ON the first of December, Mrs. Lee took the train for Washington,
and before five o'clock that evening she was entering her newly
hired house on Lafayette Square. She shrugged her shoulders with
a mingled expression of contempt and grief at the curious
barbarism of the curtains and the wall-papers, and her next two
days were occupied with a life-and-death struggle to get the
mastery over her surroundings. In this awful contest the interior of
the doomed house suffered as though a demon were in it; not a
chair, not a mirror, not a carpet, was left untouched, and in the
midst of the worst confusion the new mistress sat, calm as the
statue of Andrew Jackson in the square under her eyes, and issued
her orders with as much decision as that hero had ever shown.
Towards the close of the second day, victory crowned her
forehead. A new era, a nobler conception of duty and existence,
had dawned upon that benighted and heathen residence. The
wealth of Syria and Persia was poured out upon the melancholy
Wilton carpets; embroidered comets and woven gold from Japan
and Teheran depended from and covered over every sad
stuff-curtain; a strange medley of sketches, paintings, fans,
embroideries, and porcelain was hung, nailed, pinned, or stuck
against the wall; finally the domestic altarpiece, the mystical Corot
landscape, was hoisted to its place over the parlour fire, and then
all was over. The setting sun streamed softly in at the windows,
and peace reigned in that redeemed house and in the heart of its
"I think it will do now, Sybil," said she, surveying the scene.
"It must," replied Sybil. "You haven't a plate or a fan or coloured
scarf left. You must send out and buy some of these old
negro-women's bandannas if you are going to cover anything else.
What is the use? Do you suppose any human being in Washington
will like it? They will think you demented."
"There is such a thing as self-respect," replied her sister, calmly.
Sybil--Miss Sybil Ross--was Madeleine Lee's sister. The keenest
psychologist could not have detected a single feature quality which
they had in common, and for that reason they were devoted
friends. Madeleine was thirty, Sybil twenty-four. Madeleine was
indescribable; Sybil was transparent. Madeleine was of medium
height with a graceful figure, a well-set head, and enough
golden-brown hair to frame a face full of varying expression. Her
eyes were never for two consecutive hours of the same shade, but
were more often blue than grey. People who envied her smile said
that she cultivated a sense of humour in order to show her teeth.
Perhaps they were right; but there was no doubt that her habit of
talking with gesticulation would never have grown upon her unless
she had known that her hands were not only beautiful but
expressive. She dressed as skilfully as New York women do, but in
growing older she began to show symptoms of dangerous
unconventionality. She had been heard to express a low opinion of
her countrywomen who blindly fell down before the golden calf of
Mr. Worth, and she had even fought a battle of great severity,
while it lasted, with one of her best-dressed friends who had been
invited--and had gone--to Mr. Worth's afternoon tea-parties. The
secret was that Mrs. Lee had artistic tendencies, and unless they
were checked in time, there was no knowing what might be the
consequence. But as yet they had done no harm; indeed, they
rather helped to give her that sort of atmosphere which belongs
only to certain women; as indescribable as the afterglow; as
impalpable as an Indian summer mist; and non-existent except to
people who feel rather than reason. Sybil had none of it. The
imagination gave up all attempts to soar where she came. A more
straightforward, downright, gay, sympathetic, shallow,
warm-hearted, sternly practical young woman has rarely touched
this planet. Her mind had room for neither grave-stones nor
guide-books; she could not have lived in the past or the future if
she had spent her days in churches and her nights in tombs. "She
was not clever, like Madeleine, thank Heaven." Madeleine was not
an orthodox member of the church; sermons bored her, and
clergymen never failed to irritate every nerve in her excitable
system. Sybil was a simple and devout worshipper at the ritualistic
altar; she bent humbly before the Paulist fathers. When she went to
a ball she always had the best partner in the room, and took it as a
matter of course; but then, she always prayed for one; somehow it
strengthened her faith. Her sister took care never to laugh at her on
this score, or to shock her religious opinions. "Time enough," said
she, "for her to forget religion when religion fails her." As for
regular attendance at church, Madeleine was able to reconcile their
habits without trouble. She herself had not entered a church for
years; she said it gave her unchristian feelings; but Sybil had a
voice of excellent quality, well trained and cultivated: Madeleine
insisted that she should sing in the choir, and by this little
manoeuvre, the divergence of their paths was made less evident.
Madeleine did not sing, and therefore could not go to church with
Sybil. This outrageous fallacy seemed perfectly to answer its
purpose, and Sybil accepted it, in good faith, as a fair working
principle which explained itself.
