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Title: Of Royal Blood Author: William Le Queux * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201561h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2012 Most recent update: Jun 2017 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy and Roy Glashan. 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 To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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"What a way Mr. le Queux has of making kings and diplomatists men of flesh and blood! You simply cannot tear yourself away from this story; nothing from his pen has held us more spellbound. This is one of the most startling plot developments we can remember." Daily Express.
"A capital tale. It is some time since we chanced on such a good novel." Birmingham Post.
"Perfectly," I answered.
"And you entirely follow my argument?"
"It is imperative that active steps must be taken to preserve England's supremacy, and at the same time frustrate this aggressive policy towards us which is undoubtedly growing. I need not tell you that the outlook is far from reassuring. As a diplomatist you know that as well as I do. The war-cloud which rose over Europe at the end of the last Administration is still darkening. It therefore behoves us to avoid a repetition of the recent fiasco at St. Petersburg with regard to Port Arthur, and strive to prevent foreign diplomacy from again getting the better of us. You quite follow me?"
"I have always striven to do my utmost towards that end," I answered.
"I know, Crawford. I'm perfectly conscious of that, otherwise I should not have spoken so plainly as I have now done. Recollect that I've taken you into my confidence in this matter. You did well—exceedingly well—in Vienna, and showed most creditable tact and forethought. Because of that I have recalled you and selected you for this particular duty." And the speaker, the Most Honourable the Marquess of Macclesfield, K.G., her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, paused with his dark expressive eyes fixed upon me. Under those eyes many a foreign diplomatist had quivered, for so keen was he of perception that he could divine one's inmost thoughts. This calm, thin, gray-faced, rather shabbily attired man, the great statesman upon whose actions and decisions the prosperity and integrity of the British Empire depended, had, from the earliest moment when I had entered the Foreign Office, treated me with friendly consideration and kindly regard, and now as, late on that dull afternoon in February, I sat in his private room in Downing street, whither I had been summoned from the Embassy at Constantinople, he spoke to me not as my master, but as my friend and counsellor.
As an attache at Vienna, at Rome, and at the Porte I had worked under Ambassadors of various moods, but by this feeling of friendliness which the Marquess had extended towards me, I had, in my duties, always felt that I was serving the great statesman personally, and not merely the particular chief which for the time I chanced to be under. Undoubtedly the secret of the success of the Macclesfield Ministry in the management of foreign affairs was in great measure due to the amicability of his lordship towards the staff.
"I cannot disguise from myself that this duty is extremely difficult," he went on, leaning back in his chair after a pause, and glancing around the fine room, with its life-sized portrait of her Majesty upon the green painted wall. "Nevertheless, secret services must sometimes be performed, and I have sufficient confidence in your diplomatic instinct to know that you will never act rashly, nor display any ill-advised zeal. The secret of England's greatness is her smart diplomacy, and in this affair you have, Crawford, every chance of distinction."
"You may rely upon me to do my very best to fulfil this important appointment to your satisfaction," I replied. "I shall act with care and discretion."
"And to you is due our peace with honour," I remarked.
"Act with that caution combined with dignity, as though you were directly serving her Majesty herself. Remember, I am only her servant."
"No, no," he laughed deprecatingly. "True, I am the figure-head, but it is men such as you who man the ship. No Secretary has been more fortunate in his staff than I am to-day, for I am vain enough to think that although they are scattered in all quarters of the globe, yet a cordiality exists among them which is quite as strong as their patriotism. I am proud to think that in all our Embassies and Ministries we have no traitor."
"The esprit de corps has been engendered by your lordship's personal interest in us, one and all," I remarked. "It was not so during the late Ministry."
He merely raised his grey eyebrows, and tapped the edge of the table with the quill in his thin bony hand. I know that I had made a mistake in uttering that sentence, for he did not like ill things said of his political opponents.
"Ten years ago, Crawford," he exclaimed, after a few moments' reflection, "it is just ten years ago this month if my memory serves me aright, when, in this very room I first made your acquaintance—you, the son of one of our most trusted and valued man who had ever served his Queen at a foreign Court, followed your father's footsteps, and entered the Foreign Office. You remember the advice and maxims I then gave you. That you have remembered them is evidenced by the discretion and ingenuity you have displayed in the various posts you have occupied. I only ask you still to recollect them while performing the difficult and important duties before you; duties in which I wish you every success and good fortune."
Then his lordship rose, as a sign that our conference was at an end. He shook my hand warmly, with that cordiality which endeared him to every member of the Foreign Office staff, and simultaneous with the re-entry of Menton, his private secretary, who had been dismissed while we had talked, I went out and down the great staircase, that magnificent flight of stairs up which representatives of every country in the world climb to have audience of the grey-haired, refined statesman, whom Bismarck once referred to as "the ruler of Europe." The most tactful, alert, far-seeing Foreign Minister that England had had during the present century, to him was due the extension of the British Empire in all parts of the world during recent years, notably the acquisition of new countries in Africa with their untold mineral wealth, the occupation of Egypt, the firm policy in the Soudan, and the clever checkmating of Russia in the Far East. To his intimates he was mild-mannered, soft-voiced, and essentially a pleasant man, but to those highly ingenious and unscrupulous diplomats of the Powers who were ever striving to undermine England's prestige he was so dry, hard, and matter-of-fact that they feared him, and dreaded entering his presence, because in any argument they were invariably worsted, while if they attempted diplomacy they were very quickly confounded.
Upon the Marquess of Macclesfield's tact and farsightedness depended the prosperity of England, the lives of her millions, and the peace of Europe. A single stroke of the pen, a hasty or ill-advised action, and a war might result which would cost our Empire millions in money and millions of valuable lives; an ill-worded Note might, he know, cause England's prestige to be wrecked, and thus precipitate her from her present proud position of first among the great nations of the world. Truly his position was no enviable one, and his salary of five thousand a year inadequate for the eternal anxiety ever upon him day and night for the preservation of his country's greatness and the honour of his Sovereign. Restless, whether at his country seat down in Hampshire, or at his town house in Grosvenor-square, he lived ever at the end of a telegraph wire, which brought him hour by hour information or inquiries from the various Embassies abroad, all of which demanded his personal attention and reply.
In the dead of night Paterson, his faithful valet, would awaken him and hand him one of those red despatch-boxes with which a Foreign Service messenger had posted across Europe from Vienna, Constantinople, Berlin, or Petersburg, with orders to deliver it with all possible speed. Indeed, in such a life of terrible brain-tear, it was not surprising that the years of statesmanship had aged him prematurely, that his eyes were sunken, that he had developed a restless nervous habit of pacing the room while talking, or that insomnia would frequently seize him, and at such times he would go forth in the dead of night into the deserted streets of London, and walk miles and miles for recreation. For the faithful discharge of his difficult duties he had received many times the personal thanks of her Majesty, but, truth to tell, it was the applause and cries of "Good Old Macclesfield!" which fell spontaneously from the lips of those monster audiences he at rare intervals addressed in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and other provincial centres, which pleased him most of all. He had been heard to say that those hearty ringing cheers which greeted him when he rose to speak, and again when he re-seated himself, were in themselves sufficient repayment for the constant and terrible strain ever upon him.
At the foot of the great staircase, just as I was passing out into the courtyard wherein the lamps were already lit, as the short day had ended and the yellow twilight was fast fading into night, a cheery voice behind me exclaimed:—
"What, Crawford? Is that you old chap, back from Constant?"
I turned quickly and saw before me a tall slim figure in overcoat and silk hat, whom I recognised as my old whilom colleague Gordon Clunes, of the Treaty Department; a dark-haired, spruce, easy-going fellow with whom I had lived in chambers in the Albany eight years ago, before being nominated attache.
"By Jove! Gordon!" I cried, grasping his hand, "I thought you always went at three, so I meant to look in and see you to-morrrow."
"Busy, old chap," he laughed, in explanation. "But why are you home? What's occurred?"
"I was recalled by the Chief," I answered.
"Recalled? Nothing wrong, I hope?"
"Not at all. I'm appointed to Brussels," I laughed.
"To Brussels!" he echoed in a strange tone of surprise, I thought. Then for a few moments he was silent in contemplation.
"Yes, but why are you surprised?" I inquired, puzzled. It seemed as though he begrudged me my advancement.
"It will be a pleasant change to you," he responded, with that air of irresponsibility I had known so well in the old days. "Brussels is a much better post than Constantinople, and only a few hours from London. Why, Henky, when he was attache there, used to keep on his rooms in London and run over about once a fortnight—sometimes oftener."
"Poor Henky wasn't very remarkable for his attention to duty," I laughed, remembering how when he was attache with me at Vienna he used often to receive a mild reprimand from the Ambassador. But the Honourable Alfred Henniker was a merry Guardsman, and such a renowned lady-killer that we at the Embassy nicknamed him the Fly-paper because all the girls stuck to him.
Brussels was, as my friend Clunes had pointed out, a much more desirable diplomatic post than Constantinople, where society is so mixed, and where leave is almost unobtainable.
"When do you go?" my friend inquired.
I told him that it was uncertain, and that having only arrived from Turkey the night before, after an absence of eighteen months, I hoped to get a few weeks' leave in England. I was staying with a maiden aunt—a very prim and proper old lady who lived in Warwick Gardens, Kensington, and who had long ago given me to understand that in the event of her decease I should fall in for a very fair share of this world's goods. Therefore, as diplomacy is an expensive profession, and further, as my income was a decidedly limited one, I felt in duty bound to pay the old lady a visit whenever I came to town, while on her part she seemed to be proud of talking to her friends of the advancement and success of her 'nephew in the Diplomatic Service.'
As we walked together along Downing-street, gloomy and deserted save for the solitary detective on guard against anarchist outrages who wished us "Good evening, gentlemen," as we passed, we spoke of mutual friends, and I referred to his own recent marriage which I had seen announced in the papers.
"Yes," he laughed. "Couldn't stand bachelor life any longer, my dear fellow, so having let our old chambers, I took a wife, and am now settled down as a respectable citizen. I live at Richmond. Come down and dine to-morrow night. My wife will be delighted to meet you. I've told her long ago of our menage, and of the five years we spent together. Those were merry days, weren't they—eh?"
"Yes," I replied, smiling at some amusing remembrances which at that moment crossed my mind. "They were. Thank you for your invitation. I'll be pleased to come."
"Then, here's a card," he said. "You'll easily find the house. It's one of those new ones on the way up to the Terrace Gardens. But I must take this cab to Waterloo, or I shan't catch my tram. Good-bye till to-morrrow, old fellow," and with a cordial hand-grip, he sprang into a hansom, while I, full of thoughts of my new appointment, turned and strolled on towards that centre whither all diplomats drift, the St. James's Club, in Piccadilly.
Glad of an opportunity to escape from the terrible formality of dining at my aunt's, where old Bateson waited upon one with the air of a funeral mute, I dressed next evening and took train to Richmond, where I had no difficulty in finding Gordon's place, a large new house about halfway up Richmond Hill. It was a decidedly pleasant place, built in artistic early English style, the interior being mostly decorated in dead white, with a square hall and oak staircase, and rooms with high oak wainscoting and wrought iron electric light brackets. In the hall where he welcomed me a fire burnt brightly, and in his little den beyond, with its high-backed antique chairs, everything was decidedly cosy. Indeed I envied him, and remarked upon the perfectly artistic arrangement of his abode.
"Yes," he laughed. "It's my wife's fancy to have a house like this. She is fond of having things different to other people—a woman's weakness for the distinct, I suppose."
My train had brought me there about a quarter of an hour too early; therefore, when I had removed my coat, we sat chatting in my old friend's little study, lounging lazily before the fire and enjoying a quiet few minutes.
"By Jove!" Gordon exclaimed, after a pause. "It's really a stroke of good fortune, old fellow, to be appointed to Brussels. The Chief has indeed been generous. I only wish I could get a post abroad, but somehow I'm always passed over."
"Why, surely you don't want to give this up?" I said. "How long have you been here?"
"About a year."
"And yet you want to go abroad!" said I. "I tell you, Gordon, you wouldn't be half so happy, living in a foreign town, with your wife snubbed by some of the women with whom you have, for diplomatic purposes, to be nice to. It's all very well to be an attache while you're a bachelor, but afterwards—well, the thing's impossible."
"And you've had a rattling good time of it—eh?" he asked, smiling.
"Well, on the whole, yes," I responded.
"At any rate you've earned distinction, and I congratulate you," he said earnestly. He was a good fellow, one of my best friends and I had always kept up a weekly or fortnightly correspondence with him ever since I had been appointed abroad. The post he held was one of greatest trust. Indeed, perhaps no one in the whole Department of Foreign Affairs, excepting the Minister himself, knew so many secrets of State as did Gordon Clunes. He was a free, merry, open-hearted fellow, but was discretion itself. With regard to those secret drafts which daily passed through his hands, and were seen by no other eyes than those of Lord Macclesfield, he was a veritable sphinx. There are a good many drones in the Foreign Office hive, but Gordon was by no means an idler. I had often regretted that he had not been appointed to one of the Embassies, but it seemed as though the Marques reposed such perfect confidence in him that his presence at headquarters was much more valuable.
"I know I have your best wishes old chap," I remarked, "and I believe that Brussels is a very pleasant Embassy. Lots of life, and within easy distance of London."
"My dear fellow, Dick Crouch, who was nominated there three years ago, once told me that it was gayer than Vienna. Old Drummond is a brick, and you can get leave almost at any time. When Crouch couldn't get it he used to bring over despatches, and save the messenger a journey."
"Perhaps I can do the same," I said.
"No doubt you will," he replied. "The Chief was talking with the Permanent Secretary in my room to day, and mentioned that you had been appointed on secret service. You didn't tell me so."
"I really didn't think it necessary," I said, slightly annoyed. "I understood from the Chief that this fact was entirely between ourselves. Truth to tell, I don't like the expression secret service."
"Savours too much of spy, doesn't it, old fellow?" he laughed. "But," he added, "that's the very essence of diplomacy. The successful Diplomat is the man who keeps his weather-eye constantly upon his opponent's doings, and presents elaborate reports to headquarters. Isn't every Ambassador a spy, more or less?"
"Certainly," I responded, "But I'm not an Ambassador yet."
"But you're a deal more shrewd than some of the old fossils, who potter over trifles and send along screeds to the Chief over every vice-consul's worry."
"Then you think I'll make a good spy?" I asked, laughing.
"My dear, old fellow," he said, slapping me on the hack as he rose, "there are few of those blanked foreigners who'll be able to get the better of you. The way in which you got at that secret in Vienna is sufficient proof of that."
"How did you know?" I inquired, starting in surprise that he should be aware of a matter which I fully believed was private between Lord Macclesfield and myself.
"By the alteration in the treaty," my friend responded promptly. "The alteration was in your handwriting, and not in the Ambassador's. Your tact and shrewdness in that affair avoided a very ugly difficulty. Of course," he added, confidentially, "I'm not such a fool as to breathe a single word of it. Not a soul in the office knows that you are on secret service besides myself."
There was a pause, broken only by the low ticking of the clock.
"And you will preserve my secret?" I said, looking him straight in the face. "Remember that there are secret agents around us even here; and if the truth of my real position leaked out I should no doubt find all my efforts thwarted. Upon secrecy alone my success depends."
"I know, Philip," he replied, in deep earnestness. "You have trusted me before—you can trust me now—can't you?"
"Of course, I know I can," I answered, reassured, and the strange sense of misgiving which had suddenly crept upon me a few moments before was at once succeeded by a feeling of reassurance in my old friend's fidelity.
Just at that moment the door opened and my hostess entered, a dainty figure in pale coral, sweet-faced, fair-haired, and wearing a beautiful collar of amethysts and pearls around her white slender throat. She was not more than twenty-three, graceful, with large expressive eyes of deep blue, and a figure almost perfect in its symmetry. Gordon introduced me as his "old friend and fellow bachelor, Phil," and as I took the slim white hand she extended our eyes met in a quick glance of recognition.
I held a suspicion that I felt her hand tremble in mine.
Her face was certainly familiar to me; too familiar it somehow seemed. Yet try how I would I could not recollect under what conditions or when or where we had met. That she, too, had recognised me was also evident, yet her quick and strenuous effort to cover her surprise and confusion was in itself suspicious.
In an instant I divined her intention. She had recovered herself with a swiftness that was marvellous; so quickly, indeed that her husband had not noticed it, and I saw that if I claimed acquaintance with her she intended to deny it.
We had met somewhere under extraordinary conditions, I knew, yet with tantalising perversity my memory in this direction was an utter blank.
She smiled upon me, yet there was a hardness about the corners of her mouth which I did not fail to notice, and standing in the centre of that cosy little room with her necklet of amethysts glistening in the electric glow she greeted me with an amiable effusiveness which, by some strange intuition, I knew disguised an intense and bitter hatred.
DINNER was a pleasant affair in the panelled room through the long windows of which I could see the valley of the Thames, with its riverside lights twinkling afar. Two elderly men and a couple of pretty girls had been invited to meet me, and the gossip was light and amusing. My hostess was the life and soul of the party, bright, vivacious, and full of mirth, yet I could not disguise the fact that she regarded me with some suspicion. During the meal I tried hard to recollect where we had met before, but failed utterly. Her conversation was that of a well-educated, clever woman. Her face was familiar; her lips, a trifle thick and full, had once before struck me as unusual in one of her beauty and grace. But where I had seen her I could not remember.
"Gordon tells me that you've just had the good fortune to be appointed to Brussels," exclaimed a pretty, dark-haired girl in blue who sat next to me, but whose name I had not caught when introduced to her.
"Yes," I laughed. "Do you know Brussels?"
"I was at school there four years," she answered, toying with her hock glass. "But I didn't see very much of it. Our excursions were mainly confined to Sunday walks in the Bois."
"You'll return, perhaps, when you are married," I said, smiling. "It's a very pleasant city for a honeymoon."
"We spent part of our honeymoon there, on our way to the Rhine," interrupted Mrs. Clunes. "It was quite as bright as Paris, without all that rush and turmoil. And the Bois de la Cambre—isn't it charming?"
"Yes," I said, for as part of my training for a diplomatic career I had spent a year in the Belgian capital, and practically knew every inch of it, from the Quartier where the English reside, away to Laeken, and from St. Giles to Schaerbeck.
"I only wish we could live there, instead of here," she continued, with a slight pout. "I do hope that some day Gordon will get nominated abroad. I should love a cosmopolitan life."
"Life at an embassy would be awfully jolly," observed my neighbour in blue. "One must meet so many interesting people, from kings and queens downwards."
"Kings and queens are not as a rule interesting people," I said. "The monarchs I have met have not impressed me very much. They look much more regal in the illustrated papers than they are in real life. The most interesting persons as a rule are those foreign secret agents who are always seeking to pry into our affairs and learn what we don't desire that they should know."
"I've heard a lot of strange stories about those spying individuals," said my hostess, at once interested. "What are they like? Do tell me."
"Well," I said, "every one of the Governments of Europe, with the possible exception of Switzerland, finds it necessary to maintain a corps of secret agents for confidential duty. Their remuneration being defrayed from the Secret Service Fund at the disposal of every Prime Minister, the national treasury takes no cognisance of their expenses or of their names. These latter are only known to the Premier and to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. They are ignored at the regular police headquarters, while the general public very often has no knowledge of the existence of such a force. Their duty is to learn all that transpires in the various Embassies and report to the Chancellerie. They number people in every class of life, and almost every nationality."
"And does not our British Government take steps to combat the efforts of these spies?" asked the old gentlemen opposite.
"In a measure it does," I responded carelessly. "It, of course, behoves us to be wary with this horde of secret agents about us, for their ingenuity is simply marvellous."
"Of course there are lots of books which reveal the elaborate system of espionage in Russia," observed the girl in blue.
"Ah! that's quite a different affair," I replied. "The Russian agents are mostly employed for the purpose of keeping watch upon the doings of those of the Czar's subjects who live beyond the frontiers of Russia; and when it is borne in mind that those number close upon a million, and that every Russian has in his blood the characteristic Asiatic taste for conspiracy and intrigue against his Government, it can be readily understood that the secret agents of the Chancellerie of the Emperor have their hands pretty full. It is not the agents of the Ministry of the Interior that troubles us, but the system of spies established in every country in Europe with a view to learning the secrets of British diplomacy. We hold the balance of power you see; and because of this every effort is being made to reduce our prestige and undermine our supremacy."
"It certainly behoves you all to be as secret as the grave," my hostess said. "I don't think I should like to be in possession of a State secret which a hundred unscrupulous persons were seeking to discover. One must feel awfully uncomfortable."
"But you are a woman, my dear," laughed her husband. "They say that your sex can't keep a secret," a remark whereat everyone laughed.
"Ah! perhaps not," answered the merry, light-hearted little woman. "But it seems so horrible if you can't tell who is your friend and who's your enemy," and she fixed her eyes upon me with a strange look of misgiving.
"Exactly," I said. "This secret service, being beyond the pale of the law, is contrary to all notions of what is straightforward and honourable. The methods of action these agents employ are often most questionable and unsavoury. Indeed, for example at Vienna, where perhaps the secret service is permitted to play the greatest role, his Majesty has been compelled by the stress of public opinion to consent to the imprisonment and suspension from office of the chief of the service for making use of dishonourable manoeuvres. Again, in Germany, in response to the memorable speech by the Liberal leader Richter in the Reichstag, exposing the unscrupulousness of secret agent von Rumpf, his role as a provoker and instigator of crime, and his employment, not only of criminal methods, but even of criminals, in order to succeed in the intrigues in which he was engaged, the Minister of the Interior proclaimed the doctrine that the Executive and his Government have a right to use the extra-legal, or to put it plainly, unlawful, methods for attaining its aims when the ordinary legal methods are inadequate and unavailing. This declaration is in itself sufficient to show to what an extent espionage is carried at a foreign Court."
"If such is the case, then each of our Embassies is surrounded by enemies," observed young Mrs. Clunes.
"Of course it is," exclaimed her husband. "Don't you recollect that I told you once how cleverly they work the cabinet noir in France, in Germany, and in Russia—so ingeniously, indeed, that our representatives at those Courts dare not send a single despatch through the post, otherwise it is opened and copied."
"Then they open official letters?" exclaimed the girl in blue at my side.
"To the cabinet noir nothing is sacred," I said.
"It is established for the purpose of dealing with both official and private correspondence, and the manner in which letters are opened and resealed is in itself a marvel of ingenuity. So well is it done that letters sealed with wax are opened and again secured, leaving the original seal intact, without a trace remaining that it has been tampered with."
"We've had one or two experiences of that sort of thing of late, Crawford, haven't we?" remarked my friend with a meaning look.
"Yes," I answered. "At Constantinople lately one or two matters which we believed secret, while we were trying to adjust affairs between Turkey and Greece after the war, leaked out in a very mysterious way. Active inquiries were made, and it was found that the Russian cabinet noir was at work, and, further, that at Petersburg they were fully informed of all our secret instructions received from Lord Macclesfield."
My hostess sighed. As her white chest heaved her necklet of amethysts glistened, and her lips became compressed. I noticed this latter involuntary movement of the muscles of her face, and saw that she was anxious to change the subject. I admit that at that moment I entertained a growing suspicion of her.
That she was eminently graceful and charming there could be no two opinions. Gordon, however, had never told me who she was. When I had been a month at Constantinople I received a letter suddenly announcing his marriage, to which I had responded by sending a cheque to a London silversmith with instructions to forward a wedding-present, and by writing him a letter of congratulation. Then I had seen the announcement in the Standard a week later that he had married, at the village of Rockingham, 'Judith, daughter of the late William Carter-Harrison,' and had wondered whether or not she were pretty.
Gordon had not much changed in the years I had been absent. Ten years ago we were both second division clerks, and we had certainly enjoyed London life and had a very large circle of friends. He was always gay and light-hearted, fond of practical joking and eternally declaring that he should never marry. Yet he had now taken to himself a wife, and had become just a trifle graver than before, as of course befitted a responsible householder whose name was on the jury-list.
At last, when dessert was finished, the ladies left, and presently after a brief gossip we rejoined them in the drawing-room. The size and tasteful decoration of the place surprised me. The walls were entirely in white, with a ceiling of that type for which Adams was noted a century ago; blazing logs burned upon old-fashioned fire-dogs, and there was a capacious chimney-corner with its settle and old oak arm-chair. It needed not a second glance to ascertain that the furniture, every bit of it, was genuine old oak, and as we entered I could not refrain from repeating to Gordon my admiration of his tasteful home.
"It is Judith's fancy," he repeated, happily. "I was for a house in Kensington; but she loves Richmond because in summer we can get on the river, or go for pleasant drives. She's always been used to the country, and declares that London suffocates her."
"Can you wonder at it?" his wife asked me, overhearing our conversation. "To me London is dreadful. I go up once or twice a week to do shopping, or to a theatre, but really I'm always glad to get back here to the quietness of my home. And besides, the view from these windows is the best within a hundred miles of London."
"Of course," I replied, for although I could see nothing in the darkness I knew well the picturesque scene from the windows of the Star and Garter, where I had so often dined in the days before I went abroad. Below lay a broad green valley, with the Thames winding away like a silver ribbon between trees and meadows past Twickenham Ferry to Teddington Lock, a magnificent picture at any time but doubly so when the silent highway reflected back the golden blaze of summer sunset. "But your decorations here are in such excellent taste, yet so extremely simple. I envy Gordon his home. Only one room have I seen before similar to this."
"Where?" my friend inquired.
"In Vienna. It belonged to a lady I knew."
"Vienna!" exclaimed his wife, with sudden interest. "Were you at the Embassy there?"
"Yes," I replied. "I was there about two years."
"Then you may perhaps have known of an officer named Krauss—Oswald Krauss?"
In an instant the truth came upon me as a lightning flash. Perhaps I started at mention of that name—a name which to me carried with it recollections of a hideous but hidden page in my history—at any rate, even though I felt myself standing immovable, glaring at her, I managed to recover myself sufficiently to answer:
"The name Krauss is exceeding common in Vienna. I have no recollection of any man whose Christian name was Oswald. What was he?"
"His father was Baron Krauss, of Budapesth," she answered, simply, her blue eyes fixed upon me, with a curious look of severity.
"No," I answered with affected carelessness, "I have no recollection of ever meeting him."
That calm inquiry she had uttered held me breathless. No. I had not been mistaken when suspicion had seized me that we were not altogether strangers. This woman in coral had, by mention of that name, a hated name graven for ever upon my memory because of the burden of evil which had fallen upon me, brought back to me in all their hideous reality those circumstances which I had so long striven to forget. Our eyes again met, and in the blue depths of hers there was a smile of mocking triumph.
This woman who was Gordon's wife held the secret of my sin.
NEXT morning, determined to learn something further regarding the mystery of Gordon's wife, and either to confirm or to dispel my apprehensiveness, I devised an excuse, and going down to the Foreign Office, found him in his room, poring over some long formal document, which he instinctively covered with his blotting pad as the messenger ushered me in.
His greeting was cordial as usual, and presently when he had chatted a little time, he asked suddenly, "Well, Phil, and how do you like Judith?"
"She's altogether charming," I answered. "By Jove, old chap, I envy you. A menage like yours is a distinct improvement on the Albany, even though our Sunday evening concerts with little chorus-girls as performers were pleasant gathering—weren't they?"
"They were," he laughed. "Good Heavens! what a life we led in those days! But after you went, and I was alone, I fancy I must have settled down a bit."
"You have indeed settled down," I said. "For you have a wife to be proud of. She came from the Midlands somewhere, if I remember the announcement in the papers?"
"Yes. From a little place called Rockingham."
"She surely wasn't a village belle? She's far too refined for that."
"Hardly, old follow. She was born in London; but she lived a good deal on the Continent and afterwards with an aunt at Rockingham, for several years."
"And how did you come to know her?" I inquired, trying to conceal my anxiety and inquisitiveness.
"I was staying with some people at Ketton, in the vicinity, and we were introduced at a local flower-show held in the Castle grounds."
"And you fell in love with her?"
"Well," I said, "I don't wonder that you did. I'm sure I wish you both every happiness. Has she any brothers?"
"No," he answered. "She was left an orphan at ten, and her aunt, quite a cosmopolitan old lady, has ever since looked after her. Her father was a wealthy man, and when she came of age, three years before I married her, she inherited a very respectable fortune."
"Oh!" I exclaimed, surprised. "Then she had money?"
"Of course, my dear follow. You don't think that I could build and furnish a house like Holmwood on my salary? Heaven knows we who work at home get a paltry pittance enough. If the Government doubled our remuneration it wouldn't be adequate for the work we do. We are ill-paid, everyone of us—from the chief downwards. People think there are fat emoluments in our department, but we could very soon undeceive them."
"You're quite right," I sighed, for with us in the diplomatic service, as with those at home in Downing-street, there is always a perpetual grumbling regarding the cheeseparing policy of the Government. Many of the chief positions of trust are absurdly ill-paid. "However," I added, "you ought not to grumble, now that you are comfortably off. Look at me! The old governor left me twenty-five thousand when he died six years ago, and I'm nearly at an end of it already."
"Vienna cost you a lot, I suppose?"
"Dearest place in Europe," I answered. "I had to keep horses, and go the pace thoroughly. A fellow with only his salary can't live in Vienna. He'd be snubbed by everybody, and in three months life would be intolerable."
"And how about your new appointment?"
"Gay, but not quite so expensive," I responded. "I must lie low for a time, then things will be brighter with me. I can't go on at the pace I've been going."
"No," he said, a trifle coldly. "Take my tip, old man, and live a bit more economically. Your extravagance in Vienna was noticed."
I smiled. Had not Lord Macclesfield himself commended me for my work in Vienna? And had I not, in order to perform that mission—a secret one—been compelled to spend my own money recklessly to gain success? His lordship alone knew the reason of my extravagance, and had congratulated me upon my vigorous action.
We gossiped on for perhaps half an hour, then strolled along to the Ship, that small restaurant a few doors from Charing Cross, where so many Foreign Office men take their lunch. There we ate our mid-day chop together, and then, having satisfied myself upon one or two points regarding his wife, we parted.
What he had told me did not allay my fears. The facts that she was an orphan, that she had lived with an aunt in an unknown country village, and that she had inherited money were all suspicious. No, I could not rid myself of a most uncomfortable feeling, a kind of presage of some coming evil. That look of triumph and hatred in her blue eyes was ever before me, haunting me night and day. She meant mischief.
Yes, now more than ever was I confident that she possessed the secret which I had foolishly thought none knew beside myself.
Next day I left London on a round of dutiful visits to various friends in the north, and as it was a particularly dry spring, I managed to get a good deal of enjoyment and plenty of outdoor exercise. To me, tired of the hot, dusty, evil-smelling streets of Constantinople, English rural life was an exceedingly pleasant change, and for nearly three weeks I made one of a particularly gay house party at Dedisham, Sir Henry Halsford's place beside the Arun, in Sussex. There were about fifteen guests, besides myself, and as many of them were young there was an unvarifying round of gaiety.
Among the men staying there one was a quiet fellow of middle age named Poynter—a relative of Lady Halsford's, to whom I took a particular fancy. We often walked or rode out together, and in the evening we would play billiards, or smoke and chat about the Continental capitals I knew. He was a man of leisure who had travelled constantly in Europe, as so many men do, for the purpose of obtaining a decent climate, spending each winter in Nice, spring at Florence, Aix or Biarritz, summer in Switzerland, and autumn in Scotland, until he had become, like myself, a thorough cosmopolitan.
One dry bright afternoon we had together walked over the hill to Dewestryde to make a call on some people, and were returning along the Slinfold road, past the quaint old windmill, which is a landmark in that part of rural Sussex, when, having passed through the quaint little hamlet of Rowhook, our conversation chanced to turn upon the political outlook in Europe.
"Things appear black," he said, as he strode on by my side, both of us heedless of the rain which had commenced to fall. "In every part of the world nations seem to show unfriendliness towards England."
"Quite so," I said, with a sigh. "A European war would surprise nobody."
"It is you diplomatic people whose duty it is to prevent war," he said with a smile.
"A good many very acute difficulties are yearly adjusted by our ambassadors and the public remain in ignorance. The papers, for instance, have never been able to show the public how active we have been of late at Constantinople. A dozen times within the last three months we've been on the verge of war with Russia over the eternal Eastern question."
"On the verge of war!" he exclaimed, surprised.
"Yes," I answered. "And had it not been for the tact and clever diplomacy of my chief, backed by Lord Macclesfield's firm policy at home, we might by this time have had Cossack sentries outside Buckingham Palace."
"Is it possible? Do you think that such a disaster might ever occur?" he inquired.
"Quite," I responded. "With others of my profession I share certain misgivings regarding our naval and military strength. France, Russia, and Germany are all three our possible enemies, and with such Powers against her England would have to strain every effort to preserve her own. How near we often are to hostilities with the Powers jealous of our position as rulers of the world, only we at the Embassies know. Our country may thank itself that at this moment its Ambassadors are, without exception, calm, level-headed men who carry out to the letter the instructions of their Chief. The Opposition press, and those irresponsible journalistic curs whose bark is more furious than their bite, may rail at us whenever one of the other Powers has seemingly got the better of us, but they never pause to consider whether discretion is not oft-times the better part of valour; or whether to conciliate is not better than to provoke a costly and bloody war."
"Quite true," Poynter said. "The papers are far too fond of making political capital out of our complications abroad. They no doubt form easy subjects for what are journalistically known, I believe, as 'second leaders.' I remember," he went on, "when I was in Vienna a couple of years ago how strained were our political relations with Russia."
"Two years ago?" I said. "Why, I was there at that time."
"Then you remember, of course, how the machinations of Russia against Austria were suddenly exposed by the publication in the press of reports made by a secret agent. It was said that this exposure was brought about by someone in the British Embassy, who, at the risk of his life, tracked down the spy, and succeeded in getting from him certain plans of the frontier fortresses which he had prepared, together with some documents stolen from the archives of the Embassy. Was that true?"
I held my breath, glancing at him furtively. We were skirting Furnace Wood, a dark, gloomy place, and the rain was now falling so heavily that I was nearly wet through.
"I do not know the exact truth," I stammered, after a moment's hesitation.
"Well," he said, "if the exposure was due to anybody in the Embassy he ought to have been well rewarded, for it threw a side-light on the byways of Russian diplomacy which not only aroused indignation all over Europe, but thwarted a plan which would have undoubtedly resulted in war, if it had been successful.
"Yes," I answered. "I remember the published facts quite well. We were then actually on the verge of hostilities. As we say at the Embassies, the Chief always sits on the edge of a volcano. He never knows when the eruption is to take place, but must always be on the alert and in readiness to combat any conspiracy against British prestige and power."
"We ought to be thankful, indeed," my companion said, "that we have so many excellent and talented men looking after our interests abroad, for it would, indeed, be a sorry day for England if war ever broke out."
"Yes," I said, "the jingoes would certainly receive a heavy blow," and then in silence we both plodded on along the wet road, the mud splashing with each stop until, in the growing gloom, we saw the old ivy-covered house through the budding trees.
How strange it was, I reflected, that this stroke of diplomacy I had myself effected unaided was remembered, even in this later rush of exciting events. Until that evening at Richmond when I had dined with Gordon and his wife, I had confidently hoped that it was all forgotten. Yet this man with whom I had come in contact quite by accident remembered every detail of that action which I was always aiming to forget.
He had said that I deserved a rich reward for laying bare a base conspiracy against England's honour. What, I wondered, would he say if he knew the ghastly truth? My reward had been promotion to Constantinople, and now nearer home to a secret and responsible mission in the Belgian capital. True, I had strained every nerve in that long-past affair, and had been successful where all others had failed. Yet at what terrible cost had that vile plot been unmasked.
I had saved the honour of England at the cost of my own! That woman who was my friend's wife alone know the truth.
But I had little time then for reflection, for we were soon indoors, and after changing I was compelled to join the ladies for tea in the old-fashioned low-ceilinged drawing-room, where the wood fire burned brightly, throwing out a welcome flickering light which danced upon the teacups and the service of shining silver, and where the gossip was light and the laughter merry. Lady Halsford was a brilliant and tactful hostess, and was always able to gather about her a happy party in winter. When I had first been appointed abroad I at first missed the shooting and fishing which I had so much enjoyed at country houses, but now after a few years I fear I had grown to be so much of a foreigner that I preferred a warm drawing-room and feminine chatter to tramping over fields after game. The elegant foreigner looks askance at the Englishman's zeal for sport, and is quite content to cycle on public roads attired in wonderful suits and sweaters, for the admiration of his fellows. Beyond that he has no further desire to distinguish himself. If he hunts or shoots it is not because he likes it, but because he considers it correct form. The educated foreigner always apes the Englishman.
Many pleasant chats I had with Poynter during the week I still remained at Dedisham, and as he announced his intention of coming to Brussells for a month or so in spring I expressed a hope to meet him there. On leaving Sussex I first returned for a few days to Warwick Gardens, then went north to grey old Lancaster, and afterwards spent a few days with my brother Frank, whose regiment, the 7th Hussars, was stationed at York, my leave, however, being cut short by the receipt of a formal letter from the Chief's private secretary asking me to call at the Foreign Office on the following day. Therefore I left, and the next day at noon once more ascended the grand staircase which led to the great statesman's private room.
A CABINET Council had been summoned to decide some important affair of State, therefore my interview with Lord Macclesfield was a brief one. As usual he was grave and courteous, sitting in his large padded writing-chair, his thin white hands clasped upon the table before him, his keen dark eyes fixed upon me.
"I wish to see you once more before you leave, Crawford, in order to give a word of final advice in the matter you are about to undertake. The affair, from later despatches appears to be much more serious than I had at first believed. It will require the greatest care and judgment. We have enemies in Brussels—secret enemies you understand—and if report be true they are the most daring and unscrupulous set with whom we have yet had to deal. Have you thought over the matter well?"
"Yes," I answered. "I have recollected every word you spoke to me when you entrusted the secret in my keeping."
"And you now feel yourself quite competent to undertake the task?"
"Entirely so," I said. "You may rely upon me doing my best."
"You are not married, I presume?" he asked suddenly, with a quick penetrating glance.
"No," I laughed.
"Are you likely to be?"
"Well," I responded with a smile, "truth to tell, I have not yet found a woman for whom I should care as wife."
"Quite right. Quite right," he answered testily. "It's a mistake for any young diplomatist to marry—a grave mistake. He should be free—entirely free. You are free, therefore you have every chance of succeeding."
"I shall strive my utmost."
"Both Russia and France have clever representatives at the Belgian Court, therefore you will be compelled to act with considerable tact. But I rely on you. Matters have become so serious that it is better for you to leave at once for Brussels and take up your position at the Embassy. I have instructed Sir John Drummond to allow you to have an absolutely free hand, both as regards time and expense, and from time to time you will report direct to me by special messenger. Trust nothing to the post, for we have already had evidence that the cabinet noir is active."
I nodded acquiescence.
"And before you leave," the Premier added, "you had better see Clunes, of the Treaty Department. Yesterday, in conversation with me upon another matter, he made a statement which is very extraordinary, and appears to have some connection with the mystery you are about to fathom."
"Clunes!" I ejaculated in surprise. "What has he discovered?"
"You had better hear his statement; for the information may or may not be of use to you. At any rate the story is an astounding one, and if true, shows the extraordinary ingenuity of our enemies."
"You have doubts as to its veracity?" I suggested.
His eyes fell upon the blotting pad before him, and for a few seconds he appeared deep in thought.
"Truth to tell, Crawford," he said at last, in a tone of confidence, "I am wondering whether the strange allegation was not made to me with some ulterior motive."
"But you don't suspect that Clunes, a trusted servant in that department where secrecy is so imperative, would willingly mislead you?" I asked.
His lordship shook his head doubtfully.
"Recollect," he added quickly, "this matter is entirely between us. I do not know whether or not you are a friend of Clunes's, but if you are, then recollect that you are before everything the servant of your Queen and country, just as I am, and that private friendships or prejudices must never be allowed to interfere with duty."
"Then what do you wish me to do?" I asked.
"See Clunes this evening, obtain his statement, and on arrival in Brussels report to me your opinion regarding its truth."
"Very well," I answered, not, however, pleased at the prospect. His lordship's suspicion of Gordon unsettled me, for I had always found him a true and faithful friend. What, I wondered, had he discovered? and what could be the nature of this extraordinary statement, which might throw some light upon the matter I was about to investigate? If anything of importance had come to his knowledge it was strange, knowing that I had been appointed on a secret mission, that friends as we were he had not given me the benefit of his knowledge. I scarcely suspected him of endeavouring to curry favour with his lordship, except that on account of his wife's eagerness that he should obtain a post abroad he might have been induced by her to make a bold bid for fortune. I recollected that this woman he had married was my secret and most bitter enemy. Perhaps she was endeavouring to use her husband as a tool for my downfall.
My teeth closed tightly as I recollected that look of triumph in her eyes.
Then, with a final adieu to his lordship, who had already risen and put on his hat to attend the meeting of the Cabinet, I went out and downstairs to Gordon's room.
On entering I found him absent, and one of the clerks informed me that a telegram had been received that morning saying that he was indisposed, and would not attend that day. I was annoyed at this, as it meant that I should be compelled to travel down to Richmond and there again meet the hateful woman who held my future in her unscrupulous hands.
As I left my friend's room I ran up against one of my whilom colleagues, Jack Carmichael, and with him walked round to the St. James's Club to lunch. He was an easy-going bachelor of thirty-five, who never took life very seriously, and as we sat over our coffee in the smoking-room he gossiped on, telling me all the news of the personnel of the Foreign Office during the past couple of years; how young Carew had gone the pace, got into the hands of the Jews and been compelled to resign; how Bramford, the younger son of a well-known peer, had died of alcoholic poisoning; how old Black, the passport-clerk, had retired on a pension, and how kind Lady Macclesfield had been to the family of old Saddington, the messenger and hall-porter, who had died of bronchitis after forty years of service. These and other things he related, all of them interesting to me, for in the days before my nomination as attache abroad I had, I believe, been rather popular among my colleagues. At least they had made me a very handsome presentation when I had left them for more important duties.
