Read CHAPTER XXI - POLITICS UNDER COVER of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

     To a woman, the romances she makes are more amusing than those she
     reads. ­Theophile Gautier.

It was curious how cleverly this austere old man, unskilled in the arts of gallantry, now handled the problem to which he had addressed himself, even though that meant forecasting the whim of yet another woman.  It all came easily about, precisely as he had planned.

It seemed quite correct for the daughter of our secretary of state to call to inquire for the health of the fair Senora Yturrio, and to present the compliments of Madam Calhoun, at that time not in the city of Washington.  Matters went so smoothly that I felt justified in suggesting a little drive, and Senora Yturrio had no hesitation in accepting.  Quite naturally, our stately progress finally brought us close to the residence of Miss Calhoun.  That lady suggested that, since the day was warm, it might be well to descend and see if we might not find a sherbet; all of which also seemed quite to the wish of the lady from Mexico.  The ease and warmth of Mr. Calhoun’s greeting to her were such that she soon was well at home and chatting very amiably.  She spoke English with but little hesitancy.

Lucrezia Yturrio, at that time not ill known in Washington’s foreign colony, was beautiful, in a sensuous, ripe way.  Her hair was dark, heavily coiled, and packed in masses above an oval forehead.  Her brows were straight, dark and delicate; her teeth white and strong; her lips red and full; her chin well curved and deep.  A round arm and taper hand controlled a most artful fan.  She was garbed now, somewhat splendidly, in a corded cherry-colored silk, wore gems enough to start a shop, and made on the whole a pleasing picture of luxury and opulence.  She spoke in a most musical voice, with eyes sometimes cast modestly down.  He had been a poor student of her species who had not ascribed to her a wit of her own; but as I watched her, somewhat apart, I almost smiled as I reflected that her grave and courteous host had also a wit to match it.  Then I almost frowned as I recalled my own defeat in a somewhat similar contest.

Mr. Calhoun expressed great surprise and gratification that mere chance had enabled him to meet the wife of a gentleman so distinguished in the diplomatic service as Senor Yturrio.  The Senora was equally gratified.  She hoped she did not make intrusion in thus coming.  Mr. Calhoun assured her that he and his were simple in their family life, and always delighted to meet their friends.

“We are especially glad always to hear of our friends from the Southwest,” said he, at last, with a slight addition of formality in tone and attitude.

At these words I saw my lady’s eyes flicker.  “It is fate, Senor,” said she, again casting down her eyes, and spreading out her hands as in resignation, “fate which left Texas and Mexico not always one.”

“That may be,” said Mr. Calhoun.  “Perhaps fate, also, that those of kin should cling together.”

“How can a mere woman know?” My lady shrugged her very graceful and beautiful shoulders ­somewhat mature shoulders now, but still beautiful.

“Dear Senora,” said Mr. Calhoun, “there are so many things a woman may not know.  For instance, how could she know if her husband should perchance leave the legation to which he was attached and pay a visit to another nation?”

Again the slight flickering of her eyes, but again her hands were outspread in protest.

“How indeed, Senor?”

“What if my young aide here, Mr. Trist, should tell you that he has seen your husband some hundreds of miles away and in conference with a lady supposed to be somewhat friendly towards ­”

“Ah, you mean that baroness !”

So soon had the shaft gone home!  Her woman’s jealousy had offered a point unexpectedly weak.  Calhoun bowed, without a smile upon his face.

“Mr. Pakenham, the British minister, is disposed to be friendly to this same lady.  Your husband and a certain officer of the British Navy called upon this same lady last week in Montreal ­informally.  It is sometimes unfortunate that plans are divulged.  To me it seemed only wise and fit that you should not let any of these little personal matters make for us greater complications in these perilous times.  I think you understand me, perhaps, Senora Yturrio?”

She gurgled low in her throat at this, any sort of sound, meaning to remain ambiguous.  But Calhoun was merciless.

