A fair, delicately-molded hand, on which glittered gems worth a raja’s loyalty, was extended in the direction of the sea.
Half a mile out, where the light ripples melted away into a blue and white haze upon the water, a small black smudge, like the back of a porpoise, seemed to be sliding along the surface.
But it was not a porpoise, for out of it there rose a thin, black shaft, scarcely higher than a flag-staff, and from the top of this thin shaft there trickled a faint wreathing line of smoke, just visible against the background of sky and sea.
“It is a submarine! What is it doing there?”
The exclamation, followed by the question, came from the second, perhaps the fairer, of two women of gracious and beautiful presence, who were pacing, arm linked in arm, along a marble terrace overlooking a famous northern strait.
The terrace on which they stood formed part of a stately palace, built by a king of the North who loved to retire in the summer time from his bustling capital, and gather his family around him in this romantic home.
From here, as from a watch-tower, could be seen the fleets of empires, the crowded shipping of many a rich port and the humbler craft of the fisherman, passing and repassing all day long between the great inland sea of the North and the broad western ocean.
Along this narrow channel had once swept the long ships of the Vikings, setting forth on those terrible raids which devastated half Europe and planted colonies in England and France and far-off Italy. But to-day the scene was a scene of peace. The martial glory of the Dane had departed. The royal castle that stood there as if to guard the strait had become a rendezvous of emperors and queens and princes, who took advantage of its quiet precincts to lay aside the pomp of rule, and perhaps to bind closer those alliances of sovereigns which serve to temper the fierce rivalries of their peoples.
The pair who stood gazing, one with curiosity and wonder, the other with an interest of a more painful character, at the sinister object on the horizon, were imperial sisters. Born in the tiny sea kingdom, they had lived to wear the crowns of the greatest two realms the world has ever seen, two empires which between them covered half the surface of our planet, and included one-third of its inhabitants.
But though sundered in interests they were not divided in affection. As they stood side by side, still linked together, it was evident that no common sympathy united them.
The one who had been first to draw attention to the mysterious craft, and whose dress showed somber touches which spoke of widowhood, answered her sister’s question:
“I never see one of those vessels without a shudder. I have an instinct which warns me that they are destined to play a dangerous, perhaps a fatal, part in the future. What is that boat doing here, in Danish waters?—I do not know. But it can be here for no good. If a war ever broke out in which we were concerned, the Sound would be our first line of defense on the west. It would be mined, by us, perhaps; if not, by our enemy. Who can tell whether that submarine has not been sent out by some Power which is already plotting against peace, to explore the bed of the strait, with a view to laying down mines hereafter?”
The other Empress listened with a grave countenance.
“I hope your fears are not well founded. I can think of no Power that is ever likely to attack you. It is my nephew, or rather those who surround him, from whom the signal for war is likely to come, if it ever does come.”
The widowed Empress bowed her head.
“You know what my hopes and wishes are,” she answered. “If my son listened to me there would be no fear of his departing from the peaceful ways of my dear husband. But there are secret influences always at work, as stealthy in their nature as that very craft——”
The speaker paused as she glanced ’round in search of the black streak and gray smoke-wreath which had attracted her notice a minute before. But she looked in vain.
Like a phantom the submarine had disappeared, leaving no trace of its presence.
The Empress uttered an ejaculation of dismay, which was echoed by her sister.
“Where is it now? Where did it go? Has it sunk, or has it gone back to where it came from?”
To these questions there could be no answer. The smooth waters glistened in the sunlight as merrily as if no threatening craft was gliding beneath the surface on some errand fraught with danger to the world.
“Perhaps they saw they were observed, and dived under for concealment,” suggested the second Empress.
Her sister sighed gently.
“I was telling you that that submarine was a type of the secret dangers which beset us. I know, beyond all doubt, that there are men in the innermost circle of the Court, men who have my son’s ear, and can do almost what they like with him, who are at heart longing for a great war, and are always working underground to bring it about. And if they succeed, and we are taken unprepared by a stronger foe, there will be a revolution which may cost my son his throne, if not his life.”
There was a brief silence. Then the Empress who had listened to this declaration murmured in a low voice:
“Heaven grant that the war is not one between you and us!”
“Heaven grant it!” was the fervent reply. And then, after a moment’s reflection, the widowed Empress added in an eager voice:
“But we—cannot we do something to avert such a fearful calamity?”
Her sister pressed her arm as though to assure her of sympathy.
“Yes, yes,” the other continued. “We can do much if we will. Though my son does not always take my advice, he has never yet refused to listen to me. And in moments of grave stress he sometimes consults me of his own accord. And I know that you, too, have influence. Your people worship you. Your husband——”
The Western Empress interrupted gently:
“I cannot play the part that you play. I do not claim the right to be consulted, or to give direct advice. Do not ask me to step outside my sphere. I can give information; I can be a channel sometimes between your Court and ours, a channel which you can trust as I fear you cannot always trust your ministers and diplomatic agents. More than that I should not like to promise.”
“But that is very much,” was the grateful response. “That may be quite enough. Provided we can arrange a code by which I can always communicate with you safely and secretly, it may be possible to avert war at any time.”
“What do you propose?”
“It is very simple. If any crisis comes about through no fault of my son’s—if the party who are conspiring to make a war arrange some unexpected coup which we could not foresee or prevent—and if I am sure that my son sincerely desires peace, I can send you a message—one word will be enough—which you can take as an assurance that we mean to put ourselves right with you, and to thwart the plotters.”
The Western Empress bowed her head.
“I accept the mission. And the word—what shall it be?”
The other glanced ’round the horizon once more, and then, bending her lips to her imperial sister’s ear, whispered a single word.
The two great women who had just exchanged a pledge for the peace of the world were moving slowly along the terrace again, when the Western sister said, thoughtfully,
“I think I know another way to aid you.”
The Eastern Empress halted, and gazed at her with eagerness.
“I know the difficulties that surround you,” her sister pursued, “and that the greatest of them all is having no one in your service whom you can entirely and absolutely trust.”
“That is so,” was the mournful admission.
“Now I have heard of a man—I have never actually employed him myself, but I have heard of him from those who have, and they tell me he is incorruptible. In addition, he is a man who has never experienced the sensation of fear, and his abilities are so great that he has been called in to solve almost every problem of international politics that has arisen in recent years.”
“But this man—how can he be obtained?”
“At present he is retained in our secret service. I must not conceal from you that he is partly a Pole by descent, and as such he has no love for your Empire. But if it were made clear to him that in serving you he was serving us, and defeating the designs of the anti-popular and despotic clique at your Court, I feel sure he would consent to place himself at your disposal.”
The Eastern Empress listened intently to her sister’s words. At the close she said,
“Thank you. I will try this man, if you can prevail on him to come to me. What is his name?”
“I expect you must have heard of him already, It is——”
The second Empress nodded.
No more was said.
The two imperial figures passed away along the terrace, silhouetted against the red and stormy sunset sky, like two ministering spirits of peace brooding over a battleground of blood.