"I'll tell you something about war," he said, "which contradicts most every other experience. There's scarcely a great subject in the world which you don't have to take as a whole, and from the biggest point of view, to appreciate it thoroughly. It's exactly different with war. If you want to understand more than the platitudes, you want to just take in one section of the fighting. Say there are fifty Englishmen, decent fellows, been dragged from their posts as commercial travellers or small tradesmen or labourers or what-not, and they get mixed up with a similar number of Germans. Those Germans ain't the fiends we read about. They're not bubbling over with militarism. They don't want to lord it over all the world. They've exactly the same tastes, the same outlook upon life as the fifty Englishmen whom an iron hand has been forcing to do their best to kill. Those English chaps didn't want to kill anybody, any more than the Germans did. They had to do it, too, simply because it was part of the game. There was a handful of German prisoners I saw, talking with their guard and exchanging smokes. One was a barber in a country town. The man who had him in tow was an English barber. Bless you, they were talking like one o'clock! That German barber didn't want anything in life except plenty to eat and drink, to be a good husband and good father, and to save enough money to buy a little house of his own. The Englishman was just the same. He'd as soon have had that German for a pal for a day's fishing or a walk in the country, as any one else. They'd neither of them got anything against the other. Where the hell is this spirit of hatred? You go down the line, mile after mile, and most little groups of men facing one another are just the same. Here and there, there's some bitter feeling, through some fighting that's seemed unfair, but that's nothing. The fact remains that those millions of men don't hate one another, that they've got nothing to hate one another about, and they're being driven to slaughter one another like savage beasts. For what? Mr. Stenson might supply an answer. Your great editors might. Your great Generals could be glib about it. They could spout volumes of words, but there's no substance about them. I say that in this generation there's no call for fighting, and there didn't ought to be any."
"You are not only right, but you are splendidly right, Mr. Cross," Julian declared. "It's human talk, that."
"It's just a plain man's words and thoughts," was the simple reply.
"And yet," Fenn complained, in his thin voice, "if I talk like that, they call me a pacifist, a lot of rowdies get up and sing 'Rule Britannia', and try to chivy me out of the hall where I'm speaking."
"You see, there's a difference, lad," Cross pointed out, setting down the tankard of beer from which he had been drinking. "You talk sometimes that white-livered stuff about not hitting a man back if he wants to hit you, and you drag in your conscience, and prate about all men being brothers, and that sort of twaddle. A full-blooded Englishman don't like it, because we are all of us out to protect what we've got, any way and anyhow. But that doesn't alter the fact that there's something wrong in the world when we're driven to do this protecting business wholesale and being forced into murdering on a scale which only devils could have thought out and imagined. It's the men at the top that are responsible for this war, and when people come to reckon up, they'll say that there was blame up at the top in the Government of every Power that's fighting, but there was a damned sight more blame amongst the Germans than any of the others, and that's why many a hundred thousand of our young men who've loathed the war and felt about it as I do have gone and done their bit and kept their mouths shut."
"You cannot deny," Fenn argued, "that war is contrary to Christianity."
"I dunno, lad," Cross replied, winking across the table at Julian. "Seems to me there was a powerful lot of fighting in the Old Testament, and the Lord was generally on one side or the other. But you and I ain't going to bicker, Mr. Fenn. The first decision this Council came to, when it embraced more than a dozen of us of very opposite ways of thinking, was to keep our mouths shut about our own ideas and stick to business. So give me a fill of baccy from your pipe, and we'll have a cup of coffee together."
Julian's pouch was first upon the table, and the Northumbrian filled his pipe in leisurely fashion.
"Good stuff, sir," he declared approvingly, as he passed it back. "After dinner I am mostly a man of peace—even when Fenn comes yapping around," he added, looking after the disappearing figure of the secretary. "But I make no secret of this. I tumbled to it from the first that this was a great proposition, this amalgamation of Labour. It makes a power of us, even though it may, as you, Mr. Orden, said in one of your articles, bring us to the gates of revolution. But it was all I could do to bring myself to sit down at the same table with Penn and his friend Bright. You see," he explained, "there may be times when you are forced into doing a thing that fundamentally you disapprove of and you know is wrong. I disapprove of this war, and I know it's wrong—it's a foul mess that we've been got into by those who should have known better—but I ain't like Fenn about it. We're in it, and we've got to get out of it, not like cowards but like Englishmen, and if fighting had been the only way through, then I should have been for fighting to the last gasp. Fortunately, we've got into touch with the sensible folk on the other side. If we hadn't—well, I'll say no more but that I've got two boys fighting and one buried at Ypres, and I've another, though he's over young, doing his drill."
"Mr. Cross," Julian said, "you've done me more good than any one I've talked to since the war began."
"That's right, lad," Cross replied. "You get straight words from one; and not only that, you get the words of another million behind me, who feel as I do. But," he added, glancing across the room and lowering his voice, "keep your eye on that artful devil, Fenn. He doesn't bear you any particular good will."
"He wasn't exactly a hospitable gaoler," Julian reminiscently observed.
"I'm not speaking of that only," Cross went on. "There wasn't one of us who didn't vote for squeezing that document out of you one way or the other, and if it had been necessary to screw your neck off for it, I don't know as one of us would have hesitated, for you were standing between us and the big thing. But he and that little skunk Bright ain't to be trusted, in my mind, and it seems to me they've got a down on you. Fenn counted on being heart of this Council, for one thing, and there's a matter of a young woman, eh, for another?"
"A young woman?" Julian repeated.
"The Russian young person—Miss Abbeway, she calls herself. Fenn's been her lap-dog round here—takes her out to dine and that. It's just a word of warning, that's all. You're new amongst us, Mr. Orden, and you might think us all honest men. Well, we ain't; that's all there is to it."
Julian recovered from a momentary fit of astonishment.
"I am much obliged to you for your candour, Mr. Cross," he said.
"And never you mind about the 'Mr.', sir," the Northumbrian begged.
"Nor you about the 'sir'," Julian retorted, with a smile.
"Middle stump," Cross acknowledged. "And since we are on the subject, my new friend, let me tell you this. To feel perfectly happy about this Council, there's just three as I should like to see out of it—Fenn, Bright—and the young lady."
"Why the young lady?" Julian asked quickly.
"You might as well ask me, 'Why Fenn and Bright?'" the other replied. "I shouldn't make no answer. We're superstitious, you know, we north country folk, and we are all for instincts. All I can say to you is that there isn't one of those three I'd trust around the corner."
"Miss Abbeway is surely above suspicion?" Julian protested. "She has given up a great position and devoted the greater part of her fortune towards the causes which you and I and all of us are working for."
"There'd be plenty of work for her in Russia just now," Cross observed.
"No person of noble birth," Julian reminded him, "has the slightest chance of working effectively in Russia to-day. Besides, Miss Abbeway is half English. Failing Russia, she would naturally select this as the country in which she could do most good."
Some retort seemed to fade away upon the other's lips. His shaggy eyebrows were drawn a little closer together as he glanced towards the door. Julian followed the direction of his gaze. Catherine had entered and was looking around as though in search of some one.
Catherine was more heavily veiled than usual. Her dress and hat were of sombre black, and her manner nervous and disturbed. She came slowly to-wards their end of the table, although she was obviously in search of some one else.
"Do you happen to know where Mr. Fenn is?" she enquired.
Julian raised his eyebrows.
"Fenn was here a few minutes ago," he replied, "but he left us abruptly. I fancy that he rather disapproved of our conversation."
"He has gone to his room perhaps," she said. "I will go upstairs."
She turned away. Julian, however, followed her to the door.
"Shall I see you again before you leave?" he asked.
"Of course—if you wish to."
There was a moment's perceptible pause.
"Won't you come upstairs with me to Mr. Fenn's room?" she continued.
"Not if your business is in any way private."
She began to ascend the stairs.
"It isn't private," she said, "but I particularly want Mr. Fenn to tell me something, and as you know, he is peculiar. Perhaps, if you don't mind, it would be better if you waited for me downstairs."
Julian's response was a little vague. She left him, however, without appearing to notice his reluctance and knocked at the door of Fenn's room. She found him seated behind a desk, dictating some letters to a stenographer, whom he waved away at her entrance.