"And Clunes has taken to himself a wife," I remarked, when he had finished.
My companion shrugged his shoulders expressively.
"Why?" I asked.
"A wife!" and he smiled again.
"But surely she is his wife," I exclaimed. I knew Gordon to be the soul of honour.
"Certainly," answered Carmichael, "but she's not the sort of woman I'd care to marry, old chap."
"Why?" I inquired instantly interested.
"Least said soonest mended, you know," he answered vaguely.
"But tell me," I urged.
"No," he responded. "It isn't fair to gossip about a pal's wife. He's your friend and mine, remember."
"Of course," I said. "Nevertheless I've met her, and I also have suspicions that they are not quite so happy as people imagine."
"Oh! yes, they're happy enough," he answered. "Gordon's far happier than most men who forge the matrimonial fetters. Thank Heaven that although I've had my periods of sentimental silliness I've never so far played the giddy ass as to marry."
"Nor I," I observed. "But neither of us is an old man yet. We both might fall in love."
Jack Carmichael pulled a wry face, as though such a prospect was nauseous. But he was always joking, and one never knew whether or not to take him quite seriously.
"If I married," he said after a pause, "I'd rather marry a washerwoman than an unknown foreigner, as Gordon did."
"A foreigner! Surely she's not a foreigner, is she?"
"Yes. But Heaven alone knows what her nationality really is. She speaks English well, and passes as an Englishwoman," he replied. "I stood as Gordon's best man at the wedding, and it was at the wedding luncheon that I first detected that she wasn't English."
"She was excited, having drunk an unusual quantity of fizz, and once or twice she dropped into a foreign accentuation of certain words. Gordon never seemed to have noticed it, strangely enough."
"Then perhaps her maiden name was a false one?" I suggested, all these facts only serving to verify the suspicion I had from the first moment entertained of her.
"Her name was Judith Carter-Harrison, but Heaven knows whether it was an assumed name, or not," he answered. "Since their marriage I've been a frequent visitor at Richmond, and once, when I was alone with her, I carefully led up to the subject of foreign birth and education. She, however, strenuously evaded giving me direct answers to my questions, and seemed extremely annoyed that I should entertain any suspicion that she was other than she had represented herself to be."
"Strange," I remarked. "Very strange. She's, of course, extremely good-looking."
"I should rather think so. When Gordon takes her to the theatre she's always the centre of attraction. Her face is almost flawless in its beauty."
"And poor old Gordon is so blindly infatuated that he has not yet discovered that she has deceived him," I said with a sigh. "Some day, I fear, he will suddenly awake to the truth, and then the blow will fall heavily upon him."
"Yes," my friend replied. "He's such an excellent fellow that I can't help feeling sorry for him. Truth to tell, I believe the Chief does not give him his promotion solely because of this foolish marriage."
"Does Lord Macclesfield know her?" I gasped.
"I'm not certain," he responded. "But I have a vague suspicion that he does."
I held my breath in alarm. If that were so, then I knew not from one moment to another when she might go to him and relate the ghastly story which I had ever striven to hide, a secret which, if exposed, would ruin me irretrievably. His lordship's remarkable words regarding the fidelity of Clunes himself recurred to me, and I became pensive, plunged in gloomy apprehension.
That being my last day in London, I made several calls during the afternoon, and it was about five o'clock, and already dark, when I entered the train at Waterloo for Richmond.
What Carmichael had told me caused me considerable uneasiness. That my old chum Gordon should marry an adventuress seemed extremely improbable, yet I could not forget that her face was quite familiar to me. There was but one way to silence her, I reflected. That I feared her I willingly admit; still when I thought calmly and weighed each fact carefully, I saw that the look of terror I had noticed in her eyes was not altogether without reason. Her attitude when I visited her on the last occasion had been one of watchfulness. She apparently desired to see whether I recognised her, or whether I intended to speak to her husband upon her striking resemblance to that woman I had once known. Yet I had made no sign, therefore she had smiled in confidence and triumph when she had uttered the one name most hateful to me.
In that journey to Richmond, stifled in a compartment overcrowded by city men eagerly returning to their homes at Barnes, Mortlake, and Teddington, and that new suburb, Fulwell, I reflected deeply. If ever man was desperate, I was at that moment. Before me I had a secret mission which, if successfully accomplished, would no doubt result in my further advancement. For a young man I had made rapid strides; but this woman stood as a menace between myself and success. Well I knew her ingenuity, her craftiness, the calm cunning and the relentless revenge of which she was capable. She was, indeed, a formidable enemy.
Nevertheless, it likewise tardily occurred to me that although she held my secret, yet I also held the key to her disreputable past. Could I not, if she uttered a single word, expose her in her true light as an adventuress, a woman declassée and beyond the pale of society, an infamous schemer whose real name stank in the nostrils of everyone in two European capitals? This I saw was my only safeguard. She was now awaiting her chance to expose my true office and to bring not only me, but British diplomacy into derision, and render it ignominious; therefore I realised that it was incumbent upon me to strike the first blow. I sat in the railway carriage pretending to read the evening paper, but really trying to decide how to act. The best and wisest course appeared to be to recognise her at once, pretend to hold her in abhorrence, and threaten to explain all to her husband. Then she in turn would threaten me, whereupon I could proceed to make advantageous terms with her. This seemed the only course, therefore after due consideration I decided to adopt it.
A neat maid answered my summons when I rang, and I was at once ushered into the white drawing-room which I had so admired on my first visit. Then, after a few minutes, she entered, rather flurried, I thought. She was confused at my unexpected call, and this gave me courage.
"I've come down to see Gordon on business," I explained, when we had exchanged greetings and she had taken a seat opposite me.
"He was not at all well this morning, poor boy, so I persuaded him not to go to town," she explained.
"What's the matter with him?" I asked, concerned.
"Nothing," she answered quickly. "A slight headache, that's all. He's very subject to headaches, occasioned, I suppose, by overwork. Lord Macclesfield ought to give him an assistant. It's really too bad."
She spoke the truth. The duties in the Treaty Department were always very onerous and heavy. He had several times complained to me in his letters that further assistance was absolutely necessary.
"Are you very devoted to him?" I said suddenly, my gaze fixed severely upon her.
She started quickly. I saw a look of terror in her blue eyes. Her brows contracted.
"Devoted to him? Of course I am. What do you mean?" she asked with affected hauteur.
"It is useless to feign ignorance," I said, quickly. "Recollect that we are not strangers, Judith."
"No," she answered, in a hoarse voice. "Would to God we were!"
"Well," I went on ruthlessly, "and why do I find you masquerading here as wife of my best friend? Surely you were not so confiding as to believe that you, of all women, could remain long undiscovered?"
"Not if you were in the vicinity," she replied in a tone of hatred, her teeth set hard, her eyes flashing an angry fire.
"No, no," I laughed. "To struggle against the inevitable is useless. You were ill-advised to marry Gordon Clunes. It is not often that you make such a grave error as this, but it is a step you cannot retrace. That you married him with some set purpose is quite apparent. I won't ask you what it is, because I know you well enough to be aware that I should never obtain the truth from your lips. But," I added in a stern, meaning tone, "if you suppose that I will allow my friend to be longer imposed upon by a woman so unscrupulous and worthless, then you are mistaken."
"You dare!" she cried, rising quickly to her feet, pale, with alarm. "You—you intend to expose me!"
"Do you recollect your words on the last occasion we met?" I asked, also rising and regarding her fixedly. She was, I know, a woman who would hesitate at nothing in order to gain her ends.
"I forget nothing," she answered in a low harsh tone.
"Neither do I," I replied. "Once, you played me false."
"Ah, no Philip!" she cried, her manner in an instant changing from defiance to penitence. "I tell you that was not my fault. You have misjudged me."
"But you have nevertheless inveigled Gordon into marriage," I said bitterly. "And I am his friend."
She paused, her eyes fixed for a moment on the burning logs. I saw that she held me in fear.
"But I am his wife," she said.
"Exactly. And for that very reason I intend to tell him the truth."
"You dare not," she said, her face white and resolute. "Listen! If you utter one word to him I will explain all that I know. You are fully aware of what I mean."
I smiled. It was just what I had expected. From her manner I had divined her secret intention to expose me, but victory generally lies with him who strikes the first blow, and I saw that she was now in deadly fear of me.
"And if you spoke who would believe you?" I said, in order to taunt her, for by doing so I thought I might perhaps gather something further of her plans.
"Once you measured your strength with mine and proved victor," she said in a voice of intense hatred. "My life was wrecked because of you. I staked high and lost—ignominiously. You were too clever and outwitted me. I shall take care to repay the debt."
"After Gordon has cast you from his house," I said, preserving a perfect calm.
"If you dare to tell him, the result will be fatal to your own interest—to all your prospects. You go now to Brussels. Good! Forewarned is forearmed."
"If your husband overhears this interesting conversation he'll no doubt be edified," I said.
"He cannot overhear," she answered in a strained voice. Then she added quickly, "Do not imagine that I fear any statement that you may care to make about me. You have no evidence."
"Except one little piece, which is, I think you'll admit, quite sufficient."
"And what is that, pray?" she inquired with indignation.
"Something which you have apparently forgotten," I answered. "Your photograph taken when you left your enforced confinement in that place where they didn't trouble to air the beds, and where the drawing-room was not exactly in Early English style."
My words held her dumb. She stood before me open-mouthed, her countenance blanched to the lips.
Suddenly her hands clenched, her cold blue eyes darted at me a look of evil, a murderous glance that I had only once seen before, and with an imprecation she cried with a strained, hollow laugh.
"Then tell him!—tell him! But recollect that if you do, I will make a statement to the press which will considerably alter the political situation in Europe. You have to choose between silence and exposure."
And without further word she swept past me out of the room.
I laughed to myself, for this scene had been enacted exactly as I had intended it should be, and I saw by her manner that my threat to expose her had sealed her lips. She had become Gordon's wife for some mysterious purpose or other, and it was evident that she did not mean to relinquish her position. This fact gave me confidence; for I saw that as long as she remained with him she dared utter no word of the past.
I remained there alone for a few minutes, then, hearing no sound, I opened the door and crossed the hall to the dining-room in search of Gordon. The room was, however, empty; therefore recollecting that the door at the end of that room led to my friend's cosy little study where we had smoked when I had first visited him I walked across and opened it.
On the couch on the opposite side of the writing table Gordon was lying, and on seeing him I cried:
"Wake up, old chap! Not too seedy to see me, are you?"
His face was turned to the wall, and he was apparently sleeping soundly.
For a moment I hesitated whether I should rouse him, but suddenly the paleness of his neck against the cushion of dark red velvet struck me as peculiar, and I bent over and looked into his face.
His eyes, those merry, laughing eyes I knew so well, were wide open.
I touched his cheek lightly with my finger tips. It was pale, waxen, and as cold as ice.
In an instant the ghastly truth flashed upon me, and involuntarily I uttered a cry of horror and dismay.
Gordon Clunes, the husband of this scheming, evil woman who held my secret, was dead!
FOR a few seconds I stood inactive, horrified, gazing upon the white face whence the light of life had faded.
So suddenly had I made this ghastly discovery that at first I was unable to realise that the man who had been so full of activity and good-humour was now a corpse. Even while I had been in conversation with this woman, who was his wife, he had been lying there dead, and then, as I reflected, the truth, a vivid and disconcerting one, was suddenly revealed to me.
By Gordon's death my power over this woman had vanished. My future was in her hands, and too well I knew that she would be merciless.
Again I placed my fingers upon the chill face, and then chafed the thin stiffening hands. But those wide-open glaring eyes, in which the film of death had already gathered, told me that life had fled. The honest true-hearted man with whom I had shared chambers through my early years of wild-oat sowing had been snatched away with a suddenness that was appalling.
Then, the suggestion occurring to me that after all he might be only in a state of unconsciousness, and that medical aid might succeed in resuscitating him, I rushed through into the dining-room and touched the electric button. Opening the door I listened for the approach of someone, but all seemed strangely silent.
The great square hall with its black oak stair-case and balcony above was but dimly lit, and there was an ominous stillness everywhere. I rushed across to the drawing-room under the impression that the dead man's wife might still be there, but that chamber was in darkness. The electric light had been switched off.
Again I rang the bell violently; then, standing in the hall, shouted loudly for help. My voice echoed through the house, but no one stirred.
Why, I wondered, had everyone deserted the place like that? Surely this woman who was my enemy must have known all along that my threats were unavailing, now that the man who had made her his wife was lying cold and dead.
Having failed to obtain assistance I went back to the little study and tried myself to arouse him. But from the first moment of the discovery I knew that all efforts were futile. He had lain down there calmly, and passed away in peaceful silence, for his face was in no way distorted. Only the fact that his hands were clenched showed that the last sting of death had caused him pain. The room seemed chill and draughty, and on examination I was surprised to find, behind the drawn curtains, that the long window leading out upon the small sloping lawn was open—a fact in itself suspicious.
Could it be possible that Gordon had been the victim of foul play?
Such suggestion, however, was quickly put aside by the recollection that a telegram had been received at the Foreign Office announcing his indisposition. He had no doubt been taken ill suddenly, and died from some unknown natural cause.
I had closed the window when, on glancing round the room, my attention was attracted by a smell of tobacco-smoke, and I saw on the table an ash-tray wherein were ashes and the end of a freshly-smoked cigar. Had Gordon smoked before his death, or had he received some male visitor?
Yet another curious fact greatly perplexed me. In the fireplace was a quantity of tinder—the remains of some voluminous document which had recently been destroyed. One tiny portion of the paper remained charred, but not consumed. I picked it out carefully, and on examining it was amazed to discover that the paper was of that peculiar tint and texture used in the French Foreign Office. Surely Gordon could not have destroyed some compromising papers in his possession, and then afterwards deliberately committed suicide?
Whatever the explanation, there was no doubt that some secret papers had been burnt there, and further, that these papers were not English. The window leading to the garden being open lent colour to the theory that some one had passed out of the house by that means. Again, the flight of Judith, and the absence of the servants, were all circumstances of the gravest suspicion.
The room wherein my friend was lying was more of a smoking-room than study. True, there was a large writing-table at the end and a couple of well-filled bookcases, but the cane rocking-chairs, the long deck-chair with its holders in the arms for the big glass of whisky and soda, and the two smoking-tables, showed that its owner was more fond of ease than of study.
On glancing around the writing-table I saw something unusual on the blotting-pad, and bent to examine it. The paper was white, but discoloured by a great stain of bright yellow. This was still damp, and on smelling it I found it to be some acid; but what it was I could not determine.
Just, however, at the moment when I held the pad in my hand I heard a movement behind me, and turning quickly with a start perceived a young woman fully dressed in neat black. She seemed equally surprised to discover me there, but without a moment's hesitation I demanded—
"Who are you?"
"I'm Ann, sir," she answered, drawing back as if in fear of me.
"Are you one of the servants here?" I said, recognising her.
"Then why are you going out?"
"I've only just come in, sir," she replied. "There's nobody in the house, so I came here to see if either master or mistress were here."
"Your master is there," I answered, pointing to the couch.
"What!" she cried in alarm. "Is he unwell?"
"Were you not aware of his illness?" I inquired.
"No, sir," she answered. "He went out at the usual hour this morning, and had not returned when I left at three o'clock."
"Why did you go out?"
"It was my afternoon out, sir. Mistress gave me an extra two hours."
In this latter statement I scented suspicion.
"Why did she give you extra leave?" I demanded.
"I don't know, sir," the girl responded. "But is master very ill—can I do anything?" she asked anxiously.
"No," I replied. "You can do nothing, except to tell me all you know of this affair. Where's your mistress?"
"Gone out, I suppose, sir—I've been through all the bedrooms, but there's no one in the house at all; no dinner ready, or anything. But is master sleeping?" she added with increasing anxiety.
"No," I said, fearing to tell her the truth lest she should go off into hysterics or do something equally annoying. In this matter calmness was essential, and I was determined to learn from her all I could. "How long have you been in Mrs. Clune's service?"
"Ever since they were married, sir."
"And you have a good place here?" I asked.
"I can't grumble. I don't get many Sundays out, but mistress is very kind and thoughtful of us."
"How many are you?"
"Three, sir; cook, another housemaid, and myself."
"And you have no knowledge of where your two fellow servants have gone?"
"None whatever. They were here when I went out."
"And your mistress?"
"She went out immediately after luncheon."
"Then your master was not at home ill today?" I exclaimed in surprise.
"No, sir. He went out about ten, as he usually does, to catch his train to London; but I noticed that he was dressed differently than is usual."
"How?" I asked quickly.
"He wore a low felt hat instead of his tall silk one, and had on an old tweed suit that's quite shabby. When I saw him go out I wondered at him dressing so badly. He's always so very smart—neat as a new pin, as the sayin' is."
This was certainly a remarkable fact. At the Foreign Office a telegram had been received announcing his indisposition, while at the same time he had gone forth in what was apparently a disguise. It was not like Gordon to go to London in an old tweed suit.
"And after your master had left, what occurred?" I inquired, determined to sift this matter to the bottom.
"Nothing," she responded. "There was only one caller, a gentleman."
"A gentleman!" I cried. "Who was he?"
"I don't know, sir," she replied.
"Now, my girl," I said earnestly, "in this matter you must be perfectly frank. It is most important in your master's interests that I should know all that has transpired here to-day. You, of course, recollect that I dined here a little time ago. I remember now that you waited at table—although at first in your hat and veil I failed to recognise you."
"Certainly, sir; I'm quite ready to tell you, or master, all I know."
"Well, with regard to this gentleman, was he merely an ordinary-looking man, or was there anything about him which struck you as peculiar?"
"There was nothing extraordinary," she answered with a puzzled look. No doubt she thought my words strange ones. Her name was Primrose she had informed me. "He merely asked for mistress, and when I inquired his name he said it was Christian. I asked him into this room, and mistress, when I told her he had called, seemed just a trifle excited. Her face went red, and she seemed at first annoyed that he should call so early, for she hadn't quite finished dressing her hair."
"And what then?"
"She finished hastily with my assistance, and went down to him. He remained there fully half-an-hour, and then went away laughing."
"Did you overhear any of their conversation?"
"No. I think he was a foreigner, for they spoke French, or some foreign language, and they spoke it so quickly and loudly that it seemed once or twice as though they were quarrelling. Mistress is an excellent linguist, you know."
"Yes, I know she is," I answered smiling grimly. "But this man was an entire stranger, wasn't he?"
"I'd never seen him before."
"Young or old?"
"About thirty-five, or perhaps forty; rather tall and fair."
"With a moustache pointing upwards?"
"No, his moustache was short and bristly; and he had a light beard," the maid replied. "He was rather thin and wore a light drab overcoat tightly buttoned."
"Did he speak English well?"
"Yes, quite well. Indeed, I thought he was English until the bell rang and I went to the dining-room, when I heard mistress speaking to him in a foreign tongue. She was standing near the fireplace while he was seated in the arm-chair over there—the one master always sits in. He seemed quite at home, and mistress ordered me to bring him some brandy and soda."
"Then you left the room and heard no more?"
"Not until the bell rang again and I showed him out."
"And then?" I asked.
"When he'd gone mistress flew into a great rage. She said it was abominable that people should call so early."
"But she treated him very courteously when he was present?"
"Very. I, however, didn't like him. He seemed to treat mistress just a trifle too familiarly. Perhaps, however, it was only his foreign way. Foreigners hold different views from us I've heard it said."
"Well," I exclaimed, "continue your story. What happened after that?"
"Mistress spent some little time in the study, writing letters, I think. Then she lunched alone, and afterwards went out."
"Was she dressed as though she intended making visits?"
"Not at all. I assisted her to dress, and remarked that although the day was fine she seemed, like master, to have a leaning towards an old dress. She put on an old blue serge and a sailor hat—a thing which she'd put away since last summer—and she seemed in a hurry either to catch a train or to keep some appointment."
"Has she many friends here in Richmond?" I inquired.
"Oh, yes, lots. We're generally crowded on her 'At home' days."
"And you went out soon after she did?"
"Yes. I went over to Kingston to see my mother, and then on to Surbiton. When I returned I went round to the back door, found it open, and came in, but to my surprise everybody had gone. The place was deserted. To tell you the truth, sir, when I first saw you peering about master's writing-table, which we are forbidden to touch, I thought you were a burglar."
"That's not surprising," I answered with a smile. "But this affair, I may as well tell you at once, is a most serious one."
"Serious? What do you mean, sir?" she asked, starting at my words and looking at me in surprise.
"During your absence something mysterious has occurred. I don't know any more of it than you do. I only know the terrible truth."
"And what's that?" she demanded breathlessly.
"That your poor master is lying there dead!"
"Dead!" she gasped, growing pale. "Dead! It can't be true."
"It is true," I responded. "I found him there not long ago. Look for yourself."
The trembling girl crossed the room on tiptoe, and gazed into the face of her master. It needed no second glance to convince her that she was in the presence of the dead.
"It's terrible, sir—terrible!" she gasped, drawing back pale in horror. "Surely he can't really be dead?"
"Yes," I answered. "There's no doubt about it; absolutely no doubt. But whether it is the result of natural causes or of foul play it is impossible at present to tell."
"Do you suspect, then, that he's been murdered, sir?" she inquired in a low, terrified voice.
"I suspect nothing," I said. "I entered here and found him exactly as you see him now. The window, too, was open. Someone might have escaped by it."
"Ah, the window!" she said. "I recollect opening it this morning at mistress's orders. She declared that the room smelt stuffy."
"Was it often open?"
"It hadn't been opened all the winter until to-day, when I picked out the strips of cloth with which the cracks had been plugged up. Master always declared that there was an unbearable draught from it; so one day last October I helped mistress seal up the door altogether."
"There was no other reason why it should be opened, except because the place was stuffy, was there?"
"None whatever. It was a fine day, of course, and I suppose mistress thought well to freshen up the room. I must say that the tobacco smoke is very thick here sometimes, when master has two or three friends. But poor master! I really can't believe it," she added, looking at him kindly again. "He was always so considerate towards us. I can't think what's become of cook and Mary."
"Rather think of your mistress," I said. "What a blow this will be to her."
The girl glanced at me curiously, as if trying to discern how much I knew.
"Yes," she sighed, but refrained from further comment, a fact which went to confirm my opinion that this neat domestic knew much more than she had already told me.
"Were your master and mistress always on good terms?" I asked.
"Always," the girl promptly replied. "They were devoted to each other."
I smiled. The idea of that woman whom I had half-an-hour before threatened with exposure being devoted to anybody was, to me, amusing. That she knew of her husband's death was certain; yet after her ominous words to me she had left the house, leaving me alone with the corpse of my friend.
I recollected now how my appearance had caused her confusion, and how she had greeted me with a hollow courtesy. Undoubtedly I had arrived at a very inopportune moment, and it seemed equally certain that the two other servants were fully aware that their master had passed away.
Gordon's wife had fled, and that in itself was sufficient to arouse suspicion, while on the other hand my friend's own actions in sending the telegram of excuse to the Foreign Office, and in going out in unusual attire, complicated the puzzle to an extraordinary degree.
Lord Macclesfield had sent me there to hear some strange statement, yet the lips that had uttered those words which had startled and interested the great statesman were now silent for ever.
I stood gazing upon that white face, so calm and tranquil in death, and pondered deeply.
Yes, that some grave, extraordinary mystery surrounded my friend's decease I felt convinced.
HALF an hour passed.
Accompanied by the girl Primrose I made a tour of the house, but it was evident that the dead man's wife had fled, therefore after full deliberation I despatched the servant with a note to the police station, asking that an inspector might be sent, but not stating any reason. I instructed the girl to remain silent for the present, and waited patiently until the officer arrived.
Then I took him into the drawing-room, and when we were alone said:
"An extraordinary affair has occurred in this house, but there are reasons why the matter should for the present remain absolutely secret; reasons which will become obvious when I explain the position of the parties concerned."
He was a smart, youngish, rather pleasant faced man, who listened gravely while I related the whole of the facts. His brows contracted when I told him how Lord Macclesfield had instructed me to travel down to Richmond and hear the statement of the man whom I had discovered dead, and he gave vent to an exclamation of suspicion when I told him the story related by the girl Primrose.
"I'll see him," the inspector exclaimed when I had finished; therefore I led the way across the hall into the small room where poor Gordon was stretched out upon the red velvet couch.
The officer, to whom a mystery of this description and magnitude was not of everyday occurrence, glanced quickly around the room, turned the body slightly upon its side, and then, noticing no sign of a struggle, exclaimed:
"I see no evidence of foul play, do you?"
"No," I answered, "none whatever. But this window was unfastened, and there in that tray is a freshly smoked cigar."
"Strange," he said, examining the ashes closely.
"That points to the fact that he had a visitor," I said.
"Because he never smoked cigars, but always cigarettes."
"Ah!" observed the officer, "That may serve as a very valuable clue." Then passing into the dining-room, where the girl Primrose was standing, he submitted her to a searching cross-examination regarding her statement to me, and especially with reference to the tall fair man who had called upon her mistress in the earlier part of the day. From the girl's reply it was quite evident that she was concealing nothing, and that she had been much more observant than one would have supposed a servant to be. It was also clear that she entertained some ill-defined suspicion of her mistress, though of what neither of us could exactly make out.
At length the inspector, whose name was Glass, sent for the divisional surgeon, who lived on the hill a little lower down, and also for the plain clothes officer attached to that station.
Without delay the doctor, a stout red faced man, arrived, and after the officer had given him a brief explanation he made a cursory examination of the body.
"He must died about an hour ago," he observed, rising from his knees and puffing after the exertion.
"There are no signs of violence?" suggested the officer.
"None whatever. From all outward appearance death was due to sudden failure of the heart's action."
"I expect so. Of course I must make a post-mortem later, and then I shall be able to speak with greater confidence," the doctor answered. "At present there seem no grounds to suspect that death was due to violence. But his wife and the servants have left, you say. Strange, is it not."
"Very curious—very," answered Glass. "I'm confident there's some mystery or other, but what it is there's certainly, as yet, nothing to show."
"Have you noticed this, doctor?" I asked, taking up the blotting pad, and handing it to him.
He touched the yellow stain with his finger, sniffed it, and, after holding the pad to the light and examining it carefully, said in the uncertain tone of one puzzled:
"I wonder what was spilt here?"
"Isn't it acid of some sort?" I inquired.
"Perhaps." Then turning to the inspector he added: "It will be better to preserve that. We may want to analyse it."
I divined by the doctor's manner that he was undecided in his opinion. It appeared as though poor Gordon, having been sitting at his writing table, became suddenly unwell and while resting upon the couch had expired before he could summon aid. Yet if such theory were true, why had that voluminous document been burned? And why had Judith, his wife, fled after my arrival? Was it because, ignorant of Gordon's death, she feared the exposure which I had threatened, or was it because she knew of his decease and had escaped before I could discover the truth?
About this time the detective was ushered in by the girl Primrose, and after hearing a brief explanation of the facts he looked at the body and then wandered from room to room, discovering nothing. He expressed an opinion which to me was certainly an absurd one, namely, that my friend's wife, discovering that he had died, had sent out the remaining two servants, and then herself gone forth to seek some intimate friend. It was quite feasible, he declared, that a woman should do this, for her mutual instinct is to seek someone to console her in distress.
He, however, had no knowledge of the woman's character, and, of course, I did not enter into unnecessary detail. The one thought possessing me at that moment was a recollection of Lord Macclesfield's doubt consequent upon the mysterious statement which my friend had made. So startling and so utterly confusing had it been that his lordship deemed it best that I should be aware of all the facts ere I set forth on my secret mission to Brussels. The terribly sudden death of this man who had made the amazing revelations, whatever they were, was certainly an extraordinary development, and it was, I saw, imperative that his lordship should learn the truth at the earliest possible moment.
I waited an hour in that silent house where lay the body of my friend, but Judith did not return. There was, of course, no direct evidence that he had died from any but natural causes, yet her absence increased our suspicion.
Both servants returned in due course, and were dumb with amazement on finding the house in possession of the police. We heard their story, which was plain and straightforward enough. Their mistress, after my arrival, had given them leave to go out, adding that Ann would return shortly, therefore they could remain out till nine. They had gone out together, and walked along as far as Kew Bridge and back.
"And you know nothing of your master being in the house when you went out?" the detective asked of the cook, a responsible middle-aged woman.
"No," she replied. "Master went out as usual this morning, and mistress told me that he would not be back to dinner."
"Neither of you took a telegram to the post office this morning about ten o'clock?" I asked.
"No, sir," was the response.
It was therefore evident that Gordon had sent the telegraphic excuse to Downing-street himself, on his way out. Likewise, it was more than curious that his wife should have kept his return secret from the servants. The deeper we probed the mystery the more inexplicable it became.
"Had you any idea that your mistress intended to go out?" the inspector inquired of the cook.
"None whatever. If she went out Ann could not get in. She told me that she would remain at home, as she had been out the greater part of the day and was very tired."
Many were the questions we put to the three domestics, but their knowledge threw no further light upon the mystery; therefore, having given my name and address to the police, I left and returned at once to London, arriving at Waterloo a little after ten o'clock.
Without delay I took a hansom, and twenty minutes later was admitted to the great gloomy hall of the Premier's fine mansion in Grosvenor-square.
"Is Lord Macclesfield in, Budd?" I inquired of the aged retainer who had spent all his life in the service of the family.
"Yes, sir. But he's engaged. Is the business pressing?"
"Yes, it's official," I said. "Send in my card," and I handed him one.
"Count Cusani, the secretary of the Italian Embassy is with him, and his lordship said that I was not to disturb him. I'm very sorry, sir."
"Then I'll wait," I said; and without further word walked on into the small cosy room opposite, wherein representatives of every nation in the world, have, at one time or another, sat waiting the pleasure of the ruler of Europe. I knew the house well, having many times had occasion to call there to see his lordship. Indeed, night and day he was always visible on matters of pressing importance. His capacity for work was enormous, and his attention to duty a model for those junior clerks in the Foreign Office, who preferred to read the Times and smoke cigarettes to performing the work for which the country paid them. Old Budd, too—known to every foreign diplomatist in London, from the Russian Ambassador down to the Liberian Minister—was a sharp-witted amusing old fellow of courtly manner and impressive voice, and while I sat there I chatted with him.
"I haven't seen you lately, sir," the old man said presently.
"No," I answered. "Of late I've been at Constantinople."
"Pooh!" he exclaimed. "Sir Richard Davis was there once, and Colonel Poole was once military attache. Both gentlemen told me it was a horrid place. You're better in London than there, they said."
"They were right, Budd," I laughed. "But when you get a post abroad you have to put up with the uncomfortable as well as enjoy the comfortable. I really believe you'd have made a good ambassador."
"No, sir," laughed the old man, heartily, for he loved a joke. "I shouldn't be able to take things so calmly as those gentlemen do. I'm afraid I should be for fighting, rather than for diplomacy."
"Then, Budd, you'd be a dangerous man," I said; while at the same instant an electric bell sounded, and begging me to excuse him he went forth into the hall.
The door being ajar I heard the frou-frou of silken skirts as a lady passed, and the stately old man opened the door and showed her out. Then I heard his lordship's voice telling his man that he would see me in a few moments.
"Who was the lady?" I asked Budd when he returned to me.
"A stranger, sir."
"Yes. Rather good-looking," and the old man winked knowingly.
"Ah, Budd," I said, "then though they call you an old fossil you're as keen as a knife, and you've got a good eye for a pretty woman."
"When I was a youngster, sir, I was reckoned a bit of a don. But now—" and the old fellow sighed without finishing his sentence.
In the diplomatic world of London, especially among the feminine section of it, old Budd's courtesy and the manner in which he tucked up the pretty women in their carriages had long been a subject of comment. He was ugly and wizened, but he had the manners of a prince, and was as attentive to the ladies as their lovers.
"Did that lady who has just gone out give any card?" I inquired.
"Yes. But I was in a hurry and didn't read the name," he replied. Then he added: "I fancy his lordship didn't want to see her, for she was only in his room about two minutes, and was then dismissed rather abruptly."
"How do you know?"
"I can always tell by the manner his lordship shuts the door whether he's in a good humour or not."
"And he's in a bad humour to-night, eh?"
"Yes, rather," he answered confidentially. "Sir Thomas Ridley, the Permanent Undersecretary, has been here all the evening, and I fancy the outlook is serious."
Just then the electric bell again rang, and old Budd led the way to the large roomy chamber which I knew so well, the private thickly carpeted room of the trusted Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of her Majesty the Queen.
The three long windows were heavily curtained, and upon the two large writing-tables, littered with State documents and despatches, four green shaded lamps shed a zone of light, the remainder of the room being in semi-darkness.
Within the circle of light was a leather armchair, and in response to his lordship's invitation, I seated myself in it. It was not the first time I had sat there, and I knew how cunningly that chair was placed, so that the visitor had the light upon him while the great statesman's face remained in the shadow. As I looked across the table, I only saw the pale serious countenance, shadowy and indistinct in the gloom. He had a quill in his thin hand, and had been signing some papers as I entered. On the farther side of the old-fashioned room, wherein so much of the business of the Empire was transacted, hung a large portrait of her Majesty, just visible where the fitful glow of the fire fell upon it, and on a small table opposite was fixed the private telegraph instrument which enabled the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office to communicate with his Chief at any hour, night or day.
"Well, Crawford, this visit is a rather late one," he exclaimed in a voice which betrayed impatience. He usually worked alone at night, without even a secretary; and I knew he hated to be disturbed.
"I have to apologise," I answered, "but the matter is one which appears to be of pressing importance, in view of the confidence you have already reposed in me."
"And what is it?" he inquired in a dry, calm tone.
"It is with regard to your instructions to see Gordon Clunes before I leave for Brussels."
"Well, you have seen him," he said, glancing at me quickly with his keen, penetrating eyes. "What is your opinion regarding his statement?"
"I have not been able to get any statement from him," I answered. "I regret to say that he is dead."
"Dead," gasped his lordship, starting from his chair. "Is this the truth, Crawford?" he cried.
"Yes, unfortunately," I answered. "I found him in his house alone, dead; and from certain appearances a mystery appears to surround the cause of his decease."
"Clunes dead!" the great statesman echoed. "Impossible!"
"He had been dead nearly an hour before I found him," I said.
His lordship's hand clenched as it lay upon the table before him.
"And that—that woman? What of her?" he asked, with a look of firm determination upon his blanched face, and laying stress upon the word woman. "Where is she?"
"She has fled," I answered briefly.
"Fled!" he cried, standing glaring at me as one dumbfounded. "Do you mean that she has disappeared?"
"Then not an instant must be lost," exclaimed the controller of England's destinies, touching the electric button upon the table. "The coup of our enemies has been effected with an ingenuity and swiftness absolutely incredible. England's honour is involved in this affair, how deeply only myself and another are aware; but at all costs our dignity and prestige must be preserved. This complication is most serious, and creates a crisis the most acute of the many which have occurred during the period of my Administration. Our enemies must be outwitted and crushed, or this will indeed be a sorry day in the history of our Government and our country."
At that instant his private secretary entered, and addressing him he said:
"Get the Paris telephone switched on. I must speak with the Embassy at once."
Matters were indeed serious, for while the secretary was ringing up, his lordship took from a locked drawer a small volume containing the secret cypher code for despatches, and after consulting it carefully wrote a long string of figures upon a sheet of paper.
Presently, after the lapse of some ten minutes, and while I still sat there watching, the secretary announced that they were 'on' to the Embassy in Paris, and that the First Secretary was awaiting his lordship.
At once Lord Macclesfield handed his secretary the slip, whereupon the latter went to the transmitter, and in a clear mechanical voice spoke the usual formal preface:
"From the Marquis of Macclesfield to Lord Lydhurst, Paris," and afterwards carefully read out figure after figure with clearness and distinctness, repeating the message, so that there could be no possibility of error.
"End," the secretary exclaimed after concluding the unintelligible array of numerals, and as he hung up the receiver the tiny bell rang off.
Thus, in those few brief seconds had a secret despatch been sent beneath the sea, and her Majesty's Ambassador in the French capital apprised of the latest turn of events.
Who could say what were his instructions, or what was contained in that cypher communication.
A FEW minutes after the telephonic despatch had been transmitted, his lordship, still greatly agitated, with his own hand wrote a note to Scotland Yard, and sent it by one of the messengers who were always in attendance. Then, when we were alone again, he turned to me, saying:
"The fact that Clunes is dead must remain an entire secret, remember. Nobody must know. I have given instructions to the police to allow no word of it to leak out, and if an inquest is necessary it must be held in such a manner that the press will not know the official position of the deceased. It is useless to mince matters, therefore I tell you that this death of poor Clunes is a very grave affair indeed. No effort must be spared to find that woman," he added.
"His wife, you mean."
"Yes," he said with a heavy look upon his face. He was pacing the room with fevered steps, and whenever he came within the zone of lamp light I saw how deadly pale he was.
"Have you any suspicion of her?" I inquired, for I was hesitating whether I should tell him all I know regarding her. Yet if I did I should undoubtedly reveal my own ghastly secret. No, I decided to act with discretion.
"Suspicion!" he echoed, starting involuntarily. "Why?" he asked, quickly recovering himself. "What cause have I for suspicion? I only saw her once, at one of the receptions. She seemed a very refined and rather pretty woman, I thought."
I saw he knew more of her secret history than he intended to reveal, therefore did not pursue the subject further.
However, in response to his inquiry I related all that had occurred at Richmond, omitting, of course, all mention of the scene between Judith and myself.
"Extraordinary!" he ejaculated, when I had finished. "And the doctor has found no trace of foul play?"
"Very curious," his lordship repeated thoughtfully. "The incident of the telegram of excuse is most mysterious. There seems no doubt that he went out this morning with a fixed purpose. He must have visited somebody, and with his wife's knowledge, too, for she would no doubt remark his shabbiness of dress. Again, he must have returned to the house secretly, for the servants did not know that he had come back."
"He might, of course, have let himself in with his latch-key," I suggested.
"Ah, yes," he said. "I didn't think of that. Still, the fact remains that poor Clunes has died in most mysterious circumstances, which, combined with the statement he made to me, certainly point to foul play."
"Was there a motive for his assassination, then?" I cried, in quick surprise.
"Yes," he answered, gravely. "There was."
"Then your theory is that he has been murdered?"
"I have no theories," the quick-witted old statesman responded. "In this matter we can only deal with facts—and briefly they were these. Gordon Clunes, as servant of his Queen and his country, was in possession of certain secret information of a grave and most startling character, involving the peace of Europe and the discredit of one of the Powers—which of them I shall not say—so there was every reason why he should be silenced. You yourself as a diplomatist and a member of the Secret Service have more than once gained information which, had it been known to be in your possession, might have cost you your life. Of that you are quite well aware—eh?"
I nodded. What the world-renowned Minister said was quite correct.
"Well, then," he went on, "our enemies, determined that their secret should be preserved, have no doubt silenced him—by death."
This argument seemed conclusive enough. I had suspected the dead man's wife; but his lordship, while desiring to see Judith, apparently entertained a suspicion that the guilt lay in another quarter.
"But they struck their blow too late—too late," he went on, as if speaking to himself. "They thought to preserve their secret, but their unfortunate victim forestalled them, and we are now forearmed. Poor Clunes," sighed the Premier, "he has died having done his duty honourably. He is one of the many silent heroes, and will always be remembered by me as a man who, knowing the risks he ran and the dangers that surrounded him, acted with manful courage and saved England a war."
"Saved a war?" I echoed. "Was his statement of such value as that?"
"Yes. When he told it to me yesterday I thought it too wildly improbable to be true, but in the light of to-day's events all is borne out, every word of it, and I regret having misjudged him. It seems now apparent that he feared attempts would be made to silence him, yet he acted promptly and courageously in making that statement to me which has placed in our hands a weapon against a certain combination of the Powers.
"But you wished me to hear his statement," I observed. "Had it any connection with the work before me in Brussels?"
"Yes," he replied, "but in view of this later startling event I have decided that his story shall remain secret. After all, it is unnecessary for you to know what is merely a key to certain other matters of which you have no knowledge."
"Then I am to remain in ignorance of his revelations?" I said, disappointed, for the mystery has fascinated me.
"Yes," he replied, unhesitatingly. "I have already given you instructions how to act in Brussels. Follow them, and report to me from time to time."
Then, with his keen grave eyes fixed upon me, he added earnestly "Remember, Crawford, that I have every confidence in you, and that your past services lead me to the hope that in this your efforts will be crowned with success."
"Then my work in Belgium has a connection with this secret which my poor friend Clunes learnt so opportunely."
"Yes," he answered, simply. "It has. Beyond that I can tell you nothing—absolutely nothing."
I had anticipated that his lordship would at least repeat to me the story he was so anxious that I should hear from my friend's own lips, and this decision caused me the keenest dissatisfaction. Gordon was my friend, and I felt myself in duty bound to assist in the elucidation of the cause of his tragic end. That statement he had made appeared to be the key to the situation, and without knowledge of it the solution of the enigma seemed impossible.
I inquired when, under the circumstances, I should leave for Brussels.
"To-morrow," he answered promptly. "Go over and take up your duties at once. Drummond expects you. I shall see the Director of Criminal Investigations in the morning, and will explain that you were compelled to leave London. Therefore you will not be called as witness."
His grey face, looking ghost-like in the shadow where he sat, was unusually grave, his eyes were fixed thoughtfully upon the table between us, and I noticed that his hand holding the quill trembled nervously.
