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54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 28930

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

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 ménage 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 ennuyé, 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 Se?or 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."

"No longer?"

"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?"

"Naturally, Madam!"

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."

"Do you?"

"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 Do?a 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."

"Et moi?"

"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 what?"

"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.

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