He held her closely, and in that strong warm embrace she was comforted long before she would admit; but he soothed her as if she were a child, and he did not kiss her.
The Political Sea Turns Red
Betty Madison arrived in Washington two days before Christmas, with the sensation of having lived through several life-times since Lady Mary's car had left the Pennsylvania station on the fourteenth of March; she half expected to see several new public buildings, and she found herself wondering if her old friends were much changed.
People capable of the deepest and most enduring impressions often receive these impressions upon apparently shallow waters. They feel the blow, but it skims the surface at the moment, to choose its place and sink slowly, surely, into the thinking brain.
Betty's immediate attitude toward the tragic fact of Harriet's death was almost spectacular. She felt herself the central figure in a thrilling and awful drama, its horror stifling for a moment the hope that the man whose footsteps followed closely upon that tramping of heavy feet would fulfil his promise and take her in his arms. And when he did her sense of personal responsibility left her, as well as her clearer comprehension of what had happened to bring about this climax so long and so ardently desired.
But she had not seen Senator North since the day following the funeral. Mrs. Madison had announced with emphasis that she had had as much as she could stand and would not remain another day in the Adirondacks; she wanted Narragansett and the light and agreeable society of many Southern friends who did not have frequent tragedies in their families. Betty telegraphed for rooms at one of the large hotels at the Pier, and thereafter had the satisfaction of seeing her mother gossip contentedly for hours with other ladies of lineage and ante-bellum reminiscences, or sit with even deeper contentment for intermediate hours upon the veranda of the Casino. When she herself was bored beyond endurance, she crossed the bay and lunched or dined in Newport, where she had many friends; and she spent much time on horseback. When the season was over, they paid a round of visits to country houses, and finished with the few weeks in New York necessary for the replenishment of Miss Madison's wardrobe. She had hoped to reach Washington for the opening of Congress, but her mother had been ill, prolonging the last visit a fortnight, and gowns must be consulted upon, fitted and altered did the world itself stand still. And this was the one period of mental rest that Betty had experienced since her parting from Senator North.
She had been much with people during these five months, seeking and finding little solitude, and few had found any change in her beyond a deeper shade of indifference and more infrequent flashes of humour. She permitted men to amuse her if she did not amuse them, to all out- door sports she was faithful, and she read the new books and talked intelligently of the fashions. When the conversation swung with the precision of a pendulum from clothes and love to war with Spain, her mind leapt at once to action, and she argued every advocate of war into a state of fury. She had responded heavily to the President's appeal in behalf of the reconcentrados, but her mind was no longer divided. The failure of the belligerency resolutions to reach the attention of the House during the Extra Session of Congress had rekindled the war fever in the country; and the constant chatter about the suffering Cuban and the duty of the United States, the black iniquity of the Speaker and the timidity of the President, were wearying to the more evenly balanced members of the community. "You say that we need a war," said Betty contemptuously one day, "that it will shake us up and do us good. If we had fallen as low as that, no war could lift us, certainly not the act of bullying a small country, of rushing into a war with the absolute certainty of success. But we need no war. American manhood is where it always has been and always will be until we reach that pitch of universal luxury and sloth and vice which extinguished Rome. Those commercial and financial pursuits should make a man less a man is the very acme of absurdity. If our men were drawn into a righteous war to-morrow or a hundred years hence, they would fight to the glory of their country and their own honour. But if they swagger out to whip a decrepit and wheezy old man, when the excitement is over they will wish that the whole episode could be buried in oblivion. And I would be willing to wager anything you like that if this war does come off, so false is its sentiment that it will not inspire one great patriotic poem, nor even one of merit, and that the only thing you will accomplish will be to drag Cuba from the relaxing clutches of one tyrant and fling her to a horde of politicians and greedy capitalists."
But, except when politics possessed it, her brain seldom ceased, no matter how crowded her environment, from pondering on the events of the summer, and pondering, it sobered and grew older. She had engaged in a conflict with the Unseen Forces of life and been conquered. She had been obliged to stand by and see these forces work their will upon a helpless being, who carried in solution the vices of civilizations and men persisting to their logical climax, almost demanding aloud the sacrifice of the victim to death that this portion of themselves might be buried with her. Despite her intelligence, nothing else could have given her so clear a realization of the eternal persistence of all acts, of the sequential symmetrical links they forge in the great chain of Circumstance. It was this that made her hope more eager that the United States would be guided by its statesmen and not by hysteria, and it was this that made her think deeply and constantly upon her future relation with Senator North.
The danger was as great as ever. Her brain had sobered, but her heart had not. Separation and the absence of all communication—they had agreed not to correspond—had strengthened and intensified a love that had been half quiescent so long as its superficial wants were gratified. Troubled times were coming when he would need her, would seek her whenever he could, and yet when their meetings must be short and unsatisfactory. When hours are no longer possible, minutes become precious, and the more precious the more dangerous. If she were older, if tragedy and thought had sobered and matured her character, if she were deprived of the protection of the lighter moods of her mind, would not the danger be greater still? The childish remnant upon which she had instinctively relied had gone out of her, she had a deeper and grimmer knowledge of what life would be without the man who had conquered her through her highest ideals and most imperious needs; and of what it would be with him.
She had no intention of making a problem out of the matter, constantly as her mind dwelt upon the future. Senator North had told her once that problems fled when the time for action began. She supposed that one of two things would happen after her return to Washington: great events would absorb his mind and leave him with neither the desire nor the time for more than an occasional friendly hour with her; or after a conscientious attempt to take up their relationship on the old lines and give each other the companionship both needed, all intercourse would abruptly cease.
"I am going to have my salon, or at all events the beginning of it, at once," said Betty to Sally Carter on the afternoon of her arrival, "and I want you to help me."
"I am ready for any change," said Miss Carter. Her appearance was unaltered, and she had spoken of Emory's death without emotion. Whether she had put the past behind her with the philosophy of her nature, or whether his marriage with a woman for whose breed she had a bitter and fastidious contempt had killed her love before his death, Betty could only guess. She made no attempt to learn the truth. Sally's inner life was her own; that her outer was unchanged was enough for her friends.
"I am going to give a dinner to thirty people on the sixth of January. Here is the list. You will see that every man is in official life. There are eight Senators, five members of the House, the British Ambassador, and the Librarian of Congress. Some of them know my desire for a salon and are ready to help me. I shall talk about it quite freely. In these days you must come out plainly and say what you want. If you wait to be too subtle, the world runs by you. I am determined to have a salon, and a famous one at that. This is an ambitious list, but half-way methods don't appeal to me."
"Nobody ever accused you of an affinity for the second best, my dear; but you may thank your three stars of luck for providing you with the fortune and position to achieve your ambitions: beauty and brains alone wouldn't do it. Senator North," she continued from the list in her hand: "Mrs. North is wonderfully improved, by the way; has not been so well in twenty years. Senator Burleigh: he is out flat-footed against free silver since the failure of the bi-metallic envoys, and his State is furious. Senator Shattuc is for it, so they probably don't speak. Senator Ward might be induced to fall in love with Lady Mary and turn his eloquence on the Senate in behalf of a marriage between Uncle Sam and Britannia. There is no knowing what your salon may accomplish, and that would be a sight for the gods. Senator Maxwell will inveigh in twelve languages against recognizing the belligerency of the Cubans. Senator French will supply the distinguished literary element. Senator March represents the conservative Democrat who is too good for the present depraved condition of his State. If you want to immortalize yourself, invent a political broom. Senator Eustis: he thinks the only fault with the Senate is that it is too good-natured and does not say No often enough. Who are the Representatives? The only Speaker, the immortal Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means—don't place me near him, for I've just paid a hideous bill at the Custom House and I'd scratch his eyes out. Mr. Montgomery: he and Lady Mary are getting almost devoted. Trust a clever woman to pinch the memory of any other woman to death. The redoubtable Mr. Legrand, also of Maine, upon whom the shafts of an embittered minority seem to fall so harmlessly; and Mr. Armstrong—who is he? I thought I knew as much about politics as you, by this time, but I don't recall his name."
"I met him at Narragansett, and had several talks with him. He is a Bryanite, but very gentlemanly, and his convictions were so strong and so unquestionably genuine that he interested me. I want the best of all parties. We can't sit up and agree with each other."
