Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Betty, in accordance with a time-honoured habit, was the last to arrive at the dinner-party on the following evening. She had arranged her heavy large-waved hair low on her neck, and the pale green velvet of her gown lifted its dull mahogany hue and the deep Southern whiteness of her skin. She did not take a beautiful picture, for her features had the national irregularity, but she seldom entered a room that several men did not turn and stare at her. She carried herself with the air of one used to commanding the homage of men, her lovely colouring was always enhanced by dress, and she radiated magnetism. It was such an alive, warm, buoyant personality that men turned to her as naturally as children do to the maternal woman; even when they did not love her they liked to be near her, for she recalled some vague ideal. She knew her power perfectly, and after one or two memorable lessons had put from her the temptation to give it active exercise. It should be the instrument of unqualified happiness when her hour came; meanwhile she cultivated an impersonal attitude which baffled men unable to propose and tempered the wind to those that could.
During the few moments in the drawing-room she could gather only a collective impression of the men who stared at her to-night. There was a general suggestion of weight, in the sculptor's sense, and repose combined with alertness, and they stood very squarely on their feet. Betty had only had time to single out one long beard dependent from a visage otherwise shorn, and to observe further that some of the women were charmingly dressed, while others wore light silk afternoon frocks, when dinner was announced.
Her partner was evidently one of the younger Senators, one of those juvenile enthusiasts of forty-five who beat their breasts for some years upon the Senate's impassive front. He was extremely good- looking, with a fair strong impatient face, trimmed with a moustache only, and a well-built figure full of nervous energy. He had less repose than most of the men about him, but he suggested the same solidity. He might fail or go wrong, but not because there was any room in his mind for shams. His name was Burleigh, but what his section was, Betty, as they exchanged amenities and admired the lavish display of flowers, could not determine; he had no accent whatever, and although his voice was deep and sonorous, it had not the peculiar richness of the South. His gray eyes smiled as they met hers, and his manners were charming; but Betty, accustomed to grasp the salient points of character in a first interview, fancied that he could be overbearing and truculent.
"Are they going to talk politics to-night?" she asked, when the platitudes had run their course.
"I hope not. I've had enough of politics, all day."
"Oh, I hoped you would," said Betty, in a deeply disappointed tone.
He looked amused.
"Why?" he asked.
"Oh, I am so interested. That sounds very vague, but I am. When Lady Mary told me she was dining members of the two Committees, I thought it was to talk politics, and--and--settle it amicably or something." Betty could look infantile when she chose, and was always ready to cover real ignorance with an exaggerated assumption which inspired doubt.
"We have the excessive pleasure of discussing the bill in Senator North's comfortable Committee room for several hours every few days, and we usually are amiable. We are merely dining out to-night in each other's good company. Still, I guess your desire will be more or less gratified. Second nature is strong, and one or two will probably get down to it about the middle of dinner."
"You are from New England," exclaimed Betty, triumphantly. "I have been waiting for you to say 'I reckon' or 'I guess.'"
"I was born and educated in Maine, but I went west to practise law as soon as I knew enough, and I am Senator from one of the Middle Western States."
"Ah!" Betty gave him a swift side glance. He looked anything but "corrupt," and that truculent note in his voice did not indicate subservience to party bosses. She determined to write to Jack Emory in the morning and command him to look up Senator Burleigh's record at once.
"I suppose all the Senators here to-night are the--big ones?"
"Oh, no; North and Ward are the only two on this Committee belonging to the very first rank. The other four here are in that group that is pressing close upon their heels; and myself, who am a new member: I've been here four years only. Would you mind telling me who you are? Of course American women don't take much interest in politics, but--do you know as little as you pretend?"
"I wish I knew more; but I've been abroad for the last two years, and my mother prefers rattlesnakes to politics. Which is Senator North?"
"He is at the head of the table with Lady Mary, but that rosebush is in the way; you cannot see him."
