"I am very glad to hear you say so, sir," the man murmured. "Shall I fetch your overcoat?"
The telephone bell suddenly interrupted them. Hardy took up the receiver and listened for a moment.
"Mr. Hebblethwaite would like to speak to you, sir," he announced.
Norgate hurried to the telephone. A cheery voice greeted him.
"Hullo! That you, Norgate? This is Hebblethwaite. I'm just back from a few days in the country—found your note here. I want to hear all about this little matter at once. When can I see you?"
"Any time you like," Norgate replied promptly.
"Let me see," the voice continued, "what are you doing to-night?"
"Come straight round to the House of Commons and dine. Or no—wait a moment—we'll go somewhere quieter. Say the club in a quarter of an hour—the Reform Club. How will that suit you?"
"I'll be there, with pleasure," Norgate promised.
"Righto! We'll hear what you've been doing to these peppery Germans. I had a line from Leveson himself this morning. A lady in the case, I hear? Well, well! Never mind explanations now. See you in a few minutes."
Norgate laid down the receiver. His manner, as he accepted his well-brushed hat, had lost all its depression. There was no one in the Cabinet with more influence than Hebblethwaite. He would have his chance, at any rate, and his chance at other things.
"Look here, Hardy," he ordered, as he drew on his gloves, "spend as much time as you like with that fellow and let me know what sort of questions he asks you. Be careful not to mention the fact that I am dining with Mr. Hebblethwaite. For the rest, fence with him. I am not quite sure what it all means. If by any chance he mentions a man named Selingman, let me know. Good night!"
"Good night, sir!" the man replied.
Norgate descended into the Strand and walked briskly towards Pall Mall. The last few minutes seemed to him to be fraught with promise of a new interest in life. Yet it was not of any of these things that he was thinking as he made his way towards his destination. He was occupied most of the time in wondering how long it would be before he could hope to receive a reply from Berlin to his letter.
The Right Honourable John Hebblethwaite, M.P., since he had become a Cabinet Minister and had even been mentioned as the possible candidate for supreme office, had lost a great deal of that breezy, almost boisterous effusion of manner which in his younger days had first endeared him to his constituents. He received Norgate, however, with marked and hearty cordiality, and took his arm as he led him to the little table which he had reserved in a corner of the dining-room. The friendship between the entirely self-made politician and Norgate, who was the nephew of a duke, and whose aristocratic connections were multifarious and far-reaching, was in its way a genuine one. There were times when Hebblethwaite had made use of his younger friend to further his own undoubted social ambitions. On the other hand, since he had become a power in politics, he had always been ready to return in kind such offices. The note which he had received from Norgate that day was, however, the first appeal which had ever been made to him.
"I have been away for a week-end's golf," Hebblethwaite explained, as they took their places at the table. "There comes a time when figures pall, and snapping away in debate seems to stick in one's throat. I telephoned directly I got your note. Fortunately, I wasn't doing anything this evening. We won't play about. I know you don't want to see me to talk about the weather, and I know something's up, or Leveson wouldn't have written to me, and you wouldn't be back from Berlin. Let's have the whole story with the soup and fish, and we'll try and hit upon a way to put things right before we reach the liqueurs."
"I've lots to say to you," Norgate admitted simply. "I'll begin with the personal side of it. Here's just a brief narration of exactly what happened to me in the most fashionable restaurant of Berlin last Thursday night."
Norgate told his story. His friend listened with the absorbed attention of a man who possesses complete powers of concentration.
"Rotten business," he remarked, when it was finished. "I suppose you've told old—I mean you've told them the story at the Foreign Office?"
"Had it all out this morning," Norgate replied.
"I know exactly what our friend told you," Mr. Hebblethwaite continued, with a gleam of humour in his eyes. "He reminded you that the first duty of a diplomat—of a young diplomat especially—is to keep on friendly terms with the governing members of the country to which he is accredited. How's that, eh?"
"Pretty nearly word for word," Norgate admitted. "It's the sort of platitude I could watch framing in his mind before I was half-way through what I had to say. What they don't seem to take sufficient account of in that museum of mummied brains and parchment tongues—forgive me, Hebblethwaite, but it isn't your department—is that the Prince's behaviour to me is such as no Englishman, subscribing to any code of honour, could possibly tolerate. I will admit, if you like, that the Kaiser's attitude may render it advisable for me to be transferred from Berlin. I do not admit that I am not at once eligible for a position of similar importance in another capital."
"No one would doubt it," John Hebblethwaite grumbled, "except those particular fools we have to deal with. I suppose they didn't see it in the same light."
"They did not," Norgate admitted.
"We've a tough proposition to tackle," Hebblethwaite confessed cheerfully, "but I am with you, Norgate, and to my mind one of the pleasures of being possessed of a certain amount of power is to help one's friends when you believe in the justice of their cause. If you leave things with me, I'll tackle them to-morrow morning."
"That's awfully good of you, Hebblethwaite," Norgate declared gratefully, "and just what I expected. We'll leave that matter altogether just now, if we may. My own little grievance is there, and I wanted to explain exactly how it came about. Apart from that altogether, there is something far more important which I have to say to you."
Hebblethwaite knitted his brows. He was clearly puzzled.
"Still personal, eh?" he enquired.
Norgate shook his head.
"It is something of vastly more importance," he said, "than any question affecting my welfare. I am almost afraid to begin for fear I shall miss any chance, for fear I may not seem convincing enough."
"We'll have the champagne opened at once, then," Mr. Hebblethwaite declared. "Perhaps that will loosen your tongue. I can see that this is going to be a busy meal. Charles, if that bottle of Pommery 1904 is iced just to the degree I like it, let it be served, if you please, in the large sized glasses. Now, Norgate."
"What I am going to relate to you," Norgate began, leaning across the table and speaking very earnestly, "is a little incident which happened to me on my way back from Berlin. I had as a fellow passenger a person whom I am convinced is high up in the German Secret Service Intelligence Department."
"All that!" Mr. Hebblethwaite murmured. "Go ahead, Norgate. I like the commencement of your story. I almost feel that I am moving through the pages of a diplomatic romance. All that I am praying is that your fellow passenger was a foreign lady—a princess, if possible—with wonderful eyes, fascinating manners, and of a generous disposition."
"Then I am afraid you will be disappointed," Norgate continued drily. "The personage in question was a man whose name was Selingman. He told me that he was a manufacturer of crockery and that he came often to England to see his customers. He called himself a peace-loving German, and he professed the utmost good-will towards our country and our national policy. At the commencement of our conversation, I managed to impress him with the idea that I spoke no German. At one of the stations on the line he was joined by a Belgian, his agent, as he told me, in Brussels for the sale of his crockery. I overheard this agent, whose name was Meyer, recount to his principal his recent operations. He offered him an exact plan of the forts of Liege. I heard him instructed to procure a list of the wealthy inhabitants of Ghent and the rateable value of the city, and I heard him commissioned to purchase land in the neighbourhood of Antwerp for a secret purpose."
Mr. Hebblethwaite's eyebrows became slowly upraised. The twinkle in his eyes remained, however.
"My!" he exclaimed softly. "We're getting on with the romance all right!"
"During the momentary absence of this fellow and his agent from the carriage," Norgate proceeded, "I possessed myself of a slip of paper which had become detached from the packet of documents they had been examining. It consisted of a list of names mostly of people resident in the United Kingdom, purporting to be Selingman's agents. I venture to believe that this list is a precise record of the principal German spies in this country."
"German spies!" Mr. Hebblethwaite murmured. "Whew!"
He sipped his champagne.
"That list," Norgate went on, "is in my pocket. I may add that although I was careful to keep up the fiction of not understanding German, and although I informed Herr Selingman that I had seen the paper in question blow out of the window, he nevertheless gave me that night a drugged whisky and soda, and during the time I slept he must have been through every one of my possessions. I found my few letters and papers turned upside down, and even my pockets had been ransacked."
"Where was the paper, then?" Mr. Hebblethwaite enquired.
"In an inner pocket of my pyjamas," Norgate explained. "I had them made with a sort of belt inside, at the time I was a king's messenger."
Mr. Hebblethwaite played with his tie for a moment and drank a little more champagne.
"Could I have a look at the list?" he asked, as though with a sudden inspiration.
Norgate passed it across the table to him. Mr. Hebblethwaite adjusted his pince-nez, gave a little start as he read the first name, leaned back in his chair as he came to another, stared at Norgate about half-way down the list, as though to make sure that he was in earnest, and finally finished it in silence. He folded it up and handed it back.
"Well, well!" he exclaimed, a little pointlessly. "Now tell me, Norgate, you showed this list down there?"—jerking his head towards the street.
"I did," Norgate admitted.
"And what did they say?"
"Just what you might expect men whose lives are spent within the four walls of a room in Downing Street to say," Norgate replied. "You are half inclined to make fun of me yourself, Hebblethwaite, but at any rate I know you have a different outlook from theirs. Old Carew was frantically polite. He even declared the list to be most interesting! He rambled on for about a quarter of an hour on the general subject of the spy mania. German espionage, he told me, was one of the shadowy evils from which England had suffered for generations. So far as regards London and the provincial towns, he went on, whether for good or evil, we have a large German population, and if they choose to make reports to any one in Germany as to events happening here which come under their observation, we cannot stop it, and it would not even be worth while to try. As regards matters of military and naval importance, there was a special branch, he assured me, for looking after these, and it was a branch of the Service which was remarkably well-served and remarkably successful. Having said this, he folded the list up and returned it to me, rang the bell, gave me a frozen hand to shake, a mumbled promise about another appointment as soon as there should be a vacancy, and that was the end of it."
