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   Chapter 9 A KETTLE OF FISH

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 14247

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Few disputes exist which have not had their origin in women-Juvenal.

I saw the heavy face of Mr. Pakenham go pale, saw the face of the Baroness von Ritz flash with a swift resolution, saw the eyes of Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Tyler meet in firmness. An instant later, Mr. Tyler rose and bowed our dismissal. Our little play was done. Which of us knew all the motives that had lain behind its setting?

Mr. Pakenham drew apart and engaged in earnest speech with the lady who had accompanied him; so that meantime I myself found opportunity for a word with Mr. Calhoun.

"Now," said I, "the fat certainly is all in the fire!"

"What fat, my son?" asked Calhoun serenely; "and what fire?"

"At least"-and I grinned covertly, I fear-"it seems all over between my lady and her protector there. She turned traitor just when he had most need of her! Tell me, what argument did you use with her last night?"

Mr. Calhoun took snuff.

"You don't know women, my son, and you don't know men, either." The thin white skin about his eyes wrinkled.

"Certainly, I don't know what arts may have been employed in Mr. Calhoun's office at half-past two this morning." I smiled frankly now at my chief, and he relaxed in turn.

"We had a most pleasant visit of an hour. A delightful woman, a charming woman, and one of intellect as well. I appealed to her heart, her brain, her purse, and she laughed, for the most part. Yet she argued, too, and seemed to have some interest-as you see proved now. Ah, I wish I could have had the other two great motives to add to my appeal!"


"Love-and curiosity! With those added, I could have won her over; for believe me, she is none too firmly anchored to England. I am sure of that, though it leaves me still puzzled. If you think her personal hold on yonder gentleman will be lessened, you err," he added, in a low voice. "I consider it sure that he is bent on her as much as he is on England. See, she has him back in hand already! I would she were our friend!"

"Is she not?" I asked suddenly.

"We two may answer that one day," said Calhoun enigmatically.

Now I offered to Mr. Calhoun the note I had received from his page.

"This journey to-night," I began; "can I not be excused from making that? There is a very special reason."

"What can it be?" asked Calhoun, frowning.

"I am to be married to-night, sir," said I, calmly as I could.

It was Calhoun's turn now to be surprised. "Married? Zounds! boy, what do you mean? There is no time to waste."

"I do not hold it quite wasted, sir," said I with dignity. "Miss Elisabeth Churchill and I for a long time-"

"Miss Elisabeth! So the wind is there, eh? My daughter's friend. I know her very well, of course. Very well done, indeed, for you. But there can be no wedding to-night."

I looked at him in amazement. He was as absorbed as though he felt empowered to settle that matter for me. A moment later, seeing Mr. Pakenham taking his leave, he stepped to the side of the baroness. I saw him and that mysterious lady fall into a conversation as grave as that which had but now been ended. I guessed, rather than reasoned, that in some mysterious way I came into their talk. But presently both approached me.

"Mr. Trist," said Mr. Calhoun, "I beg you to hand the Baroness von Ritz to her carriage, which will wait at the avenue." We were then standing near the door at the head of the steps.

"I see my friend Mr. Polk approaching," he continued, "and I would like to have a word or so with him."

We three walked in company down the steps and a short distance along the walk, until presently we faced the gentleman whose approach had been noted. We paused in a little group under the shade of an avenue tree, and the gentlemen removed their hats as Mr. Calhoun made a somewhat formal introduction.

At that time, of course, James K. Polk, of Tennessee, was not the national figure he was soon to become at the Baltimore convention. He was known best as Speaker of the House for some time, and as a man experienced in western politics, a friend of Jackson, who still controlled a large wing of the disaffected; the Democratic party then being scarce more than a league of warring cliques. Although once governor of Tennessee, it still was an honor for Mr. Polk to be sought out by Senator John Calhoun, sometime vice-president, sometime cabinet member in different capacities. He showed this as he uncovered. A rather short man, and thin, well-built enough, and of extremely serious mien, he scarce could have been as wise as he looked, any more than Mr. Daniel Webster; yet he was good example of conventional politics, platitudes and all.

"They have adjourned at the House, then?" said Calhoun.