"Don't let that worry you, darling. Mr. North has been contradicting everybody in the Senate for twenty years. Your devoted Burleigh quarrels with everybody but yourself. Mr. Maxwell snubs everybody who presumes to disagree with him, and French is so superior that I long for some naughty little boys to give him a coat of pink paint. Your salon will probably fight like cats. If the war cloud gets any bigger, your mother will go to bed early on salon nights and send for a policeman. I look forward to it with an almost painful joy. I want to go in to dinner with Mr. March, by the way. He is the noblest-looking man in Congress—looks like what the statues of the founders of the Republic would look like if they were decently done. I'll paint the menu cards for you, and I'll wear a new gown I've just paid ninety-three dollars duty on—I certainly shall tear out the eyes of 'the honourable gentleman from Maine.'"
When Sally had gone, after an hour of consultation on the various phases of the dinner, Betty sat for some moments striving to call up something from the depths of her brain, something that had smitten it disagreeably as it fell, but sunk too quickly, under a torrent of words, to be analyzed at the moment. It had made an extremely unpleasant impression;—painful perhaps would be a better word.
In the course of ten minutes she found the sentence which had made the impression: "Mrs. North is wonderfully improved, by the way; has not been so well in twenty years."
The words seemed to hang themselves up in a row in her mind; they turned scarlet and rattled loudly. Betty made no attempt to veil her mental vision; she stared hard at the words and at the impression they had produced. Mrs. North was out of danger, and the fact was a bitter disappointment to her. In spite of the resolute expulsion of the very shadow of Mrs. North from her thought, her sub-consciousness had conceived and brought forth and nurtured hope. What had made her content to drift, what had made her look with an almost philosophical eye on the future, was the unadmitted certainty that in the natural course of events a woman with a shattered constitution must go her way and leave her husband free. Had he thought of this? He must have, she concluded. She was beginning to look facts squarely in the face; it was an old habit with him, older than herself. There never was a more practical brain.
For the first time in her life she almost hated herself. She had done and felt many things which she sincerely regretted, but this seemed incomparably the worst. And despite her protest, her bitter self- contempt, the sting of disappointment remained; she could not extract it.
She went out and walked several miles, as she always did when nervous and troubled. She came to the conclusion that she was glad to have heard this news to-day. She and Senator North were to meet in the evening for the first time in five months. She had looked forward to this meeting with such a mingling of delight and terror that several times she had been on the point of sending him word not to come. But the impression Sally's information had made had hardened her. She was so disappointed in herself, so humiliated to find that a mortal may fancy himself treading the upper altitudes, only to discover that the baser forces in the brain are working independently of the will, that she felt in anything but a melting mood. She knew that this mood would pass; she had watched the workings of the brain, its abrupt transitions and its reactions, too long to hope that she suddenly had acquired great and enduring strength. The future had not expelled one jot of its dangers, perhaps had supplemented them, but for the hour she not only was safe from herself, but the necessity to turn him from her door had receded one step.
She had intended to receive him in the large and formal environment of the parlor, but in her present mood the boudoir was safe, and she was glad not to disappoint him; she knew that he loved the room. And if her brain had sobered, her femininity would endure unaltered for ever. She wore a charming new gown of white crepe de chine flowing over a blue petticoat, and a twist of blue in her hair. She had written to him from New York when to call, and he had sent a large box of lilies of the valley to greet her. She had arranged them in a bowl, and wore only a spray at her throat. Women with beautiful figures seldom care for the erratic lines and curves of the floral decoration. She heard him coming down the corridor and caught her breath, but that was all. She did not tremble nor change colour.
When he came in, he took both her hands and looked at her steadily for a moment. They made no attempt at formal greeting, and there was no need of subterfuge of any sort between them. No two mortals ever understood each other better.
"I see the change in you," he said. "I expected it. You have given me a great deal, and your last survival of childhood was not the least. The serious element has developed itself, and you look the embodiment of an Ideal." He dropped her hands and walked to the end of the room. When he returned and threw himself into a chair, she knew that his face had changed, then been ordered under control.
"What shall I talk to you about?" he asked with an almost nervous laugh. "Politics? Comparatively little happened in the Senate before the holidays. The President's message was of peculiar interest to me, inasmuch as it indicated that he is approaching Spain in the right way and will succeed in both relieving the Cubans and averting war if the fire-eaters will let him alone. The Cubans probably will not listen to the offer of autonomy, for it comes several years too late and their confidence in Spain has gone forever; but I am hoping that while this country is waiting to see the result, it will come to its senses. The pressure upon us has been intolerable. Both Houses have been flooded with petitions and memorials by the thousands: from Legislatures, Chambers of Commerce, Societies, Churches, from associations of every sort, and from perhaps a million citizens. The Capitol looks like a paper factory. If autonomy fails soon enough, or if some new chapter of horrors can be concocted by the Yellow Press, or if the unforeseen happens, war will come. The average Congressman and even Senator does not resist the determined pressure of his constituents, and to do them justice they have talked themselves into believing that they are as excited as the idle minds at home who are feeling dramatic and calling it sympathy. And the average mind hates to be on the unpopular side.
"Forgive me if I am bitter," he said, standing up suddenly and looking down on her with a smile, "but a good many of us are, just now. We can't help it. A great and just war would be met unflinchingly and with all pride; but the prospect of this hysterical row between a bull pup and a senile terrier fills us with impatience and disgust. The President must feel that he is expiating all the sins of the human race. The only man in the United States to be envied, so far, is the Speaker of the House; it is almost a satisfaction to think that he looks like the monument he is; and for the time being his importance overshadows the President's. If the President can hold on, however, he will negotiate Spain out of this hemisphere in less than a year."
"I knew you were worried about it," she said softly. "I felt that so keenly that I never lost an opportunity to war against the war. I made enemies right and left, and acquired a reputation for heartlessness."
"Our minds are much alike," he said, staring down at her and dropping his voice for a moment. "You may have done it for me, but you are as sincere as I am. I have stimulated your mind, that is all. How much you can do here in Washington—among the men who legislate—I cannot say. A woman who takes a high and definite stand is always an influence for good; but the women who influence men's votes are not of your type. They are women who sacrifice anything to gain their ends, or those who have educated themselves to play upon the vanity and other petty qualities of men; every peg in their brain is hung with a political trick. The only men who attract you are too strong to vote under the influence of any woman, even if they loved her. If Shattuc were not as obstinate as a mule," he added more lightly, "I should ask you to convert him to the principles of sound currency. That is another ugly cloud ahead: there is going to be an attempt made to pass through both Houses a concurrent resolution advocating the free and unlimited coinage of silver and to pay the public debt with it. As far as our honour goes, the passing of such a resolution would affect us as deeply as if it were to become a law. We should stand before the world as willing and ready to violate the national honour, ignore our pledges and recklessly impair our credit. I don't think the resolution will pass the House, the Republican majority is too strong there, but I am afraid it will pass the Senate; although we are in the majority, a good many Republicans are Western men and Silverites. A certain number on both sides of the Chamber are voting merely to please their constituents, feeling reasonably sure that the resolution will fail in the House. They appear to care little for the honour of the Senate; they certainly have not the backbone to defy their constituents if they do care for it. To the outside world the Senate is a unit; every resolution that passes it might come out of one gigantic skull at peace with itself. This one will be passed by a small majority who have not imagination enough to read the works of future historians, nor even to grasp public opinion as unexpressed by their constituents.
"There is one fact that the second-rate politician never grasps," he said, walking impatiently up and down; Betty had never seen him so restless. "That is, that the true American respects convictions; no matter how many fads he may conceive nor how loud he may clamour for their indulgence, when his mind begins to balance methodically again, he respects the man who told him he was wrong and imperilled his own re-election rather than vote against his convictions. Many a Senator has lost re-election through yielding to pressure, for elections do not always occur at the height of a popular agitation; and when men have had time to cool off and think, they despise and distrust the waverer. If you will read the biographies in the Congressional Directory, you will see that with a very few exceptions the New Englanders are the only men who come back here—to both Houses—term after term. They practically are here for life; and the reason is that they belong to the same hard-headed, clear-thinking, unyielding, and puritanically upright race as the men who elect them to office. They have their faults, but they represent the iron backbone of this country, and in spite of fads and aberrations, and gales in general on the political sea, they will remain the prevailing influence. If I speak seldom in the Senate, I certainly make a good many speeches to you. But I want you to understand all I can teach you and to do what you can."
"Yes," she said, rising abruptly, "I want an object in life, a vital interest. I need it! A year ago I took up politics out of curiosity and ennui; to-day they represent a safeguard as well as a necessity. I cannot write books nor paint pictures; charities bore me and I never shall marry. My heart must go to the wall, and my brain is very active. The more one studies and observes politics the more absorbing they become. But that is only a part of it. I want to be of some use to the country, to accomplish something for the public good; and it will be a form of happiness to think that I am working with you—for I certainly agree with you in all things, whatever the cause. When the time comes that we meet in public only, I can have that much happiness at least; and I always shall know where I can help you—"
"The mere fact that you are alive is help enough—and torment enough. I shall go now. We have gotten through this first meeting better than I had hoped."
