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Title: A Diplomatic Woman (The Russian Cipher) Author: Huan Mee * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0700791h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2007 Date most recently updated: June 2007 This eBook was produced by: Malcolm Farmer Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
SAINTS defend us!" I pettishly exclaimed. "Is there no one in the world with an atom of brains? I don't want to go as Night or Morning, nor as Marguerite or Pierrette, or Madame la Pompadour. I want something original!" And I stamped my foot to give emphasis to the remark.
"Shall it be as Carmen, madame?"
I sank into a chair in dismay. Carmen! This was the creature's idea of originality. It was too ludicrous for anger. I laughed, and then, as I raised my eyes to Madame Virot's indignantly bewildered countenance, my glance fell upon a dress in a wardrobe behind her, and I pointed to it in a flutter of excitement.
"Someone has originality, after all," I cried. "What does that dress represent?"
"An ice palace, madame."
"It is superb."
"Certainly, madame, it is superb; it is a miracle," and then, carried away with enthusiasm, she brought it forth and dilated upon it. A pale green dress, covered with a shimmering, sparkling network that looked like frost itself.
"You see, madame, the head-dress forms the snowy pinnacle of the tower, and the eau de Nil embroidered skirt follows the frosted outlines of the building, which is a fac-simile of the ice palace raised last winter upon the Neva. An emerald satin mask, with tiny crystal icicles hanging from the edge, in place of the usual fringe of lace, completes the costume."
"I must have it," I cried; "it is incomparable."
"It is sold, madame."
"I will pay double."
"I would willingly give it to madame, as it pleases her fancy, but I cannot; it was designed according to sketches sent me."
"Tush!" I impatiently exclaimed; "make a duplicate."
"It is impossible, madame, for the dress is for the same bal masqué that you will attend."
"And for whom?" I superciliously queried, for I was beside myself with vexation. "Some nobody who has secured a card by chance and wishes to be thought a princess in disguise, eh?"
"I make for no such people," Madame Virot exclaimed, with a reflection of my own annoyance. "The dress is for the Countess Zarfine. If madame will suggest something else———"
I turned my eyes from the dress that tormented me and racked my brains for something that should excel its splendour, but no idea came to me, and with a contemptuous glare I faced the inoffensive milliner, who had tried to please me for years, and had never more than half succeeded.
"To be original nowadays," I said indifferently, "is, after all, so commonplace, that to be commonplace is to be original. I will go as Carmen."
The daintiness of my epigram pleased me so well that I was almost content, yet as I drove towards the Bois the desire for the costume came upon me again, and I was disconsolate. For it was no ordinary bal masqué where everything was to be pretence, from the characters represented to the fable that the dancers knew not one another. It was all to be real and no dissimulation. There was to be no unmasking time, but everyone was to be incognito from the beginning to the end. It was rumoured that even the host and hostess would drive up to their own house and enter amid the throng. No one was to know anyone, and yet everyone was to know everyone; no master of the ceremonies, no host and hostess, no introductions or formal presentations. The fact that one was there was an official stamp upon one's passport of reputation. It was a Bohemian idea worthy of her who had brought it to Paris—the Countess Zarfine, wife of the Russian Ambassador, and since perforce I must be masked, I would have dazzled by art instead of Nature; yet it was not to be, and I grew peevish as I nursed my discomfiture.
My landau pulled up as we entered the gates, and Monsieur Roché, the Premier, from whom I had received in the past many diplomatic commissions, raised his hat and extended his hand.
"Madame, the gods love me."
"Monsieur, you are too modest; you should have used the feminine."
"I wanted to see you more than any other woman in Paris," he answered, and therefore I repeat—'the gods love me.'"
"Those whom the gods love, monsieur——" and I smiled, for I would have given worlds to quarrel with someone, and preferably my best of friends.
"Die young, eh?" he chuckled. "Well, the danger for me is past." And then, with out waiting for an invitation, he calmly stepped into the carriage and seated himself beside me.
Here was, indeed, candour too wonderful for words, and I gazed reprovingly upon him.
"You must help me, ma chère," he said gravely. "It is no pleasantry, but a serious matter—one that touches my reputation nearly."
"Well, and then?"
"You know our relationship with Russia?"
"The pretty girl with inviting graces to a gallant who hesitates."
"Precisely," he answered in a tone of appreciation at my simile; "but the pretty girl's love letters are being opened."
