame and exasperate the excellent lady his wife.
Carrington was the person most unpleasantly affected by the course which this affair had taken. He could no longer conceal from himself the fact that he was as much m love as a dignified Virginian could be. With him, at all events, she had shown no coquetry, nor had she ever either flattered or encouraged him. But Carrington, m his solitary struggle against fate, had found her a warm friend; always ready to assist where assistance was needed, generous with her money in any cause which he was willing to vouch for, full of sympathy where sympathy was more than money, and full of resource and suggestion where money and sympathy failed. Carrington knew her better than she knew herself. He selected her books; he brought the last speech or the last report from the Capitol or the departments; he knew her doubts and her vagaries, and as far as he understood them at all, helped her to solve them.
Carrington was too modest, and perhaps too shy, to act the part of a declared lover, and he was too proud to let it be thought that he wanted to exchange his poverty for her wealth. But he was all the more anxious when he saw the evident attraction which Ratcliffe's strong will and unscrupulous energy exercised over her. He saw that Ratcliffe was steadily pushing his advances; that he flattered all Mrs. Lee's weaknesses by the confidence and deference with which he treated her; and that in a very short time, Madeleine must either marry him or find herself looked upon as a heartless coquette. He had his own reasons for thinking ill of Senator Ratcliffe, and he meant to prevent a marriage; but he had an enemy to deal with not easily driven from the path, and quite capable of routing any number of rivals.
Ratcliffe was afraid of no one. He had not fought his own way in life for nothing, and he knew all the value of a cold head and dogged self-assurance.
Nothing but this robust Americanism and his strong will carried him safely through the snares and pitfalls of Mrs. Lee's society, where rivals and enemies beset him on every hand. He was little better than a schoolboy, when he ventured on their ground, but when he could draw them over upon his own territory of practical life he rarely failed to trample on his assailants.
It was this practical sense and cool will that won over Mrs. Lee, who was woman enough to assume that all the graces were well enough employed in decorating her, and it was enough if the other sex felt her superiority. Men were valuable only in proportion to their strength and their appreciation of women. If the senator had only been strong enough always to control his temper, he would have done very well, but his temper was under a great strain in these times, and his incessant effort to control it in politics made him less watchful in private life. Mrs. Lee's tacit assumption of superior refinement irritated him, and sometimes made him show his teeth like a bull-dog, at the cost of receiving from Mrs. Lee a quick stroke in return such as a well-bred tortoise-shell cat administers to check over-familiarity; innocent to the eye, but drawing blood. One evening when he was more than commonly out of sorts, after sitting some time in moody silence, he roused himself, and, taking up a book that lay on her table, he glanced at its title and turned over the leaves. It happened by ill luck to be a volume of Darwin that Mrs. Lee had just borrowed from the library of Congress.
"Do you understand this sort of thing?" asked the Senator abruptly, in a tone that suggested a sneer.
"Not very well," replied Mrs. Lee, rather curtly.
"Why do you want to understand it?" persisted the Senator. "What good will it do you?"
"Perhaps it will teach us to be modest," answered Madeleine, quite equal to the occasion.
"Because it says we descend from monkeys?" rejoined the Senator, roughly.
"Do you think you are descended from monkeys?"
"Why not?" said Madeleine.
"Why not?" repeated Ratcliffe, laughing harshly. "I don't like the connection. Do you mean to introduce your distant relations into society?"
"They would bring more amusement into it than most of its present members,"
rejoined Mrs. Lee, with a gentle smile that threatened mischief. But Ratcliffe would not be warned; on the contrary, the only effect of Mrs.
Lee's defiance was to exasperate his ill-temper, and whenever he lost his temper he became senatorial and Websterian. "Such books," he began, "disgrace our civilization; they degrade and stultify our divine nature; they are only suited for Asiatic despotisms where men are reduced to the level of brutes; that they should be accepted by a man like Baron Jacobi, I can understand; he and his masters have nothing to do in the world but to trample on human rights. Mr. Carrington, of course, would approve those ideas; he believes in the divine doctrine of flogging negroes; but that you, who profess philanthropy and free principles, should go with them, is astonishing; it is incredible; it is unworthy of you."