"Then I can be of no service in seeking to clear up the mystery of poor Clunes' death?" I said in a disappointed voice.
"No," he responded promptly. "It must be left to the police. Your duties lie in another direction. Act with courage and tact, and remember that your first duty is towards your country and Queen."
"I am not likely to forget that," I answered.
Then, after some further conversation, he rose and dismissed me courteously. The electric bell rang in the hall, and old Budd opened the door and bowed me out, while the Minister returned to his work among that miscellaneous collection of papers and despatches with which his desk was piled. He was the most methodical of men, and I well knew that ere he retired to rest that night every single paper would have his attention and bear his familiar initial.
Next day, according to my orders, I left Charing Cross and arrived in the Belgian capital the same evening. On awaking on the following morning I found that here the spring days had come earlier than in London, the chestnuts and beeches in the long avenues wore their freshest green, the Boulevards were spick and span, and the streets, always models of extreme cleanliness, were full of life and movement. Brussels is a gay, airy, careless counterpart of its sister Paris; for in it are centered all the gaiety, all the life, all the outdoor freedom for which the French capital is so notable, yet without that constant turmoil of the streets which yearly renders the Paris thoroughfares more and more like those of London.
No city in the whole of Europe is brighter, gayer, or more pleasant than Brussels in May from the windows of my room in the Place Louise, at the corner of that magnificent thoroughfare, the Avenue de la Toison d'Or. I watched the constant procession of fine equipages, chic cyclists, fours-in-hand, automobiles, and electric trams, as they converged into the long shady Avenue Louise, on their way to the Bois de la Cambre, one of the most picturesque woods on the whole Continent. Light and life were everywhere, for sunshine had come, and the gay-hearted Bruxellois always welcome the spring time right gladly. Already the weather was warm and bright, and the foliage of the spreading trees so thick that in some of the avenues near my abode there were spots where the sunlight did not penetrate, and it remained gloomy, even at mid-day. In Brussels, the lively little city where the women are so neat-ankled and chic, and the men so smart, where the carriages are as well-ordered as those in the Row at home, and the blackbirds sing in the great trees opposite one's house, they have indeed brought enjoyment to a fine art. In May it is undoubtedly a City of Pleasure, with its columns, its fountains, its leafy, breezy boulevards, its countless cafes, and its gay outdoor life, while Monsieur le brave Belge, the gay debonnaire of the capital, has almost forgotten his native Flemish in his tireless pains to acquire a Parisian accent, pure and undefiled. The city on the Senne has, with truth, been modeled after the city on the Seine, and with a happy result.
Indeed, I was not sorry to return to this cheerful, careless city, pleasant indeed after a wearying life beside the Bosphorus, for I knew it well, from the venerable Grande Palace where rises the brocaded Hotel de Ville with its impossible embroidered spire and ancient Guild Houses opposite, and where the old market-women gossip beneath their big white umbrellas covering their stalls even to the gilded salon of the pretty youthful and skittish Baroness de Melreux, of whose escapades Brussels society is always so fond of whispering, and whose elderly and portly husband is one of the leading men in the Chamber.
Day after day I bought the London newspapers at the kiosque of the Grand Hotel and scanned them, eager to see some report of the inquest upon the body of poor Gordon. Nothing, however, transpired. It was possible, of course, that the inquiry had been held, and that some false name had been be stowed upon my unfortunate friend in order to avoid the attraction of the press. Thousands of inquests are held in London annually which are never reported in the papers. The list of coroners' inquiries is bound to be exhibited publicly at the coroner's office before they are held, but when secrecy is desired the name is very frequently altered. For example, a nobleman who dies mysteriously is usually designated by his family name only, his title being omitted; and the family name being generally a rather common one the vigilant reporter is almost certain, in journalistic parlance, to 'let it slide.'
In the case of Gordon Clunes, however, Lord Macclesfield had distinctly told me that he intended to take steps to keep the truth from the public. Therefore I presumed that the inquest had been held, my unfortunate friend had been buried, and that Scotland Yard were making secret inquiries.
What, I wondered, had been the result of the post-mortem? Had death actually been due to natural causes, or were there signs of foul play?
I longed to write to Inspector Glass at Richmond, but in the circumstances saw that such communication would be ill-advised. The police were undoubtedly under strict orders from the Commissioner, therefore I could learn nothing.
And of Judith, the woman who had fled? What of her?
So the pleasant spring days passed in Brussels, and I remained in entire ignorance of all that had occurred. Truth to tell, my duties were at first of a very light character, and after an attendance of an hour or so each day at the Embassy I usually spent the afternoons in the Bois, and the evenings at one or other of the gay, brightly-lit cafes down in the city—the Grand, the Metropole, or the Coronne—where I could sit out on the pavement, take my after-dinner coffee, smoke, and watch the passers-by. The theatre possessed but little attraction for me; I preferred al fresco enjoyment in the evening.
The staff at the British Embassy, that great grey mansion in the Rue de Spa, was a particularly pleasant one; Giffard, the military attache, having been an old colleague of mine at Madrid, and Frank Hamilton, the first secretary, also a friend of long ago. My first interview with my Chief, Sir John Drummond, had been entirely cordial.
I found him one morning in his bright sunny private room, a tall well-built man of fifty, with greyish hair, full grey beard, and a face gentle and kindly. Before him lay the letter Lord Macclesfield had written regarding my duties, and he welcomed me with pleasant affability, expressing pleasure at my appointment.
"Here, of course, we have not such heavy duties as they have at Vienna or Constantinople," he said, "but it appears from this letter of the Marquess that you are appointed for a special purpose. I presume that before you left London the whole facts were laid before you?"
"Yes," I replied. "His lordship gave me a full explanation."
"Good," he said. "Of course the utmost discretion and secrecy are necessary. Here, although actual duties are not so heavy as in the larger capitals, nevertheless the undercurrents at work are legion, and diplomacy must be conducted with the utmost finesse. There is war in the air; and from Brussels, rather than from anywhere else, might emanate the single spark required to fire the mine. In the case of war we must preserve the Belgians as our friends. If British soldiers are ever landed on the continent they must land at Antwerp. Therefore, in view of all the facts, you see that although you are nominally attached to this Embassy as a secretary, you have an extremely delicate task to accomplish. You must solve the mystery in silence, without awakening the least suspicion of the thousand and one spies who surround us. You are to have perfect liberty of action, according to this private despatch, and I trust that you will bring your efforts to a successful issue."
"I hope I shall," I answered. "But has anything further transpired of late to arouse suspicion or alarm?"
"Russia, France, and Germany have all three sought to combat my efforts during the past week," he answered, gravely, "and I have suspicion that a cypher despatch containing the draft of a secret convention has recently fallen in some inexplicable manner into the hands of those unknown agents with whom you will have to deal. The situation here is, I honestly confess, alarming."
"And you will keep me advised of any facts which may come to your knowledge?" I asked.
"Of course," the Minister replied. He had not mentioned anything of the strange affair which had taken place in London, and I had hesitated to broach the subject, for was it not a secret between the Chief and myself?
The remainder of our conversation was devoted to various technicalities regarding my secretarial duties, for it had been arranged, in order that our enemies should not suspect the true reason of my appointment, I should assume the position of third secretary of Legation.
As I went out I found Giffard, a tall, handsome, dark-eyed Guardsman, smoking a cigarette on the steps which led down into the courtyard, beyond which lay the stables and the servants' quarters.
"Well!" he exclaimed. "Seen the Chief?"
"Yes," I responded.
"Good fellow, isn't he? Everybody here gets on famously. No jealousies or any of that confounded humbug, and as much gaiety as you like. You'll like Brussels, old chap."
"Yes," I said, "I think I shall." And then at my invitation we went down to the Boulevard Anspach to lunch.
Giffard was an exceedingly good follow, a thorough type of the merry, easy-going British cavalry officer, and a great favourite with the ladies. I had known him for years, and of the whole staff of the Legation he alone knew the real reason why I had been appointed there.
TO the British public, who are strangely ignorant of the work of our Embassies and Legations beyond the seas, that of Brussels is usually considered quite an unimportant one; but if the truth were told the position of British Minister there is an exceedingly difficult post to fill, there being quite as many conflicting interests at work as at Berlin, Paris, or Petersburg.
The Diplomatic Body worked silently, and without seeking to attract any public attention. Only now and then, at the request of some inquisitive Member of the Opposition in the House, are despatches on certain matters published to the world, and then those able to read between the lines can discern how delicate have been the negotiations, and with what consummate tact and finesse have they been transacted.
Early one bright sunny morning, after I had been in Brussels some three weeks, I had taken my cup of black coffee which alone served me as breakfast, a habit contracted in the East, and strolled out along the Avenue Louise to the Bois de la Cambre.
It was not much after eight o'clock, nevertheless there were many people riding and cycling along the broad well-kept roads and shady byways. When I had formerly lived in Brussels I used to delight in an hour in the Bois about eight, for the fresh smell of the woods was invigorating, and the bright green always refreshing. I had not yet started a hack, but meant to before long. Many smart Belgians were in the saddle, including a fair sprinkling of officers of higher grade and a few English residents. Sometimes the King himself takes morning exercise there on his magnificent roan, but on this occasion he was absent.
I had passed along the end of the lake on the main road, and was enjoying a cigarette on a seat at a spot where the morning sunshine shone through the greenery, when suddenly I heard a noise around the bend of the road, simultaneous with a woman's scream.
A moment later I was in view of the scene, and there saw a young girl lying in the road with a cycle beside her. An accident had occurred, but of what nature I knew not. She was alone and helpless. At once I assisted her to rise, and with difficulty she struggled gasping to her feet.
"I trust you are not hurt, mademoiselle," I exclaimed concernedly, in French.
"I—I think not, thank you, m'seur, only shaken—that is all," and she endeavoured to laugh, but the attempt was a very poor one.
I noticed, however, that her hand was badly grazed and bleeding. In falling she had put out her hand and slid along upon it.
"But your hand!" I exclaimed, noticing that she was extremely handsome, a perfect incarnation of grace and beauty, even though her cycling dress was severely simple—a plain costume of black serge, and a sailor hat with black band such as English girls affect.
"Yes," she said in fairly good English, holding it up to me. "I've scratched it. Most annoying, isn't it?"
"You must allow me to bandage it," I urged. "I once went through some medical courses, so I can fix it up temporarily," and so saying I took out my handkerchief and folded it.
"Thanks, you are extremely kind," she said as I staunched the blood and afterwards carefully bandaged the slim, white hand she held forth. "I'm so much obliged," she exclaimed when, having finished it, I secured it with a pin she took from her bodice and handed to me. "I was riding carelessly, and I think my dress must have caught."
"I'm inclined to think," I said, glancing at the road, over which a water-cart had recently passed, "that your wheel skidded, and thus caused a side-slip."
Then picking up the cycle I saw that one of the cranks was bent and that the handles had been knocked awry by the force of the concussion. In that condition it was impossible for her to ride the machine; therefore seeing that she had been badly shaken, for she was rather pale and her hands were trembling, I advised her to rest upon one of the seats; first, however, brushing the dust from her skirt.
"How kind it is of you to groom me!" she laughed. Then, sinking upon a seat panting, she examined her bandaged hand with an expression of dismay.
"Every cyclist must be prepared for falls," I said. "Side-slips like that cannot be avoided, even by the most expert riders. You might have been hurt much more badly—broken your arm or leg perhaps. Does your hand pain you very much?"
"A little, but it is really nothing. I shall bathe it when I get home, and then it will soon be all right, I hope."
"I hope so," I observed. "In a few days you will be quite ready to ride again—only don't ride carelessly."
"No," she laughed. "This will certainly be a lesson."
She was a delightful companion, and I was inwardly thankful for the accident which had resulted in our friendship.
Only one or two stray cyclists passed the spot where we were seated, for it was an unfrequented part of the Bois. Her dark hair had be come disarranged by her fall, her straw hat, discoloured by the sun as hats will become, was dusty, her dress torn at the hem, and with her looked in sorry plight. I judged her to be about twenty-two. Her face was of that type of beauty handsome rather than really pretty, with well-cut features regular and sharply defined, a pair of black eyes in which shone the sparkling light of buoyant youth, a small well formed mouth, and a pointed, dimpled chin protruding and giving a piquancy to her whole face.
She was either a lady—or else a governess. The latter seemed most probable, judging from her dress. The excellent accent of her English, had evidently been acquired at some school in England, her French likewise being Parisian, and not that imitation as spoken by Belgians. Her dress, extremely simple, seemed well made, and her tiny russet cycling boots were of fine quality, even though well worn and slightly down at heel. All these details I noticed as I sat at her side chatting, while she, on her part, appeared to accept my assistance with an air of puzzled confusion, which had its culmination in her sudden exclamation of "What a horrid fright I must look!"
"No, no," I laughed, "it's only the dust. It will all brush off. After a wash you'll be quite yourself again."
"A wash!" she echoed, laughing. "I feel as if I really ought to have a bath. I'm horribly dirty. An accident like this is sufficient to cause one to vow never to mount a cycle again."
"Don't say that," I smiled. "In a week I shall meet you careening along again. I'm sure I shall."
"Yes," she answered frankly, "perhaps you will, for I'm awfully fond of cycling. To tell the truth I don't think anything would induce me to give it up."
"Ah!" I laughed. "I was quite right, you see. Well, the best course is to take a cab from the gate, and allow me to wheel your cycle home."
"No, I couldn't hear of such a thing, m'sieur," she protested with graceful dignity. "The cab can carry the cycle. Let us go," and rising in obedience I wheeled the injured machine to the entrance, while she walked at my side, now quite calm and recovered from the shock of her fall.
At the gate we placed the machine upon a cab, and entering the vehicle she thanked me warmly, gave the cabman an address in the Rue de la Regence, and then, bowing gracefully and waving her tiny hand in farewell, drove away, leaving me in wonder as to who she was.
As we proceeded towards the gate I had noticed one well-dressed middle-aged man riding a chestnut mare raise his hat to her, which she acknowledged with a bow. The greeting thus exchanged caused me to think she was an ardent cyclist well known by sight to those in the habit of taking morning exercise in the Bois.
When her cab had passed out into the Avenue towards the city she turned back and waved her hand again, then an instant later she became hidden behind the trees and I saw her no more.
During the remainder of that day I was much puzzled as to whether she were a governess or a lady. I had that day a report to write upon certain inquiries I had made in a quarter where it was suspected that our diplomatic secrets had leaked out to the Embassies of our enemies. I had already been in Brussels a month, but had discovered absolutely nothing. The fact of being appointed on secret service is to the uninitiated synonymous with being appointed a spy, but in the world of diplomacy a man loses no dignity by seeking to serve his country by secret means.
As in love and war, so also in diplomacy all means are fair to secure one's end. War is always within the bounds of possibility, and it is only by careful and diligent diplomacy that the colossal armies and navies of Europe are prevented from coming into collision. English men and women at home little realise this, and are too fond of relying for their safety upon their insular impregnability without taking into consideration the fact that in case of successful invasion our islands might be starved out within a week. Never in the history of the world has the outlook in Europe been so black as it now is; never has the position of the Powers been so absolutely desperate. Surely the recent Fashoda incident has shown this even to the most sceptical.
As I sat writing in the secretary's room of the Embassy the hall-porter brought me the letters which had just been delivered by the postman, for every letter, either private or official, now passed through my hands before being opened. I placed down my pen, and when the man had gone took from a drawer a microscope, beneath which I placed the ends of each envelope one after another.
To the naked eye there was nothing to show that they and been tampered with, but when beneath the lens it was apparent how from each a tiny slip of a sixteenth of an inch wide had been cut off the end of the envelope by a guillotine for that purpose, thus opening it and after the contents had been examined they had been replaced and the open end re-secured by paper-pulp of exactly the same shade as the envelope operated upon. Thus the seals and gum remained intact.
Every one of those letters had been through the cabinet noir.
Just then Hamilton entered, rather hot and hurried. He was a fair-moustached, open-faced man of about forty, who had made his mark in the diplomatic service, and expected to be appointed shortly to St Petersburg. I passed over the letters to him, observing that they had all been opened.
"Scoundrels," he cried in savage wrath. "Nothing is sacred from them. Not content with tampering with the official correspondence, they must even pry into one's family affairs. It's simply disgraceful."
"No doubt our friends in Paris and Petersburg are at the bottom of it all," I observed. "As you well know, there's a conspiracy to isolate England."
"By heaven. And they are doing it too," he said. "Have you seen the private despatch which came by special messenger from the Marquess this morning?"
"No," I answered, "I haven't seen Sir John to-day. What's it about?"
"It's tone is extremely serious," he answered "It's briefly this. The whole of the secret correspondence between the King and Sir John regarding the secret agreement between England and Belgium, which we transmitted to London for the Marquess's instructions, is missing."
"Missing," I echoed, rising from my chair. "Impossible."
"But it's unfortunately the truth, and we are in a deucedly awkward fix. Sir John is at his wits' end. The despatch only arrived at noon, and Hammerton, the messenger, is awaiting a reply."
"How can it be missing?" I asked. "I remember seeing you take up all the letters into a packet and seal them the day before yesterday. The messenger Graves came from Paris expressly, and took them to London."
"Certainly," he said. "I placed them in the despatch-box myself and Sir John locked it with his key after having placed several other private papers along with them."
"Graves went away to the station in Sir John's brougham, as there was no cab in the vicinity, and he travelled straight to London. It appears that he arrived at six and drove first to Downing street and then to Grosvenor-square, but when the Marquess opened the despatch-box it was empty."
"Empty," I gasped. "Then they've actually got possession of the original letters written by King Leopold, as well as Sir John's suggestions. There's no denying them. Why," I cried in alarm, "the tone of that correspondence is sufficient to cause an immediate declaration of war against us by France and Russia. Certainly this coup is the master stroke of our enemies."
"It is, my dear fellow, and a very serious business for us. Sir John goes to London to-night to consult the chief."
"And the King?" I said. "Does he know?"
"Sir John has already sent to inform him. I fear to think how angry he will be, for it has placed him in a false position with the Powers. The whole thing is exposed. England's policy is entirely checkmated, and her prestige absolutely ruined in the eyes of Europe."
"But if we only could recover that packet?" I suggested.
"Ah, if we only could," exclaimed Hamilton. "By Jove it would be the nation's salvation! But the letters are in Paris by this time, no doubt, and a copy of the correspondence on its way to Petersburg. Our enemies never do anything by halves."
"How the papers could be extracted from the despatch-box is an absolute marvel," I said. "Does any suspicion rest upon Graves?"
"None, as far as is known," he responded. "Why, my dear fellow, he's one of the most trusted of the whole staff of messengers, and as sharp as the proverbial needle. He's been nearly twenty years travelling with despatches and has never before lost a single one. According to the letter from the Marquess, who has personally investigated the affair, he finds that no suspicion whatever attaches to Graves. He believes that the papers must have been stolen somewhere on this side of the Channel."
"Well, I saw you with my own eyes seal them and put them into the box," I remarked, amazed.
"Oh, there's no doubt whatever that they left us, but how they disappeared afterwards is a complete mystery."
"A mystery which we shall have to solve," I added, thoughtfully. "This theft is about the most daring in the annals of diplomacy. It could not have been committed at a more inopportune moment."
As, however, I uttered these words the door of the room was suddenly flung open wide by Salmon, the blue-uniformed English porter, who, in a loud clear voice, announced—
"His Majesty the King!"
We both rose instinctively, and there entered a tall, thin, sharp-featured man with long grey heard. He was attired in close-fitting black frock-coat and grey suede gloves, and walked erect, carrying his silk hat and cane in his hand.
We bowed in the Royal presence, and although his pale face was unusually wrinkled and care-worn he returned our greeting with a courtly affability, motioning us to be reseated.
"I have an appointment with Sir John," he said in English, briefly "I will wait," and then, with a sigh which showed how troubled were his thoughts, he sank into the armchair I placed for him.
True it was that this monarch's life was not, as was popularly supposed, an unvarying round of pleasure. As he sat there silent and a trifle thoughtful, gazing out into the sunny courtyard where his fine horses were champing their bits and pawing, impatient to be gone, he retained a truly regal self-possession. Few, indeed, would have guessed the truth. But it was a hideous one.
His crown and kingdom were at stake.
THERE was no disguising the fact that the British Empire, the pride of the world, was in deadly peril.
Day by day went by, yet to our surprise the situation in Europe remained undisturbed. I paid a flying visit to London to make further inquiries regarding the theft, but soon returned. At the Royal Palace, as at the Embassy and at Downing Street, the few who knew of the theft awaited the dawn of each succeeding day with trembling anxiety, fearing lest the explosion so long threatened should occur. To the last button upon the gaiter Europe was armed, not with the arms of twenty-six years ago when France measured strength with Germany, but with quick-firing guns, Maxims, rifles of astounding length of range, and all kinds of inventions for causing widespread desolation and loss of human life. War was terrible enough in the days of Sedan and Plevna, but all know that its horrors would now be far greater.
Yet in that period of suspense, although King Leopold and his Ministers knew themselves to be on the edge of a volcano, the festivities of the Belgian Court never slackened. Only perhaps a dozen people were aware of the theft of that file of secret correspondence, and any countermanding of previous fetes would have given rise to comment.
Every inquiry I had made produced only negative results. I had questioned Graves, the messenger, closely, and he had asserted that the despatch-box had never left his hand after it had been given him by Hamilton. The file of papers had disappeared as if by magic. In every effort I was baffled by the fact that no suspicion could possibly rest upon Graves, a man who for years had carried the nation's secrets in his safe keeping.
In an anxious, despondent frame of mind, I one night, accompanied by Giffard, attended the State Ball at the Palace, a function at which all of us were expected to be present. Our party, headed by Sir John and Lady Drummond, the former wearing his star of St. Michael and St. George, were received by the Royal pair at the head of the grand staircase with its magnificent marbles and statuary, and as we passed in, the great ballroom with its thousand electric lamps presented a particularly brilliant scene. The various uniforms, sparkling orders, and multi-coloured decorations contrasted well with the toilettes of the ladies, and the show of diamonds, for which the Belgian Court functions have long been notable, was unusually profuse, British diplomatic uniforms are, however, the reverse of showy, and a Portuguese vice-consul is always a more bejewelled, decorated, and imposing-looking person than a British Ambassador.
Among them all, however, few men looked so smart as did my companion Giffard in his Guards uniform, wearing the violet ribbon and cross which the Emperor Francis Joseph had conferred upon him, a duplicate of which I also wore. Around us were many people we knew, the Russian Minister in his imposing white tunic, and glittering with orders, the French and German attaches, to whom we were always courteous but never very friendly, and the Turkish Minister, a little squat brown-faced man in black embroidered coat and dingy fez.
The magnificent band of the Guides, one of the finest in Europe, were playing Strauss's Morgenblätter valse, and many dancers were gliding around the great chamber in centre of the brilliant crowd. There was gaiety, brightness, and laughter everywhere. On every side was a ceaseless chatter in French, with now and then an expression in English or German, for those assembled were nothing if not thoroughly cosmopolitan, and it may safely be said that there are few in the Court circle in Brussels who cannot speak English. Together, Giffard and I passed on towards the top of the room, bowing here and there to ladies in decollete leaning on the arms of their cavaliers, or nodding and exchanging words with men we knew.
Suddenly there was a pause in the music as the valse ended, then a slight stir among the crowd.
"The Royal circle have entered," Giffard remarked, and as I turned I saw at some distance from me the tall imposing figure of the King, his face smiling and bearing no trace of the terrible anxiety which I knew must be consuming him within. These men, the ambassadors of the Powers, whose hands he had shaken in welcome that night were his most bitter and deadly enemies. To-night they laughed gaily with him, and partook of his boundless hospitality, yet he well knew that they were conspiring to take from him his crown, and wreck the kingdom he loved so well.
I gave word to my thoughts in a whisper to Giffard, but in response he said:
"Hush, old fellow! Keep silent. It wouldn't do for you to be overheard."
"Of course not," I said, then I fell to thinking as I gazed around upon that brilliant assembly, where the women blazed with gems, and the men wore their full decorations upon their breasts.
I had attended many an Imperial function in Vienna, and many a reception at the Palace at Madrid; but never had I been present at a ball where was displayed such a wealth of jewels, or where the women were on the whole so good-looking.
Some of the ladies were well known to me, for a Secretary of Embassy is very quickly in society, and to many of them I chatted after Giffard had left me to dance with the pretty daughter of the Minister of Agriculture, a fair-haired young lady whom I had detected on more than one occasion flirting desperately with him.
I was seated with the pink and white, fluffy-haired Baroness de Meireux, whose historic pearl necklet was being admired, perhaps coveted, by most women in the room, gossiping and watching the dancers, when suddenly on the opposite side of the polished space where the Lancers were in progress my eyes encountered a striking figure in turquoise blue. She was standing in conversation with a couple of elderly ladies when, as she suddenly turned her face towards me, I was amazed to recognise her.
She had not noticed me, and was slowly waving her large ostrich feather fan to and fro, chatting with the elder of her two companions. Her toilette was certainly one of the most beautiful and striking in the room, its tints suiting her dark complexion admirably, and its facture of the latest mode garnished with silver passementerie and tiny ruches of chiffon. Across her white open brow was a magnificent tiara of diamonds, and around her throat a beautiful necklet of the same gems sparkled beneath the electric rays with a thousand iridescent fires. Her dark well-coiled hair had been arranged by a maid of the first order; there were diamonds on her wrists, and everyone about me was remarking her beauty.
For a long time my eyes were riveted upon her, to make certain that I was not mistaken, and to reassure myself that it was more than a mere striking resemblance. Then, when at last I became satisfied, I sat gazing upon her in blank amazement.
"Do you know who that is, over there, in blue?" I asked of my friend the skittish Baroness, for in Brussels society she knew everybody.
"Of course," she answered, in English. "She's awfully smart and good-looking, isn't she. Don't you know her? Oh, but of course you were not in Brussels last season," she added. "She's Melanie, daughter of the Princess Charlotte of Hapsbourg. That's her mother, the rather stout woman talking to her now."
"Then she's a Princess of blood royal!" I exclaimed, absolutely dumbfounded.
"Certainly," answered the Baroness. "Her mother is a Hohenzollern, you know; and they are here on a visit to the Queen. The Princess Melanie is certainly very handsome, but she has all the pride of the Hapsbourgs, and makes very few friends. As for the men, she gives them all their conge—all, save one," she added, dropping her voice to a whisper, and smiling significantly.
"And who's he?" I asked quickly; for in her I took more than a passing interest.
"Oh! a mere nobody," she answered. "Last season when they were here there were lots of funny stories about. They say she is fond of escaping from the royal circle of an evening, and going out for walks with her cavalier; and then there have been a good many scenes created in the family because of her penchant for this fellow."
I looked up again at the striking figure in turquoise, whom everyone was admiring, and wondered whether she remembered that morning in the Bois, when I had brushed the dust from her skirt and bandaged up her hand.
How different was her appearance now—the centre and admired of all that throng, one of the most dazzlingly brilliant in the whole of Europe. I recollected her rather shabby cycling skirt, her straw hat, which had been discoloured by the suns of the previous season, and her boots worn until they had gone out of shape, and contrasted them with the erect, rather haughty figure before me; the costly Paris-made gown, with its smart decollete, and the flashing tiara against her dark hair.
I recollected how so unaffected had she seemed when we had met after her accident that I actually set her down as a governess, whereas she was none other than a Princess of the great and powerful House of Hapsbourg—the proudest house in Europe.
Her beauty fascinated me. I sat there gazing at her as one held beneath a spell.
As a rule, I fear I am not very impressionable where women are concerned. My profession as diplomatist has brought me in contact with many women of dazzling beauty, but at the Embassies it is part of our creed never to fall victim to a woman's loveliness; never to become the slave of any of those capricious butterflies of fashion who are so fond of angling after the foreign diplomat. All this was impressed upon me by the kindly Marquess prior to my first appointment abroad. It was part of his wise counsel how to conduct diplomacy successfully.
Of course, just as it is part of a diplomat's creed not to love, it is also part of his creed to flirt desperately should occasion require. There are times when the young attache can gain valuable information withheld from his chief through the brainless woman whom he flatters, and with whom he affects to be desperately in love. Indeed, in all the Embassies abroad love plays a greater part in international negotiations than is ever dreamed of by the public.
I think that I, like certain of my colleagues, had succeeded in bringing flirtation near to the perfection of an art, and when I recollected certain escapades in Vienna, where by an affectation of affection I had been successful in gaining some exceedingly valuable information regarding the political undercurrent, and remembered how near a duel I had been on more than one occasion I smiled within myself.
But at this moment I confess to a very serious affair of the heart. That dark-haired, neatly dressed girl who had had such a nasty spill from her cycle, had captivated me by her grace, her beauty, and her natural outspokenness. I saw now why she would not allow me to wheel her cycle home. She did not wish the world to know that she had had a fall in the Bois, being aware how fond the papers are of giving publicity to all sorts of alarming reports. It was her natural discretion which led her to refuse my further aid. Yet had she not turned in the cab, and with laughing, mischievous eyes waved her hand to me in farewell.
The Baroness at my side was chattering away, now and then whimpering behind her fan some scandal or other about those who passed by, but I only replied mechanically. I was too much occupied with my own reflections to heed the chatter of this, one of the giddiest and smartest leaders of fashion.
I wondered whether I should salute this woman who had so fascinated me, or whether I should preserve strict etiquette, and wait until she recognised me. This was the question which sorely puzzled me. If she saw me and desired to renew the acquaintance, she would surely speak, I argued. If not, then she would cut me dead, and I should know that she wished the secret of her accident preserved.
At length, a mutual acquaintance, Count Corrigani, of the Italian Legation, came up and commenced to chat with the Baroness, whereupon I seized the opportunity and strolled away in the direction of where my friend of the Bois was standing, now in conversation with the Queen of the Belgians and her unmarried daughter, the Princess Clementine, a pretty dark-haired girl of 19 who had only lately been admitted to such functions, and who, truth to tell, was more at home on her pony in the leafy glades at Spa than among that bejewelled throng with its ceaseless chatter and combined odour of a thousand intoxicating perfumes.
For some time I lounged about, exchanging words with those I knew and dancing a couple of waltzes with a smart woman to whom I had been introduced by Hamilton, and who I understood was to be the wife of the ex-Governor General of the Congo. Through all that time, however, I kept surreptitious observation upon that tall figure in turquoise with the diamond tiara which flashed back every colour of the spectrum. She was surrounded by admirers, but refused all invitations to dance. The King and the Archduchess Stephanie had led the cotillon, and according to strict etiquette that was sufficient. At no Court, save that of Spain perhaps, is etiquette so rigorously preserved as at Brussels, and perhaps, alas! no reigning family is more unfortunate in its matrimonial alliances than that of Belgium.
At length, when I saw my divinity with only a single lady at her side, the wife of the German Minister, I hastened across and leisurely passed her, hoping that she might recognise me and bow. I had resolved not to commit such a flagrant breach of etiquette as to claim acquaintance with her. Idly and with affected carelessness I therefore strode past, when just as I got level with her she raised her dark eyes from those of her companion and looked me straight in the face. I expected each second that she would bow; but in her gaze was no glance of recognition, only a cold haughty stare of askance, as though she had noticed I had watched her, and was annoyed that I should approach her in that manner.
No, she evidently did not intend to recognise me. There was no excuse whatever, because she looked full into my face with her great dark eyes, a glance firm, cold, unwavering. She had cut me dead. My heart sank with me, for she was my idol, and her perfect beauty, enhanced by those dazzling jewels, held me captive. Thus I passed on, and it was a long while before I summoned courage to again look in her direction, fearing lest she might consider me an uncouth boor. When, however, I did, I saw her still chatting with the buxom lady who presided over the German Legation, and smiling at some words the latter had uttered.
Then I passed into the lounge set apart for men, swallowed a glass of champagne, smoked a cigarette—the cigarettes King Leopold gives to his guests are, as every diplomatist knows, the best in Europe—and joined in the cosmopolitan chatter of a dozen or so of the diplomatic body more or less known to me.
For a long time I lingered in the galleries, and it was nearly an hour before I returned to the ballroom, where I found the function at its height. An old minuet had been performed, and everybody was discussing it, when, ere I became aware of the fact, I came face to face with my dark-haired divinity in blue, who seated alone on a settee suddenly recognised me, smiled graciously, and bowed.
My heart leapt for joy. She had by this action given me permission to speak.
IN an instant I halted, and bowing, said,—
"I trust that your Highness's hand has given you no further trouble."
"Oh, dear, no," she answered in perfect English, smiling, at the same time drawing her rich skirts towards her to make room for me on the settee at her side. Then she added "Thanks to the professional manner in which you bandaged it. The doctor was quite interested when I showed it to him. Won't you be seated?"
I accepted her invitation, and told her of my surprise on recognising her an hour before.
"I was also surprised to meet you here. I had no idea that you were attached to the British Legation before I inquired. Therefore, please forgive me for not recognising you at first."
"There is nothing to forgive," I laughed.
"Sometimes one has to be wary in recognising strangers," she said in further explanation. "Immediately I discovered who you were I was annoyed that I had treated you so coldly."
"A princess has many privileges not extended to others," I remarked.
"And alas! m'sieur, she is also under very many disadvantages of which the world knows nothing," she added, in a voice of pouting discontent, raising her fine eyes to mine. "There is nothing I love so much as perfect freedom; yet unfortunately I obtain so very, very little of it, hedged in as I am by Court etiquette, and a constant fear that those gossiping journalists, ever ready to exaggerate, may make a lot of tittle-tattle to fill up their personal columns."
"You are fond of cycling?" I asked smiling. Her confession was so perfectly frank that I at once discredited the Baroness's estimate of her.
"Yes, awfully. I love it," she declared. "It is because I am so fond of it that I rise every morning at five, put on my old dress, and go for a spin in the Bois. One of the keepers who is in the secret has charge of my cycle. Unnoticed by anybody I take the first tram from the Place Royale at half-past five, and with work-people as fellow travellers, arrive at the Bois just before six. And then—well, I am free to ride about just as I like, and I can tell you I really enjoy myself. It is such fun. Between six and eight, before the merchants and others come to take their morning ride, the sun is beautiful, and all is so quiet and and fresh with the birds singing gladly, so different to when we go driving there at four among the dust, and the carriages, and the gaping crowd. The drive at four is regulated by Society—ugh!" and she shrugged her shoulders, causing the brilliants of the beautiful star of some Imperial decoration fixed on the broad crimson ribbon across the edge of her bodice to glitter and gleam.
The splendour of those jewels bewildered me; but far more beautiful was that face which had so relaxed in its haughty expression now that we were together. She was entirely ingenuous and inexpressibly charming.
"Yes," I said, reflectively, "the trammels must sometimes be galling."
"They are especially so when one's family is bent upon preserving the old rigour of past exclusiveness. Why, the heads of my family would expire with horror were they to know that I rode a cycle and went alone and unattended into a public park. It was because I did not know you, and feared that you might gossip about my accident, that I preserved my incognita, and declined to allow you to further assist me, or to know where I resided."
"Your Highness must exercise the greatest care," I remarked warningly. "Others may recognise you."
"How can they," she asked. "Why—I've gone there every morning for the past month, and the secret has never leaked out. My mother does not even know I possess such an abomination as a cycle," and she laughed that same merry, mischievous laugh which I remembered had escaped her when on that morning she bade me adieu and drove away.
"But I noticed that as we were leaving the Bois together more than one man bowed to you," I said.
"Oh yes," she laughed. "They are of the liver brigade—who take horse exercise every morning. We have met each morning passing and repassing, and now we salute, although we have never spoken. But tell me," she added, "who told you my name?"
"The Baroness de Melreux," I answered.
"Ah! yes, I know her," she observed, after a second's reflection, and I thought her lips compressed ever so little, yet quite sufficient to tell me that they were not friends. Indeed, it would have been strange to find a princess of the proud House of Hapsbourg friendly with the gay, skittish little Baroness of whom all Brussels was so fond of talking.
"And has m'sieur been in Brussels long?" she asked, as if determined to ascertain something more about me.
"Only a couple of months," I replied. "Previously I was at Constantinople, and before that at Vienna."
"At Vienna?" she echoed. "Strange that we have never met there. I do not remember ever having seen you at the Palace."
"Nor I," I answered. "Yet I went to many of the receptions."
"And you like Brussels?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied. "I'm fond of it because it is always so bright, gay, and careless, without any bustle and turmoil. Here one can be gay or tranquil just as one likes. It is not so in Paris, in Berlin, or in Vienna."
"And I, too, am extremely fond of Brussels," she answered. "Next to our home on the Moselle I like Brussels best of all. Do you know the Moselle?"
"Yes. I travelled up there once. It is delightful—very."
At that instant I recollected how at sunset one evening I had passed on the snorting little steamer close to the great frowning cliff whereon was perched the magnificent many-turreted, time-worn old pile the Sohloss Brandenberg, the historic home of the Hapsbourgs, the windows of which had flashed back the crimson rays of the sun. Of all the castles on the Rhine or Moselle none was so magnificent in its proportions, so well preserved, or so full of romance of those bygone days when the Archbishop of Treves and his legions terrorised the district, when castles were invested and sacked, and men and women put to the torture or exhibited in iron cages upon the now crumbling turrets.
"Yes," she said, "the Moselle valley, and, indeed, all the district surrounding it, is very charming. I love it partly because it is my home, but more because there alone can I obtain perfect freedom. I can drive about, go boating, or take rambles over the hills without meeting a soul save perhaps a stray English tourist from Cochem or Treves, and by them I am not recognised. Indeed, my maid always says that a serge dress and a sailor hat make me look quite English. Do you think so?"
"Certainly," I responded, laughing. "To tell you the truth I believed you were English when we first met the other day."
"Lots of people have said so," she answered, smiling. "One day at Brandenberg I had been out walking alone all the morning, for I was doing some amateur photography, and became terribly thirsty. So on coming to a little village I entered the inn for some milk and there found two young Englishmen, who, speaking German rather indifferently, were endeavouring to make the good woman understand their needs. At last I was obliged to assist them, and after thanking me they went out. Then when they got outside I heard one say to the other. 'No, I tell you she's English governess to some German family here.' I was awfully amused."
I laughed, recollecting that my own opinion had also coincided with that of the unknown Englishmen.
"I've heard much of the wonders of Brandenberg—its dungeons, subterranean passages, and strange galleries hewn out of the solid rock," I said. "It must be a marvellous old place."
"Yes, it is beautiful. No happier life does one wish to lead in summer than there, free from all the formalities of Court, and the worries of constant dressing, receiving visitors, dining, and never having an hour to one's self. On the Moselle all is so quiet, so tranquil, so bright and healthy, that it comes as a pleasant relaxation to us, worn out by a season in London, Berlin, or Vienna.
"Other people go to the Baths or the sea side, but we can't, for freedom of life at a popular resort is impossible. Only in the quiet country can we obtain it, and then I for one enjoy it to its full." And her dark brilliant eyes, so full of enthusiasm, sparkled gleefully as she spoke.
Who, I wondered, was this mysterious lover of hers of whom the Baroness had spoken? Could it be possible that the real motive of her going each morning so early to those leafy glades was in order to meet him?
"And you don't cycle at Brandenberg?" I asked.
"Dear me, no!" she answered, holding up her hand with a look of horror. "I dare not let anyone know that I have a cycle. On the morning of my accident I took it at once to a repairer's, and it's still there. You know my secret. I rely on you not to mention it to anyone."
"Of course not," I replied, flattered by her highness's confidence. "I promise not to utter a single word."
"Ah, I knew you would be chivalrous," she exclaimed, gaily.
"I would like very much indeed to exhibit a further chivalry, if I might?" I said, emboldened by her freedom of manner.
She glanced sharply at me with a puzzled expression.
"I don't quite understand," she exclaimed.
"Permission to cycle in the Bois on the next morning your highness goes there would delight me," I explained.
"Certainly," she answered, slightly inclining her head with an infinite grace. "I have no objection whatever. Of course, if any of your friends notice you you'll not tell them who I am."
Her answer filled me with enthusiasm. It showed that she, a princess of the blood royal, was not averse to my companionship. Cautious lest she should commit an error of etiquette and give offence to her proud family, she was nevertheless plain, honest, outspoken, and charming, modest and unassuming like any ordinary woman, and fond of throwing off the constant exclusiveness with which every member of a royal family must of necessity be enveloped. That she could be cold, haughty, and disdainful I had already witnessed; so also had I seen that she could be communicative and confidential. Yes, she was a princess, and unique.
The whirl of the dance passed before us, the perfumed skirts of the dancers whisking now and then into our faces, yet I heeded them not. I sat beside her, spellbound by her beauty. In that brief half-hour while we had talked I had cast aside my creed as a diplomatist; I had cast to the winds all my foolish vows regarding women.
I loved her. Yes, I confess openly that I loved her.
Yet when I reflected, even while she chatted on unconcernedly, I saw how absurd it all was, how utterly foolish was my infatuation. Had I been a youthful sprig of the aristocracy fresh from the Foreign Office, and pitchforked into diplomacy by family influence, it might have been understood; but of me, well seasoned by 10 years of Court life, and a member of the Secret Service of her Majesty to boot, such a thing was utterly ridiculous.
I told myself all this. I argued with myself that while she was a princess of royal blood, I was merely a diplomatist, not very high up in the service, and a little matter of ?10,000 in my bank in London was all I possessed in the world. Nevertheless, love over-rode all my misgivings. The magnetic influence of those bright dark eyes, the brilliance of which outmatched even the glittering tiara on her brow, held me to her. Yes, I was irretrievably her slave.
