Democracy: An American Novel by Henry Adams
MRS. Lee soon became popular. Her parlour was a favourite haunt of certain men and women who had the art of finding its mistress at home; an art which seemed not to be within the powers of everybody. Carrington was apt to be there more often than any one else, so that he was looked on as almost a part of the family, and if Madeleine wanted a book from the library, or an extra man at her dinner-table, Carrington was pretty certain to help her to the one or the other. Old Baron Jacobi, the Bulgarian minister, fell madly in love with both sisters, as he commonly did with every pretty face and neat figure. He was a witty, cynical, broken-down Parisian roué, kept in Washington for years past by his debts and his salary; always grumbling because there was no opera, and mysteriously disappearing on visits to New York; a voracious devourer of French and German literature, especially of novels; a man who seemed to have met every noted or notorious personage of the century, and whose mind was a magazine of amusing information; an excellent musical critic, who was not afraid to criticise Sybil’s singing; a connoisseur in bric-à-brac, who laughed at Madeleine’s display of odds and ends, and occasionally brought her a Persian plate or a bit of embroidery, which he said was good and would do her credit. This old sinner believed in everything that was perverse and wicked, but he accepted the prejudices of Anglo-Saxon society, and was too clever to obtrude his opinions upon others.
He would have married both sisters at once more willingly than either alone, but as he feelingly said, “If I were forty years younger, mademoiselle, you should not sing to me so calmly.” His friend Popoff, an intelligent, vivacious Russian, with very Calmuck features, susceptible as a girl, and passionately fond of music, hung over Sybil’s piano by the hour; he brought Russian airs which he taught her to sing, and, if the truth were known, he bored Madeleine desperately, for she undertook to act the part of duenna to her younger sister.
A very different visitor was Mr. C. C. French, a young member of Congress from Connecticut, who aspired to act the part of the educated gentleman in politics, and to purify the public tone. He had reform principles and an unfortunately conceited maimer; he was rather wealthy, rather clever, rather well-educated, rather honest, and rather vulgar. His allegiance was divided between Mrs. Lee and her sister, whom he infuriated by addressing as “Miss Sybil” with patronising familiarity. He was particularly strong in what he called “badinaige,” and his playful but ungainly attempts at wit drove Mrs.
Lee beyond the bounds of patience. When in a solemn mood, he talked as though he were practising for the ear of a college debating society, and with a still worse effect on the patience; but with all this he was useful, always bubbling with the latest political gossip, and deeply interested in the fate of party stakes. Quite another sort of person was Mr. Hartbeest Schneidekoupon, a citizen of Philadelphia, though commonly resident in New York, where he had fallen a victim to Sybil’s charms, and made efforts to win her young affections by instructing her in the mysteries of currency and protection, to both which subjects he was devoted. To forward these two interests and to watch over Miss Ross’s welfare, he made periodical visits to Washington, where he closeted himself with committee-men and gave expensive dinners to members of Congress. Mr. Schneidekoupon was rich, and about thirty years old, tall and thin, with bright eyes and smooth face, elaborate manners and much loquacity. He had the reputation of turning rapid intellectual somersaults, partly to amuse himself and partly to startle society. At one moment he was artistic, and discoursed scientifically about his own paintings; at another he was literary, and wrote a book on “Noble Living,” with a humanitarian purpose; at another he was devoted to sport, rode a steeplechase, played polo, and set up a four-in-hand; his last occupation was to establish in Philadelphia the Protective Review, a periodical in the interests of American industry, which he edited himself, as a stepping-stone to Congress, the Cabinet, and the Presidency. At about the same time he bought a yacht, and heavy bets were pending among his sporting friends whether he would manage to sink first his Review or his yacht. But he was an amiable and excellent fellow through all his eccentricities, and he brought to Mrs. Lee the simple outpourings of the amateur politician.