"Delighted to see you, Miss Abbeway," he declared impressively, "delighted! Come and sit down, please, and talk to me. We have had a tremendous morning. Even though the machine is all ready to start, it needs a watchful hand all the time."
She sank into the chair from which he had swept a pile of papers and raised her veil.
"Mr. Fenn," she confessed. "I came to you because I have been very worried."
He withdrew a little into himself. His eyes narrowed. His manner became more cautious.
"Worried?" he repeated. "Well?"
"I want to ask you this: have you heard anything from Freistner during the last day or two?"
Fenn's face was immovable. He still showed no signs of discomposure—his voice only was not altogether natural.
"Last day or two?" he repeated reflectively. "No, I can't say that I have, Miss Abbeway. I needn't remind you that we don't risk communications except when they are necessary."
"Will you try and get into touch with him at once?" she begged.
"Why?" Fenn asked, glancing at her searchingly.
"One of our Russian writers," she said, "once wrote that there are a thousand eddies in the winds of chance. One of those has blown my way to-day—or rather yesterday. Freistner is above all suspicion, is he not?"
"Far above," was the confident reply. "I am not the only one who knows him. Ask the others."
"Do you think it possible that he himself can have been deceived?" she persisted.
"In what manner?"
"In his own strength—the strength of his own Party," she proceeded eagerly. "Do you think it possible that the Imperialists have pretended to recognise in him a far greater factor in the situation than he really is? Have pretended to acquiesce in these terms of peace with the intention of repudiating them when we have once gone too far?"
Fenn seemed for a moment to have shrunk in his chair. His eyes had fallen before her passionate gaze. The penholder which he was grasping snapped in his fingers. Nevertheless, his voice still performed its office.
"My dear Miss Abbeway," he protested, "who or what has been putting these ideas into your head?"
"A veritable chance," she replied, "brought me yesterday afternoon into contact with a man—a neutral—who is supposed to be very intimately acquainted with what goes on in Germany."
"What did he tell you?" Fenn demanded feverishly.
"He told me nothing," she admitted. "I have no more to go on than an uplifted eyebrow. All the same, I came away feeling uneasy. I have felt wretched ever since. I am wretched now. I beg you to get at once into touch with Freistner. You can do that now without any risk. Simply ask him for a confirmation of the existing situation."
"That is quite easy," Fenn promised. "I will do it without delay. But in the meantime," he added, moistening his dry lips, "can't you possibly get to know what this man—this neutral—is driving at?"
"I fear not," she replied, "but I shall try. I have invited him to dine to-night."
"If you discover anything, when shall you let us know?"
"Immediately," she promised. "I shall telephone for Mr. Orden."
For a moment he lost control of himself.
"Why Mr. Orden?" he demanded passionately. "He is the youngest member of the Council. He knows nothing of our negotiations with Freistner. Surely I am the person with whom you should communicate?"
"It will be very late to-night," she reminded him, "and Mr. Orden is my personal friend—outside the Council."
"And am I not?" he asked fiercely. "I want to be. I have tried to be."
She appeared to find his agitation disconcerting, and she withdrew a little from the yellow-stained fingers which had crept out towards hers.
"We are all friends," she said evasively. "Perhaps—if there is anything important, then—I will come, or send for you."
He rose to his feet, less, it seemed, as an act of courtesy in view of her departure, than with the intention of some further movement. He suddenly reseated himself, however, his fingers grasped at the air, he became ghastly pale.
"Are you ill, Mr. Fenn?" she exclaimed.
He poured himself out a glass of water with trembling fingers and drank it unsteadily.
"Nerves, I suppose," he said. "I've had to carry the whole burden of these negotiations upon my shoulders, with very little help from any one, with none of the sympathy that counts."
A momentary impulse of kindness did battle with her invincible dislike of the man.
"You must remember," she urged, "that yours is a glorious work; that our thoughts and gratitude are with you."
"But are they?" he demanded, with another little burst of passion. "Gratitude, indeed! If the Council feel that, why was I not selected to approach the Prime Minister instead of Julian Orden? Sympathy! If you, the one person from whom I desire it, have any to offer, why can you not be kinder? Why can you not respond, ever so little, to what I feel for you?"
She hesitated for a moment, seeking for the words which would hurt him least. Tactless as ever, he misunderstood her.
"I may have had one small check in my career," he continued eagerly, "but the game is not finished. Believe me, I have still great cards up my sleeve. I know that you have been used to wealth and luxury. Miss Abbeway," he went on, his voice dropping to a hoarse whisper, "I was not boasting the other night. I have saved money, I have speculated fortunately—I—"
The look in her eyes stifled his eloquence. He broke off in his speech—became dumb and voiceless.
"Mr. Fenn," she said, "once and for all this sort of conversation is distasteful to me. A great deal of what you say I do not understand. What I do understand, I dislike."
She left him, with an inscrutable look. He made no effort to open the door for her. He simply stood listening to her departing footsteps, listened to the shrill summons of the lift-bell, listened to the lift itself go clanging downwards. Then he resumed his seat at his desk. With his hands clasped nervously together, an ink smear upon his cheek, his mouth slightly open, disclosing his irregular and discoloured teeth, he was not by any means a pleasant looking object.
He blew down a tube by his side and gave a muttered order. In a few minutes Bright presented himself.
"I am busy," the latter observed curtly, as he closed the door behind him.
"You've got to be busier in a few minutes," was the harsh reply. "There's a screw loose somewhere."
Bright stood motionless.
"Any one been disagreeable?" he asked, after a moment's pause.
"Get down to your office at once," Fenn directed briefly. "Have Miss Abbeway followed. I want reports of her movements every hour. I shall be here all night."
Bright grinned unpleasantly.
"Another Samson, eh?"
"Go to Hell, and do as you're told!" was the fierce reply. "Put your best men on the job. I must know, for all our sakes, the name of the neutral whom Miss Abbeway sees to-night and with whom she is exchanging confidences."
Bright left the room with a shrug of the shoulders. Nicholas Fenn turned up the electric light, pulled out a bank book from the drawer of his desk, and, throwing it on to the fire, watched it until it was consumed.
The Baron Hellman, comfortably seated at the brilliantly decorated round dining table, between Catherine, on one side, and a lady to whom he had not been introduced, contemplated the menu through his immovable eyeglass with satisfaction, unfolded his napkin, and continued the conversation with his hostess, a few places away, which the announcement of dinner had interrupted.
"You are quite right, Princess," he admitted.
"The position of neutrals, especially in the diplomatic world, becomes, in the case of a war like this, most difficult and sometimes embarrassing. To preserve a correct attitude is often a severe strain upon one's self-restraint."
The Princess nodded sympathetically.
"A very charming young man, the Baron," she confided to the General who had taken her in to dinner. "I knew his father and his uncle quite well, in those happy days before the war, when one used to move from country to country."
"Diplomatic type of features," the General remarked, who hated all foreigners. "It's rather bad luck on them," he went on, with bland insularity, "that the men of the European neutrals—Dutch, Danish, Norwegians or Swedes—all resemble Germans so much more than Englishmen."
The Baron turned towards Catherine and ventured upon a whispered compliment. She was wearing a wonderful pre-war dress of black velvet, close-fitting yet nowhere cramping her naturally delightful figure. A rope of pearls hung from her neck—her only ornament.
"It is permitted, Countess, to express one's appreciation of your toilette?" he ventured.
"In England it is not usual," she reminded him, with a smile, "but as you are such an old friend of the family, we will call it permissible. It is, as a matter of fact, the last gown I had from Paris. Nowadays, one thinks of other things."
"You are one of the few women," he observed, "who mix in the great affairs and yet remain intensely feminine."
"Just now," she sighed, "the great affairs do not please me."
"Yet they are interesting," he replied. "The atmosphere at the present moment is electric, charged with all manner of strange possibilities. But we talk too seriously. Will you not let me know the names of some of your guests? With General Crossley I am already acquainted."
"They really don't count for very much," she said, a little carelessly. "This is entirely aunt's Friday night gathering, and they are all her friends. That is Lady Maltenby opposite you, and her husband on the other side of my aunt."
"Maltenby," he repeated. "Ah, yes! There is one son a Brigadier, is there not? And another one sees sometimes about town—a Mr. Julian Orden."
