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54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 9405

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

There is a woman at the beginning of all great things.


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 R


"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.

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