Part I
Chapter VIII
 

"How many politicians are coming this afternoon?" asked Mrs. Madison, at the Sunday midday dinner. Her voice indicated that all protest had not gone out of her.

"Senator Burleigh and Mr. Montgomery--and Lady Mary. Not a formidable array."

"They are exactly two too many. I have written and asked Sally Carter to come over and chaperon you in case I do not feel equal to the ordeal at the last moment. I am surprised that she takes your course so quietly, but on the whole am relieved; you need some one respectable to keep you in countenance."

"This house reeks with respectability; no one would ever notice the absence of a chaperon. Sally is not only quiescent, but sympathetic. She knows that I have got to the end of teas and charities, and she believes in people choosing their own lives. She says she would join a travelling circus if her proclivities happened to point that way."

Mrs. Madison shuddered. "I do not pretend to understand the present generation, and the more I hear of it the less I wish to. As for Sally I love her, but I should detest her if I didn't, for she is the worst form of snob: she is so rich and so well born that she thinks she can dress like a servant-girl and affect the manners of a barmaid." "Molly! So you were haunting 'pubs' when I supposed you were yawning at home? I hope you did not tell the barmaids your real name."

"Well, I suppose I should not criticise people that I know nothing about," said Mrs. Madison, colouring and serious. She changed the subject hastily. "Jack, I hope you will stay this afternoon. It would be the greatest comfort to have you in the house."

"I will stay, certainly," said Emory. He had taken his Sunday dinner at the old house in I Street for almost a quarter of a century. To-day he had been unusually silent, and had contracted his brows nervously every time Betty looked at him. She understood perfectly, and amused herself by turning round upon him several times with abrupt significance. However, she spared him until they had taken Mrs. Madison to the parlor and gone to the library, where he might smoke his after-dinner cigar. He sat down in front of a window, and the sunlight poured over him, glistening his handsome head and illuminating his skin. Betty supposed that some women might fall quite desperately in love with him; and in addition to his beauty he was a noble and high-minded gentleman, whose narrowness was due to the secluded life he chose to lead.

"Now!" she exclaimed, "come out with it! You've had eleven days, and one can learn a good deal in that time."

He bit sharply at the end of his cigar, but answered without hesitation.

"It is almost impossible to learn anything in Washington to the detriment of the Senate. There seems to be a sort of esprit de corps in the entire city. They look politely horrified if you suggest that a Senator of the United States, honouring Washington with the society of his wives and daughters, is anything that he should not be. I was obliged to go to New York and Boston to get the information I wanted, and even now it is far from complete. I don't believe it is possible to arrive at anything like accurate knowledge on the subject."

"Well, what did you get? Washington is a well-ordered community with a high moral tone--it is said to have fewer scandals than any city in the country--and there is no sordid commercial atmosphere to lower it. It is the great city of leisure in everything but legislation and paying calls; so it seems to me that it would be the last place to fondle in its bosom ninety distinguished scoundrels. But go on. What did you learn in Boston and New York?"

"That a little of everything is represented in the Senate,--that is about what it amounts to. There are unquestionably men there who bought their seats from legislatures, and there are men who are agents for trusts, syndicates, and railroad corporations, as well as three party bosses--"

"Ninety Senators leave a large margin for a number of loose fish. What I want to know is, how do the big men stand--North, Maxwell, Ward, March--and fifteen or twenty others, all the men who are the Chairmen of the big Committees? The New England men seem to have charge of everything of importance in the House and of a good deal in the Senate."

"Some of the Southern and North-western and most of the New England States seem to have honest enough legislatures," said Emory, unwillingly. "But that leaves plenty of others. Only a few of the Western States are above suspicion, and as for New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, they would not waste time defending themselves; and as no Senators are better than the people that elect them--"

"Oh, yes, they are sometimes--look at the Senator from Delaware. I too have been asking questions for eleven days. It all comes to this: there are millionaireism and corrupting influences in the Senate, but that element is in the minority, and the greater number of leading, or able Senators are above suspicion. And they seem to have things pretty much all their own way. They could not if the majority in the Senate were scoundrels. No corrupt body was ever led by its irreproachable exceptions--"

"In another ten years there will be no exceptions. All that are making a desperate stand for honesty to-day will be overwhelmed by the unprincipled element--"

"Or have forced it to reform. The good in human nature predominates; we are a healthy infant, and do not know the meaning of the word 'decadent;' and we are extraordinarily clever. Senator Burleigh says that you can always bank on the American people going right in the end. They may not bother for a long time, but when they do wake up they make things hum."