"He is the youngest son."
"Am I exceeding the privileges of friendship, Countess," the Baron continued, "if I enquire whether there was not a rumour of an engagement between yourself and Mr. Orden, a few days ago?"
"It is in the air," she admitted, "but at present nothing is settled. Mr. Orden has peculiar habits. He disappeared from Society altogether, a few days ago, and has only just returned."
"A censor, was he not?"
"Something of the sort," Catherine assented. "He went out to France, though, and did extremely well. He lost his foot there."
"I have noticed that he uses a stick," the Baron remarked. "I always find him a young man of pleasant and distinguished appearance."
"Well," Catherine continued, "that is Mr. Braithwaiter the playwright, a little to the left—the man, with the smooth grey hair and eyeglass. Mrs. Hamilton Beardsmore you know, of course; her husband is commanding his regiment in Egypt."
"The lady on my left?"
"Lady Grayson. She comes up from the country once a month to buy food. You needn't mind her. She is stone deaf and prefers dining to talking."
"I am relieved," the Baron confessed, with a little sigh. "I addressed her as we sat down, and she made no reply. I began to wonder if I had offended."
"The man next me," she went on, "is Mr. Millson Gray. He is an American millionaire, over here to study our Y.M.C.A. methods. He can talk of nothing else in the world but Y.M.C.A. huts and American investments, and he is very hungry."
"The conditions," the Baron observed, "seem favourable for a tete-a-tete."
Catherine smiled up into his imperturbable face. The wine had brought a faint colour to her cheeks, and the young man sighed regretfully at the idea of her prospective engagement. He had always been one of Catherine's most pronounced admirers.
"But what are we to talk about?" she asked. "On the really interesting subjects your lips are always closed. You are a marvel of discretion, you know, Baron—even to me."
"That is perhaps because you hide your real personality under so many aliases."
"I must think that over," she murmured.
"You," he continued, "are an aristocrat of the aristocrats. I can quite conceive that you found your position in Russia incompatible with modern ideas. The Russian aristocracy, if you will forgive my saying so, is in for a bad time which it has done its best to thoroughly deserve. But in England your position is scarcely so comprehensible. Here you come to a sanely governed country, which is, to all effects and purposes, a country governed by the people for the people. Yet here, within two years, you have made yourself one of the champions of democracy. Why? The people are not ill-treated. On the contrary, I should call them pampered."
"You do not understand," she explained earnestly. "In Russia it was the aristocracy who oppressed the people, shamefully and malevolently. In England it is the bourgeoisie who rule the country and stand in the light of Labour. It is the middleman, the profiteer, the new capitalist here who has become an ugly and a dominant power. Labour has the means by which to assert itself and to claim its rights, but has never possessed the leaders or the training. That has been the subject of my lectures over here from the beginning. I want to teach the people how to crush the middleman. I want to show them how to discover and to utilise their strength."
"Is not that a little dangerous?" he enquired. "You might easily produce a state of chaos."
"For a time, perhaps," she admitted, "but never for long. You see, the British have one transcendental quality; they possess common sense. They are not idealists like the Russians. The men with whom I mix neither walk with their heads turned to the clouds nor do they grope about amongst the mud. They just look straight ahead of them, and they ask for what they see in the path."
"I see," he murmured. "And now, having reached just this stage in our conversation, let me ask you this. You read the newspapers?"
"Diligently," she assured him.
"Are you aware of a very curious note of unrest during the last few days—hints at a crisis in the war which nothing in the military situation seems to justify—vague but rather gloomy suggestions of an early peace?"
"Every one is talking about it," she agreed. "I think that you and I have some idea as to what it means."
"Have we?" he asked quietly.
"And somehow," she went on, dropping her voice a little, "I believe that your knowledge goes farther than mine."
He gave no sign, made no answer. Some question from across the table, with reference to the action of one of his country's Ministers, was referred to him. He replied to it and drifted quite naturally into a general conversation. Without any evident effort, he seemed to desire to bring his tete-a-tete with Catherine to a close. She showed no sign of disappointment; indeed she fell into his humour and made vigorous efforts to attack the subject of Y.M.C.A. huts with her neighbour on the right. The rest of the meal passed in this manner, and it was not until they met, an hour later, in the Princess' famous reception room, that they exchanged more than a casual word. The Princess liked to entertain her guests in a fashion of her own. The long apartment, with its many recesses and deep windows, an apartment which took up the whole of one side of the large house, had all the dignity and even splendour of a drawing-room, and yet, with its little palm court, its cosy divans, its bridge tables and roulette board, encouraged an air of freedom which made it eminently habitable.
"I wonder, Baron," she asked, "what time you are leaving, and whether I could rely upon your escort to the Lawsons' dance? Don't hesitate to say if you have an engagement, as it only means my telephoning to some friends."
"I am entirely at your service, Countess," he answered promptly. "As a matter of fact, I have already promised to appear there myself for an hour."
"You would like to play bridge now, perhaps?" she asked.
"The Princess was kind enough to invite me," he replied, "but I ventured to excuse myself. I saw that the numbers were even without me, and I hoped for a little more conversation with you."
They seated themselves in an exceedingly comfortable corner. A footman brought them coffee, and a butler offered strange liqueurs. Catherine leaned back with a little sigh of relief.
"Every one calls this room of my aunt's the hotel lounge," she remarked. "Personally, I love it."
"To me, also, it is the ideal apartment," he confessed. "Here we are alone, and I may ask you a question which was on my lips when we had tea together at the Carlton, and which, but for our environment, I should certainly have asked you at dinner time."
"You may ask me anything," she assured him, with a little smile. "I am feeling happy and loquacious. Don't tempt me to talk, or I shall give away all my life's secrets."
"I will only ask you for one just now," he promised. "Is it true that you have to-day had some disagreement with—shall I say a small congress of men who have their meetings down at Westminster, and with whom you have been in close touch for some time?"
Her start was unmistakable.
"How on earth do you know anything about that?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"These are the days," he said, "when, if one is to succeed in my profession, one must know everything."
She did not speak for a moment. His question had been rather a shock to her. In a moment or two, however, she found herself wondering how to use it for her own advantage.
"It is true," she admitted.
He looked intently at the point of his patent shoe.
"Is this not a case, Countess," he ventured, "in which you and I might perhaps come a little closer together?"
"If you have anything to suggest, I am ready to listen," she said.
"I wonder," he went on, "if I am right in some of my ideas? I shall test them. You have taken up your abode in England. That was natural, for domestic reasons. You have shown a great interest in a certain section of the British public. It is my theory that your interest in England is for that section only; that as a country, you are no more an admirer of her characteristics than I am."
"You are perfectly right," she answered coolly.
"Your interest," he proceeded, "is in the men and women toilers of the world, the people who carry on their shoulders the whole burden of life, and whose position you are continually desiring to ameliorate. I take it that your sympathy is international?"
"It is," she assented
"People of this order in—say—Germany, excite your sympathy in the same degree?"
"Therefore," he propounded, "you are working for the betterment of the least considered class, whether it be German, Austrian, British, or French?"
"That also is true," she agreed.
"I pursue my theory, then. The issue of this war leaves you indifferent, so long as the people come to their own?"
"My work for the last few weeks amongst those men of whom you have been speaking," she pointed out, "should prove that."
"We are through the wood and in the open, then," he declared, with a little sigh of relief. "Now I am prepared to trade secrets with you. I am not a friend of this country. Neither my Chief nor my Government have the slightest desire to see England win the war."
"That I knew," she acknowledged.
"Now I ask you for information," he continued. "Tell me this? Your pseudo-friends have presented the supposed German terms of peace to Mr. Stenson. What was the result?"
"He is taking twenty-four hours to consider them."
"And what will happen if he refuses?" the Baron asked, leaning a little towards her. "Will they use their mighty weapon? Will they really go the whole way, or will they compromise?"
"They will not compromise," she assured him. "The telegrams to the secretaries of the various Trades Unions are already written out. They will be despatched five minutes after Mr. Stenson's refusal to sue for an armistice has been announced."
"You know that?" he persisted.
"I know it beyond any shadow of doubt."
He nodded slowly.
