“Nicholas,” said Calhoun, turning to me suddenly, but with his invariable kindliness of tone, “oblige me to-night. I have written a message here. You will see the address—”
“I have unavoidably heard this lady’s name,” I hesitated.
“You will find the lady’s name above the seal. Take her this message from me. Yes, your errand is to bring the least known and most talked of woman in Washington, alone, unattended save by yourself, to a gentleman’s apartments, to his house, at a time past the hour of midnight! That gentleman is myself! You must not take any answer in the negative.”
As I sat dumbly, holding this sealed document in my hand, he turned to Doctor Ward, with a nod toward myself.
“I choose my young aide, Mr. Trist here, for good reasons. He is just back from six months in the wilderness, and may be shy; but once he had a way with women, so they tell me—and you know, in approaching the question ad feminam we operate per hominem.”
Doctor Ward took snuff with violence as he regarded me critically.
“I do not doubt the young man’s sincerity and faithfulness,” said he. “I was only questioning one thing.”
Calhoun rubbed his chin. “Nicholas,” said he, “you heard me. I have no wish to encumber you with useless instructions. Your errand is before you. Very much depends upon it, as you have heard. All I can say is, keep your head, keep your feet, and keep your heart!”
The two older men both turned now, and smiled at me in a manner not wholly to my liking. Neither was this errand to my liking.
It was true, I was hardly arrived home after many months in the West; but I had certain plans of my own for that very night, and although as yet I had made no definite engagement with my fiancee, Miss Elisabeth Churchill, of Elmhurst Farm, for meeting her at the great ball this night, such certainly was my desire and my intention. Why, I had scarce seen Elisabeth twice in the last year.
“How now, Nick, my son?” began my chief. “Have staff and scrip been your portion so long that you are wholly wedded to them? Come, I think the night might promise you something of interest. I assure you of one thing—you will receive no willing answer from the fair baroness. She will scoff at you, and perhaps bid you farewell. See to it, then; do what you like, but bring her with you, and bring her here.
“You will realize the importance of all this when I tell you that my answer to Mr. Tyler must be in before noon to-morrow. That answer will depend upon the answer the Baroness von Ritz makes to me, here, to-night! I can not go to her, so she must come to me. You have often served me well, my son. Serve me to-night. My time is short; I have no moves to lose. It is you who will decide before morning whether or not John Calhoun is the next secretary of state. And that will decide whether or not Texas is to be a state.” I had never seen Mr. Calhoun so intent, so absorbed.