"Yes, and adjourned a bear pit at that," answered the gentleman from Tennessee. "Mr. Tyler has asked me to come across town to meet him. Do you happen to know where he is now?"

"He was here a few moments ago, Governor. We were but escorting this lady to her carriage, as she claims fatigue from late hours at the ball last night."

"Surely so radiant a presence," said Mr. Polk gallantly, "means that she left the ball at an early hour."

"Quite so," replied that somewhat uncertain lady demurely. "Early hours and a good conscience are advised by my physicians."

"My dear lady, Time owns his own defeat in you," Mr. Polk assured her, his eyes sufficiently admiring.

"Such pretty speeches as these gentlemen of America make!" was her gay reply. "Is it not so, Mr. Secretary?" She smiled up at Calhoun's serious face.

Polk was possessed of a political nose which rarely failed him. "Mr. Secretary?" he exclaimed, turning to Calhoun.

The latter bowed. "I have just accepted the place lately filled by Mr. Upshur," was his comment.

A slow color rose in the Tennesseean's face as he held out his hand. "I congratulate you, Mr. Secretary," said he. "Now at last we shall see an end of indecision and boasting pretense."

"Excellent things to end, Governor Polk!" said Calhoun gravely.

"I am but an humble adviser," rejoined the man from Tennessee; "but assuredly I must hasten to congratulate Mr. Tyler. I have no doubt that this means Texas. Of course, my dear Madam, we talk riddles in your presence?"

"Quite riddles, although I remain interested," she answered. I saw her cool eyes take in his figure, measuring him calmly for her mental tablets, as I could believe was her wont. "But I find myself indeed somewhat fatigued," she continued, "and since these are matters of which I am ignorant-"

"Of course, Madam," said Mr. Calhoun. "We crave your pardon. Mr. Trist-"

So now I took the lady's sunshade from her hand, and we two, making adieux, passed down the shaded walk toward the avenue.

"You are a good cavalier," she said to me. "I find you not so fat as Mr. Pakenham, nor so thin as Mr. Calhoun. My faith, could you have seen that gentleman this morning in a wrapper-and in a red worsted nightcap!"

"But what did you determine?" I asked her suddenly. "What has my chief said to cause you to fail poor Mr. Pakenham as you did? I pitied the

poor man, in such a grueling, and wholly without warning!"

"Monsieur is droll," she replied evasively. "As though I had changed! I will say this much: I think Sir Richard will care more for Mexico and less for Mexicans after this! But you do not tell me when you are coming to see me, to bring back my little shoe. Its mate has arrived by special messenger, but the pair remains still broken. Do you come to-night-this afternoon?"

"I wish that I might," said I.

"Why be churlish with me?" she demanded. "Did I not call at your request upon a gentleman in a red nightcap at two in the morning? And for your sake-and the sake of sport-did I not almost promise him many things? Come now, am I not to see you and explain all that; and hear you explain all this?" She made a little moue at me.

"It would be my delight, Madam, but there are two reasons-"

"One, then."

"I am going to Montreal to-night, for one."

She gave me a swift glance, which I could not understand.

"So?" she said. "Why so soon?"

"Orders," said I briefly. "But perhaps I may not obey orders for once. There is another reason."

"And that one?"

"I am to be married at six."

I turned to enjoy her consternation. Indeed, there was an alternate white and red passed across her face! But at once she was in hand.

"And you allowed me to become your devoted slave," she said, "even to the extent of calling upon a man in a red nightcap; and then, even upon a morning like this, when the birds sing so sweetly and the little flowers show pink and white-now you cast down my most sacred feelings!"

The mockery in her tone was perfect. I scarce had paused to note it. I was absorbed in one thought-of Elisabeth. Where one fire burns high and clear upon the altar of the heart, there is small room for any other.

"I might have told you," said I at Last, "but I did not myself know it until this morning."

"My faith, this country!" she exclaimed with genuine surprise. "What extraordinary things it does! I have just seen history made between the lightings of a cigarette, as it were. Now comes this man and announces that since midnight he has met and won the lady who is to rule his heart, and that he is to marry her at six!"

"Then congratulate me!" I demanded.