"More than that," he cried impetuously; "detrimental to me. Three times in the past month has the most secret cipher of the Government been changed, because side by side with the receipt of our message by Russia its import has become public property in the capitals of Europe."
"Then ineffectually changed," I observed.
"Utterly. I have just left Count Zarfine, the Russian Ambassador, and he has dared to imply, in almost undiplomatic language, that his Government suspects us of trifling. Mon Dieu!" Monsieur Roché cried in an awe-stricken voice; "trifling with Russia!"
"Who holds this cipher?"
"Myself and Count Zarfine. When it is changed the new cipher is sent to Petersburg by him direct to the Minister, and the documents by me, through the diplomatic departments. We have varied the cipher three times, we have sent different messengers each time, but the result has always been the same. The world learnt the message at once, and we are fast becoming the laughing-stock of Europe, for the pretty girl is ready to offer so much for alliance."
"And the Count could not help you, mon ami?"
"He was brusque almost to rudeness, but his wife——"
"Ah, Monsieur, his wife, what of her?" I asked with a smile, for I well knew the fascinations of the Countess Zarfine.
"She knows as I know," Monsieur answered, "that as in France, so in Russia, there are powerful influences against this alliance."
He lowered his voice and continued impressively, "Influences so powerful, that it might be possible for them to obtain our secret papers, open them, read them, and then reseal them and pass them on to their destination."
"But that would be useless without the key to the cipher,"
"That is stolen in Paris."
"Ah! from whom?"
"The Count himself, and despatched at once to those awaiting it."
"Childlike in its simplicity," I murmured, with a world of satire.
"The Countess is a wonderful woman," he admitted, and then continued, "You see how easy it is. These people can gain access to the documents passing between France and Russia, but not to the key of the cipher—that is stolen here."
"And, of course, the thief is known already," I cried disdainfully.
"Almost," he replied with the first flash of enthusiasm he had manifested, "almost. On Wednesday we shall catch him in the very act. Of one thing we are certain. He moves in diplomatic circles, and knows that our final proposal will be made to Russia by the end of the week. On Wednesday morning I hand the new cipher to the Count, at night he despatches it, but in the hours that intervene the Countess will discover the thief. She suspects one of her husband's secretaries."
"You have enlisted a new and powerful ally, monsieur," I cried, with a jealous tremor in my voice.
"Tut, tut," he answered mildly, "you are the ally I must have, for, frankly, I do not believe a word the Countess says."
"Then the saints be praised," I ejaculated; "you are not the simpleton that I feared you were. But you go too far, my friend, for all is true excepting one thing, the name of the spy, and that is———"
"Let us be diplomatic," he interrupted, "until we are sure. Take the missing quantity X."
"Why not Z?" I replied, and then I own I started with slight surprise at the coincidence, for the Countess herself cantered up to the side of the carriage, and I took her proffered hand.
"I do not believe in Z," Monsieur Roche cried, raising his voice a little. "'Zero' cannot win the race, notwithstanding her distance allowance," and then he looked up and bowed to the Countess Zarfine.
"I did not suspect diplomacy found recreation in horse racing, monsieur," she exclaimed with an arch smile.
"Age has its follies as well as youth," he answered, and then leant anxiously towards her and whispered, "Any news?"
"What can there be until then?" she asked. "On the night of the day chosen I shall know. At the bal masqué I will tell you his name."
Monsieur Roché looked the picture of despair, and then with a gesture as though the whole world had been lost to him, spoke in an undertone to the Countess, said something that I judged, from her dainty frown, she did not favour, but in an instant the cloud had passed, and she smiled again, and answered, "As you will."
Yet to me it still seemed that she was being forced into some action she would not have elected of her own free choice.
Then Monsieur Roche, still a little embarrassed, turned to me. "A message—a written message—is to be conveyed to me at the bal masqué: I cannot be there, and"—how charmingly he was confused—"will you receive it for me?"
"And take it at once to Le Quai d'Orsay," the Countess interjected.
"Bring it myself?" I cried in simulated surprise.
"Yes," Monsieur answered, and tactfully continued, "I am shamed at the greatness of the favour I ask, but it is vital."
"Very well," I reluctantly consented. "If that be so I will do it;" and he murmured his thanks.
"At midnight I shall pass the head of the staircase and slip a note into your hand," the Countess exclaimed; "that will be the message."
"But we are all incognito" I observed, with my most ingenuous smile.
"You will easily recognise me—I represent the Franco-Russian Alliance," she answered, with the ready lie of a Russian. "The national emblems and the national colours—the double eagle and the fleur de lys. And you?"
