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54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 21401

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

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 café. 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!

A certain air of gloom at this time hung over official Washington, for the minds of all were still oppressed by the memory of that fatal accident-the explosion of the great cannon "Peacemaker" on board the war vessel Princeton-which had killed Mr. Upshur, our secretary of state, with others, and had, at one blow, come so near to depriving this government of its head and his official family; the number of prominent lives thus ended or endangered being appalling to contemplate. It was this accident which had called Mr. Calhoun forward at a national juncture of the most extreme delicacy and the utmost importance. In spite of the general mourning, however, the informal receptions at the White House were not wholly discontinued, and the administration, unsettled as it was, and fronted by the gravest of diplomatic problems, made such show of dignity and even cheerfulness as it might.

I considered it my duty to pass in the long procession and to shake the hand of Mr. Tyler. That done, I gazed about the great room, carefully scan-fling the different little groups which were accustomed to form after the ceremonial part of the visit was over. I saw many whom I knew. I forgot them; for in a far corner, where a flood of light came through the trailing vines that shielded the outer window, my anxious eyes discovered the object of my quest-Elisabeth.

It seemed to me I had never known her so fair as she was that morning in the great

East Room of the White House. Elisabeth was rather taller than the average woman, and of that splendid southern figure, slender but strong, which makes perhaps the best representative of our American beauty. She was very bravely arrayed to-day in her best pink-flowered lawn, made wide and full, as was the custom of the time, but not so clumsily gathered at the waist as some, and so serving not wholly to conceal her natural comeliness of figure. Her bonnet she had removed. I could see the sunlight on the ripples of her brown hair, and the shadows which lay above her eyes as she turned to face me, and the slow pink which crept into her cheeks.

Dignified always, and reserved, was Elisabeth Churchill. But now I hope it was not wholly conceit which led me to feel that perhaps the warmth, the glow of the air, caught while riding under the open sky, the sight of the many budding roses of our city, the scent of the blossoms which even then came through the lattice-the meeting even with myself, so lately returned-something at least of this had caused an awakening in her girl's heart. Something, I say, I do not know what, gave her greeting to me more warmth than was usual with her. My own heart, eager enough to break bounds, answered in kind. We stood-blushing like children as our hands touched-forgotten in that assemblage of Washington's pomp and circumstance.

"How do you do?" was all I could find to say. And "How do you do?" was all I could catch for answer, although I saw, in a fleeting way, a glimpse of a dimple hid in Elisabeth's cheek. She never showed it save when pleased. I have never seen a dimple like that of Elisabeth's.

Absorbed, we almost forgot Aunt Betty Jennings-stout, radiant, snub-nosed, arch-browed and curious, Elisabeth's chaperon. On the whole, I was glad Aunt Betty Jennings was there. When a soldier approaches a point of danger, he does not despise the cover of natural objects. Aunt Betty appeared to me simply as a natural object at the time. I sought her shelter.

"Aunt Betty," said I, as I took her hand; "Aunt Betty, have we told you, Elisabeth and I?"

I saw Elisabeth straighten in perplexity, doubt or horror, but I went on.

"Yes, Elisabeth and I-"

"You dear children!" gurgled Aunt Betty.

"Congratulate us both!" I demanded, and I put Elisabeth's hand, covered with my own, into the short and chubby fingers of that estimable lady. Whenever Elisabeth attempted to open her lips I opened mine before, and I so overwhelmed dear Aunt Betty Jennings with protestations of my regard for her, my interest in her family, her other nieces, her chickens, her kittens, her home-I so quieted all her questions by assertions and demands and exclamations, and declarations that Mr. Daniel Churchill had given his consent, that I swear for the moment even Elisabeth believed that what I had said was indeed true. At least, I can testify she made no formal denial, although the dimple was now frightened out of sight.

Admirable Aunt Betty Jennings! She forestalled every assertion I made, herself bubbling and blushing in sheer delight. Nor did she lack in charity. Tapping me with her fan lightly, she exclaimed: "You rogue! I know that you two want to be alone; that is what you want. Now I am going away-just down the room. You will ride home with us after a time, I am sure?"

Adorable Aunt Betty Jennings! Elisabeth and I looked at her comfortable back for some moments before I turned, laughing, to look Elisabeth in the eyes.

"You had no right-" began she, her face growing pink.

"Every right!" said I, and managed to find a place for our two hands under cover of the wide flounces of her figured lawn as we stood, both blushing. "I have every right. I have truly just seen your father. I have just come from him."

She looked at me intently, glowingly, happily.

"I could not wait any longer," I went on. "Within a week I am going to have an office of my own. Let us wait no longer. I have waited long enough. Now-"

I babbled on, and she listened. It was strange place enough for a betrothal, but there at least I said the words which bound me; and in the look Elisabeth gave me I saw her answer. Her eyes were wide and straight and solemn. She did not smile.

As we stood, with small opportunity and perhaps less inclination for much conversation, my eyes chanced to turn toward the main entrance door of the East Room. I saw, pushing through, a certain page, a young boy of good family, who was employed by Mr. Calhoun as messenger. He knew me perfectly well, as he did almost every one else in Washington, and with precocious intelligence his gaze picked me out in all that throng.

