There was, I think, no other formal invitation for the Baroness von Ritz to speak; but now she arose, swept a curtsey first to Mr. Tyler and then to Mr. Pakenham and Mr. Calhoun.
“It is not to be expected, your Excellency and gentlemen,” said she, “that I can add anything of value here.” Her eyes were demurely downcast.
“We do not doubt your familiarity with many of these late events,” encouraged Mr. Tyler.
“True,” she continued, “the note of my Lord Aberdeen is to-day the property of the streets, and of this I have some knowledge. I can see, also, difficulty in its reception among the courageous gentlemen of America. But, as to any written communication from Mr. Van Zandt, there must be some mistake!”
“I was of the impression that you would have had it last night,” rejoined Pakenham, plainly confused; “in fact, that gentleman advised me to such effect.”
The Baroness Helena von Ritz looked him full in the face and only gravely shook her head. “I regret matters should be so much at fault,” said she.
“Then let me explain,” resumed Pakenham, almost angrily. “I will state—unofficially, of course—that the promises of Mr. Van Zandt were that her Majesty might expect an early end of the talk of the annexation of Texas to the United States. The greater power of England upon land or sea would assure that weak Republic of a great and enlightened ally—in his belief.”
“An ally!” broke out Mr. Calhoun. “And a document sent to that effect by the attache of Texas!” He smiled coldly. “Two things seem very apparent, Mr. President. First, that this gentle lady stands high in the respect of England’s ministry. Second, that Mr. Van Zandt, if all this were true, ought to stand very low in ours. I would say all this and much more, even were it a state utterance, to stand upon the records of this nation!”
“Sir,” interrupted Mr. Tyler, swiftly turning to Mr. Calhoun, “may I not ask you that it be left as a state utterance?”
Mr. Calhoun bowed with the old-time grace habitual to him, his hand upon his heart, but he made no answer. The real reason might have been read in the mottled face of Pakenham, now all the colors of the rainbow, as he looked from one to the other.
“Mr. Calhoun,” continued the president, “you know that the office of our secretary of state is vacant. There is no one living would serve in that office more wisely than yourself, no one more in accordance with my own views as to these very questions which are before us. Since it has come to that point, I offer you now that office, and do so officially. I ask your answer.”
The face of England’s minister now for the first time went colorless. He knew what this meant.
As for John Calhoun, he played with both of them as a cat would with a mouse, sneeringly superior. His answer was couched in terms suited to his own purposes. “This dignity, Mr. President,” said he, bowing deeply again, “so unexpected, so onerous, so responsible, is one which at least needs time for proper consideration. I must crave opportunity for reflection and for pondering. In my surprise at your sudden request, I find no proper answer ready.”