"The armament question?"
Henry gazed at the ex-cardinal with the wide, ferocious stare of the slightly intoxicated.
"What would you say if I told you that a certain highly placed official on the League of Nations Secretariat has enormous sums of money invested in an armaments business? That he derives nearly all his income from it? That he is the son-in-law of the head of the business, and has in it vast sums which increase at every rumour of war and which would dwindle away if any extensive disarmament scheme should ever really be seriously contemplated by the nations? That his father-in-law, this munitions prince, is even now in Geneva, privately visiting his daughter and son-in-law and holding a watching brief on the Assembly proceedings? I ask you, what would the League staff say of one of their members of which this should be revealed? Would he be regarded as a fit incumbent of the office he holds? Wouldn't he be dismissed, kicked out as incompetent—as unscrupulous, I mean," Henry amended quickly. His voice had risen in a shrill and trembling crescendo of dislike.
Dr. Franchi, leaning placidly back in his chair, his delicate fingers stroking a large Persian cat on his knee, shrewdly watched him.
"I had better say," he observed, in his temperate and calming manner, "that I believe I know to whom you allude. I have guessed, since I saw you this morning when a certain individual was speaking near you, that you took no favourable view of him. And now I perceive that you are justified. You will be doubly justified if we can prove, what I am trying to agree with you is not improbable, that he has indeed made away with this unfortunate Svensen. I am tempted to share your view of this unpleasing person. Among other things he is a Catholic convert; as to these we have already exchanged our views.... Do you know what I think? This; that Svensen's will not be the only disappearance at Geneva. For what would be the use of getting rid of one man only, however prominent? The Assembly, after the first shock, would proceed with its doings. But what if man after man were to disappear? What if the whole fabric of Assembly, Council, and Committees should be disintegrated, till no one could have thoughts for anything but the mysterious disappearances and how to solve the riddle, and how, still more, to preserve each one himself from a like fate? Could any work be continued in such circumstances, in such an atmosphere? No. The Assembly would become merely a collection of bewildered and nervous individuals turning themselves into amateur detectives, and, incidentally, the laughing-stock of the world. The League might never recover such prestige as it has, after such a disastrous session. Mark my words; there will be further attempts on the persons of prominent delegates. Whether they will be successful attempts or not is a question. Who is responsible for them is another question. You say (and I am half with you) our friend of the Secretariat, who had better be nameless until we can bring him to book. Others will say other things. Many will be suspected. Notably, no doubt, the Spanish Americans, who lend themselves readily to such suspicions; they have that air, and human life is believed not to be unduly sacred to them. Besides, they never got on with Svensen, who is reported to have alluded to them not infrequently as 'those damned Red Indians.' The Scandinavian temperament and theirs are so different. I do not even feel sure myself that they are not implicated. The initiation of the affair by our Secretariat friend would not, in fact, preclude their participation in it. I had nearly said, show me a Spanish-American, still worse a Portuguese, and I will show you a scoundrel. Nearly, but not quite, for it is a mistake to say such things of one's brothers in the League. Besides, I like them. They are pleasing, amusing fellows, and do not rasp one's nerves like the Germans and many others. One can forgive them much; indeed, one has to. Many people, again, would be glad to put responsibility on the Germans. An unfortunate race, for nothing is so unfortunate as to be unloved. We must discover the truth, Mr. Beechtree. You have a line of inquiry to follow?"
"I am making friends with the fellow's secretary," said Henry. "She likes me, I may say. And she talks quite a lot. She would not consciously betray her chief's confidence, though she does not like him; but all the same I get many clues from her.... Oh, my God——!"
The ejaculation, which was made under his breath, was shocked involuntarily out of him by the sight of Dr. Franchi's Persian cat extracting with its paw from a bowl that stood on the terrace balustrade a large gold-fish and devouring it.
After the first glance Henry looked away, leaning back in his chair, momentarily overcome with a feeling of nausea, which made his face glisten white and damp, and caused the sweat to break hotly on his brow, while the lake swayed and darkened before his eyes. It was a feeling to which he was unfortunately subject when he saw the smaller of God's creatures suffering these mischances at the hands of their larger brethren. His nerves were not strong, and he had an excessive dislike of witnessing unpleasant sights.
"You don't feel well?" Dr. Franchi solicitously inquired.
"The gold-fish," his guest murmured. "Eaten alive ... what an end!"
Dr. Franchi's delicate, dark Latin brows rose.
"The gold-fish? Ah, my wicked Pellico.... I cannot keep him from the bowl, the rascal. I regret that he so upset you. But the sensibility of gold-fish is not great, surely? As the peasants say, non son chretiani loro!"
"Forgive me. To see a live fish devoured ... it took me unawares.... I shall be all right soon...."
As from a great distance Henry, still fighting the sensation of nausea, was half aware of the ex-cardinal's piercing eyes fixed on him with extraordinary intensity.
"I am all right now," said Henry. "A momentary faintness—quite absurd.... I expect gold-fish do not really feel either emotion or pain. They say that fish do not feel hooks. Or worms, either.... They say all sorts of comforting things about this distressing world, don't they. One should try to believe them all...."
"You are," said Dr. Franchi quietly, "if I may say so, a decidedly unusual young man."
"Indeed, no," said Henry. "But I have encroached on you long enough. I must go."
The motor-launch churned its foaming path down the moonlit lake. Henry sat in the stern, trailing his fingers in cool, phosphorescent water, happy, drowsy, and well fed. What a delightful evening! What a charming old man! What a divine way of being taken home! And now he had the warm, encouraged feeling of not pursuing a lone trail, for the ex-cardinal's last words to him had been: "Coraggio! Follow every clue; push home every piece of evidence. Between us we will yet lay this enemy of the public good by the heel."
The very thought that they would yet do that flushed Henry's cheek and kindled his eye.
Assuredly the wicked should not always flourish like the bay tree. "I went by, and lo he was not," thought Henry, quoting the queer message received by the President before the first session of the Assembly.
The launch dashed up to the Quai du Seujet, and Henry presented a franc to the pilot, and stepped off, trying to emulate this gentleman's air of never having visited such a low wharf before. "You have brought me rather too far," he said. "But I will walk back."
But, now he came to think of it, Dr. Franchi's man must obviously know where he lived, so camouflage was unavailing. He had intended (only, lost in thought, he had let the moment pass) to be set down at the Paquis, as if he had been staying on the Quai du Mont Blanc or thereabouts. But he had said nothing, and, without doubt or hesitation, this disagreeable chauffeur (or whatever an electric launch man was called) had made for the Quai du Seujet and drawn up at it, as if he knew, as doubtless he did, that Henry's lodging was in one of the squalid alleys off it.
It could not be helped. Things do get about; Henry knew that of old. However, to maintain the effect of his words to the man, he started to walk away from the St. Gervais quarter towards the Mont Blanc bridge, until the launch was foaming on its homeward way. Then he retraced his steps.
As he passed the end of the bridge, he saw a well-known and characteristic figure, small, trim, elegant, the colour of ivory, clad in faultless evening dress, beneath an equally faultless light coat, standing by the parapet. Some one was with him, talking to him—an equally characteristic figure, less well known to the world at large, but not less well known to Henry.
Henry stopped abruptly, and stood in the shadow of a newspaper kiosk. He was not in the least surprised. Any hour of the day or night did for Charles Wilbraham to talk to the great. He would leave a dinner at the same time as the most important person present, in order to accompany him on his way. He would waylay cabinet ministers in streets, bishops (though himself not of their faith) in closes, and royal personages incognito. He would impede their progress, or walk delicately beside them, talking softly, respectfully, with that perfect propriety of diction and address which he had always at command.
"Soapy Sam," muttered Henry from behind the kiosk.
The two on the bridge moved on. They came towards Henry, strolling slowly and talking. The well-known personage was apparently telling an amusing story, for Charles was all attention and all smiles.
"As Chang was saying to me the other night," Henry prospectively and unctuously quoted Charles.
They left the bridge, and turned along the Quai du Mont Blanc. Charles's rather high laugh sounded above the current of their talk.
They paused at the Hotel des Bergues. The eminent person mounted its steps; Charles accompanied him up the steps and inside. Probably the eminent person wished, by calling on some one there, to shake off Charles before going to his own hotel. But he had not shaken off Charles, who was of a tenacious habit.
"Calling on the Latin Americans," Henry commented. "Wants to have a drink and a chat without Charles. Won't get it, poor chap. Well, I shall sleuth around till they come out. I'm going to trail Charles home to his bed, if it takes all night."
He settled himself on the parapet of the Quai and watched the hotel entrance. He did not have to wait long. In some minutes Charles came out alone. He looked, thought Henry, observing him furtively from under his pulled down hat brim, a little less elated than he had appeared five minutes earlier. His self-esteem had suffered some blow, thought Henry, who knew Charles's mentality. Mentality: that was the word one used about Charles, as if he had been a German during the late war (Germans having, as all readers of newspapers will remember, mentalities).