"About that other appointment," Mr. Hebblethwaite began, with some animation—
"Damn the other appointment!" Norgate interrupted testily. "I didn't come here to cadge, Hebblethwaite. I am never likely to make use of my friends in that way. I came for a bigger thing. I came to try and make you see a danger, the reality of which I have just begun to appreciate myself for the first time in my life."
Mr. Hebblethwaite's manner slowly changed. He pulled down his waistcoat, finished off a glass of wine, and leaned forward.
"Norgate," he said, "I am sorry that this is the frame of mind in which you have come to me. I tell you frankly that you couldn't have appealed to a man in the Cabinet less in sympathy with your fears than I myself."
"I am sorry to hear that," Norgate replied grimly, "but go on."
"Before I entered the Cabinet," Mr. Hebblethwaite continued, "our relations with Foreign Powers were just the myth to me that they are to most people who read the Morning Post one day and the Daily Mail the next. However, I made the best part of half a million in business through knowing the top and the bottom and every corner of my job, and I started in to do the same when I began to have a share in the government of the country. The entente with France is all right in its way, but I came to the conclusion that the greatest and broadest stroke of diplomacy possible to Englishmen to-day was to cultivate more benevolent and more confidential relations with Germany. That same feeling has been spreading through the Cabinet during the last two years. I am ready to take my share of the blame or praise, whichever in the future shall be allotted to the inspirer of that idea. It is our hope that when the present Government goes out of office, one of its chief claims to public approval and to historical praise will be the improvement of our relations with Germany. We certainly do not wish to disturb the growing confidence which exists between the two countries by any maladroit or unnecessary investigations. We believe, in short, that Germany's attitude towards us is friendly, and we intend to treat her in the same spirit."
"Tell me," Norgate asked, "is that the reason why every scheme for the expansion of the army has been shelved? Is that the reason for all the troubles with the Army Council?"
"It is," Hebblethwaite admitted. "I trust you, Norgate, and I look upon you as a friend. I tell you what the whole world of responsible men and women might as well know, but which we naturally don't care about shouting from the housetops. We have come to the conclusion that there is no possible chance of the peace of Europe being disturbed. We have come to the conclusion that civilisation has reached that pitch when the last resource of arms is absolutely unnecessary. I do not mind telling you that the Balkan crisis presented opportunities to any one of the Powers to plunge into warfare, had they been so disposed. No one bade more boldly for peace then than Germany. No one wants war. Germany has nothing to gain by it, no animosity against France, none towards Russia. Neither of these countries has the slightest intention, now or at any time, of invading Germany. Why should they? The matter of Alsace and Lorraine is finished. If these provinces ever come back to France, it will be by political means and not by any mad-headed attempt to wrest them away."
"Incidentally," Norgate asked, "what about the enormous armaments of Germany? What about her navy? What about the military spirit which practically rules the country?"
"I have spent three months in Germany during the last year," Hebblethwaite replied. "It is my firm belief that those armaments and that fleet are necessary to Germany to preserve her place of dignity among the nations. She has Russia on one side and France on the other, allies, watching her all the time, and of late years England has been chipping at her whenever she got a chance, and flirting with France. What can a nation do but make herself strong enough to defend herself against unprovoked attack? Germany, of course, is full of the military spirit, but it is my opinion, Norgate, that it is a great deal fuller of the great commercial spirit. It isn't war with Germany that we have to fear. It's the ruin of our commerce by their great assiduity and more up-to-date methods. Now you've had a statement of policy from me for which the halfpenny Press would give me a thousand guineas if I'd sign it."
"I've had it," Norgate admitted, "and I tell you frankly that I hate it. I am an unfledged young diplomat in disgrace, and I haven't your experience or your brains, but I have a hateful idea that I can see the truth and you can't. You're too big and too broad in this matter, Hebblethwaite. Your head's lifted too high. You see the horrors and the needlessness, the logical side of war, and you brush the thought away from you."
Mr. Hebblethwaite sighed.
"Perhaps so," he admitted. "One can only act according to one's convictions. You must remember, though, Norgate, that we don't carry our pacificism to extremes. Our navy is and always will be an irresistible defence."
"Even with hostile naval and aeroplane bases at—say—Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, Ostend?"
Mr. Hebblethwaite pushed a box of cigars towards his guest, glanced at the clock, and rose.
"Young fellow," he said, "I have engaged a box at the Empire. Let us move on."
"My position as a Cabinet Minister," Mr. Hebblethwaite declared, with a sigh, "renders my presence in the Promenade undesirable. If you want to stroll around, Norgate, don't bother about me."
Norgate picked up his hat. "Jolly good show," he remarked. "I'll be back before it begins again."
He descended to the lower Promenade and sauntered along towards the refreshment bar. Mrs. Paston Benedek, who was seated in the stalls, leaned over and touched his arm.
"My friend," she exclaimed, "you are distrait! You walk as though you looked for everything and saw nothing. And behold, you have found me!"
Norgate shook hands and nodded to Baring, who was her escort.
"What have you done with our expansive friend?" he asked. "I thought you were dining with him."
"I compromised," she laughed. "You see what it is to be so popular. I should have dined and have come here with Captain Baring—that was our plan for to-night. Captain Baring, however, was generous when he saw my predicament. He suffered me to dine with Mr. Selingman, and he fetched me afterwards. Even then we could not quite get rid of the dear man. He came on here with us, and he is now, I believe, greeting acquaintances everywhere in the Promenade. I am perfectly convinced that I shall have to look the other way when we go out."
"I think I'll see whether I can rescue him," Norgate remarked. "Good show, isn't it?" he added, turning to her companion.
"Capital," replied Baring, without enthusiasm. "Too many people here, though."
Norgate strolled on, and Mrs. Benedek tapped her companion on the knuckles with her fan.
"How dared you be so rude!" she exclaimed. "You are in a very bad humour this evening. I can see that I shall have to punish you."
"That's all very well," Baring grumbled, "but it gets more difficult to see you alone every day. This evening was to have been mine. Now this fat German turns up and lays claim to you, and then, about the first moment we've had a chance to talk, Norgate comes gassing along. You're not nearly as nice to me, Bertha, as you used to be."
"My dear man," she protested, "in the first place I deny it. In the second, I ask myself whether you are quite as devoted to me as you were when you first came."
"In what way?" he demanded.
She turned her wonderful eyes upon him.
"At first when you came," she declared, "you told me everything. You spoke of your long mornings and afternoons at the Admiralty. You told me of the room in which you worked, the men who worked there with you. You told me of the building of that little model, and how you were all allowed to try your own pet ideas with regard to it. And then, all of a sudden, nothing—not a word about what you have been doing. I am an intelligent woman. I love to have men friends who do things, and if they are really friends of mine, I like to enter into their life, to know of their work, to sympathise, to take an interest in it. It was like that with you at first. Now it has all gone. You have drawn down a curtain. I do not believe that you go to the Admiralty at all. I do not believe that you have any wonderful invention there over which you spend your time."
"Bertha, dear," he remonstrated, "do be reasonable."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"But am I not? See how reasonably I have spoken to you. I have told you the exact truth. I have told you why I do not take quite that same pleasure in your company as when you first came."
"Do consider," he begged. "I spoke to you freely at first because we had not reached the stage in the work when secrecy was absolutely necessary. At present we are all upon our honour. From the moment we pass inside that little room, we are, to all effects and purposes, dead men. Nothing that happens there is to be spoken of or hinted at, even to our wives or our dearest friends. It is the etiquette of my profession, Bertha. Be reasonable."
"Pooh!" she exclaimed. "Fancy asking a woman to be reasonable! Don't you realise, you stupid man, that if you were at liberty to tell everybody what it is that you do there, well, then I should have no more interest in it? It is just because you say that you will not and you may not tell, that, womanlike, I am curious."
"But whatever good could it be to you to know?" he protested. "I should simply addle your head with a mass of technical detail, not a quarter of which you would be able to understand. Besides, I have told you, Bertha, it is a matter of honour."
She looked intently at her programme.
"There are men," she murmured, "who love so much that even honour counts for little by the side of—"
"Of what?" he whispered hoarsely.
For a moment they sat in silence. The place was not particularly hot, yet there were little beads of perspiration upon Baring's forehead. The fingers which held his programme twitched. He rose suddenly to his feet.
"May I go out and have a drink?" he asked. "I won't go if you don't want to be alone."
"My dear friend, I do not mind in the least," she assured him. "If you find Mr. Norgate, send him here."
In one of the smaller refreshment rooms sat Mr. Selingman, a bottle of champagne before him and a wondrously attired lady on either side. The heads of all three were close together. The lady on the left was talking in a low tone but with many gesticulations.
