Part III
Chapter XII
 

"Now!" exclaimed Sally Carter, who was sobbing hysterically, "I hope they will impeach the President if he delays any longer with the Maine report and if he doesn't send a warlike message on top of it. After that speech I don't see why Congress should wait for him at all."

It was the seventeenth of March, and she and Betty were driving home from the Capitol after listening to the Senator from Vermont on the situation in Cuba,--to that cold, bare, sober statement of the result of personal investigation, which produced a far deeper and more historical impression than all the impassioned rhetoric which had rent the air since the agitation began. He appeared to have no feeling on the matter, no personal bias; he told what he had seen, and he had seen misery, starvation, and wholesale death. He blamed the Spaniards no more than the insurgents, but two hundred thousand people were the victims of both; and the bold yet careful etching he made of the Cuban drama burnt itself into the brains of the forty-six Senators present and of the eight hundred people in the galleries.

"I cannot bring myself to think that death is the worst of all evils," said Betty, "and I do not think that we have any right to go to war with Spain, no matter what she chooses to do with her own. Besides, she is thoroughly frightened now, and I believe would rectify her mistakes in an even greater measure than she has already tried to do, if the President were given time to handle her with tact and diplomacy. If the country would give him a chance to save her pride, war could be averted."

"You are heartless! Don't argue with me. I hate argument when my emotions feel as if they had dynamite in them. I could sit down on the floor of the Senate and scream until war was declared. I hate Senator North. He never moved a muscle of his face during that entire terrible recital. He hardly looked interested. He is a heartless brute."

"He is not heartless. He fears everlasting complications if we go to war with Spain, the expenditure of hundreds of millions, as one result of those complications, and danger to the Constitution. The statesman thinks of his own country first--"

"I won't listen! I won't! I won't! Oh, I never thought I could get so excited about anything. I believe I'm going to have nervous prostration and I sha'n't see you again till war is declared. So there!"

The carriage stopped at her house, and she jumped out and ran up the steps. She kept her word, and it was weeks before Betty saw her to speak to again.

"If intelligent people get into that condition," thought Betty, "what can be expected of the fools? And the fools are more dangerous in the United States than elsewhere, because they are just bright enough to think that they know more than the Almighty ever knew in His best days."

A few days later she was crossing Statuary Hall on her way back from the House Gallery; whither she had gone during an Executive Session of the Senate, when she met Senator North. His face illuminated as he saw her, and they both turned spontaneously and went to a bench behind the immortal ones of the Republic, who in dust and marble were happier than their inheritors to-day.

"I am thinking of coming down here to live, renting a Committee Room," said Betty. "It is the only place where I do not have my opinion asked and where I do not quarrel with my friends. Molly is sure I shall be taken for a lobbyist, and if people were not too absorbed to notice me, I think I should engage a companion; but as it is, I believe I am safe enough. I have had this simple brown serge made, on purpose."

"There is not the least danger of your motives being misconstrued, and the Capitol is swarming with women, all the time. They seem to regard it as a sort of National Theatre, where the most exciting denouement may take place any minute. I fancy they have come from all over the country for the satisfaction of being able to say, for the rest of their lives, that they were in at the death. The poor Capitol has become a sort of asylum for wandering lunatics."

Betty laughed. "I feel calmer here than anywhere else, especially now that Molly has gone over to the Cubans since the publication of that speech. I suspect it has made a good many other converts. I didn't think the tide of excitement in the country could rise any higher, but it appears to have needed that last straw. Have you any hope left?"

"None whatever. The politicians in both parties are rushing the President off his feet and inflaming the country at the same time. Sincere sympathizers with Cuba, like Burleigh, are holding their peace until the President shall have declared himself, but there is very little patriotism amongst politicians desirous of re-election. If Spain was a quick-thinking nation and was not stultified by a mulish obstinacy for which the word 'pride' is a euphemism, or if the President could hypnotize the country for six months, all would be well, but I do not look for a miracle. I have done all I can. I have persuaded my own State to keep quiet, and that has lessened the pressure a little; and I have persuaded no less than eight of our bellicose members to say nothing on the floor of the Senate until the President has sent in his message,--that delay is necessary if we are to meet war with any sort of preparation. That is all I can do, for I don't care to speak on the subject again, to bring it up in the Senate until it no longer can be held down. But I have said a good deal in the lobby."

"I suspect you have! Do you mind all the talk about your being unpatriotic, and that sort of thing? I cried for an hour the other day over an article in a New York paper, headed 'A Traitor,' and saying the most hideous things about you."

"I didn't read it. And don't spoil your eyes over anything sensational American newspapers may say of anybody; let them alone and read the few decent ones. For a public man to worry over such assaults would be a stupid waste of his mental energy; for if he is in the right he consoles himself with the reflection that the traitor of to-day is the patriot of to-morrow. But let politics go to the winds for a little. Tell me something about yourself. I have started no less than four times to go to see you--at half-past six in the afternoon--and turned back."

"I go there and sit almost every afternoon. This excitement has been a godsend. If the world had been pursuing its even way during the last two months, I don't know what would have happened to me. What am I to do when it is over?" she broke out, for they were almost secluded. "The more I think of the future the more hopeless it seems. If there is war, I'll go as a nurse--"

"You will do nothing of the sort. Promise me that--instantly. There will be trained nurses without end, and you would run the risk of fever for nothing. Promise me."

