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   Chapter 19 THE GENTLEMAN FROM TENNESSEE

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 15034

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Women distrust men too much in general, and not enough in particular.-Philibert Commerson.

Now all the more was it necessary for me and my friend from Oregon to hasten on to Washington. I say nothing further of the arguments I employed with him, and nothing of our journey to Washington, save that we made it hastily as possible. It was now well toward the middle of April, and, brief as had been my absence, I knew there had been time for many things to happen in Washington as well as in Montreal.

Rumors abounded, I found as soon as I struck the first cities below the Canadian line. It was in the air now that under Calhoun there would be put before Congress a distinct and definite attempt at the annexation of Texas. Stories of all sorts were on the streets; rumors of the wrath of Mr. Clay; yet other rumors of interesting possibilities at the coming Whig and Democratic conventions. Everywhere was that strange, ominous, indescribable tension of the atmosphere which exists when a great people is moved deeply. The stern figure of Calhoun, furnishing courage for a people, even as he had for a president, loomed large in the public prints.

Late as it was when I reached Washington, I did not hesitate to repair at once to the residence of Mr. Calhoun; and I took with me as my best adjutant my strange friend Von Rittenhofen, who, I fancied, might add detailed information which Mr. Calhoun would find of value. We were admitted to Mr. Calhoun, and after the first greetings he signified that he would hear my report. He sat, his long, thin hands on his chair arm, as I went on with my story, his keen eyes scanning also my old companion as I spoke. I explained what the latter knew regarding Oregon. I saw Mr. Calhoun's eyes kindle. As usual, he did not lack decision.

"Sir," said he to Von Rittenhofen presently, "we ourselves are young, yet I trust not lacking in a great nation's interest in the arts and sciences. It occurs to me now that in yourself we have opportunity to add to our store of knowledge in respect to certain biological features."

The old gentleman rose and bowed. "I thank you for the honor of your flattery, sir," he began; but Calhoun raised a gentle hand.

"If it would please you, sir, to defer your visit to your own country for a time, I can secure for you a situation in our department in biology, where your services would be of extreme worth to us. The salary would also allow you to continue your private researches into the life of our native tribes."

Von Rittenhofen positively glowed at this. "Ach, what an honor!" he began again.

"Meantime," resumed Calhoun, "not to mention the value which that research would have for us, we could also find use, at proper remuneration, for your private aid in making up a set of maps of that western country which you know so well, and of which even I myself am so ignorant. I want to know the distances, the topography, the means of travel. I want to know the peculiarities of that country of Oregon. It would take me a year to send a messenger, for at best it requires six months to make the outbound passage, and in the winter the mountains are impassable. If you could, then, take service with us now, we should be proud to make you such return as your scientific attainments deserve."

Few could resist the persuasiveness of Mr. Calhoun's speech, certainly not Von Rittenhofen, who thus found offered him precisely what he would have desired. I was pleased to see him so happily situated and so soon. Presently we despatched him down to my hotel, where I promised later to make him more at home. In his elation over the prospect he now saw before him, the old man fairly babbled. Germany seemed farthest from his mind. After his departure, Calhoun again turned to me.

"I want you to remain, Nicholas," said he, "because I have an appointment with a gentleman who will soon be present."

"Rather a late hour, sir," I ventured. "Are you keeping faith with Doctor Ward?"

"I have no time for hobbies," he exclaimed, half petulantly. "What I must do is this work. The man we are to meet to-night is Mr. Polk. It is important."

"You would not call Mr. Polk important?" I smiled frankly, and Calhoun replied in icy kind.

"You can not tell how large a trouble may be started by a small politician," said he. "At least, we will hear what he has to say. 'Twas he that sought the meeting, not myself."

Perhaps half an hour later, Mr. Calhoun's old negro man ushered in this awaited guest, and we three found ourselves alone in one of those midnight conclaves which went on in Washington even then as they do to-day. Mr. Polk was serious as usual; his indecisive features wearing the mask of solemnity, which with so many passed as wisdom.

"I have come, Mr. Calhoun," said he-when the latter had assured him that my presence would entail no risk to him-"to talk over this Texas situation."

"Very well," said my chief. "My own intentions regarding Texas are now of record."