"You are very hard on the monkeys," replied Madeleine, rather sternly, when the Senator's oration was ended. "The monkeys never did you any harm; they are not in public life; they are not even voters; if they were, you would be enthusiastic about their intelligence and virtue. After all, we ought to be grateful to them, for what would men do in this melancholy world if they had not inherited gaiety from the monkeys--as well as oratory."
Ratcliffe, to do him justice, took punishment well, at least when it came from Mrs. Lee's hands, and his occasional outbursts of insubordination were sure to be followed by improved discipline; but if he allowed Mrs. Lee to correct his faults, he had no notion of letting himself be instructed by her friends, and he lost no chance of telling them so. But to do this was not always enough. Whether it were that he had few ideas outside of his own experience, or that he would not trust himself on doubtful ground, he seemed compelled to bring every discussion down to his own level. Madeleine puzzled herself in vain to find out whether he did this because he knew no better, or because he meant to cover his own ignorance.
"The Baron has amused me very much with his account of Bucharest society,"
Mrs. Lee would say: "I had no idea it was so gay."
"I would like to show him our society in Peonia," was Ratcliffe's reply; "he would find a very brilliant circle there of nature's true noblemen."
"The Baron says their politicians are precious sharp chaps," added Mr.
"Oh, there are politicians in Bulgaria, are there?" asked the Senator, whose ideas of the Roumanian and Bulgarian neighbourhood were vague, and who had a general notion that all such people lived in tents, wore sheepskins with the wool inside, and ate curds: "Oh, they have politicians there! I would like to see them try their sharpness in the west."
"Really!" said Mrs. Lee. "Think of Attila and his hordes running an Indiana caucus?"
"Anyhow," cried French with a loud laugh, "the Baron said that a set of bigger political scoundrels than his friends couldn't be found in all Illinois."
"Did he say that?" exclaimed Ratcliffe angrily.
"Didn't he, Mrs. Lee? but I don't believe it; do you? What's your candid opinion, Ratcliffe? What you don't know about Illinois politics isn't worth knowing; do you really think those Bulgrascals couldn't run an Illinois state convention?"
Ratcliffe did not like to be chaffed, especially on this subject, but he could not resent French's liberty which was only a moderate return for the wooden nutmeg. To get the conversation away from Europe, from literature, from art, was his great object, and chaff was a way of escape.
Carrington was very well aware that the weak side of the Senator lay in his blind ignorance of morals. He flattered himself that Mrs. Lee must see this and be shocked by it sooner or later, so that nothing more was necessary than to let Ratcliffe expose himself. Without talking very much, Carrington always aimed at drawing him out. He soon found, however, that Ratcliffe understood such tactics perfectly, and instead of injuring, he rather improved his position. At times the man's audacity was startling, and even when Carrington thought him hopelessly entangled, he would sweep away all the hunter's nets with a sheer effort of strength, and walk off bolder and more dangerous than ever.
When Mrs. Lee pressed him too closely, he frankly admitted her charges.
"What you say is in great part true. There is much in politics that disgusts and disheartens; much that is coarse and bad. I grant you there is dishonesty and corruption. We must try to make the amount as small as possible."
"You should be able to tell Mrs. Lee how she must go to work," said Carrington; "you have had experience. I have heard, it seems to me, that you were once driven to very hard measures against corruption."
Ratcliffe looked ill-pleased at this compliment, and gave Carrington one of his cold glances that meant mischief. But he took up the challenge on the spot:--
"Yes, I was, and am very sorry for it. The story is this, Mrs. Lee; and it is well-known to every man, woman, and child in the State of Illinois, so that I have no reason for softening it. In the worst days of the war there was almost a certainty that my State would be carried by the peace party, by fraud, as we thought, although, fraud or not, we were bound to save it. Had Illinois been lost then, we should certainly have lost the Presidential election, and with it probably the Union. At any rate, I believed the fate of the war to depend on the result. I was then Governor, and upon me the responsibility rested. We had entire control of the northern counties and of their returns. We ordered the returning officers in a certain number of counties to make no returns until they heard from us, and when we had received the votes of all the southern counties and learned the precise number of votes we needed to give us a majority, we telegraphed to our northern returning officers to make the vote of their districts such and such, thereby overbalancing the adverse returns and giving the State to us.
