The Dying Gladiator

Issue 37 by David Kennedy

The Dying Gladiator

Kate had calculated that meeting the presidential carriage as it pulled up the drive at Edgewood would serve her interest, but that did not deprive the gesture of its heartfelt quality. The carriage had been specially made in New York. It was dark green in color, Arthur’s favorite, with that hue presenting the central theme on the exterior paint and the interior upholstery, trimmed in morocco and cloth. Heavy lace decorated the curtains and doors. Aleck, Arthur’s valet, was the first to emerge from the carriage, and he laid down the steps for the President to make his path. He then bent inside the carriage and removed from the President’s knees a dark green lap robe, of Labrador otter with the silk monogram “C.A.A.,” and held one hand to steady his master.

She considered the measure of the man as Arthur emerged from the carriage. He looked that morning much as he always did, as an English country gentleman who has just polished off an enormous dinner. The weather was brisk, near the end of winter, so Arthur wore an enormous hat and an overcoat lined with fur.

“Good morning!” Arthur boomed. His eyes were half lidded as they always were, but even with those windows to the soul half obscured, Kate could sense the livelier spirit behind them.

Kate curtsied, much to Arthur’s amusement.

“There is no need for that, my dear!”

He offered his arm to Kate and she walked him inside.

“The estate looks well.”

“Indeed.” Kate smiled tightly. She was ever in the process of closing rooms and selling off some bibelot or another. She sat the President down in her parlor. Aleck remained standing at the door.

“You have done wonders with this place,” Arthur said, admiring the painting above the mantelpiece. “That is a singular Corot.”

“Quite,” Kate said. “I bought it upon the advice of our dear friend.”

“Ah,” Arthur said, then shifted uncomfortably upon the divan. Kate advanced into her purpose.

“He has sworn me to the utmost secrecy, but it would place my soul into pain of eternal torment if I did not break that lesser oath, out of loyalty to him, to you, and our country.”

“I see,” Arthur replied. He glanced at Aleck, but his valet made no move to extricate him.

“I am among the very few who have spoken to our dear friend,” Kate said. “I saw how deeply he was suffering, for he was most unjustly and savagely maligned. I fear that the constant opprobrium has strained his nerves and made him very ill.”

Arthur shook his head sympathetically at this news, but Conkling had such stoutness of constitution and enormity of self-regard that it was difficult to imagine criticism having any effect upon him whatsoever.

“I hesitate to tell you this,” Kate went on. “I do not care to join the ranks of busybodies and intruders who give you nothing but unwelcome advice.”

Arthur took Kate’s hand in his, and she could not help but notice that his nails had been recently manicured.

“No words from you would ever be unwelcome.”

“My father regarded his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury as the most important few years of his life. I watched him closely in those days, and I know from direct observation the care and attention that he brought to that exceedingly difficult task. Few men are capable of success in that position. The head of the Treasury must be robust, courageous, and clear-headed, and I know of no one who is better qualified than our friend.”

Aleck stifled a curious sort of cough, and Arthur blinked at Kate several times.

“Conkling as Secretary of the Treasury? That is out of the question.”

“To the contrary, it is the only sensible solution to your predicament.”

“I rather suspect,” Arthur said, “that naming Conkling to the post would create a new predicament.”

“I am sensible of the malignant fury of blinded abuse that has swept over the country,” Kate argued, “but unless honor, honesty and patriotism have become empty traditions, Mr. Conkling would be a tower of strength in your administration.”

Arthur’s eyes were now wide open with alarm. “But that would bring back all the old battles — the divisions between Half-Breeds and Stalwarts — that I must avoid at all costs. Blaine resigned rather than serve in my Administration, lest he be labeled a Stalwart.”

“I should think it obvious by now that the greater part of wisdom lies in discerning the path taken by James Blaine, and proceeding straightaway in the opposite direction,” said Kate, severely.

“I cannot ignore the existence of these factions.”

“Naming Mr. Conkling to the Treasury Department shall unite those factions,” Kate pressed, “like a marriage between the Houses of York and Lancaster.”

