Part III
Chapter IV
 

He came in again on Sunday, but Burleigh and other men were there; and as the Senate had adjourned until the fifth, there was no excuse for him to call at the late hour when she was sure to be alone; so he dropped in twice to luncheon, and they went for a long walk in Rock Creek Park afterward. On one of these occasions Sally Carter joined them; and on the other, although but for the occasional passer-by they were alone for two hours in the wild beauty of rocky gorges and winter woods, they talked of war and Spain. He left her at the door.

On Thursday night she was to have her dinner, and in spite of her stormy inner life she felt a pleasurable nervousness as the hour approached; for on its results depended the colour of her future. With love or without it she had to live on, and if she could see the way to serve her country, to preserve some of its higher ideals as well as to win a distinguished position, she had no doubt that in time she should find resignation.

All her invitations but one had been accepted: the British Ambassador was attending a diplomatic dinner, but would come in later. Betty was not altogether regretful, for the question of precedence, with all her personages, was sufficiently complicated. The Speaker ranked the Senators, but there were eight Senators to be disposed of with tact; they might overlook a mistake, but their wives or daughters would not.

She had spared no pains to honour her guests. She still scorned the plutocratic multiplication of flowers until they seemed to rattle like the dollars they stood for, but the table looked very beautiful, and the silver and china and crystal had endured through several generations. Some of it had been used in the White House in the days when it was an honour to have a President in one's family. Her father's wine-cellar had been celebrated, and she had employed connoisseurs in its replenishment ever since the duties of entertaining had devolved upon her. She also had her own chef, and knew with what satisfaction he filled the culinary brain-cells of the patient diner out in Washington. All the lower house was softly lit with candles; except her boudoir, which was dark and locked.

She wore a gown of apple-green satin which looked simple and was not. Mrs. Madison was like an exquisite miniature, in satin of a pinkish gray hue, trimmed with much Alencon, a collar of diamonds, and a pink spray in her soft white hair. Her blue eyes were very bright, and there was a pink colour in her cheeks, but she looked better than she felt. She was, indeed, hot and cold by turns, and she held herself with a majesty of mien which only a tiny woman can accomplish.

Sally Carter was the first to arrive, and looked remarkably well in her black velvet of Custom House indignities. The Montgomerys followed, and Lady Mary wore the azure and white in which she appeared harmless and undiplomatic. No one was more than ten minutes late, and at eight o'clock the party was seated about the great round table in the dining-room.

Senator North sat on Betty's right, Senator Ward on her left. Next to that astute diplomatist was the lady in azure and white, whom he admired profoundly and understood thoroughly. She never knew the latter half of his attitude, however. He was a gallant American, and delighted to indulge a pretty woman in her fads and ambitions. Mrs. Madison achieved resignation between the Speaker of the House and Senator Maxwell, and Sally Carter was paired with Senator March.

Betty had meditated several hours over the placing of her guests, and had invited as many pretty and charming women as the matrimonial entanglements of her statesmen would permit. Fortunately it was early in the year, and a number of wives had tarried behind their husbands. The family portraits on the dark old walls had not looked down upon so brilliant a gathering for half a century, and Betty's eyes sparkled and she lifted her head, her nostrils dilating. The light in her inner life burned low, and her brain was luminous with the excitement of the hour. And as he was beside her, there really was no cause for repining.

At once the talk was all of war. Washington, like the rest of the country, did not rise to its highest pitch of excitement until after the destruction of the Maine, but no other subject could hold its interest for long. In ordinary conditions politics are barely mentioned when the most political city in the world is in evening dress, but war is a microbe.

"I am for it," announced Lady Mary, "if only to give you a chance to find out whom your friends are."

"There is nothing in the history of human nature or of nations to disprove that our friends of to-day may be our enemies of to-morrow," observed Senator North.

"I believe you hate England."

"On the contrary, I am probably the best friend she has in the Senate. My mission is to forestall the hate which leads so many ardent but ill-mated couples into the divorce courts."

"Well, you will see," said Lady Mary, mysteriously.

"I do not doubt it," said Senator North, smiling. "And we shall be grateful. If the circumstances ever are reversed, we shall do as much for her."

"How much?"

"That will depend upon the quality of statesmanship in both Houses."

"I wish you would explain what you mean by that." Lady Mary's wide voice was too well trained to sharpen. Her cold blue eyes wore the dreamy expression of their most active moments.

"I wish I knew whether the statesmen of the future were to be Populists or Republicans."

"Well, whatever you mean you have no sentiment."

"I have no sentimentalism."

Lady Mary shrugged her shoulders and turned to Senator Ward. She knew better than to talk politics to him before dinner was two thirds over, but she bent her pretty head to him, and gave him her distinguished attentions while he re-invigorated his weary brain. He smiled encouragingly.

"The statesmen of the future will be Populists, Senator," announced Betty's last recruit, a man with a keen sharply cut face and a slightly nasal though not displeasing voice. He was forty and looked thirty.

"The Populist will have called himself so many things by that time that 'statesman' will do as well as any other," growled the Speaker. "'The Statesmen's Party' would sound well, and would be worthy of the noble pretensions of your leader."

