Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The Montgomerys had come to Washington for the first time at the beginning of the previous winter, while the Madisons were in England. Lady Mary had left her note of introduction the day before Betty's declaration of independence.
Betty was anxious to meet the young Englishwoman, not only because she possessed the charmed key to political society, but her history as related by certain gossips of authority commanded interest.
Randolph Montgomery, a young Californian millionaire, had followed his mother's former ward, Lady Maundrell, to England, nursing an old and hopeless passion. What passed between him and the beautiful young countess the gossips did not attempt to state, but he left England two days after the tragedy which shelved Cecil Maundrell into the House of Lords, and returned to California accompanied by his mother and Lady Barnstaple's friend, Lady Mary Montgomery. Bets were exchanged freely as to the result of this bold move on the part of a girl too fastidious to marry any of the English parvenus that addressed her, too poor to marry in her own class. The wedding took place a few months later, immediately after Mrs. Montgomery's death; an event which left Lady Mary the guest in a foreign country of a young bachelor.
From all accounts, the marriage, although a wide deflection from the highest canons of romance, was a successful one, and the Montgomerys were living in splendid state in Washington. Lady Mary was approved by even the "Old Washingtonians"--a thoughtful Californian of lineage had given her a letter to Miss Carter, who in turn had given her a tea-- and as her husband was brilliant, accomplished, and of the best blood of Louisiana, the little set, tenaciously clinging to its traditional exclusiveness amidst the whirling ever-changing particles of the political maelstrom, found no fault in him beyond his calling. And as he was a man of tact and never mentioned politics in its presence, and as his wife was not at home to the public on the first Tuesday of the month, reserving that day for such of her friends as shunned political petticoats, the young couple were taken straight into the bosom of that inner set which the ordinary outsider might search for a very glimpse of in vain.
How Lady Mary stood with the large and heterogeneous political set Betty had no means of knowing, and she was curious to ascertain; she could think of no position more trying for an Englishwoman of Mary Gifford's class.
As she drove toward the house several hours after announcing her plan of campaign to her mother, she found Massachusetts Avenue blocked with carriages and recalled suddenly that Tuesday was "Representatives' day." She gave a little laugh as she imagined Mrs. Madison's plaintive distaste. And then she felt the tremor and flutter, the pleasurable desire to run away, which had assailed her on the night of her first ball. That was eight years ago, and she had not experienced a moment of nervous trepidation since.
"Am I about to be re-born?" she thought. "Or merely rejuvenated? I certainly do feel young again."
She looked about critically as she entered the house. Her own home, which was older than the White House, was large and plain, with lofty rooms severely trimmed in the colonial style. There were no portieres, no modern devices of decoration. Everything was solid and comfortable, worn, and of a long and honourable descent. The dining-room and large square hall were striking because of the blackness of their oak walls, the many family portraits, and certain old trophies of the chase, as vague in their high dark corners as fading daguerreotypes.
So imbued was Betty with the idea that anything more elaborate was the sign manifest of too recent fortune, that she had indulged in caustic criticism of the modern palaces of certain New York friends. But although the immediate impression of the Montgomery house was of soft luxurious richness, and it was indubitably the home of wealthy people determined to enjoy life, Miss Madison's dainty nose did not lift itself.
"At all events, the money is not laid on with a trowel," she thought. And then she became aware of a curious sensuous longing as she looked again at the dim rich beauty about her, the smothered windows, the suggested power of withdrawal from every vulgar or annoying contact beyond those stately walls.
"I should like--I should like--" thought Betty, striving to put her vague emotion into words, "to live in this sort of house when I marry." And then her humour flashed up: it was a sense that sat at the heels of every serious thought. "What a combination with the twang and the toothpick! Can they really be my fate? Of course I might reform both, and cut off his Uncle Sam beard while he slept."
She had taken the wrong direction and entered a room in which there was not even a stray guest. A loud buzz of voices rose and fell at the end of a long hall, and she slowly made her way to the drawing-room, pausing once to watch a footman who was busily sorting visiting-cards into separate packs at a table. She handed him her card, and he slipped it into a pack marked "I Street."
The drawing-room was thronged with people, and as many of them surrounded the hostess, while constant new-comers pressed forward to shake a patient hand, Betty decided to stand apart for a few moments and look at the crowd. She was in a new world, and as eager and curious as if she had been shot from Earth to Mars.