“I fear there is even more bad blood between the Houses of Half-Breed and Stalwart. You understand that there are many who do not share our appreciation of our friend.”

Kate thrust her nose in the air. “Of course,” she said. “Mr. Conkling is ever the enemy of the sycophants and the sentimental. But among those who do their own thinking and consider fitness for office the most important of all qualifications, he stands unparalleled.”

“It is impossible to explain this delicately,” Arthur said, hesitantly, “but there is ever a specter that walks beside me, a shadow that whispers to me, that I am President only because my old friend Conkling spurred a madman to commit an act of violence. If I reward that old friend, then am I not rewarding that act of violence?”

“You know that is not true,” Kate said. “Men are responsible for their own actions, and if you are truly his friend, the Jonathan to his David, the Damon to his Pythias, you will judge him for what he is, and not what others say. Why, he was insulted at first when you accepted the nomination for Vice-President, but true knight of honor that he is, he went out and campaigned for the ticket. He delivered New York to the Republican side, as he always does.”

“I am not certain I can place him in my Cabinet,” Arthur said. “I share your view, of course, that he has been most foully abused, but if I install him as head of a department and see him at Cabinet meetings, I am inviting scorn. Every decision that I make shall be condemned as an action taken at Conkling’s behest.”

“There must be something,” Kate beseeched him. “An ambassadorship, perhaps?”

“There might be an advantage in sending him out of the country for a time, but ambassadors are servants of the Secretary of State, and he cannot be expected to serve as an inferior officer.”

“There must be some way for you to reward him,” Kate insisted. “Even if he declines the post, extending the offer to a man so wrongly fallen in the public regard shall be a sign of grace. Can you think of any position that would honor him, even if he does decline it?”

Arthur considered the proposition with interest. Kate could often forget her sex and become a political intellect and could scheme as well as anyone.

“I believe so,” he said at last.

“Then the thing ought be done now, and done handsomely,” Kate said.

“How I wish I could see him!” Arthur said.

“I would not counsel that,” Kate replied severely. “I shall call upon him instead, as there are no longer any formal barriers to our acquaintance.”

Arthur abruptly sat up. “Good heavens! I am forgetting my manners. How are you, my dear?”

“Fine, I suppose.”

“Please accept my condolences.”

Kate sighed. “It is not a person who has died, merely a marriage. My lawyers advised me to spare no detail of Mr. Sprague’s drunken debauches, so that I might obtain an advantage in court, and we knew that the press would light upon it as carrion upon a corpse.”

“I have thrown aside the papers rather than read any such accounts,” Arthur said. This was not true, of course, but it was the gentlemanly thing to say. Kate’s petition had alleged that Sprague was perpetually drunk, engaged in liaisons with at least six other women, threatened to kill her and to throw her from a window, imprisoned her at Canonchet, engaged in attempts at criminal intercourse with the female domestics of the household, had relations with diverse lewd women, and permitted Canonchet to become a resort for revelry and drunkenness, corrupting the morals of their son Willie.

“You are too kind,” Kate replied.

Arthur did not know what to say for several moments.

“I suppose,” he began, “that if it is any consolation, you now have your freedom.”

“That is every consolation in the world to me,” Kate said.

Arthur held out his hand, and Kate clasped it.

Conkling turned the key and opened the door into his offices at Nassau Street. The space was still largely empty, the only ornaments a coat stand, plush couch, a heavy wooden desk, and a swivel chair. The lingering dust from the previous occupants twinkled in the beams of morning sunlight, and Conkling could not help but think of Danaë and the shower of gold. He hung his coat upon the topmost hook, proceeded to the desk, and sat in the swivel chair, which squeaked dreadfully. He sighed and took out some letter-paper from his satchel, along with a pen and inkwell. He gazed wistfully about the ceiling, but his reverie was soon interrupted.

“Mister Conkling, sir?” a grimy Irishman appeared at the door. All the laborers around Wall Street were grimy Irishmen, it seemed.

“Senator,” Conkling said.

The Irishman was confused. “Begging your pardon?”

“I retain my title despite my retirement,” Conkling said. “You ought to address me as Senator.”