A much higher type of character was Mr. Nathan Gore, of Massachusetts, a handsome man with a grey beard, a straight, sharply cut nose, and a fine, penetrating eye; in his youth a successful poet whose satires made a noise in their day, and are still remembered for the pungency and wit of a few verses; then a deep student in Europe for many years, until his famous “History of Spain in America” placed him instantly at the head of American historians, and made him minister at Madrid, where he remained four years to his entire satisfaction, this being the nearest approach to a patent of nobility and a government pension which the American citizen can attain. A change of administration had reduced him to private life again, and after some years of retirement he was now in Washington, willing to be restored to his old mission. Every President thinks it respectable to have at least one literary man in his pay, and Mr. Gore’s prospects were fair for obtaining his object, as he had the active support of a majority of the Massachusetts delegation. He was abominably selfish, colossally egoistic, and not a little vain; but he was shrewd; he knew how to hold his tongue; he could flatter dexterously, and he had learned to eschew satire. Only in confidence and among friends he would still talk freely, but Mrs. Lee was not yet on those terms with him. These were all men, and there was no want of women in Mrs.
Lee’s parlour; but, after all, they are able to describe themselves better than any poor novelist can describe them. Generally two currents of conversation ran on together—one round Sybil, the other about Madeleine.
“Mees Ross,” said Count Popoff, leading in a handsome young foreigner, “I have your permission to present to you my friend Count Orsini, Secretary of the Italian Legation. Are you at home this afternoon? Count Orsini sings also.”
“We are charmed to see Count Orsini. It is well you came so late, for I have this moment come in from making Cabinet calls. They were so queer! I have been crying with laughter for an hour past.” “Do you find these calls amusing?” asked Popoff, gravely and diplomatically. “Indeed I do! I went with Julia Schneidekoupon, you know, Madeleine; the Schneidekoupons are descended from all the Kings of Israel, and are prouder than Solomon in his glory. And when we got into the house of some dreadful woman from Heaven knows where, imagine my feelings at overhearing this conversation: ‘What may be your family name, ma’am?’ ‘Schneidekoupon is my name,’ replies Julia, very tall and straight. ‘Have you any friends whom I should likely know?’ ‘I think not,’ says Julia, severely. ‘Wal! I don’t seem to remember of ever having heerd the name. But I s’pose it’s all right. I like to know who calls.’ I almost had hysterics when we got into the street, but Julia could not see the joke at all.”
Count Orsini was not quite sure that he himself saw the joke, so he only smiled becomingly and showed his teeth. For simple, childlike vanity and self-consciousness nothing equals an Italian Secretary of Legation at twenty-five. Yet conscious that the effect of his personal beauty would perhaps be diminished by permanent silence, he ventured to murmur presently:
“Do you not find it very strange, this society in America?”
“Society!” laughed Sybil with gay contempt. “There are no snakes in America, any more than in Norway.”
“Snakes, mademoiselle!” repeated Orsini, with the doubtful expression of one who is not quite certain whether he shall risk walking on thin ice, and decides to go softly: “Snakes! Indeed they would rather be doves I would call them.”
A kind laugh from Sybil strengthened into conviction his hope that he had made a joke in this unknown tongue. His face brightened, his confidence returned; once or twice he softly repeated to himself: “Not snakes; they would be doves!” But Mrs. Lee’s sensitive ear had caught Sybil’s remark, and detected in it a certain tone of condescension which was not to her taste.
The impassive countenances of these bland young Secretaries of Legation seemed to acquiesce far too much as a matter of course in the idea that there was no society except in the old world. She broke into the conversation with an emphasis that fluttered the dove-cote:
“Society in America? Indeed there is society in America, and very good society too; but it has a code of its own, and new-comers seldom understand it. I will tell you what it is, Mr. Orsini, and you will never be in danger of making any mistake. ‘Society’ in America means all the honest, kindly-mannered, pleasant-voiced women, and all the good, brave, unassuming men, between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Each of these has a free pass in every city and village, ‘good for this generation only,’ and it depends on each to make use of this pass or not as it may happen to suit his or her fancy. To this rule there are no exceptions, and those who say ‘Abraham is our father’ will surely furnish food for that humour which is the staple product of our country.”
The alarmed youths, who did not in the least understand the meaning of this demonstration, looked on with a feeble attempt at acquiescence, while Mrs.