Again the recollection of those words of the Baroness arose within me. They implied that she had a secret lover—one who, like myself, she dared not acknowledge before the world. Was that, I wondered, the actual truth? Did this man, whoever he might be, possess her heart? One thing at least was certain, that she did not meet him in the mornings in the Bois, or she would not have so readily granted me permission to cycle with her.
She might, however, meet him at night. That was, I thought, more probable. She could pass unrecognised along those dimly-lit leafy boulevards down which the electric trams flash so quickly, and where, in the centre walk, an ideal promenade for lovers, but little light penetrates after nightfall. I glanced again at her face, flawless in its beauty. It was impossible for a woman of her loveliness to have no accepted admirer.
And then a strange, half-dreamy thought crossed my mind. Could I some day in the future induce her to transfer her affections to me instead? That was the height of my ambition. In future I would live only for her, for I honestly and truly loved her.
Suddenly looking into my eyes with that same open frank expression that was so charming, she said with a smile:
"You have not invited me to dance, m'sieur. Why?"
"I—well, I did not think you would care to dance with me," I stammered.
"Why?" she laughed, rising at the same moment. "I shall be delighted. As you did not invite me I have invited myself. Will you forgive me?"
"Certainly," I replied, amused at her frankness of manner, and a few moments later we were gliding together down the room. She was a magnificent dancer, but I fear I cut a horrible figure, for I felt that every eye of that brilliant crowd was fixed upon us, and I thought I detected comments as we passed. With my hand upon her waist, slim in its well made corset, I saw beneath my eyes her delicate white chest heaving and falling as she breathed. Her face flushed slightly with the exertion, but by its expression I saw how thorough was her enjoyment. From her chiffons there exhaled a subtle perfume of jasmine which filled my nostrils and held me in a kind of delightful half-delirium. Indeed, I have little remembrance of the details of that dance with the lovely woman who had entranced me. All I recollect is that after two turns round the great ballroom she declared that the heat had made her thirsty, and suggested that we should go together to the buffet.
She took my arm, and I was about to lead her to the place wherein I had entered an hour before; but she suggested another buffet on the opposite side of the ballroom, the existence of which I had been unaware. On our way we encountered Giffard, who stood staring at me transfixed in wonder, amazed no doubt at witnessing who was my companion. I knew that when we met later he would put me through a pretty stiff cross-examination regarding my acquaintance with her, and I wondered what I should say.
The buffet proved to be a kind of Moorish lounge, a great place, rather dimly lit, with hanging lamps of beaten brass, carpeted with thick Eastern rugs, decorated with heavy crimson and gold, and full of tiny inviting-looking alcoves, in one of which we ensconced ourselves, whereupon a livered servant at once approached, asking—
"What may I get your Royal Highness? Champagne-cup?"
"Ah, no!" she exclaimed. "Get me a little anisette and ice-water."
I ordered something, I forget what, and then we resumed our pleasant chat. There were but few people in our vicinity, and sitting there in the dim half-light it suddenly occurred to me that anyone discovering us would at once accuse us of flirtation. In the tiny alcove she lolled lazily among the soft silken cushions, laughing low as she sipped her anisette. Her tiny foot with its satin shoe was stretched forth upon the dark rug, and one white-gloved hand she had placed behind her head in an attitude of langour.
Here, she seemed to have thrown off that stiffness and restraint which she had been forced to preserve in the ballroom, and once I thought I detected just the slightest suspicion of a sigh. Our gossip was mainly about people in Brussels whom we both knew, until of a sudden she asked—
"Have you known the Baroness de Melreux long?"
"About four years, I think."
"Ah! before her marriage," she said quickly. "And you are her friend?" She uttered that query with a hardness of tone which sounded very strange. She seemed to lay undue stress upon the word friend.
"Well, not exactly," I said. "We are not very intimate friends. I knew her in Vienna. She used very often to be there with her mother."
"Yes, yes, I know," she said, with a strange note of impatience in her voice. "I fear, however, she's not my friend."
"Well, no one takes her seriously," I observed. "Her character is rather too well known."
"But people are apt to regard idle gossip as containing some substratum of truth," she answered, and then there flashed upon my recollection the allegation of the Baroness that she had a secret lover. Was she now trying to warn me against giving credence to any libellous utterances?
"To the chatter of such a woman no one gives heed," I assured her.
But she only shook her head doubtfully, observing—
"There are some women whose tongues are full of venom."
"Yet those who are invulnerable need have no fear," I added.
She sighed, and a deep shadow of pain crossed her brow. Only, however, for an instant. Then in the dim light I saw those brilliant dark eyes fixed upon mine with a strange earnestness that puzzled me.
"We have not yet fixed our meeting for cycling," I said at last, for want of something else to say.
"To-morrow morning, if you will," she answered, quickly interested. "Shall we say at six, just at the entrance to the Bois where the trams stop?"
"Yes," I responded. "I shall be extremely delighted." At that instant, however, the tall figure of a man in plain evening dress came suddenly into view. He walked along slowly, with his hands behind his back and his head slightly bent as if in thought. He trod the thick rugs noiselessly, but so dim was the light that above the white of his shirt-front I could not clearly distinguish his features. That he was beyond the average height was plain, and he was rather slim; while from the squareness of his shoulders I guessed that he had not yet attained middle age.
Slowly he approached, a dark silent figure displaying a wide expanse of starched shirt-front, and as he drew near to us I was suddenly amazed to notice a look of unspeakable fear in my companion's fathomless eyes. Her white-gloved hand instinctively sought mine, and trembled as it grasped my wrist. Her face was pale as death.
She shrank back into the deeper shadow of the alcove beside me as if to hide herself, breathless, trembling, terrified.
I SAT next morning on one of the chairs just inside the entrance to the Bois, awaiting the dark-eyed woman who held me beneath her invincible charm. In the bright sunshine the birds sang joyously, the air was still fresh with that sweet odour of the woods, and as yet none of the morning riders had arrived. From where I sat I could see far down the leafy avenue leading to the city, and as yet there was no sign of the first electric tram which would bear her to me. I had ridden up on my cycle, which now stood on the roadside, and as I sat there I reflected deeply upon the strange events of the previous night. A few brief hours ago, and I had been unaware of my dainty little friend's name and station; while now I was there awaiting her, having received her permission to act as her escort. I recollected how truly regal was her figure with that magnificent tiara flashing in the light, how every woman and man in the room had looked admiringly upon her and commented in undertones upon her great beauty as she passed, and I remembered, too, how utterly unassuming she had been towards me, treating me, a struggling diplomatist, exactly as she would have done her equal. She had even confided in me. Indeed, was I not in possession of one of her secrets? She had allowed me to become her friend.
The one fact, however, which had puzzled me, and caused me much speculation as I lay in bed during the couple of hours or so I had spent at home, was the reason of her strange fear on the approach of that tall man who had passed us in the lounge so noiselessly, and disappeared as quickly as though he were a shadow. Times without number I strove to form within myself some idea of his personal appearance, but without avail. It had been so dark in there, where only those Moorish oil-lights in their long globes illuminated the place dimly, that his face had been merely a dark blotch in the silhouette as he went by. His white shirt-front had been conspicuous—nothing else. Again, while all were in uniform or court dress, this man was dressed quite plainly, without a single decoration save some cross or other suspended by a ribbon beneath his cravat. It was a dark ribbon, I had noticed, but what the order was I could form no idea.
From her sudden fear it was evident that this stranger's appearance had been utterly unexpected. She had been unnerved in an instant, and as he passed she had sat with her hand on mine involuntarily, as though seeking my protection from some evil which she dreaded.
Yet he had passed us by. Whether he had recognised her I know not. If he did he made no sign, but passed on in the same serious pensive attitude, as one who was trying to form some plan or scheme some terrible revenge. Curious it was, too, that I had not noticed him in the ballroom, for a man attired so plainly must have been conspicuous. Nevertheless, when he had gone, she seemed to breathe more freely, and we rose at her instigation and followed him to where the dance was still in progress. But he vanished instantly, as though he had become in a moment invisible, a fact which in itself seemed to increase rather than diminish her apprehensions.
I saw in the full glare of electricity how pale and agitated was her beautiful face. That look of supreme contentment had given place to a hard, haggard expression, as though she were haunted by some terrible terror, and then after one turn round the room, her eyes ever searching for this man who had appeared and disappeared so suddenly, she had bidden me farewell and left.
This ending to our pleasant hour of confidences and light gossip was indeed a curiously abrupt one. Her fear seemed to arise more from the fact that I was with her as companion than anything else, and as I drove to my rooms in the higher part of the town I became immersed in a veritable ocean of doubts and fears.
We were but friends of an hour, therefore I had no right to question her about this man. Nevertheless I had spontaneously loved her at first sight in the Bois with a strength of passion of which I had never believed myself capable, and now as she was anxious and in fear I felt it my duty to stand as her champion. At the instant when she had given me her hand and wished me 'good-night,' I had asked whether our appointment for later that morning had not better be postponed till next day, but she only opened those great, brilliant eyes of hers wider, and asked—
"Because it is already three," I answered. "You will get no rest."
"I want none," she answered, with just a touch of sadness. "I shall not sleep to-night. Good-bye till six."
Then smiling, and with a swish of her silken skirts, she had drawn herself up and passed on across the great hall of marble and gold, where the servants in the royal livery bowed before her.
Thus I had kept the appointment, and after waiting a quarter of an hour or so the first tram came swiftly up the long Avenue, and from it there alighted the neat figure in white cotton blouse and black skirt with the plain straw hat, the lithe slim figure I knew so well.
I rose, walking quickly towards her, with hand outstretched gladly. She looked so bright and fresh as she greeted me that none would believe that she had been up the greater part of the night. All trace, too, of the strange mysterious dread had disappeared. Her dark hair dressed so elaborately on the previous night was now coiled simply, and both skirt and boots, I noticed, were a trifle shabby; indeed, they were such as would have been discarded by the majority of 'young ladies' who disport themselves awheel later in the morning because it is considered chic so to do.
Still, even in those well-worn clothes, she possessed a charm and grace which held her exalted and distinguished above other women. In her gait alone, walking erect, upright, easy, there was a stamp of royal hauteur; while in her eyes, those soft dark eyes which seemed to smile so bewitchingly and sweetly upon me, there was often a swift resentful glance which told me how proud and cold she could be to those who were not her intimates.
"The keeper, in the lodge over there, has my cycle," she explained in breathless eagerness when she had told me how, being late, she had dressed hurriedly and left the Palace by the servants' entrance, just in time to scramble into the tram. Then we went together to the old man, who, wishing us good morning, wheeled out her machine, which had been repaired since her accident, and after some slight adjustment of the saddle we both mounted and spun away along that well-kept road which all in Brussels know is a perfect paradise for the cyclist.
That she was a practised rider I at once recognised by the manner in which she mounted; and very soon her hat becoming loose she raised both hands to her head to readjust it, steering only by the balance of her body.
"Come! come!" I laughed. "Don't ride recklessly again. Recollect the last time, and its result."
"Oh, I'm going to be very careful in future, I assure you," she answered, turning to me with a merry laugh. "I promise you that I won't run any unnecessary risks. Besides, my hand is not altogether well yet."
Her assertion, however, was not borne out by her riding, for she paced along at a rate extremely swift for a woman, shooting down the short inclines even more quickly than I did. But there were no other cyclists or carriages there at that hour, and swift riding in the bright morning hour was very exhilarating. That she enjoyed it was shown by her face, gleeful and flushed with exertion, while the wind had slightly disarranged her hair and a wisp of it strayed across her curved cheek, pure and rounded as a child's. Her machine was a light one of the best English make, with every improvement, carrying one of those large French horns instead of a bell, an instrument which, blown by squeezing an indiarubber ball, emitted a loud, terrible trumpeting which could be heard a mile away.
The manner in which she rode was proof of what keen delight she took in cycling. Perhaps it was because she participated in the popular recreation surreptitiously that gave this increased zest to her pleasure. At any rate, our first spin was a most enjoyable one, a ride beneath those wide spreading trees, fresh in their young green, and bright in the morning sunshine, that I shall recollect for ever among my most cherished memories of days that have gone.
At length we slowed down near the picturesque lake with its tiny island and chalet in the distance, and then, as we rode easily side by side, she commenced to chat about the people on cycles and on horseback which were now beginning to pass and repass us, for the early morning ride had already commenced.
One rider who went by was a captain of cavalry, in his smart olive green and cherry-coloured uniform, and as he passed he saluted her.
"Does he recognise you?" I inquired quickly.
"Oh, dear no," she laughed. "He's only one of my morning friends. Perhaps he thinks I bear a striking resemblance to myself, but none would dream that I came cycling here alone at this hour. Therefore I am quite safe."
"And your Highness has no fear of being recognised?"
"None," she responded. "The very people who pass me unheeded now salute me when at four o'clock I drive here in the carriage with my mother. One's dress makes all the difference. Fine feathers make fine birds;" and she laughed merrily as she thought how ingeniously she preserved her morning incognita.
In that bright fresh air and brilliant sunshine, spinning along the wide avenue, and now and then taking narrow side ways where the trees met overhead, our ride was most delightful. Her happy laughter rang out always when I expressed fear at whatever seemed to be a reckless action. Indeed, it seemed as though she took an intense delight in causing me alarm. Yet was she not in my charge—and did I not love her with all the strength of my being? I longed to tell her so; I longed to get her to sit for a moment upon one of those inviting seats in the quiet beneath the trees and there pour out to her the secret of my heart.
But I could never do that—never. I was her friend, not her lover. She was the Princess Melanie, of Hapsbourg, who some day might become a queen. And what was I?
No; for the thousandth time I strove to stifle this burning affection which, fatal to my happiness, had arisen so suddenly within me. I told myself that I had foolishly gone back upon the vow I had made years ago. I was casting to the winds all the tenets of my religion as a diplomatist; I was acting just as the fledgling attache would act, and had fallen a victim to a woman's gaze. It was all airy, romantic, impossible. If I told her of my love she would merely laugh in my face. No, she, a princess, could never be mine—never.
Yet, had I not been told that she had somewhere a secret lover, a man unknown, unacknowledged, unpresentable, to whom she clung in secret? No doubt she met him clandestinely; and he, some cold, cunning scoundrel perhaps, profited in a pecuniary sense from their acquaintance.
In wonder I again looked at her. If such were really the case it did not seem feasible that she should cycle with me. Why did he not ride at her side?
Then still another thought occurred to me. Her lover might be married, and might, by cycling with her, compromise himself. Such suggestion seemed so like the truth that I felt inclined to believe it.
Again, could that mysterious figure which had passed us by in silence and in shadow have been the man she loved? Was it because he had discovered me there with her that she had betrayed that intense fear and anxiety which had so puzzled me? I strove yet again to form some theory, but all in vain. She had come into my life, and held me spellbound by her beauty and charm of manner. There was a fascination in those eyes absolutely irresistible, a frankness in her conversation which held me to her as to an intimate friend.
In brief, I had become entranced, and was hers unwittingly, body and soul.
At last, at a shady restful point, where the foliage grew thickly and the fresh smell of the woods was refreshing, we dismounted, placed our machines against a tree trunk, and sat down.
There was a summer warmth in the air; the little forest birds hopped from bough to bough chirping and pluming themselves, and the low rustle of the leaves was as the sighing of the sea.
I asked whether she was not fatigued, but she answered in the negative, laughing lightly.
"But you really must be tired," she said. "As a rule you men don't rise so early. Was it because you wished to appear amiable towards me?"
"I—well, I like cycling," I stammered, rather confounded by the directness of her question.
"But you haven't cycled here before, have you?" she asked. "I remember one morning you were riding with your friend Colonel Giffard. Your mount was a dark bay."
"Yes," I answered, surprised that she should have noticed me. I had not seen her. "Then you knew me by sight before your accident—eh?"
"I had noticed you once or twice," she responded. "I always think that you diplomatic people must have an awfully jolly time. You are entirely free; you have always a good set of friends, plenty of gaiety, and nothing to do except to lie to one another artistically."
"Well, your description of diplomatic life is certainly flavoured with sarcasm," I said, laughing heartily. "You are, however, quite correct when you say that we tell untruths artistically. The greater the liar, the more successful the diplomatist."
"Of course," she agreed. "If an ambassador always told the truth he'd have to present his letters of recall within a week. From my own observation I've come to the conclusion that a diplomatist must possess absolutely no conscience, and be unscrupulous alike towards both friends and enemies."
"No, no," I protested, "we are really not all like that. Compelled as we are to protect the interests of the country we represent, we endeavour always to do so by fair means. But when we have in active opposition to us enemies who will not hesitate at the meanest action in order to attain their own ends, we are then compelled to act smartly, even if it savours of dishonesty, for the purpose of outwitting them."
"The crowd of Ambassadors at the Court of Berlin always amuse me," she said. "Each one is trying to get the better of his friend, and the Emperor treats the whole assembly as so many toys. He once told me that the Court would be very dull if it were not for their eternal scrambling over one another."
"He was quite right," I laughed. "Nevertheless I suppose we are among the necessary evils in the world. If there was no diplomacy we should have war to-morrow."
"Certainly," she answered, growing in an instant serious. "I was, of course, only chaffing. Sometimes the bickering in diplomatic circles presents a very undignified spectacle to a monarch, although in these unsettled days when you English have to cope with France and Russia combined together, with considerable ill-will in Berlin, it behoves you to have your wits ever ready. I often think we are within measurable distance of war."
"Why?" I inquired quickly.
She sat pensive, her tiny feet in shabby shoes stretched forth beneath the rather short skirt sadly frayed at the hem. She had apparently allowed the remark to slip unwisely from her lips, and was hesitating, her face now grave, now sensitive, now touched with that mysterious exultation that glows through the histories of the saints, that shines from dusty tapestries, that hides in the dim faces carved on shrines.
"I hear ominous predictions," she answered in a low tone, and I thought I detected that she shuddered. "If there is war, it will be with England. The Powers will unite to crush her."
I turned my eyes upon hers seriously. Was it not strange that she should tell me this; that she should thus refer to the terrible dread which was at that moment consuming us at the Legation; that she should utter the prophecy which I knew, alas! to be too true.
She gazed at me steadily, her dark luminous eyes unwavering. Could it be that she knew of the inexplicable theft of the document from the despatch box, and that she, like myself, was dreading its dire result?
The theft was, of course, known to King Leopold, but he had vowed solemnly to Sir John Drummond to say no word of it, even to his intimates. None knew of it outside the Legation, yet throughout her whole conversation there was a note of warning.
Had she, a princess, received secret information that war with England was imminent, and as my friend, found a means of warning me?
"Do you really think that England is so isolated as is generally believed?" I inquired.
"Yes," she answered, with a strange hard look. "All your clever diplomacy has been frustrated by the machinations of your ingenious enemies, and at this moment England is in gravest peril."
AT noon that same day I was standing at the window of Sir John's private room at the Legation, looking moodily out upon the wide handsome Rue de la Loi, that long straight thoroughfare which runs up to the park wherein the recent International Exhibition was held, and where its imposing buildings still stand. It was a big brown room, well carpeted and lined with books; a room wherein many a consultation had taken place regarding England's policy towards the Powers. The Legation is a corner building, its front facing upon a courtyard in the Rue de Spa, its rear overlooking the main thoroughfare up which the electric trams continually pass.
Graves, the foreign service messenger, had arrived from London, and the despatch-box he had brought stood unopened upon Sir John's table. I had given the formal receipt for it, and Graves was lunching after his journey. The Ambassador alone held the key, and he was down at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The messenger had announced that the despatches were of importance, therefore I had sent word to the Chief by telephone of their arrival.
As I stood at the window reflecting upon the pleasant morning I had spent in the Bois, Sir John suddenly entered in hot haste, wishing me good morning, and at once breaking the seals and unlocking the box.
Inside were two envelopes. One a pale blue one, rather bulky, and the other white, with a conspicuous blue cross upon it. Sir John tore the latter open, and eagerly read its contents. I knew by its appearance that it was one of those private notes written by the hand of the Marquess of Macclesfield himself, which direct the policy of the greatest empire in the world.
The Ambassador read it through, and as he did so sunk heavily into his chair, his face set, his grey brows knit, his hand clenched.
"Nothing serious, I hope," I ventured to remark.
"Serious!" he echoed. "The outlook grows blacker every moment. Yesterday intelligence was received through our Secret Service in Paris that a great sensation has been caused in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs by some discovery, of what nature it could not be accurately ascertained." Then after a pause, the Ambassador added: "We, however, know too well, Crawford. The stolen correspondence has, as I feared, reached Paris. If so, we are powerless. War must ensue."
"Accursed thieves!" I ejaculated, recollecting how ingeniously the file of papers had been extracted from the locked box. "The mystery is utterly without solution. I've tried to form some theory day by day, but have failed. In all quarters where I have made secret inquiries my efforts have been entirely futile. We have absolutely no clue on which to base a suspicion."
"But at either the French or Russian Embassies they know something of it," the Ambassador said, resting his troubled brow upon his hand in thought. "If the correspondence has reached Paris, then it passed through the French Embassy. Have you kept your ears open in that quarter?"
"I have done all that can be done," I answered. "My work, however, is not yet finished."
"Strive on," he urged impatiently. "Strive on, night and day. Remember in this affair not only is my personal honour at stake, but the honour of Belgium, and, what is greater to all of us, the honour of the Queen's Empire. The mystery must be solved."
I nodded without replying.
"When you were in London the other day, in consultation with the Chief, did he make any further explanation of the reason which first prompted him to send me here?" I asked, after a long pause.
"Because," I said, "because he alone knows more than we are aware. There is some reason why he preserves silence upon a fact which is of greatest importance to us. Indeed, it is more than likely that were he to relate all he knows we might conclude this inquiry in a few hours."
"What do you mean?" cried Sir John, quickly, in a resentful tone. "You surely do not charge the Marquess of Macclesfield with concealing some fact to the detriment of his country? This is not like you, Crawford."
I remembered that the mysterious death of poor Gordon was a secret between the Marquess and myself, and saw that if I pursued the topic further I should be obliged to make some explanation. Therefore I remained silent.
"I can't understand your reason for speaking in this manner," continued the Ambassador, puzzled. "All that is known at the Foreign Office is known to us. Are we not in hourly communication with Downing Street?"
I admitted that we were, but pointed out that no assistance had been given us in the prosecution of the inquiry. The despatch-box from which the file of papers had been stolen had been returned, and was in a cupboard opposite to where I stood.
"They rely entirely upon us, Crawford," the Minister replied. "I am not satisfied. We are not sufficiently active in the matter."
This observation angered me. Since the theft had become known I had left no stone unturned to fathom the mystery. I had, by constantly seeking the society of the French and Russian attaches, personal friends of mine, and rather good fellows, learnt a good deal of the undercurrents in progress, yet no word had been dropped to cause me to suspect that they were in the secret of the theft.
In a Continental capital there are many mysterious ways by which the shrewd diplomatist can ascertain what is in the wind, and as that had been part of my duty for the past five years I was pretty well versed in the art of learning our opponents' business.
"I own myself baffled," I answered quietly. "Nevertheless, the course of my inquiries must be patient and diligent. I shall not fail through inactivity, I can assure you."
"Ah! no, Crawford," he exclaimed quickly. "Do not misunderstand me. I am, perhaps, too impatient. Work on, and remember that you are working to clear your country's honour."
And glancing at the other bulky packet he tossed it into a drawer. Its envelope showed that the papers were unimportant ones, and the second secretary of Legation would deal later with them. Again he re-read those uneven lines of writing, scribbled by the hand that controlled England's destiny, then striking a vesta he lit the despatch at the corner and held it until it was consumed. The secret correspondence from the Marquess to the various Ambassadors of the Queen is always destroyed immediately, as some of it might prove extremely compromising.
I lunched at home at my rooms, and at 4 that afternoon strolled to the Cafe Metropole, the fine, handsomely decorated place on the Boulevard Anspach, for there I was almost certain to meet somebody or other I knew. A good many of the diplomatic circle lounge there in the afternoon, for of late it had become the cosmopolitan rendesvous of Brussels, even more so than the cafe of the Grand Hotel opposite. I was not disappointed, for as I entered I was hailed by Paul Yermoloff, the second secretary of the Russian Legation, a dark-moustached, good-looking man of 40, who was sitting at one of the little tables smoking with his colleague Gregorovitch, the honorary attache.
"Ah, my dear Crawford," the firstnamed cried, extending his hand, "late to-day. Do the difficulties of England require so much adjustment that you cannot get down to the Boulevards at the usual hour?"'
"No," I laughed, seating myself in the third chair, and taking a cigarette he offered. "Truth to tell I've had a siesta."
"The British lion has been napping," laughed Gregorovitch.
"It isn't often he has a nap," I said, "but today, with this overcast weather—phew!"
"And after late hours last night, and the pretty Princess Melanie," Yermoloff added.
At mention of her name I felt my face suffusing. Then their lynx eyes had not failed to notice me with her. I had no wish to be chaffed about her, but to resent it would be, I knew, to show my hand.
"Why, what about the Princess?" I asked with affected innocence.
"Nothing. Only she's very beautiful," responded Yermoloff. "We've just been speaking of her, and congratulating you upon your taste."
"Yes," I said. "There can be no two opinions regarding her beauty. Does she often come to Brussels?"
"Twice a year," he answered. "But take my advice, my dear follow, and don't have very much to do with her."
"Serge will tell you. He knows her best," answered, the Russian, who was at one and the same time my personal friend and my diplomatic enemy.
"Well," exclaimed Gregorovitch, stroking his blonde moustache with a rather foppish air, "I do happen to know something of her Highness, and what I know of her isn't very creditable."
"Tell me," I exclaimed, intensely interested.
The two men exchanged glances, the meaning of which remained to me a mystery, although I did not fail to notice it.
"Well," the other answered, "she's rather fond of taking up a man for a week or so and then giving him the cut direct, or else bringing him into public derision. She is lovely, but a Royalty as she is she is aware of the exact estimate of her beauty. By the Virgin! Why, there isn't a prouder woman in the whole of the Courts of Europe than Melanie of Hapsburg."
What he alleged might be true, but I certainly had found her the very reverse of proud.
"I don't think there's much fear that she'll take me up," I laughed lightly. "Men in the diplomatic circle are too small a fry."
"Ah, no. You're mistaken," Gregorovitch said. "There was an incident in Berlin when I was there which didn't altogether enhance her worth in the eyes of those who knew the truth. She flirted outrageously with young Prince Ostrowsky, one of the honorary attaches of our Embassy, and when one day at a garden-party given by the Empress he grew affectionate and spoke to her of love she flew into a sudden passion and denounced poor Ostrowsky before about a dozen people, including the Empress herself. So overwhelmed with shame and chargrin was the unfortunate attache that he resigned at once, and went back to Petersburg."
"I have heard," I said, "that she has a secret lover somewhere."
"Of course," answered Yermoloff. "That's well known. According to common gossip she meets him at night somewhere along the Boulevard Waterloo. It is said that she's been seen with him lately, and that he's a shabby-genteel, hulking, ruffianly-looking fellow."
"Quite romantic," I laughed.
"Romantic!" ejaculated Gregorovitch, who seemed somehow to hold her in abhorrence. "Two or three men I know are laying their heads together to watch for the mysterious lover, and find out who he really is. It would be interesting to know."
I pricked up my ears at this statement. If this were so, then I must warn her.
"Rather good fun," I said, smiling. "Is he supposed to be a German, or Belgian?"
"Nobody knows," replied my companion. "That's just what we want to find out."
"But has she actually been seen with him?" I inquired.
"Most certainly. When she was here six months ago, the same story was about. The Baroness de Melreux has actually seen them together."
"And you believe her?" I asked, deprecatingly.
I remembered the Princess' words regarding that irresponsible butterfly of fashion.
"My dear fellow," said Gregorovitch, raising his shoulders slightly, "the Baroness is always good fun, even if she's given to slight exaggerations of the truth."
"You put it politely," I laughed. "No, my dear Gregorovitch, one should always take the statements of the merry little Baroness in homeopathic doses and with the proverbial grain of salt. She's always full of some scandal or the other."
"Scandal which generally turns out to have some foundation in fact," Yermoloff remarked.
"Then you really believe in this story of a secret lover?" I observed.
"There seems little doubt about it," my friend replied. "But why are you so anxious, my dear Crawford? Surely you haven't fallen a victim to her charms. She looked lovely last night in blue, dazzling enough to bewitch any man."
"No fear. I'm too old a diplomat," I assured him. I saw that in order to disarm the suspicion of these men I must act with extreme caution and finesse. It was to my interest to retain their friendship, for from them I often gathered very valuable facts. They were a pair of self-conceited, foppish gallants who, in their boastful moments, frequently told me things which were of greatest use to us at our Legation. Times without number had I carefully led the conversation up to the political crisis, but had each time become convinced that they knew nothing of the theft of that file of correspondence, otherwise they must have uttered some boast or other and thus betrayed their knowledge. Their belief in the supremacy of Russia was sublime. But why, I wondered, did they both speak of the Princess with such ill-will?
I smoked on, chatting still upon the same subject. They took a keen delight in chaffing me about my long talk with her and our dance together, declaring that I, like all the rest, had fallen deeply in love with her. Against this allegation I, of course, protested strongly. She had treated me with common courtesy, I said, and I had merely returned it. I laughed heartily at their suggestion that I was in love with her, and in return declared that they were both jealous that she should have singled me out for notice.
"No, don't think that, my dear Crawford," Yermoloff answered in his soft, easy way, smiling through the cigarette smoke. "On the contrary, I should regret very much if she were to endeavour to patronise me, for I really fear I should be rude to her."
But he shrugged his shoulders with that expressive air of mystery which all Russians can assume at will, and his mouth remained closed. Neither would he explain the cause of their extreme antagonism. But the fact was plain. For some inexplicable reason they hated her.
At 6 o'clock we rose and went forth on to the Boulevard again. It was pleasant there in the sunset hour. Men were crying the Soir and the Independance, and the hand-barrows advertising the cafe concerts were being trundled slowly by. My companions hailed a cab, and were driven away to the Gare du Nord, where they were to meet a friend, while I strolled along to the Bourse, where I could obtain a tram that would set me down outside my own rooms in the Place Louise, for the open trams in Brussels are in summer even more pleasant than the fiacres.
Outside the Bourse, at the street corner, I halted to buy a paper at the kiosque, when a man passed me whose figure in an instant struck me as familiar. I looked after him. He was well dressed, above the average height, and wore a silk hat and frock coat which gave him the stamp of a business man. The face was rather a full one, with a fair pointed beard, ruddy cheeks and eyes a trifle strange in their expression. He wore, I thought, a curious, inquisitive look as he passed me.
Then suddenly I recollected. That man had been sitting alone near us in the cafe, and possibly, if he understood English, had overheard some part of our conversation.
But at the same moment that this fact became impressed upon me another, still stranger, caused me to hold my breath in wonder.
The silhouette was identical. He was the man, who so silent and plainly clad, had passed through the Moorish lounge at the Palace on the previous night. He was the unexpected stranger whom the Princess Melanie held in such mortal dread.
AS usual I cycled next morning to our appointed rendezvous, seated myself, and patiently smoked, my eyes eager for the approach of the first tram-car. At last it came, its alarm bell ringing violently; the passengers alighted and one by one dispersed, but to my disappointment my divinity was not among them.
Perhaps she had risen late, and would come by the next car, therefore I returned to my seat, and possessed my soul in patience, full of reflections upon the events of the past few days. That man who had sat in the Metropole on the previous afternoon was most probably her mysterious lover about whom gossip talked, and it seemed very possible that, having detected me with her on the night of the State ball, he was now keeping a strict observation upon me in order to ascertain whether we met. I held this man in instinctive dislike. Why, I could not tell. There was nothing really evil about the expression on his face. On the contrary he was a rubicund, rather merry-looking man of perhaps forty, whose appearance gave me the impression that his sleekness was due to a fondness of good living. So far from being a hulking, low-born hanger-on, as I had pictured him, he seemed a rather gentle manly fellow of the superior commercial class.
I sat endeavouring to analyse my feelings towards him, and at length came to the conclusion that my antagonism was due solely and entirely to jealousy. Had I met that man in the ordinary way I should have undoubtedly become friendly with him. There are men one meets who become instantly one's friends. He was one of those.
Presently the second tram drew up at the entrance to the Bois, but she came not, and although I waited fully an hour until the liver brigade began to assemble—Belgians in riding breeches cut in imitation of the English, and hats of antiquated type, a few of the gayer youth of the city, and a sprinkling of stolid Flemish merchants—I remained in vain. The morning was, as is usual in June, bright and beautiful; therefore, feeling reassured that she had been prevented from keeping her appointment by unforeseen circumstances, I mounted my machine, and rode the whole circuit of the Bois, my eyes ever on the alert for her.
That she would not willingly disappoint me I felt certain; therefore her absence puzzled me, and caused me to wonder whether instead of keeping her appointment she had met that man who was her lover. Twice I made a complete tour of the pretty wood, but saw nothing of her, and at last in deep disappointment turned, and was on my way out when, of a sudden, I discerned a man mounted on a fine bay trotting along the leafy ride running parallel with the road, and half-hidden from it by the bushes and trees. He wore a straw hat and black coat, and rode exceedingly well in military style. His height attracted me, and I noticed that he had a light pointed beard. Our eyes met, and then in a moment I recognised in him the man whom the Princess held in mortal dread—the man who was her lover.
He looked fixedly at me for a few seconds, and I thought I detected a smile of triumph on his lips. But in a moment he had trotted past, and without turning I rode forward down the Avenue towards my own rooms. The thought struck me that he had come there to watch my movements, and to ascertain whether I met the woman who held me spellbound. It seemed suspiciously as though he had.
I spent the morning at the Legation attending to some correspondence, and not having finished it, returned there after luncheon.
About 4, having completed the work I had in hand, I descended the stairs to go, when standing in the court-yard outside was one of the royal carriages, the footman waiting motionless and statuesque upon the steps. On passing the door of the drawing-room female voices and light laughter sounded, and peering within I saw that Lady Drummond had a caller. The latter, sitting near the window, wore a smart costume of prune with a large black hat, and as I looked in her gaze suddenly met mine. It was the Princess Melanie.
"Ah!" she cried, raising her hand to me gladly. "There is M'sieur Crawford! Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon, Princess!" I exclaimed, advancing towards her and taking her proffered hand with a feigned formality. She was purely formal towards me, therefore I saw that she had some motive. As far as I was aware this was her first call upon Lady Drummond, and the latter, honoured by the attention, seemed greatly surprised that we should be acquainted.
"Oh, yes," the Princes said, in response to an observation by her ladyship. "M'sieur Crawford is my very good friend." Then, glancing at me with a meaning look, she added, "He was in Vienna, you know."
"Ah! of course," answered Lady Drummond, who, truth to tell, had been extremely kind to me. She was an ideal Ambassador's wife, and was held in highest esteem by all the staff. More than once, at the various capitals where her husband had been Charge d'Affaires for her Majesty, Envoy Extraordinary, she had been confidante and adviser of an attache or a secretary who had got into feminine entanglement. As we chatted she glanced from her visitor to myself, and knowing her shrewdness I feared that she guessed the truth. Our gossip was, however, on trivialities. Melanie, it appeared, had called, on her mother's behalf, to invite the Ambassador and his wife to dine with them at the Palace on the following Sunday, and in the invitation Giffard and myself were included.
I thanked her in terms of distant formality, addressing her as 'Highness,' which is unusual according to German etiquette. Tea was brought, and as I handed her her cup she raised her eyes to mine with an amused expression. I longed to ask her why she had not met me that morning, but to speak familiarly was, in these circumstances, impossible. The Hapsbourgs were the proudest family in Europe, and Lady Drummond, a polished diplomatist herself, treated her with the same etiquette as she would the Queen of the Belgians.
At length, after quite a long gossip, during which time we had been joined by Sir John, who, however, had been again called away to keep an appointment, she rose to go. When she did so I saw how beautiful was her costume. It was of dark prune cloth, braided with black upon a groundwork of cream satin; a strikingly handsome dress which only a princess could wear, a dress which fitted without a wrinkle, and was the latest triumph of one or other of the man-dressmakers in the Rue de la Paix.
"If you will remain one moment I will obtain for your Highness the address of that shop in Bond-street," Lady Drummond said, as she passed out hastily into the adjoining room.
The instant she had gone my companion turned to me quickly and whispered—
"Forgive me. I could not come to the Bois this morning. To-morrow, too, I am prevented. You'll excuse me, will you not?"
"But I must see you," I said earnestly. "I have something of importance to say."
She glanced at me in quick surprise.
"Cannot you tell me now?" she asked.
"No. I must meet you. Whatever appointment you can make I am at your disposal."
She reflected for an instant.
"Then to-night," she answered. "Meet me in the Wauxhall Gardens, close to the band-stand, at 9. I will wear a white blouse, and you will discover me by that. Till then good-bye."
At that instant her ladyship returned with a card, and a few moments later I took formal leave of the woman I loved standing on the steps with the wife of my chief and bowing to her as her fine equipage swept out of the gate.
Yes, the more I reflected, the plainer it became that she was not averse to this mild flirtation going on between us. That she did flirt with me was without doubt; and of course with that quick instinct possessed by every woman from peasant to princess she was fully aware of my overwhelming passion for her.
"I had no idea you were so friendly with the Princess Melanie," her ladyship remarked, as we went inside together. "She is most beautiful. But of course the House of Hapsbourg has always been famous for the loveliness of its women."
"Yes," I said, recollecting the well-known legend of the Castle of Brandenburg, how when the great old fortress-home of the Hapsbourgs was besieged by the bloody Duc de Nevers in 1554, Ann, Princess of Hapsbourg, is said to have entered with her husband the high round tower that watches over the Moselle, resolved to participate in its defence, and to animate the defenders by her presence. Her beauty was renowned throughout Europe, and for months the castle withstood the siege. At last, however, outnumbered by the Franks, the garrison, including the Prince, after a most heroic and desperate resistance, perished to a man, the unhappy widowed Princess being left as solo survivor. Determined not to fall into the hands of the enraged and brutal soldiery, she threw herself from the summit of the tower in full sight of the besiegers, and was dashed to pieces on the rocks below.
"She has a charming manner," went on her ladyship. "So ingenuous and unassuming. I'm perfectly delighted with her."
"This is her first call, is it not?" I inquired.
"Yes. She has been in Brussels with her mother many times, but they are very exclusive, and scarcely call on anyone—except, of course, at the German Embassy. She's a most sociable girl, and I'm charmed to know her."
I smiled within myself. What would her ladyship have thought had she known that we were in the habit of cycling together at an hour when the majority of people were not yet awake. What would she have thought if she had known of the appointment we had made in that instant when she was in the adjoining room; or of the fact that she was to wear a white blouse that evening in order that I might the more readily recognise her in the shadow of the trees. I was compelled to remain silent in order to avoid compromising her, for she was princess of an imperial house while I was a humble member of her Majesty's Diplomatic Service. I had promised to remain loyal to her.
The night was brilliant and starlit when I entered that enclosed part of the Royal Park known as Wauxhall—where on summer evenings the orchestra of the opera plays on the al fresco stage, and the haut monde of Brussels sit beneath the trees at the hundreds of little tables taking their after-dinner coffee and liqueurs. Of all the many diversions in the Belgian capital it is perhaps the most chic and the most enjoyable, for the music is invariably excellent, and the crowd always a well-dressed one. The tourist who spends his week in Brussels does not patronise a mere orchestral concert; he prefers the cafes where variety entertainments are provided, and where 'ENTRANCE FREE' is written up in bold capitals. Hence Wauxhall is purely Belgian.
I found a table unoccupied at the further end, beyond the stage and somewhat in the shadow, therefore I took it and ordered some coffee, hoping that I should meet no friends and be compelled to join them. It was delightfully cool and fresh there after the heat of the day, and I sat drinking in the air, enjoying my cigar to the full. I had had a heavy day, and that relaxation was doubly gratifying. The whole of the white facade of the Theatre du Parc opposite was outlined by light in white globes and everywhere in the vicinity of the orchestra was brilliant illumination, but where I sat was beyond the zone of light, for I had chosen that spot in order that none should observe me. Among that after-dinner crowd of women in evening toilettes and well-dressed men there were many with whom I was acquainted, and if, for example, one man fastened himself upon me I might lose my opportunity of speaking with her.
At length, after straining my eyes long and vainly into the stream of constant arrivals, I saw a female figure in black hat, wearing a dead white blouse of soft silk, and at once rose to meet her. She wore a thick veil, and at first I hesitated to speak, not being quite certain as to her identity. She noticed this, and laughing at the completeness of her disguise greeted me and seated herself at my table.
"That veil is excellent," I said, joining in her laughter. "I should never have recognised you."
"I borrowed one of my maid's blouses," she explained. "There are many women here I know, and some are very sharp to detect any bodice they have seen before."
"Will anyone be likely to recognise you here?" I asked.
"Ah! Perhaps they might," she said, glancing round in apprehension. "There's the Countess Lunssens over there," she added, indicating an old lady in gay bonnet of steel spangles and roses, chatting to an officer. "Yes it will be better to get away from here."
Therefore we rose again and strolled away into the dark shadows beneath the trees. It was strange and exciting, this clandestine meeting, but she was veiled, and we both congratulated ourselves that she was beyond recognition. Into that dark avenue only one or two couples had strayed, and we were practically alone. The band was playing Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, and through the trees, where the lights twinkled, came the distant roar of the city and the rattle of cabs in the Rue Royale.
The palace was close by. Indeed she had only to cross the road and traverse the park to meet me. She had, she explained, escaped immediately after dinner, her maid alone being in the secret of her absence; and then she chatted to me with that light vivacity which was in itself plain proof of how delighted she was to walk there. I had been egotistical enough to flatter myself that she was not averse to my company, and now it seemed as though she remained in rapturous contentment.
