The Sphinx

i. February 1885

Paris could rightfully be said to be home to the diplomatic arts, but not all lay fully within its ken. Not every secret is pried open when men conduct their affairs with threats, intimidation, and hints of violence; for the more delicate questions of international intrigue, a softer touch is required. And so it was in aid of a gentler approach that the Minister to the Third Republic, the young United States not yet meriting an Ambassador, requested and secured the presence of one of the most prominent American denizens of the City of Light at a fashionable Parisian bistro where the utmost privacy might be assured.

“Good afternoon, Minister,” said Kate Chase. She arrived in a navy vest bodice with white ruffles, a pink umbrella, and a wide-rimmed navy bonnet that obscured her face to those to whom she did not wish to reveal herself.

Minister Levi Morton stood and bowed while the maître d’ seated Kate. Morton snapped his fingers, and the maître d’ set off to obtain the menus.

“Thank you for coming,” Morton said.

“Anything for an emissary of Chester Arthur,” Kate said. “How is our friend doing?”

“The season has been a trying one — Arthur was like a bridesmaid compelled to watch her friend become married, only to have the wedding called off in the end.”

“That is a strange way of putting it,” Kate said.

“It is a strange state of affairs. Polk, Buchanan, and Hayes all promised in advance not to run for a second term, so the only President before Arthur to wish for his party’s nomination and not obtain it was Andrew Johnson. He was a terribly uncouth fellow, and the comparison is disheartening.”

The maître d’ arrived with the menus, bowed relentlessly for several moments, and disappeared.

“I trust Arthur does not let his feelings show.”

“He does not look well. He is rather haggard. He is not the Chet Arthur you and I love.”

“He shall always be the Chet Arthur I love,” Kate said.

“The President personally asked me to send you his best wishes. He sincerely hopes that you and your girls are doing well here in France.”

“A sojourn in France is essential to the education of a young woman,” Kate said. “We have a lovely home at Fontainebleu. Ethel is at Mademoiselle Dussant’s school, and Portia and Kitty have a governess. The girls lack for nothing except their brother Willie.”

“You ought to know,” Morton said softly, “that back in the States, Sprague has disappeared entirely into obscurity.”

“At least I know where he spends his nights now.” The subject of her ex-husband being naturally distasteful to Kate, she decided upon changing the subject. “What do you recommend?”

“I don’t know,” Morton said. “I asked for a place where we might dine discreetly, not where we might dine well.”

“Dining discreetly is dining well,” Kate remonstrated. “Garçon?

A waiter scampered over and bowed.

Oui, Madame?

Que recommendez-vous?

Tout est magnifique, Madame, je vous d’assure.

Tout?” Kate’s lips curled. “Dans ce cas, je voudrais le sphinx.” She turned to Morton. “What shall you have, Minister?”

“The beef for me, I suppose.”

The waiter bowed, took the menus, and departed.

“I regret that I have not perfected my French,” Morton said.


“But,” Morton continued, “I am surprised that ‘sphinx’ means something different in French than in English.”

“It does not.”

“Then,” Morton paused, “did I hear you correctly that you ordered sphinx for lunch?”

“You did.” Kate pulled her napkin out of its brass ring and arrayed it upon her lap.

“Ah.” Morton paused again but decided to proceed with business. “By way of thanking you in advance, the President requested that I provide you with this gift.”

Morton produced a small package bound in wrapping-paper. Kate opened the parcel and, upon seeing what it was, threw her head back and laughed.

“I hope the gift is a welcome one?”

“Indeed, it is!” Kate exclaimed. “The Bread-Winners, from my old friend Mr. John Hay.”

“Do you know Mr. Hay?” Morton wondered if he had chanced upon one of Kate’s ancient infatuations.

“I am well acquainted with the vanities of Mr. Hay,” she exclaimed, “and welcome this book as a delightful addition to my collection!”

“It is very popular in the States,” Morton says. “They say it is a warning about socialism, and the need for men of good standing to stand fast against it.”

“They say? Have you not read the book yourself?”

“I have not the time.”

