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

     The world is the book of women. ­Rousseau.

I needed not to be advised that presently there would be a meeting of some of the leading men of the Hudson Bay Company at the little gray stone, dormer-windowed building on Notre Dame Street.  In this old building ­in whose vaults at one time of emergency was stored the entire currency of the Canadian treasury ­there still remained some government records, and now under the steep-pitched roof affairs were to be transacted somewhat larger than the dimensions of the building might have suggested.  The keeper of my inn freely made me a list of those who would be present ­a list embracing so many scores of prominent men whom he then swore to be in the city of Montreal that, had the old Chateau Ramezay afforded twice its room, they could not all have been accommodated.  For myself, it was out of the question to gain admittance.

In those days all Montreal was iron-shuttered after nightfall, resembling a series of jails; and to-night it seemed doubly screened and guarded.  None the less, late in the evening, I allowed seeming accident to lead me in a certain direction.  Passing as often as I might up and down Notre Dame Street without attracting attention, I saw more than one figure in the semi-darkness enter the low chateau door.  Occasionally a tiny gleam showed at the edge of a shutter or at the top of some little window not fully screened.  As to what went on within I could only guess.

I passed the chateau, up and down, at different times from nine o’clock until midnight.  The streets of Montreal at that time made brave pretense of lighting by virtue of the new gas works; at certain intervals flickering and wholly incompetent lights serving to make the gloom more visible.  None the less, as I passed for the last time, I plainly saw a shaft of light fall upon the half darkness from a little side door.  There emerged upon the street the figure of a woman.  I do not know what led me to cast a second glance, for certainly my business was not with ladies, any more than I would have supposed ladies had business there; but, victim of some impulse of curiosity, I walked a step or two in the same direction as that taken by the cloaked figure.

Careless as I endeavored to make my movements, the veiled lady seemed to take suspicion or fright.  She quickened her steps.  Accident favored me.  Even as she fled, she caught her skirt on some object which lay hidden in the shadows and fell almost at full length.  This I conceived to be opportunity warranting my approach.  I raised my hat and assured her that her flight was needless.

She made no direct reply to me, but as she rose gave utterance to an expression of annoyance. “Mon Dieu!” I heard her say.

I stood for a moment trying to recall where I had heard this same voice!  She turned her face in such a way that the light illuminated it.  Then indeed surprise smote me.

“Madam Baroness,” said I, laughing, “it is wholly impossible for you to be here, yet you are here!  Never again will I say there is no such thing as chance, no such thing as fate, no such thing as a miracle!”

She looked at me one brief moment; then her courage returned.

“Ah, then, my idiot,” she said, “since it is to be our fortune always to meet of dark nights and in impossible ways, give me your arm.”

I laughed.  “We may as well make treaty.  If you run again, I shall only follow you.”

“Then I am again your prisoner?”

“Madam, I again am yours!”

“At least, you improve!” said she.  “Then come.”

“Shall I not call a caleche? ­the night is dark.”

“No, no!” hurriedly.

We began a midnight course that took us quite across the old French quarter of Montreal.  At last she turned into a small, dark street of modest one-story residences, iron-shuttered, dark and cheerless.  Here she paused in front of a narrow iron gate.

“Madam,” I said, “you represent to me one of the problems of my life.  Why does your taste run to such quarters as these?  This might be that same back street in Washington!”

She chuckled to herself, at length laughed aloud.  “But wait!  If you entered my abode once,” she said, “why not again?  Come.”

Her hand was at the heavy knocker as she spoke.  In a moment the door slowly opened, just as it had done that night before in Washington.  My companion passed before me swiftly.  As she entered I saw standing at the opening the same brown and wrinkled old dame who had served that night before in Washington!

For an instant the light dazzled my eyes, but, determined now to see this adventure through, I stepped within.  Then, indeed, I found it difficult to stifle the exclamation of surprise which came to my lips.  Believe it or not, as you like, we were again in Washington!

