Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Betty awoke the next morning with the impression that she was somewhere on the border of a negro camp-meeting. She had passed more than one when driving in the country, and been impressed with the religious frenzy for which the human voice seemed the best possible medium. As she achieved full consciousness, she understood that it was not a chorus of voices that filled her ear, but one,--rich, sonorous, impassioned. It was singing one of the popular Methodist hymns with a fervour which not even its typical African drawl and wail could temper. It was some moments before Betty realized that the singer was Harriet Walker, and then she sprang out of bed and flung on her wrapper.
"Great heaven!" she thought. "How shall we ever be able to keep her secret? A bandanna gown and a voice like a cornfield darky's! I suppose all the servants are listening in the hall."
They were,--even the upper servants, who were English,--but they scuttled away as their mistress appeared. She crossed the hall to Harriet's room, rapped loudly, and entered. Her new sister, still in her nightgown, was enjoying the deep motion of a rocking-chair, hymn- book in hand. She brought her song to a halt as Betty appeared, but it was some seconds before the inspired expression in her eyes gave place to human greeting. Her face happened to be in shadow, and for the moment Betty saw her black. Her finely cut features were indistinct, and the ignorant fanaticism of a not remote grandmother looked from her eyes. "Harriet!" exclaimed Betty. "I don't want to be unkind, but you must not do that again. If you want to keep your secret, never sing a hymn again as long as you live."
"Ah!" Harriet gave a gasp, then a half-sob. "Ah! But I love to sing them, honey. I have sung them every Sunday all my life, and he loved them. He said I could sing with anybody, he wouldn't except angels. I 'most felt he was listening."
"You have a magnificent voice, and you must have it cultivated. But never sing another hymn."
"When I go to church I know I'll just shout--without knowing what I'm doing."
"Then don't go to church," said Betty, desperately.
"I must! I must! What'll the Lode say to me? Oh, my po' old uncle!"
She was weeping like a passionate child. Betty sat down beside her and took her hand.
"Come," she said, "listen to me. The first time I saw you the deepest impression I received of you was one of fine self-control. Doubtless you wept and stormed a good deal before you acquired it--at all the different stages of what was both renunciation and acquisition. The last few days have unsettled you a little because you have found yourself in a new world, minus all your old responsibilities and trials, and the experience has made you feel younger, robbed you of some of your hold on yourself. But that habit of self-control is in your brain,--it is the last to leave us,--and all you have to do is to sit down and think hard and adjust yourself. It is even more important that you make no mistakes now than it was before. Fate seldom gives any one two chances to begin life over again. Think hard and keep a tight rein on yourself."
Betty had more than negro hymns in her mind, but she did not care to be explicit. The generalities of the subject were disagreeable enough.
Harriet had ceased her sobbing and was listening intently. She dried her eyes as Betty finished speaking.
"You are right, honey," she said. "And I reckon you haven't spoken any too soon, for I was likely to get my head turned. I'll go to church and I won't sing. First I'll tie a string round my neck to remember, and after that it'll be easy. I'm afraid I'm just naturally lazy, and if I didn't watch myself I'd soon forget all the hard lessons I've learned and get to be like some fat ornary old nigger who's got an easy job."
Betty shuddered. "The white race is not devoid of laziness. If you want a reason for yours, just remember that the Southern sun has prevented many a man from becoming great. Keep your mind as far away from the other thing as possible."
"Oh, I think I'll forget it. I felt that way yesterday. But perhaps I'd better not," she added anxiously, as her glance fell on the hymn- book. "No cross, no crown."
"You will find crosses enough as you go through life," said Betty, dryly. She rose to go, and Harriet rose also and drew herself up to her full height. For the moment she looked again the tragic figure of the first day of their acquaintance.
"You must have seen by this time how ignorant I am," she said mournfully. "Poor old uncle gave me all the schooling he had himself, but I knew even then it wasn't what they have nowadays. And I've had so few books to read. Once I found a five-dollar bill, and as he wouldn't take it--the most I could do--I tramped all the way to the nearest town and back, twenty miles, and bought a big basket full of cheap reprints of English standard novels. Those and the few old Latin books and the Bible and the Pilgrim's Progress are about all I've ever read. I felt like writing you that when I read his letter, and also telling you that I was afraid you wouldn't find me a lady in your sense of the word--"
"You are my sister," interrupted Betty; "of course you are a lady. Dismiss any other idea from your mind. And in a year you will know so much that I shall be afraid of you. I have neglected my books for several years."
"You are mighty good, and I'll humbly take all the advice you'll give me."
Betty went back to her room and sought the warm nest she had left. "She makes me feel old," she thought. "Am I to be responsible for the development of her character? I can't send her off to Europe yet. There's nothing to do but keep her for at least a year, until she knows something of the world and feels at home in it. Meanwhile I suppose I must be her guide and philosopher! I believe that my acquaintance with Senator North has made me feel like a child. He is so much wiser in a minute than I could be in a lifetime; and as I have made him the pivot on which the world revolves, no wonder I feel small by contrast.
"But after all, I am twenty-seven, and what is more, I have seen a good deal of men," she added abruptly. And in a moment she admitted that she had allowed her heart, full of the youth of unrealities and dreams, to act independently of her more mature intelligence.
"And that is the reason I have been so happy," she mused. "There is a facer for the intelligence. As long as I have exercised it I have never felt as if I were walking on air and song."
But still her imagination did not wander beyond today's meeting and many like it. He was married, and, independent as she was, she had received that sound training in the conventions from which the mind never wholly recovers. She registered a vow then and there that she would become his friend of friends, the woman to whom he came for all his pleasant hours, in time his confidante. She would devote her thought to the making of herself into the companion he most needed and desired; and she would conceal her love lest he conceive it his duty to avoid her. She wondered if she had betrayed herself, and concluded that she had not. Even he could not guess how much of her admiration emanated from frankness and how much from coquetry. She would be careful in the future.
"That point settled," she thought, curling down deeper into her bed and preparing for a nap, "I'll anticipate his coming and think about him with all the youthful exuberance I please."