There is a woman at the beginning
of all great things.
A quarter of an hour later, we slowed
down on a rough brick pavement, which led toward what
then was an outlying portion of the town one
not precisely shabby, but by no means fashionable.
There was a single lamp stationed at the mouth of
the narrow little street. As we advanced, I could
see outlined upon our right, just beyond a narrow pavement
of brick, a low and not more than semi-respectable
house, or rather, row of houses; tenements for the
middle class or poor, I might have said. The
neighborhood, I knew from my acquaintance with the
city, was respectable enough, yet it was remote, and
occupied by none of any station. Certainly it
was not to be considered fit residence for a woman
such as this who sat beside me. I admit I was
puzzled. The strange errand of my chief now assumed
yet more mystery, in spite of his forewarnings.
“This will do,” said she
softly, at length. The driver already had pulled
So, then, I thought, she had been
here before. But why? Could this indeed
be her residence? Was she incognita here?
Was this indeed the covert embassy of England?
There was no escape from the situation
as it lay before me. I had no time to ponder.
Had the circumstances been otherwise, then in loyalty
to Elisabeth I would have handed my lady out, bowed
her farewell at her own gate, and gone away, pondering
only the adventures into which the beckoning of a
white hand and the rustling of a silken skirt betimes
will carry a man, if he dares or cares to go.
Now, I might not leave. My duty was here.
This was my message; here was she for whom it was
intended; and this was the place which I was to have
sought alone. I needed only to remember that
my business was not with Helena von Ritz the woman,
beautiful, fascinating, perhaps dangerous as they said
of her, but with the Baroness von Ritz, in the belief
of my chief the ally and something more than ally
of Pakenham, in charge of England’s fortunes
on this continent. I did remember my errand and
the gravity of it. I did not remember then, as
I did later, that I was young.
I descended at the edge of the narrow
pavement, and was about to hand her out at the step,
but as I glanced down I saw that the rain had left
a puddle of mud between the carriage and the walk.
“Pardon, Madam,” I said;
“allow me to make a light for you the
footing is bad.”
I lighted another lucifer, just
as she hesitated at the step. She made as though
to put out her right foot, and withdrew it. Again
she shifted, and extended her left foot. I faintly
saw proof that nature had carried out her scheme of
symmetry, and had not allowed wrist and arm to forswear
themselves! I saw also that this foot was clad
in the daintiest of white slippers, suitable enough
as part of her ball costume, as I doubted not was
this she wore. She took my hand without hesitation,
and rested her weight upon the step an
adorable ankle now more frankly revealed. The
briefness of the lucifers was merciful or merciless,
as you like.
“A wide step, Madam; be careful,”
I suggested. But still she hesitated.
A laugh, half of annoyance, half of
amusement, broke from her lips. As the light
flickered down, she made as though to take the step;
then, as luck would have it, a bit of her loose drapery,
which was made in the wide-skirted and much-hooped
fashion of the time, caught at the hinge of the carriage
door. It was a chance glance, and not intent on
my part, but I saw that her other foot was stockinged,
but not shod!
“I beg Madam’s pardon,”
I said gravely, looking aside, “but she has
perhaps not noticed that her other slipper is lost
in the carriage.”
“Nonsense!” she said.
“Allow me your hand across to the walk, please.
It is lost, yes.”
“But lost where?” I began.
“In the other carriage!” she exclaimed,
and laughed freely.
Half hopping, she was across the walk,
through the narrow gate, and up at the door before
I could either offer an arm or ask for an explanation.
Some whim, however, seized her; some feeling that in
fairness she ought to tell me now part at least of
the reason for her summoning me to her aid.
“Sir,” she said, even
as her hand reached up to the door knocker; “I
admit you have acted as a gentleman should. I
do not know what your message may be, but I doubt
not it is meant for me. Since you have this much
claim on my hospitality, even at this hour, I think
I must ask you to step within. There may be some
“Madam,” said I, “there
is an answer needed. I am to take back
that answer. I know that this message is to the
Baroness von Ritz. I guess it to be important;
and I know you are the Baroness von Ritz.”
