Read CHAPTER VIII - MR. CALHOUN ACCEPTS of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

A woman’s tongue is her sword, that she never lets rust.
­Madam Necker.

I struggled among three courses.  The impulses of my heart, joined to some prescience of trouble, bade me to follow Elisabeth.  My duty ordered me to hasten to Mr. Calhoun.  My interest demanded that I should tarry, for I was sure that the Baroness von Ritz would make no merely idle request in these circumstances.  Hesitating thus, I lost sight of her in the throng.  So I concluded I would obey the mandate of duty, and turned toward the great doors.  Indeed, I was well toward the steps which led out into the grounds, when all at once two elements of my problem resolved themselves into one.  I saw the tall figure of Mr. Calhoun himself coming up the walk toward me.

“Ah,” said he briefly, “then my message found you?”

“I was starting for you this moment, sir” I replied.

“Wait for a moment.  I counted on finding you here.  Matters have changed.”

I turned with him and we entered again the East Room, where Mr. Tyler still prolonged the official greeting of the curious, the obsequious, or the banal persons who passed.  Mr. Calhoun stood apart for a time, watching the progress of this purely American function.  It was some time ere the groups thinned.  This latter fact usually would have ended the reception, since it is not etiquette to suppose that the president can lack an audience; but to-day Mr. Tyler lingered.  As last through the thinning throng he caught sight of the distinctive figure of Mr. Calhoun.  For the first time his own face assumed a natural expression.  He stopped the line for an instant, and with a raised hand beckoned to my chief.

At this we dropped in at the tail of the line, Mr. Calhoun in passing grasping almost as many hands as Mr. Tyler.  When at length we reached the president’s position, the latter greeted him and added a whispered word.  An instant later he turned abruptly, ending the reception with a deep bow, and retired into the room from which he had earlier emerged.

Mr. Calhoun turned now to me with a request to follow him, and we passed through the door where the president had vanished.  Directed by attendants, we were presently ushered into yet another room, which at that time served the president as his cabinet room, a place for meeting persons of distinction who called upon business.

As we entered I saw that it was already occupied.  Mr. Tyler was grasping the hand of a portly personage, whom I knew to be none other than Mr. Pakenham.  So much might have been expected.  What was not to have been expected was the presence of another ­none less than the Baroness von Ritz!  For this latter there was no precedent, no conceivable explanation save some exigent emergency.

So we were apparently to understand that my lady was here as open friend of England!  Of course, I needed no word from Mr. Calhoun to remind me that we must seem ignorant of this lady, of her character, and of her reputed relations with the British Foreign Office.

“I pray you be seated, Mr. Pakenham,” said Mr. Tyler, and he gestured also to us others to take chairs near his table.  Mr. Pakenham, in rather a lofty fashion, it seemed to me, obeyed the polite request, but scarcely had seated himself ere he again rose with an important clearing of his throat.  He was one who never relished the democratic title of “Mr.” accorded him by Mr. Tyler, whose plain and simple ways, not much different now from those of his plantation life, were in marked contrast to the ceremoniousness of the Van Buren administration, which Pakenham also had known.

“Your Excellency,” said he, “her Majesty the Queen of England’s wish is somewhat anticipated by my visit here to-day.  I hasten only to put in the most prompt and friendly form her Majesty’s desires, which I am sure formally will be expressed in the first mails from England.  We deplore this most unhappy accident on your warship Princeton, which has come so near working irremediable injury to this country.  Unofficially, I have ventured to make this personal visit under the flag of this enlightened Republic, and to the center of its official home, out of a friendship for Mr. Upshur, the late secretary of state, a friendship as sincere as is that of my own country for this Republic.”

“Sir,” said Mr. Tyler, rising, with a deep bow, “the courtesy of your personal presence is most gratifying.  Allow me to express that more intimate and warmer feeling of friendship for yourself which comes through our long association with you.  This respect and admiration are felt by myself and my official family for you and the great power which you represent.  It goes to you with a special sincerity as to a gentleman of learning and distinction, whose lofty motives and ideals are recognized by all.”

