54-40 OR FIGHT
Author of The Mississippi Bubble, The Way of the Man, etc.
With Four Illustrations by Arthur I. Keller
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York
TO Theodore Roosevelt
PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES AND FIRM BELIEVER IN THE RULE OF THE PEOPLE
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED WITH THE LOYALTY AND ADMIRATION OF THE AUTHOR
I THE MAKERS OF MAPS II BY SPECIAL DESPATCH III IN ARGUMENT IV THE BARONESS HELENA V ONE OF THE WOMEN IN THE CASE VI THE BOUDOIR OF THE BARONESS VII REGARDING ELISABETH VIII MR. CALHOUN ACCEPTS IX A KETTLE OF FISH X MIXED DUTIES XI WHO GIVETH THIS WOMAN XII THE MARATHON XIII ON SECRET SERVICE XIV THE OTHER WOMAN XV WITH MADAM THE BARONESS XVI DEJEUNER A LA FOURCHETTE XVII A HUNTER OF BUTTERFLIES XVIII THE MISSING SLIPPER XIX THE GENTLEMAN FROM TENNESSEE XX THE LADY FROM MEXICO XXI POLITICS UNDER COVER XXII BUT YET A WOMAN XXIII SUCCESS IN SILK XXIV THE WHOA-HAW TRAIL XXV OREGON XXVI THE DEBATED COUNTRY XXVII IN THE CABIN OF MADAM XXVIII WHEN A WOMAN WOULD XXIX IN EXCHANGE XXX COUNTER CURRENTS XXXI THE PAYMENT XXXII PAKENHAM'S PRICE XXXIII THE STORY OF HELENA VON RITZ XXXIV THE VICTORY XXXV THE PROXY OF PAKENHAM XXXVI THE PALO ALTO BALL EPILOGUE
THE MAKERS OF MAPS
There is scarcely a single cause in which a woman is not engaged in some way fomenting the suit.—Juvenal.
"Then you offer me no hope, Doctor?" The gray mane of Doctor Samuel Ward waved like a fighting crest as he made answer:
"Not the sort of hope you ask." A moment later he added: "John, I am ashamed of you."
The cynical smile of the man I called my chief still remained upon his lips, the same drawn look of suffering still remained upon his gaunt features; but in his blue eye I saw a glint which proved that the answer of his old friend had struck out some unused spark of vitality from the deep, cold flint of his heart.
"I never knew you for a coward, Calhoun," went on Doctor Ward, "nor any of your family I give you now the benefit of my personal acquaintance with this generation of the Calhouns. I ask something more of you than faint-heartedness."
The keen eyes turned upon him again with the old flame of flint which a generation had known—a generation, for the most part, of enemies. On my chief's face I saw appear again the fighting flush, proof of his hard-fibered nature, ever ready to rejoin with challenge when challenge came.
"Did not Saul fall upon his own sword?" asked John Calhoun. "Have not devoted leaders from the start of the world till now sometimes rid the scene of the responsible figures in lost fights, the men on whom blame rested for failures?"
"Cowards!" rejoined Doctor Ward. "Cowards, every one of them! Were there not other swords upon which they might have fallen—those of their enemies?"
"It is not my own hand—my own sword, Sam," said Calhoun. "Not that. You know as well as I that I am already marked and doomed, even as I sit at my table to-night. A walk of a wet night here in Washington—a turn along the Heights out there when the winter wind is keen—yes, Sam, I see my grave before me, close enough; but how can I rest easy in that grave? Man, we have not yet dreamed how great a country this may be. We must have Texas. We must have also Oregon. We must have—"
"Free?" The old doctor shrugged his shoulders and smiled at the arch pro-slavery exponent.
"Then, since you mention it, yes!" retorted Calhoun fretfully. "But I shall not go into the old argument of those who say that black is white, that South is North. It is only for my own race that I plan a wider America. But then—" Calhoun raised a long, thin hand. "Why," he went on slowly, "I have just told you that I have failed. And yet you, my old friend, whom I ought to trust, condemn me to live on!"
Doctor Samuel Ward took snuff again, but all the answer he made was to waggle his gray mane and stare hard at the face of the other.
"Yes," said he, at length, "I condemn you to fight on, John;" and he smiled grimly.
"Why, look at you, man!" he broke out fiercely, after a moment. "The type and picture of combat! Good bone, fine bone and hard; a hard head and bony; little eye, set deep; strong, wiry muscles, not too big—fighting muscles, not dough; clean limbs; strong fingers; good arms, legs, neck; wide chest—"
"Then you give me hope?" Calhoun flashed a smile at him.
"No, sir! If you do your duty, there is no hope for you to live. If you do not do your duty, there is no hope for you to die, John Calhoun, for more than two years to come—perhaps five years—six. Keep up this work—as you must, my friend—and you die as surely as though I shot you through as you sit there. Now, is this any comfort to you?"
A gray pallor overspread my master's face. That truth is welcome to no man, morbid or sane, sound or ill; but brave men meet it as this one did.
"Time to do much!" he murmured to himself. "Time to mend many broken vessels, in those two years. One more fight—yes, let us have it!"
But Calhoun the man was lost once more in Calhoun the visionary, the fanatic statesman. He summed up, as though to himself, something of the situation which then existed at Washington.
"Yes, the coast is clearer, now that Webster is out of the cabinet, but Mr. Upshur's death last month brings in new complications. Had he remained our secretary of state, much might have been done. It was only last October he proposed to Texas a treaty of annexation."
"Yes, and found Texas none so eager," frowned Doctor Ward.
"No; and why not? You and I know well enough. Sir Richard Pakenham, the English plenipotentiary here, could tell if he liked. England is busy with Texas. Texas owes large funds to England. England wants Texas as a colony. There is fire under this smoky talk of Texas dividing into two governments, one, at least, under England's gentle and unselfish care!
"And now, look you," Calhoun continued, rising, and pacing up and down, "look what is the evidence. Van Zandt, charge d'affaires in Washington for the Republic of Texas, wrote Secretary Upshur only a month before Upshur's death, and told him to go carefully or he would drive Mexico to resume the war, and so cost Texas the friendship of England! Excellent Mr. Van Zandt! I at least know what the friendship of England means. So, he asks us if we will protect Texas with troops and ships in case she does sign that agreement of annexation. Cunning Mr. Van Zandt! He knows what that answer must be to-day, with England ready to fight us for Texas and Oregon both, and we wholly unready for war. Cunning Mr. Van Zandt, covert friend of England! And lucky Mr. Upshur, who was killed, and so never had to make that answer!"
"But, John, another will have to make it, the one way or the other," said his friend.
"Yes!" The long hand smote on the table.
"President Tyler has offered you Mr. Upshur's portfolio as secretary of state?"
"Yes!" The long hand smote again.
Doctor Ward made no comment beyond a long whistle, as he recrossed his legs. His eyes were fixed on Calhoun's frowning face. "There will be events!" said he at length, grinning.
"I have not yet accepted," said Calhoun. "If I do, it will be to bring Texas and Oregon into this Union, one slave, the other free, but both vast and of a mighty future for us. That done, I resign at once."
"Will you accept?"
Calhoun's answer was first to pick up a paper from his desk. "See, here is the despatch Mr. Pakenham brought from Lord Aberdeen of the British ministry to Mr. Upshur just two days before his death. Judge whether Aberdeen wants liberty—or territory! In effect he reasserts England's right to interfere in our affairs. We fought one war to disprove that. England has said enough on this continent. And England has meddled enough."
Calhoun and Ward looked at each other, sober in their realization of the grave problems which then beset American statesmanship and American thought. The old doctor was first to break the silence. "Then do you accept? Will you serve again, John?"
"Listen to me. If I do accept, I shall take Mr. Upshur's and Mr. Nelson's place only on one condition—yes, if I do, here is what I shall say to England regarding Texas. I shall show her what a Monroe Doctrine is; shall show her that while Texas is small and weak, Texas and this republic are not. This is what I have drafted as a possible reply. I shall tell Mr. Pakenham that his chief's avowal of intentions has made it our imperious duty, in self-defense, to hasten the annexation of Texas, cost what it may, mean what it may! John Calhoun does not shilly-shally.
"That will be my answer," repeated my chief at last. Again they looked gravely, each into the other's eye, each knowing what all this might mean.
"Yes, I shall have Texas, as I shall have Oregon, settled before I lay down my arms, Sam Ward. No, I am not yet ready to die!" Calhoun's old fire now flamed in all his mien.
"The situation is extremely difficult," said his friend slowly. "It must be done; but how? We are as a nation not ready for war. You as a statesman are not adequate to the politics of all this. Where is your political party, John? You have none. You have outrun all parties. It will be your ruin, that you have been honest!"
Calhoun turned on him swiftly. "You know as well as I that mere politics will not serve. It will take some extraordinary measure—you know men—and, perhaps, women."
"Yes," said Doctor Ward, "and a precious silly lot: they are; the two running after each other and forgetting each other; using and wasting each other; ruining and despoiling each other, all the years, from Troy to Rome! But yes! For a man, set a woman for a trap. Vice versa, I suppose?"