"Dear friend," she exclaimed, "for one single moment you must not think that I am ungrateful! But consider. Success costs money always, and I have been successful—you admit that. My rooms are frequented entirely by the class of young men you have wished me to encourage. Pauline and I here, and Rose, whom you have met, seek our friends in no other direction. We are never alone, and, as you very well know, not a day has passed that I have not sent you some little word of gossip or information—the gossip of the navy and the gossip of the army—and there is always some truth underneath what these young men say. It is what you desire, is it not?"
"Without a doubt," Selingman assented. "Your work, my dear Helda, has been excellent. I commend you. I think with fervour of the day when first we talked together, and the scheme presented itself to me. Continue to play Aspasia in such a fashion to the young soldiers and sailors of this country, and your villa at Monte Carlo next year is assured."
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
"I will not say that you are not generous," she declared, "for that would be untrue, but sometimes you forget that these young men have very little money, and the chief profit from their friendship, therefore, must come to us in other ways."
"You want a larger allowance?" Selingman asked slowly.
"Not at present, but I want to warn you that the time may come when I shall need more. A salon in Pimlico, dear friend, is an expensive thing to maintain. These young men tell their friends of our hospitality, the music, our entertainment. We become almost too much the fashion, and it costs money."
Selingman held up his champagne glass, gazed at the wine for a moment, and slowly drank it.
"I am not of those," he announced, "who expect service for nothing, especially good service such as yours. Watch for the postman, dear lady. Any morning this week there may come for you a pleasant little surprise."
She leaned over and patted his arm.
"You are a prince," she murmured. "But tell me, who is the grave-looking young man?"
Selingman glanced up. Norgate, who had been standing at the bar with Baring, was passing a few feet away.
"The rake's progress," the former quoted solemnly.
Selingman raised his glass.
"Come and join us," he invited.
Norgate shook his head slightly and passed on. Selingman leaned a little forward, watching his departing figure. The buoyant good-nature seemed to have faded out of his face.
"If you could get that young man to talk, now, Helda," he muttered, "it would be an achievement."
She glanced after him, "To me," she declared, "he looks one of the difficult sort."
"He is an Englishman with a grievance," Selingman continued. "If the grievance cuts deep enough, he may—But we gossip."
"The other was a navy man," the girl remarked. "His name is Baring."
"You need not bother about him," he said. "If it is possible for him to be of use, that is arranged for in another quarter. So! Let us finish our wine and separate. That letter shall surely come. Have no fear."
Selingman strolled away, a few minutes later. Baring had returned to Mrs. Paston Benedek, and Norgate had resumed his place in the box. Selingman, with a gold-topped cane under his arm, a fresh cigar between his lips, and a broad smile of good-fellowship upon his face, strolled down one of the wings of the Promenade. Suddenly he came to a standstill. In the box opposite to him, Norgate and Hebblethwaite were seated side by side. Selingman regarded them for a moment steadfastly.
"A friend of Hebblethwaite's!" he muttered. "Hebblethwaite—the one man whom Berlin doubts!"
He withdrew a little into the shadows, his eyes fixed upon the box. A little way off, in the stalls, Mrs. Paston Benedek was whispering to Baring. Further back in the Promenade, Helda was entertaining a little party of friends. Selingman's eyes remained fixed upon Norgate.
Mrs. Paston Benedek, on the following afternoon, sat in one corner of the very comfortable lounge set with its back to the light in her charming drawing-room. Norgate sat in the other.
"I think it is perfectly sweet of you to come," she declared. "I do not care how many enemies I make—I will certainly dine with you to-night. How I shall manage it I do not yet know. You shall call for me here at eight o'clock—or say a quarter past, then we need not hurry away too early from the club. If Captain Baring is there, perhaps it would be better if you did not speak of our engagement."
"What is the wonderful attraction about Baring?" he asked discontentedly.
"Really, there isn't any," she replied. "I like to be kind, that is all. I do not like to hurt anybody's feelings, and I know that Captain Baring would like very much to dine with me to-night himself. I was obliged to throw him over last night because of Mr. Selingman's arrival."
"You have not always been so considerate," he persisted. "Why this especial care for Baring's feelings?"
She turned her head a little towards him. She was leaning back in her corner of the lounge, her hands clasped behind her head. There was an elaborate carelessness about her pose which she numbered among her best effects.
"Perhaps," she retorted, "I, too, find your sudden attraction for me a little remarkable. On those few occasions when you did honour us at the club before you left for Berlin, you were agreeable enough, but I do not remember that you once asked me to dine with you. There was no Captain Baring then."
"The truth is," Norgate confessed, "since I returned, I have felt rather like hiding myself. I don't care about going to my own club or visiting my own friends. I came to the St. James's as a sort of compromise."
"You are not very flattering," she complained.
"Wouldn't you rather I were truthful?" asked Norgate. "One's friends, one's real friends, are scarcely likely to be found at a mixed bridge club."
"After that," she sighed, "I am going to telephone to Captain Baring. He, at any rate, is in love with me, and I need something to restore my self-respect."
"In love with you, perhaps, but are you in love with him?"
She laughed, softly at first, but with an ever more insistent note of satire underlying her mirth.
"The woman," she said, "who expects to get anything out of life worth having, doesn't fall in love. She may give a good deal, she may seem to give everything, but if she is wise, she keeps her heart."
"Are you sure," she asked, fixing her brilliant eyes upon him, "that he needs your sympathy? He is very much in love with me, and there are times when I could almost persuade myself that I am in love with him. At any rate, he attracts me."
Norgate was momentarily sententious. "The psychology of love," he murmured, looking into the fire, "is a queer study."
Once more she laughed at him.
"Before you went to Berlin," she said, "you used not to talk of the psychology of love. Your methods, so far as I remember them, were a little different. Confess now—you fell in love in Berlin."
Norgate stifled a sudden desire to confide in his companion.
"At my age!" he exclaimed.
"It is true that it is not a susceptible age," Mrs. Benedek admitted. "You are in what I call your mid-youth. Mid-youth, as a rule, is an age of cynicism. As you grow older, you will appreciate more the luxury of emotion. But tell me, was it the little Baroness who fascinated you? She is a great beauty, is she not?"
"I took her out to dinner," Norgate observed. "Therefore I suppose it was my duty to be in love with her."
"Fancy sharing the same sofa," she laughed, "with a rival of princes! Do you know that the Baroness is a friend of mine? She comes sometimes to London."
"I am much more interested in your love affair," he protested.
"And I find far more interest in your future," she insisted. "Let us talk sensibly, like good friends and companions. What are you going to do? They will not treat this affair seriously at the Foreign Office? They cannot think that you were to blame?"
"In a sense, no," he replied. "Diplomatically, however, I am, from their point of view, a heinous offender. I rather think I am going to be shelved for six months."
"Just what one would expect from this horrible Government!" Mrs. Benedek exclaimed indignantly.
"What do you know about the Government?" he asked. "Are you taking up politics as well as the study of the higher auction?"
She sighed, and her eyes were fixed upon him very earnestly, as she declared: "You do not understand me, my friend. You never did. I am not altogether frivolous; I am not altogether an artist. I have my serious moments."
"Is this going to be one of them?"
"Don't make fun of me, please," she begged, "You are like so many Englishmen. Directly a woman tries to talk seriously, you will push her back into her place. You like to treat her as something to frivol with and make love to. Is it your amour propre which is wounded, when you feel sometimes forced to admit that she has as clear an insight into the more important things of life as you yourself?"
"Do you talk like that with Baring?" he asked.
For several seconds she was silent. Her eyes had contracted a little. She seemed to be seeking for some double meaning in his words.
"Captain Baring is an intelligent man," she said, "and he is a man, too, who understands his own particular subject. Of course it is a pleasure to talk to him about it."
"I thought navy men, as a rule," he remarked, "were not communicative."
"Do you call it communicative," she enquired, "to discuss the subject you love best with your greatest friend? But let us not talk any more of Captain Baring. It is in you just now that I am interested, you and your future. You seem to think that your friends at the Foreign Office are not going to find you another position—for some time, at any rate. You are not one of those men who think of nothing but sport and amusing themselves. What are you going to do during the next few months?"
"At present," he confessed thoughtfully, "I have only the vaguest ideas. Perhaps you could help me."
"Perhaps I could," she admitted. "We will talk of that another time, if you like."
It was obvious that she was speaking under a certain tension. The silence which ensued was significant.
"Why not now?" he asked.
"It is too soon," she answered, "and you would not understand. I might say things to you which would perhaps end our friendship, which would give you a wrong impression. No, let us stay just as we are for a little time."
"This is most tantalising," grumbled Norgate.
She leaned over and patted his hand.
"Have patience, my friend," she whispered. "The great things come to those who wait."
An interruption, commonplace enough, yet in its way startling, checked the words which were already upon his lips. The telephone bell from the little instrument on the table within a few feet of them, rang insistently. For a moment Mrs. Benedek herself appeared taken by surprise. Then she raised the receiver to her ear.
"My friend," she said to Norgate, "you must excuse me. I told them distinctly to disconnect the instrument so that it rang only in my bedroom. I am disobeyed, but no matter. Who is that?"
Norgate leaned back in his place. His companion's little interjection, however, was irresistible. He glanced towards her. There was a slight flush of colour in her cheeks, her head was moving slowly as though keeping pace to the words spoken at the other end. Suddenly she laughed.
