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Whenever a man reaches the top of the political ladder, his enemies unite to pull him down. His friends become critical and exacting. Among the many dangers of this sort which now threatened Ratcliffe, there was one that, had he known it, might have made him more uneasy than any of those which were the work of senators and congressmen. Carrington entered into an alliance, offensive and defensive, with Sybil. It came about in this wise. Sybil was fond of riding. and occasionally, when Carrington could spare the time, he went as her guide and protector in these country excursions; for every Virginian, however out at elbows, has a horse, as he has shoes or a shirt.
In a thoughtless moment Carrington had been drawn into a promise that he would take Sybil to Arlington. The promise was one that he did not hurry to keep, for there were reasons which made a visit to Arlington anything but a pleasure to him; but Sybil would listen to no excuses, and so it came about that, one lovely March morning, when the shrubs and the trees in the square before the house were just beginning, under the warmer sun, to show signs of their coming wantonness, Sybil stood at the open window waiting for him, while her new Kentucky horse before the door showed what he thought of the delay by curving his neck, tossing his head, and pawing the pavement.
Carrington was late and kept her waiting so long, that the mignonette and geraniums, which adorned the window, suffered for his slowness, and the curtain tassels showed signs of wilful damage. Nevertheless he arrived at length, and they set out together, choosing the streets least enlivened by horse-cars and provision-carts, until they had crept through the great metropolis of Georgetown and come upon the bridge which crosses the noble river just where its bold banks open out to clasp the city of Washington in their easy embrace. Then reaching the Virginia side they cantered gaily up the laurel-margined road, with glimpses of woody defiles, each carrying its trickling stream and rich in promise of summer flowers, while from point to point they caught glorious glimpses of the distant city and river. They passed the small military station on the heights, still dignified by the name of fort, though Sybil silently wondered how a fort was possible without fortifications, and complained that there was nothing more warlike than a "nursery of telegraph poles." The day was blue and gold; everything smiled and sparkled in the crisp freshness of the morning. Sybil was in bounding spirits. and not at all pleased to find that her companion became moody and abstracted as they went on. "Poor Mr. Carrington!" thought she to herself, "he is so nice; but when he puts on that solemn air, one might as well go to sleep. I am quite certain no nice woman will ever marry him if he looks like that;" and her practical mind ran off among all the girls of her acquaintance, in search of one who would put up with Carrington's melancholy face. She knew his devotion to her sister, but had long ago rejected this as a hopeless chance. There was a simplicity about Sybil's way of dealing with life, which had its own charm. She never troubled herself about the impossible or the unthinkable. She had feelings, and was rather quick in her sympathies and sorrows, but she was equally quick in getting over them, and she expected other people to do likewise. Madeleine dissected her own feelings and was always wondering whether they were real or not; she had a habit of taking off her mental clothing, as she might take off a dress, and looking at it as though it belonged to some one else, and as though sensations were manufactured like clothes. This seems to be one of the easier ways of deadening sorrow, as though the mind could teach itself to lop off its feelers. Sybil particularly disliked this self-inspection. In the first place she did not understand it, and in the second her mind was all feelers, and amputation was death. She could no more analyse a feeling than doubt its existence, both which were habits of her sister.
How was Sybil to know what was passing in Carrington's mind? He was thinking of nothing in which she supposed herself interested. He was troubled with memories of civil war and of associations still earlier, belonging to an age already vanishing or vanished; but what could she know about civil war who had been almost an infant at the time? At this moment, she happened to be interested in the baffle of Waterloo, for she was reading "Vanity Fair," and had cried as she ought for poor little Emmy, when her husband, George Osborne, lay dead on the field there, with a bullet through his heart. But how was she to know that here, only a few rods before her, lay scores and hundreds of George Osbornes, or his betters, and in their graves the love and hope of many Emmys, not creatures of the imagination, but flesh and blood, like herself? To her, there was no more in those associations which made Carrington groan in the silence of his thoughts, than if he had been old Kaspar, and she the little Wilhelmine. What was a skull more or less to her? What concern had she in the famous victory?