Lee brandished her sugar-tongs in the act of transferring a lump of sugar to her cup, quite unconscious of the slight absurdity of the gesture, while Sybil stared in amazement, for it was not often that her sister waved the stars and stripes so energetically. Whatever their silent criticisms might be, however, Mrs. Lee was too much in earnest to be conscious of them, or, indeed, to care for anything but what she was saying. There was a moment’s pause when she came to the end of her speech, and then the thread of talk was quietly taken up again where Sybil’s incipient sneer had broken it.
Carrington came in. “What have you been doing at the Capitol?” asked Madeleine.
“Lobbying!” was the reply, given in the semi-serious tone of Carrington’s humour.
“So soon, and Congress only two days old?” exclaimed Mrs. Lee.
“Madam,” rejoined Carrington, with his quietest malice, “Congressmen are like birds of the air, which are caught only by the early worm.” “Good afternoon, Mrs. Lee. Miss Sybil, how do you do again? Which of these gentlemen’s hearts are you feeding upon now?” This was the refined style of Mr. French, indulging in what he was pleased to term “badinaige.” He, too, was on his way from the Capitol, and had come in for a cup of tea and a little human society. Sybil made a face which plainly expressed a longing to inflict on Mr. French some grievous personal wrong, but she pretended not to hear. He sat down by Madeleine, and asked, “Did you see Ratcliffe yesterday?”
“Yes,” said Madeleine; “he was here last evening with Mr. Carrington and one or two others.”
“Did he say anything about politics?”
“Not a word. We talked mostly about books.”
“Books! What does he know about books?”
“You must ask him.”
“Well, this is the most ridiculous situation we are all in. No one knows anything about the new President. You could take your oath that everybody is in the dark. Ratcliffe says he knows as little as the rest of us, but it can’t be true; he is too old a politician not to have wires in his hand; and only to-day one of the pages of the Senate told my colleague Cutter that a letter sent off by him yesterday was directed to Sam Grimes, of North Bend, who, as every one knows, belongs to the President’s particular crowd.—Why, Mr. Schneidekoupon! How do you do? When did you come on?”
“Thank you; this morning,” replied Mr. Schneidekoupon, just entering the room. “So glad to see you again, Mrs. Lee. How do you and your sister like Washington? Do you know I have brought Julia on for a visit? I thought I should find her here.
“She has just gone. She has been all the afternoon with Sybil, making calls. She says you want her here to lobby for you, Mr. Schneidekoupon. Is it true?”
“So I did,” replied he, with a laugh, “but she is precious little use. So I’ve come to draft you into the service.”
“Yes; you know we all expect Senator Ratcliffe to be Secretary of the Treasury, and it is very important for us to keep him straight on the currency and the tariff. So I have come on to establish more intimate relations with him, as they say in diplomacy. I want to get him to dine with me at Welckley’s, but as I know he keeps very shy of politics I thought my only chance was to make it a ladies’ dinner, so I brought on Julia. I shall try and get Mrs. Schuyler Clinton, and I depend upon you and your sister to help Julia out.”
“Me! at a lobby dinner! Is that proper?”
“Why not? You shall choose the guests.”
“I never heard of such a thing; but it would certainly be amusing. Sybil must not go, but I might.” “Excuse me; Julia depends upon Miss Ross, and will not go to table without her.”
“Well,” assented Mrs. Lee, hesitatingly, “perhaps if you get Mrs. Clinton, and if your sister is there And who else?”
“Choose your own company.”
“I know no one.”
“Oh yes; here is French, not quite sound on the tariff, but good for what we want just now. Then we can get Mr. Gore; he has his little hatchet to grind too, and will be glad to help grind ours. We only want two or three more, and I will have an extra man or so to fill up.”
“Do ask the Speaker. I want to know him.”
“I will, and Carrington, and my Pennsylvania Senator. That will do nobly. Remember, Welckley’s, Saturday at seven.”
Meanwhile Sybil had been at the piano, and when she had sung for a time, Orsini was induced to take her place, and show that it was possible to sing without injury to one’s beauty. Baron Jacobi came in and found fault with them both. Little Miss Dare—commonly known among her male friends as little Daredevil—who was always absorbed in some flirtation with a Secretary of Legation, came in, quite unaware that Popoff was present, and retired with him into a corner, while Orsini and Jacobi bullied poor Sybil, and fought with each other at the piano; everybody was talking with very little reference to any reply, when at last Mrs. Lee drove them all out of the room: “We are quiet people,” said she, “and we dine at half-past six.”
