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   Chapter 22 BUT YET A WOMAN

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 10331

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Woman turns every man the wrong side out,

And never gives to truth and virtue that

Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.

-Shakespeare.

My chief played his game of chess coldly, methodically, and with skill; yet a game of chess is not always of interest to the spectator who does not know every move. Least of all does it interest one who feels himself but a pawn piece on the board and part of a plan in whose direction he has nothing to say. In truth, I was weary. Not even the contemplation of the hazardous journey to Oregon served to stir me. I traveled wearily again and again my circle of personal despair.

On the day following my last interview with Mr. Calhoun, I had agreed to take my old friend Doctor von Rittenhofen upon a short journey among the points of interest of our city, in order to acquaint him somewhat with our governmental machinery and to put him in touch with some of the sources of information to which he would need to refer in the work upon which he was now engaged. We had spent a couple of hours together, and were passing across to the capitol, with the intent of looking in upon the deliberations of the houses of Congress, when all at once, as we crossed the corridor, I felt him touch my arm.

"Did you see that young lady?" he asked of me. "She looked at you, yess?"

I was in the act of turning, even as he spoke. Certainly had I been alone I would have seen Elisabeth, would have known that she was there.

It was Elisabeth, alone, and hurrying away! Already she was approaching the first stair. In a moment she would be gone. I sprang after her by instinct, without plan, clear in my mind only that she was going, and with her all the light of the world; that she was going, and that she was beautiful, adorable; that she was going, and that she was Elisabeth!

As I took a few rapid steps toward her, I had full opportunity to see that no grief had preyed upon her comeliness, nor had concealment fed upon her damask cheek. Almost with some resentment I saw that she had never seemed more beautiful than on this morning. The costume of those days was trying to any but a beautiful woman; yet Elisabeth had a way of avoiding extremes which did not appeal to her individual taste. Her frock now was all in pink, as became the gentle spring, and the bunch of silvery ribbons which fluttered at her belt had quite the agreeing shade to finish in perfection the cool, sweet picture that she made. Her sleeves were puffed widely, and for the lower arm were opened just sufficiently. She carried a small white parasol, with pinked edges, and her silken mitts, light and dainty, matched the clear whiteness of her arms. Her face, turned away from me, was shaded by a wide round bonnet, not quite so painfully plain as the scooplike affair of the time, but with a drooping brim from which depended a slight frilling of sheer lace. Her smooth brown hair was drawn primly down across her ears, as was the fashion of the day, and from the masses piled under the bonnet brim there fell down a curl, round as though made that moment, and not yet limp from the damp heat of Washington. Fresh and dainty and restful as a picture done on Dresden, yet strong, fresh, fully competent, Elisabeth walked as having full right in the world and accepting as her due such admiration as might be offered. If she had ever known a care, she did not show it; and, I say, this made me feel resentment. It was her proper business to appear miserable.

If she indeed resembled a rare piece of flawless Dresden on this morning, she was as cold, her features were as unmarked by any human pity. Ah! so different an Elisabeth, this, from the one I had last seen at the East Room, with throat fluttering and cheeks far warmer than this cool rose pink. But, changed or not, the full sight of her came as the sudden influence of some powerful drug, blotting out consciousness of other things. I could no more have refrained from approaching her than I could have cast away my own natural self and form. Just as she reached the top of the broad marble stairs, I spoke.

"Elisabeth!"

Seeing that there was no escape, she paused now and turned toward me. I have never seen a glance like hers. Say not there is no language of the eyes, no speech in the composure of the features. Yet such is the Sphinx power given to woman, that now I saw, as though it were a thing tangible, a veil drawn across her eyes, across her face, between her soul and mine.

Elisabeth drew herself up straight, her chin high, her eyes level, her lips just parted for a faint salutation in the conventions of the morning.

"How do you do?" she remarked. Her voice was all cool white enamel. Then that veil dropped down between us.

She was there somewhere, but I could not see her clearly now. It was not her voice. I took her hand, yes; but it had now none of answering clasp. The flush was on her cheek no more. Cool, pale, sweet, all white now, armed cap-a-pie with indifference, she looked at me as formally as though I were a remote acquaintance. Then she would have passed.

"Elisabeth," I began; "I am just back. I have not had time-I have had no

leave from you to come to see you-to ask you-to explain-"

"Explain?" she said evenly.