Yet even Sybil was startled as she rode through the gate and found herself suddenly met by the long white ranks of head-stones, stretching up and down the hill-sides by thousands, in order of baffle; as though Cadmus had reversed his myth, and had sown living men, to come up dragons' teeth. She drew in her horse with a shiver and a sudden impulse to cry. Here was something new to her. This was war--wounds, disease, death. She dropped her voice and with a look almost as serious as Carrington's, asked what all these graves meant. When Carrington told her, she began for the first time to catch some dim notion why his face was not quite as gay as her own. Even now this idea was not very precise, for he said little about himself, but at least she grappled with the fact that he had actually, year after year, carried arms against these men who lay at her feet and who had given their lives for her cause. It suddenly occurred to her as a new thought that perhaps he himself might have killed one of them with his own hand. There was a strange shock in this idea. She felt that Carrington was further from her. He gained dignity in his rebel isolation. She wanted to ask him how he could have been a traitor, and she did not dare. Carrington a traitor!
Carrington killing her friends! The idea was too large to grasp. She fell back on the simpler task of wondering how he had looked in his rebel uniform.
They rode slowly round to the door of the house and dismounted, after he had with some difficulty found a man to hold their horses. From the heavy brick porch they looked across the superb river to the raw and incoherent ugliness of the city, idealised into dreamy beauty by the atmosphere, and the soft background of purple hills behind. Opposite them, with its crude "thus saith the law" stamped on white dome and fortress-like walls, rose the Capitol.
Carrington stood with her a short time while they looked at the view; then said he would rather not go into the house himself, and sat down on the steps while she strolled alone through the rooms. These were bare and gaunt, so that she, with her feminine sense of fitness, of course considered what she would do to make them habitable. She had a neat fancy for furniture, and distributed her tones and half tones and bits of colour freely about the walls and ceilings, with a high-backed chair here, a spindle-legged sofa there, and a claw-footed table in the centre, until her eye was caught by a very dirty deal desk, on which stood an open book, with an inkstand and some pens. On the leaf she read the last entry: "Eli M. Grow and lady, Thermopyle Centre." Not even the graves outside had brought the horrors of war so near.
What a scourge it was! This respectable family turned out of such a lovely house, and all the pretty old furniture swept away before a horde of coarse invaders "with ladies." Did the hosts of Attila write their names on visiting books in the temple of Vesta and the house of Sallust? What a new terror they would have added to the name of the scourge of God! Sybil returned to the portico and sat down by Carrington on the steps.
"How awfully sad it is!" said she; "I suppose the house was prettily furnished when the Lees lived here? Did you ever see it then?"
Sybil was not very profound, but she had sympathy, and at this moment Carrington felt sorely in need of comfort. He wanted some one to share his feelings, and he turned towards her hungry for companionship.
"The Lees were old family friends of mine," said he. "I used to stay here when I was a boy, even as late as the spring of 1861. The last time I sat here, it was with them. We were wild about disunion and talked of nothing else. I have been trying to recall what was said then. We never thought there would be war, and as for coercion, it was nonsense. Coercion, indeed!
The idea was ridiculous. I thought so, too, though I was a Union man and did not want the State to go out. But though I felt sure that Virginia must suffer, I never thought we could be beaten. Yet now I am sitting here a pardoned rebel, and the poor Lees are driven away and their place is a grave-yard."
Sybil became at once absorbed in the Lees and asked many questions, all which Carrington gladly answered. He told her how he had admired and followed General Lee through the war. "We thought he was to be our Washington, you know; and perhaps he had some such idea himself;" and then, when Sybil wanted to hear about the baffles and the fighting, he drew a rough map on the gravel path to show her how the two lines had run, only a few miles away; then he told her how he had carried his musket day after day over all this country, and where he had seen his battles. Sybil had everything to learn; the story came to her with all the animation of real life, for here under her eyes were the graves of her own champions, and by her side was a rebel who had stood under our fire at Malvern Hill and at South Mountain, and who was telling her how men looked and what they thought in face of death. She listened with breathless interest, and at last summoned courage to ask in an awestruck tone whether Carrington had ever killed any one himself. She was relieved, although a little disappointed, when he said that he believed not; he hoped not; though no private who has discharged a musket in baffle can be quite sure where the bullet went. "I never tried to kill any one," said he, "though they tried to kill me incessantly." Then Sybil begged to know how they had tried to kill him, and he told her one or two of those experiences, such as most soldiers have had, when he had been fired upon and the balls had torn his clothes or drawn blood. Poor Sybil was quite overcome, and found a deadly fascination in the horror. As they sat together on the steps with the glorious view spread before them, her attention was so closely fixed on his story that she saw neither the view nor even the carriages of tourists who drove up, looked about, and departed, envying Carrington his occupation with the lovely girl.