Madeleine was sober in her tastes. She wasted no money. She
made no display.
She walked rather than drove, and wore neither diamonds nor
brocades. But the general impression she made was nevertheless
one of luxury. On the other hand, her sister had her dresses from
Paris, and wore them and her ornaments according to all the
formulas; she was good-naturedly correct, and bent her round
white shoulders to whatever burden the Parisian autocrat chose to
put upon them. Madeleine never interfered, and always paid the
Before they had been ten days in Washington, they fell gently into
their place and were carried along without an effort on the stream
of social life.
Society was kind; there was no reason for its being otherwise. Mrs.
Lee and her sister had no enemies, held no offices, and did their
best to make themselves popular. Sybil had not passed summers at
Newport and winters in New York in vain; and neither her face nor
her figure, her voice nor her dancing, needed apology. Politics
were not her strong point. She was induced to go once to the
Capitol and to sit ten minutes in the gallery of the Senate. No one
ever knew what her impressions were; with feminine tact she
managed not to betray herself But, in truth, her notion of
legislative bodies was vague, floating between her experience at
church and at the opera, so that the idea of a performance of some
kind was never out of her head. To her mind the Senate was a
place where people went to recite speeches, and she naively
assumed that the speeches were useful and had a purpose, but as
they did not interest her she never went again. This is a very
common conception of Congress; many Congressmen share it.
Her sister was more patient and bolder. She went to the Capitol
nearly every day for at least two weeks. At the end of that time her
interest began to flag, and she thought it better to read the debates
every morning in the Congressional Record. Finding this a
laborious and not always an instructive task, she began to skip the
dull parts; and in the absence of any exciting question, she at last
resigned herself to skipping the whole. Nevertheless she still had
energy to visit the Senate gallery occasionally when she was told
that a splendid orator was about to speak on a question of deep
interest to his country. She listened with a little disposition to
admire, if she could; and, whenever she could, she did admire. She
said nothing, but she listened sharply. She wanted to learn how the
machinery of government worked, and what was the quality of the
men who controlled it. One by one, she passed them through her
crucibles, and tested them by acids and by fire.
A few survived her tests and came out alive, though more or less
disfigured, where she had found impurities. Of the whole number,
only one retained under this process enough character to interest
In these early visits to Congress, Mrs. Lee sometimes had the
company of John Carrington, a Washington lawyer about forty
years old, who, by virtue of being a Virginian and a distant
connection of her husband, called himself a cousin, and took a
tone of semi-intimacy, which Mrs. Lee accepted because
Carrington was a man whom she liked, and because he was one
whom life had treated hardly. He was of that unfortunate
generation in the south which began existence with civil war, and
he was perhaps the more unfortunate because, like most educated
Virginians of the old Washington school, he had seen from the
first that, whatever issue the war took, Virginia and he must be
ruined. At twenty-two he had gone into the rebel army as a private
and carried his musket modestly through a campaign or two, after
which he slowly rose to the rank of senior captain in his regiment,
and closed his services on the staff of a major-general, always
doing scrupulously enough what he conceived to be his duty, and
never doing it with enthusiasm. When the rebel armies
surrendered, he rode away to his family plantation--not a difficult
thing to do, for it was only a few miles from Appomatox--and at
once began to study law; then, leaving his mother and sisters to do
what they could with the worn-out plantation, he began the
practice of law in Washington, hoping thus to support himself and
them. He had succeeded after a fashion, and for the first time the
future seemed not absolutely dark. Mrs. Lee's house was an oasis
to him, and he found himself, to his surprise, aimost gay in her
company. The gaiety was of a very qulet kind, and Sybil, while
friendly with him, averred that he was certainly dull; but this
dulness had a fascination for Madeleine, who, having tasted many
more kinds of the wine of life than Sybil, had learned to value
certain delicacies of age and flavour that were lost upon younger
and coarser palates. He talked rather slowly and almost with effort,
but he had something of the dignity--others call it stiffness--of the
old Virginia school, and twenty years of constant responsibility
and deferred hope had added a touch of care that bordered closely
on sadness. His great attraction was that he never talked or seemed
to think of himself. Mrs. Lee trusted in him by instinct. "He is a
type!" said she; "he is my idea of George Washington at thirty."
One morning in December, Carrington entered Mrs. Lee's parlour
towards noon, and asked if she cared to visit the Capitol.