I say that I was confronted by the identical arrangement, the identical objects of furnishing, which had marked the luxurious boudoir of Helena von Ritz in Washington!  The tables were the same, the chairs, the mirrors, the consoles.  On the mantel stood the same girandoles with glittering crystals.  The pictures upon the walls, so far as I could remember their themes, did not deviate in any particular of detail or arrangement.  The oval-backed chairs were duplicates of those I had seen that other night at midnight.  Beyond these same amber satin curtains stood the tall bed with its canopy, as I could see; and here at the right was the same low Napoleon bed with its rolled ends.  The figures of the carpets were the same, their deep-piled richness, soft under foot, the same.  The flowered cups of the sconces were identical with those I had seen before.  To my eye, even as it grew more studious, there appeared no divergence, no difference, between these apartments and those I had so singularly visited ­and yet under circumstances so strangely akin to these ­in the capital of my own country!

“You are good enough to admire my modest place,” said a laughing voice at my shoulder.  Then indeed I waked and looked about me, and saw that this, stranger than any mirage of the brain, was but a fact and must later be explained by the laborious processes of the feeble reason.

I turned to her then, pulling myself together as best I could.  Yes, she too was the same, although in this case costumed somewhat differently.  The wide ball gown of satin was gone, and in its place was a less pretentious robing of some darker silk.  I remembered distinctly that the flowers upon the white satin gown I first had seen were pink roses.  Here were flowers of the crocus, cunningly woven into the web of the gown itself.  The slippers which I now saw peeping out as she passed were not of white satin, but better foot covering for the street.  She cast over the back of a chair, as she had done that other evening, her light shoulder covering, a dark mantle, not of lace now, but of some thin cloth.  Her jewels were gone, and the splendor of her dark hair was free of decoration.  No pale blue fires shone at her white throat, and her hands were ringless.  But the light, firm poise of her figure could not be changed; the mockery of her glance remained the same, half laughing and half wistful.  The strong curve of her lips remained, and I recalled this arch of brow, the curve of neck and chin, the droop of the dark locks above her even forehead.  Yes, it was she.  It could be no one else.

She clapped her hands and laughed like a child as she turned to me.  “Bravo!” she said.  “My judgment, then, was quite correct.”

“In regard to what?”

“Yourself!”

“Pardon me?”

“You do not show curiosity!  You do not ask me questions!  Good!  I think I shall ask you to wait.  I say to you frankly that I am alone here.  It pleases me to live ­as pleases me!  You are alone in Montreal.  Why should we not please ourselves?”

In some way which I did not pause to analyze, I felt perfectly sure that this strange woman could, if she cared to do so, tell me some of the things I ought to know.  She might be here on some errand identical with my own.  Calhoun had sent for her once before.  Whose agent was she now?  I found chairs for us both.

An instant later, summoned in what way I do not know, the old serving-woman again reappeared.  “Wine, Threlka,” said the baroness; “service for two ­you may use this little table.  Monsieur,” she added, turning to me, “I am most happy to make even some slight return for the very gracious entertainment offered me that morning by Mr. Calhoun at his residence.  Such a droll man!  Oh, la! la!”

“Are you his friend, Madam?” I asked bluntly.

“Why should I not be?”

I could frame neither offensive nor defensive art with her.  She mocked me.

In a few moments the weazened old woman was back with cold fowl, wine, napery, silver.

“Will Monsieur carve?” At her nod the old woman filled my glass, after my hostess had tasted of her own.  We had seated ourselves at the table as she spoke.

“Not so bad for a black midnight, eh?” she went on, “ ­in a strange town ­and on a strange errand?  And again let me express my approbation of your conduct.”

“If it pleases you, ’tis more than I can say of it for myself,” I began.  “But why?”

“Because you ask no questions.  You take things as they come.  I did not expect you would come to Montreal.”

“Then you know ­but of course, I told you.”

“Have you then no question?” she went on at last.  Her glass stood half full; her wrists rested gently on the table edge, as she leaned back, looking at me with that on her face which he had needed to be wiser than myself, who could have read.

“May I, then?”

“Yes, now you may go on.”

“I thank you.  First, of course, for what reason do you carry the secrets of my government into the stronghold of another government?  Are you the friend of America, or are you a spy upon America?  Are you my friend, or are we to be enemies to-night?”

She flung back her head and laughed delightedly.  “That is a good beginning,” she commented.

“You must, at a guess, have come up by way of the lakes, and by batteau from La Prairie?” I ventured.

She nodded again.  “Of course.  I have been here six days.”

“Indeed? ­you have badly beaten me in our little race.”

She flashed on me a sudden glance.  “Why do you not ask me outright why I am here?”