"Precisely," said Mr. Polk. "Now, is it wise to make a definite answer in that matter yet? Would it not be better to defer action until later-until after, I may say-"

"Until after you know what your own chances will be, Jim?" asked Mr. Calhoun, smiling grimly.

"Why, that is it, John, precisely, that is it exactly! Now, I don't know what you think of my chances in the convention, but I may say that a very large branch of the western Democracy is favoring me for the nomination." Mr. Polk pursed a short upper lip and looked monstrous grave. His extreme morality and his extreme dignity made his chief stock in trade. Different from his master, Old Hickory, he was really at heart the most aristocratic of Democrats, and like many another so-called leader, most of his love for the people really was love of himself.

"Yes, I know that some very strange things happen in politics," commented Calhoun, smiling.

"But, God bless me! you don't call it out of the way for me to seek the nomination? Some one must be president! Why not myself? Now, I ask your support."

"My support is worth little, Jim," said my chief. "But have you earned it? You have never consulted my welfare, nor has Jackson. I had no majority behind me in the Senate. I doubt even the House now. Of what use could I be to you?"

"At least, you could decline to do anything definite in this Texas matter."

"Why should a man ever do anything indefinite, Jim Polk?" asked Calhoun, bending on him his frosty eyes.

"But you may set a fire going which you can not stop. The people may get out of hand before the convention!"

"Why should they not? They have interests as well as we. Do they not elect us to subserve those interests?"

"I yield to no man in my disinterested desire for the welfare of the American people," began Polk pompously, throwing back the hair from his forehead.

"Of course not," said Calhoun grimly. "My own idea is that it is well to give the people what is already theirs. They feel that Texas belongs to them."

"True," said the Tennesseean, hesitating; "a good strong blast about our martial spirit and the men of the Revolution-that is always good before an election or a convention. Very true. But now in my own case-"

"Your own case is not under discussion, Jim. It is the case of the United States! I hold a brief for them, not for you or any other man!"

"How do you stand in case war should be declared against Mexico?" asked Mr. Polk. "That ought to be a popular measure. The Texans h

ave captured the popular imagination. The Alamo rankles in our nation's memory. What would you say to a stiff demand there, with a strong show of military force behind it?"

"I should say nothing as to a strong showing in any case. I should only say that if war came legitimately-not otherwise-I should back it with all my might. I feel the same in regard to war with England."

"With England? What chance would we have with so powerful a nation as that?"

"There is a God of Battles," said John Calhoun.

The chin of James K. Polk of Tennessee sank down into his stock. His staring eyes went half shut. He was studying something in his own mind. At last he spoke, tentatively, as was always his way until he got the drift of things.

"Well, now, perhaps in the case of England that is good politics," he began. "It is very possible that the people hate England as much as they do Mexico. Do you not think so?"

"I think they fear her more."

"But I was only thinking of the popular imagination!"

"Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" exclaimed Polk.

"You are always thinking of the popular imagination, Jim. You have been thinking of that for some time in Tennessee. All that outcry about the whole of Oregon is ill-timed to-day."

"Fifty-four Forty or Fight; that sounds well!" exclaimed Polk; "eh?"

"Trippingly on the tongue, yes!" said John Calhoun. "But how would it sound to the tune of cannon fire? How would it look written in the smoke of musketry?"

"It might not come to that," said Polk, shifting in his seat "I was thinking of it only as a rallying cry for the campaign. Dash me-I beg pardon-" he looked around to see if there were any Methodists present-"but I believe I could go into the convention with that war cry behind me and sweep the boards of all opposition!"

"And afterwards?"

"But England may back down," argued Mr. Polk. "A strong showing in the Southwest and Northwest might do wonders for us."

"But what would be behind that strong showing, Mr. Polk?" demanded John Calhoun. "We would win the combat with Mexico, of course, if that iniquitous measure should take the form of war. But not Oregon-we might as well or better fight in Africa than Oregon. It is not yet time. In God's name, Jim Polk, be careful of what you do! Cease this cry of taking all of Oregon. You will plunge this country not into one war, but two. Wait! Only wait, and we will own all this continent to the Saskatchewan-or even farther north."

"Well," said the other, "have you not said there is a God of Battles?"