“I am beginning to wonder how you have come so far in the world, Minister.”

Morton laughed, and reflected that Kate’s looks had a charm to them that might have been wanting in her earlier bloom, for her intelligence was far more than half of her charm. But before Morton could proceed, the waiter appeared at the table, in some distress. He nodded curtly at Morton before whispering to Kate in French, too fast and too softly to permit Morton to understand. Kate nodded, then sent the waiter away with a flick of her hand.

“I hope there is nothing wrong?”

“The garçon advised me that they could not possibly serve me the sphinx, as it is not fresh,” Kate said.

“How could any restaurant serve sphinx, fresh or otherwise?”

“You really ought to have learned more about the French during your service here,” Kate said. “A French chef will insist that he can prepare any dish, and when you call his bluff, he invents some chivalric reason to explain it away. Besides, I have been assured that the escargots are prepared in the same style as the sphinx.”

“I see,” Morton said, although he did not. “You know, they say that forty-nine tons of snails are eaten daily in Paris.”

“Only when you are in town?”

Morton began to deny the allegation, but Kate cut him short.

“Now what did you wish to consult with me about?”

“The President has asked me to consult with you on a delicate matter of diplomacy, which shall require your utmost discretion.”

“I never supply any less.”

Morton hesitated for a moment, and carefully surveyed the dining room. The character of the other patrons being not obviously offensive, but neither entirely certain, Morton leaned over the table and whispered a question that, if it were to be repeated, would shake the very foundation of the relationship between the United States of America and the Third Republic. Kate listened carefully and nodded sagely.

“Have you inquired of the English Embassy?” she asked. “It may be that such grave secrets are reserved to those nations with a more established diplomatic presence than the United States enjoys.”

“I have sought the aid of the English Ambassador, but he will divulge nothing to me.”

“They do say an Englishman’s never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue,” Kate mused. “Have similar inquiries been made to the French Embassy in Washington?”

“To no avail. The French are so besieged by their own sorrows and uncertainties these days that they have nearly withdrawn from society.”

“The problem is indeed a vexing one,” said Kate. “I regret to say that I doubt that I can be of any assistance at all.”

Morton’s jowls drooped. “I am very sorry,” he said. “I was assured that you could help me.”

“The President has too much faith in me,” Kate replied. “I must respectfully decline.”

Morton gazed at her helplessly.

“Do not look so sad, Minister,” Kate remonstrated. “You shall have a fine lunch and shall bring me up to date upon all the gossip from home.”

“I don’t know any ladies’ gossip.”

“I did not ask for ladies’ gossip.” Kate narrowed her eyes. “How is it that the next Senator from the State of New York is that dry old fellow Evarts?”

“It was not for want of trying on my part,” Morton sputtered, for the question was uncomfortably direct.

“Were there any other rivals for the position?”

“Not really, just Evarts and I. Perhaps my time out of the country as Minister to France placed me at a disadvantage.”

“Thomas Jefferson managed it,” Kate said.

“Evarts labored mightily upon Blaine’s behalf, which I was not able to do,” Morton said. “And he had all the New York City Republicans on his side, particularly the Roosevelt boy.”

“Did Mr. Conkling evince any interest in returning to his seat in the Senate?”

“Conkling? No, his law practice is going too swimmingly. He might of course return to politics someday. He is still a young man, not yet fifty, I believe.”

“He is fifty-five.” Kate sipped her consommé.

“Is that so?” Morton started upon his consommé. “He is so strong and vigorous, he seems a much younger man.”

This comment striking Kate as a sort of bait, she did not honor it with her consideration.

“Have you consulted with Conkling about your diplomatic inquiry?”

“I would think not. He is no longer a Senator, and the question involved is so delicate that it cannot be aired outside government.”

“It can be posed discreetly,” Kate said.

“My dear Mrs. Sprague — ”


“Of course, my apologies, my dear Mrs. Chase — ”


“Very well, Madame Chase, please understand that the intrigue that I have brought to your attention cannot be communicated to anyone else. The President requested that I raise the question to you, and you only, in the sincere hopes that you might be able to assist.”