Each having thus delivered himself of words which meant nothing, both now seated themselves and proceeded to look mighty grave.  For myself, I stole a glance from the tail of my eye toward the Baroness von Ritz.  She sat erect in her chair, a figure of easy grace and dignity, but on her face was nothing one could read to tell who she was or why she was here.  So far from any external gaucherie, she seemed quite as much at home here, and quite as fit here, as England’s plenipotentiary.

“I seize upon this opportunity, Mr. Pakenham,” said Mr. Tyler presently, with a smile which he meant to set all at ease and to soften as much as possible the severity of that which was to follow, “I gladly take this opportunity to mention in an informal way my hope that this matter which was already inaugurated by Mr. Upshur before his untimely death may come to perfectly pleasant consummation.  I refer to the question of Texas.”

“I beg pardon, your Excellency,” rejoined Mr. Pakenham, half rising.  “Your meaning is not perfectly clear to me.”

The same icy smile sat upon Mr. Tyler’s face as he went on:  “I can not believe that your government can wish to interfere in matters upon this continent to the extent of taking the position of open ally of the Republic of Mexico, a power so recently at war upon our own borders with the brave Texans who have left our flag to set up, through fair conquest, a republic of their own.”

The mottled face of Mr. Pakenham assumed a yet deeper red.  “As to that, your Excellency,” said he, “your remark is, as you say, quite informal, of course ­that is to say, as I may state ­”

“Quite so,” rejoined Mr. Tyler gravely.  “The note of my Lord Aberdeen to us, none the less, in the point of its bearing upon the question of slavery in Texas, appears to this government as an expression which ought to be disavowed by your own government.  Do I make myself quite clear?” (With John Calhoun present, Tyler could at times assume a courage though he had it not.)

Mr. Pakenham’s face glowed a deeper red.  “I am not at liberty to discuss my Lord Aberdeen’s wishes in this matter,” he said.  “We met here upon a purely informal matter, and ­”

“I have only ventured to hope,” rejoined Mr. Tyler, “that the personal kindness of your own heart might move you in so grave a matter as that which may lead to war between two powers.”

“War, sir, war?” Mr. Pakenham went wholly purple in his surprise, and sprang to his feet.  “War!” he repeated once more.  “As though there could be any hope ­”

“Quite right, sir,” said Mr. Tyler grimly.  “As though there could be any hope for us save in our own conduct of our own affairs, without any interference from any foreign power!”

I knew it was John Calhoun speaking these words, not Mr. Tyler.  I saw Mr. Calhoun’s keen, cold eyes fixed closely upon the face of his president.  The consternation created by the latter’s words was plainly visible.

“Of course, this conversation is entirely irregular ­I mean to say, wholly unofficial, your Excellency?” hesitated Pakenham.  “It takes no part in our records?”

“Assuredly not,” said Mr. Tyler.  “I only hope the question may never come to a matter of record at all.  Once our country knows that dictation has been attempted with us, even by England herself, the North will join the South in resentment.  Even now, in restiveness at the fancied attitude of England toward Mexico, the West raises the demand that we shall end the joint occupancy of Oregon with Great Britain.  Do you perchance know the watchword which is now on the popular tongue west of the Alleghanies?  It bids fair to become an American Marseillaise.”

“I must confess my ignorance,” rejoined Mr. Pakenham.

“Our backwoodsmen have invented a phrase which runs Fifty-four Forty or Fight!”

“I beg pardon, I am sure, your Excellency?”