"Your information," he admitted, "is valuable to me. Well though I am served, I cannot penetrate into the inner circles of the Council itself. Your news is good."
"And now," she said, "I expect the most amazing revelations from you."
"You shall have them, with pleasure," he replied. "Freistner has been in a German fortress for some weeks and may be shot at any moment. The supposed strength of the Socialist Party in Germany is an utter sham. The signatures attached to the document which was handed to your Council some days ago will be repudiated. The whole scheme of coming into touch with your Labour classes has been fostered and developed by the German War Cabinet. England will be placed in the most humiliating and ridiculous position. It will mean the end of the war."
"And Germany?" she gasped.
"Germany," the Baron pronounced calmly, "will have taken the first great step up the ladder in her climb towards the dominance of the world."
There were one or two amongst those present in the Council room at Westminster that evening, who noted and never forgot a certain indefinable dignity which seemed to come to Stenson's aid and enabled him to face what must have been an unwelcome and anxious ordeal without discomposure or disquiet. He entered the room accompanied by Julian and Phineas Cross, and he had very much the air of a man who has come to pay a business visit, concerning the final issue of which there could be no possible doubt. He shook hands with the Bishop gravely but courteously, nodded to the others with whom he was acquainted, asked the names of the few strangers present, and made a careful mental note of what industries and districts they represented. He then accepted a chair by the side of the Bishop, who immediately opened the proceedings.
"My friends," the latter began, "as I sent word to you a little time ago, Mr. Stenson has preferred to bring you his answer himself. Our ambassador—Mr. Julian Orden—waited upon him at Downing Street at the hour arranged upon, and, in accordance with his wish to meet you all, Mr. Stenson is paying us this visit."
The Bishop hesitated, and the Prime Minister promptly drew his chair a little farther into the circle.
"Gentlemen," he said, "the issue which you have raised is so tremendous, and its results may well be so catastrophic, that I thought it my duty to beg Mr. Orden to arrange for me to come and speak to you all, to explain to you face to face why, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, I cannot do your bidding."
"You don't want peace, then?" one of the delegates from the other side of the table asked bluntly.
"We do not," was the quiet reply. "We are not ready for it."
"The country is," Fenn declared firmly. "We are."
"So your ambassador has told me," was the calm reply. "In point of numbers you may be said, perhaps, to represent the nation. In point of intellect, of knowledge—of inner knowledge, mind—I claim that I represent it. I tell you that a peace now, even on the terms which your Socialist allies in Germany have suggested, would be for us a peace of dishonour."
"Will you tell us why?" the Bishop begged.
"Because it is not the peace we promised our dead or our living heroes," Mr. Stenson said slowly. "We set out to fight for democracy—your cause. That fight would be a failure if we allowed the proudest, the most autocratic, the most conscienceless despot who ever sat upon a throne to remain in his place."
"But that is just what we shall not do," Fenn interrupted. "Freistner has assured us of that. The peace is not the Kaiser's peace. It is the peace of the Socialist Party in Germany, and the day the terms are proclaimed, democracy there will score its first triumph."
"I find neither in the European Press nor in the reports of our secret service agents the slightest warrant for any such supposition," Mr. Stenson pronounced with emphasis.
"You have read Freistner's letter?" Fenn asked.
"Every word of it," the Prime Minister replied. "I believe that Freistner is an honest man, as honest as any of you, but I think that he is mistaken. I do not believe that the German people are with him. I am content to believe that those signatures are genuine. I will even believe that Germany would welcome those terms of peace, although she would never allow them to proceed from her own Cabinet. But I do not believe that the clash and turmoil which would follow their publication would lead to the overthrow of the German dynasty. You give me no proof of it, gentlemen. You have none yourselves. And therefore I say that you propose to work in the dark, and it seems to me that your work may lead to an evil end. I want you to listen to me for one moment," he went on, his face lighting up with a flash of terrible earnestness. "I am not going to cast about in my mind for flowery phrases or epigrams. We are plain men here together, with our country's fate in the balance. For God's sake, realise your responsibilities. I want peace. I ache for it. But there will be no peace for Europe while Germany remains an undefeated autocracy. We've promised our dead and our living to oust that corrupt monster from his throne. We've promised it to France our glorious Allies. We've shaken hands about it with America, whose ships are already crowding the seas, and whose young manhood has taken the oath which ours has taken. This isn't the time for peace. I am not speaking in the dark when I tell you that we have a great movement pending in the West which may completely alter the whole military situation. Give us a chance. If you carry out your threat, you plunge this country into revolution, you dishonour us in the face of our Allies; you will go through the rest of your lives, every one of you, with a guilt upon your souls, a stain upon your consciences, which nothing will ever obliterate. You see, I have kept my word—I haven't said much. I cannot ask for the armistice you suggest. If you take this step you threaten—I do not deny its significance you will probably stop the war. One of you will come in and take my place. There will be turmoil, confusion, very likely bloodshed. I know what the issue will be, and yet I know my duty. There is not one member of my Cabinet who is not with me. We refuse your appeal."
Every one at the table seemed to be talking at the same time to every one else. Then Cross's voice rose above the others. He rose to his feet to ensure attention.
"Bishop," he said, "there is one point in what Mr. Stenson has been saying which I think we might and ought to consider a little more fully, and that is, what guarantees have we that Freistner really has the people at the back of him, that he'll be able to cleanse that rat pit at Berlin of the Hohenzollern and his clan of junkers—the most accursed type of politician who ever breathed? We ought to be very sure about this. Fenn's our man. What about it, Fenn?"
"Freistner's letters for weeks," Fenn answered, "have spoken of the wonderful wave of socialistic feeling throughout the country. He is an honest man, and he does not exaggerate. He assures us that half the nation is pledged."
"One man," David Sands remarked thoughtfully. "If, there is a weak point about this business, which I am not prepared wholly to admit, it is that the entire job on that side seems to be run by one man. There's a score of us. I should like to hear of more on the other side."
"It is strange," Mr. Stenson pointed out, "that so little news of this gain of strength on the part of the Socialists has been allowed to escape from Germany. However rigid their censorship, copies of German newspapers reach us every day from neutral countries. I cannot believe that Socialism has made the advance Freistner claims for it, and I agree with our friends, Mr. Cross and Mr. Sands here, that you ought to be very sure that Freistner is not deceived before you take this extreme measure."
"We are content to trust to our brothers in Germany," Fenn declared.
"I am not convinced that we should be wise to do so," Julian intervened. "I am in favour of our taking a few more days to consider this matter."
"And I am against any delay," Fenn objected hotly. "I am for immediate action."
"Let me explain where I think we have been a little hasty," Julian continued earnestly. "I gather that the whole correspondence between this body and the Socialist Party in Germany has been carried on by Mr. Fenn and Freistner. There are other well-known Socialists in Germany, but from not one of these have we received any direct communication. Furthermore—and I say this without wishing to impugn in any way the care with which I am sure our secretary has transcribed these letters—at a time like this I am forced to remember that I have seen nothing but copies."
Fenn was on his feet in a moment, white with passion.
"Do you mean to insinuate that I have altered or forged the letters?" he shouted.
"I have made no insinuations," Julian replied. "At the same time, before we proceed to extremities, I propose that we spend half an hour studying the originals."
"That's common sense," Cross declared. "There's no one can object to that. I'm none so much in favour of these typewritten slips myself."
Fenn turned to whisper to Bright. Mr. Stenson rose to his feet. The glare of the unshaded lamp fell upon his strained face. He seemed to have grown older and thinner since his entrance into the room.
"I can neither better nor weaken my cause by remaining," he said. "Only let this be my parting word to you. Upon my soul as an Englishman, I believe that if you send out those telegrams to-night, if you use your hideous and deadly weapon against me and the Government, I believe that you will be guilty of this country's ruin, as you certainly will of her dishonour. You have the example of Russia before you. And I will tell you this, too, which take into your hearts. There isn't one of those men who are marching, perhaps to-night, perhaps tomorrow, to a possible death, who would thank you for trying, to save their lives or bodies at the expense of England's honour. Those about to die would be your sternest critics. I can say no more."
Julian walked with the Premier towards the door.
