Part III
Chapter VII
 

Betty went very often to the Senate Gallery in these days, for it was the only place where one might have relief from the eternal subject of Cuba. Although the House broke loose under cover of the Diplomatic and Consular Appropriation Bill when it was in the Committee of the Whole and free of the Speaker's iron hand, and raged for two days with the vehemence of long-repressed passion, the Senate permitted only an occasional spurt from its warlike members, and pursued its even way with the important bills before it. But at teas, dinners, luncheons, and receptions people chattered with amiability or in suavity about the hostile demonstrations at Havana against Americans, the Spanish Minister's letter, Spain's demand for the recall of Consul-General Lee, the dying reconcentrados, the exploits of the insurgents, and the general possibilities of war. The old Madison house, which had ignored politics for half a century, vibrated with polite excitement on Thursday evenings. About a hundred people came to these receptions, which finished with a supper, and it was understood that the free expression of opinion should be the rule; consequently several repressed members of both Houses delivered impromptu speeches, in the guise of toasts, before that select audience; much to the amusement of Senator North and the Speaker of the House. Burleigh's was really impassioned and brilliant; and Armstrong's, if woolly in its phrasing and Populistic in its length, was sufficiently entertaining.

As for Mrs. Madison, she became imbued with the fear that war would be declared in her house. Two Cabinet ministers had been added to the salon, and what they in conjunction with the colossal Speaker and Senators North and Ward might accomplish if they cared to try, was appalling to contemplate. She begged Betty to adjourn the salon till peace had come again.

But to this Betty would not hearken. It was the sun of her week, through whose heavy clouds flickered the pale stars of distractions for which she was beginning to care little. One of life's compensations is that there is always something ahead, some trifling event of interest or pleasure upon which one may fix one's eye and endeavour to forget the dreary tissue of monotony and commonplace between. Betty found herself acquiring the habit of casting her eye over the day as soon as she awoke in the morning, and if nothing distracting presented itself, she planned for something as well as she could.

She endeavoured to introduce the pleasant English custom of asking a few congenial spirits to come for a cup of afternoon tea. These little informal reunions are among the most delightful episodes of London life, and if established as a custom in Washington would be like the greenest of oases in the whirling breathless sandstorms of that social Sahara. But even Betty Madison, strong as she was both in position and personality, met with but a moderate success. When women have from six to twenty-five calls to pay every afternoon of the season, with at least one tea a day besides, they have little time or inclination for pleasant informalities. Doubtless Miss Madison's friends felt that they should be relieved of the additional tax. Even the women of the fashionable set, which includes some of the Old Washingtonians and many newer comers of equally high degree, and which ignores the official set, preserve the same ridiculous fashion of calling in person six days in the week instead of merely leaving cards as in older and more civilized communities. In London, society has learned to combine the maximum of pleasure with the minimum of work. Washington society is its antithesis; and although many of the most brilliant men in America are in its official set, and the brightest and most charming women in its fashionable as well as political set, they are, through the exigencies of the old social structure, of little use to each other. Betty occasionally managed to capture three or four people who talked delightfully when they felt they had time to indulge in consecutive sentences, but as a rule people came on her reception day only, and many of them walked in at one door of her drawing-room and out at the other.

The debate in the Senate on the payment of bonds interested her deeply, for she knew that it meant days of uneasiness for Senator North, who rarely was absent from his seat. His brief speech on the subject was the finest she had heard him make, and although it was bitter and sarcastic while he was arraigning the adherents of the resolution to pay the government debt in silver, he became impersonal and almost impassioned as he argued in behalf of national honesty.

Betty never had seen him so close to excitement, and she wondered if he found it a relief to speak out on any subject. But if he ever thought of her down there he made no sign, for he neither raised his eyes to the gallery nor did he pay her a second visit in her select but conspicuous precinct.

The resolution passed the Senate, and on that evening Senator North called at the Madison house. It was two weeks since he had called before, and although he had come to her evenings and they had met at several dinners, they had not attempted conversation.

The Montgomery's and Carters had dined at the house, and all were in the parlour when he arrived. After a few minutes he was able to talk apart with Betty. They moved gradually toward the end of the room and sat down on a small sofa.

