Part I
Chapter I
 

"If we receive this Lady Mary Montgomery, we shall also have to receive her dreadful husband."

"He is said to be quite charming."

"He is a Representative!"

"Of course they are all wild animals to you, but one or two have been pointed out to me that looked quite like ordinary gentlemen--really."

"Possibly. But no person in official life has ever entered my house. I do not feel inclined to break the rule merely because the wife of one of the most objectionable class is an Englishwoman with a title. I think it very inconsiderate of Lady Barnstaple to have given her a letter to us."

"Lee, never having lived in Washington, doubtless fancies, like the rest of the benighted world, that its officials are its aristocracy. The Senate of the United States is regarded abroad as a sort of House of Peers. One has to come and live in Washington to hear of the 'Old Washingtonians,' the 'cave-dwellers,' as Sally calls us; I expected to see a coat of blue mould on each of them when I returned."

"Really, Betty, I do not understand you this morning." Mrs. Madison moved uneasily and took out her handkerchief. When her daughter's rich Southern voice hardened itself to sarcasm, and her brilliant hazel eyes expressed the brain in a state of cold analysis, Mrs. Madison braced herself for a contest in which she inevitably must surrender with what slow dignity she could command. Betty had called her Molly since she was fourteen months old, and, sweet and gracious in small matters, invariably pursued her own way when sufficiently roused by the strength of a desire. Mrs. Madison, however, kept up the fiction of an authority which she thought was due to herself and her ancestors. She continued impatiently,--

"You have been standing before that fireplace for ten minutes with your shoulders thrown back as if you were going to make a speech. It is not a nice attitude for a girl at all, and I wish you would sit down. I hope you don't think that because Sally Carter crosses her knees and cultivates a brutal frankness of expression you must do the same now that you have dropped all your friends of your own age and become intimate with her. I suppose she is old enough to do as she chooses, and she always was eccentric."

"She is only eight years older than I. You forget that I shall be twenty-seven in three months."

"Well, that is no reason why you should stand before the fireplace like a man. Do sit down."

"I'd rather stand here till I've said what is necessary--if you don't mind. I am sorry to be obliged to say it, and I can assure you that I have not made up my mind in a moment."

"What is it, for heaven's sake?"

Mrs. Madison drew a short breath and readjusted her cushions. In spite of her wealth and exalted position she had known much trouble and grief. Her first six children had died in their early youth. Her husband, brilliant and charming, had possessed a set of affections too restless and ardent to confine themselves within the domestic limits. His wife had buried him with sorrow, but with a deep sigh of relief that for the future she could mourn him without torment. He had belonged to a collateral branch of a family of which her father had been the heir; consequently the old Madison house in Washington was hers, as well as a large fortune. Harold Madison had been free to spend his own inheritance as he listed, and he had left but a fragment. Mrs. Madison's nerves, never strong, had long since given way to trouble and ill-health, and when her active strong-willed daughter entered her twentieth year, she gladly permitted her to become the mistress of the household and to think for both. Betty had been educated by private tutors, then taken abroad for two years, to France, Germany, and Italy, in order, as she subsequently observed, to make the foreign attache. Feel more at ease when he proposed. Her winters thereafter until the last two had been spent in Washington, where she had been a belle and ranked as a beauty. In the fashionable set it was believed that every attache, in the city had proposed to her, as well as a large proportion of the old beaux and of the youths who pursue the business of Society. Her summers she spent at her place in the Adirondacks, at Northern watering-places, or in Europe; and the last two years had been passed, with brief intervals of Paris and Vienna, in England, where she had been presented with distinction and seen much of country life. She had returned with her mother to Washington but a month ago, and since then had spent most of her time in her room or on horseback, breaking all her engagements after the first ten days. Mrs. Madison had awaited the explanation with deep uneasiness. Did her daughter, despite the health manifest in her splendid young figure, feel the first chill of some mortal disease? She had not been her gay self for months, and although her complexion was of that magnolia tint which never harbours colour, it seemed to the anxious maternal eye, looking back to six young graves, a shade whiter than it should. Or had she fallen in love with an Englishman, and hesitated to speak, knowing her mother's love for Washington and bare tolerance of the British Isles? She looked askance at Betty, who stood tapping the front of her habit with her crop and evidently waiting for her mother to express some interest. Mrs. Madison closed her eyes. Betty therefore continued,--

"I see you are afraid I am going to marry an Oriental minister or something. I hear that one is looking for an American with a million. Well, I am going to do something you will think even worse. I am going in for politics."