They both laughed a little as they shook hands, for politics had cleared the air.
He came in again on Sunday, but Burleigh and other men were there; and as the Senate had adjourned until the fifth, there was no excuse for him to call at the late hour when she was sure to be alone; so he dropped in twice to luncheon, and they went for a long walk in Rock Creek Park afterward. On one of these occasions Sally Carter joined them; and on the other, although but for the occasional passer-by they were alone for two hours in the wild beauty of rocky gorges and winter woods, they talked of war and Spain. He left her at the door.
On Thursday night she was to have her dinner, and in spite of her stormy inner life she felt a pleasurable nervousness as the hour approached; for on its results depended the colour of her future. With love or without it she had to live on, and if she could see the way to serve her country, to preserve some of its higher ideals as well as to win a distinguished position, she had no doubt that in time she should find resignation.
All her invitations but one had been accepted: the British Ambassador was attending a diplomatic dinner, but would come in later. Betty was not altogether regretful, for the question of precedence, with all her personages, was sufficiently complicated. The Speaker ranked the Senators, but there were eight Senators to be disposed of with tact; they might overlook a mistake, but their wives or daughters would not.
She had spared no pains to honour her guests. She still scorned the plutocratic multiplication of flowers until they seemed to rattle like the dollars they stood for, but the table looked very beautiful, and the silver and china and crystal had endured through several generations. Some of it had been used in the White House in the days when it was an honour to have a President in one's family. Her father's wine-cellar had been celebrated, and she had employed connoisseurs in its replenishment ever since the duties of entertaining had devolved upon her. She also had her own chef, and knew with what satisfaction he filled the culinary brain-cells of the patient diner out in Washington. All the lower house was softly lit with candles; except her boudoir, which was dark and locked.
She wore a gown of apple-green satin which looked simple and was not. Mrs. Madison was like an exquisite miniature, in satin of a pinkish gray hue, trimmed with much Alencon, a collar of diamonds, and a pink spray in her soft white hair. Her blue eyes were very bright, and there was a pink colour in her cheeks, but she looked better than she felt. She was, indeed, hot and cold by turns, and she held herself with a majesty of mien which only a tiny woman can accomplish.
Sally Carter was the first to arrive, and looked remarkably well in her black velvet of Custom House indignities. The Montgomerys followed, and Lady Mary wore the azure and white in which she appeared harmless and undiplomatic. No one was more than ten minutes late, and at eight o'clock the party was seated about the great round table in the dining-room.
Senator North sat on Betty's right, Senator Ward on her left. Next to that astute diplomatist was the lady in azure and white, whom he admired profoundly and understood thoroughly. She never knew the latter half of his attitude, however. He was a gallant American, and delighted to indulge a pretty woman in her fads and ambitions. Mrs. Madison achieved resignation between the Speaker of the House and Senator Maxwell, and Sally Carter was paired with Senator March.
Betty had meditated several hours over the placing of her guests, and had invited as many pretty and charming women as the matrimonial entanglements of her statesmen would permit. Fortunately it was early in the year, and a number of wives had tarried behind their husbands. The family portraits on the dark old walls had not looked down upon so brilliant a gathering for half a century, and Betty's eyes sparkled and she lifted her head, her nostrils dilating. The light in her inner life burned low, and her brain was luminous with the excitement of the hour. And as he was beside her, there really was no cause for repining.
At once the talk was all of war. Washington, like the rest of the country, did not rise to its highest pitch of excitement until after the destruction of the Maine, but no other subject could hold its interest for long. In ordinary conditions politics are barely mentioned when the most political city in the world is in evening dress, but war is a microbe.
"I am for it," announced Lady Mary, "if only to give you a chance to find out whom your friends are."
"There is nothing in the history of human nature or of nations to disprove that our friends of to-day may be our enemies of to-morrow," observed Senator North.
"I believe you hate England."
"On the contrary, I am probably the best friend she has in the Senate. My mission is to forestall the hate which leads so many ardent but ill-mated couples into the divorce courts."
"Well, you will see," said Lady Mary, mysteriously.
"I do not doubt it," said Senator North, smiling. "And we shall be grateful. If the circumstances ever are reversed, we shall do as much for her."
"That will depend upon the quality of statesmanship in both Houses."
"I wish you would explain what you mean by that." Lady Mary's wide voice was too well trained to sharpen. Her cold blue eyes wore the dreamy expression of their most active moments.
"I wish I knew whether the statesmen of the future were to be Populists or Republicans."
"Well, whatever you mean you have no sentiment."
"I have no sentimentalism."
Lady Mary shrugged her shoulders and turned to Senator Ward. She knew better than to talk politics to him before dinner was two thirds over, but she bent her pretty head to him, and gave him her distinguished attentions while he re-invigorated his weary brain. He smiled encouragingly.
"The statesmen of the future will be Populists, Senator," announced Betty's last recruit, a man with a keen sharply cut face and a slightly nasal though not displeasing voice. He was forty and looked thirty.
"The Populist will have called himself so many things by that time that 'statesman' will do as well as any other," growled the Speaker. "'The Statesmen's Party' would sound well, and would be worthy of the noble pretensions of your leader."
"Well, they are noble," said Armstrong tartly, but glad of the opportunity to talk back to the personage who treated him in the House as a Czar treats a minion. "We are the only party that is ready to cling to the Constitution as if it were the rock of ages."
"Well, you've clung so hard you've turned it upside down, and the new inventions and patent improvements you've stuccoed it with will do for the 'Statesmen's Party,' but not for the United States—Madam?"
Mrs. Madison had touched his arm timidly, and asked him if he liked terrapin. Her colour was deeper, but she exerted herself to keep the attention of this huge personality whom a poor worm might be tempted to assassinate.
Senator Burleigh's voice rose above the chatter. "Who would be a Western Senator?" he said plaintively. "My colleague and I received a document today, signed by two thousand of our constituents, the entire population of an obscure but determined town, in which we were ordered to acknowledge the belligerency of the Cubans at once or expect to be tarred and feathered upon our return. The climate of my State is excellent for consumption, but bad for nerves. Doubtless most of these men come of good New England stock, whose relatives 'back East' would never think of doing such a thing; but the intoxicating climate they have been inhaling for half a generation, to say nothing of the raw conditions, makes them want to fight creation."
Senator Maxwell, who had more of the restlessness of youth than the repose of age, threw back his silver head and gave his little irritated laugh. "That is it," he said. "It is the lust of blood that possesses the United States. They don't know it. They call it sympathy; but their blood is aching for a fight, so that they can read the exciting horrors of it in the newspapers. You might as well reason with mad dogs."
"I shall not attempt to reason with my kennel," said Burleigh. "In the present congested state of the mails this particular memorial has gone astray."
"The trials of a Senator!" cried Sally Carter. "Petitions and lobbyists, election clouds, fractious and dishonest legislatures, unprincipled bosses and the country gone mad!"
"I can give you a list as long as my arm," said Senator March, grimly; "and you may believe it or not, but it is all I can do to walk in my Committee-room and I haven't a chair to sit on. I live under a snow- storm of petitions, memorials, and resolutions. I expect to see them come flying through the window, and I dream of nothing else."
Betty had taken part in the general conversation until the last few moments, but as it concentrated on the subject of Cuban autonomy and her guests ceased to appeal to her, she fell into conversation with Senator North, who she knew would be willing to dispense with politics for a few moments.
"You have no idea how I miss Jack Emory," she said. "He half lived with us, you know, and I am always expecting to meet him in the hall. When I was writing my invitations I caught myself beginning a note, 'Dear Jack.' It is uncanny."
"It is the only revenge the dead have; and doubtless it is this vivid after life of theirs in memory that is at the root of the belief in ghosts. You say that you are going to open your salon every year with a dinner to the original members. It will be interesting to watch the two faces in some of the seats—if you attempt to fill the vacant chairs."
Betty pressed her handkerchief against her lips, for she knew they had turned white. She was but twenty-eight, and if her salon was the success it promised to be she would sit at the head of this table for twenty-eight years to come, and then have compassed fewer years than the man beside her. She had refused resolutely to permit her thought to dwell on the tragic difference in their ages, a difference that had no meaning now, but would symbolize death and desolation hereafter; but her mind had moments of abrupt insight that no Will could conquer, and not long since she had gasped and covered her face with her hands.
