THE DEVIL'S PAW
By E. Phillips Oppenheim
The two men, sole occupants of the somewhat shabby cottage parlour, lingered over their port, not so much with the air of wine lovers, but rather as human beings and intimates, perfectly content with their surroundings and company. Outside, the wind was howling over the marshes, and occasional bursts of rain came streaming against the window panes. Inside at any rate was comfort, triumphing over varying conditions. The cloth upon the plain deal table was of fine linen, the decanter and glasses were beautifully cut; there were walnuts and, in a far Corner, cigars of a well-known brand and cigarettes from a famous tobacconist. Beyond that little oasis, however, were all the evidences of a hired abode. A hole in the closely drawn curtains was fastened together by a safety pin. The horsehair easy-chairs bore disfiguring antimacassars, the photographs which adorned the walls were grotesque but typical of village ideals, the carpet was threadbare, the closed door secured by a latch instead of the usual knob. One side of the room was littered with golf clubs, a huge game bag and several boxes of cartridges. Two shotguns lay upon the remains of a sofa. It scarcely needed the costume of Miles Furley, the host, to demonstrate the fact that this was the temporary abode of a visitor to the Blakeney marshes in search of sport.
Furley, broad-shouldered, florid, with tanned skin and grizzled hair, was still wearing the high sea boots and jersey of the duck shooter. His companion, on the other hand, a tall, slim man, with high forehead, clear eyes, stubborn jaw, and straight yet sensitive mouth, wore the ordinary dinner clothes of civilisation. The contrast between the two men might indeed have afforded some ground for speculation as to the nature of their intimacy. Furley, a son of the people, had the air of cultivating, even clinging to a certain plebeian strain, never so apparent as when he spoke, or in his gestures. He was a Member of Parliament for a Labour constituency, a shrewd and valuable exponent of the gospel of the working man. What he lacked in the higher qualities of oratory he made up in sturdy common sense. The will-o'-the-wisp Socialism of the moment, with its many attendant "isms" and theories, received scant favour at his hands. He represented the solid element in British Labour politics, and it was well known that he had refused a seat in the Cabinet in order to preserve an absolute independence. He had a remarkable gift of taciturnity, which in a man of his class made for strength, and it was concerning him that the Prime Minister had made his famous epigram, that Furley was the Labour man whom he feared the most and dreaded the least.
Julian Orden, with an exterior more promising in many respects than that of his friend, could boast of no similar distinctions. He was the youngest son of a particularly fatuous peer resident in the neighbourhood, had started life as a barrister, in which profession he had attained a moderate success, had enjoyed a brief but not inglorious spell of soldiering, from which he had retired slightly lamed for life, and had filled up the intervening period in the harmless occupation of censoring. His friendship with Furley appeared on the surface too singular to be anything else but accidental. Probably no one save the two men themselves understood it, and they both possessed the gift of silence.
"What's all this peace talk mean?" Julian Orden asked, fingering the stem of his wineglass.
"Who knows?" Furley grunted. "The newspapers must have their daily sensation."
"I have a theory that it is being engineered."
"Bolo business, eh?"
Julian Orden moved in his place a little uneasily. His long, nervous fingers played with the stick which stood always by the side of his chair.
"You don't believe in it, do you?" he asked quietly.
Furley looked straight ahead of him. His eyes seemed caught by the glitter of the lamplight upon the cut-glass decanter.
"You know my opinion of war, Julian," he said. "It's a filthy, intolerable heritage from generations of autocratic government. No democracy ever wanted war. Every democracy needs and desires peace."
"One moment," Julian interrupted. "You must remember that a democracy seldom possesses the imperialistic spirit, and a great empire can scarcely survive without it."
"Arrant nonsense!" was the vigorous reply. "A great empire, from hemisphere to hemisphere, can be kept together a good deal better by democratic control. Force is always the arriere pensee of the individual and the autocrat."
"These are generalities," Julian declared. "I want to know your opinion about a peace at the present moment."
"Not having any, thanks. You're a dilettante journalist by your own confession, Julian, and I am not going to be drawn."
"There is something in it, then?"
"Maybe," was the careless admission. "You're a visitor worth having, Julian. '70 port and homegrown walnuts! A nice little addition to my simple fare! Must you go back to-morrow?"