"Ah," she said, suddenly absorbed; "it was that tall girl! Yes, yes, I see, I see! I understand! So then! Yes!"

"But still you have not congratulated me."

"Ah, Monsieur," she answered lightly, "one woman never congratulates a man when he has won another! What of my own heart? Fie! Fie!" Yet she had curious color in her face.

"I do not credit myself with such fatal charms," said I. "Rather say what of my little clasp there. I promised that to the tall girl, as you know."

"And might I not wear it for an hour?"

"I shall give you a dozen better some time," said I; "but to-night-"

"And my slipper? I said I must have that back, because I can not hop along with but one shoe all my life."

"That you shall have as soon as I can get to my rooms at Brown's Hotel yonder. A messenger shall bring it to you at once. Time will indeed be short for me. First, the slipper for Madam. Then the license for myself. Then the minister. Then a friend. Then a carriage. Five miles to Elmhurst, and the train for the North starts at eight. Indeed, as you say, the methods of this country are sometimes hurried. Madam, can not you use your wits in a cause so worthy as mine?"

I could not at the time understand the swift change of her features. "One woman's wits against another's!" she flashed at me. "As for that"-She made a swift motion to her throat. "Here is the trinket. Tell the tall lady it is my present to you. Tell her I may send her a wedding present-when the wedding really is to happen. Of course, you do not mean what you have said about being married in such haste?"

"Every word of it," I answered. "And at her own home. 'Tis no runaway match; I have the consent of her father."

"But you said you had her consent only an hour ago. Ah, this is better than a play!"

"It is true," said I, "there has not been time to inform Miss Churchill's family of my need for haste. I shall attend to that when I arrive. The lady has seen the note from Mr. Calhoun ordering me to Montreal."

"To Montreal? How curious!" she mused. "But what did Mr. Calhoun say to this marriage?"

"He forbade the banns."

"But Monsieur will take her before him in a sack-and he will forbid you, I am sure, to condemn that lady to a life in a cabin, to a couch of husks, to a lord who would crush her arms and command her-"

I flushed as she reminded me of my own speech, and there came no answer but the one which I imagine is the verdict of all lovers. "She is the dearest girl in the world," I declared.

"Has she fortune?"

"I do not know."

"Have you fortune?"

"God knows, no!"

"You have but love-and this country?"

"That is all."

"It is enough," said she, sighing. "Dear God, it is enough! But then"-she turned to me suddenly-"I don't think you will be married so soon, after all. Wait."

"That is what Mr. Pakenham wanted Mr. Calhoun to do," I smiled.

"But Mr. Pakenham is not a woman."

"Ah, then you also forbid our banns?"

"If you challenge me," she retorted, "I shall do my worst."

"Then do your worst!" I said. "All of you do your joint worst. You can not shake the faith of Elisabeth Churchill in me, nor mine in her. Oh, yes, by all means do your worst!"

"Very well," she said, with a catch of her breath. "At least we both said-'on guard!'

"I wish I could ask you to attend at our wedding," I concluded, as her carriage approached the curb; "but it is safe to say that not even friends of the family will be present, and of those not all the family will be friends."

She did not seem to see her carriage as it paused, although she prepared to enter when I opened the door. Her look, absorbed, general, seemed rather to take in the sweep of the wide grounds, the green of the young springtime, the bursting of the new white blossoms, the blue of the sky, the loom of the distant capitol dome-all the crude promise of our young and tawdry capital, still in the making of a world city. Her eyes passed to me and searched my face without looking into my eyes, as though I made part of her study. What sat on her face was perplexity, wonder, amazement, and something else, I know not what. Something of her perfect poise and confidence, her quality as woman of the world, seemed to drop away. A strange and childlike quality came into her face, a pathos unlike anything I had seen there before. She took my hand mechanically.

"Of course," said she, as though she spoke to herself, "it can not be. But, dear God! would it not be enough?"

I did not understand her speech. I stood and watched her carriage as it whirled away. Thinking of my great need for haste, mechanically I looked at my watch. It was one o'clock. Then I reflected that it was at eleven of the night previous that I had first met the Baroness von Ritz. Our acquaintance had therefore lasted some fourteen hours.

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