“It means that if we conclude to terminate the very unsatisfactory muddle along the Columbia River ­a stream which our mariners first explored, as we contend ­and if we conclude to dispute with England as well regarding our délimitations on the Southwest, where she has even less right to speak, then we shall contend for all that territory, not only up to the Columbia, but north to the Russian line, the parallel of fifty-four degrees and forty minutes!  We claim that we once bought Texas clear to the Rio Grande, from Napoleon, although the foolish treaty with Spain in 1819 clouded our title ­in the belief of our Whig friends, who do not desire more slave territory.  Even the Whigs think that we own Oregon by virtue of first navigation of the Columbia.  Both Whigs and Democrats now demand Oregon north to fifty-four degrees, forty minutes.  The alternative?  My Lord Aberdeen surely makes no deliberate bid to hear it!”

“Or fight!” exclaimed Pakenham.  “God bless my soul!  Fight us?”

Mr. Tyler flushed.  “Such things have been,” said he with dignity.

“That is to say,” he resumed calmly, “our rude Westerners are egotistic and ignorant.  I admit that we are young.  But believe me, when the American people say fight, it has but one meaning.  As their servant, I am obliged to convey that meaning.  In this democracy, the will of the people rules.  In war, we have no Whigs, no Democrats, we have only the people!”

At this astounding speech the British minister sat dumfounded.  This air of courage and confidence on the part of Mr. Tyler himself was something foreign to his record.  I knew the reason for his boldness.  John Calhoun sat at his right hand.

At least, the meaning of this sudden assault was too much for England’s representative.  Perhaps, indeed, the Berserker blood of our frontier spoke in Mr. Tyler’s gaze.  That we would fight indeed was true enough.

“It only occurs to us, sir,” continued the president, “that the great altruism of England’s heart has led her for a moment to utter sentiments in a form which might, perhaps, not be sanctioned in her colder judgment.  This nation has not asked counsel.  We are not yet agreed in our Congress upon the admission of Texas ­although I may say to you, sir, with fairness, that such is the purpose of this administration.  There being no war, we still have Whigs and Democrats!”

“At this point, your Excellency, the dignity of her Majesty’s service would lead me to ask excuse,” rejoined Mr. Pakenham formally, “were it not for one fact, which I should like to offer here.  I have, in short, news which will appear full warrant for any communication thus far made by her Majesty’s government.  I can assure you that there has come into the possession of this lady, whose able services I venture to enlist here in her presence, a communication from the Republic of Texas to the government of England.  That communication is done by no less a hand than that of the attache for the Republic of Texas, Mr. Van Zandt himself.”

There was, I think, no other formal invitation for the Baroness von Ritz to speak; but now she arose, swept a curtsey first to Mr. Tyler and then to Mr. Pakenham and Mr. Calhoun.

“It is not to be expected, your Excellency and gentlemen,” said she, “that I can add anything of value here.”  Her eyes were demurely downcast.

“We do not doubt your familiarity with many of these late events,” encouraged Mr. Tyler.

“True,” she continued, “the note of my Lord Aberdeen is to-day the property of the streets, and of this I have some knowledge.  I can see, also, difficulty in its reception among the courageous gentlemen of America.  But, as to any written communication from Mr. Van Zandt, there must be some mistake!”

“I was of the impression that you would have had it last night,” rejoined Pakenham, plainly confused; “in fact, that gentleman advised me to such effect.”

The Baroness Helena von Ritz looked him full in the face and only gravely shook her head.  “I regret matters should be so much at fault,” said she.

“Then let me explain,” resumed Pakenham, almost angrily.  “I will state ­unofficially, of course ­that the promises of Mr. Van Zandt were that her Majesty might expect an early end of the talk of the annexation of Texas to the United States.  The greater power of England upon land or sea would assure that weak Republic of a great and enlightened ally ­in his belief.”

“An ally!” broke out Mr. Calhoun.  “And a document sent to that effect by the attache of Texas!” He smiled coldly.  “Two things seem very apparent, Mr. President.  First, that this gentle lady stands high in the respect of England’s ministry.  Second, that Mr. Van Zandt, if all this were true, ought to stand very low in ours.  I would say all this and much more, even were it a state utterance, to stand upon the records of this nation!”