“Well, then, I do!  I do ask you that.  I ask you how you got access to that meeting to-night ­for I doubt not you were there?”

She gazed at me deliberately again, parting her red lips, again smiling at me.  “What would you have given to have been there yourself?”

“All the treasures those vaults ever held.”

“So much?  What will you give me, then, to tell you what I know?”

“More than all that treasure, Madam.  A place ­”

“Ah! a ‘place in the heart of a people!’ I prefer a locality more restricted.”

“In my own heart, then; yes, of course!”

She helped herself daintily to a portion of the white meat of the fowl.  “Yes,” she went on, as though speaking to herself, “on the whole, I rather like him.  Yet what a fool!  Ah, such a droll idiot!”

“How so, Madam?” I expostulated.  “I thought I was doing very well.”

“Yet you can not guess how to persuade me?”

“No; how could that be?”

“Always one gains by offering some equivalent, value for value ­especially with women, Monsieur.”

She went on as though to herself.  “Come, now, I fancy him!  He is handsome, he is discreet, he has courage, he is not usual, he is not curious; but ah, mon Dieu, what a fool!”

“Admit me to be a fool, Madam, since it is true; but tell me in my folly what equivalent I can offer one who has everything in the world ­wealth, taste, culture, education, wit, learning, beauty?”

“Go on!  Excellent!”

“Who has everything as against my nothing! What value, Madam?”

“Why, gentle idiot, to get an answer ask a question, always.”

“I have asked it.”

“But you can not guess that I might ask one?  So, then, one answer for another, we might do ­what you Americans call some business ­eh?  Will you answer my question?”

“Ask it, then.”

Were you married ­that other night?”

So, then, she was woman after all, and curious!  Her sudden speech came like a stab; but fortunately my dull nerves had not had time to change my face before a thought flashed into my mind.  Could I not make merchandise of my sorrow?  I pulled myself into control and looked her fair in the face.

“Madam,” I said, “look at my face and read your own answer.”

She looked, searching me, while every nerve of me tingled; but at last she shook her head.  “No,” she sighed.  “I can not yet say.”  She did not see the sweat starting on my forehead.

I raised my kerchief over my head.  “A truce, then, Madam!  Let us leave the one question against the other for a time.”

“Excellent!  I shall get my answer first, in that case, and for nothing.”

“How so?”

“I shall only watch you.  As we are here now, I were a fool, worse than you, if I could not tell whether or not you are married.  None the less, I commend you, I admire you, because you do not tell me.  If you are not, you are disappointed.  If you are, you are eager!”

“I am in any case delighted that I can interest Madam.”

“Ah, but you do!  I have not been interested, for so long!  Ah, the great heavens, how fat was Mr. Pakenham, how thin was Mr. Calhoun!  But you ­come, Monsieur, the night is long.  Tell me of yourself.  I have never before known a savage.”

“Value for value only, Madam!  Will you tell me in turn of yourself?”

“All?” She looked at me curiously.

“Only so much as Madam wishes.”

I saw her dark eyes study me once more.  At last she spoke again.  “At least,” she said, “it would be rather vulgar if I did not explain some of the things which become your right to know when I ask you to come into this home, as into my other home in Washington.”

“In Heaven’s name, how many of these homes have you, then?  Are they all alike?”

“Five only, now,” she replied, in the most matter-of-fact manner in the world, “and, of course, all quite alike.”

“Where else?”

“In Paris, in Vienna, in London,” she answered.  “You see this one, you see them all.  ’Tis far cooler in Montreal than in Washington in the summer time.  Do you not approve?”

“The arrangement could not be surpassed.”

“Thank you.  So I have thought.  The mere charm of difference does not appeal to me.  Certain things my judgment approves.  They serve, they suffice.  This little scheme it has pleased me to reproduce in some of the capitals of the world.  It is at least as well chosen as the taste of the Prince of Orleans, son of Louis Philippe, could advise.”

This with no change of expression.  I drew a long breath.

She went on as though I had spoken.  “My friend,” she said, “do not despise me too early.  There is abundant time.  Before you judge, let the testimony be heard.  I love men who can keep their own tongues and their own hands to themselves.”