"That was brutal of me," he said hurriedly. "Your dinner is the brilliant success that it deserves to be, and you should be permitted to be entirely happy. There is not a bored face, and if they are all jabbering about the everlasting subject, so much the better for you. It gives your salon its political character at once; you would have had a hard time getting them to begin on bimetallism and the census— perish the thought! Ward is now making Lady Mary think that she is a greater diplomatist than himself. Maxwell and the Speaker are wrangling across your mother, who looks alarmed; Burleigh is flirting desperately with Miss Alice Maxwell, who is purring upon his senatorial vanity; your Populist is breaking out into the turgid rhetoric of Mr. Bryan; French has persuaded that charming English girl that he is the most literary man in America, and Miss Carter is condoling with March about an ungrateful State. So be happy, my darling, be happy."
His voice had dropped suddenly. She made an involuntary movement toward him.
"I am," she said below her breath. "I am." She added in a moment, "Will you always come to my Thursday evenings, no matter what happens?"
He had turned slightly, and one hand was on his knee. She slipped hers into it recklessly; they were safe in the crowd, and her hand ached for his. It ached from the grasp it received, for he was a man whose self-control was absolute or non-existent. But she clung to him as long as she dared, and when she withdrew her hand she sought for distraction in her company.
It looked as gay and happy as if war had been invented to animate conversation and make a bored people feel dramatic. Death was close upon the heels of two of the distinguished men present; but even though the eyes of the soul be raised everlastingly to the world above, they are blind to the portal. The busy member who had incurred Miss Carter's disapproval and the brilliant Librarian of Congress were among the liveliest at the feast.
It was Senator Ward at one end of the table and Burleigh at the other, who finally started the topic of Miss Madison's intended salon, not only that those unacquainted with her ambition might be enlightened, but that the great intention should receive a concrete form without further delay. A half-hour later, when the women left the table, Betty had the satisfaction of knowing that whatever the final result of her venture, her stand was as fully recognized as if she had written a book and found a publisher and critics to advertise her.
Betty went to the Senate Gallery on the following day at the request of Armstrong, and heard an exposition of the Populist religion by the benevolent-looking bore from Nebraska. He was followed by an arraignment of the "gold standard Administration" and the Republican Party, from the leading advocate of bimetallism with-or-without-the- concurrence-of-Europe. The utterances of both gentlemen were delivered with the repose and dignity peculiar to their body, and Patriotism and the Constitution would appear to be their watchword and fetish. Burleigh came up to the gallery as the Silver Senator sat down, and smiled wearily at Betty's puzzled comments.
"Of course they sound well," he replied. "In the first place there is always much to be said on both sides of any question, and a clever speaker can make his side dwarf the other. And of course no party could exist five minutes unless it had some good in it. There are several admirable principles in the Populist creed; there are enough windy theories to upset the Constitution of which they prate; and, by the way, the more wrong-headed a would-be statesman is the more hysterically does he plead for the Constitution. As to the other Senator—I sympathize as deeply with the farmer as any man, and I hoped against hope for the success of the bimetallic envoys; but the farmer is of considerably less importance than the national honour; and if a man is not statesman enough to take the national view when he comes to the Senate, he had better stay at home and become a party boss."
"Are you in trouble at home? I saw that you made a speech just before you left."
"They are furious, and elections are imminent; but I never have believed that it paid in the end to be a politician, and I propose to hold to that view. If I am not re-elected this time, I will venture to say that I shall be six years later—"
"Oh, I should be sorry! I should be sorry! Your heart is in the Senate. How could you settle down contentedly to practise law in a Western city for six years?"
"I certainly should have very little to offer a woman," he said bitterly. His frank handsome face had lost the expression of gayety which had sat so gracefully upon the determination of its contours; he looked harassed and a trifle cynical. "There is only one thing I hate more than leaving the United States Senate—and God knows I love it and its traditions: what that is I feel I now have no right—"
"Oh, yes, you have; for if I loved you I would live at the North Pole with you, and I hate cold weather. I don't want you to put me in that sort of position, both for the sake of your own pride and for our friendship."
"That is like you, and I shall take you at your word. Perhaps you can imagine what it cost me to come out and declare myself in a State howling for Silver, when I knew that to leave Washington meant losing my chance with you. For if I am not re-elected I must go out there and stay. I could afford to live here, of course—I hope you know that I have plenty of money—but my political future is there. Even if you made it a condition, I should not pull up stakes, for a man who despised himself for abandoning his ambitions and his power for usefulness could not be happy with any woman."
"I should not make such a condition. As I said, I willingly would go West with you if I loved you."
"Would to God you did! What I meant was that in going I lose my chance."
Betty looked at him and shook her head slowly.
"Yes!" he said. "Yes! Yes! I believe, I know that I could win you with time. And now that the future looks dark I want you more than ever."
"Ah, I wish I could love you," she exclaimed fervently. "I have enough of feminine insight to know that a woman is really happy only when she is making a man happy, and that she is almost ready to bless the troubles which give her the opportunity to console him."
She was looking straight down at Senator North as she spoke. Her voice was impassioned as she finished, and she forgot the man at her side. But he never had suspected that she loved another man. His face flushed and he lowered his head eagerly.
"Betty!" he said, "Betty! Come to me and I swear to make you happy. You don't know what love is. You need to be taught. Any man can make a woman of feeling love him if he loves her enough and she has no antipathy to him. And there is no reason under heaven why we should not be happy together."
There was only one. Betty was convinced of that; and for the moment the dull ache in her heart prompted her to wish that she never had seen the man down there listening impassively to remarks on the Immigration bill. She wanted to be happy, she was made to be happy, and it was easy to imagine the most exacting woman deeply attached to Robert Burleigh. What was love that it defied the Will? Why could not she shake up her brain as one shakes up a misused sofa-cushion and beat it into proper shape? What was love that persisted in spite of the Will and the judgment, that came whence no mortal could discover, but an abnormal condition of the brain, a convolution that no human treatment could reach? But she only shook her head at Burleigh, although she knew that it would be wisdom to give him her hand in full view of the stragglers in the gallery.
"I must go now," she said. "I have calls to pay. Come and dine with us to-night. If there is even a chance of our losing you, my mother and I must have all of you that we can, meanwhile."
"It is just a year ago to-day, Betty, that you nearly killed me by announcing your determination to go into politics—or whatever you choose to call it. I put down the date. A great deal has happened since then—poor dear Jack! And I often think of that unfortunate creature, too. But you and I are here in this same room, and I wonder if you are glad or sorry that you entered upon this eccentric course."
"I have no regrets," said Betty, smiling. "And I don't think you have. You like every man that comes here, and while they are talking to you forget that you ever had an ache. As for me—no, I have no regrets, not one. I am glad."
"Well, I will admit that they are much better than I thought. I must say I never saw a finer set of men than those at your dinner, and I felt proud of my country, although I was nervous once or twice. I almost love Mr. Burleigh; so I refrain from further criticism. But, Betty, there is one thing I feel I must say—"
She hesitated and readjusted her cushions nervously. Betty looked at her inquiringly, and experienced a slight chill. She stood up suddenly and put her foot on the fender.
"It is this," continued Mrs. Madison, hurriedly. "I think you are too much with Senator North. He was here constantly before you left Washington, and of course I know you boated with him a great deal last summer. Since your return he has been here several times, and you treat him with twice the attention with which you treat any other man. Of course I can understand the attraction which a man with a brain like that must have for you, but there is something more important to be considered. You have been the most noticeable girl in Washington for years—in our set—and now that you have branched out in this extraordinary manner and are even going to have a salon, you'll quickly be the most conspicuous in the other set. Mr. North is easily the most conspicuous figure in the Senate—a half dozen of your new friends, including that Speaker, have told me so—and if this friendship keeps on people will talk, as sure as fate. There is no harm done yet—I sounded Sally Carter—but there will be. That sort of gossip grows gradually and surely; it is not like a great scandal that blazes up and out and that people get tired of; they will get into the habit of believing all sorts of dreadful things, and they never will acquire the habit of disbelieving them."
Betty made no reply. She stood staring into the fire.
"It would have been more difficult for me to say such a thing to you a year ago; but you seem a good deal older, somehow. I suppose it is being so much with men old enough to be your father, and talking constantly about things that give me the nightmare to think of. And of course you have had two terrible shocks. But you are so buoyant I hope you will get over all that in time. Wouldn't you like to go to the Riviera, and then to London for the season?"
"And desert my salon?" asked Betty, lightly. "You forget this is the long term. I am praying that summer will come late, so that you can stay on. It never had occurred to me that any one would notice my friendship with Mr. North. I hope they will do nothing so silly as to comment on it."
