To Madeleine this ball was a godsend, for it came just in time to divert Sybil's mind from its troubles. A week had now passed since that revelation of Sybil's heart which had come like an earthquake upon Mrs. Lee. Since then Sybil had been nervous and irritable, all the more because she was conscious of being watched. She was in secret ashamed of her own conduct, and inclined to be angry with Carrington, as though he were responsible for her foolishness; but she could not talk with Madeleine on the subject without discussing Mr. Ratcliffe, and Carrington had expressly forbidden her to attack Mr. Ratcliffe until it was clear that Ratcliffe had laid himself open to attack. This reticence deceived poor Mrs. Lee, who saw in her sister's moods only that unrequited attachment for which she held herself solely to blame. Her gross negligence in allowing Sybil to be improperly exposed to such a risk weighed heavily on her mind. With a saint's capacity for self-torment, Madeleine wielded the scourge over her own back until the blood came. She saw the roses rapidly fading from Sybil's cheeks, and by the help of an active imagination she discovered a hectic look and symptoms of a cough. She became fairly morbid on the subject, and fretted herself into a fever, upon which Sybil sent, on her own responsibility, for the medical man, and Madeleine was obliged to dose herself with quinine. In fact, there was much more reason for anxiety about her than for her anxiety about Sybil, who, barring a little youthful nervousness in the face of responsibility, was as healthy and comfortable a young woman as could be shown in America, and whose sentiment never cost her five minutes' sleep, although her appetite may have become a shade more exacting than before. Madeleine was quick to notice this, and surprised her cook by making daily and almost hourly demands for new and impossible dishes, which she exhausted a library of cookery-books to discover.
Lord Skye's ball and Sybil's interest in it were a great relief to Madeleine's mind, and she now turned her whole soul to frivolity. Never, since she was seventeen, had she thought or talked so much about a ball, as now about this ball to the Grand-Duchess. She wore out her own brain in the effort to amuse Sybil. She took her to call on the Princess; she would have taken her to call on the Grand Lama had he come to Washington. She instigated her to order and send to Lord Skye a mass of the handsomest roses New York could afford. She set her at work on her dress several days before there was any occasion for it, and this famous costume had to be taken out, examined, criticised, and discussed with unending interest. She talked about the dress, and the Princess, and the ball, till her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, and her brain refused to act. From morning till night, for one entire week, she ate, drank, breathed, and dreamt of the ball. Everything that love could suggest or labour carry out, she did, to amuse and occupy her sister.
She knew that all this was only temporary and palliative, and that more radical measures must be taken to secure Sybil's happiness. On this subject she thought in secret until both head and heart ached. One thing and one thing only was clear: if Sybil loved Carrington, she should have him. How Madeleine expected to bring about this change of heart in Carrington, was known only to herself. She regarded men as creatures made for women to dispose of, and capable of being transferred like checks, or baggage-labels, from one woman to another, as desired. The only condition was that he should first be completely disabused of the notion that he could dispose of himself. Mrs. Lee never doubted that she could make Carrington fall in love with Sybil provided she could place herself beyond his reach. At all events, come what might, even though she had to accept the desperate alternative offered by Mr. Ratcliffe, nothing should be allowed to interfere with Sybil's happiness. And thus it was, that, for the first time, Mrs. Lee began to ask herself whether it was not better to find the solution of her perplexities in marriage.
Would she ever have been brought to this point without the violent pressure of her sister's supposed interests? This is one of those questions which wise men will not ask, because it is one which the wisest man or woman cannot answer. Upon this theme, an army of ingenious authors have exhausted their ingenuity in entertaining the public, and their works are to be found at every book-stall. They have decided that any woman will, under the right conditions, marry any man at any time, provided her "higher nature" is properly appealed to. Only with regret can a writer forbear to moralize on this subject. "Beauty and the Beast," "Bluebeard," "Auld Robin Gray," have the double charm to authors of being very pleasant to read, and still easier to dilute with sentiment. But at least ten thousand modern writers, with Lord Macaulay at their head, have so ravaged and despoiled the region of fairy-stories and fables, that an allusion even to the "Arabian Nights" is no longer decent. The capacity of women to make
unsuitable marriages must be considered as the corner-stone of society.
Meanwhile the ball had, in truth, very nearly driven all thought of Carrington out of Sybil's mind. The city filled again. The streets swarmed with fashionable young men and women from the provinces of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, who gave Sybil abundance of occupation. She received bulletins of the progress of affairs. The President and his wife had consented to be present, out of their high respect for Her Majesty the Queen and their desire to see and to be seen. All the Cabinet would accompany the Chief Magistrate. The diplomatic corps would appear in uniform; so, too, the officers of the army and navy; the Governor-General of Canada was coming, with a staff. Lord Skye remarked that the Governor-General was a flat.
The day of the ball was a day of anxiety to Sybil, although not on account of Mr. Ratcliffe or of Mr. Carrington, who were of trifling consequence compared with the serious problem now before her. The responsibility of dressing both her sister and herself fell upon Sybil, who was the real author of all Mrs. Lee's millinery triumphs when they now occurred, except that Madeleine managed to put character into whatever she wore, which Sybil repudiated on her own account. On this day Sybil had reasons for special excitement. All winter two new dresses, one especially a triumph of Mr.
Worth's art, had lain in state upstairs, and Sybil had waited in vain for an occasion that should warrant the splendour of these garments.