Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
It was Saturday morning. Betty arose at four, brewed herself a cup of coffee over a spirit lamp, and ate several biscuit with it. She hoped Senator North would take the same precaution. Healthy animals when hungry cannot take much interest in each other.
She dressed herself in airy white with a blue ribbon in her hair. There was no necessity for a hat at that hour in the morning, but she took a white organdie one down to the boat and put it under a seat, lest she be late in returning and the sun freckling.
It was faintly dawn as she pulled out into the middle of the lake and rowed toward its northern end. Even the trailing thickets on the water's edge looked black, and the dark forest rising on every side seemed to whisper of old deeds of war and heroism, the bravery and the treachery of Indian tribes, the mortal jealousies of French and English. Every inch of ground about her was historical. These forests had resounded for years with the ugly sounds of battle, and more than once with the shrieks of women and children. To-day the woodpecker tapped, the bluejay cried in those depths unaffrighted; the singing of a mountain stream, the roar of a distant waterfall alone lifted a louder voice to the eternal whisper of the pines. The forest looked calmly down upon this flower of a civilization which no man in its first experience of man would have ventured to forecast, skimming the water to keep tryst with one whose ancestors had hewn a rougher wilderness than this down to a market-place that their inheritor might win the higher honours of the great Republic to come.
But Betty was not thinking of the honours he had won. She was wondering if by so much as a glance he would betray that he cared a little for her. Or did he care? In her thought he had been as full of love as herself. But reality was waiting for her there in the forest, --reality after three months of uninterrupted imaginings. Perhaps he merely found her agreeable and amusing. But the idea did not start a tear. The uncertainty of his affections and the certainty that she was about to see him again were alike thrilling and gladdening. Pleasurable excitement possessed her, and her hands would have trembled but for their tight grip on the oars.
He stood watching her as she rowed toward him, and she was sure that she made a charming picture out on that great dark lake below the pines. The forest rose almost straight behind him, but she knew the winding paths which made ascent easy, and many a dry leafy platform where one might sit. A hundred times she had imagined herself in that forest with him; its dim vast solitude had become almost his permanent setting in her fancy. But as the boat grazed the shore, she said hurriedly,--
"Get in and let us float about. I am sure it is cold in there. I am so glad to see you again." As her hands were occupied, he took the seat in the stern at once, and she pulled out a few yards, then crossed her oars.
"You see, I have obeyed orders," he said, smiling. "Fortunately, I am an early riser, particularly in the country."
"I thought the change would do you good. It must be hot in Washington."
"It is frightful."
He looked as well as usual, however, and his thin grey clothes became his spare though thickset figure. He was smiling humorously into Betty's eyes, but his own were impenetrable. They might harbour the delight of a lover at a precious opportunity, or the amusement of a man of the world. But there was no doubt that he was glad to see her and that he appreciated the picture she made.
"I hope I never may see you in anything but white again," he said. "You are a gracious vision to conjure up on stifling afternoons in the Senate."
Betty did not want to talk about herself. "Tell me the news," she said. "How is that Tariff Bill going?"
"A story has just leaked out that a stormy scene occurred in the Ways and Means Committee Room between our friend Montgomery and two members of the Committee whose names I won't mention. He openly accused them of accepting bribes from certain Trusts. It even is reported that they came to blows, but that is probably an exaggeration. We have had our sensation also. One of our fire-eaters accused--- at the top of his voice--the entire Senate of bribery and corruption. He is new and will think better of us in time. Meanwhile he would amuse us if such things did not affect the dignity of the Senate with the outside world. Unfortunately we are obliged to accept whomsoever the people select to represent them, and can only possess our souls in patience till time and the Senate tone the raw ones down."
"Is he representative, that man? And those hysterical members of the House, whose speeches make me wonder if humour is really a national quality?"