Senator Ratcliffe had not failed to make his Sunday evening call upon Mrs.
Lee. Perhaps it was not strictly correct to say that they had talked books all the evening, but whatever the conversation was, it had only confirmed Mr. Ratcliffe’s admiration for Mrs. Lee, who, without intending to do so, had acted a more dangerous part than if she had been the most accomplished of coquettes. Nothing could be more fascinating to the weary politician in his solitude than the repose of Mrs. Lee’s parlour, and when Sybil sang for him one or two simple airs—she said they were foreign hymns, the Senator being, or being considered, orthodox—Mr. Ratcliffe’s heart yearned toward the charming girl quite with the sensations of a father, or even of an elder brother.
His brother senators very soon began to remark that the Prairie Giant had acquired a trick of looking up to the ladies’ gallery. One day Mr. Jonathan Andrews, the special correspondent of the New York Sidereal System, a very friendly organ, approached Senator Schuyler Clinton with a puzzled look on his face.
“Can you tell me,” said he, “what has happened to Silas P. Ratcliffe? Only a moment ago I was talking with him at his seat on a very important subject, about which I must send his opinions off to New York to-night, when, in the middle of a sentence, he stopped short, got up without looking at me, and left the Senate Chamber, and now I see him in the gallery talking with a lady whose face I don’t know.”
Senator Clinton slowly adjusted his gold eye-glasses and looked up at the place indicated: “Ah! Mrs. Lightfoot Lee! I think I will say a word to her myself;” and turning his back on the special correspondent, he skipped away with youthful agility after the Senator from Illinois.
“Devil!” muttered Mr. Andrews; “what has got into the old fools?” and in a still less audible murmur as he looked up to Mrs. Lee, then in close conversation with Ratcliffe: “Had I better make an item of that?”
When young Mr. Schneidekoupon called upon Senator Ratcliffe to invite him to the dinner at Welckley’s, he found that gentleman overwhelmed with work, as he averred, and very little disposed to converse. No! he did not now go out to dinner. In the present condition of the public business he found it impossible to spare the time for such amusements. He regretted to decline Mr. Schneidekoupon’s civility, but there were imperative reasons why he should abstain for the present from social entertainments; he had made but one exception to his rule, and only at the pressing request of his old friend Senator Clinton, and on a very special occasion.
Mr. Schneidekoupon was deeply vexed—the more, he said, because he had meant to beg Mr. and Mrs. Clinton to be of the party, as well as a very charming lady who rarely went into society, but who had almost consented to come.
“Who is that?” inquired the Senator.
“A Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, of New York. Probably you do not know her well enough to admire her as I do; but I think her quite the most intelligent woman I ever met.”
The Senator’s cold eyes rested for a moment on the young man’s open face with a peculiar expression of distrust. Then he solemnly said, in his deepest senatorial tones:
“My young friend, at my time of life men have other things to occupy them than women, however intelligent they may be. Who else is to be of your party?”
Mr. Schneidekoupon named his list.
“And for Saturday evening at seven, did you say?”
“Saturday at seven.”
“I fear there is little chance of my attending, but I will not absolutely decline. Perhaps when the moment arrives, I may find myself able to be there. But do not count upon me—do not count upon me. Good day, Mr. Schneidekoupon.”
Schneidekoupon was rather a simple-minded young man, who saw no deeper than his neighbours into the secrets of the universe, and he went off swearing roundly at “the infernal airs these senators give themselves.” He told Mrs.
Lee all the conversation, as indeed he was compelled to do under penalty of bringing her to his party under false pretences.
“Just my luck,” said he; “here I am forced to ask no end of people to meet a man, who at the same time says he shall probably not come. Why, under the stars, couldn’t he say, like other people, whether he was coming or not? I’ve known dozens of senators, Mrs. Lee, and they’re all like that. They never think of any one but themselves.”
Mrs. Lee smiled rather a forced smile, and soothed his wounded feelings; she had no doubt the dinner would be very agreeable whether the Senator were there or not; at any rate she would do all she could to carry it off well, and Sybil should wear her newest dress. Still she was a little grave, and Mr. Schneidekoupon could only declare that she was a trump; that he had told Ratcliffe she was the cleverest woman he ever met, and he might have added the most obliging, and Ratcliffe had only looked at him as though he were a green ape. At all which Mrs. Lee laughed good-naturedly, and sent him away as soon as she could.