"Well, they will, if you are not very careful. And there is no position in the world so unenviable as that of a girl who gets herself talked about with a married man. Men lose interest in her and raise their eyebrows at the clubs when her name is mentioned, and women gradually drop her. Money and position will cover up a good many indiscretions in a married woman or a widow, but the world always has demanded that a girl shall be immaculate; and if she permits Society to think she is not, it punishes her for violating one of its pet standards. Mr. North can be nothing to you. The day is sure to come when you will want to marry. No woman is really satisfied in any other state."
Betty turned and looked squarely at her mother, who had lost even the semblance of nervousness in her deep maternal anxiety.
"Do you believe that I love Mr. North?"
"Yes, I do. And I know that he loves you. There is no mistaking the way a man turns to a woman every time she begins to speak. But on that score I have no fears. I know that you not only must have the high principles of the women of your race, but that you are too much a woman-of-the-world to enter upon a liaison, which would mean constant lying, fear, blackmail by servants, and general wretchedness. And I have perfect faith in him. Even a scoundrel will hesitate a long while before he makes himself responsible for the future of a girl in your position, and Mr. North is not a scoundrel but an honourable gentleman. Moreover he knows that a scandal would ruin him in his Puritanical State; and he adores his sons, who are prouder of him than if he were ten Presidents. But the world can talk and continue to talk, and to act as viciously about an imprudent friendship as about a liaison, for it has no means of proving anything and likes to believe the worst. Now, I shan't say any more. You are capable of doing your own thinking. Only do think—please." Betty nodded to her mother, and went to her boudoir and sat there for hours. Nothing could have put the ugly practical side of her romance so precisely before her as her mother's black and white statement, full of the little colloquial phrases with which an un-ambitious world expresses itself. Even for him, Betty reflected, she could not endure vulgar gossip, and wondered how any high-bred woman could for any man.
"For what else does civilization mean," she thought, "if those of us that have its highest advantages are not wiser and more fastidious than the mob? And unless a woman is ready to go and live in a cave, she cannot be happy in the loss of the world's regard, for it can make her uncomfortable in quite a thousand little ways. Expediency is the root of all morality. It is stupid to be unmoral, and that is the long and the short of it. I would marry him to-morrow if I had to cook for him, if he were dishonoured by his country, if he were smitten suddenly with ill-health and never could walk again. I am willing to go through life alone for his sake, even without seeing him, and after he is dead and gone. I love him absolutely, and if there is another world I must meet him there. But I am not willing to become a social pariah on his account."
She never had permitted her mind to linger on the practical aspect of a different relationship, to admit that such a chapter was possible outside of her imagination, but she did so now, deliberately. She knew that what her mother had intimated was true, that the happiness to be got out of it would amount to very little, and that the day would come when she would say that it was not worth the price. There were many times when she was not capable of reasoning coldly on this question, but she had been listening for two hours to Senator French on the restriction of immigration, and felt all intellect.
Her mind turned to Harriet. There was a creature foredoomed to destruction by the forces within her, struggling in vain, assisted and guarded in vain. Should she, with her inheritance of kindly forces within and without, deliberately readjust her manifest lines into a likeness of Harriet Walker's? And she knew that even if she hoodwinked the world, the miserable deception of it all, the nervous terrors, not only would wear love down, but shatter her ideals of herself and him. She would be infinitely more miserable than now.
It relieved her to have thought that phase out, and she put it aside. But the other? Must she give him up? What pleasure could she find in sitting here with him if her mother's apprehensive mind did not leave the room for a moment? What pleasure if a vulgar world were whispering? She reflected with some bitterness that one danger was receding. He had not entered this room since the day of her return. Although he had called several times, he had come in the evening, when she always sat with her mother, or in the morning, when Mrs. Madison again was sure to be present. She knew that he dared not come here, and that it was more than likely he never would call at the old hour again.
She realized these two facts suddenly and vividly; her mind worked with a brutal frankness at times. She began to cry heavily, the tears raining on her intellectual mood and obliterating it. If she were not to see him alone again, she might as well ask him to come to the house on Thursday evenings only, and to show her no attention in public; if she could not have the old hours again, she wanted nothing less. And she wanted them passionately; those hours came back to her with a poignancy of happiness in memory that the present had not revealed, and the thought that they had gone for ever filled her with a suffocating anguish that was as complete as it was sudden. She implored him under her breath to come to her, then prayed that he would not....
She became conscious that she was in a mood to take any step, were he here, rather than lose him; and the mood terrified her. Would the time come when this intolerable pain would kill every inheritance in her brain, its empire the more absolute because it made passion itself insignificant in the more terrible want of the heart? If it did, she would marry Burleigh. She made up her mind instantly. She would fight as long as she could, for she passionately desired to live her life alone with the idea of this man; but if she were not strong enough, she would marry and bury herself in the West. Nothing but an irrevocable step would affect a permanent mental attitude, and Burleigh would give her little time for thought.
Betty went very often to the Senate Gallery in these days, for it was the only place where one might have relief from the eternal subject of Cuba. Although the House broke loose under cover of the Diplomatic and Consular Appropriation Bill when it was in the Committee of the Whole and free of the Speaker's iron hand, and raged for two days with the vehemence of long-repressed passion, the Senate permitted only an occasional spurt from its warlike members, and pursued its even way with the important bills before it. But at teas, dinners, luncheons, and receptions people chattered with amiability or in suavity about the hostile demonstrations at Havana against Americans, the Spanish Minister's letter, Spain's demand for the recall of Consul-General Lee, the dying reconcentrados, the exploits of the insurgents, and the general possibilities of war. The old Madison house, which had ignored politics for half a century, vibrated with polite excitement on Thursday evenings. About a hundred people came to these receptions, which finished with a supper, and it was understood that the free expression of opinion should be the rule; consequently several repressed members of both Houses delivered impromptu speeches, in the guise of toasts, before that select audience; much to the amusement of Senator North and the Speaker of the House. Burleigh's was really impassioned and brilliant; and Armstrong's, if woolly in its phrasing and Populistic in its length, was sufficiently entertaining.
As for Mrs. Madison, she became imbued with the fear that war would be declared in her house. Two Cabinet ministers had been added to the salon, and what they in conjunction with the colossal Speaker and Senators North and Ward might accomplish if they cared to try, was appalling to contemplate. She begged Betty to adjourn the salon till peace had come again.
But to this Betty would not hearken. It was the sun of her week, through whose heavy clouds flickered the pale stars of distractions for which she was beginning to care little. One of life's compensations is that there is always something ahead, some trifling event of interest or pleasure upon which one may fix one's eye and endeavour to forget the dreary tissue of monotony and commonplace between. Betty found herself acquiring the habit of casting her eye over the day as soon as she awoke in the morning, and if nothing distracting presented itself, she planned for something as well as she could.
She endeavoured to introduce the pleasant English custom of asking a few congenial spirits to come for a cup of afternoon tea. These little informal reunions are among the most delightful episodes of London life, and if established as a custom in Washington would be like the greenest of oases in the whirling breathless sandstorms of that social Sahara. But even Betty Madison, strong as she was both in position and personality, met with but a moderate success. When women have from six to twenty-five calls to pay every afternoon of the season, with at least one tea a day besides, they have little time or inclination for pleasant informalities. Doubtless Miss Madison's friends felt that they should be relieved of the additional tax. Even the women of the fashionable set, which includes some of the Old Washingtonians and many newer comers of equally high degree, and which ignores the official set, preserve the same ridiculous fashion of calling in person six days in the week instead of merely leaving cards as in older and more civilized communities. In London, society has learned to combine the maximum of pleasure with the minimum of work. Washington society is its antithesis; and although many of the most brilliant men in America are in its official set, and the brightest and most charming women in its fashionable as well as political set, they are, through the exigencies of the old social structure, of little use to each other. Betty occasionally managed to capture three or four people who talked delightfully when they felt they had time to indulge in consecutive sentences, but as a rule people came on her reception day only, and many of them walked in at one door of her drawing-room and out at the other.
The debate in the Senate on the payment of bonds interested her deeply, for she knew that it meant days of uneasiness for Senator North, who rarely was absent from his seat. His brief speech on the subject was the finest she had heard him make, and although it was bitter and sarcastic while he was arraigning the adherents of the resolution to pay the government debt in silver, he became impersonal and almost impassioned as he argued in behalf of national honesty.
Betty never had seen him so close to excitement, and she wondered if he found it a relief to speak out on any subject. But if he ever thought of her down there he made no sign, for he neither raised his eyes to the gallery nor did he pay her a second visit in her select but conspicuous precinct.
