Part III
Chapter X
 

On the following evening she went with the Montgomerys to the Army and Navy reception at the White House. Lady Mary had but to express a wish for a card to any function in Washington; and her popularity had much to do with her love for her adopted country.

It was the first time Betty ever had entered the historic mansion, and as she waited for twenty minutes in the crush of people on the front porch, she reflected that probably it was the last.

But when she was in the great East Room, which was hung with flags and glittered with uniforms, and was filled with the strains of martial music, she thrilled again with the historical sense, and almost wished there was a prospect of a war which would compel her to patriotic excitement.

They remained in the East Room for some time before going to shake hands with the President, that the long queue of people patiently crawling to the Blue Room might have time to wear itself down to a point. As Betty stood there eagerly watching the scene, and talking to first one and then another of the Army men who came up to speak to her, she became deeply impressed with the fact that this was the calmest function she had attended in Washington during the winter. There was no excitement on the faces of these men in uniform, and they said little and hardly mentioned the subject of war. They looked stern and thoughtful; and Betty felt proud of them, and wished they were doing themselves honour in a better cause.

She went down the long central corridor after a time, past the crowd wedged before the central door, gaping at the receiving party, to a room where she and the Montgomerys joined the diminished queue extending from a side entrance to the Blue Room. She was not surprised to see Mrs. Mudd in front of her, for although the Representative's wife should have received a card for another evening, she was quite capable of forcing her way in without one; as doubtless a good many others had done to-night. She wore her black silk gown and her bonnet, and although most of the women present were in brilliant evening dress, Mrs. Mudd had several to keep her in countenance. She glanced wearily over her shoulder during the slow progress of the queue, and caught sight of Betty. Her place was precious, but she left it at once and came down the line.

"I'll go in along with you," she said. "George couldn't come and I've felt kinder lonesome ever sense I got here. And we've been three quarters of an hour getting this far. It's terrible tiresome, but as I've found you I guess I can stand the rest of it."

Betty detected the flicker of malice in her former housekeeper's voice. They were on equal ground for once, and Miss Madison and Mrs. Mudd would shake hands with their President within consecutive moments. She smiled with some cynicism, but was too good-natured to snub the native ambition where it could do no harm.

"I saw Senator North to-day," observed Mrs. Mudd, "and he looked crosser 'n two sticks. He's mad because they'll have war in spite of him. I call him right down unpatriotic, and so do lots of others."

"That disturbs him a great deal. He is much more concerned about the country making a fool of itself."

"This country's all right, and we couldn't go wrong if we tried. Them that sets themselves up to be so terrible superior are just bad Americans, that's the long and the short of it, and they'll find it out at the next elections. If Senator North should take a trip out West just now, they'd tar and feather him, and I'd like to be there to see it done. They can't say what they think of his setting on patriotic Senators loud enough. And as for the President--"

"Well, don't criticise the President while you are under his roof. It is bad manners. Here we are. Will you go in first?"

"Well, I don't see why I shouldn't. I'll hurry on so they can see your dress; it's just too lovely for anything."

Betty wore a white embroidered chiffon over green; she shook out the train, which had been over her arm ever since she entered the house. Her name was announced in a loud tone, and she entered the pretty flowery Blue Room with its charmingly dressed receiving party standing before a large group of favoured and critical friends, and facing the inquisitive eyes in the central doorway. The President grasped her hand and said, "How do you do, Miss Madison?" in so pleased and so cordial a tone that Betty for a fleeting moment wondered where she could have met him before. Then she smiled, made a comprehensive bow to his wife and the women of the Cabinet, and passed on. Mrs. Mudd, who had shaken hands relentlessly with every weary member of the receiving party, reached the door of exit after her and clutched her by the arm.

"Say!" she exclaimed with excitement, although her drawl was but half conquered. "Where do you s'pose I could have met the President before? I know by the way he said 'Mrs. Mudd,' he remembered me, but I just can't think, to save my life. My! ain't he fascinating?"

Betty had laughed aloud. "I am sorry to hurt your vanity," she replied, "but the President is said to have the best manners of any man who has occupied the White House within living memory."

"What d'you mean?" cried Mrs. Mudd, sharply. "D' you mean he didn't know me? I just know he did, so there! And he can pack his clothes in my trunk as soon as he likes."

