Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Her Majesty's Minister
William Le Queux
Chapter Twenty One.
Chapter Twenty Two.
Chapter Twenty Three.
Chapter Twenty Four.
Chapter Twenty Five.
Chapter Twenty Six.
Chapter Twenty Seven.
Chapter Twenty Eight.
Chapter Twenty Nine.
Chapter Thirty One.
Chapter Thirty Two.
Chapter Thirty Three.
Chapter Thirty Four.
Chapter Thirty Five.
Chapter Thirty Six.
Chapter Thirty Seven.
“Then, plainly speaking, the whole thing remains a mystery?”
“Absolutely,” I responded. “All my efforts have unfortunately failed.”
“And you entertain no suspicion of anyone?”
“Not of that woman Yolande—or whatever her name is?”
“Certainly not of her,” I answered quickly. “She would assist us, if necessary.”
“Why are you so sure of that? She has only been in Paris a week.”
“Because I happen to know her.”
“You know her!” exclaimed His Excellency, unclasping his thin white hands and leaning across his big writing-table—a habit of his when suddenly interested. “Is she a personal friend of yours?”
I hesitated for a moment; then replied in the affirmative.
“Where did you know her?” he inquired quickly, fixing me with that sharp pair of black eyes that shone behind the zone of soft light shed by the green-shaded reading-lamp upon the table. He was sitting in the shadow, his thin, refined face ashen grey, his hair almost white. The one spot of colour was the fine star of Knight Grand Cross of the Bath glittering on the breast of his braided diplomatic uniform. Lord Barmouth, British Ambassador to the French Republic, had just returned from the President’s reception at the Elysée, and had summoned me for consultation.
“Well,” I responded, “I knew her in Rome, among other places.”
“H’m, I thought as much,” he remarked in a dry, dubious tone. “I don’t like her, Ingram—I don’t like her;” and I knew by the impatient snap of the Ambassador’s fingers that something had displeased him.
“You’ve seen her, then?”
“Yes,” he answered in an ambiguous tone, taking up a quill and making what appeared to be geometrical designs upon his blotting-pad. “She’s good-looking—uncommonly good-looking; but I mistrust her.”
“It is part of our creed to mistrust a pretty woman,” I remarked with a smile; for, as everyone knows, the fair sex plays a prominent part in the diplomacy of Europe. “But what cause have you for suspicion?”
He was silent for a moment; then he said:
“You were not at the ball at the Austrian Embassy the night before last, I believe?”
“No, I was not back from London in time,” I replied. “Was she there?”
“Yes. She was dancing with Hartmann, and they were speaking of you. I was chatting with Olsoufieff, and distinctly overheard your name mentioned.”
“With Hartmann!” I repeated. “That’s curious. He is scarcely a friend of ours.”
“I consider the circumstance suspicious, judged by the light of recent events,” he said. “Remember that the cause of our piece of ill-fortune still remains a mystery, and the stroke of diplomacy that we intended to effect as a coup against our enemies has, by the dastardly betrayal of our secret, placed us in a very unenviable position. This untoward incident has entirely checkmated us.”
“I fully realise our critical position,” I said seriously, “and I have done my utmost to discover the truth. Kaye has been active night and day.”
“Nevertheless, I fear that at Downing Street they will say hard things of us, Ingram;” and Her Majesty’s representative sighed heavily, resting his weary head upon his hand.
The Ambassador’s office was indeed a very thankless one, while my own position as second secretary of the Paris Embassy was a post not to be envied, even though it is popularly supposed to be one of the plums of the diplomatic service. With Paris full of spies endeavouring to discover our secrets and divine our instructions from Downing Street, and the cabinet noir ever at work upon our correspondence, it behoved us to be always on the alert, and to have resort to all manner of ingenious subterfuges in order to combat our persistent enemies.
The war-cloud hangs over Europe always. The mine is laid, and the slightest spark may fire it. The duty of the diplomatist is to intrigue so as to prevent that spark. It is the intrigue that is difficult, for counter-plots are met with everywhere. The power of England is feared; hence her isolation.
Those who live at home at ease think little of the small band of Englishmen in each of the capitals who, living ever upon the edge of a volcano, are straining every nerve to preserve the peace of Europe. How often the stability of empires trembles in the balance the British public little dreams. “The European Situation” is a stock heading in the London newspapers, but fortunately the journalists never know the secrets of our embassies, otherwise the world would very often be scared. Many a time in my own diplomatic career in Rome, in Brussels, and in Vienna, had I remained awake at night, fearing on the morrow a declaration of war; yet the chiefs under whom I have worked—those honest, upright, valiant servants of Queen and country—had skilfully evaded the threatened danger, and Europe remained in ignorance of how terribly near it had been to the clash of arms.
That night, as I sat with the chief, a trusted servant of Her Majesty, in his handsome private room in the Embassy, I knew that war was in the air. The responsibility resting upon him was of a sort to involve the prestige of the Queen’s Empire and the lives of thousands of her valiant sons. An ill-advised despatch, a hasty word, or an injudicious attitude would inevitably mean the disastrous explosion so long feared—the great European war that prophets have been predicting ever since the downfall of the French Empire.
Paris that July night was stifling. To us the tension of the day had been terrible. The catastrophe so long feared seemed now upon us. There was a breathless calm in the air outside, foreboding a storm.
“Has Kaye absolutely nothing to report?” asked His Excellency, at last breaking the silence.
“He returned from Madrid at nine o’clock to-night. His journey there was futile.”
“Ah!” exclaimed His Excellency, whose thin lips closed tightly again.
Through the years that I had served under him in Rome and afterwards in Paris I had never before seen him outwardly betray the slightest apprehension. So skilled was he as a diplomatist that his sangfroid was always perfect. His motto—one that he had often impressed upon me—was that the British lion should always remain fearless of his enemies. But now, for the first time, he was plainly agitated, dreading that war might result.