When he was gone, she walked up and down the room and thought. She saw the meaning of Ratcliffe’s sudden change in tone. She had no more doubt of his coming to the dinner than she had of the reason why he came. And was it possible that she was being drawn into something very near a flirtation with a man twenty years her senior; a politician from Illinois; a huge, ponderous, grey-eyed, bald senator, with a Websterian head, who lived in Peonia? The idea was almost too absurd to be credited; but on the whole the thing itself was rather amusing. “I suppose senators can look out for themselves like other men,” was her final conclusion. She thought only of his danger, and she felt a sort of compassion for him as she reflected on the possible consequences of a great, absorbing love at his time of life.
Her conscience was a little uneasy; but of herself she never thought. Yet it is a historical fact that elderly senators have had a curious fascination for young and handsome women. Had they looked out for themselves too? And which parties most needed to be looked after?
When Madeleine and her sister arrived at Welckley’s ‘s the next Saturday evening, they found poor Schneidekoupon in a temper very unbecoming a host.
“He won’t come! I told you he wouldn’t come!” said he to Madeleine, as he handed her into the house. “If I ever turn communist, it will be for the fun of murdering a senator.”
Madeleine consoled him gently, but he continued to use, behind Mr. Clinton’s back, language the most offensive and improper towards the Senate, and at last, ringing the bell, he sharply ordered the head waiter to serve dinner.
At that very moment the door opened, and Senator Ratcliffe’s stately figure appeared on the threshold. His eye instantly caught Madeleine’s, and she almost laughed aloud, for she saw that the Senator was dressed with very unsenatorial neatness; that he had actually a flower in his burton-hole and no gloves!
After the enthusiastic description which Schneidekoupon had given of Mrs.
Lee’s charms, he could do no less than ask Senator Ratcliffe to take her in to dinner, which he did without delay. Either this, or the champagne, or some occult influence, had an extraordinary effect upon him. He appeared ten years younger than usual; his face was illuminated; his eyes glowed; he seemed bent on proving his kinship to the immortal Webster by rivalling his convivial powers. He dashed into the conversation; laughed, jested, and ridiculed; told stories in Yankee and Western dialect; gave sharp little sketches of amusing political experiences.
“Never was more surprised in my life,” whispered Senator Krebs, of Pennsylvania, across the table to Schneidekoupon. “Hadn’t an idea that Ratcliffe was so entertaining.”
And Mr. Clinton, who sat by Madeleine on the other side, whispered low into her ear: “I am afraid, my dear Mrs. Lee, that you are responsible for this. He never talks so to the Senate.”
Nay, he even rose to a higher flight, and told the story of President Lincoln’s death-bed with a degree of feeling that brought tears into their eyes. The other guests made no figure at all. The Speaker consumed his solitary duck and his lonely champagne in a corner without giving a sign.
Even Mr. Gore, who was not wont to hide his light under any kind of extinguisher, made no attempt to claim the floor, and applauded with enthusiasm the conversation of his opposite neighbour. Ill-natured people might say that Mr. Gore saw in Senator Ratcliffe a possible Secretary of State; be this as it may, he certainly said to Mrs. Clinton, in an aside that was perfectly audible to every one at the table: “How brilliant! what an original mind! what a sensation he would make abroad!” And it was quite true, apart from the mere momentary effect of dinner-table talk, that there was a certain bigness about the man; a keen practical sagacity; a bold freedom of self-assertion; a broad way of dealing with what he knew.
Carrington was the only person at table who looked on with a perfectly cool head, and who criticised in a hostile spirit. Carrington’s impression of Ratcliffe was perhaps beginning to be warped by a shade of jealousy, for he was in a peculiarly bad temper this evening, and his irritation was not wholly concealed.
“If one only had any confidence in the man!” he muttered to French, who sat by him.