"Good heaven!" "Oh, that's slang. I forgot you were so terrible superior. But you've got good cause to know I'm virtuous. Lands sakes! I guess nobody ever said I warn't."

"I don't fancy anybody ever did."

They were in the East Room again, with the stars and stripes, the moving glitter of gold, the loud hum mingled with the distant strains of martial music.

"It's really inspiring," said Lady Mary. "I wish I could write a war poem."

"I hope there is nothing coming to inspire war doggerel; the prospect of a new crop of war stories and war plays is too painful. We were all brought up on the Civil War and are resigned to its literature. But life is too short to get used to a new variety."

"Betty dear, ennui has embittered you, and I must confess that I am a trifle weary of the war before it has begun, myself. Randolph, I think I prefer you should vote for peace."

"I'm afraid we'll have no peace till we've had war first," said Mr. Montgomery, grimly.

"Oh, we're goin' to have war," drawled Mrs. Mudd. "Just don't you worry about that. Now don't blush," she said in Betty's ear. "Senator North's makin' straight for you. I suspicion you like him better 'n Burleigh--"

Betty had turned upon her at last, and the woman tittered nervously and fell back in the crowd.

Senator North and Miss Madison shook hands with that absence of emotion which is one of the conditions of a crowded environment, and Lady Mary suggested they should all go to the conservatory, where it was cooler.

Betty told Senator North of the impression the Army and Navy men had made on her, and he laughed.

"Of course they are not excited and say little," he said. "They will do the acting and leave the talking to the private citizens. The only argument in favour of the war and the large standing army which might be its consequence is that several hundred thousand more men would have disciplined brains inside their skulls."

"That dreadful housekeeper I had in the Adirondacks is here, married to a Representative named George Washington Mudd."

"I never heard of him, but I am sorry she has come here to remind you of what I should like to have you forget for a time. I do believe a specimen of every queer fish in the country comes to this pond."

They passed one of the bands, and conversation was impossible until they entered the great conservatory with its wide cool walks among the green. It was not crowded, and although there was no seclusion in it at any time, its lights were few and it had a sequestered atmosphere.

Betty and Senator North involuntarily drew closer together.

"In a way I am happy now," she said. "It is something to be with you and close to you. I will not think of how much this may lack until I am alone again and there is no limit to my wants."

"I feel the reverse of depressed," he said, smiling. "Are you quite well? You look a little tired."

"I am tired with much thinking; but that is inevitable. One cannot love hopelessly and look one's best. I always despised the heroines of romance who went into a decline, but Nature demands some tribute in spite of the strongest will."

He held her arm more closely, but he set his lips and did not answer. She spoke again after a moment.

"Since that night I have not been nearly so unhappy, however. I even feel gay sometimes, and my sense of humour has come back. It would be quite dreadful to go through life without that, but I thought I had lost it."

He had turned his eyes and was regarding her intently; but much as she loved them she felt as helpless as ever before their depths. They could pierce and burn, but they never were limpid for a moment.

"You do not misunderstand that?" she asked hurriedly. "It does not mean that I love you less, but more, if anything. And I am not resigned! Only, I feel as if in some way I had received a little help, as if--I cannot express it."

"I understand you perfectly. We are a little closer than we were, and life is not quite so grey."

"That is it. And I would supplement your bare statement of the fact, if I dared."

"If you do, I certainly shall kiss you right here in the crowd," he said, and they smiled into each other's eyes. There was little need of explanations between them.

"That would form a brief diversion for Washington. And as for Mrs. Mudd--By the way, I hope I am not going off. You are the second person who has told me that I am not looking well."

"You are improved as far as I am concerned. And if you ever faded, happiness would restore you at once. If happiness never came, perhaps you would not care--would you?"

She shrugged her beautiful shoulders and smiled quizzically.

"I don't know. Je suis femme. I think I might always find some measure of consolation in the mirror if it behaved properly."

"Your sincerity is one of your charms. So walk and eat and live in the world, and think as little as you can."

"This conservatory is fearfully draughty," remarked Lady Mary, close to Betty's shoulder. "I don't want to stay all night, do you?"

"I am ready," said Betty; but she sighed, for she had been almost happy for the hour.