“Get me out the special cipher-book,” he said hoarsely at last. “I must telephone to Downing Street.”
In obedience I rose, opened with the key upon my chain the big safe, and took out the small morocco-bound volume containing the secret cipher by means of which His Excellency could communicate with Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—a book supplied only to ambassadors themselves; and, because it is kept locked, its contents are never seen even by the staff of an embassy.
His Excellency unlocked it with his own key, took up his quill, and after searching here and there through the pages, commenced writing a bewildering row of letters and numerals intermingled, while in the meantime I had gone to the telephone instrument at the opposite end of the room and “rung up” London, until there came an answering voice from one of the night staff of the Foreign Office.
“Hulloa! I’m Ingram, of the Paris Embassy. Who are you?” I asked.
In response came a password by which I knew I was actually speaking with Downing Street.
“Is the Marquess in London, or at Alderhurst, to-night?”
“Alderhurst. He left town this afternoon.”
“Then put me on there for an important despatch.”
“All right,” was the response; and some five minutes later the tiny bell rang, with an inquiry from the private secretary of the great statesman as to what I wanted.
I answered; then, His Excellency having risen and handed me the slip of official paper on which he had printed the cipher figures heavily with his quill, I prefaced the message by the usual formal announcement:
“From Lord Barmouth, Paris, to the Most Noble the Marquess of Malvern, London. July 12th, 1:30 a.m.”
Then in continuation I read slowly and distinctly each letter and numeral, the secretary at Alderhurst afterwards repeating the whole message, so that there should be no possibility of mistake.
Nearly a quarter of an hour elapsed, during which time His Excellency, with his hands behind his back, paced feverishly up and down the room. Of the nature of that despatch I was in utter ignorance, but from his manner it was evident that the problem was one vital to the interests of the British Empire. By night, as well as by day, those responsible for the maintenance of the prestige of England as the first Empire of the world are always active. How little the public knows of the stealthy, treacherous ways of modern diplomacy, of the armies of spies seeking always to plot and counter-plot, of the base subterfuges employed by certain noted foreign diplomatists, or of the steady perseverance of the Queen’s representatives at the Courts of Europe! And how little, I fear, they care!
To most people the diplomatic career is synonymous with an easy occupation in which the wearing of a uniform and the attendance at brilliant functions are the greatest inconveniences. The newspapers flippantly criticise our actions in leading articles, and declare that our diplomacy is utterly worthless beside that of Germany, Russia, or France. Those who write, as well as those who read, never reflect that our chief duty is to foil the provocations offered to us by the Powers who are anxious for war. Every British Ambassador at a foreign Court had been told from the lips of his beloved Sovereign—now, alas! Deceased—that he must prevent war. That instruction was to him as sacred as a religion.
“The President talked for twenty minutes to-night with de Wolkenstein,” observed His Excellency, halting suddenly and facing me. “I wonder if they know anything in Vienna?”
“I think not,” I replied. “I met Count Berchtold in the Grand Café purposely this evening, and he made no mention of anything to lead me to believe that the secret was out in that direction.”
“If it is out, then it has been circulated by our friends in the Rue de Lille,” he said, meaning the German Embassy.
“Perhaps,” I responded. “But I hardly think that Count de Hindenburg would care to imperil his position by so doing. He would rather endeavour to assist us in this affair, because the interests of England and Germany are entirely mutual in this matter.”
“I tell you, Ingram,” he cried angrily—“I tell you that this dastardly piece of trickery is some woman’s work!”
As he spoke, the door suddenly opened, and there burst into the room a tall girlish figure in a pretty toilette of turquoise chiffon, wearing an open cape of handsome brocade about her shoulders.
“O father!” she cried merrily, “we’ve had such an awfully good time at the Baroness’s!” Then, next instant, astonished by his words, she drew back in quick surprise.
“What trickery is a woman’s work?” she asked, glancing inquiringly at me.
“Nothing, my dear,” His Excellency hastened to reply, placing his thin hand tenderly upon her shoulder—“nothing, at least, that concerns you.”
“But you are not well!” she cried in alarm. Then, turning to me, said: “Look, Mr. Ingram, how pale he is!”
“Your father is rather overburdened by important business,” I replied.
Her face assumed a puzzled expression. Sibyl, the pretty, dark-haired daughter of Lord Barmouth, was acknowledged on all sides to be more than usually beautiful, and was the pet of diplomatic Paris. With her mother she went everywhere in that dazzling vortex of gaiety, in which the diplomatist accredited to France is bound to move. Ah! that glare and glitter, that constant whirl, that never-ceasing music! How weary I was of it all, and how it jarred upon me!
And why? Well, to speak the truth, I myself had an affair of the heart, and my thoughts were always far from those brilliant spectacles in which I was merely an official in a braided uniform.
“What has occurred, Mr. Ingram?” asked the Ambassador’s daughter anxiously. “Father is certainly not himself to-night.”
“Another political complication,” I responded; “that is all.”
“Sibyl, my dear,” exclaimed her father, gently taking her hand, “you know that I forbid any inquiries to be made into matters which must be secret, even from you.”
“WOLF?” I CRIED QUICKLY. “RODOPHY WOLF”
“I came to tell you all about the ball,” she said, pouting. “I was introduced to a most pleasant man named Wolf, and danced with him several times.”
“Wolf!” I cried quickly. “Rodolphe Wolf?”
“That was his name. He was dark, about forty, with a small pointed black beard. Do you know him?”
“Wolf!” I repeated; then, suddenly recovering from the surprise she had caused me by uttering that name, I answered carelessly: “Perhaps it may be the same man I knew slightly some years ago.”