In the gloom we found a seat and sat down.
She was discussing her visit to Lady Drummond, and expressing herself surprised to find her so pleasant.
"I had been told," she said, "that your Ambassador's wife was rather masculine, and I abominate masculine women. But I found her the exact opposite. She was extremely agreeable."
"It was your first call?" I suggested.
"Yes," she answered. Then, after a pause she faltered, "I did not go exactly to visit her, you know. I thought perhaps I might possibly meet you, and I wanted to see you."
"Why?" I inquired, rather abruptly I am afraid.
"Well," she responded in a voice of hesitation, "first I feel convinced that we are friends—is that not so?"
"If I may be your true friend, Princess," I said. "I shall esteem your trust the greatest honour you can bestow upon me."
"Thank you," she said quietly. "I believe entirely that you are a man of honour. Do not think I speak to you thus without having made inquiries. Your past has shown that I, a woman who is in a dire dilemma, may trust you."
"You can implicitly," I answered fervently. "I assure you of that. You say you are in a dilemma," I went on, puzzled. "How can I assist you?"
"Ah, no. Not now," she replied in a rather strained voice. "No, not yet. What I wanted to ask you was whether, if I desired your help, you would give it to me; whether you would act in blind obedience to my wishes?"
"Princess," I said, in deep earnestness, "I am a diplomatist—one who to your eyes must be but a spy and a liar by profession. Well, my oath to my Queen entails the combating of the machinations of unscrupulous enemies, and when fair means fail we are compelled to resort to those unfair. Towards you, however, I assure you that if ever I can render you a service you have only to command me."
"And if that service were a difficult one—a very difficult one?" she asked, almost in a whisper, as she bent towards me, peering eagerly into my face. "What then?"
"That makes no difference," I answered, firmly. "To serve you is the greatest desire of my life."
She sighed heavily, and seemed strangely uneasy.
"In what dilemma do you find yourself?" I went on. "Tell me. Perhaps I can assist you now."
"Impossible," she responded. "Some day, however, I shall call upon you to redeem your promise."
"Put me to the test," I cried passionately. "You will not find me fail."
"Ah!" she said, again sighing. "It is strange that we should meet like this, you and I; strange that having only known you for so short a time I should speak thus to you. I fear you must think me very capricious."
"Our talks are most delightful to me," I declared. "I only fear that my companionship may bore you."
She laughed a little musical laugh.
"If so, then why did you ask me to see you tonight?" she inquired.
"Because I have something to say to you," I replied, in a moment serious. "Do not think me inquisitive, for I admit that I have no right whatever to obtrude in your private affairs."
"Are we not friends?" she interrupted quickly.
"Certainly," I said. "But this matter is of so delicate a nature that were it not imperative I should hesitate to speak of it."
"No," she said, interested. "Tell me. What is it?"
"You will remember the night of the ball. Before we parted we encountered a tall, fair-bearded man, who looked at you with a curious glance and passed on."
She started perceptibly.
"Yes, yes. And what of him?" she gasped.
"That man, whoever he is, has been following me of late," I said, simply.
"Following you!" she cried. "Has he, then, dared to——"
But she stopped short without finishing her sentence. In her anger she had almost given me an explanation, and only drew herself up just in time.
"I thought it wise to tell you of this, and to ask your advice," I went on, as calmly as I could, adding: "And again, there is one other matter, for mentioning which I hope you will forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive between friends," she responded.
"Well, briefly it is this," I said. "In certain circles, where gossip circulates and names are bandied about freely, there is a report current that you meet clandestinely some male acquaintance on certain nights in the Boulevard Waterloo, and elsewhere. I do not demand to know whether this is truth or not," I added, hoarsely. "I have no right to make such inquiry."
"And supposing it to be actually the truth?" she asked quickly, in a rather resentful tone. "What then?"
"There is a secret conspiracy on foot against you," I said in a very quiet tone. "It is intended one night to follow you to the place of assignation, and there discover you with your——"
"With my lover," she said, finishing my sentence. "Yes, I know full well your thoughts, m'sieur."
"It is suggested that you love this man," I declared quite plainly.
"So my enemies are plotting to create a scandal about me!" she exclaimed, with quick warmth. "There is, I suppose, not sufficient scandal in Brussels, therefore they must needs invent more. They would blast the reputation of every honest woman. When did you learn this?"
"Only yesterday," I answered. "It was the duty of a friend to warn you, even though it be a painful task."
She was pensive for a long time. There was an interval in the music, and all was calm and peaceful in the half-darkness where we sat.
Then, turning to me, she suddenly grasped my hand warmly in hers, saying:
"In giving me this warning you have rendered me a great service—how great you cannot dream. Believe me, I shall never forget it—never."
And there was a strange catch in her voice which I knew to be due to emotion which she had striven in vain to repress.
WE remained silent, both too full of thoughts for utterance. The orchestra had struck up again, and was playing a bright air from the Coupe du Roi de Thule of Diaz, and the shadowy figures that had wandered past us during the interval were now returning to that gay circle of light where the fashionable chatterers were sitting lazily beneath the trees.
"I am glad that I have been able to render you my first service, Princess," I exclaimed at length in a low voice.
She was sitting beside me immovable, gazing straight before her, her breast now and then heaving and falling beneath the thin white blouse. Once I thought she had involuntarily murmured some incoherent words, but next instant I doubted whether it had not been the rustling of the treetops. She was greatly agitated at the discovery of this conspiracy to unmask her, and had sat rigid and silent as if trying to devise some plan of action.
"I can only thank you, m'sieur," she answered at last, in a voice which sounded sweet and musical. "The world is very ungenerous towards a woman, be she a work-girl or a princess. I have often thought that the women of the people have a far happier time than we who are ever in the lurid glare of publicity. Indeed, perhaps you would not believe it, but when driving out on Sundays I have often envied the young shopgirl contentedly walking on her lover's arm, for she is free to love or to hate, and she can enjoy the pleasures of life untrammelled and unfettered. She has no fear of scandal, or of the idle, envenomed gossip of jealous women. The world is hers, and she enjoys it to the full, even though she works for her bread and her happiness may not be unmixed with tears."
I expressed myself fully in accord with her views. Never had the rigidity of life in the royal circle been so vividly brought before me as at that moment, for were not her words in themselves an admission that this man she met clandestinely was actually her lover? Her voice, too, was the voice of a woman overwhelmed by grief, distressed, rendered desperate.
"You are upset to-night," I said, bending to her in a half-whisper. "Will you not allow me to assist you?"
"No," she answered, despairingly. "I fear you cannot at present. In you I have, I know, a friend—one in whom I can trust, and one with whom my secret is safe."
"The secret of your love?" I suggested.
"My love!" she echoed. "No, no. Not my love—my hatred."
"Your hatred?" I exclaimed. "I do not understand."
"Of course not. How should you when you are still in ignorance."
"But every woman must love once in her life," I said.
"And love very frequently brings to her unhappiness," she observed philosophically.
"I trust that is not your experience," I responded.
Her breast beneath the thin silken blouse again rose and fell slowly. I could not distinguish her face behind the thick veil in that deep shadow of the trees, but I had an instinctive feeling that tears were in her eyes.
"I sometimes think," she said in a strained tremulous voice, "that every woman has a birthright of woe."
"You speak as though you were oppressed by some burden of unhappiness," I said softly. "May I know the truth now that I am your friend? May I not help you?"
"No," she answered firmly, sighing as she shook her head. "It is utterly impossible—utterly. The complications are so bewildering and the circumstances so strange that you could never believe the truth. It would appear to you far too romantic—too unreal."
"But tell me one thing," I urged. "That man who was present at the ball—who is he?"
"That man!" she gasped, trembling. "That man is my——" But she stopped short, and held her breath. "No! No!" she cried a moment later. "You promised blind obedience to my wish, therefore remain patient at present. Ask me no question."
I saw how agitated she was, how strangely despairing, how utterly desperate. She was just as an ordinary woman haunted by some terrible ever-present dread, fearing every moment that some long-expected blow should fall and crush her. Loving her so fondly as I did, my heart went forth to her. I could not bear to see her thus anxious and consumed by fear, and longed to be able to pour forth my declaration of devotion. Yet I hesitated. The difference in our stations formed a gulf which could never be bridged. Even if I were a millionaire I could never aspire to the hand of a princess of the House of Hapsbourg.
"I ask the question," I said, "because I, humble man that I am, have your welfare at heart."
"Ah, I am confident that you have," she answered with an air of gracious acknowledgment of my tribute. "Our acquaintanceship has not been of long duration, but I know you sufficiently well to be aware that we are, shall be, the firmest of friends. At present my future is but a black out-look, but some day I trust its aspect will change."
"A black outlook! What do you mean?" I asked quickly, much puzzled. The idea of the future of the smart and beautiful Princess Melanie being other than happy seemed impossible. Throughout Europe she was noted for the smartness of her toilettes and the sweetness of her face. At Court every one believed her to be merry, irresponsible, and utterly heartless where man's affections were concerned. People had talked, and the papers had gossiped about a projected alliance between the Hapsbourgs and the royal family of Italy; but those who knew said that Melanie had treated the young prince—who was a prig at best—with scant favour, and that after a month at Brandenberg he had gone back to Rome very much disconcerted, while she had openly declared herself glad to get rid of him.
"It is impossible for you to understand my position," she declared. "That it is a grave one—a very grave one—is all that I dare tell you. Someday you may perhaps know the truth. Then you will recognise what I feel to-night in thus gaining your friendship."
"If it is gratifying to you it is the more gratifying to me," I blurted forth. "All that I fear is that I am unworthy to be your Highness's friend and confidant."
"Ah, no," she protested. "I do not extend friendship to all and sundry. People say, I think, that I am proud and exclusive, and that I retain the ancient hauteur of my House. That is what I have been always taught to do. I have been told from my earliest girlhood that, as a royal princess, I am of different blood to the people, and that the latter are of no account in our world. I used, in my girlish ignorance, to think so until a couple of years ago."
"And you have now formed a different opinion," I observed.
I was puzzled to know whether this tall, fair-bearded man who had crossed the Moorish room in the Palace noiseless as a shadow, and who had taken such intense interests in my movements, was actually the man she met so often at night. Surely it could not be, for she had declared that she hated him. Why, I wondered.
"The man whose presence at the ball caused you so much anxiety was in the Bois this morning," I said. "Perhaps it was as well that you did not cycle with me there."
"It was for that very reason I did not come," she answered. "I had obtained previous knowledge of his intention."
"I cannot stifle a suspicion that he has some sinister design upon me," I said.
"Sinister design? What do you suspect?"
"That he might be consumed by jealousy if, for example, he saw us as we are now, sitting here, like lovers," I answered abruptly.
"But you surely do not think that he is my lover, do you?" she cried, dismayed.
I admitted that I had believed him to be.
"No," she assured me with a harsh laugh. "There has never been love between us—only hatred—a bitter, deadly hatred which was once near culminating in a tragedy."
Her words increased my curiosity. There was here some remarkable mystery of the undercurrent of the highest circle of society in Europe. Who, I wondered, could this man be?
"From your words, Princess, one would almost imagine that love had never entered your heart," I said.
"It is legendary that the love of the Hapsbourgs is always ill-fated. In the annals of our House are many love-romances—some with very sad denouements. It is a saying, too, that a dark Hapsbourg brings ill-fortune."
"You are a dark Hapsbourg," I said gravely.
"Unfortunately, yes," she answered, in a rather strained, unnatural tone.
"But those who have beauty never bring ill luck is an old saying of the peasantry down in Tuscany," I said cheerfully. "It nevertheless pains me to know that you are troubled by this mysterious dilemma in which you find yourself to-night. I only wish you would allow me to render you some help. Do," I urged.
"Why?" she inquired, after a moment's pause, as she turned towards me.
"Because—because——" But I hesitated in confusion. I feared to speak those words which rose so readily to my lips, although I had striven so hard to repress them.
She was sitting beside me erect, motionless, her head turned towards me in an attitude of surprise. She had raised her veil because she declared that it stifled her, and was looking at me with those soft dark eyes, so brilliant and beautiful. There was an element of romance in that meeting, and I had scented danger in the secret of our friendship being known to that silent stranger who had sat unnoticed in the Cafe Metropole, and had followed me as far as the Bourse. I felt assured that he harboured some evil intention.
"Why are you so anxious to take upon yourself a burden that you might find insupportable?" she asked, in a sweet half-reproachful tone.
"Because, Princess," I stammered, unable longer to suppress the burning passion within me, "forgive me for uttering the truth, but I cannot longer conceal it. It is because I love you!"
In an instant she drew away with a little frightened cry, as though in fear of me.
"Love!" she gasped in a tone of blank surprise? "Ah! I have been foolish—very foolish! Why have I allowed you to mistake a purely platonic friendship for flirtation? It is all my fault."
"It is not flirtation," I assured her passionately, catching her soft white hand, and holding it tenderly within mine. "I know that I am foolish, that these words of mine are sheer madness, and that you, in your position, can never be wife of an humble man like myself. Still, since the first moment that we met I have been drawn towards you irresistibly, and, sleeping or waking, one face has been ever in my dreams, one name ever ringing in my ears—Melanie—Melanie—always Melanie."
"No, no," she faltered in a broken voice. "You must not speak like that. We may be friends, firm, true friends, but love is utterly impossible."
"But hear me!" I implored, in a low earnest voice. "I cannot be ceremonious with you now that you know the secret which, through so many days, has been wearing out my heart. Do not say that love is impossible. Only give me leave to love you, to think of you as one who in some slight degree reciprocates my passion; give me leave to drop formalities, and call you by your Christian name when we are alone, and I will be satisfied. I will ask no more."
The tiny hand I held trembled. She sighed, and a shudder ran through her slight frame.
"Such permission, were I to give it, could only result disastrously," she answered sadly, with a calm philosophy.
"But do not withhold it," I cried in an outburst of desperate recklessness. "I love you, Melanie, with all my soul. I swear I do. I am yours irrevocably, and for always."
She drew away her hand firmly, and seemed to hold herself up with that proud hauteur which she assumed towards all others save myself.
"No," she answered, in a tone of soft tenderness. "It is impossible. I regret this very, very deeply," she added, after a moment's reflection. "The more so because I have looked upon you as my friend—one in whom I had every confidence."
"I trust I have given you no offence," I said, apologetically. "My words were spontaneous. I tried to suppress them, but the truth of my affection rose involuntarily to my lips."
"It is no offence to love," she answered, in a low voice full of emotion. "But if you would be my friend, and if you would assist me, do not speak again of affection. Such discussions as this can only be painful to both of us."
"Then you do love me a little," I cried, joyously. "If you did not it could not pain you. Come, Melanie," I added, again taking her hand, "give me permission to love you."
"No, no," she cried, hoarsely, suddenly rising to her feet, and again snatching away the hand I had caught. "A thousand times, no! Your love for me can only bring disaster to both of us. God knows my life is dark enough, one long interminable tragedy, and I will never sacrifice you as victim. You ask me to encompass you with fatality and evil. But I refuse. We must part. You shall not—you must not love me. I am a dark Hapsburg, and my love is fatal—fatal!"
"AH, no, Princess!" I said, in deepest anxiety and earnestness. "Surely your goodwill cannot bring evil upon me? Rather would it render me a better and happier man."
"You already have my goodwill," she answered, scarcely above her breath, in a voice which showed how moved she was. I could not disguise from myself that she, although a princess, was nevertheless a woman after all, a woman who yearned for love and tenderness, although oppressed by some mysterious secret of which I was in ignorance. Even in the gloom of night her wondrous beauty, a beauty renowned throughout Europe, shone upon me. Her face was inexpressibly sweet in its sadness. Was there, notwithstanding her refusal, a love-look in those dark, luminous eyes: It was too dark for me to see plainly, but I vaguely believed that there was. Her voice, low and tender, gave proof of it, and I was thereby encouraged.
"But it is more than goodwill that I desire," I continued in quick passionate earnestness, utterly reckless of what I said. Indeed, I held both her hands at that moment, and her head was bowed in silence. "I love you, Melanie! I love you with all my heart, with all my soul, with all the strength of my being I——"
"No!" she cried, protestingly. "Do not make my burden harder by such words. You do not know—you never will know, I hope," she added, sadly. "Mine is a cruel story, and I am glad there is no necessity to speak of it—I only ask your charity, your sympathy. Love between us is impossible."
"Yes," I said, in a hoarse voice of disappointment. "I know that now I ought to have been self-possessed, and not have pained you thus. I see the immeasurable inferiority of my position and my nature to your own. But, Melanie, I only wanted one hope, one legitimate ambition."
"Ah, do not utter such words of reproach," she whispered in an intense whisper. "This is as painful to me as to you. If you knew all the truth you would not speak like that. A woman of my birth may love with equal affection to any other."
She lifted her head. Her eyes, dry and calm, rested upon my face. Her countenance was pale, her mouth set with a grave, steady sweetness.
Light rushed in upon my mind in a radiant flood-light and knowledge. I knew she was right. I had looked deep into her sad eyes, read her innermost soul, and found it pure.
"In the sphere apart from mine you will meet one more fitting for you," I said in a voice of grief and blank despair. "You tell me that love is impossible. If so, then it will be best, best for both of us, if we do not meet again. I must part from you because I love you, and my love might result disastrously for you. Yes, I see it all. If the world knew that I, Philip Crawford, were your lover there would be scandal in the papers, and in your circle you would be laughed to scorn. No, I cannot bear to see you day by day and know that you are not for me. If I were beautiful like you, perhaps I might rejoice in your beauty and your grace without any selfish wish—but I cannot. If you are not to be mine I cannot enjoy your presence. Every charm you have is an added injury, if I am to be indifferent to you."
She covered her eyes with her hands, and her frame was shaken by a sob.
"Ah!" I went on regretfully, "I have made you angry, or wounded you again. It would be so continually were I to stay. I should be giving you offence every hour in the day. Yet I cannot help loving you any more than I can help breathing. This, of course, can be nothing to you, a princess, but it is all my life to me. You have filled every thought of my mind, every vein of my body. How can I separate myself from you?"
As I poured out these mad words and much more, a flood of hot and passionate sentences, she slowly recovered her composure. She allowed her hands to remain inertly in mine, and sat listening to me with half-shut eyes.
"Melanie," I said, "cannot you give me one word of hope to carry with me? I cannot forget you. Surely you have seen my devotion? My mind cannot change. Perhaps I have spoken too soon and too rashly, if so, forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive," she answered once again in a voice blank and melancholy. Her heart beat loudly, the lace ruffles on her bosom trembled, as slowly she lifted her eyes to mine. I knew that her eyes were dimmed by tears.
"Give me one single word of hope, Melanie," I implored in earnestness. "My love for you is no light fancy of sentimental youth captivated by every fresh face it sees, putting upon each one the colouring of its own imagination, and adoring not what is, but what itself creates; no sudden, selfish, sensuous passion, caring only to attain its object, irrespective of reason, right or conscience; but the strong deep affection of one who has tried to live honourably, and to carry down the traditions of his race."
"Yes, yes, I know," she cried, quickly. "I am convinced that you are brave, plain-spoken, single-hearted. Would that there were more such men and more such love in the world. You ask for permission to love me, but it is not just to you that I should give it, knowing full well that marriage is not possible, that happiness is barred from us by the difference of our stations."
"Then you do not look upon me with disfavour, Melanie?" I cried, quickly, overjoyed. "Your words betray that your heart is really softened towards me, and that my appeal is not in vain. Tell me that you give me permission to think of you as one who is more than friend—as one dear to me."
She looked again in my face with her honest eyes. Smiling as they were, there was pathos in them—the sadness left by that secret which ever oppressed her.
"I know that you are noble, faithful and generous," she answered speaking solemnly, slowly. "Therefore if you really desire it I give you that permission."
"Ah!" I cried in joyous rapture, raising her hand to my lips and kissing it ferverently. "You have brought a great gladness to me to-night. I will battle for your sake with all hard fortune, and the world shall know nothing of this secret alliance between us. I love you, Melanie, and I will be ever loyal, ever faithful, ever true."
Her breast slowly rose and fell, and her tiny hand gripped mine tightly in a manner more expressive than words. That pressure upon my fingers was her pledge of faith.
She was perfectly still and silent, looking into my eyes, and I thought that, though it was the same street face, it was different from what it had ever been before; no longer the face of my patrician friend, but the face of one who held me in tender affection—a picture of a woman's perfect love.
Again I bent and touched her soft hand with my lips.
"To kiss your hand as I do is unbounded joy to me, Melanie," I said, intensely in earnest. "For now I feel that you are mine—mine!"
"Rather regard me as a dear and affectionate friend," she murmured. "Do not let us speak of love, but of friendship."
"No," I protested, "when we are alone together let us speak of our affection under its proper name: real and perfect love. When others are present, however, you may trust me not to betray our secret."
"I do trust you," she answered. "I trust you implicitly, as one whose prudence and good sense will not allow him to step outside the path of perfectly conventional social intercourse. This secret of our—our——"
"Our love," I said.
"This secret of our love," she faltered, in a voice so low as to be almost incoherent, "must be ours alone."
"I swear to you that none shall know, not even my own relatives," I assured her.
"I rely upon your secrecy—Philip," she said.
It was the first time she had uttered my name, and it sounded so sweet and soft from her lips.
An instant later, however, she added in a tone calm and serious, "There is one other condition that I am forced to impose upon you, and that is that although I give you this permission, which you have sought, I give you no right to question my actions."
"I have no right to interfere with your liberty of action," I stammered humbly. "Our lives lie apart in entirely different spheres. When, however, you desire my help in any matter you have only to command me, and I will redeem my promise of obedience."
"And so in future," she murmured, as if speaking to herself, "you are to be my companion—my friend."
"More than friend," I said earnestly. "Lover. God manifests His will in the flowers, in the light of dawn, in the spring; and love is of his ordaining. There is a holy affinity between our souls, Melanie. In future we cannot be placed apart."
There was a pause. No leaf among the trees stirred. In the midst of that retirement, like a harmony making the silence more complete, rose the low strains of distant music.
She remained with her handsome head bowed, as if, by shading her face, she hoped to conceal her thoughts.
Again I spoke—
"You are silent."
"What would you have me say?"
"I wait for your response."
She hesitated, a deep sigh escaping her.
"You have spoken the truth," she answered in a low broken voice, full of emotion. "Would that I could also tell you the truth regarding myself. Then happiness would be mine."
"Cannot you tell me?" I urged.
"Alas! no," she answered in the same low voice, shaking her head sadly. "It is a secret which even you may not know. Because of it, sorrow and joy mingle within my heart."
"You are unhappy," I said, seriously. "I know you are terribly unhappy. How can I help you? Surely I may render some assistance? I cannot bear to think of you, the woman I love, weighed down by a burden of sorrow which you are forced to conceal. Has it any connection with that man who discovered us together on that eventful evening at the Palace?"
She paused in reflection. Then she answered, very slowly:
"Yes, it has."
"That man is your enemy," I said.
"My bitterest enemy," she admitted.
"Who is he?"
"No, no," she cried quickly, in a voice of alarm. "If you love me, then do not endeavour to wring from me my secret. I ask you this one favour. Only myself need suffer—not you."
"But you shall not suffer alone," I declared, firmly. "Your difficulties are mine. I will share them with you."
But sighing heavily again she shook her head despairingly, and answered:
"Some day I may require your aid. Not now. At present no assistance you can give would be availing. I am compelled to suffer alone, and in silence."
"Suffer!" I cried. "I will discover who this man is, and acting independently, free you from his influence."
"Ah, no," she cried in quick alarm. "He already knows you. If you sought to come between us the consequences would fall upon me—a dire and terrible disaster."
"But he is not your lover?" I said. "You have already denied that."
"He is certainly not."
"Then his jealousy cannot be aroused if I act as your friend," I pointed out.
"The slightest action on your part would suffice to bring upon me a catastrophe complete and terrible," she said hoarsely. "He would believe that I had betrayed his secret, and he would not spare me, for he is relentless."
"Then you actually live in fear of him?" I cried.
"I have already told you," she answered. "He is my enemy."
"And he possesses some power over you?"
"Yes, an influence which is irresistible."
"And you, a princess, are compelled to submit to the will or caprice of this man?" I cried fiercely. "Surely, there must be some means or other by which you may free yourself from his evil power?"
"If there were I should instantly avail myself of them," she answered blankly. "Heaven knows how I have suffered these past two years. To the world as Princess of Hapsbourg I am believed to be gay and happy, possessed of all that makes life pleasant, and careless of everything; yet beneath that smile of satisfaction, which I am compelled to wear because it is expected of one of blood royal, I carry a heart laden with sorrow and regret, a heart bowed down with grief, remorse, and woe; for I am the most unhappy woman in all the world."
"Your life is overshadowed by this man," I said, surprised at this sudden confession of hers. Her voice was low and trembling, showing her dire distress.
"It is because I fear exposure," she said, in a strange mechanical voice. "And before exposure I would prefer death. He knows that he holds my life in his hands."
"Why?" I inquired eagerly.
"Because rather than bear the opprobrium which he could bring upon me I would kill myself," she cried hoarsely.
"And that is the reason you fear him?" I suggested in a low voice.
She bowed her bead in acquiescence.
There was a long pause. Her hand was still in mine, and I felt it quiver nervously.
"May I not know who and what this man is?" I asked earnestly at last. "Cannot you trust me?"
"I trust you implicitly," she answered. "But in this matter my safety depends entirely upon my silence. I must bear my sorrow alone. No power can aid me."
"If I could render you the smallest assistance I would do so willingly," I assured her, once again raising her hand to my lips, and imprinting a tender kiss upon it.
"I am confident of that," she answered with a sigh. "If some day I require your aid—and I may do—I will ask you to redeem your promise."
"I will do so," I answered fervently. "At whatever cost I will do your bidding."
"And you will keep the secret of our close acquaintanceship?" she urged.
"No, no," I protested quickly. "Not of our acquaintanceship—of our love."
"Of our love," she faltered, in a voice so low as to be almost inaudible.
"Then you actually do love me!" I cried, enraptured. "Tell me the truth, Melanie," I implored. "Do not keep me longer in suspense."
Again her slim fingers gripped my hand, her breast rose and fell slowly, and her head bowed as though she would hide her face in modesty.
"Yes," she whispered, so softly that I could scarce catch her words. "Yes, Philip, I—I love you."
"MY dear fellow," exclaimed Yermoloff between the whiffs of his eternal cigarette, as I was sitting in his room at the Russian Legation next morning, "the whole thing is considered an absurdity at Petersburg. An Anglo-German alliance is quite out of the question. Your Mr. Chamberlain is merely developing the ideas of the principle laid down formerly by the Marquess of Macclesfield if he asks England to form an alliance with Germany for the purpose of making war upon Russia."
"England will never declare war," I answered.
My companion's sphinx-like face relaxed into a dubious smile. I had had some unimportant business to transact with him that morning regarding a British subject who had been arrested in Liege upon demand from the police in Moscow, where he was wanted for fraud, and had made this visit an opportunity of learning the latest opinion upon the situation, and endeavouring to ascertain whether anything was known of the theft of King Leopold's letters.
"We are well aware," he said, "that your Government has lately made advances to Germany, and that these overtures were not brought to a successful conclusion because no agreement could be arrived at as to certain terms. The policy of England is not only liable to change, but it is also hazy, obscure, and never to be relied upon. This is the chief reason that England is driven from one quarter to another in her continual search for allies; no single English Government can successfully offer itself as an ally so long as the other European Powers prefer the victories of peace to those of war."
"But you don't believe that England is desirous of hostilities with your country, do you?" I asked.
"Most certainly. If the German Alliance could have been arranged Russia and England would have been at war at this moment. Indeed," he added, looking at me rather strangely, "it isn't quite certain that there will be no fighting even now."
"We have but little to fear in that direction," I answered him, taking a fresh cigarette from his box and lighting it. He imported his own direct from Moscow, so they were always excellent.
"But there is danger in this strange policy of yours," he said. "Only at the last moment, when the smell of powder is in the air, does your shrewd old Marquess come to the decision as to which party in the strife it will be to its better advantage to form an alliance with. The latest of your diplomatic evolutions, my dear Crawford, has, I assure you, created much amusement in Petersburg."
"Why?" I asked. This survey of our policy from the Russian point of view was very interesting.
"The traditional Russophobia which seems to have infected you English has spread to a remarkable extent," he answered, blowing some rings of smoke from his mouth. "But even the London Times, which only lately cast forth another of its thunderbolts at the Government at Petersburg, has recognised that an Anglo-German Alliance would cost England far more than the advantages are worth, or which the Triple Alliance can assure to English statecraft."
"You mean that in order to conclude an alliance with Berlin, England must satisfy some heavy demands?" I observed.
"Exactly. Germany will never accept England as an ally on any other condition than conscription," he answered. "That, of course, your country is unable to grant."
This was a fact which I particularly desired to know. I had purposely led the conversation up to this point, in order to ascertain whether Germany's secret reply to England, given only the day previous, was known in the Russian Legations. It was, and it showed that the Russian secret service had been so actively at work at Berlin that the result of the Anglo-German negotiations had consequently been telegraphed in cypher to every Russian Legation in Europe. Only at midnight had a cypher telegram been received by Sir John from Downing-street, giving the negative result of the suggested alliance with Germany, yet actually within an hour or two, the Russians, whom it was extremely desirous to keep in ignorance, were fully aware of all that had transpired. Truly the secret service of the Colossus of the North is marvellously organised, and absolutely complete. Daily, even hourly sometimes, every Russian Legation abroad receives in cypher from the Ministry at Petersburg the direction of the latest political wind, and the movements or intentions of the Powers. The British Legations are always well-informed in this respect, but Russia, crafty and unscrupulous, is usually ahead.
"England can perfectly well afford to do without Germany," I said quite unconcernedly, for our chat was an informal and friendly one. "The foreign Press—and the diplomatic circle for the matter of that—are fond of talking of England's isolation in the Far East, yet it is curious they don't recognise that our occupation of Wei-hai-Wei was effected in concert with Japan; our loan was effected in concert with Germany; our railway scheme was financed in concert with Belgium; the mineral wealth of Hunan is being exploited in concert with Italy; and our policy of the 'open door' is admittedly in harmony with that of America. An attempt, therefore, to upset our policy as a whole involves Japan, Germany, Italy, and America. Such is isolation!"
"Ah, my dear Crawford," laughed my friend, flicking off his cigarette ash, "the rivalry between your country and mine is not ended. In India, for example, you trust for defence to a native army of Indian soldiers with a stiffening of British troops, while we hold our Asiatic possessions in strength, and deprive the population of all arms in order to destroy their martial instinct altogether. Our ideal is that of a subject population, blindly subservient to the military and civil authority exercised by Russians in the name of our Czar; while the dream of you English is to create loyal, self-governed and self-defending citizens. The latter seems, of course, the nobler ideal, but where an Oriental race is concerned the former is the wiser, you may depend upon it."
"Ah!" I said. "You Russians always covet India. Some day you will attack us there, I suppose."
He shrugged his shoulders significantly
"At your Downing-street your Ministry know well enough our intentions in Asia. The English are not blind, neither are they fools," he said. "But I tell you, Crawford, my dear fellow, that a reaction has set in, and according to report which reaches us from London people are beginning to talk of the senselessness of those views which aim at concluding an alliance with Germany, England's chief competitor for the trade of the world and in colonial expansion, while at the same time there is a section of your statesmen who openly evince a preference for a rapprochement with Russia."
"With Russia! Never, Yermoloff," I laughed. "The British lion and the Russian bear could never pig together."
Again the dark-faced Secretary of Legation shrugged his shoulders expressively.
"It would have been wiser," he said, "if your Government had approached ours a couple of years ago, for it would have placed England on a far safer basis than she is at present. At this very moment England is on the very edge of a volcano."
I started. Could it be that at last a copy of that stolen correspondence had found its way to Petersburg? Such ominous words plainly showed that my friend held knowledge of some catastrophe imminent.
I, however, affected disregard for his prognostications, and only smiled, answering:
"It is always so, now that you have your alliance with France."
"Ah!" he said. "You English are an unfortunate nation."
These words of his increased my fear that the blow, so long dreaded at Downing-street, had fallen. The unusual activity in Paris, of which we had received word, and these declarations by Paul Yermoloff went to show that something had transpired to cause undue excitement in the French and Russian Legations, and that the storm long brewing over Europe was on the very point of bursting.
For some time longer we chatted, and while I betrayed no sign of anxiety at his words, my friend sought with a Russian's self-assertion to impress upon me the benefit to be derived from an Anglo-Russian alliance. Then at last I left, and took a cab back to the Embassy, having learnt one or two things which could not fail to be disconcerting at Downing-street.
Whatever may be said about the diplomatic methods by which the Russian Government accomplish their aggressive purposes, it is impossible not to admire, perchance even to envy, their continuity of policy, and the unswerving determination with which it is carried out. It is the same in every capital. From time to time some check occurs, but as soon as it is removed or surmounted, the work of aggrandisement is renewed with as much vigour as if it had never come to a halt. The strong point in Russian statecraft is that it knows how to wait, as well as when to strike.
When an hour later I related to Sir John Drummond my conversation with Yermoloff he stroked his short grey beard thoughtfully, and after a moment's pause said:
"Let me have the cypher-book. We must wire to Downing-street. Spies have again been at work somewhere. Our diplomacy of late seems always to be undermined or rendered abortive by our friends at Petersburg."
I took from the great safe in the corner of the room the flat volume containing the cyphers. Only a few weeks ago they had been changed because there was a suspicion that the ciphers had leaked out somewhere. Then, when Sir John had finished writing the telegram, I sat down, and with the aid of the book reduced it to an amazing and puzzling array of numerals.
The telegraphic despatch was a long, explanatory one, and I, myself, at once went forth to the chief post-office to send it off, while Sir John ordered the carriage and drove to the Royal Palace to acquaint King Leopold of the latest development of affairs consequent upon the mysterious theft.
The loss of the correspondence had placed Sir John, clever and distinguished diplomatist that he was, in a very unenviable position, for not only was England's honour at stake, but the honour of a friendly sovereign and the good-will of a kingdom which, although small in extent, is of considerable importance in the political situation. Sir John Drummond, whose experience extended over thirty years in nearly every capital in Europe, had admitted himself baffled. Of all her Majesty's Ministers at the Foreign Courts he was one of the cleverest and shrewdest, able to conduct the most delicate piece of diplomacy, and aided by his affable and popular wife, had been the means of more than once securing to his country concessions of the utmost worth. Indeed, Queen Victoria had few more valued servants in her corps of Ambassadors than Sir John Drummond, and the Marquess of Macclesfield had often openly expressed his entire confidence in what he was fond of playfully calling 'Drummond's sagacity.' Therefore, it was the more serious that just at this crisis such a mysterious and marvellous theft should have been committed, for undoubtedly King Leopold regarded him as personally responsible for the safe keeping of those compromising letters.
The ways of French and Russian diplomacy were, however, a perfect labyrinth of intrigue and mystery, and both countries nowadays depend upon their spies, male and female, rather than on the legitimate efforts of their Embassies. In the pay of the Foreign Ministers of Russia and France are all sorts and conditions of men and women, who will hesitate at nothing in order to get at the secrets of those in opposition to them. Truly the life of a British ambassador is the reverse of tranquil, surrounded as he is by this veritable army of secret agents intent upon combating British diplomacy and rendering it abortive, ever striving and struggling to serve their masters by prying into every secret in the Embassy archives.
On my return to the Rue de Spa some half hour later Salmon, the English concierge, in his funny cutaway coat and peaked cap, the man so well known in the diplomatic circle in Brussels, told me that a telephonic message had just arrived from the Palace stating that Sir John wished me to proceed there. Therefore, I re-entered the cab, and in fifteen minutes or so I was shown through those long handsome corridors of white and gold, my eyes ever on the alert to catch a glimpse of Melanie, being at length ushered into the salon where my chief was closeted with King Leopold.
The room was by no means of large dimensions, and yet it presented a serious and imposing appearance. The grey-green panels, the dark brown embossed leather on the walls, the dark green curtains of the windows, and the paintings by Dutch artists several of them in black frames, all combined to breathe a spirit of earnestness. One felt that every article in that room had its own history. For example, there stood an enormous globe before the window on the left, and close by it a tall desk at which his Majesty stood to work; near the window on the right was the work-table of the King, covered with many personal souvenirs, including an autographed portrait of her Majesty Queen Victoria, in a frame set with brilliants. A glance through the windows showed the handsome square and well-kept park beyond, while straight in front hung Fehrbellin's painting of the great Elector, whose eagle eyes seemed to sparkle with his favourite motto, Deus fortitudo mea. A couple of well-filled bookcases, the number of maps and plans upon the walls, and the littered state of the work-table were ample evidence that to be a reigning monarch was no sinecure.
I had bowed on entering, and King Leopold, with the courtesy which has always distinguished him, rose from his chair, a tall, full-bearded, imposing figure in grey frock-coat, and returned my bow.
"His Majesty wished to see you, Crawford," explained Sir John, turning to me, and as he uttered the words I saw by the expression upon his countenance that the discussion had been an extremely grave one.
"Yes," said the kindly-faced, elderly, plainly-dressed man, sinking back into his chair and giving me permission to be seated. "Sir John has told me of your conversation at the Russian Legation to-day, and as I understand that you are engaged in the secret service of the British Foreign Office anything that I may say to you will, of course, remain secret."
"Your Majesty has my pledge of secrecy," I answered. He spoke English perfectly, if with just a slight accent.
"The theft of those letters must, of course, have a most serious effect upon your own diplomacy, and not only must it affect me personally, but it may result in hostilities against England," observed his Majesty, his dark eyes fixed upon me. "I happen to know something of the feeling in Paris and in St. Petersburg, and undoubtedly it is the universal opinion that this is the opportunity for a declaration of war. The differences between England and France regarding Egypt and the Niger question, and between England and Russia regarding the Far East, have served to embitter both those Powers against England. Well, I am, as you probably know, a stanch supporter of my friend, Sir John Drummond, and of the British policy. To the Powers my kingdom is supposed to be neutral: but in event of war British troops would no doubt find a safe landing in Antwerp and be accorded every facility for reaching the Rhine."
"I thank your Majesty for such an expression of friendship towards England, especially in these circumstances," observed Sir John cordially.
"My friendship for England is because the Marquess of Macclesfield is always just, fair, and upright; and further, because the policy of England is to protect the weak against the strong," answered the King, leaning back in his chair. "This loss, of course, occasions me the greatest anxiety; yet I cannot lay any blame upon either the British Government or upon yourself. From what you explained the other day the utmost care was taken of the file, and it was carried by special messenger with other secret despatches. Nevertheless, we have to look events resolutely in the face. The papers have been stolen by some person unknown, their contents are evidently known to every French and Russian Minister in Europe, and war is at this moment imminent."
"Do you suppose that to be so?" inquired Sir John quickly.
"I cannot see how we can convince ourselves of any other result," his Majesty replied, his brow furrowed in thought. "France and Russia have everything to gain by thus taking England by surprise." Then, turning to me, the King said:
"I should like to hear from your own lips the words used by the Russian Secretary of Legation. He is your friend, is he not?"
"Yes, your Majesty. We are personal friends. I have known him at other Embassies for a number of years," and proceeding I gave a detailed account of the conversation, almost as I have here written it, while with his eyes fixed upon me, he listened with marked attention.
"And this Yermoloff is rather a smart man, is he not?" his Majesty exclaimed.
"He has a reputation for shrewdness," I answered. "He was stationed at Rome a year ago, and it is said to have been in a great measure due to his astuteness that Russia gained the concessions she did over the recent affair in Abyssinia."
"Ah! I remember," he said. "That was a piece of very clever diplomacy, purely Russian in all its ingeniousness. Has he ever visited you at the Embassy?" he inquired.
"Never. He comes to my rooms to smoke sometimes, and now and then on business pretexts I go to the Russian Legation."
"Ah, I quite understand," he smiled. "And you make good use of your time when you are there—eh? Well, this is certainly valuable information which you've picked up this morning. Where are your rooms situated?"
"In the Place Louise," I answered.
"And you have never had occasion to take the file of correspondence now missing home with you, I suppose?"
"Never," I answered. "The documents never left the safe at the Legation, of which Sir John always holds the master-key, until they were placed in the despatch box, sealed and taken to London."
"Extraordinary!" his Majesty ejaculated. "The thieves evidently outwitted you in a manner that its truly amazing."
"We are very seriously handicapped," observed Sir John, "by not being able to discover into whose hands the correspondence has actually fallen."
"Of course," the King said. "If the robbery were committed for the purposes of gain—and we must suppose that it was—then I, myself, would have been prepared to pay almost any sum to recover them. It is most fatal at this juncture that they should have been secured by our enemies—absolutely the worst catastrophe that could have happened to England or to Belgium.
"Unfortunately that is only too true," said the Ambassador, sitting pensive and puzzled.
"And there is still another matter, M'sieur Crawford," continued the King, rising and opening a drawer in his work-table, and then returning in a moment with something in his hand. "You are a member of the secret service, therefore, perhaps, you might assist me in a small matter. Do you happen to know the original of this photograph?" And he handed me a rather soiled and faded carte-de-visite.
One glance at it was sufficient for identification. I sat with it in my hand, breathless, rigid, dumbfounded!
THE picture his Majesty held before my gaze was the counterfeit presentment of that woman whom I feared—the widow of my dead friend Gordon.
It was as though this hateful shadow of the past was thrust upon me in order to render my position the more desperate; for as I looked I saw upon her pictured lips that smile of defiance which I had known so well long ago when she was Judith Kohn.
"You recognise her," observed the King with satisfaction. "Tell me who, and what she is."