"Senator Burleigh evidently has all the easy-going optimism of this country. But, Betty, I am no more reconciled than I was before to your having anything to do with these people. Politics have a bad name, whatever the truth of the matter. I think myself our sensational press is largely to blame--" "There is nothing so interesting as the pursuit of truth," said Betty, lightly. "Reconcile yourself to the sight of me in pursuit of it--"

"Ah, here you are!" exclaimed a staccato voice. Sally Carter entered the room, kissed Betty, shook hands heartily with Emory, and threw herself into a chair. Her fortune equalled Betty's, but it was her pleasure to wear frocks so old and so dowdy that her friends wondered where they had come from originally. She had been a handsome girl, and her blue eyes were still full of fire, her fair hair abundant, but her face was sallow and lined from many attacks of malarial fever. Her manner was breezy and full of energy, and she was not only popular but a very important person indeed. She lived alone with her father in the old house in K Street and entertained rarely, but she had strawberry leaves on her coronet, and it was currently reported that when she arrived in England, clad in a rusty black serge and battered turban,-- which she certainly slept in at intervals during the day,--she was met in state by the entire ducal family--including a prolific connection-- whose ancestor had founded the great house of Carter in the British colonies of North America. What their private opinion was of this representative of the American dukedom was never quite clear to the Washington mind, but to know Sally Carter in her own city meant complete social recognition, and not to know her an indifferent success.

"Senator North tells me that he met you the other day and would like to meet you again," she said to Betty, who lifted her head with attention. "I dropped in on my way here for a little call on Mrs. North, poor dear! There's a real invalid for you--something the matter with her spine--is liable to paralysis any minute. It must be so cheerful to sit round and anticipate that. Why on earth do women let their nerves run away with them, in the first place? Nerves in this country are a mixture of climate, selfishness, and stupidity. I could be as nervous as a witch, but I won't. I walk miles every day and don't think about myself. Well! I told Mr. North all about the bold course of the young lady weary of frivolities, and he seemed much interested, paid you some compliment or other, I've forgotten what. He said he would look out for you in the Senate gallery and go up and speak to you--"

Emory rose with an exclamation of disgust. "I hope you told him to do nothing of the kind."

"On the contrary, I told him not to forget, for as Betty would sail her little yacht on the political sea, I wanted her to be recognized by the men-of-war, not by the trading-ships and pirates."

Emory threw away his cigar. "I think I will go in and see my aunt," he said. "All this is most distasteful to me."

He left the room, followed by Betty's mocking laugh. But Miss Carter said with a sigh,--

"He can't expect us all to live up to his ideals. It is better not to have any, like my practical self. But I'm afraid he sits out there in his damp old library and dreams of a world in which all the men are Sir Galahads and all the women Madame Rolands. He is an ideal himself, if he only knew it; I've always been half in love with him. Well, Betty, how do you like your new toy? After all, what is even a Senate but a toy for a pretty woman? That is really your attitude, only you don't know it. Life is serious only for women with babies and bills. As for charities, they were specially invented to give old maids like myself an occupation in life. What--what--should I have done without charities when Society palled?"

"Why did you never marry, Sally?" asked Betty, abruptly. The question never had occurred to her before, but as she asked it her eyes involuntarily moved to the empty chair before the window.

"What on earth should I do with a husband?" asked Miss Carter, lightly. "I only love men when they are in bronze in the public parks. Poor dear old General Lathom proposed to me four times, and the only time I felt like accepting him was when I saw his statue unveiled. I couldn't put a man on a pedestal to save my life, but when my grateful country does it I'm all humble adoration. Could you idealize a live thing in striped trousers and a frock coat?"

