Part III
Chapter VI
 

"It is just a year ago to-day, Betty, that you nearly killed me by announcing your determination to go into politics--or whatever you choose to call it. I put down the date. A great deal has happened since then--poor dear Jack! And I often think of that unfortunate creature, too. But you and I are here in this same room, and I wonder if you are glad or sorry that you entered upon this eccentric course."

"I have no regrets," said Betty, smiling. "And I don't think you have. You like every man that comes here, and while they are talking to you forget that you ever had an ache. As for me--no, I have no regrets, not one. I am glad."

"Well, I will admit that they are much better than I thought. I must say I never saw a finer set of men than those at your dinner, and I felt proud of my country, although I was nervous once or twice. I almost love Mr. Burleigh; so I refrain from further criticism. But, Betty, there is one thing I feel I must say--"

She hesitated and readjusted her cushions nervously. Betty looked at her inquiringly, and experienced a slight chill. She stood up suddenly and put her foot on the fender.

"It is this," continued Mrs. Madison, hurriedly. "I think you are too much with Senator North. He was here constantly before you left Washington, and of course I know you boated with him a great deal last summer. Since your return he has been here several times, and you treat him with twice the attention with which you treat any other man. Of course I can understand the attraction which a man with a brain like that must have for you, but there is something more important to be considered. You have been the most noticeable girl in Washington for years--in our set--and now that you have branched out in this extraordinary manner and are even going to have a salon, you'll quickly be the most conspicuous in the other set. Mr. North is easily the most conspicuous figure in the Senate--a half dozen of your new friends, including that Speaker, have told me so--and if this friendship keeps on people will talk, as sure as fate. There is no harm done yet--I sounded Sally Carter--but there will be. That sort of gossip grows gradually and surely; it is not like a great scandal that blazes up and out and that people get tired of; they will get into the habit of believing all sorts of dreadful things, and they never will acquire the habit of disbelieving them."

Betty made no reply. She stood staring into the fire.

"It would have been more difficult for me to say such a thing to you a year ago; but you seem a good deal older, somehow. I suppose it is being so much with men old enough to be your father, and talking constantly about things that give me the nightmare to think of. And of course you have had two terrible shocks. But you are so buoyant I hope you will get over all that in time. Wouldn't you like to go to the Riviera, and then to London for the season?"

"And desert my salon?" asked Betty, lightly. "You forget this is the long term. I am praying that summer will come late, so that you can stay on. It never had occurred to me that any one would notice my friendship with Mr. North. I hope they will do nothing so silly as to comment on it."

"Well, they will, if you are not very careful. And there is no position in the world so unenviable as that of a girl who gets herself talked about with a married man. Men lose interest in her and raise their eyebrows at the clubs when her name is mentioned, and women gradually drop her. Money and position will cover up a good many indiscretions in a married woman or a widow, but the world always has demanded that a girl shall be immaculate; and if she permits Society to think she is not, it punishes her for violating one of its pet standards. Mr. North can be nothing to you. The day is sure to come when you will want to marry. No woman is really satisfied in any other state."

Betty turned and looked squarely at her mother, who had lost even the semblance of nervousness in her deep maternal anxiety.

"Do you believe that I love Mr. North?"

"Yes, I do. And I know that he loves you. There is no mistaking the way a man turns to a woman every time she begins to speak. But on that score I have no fears. I know that you not only must have the high principles of the women of your race, but that you are too much a woman-of-the-world to enter upon a liaison, which would mean constant lying, fear, blackmail by servants, and general wretchedness. And I have perfect faith in him. Even a scoundrel will hesitate a long while before he makes himself responsible for the future of a girl in your position, and Mr. North is not a scoundrel but an honourable gentleman. Moreover he knows that a scandal would ruin him in his Puritanical State; and he adores his sons, who are prouder of him than if he were ten Presidents. But the world can talk and continue to talk, and to act as viciously about an imprudent friendship as about a liaison, for it has no means of proving anything and likes to believe the worst. Now, I shan't say any more. You are capable of doing your own thinking. Only do think--please." Betty nodded to her mother, and went to her boudoir and sat there for hours. Nothing could have put the ugly practical side of her romance so precisely before her as her mother's black and white statement, full of the little colloquial phrases with which an un-ambitious world expresses itself. Even for him, Betty reflected, she could not endure vulgar gossip, and wondered how any high-bred woman could for any man.

"For what else does civilization mean," she thought, "if those of us that have its highest advantages are not wiser and more fastidious than the mob? And unless a woman is ready to go and live in a cave, she cannot be happy in the loss of the world's regard, for it can make her uncomfortable in quite a thousand little ways. Expediency is the root of all morality. It is stupid to be unmoral, and that is the long and the short of it. I would marry him to-morrow if I had to cook for him, if he were dishonoured by his country, if he were smitten suddenly with ill-health and never could walk again. I am willing to go through life alone for his sake, even without seeing him, and after he is dead and gone. I love him absolutely, and if there is another world I must meet him there. But I am not willing to become a social pariah on his account."

She never had permitted her mind to linger on the practical aspect of a different relationship, to admit that such a chapter was possible outside of her imagination, but she did so now, deliberately. She knew that what her mother had intimated was true, that the happiness to be got out of it would amount to very little, and that the day would come when she would say that it was not worth the price. There were many times when she was not capable of reasoning coldly on this question, but she had been listening for two hours to Senator French on the restriction of immigration, and felt all intellect.

Her mind turned to Harriet. There was a creature foredoomed to destruction by the forces within her, struggling in vain, assisted and guarded in vain. Should she, with her inheritance of kindly forces within and without, deliberately readjust her manifest lines into a likeness of Harriet Walker's? And she knew that even if she hoodwinked the world, the miserable deception of it all, the nervous terrors, not only would wear love down, but shatter her ideals of herself and him. She would be infinitely more miserable than now.

It relieved her to have thought that phase out, and she put it aside. But the other? Must she give him up? What pleasure could she find in sitting here with him if her mother's apprehensive mind did not leave the room for a moment? What pleasure if a vulgar world were whispering? She reflected with some bitterness that one danger was receding. He had not entered this room since the day of her return. Although he had called several times, he had come in the evening, when she always sat with her mother, or in the morning, when Mrs. Madison again was sure to be present. She knew that he dared not come here, and that it was more than likely he never would call at the old hour again.

She realized these two facts suddenly and vividly; her mind worked with a brutal frankness at times. She began to cry heavily, the tears raining on her intellectual mood and obliterating it. If she were not to see him alone again, she might as well ask him to come to the house on Thursday evenings only, and to show her no attention in public; if she could not have the old hours again, she wanted nothing less. And she wanted them passionately; those hours came back to her with a poignancy of happiness in memory that the present had not revealed, and the thought that they had gone for ever filled her with a suffocating anguish that was as complete as it was sudden. She implored him under her breath to come to her, then prayed that he would not....

She became conscious that she was in a mood to take any step, were he here, rather than lose him; and the mood terrified her. Would the time come when this intolerable pain would kill every inheritance in her brain, its empire the more absolute because it made passion itself insignificant in the more terrible want of the heart? If it did, she would marry Burleigh. She made up her mind instantly. She would fight as long as she could, for she passionately desired to live her life alone with the idea of this man; but if she were not strong enough, she would marry and bury herself in the West. Nothing but an irrevocable step would affect a permanent mental attitude, and Burleigh would give her little time for thought.