Lady Mary was quite as handsome as her portraits: a cold blue and white and ashen beauty whose carriage and manifest of race were in curious contrast, Lee had told Betty, to a nervous manner and the loud voice of one who conceived that social laws had been invented for the middle class. But there was little vivacity in her manner to-day, and her voice was not audible across the large room. She looked tired. It was half-past five o'clock, and doubtless she had been on her feet since three. But she was smiling graciously upon her visitors, and gave each a warmth of welcome which betrayed the wife of the ambitious politician.
"Her mouth is not so selfish as in her photographs," observed the astute Betty. "I suppose in the depths of her soul she hates this, but she does it; and if she loves the man, she must think it well worth while."
She turned her attention to the visitors. There were many women superbly dressed, in taste as perfect as her own. She never had seen any of them before, but they had the air of women of importance. The majority looked frigid and bored, a few dignified and easy of manner. The younger women of the same class were more animated, but no less irreproachable in style.
There were others, middle-aged and young, with all the native style of the second-class, and still others who were clad in coarse serges, cashmeres, or cheap silks, shapelessly made with the heavy hand of many burdens. These did not detain the hostess in conversation, but gathered in groups, or walked about the room gazing at the many beautiful pictures and ornaments. There were only three or four really vulgar-looking women present, and they were clothed in conspicuous raiment. One, and all but her waist was huge, wore a bodice of transparent gauze; another, also of middle years, had crowned her hard over-coloured face with a large gentian-blue hat turned up in front with a brass buckle. Another was in pink silk and heavily powdered. But although these women were offensively loud, they did not suggest any lack of that virtue whose exact proportions so often elude the most earnest seeker after truth.
Betty turned impulsively to an old woman clad in shabby black who stood besides her gazing earnestly at the crowd. Her large bony face was crossed by the lines and wrinkles of long years of care, and her eyes were dim; but her mouth was smiling.
"Tell me," exclaimed Betty, "please--are all these people in politics? I--I--am a stranger, and I should like to know who they are."
"Well, I can tell you pretty near everything you want to know, I guess," replied the old lady. She had the drawl and twang and accent of rural New England. "I guess you've come here, like myself, jest to see the folks. A few here, like you and me, ar'n't in official life, but the most are, I guess. Nearly all the Cabinet ladies are here to- day and a good many Senators' wives and darters. That there lady in heliotrope and fur is the wife of the Secretary of War, and the one in green velvet and chinchilla is Mis' Senator Maxwell. That real stylish handsome girl just behind is her darter, and I guess she has a good many beaux. They're real elegant, ar'n't they? I guess we have good cause to be proud of our ladies."
She paused that Betty might express her approval, and upon being assured that Paris was responsible for many of the gowns present, continued in her monotonous but kindly drawl,
"And some of them began life doin' their own work. The President ain't no aristocrat, and most of his friends ain't neither; but I tell you when their wives begin to entertain they do it jest as if they was born to it. I presume if my husband--he was a physician--had gone into politics and had luck, I'd have been jest like those ladies; but as he didn't, I'm still doin' most of my own work and look it. But the Lord knows what he's about, I guess. Senator Maxwell's a swell; they've always been rich, the Maxwells, and he married a New York girl, so she didn't have much to learn, I guess. Mis' Senator Shattuc--she's the one in wine colour--was the darter of a big railroad man out West, so I guess she had all the schoolin' and Yurrup she wanted. Now that real pretty little woman jest speakin' to Lady Montgomery is Mis' Senator Freeman. They do say as how she was the darter of a baker in Chicago and used to run barefoot around the streets, but she looks as well as any of 'em now and she dines at every Embassy in Washington. Her dresses are always described in the Post: she wears pink and blue mostly. You kin tell by her face that she's got a lot of determination and that she'd git where she had a mind to. I guess she'd dine with Queen Victoria if she had a mind to."