"You will have a chance of hearing to-day what may be the last
great speech of our greatest statesman," said he; "you should
"A splendid sample of our na-tive raw material, sir?" asked she,
fresh from a reading of Dickens, and his famous picture of
"Precisely so," said Carrington; "the Prairie Giant of Peonia, the
Favourite Son of Illinois; the man who came within three votes of
getting the party nomination for the Presidency last spring, and
was only defeated because ten small intriguers are sharper than
one big one. The Honourable Silas P.
Ratcliffe, Senator from Illinois; he will be run for the Presidency
"What does the P. stand for?" asked Sybil.
"I don't remember ever to have heard his middle name," said
"Perhaps it is Peonia or Prairie; I can't say."
"He is the man whose appearance struck me so much when we
were in the Senate last week, is he not? A great, ponderous man,
over six feet high, very senatorial and dignified, with a large head
and rather good features?" inquired Mrs. Lee.
"The same," replied Carrington. "By all means hear him speak. He
is the stumbling-block of the new President, who is to be allowed
no peace unless he makes terms with Ratcliffe; and so every one
thinks that the Prairie Giant of Peonia will have the choice of the
State or Treasury Department. If he takes either it will be the
Treasury, for he is a desperate political manager, and will want the
patronage for the next national convention."
Mrs. Lee was delighted to hear the debate, and Carrington was
delighted to sit through it by her side, and to exchange running
comments with her on the speeches and the speakers.
"Have you ever met the Senator?" asked she.
"I have acted several times as counsel before his committees. He is
an excellent chairman, always attentive and generally civil."
"Where was he born?"
"The family is a New England one, and I believe respectable. He
came, I think, from some place in the Connecticut Valley, but
whether Vermont, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts, I don't
"Is he an educated man?"
"He got a kind of classical education at one of the country colleges
I suspect he has as much education as is good for him. But he went
West very soon after leaving college, and being then young and
fresh from that hot-bed of abolition, he threw himself into the
anti-slavery movement m Illinois, and after a long struggle he rose
with the wave. He would not do the same thing now."
"He is older, more experienced, and not so wise. Besides, he has
no longer the time to wait. Can you see his eyes from here? I call
them Yankee eyes."
"Don't abuse the Yankees," said Mrs. Lee; "I am half Yankee
"Is that abuse? Do you mean to deny that they have eyes?"
"I concede that there may be eyes among them; but Virginians are
not fair judges of their expression."
"Cold eyes," he continued; "steel grey, rather small, not unpleasant
in good-humour, diabolic in a passion, but worst when a little
suspicious; then they watch you as though you were a young
rattle-snake, to be killed when convenient."
"Does he not look you in the face?"
"Yes; but not as though he liked you. His eyes only seem to ask the
possible uses you might be put to. Ah, the vice-president has given
him the floor; now we shall have it. Hard voice, is it not? like his
eyes. Hard manner, like his voice. Hard all through."
"What a pity he is so dreadfully senatorial!" said Mrs. Lee;
"otherwise I rather admire him."
"Now he is settling down to his work," continued Carrington. "See
how he dodges all the sharp issues. What a thing it is to be a
Yankee! What a genius the fellow has for leading a party! Do you
see how well it is all done? The new President flattered and
conciliated, the party united and given a strong lead. And now we
shall see how the President will deal with him. Ten to one on
Ratcliffe. Come, there is that stupid ass from Missouri getting up.
Let us go."
As they passed down the steps and out into the Avenue, Mrs. Lee
turned to Carrington as though she had been reflecting deeply and
had at length reached a decision.
"Mr. Carrington," said she, "I want to know Senator Ratcliffe."
"You will meet him to-morrow evening," replied Carrington, "at
your senatorial dinner."
The Senator from New York, the Honourable Schuyler Clinton,
was an old admirer of Mrs. Lee, and his wife was a cousin of hers,
more or less distant. They had lost no time in honouring the letter
of credit she thus had upon them, and invited her and her sister to a
solemn dinner, as imposing as political dignity could make it. Mr.
Carrington, as a connection of hers, was one of the party, and
almost the only one among the twenty persons at table who had
neither an office, nor a title, nor a constituency.
Senator Clinton received Mrs. Lee and her sister with tender
enthusiasm, for they were attractive specimens of his constituents.