"The Lord God of Hosts, yes!" half screamed old John Calhoun; "yes, the God of Battles for nations, for principles-but not for parties! For the principle of democracy, Jim Polk, yes, yes; but for the Democratic party, or the Whig party, or for any demagogue who tries to lead either, no, no!"

The florid face of Polk went livid. "Sir," said he, reaching for his hat, "at least I have learned what I came to learn. I know how you will appear on the floor of the convention, Sir, you will divide this party hopelessly. You are a traitor to the Democratic party! I charge it to your face, here and now. I came to ask of you your support, and find you only, talking of principles! Sir, tell me, what have principles to do with elections?"

John Calhoun looked at him for one long instant. He looked down then at his own thin, bloodless hands, his wasted limbs. Then he turned slowly and rested his arms on the table, his face resting in his hands. "My God!" I heard him groan.

To see my chief abused was a thing not in my nature to endure. I forgot myself. I committed an act whose results pursued me for many a year.

"Mr. Polk, sir," said I, rising and facing him, "damn you, sir, you are not fit to untie Mr. Calhoun's shoe! I will not see you offer him one word of insult. Quarrel with me if you like! You will gain no votes here now in any case, that is sure!"

Utterly horrified at this, Mr. Polk fumbled with his hat and cane, and, very red in the face, bowed himself out, still mumbling, Mr. Calhoun rising and bowing his adieux.

My chief dropped into his chair again. For a moment he looked at me directly. "Nick," said he at length slowly, "you have divided the Democratic party. You split that party, right then and there."

"Never!" I protested; "but if I did, 'twas ready enough for the division. Let it split, then, or any party like it, if that is what must hold it together! I will not stay in this work, Mr. Calhoun, and hear you vilified. Platforms!"

"Platforms!" echoed my chief. His white hand dropped on the table as he still sat looking at me. "But he will get you some time, Nicholas!" he smiled. "Jim Polk will not forget."

"Let him come at me as he likes!" I fumed.

At last, seeing me so wrought up, Mr. Calhoun rose, and, smiling, shook me heartily by the hand.

"Of course, this had to come one time or another," said he. "The split was in the wood of their proposed platform of bluff and insincerity. `What do the people say?' asks Jim Polk. 'What do they think?' asks John Calhoun. And being now, in God's providence; chosen to do some thinking for them, I have thought."

He turned to the table and took up a long, folded document, which I saw was done in his cramped hand and with many interlineations. "Copy this out fair for me to-night, Nicholas," said he. "This is our answer to the Aberdeen note. You have already learned its tenor, the time we met Mr. Pakenham with Mr. Tyler at the White House."

I grinned. "Shall we not take it across direct to Mr. Blair for publication in his Globe?"

Mr. Calhoun smiled rather bitterly at this jest. The hostility of Blair to the Tyler administration was a fact rather more than well known.

"'Twill all get into Mr. Polk's newspaper fast enough," commented he at last. "He gets all the news of the Mexican ministry!"

"Ah, you think he cultivates the Do?a Lucrezia, rather than adores her!"

"I know it! One-third of Jim Polk may be human, but the other two-thirds is politician. He will flatter that lady into confidences. She is well nigh distracted at best, these days, what with the fickleness of her husband and the yet harder abandonment by her old admirer Pakenham; so Polk will cajole her into disclosures, never fear. In return, when the time comes, he will send an army of occupation into her country! And all the while, on the one side and the other, he will appear to the public as a moral and lofty-minded man."

"On whom neither man nor woman could depend!"

"Neither the one nor the other."

The exasperation of his tone amused me, as did this chance importance of what seemed to me at the time merely a petticoat situation.

"Silk! Mr. Calhoun," I grinned. "Still silk and dimity, my faith! And you!"

He seemed a trifle nettled at this. "I must take men and women and circumstances as I find them," he rejoined; "and must use such agencies as are left me."

"If we temporarily lack the Baroness von Ritz to add zest to our game," I hazarded, "we still have the Do?a Lucrezia and her little jealousies."

Calhoun turned quickly upon me with a sharp glance, as though seized by some sudden thought. "By the Lord Harry! boy, you give me an idea. Wait, now, for a moment. Do you go on with your copying there, and excuse me for a time."

An instant later he passed from the room, his tall figure bent, his hands clasped behind his back, and his face wrinkled in a frown, as was his wont when occupied with some problem.

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