Charles walked rapidly across the bridge, towards the road that led to his own chlet, a mile out of the town. Henry, keeping his distance, hurried after him, through the steep, silent, sleeping city, up on to the dusty, tram-lined, residential road above it, till Charles stopped at a villa gate and let himself in.
Then Henry turned back, and tramped drowsily down the dusty road beneath the moonless sky, and down through the steep, sleeping city, and across the Pont des Bergues, and so to the Quai du Seujet and the Alle Petit Chat, which lay dense and black and warm in shadow, and was full of miawling cats, strange sounds, and queer acrid smells. The drainage system of the St. Gervais quarter was crude.
In the stifling bedroom of his crazy tenement, Henry undressed and sleepily tumbled into bed as the city clock struck two.
In the dawn, below the miawling of lean cats and the yelping of dogs, he heard the lapping and shuffling of water, and thought of boats and beating oars.
To what cold seas of inchoate regret, of passionate agnosticism as to the world's meanings, if any, does one too often wake, and know not why! Henry, on some mornings, would wake humming (as the queer phrase goes) with prosperity, and spring, warm and alive, to welcome the new day. On other mornings it would be as if he shivered perplexed on the brink of a fathomless abyss, and life engulfed him like chill waters, and he would strive, defensively, to divest himself of himself and be but as one of millions of the ant-like creatures that scurry over the earth's face, of no more significance to himself than were the myriad others. He could just achieve this state of impersonality while he lay in bed. But when he got up, stood on the floor, looked at the world no longer from beyond its rim but from within its coils, he became again enmeshed, a creature crying "I, I, I," a child wanting Pears' soap and never getting it, a pilgrim here on earth and stranger. Then the seas of desolation would swamp him and he would sink and sink, tumbled in their bitter waves.
In such a mood of causeless sorrow he woke late on the morning after he had dined with Dr. Franchi. To keep it at arms' length he lay and stared at his crazy, broken shutters, off which the old paint flaked, and thought of the infinite strangeness of all life, a pastime which very often engaged him. Then he thought of some one whom he very greatly loved, and was refreshed by that thought; and, indeed, to love and be loved very greatly is the one stake to cling to in these troubled seas, the one unfailing life-buoy. Then, turning his mind into practical channels, he thought of hate, and of Charles Wilbraham, and of how best to strive that day to compass him about with ruin.
So meditating, he splashed himself from head to foot with cold water, dressed, and sallied forth from his squalid abode to the nearest caf. Coffee and rolls and the Swiss morning papers and the clear jolly air of the September morning put heart into him, as he sat outside the caf by the lake. Opening his paper, he read of "Femme coupe en morceaux" and "L'Affaire Svensen," and then a large heading, "Disparition de Lord Burnley." Henry started. Here was news indeed. And he had failed to get hold of it for his paper. Lord Burnley, it seemed, had been strolling alone about the city in the late afternoon; many people had seen him in the Rue de la Cit and the neighbourhood. He had even been observed to enter a bookshop. The rest was silence. From that bookshop he had not been seen to emerge. The bookseller affirmed that he had left after spending a few minutes in the shop. No further information was to hand.
"Cherchez la femme," one comic paper had the audacity to remark, propos l'affaire Svensen and Burnley. Even Svensen and Burnley, so pure-hearted, so public-spirited, so League-minded, were not immune from such ill-bred aspersions.
The elegant and scholarly Spaniard, Luiz Vaga, strolled by. He wore a canary-coloured waistcoat and walked like a fastidious and graceful bullfinch. He stopped beside Henry's breakfast-table, cocked his head on one side, and said, "Hallo. Good-morning. Heard the latest news?"
Henry admitted that he had heard no news later than that in the morning press.
"Chang's gone now," said Vaga. "Gone to join Svensen and Burnley. I regret to say that he was last seen, late last night, paying a call on my fellow-countrymen from South America at Les Bergues hotel. Serious suspicion rests on these gentlemen, for poor Chang has not been heard of since."
"Somehow," Henry said thoughtfully, "I am not surprised. L'addition, s'il vous plat. No, I cannot say I am surprised. I rather thought that there would be more disappearances very shortly. Burnley and Chang. A good haul.... Who saw him going into the Bergues?"
"Our friend Wilbraham, who was out late with him last night. And the Bergues people don't deny it. But they say he left again, soon after midnight. The hall porter, who has, it is presumed, been corrupted, confirms this. But he never returned to his hotel. Poor Burnley and Chang! Two good talkers, scholars, and charming fellows. There are few such, in this vulgar age. It is taking the best, this unseen hand that strikes down our delegates in their prime. So many could be spared.... But God's will must be done. These South Americans are its very fitting tools, for they don't care what they do, reckless fellows. Mind you, I don't accuse them. Personally I should be more inclined to suspect the Zionists, or the Bolshevik refugees, or your Irishmen, or some of the Unprotected Minorities, or the Poles, or the Anti-Vivisection League, who are very fierce. But, for choice, the Poles; anyhow as regards Burnley. There were certain words once publicly spoken by Burnley to the Polish delegation about General Zeligowsky which have rankled ever since. Zeligowsky has many wild disbanded soldiers at his command.... However—Chang, anyhow, went to see the South Americans, and has not emerged. There we are."
"There we are," Henry thoughtfully agreed, as they strolled over the Pont du Mont Blanc. "And what, then, is Wilbraham's explanation of the affair Chang?"
Vaga shrugged his shoulders.
"Our friend Wilbraham is too discreet to make allegations. He merely states the fact—that he saw Chang into the Bergues between twelve and one and left him there.... I gather that he accompanied him into the hotel, but did not stay there long himself. I can detect a slight acrimony in his manner on the subject, and deduce from it that he was not perhaps encouraged by Dr. Chang or his hosts to linger. I flatter myself I know Wilbraham's mentality fairly well—if one may be permitted that rather opprobrious word."
"Yes, indeed," Henry said. "It is precisely what Wilbraham has. I know it well."
"In that case, I believe if you had heard Wilbraham on this matter of his call at Les Bergues that you would agree with me that his importance suffered there some trifling eclipse."
"There may be other reasons," said Henry, "in this case, for the manner you speak of.... But I won't say any more now." He bit off the stream of libel that had risen to his lips and armed himself in a careful silence, while the Spaniard cocked an inquiring dark eye at his brooding profile.
In the Jardin Anglais they overtook Dr. Franchi and his niece, making their way to the Assembly Hall. The ex-cardinal was greatly moved. "Poor Dr. Chang," he lamented, "and Burnley too, of all men! A wit, a scholar, a philosopher, a metaphysician, a theologian, a man of affairs. In fine, a man one could talk to. What a mind! I am greatly attached to Lord Burnley. They must be found, gentlemen. Alive or (unthinkable thought) dead, they must be found. The Assembly must do nothing else until this sinister mystery is unravelled. We must employ detectives. We must follow every clue."
Miss Longfellow said, "My! Isn't it all quite too terribly sinister! Don't you think so, Mr. Beechtree?"
Henry said he did.
They reached the Assembly Hall. The lobby, buzzing with delegates, Secretariat, journalists, Genevan syndics, and excitement, was like a startled hive. The delegates from Cuba, Chili, Bolivia, and Paraguay, temporarily at one, were informing the eager throng who crowded round them that Dr. Chang had left the Bergues hotel, after a chat and a whisky with the delegate from Paraguay, at twelve-thirty precisely. The delegate from Paraguay had gone out with him and had left him on the Pont des Bergues. He had said that he was going to cross this bridge and stroll round the old cit before going to bed, as he greatly admired the picturesque night aspect of these ancient streets and houses that clustered round the cathedral. He had then, presumably, made his way to this old, tortuous and unsafe maze of streets, so full of dark archways, trap-doors, cellars, winding stairways, evil smells, and obscure alleys. ("These alleys," as a local guide-book coldly puts it, "are not well inhabited, but the visitor may safely go through those of houses 5 and 17." Had Dr. Chang, perhaps, been through, part of the way through, numbers 4 or 16 instead?)
"That's right; put it on the cit," muttered Grattan, who was fond of this part of Geneva, for he often dined there, and who admired the representatives of the South American states as hopeful agents of crime and mystery.
No evidence, it seemed, was forthcoming that any one had seen Dr. Chang in the cit, but then, as the delegate from Paraguay remarked, even the inhabitants of the cit must sleep sometimes.
Police and detectives had early been put to work to search the cathedral quarter. Systematically they were making inquiries in it, street by street, house by house. Systematically, too, others were making inquiries in the old St. Gervais quarter.
"But police detective work is never any good," as Henry, a well-read person in some respects, remarked. "It is well known that one requires non-constabulary talent."
