A shade of depression rested on the faces and the voices of Clan Ratcliffe that evening, as is not unusual with forces on the eve of battle. Their remarks came at longer intervals, and were more pointless and random than usual. There was a want of elasticity in their bearing and tone, partly coming from sympathy with the evident depression of their chief; partly from the portents of the time. The President was to arrive within forty-eight hours, and as yet there was no sign that he properly appreciated their services; there were signs only too unmistakeable that he was painfully misled and deluded, that his countenance was turned wholly in another direction, and that all their sacrifices were counted as worthless. There was reason to believe that he came with a deliberate purpose of making war upon Ratcliffe and breaking him down; of refusing to bestow patronage on them, and of bestowing it wherever it would injure them most deeply. At the thought that their honestly earned harvest of foreign missions and consulates, department-bureaus, custom-house and revenue offices, postmasterships, Indian agencies, and army and navy contracts, might now be wrung from their grasp by the selfish greed of a mere accidental intruder--a man whom nobody wanted and every one ridiculed--their natures rebelled, and they felt that such things must not be; that there could be no more hope for democratic government if such things were possible. At this point they invariably became excited, lost their equanimity, and swore. Then they fell back on their faith in Ratcliffe: if any man could pull them through, he could; after all, the President must first reckon with him, and he was an uncommon tough customer to tackle.
Perhaps, however, even their faith in Ratcliffe might have been shaken, could they at that moment have looked into his mind and understood what was passing there. Ratcliffe was a man vastly their superior, and he knew it. He lived in a world of his own and had instincts of refinement. Whenever his affairs went unfavourably, these instincts revived, and for the time swept all his nature with them. He was now filled with disgust and cynical contempt for every form of politics. During long years he had done his best for his party; he had sold himself to the devil, coined his heart's blood, toiled with a dogged persistence that no day-labourer ever conceived; and all for what? To be rejected as its candidate; to be put under the harrow of a small Indiana farmer who made no secret of the intention to "corral" him, and, as he elegantly expressed it, to "take his hide and tallow." Ratcliffe had no great fear of losing his hide, but he felt aggrieved that he should be called upon to defend it, and that this should be the result of twenty years' devotion. Like most men in the same place, he did not stop to cast up both columns of his account with the party, nor to ask himself the question that lay at the heart of his grievance: How far had he served his party and how far himself? He was in no humour for self-analysis: this requires more repose of mind than he could then command. As for the President, from whom he had not heard a whisper since the insolent letter to Grimes, which he had taken care not to show, the Senator felt only a strong impulse to teach him better sense and better manners. But as for political life, the events of the last six months were calculated to make any man doubt its value. He was quite out of sympathy with it. He hated the sight of his tobacco-chewing, newspaper-reading satellites, with their hats tipped at every angle except the right one, and their feet everywhere except on the floor. Their conversation bored him and their presence was a nuisance. He would not submit to this slavery longer. He would have given his Senatorship for a civilized house like Mrs. Lee's, with a woman like Mrs. Lee at its head, and twenty thousand a year for life. He smiled his only smile that evening when he thought how rapidly she would rout every man Jack of his political following out of her parlours, and how meekly they would submit to banishment into a back-office with an oil-cloth carpet and two cane chairs.
He felt that Mrs. Lee was more necessary to him than the Presidency itself; he could not go on without her; he needed human companionship; some Christian comfort for his old age; some avenue of communication with that social world, which made his present surroundings look cold and foul; some touch of that refinement of mind and morals beside which his own seemed coarse. He felt unutterably lonely. He wished Mrs. Lee had asked him home to dinner; but Mrs. Lee had gone to bed with a headache. He should not see her again for a week. Then his mind turned back upon their morning at Mount Vernon, and bethinking himself of Mrs. Sam Baker, he took a sheet of note-paper, and wrote a line to Wilson Keen, Esq., at Georgetown, requesting him to call, if possible, the next morning towards one o'clock at the Senator's rooms on a matter of business. Wilson Keen was chief of the Secret Service Bureau in the Treasury Department, and, as the depositary of all secrets, was often called upon for assistance which he was very good-natured in furnishing to senators, especially if they were likely to be Secretaries of the Treasury.
This note despatched, Mr. Ratcliffe fell back into his reflective mood, which led him apparently into still lower depths of discontent until, with a muttered oath, he swore he could "stand no more of this," and, suddenly rising, he informed his visitors that he was sorry to leave them, but he felt rather poorly and was going to bed; and to bed he went, while his guests departed, each as his business or desires might point him, some to drink whiskey and some to repose.
On Sunday morning Mr. Ratcliffe, as usual, went to church. He always attended morning service--at the Methodist Episcopal Church--not wholly on the ground of religious conviction, but because a large number of his constituents were church-going people and he would not willingly shock their principles so long as he needed their votes. In church, he kept his eyes closely fixed upon the clergyman, and at the end of the sermon he could say with truth that he had not heard a word of it, although the respectable minister was gratified by the attention his discourse had received from the Senator from Illinois, an attention all the more praiseworthy because of the engrossing public cares which must at that moment have distracted the Senator's mind. In this last idea, the minister was right. Mr. Ratcliffe's mind was greatly distracted by public cares, and one of his strongest reasons for going to church at all was that he might get an hour or two of undisturbed reflection. During the entire service he was absorbed in carrying on a series of imaginary conversations with the new President. He brought up in succession every form of proposition which the President might make to him; every trap which could be laid for him; every sort of treatment he might expect, so that he could not be taken by surprise, and his frank, simple nature could never be at a loss. One object, however, long escaped him. Supposing, what was more than probable, that the President's opposition to Ratcliffe's declared friends made it impossible to force any of them into office; it would then be necessary to try some new man, not obnoxious to the President, as a candidate for the Cabinet. Who should this be? Ratcliffe pondered long and deeply, searching out a man who combined the most powerful interests, with the fewest enmities. This subject was still uppermost at the moment when service ended. Ratcliffe pondered over it as he walked back to his rooms. Not until he reached his own door did he come to a conclusion:
Carson would do; Carson of Pennsylvania; the President had probably never heard of him.
Mr. Wilson Keen was waiting the Senator's return, a heavy man with a square face, and good-natured, active blue eyes; a man of few words and those well-considered. The interview was brief. After apologising for breaking in upon Sunday with business, Mr. Ratcliffe excused himself on the ground that so little time was left before the close of the session. A bill now before one of his Committees, on which a report must soon be made, involved matters to which it was believed that the late Samuel Baker, formerly a well-known lobby-agent in Washington, held the only clue. He being dead, Mr. Ratcliffe wished to know whether he had left any papers behind him, and in whose hands these papers were, or whether any partner or associate of his was acquainted with his affairs.
Mr. Keen made a note of the request, merely remarking that he had been very well acquainted with Baker, and also a little with his wife, who was supposed to know his affairs as well as he knew them himself; and who was still in Washington. He thought he could bring the information in a day or two. As he then rose to go, Mr. Ratcliffe added that entire secrecy was necessary, as the interests involved in obstructing the search were considerable, and it was not well to wake them up. Mr. Keen assented and went his way.