“We had awfully good fun. He is so amusing, but seems quite a stranger in Paris.”
I smiled inwardly. Rodolphe Wolf a stranger in Paris! The thought was amusing.
“And what was your conversation about?” I inquired of her, smiling pleasantly the while.
“You want to know whether he flirted with me, Mr. Ingram?” she laughed mischievously. “I know you of old. It really isn’t fair.”
“He said nothing to you about your father, or about the composition of his staff?” I inquired eagerly.
“And you did not mention my name?” I asked anxiously.
“No. Why? You talk as though you don’t want him to know you are in Paris.”
“You have exactly guessed my desire,” I replied. “If you meet him again, kindly oblige me by saying nothing.”
“Do not utter a word regarding matters here at the Embassy, Sibyl,” added her father seriously. “You understand?”
“Of course not. I’m a diplomat’s daughter, and can keep a secret when necessary. But tell me, father,” she added, “who is the woman of whom you were speaking when I came in?”
“It is our affair, my dear—entirely our affair,” he said in a hard voice. “It is nothing you need trouble your head over. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the ball. Say good-night, and leave us.”
“But you look quite ill,” she said with concern in her voice, stroking his heated forehead with her hand. “Cannot I get you something?”
She was a charming type of English girl, smart, accomplished, and utterly devoted to her father. That she delighted in mild flirtations here and there in the cosmopolitan circle in which she moved I was well aware, and we were such old friends that I often chaffed her about her fickleness. But that night she had met Rodolphe Wolf, of all men. The fact was strange, to say the least.
“Shall I send Harding to you?” she asked, standing there in the shadow, the diamond star in her well-dressed hair alone catching the light and gleaming with a thousand fires. The star was a parting gift to her by Queen Margherita of Italy, with whom she had been an especial favourite while her father was Ambassador in Rome.
“No,” answered His Excellency. “Please say good-night, dear, and leave us.”
Then he bent, kissed her tenderly on the brow, and dismissed her.
“Well,” she laughed poutingly, “if I am ordered off, I suppose I must go. I’m a striking example of the obedient daughter. Good-night, Mr. Ingram.”
And as I held open the door for her to pass out, she added mischievously:
“I’ll leave you to talk together over the shortcomings of my sex;” and laughing gaily she disappeared down the corridor.
“Who is this Wolf?” the Ambassador inquired quickly, as soon as I had closed the door. “I don’t seem to recollect the name.”
“I have a suspicion,” I responded. “When it is established I will explain.”
“I think so,” I said. “Your daughter should be warned against him. They had better not meet.”
“I will see to that,” he said, and the next instant the telephone-bell rang loudly, announcing the response from Alderhurst.
In a moment we were both at the instrument. Then with the receiver at my car I inquired who was there.
“Durnford, Alderhurst,” was the response. “Are you Ingram?”
I replied in the affirmative, adding the word without the receipt of which no cipher despatch is ever sent by telephone, lest some trickery should be attempted.
“Take down, then,” came the secretary’s voice from the other side of the Channel. “From the Marquess of Malvern, to His Excellency, Lord Barmouth, Paris. July 12th, 2:10 a.m.;” and then followed a long row of ciphers, each of which I carefully wrote down upon the paper before me, reading it through aloud, in order that he might compare it with his copy.
Then, when the voice from Alderhurst gave the word “End,” I hung up the receiver and gave the paper into His Excellency’s eager hands.
Those puzzling lines of letters and numerals were secret instructions from the ruler of England’s destiny, who had been called from his bed to decide one of the most critical problems of statesmanship. Truly the position of the British Minister for Foreign Affairs is no enviable one. The responsibility is the heaviest weighing upon any one man in the whole world.
His Excellency seated himself quickly at his table, and with the aid of a second book which I handed him from the safe proceeded to decipher the Chief’s despatch. With his pen he placed the equivalent beneath each cipher, and as he did so I saw that his countenance fell. He went pale as death.
“Ah!” he gasped, when he had finished the arrangement and had read the deciphered message through. “It is exactly as I feared. Never in the course of my career as Ambassador has such a serious complication arisen—never!”
I was silent. What, indeed, could I say? I well knew that he was not the man to betray the slightest emotion without good reason.
For a moment he sat there, resting his brow upon his hand, staring blankly at the paper I had given him. The nature of his secret instructions I knew not. His utter despair was sufficient to convince me, however, that a catastrophe was inevitable. Only the low ticking of the clock upon the high mantelshelf broke the painful silence. The representative of Her Majesty—one of England’s most skilled and trusted diplomats—sighed heavily, for he knew too well how black was the outlook at that moment—how, indeed, because of our mysterious betrayal, our enemies had triumphed, and how, at the other embassies, that very night the downfall of England’s power was being discussed.
“All this is a woman’s doing, I tell you!” he cried, striking the table fiercely, rising and pacing the room. “We must discover the truth—we must, you hear?”
“I am making every possible effort,” I answered; adding, “I think I have hitherto shown myself worthy of your confidence?”
“Certainly, Ingram,” he hastened to assure me. “Without you here I should not dare to act as I have done. I know that nothing escapes you. Your shrewdness is equal to that of old Sterk, the Chief of Police in Vienna.”
“You are too complimentary,” I said; “I have merely done my duty.”
“But if we could only get at the truth in this affair!”
“At present it is an absolute mystery. Only two persons were aware of the secret. You knew it, and I also knew it. And yet it is out—indeed, the very terms of the agreement are known!”
Suddenly halting, he pushed open the window, and looked out upon the hot, overcast night. Paris was still bright with her myriad electric lights, and the glaring cafés on the boulevards were still as busy as during the hour of the absinthe. The City of Pleasure never sleeps.
