Read CHAPTER XII - THE MARATHON of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

     As if two gods should play some heavenly match, and on this wager
     lay two earthly women. ­Shakespeare.

An automaton, scarcely thinking, I gained the platform of the station.  There was a sound of hissing steam, a rolling cloud of sulphurous smoke, a shouting of railway captains, a creaking of the wheels.  Without volition of my own, I was on my northward journey.  Presently I looked around and found seated at my side the man whom I then recollected I was to meet ­Doctor Samuel Ward.  I presume he took the train after I did.

“What’s wrong, Nicholas?” he asked.  “Trouble of any kind?”

I presume that the harsh quality of my answer surprised him.  He looked at me keenly.

“Tell me what’s up, my son,” said he.

“You know Miss Elisabeth Churchill ­” I hesitated.

He nodded.  “Yes,” he rejoined; “and damn you, sir! if you give that girl a heartache, you’ll have to settle with me!”

“Some one will have to settle with me!” I returned hotly.

“Tell me, then.”

So, briefly, I did tell him what little I knew of the events of the last hour.  I told him of the shame and humiliation of it all.  He pondered for a minute and asked me at length if I believed Miss Elisabeth suspected anything of my errand of the night before.

“How could she?” I answered.  “So far as I can recollect I never mentioned the name of the Baroness von Ritz.”

Then, all at once, I did recollect!  I did remember that I had mentioned the name of the baroness that very morning to Elisabeth, when the baroness passed us in the East Room!  I had not told the truth ­I had gone with a lie on my lips that very day, and asked her to take vows with me in which no greater truth ought to be heard than the simple truth from me to her, in any hour of the day, in any time of our two lives!

Doctor Ward was keen enough to see the sudden confusion on my face, but he made no comment beyond saying that he doubted not time would clear it all up; that he had known many such affairs.

“But mind you one thing,” he added; “keep those two women apart.”

“Then why do you two doddering old idiots, you and John Calhoun, with life outworn and the blood dried in your veins, send me, since you doubt me so much, on an errand of this kind?  You see what it has done for me.  I am done with John Calhoun.  He may get some other fool for his service.”

“Where do you propose going, then, my friend?”

“West,” I answered.  “West to the Rockies ­”

Doctor Ward calmly produced a tortoise shell snuffbox from his left-hand waistcoat pocket, and deliberately took snuff.  “You are going to do nothing of the kind,” said he calmly.  “You are going to keep your promise to John Calhoun and to me.  Believe me, the business in hand is vital.  You go to Canada now in the most important capacity you have ever had.”

“I care nothing for that,” I answered bitterly.

“But you are the agent of your country.  You are called to do your country’s urgent work.  Here is your trouble over one girl.  Would you make trouble for a million American girls ­would you unsettle thousands and thousands of American homes because, for a time, you have known trouble?  All life is only trouble vanquished.  I ask you now to be a man; I not only expect it, but demand it of you!”

His words carried weight in spite of myself.  I began to listen.  I took from his hand the package, looked at it, examined it.  Finally, as he sat silently regarding me, I broke the seal.

“Now, Nicholas Trist,” resumed Doctor Ward presently, “there is to be at Montreal at the date named in these papers a meeting of the directors of the Hudson Bay Company of England.  There will be big men there ­the biggest their country can produce; leaders of the Hudson Bay Company, many, public men even of England.  It is rumored that a brother of Lord Aberdeen, of the British Ministry, will attend.  Do you begin to understand?”

Ah, did I not?  Here, then, was further weaving of those complex plots which at that time hedged in all our history as a republic.  Now I guessed the virtue of our knowing somewhat of England’s secret plans, as she surely did of ours.  I began to feel behind me the impulse of John Calhoun’s swift energy.

“It is Oregon!” I exclaimed at last.

Doctor Ward nodded.  “Very possibly.  It has seemed to Mr. Calhoun very likely that we may hear something of great importance regarding the far Northwest.  A missed cog now may cost this country a thousand miles of territory, a hundred years of history.”

Doctor Ward continued:  “England, as you know,” said he, “is the enemy of this country as much to-day as ever.  She claims she wishes Texas to remain free.  She forgets her own record ­forgets the burning cities of Rohilkhand, the imprisoned princesses of Oudh!  Might is her right.  She wants Texas as a focus of contention, a rallying point of sectionalism.  If she divides us, she conquers us.  That is all.  She wants the chance for the extension of her own hold on this continent, which she will push as far, and fast as she dare.  She must have cotton.  She would like land as well.”

“That means also Oregon?”

He nodded.  “Always with the Texas question comes the Oregon question.  Mr. Calhoun is none too friendly to Mr. Polk, and yet he knows that through Jackson’s influence with the Southern democracy Polk has an excellent chance for the next nomination for the presidency.  God knows what folly will come then.  But sometime, one way or another, the joint occupancy of England and the United States in the Oregon country must end.  It has been a waiting game thus far, as you know; but never think that England has been idle.  This meeting in Montreal will prove that to you.”

In spite of myself, I began to feel the stimulus of a thought like this.  It was my salvation as a man.  I began to set aside myself and my own troubles.

“You are therefore,” he concluded, “to go to Montreal, and find your own way into that meeting of the directors of the Hudson Bay Company.  There is a bare chance that in this intrigue Mexico will have an emissary on the ground as well.  There is reason to suspect her hostility to all our plans of extension, southwest and northwest.  Naturally, it is the card of Mexico to bring on war, or accept it if we urge; but only in case she has England as her ally.  England will get her pay by taking Texas, and what is more, by taking California, which Mexico does not value.  She owes England large sums now.  That would leave England owner of the Pacific coast; for, once she gets California, she will fight us then for all of Oregon.  It is your duty to learn all of these matters ­who is there, what is done; and to do this without making known your own identity.”

I sat for a moment in thought.  “It is an honor,” said I finally; “an honor so large that under it I feel small.”

“Now,” said Doctor Ward, placing a gnarled hand on my shoulder, “you begin to talk like a Marylander.  It’s a race, my boy, a race across this continent.  There are two trails ­one north and one mid-continent.  On these paths two nations contend in the greatest Marathon of all the world.  England or the United States ­monarchy or republic ­aristocracy or humanity’?  These are some of the things which hang on the issue of this contest.  Take then your duty and your honor, humbly and faithfully.”

“Good-by,” he said, as we steamed into Baltimore station.  I turned, and he was gone.