"The Lost Provinces," I replied, meeting her lie with diplomatic evasion.
The look of annoyance still slumbered in the depths of her dark eyes, and I thought, too, there was the glint of a dawning suspicion, but it was swiftly chased away as she turned with a jest to Monsieur Roché, and after the interchange of a few pleasantries, nodded gaily to us both and rode off.
"You are well matched in one thing," Monsieur Roché suavely remarked as he watched her retreating figure, "your originality of costume."
"And in another," I replied; "the fact that neither will wear what she has said she will."
The dear man's eyebrows shot upwards in bewilderment.
"She will represent 'An Ice Palace,' I, 'Carmen.'"
He looked at me for a moment in undisguised admiration, and then sank back and whispered with contented appreciation, "Mon Dieu, you are a wonderful woman."
"And a fortunate one," I replied, "to win the approbation of so accomplished a diplomat."
"Ma chère" he murmured, "men are diplomats by education, women by intuition. It is civilisation against Nature."
"The dresses we have mentioned," I continued, "will be worn by our maids, leaving the Countess Zarfine at liberty to carry out her work and me free to frustrate her, for I am certain now that it is she who reveals the cipher. Had I not known the costume she really intends to wear, I should have devoted the night to watching the 'Franco-Russian Alliance.' As it is, my maid, the 'Lost Provinces,' will do that for the sake of diplomatic appearances, the Countess will be deceived, and I shall be free. So I require another card for the carnival—get it secretly for me."
"Success is assured," he cried enthusiastically.
"Not so fast, mon ami. She already suspects me—I could see it in her eyes—and therefore you must act with consummate tact; you must delay the delivery of the key on some pretence until an hour before the ball, and so render it impossible for it to be revealed to anyone except at the carnival. Then I know when it will be done—directly I have left."
"After you have left?" he cried in bewilderment.
"After my maid has left with the Countess Zarfine's message for you."
"Ah," he sighed, and there was a world of admiration in the utterance of that monosyllable, but a moment after his face became grave again, as he suggested, "Perhaps the key may be given in such a way that you cannot prevent it—another note, for instance, skilfully passed from hand to hand."
"I think not. She would not risk anything so liable to be discovered. Besides, she suspects—and more," I continued, "does not the whole idea of this bal masqué proclaim the lady's love for the theatrical? No, my friend, the cipher will be given in such a manner that if a man watched her actions every minute of the night he would see nothing, but a woman might see much."
Monsieur smiled again complaisantly.
"Then, too, if I fail, it is not ruin," I said, "for the documents will not be despatched until you have heard from me. If I succeed, the evidence against her will be strong enough to give you all the proofs you need."
"No more suppositions, my friend; you weary me."
"You're the cleverest woman in Paris," he said, with a glance of warm admiration, as he alighted and stood by my carriage.
"And you, for one who has left youth behind, are the most gallant man in France," I answered with a glow of merriment, for I already counted my mission as accomplished.
"Left youth behind," he murmured despondingly.
"You said so."
"It was in an undiplomatic moment."
"Therefore true, and your tongue at least is still youthful. Au revoir, monsieur."
Thérèse created a sensation. There are women even amongst my chosen acquaintances who insist upon their maids being stiff, and, if possible, ugly. Perhaps they fear the comparison which I am too satisfied with myself to be concerned about, and on that night I was thankful that my choice had fallen upon a girl who could so admirably play the part I had selected for her, one who I need not fear would spoil my plans or endanger my success by some vulgar gaucherie.
Thérèse created a sensation, and, as she entered, the audacity of her costume drew all eyes towards her.
Her pretty auburn curls were surmounted by the Cap of Liberty, draped in crape; her skirt was of the palest yellow silk, with the outlines of our Lost Provinces in black; while symbolical of the day we prayed for, the arms of France were more than half eclipsing those of Germany.
For a moment there was the silence of admiration as she entered, and then a hum of applause burst into a shout as each loyal heart caught the symbolical meaning of the fading colours of the German arms, almost hidden by the simple sweetness of our own dear fleur de lys, and patriotic voices cried, "Vive la belle Alsace! Vive, vive Lorraine!"
And Thérèse bore the sensation as I would have done myself. I turned a diamond half-hoop on my finger, reflecting it was the last time I could do so, for to-morrow it should be hers.
