"And since then?"
"Since then I have told it to no one."
"Was there any one in the cafe you have spoken of who seemed to take any particular interest in you?"
Guy considered for a moment.
"There was a young lady from Vienna," he said, "who seemed to want to talk to me."
The two men exchanged glances.
"Madame has justified herself," the Duke murmured.
"She was trying to listen to what I was saying to the English girl—Mademoiselle Flossie, she called herself, and when she went away with her friends she threw me a note with two words on it—'prenez garde!' I know it struck me as being rather queer, because——"
He hesitated. The Duke nodded.
"Go on!" he said.
"Well, I may as well tell you everything," Guy continued, "even if it does sound rather like rot. All the time I was in Vienna and on the journey to Paris I fancied that I was being followed. I kept on seeing the same people, and a man who got in at Strasburg—I had seen him before at the hotel in Vienna—tried all he could to pal up to me. I hate Germans though, and I didn't like the look of the fellow, so I wouldn't have anything to say to him, though I feel sure he tipped the conductor to put him in my compartment. I gave him the slip at the railway station at Paris, but I'm almost sure I saw him that night at the Cafe Montmartre."
"Your story," Monsieur Grisson said quietly, "becomes more and more interesting. Monsieur le Duc here has hinted at some slight indiscretion of yours on the night of your arrival in Paris. I have some influence with the Government here, and I think I can promise you some very substantial help in return for the information you have given us. But I want you to turn your thoughts back to the night you spent by the railroad. Can you remember anything further about it, however trifling, which you have not told us?"
Guy leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment.
"By Jove," he declared, "there is something which I forgot altogether. Just before that little party in the railway saloon broke up the chap in the car who had been writing left his seat, and a loose page of paper fluttered through the window."
The two men leaned across the table almost simultaneously.
"What became of it?" the Duke asked sharply.
"I picked it up and put it in my pocket," Guy answered.
"Did you read it?" the Duke asked.
"I couldn't! It was in German!"
"Where is it now?" Monsieur Grisson demanded.
Guy reflected. The faces of the two men amazed him. It was as though great things depended upon his answer.
"It is with my pocketbook and my letter of credit. I remember that I kept it as a curiosity."
"A curiosity!" the Duke exclaimed. "You have it here?"
Guy shook his head.
"It is in my portmanteau!" he answered.
The faces of the two men betrayed their disappointment. They conversed for a few moments in rapid French. Then the Duke turned to Guy.
"You do not object to our sending a trusted person to look through your portmanteau!" he asked. "Monsieur Grisson and I are very curious about that sheet of paper."
"Certainly not," Guy answered. "But may I not have my luggage here?"
The Duke shook his head.
"Not yet," he said. "It would not be wise. We must give Monsieur Grisson time to arrange your little affair."
"I don't want to seem a nuisance," Guy continued, "but about my sister?"
"She has been assured of your safety," the Duke declared. "For the rest we will talk later in the day. Monsieur Grisson and I are going to the telephone. You will find Henri on the terrace."
A BODY FROM THE SEINE
"At the sport, my young friend," Henri murmured, from the depths of his basket chair, "I yield you without question supremacy. Your rude games, trials mostly of brute strength, do not interest me. Your horsemanship I must confess that I envy, and I fear that you are a better shot. But two things remain to me."
"Only two?" Guy murmured. "What unexampled modesty!"
"I can drive a racing automobile at eighty miles an hour, and with the foils I can play with you."
"I give you the first," Guy answered, "but I'm beginning to fancy myself a bit with the sticks. Let's have a bout!"
"My dear Guy," Henri exclaimed, "forgive me, but what a crude suggestion! The first breeze of the day is just coming up from the lake. Close your eyes as I do. Can't you catch the perfume of the roses and the late lilac? Exquisite. In half an hour you will see a new green in the woods there as the sun drops. This is silent joy. You would exchange it for vulgar movement."
"I don't see anything vulgar about fencing," Guy replied. "It's all right here, of course, but I'm getting stiff, and I haven't the appetite of a kitten. I should like a good hour's bout, a swim afterwards in the baths, and a rub down. Come on, Henri! It'll make us as fit as possible."
Henri shivered a little.
"My young friend," he murmured, "you move me to despair. How can an alliance between nations with such contrary ideals be possible? You would desert a beautiful scene like this to gain by vulgar exercise an appetite that you may eat. Can't you realize the crudeness of it? Yet I must remember that you are my guest," he added, striking the bell by his side. "Antoine shall prepare my linen clothes, and I will give you a lesson. Antoine," he added, half turning to the man-servant who stood by his elbow, "my black linen fencing-clothes and shoes in the dressing-room, and have the floor in the fencing-gallery sprinkled with sand."
The man bowed, and Henri slowly rose from his chair.
"Don't bother about it, you know, if you mind very much," Guy said. "Would you rather have a game of billiards, or a swim in the lake?"
Henri thrust his arm through his friend's.
"By no means," he answered. "If we are to do anything at all we will do the thing in which I excel. It feeds my vanity, which is good for me, for by disposition I am over-modest."
But they were not destined to fence that night, for on their way across the hall the Duke's own servant intercepted them.
"Monsieur le Duc," he announced, "desires to speak with Monsieur in the library."
Henri let go his friend's arm.
"I return to the terrace, mon ami," he said. "You can fetch me when my respected uncle has finished with you."
Monsieur le Duc and Monsieur Grisson were still together. Immediately the door was closed the former turned to Guy.
"Your luggage has been thoroughly searched," he announced, "by a trusty agent. The letter of credit is still there, but the paper of which you spoke is missing."
Guy looked a little incredulous.
"I know it was there the evening I left the hotel," he answered. "It was fastened to my letter of credit by an elastic band. The man you sent must have missed it."
The Duke shook his head.
"That," he said, "is impossible. The paper has been abstracted."
"But who could have known about it?" Guy protested.
"Monsieur Poynton," the Duke said, "we think it well—Monsieur Grisson and I—to take you a little further into our confidence. Has it occurred to you, I wonder, to appreciate the significance of what you saw on the railway in the forest of Pozen?"
"I'm afraid—not altogether," Guy answered.
"We assumed as much," the Duke said. "What you did see was this. You saw a meeting between the German Emperor and the Czar of Russia. It was marvellously well arranged, and except those interested you were probably the only witness. According to the newspapers they were never less than four hundred miles apart, but on the day in question the Emperor was reported to be confined to his room by a slight chill, and the Czar to be resting after a fatiguing journey. You understand that this meeting was meant to be kept a profound secret?"
"But why?" he asked. "Was there any special reason why they should not meet?"
"My young friend," the Duke answered gravely, "this meeting of which you were the only witness might, but for your chance presence there, have altered the destiny of Europe. Try how you will you cannot appreciate its far-reaching possibilities. I will endeavor to give you the bare outlines of the affair. Even you, I suppose, have observed or heard of the growing friendship between my country and yours, which has culminated in what is called the entente cordiale."
"Yes, I know as much as that," Guy admitted.
"This movement," the Duke said, "has been looked upon with growing distaste and disfavor in Russia. Russia is the traditional and inevitable enemy of your country. Russia had, I may go so far as to say, made up her mind for war with England very soon after her first reverses at the hands of Japan. I am telling you now what is a matter of common knowledge amongst diplomatists when I tell you that it was the attitude of my country—of France—which alone has stayed her hand."
"This is very interesting," Guy said, "even to me, who have never taken any interest in politics, but——"
"Wait! Russia, as I say, found us indisposed to back her in any quarrel with England. She turned then, of course, to Germany. We became aware, through our secret service, that something was on foot between the two countries. With our utmost vigilance we were unable to obtain any particulars. It is you, Monsieur Poynton, who have brought us the first information of a definite character."
Guy looked his amazement, but he said nothing.
"To you," the Duke continued, "a secret meeting between these two monarchs may not seem at all an astonishing thing. To us it is of the gravest political importance. Some sort of an understanding was arrived at between them. What was it? That sheet of paper which was once in your possession might very possibly contain the clue. Now you can appreciate its importance to us."
"What an ass I was not to take more care of it!" Guy muttered.
"There are other things to be considered," the Duke continued. "For the last month every dockyard in Germany has been working night and day, and we have authentic information as to a huge mobilization scheme which is already on foot. We might have wondered against whom these preparations were intended but for you. As it is, the English Government has been fully apprised of everything. Your magnificent fleet, under the pretext of seeing the Baltic Squadron safely on its way, has been gradually concentrated. From despatches to the German Ambassador which we have managed to intercept in England, we know that it is intended to raise a casus belli during the presence of the squadron in British waters. Quite unexpectedly, as it was hoped, Germany was to range herself on Russia's side and strike against England. We, Russia's nominal ally, have had no intimation of this whatever. We are apparently left to ourselves—ignored. Our friendship with your country has destroyed Russia's friendship for us. She relies no doubt on our neutrality, and she makes terms, doubtless absurdly favorable ones, with our ancient enemy. In the eyes of the world France is to be made to appear ridiculous. The German Empire is to be ruled from London, and the Emperor Wilhelm's known ambition is to be realized."
"It sounds," Guy admitted, "like a nightmare. I know you foreigners all think we English are a lot too cock-sure, but we have our own ideas, you know, about any attempt at invasion."
"I am afraid," the Duke said, "that when it comes to throwing a million men at different points of your coasts protected by a superb navy you might find yourselves unpleasantly surprised. But let that pass. Have I said enough to make you understand the importance of what you saw in the forest of Pozen? Good! Now I want you to understand this. In the interests of your country and mine it is most important that the fact of our knowledge of this meeting should be kept a profound secret."
"Yes," Guy said, "I understand that."
"Your presence there," the Duke continued, "created a certain amount of suspicion. You were watched to Paris by German spies, and if they had had the least idea of how much you had seen your life would not have been worth five minutes' purchase. As it is they are uneasy over your disappearance. There are at least a dozen men and women in Paris and England to-day who are searching for you! You are moderately safe here, but not altogether. I want to put them finally off the scent. I might, of course, put you into such confinement that detection would be impossible. I do not want to do that. You have rendered your own country and mine an immense service. I prefer to treat you as a gentleman and a man of honor, and to take you, as I hope you will see that I have done, into our entire confidence."