The bell rang, and a shaken and disorganised Assembly assembled in the hall. The Deputy-President, in an impassioned speech, lamented the sinister disappearance of his three so eminent colleagues. As he remarked, this would not do. Some evil forces were at work, assaulting the very life of the League, for it must now be apparent that these disappearances were not coincidences, but links in a connected chain of crime. What and whose was the unseen hand behind these dastardly deeds? What secret enemies of the League were so cunningly and assiduously at work? Was murder their object, or merely abduction? Whose turn would it be next? (At this last inquiry a shudder rippled over the already agitated assembly.) But MM. les Dlgus might rest assured that what could be done was being done, both for the discovery of their eminent colleagues, the detection of the assaulters, and the aversion of such disasters in future.
At this point the delegate for Greece leapt to his feet.
"What," he demanded, "is being done with this last object? What provision is being made for the safety of our persons?"
His question was vigorously applauded, while the English interpreter, quite unheard, explained it to those in the hall who lacked adequate knowledge of the French language.
The Deputy-President was understood to reply that it was uncertain as yet what effective steps could be taken, but that all the forces of law and order in Geneva had been invoked, and that MM. les Dlgus were hereby warned not to go about alone by night, or, indeed, much by day, and not to venture into obscure streets or doubtful-looking shops.
Mademoiselle the delegate from Roumania demanded the word. Mademoiselle the delegate for Roumania was a large and buxom lady with a soft, mellifluous voice that cooed like a turtle-dove's when she spoke eloquently from platforms of the wrongs of unhappy women and poor children. This delegate was female indeed. Not hers the blue-stocking sexlessness of the Scandinavian lady delegates, with their university degrees, their benign, bumpy foreheads, and their committee manners. She had been a mistress of kings; she was a very woman, full of the lan of sex. When she swam on to the platform and turned her eyes to the ceiling, it was seen that they brimmed with tears.
"Mon Dieu, M. le Vice-Prsident," she ejaculated. "Mon Dieu!" And proceeded in her rich, voluptuous voice to dwell on the iniquities of the traffic in women and children all over the world. The nets of these traffickers were spread even in Geneva—that city of good works—and who would more greatly desire to make away with the good men of the League of Nations than these wicked traffickers? How well it was known among them that Lord Burnley, Dr. Svensen, and Dr. Chang held strong opinions on this subject....
At this point a French delegate leaped to his feet and made strong and rapid objection to these accusations. No one more strongly than his pure and humane nation disliked this iniquitous traffic in flesh and blood, but the devil should have his due, and there was no proof that the traffickers were guilty of the crimes now under discussion. Much might be allowed a lady speaker in the height of her womanly indignation, which did credit to her heart and sex, but scarcely so much as that.
For a moment it looked like a general squabble, for other delegates sprang to their feet and called out, and the interpreters, dashing round the hall with notebooks, could scarcely keep pace, and every one was excited except the Japanese, who sat solemnly in rows and watched. For the hold, usually so firm, exercised by the chair over the Assembly, had given way under the stress of these strange events, and in vain did the Deputy-President knock on the table with his hammer and cry "Messieurs! Messieurs! La parole est Mademoiselle la Dlgue de la Roumanie!"
But he could not repress those who called out vehemently that "Il ne s'agit pas present de la traite des femmes; il s'agit seulement de la disparition de Messieurs les Dlgus!" And something unconsidered was added about those states more recently admitted to the League, which had to be hastily suppressed.
Mademoiselle la Dlgue on the platform continued meanwhile to coo to heaven her indignation at the iniquitous traffic in these unhappy women, until the Deputy-President, in his courteous and charming manner, suggested in her ear that she should, for the sake of peace, desist, whereupon she smiled and bowed and swept down into the hall, to be surrounded by congratulating friends shaking her by the hand.
"M. Menavitch demande la parole," announced the Deputy-President, who should have known better. The delegate for the Serb-Croat-Slovene state stood up in his place (it was scarcely worth while to ascend the platform for his brief comments) and remarked spitefully that he had just (as so often) had a telegram from Belgrade to the effect that a thousand marauding Albanians had crossed their frontier and were invading Serbia, and that, to his personal knowledge, there was a gang of these marauders in Geneva, and, in his view, the responsibility for any ruffianly crime committed in this city was not far to seek. He then sat down, amid loud applause from the Greeks and cries of "shame" from the English-speaking delegates. A placid Albanian bishop rose calmly to reply. He, too, it seemed, had had a telegram from the seat of his government, and his was about the Serbs, but before he had time to state its contents the Deputy-President stayed the proceedings. "The session," he said, "cannot be allowed to degenerate into an exchange of international personalities."
"And why not?" inquired the Belfast voice of the delegate from Ulster. "I'd say the Pope of Rome had some knowledge of this. I wouldn't put it past him to have plotted the whole thing."
"Ask the Black and Tans," his Free State colleague was naturally moved to retort.
"My God," whispered the Secretary-General to the Deputy-President. "If the Irish are off.... We must stop this."
Fortunately, here the delegates for Paraguay eased the situation by proposing that the question of the disappearance of delegates should be referred to a committee to be elected for that purpose, and that the voting for that committee should begin forthwith. (The South American delegates always welcomed the appointment of committees, for they always hoped to be on them.) Lord John Lester, one of the delegates from Central Africa, who was less addicted to committees, thinking that their methods lacked expedition, rose to protest, but was overruled. The Assembly as a whole would obviously feel happier about this affair if it were in committee hands, so the elections were proceeded with at once. The delegate for Central Africa resigned himself, only remarking that he hoped at least that the sessions of the committee would be public, for as he had often said, publicity was the life blood of the League.
Journalists in the Press Gallery breathed a sigh of disappointment. "In another minute," said the Times to Henry, "we should have had the Poles accusing the Lithuanians, the Greeks the Turks, the Turks the Armenians, and every one the Germans. Already the French are running round with a tale about the Germans having done it out of revenge for the Silesian decision. Probably it's quite true. Only I back the Bolshevik refugees to have had a hand in it somewhere too. Well, I shall go lobbying, and hear the latest."
Henry too went lobbying.
In the lobby something of a fracas was proceeding between a member of the Russian delegation and a Bolshevik refugee. It seemed that the latter was accusing the former of having been responsible for the disappearance of Dr. Svensen, who had always had such a kind heart for starving Russians, and who had irritated the Whites in old days by sending money to the Bolshevik government for their relief. The accusing refugee, who looked a hairy ruffian indeed, was supported by applause from a claque of Finns, Ruthenians, Lithuanians, Esthonians, Latvians, and others who had a dislike for the Russian Empire. M. Kratzky's well-earned nickname, "Butcher of Odessa," was freely hurled at him, and the Slavs present were all in an uproar, as Slavs will be if you excite them.
Gravely, from a little way off, a group of Japanese looked on.
"Obviously," the Times murmured discreetly, "the Bolshies think attack the best form of self-defence. I'm much mistaken if they don't know something of this business." For it was well known that the exiled Bolsheviks were vexed at the admission of monarchist Russia to the League, and might take almost any means (Russians, whether White or Red, being like that) of showing it.
"An enemy hath done this thing," murmured the gentle voice of Dr. Silvio Franchi to Lord John Lester, who had walked impatiently out of the Assembly Hall when the voting began, because he did not believe that a committee was going to be of the least use in finding his friends. He turned courteously towards the ex-cardinal, whom he greatly liked.
"What discord, where all was harmony and brotherhood!" continued Dr. Franchi sadly.
"Not quite all. Never quite all, even before," corrected Lord John, who, though an idealist, faced facts. "There were always elements of ... But we were on the way; we were progressing. And now—this."
He waved his hand impatiently at the vociferous Slavs, and then at the door of the Assembly Hall. "All at one another's throats; all hurling accusations; all getting telegrams from home about each other; all playing the fool. And there are some people who say there is no need for a League of Nations in such a world!"
Impatiently Lord John Lester pushed his way through the chattering crowds in the lobby, and out into the street. He wanted to breathe, and to get away from the people who regarded the recent disasters mainly as an excitement, a news story, or a justification for their international distastes. To him they were pure horror and grief. They were his friends who had disappeared; it was his League which was threatened.
Moodily he walked along the paths of the Jardin Anglais; broodingly he seated himself upon a bench and stared frowning at the jet d'eau, and suspected, against his will, the Spanish and Portuguese Americans.
A large lady in purple, walking on high-heeled shoes as on stilts, and panting a little from the effort, stopped opposite him.
"Such a favour!" she murmured. "I told my husband it was too much to ask. But no, he would have it. He made me come and speak to you. I've left him over there by the fountain." She creaked and sat down on the bench, and Lord John, who had risen as she addressed him, sat down too, wondering how most quickly to get away.
