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   Chapter 31 THE PAYMENT

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 9666

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


What man seeks in love is woman; what woman seeks in man is love.-Houssaye.

When I reached Washington it was indeed spring, warm, sweet spring. In the wide avenues the straggling trees were doing their best to dignify the city, and flowers were blooming everywhere. Wonderful enough did all this seem to me after thousands of miles of rude scenery of bare valleys and rocky hills, wild landscapes, seen often through cold and blinding storms amid peaks and gorges, or on the drear, forbidding Plains.

Used more, of late, to these wilder scenes, I felt awkward and still half savage. I did not at once seek out my own friends. My first wish was to get in touch with Mr. Calhoun, for I knew that so I would most quickly arrive at the heart of events.

He was away when I called at his residence on Georgetown Heights, but at last I heard the wheels of his old omnibus, and presently he entered with his usual companion, Doctor Samuel Ward. When they saw me there, then indeed I received a greeting which repaid me for many things! This over, we all three broke out in laughter at my uncouth appearance. I was clad still in such clothing as I could pick up in western towns as I hurried on from the Missouri eastward; and I had as yet found no time for barbers.

"We have had no word from you, Nicholas," said Mr. Calhoun presently, "since that from Laramie, in the fall of eighteen forty-four. This is in the spring of eighteen forty-six! Meantime, we might all have been dead and buried and none of us the wiser. What a country! 'Tis more enormous than the mind of any of us can grasp."

"You should travel across it to learn that," I grinned.

"Many things have happened since you left. You know that I am back in the Senate once more?"

I nodded. "And about Texas?" I began.

"Texas is ours," said he, smiling grimly. "You have heard how? It was a hard fight enough-a bitter, selfish, sectional fight among politicians. But there is going to be war. Our troops crossed the Sabine more than a year ago. They will cross the Rio Grande before this year is done. The Mexican minister has asked for his passports. The administration has ordered General Taylor to advance. Mr. Polk is carrying out annexation with a vengeance. Seeing a chance for more territory, now that Texas is safe from England, he plans war on helpless and deserted Mexico! We may hear of a battle now at any time. But this war with Mexico may yet mean war with England. That, of course, endangers our chance to gain all or any of that great Oregon country. Tell me, what have you learned?"

I hurried on now with my own news, briefly as I might. I told them of the ships of England's Navy waiting in Oregon waters; of the growing suspicion of the Hudson Bay people; of the changes in the management at Fort Vancouver; of the change also from a conciliatory policy to one of half hostility. I told them of our wagon trains going west, and of the strength of our frontiersmen; but offset this, justly as I might, by giving facts also regarding the opposition these might meet.

"Precisely," said Calhoun, walking up and down, his head bent. "England is prepared for war! How much are we prepared? It would cost us the revenues of a quarter of a century to go to war with her to-day. It would cost us fifty thousand lives. We would need an army of two hundred and fifty thousand men. Where is all that to come from? Can we transport our army there in time? But had all this bluster ceased, then we could have deferred this war with Mexico; could have bought with coin what now will cost us blood; and we could also have bought Oregon without the cost of either coin or blood. Delay was what we needed! All of Oregon should have been ours!"

"But, surely, this is not all news to you?" I began. "Have you not seen the Baroness von Ritz? Has she not made her report?"

"The baroness?" queried Calhoun. "That stormy petrel-that advance agent of events! Did she indeed sail with the British ships from Montreal? Did you find her there-in Oregon?"

"Yes, and lost her there! She started east last summer, and beat me fairly in the race. Has she not made known her presence here? She told me she was going to Washington."

He shook his head in surprise. "Trouble now, I fear! Pakenham has back his best ally, our worst antagonist."

"That certainly is strange," said I. "She had five months the start of me, and in that time there is no telling what she has done or undone. Surely, she is somewhere here, in Washington! She held Texas in her shoes. I tell you she holds Oregon in her gloves to-day!"

I started up, my story half untold.

"Where are you going?" asked Mr. Calhoun of me. Doctor Ward looked at me, smiling. "He does not inquire of a certain young lady-"

"I am going to find the Baroness von Ritz!" said I. I flushed red u

nder my tan, I doubt not; but I would not ask a word regarding Elisabeth.