"Monsieur le Duc," Guy answered, "I can assure you that I appreciate all that you have said. I am willing to do exactly as you say."
"To-morrow morning's papers," the Duke said slowly, "will contain an account of the finding of your body in the Seine."
"My what!" Guy exclaimed.
"Your body! We are going to stab and drown you. Perhaps I should say we are going to discover you stabbed and drowned."
Guy half rose from his seat.
"I say——" he began.
"I need not explain, of course," the Duke continued, "that you will suffer by proxy. The whole affair has been carefully arranged by the commissioners of police.
"An account of your doings since you arrived in Paris will be given, which I fear may not flatter you, but you must remember that it is necessary to put our German friends completely off the scent, and in a month's time or so you will reappear, and everything will be contradicted."
"But my sister?" Guy exclaimed.
"Concerning your sister," the Duke continued, "we have further explanations, perhaps I should say apologies, to offer you at some future time. For the present—this only. She is now in Paris. She is to some extent in our confidence, and you shall see her within the next few days."
"And what are you going to do with me really?" Guy asked.
"You will remain here. Half the servants of the household have been dismissed, and every one who is not absolutely trustworthy has been got rid of. We are in close consultation with your English Cabinet, and the moment the time arrives for us to disclose our knowledge of these secrets you will be free to go where you please."
"Absolutely free?" Guy asked anxiously.
"Certainly!" the Duke answered. "The other little affair is cancelled by your present services. In fact, as regards that, you need not give yourself another moment's anxiety."
A small telephone which stood upon the table rang sharply. The Duke exchanged a few sentences and replaced the receiver. He turned to Guy.
"It is an affair of the tides," he said. "Your body was washed up this afternoon, six hours before time. It will be in the evening papers. Ah!"
The telephone rang again. This time it was Monsieur Grisson who was required. He listened for a moment or two with inscrutable countenance. Then he glanced at the clock.
"The Russian Ambassador," he said, replacing the receiver, "desires an immediate interview with me on a matter of the utmost importance—and the Russian Fleet has left the Baltic!"
THE INSOLENCE OF MADAME LA MARQUISE
Duncombe was passed from the concierge to a footman, and from a footman to a quietly dressed groom of the chambers, who brought him at last to Madame la Marquise. She gave him the tips of her fingers and a somewhat inquiring gaze.
"Sir George Duncombe, is it not?" she remarked. "I am not receiving this afternoon, but your message was so urgent. Forgive me, but it was not by any chance my husband whom you wished to see?"
"Your husband would have done as well, Madame," Duncombe answered bluntly, "but I learned that he was not at home. My visit is really to Miss Poynton. I should be exceedingly obliged if you would allow me the privilege of a few minutes' conversation with her."
The forehead of the Marquise was wrinkled with surprise. She stood amidst all the wonders of her magnificent drawing-room like a dainty Dresden doll—petite, cold, dressed to perfection. Her manner and her tone were alike frigid.
"But, Monsieur," she said, "that is wholly impossible. Mademoiselle is too thoroughly upset by the terrible news in the paper this morning. It is unheard of. Monsieur may call again if he is a friend of Mademoiselle Poynton's—say, in a fortnight."
"Marquise," he said, "it is necessary that I see Mademoiselle at once. I am the bearer of good news."
The Marquise looked at him steadily.
"Of good news, Monsieur?"
"But how can that be?"
"If Madame will give me the opportunity," he said, "I should only be too glad to explain—to Mademoiselle Poynton."
"If, indeed, it should be good news," the Marquise said slowly, "it were better broken gradually to Mademoiselle. I will take her a message."
"Permit me to see her, Marquise," he begged. "My errand is indeed important."
She shook her head.
"It is not," she said, "according to the convenances. Mademoiselle is under my protection. I have not the honor of knowing you, Monsieur."
Duncombe raised his eyebrows.
"But you remember calling at my house in Norfolk, and bringing Miss Poynton away," he said.
She stared at him calmly.
"The matter," she said, "has escaped my memory. I do not love your country, Monsieur, and my rare visits there do not linger in my mind."
"Your husband," he reminded her, "asked me to visit you here."
"My husband's friends," she replied, "are not mine."
The calm insolence of her manner towards him took him aback. He had scarcely expected such a reception.
"I can only apologize, Madame," he said with a bow, "for intruding. I will await your husband's return in the hall."
He bowed low, and turned to leave the room. He had almost reached the door before she stopped him.
He turned round. Her voice was different.
"Come and sit down here," she said, pointing to a sofa by her side.
He obeyed her, thoroughly amazed. She leaned back amongst the cushions and looked at him thoughtfully.
"How is it that you—an Englishman—speak French so well?" she asked.
"I lived in Paris for some years," he answered.
"Indeed! And yet you returned to—Norfolk, is it?"
"It is true, Madame!" he admitted.
"How droll!" she murmured. "Miss Poynton—she is an old friend of yours?"
"I am very anxious to see her, Madame!"
He hesitated. After all, his was no secret mission.
"I have reason to believe," he said, "that a mistake has been made in the identity of the body found in the Seine and supposed to be her brother's."
She gave a little start. It seemed to him that from that moment she regarded him with more interest.
"But that, Monsieur," she said, "is not possible."
She did not answer him for a moment. Instead she rang a bell.
A servant appeared almost immediately.
"Request Monsieur le Marquis to step this way immediately he returns," she ordered.
The man bowed and withdrew. The Marquise turned again to Duncombe.
"It is quite impossible!" she repeated. "Do you know who it was that identified—the young man?"
Duncombe shook his head.
"I know nothing," he said. "I saw the notice in the paper, and I have been to the Morgue with a friend."
"Were you allowed to see it?"
"No! For some reason or other we were not. But we managed to bribe one of the attendants, and we got the police description."
"This," Madame said, "is interesting. Well?"
"There was one point in particular in the description," Duncombe said, "and a very important one, which proved to us both that the dead man was not Guy Poynton."
"It is no secret, I presume?" she said. "Tell me what it was."
Duncombe hesitated. He saw no reason for concealing the facts.
"The height of the body," he said, "was given as five feet nine. Guy Poynton was over six feet."
The Marquise nodded her head slowly.
"And now," she said, "shall I tell you who it is who identified the body at the Morgue—apart from the papers which were found in his pocket, and which certainly belonged to Mr. Poynton?"
"I should be interested to know," he admitted.
"It was Miss Poynton herself. It is that which has upset her so. She recognized him at once."
"Are you sure of this, Madame?" Duncombe asked.
"I myself," the Marquise answered, "accompanied her there. It was terrible."
Duncombe looked very grave.
"I am indeed sorry to hear this," he said. "There can be no possibility of any mistake, then?"
"None whatever!" the Marquise declared.
"You will permit me to see her?" Duncombe begged. "If I am not a very old friend—I am at least an intimate one."
The Marquise shook her head.
"She is not in a fit state to see any one," she declared. "The visit to the Morgue has upset her almost as much as the affair itself. You must have patience, Monsieur. In a fortnight or three weeks at the earliest she may be disposed to see friends. Certainly not at present."
"I may send her a message?" Duncombe asked.
The Marquise nodded.
"Yes. You may write it, if you like."
"And I may wait for an answer?"
Duncombe scribbled a few lines on the back of a visiting-card. The Marquise took it from him and rose.
"I will return," she said. "You shall be entirely satisfied."
She left him alone for nearly ten minutes. She had scarcely left the room when another visitor entered. The Vicomte de Bergillac, in a dark brown suit and an apple-green tie, bowed to Duncombe, and carefully selected the most comfortable chair in his vicinity.
"So you took my advice, Monsieur," he remarked, helping himself to a cushion from another chair, and placing it behind his head.
"I admit it," Duncombe answered. "On the whole I believe that it was very good advice."
"Would you," the Vicomte murmured, "like another dose?"
"I trust," Duncombe said, "that there is no necessity."
The Vicomte reflected.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"To see Miss Poynton."
"And again why?"
Duncombe smiled. The boy's manner was so devoid of impertinence that he found it impossible to resent his questions.
"Well," he said, "I came hoping to bring Miss Poynton some good news. I had information which led me seriously to doubt whether the body which has been found in the Seine is really her brother's."
The Vicomte sat up as though he had been shot.
"My friend," he said slowly, "I take some interest in you, but, upon my word, I begin to believe that you will end your days in the Morgue yourself. As you value your life, don't tell any one else what you have told me. I trust that I am the first."
"I have told the Marquise," Duncombe answered, "and she has gone to find out whether Miss Poynton will see me."
The Vicomte's patent boot tapped the floor slowly.
"You have told the Marquise," he repeated thoughtfully. "Stop! I must think!"
There was a short silence. Then the Vicomte looked up.
"Very well," he said. "Now listen! Have you any confidence in me?"
"Undoubtedly," Duncombe answered. "The advice you gave me before was, I know, good. It was confirmed a few hours following, and, as you know, I followed it."
"Then listen," the Vicomte said. "L'affaire Poynton is in excellent hands. The young lady will come to no harm. You are here, I know, because you are her friend. You can help her if you will."
"How?" Duncombe asked.
"By leaving Paris to-day."
"Your advice," Duncombe said grimly, "seems to lack variety."
The Vicomte shrugged his shoulders.
"The other affair," he said; "is still open. If I stepped to the telephone here you would be arrested within the hour."
"Can't you leave the riddles out and talk so that an ordinary man can understand you for a few minutes?" Duncombe begged.
"It is exactly what remains impossible," the Vicomte answered smoothly. "But you know the old saying, you have doubtless something similar in your own country, 'It is from our friends we suffer most.' Your presence here, your—forgive me—somewhat clumsy attempts to solve this affaire Poynton, are likely to be a cause of embarrassment to the young lady herself and to others. Apart from that, it will certainly cost you your life."