“I am not your judge, Madam, but it will be long before I shall think a harsh thought of you.  Tell me what a woman may.  Do not tell me what a secret agent may not.  I ask no promises and make none.  You are very beautiful.  You have wealth.  I call you `Madam.’  You are married?”

“I was married at fifteen.”

“At fifteen!  And your husband died?”

“He disappeared.”

“Your own country was Austria?”

“Call me anything but Austrian!  I left my country because I saw there only oppression and lack of hope.  No, I am Hungarian.”

“That I could have guessed.  They say the most beautiful women of the world come from that country.”

“Thank you.  Is that all?”

“I should guess then perhaps you went to Paris?”

“Of course,” she said, “of course! of course!  In time reasons existed why I should not return to my home.  I had some little fortune, some singular experiences, some ambitions of my own.  What I did, I did.  At least, I saw the best and worst of Europe.”

She raised a hand as though to brush something from before her face.  “Allow me to give you wine.  Well, then, Monsieur knows that when I left Paris I felt that part of my studies were complete.  I had seen a little more of government, a little more of humanity, a little more of life, a little more of men.  It was not men but mankind that I studied most.  I had seen much of injustice and hopelessness and despair.  These made the fate of mankind ­in that world.”

“I have heard vaguely of some such things, Madam,” I said.  “I know that in Europe they have still the fight which we sought to settle when we left that country for this one.”

She nodded.  “So then, at last,” she went on, “still young, having learned something and having now those means of carrying on my studies which I required, I came to this last of the countries, America, where, if anywhere, hope for mankind remains.  Washington has impressed me more than any capital of the world.”

“How long have you been in Washington?” I asked.

“Now you begin to question ­now you show at last curiosity!  Well, then, I shall answer.  For more than one year, perhaps more than two, perhaps more than three!”

“Impossible!” I shook my head.  “A woman like you could not be concealed ­not if she owned a hundred hidden places such as this.”

“Oh, I was known,” she said.  “You have heard of me, you knew of me?”

I still shook my head.  “No,” said I, “I have been far in the West for several years, and have come to Washington but rarely.  Bear me out, I had not been there my third day before I found you!”

We sat silent for some moments, fixedly regarding each other.  I have said that a more beautiful face than hers I had never seen.  There sat upon it now many things ­youth, eagerness, ambition, a certain defiance; but, above all, a pleading pathos!  I could not find it in my heart, eager as I was, to question her further.  Apparently she valued this reticence.

“You condemn me?” she asked at length.  “Because I live alone, because quiet rumor wags a tongue, you will judge me by your own creed and not by mine?”

I hesitated before I answered, and deliberated.  “Madam, I have already told you that I would not.  I say once more that I accredit you with living up to your own creed, whatever that may have been.”

She drew a long breath in turn.  “Monsieur, you have done yourself no ill turn in that.”

“It was rumored in diplomatic circles, of course, that you were in touch with the ministry of England,” I ventured.  “I myself saw that much.”

“Naturally.  Of Mexico also!  At least, as you saw in our little carriage race, Mexico was desirous enough to establish some sort of communication with my humble self!”

“Calhoun was right!” I exclaimed.  “He was entirely right, Madam, in insisting that I should bring you to him that morning, whether or not you wished to go.”

“Whim fits with whim sometimes. `Twas his whim to see me, mine to go.”

“I wonder what the Queen of Sheba would have said had Solomon met her thus!”

She chuckled at the memory.  “You see, when you left me at Mr. Calhoun’s door in care of the Grand Vizier James, I wondered somewhat at this strange country of America.  The entresol was dim and the Grand Vizier was slow with candles.  I half fell into the room on the right.  There was Mr. Calhoun bolt upright in his chair, both hands spread out on the arms.  As you promised, he wore a red nightcap and long gown of wool.  He was asleep, and ah! how weary he seemed.  Never have I seen a face so sad as his, asleep.  He was gray and thin, his hair was gray and thin, his eyes were sunken, the veins were corded at his temples, his hands were transparent.  He was, as you promised me, old.  Yet when I saw him I did not smile.  He heard me stir as I would have withdrawn, and when he arose to his feet he was wide-awake.  Monsieur, he is a great man; because, even so clad he made no more apology than you do, showed no more curiosity; and he welcomed me quite as a gentleman unashamed ­as a king, if you please.”

“How did he receive you, Madam?” I asked.  “I never knew.”