"We've another batch of visitors coming,—Stenson amongst them, by the bye."
Furley nodded. His eyes narrowed, and little lines appeared at their corners.
"I can't imagine," he confessed. "What brings Stenson down to Maltenby. I should have thought that your governor and he could scarcely spend ten minutes together without quarrelling!"
"They never do spend ten minutes together alone," Julian replied drily. "I see to that. Then my mother, you know, has the knack of getting interesting people together. The Bishop is coming, amongst others. And, Furley, I wanted to ask you—do you know anything of a young woman—she is half Russian, I believe—who calls herself Miss Catherine Abbeway?"
"Yes, I know her," was the brief rejoinder.
"She lived in Russia for some years, it seems," Julian continued. "Her mother was Russian—a great writer on social subjects."
"Miss Abbeway is rather that way herself," he remarked. "I've heard her lecture in the East End. She has got hold of the woman's side of the Labour question as well as any one I ever came across."
"She is a most remarkably attractive young person," Julian declared pensively.
"Yes, she's good-looking. A countess in her own right, they tell me, but she keeps her title secret for fear of losing influence with the working classes. She did a lot of good down Poplar way. Shouldn't have thought she'd have been your sort, Julian."
Julian smiled—rather a peculiar, introspective smile.
"I, too, can, be serious sometimes," he said.
His friend thrust his hands into his trousers pocket and, leaning back in his chair, looked steadfastly at his guest.
"I believe you can, Julian," he admitted. "Sometimes I am not quite sure that I understand you. That's the worst of a man with the gift for silence."
"You're not a great talker yourself," the younger man reminded his host.
"When you get me going on my own subject," Furley remarked, "I find it hard to stop, and you are a wonderful listener. Have you got any views of your own? I never hear them."
Julian drew the box of cigarettes towards him.
"Oh, yes, I've views of my own," he confessed. "Some day, perhaps, you shall know what they are."
"A man of mystery!" his friend jeered good-naturedly.
Julian lit his cigarette and watched the smoke curl upward.
"Let's talk about the duck," he suggested.
The two men sat in silence for some minutes. Outside, the storm seemed to have increased in violence. Furley rose, threw a log on to the fire and resumed his place.
"Geese flew high," he remarked.
"Too high for me," Julian confessed.
"You got one more than I did."
"Sheer luck. The outside bird dipped down to me."
Furley filled his guest's glass and then his own.
"What on earth have you kept your shooting kit on for?" the latter asked, with lazy curiosity.
Furley glanced down at his incongruous attire and seemed for a moment ill at ease.
"I've got to go out presently," he announced.
Julian raised his eyebrows.
"Got to go out?" he repeated. "On a night like this? Why, my dear fellow—"
He paused abruptly. He was a man of quick perceptions, and he realised his host's embarrassment. Nevertheless, there was an awkward pause in the conversation. Furley rose to his feet and frowned. He fetched a jar of tobacco from a shelf and filled his pouch deliberately:
"Sorry to seem mysterious, old chap," he said. "I've just a bit of a job to do. It doesn't amount to anything, but—well, it's the sort of affair we don't talk about much."
"Well, you're welcome to all the amusement you'll get out of it, a night like this."
Furley laid down his pipe, ready-filled, and drank off his port.
"There isn't much amusement left in the world, is there, just now?" he remarked gravely.
"Very little indeed. It's three years since I handled a shotgun before to-night."
"You've really chucked the censoring?"
"Last week. I've had a solid year at it."
"Not exactly that. My own work accumulated so."
"Briefs coming along, eh?"
"I'm a sort of hack journalist as well, as you reminded me just now," Julian explained a little evasively.
"I wonder you stuck at the censoring so long. Isn't it terribly tedious?"
"Sometimes. Now and then we come across interesting things, though. For instance, I discovered a most original cipher the other day."
"Did it lead to anything?" Furley asked curiously.
"Not at present. I discovered it, studying a telegram from Norway. It was addressed to a perfectly respectable firm of English timber merchants who have an office in the city. This was the original: 'Fir planks too narrow by half.' Sounds harmless enough, doesn't it?"
"Absolutely. What's the hidden meaning?"
"There I am still at a loss," Julian confessed, "but treated with the cipher it comes out as 'Thirty-eight steeple on barn.'"
Furley stared for a moment, then he lit his pipe.