"I am glad you came to-night," she said. "It was my impulse to go to you when I heard how the vote had gone."

"I knew it," he replied, "and if I could have come straight up here to the old room, I should have hung up the vote with my overcoat in the hall."

He looked harassed, and his eyes, while they had lost nothing of their magnetic power, were less calmly penetrating than usual. They looked as if their fires had been unloosed more than once of late and were under indifferent control.

"You will not come to that room again!"

"No. And I soon shall cease to come here at all except on Thursdays."

"You almost have done that now. I think I get more satisfaction watching you from the gallery than anything else. You look very calm and senatorial, and you always are standing some one in a corner who is trying to make a speech."

"I am relieved to know that I do not inspire the amazement of my colleagues. It is a long while since I have felt calm and senatorial, however. But these are days for alertness of mind, and even the most distracting of women must be shut up in her cupboard and forgotten for a few hours every day."

"I think I rather like that."

"Of course you do. A woman always likes a strong lover. And you have plenty of revenge, if you did but know."

"I know," she said; and as she raised her eyes and looked at him steadily, he believed her.

"Tell me at least that you miss coming to that room--I want to hear you say it."

"Good God!"

Betty caught her breath. But when women feel fire between their fingers and are reckless before the swift approach of a greater wretchedness than that possessing them, they are merciless to themselves and the man.

"Can you stay away?" she whispered. "Can you?"

"It is the one thing I can do."

"Do you realize what you are saying?--that you have put me aside for ever? Are you willing to admit that it is all over? How am I to live on and on and on? Can you fancy me alone next summer in the Adirondacks--"

"Hush! Hush! Do you wish me to come? Answer me honestly, without any feminine subterfuge."

"No, I do not." "And I should not come if you did, for I know the price we both should pay better than you do, and only complete happiness could justify such a step. You and I could find happiness in marriage only--we both demand too much! But I also know that the higher faculties of the mind do not always prevail, and I shall not see you alone again."

She pushed him further. "You take this philosophically because you have loved before and recovered. You feel sure that no love lasts."

"When a man loves as I love you, he has no past. There are no experiences alive in his memory to help him to philosophy. With the entire world the last love is the only love. As for myself, I shall not love again and I shall not recover."

"I wore white because I knew you would come tonight," she said softly.

"Yes, and you would torment me if I went down on my knees and begged for mercy."

"Senator," said Montgomery, approaching them. "I suppose it is some satisfaction to you to know that that resolution cannot pass the House."

"I hope you will make a speech on the subject that will look well in the Record," said North, with some sarcasm.

Montgomery laughed. "That is a good suggestion. I wonder if some of our orators ever read themselves over in cold blood. The back numbers of the Record ought to be a solemn warning."

"Unfortunately most people don't know when they have made fools of themselves; that is one reason the world grows wise so slowly. I don't doubt your speech will look well. You've been remarkably sane for a young man of enthusiasms. Reserve some of your logic, however, for the greater conflict that is coming. The pressure on the President is becoming very severe, and the worst of it is that a great part of it comes from Congressmen of his own party."

"One of our Populists has christened these 'kickers' 'the reconcentrados;' which is not bad, as there is said to be a kickers' caucus in process of organization. But if the pressure on the President is severe, it is equally so on us, and I suppose the 'kickers' are those who have one knob too few in their backbones. Some, however, have got the war bee inside their skulls instead of in their hats, and will be fit subjects for a lunatic asylum if the thing doesn't end soon, one way or another. And they reiterate and reiterate that they don't want war, when they know that any determined step we can take is bound to lead to it. I have no patience with them. They either are fools or are trying to keep on both sides of the fence at once."

"Politics are very complicated," said Senator North, dryly.

"How do you and Mary manage to live in the same house?" asked Betty. "She is all for war."

"Oh, I think she rather likes the opportunity to argue. And she is so divided between the desire for me to be a good American and the desire that England shall have an excuse to hug us that she could not get into a temper over it if she tried. She has made no attempt to influence my course. Heaven knows how much money I've been made to disburse in behalf of the reconcentrados, but I like women to be tender-hearted and would not harden them for the sake of a few dollars, even were they dumped in Havana Harbor--By the way, I wonder if the Maine is all right down there? She has the city under her guns, and they know it--"

"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't suggest any new horrors," said Senator North, rising. "Besides, the Spaniards are not in the final stages of idiocy. It would be like the New York Journal to blow up the Maine, as it seems to have reached that stage of hysteria which betokens desperation; but the ship is safe as far as the Spaniards are concerned."