I hesitated, my eyes fixed upon his. In a moment, however, I succeeded in recovering my self-possession and said:
"That woman is well-known to me. Her name was Judith Kohn before she married a man named Clunes, who was my friend."
"Where did you know her?"
"In Vienna," I answered. "While making certain secret inquiries there I first became acquainted with her."
"And her name is now Clunes? What is his profession?"
I hesitated. Should I relate the whole truth, or not? A second's reflection, however, showed me that such a course would be unwise. Only the Marquess of Macclesfield and myself were aware of the truth, and he had imposed silence upon me.
"Her husband," I said, "was engaged in the Treaty Department of our Foreign Office in London."
"Ah, Clunes-Gordon Clunes," exclaimed Sir John, quickly. "Of course I know him quite well. He's the head of that Department."
"Yes," I answered, wondering how this photograph, a copy of which was in my possession, could have fallen into the hands of King Leopold.
"And what is the character of this woman?" continued his Majesty. "You can speak quite frankly to me."
"She's something of a mystery," I responded.
"A mystery," he echoed. "You appear to look upon her with suspicion."
"I do," I said.
"Then tell me the circumstances in which you first met her. Knowledge of them may assist me."
"I think, your Majesty," I answered with politeness, "I think I must request you to excuse me replying to that question. As a member of the secret service I am under oath not to divulge the result of any inquiry I make to any agent of a foreign state."
His Majesty looked at me quickly with that sharp glance rendered the more acute by his aquiline features, perhaps, then replied with a good-humoured smile:
"Of course, M'sieur Crawford, I perfectly understand. I would not wish you for one moment to betray any official secret to me. Nevertheless, remember that I am friendly to your Queen and country, and that whatever information in this matter you can give me without betraying any confidence will be of the greatest assistance in my investigations."
"I think there is no harm in explaining to his Majesty who and what this woman is," Sir John remarked.
"Unfortunately I am unable," I answered, rather annoyed.
"Why?" inquired the Ambassador.
"Because," I answered, "because the principal fact connected with her career is a secret known only to myself and the Marquess of Macclesfield, who imposed upon me the strictest silence."
"The Marquess of Macclesfield!" echoed the King. "Then he knows her?"
"She is a political agent—eh?"
"I have reason to believe so," I responded.
"Then, if so, why not, in our mutual interests, tell me some minor facts regarding her?" urged the King, again glancing at the photograph with a puzzled air, and stroking his long beard pensively, a habit of his when deep in thought.
Again, I reflected for a moment, then, in the hope that I might obtain knowledge of how this picture had fallen into his hands, I answered:
"Well, she's a woman who has had, as far as I have been able to gather, a very unusual history. She passes as English, but the slight accentuation of certain of her words is evidence that she is not. In Paris she was once very well known, passing there as the daughter of a very wealthy American lady, and becoming engaged to be married to Count Venosta, of the Italian Embassy. This, however, was suddenly broken off, by what means remains unknown, and she afterwards turned up at Vienna, where I first met her."
"Was she in society there?" inquired the King eagerly.
"No," I answered. "Only in the course of some certain inquiries regarding the betrayal of certain secret negotiations between my Embassy and the Austro-Hungarian Government did I become aware of her existence. She was known then as Judith Kohn, and was the supposed wife if one Oswald Krauss, a captain of artillery."
"Well, and what afterwards?" the King inquired.
"Krauss was convicted by court-martial of selling plans of three of the frontier fortresses to Russian agents and sentenced to imprisonment for life. The woman, however, escaped."
"And she married your friend?"
"Yes. The next I saw of her was several years afterwards when, on visiting Gordon Clunes, who had married during my absence in Constantinople, I found that she was his wife."
"Remarkable!" exclaimed his Majesty reflectively. "Very remarkable. It would almost appear as though she had some object in marrying an official of his grade. It was scarcely wisdom on his part."
"He was entirely ignorant of her previous adventures," I said. "She passed herself off as an Englishwoman living in a remote country town, whose education had been gained abroad—here, in Brussels, I believe she said."
"And he believed her," observed the King, smiling. "A man in love will believe anything."
"But this woman is really a secret agent, you say!" exclaimed Sir John. "Surely Clunes knows that? If not, no time should be lost in informing him. It is a position most dangerous. Already we have had so many attempts to get at the secrets of our diplomacy that we ought to spare no effort to combat them."
"Every precaution possible has already been taken," I answered vaguely. Had I not given my promise to the Marquess I should undoubtedly have explained all to them.
"And this man Krauss," the King continued. "Was his offence a very serious one?"
"Extremely," I answered. "His betrayal of military secrets was proved beyond doubt, but it was further made plain that the woman acted as the agent between her lover and the Russian Government."
"Ah!" exclaimed his Majesty, as though a sudden thought had occurred to him. "Then the woman is known to the Russian Legation?"
"Undoubtedly," I answered. "I have certain knowledge that De Volborth, the Russian Ambassador at Vienna, supplied her with money and arranged for her escape over the frontier into Russia after her lover's arrest."
"But this, you will notice, is a prison photograph," the King remarked, turning it in his hand.
"She had previously fallen into the hands of the Vienna police for victimising tradespeople. It was after that that her relations with Krauss commenced."
"I don't remember hearing anything of the betrayal of the plans," he said reflectively.
"The matter was kept a profound secret," I answered. "Only a few high officials, and those composing the court-martial were aware of it."
Too well I remembered all the curious details of that ingenious conspiracy, which not only affected the security of the Austrian Empire, but also that of England. It was because of my efforts in that sensational affair, efforts which cost me so much, and added ten years to my age, that the Marquess of Macclesfield reposed confidence in me. Yet it was that woman, Judith Kohn, the woman whose faded photograph was now in the hands of King Leopold, who could, if she chose, expose and ruin me.
How heartless she was, I well knew. I had seen more than one illustration of it, and knew that at the moment of her revenge she would not spare me.
"Then you consider her a dangerous political agent?" the King said.
"Must decidedly," I answered. "At this moment I am most anxious to know her whereabouts. Our secret intelligence department in London have kept a keen eye upon her for a considerable time, but of late she has evaded us, and once more disappeared. Have you knowledge where she is?"
"No," he responded, glancing sharply at me. "This photograph has come into my possession in a somewhat curious manner, and what you have just told me increases the mystery considerably. Perhaps it will be as well if I command inquiries to be made by our police."
"If I may presume to suggest to your Majesty," I said quickly, "the best course would be to leave the matter entirely in my hands."
"Why?" he inquired quickly.
"Because police interference in such a matter must only hinder me in my inquiries."
"But you surely have sufficient on hand just now," the King said.
"The discovery of Judith Kohn cannot be long delayed," I answered, recollecting that sooner or later she must come to me of her own accord.
"Then, if you desire it, I will not invoke the aid of the police," his Majesty said. "Try and find her, and when she is found tell her that I wish her to call and see me."
"To see your Majesty?" I gasped, surprised.
"Yes. Surely it is not so strange a thing that I should desire to ask this woman a question. And recollect, Crawford," he added with considerable emphasis, "this matter is a pressing one, and of the highest importance. If she fears arrest, tell her that the police here shall not touch her as long as she obeys my command. At all cost I must see her."
"Very well, your Majesty, I will endeavour to trace her."
"It is an entirely private matter," he added. "Not a soul must know of my dealings with this woman. But, by the way," he went on, "do you think that Yermoloff Gregorovitch, or any of the staff at the Russian Legation here know her?"
"That's impossible to tell. She is probably known at the Russian Embassy in Paris, and is certainly well-known to De Volborth in Vienna."
"But you say she is now the wife of one of your colleagues in the Foreign Office in London."
I nodded. I had not told them that Gordon was dead.
"Then she's probably in London?"
"It is quite impossible to tell, because—well," I added, "because they have parted."
"Ah!" cried the King. "She has possibly found that the profession of Russian agent is more lucrative than being wife of a Downing-street official, and has returned to the old game."
"No," I replied. "I don't think that, because by reason of a certain circumstance within my knowledge the London police are very anxious to find her."
"And may I not know the circumstance to which you refer?" he asked.
"I regret," I answered quietly, "that your Majesty may not know that." The King drew a long breath, and again stroked his beard pensively.
"Your profession, of course, needs the most delicate tact, and the greatest astuteness and forethought," he said. "A single slip, and exposure and disgrace would of course ensue. Against the machinations of England's enemies one must need a thousand eyes."
I smiled and answered—
"If by conveying your Majesty's message to Judith Kohn I can render a service I shall do so willingly."
"Thank you, Crawford," the polished monarch answered, with a courtly bow. "If you do this you will render me a very great service in a purely private matter."
"I have little doubt that she will soon be found," I responded. "I only wish I was as sanguine of discovering into whose hands the missing file of correspondence has fallen. The enigma is bewildering."
"You do not yet appear to have discovered the existence of any secret French or Russian agents in Brussels," his Majesty remarked.
"On the contrary," I replied, laughing, for I had not been idle, "four of them are my intimate friends. Three are Russian agents, and the fourth is employed by Gerard, the French Minister. They believe me to be a cashier in the Old English Bank. Against neither of them, however, rests suspicion of having tampered with our despatch-box."
"It's a mystery, a problem absolutely beyond solution," Sir John remarked with a sigh.
"We can only wait," observed the King. "Some day ere long it is to be hoped that Crawford will succeed in obtaining a clue, and thereby expose the truth. Truly the devices of diplomacy are as ingenious as they are astounding. If we could only recover those letters before their existence became known, then we should succeed in baffling our enemies."
"Ah! that is too late, your Majesty," I said. "Already there are evidences on every side that copies of the letters have reached the Foreign Ministries in Paris and Petersburg."
"Well," said the King, "continue to do your utmost, and recollect, too, that I have the greatest anxiety to see this woman whom you call Kohn. I must see her, for I tell you frankly that facts have come to my knowledge which have caused me great uneasiness, and I shall know no rest until I get the truth from that woman's lips."
"The truth you will, I fear, never obtain from the lips of Judith Kohn," I observed.
"But money can buy most things," his Majesty said. "If she is, as you say, a political agent, she is certainly open to bribery."
"Undoubtedly," I answered, adding in a perhaps rather bitter tone, "Unscrupulous as she is, she could be no doubt bribed to commit any crime from telling an untruth to the taking of a life."
"All I ask is that you should send her here," his Majesty said in the strange hard voice of one desperate. "The rest may be left to me."
This latest development of the tangled chain of circumstances was most extraordinary. It was amazing that King Leopold should desire to see and question her, of all women. She hated me. Had she not at the well-remembered moment, just before I discovered her husband dead, threatened me with exposure and ruin, while I, confident in the knowledge I held of her past, promised my silence only in return for hers? Yet, although I had been ignorant of it, my power over her had already vanished, for the man who had so foolishly married her had already passed to that world which lies beyond the human ken. She did not fear me now, for was she not a perfectly free agent? Aided by the astute De Volborth, Russian Ambassador at Vienna, she had escaped the Austrian police, and there being no extradition for a political offence she was quite safe.
As I sat there in silence while his Majesty discussed the critical situation with the Ambassador, I reflected how, having regard to all the circumstances, her chief object would undoubtedly be to bring upon me swiftly that vengeance which she had openly avowed.
Yet I had promised to seek her of my own accord and deliver this command of the King's, to entrap her, and perhaps to further embitter her against me for aught I knew.
Truly my position was unenviable and my mind full of gravest thoughts. England's honour was at stake, the days were passing quickly, and I had, alas! discovered nothing, absolutely nothing.
Each hour was bring us nearer and nearer a terrific and terrible conflict with the Powers. War was in the air. In a few days the black storm-cloud which for the past three years had hovered over Europe must inevitably burst, then lands now fair and smiling would be swept by fire and sword, and thousands, perhaps millions of lives would be sacrificed before those frightful modern engines of destruction.
Both King and Ambassador were fully aware of the crisis at hand, but were utterly helpless. We could only wait.
A FORTNIGHT of hot, weary, anxious days went by. The month of June was now drawing to a close, and everyone was leaving the city for the country or the seaside.
I had met Melanie many times at social functions, and we greeted each other with all formality, but only once had we gone cycling together in the Bois. If, however, I confess the truth, I must say that we did not then go very far on our machines, but spent the whole of the two happy hours sitting together beneath the trees on that beautiful green hillside overlooking the lake. It was delightful in that bright morning sunlight, cool, fresh, and tranquil after the city's turmoil. Each time I saw her her charm for me increased. She was so graceful, so unaffected, so tender, so entirely happy that I felt assured, notwithstanding all her modest hesitation, that she really and truly loved me. She was beautiful, too for did I not see her portrait in all sorts of English and foreign illustrated papers, large full-page portraits by one of the well-known Paris firms of photographers? Even her shabby cycling skirt and straw hat could not disguise the fact that she was high-born, for about her face, when she was not actually in conversation with me, was that calm oppression of hauteur which every Hapsbourg bears, and her swinging gait denoted pride and fearlessness of the world.
But all her words to me were words of happiness and calm affection. True, she had only once allowed herself to confess her love to me, yet her actions betrayed the truth of my surmise. She loved me, and to me she spoke freely and without restraint of her daily life, of her relations, of her visits to the Court of her uncle, the German Emperor, to the Czarina at Petersburg, and to the popular Empress of Austria at Vienna. Her chatter was always merry, sometimes witty, and very frequently amusing. She had a keen sense of humour, and was altogether most engaging and bewitching. It was not because of her royal birth that I was held spellbound, for on that morning before I had known who she was her loveliness and grace attracted me, and now, as each day passed, I thought of nothing but her. She was my all, my hope, my very life.
Twice after our last meeting in the Bois I had passed her driving with her mother in the fine carriage with servants in the royal livery. As she sat back, clad in the latest fashionable fancy, sweet and dainty beneath her white silk sunshade, she looked indeed far different from the shabby dusty little figure who cycled at such early hours on that broad, level, well kept road over which their carriage daily rolled at four o'clock.
It was close to the Porte de Namur, as I was walking from the Legation to my own rooms further up the leafy Boulevard, that the equipage with its jingling harness passed me. I looked up quickly, and saw that she had already recognised me. Then I raised my hat, and while her proud mother glared at me in askance through her lorgnon she bowed stiffly as though I were a comparative stranger. But I was not surprised. Her mother was in ignorance of our clandestine meetings, and it was not to be supposed that she would reveal our secret.
On the second occasion I met her driving in the Avenue de la Toison d'Or accompanied by Princess Clementine, the daughter of King Leopold, and then, free from all restraint, she smiled happily at me as she responded to my salute. I saw them exchange some words, then both turned and looked back, Melanie laughing again at me across her shoulder, an action which etiquette rules to be extremely undignified.
At the Legation matters had assumed a most critical phase. The intelligence which reached us from London was of a most disquieting character. England's attempted alliance with Germany and its failure, the secret of which had been instantly known to Russia and France, had, as we expected, produced a very embittered feeling towards us in all the Chancelleries of Europe. This, combined with the fact that we had approached King Leopold in order that we might if occasion demanded pass through Belgium and thus unite our military force with that of Germany, must, we knew, inevitably cause war. It was only a matter of weeks, or perhaps indeed days, and Europe would be shaken to her foundations by the startling announcement that the crisis had actually arrived, and that Russia and France had broken off diplomatic negotiations with the British Empire.
From the actions of these two Powers, who were our most deadly enemies, it was apparent that something unusual was taking place, yet all the combined efforts of our secret service department in the various capitals failed to obtain definite knowledge as to whether the stolen file of the King's correspondence had actually fallen into our enemies' hands.
Some of the intelligence which reached us in cypher from Downing-street seemed to point undoubtedly to the fact that the tenor of those letters was known, while at other times, from the actions of the Russian Ministers in Paris and Berlin, it would seem that at Petersburg they remained still in ignorance.
One afternoon, when Lady Drummond was receiving, I was standing in the drawing-room chatting to a couple of ladies well known in Brussels society, and one of the footmen whispered that a messenger from Downing-street had arrived and required a receipt for his despatches. Excusing myself, I went along to my own room and there found Graves in his light dust-coat, his hair a trifle ruffled, and the thin blue ribbon of his official badge as Queen's foreign service messenger escaping from beneath his cravat. The ribbon with medallion bearing the Queen's arms and the silver greyhound suspended is always kept concealed beneath the messenger's cravat, and only exhibited when necessary to convince some railway official or customs officer of the identity of its wearer, for it is a passport more potent than the usual formal blue document signed by the Marquess of Macclesfield, and bearing a sixpenny stamp.
"Well," I said, gripping his hand, "once more in Brussels—eh?"
"Yes," he responded, handing me the precious box while I signed his receipt. "I haven't a moment to spare, for I've also got despatches for Petersburg. I took the Vienna express from Ostend here, which gives me just an hour in Brussels. I shan't catch the North express if I'm not sharp," he added, glancing at his watch. "You've discovered nothing of the theft, I suppose?"
"Nothing," I responded. "I can't imagine how it was done."
"Neither can I," he answered. "Day by day I try and form some theory, but am utterly puzzled. Through all these years I've been carrying despatches I've never before lost one, and now, just within two years of gaining my pension, I have this misfortune. Somehow, I fear that the Chief has lost confidence in me."
"Why?" I inquired, rather surprised.
"Because I have more than a suspicion that I'm being shadowed by detectives. This makes me believe that the Marquess suspects me of selling those papers."
"Selling them!" I echoed. "My dear Graves, there's not a man in the Service who doesn't trust you implicitly. There's no ground for suspicion against you whatever. If there were, I should know of them. Those men who are shadowing you are not detectives, you may rely upon it. They are more likely French or Russian agents who want to get at your despatches again."
"If they try," he answered determinedly, his mouth set, "if they try, by heaven I'll give them a taste of this," and he drew from his hip pocket a good-sized serviceable-looking revolver.
"Where are your despatches for Petersburg?" I asked, noticing he had not a second box with him.
"In my belt. I have permission from the Chief to carry them there. In Russia they are safer next to my skin than in any sealed box," and rising he re-buttoned his light overcoat and took up his soft felt hat. He was muscular, athletic, rather short of stature, dark-bearded and thickly built, a typical specimen of a tough Englishman.
"Well, keep on the alert," I said. "The outlook is growing desperate, therefore exercise the greatest care on your journeys."
"Ah! it's my carelessness that has caused all those strained relations," he said in a dismal tone. "I only blame myself, Mr. Crawford. It is my fault, yet how the theft was committed I'm utterly at a loss to know. The box was in my possession the whole time."
"No fault, Graves, rather call it misfortune," I answered. "Some day we shall solve the mystery; at least to that end I am daily working. Good-bye, and a pleasant journey."
We shook hands, and as I stood at the window watching, I saw him in his cab tearing down the Rue de la Loi to catch the Nord express for St. Petersburg.
His life was, I reflected, one of constant unrest, all his days for years having been spent upon the great trunk lines of Europe, until he had become an animated Bradshaw, and was on friendly terms with every Customs officer and sleeping car conductor. During the time I had been in the Service abroad I had constantly met him, for he was the senior messenger, and if remaining the night was always the guest of the Ambassador. Dozens of times he had come to Constantinople while I had been there, and in addition to his flying visits to the various Embassies and Legations in Europe, it was he who very frequently made the monthly journey from Downing-street to Teheran. In the messenger service the trip to Persia is looked upon as a pleasant change to the eternal journeys in Europe for in Teheran there is usually a week or so of rest, while the long journey by road is welcome to one jaded by the eternal roar and rattle of the rail. Therefore by a Queen's messenger a journey to Persia is actually looked upon is a relaxation.
While standing at the window, however, Sir John, having learnt that despatches had arrived, entered hurriedly and opened the box with his key, while I obtained the decypher-book from the safe, and began at once to transcribe the despatch he handed me.
He watched over me as I wrote letter after letter, and when I had finished, and he learnt its purport, he sank into his chair with his brows knit and his eyes fixed in thought.
The despatch when fully transcribed read as follows:—
No 6A. 3472. Private.
From Marquess of Macclesfield to Sir John Drummond, Brussels.
A telegraphic despatch dated midnight 9th instant from Berlin states that secret information has been obtained by our Embassy that the Russian Ambassador that day called upon the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, and had an interview lasting two hours. The Emperor was also present. The subject under discussion was the possibility of Russia forming an offensive alliance with Germany against England. A Council meeting is to be held on the 12th to discuss the matter. During the evening of the 9th the Emperor received by special courier an autograph letter from the Czar. You are at liberty to inform his Majesty King Leopold of this latest and most critical turn of events, and assure him of the continued friendliness and goodwill of her Majesty's Government. Further information follows. Cyphers to be changed at midday on the 11th instant from 222 to 186.
"We are now within an ace of war," the Ambassador observed gravely with a sigh. "The knowledge of our failure at Berlin has precipitated events in a most alarming manner. Never, Crawford, in the whole of my diplomatic career has England been nearer war than she is at this moment."
"And our lost despatches," I observed. "What of them?"
"I fear to think," he answered gloomily. "By the uncertainty of into whose possession those letters have fallen my hands are tied. I can do nothing—absolutely nothing. It is strange that the secret service has failed to discover what is known of them, or into whose hands they have passed."
"The theft was one of the most ingenious ever perpetrated by our enemies," I remarked, "and no doubt those who could steal so cleverly also took every precaution to baffle us in our effort to trace them. But tell me," I added, "has the King mentioned to you the reason he desires to have an interview with that woman Judith Kohn?"
"No," answered my chief. "I put to him a very pointed question, but he merely remarked that the matter was a private one. It is fortunate that we are upon such good terms with his Majesty, or the loss of his letters might have placed us in a most invidious position."
"But he knows that notwithstanding the neutrality he is compelled to preserve, the best friend and protector of his kingdom is ourselves," I said.
"Quite right, quite right," Sir John replied. "But we never know, Crawford, what advantages France, or even Russia, may hold out to him. They can offer tempting baits to the unwary, remember. Recollect the action of Russian diplomacy in Constantinople, and how Zouroff twists the Sultan round his finger."
I nodded, for I well knew the marvellous astuteness and cunning of the Russian Ambassador to the Porte.
"Then you consider our position here is not so safe as it really appears?"
"Certainly not," he responded darkly. "If war were declared against England to-morrow, Belgium would be forced on the side of Germany or France, and our open door to Europe would be closed. The King would be compelled to accede, in order to save his crown and kingdom."
"But the Treaty of Neutrality?" I suggested.
The Ambassador snapped his fingers impatiently.
"In case of a European war—and it means that and nothing else—treaties such as those would be set at nought. A little skirmishing between Uhlans and Chasseurs along the Meuse Valley, and the treaty would vanish into air. The King is a clever politician himself, and he knows that quite well. We should have no doubt secured on agreement with Belgium, had it not been for the Minister de Boek's opposition. He is, as you know, in favour of an alliance with France."
"But he has been succeeded now," I said.
"Yes, but unfortunately his successor holds exactly the same views. Brussels is always modelling itself upon Parisian models and of course the mind of Belgians naturally turns to thoughts of France as their protector."
Then he rose wearily, and after filing the despatch we went together back into the drawing-room, where Lady Drummond was entertaining her well dressed crowd of chattering guests with that courtesy which characterised her as a polished and popular hostess.
There is a strange fate that sometimes directs our actions and leads us involuntarily to perform things we have no intention of doing. That same evening I accompanied Giffard and a friend of his, a Belgian deputy, to the theatre, and at the conclusion of the performance, it being a bright star-lit night I set out to walk to my rooms alone, refusing their invitation to go round to the English Club, as I felt a slight touch of fever on me. My head ached violently, but the cool air revived me, and I was walking along the wide dark avenue of trees which forms the Boulevard du Regent, one of the best residential quarters of the city, when suddenly in the obscurity before me I thought I distinguished something white fluttering.
It was past midnight, most of the gas-lamps had been extinguished and only a solitary light remained burning here and there; hence the darkness, increased by the foliage of the trees, obscured everything. All was still, no sound broke the quiet, save the rustling of the tree-tops as a gust of cool night-wind swept across them.
Yet I felt confident that I had seen something before me, and that it had instantly disappeared.
I had heard and read in the papers of belated foot-passengers being waylaid there; hence I resolved to keep my wits about me, and in order to watch, slipped quickly behind a tree-trunk and waited, my eyes fixed upon the spot where that flash of white had been revealed.
There was still no sound. In that great wide thoroughfare, with its thick avenue, the foot-passenger was entirely alone at night. Most people, it was true, took the footpath along by the houses lining the Boulevard and I knew that I had acted foolishly in walking where I did. Footpads are plentiful in the Brussels boulevards, and at night the police surveillance is not all that it might be.
Suddenly, however, I heard a quick, sharp cry—the cry of a woman in pain—and there, sure enough, saw again the same flash of white. There were sounds of scuffling, then silence again, broken only by a low groan and a word of reproach.
I hesitated in wonder.
Of a sudden, a shriek rang out upon the night air, and a woman's voice cried in French:
"Ah, no! Let me go! Spare my life, and you shall have what you ask. You—you'll kill me, you coward! Let me go. Ah! you are hurting me! You——" and there was a strange horrible sound, as though the woman was trying to speak, but the terrible pressure upon her throat only reduced her words to inarticulate sounds.
In an instant I dashed forward, reaching in a few paces two struggling figures, a man and a woman. Without a moment's hesitation, and entirely heedless of the consequences, I flung myself upon the man, a well-dressed follow in silk hat and frock coat, and seizing his arms dragged his sinewy murderous hands from the woman's throat, for he had clutched her in a fierce grip, and was endeavouring to strangle her.
She shook herself free and drew back with a cry of relief; but in that instant, almost before I was aware of it, her assailant had closed with me with a low cry of suppressed rage. So suddenly, indeed, did he spring upon me that I was nearly borne to earth; but in desperation I wrestled with him, managing to keep my feet, and by strategy learnt in my college days to gain a slight advantage.
Upon my cheek I could feel his hot breath as he panted with exertion, and could hear the sound of his teeth grinding hard in his desperate effort to cast me off, for I had now got him in my grasp. In swaying from side to side in that dark avenue we, however, suddenly emerged into a ray of faint light shed by one of the few street lamps which remained alight, and then, for the first time I caught a glimpse of his features. He was fair, with a blonde moustache, but his slightly pock-marked face was distorted by a fierce unbridled anger.
To the woman at the same instant were my own features apparently revealed, for with a wild exclamation she breathlessly ejaculated my name. That voice sounded familiar in my ears and startled me. I drew back amazed and peered at the white-robed figure before me.
The face of that man I had within my grasp was to me the most hateful and detestable in all the world. This sudden encounter caused me to start in amazement, and in an instant he had twisted himself free and stood glaring at me, as though ready to tear me limb from limb.
The woman who had been thus cowardly attacked was none other than Melanie, my beloved, and her assailant that degraded spy and traitor whom I had once hunted down and brought to punishment, the ex-captain of artillery, Oswald Krauss.
"YOU! Melanie!" I gasped bewildered, turning to her. "Tell me what has happened. Why has this man attacked you?"
Ere, however, she could reply Krauss, with an imprecation escaping him, had slunk away and was lost in the darkness among the trees. I started forward to follow him and demand an explanation, for my blood was up now that I recognised he had attacked the woman I loved, but she called me back in an authoritative voice, and in a moment I was again at her side.
Breathless and panting she was greatly agitated, a terrible anxiety apparently consuming her, therefore I suggested that she should walk with me to my rooms only a short distance off, and there rest until she had recovered sufficiently to return to the Palace. A little brandy would revive her, for the man had evidently made a most desperate and perhaps preconcerted attempt to take her life.
This midnight discovery was certainly a most remarkable and startling one. Few in Brussels would have dreamed that the Princess Melanie of Hapsbourg, the beautiful girl whom everyone admired, would be wandering beneath the trees in the Boulevard after midnight, and certainly this attempt to take her life was a most sensational incident entirely unaccountable. Only one man on earth I hated and detested, and it was this villainous spy whom I believed was still serving his well-deserved life sentence in the State prison at Budapesth. The knowledge of his liberty had caused me to stand before him dumbfounded.
On one occasion, on that grey morning when he stood in the barrack-square with his hands manacled while his decorations and the facings of his uniform were torn from his coat and his sword broken before the assembled troops, he had vowed to take my life. That was the last time I had seen him, for he had been marched away to prison an a spy and a traitor, while the woman Judith Kohn, to whom his degradation was in a great measure due, had, with the assistance of the Russian Embassy, fled across the frontier and escaped. Yet I remembered well, as though it were but yesterday, that evil look in his eyes as he swore to kill me because I had brought about his exposure by intercepting certain plans which he had offered for sale. Mine was, I confess, a delicate piece of espionage, but it was in the interests of my own dear England, and in order to further the success of the diplomacy of my chief.
Now, at this critical moment of the European outlook, we had met once more, and our encounter had certainly been in most extraordinary circumstances. In my ears the shrill cry of my beloved still sounded, and I regretted that I had not detained him. True, he had escaped into the darkness, but without doubt our recognition had been mutual.
"You are very kind, Philip," she managed to gasp. "It is fortunate you were near, or—or he would, I believe, have strangled me. A little brandy would do me good. I feel so weak and faint."
"Then come," I said. "Let's get away, for the police may have been alarmed by your cry," and taking her arm tenderly I managed to lead her as far as the Place Louise, where we ascended to my little flat, a rather pleasant place in daytime, overlooking as it did the gayest and liveliest spot in all Brussels.
Fortunately Barnes, my English manservant, had retired to bed, as he did invariably at eleven if I were not in, therefore we were alone, and on gaining the sitting-room she staggered back into my arm chair exhausted, her beautiful face as pale as death, her lips trembling, her dark eyes fixed before her with a strange haggard look I had never before seen in them. Indeed she had walked with me as one dazed and in a dream, and not until I had made her swallow a stiff glass of cognac did she revive and become fully cognisant of things around her.
I saw that the white silk gown she wore, an extremely handsome dress cut a trifle decollete and trimmed with pearls, was rent and torn, while her dark hair had been sadly disarranged in the desperate struggle. There were marks, too, upon her white throat, dark livid marks where the hands of her assailant had gripped her in his dastardly effort to crush the life from her.
I asked whether she had not a cape, or some covering for her shoulders, thinking it strange that she should go forth into the night air without protection, but she mechanically replied that she supposed it had fallen off in the Boulevard.
"Tell me, Melanie, what occurred," I asked at last, standing behind her chair, bending over her and holding her hand tenderly. Jewels, beautiful rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, sparkled on her slim white fingers, while upon her wrist was an antique bracelet, a broad band of gold with an inscription in raised Roman characters, "Vita ludus et scena est." It was a fine ornament which, as I afterwards learnt, had been discovered during some excavations near the old town of Treves, once a Roman stronghold.
To my question she remained dumb. Her half bare chest rose and fell in a heavy sigh, and her eyes were turned to mine with a strange fixed look which alarmed me. Her hand trembled, then a shudder ran through her.
"You are cold," I said, and obtaining a flannel tennis coat of my own I placed it about her shoulders.
She thanked me in a low weak voice, then, resting her head upon the cushion I placed for her, she closed her eyes. I saw that she was exhausted, and further, that the dark marks upon her throat, where the man's murderous fingers had grasped her, were gradually assuming a deeper hue.
For some time I stood beside her, still holding her hand, but it seemed as though she had dropped off to sleep, therefore I crept away and obtained a whisky and soda myself, for truth to tell I had been unnerved by this unexpected encounter.
Oswald Krauss, judging from his dress, was prospering. He was certainly no common footpad. Melanie's words when he had seized her in his terrible paroxysm of anger were very strange and sounded as though they were both well known to each other.
She had promised to accede to his demands on condition that he spared her. What, I wondered, did he seek of her? It was indeed an extraordinary fact to discover the Princess Melanie of Hapsbourg walking alone in the early hours of the morning with a man whose mean, despicable crime had brought upon him a well-deserved life-sentence. Again, how he had escaped was a mystery. The Austrian Government are not given to releasing prisoners condemned for treason. That man had broken his oath to his Emperor and betrayed his country in a manner so ingenious as to be almost incredible, yet I found him here, in Brussels, a free agent, endeavouring to obtain by threats something which my beloved refused to grant.
What could it be, I wondered? Could he really be the mysterious lover whom she was in the habit of meeting, the man spoken of by Paul Yermoloff?
I sat opposite her, watching her as she slept, knowing that when she awoke she would be calmer and more collected. Her absence from the palace would, I feared, be noted, therefore, although anxious to learn the truth of this mysterious attack, I was also eager that she should return. Probably her maid was in the secret of these night excursions of hers just as she knew of her early morning cycling.
At last, perhaps after about half-an-hour, she again opened her eyes, and sitting up glanced around her wonderingly.
I was beside her, on my knees in an instant
"I hope you feel better, Melanie," I said eagerly.
"Yes," she answered weakly. "At first, do you know, I wondered what place this was. But now I remember all. I—I am with you!" And she smiled.
"Yes," I said, bending and kissing her hand. "It was extremely fortunate that I chanced to be near. But tell me," I added. "What do you know of that man? Was he a stranger to you?"
"No," she answered, sighing deeply. "He is, alas! no stranger."
"But why did he make such a desperate attempt upon you?" I inquired.
She hesitated. Her fingers closed tightly upon mine.
"Because I would not comply with his demand."
"Tell me," I demanded. "What is the nature of your relations with him?"
"I hate him," she cried in desperation. "I hate and detest him!"
"Am I correct in supposing that this man is your lover, and that you have met him time after time in the Boulevard, or in the dark avenues of the Park?"
"I have met him many times. I have met him because I have been forced to do so," she answered in desperation.
"And he is your lover!" I said harshly.
"No, No, Philip," she cried protestingly. "I swear he is not. Lover? Why I detest the sight of him."
She was silent. I saw by the twitching of the muscles of her face how agitated she had become. This allegation of mine had brought a dark, determined look upon her countenance, while on my part my discovery had aroused within me a natural jealousy. The whisperings I had heard, alleging that the Princess Melanie had a secret lover, were evidently based upon fact, for a woman does not steal out and meet a man at night at risk of detection and exposure unless there is some very strong incentive.
"You do not answer my question," I said, in calmer tone.
"I hate him because of all the past," she responded at length, after some further hesitation.
"Is its recollection so very bitter then?" I inquired.
"Alas, yes," she sighed; then fixing her dark, tearful eyes upon mine, she added hoarsely: "It is so bitter and hateful, Philip, that sometimes I regret that I did not die long ago."
"Come," I said. "You must not speak so gloomily. Tell me what has occurred between you to-night?"
"Ah, no," she answered quickly. "I cannot."
"But I love you, Melanie," I protested earnestly. "You have told me, too, that I have a place in your heart. Cannot you, therefore, trust me with your secret?"
"It is impossible," she faltered.
"Because I dare not."
"Then you are in fear of him?" I said. "You told me that you were in dread of that man who watched us on the night of the State Ball."
"It is the truth. Fear of them both holds me in silence," she replied.
"But is it wise to wander the Boulevards at night?" I queried.
"I have met that man only because he compelled me," she answered. "Ah, you do not know, you can never know what I have suffered, Philip, or you would not speak thus."
"Why, then, do you not place faith in me and explain? I might assist you. Your position does not allow you the freedom which others have, therefore why not let me be your confidant and friend? Did you not tell me only the other day that you might perhaps require my help? Surely you require some assistance when, with my own eyes, I have witnessed this dastardly attempt upon you."
"Yes," she shuddered. "I believe that he would have killed me."
"But what reason has he in acting thus?" I inquired. "What does he want of you?"
She hesitated. Her brows contracted for a moment in thought, then she answered:—
"I am in possession of a secret which he is anxious to learn. I refused to divulge it, and in order to wring it from me he attempted to strangle me."
"A secret?" I repeated, puzzled. "Has it anything to do with that man's past?"
"No," she answered. "But what do you know regarding his past? Are you acquainted with him?"
"I know him too well," I replied, in a hard voice. "His name is Oswald Krauss, a native of Vienna, and he is an ex-captain of artillery."
She bowed her head in the affirmative.
"And what else," she asked, in a low mechanical tone.
"For the rest," I said, "he was discovered in the act of selling to a Russian agent in Budapesth detailed plans of three of the principal frontier fortresses, arrested, and condemned by court-martial to imprisonment for life as a spy and a traitor."
"And how are you aware of all this?" she inquired, her eyes turned upon me in blank surprise.
"Because that man was first successful in obtaining knowledge of certain of our diplomatic secrets which he endeavoured to sell to his employers, the Russian Government, and was only prevented by a discovery which I myself made. Then, fearing least he should make a second attempt, I kept watch upon him, and found that not only did he seek to sell England's secrets to her enemies, but was also offering the plans of his own country's defences."
"It was you who discovered that?" she gasped, her face pale in an instant.
"I placed my discovery before the Austrian Minister for War, with the result that the spy was arrested and his papers seized. The latter conclusively proved his guilt, and after the trial he was degraded in the Barrack Square in Budapesth. The real reason of this degradation was, however, never allowed to leak out to the public. Only the members of the court-martial and a few high officials were aware of the truth. The Russian Ambassador was too deeply implicated in the affair, and Austria could not afford to give offence to her powerful neighbour."
"And you were actually the man who brought him to justice!" she cried in a strange voice, as one utterly amazed.
"He is a man of marvellous ingenuity," I answered, "and he used a woman named Kohn as his go-between in his dealings with Russia."
"Kohn!" she gasped, with wide-open eyes. "Surely you must be mistaken!"
"No," I answered. "I tell you the truth without any attempt at concealment. Indeed, the woman was as crafty and ingenious as he himself. She only escaped with the aid of the Russian Embassy, who knew that had she been arrested she would make some very ugly and compromising statements."
"I really can't believe it," she said in a tone of wonderment. "I was acquainted with him before his arrest and imprisonment, but knew nothing of her."
"It was scarcely likely that he would tell you," I observed, still feeling convinced that this escaped spy was her lover.
"If what you say is true, then the mystery is increased," she said reflectively, as though speaking to herself. "Still, it shows the depth of his cunning, and the fierceness of the revenge he seeks to bring upon you."
"Upon me?" I repeated. "What has he told you?"
"He has told me nothing," she answered. "He has never mentioned your name, but he has vowed to me a vengeance terrible and complete against the person who exposed him to the Minister of War. I now see how all his demands were directed towards one object to gain that satisfaction which, it seems, he is determined to gain—namely, to encompass your ruin."
"He threatened me long ago, at the moment when the court-martial pronounced sentence upon him; but I have no fear," I laughed.
"Ah! be cautious!" she cried concernedly. "Be cautious, for my sake, Philip. Once, I now remember, he told me that if he could not affect your downfall and disgrace he was acquainted with one who could. To whom did he refer?"
The truth flashed through my mind in an instant. He referred to Judith—that crafty blue-eyed woman who held my future in her hands. Next moment, however, I recovered myself, and answered—
"More idle brag. I take no heed of swaggering talk such as this. He was always a braggart."
"But now, Philip, he is absolutely desperate," she exclaimed. "If he would attack me in the manner he has done to-night he will not hesitate to take your life, if necessary."
"Why has he escaped from prison?" I inquired. "Tell me. You, of course, know the truth."
"He was released nearly eight months ago, and conducted to the frontier by order of the Emperor."
"By order of the Emperor?" I echoed, puzzled. "Why?"
"I interceded for him personally, and secured his release," she said simply.
"You," I cried. "Why?"
"There was a reason," she answered, "a very strong reason, but I cannot tell you. It is a secret."
"Strange," I said, utterly confounded. "Strange that the Emperor should exert his prerogative over the finding of the court-martial and release one detected in such a flagrant act of treason. Did you actually plead personally for him?"
"For what reason?" I demanded eagerly. "Tell me. There is more mystery in this than I have dreamed."
"No, Philip," she answered in a low voice, shaking her head. "I can never tell you, of all men—never."
MELANIE'S mysterious friendship for this unprincipled outcast was extremely puzzling. Although she did not speak of him as though he were her lover, yet it was extraordinary that she should have used her influence with her uncle, the Emperor Francis Joseph, to secure his release.
As she sat there talking to me, a wan figure in her dead-white dress, with my tennis coat about her shoulders, she presented the appearance of one oppressed by some knowledge which she dared not to divulge. In her pale, agitated face was a strange look as if, although haunted by some inexpressible fear, she was nevertheless seeking to preserve her self-control.
She was now as calm as she had ever been, for her outward agitation had passed, and her brief sleep had refreshed her. I became more and more impressed, however, that the real reason of her solicitude for this man Krauss was because she loved him. Nevertheless, I could not fail to notice that in her eyes as she gazed upon me was that genuine love-look which can never be feigned, that glance which is only seen in the faces of those in whose hearts burns the unquenchable fire of true love.
Yet here was a strange character, and the more I sought to analyse it the more complex it appeared. That she was honest, open-hearted and unassuming I well knew. Never once during our friendship had she ever sought to impress me with a sense of her superior birth, but rather to place herself upon even a lower level than myself. How strange it was, I often thought, that while the world unanimously declared her to be possessed of that unbending dignity and pride characteristic of the Hapsbourgs, she was towards me sweet, affable, and purely womanly.
Only when I approached the subject of her secret did she shrink from me, and her attitude was—I could not disguise it—an attitude of guilt. My curiosity had been whetted by this strange incident, and I strove by every means to ascertain from her the reason why Krauss had attacked her.
"Was it money he sought of you?" I asked, presently.
But she shook her head, saying—
"No. It was not money he wanted." Then she added quickly, "Philip, refrain from questioning me further. I can never give you explanation."
"Not although you love me?" I asked, looking full into her great dark eyes, so full of affection and tenderness.
Her gaze met mine boldly, unflinchingly, but she responded in a low firm voice—
"No. Although I do love you, Philip, I nevertheless can tell you nothing—absolutely nothing!"
I sighed in disappointment. It was apparently useless to cross-question her further, and I feared to annoy her.