"Do not be so foolish," she said. "Yes, of course. You keep your share of the bargain and I mine. At eight o'clock, then. I will say no more now, as I am engaged with a visitor. Au revoir!"
She set down the receiver and turned towards Norgate, who was turning the pages of an illustrated paper. She made a little grimace.
"Oh, but life is very queer!" she declared. "How I love it! Now I am going to make you look glum, if indeed you do care just that little bit which is all you know of caring. Perhaps you will be a little disappointed. Tell me that you are, or my vanity will be hurt. Listen and prepare. To-night I cannot dine with you."
He turned deliberately around. "You are going to throw me over?" he demanded, looking at her steadfastly.
"To throw you over, dear friend," she repeated cheerfully. "You would do just the same, if you were in my position."
"It is an affair of duty," he persisted, "or the triumph of a rival?"
She made a grimace at him. "It is an affair of duty," she admitted, "but it is certainly with a rival that I must dine."
He moved a little nearer to her on the lounge.
"Tell me on your honour," he said, "that you are not dining with Baring, and I will forgive!"
For a moment she seemed as though she were summoning all her courage to tell the lie which he half expected. Instead she changed her mind.
"Do not be unkind," she begged. "I am dining with Captain Baring. The poor man is distracted. You know that I cannot bear to hurt people. Be kind this once. You may take my engagement book, you may fill it up as you will, but to-night I must dine with him. Consider, my friend. You may have many months before you in London. Captain Baring finishes his work at the Admiralty to-day, and leaves for Portsmouth to-morrow morning. He may not be in London again for some time. I promised him long ago that I would dine with him to-night on one condition. That condition he is keeping. I cannot break my word."
Norgate rose gloomily to his feet.
"Of course," he said, "I don't want to be unreasonable, and any one can see the poor fellow is head over ears in love with you."
She took his arm as she led him towards the door.
"Listen," she promised, laughing into his face, "when you are as much in love with me as he is, I will put off every other engagement I have in the world, and I will dine with you. You understand? We shall meet later at the club, I hope. Until then, au revoir!"
Norgate hailed a taxi outside and was driven at once to the nearest telephone call office. There, after some search in the directory, he rang up a number and enquired for Captain Baring. There was a delay of about five minutes. Then Baring spoke from the other end of the telephone.
"Who is it wants me?" he enquired, rather impatiently.
"Are you Baring?" Norgate asked, deepening his voice a little.
"Yes! Who are you?"
"I am a friend," Norgate answered slowly.
"What the devil do you mean by 'a friend'?" was the irritated reply. "I am engaged here most particularly."
"There can be nothing so important," Norgate declared, "as the warning I am charged to give to you. Remember that it is a friend who speaks. There is a train about five o'clock to Portsmouth. Your work is finished. Take that train and stay away from London."
Norgate set down the receiver without listening to the tangle of exclamations from the other end, and walked quickly out of the shop. He re-entered his taxi.
"The St. James's Club," he ordered.
Norgate found Selingman in the little drawing-room of the club, reclining in an easy-chair, a small cup of black coffee by his side. He appeared to be exceedingly irate at the performance of his partner in a recent rubber, and he seized upon Norgate as a possibly sympathetic confidant.
"Listen to me for one moment," he begged, "and tell me whether I have not the right to be aggrieved. I go in on my own hand, no trump. I am a careful declarer. I play here every day when I am in London, and they know me well to be a careful declarer. My partner—I do not know his name; I hope I shall never know his name; I hope I shall never see him again—he takes me out. 'Into what?' you ask. Into diamonds! I am regretful, but I recognise, as I believe, a necessity. I ask you, of what do you suppose his hand consists? Down goes my no trump on the table—a good, a very good no trump. He has in his hand the ace, king, queen and five diamonds, the king of clubs guarded, the ace and two little hearts, and he takes me out into diamonds from no trumps with a score at love all. Two pences they had persuaded me to play, too, and it was the rubber game. Afterwards he said to me: 'You seem annoyed'; and I replied 'I am annoyed,' and I am. I come in here to drink coffee and cool myself. Presently I will cut into another rubber, where that young man is not. Perhaps our friend Mrs. Benedek will be here. You and I and Mrs. Benedek, but not, if we can help it, the lady who smokes the small black cigars. She is very amiable, but I cannot attend to the game while she sits there opposite to me. She fascinates me. In Germany sometimes our women smoke cigarettes, but cigars, and in public, never!"
"We'll get a rubber presently, I dare say," Norgate remarked, settling himself in an easy-chair. "How's business?"
"Business is very good," Selingman declared. "It is so good that I must be in London for another week or so before I set off to the provinces. It grows and grows all the time. Soon I must find a manager to take over some of my work here. At my time of life one likes to enjoy. I love to be in London; I do not like these journeys to Newcastle and Liverpool and places a long way off. In London I am happy. You should go into business, young man. It is not well for you to do nothing."
"Do you think I should be useful in the crockery trade?" Norgate asked.
Herr Selingman appeared to take the enquiry quite seriously.
"Why not?" he demanded. "You are well-educated, you have address, you have intelligence. Mrs. Benedek has spoken very highly of you. But you—oh, no! It would not suit you at all to plunge yourself into commerce, nor would it suit you, I think, to push the affairs of a prosperous German concern. You are very English, Mr. Norgate, is that not so?"
"Not aggressively," Norgate replied. "As a matter of fact, I am rather fed up with my own country just now."
Mr. Selingman sat quite still in his chair. Some signs of a change which came to him occasionally were visible in his face. He was for that moment no longer the huge, overgrown schoolboy bubbling over with the joy and appetite of life. His face seemed to have resolved itself into sterner lines. It was the face of a thinker.
"There are other Englishmen besides you," Selingman said, "who are a little—what you call 'fed up' with your country. You have much common sense. You do not believe that yours is the only country in the world. You like sometimes to hear plain speech from one who knows?"
"Without a doubt," Norgate assented.
Mr. Selingman stroked his knee with his fat hand.
"You in England," he continued, "you are too prosperous. Very, very slowly the country is drifting into the hands of the people. A country that is governed entirely by the people goes down, down, down. Your classes are losing their hold and their influence. You have gone from Tory to Whig, from Whig to Liberal, from Liberal to Radical, and soon it will be the Socialists who govern. You know what will come then? Colonies! What do your radicals care about colonies? Institutions! What do they care about institutions? All you who have inherited money, they will bleed. You will become worse than a nation of shop-keepers. You will be an illustration to all the world of the dangers of democracy. So! I go on. I tell you why that comes about. You are in the continent of Europe, and you will not do as Europe does. You are a nation outside. You have believed in yourselves and believed in yourselves, till you think that you are infallible. Before long will come the revolution. It will be a worse revolution than the French Revolution."
Norgate smiled. "Too much common sense about us, I think, Mr. Selingman, for such happenings," he declared. "I grant you that the classes are getting the worst of it so far as regards the government of the country, but I can't quite see the future that you depict."
"Good Englishman!" Herr Selingman murmured approvingly. "That is your proper attitude. You do not see because you will not see. I tell you that the best thing in all the world would be a little blood-letting. You do not like your Government. Would it not please you to see them humiliated just a little?"
"In what way?"
"Oh! there are ways," Selingman declared. "A little gentle smack like this,"—his two hands came together with a crash which echoed through the room—"a little smack from Germany would do the business. People would open their eyes and begin to understand. A Radical Government may fill your factories with orders and rob the rich to increase the prosperity of the poor, but it will not keep you a great nation amongst the others."
"You seem to have studied the question pretty closely," he remarked.
"I study the subject closely," Selingman went on, "because my interests are yours. My profits are made in England. I am German born, but I am English, too, in feeling. To me the two nations are one. We are of the same race. That is why I am sorrowful when I see England slipping back. That is why I would like to see her have just a little lesson."
Selingman paused. Norgate rose to his feet and stood on the hearthrug, with his elbow upon the mantelpiece.
"Twice we have come as far as that, Mr. Selingman," he pointed out. "England requires a little lesson. You have something in your mind behind that, something which you are half inclined to say to me. Isn't that so? Why not go on?"
"Because I am not sure of you," Selingman confessed frankly. "Because you might misunderstand what I say, and we should be friends no longer, and you would say silly things about me and my views. Therefore, I like to keep you for a friend, and I go no further at present. You say that you are a little angry with your country, but you Englishmen are so very prejudiced, so very quick to take offence, so very insular, if I may use the word. I do not know how angry you are with your country. I do not know if your mind is so big and broad that you would be willing to see her suffer a little for her greater good. Ah, but the lady comes at last!"
Mrs. Benedek was accompanied by a tall, middle-aged man, of fair complexion, whom Selingman greeted with marked respect. She turned to Norgate.
"Let me present you," she said, "to Prince Edward of Lenemaur—Mr. Francis Norgate."
The two men shook hands.
"I played golf with you once at Woking," Norgate reminded his new acquaintance.
"I not only remember it," Prince Edward answered, "but I remember the result. You beat me three up, and we were to have had a return, but you had to leave for Paris on the next day."
"You will be able to have your return match now," Mrs. Benedek observed. "Mr. Norgate is going to be in England for some time. Let us play bridge. I have to leave early to-night—I am dining out—and I should like to make a little money."