Strictly obedient to my instructions, she danced but little, always following, with some ostentation of persistence, the movements of a lady who had attracted passing attention—the embodiment of the Franco-Russian Alliance. It was a quaint sport we favoured—the maid watching the maid.
Midnight struck, and from a secluded corner I saw the note passed to Thérèse, who quietly descended the steps, mingled for a moment in the kaleidoscopic throng, and so departed.
Then I added a new gown to the diamond ring, for what other girl could have left a carnival where she was the belle, because she had been told to do so?
Like a modern Cinderella, she left it all, and yet, wiser than the damsel of the fairy tale, left before she was discovered, and I, a commonplace Carmen—for I remember there were three of us—now felt the decisive moment had arrived. A man had been watching Thérèse as she descended the staircase, and I touched him lightly upon the arm.
"The Provinces are lost, monsieur," I said softly. "Be content with operatic Spain," and I hummed a melody of Bizet's.
"You, madame?" he cried as he recognised my voice.
"I thought she who just left was you," he said, as though anxious to explain the attention he had devoted to Thérèse.
"And I, monsieur, know my friends too well to be deceived by a masquerade," I answered, and, of a truth, I believe that there must have been a tell-tale trace of sentiment in my tones. And why not? Even a pretty widow may have sentimental moments at times when her dearest friend is near at hand. He looked straight into my eyes as though he would read my inmost thoughts.
"Do you mean that?"
"I mean this, Gaspard, mon cher ami. I want you to do me a favour. Indeed, before the night is out there may be many favours I need to ask, and I want you to grant them all."
"Then they must be renamed," he answered, "not favours, but pleasures.'
"See," I cried, "that woman dressed in the frosted green gown—intended, I should think, to represent an ice palace?"
"Do you know who she is?"
"No; who can say?" he replied, with a slight shrug of the shoulders.
"I must be near her for the rest of the night—I want to watch her."
The Countess Zarfine was walking slowly across the ballroom, her hand resting upon the arm of a tall man in the dress of an exquisite of the period of Louis XIV., and, quickly grasping my meaning, Gaspard strolled aimlessly in the same direction, carrying on an animated conversation with me all the while, which raised him greatly in my estimation as a budding diplomat.
"They are going to sit upon the balcony," I found an instant to whisper, and we followed them, my nerves thrilling with delight as I realised the strength of my position, for now the Countess would feel herself secure, thinking that I had departed.
She was seated upon a basket chair upon the balcony overlooking the Champs Élysées, talking, in a voice that challenged criticism, of the new play at the Renaissance, and Gaspard skilfully led me to a seat facing them and took one by my side.
And then the clever boy entered with zest into the Bohemian conceit of the bal masqué, for without a word of introduction he joined in their conversation, and in an instant we were a quartette discussing the frivolities of life.
Gradually an idle group grew round us—flattering gallants who protested with glowing compliments that it was too cruel of their hostess to hide all the lovely faces of Paris behind silken masks.
"It must be because she is jealous," the Countess cried with a smile that showed for an instant the gleam of her teeth; "she fears the contrast."
But then—for men, despite their deceit, are strangely truthful sometimes—no one dared to dispute the beauty of his hostess, and her eyes gleamed with gratified pride as her sneer was left unsupported in the silence—yet perhaps they were suspicious.
"Still, messieurs," she exclaimed with a ripple of laughter, "since our faces are hidden our freedom is greater—we may be more Bohemian." And in an instant she produced a gold case, and, extracting a cigarette, placed it with a gesture of impudence between her lips. "Those who love me join with me," she continued, handing the case to the surrounding group.
It seemed to me that there was a falseness in this ingenuous mood that sat but ill upon one so contemptuously proud.
In an instant the blue smoke curled in the air from half a dozen cigarettes.
"Carmen," she cried reproachfully with a glance at me, "you who should have led the way still hesitate," and she extended the case and carefully lighted the cigarette for me from her own.
"And you, monsieur," with a glance at the man who had been her companion from the ball-room.
"It was a privilege I had never anticipated, and so came unprepared."
"Then she who grants permission supplies the means of enjoyment. Take two, or three, or four, or what you will; their fragrance may be even greater in the morning."
There was an intonation in the last words that struck me with a sense of hidden meaning, and as the man carelessly took several, and, after lighting one, slipped the remainder in his pocket, the truth burst upon me in a flash—the key to the cipher had been passed.