"You are going to do what?" Mrs. Madison's voice was nearly inaudible between relief and horrified surprise, but her eyes flew open. "Do you mean that you are going to vote?--or run for Congress?--but women don't sit in Congress, do they?"

"Of course not. Do you know I think it quite shocking that we have lived here in the very brain of the United States all our lives and know less of politics than if we were Indians in Alaska? I was ashamed of myself, I can assure you, when Lord Barnstaple asked me so many questions the first time I visited Maundrell Abbey. He took for granted, as I lived in Washington, I must be thoroughly well up in politics, and I was obliged to tell him that although I had occasionally been in the room with one or two Senators and Cabinet Ministers, who happened to be in Society first and politics afterward, I didn't know the others by name, had never put my foot in the White House or the Capitol, and that no one I knew ever thought of talking politics. He asked me what I had done with myself during all the winters I had spent in Washington, and I told him that I had had the usual girls'-good-time,--teas, theatre, Germans, dinners, luncheons, calls, calls, calls! I was glad to add that I belonged to several charities and had read a great deal; but that did not seem to interest him. Well, I met a good many men like Lord Barnstaple, men who were in public life. Some of them were dull enough, judged by the feminine standard, but even they occasionally said something to remember, and others were delightful. This is the whole point--I can't and won't go back to what I left here two years ago. My day for platitudes and pouring tea for men, who are contemptible enough to make Society their profession, is over. I am going to know the real men of my country. It is incredible that there are not men in that Senate as well worth talking to as any I met in England. The other day I picked up a bound copy of the Congressional Record in a book-shop. It was frantically interesting."

"It must have been! But, my dear--of course I understand, darling, your desire for a new intellectual occupation; you always were so clever--but you can't, you really can't know these men. They are--they are--politicians. We never have known politicians. They are dreadful people, who have come from low origins and would probably call me 'marm.'"

"You are all wrong, Molly. I bought a copy of the Congressional Directory a day or two ago, and have read the biography of every Senator. Nine-tenths of them are educated men; if only a few attended the big Universities, the rest went to the colleges of their State. That is enough for an American of brains. And most of them are lawyers; others served in the war, and several have distinguished records. They cannot be boors, whether they have blue blood in them or not. I'm sick of blue blood, anyway. Vienna was the deadliest place I ever visited. What makes London interesting is its red streak of plebeianism;--well, I repeat, I think it really dreadful that we should not know even by name the men who make our laws, who are making history, who may be called upon at any moment to decide our fate among nations. I feel a silly little fool."

"I suppose you mean that I am one too. But it always has been my boast, Betty, that I never have had a politician in my house. Your father knew some, but he never brought them here; he knew the fastidious manner in which I had been brought up; and although I am afraid he kept late hours with a good many of them at Chamberlin's and other dreadful places, he always spared me. I suppose this is heredity working out in you."

"Possibly. But you will admit, will you not, that I am old enough to choose my own life?"

"You always have done every single thing you wanted, so I don't see why you talk like that. But if you are going to bring a lot of men to this house who will spit on my carpets and use toothpicks, I beg you will not ask me to receive with you." "Of course you will receive with me, Molly dear--when I know anybody worth receiving. Unfortunately I am not the wife of the President and cannot send out a royal summons. I am hoping that Lady Mary Montgomery will help me. But my first step shall be to pay a daily visit to the Senate Gallery."

"What!" Mrs. Madison's weary voice flew to its upper register. "I do know something about politics--I remember now--the only women who go to the Capitol are lobbyists--dreadful creatures who--who--do all sorts of things. You can't go there; you'll be taken for one."

"We none of us are taken very long for what we are not. I shall take Leontine with me, and those interested enough to notice me will soon learn what I go for."

Mrs. Madison burst into tears. "You are your father all over again! I've seen it developing for at least three years. At first you were just a hard student, and then the loveliest young girl, only caring to have a good time, and coquetting more bewitchingly than any girl I ever saw. I don't see why you had to change."

"Time develops all of us, one way or another. I suppose you would like me to be a charming girl flirting bewitchingly when I am forty-five. I am finished with the meaningless things of life. I want to live now, and I intend to."

"It will be wildly exciting--the Senate Gallery every day, and knowing a lot of lank raw-boned Yankees with political beards." "I am not expecting to fall in love with any of them. I merely discovered some time since that I had a brain, and they happen to be the impulse that possesses it. You always have prided yourself that I am intellectual, and so I am in the flabby 'well-read' fashion. I feel as if my brain had been a mausoleum for skeletons and mummies; it felt alive for the first time when I began to read the newspapers in England. I want no more memoirs and letters and biographies, nor even of the history that is shut up in calf-skin. I want the life of to-day. I want to feel in the midst of current history. All these men here in Washington must be alive to their finger-tips. Sally Carter admires Senator North and Senator Maxwell immensely."