Calhoun nodded, with a thin smile. "As it chances, I need a man. Ergo, and very plainly, I must use a woman!"
They looked at each other for a moment. That Calhoun planned some deep-laid stratagem was plain, but his speech for the time remained enigmatic, even to his most intimate companion.
"There are two women in our world to-day," said Calhoun. "As to Jackson, the old fool was a monogamist, and still is. Not so much so Jim Polk of Tennessee. Never does he appear in public with eyes other than for the Dona Lucrezia of the Mexican legation! Now, one against the other—Mexico against Austria—"
Doctor Ward raised his eyebrows in perplexity.
"That is to say, England, and not Austria," went on Calhoun coldly. "The ambassadress of England to America was born in Budapest! So I say, Austria; or perhaps Hungary, or some other country, which raised this strange representative who has made some stir in Washington here these last few weeks."
"Ah, you mean the baroness!" exclaimed Doctor Ward. "Tut! Tut!"
Calhoun nodded, with the same cold, thin smile. "Yes," he said, "I mean Mr. Pakenham's reputed mistress, his assured secret agent and spy, the beautiful Baroness von Ritz!"
He mentioned a name then well known in diplomatic and social life, when intrigue in Washington, if not open, was none too well hidden.
"Gay Sir Richard!" he resumed. "You know, his ancestor was a brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. He himself seems to have absorbed some of the great duke's fondness for the fair. Before he came to us he was with England's legation in Mexico. 'Twas there he first met the Dona Lucrezia. 'Tis said he would have remained in Mexico had it not been arranged that she and her husband, Senor Yturrio, should accompany General Almonte in the Mexican ministry here. On these conditions, Sir Richard agreed to accept promotion as minister plenipotentiary to Washington!"
"That was nine years ago," commented Doctor Ward.
"Yes; and it was only last fall that he was made envoy extraordinary. He is at least an extraordinary envoy! Near fifty years of age, he seems to forget public decency; he forgets even the Dona Lucrezia, leaving her to the admiration of Mr. Polk and Mr. Van Zandt, and follows off after the sprightly Baroness von Ritz. Meantime, Senor Yturrio also forgets the Dona Lucrezia, and proceeds also to follow after the baroness—although with less hope than Sir Richard, as they say! At least Pakenham has taste! The Baroness von Ritz has brains and beauty both. It is she who is England's real envoy. Now, I believe she knows England's real intentions as to Texas."
Doctor Ward screwed his lips for a long whistle, as he contemplated John Calhoun's thin, determined face.
"I do not care at present to say more," went on my chief; "but do you not see, granted certain motives, Polk might come into power pledged to the extension of our Southwest borders—"
"Calhoun, are you mad?" cried his friend. "Would you plunge this country into war? Would you pit two peoples, like cocks on a floor? And would you use women in our diplomacy?"
Calhoun now was no longer the friend, the humanitarian. He was the relentless machine; the idea; the single purpose, which to the world at large he had been all his life in Congress, in cabinets, on this or the other side of the throne of American power. He spoke coldly as he went on:
"In these matters it is not a question of means, but of results. If war comes, let it come; although I hope it will not come. As to the use of women—tell me, why not women? Why anything else but women? It is only playing life against life; one variant against another. That is politics, my friend. I want Pakenham. So, I must learn what Pakenham wants! Does he want Texas for England, or the Baroness von Ritz for himself?"
Ward still sat and looked at him. "My God!" said he at last, softly; but Calhoun went on:
"Why, who has made the maps of the world, and who has written pages in its history? Who makes and unmakes cities and empires and republics to-day? Woman, and not man! Are you so ignorant—and you a physician, who know them both? Gad, man, you do not understand your own profession, and yet you seek to counsel me in mine!"
"Strange words from you, John," commented his friend, shaking his head; "not seemly for a man who stands where you stand to-day."
"Strange weapons—yes. If I could always use my old weapons of tongue and brain, I would not need these, perhaps. Now you tell me my time is short. I must fight now to win. I have never fought to lose. I can not be too nice in agents and instruments."
The old doctor rose and took a turn up and down the little room, one of Calhoun's modest menage at the nation's capital, which then was not the city it is to-day. Calhoun followed him with even steps.
"Changes of maps, my friend? Listen to me. The geography of America for the next fifty years rests under a little roof over in M Street to-night—a roof which Sir Richard secretly maintains. The map of the United States, I tell you, is covered with a down counterpane a deux, to-night. You ask me to go on with my fight. I answer, first I must find the woman. Now, I say, I have found her, as you know. Also, I have told you where I have found her. Under a counterpane! Texas, Oregon, these United States under a counterpane!"
Doctor Ward sighed, as he shook his head. "I don't pretend to know now all you mean."
Calhoun whirled on him fiercely, with a vigor which his wasted frame did not indicate as possible.
"Listen, then, and I will tell you what John Calhoun means—John Calhoun, who has loved his own state, who has hated those who hated him, who has never prayed for those who despitefully used him, who has fought and will fight, since all insist on that. It is true Tyler has offered me again to-day the portfolio of secretary of state. Shall I take it? If I do, it means that I am employed by this administration to secure the admission of Texas. Can you believe me when I tell you that my ambition is for it all—all, every foot of new land, west to the Pacific, that we can get, slave or free? Can you believe John Calhoun, pro-slavery advocate and orator all his life, when he says that he believes he is an humble instrument destined, with God's aid, and through the use of such instruments as our human society affords, to build, not a wider slave country, but a wider America?"
"It would be worth the fight of a few years more, Calhoun," gravely answered his old friend. "I admit I had not dreamed this of you."
"History will not write it of me, perhaps," went on my chief. "But you tell me to fight, and now I shall fight, and in my own way. I tell you, that answer shall go to Pakenham. And I tell you, Pakenham shall not dare take offense at me. War with Mexico we possibly, indeed certainly, shall have. War on the Northwest, too, we yet may have unless—" He paused; and Doctor Ward prompted him some moments later, as he still remained in thought.
"Unless what, John? What do you mean—still hearing the rustle of skirts?"
"Yes!—unless the celebrated Baroness Helena von Ritz says otherwise!" replied he grimly.
"How dignified a diplomacy have we here! You plan war between two embassies on the distaff side!" smiled Doctor Ward.
Calhoun continued his walk. "I do not say so," he made answer; "but, if there must be war, we may reflect that war is at its best when woman is in the field!"
BY SPECIAL DESPATCH
In all eras and all climes a woman of great genius or beauty has done what she chose.—Ouido.
"Nicholas," said Calhoun, turning to me suddenly, but with his invariable kindliness of tone, "oblige me to-night. I have written a message here. You will see the address—"
"I have unavoidably heard this lady's name," I hesitated.
"You will find the lady's name above the seal. Take her this message from me. Yes, your errand is to bring the least known and most talked of woman in Washington, alone, unattended save by yourself, to a gentleman's apartments, to his house, at a time past the hour of midnight! That gentleman is myself! You must not take any answer in the negative."
As I sat dumbly, holding this sealed document in my hand, he turned to Doctor Ward, with a nod toward myself.
"I choose my young aide, Mr. Trist here, for good reasons. He is just back from six months in the wilderness, and may be shy; but once he had a way with women, so they tell me—and you know, in approaching the question ad feminam we operate per hominem."
Doctor Ward took snuff with violence as he regarded me critically.
"I do not doubt the young man's sincerity and faithfulness," said he. "I was only questioning one thing."
Calhoun rubbed his chin. "Nicholas," said he, "you heard me. I have no wish to encumber you with useless instructions. Your errand is before you. Very much depends upon it, as you have heard. All I can say is, keep your head, keep your feet, and keep your heart!"
The two older men both turned now, and smiled at me in a manner not wholly to my liking. Neither was this errand to my liking.
It was true, I was hardly arrived home after many months in the West; but I had certain plans of my own for that very night, and although as yet I had made no definite engagement with my fiancee, Miss Elisabeth Churchill, of Elmhurst Farm, for meeting her at the great ball this night, such certainly was my desire and my intention. Why, I had scarce seen Elisabeth twice in the last year.
"How now, Nick, my son?" began my chief. "Have staff and scrip been your portion so long that you are wholly wedded to them? Come, I think the night might promise you something of interest. I assure you of one thing—you will receive no willing answer from the fair baroness. She will scoff at you, and perhaps bid you farewell. See to it, then; do what you like, but bring her with you, and bring her here.
"You will realize the importance of all this when I tell you that my answer to Mr. Tyler must be in before noon to-morrow. That answer will depend upon the answer the Baroness von Ritz makes to me, here, to-night! I can not go to her, so she must come to me. You have often served me well, my son. Serve me to-night. My time is short; I have no moves to lose. It is you who will decide before morning whether or not John Calhoun is the next secretary of state. And that will decide whether or not Texas is to be a state." I had never seen Mr. Calhoun so intent, so absorbed.
We all three now sat silent in the little room where the candles guttered in the great glass cylindres on the mantel—an apartment scarce better lighted by the further aid of lamps fed by oil.