"But surely you can not believe that I-"

"I only believe what seems credible, Mr. Trist."

"But you promised-that very morning you agreed-Were you out of your mind, that-"

"I was out of my mind that morning-but not that evening."

Now she was grande demoiselle, patrician, superior. Suddenly I became conscious of the dullness of my own garb. I cast a quick glance over my figure, to see whether it had not shrunken.

"But that is not it, Elisabeth-a girl may not allow a man so much as you promised me, and then forget that promise in a day. It was a promise between us. You agreed that I should come; I did come. You had given your word. I say, was that the way to treat me, coming as I did?"

"I found it possible," said she. "But, if you please, I must go. I beg your pardon, but my Aunt Betty is waiting with the carriage."

"Why, damn Aunt Betty!" I exclaimed. "You shall not go! See, look here!"

I pulled from my pocket the little ring which I had had with me that night when I drove out to Elmhurst in my carriage, the one with the single gem which I had obtained hurriedly that afternoon, having never before that day had the right to do so. In another pocket I found the plain gold one which should have gone with the gem ring that same evening. My hand trembled as I held these out to her.

"I prove to you what I meant. Here! I had no time! Why, Elisabeth, I was hurrying-I was mad!-I had a right to offer you these things. I have still the right to ask you why you did not take them? Will you not take them now?"

She put my hand away from her gently. "Keep them," she said, "for the owner of that other wedding gift-the one which I received."

Now I broke out. "Good God! How can I be held to blame for the act of a drunken friend? You know Jack Dandridge as well as I do myself. I cautioned him-I was not responsible for his condition."

"It was not that decided me."

"You could not believe it was I who sent you that accursed shoe which belonged to another woman."

"He said it came from you. Where did you get it, then?"

Now, as readily may be seen, I was obliged again to hesitate. There were good reasons to keep my lips sealed. I flushed. The red of confusion which came to my cheek was matched by that of indignation in her own. I could not tell her, and she could not understand, that my work for Mr. Calhoun with that other woman was work for America, and so as sacred and as secret as my own love for her. Innocent, I still seemed guilty.

"So, then, you do not say? I do not ask you."

"I do not deny it."

"You do not care to tell me where you got it."

"No," said I; "I will not tell you where I got it."

"Why?"

"Because that would involve another woman."

"Involve another woman? Do you think, then, that on this one day of her life, a girl likes to think of her-her lover-as involved with any other woman? Ah, you made me begin to think. I could not help the chill that came on my heart. Marry you?-I could not! I never could, now."

"Yet you had decided-you had told me-it was agreed-"

"I had decided on facts as I thought they were. Other facts came before you arrived. Sir, you do me a very great compliment."

"But you loved me once," I said banally.

"I do not consider it fair to mention that now."

"I never loved that other woman. I had never seen her more than once. You do not know her."

"Ah, is that it? Perhaps I could tell you something of one Helena von Ritz. Is it not so?"

"Yes, that was the property of Helena von Ritz," I told her, looking her fairly in the eye.

"Kind of you, indeed, to involve me, as you say, with a lady of her precedents!"

Now her color was up full, and her words came crisply. Had I had adequate knowledge of women, I could have urged her on then, and brought on a full-fledged quarrel. Strategically, that must have been a far happier condition than mere indifference on her part. But I did not know; and my accursed love of fairness blinded me.

"I hardly think any one is quite just to that lady," said I slowly.

"Except Mr. Nicholas Trist! A beautiful and accomplished lady, I doubt not, in his mind."

"Yes, all of that, I doubt not."

"And quite kind with her little gifts."

"Elisabeth, I can not well explain all that to you. I can not, on my honor."

"Do not!" she cried, putting out her hand as though in alarm. "Do not invoke your honor!" She looked at me again. I have never seen a look like hers. She had been calm, cold, and again indignant, all in a moment's time. That expression which now showed on her face was one yet worse for me.

Still I would not accept my dismissal, but went on stubbornly: "But may I not see your father and have my chance again? I can not let it go this way. It is the ruin of my life."

But now she was advancing, dropping down a step at a time, and her face was turned straight ahead. The pink of her gown was matched by the pink of her cheeks. I saw the little working of the white throat wherein some sobs seemed stifling. And so she went away and left me.

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