Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Betty had invited Senator Burleigh to dinner on Saturday, that he might feel free to call elsewhere on Sunday. At four o'clock, when Mrs. Madison had retired for her nap, she commanded Jack Emory to take Harriet for a long walk and a long ride on the cable cars, and to stop for Sally Carter. No one else was likely to call, and she retired to her boudoir, a three-cornered room in an angle between the parlor and library, to await Senator North.
The boudoir was a room that any man might look forward to after a hard day on Capitol Hill. Its easychairs were very soft and deep, its rugs were rosy and delicate, and the walls and windows and doors were hung with one of those old French silk stuffs with a design of royal conventionality and uniformly old rose in colour. All of Betty's own books were there, her piano, several handsome pieces of carved oak, and a unique collection of ivory. Betty had banished the former girlish simplicity of this room a few days after her introduction to the Montgomery house. She had imagined herself greeting Senator North in it many times, and had received no other man within its now sacred walls.
She wore a white cloth gown today and a blue ribbon in her hair. There was also a touch of blue at the neck, to make her throat look the whiter. Otherwise, the long closely fitting gown was without ornament as far down as the hem, which was lightly embroidered in white. She looked tall and lithe, but her figure was round, and did not sway like a reed that a strong wind would beat to the ground, as Harriet's did. Although that possible descendant of African kings possessed the black splendour of eyes and hair and a marble regularity of feature, Betty was the more beautiful woman of the two; for her colour filled and warmed the eye, she seemed typical of womanhood in its highest development, and she was a chosen receptacle of enchantment. Moreover, she was more modern and original, and as healthy as had been the fashion for the past generation, Harriet looked like an old Roman coin come to life, with a blight on her soul and little blood in her thin body. It was not in Betty's nature to fear any woman, much less to experience petty jealousy, but it was not without satisfaction she reflected that she and Harriet would hardly attract the same sort of man. Jack was doing his duty nobly, and he liked vivacious women who amused him, poor soul! As for Senator Burleigh, he had said politely that she was handsome but looked delicate, and then unquestionably dismissed her from his mind. He and Betty had talked politics on the previous evening until Mrs. Madison had slipped off to bed an hour earlier than usual.
Betty dismissed them all from her mind and glanced at the clock. It was half-past four. She thrust the poker between the glowing logs, and the flames leaped and sent a quivering glow through the charming room. Betty leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, almost holding her breath that she might hear the advancing step of the butler the sooner. In what seemed to her exactly thirty minutes she looked at the clock again. It was twenty-five minutes to five. She nestled down, assuring herself that nobody could be expected to come on the moment, but this time she did not close her eyes; she watched the clock.
And the joy imperceptibly died out of her; the hands travelled inexorably round to ten minutes to five; she remembered that she had not seen Senator North since Wednesday, and that in four days a busy legislator might easily forget the existence of every woman he knew, except perhaps of the woman he loved. Within her seemed to rise a tide of bitter memories, the memories of all those women who had sat and waited through dreary hours for man's uncertain coming. She shivered and drew close to the fire and covered her face with her hands. Her heart ached for the helpless misery of her sex.
But she sprang suddenly to her feet. The butler was coming down the hall. A moment later he had ushered in Senator North, and Betty forgot the misery of the world, forgot it so completely that there was no violent reaction; she was merely what she had been at half-past four, full of pleasurable excitement held down and watched over by the instinct of caution.
"I must apologize humbly for being late," he said, "but on Sunday I always sit with my wife until she falls asleep, and to-day she was nearly an hour later than usual. What a room to come into out of a biting wind! Thank heaven I was able to get here."
Betty thought of the sister and cousin she had turned out into the cruel afternoon, and then looked at Senator North deep in the chair where she had so often imagined him, and forgot their existence. This was her hour--her first, at least--and visions of pneumonia and possible consumption should not mar it. She sat opposite him in a straight dark high-backed chair, and she was quite aware that she made a delightful picture.
"Well?" he asked. "What of your visit and its consequences?"
Betty told the story; and her description of the dilapidated parsonage at the head of the miserable village, the group of silent women about the coffin in the dark room, and her interview with her melancholy relative was as dramatic as she had felt at the time.