He pressed their hands and evidently restrained himself only by an
effort from embracing them, for the Senator had a marked regard
for pretty women, and had made love to every girl with any
pretensions to beauty that had appeared in the State of New York
for fully half a century. At the same time he whispered an apology
in her ear; he regretted so much that he was obliged to forego the
pleasure of taking her to dinner; Washington was the only city in
America where this could have happened, but it was a fact that
ladies here were very great stickiers for etiquette; on the other
hand he had the sad consolation that she would be the gainer, for
he had allotted to her Lord Skye, the British Minister, "a most
agreeable man and not married, as I have the misfortune to be;"
and on the other side "I have ventured to place Senator Ratcliffe,
of Illinois, whose admirable speech I saw you listening to with
such rapt attention yesterday. I thought you might like to know
him. Did I do right?"
Madeleine assured him that he had divined her inmost wishes, and
he turned with even more warmth of affection to her sister: "As for
you, my dear--dear Sybil, what can I do to make your dinner
agreeable? If I give your sister a coronet, I am only sorry not to
have a diadem for you. But I have done everything in my power.
The first Secretary of the Russian Legation, Count Popoff, will
take you in; a charming young man, my dear Sybil; and on your
other side I have placed the Assistant Secretary of State, whom
And so, after the due delay, the party settled themselves at the
dinner-table, and Mrs. Lee found Senator Ratcliffe's grey eyes
resting on her face for a moment as they sat down.
Lord Skye was very agreeable, and, at almost any other moment of
her life, Mrs. Lee would have liked nothing better than to talk with
him from the beginning to the end of her dinner. Tall, slender,
bald-headed, awkward, and stammering with his elaborate British
stammer whenever it suited his convenience to do so; a sharp
observer who had wit which he commonly concealed; a humourist
who was satisfied to laugh silently at his own humour; a
diplomatist who used the mask of frankness with great effect; Lord
Skye was one of the most popular men in Washington. Every one
knew that he was a ruthless critic of American manners, but he had
the art to combine ridicule with good-humour, and he was all the
more popular accordingly. He was an outspoken admirer of
American women in everything except their voices, and he did not
even shrink from occasionally quizzing a little the national
peculiarities of his own countrywomen; a sure piece of flattery to
their American cousins. He would gladly have devoted himself to
Mrs. Lee, but decent civility required that he should pay some
attention to his hostess, and he was too good a diplomatist not to
be attentive to a hostess who was the wife of a Senator, and that
Senator the chairman of the committee of foreign relations.
The moment his head was turned, Mrs. Lee dashed at her Peonia
Giant, who was then consuming his fish, and wishing he
understood why the British Minister had worn no gloves, while he
himself had sacrificed his convictions by wearing the largest and
whitest pair of French kids that could be bought for money on
Pennsylvania Avenue. There was a little touch of mortification in
the idea that he was not quite at home among fashionable people,
and at this instant he felt that true happiness was only to be found
among the simple and honest sons and daughters of toil. A certain
secret jealousy of the British Minister is always lurking in the
breast of every American Senator, if he is truly democratic; for
democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by
the people, for the benefit of Senators, and there is always a danger
that the British Minister may not understand this political principle
as he should. Lord Skye had run the risk of making two blunders;
of offending the Senator from New York by neglecting his wife,
and the Senator from Illinois by engrossing the attention of Mrs.
Lee. A young Englishman would have done both, but Lord Skye
had studied the American constitution. The wife of the Senator
from New York now thought him most agreeable, and at the same
moment the Senator from Illinois awoke to the conviction that
after all, even in frivolous and fashionable circles, true dignity is in
no danger of neglect; an American Senator represents a sovereign
state; the great state of Illinois is as big as England--with the
convenient omission of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, India,
Australia, and a few other continents and islands; and in short, it
was perfectly clear that Lord Skye was not formidable to him, even
in light society; had not Mrs. Lee herself as good as said that no
position equaHed that of an American Senator?
In ten minutes Mrs. Lee had this devoted statesman at her feet. She
had not studied the Senate without a purpose. She had read with
unerring instinct one general characteristic of all Senators, a
boundless and guileless thirst for flattery, engendered by daily
draughts from political friends or dependents, then becoming a
necessity like a dram, and swallowed with a heavy smile of
ineffable content. A single glance at Mr. Ratcliffe's face showed
Madeleine that she need not be afraid of flattering too grossly; her
own self-respect, not his, was the only restraint upon her use of
this feminine bait.
She opened upon him with an apparent simplicity and gravity, a
quiet repose of manner, and an evident consciousness of her own
strength, which meant that she was most dangerous.
