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   Chapter 34 THE VICTORY

54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 14935

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


She will not stay the siege of loving terms,

Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,

Nor ope her lap to soul-seducing gold ...

For she is wise, if I can judge of her;

And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true;

And true she is, as she hath proved herself.

-Shakespeare.

"What have you done?" she exclaimed. "Are you mad? He may be here at any moment now. Go, at once!"

"I shall not go!"

"My house is my own! I am my own!"

"You know it is not true, Madam!"

I saw the slow shudder that crossed her form, the the fringe of wet which sprang to her eyelashes. Again the pleading gesture of her half-open fingers.

"Ah, what matter?" she said. "It is only one woman more, against so much. What is past, is past, Monsieur. Once down, a woman does not rise."

"You forget history,-you forget the thief upon the cross!"

"The thief on the cross was not a woman. No, I am guilty beyond hope!"

"Rather, you are only mad beyond reason, Madam. I shall not go so long as you feel thus,-although God knows I am no confessor."

"I confessed to you,-told you my story, so there could be no bridge across the gulf between us. My happiness ended then."

"It is of no consequence that we be happy, Madam. I give you back your own words about yon torch of principles."

For a time she sat and looked at me steadily. There was, I say, some sort of radiance on her face, though I, dull of wit, could neither understand nor describe it. I only knew that she seemed to ponder for a long time, seemed to resolve at last. Slowly she rose and left me, parting the satin draperies which screened her boudoir from the outer room. There was silence for some time. Perhaps she prayed,-I do not know.

Now other events took this situation in hand. I heard a footfall on the walk, a cautious knocking on the great front door. So, my lord Pakenham was prompt. Now I could not escape even if I liked.

Pale and calm, she reappeared at the parted draperies. I lifted the butts of my two derringers into view at my side pockets, and at a glance from her, hurriedly stepped into the opposite room. After a time I heard her open the door in response to a second knock.

I could not see her from my station, but the very silence gave me a picture of her standing, pale, forbidding, rebuking the first rude exclamation of his ardor.

"Come now, is he gone? Is the place safe at last?" he demanded.

"Enter, my lord," she said simply.

"This is the hour you said," he began; and she answered:

"My lord, it is the hour."

"But come, what's the matter, then? You act solemn, as though this were a funeral, and not-just a kiss," I heard him add.

He must have advanced toward her. Continually I was upon the point of stepping out from my concealment, but as continually she left that not quite possible by some word or look or gesture of her own with him.

"Oh, hang it!" I heard him grumble, at length; "how can one tell what a woman'll do? Damn it, Helen!"

"'Madam,' you mean!"

"Well, then, Madam, why all this hoighty-toighty? Haven't I stood flouts and indignities enough from you? Didn't you make a show of me before that ass, Tyler, when I was at the very point of my greatest coup? You denied knowledge that I knew you had. But did I discard you for that? I have found you since then playing with Mexico, Texas, United States all at once? Have I punished you for that? No, I have only shown you the more regard."

"My lord, you punish me most when you most show me your regard."

"Well, God bless my soul, listen at that! Listen at that-here, now, when I've-Madam, you shock me, you grieve me. I-could I have a glass of wine?"

I heard her ring for Threlka, heard her fasten the door behind her as she left, heard him gulp over his glass. For myself, although I did not yet disclose myself, I felt no doubt that I should kill Pakenham in these rooms. I even pondered whether I should shoot him through the temple and cut off his consciousness, or through the chest and so let him know why he died.

After a time he seemed to look about the room, his eye falling upon the littered floor.

"My key!" he exclaimed; "broken! Who did that? I can't use it now!"

"You will not need to use it, my lord."

"But I bought it, yesterday! Had I given you all of the Oregon country it would not have been worth twenty thousand pounds. What I'll have to-night-what I'll take-will be worth twice that. But I bought that key, and what I buy I keep."

I heard a struggle, but she repulsed him once more in some way. Still my time had not come. He seemed now to stoop, grunting, to pick up something from the floor.

"How now? My memorandum of treaty, and torn in two! Oh, I see-I see," he mused. "You wish to give it back to me-to be wholly free! It means only that you wish to love me for myself, for what I am! You minx!"

"You mistake, my lord," said her calm, cold voice.