"He might be older," said Calhoun at length, speaking of me as though I were not present. "And 'tis a hard game to play, if once my lady Helena takes it into her merry head to make it so for him. But if I sent one shorter of stature and uglier of visage and with less art in approaching a crinoline—why, perhaps he would get no farther than her door. No; he will serve—he must serve!"
He arose now, and bowed to us both, even as I rose and turned for my cloak to shield me from the raw drizzle which then was falling in the streets. Doctor Ward reached down his own shaggy top hat from the rack.
"To bed with you now, John," said he sternly.
"No, I must write."
"You heard me say, to bed with you! A stiff toddy to make you sleep. Nicholas here may wake you soon enough with his mysterious companion. I think to-morrow will be time enough for you to work, and to-morrow very likely will bring work for you to do."
Calhoun sighed. "God!" he exclaimed, "if I but had back my strength! If there were more than those scant remaining years!"
"Go!" said he suddenly; and so we others passed down his step and out into the semi-lighted streets.
So this, then, was my errand. My mind still tingled at its unwelcome quality. Doctor Ward guessed something of my mental dissatisfaction.
"Never mind, Nicholas," said he, as we parted at the street corner, where he climbed into the rickety carriage which his colored driver held awaiting him. "Never mind. I don't myself quite know what Calhoun wants; but he would not ask of you anything personally improper. Do his errand, then. It is part of your work. In any case—" and I thought I saw him grin in the dim light—"you may have a night which you will remember."
There proved to be truth in what he said.
The egotism of women is always for two.—Mme. De Staeel.
The thought of missing my meeting with Elisabeth still rankled in my soul. Had it been another man who asked me to carry this message, I must have refused. But this man was my master, my chief, in whose service I had engaged.
Strange enough it may seem to give John Calhoun any title showing love or respect. To-day most men call him traitor—call him the man responsible for the war between North and South—call him the arch apostle of that impossible doctrine of slavery, which we all now admit was wrong. Why, then, should I love him as I did? I can not say, except that I always loved, honored and admired courage, uprightness, integrity.
For myself, his agent, I had, as I say, left the old Trist homestead at the foot of South Mountain in Maryland, to seek my fortune in our capital city. I had had some three or four years' semi-diplomatic training when I first met Calhoun and entered his service as assistant. It was under him that I finished my studies in law. Meantime, I was his messenger in very many quests, his source of information in many matters where he had no time to go into details.
Strange enough had been some of the circumstances in which I found myself thrust through this relation with a man so intimately connected for a generation with our public life. Adventures were always to my liking, and surely I had my share. I knew the frontier marches of Tennessee and Alabama, the intricacies of politics of Ohio and New York, mixed as those things were in Tyler's time. I had even been as far west as the Rockies, of which young Fremont was now beginning to write so understandingly. For six months I had been in Mississippi and Texas studying matters and men, and now, just hack from Natchitoches, I felt that I had earned some little rest.
But there was the fascination of it—that big game of politics. No, I will call it by its better name of statesmanship, which sometimes it deserved in those days, as it does not to-day. That was a day of Warwicks. The nominal rulers did not hold the greatest titles. Naturally, I knew something of these things, from the nature of my work in Calhoun's office. I have had insight into documents which never became public. I have seen treaties made. I have seen the making of maps go forward. This, indeed, I was in part to see that very night, and curiously, too.
How the Baroness von Ritz—beautiful adventuress as she was sometimes credited with being, charming woman as she was elsewhere described, fascinating and in some part dangerous to any man, as all admitted—could care to be concerned with this purely political question of our possible territories, I was not shrewd enough at that moment in advance to guess; for I had nothing more certain than the rumor she was England's spy. I bided my time, knowing that ere long the knowledge must come to me in Calhoun's office even in case I did not first learn more than Calhoun himself.
Vaguely in my conscience I felt that, after all, my errand was justified, even though at some cost to my own wishes and my own pride. The farther I walked in the dark along Pennsylvania Avenue, into which finally I swung after I had crossed Rock Bridge, the more I realized that perhaps this big game was worth playing in detail and without quibble as the master mind should dictate. As he was servant of a purpose, of an ideal of triumphant democracy, why should not I also serve in a cause so splendid?
I was, indeed, young—Nicholas Trist, of Maryland; six feet tall, thin, lean, always hungry, perhaps a trifle freckled, a little sandy of hair, blue I suppose of eye, although I am not sure; good rider and good marcher, I know; something of an expert with the weapons of my time and people; fond of a horse and a dog and a rifle—yes, and a glass and a girl, if truth be told. I was not yet thirty, in spite of my western travels. At that age the rustle of silk or dimity, the suspicion of adventure, tempts the worst or the best of us, I fear. Woman!—the very sound of the word made my blood leap then. I went forward rather blithely, as I now blush to confess. "If there are maps to be made to-night," said I, "the Baroness Helena shall do her share in writing on my chief's old mahogany desk, and not on her own dressing case."
That was an idle boast, though made but to myself. I had not yet met the woman.
THE BARONESS HELENA
Woman is seldom merciful to the man who is timid. —Edward Bulwer Lytton.
There was one of our dim street lights at a central corner on old Pennsylvania Avenue, and under it, after a long walk, I paused for a glance at the inscription on my sealed document. I had not looked at it before in the confusion of my somewhat hurried mental processes. In addition to the name and street number, in Calhoun's writing, I read this memorandum: "Knock at the third door in the second block beyond M Street"
I recalled the nearest cross street; but I must confess the direction still seemed somewhat cryptic. Puzzled, I stood under the lamp, shielding the face of the note under my cloak to keep off the rain, as I studied it.
The sound of wheels behind me on the muddy pavement called my attention, and I looked about. A carriage came swinging up to the curb where I stood. It was driven rapidly, and as it approached the door swung open. I heard a quick word, and the driver pulled up his horses. I saw the light shine through the door on a glimpse of white satin. I looked again. Yes, it was a beckoning hand! The negro driver looked at me inquiringly.
Ah, well, I suppose diplomacy under the stars runs much the same in all ages. I have said that I loved Elisabeth, but also said I was not yet thirty. Moreover, I was a gentleman, and here might be a lady in need of help. I need not say that in a moment I was at the side of the carriage. Its occupant made no exclamation of surprise; in fact, she moved back upon the other side of the seat in the darkness, as though to make room for me!
I was absorbed in a personal puzzle. Here was I, messenger upon some important errand, as I might guess. But white satin and a midnight adventure—at least, a gentleman might bow and ask if he could be of assistance!
A dark framed face, whose outlines I could only dimly see in the faint light of the street lamp, leaned toward me. The same small hand nervously reached out, as though in request.
I now very naturally stepped closer. A pair of wide and very dark eyes was looking into mine. I could now see her face. There was no smile upon her lips. I had never seen her before, that was sure—nor did I ever think to see her like again; I could say that even then, even in the half light. Just a trifle foreign, the face; somewhat dark, but not too dark; the lips full, the eyes luminous, the forehead beautifully arched, chin and cheek beautifully rounded, nose clean-cut and straight, thin but not pinched. There was nothing niggard about her. She was magnificent—a magnificent woman. I saw that she had splendid jewels at her throat, in her ears—a necklace of diamonds, long hoops of diamonds and emeralds used as ear-rings; a sparkling clasp which caught at her white throat the wrap which she had thrown about her ball gown—for now I saw she was in full evening dress. I guessed she had been an attendant at the great ball, that ball which I had missed with so keen a regret myself—the ball where I had hoped to dance with Elisabeth. Without doubt she had lost her way and was asking the first stranger for instructions to her driver.
My lady, whoever she was, seemed pleased with her rapid temporary scrutiny. With a faint murmur, whether of invitation or not I scarce could tell, she drew back again to the farther side of the seat. Before I knew how or why, I was at her side. The driver pushed shut the door, and whipped up his team.
Personally I am gifted with but small imagination. In a very matter of fact way I had got into this carriage with a strange lady. Now in a sober and matter of fact way it appeared to me my duty to find out the reason for this singular situation.
"Madam," I remarked to my companion, "in what manner can I be of service to you this evening?"
I made no attempt to explain who I was, or to ask who or what she herself was, for I had no doubt that our interview soon would be terminated.
"I am fortunate that you are a gentleman," she said, in a low and soft voice, quite distinct, quite musical in quality, and marked with just the faintest trace of some foreign accent, although her English was perfect.
I looked again at her. Yes, her hair was dark; that was sure. It swept up in a great roll above her oval brow. Her eyes, too, must be dark, I confirmed. Yes—as a passed lamp gave me aid—there were strong dark brows above them. Her nose, too, was patrician; her chin curving just strongly enough, but not too full, and faintly cleft, a sign of power, they say.
A third gracious lamp gave me a glimpse of her figure, huddled back among her draperies, and I guessed her to be about of medium height. A fourth lamp showed me her hands, small, firm, white; also I could catch a glimpse of her arm, as it lay outstretched, her fingers clasping a fan. So I knew her arms were round and taper, hence all her limbs and figure finely molded, because nature does not do such things by halves, and makes no bungles in her symmetry of contour when she plans a noble specimen of humanity. Here was a noble specimen of what woman may be.