"Without some shadow of an explanation," Duncombe said calmly, "I remain where I am in case I can be of assistance to Miss Poynton."
The young man shrugged his shoulders, and sauntering to a mirror rearranged his tie. Madame la Marquise entered.
"You, Henri!" she exclaimed.
He bowed low with exaggerated grace, and kissed the tips of her fingers.
"I!" he answered. "And—for this time with a perfectly legitimate reason for my coming. A commission from my uncle."
"Exactly, dear cousin."
"But why," she asked, "did they not show you into my room?"
"I learnt that my friend Sir George Duncombe was here, and I desired to see him," he rejoined.
She shrugged her dainty shoulders.
"You will wait!" she directed. Then she turned to Duncombe, and handed him a sealed envelope.
"If you please," she said, "will you read that—now."
He tore it open, and read the few hasty lines. Then he looked up, and met the Marquise's expectant gaze.
"Madame," he said slowly, "does this come from Miss Poynton of her own free will?"
She laughed insolently.
"Monsieur," she said, "my guests are subject to no coercion in this house."
He bowed, and turned towards the door.
"Your answer, Monsieur?" she called out.
"There is no answer," he replied.
THE INTERVIEWING OF PHYLLIS
THE Marquise made a wry face at his departing figure, which changed swiftly into a smile as she turned to the young Vicomte.
"Ah, these Englishmen!" she exclaimed. "These dull, good, obstinate, stupid pigs of Englishmen! If they would lose their tempers once—get angry, anything. Do they make love as coldly, I wonder?"
"Dear cousin," he answered, "I do not know. But if you will permit me I will show you——"
"You are so adorable, Angele," he murmured.
"And you," she answered, "are so indiscreet. It is not your day, and I am expecting Gustav at any moment, I have left word that he is to be shown up here. There, my hand for one moment, not so roughly, sir. And now tell me why you came."
"On a diplomatic errand, my dear cousin. I must see Miss Poynton."
She touched a bell.
"I will send for her," she said. "I shall not let you see her alone. She is much too good-looking, and you are far too impressionable!"
He looked at her reproachfully.
"Angele," he said, "you speak so of a young English miss—to me, Henri de Bergillac—to me who have known—who knows——"
She interrupted him laughing. The exaggerated devotion of his manner seemed to amuse her.
"My dear Henri!" she said. "I do not believe that even a young English miss is safe from you. But attend! She comes."
Phyllis entered the room and came towards them. She was dressed in black, and she was still pale, but her eyes and mouth were wholly without affinity to the class of young person whom Henri had expected to see. He rose and bowed, and Phyllis regarded him with frank interest.
"Phyllis," the Marquise said, "this is the Vicomte de Bergillac, and he brings you messages from some one or other. Your affairs are quite too complicated for my little head. Sit down and let him talk to you."
"If Monsieur le Vicomte has brought me messages from the right person," Phyllis said with a smile, "he will be very welcome. Seriously, Monsieur, I seem to have fallen amongst friends here whose only unkindness is an apparent desire to turn my life into a maze. I hope that you are going to lead me out."
"I can conceive, Mademoiselle," the Vicomte answered with his hand upon his heart, "no more delightful undertaking."
"Then I am quite sure," she answered, laughing softly, "that we are both going to be very happy. Please go on!"
"Mademoiselle speaks delightful French," he murmured, a little surprised.
"And, Monsieur, I can see," she answered, "is an apt flatterer. Afterwards as much as you please. But now—well, I want to hear about Guy."
"Mademoiselle has commanded," he said with a little gesture. "To proceed then. Monsieur Guy is well, and is my constant companion. He is with friends who wish him well, and this morning, Mademoiselle, the President himself has given written orders to the police to proceed no further in the unfortunate little affair of which Mademoiselle has knowledge."
Phyllis had lost all her pallor. She smiled delightfully upon him. Madame la Marquise rose with a little impatient movement, and walked to the further end of the room.
"How nice of you to come and tell me this," she exclaimed, "and what a relief! I am sure I think he is very fortunate to have made such good friends."
"Mademoiselle," he declared with emphasis, "one at least of those friends is more than repaid."
She laughed back into his eyes, frankly amused by his gallantry.
"And now," she said, "we come to the beginning of the riddles. Why is it necessary for him to be supposed drowned, if he is no longer in danger from the police?"
"Ah, Mademoiselle," he said, "I must speak to you now of strange things. But, first, I must implore you to promise me this, and remember it always. Every word that I am going to say to you now must remain for the present a profound secret. That is agreed?"
"Certainly!" she answered.
"Your brother," he continued, "in his travels on the Continent stumbled by chance upon a State secret of international importance. He had himself no idea of it, but a chance word which he let fall, on the first evening I met him, gave the clue to myself and some friends. In his enforced retirement we—that is, my uncle and others—learned from him the whole story of his adventure. It has placed the Government of this country under great obligations. This, together with your service to us, has secured his pardon."
"This is wonderful!" she murmured.
"It is not all," he continued. "The spies of the country where he learnt this secret have followed him to Paris. They are to-day searching for him everywhere. If they knew that he realized the importance of what he had seen, and had communicated it to the proper persons here, our advantage in knowing it would be largely lost. So far they have not traced him. Now, I think that you have the key to what must have puzzled you so much."
"This is wonderful!" she murmured. "Let me think for a moment."
"You are naturally anxious," the Vicomte continued, "to see your brother. Before very long, Mademoiselle, I trust that it may be my pleasure to bring you together. But when I tell you that you are watched continually in the hope that, through you, your brother's hiding-place may be found, you will understand the wisdom which for the present keeps you apart."
"I suppose so," she answered dubiously. "But now that his death is reported?"
"Exactly, Mademoiselle. The affair has been arranged so that the search for your brother will be abandoned and the espionage on you removed. If the story of his doings in Paris, and the tragic sequel to them, be believed by those whom we wish to believe it, then they will also assume that his secret has died with him, and that their schemes move on towards success. You understand?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Vicomte, I understand," she answered slowly. "What, then, do you wish me to do?"
"Mademoiselle," the Vicomte answered, fixing his dark eyes impressively upon her, "for you there remains the hardest of all tasks—inaction. Believe me that when I came here, it was not my intention to put the truth of the matter so plainly before you. Neither was it the will of those whose orders I carry out. But I, Mademoiselle, before all things, I believe in inspiration. I find in Mademoiselle"—he bowed once more—"qualities which alter the situation. I—a judge of faces as I venture to believe myself—have looked into yours, and many things have happened."
She laughed delightfully. Her eyes were lit with humor.
"Ah, Monsieur!" she protested.
"With you, Mademoiselle," he continued, "reposes now a secret of great importance to your country and mine. I ask for no pledge of discretion, but I rely upon it. And, especially, Mademoiselle, may I warn you against your friends?"
"I understand," she answered. "You wish me to share this confidence with no one."
"With no one," the Vicomte repeated impressively. "Not even, Mademoiselle, if I may venture to mention a name, with your very persistent admirer, Sir George Duncombe, whom I saw here a few moments since."
She sighed, and the Vicomte's face became one of pale anxiety.
"I have not been permitted to see him," she answered. "He was here a few minutes ago."
"It is wiser so, Mademoiselle," the Vicomte said. "I wonder," he added, "whether Mademoiselle will pardon the impertinence of a purely personal question?"
"I will try," she answered demurely.
"This Englishman—Sir George Duncombe—are you perhaps—how you say, betrothed to him?"
A certain bluntness in the question, and the real or affected anxiety of the young man's tone brought the color streaming into her cheeks.
"Monsieur," she exclaimed, "you really must not——"
"Ah, but, Mademoiselle," he interrupted, "so much depends upon your answer."
"Absurd!" she murmured. "I really do not see why I should answer such a question at all."
"You will be merciful?" he begged, lowering his tone.
"I will," she answered. "I hope you will appreciate my confidence. I am not engaged to Sir George Duncombe."
His sigh of relief was marvellous. She found it harder than ever to keep the laughter from her eyes.
"Mademoiselle," he declared, "it makes me happy to have you say this."
"Really, Vicomte!" she protested.
"The situation, too," he said, "becomes less complex. We can very easily deal with him now. He shall annoy you no more!"
"But he doesn't annoy me," she answered calmly. "On the contrary I should like to see him very much, if I were permitted."
"Mademoiselle will understand well the indiscretion," he said earnestly.
She sighed a little wearily.
"I am afraid," she said, "that I find it a little hard to understand anything clearly, but you see that I trust you. I will not see him."
"Mademoiselle is very wise," he answered. "Indeed, it is better not. There remains now a question which I have come to ask."
"Mademoiselle did not by chance whilst waiting for her brother think of examining his luggage?"
"I did look through it," she admitted.
"There was a paper there, which is missing now—a sheet of paper with writing on it—in German. It is not possible that Mademoiselle took possession of it?" he demanded eagerly.
"That is just what I did do," she said. "I could read a few words, and I could not understand how it came to be in his bag. It seemed to be part of an official agreement between two countries."
"You have it now?" he cried eagerly. "You have it in your possession?"
She shook her head
"I gave it to some one to take care of," she said, "when I was over in England. I got frightened when we were nearly caught at Runton, and I did not want it to be found upon me."
"To whom?" he cried.
"To Sir George Duncombe!"
The Vicomte was silent for a moment.
"You believe," he asked, "that Sir George Duncombe would guard it carefully?"
"I am sure he would," she answered.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "this is very important. Your brother's luggage has been searched, and we came to the conclusion that the paper had been taken by those who had followed him here, and may possibly have been aware that he had it. If we can get possession of it, it will be very much to the advantage of your country and mine. I scarcely dare say more. Will you give me a letter to Sir George instructing him to deliver it up to me?"
She leaned a little forward and looked steadily into his eyes.
"Monsieur le Vicomte," she said, "I do not know you very well, and it is very hard indeed for me to tell who are my friends here. Can I trust you?"