"At least, 'twas no mistake that I offered you this damned country at risk of my own head. Are you then with England and Sir Richard Pakenham? Will you give my family a chance for revenge on these accursed heathen-these Americans? Come, do that, and I leave this place with you, and quit diplomacy for good. We'll travel the continent, we'll go the world over, you and I. I'll quit my estates, my family for you. Come, now, why do you delay?"

"Still you misunderstand, my lord."

"Tell me then what you do mean."

"Our old bargain over this is broken, my lord. We must make another."

His anger rose. "What? You want more? You're trying to lead me on with your damned courtezan tricks!"

I heard her voice rise high and shrill, even as I started forward.

"Monsieur," she cried, "back with you!"

Pakenham, angered as he was, seemed half to hear my footsteps, seemed half to know the swinging of the draperies, even as I stepped back in obedience to her gesture. Her wit was quick as ever.

"My lord," she said, "pray close yonder window. The draft is bad, and, moreover, we should have secrecy." He obeyed her, and she led him still further from the thought of investigating his surroundings.

"Now, my lord," she said, "take back what you have just said!"

"Under penalty?" he sneered.

"Of your life, yes."

"So!" he grunted admiringly; "well, now, I like fire in a woman, even a deceiving light-o'-love like you!"

"Monsieur!" her voice cried again; and once more it restrained me in my hiding.

"You devil!" he resumed, sneering now in all his ugliness of wine and rage and disappointment. "What were you? Mistress of the prince of France! Toy of a score of nobles! Slave of that infamous rake, your husband! Much you've got in your life to make you uppish now with me!"

"My lord," she said evenly, "retract that. If you do not, you shall not leave this place alive."

In some way she mastered him, even in his ugly mood.

"Well, well," he growled, "I admit we don't get on very well in our little love affair; but I swear you drive me out of my mind. I'll never find another woman in the world like you. It's Sir Richard Pakenham asks you to begin a new future with himself."

"We begin no future, my lord."

"What do you mean? Have you lied to me? Do you mean to break your word-your promise?"

"It is within the hour that I have learned what the truth is."

"God damn my soul!" I heard him curse, growling.

"Yes, my lord," she answered, "God will damn your soul in so far as it is that of a br

ute and not that of a gentleman or a statesman."

I heard him drop into a chair. "This from one of your sort!" he half whimpered.

"Stop, now!" she cried. "Not one word more of that! I say within the hour I have learned what is the truth. I am Helena von Ritz, thief on the cross, and at last clean!"

"God A'might, Madam! How pious!" he sneered. "Something's behind all this. I know your record. What woman of the court of Austria or France comes out with morals? We used you here because you had none. And now, when it comes to the settlement between you and me, you talk like a nun. As though a trifle from virtue such as yours would be missed!"

"Ah, my God!" I heard her murmur. Then again she called to me, as he thought to himself; so that all was as it had been, for the time.

A silence fell before she went on.

"Sir Richard," she said at length, "we do not meet again. I await now your full apology for these things you have said. Such secrets as I have learned of England's, you know will remain safe with me. Also your own secret will be safe. Retract, then, what you have said, of my personal life!"

"Oh, well, then," he grumbled, "I admit I've had a bit of wine to-day. I don't mean much of anything by it. But here now, I have come, and by your own invitation-your own agreement. Being here, I find this treaty regarding Oregon torn in two and you gone nun all a-sudden."

"Yes, my lord, it is torn in two. The consideration moving to it was not valid. But now I wish you to amend that treaty once more, and for a consideration valid in every way. My lord, I promised that which was not mine to give-myself! Did you lay hand on me now, I should die. If you kissed me, I should kill you and myself! As you say, I took yonder price, the devil's shilling. Did I go on, I would be enlisting for the damnation of my soul; but I will not go on. I recant!"

"But, good God! woman, what are you asking now? Do you want me to let you have this paper anyhow, to show old John Calhoun? I'm no such ass as that. I apologize for what I've said about you. I'll be your friend, because I can't let you go. But as to this paper here, I'll put it in my pocket."

"My lord, you will do nothing of the kind. Before you leave this room there shall be two miracles done. You shall admit that one has gone on in me; I shall see that you yourself have done another."

"What guessing game do you propose, Madam?" he sneered. He seemed to toss the torn paper on the table, none the less. "The condition is forfeited," he began.