On the whole, as I must confess, I sighed rather comfortably at the fifth street lamp; for, if my chief must intrust to me adventures of a dark night—adventures leading to closed carriages and strange companions—I had far liefer it should be some such woman as this. I was not in such a hurry to ask again how I might be of service. In fact, being somewhat surprised and somewhat pleased, I remained silent now for a time, and let matters adjust themselves; which is not a bad course for any one similarly engaged.
She turned toward me at last, deliberately, her fan against her lips, studying me. And I did as much, taking such advantage as I could of the passing street lamps. Then, all at once, without warning or apology, she smiled, showing very even and white teeth.
She smiled. There came to me from the purple-colored shadows some sort of deep perfume, strange to me. I frown at the description of such things and such emotions, but I swear that as I sat there, a stranger, not four minutes in companionship with this other stranger, I felt swim up around me some sort of amber shadow, edged with purple—the shadow, as I figured it then, being this perfume, curious and alluring!
It was wet, there in the street. Why should I rebel at this stealing charm of color or fragrance—let those name it better who can. At least I sat, smiling to myself in my purple-amber shadow, now in no very special hurry. And now again she smiled, thoughtfully, rather approving my own silence, as I guessed; perhaps because it showed no unmanly perturbation—my lack of imagination passing for aplomb.
At last I could not, in politeness, keep this up further.
"How may I serve the Baroness?" said I.
She started back on the seat as far as she could go.
"How did you know?" she asked. "And who are you?"
I laughed. "I did not know, and did not guess until almost as I began to speak; but if it comes to that, I might say I am simply an humble gentleman of Washington here. I might be privileged to peep in at ambassadors' balls—through the windows, at least."
"But you were not there—you did not see me? I never saw you in my life until this very moment—how, then, do you know me? Speak! At once!" Her satins rustled. I knew she was tapping a foot on the carriage floor.
"Madam," I answered, laughing at her; "by this amber purple shadow, with flecks of scarlet and pink; by this perfume which weaves webs for me here in this carriage, I know you. The light is poor, but it is good enough to show one who can be no one else but the Baroness von Ritz."
I was in the mood to spice an adventure which had gone thus far. Of course she thought me crazed, and drew back again in the shadow; but when I turned and smiled, she smiled in answer—herself somewhat puzzled.
"The Baroness von Ritz can not be disguised," I said; "not even if she wore her domino."
She looked down at the little mask which hung from the silken cord, and flung it from her.
"Oh, then, very well!" she said. "If you know who I am, who are you, and why do you talk in this absurd way with me, a stranger?"
"And why, Madam, do you take me up, a stranger, in this absurd way, at midnight, on the streets of Washington?—I, who am engaged on business for my chief?"
She tapped again with her foot on the carriage floor. "Tell me who you are!" she said.
"Once a young planter from Maryland yonder; sometime would-be lawyer here in Washington. It is my misfortune not to be so distinguished in fame or beauty that my name is known by all; so I need not tell you my name perhaps, only assuring you that I am at your service if I may be useful."
"Your name!" she again demanded.
I told her the first one that came to my lips—I do not remember what. It did not deceive her for a moment.
"Of course that is not your name," she said; "because it does not fit you. You have me still at disadvantage."
"And me, Madam? You are taking me miles out of my way. How can I help you? Do you perhaps wish to hunt mushrooms in the Georgetown woods when morning comes? I wish that I might join you, but I fear—"
"You mock me," she retorted. "Very good. Let me tell you it was not your personal charm which attracted me when I saw you on the pavement! 'Twas because you were the only man in sight."
I bowed my thanks. For a moment nothing was heard save the steady patter of hoofs on the ragged pavement. At length she went on.
"I am alone. I have been followed. I was followed when I called to you—by another carriage. I asked help of the first gentleman I saw, having heard that Americans all are gentlemen."
"True," said I; "I do not blame you. Neither do I blame the occupant of the other carriage for following you."
"I pray you, leave aside such chatter!" she exclaimed.
"Very well, then, Madam. Perhaps the best way is for us to be more straightforward. If I can not be of service I beg you to let me descend, for I have business which I must execute to-night."
This, of course, was but tentative. I did not care to tell her that my business was with herself. It seemed almost unbelievable to me that chance should take this turn.
She dismissed this with an impatient gesture, and continued.
"See, I am alone," she said. "Come with me. Show me my way—I will pay—I will pay anything in reason." Actually I saw her fumble at her purse, and the hot blood flew to my forehead.
"What you ask of me, Madam, is impossible," said I, with what courtesy I could summon. "You oblige me now to tell my real name. I have told you that I am an American gentleman—Mr. Nicholas Trist. We of this country do not offer our services to ladies for the sake of pay. But do not be troubled over any mistake—it is nothing. Now, you have perhaps had some little adventure in which you do not wish to be discovered. In any case, you ask me to shake off that carriage which follows us. If that is all, Madam, it very easily can be arranged."
"Hasten, then," she said. "I leave it to you. I was sure you knew the city."
I turned and gazed back through the rear window of the carriage. True, there was another vehicle following us. We were by this time nearly at the end of Washington's limited pavements. It would be simple after that. I leaned out and gave our driver some brief orders. We led our chase across the valley creeks on up the Georgetown hills, and soon as possible abandoned the last of the pavement, and took to the turf, where the sound of our wheels was dulled. Rapidly as we could we passed on up the hill, until we struck a side street where there was no paving. Into this we whipped swiftly, following the flank of the hill, our going, which was all of earth or soft turf, now well wetted by the rain. When at last we reached a point near the summit of the hill, I stopped to listen. Hearing nothing, I told the driver to pull down the hill by the side street, and to drive slowly. When we finally came into our main street again at the foot of the Georgetown hills, not far from the little creek which divided that settlement from the main city, I could hear nowhere any sound of our pursuer.
"Madam," said I, turning to her; "I think we may safely say we are alone. What, now, is your wish?"
"Home!" she said.
"And where is home?"
She looked at me keenly for a time, as though to read some thought which perhaps she saw suggested either in the tone of my voice or in some glimpse she might have caught of my features as light afforded. For the moment she made no answer.
"Is it here?" suddenly I asked her, presenting to her inspection the sealed missive which I bore.
"I can not see; it is quite dark," she said hurriedly.
"Pardon me, then—" I fumbled for my case of lucifers, and made a faint light by which she might read. The flare of the match lit up her face perfectly, bringing out the framing roll of thick dark hair, from which, as a high light in a mass of shadows, the clear and yet strong features of her face showed plainly. I saw the long lashes drooped above her dark eyes, as she bent over studiously. At first the inscription gave her no information. She pursed her lips and shook her head.
"I do not recognize the address," said she, smiling, as she turned toward me.
"Is it this door on M Street, as you go beyond this other street?" I asked her. "Come—think!"
Then I thought I saw the flush deepen on her face, even as the match flickered and failed.
I leaned out of the door and called to the negro driver. "Home, now, boy—and drive fast!"
She made no protest.
ONE OF THE WOMEN IN THE CASE
There is a woman at the beginning of all great things. —Lamartine.
A quarter of an hour later, we slowed down on a rough brick pavement, which led toward what then was an outlying portion of the town—one not precisely shabby, but by no means fashionable. There was a single lamp stationed at the mouth of the narrow little street. As we advanced, I could see outlined upon our right, just beyond a narrow pavement of brick, a low and not more than semi-respectable house, or rather, row of houses; tenements for the middle class or poor, I might have said. The neighborhood, I knew from my acquaintance with the city, was respectable enough, yet it was remote, and occupied by none of any station. Certainly it was not to be considered fit residence for a woman such as this who sat beside me. I admit I was puzzled. The strange errand of my chief now assumed yet more mystery, in spite of his forewarnings.
"This will do," said she softly, at length. The driver already had pulled up.
So, then, I thought, she had been here before. But why? Could this indeed be her residence? Was she incognita here? Was this indeed the covert embassy of England?
There was no escape from the situation as it lay before me. I had no time to ponder. Had the circumstances been otherwise, then in loyalty to Elisabeth I would have handed my lady out, bowed her farewell at her own gate, and gone away, pondering only the adventures into which the beckoning of a white hand and the rustling of a silken skirt betimes will carry a man, if he dares or cares to go. Now, I might not leave. My duty was here. This was my message; here was she for whom it was intended; and this was the place which I was to have sought alone. I needed only to remember that my business was not with Helena von Ritz the woman, beautiful, fascinating, perhaps dangerous as they said of her, but with the Baroness von Ritz, in the belief of my chief the ally and something more than ally of Pakenham, in charge of England's fortunes on this continent. I did remember my errand and the gravity of it. I did not remember then, as I did later, that I was young.
I descended at the edge of the narrow pavement, and was about to hand her out at the step, but as I glanced down I saw that the rain had left a puddle of mud between the carriage and the walk.
"Pardon, Madam," I said; "allow me to make a light for you—the footing is bad."
