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54-40 or Fight By Emerson Hough Characters: 19416

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

A man can not possess anything that is better than a good woman, nor anything that is worse than a bad one.-Simonides.

When I reached the central part of the city, I did not hasten thence to Elmhurst Mansion. Instead, I returned to my hotel. I did not now care to see any of my friends or even to take up matters of business with my chief. It is not for me to tell what feelings came to me when I left Helena von Ritz.

Sleep such as I could gain, reflections such as were inevitable, occupied me for all that night. It was mid-morning of the following day when finally I once more sought out Mr. Calhoun.

He had not expected me, but received me gladly. It seemed that he had gone on about his own plans and with his own methods. "The Se?ora Yturrio is doing me the honor of an early morning call," he began. "She is with my daughter in another part of the house. As there is matter of some importance to come up, I shall ask you to attend."

He despatched a servant, and presently the lady mentioned joined us. She was a pleasing picture enough in her robe of black laces and sulphur-colored silks, but her face was none too happy, and her eyes, it seemed to me, bore traces either of unrest or tears. Mr. Calhoun handed her to a chair, where she began to use her languid but effective fan.

"Now, it gives us the greatest regret, my dear Se?ora," began Mr. Calhoun, "to have General Almonte and your husband return to their own country. We have valued, their presence here very much, and I regret the disruption of the friendly relations between our countries."

She made any sort of gesture with her fan, and he went on: "It is the regret also of all, my dear lady, that your husband seems so shamelessly to have abandoned you. I am quite aware, if you will allow me to be so frank, that you need some financial assistance."

"My country is ruined," said she. "Also, Se?or, I am ruined. As you say, I have no means of life. I have not even money to secure my passage home. That Se?or Van Zandt-"

"Yes, Van Zandt did much for us, through your agency, Se?ora. We have benefited by that, and I therefore regret he proved faithless to you personally. I am sorry to tell you that he has signified his wish to join our army against your country. I hear also that your late friend, Mr. Polk, has forgotten most of his promises to you."

"Him I hate also!" she broke out. "He broke his promise to Se?or Van Zandt, to my husband, to me!"

Calhoun smiled in his grim fashion. "I am not surprised to hear all that, my dear lady, for you but point out a known characteristic of that gentleman. He has made me many promises which he has forgotten, and offered me even of late distinguished honors which he never meant me to accept. But, since I have been personally responsible for many of these things which have gone forward, I wish to make what personal amends I can; and ever I shall thank you for the good which you have done to this country. Believe me, Madam, you served your own country also in no ill manner. This situation could not have been prevented, and it is not your fault. I beg you to believe that. Had you and I been left alone there would have been no war."

"But I am poor, I have nothing!" she rejoined.

There was indeed much in her situation to excite sympathy. It had been through her own act that negotiations between England and Texas were broken off. All chance of Mexico to regain property in Texas was lost through her influence with Van Zandt. Now, when all was done, here she was, deserted even by those who had been her allies in this work.

"My dear Se?ora," said John Calhoun, becoming less formal and more kindly, "you shall have funds sufficient to make you comfortable at least for a time after your return to Mexico. I am not authorized to draw upon our exchequer, and you, of course, must prefer all secrecy in these matters. I regret that my personal fortune is not so large as it might be, but, in such measure as I may, I shall assist you, because I know you need assistance. In return, you must leave this country. The flag is down which once floated over the house of Mexico here."

She hid her face behind her fan, and Calhoun turned aside.

"Se?ora, have you ever seen this slipper?" he asked, suddenly placing upon the table the little shoe which for a purpose I had brought with me and meantime thrown upon the table.

She flashed a dark look, and did not speak.

"One night, some time ago, your husband pursued a lady across this town to get possession of that very slipper and its contents! There was in the toe of that little shoe a message. As you know, we got from it certain information, and therefore devised certain plans, which you have helped us to carry out. Now, as perhaps you have had some personal animus against the other lady in these same complicated affairs, I have taken the liberty of sending a special messenger to ask her presence here this morning. I should like you two to meet, and, if that be possible, to part with such friendship as may exist in the premises."