“Mister Senator, then,” the Irishman said. “There is a wagon-load of boxes in the store-room. Do you need them all here today?”

Conkling sighed again.

“I engaged you with the very purpose of bringing them all here today.”

“But I won’t have another pair of hands until lunchtime, sir.”

Conkling merely stared at the Irishman in reply, and it was not long before that son of Erin perceived that his difficulties would attract no sympathy.

“Very well, sir,” he said, and left without touching his cap.

Conkling stewed for several minutes, contemplating the bare walls. Then he proceeded to write:

No. 29 Nassau Street

New York, March 3, 1882

Mr. President —

The high and unexpected honor you proffer by selecting me as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is greatly valued. It will ever be a matter of pride and satisfaction that you and the Senate deemed me fit for so grave and exalted a trust. But for reasons which you would not fail to appreciate, I am constrained to decline.

Conkling thought for several moments, for he had also received an invitation from Arthur to attend a dinner at the White House. He wrote —

Although urgent demands on my time just now prevent my accepting your cordial invitation to pass a few days with you in Washington, let me hold this as a pleasure deferred and not lost.

I have the honor to be, sincerely,

Your obedient servant —

Roscoe Conkling.

He placed the letter in an envelope and waited for the Irishman to return. From time to time he gazed about the room and calculated where he ought to place his law-books, where to hang his many commendations upon the wall, where his potential clients ought to sit. After some consultation, he moved the desk and the swivel chair over some eighteen inches, so as to better capture the rays of the sun streaming from the windows. He then resumed his seat and placed his feet upon the desk, so that a visitor to his law office might be greeted by the gilded beams of the sun creating a radiant halo about his reddish-bronze hair, now turning slightly grey.

“What now, sir?”

The sheriff blew out his cheeks. The iron gates of Canonchet were locked shut, and the auctioneer suspected that William Sprague — formerly a Governor of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and a United States Senator — had assumed a more adversarial posture toward the law than might have been expected from a gentleman with his career of public service. He consulted the writ of possession doubtfully, for it included no specific instructions in the face of such defiance.

“Might we go over the wall?” the auctioneer asked.

“Well, I suppose so,” the sheriff said. He eyed the low stone wall critically. It was tall enough to keep out animals, but a man could see over it. “We shall have to leave the horses behind.”

“The mansion is not too far away.” The auctioneer peered through the bars of the gate. “I can see it from here, just beyond that copse of trees.”

“The problem is more distance than speed,” the sheriff said. “A man could walk there just fine, but a horse might come in handy if the reception is unfriendly.”

“I’m reliably acquainted with unfriendly receptions,” the auctioneer replied, and dismounted his horse. “No one wants to watch the assessment of their property for public auction.”

“This reception might be less friendly than most,” the sheriff warned, but the auctioneer was not listening. To the contrary, the fellow seemed emboldened by the small crowd of lollygaggers and layabouts waiting across the road, a motley assortment not ordinarily seen at Canonchet. An estate of this size was ever witness to comings and goings of tradesmen, carpenters, servants, farriers, not to mention other ladies and gentlemen attending upon social engagements. The number of visitors had dwindled substantially with the removal of Kate Chase and her daughters from the estate, and the character of the visitors diminished even further, with the occasional arrival of a wagon-load of painted ladies eliciting the disgust of the neighbors.

The sheriff gingerly climbed atop the wall and reached down his hand. The auctioneer scrambled up the wall and reached the top, dusting off his coat.

“Good enough of a look?” the sheriff inquired.

“Hardly,” the auctioneer said. He had been engaged to conduct a full survey of the property, for the failure of various Sprague business enterprises had created an assembly of creditors, none of whom could obtain satisfaction, as the materials of William Sprague’s debauches were extravagant. The auctioneer had been appalled to learn that the incoming and dwindling revenues had not been put toward the payment of debts; to the contrary, money tarried for only a short time in Sprague’s hands before being put toward whiskey and women.

The auctioneer was preparing his descent when a young man on a gray pony appeared from a bend in the road, and clip-clopped up the path. He held the reins in one hand, with a billy club in the other. He stopped ten yards from the stone wall.