I lighted another lucifer, just as she hesitated at the step. She made as though to put out her right foot, and withdrew it. Again she shifted, and extended her left foot. I faintly saw proof that nature had carried out her scheme of symmetry, and had not allowed wrist and arm to forswear themselves! I saw also that this foot was clad in the daintiest of white slippers, suitable enough as part of her ball costume, as I doubted not was this she wore. She took my hand without hesitation, and rested her weight upon the step—an adorable ankle now more frankly revealed. The briefness of the lucifers was merciful or merciless, as you like.
"A wide step, Madam; be careful," I suggested. But still she hesitated.
A laugh, half of annoyance, half of amusement, broke from her lips. As the light flickered down, she made as though to take the step; then, as luck would have it, a bit of her loose drapery, which was made in the wide-skirted and much-hooped fashion of the time, caught at the hinge of the carriage door. It was a chance glance, and not intent on my part, but I saw that her other foot was stockinged, but not shod!
"I beg Madam's pardon," I said gravely, looking aside, "but she has perhaps not noticed that her other slipper is lost in the carriage."
"Nonsense!" she said. "Allow me your hand across to the walk, please. It is lost, yes."
"But lost—where?" I began.
"In the other carriage!" she exclaimed, and laughed freely.
Half hopping, she was across the walk, through the narrow gate, and up at the door before I could either offer an arm or ask for an explanation. Some whim, however, seized her; some feeling that in fairness she ought to tell me now part at least of the reason for her summoning me to her aid.
"Sir," she said, even as her hand reached up to the door knocker; "I admit you have acted as a gentleman should. I do not know what your message may be, but I doubt not it is meant for me. Since you have this much claim on my hospitality, even at this hour, I think I must ask you to step within. There may be some answer needed."
"Madam," said I, "there is an answer needed. I am to take back that answer. I know that this message is to the Baroness von Ritz. I guess it to be important; and I know you are the Baroness von Ritz."
"Well, then," said she, pulling about her half-bared shoulders the light wrap she wore; "let me be as free with you. If I have missed one shoe, I have not lost it wholly. I lost the slipper in a way not quite planned on the program. It hurt my foot. I sought to adjust it behind a curtain. My gentleman of Mexico was in wine. I fled, leaving my escort, and he followed. I called to you. You know the rest. I am glad you are less in wine, and are more a gentleman."
"I do not yet know my answer, Madam."
"Come!" she said; and at once knocked upon the door.
I shall not soon forget the surprise which awaited me when at last the door swung open silently at the hand of a wrinkled and brown old serving-woman—not one of our colored women, but of some dark foreign race. The faintest trace of surprise showed on the old woman's face, but she stepped back and swung the door wide, standing submissively, waiting for orders.
We stood now facing what ought to have been a narrow and dingy little room in a low row of dingy buildings, each of two stories and so shallow in extent as perhaps not to offer roof space to more than a half dozen rooms. Instead of what should have been, however, there was a wide hall—wide as each building would have been from front to back, but longer than a half dozen of them would have been! I did not know then, what I learned later, that the partitions throughout this entire row had been removed, the material serving to fill up one of the houses at the farthest extremity of the row. There was thus offered a long and narrow room, or series of rooms, which now I saw beyond possibility of doubt constituted the residence of this strange woman whom chance had sent me to address; and whom still stranger chance had thrown in contact with me even before my errand was begun!
She stood looking at me, a smile flitting over her features, her stockinged foot extended, toe down, serving to balance her on her high-heeled single shoe.
"Pardon, sir," she said, hesitating, as she held the sealed epistle in her hand. "You know me—perhaps you follow me—I do not know. Tell me, are you a spy of that man Pakenham?"
Her words and her tone startled me. I had supposed her bound to Sir Richard by ties of a certain sort. Her bluntness and independence puzzled me as much as her splendid beauty enraptured me. I tried to forget both.
"Madam, I am spy of no man, unless I am such at order of my chief, John Calhoun, of the United States Senate—perhaps, if Madam pleases, soon of Mr. Tyler's cabinet."
In answer, she turned, hobbled to a tiny marquetry table, and tossed the note down upon it, unopened. I waited patiently, looking about me meantime. I discovered that the windows were barred with narrow slats of iron within, although covered with heavy draperies of amber silk. There was a double sheet of iron covering the door by which we had entered.
"Your cage, Madam?" I inquired. "I do not blame England for making it so secret and strong! If so lovely a prisoner were mine, I should double the bars."
The swift answer to my presumption came in the flush of her cheek and her bitten lip. She caught up the key from the table, and half motioned me to the door. But now I smiled in turn, and pointed to the unopened note on the table. "You will pardon me, Madam," I went on. "Surely it is no disgrace to represent either England or America. They are not at war. Why should we be?" We gazed steadily at each other.
The old servant had disappeared when at length her mistress chose to pick up my unregarded document. Deliberately she broke the seal and read. An instant later, her anger gone, she was laughing gaily.
"See," said she, bubbling over with her mirth; "I pick up a stranger, who should say good-by at my curb; my apartments are forced; and this is what this stranger asks: that I shall go with him, to-night, alone, and otherwise unattended, to see a man, perhaps high in your government, but a stranger to me, at his own rooms-alone! Oh, la! la! Surely these Americans hold me high!"
"Assuredly we do, Madam," I answered. "Will it please you to go in your own carriage, or shall I return with one for you?"
She put her hands behind her back, holding in them the opened message from my chief. "I am tired. I am bored. Your impudence amuses me; and your errand is not your fault. Come, sit down. You have been good to me. Before you go, I shall have some refreshment brought for you."
I felt a sudden call upon my resources as I found myself in this singular situation. Here, indeed, more easily reached than I had dared hope, was the woman in the case. But only half of my errand, the easier half, was done.
THE BOUDOIR OF THE BARONESS
A woman's counsel brought us first to woe.—Dryden.
"Wait!" she said. "We shall have candles." She clapped her hands sharply, and again there entered the silent old serving-woman, who, obedient to a gesture, proceeded to light additional candles in the prism stands and sconces. The apartment was now distinct in all its details under this additional flood of light. Decently as I might I looked about. I was forced to stifle the exclamation of surprise which rose to my lips.
We were plain folk enough in Washington at that time. The ceremonious days of our first presidents had passed for the democratic time of Jefferson and Jackson; and even under Mr. Van Buren there had been little change from the simplicity which was somewhat our boast. Washington itself was at that time scarcely more than an overgrown hamlet, not in the least to be compared to the cosmopolitan centers which made the capitals of the Old World. Formality and stateliness of a certain sort we had, but of luxury we knew little. There was at that time, as I well knew, no state apartment in the city which in sheer splendor could for a moment compare with this secret abode of a woman practically unknown. Here certainly was European luxury transferred to our shores. This in simple Washington, with its vast white unfinished capitol, its piecemeal miles of mixed residences, boarding-houses, hotels, restaurants, and hovels! I fancied stern Andrew Jackson or plain John Calhoun here!
The furniture I discovered to be exquisite in detail, of rosewood and mahogany, with many brass chasings and carvings, after the fashion of the Empire, and here and there florid ornamentation following that of the court of the earlier Louis. Fanciful little clocks with carved scrolls stood about; Cupid tapestries had replaced the original tawdry coverings of these common walls, and what had once been a dingy fireplace was now faced with embossed tiles never made in America. There were paintings in oil here and there, done by master hands, as one could tell. The curtained windows spoke eloquently of secrecy. Here and there a divan and couch showed elaborate care in comfort. Beyond a lace-screened grille I saw an alcove—doubtless cut through the original partition wall between two of these humble houses—and within this stood a high tester bed, its heavy mahogany posts beautifully carved, the couch itself piled deep with foundations of I know not what of down and spread most daintily with a coverlid of amber satin, whose edges fringed out almost to the floor. At the other extremity, screened off as in a distinct apartment, there stood a smaller couch, a Napoleon bed, with carved ends, furnished more simply but with equal richness. Everywhere was the air not only of comfort, but of ease and luxury, elegance and sensuousness contending. I needed no lesson to tell me that this was not an ordinary apartment, nor occupied by an ordinary owner.
One resented the liberties England took in establishing this manner of menage in our simple city, and arrogantly taking for granted our ignorance regarding it; but none the less one was forced to commend the thoroughness shown. The ceilings, of course, remained low, but there was visible no trace of the original architecture, so cunningly had the interior been treated. As I have said, the dividing partitions had all been removed, so that the long interior practically was open, save as the apartments were separated by curtains or grilles. The floors were carpeted thick and deep. Silence reigned here. There remained no trace of the clumsy comfort which had sufficed the early builder. Here was no longer a series of modest homes, but a boudoir which might have been the gilded cage of some favorite of an ancient court. The breath and flavor of this suspicion floated in every drapery, swam in the faint perfume which filled the place. My first impression was that of surprise; my second, as I have said, a feeling of resentment at the presumption which installed all this in our capital of Washington.
I presume my thought may have been reflected in some manner in my face. I heard a gentle laugh, and turned about. She sat there in a great carved chair, smiling, her white arms stretched out on the rails, the fingers just gently curving. There was no apology for her situation, no trace of alarm or shame or unreadiness. It was quite obvious she was merely amused. I was in no way ready to ratify the rumors I had heard regarding her.