"Well, they are noble," said Armstrong tartly, but glad of the opportunity to talk back to the personage who treated him in the House as a Czar treats a minion. "We are the only party that is ready to cling to the Constitution as if it were the rock of ages."

"Well, you've clung so hard you've turned it upside down, and the new inventions and patent improvements you've stuccoed it with will do for the 'Statesmen's Party,' but not for the United States--Madam?"

Mrs. Madison had touched his arm timidly, and asked him if he liked terrapin. Her colour was deeper, but she exerted herself to keep the attention of this huge personality whom a poor worm might be tempted to assassinate.

Senator Burleigh's voice rose above the chatter. "Who would be a Western Senator?" he said plaintively. "My colleague and I received a document today, signed by two thousand of our constituents, the entire population of an obscure but determined town, in which we were ordered to acknowledge the belligerency of the Cubans at once or expect to be tarred and feathered upon our return. The climate of my State is excellent for consumption, but bad for nerves. Doubtless most of these men come of good New England stock, whose relatives 'back East' would never think of doing such a thing; but the intoxicating climate they have been inhaling for half a generation, to say nothing of the raw conditions, makes them want to fight creation."

Senator Maxwell, who had more of the restlessness of youth than the repose of age, threw back his silver head and gave his little irritated laugh. "That is it," he said. "It is the lust of blood that possesses the United States. They don't know it. They call it sympathy; but their blood is aching for a fight, so that they can read the exciting horrors of it in the newspapers. You might as well reason with mad dogs."

"I shall not attempt to reason with my kennel," said Burleigh. "In the present congested state of the mails this particular memorial has gone astray."

"The trials of a Senator!" cried Sally Carter. "Petitions and lobbyists, election clouds, fractious and dishonest legislatures, unprincipled bosses and the country gone mad!"

"I can give you a list as long as my arm," said Senator March, grimly; "and you may believe it or not, but it is all I can do to walk in my Committee-room and I haven't a chair to sit on. I live under a snow- storm of petitions, memorials, and resolutions. I expect to see them come flying through the window, and I dream of nothing else."

Betty had taken part in the general conversation until the last few moments, but as it concentrated on the subject of Cuban autonomy and her guests ceased to appeal to her, she fell into conversation with Senator North, who she knew would be willing to dispense with politics for a few moments.

"You have no idea how I miss Jack Emory," she said. "He half lived with us, you know, and I am always expecting to meet him in the hall. When I was writing my invitations I caught myself beginning a note, 'Dear Jack.' It is uncanny."

"It is the only revenge the dead have; and doubtless it is this vivid after life of theirs in memory that is at the root of the belief in ghosts. You say that you are going to open your salon every year with a dinner to the original members. It will be interesting to watch the two faces in some of the seats--if you attempt to fill the vacant chairs."

Betty pressed her handkerchief against her lips, for she knew they had turned white. She was but twenty-eight, and if her salon was the success it promised to be she would sit at the head of this table for twenty-eight years to come, and then have compassed fewer years than the man beside her. She had refused resolutely to permit her thought to dwell on the tragic difference in their ages, a difference that had no meaning now, but would symbolize death and desolation hereafter; but her mind had moments of abrupt insight that no Will could conquer, and not long since she had gasped and covered her face with her hands.

"That was brutal of me," he said hurriedly. "Your dinner is the brilliant success that it deserves to be, and you should be permitted to be entirely happy. There is not a bored face, and if they are all jabbering about the everlasting subject, so much the better for you. It gives your salon its political character at once; you would have had a hard time getting them to begin on bimetallism and the census-- perish the thought! Ward is now making Lady Mary think that she is a greater diplomatist than himself. Maxwell and the Speaker are wrangling across your mother, who looks alarmed; Burleigh is flirting desperately with Miss Alice Maxwell, who is purring upon his senatorial vanity; your Populist is breaking out into the turgid rhetoric of Mr. Bryan; French has persuaded that charming English girl that he is the most literary man in America, and Miss Carter is condoling with March about an ungrateful State. So be happy, my darling, be happy."

His voice had dropped suddenly. She made an involuntary movement toward him.

"I am," she said below her breath. "I am." She added in a moment, "Will you always come to my Thursday evenings, no matter what happens?"

"Always."

He had turned slightly, and one hand was on his knee. She slipped hers into it recklessly; they were safe in the crowd, and her hand ached for his. It ached from the grasp it received, for he was a man whose self-control was absolute or non-existent. But she clung to him as long as she dared, and when she withdrew her hand she sought for distraction in her company.

It looked as gay and happy as if war had been invented to animate conversation and make a bored people feel dramatic. Death was close upon the heels of two of the distinguished men present; but even though the eyes of the soul be raised everlastingly to the world above, they are blind to the portal. The busy member who had incurred Miss Carter's disapproval and the brilliant Librarian of Congress were among the liveliest at the feast.

It was Senator Ward at one end of the table and Burleigh at the other, who finally started the topic of Miss Madison's intended salon, not only that those unacquainted with her ambition might be enlightened, but that the great intention should receive a concrete form without further delay. A half-hour later, when the women left the table, Betty had the satisfaction of knowing that whatever the final result of her venture, her stand was as fully recognized as if she had written a book and found a publisher and critics to advertise her.