“That is too bad,” said Kate. “For if I were to help, I suppose I could answer your question with a single phrase.”

“I suppose so,” Morton’s heart fell, but only for a moment, for it was at that precise juncture in the conversation that his beef was placed before him.

The following day, Morton was surprised to receive a letter at his hotel, stamped with candle-wax and perfumed most subtly, that when opened contained a note consisting of but three words that, if understood in their proper context, would indisputably avoid a severe breach in diplomatic relations. He marveled at the woman, dashed off an encoded cable to Washington, and sealed the letter within another envelope so that it might be brought to the President in a diplomatic pouch.

ii. October 1886

Aleck thrust the poker into the roaring fireplace.

“Is this not enough, sir?”

“No, no, dear Aleck,” said Arthur. “Make it larger.”

Aleck bowed his head slightly, and continued to attack the logs, each strike producing a burst of sparks and a cloud of smoke. Aleck commended himself upon his foresight in rolling back the carpet but resolved to remove the framed portraits above the mantel as soon as Arthur fell asleep, for a thin layer of soot had already accumulated. In his time as Arthur’s valet, he had never seen his master in such a dreary mood. He wiped the sweat from his ebon brow.

Arthur coughed at the smoke but did not object. The former President was in his favorite leather chair, covered in blankets, with a pile of wooden boxes upon his left and a small table upon his right, upon which sat a bottle of the ‘sixty-eight Latour and a wine-glass. From time to time, Arthur would reach into the topmost wooden box, untie a parcel of letters, glance through them while wincing or shaking his head, retie the parcel carefully, and throw it into the fire. Then he would take another draught of the Latour.

“I hesitate to reiterate my offer,” Aleck said, “but the odor may linger in the curtains. I would be happy to burn these papers in the yard.”

“No,” Arthur said. “I must do this myself before I go. I no longer care about the curtains.” He pushed the wooden box from the top of the pile and it clattered, empty, as it hit the stone floor. Arthur grunted. “Can you get a book or something, so that I can reach the next box?”

“Of course.” Aleck retrieved a thick and heavy lawbook from the shelves, placed it next to Arthur’s chair, hoisted the wooden boxes atop the volume, and slid the pile within Arthur’s reach. While he did so, Arthur reached into pocket of his smoking jacket and retrieved to-day’s mail. He laughed hoarsely at the first letter.

“It seems I am behind in my dues to the bar association,” Arthur said.

“Would you like me to send payment, sir?”

“I hardly think it necessary.” Arthur crumpled the letter and threw it into the fire. He then flipped through the other letters. “Reception, reception, reception.” Each invitation Arthur cast into the fireplace, like a little boy skipping rocks upon the surface of a lake. “The White House! Oh dear.”

“Did the President write you?”

Arthur squinted. “No, the letter is from Frances, his bride.”

“She is reputed to be keeping the White House in style.”

“So I hear. She offers me best wishes upon a speedy recovery.” Arthur sucked his teeth for a few moments. “Ah, she is still young and foolish.”

“I can set the First Lady’s note aside, if you wish.”

“Frances’s letter shall fare no different.”

Arthur tossed the missive into the fire. Now that Aleck had rearranged the stack, Arthur took the topmost box, pried it open, and sighed.

“We have finally reached eighteen-eighty-five,” he said. “The volume drops off considerably once I leave office. Perhaps I should be grateful.” He emptied the remains of the bottle into his glass. “We shall need more.”

“We do not have many bottles of the Latour remaining.”

“I do not have much time remaining, so the Latour shall have to keep up.”

Aleck regarded his master with pity. Arthur’s whiskers had fallen out in patches, and the hair upon his head was grey and thin. His skin was sallow and hung upon his body like a suit of clothes that was several sizes too larger. He wore only an emerald smoking jacket tied with a black sash, for none of his finer garments fit him anymore. Aleck had held his tongue when Arthur commanded him to gather up all of his correspondence, and stood by stoically as Arthur threw letter after letter into the fire, but while the destruction of all of his personal papers seemed to cheer Arthur notwithstanding his poor health, the overconsumption of wine promised to lead him down a melancholy path.