She had thrown back over the rail of the chair the rich cloak which covered her in the carriage, and sat now in the full light, in the splendor of satin and lace and gems, her arms bare, her throat and shoulders white and bare, her figure recognized graciously by every line of a superb gowning such as we had not yet learned on this side of the sea. Never had I seen, and never since have I seen, a more splendid instance of what beauty of woman may be.
She did not speak at first, but sat and smiled, studying, I presume, to find what stuff I was made of. Seeing this, I pulled myself together and proceeded briskly to my business.
"My employer will find me late, I fear, my dear baroness," I began.
"Better late than wholly unsuccessful," she rejoined, still smiling. "Tell me, my friend, suppose you had come hither and knocked at my door?"
"Perhaps I might not have been so clumsy," I essayed.
"Confess it!" she smiled. "Had you come here and seen the exterior only, you would have felt yourself part of a great mistake. You would have gone away."
"Perhaps not," I argued. "I have much confidence in my chief's acquaintance with his own purposes and his own facts. Yet I confess I should not have sought madam the baroness in this neighborhood. If England provides us so beautiful a picture, why could she not afford a frame more suitable? Why is England so secret with us?"
She only smiled, showing two rows of exceedingly even white teeth. She was perfect mistress of herself. In years she was not my equal, yet I could see that at the time I did scarcely more than amuse her.
"Be seated, pray," she said at last. "Let us talk over this matter."
Obedient to her gesture, I dropped into a chair opposite to her, she herself not varying her posture and still regarding me with the laugh in her half-closed eyes.
"What do you think of my little place?" she asked finally.
"Two things, Madam," said I, half sternly. "If it belonged to a man, and to a minister plenipotentiary, I should not approve it. If it belonged to a lady of means and a desire to see the lands of this little world, I should approve it very much."
She looked at me with eyes slightly narrowed, but no trace of perturbation crossed her face. I saw it was no ordinary woman with whom we had to do.
"But," I went on, "in any case and at all events, I should say that the bird confined in such a cage, where secrecy is so imperative, would at times find weariness—would, in fact, wish escape to other employment. You, Madam"—I looked at her directly—"are a woman of so much intellect that you could not be content merely to live."
"No," she said, "I would not be content merely to live."
"Precisely. Therefore, since to make life worth the living there must be occasionally a trifle of spice, a bit of adventure, either for man or woman, I suggest to you, as something offering amusement, this little journey with me to-night to meet my chief. You have his message. I am his messenger, and, believe me, quite at your service in any way you may suggest. Let us be frank. If you are agent, so am I. See; I have come into your camp. Dare you not come into ours? Come; it is an adventure to see a tall, thin old man in a dressing-gown and a red woolen nightcap. So you will find my chief; and in apartments much different from these."
She took up the missive with its broken seal. "So your chief, as you call him, asks me to come to him, at midnight, with you, a stranger?"
"Do you not believe in charms and in luck, in evil and good fortune, Madam?" I asked her. "Now, it is well to be lucky. In ordinary circumstances, as you say, I could not have got past yonder door. Yet here I am. What does it augur, Madam?"
"But it is night!"
"Precisely. Could you go to the office of a United States senator and possible cabinet minister in broad daylight and that fact not be known? Could he come to your apartments in broad daylight and that fact not be known? What would 'that man Pakenham' suspect in either case? Believe me, my master is wise. I do not know his reason, but he knows it, and he has planned best to gain his purpose, whatever it may be. Reason must teach you, Madam, that night, this night, this hour, is the only time in which this visit could be made. Naturally, it would be impossible for him to come here. If you go to him, he will—ah, he will reverence you, as I do, Madam. Great necessity sets aside conventions, sets aside everything. Come, then!"
But still she only sat and smiled at me. I felt that purple and amber glow, the emanation of her personality, of her senses, creeping around me again as she leaned forward finally, her parted red-bowed lips again disclosing her delicate white teeth. I saw the little heave of her bosom, whether in laughter or emotion I could not tell. I was young. Resenting the spell which I felt coming upon me, all I could do was to reiterate my demand for haste. She was not in the least impressed by this.
"Come!" she said. "I am pleased with these Americans. Yes, I am not displeased with this little adventure."
I rose impatiently, and walked apart in the room. "You can not evade me, Madam, so easily as you did the Mexican gentleman who followed you. You have him in the net also? Is not the net full enough?"
"Never!" she said, her head swaying slowly from side to side, her face inscrutable. "Am I not a woman? Ah, am I not?"
"Madam," said I, whirling upon her, "let me, at least, alone. I am too small game for you. I am but a messenger. Time passes. Let us arrive at our business."
"What would you do if I refused to go with you?" she asked, still smiling at me. She was waiting for the spell of these surroundings, the spirit of this place, to do their work with me, perhaps; was willing to take her time with charm of eye and arm and hair and curved fingers, which did not openly invite and did not covertly repel. But I saw that her attitude toward me held no more than that of bird of prey and some little creature well within its power. It made me angry to be so rated.
"You ask me what I should do?" I retorted savagely. "I shall tell you first what I will do if you continue your refusal. I will take you with me, and so keep my agreement with my chief. Keep away from the bell rope! Remain silent! Do not move! You should go if I had to carry you there in a sack—because that is my errand!"
"Oh, listen at him threaten!" she laughed still. "And he despises my poor little castle here in the side street, where half the time I am so lonely! What would Monsieur do if Monsieur were in my place—and if I were in Monsieur's place? But, bah! you would not have me following you in the first hour we met, boy!"
I flushed again hotly at this last word. "Madam may discontinue the thought of my boyhood; I am older than she. But if you ask me what I would do with a woman if I followed her, or if she followed me, then I shall tell you. If I owned this place and all in it, I would tear down every picture from these walls, every silken cover from yonder couches! I would rip out these walls and put back the ones that once were here! You, Madam, should be taken out of luxury and daintiness—"
"Go on!" She clapped her hands, for the first time kindling, and dropping her annoying air of patronizing me. "Go on! I like you now. Tell me what Americans do with women that they love! I have heard they are savages."
"A house of logs far out in the countries that I know would do for you, Madam!" I went on hotly. "You should forget the touch of silk and lace. No neighbor you should know until I was willing. Any man who followed you should meet me. Until you loved me all you could, and said so, and proved it, I would wring your neck with my hands, if necessary, until you loved me!"
"Excellent! What then?"
"Then, Madam the Baroness, I would in turn build you a palace, one of logs, and would make you a most excellent couch of the husks of corn. You should cook at my fireplace, and for me!"
She smiled slowly past me, at me. "Pray, be seated," she said. "You interest me."
"It is late," I reiterated. "Come! Must I do some of these things—force you into obedience—carry you away in a sack? My master can not wait."
"Don Yturrio of Mexico, on the other hand," she mused, "promised me not violence, but more jewels. Idiot!"
"Indeed!" I rejoined, in contempt. "An American savage would give you but one gown, and that of your own weave; you could make it up as you liked. But come, now; I have no more time to lose."
"Ah, also, idiot!" she murmured. "Do you not see that I must reclothe myself before I could go with you—that is to say, if I choose to go with you? Now, as I was saying, my ardent Mexican promises thus and so. My lord of England—ah, well, they may be pardoned. Suppose I might listen to such suits—might there not be some life for me—some life with events? On the other hand, what of interest could America offer?"
"I have told you what life America could give you."
"I imagined men were but men, wherever found," she went on; "but what you say interests me, I declare to you again. A woman is a woman, too, I fancy. She always wants one thing—to be all the world to one man."
"Quite true," I answered. "Better that than part of the world to one—or two? And the opposite of it is yet more true. When a woman is all the world to a man, she despises him."
"But yes, I should like that experience of being a cook in a cabin, and being bruised and broken and choked!" She smiled, lazily extending her flawless arms and looking down at them, at all of her splendid figure, as though in interested examination. "I am alone so much—so bored!" she went on. "And Sir Richard Pakenham is so very, very fat. Ah, God! You can not guess how fat he is. But you, you are not fat." She looked me over critically, to my great uneasiness.
"All the more reason for doing as I have suggested, Madam; for Mr. Calhoun is not even so fat as I am. This little interview with my chief, I doubt not, will prove of interest. Indeed"—I went on seriously and intently—"I venture to say this much without presuming on my station: the talk which you will have with my chief to-night will show you things you have never known, give you an interest in living which perhaps you have not felt. If I am not mistaken, you will find much in common between you and my master. I speak not to the agent of England, but to the lady Helena von Ritz."
"He is old," she went on. "He is very old. His face is thin and bloodless and fleshless. He is old."
"Madam," I said, "his mind is young, his purpose young, his ambition young; and his country is young. Is not the youth of all these things still your own?"
She made no answer, but sat musing, drumming lightly on the chair arm. I was reaching for her cloak. Then at once I caught a glimpse of her stockinged foot, the toe of which slightly protruded from beneath her ball gown. She saw the glance and laughed.
"Poor feet," she said. "Ah, mes pauvres pieds la! You would like to see them bruised by the hard going in some heathen country? See you have no carriage, and mine is gone. I have not even a pair of shoes. Go look under the bed beyond."