"No, it is not forfeited except by your own word, my lord," rejoined the same even, icy voice. "You shall see now the first miracle!"

"Under duress?" he sneered again.

"Yes, then! Under duress of what has not often come to surface in you, Sir Richard. I ask you to do truth, and not treason, my lord! She who was Helena von Ritz is dead-has passed away. There can be no question of forfeit between you and her. Look, my lord!"

I heard a half sob from him. I heard a faint rustling of silks and laces. Still her even, icy voice went on.

"Rise, now, Sir Richard," she said. "Unfasten my girdle, if you like! Undo my clasps, if you can. You say you know my past. Tell me, do you see me now? Ungird me, Sir Richard! Look at me! Covet me! Take me!"

Apparently he half rose, shuffled towards her, and stopped with a stifled sound, half a sob, half a growl.

I dared not picture to myself what he must have seen as she stood fronting him, her hands, as I imagined, at her bosom, tearing back her robes.

Again I heard her voice go on, challenging him. "Strip me now, Sir Richard, if you can! Take now what you bought, if you find it here. You can not? You do not? Ah, then tell me that miracle has been done! She who was Helena von Ritz, as you knew her, or as you thought you knew her, is not here!"

Now fell long silence. I could hear the breathing of them both, where I stood in the farther corner of my room. I had dropped both the derringers back in my pockets now, because I knew there would be no need for them. Her voice was softer as she went on.

"Tell me, Sir Richard, has not that miracle been done?" she demanded. "Might not in great stress that thief upon the cross have been a woman? Tell me, Sir Richard, am I not clean?"

He flung his body into a seat, his arm across the table. I heard his groan.

"God! Woman! What are you?" he exclaimed. "Clean? By God, yes, as a lily! I wish I were half as white myself."

"Sir Richard, did you ever love a woman?"

"One other, beside yourself, long ago."

"May not we two ask that other miracle of yourself?"

"How do you mean? You have beaten me already."

"Why, then, this! If I could keep my promise, I would. If I could give you myself, I would. Failing that, I may give you gratitude. Sir Richard, I would give you gratitude, did you restore this treaty as it was, for that new consideration. Come, now, these savages here are the same savages who once took that little island for you yonder. Twice they have defeated you. Do you wish a third war? You say England wishes slavery abolished. As you know, Texas is wholly lost to England. The armies of America have swept Texas from your reach for ever, even at this hour. But if you give a new state in the north to these same savages, you go so far against oppression, against slavery-you do that much for the doctrine of England, and her altruism in the world. Sir Richard, never did I believe in hard bargains, and never did any great soul believe in such. I own to you that when I asked you here this afternoon I intended to wheedle from you all of Oregon north to fifty-four degrees, forty minutes. I find in you done some such miracle as in myself. Neither of us is so bad as the world has thought, as we ourselves have thought. Do then, that other miracle for me. Let us compose our quarrel, and so part friends."

"How do you mean, Madam?"

"Let us divide our dispute, and stand on this treaty as you wrote it yesterday. Sir Richard, you are minister with extraordinary powers. Your government ratifies your acts without question. Your signature is binding-and there it is, writ already on this scroll. See, there are wafers there on the table before you. Take them. Patch together this treaty for me. That will be your miracle, Sir Richard, and 'twill be the mending of our quarrel. Sir, I offered you my body and you would not take it. I offer you my hand. Will you have that, my lord? I ask this of a gentleman of England."

It was not my right to hear the sounds of a man's shame and humiliation; or of his rising resolve, of his reformed manhood; but I did hear it all. I think that he took her hand and kissed it. Presently I heard some sort of shufflings and crinkling of paper on the table. I heard him sigh, as though he stood and looked at his work. His heavy footfalls crossed the room as though he sought hat and stick. Her lighter feet, as I heard, followed him, as though she held out both her hands to him. There was a pause, and yet another; and so, with a growling half sob, at last he passed out the door; and she closed it softly after him.

When I entered, she was standing, her arms spread out across the door, her face pale, her eyes large and dark, her attire still disarrayed. On the table, as I saw, lay a parchment, mended with wafers.

Slowly she came, and put her two arms across my shoulders. "Monsieur!" she said, "Monsieur!"

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