“If I may, sir,” Aleck began.

“No, you may not,” Arthur said. He squinted at one letter, grunted, then crumpled the letter and hurled it into the fire. “Conkling!”


Arthur brooded for several moments. “I should like to speak to him again before I die, but I do not know what I would say. Even with all these letters gone, I shall forever be seen as Conkling’s pawn.”

“You know that is not so, sir.”

“The worst of it is that I’m too big to cry, and it hurts too bad for me to laugh.”

Aleck bowed and left the parlor to follow his master’s orders. In Aleck’s absence, Arthur continued to open each bundle of letters, then regard each paper closely before casting it into the flames. After several minutes Aleck returned from the cellar.

“There is only one bottle left of the ‘sixty-eight,” he said.

“That shall have to do,” Arthur said. “Ah — here it is!”

Arthur produced an envelope with an embassy stamp upon it, retrieved a note inside the envelope, then opened the note and laughed.

“Such an estimable woman!” he exclaimed. “I can still smell her scent upon it!”

“Who?” Aleck inquired.

“An old friend.” Arthur looked at the note for several moments. “A very clever old friend.”

“What does it say?”

“If I told you, you would not understand. Only those steeped in the history of our diplomatic relations with France could comprehend this note. I almost think I should turn this over to President Cleveland for posterity’s sake.”

Arthur brooded upon the notion for a while, but eventually shook his head and threw the note into the fire.

“Sir?” Aleck said. “I would have sent the letter back to Washington, had you instructed me.”

“No, dear Aleck. It would have been wasted upon Cleveland. Demandez le sphinx! It is too bad that the joke dies with me. Now sit with me, Aleck. With the Latour’s departure, you are my last good friend.”

“Of course, sir.”

The two men remained in the parlor long into the night, saying little, but from time to time passing each other a letter for inspection before, invariably, throwing the missive into the fire. The next day, the Latour having been finished, Arthur fell asleep and never woke again.


This story revolves around a historical mystery. Two of Kate Chase’s biographers repeat nearly word-for-word an account that appears in her obituary in the Cincinnati Enquirer. See Alice Hunt Sokoloff, Kate Chase for the Defense, at 265 (Dodd, Mead & Co. 1971); 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 247 (Da Capo Press 2014). As in the text, then-Minister Levi Morton needed information of a delicate nature, was told to consult Kate, had dinner with her, and while Kate declined to aid Morton at the time, she later provided the information in a letter. Yet neither the obituary (which appears to be the first record of the story) nor Kate’s biographers say what the information was. It is possible that the answer was in Chester Arthur’s papers, but as relayed in the text, Arthur had his aides burn all of his papers as he was dying. See Thomas Mallon, “Least Likely to Succeed,” The New Yorker, Sept. 11, 2017 (summarizing historical accounts).

Rather than speculate as to what the mystery was, I have implied that Kate’s diplomatic advice came in the form of an allusion to a joke of the time, reported in Harper’s Weekly on January 1, 1881, about asking for sphinx at a French restaurant, as a way to call someone’s bluff and compel them to graciously concede.

The speakers being well-read, several of their remarks are drawn from the literature of the time. “At least I know where he spends his nights now,” is an alleged French joke about a widow’s lament, repeated in Harper’s Weekly, July 12, 1879. “Kate’s looks had a charm …” is a composite line drawn from Henry James, The American (1876-77) (“If she were prettier she would be less intelligent, and her intelligence is half of her charm.”), and William Dean Howells, Indian Summer (1886) (“She was herself in that moment of life when, to the middle-aged observer, at least, a woman’s looks have a charm which is wanting to her earlier bloom.”). “An Englishman’s never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue” comes from Henry James, Portrait of a Lady (1881). And the line “The worst of it is that I’m too big to cry, and it hurts too bad for me to laugh,” is an old joke told by Abraham Lincoln, and likely many others.

About the Author

David Kennedy

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