The resolution passed the Senate, and on that evening Senator North called at the Madison house. It was two weeks since he had called before, and although he had come to her evenings and they had met at several dinners, they had not attempted conversation.
The Montgomery's and Carters had dined at the house, and all were in the parlour when he arrived. After a few minutes he was able to talk apart with Betty. They moved gradually toward the end of the room and sat down on a small sofa.
"I am glad you came to-night," she said. "It was my impulse to go to you when I heard how the vote had gone."
"I knew it," he replied, "and if I could have come straight up here to the old room, I should have hung up the vote with my overcoat in the hall."
He looked harassed, and his eyes, while they had lost nothing of their magnetic power, were less calmly penetrating than usual. They looked as if their fires had been unloosed more than once of late and were under indifferent control.
"You will not come to that room again!"
"No. And I soon shall cease to come here at all except on Thursdays."
"You almost have done that now. I think I get more satisfaction watching you from the gallery than anything else. You look very calm and senatorial, and you always are standing some one in a corner who is trying to make a speech."
"I am relieved to know that I do not inspire the amazement of my colleagues. It is a long while since I have felt calm and senatorial, however. But these are days for alertness of mind, and even the most distracting of women must be shut up in her cupboard and forgotten for a few hours every day."
"I think I rather like that."
"Of course you do. A woman always likes a strong lover. And you have plenty of revenge, if you did but know."
"I know," she said; and as she raised her eyes and looked at him steadily, he believed her.
"Tell me at least that you miss coming to that room—I want to hear you say it."
Betty caught her breath. But when women feel fire between their fingers and are reckless before the swift approach of a greater wretchedness than that possessing them, they are merciless to themselves and the man.
"Can you stay away?" she whispered. "Can you?"
"It is the one thing I can do."
"Do you realize what you are saying?—that you have put me aside for ever? Are you willing to admit that it is all over? How am I to live on and on and on? Can you fancy me alone next summer in the Adirondacks—"
"Hush! Hush! Do you wish me to come? Answer me honestly, without any feminine subterfuge."
"No, I do not." "And I should not come if you did, for I know the price we both should pay better than you do, and only complete happiness could justify such a step. You and I could find happiness in marriage only—we both demand too much! But I also know that the higher faculties of the mind do not always prevail, and I shall not see you alone again."
She pushed him further. "You take this philosophically because you have loved before and recovered. You feel sure that no love lasts."
"When a man loves as I love you, he has no past. There are no experiences alive in his memory to help him to philosophy. With the entire world the last love is the only love. As for myself, I shall not love again and I shall not recover."
"I wore white because I knew you would come tonight," she said softly.
"Yes, and you would torment me if I went down on my knees and begged for mercy."
"Senator," said Montgomery, approaching them. "I suppose it is some satisfaction to you to know that that resolution cannot pass the House."
"I hope you will make a speech on the subject that will look well in the Record," said North, with some sarcasm.
Montgomery laughed. "That is a good suggestion. I wonder if some of our orators ever read themselves over in cold blood. The back numbers of the Record ought to be a solemn warning."
"Unfortunately most people don't know when they have made fools of themselves; that is one reason the world grows wise so slowly. I don't doubt your speech will look well. You've been remarkably sane for a young man of enthusiasms. Reserve some of your logic, however, for the greater conflict that is coming. The pressure on the President is becoming very severe, and the worst of it is that a great part of it comes from Congressmen of his own party."
"One of our Populists has christened these 'kickers' 'the reconcentrados;' which is not bad, as there is said to be a kickers' caucus in process of organization. But if the pressure on the President is severe, it is equally so on us, and I suppose the 'kickers' are those who have one knob too few in their backbones. Some, however, have got the war bee inside their skulls instead of in their hats, and will be fit subjects for a lunatic asylum if the thing doesn't end soon, one way or another. And they reiterate and reiterate that they don't want war, when they know that any determined step we can take is bound to lead to it. I have no patience with them. They either are fools or are trying to keep on both sides of the fence at once."
"Politics are very complicated," said Senator North, dryly.
"How do you and Mary manage to live in the same house?" asked Betty. "She is all for war."
"Oh, I think she rather likes the opportunity to argue. And she is so divided between the desire for me to be a good American and the desire that England shall have an excuse to hug us that she could not get into a temper over it if she tried. She has made no attempt to influence my course. Heaven knows how much money I've been made to disburse in behalf of the reconcentrados, but I like women to be tender-hearted and would not harden them for the sake of a few dollars, even were they dumped in Havana Harbor—By the way, I wonder if the Maine is all right down there? She has the city under her guns, and they know it—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't suggest any new horrors," said Senator North, rising. "Besides, the Spaniards are not in the final stages of idiocy. It would be like the New York Journal to blow up the Maine, as it seems to have reached that stage of hysteria which betokens desperation; but the ship is safe as far as the Spaniards are concerned."
Lady Mary rose to go; and Betty, who was informal with her friends, went out into the hall with her instead of ringing for a servant. Senator North remained in the parlor for a few moments to say good- night to Mrs. Madison and the Carters, and Betty, although the Montgomerys did not linger, waited for him to come out. There was nothing to reflect the light in the dark walls of the large square hall, and it always was shadowy, and provocative to lovers at any time.
When he entered it, he looked at her for a moment without speaking, and did not approach her.
"You might be the ghost of another Betty Madison—in that white gown," he said. "Was there not a famous one in the days of 1812, and did she not love a British officer—or something of that sort?"
"They parted here in this hall—and she lived on and died of old age. Such is life. I sleep in her bed, where, I suppose, she suffered much as I do."
She came forward and pushed her hand into his. "I am not a ghost," she said.
He too believed it to be their last meeting alone, and he raised her hand to his lips and held it there.
"I wish we could have stayed on and on in the Adirondacks," she said unsteadily. "Everything seemed to go well with us there."
"People in mid-ocean usually are happy and irresponsible. They would not be if it were anything but an intermediate state. But it is enough to know that on land our troubles are waiting for us."
She shivered and drew closer to him. The dangerous fire in her eyes faded.
"Mine are becoming very great," she said. "All I can do is to distract my mind, to fill up my time."
"And I can do nothing to help you! That is the tragedy of a love like ours: the more a man loves a woman he cannot marry the more he must make her suffer—either way; it is simply a choice of methods, and if he really loves her he chooses the least complicated."
"It is bad enough."
Her eyes filled for the first time in his presence since the morning of Harriet's death, but her mental temper was very different, and she looked at him steadily through her tears.
"I cannot help you," she said. "That is the hardest part. You are harassed in many ways, and you are dreading the bitterness of a greater defeat than today. I could be so much to you—so much. And I can be nothing. By that time you will have ceased to come here. I know that you mean not to come again after to-night, except when the house is full of company."
He began to answer, but stopped. She felt his heart against her arm, and his lips burnt her hand, his eyes her own.
"Listen," she said rapidly, "if war should be declared I shall be in the gallery to hear it. I will come straight home and shut myself up in my boudoir—for hours—to be with you in a way—Shall I? Will— would it mean anything to you?"
"Of course it would!"
His face was fully unmasked, and she moved abruptly to it as to a magnet. In another moment they were in the more certain seclusion of the vestibule, and she was in his arms. They clung together with a passion which despair with ironic compensation made perfect, and their first kiss which was to be their last expressed for a moment the longing of the year of their love and of the years that were to come. That such a moment ever could end was so incredible that when Betty suddenly found herself alone she looked about in every direction for him, and then the blood rushed through her in a tide of impotent fury.
It was this blind rage that enabled her to go back to the parlor and keep up until the Carters went home a few moments later, and her mother had gone to bed. Then she went to her boudoir and locked herself in.
How she got through that night without sending him an imperious summons she never knew, unless it were that she found some measure of relief in a letter she wrote to him. If she could not see him, he was still her lover, her only intimate friend, and her confessor. She promised not to write again, but she demanded what help he could give her.
She sent the letter in the morning, and he replied at once:—
I know. Do you think it was necessary to tell me? Do you suppose my mind left you for a moment last night, and that I know and love you so little that I failed to imagine and understand in a single particular? If I were less of a man and more of a god, I should go to you and give you the help you need, but I am only strong enough to keep away from you. Not in thought, however,—if that is any help.
