Read CHAPTER XV - WITH MADAM THE BARONESS of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

     It is not for good women that men have fought battles, given their
     lives and staked their souls. ­Mrs. W.K.  Clifford.

“But, Madam ­” I began.

She answered me in her own way.  “Monsieur hesitates ­he is lost!” she said.  “But see, I am weary.  I have been much engaged to-day.  I have made it my plan never to fatigue myself.  It is my hour now for my bath, my exercise, my bed, if you please.  I fear I must bid you good night, one way or the other.  You will be welcome here none the less, if you care to remain.  I trust you did not find our little repast to-night unpleasing?  Believe me, our breakfast shall be as good.  Threlka is expert in omelets, and our coffee is such as perhaps you may not find general in these provinces.”

Was there the slightest mocking sneer in her words?  Did she despise me as a faint-heart?  I could not tell, but did not like the thought.

“Believe me, Madam,” I answered hotly, “you have courage, at least.  Let me match it.  Nor do I deny that this asks courage on my part too.  If you please, in these circumstances, I shall remain.”

“You are armed?” she asked simply.

I inserted a finger in each waistcoat pocket and showed her the butts of two derringers; and at the back of my neck ­to her smiling amusement at our heathen fashion ­I displayed just the tip of the haft of a short bowie-knife, which went into a leather case under the collar of my coat.  And again I drew around the belt which I wore so that she could see the barrel of a good pistol, which had been suspended under cover of the bell skirt of my coat.

She laughed.  I saw that she was not unused to weapons.  I should have guessed her the daughter of a soldier or acquainted with arms in some way.  “Of course,” she said, “there might be need of these, although I think not.  And in any case, if trouble can be deferred until to-morrow, why concern oneself over it?  You interest me.  I begin yet more to approve of you.”

“Then, as to that breakfast a la fourchette with Madam; if I remain, will you agree to tell me what is your business here?”

She laughed at me gaily.  “I might,” she said, “provided that meantime I had learned whether or not you were married that night.”

I do not profess that I read all that was in her face as she stepped back toward the satin curtains and swept me the most graceful curtsey I had ever seen in all my life.  I felt like reaching out a hand to restrain her.  I felt like following her.  She was assuredly bewildering, assuredly as puzzling as she was fascinating.  I only felt that she was mocking me.  Ah, she was a woman!

I felt something swiftly flame within me.  There arose about me that net of amber-hued perfume, soft, enthralling, difficult of evasion....  Then I recalled my mission; and I remembered what Mr. Calhoun and Doctor Ward had said.  I was not a man; I was a government agent.  She was not a woman; she was my opponent.  Yes, but then ­

Slowly I turned to the opposite side of this long central room.  There were curtains here also.  I drew them, but as I did so I glanced back.  Again, as on that earlier night, I saw her face framed in the amber folds ­a face laughing, mocking.  With an exclamation of discontent, I threw down my heavy pistol on the floor, cast my coat across the foot of the bed to prevent the delicate covering from being soiled by my boots, and so rested without further disrobing.

In the opposite apartment I could hear her moving about, humming to herself some air as unconcernedly as though no such being as myself existed in the world.  I heard her presently accost her servant, who entered through some passage not visible from the central apartments.  Then without concealment there seemed to go forward the ordinary routine of madam’s toilet for the evening.

“No, I think the pink one,” I heard her say, “and please ­the bath, Threlka, just a trifle more warm.”  She spoke in French, her ancient serving-woman, as I took it, not understanding the English language.  They both spoke also in a tongue I did not know.  I heard the rattling of toilet articles, certain sighs of content, faint splashings beyond.  I could not escape from all this.  Then I imagined that perhaps madam was having her heavy locks combed by the serving-woman.  In spite of myself, I pictured her thus, even more beautiful than before.

For a long time I concluded that my presence was to be dismissed as a thing which was of no importance, or which was to be regarded as not having happened.  At length, however, after what seemed at least half an hour of these mysterious ceremonies, I heard certain sighings, long breaths, as though madam were taking calisthenic movements, some gymnastic training ­I knew not what.  She paused for breath, apparently very well content with herself.

Shame on me!  I fancied perhaps she stood before a mirror.  Shame on me again!  I fancied she sat, glowing, beautiful, at the edge of the amber couch.

At last she called out to me:  “Monsieur!”

I was at my own curtains at once, but hers remained tight folded, although I heard her voice close behind them. “Eh bien?” I answered.

“It is nothing, except I would say that if Monsieur feels especially grave and reverent, he will find a very comfortable prie-dieu at the foot of the bed.”

“I thank you,” I replied, gravely as I could.

“And there is a very excellent rosary and crucifix on the table just beyond!”

“I thank you,” I replied, steadily as I could.

“And there is an English Book of Common Prayer upon the stand not far from the head of the bed, upon this side!”

“A thousand thanks, my very good friend.”

I heard a smothered laugh beyond the amber curtains.  Presently she spoke again, yawning, as I fancied, rather contentedly.

A la bonne heure, Monsieur!

A la bonne heure, Madame!