Senator North by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
It was half-past one o'clock in the morning of the nineteenth of April. A thousand people, weary and breathless but intensely silent, were crowded together in the galleries of the Senate. They had been there all night, some of them since early afternoon, a few since twelve o'clock. Outside, the corridors were so packed with humanity that it was a wonder the six acres of building did not sway. For the first time in hours they were silent and motionless, although they could hear nothing.
On the floor of the Senate almost every chair was occupied, and every Senator was singularly erect; no one was lounging, or whispering, or writing to-night. All faced the Vice-President, alone on his dais, much as an army faces its general. Every foot of the wide semicircle between the last curve of chairs and the wall was occupied by members of the House of Representatives, who stood in a dignified silence with which they had been little acquainted of late.
The Senate no longer looked like a Club. It recalled the description of Bryce: "The place seems consecrated to great affairs."
The Secretary was about to call the roll for the vote which would decide the fate of Cuba and alter for ever the position of the United States in the family of nations.
Betty had been in the gallery all night and a part of the preceding day. When the Senate took a recess at half-past six in the evening, she and Mary Montgomery, while Mrs. Shattuc guarded their seats, had forced their way down to the restaurant, but had been obliged to content themselves with a few sandwiches bought at the counter. But Betty was conscious of neither hunger nor fatigue, although the strain during the last eight hours had been almost insupportable: the brief sharp debates, the prosing of bores, interrupted by angry cries of "Vote! Vote!" the reiterated announcement of the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations that the conferees could not agree, the perpetual nagging of two Democrats and one Populist, the long trying intervals of debate on matters irrelevant to the great question torturing every mind, during which there was much confusion on the floor: the Senators talked constantly in groups except when the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations brought in his amended bill;--all this had made up a day trying to the stoutest nerves, and more than one person had fainted and been carried from the galleries.
The blood throbbed in Betty Madison's head from repressed excitement and the long strain on her nerves. But the solemnity of the scene affected her so powerfully that her ego seemed dead, she only was conscious of looking down upon history. It seemed to her that for the first time she fully realized the tremendous issues involved in the calling of that roll of names. The attitude of the American people which she had deprecated and scorned was dignified by the attitude of that historical body below her. Even Senator North did not interest her. The Senate for the time was a unit.
It seemed to her an interminable interval between the last echo of the rumbling voice of the Clerk who had read the resolution amended by the report of the conferees, and the first raucous exasperated note of the Secretary's clerk, after a brief colloquy between Senators. This clerk calls the roll of the Senate at all times as if he hated every member of it, and to-night he was nervous.
Betty felt the blood throb in her ears as she counted the sharp decisive "ayes" and "nos," although Burleigh, whom she had seen during the recess, had told her there was no doubt of the issue. As the clerk entered the M's, she came to herself with a shock, and simultaneously was possessed by a desire to get out of the gallery before Senator North's time came to say "aye." She had heard the roll called many times, she knew there were fourteen M's, and that she would have time to get out of the gallery if she were quick about it. She made so violent an effort to control the excitement raging within her that her brain ached as if a wedge had been driven through it. She whispered hurriedly to Mary Montgomery, who was leaning breathlessly over the rail and did not hear her, then made her way up to the door as rapidly as she could; even the steps were set thick with people.
As she was passed out of the gallery by the doorkeeper, and found herself precipitated upon that pale trembling hollow-eyed crowd wedged together like atoms in a rock, her knees trembled and her courage almost failed her. Several caught her by the arms, and asked her how the vote was going; but she only shrugged her shoulders with the instinct of self-defence and pushed her way toward a big policeman. He knew her and put out his hand, thrusting one or two people aside.
"This has been too much for you, miss, I reckon," he said. "I'll get you downstairs. Keep close behind me."
He forced a way through the crowd to the elevator. To attempt to part the compact mass on the staircase would invite disaster. The elevator boy had deserted his post that he might hear the news the sooner, but the policeman pushed Betty into the car, and manipulated the ropes himself. On the lower floor was another dense crowd; but he got her to the East door after rescuing her twice, called her carriage and returned to his post, well pleased with his bill.
For many moments Betty, bruised from elbows, breathless from her passage through that crush in the stagnant air, could not think connectedly. She vaguely recalled Mrs. Mudd's large face and black silk dress in the Diplomats' Gallery, which even a Cabinet minister might not enter without a permit from a member of the Corps. Doubtless the doorkeepers had been flung to and fro more than once to-night, like little skiffs in an angry sea. She wondered how she had had sufficient presence of mind to fee the policeman, and hoped she had not given him silver instead of the large bill which had seemed to spring to her fingers at the end of that frightful journey.
She leaned out of the open window, wishing it were winter, that the blood might be driven from her head; but there was only the slight chill of a delicious April morning in the air, and the young leaves fluttered gently in the trees. In the afternoon hundreds of boys had sold violets in the streets, and the perfume lingered, floating above the heavier scent of the magnolias in the parks. Betty's weary mind pictured Washington as it would be a few weeks hence, a great forest of brilliant living green amidst which one had almost to look for the houses and the heroes in the squares. Every street was an avenue whose tall trees seemed to cut the sky into blue banners--the word started the rearrangement of her scattered senses; in a few weeks the dust would be flying up to the green from thousands of marching feet.
She burst into tears, and they gave her some relief. The carriage stopped at the house a moment later, and she went directly to her boudoir. She took off her hat and pulled down her hair, rubbing her fingers against her burning head. Senator North took possession of her mind at once. The Senate was no longer a unit to her excited imagination; it seemed to dissolve away and leave one figure standing there beaten and alone.