Doctor Ward came and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Republics forget," said he, "but men from South Carolina do not. Neither do girls from Maryland. Do you think so?"

"That is what I am going to find out."

"How then? Are you going to Elmhurst as you look now?"

"No. I shall find out many things by first finding the Baroness von Ritz." And before they could make further protests, I was out and away.

I hurried now to a certain side street, of which I have made mention, and knocked confidently at a door I knew. The neighborhood was asleep in the warm sun. I knocked a second time, and began to doubt, but at last heard slow footsteps.

There appeared at the crack of the door the wrinkled visage of the old serving-woman, Threlka. I knew that she would be there in precisely this way, because there was every reason in the world why it should not have been. She paused, scanning me closely, then quickly opened the door and allowed me to step inside, vanishing as was her wont. I heard another step in a half-hidden hallway beyond, but this was not the step which I awaited; it was that of a man, slow, feeble, hesitating. I started forward as a face appeared at the parted curtains. A glad cry welcomed me in turn. A tall, bent form approached me, and an arm was thrown about my shoulder. It was my whilom friend, our ancient scientist, Von Rittenhofen! I did not pause to ask how he happened to be there. It was quite natural, since it was wholly impossible. I made no wonder at the Chinese dog Chow, or the little Indian maid, who both came, stared, and silently vanished. Seeing these, I knew that their strange protector must also have won through safe.

"Ach, Gott! Gesegneter Gott! I see you again, my friend!" Thus the old Doctor.

"But tell me," I interrupted, "where is the mistress of this house, the Baroness von Ritz?"

He looked at me in his mild way. "You mean my daughter Helena?"

Now at last I smiled. His daughter! This at least was too incredible! He turned and reached behind him to a little table. He held up before my eyes my little blanket clasp of shell. Then I knew that this last and most impossible thing also was true, and that in some way these two had found each other! But why? What could he now mean?

"Listen now," he began, "and I shall tell you. I wass in the street one day. When I walk alone, I do not much notice. But now, as I walk, before my eyes on the street, I see what? This-this, the Tah Gook! At first, I see nothing but it. Then I look up. Before me iss a woman, young and beautiful. Ach! what should I do but take her in my arms!"

"It was she; it was-"

"My daughter! Yess, my daughter. It iss Helena! I haf not seen her for many years, long, cruel years. I suppose her dead. But now there we were, standing, looking in each other's eyes! We see there-Ach, Gott! what do we not see? Yet in spite of all, it wass Helena. But she shall tell you." He tottered from the room.

I heard his footsteps pass down the hall. Then softly, almost silently, Helena von Ritz again stood before me. The light from a side window fell upon her face. Yes, it was she! Her face was thinner now, browner even than was its wont. Her hair was still faintly sunburned at its extremities by the western winds. Yet hers was still imperishable youth and beauty.

I held out my hands to her. "Ah," I cried, "you played me false! You ran away! By what miracle did you come through? I confess my defeat. You beat me by almost half a year."

"But now you have come," said she simply.

"Yes, to remind you that you have friends. You have been here in secret all the winter. Mr. Calhoun did not know you had come. Why did you not go to him?"

"I was waiting for you to come. Do you not remember our bargain? Each day I expected you. In some way, I scarce knew how, the weeks wore on."

"And now I find you both here-you and your father-where I would expect to find neither. Continually you violate all law of likelihood. But now, you have seen Elisabeth?"

"Yes, I have seen her," she said, still simply.

I could think of no word suited to that moment. I stood only looking at her. She would have spoken, but on the instant raised a hand as though to demand my silence. I heard a loud knock at the door, peremptory, commanding, as though the owner came.

"You must go into another room," said Helena von Ritz to me hurriedly.

"Who is it? Who is it at the door?" I asked.

She looked at me calmly. "It is Sir Richard Pakenham," said she. "This is his usual hour. I will send him away. Go now-quick!"

I rapidly passed behind the screening curtains into the hall, even as I heard a heavy foot stumbling at the threshold and a somewhat husky voice offer some sort of salutation.

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