“Gentlemen!” he cried. “I have orders not to let any person enter these grounds!”

The auctioneer laughed.

“And who might you be?”

The young man threw back his mane of jet black hair.

“I am William Sprague the younger, and you are trespassers upon my father’s property!”

“It is your father’s no longer,” snapped the auctioneer. “I have here a certified court judgment ordering the seizure and auction of this estate for the benefit of your father’s creditors. I am here as an agent of the court to conduct a proper appraisal of the property and demand that you permit me to do so unmolested.”

“If you take one step farther upon our land, you shall do so at your peril,” Willie replied.

“I have a writ,” the auctioneer complained.

“We care not for your writ,” said Willie. “Canonchet is the home of the Spragues, now and forever.”

The sheriff peered beyond Willie and discerned a handful of men standing upon the parapets of the mansion beyond the trees. One of them appeared to be holding a sort of flag-pole with what seemed to be a bloody shirt tied to the top. The sheriff reached slowly to his holster, for he and the auctioneer were standing on the wall like two tin cans on a fence.

The auctioneer interrupted the sheriff’s ruminations. “Ask him how old he is.”

The sheriff grunted. “How old are you, son?”

“I am seventeen,” Willie answered, with a glint of pride. “And I am not afraid to die.”

Willie laid a hand upon his belt, where the sheriff and auctioneer now saw a pistol.

“Now boy,” the sheriff said, “this does not need to get unpleasant.”

A shot rang out, from the parapet to the best of the sheriff’s reckoning and tore the hat off the head of the auctioneer.

“Good G_d!” he cried. The spectators on the side of the road shouted, gasped, and cheered. The sheriff raised his hands in the air, and with one foot kicked out the legs of the auctioneer, who tumbled off the wall and fell to the road in a cloud of dust and a chorus of opprobrium. The sheriff looked closely at Willie, flushed with defiance, and counted at least half a dozen men on the parapets, and who knew how many more inside.

“We look forward to returning at a more convenient time,” he called out, and jumped down.

Kate lifted a tiny silver bell and tinkled it daintily.

“They say,” she jested, “that there are few hours in life more agreeable than afternoon tea. Don’t you agree?”

The prospective governess, already quite overcome by the charm of her hostess, stuttered her reply.

“I would have to concur, Mrs. Chase.”

She looked about anxiously, for the agency had cautioned her that this prospect was a rose surrounded by thorns. Edgewood was the vastest house she had ever seen, but she had not failed to observe that entire wings of the mansion appeared to be cordoned off and empty, and she wondered whether such arrangements were the convention among the better classes. And the reputation of the lady of the house was a matter of great delicacy: Kate Chase was indisputably among the Washington aristocracy, being the daughter of a former Chief Justice, but to enter service in the employ of a divorced woman was either the height of European sophistication or the depth of degradation, depending upon whom one asked. The young lady had been escorted to the library by a black servant dressed all in white, who now silently entered the library, hoisted the silver kettle, and supplied two cups of the steaming and fragrant juice of the Assam leaf to the lady of the house and her guest.

“To set an example for the children, I would prefer that you call me Madame Chase. D’accord?

Bien sûr,” the governess replied. She gazed doubtfully at the volumes amassed along three of the walls, the fourth being consumed by a grand window onto the lawn. The shelves were fringed with leather and packed with books, and the topmost shelves were within reach. The space between the topmost shelves and the ceiling was filled by fine engravings, marble busts, ornamental jars and vases and pieces of ancient armor, all relieved by a background of dark green wallpaper. She wondered for a moment who would read any of those books.

Mistaking her guest’s bewilderment for hesitation, Kate decided she ought to come plump to the subject at once.

“The name Chase sounds so melodious in French, you see, that I was compelled to dispose of the name Sprague. That name in French is an assault upon the ears.”

Ce que nous appelons une rose, sous tout autre nom sentirait aussi bon, the governess observed, having been apprised in advance of Kate’s fondness for Gallic superlatives.

Kate smiled, and began to inquire of her visitor in that most exquisitely poetical of all languages, finding to her satisfaction that the agency had fulfilled its sincere promise to send only a young lady with excellent French.