"The Union," said the lady; and at that word Lord John bent towards her more attentively. "Lakeside branches. We're starting them, my husband and I, in all the lake villages. So important; so necessary. These villages are terribly behind the times. They simply live in the past. And what a past! Picturesque if you will—but not progressive—oh, no! So some of us have decided that there must be a branch of the Union in every lake village. We have brought a little band of organisers over to Geneva to-day, to attend the Assembly. But the Assembly is occupied this morning in electing committees. Necessary, of course; but no mention of the broader principles on which the League rests can be made until the voting is over. So we are having a little business meeting in an office off the Rue Croix d'Or. And when my husband and I caught sight of you he said to me, 'If only we could get Lord John to come right away now and address a few words to our little gathering—oh, but really quite a few—its dead bones would live!' Now, do I ask too much, Lord John?"
"My dear lady," said Lord John, "I'm really sorry, but I simply haven't the time, I wish you all the luck in the world, but——"
The purple lady profoundly sighed.
"I told my husband so. It was too much to ask. He's a colonel, you know—an Anglo-Indian—and always goes straight for what he wants, never hesitating. He would make me ask you; ... but at least we have your good wishes, Lord John, haven't we?"
"The motto of our little village branches," she added as she rose, "is Si vis pacem, para bellum. Or, in some villages, Si vis bellum, para pacem. Both so true, aren't they? Now which do you think is the best?"
Lord John Lester looked down at her in silence, momentarily at a loss for an answer.
"Really, my dear lady, ... I'm afraid I don't like either at all. In fact, neither in any way expresses the ideals or principles of the League."
She looked disappointed.
"Now, you don't say so! But those are the lines we're founding our branches on. One has to be so careful, don't you think, or a branch may get on the wrong lines, with all these peace cranks about. And every branch has its influence. They're ignorant in these lake villages, but they do mean well, and they're only anxious to learn. If only you would come and tell our little organising band how we ought to start them!"
Lord John, having taken the lady in, from her topmost purple feathers to her pin-like heels, decided that, in all probability, she had not got a League mind. And she and the Anglo-Indian colonel (who probably had not got this type of mind either, for Anglo-Indian colonels so exceedingly often have another) were going to start branches of the League of Nations Union all up the lake, to be so many centres of noxious, watered-down, meaningless League velleity, of the type which he, Lord John, found peculiarly repugnant. Perhaps, after all, it might be his duty to go and say a few wholesome words to the little organising band assembled in the office off the Rue Croix d'Or. Yes; it was obviously his duty, and not to be shirked. With a sigh he looked at his watch. It need not take him more than half an hour, all told.
"Very well," he said. "If you would find a very few words of any use——"
She gave a joyful pant.
"You're too good, Lord John! How grateful we shall all be! You shall tell us all about how we ought to do it, and give us some really good mottoes!... I remember helping with branches of the National Service League before the war, and they had such a nice motto—'The path of duty is the way to safety.' ... That would be a good Union motto, don't you think? Or 'Festina lente'—for we mustn't be impatient, must we? Or, 'Hands across the sea!' For nothing is so important as keeping our entente with France intact, is it.... The people of this country will not stand any weakening ... you know.... My husband reads me that out of the paper at breakfast.... There he is ... Frederick, isn't this good of Lord John...."
Professor Arnold Inglis, that most gentle, high-minded and engaging of scholars, who most unfittingly represented part of a wild, hot, uncultured, tropical continent on the League, strolled out after lunch before the meeting of Committee 9 to see the flowers and fruit in the market-place. He was sad, because, like his fellow-delegate and friend, Lord John Lester, he hated this sort of disturbance. Like Lord John, he resented this violence which was assaulting the calm and useful progress of the Assembly, and was torn with anxiety for the fate of the three delegates. He wished he had Lord John with him this afternoon, that they might discuss the situation, but he had not seen him since he had left the Assembly that morning, so characteristically impatient at the prospect of the appointment of Committee 9.
Professor Inglis stood by a fruit-stall and looked down absently at the lovely mass of brilliant fruit and vegetables that lay on it.
Presently he became aware that some one at his side was pouring forth a stream of not unbeautiful language in a low, frightened voice. Looking round, he saw a small, ugly, malaria-yellow woman, gazing at him with frightened black eyes and clasped hands, and talking rapidly in a curious blend of ancient and modern Greek. What she appeared to be saying was:—
"I am persecuted by Turks; I beg you to succour me!"
"But what," said Professor Inglis, also speaking in a blend, but with more of the ancient tongue in it that had hers, for he was more at home in classical than in modern Greek, "can I do? Can you not appeal to the police?"
"I dare not," she replied. "I am in a minority in my house; I am an unprotected serving-woman, and there are three Turks in the same house who leave me no peace. Even now one of them is waiting for me with a stick because I had a misfortune and broke his hookah."
"It is certainly," said the Professor, "a case for the police. If you do not like to inform them, I will do so myself. Tell me where you live."
"Just round the corner here, in a house in that passage," she said. "Come with me and see for yourself, sir, if you doubt my word as to my sufferings."
Professor Inglis hesitated for a moment, not wishing to be drawn into city brawls, but when she added, "I appealed to you, sir, because I have been told how you are always on the side of the unprotected, and also love the Greeks," his heart melted in him, and he forgot that, though he did indeed love the ancient Greeks, he did not very much care for the moderns of that race (such, for example, as M. Lapoulis, the Greek delegate), and only remembered that here did indeed seem to be a very Unprotected Minority (towards which persons his heart was always soft), and that the Minority was a woman, poor, ill-favoured, and malarial, talking a Greek more ancient than was customary with her race, and persecuted by Turks, which nation Professor Inglis, in spite of his League mind, could not induce himself to like. All these things he recollected as he stood hesitating by the fruit stall, and he reflected also that, until he had in some degree verified the woman's tale, he would not care to trouble the already much burdened police with it; so, with a little sigh, he turned to the poor woman and told her he would come with her to her house and see for himself, and would then assist her to take steps to protect herself. She thanked him profusely, and led the way to the passage which she had mentioned.
Chivalry, pity for the unprotected, love of the Greek tongue, dislike of Turks—by all these quite creditable emotions was Professor Inglis betrayed, as you may imagine, to his fate.
Henry Beechtree, when he left the Assembly Hall, had, for his part, fish to fry in the Secretariat, and thither he made his rapid way. He had arranged to meet Miss Doris Wembley, the secretary of Charles Wilbraham, that morning in her chief's room, and then to lunch with her.
Henry was getting to know Miss Wembley very well. It seemed to him as if he had always known her, as, indeed, he had. He knew the things she would say before she said them. He knew which were the subjects she would expand on, and which would land her, puzzled and uninterested, in inward non-comprehension and verbal assent. She was a nice girl, a jolly girl, an efficient girl, and a very pretty girl. She liked Henry, whom she thought amusing, shabby, and queer.
They began, of course, by talking of the fresh disappearances.
"We've got bets in the Secretariat on who will be the next," she told him. "I've put my money on Branting. I don't know why, but I somehow feel he'll go soon. But some people say it'll be the S.G. himself.... Isn't it too awful for their wives, poor things? Poor little Madame Chang! They say she's being simply wonderful."
"Wonderful," repeated Henry. "That's what widows are, isn't it? But is it, I wonder, enough to make one wonderful that one's husband should disappear alive? You see, they may not be dead, these poor delegates; they may exist, hidden away somewhere."
"Oh, dear, yes, I hope so. Isn't it all too weird? Have you any theories, Mr. Beechtree?"
Henry looked non-committal and said that doubtless every one in Geneva had their private suspicions (often, for that matter, made public), and that he was no exception. He then turned the conversation on to Wilbraham's father-in-law, who was staying so privately in Geneva, and they had much fruitful talk on this and other subjects.
The Assembly, having elected the committee, and listened to a long speech from a Persian prince about the horrors of modern warfare, and a poem of praise from an eminent Italian Swiss on the beauties of the poet Dante, whose birthday was approaching, broke up for lunch.
The committee (which was to be called Committee 9) was to meet at the Secretariat that afternoon and consider what steps should next be taken. It was a rather large committee, because nearly every one had been anxious to be on it. It consisted of delegates from France, Great Britain, Italy, Norway, Central Africa, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Albania, Serbia, Brazil, Chili, Bolivia, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, and Haiti. Its sessions were to be in private, in spite of the strongly expressed contrary desire of Lord John Lester. The chairman was the delegate for Paraguay. It was expected that he would carefully and skilfully guide the lines on which the committee should work so that the regrettable suspicions which had accidentally fallen on certain Latin Americans should be diverted into other and more deserving channels.