"Well, of the two," he declared, "I should prefer the first rendering for intelligibility."
"So would most people," Julian assented, smiling, "yet I am sure there is something in it—some meaning, of course, that needs a context to grasp it."
"Have you interviewed the firm of timber merchants?"
"Not personally. That doesn't come into my department. The name of the man who manages the London office, though, is Fenn—Nicholas Fenn."
Furley withdrew the pipe from his mouth. His eyebrows had come together in a slight frown.
"Nicholas Fenn, the Labour M.P.?"
"That's the fellow. You know him, of course?"
"Yes, I know him," Furley replied thoughtfully. "He is secretary of the Timber Trades Union and got in for one of the divisions of Hull last year."
"I understand that there is nothing whatever against him personally," Julian continued, "although as a politician he is of course beneath contempt. He started life as a village schoolmaster and has worked his way up most creditably. He professed to understand the cable as it appeared in its original form. All the same, it's very odd that, treated by a cipher which I got on the track of a few days previously, this same message should work out as I told you."
"Of course," Furley observed, "ciphers can lead you—"
He stopped short. Julian, who had been leaning over towards the cigarette bog, glanced around at his friend. There was a frown on Furley's forehead. He withdrew his pipe from between his teeth.
"What did you say you made of it?" he demanded.
"'Thirty-eight steeple on barn.'"
"Thirty-eight! That's queer!"
"Why is it queer?"
There was a moment's silence. Furley glanced at the little clock upon the mantelpiece. It was five and twenty minutes past nine.
"I don't know whether you have ever heard, Julian," he said, "that our enemies on the other side of the North Sea are supposed to have divided the whole of the eastern coast of Great Britain into small, rectangular districts, each about a couple of miles square. One of our secret service chaps got hold of a map some time ago."
"No, I never heard this," Julian acknowledged. "Well?"
"It's only a coincidence, of course," Furley went on, "but number thirty-eight happens to be the two-mile block of seacoast of which this cottage is just about the centre. It stretches to Cley on one side and Salthouse on the other, and inland as far as Dutchman's Common. I am not suggesting that there is any real connection between your cable and this fact, but that you should mention it at this particular moment—well, as I said, it's a coincidence."
Furley had risen to his feet. He threw open the door and listened for a moment in the passage. When he came back he was carrying some oilskins.
"Julian," he said, "I know you area bit of a cynic about espionage and that sort of thing. Of course, there has been a terrible lot of exaggeration, and heaps of fellows go gassing about secret service jobs, all the way up the coast from here to Scotland, who haven't the least idea what the thing means. But there is a little bit of it done, and in my humble way they find me an occasional job or two down here. I won't say that anything ever comes of our efforts—we're rather like the special constables of the secret service—but just occasionally we come across something suspicious."
"So that's why you're going out again to-night, is it?"
"This is my last night. I am off up to town on Monday and sha'n't be able to get down again this season."
"Had any adventures?"
"Not the ghost of one. I don't mind admitting that I've had a good many wettings and a few scares on that stretch of marshland, but I've never seen or heard anything yet to send in a report about. It just happens, though, that to-night there's a special vigilance whip out."
"What does that mean?" Julian enquired curiously.
"Something supposed to be up," was the dubious reply. "We've a very imaginative chief, I might tell you."
"But what sort of thing could happen?" Julian persisted. "What are you out to prevent, anyway?"
Furley relit his pipe, thrust a flask into his pocket, and picked up a thick stick from a corner of the room.
"Can't tell," he replied laconically. "There's an idea, of course, that communications are carried on with the enemy from somewhere down this coast. Sorry to leave you, old fellow," he added. "Don't sit up. I never fasten the door here. Remember to look after your fire upstairs, and the whisky is on the sideboard here."
"I shall be all right, thanks," Julian assured his host. "No use my offering to come with you, I suppose?"
"Not allowed," was the brief response.
"Thank heavens!" Julian exclaimed piously, as a storm of rain blew in through the half-open door. "Good night and good luck, old chap!"
Furley's reply was drowned in the roar of wind. Julian secured the door, underneath which a little stream of rain was creeping in. Then he returned to the sitting room, threw a log upon the fire, and drew one of the ancient easy-chairs close up to the blaze.