“Why, took my hand in both his, and bowed as though I indeed were queen, he a king.”

“Then you got on well?”

“Truly; for he was wiser than his agent, Monsieur.  He found answers by asking questions.”

“Ah, you were kinder to him than to me?”

“Naturally.”

“For instance, he asked ­”

“What had been my ball gown that night ­who was there ­how I enjoyed myself!  In a moment we were talking as though we had been friends for years.  The Grand Vizier brought in two mugs of cider, in each a toasted apple.  Monsieur, I have not seen diplomacy such as this.  Naturally, I was helpless.”

“Did he perhaps ask how you were induced to come at so impossible a time?  My own vanity, naturally, leads me to ask so much as that.”

“No, Mr. Calhoun confined himself to the essentials!  Even had he asked me I could not have replied, because I do not know, save that it was to me a whim.  But at least we talked, over our cider and toasted apples.”

“You told him somewhat of yourself?”

“He did not allow me to do that, Monsieur.”

“But he told you somewhat of this country?”

“Ah, yes, yes!  So then I saw what held him up in his work, what kept him alive.  I saw something I have not often seen ­a purpose, a principle, in a public man.  His love for his own land touched even me, how or why I scarcely know.  Yes, we spoke of the poor, the oppressed, of the weary and the heavy laden.”

“Did he ask you what you knew of Mexico and England?”

“Rather what I knew of the poor in Europe.  I told him some things I knew of that hopeless land, that priest-ridden, king-ridden country ­my own land.  Then he went on to tell me of America and its hope of a free democracy of the people.  Believe me, I listened to Mr. Calhoun.  Never mind what we said of Mr. Van Zandt and Sir Richard Pakenham.  At least, as you know, I paid off a little score with Sir Richard that next morning.  What was strangest to me was the fact that I forgot Mr. Calhoun’s attire, forgot the strangeness of my errand thither.  It was as though only our minds talked, one with the other.  I was sorry when at last came the Grand Vizier James to take Mr. Calhoun’s order for his own carriage, that brought me home ­my second and more peaceful arrival there that night.  The last I saw of Mr. Calhoun was with the Grand Vizier James putting a cloak about him and leading him by force from his study to his bed, as I presume.  As for me, I slept no more that night.  Monsieur, I admit that I saw the purpose of a great man.  Yes; and of a great country.”

“Then I did not fail as messenger, after all!  You told Mr. Calhoun what he desired to know?”

“In part at least.  But come now, was I not bound in some sort of honor to my great and good friend, Sir Richard?  Was it not treachery enough to rebuke him for his attentions to the Dona Lucrezia?”

“But you promised to tell Mr. Calhoun more at a later time?”

“On certain conditions I did,” she assented.

“I do not know that I may ask those?”

“You would be surprised if I told you the truth?  What I required of Mr. Calhoun was permission and aid still further to study his extraordinary country, its extraordinary ways, its extraordinary ignorance of itself.  I have told you that I needed to travel, to study, to observe mankind ­and those governments invented or tolerated by mankind.”

“Since then, Madam,” I concluded, stepping to assist her with her chair, as she signified her completion of our repast, “since you do not feel now inclined to be specific, I feel that I ought to make my adieux, for the time at least.  It grows late.  I shall remember this little evening all my life.  I own my defeat.  I do not know why you are here, or for whom.”

“At what hotel do you stop?”

“The little place of Jacques Bertillon, a square or so beyond the Place d’Armes.”

“In that case,” said she, “believe me, it would be more discreet for you to remain unseen in Montreal.  No matter which flag is mine, I may say that much for a friend and comrade in the service.”

“But what else?”

She looked about her.  “Be my guest to-night!” she said suddenly.  “There is danger ­”

“For me?” I laughed.  “At my hotel?  On the streets?”

“No, for me.”

“Where?”

“Here.”

“And of what, Madam?”

“Of a man; for the first time I am afraid, in spite of all.”

I looked at her straight.  “Are you not afraid of me?” I asked.

She looked at me fairly, her color coming.  “With the fear which draws a woman to a man,” she said.

“Whereas, mine is the fear which causes a man to flee from himself!”

“But you will remain for my protection?  I should feel safer.  Besides, in that case I should know the answer.”

“How do you mean?”

“I should know whether or not you were married!”