"And which is Senator Ward?" "Over there by Mrs. Shattuc,--the woman in ivory-white and heliotrope."
Betty flashed him a glance of renewed interest. "You like women," she exclaimed. "And you must be married, or have sisters."
"I like women and I am not married, nor have I any sisters. I particularly like woman's dress. If you'll pardon me, that combination of pale green and white lace and soft stuff is the most stunning thing I've seen for a long while."
"Law, politics, and woman's dress! How hard you must have worked!"
"Our strong natural inclinations help us so much!" He gave her an amused glance, and his manner was a trifle patronizing, as of a prominent man used to the admiration of pretty girls. It was evident that he knew nothing of her and her long line of conquests.
"Senator Ward looks half asleep," she remarked abruptly.
"He usually does until dinner is two-thirds over. He is Chairman of one Committee and serving on two others; and all have important bills before them at present. So he is tired."
"He doesn't look corrupt."
"Corrupt? Who? Ward? Who on earth ever said he was corrupt?"
"Well, I heard his State was."
"'Corruption' is the father of more platitudes than any word in the American language. There are corrupt men in his State, no doubt, and one of the Trusts with which we are ridden at present tried to buy its Legislature and put their man in. But Ward won his fight without the expenditure of a dollar beyond paying for the band and a few courtesies of that sort. His State is proud of him both as a statesman and a scholar, and he is likely to stay in the Senate until he drops in his tracks."
"Then he comes here with the intention of remaining for life? I think you should all do that."
"You are quite right. When a man achieves the honour of being elected honestly to the United States Senate,--it is the highest honour in the Republic,--he should feel that he is dedicating himself to the service of the country, and should have so arranged his affairs that he can stay there for life."
Betty's eyes kindled with approval. "Oh, I am glad," she said, "I am glad."
"Glad of what, may I ask?"
"Oh--" And then she impulsively told him something of her history, of her determination to take up politics as her ruling interest, and of the opposition of her mother and cousin. Senator Burleigh listened with deep attention, and if he was amused he was too gallant to betray the fact, now that she had honoured him with her confidence.
"Well," he said, "that is very interesting, very. And you are quite right. You'll do yourself good and us good. Mind you stand to your guns. Would you mind telling me your name? Lady Mary never thinks a mere name worth mentioning."
"Madison--Elizabeth Madison. I had almost forgotten the Elizabeth. I have always been called Betty."
"Ah!" he said, "ah!" He turned and regarded her with a deeper interest.
"Have you heard of me?" she asked irresistibly. "Who has not?" he said gallantly. "And although you are a great deal younger than I,--I am forty-four,--my father, who was in Congress before me, was a great friend of your father's. He wears a watch to this day that Mr. Madison gave him. He always expressed regret that he never met your mother, but she seemed to have an unconquerable aversion to politics."
"And they met at Chamberlin's!" exclaimed Betty, with a delighted laugh. "It will be the last straw--my having gone into dinner with the son of one of papa's hated boon companions. My mother is a lovely intelligent woman," she added hastily, "but she is intensely Southern and conservative. Her great pride is that she never changes a standard once established."
"Oh, that's a very safe quality in a woman. But of course you have a right to establish your own, and I am glad it points in our direction. And anything you want to know I'll be glad to tell you. Can't I take you up to the Senate to-morrow and put you in our private gallery? There ought to be some good debating, for North is going to attack an important bill that is on the calendar."
"I will go; but let me meet you there. I must ask you to call in due form first, as my poor mother must not have too many shocks. Will you come a week from Sunday?--I am going to New York for a few days."
"I will, indeed. If I were unselfish, I should let you listen for a few minutes, for they are all talking politics; not bills, however, but the possibility of war with Spain. I don't think I shall, though. Tell me what you want to know and I will begin our lessons right here." "Why should we go to war with Spain?"
