Read CHAPTER XVI - DEJEUNER A LA FOURCHETTE of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

Woman is a creature between man and the angels.
­Honore de Balzac.

A government agent, it seems, may also in part be little more than a man, after all.  In these singular surroundings I found myself not wholly tranquil....  At last toward morning, I must have slept.  It was some time after daybreak when I felt a hand upon my shoulder as I lay still partly clad.  Awakened suddenly, I arose and almost overthrew old Threlka, who stood regarding me with no expression whatever upon her brown and wrinkled countenance.  She did no more than point the way to a door, where presently I found a bath-room, and so refreshed myself and made the best toilet possible under the circumstances.

My hostess I found awaiting me in the central room of the apartments.  She was clad now in a girdled peignoir of rich rose-color, the sleeves, wide and full, falling hack from her round arms.  Her dark hair was coiled and piled high on her head this morning, regardless of current mode, and confined in a heavy twist by a tall golden comb; so that her white neck was left uncovered.  She wore no jewelry, and as she stood, simple and free from any trickery of the coquette, I thought that few women ever were more fair.  That infinite witchery not given to many women was hers, yet dignity as well.  She was, I swear, grande dame, though young and beautiful as a goddess.  Her brow was thoughtful now, her air more demure.  Faint blue shadows lay beneath her eyes.  A certain hauteur, it seemed to me, was visible in her mien, yet she was the soul of graciousness, and, I must admit, as charming a hostess as ever invited one to usual or unusual repast.

The little table in the center of the room was already spread.  Madam filled my cup from the steaming urn with not the slightest awkwardness, as she nodded for me to be seated.  We looked at each other, and, as I may swear, we both broke into saving laughter.

So we sat, easier now, as I admit, and, with small concern for the affairs of the world outside at the time, discussed the very excellent omelet, which certainly did not allow the reputation of Threlka to suffer; the delicately grilled bones, the crisp toasted rye bread, the firm yellow butter, the pungent early cress, which made up a meal sufficiently dainty even for her who presided over it.

Even that pitiless light of early morning, the merciless cross-light of opposing windows, was gentle with her.  Yes, she was young!  Moreover, she ate as a person of breeding, and seemed thoroughbred in all ways, if one might use a term so hackneyed.  Rank and breeding had been hers; she needed not to claim them, for they told their own story.  I wondered what extraordinary history of hers remained untold ­what history of hers and mine and of others she might yet assist in making!

“I was saying,” she remarked presently, “that I would not have you think that I do not appreciate the suffering in which you were plunged by the haste you found necessary in the wedding of your jeune fille.”

But I was on my guard.  “At least, I may thank you for your sympathy, Madam!” I replied.

“Yet in time,” she went on, gone reflective the next instant, “you will see how very unimportant is all this turmoil of love and marriage.”

“Indeed, there is, as you say, something of a turmoil regarding them in our institutions as they are at present formed.”

“Because the average of humanity thinks so little.  Most of us judge life from its emotions.  We do not search the depths.”

“If I could oblige Madam by abolishing society and home and humanity, I should be very glad ­because, of course, that is what Madam means!”

“At any cost,” she mused, “that torture of life must be passed on to coming generations for their unhappiness, their grief, their misery.  I presume it was necessary that there should be this plan of the general blindness and intensity of passion.”

“Yes, if, indeed, it be not the most important thing in the world for us to marry, at least it is important that we should think so.  Madam is philosopher this morning,” I said, smiling.

She hardly heard me.  “To continue the crucifixion of the soul, to continue the misapprehensions, the debasings of contact with human life ­yes, I suppose one must pay all that for the sake of the gaining of a purpose.  Yet there are those who would endure much for the sake of principle, Monsieur.  Some such souls are born, do you not think?”

“Yes, Sphinx souls, extraordinary, impossible for the average of us to understand.”

“That torch of life!” she mused.  “See!  It was only that which you were so eager to pass on to another generation!  That was why you were so mad to hasten to the side of that woman.  Whereas,” she mused still, “it were so much grander and so much nobler to pass on the torch of a principle as well!”

“I do not understand.”

“The general business of offspring goes on unceasingly in all the nations,” she resumed frankly.  “There will be children, whether or not you and I ever find some one wherewith to mate in the compromise which folk call wedlock.  But principles ­ah! my friend, who is to give those to others who follow us?  What rare and splendid wedlock brings forth that manner of offspring?”