Lady Mary rose to go; and Betty, who was informal with her friends, went out into the hall with her instead of ringing for a servant. Senator North remained in the parlor for a few moments to say good- night to Mrs. Madison and the Carters, and Betty, although the Montgomerys did not linger, waited for him to come out. There was nothing to reflect the light in the dark walls of the large square hall, and it always was shadowy, and provocative to lovers at any time.

When he entered it, he looked at her for a moment without speaking, and did not approach her.

"You might be the ghost of another Betty Madison--in that white gown," he said. "Was there not a famous one in the days of 1812, and did she not love a British officer--or something of that sort?"

"They parted here in this hall--and she lived on and died of old age. Such is life. I sleep in her bed, where, I suppose, she suffered much as I do."

She came forward and pushed her hand into his. "I am not a ghost," she said.

He too believed it to be their last meeting alone, and he raised her hand to his lips and held it there.

"I wish we could have stayed on and on in the Adirondacks," she said unsteadily. "Everything seemed to go well with us there."

"People in mid-ocean usually are happy and irresponsible. They would not be if it were anything but an intermediate state. But it is enough to know that on land our troubles are waiting for us."

She shivered and drew closer to him. The dangerous fire in her eyes faded.

"Mine are becoming very great," she said. "All I can do is to distract my mind, to fill up my time."

"And I can do nothing to help you! That is the tragedy of a love like ours: the more a man loves a woman he cannot marry the more he must make her suffer--either way; it is simply a choice of methods, and if he really loves her he chooses the least complicated."

"It is bad enough."

Her eyes filled for the first time in his presence since the morning of Harriet's death, but her mental temper was very different, and she looked at him steadily through her tears.

"I cannot help you," she said. "That is the hardest part. You are harassed in many ways, and you are dreading the bitterness of a greater defeat than today. I could be so much to you--so much. And I can be nothing. By that time you will have ceased to come here. I know that you mean not to come again after to-night, except when the house is full of company."

He began to answer, but stopped. She felt his heart against her arm, and his lips burnt her hand, his eyes her own.

"Listen," she said rapidly, "if war should be declared I shall be in the gallery to hear it. I will come straight home and shut myself up in my boudoir--for hours--to be with you in a way--Shall I? Will-- would it mean anything to you?"

"Of course it would!"

His face was fully unmasked, and she moved abruptly to it as to a magnet. In another moment they were in the more certain seclusion of the vestibule, and she was in his arms. They clung together with a passion which despair with ironic compensation made perfect, and their first kiss which was to be their last expressed for a moment the longing of the year of their love and of the years that were to come. That such a moment ever could end was so incredible that when Betty suddenly found herself alone she looked about in every direction for him, and then the blood rushed through her in a tide of impotent fury.

It was this blind rage that enabled her to go back to the parlor and keep up until the Carters went home a few moments later, and her mother had gone to bed. Then she went to her boudoir and locked herself in.

How she got through that night without sending him an imperious summons she never knew, unless it were that she found some measure of relief in a letter she wrote to him. If she could not see him, he was still her lover, her only intimate friend, and her confessor. She promised not to write again, but she demanded what help he could give her.

She sent the letter in the morning, and he replied at once:--

I know. Do you think it was necessary to tell me? Do you suppose my mind left you for a moment last night, and that I know and love you so little that I failed to imagine and understand in a single particular? If I were less of a man and more of a god, I should go to you and give you the help you need, but I am only strong enough to keep away from you. Not in thought, however,--if that is any help.

We shall meet in public and speak together. I have no desire to forget you nor that you should forget me. We neither of us shall forget, but we shall live and endure, as the strongest of us always do. You tell me that you are tormented by the thought that you have added to my trials. Remember that all other trials sink into insignificance beside this, and yet that this greatest that has come to me in a long life is glorified by the fact of its existence. And if it is almost a relief to know that I shall not see you alone again, it is a satisfaction and a joy to remember that I have kissed you. R.N.