"Oh dear! Oh dear! Where have you been? There is a small island off the coast of Florida called Cuba. It has many natives, and they are oppressed, tormented, tortured by Spain."
"I visited Cuba once. They are nothing but a lot of negroes and frightfully dirty. Why should we go to war about them?"
"Only about one-third are negroes and there is a large brilliantly educated and travelled upper class. And I see you need instruction in more things than politics,--humanity, for instance. Forget that you are a Southerner, divorce yourself from traditions, and try to imagine several hundred thousand people--women and children, principally-- starving, hopeless, homeless, unspeakably wretched. Cannot you feel for them?"
"Oh, yes! Yes!" Betty's quick sympathy sent the tears to her eyes, and he looked at her with deepening admiration,--a fact the tears did not prevent her from grasping. "And are we going to war in order to release them?"
"Ah! I do not know. There is a war feeling growing in the country; there is no doubt of that. But how high it will grow no one can tell. The leading men in Congress are indifferent, and won't even listen to recognizing the Cubans as belligerents. North will not discuss the subject, and I doubt not is talking over the latest play with Lady Mary at the present moment."
"And you? Do you want war?"
"I do!" His manner gave sudden rein to its inherent nervousness, and his voice rang out for a moment as if he were angrily haranguing the Senate. "Of course I want it. Every human instinct I have compels me to want it, and I cannot understand the apathy and conservatism which prevents our being at war at the present moment. We have posed as the champions of liberty long enough; it is time we did something."
"Ah, this is the youthful enthusiasm of the Senate," thought Betty. "And I have been accustomed to think of forty-five as quite elderly. I feel a mere infant and shall not call myself an old maid till I'm fifty." She smiled approvingly into the Senator's illuminated face, and he plunged at once into details, including the entire history of Spanish colonial misrule. The history was told in head-lines, so to speak, but it was graphic and convincing. Betty nodded encouragingly and asked an occasional intelligent question. She knew the history of Spain as thoroughly as he did, but she would not have told him so for the world. It is only the woman with a certain masculine fibre in her brain who ever really understands men, and when these women have coquetry also, they convince the sex born to admire that they are even more feminine than their weaker sisters. When Senator Burleigh finished, Betty thanked him so graciously and earnestly, with such lively pleasure in her limpid hazel eyes, that he raised his glass impulsively and touched it to hers.
"You must have a salon" he exclaimed. "We need one in Washington, and it would do us incalculable good. Only you could accomplish it: you not only have beauty and brains--and tact?--but you are so apart that you can pick and choose without fear of giving offence. And you are not blas? of the subject like Congressmen's wives, nor has the wild rush and wear and tear of official society chopped up your individuality into a hundred little bits. It would be brutal to mention politics to a woman in political life, and consequently we feel as if no one takes any interest in us unless she has an axe to grind. But you are what we all have been waiting for I feel sure of that! Let it be understood that no mere politician, no man who bought his legislature or is under suspicion in regard to any Trust, can enter your doors. Of course you will have to study the whole question thoroughly; and mind, I am to be your instructor-in-chief."
Betty laughed and thanked him, wondering how well he understood her. He looked like a man who would waste no time on the study of woman's subtleties: he knew what he wanted, and recognized the desired qualities at once, but by a strong masculine instinct, not by analysis.
A few moments later the women went into the drawing-room, and the conversation for the next half-hour was a languid babble of politics, dress, New York, the lady of the White House, and the play. Betty thought the women very nice, but less interesting than the men, possibly because they were women. They certainly looked more intelligent than the average one sat with during the trying half- hour after dinner; but their conversation was fragmentary, and they oddly suggested having left their personality at home and taken their shell out to dinner. Betty also was interested to observe that their composite expression was a curious mingling of fatigue, unselfishness, and peremptoriness. "What does it mean?" she asked of Lady Mary, with whom she stood apart for a moment.