I obeyed her gladly enough. Under the fringe of the satin counterpane I found a box of boots, slippers, all manner of footwear, daintily and neatly arranged. Taking out a pair to my fancy, I carried them out and knelt before her.
"Then, Madam," said I, "since you insist on this, I shall choose. America is not Europe. Our feet here have rougher going and must be shod for it. Allow me!"
Without the least hesitation in the world, or the least immodesty, she half protruded the foot which still retained its slipper. As I removed this latter, through some gay impulse, whose nature I did not pause to analyze, I half mechanically thrust it into the side pocket of my coat.
"This shall be security," said I, "that what you speak with my master shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
There was a curious deeper red in her cheek. I saw her bosom beat the faster rhythm.
"Quite agreed!" she answered. But she motioned me away, taking the stout boot in her own hand and turning aside as she fastened it. She looked over her shoulder at me now and again while thus engaged.
"Tell me," she said gently, "what security do I have? You come, by my invitation, it is true, but none the less an intrusion, into my apartments. You demand of me something which no man has a right to demand. Because I am disposed to be gracious, and because I am much disposed to be ennuye, and because Mr. Pakenham is fat, I am willing to take into consideration what you ask. I have never seen a thin gentleman in a woolen nightcap, and I am curious. But no gentleman plays games with ladies in which the dice are loaded for himself. Come, what security shall I have?"
I did not pretend to understand her. Perhaps, after all, we all had been misinformed regarding her? I could not tell. But her spirit of camaraderie, her good fellowship, her courage, quite aside from her personal charm, had now begun to impress me.
"Madam," said I, feeling in my pocket; "no heathen has much of this world's goods. All my possessions would not furnish one of these rooms. I can not offer gems, as does Senor Yturrio—but, would this be of service—until to-morrow? That will leave him and me with a slipper each. It is with reluctance I pledge to return mine!"
By chance I had felt in my pocket a little object which I had placed there that very day for quite another purpose. It was only a little trinket of Indian manufacture, which I had intended to give Elisabeth that very evening; a sort of cloak clasp, originally made as an Indian blanket fastening, with two round discs ground out of shells and connected by beaded thongs. I had got it among the tribes of the far upper plains, who doubtless obtained the shells, in their strange savage barter, in some way from the tribes of Florida or Texas, who sometimes trafficked in shells which found their way as far north as the Saskatchewan. The trinket was curious, though of small value. The baroness looked at it with interest.
"How it reminds me of this heathen country!" she said. "Is this all that your art can do in jewelry? Yet it is beautiful. Come, will you not give it to me?"
"Until to-morrow, Madam."
"I can not promise it longer. I must, unfortunately, have it back when I send a messenger—I shall hardly come myself, Madam."
"Ah!" she scoffed. "Then it belongs to another woman?"
"Yes, it is promised to another."
"Then this is to be the last time we meet?"
"I do not doubt it."
"Are you not sorry?"
She sighed, laughing as she did so. Yet I could not evade seeing the curious color on her cheek, the rise and fall of the laces over her bosom. Utterly self-possessed, satisfied with life as it had come to her, without illusion as to life, absorbed in the great game of living and adventuring—so I should have described her. Then why should her heart beat one stroke the faster now? I dismissed that question, and rebuked my eyes, which I found continually turning toward her.
She motioned to a little table near by. "Put the slipper there," she said. "Your little neck clasp, also." Again I obeyed her.
"Stand there!" she said, motioning to the opposite side of the table; and I did so. "Now," said she, looking at me gravely, "I am going with you to see this man whom you call your chief—this old and ugly man, thin and weazened, with no blood in him, and a woolen nightcap which is perhaps red. I shall not tell you whether I go of my own wish or because you wish it. But I need soberly to tell you this: secrecy is as necessary for me as for you. The favor may mean as much on one side as on the other—I shall not tell you why. But we shall play fair until, as you say, perhaps to-morrow. After that—"
"After that, on guard!"
"Very well, on guard! Suppose I do not like this other woman?"
"Madam, you could not help it. All the world loves her."
"With my life."
"How devoted! Very well, on guard, then!"
She took up the Indian bauble, turning to examine it at the nearest candle sconce, even as I thrust the dainty little slipper of white satin again into the pocket of my coat. I was uncomfortable. I wished this talk of Elisabeth had not come up. I liked very little to leave Elisabeth's property in another's hands. Dissatisfied, I turned from the table, not noticing for more than an instant a little crumpled roll of paper which, as I was vaguely conscious, now appeared on its smooth marquetry top.
"But see," she said; "you are just like a man, after all, and an unmarried man at that! I can not go through the streets in this costume. Excuse me for a moment."
She was off on the instant into the alcove where the great amber-covered bed stood. She drew the curtains. I heard her humming to herself as she passed to and fro, saw the flare of a light as it rose beyond. Once or twice she thrust a laughing face between the curtains, held tight together with her hands, as she asked me some question, mocking me, still amused—yet still, as I thought, more enigmatic than before.
"Madam," I said at last, "I would I might dwell here for ever, but—you are slow! The night passes. Come. My master will be waiting. He is ill; I fear he can not sleep. I know how intent he is on meeting you. I beg you to oblige an old, a dying man!"
"And you, Monsieur," she mocked at me from beyond the curtain, "are intent only on getting rid of me. Are you not adventurer enough to forget that other woman for one night?"
In her hands—those of a mysterious foreign woman—I had placed this little trinket which I had got among the western tribes for Elisabeth—a woman of my own people—the woman to whom my pledge had been given, not for return on any morrow. I made no answer, excepting to walk up and down the floor.
At last she came out from between the curtains, garbed more suitably for the errand which was now before us. A long, dark cloak covered her shoulders. On her head there rested a dainty up-flared bonnet, whose jetted edges shone in the candle light as she moved toward me. She was exquisite in every detail, beautiful as mind of man could wish; that much was sure, must be admitted by any man. I dared not look at her. I called to mind the taunt of those old men, that I was young! There was in my soul vast relief that she was not delaying me here longer in this place of spells—that in this almost providential way my errand had met success.
She paused for an instant, drawing on a pair of the short gloves of the mode then correct. "Do you know why I am to go on this heathen errand?" she demanded. I shook my head.
"Mr. Calhoun wishes to know whether he shall go to the cabinet of your man Tyler over there in that barn you call your White House. I suppose Mr. Calhoun wishes to know how he can serve Mr. Tyler?"
I laughed at this. "Serve him!" I exclaimed. "Rather say lead him, tell him, command him!"
"Yes," she nodded. I began to see another and graver side of her nature. "Yes, it is of course Texas."
I did not see fit to make answer to this.
"If your master, as you call him, takes the portfolio with Tyler, it is to annex Texas," she repeated sharply. "Is not that true?"
Still I would not answer. "Come!" I said.
"And he asks me to come to him so that he may decide—"
This awoke me. "No man decides for John Calhoun, Madam," I said. "You may advance facts, but he will decide." Still she went on.
"And Texas not annexed is a menace. Without her, you heathen people would not present a solid front, would you?"
"Madam has had much to do with affairs of state," I said.
She went on as though I had not spoken:
"And if you were divided in your southern section, England would have all the greater chance. England, you know, says she wishes slavery abolished. She says that—"
"England says many things!" I ventured.
"The hypocrite of the nations!" flashed out this singular woman at me suddenly. "As though diplomacy need be hypocrisy! Thus, to-night Sir Richard of England forgets his place, his protestations. He does not even know that Mexico has forgotten its duty also. Sir, you were not at our little ball, so you could not see that very fat Sir Richard paying his bored devoirs to Dona Lucrezia! So I am left alone, and would be bored, but for you. In return—a slight jest on Sir Richard to-night!—I will teach him that no fat gentleman should pay even bored attentions to a lady who soon will be fat, when his obvious duty should call him otherwhere! Bah! 'tis as though I myself were fat; which is not true."
"You go too deep for me, Madam," I said. "I am but a simple messenger." At the same time, I saw how admirably things were shaping for us all. A woman's jealousy was with us, and so a woman's whim!
"There you have the measure of England's sincerity," she went on, with contempt. "England is selfish, that is all. Do you not suppose I have something to do besides feeding a canary? To read, to study—that is my pleasure. I know your politics here in America. Suppose you invade Texas, as the threat is, with troops of the United States, before Texas is a member of the Union? Does that not mean you are again at war with Mexico? And does that not mean that you are also at war with England? Come, do you not know some of those things?"
"With my hand on my heart, Madam," I asserted solemnly, "all I know is that you must go to see my master. Calhoun wants you. America needs you. I beg you to do what kindness you may to the heathen."
"And you?" I answered. "You shall have such reward as you have never dreamed in all your life."
"How do you mean?"
"I doubt not the reward for a soul which is as keen and able as your heart is warm, Madam. Come, I am not such a fool as you think, perhaps. Nor are you a fool. You are a great woman, a wonderful woman, with head and heart both, Madam, as well as beauty such as I had never dreamed. You are a strange woman, Madam. You are a genius, Madam, if you please. So, I say, you are capable of a reward, and a great one. You may find it in the gratitude of a people."