“It is not within dignity, Senora, for me to make trouble between a lady and her husband.  But we must have friends with us under our flag, or know that they are not our friends.  You are welcome in my house.  Your husband is welcome in the house of our republic.  There are certain duties, even thus.”

Only now and again she turned upon him the light of her splendid eyes, searching him.

“If I should recall again, gently, my dear Senora, the fact that your husband was with that particular woman ­if I should say, that Mexico has been found under the flag of England, while supposed to be under our flag ­if I should add that one of the representatives of the Mexican legation had been discovered in handing over to England certain secrets of this country and of the Republic of Texas ­why, then, what answer, think you, Senora, Mexico would make to me?”

“But Senor Calhoun does not mean ­does not dare to say ­”

“I do dare it; I do mean it!  I can tell you all that Mexico plans, and all that Texas plans.  All the secrets are out; and since we know them, we purpose immediate annexation of the Republic of Texas!  Though it means war, Texas shall be ours!  This has been forced upon us by the perfidy of other nations.”

He looked her full in the eye, his own blue orbs alight with resolution.  She returned his gaze, fierce as a tigress.  But at last she spread out her deprecating hands.

“Senor,” she said, “I am but a woman.  I am in the Senor Secretary’s hands.  I am even in his hand.  What can he wish?”

“In no unfair way, Senora, I beg you to understand, in no improper way are you in our hands.  But now let us endeavor to discover some way in which some of these matters may be composed.  In such affairs, a small incident is sometimes magnified and taken in connection with its possible consequences.  You readily may see, Senora, that did I personally seek the dismissal of your husband, possibly even the recall of General Almonte, his chief, that might be effected without difficulty.”

“You seek war, Senor Secretary!  My people say that your armies are in Texas now, or will be.”

“They are but very slightly in advance of the truth, Senora,” said Calhoun grimly.  “For me, I do not believe in war when war can be averted.  But suppose it could be averted?  Suppose the Senora Yturrio herself could avert it?  Suppose the Senora could remain here still, in this city which she so much admires?  A lady of so distinguished beauty and charm is valuable in our society here.”

He bowed to her with stately grace.  If there was mockery in his tone, she could not catch it; nor did her searching eyes read his meaning.

“See,” he resumed, “alone, I am helpless in this situation.  If my government is offended, I can not stop the course of events.  I am not the Senate; I am simply an officer in our administration ­a very humble officer of his Excellency our president, Mr. Tyler.”

My lady broke out in a peal of low, rippling laughter, her white teeth gleaming.  It was, after all, somewhat difficult to trifle with one who had been trained in intrigue all her life.

Calhoun laughed now in his own quiet way.  “We shall do better if we deal entirely frankly, Senora,” said he.  “Let us then waste no time.  Frankly, then, it would seem that, now the Baroness von Ritz is off the scene, the Senora Yturrio would have all the better title and opportunity in the affections of ­well, let us say, her own husband!”

She bent toward him now, her lips open in a slow smile, all her subtle and dangerous beauty unmasking its batteries.  The impression she conveyed was that of warmth and of spotted shadows such as play upon the leopard’s back, such as mark the wing of the butterfly, the petal of some flower born in a land of heat and passion.  But Calhoun regarded her calmly, his finger tips together, and spoke as deliberately as though communing with himself.  “It is but one thing, one very little thing.”

“And what is that, Senor?” she asked at length.

“The signature of Senor Van Zandt, attache for Texas, on this memorandum of treaty between the United States and Texas.”

Bowing, he presented to her the document to which he had earlier directed my own attention.  “We are well advised that Senor Van Zandt is trafficking this very hour with England as against us,” he explained.  “We ask the gracious assistance of Senora Yturrio.  In return we promise her ­silence!”

“I can not ­it is impossible!” she exclaimed, as she glanced at the pages.  “It is our ruin !”

“No, Senora,” said Calhoun sternly; “it means annexation of Texas to the United States.  But that is not your ruin.  It is your salvation.  Your country well may doubt England, even England bearing gifts!”

“I have no control over Senor Van Zandt ­he is the enemy of my country!” she began.