We shall meet in public and speak together. I have no desire to forget you nor that you should forget me. We neither of us shall forget, but we shall live and endure, as the strongest of us always do. You tell me that you are tormented by the thought that you have added to my trials. Remember that all other trials sink into insignificance beside this, and yet that this greatest that has come to me in a long life is glorified by the fact of its existence. And if it is almost a relief to know that I shall not see you alone again, it is a satisfaction and a joy to remember that I have kissed you. R.N.
For a few days Betty was almost happy again. She had come so close to the nucleus of love that it had warmed her veins and intoxicated her brain. Imagination for a brief moment had given place to reality, and if she felt wiser and older still than after her five months of meditation on the events of the summer, she felt less sober. One great desire of the past year had been fulfilled, and its memory sparkled in her brain, and her heart was lighter. It had been hours before she had ceased to feel the pressure of his arms.
She wondered how she could have been so weak as to think of marrying Burleigh in self-defence, and she punished him by an indifference of manner which approached frigidity; until one of the evening journals copied a bitter attack upon him from the leading newspaper of his State, when she relented and permitted him to console himself in her presence. And although, as the weeks passed and she saw Senator North from the gallery of the Senate only, or for a few impersonal moments in the crowd, and the elixir in her veins lost its strength, still she felt that life was sufferable once more. She had endeavoured to put Mrs. North from her mind, but more than once she caught herself wishing that some one would mention her name. Nobody did in those excited days, and Betty had no means of learning whether her sudden good health had been final or temporary. Sally Carter did not allude to her again. When she and Betty met, it was to wrangle on the Cuban question, for Miss Carter was all for war.
And then one day the newsboys shrieked in the streets that the Maine had been blown up in Havana Harbor.
For a few days Congress held its peace, and the country showed a praiseworthy attempt to believe in the theory of accident or to wait for full proof of Spanish treachery. The Maine was blown up on Tuesday, and on Thursday night at the Madisons' the subject almost was avoided; it was the most peaceful salon Betty had held.
But it was merely the calm before the storm. The fever was still in the country's blood, which began to flow freely to the brain again as soon as the shock was over. The press could not let pass the most glorious opportunity in its history for head-lines; there were more mass meetings than even the press could grapple with, and all the latent oratorical ability in the country burst into flower. It seemed to Betty when she rose in the night and leaned out of her window that she could hear the roar of the great national storm.
And it rose and swelled and left the old landmarks behind it. The memory of the gales of the past year, with the intervals of doubt and rest, was insignificant beside this volume of fury pouring out of every State, to concentrate at last, fierce, unreasoning, and irresistible, about the White House and Capitol Hill. It was not long before the great quiet village on the Potomac seemed to epitomize the terrible mood of the country it represented, and the country had made up its mind long before the report of the Maine Court of Inquiry came in. The cry no longer was for the suffering Cuban, but for revenge. The Senate held down its "kickers" with an iron hand, but one or two of the inferior men managed to shout across the Chamber to their constituents. Senator North scarcely left his seat. Burleigh told Betty that he should not allude to the subject in the Senate until after the Court of Inquiry's report, but then, whatever the result, he should speak and ask for war. Betty argued with him by the hour, and although he discussed the matter from every side, it was evident that he did it merely for the pleasure of talking to her and that she could not shake his resolution for a moment. It was time for the United States to put an end to the barbarous state of affairs a few miles from her shores, and that was the end of it. He admitted the patriotism of Senator North's attitude, but contended that the United States would be more dishonoured if she disregarded this terrible appeal to her humanity. When Betty accused him of short- sightedness, he replied that a foretold result required a straight line of succession, and that when great events thickened the line of succession was anything but straight; therefore ultimates could not be foretold. He admitted that Senator North had proved himself possessed of the faculty of what Herbert Spencer calls representativeness more than once, but men as wise and calm in their judgment had been mistaken before. But he and others of his standing were preserving the dignity of the Senate, and that was something.
"If you have this war," said Lady Mary Montgomery to Betty, who had come to receive with her on one of her Tuesdays, "it will be strictly constitutional if you look at it in the right way. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and as the people are practically a unit in their howl for war, they have a right to it, and the responsibility is on their shoulders, not on your few statesmen."
"That is a real gem of feminine logic, but not only is one wise man of more account than ten thousand fools, but a unit is a unit and has no comparative state. The serious men from one end of the country to the other are doing all they can to quell the excitement; so are the few decent newspapers that we possess. But they are dealing with a mob; an excited mob is always mad, and in this case the keepers are not numerous enough for the lunatics. But no one will question that the intelligent keepers are right and the mob wrong. The average intelligence is always shallow, and in electric climates very excitable. We are dealing to-day no less with a huge mob, even if it is not massed and marching, than were the few sane men of the French Revolution. An exciting idea is like a venomous microbe; it bites into the brain, and if circumstances do not occur to expel it, it produces a form of mania. That is the only way I can account for Burleigh's attitude; he is one of the few exceptions. There are thousands of men in the United States whose brains could stand any strain, but there are hundreds of thousands who were born to swell a mob. As for 'government by the people,' that phrase should be translated to-day into 'tyranny of the people.' England under a constitutional monarchy is far freer than we are."
"Well, I am suppressed and will say no more. I suppose I shall have a mob to-day. If anything, people are paying more calls than ever, for they can't stay indoors for twenty-five minutes with no one to talk to. It is getting monotonous. I wish that the President and the Senate would begin to play, but they look as impassive as the statues in the parks."
The rooms filled quickly. By five o'clock the usual crowd was there, and if it had its dowdy battalion as ever, there was no evidence that the more fortunate had lost their interest in dress, despite the warlike state of their nerves. Not that all were for war, by any means. Many were clinging to a forlorn hope, but they could talk of nothing else.
Betty had just listened to the twenty-eighth theory of the cause of the Maine's destruction when she turned in response to a familiar drawl.
"Why, howdy, Miss Madison, I'm real glad to run across you at last."
Betty was so taken aback that she mechanically surrendered her hand to the limp pressure of her former housekeeper. But she was not long recovering herself.
"Miss Trumbull, is it not? I was not aware that you were an acquaintance of Lady Mary Montgomery's."
"Well, I can't say as I know her real intimate yet, but I guess I shall in time, as we're both wives of Congressmen."
"Ah? You are married?" Betty experienced a fleeting desire to see the man who had been captivated by Miss Trumbull.
"Ye—as. I went out West to visit my sister after I left you and was married before I knew it—to Mr. George Washington Mudd. He's real nice, and smart—My! I expect to be in the White House before I die."
"It is among the possibilities, of course. I hope you are happy, and that meanwhile he is able to take care of you comfortably." Mrs. Mudd glistened with black silk and jet, but the cut of her gown was of the Middle West.
"Well, I guess! He's a lawyer and can make two hundred dollars a month any day. Of course I can't set up a house in Washington, but I live at the Ellsmere, and three or four of us Congressional ladies receive together and share carriages. I'll be happy to have you call—the first and third Tuesdays; but we always put it in the Post."
"I have little time for calling. I am very busy in many ways."
"Well, I'm sorry. You don't look as well as you did up in the mountains; you look real tired, come to examine you. But your dresses are always so swell one sees those first. I always did think you had just the prettiest dresses I ever saw."
Betty did not turn her back upon the woman; it was a relief to talk on any subject that stood aloof from war. Mrs. Mudd rambled on.
"I suppose you're engaged to Senator Burleigh by this time? He's our Senator, you know, but I don't know as he's likely to be, long. We want silver, and I guess we've got to have it."
"I suppose you take quite an interest in politics now," said Betty, looking at the woman's large self-satisfied face. So far, matrimony had not been a chastening influence. Mrs. Mudd looked more conceited than ever.
"Well, I guess I always knew as much about them as anybody; and now I'm in politics, I guess the President couldn't give me many points. If he don't declare war soon, I'll go up to the White House and tell him what I think of him."
"Suppose you make a speech from the House Gallery. It is Congress that declares war, not the President."
Mrs. Mudd's face turned the dull red which Betty well remembered. "I guess I know what I'm talking' about. It's the President—"
But Betty's back was upon her, and Betty was listening to the agitated comments of one of the year's debutantes upon the destruction of the Maine.
"Was night ever so welcome before?" thought Betty, as she settled herself between the four posts of her great-aunt's bed, a few hours later. "Here, at least, not an echo of war can penetrate, and if I think of other things that scald my pillow, it is almost a relief."
On the following evening she went with the Montgomerys to the Army and Navy reception at the White House. Lady Mary had but to express a wish for a card to any function in Washington; and her popularity had much to do with her love for her adopted country.
It was the first time Betty ever had entered the historic mansion, and as she waited for twenty minutes in the crush of people on the front porch, she reflected that probably it was the last.
