Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The next day Betty left the train a few minutes after two o'clock and walked up the winding street of a small village to the parsonage. She passed a number of cottages picturesquely dilapidated, a store in which a half-dozen men were smoking, and about thirty lounging negroes. On rising ground was a large house, but the village looked forlorn, neglected, almost lifeless.
The men in the store came out and stared at her; so did the women from the cottages. And the negroes stood still. Doubtless they thought her a wealthy vision; the day was cold, and she wore a brown cloth dress and a sable jacket and toque.
"What a life for an intelligent woman!" she thought, glancing about her with deep distaste. "It would be enough to induce melancholia without the 'taint.'"
She had made a desperate effort in the last twenty-four hours to overcome her repugnance, but had only succeeded in making sure that she could conceal it. She had recalled her interview with Senator North again and again. His indubitable interest gave her courage, and a desire to use the best that was in her. And she had turned her mind more often still to those men in the church and the sentiments they had inspired. The shutters of the parsonage were closed, there was crape on the door. Betty turned the knob and entered. A number of people were in a room on the right of the hall. At the head of the room, barely out-lined in the heavy shadows, was a coffin on its trestle.
The house smelt musty and damp. Betty pushed back the door and let in the bright winter sunlight. Some one rose from the group beside the coffin and came slowly forward. Betty waited, clinching her hands in her muff, her breath coming shorter. The dark figure in the dark room looked like the shadow of death itself. But it was not superstition that made Betty brace herself. In a moment the figure had stepped into the sunlight beside her.
Betty had imagined the girl handsome; she was not prepared for splendid beauty. Harriet Walker was far above the ordinary height of woman, and very slender and graceful. Her hair and eyes were black, her skin smooth and white, her features aquiline. Hauteur should have been her natural expression, but her eyes were dreamy and melancholy, her mouth discontented. Betty, in that first rapid survey, detected but two flaws in her beauty: her chin was weak and her hands were coarse.
"You are Miss Madison," she said, with the monotonous inflection of grief. "Thank you for coming."
"I am your half-sister," said Betty, putting out her hand. And then the desire to use the best that was in her overcame the repugnance that made her very knees shake, and she put her arms about the girl and kissed her.
"You are mighty kind," said the other. "Will you come into my room?" Betty followed her into a small room, simpler than any in her own servants' quarter. But it was neat, and there was an attempt at smartness in the bright calico curtains and bedspread. The furniture looked home-made, and there was no carpet on the floor.
"Poor girl! poor girl!" exclaimed Betty, impulsively. "Have you ever been happy--here?"
"Well, I don't reckon I've been very happy, ever; but I've given some happiness and I've been loved and sheltered. That is something to be thankful for in this world."
"I am going to take you away," said Betty, abruptly. "Mr. Walker wrote me that you'd be willing to come."
"Oh, yes, I'll go, I reckon. I told him I would. I want to hold up my head. Here I never have, for everybody knows. The white men all round here insulted me until they got tired of trying to make me notice them. One of the young men up on the plantation fell in love with me, and they sent him away and he was drowned at sea. He never knew that I had the black in my blood, and he had asked me to marry him. They did not tell him the truth, for they feared he would then wish to make me his mistress."
She spoke without passion, with a deep and settled melancholy, as if her intelligence had forbidden her to combat the inevitable. Betty burst into tears.
"Don't cry," said the other. "I never do--any more. I used to. And if you'll kindly take me away, I know I'll feel as if I were born over. If there is anything in this world to enjoy, be right sure I shall enjoy it. I'm young yet, and I reckon nobody was made to be sad for ever."
"You shall be happy," exclaimed Betty. "I will see to that. I pledge myself to it. I will make you forget--everything."
Harriet shook her head. "Not everything. Somewhere in my body, hidden away, but there, is a black vein, the blood of slaves. I might get to be happy with lots of books and kind people and no one to despise me for what I can't help, but every night I'd remember that, and then I reckon I'd feel mighty bad."
"You think so now," said Betty, soothingly, and longing for consolation herself. "But when you are surrounded by friends who love you for what you are, by all that goes to make life comfortable and-- and--gay; it seems terribly soon to speak of it, but I shall take you to all the theatres and buy you beautiful clothes, and I shall settle on you what your father left me: it is only right you should have it and feel independent. You will travel and see all the beautiful things in Europe. Oh, I know that in time you will forget. When you are away from all that reminds, you cannot fail to forget."
Harriet, who had followed Betty's words with an eager lifting of her heavy eyelids and almost a smile on her mouth, brought her lips together as Betty ceased speaking, and held out her hand.
"Do you see nothing?" she asked.
Betty took the hand in hers. "What do you mean?" she demanded. "All that--the roughness--will wear off. It will be gone in a month."
"There is something there that will never wear off. Look right hard at the finger-nails."
Betty lifted the hand to her face, vaguely recalling observations of her mother when discussing suspicious looking brunettes seen in the North. There was a faint bluish stain at the base of the nails; and she remembered. It was the outward and indelible print of the hidden vein within. The nails are the last stronghold of negro blood. She dropped the hand with an uncontrollable shudder and covered her face with her muff.
"I feel so horribly sorry for you," she said hastily. "It seemed to me for the moment as if your trouble were my own."
If the girl understood, she made no sign; hers had been a life of self-control, and she had been despised from her birth.
"Tell me what you wish me to do now," said Betty, lifting her head. "When can you leave here? Do you wish me to stay with you? Is it impossible for you to go to-day?"
"I cannot leave him until he is buried. And you couldn't stay here. This is Tuesday. I'll go Thursday."
Betty thrust a roll of bills into a drawer. "They are yours by right," she said hurriedly. "Go first to Richmond and get a handsome black frock; you will be sure to find what you want ready made, and it will be better--on account of the servants--for you to look well when you arrive. Spend it all. There is plenty more. Buy all sorts of nice things. I will go now. There is a train soon. Telegraph when you start for Washington and I will meet you. Good by, and please be sure that I shall make you happy."
Harriet walked out to the gate, and Betty saw that there were fine lines on her brow and about her mouth. But she was very beautiful, sombre and blighted as she was. She clung to Betty for a moment at parting, then went rapidly into the house.
When Betty reached the street, she restrained an impulse to run, but she walked faster than she had ever walked in her life, persuading herself that she feared to miss her train. She waited three quarters of an hour for it, and there were four dreary hours more before she saw the dome of the Capitol. She arrived at home with a splitting headache and an animal craving to lock herself in her room and get into bed. For the time being no mortal interested her, she was exhausted and emotionless. She described the interview briefly to her mother, then sought the solitude she craved. And as she was young and healthy, she soon fell asleep.