Calhoun now fixed upon her the full cold blue blaze of his singularly penetrating eyes.  “No, Senora,” he said sternly; “but you have access to my friend Mr. Polk, and Mr. Polk is the friend of Mr. Jackson, and they two are friends of Mr. Van Zandt; and Texas supposes that these two, although they do not represent precisely my own beliefs in politics, are for the annexation of Texas, not to England, but to America.  There is good chance Mr. Polk may be president.  If you do not use your personal influence with him, he may consult politics and not you, and so declare war against Mexico.  That war would cost you Texas, and much more as well.  Now, to avert that war, do you not think that perhaps you can ask Mr. Polk to say to Mr. Van Zandt that his signature on this little treaty would end all such questions simply, immediately, and to the best benefit of Mexico, Texas and the United States?  Treason?  Why, Senora, ’twould be preventing treason!”

Her face was half hidden by her fan, and her eyes, covered by their deep lids, gave no sign of her thoughts.  The same cold voice went on: 

“You might, for instance, tell Mr. Polk, which is to say Mr. Van Zandt, that if his name goes on this little treaty for Texas, nothing will be said to Texas regarding his proposal to give Texas over to England.  It might not be safe for that little fact generally to be known in Texas as it is known to me.  We will keep it secret.  You might ask Mr. Van Zandt if he would value a seat in the Senate of these United States, rather than a lynching rope!  So much do I value your honorable acquaintance with Mr. Polk and with Mr. Van Zandt, my dear lady, that I do not go to the latter and demand his signature in the name of his republic ­no, I merely suggest to you that did you take this little treaty for a day, and presently return it to me with his signature attached, I should feel so deeply gratified that I should not ask you by what means you had attained this most desirable result!  And I should hope that if you could not win back the affections of a certain gentleman, at least you might win your own evening of the scales with him.”

Her face colored darkly.  In a flash she saw the covert allusion to the faithless Pakenham.  Here was the chance to cut him to the soul. She could cost England Texas! Revenge made its swift appeal to her savage heart.  Revenge and jealousy, handled coolly, mercilessly as weapons ­those cost England Texas!

She sat, her fan tight at her white teeth.  “It would be death to me if it were known,” she said.  But still she pondered, her eye alight with somber fire, her dark cheek red in a woman’s anger.

“But it never will be known, my dear lady.  These things, however, must be concluded swiftly.  We have not time to wait.  Let us not argue over the unhappy business.  Let me think of Mexico as our sister republic and our friend!”

“And suppose I shall not do this that you ask, Senor?”

“That, my dear lady, I do not suppose!

“You threaten, Senor Secretary?”

“On the contrary, I implore!  I ask you not to be treasonable to any, but to be our ally, our friend, in what in my soul I believe a great good for the peoples of the world.  Without us, Texas will be the prey of England.  With us, she will be working out her destiny.  In our graveyard of state there are many secrets of which the public never knows.  Here shall be one, though your heart shall exult in its possession.  Dear lady, may we not conspire together ­for the ultimate good of three republics, making of them two noble ones, later to dwell in amity?  Shall we not hope to see all this continent swept free of monarchy, held free, for the peoples of the world?”

For an instant, no more, she sat and pondered.  Suddenly she bestowed upon him a smile whose brilliance might have turned the head of another man.  Rising, she swept him a curtsey whose grace I have not seen surpassed.

In return, Mr. Calhoun bowed to her with dignity and ease, and, lifting her hand, pressed it to his lips.  Then, offering her an arm, he led her to his carriage.  I could scarce believe my eyes and ears that so much, and of so much importance, had thus so easily been accomplished, where all had seemed so near to the impossible.

When last I saw my chief that day he was sunk in his chair, white to the lips, his long hands trembling, fatigue written all over his face and form; but a smile still was on his grim mouth.  “Nicholas,” said he, “had I fewer politicians and more women behind me, we should have Texas to the Rio Grande, and Oregon up to Russia, and all without a war!”