I looked suddenly at Mr. Calhoun. It seemed he was planning without my aid.

"Yes," he said to me, smiling, "I have neglected to mention to you that the Baroness von Ritz also is here, in another apartment of this place. If you please, I shall now send for her also."

He signaled to his old negro attendant. Presently the latter opened the door, and with a deep bow announced the Baroness von Ritz, who entered, followed closely by Mr. Calhoun's inseparable friend, old Doctor Ward.

The difference in breeding between these two women was to be seen at a glance. The Do?a Lucrezia was beautiful in a way, but lacked the thoroughbred quality which comes in the highest types of womanhood. Afflicted by nothing but a somewhat mercenary or personal grief, she showed her lack of gameness in adversity. On the other hand, Helena von Ritz, who had lived tragedy all her life, and now was in the climax of such tragedy, was smiling and debonaire as though she had never been anything but wholly content with life! She was robed now in some light filmy green material, caught up here and there on the shoulders and secured with silken knots. Her white neck showed, her arms were partly bare with the short sleeves of the time. She stood, composed and easy, a figure fit for any company or any court, and somewhat shaming our little assembly, which never was a court at all, only a private meeting in the office of a discredited and disowned leader in a republican government. Her costume and her bearing were Helena von Ritz's answer to a woman's fate! A deep color flamed in her cheeks. She stood with head erect and lips smiling brilliantly. Her curtsey was grace itself. Our dingy little office was glorified.

"I interrupt you, gentlemen," she began.

"On the contrary, I am sure, my dear lady," said Doctor Ward, "Senator Calhoun told me he wished you to meet Se?ora Yturrio."

"Yes," resumed Calhoun, "I was just speaking with this lady over some matters concerned with this Little slipper." He smiled as he held it up gingerly between thumb and finger. "Do you recognize it, Madam Baroness?"

"Ah, my little shoe!" she exclaimed. "But see, it has not been well cared for."

"It traveled in my war bag from Oregon to Washington," said I. "Perhaps bullet molds and powder flasks may have damaged it."

"It still would serve as a little post-office, perhaps," laughed the baroness. "But I think its days are done on such errands."

"I will explain something of these errands to the Se?ora Yturrio," said Calhoun. "I wish you personally to say to that lady, if you will, that Se?or Yturrio regarded this little receptacle rather as official than personal post."

For one moment these two women looked at each other, with that on their faces which would be hard to describe. At last the baroness spoke:

"It is not wholly my fault, Se?ora Yturrio, if your husband gave you cause to think there was more than diplomacy between us. At least, I can say to you that it was the sport of it alone, the intrigue, if you please, which interested me. I trust you will not accuse me beyond this."

A stifled exclamation came from the Do?a Lucrezia. I have never seen more sadness nor yet more hatred on a human face than hers displayed. I have said that she was not thoroughbred. She arose now, proud as ever, it is true, but vicious. She declined Helena von Ritz's outstretched hand, and swept us a curtsey. "Adios!" said she. "I go!"

Mr. Calhoun gravely offered her an arm; and so with a rustle of her silks there passed from our lives one unhappy lady who helped make our map for us.

The baroness herself turned. "I ought not to remain," she hesitated.

"Madam," said Mr. Calhoun, "we can not spare you yet."

She flashed upon him a keen look. "It is a young country," said she, "but it raises statesmen. You foolish, dear Americans! One could have loved you all."

"Eh, what?" said Doctor Ward, turning to her. "My dear lady, two of us are too old for that; and as for the other-"

He did not know how hard this chance remark might smite, but as usual Helena von Ritz was brave and smiling.

"You are men," said she, "such as we do not have in our courts of Europe. Men and women-that is what this country produces."