"I feel exactly as if I were at a pantomime," cried Betty, delightedly. "Even you--" She caught herself up. "I mean I always thought the New England playwrights invented all their characters. Who are these plainly dressed women and--and--half-way ones?" "Oh, they're Representatives' wives mostly," drawled the old lady, who looked puzzled. "They take a day off and call on each other. One or two is Senators' wives. Some of the Senators is rich, but some ar'n't. Mis' Montgomery's jest as nice to them as to the swells, and she told me to be sure and go into the next room and have a cup of tea. I don't care much about tea excep' for lunch, and she don't have a collation--I presume she can't; too many people'd come, and I guess she has about enough. Now, those ladies that don't look exactly as if they was ladies," indicating the large birds of tawdry plumage and striking complexions, "they don't live here. Washington ladies don't dress like that. I guess they're the wives of men out West that have made their pile lately and come here to see the sights. First they look at all the public buildin's, and I guess they about walk all over the Capitol, and hear a speech or two in the Ladies' Gallery--from their Senators, if they can--and after that they go about in Society a bit. You see, Washington is a mighty nice place fur people who haven't much show at home--those that live in small towns, fur instance. There is so many public receptions they can go to--The White House, the Wednesdays of the Cabinet ladies, the Thursdays of the Senator's wives, and six or seven Representatives--mebbe more--who have real elegant houses; and then there is several Legations that give public receptions. You can always see in the Post who's goin' to receive; and those women can go home and talk fur the rest of their lives about the fine time they had in Washington society. Amurricans heighst themselves whenever they git a chance. I don't care to do that. My sister--she's a heap younger 'n I am and awful spry--and I come down from the north of New Hampshire every winter and keep a boardin'-house in Washington so that we can see the world. We don't go home with ten dollars over railroad fare in our pockets, but we don't mind, because the farm keeps us and we've had a real good time. I often sit down up in New Hampshire and think of the beautiful houses and dresses and pictures I've seen, and I can always remember that I've shaken hands with the President and his wife and the ladies of the Cabinet. They're just as nice as they can be."
Betty, whose sympathies were quick and keen, winked away a tear. "I'm so glad you enjoy it so much," she exclaimed, "and that there is so much for you here to enjoy. I never thought of it in that way. I'm awfully interested in it all, myself, and I feel deeply indebted to you."
"Well, you needn't mind that. My sister says I always talk when I can git anybody to listen to me, and I guess I do. Where air you from? New York, I guess."
"Oh, I am a Washingtonian. My name is Madison."
"So? I don't remember seeing it in the society columns."
"We are never mentioned in society columns," exclaimed Betty, with her first thrill of pride since entering the new world. "But I seldom have passed a winter out of Washington, although--I am sorry to say--I never have met any of these people."
"You don't say. I ain't curious, but you don't look as if you had to stay to home and do the work. But Amurrican girls are so smart they can about look anything they have a mind to." "Oh--I am really sorry, but everybody seems to be going, and I haven't spoken to Lady Mary yet. I'm so much obliged to you."
"Now, you needn't be, for you're a real nice young lady, and I've enjoyed talkin' to you. Likely we'll meet again, but I'd be happy to have you call. Here's my card. Our house is right near here--in the real fashionable part; and we've several ladies livin' with us that you might like to meet."
"Oh, thanks! thanks!" Betty put the card carefully into her case, shook her new friend warmly by the hand, and went forward. Lady Mary's tired white face had set into an almost mechanical smile, but as her eyes met Betty's they illumined with sudden interest and her hard- worked muscles relaxed.
"You are Betty Madison!" she exclaimed. And as the two girls shook hands they conceived one of those sudden and violent friendships which are so full of interest while they last.
"How awfully good of you to call so soon!" continued Lady Mary, after Betty had expatiated upon her long-cherished desire for this meeting. "I hoped you would, although Miss Carter rather frightened me with her account of your mother's aversion to political people. But they have all been so good to me--all your delightful set." She lowered her voice, which had rung out for a moment in something of its old style, albeit platitudes had worn upon its edges. "I couldn't stand just this--although I must add that many of the official women are charming and have the most stunning manners; but many are the reverse, and unfortunately I can't pick and choose. It seems that when one gets into politics in this country that is the end of nine-tenths of one's personal life; and Washington is certainly the headquarters of democracy. Here every American really does feel that he is as good as every other American; I wish to heaven he didn't."