She was in imagination rushing with him down the valley of Virginia on the heels of our flying army, or gloomily toiling back to the Potomac after the bloody days at Gettysburg, or watching the last grand debâcle on the road from Richmond to Appomattox. They would have sat there till sunset if Carrington had not at length insisted that they must go, and then she rose slowly with a deep sigh and undisguised regret.
As they rode away, Carrington, whose thoughts were not devoted to his companion so entirely as they should have been, ventured to say that he wished her sister had come with them, but he found that his hint was not well received.
Sybil emphatically rejected the idea: "I'm very glad she didn't come. If she had, you would have talked with her all the time, and I should have been left to amuse myself. You would have been discussing things, and I hate discussions. She would have been hunting for first principles, and you would have been running about, trying to catch some for her. Besides, she is coming herself some Sunday with that tiresome Mr. Ratcliffe. I don't see what she finds in that man to amuse her. Her taste is getting to be demoralised in Washington. Do you know, Mr. Carrington, I'm not clever or serious, like Madeleine, and I can't read laws, and hate politics, but I've more common sense than she has, and she makes me cross with her. I understand now why young widows are dangerous, and why they're bumed at their husband's funerals in India. Not that I want to have Madeleine burned, for she's a dear, good creature, and I love her better than anything in the world; but she will certainly do herself some dreadful mischief one of these days; she has the most extravagant notions about self-sacrifice and duty; if she hadn't luckily thought of taking charge of me, she would have done some awful thing long ago, and if I could only be a little wicked, she would be quite happy all the rest of her life in reforming me; but now she has got hold of that Mr. Ratcliffe, and he is trying to make her think she can reform him, and if he does, it's all up with us. Madeleine will just go and break her heart over that odious, great, coarse brute, who only wants her money."
Sybil delivered this little oration with a degree of energy that went to Carrington's heart. She did not often make such sustained efforts, and it was clear that on this subject she had exhausted her whole mind. Carrington was delighted, and urged her on. "I dislike Mr. Ratcliffe as much as you do;--more perhaps. So does every one who knows much about him. But we shall only make the matter worse if we interfere. What can we do?"
"That is just what I tell everybody," resumed Sybil. "There is Victoria Dare always telling me I ought to do something; and Mr. Schneidekoupon too; just as though I could do anything. Madeleine has done nothing but get into mischief here. Half the people think her worldly and ambitious. Only last night that spiteful old woman, Mrs. Clinton, said to me: 'Your sister is quite spoiled by Washington. She is more wild for power than any human being I ever saw.' I was dreadfully angry and told her she was quite mistaken--Madeleine was not the least spoiled. But I couldn't say that she was not fond of power, for she is; but not in the way Mrs. Clinton meant.
You should have seen her the other evening when Mr. Ratcliffe said about some matter of public business that he would do whatever she thought right; she spoke up quite sharply for her, with a scornful little laugh, and said that he had better do what he thought right. He looked for a moment almost angry, and muttered something about women's being incomprehensible. He is always trying to tempt her with power. She might have had long ago all the power he could give her, but I can see, and he sees too, that she always keeps him at arm's length. He doesn't like it, but he expects one of these days to find a bribe that will answer. I wish we had never come to Washington. New York is so much nicer and the people there are much more amusing; they dance ever so much better and send one flowers all the time, and then they never talk about first principles. Maude had her hospitals and paupers and training school, and got along very well. It was so safe. But when I say so to her, she only smiles in a patronising kind of way, and tells me that I shall have as much of Newport as I want; just as though I were a child, and not a woman of twenty-five. Poor Maude! I can't stay with her if she marries Mr. Ratcliffe, and it would break my heart to leave her with that man. Do you think he would beat her? Does he drink? I would almost rather be beaten a little, if I cared for a man, than be taken out to Peonia. Oh, Mr. Carrington! you are our only hope. She will listen to you.
Don't let her marry that dreadful politician."
To all this pathetic appeal, some parts of which were as liffle calculated to please Carrington as Ratcliffe himself, Carrington answered that he was ready to do all in his power but that Sybil must tell him when and how to act.
"Then, it's a bargain," said she; "whenever I want you, I shall call on you for help, and you shall prevent the marriage."
"Alliance offensive and defensive," said he, laughing; "war to the knife on Ratcliffe. We will have his scalp if necessary, but I rather think he will soon commit hari-kari himself if we leave him alone."