"Madam," said Calhoun, "I myself am a very poor sort of man. I am old, and I fail from month to month. I can not live long, at best. What you see in me is simply a purpose-a purpose to accomplish something for my country-a purpose which my country itself does not desire to see fulfilled. Republics do not reward us. What you say shall be our chief reward. I have asked you here also to

accept the thanks of all of us who know the intricacies of the events which have gone forward. Madam, we owe you Texas! 'Twas not yonder lady, but yourself, who first advised of the danger that threatened us. Hers was, after all, a simpler task than yours, because she only matched faiths with Van Zandt, representative of Texas, who had faith in neither men, women nor nations. Had all gone well, we might perhaps have owed you yet more, for Oregon."

"Would you like Oregon?" she asked, looking at him with the full glance of her dark eyes.

"More than my life! More than the life of myself and all my friends and family! More than all my fortune!" His voice rang clear and keen as that of youth.

"All of Oregon?" she asked.

"All? We do not own all! Perhaps we do not deserve it. Surely we could not expect it. Why, if we got one-half of what that fellow Polk is claiming, we should do well enough-that is more than we deserve or could expect. With our army already at war on the Southwest, England, as we all know, is planning to take advantage of our helplessness in Oregon."

Without further answer, she held out to him a document whose appearance I, at least, recognized.

"I am but a woman," she said, "but it chances that I have been able to do this country perhaps something of a favor. Your assistant, Mr. Trist, has done me in his turn a favor. This much I will ask permission to do for him."

Calhoun's long and trembling fingers were nervously opening the document. He turned to her with eyes blazing with eagerness. "It is Oregon!" He dropped back into his chair.

"Yes," said Helena von Ritz slowly. "It is Oregon. It is bought and paid for. It is yours!"

So now they all went over that document, signed by none less than Pakenham himself, minister plenipotentiary for Great Britain. That document exists to-day somewhere in our archives, but I do not feel empowered to make known its full text. I would I had never need to set down, as I have, the cost of it. These others never knew that cost; and now they never can know, for long years since both Calhoun and Doctor Ward have been dead and gone. I turned aside as they examined the document which within the next few weeks was to become public property. The red wafers which mended it-and which she smilingly explained at Calhoun's demand-were, as I knew, not less than red drops of blood.

In brief I may say that this paper stated that, in case the United States felt disposed to reopen discussions which Mr. Polk peremptorily had closed, Great Britain might be able to listen to a compromise on the line of the forty-ninth parallel. This compromise had three times been offered her by diplomacy of United States under earlier administrations. Great Britain stated that in view of her deep and abiding love of peace and her deep and abiding admiration for America, she would resign her claim of all of Oregon down to the Columbia; and more, she would accept the forty-ninth parallel; provided she might have free navigation rights upon the Columbia. In fact, this was precisely the memorandum of agreement which eventually established the lines of the treaty as to Oregon between Great Britain and the United States.

Mr. Calhoun is commonly credited with having brought about this treaty, and with having been author of its terms. So he was, but only in the singular way which in these foregoing pages I have related. States have their price. Texas was bought by blood. Oregon-ah, we who own it ought to prize it. None of our territory is half so full of romance, none of it is half so clean, as our great and bodeful far Northwest, still young in its days of destiny.

"We should in time have had all of Oregon, perhaps," said Mr. Calhoun; "at least, that is the talk of these fierce politicians."

"But for this fresh outbreak on the Southwest there would have been a better chance," said Helena von Ritz; "but I think, as matters are to-day, you would be wise to accept this compromise. I have seen your men marching, thousands of them, the grandest sight of this century or any other. They give full base for this compromise. Given another year, and your rifles and your plows would make your claims still better. But this is to-day-"

"Believe me, Mr. Calhoun," I broke in, "your signature must go on this."

"How now? Why so anxious, my son?"

"Because it is right!"

Calhoun turned to Helena von Ritz. "Has this been presented to Mr. Buchanan, our secretary of state?" he asked.

"Certainly not. It has been shown to no one. I have been here in Washington working-well, working in secret to secure this document for you. I do this-well, I will be frank with you-I do it for Mr. Trist. He is my friend. I wish to say to you that he has been-a faithful-"

I saw her face whiten and her lips shut tight. She swayed a little as she stood. Doctor Ward was at her side and assisted her to a couch. For the first time the splendid courage of Helena von Ritz seemed to fail her. She sank back, white, unconscious.

