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.
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 mmd 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.