"What does she say about politicians in general?" Mrs. Madison looked almost distraught. "Of course the Norths and the Maxwells come of good New England families--I never did look down on the North as much as some of us did; after all, nearly three hundred years are very respectable indeed--and if these two men had not been in politics I should have been delighted to receive them. I met Senator North once-- at Bar Harbor, while you were with the Carters at Homburg--and thought him charming; and I had some most interesting chats with his wife, who is much the same sort of invalid that I am. But when I establish a standard I am consistent enough to want to keep to it. I asked you what Sally Carter says of the others."

"Oh, she admits that there may be others as convenable as Senator North and Senator Maxwell, and that there is no doubt about there being many bright men in the Senate; but she 'does not care to know any more people.' Being a good cave-dweller, she is true to her traditions."

"People will say you are passee," exclaimed Mrs. Madison, hopefully. "They will be sure to."

Her daughter laughed, showing teeth as brilliant as her eyes. Then she snatched off her riding-hat and shook down her mane of warm brown hair. Her black brows and lashes, like her eyes and mouth, were vivid, but her hair and complexion were soft, without lustre, but very warm. She looked like a flower set on so strongly sapped a stem that her fullness would outlast many women's decline. She had inherited the beauty of her father's branch of the family. Mrs. Madison was very small and thin; but she carried herself erectly and her delicately cut face was little wrinkled. Her eyes were blue, and her hair, which was always carefully rolled, was as white as sea foam. Betty would not permit her to wear black, but dressed her in delicate colours, and she looked somewhat like an animated miniature. She dabbed impatiently at her tears.

"Everybody will cut you--if you go into that dreadful political set."

"I am on the verge of cutting everybody myself, so it doesn't matter. Positively--I shall not accept an invitation of the old sort this winter. The sooner they drop me the better."

Mrs. Madison wept bitterly. "You will become a notorious woman," she sobbed. "People will talk terribly about you. They will say--all sorts of things I have heard come back to me--these politicians make love to every pretty woman they meet. They are so tired of their old frumps from Oshkosh and Kalamazoo." "They do not all come from Oshkosh and Kalamazoo. There are six New England States whose three centuries you have just admitted lift them into the mists of antiquity. There are fourteen Southern States, and I need make no defence--"

"Their gentlemen don't go into politics any more."

"You have admitted that Senator North and Senator Maxwell are gentlemen. There is no reason why there should not be many more."

"Count de Bellairs told me that there was a spittoon at every desk in the Senate and that he counted eight toothpicks in one hour."

"Well, I'll reform them. That will be my holy mission. As for spittoons and toothpicks, they are conspicuous in every hotel in the United States. They should be on our coat-of-arms, and the Great American Novel will be called 'The Great American Toothpick.' Statesmen have cut their teeth on it, and it has been their solace in the great crises of the nation's history. As for spittoons, they were invented for our own Southern aristocrats who loved tobacco then as now. They decorate our Capitol as a mere matter of form. I don't pretend to hope that ninety representative Americans are Beau Brummels, but there must be a respectable minority of gentlemen-- whether self-made or not I don't care. I am going to make a deliberate attempt to know that minority, and shall call on Lady Mary Montgomery this afternoon as the first step. So you are resigned, are you not, Molly dear?"

"No, I am not! But what can I do? I have spoiled you, and you would be just the same if I hadn't. You are more like the men of the family than the women--they always would have their own way. Are they all married?" she added anxiously.

"Do you mean the ninety Senators and the three hundred and fifty-six Representatives? I am sure I do not know. Don't let that worry you. It is my mind that is on the qui vive, not my heart."

"You'll hear some old fool make a Websterian speech full of periods and rhetoric, and you'll straight-way imagine yourself in love with him. Your head will be your worst enemy when you do fall in love."

"Webster is the greatest master of style this country has produced. I should hate a man who used either 'periods' or rhetoric. I am the concentrated essence of modernism and have no use for 'oratory' or 'eloquence.' Some of the little speeches in the Record are masterpieces of brevity and pure English, particularly Senator North's."

"You are modern. If we had a Clay, I could understand you--I am too exhausted to discuss the matter further; you must drop it for the present. What will Jack Emory say?"

"I have never given him the least right to say anything."

"I almost wish you were safely married to him. He has not made a great success of his life, but he is your equal and his manners are perfect. I shall live in constant fear now of your marrying a horror with a twang and a toothpick."

"I promise you I won't do that--and that I never will marry Jack Emory."