"Mademoiselle," he answered, "I will not say 'like your brother,' for it is a relationship I have no wish to bear. Let me say like the person to whom your welfare is dearer even than his own."
Phyllis felt her lips curve into a smile. Despite his youth and manner, which seemed to her a little affected, there was nevertheless undoubted earnestness in the admiration which he took no pains to conceal.
"Very well, Monsieur le Vicomte," she said, "I will give you the letter."
THE BLUNDERING OF ANDREW
They came face to face in the hall of the Grand Hotel. Duncombe had just returned from his call upon the Marquise. Andrew was leaning upon the arm of a dark, smooth-shaven man, and had apparently just descended from the lift. At the sound of Duncombe's little exclamation they both stopped short. Andrew turned his heavily spectacled eyes in Duncombe's direction, but it was obvious that he saw nothing.
"You here, Andrew!"
"Yes! Why not?"
The tone was curt, almost discourteous. Duncombe understood at once.
"Let us sit down somewhere, and talk for a few minutes," he said. "I did not expect you. You should have let me know that you were coming."
Andrew laughed a little bitterly.
"I scarcely see why," he said. "To tell you the truth, I see no advantage to either of us in any intercourse."
Duncombe took him by the arm and led him towards the smoking-room.
"Andrew," he said, "perhaps I have behaved badly—at least from your point of view, but remember that I warned you. Let us sit down here. Who is your friend?"
"Never mind," Andrew answered. "You can say what you have to before him. He is in my confidence."
Duncombe glanced around. The man had taken the chair next to them, and was evidently prepared to listen to all that was said. His clothes and bearing, and quiet, unobtrusive manners, all seemed to suggest truthfully enough his possible identity—an English detective from an advertised office. Duncombe smiled as he realized the almost pitiful inadequacy of such methods.
"Come, Andrew," he said, turning to his friend, "you have a small grievance against me, and you think you have a great one."
"A small grievance!" Andrew murmured softly. "Thank you, Duncombe."
"Go on, then. State it!" Duncombe declared. "Let me hear what is in your mind."
Andrew raised his brows slowly. Twice he seemed to speak, but at the last moment remained silent. He was obviously struggling to control himself.
"There is this in my mind against you, Duncombe," he said finally. "I sent for you as a friend. You accepted a charge from me—as my friend. And you betrayed me."
Duncombe shook his head.
"Listen, Andrew," he said. "I want to remind you again of what I said just now. I warned you! No, don't interrupt. It may have sounded like nonsense to you. I meant every word I said. I honestly tried to make you understand. I came here; I risked many things. I failed! I returned to England. Up till then you had nothing to complain of. Then, Heaven knows why, but the very girl whom I had gone to Paris to seek came to Runton in the guise at least of an adventuress."
Andrew lifted his head quickly.
"You admit it at last, then?" he cried.
"Yes, I admit it now," Duncombe agreed.
"You lied to me there—to me who had no eyes, who trusted you. What was that but betrayal, rank, inexcusable betrayal!"
"Listen, Andrew," Duncombe said. "She told me that she was not Phyllis Poynton. It was enough for me. I disregarded my convictions. Her word was my law. She said that she was not Phyllis Poynton, and to me she never was Phyllis Poynton. She was afraid of you, and I helped her to avoid you. I admit it! It is the extent of my failing in our friendship, and you were warned."
"I am here now," Duncombe said a little sadly, "because I love her, and because I cannot keep away. But she will not see me, and I am no nearer solving the mystery than ever. On the contrary, I know that I am in danger here. It is possible that I may be driven to leave Paris to-night."
"You know where she is now?"
Andrew leaned suddenly over, and his grip was on Duncombe's shoulder like a vise.
"Then, by God, you shall tell me!" he said fiercely. "Don't you know, man, that Guy has been found in the Seine, robbed and drugged, and murdered without a doubt? Do you want me to wait whilst something of the same sort happens to her? You shall tell me where she is, Duncombe. I say that you shall tell me!"
"You can do no more than I have done," he said.
"Then at least I will do as much," Andrew answered. "I am her oldest friend, and I have claims upon her which you never could have. Now that she is in this terrible trouble my place is by her side. I——"
"One moment, Andrew," Duncombe interrupted. "Are you sure that it was Guy Poynton who was found in the Seine? The height was given as five feet nine, and Guy Poynton was over six feet."
"You should read the papers," Andrew answered shortly. "He was identified by his sister."
"The papers said so," Duncombe answered hesitatingly; "but——"
"Look here," Andrew interrupted, "I have had enough of this playing with facts. You have grown too complex about this business altogether, Duncombe. Give me Phyllis Poynton's address."
"You shall have it," Duncombe answered, taking a leaf from his pocketbook and writing. "I don't think that it will be any good to you. I think that it is more likely to lead you into trouble. Miss Poynton is with the Marquis and Marquise de St. Ethol. They are of the first nobility in France. Their position as people of honor and circumstance appears undoubted. But nevertheless, if you are allowed to see her I shall be surprised."
The hall-porter approached them, hat in hand.
"A lady to see Monsieur," he announced to Andrew.
Andrew rose and took his companion's arm. He scarcely glanced again towards Duncombe, who followed them out of the room. And there in the hall awaiting them was the young lady from Vienna, quietly dressed in black, but unmistakable with her pretty hair and perfumes. Duncombe watched them shake hands and move away before he could recover sufficiently from his first fit of surprise to intervene. Then a realization of what had happened rushed in upon him. They, too, then, had been to the Cafe Montmartre, with their obvious Anglicisms, their clumsy inquiries—to make of themselves without doubt the jest of that little nest of intriguers, and afterwards their tool. Duncombe thought of the fruits of his own inquiries there, and shivered. He hurried after the little party, who were apparently on their way to the cafe.
"Andrew," he said, grasping him by the arm, "I must speak with you alone—at once."
"I see no object in any further discussion between us," Andrew said calmly.
"Don't be a fool!" Duncombe answered. "That woman you are with is a spy. If you have anything to do with her you are injuring Phyllis Poynton. She is not here to give you information. She is at work for her own ends."
"You are becoming more communicative, my friend," Andrew said, with something which was almost a sneer. "You did not talk so freely a few minutes back. It seems as though we were on the eve of a discovery."
"You are on the brink of making an idiot of yourself," Duncombe answered quickly. "You were mad to bring that blundering English detective over here. What the French police cannot or do not choose to discover, do you suppose that they would allow an Englishman to find out—a stranger to Paris, and with an accent like that? If I cannot keep you from folly by any other means I must break my word to others. Come back into the smoking-room with me, and I will tell you why you are mad to have anything to do with that woman."
"Thank you," Andrew answered, "I think not. I have confidence in Mr. Lloyd, my friend here, and I have none in you."
"I speak as I feel!"
"Leave me out of the question. It is Phyllis Poynton you will harm. I see that your friend is listening, and Mademoiselle is impatient. Make your excuses for ten minutes, Andrew. You will never regret it."
The detective, who had evidently overheard everything, stepped back to them.
"You will excuse my interfering, sir," he said, "but if this case is to remain in my hands at all it is necessary for me to hear all that Sir George Duncombe has to say. The young lady will wait for a moment. This case is difficult enough as it is, what with the jealousy of the French police, who naturally don't want us to find out what they can't. If Sir George Duncombe has any information to give now," the man added with emphasis, "which he withheld a few minutes ago, I think that I ought to hear it from his own lips."
"I agree entirely with what Mr. Lloyd has said," Andrew declared.
Duncombe shrugged his shoulders. He looked around him cautiously, but they were in a corner of the entresol, and no one was within hearing distance.
"Very well," he said. "To save you from danger, and Miss Poynton from further trouble, I am going to break a confidence which has been reposed in me, and to give you the benefit of my own surmises. In the first place, Mr. Lloyd is mistaken in supposing that the French police have been in the least puzzled by this double disappearance. On the contrary, they are perfectly well aware of all the facts of the case, and could have produced Miss Poynton or her brother at any moment. They are working not for us, but against us!"
"Indeed!" Mr. Lloyd said in a tone of disbelief. "And their object?"
"Here is as much of the truth as I dare tell you," Duncombe said. "Guy Poynton whilst on the Continent became the chance possessor of an important State secret. He was followed to France by spies from that country—we will call it Germany—and the young lady who awaits you so impatiently is, if not one of them, at least one of their friends. At the Cafe Montmartre he gave his secret away to people who are in some measure allied with the secret service police of France. He was kidnapped by them, and induced to remain hidden by a trick. Meanwhile diplomacy makes use of his information, and foreign spies look for him in vain. His sister, when she came to search for him, was simply an inconvenience which these people had not contemplated. She was worked upon by fears concerning her brother's safety to go into hiding. Both have been well cared for, and the report of Guy's death is, I firmly believe, nothing but an attempt to lull the anxieties of the spies who are searching for him. This young woman here may be able to tell you into whose hands he has fallen, but you may take my word for it that she is in greater need of information than you are, and that she is an exceedingly dangerous person for you to discuss the Poyntons with. There are the crude facts. I have only known them a few hours myself, and there is a good deal which I cannot explain. But this I honestly and firmly believe. Neither you nor I nor Mr. Lloyd here can do the slightest good by interfering in this matter. For myself, I am leaving for England to-night."
Duncombe, like most honest men, expected to be believed. If he had entertained the slightest doubt about it he would not have dared to open his mouth. The silence that followed he could understand. No doubt they were as amazed as he had been. But it was a different thing when he saw the expression on Andrew's face as he turned to his companion.
"What do you think of this, Lloyd?" he asked.
"I am afraid, sir," the man answered, "that some of the clever ones have been imposing upon Sir George. It generally turns out so when amateurs tackle a job like this."
Duncombe looked at him in astonishment.
"Do you mean to say that you don't believe me?" he exclaimed.
"I wouldn't put it like that, sir," the man answered with a deprecating smile. "I think you have been misled by those who did not wish you to discover the truth."
Duncombe turned sharply on his heel.
"And you, Andrew?"