They strolled into the bridge-room. Selingman hung behind with Norgate.
"Soon," he suggested, "we must finish our talk, is it not so? Dine with me to-night. Mrs. Benedek has deserted me. We will eat at the Milan Grill. The cooking there is tolerable, and they have some Rhine wine—but you shall taste it."
"Thank you," Norgate assented, "I shall be very pleased."
They played three or four rubbers. Then Mrs. Benedek glanced at the clock.
"I must go," she announced. "I am dining at eight o'clock."
"Stay but for one moment," Selingman begged. "We will all take a little mixed vermouth together. I shall tell the excellent Horton how to prepare it. Plenty of lemon-peel, and just a dash—but I will not give my secret away."
He called the steward and whispered some instructions in his ear. While they were waiting for the result, a man came in with an evening paper in his hand. He looked across the room to a table beyond that at which Norgate and his friends were playing.
"Heard the news, Monty?" he asked.
"No! What is it?" was the prompt enquiry.
"Poor old Baring—"
The newcomer stopped short. For the first time he noticed Mrs. Benedek. She half rose from her chair, however, and her eyes were fixed upon him.
"What is it?" she exclaimed. "What has happened?"
There was a moment's awkward silence. Mrs. Benedek snatched the paper away from the man's fingers and read the little paragraph out aloud. For a moment she was deathly white.
"What is it?" Selingman demanded.
"Freddy Baring," she whispered—"Captain Baring—shot himself in his room at the Admiralty this afternoon! Some one telephoned to him. Five minutes later he was found—dead—a bullet wound through his temple!... Give me my chair, please. I think that I am going to faint."
Selingman and Norgate dined together that evening in a corner of a large, popular grill-room near the Strand. They were still suffering from the shock of the recent tragedy. They both rather avoided the topic of Baring's sudden death. Selingman made but one direct allusion to it.
"Only yesterday," he remarked, "I said to little Bertha—I have known her so long that I call her always Bertha—that this bureau work was bad for Baring. When I was over last, a few months ago, he was the picture of health. Yesterday he looked wild and worried. He was at work with others, they say, at the Admiralty upon some new invention. Poor fellow!"
Norgate, conscious of a curious callousness which even he himself found inexplicable, made some conventional reply only. Selingman began to talk of other matters.
"Truly," he observed, "a visit to your country is good for the patriotic German. Behold! here in London, we are welcomed by a German maitre d'hotel; we are waited on by a German waiter; we drink German wine; we eat off what I very well know is German crockery."
"And some day, I suppose," Norgate put in, "we are to be German subjects. Isn't that so?"
Selingman's denial was almost unduly emphatic.
"Never!" he exclaimed. "There is nothing so foolish as the way many of you English seem to regard us Germans as though we were wild beasts of prey. Now it gives me pleasure to talk with a man like yourself, Mr. Norgate. I like to look a little into the future and speculate as to our two countries. Above all things, this thing I do truly know. The German nation stands for peace. Yet in order that peace shall everywhere prevail, a small war, a humanely-conducted war, may sometime within the future, one must believe, take place. It would last but a short time, but it might lead to great changes. I have sometimes thought, my young friend Norgate, that such a war might be the greatest blessing which England could ever experience."
"As a discipline, you mean?" Norgate murmured.
"As a cleansing tonic," Selingman declared. "It would sweep out your Radical Government. It would bring the classes back to power. It would kindle in the spirits of your coming generation the spark of that patriotism which is, alas! just now a very feeble flame. What do you think? You agree with me, eh?"
"It is going a long way," Norgate said cautiously, "to approve of a form of discipline so stringent."
"But not too far—oh, believe me, not too far!" Selingman insisted. "If that war should come, it would come solely with the idea of sweeping away this Government, which is most distasteful to all German politicians. It would come solely with the idea that with a new form of government here, more solid and lasting terms of friendship could be arranged between Germany and England."
"A very interesting theory," Norgate remarked. "Do you believe in it yourself?"
Selingman paused to give an order to a waiter. His tone suddenly became more serious. He pointed to the menu.
"They have dared," he exclaimed, "to bring us Hollandaise sauce with the asparagus! A gastronomic indignity! It is such things as this which would endanger the entente between our countries."
"I don't mind Hollandaise" Norgate ventured.
"Then of eating you know very little," Herr Selingman pronounced. "There is only one sauce to be served with asparagus, and that is finely drawn butter. I have explained to the maitre d'hotel. He must bring us what I desire. Meanwhile, we spoke, I think, of our two countries. You asked me a question. I do indeed believe in the theories which I have been advancing."
"But wouldn't a war smash up your crockery business?" Norgate asked.
"For six months, yes! And after that six months, fortunes for all of us, trade such as the world has never known, a settled peace, a real union between two great and friendly countries. I wish England well. I love England. I love my holidays over here, my business trips which are holidays in themselves, and for their sake and for my own sake, I say that just a little wrestle, a slap on the cheek from one and a punch on the nose from the other, and we should find ourselves."
"War is a very dangerous conflagration," Norgate remarked. "I cannot think of any experiment more hazardous."
"It is no experiment," Selingman declared. "It is a certainty. All that we do in my country, we do by what we call previously ascertained methods. We test the ground in front of us before we plant our feet upon it. We not only look into the future, but we stretch out our hands. We make the doubtful places sure. Our turn of mind is scientific. Our road-making and our bridge-building, our empire-making and our diplomacy, they are all fashioned in the same manner. If you could trust us, Mr. Norgate, if you could trust yourself to work for the good of both countries, we could make very good and profitable use of you during the next six months. Would you like to hear more?"
"But I know nothing about crockery!"
"Would you like to hear more?" Selingman repeated.
"I think I should."
"Very well, then," Selingman proceeded. "Tomorrow we will talk of it. There are some ways in which you might be very useful, useful at the same time to your country and to ours. Your position might be somewhat peculiar, but that you would be prepared for a short time to tolerate."
"Peculiar in what respect?" Norgate asked.
Selingman held his glass of yellow wine up to the light and criticised it for a moment. He set it down empty.
"Peculiar," he explained, "inasmuch as you might seem to be working with Germany, whereas you were really England's best friend. But let us leave these details until to-morrow. We have talked enough of serious matters. I have a box at the Gaiety, and we must not be late—also a supper party afterwards. This is indeed a country for enjoyment. To-morrow we speak of these things again. You have seen our little German lady at the Gaiety? You have heard her sing and watch her dance? Well, to-night you shall meet her."
"Rosa Morgen?" Norgate exclaimed.
Selingman nodded complacently.
"She sups with us," he announced, "she and others. That is why, when they spoke to me of going back for bridge to-night, I pretended that I did not hear. Bridge is very good, but there are other things. To-night I am in a frivolous vein. I have many friends amongst the young ladies of the Gaiety. You shall see how they will welcome me."
"You seem to have found your way about over here," Norgate remarked, as he lit a cigar and waited while his companion paid the bill.
"I am a citizen of the world," Selingman admitted. "I enjoy myself as I go, but I have my eyes always fixed upon the future. I make many friends, and I do not lose them. I set my face towards the pleasant places, and I keep it in that direction. It is the cult of some to be miserable; it is mine to be happy. The person who does most good in the world is the person who reflects the greatest amount of happiness. Therefore, I am a philanthropist. You shall learn from me, my young friend, how to banish some of that gloom from your face. You shall learn how to find happiness."
They made their way across to the Gaiety, where Selingman was a very conspicuous figure in the largest and most conspicuous box. He watched with complacency the delivery of enormous bouquets to the principal artistes, and received their little bow of thanks with spontaneous and unaffected graciousness. Afterwards he dragged Norgate round to the stage-door, installed him in a taxi, and handed over to his escort two or three of his guests.
"I entrust you, Mr. Norgate," he declared, "with our one German export more wonderful, even, than my crockery—Miss Rosa Morgen. Take good care of her and bring her to the Milan. The other young ladies are my honoured guests, but they are also Miss Morgen's. She will tell you their names. I have others to look after."
Norgate's last glimpse of Selingman was on the pavement outside the theatre, surrounded by a little group of light-hearted girls and a few young men.
"He is perfectly wonderful, our Mr. Selingman," Miss Morgen murmured, as they started off. "Tell me how long you have known him, Mr. Norgate?"
"Four days," Norgate replied.
She screamed with laughter.
"It is so like him," she declared. "He makes friends everywhere. A day is sufficient. He gives such wonderful parties. I do not know why we all like to come, but we do. I suppose that we all get half-a-dozen invitations to supper most nights, but there is not one of us who does not put off everything to sup with Mr. Selingman. He sits in the middle—oh, you shall watch him to-night!—and what he says I do not know, but we laugh, and then we laugh again, and every one is happy."
"I think he is the most irresistible person," Norgate agreed. "I met him two or three nights ago, coming over from Berlin, and he spoke of nothing but crockery and politics. To-night I dine with him, and I find a different person."
"He is a perfect dear," one of the other girls exclaimed, "but so curiously inquisitive! I have a great friend, a gunner, whom I brought with me to one of his parties, and he is always asking me questions about him and his work. I had to absolutely worry Dick so as to be able to answer all his questions, didn't I, Rosa?"
