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.
Sybil sprang to her feet with a cry: "And have you told him so?"
"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
Nevertheless her tactics answered their object of checking Sybil's
vehemence. Her sobs came to an end, and she presently rose with a
"Madeleine," said she, "do you really want to marry Mr.
"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
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
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
Mrs. Lee, looking at her with more surprise than ever, could not
force herself to speak; but she shook her head slowly and
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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;
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
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
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
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
"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
"I am not going to bed till you do, Maude!" replied Sybil, with
"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
"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."