I urged her to confide in me, and for the thousandth time repeated my declarations of affection. She heard me, with a sweet smile of contentment upon her lips. It was a strange wooing in the silence of the night, and so affected she became that I felt more than ever confident that ours was not a mere flirtation, but a genuinely reciprocated affection.
At last she rose to go, and as we stood together I placed my arm about her neck slowly and tenderly until her head gently rested upon my shoulder. She did not resist. The look supreme of contentment and happiness upon her fair face told me that she was mine, therefore I bent and for the first time tenderly kissed her lips.
"Ah!" she murmured. "I do love you, Philip. I, alas! love you. Why, I cannot tell. It is fate that has thus cast us together, and I shall love you always—always!"
"Your words bring joy and gladness to my heart, dearest," I answered, again kissing her, and then for the first time she raised her head until her lips met mine in a passionate caress which made my head reel, so enraptured I became.
"Philip," she whispered softly, in a calm voice, looking at me gravely though tears stood in her eyes, "take this and wear it always as a souvenir of the great service you have rendered me to-night. You saved my life!"
And she drew from her finger a beautiful ring set with a single ruby, and taking my hand gently placed it upon my little finger, then raising it to her lips imprinted a kiss upon it.
"I will wear it always," I answered fervently. "It will serve to remind me of you when we are apart—not that I shall require any aid to memory—but you have kissed it, you have given it your benediction, and it shall never leave my finger."
"When you look upon it remember, Philip, that whatever may occur there is but one man on earth that I have ever loved, and that man is yourself."
I clasped her to my breast, and her hot tears of joy rained fast as she buried her head again upon my shoulder, while I in that ecstatic enchantment which knowledge of a reciprocated love can alone impart, kissed her hair and soothed her with those fervent passionate phrases which rose to my lips. What I said I know not, nor have I any knowledge of how long we stood there locked in each other's arms; all I remember is that the grey dawn stealing through the drawn curtains caused us both to suddenly recollect that it was time that she returned.
Then, after many final words, both of us equally loth to part, we went down into the Boulevard again, she with my tennis coat still about her shoulders. At that hour, just as dawn was breaking, the wind swept chilly down the great leafy avenue, but fearless of footpads, for it was now light, we walked together along the leafy allee until we reached the Place du Trone, where the great stone lions guard the entrance to the gardens of the Royal Palace, then skirting the walls for a long distance we turned at length into the Place des Palais, where the great grey facade of the royal residence faces the Park. Together we proceeded to the opposite end of that building, when she suddenly halted at a side-door before which a sentinel in bearskin shako and overcoat was pacing.
The instant the man recognised her he started and stood at attention, exclaiming: "Pass, your Royal Highness."
She turned and shook my hand, saying in English in a half-whisper—
"Good-bye, Philip. Think of me always, as I think always of you."
"Good-bye," I whispered, bending low over her hand. "Good-bye, Melanie—my love, my life."
And in an instant her rustling skirts swept past me, and she had passed through the door which closed after her.
On my return to my rooms I sat alone for a long time pondering deeply, and calmly viewing the situation. Try how I could to conceal the fact, it nevertheless remained glaringly plain that I had by loving Melanie, departed from the first tenets of my religion as a diplomatist, besides having neglected to a great degree the special duty for which I had been nominated to Brussels.
Had not the Marquess of Macclesfield, the greatest diplomatist of his age, told me plainly the folly of allowing myself to be drawn into any serious affair of the heart. The more I reflected, the more impossible seemed our happiness.
Yet upon my finger was that magnificent ruby, her pledge of affection, which I examined and admired in the bright light of early morn, while still in my ears rang those impassioned words of hers: "Philip, I shall love you always."
That same day, at noon, I went as usual down to the Legation, and was occupied with some clerical work until nearly three, when Sir John came in hurriedly, having had a long interview with the Minister for Foreign affairs regarding a question relative to the Congo boundary.
"I must send a special despatch to London," he said, placing down his hat, and seating himself at once at his table to write.
Then, when he had finished, I took from the safe the cypher book and reduced what he had written to an amazing array of figures upon the fresh combination of numbers as announced in the despatch Graves had brought. There was nothing startling in it, but it was imperative that the British Cabinet should give its decision at once, in order to forestall German encroachments.
Having concluded, I suddenly recollected that we had no despatch box, save the one from which the King's correspondence had been stolen, a fact which I announced to the Ambassador.
"Then we must use that," he answered. "Giffard wants to go for three days' leave in London, so he will take it."
I took the box from the locked cupboard wherein I had put it on its return to us, and placed it on the table, a small case covered with crimson leather which bore the chipped wax of many previous seals. Well worn and much battered by continual journeys between Downing-street and the various capitals of Europe, it had in its time contained many remarkable secrets of State. It was locked, therefore Sir John took out his key and inserted it. But it would not turn. Again he tried, but with no better result. The wards of the lock seemed jammed.
I took the key and endeavoured to open it, but on examination detected for the first time something unusual in the appearance of the key-hole. It was larger, and of different shape to the small curved slit in the Foreign Office despatch-boxes. This key-hole was, however, the key-hole of an ordinary lock, and although the key held at Downing-street had once opened it, our key now refused to perform a similar work.
At once I pointed out my discovery to Sir John, and then a few moments later when we got the box open, we both made a very startling discovery.
The box was only an ingenious imitation of those well-known caskets which are sent out from Downing-street. It was of the same size, the leather was of the same shade, a soiled and discoloured red, but on closer examination we saw that all the seals had been carefully made and chipped away in order to give it an appearance of being well-worn, and even the sunk brass handle had been discoloured by acids, so as to give an appearance of long usage. By the lock, which proved to be quite a common one, and the fact that it was lined inside with imitation leather instead of real morocco, it was proved conclusively that it was only a cleverly contrived duplicate.
Instantly the truth was plain. The box containing King Leopold's secret correspondence had been changed for this, and so cleverly had the exchange been made, and the bogus box prepared, that neither Graves nor ourselves had, until that moment, discovered the ingenious fraud.
"This only shows how determined were the thieves to obtain possession of the papers," observed Sir John, thoughtfully. "The manner in which this despatch-box has been prepared is proof positive that the theft had long been premeditated. It was done by no ordinary thief—of that we may rest assured."
"The facsimile of the despatch box is marvellous!" I said. "Look at the seals. They bear every resemblance to those on a genuine box. All is genuine save the lock and the lining."
"The lock," observed the Ambassador, "must have been of so ordinary a character that the key at the Foreign Office shot back the bolt when they opened it. The ingenuity of those scoundrelly spies is simply amazing."
And then he stood regarding the box in deep thoughtful silence.
This was certainly a curious discovery, but it at least cleared up the mystery of how the file of correspondence had been stolen. The seals upon that bogus box were, curiously enough, impressed by the private seal which had apparently been manufactured in exact imitation of the one actually in use, every care being taken to render the exterior identical with the one carried by the Queen's Messenger. We certainly were now aware of the means adopted by the thief or thieves, but the crucial question was as to who had so carefully planned and committed the theft which had placed England in such jeopardy.
On the following night I accompanied Sir John, Lady Drummond, and Frank Hamilton to a reception by the Count of Flanders at his Palace in the Rue de la Regence. It was a very brilliant affair, a veritable phantasmagoria of striking uniforms and tasteful toilettes, and I strolled through the heavily-gilded rooms eager, of course, to catch a glance of Melanie. Their Majesties were coming, and it was certain that she would accompany her friend the young Princess Clementine. Therefore I waited anxiously, for hedged in by royal divinity as she was I had not been able to catch a single glimpse of her since that grey hour of dawn when she had given me that whispered assurance of her love as she disappeared into the Palace. Hourly I had thought of her. Upon my mantel-shelf was a fine panel photograph of her which I had bought in the Montaigne de la Cour, and often when I looked at it her beautiful face seemed to shine down upon me with an expression of purity, tenderness and love. More than once, when one or other of my diplomatic friends looked in for a whisky and soda, a beverage unobtainable at the average cafe, I had been compelled to remove it to hide my idol lest suspicion might be roused of the true state of affairs. Attaches and secretaries are particularly sharp to detect any affairs of the heart, for they are usually gallants themselves, and their knowledge of the prettiest women in the city is generally encyclopaedic. Therefore I was compelled to act with the greatest discretion keeping my secret locked within my heart lest I might betray myself and afford food for gossips. She had impressed upon me the virtue of silence, and her every wish I held as law.
I had been chatting with the ubiquitious Yermoloff and his grey-whiskered chief, brilliant in his white Russian tunic and his breast glittering with stars, ranging from that of the coveted St. Andrew down to the last cheap decoration of the Sultan. They had been speaking of that subject ever upon the lips of diplomatists, the European situation, but I held a discreet silence, detecting in the trend of their gossip a desire to learn something from me. Experience had taught me that towards the representative of the Czar, wherever he might be found, silence was always golden.
At last I espied an elderly English lady who was resident in Brussels—the Dowager Countess of Bessington—and seizing this opportunity of leaving my friends, I walked across to pay my respects to her. She was a rather stiff old lady of the ancient school, unbending to any but her equals, but being a particular friend of Lady Drummond's I always endeavoured to be polite to her. Truth to tell, however, she was a sour-tongued, mischief-making old woman, who if not continually grumbling at the British chaplain's broad Church notions, amused herself by inventing some startling scandal or other regarding women in Brussels society. Lord Bessington, her son, was in the Guards at home, a very popular fellow and a great friend of Giffard's. As I sat talking to her there strolled past us dozens of people I knew, nearly all of them with high sounding titles, except we poor diplomats, whose position in society is always twice as high as the depth of our pockets.
Suddenly, amid the gay laughing crowd there appeared King Leopold himself, looking a trifle pale and worn, I thought, notwithstanding his striking uniform and the glittering star at his throat. With a word of excuse to her ladyship I rose and saluted him.
The instant he saw me he crossed and exclaimed in a low voice, so that none around should hear—
"Crawford, you have not yet sent that woman to me. Recollect, I must see her—I must—you understand."
"I have not yet been able to discover her whereabouts, your Majesty," I answered. "I am exerting every endeavour to do so."
"Find her. Send her to me," he cried in impatience. "Every moment that I lose is of consequence. You know her, I do not. In this matter you can render me, if you will, the very greatest service."
"It is my earnest desire to serve your Majesty," I answered, with a bow, puzzled at his eagerness, for he had evidently come in search of me.
"Then spare no effort to find that woman Kohn," he said in a low tone, and then turned quickly with that pleasant smile which he could assume at will to greet a high-born stately woman who had advanced and loyally bowed before him.
Behind me, as I turned, I saw the Archduchess Stephanie, a tall dark figure in primrose blazing with diamonds, standing in conversation with Lady Drummond and a little beyond stood the King's youngest daughter, the Princess Clementine, chatting to the young Count de Montaigle in the uniform of that smart corps the Guides. The royalties had arrived, therefore I passed on eagerly searching everywhere for the woman I loved. Through room after room I went, those huge dark-panelled salons with their wonderful ceilings and polished floors, but saw nothing of her. The Count and Countess of Flanders had finished the formal reception of their guests, and had returned to join them, but the function, brilliant as it was, possessed no attraction for me owing to the absence of Melanie.
At length, after wandering aimlessly, I came across Baron Vandervoorde, the Controller of the Royal Household, and to him observed—
"The Hapsbourgs are not here; how is that?"
The short, stout full-faced man glanced at me and answered—
"They have left Brussels, m'sieur. The Princess and her daughter departed suddenly at mid-day."
"Gone!" I exclaimed, dismayed.
"Yes To Brandenberg," answered the Baron. "Their visit to Brussels has been much longer than usual this year, although their departure was very sudden."
I turned away disappointed and dejected. Melanie, although she declared that she loved me, had left for Germany without a single word of farewell. By her departure the light of my life had been suddenly extinguished, and I strode out from that gay assembly, plunged in deepest melancholy.
To remain there longer was impossible, now that I knew she would not be present. I had come there solely for the purpose of speaking with her, but alas! she had gone, and perhaps I should never again see her.
Wearily I wandered home to my rooms, my mind full of grave apprehensions, for I loved her madly, with that true, ardent affection which comes to a man only once in his lifetime. As I entered, however, my gaze fell upon a letter which, my man explained, had been delivered by hand.
I turned over the envelope eagerly. There was upon it the embossed cypher of the Hapsbourgs surrounded by the coronet. It was from her. I tore it open quickly and read the hurriedly written words penned in English in a fine German hand:
"My Dear Philip,—I send you this because I am forced by adverse events to leave Brussels at once. In all the circumstances it is, perhaps, best that we should part now, rather than later, when our mutual love might ripen into a stronger affection. There are, unfortunately many reasons, some of which are well-known to you, which render it impossible that our acquaintance should be carried further. I regret that this is so, but alas! it is my fate that I am what I am. In addition, certain unforeseen occurrences have transpired to-day which, while forcing me to leave Brussels hurriedly, also utterly prevent us ever meeting again in the future. Nevertheless, I rest content in the knowledge that I am truly loved by one who is brave, honest, and upright. But beyond, all is blank. All is finished. A weight of bitterness and melancholy is upon me. We have met for the last time, Philip, but I hope we shall never fail to hold one another in fond remembrance. Adieu. May prosperity and happiness ever be yours is the prayer of—Yours affectionately, Melanie."
I read the letter through twice, then stood staring rigidly at the rather uneven lines of writing, dejected, inert, crushed.
MELANIE had left me. The bitterness of my reflections, through the long dull days which followed, was increased by the truth that this result was only what I might have expected. Ours had been a foolish infatuation; a dream of an Elysium that could never be obtained. I loved her with all my heart, and with all my soul, with all the fondness of a lover in his teens, even though I were a hardened, blase man of the world. Did she really love me? A thousand times as I contemplated the ruby ring upon my finger, the ring she had kissed, I asked myself that question, and each time when I recollected that love-look in her dark fathomless eyes my conviction of the genuineness of her affection became more than ever confirmed.
Nevertheless, she had left me with that strangely worded letter, to sigh over the ashes of a dead past. While repeating her declaration of love she asserted in the puzzling missive, which I re-read so often, that our acquaintanceship must end, a conclusion at which she had arrived owing to some adverse circumstances, mysterious and unexplained. Why she had been forced to leave Brussels so hurriedly was entirely an enigma. I reasoned with myself, but could arrive at no definite solution of the problem.
The days passed, hot stifling summer days when even the shaded boulevards were sultry, and the dead-white houses reflected back the sun-glare until it became dazzling, sickening. I longed for a change, for a breath of country air in fresh green England, for only when one lives abroad can one appreciate the rural beauties, the calm freshness of his native land. In all the world there is no spot so truly peaceful, so happy, so quiet and restful as the old world English village, with its rows of homely thatched cottages, its uneven 'street,' and the sweet, all pervading scent of the wood-fires lit at evening to cook the labourer's meal. Those whose fate it is, or has been, to be temporarily exiled know full well with what zest and pleasure a visit to 'home' is looked forward to; how the beauties of all other countries pale before those of our own England, and how dearly cherished are the memories or our native town, our public school, or our college. In this frame of mind I longed for home.
The critical outlook consequent upon the theft of King Leopold's private correspondence kept me, however, in Brussels. The mission to which I had been appointed by the Marquess of Macclesfield remained unfulfilled. To put it plainly, I had entirely failed, and in addition had become enmeshed by that high-born woman, the daughter of a royal house. I had, by allowing myself to love, disregarded the wise maxim of the Chief that to be successful the diplomatist must never allow a woman to bewitch him. The fair sex are themselves the cleverest of diplomatists, and can worm out a secret when all the wiles of the male political agent have failed.
So I remained in Brussels, gasping in the heat—that year of a semi-tropical character—striving to fulfil my secret mission by making inquiries in various quarters, but ever failing, until I began to despair. The ingenuity with which the correspondence had been stolen was truly marvellous. Day by day, week by week, the Cabinet in London remained in breathless expectation that the storm which had for years been culminating would burst over Europe, and England would find herself at war. The Sirdar had captured Khartoum and broken the Kalifa's power, and serious complications had arisen with France regarding the occupation of Fashoda. Day by day at Downing-street Lord Macclesfield received intelligence from the various embassies of the latest political wind. The heads of the War Office and Admiralty had been taken into the Cabinet's confidence, and measures had been rapidly taken for placing our defences on the alert against sudden surprise, the greatest care, however, being taken to prevent the suspicions of the press and public from being aroused. The country was in ignorance of the alarming crisis.
The delay in declaring war could only be due to one reason, namely that the Powers desired time—a few weeks at most—to make their final preparations for a combined dash upon our shores. From Petersburg, by way of Downing-street, grave news reached us of unusual activity in Russian dockyards and arsenals, while orders had been issued for some grand military manoeuvres, which meant that the giant Muscovite army was to be mobilised without arousing our suspicion. There could be no doubt whatever that in Russia active preparations were being pushed forward swiftly and secretly. The Franco-Russian alliance so often denied by both Governments, was now to be carried into effect, and to England its results must be inevitably disastrous.
In such circumstances it was scarcely surprising that I should be harassed by the knowledge that the prime object of the mission entrusted to me by the Marquess of Macclesfield had not only failed, but that we had been outwitted by a very clever thief, and that the file of correspondence had been spirited away in a manner utterly bewildering. Many were the consultations I had with Sir John Drummond and with Graves, the messenger, and twice I was summoned to Downing-street, where I related to the Chief all that had transpired.
He looked grave, his ashen face twitching with excitement, as it was wont to do on but few occasions.
"We can only wait, Crawford," he answered. "Our enemies, whoever they are, have got the better of us in this affair. King Leopold was here yesterday in incognito. He mentioned your strenuous efforts to penetrate the mystery."
"I have done my best," I answered rather lamely, "even if I have failed."
"Return to Brussels and continue your efforts. We must find out into whose hands the stolen papers have fallen. That is now of more importance than the discovery of the actual thief."
So that night I returned to my post by way of Dover and Ostend, arriving at my rooms at early morning, and sitting out upon the balcony in the first rays of sunshine. But how to act I knew not. By every device I had sought for sign at the other Legations of their knowledge of England's peril, but could discover absolutely none. The King continued to give his entertainments, the Legations to hold receptions and diplomatic relations continued calmly and undisturbed.
I thought ever of Melanie. The newspapers said she had arrived with her mother at Brandenberg, the ancient stronghold of the Hapsbourgs, where they would pass the remainder of the summer. I pictured her, free from the trammels of Court life, wandering about those picturesque valleys around her home, gossiping with the visitors, and being taken by English tourists as an English girl, so well did she speak our tongue. And as the anxious weeks passed and the days grew increasingly stifling in Brussels the desire grew upon me to see her once again, if for the last time, to learn from her own lips the cause of her sudden resolution to end our acquaintanceship. Yet what excuse had I for going boldly to the Castle and demanding an interview with her? She had impressed upon me the absolute necessity of keeping our intimate friendship a secret, and I had promised long ago to respect her wish. She was a Princess, and gossips were ever eager to seize upon any circumstance as ground for tittle-tattle.
Times without number I had pondered over the matter, until at length the desire to once again see her became irresistible, and, obtaining a few days leave, I left Brussels, and, travelling by way of Luxembourg, put up at the Rathhaus in Treves, the old mediaeval hotel in the peaceful Place, beneath the shadow of the ancient Cathedral wherein the revered Holy Coat is kept, only being exhibited once every 50 years. Then, next day, I set forth on the snorting little river steamer down the Moselle winding through its romantic valley where ruined castles frowned from the crests of vine-clad heights, and quiet little villages nestled between road and river, mirrored in the water, villages whose names are known the world over by reason of their famous white wines.
The journey was delightful. The steamer, little larger than a pleasure launch, started at daybreak, and for several hours we wound in and out—past Berneadel, famous for its 'Doctor,' Alf, Beilstein, and other quaint villages, through some of the most picturesque scenery in Europe, until at length, after many stoppages we reached a mere hamlet from which a boat came out bearing a mail-bag. The place, only a handful of houses, was called Brodenbach; and I went ashore in the boat, for Brandenberg was distant about a mile up a dark narrow gorge, where the pine trees cast a romantic gloom and the high bare grey crags overhung until they seemed threatening to fall as I wound my way beneath them. Passing up this gorge until I came to a sudden turn, there suddenly broke upon my view, towering upon a great, seemingly inaccessible cliff, the enormous turreted stronghold of the Hapsbourgs. The walls which had withstood so many sieges in the long-past days when the Archbishop of Treves was the terror of the neighbourhood were blackened by age, and at a glance one could well imagine the superior position of the garrison, for, perched up there, and impregnable on three sides, it commanded an extensive view over the hills and valleys from the Moselle away to the Rhine.
Such was the romantic beauty of the scene that I stood gazing up at it in silent wonder. I had only before seen it from the river when coming up from Cochem. It was indeed a wonderful relic of a bygone age of barbarism, for had I not read grim and terrible stories of the fiendish tortures committed in its deep dungeons, and of hapless prisoners kept there by the powerful Hapsbourgs until death had relieved them of the monotony of existence? Indeed, as I looked, I could distinguish, attached high up to one of the many turrets, the historical iron cage wherein many a prisoner had been placed and tortured in full view of the besieging party.
I followed the road, winding and well kept, once no doubt only a footpath, but now accessible to carriages, and after half an hour's stiff climb passed through the main entrance, handed my card to the liveried janitor, followed him across the huge paved courtyard with its long cool arcades and ancient draw-well, and waited in a small old-fashioned chamber furnished in medieval style with great carved table of black oak and chairs of similar design, a severe-looking place strangely comfortless but striking as an example of the princely home of four centuries ago. As I stood looking through the deep mullioned window upon the courtyard the turret-clock chimed slowly and solemnly. For a long time I remained there alone—fully half an hour, I think—until I began to wonder whether my card had reached the Princess. At length, however, another manservant appeared, saying in German:
"Her Highness will see you, if you will please step this way."
I followed him across a great banqueting hall, high-roofed and vaulted, from which were suspended the tattered, faded banners of the dead princes of Hapsbourg, while all around were stands of armour worn by those valiant warriors who were once the terror of all the Rhine-land from Cologne down to Mayence, and upon the stone walls great heavy German broadswords, many of which bore the rust of human blood.
Down one long corridor after another we passed until we entered what was apparently a modern wing of the great stronghold, for the long passage was so thickly carpeted that our footsteps fell noiselessly, and a few moments later the man ushered me into a pleasant well-lighted room, the walls of which were pannelled in brown and covered with silken tapestry in mignonette green, the ceiling richly gilded, and in the corners were allegories of the female virtues. On the walls hung several of the great and famous pictures by Watteau, which stand alone and unapproachable in their style and form. In one, a party of ladies and gentlemen were embarking for a voyage to the 'Fortunate Isles,' and two others represented the interior of a picture-shop. These, I knew, were some of the pearls of the art treasures of the Hapsbourgs. There were also other pictures by Lancret and Pater, of the school of Watteau, and as I advanced to the window to gaze out upon the magnificent panorama of valley and mountain the door was opened. I turned with quick heart beating to greet the woman I so fondly loved.
Next instant, however, I drew back in blank astonishment. In the doorway there stood a female figure in severe black, gazing at me as though I were some hideous apparition. Perhaps, indeed, I was as a ghost of the past to her. Our encounter was equally startling to both of us. She had on no outdoor garments, and was evidently a guest at the Castle who had entered the room for some purpose, believing it to be unoccupied.
She was the woman who held my secret in her keeping—Judith Kohn, the widow of Gordon Clunes.
"You?" I gasped, dumbfounded. Of all women she was the last I should have dreamed to meet in the princely home of the Hapsbourgs.
She stood before me, pale as death. Her lips trembled, and I saw that the encounter caused her much apprehension.
"Yes," she answered in a hoarse voice, and with a painful effort to smile. "It is very strange that we should thus meet, is it not?"
"I presume you are a guest here?" I said in a hard voice.
She nodded in the affirmative, and slowly closing the door behind her advanced a few steps towards me.
"Listen!" she said quickly in a hushed voice. "Time does not admit of argument. I know that you love Princess Melanie, and you have called upon her. In a moment she will be here to greet you, therefore our conversation must be brief and pointed. I am going to leave you; and recollect that before her you and I are total strangers."
"No," I said at once. "Melanie and her family shall not be tricked by a woman of your character. Remember that you and I are old friends—or enemies—which is it?"
She hesitated, but only for a single instant. She was a remarkable woman, for she never lost her self-control.
"Friends, if you will preserve silence," she answered in deep earnestness.
"Now, Judith," I said severely, "I know full well that your presence here is for some evil purpose. You are no doubt passing as some wealthy well-known woman, and have, as you have so often done before, succeeded in entering the charmed circle of Society. What are you now? Countess, Baroness, or is it Duchess?"
She smiled. This woman, whom I knew well to be a political agent, and whose ingenuity in that respect was simply marvellous, had undoubtedly some sinister purpose in obtaining admission to the family circle of the Hapsbourgs. I had known her in Vienna, and to me had been due her exposure and the committal of her lover Krauss as a spy and traitor. Her smile told me that she still cherished a fierce revenge; that when occasion arose she would make that exposure which I dreaded because it would ruin my good name.
To act boldly was, I saw, my only course. I recollected how on the night of Gordon's death at Richmond I had threatened her, and how she had laughed me to scorn because she knew at that moment her husband was lying dead. That mystery had never been cleared up, nor had the character of the statement which Gordon had made to the chief ever transpired.
She was extremely handsome, this fair-haired, blue-eyed woman who had so often used her personal charms to worm out a secret or to entice a man to betray a confidence, and as she stood before me, a slim figure in black, she seemed to have come like an evil shadow between myself and my well-beloved.
"You no doubt regard it as strange that I should be a guest here," she said, in a calm voice. "On my part, too, I regard it as curious that Melanie should love a man in whose past is a black spot, one which, if revealed, would cause the world to hound him down as a coward and a criminal."
She referred to my secret. I bit my lip.
"Once," she continued, "on a certain night in Richmond, you declared that you would tell my husband my true name and station; and you would have done so but for reasons to which it is now unnecessary to refer. Since then we have not troubled one another. Now, when we meet thus unexpectedly, secrecy is surely in our mutual interests."
"No," I cried quickly. "I will not allow you to remain here with Melanie. You are a spy; and your presence here is with evil design."
"If it pleases you to use hard words," she answered, "then I may return the compliment, m'sieur, and recall the fact that the Chevalier de Jedina was foully done to death by you. You, Philip Crawford, diplomatic representative of your Queen, are a murderer."
"I tell you it was entirely unintentional," I cried. "I was perfectly innocent, and had no knowledge that a blank cartridge had been placed in his revolver. I shot him, it is true. But the duel was fair, as far as I was concerned. I had no knowledge that the man I killed was actually the victim of foul treachery."
"Ah! you cannot prove it," she said, her face white with a fierce determination. "Your two seconds have both declared that they saw you handling your opponent's weapon."
"And who were those seconds?" I exclaimed, as every detail of that horrible tragedy arose again before my eyes. "They were unprincipled spies, like yourself. It was they who introduced the blank cartridge, so that the Chevalier should be killed by my hand!"
That duel, the only one I had fought in my life, had been the outcome of a quarrel consequent upon a lady whom I had escorted to dine in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Vienna, being insulted by a well-known politician, the Chevalier de Jedina. The insult was a most gross one, committed in presence of my friends; therefore, to vindicate my own honour, I had been compelled to send my card to him. We fought next day in a wood ten miles outside Vienna, and at my first shot the Chevalier had fallen with my bullet through his heart. It was only when his seconds came to examine the dead man's weapon that they discovered that the exploded cartridge differed from the others, being actually a blank one.
Then, beneath those trees in the grey light of the well-remembered morning, as I stood bending over the body of the dead man, I was denounced as a murderer. Ere that day was out, however, I saw that I had been the victim of a foul conspiracy, arranged for the purpose of combating my efforts as an agent in the British secret service. I had always held suspicion that the whole plot had been arranged by this woman Judith in connection with Krauss, and I still held that conviction.
Such imputation against the honour of any man was grave indeed—especially when my own seconds had been bought to denounce me. Although innocent I had no means whatever of proving that I had not placed the blank cartridge in my adversary's weapon. Hence this woman, who had afterwards so cleverly tricked her lover Krauss, had also held me in her power.
"I think when you reflect," she exclaimed a few moments later, "when you consider all the circumstances, you will be inclined to agree with me that secrecy is best."
"I will not allow her to entertain you without knowledge of your true character," I said with firmness. "It was you who sold the plans of the frontier forts for Oswald Krauss—you, the protege of the Russian Government. With some sinister motive you later induced Gordon Clunes to marry you. Do you think that I'm blind? You have now wormed yourself into the confidence of the woman I love—in order to betray her."
"And you actually mean to expose me?" she cried hoarsely, advancing towards me, her eyes flashing with a dangerous fire.
"I do," I answered. "I care nothing for the charges you may make against my honour. But I tell you I am determined to save her from you. Your vile espionage shall not——"
But the words died from my lips in an instant as there was a sudden frou-frou of silk outside, the door opened, and Melanie stood in hesitation and surprise upon the threshold.
By the expression of her face I felt assured that she had overheard the opening words of my interrupted sentence.
"MELANIE!" I cried joyously, dashing towards her with outstretched hands. Our eyes met. In hers I saw that same sweet, well-remembered love look which had given me courage to confess the truth.
Only one word she uttered in response.
"Philip!" she exclaimed in low earnest tone, and then as her tiny trembling hand touched mine, and thrilled me with a fond pressing, her puzzled gaze wandered again to the woman in black who stood by, statuesque and motionless. In an instant the truth flashed across my mind. Melanie was annoyed at finding her guest in conversation with me. Perhaps, too, a slight jealousy had arisen within her. As she stood there my eyes were held to her in fascination, her cool morning dress of white muslin, girdled narrow but distinctive with pale mauve, gave her an indescribably dainty appearance, her complexion, fresh and natural, bearing no traces of that artificial softness which even girls in their teens nowadays affect by means of glycerine and rice-powder. How different were those two women? The one ingenuous, pure, honest, and as healthy in mind as in body; the other a painted, powdered woman of the world, steeped in the cardinal sins, crafty, unscrupulous, designing and unmerciful; a woman whose history had been more remarkable than any romance.
By what means, I wondered, had Judith Kohn managed to obtain an invitation to Brandenberg? Few, indeed, were accorded that honour outside the immediate family circle, with the exception of course, of the usual annual visit of the German Empress and her children. Once or twice in autumn the Emperor William himself always came there to hunt in the great forests which stretch eastwards across the Rhineland, but by the Hapsbourgs the stronghold of their ancestors was always regarded as a place sacred to summer repose en famille. Guests were invited in large numbers to the great white palace in Vienna, or to the fine villa at Beaulieu, near Nice, where the winter was always spent, but never to Brandenberg.
At a motion from Melanie the woman Judith reluctantly turned, and with threatening glance at me moved out, closing the door after her. I was scarcely prepared for such obedience on the part of one so defiant, and the instant she had gone I asked:
"Who is that woman?"
"Julie, my maid. She has not been with me long. But you apparently know her," she said. "You were talking when I entered."
She had overheard my denunciation. Should I show open defiance and speak, or was it wiser to hold my peace? An instant's reflection decided me.
"Yes," I answered. "I do know her. But she is scarcely the kind of person to be your maid."
"Why?" she asked in quick surprise. "Impertinence seems to be her only really bad quality. She's a splendid linguist, a good pianist, and rather more fitted for companion than maid. From her chance remarks I know full well that she has once moved in quite a good circle herself."
"Who recommended her to you?" I inquired anxiously, wondering with what design she could have entered Melanie's service.
"Lady Thirlmere—one of my friends in London."
"Then her ladyship must have been ignorant of who she really is."
"Who is she?" asked the Princess, puzzled.
"Her name is Judith Kohn—the political agent in the employ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Petersburg," I answered.
"A spy!" she gasped.
I nodded, adding: "And further, she it was who acted with that man Krauss and induced him to prepare the plans of the Austrian frontier forts."
"Ah!" she cried quickly, "I recollect. You told me that she was even worse than he, but that she escaped from Austria with the assistance of the Russian Embassy. And I have actually taken her into my service," she said, astounded at my revelation.
"Undoubtedly her presence here is part of some well-laid plan," I said. "With a woman of her character it behoves one to be ever on the alert. Why has she taken the trouble to enter your service?"
"It is extraordinary. How can I tell?"
"Reflect. Is there any secret of prime importance which is in your keeping? You, a member of a royal house, may be in possession of something which it is the object of your enemies to obtain."
She was silent. In an instant her face was blanched to the lips.
"Ah!" she cried suddenly, as though some hideous truth had at that instant dawned upon her. "Yes! I see it all now! There is a deep and cunningly-devised plot. The coup would have been made quickly—perhaps even to-day, had you not thus given me timely warning."
"A plot against you?" I suggested.
"Yes," she faltered hoarsely. "Against me."
Then she stood silent, deep in thought. Her mouth was hard set, and in her eyes a look of desperation strangely out of keeping with the calm beauty of her countenance.
"This woman," I went on, "is possessed of a devilish ingenuity. Not a year ago I discovered her as wife of an official in our Foreign Office in London. She was leading a life of strict gentility at Richmond, the adored of her husband and the admiration of her suburban neighbours."
"You think she had actually married him in order to obtain some secret at the bidding of her masters in St. Petersburg?"
"Undoubtedly," I responded. "Gordon Clunes, her husband, died mysteriously, poor fellow, and she afterwards disappeared—to Russia, I believe. From that moment until a few minutes ago I have neither seen nor heard of her. But has not the man Krauss—the spy whose release you obtained from the Emperor Francis Joseph—has not he ever mentioned her?'
"Yes. After your statement I demanded of him the whole story, and he related it to me. He told me of this mysterious woman who enjoys the patronage of all the Embassies of the Czar throughout Europe, of her artfulness, her daring, and her unscrupulousness; yet I never for one moment dreamed that this very woman whose name is synonymous with all that is crafty and evil was actually the one who waited upon me daily, and whose gossip was so bright and interesting."
"Strange enough," I said, "King Leopold is extremely anxious to meet her. For some months I have been in search of her, in order to induce her to obey the royal command to go to the Palace."
"King Leopold!" she gasped. Then, after a second's pause, added: "No, no! Philip. They must never meet."
"Why?" I inquired, surprised.
"Philip," she said earnestly, stretching forth her hand and grasping mine, "you love me, do you not?"
"Yes, dearest. It is because I love you, because I could no longer bear your absence, that I have come here to-day, even at the risk of your displeasure."
"Then I may trust you?" she said, in a deep tone of earnestness.
"Of course you may," I replied.
"Ah! for my sake, for love of me, Philip, do not take this woman to the King."
"But why?" I argued. "I have reason to believe that from her certain information could be gained that might change the present critical outlook in Europe. You, of course, have heard sinister rumours of antagonistic alliances and of war."
"Listen, Philip," she said, in a low voice, breathless in the intensity of her anxiety. "If the King and Judith Kohn meet, the outcome of the interview would be disastrous to me to my family—to my house. I am in grave peril. You love me. Once you declared that if you could ever render me assistance you would do so. Will you not help me, now that I am in sore need of your protection?"
I had made a promise to the King. Whatever the object his Majesty had in seeking an interview with this mysterious female agent, it was undoubtedly of prime importance. Yet with this appeal of my beloved in my ears, how could I turn aside and disregard her? From the very fact that Judith was acting as her maid, it was apparent that she harboured some evil design, therefore it was but my duty to stand by and assist her. I had exposed this woman whose marvellous cunning had shaken empires to their foundations, and well I knew that ere long she would launch her charges against me mercilessly. The storm of her indignation and vengeance would be terrible.
"The King's command should be obeyed," I said. "Remember that I am a diplomatist, and that my own country and his are in complete accord."
"No, no!" she cried, with a passionate outburst. "No, you will not, Philip," she implored, earnestly.
"I do not see how this meeting could affect you personally, while it is just possible that the revelations which are within this woman's power to make may change the whole aspect of international relations."
"No, I beg of you, Philip," she pleaded, holding both my hands in her convulsive grasp, and sinking suddenly upon her knees. "See!" she cried. "I beg of you to spare me—to spare me."
"Spare you!" I exclaimed in wonder. "I don't understand. Why have you given me no explanation of your sudden flight from Brussels—or of your relations with that spy and traitor Krauss?"
"Because it is absolutely impossible," she faltered. "I am bound to secrecy."
"Then you wish me to neglect my duty, and say nothing to the King of the reappearance of this woman?"
She was bowed before me, and I was holding her trembling hands. From her attitude I saw that she was terribly in earnest, as though all her future depended upon my decision.
"It is the first favour I have asked of you, Philip," she said, in a low voice, panting as she spoke. "I know that your duty to your country is to inform the King, but upon your decision all depends. Ah! you do not know how much I have suffered, or what I am suffering now. You cannot tell the dire result which might accrue if the King and the spy exchanged confidences."
She shuddered. Her face was blanched, and as her head bowed her white lips moved. It seemed as though there, upon her knees, she was praying for deliverance from her mysterious thraldom, and I stood in silence, motionless, hesitating whether to serve my country or the woman I loved so dearly.
The maxim of the philosophical controller of England's destiny, the Marquess of Macclesfield, was indeed one full of truth. To be a successful diplomatist a man must needs steel his heart against all feminine blandishments. But there comes a time in the life of every man when he loves honestly and well, and when the happiness of the object of his affections is his primary consideration. My love for the Princess Melanie had been one full of a strange romance, our meetings had been clandestine, and none knew our secret but ourselves. To be loved by one of the most beautiful and high-born women in Europe, and placed on equality with her, poor that I was, had awakened my very soul, and had aroused within me a new zest for life. Could I disregard her appeal made before me upon her knees? I glanced down at her, and saw upon that pale troubled face, the face of a woman haunted by some secret dread, a look of intense anxiety such as I had never before witnessed. Tears, too, stood in her dark luminous eyes as she once again raised her face imploringly to mine. Those tears decided me. I never could bear a woman's emotion.
"If you wish me to neglect my duty, Melanie, then I will do so," I said at last. "You know how dearly I love you, how every day, every hour, my thought is always of you. Brussels is but a desert now that you have left it."
She rose unsteadily, assisted by me, and then without a word threw her arms passionately about my neck, and gave way to a flood of tears. Her pent-up emotion found vent as she buried her handsome head upon my shoulder, while I, with my arm about her slim waist, kissed her hair and endeavoured to comfort her.
"I am miserable—wretched," she sobbed. "I was compelled to fly from Brussels without wishing you farewell, Philip, because—well, because every hour I remained there placed me in greater jeopardy. Forgive me."
"You were in fear of that man Krauss," I exclaimed rather severely. "Tell me the truth. If I neglect my duty to serve you, then surely you will at least be frank with me."
"Yes," she faltered. "I left in order to escape him."
"Why," I asked. "What power does he hold over you—he a traitor and a spy, and you a princess? Why should you hold him in fear?"
She shook her head mournfully, and a deep sigh escaped her.
"Surely," I continued, "whatever may be your relations you might openly defy him if you wished."
"Ah! would to heaven that I dared!" she cried. "Alas! it is impossible—impossible."
"He is your lover," I said in a deep tone. "You cannot deny it, Melanie."
"I have already denied it," she answered with a slight indignation. "True, I obtained his release, but it was imperative I did it to save myself—little dreaming that by so doing I was preparing for myself an everlasting torment."
"Save yourself!" I echoed. "You speak in enigmas. Why not be more explicit, now that I have promised to assist you with all the power at my command?"
"Because, even now, I dare not tell you everything," she replied. "All I can say is that I am in gravest peril, and that if you will you can save my honour—my reputation—nay, Philip," she added, in the voice of one driven to desperation, "you alone can save me from death!"
"From death! Why?"
"Because exposure is imminent," she said hoarsely, standing rigid and pale, her hands clasped to her white open brow in a sudden wild paroxysm of despair. "This woman Kohn has scented out the truth! She knows my secret, and will betray me! I confess I am unworthy of your love, even of your esteem. I have sinned, and only my death can make full atonement. Alas! that the love of the Hapsbourgs is fatal—always fatal!"
SLOWLY I retraced my steps towards the winding sun-lit river, stumbling on utterly heedless of where I went. Through a full hour I had remained with my love, holding her hand and trying to comfort her, but overwhelmed with a weight of secret sorrow she only sobbed upon my breast. The world, she said, was against her, and her dream of happiness with me could never be realised. I strove to induce her to look only upon the bright side of life, but she had only mournfully shaken her head, saying: "For me, it is all finished—finished."
I went along dull and dispirited, until loving her with my whole soul I turned and glanced back at the frowning pile standing out black and forbidding against the mellow sunlight. From one of those narrow high-up windows she was undoubtedly watching me, and as I stood there at the last bend of the road whence I could see the castle, I tried to decide which was the window of the room wherein our interview had taken place. Upon my lips was the impress of her fond passionate final kiss, and in my ears rang her parting words of love and despair. As I had followed the servant out across the old courtyard Judith was standing at the window watching my departure. In her eyes I discerned a dastardly evil glint, by which I knew that she suspected that I had told the truth. Yet I cared not now for her vengeance or her allegations. Never until that hour of parting had I known how deeply I loved Melanie, and as with a sigh I took farewell of the ancient fortress of the Hapsbourgs and dragged myself wearily forward her sweet face, the sweetest God ever gave to woman, rose before me full of sympathy and a charm irresistible.
I had at last given her timely warning of Judith's identity, but the result of my visit had only been to increase the mystery which seemed to surround her actions, and to add to our mutual unhappiness.