She forgot the passionate efforts of other Senators in behalf of peace; to her the fine conservative strength of the Senate was personified in one man. And if there were others as pure and unselfish in their ideals, his at least was the master intellect.
She wondered if he remembered in this hour of bitter defeat that she had promised to come to this room and give him what she could of herself. That was weeks and weeks ago, and she had not repeated her intention, as she should have done. But he loved her, and was not likely to forget anything she said to him. Or would he care if he did remember? Must not personal matters seem of small account to-night? Or was he too weary to care for anything but sleep? Perhaps he had flung himself down on a sofa in the cloak-room, or in his Committee Room, and forgotten the national disaster while she watched.
She had been walking rapidly up and down the room. Her thoughts were not yet coherent, and instinct prompted her to get the blood out of her head if she could. A vague sense of danger possessed her, but she was not capable of defining it. Suddenly she stopped and held her breath. She had become aware of a recurring footstep on the sidewalk. Her window abutted some thirty feet away. She craned her head forward, listening so intently that the blood pounded in her ears. She expected to hear the gate open, the footsteps to grow softer on the path. But they continued to pace the stone flags of the sidewalk.
She opened her door, ran down the hall and into the parlor. Without an instant's hesitation she flung open a window and leaned out. The light from the street lamp fell full upon her. He could not fail to see her were he there. But he was not. The man pacing up and down before the house was the night watchman.
Betty closed the window hurriedly and stumbled back into the dark room. The disappointment and reaction were intolerable. She felt the same blind rage with Circumstance which had attacked her the night he had kissed and left her. In such crises conventions are non-existent; she might have been primeval woman for all she recalled in that hour of the teachings of the centuries. Had he been there, she would have called him in. He was hers, whatever stood between them, and she alone had the right to console him.
Her mind turned suddenly to his house. He was there, of course; it was absurd to imagine that his cool deliberation would ever forsake him. The moment the Senate adjourned he would have put on his hat, walked down to the East door, called a cab and gone home. And he was in his library. Why she felt so positive that he was there and not in bed she could not have told, but she saw the light in the long wing. She put her hands to her face suddenly, and moved to the door. She stumbled over a chair, and then noticed the intense darkness of the room. But beyond she saw distinctly the big red brick house of Senator North, with the light burning in the wing. Was she going to him? She wondered vaguely, for her will seemed to be at the bottom of a pile of struggling thoughts and to have nothing to say in the matter. Surely she must. He was a man who stood alone and scorned sympathy or help, but he would be glad of hers because it was hers; there was no possible doubt of that. And in spite of his record he must for the hour feel a bitter and absolute failure.
A pebble would bring him to the window. He would come out, and come back here with her. She opened her arms suddenly. The room was so dark she almost could fancy him beside her. Would that he were!
She had no adequate conception of a morrow. The future was drab and formless. His trouble drew her like a magnet. She trembled at the mere thought of being able to make him forget.
And he? If he came out and saw her standing there, he would be more than a man if he resisted the impulse to return with her here and take her in his arms. And he too must be in a state of mind in which to-day dwarfed and blotted out to-morrow.
For the moment she stood motionless, almost breathless, realizing so vividly the procession of bitter and apprehensive thoughts in the mind which for so long had possessed and controlled hers that she forgot her intention, even her desire to go to him. It was this moment of insight and abstraction from self that saved her. Her own mind seemed to awake suddenly.
It was as if her thinking faculty had descended to her heart during the last hours and been made dizzy and dull by the wild hot whirl of emotions there. It climbed suddenly to where it belonged, and set the rested machinery of her brain to work.
Doubtless his impulse had been to come to her, to the room where he knew she was alone and would receive him if he demanded admittance. He had put the temptation aside, as he had put aside many others; and it had been in her mind, was in her mind still, to make the temptation irresistible. And if he felt a failure to-night, she had it in her power to wreck his life utterly.
It was more than possible that in the remaining years of his vigour dwelt his tardy opportunities for historical fame. The great Republic had sailed out of her summer sea into foreign waters, stormy, unfriendly, bristling with unimaginable dangers. Once more she would need great statesmen, not merely able legislators, and there could be no doubt in the mind of any student of the Senate that she would discover them swiftly. North was the greatest of these; and the record of his future, brilliant, glorious perhaps, seemed to unroll itself suddenly in the dark room.
Betty drew a long hard breath. Her cheeks were cool at last, and she wondered if her heart were dead, it felt so cold. What mad impulse nearly had driven her to him to-night, independently of her will; which had slept, worn out, like other faculties, by a day of hunger, excitement, fatigue, and physical pain? The impulse had risen unhindered and uncriticised from her heart, and if it had risen once it could rise again. The days to come would be full of excitement. She fancied that she already heard the roar of cannon, the beating of drums, the sobs of women. And below the racket and its sad accompaniment was always the low indignant mutter of a triumphant people at those who had dared to set themselves above the popular clamour and ask for sanity. The intolerable longing that had become her constant companion would be fed by every device of unpropitious Circumstance. Again and again she would experience this impulse to go to him, and some night the blood would not recede from her brain in time.
She groped her way out of the dark parlor and down the hall, grateful for an excuse to walk slowly. Her boudoir was brilliant, and the struggle of the last few moments seemed the more terrible and significant by contrast with the dainty luxurious room. She wondered if she ever should dare to enter the parlor again, and if it always would not look dark to her.
She sat down at her desk and wrote a letter. It ran:-- Dear Mr. Burleigh,--I will marry you if you still wish it. Will you dine with us to-night?
She was too tired for emotion, but she knew what would come later. Nevertheless, she went to the front door and asked the watchman to post the letter. Then she went to bed.