"Woolen is hopeless," said Betty, with an attempt at playfulness. "We must do the best we can with the inner man."

"How on earth do you know what a man is like on the inside? Idealize is the right word, though. Women make a god out of what they cannot understand in a man. If he has a bad temper, they think of him as a 'dominant personality.' If he is unfaithful to his wife, he is romantic in the eyes of a woman who has given no man a chance to be unfaithful to her. If he comes to your dinner with an attack of dyspepsia, you compare him sentimentally with the brutes that eat. You haven't married yet, I notice, and you are on the corner of twenty-seven."

"American men don't give you a chance to idealize them," said Betty, plaintively. "They tell you all about themselves at once. And although Englishmen have more mystery and provoke your curiosity, they don't understand women and don't want to; the women can do the adapting. I never could stand that; and as I can't endure foreigners I'm afraid I shall die an old maid. That's the reason I've gone into politics--"

The butler announced that Senator Burleigh was in the parlor.

"What of his inner man?" asked Sally.

"I never have given it two thoughts. But his outer is all that could be desired."

"He would look well in bronze. I understand that his State thinks a lot of him: as you know, I read the Post and Star through every day to papa. I have to know something of politics."

They found Senator Burleigh talking to Mrs. Madison, apparently oblivious of her frigid attempt at tolerance and of Emory's sullen silence. Sally Carter's eyes flashed with amusement, and she shook the Senator warmly by the hand.

"Such a very great pleasure!" she announced in her staccato tones. "Now the only time I really allow myself pride is when I meet the statesmen of my country. I am sure that is the way you feel, dear Cousin Molly--is it not? We are such oysters, the few of us who always have lived here, that a whiff from the political world puts new life into us."

Emory left the room. Burleigh looked surprised but gratified, and assured her that it was the greatest possible pleasure as well as an honour to meet Miss Carter. He appeared to have left his businesslike manner on Capitol Hill, and he was even less abrupt than on the night of the dinner. Only his exuberant vitality seemed out of place in that dark old room, and it was an effort for him to keep his sonorous voice in check.

"Mrs. Madison says she takes no interest in politics," he added, "and fears to be a wet blanket on the conversation. I have been assuring her that on one day of the week politics are non-existent so far as I am concerned."

Mrs. Madison, who had been staring at Sally Carter, replied with an evident attempt to be agreeable, "Of course I always find it interesting to hear people talk about what they understand best." "Politics are what I should like to understand least. Since I have come to the Senate I have endeavoured to forget all I ever knew about them. I rely upon my friends to keep me in office while I am making a desperate attempt to become a fair-minded legislator."

He spoke lightly. Betty could not determine whether he was posing or telling the simple truth to people who would be glad to take him at his word. There was a twinkle of amusement in his eye; but he looked too impatient for even the milder sort of hypocrisy.

Mrs. Madison thawed visibly. "You younger men should try to restore the old ideals," she said.

"Ah, madam," he replied, "if you only knew what the censors said about the old ideals when they were alive! If Time will be as kind to us, we can swallow our own dose with a reasonable amount of philosophy. John Quincy Adams arraigned the politics of his day in the bitterest phrases he could create; but to-day we are asked to remember the glorious past and hide our heads."

The Montgomery's entered the room. Randolph, who was as tall as Senator Burleigh and very slender, looked so distinguished that Mrs. Madison immediately decided to remember only that his family was as old as her own. He had lost none of the repose he had found during his three years' residence in Europe, but the effort to keep it in the House had made his handsome face thin and touched his mouth with cynicism. His hair was still black, and there were no lines about his cool gray eyes.

"Blessed day of rest!" exclaimed his wife. "I got up just one hour ago. Do you know, Miss Madison, I paid twenty-six calls on Thursday, eighteen on Friday and twelve on Saturday? Never marry into political life."

Senator Burleigh, who had been talking to Miss Carter, turned round quickly. "Some women are so manifestly made for it," he said, "that it would be folly for them to attempt to escape their fate."