“Well, then,” said she,
pulling about her half-bared shoulders the light wrap
she wore; “let me be as free with you. If
I have missed one shoe, I have not lost it wholly.
I lost the slipper in a way not quite planned on the
program. It hurt my foot. I sought to adjust
it behind a curtain. My gentleman of Mexico was
in wine. I fled, leaving my escort, and he followed.
I called to you. You know the rest. I am
glad you are less in wine, and are more a gentleman.”
“I do not yet know my answer, Madam.”
“Come!” she said; and at once knocked
upon the door.
I shall not soon forget the surprise
which awaited me when at last the door swung open
silently at the hand of a wrinkled and brown old serving-woman not
one of our colored women, but of some dark foreign
race. The faintest trace of surprise showed on
the old woman’s face, but she stepped back and
swung the door wide, standing submissively, waiting
We stood now facing what ought to
have been a narrow and dingy little room in a low
row of dingy buildings, each of two stories and so
shallow in extent as perhaps not to offer roof space
to more than a half dozen rooms. Instead of what
should have been, however, there was a wide hall wide
as each building would have been from front to back,
but longer than a half dozen of them would have been!
I did not know then, what I learned later, that the
partitions throughout this entire row had been removed,
the material serving to fill up one of the houses at
the farthest extremity of the row. There was
thus offered a long and narrow room, or series of
rooms, which now I saw beyond possibility of doubt
constituted the residence of this strange woman whom
chance had sent me to address; and whom still stranger
chance had thrown in contact with me even before my
errand was begun!
She stood looking at me, a smile flitting
over her features, her stockinged foot extended, toe
down, serving to balance her on her high-heeled single
“Pardon, sir,” she said,
hesitating, as she held the sealed epistle in her
hand. “You know me perhaps you
follow me I do not know. Tell me,
are you a spy of that man Pakenham?”
Her words and her tone startled me.
I had supposed her bound to Sir Richard by ties of
a certain sort. Her bluntness and independence
puzzled me as much as her splendid beauty enraptured
me. I tried to forget both.
“Madam, I am spy of no man,
unless I am such at order of my chief, John Calhoun,
of the United States Senate perhaps, if
Madam pleases, soon of Mr. Tyler’s cabinet.”
In answer, she turned, hobbled to
a tiny marquetry table, and tossed the note down upon
it, unopened. I waited patiently, looking about
me meantime. I discovered that the windows were
barred with narrow slats of iron within, although
covered with heavy draperies of amber silk. There
was a double sheet of iron covering the door by which
we had entered.
“Your cage, Madam?” I
inquired. “I do not blame England for making
it so secret and strong! If so lovely a prisoner
were mine, I should double the bars.”
The swift answer to my presumption
came in the flush of her cheek and her bitten lip.
She caught up the key from the table, and half motioned
me to the door. But now I smiled in turn, and
pointed to the unopened note on the table. “You
will pardon me, Madam,” I went on. “Surely
it is no disgrace to represent either England or America.
They are not at war. Why should we be?”
We gazed steadily at each other.
The old servant had disappeared when
at length her mistress chose to pick up my unregarded
document. Deliberately she broke the seal and
read. An instant later, her anger gone, she was
“See,” said she, bubbling
over with her mirth; “I pick up a stranger,
who should say good-by at my curb; my apartments are
forced; and this is what this stranger asks:
that I shall go with him, to-night, alone, and otherwise
unattended, to see a man, perhaps high in your government,
but a stranger to me, at his own rooms-alone!
Oh, la! la! Surely these Americans hold me high!”
“Assuredly we do, Madam,”
I answered. “Will it please you to go in
your own carriage, or shall I return with one for
She put her hands behind her back,
holding in them the opened message from my chief.
“I am tired. I am bored. Your impudence
amuses me; and your errand is not your fault.
Come, sit down. You have been good to me.
Before you go, I shall have some refreshment brought
I felt a sudden call upon my resources
as I found myself in this singular situation.
Here, indeed, more easily reached than I had dared
hope, was the woman in the case. But only half
of my errand, the easier half, was done.