"They are only too representative, unfortunately, but they are more hysterical than the average because they have the opportunity their constituents lack, of shouting in public. The House is America let loose. When a former private citizen belonging to the party out of power gets on his feet in it, he develops a species of hysteria for which there is no parallel in history. He seems to think that the louder he shouts and the more bad rhetoric he uses, the less will his party feel the stings of defeat. Some of them tone down and become conscientious and admirable legislators, but these are the few of natural largeness of mind. Party spirit, a magnificent thing at its best, warps and withers the little brain in the party out of power. But politics are out of place in this wilderness. There should be redskins and bows and arrows on all sides of us. I used to revel in Cooper's yarns, but I suppose you never have read them."
Betty shook her head. "When can you come up here to stay?"
"Probably not for a month yet. There will be a good deal more wrangling before the bill goes through. I don't like it in its present shape and don't expect to in its ultimate; neither do a good many of us. But I shall vote for it, because the country needs a high tariff, and anything will be better than nothing for the present. Later, the whole matter will be reopened and war waged on the Trusts."
"Sally says they have bought up the atmosphere."
"They may be said to have bought up several climates. I have spent a great many hours puzzling over that question, for they have put an end to the old days when young men could go into business with the hope of a progressive future. Now they are swallowed up at once, depersonalized, and the whole matter is one of the great questions affecting the future development of the Republic."
He was not looking at Betty; he was staring out on the lake. His eyes and mouth were hard again; he looked like a mere intellect, nothing more.
As Betty watched him, she experienced a sudden desire to put him back on the pedestal he had occupied in the first days of their acquaintance, and to worship him as an ideal and forget him as a man. That had been a period of intellectual days and quiet nights. And as he looked now, he seemed to ask no more of any woman.
But in a moment he had turned to her again with the smile and the peculiar concentration of gaze which made women forget he was a statesman.
"Not another word of politics," he said. "I did not get up at four in the morning to meet the most charming woman in America and talk politics. Do you know that it is over three months since I saw you last?"
"You left Washington, so, naturally, I left it too."
"I wonder, how much you mean? If I were to judge you by myself--Your few notes were very interesting. Did you enjoy California?"
"California was made to enjoy, but I felt very much alone in it."
"Of course you did. Nature is a wicked old matchmaker. You have felt quite as lonely up here since your return."
"Yes, I have! But I have had a good deal to occupy my mind. Sally terrified me by asserting that Harriet and my cousin Jack Emory were in love with each other."
"Who is Harriet?"
"Oh, you have forgotten! And you made me take her into the bosom of my family."
"Oh--yes; I had forgotten her name. I hope she is not making trouble for you."
"She admitted that she loves him, but insists that he does not love her, and I don't think he does."
"Probably not. I should as soon think of falling in love with a weeping figure on a tombstone."
"What kind of women do you fall in love with?" asked Betty, irresistibly. She was sure of herself now. The passions of women are often calmed by the presence of their lover. Passion is so largely mental in them that it reaches heights in the imagination that reality seldom justifies and mere propinquity quells. For this reason they often are recklessly unfair to men, who are made on simpler lines.
They had floated under the spreading arms of a thicket on the water's edge, and she was a brilliant white figure in the gloom.
"I have no recipe," he said, smiling. "Certainly not with the women that weep, poor things!" Betty wondered what his personal attitude was to the tears of twenty years. She knew from Sally that Mrs. North had long attacks of depression. But his mind had been occupied; that meant almost everything. And his heart?
"Do you love anybody now?" she broke out. "Is there a woman in your life? Some one who makes you happy?"
The smile left his lips. It was too much to say that it had been in his eyes, but they changed also.
"There is no woman in my life, as you put it. Why do you ask?"
"Because I want to know."
They regarded each other squarely. In a moment he said deliberately: "The greatest happiness that I have had in the past few months has been my friendship with you. If I were free, I should make love to you. If you will have the truth, I can conceive of no happiness so great as to be your husband. I have caught myself dreaming of it--and over and over again. But as it is I am not going to make love to you. When the strain becomes too great, I shall leave you. Until then--Ah, don't!"