"I thought I was running from a nightmare when I left the house," she concluded, smiling at him as if to demonstrate that it had left no shadow in her brain; "but now we both feel better. She wants a gown of many colours, and this morning she roused the house at five o'clock singing camp-meeting hymns. But I think she is quick and observant, and will soon cease to be in any danger of betraying herself. But she is a great responsibility, and I really felt old this morning."
Senator North laughed. "I hope she won't give you any real trouble. If she does, I shall feel more than half responsible. But otherwise she will be an interesting study for you. She is nearly all white; how much of racial lying, and slothfulness, barbarism, and general incapacity that black vein of hers contains will give you food for thought, for she certainly will reveal herself in the course of a year."
"You must admit that a nature like that is a great responsibility."
"Yes, but she alone can work through all the contradictions to the light, and she will do it naturally, under pressure of new experiences, within and without. Don't suggest even the word 'problem' to her, and don't look upon her as one, yourself. You have put her in the right conditions. Leave her alone and Time will do the rest. His work is indubious; never forget that. Are you going to marry Burleigh?" he added abruptly.
She answered vehemently, "No! No!" "I thought not. I know you very little, so far, but I was willing to deny the report."
"I often wonder why I don't fall in love with him. He really has every quality I admire. But much as I like him I should not mind if I knew I never should see him again. I have thought a good deal about it and I should like to understand it."
She looked at him coaxingly, and he smiled, for he understood women very well; but he gave her the explanation she desired.
"The reason is simple enough. The admired qualities, even when they are the component parts of a personality of one who more or less resembles a cherished ideal, never yet inspired love. Love is the result of two responsive sparks coming within each other's range of action. Their owners may be in certain ways unfitted for one another, but the responsive sparks, rising Nature only knows out of what combination of elements, fly straight, and Reason sulks. To put it in another way: Love is merely the intuitive faculty recognizing in another being the power to give its own lord happiness. It is a faculty that is very active in some people," he added with a laugh, "and when it is overworked it often goes wrong, like any other machinery. That is the reason why men who have loved many women make a mistake in marrying; the intuitive faculty is both dulled and coarsened by that time. They are still susceptible to charm, and that is about all."
"Have you loved many women?" asked Betty, without preamble.
He stood up and turned his back to the fire. Betty noted again how squarely he planted himself on his feet. "A few," he said bluntly. "Not many. I have not overworked my intuitive faculty, if that is what you mean. I was not thinking of myself when I spoke."
He stared down at her for a few moments, during which it seemed to Betty that the air vibrated between them. Her breath began to shorten, and she dropped her eyes, lest their depths reveal the spark which was active enough in her.
"Will you play for me?" he asked. "I lost a little girl a few years ago who played well, although she was only sixteen. I have disliked the piano ever since, but I should like to hear you play."
She played to him for an hour, with tenderness, passion, and brilliancy. A gift had been cultivated by the best masters and hours of patient study.
When he thanked her and rose to go and she put her hand in his, her face expressed all the bright earnestness of genuine friendship; there was not a sparkle of coquetry in her eyes.
"Will you come in often on your way home when you are tired and would like to forget bills and things, and let me play to you? I won't talk --you must get so tired of voices!--and the practice will do me good."
"Of course I will come. The pleasantest thing in life is a charming woman's face at the close of a busy day. Good-bye."
When he had gone, Betty got into the depths of a chair and covered her eyes with her hand. For the first time she knew out of her own experience that love means a greater want than the satisfaction of the eye and mind. She would have given anything but her inherited ideals of right and wrong if he had come back and taken her in his arms and kissed her; and she loved him with adoration that he did not, that in all probability he never would, that although he had the great passions which stimulate all great brains, the inflexible honour which his State had rewarded and never questioned for thirty-five years must make short work of struggles with the ordinary temptations of man.
As soon as a man awakens a woman's passions she begins to idealize him and there is no limit to the virtues he will be made to carry. But let a man be endowed by Nature with every noble and elevated attribute she has in her power to bestow, if he lacks sensuality a woman will see him in the clear cold light of reason. Betty Madison, having something of the intuitive faculty, in addition to that knowledge of man which any girl of twenty-seven who has had much love offered her must possess, made fewer mistakes even in the thick of a throbbing brain than most women make; the great danger she did not foresee until time had accustomed her somewhat to the wonder of being able to love at last, and Reason had resumed her place in a singularly clear and logical mind.