"I heard your speech yesterday, Mr. Ratcliffe. I am glad to have a
chance of telling you how much I was impressed by it. It seemed
to me masterly. Do you not find that it has had a great effect?"
"I thank you, madam. I hope it will help to unite the party, but as
yet we have had no time to measure its results. That will require
several days more." The Senator spoke in his senatorial manner,
elaborate, condescending, and a little on his guard.
"Do you know," said Mrs. Lee, turning towards him as though he
were a valued friend, and looking deep into his eyes, "Do you
know that every one told me I should be shocked by the falling off
in political ability at Washington? I did not believe them, and since
hearing your speech I am sure they are mistaken. Do you yourself
think there is less ability in Congress than there used to be?"
"Well, madam, it is difficult to answer that question. Government
is not so easy now as it was formerly. There are different customs.
There are many men of fair abilities in public life; many more than
there used to be; and there is sharper criticism and more of it."
"Was I right in thinking that you have a strong resemblance to
Daniel Webster in your way of speaking? You come from the same
neighbourhood, do you not?"
Mrs. Lee here hit on Ratcliffe's weak point; the outline of his head
had, in fact, a certain resemblance to that of Webster, and he
prided himself upon it, and on a distant relationship to the
Expounder of the Constitution; he began to think that Mrs. Lee
was a very intelligent person. His modest admission of the
resemblance gave her the opportunity to talk of Webster 's oratory,
and the conversation soon spread to a discussion of the merits of
Clay and Calhoun. The Senator found that his neighbour--a
fashionable New York woman, exquisitely dressed, and with a
voice and manner seductively soft and gentle--had read the
speeches of Webster and Calhoun. She did not think it necessary to
tell him that she had persuaded the honest Carrington to bring her
the volumes and to mark such passages as were worth her reading;
but she took care to lead the conversation, and she criticised with
some skill and more humour the weak points in Websterian
oratory, saying with a little laugh and a glance into his delighted
"My judgment may not be worth much, Mr. Senator, but it does
seem to me that our fathers thought too much of themselves, and
till you teach me better I shall continue to think that the passage in
your speech of yesterday which began with, 'Our strength lies in
this twisted and tangled mass of isolated principles, the hair of the
half-sleeping giant of Party,' is both for language and imagery
quite equal to anything of Webster's."
The Senator from Illinois rose to this gaudy fly like a huge,
two-hundred-pound salmon; his white waistcoat gave out a mild
silver reflection as he slowly came to the surface and gorged the
hook. He made not even a plunge, not one perceptible effort to tear
out the barbed weapon, but, floating gently to her feet, allowed
himself to be landed as though it were a pleasure. Only miserable
casuists will ask whether this was fair play on Madeleine's part;
whether flattery so gross cost her conscience no twinge, and
whether any woman can without self-abasement be guilty of such
shameless falsehood. She, however, scorned the idea of falsehood.
She would have defended herself by saying that she had not so
much praised Ratcliffe as depreciated Webster, and that she was
honest in her opinion of the old-fashioned American oratory. But
she could not deny that she had wilfully allowed the Senator to
draw conclusions very different from any she actually held. She
could not deny that she had intended to flatter him to the extent
necessary for her purpose, and that she was pleased at her success.
Before they rose from table the Senator had quite unbent himself;
he was talking naturally, shrewdly, and with some humour; he had
told her Illinois stories; spoken with extraordinary freedom about
his political situation; and expressed the wish to call upon Mrs.
Lee, if he could ever hope to find her at home.
"I am always at home on Sunday evenings," said she.
To her eyes he was the high-priest of American politics; he was
charged with the meaning of the mysteries, the clue to political
hieroglyphics. Through him she hoped to sound the depths of
statesmanship and to bring up from its oozy bed that pearl of
which she was in search; the mysterious gem which must lie
hidden somewhere in politics. She wanted to understand this man;
to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young
physiologists use frogs and kittens. If there was good or bad in
him, she meant to find its meaning.
And he was a western widower of fifty; his quarters in Washington
were in gaunt boarding-house rooms, furnished only with public
documents and enlivened by western politicians and
office-seekers. In the summer he retired to a solitary, white
framehouse with green blinds, surrounded by a few feet of
uncared-for grass and a white fence; its interior more dreary still,
with iron stoves, oil-cloth carpets, cold white walls, and one large
engraving of Abraham Lincoln in the parlour; all in Peonia,
Illinois! What equality was there between these two combatants?
what hope for him? what risk for her? And yet Madeleine Lee had
fully her match in Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe.