"It sounds all right," Norgate observed. "Where do I come in?"
"I will explain. To carry out the aims of our society, there is much information which we are continually needing. People in Germany are often misled by the Press here. Facts and opinions are presented to them often from an unpalatable point of view. Furthermore, there is a section of the Press which, so far from being on our side, seems deliberately to try to stir up ill-feeling between the two countries. We want to get behind the Press. For that purpose we need to know the truth about many matters; and as the truth is a somewhat rare commodity, we are willing to pay for it. Now we come face to face. It will be your business, if you accept my offer, to collect such facts as may be useful to us."
"I see," Norgate remarked dubiously, "or rather I don't see at all. Give me an example of the sort of facts you require."
Mr. Selingman leaned a little forward in his chair. He was warming to his subject.
"By all means. There is the Irish question, then."
"The Irish question," Norgate repeated. "But of what interest can that be to you in Germany?"
"Listen," Selingman continued. "Just as you in London have great newspapers which seem to devote themselves to stirring up bitter feeling between our two countries, so we, alas! in Germany, have newspapers and journals which seem to devote all their energies to the same object. Now in this Irish question the action of your Government has been very much misrepresented in that section of our Press and much condemned. I should like to get at the truth from an authoritative source. I should like to get it in such a form that I can present it fairly and honestly to the public of Germany."
"That sounds reasonable enough," Norgate admitted. "There are several pamphlets—"
"I do not want pamphlets," Selingman interrupted. "I want an actual report from Ulster and Dublin of the state of feeling in the country, and, if possible, interviews with prominent people. For this the society would pay a bonus over and above the travelling expenses and your salary. If you accept my offer, this is probably one of the first tasks I should commit to you."
"Give me a few more examples," Norgate begged.
"Another subject," Selingman continued, "upon which there is wide divergence of opinions in Germany, and a great deal of misrepresentation, is the attitude of certain of your Cabinet Ministers towards the French entente: how far they would support it, at what they would stop short."
"Isn't that rather a large order?" Norgate ventured. "I don't number many Cabinet Ministers among my personal friends."
Selingman puffed away at his cigar for a moment. Then he withdrew it from his mouth and expelled large volumes of smoke.
"You are, I believe, intimately acquainted with Mr. Hebblethwaite?"
"How the mischief did you know that?" Norgate demanded.
"Our society," Selingman announced, smiling ponderously, "has ramifications in every direction. It is our business to know much. We are collectors of information of every sort and nature."
"Seems to have been part of your business to follow me about," observed Norgate.
"Perhaps so. If we thought it good for us to have you followed about, we certainly should," Selingman admitted. "You see, in Germany," he added, leaning back in his chair, "we lay great stress upon detail and intelligence. We get to know things: not the smattering of things, like you over here are too often content with, but to know them thoroughly and understand them. Nothing ever takes us by surprise. We are always forewarned. So far as any one can, we read the future."
"You are a very great nation, without a doubt," Norgate acknowledged, "but my quarter of an hour is coming to an end. Tell me what else you would expect from me if I accepted this post?"
"For the moment, I can think of nothing," Selingman replied. "There are many ways in which we might make use of you, but to name them now would be to look a little too far into the future."
"By whom should I really be employed?"
"By the Anglo-German Peace Society," Selingman answered promptly. "Let me say a word more about that society. I am proud of it. I am one of those prominent business men who are responsible for its initiation. I have given years of time and thought to it. All our efforts are directed towards promoting a better understanding with England, towards teaching the two countries to appreciate one another. But in the background there is always something else. It is useless to deny that the mistrust existing between the two countries has brought them more than once almost to the verge of war. What we want is to be able, at critical times, to throw oil upon the troubled waters, and if the worst should come, if a war really should break out, then we want to be able to act as peacemakers, to heal as soon as possible any little sores that there may be, and to enter afterwards upon a greater friendship with a purified England."
"It sounds very interesting," Norgate confessed. "I had an idea that you were proposing something quite different."
"To be perfectly frank with you," Norgate acknowledged, "I thought you wanted me to do the ordinary spy business—traces of fortresses, and particulars about guns and aeroplanes—"
"Rubbish, my dear fellow!" Selingman interrupted. "Rubbish! Those things we leave to our military department, and pray that the question of their use may never arise. We are concerned wholly with economic and social questions, and our great aim is not war but peace."
"Very well, then," Norgate decided, "I accept. When shall I start?"
Selingman laid his hand upon the other's shoulder as he rose to his feet.
"Young man," he said, "you have come to a wise decision. Your salary will commence from the first of this month. Continue to live as usual. Let me have the opportunity of seeing you at the club, and let me know each day where you can be found. I will give you your instructions from day to day. You will be doing a great work, and, mind you, a patriotic work. If ever your conscience should trouble you, remember that. You are working not for Germany but for England."
"I will always remember that," Norgate promised, as he turned away.
Norgate found Anna waiting for him in the hall of the smaller hotel, a little further westward, to which she had moved. He looked admiringly at her cool white muslin gown and the perfection of her somewhat airy toilette.
"You are five minutes late," she remonstrated.
"I had to go into the city," he apologised. "It was rather an important engagement. Soon I must tell you all about it."
She looked at him a little curiously.
"I will be patient," promised Anna, "and ask no questions."
"You are still depressed?"
"Horribly," she confessed. "I do not know why, but London is getting on my nerves. It is so hatefully, stubbornly, obstinately imperturbable. I would find another word, but it eludes me. I think you would call it smug. And it is so noisy. Can we not go somewhere for lunch where it is tranquil, where one can rest and get away from this roar?"
"We could go to Ranelagh, if you liked," suggested Norgate. "There are some polo matches on this afternoon, but it will be quiet enough for lunch."
"I should love it!" she exclaimed. "Let us go quickly."
They lunched in a shady corner of the restaurant and sat afterwards under a great oak tree in a retired spot at the further end of the gardens. Anna was still a little thoughtful.
"Do you know," she told her companion, "that I have received a hint to present myself in Berlin as soon as possible?"
"Are you going?" Norgate demanded quickly.
"I am not sure," she answered. "I feel that I must, and yet, in a sense, I do not like to go. I have a feeling that they do not mean to let me out of Berlin again. They think that I know too much."
"But why should they suddenly lose faith in you?" Norgate asked.
"Perhaps because the end is so near," she replied. "They know that I have strong English sympathies. Perhaps they think that they would not bear the strain of the times which are coming."
"You are an even greater pessimist than I myself," Norgate observed. "Do you really believe that the position is so critical?"
"I know it," she assured him. "I will not tell you all my reasons. There is no need for me to break a trust without some definite object. It seems to me that if your Secret Service Department were worth anything at all, your country would be in a state almost of panic. What is it they are playing down there? Polo, isn't it? There are six or eight military teams, crowds of your young officers making holiday. And all the time Krupps are working overtime, working night and day, and surrounded by sentries who shoot at sight any stranger. There are parts of the country, even now, under martial law. The streets and the plains resound to the footsteps of armed hosts."
"But there is no excuse for war," he reminded her.
"An excuse is very easily found," she sighed. "German diplomacy is clumsy enough, but I think it can manage that. Do you know that this morning I had a letter from one of the greatest nobles of our own Court at Vienna? He knew that I had intended to take a villa in Normandy for August and September. He has written purposely to warn me not to do so, to warn me not to be away from Austria or Germany after the first of August."
"So soon!" he murmured.
They listened to the band for a moment. In the distance, an unceasing stream of men and women were passing back and forth under the trees and around the polo field.
"It will come like a thunderbolt," she said, "and when I think of it, all that is English in me rises up in revolt. In my heart I know so well that it is Germany and Germany alone who will provoke this war. I am terrified for your country. I admit it, you see, frankly. The might of Germany is only half understood here. It is to be a war of conquest, almost of extermination."
"That isn't the view of your friend Selingman," Norgate reminded her. "He, too, hints at coming trouble, but he speaks of it as just a salutary little lesson."
"Selingman, more than any one else in the world, knows differently," she assured him. "But come, we talk too seriously on such a wonderful afternoon. I have made up my mind on one point, at least. I will stay here for a few days longer. London at this time of the year is wonderful. Besides, I have promised the Princess of Thurm that I will go to Ascot with her. Why should we talk of serious things any longer? Let us have a little rest. Let us promenade there with those other people, and listen to the band, and have some tea afterwards."
Norgate rose with alacrity, and they strolled across the lawns and down towards the polo field. Very soon they found themselves meeting friends in every direction. Anna extricated herself from a little group of acquaintances who had suddenly claimed her and came over to Norgate.
"Prince Herschfeld wants to talk to me for a few minutes," she whispered. "I think I should like to hear what he has to say. The Princess is there, too, whom I have scarcely seen. Will you come and be presented?"
"Might I leave you with them for a few minutes?" Norgate suggested. "There is a man here whom I want to talk to. I will come back for you in half an hour."
"You must meet the Prince first," she insisted. "He was interested when he heard who you were."
She turned to the little group who were awaiting her return. The Ambassador moved a little forward.
"Prince," she said, "may I present to you Mr. Francis Norgate? Mr. Norgate has just come from Berlin."
"Not with the kindliest feelings towards us, I am afraid," remarked the Prince, holding out his hand. "I hope, however, that you will not judge us, as a nation, too severely."
"On the contrary, I was quite prepared to like Germany," Norgate declared. "I was simply the victim of a rather unfortunate happening."
"There are many others besides myself who sincerely regret it," the Prince said courteously. "You are kind enough to leave the Baroness for a little time in our charge. We will take the greatest care of her, and I hope that when you return you will give me the great pleasure of presenting you to the Princess."
"You are very kind," Norgate murmured.
"We shall meet again, then," the Prince declared, as he turned away with Anna by his side.
"In half an hour," Anna whispered, smiling at him over her shoulder.
The Right Honourable John William Hebblethwaite strolled along by the rails of the polo ground, exchanging greetings with friends, feeling very well content with himself and the world generally. A difficult session was drawing towards an end. The problem which had defeated so many governments seemed at last, under his skilful treatment, capable of solution. Furthermore, the session had been one which had added to his reputation both as an orator and a statesman. There had been an astonishingly flattering picture of him in an illustrated paper that week, and he was exceedingly pleased with the effect of the white hat which he was wearing at almost a jaunty angle. He was a great man and he knew it. Nevertheless, he greeted Norgate with ample condescension and engaged him at once in conversation.
"Delighted to see you in such company, my young friend," he declared. "I think that half an hour's conversation with Prince Herschfeld would put some of those fire-eating ideas out of your head. That's the man whom we have to thank for the everyday improvement of our relations with Germany."
"The Prince has the reputation of being a great diplomatist," Norgate remarked.
"Added to which," Hebblethwaite continued, "he came over here charged, as you might say, almost with a special mission. He came over here to make friends with England. He has done it. So long as we have him in London, there will never be any serious fear of misunderstanding between the two countries."
"What a howling optimist you are!" Norgate observed.
"My young friend," Hebblethwaite protested, "I am nothing of the sort. I am simply a man of much common sense, enjoying, I may add, a few hours' holiday. By-the-by, Norgate, if one might venture to enquire without indiscretion, who was the remarkably charming foreign lady whom you were escorting?"
"The Baroness von Haase," Norgate replied. "She is an Austrian."
Mr. Hebblethwaite sighed. He rather posed as an admirer of the other sex.
"You young fellows," he declared, "who travel about the world, are much to be envied. There is an elegance about the way these foreign women dress, a care for detail in their clothes and jewellery, and a carriage which one seldom finds here."
They had reached the far end of the field, having turned their backs, in fact, upon the polo altogether. Norgate suddenly abandoned their conversation.
"Look here," he said, in an altered tone, "do you feel inclined to answer a few questions?"
"For publication?" Hebblethwaite asked drily. "You haven't turned journalist, by any chance, have you?"
Norgate shook his head. "Nevertheless," he admitted, "I have changed my profession. The fact is that I have accepted a stipend of a thousand a year and have become a German spy."
"Good luck to you!" exclaimed Hebblethwaite, laughing softly. "Well, fire away, then. You shall pick the brains of a Cabinet Minister at your leisure, so long as you'll give me a cigarette—and present me, when we have finished, to the Baroness. The country has no secrets from you, Norgate. Where will you begin?"
"Well, you've been warned, any way," Norgate reminded him, as he offered his cigarette case. "Now tell me. It is part of my job to obtain from you a statement of your opinion as to exactly how far our entente with France is binding upon us."
Hebblethwaite cleared his throat.
"If this is for publication," he remarked, "could you manage a photograph of myself at the head of the interview, in these clothes and with this hat? I rather fancy myself to-day. A pocket kodak is, of course, part of the equipment of a German spy."
"Sorry," Norgate regretted, "but that's a bit out of my line. I am the disappointed diplomatist, doing the dirty work among my late friends. What we should like to know from Mr. Hebblethwaite, confidentially narrated to a personal friend, is whether, in the event of a war between Germany and Russia and France, England would feel it her duty to intervene?"
Hebblethwaite glanced around. The throng of people had cleared off to watch the concluding stages of the match.
"I have a sovereign on this," he remarked, glancing at his card.
"Which have you backed?" Norgate enquired.
"Well, it's any odds on the Hussars, so you've lost your money," Norgate told him.
Hebblethwaite sighed resignedly. "Well," he said, "the question you submit is a problem which has presented itself to us once or twice, although I may tell you that there isn't a soul in the Cabinet except one who believes in the chance of war. We are not a fire-eating lot, you know. We are all for peace, and we believe we are going to have it. However, to answer your questions more closely, our obligations depend entirely upon the provocation giving cause for the war. If France and Russia provoked it in any way, we should remain neutral. If it were a war of sheer aggression from Germany against France, we might to a certain extent intervene. There is not one of us, however, who believes for a single moment that Germany would enter upon such a war."
"When you admit that we might to a certain extent intervene," Norgate said, "exactly how should we do it, I wonder? We are not in a particular state of readiness to declare war upon anybody or anything, are we?" he added, as they turned around and strolled once more towards the polo ground.
"We have had no money to waste upon senseless armaments," Mr. Hebblethwaite declared severely, "and if you watch the social measures which we have passed during the last two years, you will see that every penny we could spare has been necessary in order to get them into working order. It is our contention that an army is absolutely unnecessary and would simply have the effect of provoking military reprisals. If we, by any chance in the future, were drawn into war, our navy would be at the service of our allies. What more could any country ask than to have assured for them the absolute control of the sea?"
"That's all very well," Norgate assented. "It might be our fair share on paper, and yet it might not be enough. What about our navy if Antwerp, Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, and Havre were all German ports, as they certainly would be in an unassisted conflict between the French and the Germans?"
They were within hearing now of the music of the band. Hebblethwaite quickened his pace a little impatiently.
"Look here," he protested, "I came down here for a holiday, I tell you frankly that I believe in the possibility of war just as much as I believe in the possibility of an earthquake. My own personal feeling is that it is just as necessary to make preparations against one as the other. There you are, my German spy, that's all I have to say to you. Here are your friends. I must pay my respects to the Prince, and I should like to meet your charming companion."
Anna detached herself from a little group of men at their approach, and Norgate at once introduced his friend.
"I have only been able to induce Mr. Hebblethwaite to talk to me for the last ten minutes," he declared, "by promising to present him to you."
"A ceremony which we will take for granted," she suggested, holding out her fingers. "Each time I have come to London, Mr. Hebblethwaite, I have hoped that I might have this good fortune. You interest us so much on the Continent."
Mr. Hebblethwaite bowed and looked as though he would have liked the interest to have been a little more personal.
"You see," Anna explained, as she stood between the two men, "both Austria and Germany, the two countries where I spend most of my time, are almost military ridden. Our great statesmen, or the men who stand behind them, are all soldiers. You represent something wholly different. Your nation is as great and as prosperous as ours, and yet you are a pacifist, are you not, Mr. Hebblethwaite? You scorn any preparations for war. You do not believe in it. You give back the money that we should spend in military or naval preparations to the people, for their betterment. It is very wonderful."
"We act according to our convictions," Mr. Hebblethwaite pronounced. "It is our earnest hope that we have risen sufficiently in the scale of civilisation to be able to devote our millions to more moral objects than the massing of armaments."
"And you have no fears?" she persisted earnestly. "You honestly believe that you are justified in letting the fighting spirit of your people lie dormant?"
"I honestly believe it, Baroness," Mr. Hebblethwaite replied. "Life is a battle for all of them, but the fighting which we recognise is the fight for moral and commercial supremacy, the lifting of the people by education and strenuous effort to a higher plane of prosperity."
"Of course," Anna murmured, "what you say sounds frightfully convincing. History only will tell us whether you are in the right."
"My thirst," Mr. Hebblethwaite observed, glancing towards the little tables set out under the trees, "suggests tea and strawberries."
"If some one hadn't offered me tea in a moment or two," Anna declared, "I should have gone back to the Prince, with whom I must confess I was very bored. Shall we discuss politics or talk nonsense?"
"Talk nonsense," Mr. Hebblethwaite decided. "This is my holiday. My brain has stopped working. I can think of nothing beyond tea and strawberries. We will take that table under the elm trees, and you shall tell us all about Vienna."
Norgate, after leaving Anna at her hotel, drove on to the club, where he arrived a few minutes before seven. Selingman was there with Prince Edward, and half a dozen others. Selingman, who happened not to be playing, came over at once and sat by his side on the broad fender.
"You are late, my young friend," he remarked.
"My new career," Norgate replied, "makes demands upon me. I can no longer spend the whole afternoon playing bridge. I have been attending to business."
"It is very good," Selingman declared amiably. "That is the way I like to hear you talk. To amuse oneself is good, but to work is better still. Have you, by chance, any report to make?"
"I have had a long conversation with Mr. Hebblethwaite at Ranelagh this afternoon," Norgate announced.
There was a sudden change in Selingman's expression, a glint of eagerness in his eyes.
"With Hebblethwaite! You have begun well. He is the man above all others of whose views we wish to feel absolutely certain. We know that he is a strong man and a pacifist, but a pacifist to what extent? That is what we wish to be clear about. Now tell me, you spoke to him seriously?"
"Very seriously, indeed," Norgate assented. "The subject suggested itself naturally, and I contrived to get him to discuss the possibilities of a European war. I posed rather as a pessimist, but he simply jeered at me. He assured me that an earthquake was more probable. I pressed him on the subject of the entente. He spoke of it as a thing of romance and sentiment, having no place in any possible development of the international situation. I put hypothetical cases of a European war before him, but he only scoffed at me. On one point only was he absolutely and entirely firm—under no circumstances whatever would the present Cabinet declare war upon anybody. If the nation found itself face to face with a crisis, the Government would simply choose the most dignified and advantageous solution which embraced peace. In short, there is one thing which you may count upon as absolutely certain. If England goes to war at any time within the next four years, it will be under some other government."
Selingman was vastly interested. He had drawn very close to Norgate, his pudgy hands stretched out upon his knees. He dropped his voice so that it was audible only a few feet away.
"Let me put an extreme case," he suggested. "Supposing Russia and Germany were at war, and France, as Russia's ally, were compelled to mobilise. It would not be a war of Germany's provocation, but Germany, in self-defence, would be bound to attack France. She might also be compelled by strategic considerations to invade Belgium. What do you think your friend Hebblethwaite would say to that?"
"I am perfectly convinced," Norgate replied, "that Hebblethwaite would work for peace at any price. The members of our present Government are pacifists, every one of them, with the possible exception of the Secretary of the Admiralty."
"Ah!" Mr. Selingman murmured. "Mr. Spencer Wyatt! He is the gentleman who clamours so hard and fights so well for his navy estimates. Last time, though, not all his eloquence could prevail. They were cut down almost a half, eh?"
"I believe that was so," Norgate admitted.
"Mr. Spencer Wyatt, eh?" Selingman continued, his eyes fixed upon the ceiling. "Well, well, one cannot wonder at his attitude. It is not his role to pose as an economist. He is responsible for the navy. Naturally he wants a big navy. I wonder what his influence in the Cabinet really is."
"As to that," Norgate observed, "I know no more than the man in the street."
"Naturally," Mr. Selingman agreed. "I was thinking to myself."
There was a brief silence. Norgate glanced around the room.
"I don't see Mrs. Benedek here this afternoon," he remarked.
Selingman shook his head solemnly.
"The inquest on the death of that poor fellow Baring is being held to-day," he explained. "That is why she is staying away. A sad thing that, Norgate—a very sad happening."
"It was indeed."
"And mysterious," Selingman went on. "The man apparently, an hour before, was in high spirits. The special work upon which he was engaged at the Admiralty was almost finished. He had received high praise for his share in it. Every one who had seen him that day spoke of him as in absolutely capital form. Suddenly he whips out a revolver from his desk and shoots himself, and all that any one knows is that he was rung up by some one on the telephone. There's a puzzle for you, Norgate."
Norgate made no reply. He felt Selingman's eyes upon him.
"A wonderful plot for the sensational novelist. To the ordinary human being who knew Baring, there remains a substratum almost of uneasiness. Where did that voice come from that spoke along the wires, and what was its message? Baring, by all accounts, had no secrets in his life. What was the message—a warning or a threat?"
"I did not read the account of the inquest," Norgate observed. "Wasn't it possible to trace the person who rang up, through the telephone office?"
"In an ordinary case, yes," Selingman agreed. "In this case, no! The person who rang up made use of a call office. But come, it is a gloomy subject, this. I wish I had known that you were likely to see Mr. Hebblethwaite this afternoon. Bear this in mind in case you should come across him again. It would interest me very much to know whether any breach of friendship has taken place at all between him and Mr. Spencer Wyatt. Do you know Spencer Wyatt, by-the-by?"
"Only slightly," Norgate replied, "Not well enough to talk to him intimately, as I can do to Hebblethwaite."
"Well, remember that last little commission," Selingman concluded. "Are you staying on or leaving now? If you are going, we will walk together. A little exercise is good for me sometimes. My figure requires it. It is a very short distance, but it is better than nothing at all."
"I am quite ready," Norgate assured him.
They left the room and descended the stairs together. At the entrance to the building, Selingman paused for a moment. Then he seemed suddenly to remember.
"It is habit," he declared. "I stand here for a taxi, but we have agreed to walk, is it not so? Come!"
Norgate was looking across the street to the other side of the pavement. A man was standing there, engaged in conversation with a plainly-dressed young woman. To Norgate there was something vaguely familiar about the latter, who turned to glance at him as they strolled by on the other side of the road. It was not until they reached the corner of the street, however, that he remembered. She was the young woman at the telephone call office near Westbourne Grove!
Mr. Hebblethwaite was undoubtedly annoyed. He found himself regretting more than ever the good nature which had prompted him to give this visitor an audience at a most unusual hour. He had been forced into the uncomfortable position of listening to statements the knowledge of which was a serious embarrassment to him.
"Whatever made you come to me, Mr. Harrison?" he exclaimed, when at last his caller's disclosures had been made. "It isn't my department."
"I came to you, sir," the official replied, "because I have the privilege of knowing you personally, and because I was quite sure that in your hands the matter would be treated wisely."
"You are sure of your facts, I suppose?"
"I do not know much about navy procedure," Mr. Hebblethwaite said thoughtfully, "but it scarcely seems to me possible for what you tell me to have been kept secret."
"It is not only possible, sir," the man assured him, "but it has been done before in Lord Charles Beresford's time. You will find, if you make enquiries, that not only are the Press excluded to-day from the shipbuilding yards in question, but the work-people are living almost in barracks. There are double sentries at every gate, and no one is permitted under any circumstances to pass the outer line of offices."
Mr. Hebblethwaite sat, for a few moments, deep in thought.
"Well, Mr. Harrison," he said at last, "there is no doubt that you have done what you conceived to be your duty, although I must tell you frankly that I wish you had either kept what you know to yourself or taken the information somewhere else. Since you have brought it to me, let me ask you this question. Are you taking any further steps in the matter at all?"
"Certainly not, sir," was the quiet reply. "I consider that I have done my duty and finished with it, when I leave this room."
"You are content, then," Mr. Hebblethwaite observed, "to leave this matter entirely in my hands?"
"Entirely, sir," the official assented. "I am perfectly content, from this moment, to forget all that I know. Whatever your judgment prompts you to do, will, I feel sure, be satisfactory."
Mr. Hebblethwaite rose to his feet and held out his hand.
"Well, Mr. Harrison," he concluded, "you have performed a disagreeable duty in a tactful manner. Personally, I am not in the least grateful to you, for, as I dare say you know, Mr. Spencer Wyatt is a great friend of mine. As a member of the Government, however, I think I can promise you that your services shall not be forgotten. Good evening!"
The official departed. Mr. Hebblethwaite thrust his hands into his pockets, glanced at the clock impatiently, and made use of an expression which seldom passed his lips. He was in evening dress, and due to dine with his wife on the other side of the Park. Furthermore, he was very hungry. The whole affair was most annoying. He rang the bell.
"Ask Mr. Bedells to come here at once," he told the servant, "and tell your mistress I am exceedingly sorry, but I shall be detained here for some time. She had better go on without me and send the car back. I will come as soon as I can. Explain that it is a matter of official business. When you have seen Mrs. Hebblethwaite, you can bring me a glass of sherry and a biscuit."
The man withdrew, and Mr. Hebblethwaite opened a telephone directory. In a few moments Mr. Bedells, who was his private secretary, appeared.
"Richard," his chief directed, "ring up Mr. Spencer Wyatt. Tell him that whatever his engagements may be, I wish to see him here for five minutes. If he is out, you must find out where he is. You can begin by ringing up at his house."
Bedells devoted himself to the telephone. Mr. Hebblethwaite munched a biscuit and sipped his sherry. Presently the latter laid down the telephone and reported success.
"Mr. Spencer Wyatt was on his way to a city dinner, sir," he announced. "They caught him in the hall and he will call here."
Mr. Hebblethwaite nodded. "See that he is sent up directly he comes."
In less than five minutes Mr. Spencer Wyatt was ushered in. He was wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet—a tall, broad-shouldered man, fair complexioned, and with the bearing of a sailor.
"Hullo, Hebblethwaite, what's wrong?" he asked. "Your message just caught me. I am dining with the worshipful tanners—turtle soup and all the rest of it. Don't let me miss more than I can help."
Mr. Hebblethwaite walked to the door to be sure that it was closed and came back again.
"Look here, Wyatt," he exclaimed, "what the devil have you been up to?"
Wyatt whistled softly. A light broke across his face.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"You know perfectly well what I mean," Hebblethwaite continued. "Five weeks ago we had it all out at a Cabinet meeting. You asked Parliament to lay down six battleships, four cruisers, thirty-five submarines, and twelve torpedo boats. You remember what a devil of a row there was. Eventually we compromised for half the number of battleships, two cruisers, and the full amount of small craft."
"I am given to understand," Hebblethwaite said slowly, "that you have absolutely disregarded the vote—that the whole number of battleships are practically commenced, and the whole number of cruisers, and rather more than the number of smaller craft."
Wyatt threw his cocked hat upon the table.
"Well, I am up against it a bit sooner than I expected," he remarked. "Who's been peaching?"
"Never mind," Hebblethwaite replied. "I am not telling you that. You've managed the whole thing very cleverly, and you know very well, Wyatt, that I am on your side. I was on your side in pressing the whole of your proposals upon the Cabinet, although honestly I think they were far larger than necessary. However, we took a fair vote, and we compromised. You had no more right to do what you have done—"
"I admit it, Hebblethwaite," Wyatt interrupted quickly. "Of course, if this comes out, my resignation's ready for you, but I tell you frankly, as man to man, I can't go on with my job, and I won't, unless I get the ships voted that I need. We are behind our standard now. I spent twenty-four hours making up my mind whether I should resign or take this risk. I came to the conclusion that I should serve my country better by taking the risk. So there you are. What are you going to do about it?"
"What the mischief can I do about it?" Hebblethwaite demanded irritably. "You are putting me in an impossible position. Let me ask you this, Wyatt. Is there anything at the back of your head that the man in the street doesn't know about?"
"What is it, then?"
"I have reasons to believe," Wyatt announced deliberately, "reasons which are quite sufficient for me, although it was impossible for me to get up in Parliament and state them, that Germany is secretly making preparations for war either before the end of this year or the beginning of next."
Hebblethwaite threw himself into an easy-chair.
"Sit down, Wyatt," he said. "Your dinner can wait for a few minutes. I have had another man—only a youngster, and he doesn't know anything—talking to me like that. We are fully acquainted with everything that is going on behind the scenes. All our negotiations with Germany are at this moment upon the most friendly footing. We haven't a single matter in dispute. Old Busby, as you know, has been over in Berlin himself and has come back a confirmed pacifist. If he had his way, our army would practically cease to exist. He has been on the spot. He ought to know, and the army's his job."
"Busby," Wyatt declared, "is the silliest old ass who ever escaped petticoats by the mere accident of sex. I tell you he is just the sort of idiot the Germans have been longing to get hold of and twist round their fingers. Before twelve months or two years have passed, you'll curse the name of that man, when you look at the mess he has made of the army. Peace is all very well—universal peace. The only way we can secure it is by being a good deal stronger than we are at present."
"That is your point of view," Hebblethwaite reminded him. "I tell you frankly that I incline towards Busby's."
"Then you'll eat your words," Wyatt asserted, "before many months are out. I, too, have been in Germany lately, although I was careful to go as a tourist, and I have picked up a little information. I tell you it isn't for nothing that Germany has a complete list of the whole of her rolling stock, the actual numbers in each compartment registered and reserved for the use of certain units of her troops. I tell you that from one end of the country to the other her state of military preparedness is amazing. She has but to press a button, and a million men have their rifles in their hands, their knapsacks on their backs, and each regiment knows exactly at which station and by what train to embark. She is making Zeppelins night and day, training her men till they drop with exhaustion. Krupp's works are guarded by double lines of sentries. There are secrets there which no one can penetrate. And all the time she is building ships feverishly. Look here—you know my cousin, Lady Emily Fakenham?"
"Only yesterday," Wyatt continued impressively, "she showed me a letter—I read it, mind—from a cousin of Prince Hohenlowe. She met him at Monte Carlo this year, and they had a sort of flirtation. In the postscript he says: 'If you take my advice, don't go to Dinard this August. Don't be further away from home than you can help at all this summer.' What do you think that meant?"
"It sounds queer," Hebblethwaite admitted.
"Germany is bound to have a knock at us," Spencer Wyatt went on. "We've talked of it so long that the words pass over our heads, as it were, but she means it. And I tell you another thing. She means to do it while there's a Radical Government in power here, and before Russia finishes her reorganisation scheme. I am not a soldier, Hebblethwaite, but the fellows we've got up at the top—not the soldiers themselves but the chaps like old Busby and Simons—are simply out and out rotters. That's plain speaking, isn't it, but you and I are the two men concerned in the government of this country who do talk common sense to one another. We've fine soldiers and fine organisers, but they've been given the go-by simply because they know their job and would insist upon doing it thoroughly, if at all. Russia will have another four million men ready to be called up by the end of 1915, and not only that, but what is more important, is that she'll have the arms and the uniforms for them. Germany isn't going to wait for that. I've thought it all out. We are going to get it in the neck before seven or eight months have passed, and if you want to know the truth, Hebblethwaite, that's why I have taken a risk and ordered these ships. The navy is my care, and it's my job to see that we keep it up to the proper standard. Whose votes rob me of my extra battleships? Why, just a handful of Labour men and Irishmen and cocoa Liberals, who haven't an Imperial idea in their brains, who think war belongs to the horrors of the past, and think they're doing their duty by what they call 'keeping down expenses.' Hang it, Hebblethwaite, it's worse than a man who won't pay fire insurance for his house in a dangerous neighbourhood, so as to save a bit of money! What I've done I stick to. Split on me, if you want to."
"I don't think I shall do that," Hebblethwaite said, "but honestly, Wyatt, I can't follow you in your war talk. We got over the Agadir trouble. We've got over a much worse one—the Balkan crisis. There isn't a single contentious question before us just now. The sky is almost clear."
"Believe me," Wyatt insisted earnestly, "that's just the time to look for the thunderbolt. Can't you see that when Germany goes to war, it will be a war of conquest, the war which she has planned for all these years? She'll choose her own time, and she'll make a casus belli, right enough, when the time comes. Of course, she'd have taken advantage of the position last year, but she simply wasn't ready. If you ask me, I believe she thinks herself now able to lick the whole of Europe. I am not at all sure, thanks to Busby and our last fifteen years' military administration, that she wouldn't have a good chance of doing it. Any way, I am not going to have my fleet cut down."
"The country is prosperous," Hebblethwaite acknowledged. "We can afford the ships."
"Then look here, old chap," Wyatt begged, "I am not pleading for my own sake, but the country's. Keep your mouth shut. See what the next month or two brings. If there's trouble—well, I don't suppose I shall be jumped on then. If there isn't, and you want a victim, here I am. I disobeyed orders flagrantly. My resignation is in my desk at any moment."
Hebblethwaite glanced at the clock.
"I am very hungry," he said, "and I have a long way to go for dinner. We'll let it go at that, Wyatt. I'll try and keep things quiet for you. If it comes out, well, you know the risk you run."
"I know the bigger risk we are all running," Wyatt declared, as he took a cigarette from an open box on the table by his side and turned towards the door. "I'll manage the turtle soup now, with luck. You're a good fellow, Hebblethwaite. I know it goes against the grain with you, but, by Jove, you may be thankful for this some time!"
The Right Honourable John William Hebblethwaite took the hat from his footman, stepped into his car, and was driven rapidly away. He leaned back among the cushions, more thoughtful than usual. There was a yellow moon in the sky, pale as yet. The streets were a tangled vortex of motorcars and taxies, all filled with men and women in evening dress. It was the height of a wonderful season. Everywhere was dominant the note of prosperity, gaiety, even splendour. The houses in Park Lane, flower-decked, displayed through their wide-flung windows a constant panorama of brilliantly-lit rooms. Every one was entertaining. In the Park on the other side were the usual crowd of earnest, hard-faced men and women, gathered in little groups around the orator of the moment. Hebblethwaite felt a queer premonition that evening. A man of sanguine temperament, thoroughly contented with himself and his position, he seemed almost for the first time in his life, to have doubts, to look into the future, to feel the rumblings of an earthquake, the great dramatic cry of a nation in the throes of suffering. Had they been wise, all these years, to have legislated as though the old dangers by land and sea had passed?—to have striven to make the people fat and prosperous, to have turned a deaf ear to every note of warning? Supposing the other thing were true! Supposing Norgate and Spencer Wyatt had found the truth! What would history have to say then of this Government of which he was so proud? Would it be possible that they had brought the country to a great prosperity by destroying the very bulwarks of its security?
The car drew up with a jerk, and Hebblethwaite came back to earth. Nevertheless, he promised himself, as he hastened across the pavement, that on the morrow he would pay a long-delayed visit to the War Office.
Anna was seated, a few days later, with her dearest friend, the Princess of Thurm, in a corner of the royal enclosure at Ascot. For the first time since their arrival they found themselves alone. From underneath her parasol the Princess looked at her friend curiously.
"Anna," she said, "something has happened to you."
"Perhaps, but explain yourself," Anna replied composedly.
"It is so simple. There you sit in a Doucet gown, perfection as ever, from the aigrette in your hat to those delicately pointed shoes. You have been positively hunted by all the nicest men—once or twice, indeed, I felt myself neglected—and not a smile have I seen upon your lips. You go about, looking just a little beyond everything. What did you see, child, over the tops of the trees in the paddock, when Lord Wilton was trying so hard to entertain you?"
"An affair of moods, I imagine," Anna declared. "Somehow I don't feel quite in the humour for Ascot to-day. To be quite frank," she went on, turning her head slowly, "I rather wonder that you do, Mildred."
The Princess raised her eyebrows.
"Why not? Everything, so far as I am concerned, is couleur de rose. Madame Blanche declared yesterday that my complexion would last for twenty years. I found a dozen of the most adorable hats in Paris. The artist who designs my frocks was positively inspired the last time I sat to him. I am going to see Maurice in a few weeks, and meanwhile I have several new flirtations which interest me amazingly. As for you, my child, one would imagine that you had lost your taste for all frivolity. You are as cold as granite. Be careful, dear. The men of to-day, in this country, at any rate, are spoilt. Sometimes they are even uncourtier-like enough to accept a woman's refusal."
"Well," Anna observed, smiling faintly, "even a lifetime at Court has not taught me to dissimulate. I am heavy-hearted, Mildred. You wondered what I was looking at when I gazed over those green trees under which all those happy people were walking. I was looking out across the North Sea. I was looking through Belgium to Paris. I saw a vast curtain roll up, and everything beyond it was a blood-stained panorama."
A shade rested for a moment on her companion's fair face. She shrugged her shoulders.
"We've known for a long time, dear, that it must come."
"But all the same, in these last moments it is terrible," Anna insisted. "Seriously, Mildred, I wonder that I should feel it more than you. You are absolutely English. Your father is English, your mother is English. It is only your husband that is Austrian. You have lived in Austria only for seven years. Has that been sufficient to destroy all your patriotism, all your love for your own country?"
The Princess made a little grimace.
"My dear Anna," she said, "I am not so serious a person as you are. I am profoundly, incomprehensibly selfish. The only human being in the whole world for whom I have had a spark of real affection is Maurice, and I adore him. What he has told me to do, I have done. What makes him happy makes me happy. For his sake, even, I have forgotten and shall always forget that I was born an Englishwoman. Circumstances, too," she went on thoughtfully, "have made it so easy. England is such a changed country. When I was a child, I could read of the times when our kings really ruled, of our battles for dominion, of our fight for colonies, of our building up a great empire, and I could feel just a little thrill. I can't now. We have gone ahead of Napoleon. From a nation of shop-keepers we have become a nation of general dealers—a fat, over-confident, bourgeois people. Socialism has its hand upon the throat of the classes. Park Lane, where our aristocracy lived, is filled with the mansions of South African Jews, whom one must meet here or keep out of society altogether. Our country houses have gone the same way. Our Court set is dowdy, dull to a degree, and common in a different fashion. You are right. I have lost my love for England, partly because of my marriage, partly because of those things which have come to England herself."
For the first time there was a little flush of colour in Anna's exquisitely pale cheeks. There was even animation in her tone as she turned towards her friend.
"Mildred," she exclaimed, "it is splendid to hear you say what is really in your mind! I am so glad you have spoken to me like this. I feel these things, too. Now I am not nearly so English as you. My mother was English and my father Austrian. Therefore, only half of me should be English. Yet, although I am so much further removed from England than you are, I have suddenly felt a return of all my old affection for her."
"You are going to tell me why?" her companion begged.
"Of course! It is because I believe—it is too ridiculous—but I believe that I am in your position with the circumstances reversed. I am beginning to care in the most foolish way for an unmistakable Englishman."
"If we had missed this little chance of conversation," the Princess declared, "I should have been miserable for the rest of my life! There is the Duke hanging about behind. For heaven's sake, don't turn. Thank goodness he has gone away! Now go on, dear. Tell me about him at once. I can't imagine who it may be. I have watched you with so many men, and I know quite well, so long as that little curl is at the corner of your lips, that they none of them count. Do I know him?"
"I do not think so," Anna replied. "He is not a very important person."
"It isn't the man you were dining with in the Cafe de Berlin when Prince Karl came in?"
"Yes, it is he!"
The Princess made a little grimace.
"But how unsuitable, my dear," she exclaimed, "if you are really in earnest! What is the use of your thinking of an Englishman? He is quite nice, I know. His mother and my mother were friends, and we met once or twice. He was very kind to me in Paris, too. But for a serious affair—"
"Well, it may not come to that," Anna interrupted, "but there it is. I suppose that it is partly for his sake that I feel this depression."
"I should have thought that he himself would have been a little out of sympathy with his country just now," the Princess remarked. "They tell me that the Foreign Office ate humble pie with the Kaiser for that affair shockingly. They not only removed him from the Embassy, but they are going to give him nothing in Europe. I heard for a fact that the Kaiser requested that he should not be attached to any Court with which Germany had diplomatic relations."
Anna nodded. "I believe that it is true," she admitted, "but I am not sure that he realises it himself. Even if he does, well, you know the type. He is English to the backbone."
"But there are Englishmen," the Princess insisted earnestly, "who are amenable to common sense. There are Englishmen who are sorrowing over the decline of their own country and who would not be so greatly distressed if she were punished a little."
"I am afraid Mr. Norgate is not like that," Anna observed drily. "However, one cannot be sure. Bother! I thought people were very kind to leave us so long in peace. Dear Prince, how clever of you to find out our retreat!"
The Ambassador stood bareheaded before them.
"Dear ladies," he declared, "you are the lode-stones which would draw one even through these gossamer walls of lace and chiffons, of draperies as light as the sunshine and perfumes as sweet as Heine's poetry."
"Very pretty," Anna laughed, "but what you really mean is that you were looking for two of your very useful slaves and have found them."
The Ambassador glanced around. Their isolation was complete.
"Ah! well," he murmured, "it is a wonderful thing to be so charmingly aided towards such a wonderful end."
"And to have such complete trust in one's friends," Anna remarked, looking him steadfastly in the face.
The Prince did not flinch. His smile was perfectly courteous and acknowledging.
"That is my happiness," he admitted. "I will tell you the reason which directed my footsteps this way," he added, drawing a small betting book from his pocket. "You must back Prince Charlie for the next race. I will, if you choose, take your commissions. I have a man waiting at the rails."
"Twenty pounds for me, please," the Princess declared. "I have the horse marked on my card, but I had forgotten for the moment."
"And the same for me," Anna begged. "But did you really come only to bring us this valuable tip, Prince?"
The Ambassador stooped down.
"There is a dispatch on its way to me," he said softly, "which I believe concerns you. It might be necessary for you to take a short journey within the next few days."
"Not back to Berlin?" Anna exclaimed.
Their solitude had been invaded by now, and the Princess was talking to two or three men who were grouped about her chair. The Ambassador stooped a little lower.
"To Rome," he whispered.
Back from the dusty roads, the heat and noise of the long day, Anna was resting on the couch in her sitting-room. A bowl of roses and a note which she had read three or four times stood on a little table by her side. One of the blossoms she had fastened into the bosom of her loose gown. The blinds were drawn, the sounds of the traffic outside were muffled and distant. Her bath had been just the right temperature, her maid's attention was skilful and delicate as ever. She was conscious of the drowsy sweet perfume of the flowers, the pleasant sense of powdered cleanliness. Everything should have conduced to rest, but she lay there with her eyes wide-open. There was so much to think about, so much that was new finding its way into her stormy young life.
Anna turned her head. Her maid had entered noiselessly from the inner room and was standing by her side.
"Madame does not sleep? There is a person outside who waits for an interview. I have denied him, as all others. He gave me this."
Anna almost snatched the piece of paper from her maid's fingers. She glanced at the name, and the disappointment which shone in her eyes was very apparent. It was succeeded by an impulse of surprise.
"You can show him in," she directed.
Selingman appeared a few moments later—Selingman, cool, rosy, and confident, on the way to his beloved bridge club. He took the hand which Anna, without moving, held out to him, and raised it gallantly to his lips.
"I thought it was understood, my crockery friend," she murmured, "that in London we did not interchange visits."
"Most true, gracious lady," he admitted, "but there are circumstances which can alter the most immovable decisions. At this moment we are confronted with one. I come to discuss with you the young Englishman, Francis Norgate."
She turned her head a little. Her eyes were full of enquiry.
"To discuss him with me?"
Selingman's eyes as though by accident fell upon the roses and the note.
"Ah, well," she murmured, "go on."
"It is wonderful," Selingman proceeded, "to be able to tell the truth. I speak to you as one comrade to another. This young man was your companion at the Cafe de Berlin. For the indiscretion of behaving like a bull-headed but courageous young Englishman, he is practically dismissed from the Service. He comes back smarting with the injustice of it. Chance brings him in my way. I proceed to do my best to make use of this opportunity."
"So like you, dear Herr Selingman!" Anna murmured.
"Ever gracious, dear lady. Well, to continue, then. Here I find a young Englishman of exactly the order and position likely to be useful to us. I approach him frankly. He has been humiliated by the country he was willing to serve. I talk to him of that country. 'You are English, of course,' I remind him, 'but what manner of an England is it to-day which claims you?' It is a very telling argument, this. Upon the classes of this country, democracy has laid a throttling hand. There is a spirit of discontent, they say, among the working-classes, the discontent which breeds socialism. There is a worse spirit of discontent among the upper classes here, and it is the discontent which breeds so-called traitors."
"I can imagine all the rest," Anna interposed coolly. "How far have you succeeded?"
"The young man," Selingman told her, "has accepted my proposals. He has drawn three months' salary in advance. He furnished me yesterday with details of a private conversation with a well-known Cabinet Minister."
Anna turned her head. "So soon!" she murmured.
"So soon," Selingman repeated. "And now, gracious lady, here comes my visit to you. We have a recruit, invaluable if he is indeed a recruit at heart, dangerous if he has the brains and wit to choose to make himself so. I, on my way through life, judge men and women, and I judge them—well, with few exceptions, unerringly, but at the back of my brain there lingers something of mistrust of this young man. I have seen others in his position accept similar proposals. I have seen the struggles of shame, the doubts, the assertion of some part of a man's lower nature reconciling him in the end to accepting the pay of a foreign country. I have seen none of these things in this young man—simply a cold and deliberate acceptance of my proposals. He conforms to no type. He sets up before me a problem which I myself have failed wholly to solve. I come to you, dear lady, for your aid."
"I am to spy upon the spy," she remarked.
"It is an easy task," Selingman declared. "This young man is your slave. Whatever your daily business may be here, some part of your time, I imagine, will be spent in his company. Let me know what manner of man he is. Is this innate corruptness which brings him so easily to the bait, or is it the stinging smart of injustice from which he may well be suffering? Or, failing these, has he dared to set his wits against mine, to play the double traitor? If even a suspicion of this should come to you, there must be an end of Mr. Francis Norgate."
Anna toyed for a moment with the rose at her bosom. Her eyes were looking out of the room. Once again she was conscious of a curious slackening of purpose, a confusion of issues which had once seemed to her so clear.
"Very well," she promised. "I will send you a report in the course of a few days."
"I should not," Selingman continued, rising, "venture to trouble you, Baroness, as I know the sphere of your activities is far removed from mine, but chance has put you in the position of being able to ascertain definitely the things which I desire to know. For our common sake you will, I am sure, seek to discover the truth."
"So far as I can, certainly," Anna replied, "but I must admit that I, like you, find Mr. Norgate a little incomprehensible."
"There are men," Selingman declared, "there have been many of the strongest men in history, impenetrable to the world, who have yielded their secrets readily to a woman's influence. The diplomatists in life who have failed have been those who have underrated the powers possessed by your wonderful sex."
"Among whom," Anna remarked, "no one will ever number Herr Selingman."
"Dear Baroness," Selingman concluded, as the maid whom Anna had summoned stood ready to show him out, "it is because in my life I have been brought into contact with so many charming examples of your power."
* * * * *
Once more silence and solitude. Anna moved restlessly about on her couch. Her eyes were a little hot. That future into which she looked seemed to become more than ever a tangled web. At half-past seven her maid reappeared.
"Madame will dress for dinner?"
Anna swung herself to her feet. She glanced at the clock.
"I suppose so," she assented.
"I have three gowns laid out," the maid continued respectfully. "Madame would look wonderful in the light green."
"Anything," Anna yawned.
The telephone bell tinkled. Anna took down the receiver herself.
"Yes?" she asked.
Her manner suddenly changed. It was a familiar voice speaking. Her maid, who stood in the background, watched and wondered.
"It is you, Baroness! I rang up to see whether there was any chance of your being able to dine with me? I have just got back to town."
"How dared you go away without telling me!" she exclaimed. "And how can I dine with you? Do you not realise that it is Ascot Thursday, and I have had many invitations to dine to-night? I am going to a very big dinner-party at Thurm House."
"Bad luck!" Norgate replied disconsolately. "And to-morrow?"
"I have not finished about to-night yet," Anna continued. "I suppose you do not, by any chance, want me to dine with you very much?"
"Of course I do," was the prompt answer. "You see plenty of the Princess of Thurm and nothing of me, and there is always the chance that you may have to go abroad. I think that it is your duty—"
"As a matter of duty," Anna interrupted, "I ought to dine at Thurm House. As a matter of pleasure, I shall dine with you. You will very likely not enjoy yourself. I am going to be very cross indeed. You have neglected me shamefully. It is only these wonderful roses which have saved you."
"So long as I am saved," he murmured, "tell me, please, where you would like to dine?"
"Any place on earth," she replied. "You may call for me here at half-past eight. I shall wear a hat and I would like to go somewhere where our people do not go."
Anna set down the telephone. The listlessness had gone from her manner. She glanced at the clock and ran lightly into the other room.
"Put all that splendour away," she ordered her maid cheerfully. "To-night we shall dazzle no one. Something perfectly quiet and a hat, please. I dine in a restaurant. And ring the bell, Marie, for two aperitifs—not that I need one. I am hungry, Marie. I am looking forward to my dinner already. I think something dead black. I am looking well tonight. I can afford to wear black."
"Madame has recovered her spirits," she remarked demurely.
Anna was suddenly silent. Her light-heartedness was a revelation. She turned to her maid.
"Marie," she directed, "you will telephone to Thurm House. You will ask for Lucille, the Princess's maid. You will give my love to the Princess. You will say that a sudden headache has prostrated me. It will be enough. You need say no more. To-morrow I lunch with the Princess, and she will understand."
"Confess," Anna exclaimed, as she leaned back in her chair, "that my idea was excellent! Your little restaurant was in its way perfection, but the heat—does one feel it anywhere, I wonder, as one does in London?"
"Here, at any rate, we have air," Norgate remarked appreciatively.
"We are far removed," she went on, "from the clamour of diners, that babel of voices, the smell of cooking, the meretricious music. We look over the house-tops. Soon, just behind that tall building there, you will see the yellow moon."
They were taking their coffee in Anna's sitting-room, seated in easy-chairs drawn up to the wide-flung windows. The topmost boughs of some tall elm trees rustled almost in their faces. Away before them spread the phantasmagoria of a wilderness of London roofs, softened and melting into the dim blue obscurity of the falling twilight. Lights were flashing out everywhere, and above them shone the stars. Norgate drew a long breath of content.
"It is wonderful, this," he murmured.
"We are at least alone," Anna said, "and I can talk to you. I want to talk to you. Should you be very much flattered, I wonder, if I were to say that I have been thinking of little else for the last three or four days than how to approach you, how to say something to you without any fear of being misunderstood, how to convince you of my own sincerity?"
"If I am not flattered," he answered, looking at her keenly, "I am at least content. Please go on."
"You are one of those, I believe," she continued earnestly, "who realise that somewhere not far removed from the splendour of these summer days, a storm is gathering. I am one of those who know. England has but a few more weeks of this self-confident, self-esteeming security. Very soon the shock will come. Oh! you sit there, my friend, and you are very monosyllabic, but that is because you do not wholly trust me."
He swung suddenly round upon her and there was an unaccustomed fire in his eyes.
"May it not be for some other reason?" he asked quickly.
There was a moment's silence. Her own face seemed paler than ever in the strange half light, but her eyes were wonderful. He told himself with passionate insistence that they were the eyes of a truthful woman.
"Tell me," she begged, "what reason?"
He leaned towards her.
"It is so hopeless," he said. "I am just a broken diplomat whose career is ended almost before it is begun, and you—well, you have everything at your feet. It is foolish of me, isn't it, but I love you."
He took her hand, and she did not withdraw it.
"If it is foolish," she murmured, "then I am foolish, too. Perhaps you can guess now why I came to London."
He drew her into his arms. She made no resistance. Her lips, even, were seeking his. It seemed to him in those breathless moments that a greater thing than even the destiny of nations was born into the world. There was a new vigour in his pulses as she gently pushed him back, a new splendour in life.
"Dear," she exclaimed, "of course we are both very foolish, and yet, I do not know. I have been wondering why this has not come to me long ago, and now that it has come I am happy."
"You care—you really care?" he insisted passionately.
"Of course I do," she told him, quietly enough and yet very convincingly. "If I did not care I should not be here. If I did not care, I should not be going to say the things to you which I am going to say now. Sit back in your chair, please, hold my hand still, smoke if you will, but listen."
He obeyed. A deeper seriousness crept into her tone, but her face was still soft and wonderful. The new things were lingering there.
"I want to tell you first," she said, "what I think you already know. The moment for which Germany has toiled so long, from which she has never faltered, is very close at hand. With all her marvellous resources and that amazing war equipment of which you in this country know little, she will soon throw down the gage to England. You are an Englishman, Francis. You are not going to forget it, are you?"
"Forget it?" he repeated.
"I know," she continued slowly, "that Selingman has made advances to you. I know that he has a devilish gift for enrolling on his list men of honour and conscience. He has the knack of subtle argument, of twisting facts and preying upon human weaknesses. You have been shockingly treated by your Foreign Office. You yourself are entirely out of sympathy with your Government. You know very well that England, as she is, is a country which has lost her ideals, a country in which many of her sons might indeed, without much reproach, lose their pride, Selingman knows this. He knows how to work upon these facts. He might very easily convince you that the truest service you could render your country was to assist her in passing through a temporary tribulation."
He looked at her almost in surprise.
"You seem to know the man's methods," he observed.
"I do," she answered, "and I detest them. Now, Francis, please tell me the truth. Is your name, too, upon that long roll of those who are pledged to assist his country?"
"It is," he admitted.
She drew a little away.
"You admit it? You have already consented?"
"I have drawn a quarter's salary," Norgate confessed. "I have entered Selingman's corps of the German Secret Service."
"You mean that you are a traitor!" she exclaimed.
"A traitor to the false England of to-day," Norgate replied, "a friend, I hope, of the real England."
She sat quite still for some moments.
"Somehow or other," she said, "I scarcely fancied that you would give in so easily."
"You seem disappointed," he remarked, "yet, after all, am I not on your side?"
"I suppose so," she answered, without enthusiasm.
There was another and a more prolonged silence. Norgate rose at last to his feet. He walked restlessly to the end of the room and back again. A dark mass of clouds had rolled up; the air seemed almost sulphurous with the presage of a coming storm. They looked out into the gathering darkness.
"I don't understand," he said. "You are Austrian; that is the same as German. I tell you that I have come over on your side. You seem disappointed."
"Perhaps I am," she admitted, standing up, too, and linking her arm through his. "You see, my mother was English, and they say that I am entirely like her. I was brought up here in the English country. Sometimes my life at Vienna and Berlin seems almost like a dream to me, something unreal, as though I were playing at being some other woman. When I am back here, I feel as though I had come home. Do you know really that nothing would make me happier than to hear or think nothing about duty, to just know that I had come back to England to stay, and that you were English, and that we were going to live just the sort of life I pictured to myself that two people could live so happily over here, without too much ambition, without intrigue, simply and honestly. I am a little weary of cities and courts, Francis. To-night more than ever England seems to appeal to me, to remind me that I am one of her daughters."
"Are you trying me, Anna?" he asked hoarsely.
"Trying you? Of course not!" she answered. "I am speaking to you just simply and naturally, because you are the one person in the world to whom I may speak like that."
"Then let's drop it, both of us!" he exclaimed, holding her arm tightly to his. "Courts and cities can do without you, and Selingman can do without me. We'll take a cottage somewhere and live through these evil days."
She shook her head.
"You and I are not like that, Francis," she declared. "When the storm breaks, we mustn't be found hiding in our holes. You know that quite well. It is for us to decide what part we may play. You have chosen. So, in a measure, have I. Tomorrow I am going on a secret mission to Italy."
"Anna!" he cried in dismay.
"Alas, yes!" she repeated, "We may not even meet again, Francis, till the map of Europe has been rewritten with the blood of many of our friends and millions of our country-people. But I shall think of you, and the kiss you will give me now shall be the last upon my lips."
"You can go away?" he demanded. "You can leave me like this?"
"I must," she answered simply. "I have work before me. Good-by, Francis! Somehow I knew what was coming. I believe that I am glad, dear, but I must think about it, and so must you."
Norgate left the hotel and walked out amid the first mutterings of the storm. He found a taxi and drove to his rooms. For an hour he sat before his window, watching the lightning play, fighting the thoughts which beat upon his brain, fighting all the time a losing battle. At midnight the storm had ceased. He walked back through the rain-streaming streets. The air was filled with sweet and pungent perfumes. The heaviness had passed from the atmosphere. His own heart was lighter; he walked swiftly. Outside her hotel he paused and looked up at the window. There was a light still burning in her room. He even fancied that he could see the outline of her figure leaning back in the easy-chair which he had wheeled up close to the casement. He entered the hotel, stepped into the lift, ascended to her floor, and made his way with tingling pulses and beating heart along the corridor. He knocked softly at her door. There was a little hesitation, then he heard her voice on the other side.
"Who is that?"
"It is I—Francis," he answered softly. "Let me in."
There was a little exclamation. She opened the door, holding up her finger.
"Quietly," she whispered. "What is it, Francis? Why have you come back? What has happened to you?"
He drew her into the room. She herself looked weary, and there were lines under her eyes. It seemed, even, as though she might have been weeping. But it was a new Norgate who spoke. His words rang out with a fierce vigour, his eyes seemed on fire.
"Anna," he cried, "I can't fence with you. I can't lie to you. I can't deceive you. I've tried these things, and I went away choking, I had to come back. You shall know the truth, even though you betray me. I am no man of Selingman's. I have taken his paltry money—it went last night to a hospital. I am for England—God knows it!—the England of any government, England, however misguided or mistaken. I want to do the work for her that's easiest and that comes to me. I am on Selingman's roll. What do you think he'll get from me? Nothing that isn't false, no information that won't mislead him, no facts save those I shall distort until they may seem so near the truth that he will build and count upon them. Every minute of my time will be spent to foil his schemes. They don't believe me in Whitehall, or Selingman would be at Bow Street to-morrow morning. That's why I am going my own way. Tell him, if you will. There is only one thing strong enough to bring me here, to risk everything, and that's my love for you."
She was in his arms, sobbing and crying, and yet laughing. She clutched at him, drew down his face and covered his lips with kisses.
"Oh! I am so thankful," she cried, "so thankful! Francis, I ached—my heart ached to have you sit there and talk as you did. Now I know that you are the man I thought you were. Francis, we will work together."
"You mean it?"
"I do, England was my mother's country, England shall be my husband's country. I will tell you many things that should help. From now my work shall be for you. If they find me out, well, I will pay the price. You shall run your risk, Francis, for your country, and I must take mine; but at least we'll keep our honour and our conscience and our love. Oh, this is a better parting, dear! This is a better good night!"
Mrs. Benedek was the first to notice the transformation which had certainly taken place in Norgate's appearance. She came and sat by his side upon the cushioned fender.
"What a metamorphosis!" she exclaimed. "Why, you look as though Providence had been showering countless benefits upon you."
There were several people lounging around, and Mrs. Benedek's remark certainly had point.
"You look like Monty, when he's had a winning week," one of them observed.
"It is something more than gross lucre," a young man declared, who had just strolled up. "I believe that it is a good fat appointment. Rome, perhaps, where every one of you fellows wants to get to, nowadays."
"Or perhaps," the Prince intervened, with a little bow, "Mrs. Benedek has promised to dine with you? She is generally responsible for the gloom or happiness of us poor males in this room."
"None of these wonderful things have happened—and yet, something perhaps more wonderful," he announced. "I am engaged to be married."
There was a mingled chorus of exclamations and congratulations. Selingman, who had been standing on the outskirts of the group, drew a little nearer. His face wore a somewhat puzzled expression.
"And the lady?" he enquired. "May we not know the lady's name? That is surely important?"
"It is the Baroness von Haase," Norgate replied. "You probably know her by name and repute, at least, Mr. Selingman. She is an Austrian, but she is often at Berlin."
Selingman stretched out his great hand. For some reason or other, the announcement seemed to have given him real pleasure.
"Know her? My dear young friend, while I may not claim the privilege of intimate friendship with her, the Baroness is a young lady of the greatest distinction and repute in Berlin. I congratulate you. I congratulate you most heartily. The anger of our young princeling is no longer to be wondered at. I cannot tell you how thoroughly interesting this news is to me."
"You are very good indeed, I am sure, all of you," Norgate declared, answering the general murmur of kindly words. "The Baroness doesn't play bridge, but I'd like to bring her in one afternoon, if I may."
"I have had the honour of meeting the Baroness von Haase several times," Prince Lenemaur said. "It will give me the utmost pleasure to renew my acquaintance with her. These alliances are most pleasing. Since I have taken up my residence in this country, I regard them with the utmost favour. They do much to cement the good feeling between Germany, Austria, and England, which is so desirable."
"English people," Mrs. Benedek remarked, "will at least have the opportunity of judging Austrian women from the proper standpoint. Anna is one of the most accomplished and beautiful women in either Vienna or Berlin. I hope so much that she will not have forgotten me altogether."
They all drifted presently back to the bridge tables. Norgate, however, excused himself. He had some letters to write, he declared, and presently he withdrew to the little drawing-room. In about a quarter of an hour, as he had expected, the door opened, and Selingman entered. He crossed the room at once to where Norgate was writing and laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Young man," he said, "I wish to talk with you. Bring your chair around. Sit there so that the light falls upon your face. So! Now let me see. Where does that door lead to?"
"Into the secretary's room, but it is locked," Norgate told him.
"So! And the outer one I myself have carefully closed. We talk here, then, in private. This is great news which you have brought this afternoon."
"It is naturally of some interest to me," Norgate assented, "but I scarcely see—"
"It is of immense interest, also, to me," Selingman interrupted. "It may be that you do not know this at present. It may be that I anticipate, but if so, no matter. Between you and your fiancee there will naturally be no secrets. You are perhaps already aware that she holds a high position amongst those who are working for the power and development and expansion of our great empire?"
"I have gathered something of the sort," Norgate admitted. "I know, of course, that she is a personal favourite of the Emperor's, and persona grata at the Court of Berlin."
"You have no scruple, then, about marrying a woman who belongs to a certain clique, a certain school of diplomacy which you might, from a superficial point of view, consider inimical to your country's interests?"
"I have no scruple at all in marrying the Baroness von Haase," Norgate replied firmly. "As for the rest, you and I have discussed fully the matter of the political relations between our countries. I have shown you practically have I not, what my own views are?"
"That is true, my young friend," Selingman confessed. "We have spoken together, man to man, heart to heart. I have tried to show you that even though we should stand with sword outstretched across the seas, yet in the hearts of our people there dwells a real affection, real good-will towards your country. I think that I have convinced you. I have come, indeed, to have a certain amount of confidence in you. That I have already proved. But your news to-day alters much. There are grades of that society which you have joined, rings within rings, as you may well imagine. I see the prospect before me now of making much greater and more valuable use of you. It was your brain, and a certain impatience with the political conduct of your country, which brought you over to our side. Why should not that become an alliance—an absolute alliance? Your interests are drawn into ours. You have now a real and great reason for throwing in your lot with us. Let me look at you. Let me think whether I may not venture upon a great gamble."
Norgate did not flinch. He appeared simply a little puzzled. Selingman's blue, steel-like eyes seemed striving to reach the back of his brain.
"All the things that we accomplish in my country," the latter continued, "we do by method and order. We do them scientifically. We reach out into the future. So far as we can, we foresee everything. We leave little to chance. Yet there are times when one cannot deal in certainties. Young man, the news which you have told us this afternoon has brought us to this pitch. I am inclined to gamble—to gamble upon you."
"Is there any question of consulting me in this?" Norgate asked coolly.
Selingman brushed the interruption on one side.
"I now make clear to you what I mean," he continued. "You have joined my little army of helpers, those whom I have been able to convince of the justice and reasonableness of Germany's ultimate aim. Now I want more from you. I want to make of you something different. More than anything in the world, for the furtherance of my schemes here, I need a young Englishman of your position and with your connections, to whom I can give my whole confidence, who will act for me with implicit obedience, without hesitation. Will you accept that post, Francis Norgate?"
"If you think I am capable of it," Norgate replied promptly.
"You are capable of it," Selingman asserted. "There is only one grim possibility to be risked. Are you entirely trustworthy? Would you flinch at the danger moment? Before this afternoon I hesitated. It is your alliance with the Baroness which gives me that last drop of confidence which was necessary."
"I am ready to do your work," Norgate said. "I can say no more. My own country has no use for me. My own country seems to have no use for any one at all just now who thinks a little beyond the day's eating and drinking and growing fat."
Selingman nodded his head. The note of bitterness in the other's tone was to his liking.
"Of rewards, of benefits, I shall not now speak," he proceeded. "You have something in you of the spirit of men who aim at the greater things. There is, indeed, in your attitude towards life something of the idealism, the ever-stretching heavenward culture of my own people. I recognise that spirit in you, and I will not give a lower tone to our talk this afternoon by speaking of money. Yet what you wish for you may have. When the time comes, what further reward you may desire, whether it be rank or high position, you may have, but for the present let it be sufficient that you are my man."
He held out his hand, and all the time his eyes never left Norgate's. Gone the florid and beaming geniality of the man, his easy good-humour, his air of good-living and rollicking gaiety. There were lines in his forehead. The firm contraction of his lips brought lines even across his plump cheeks. It was the face, this, of a strong man and a thinker. He held Norgate's fingers, and Norgate never flinched.
"So!" he said at last, as he turned away. "Now you are indeed in the inner circle, Mr. Francis Norgate. Good! Listen to me, then. We will speak of war, the war that is to come, the war that is closer at hand than even you might imagine."
"War with England?" Norgate exclaimed.
Selingman struck his hands together.
"No!" he declared. "You may take it as a compliment, if you like—a national compliment. We do not at the present moment desire war with England. Our plan of campaign, for its speedy and successful accomplishment, demands your neutrality. The North Sea must be free to us. Our fleet must be in a position to meet and destroy, as it is well able to do, the Russian and the French fleets. Now you know what has kept Germany from war for so long."
"You are ready for it, then?" Norgate remarked.
"We are over-ready for it," Selingman continued. "We are spoiling for it. We have piled up enormous stores of ordnance, ammunition, and all the appurtenances of warfare. Our schemes have been cut and dried to the last detail. Yet time after time we have been forced to stay our hand. Need I tell you why? It is because, in all those small diplomatic complications which have arisen and from which war might have followed, England has been involved. We want to choose a time and a cause which will give England every opportunity of standing peacefully on one side. That time is close at hand. From all that I can hear, your country is, at the present moment, in danger of civil war. Your Ministers who are most in favour are Radical pacifists. Your army has never been so small or your shipbuilding programme more curtailed. Besides, there is no warlike spirit in your nation; you sleep peacefully. I think that our time has come. You will not need to strain your ears, my friend. Before many weeks have passed, the tocsin will be sounding. Does that move you? Let me look at you."
Norgate's face showed little emotion. Selingman nodded ponderously.
"Surely," Norgate asked, "Germany will wait for some reasonable pretext?"
"She will find one through Austria," Selingman replied. "That is simple. Mind, though this may seem to you a war wholly of aggression, and though I do not hesitate to say that we have been prepared for years for a war of aggression, there are other factors which will come to light. Only a few months ago, an entire Russian scheme for the invasion of Germany next spring was discovered by one of our Secret Service agents."
"One question more," he said. "Supposing Germany takes the plunge, and then England, contrary to anticipation, decides to support France?"
Selingman's face darkened. A sudden purposeless anger shook his voice.
"We choose a time," he declared, "when England's hands are tied. She is in no position to go to war with any one. I have many reports reaching me every day. I have come to the firm conclusion that we have reached the hour. England will not fight."
"And what will happen to her eventually?" Norgate asked.
Selingman smiled slowly.
"When France is crushed," he explained, "and her northern ports garrisoned by us, England must be taught just a little lesson, the lesson of which you and I have spoken, the lesson which will be for her good. That is what we have planned. That is how things will happen. Hush! There is some one coming. It is finished, this. Come to me to-morrow morning. There is work for you."
Later on that evening, Norgate walked up and down the platform at Charing-Cross with Anna. Her arm rested upon his; her expression was animated and she talked almost eagerly. Norgate carried himself like a man who has found a new thing in life. He was feeling none of the depression of the last few days.
"Dear," Anna begged, "you won't forget, will you, all the time that I am away, that you must never for a single moment relax your caution? Selingman speaks of trust. Well, he gambles, it is true, yet he protects himself whenever he can. You will not move from early morning until you go to bed at night, without being watched. To prove what I say—you see the man who is reading an evening paper under the gas-lamp there? Yes? He is one of Selingman's men. He is watching us now. More than once he has been at our side. Scraps of conversation, or anything he can gather, will go back to Selingman, and Selingman day by day pieces everything together. Don't let there be a single thing which he can lay hold of."
"I'll lead him a dance," Norgate promised, nodding a little grimly. "As for that, Anna dear, you needn't be afraid. If ever I had any wits, they'll be awake during the next few weeks."
"When I come back from Rome," Anna went on, "I shall have more to tell you. I believe that I shall be able to tell you even the date of the great happening. I wonder what other commissions he will give you. The one to-night is simple. Be careful, dear. Think—think hard before you make up your mind. Remember that there is some duplicity which might become suddenly obvious. An official statement might upset everything. These English papers are so garrulous. You might find yourself hard-pressed for an explanation."
"I'll be careful, dear," Norgate assured her, as they stood at last before the door of her compartment. "And of ourselves?"
She lifted her veil.
"We have so little time," she murmured.
"But have you thought over what I suggested?" he begged.
She laughed at him softly.
"It sounds quite attractive," she whispered. "Shall we talk of it when I come back from Italy? Good-by, dear! Of course, I do not really want to kiss you, but our friend under the gas-lamp is looking—and you know our engagement! It is so satisfactory to dear Mr. Selingman. It is the one genuine thing about us, isn't it? So good-by!"
The long train drew out from the platform a few minutes later. Norgate lingered until it was out of sight. Then he took a taxi and drove to the House of Commons. He sent in a card addressed to David Bullen, Esq., and waited for some time. At last a young man came down the corridor towards him.
"I am Mr. Bullen's private secretary," he announced. "Mr. Bullen cannot leave the House for some time. Would you care to go into the Strangers' Gallery, or will you wait in his room?"
"I should like to listen to the debate, if it is possible," Norgate decided.
A place was found for him with some difficulty. The House was crowded. The debate concerned one of the proposed amendments to the Home Rule Bill, not in itself important, yet interesting to Norgate on account of the bitter feeling which seemed to underlie the speeches of the extreme partisans on either side. The debate led nowhere. There was no division, no master mind intervening, yet it left a certain impression on Norgate's mind. At a little before ten, the young man who had found him his place touched his shoulder.
"Mr. Bullen will see you now, sir," he said.
Norgate followed his conductor through a maze of passages into a barely-furnished but lofty apartment. The personage whom he had come to see was standing at the further end, talking somewhat heatedly to one or two of his supporters. At Norgate's entrance, however, he dismissed them and motioned his visitor to a chair. He was a tall, powerful-looking man, with the eyes and forehead of a thinker. There was a certain laconic quality in his speech which belied his nationality.
"You come to me, I understand, Mr. Norgate," he began, "on behalf of some friends in America, not directly, but representing a gentleman who in his letter did not disclose himself. It sounds rather complicated, but please talk to me. I am at your service."
"I am sorry for the apparent mystery," Norgate said, as he took the seat to which he was invited. "I will make up for it by being very brief. I have come on behalf of a certain individual—whom we will call, if you please, Mr. X——. Mr. X—— has powerful connections in America, associated chiefly with German-Americans. As you know from your own correspondence with an organisation over there, the situation in Ireland is intensely interesting to them at the present moment."
"I have gathered that, sir," Mr. Bullen confessed. "The help which the Irish and Americans have sent to Dublin has scarcely been of the magnitude which one might have expected, but one is at least assured of their sympathy."
"It is partly my mission to assure you of something else," Norgate declared. "A secret meeting has been held in New York, and a sum of money has been promised, the amount of which would, I think, surprise you. The conditions attached to this gift, however, are peculiar. They are inspired by a profound disbelief in the bona fides of England and the honourableness of her intentions so far as regards the administration of the bill when passed."
Mr. Bullen, who at first had seemed a little puzzled, was now deeply interested. He drew his chair nearer to his visitor's.