Part III
Chapter III
 

When Sally had gone, after an hour of consultation on the various phases of the dinner, Betty sat for some moments striving to call up something from the depths of her brain, something that had smitten it disagreeably as it fell, but sunk too quickly, under a torrent of words, to be analyzed at the moment. It had made an extremely unpleasant impression;--painful perhaps would be a better word.

In the course of ten minutes she found the sentence which had made the impression: "Mrs. North is wonderfully improved, by the way; has not been so well in twenty years."

The words seemed to hang themselves up in a row in her mind; they turned scarlet and rattled loudly. Betty made no attempt to veil her mental vision; she stared hard at the words and at the impression they had produced. Mrs. North was out of danger, and the fact was a bitter disappointment to her. In spite of the resolute expulsion of the very shadow of Mrs. North from her thought, her sub-consciousness had conceived and brought forth and nurtured hope. What had made her content to drift, what had made her look with an almost philosophical eye on the future, was the unadmitted certainty that in the natural course of events a woman with a shattered constitution must go her way and leave her husband free. Had he thought of this? He must have, she concluded. She was beginning to look facts squarely in the face; it was an old habit with him, older than herself. There never was a more practical brain.

For the first time in her life she almost hated herself. She had done and felt many things which she sincerely regretted, but this seemed incomparably the worst. And despite her protest, her bitter self- contempt, the sting of disappointment remained; she could not extract it.

She went out and walked several miles, as she always did when nervous and troubled. She came to the conclusion that she was glad to have heard this news to-day. She and Senator North were to meet in the evening for the first time in five months. She had looked forward to this meeting with such a mingling of delight and terror that several times she had been on the point of sending him word not to come. But the impression Sally's information had made had hardened her. She was so disappointed in herself, so humiliated to find that a mortal may fancy himself treading the upper altitudes, only to discover that the baser forces in the brain are working independently of the will, that she felt in anything but a melting mood. She knew that this mood would pass; she had watched the workings of the brain, its abrupt transitions and its reactions, too long to hope that she suddenly had acquired great and enduring strength. The future had not expelled one jot of its dangers, perhaps had supplemented them, but for the hour she not only was safe from herself, but the necessity to turn him from her door had receded one step.

She had intended to receive him in the large and formal environment of the parlor, but in her present mood the boudoir was safe, and she was glad not to disappoint him; she knew that he loved the room. And if her brain had sobered, her femininity would endure unaltered for ever. She wore a charming new gown of white crepe de chine flowing over a blue petticoat, and a twist of blue in her hair. She had written to him from New York when to call, and he had sent a large box of lilies of the valley to greet her. She had arranged them in a bowl, and wore only a spray at her throat. Women with beautiful figures seldom care for the erratic lines and curves of the floral decoration. She heard him coming down the corridor and caught her breath, but that was all. She did not tremble nor change colour.

When he came in, he took both her hands and looked at her steadily for a moment. They made no attempt at formal greeting, and there was no need of subterfuge of any sort between them. No two mortals ever understood each other better.

"I see the change in you," he said. "I expected it. You have given me a great deal, and your last survival of childhood was not the least. The serious element has developed itself, and you look the embodiment of an Ideal." He dropped her hands and walked to the end of the room. When he returned and threw himself into a chair, she knew that his face had changed, then been ordered under control.

"What shall I talk to you about?" he asked with an almost nervous laugh. "Politics? Comparatively little happened in the Senate before the holidays. The President's message was of peculiar interest to me, inasmuch as it indicated that he is approaching Spain in the right way and will succeed in both relieving the Cubans and averting war if the fire-eaters will let him alone. The Cubans probably will not listen to the offer of autonomy, for it comes several years too late and their confidence in Spain has gone forever; but I am hoping that while this country is waiting to see the result, it will come to its senses. The pressure upon us has been intolerable. Both Houses have been flooded with petitions and memorials by the thousands: from Legislatures, Chambers of Commerce, Societies, Churches, from associations of every sort, and from perhaps a million citizens. The Capitol looks like a paper factory. If autonomy fails soon enough, or if some new chapter of horrors can be concocted by the Yellow Press, or if the unforeseen happens, war will come. The average Congressman and even Senator does not resist the determined pressure of his constituents, and to do them justice they have talked themselves into believing that they are as excited as the idle minds at home who are feeling dramatic and calling it sympathy. And the average mind hates to be on the unpopular side.

"Forgive me if I am bitter," he said, standing up suddenly and looking down on her with a smile, "but a good many of us are, just now. We can't help it. A great and just war would be met unflinchingly and with all pride; but the prospect of this hysterical row between a bull pup and a senile terrier fills us with impatience and disgust. The President must feel that he is expiating all the sins of the human race. The only man in the United States to be envied, so far, is the Speaker of the House; it is almost a satisfaction to think that he looks like the monument he is; and for the time being his importance overshadows the President's. If the President can hold on, however, he will negotiate Spain out of this hemisphere in less than a year."

"I knew you were worried about it," she said softly. "I felt that so keenly that I never lost an opportunity to war against the war. I made enemies right and left, and acquired a reputation for heartlessness."

"Our minds are much alike," he said, staring down at her and dropping his voice for a moment. "You may have done it for me, but you are as sincere as I am. I have stimulated your mind, that is all. How much you can do here in Washington--among the men who legislate--I cannot say. A woman who takes a high and definite stand is always an influence for good; but the women who influence men's votes are not of your type. They are women who sacrifice anything to gain their ends, or those who have educated themselves to play upon the vanity and other petty qualities of men; every peg in their brain is hung with a political trick. The only men who attract you are too strong to vote under the influence of any woman, even if they loved her. If Shattuc were not as obstinate as a mule," he added more lightly, "I should ask you to convert him to the principles of sound currency. That is another ugly cloud ahead: there is going to be an attempt made to pass through both Houses a concurrent resolution advocating the free and unlimited coinage of silver and to pay the public debt with it. As far as our honour goes, the passing of such a resolution would affect us as deeply as if it were to become a law. We should stand before the world as willing and ready to violate the national honour, ignore our pledges and recklessly impair our credit. I don't think the resolution will pass the House, the Republican majority is too strong there, but I am afraid it will pass the Senate; although we are in the majority, a good many Republicans are Western men and Silverites. A certain number on both sides of the Chamber are voting merely to please their constituents, feeling reasonably sure that the resolution will fail in the House. They appear to care little for the honour of the Senate; they certainly have not the backbone to defy their constituents if they do care for it. To the outside world the Senate is a unit; every resolution that passes it might come out of one gigantic skull at peace with itself. This one will be passed by a small majority who have not imagination enough to read the works of future historians, nor even to grasp public opinion as unexpressed by their constituents.

"There is one fact that the second-rate politician never grasps," he said, walking impatiently up and down; Betty had never seen him so restless. "That is, that the true American respects convictions; no matter how many fads he may conceive nor how loud he may clamour for their indulgence, when his mind begins to balance methodically again, he respects the man who told him he was wrong and imperilled his own re-election rather than vote against his convictions. Many a Senator has lost re-election through yielding to pressure, for elections do not always occur at the height of a popular agitation; and when men have had time to cool off and think, they despise and distrust the waverer. If you will read the biographies in the Congressional Directory, you will see that with a very few exceptions the New Englanders are the only men who come back here--to both Houses--term after term. They practically are here for life; and the reason is that they belong to the same hard-headed, clear-thinking, unyielding, and puritanically upright race as the men who elect them to office. They have their faults, but they represent the iron backbone of this country, and in spite of fads and aberrations, and gales in general on the political sea, they will remain the prevailing influence. If I speak seldom in the Senate, I certainly make a good many speeches to you. But I want you to understand all I can teach you and to do what you can."

"Yes," she said, rising abruptly, "I want an object in life, a vital interest. I need it! A year ago I took up politics out of curiosity and ennui; to-day they represent a safeguard as well as a necessity. I cannot write books nor paint pictures; charities bore me and I never shall marry. My heart must go to the wall, and my brain is very active. The more one studies and observes politics the more absorbing they become. But that is only a part of it. I want to be of some use to the country, to accomplish something for the public good; and it will be a form of happiness to think that I am working with you--for I certainly agree with you in all things, whatever the cause. When the time comes that we meet in public only, I can have that much happiness at least; and I always shall know where I can help you--"

"The mere fact that you are alive is help enough--and torment enough. I shall go now. We have gotten through this first meeting better than I had hoped."

They both laughed a little as they shook hands, for politics had cleared the air.