He leaned over the balcony, gasping for air; but in an instant I was behind him, saying:
“Someone may be watching outside. Is it really wise for you to be seen?”
“No,” he answered. “You’re right, Ingram;” and he turned back and closed the long windows opening upon the balcony. “A bold front must be maintained through all.” He walked to his table, took up the despatch, and, striking a vesta, ignited it, holding it until it was completely consumed. Then he cast the blackened tinder into the grate, growing in a single instant calm again. “You are right, Ingram,” he repeated rather hoarsely. “Our enemies must not obtain any inkling that we know the truth, if we are to effect a successful counter-plot. In this affair I detect the hand of a woman. Is not that your opinion?”
“I must admit that it is,” I responded. “I believe there is a female spy somewhere.”
“But who is she?” he cried anxiously.
“Ah!” I said, “we have yet to discover her name.”
“It is not Yolande?” he asked dubiously.
“No. Of that I feel quite certain.”
“But you are certain of nothing else?”
“All the rest is, I regret, an absolute mystery.”
There was no disguising the fact that the information which by very mysterious means had leaked out from the Embassy had created the most intense excitement in certain other foreign embassies in Paris. Kaye, the chief of our secret service in the French capital—a shrewd fellow, whose capacity for learning which way the diplomatic wind was blowing was little short of marvellous—had come to me at midnight to report that the Spanish Ambassador was exchanging frequent despatches with Madrid. That statement was sufficient to show the enemy’s hand.
For fully six months France had been scheming to obtain a naval station in the Mediterranean, and the point she coveted was Ceuta, on the Moorish coast, opposite Gibraltar. Knowledge of this caused us to exercise the most delicate diplomacy in order to thwart the conspiracy to aim a blow against England’s naval power in the Mediterranean. A week ago I had been in London, and the Marquess of Malvern himself had given me a crossed despatch to convey to my chief in Paris. This had contained certain instructions in cipher, which, on my return, I had helped to translate into English. Then the despatch was burnt by His Excellency, and we alone knew its contents. From the moment I received it in the Marquess’s private room at the Foreign Office, until the moment when I handed it over to Lord Barmouth in Paris with its five great seals intact, it had never left the pouch of chamois-leather which, when travelling with despatches, I always wore around my waist, next my skin. For spies to have obtained a copy of it was impossible. I had seen it written, and had likewise seen it destroyed. It was not likely either that the British Ambassador had himself exposed his secret instructions in a matter of such delicacy, where the greatest finesse and the most skilful diplomacy were necessary; and equally certain was it that I myself had not uttered a single word.
The secret instructions showed marvellous foresight, as did all the actions of the great statesman in whose hands rested the prestige of England among the Powers. They were briefly to show with great delicacy to the Spanish Ambassador that his Government, having regard to existing relations, had no right to sell Ceuta to any Power, and that if any attempt were made by any other Government to establish a naval station there, England would oppose it to the utmost, even to the extent of hostilities. Yet somehow, by means that formed a most puzzling enigma, these secret instructions had become instantly known to France; and even before Lord Barmouth could obtain an interview with the Marquis Leon y Castillo, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs had called at the Embassy in the Boulevard de Courcelles, and had apparently arranged a line of action. Thus England had been checkmated, and in all probability the sale of that most important strategic point in the Mediterranean had already been effected.
Kaye had been to Madrid, and his inquiries in the Spanish capital tended to confirm this theory.
Truly we were in evil case. So decisive had been His Excellency’s instructions that if he did not now vigorously protest and threaten a cessation of diplomatic negotiations it would exhibit such weakness as the British Government must never show. That motto of Lord Malvern’s, “To be strong is to avert war; to be weak is to invite it,” is ever foremost in the mind of each representative of Her Majesty at a foreign Court. Yet Lord Barmouth’s dilemma was, indeed, a serious one. He had declared the exposure of our secret due to some woman’s scheming, and suspected one person—the pretty Yolande de Foville. His suspicion of her caused me a good deal of reflection; and as I walked along the boulevard to my bachelor apartment au troisième, I pondered seriously. What, I wondered, had caused him to think ill of her? If she had danced with Hartmann, this action was surely not enough to condemn her. Yet why, I wondered, had she mentioned myself? And why, indeed, was Rodolphe Wolf, of all men, in Paris?
No, I did not like the aspect of things in the least. The night was absolutely breathless, and the asphalt of the boulevard seemed to reflect back into one’s face the heat of the sun that had blazed upon it during the day. I removed my hat, and walked with it in my hand, my brain awhirl. The spies of France had effected a coup against us, and within twenty-four hours Europe might, I knew, be convulsed by a declaration of war.
Here and there the cafés were still open, but few customers were inside. A pair of drunken roysterers staggered past me singing that catchy song of the less fashionable boulevards:
“Dansons la ronde Des marmites de Paris, Ohé! les souris! Les rongeuses de monde! Faisons sauter avec nous Nos michets et nos marlous. Dansons la ronde! Paris est à nous!”
With that single exception all was silent. From half-past three till four in the morning is the quietest period that the City of Pleasure experiences. She is dormant only one half-hour in the whole twenty-four.
Yolande was suspected of being a spy! The thought seemed absolutely absurd. She was Belgian, it was true, and there is somehow always a prejudice against Belgian women in Paris, due perhaps to the fact that although they speak French with an accent, they are often perfect linguists. But for Yolande to be actually a spy—why, the thing was ridiculous!
Arrived at my own rooms, I found Mackenzie, my old Scotch manservant, awaiting me.
“Mr. Kaye called, sir, half an hour ago,” he said. “He could not wait, for he was leaving Paris.”
“Leaving Paris?” I echoed, for the ubiquitous chief of the secret service had only come back from Madrid a few hours before.
“Yes, sir. He left you a note;” and my well-trained man drew a letter from his pocket. He always kept my letters upon his person, in order that any callers might not pry into them during my absence.
I tore open the note eagerly, and read the few scribbled lines. Next instant the paper almost fell from my fingers. I held my breath, scarcely believing my own eyes. Yet the writing was plain enough, and was as follows:
“Within the past hour I have ascertained that your friend Yolande de Foville is a secret agent. Keep strict watch upon her. I have left instructions that if she leaves Paris she is to be followed. I go to Berlin at once to make inquiries, and am leaving by the 4:30 train this morning. I have the address you gave, and the particulars concerning her. Shall return as soon as possible.
I crushed the note in my hand, and, walking on into my sitting-room, gulped down some brandy. Everything had conspired against me. When I had given Kaye those details concerning my charming little friend three years ago, I had never dreamed that he would register them and afterwards use them in an endeavour to fasten upon her a charge of being a spy. Yet he was actually on his way to Berlin, and any attempt upon my part to hinder him would only be misconstrued into a treasonable endeavour to shield her.
Upon the table before me stood her photograph in a silver frame, looking out at me. I took it up. Those eyes were so innocent that I could not bring myself to believe that any evil lurked in them. Surely she would not attempt to harm me? Such an action was absolutely contrary to any woman’s nature.
Yolande! The sound of that name brought back to me a sweet, tender memory of the past. I sighed as the recollection of that bygone day arose within me, and flung myself down into an easy-chair to smoke and to think. In the blue ascending rings from my cigarette her face seemed to smile at me with those red parted lips and merry eyes, clear and azure as a child’s. How charming and chic she had once appeared to me in those days when we had first met—in those days before I had known Edith Austin, my absent well-beloved! Her portrait, too, was there—the picture of a woman, sweet, tender, grave-faced, of similar age perhaps, but whose peerless beauty was typically English and devoid of any artificiality. I took it up and touched it reverently with my lips. I loved the original of that photograph with all the strength of my being, hoping always that some day ere long I might ask her to become my wife.
Some there are who hold the theory that to all diplomatists, ambassadors excepted, wives are an unnecessary encumbrance. I admit that there is much to be said in favour of the celibate state as the ideal existence for the secretary or attaché, who is bound, more or less, to make himself agreeable to the many cosmopolitan ladies who make up the diplomatic circle, and sometimes even to flirt with them, when occasion requires. Yet after fifteen years or so beneath the shadows of the various thrones of Europe, a man tires of the life, and longs for the one sweet woman whom he can trust and love. In this I was no exception. I loved Edith Austin with all my heart and all my soul; and she, I felt assured, reciprocated my affection.
It is part of the diplomatist’s creed to be on good terms with all and sundry of the feminine butterflies who hover about the embassies, no matter what their age or nationality. Hence it was that five years ago, while stationed at Brussels, I had become attracted by Yolande de Foville. Once, long before I met Edith, I fancied myself in love with her. Her father, Count de Foville, was aide-de-camp to King Leopold, and with her mother she moved in the best society in Paris and Brussels. On several occasions I had been invited for the boar hunting at the great gloomy old château at Houffalize, in the Ardennes forest, where the powerful de Fovilles had been seigneurs through five centuries.
It was a dull, snowbound, dreary place in winter, bare and chill, furnished in ancient style, and situated thirty miles from the nearest railway, in the midst of a flat forest country. It was, therefore, not surprising that on the death of the Count, Yolande and her mother should prefer to leave Belgium and travel in England and Italy, spending the winter at Rome or at Monte Carlo, the spring in Paris, and summer in one or other of the fashionable French watering-places. During three years we had been excellent friends, and after I had been promoted from Brussels to the Embassy in Rome, she came with her mother and spent the spring in the Eternal City, with the result that our firm friendship became even firmer. I am fain to admit that our flirtation was of the kind called desperate, and that it had ended in love.
And a week ago she had suddenly arrived in Paris at the smart little flat in the Rue de Courcelles, which her mother had possessed for years, but now so seldom occupied. Her arrival was unexpected, and I had only known of it from Giraud, the military attaché at the Belgian Legation, a friend of my Brussels days, whom I met in the Café de Paris one evening after the opera, and who had said suddenly:
“Do you, my dear Ingram, know that a little friend of yours has arrived in Paris?”
“Who?” I inquired eagerly.
“Yolande,” was the response. “You used to be her cavalier in Brussels in the old days. Have you forgotten her?”
His announcement surprised me. Since my friendship with Edith had grown to be a grand passion, I had exchanged no correspondence with Yolande. Indeed, the last I had heard of her was that she and the Countess were at Cairo spending the winter.
To tell the truth I was rather glad that she had not sought me out, for I had no wish to renew her acquaintance, now that I had found a woman in England whom I meant to try to win for my wife. Yet as I looked back at the past through the haze of my cigarette-smoke I was compelled to admit that I had spent some charming hours by her side, dancing at those brilliant balls in Brussels or driving in that pretty wood so beloved of the Bruxellois, the Bois de la Cambre. Many were the incidents that came back to me as I sat there pondering. Nevertheless, in the storehouse of memory I found nothing half sweet enough to tempt me from my love for Edith.
The denunciation of the pretty Yolande as a spy staggered belief; yet the Chief himself, as well as Kaye, was convinced, and the latter was already on his way to the north to prosecute inquiries.
What, I wondered, had really aroused their suspicions? As His Excellency had not seen Kaye since his return from Madrid, they could not have exchanged views. It seemed my duty to call and see her, to renew the acquaintance that I so strongly desired to end, and, indeed, to continue the flirtation of bygone days with a view to discovering the truth. Was it fair? Was it just? I hesitated to call upon her, half fearful lest her charm and natural chic should again attract me towards her. Nevertheless, it was my duty, as servant of my Sovereign, to attempt to discover England’s secret enemies.
The remainder of that night I spent in restless agitation, and at the Embassy early next morning showed His Excellency the note that Kaye had left for me.
“You must see her, Ingram,” he said briefly. “You must obtain her secret from her.”
“But I cannot believe that she is a secret agent!” I declared. “We were friends, and she surely would not seek to injure me?”
“Trust nobody, my dear Ingram,” answered the grave-eyed old man. “You know how unreliable women are where diplomacy is concerned. Remember the incident of the Princess Ghelarducci in Rome.”
My lips compressed themselves. He referred to a matter which, for me, was anything but a pleasant recollection. The Princess, after learning our intentions regarding Abyssinia, had openly betrayed us; and I had very foolishly thought her my friend.
“I shall call on her this afternoon,” I answered briefly. “The worst of it is that my action will lead her to think that I desire to renew the acquaintance.”
“H’m, I see,” observed His Excellency quickly, for his shrewdness had detected the truth. “You were once in love with her—eh?”
“GERALD! YOU!” SHE CRIED IN ENGLISH.
“Then don’t allow her to think that your love has cooled,” he urged. “Act diplomatically in this matter, and strive to get at the truth.”
“And deceive her?”
“Deception is permissible if she is a spy.”
“But she is not a spy,” I declared quickly.
“That remains to be seen!” he snapped. He then turned on his heel and passed into an adjoining room.
At three o’clock I presented my card at the flat in the Rue de Courcelles, and was admitted to a cosy little salon, where the persiennes were closed to keep out the blazing July sun, and the subdued light was welcome after the glare of the streets. Scarcely, however, had my eyes become accustomed to the semi-darkness, when the door suddenly opened, and I found myself face to face with the woman I had loved a few years ago.
“Gerald! You!” she cried in English, with that pretty accent which had always struck me as so charming.
Our hands clasped. I looked into her face and saw that in the two years which had elapsed she had grown even more beautiful. In a cool white dress of soft, clinging muslin, which, although simply made, bore the unmistakable stamp of a couturière of the first order, she stood before me, my hand in hers, in silence.
“So you have come to me?” she said in a strained voice. “You have come, at last?”
“You did not let me know you were in Paris,” I protested.
“Giraud told you four days ago,” she responded, “and you could not spare a single half-hour for me until to-day!” she added in a tone of reproach. “Besides, I wrote to you from Cairo, and you never replied.”
“Forgive me,” I urged—“forgive me, Yolande. It is really my fault.”
“Because you have forgotten me,” she said huskily. “Here, in Paris, you have so many distractions that memories of our old days in Brussels and at Houffalize have all been swept away. Come, admit that what I say is the truth.”
“I shall admit nothing of the kind, Yolande,” I answered, with diplomatic caution. “I only admit my surprise at finding you here in July. Why, there is nobody here except our unfortunate selves at the embassies. The boulevards are given over to the perspiring British tourist in knickerbockers and the usual week-end trippers who ‘do’ the city in a char-à-banc.”
She laughed for the first time, and seated herself upon a large settee covered with yellow silk, motioning me to a chair near her.
“It is true,” she said. “Paris is not at all pleasant just now. We are only here for frocks. In a week we go to Marienbad. And you—how are you?” and she surveyed me with her head held slightly aside in that piquante manner I knew so well.
“The same,” I laughed—“ever the same.”
“Not the same to me,” she hastened to protest.
“I might make a similar charge against yourself,” I said. “Remember, you did not tell me you were in Paris.”
“Because I thought you would know it quickly enough. I wanted, if possible, to meet you accidentally and surprise you. I went to the ball at the German Embassy, but you were not there.”
“I was in London,” I explained briefly, my thoughts reverting to the allegation against her and the unhesitating action of the wary Kaye in travelling direct to Berlin.
If there was any man in Europe who could clear up a mystery it was the indefatigable chief of the British secret service. He lived in Paris ostensibly as an English lawyer, with offices in the Boulevard des Italiens, next the Café Américain. Hence his sudden journeys hither and thither were believed to be undertaken in the interests of various clients. But although he had an Irish solicitor, O’Brien by name, to attend to the inquiries of any chance clients, the amount of legal business carried on in those offices was really nil. The place was, in fact, the headquarters of the British secret service on the Continent.
“I, too, was in England a year ago,” she said. “We were invited to a house-party up in Scotland. Mother was bored, but I had great fun. An English home seems somehow so much jollier than the houses where one visits in any other country. You know how I love the English!”
“Is that meant as a compliment?” I laughed.
“Of course,” she answered. “But English diplomatists are just as grave as those of any other nation. Your people are always full of all sorts of horrid secrets and things.”
She referred to the old days in Brussels, for she knew well the difficulties under which our diplomacy had been conducted there, owing to the eternal questions involving Egypt and the Congo.
But I laughed lightly. I did not intend that she should suspect the real motive of my call. Evidently she knew nothing of my love for Edith Austin, or she would have referred to it. Fortunately I had been able to keep it a secret from all.
“And you are actually leaving us in a week?”
I observed, for want of something else to say. “I hear that Marienbad is crowded this season.”
“We are going to visit my uncle, Prince Stolberg, who has a villa there.”
Then I asked her of our mutual friends in Brussels, and she in return retailed to me all the latest gossip concerning them. As she sat there in the subdued light, her white dress, relieved by a touch of turquoise at the wrists and waist, she presented a picture graceful, delicate, and altogether charming. I reasoned with myself as she went on chattering. No; it was not surprising that I had once fallen in love with her. She was more French than Belgian, for the days of her girlhood had been passed mostly in France; her Christian name was French, and in manner she possessed all that smartness and chic peculiar to the Parisienne. Mentally I compared her with Edith, but next instant laughed within myself. Such comparison was impossible. Their styles were as different as were their nationalities. Beside Edith, my well-beloved, the beauty of this fair-haired, gesticulating girl paled entirely, and became insipid. The Englishwoman who held me beneath the spell of her soft and truthful eyes was without a peer.