"What could this country give more than Mexico or England?" She smiled quizzically.
"Much more, Madam! Your reward shall be in the later thought of many homes—homes built of logs, with dingy fireplaces and couches of husks in them—far out, all across this continent, housing many people, many happy citizens, men who will make their own laws, and enforce them, man and man alike! Madam, it is the spirit of democracy which calls on you to-night! It is not any political party, nor the representative of one. It is not Mr. Calhoun; it is not I. Mr. Calhoun only puts before you the summons of—"
"Of that spirit of democracy."
She stood, one hand ungloved, a finger at her lips, her eyes glowing. "I am glad you came," she said. "On the whole, I am also glad I came upon my foolish errand here to America."
"Madam," said I, my hand at the fastening of the door, "we have exchanged pledges. Now we exchange places. It is you who are the messenger, not myself. There is a message in your hands. I know not whether you ever served a monarchy. Come, you shall see that our republic has neither secrets nor hypocrisies."
On the instant she was not shrewd and tactful woman of the world, not student, but once more coquette and woman of impulse. She looked at me with mockery and invitation alike in her great dark eyes, even as I threw down the chain at the door and opened it wide for her to pass.
"Is that my only reward?" she asked, smiling as she fumbled at a glove.
In reply, I bent and kissed the fingers of her ungloved hand. They were so warm and tender that I had been different than I was had I not felt the blood tingle in all my body in the impulse of the moment to do more than kiss her fingers.
Had I done so—had I not thought of Elisabeth—then, as in my heart I still believe, the flag of England to-day would rule Oregon and the Pacific; and it would float to-day along the Rio Grande; and it would menace a divided North and South, instead of respecting a strong and indivisible Union which owns one flag and dreads none in the world.
Without woman the two extremities of this life would be destitute of succor and the middle would be devoid of pleasure.—Proverb.
In some forgotten garret of this country, as I do not doubt, yellowed with age, stained and indistinguishable, lost among uncared-for relics of another day, there may be records of that interview between two strange personalities, John Calhoun and Helena von Ritz, in the arrangement of which I played the part above described. I was not at that time privileged to have much more than a guess at the nature of the interview. Indeed, other things now occupied my mind. I was very much in love with Elisabeth Churchill.
Of these matters I need to make some mention. My father's plantation was one of the old ones in Maryland. That of the Churchills lay across a low range of mountains and in another county from us, but our families had long been friends. I had known Elisabeth from the time she was a tall, slim girl, boon companion ever to her father, old Daniel Churchill; for her mother she had lost when she was still young. The Churchills maintained a city establishment in the environs of Washington itself, although that was not much removed from their plantation in the old State of Maryland. Elmhurst, this Washington estate was called, and it was well known there, with its straight road approaching and its great trees and its wide-doored halls—whereby the road itself seemed to run straight through the house and appear beyond—and its tall white pillars and hospitable galleries, now in the springtime enclosed in green. I need not state that now, having finished the business of the day, or, rather, of the night, Elmhurst, home of Elisabeth, was my immediate Mecca.
I had clad myself as well as I could in the fashion of my time, and flattered myself, as I looked in my little mirror, that I made none such bad figure of a man. I was tall enough, and straight, thin with long hours afoot or in the saddle, bronzed to a good color, and if health did not show on my face, at least I felt it myself in the lightness of my step, in the contentedness of my heart with all of life, in my general assurance that all in the world meant well toward me and that everything in the world would do well by me. We shall see what license there was for this.
As to Elisabeth Churchill, it might have been in line with a Maryland-custom had she generally been known as Betty; but Betty she never was called, although that diminutive was applied to her aunt, Jennings, twice as large as she, after whom she had been named. Betty implies a snub nose; Elisabeth's was clean-cut and straight. Betty runs for a saucy mouth and a short one; Elisabeth's was red and curved, but firm and wide enough for strength and charity as well. Betty spells round eyes, with brows arched above them as though in query and curiosity; the eyes of Elisabeth were long, her brows long and straight and delicately fine. A Betty might even have red hair; Elisabeth's was brown in most lights, and so liquid smooth that almost I was disposed to call it dense rather than thick. Betty would seem to indicate a nature impulsive, gay, and free from care; on the other hand, it was to be said of Elisabeth that she was logical beyond her kind—a trait which she got from her mother, a daughter of old Judge Henry Gooch, of our Superior Court. Yet, disposed as she always was to be logical in her conclusions, the great characteristic of Elisabeth was serenity, consideration and charity.
With all this, there appeared sometimes at the surface of Elisabeth's nature that fire and lightness and impulsiveness which she got from her father, Mr. Daniel Churchill. Whether she was wholly reserved and reasonable, or wholly warm and impulsive, I, long as I had known and loved her, never was quite sure. Something held me away, something called me forward; so that I was always baffled, and yet always eager, God wot. I suppose this is the way of women. At times I have been impatient with it, knowing my own mind well enough.
At least now, in my tight-strapped trousers and my long blue coat and my deep embroidered waistcoat and my high stock, my shining boots and my tall beaver, I made my way on my well-groomed horse up to the gates of old Elmhurst; and as I rode I pondered and I dreamed.
But Miss Elisabeth was not at home, it seemed. Her father, Mr. Daniel Churchill, rather portly and now just a trifle red of face, met me instead. It was not an encounter for which I devoutly wished, but one which I knew it was the right of both of us to expect ere long. Seeing the occasion propitious, I plunged at once in medias res. Part of the time explanatory, again apologetic, and yet again, I trust, assertive, although always blundering and red and awkward, I told the father of my intended of my own wishes, my prospects and my plans.
He listened to me gravely and, it seemed to me, with none of that enthusiasm which I would have welcomed. As to my family, he knew enough. As to my prospects, he questioned me. My record was not unfamiliar to him. So, gaining confidence at last under the insistence of what I knew were worthy motives, and which certainly were irresistible of themselves, so far as I was concerned, I asked him if we might not soon make an end of this, and, taking chances as they were, allow my wedding with Elisabeth to take place at no very distant date.
"Why, as to that, of course I do not know what my girl will say," went on Mr. Daniel Churchill, pursing up his lips. He looked not wholly lovable to me, as he sat in his big chair. I wondered that he should be father of so fair a human being as Elisabeth.
"Oh, of course—that," I answered; "Miss Elisabeth and I—"
"The skeesicks!" he exclaimed. "I thought she told me everything."
"I think Miss Elisabeth tells no one quite everything," I ventured. "I confess she has kept me almost as much in the dark as yourself, sir. But I only wanted to ask if, after I have seen her to-day, and if I should gain her consent to an early day, you would not waive any objections on your own part and allow the matter to go forward as soon as possible?"
In answer to this he arose from his chair and stood looking out of the window, his back turned to me. I could not call his reception of my suggestion enthusiastic; but at last he turned.
"I presume that our two families might send you young people a sack of meal or a side of bacon now and then, as far as that is concerned," he said.
I could not call this speech joyous.
"There are said to be risks in any union, sir," I ventured to say. "I admit I do not follow you in contemplating any risk whatever. If either you or your daughter doubts my loyalty or affection, then I should say certainly it were wise to end all this; but—" and I fancied I straightened perceptibly—"I think that might perhaps be left to Miss Elisabeth herself."
After all, Mr. Dan Churchill was obliged to yield, as fathers have been obliged from the beginning of the world. At last he told me I might take my fate in my own hands and go my way.
Trust the instinct of lovers to bring them together! I was quite confident that at that hour I should find Elisabeth and her aunt in the big East Room at the president's reception, the former looking on with her uncompromising eyes at the little pageant which on reception days regularly went forward there.
My conclusion was correct. I found a boy to hold my horse in front of Gautier's cafe. Then I hastened off across the intervening blocks and through the grounds of the White House, in which presently, having edged through the throng in the ante-chambers, I found myself in that inane procession of individuals who passed by in order, each to receive the limp handshake, the mechanical bow and the perfunctory smite of President Tyler—rather a tall, slender-limbed, active man, and of very decent presence, although his thin, shrunken cheeks and his cold blue-gray eye left little quality of magnetism in his personality.
It was not new to me, of course, this pageant, although it never lacked of interest. There were in the throng representatives of all America as it was then, a strange, crude blending of refinement and vulgarity, of ease and poverty, of luxury and thrift. We had there merchants from Philadelphia and New York, politicians from canny New England and not less canny Pennsylvania. At times there came from the Old World men representative of an easier and more opulent life, who did not always trouble to suppress their smiles at us. Moving among these were ladies from every state of our Union, picturesque enough in their wide flowered skirts and their flaring bonnets and their silken mitts, each rivalling the other in the elegance of her mien, and all unconsciously outdone in charm, perhaps, by some demure Quakeress in white and dove color, herself looking askance on all this form and ceremony, yet unwilling to leave the nation's capital without shaking the hand of the nation's chief. Add to these, gaunt, black-haired frontiersmen from across the Alleghanies; politicians from the South, clean-shaven, pompous, immaculately clad; uneasy tradesmen from this or the other corner of their commonwealth. A motley throng, indeed!