Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Betty rose suddenly from the breakfast-table and went into the library, carrying a half-read letter. She had felt her face flush and her hand tremble, and escaped from the servants into a room where she could think alone for hours, if she wished.
The letter ran as follows:--
THE PARSONAGE, ST. ANDREW, VIRGINIA.
DEAR MADAM,--I have a communication of a somewhat trying nature to make, and believe me; I would not make it were not my end very near. Your father, dear madam, the late Harold Carter Madison, left an illegitimate daughter by a woman whom he loved for many years, an octaroon named Cassandra Lee. Before his death he gave poor Cassie a certain sum of money, and made her promise to leave Washington and never return. She came here and devoted the few remaining years of her life to the care of her child. I and my wife were the only persons who knew her story, and when she was dying we willingly promised to take the little one. For the last ten years Harriet has lived here in the parsonage and has been the only child I have ever known,--a dearly beloved child. She has been carefully educated and is a lady in every sense of the word. I had until the last two years a little school, and she was my chief assistant. But the public school proved more attractive--and doubtless is more thorough--and this passed from me. Last year my wife died. Now I am going, and very rapidly. I have only just learned the nature of my illness, and I may be dead before you receive this letter. I write to beg you to receive your sister. There is no argument I can use, dear lady, which your own conscience will not dictate. You will not be ashamed of her. She shows not a trace of the taint in her blood. The money your father gave Cassie has gone long since, but Harriet asks no alms of you, only that you will help her to go somewhere far from those who know that she is not as white as she looks, and to give her a chance to earn her living. She is well fitted to be a governess or companion, and no doubt you could easily place her. But she is lonely and frightened and miserable. Be merciful and receive her into your home for a time.
"I dare not write this to your mother. She has no cause to feel warmly to Harriet. But you are young, and wealthy in your own right. Her future rests with you. Here in this village she can do absolutely nothing, and after I am buried she will not have enough to keep her for a month. Answer to her--she bears my name."
I am, dear lady,
P. S. Harriet is twenty-three. She has letters in her possession which prove her parentage.
Betty's first impulse was to take the next train for St. Andrew. Her heart went out to the lonely girl, deprived of her only protector, wretched under the triple load of poverty, friendlessness, and the curse of race. She remembered vividly those two men in the church whose bearing expressed more forcibly than any words the canker that had blighted their manhood. And this girl bore no visible mark of the wrong that had been done her, and only needed the opportunity to be happy and respected. Could duty be more plain? And was she a chosen instrument to right one at least of the great wrongs perpetrated by the brilliant, warm-hearted, reckless men of her race?
But in a moment she shuddered and dropped the letter, a wave of horror and disgust rising within her. This girl was her half-sister, and was, light or dark, a negress. Betty had seen too much of the world in her twenty-seven years to weep at the discovery of her father's weakness, or to shrink from a woman so unhappy as to be born out of wedlock; but she was Southern to her finger-tips: the blacks were a despised, an unspeakably inferior race, and they had been slaves for hundreds of years to the white man. To be sure, she loved the old family servants, and rarely said a harsh word to them, and it was a matter of indifference to her that they had been freed, as she had plenty of money to pay their wages. But that the negro should vote had always seemed to her incredible and monstrous, and she laughed to herself when she met on the streets the smartly dressed coloured folk out for a walk. They seemed farcically unreal, travesties on the people to whom a discriminating Almighty had given the world. To her the entire race were first slaves, then servants, entitled to all kindness so long as they kept their place, but to be stepped on the moment they presumed. She recoiled in growing disgust from this girl with the hidden drop of black in her body.
But her reasoning faculty was accustomed to work independently of her brain's inherited impressions. She stamped her foot and anathematized herself for a narrow-minded creature whose will was weaker than her prejudices. The girl was blameless, helpless. She might have a mind as good as her own, be as well fitted to enjoy the higher pleasures of life. And she might have a beauty and a temperament which would be her ruin did her natural protectors tell her that she was a pariah, an outcast, that they could have none of her. Betty conjured her up, a charming and pathetic vision; but in vain. The repulsion was physical, inherited from generations of proud and intolerant women, and she could not control it.
She longed desperately for a confidant and adviser. Her mother she could not speak to until she had made up her mind. Emory and Sally Carter would tell her to give the creature an allowance and think no more about her; and the matter went deeper than that. The girl had heart and an educated mind; her demands were subtle and complex. Senator Burleigh? He would laugh impatiently at her prejudices, and tell her that she ought to go out and live in the free fresh air of the West. They probably would quarrel irremediably. Mary Montgomery would only stare. Betty could hear her exclaim: "But why? What? And you say she is quite white? I do not think that negroes are as nice as white people, of course; but I cannot understand your really tragic aversion."