The proceedings of the first meeting of Committee No. 9 can be best reported in the words of the Assembly Journal for the following day. This journal, with its terse and yet detailed accounts of current happenings, its polite yet lucid style, and its red-hot topicality (for it is truly a journal), makes admirable reading for those who like their literature up-to-date. Those who attend the meetings of the Assembly are, as a matter of fact, excellently well-provided by the enterprise of the Secretariat with literature. A delegated or a journalist's pigeon-hole is far better than a circulating library. New every morning is the supply, and those who, in their spare hours, like a nice lie down and a nice read (all in two languages) shall have for their entertainment the Assembly Journal for the day, the Verbatim Record of the last meetings of the Assembly and Committees, selected press opinions of the affair (these are often very entertaining, and journalists approach them with the additional interest engendered by the hope that the comments they themselves have sent home to their papers may have been selected for quotation: in passing it may be observed that Henry Beechtree had, in this matter, no luck), and all kinds of documents dealing with every kind of matter—the Traffic in Women, Children, and Opium, the admission of a new State to the League, international disputes, disagreeable telegrams from one country about another, the cost of living in Geneva, the organisation of International Statistics, International Health, or International Education, the Economic Weapon of the League, the status or the frontiers of a Central European state, the desirability of a greater or a less great publicity, messages from the Esperanto Congress, and so on and so forth; every kind of taste is, in fact, catered for.
To quote, then, the Journal for the day after the first meeting of the Committee for Dealing with the Disappearance of Delegates:—
"Committee No. IX. met yesterday, Wednesday, Sept. 8th, at 3.30 p.m., under the chairmanship of M. Croza (Paraguay).
"The Chairman pointed out that the agenda before the Committee fell under several heads:—
"1. Deprecation of baseless suspicions and malicious aspersions.
"2. Investigation into possible or probable motives for the assaults.
"3. Consideration of the adoption of precautionary measures to safeguard in future the persons of delegates.
"4. Organisation of complete house to house search of the city of Geneva by police.
"5. Consideration of various suspicions based on reason and common sense.
"In order to carry on these lines of inquiry, five sub-committees were appointed, each of which would report to the plenary committee day by day.
"All the sittings of the sub-committees would be in private, as the publicity which had been demanded by one of the delegates from Central Africa would vitiate, in this case, the effectiveness of the inquiry.
"Before the sub-committees separated, several members addressed the committee. M. Gomez (Panama) proposed that special attention should be given to the fact that Geneva at all times, but particularly during the sessions of the Assembly, was a centre of pestilential societies, among whom were to be found in large numbers Socialists, Bolshevists, Freemasons, and Jews. In his opinion, the headquarters of all these societies should be raided. Above all, it should be remembered that the delegates were all brothers in friendship, and as such were above the suspicion of any but the basest minds.
"M. Chapelle (France) said this was indeed true of the delegates, but that it would be a mistake if the committee should not keep its mind open to all possibilities, and it must be remembered that some of the nations most recently admitted to the League had bands of their fellow-countrymen in Geneva, who were undoubtedly sore in spirit over recent economic and political decisions, and might (without, well understood, the sanction of their delegates) have been guilty of this attack on the personnel of the League by way of revenge.
"Signor Nelli (Italy) strongly deprecated the suggestion of M. Chapelle as unworthy of the spirit of fraternity between nations which should animate members of the League.
"After some further discussion of Item 5 of the agenda, it was agreed to leave it to the sub-committee appointed to consider it, and the committee then broke up into five sub-committees."
The Journal, always discreet, sheltered under the words "further discussion of Item 5" a good deal of consideration of various suspicions based on reason and common sense. Most members of the committee, in fact, had their suggestions to make; in committee people always felt they could speak more freely than in the Assembly, and did so. Bolshevist refugees, bands of marauding Poles disbanded from General Zeligowski's army, Sinn Feiners, Orangemen, Albanians, Turks, unprotected Armenians, Jugo-Slavs, women-traffickers, opium merchants, Greeks, Zionists, emissaries from Frau Krupp, Mormons, Americans, Indians, and hired assassins from l'Intransigeant and the Morning Post—all these had their accusers. Finally Mr. Macdermott (Ulster) said he would like to point out what might not be generally known, that there was a very widespread Catholic society of dubious morals and indomitable fanaticism, which undoubtedly had established a branch in Geneva for the Assembly, and much might be attributable to this.
It was this suggestion which finally caused the chairman to break the committee hastily up into its sub-committees. And, as has been said, none of this discussion found its way into the very well-edited Journal, though it would appear after some days in the procs-verbaux.
After the committee broke up, Fergus Macdermott from Belfast, who was not on one of the sub-committees, walked briskly away from the Secretariat, and had tea in company with the young man who represented the Morning Post, and who was an old school-fellow of his. Excited by his own utterances on the subject of Catholics, Fergus Macdermott suddenly remembered, while drinking his tea, what day it was.
"My God," he remarked, profoundly moved, to Mr. Garth of the Morning Post, "it's the 8th of September."
"What then?" inquired Mr. Garth, who was an Englishman and knew not days, except those on which university matches were to be played or races run or armistices celebrated. "What's the 8th?"
The blue eyes of Mr. Macdermott gazed at him with a kind of kindling Orange stare.
"The 8th," he replied, "is a day we keep in Ulster."
"Do you? How?"
"By throwing stones," said Mr. Macdermott, simply and fervently. "At processions, you know. It's a great Catholic day—like August 15th—I forget why. Some Catholic foolery. The birthday of the Virgin Mary, I fancy. Anyhow we throw stones.... I wonder will there be any processions here?"
"You can't throw stones if there are," his more discreet friend admonished him. "Pull yourself together, Fergus, and don't look so fell. These things simply aren't done outside your maniac country, you know. Remember where and what you are."
The wild blue fire still leapt in Mr. Macdermott's Celtic eyes. His mind obviously still hovered round processions.
"Of course," he explained, "one couldn't throw stones. Not abroad. But one might go and look on...."
"Certainly not. Not if I can prevent you. You'll disgrace the League by shouting: 'To hell with the Pope.' I know you. If a procession is anywhere in the offing, it will make you feel so at home that you'll lose your head entirely. Go and find O'Shane and punch his head if you want to let off steam. He'll be game, particularly as it's one of his home festivals too. You're neither of you safe to have loose on the Nativity of the B.V.M., if that's what it is."
Macdermott gazed at the lake with eyes that dreamed of home.
"It'd be a queer thing," he murmured, "if there wouldn't be a procession somewhere to-day, even in this godly Protestant city...."
"Well, in case there should, and to keep you safe, you'd better come and dine with me at eight at my inn. Don't dress. I must go and send off my stuff now. See you later, then."
Fergus Macdermott, left alone, strolled along towards his own hotel, but when he was half-way to it a clashing of bells struck on his ear, and reminded him that the Catholic Church of Notre Dame was only a few streets away. No harm to walk that way, and see if anything was doing. He did so. On the door of the church a notice announced that the procession in honour of the Nativity of Our Lady would leave the church at eight o'clock and pursue a route, which was given in detail.
"Well, I can't see it," said Fergus Macdermott. "I shall be having dinner." He went back to his hotel and typed out a manifesto, or petition, as he called it, for presentation to the Assembly when quieter times should supervene and make the consideration of general problems possible again. The manifesto was on the subject of the tyranny exercised over Ulster by the Southern Free State Government. At the same moment, in his room at the same hotel, Denis O'Shane, the Free State delegate, was typing his manifesto, which was about the tyranny exercised over South Ireland by Ulster.
At 7.45 Macdermott finished his document, read it through with satisfaction and remembered that he had to go and dine with Garth. He left his hotel with this intention, and could not have said at what point his more profound, his indeed innate intention, which was to go to the Church of Notre Dame, asserted itself. Anyhow, at eight o'clock, there he was in the Place Cornavin, arriving at the outskirts of the crowd which was watching the white-robed crucifer and acolytes leading the procession out of the open church doors and down the steps.
Macdermott, blocked by the crowd, could hardly see. He felt in an inferior position towards this procession, barred from it by a kindly and reverent crowd of onlookers. In his native city things were different. He had here no moral support for his just contempt of Popish flummery. He did not want to do anything to the procession, merely to stare it down with the disgust it deserved, but this was difficult when he could only see it above bared heads.
A voice just above him said, in French: "Monsieur cannot see. He would get a better view from this window here. I beg of you to come in, monsieur."
Looking up, Macdermott saw the face of a kindly old woman looking down at him from the first-floor window of the high house behind him. Certainly, he admitted, he could not see, and he would rather like to. He entered the hospitable open door, which led into a shop, and ascended a flight of stone steps.
On the top step, in the darkness of a narrow passage, a chloroformed towel was flung and held tight over his head and face, and he was borne to the ground.
Thus this young Irishman's strong religious convictions, which did him credit, betrayed him to his doom. But, incomprehensibly, doom in the sense (whatever sense that was) in which it had overtaken his fellow-delegates, was after all averted. He did not disappear into silence as they had. On the contrary, the kindly old woman who had rushed from the front window and bent over him as he lay unconscious on the stair-head, saw him presently open his eyes and stir, and heard the faint, bewildered murmur of "to hell with the Pope," which is what Orangemen say mechanically when they come to, as others may say, "Where am I?"