"Madeleine will like him all the better if he does anything Japanese,"
replied Sybil, with great seriousness; "I wish there was more Japanese bric-à-brac here, or any kind of old pots and pans to talk about. A little art would be good for her. What a strange place this is, and how people do stand on their heads in it! Nobody thinks like anyone else. Victoria Dare says she is trying on principle not to be good, because she wants to keep some new excitements for the next world. I'm sure she practices as she preaches. Did you see her at Mrs. Clinton's last night. She behaved more outrageously than ever. She sat on the stairs all through supper, looking like a demure yellow cat with two bouquets in her paws--and I know Lord Dunbeg sent one of them;--and she actually let Mr. French feed her with ice-cream from a spoon. She says she was showing Lord Dunbeg a phase, and that he is going to put it into his article on American Manners and Customs in the Quarterly, but I don't think it's nice, do you, Mr. Carrington? I wish Madeleine had her to take care of. She would have enough to do then, I can tell her."
And so, gently prattling, Miss Sybil returned to the city, her alliance with Carrington completed; and it was a singular fact that she never again called him dull. There was henceforward a look of more positive pleasure and cordiality on her face when he made his appearance wherever she might be; and the next time he suggested a horseback excursion she instantly agreed to go, although aware that she had promised a younger gentleman of the diplomatic body to be at home that same afternoon, and the good fellow swore polyglot oaths on being turned away from her door.
Mr. Ratcliffe knew nothing of this conspiracy against his peace and prospects. Even if he had known it, he might only have laughed, and pursued his own path without a second thought. Yet it was certain that he did not think Carrington's enmity a thing to be overlooked, and from the moment of his obtaining a clue to its cause, he had begun to take precautions against it. Even in the middle of the contest for the Treasury, he had found time to listen to Mr. Wilson Keens report on the affairs of the late Samuel Baker.
Mr. Keen came to him with a copy of Baker's will and with memoranda of remarks made by the unsuspecting Mrs. Baker; "from which it appears," said he, "that Baker, having no time to put his affairs in order, left special directions that his executors should carefully destroy all papers that might be likely to compromise individuals."
"What is the executor's name?" interrupted Ratcliffe.
"The executor's name is--John Carrington," said Keen, methodically referring to his copy of the will.
Ratcliffe's face was impassive, but the inevitable, "I knew it," almost sprang to his lips. He was rather pleased at the instinct which had led him so directly to the right trail.
Keen went on to say that from Mrs. Baker's conversation it was certain that the testator's directions had been carried out, and that the great bulk of these papers had been burned.
"Then it will be useless to press the inquiry further," said Ratcliffe; "I am much obliged to you for your assistance," and he turned the conversation to the condition of Mr. Keen's bureau in the Treasury department.
The next time Ratcliffe saw Mrs. Lee, after his appointment to the Treasury was confirmed, he asked her whether she did not think Carrington very well suited for public service, and when she warmly assented, he said it had occurred to him to offer the place of Solicitor of the Treasury to Mr.
Carrington, for although the actual salary might not be very much more than he earned by his private practice, the incidental advantages to a Washington lawyer were considerable; and to the Secretary it was especially necessary to have a solicitor in whom he could place entire confidence. Mrs. Lee was pleased by this motion of Ratcliffe's, the more because she had supposed that Ratcliffe had no liking for Carrington. She doubted whether Carrington would accept the place, but she hoped that it might modify his dislike for Ratcliffe, and she agreed to sound him on the subject. There was something a little compromising in thus allowing herself to appear as the dispenser of Mr. Ratcliffe's patronage, but she dismissed this objection on the ground that Carrington's interests were involved, and that it was for him to judge whether he should take the place or not. Perhaps the world would not be so charitable if the appointment were made. What then? Mrs. Lee asked herself the question and did not feel quite at ease.
So far as Carrington was concerned, she might have dismissed her doubts.
There was not a chance of his taking the place, as very soon appeared. When she spoke to him on the subject, and repeated what Ratcliffe had said, his face flushed, and he sat for some moments in silence. He never thought very rapidly, but now the ideas seemed to come so fast as to bewilder his mind.