“Madam, in the circumstances,” said I, “I should be happy to serve you more omelet.”

She shook her head as though endeavoring to dismiss something from her mind.

“Do not philosophize with me,” I said.  “I am already distracted by the puzzle you offer to me.  You are so young and beautiful, so fair in your judgment, so kind ­”

“In turn, I ask you not to follow that,” she remarked coldly.  “Let us talk of what you call, I think, business.”

“Nothing could please me more.  I have slept little, pondering on this that I do call business.  To begin with, then, you were there at the Chateau Ramezay last night.  I would have given all I had to have been there for an hour.”

“There are certain advantages a woman may have.”

“But you were there?  You know what went forward?”

“Certainly.”

“Did they know you were present?”

“Monsieur is somewhat importunate!”

She looked me now directly in the eye, studying me mercilessly, with a scrutiny whose like I should not care often to undergo.

“I should be glad if it were possible to answer you,” she said at last enigmatically; “but I have faith to keep with ­others ­with you ­with ­myself.”

Now my own eagerness ran away with me; I became almost rude.  “Madam,” I exclaimed, “why beat about the bush?  I do not care to deceive you, and you must not deceive me.  Why should we not be friends in every way, and fair ones?”

“You do not know what you are saying,” she said simply.

“Are you then an enemy of my country?” I demanded.  “If I thought you were here to prove traitress to my country, you should never leave this room except with me.  You shall not leave it now until you have told me what you are, why you are here, what you plan to do!”

She showed no fear.  She only made a pretty little gesture at the dishes between us.  “At my own table!” she pouted.

Again our eyes met directly and again hers did not lower.  She looked at me calmly.  I was no match for her.

“My dear lady,” I began again, “my relation to the affairs of the American Republic is a very humble one.  I am no minister of state, and I know you deal with ministers direct.  How, then, shall I gain your friendship for my country?  You are dangerous to have for an enemy.  Are you too high-priced to have for a friend ­for a friend to our Union ­a friend of the principle of democracy?  Come now, you enjoy large questions.  Tell me, what does this council mean regarding Oregon?  Is it true that England plans now to concentrate all her traders, all her troops, and force them west up the Saskatchewan and into Oregon this coming season?  Come, now, Madam, is it to be war?”

Her curved lips broke into a smile that showed again her small white teeth.

“Were you, then, married?” she said.

I only went on, impatient.  “Any moment may mean everything to us.  I should not ask these questions if I did not know that you were close to Mr. Calhoun.”

She looked me square in the eye and nodded her head slowly.  “I may say this much, Monsieur, that it has pleased me to gain a little further information.”

“You will give my government that information?”

“Why should I?”

“Yet you spoke of others who might come here.  What others?  Who are they?  The representatives of Mexico?  Some attache of the British Embassy at Washington?  Some minister from England itself, sent here direct?”

She smiled at me again.  “I told you not to go back to your hotel, did I not?”

I got no further with her, it seemed.

“You interest me sometimes,” she went on slowly, at last, “yet you seem to have so little brain!  Now, in your employment, I should think that brain would be somewhat useful at times.”

“I do not deny that suggestion, Madam.”

“But you are unable to analyze.  Thus, in the matter of yourself.  I suppose if you were told of it, you would only say that you forgot to look in the toe of the slipper you had.”

“Thus far, Baroness,” I said soberly, “I have asked no special privilege, at least.  Now, if it affords you any pleasure, I beg you, I implore you, to tell me what you mean!”

“Did you credit the attache of Mexico with being nothing more than a drunken rowdy, to follow me across town with a little shoe in his carriage?”

“But you said he was in wine.”

“True.  But would that be a reason?  Continually you show your lack of brain in accepting as conclusive results which could not possibly have occurred. Granted he was in wine, granted he followed me, granted he had my shoe in his possession ­what then?  Does it follow that at the ball at the White House he could have removed that shoe?  Does Monsieur think that I, too, was in wine?”

“I agree that I have no brain!  I can not guess what you mean.  I can only beg once more that you explain.”

“Now listen.  In your most youthful and charming innocence I presume you do not know much of the capabilities for concealment offered by a lady’s apparel!  Now, suppose I had a message ­where do you think I could hide it; granted, of course, the conditions obtaining at a ball in the White House?”