Very soon he sat up, dizzily.
"I was chloroformed," he said, "by some damned Republican. Where is the chap? Don't let him make off."
But he was informed that this person had already disappeared. When the old lady of the house, hearing him fall, had come out and found him, there had been no trace of either his assaulter or of the chloroformed towel. The kindly old lady was almost inclined to think that monsieur must have fainted, and fancied the Republican, the chloroform, and the attack.
Fergus Macdermott, who never either fainted or fancied, assured her that this was by no means the case.
"It's part, no doubt," he said, "of this Sinn Fein plot against delegates. Why they didn't put it through in my case I can't say. I suppose they heard you coming.... But what on earth did they mean to do with me? Now, madame, we must promptly descend and make inquiries as to who was seen to leave your front door just now. There is no time to be lost.... Only I feel so infernally giddy...."
The inquiries he made resulted in little. Some standers-by had seen two men leave the house a few minutes since, but had observed nothing, neither what they were like nor where they went. No, it had not been observed that they were of South Irish aspect.
It seemed hopeless to track them. The old lady said that she lived there alone with her husband, above the shop; but that, of course, any scoundrel might stray into it while the door stood open, and lurk in ambush.
"How did they guess that the old lady was going to invite me in?" Macdermott wondered. "If they did guess, that is, and if it was really part of the anti-delegate campaign. Of course, if not, they may merely have guessed she should ask some one (it may be her habit), and hidden in ambush to rob whoever it might be. But they didn't rob me.... It could be that this good old lady was in the plot herself, no less, for all she speaks so civil. But who is to prove that, I ask you? It's queer and strange...."
Thus pondering, Fergus Macdermott took a cab and drove to the hotel where he was to dine with Garth, the representative of the Morning Post. He would be doing Garth a good turn to let him get in with the tale before the other papers; he would be able to wire it home straight away. The Morning Post deserved that: a sound paper it was, and at times the only one in England that got hold of and stated the Truth. This attack on Macdermott proved conclusively to his mind, what he and the Morning Post had from the first suspected and said, that the Irish Republicans were at the back of the whole business, helped, as usual, by German and Bolshevik money.
"Ah, this proves it," said Macdermott, his blue eyes very bright in his white face as he drove along.
As to the procession, he had forgotten all about it.
Mademoiselle Bjornsen, substitute delegate for one of the Scandinavian countries, a doctor of medicine, and a woman of high purpose and degree, of the type which used to be called, in the old days when it flourished in Great Britain, feminist, often walked out in the evening for a purpose which did her great credit. She was of those good and disinterested women who care greatly for the troubles of their less fortunate, less well-educated and less well-principled sisters, and who often patrol streets in whatever city they happen to find themselves, with a view to extending the hand of succour to those of their sex who appear to be in error or in need.
On this evening of the 8th of September, Mlle. Bjornsen was starting out, after her dinner at the Htel Richemond, on her nightly patrol, when she was joined by Mlle. Binesco from Roumania, a lady whose rich and exuberant personality was not, perhaps, wholly in accord with her own more austere temperament, but whom she acknowledged to abound in good intentions and sisterly pity for the unfortunate of her sex. For her part, Mlle. Binesco did not regard Mlle. Bjornsen as a very womanly woman, but respected her integrity and business-like methods, and felt her to be, perhaps, an effective foil to herself. It may be observed that there are in this world mental females, mental males, and mental neutrals. You may know them by their conversation. The mental females, or womanly women, are apt to talk about clothes, children, domestics, the prices of household commodities, love affairs, or personal gossip. Theirs is rather a difficult type of conversation to join in, as it is above one's head. Mental males, or manly men, talk about sport, finance, business, animals, crops, or how things are made. Theirs is also a difficult type of conversation to join in, being also above one's head. Male men as a rule, like female women, and vice versa; they do not converse, but each supplies the other with something they lack, so they gravitate together and make happy marriages. In between these is the No-Man's Land, filled with mental neutrals of both sexes. They talk about all the other things, such as books, jokes, politics, love (as distinct from love affairs), people, places, religion (in which, though they talk more about it, they do not, as a rule, believe so unquestioningly as do the males and the females, who have never thought about it and are rather shocked if it is mentioned), plays, music, current fads and scandals, public persons and events, newspapers, life, and anything else which turns up. Their conversation is easy to join in, as it is not above one's head. They gravitate together, and often marry each other, and are very happy. If one of them makes a mistake and marries a mental male or a mental female, the marriage is not happy, for they demand conversation and interest in things in general, and are answered only by sex; they tell what they think is a funny story, and meet the absent eye and mechanical smile of one who is thinking how to turn a heel or a wheel, how to sew a frock or a field, how most cheaply to buy shoes or shares. And they themselves are thought tiresome, queer, unsympathetic, unwomanly or unmanly, by the more fully sexed partner they have been betrayed by love's blindness into taking unto themselves.
This is one of life's more frequent tragedies, but had not affected either Mlle. Binesco, who was womanly, and had always married (so to speak) manly men, or Mlle. Bjornsen, who was neutral, and had not married any one, having been much too busy.
Anyhow, these two ladies were at one in their quest to-night. Both, whatever their minds might be like, had warm feminine hearts. Geneva, that godly Calvinist city, was a poor hunting-ground on the whole for them. But they turned their steps to the old cit, rightly believing that among those ancient and narrow streets vice might, if anywhere, flit by night.
"These wicked traffickers in human flesh and blood," observed Mlle. Binesco sighing (for she was rather stout), as they ascended the Rue de la Cit; "do not tell me they are not somehow behind the mysterious assaults on our unhappy comrades of the League. Never tell me so, for I will not believe it."
"I will not tell you so," Mlle. Bjornsen, an accurate person, replied, "for I know nothing at all about it, nor does any one else. But to me it seems improbable, I sometimes think, mademoiselle, that there is some danger that the preoccupation which women like ourselves naturally feel with the suppression of this cruel trade and the rescue of its victims, may at times lead us into obsession or exaggeration. I try to guard myself against that. Moderation and exactitude are important."
"Ah, there speaks the north. For me, mademoiselle, I cannot be moderate; it is a quality alien to my perhaps over-impetuous temperament. I have never been cautious—neither in love, hate, nor in the taking of risks. You will realise, Mademoiselle, that the risk you and I are taking to-night is considerable. Have we not been warned not to penetrate into the more squalid parts of the city by night? And we are not only delegates, but women. At any moment we might be attacked and carried off to some dwelling of infamy, there to wait deportation to another land."
"I do not expect it," replied the Scandinavian lady, who had a sense of humour.
A shrill giggle broke on their ears from a side street. Glancing down it, they saw a young girl, wearing like flags the paint and manner of her profession, and uttering at intervals its peculiar cry—that shrill, harsh laugh which had drawn the ladies' attention.
"Ah!" a coo of satisfaction came from Mlle. Binesco. "Voil une pauvre petite!"
As the girl saw them, she darted away from them down the alley, obviously suspicious of their intentions. Quickly they followed; here, obviously, was a case for assistance and rescue.
The kind mouth of Mlle. Bjornsen set in determination; her intelligent eyes beamed behind their glasses.
The girl fluttered in front of them, still uttering the peculiar cry of her species, which to the good ladies was a desperate appeal for help, till she suddenly bolted beneath a low, dark archway.
The ladies hesitated. Then, "I must follow her, poor girl," Mlle. Bjornsen remarked simply, for the courage of a thousand Scandinavian heroes beat in her blood.
"And where you adventure, my dear friend," cried Mlle. Binesco, "I, a Roumanian woman and a friend of kings, will not be behind! We advance, then, in the name of humanity and of our unhappy sex!"
Humanity, compassion, womanly sympathy, and devotion to the cause of virtue—by these noble qualities these two poor ladies were lured to their fate. For it should be by now superfluous to say that, though they entered that archway, they did not emerge from it.
There also disappeared that night the good Albanian bishop, betrayed by who knew what of episcopal charity and response to appeals for succour from his fellow-countrymen, the helpless sheep of his flock, threatened by the wolfish atrocities of the ineffable Serb-Croat-Slovenes.
It did indeed seem that this unseen hand was taking the highest types of delegate for its purposes so mysterious and presumably so fell.
Every one turned next morning with interest to the day's issue of "Press Opinions" to discover what the world's newspapers were saying of the tragic and extraordinary state of affairs in Geneva. They were saying, it seemed, on the whole, very much what might be expected of them. The American press, for instance, observed that the League, without the support of the United States, was obviously falling into the state of disruption and disintegration which had long since been prophesied. What was to be expected, when the Monroe Doctrine was being threatened continually by the bringing before the League of disputes between the South and Central American republics, disputes which, being purely American, could not possibly be settled by European intervention in any shape or form? On this question of the Monroe Doctrine, the security and utility of the whole League rested.... It was rumoured that it was the shaky attitude of the League on this point that was responsible for its present collapse....