"Mr. Stenson," he declared, "you have said just what could be said from your point of view, and God knows, even now, who is in the right! You are looking at the future with a very full knowledge of many things of which we are all ignorant. You have, quite naturally, too, the politician's hatred of the methods these people propose. I myself am inclined to think that they are a little hasty."
"Orden," Mr. Stenson replied sternly, "I did not come to you to-night as a politician. I have spoken as a man and an Englishman, as I speak to you now. For the love of your country and her honour, use your influence with these people. Stop those telegrams. Work for delay at any cost. There's something inexplicable, sinister, about the whole business. Freistner may be an honest man, but I'll swear that he hasn't the influence or the position that these people have been led to believe. And as for Nicholas Fenn—"
The Prime Minister paused. Julian waited anxiously.
"It is my belief," the former concluded deliberately, "that thirty seconds in the courtyard of the Tower, with his back to the light, would about meet his case."
They parted at the door, and Julian returned to his seat, uneasy and perplexed. Around the Council table voices were raised in anger. Fenn, who was sitting moodily with folded arms, his chair drawn a little back from the table, scowled at him as he took his place. Furley, who had been whispering to the Bishop, turned towards Julian.
"It seems," he announced, "that the originals of most of Freistner's communications have been destroyed."
"And why not?" Fenn demanded passionately. "Why should I keep letters which would lay a rope around my neck any day they were found? You all know as well as I do that we've been expecting the police to raid the place ever since we took it."
"I am a late comer," Julian observed, "but surely some of you others have seen the original communications?"
Thomas Evans spoke up from the other end of the table,—a small, sturdily built man, a great power in South Wales.
"To be frank," he said, "I don't like these insinuations. Fenn's been our secretary from the first. He opened the negotiations, and he's carried them through. We either trust him, or we don't. I trust him."
"And I'm not saying you're not right, lad." Cross declared. "I'm for being cautious, but it's more with the idea that our German friends themselves may be a little too sanguine."
"I will pledge my word," Fenn pronounced fiercely, "to the truth of all the facts I have laid before you. Whatever my work may have been, to-day it is completed. I have brought you a people's peace from Germany. This very Council was formed for the purpose of imposing that peace upon the Government. Are you going to back out now, because a dilettante writer, an aristocrat who never did a stroke of work in his life, casts sneering doubts upon my honesty? I've done the work you gave me to do. It's up to you to finish it, I represent a million working men. So does David Sands there, Evans and Cross, and you others. What does Orden represent? Nobody and nothing! Miles Furley? A little band of Socialists who live in their gardens and keep bees! My lord Bishop? Just his congregation from week to week! Yet it's these outsiders who've come in and disturbed us. I've had enough of it and them. We've wasted the night, but I propose that the telegrams go out at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. Hands up for it!"
It was a counter-attack which swept everything before it. Every hand in the room except the Bishop's, Furley's, Cross's and Julian's was raised. Fenn led the way towards the door.
"We've our work to do, chaps," he said. "We'll leave the others to talk till daylight, if they want to."
Julian and Furley left the place together. They looked for the Bishop but found that he had slipped away.
"To Downing Street, I believe," Furley remarked. "He has some vague idea of suggesting a compromise."
"Compromise!" Julian repeated a little drearily. "How can there be any such thing! There might be delay. I think we ought to have given Stenson a week—time to communicate with America and send a mission to France."
"We are like all theorists," Furley declared moodily, stopping to relight his pipe. "We create and destroy on palter with amazing facility. When it comes to practice, we are funks."
"Are you funking this?" Julian asked bluntly.
"How can any one help it? Theoretically we are right—I am sure of it. If we leave it to the politicians, this war will go dragging on for God knows how long. It's the people who are paying. It's the people who ought to make the peace. The only thing that bothers me is whether we are doing it the right way. Is Freistner honest? Could he be self-deceived? Is there any chance that he could be playing into the hands of the Pan-Germans?"
"Fenn is the man who has had most to do with him," Julian remarked. "I wouldn't trust Fenn a yard, but I believe in Freistner."
"So do I," Furley assented, "but is Fenn's report of his promises and the strength of his followers entirely honest?"
"That's the part of the whole thing I don't like," Julian acknowledged. "Fenn's practically the corner stone of this affair. It was he who met Freistner in Amsterdam and started these negotiations, and I'm damned if I like Fenn, or trust him. Did you see the way he looked at Stenson out of the corners of his eyes, like a little ferret? Stenson was at his best, too. I never admired the man more."
"He certainly kept his head," Furley agreed. "His few straight words were to the point, too."
"It wasn't the occasion for eloquence," Julian declared. "That'll come next week. I suppose he'll try and break the Trades Unions. What a chance for an Edmund Burke! It's all right, I suppose, but I wonder why I'm feeling so damned miserable."
"The fact is," Furley confided, "you and I and the Bishop and Miss Abbeway are all to a certain extent out of place on that Council. We ought to have contented ourselves with having supplied the ideas. When it comes to the practical side, our other instincts revolt. After all, if we believed that by continuing the war we could beat Germany from a military point of view, I suppose we should forget a lot of this admirable reasoning of ours and let it go on."
"It doesn't seem a fair bargain, though," Julian sighed. "It's the lives of our men to-day for the freedom of their descendants, if that isn't frittered away by another race of politicians. It isn't good enough, Miles."
"Then let's be thankful it's going to stop," Furley declared. "We've pinned our colours to the mast, Julian. I don't like Fenn any more than you do, nor do I trust him, but I can't see, in this instance, that he has anything to gain by not running straight. Besides, he can't have faked the terms, and that's the only document that counts. And so good night and to bed," he added, pausing at the street corner, where they parted.
There was something curiously different about the demeanour of Julian's trusted servant, as he took his master's coat and hat. Even Julian, engrossed as he was in the happenings of the evening, could scarcely fail to notice it.
"You seem out of sorts to-night, Robert!" he remarked.
The latter, whose manners were usually suave and excellent, answered almost harshly.
"I have enough to make me so, sir—more than enough. I wish to give a week's notice."
"Been drinking, Robert?" his master enquired.
The man smiled mirthlessly.
"I am quite sober, sir," he answered, "but I should be glad to go at once. It would be better for both of us."
"What have you against me?" Julian asked, puzzled.
"The lives of my two boys," was the fierce reply. "Fred's gone now—died in hospital last night. It was you who talked them into soldiering."
Julian's manner changed at once, and his tone became kinder.
"You are very foolish to blame anybody, Robert. Your sons did their duty. If they hadn't joined up when they did, they would have had to join as conscripts later on."
"Their duty!" Robert repeated, with smothered scorn. "Their duty to a squirming nest of cowardly politicians—begging your pardon, sir. Why, the whole Government isn't worth the blood of one of them!"
"I am sorry about Fred," Julian said sympathetically. "All the same, Robert, you must try and pull yourself together."
The man groaned.
"Pull myself together!" he said angrily. "Mr. Orden, sir, I'm trying to keep respectful, but it's a hard thing. I've been reading the evening papers. There's an article, signed 'Paul Fiske', in the Pall Mall. They tell me that you're Paul Fiske. You're for peace, it seems—for peace with the German Emperor and his bloody crew."
"I am in favour of peace on certain terms, at the earliest possible moment," Julian admitted.
"That's where you've sold us, then—sold us all!" Robert declared fiercely. "My boys died believing they were fighting for men who would keep their word. The war was to go on till victory was won.. They died happily, believing that those who had spoken for England would keep their word. You're very soft-hearted in that article, sir, about the living. Did you think, when you sat down to write it, about the dead?—about that wilderness of white crosses out in France? You're proposing in cold blood to let those devils stay on their own dunghill."
"It is a very large question, Robert," Julian reminded him. "The war is fast reaching a period of mutual exhaustion."
The man threw all restraint to the winds.
"Claptrap!" was his angry reply. "You wealthy people want your fleshpots again. We've a few more million men, haven't we? America has a few more millions?"
"Your own loss, Robert, has made you—and quite naturally, too—very bitter," his master said gently. "You must let those who have thought this matter out come to a decision upon it. Beyond a certain point, the manhood of the world must be conserved."