“Then you did have a message?  It came to you there, at that time?”

She nodded.  “Certainly.  Mr. Van Zandt had almost no other opportunity to meet me or get word to me.”

Van Zandt! Madam, are you indeed in the camp of all these different interests?  So, what Pakenham said was true!  Van Zandt is the attache of Texas.  Van Zandt is pleading with Mr. Calhoun that he shall take up the secretaryship.  Van Zandt promises us the friendship of Texas if we will stand out for the annexation of Texas.  Van Zandt promises us every effort in his power against England.  Van Zandt promises us the sternest of fronts against treacherous Mexico.  Van Zandt is known to be interested in this fair Dona Lucrezia, just as Polk is.  Now, then, comes Van Zandt with his secret message slipped into the hand of Madam at the Ambassador’s ball ­Madam, the friend of England! The attache of Mexico is curious ­furious ­to know what Texas is saying to England!  And that message must be concealed!  And Madam conceals it in ­”

She smiled at me brilliantly.  “You come on,” she said.  “Should your head be opened and analyzed, yes, I think a trace of brain might be discovered by good chemistry.”

I resumed impatiently.  “You put his message in your slipper?”

She nodded.  “Yes,” she said, “in the toe of it.  There was barely chance to do that.  You see, our skirts are full and wide; there are curtains in the East Room; there was wine by this time; there was music; so I effected that much.  But when you took the slipper, you took Van Zandt’s note!  You had it.  It was true, what I told Pakenham before the president ­I did not then have that note! You had it.  At least, I thought you had it, till I found it crumpled on the table the next day!  It must have fallen there from the shoe when we made our little exchange that night.  Ah, you hurried me.  I scarce knew whether I was clad or shod, until the next afternoon ­after I left you at the White House grounds.  So you hastily departed ­to your wedding?”

“So small a shoe could not have held an extended epistle, Madam,” I said, ignoring her question.

“No, but the little roll of paper caused me anguish.  After I had danced I was on the point of fainting.  I hastened to the cover of the nearest curtain, where I might not be noticed.  Senor Yturrio of Mexico was somewhat vigilant.  He wished to know what Texas planned with England.  He has long made love to me ­by threats, and jewels.  As I stood behind the curtain I saw his face, I fled; but one shoe ­the empty one ­was not well fastened, and it fell.  I could not walk.  I reached down, removed the other shoe with its note, hid it in my handkerchief ­thank Providence for the fashion of so much lace ­and so, not in wine, Monsieur, as you may believe, and somewhat anxious, as you may also believe, expecting to hear at once of an encounter between Van Zandt and the Mexican minister, Senor Almonte, or his attache Yturrio, or between one of them and some one else, I made my adieux ­I will warrant the only woman in her stocking feet who bowed for Mr. Tyler at the ball that night!”

“Yes, so far as I know, Madam, you are the only lady who ever left the East Room precisely so clad.  And so you got into your own carriage ­alone ­after a while?  And so, when you were there you put on the shoe which was left?  And so Yturrio of Mexico got the other one ­and found nothing in it!  And so, he wanted this one!”

“You come on,” she said.  “You have something more than a trace of brain.”

“And that other shoe, which I got that night?”

Without a word she smoothed out a bit of paper which she removed from a near-by desk, and handed it to me. “This was in yours!  As I said, in my confusion I supposed you had it.  You said I should go in a sack.  I suppose I did!  I suppose I lost my head, somewhere!  But certainly I thought you had found the note and given it to Mr. Calhoun; else I should have driven harder terms with him!  I would drive harder terms with you, now, were I not in such haste to learn the answer to my question!  Tell me, were you married?”

“Is that answer worth more than Van Zandt?” I smiled.

“Yes,” she answered, also smiling.

I spread the page upon the cloth before me; my eyes raced down the lines.  I did not make further reply to her.

“Madam,” went on the communication, “say to your august friend Sir Richard that we have reached the end of our endurance of these late delays.  The promises of the United States mean nothing.  We can trust neither Whig nor Democrat any longer.  There is no one party in power, nor will there be.  There are two sections in America and there is no nation, and Texas knows not where to go.  We have offered to Mr. Tyler to join the Union if the Union will allow us to join.  We intend to reserve our own lands and reserve the right to organize later into four or more states, if our people shall so desire.  But as a great state we will join the Union if the Union will accept us.  That must be seen.