The situation flashed before his eyes like electric sparks. His first impression was that Ratcliffe wanted to buy him; to tie his tongue; to make him run, like a fastened dog, under the waggon of the Secretary of the Treasury. His second notion was that Ratcliffe wanted to put Mrs. Lee under obligations, in order to win her regard; and, again, that he wanted to raise himself in her esteem by posing as a friend of honest administration and unassisted virtue. Then suddenly it occurred to him that the scheme was to make him appear jealous and vindictive; to put him in an attitude where any reason he might give for declining would bear a look of meanness, and tend to separate him from Mrs. Lee. Carrington was so absorbed by these thoughts, and his mind worked so slowly, that he failed to hear one or two remarks addressed to him by Mrs. Lee, who became a little alarmed, under the impression that he was unexpectedly paralyzed.
When at length he heard her and attempted to frame an answer, his embarrassment increased. He could only stammer that he was sorry to be obliged to decline, but this office was one he could not undertake.
If Madeleine felt a little relieved by this decision, she did not show it.
From her manner one might have supposed it to be her fondest wish that Carrington should be Solicitor of the Treasury. She cross-questioned him with obstinacy. Was not the offer a good one? --and he was obliged to confess that it was. Were the duties such as he could not perform? Not at all! there was nothing in the duties which alarmed him. Did he object to it because of his southern prejudices against the administration? Oh, no! he had no political feeling to stand in his way. What, then, could be his reason for refusing?
Carrington resorted again to silence, until Mrs. Lee, a little impatiently, asked whether it was possible that his personal dislike to Racliffe could blind him so far as to make him reject so fair a proposal. Carrington, finding himself more and more uncomfortable, rose restlessly from his chair and paced the room. He felt that Ratclife had fairly out-generaled him, and he was at his wits' end to know what card he could play that would not lead directly into Ratcliffe's trump suit. To refuse such an offer was hard enough at best, for a man who wanted money and professional advancement as he did, but to injure himself and help Ratcliffe by this refusal, was abominably hard. Nevertheless, he was obliged to admit that he would rather not take a position so directly under Ratcliffe's control. Madeleine said no more, but he thought she looked annoyed, and he felt himself in an intolerably painful situation. He was not certain that she herself might not have had some share in proposing the plan, and that his refusal might not have some mortifying consequences for her. What must she think of him, then?
At this very moment he would have given his right arm for a word of real affection from Mrs. Lee. He adored her. He would willingly enough have damned himself for her. There was no sacrifice he would not have made to bring her nearer to him. In his upright, quiet, simple kind of way, he immolated himself before her. For months his heart had ached with this hopeless passion. He recognized that it was hopeless. He knew that she would never love him, and, to do her justice, she never had given him reason to suppose that it was in her power to love him, r any man. And here he stood, obliged to appear ungrateful and prejudiced, mean and vindictive, in her eyes. He took his seat again, looking so unutterably dejected, his patient face so tragically mournful, that Madeleine, after a while, began to see the absurd side of the matter, and presently burst into a laugh "Please do not look so frightfully miserable!" said she; "I did not mean to make you unhappy. After all, what does it matter? You have a perfect right to refuse, and, for my part, I have not the least wish to see you accept."
On this, Carrington brightened, and declared that if she thought him right in declining, he cared for nothing else. It was only the idea of hurting her feelings that weighed on his mind. But in saying this, he spoke in a tone that implied a deeper feeling, and made Mrs. Lee again look grave and sigh.
"Ah, Mr. Carrington," she said, "this world will not run as we want. Do you suppose the time will ever come when every one will be good and happy and do just what they ought? I thought this offer might possibly take one anxiety off your shoulders. I am sorry now that I let myself be led into making it."
Carrington could not answer her. He dared not trust his voice. He rose to go, and as she held out her hand, he suddenly raised it to his lips, and so left her. She sat for a moment with tears in her eyes after he was gone. She thought she knew all that was in his mind, and with a woman's readiness to explain every act of men by their consuming passions for her own sex, she took it as a matter of course that jealousy was the whole cause of Carrington's hostility to Ratcliffe, and she pardoned it with charming alacrity. "Ten years ago, I could have loved him," she thought to herself, and then, while she was half smiling at the idea, suddenly another thought flashed upon her, and she threw her hand up before her face as though some one had struck her a blow. Carrington had reopened the old wound.