This unlucky remark set French to thinking how he could draw Ratcliffe out, and accordingly, with his usual happy manner, combining self-conceit and high principles, he began to attack the Senator with some “badinaige” on the delicate subject of Civil Service Reform, a subject almost as dangerous in political conversation at Washington as slavery itself in old days before the war. French was a reformer, and lost no occasion of impressing his views; but unluckily he was a very light weight, and his manner was a little ridiculous, so that even Mrs. Lee, who was herself a warm reformer, sometimes went over to the other side when he talked. No sooner had he now shot his little arrow at the Senator, than that astute man saw his opportunity, and promised himself the pleasure of administering to Mr.
French punishment such as he knew would delight the company. Reformer as Mrs. Lee was, and a little alarmed at the roughness of Ratcliffe’s treatment, she could not blame the Prairie Giant, as she ought, who, after knocking poor French down, rolled him over and over in the mud.
“Are you financier enough, Mr. French, to know what are the most famous products of Connecticut?”
Mr. French modestly suggested that he thought its statesmen best answered that description.
“No, sir! even there you’re wrong. The showmen beat you on your own ground. But every child in the union knows that the most famous products of Connecticut are Yankee notions, nutmegs made of wood and clocks that won’t go. Now, your Civil Service Reform is just such another Yankee notion; it’s a wooden nutmeg; it’s a clock with a show case and sham works. And you know it! You are precisely the old-school Connecticut peddler. You have gone about peddling your wooden nutmegs until you have got yourself into Congress, and now you pull them out of your pockets and not only want us to take them at your own price, but you lecture us on our sins if we don’t. Well! we don’t mind your doing that at home. Abuse us as much as you like to your constituents. Get as many votes as you can. But don’t electioneer here, because we know you intimately, and we’ve all been a little in the wooden nutmeg business ourselves.”
Senator Clinton and Senator Krebs chuckled high approval over this punishment of poor French, which was on the level of their idea of wit. They were all in the nutmeg business, as Ratcliffe said. The victim tried to make head against them; he protested that his nutmegs were genuine; he sold no goods that he did not guarantee; and that this particular article was actually guaranteed by the national conventions of both political parties.
“Then what you want, Mr. French, is a common school education. You need a little study of the alphabet. Or if you won’t believe me, ask my brother senators here what chance there is for your Reforms so long as the American citizen is what he is.”
“You’ll not get much comfort in my State, Mr. French,” growled the senator from Pennsylvania, with a sneer; “suppose you come and try.”
“Well, well!” said the benevolent Mr. Schuyler Clinton, gleaming benignantly through his gold spectacles; “don’t be too hard on French. He means well. Perhaps he’s not very wise, but he does good. I know more about it than any of you, and I don’t deny that the thing is all bad. Only, as Mr. Ratcliffe says, the difficulty is in the people, not in us. Go to work on them, French, and let us alone.”
French repented of his attack, and contented himself by muttering to Carrington: “What a set of damned old reprobates they are!”
“They are right, though, in one thing,” was Carrington’s reply: “their advice is good. Never ask one of them to reform anything; if you do, you will be reformed yourself.”
The dinner ended as brilliantly as it began, and Schneidekoupon was delighted with his success. He had made himself particularly agreeable to Sybil by confiding in her all his hopes and fears about the tariff and the finances. When the ladies left the table, Ratcliffe could not stay for a cigar; he must get back to his rooms, where he knew several men were waiting for him; he would take his leave of the ladies and hurry away. But when the gentlemen came up nearly an hour afterwards they found Ratcliffe still taking his leave of the ladies, who were delighted at his entertaining conversation; and when at last he really departed, he said to Mrs. Lee, as though it were quite a matter of course: “You are at home as usual to-morrow evening?” Madeleine smiled, bowed, and he went his way.
As the two sisters drove home that night, Madeleine was unusually silent.
Sybil yawned convulsively and then apologized:
“Mr. Schneidekoupon is very nice and good-natured, but a whole evening of him goes a long way; and that horrid Senator Krebs would not say a word, and drank a great deal too much wine, though it couldn’t make him any more stupid than he is. I don’t think I care for senators.” Then, wearily, after a pause: “Well, Maude, I do hope you’ve got what you wanted. I’m sure you must have had politics enough. Haven’t you got to the heart of your great American mystery yet?”
“Pretty near it, I think,” said Madeleine, half to herself.