“RODOLPHE WOLF!” SHE GASPED, STARTING UP.
Still, Yolande amused me with her chatter. The reader will forgive me this admission, for in calling there I was only acting a part. I was endeavouring in the interests of my country to find out whether there was any truth in the allegation recently made against her by my friend. Of a sudden a thought crossed my mind, and I asked:
“Have you met many acquaintances since you’ve been in Paris?”
“Only Hartmann and some of the people at the Legation,” she responded. “We are just going to five o’clock with the Princess Olsoufieff this afternoon.”
“There is an old friend of yours just arrived,” I said. “Have you met him?”
“An old friend?” she echoed in surprise. “Man or woman?”
“A man,” I answered. “Rodolphe Wolf.”
“Rodolphe Wolf!” she gasped, starting up, the colour dying from her lips in an instant. “Rodolphe Wolf in Paris—impossible!”
“He was at the Baroness de Chalencon’s last night,” I said quite calmly, watching her face the while.
Her sudden fear and surprise made plain a fact of which I had not before been aware—namely, that there was something more than a casual link between them. Years ago, when in Brussels, I had suspected Wolf of being a secret agent, and the fact that she was closely acquainted with him appeared to prove that my Chief’s suspicion was not unfounded.
She had risen. Her hands were trembling, and although she strove desperately to betray to me no outward sign of agitation, she was compelled to support herself by clutching the small table at her side. Her countenance was blanched to the lips. She presented the appearance of one haunted by some terrible dread.
“Wolf!” she gasped again, as though speaking to herself. Then, turning to me, she stretched forth both her hands, and, looking earnestly into my eyes, cried in wild desperation: “Gerald, save me! For the sake of our love of the old days, save me!”
“From what?” I cried, jumping up and catching her by both hands. “Tell me, Yolande. If I can assist you I certainly will. Why are you so distressed?”
She was silent, with one trembling hand pressed upon her heart, as though to stay its wild, tumultuous beating.
“No,” she said in a hoarse whisper, “it is useless—all useless.”
“But if you are in distress I can surely help you,” I said.
“Alas! you cannot,” she answered in despair. “You do not know—you cannot understand.”
“Why not tell me? Confide in me,” I urged.
“No,” she replied. “I am very foolish—forgive me;” and she tried to smile.
“The news that Wolf is here has upset you,” I said. “Why?”
“He has escaped.”
I was silent. I knew not what to say. This declaration of hers was strange. It was startling news to me that Rodolphe Wolf had been in prison.
“You have asked me to save you,” I said, reverting to her wild supplication. “I will do so willingly if you only tell me how.”
“It is impossible,” she said in a broken voice, shaking her head mournfully. “By what you have told me I am forewarned.”
A deep sigh escaped her, and I saw that her fingers worked restlessly in the palms of her hands. She was desperate.
“Can I do absolutely nothing?” I asked in a tone of sympathy, placing my hand tenderly upon her shoulder.
“Nothing,” she answered in a hoarse whisper. “I am not fit to talk further. Let us say good-bye.”
“Then you prefer that I should leave you?”
“Yes,” she said, holding out her hand. “Forgive me for this, but I want to go to my own room to think. What you have told me has upset me.”
“Tell me plainly—you fear that man?”
She nodded in the affirmative.
“And you will not allow me either to advise or to assist you?”
“No,” she said hoarsely. “Go, Gerald. Leave me! When we meet again I shall be calmer than I am now.”
Her face was deathly pale; her eyes had a distinct look of terror in them.
“Very well,” I answered when again she had urged me to leave her; “if you insist, I will go. But remember that if I can be of service, Yolande, I am ready at once to render you assistance. Good-bye,” and I pressed her hand in sympathy.
She burst into tears.
“Farewell,” she faltered.
Then I turned, and, bowing, went forth into the glaring sunshine of the boulevard.
She had virtually admitted a close acquaintance with a man upon whom distinct suspicion rested, and her actions had been those of a guilty woman. My thoughts were full of that interview and its painful ending as I walked back towards the Embassy.
A Curious Story.
There was war in the air. At the Embassy we could not conceal from ourselves the seriousness of the situation. From hour to hour we were living in dread lest diplomatic negotiations should be broken off with the French Republic. We had discovered what seemed very much like a conspiracy against England, and as an energetic protest it appeared quite possible that the Marquess of Malvern might order my Chief to leave Paris. This would mean a rupture of diplomatic relations, and in all probability war.
Never in the history of modern Europe had there been a day so critical as that blazing, well-remembered one in mid-July. There were ugly rumours of complications in the Transvaal. The fate of certain nations trembled in the balance. In every capital diplomatists were active, some striving to force war, others endeavouring to prevent it. A diplomatist’s life is assuredly no sinecure. The British public, as I have said before, little dreams of the constant anxiety and terrible tension which are parts of the daily life of its faithful servants abroad.
On my return to the Embassy I found that some important despatches had been brought from London by Anderson, the foreign service messenger.
He was sitting in my room smoking a cigarette, and awaiting me in order to obtain the receipt for his despatch-box. A tall, round-faced, merry man of middle age, he was an especial favourite in all the embassies as far as Teheran. A thorough cosmopolitan and man of the world, he had resigned his commission in the Scots Greys to become one of that half-dozen of the greyhounds of Europe known as Queen’s messengers.
“Well, Anderson,” I exclaimed, shaking his hand on entering, “what’s the news from Downing Street?”