Vous êtes trés sympathique!” Kate exclaimed, after several minutes of discourse. “I know that it is unusual to conduct an interview in French, but among all of the qualifications for governess, that is the most important. They say that the French shall bring back the guillotine for Americans who maul their language. Have you apprised your family that we may embark upon a lengthy sojourn in France?”

“I have, Madame Chase,” the young lady replied. “And they would be deeply thankful. I have three older brothers, and they have exhausted my family’s reserves in making their own tours of the Continent.”

“Your every need shall be met in France,” Kate replied, “for I have settled upon that old-fashioned approach that, instead of paying you from one pocket while insisting you reimburse the other for expenses, you shall simply be our guest.”

“I would be most grateful.”

“Very well.” Kate took her hand and gazed into the young lady’s eyes. She assumed a solicitous pose so as to conceal her enormous relief, for the financial arrangement was to be sure an unusual one. But until the estate at Canonchet was sold, she lacked ready money, and would have to rely upon the traditions of hospitality that had ever attended her in Paris and reserve her vengeance against Sprague for a more convenient season.

“Would you like to meet my daughters?”

“Of course.”

Kate led the governess by the hand toward their play-room, along a corridor lined with severe family portraits. The women stopped before a portrait of a young man with jet black hair, in military uniform. Kate paused before it.

“I keep this portrait nearest the girls,” she said. “It is their brother Willie, who is currently training at a military academy up north.”

“He looks very distinguished already.”

“A very dignified young man,” Kate concurred, lingering upon the portrait. “This way.”

By happenstance the governess looked beyond the portrait to observe an entirely empty chamber, with a velvet rope hanging across its entrance.

“When we arrive in Paris,” Kate said, “you shall come to learn that it is a frequent request of charities that the upper classes donate older articles of furniture, so that they may be refurbished and donated to the poor. I have sought to promote that custom here, both to set an example and to allow a more creative redecoration.”

“That is admirable,” the governess said.

The women turned a corner and entered a vast sun-dazzled room, carpeted all in green, with a floral pattern upon the walls. While the other rooms at Edgewood that the governess had seen testified to the elegant and luxurious taste of the mistress of the house, this room embodied that warmth and grace of maternal love. Stuffed animals, small wooden instruments, and children’s books were scattered across the chamber.

Three girls looked at once upon the arrival of the visitor — Ethel from her escritoire against the far wall and Portia and Kitty from tea with an assortment of dolls of every kind — but, being of exceptionally good breeding, deferred any show of greeting until their mother requested it. Now upon display, Ethel straightened her posture and returned to her writing, while Portia and Kitty renewed their stream of childish pronouncements that, in the adorable imagination of children everywhere, constitute the conversation of dolls at high tea. It was impossible not to fall in love instantly with the girls, and the governess could not resist.

“They are all so delightful!” she could not but exclaim. She tried to listen to the chatter of conversation between Portia and Kitty but was incapable of discerning a word. “I am sorry, but I do not understand what the little ones are trying to say.”

“Why, the girls have invented their own secret language!” Kate laughed. “Surely you did the same with your playmates as a child!”

“I am afraid I was not so creative.”

“You shall understand her in due course, I am certain.”

“Where do you intend to send them for their education?”

“Nowhere,” Kate replied. “At least, not yet. Ethel is only fourteen, and she is the oldest. That is the very purpose of our sojourn in Europe. They shall receive the benefit of a Continental instruction, accompanied by their most affectionate tutor.”

“Why, you are the very picture of a devoted mother!” the governess said.

“My father decided that I was ready to receive a proper schooling when I was seven,” Kate said. “A friend of his recommended Miss Haines’ school in New York. That was a remarkable distance back then.”

“Miss Haines’? I am not familiar with it.”

“It was her home, which she opened to proper young women for schooling. When I started, it was at Warren Street, not far from the infamous Tweed Courthouse. The school then moved north, as the center of society in New York also moved north, to Gramercy Park. We were next door to the home of Cyrus Field, whose brother served with my father on the Court. He would provide the occasional lecture upon scientific matters.”

“I imagine you received the finest education.”

