Part I
Chapter IV
 

Betty returned home much elated with the success of her visit. She heard the voice of her cousin Jack Emory in the parlor and went at once to her room to dress. The voice sounded solemn, and so did her mother's; they doubtless were sitting in conference upon her. She selected her evening gown with some care; her cousin was an old story, but he was a very attractive man, and coquetry would hold its own in her, become she never so intellectual.

Jack Emory had been her undeclared lover since his middle teens. Somewhere in the same immature interval, just after her first return from Europe, she had imagined herself passionately in love with him. But she had a large fortune left her by her maternal grandfather, besides a hundred thousand her father had died too soon to spend, and Jack was the son of a Virginian who had been a Rebel to his death, haughtily refusing to have his disabilities removed, and threatening to shoot any negro in his employ who dared to go to the ballot box. He had left his son but a few thousands out of his large inheritance, and adjured him on his death bed to hold no office under the Federal government and to shoot a Yankee rather than shake his hand. Jack inherited his father's prejudices without his violent temper. He had a contemptuous dislike for the North, a loathing for politics, and adistaste for everybody outside his own diminishing class. Love for Betty Madison had driven him West in the hope of retrieving his fortunes, but he was essentially a gentleman and a scholar; the hustling quality was not in him, and he returned South after two years of unpleasant endeavour and started a small produce farm adjoining an old house on the outskirts of Washington, left him by his mother. Here he lived with his books, and made enough money to support himself decently. He never had asked Betty to marry him, although he knew that his aunt would champion his cause. During the period of Betty's maiden passion his pride had caused her as much suffering as her youth and buoyant nature would permit; but as the years slipped by she felt inclined to personify that pride and burn a candle beneath it. Even before her mind had awakened, the energy and strength of her character had cured her of love for a man as supine as Jack Emory. He was charming and well read, all that she could desire in a brother, but as a husband he would be intolerable. As his love cooled she liked him better still, particularly as his loyalty would not permit him to acknowledge even to himself that he could change; but its passing left him with fewer clouds on a rather melancholy spirit, a readier tongue, and a complete recovery from the habits of sighing and of leaving the house abruptly.

Betty's maid dressed her in a bright blue taffeta, softened with much white lace, and she went slowly down to the hall, rustling her skirts that Emory might hear and come out for a word before dinner if he liked. It was a relief to be able to coquet with him without fearing that he would go home and shoot himself; and it helped him to sustain the pleasant fiction that he still was in love with her.

He came out at once and raised her hand to his lips, murmuring a compliment as his grandfather might have done. He was only thirty-two, but his face was sallow and lined from trouble and fever. Otherwise he was very handsome, with his golden head and intellectual blue eyes, his haughty profile and tall figure, listlessly carried as it was. In spite of the fact that he took pride in dressing well, he always looked a little old-fashioned. When with Betty, invariably as smart as Paris and New York could make her, he almost appeared as if wearing his father's old clothes. His Southern accent and intonation were nearly as broad as a negro's. Betty had almost lost hers; she retained just enough to enrich and individualize without a touch of provincialism. She belonged to that small class of Americans whose ear-mark is the absence of all Americanisms.

Mr. Emory looked perturbed.

"There is something I should like to say," he remarked hesitatingly. "There is yet a quarter of an hour before dinner. I think this old hall with its portraits of your grandmothers is a good place to say it in--"

"Molly has pressed you into service, I see. Let us have it out, by all means. Please straighten your necktie before you begin. You cannot possibly be impressive while it looks as if it were standing on one leg."

"Please be serious, Betty dear. I am indeed most disturbed. It surely cannot be that you meant what you told your mother this morning,--that you intended to change the whole current of your life in such an unprecedented manner."

"Great heavens! One would think I was about to go on the stage or enter a convent."

"I would rather you did either than soil your mind with the politics of this country. I say nothing about there being no statesmen;--there is not an honest man in politics the length and breadth of the Union. The country is a sink of corruption, as far as politics are concerned. Every Congressman buys his seat or is put in as the agent of some disgraceful trust or syndicate or railroad corporation."

Betty drew her eyelids together in a fashion that robbed her eyes of their coquetry and fire and made them look unpleasantly judicial.

"Exactly how much do you know about American politics?" she asked coldly. "I have known you all my life and I never heard you mention them before--"

"I never have considered them a fit subject for you to listen to--"

"I have been in your library a great many times and I do not recall a copy of the Congressional Record. You have said often that you despise the newspapers and only read the telegrams; that the only paper you read through is the London Times. So, I repeat, what do you know about the American politics of to-day?"

"What I have told you."

"Where did you learn it? Do you ever go to the Senate or the House?"

"God forbid! But I am a man, and those things are in the atmosphere; a man's brain accumulates naturally all widely diffused impressions. I've been a great deal in the smoking-cars of railroad-trains, and spent two years in a Western State where a man who had taken a fortune out of a mine made no bones of buying a seat in the Senate from the Legislature, nor the Legislature about selling it. It was the most abominable transaction I ever came close to, and had as much to do with my leaving the place as anything else."

"And you mean to say that you judge all the old States of the country by a newly settled community of adventurers out West?"

"New York and Pennsylvania are notorious."

"There are bad boys in every school. What I want to know is--can you assert on your knowledge that all the Southern and New England States are corrupt and send only small politicians to Washington? This is a more serious charge than Molly's assertion that they all use toothpicks."

"I repeat that I do not believe there is an honest man in that Capitol."

"Do you know this? Have you investigated the life of every man in the Senate and the House?" "What a good district attorney you would make!"

"You are talking a lot of copybook platitudes with which you have allowed your mind to stagnate. But you must convince me, for if what you say is true I shall have nothing to do with politics. Let us begin with Senator North. How and when did he buy his seat, and what Trust does he represent?"

"Oh, I never have heard anything against North. He is too big a gun in Washington--"

"You will admit then that he is not corrupt--"

"I don't doubt he has his own methods--"

"I don't care three cents about your suppositions. I want facts. How about Senator Maxwell?"

"He has been in Congress since before I was born. One never hears him discussed."

"And his Puritanical State has heaped every honour on him that it can think of. Tell me the biography of Senator Ward--all that is too awful to be printed in the Congressional Directory--"

"He is from one of those dreadful North-western States and bound to be corrupt," cried Emory, triumphantly. He wished desperately that he had waited and got up his case. He spoke from sincere conviction. "There may be a rag of decency left in the older States, but the West is positively fetid. I give you my word I am speaking the truth, Betty dear, and in your own interest. If I have no more details to give you, it is because I promised my father on his death-bed that I would have nothing to do with politics, and I have kept my word to the extent of reading as little about them as possible. But I can assure you that I know as much about them as anybody not in the accursed business. It is in the air--" "There are so many things in the air that they get mixed up. Your whole argument is based on air. Now, mon ami, you turn to to-morrow and study up the record of every man in that Senate, as well as the legislative methods of his State. When you know all about it, I shall be delighted to be instructed. But I don't want any more air. Now come in to dinner, and if you allude to the subject before Molly, I'll leave the table."

He bowed over her hand again with his old-fashioned courtesy. "When you issue a command I am bound to obey," he said, "and although you have set me an unpleasant, an obnoxious task, I certainly shall accomplish that also to the best of my ability. You belong to this old house, Betty, to this old set; I love to think of you as the last rose on the old Southern tree, and you shall not be blighted if I can help it."

Betty tapped him lightly with her fan.

"I belong to the whole country, my dear boy; I am no old cabbage rose on a half-dead bush, but the same vegetable under a new name,--the American Beauty Rose. Do you see the parable? And I've a great many thorns on my long stem. Remember that also."