Mr. Polk himself stood apart, and plainly enough saw this little matter go forward. When Mr. Calhoun approached with the Baroness von Ritz upon his arm, Mr. Polk was too much politician to hesitate or to inquire. He knew that it was safe to follow where John Calhoun led! These two conversed for a few moments. Thus, I fancy, Helena von Ritz had her first and last acquaintance with one of our politicians to whom fate gave far more than his deserts. It was the fortune of Mr. Polk to gain for this country Texas, California and Oregon—not one of them by desert of his own! My heart has often been bitter when I have recalled that little scene. Politics so unscrupulous can not always have a John Calhoun, a Helena von Ritz, to correct, guard and guide.
After this the card of Helena von Ritz might well enough indeed been full had she cared further to dance. She excused herself gracefully, saying that after the honor which had been done her she could not ask more. Still, Washington buzzed; somewhat of Europe as well. That might have been called the triumph of Helena von Ritz. She felt it not. But I could see that she gloried in some other thing.
I approached her as soon as possible. “I am about to go,” she said. “Say good-by to me, now, here! We shall not meet again. Say good-by to me, now, quickly! My father and I are going to leave. The treaty for Oregon is prepared. Now I am done. Yes. Tell me good-by.”
“I will not say it,” said I. “I can not.”
She smiled at me. Others might see her lips, her smile. I saw what was in her eyes. “We must not be selfish,” said she. “Come, I must go.”
“Do not go,” I insisted. “Wait.”
She caught my meaning. “Surely,” she said, “I will stay a little longer for that one thing. Yes, I wish to see her again, Miss Elisabeth Churchill. I hated her. I wish that I might love her now, do you know? Would—would she let me—if she knew?”
“They say that love is not possible between women,” said I. “For my own part, I wish with you.”
She interrupted with a light tap of her fan upon my arm. “Look, is not that she?”
I turned. A little circle of people were bowing before Mr. Polk, who held a sort of levee at one side of the hall. I saw the tall young girl who at the moment swept a graceful curtsey to the president. My heart sprang to my mouth. Yes, it was Elisabeth! Ah, yes, there flamed up on the altar of my heart the one fire, lit long ago for her. So we came now to meet, silently, with small show, in such way as to thrill none but our two selves. She, too, had served, and that largely. And my constant altar fire had done its part also, strangely, in all this long coil of large events. Love—ah, true love wins and rules. It makes our maps. It makes our world.
Among all these distinguished men, these beautiful women, she had her own tribute of admiration. I felt rather than saw that she was in some pale, filmy green, some crepe of China, with skirts and sleeves looped up with pearls. In her hair were green leaves, simple and sweet and cool. To me she seemed graver, sweeter, than when I last had seen her. I say, my heart came up into my throat. All I could think was that I wanted to take her into my arms. All I did was to stand and stare.