"That sounds just like fine talk to me, sir, and no more; the sort of stuff that's printed in articles and that no one takes much stock of. Words were plain enough when we started out to fight this war. We were going to crush the German military spirit and not leave off fighting until we'd done it. There was nothing said then about conserving millions of men. It was to be fought out to the end, whatever it cost."
"And you were once a pacifist!"
"Pacifist!" the man repeated passionately. "Every human being with common sense was a pacifist when the war started."
"But the war was forced upon us," Julian reminded him. "You can't deny that."
"No one wishes to, sir. It was forced upon us all right, but who made it necessary? Why, our rotten government for the last twenty years! Our politicians, Mr. Julian, that are prating now of peace before their job's done! Do you think that if we'd paid our insurance like men and been prepared, this war would ever have come? Not it! We asked for trouble, and we got it in the neck. If we make peace now, we'll be a German colony in twenty years, thanks to Mr. Stenson and you and the rest of them. A man can be a pacifist all right until his head has been punched. Afterwards, there's another name for him. Is there anything more I can get you to-night before I leave, sir?"
"Nothing, thanks. I'm sorry about Fred."
Julian, conscious of an intense weariness, undressed and went to bed very soon after the man's departure. He was already in his first doze when he awoke suddenly with a start. He sat up and listened. The sound which had disturbed him was repeated,—a quiet but insistent ringing of the front-door bell. He glanced at his watch. It was barely midnight, but unusually late for a visitor. Once more the bell rang, and this time he remembered that Robert slept out, and that he was alone in the flat. He thrust his feet into slippers, wrapped his dressing gown around him, and made his way to the front door.
Julian's only idea had been that this might be some messenger from the Council. To his amazement he found himself confronted by Catherine.
"Close the door," she begged. "Come into your sitting room."
She pushed past him and he obeyed, still dumb with surprise and the shock of his sudden awakening. Catherine herself seemed unaware of his unusual costume, reckless of the hour and the strangeness of her visit. She wore a long chinchilla coat, covering her from head to foot, and a mantilla veil about her head, which partially obscured her features. As soon as she raised it, he knew that great things had happened. Her cheeks were the colour of ivory, and her eyes unnaturally distended. Her tone was steady but full of repressed passion.
"Julian," she cried, "we have been deceived—tricked! I have come to you for help. Are the telegrams sent out yet?"
"They go at eight o'clock in the morning," he replied.
"Thank God we are in time to stop them!"
Julian looked at her for a moment, utterly incredulous.
"Stop them?" he repeated. "But how can we? Stenson has declared war."
"Thank heaven for that!" she exclaimed, her voice trembling. "Julian, the whole thing is an accursed plot. The German Socialists have never increased their strength except in their own imaginations. They are absolutely powerless. This is the most cunning scheme of the whole war. Freistner has simply been the tool of the militarists. They encouraged him to put forward these proposals and to communicate with Nicholas Fenn. When the armistice has been declared and negotiations begun, the three signatures will be repudiated. The peace they mean to impose is one of their own dictation, and in the meantime we shall have created a cataclysm here. The war will never start again. All the Allies will be at a discord."
"How have you found this out?" Julian gasped.
"From one of Germany's chief friends in England. He is high up in the diplomatic service of—of a neutral country, but he has been working for Germany ever since the commencement of the war. He has been helping in this. He has seen me often with Nicholas Fenn, and he believes that I am behind the scenes, too. He believes that I know the truth, and that I am working for Germany. He is absolutely to be relied upon. Every word that I am telling you is the truth."
"What about Fenn?" Julian demanded breathlessly.
"Nicholas Fenn has had a hundred thousand pounds of German money within the last few months," she replied. "He is one of the foulest traitors who ever breathed. Freistner's first few letters were genuine enough, but for the last six weeks he has been imprisoned in a German fortress—and Fenn knows it."
"Have you any proof of all this?" Julian asked. "Remember we have the Council to face, and they are all girt for battle."
"Yes, I have proof," she answered, "indirect but damning enough. This man has sometimes forwarded and collected for me letters from connections of mine in Germany. He handed me one to-night from a distant cousin. You know him by name General Geroldberg. The first two pages are personal. Read what he says towards the end," she added, passing it on to Julian.
Julian turned up the lamp and read the few lines to which she pointed:
By the bye, dear cousin, if you should receive a shock within the next few days by hearing that our three great men have agreed to an absurd peace, do not worry. Their signatures have been obtained for some document which we do not regard seriously, and it is their intention to repudiate them as soon as a certain much-looked for event takes place. When the peace comes, believe me, it will be a glorious one for us. What we have won by the sword we shall hold, and what has been wrested from us by cunning and treachery, we shall regain.
"That man," Catherine declared, "is one of the Kaiser's intimates. He is one of the twelve iron men of Germany. Now I will tell you the name of the man with whom I, have spent the evening. It is Baron Hellman. Believe me, he knows, and he has told me the truth. He has had this letter by him for a fortnight, as he told me frankly that he thought it too compromising to hand over. To-night he changed his mind."
Julian stood speechless for a moment, his fists clenched, his eyes ablaze.
Catherine threw herself into his easy-chair and loosened her coat.
"Oh, I am tired!" she moaned. "Give me some water, please, or some wine."
He found some hock in the sideboard, and after she had drunk it they sat for some few minutes in agitated silence. The street sounds outside had died away. Julian's was the topmost flat in the block, and their isolation was complete. He suddenly realised the position.
"Perhaps," he suggested, with an almost ludicrous return to the commonplace, "the first thing to be done is for me to dress."
She looked at him as though she had noticed his dishabille for the first time. For a moment their feet seemed to be on the earth again.
"I suppose I seem to you crazy to come to you at such an hour," she said. "One doesn't think of those things, somehow."
"You are quite right," he agreed. "They are unimportant."
Then suddenly the sense of the silence, of their solitude, of their strange, uncertain relations to one another, swept in upon them both. For a moment the sense of the great burden she was carrying fell from Catherine's shoulders. She was back in a simpler world. Julian was no longer a leader of the people, the brilliant sociologist, the apostle of her creed. He was the man who during the last few weeks had monopolised her thoughts to an amazing extent, the man for whose aid and protection she had hastened, the man to whom she was perfectly content to entrust the setting right of this ghastly blunder. Watching him, she suddenly felt that she was tired of it all, that she would like to creep away from the storm and rest somewhere. The quiet and his presence seemed to soothe her. Her tense expression relaxed, her eyes became softer. She smiled at him gratefully.
"Oh, I cannot tell you," she exclaimed, "how glad I am to be with you just now! Everything in the outside world seems so terrible. Do you mind—it is so silly, but after all a woman cannot be as strong as a man, can she?—would you mind very much just holding my hand for a moment and staying here quite quietly. I have had a horrible evening, and when I came in, my head felt as though it would burst. You do not mind?"
Julian smiled as he leaned towards her. A kind of resentment of which he had been conscious, even though in some measure ashamed of it, resentment at her unswerving loyalty to the task she had set herself, melted away. He suddenly knew why he had kissed her, on that sunny morning on the marshes, an ecstatic and incomprehensible moment which had seemed sometimes, during these days of excitement, as though it had belonged to another life and another world. He took both her hands in his, and, stooping down, kissed her on the lips.
"Dear Catherine," he said, "I am so glad that you came to me. I think that during these last few days we have forgotten to be human, and it might help us—for after all, you know, we are engaged!"
"But that," she whispered, "was only for my sake."
"At first, perhaps," he admitted, "but now for mine."
Her little sigh of content, as she stole nearer to him, was purely feminine. The moments ticked on in restful and wonderful silence. Then, unwillingly, she drew away from his protecting arm.
"My dear," she said, "you look so nice as you are, and it is such happiness to be here, but there is a great task before us."
"You are right," he declared, straightening himself. "Wait for a few minutes, dear. We shall find them all at Westminster—the place will be open all night. Close your eyes and rest while I am away."
"I am rested," she answered softly, "but do not be long. The car is outside, and on the way I have more to tell you about Nicholas Fenn."
