Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Betty slept fitfully, her dreams haunted by Miss Trumbull's expression of outraged virtue surrounded by curl-papers. She rose at four, almost mechanically, rather glad than otherwise that she had some one with whom to talk over the events of the night. But although she admired Senator North the more for his distinguished contrast to Jack Emory, she felt as if all romance and love had gone out of her. Harriet's case was romantic enough in all conscience, and it was hideous.
She met Miss Trumbull in the lower hall. Outraged virtue had given way to an expression of self-satisfied importance. "Well, I'm real glad they're married," she drawled. "It warn't in human nature not to listen, and I did--I ain't goin' to deny it, but I couldn't have slept a wink if I hadn't. Ain't you glad I told you?"
"I certainly am not glad that you told me, and I wish I had dismissed you three weeks ago. When I return I shall give you a month's wages and you can go to-day."
She hurried down to the lake and unmoored her boat. Her conscience was abnormally active this morning, and she reflected that she too was going to a tryst of which the world must know nothing. True, it was kept on the open lake and was as full of daylight as it was of impeccability, but it was not for the world to discover, for all that. She made no attempt to smile as Senator North stepped into the boat, and he took the oars without a word and pulled rapidly up the lake. When they were beyond all signs of human habitation, he brought the boat under the spreading limbs of an oak and crossed his oars.
"Now," he said, "what is it? Something very serious indeed has happened."
"Jack Emory and Harriet have been married three months." She filled in the statement listlessly and added no comment.
"And your conscience is oppressed and miserable because you feel as if you were the author of the catastrophe," he replied. "What have you made up your mind to do?" It was evident that her attitude alone interested him, but he understood her mood perfectly. His voice was friendly and matter-of-fact; there was not a hint of the sympathizing lover about him.
"It seems to me that as I did not act at the right time I only should make things worse by interfering now. As she said, it is a matter between her and him."
"You are quite right. Any other course would be futile and cruel. And remember that you have acted wisely and well from the beginning. You have nothing to reproach yourself for. You brought the girl to your house for a period, because justice and humanity demanded it. The same principles demanded that you should keep her secret--for the matter of that your mother made secrecy one of the conditions of her consent. I had hoped that you would get rid of her before she obeyed the baser instincts of her nature. For she was bound to deceive some man, and her victim is your cousin by chance only. Have you noticed in Washington--or anywhere in the South--that a negro is always seen with a girl at least one shade whiter than himself? The same instinct to rise, to get closer to the standard of the white man, whom they slavishly admire, is in the women as well as in the men. They are the weaker sex and must submit to Circumstance, but they would sacrifice the whole race for marriage with a white man. If you had left this girl to her fate, she would have gone to the devil, for a woman as white as that would have starved rather than marry a negro. If you had given her money and told her to go her way, she would have established herself at once in some first-class hotel where she would be sure to meet men of the upper class. And she would have married the first that asked her and told him nothing. I am sorry that your cousin happens to be the victim, because he is your cousin. But if you will reflect a moment you will see that he is no better, no more honourable or worthy than many other men, one of whom was bound to be victimized. I don't think she would have been attracted to a fool or a cad; I am positive she would have married a gentleman. These women have a morbid craving for the caste they are so close upon belonging to."
"I hate men," said Betty, viciously.
"I am sure you do, and I shall not waste time on their defence. I am concerned only in setting you right with yourself."
"I always feel that what you say is true--must be true. I suppose it will take possession of my mind and I shall feel better after a while."
"You will feel better after several hours' sleep. I am going to take you home now. Go to bed and sleep until noon."
"My conscience hurts me. I have spoiled your visit."
"I can live on the memory of yesterday for some time, and I shall return in a fortnight."
"Well, I am glad you were here when it happened. I don't know what I should have done if I couldn't have talked to you about it. I feel a little better--but cross and disagreeable, all the same."
"You are a woman of contrasts," he said, smiling. "A machine is not my ideal."
He rowed her back to the point where he had boarded the boat, and shook her warmly by the hand.
"Good-bye," he said. "Be sensible and take the only practical view of it. If you care to write to me about anything, I need not say that I shall answer at once." When she reached home, she took his advice and went to bed; and whether or not her mind obeyed his in small matters as in great, she slept soundly for five hours. When she awoke, she felt young and buoyant and untarnished again. She went at once to her mother's room and told the story. Mrs. Madison listened with horror and consternation.
"It cannot be!" she exclaimed. "It cannot be! Jack Emory? It never could have been permitted. The very Fates would interfere. His father will rise from his grave. Why, it's monstrous. The woman ought to be hanged. And I thought her buried in her books! I never heard of such deceit."
"It was the instinct of self-defence, I suppose."
"He too! It never occurred to me to watch him or to warn him; for that such a thing could ever threaten a member of my family never entered my head. What on earth is to be done?"
It took Betty an hour to persuade her mother that Jack must be left to find out the truth for himself; that they had no right, after placing Harriet in the way of temptation, to make her more wretched than she was when they had rescued her. But she succeeded, as she always did; and Mrs. Madison said finally, with her long sigh of surrender,--
"Well, perhaps he is paying for some of the sins of his fathers. But I wish he did not happen to be a member of our family. As the thing is done, I suppose I may as well be philosophical about it. It is so much easier to be philosophical now that I have let go my hold on most of the responsibilities of life. As long as nothing happens to you, I can accept everything else with equanimity. What story of her birth and family do you suppose she told him? He must have asked her a good many questions."
"Heaven knows. She is capable of concocting anything; and you must remember that we had accepted her as a cousin. She could put him off easily, for he had no suspicion to start with. I must now go and have a final delightful interview with Miss Trumbull."
She met her in the hall, and experienced a sudden sense of helplessness in the face of that mighty curiosity. She almost respected it.
"I just want to say," drawled Miss Trumbull, tossing her head, "that I know more'n you think I do. There just ain't nothin' I don't know, I'll tell you, as you've turned me out as if I was a common servant. I know who you meet up the lake and take breakfast in farmhouses with, and I know why Miss Harriet was so dreadful scared you'd find out--"
Betty understood then why some people murdered others. Her eyes blazed so that the woman quailed.
"Oh, I ain't so bad as you think," she stammered. "I'd never think any harm of you, and I'd never be so despisable as to take away any woman's character. I'm a Christian and I don't want to hurt any one. likewise, I'd never tell him that. Bad as she's treated me--I who am as good and better'n she is any day--I wouldn't do any woman sech a bad turn as that. Only I'm just glad I do know it. When I'm settin' in my poor little parlor waitin' for another position to turn up--six months, mebbe--it'll be a big satisfaction to me to think that I could ruin her if I had a mind to--a big satisfaction."
Betty went to her room, wrote a cheque for three months' wages and returned with it. "Take this and go," she said. "And be kind enough not to look upon the amount as a bribe. The position of housekeeper is not an easy one to find, and I do not wish to think of any one in distress."