But when she was in the great East Room, which was hung with flags and glittered with uniforms, and was filled with the strains of martial music, she thrilled again with the historical sense, and almost wished there was a prospect of a war which would compel her to patriotic excitement.
They remained in the East Room for some time before going to shake hands with the President, that the long queue of people patiently crawling to the Blue Room might have time to wear itself down to a point. As Betty stood there eagerly watching the scene, and talking to first one and then another of the Army men who came up to speak to her, she became deeply impressed with the fact that this was the calmest function she had attended in Washington during the winter. There was no excitement on the faces of these men in uniform, and they said little and hardly mentioned the subject of war. They looked stern and thoughtful; and Betty felt proud of them, and wished they were doing themselves honour in a better cause.
She went down the long central corridor after a time, past the crowd wedged before the central door, gaping at the receiving party, to a room where she and the Montgomerys joined the diminished queue extending from a side entrance to the Blue Room. She was not surprised to see Mrs. Mudd in front of her, for although the Representative's wife should have received a card for another evening, she was quite capable of forcing her way in without one; as doubtless a good many others had done to-night. She wore her black silk gown and her bonnet, and although most of the women present were in brilliant evening dress, Mrs. Mudd had several to keep her in countenance. She glanced wearily over her shoulder during the slow progress of the queue, and caught sight of Betty. Her place was precious, but she left it at once and came down the line.
"I'll go in along with you," she said. "George couldn't come and I've felt kinder lonesome ever sense I got here. And we've been three quarters of an hour getting this far. It's terrible tiresome, but as I've found you I guess I can stand the rest of it."
Betty detected the flicker of malice in her former housekeeper's voice. They were on equal ground for once, and Miss Madison and Mrs. Mudd would shake hands with their President within consecutive moments. She smiled with some cynicism, but was too good-natured to snub the native ambition where it could do no harm.
"I saw Senator North to-day," observed Mrs. Mudd, "and he looked crosser 'n two sticks. He's mad because they'll have war in spite of him. I call him right down unpatriotic, and so do lots of others."
"That disturbs him a great deal. He is much more concerned about the country making a fool of itself."
"This country's all right, and we couldn't go wrong if we tried. Them that sets themselves up to be so terrible superior are just bad Americans, that's the long and the short of it, and they'll find it out at the next elections. If Senator North should take a trip out West just now, they'd tar and feather him, and I'd like to be there to see it done. They can't say what they think of his setting on patriotic Senators loud enough. And as for the President—"
"Well, don't criticise the President while you are under his roof. It is bad manners. Here we are. Will you go in first?"
"Well, I don't see why I shouldn't. I'll hurry on so they can see your dress; it's just too lovely for anything."
Betty wore a white embroidered chiffon over green; she shook out the train, which had been over her arm ever since she entered the house. Her name was announced in a loud tone, and she entered the pretty flowery Blue Room with its charmingly dressed receiving party standing before a large group of favoured and critical friends, and facing the inquisitive eyes in the central doorway. The President grasped her hand and said, "How do you do, Miss Madison?" in so pleased and so cordial a tone that Betty for a fleeting moment wondered where she could have met him before. Then she smiled, made a comprehensive bow to his wife and the women of the Cabinet, and passed on. Mrs. Mudd, who had shaken hands relentlessly with every weary member of the receiving party, reached the door of exit after her and clutched her by the arm.
"Say!" she exclaimed with excitement, although her drawl was but half conquered. "Where do you s'pose I could have met the President before? I know by the way he said 'Mrs. Mudd,' he remembered me, but I just can't think, to save my life. My! ain't he fascinating?"
Betty had laughed aloud. "I am sorry to hurt your vanity," she replied, "but the President is said to have the best manners of any man who has occupied the White House within living memory."
"What d'you mean?" cried Mrs. Mudd, sharply. "D' you mean he didn't know me? I just know he did, so there! And he can pack his clothes in my trunk as soon as he likes."
"Good heaven!" "Oh, that's slang. I forgot you were so terrible superior. But you've got good cause to know I'm virtuous. Lands sakes! I guess nobody ever said I warn't."
"I don't fancy anybody ever did."
They were in the East Room again, with the stars and stripes, the moving glitter of gold, the loud hum mingled with the distant strains of martial music.
"It's really inspiring," said Lady Mary. "I wish I could write a war poem."
"I hope there is nothing coming to inspire war doggerel; the prospect of a new crop of war stories and war plays is too painful. We were all brought up on the Civil War and are resigned to its literature. But life is too short to get used to a new variety."
"Betty dear, ennui has embittered you, and I must confess that I am a trifle weary of the war before it has begun, myself. Randolph, I think I prefer you should vote for peace."
"I'm afraid we'll have no peace till we've had war first," said Mr. Montgomery, grimly.
"Oh, we're goin' to have war," drawled Mrs. Mudd. "Just don't you worry about that. Now don't blush," she said in Betty's ear. "Senator North's makin' straight for you. I suspicion you like him better 'n Burleigh—"
Betty had turned upon her at last, and the woman tittered nervously and fell back in the crowd.
Senator North and Miss Madison shook hands with that absence of emotion which is one of the conditions of a crowded environment, and Lady Mary suggested they should all go to the conservatory, where it was cooler.
Betty told Senator North of the impression the Army and Navy men had made on her, and he laughed.
"Of course they are not excited and say little," he said. "They will do the acting and leave the talking to the private citizens. The only argument in favour of the war and the large standing army which might be its consequence is that several hundred thousand more men would have disciplined brains inside their skulls."
"That dreadful housekeeper I had in the Adirondacks is here, married to a Representative named George Washington Mudd."
"I never heard of him, but I am sorry she has come here to remind you of what I should like to have you forget for a time. I do believe a specimen of every queer fish in the country comes to this pond."
They passed one of the bands, and conversation was impossible until they entered the great conservatory with its wide cool walks among the green. It was not crowded, and although there was no seclusion in it at any time, its lights were few and it had a sequestered atmosphere.
Betty and Senator North involuntarily drew closer together.
"In a way I am happy now," she said. "It is something to be with you and close to you. I will not think of how much this may lack until I am alone again and there is no limit to my wants."
"I feel the reverse of depressed," he said, smiling. "Are you quite well? You look a little tired."
"I am tired with much thinking; but that is inevitable. One cannot love hopelessly and look one's best. I always despised the heroines of romance who went into a decline, but Nature demands some tribute in spite of the strongest will."
He held her arm more closely, but he set his lips and did not answer. She spoke again after a moment.
"Since that night I have not been nearly so unhappy, however. I even feel gay sometimes, and my sense of humour has come back. It would be quite dreadful to go through life without that, but I thought I had lost it."
He had turned his eyes and was regarding her intently; but much as she loved them she felt as helpless as ever before their depths. They could pierce and burn, but they never were limpid for a moment.
"You do not misunderstand that?" she asked hurriedly. "It does not mean that I love you less, but more, if anything. And I am not resigned! Only, I feel as if in some way I had received a little help, as if—I cannot express it."
"I understand you perfectly. We are a little closer than we were, and life is not quite so grey."
"That is it. And I would supplement your bare statement of the fact, if I dared."
"If you do, I certainly shall kiss you right here in the crowd," he said, and they smiled into each other's eyes. There was little need of explanations between them.
"That would form a brief diversion for Washington. And as for Mrs. Mudd—By the way, I hope I am not going off. You are the second person who has told me that I am not looking well."
"You are improved as far as I am concerned. And if you ever faded, happiness would restore you at once. If happiness never came, perhaps you would not care—would you?"
She shrugged her beautiful shoulders and smiled quizzically.
"I don't know. Je suis femme. I think I might always find some measure of consolation in the mirror if it behaved properly."
"Your sincerity is one of your charms. So walk and eat and live in the world, and think as little as you can."
"This conservatory is fearfully draughty," remarked Lady Mary, close to Betty's shoulder. "I don't want to stay all night, do you?"
"I am ready," said Betty; but she sighed, for she had been almost happy for the hour.
If the reception at the White House had been calm, Betty's salon on the following evening was not. On Tuesday the House, after duly relieving its feelings by an hour and a half of war talk, flaming with every variety of patriotism, passed the bill appropriating $50,000,000 for the national defence. On Wednesday the bill passed the Senate without a word beyond the "ayes" of its members. On the morrow the War Department would begin the mobilization of the army; and although the Maine Court of Inquiry had not completed its labours, the New York World, in the interest of curious humanity, had instituted a submarine inquiry of its own and given the result to the country. Even Senator North regarded war as almost inevitable, although the controvertible proof of explosion from without only involved the Spanish by inference.