“It is a most generous offer, Senator, although Grant writes like a schoolboy,” Platt laid the letter from Grant upon a desk in Conkling’s suite at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. While Platt was a mousy, jittery, shifty, fellow, Arthur was a large and placid man, in white trousers and a beaver hat, with magnificently manicured burnside whiskers. Arthur had recently become the Collector of Customs, upon Conkling’s directive.
“It is indeed.” Senator Conkling stood erect, gazing out the window, deep in thought, his left thumb hooked into the pocket of his side-trousers, his right foot slightly advanced. After a suitable interval he abruptly turned away from the window, reached his desk with a few long strides, and brandished the letter. “For upon this missive the hopes of our entire nation may rest. What Solon shall lead our grand tribunal? What Lycurgus? Here is an invitation, blessed by divine providence. What Caesar Augustus shall claim it?”
“It’s you, isn’t it?” asked Arthur. “Is that not why we are here?”
“What say you, gentleman?” Conkling demanded. “Shall I accept?”
“Of course you accept,” said Arthur. “It is the position of Chief Justice. What man would not accept it?”
“There are other considerations at play,” Conkling said, returning to the window to gaze out upon New York, fixing his palms upon the corners of the frame, and posing his mighty shoulders in grand resoluteness. “Where will the Chief Justiceship take me?”
Arthur thought a few moments, but Platt had no hesitation.
“To the grave.”
Conkling nodded slowly. “Yes, to the grave. And not anywhere else. Where did it take Marshall, Taney, and Chase? To the grave, gentlemen.”
Arthur cocked his head and vast side-whiskers. “I am not sure about that. Chase might have been President. Davis may still be President.”
Conkling snorted. “Lincoln was a man of great wisdom,” he said. “For men such as Chase, the Court is a prison. One is confined on all sides by the work, by one’s colleagues, in suffocating isolation. Meanwhile, the Senate floor stands open to me, at all hours, to speak directly to the people.”
“And so he cannot accept,” Platt turned to Arthur.
“If I were to accept,” Conkling said, now folding his arms and nodding his great red head in deep satisfaction. “I would be forever gnawing at my chains.”