“What’s wrong, Nicholas?” he asked. “Trouble of any kind?”
I presume that the harsh quality of my answer surprised him. He looked at me keenly.
“Tell me what’s up, my son,” said he.
“You know Miss Elisabeth Churchill—” I hesitated.
He nodded. “Yes,” he rejoined; “and damn you, sir! if you give that girl a heartache, you’ll have to settle with me!”
“Some one will have to settle with me!” I returned hotly.
“Tell me, then.”
So, briefly, I did tell him what little I knew of the events of the last hour. I told him of the shame and humiliation of it all. He pondered for a minute and asked me at length if I believed Miss Elisabeth suspected anything of my errand of the night before.
“How could she?” I answered. “So far as I can recollect I never mentioned the name of the Baroness von Ritz.”
Then, all at once, I did recollect! I did remember that I had mentioned the name of the baroness that very morning to Elisabeth, when the baroness passed us in the East Room! I had not told the truth—I had gone with a lie on my lips that very day, and asked her to take vows with me in which no greater truth ought to be heard than the simple truth from me to her, in any hour of the day, in any time of our two lives!
Doctor Ward was keen enough to see the sudden confusion on my face, but he made no comment beyond saying that he doubted not time would clear it all up; that he had known many such affairs.
“But mind you one thing,” he added; “keep those two women apart.”
“Then why do you two doddering old idiots, you and John Calhoun, with life outworn and the blood dried in your veins, send me, since you doubt me so much, on an errand of this kind? You see what it has done for me. I am done with John Calhoun. He may get some other fool for his service.”
“Where do you propose going, then, my friend?”
“West,” I answered. “West to the Rockies—”
Doctor Ward calmly produced a tortoise shell snuffbox from his left-hand waistcoat pocket, and deliberately took snuff. “You are going to do nothing of the kind,” said he calmly. “You are going to keep your promise to John Calhoun and to me. Believe me, the business in hand is vital. You go to Canada now in the most important capacity you have ever had.”
“I care nothing for that,” I answered bitterly.
“But you are the agent of your country. You are called to do your country’s urgent work. Here is your trouble over one girl. Would you make trouble for a million American girls—would you unsettle thousands and thousands of American homes because, for a time, you have known trouble? All life is only trouble vanquished. I ask you now to be a man; I not only expect it, but demand it of you!”
His words carried weight in spite of myself. I began to listen. I took from his hand the package, looked at it, examined it. Finally, as he sat silently regarding me, I broke the seal.