"Is that for me?" I asked, as he extended his missive.

"Yes," he nodded. "Mr. Calhoun told me to find you and to give you this at once."

I turned to Elisabeth. "If you will pardon me?" I said. She made way for me to pass to a curtained window, and there, turning my back and using such secrecy as I could, I broke the seal.

The message was brief. To be equally brief I may say simply that it asked me to be ready to start for Canada that night on business connected with the Department of State! Of reasons or explanations it gave none.

I turned to Elisabeth and held out the message from my chief. She looked at it. Her eyes widened. "Nicholas!" she exclaimed.

I looked at her in silence for a moment. "Elisabeth," I said at last, "I have been gone on this sort of business long enough. What do you say to this? Shall I decline to go? It means my resignation at once."

I hesitated. The heart of the nation and the nation's life were about me. Our state, such as it was, lay there in that room, and with it our problems, our duties, our dangers. I knew, better than most, that there were real dangers before this nation at that very hour. I was a lover, yet none the less I was an American. At once a sudden plan came into my mind.

"Elisabeth," said I, turning to her swiftly, "I will agree to nothing which will send me away from you again. Listen, then-" I raised a hand as she would have spoken. "Go home with your Aunt Betty as soon as you can. Tell your father that to-night at six I shall be there. Be ready!"

"What do you mean?" she panted. I saw her throat flutter.

"I mean that we must be married to-night before I go. Before eight o'clock I must be on the train."

"When will you be back?" she whispered.

"How can I tell? When I go, my wife shall wait there at Elmhurst, instead of my sweetheart."

She turned away from me, contemplative. She, too, was young. Ardor appealed to her. Life stood before her, beckoning, as to me. What could the girl do or say?

I placed her hand on my arm. We started toward the door, intending to pick up Aunt Jennings on our way. As we advanced, a group before us broke apart. I stood aside to make way for a gentleman whom I did not recognize. On his arm there leaned a woman, a beautiful woman, clad in a costume of flounced and rippling velvet of a royal blue which made her the most striking figure in the great room. Hers was a personality not easily to be overlooked in any company, her face one not readily to be equalled. It was the Baroness Helena von Ritz!

We met face to face. I presume it would have been too much to ask even of her to suppress the sudden flash of recognition which she showed. At first she did not see that I was accompanied. She bent to me, as though to adjust her gown, and, without a change in the expression of her face, spoke to me in an undertone no one else could hear.

"Wait!" she murmured "There is to be a meeting-"

"Wait!" she murmured. "There is to be a meeting-" She had time for no more as she swept by.

Alas, that mere moments should spell ruin as well as happiness! This new woman whom I had wooed and found, this new Elisabeth whose hand lay on my arm, saw what no one else would have seen-that little flash of recognition on the face of Helena von Ritz! She heard a whisper pass. Moreover, with a woman's uncanny facility in detail, she took in every item of the other's costume. For myself, I could see nothing of that costume now save one object-a barbaric brooch of double shells and beaded fastenings, which clasped the light laces at her throat.

The baroness had perhaps slept as little as I the night before. If I showed the ravages of loss of sleep no more than she, I was fortunate. She was radiant, as she passed forward with her escort for place in the line which had not yet dwindled away.

"You seem to know that lady," said Elisabeth to me gently.

"Did I so seem?" I answered. "It is professional of all to smile in the East Room at a reception," said I.

"Then you do not know the lady?"

"Indeed, no. Why should I, my dear girl?" Ah, how hot my face was!

"I do not know," said Elisabeth. "Only, in a way she resembles a certain lady of whom we have heard rather more than enough here in Washington."

"Put aside silly gossip, Elisabeth," I said. "And, please, do not quarrel with me, now that I am so happy. To-night-"

"Nicholas," she said, leaning just a little forward and locking her hands more deeply in my arm, "don't you know you were telling me one time about the little brooch you were going to bring me-an Indian thing-you said it should be my-my wedding present? Don't you remember that? Now, I was thinking-"

I stood blushing red as though detected in the utmost villainy. And the girl at my side saw that written on my face which now, within the very moment, it had become her right to question! I turned to her suddenly.

"Elisabeth," said I, "you shall have your little brooch to-night, if you will promise me now to be ready and waiting for me at six. I will have the license."

It seemed to me that this new self of Elisabeth's-warmer, yielding, adorable-was slowly going away from me again, and that her old self, none the less sweet, none the less alluring, but more logical and questioning, had taken its old place again. She put both her hands on my arm now and looked me fairly in the face, where the color still proclaimed some sort of guilt on my part, although my heart was clean and innocent as hers.

"Nicholas," she said, "come to-night. Bring me my little jewel-and bring-"

"The minister! If I do that, Elisabeth, you will marry me then?"

"Yes!" she whispered softly.

Amid all the din and babble of that motley throng I heard the word, low as it was. I have never heard a voice like Elisabeth's.

An instant later, I knew not quite how, her hand was away from my arm, in that of Aunt Betty, and they were passing toward the main door, leaving me standing with joy and doubt mingled in my mind.

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