"I wish to do you justice," Andrew answered coldly, "and I am willing to believe that you have faith yourself in the extraordinary story you have just told us. But frankly I think that you have been too credulous."
Duncombe lost his temper. He turned on his heel, and walked back into the hotel.
"You can go to the devil your own way!" he declared.
SPENCER GETS HIS CHANCE
Spencer tried to rise from the sofa, but the effort was too much for him. Pale and thin, with black lines under his eyes, and bloodless lips, he seemed scarcely more than the wreck of his former self.
His visitor laid his stick and hat upon the table. Then he bowed once more to Spencer, and stood looking at him, leaning slightly against the table.
"I am permitted," he asked gently, "to introduce myself?"
"Quite unnecessary!" Spencer answered.
The Baron shrugged his shoulders.
"You know me?" he asked.
The shadow of a smile flitted across Spencer's face.
"By many names, Monsieur Louis," he answered.
His visitor smiled. Debonair in dress and deportment, there seemed nothing to inspire alarm in the air of gentle concern with which he regarded the man whom he had come to visit. Yet Spencer cursed the languor which had kept him from recovering the revolver which an hour or more before had slipped from underneath his cushion.
"It saves trouble," Monsieur Louis said. "I come to you. Monsieur Spencer, as a friend."
"You alarm me," Spencer murmured.
Monsieur Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"You are pleased to be witty," he answered. "But indeed I am no such terrible person. It is permitted that I smoke?"
"Certainly," Spencer answered. "If you care for wine or liqueurs pray ring for my servant. I can assure you that it is not by my own will that you find me so indifferent a host."
"I thank you," Monsieur Louis answered. "I think that we will not ring the bell. It would be a pity to disturb an interview to which I have looked forward with so much pleasure."
"L'affaire Poynton?" Spencer suggested.
"You have perhaps come to complete the little affair in which so far you have succeeded so admirably?"
"Pray do not suggest such a thing," Monsieur Louis answered deprecatingly. "For one thing I should not personally run the risk. And for another have I not already assured you that I come as a friend?"
"It was then," Spencer answered, "that I began to be frightened."
Monsieur Louis smiled. He drew a gold cigarette case from his pocket, and calmly lit a cigarette.
"Since you permit, mon ami," he said. "Good! I speak better when I smoke. You are not so ill, I see, but that you retain that charming sense of humor your readers have learnt so well how to appreciate."
"The dose was scarcely strong enough," Spencer answered. "Or perhaps by good fortune I stumbled upon the proper antidote."
"I see that you like plain speaking," Monsieur Louis continued with a gentle smile. "Permit me to assure you then that the dose was quite as strong as we wished. Extremes are sometimes necessary, but we avoid them whenever possible."
"I wonder where it happened," Spencer said reflectively. "I have been on my guard all the time. I have watched my wine and coffee at the cafes, and I have eaten only in the restaurants that I know."
Monsieur Louis did not seem to think the matter important.
"It was bound to happen," he said. "If you had been like your friends—the English baronet and the last two, who are even more amusing—perhaps it would not have been necessary. But you understand—you were beginning to discover things."
"Yes," Spencer admitted. "I was beginning to get interested."
"Exactly! We were forced to act. I can assure you, Monsieur Spencer, that it was with reluctance. The others of whom I have spoken—Sir George Duncombe, Monsieur Pelham, and his toy detective—forgive me that I smile—walk all the time in the palm of our hand. But they remain unharmed. If by any chance they should blunder into the knowledge of things which might cause us annoyance, why, then—there would be more invalids in Paris. Indeed, Monsieur, we do not seek to abuse our power. My errand to you to-day is one of mercy."
"You make me ashamed," Spencer said, with a sarcasm which he took no pains to conceal, "of my unworthy suspicions. To proceed."
"You have sent for Sir George Duncombe to come and see you!"
Spencer was silent for a moment. His own servant unfaithful? It was not possible.
"Even you," the Baron continued, "have not yet solved the mystery of l'affaire Poynton. But you know more than Sir George. Let me recommend that you do not share your knowledge with him."
"If you do Sir George will at once share your indisposition."
"I begin to understand," Spencer said.
"How otherwise? Send Sir George home. You see the delicacy of our position. It is not so much that we fear Sir George Duncombe's interference, but he again is followed and watched over by our enemies, who would easily possess themselves of any information which he might gain."
"It is good reasoning," he admitted.
"Listen," Monsieur Louis continued. "I speak now on behalf of my friends. You know whom I mean. You have solved the mystery of our existence. We are omnipotent. The police and the secret service police and the Government itself are with us. We have license throughout the city. We may do what others may not. For us there is no crime. I kill you now perhaps. The police arrive. I am before the Commissioner. I give him the sign—it is l'affaire Poynton. I go free! It is a certain thing."
"Granted!" Spencer said. "Proceed with your killing, or your argument."
"With the latter, if you please," Monsieur Louis answered. "I do not choose to kill. L'affaire Poynton, then. Harm is not meant to either of these young people. That I assure you upon my honor. In three weeks, or say a month, we have finished. They may return to their homes if they will. We have no further interest in them. For those three weeks you must remain as you are—you, and if you have influence over him, Sir George Duncombe. The other two fools we have no care for. If they blundered into knowledge—well, they must pay. They are not our concern, yours and mine. For you, I bring you an offer, Monsieur Spencer."
"Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes!" Spencer murmured.
Monsieur Louis smiled.
"My gift," he answered, "will not terrify you. You are a journalist. I offer to make the fortune of your paper. You shall be the first to announce an affair of the greatest international importance since the war between Russia and Japan was declared. No, I will go further than that. It is the greatest event since Waterloo."
"L'affaire Poynton strikes so deep?" Spencer remarked.
"So deep," the Baron answered. "It is the fools who grope their way into great places. So did the boy Poynton. You, my friend, shall be the one brilliant exception. You shall make yourself the king of journalists, and you shall be quoted down the century as having achieved the greatest journalistic feat of modern days."
Spencer turned his drawn, haggard face towards his visitor. A slight flush of color stained his cheek.
"You fascinate me," he said slowly. "I admit it. You have found the weak spot in my armor. Proceed! For whom do you speak?"
Monsieur Louis abandoned his somewhat lounging attitude. He stood by Spencer's side, and, leaning down, whispered in his ear. Spencer's eyes grew bright.
"Monsieur Louis," he said, "you play at a great game."
The Baron shrugged his shoulders.
"Me!" he answered. "I am but a pawn. I do what I am told."
"To return for a moment to l'affaire Poynton," Spencer said. "I am in the humor to trust you. Have I then your assurance that the boy and girl do not suffer?"
"Upon my own honor and the honor of the company to whom I belong," he answered with some show of dignity. "It is a pledge which I have never yet broken."
"I am a bribed man," Spencer answered.
Monsieur Louis threw away his second cigarette. He cast a look almost of admiration upon the man who still lay stretched upon the couch.
"You are the only Englishman I ever met, Monsieur Spencer," he said, "who was not pig-headed. You have the tenacity of your countrymen, but you have the genius to pick out the right thread from the tangle, to know truth when you meet it, even in unlikely places. I doff my hat to you, Monsieur Spencer. If you permit I will send my own physician to you. You will be yourself in a week."
"You know the antidote?" Spencer remarked grimly.
"Naturally! Accidents will happen. You wish that I should send him?"
"Without doubt," Spencer answered. "I am weary of this couch."
"You shall leave it in a week," Monsieur promised, as he left the room.
Spencer closed his eyes. Already he felt coming on the daily headache, which, with the terrible weakness, was a part of his symptoms. But there was no rest for him yet. Monsieur Louis had scarcely been gone five minutes when Duncombe arrived.
Duncombe had had no word of his friend's illness. He stood over his couch in shocked surprise.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed. "I had no idea that you were ill. This is why I have not heard from you, then."
Spencer smiled as he held out his hand, and Duncombe, who seemed to catch some meaning in the upraised eyebrows of his friend, was shocked.
"You mean?" he exclaimed.
"L'affaire Poynton" he said gently. "A very subtle dose of poison indeed, my friend. I shall not die, but I have had my little lesson. Here the individual has little chance. We fight against forces that are too many for us. I told you so at the start."
"Yet I," Duncombe answered, "have not suffered."
"My friend," Spencer answered, "it is because I am the more dangerous."
"You have discovered something?" Duncombe exclaimed.
"I came near discovering a great deal," Spencer answered. "Perhaps it would have been better for my system if I had discovered a little less. As it is I have finished with l'affaire Poynton for the present. You see how very nearly l'affaire Poynton finished me."
"It is not like you," Duncombe said thoughtfully, "to give anything up."
"We come face to face sometimes with unique experiences, which destroy precedent," Spencer answered. "This is one of them."
"And what," Duncombe asked, "do you advise me to do?"
"Always the same advice," Spencer answered. "Leave Paris to-day. Go straight back to Norfolk, read the newspapers, and await events."
"Well, I think that I shall do so," Duncombe answered slowly. "I have found out where Miss Poynton is, but she will not see me. I have made an enemy of my dearest friend, and I have, at any rate, interrupted your career and endangered your life. Yes, I will go back home."
"You may yet save your friend some—inconvenience," Spencer suggested. "Try to persuade him to go back with you."
"He will not listen to me," Duncombe answered. "He has brought an English detective with him, and he is as obstinate as a mule. For myself I leave at nine o'clock."
"You are well advised, exceedingly well advised," Spencer said. "Mind I do not take the responsibility of sending you away without serious reasons. I honestly believe that Miss Poynton is safe, whatever may have happened to her brother, and I believe that you will serve her best by your temporary absence."
