Part III
Chapter XVI
 

When Betty awoke at four o'clock in the afternoon, she discovered with some surprise that she had slept soundly for eleven hours. Her head was a trifle heavy, but after her bath she felt so fresh again that the previous day and night seemed like a very long and very ugly dream. She reflected that if she had not written to Burleigh before she went to bed she certainly should do so now. He still seemed the one safeguard for the future; she had convinced herself that with her capacity for violent emotion and nervous exaltation, her head was not to be trusted.

She felt calm enough this afternoon, and she opened with no enthusiasm the note which had arrived from Burleigh. She might have drawn some from its superabundant amount, but she frowned and threw it in the fire. Then she went to her mother's room and announced her engagement.

"My dear!" exclaimed Mrs. Madison. "Well!--I am delighted."

Then she looked keenly at Betty and withheld her congratulations. But she asked no questions, although the edge suddenly left her pleasure and she began to wonder if Burleigh were to be congratulated.

"He is coming to dinner," Betty continued, "and I want you to promise me that you will not leave us alone for a moment, and that you will go with me to New York to-morrow."

"I will do anything you like, of course, and I always enjoy New York."

"I want to get away from Washington, and I want to shop more than anything in life. I hate the thought of everything serious,--the country, the war, everybody and everything, and I feel that if I could spend two weeks with shops and dressmakers I'd be quite happy--almost my old self again."

"I wish you were," said Mrs. Madison, with a sigh. "I wish this country never had had any politics."

The instinct of coquetry was deeply rooted in Betty Madison, but that evening she selected her most unbecoming gown. She was one of those women who never look well in black, and look their worst in it when their complexion shows the tear of secret trouble and broken rest. She had a demi-toilette of black chiffon trimmed with jet and relieved about the neck with pink roses. She cut off the roses; and when arrayed had the satisfaction of seeing herself look thirty-five. For a moment she wavered, and Leontine, with tears, begged to be allowed to remove the gown; but Betty set her teeth and went downstairs.

She had the further satisfaction of seeing a brief flash of surprise and disappointment in Burleigh's eyes as he came forward to greet her; and, indeed, the gown seemed to depress the company for the entire evening. Betty tried to rattle on gayly, but the painful certainty that she looked thirty-five (perhaps more), and that Burleigh saw it, and her mother (who was visibly depressed) saw it, and the butler and the footman (both of whom, she knew through Leontine, admired her extravagantly) saw it, dashed her spirits to zero, and she fell into an unreasoning rage with Senator North.

"I am going to New York to-morrow, and you are not to follow me," she said with a final effort at playfulness. "I have been at such a nervous strain over this wretched war that I must be frivolous and feminine for two whole weeks--and what so serious as being engaged?"

Burleigh sighed. His spirits were unaccountably low. He had forgotten his country for an entire day, and rushed up to the house ten minutes before the appointed hour, his spirits as high as a boy's on his way to the cricket field. But his apple had turned to ashes in a funereal gown, and there seemed no colour about it anywhere.

"Of course you want a change," he said, "but I hope you will write to me."

"I'll write you a little note every day," she said with sudden contrition. "I know I'll feel--and look ever so much better in a few days."

"There!" she thought with a sigh, "I've made this wretched sacrifice for nothing, and I'll never forget how I'm looking at the present moment, to my dying day. I know I'll wear my most distracting gown the next time he comes. Well, what difference? I've got to marry him, anyhow."

She shook hands cordially with him when he rose to go, an hour later, but she did not leave her mother's side. He did not attempt to smile, but shook hands silently with both and left the room as rapidly as dignity would permit.

Mrs. Madison put her handkerchief to her eyes and burst into tears.

"Poor dear man!" she exclaimed. "I felt exactly as if we were having our last dinner together before he went off to the war to get killed. I never spent such a dismal evening in my life. And what on earth made you put on that horrid gown? You look a fright--you almost look older than he does."

"Don't turn the knife round, please. I'm rather sorry, to tell the truth, but I didn't want him to be too overjoyed. I couldn't have stood it."

"Are you sorry that you have engaged yourself to him?"

"No, I am glad--very glad." But she said it without enthusiasm. When she went up to her room, she presented the black gown to Leontine and sent her to bed. Then she put on a peignoir of pink silk and lace and examined herself in the mirror. She looked fifteen years younger and wholly charming; there was no doubt of it.