Part I
Chapter XI
 

Betty went home to her room and cried steadily for an hour. She would not analyze the complex source of her emotions, but addressed a bitter reproach to her father's shade; and she reassured herself by frankly admitting that it would give her pleasure to win the approval of Senator North.

She bathed her eyes and went to her mother's room. The sooner that ordeal was over, she reflected, the better. Mrs. Madison was reading an amusing novel and looked up with a smile, then pushed the book aside.

"Have you been crying, darling?" she asked. "What can be the matter?"

Betty told her story without preamble. Her mother's nerves could stand a shock, but not three minutes of uncertainty. Mrs. Madison listened with more equanimity than Betty anticipated.

"I suppose I may consider myself fortunate that I have not had one of his brats thrust on me before," she remarked philosophically. "What are we to do about this creature?"

"There is only one human thing to do. It is not her fault, and she is very wretched at present. And now that I know the truth I suppose I am as responsible as my father would be if he were alive. I shall go to see her to-morrow, and if she is presentable and seems good I shall bring her to Washington. Of course I shall not bring her here without your permission--it is your house. Let me read you his letter."

"Do you feel very strongly on the subject?" Mrs. Madison asked when Betty had finished.

"Oh, I do! I do! I will promise not to bring her to Washington at all if she is impossible, but if she is all I feel sure she must be, let me bring her here for a few weeks, until we have decided what to do for her. I know it is a great deal to ask--her presence cannot fail to be hateful to you--"

"My dear, I have outlived any feeling of that sort, and I have not put everything on your shoulders all these years to thwart you now, when you feel so deeply. Moreover, an old memory came to me while you were reading that letter. When I was a little girl, about eight or ten, I spent an entire summer with Aunt Mary Eager at her home in Virginia. She had a house full, and there were five other little girls beside myself. A brook ran across the foot of the plantation, and we were very fond of playing there. Directly across was the hut of a freed slave who had a little girl about our own age. The child was a beautiful octaroon. I can see her plainly, with her honey-coloured skin, her immense black eyes, her long straight black hair, and her stiff little white frock tucked to the waist. Her mother took the greatest pride in her, and was always changing her clothes.

"Every day she used to come to the edge of her side of the brook and watch us. We never noticed her, for although we often played with the little black piccaninnies, the yellow child of a freed slave was another matter. One day--I think she had watched us for about a week-- she came half-way across the bridge. We stared at each other, but took no notice of her. The next day she walked straight across and up to us, and asked us very nicely if she might play with us. We turned upon her six scarlet scandalized faces, and what we said, in what brutal child language, I do not care to repeat. The child stared at us for a moment as if she were looking into the Inferno itself, and I expect she was, poor little soul! Then she gave a cry, and tore across the bridge and up the 'pike as hard as she could run. As long as we could see her she was running, and as I never saw her again--we avoided the brook after that--it seemed to me for years as if she must be running still. And for years those flying feet haunted me, and I used to long as I grew older to do penance in some way. I befriended many a poor yellow girl, hoping she might be that child. Then life grew too sad for me to remember the sins of my childhood. But I like the idea of making penance at this late day and receiving this girl for a few weeks into my house: it will be a penance, for I do not fancy sitting at the table with a woman with negro blood in her veins, I can assure you. But I shall do it. I believe if I did not I should be haunted again by those little flying feet. There is no chance of this being her daughter, for she would have been too old to attract your father's fancy. But that is not the point. I make one condition. No one must know the truth, not even Sally or Jack. She must pass for a distant relative, left suddenly destitute." "She would probably be the last to wish the truth known. But you have taken a weight off my mind, Molly dear, and I am deeply grateful to you."