"Oh, they are worked to death,--paying calls, entertaining, receiving people on all sorts of business, and helping their husbands in various ways. They have no time to be selfish,--rich or poor,--and they have acquired the art of disposing of bores and detrimentals in short order. Even their own sort they pass on much in the fashion of royalty. How do you like Senator Burleigh?"
"I never learned so much in two hours in my life. My head feels like a beehive."
"I never saw him quite so devoted."
"I thought you were occupied with Senator North."
"I was, but my eyes and ears understand each other. He wants to meet you after dinner. He knows all about you."
"He has been pointed out to me, but in those days when I was only interested in possible partners for the German. I do not recall him."
"That is he, the second one."
The men were entering the drawing-room. Betty was relieved that the political beard was not on Senator North. He wore only a very short moustache on his ugly powerful face.
He stood for a few moments talking to his host, and Betty, to whom the political beard was immediately presented, gave him an occasional glance of exploration while her companion was assuring her, with neither a twang nor an accent, that he had long looked forward to the pleasure of meeting the famous Miss Betty Madison. Senator Shattuc was in his late fifties, but it was evident that the cares of Congress had not smothered his appreciation of a pretty woman. He had a strong face and an infantile complexion, and his beard sparkled with care. Senator Ward, who was presented a few moments later, told her that he had envied Burleigh throughout the long dinner. Betty decided that the senatorial manner certainly was agreeable.
The two men fell into conversation with one another, and Betty turned her attention to Senator North. He was standing alone for the moment, glancing about the room. His attitude was one of absolute repose; he did not look as if he ever had hurried or wasted his energies or lost his self-control in his life. His face was impenetrable; his eyes, black and piercing, were wholly without that limpidity which reveals depths and changes of expression; his mouth was somewhat contemptuous, and betrayed neither tenderness nor humour. If possible, he stood even more squarely on his feet than the other men. He had the powerful thick-set figure which invariably harbours strong passions.
"I don't know whether I like him or not," thought Betty. "I think I don't--but perhaps I do. He might be made of New England rock, and he looks as if the earth could swallow him before he'd yield an inch. But I can feel his magnetism over here. Why have all these men so much magnetism? Is that, too, senatorial?"
Senator North caught her eye at the moment, and turned at once to Lady Mary. A moment later he had been presented to Betty and they stood alone.
"I once mended your hoop for you, when you were a little girl, just in front of your house; but I am afraid you have forgotten it." "Oh,--I think I do remember it. Yes--I do." She evoked the incident out of the mists of childish memories. "Was it you? I am afraid I was looking harder at the hoop than at its mender. But--I recall--I thought how kind you were."
And then he inquired for her mother, and spoke pleasantly of his own and his wife's acquaintance with Mrs. Madison at Bar Harbor. Betty wondered afterward why she had thought his face repellent. His eyes defied investigation, but his mouth relaxed into a smile that was very kind, and his voice had almost a caress in it. But at the moment she was too eager to hear him express himself to receive a strong personal impression, and while she was casting about in her mind for a leader, she was obliged to give him her hand.
"Good-night," she said with a little pout, "I am so sorry."
"So am I," he said, smiling, and shaking her hand. "Good-night. I shall look forward to meeting you again soon."
"Miss Madison, may I see you to your carriage?" asked Senator Burleigh. "I have tried to get near you ever since dinner," he said discontentedly, as they walked down the hall, "and now you are going. But you will come to the Senate to-morrow? Come right up to the door of the Senators' Gallery at precisely three o'clock and I will meet you there."
A few moments later, Betty paused on her way to her own room and opened her mother's door softly.
"Molly," she whispered.
"Well?" asked a severe voice.
"I went in to dinner with the son of one of papa's old Chamberlin companions, and he was simply charming. So were all the others, and I never met a man who could shake hands as well as Senator North. I had a heavenly time."
Mrs. Madison groaned and turned her face to the wall.
"And there wasn't a toothpick, and I didn't hear a twang."
"Kindly allow me to go to sleep."