Betty, who had dropped her head when he began to speak, had raised it slowly, and her face concealed nothing.
"I, too, love you," she said in a moment. "I love you, love you, love you. If you knew what a relief it is to say it. That is the reason I would not go up into the forest with you just now. I was afraid. I have been with you there too often!"
For the first time she saw the muscles of his face relax, and she covered her face with her hands. "I shouldn't have told you," she whispered, "I shouldn't have told you. I have made it harder. You will go away at once."
He did not speak for some minutes. Then he said,--
"Can you do without what we have?"
"Oh, no!" she said passionately. "Oh, no! No!"
"Nor can I--without the hope and the prospect of an occasional hour with you, of the sympathy and understanding which has grown up between us. I have conquered myself many times, relinquished many hopes, and I think and believe that my self-control is as great as a man's can be. I shall not let myself go with you unless you tempt me beyond endurance; for as I said before, if I find that I am not strong enough, I shall leave you. You are a beautiful and seductive woman, and your power if you chose to exert it would madden any man. Will you forget it? Will you help me?"
She dropped her hands. "Yes," she said, "I'd rather suffer anything; I'd rather make myself over than do without you. And I couldn't! I couldn't! Every least thing that happens, I want to go straight to you about it. I know that trouble is ahead, although I haven't admitted it before. I want you in every way! in every way! And I can't even have you in that. I never will speak like this again, but I'd like you to know. If you love me, you must know how terrible it is. I am not a child. I am twenty-seven years old."
"I know," he replied; and for a few moments he said no more, but looked down into the water. "I am not a believer in people parting because they can't have everything," he continued finally. "It is only the very young who do that. They take the thing tragically; passion and disappointment trample down common-sense. If love is the very best thing in life, it is not the only thing. Every time I have seen you I have wanted to take you in my arms, and yet I have enjoyed every moment spent in your presence. The thought of giving you up is intolerable. We both are old enough to control ourselves. And I believe that any habit can be acquired."
"And will you never take me in your arms? Have I got to go through life without that? I must say everything to-day--I will row out into the middle of the lake if you like, but I must know that."
"You can stay here. There are certain things that no man can say, Betty, even to the most loved and trusted of women. The only answer that I can make to your question is, that if I find I must leave you, I certainly shall take you in my arms once."
"Are you sorry I told you I loved you? Would it be easier if I had not?"
"Probably. But I am not sorry! Love can give happiness even when one is denied the expression of it."
"I never intended to tell you. I was afraid if I did you would leave me at once."
"So I should if you were not--you. But I should think myself a fool if I did not make an attempt to achieve the second best. I may fail, but I shall try. And life is made up of compromises."
"You are more certain of smashing the Trusts," she said with the humour which never bore repression for long. "In dealing with methodical scoundrels you know at least where you are. A man and woman never can be too certain of what five minutes will bring forth. That ends it. We never will discuss the question again until it comes up for the last time--if it does. I do not mean that I shall not tell you again that I love you, for I shall. I have no desire that you shall forget it. I mean that we will not discuss possibilities again, nor give expression to the passionate regret we both must feel. Is it a compact?"
"I will keep my part in it. I promise to be good. I have prided myself on my intelligence. I am not going to disgrace it by ruining the only happiness I ever shall have. I love you, and I will prove it by making your part as easy as I can, and by giving you all the happiness I am permitted to give you."
He leaned toward her for the first time, but he did not touch her.
"And I promise you this, my darling," he said softly: "if you ever should be in great trouble and should send for me--as of course you would do--I will take you in my arms then and forget myself. Now, change seats with me and I will row you part of the way home; I shall get out a half-mile from the hotel. There really was no reason why you should have made me walk nearly the entire length of the lake."
"I had fancied you in this particular part of the forest, and I wanted to find you here."
"That is so like a woman," he said humorously. "But all of us make an occasional attempt to realize a dream, I suppose."