Duncombe stood for a moment wrapped in thought. The last few months had aged him strangely. The strenuous days and nights of anxious thought had left their mark in deep lines upon his face. He looked out of the window of Spencer's room, and his eyes saw little of the busy street below. He was alone once more with this strange, terrified girl upon the hillside, with the wind in their faces, and making wild havoc in her hair. He was with her in different moods in the little room behind his library, when the natural joy of her young life had for the moment reasserted itself. He was with her at their parting. He saw half the fearful regret with which she had left his care and accepted the intervention of the Marquise. Stirring times these had been for a man of his quiet temperament, whom matters of sentiment and romance had passed lightly by, and whose passions had never before been touched by the finger of fire. And now he was going back to an empty life—a life at least empty of joy, save the hope of seeing her again. For good or for evil, the great thing had found its way into his life. His days of calm animal enjoyment were over. Sorrow or joy was to be his. He had passed into the shadows of the complex life.
He remembered where he was at last, and turned to Spencer.
"About yourself, Spencer," he said. "Have you seen a doctor?"
"Yes. I am not seriously ill," his friend answered. "The worst is over now. And, Duncombe, it's hard for you to go, I know—but look here, I believe that you will be back in a month, and taking Miss Poynton to lunch chez Ritz. I never felt so sure of it as I do to-day."
Duncombe remembered the answer to his note, and found it hard to share his friend's cheerfulness.
A POLITICAL INTERLUDE
Duncombe laid down his cue and strolled towards the sideboard, where his guest was already mixing himself a whisky and soda.
"By the by, Runton," he said, "have you seen anything of our friend Von Rothe since that little affair at your place?"
Lord Runton shook his head.
"Not once," he answered. "He behaved very decently about it on the whole; treated it quite lightly—but he wouldn't let me go near the police. It was a long way the most unpleasant thing that ever happened in my house."
"Never any further light upon it, I suppose?" Duncombe asked.
Lord Runton shook his head.
"None. Of course we could have traced them both without a doubt if we had put it in the hands of the police, but Von Rothe wouldn't hear of it. He tried to treat it lightly, but I know that he was very much worried."
"Do you yourself believe," Duncombe asked, "that it was a political affair or an ordinary robbery?"
"I think that it was the former," Lord Runton answered. "Those people were not common adventurers. By the by, George, have you got over your little weakness yet?" he added with a smile.
Duncombe shrugged his shoulders.
"Nearly made a fool of myself, didn't I?" he remarked, with a levity which did not sound altogether natural.
"She was an uncommonly fascinating young woman," Lord Runton said, "but she didn't seem to me very old at the game. She was clever enough to fool Von Rothe, though. He admits that he told her that he was expecting a special messenger from Berlin."
Duncombe seemed to have had enough of the subject. He got up and filled his pipe.
"Is Jack coming down this week?" he asked.
"No! He wired this morning that he can't get away. Sefton isn't coming, either. Between ourselves, George, something seems to be going on at the Foreign Office which I don't understand."
"What do you mean?" Duncombe asked. "There has been no hint at any sort of trouble in the papers."
"That's just what I don't understand," Lord Runton continued. "It is certain that there is an extraordinary amount of activity at Portsmouth and Woolwich, but even the little halfpenny sensational papers make no more than a passing allusion to it. Then look at the movements of our fleet. The whole of the Mediterranean Fleet is at Gibraltar, and the Channel Squadron is moving up the North Sea as though to join the Home Division. All these movements are quite unusual."
"What do you make of them then?" Duncombe asked.
"I scarcely know," Lord Runton answered. "But I can tell you this. There have been three Cabinet Councils this week, and there is a curious air of apprehension in official circles in town, as though something were about to happen. The service clubs are almost deserted, and I know for a fact that all leave in the navy has been suspended. What I don't understand is the silence everywhere. It looks to me as though there were really going to be trouble. The Baltic Fleet sailed this morning, you know."
"But," he said, "even if they were ill disposed to us, as no doubt Russia is just now, what could they do? One squadron of our fleet could send them to the bottom."
"No doubt," Lord Runton answered. "But supposing they found an ally?"
"France will never go to war with us for Russia's benefit," Duncombe declared.
"Granted," Lord Runton answered, "but have you watched Germany's attitude lately?"
"I can't say that I have," Duncombe admitted, "but I should never look upon Germany as a war-seeking nation."
"No, I dare say not," Lord Runton answered. "Nor would a great many other people. Every one is willing to admit that she would like our Colonies, but no one will believe that she has the courage to strike a blow for them. I will tell you what I believe, Duncombe. I believe that no Great Power has ever before been in so dangerous a position as we are in to-day."
Duncombe sat up in his chair. The weariness passed from his face, and he was distinctly interested. Lord Runton, without being an ardent politician, was a man of common-sense, and was closely connected with more than one member of the Cabinet.
"Are you serious, Runton?" he asked.
"Absolutely! Remember, I was in Berlin for two years, and I had many opportunities of gaining an insight into affairs there. What I can see coming now I have expected for years. There are two great factors which make for war. One is the character of the Emperor himself, and the other the inevitable rot, which must creep like a disease into a great army kept always upon a war footing, through a decade or more of inactivity. The Emperor is shrewd enough to see this. Nothing can possibly exist at its best which is not used for the purpose to which it owes its existence. That is why we have this flood of literature just now telling us of the gross abuses and general rottenness of the German army. Another five years of idleness, and Germany's position as the first military nation will have passed away. Like every other great power, it is rusting for want of use. The Emperor knows this."
Duncombe for many reasons was fascinated by his friend's quiet words. Apart from their obvious plausibility, they brought with them many startling suggestions. Had chance, he wondered, really made Phyllis Poynton and her brother pawns in the great game? He felt himself stirred to a rare emotion by the flood of possibilities which swept in suddenly upon him. Lord Runton noted with surprise the signs of growing excitement in his listener.
"Go on, Runton. Anything else?"
Lord Runton helped himself to a cigarette, and leaned across to light it.
"Of course," he continued, "I know that there are a great many people who firmly believe that for commercial reasons Germany would never seek a quarrel with us. I will agree with them so far as to say that I do not believe that a war with England would be popular amongst the bourgeois of Germany. On the other hand, they would be quite powerless to prevent it. The Emperor and his ministers have the affair in their own hands. A slight break in our diplomatic relations, some trifle seized hold of by the Press and magnified at once into an insult, and the war torch is kindled. To-day war does not come about by the slowly growing desire of nations. The threads of fate are in the hands of a few diplomatists at Berlin and London—a turn of the wrist, and there is tension which a breath can turn either way. You ask me why the Emperor should choose England for attack. There are many reasons: first, because England alone could repay him for the struggle; secondly, because he is intensely and miserably jealous of our own King, who has avoided all his own hot-headed errors, and has yet played a great and individual part in the world's affairs; thirdly, because England is most easily attacked. I could give you other reasons if you wanted them."
"Quite enough," Duncombe answered. "What do you suppose would be the casus belli?"
"The progress of the Russian fleet through English waters," Lord Runton answered promptly. "Russia's interest in such a misunderstanding would be, of course, immense. She has only to fire on an English ship, by mistake of course, and the whole fat would be in the fire. England probably would insist upon the squadron being detained, Germany would protest against any such action. We might very well be at war with Russia and Germany within ten days. Russia would immediately either make terms with Japan, or abandon any active operations in Manchuria and move upon India. Germany would come for us."
"Is this all purely imagination?" Duncombe asked, "or have you anything to go on?"
"So far as I am concerned," Lord Runton said slowly, "I, of course, know nothing. But I have a strong idea that the Government have at least a suspicion of some secret understanding between Russia and Germany. Their preparations seem almost to suggest it. Of course we outsiders can only guess, after all, at what is going on, but it seems to me that there is a chance to-day for our Government to achieve a diplomatic coup."
"In what direction?"
"An alliance with France. Mind, I am afraid that there are insurmountable obstacles, but if it were possible it would be checkmate to our friend the Emperor, and he would have nothing left but to climb down. The trouble is that in the absence of any definite proof of an understanding between Russia and Germany, France could not break away from her alliance with the former. Our present arrangement would ensure, I believe, a benevolent neutrality, but an alliance, if only it could be compassed, would be the greatest diplomatic triumph of our days. Hullo! Visitors at this hour. Wasn't that your front-door bell, Duncombe?"
"It sounded like it," Duncombe answered. "Perhaps it is your man."
"Like his cheek, if it is!" Lord Runton answered, rising to his feet and strolling towards the sideboard. "I told him I would telephone round to the stables when I was ready. I suppose it is rather late, though I sha'n't apologize for keeping you up."
"I hope you won't," Duncombe answered. "I have never been more interested in my life—for many reasons. Don't bother about your man. Groves will see to him. Help yourself to another whisky and soda, and come and sit down."
There was a knock at the door, and the butler appeared.
"There are three gentlemen outside, sir, who wish to see you," he announced to Duncombe. "They will not give their names, but they say that their business is important, or they would not have troubled you so late."
Duncombe glanced at the clock. It was past midnight.
"Three gentlemen," he repeated, "at this time of night. But where on earth have they come from, Groves?"
"They did not say, sir," the man answered. "One of them I should judge to be a foreigner. They have a motor car outside."
Lord Runton held out his hand.
"Well, it's time I was off, anyhow," he remarked. "Come over and have lunch to-morrow. Don't bother about me. I'll stroll round to the stables and start from there. Good night."
Duncombe hesitated. He was on the point of asking his friend to stay, but before he could make up his mind Runton had lit a cigarette and strolled away.
"You can show the gentlemen in here, Groves," Duncombe said.
"Very good, sir."
The man disappeared. Duncombe, after a moment's hesitation, crossed the room, and opening an oak cupboard, slipped a small revolver into his pocket.
One of his three visitors Duncombe recognized immediately. It was Monsieur Louis. Of the other two one was a Frenchman, a somewhat sombre-looking person, in a black beard and gold-rimmed eyeglasses, the other as unmistakably an Englishman of the lower middle class. His broad shoulders and somewhat stiff bearing seemed to suggest some sort of drill. Looking them over, Duncombe found himself instinctively wondering whether the personal strength of these two, which was obvious, might become a factor in the coming interview.
The Baron naturally was spokesman. He bowed very gravely to Duncombe, and did not offer his hand.
"I must apologize, Sir George," he said, "for disturbing you at such an inopportune hour. Our business, however, made it necessary for us to reach you with as little delay as possible."