Miss Morgen nodded a little guardedly.
"I should not call him really inquisitive," she said. "It is because he likes to seem interested in the subject which interests you."
"I am not at all sure whether that is true," the other young lady objected. "You remember when Ellison Gray was always around with us? Why, I know that Mr. Selingman simply worried Maud's life out of her to get a little model of his aeroplane from him. There were no end of things he wanted to know about cubic feet and dimensions. He is a dear, all the same."
"A perfect dear!" the others echoed.
They drew up outside the Milan. Rosa Morgen turned to their escort.
"We will meet you in the hall in five minutes," she said. "Then we can all go together and find Mr. Selingman."
Selingman's supper party was in some respects both distinctive and unusual. Norgate, looking around him, thought that he had never in his life been among such a motley assemblage of people. There were eight or nine musical comedy young ladies; a couple of young soldiers, one of whom he knew slightly, who had arrived as escorts to two of the young ladies; Prince Edward of Lenemaur; a youthful peer, who by various misdemeanours had placed himself outside the pale of any save the most Bohemian society, and several other men whose faces were unfamiliar. They occupied a round table just inside the door of the restaurant, and they sat there till long after the lights were lowered. The conversation all the time was of the most general and frivolous description, and Selingman, as the hour grew later, seemed to grow larger and redder and more joyous. The only hint at any serious conversation came from the musical comedy star who sat at Norgate's left.
"Do you know our host very well?" she asked Norgate once.
"I am afraid I can't say that I know him well at all," Norgate replied. "I met him in the train coming from Berlin, a few nights ago."
"He is the most original person," she declared. "He entertains whenever he has a chance; he makes new friends every hour; he eats and drinks and seems always to be enjoying himself like an overgrown baby. And yet, all the time there is such a very serious side to him. One feels that he has a purpose in it all."
"Perhaps he has," Norgate ventured.
"Perhaps he has," she agreed, lowering her voice a little. "At least, I believe one thing. I believe that he is a good German and yet a great friend of England."
"You don't find the two incompatible, then?"
"I do not," the young lady replied firmly. "I do not understand everything, of course, but I am half German and half English, so I can appreciate both sides, and I do believe that Mr. Selingman, if he had not been so immersed in his business, might have been a great politician."
The conversation drifted into other channels. Norgate was obliged to give some attention to the more frivolous young lady on his right. The general exodus to the bar smoking-room only took place long after midnight. Every one was speaking of going on to a supper club to dance, and Norgate quietly slipped away. He took a hurried leave of his host.
"You will excuse me, won't you?" he begged. "Enjoyed my evening tremendously. I'd like you to come and dine with me one night."
"We will meet at the club to-morrow afternoon," Selingman declared. "But why not come on with us now? You are not weary? They are taking me to a supper club, these young people. I have engaged myself to dance with Miss Morgen—I, who weigh nineteen stone! It will be a thing to see. Come with us."
Norgate excused himself and left the place a moment later. It was a fine night, and he walked slowly towards Pall Mall, deep in thought. Outside one of the big clubs on the right-hand side, a man descended from a taxicab just as Norgate was passing. They almost ran into one another.
"Norgate, you reprobate!"
The latter passed his arm through the young man's and led him towards the club steps.
"Come in and have a drink," he invited. "I am just up from the House. I do wish you could get some of your military friends to stop worrying us, Norgate. Two hours to-night have been absolutely wasted because they would talk National Service and heckle us about the territorials."
"I'll have the drink, although heaven knows I don't need any!" Norgate replied. "As for the rest, I am all on the side of the hecklers. You ought to know that."
They drew two easy-chairs together in a corner of the great, deserted smoking-room, and Hebblethwaite ordered the whiskies and sodas.
"Yes," he remarked, "I forgot. You are on the other side, aren't you? I haven't a word to say against the navy. We spend more money than is necessary upon it, and I stick out for economy whenever I can. But as regards the army, my theory is that it is useless. It's only a temptation to us to meddle in things that don't concern us. The navy is sufficient to defend these shores, if any one were foolish enough to wish to attack us. If we need an army at all, we should need one ten times the size, but we don't. Nature has seen to that. Yet tonight, when I was particularly anxious to get on with some important domestic legislation, we had to sit and listen to hours of prosy military talk, the possibilities of this and that. They don't realise, these brain-fogged ex-military men, that we are living in days of common sense. Before many years have passed, war will belong to the days of romance."
"For a practical politician, Hebblethwaite," Norgate pronounced, "you have some of the rottenest ideas I ever knew. You know perfectly well that if Germany attacked France, we are almost committed to chip in. We couldn't sit still, could we, and see Calais and Boulogne, Dieppe and Ostend, fortified against us?"
"If Germany should attack France!" Hebblethwaite repeated. "If Prussia should send an expeditionary force to Cornwall, or the Siamese should declare themselves on the side of the Ulster men! We must keep in politics to possibilities that are reasonable."
"Take another view of the same case, then," Norgate continued. "Supposing Germany should violate Belgium's independence?"
"You silly idiot!" Hebblethwaite exclaimed, as he took a long draught of his whisky and soda, lit a cigar, and leaned back in his chair, "the neutrality of Belgium is guaranteed by a treaty, actually signed by Germany!"
"Supposing she should break her treaty?" Norgate persisted. "I told you what I heard in the train the other night. It isn't for nothing that that sort of work is going on."
Hebblethwaite shook his head.
"You are incorrigible, Norgate! Germany is one of the Powers of Europe undoubtedly possessing a high sense of honour and rectitude of conduct. If any nation possesses a national conscience, and an appreciation of national ethics, they do. Germany would be less likely than any nation in the world to break a treaty."
"Hebblethwaite," Norgate declared solemnly, "if you didn't understand the temperament and character of your constituents better than you do the German temperament and character, you would never have set your foot across the threshold of Westminster. The fact of it is you're a domestic politician of the very highest order, but as regards foreign affairs and the greater side of international politics, well, all I can say is you've as little grasp of them as a local mayor might have."
"Look here, young fellow," Hebblethwaite protested, "do you know that you are talking to a Cabinet Minister?"
"To a very possible Prime Minister," Norgate replied, "but I am going to tell you what I think, all the same. I'm fed up with you all. I bring you some certain and sure information, proving conclusively that Germany is maintaining an extraordinary system of espionage over here, and you tell me to mind my own business. I tell you, Hebblethwaite, you and your Party are thundering good legislators, but you'll ruin the country before you've finished. I've had enough. It seems to me we thoroughly deserve the shaking up we're going to get. I am going to turn German spy myself and work for the other side."
"You do, if there's anything in it," Hebblethwaite retorted, with a grin. "I promise we won't arrest you. You shall hop around the country at your own sweet will, preach Teutonic doctrines, and pave the way for the coming of the conquerors. You'll have to keep away from our arsenals and our flying places, because our Service men are so prejudiced. Short of that you can do what you like."
Norgate finished his cigar in silence. Then he threw the end into the fireplace, finished his whisky and soda, and rose.
"Hebblethwaite," he said, "this is the second time you've treated me like this. I shall give you another chance. There's just one way I may be of use, and I am going to take it on. If I get into trouble about it, it will be your fault, but next time I come and talk with you, you'll have to listen to me if I shove the words down your throat. Good night!"
"Good night, Norgate," Hebblethwaite replied pleasantly. "What you want is a week or two's change somewhere, to get this anti-Teuton fever out of your veins. I think we'll send you to Tokyo and let you have a turn with the geishas in the cherry groves."
"I wouldn't go out for your Government, anyway," Norgate declared. "I've given you fair warning. I am going in on the other side. I'm fed up with the England you fellows represent."
"Nice breezy sort of chap you are for a pal!" Hebblethwaite grumbled. "Well, get along with you, then. Come and look me up when you're in a better humour."
"I shall probably find you in a worse one," Norgate retorted. "Good night!"
* * * * *
It was one o'clock when Norgate let himself into his rooms. To his surprise, the electric lights were burning in his sitting-room. He entered a little abruptly and stopped short upon the threshold. A slim figure in dark travelling clothes, with veil pushed back, was lying curled up on his sofa. She stirred a little at his coming, opened her eyes, and looked at him.
Throughout those weeks and months of tangled, lurid sensations, of amazing happenings which were yet to come, Norgate never once forgot that illuminative rush of fierce yet sweet feelings which suddenly thrilled his pulses. He understood in that moment the intolerable depression of the last few days. He realised the absolute advent of the one experience hitherto missing from his life. The very intensity of his feelings kept him silent, kept him unresponsive to her impetuous but unspoken welcome. Her arms dropped to her side, her lips for a moment quivered. Her voice, notwithstanding her efforts to control it, shook a little. She was no longer the brilliant young Court beauty of Vienna. She was a tired and disappointed girl.
"You are surprised—I should not have come here! It was such a foolish impulse."
She caught up her gloves feverishly, but Norgate's moment of stupefaction had passed. He clasped her hands.
"Forgive me," he begged. "It is really you—Anna!"
His words were almost incoherent, but his tone was convincing. Her fears passed away.
"You don't wonder that I was a little surprised, do you?" he exclaimed. "You were not only the last person whom I was thinking of, but you were certainly the last person whom I expected to see in London or to welcome here."