This was done, and as I am now senator I have a right to suppose that what I did was approved. I am not proud of the transaction, but I would do it again, and worse than that, if I thought it would save this country from disunion. But of course I did not expect Mr. Carrington to approve it. I believe he was then carrying out his reform principles by bearing arms against the government."
"Yes!" said Carrington drily; "you got the better of me, too. Like the old Scotchman, you didn't care who made the people's wars provided you made its ballots.
Carrington had missed his point. The man who has committed a murder for his country, is a patriot and not an assassin, even when he receives a seat in the Senate as his share of the plunder. Women cannot be expected to go behind the motives of that patriot who saves his country and his election in times of revolution.
Carrington's hostility to Ratcliffe was, however, mild, when compared with that felt by old Baron Jacobi. Why the baron should have taken so violent a prejudice it is not easy to explain, but a diplomatist and a senator are natural enemies, and Jacobi, as an avowed admirer of Mrs. Lee, found Ratcliffe in his way. This prejudiced and immoral old diplomatist despised and loathed an American senator as the type which, to his bleared European eyes, combined the utmost pragmatical self-assurance and overbearing temper with the narrowest education and the meanest personal experience that ever existed in any considerable government. As Baron Jacobi's country had no special relations with that of the United States, and its Legation at Washington was a mere job to create a place for Jacobi to fill, he had no occasion to disguise his personal antipathies, and he considered himself in some degree as having a mission to express that diplomatic contempt for the Senate which his colleagues, if they felt it, were obliged to conceal. He performed his duties with conscientious precision. He never missed an opportunity to thrust the sharp point of his dialectic rapier through the joints of the clumsy and hide-bound senatorial self-esteem. He delighted in skilfully exposing to Madeleine's eyes some new side of Ratcliffe's ignorance. His conversation at such times sparkled with historical allusions, quotations in half a dozen different languages, references to well-known facts which an old man's memory could not recall with precision in all their details, but with which the Honourable Senator was familiarly acquainted, and which he could readily supply. And his Voltairian face leered politely as he listened to Ratcliffe's reply, which showed invariable ignorance of common literature, art, and history. The climax of his triumph came one evening when Ratcliffe unluckily, tempted by some allusion to Molière which he thought he understood, made reference to the unfortunate influence of that great man on the religious opinions of his time. Jacobi, by a flash of inspiration, divined that he had confused Molière with Voltaire, and assuming a manner of extreme suavity, he put his victim on the rack, and tortured him with affected explanations and interrogations, until Madeleine was in a manner forced to interrupt and end the scene. But even when the senator was not to be lured into a trap, he could not escape assault. The baron in such a case would cross the lines and attack him on his own ground, as on one occasion, when Ratcliffe was defending his doctrine of party allegiance, Jacobi silenced him by sneering somewhat thus:
"Your principle is quite correct, Mr. Senator. I, too, like yourself, was once a good party man: my party was that of the Church; I was ultramontane.
Your party system is one of your thefts from our Church; your National Convention is our Oecumenic Council; you abdicate reason, as we do, before its decisions; and you yourself, Mr. Ratcliffe, you are a Cardinal. They are able men, those cardinals; I have known many; they were our best friends, but they were not reformers. Are you a reformer, Mr. Senator?"
Ratcliffe grew to dread and hate the old man, but all his ordinary tactics were powerless against this impenetrable eighteenth century cynic. If he resorted to his Congressional practise of browbeating and dogmatism, the Baron only smiled and turned his back, or made some remark in French which galled his enemy all the more, because, while he did not understand it, he knew well that Madeleine did, and that she tried to repress her smile.
Ratcliffe's grey eyes grew colder and stonier than ever as he gradually perceived that Baron Jacobi was carrying on a set scheme with malignant ingenuity, to drive him out of Madeleine's house, and he swore a terrible oath that he would not be beaten by that monkey-faced foreigner. On the other hand Jacobi had little hope of success: "What can an old man do?" said he with perfect sincerity to Carrington; "If I were forty years younger, that great oaf should not have his own way. Ah! I wish I were young again and we were in Vienna!" From which it was rightly inferred by Carrington that the venerable diplomatist would, if such acts were still in fashion, have coolly insulted the Senator, and put a bullet through his heart.