Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
For four days they had no word from Jack Emory. Harriet slept late on the first day. When she awoke she was an intelligent being again, and strove for the controlled demeanor which she always had seemed to feel was necessary to her self-respect. But more than once she let Betty see how nervous and terrified she was.
"I am sure he will come back," she said, with the emphasis of unadmitted doubt. "Sure! He adores me. Of course he would not have married me if he had known, but that is done and cannot be undone. When he realizes that, he will come back, for he loves me. We are bound together and he will return in time."
Betty, who scarcely left her, gave her what encouragement she could. Men were contradictory beings. Jack had the fanatical pride and prejudices of his race, but he was in love. It was possible that after a few months of loneliness in his old house he would give way to an uncontrollable longing and send for his wife. She had made inquiries at the railroad station, and ascertained that he had taken a ticket for New York. Undoubtedly he had gone on to Washington.
She reproached herself bitterly for having slept and allowed Harriet to escape; but Harriet, to whom she did not hesitate to express herself, shook her head.
"You could not have stayed awake for twenty-four hours, and I should have found a chance sooner or later. The idea came to me up there while I was shouting and nearly crazy with excitement and the excitement of all those half-mad negroes in that wild forest,--the idea came to me that I must tell him, and I believed that it came straight from the Lord. It seemed to me that He was there and told me that was my only hope,--to tell him myself before he found it out from your mother or Miss Trumbull. The idea never left me for a minute; it possessed me. I was so afraid you wouldn't have waited when I found out I was late,--that they would tell him before I got home. But I wanted to tell him alone. When you ordered me not to leave the room, I felt like I wanted to do anything you told me, but when I found you'd gone to sleep, I felt like I couldn't wait another minute. I crawled out of the window and went to him. And perhaps I did right. I can't think it wasn't an inspiration to confess and be forgiven before he found out for himself."
Betty was in the living-room with Senator North when a letter from Jack Emory was brought to her. With it, also bearing the Washington postmark, was another, directed in an unfamiliar and illiterate hand. Betty, cold with apprehension, tore open Emory's letter. It read:--
Dear Betty,--You know, of course, that my wife confessed to me the terrible fact that she has negro blood in her veins. My one impulse when she told me was to get back to my home like a beaten dog to its kennel. I did little thinking on the train; whether I talked to people or whether I was too stupefied to think, I cannot tell you. But here I have done thinking enough. At first I hated, I loathed, I abhorred her. I resolved merely never to see her again, to ask you to send her to Europe as quickly as possible, to threaten her with exposure and arrest if she ever returned. But, Betty, although I have not yet forgiven her, although the thought of her awful hidden birthmark still fills me with horror and disgust, I know the weakness of man. The marriage is void according to the laws of Virginia, and I know that if I returned to her she would insist upon remarriage in a Northern State--and I might succumb. And rather than do that, rather than dishonour my blood, rather than do that monstrous wrong, not only to my family but to the South that has my heart's allegiance--as passionate an allegiance as if I had fought and bled on her battlefields--I am going to kill myself.
Do not for a moment imagine, Betty, that I hold you to account. I can guess why you did not warn me in the beginning, why you did not tell me when it was too late. Would that I had gone on to the end faithful to my ideal of you! My lonely years in this old house were brightened and made endurable with the mere thought of you. But man was not made to live on shadows, and I loved again, so deeply that I dare not trust myself to live.
I send her only one message--she must drop my name. She has no legal title to it according to the laws of Virginia; the marriage would be declared void were it known that she had black blood in her. I would spare her shame and exposure, but she shall not bear my name, and it is my dying request that you use any means to make her drop it. Good- bye.
Betty thrust the letter into Senator North's hand. "Read it!" she said. "Read it! Oh, do you suppose he has--"
Her glance fell on the other letter and she opened it with heavy fingers. It read:--
Mis Betty,--Marse Jack done shot himself. He tole me not to telegraf. Yours truly,
Betty stood staring at Senator North as he read Jack's letter. When he had finished it, she handed him the other. He read it, then took her cold hands in his.
"You must tell her," he said. "It is a terrible trial for you, but you must do it."
"Ah!" she cried sharply. "I believe you are thinking of me only, not of that poor girl."
"My dear," he said, "that poor creature was doomed the moment she entered the world. No amount of sympathy, no amount of help that you or I could give her would alter her fate one jot. For all the women of that accursed cross of black and white there is absolutely no hope--so long as they live in this country, at all events. They almost invariably have intelligence. If they marry negroes, they are humiliated. If they pin their faith to the white man, they become outcasts among the respectable Blacks by their own act, as the act of others has made them outcasts among the Whites, Their one compensation is the inordinate conceit which most of them possess. Do not think I am heartless. I have thought long and deeply on the subject. But no legislation can reach them, and the American character will have to be born again before there is any change in the social law. It is one of those terrible facts of life that rise isolated above the so-called problems. If Harriet lives through this, she will fall upon other miseries incidental to her breed, as sure as there is life about us, for she has the seeds of many crops within her. So it is true that all my concern is for you. In a way I helped to bring this on you; but you did what was right, and I have no regrets. And you must think of me as always beside you, not only ready to help you, but thinking of you constantly."
She forgot Harriet for the moment. "Oh, I do," she said, "I do! I wonder what strength I would have had through this if you had not been behind me."
"You are capable of a great deal, but no woman is strong enough to stand alone long. Send for Harriet to come here. I don't wish you to be alone with her when she hears this news."
Betty rang the bell, and sent a servant for Harriet. She put Emory's letter in her pocket.
"I shall not give her that terrible message of his until she quite has got over the shock of his death," she said. "Let her be his widow for a little while. Then she can go to Europe and resume her own name. She soon will be forgotten here."
Harriet came in a few moments. She barely had sat down since she had risen after a restless night. But she had refused to talk even to Betty. As she entered the room and was greeted by one of those silences with which the mind tells its worst news, she fell back against the door, her hands clutching at her gown. Betty handed her the servant's letter.
She took it with twitching fingers, and read it as if it had been a letter of many pages. Then she extended her rigid arms until she looked like a cross.
"Oh!" she articulated. "Oh! Oh!"
But in a moment she laughed. "I don't feel surprised, somehow," she said sullenly. "I suppose I knew all along he'd do it. Every day that I live I'll curse your unjust and murderous race while other people are saying their prayers. May the black race overrun the world and taint every vein of blood upon it. For me, I accept my destiny. I'm a pariah, an outcast. I'll live to do evil, to square accounts with the race that has made me what I am. I'll go back to that camp, and leave it with whatever negro will have me, and when I'm so degraded I don't care for anything, I'll go out and ruin every white man I can. I'll keep the money you gave me, so that I'll be able to do more harm--"
"You can go," said Betty, "but not yet. You shall go with me first and bury your husband. If you attempt to escape until I give you permission, I shall have you locked up. I shall take two menservants with us. Now come upstairs with me and pack your portmanteau."
She slipped her hand into Senator North's. "Good-bye," she said hurriedly. "I shall return Friday night. Please come over Saturday morning."
Harriet preceded Betty upstairs, and obeyed her orders sullenly. Betty locked her in her room, and went to break the news to her mother. Mrs. Madison received it without excitement, remarking among her tears that it was one of the denouements she had imagined, and that on the whole it was the best thing he could have done. She consented to go with her maid to the hotel till Friday, and the party left for Washington that evening.