("Seems very like saying that America is behind the whole game," commented many readers.)
The French press commented on the fact that no one had yet dared to lay a hand on the French delegates. "Whatever," it said, "may be thought of the other delegates, the whole world has agreed to see in France a nation so strong, so beneficent, and so humane, that it merits the confidence of humanity at large. Without it, no affairs could flourish. The tribute to the prestige of France evinced by this notable omission of assault cannot but be gratifying to all who love France. With the tragic disappearance of several English-speaking delegates, it might perhaps be natural to dispense with the tedious use of two languages where only one is necessary. No one listens to the interpretations into English of French speakers; the general chatter of voices and movement which immediately starts when the English interpreter begins, is surely sign enough of the general feeling on this point...."
The more nationalist section of the Italian press—the Popolo d'Italia, for instance—prophesied, with tragic accuracy, that the Albanian delegate would very soon be among the victims of this criminal plot, in which it was not, surely, malicious to detect Yugo-Slav agency. It also spoke with admiration of the poet Dante.
The Swiss press, in much distress, urged the clearing up of this tragic mystery, which so foully stained the records of the noble city of Geneva, so beautiful in structure, so chaste in habits, so idealistic in outlook, the centre of the intellectual thought of Europe, and, above all, so cheap to live in. For their part (so said La Suisse), they attributed these outrages to criminal agents from the hotels and shops of Brussels, Vienna, and other cities which might be mentioned, who had been sent to discredit Geneva as a safe and suitable home for the League. Fortunately, however, such discrediting was impossible: on the contrary, the cities discredited were the above-mentioned, which had hatched and put into execution such a wicked plot.
The extracts selected from the British press spoke with various voices. The Morning Post commented, without much distress, on the obvious disintegration and collapse of the League, which had always had within itself the seeds of ruin and now was meeting its expected Nemesis. Such preposterous houses of cards, said the Morning Post, cannot expect to last long in a world which is, in the main, a sensible place. It did not now seem probable that, as some said, Bolshevists were behind these outrages; on further consideration it was not even likely to be Irish traitors; for these sections of the public would doubtless approve the League, typical as it was of the folly which so strongly actuated themselves. Far more likely was it that their assaults were the work, misguided but surely excusable, of the Plain Man, irritated at last to execute judgment on these frenzied and incompetent efforts after that unprofitable dream of the visionary, a world peace. It was well known that the question of disarmament was imminent....
The British Bolshevist (its leader, not its correspondent, who seldom got quoted by the Press Bulletin) agreed with the Morning Post that the house of cards was collapsing because of its inherent vices, but was inclined to think that the special vice for which it was suffering retribution was its failure to deal faithfully with Article 18 of the Covenant, which concerned the publicity of treaties. The British Bolshevist always had Article 18 a good deal on its mind.
The Times said that these strange happenings showed the importance of keeping on frank and friendly terms (the Times often used these two incompatible adjectives as if they were synonymous) with France. They served to emphasise and confirm that entente of which the British people were resolved to suffer no infringement.
The Daily News thought that the enemies of disarmament and of the various humanitarian efforts of the League were responsible for these assaults.
The Manchester Guardian correspondent said that at last the Assembly, formerly a little dull, had taken on all the interest of a blood and thunder melodrama....
The days went by, and the nights. Why dwell on them, or, in detail, on the strange—or rather the now familiar, but none the less sinister—events which marked each? One could tell of the disappearance, one after another, of the prominent members of the Council—of the decoy of Signor Nelli, the chief Italian delegate, by messengers as from Fiume with strange rumours of Jugo-Slav misdeeds; of the sudden disappearance of Latin Americans from the Casino, whither they had gone to chat, to drink, and to play; of the silent stealing away of rows upon rows of Japanese, none knew how or why; of how Kristna, the distinguished Indian, was lured to meet a supposed revealer of a Ghandi anti-League plot.
As full-juiced apples, waxing over-mellow, drop in a silent autumn night, so dropped these unhappy persons, delegate by delegate, to their unguessed at doom. And it would indeed appear as if there were some carefully deliberated design against the welfare of the League, for gradually it appeared that those taken had, on the whole, this welfare more at heart than those left; their ideals were more pacific, their hearts more single, their minds more League.
The Turkish delegation, for example, did not disappear. Nor the Russian, nor the German, nor the Greek, nor the Serb-Croat-Slovene.
In the hands of those left, the Assembly and its committees were less dangerous to the wars of the world than they had been before. The best, from a League stand-point, were gone. What, for instance, would happen to the disarmament question should it be brought up, with the most ardent members of the disarmament committee thus removed from the scene? But, indeed, how could that or any other question be brought up, in the present state of agitation, when all minds were set on the one problem, on how to solve this appalling mystery that spread its tentacles further every day? The only committee which sat, or attempted any business, was Committee 9, on the Disappearance of Delegates—and that was signally impotent to do more than meet, pass resolutions, and report on unavailing measures taken.
The other committees, on humanitarian questions, on intellectual, financial, economic, political, and transit questions, were struck helpless. Not a frontier dispute, not an epidemic, not a drug, not so much as a White Slave, could be discussed. Truly the very League itself seemed struck to the heart. All the Assembly could do was meet, vote, pass resolutions, and make speeches about the horrors of the next war and the necessity of thwarting the foul plot against the wellbeing of the League.
Meanwhile Central Europe rumbled, as usual, indeed as always, with disputes that might at any moment become blows. Affairs in Jugo-Slavia, in Hungary, in Greece, in Albania, in Czecho-Slovakia, in Poland, and in Russia, were not quiet. Greece and Turkey were hideously at war. Nor were the South and Central American republics free from unrest. Russia was reaching out its evil White hands to grasp and weld again into a vast unhappy whole its former constituent republics of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Esthonia, Tauride, and White Russia. There seemed every chance that it would shortly succeed in doing so. The nations growled everywhere like sullen dogs on fragile chains. Never had the League of Nations, in all its brief career, been more necessary, never less available. Not a grievance could be given that public airing from what is called a world platform, which is so beneficial to the airers, so apt at promoting fraternal feeling, so harmless to all concerned. Instead, grievances festered and went bad, and blood-poisoning was rapidly setting in. Not a voice could be raised, as many voices would have been raised, from that world-platform, to urge contending parties to refer their differences to the Court of International Justice, so ready and eager to adjudicate, to apply international conventions, whether general or particular, international custom as evidence for a general practice accepted as law, and teachings of the most highly qualified publicists as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law. For all this is what these aged and wise judges sitting at the Hague were equipped and ready to do, if only the nations would ask them to do it. But it was not to be expected that the nations should make use of such a strange procedure for themselves, unless prompted and even urged thereto by the weight of opinion in the Assembly.
Yes, Europe, and indeed the world, was, as always, in a parlous state, rushing on ruin with no hand raised to give it pause, even as in the evil old days before the conception and foundation of the League. The journalists were as busy as, and more profoundly happy than, they would have been had the Assembly been running its appointed course. They ran about picking up clues, Marconi-graphing messages to their papers about the latest disappearances, the latest theories, the newest rumours. Each became a private detective, pursuing a lone trail. Other journalists flocked to the scene; where they had come in their tens, they now came in their hundreds, for here was News. The Assembly of the League of Nations is not News, until it stumbles on mystery and disaster, becoming material for a shocker. The meeting together of organisations for the betterment of the world is not News, in the sense that their failure is. Deeply Henry, going about his secret and private business, intent and absorbed, pondered this question of News, what it is and what it is not. Crime is News; divorce is News; girl mothers are News; fabric gloves and dolls' eyes are, for some unaccountable reason, News; centenaries of famous men are, for some still stranger reason, News; railway accidents are News; the wrong-doing of clergymen is News; strangest of all, women are, inherently and with no activities on their part, News, in a way that men are not. Henry had often thought this very singular. He had read in accounts of public gatherings (such as criminal trials, tennis tournaments, boxing matches, etc.), such statements as "There were many well-dressed women present." These women had done nothing to deserve their fame; they were merely present, just as men were. But never had Henry read, "There were many well-dressed men present," for men were not News. To be News in oneself, without taking any preliminary action—that was very exciting for women. A further question arose: were women News to their own sex, or only to men? And were men perhaps News to women? "There were many well-dressed men present." ... Ah, that would be exciting reading for women, and perhaps a woman reporter would thrill to it and set it down. But men do not care how many men were present, or how well they were dressed, or what colour their hats and suits were. All sorts of articles and letters appear in the papers about women. Profound questions are raised concerning them. Should they smoke? Should they work? Vote? Take Orders? Marry? Exist? Are not their skirts too short, or their sleeves? Have they a sense of humour, of honour, of direction? Are spinsters superfluous? But how seldom similar inquiries are propounded about men. How few persons discuss superfluous bachelors, or whether the male arm or leg is an immodest sight, or whether men should vote. For men are not News.
