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   Chapter 4 THE BARONESS HELENA

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 13654

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


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.

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