When Ratcliffe came to see her again, which he did very shortly afterwards, glad of so good an excuse, she told him of Carrington's refusal, adding only that he seemed unwilling to accept any position that had a political character. Ratcliffe showed no sign of displeasure; he only said, in a benignant tone, that he was sorry to be unable to do something for so good a friend of hers; thus establishing, at all events, his claim on her gratitude. As for Carrington, the offer which Ratcliffe had made was not intended to be accepted, and Carrington could not have more embarrassed the secretary than by closing with it. Ratcliffe's object had been to settle for his own satisfaction the question of Carrington's hostility, for he knew the man well enough to feel sure that in any event he would act a perfectly straightforward part. If he accepted, he would at least be true to his chief. If he refused, as Ratcliffe expected, it would be a proof that some means must be found of getting him out of the way. In any case the offer was a new thread in the net that Mr. Ratcliffe flattered himself he was rapidly winding about the affections and ambitions of Mrs. Lee. Yet he had reasons of his own for thinking that Carrington, more easily than any other man, could cut the meshes of this net if he chose to do so, and therefore that it would be wiser to postpone action until Carrington were disposed of.
Without a moment's delay he made inquiries as to all the vacant or eligible offices in the gift of the government outside his own department. Very few of these would answer his purpose. He wanted some temporary law business that would for a time take its holder away to a distance, say to Australia or Central Asia, the further the better; it must be highly paid, and it must be given in such a way as not to excite suspicion that Ratcliffe was concerned in the matter. Such an office was not easily found. There is little law business in Central Asia, and at this moment there was not enough to require a special agent in Australia. Carrington could hardly be induced to lead an expedition to the sources of the Nile in search of business merely to please Mr. Ratcliffe, nor could the State Department offer encouragement to a hope that government would pay the expenses of such an expedition. The best that Ratcliffe could do was to select the place of counsel to the Mexican claims-commission which was soon to meet in the city of Mexico, and which would require about six months' absence. By a little management he could contrive to get the counsel sent away in advance of the commission, in order to work up a part of the case on the spot. Ratcliffe acknowledged that Mexico was too near, but he drily remarked to himself that if Carrington could get back in time to dislodge him after he had once got a firm hold on Mrs. Lee, he would never try to run another caucus.
The point once settled in his own mind, Ratcliffe, with his usual rapidity of action, carried his scheme into effect. In this there was little difficulty. He dropped in at the office of the Secretary of State within eight-and-forty hours after his last conversation with Mrs. Lee. During these early days of every new administration, the absorbing business of government relates principally to appointments. The Secretary of the Treasury was always ready to oblige his colleagues in the Cabinet by taking care of their friends to any reasonable extent. The Secretary of State was not less courteous. The moment he understood that Mr. Ratcliffe had a strong wish to secure the appointment of a certain person as counsel to the Mexican claims-commission, the Secretary of State professed readiness to gratify him, and when he heard who the proposed person was, the suggestion was hailed with pleasure, for Carrington was well known and much liked at the Department, and was indeed an excellent man for the place. Ratcliffe hardly needed to promise an equivalent. The business was arranged in ten minutes.
"I only need say," added Ratcliffe, "that if my agency in the affair is known, Mr. Carrington will certainly refuse the place, for he is one of your old-fashioned Virginia planters, proud as Lucifer, and willing to accept nothing by way of favour. I will speak to your Assistant Secretary about it, and the recommendation shall appear to come from him."
The very next day Carrington received a private note from his old friend, the Assistant Secretary of State, who was overjoyed to do him a kindness.
The note asked him to call at the Department at his earliest convenience. He went, and the Assistant Secretary announced that he had recommended Carrington's appointment as counsel to the Mexican claims-commission, and that the Secretary had approved the recommendation. "We want a Southern man, a lawyer with a little knowledge of international law, one who can go at once, and, above all, an honest man. You fit the description to a hair; so pack your trunk as soon as you like."
Carrington was startled. Coming as it did, this offer was not only unobjectionable, but tempting. It was hard for him even to imagine a reason for hesitation. From the first he felt that he must go, and yet to go was the very last thing he wanted to do. That he should suspect Ratcliffe to be at the bottom of this scheme of banishment was a matter of course, and he instantly asked whether any influence had been used in his favour; but the Assistant Secretary so stoutly averred that the appointment was made on his recommendation alone, as to block all further inquiry. Technically this assertion was exact, and it made Carrington feel that it would be base ingratitude on his part not to accept a favour so handsomely offered.
Yet he could not make up his mind to acceptance. He begged four and twenty hours' delay, in order, as he said, to see whether he could arrange his affairs for a six months' absence, although he knew there would be no difficulty in his doing so. He went away and sat in his office alone, gloomily wondering what he could do, although from the first he saw that the situation was only too clear, and there could not be the least dark corner of a doubt to crawl into. Six months ago he would have jumped at this offer.