There was only one person to whom it would be a luxury to talk, Senator North. She knew that he would not only understand but sympathize with her, and she was sure he would give her wise counsel. She regretted bitterly that she had not been able to make a friend of him, as she had of several of his colleagues. She would have sent for him without hesitation.
She glanced at the clock; it pointed to ten minutes past ten. He was doubtless at that moment in his Committee Room looking over his correspondence. She knew that Senators received letters at the rate of a hundred a day, and were early risers in consequence. If only she dared to go to him, if only he were not so desperately busy. But he had intimated that he had leisure moments, had taken the trouble to say that it would give him pleasure to serve her. Why should he not? What if he were a Senator? Was she not a Woman? Why should she of all women hesitate to demand a half-hour's time of any man? She needed advice, must have it: a decision should be reached in the next twenty- four hours. Not for a second did she admit that she was building up an excuse for the long-desired interview with Senator North. She was a woman confronted with a solemn problem. Her coupe was at the door; she had planned a morning's shopping. She ran upstairs and dressed herself for the street, wondering what order she would give the footman. She changed her mind hurriedly twenty times, but was careful to select the most becoming street-frock she possessed, a gentian blue cloth trimmed with sable. There were three hats to match it, and she tried on each, to the surprise of her maid, who usually found her easy to please. She finally decided upon a small toque which was made to set well back from her face into the heavy waves of her hair. She was too wise to wear a veil, for her complexion was flawless, her forehead low and full, and her hair arranged loosely about it; she wore no fringe.
As the footman closed the door of the coupe and she said curtly, "The Capitol," she knew that her mind had made itself up in the moment that it had conceived the possibility of a call upon Senator North.
That point settled, she was calm until she reached the familiar entrance to the Senate wing, and rehearsed the coming interview.
But her cheeks were hot and her knees were trembling as she left the elevator and hurried down the corridor to the Committee Room which Burleigh, when showing her over the building one morning, had pointed out as Senator North's. She never had felt so nervous. She wondered if women felt this sudden terror of the outraged proprieties when hastening to a tryst of which the world must know nothing. And she was overwhelmed with the vivid consciousness that she was actually about to demand the time and attention of one of the busiest and most eminent men in the country. If it had not been for a stubborn and long-tried will, she would have turned and run.
A mulatto was sitting before the door. When she asked, with a successful attempt at composure, for Senator North, he demanded her card. She happened to have one in her purse, and he went into the room and closed the door, leaving her to be stared at by the strolling sight-seers.
The mulatto reopened the door and invited her to enter a large room with a long table, a bookcase, and a number of leather chairs. Before he had led her far, Senator North appeared within the doorway of an inner room.
"I am glad to see you," he said. "I know that you are in trouble or you would not have done me this honour. It is an honour, and as I told you before I shall feel it a privilege to serve you in any way. Sit here, by the fire."
Betty felt so grateful for his effort to put her at her ease, so delighted that he was all her imagination had pictured, and had not snubbed her in what she conceived to be the superior senatorial manner, that she flung herself into the easy-chair and burst into tears.
Senator North knew women as well as a man can. He let the storm pass, poked the already glowing fire, and lowered two of the window-shades.
"I feel so stupid," said Betty, calming herself abruptly. "I have no right to take up your time, and I shall say what I have to say and go."
"I have practically nothing to do for the next hour. Please consider it yours."
Betty stole a glance at him. He was leaning back in his chair regarding her intently. It was impossible to say whether his eyes had softened or not, but he looked kind and interested.
"I never have told you that your father was a great friend of mine," he said. "You really have a claim on me." In spite of the fact that the Congressional Directory gave him sixty years, he looked anything but fatherly. Although there never was the slightest affectation of youth in his dress or manner, he suggested threescore years as little. So strong was his individuality that Betty could not imagine him having been at any time other than he was now. He was Senator North, that was the rounded fact; years had nothing to do with him.
"Well, I'm glad you knew papa; it will help you to understand. I--But perhaps you had better read this."
She took the clergyman's letter from her muff, and Senator North put on a pair of steel-rimmed eyeglasses and read it. When he had finished he put the eyeglasses in his pocket, folded the letter, and handed it to her. He had read the contents with equal deliberation. It seemed impossible that he would act otherwise in any circumstance.