"Perhaps you will be good enough to explain," Duncombe answered, "what that business is."
The Baron raised his hands with a little protesting gesture.
"I regret to tell you, Sir George," he announced, "that it is of a most unpleasant nature. I could wish that its execution had fallen into other hands. My companions are Monsieur Ridalle, of the French detective service, and our other friend here, whom I do not know, is a constable from the Norwich Police Court. My own connections with the police service of my country you have already, without doubt, surmised."
"Go on," Duncombe said.
"I regret to say," Monsieur Louis continued, "that my friends here are in charge of a warrant for your arrest. You will find them possessed of all the legal documents, French and English. We shall have to ask you to come to Norwich with us to-night."
"Arrest!" Duncombe repeated. "On what charge?"
"An extremely serious one," the Baron answered gravely. "The charge of murder!"
Duncombe stared at him in amazement.
"Murder!" he repeated. "What rubbish!"
"The murder of Mademoiselle de Mermillon in her lodging on the night of the seventh of June last," the Baron said gravely. "Please do not make any remarks before these men. The evidence against you is already sufficiently strong."
Duncombe laughed derisively.
"What sort of a puppet show is this?" he exclaimed. "You know as well as any man living how that poor girl came to her end. This is a cover for something else, of course. What do you want of me? Let's get at it without wasting time."
"What we want of you is, I am afraid, only too simple," the Baron answered, shrugging his shoulders. "We must ask you to accompany us at once to Norwich Castle. You will have to appear before the magistrates in the morning, when they will sign the extradition warrant. Our friend here, Monsieur Ridalle, will then take charge of you. Perhaps you would like to look through the documents. You will find them all in perfect order."
Duncombe mechanically glanced through the French and English papers which were spread out before him. They had certainly a most uncomfortable appearance of being genuine. He began to feel a little bewildered.
"You mean to say that you have come here to arrest me on this charge? That you want me to go away with you to-night?" he asked.
"It is not a matter of wanting you to come," the Baron answered coldly. "It is a matter of necessity."
Duncombe moved towards the fireplace.
"Will you allow me the privilege of a few moments' conversation with you in private?" he said to the Baron. "Your companions will perhaps excuse you for a moment."
The Baron followed without remark. They stood facing one another upon the hearthrug. Duncombe leaned one elbow upon the mantlepiece, and turned towards his companion.
"Look here," he said, "those papers seem genuine enough, and if you insist upon it I will go with you to Norwich. I shall take care not to let you out of my sight, and if when we get there I find that this is any part of one of your confounded conspiracies you will find that the penalties for this sort of thing in England are pretty severe. However, no doubt you are well aware of that. The question is this. What do you really want from me?"
Monsieur Louis, who had lit a cigarette, withdrew it from his mouth and examined the lighted end for a moment in silence.
"The documents," he said, "are genuine. You are arraigned in perfectly legal fashion. Upon the affidavits there the magistrates must grant the extradition warrant without hesitation. We have nothing to fear in that direction."
"The police," Duncombe remarked, "are perfectly aware of my innocence."
Monsieur shrugged his shoulders.
"The evidence," he said, "is remarkably convincing."
"Police-concocted evidence," Duncombe remarked, "would necessarily be so. I admit that you hold a strong card against me. I don't believe, however, that you have gone to all this trouble without some ulterior motive. What is it? What can I offer you in exchange for these documents?"
Monsieur Louis smiled.
"You are a man of common-sense, Sir George," he said. "I will speak to you without reserve. It is possible that you might be able to offer the Government department of my country to which I am attached an inducement to interest themselves in your behalf. Mind, I am not sure. But if my information is correct there is certainly a possibility."
"The Government department of your country to which you are attached," Duncombe repeated thoughtfully. "Let me understand you. You mean the secret service police?"
Monsieur Louis glanced a little nervously over his shoulder.
"Never mind what I mean, Sir George," he said quickly. "There are things which we do not speak of openly. This much is sufficient. I represent a power which can influence and direct even the criminal courts of justice of France."
"What bribe have I to offer you?" Duncombe asked. "Information? You know more than I do. I am afraid you have been misled."
"I think not," Monsieur Louis said quickly. "I will tell you what we want. A paper was left in your charge by Miss Phyllis Poynton at the time she was visiting at Runton Place."
"What of it?" Duncombe asked.
The Frenchman's face was suddenly tense with excitement. He recovered himself almost at once, but his voice shook, and a new earnestness found its way into his manner.
"Miss Poynton and her brother are with us," he said. "It is we who have been their benefactors. You know a good deal of their peculiar circumstances. A sudden need has arisen for the production of that paper within twenty-four hours. Give it to me now, and I will run the greatest risk I have ever run in my career. I will tear those warrants through."
"Have you any authority from Miss Poynton?" Duncombe asked.
"There was no time to procure it," Monsieur Louis explained. "Events march rapidly to-day. To be effective that paper must be in Paris to-morrow. The necessity for its production arose only a few hours ago."
"You ask me, then," Duncombe said slowly, "to hand over to you a paper which was placed in my charge by Miss Poynton?"
"I cannot do it!"
Monsieur Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"I do not insist," he remarked. "I may be permitted to remind you, however, that I have offered a great price."
"Perhaps!" Duncombe answered quietly.
Monsieur Louis turned to his assistants.
"Sir George Duncombe will accompany us," he said. "I can give you ten minutes, Sir George," he added, "in case you care to change your clothes."
"And supposing I refuse to come?" Duncombe asked.
Monsieur Louis smiled.
"You would scarcely be so foolish," he remarked. "In that case I should send the policeman here to the nearest station with the warrants and a demand for help. Our documents are in perfect order, and our case complete. You would scarcely be so foolish, I think, as to set yourself in direct opposition to the law!"
Duncombe was silent for several moments. Then he rang the bell. Monsieur Louis looked at him inquiringly, but before he could frame a question the butler was in the room.
"Pack my things for a week, Groves," Duncombe ordered. "I am going away to-night."
The man bowed and withdrew. Monsieur Louis merely shrugged his shoulders.
"A week!" he remarked. "You will be fortunate if you ever see your home again. Come, Sir George, be reasonable! I give you my word of honor that it is altogether to the interest of Miss Poynton that those papers be immediately produced. If she were here herself she would place them in my hands without a moment's hesitation."
"Possibly!" Duncombe answered. "Suppositions, however, do not interest me. I undertook the charge of what she gave me, and I shall fulfil my trust."
Monsieur Louis turned to the policeman.
"Officer," he said, "this is Sir George Duncombe. Do your duty."
The man stepped forward and laid his hand upon Sir George's shoulder.
"Very sorry, sir," he said. "I am forced to arrest you on this warrant for the murder of Florence Mermillon on the night of the seventh of June. You will be brought before the magistrates at Norwich to-morrow."
Duncombe waved his hand towards the sideboard.
"If you gentlemen," he remarked, "would care for a little refreshment before you start?"
"It is against the rules, sir, thank you," the man answered. "I should be glad to get away as soon as possible."
Duncombe filled both his pockets with cigars and cigarettes. Then he turned towards the door.
"I am quite ready," he said.
They followed him out. There was a few minutes' delay waiting for Duncombe's bag.
"Your address, Sir George?" Groves inquired, as he brought it down.
"A little doubtful," Duncombe answered. "I will wire."
"In front, please, Sir George," Monsieur Louis insisted.
So they drove off, Duncombe in the front seat, the other three behind. The car gathered speed rapidly. In less than an hour they were half-way to Norwich. Then suddenly the driver took a sharp corner and turned down a long desolate lane.
"You're off the main road," Duncombe explained. "You should have kept straight on for Norwich."
The man took no notice. He even increased his speed. Duncombe was in the act of turning round when he felt the sudden swish of a wet cloth upon his face. He tried to break away, but he was held from behind as in a vise. Then his head fell back, and he remembered no more.
THE CHECKMATING OF MONSIEUR LOUIS
At three o'clock in the morning Groves, in a discarded dressing-gown of his master's, opened the front door and peered cautiously out into the darkness. Monsieur Louis, who was standing upon the door-step, pushed past him into the hall.
"Your master has sent me back to fetch some papers," he announced, displaying a bunch of keys. "I am sorry to disturb you like this, but the matter is important. Please bring me a cup of coffee into the library in half an hour."
Groves, who was sorely perplexed, stood with his back to the door which Monsieur Louis had approached.
"Really, sir," he answered, "I scarcely know what to say. I am afraid that I cannot allow you to interfere with any of my master's property in his absence."
Monsieur Louis held out the keys.
"Quite right!" he said. "It is an awkward situation, of course. Your master did not tell you the reason of his sudden departure, I suppose?"
"Not a word, sir."
"There can be no harm in telling you this much, at any rate," Monsieur Louis continued smoothly. "Your master, through no fault of his own, got mixed up in a very unpleasant affair in Paris, and he will have to appear in the courts there. I am his friend, and wish to do all that I can to help him. We have been talking the matter over, and I have strongly advised him to produce some papers which I think will help him materially. The police officer in whose charge he is would not allow him to return, so he handed me his keys and asked me to fetch them. I can assure you that I am your master's friend, and wish to do all that I can to help him. If he had not trusted me he would not have given me his keys, which no doubt you recognize."
Groves reluctantly stood on one side.
"I suppose I must let you in, sir," he said, "but I wish that the master had sent me a line."
"We had neither pencil nor paper," Monsieur Louis said, "and the affair was urgent. I must be back in Norwich by eight o'clock."
"I will prepare the coffee, sir," Groves said, turning away. "If you require more light the switches are behind the door."
"Very good," Monsieur Louis said. "You need not have the slightest anxiety. I am here on your master's behalf."
Groves hesitated, and looked for a moment curiously around the room. He seemed as though he had something else to say, but checked himself at the last moment and withdrew. Monsieur Louis drew a little breath of relief.