"It's these damned stays, John!" began Doctor Ward fiercely. "She has fainted. Here, put her down, so. We'll bring her around in a minute. Great Jove! I want her to hear us thank her. It's splendid work she has done for us. But why?"

When, presently, under the ministrations of the old physician, Helena von Ritz recovered her consciousness, she arose, fighting desperately to pull herself together and get back her splendid courage.

"Would you retire now, Madam?" asked Mr. Calhoun. "I have sent for my daughter."

"No, no. It is nothing!" she said. "Forgive me, it is only an old habit of mine. See, I am quite well!"

Indeed, in a few moments she had regained something of that magnificent energy which was her heritage. As though nothing had happened, she arose and walked swiftly across the room. Her eyes were fixed upon the great map which hung upon the walls-a strange map it would seem to us to-day. Across this she swept a white hand.

"I saw your men cross this," she said, pointing along the course of the great Oregon Trail-whose detailed path was then unknown to our geographers. "I saw them go west along that road of destiny. I told myself that by virtue of their courage they had won this war. Sometime there will come the great war between your people and those who rule them. The people still will win."

She spread out her two hands top and bottom of the map. "All, all, ought to be yours,-from the Isthmus to the ice, for the sake of the people of the world. The people-but in time they will have their own!"

We listened to her silently, crediting her enthusiasm to her sex, her race; but what she said has remained in one mind at least from that day to this. Well might part of her speech remain in the minds to-day of people and rulers alike. Are we worth the price paid for the country that we gained? And when we shall be worth that price, what numerals shall mark our territorial lines?

"May I carry this document to Mr. Pakenham?" asked John Calhoun, at last, touching the paper on the table.

"Please, no. Do not. Only be sure that this proposition of compromise will meet with his acceptance."

"I do not quite understand why you do not go to Mr. Buchanan, our secretary of state."

"Because I pay my debts," she said simply. "I told you that Mr. Trist and I were comrades. I conceived it might be some credit for him in his work to have been the means of doing this much."

"He shall have that credit, Madam, be sure of that," said John Calhoun. He held out to her his long, thin, bloodless hand.

"Madam," he said, "I have been mistaken in many things. My life will be written down as failure. I have been misjudged. But at least it shall not be said of me that I failed to reverence a woman such as you. All that I thought of you, that first night I met you, was more than true. And did I not tell you you would one day, one way, find your reward?"

He did not know what he said; but I knew, and I spoke with him in the silence of my own heart, knowing that his speech would be the same were his knowledge even with mine.

"To-morrow," went on Calhoun, "to-morrow evening there is to be what we call a ball of our diplomacy at the White House. Our administration, knowing that war is soon to be announced in the country, seeks to make a little festival here at the capital. We whistle to keep up our courage. We listen to music to make us forget our consciences. To-morrow night we dance. All Washington will be there. Baroness von Ritz, a card will come to you."

She swept him a curtsey, and gave him a smile.

"Now, as for me," he continued, "I am an old man, and long ago danced my last dance in public. To-morrow night all of us will be at the White House-Mr. Trist will be there, and Doctor Ward, and a certain lady, a Miss Elisabeth Churchill, Madam, whom I shall be glad to have you meet. You must not fail us, dear lady, because I am going to ask of you one favor."

He bowed with a courtesy which might have come from generations of an old aristocracy. "If you please, Madam, I ask you to honor me with your hand for my first dance in years-my last dance in all my life."

Impulsively she held out both her hands, bowing her head as she did so to hide her face. Two old gray men, one younger man, took her hands and kissed them.

Now our flag floats on the Columbia and on the Rio Grande. I am older now, but when I think of that scene, I wish that flag might float yet freer; and though the price were war itself, that it might float over a cleaner and a nobler people, over cleaner and nobler rulers, more sensible of the splendor of that heritage of principle which should be ours.

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