"Well?" he said, looking keenly at her. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I am ashamed to tell you how I have felt. But we Southerners feel so strongly on--on--that subject--it is difficult to explain!"
"We Northerners know exactly how you feel," he said dryly. "We should be singularly obtuse if we did not. However, do not for a moment imagine that I am unsympathetic. We all have our prejudices, and the strongest one is a part of us. And for the matter of that, the average American is no more anxious to marry a woman with negro blood in her than the Southerner is, and looks down upon the Black from almost as lofty a height. Only our prejudice is passive, for he is not the constant source of annoyance and anxiety with us that he is with you."
"Then you understand how repulsive it is to me to have a sister who is white by accident only, and how torn I am between pity for her and a physical antipathy that I cannot overcome?"
"I understand perfectly."
"That is why I have come to you--to ask you what I must do. This is the first time I have been confronted by a real problem; my life has been so smooth and my trials so petty. It is too great a problem for me to solve by myself, and I could not think of anybody's advice but yours that--that I would take," she finished, with her first flash of humour.
"I fully expect you to take the advice I am going to give you. Your duty is plain; you must do all you can for this girl. But by no means receive her into your house until you have made her acquaintance. Take the ten o'clock B. & O. to-morrow morning and go to St. Andrew; it is about four hours' journey and on the line of the railroad. Spend several hours with the girl, and, if she is worth the trouble, bring her back with you and do all you can for her: it would be cruel and heartless to refuse her consolation if she is all this old man describes--and you are not cruel and heartless. And if this drop of black blood is abhorrent to you, think what it must be to her. It is enough to torment a high-strung woman into insanity or suicide. On the other hand, if she is common, or looks as if she had a violent temper, or is conceited and self-sufficient like so many of that hybrid race, settle an income on her and send her to Europe: in placing her above temptation you will have done your duty."
"But that is the whole point--to be sure that you do the right thing."
"I almost hope she will be impossible, so that I can wipe her off the slate at once. Otherwise it will be a terrible problem."
"It is no problem at all. There is no problem in plain duty. Problems exist principally in works of fiction and in the minds of unoccupied women. If you meet each development of every question in the most natural and reasonable manner,--presupposing that you possess that highest attribute of civilization, common-sense,--no question will ever resolve itself into a problem. And difficulties usually disappear as the range of vision contracts. If your house takes fire, you save what you can, not what you have elaborately planned to save in case of fire. Train your common-sense and let the windy analysis pertaining to problems alone."
"But how can I ever get over the horror of the thing, Mr. North?"
"You will forget all about it when she has been your daily companion for a few weeks. If she lacked a nose, you would as soon cease to remember it. If this girl is worth liking, you will like her, and soon cease to feel tragic. Leave that to her!"
"I know that you are right, and of course I shall take your advice. I did not come here to trouble you for nothing. But if I liked her at first and not afterward--"
"Pack her off to Europe. Europe will console an American woman for every ill in life. If you take the right attitude in the beginning, it all rests with her after that. You will have but one duty further. If she wishes to marry, you must tell the man the truth, if she will not. Don't hesitate on that point a moment. Her children are liable to be coal-black. That African blood seems to have a curse on it, and the curse is usually visited on the unoffending."
"I will, I will," said Betty. She rose, and he rose also and took her hand in both of his. She felt an almost irresistible desire to put her head on his shoulder, for she was tired and depressed.
"Your attitude in the matter is the important thing to me," he said. "That is why I have spoken so emphatically. You are a child yet, in spite of your twenty-seven years and your admirable intelligence. This is practically your first trial, the first time you have been called upon to make a decision which, either way, is bound to have a strong effect on your character, and to affect still greater decisions you may be called upon to make in the future. You have only one defect; you are not quite serious enough--yet."
"I feel very serious just now," said Betty, with a sigh; and in truth she did, and her new-found sister was not the only thing that perplexed her.
"One of these days you will be a singularly perfect woman," he added, and then he dropped her hand and walked to the door. As he was about to open it, she touched his arm timidly.
"Will you come and see me on Sunday?" she asked. "I shall have been through a good deal between now and then, and I shall want--I shall want to talk to you."
"I will come," he said.
"Not before half-past four. My mother will be asleep then, and my cousin, Jack Emory, have gone home--there will be so many things I shall want to talk to you about."
"I shall be there at half-past four," he said. "Good-bye. Good-bye."