If the closely drawn blinds of the many windows of Westminster Buildings could have been raised that night and early morning, the place would have seemed a very hive of industry. Twenty men were hard at work in twenty different rooms. Some went about their labours doubtfully, some almost timorously, some with jubilation, one or two with real regret. Under their fingers grew the more amplified mandates which, following upon the bombshell of the already prepared telegrams, were within a few hours to paralyse industrial England, to keep her ships idle in the docks, her trains motionless upon the rails, her mines silent, her forges cold, her great factories empty. Even the least imaginative felt the thrill, the awe of the thing he was doing. On paper, in the brain, it seemed so wonderful, so logical, so certain of the desired result. And now there were other thoughts forcing their way to the front. How would their names live in history? How would Englishmen throughout the world regard this deed? Was it really the truth they were following, or some false and ruinous shadow? These were fugitive doubts, perhaps, but to more than one of those midnight toilers they presented themselves in the guise of a chill and drear presentiment.
They all heard a motor-car stop outside. No one, however, thought it worth while to discontinue his labours for long enough to look out and see who this nocturnal visitor might be. In a very short time, however, these labours were disturbed. From room to room, Julian, with Catherine and the Bishop, for whom they had called on the way, passed with a brief message. No one made any difficulty about coming to the Council room. The first protest was made when they paid the visit which they had purposely left until last. Nicholas Fenn had apparently finished or discontinued his efforts. He was seated in front of his desk, his chin almost resting upon his folded arms, and a cigarette between his lips. Bright was lounging in an easy-chair within a few feet of him. Their heads were close together; their conversation, whatever the subject of it may have been, was conducted in whispers. Apparently they had not heard Julian's knock, for they started apart, when the door was opened, like conspirators. There was something half-fearful, half-malicious in Fenn's face, as he stared at them.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "What's wrong?"
Julian closed the door.
"A great deal," he replied curtly. "We have been around to every one of the delegates and asked them to assemble in the Council room. Will you and Bright come at once?"
Fenn looked from one to the other of his visitors and remained silent for a few seconds.
"Climbing down, eh?" he asked viciously.
"We have some information to communicate," Julian announced.
Fenn moved abruptly away, out of the shadow of the electric lamp which hung over his desk. His voice was anxious, unnatural.
"We can't consider any more information," he said harshly. "Our decisions have been taken. Nothing can affect them. That's the worst of having you outsiders on the board. I was certain you wouldn't face it when the time came."
"As you yourself," Julian remarked, "are somewhat concerned in this matter, I think it would be well if you came with the others."
"I am not going to stir from this room," Fenn declared doggedly. "I have my own work to do. And as to my being concerned with what you have to say, I'll thank you to mind your own business and leave mine alone."
"Mr. Fenn," the Bishop interposed, "I beg to offer you my advice that you join us at once in the Council room."
Julian and Catherine had already left the room. Fenn leaned forward, and there was an altered note in his tone.
"What's it mean, Bishop?" he asked hoarsely. "Are they ratting, those two?"
"What we have come here to say," the Bishop rejoined, "must be said to every one."
He turned away. Fenn and Bright exchanged quick glances.
"What do you make of it?" asked Fenn.
"They've changed their minds," Bright muttered, "that's all. They're theorists. Damn all theorists! They just blow bubbles to destroy them. As for the girl, she's been at parties all the evening, as we know."
"You're right," Fenn acknowledged. "I was a fool. Come on."
Many of the delegates had the air of being glad to escape for a few minutes from their tasks. One or two of them entered the room, carrying a cup of coffee or cocoa. Most of them were smoking. Fenn and Bright made their appearance last of all. The latter made a feeble attempt at a good-humoured remark.
"Is this a pause for refreshments?" he asked. "If so, I'm on."
Julian, who had been waiting near the door, locked it. Fenn started.
"What the devil's that for?" he demanded.
"Just a precaution. We don't want to be interrupted."
Julian moved towards a little vacant space at the end of the table and stood there, his hands upon the back of a chair. The Bishop remained by his side, his eyes downcast as though in prayer. Catherine had accepted the seat pushed forward by Cross. The atmosphere of the room, which at first had been only expectant, became tense.
"My friends," Julian began, "a few hours ago you came to a momentous decision. You are all at work, prepared to carry that decision into effect. I have come to see you because I am very much afraid that we have been the victims of false statements, the victims of a disgraceful plot."
"Rubbish!" Fenn scoffed. "You're ratting, that's what you are."
"You'd better thank Providence," Julian replied sternly, "that there is time for you to rat, too—that is, if you have any care for your country. Now, Mr. Fenn, I am going to ask you a question. You led us to believe, this evening, that, although all letters had been destroyed, you were in constant communication with Freistner. When did you hear from him last—personally, I mean?"
"Last week," Fenn answered boldly, "and the week before that."
"And you have destroyed those letters?"
"Of course I have! Why should I keep stuff about that would hang me?"
"You cannot produce, then, any communication from Freistner, except the proposals of peace, written within the last—say—month?"
"What the mischief are you getting at?" Fenn demanded hotly. "And what right have you to stand there and cross-question me?"
"The right of being prepared to call you to your face a liar," Julian said gravely. "We have very certain information that Freistner is now imprisoned in a German fortress and will be shot before the week is out."
There was a little murmur of consternation, even of disbelief. Fenn himself was speechless. Julian went on eagerly.
"My friends," he said, "on paper, on the facts submitted to us, we took the right decision, but we ought to have remembered this. Germany's word, Germany's signature, Germany's honour, are not worth a rap when opposed to German interests. Germany, notwithstanding all her successes, is thirsting for peace. This armistice would be her salvation. She set herself out to get it—not honestly, as we have been led to believe, but by means of a devilish plot. She professed to be overawed by the peace desires of the Reichstag. The Pan-Germans professed a desire to give in to the Socialists. All lies! They encouraged Freistner to continue his negotiations here with Fenn. Freistner was honest enough. I am not so sure about Fenn."
Fenn sprang to his feet, a blasphemous exclamation broke from his lips. Julian faced him, unmoved. The atmosphere of the room was now electric.
"I am going to finish what I have to say," he went on. "I know that every one will wish me to. We are all here to look for the truth and nothing else, and, thanks to Miss Abbeway, we have stumbled upon it. These peace proposals, which look so well on paper, are a decoy. They were made to be broken. Those signatures are affixed to be repudiated. I say that Freistner has been a prisoner for weeks, and I deny that Fenn has received a single communication from him during that time. Fenn asserts that he has, but has destroyed them. I repeat that he is a liar."
"That's plain speaking," Cross declared. "Now, then, Fenn, lad, what have you to say about it?"
Fenn leaned forward, his face distorted with something which might have been anger, but which seemed more closely to resemble fear.
"This is just part of the ratting!" he exclaimed. "I never keep a communication from Freistner. I have told you so before. The preliminary letters I had you all saw, and we deliberated upon them together. Since then, all that I have had have been friendly messages, which I have destroyed."
There was a little uncertain murmur. Julian proceeded.
"You see," he said, "Mr. Fenn is not able to clear himself from my first accusation. Now let us hear what he will do with this one. Mr. Fenn started life, I believe, as a schoolmaster at a parish school, a very laudable and excellent occupation. He subsequently became manager to a firm of timber merchants in the city and commenced to interest himself in Labour movements. He rose by industry and merit to his present position—a very excellent career, but not, I should think, a remunerative one. Shall we put his present salary down at ten pounds a week?"
"What the devil concern is this of yours?" the goaded man shouted.
"Of mine and all of us," Julian retorted, "for I come now to a certain question. Will you disclose your bank book?"
Fenn reeled for a moment in his seat. He affected not to have heard the question.
"My what?" he stammered.
"Your bank book," Julian repeated calmly. "As you only received your last instalment from Germany this week, you probably have not yet had time to purchase stocks and shares or property wherever your inclination leads you. I imagine, therefore, that there would be a balance there of something like thirty thousand pounds, the last payment made to you by a German agent now in London."
Fenn sprang to his feet. He had all the appearance of a man about to make a vigorous and exhaustive defence. And then suddenly he swayed, his face became horrible to look upon, his lips were twisted.
"Brandy!" he cried. "Some one give me brandy! I am ill!"
He collapsed in a heap. They carried him on to a seat set against the wall, and Catherine bent over him. He lay there, moaning. They loosened his collar and poured restoratives between his teeth. For a time he was silent. Then the moaning began again. Julian returned to the table.