"But why?" she asked. "I told you that I came often to this country."
"I remember," Norgate admitted. "Yet I never ventured to hope—"
"Of course I should not have come here," she interrupted. "It was absurd of me, and at such an hour! And yet I am staying only a few hundred yards away. The temptation to-night was irresistible. I felt as one sometimes does in this queer, enormous city—lonely. I telephoned, and your servant, who answered me, said that you were expected back at any moment. Then I came myself."
"You cannot imagine that I am not glad to see you," he said earnestly.
"I want to believe that you are glad," she answered. "I have been restless ever since you left. Tell me at once, what did they say to you here?"
"I am practically shelved," he told her bitterly. "In twelve months' time, perhaps, I may be offered something in America or Asia—countries where diplomacy languishes. In a word, your mighty autocrat has spoken the word, and I am sacrificed."
She moved towards the window.
"I am stifled!" she exclaimed. "Open it wide, please."
He threw it open. They looked out eastwards. The roar of the night was passing. Here and there were great black spaces. On the Thames a sky-sign or two remained. The blue, opalescent glare from the Gaiety dome still shone. The curving lights which spanned the bridges and fringed the Embankment still glittered. The air, even here, high up as they were on the seventh story of the building, seemed heavy and lifeless.
"There is a storm coming," she said. "I have felt it for days."
She stood looking out, pale, her large eyes strained as though seeking to read something which eluded her in the clouds or the shadows which hung over the city. She had rather the air of a frightened but eager child. She rested her fingers upon his arm, not exactly affectionately, but as though she felt the need of some protection.
"Do you know," she whispered, "the feeling of this storm has been in my heart for days. I am afraid—afraid for all of us!"
"Afraid of what?" he asked gently.
"Afraid," she went on, "because it seems to me that I can hear, at times like this, when one is alone, the sound of what one of your writers called footsteps amongst the hills, footsteps falling upon wool, muffled yet somehow ominous. There is trouble coming. I know it. I am sure of it."
"In this country they do not think so," he reminded her. "Most of our great statesmen of today have come to the conclusion that there will be no more war."
"You have no great statesmen," she answered simply. "You have plenty of men who would make very fine local administrators, but you have no statesmen, or you would have provided for what is coming."
There was a curious conviction in her words, a sense of one speaking who has seen the truth.
"Tell me," he asked, "is there anything that you know of—"
"Ah! but that I may not tell you," she interrupted, turning away from the window. "Of myself just now I say nothing—only of you. I am here for a day or two. It is through me that you have suffered this humiliation. I wanted to know just how far it went. Is there anything I can do?"
"What could any one do?" he asked. "I am the victim of circumstances."
"But for a whole year!" she exclaimed. "You are not like so many young Englishmen. You do not wish to spend your time playing polo and golf, and shooting. You must do something. What are you going to do with that year?"
He moved across the room and took a cigarette from a box.
"Give me something to drink, please," she begged.
He opened a cupboard in his sideboard and gave her some soda-water. She had still the air of waiting for his reply.
"What am I going to do?" he repeated. "Well, here I am with an idle twelve months. It makes no difference to anybody what time I get up, what time I go to bed, with whom or how I spend the day. I suppose to some people it would sound like Paradise. To me it is hateful. Shall I be your secretary?"
"How do you know that I need a secretary?" she asked.
"How should I?" he replied. "Yet you are not altogether an idler in life, are you?"
For a moment she did not answer. The silence in the room was almost impressive. He looked at her over the top of the soda-water syphon whose handle he was manipulating.
"What do you imagine might be my occupation, then?" she asked.
"I have heard it suggested," he said slowly, "that you have been a useful intermediary in carrying messages of the utmost importance between the Kaiser and the Emperor of Austria."
"Your Intelligence Department is not so bad," she remarked. "It is true. Why not? At the German Court I count for little, perhaps. In Austria my father was the Emperor's only personal friend. My mother was scarcely popular there—she was too completely English—but since my father died the Emperor will scarcely let me stay a week away. Yes, your information is perhaps true. I will supplement it, if you like. Since our little affair in the Cafe de Berlin, the Kaiser, who went out of his way to insist upon your removal from Berlin, has notified the Emperor that he would prefer to receive his most private dispatches either through the regular diplomatic channels or by some other messenger."
Norgate's emphatic expletive was only half-stifled as she continued.
"For myself," she said with a shrug, "I am not sorry. I found it very interesting, but of late those feelings of which I have told you have taken hold of me. I have felt as though a terrible shadow were brooding over the world."
"Let me ask you once more," he begged. "Why are you in London?"
"I received a wire from the Emperor," she explained, "instructing me to return at once to Vienna. If I go there, I know very well that I shall not be allowed to leave the city. I have been trusted implicitly, and they will keep me practically a prisoner. They will think that I may feel a resentment against the Kaiser, and they will be afraid. Therefore, I came here. I have every excuse for coming. It is according to my original plans. You will find that by to-morrow morning I shall have a second message from Vienna. All the same, I am not sure that I shall go."
There was a ring at the bell. Norgate started, and Anna looked at the clock.
"Who is that?" she asked. "Do you see the time?"
Norgate moved to the door and threw it open. A waiter stood there.
"What do you want?" demanded Norgate.
The man pointed to the indicator.
"The bell rang, sir," he replied. "Is there anything I can get for you?"
"I rang no bell," Norgate asserted. "Your indicator must be out of order."
Norgate would have closed the door, but Anna intervened.
"Tell the waiter I wish to speak to him," she begged.
The man advanced at once into the room and glanced interrogatively at Anna. She addressed him suddenly in Austrian, and he replied without hesitation. She nodded. Then she turned to Norgate and laughed softly.
"You see how perfect the system is," she said. "I was followed here, passed on to your floor-waiter. You are a spy, are you not?" she added, turning to the man. "But of course you are!"
"Madame!" the man protested. "I do not understand."
"You can go away," she replied. "You can tell Herr Selingman in your morning's report that I came to Mr. Norgate's rooms at an early hour in the morning and spent an hour talking with him. You can go now."
The man withdrew without remark. He was a quiet, inoffensive-looking person, with sallow complexion, suave but silent manners. Norgate closed the door behind him.
"A victim of the system which all Europe knows of except you people," she remarked lightly. "Well, after this I must be careful. Walk with me to my hotel."
"Of course," he assented.
They made their way along the silent corridors to the lift, out into the streets, empty of traffic now save for the watering-carts and street scavengers.
"Will there be trouble for you," Norgate asked at last, "because of this?"
"There is more trouble in my own heart," she told him quietly. "I feel strangely disturbed, uncertain which way to move. Let me take your arm—so. I like to walk like that. Somehow I think, Mr. Francis Norgate, that that little fracas in the Cafe de Berlin is going to make a great difference in both our lives. I know now what I had begun to believe. Like all the trusted agents of sovereigns, I have become an object of suspicion. Well, we shall see. At least I am glad to know that there is some one whom I can trust. Perhaps to-morrow I will tell you all that is in my heart. We might even, if you wished it, if you were willing to face a few risks, we might even work together to hold back the thunder. So! Good night, my friend," she added, turning suddenly around.
He held her hand for a moment as they stood together on the pavement outside her hotel. For a single moment he fancied that there was a change in that curious personal aloofness which seemed so distinctive of her. It passed, however, as she turned from him with her usual half-insolent, half gracious little nod.
"To-morrow," she directed, "you must ring me up. Let it be at eleven o'clock."
The Ambassador glanced at the clock as he entered his library to greet his early morning visitor. It was barely nine o'clock.
"Dear friend," he exclaimed, as he held out his hands, "I am distressed to keep you waiting! Such zeal in our affairs must, however, not remain unnoticed. I will remember it in my reports."
Anna smiled as he stooped to kiss her fingers.
"I had special reasons," she explained, "for my haste. I was disappointed, indeed, that I could not see you last night."
"I was at Windsor," her host remarked. "Now come, sit there in the easy-chair by the side of my table. My secretaries have not yet arrived. We shall be entirely undisturbed. I have ordered coffee here, of which we will partake together. A compromising meal to share, dear Baroness, but in the library of my own house it may be excused. The Princess sends her love. She will be glad if you will go to her apartments after we have finished our talk."
A servant entered with a tray, spread a cloth on a small round table, upon which he set out coffee, with rolls and butter and preserves. For a few moments they talked lightly of the weather, of her crossing, of mutual friends in Berlin and Vienna. Then Anna, as soon as they were alone, leaned a little forward in her chair.
"You know that I have a sort of mission to you," she said. "I should not call it that, perhaps, but it comes to very nearly the same thing. The Emperor has charged me to express to you and to Count Lanyoki his most earnest desire that if the things should come which we know of, you both maintain your position here at any cost. The Emperor's last words to me were: 'If war is to come, it may be the will of God. We are ready, but there is one country which must be kept from the ranks of our enemies. That country is England. England must be dealt with diplomatically.' He looks across the continent to you, Prince. This is the friendly message which I have brought from his own lips."
The Prince stirred his coffee thoughtfully. He was a man just passing middle-age, with grey hair, thin in places but carefully trimmed, brushed sedulously back from his high forehead. His moustache, too, was grey, and his face was heavily lined, but his eyes, clear and bright, were almost the eyes of a young man.