Anyhow, thought Henry, anyhow delegates became News the moment they disappeared. If you do wrong you are News, and if you have a bad accident, you are News, but if you mysteriously disappear, you are doubly and trebly News. To be News once in one's life—that is something for a man. Though sometimes it comes too late to be enjoyed.
In and out of the maze of ancient streets that are Old Geneva, to and fro along the alleys that lead through balconied, leaning houses, up and down obscure and sudden flights of stone steps, Henry wandered under the September moon. All day he had, with the help of Charles Wilbraham's unwitting secretary, tracked Charles Wilbraham. He knew how Charles had begun the morning by dictating proud and ponderous documents in his proud and ponderous voice, and talking to people who came in and out of his room; how he had then gone to the Assembly Hall and chatted in the lobby to every one of sufficient importance to be worth his while, including ex-Cardinal Franchi, who had of late been making friends with him, and with whom he had dined last night at the Chteau Lman; how then Charles had lunched with two Russians, a Greek, and a Pole, and Sir John Levis, his father-in-law, at the Caf du Nord, hatching Henry did not know what (for the Nord was much too expensive for him) of anti-League mischief and crime; how after lunch Charles had attended the meetings of the sub-committees on the Disappearance of Delegates, going from one to another looking business-like and smug and as if he were at strictly private meetings, as indeed he was. Then up to his room for his tea (Charles never missed this meal) and down again to see how Sub-Committee 5 ("Consideration of Various Suspicions based on Reason and Common Sense") was getting on, and then up again to do some more work. (For there was this about Charles, as even Henry had to admit—he worked hard. Ambition, the last infirmity of noble minds, offensive and irritating quality as it is, has at least this one good fruit.) Then Charles had been to a large dinner given by the Canadian delegation to members of the Secretariat, and had made a facetious speech; and now, at eleven-thirty, he was walking about the old city, followed at some distance by Henry Beechtree.
Charles was not alone. He had with him M. Kratzky from Russia, Sir John Levis, and a small, quiet Calvinist minister, whom Henry had lately seen about Geneva.
The four gentlemen turned out of the Rue du Perron down the narrow, ancient and curious Passage de Monnetier, and out of that into a deep arched alley running through a house into another street. Henry, watching from the corner of the Passage de Monnetier, did not dare to follow nearer for some moments. When he had given them a little time, he softly tiptoed to the mouth of the alley. It was one of those deep cobbled passages that run through many houses in the old quarter. It was profoundly dark; Henry could only faintly discern the three figures half-way down it. They seemed to have stopped, and to be bending down as if looking for something on the ground. The spark of an electric torch gleamed suddenly, directed by the little clergyman; its faint disc of light swam over the dirty floor of the passage, till it came to rest on an iron ring that lay flat to the ground. The clergyman seized this ring and jerked at it; after a moment it left the ground in his hand, and with it the flap of a trap-door.
Whispers inaudible to Henry passed between the members of the party; then, one by one, the three figures descended through the open trap into the bowels of the earth, and the lid closed upon them.
Henry tiptoed forward; should he follow? On the whole—no. On the whole he would wait until Wilbraham, his father-in-law, M. Kratzky, and the clergyman emerged. What, after all, would be the use of finding oneself underground with desperate, detected criminals, whose habit it apparently was to stick at nothing? What, after all, could he do?
Henry was shivering, less from fear than excitement. Here, indeed, was a clue. Were they kept immured underground, these unfortunate captive delegates? And did Wilbraham and his criminal associates visit them from time to time with food and drink? Or without? With nothing, perhaps, but taunts? And how many more in Geneva knew of this trap-door and its secret? There were, every one knew, a number of these old trappons in the city, leading usually to disused cellars; their presence excited no suspicion. Probably no one ever used the obscure and hidden trap in this dark alley.
It was queer, how sure Henry felt that this curious nocturnal expedition on the part of Charles, his father-in-law, M. Kratzky and the Calvinist pastor had to do with the mystery of the delegates. He knew it beyond a doubt. Nor was he surprised. It came as a consummation of his suspicion and his hopes. Of Charles Wilbraham's villainy he had long been all but sure; of the villainy of M. Kratzky all the world knew; of the villainy of an ammunitions knight and a Calvinist pastor there needed little to convince Henry. But he knew that he must make sure. He must not go to the police, or to the committee, with an unproved tale. He must wait and investigate and prove.
He waited, in the dark archway beneath the crazy jumble of houses, with the sudden voices and footfalls of the midnight city echoing from time to time in the dark streets beyond. He waited and waited and waited. Now and then a dog or a cat rushed by him, startling him. Then, after twenty minutes or so, he wearied of waiting. Weariness and curiosity defeated caution; he pulled up the trap-door by its ring and peered down into blackness. Blackness, stillness, emptiness, and a queer, mouldy smell. Henry sat on the hole's edge for a full minute, dangling his legs. Then, catching his breath a little (it may or may not have been mentioned that Henry was not very brave), he swung himself down on to a hard, earthy floor.
It was a tunnel he was in; a passage about six feet high and four feet wide. How many feet or yards long was a more difficult and a much more interesting question. Feet? Yards? It might be miles. Henry's imagination bored through the impenetrable dark in front of the little moon thrown by his electric torch; through and along, through and along, towards what? The horrid four who had preceded him—where were they? Did they lurk, planning some evil, farther along the tunnel, just out of earshot? Or had they emerged by some other exit? Or were they even now returning, to meet Henry in a moment face to face, to brush by him as he pressed against the damp brick wall, to turn on him suddenly that swimming moon of light ... and then what?
Charles Wilbraham was no taker of human life, Henry felt assured. He was too prudent, too respectable, too much the civil servant. M. Kratzky, on the other hand, was a taker of human life—he did it as naturally as others would slay midges; while he breathed he slew. If Henry should be discovered spying, M. Kratzky's counsels would be all for making forthwith an end of Henry. Sir John Levis was an armament knight: members of the staff of the British Bolshevist needed not to know more of him than that: the Calvinist minister was either a Calvinist minister, and that was bad, or a master-criminal of the underworld disguised as a Calvinist minister, and that was worse. Or both of these. Four master-criminals of the underworld—these intriguing, appalling creatures, so common in the best fiction, so rare even in the worst life—if one were to meet four of them together in a subterranean passage.... Could human flesh and nerves endure it?
Henry, with his shuddering dislike of seeing even a goldfish injured or slain, shrank far more shudderingly from being injured or slain himself. The horrid wrench that physical assault was—and then, perhaps, the sharp break with life, the plunge into a blank unknown—and never to see again on this earth the person whom one very greatly loved....
As has been said, Henry was not brave. But he was, after all, a journalist on the scent of a story, and that takes one far; he was also a hunter in pursuit of a hated quarry, and that takes one farther.
Henry crossed himself, muttered a prayer and advanced down the passage, his torch a lantern before his feet, his nerves shivering like telegraph wires in a winter wind, but fortunately not making the same sound.
On and on and on. It was cold down there, like death, and bitter like death, and dark. Rats scuffled and leaped. Once Henry trod on one of them; it squeaked and fled, leaving him sick and cold. His imagination was held and haunted by the small quiet pastor; he seemed, on the whole, the worst of the four miscreants. A sinister air of deadly badness there had been about him.... Lines ran in and out of Henry's memory like cold mice. Something about "a grim Genevan minister walked by with anxious scowl." ... Horrid.... It made you sweat to think of him. Then on the passage there opened another passage, running sharply into it from the right. That was odd. Which should be followed?
Henry swung his flashlight up each in turn, and both seemed the same narrow blackness. He advanced a few steps, and on his left yet another turning struck out from the main tunnel.
"My God," Henry reflected, "the place is a regular catacomb."
If one should lose oneself therein, one might wander for days, as one did in catacombs.... Having no tallow candle, but only an electric torch, one might eat one's boots ... the very rats....
Not repressing a shudder, Henry stood hesitating at the cross-roads, looking this way and that, his ears strained to listen for sounds.
And presently, turning a corner, he perceived that there were sounds—footsteps and low voices, advancing down the left-hand passage towards him. Quickly shutting his light, he stepped back till he came to the right-hand turning, and went a little way up it, to where it sharply bent. Just round the corner he stopped, and stood hidden. He was gambling on the chance that whoever was coming would advance, back or forward, along the main tunnel when they struck into it. If, on the other hand, they crossed this and turned up his passage, he could hastily recede before them until perhaps another turning came, or possibly some exit, or until they turned on him that horrid moon of light and caught him....
Well, life is a gamble at all times, and more particularly to those who play the spy.
Henry listened. The steps came nearer. They had a queer, hollow sound on the earthy floor. Low voices murmured.