"Believe me," he said earnestly, "this is as much a tragedy to me as to any one present. I believe that every one of you here except—" he glanced towards the sofa—"except those whom we will not name have gone into this matter honestly, as I did. We've got to chuck it. Tear up your telegrams. Let me go to see Stenson this minute. I see the truth about this thing now as I never saw it before. There is no peace for us with Germany until she is on her knees, until we have taken away all her power to do further mischief. When that time comes let us be generous. Let us remember that her working men are of the same flesh and blood as ours and need to live as you need to live. Let us see that they are left the means to live. Mercy to all of them—mercy, and all the possibilities of a free and generous life. But to Hell with every one of those who are responsible for the poison which has crept throughout all ranks in Germany, which, starting from the Kaiser and his friends, has corrupted first the proud aristocracy, then the industrious, hard-working and worthy middle classes, and has even permeated to some extent the ranks of the people themselves, destined by their infamous ruler to carry on their shoulders the burden of an unnatural, ungodly, and unholy ambition. There is much that I ought to say, but I fancy that I have said enough. Germany must be broken, and you can do it. Let the memory of those undispatched telegrams help you. Spend your time amongst the men you represent. Make them see the truth. Make them understand that every burden they lift, every time they wield the pickaxe, every blow they strike in their daily work, helps. I was going to speak about what we owe to the dead. I won't. We must beat Germany to her knees. We can and we will. Then will come the time for generosity."
Phineas Cross struck the table with the flat of his hand.
"Boys," he said, "I feel the sweat in every pore of my body. We've nigh done a horrible thing. We are with you, Mr. Orden. But about that little skunk there? How did you find him out?"
"Through Miss Abbeway," Julian answered. "You have her to thank. I can assure you that every charge I have made can be substantiated."
There was a little murmur of confidence. Everyone seemed to find speech difficult.
"One word more," Julian went on. "Don't disband this Council. Keep it together, just as it is. Keep this building. Keep our association and sanctify it to one purpose—victory."
A loud clamour of applause answered him. Once more Cross glanced towards the prostrate form upon the sofa.
"Let no one interfere," Julian enjoined. "There is an Act which will deal with him. He will be removed from this place presently, and he will not be heard of again for a little time. We don't want a soul to know how nearly we were duped. It rests with every one of you to destroy all the traces of what might have happened. You can do this if you will. To-morrow call a meeting of the Council. Appoint a permanent chairman, a new secretary, draw out a syllabus of action for promoting increased production, for stimulating throughout every industry a passionate desire for victory. If speaking, writing, or help of mine in any way is wanted, it is yours. I will willingly be a disciple of the cause. But this morning let me be your ambassador. Let me go to the Premier with a message from you. Let me tell him what you have resolved."
"Hands up all in favour!" Cross exclaimed.
Every hand was raised. Bright came back from the couch, blinking underneath his heavy spectacles but meekly acquiescent.
"Let us remember this hour," the Bishop begged, "as something solemn in our lives. The Council of Labour shall justify itself, shall voice the will or the people, fighting for victory."
"For the Peace which comes through Victory!" Julian echoed.
The Bishop and Catherine, a few weeks later, walked side by side up the murky length of St. Pancras platform. The train which they had come to meet was a quarter of an hour late, and they had fallen into a sort of reminiscent conversation which was not without interest to both of them.
"I left Mr. Stenson only an hour ago," the Bishop observed. "He could talk about nothing but Julian Orden and his wonderful speeches. They say that at Sheffield and Newcastle the enthusiasm was tremendous, and at three shipbuilding yards on the Clyde the actual work done for the week after his visit was nearly as much again. He seems to have that extraordinary gift of talking straight to the hearts of the men. He makes them feel."
"Mr. Stenson wrote me about it," Catherine told her companion, with a little smile. "He said that no dignity that could be thought of or invented would be an adequate offering to Julian for his services to the country. For the first time since the war, Labour seems wholly and entirely, passionately almost, in earnest. Every one of those delegates went back full of enthusiasm, and with every one of them, Julian, before he has finished, is going to make a little tour in his own district."
"And after to-morrow," the Bishop remarked with a smile, "I suppose he will not be alone."
She pressed his arm.
"It is very wonderful to think about," she said quietly. "I am going to try and be Julian's secretary—whilst we are away, at any rate."
"It isn't often," the Bishop reflected, "that I have the chance of a few minutes' quiet conversation, on the day before her wedding, with the woman whom I am going to marry to the man I think most of on earth."
"Give me some good advice," she begged.
The Bishop shook his head.
"You don't need it," he said. "A wife who loves her husband needs very few words of admonition. There are marriages so often in which one can see the rocks ahead that one opens one's prayer-book, even, with a little tremor of fear. But with you and Julian it is different."
"There is nothing that a woman can do for the man whom she loves," she declared softly, "which I shall not try to do for Julian."
They paced up and down for a few moments in silence. The Bishop's step was almost buoyant. He seemed to have lost all that weary load of anxiety which had weighed him down during the last few months. Catherine, too, in her becoming grey furs, her face flushed with excitement, had the air of one who has thrown all anxiety to the winds.
"Julian's gift of speech must have surprised even himself," the Bishop remarked. "Of course, we always knew that 'Paul Fiske', when he was found, must be a brilliant person, but I don't think that even Julian himself had any suspicion of his oratorical powers."
"I don't think he had," she agreed. "In his first letter he told me that it was just like sitting down at his desk to write, except that all the dull material impedimenta of paper and ink and walls seemed rolled away, and the men to whom he wished his words to travel were there waiting. Of course, he is wonderful, but Phineas Cross, David Sands and some of the others have shown a positive genius for organisation. That Council of Socialism, Trades Unionism, and Labour generally, which was formed to bring us premature peace, seems for the first time to have brought all Labour into one party, Labour in its very broadest sense, I mean."
"The truth of the matter is," the Bishop pronounced, "that the people have accepted the dictum that whatever form of republicanism is aimed at, there must be government. A body of men who realise that, however advanced their ideas, can do but little harm. I am perfectly certain—Stenson admits it himself—that before very long we shall have a Labour Ministry. Who cares? It will probably be a good ministry—good for the country and good for the world. There has been too much juggling in international politics. This war is going to end that, once and for ever. By the bye," he went on, in an altered tone, "there is one question which I have always had in my mind to ask you. If I do so now, will you please understand that if you think it best you need not answer me?"
"Certainly," Catherine replied.
"From what source did you get your information which saved us all?"
"It came to me from a man who is dead," was the quiet answer.
The Bishop looked steadily ahead at the row of signal lights.
"There was a young foreigner, some weeks ago," he said "a Baron Hellman—quite a distinguished person, I believe—who was discovered shot in his rooms."
She acquiesced silently.
"If you were to go to the Home Office and were able to persuade them to treat you candidly, I think that you could discover some wonderful things," she confided. "I wish I could believe that the Baron was the only one who has been living in this country, unsuspected, and occupying a prominent position, who was really in the pay of Germany."
"It was a very subtle conspiracy," the Bishop remarked thoughtfully, "subtle because, in a sense, it appeared so genuine. It appealed to the very best instincts of thinking men."
"Good has come out of it, at any rate," she reminded him. "Westminster Buildings is now the centre of patriotic England. Labour was to have brought the war to an end—for Germany. It is Labour which is going to win the victory—for England."
The train rolled into the station and rapidly disgorged its crowd of passengers, amongst whom Julian was one of the first to alight. Catherine found herself trembling. The shy words of welcome which had formed themselves in her mind died away on her lips as their glances met. She lifted her face to his.
"Julian," she murmured, "I am so proud—so happy."
The Bishop left them as they stepped into their cab.
"I am going to a mission room in the neighbourhood," he explained. "We have war talks every week. I try to tell them how things are going on, and we have a short service. But before I go, Mr. Stenson has sent you a little message, Julian. If you go to your club later on to-night, you will see it in the telegrams, or you will find it in your newspapers in the morning. There has been wonderful fighting in Flanders to-day. The German line has been broken at half a dozen points. We have taken nearly twenty thousand prisoners, and Zeebrugge is threatened. Farther south, the Americans have made their start and have won a complete victory over the Crown Prince's picked troops."
The two men wrung hands.
"This," Julian declared, "is the only way to Peace."