"Washington is a democracy with a kernel of the most exclusive aristocracy," said Betty, with a laugh. "Some one has said that it is the drawing-room of the Republic. It is the hotel drawing-room with a Holy of Holies opening upon the area. I'm sick of the Holy of Holies, and I Ve never enjoyed a half-hour so much as while I've been looking on here--waiting for you to be disengaged."
"Oh, this is nothing. You must let me take you to a large evening reception. That is really interesting, for you see so many famous people. Can't you dine with me to-morrow? We've a big political dinner on. About fifteen members of a Senate and a House Committee that are deliberating a very important bill are coming. Senator North--he is well worth meeting--is Chairman of the Senate Committee, and my husband, although a new member, stands very high with the Chairman of his Committee, most of whom are old members of the House. Senator Ward also will be here. Do come, if you have nothing more important on hand. I can easily get another member of the House Committee."
"Come! I'd break twenty engagements to come." Betty's eyes sparkled and she lifted her head with a motion peculiar to her when reminded that she was the favoured of the gods. "I suppose there is a good deal of fag about this sort of life to you, but it has all the charm of the undiscovered country for me."
"Oh, I am deeply interested," said Lady Mary. The two women were alone now, and the hostess, released after three hours of stereotyped amenities, surrendered herself to the charm of natural intercourse with one of her own sort, and rang for tea. "I always liked politics, and I feel quite sure that my husband will achieve his high ambitions. It interests me greatly to help him."
"Of course he'll be President!" cried Betty, enthusiastic in the warmth of her new friendship and its possibilities. She was surprised by a tilt of the nose and an emphatic shake of the head.
"No, indeed!" exclaimed Lady Mary, "Presidents are politicians only. My husband aspires higher than that. To be a Senator of the first rank requires very different qualities."
"Ah! I shall quote that to Mol--my mother. She is not predisposed in their favour."
"Of course there are Senators and Senators," said Lady Mary, hastily. "You can't get ninety men of equal ability together, anywhere. There are the six who are admittedly the first,--North, Maxwell, Ward, March, Howard, and Eustis,--and about ten who are close behind them. Then there is the venerable group to which Senator Maxwell also belongs; and the younger men of forty-five or so who are not quite broken in yet, and whose enthusiasm is apt to take the wrong direction; and the fire-eaters, Populists usually; and the hard- working second-rate men, many of them millionaires (Western, as a rule) who are accused of having bought their legislatures to get in, but who do good work on Committee, whether or not they came under the delusion that they had bought an honour with nothing beneath it: a man who presumed on his wealth in the Senate would fare as badly as a boy at Eton who presumed on his title. Beyond all, are the nonentities that are in every body. So, you see, it is worth while to aim for the first place and to keep it."
"There are certainly all sorts to choose from! I'll never mistrust my instincts again. I am glad I shall meet Senator North to-morrow. I suppose he is a courtly person of the old school with a Websterian intellect."
"I don't know anything about Webster; I can't read your history and live in it, too; but certainly there is nothing of the old school about Senator North. He is very modern and has a truly Republican--or shall I say aristocratic?--simplicity--although no one could dress better--combined with a cold manner to most men and a warm manner to most women."
"Tell me all about him!" exclaimed Betty, sipping her tea. "I never was so happy and excited in my life. I feel as if I was Theodosia Burr, or Nelly Custis, or Dolly Madison come to life. And now I'm going to know an American statesman before his coat has turned to calf-skin. Quick! How old is he?"
"Just sixty, and looks much younger, as most of the Senators do. He is a hard worker--he is Chairman of one Committee and a member of five others; a brilliant debater, the most accomplished legislator in the Senate, unyielding in his convictions, and absolutely independent. He is not popular, as it has never occurred to him to conciliate anybody. He is very kind and attentive to his invalid wife and proud of his sons, and he adored a daughter who died four years ago. Rumor has it that more than one charming woman has consoled him for domestic afflictions and political trials, but I do not pay much attention to rumours of that sort. How odd that I, an alien, should be instructing a Washingtonian in politics and the personalities of her Senators; but I quite understand. I do hope Mrs. Madison will not object to your coming to-morrow night."
"I shall come. And go now. I feel a brute to have let you talk so much, but I never have been so interested!"
The two women kissed and parted; and Lady Mary's dreams that night were undisturbed by any vision of herself in the ranks of the Fates.