John Calhoun looked at him for one long instant. He looked down then at his own thin, bloodless hands, his wasted limbs. Then he turned slowly and rested his arms on the table, his face resting in his hands. “My God!” I heard him groan.
To see my chief abused was a thing not in my nature to endure. I forgot myself. I committed an act whose results pursued me for many a year.
“Mr. Polk, sir,” said I, rising and facing him, “damn you, sir, you are not fit to untie Mr. Calhoun’s shoe! I will not see you offer him one word of insult. Quarrel with me if you like! You will gain no votes here now in any case, that is sure!”
Utterly horrified at this, Mr. Polk fumbled with his hat and cane, and, very red in the face, bowed himself out, still mumbling, Mr. Calhoun rising and bowing his adieux.
My chief dropped into his chair again. For a moment he looked at me directly. “Nick,” said he at length slowly, “you have divided the Democratic party. You split that party, right then and there.”
“Never!” I protested; “but if I did, ’twas ready enough for the division. Let it split, then, or any party like it, if that is what must hold it together! I will not stay in this work, Mr. Calhoun, and hear you vilified. Platforms!”
“Platforms!” echoed my chief. His white hand dropped on the table as he still sat looking at me. “But he will get you some time, Nicholas!” he smiled. “Jim Polk will not forget.”
“Let him come at me as he likes!” I fumed.
At last, seeing me so wrought up, Mr. Calhoun rose, and, smiling, shook me heartily by the hand.
“Of course, this had to come one time or another,” said he. “The split was in the wood of their proposed platform of bluff and insincerity. `What do the people say?’ asks Jim Polk. ‘What do they think?’ asks John Calhoun. And being now, in God’s providence; chosen to do some thinking for them, I have thought.”
He turned to the table and took up a long, folded document, which I saw was done in his cramped hand and with many interlineations. “Copy this out fair for me to-night, Nicholas,” said he. “This is our answer to the Aberdeen note. You have already learned its tenor, the time we met Mr. Pakenham with Mr. Tyler at the White House.”
I grinned. “Shall we not take it across direct to Mr. Blair for publication in his Globe?”
Mr. Calhoun smiled rather bitterly at this jest. The hostility of Blair to the Tyler administration was a fact rather more than well known.
“’Twill all get into Mr. Polk’s newspaper fast enough,” commented he at last. “He gets all the news of the Mexican ministry!”
“Ah, you think he cultivates the Dona Lucrezia, rather than adores her!”
“I know it! One-third of Jim Polk may be human, but the other two-thirds is politician. He will flatter that lady into confidences. She is well nigh distracted at best, these days, what with the fickleness of her husband and the yet harder abandonment by her old admirer Pakenham; so Polk will cajole her into disclosures, never fear. In return, when the time comes, he will send an army of occupation into her country! And all the while, on the one side and the other, he will appear to the public as a moral and lofty-minded man.”