"You can reassure the Emperor," he declared. "As you may imagine, my supply of information here is plentiful. If those things should come that we know of, it is my firm belief that with some reasonable yet nominal considerations, this Government will never lend itself to war."
"You really believe that?" she asked earnestly.
"I do," her companion assured her. "I try to be fair in my judgments. London is a pleasant city to live in, and English people are agreeable and well-bred, but they are a people absolutely without vital impulses. Patriotism belongs to their poetry books. Indolence has stagnated their blood. They are like a nation under a spell, with their faces turned towards the pleasant and desirable things. Only a few months ago, they even further reduced the size of their ridiculous army and threw cold water upon a scheme for raising untrained help in case of emergency. Even their navy estimates are passed with difficulty. The Government which is conducting the destinies of a people like this, which believes that war belongs to a past age, is never likely to become a menace to us."
Anna drew a little sigh and lit the cigarette which the Prince passed her. She threw herself back in her chair with an air of contentment.
"It is so pleasant once more to be among the big things," she declared. "In Berlin I think they are not fond of me, and they are so pompous and secretive. Tell me, dear Prince, will you not be kinder to me? Tell me what is really going to happen?"
He moved his chair a little closer to hers.
"I see no reason," he said cautiously, "why you should not be told. Events, then, will probably move in this direction. Provocation will be given by Servia. That is easily arranged. Tension will be caused, Austria will make enormous demands, Russia will remonstrate, and, before any one has time to breathe, the clouds will part to let the lightnings through. If anything, we are over-ready, straining with over-readiness."
"And the plan of campaign?"
"Austria and Italy," the Prince continued slowly, "will easily keep Russia in check. Germany will seize Belgium and rush through to Paris. She will either impose her terms there or leave a second-class army to conclude the campaign. There will be plenty of time for her then to turn back and fall in with her allies against Russia."
"And England?" Anna asked. "Supposing?"
The Prince tapped the table with his forefinger.
"Here," he announced, "we conquer with diplomacy. We have imbued the present Cabinet, even the Minister who is responsible for the army, with the idea that we stand for peace. We shall seem to be the attacked party in this war. We shall say to England—'Remain neutral. It is not your quarrel, and we will be capable of a great act of self-sacrifice. We will withhold our fleet from bombarding the French towns. England could do no more than deal with our fleet if she were at war. She shall do the same without raising a finger.' No country could refuse so sane and businesslike an offer, especially a country which will at once count upon its fingers how much it will save by not going to war."
The Prince shrugged his shoulders. "Afterwards is inevitable."
"Please go on," she insisted.
"We shall occupy the whole of the coast from Antwerp to Havre. The indemnity which France and Russia will pay us will make us the mightiest nation on earth. We shall play with England as a cat with a mouse, and when the time comes.... Well, perhaps that will do," the Prince concluded, smiling.
Anna was silent for several moments.
"I am a woman, you know," she said simply, "and this sounds, in a way, terrible. Yet for months I have felt it coming."
"There is nothing terrible about it," the Prince replied, "if you keep the great principles of progress always before you. If a million or so of lives are sacrificed, the great Germany of the future, gathering under her wings the peoples of the world, will raise them to a pitch of culture and contentment and happiness which will more than atone for the sacrifices of to-day. It is, after all, the future to which we must look."
A telephone bell rang at the Prince's elbow. He listened for a moment and nodded.
"An urgent visitor demands a moment of my time," he said, rising.
"I have taken already too much," Anna declared, "but I felt it was time that I heard the truth. They fence with me so in Berlin, and, believe me, Prince Herschfeld, in Vienna the Emperor is almost wholly ignorant of what is planned."
The door was opened behind them. The Prince turned around. A young man had ushered in Herr Selingman. For a moment the latter looked steadily at Anna. Then he glanced at the Ambassador as though questioningly.
"You two must have met," the Prince murmured.
"We have met," Anna declared, smiling, as she made her way towards the door, "but we do not know one another. It is best like that. Herr Selingman and I work in the same army—"
"But I, madame, am the sergeant," Selingman interrupted, with a low bow, "whilst you are upon the staff."
She laughed as she made her adieux and departed. The door closed heavily behind her. Selingman came a little further into the room.
"You have read your dispatches this morning, Prince?" he asked.
"Not yet," the latter replied. "Is there news, then?"
Selingman pointed to the closed door. "You have spoken for long with her?"
"Naturally," the Prince assented. "She is a confidential friend of the Emperor. She has been entrusted for the last two years with all the private dispatches between Vienna and Berlin."
"In your letters you will find news," Selingman declared. "She is pronounced suspect. She is under my care at this moment. A report was brought to me half an hour ago that she was here. I came on at once myself. I trust that I am in time?"
The Prince stood quite silent for a moment.
"Fortunately," he answered coolly, "I have told her nothing."
As Norgate entered the premises of Selingman, Horsfal and Company a little later on the same morning he looked around him in some surprise. He had expected to find a deserted warehouse—probably only an office. He saw instead all the evidences of a thriving and prosperous business. Drays were coming and going from the busy door. Crates were piled up to the ceiling, clerks with notebooks in their hands passed continually back and forth. A small boy in a crowded office accepted his card and disappeared. In a few minutes he led Norgate into a waiting-room and handed him a paper.
"Mr. Selingman is engaged with a buyer for a few moments, sir," he reported. "He will see you presently."
Norgate looked through the windows out into the warehouse. There was no doubt whatever that this was a genuine and considerable trading concern. Presently the door of the inner office opened, and he heard Mr. Selingman's hearty tones.
"You have done well for yourself and well for your firm, sir," he was saying. "There is no one in Germany or in the world who can produce crockery at the price we do. They will give you a confirmation of the order in the office. Ah! my young friend," he went on, turning to Norgate, "you have kept your word, then. You are not a customer, but you may walk in. I shall make no money out of you, but we will talk together."
Norgate passed on into a comfortably furnished office, a little redolent of cigar smoke. Selingman bit off the end of a cigar and pushed the box towards his visitor.
"Try one of these," he invited. "German made, but Havana tobacco—mild as milk."
"Thank you," Norgate answered. "I don't smoke cigars in the morning. I'll have a cigarette, if I may."
"As you will. What do you think of us now that you have found your way here?"
"Your business seems to be genuine enough, at all events," Norgate observed.
"Genuine? Of course it is!" Selingman declared emphatically. "Do you think I should be fool enough to be connected with a bogus affair? My father and my grandfather before me were manufacturers of crockery. I can assure you that I am a very energetic and a very successful business man. If I have interests in greater things, those interests have developed naturally, side by side with my commercial success. When I say that I am a German, that to me means more, much more, than if I were to declare myself a native of any other country in the world. Sit opposite to me there. I have a quarter of an hour to spare. I can show you, if you will, over a thousand designs of various articles. I can show you orders—genuine orders, mind—from some of your big wholesale houses, which would astonish you. Or, if you prefer it, we can talk of affairs from another point of view. What do you say?"
"My interest in your crockery," Norgate announced, "is non-existent. I have come to hear your offer. I have decided to retire—temporarily, at any rate—from the Diplomatic Service. I understand that I am in disgrace, and I resent it. I resent having had to leave Berlin except at my own choice. I am looking for a job in some other walk of life."
Selingman nodded approvingly.
"Forgive me," he said, "but it is true, then, that you are in some way dependent upon your profession?"
"I am not a pauper outside it," Norgate replied, "but that is not the sole question. I need work, an interest in life, something to think about. I must either find something to do, or I shall go to Abyssinia. I should prefer an occupation here."
"I can help you," Selingman said slowly, "if you are a young man of common sense. I can put you in the way of earning, if you will, a thousand pounds a year and your travelling expenses, without interfering very much with your present mode of life."
Selingman flicked the ash from the end of his cigar. He shook his head good-naturedly.
"I am a judge of character, young man," he declared. "I pride myself upon that accomplishment. I know very well that in you we have one with brains. Nevertheless, I do not believe that you would sell my crockery."
"It seems easy enough," Norgate observed.
"It may seem easy," Selingman objected, "but it is not. You have not, I am convinced, the gifts of a salesman. You would not reason and argue with these obstinate British shopkeepers. No! Your value to me would lie in other directions—in your social position, your opportunities of meeting with a class above the commercial one in which I have made my few English friends, and in your own intelligence."
"I scarcely see of what value these things would be to a vendor of crockery."
"They would be of no value at all," Selingman admitted. "It is not in the crockery business that I propose to make use of you. I believe that we both know that. We may dismiss it from our minds. It is only fencing with words. I will take you a little further. You have heard, by chance, of the Anglo-German Peace Society?"
"The name sounds familiar," Norgate confessed. "I can't say that I know anything about it."
"It was I who inaugurated that body," Selingman announced. "It is I who direct its interests."
"Congratulate you, I'm sure. You must find it uphill work sometimes."
"It is uphill work all the time," the German agreed. "Our great object is, as you can guess from the title, to promote good-feeling between the two countries, to heal up all possible breaches, to soothe and dispel that pitiful jealousy, of which, alas! too much exists. It is not easy, Mr. Norgate. It is not easy, my young friend. I meet with many disappointments. Yet it is a great and worthy undertaking."