He did not immediately proceed to work. He threw off his overcoat and lit a cigarette. His fingers were steady enough, but he was conscious of an unwonted sense of excitement. He was face to face with destiny. He had played before for great stakes, but never such as these. A single false step, an evil turn in the wheel of fortune, spelt death—and he was afraid to die. He moved to the sideboard. Everything there was as they had left it. He poured out some brandy and drank it off.
With fresh courage he moved to the safe, which stood in the corner of the room. It must be there, if anywhere, that this precious document lay. He tried his keys one by one. At last he found the right one. The great door swung slowly open.
He was spared all anxiety. There, on the top of a pile of legal-looking documents, leases, title-deeds, and the like, was a long envelope, and across it in Duncombe's sprawling writing these few words:—
"Entrusted to me by Miss Poynton.—Sept. 4th."
He grasped it in his fingers and tore open the envelope. As he read the single page of closely written writing his eyes seemed almost to protrude. He gave a little gasp. No wonder there were those who reckoned this single page of manuscript worth a great fortune. Every sentence, every word told its own story. It was a page of the world's history.
Then a strange thing happened. Some part of him rebelled against the instinct which prompted him carefully to fold and place in his breast-pocket this wonderful find of his. His nerves seemed suddenly frozen in his body. There was a curious numb sensation at the back of his neck which forbade him to turn round. His hands shook, his teeth chattered. The sweat of death was upon his forehead and despair in his heart. He had heard nothing, seen nothing; yet he knew that he was no longer alone.
When at last he turned round he turned his whole body. The muscles of his neck were numbed still his knees shook, and his face was ghastly. Monsieur Louis of the Cafe Montmartre, brave of tongue and gallant of bearing, had suddenly collapsed. Monsieur Louis, the drug-sodden degenerate of a family whose nobles had made gay the scaffolds of the Place de la Republique, cowered in his place.
It was the worst upon which he looked with chattering teeth, but without surprise. The door of the inner room was open, and upon the threshold stood Toquet, small, dark, and saturnine—Toquet, with something which glittered in his hand, so that Monsieur Louis, already the prey of a diseased and ghastly imagination, felt the pain of the bullet in his heart. On an easy-chair by the fireside Henri de Bergillac was lounging, with a queer smile upon his lips.
"My friend," he said quietly, though the scorn which underlay his words seemed to bite the air, "you have solved for us a double problem: first, how to account for the absence of our host; and secondly, how to open that very formidable-looking safe. You will be so good as to place upon the table that document which you hold in your hands."
For a single second Monsieur Louis hesitated. Some lingering vestige of a courage, purely hereditary, showed him in one lightning-like flash how at least he might carry with him to a swift grave some vestige of his ruined self-respect. A traitor to his old friends, he might keep faith with the new. He had time to destroy. Even the agonies of death might last long enough to complete the task. But the impulse was only momentary. He shuddered afresh at the thought that he might have yielded to it. He threw it upon the table.
The Vicomte rose to his feet, glanced through the closely written page with something of the same excitement which had inspired its recent possessor, and carefully buttoned it up in his breast-pocket. Then he turned once more to the man who stood before them broken and trembling.
"Louis," he said, "you are the first traitor whom our society has hatched. I look upon you with curiosity as a thing I once called my friend. What imbecility prompted you to this?"
Monsieur Louis found nerve to shrug his shoulders.
"A million francs!" he answered.
"Heavens, but what folly!" the Vicomte murmured. "Did we not all know that a German was in Paris who offered a million, or two million francs for the missing page of that treaty? Do you think that he was not watched day and night? Bah! I have no patience to talk of this. What have you done with our host?"
"Arrested him for—Flossie! He is in a ditch half-way to Norwich."
"How did you get here?"
"In an automobile from Lynn!"
"Good! It waits for you?"
"We will take it. My good friend here, Toquet, is familiar with the neighborhood. As Mr. Fielding, the American millionaire, you learned the excellence of these roads for quick travelling, did you not, mon ami? So!"
"You leave me here?" Monsieur Louis faltered.
"Ay, to rot if you will!" the Vicomte answered with sudden harshness.
"I will atone," Monsieur Louis faltered. "It was a single false step."
De Bergillac looked down upon him with unspeakable contempt.
"Atone! Listen, Louis! In this country you are safe. Crawl away into some hiding-place and make what you will of the rest of your days, but I will promise you this. If ever you set your feet upon one inch of France you shall meet with your deserts. There are many things which those who play the great game must pardon, but there is one crime for which no atonement is possible, and you have committed it. You are a traitor!"
De Bergillac turned away. The effeminacy of his manner seemed to have disappeared under the strain of his extreme anger. It was his race, after all, which had asserted itself. And then the door was thrown suddenly open and a wild-looking figure confronted them.
It was Duncombe, muddy from head to foot, pale and with a slight wound upon the temple, from which the blood had trickled down his face. He saw the open safe, and Monsieur Louis a pitiful figure, and he did not hesitate. He scarcely glanced at the others. He strode forward and seized the Baron by the collar.
"Give me back what you have stolen, you blackguard!" he exclaimed.
Monsieur Louis was breathless. It was the young Vicomte who interposed.
"Our friend," he remarked suavely, "has not been successful in his little effort. The document he came to purloin is in my pocket, and here, Sir George, is my warrant for retaining possession of it."
He held out a note which Duncombe took and read with a little sigh of relief.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "You have the document?"
De Bergillac tapped his breast-pocket.
"It is here," he said.
Duncombe turned to Monsieur Louis.
"My arrest, then," he remarked, "was part of the game?"
"Exactly!" De Bergillac answered. "This little document entrusted to your care by the young English lady was worth one million francs to the man who suborned our friend here. It was worth while—this little enterprise. The pity of it is that it has failed. Sir George, I go to Paris to-night. I offer you a safe conduct if you care to accompany me. L'affaire Poynton does not exist any more."
"Can you give me ten minutes to change my clothes?" Duncombe asked eagerly.
"No more," De Bergillac answered. "I will get rid of our friend here."
There was a knock at the door. Groves entered with coffee. At the sight of his master he nearly dropped the tray.
"It's all right," Duncombe said, smiling. "We had a little spill, and I've lost my bag. Pack me some more things quickly."
"Very good, sir," Groves answered, and withdrew precipitately.
De Bergillac laid his hand upon Duncombe's arm.
"There is only one thing, my friend," he said. "I trust that it is Mr. Guy Poynton who is your friend, and not his beautiful sister? Eh? I am answered! The misfortune! Never mind! I will drink my coffee to les beaux yeux des autres!"
THE MAKING OF HISTORY
Three men were the sole occupants of the great room whose windows looked out upon the Louvre.
The table around which they were seated was strewn with papers and maps. The door of the room was locked, and a sentry stood outside in the passage. The three men were busy making history.
The man who occupied the seat at the head of the table was the Monsieur Grisson to whom Guy Poynton, at the instigation of the Duc de Bergillac, had told his story. It was he who was spokesman.
"The situation," he said, "is one which bristles with difficulties. We will assume for a moment the truth of what we have certainly reasonable ground to believe. Russia has shown every sign of disappointment with us for our general attitude during the war. Our understanding with England has provoked a vigorous though unofficial protest from her representatives here. Since then our relations have become to a certain extent strained. Germany, ever on the look-out for complications which might lead to her own advantage, steps in. Her attitude towards Russia is changed to one of open and profound sympathy. Russia, in her desperate straits, rises like a starving fish to a fat fly. Here it is that our secret service steps in."
"Our secret service—and her allies," one of the other men murmured.
"Exactly! We pass now to the consideration of facts which need one thing only to justify our course of action. Evidence is brought to us that a secret meeting took place between the Czar of Russia and the Emperor of Germany. From all the information which we have collected that meeting was possible. I personally believe that it took place. A treaty is said to have been drawn up between them, having for its object the embroilment of England with Russia, and an alliance of Germany with Russia so far as regards her quarrel with England. We know that Germany is secretly mobilizing men and ships. We know that the ambition of the Emperor is to possess himself of the Colonies of Great Britain, if not actually to hold his court in London. We know that his jealousy of King Edward amounts to a disease. We know that he is a man of daring and violent temper, with an indomitable will and an unflinching belief in his own infallibility and the infallibility of his army and navy. We know that he has at least a dozen schemes for a sudden attack upon England, and mighty though the navy of Great Britain is, it is not in our opinion strong enough to protect her shore from the combined Baltic and German fleets and also protect her Colonies. England, through our friendship, has been warned. She proposes with most flattering alacrity the only possible counter-stroke—an alliance with ourselves. We must decide within twelve hours. The treaty lies upon my desk there. Upon us must rest the most momentous decision which any Frenchman within our recollection has been called upon to make. What have you to say, gentlemen?"
There was a short silence. Then the man who sat at Monsieur Grisson's right hand spoke.
"The issues before us," he said slowly, "are appalling. Every Frenchman's blood must boil at the thought of Germany greedily helping herself to the mighty wealth and power of Great Britain—becoming by this single master-stroke the strongest nation on earth, able to dictate even to us, and to send her word unchallenged throughout the world. It is a hideous picture! It must mean the abandonment forever of the hope of every true Frenchman. Every minute will become a menace to us. Wilhelm, the arrogant, with British gold and British ships at his back, will never forget to flaunt himself before us to our eternal humiliation."
"You are taking it for granted," his neighbor remarked, "that Germany will be successful."
"The odds are in her favor," was the quiet reply. "The navy of Great Britain is immense, but her sea front, so to speak, is enormous. She is open to be the prey of a sudden swift attack, and the moment has never been more favorable."
"Let all these things be granted," the third man said. "Even then, are we free to enter into this alliance with England? Our treaty with Russia remains. We have no proof that she has broken faith with us. If this secret treaty between Russia and Germany really exists, it is, of course, another matter. But does it? We have nothing but the word of an English boy. The rest is all assumption. The whole affair might be a nightmare. We might sign this treaty with England, and find afterwards that we had been the victim of a trick. We should be perjured before the face of all Europe, and our great financial interest in Russia would at once be placed in a perilous position."