What had happened within six months to make it seem a disaster?
Mrs. Lee! There was the whole story. To go away now was to give up Mrs. Lee, and probably to give her up to Ratcliffe. Carrington gnashed his teeth when he thought how skilfully Ratcliffe was playing his cards. The longer he reflected, the more certain he felt that Ratcliffe was at the bottom of this scheme to get rid of him; and yet, as he studied the situation, it occurred to him that after all it was possible for Ratcliffe to make a blunder. This Illinois politician was clever, and understood men; but a knowledge of men is a very different thing from a knowledge of women. Carrington himself had no great experience in the article of women, but he thought he knew more than Ratcliffe, who was evidently relying most on his usual theory of political corruption as applied to feminine weaknesses, and who was only puzzled at finding how high a price Mrs. Lee set on herself. If Ratcliffe were really at the bottom of the scheme for separating Carrington from her, it could only be because he thought that six months, or even six weeks, would be enough to answer his purpose. And on reaching this point in his reflections, Carrington suddenly rose, lit a cigar, and walked up and down his room steadily for the next hour, with the air of a general arranging a plan of campaign, or a lawyer anticipating his opponent's line of argument.
On one point his mind was made up. He would accept. If Ratcliffe really had a hand in this move, he should be gratified. If he had laid a trap, he should be caught in it. And when the evening came, Carrington took his hat and walked off to call upon Mrs. Lee.
He found the sisters alone and quietly engaged in their occupations.
Madeleine was dramatically mending an open-work silk stocking, a delicate and difficult task which required her whole mind. Sybil was at the piano as usual, and for the first time since he had known her, she rose when he came in, and, taking her work-basket, sat down to share in the conversation. She meant to take her place as a woman, henceforward. She was tired of playing girl. Mr. Carrington should see that she was not a fool.
Carrington plunged at once into his subject, and announced the offer made to him, at which Madeleine expressed delight, and asked many questions. What was the pay? How soon must he go? How long should he be away? Was there danger from the climate? and finally she added, with a smile, "What am I to say to Mr. Ratcliffe if you accept this offer after refusing his?" As for Sybil, she made one reproachful exclamation: "Oh, Mr. Carrington!" and sank back into silence and consternation. Her first experiment at taking a stand of her own in the world was not encouraging. She felt betrayed.
Nor was Carrington gay. However modest a man may be, only an idiot can forget himself entirely in pursuing the moon and the stars. In the bottom of his soul, he had a lingering hope that when he told his story, Madeleine might look up with a change of expression, a glance of unpremeditated regard, a little suffusion of the eyes, a little trembling of the voice. To see himself relegated to Mexico with such cheerful alacrity by the woman he loved was not the experience he would have chosen. He could not help feeling that his hopes were disposed of, and he watched her with a painful sinking of the heart, which did not lead to lightness of conversation. Madeleine herself felt that her expressions needed to be qualified, and she tried to correct her mistake. What should she do without a tutor? she said. He must let her have a list of books to read while he was away: they were themselves going north in the middle of May, and Carrington would be back by the time they returned in December. After all, they should see as little of him during the summer if he were in Virginia as if he were in Mexico.
Carrington gloomily confessed that he was very unwilling to go; that he wished the idea had never been suggested; that he should be perfectly happy if for any reason the scheme broke down; but he gave no explanation of his feeling, and Madeleine had too much tact to press for one. She contented herself by arguing against it, and talking as vivaciously as she could. Her heart really bled for him as she saw his face grow more and more pathetic in its quiet expression of disappointment. But what could she say or do? He sat till after ten o'clock; he could not tear himself away. He felt that this was the end of his pleasure in life; he dreaded the solitude of his thoughts. Mrs. Lee's resources began to show signs of exhaustion. Long pauses intervened between her remarks; and at length Carrington, with a superhuman effort, apologized for inflicting himself upon her so unmercifully. If she knew, he said, how he dreaded being alone, she would forgive him. Then he rose to go, and, in taking leave, asked Sybil if she was inclined to ride the next day; if so, he was at her service. Sybil's face brightened as she accepted the invitation.
Mrs. Lee, a day or two afterwards, did mention Carrington's appointment to Mr. Ratcliffe, and she told Carrington that the Secretary certainly looked hurt and mortified, but showed it only by almost instantly changing the subject.
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