“Oh, nothing very fresh,” he laughed, sinking back in his chair again, and passing me over the receipt for signature. “Old Tuite, of the Treaty Department, has retired on his pension this week. That’s about all that’s new. The Chief, however, seems busy. I’m loaded with despatches.”
“Vienna and Constantinople. I leave by the Orient express in an hour’s time,” he answered, with a glance at his watch.
“Then you’re getting over a little ground just now?” I laughed.
“A little ground!” he echoed. “Well, I’ve been two trips to Petersburg this month, twice here to Paris, and once to Vienna. I’ve only slept one night in London since the 1st.”
“You’re a bit sick of it, I should think,” I observed, looking at the round face lit up by its pair of merry grey eyes. He was an easy-going fellow; his good-humour never seemed ruffled.
“Oh, it agrees with me,” he laughed lightly. “I don’t care as long as I get the monthly run to Teheran now and then. That’s a bit of a change, you know, after these everlasting railways, with their stuffy sleeping-cars and abominable arrangements for giving a man indigestion.”
I examined the box to see that the seals affixed in Downing Street were intact, then signed the receipt and handed it back to him.
Of the corps of Queen’s messengers—nicknamed “the greyhounds” because of the badge which each wears suspended round his neck and concealed beneath his cravat, a silver greyhound surmounted by the Royal arms—Captain Jack Anderson was the most popular. A welcome guest at every embassy or legation, he was on friendly terms with the whole staff, from the Ambassador himself down to the hall-porter, and he carried the gossip of the embassies to and fro across Europe. From him we all gathered news of our old colleagues in other capitals—of their joys and their sorrows, their difficulties and their junketings. His baggage being by international courtesy free from Customs’ examination, he oft-times carried with him a new frock for an ambassador’s wife or daughter—a service which always put him high in the good graces of the feminine portion of the diplomatic circle.
“Kaye seems bobbing about pretty much,” he observed, handing me his cigarette-case. Anderson’s cigarettes were well known for their excellence, for he purchased them at a shop in Petersburg, and often distributed a box in one or other of the embassies. “I met him a week ago on board the Calais boat, and two days later I came across him in the buffet down at Bâle. He was, however, as close as an oyster.”
“Of course. It isn’t likely that he’d talk very much,” I remarked. “His profession is to know everything, and at the same time to affect ignorance. He went to Berlin last night.”
“We had breakfast together in the early morning at Bâle, and he questioned me closely about a friend of yours.”
“A lady—Mademoiselle de Foville. You remember her in Brussels, don’t you?”
“Mademoiselle de Foville!” I echoed. The denunciation of her as a secret agent instantly flashed through my mind.
“Yes, you were extremely friendly with her in Brussels,” he went on. “Don’t you recollect that you introduced me to her one evening at an al-fresco concert in the Vauxhall Gardens, where we sat together for quite a long time chatting?”
“I remember distinctly,” I responded. Every detail of that balmy summer night in those gaily illuminated gardens came back to me in that moment. I loved Yolande in those long-past days. “And what did Kaye want to know regarding her?”
“He asked me whether I had ever met her, and I told him that you had once introduced us.”
“Oh, nothing much else. He remarked how very charming she was—a verdict in which we both agreed. Have you seen her lately?”
I hesitated for a moment.
“Yes, she’s here, in Paris.”
He bent forward quickly, regarding me curiously.
“That’s strange. How long has she been here?” he inquired with a rather puzzled look.
“Only a few days. I did not know that she was here till yesterday,” I replied with affected carelessness.
“Ah, I thought she could not have been here long.”
“Because only a week ago she travelled in the same compartment as myself between Berlin and Cologne.”
“And did you claim acquaintance with her?” I inquired quickly.
“No. She had a companion with her—a pimply-faced, ugly Johnnie, whom I took to be a German. They spoke in German all the time.”
Could it be, I wondered, that Yolande and her companion had travelled with Anderson with some evil intent?
“Didn’t you speak to them?”
“The man tried to open a conversation with me, but I pretended to be Italian, without any knowledge of German or English, so he didn’t get very far. To affect Italian is generally a sure game, for so few people speak it in comparison with those who know other Continental languages.”
“You wanted to overhear their conversation—eh?”
“I wanted to ascertain what their game was,” answered the Queen’s messenger. “They eyed my despatch-box very curiously; and it was to me an extremely suspicious circumstance that although they joined the train at Berlin they did not enter my compartment until an hour later, when the express stopped to change engines.”
“You were alone?”
“Yes, and it was at night,” he answered, adding: “To me it was also a curious circumstance that only three days afterwards Kaye should become so deeply interested in her. I had never seen her from that night in Brussels until we had met in the train, but I’ve a good memory for faces. I can swear I was not mistaken.”
“You speak as though you suspected her,” I said, looking straight into his ruddy countenance, which had grown unusually serious while we had been speaking.
“Well, to tell the truth, I did suspect her,” he responded. “I didn’t half like the look of the man. He was well-dressed, but as you know I’ve always a sharp eye where my fellow-travellers are concerned, and I felt certain that there was something shady about him. They shifted about all night, and were constantly watching to see whether I had gone to sleep. But all their watching was without reward. Jack Anderson never sleeps while he has a crossed despatch upon him;” and he blew a cloud of smoke upward from his lips.
“But surely you don’t think that their intention was to steal your despatches?” I cried.
“They were welcome to the whole collection in the box,” he laughed. “They were only consular reports and necessary evils of that sort. What they wanted was the crossed despatch from Berlin that I had in my belt next my skin.”
“They made no attempt to get at it?”
“Yes, they did. That’s just where my suspicion was proved.”
“How?” I asked breathlessly, bending eagerly towards him.