Kate laughed.

“Of a sort! Miss Haines taught Sunday school at St. George’s on Stuyvesant Square, and very strictly. When I was twelve years old, she refused to allow me to go back home for Christmas, saying that behavior did not merit the pleasure. Father did not challenge her.”

“I suppose a headmistress must be very strict,” the governess ventured.

“She had to be, given the delicate creatures under her watch. There were a number of city girls who were day students, and an equal number of boarders like myself, from prominent families around the country.”

“Did you live with the other girls?”

Kate frowned. “Of course not!” she said reproachfully. “My father would never have tolerated such rambunctiousness. I was placed into the care of Mademoiselle de Janon, the French teacher, who became my governess. Comment pensez-vous que mon français a obtenu ce bon?”

Pardonnez-moi, Madame.

“Miss Haines did not fail to provide additional instruction in elocution, dancing, and horseback riding. I have made certain that my girls have learned the same. To these subjects I have added French and music, which I quite agree are the two justifying accomplishments of a young lady, and art. I shall expect you to be conversant not only in French, but also the great masterpieces of European painting and sculpture.”

“I have studied the subject at length,” the governess bowed. “I observed one of my favorites in the foyer, when I was welcomed to your home.”

“And what did you observe?” Kate inquired.

The governess placed her hands behind her back and took a deep breath before replying, for she had not yet discarded the affectations of a schoolgirl with the correct answer.

“A marble sculpture from Rome, after the Hellenistic style, of The Dying Gladiator.”

“Precisely!” Kate replied.

“Why, Madame,” the governess said, flush with her success, “you have exquisite taste!”

“Yes,” Kate said, “in art.”


Author's Note

The conversation between Kate and Arthur is imagined but is based upon two letters that Kate wrote attempting to secure a position for Conkling in Arthur’s administration, one of which was to Arthur himself dated October 21, 1881. These letters are quoted and interpreted in Peg Lamphier, Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, at 213-18 (U. Nebraska 2003), and John Oller, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, at 228-33 (Da Capo Press 2014). The phrase “the keen half-intelligence which characterizes a woman’s participation in business” comes from William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882). Kate’s closing line is a combination of two quotations. In her letter to Arthur, Kate cites Conkling’s favorite Shakespeare quote: “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly,” from Macbeth, act i scene vii. The second quotation comes from Henry James: “The thing will be done now and be done handsomely.” Henry James, The American (1876-77). Conkling’s declination is slightly revised and abridged from his letter reprinted in Alfred R. Conkling, The Life and Letters of Roscoe Conkling, Orator, Statesman, Advocate, at 677 (Charles L. Webster & Co. 1889).

The incidents at Canonchet are described in Mary Merwin Phelps, Kate Chase, Dominant Daughter: The Life Story of a Brilliant Woman and Her Famous Father, at 304-05 (Th. Crowell Co. 1935), and Lamphier, Chase & Sprague, at 220-30. The phrase “the material of his debauch,” comes from Howells, Modern Instance.

While Kate’s interview with the governess is imagined, the details about Kate and her household come from an October 7, 1882, report in The Washington Star describing the visit of a journalist to Edgewood, quoted in Alice Hunt Sokoloff, Kate Chase for the Defense, at 258-59 (Dodd, Mead & Co. 1971). The phrase “[u]nder certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea” comes from Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1880-81), the phase “came plump to the question at last” comes from Howells, Modern Instance; the allusion to one’s “fondness for Gallic substantives,” comes from Henry Francis Keenan, Money-Makers (1885), which is a parody of John Hay, The Bread-Winners(1883), in turn the origin of the phrase “reserve her vengeance for a more convenient season.” The phrase “the two justifying accomplishments of a young lady,” comes from George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876).

The statute of The Dying Gladiator (also known as The Dying Gaul) appears to be a sort of signifier in Gilded Age literature of a woman in peril, appearing in both James’s Portrait of a Lady, in Chapter XXVIII, and in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), in Book One, Chapter Nine.

About the Author

David Kennedy

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David J. Kennedy is a civil rights lawyer in New York City. Read more about his work at his website: The Gilded Cage.