On each cigarette paper was the key. I held it between my fingers half consumed, and those around were obligingly burning the others before her eyes, save for that man whom I knew still had three in his possession. What a thoughtless fool I had been; I who held all I needed in my grasp had myself destroyed it! The cigarette had burnt down to my fingers. I was compelled to drop it, and he trod it to dust beneath his foot.
But he still had three. With an abandon worthy of Carmen herself I turned my fascinations upon him; with a swift glance at Gaspard, who instantly comprehended, I sent him to the side of the Countess, and she, nothing loth to be the centre of a group of admirers, elated because her mission was over, encouraged them, and kept them from her with the arts of one born to coquetry.
The saints be praised, all men are young—or, at least, feel they are when a pretty woman smiles upon them. He was what a diplomat would have called middle-aged, but—saints be praised—I am a pretty woman.
"You are the incarnation of Carmen herself," he whispered as we found ourselves excluded from the group surrounding the Countess.
"Merci, monsieur, you flatter me—I am afraid that the credit is to my dress."
"No, it is the sparkle of your eyes behind that envious mask, the grace of each gesture, the soul of music in your voice, the poetry in every motion that proclaims you the ideal Carmen."
"Save for one thing: a cigarette, s'il vous plait, monsieur," and I extended my hand.
Slowly, even as though he realised that he was being drawn into a trap, he took one of them from his pocket and hesitatingly handed it to me.
Half suspiciously, half in a fashion of tenderness, he held a match to the cigarette, and then, almost before the paper had caught, it dropped through my fingers to the ground, and I, with a laugh at my carelessness, placed my heel upon it and edged it beneath my skirt.
My shoe pressed upon it lightly, my lips smiled apologetically, yet murmured, "Merci, monsieur," as I expectantly awaited another to replace it.
I saw his features tighten as his eyes followed my movements, yet what could he do? Realising that I had discovered him, and I could not but feel that he knew it, he gave me another, and I lighted it.
For a second we measured glances, and I knew that he fathomed my plans as truly as I did his.
"You are a clever little devil," he said with almost a touch of appreciation.
"You have my cigarette under your shoe, but what of that? In a minute I shall offer you my arm, you will take it, we shall go to the ball-room and dance the cotillon."
"You are sure?"
"Perfectly. I have only to raise my voice and say 'the air is cool,' and the Countess will understand, she will rejoin us, and that being so, a lady cannot search for a half-burnt cigarette. You have the desire of your quest within your reach, and yet as far removed as the north is from the south."
I looked disdainfully at him and calmly smoked.
"You are too clever to waste yourself upon such pettiness," he whispered. "In Russia I would find you a sphere worthy of your talents, and make you a duchess."
"I fail to understand, monsieur."
He leant forward until his eyes looked straight into mine, and spoke with deliberate emphasis.
"I am going to stoop and take from under your chair a cigarette, and you must perforce permit me,"
"Because if you attempted to resist I should prevent it. See, I slowly stoop to regain my own."
He bent as he spoke, and then, as the inspiration flashed upon me, my hands went swiftly to my throat, and with a sudden clutch I snapped my necklace, and a shower of pearls scattered upon the balcony.
"My pearls!" I cried in dismay, and brushing past him to save them as they fell, I picked up the cigarette from beneath my skirt and looked mockingly into his Jace.
"You are a clever little devil," he said with chagrined appreciation.
I smiled, for the key to the cipher was safe in my possession.
But men count for nothing in such matters, for men can even hold admiration for a victorious enemy—here there was a woman to deal with.
While the gallants who had clustered around the Countess were collecting my truant pearls she walked across and glared into my face with eyes that blazed with fury.
In passion she tore the mask from her face, and so, because she was pleased to confess herself, I accepted the challenge and removed mine. She forgot her civilisation, her breeding, her position, everything, and dropped back into the barbarous language of her ancestors.
"If I only had you in Russia!" she gasped, her lips almost touching my ear. "I'd have you flogged for this, I'd have your lying tongue torn out, and those shoulders you're so proud of branded 'Spy.' Heaven! If I had you in Russia!"
"And yet," I murmured, "methinks these charms of Russia must be enjoyed by you alone, and swiftly, too, for surely—his Excellency will resign at once."
"Ah!" she cried, "if I had you in Russia!"
I turned away, but stole a backward glance at her as she stood, her whole body trembling, her fingers clutchng the balustrade to support her quivering figure, and then her cavalier came forward and handed me my pearls.
It was the third time he had said it, and there was a crescendo of meaning in the phrase he whispered:
"You are a clever little devil."
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