Nearly a week afterwards, when I was in Brussels again, my man one day brought in a letter, the envelope, of which bore the Hapsbourg coronet and cypher. My heart gave a bound, for Melanie wrote but seldom. I tore it open and eagerly read it. Full of expressions of trust and tenderness it also contained a strange request, namely, that in order to fulfil my promised offer of assistance I should proceed to London on the following day and call at nine o'clock in the evening at a certain house in Porchester-terrace, Bayswater, but for what purpose was not stated.
"If you love me, Philip, you will not hesitate to serve me in this," the letter concluded. "I rely on you to redeem your promise to assist a helpless, friendless woman, who is in gravest peril. Adieu."
I pondered over the strange letter long and earnestly, then finding that it had been apparently delayed a day in the post, and that I had only half-an-hour in which to catch the morning mail to England by way of Ostend, I scribbled a note to Sir John Drummond explaining my absence, and then set forth upon my journey.
I arrived in London about five o'clock, dined at the Club, and later took a hansom up to Bayswater. The house before which I alighted was a large, rather comfortable-looking one, which bore on its exterior evidence of prosperity in the shape of sun-blind, and a small, well-kept garden. A few stunted smoke-blackened trees overhung the wall, which shut the place out from the gaze of passers-by, and as in the evening light I passed up the gravelled walk I fancied I detected a dark figure disappear from one of the ground-floor windows.
The moment I ascended the steps and rang the bell the ludicrousness of my position flashed upon me. I did not know for whom to ask, therefore when the elderly-man servant opened the door I lamely said—
"I believe I am expected here," and handed him a card.
"Yes, sir," answered the man, smart, and evidently well trained. "Kindly step this way," and he led me to an elegant little room which looked out upon a small flower-garden in the rear. The place was extremely well furnished. Why, I wondered, had I been sent there?
I was, however, not kept long in suspense, for a few seconds later the door was opened and Melanie herself, in a dark green travelling-dress and neat toque, stood before me.
"Ah! dearest," I said in joyous surprise, springing forward and seizing her hand, "I had no idea that you were in London."
"No," she smiled. "But how am I to thank you sufficiently for keeping this appointment?"
"Thanks are unnecessary between lovers," I answered.
"Then you do still love me, Philip?" she asked in a strange tone of doubt and anxiety.
"Love you! Of course I do, darling. Why do you doubt me?" I asked quickly.
She sighed, and I thought I detected in the corners of her pretty mouth an almost imperceptible expression of bitterness.
"Because," she answered in a low, nervous voice, "because when you know the truth your love will turn to hatred."
"Never!" I cried. "Never! How strangely you speak. Tell me why you have come here, and what I can do to assist you."
"Wait," she answered in the voice of one speaking in a dream. "Be patient, and you shall know all—everything."
"But it is all so puzzling," I said. Then, after an instant's pause I asked, "What of Judith? Has she left you?"
"After making a charge against me?" I inquired.
Again she nodded.
"And you believe it?" I gasped.
"I believe nothing without proof," she answered, and I saw a sweet, sympathetic love-look still in her eyes.
"I swear that her allegation is not true," I said. She was calm, but pale, and I fancied that she shuddered when I took her hand and raised it to my lips.
"You think it strange that I should meet you here," she said at last. "This house is the house of a lady with whom I lived for three years while learning English; and this room my own, which has been kept just as I left it when I returned home to make my debut in society. How well I remember it!" she exclaimed, glancing round; "and how happy I used to be here, in my girlhood days, before the great evil fell upon me."
"The great evil? What do you mean?"
"Ah! Philip," she answered, "it is only right and just that you should know, even if after I have spoken I dare never to look into your face again. You are an honest, upright, conscientious man, a trusted servant of your Queen and country, and a manly lover of whom any woman might be proud—yet I have deceived you."
"Deceived me!" I ejaculated. "How?"
"Towards you my life has been a living lie. I have——"
But her words were interrupted by the entrance of a man-servant, who said:
"A gentleman who gives the name of Krauss desires to see your Highness."
"Krauss!" she gasped, turning to me, in an instant, white as death. "Is he alone?" she inquired, with an assumed calmness.
"A lady is with him. She is fair, and dressed in black."
For an instant she was silent, then, with a calm determined look upon her face she ordered them both to be shown in.
"Krauss and Judith Kohn!" she said, turning to me. "They have lost no time in tracing me here, and their purpose is undoubtedly a sinister one—to obtain by foul means that which I have refused them."
"Happily I am with you!" I said, reassuringly.
"Yes, yes," she cried in despair, "but you, like all others, will turn from me when you know the wretched, ghastly truth."
Then, next instant, the spy and traitor, together with the handsome woman who was his ingenious assistant, entered the room.
Both drew back speechless at sight of me. Probably they remembered that the frustration of their clever designs was once due to my watchfulness; at any rate they both had just cause to detest the memory of those days of the past.
"Good evening to you," I said, with an affected politeness, for it appeared that the interesting pair had walked quite unconsciously into a trap. Such illusion was, however, very quickly dispelled, for Krauss, arrogant and overbearing as was his wont, answered:
"I called to see the Princess alone."
"I am a friend of her's—an intimate friend—and shall remain here," I said.
"Then my business can wait until she is alone," he answered, with a grin upon his countenance. "I am in no immediate hurry, I assure you."
"Speak!" exclaimed Melanie, hoarsely, grasping the back of a chair to steady herself. "I well know that the object of your visit is in continuation of the overtures you have so constantly made to me. Explain."
"How can this person be connected with you," he said, turning his eyes upon her companion.
Judith Kohn stood beside him, a silent figure in black, her handsome features but half concealed by her spotted veil.
"You know Philip Crawford," Melanie said, impatiently. "You have met before, and are not strangers. Why do you hesitate to speak?"
The spy, silent for a few moments, exchanged a quick glance with his companion.
"Because," he said at last, "because explanations are quite unnecessary The matter between us concerns your delicate character."
"Then if you are determined not to speak, I myself will explain," said Melanie, bracing herself up with an effort. "I have resolved to suffer no longer. I am determined to end for ever this eternal torture of the soul, even at the risk of losing all in this world I hold most dear."
"Your love—eh?" sneered Krauss with a contemptuous glance at me. He had not forgotten our encounter on that well-remembered night in Brussels.
"Listen, Philip," she cried in a voice of desperation. "The persecution of this man has driven me to moral suicide. To-night I will end it all. Hear me, and then judge my faults impartially and with justice. I know I am unworthy, yet I have deceived you, because, loving you as I did, I feared that when you knew the hideous truth you would cast me aside and forsake me."
A cynical laugh escaped the ex-captain's lips.
"Continue," I said. "Take no heed of this released criminal's jeers."
Krauss's face puckered into a frown, and without answering he darted at me an evil glance.
"For years I have been this man's victim," she cried, panting. "Fearing always to disobey his will I have been compelled to act as he has directed, to be his cat's-paw in the many dishonourable transactions in which he has been implicated. To-night, however, I release myself from the hateful thraldom by making full confession of all the past. True, I am of an honourable house upon whom no breath of scandal has ever rested, and at the outset I declare that I will rather die by my own hand than bring discredit and idle gossip upon the Hapsbourgs. The pride of my family has always been the virtue and integrity of its women, and in order to clear the escutcheon I have besmirched by my conduct I tell the whole truth without concealing one single fact."
"Then you're an idiotic fool," interrupted Krauss bluntly. "You always were the most circumspect and cautious woman I ever knew, but now you actually intend to bring scandal upon yourself in a manner utterly unnecessary. Only you yourself can suffer by such an exposure."
"Wait until I have finished," she cried, turning fiercely upon him. "I have suffered enough at your unscrupulous hands, compelled as I have been to perform actions mean and despicable, even to commit acts which might have brought me within the clutches of the criminal law; to pose as your lover when you so desired it, and to render you assistance in official quarters. Little the world has dreamed that you, the condemned traitor to your country, obtained your liberty through my effort, or that my money has kept you in luxury and extravagance for months, nay years. And why? Because I feared you? Yes. I was not long in discovering how mean and relentless you could be when occasion required, and I knew that defiance meant my ruin and a scandal which would fill the newspapers and cause half Europe to gossip. The safety of an Empire was at stake, the honour of a royal house was in your hands, therefore I, believed by all to be innocent and ingenuous, was compelled to submit to your demands, to act as you dictated, to supply you with information which you sold at enormous profit to enemies of my house and country. At a foolish moment I had placed myself irresistibly within your power, and you, a cunning schemer, used me as your tool wherewith to execute some of the most delicate and ingenious coups of espionage ever perpetrated. Nothing is sacred to you—patriotism, honour, family ties, or even a woman's life. These three long, weary years have to me been a veritable century of suffering. Now you have driven me to desperation, and I prefer exposure, the execration of the world, even the denunciation of the man who loves me so tenderly and truly, to this secret alliance which has crushed and killed my very soul."
At these passionate words of hers the man drew back with an uneasy laugh, meant to be derisive, but sounding strangely artificial. My previous dealings with him had shown me that he was by no means easily cowed. To obtain success he had hesitated at nothing, and was an adventurer of the very worst and most irresponsible type. There was a look of cruel, crafty cunning upon his countenance and a glitter in his eyes which told of fierce thoughts within.
"Well," he said, "explain all if you consider it wise. Only you yourself will suffer."
"You," she cried, "have striven to drive me to commit suicide; and I should long ago have taken my own life were it not for the fact that by doing so you would triumph. You sent this woman to me," she said, pointing to Judith, "in order to obtain that which you sought; but by a fortunate circumstance Philip came to Brandenberg and there recognised her as the woman who helped you in your nefarious, traitorous work in Vienna. It placed me on my guard, and, happily, I have been enabled to frustrate you from making a coup which would undoubtedly have startled the world."
"But tell me," I interrupted, much puzzled. "Tell me why you have been held powerless by this man?"
"Ah, it is a wretched story," she answered, turning to me, "yet it is only just that all mystery should now be removed, and that you should have full and clear explanation. Four years ago, while still in my teens, I delighted to escape from the palace and wander about alone. We were living in Vienna, and I often went out secretly by myself to make various little purchases, being in the habit of calling at a pastrycook's where they made English tea. On one of these visits I met there a smart-looking officer who showed me some trivial politeness, and who afterwards came there so frequently that I could not help guessing that he came purposely to meet and chat with me. This acquaintanceship quickly became more sincere; he gave me his card, and at his request I one evening met him clandestinely. In those days of romantic girlhood I thought it great amusement to have a lover, and evening after evening I would contrive to get away from the home circle and go for walks with him. Months went on. He was unaware of my true name and of who I was, for I had given my address at the house of a friend on the outskirts of the city, until one day he was ordered to do duty with the Palace guard, and quite by accident discovered my identity. Almost a year had elapsed, a year of halcyon days and foolish dreams of love and happiness, when one evening he did not keep the appointment he had made. I waited for him over an hour, then went back disappointed. For three evenings following I returned to the spot, but he came not, nor did he write and explain. I thought that probably he had been ordered into the country suddenly; but about a week later the real truth became revealed, for I received anonymously in an envelope a clipping from a newspaper which briefly stated that Captain Oswald Krauss, of the 33rd Regiment of Artillery, had been arrested for gross dereliction of duty."
"Krauss!" I echoed. "Then he was the officer whom you met, and whom you loved!"
"Yes," she answered hoarsely. "I loved him, but remember I was young, and utterly inexperienced in the ways of the world. I knew little of life beyond the walls of the Palace, or of Brandenberg."
"Well, after his arrest, what then?" I inquired, amazed at her revelation, and recollecting how I had successfully tracked the spy through a perfect labyrinth of complications previous to his arrest.
"I knew that he would be tried by court-martial, therefore at my request the President allowed me to remain in an adjoining room at the trial. There, through a small window I saw the man who was my lover standing between two guards with fixed bayonets, and I heard the terrible charge against him. I heard the evidence, and was present when you yourself explained how you had first made the discovery of his treachery. He trembled at your calm straight-forward denunciation, and I saw of what dastardly treachery he had been guilty. He had coolly sold his country, and placed the lives of his fellow-men in jeopardy in exchange for Russian roubles. Had you not discovered the truth in time he would have given Russia the key to Austria."
"You actually heard me give my evidence?" I exclaimed, amazed.
"I heard every word of it, being present each day that the court-martial sat," she answered. "I was present, too, on that morning when at sunrise the spy was led forth into the barrack square, and in front of the whole garrison his sentence was read out, although the exact charge was not stated, for fear of giving offence to Russia. Then his sword was broken, his epaulettes torn off, the gay braiding cut from his tunic, and to loud drumming and the execrations of his brother officers and the men who had served under him, he was led off to prison, a scowling sneaking wretch in whose crime there had been no extenuating circumstance. From that moment my love for him turned to hatred. He had betrayed me, and had sought to betray his country and his Emperor."
"AND then?" I asked eagerly.
"Well, I left Vienna with my family, and we spent the summer at Brandenberg and the winter at Beaulieu. Then we went on a round of visits to London, to the Hague, and to Rome, until all thought of the wretched convict passed from my mind. One day, however, while on a visit to the Empress William, at Berlin, I received a letter dated from the prison of Budapesth containing a cool, alarming demand—namely, that I should go at once to the Emperor Francis Joseph and beg his immediate release. To this I made no response; whereupon I received several other letters in which he repeated his demand, adding that he knew the Emperor would accede to my wish provided that the release was kept a secret, and that he gave an undertaking never to again set foot on Austrian soil. I replied, telling him that no Hapsbourg had ever assisted one guilty of treason, and that I would be no exception. Then, in response, came another brief note which held me terrified—for he threatened that if he were not released within fourteen days he would write and forward to the newspapers a certain statement concerning me—a statement which, I knew too well, alas, would cause a sensation throughout Europe. Defiance was useless. This keen-witted, unscrupulous spy held me irrevocably in his power, hence, though I hated him and detested his memory, I was compelled to go to the Emperor and plead for his release. At first I was unsuccessful; but having concocted an ingenious story I at last succeeded, and the man who had so coolly bartered his country's military secrets was secretly escorted to the frontier.
"Many months passed, and I heard nothing of him," she continued. "Last summer, however I came to London and stayed here with my old teacher of English, when one day he called, and from his conversation I learnt that he had left the secret service of Russia and had entered that of France; and further, that together with the woman who had so cleverly assisted him in Vienna he had concocted a deeply laid plan to secure possession of certain secrets of the British Foreign Office. He told me how at Downing-street the French had established a complete system of espionage, and, equally with Russia, were aware of nearly all that transpired. So cleverly were documents copied or their purport noted that no suspicion was ever aroused, and further he said that one of the principal of the secret agents was a woman who was wife of a trusted official through whose hands all treaties, or drafts of treaties passed."
"And that woman," I interrupted, "that woman is now before us!"
"Why should I thus be implicated?" said Judith, resentfully. Then turning to her companion, she said, in Hungarian. "The affair is growing too ugly for my liking."
"No doubt," I exclaimed, severely. "You remember your brief married life with poor Gordon, and the circumstances of his death, which were more than peculiar."
She glared at me fixedly, but uttered no response.
"Continue," I said, addressing Melanie, who had now become calm and determined, and who spoke with a fearlessness which showed her resolution to explain the whole truth.
"This woman, he said, had obtained knowledge that certain negotiations were in progress between Belgium and England, which in event of war would seriously affect the success of any operations by Russia and France. Of the preliminaries they had gained a good deal of knowledge which had been carefully transmitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, where it had created great consternation. Orders had, therefore, been given this arch-traitor and spy to secure at all costs the original documents on which the supposed secret treaty was based, and it was with that object he had come to me."
"He wanted you to assist him in his plans, I suppose?" I observed.
"Yes," she answered. "He unfolded an elaborate scheme by which I was to help him. Briefly, it was that on a certain day the correspondence between King Leopold and your Ambassador, Sir John Drummond, would be transmitted by special messenger from the Legation to Downing-street, and he proposed that on this particular day I should travel with the messenger from Brussels to London with an exact duplicate of the Foreign Office despatch box, and on the journey contrive to exchange the box containing the State secrets for the dummy one, which, with his marvellous ingenuity, he had already carefully prepared."
She paused, while I stood open-mouthed and astonished at her statement.
"At first," she went on, "at first I allowed my disgust at his proposal to over-ride my discretion, and angrily ordered him from the house; but very soon, from his threatening attitude, I saw that his fixed intention was that I should render him assistance. Thus, for fear of the exposure he might make regarding myself, I was compelled to submit. I was compelled to become a political agent."
"You!" I cried. "Then did you actually assist him?"
"Yes, under compulsion, and in order to avoid the gross and terrible scandal which he might bring upon my family, I was compelled to sacrifice myself and become this man's catspaw in his nefarious schemes."
"Then you actually stole the King's correspondence!" I gasped, utterly amazed.
"For a long time I refused to consent," she answered. "He called fully a dozen times, and at last finding him inexorable I went to Brussels, carrying with me the dummy despatch box. Then, on the day he had stated, his information coming, I suppose, from some secret agent in the Belgian Ministry, I saw on the platform of the Gare du Nord, at Brussels, the messenger, bearing despatches. I entered the same compartment, and presently contrived to get into conversation with him. The dummy box was concealed in my large dressing-bag, and I awaited my opportunity to draw it forth and exchange it for the one he had placed upon the seat beside him. It was a hazardous and delicate piece of work, and no opportunity presented itself during the journey to Ostend, or while on board the steamer bound for Dover, where, by the way, my bag was not opened by the Customs officers. The Queen's messenger—Graves was his name, I think—kept an ever-watchful eye upon his despatches. During the journey, however, we had become quite good friends, and when at Dover we had entered the express for London he suddenly asked whether I would like some tea. To this I replied in the affirmative, and asking me to keep an eye to his things he descended and obtained some tea from the refreshment room lad on the platform. In the moment of his absence, however, I drew forth the box Krauss had given me—an exact imitation of the real one—and, placing it upon the seat, slipped the one containing the despatches into my dressing-bag. My heart beat wildly within me when he returned, for I feared lest he might discover the trick, but so well had the box been imitated that he merely placed it on the rack over his head and settled down and chatted affably with me during the remainder of our journey to London. Eager to escape at the earliest possible moment I told him that I was on a visit to some friends at Horsham, in Sussex, and therefore London Bridge was my best station to alight, for there I could obtain a train direct to my destination. So I left him when we arrived at the first stoppage in London, and after the train had crossed the bridge in the direction of Cannon-street I returned, at once took a ticket back to Dover, and a quarter of an hour later was again on my return journey, having successfully accomplished my first mission as a spy. How I existed during that journey back to Ostend I scarcely know. So intense was the excitement within me, and so great my fear of arrest, that I passed hours of agony and dread, until in the grey of the morning I found myself once more in Brussels, where I concealed the box unopened in one of my trunks in my own room at the Palace. Later that day I telegraphed the result of my effort to the man who held me within his power. He was in London, and replied that he had further important affairs there, but that he would meet me in Brussels in three days time. He also wrote by the same post saying that he would meet me three days later at the evening promenade concert at the Wauxhall Garden, when I was to hand him the stolen correspondence, which he would convey at once to Paris."
"And did he meet you?" I asked, eager to know what had become of the file of the King's letters, the loss of which had caused us such consternation and alarm.
"Yes," she answered. "But on the night following my return from London I made a discovery which caused me to entirely alter my plans. I found that you, Philip, the man whom I had met in the Bois, was an agent of the English Government: and I then saw that if I parted with the papers I had stolen opprobrium must fall upon you. I learnt from the King's own lips that you were employed on secret service, charged with making inquiries into certain operations of the cabinet noir in Brussels, and with obtaining such information as might combat the conspiracies of the enemies of Belgium and England. Well, I may as well confess that I loved you, Philip, and with a vague idea of rendering a service to you, as well as to King Leopold, I refused to give up the stolen letters."
"You refused," I cried quickly. "Then have they never fallen into this man's hands?"
"Never!" she answered. "The box, unopened, is still in my possession."
"Then you have saved England from a deadly peril—from a disastrous and terrible war," I exclaimed in breathless joyousness.
"When he came to me and I refused to deliver up the despatches," she explained, "he grew furious, threatening me with the same threats of exposure he had successfully used to secure his release and obtain my assistance in the masterstroke of espionage. But from what I had learnt from diligent inquiry I knew full well that you were in active search for the missing letters, and further, I felt assured that they must be of gravest importance in the critical political outlook. Hence, after fully weighing the situation, I determined to disregard his threats and keep the correspondence intact. I dared not reveal to you my wretched story of woman's weakness lest you should cast me aside as a spy; and it was for that reason I have been compelled to preserve this long silence. You will now understand the reason of our midnight meetings on the boulevards, and of this man's murderous attack upon me. At that moment, so infuriated was he by my refusal to deliver up the papers that I believe he would have murdered me had you not come to my aid."
"It is amazing!" I exclaimed, dumbfounded, when she paused.
"Yes, the facts are indeed extraordinary," she said. "When this man found me inexorable and determined not to betray the secrets of English diplomacy, he first placed a spy upon me—the tall man whose presence at the Palace you noticed and then afterwards devised, with his devilish ingenuity, another plan which, but for you, might have succeeded. By artful plotting he contrived to introduce his accomplice, this woman, as my maid in order that she might be enabled to search my belongings and secure the papers of which the French Government were so anxious to possess themselves. Fortunately, however, you recognised her, and then in an instant I discerned the object of her entering my service."
The woman thus referred to laughed defiantly, while the man remained sullen and silent, as if undecided how to act now that the truth was out and he was denounced as a cunning, despicable spy, whose craftiness had been frustrated just at the very moment of making his greatest coup.
With a vindictiveness characteristic of such a woman, Judith Kohn began to pour forth upon me a torrent of abuse, referring in no measured terms to the death of the Chevalier de Jedina, and declaring that I was a murderer. Melanie, however, took no heed of her libellous utterances, for she was satisfied with the truthful explanation I had given of the dastardly plot against me by which a man's life was sacrificed.
"But the stolen despatch-box—where is it?" I asked of Melanie. For answer she crossed to a large, old-fashioned chest of carved oak which she opened, lifting out the box which had been so cleverly snatched from Graves' possession and handing it to me I took it, and saw that the seals which Sir John Drummond had placed upon it were actually still intact.
The covetous eyes of the pair were upon it, and fearing lest they might make a dash to overpower me and obtain possession of its precious contents I whipped out my revolver in readiness. Sight of my weapon cowed them. Possibly they remembered that where I aimed I generally hit.
"You have, by refusing to part with this, Melanie," I said placing my hand upon the despatch-box, "rendered a service to my Queen and country of a magnitude it is almost impossible to comprehend. Had these letters been in the hands of our enemies it is absolutely certain that to-day the whole of Europe would have been convulsed by the most terrible and disastrous war the world has ever known. Driven by this pair of malefactors to commit deeds of treason and dishonour, you fortunately recognised the extreme gravity of the situation in time, and thus the honour and security of England have been preserved."
"Had I not met you in the Bois, Philip," she said in a broken voice, "I should certainly have parted with the box in order to obtain a respite from this man's eternal persecutions, for he had made it the price of my deliverance from this thraldom. God knows how I have suffered, how, day by day, I strove to brace myself to confess all to you, but had not the courage—how, day by day, I prayed to heaven to deliver me from the hateful bond."
"But what was this bond?" I asked, puzzled. "Why were you in constant dread of this man? Why were his threats so potent in compelling you to act as you have done?"
"Ah!" laughed Krauss with sarcasm. "Now, tell your lover the truth. You said you would not conceal anything."
The colour again left her cheeks. She was silent, her face ashen pale.
MELANIE'S clenched hands trembled. In her bright dark eyes was the haunted look of one driven to desperation.
"The truth!" she gasped in a low hoarse voice, full of emotion. "The truth is that I feared he would expose me and create a scandal. I—I am that man's—wife!"
"His wife?" I cried in blank dismay. "Impossible."
"Alas! such is the hideous truth. In the early days of our acquaintance I loved him with the romantic admiration that a girl does her first lover. He spoke of marriage, I consented, and we were married legally at Budapesth, only two other persons being in the secret. I gave my name without my title, and none suspected my rank or station on that Sunday morning in early spring when we attended before the Mayor with a dozen other couples of the lower class. For a year, separated as we were bound to be, our lives were not without their romance, but judge my horror on the day that I learnt that my husband was to be tried by court-martial, and later when I saw him degraded and condemned to life imprisonment as a traitor to his Emperor and his country. A feeling of hatred and disgust was created within me when I received that letter declaring that if I did not obtain his release he would, through a journalist who visited him in prison, reveal to the world that I, Princess Melanie of Hapsbourg was wife of an imprisoned traitor and spy. Because of this threat which he ever held over me I was compelled to act always as he directed, until now that I can bear this terrible mental tension no longer I have preferred exposure and confession."
"And you are actually his wife!" I exclaimed, utterly amazed at this astounding revelation.
For answer the man Krauss, with a triumphant exclamation, thrust a paper towards me, and at a single glance I saw from it that the marriage was an entirely legal one.
The woman I had loved could no longer be mine.
The ghastly truth fell upon me, crushing out all hope and life. Calm, sweet-faced, and innocent, she had been tricked by this cunning scoundrel, and her suffering had, I know, been terrible through all those weary months. She had loved me fondly, knowing at the same time, however, that we could never be more to one another than friends. Yet her friendship had been stanch and true, and by her firm determination and resolute action, loyal devotion and self-sacrifice, she, the daughter of a Royal house, had saved England's honour and the lives of thousands of her valiant sons.
Shortly before 11 o'clock on the following morning, accompanied by Melanie, pale and anxious, and carrying the missing despatch-box I ascended the grand staircase of the Foreign Office to the Marquis of Macclesfield's private room.
We had not long to wait, for her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was always punctual at Downing-street, and a few moments after the clock at Westminster had solemnly chimed the hour, he entered grey faced and calm, with that light springy step and smartness of gait that was astonishing in one of his age. None passing him in the street would ever suspect that upon the shoulders of that thin, wiry, solitary-looking man rested the responsibilities of the greatest nation in the world.
As he passed through the outer room wherein we were waiting he raised his grey eyebrows in slight surprise. Then, recognising me, he wished me good morning and glanced inquiringly at my companion, for ladies were unusual visitors there.
"I wish to be permitted to introduce to your lordship her Royal Highness the Princess Melanie of Hapsbourg," I said, adding: "She wishes for an interview upon a matter of extreme importance."
The old man bowed with his courtly diplomatic habit, expressed his instant readiness to receive us, and opened the door of his private room for her to pass in.
Then, when we were all three closeted together I placed into the Chief's hands the stolen despatch box, with a word of explanation that the King's correspondence contained therein had remained hidden from the eyes of all. His thin hands trembled slightly as he took the box, carefully examining the official seals which had been affixed by Sir John Drummond, and with a mingled look of surprise and satisfaction, raised his eyes to mine saying:
"Then you have actually outwitted the dastardly spies, after all, Crawford."
"No credit is due to myself," I answered. "Her Highness has called to make personal explanation."
"To make apology and what amends I can," faltered Melanie, raising her veil, and glancing timidly at the great Minister feared by every Government in Europe.
"Apology!" he repeated, puzzled. "I do not understand."
"I was the thief," she said in a low, hoarse voice, "and it is but just that I should make a full confession."
"You? The thief!" exclaimed Lord Macclesfield, amazed. "Did you actually steal these despatches?"
"I did," she answered, firmly. "Mr. Crawford knows the whole truth. He will tell you everything."
Pressed by his lordship, I then related the whole of the curious circumstances, just as they are set down in the foregoing narrative, without, of course, referring to my love for the pretty, penitent woman before us, although I think he must have shrewdly guessed it. The telling occupied half an hour or more, and when I had concluded the Minister broke the seals, unlocked the box with his key and drew forth the despatches and precious pile of King Leopold's correspondence.
He glanced cursorily through them, then raising his eyes to Melanie, said in that grave, kindly tone which always endeared him to the staff of the Foreign Office:
"In this matter I offer your Royal Highness the warmest thanks of her Majesty's Government, for, by refusing to part with these despatches you have saved Europe a war, and, at the same time, preserved the honour of two nations—that of my own and of Belgium. You were induced by threats to commit the theft, but, happily you realised to the full the terrible consequences of the exposure. By risking your honour and your own good name you atoned for the crime you were forced to commit; hence we can only offer your our warmest thanks."
"You are indeed generous. I am undeserving of any thanks," she protested in a low voice.
"Pardon me, but you certainly are not," declared her Majesty's Minister with courtesy. "Had this correspondence actually fallen into the hands of those who conspired to obtain it we should, no doubt, at this moment be plunged into one of the fiercest and most calamitous wars that the world has ever seen. By the recovery of these letters confidence is at once restored; for we can now act vigorously, and the whole European situation is thereby changed."
She smiled, much gratified at these words from the great statesman for whom, she had told me long ago, she had the highest admiration. She had come there to humbly ask forgiveness, yet this Minister of world-renown declared her to be the saviour of England.
"And now that her Highness has succeeded in restoring to us the despatches, there is still another matter which it is only fair that I should explain," observed his lordship, settling himself in his padded chair, with his thin clasped hands resting upon the writing-table where day and night he worked in the interests of the nation. "Curiously enough, it was quite by accident that my suspicions were awakened regarding the wife of poor Gordon Clunes. One afternoon, as I was walking down to the House, I passed Clunes in Whitehall, and saw him meet a woman whom I at once recognised. About a year before a certain important document was found to be missing from the archives of the Embassy at Vienna, and one day, to my surprise, I received a letter from some mysterious person giving an address at Dieppe, offering to restore it on payment of a certain sum. I entered privately into correspondence with this person, who subsequently came over to London and saw me. It turned out to be a woman; and the same woman I was amazed to recognise in the company of such a trusted and faithful servant of the Department as Clunes. I at once caused secret inquiries to be made, and found that she was actually the wife of Clunes, and that they lived at Richmond. Comparison between the letters written from Dieppe and one written by Mrs. Clunes showed the handwriting to be identical; therefore there was every reason to suppose that the woman was an adventuress who had made a matrimonial alliance with Clunes with some ulterior motive. The unfortunate man himself must have also had his suspicions aroused," continued his lordship after a pause, "for on the day prior to his death he sought a private interview with me, confided to me the belief that his wife was a foreign agent, and handed to me a document which he had found concealed in her possession—an official document which plainly showed that France and Russia were conspiring against us. It was a startling revelation, but of course I hesitated to repeat his statement," he added, glancing at me, "having given my word to keep the suspicion secret."
"Then he actually knew that his wife was a spy!" I cried.
"Certainly!" responded his lordship gravely. "But in a matter of such delicacy I could not betray the poor man's confidence, therefore I sent you, his friend, down to Richmond in order to hear his suspicions from his own lips. When the news, however, came that he had been found dead I caused the most searching inquiries to be made. The Director of Criminal Investigation gave the case into the hands of four of the most expert detectives in London, who, although they were unable to trace the whereabouts of the woman, made several very curious discoveries. I have their reports here," and unlocking a drawer he took therefrom a document on blue official paper which he opened and spread before him.
"The inquest was held at Richmond, and after an adjournment an open verdict returned, the jury being satisfied to leave further inquiries in the hands of the police. The most careful investigations were subsequently made by Dr. Bond and Dr. Woodhead, two competent analysts of the Home Office, who after a long series of experiments were agreed in their opinions that Clunes had been poisoned. There was a slight abrasion of the skin upon the forefinger of the right hand, caused by a trivial accident, and on searching the room in which he was found dead they discovered that the silver penholder which he habitually used was somewhat discoloured, as though by an acid, a single spot of which had apparently been dropped by accident upon the blotting pad. This was analysed and submitted to a number of experts, who pronounced it to be a most virulent poison extracted from the leaf of the strophanthus, a plant which grows in Uganda. This poison is a little known one, and almost impossible of detention thirty hours after death. It is likewise most virulent, one-hundredth part of a grain being sufficient to kill a man."
"Then by taking up the pen which had been smeared with that deadly compound the poison had entered the finger!" I exclaimed in surprise.
"Exactly," answered his lordship. "The detectives succeeded in reconstructing the whole scene and its surrounding circumstances. It would appear from their report that the woman Judith Kohn, having ascertained that Clunes had discovered her identity, killed him in order to prevent her betrayal, not knowing, however, that he had already handed me the document he had found in her possession. On the day of the murder Clunes went forth in the morning with the ostensible purpose of going to the Foreign Office as usual, but having sent the telegram of excuse, he remained in Richmond and watched the man Krauss call upon her. During the whole of that day he was engaged in carefully watching her movements, being now confident that she was a foreign agent. He followed her home, and through the study window watched her take some documents from her jewel case and burn them in the grate. Then he withdrew and wandered about Richmond for an hour or so, hesitating how to act. Meanwhile, the woman had completed her arrangements for departure. Again he returned shortly before the dinner hour, and finding the French windows of the study open, entered from the lawn. Having made an examination of the tinder in the grate, and satisfied himself that the remains were of some official papers written in French, he sat down and lit a cigar in perplexity. At last he rose, and seating himself at the writing table took up his pen with the object of writing her a letter of accusation and farewell, intending afterwards to leave without seeing her. The touch of the pen was, however, fatal. She knew of the trifling injury to his finger—for it had been caused on the previous evening while they were cycling across Richmond Park—and had carefully prepared the pen holder he habitually used. He sat for a moment with it poised in his hand, but that moment was sufficient to produce a fatal result. The poison of the strophanthus is extremely rapid in effect, and ere half a minute had passed he commenced to experience a strange giddiness which was succeeded by racking pains in the limbs. He threw himself upon the couch to rest, but there quickly ensued coma, and afterwards death. His wife was in the adjoining room and knew the dire result of her dastardly plot; then having received you—for you called at the final moment—she left the house and disappeared. So virulent was the poison placed upon the penholder that Dr. Woodhead reports there was sufficient to have killed 50 men. Whoever supplied her with the poison must have been well versed in toxicology, for as far as is known this is the first time strophanthus has been used in this country for the purpose of committing murder."
"Are those the actual facts?" inquired my fair companion, who had listened dumbfound.
"Every fact which I have related has been proved by the most searching inquiries," his lordship answered gravely. "It was undoubtedly Krauss who called upon the woman after her husband's departure, and there is no doubt that the object in her marriage with Clunes was to obtain from him the secrets of certain drafts of treaties which passed through his hands."
"Astounding!" I said, amazed at these startling revelations.
"Yes. Most remarkable," the Minister went on. "You may, I think, both congratulate yourselves upon your fortunate escape from the hands of a most unscrupulous pair. It is evident that they have been actively conspiring against you. Now, however, that they are in London their arrest will be only a matter of a few hours. I will at once see the Director of Criminal Investigations myself."
"But you will allow my statement to become public property!" exclaimed Melanie in alarm.
"I shall, of course, respect your Highness's confidence in every particular," the grave old Minister answered reassuringly. "I am fully aware how much you have risked in order to preserve this despatch-box intact, therefore remain confident that I shall act with discretion. None will know the truth save Mr. Crawford and myself."
Melanie thanked him with tears in her large dark eyes, then after some further consultation lasting over an hour, her Majesty's principal adviser shook hands with us both and we withdrew.
Late that same afternoon the Princess left London for Brandenberg. I saw her off at Charing Cross, and it is sufficient to say that at the moment of parting we were both speechless, over-whelmed by regret, sorrow and blank despair. I raised her tiny gloved hand to my lips for the last time. My heart was bursting with a poignant grief. I watched the continental train steam away across the Thames into the mist, then turned into the busy turmoil of the Strand with the heaviest burden of grief my soul had ever borne.
My idol was broken. Melanie, the woman I had loved dearer than life, could never be mine—never!
A few days later I sadly returned to my post in Brussels, and eagerly watched the newspapers, fearing day by day lest, in revenge, Krauss should expose the secret of Melanie's marriage. Although the London police were active, their search was in vain. Descriptions of both were circulated in every district in the metropolis, and every constable on duty remained on the watch for them. The detectives who idle at all the ports watching embarking passengers were duly apprised, and were vigilant in their efforts, but days lengthened into weeks, until at last it was believed at Scotland Yard that they had both escaped from the country on the evening prior to our interview with Lord Macclesfield.
I had audience of King Leopold on the morning after my return to Brussels, and related to him the circumstances in which his correspondence had been recovered, without, however, exposing the secret of Melanie's marriage, or of her complicity in the affair.
At mention of the woman Kohn his Majesty said,
"You will remember that some time ago I expressed to you a strong desire to see her. Some two years ago I ascertained that she was one of the most accomplished secret agents in the employ of Russia, and it occurred to me that she might possibly have a hand in the theft of the despatch box. My Minister in St. Petersburg was of the same opinion, therefore I wished to see her and ascertain if such were the truth. If so, I intended to offer her her price for the return of the letters. But what you have told me fortunately renders this unnecessary. I can only thank you very heartily for your successful efforts which have saved my personal honour, and as a mark of my esteem confer upon you the Order of Leopold, which I trust that your Sovereign the Queen will allow you, in these exceptional circumstances, to accept."
"I thank your Majesty for the honour," I responded. "And I only hope that my Queen will give her permission. As your Majesty is doubtless aware, the regulations in our diplomatic service are very strict regarding the acceptance of foreign orders."
"I am well aware of that," answered the King, smiling pleasantly. "But I will use what personal influence I can in the matter, for you certainly merit some reward more substantial than mere words."
Shortly afterwards, having received renewed expressions of the royal favour, I withdrew, and had the satisfaction a fortnight later of receiving the handsome insignia of the Order, together with the Queen's gracious permission to accept it.
About a month after my return to Brussels the post one morning brought a long, rambling letter from Judith, dated from Dawes-road, a thorough-fare in Walham Green, confessing to the murder of Clunes, and giving precise directions as to where her accomplice Krauss was in hiding. Save that she was prompted by some motive of revenge there seemed no reason whatever why the letter should have been written, and its wording puzzled me. Knowing, however, that the police were still in active search of her, I wired the address to Scotland Yard.
Two hours after the despatch of my telegram the police arrived at the house where she was lodging under the guise of a widow named Franklin. They found the door of her room locked, and when they broke it open discovered her lying upon the bed lifeless. After writing the letter to me on the previous afternoon she had apparently committed suicide, using the same poison with which she had so swiftly and secretly killed poor Gordon.
Krauss according to the dead woman's letter, was working as a shoesmith, a trade he once followed in his early days in the Austrian army, at a farrier's in the Passage St. Pierre, a turning off the Boulevard Voltaire in Paris. That same afternoon three agents of police went there to arrest him and found him wearing a leather apron and quietly engaged in shoeing a horse. He was amazed at the suddenness of his arrest, but upon being interrogated some days later it quickly became apparent to him that the truth was out, and before the formalities for his extradition could be completed he hanged himself in the police cell.
Few letters had come to me from Brandenberg, but when the details of the death of that pair of accomplished spies reached the Embassy officially I lost no time in communicating them to Melanie.
In response she wrote me a long letter of warmest thanks, pointing out that to me alone was due her freedom from that hateful tie, and therefore she owed me a debt which she could never hope to repay. The letter, which at her desire I at once destroyed, spoke of our mutual love in terms of tenderness and deepest regret. It was true, she wrote, that we had loved each other fondly and passionately, but all was now of the past. Ours had, indeed, been a dream impossible of realisation, but her final words gratified me, and will ever live within my heart. "I shall remember you, Philip," the letter ended. "I have loved you, and shall remember you always—always."
Our correspondence, after that, was as may be well imagined, full of the tenderest passion of a platonic love, until one day, coincident with the announcement in the newspapers, she wrote and told me that the Emperor Francis Joseph had suggested to her family that she should marry the young Prince Adolphe of Hohenzollern. I sent her congratulations, but my heart was heavy with its burden of sorrow.
My love had passed from me for ever.
The royal marriage took place at Potsdam in the following spring, I being present in my official capacity, having in the meantime been promoted to the secretaryship of the Embassy at Berlin, under the most accomplished of Ambassadors, Sir Frank Lascelles. The wise maxim of the Marquess of Macclesfield, that to be a successful diplomatist a man should not marry, consoled me in my long hours of regret and melancholy, and to satisfy the curiosity of those who read this narrative I may perhaps add that I am still a bachelor.
I own to a sadness and grief sometimes, and more than once since Melanie's marriage, when I have danced with her at some State ball, or she has leaned lightly on my arm at some brilliant Court function, a recollection of the old days when we were lovers has come vividly back to me. But since that well-remembered day when she wrote telling me of her engagement, no word of love has ever been exchanged between us. I am philosopher enough to know that things are as they should be. Our love was but one of those vague dreams of the impossible which, even if followed by a flood of sorrow, do much to lighten and brighten our lives and make us better men and women. Sometimes, when she speaks to me, I fancy I detect in those dark beautiful eyes something of the old love-glance of long ago. But it is really only a foolish fancy of mine. That look is not of love, but of extreme happiness, and of confidence that I will ever be loyal to her and rigorously preserve the secret of her marriage and her tragic widowhood.
Yes, it is as it should be, even though in the lonely silence of my rooms I may sigh sometimes during those little debauches of regret that come at intervals to every man. From the very first I had regarded marriage as impossible. We had loved each other with a deep, profound, and tender affection, yet the barrier of birth was impassable—I a struggling diplomatist, and she a Hapsbourg.
The Prince and Princess Adolphe of Hohenzollern are now my warmest friends, and I am always a welcome guest at their palace. Moving in the centre of Berlin Court life as they do, her Highness is often in possession of information of highest importance to us in our constant efforts to counteract the wiles of French and Russian diplomacy. Truth to tell, therefore, to our mutual friendship is due those constant coups that we, at the British Embassy, are enabled to make, so much to the chagrin of our enemies, the two Powers who are ever seeking to outwit us, and who little dream that the information upon which we so promptly and successfully act comes direct from the private circle of the Emperor William, or that our informant is actually a Princess of the Blood Royal.
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