“Sir,” interrupted Mr. Tyler, swiftly turning to Mr. Calhoun, “may I not ask you that it be left as a state utterance?

Mr. Calhoun bowed with the old-time grace habitual to him, his hand upon his heart, but he made no answer.  The real reason might have been read in the mottled face of Pakenham, now all the colors of the rainbow, as he looked from one to the other.

“Mr. Calhoun,” continued the president, “you know that the office of our secretary of state is vacant.  There is no one living would serve in that office more wisely than yourself, no one more in accordance with my own views as to these very questions which are before us.  Since it has come to that point, I offer you now that office, and do so officially.  I ask your answer.”

The face of England’s minister now for the first time went colorless.  He knew what this meant.

As for John Calhoun, he played with both of them as a cat would with a mouse, sneeringly superior.  His answer was couched in terms suited to his own purposes.  “This dignity, Mr. President,” said he, bowing deeply again, “so unexpected, so onerous, so responsible, is one which at least needs time for proper consideration.  I must crave opportunity for reflection and for pondering.  In my surprise at your sudden request, I find no proper answer ready.”

Here, then, seemed an opportunity for delay, which Mr. Pakenham was swift to grasp.  He arose and bowed to Mr. Tyler.  “I am sure that Mr. Calhoun will require some days at least for the framing of his answer to an invitation so grave as this.”

“I shall require at least some moments,” said Mr. Calhoun, smiling.  “That Marseillaise of ’44, Mr. President, says Fifty-four Forty or Fight.  That means ‘the Rio Grande or fight,’ as well.”

A short silence fell upon us all.  Mr. Tyler half rose and half frowned as he noticed Mr. Pakenham shuffling as though he would depart.

“It shall be, of course, as you suggest,” said the president to Pakenham.  “There is no record of any of this.  But the answer of Mr. Calhoun, which I await and now demand, is one which will go upon the records of this country soon enough, I fancy.  I ask you, then, to hear what Mr. Calhoun replies.”

Ah, it was well arranged and handsomely staged, this little comedy, and done for the benefit of England, after all!  I almost might have believed that Mr. Calhoun had rehearsed this with the president.  Certainly, the latter knew perfectly well what his answer was to be.  Mr. Calhoun himself made that deliberately plain, when presently he arose.

“I have had some certain moments for reflection, Mr. President,” said he, “and I have from the first moment of this surprising offer on your part been humbly sensible of the honor offered so old and so unfit a man.

“Sir, my own record, thank God, is clear.  I have stood for the South.  I stand now for Texas.  I believe in her and her future.  She belongs to us, as I have steadfastly insisted at all hours and in all places.  She will widen the southern vote in Congress, that is true.  She will be for slavery.  That also is true.  I myself have stood for slavery, but I am yet more devoted to democracy and to America than I am to the South and to slavery.  So will Texas be.  I know what Texas means.  She means for us also Oregon.  She means more than that.  She means also a democracy spreading across this entire continent.  My attitude in that regard has been always clear.  I have not sought to change it.  Sir, if I take this office which you offer, I do so with the avowed and expressed purpose of bringing Texas into this Union, in full view of any and all consequences.  I shall offer her a treaty of annexation at once! I shall urge annexation at every hour, in every place, in all ways within my means, and in full view of the consequences!” He looked now gravely and keenly at the English plenipotentiary.

“That is well understood, Mr. Calhoun,” began Mr. Tyler.  “Your views are in full accord with my own.”

Pakenham looked from the one to the other, from the thin, vulpine face to the thin, leonine one.  The pity Mr. Tyler felt for the old man’s visible weakness showed on his face as he spoke.

“What, then, is the answer of John Calhoun to this latest call of his country?”

That answer is one which is in our history.

“John Calhoun accepts!” said my master, loud and clear.