"But I must do something. I have hours that you cannot imagine. Ordinarily I keep up very well, for I have character enough to make the best of life, whatever happens; but one can control one's heart with one's will just so long and no longer. When the world is quiet and I am alone at night, if I don't go to sleep at once--it is terrible! Do you think I should be afraid of death? If I have got to go through life with this terrible ache in my heart, in my whole body --for when I cry my very fingers cramp--I'd a thousand times rather go to Cuba and have done with it."

For a moment he only stared at her. Then he parted his lips as if to speak, but closed them again so firmly that Betty wondered what he was holding back. But his eyes, although they had flashed for a moment and burned still, told her nothing. He did not speak for fully a minute. Then he said,--

"Death can be met with fortitude by any strong brain, but not a lifetime of miserable invalidism. If you contracted fever down there, you might get rid of it in several years and you might not. Meanwhile," he added, smiling, "you would become yellow and wrinkled. So promise me at once that you will not go."

"I swear it!" she said with an attempt at gayety. "Not even for you will I get yellow and wrinkled--and I adore you! Tell me," she went on rapidly and with little further attempt at self-control; "what shall I do next? Shall I go abroad? There is no distraction in castles and cathedrals and crooked streets; they must be enjoyed when one is idle and tranquil. I'm tired of pictures. I suppose I've seen about twenty miles of them in my life. As for the old masters they give me nightmares. There is nothing left but society, and I don't like foreigners and should find little novelty in England--and many reminders! The future appalls me. I cannot face it. Am I inconsiderate to talk like this when you are so worried? Sometimes I feel that I have no right to be even sensible of my individuality when a whole nation is convulsed; it seems almost absurd that there are hundreds of thousands of tragedies within the great one--but there are! There are! And the war will bring oblivion to only those to whom it brings death."

She stopped, panting, after the torrent of words. His hand had closed about her arm, and he was bending close above her. His face had flushed deeply, and once more he opened his lips as if to speak, but did not. Betty shook suddenly. Was the word he would not utter "Wait"? There could be no doubt that a word struggled for utterance, and that he held it back. If he did not, Betty felt that her love would turn cold. For a great love may be killed by a sudden blow, and there is always some one thing that will kill the greatest. But she wished that his brain would flash its message to hers.

The silence between them became so intense and the strain on her eyes so intolerable that she dropped her head and fumbled with her muff. She dared not speak, dared not divert his mind. He was too much the master of his own fate.

"Don't ever hesitate to speak out through consideration for me, my dear," he said. "The only relief we both have is to speak our thoughts occasionally. And you can tell me nothing of yourself that I do not know already. I never forget that you are tormented. But Time will help you. The future which looms with a few dull and insupportable Facts is crowded with small details which consume both time and thought, and it is full of little unexpected pleasures. War is very diverting. One's attitude to a war after the first few shocks is as to a great military drama. If by a miracle ours should be averted, then go to England, where you will have men at least to talk to. When plans for the future are futile, live in the present and be careful to make no mistake. It is the only philosophy for those who are not in the favour of Circumstance. I am going now. Bend your ear closer. I have had so little opportunity to be tender with you, and I have thought of that as much as of anything else."

Betty inclined her head eagerly, and he whispered to her for a moment, then left her.

For a few moments she did not move. The buoyancy of her nature was still considerable, and his last words had thrilled her and made her almost as happy as if he would return in an hour. She rose finally and walked across the hall, her inclination divided between the Senate Gallery where she might look at him, and her boudoir where she might fling herself on her divan and think of him. As she was moving along slowly, seeing no one, her arm was caught by a bony hand, and a familiar drawl smote her ear.

"Laws, Miss Madison, have you gone blind all of a sudden? But you look as if you had two stars in your eyes."

"How do you do, Mrs. Mudd? These are times to make anybody absent- minded."

"Well, I guess! We're gettin' there and no mistake. Now look quick, Miss Madison--there's my husband, the one that's just got up off that bench. He's been talkin' to a constituent."

Betty glanced across the Hall with some interest: she occasionally had doubted the reality of George Washington Mudd. A tall stout man in a loose black overcoat, a black slouch hat, and a big cotton umbrella under his arm, was stalking across the Hall with his head in the air, as if to sniff at the marble effigies of the great. Betty felt young again and gave a delighted laugh.

"Why, I didn't know there really was anything like that!" she cried. "I thought--"

"Well, I guess I'd like to know what you mean," exclaimed an infuriate voice; and Betty, turning to Mrs. Mudd's dark red face, recovered herself instantly.

"I mean that your husband belongs to a type that our dramatists have thought worthy of preservation and of exercising their finest art upon. I often give writers credit for more creative ability than they possess, for I always am seeing some one in real life whose entire type I had supposed had come straight out of their genius. Take yourself, for instance. If I had not met you outside of a book, I should have thought you a triumph of imagination."

"Well--thanks," drawled Mrs. Mudd, mollified though doubtful. "I don't claim that George is handsome, but he's the smartest man in our district and he'll make the House sit up yet." She giggled and rolled her eyes. "He was downright jealous because I came home from the reception and raved over the President," she announced. "Oh, my!"

"Perhaps he's a Populist," suggested Betty.

"Not much he ain't. He's a good Democrat with Silver principles."

"Well, I'm glad you're happy. Good-afternoon."

"I love the greatest man in America and she loves George Washington Mudd," thought Betty, as she walked down the corridor. "Mortals die, but love is imperishable. A half-century hence and where will the love that dwells in every fibre of me now, have gone? Will it be dust with my dust, or vigorous with eternal youth in some poor girl who never heard my name?"

And then she went home to her boudoir.