“England now beseeches us not to enter the Union, but to stand apart, either for independence or for alliance with Mexico and England.  The proposition has been made to us to divide into two governments, one free and one slave.  England has proposed to us to advance us moneys to pay all our debts if we will agree to this.  Settled by bold men from our mother country, the republic, Texas has been averse to this.  But now our own mother repudiates us, not once but many times.  We get no decision.  This then, dear Madam, is from Texas to England by your hand, and we know you will carry it safe and secret.  We shall accept this proposal of England, and avail ourselves of the richness of her generosity.

“If within thirty days action is not taken in Washington for the annexation of Texas, Texas will never in the history of the world be one of the United States.  Moreover, if the United States shall lose Texas, also they lose Oregon, and all of Oregon.  Carry this news ­I am persuaded that it will be welcome ­to that gentleman whose ear I know you have; and believe me always, my dear Madam, with respect and admiration, yours, for the State of Texas, Van Zandt.”

I drew a deep breath as I saw this proof of double play on the part of this representative of the republic of the Southwest.  “They are traitors!” I exclaimed.  “But there must be action ­something must be done at once.  I must not wait; I must go!  I must take this, at least, to Mr. Calhoun.”

She laughed now, joyously clapping her white hands together.  “Good!” she said.  “You are a man, after all.  You may yet grow brain.”

“Have I been fair with you thus far?” she asked at length.

“More than fair.  I could not have asked this of you.  In an hour I have learned the news of years.  But will you not also tell me what is the news from Chateau Ramezay?  Then, indeed, I could go home feeling I had done very much for my chief.”

“Monsieur, I can not do so.  You will not tell me that other news.”

“Of what?”

“Of your nuptials!”

“Madam, I can not do so.  But for you, much as I owe you, I would like to wring your neck.  I would like to take your arms in my hands and crush them, until ­”

“Until what?” Her face was strange.  I saw a hand raised to her throat.

“Until you told me about Oregon!” said I.

I saw her arms move ­just one instant ­her body incline.  She gazed at me steadily, somberly.  Then her hands fell.

“Ah, God! how I hate you both!” she said; “you and her.  You were married, after all!  Yes, it can be, it can be!  A woman may love one man ­even though he could give her only a bed of husks!  And a man may love a woman, too ­one woman!  I had not known.”

I could only gaze at her, now more in perplexity than ever.  Alike her character and her moods were beyond me.  What she was or had been I could not guess; only, whatever she was, she was not ordinary, that was sure, and was to be classified under no ordinary rule.  Woman or secret agent she was, and in one or other identity she could be my friend or my powerful enemy, could aid my country powerfully if she had the whim; or damage it irreparably if she had the desire.  But ­yes ­as I studied her that keen, tense, vital moment, she was woman!

A deep fire burned in her eyes, that was true; but on her face was ­what?  It was not rage, it was not passion, it was not chagrin.  No, in truth and justice I swear that what I then saw on her face was that same look I had noted once before, an expression of almost childish pathos, of longing, of appeal for something missed or gone, though much desired.  No vanity could contemplate with pleasure a look like that on the face of a woman such as Helena von Ritz.

I fancied her unstrung by excitement, by the strain of her trying labor, by the loneliness of her life, uncertain, misunderstood, perhaps, as it was.  I wondered if she could be more unhappy than I myself, if life could offer her less than it did to me.  But I dared not prolong our masking, lest all should be unmasked.

“It is nothing!” she said at last, and laughed gaily as ever.

“Yes, Madam, it is nothing.  I admit my defeat.  I shall ask no more favors, expect no further information from you, for I have not earned it, and I can not pay.  I will make no promise that I could not keep.”

“Then we part even!”

“As enemies or friends?”

“I do not yet know.  I can not think ­for a long time.  But I, too, am defeated.”

“I do not understand how Madam can be defeated in anything.”

“Ah, I am defeated only because I have won.  I have your secret; you do not have mine.  But I laid also another wager, with myself.  I have lost it.  Ceremony or not ­and what does the ceremony value? ­you are married.  I had not known marriage to be possible.  I had not known you ­you savages.  No ­so much ­I had not known.”

“Monsieur, adieu!” she added swiftly.

I bent and kissed her hand.  “Madam, au revoir!

“No, adieu! Go!”