Julian, notwithstanding his deliberate intention of abandoning himself to an hour's complete repose, became, after the first few minutes of solitude, conscious of a peculiar and increasing sense of restlessness. With the help of a rubber-shod stick which leaned against his chair, he rose presently to his feet and moved about the room, revealing a lameness which had the appearance of permanency. In the small, white-ceilinged apartment his height became more than ever noticeable, also the squareness of his shoulders and the lean vigour of his frame. He handled his gun for a moment and laid it down; glanced at the card stuck in the cheap looking glass, which announced that David Grice let lodgings and conducted shooting parties; turned with a shiver from the contemplation of two atrocious oleographs, a church calendar pinned upon the wall, and a battered map of the neighbourhood, back to the table at which he had been seated. He selected a cigarette and lit it. Presently he began to talk to himself, a habit which had grown upon him during the latter years of a life whose secret had entailed a certain amount of solitude.
"Perhaps," he murmured, "I am psychic. Nevertheless, I am convinced that something is happening, something not far away."
He stood for a while, listening intently, the cigarette burning away between his fingers. Then, stooping a little, he passed out into the narrow passage and opened the door into the kitchen behind, from which the woman who came to minister to their wants had some time ago departed. Everything was in order here and spotlessly neat. He climbed the narrow staircase, looked in at Furley's room and his own, and at the third apartment, in which had been rigged up a temporary bath. The result was unilluminating. He turned and descended the stairs.
"Either," he went on, with a very slight frown, "I am not psychic, or whatever may be happening is happening out of doors."
He raised the latch of the door, under which a little pool of water was now standing, and leaned out. There seemed to be a curious cessation of immediate sounds. From somewhere straight ahead of him, on the other side of that black velvet curtain of darkness, came the dull booming of the wind, tearing across the face of the marshes; and beyond it, beating time in a rhythmical sullen roar, the rise and fall of the sea upon the shingle. But near at hand, for some reason, there was almost silence. The rain had ceased, the gale for a moment had spent itself. The strong, salty moisture was doubly refreshing after the closeness of the small, lamplit room. Julian lingered there for several moments.
"Nothing like fresh air," he muttered, "for driving away fancies."
Then he suddenly stiffened. He leaned forward into the dark, listening. This time there was no mistake. A cry, faint and pitiful though it was, reached his ears distinctly.
"Coming, old chap," he shouted. "Wait until I get a torch."
He stepped quickly back into the sitting room, drew an electric torch from the drawer of the homely little chiffonier and, regardless of regulations, stepped once more out into the darkness, now pierced for him by that single brilliant ray. The door opened on to a country road filled with gleaming puddles. On the other side of the way was a strip of grass, sloping downwards; then a broad dyke, across which hung the remains of a footbridge. The voice came from the water, fainter now but still eager. Julian hurried forward, fell on his knees by the side of the dyke and, passing his hands under his friend's shoulders, dragged him out of the black, sluggish water.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "What happened, Miles? Did you slip?"
"The bridge gave way when I was half across," was the muttered response. "I think my leg's broken. I fell in and couldn't get clear—just managed to raise my head out of the water and cling to the rail."
"Hold tight," Julian enjoined. "I'm going to drag you across the road. It's the best I can do."
They reached the threshold of the sitting room.
"Sorry, old chap," faltered Furley—and fainted.
He came to himself in front of the sitting-room fire, to find his lips wet with brandy and his rescuer leaning over him. His first action was to feel his leg.
"That's all right," Julian assured him. "It isn't broken. I've been over it carefully. If you're quite comfortable, I'll step down to the village and fetch the medico. It isn't a mile away."
"Don't bother about the doctor for a moment," Furley begged. "Listen to me. Take your torch—go out and examine that bridge. Come back and tell me what's wrong with it."
"What the dickens does that matter?" Julian objected. "It's the doctor we want. The dyke's flooded, and I expect the supports gave way."
"Do as I ask," Furley insisted. "I have a reason."
Julian rose to his feet, walked cautiously to the edge of the dyke, turned on his light, and looked downwards. One part of the bridge remained; the other was caught in the weeds, a few yards down, and the single plank which formed its foundation was sawn through, clean and straight. He gazed at it for a moment in astonishment. Then he turned back towards the cottage, to receive another shock. About forty yards up the lane, drawn in close to a straggling hedge, was a small motor-car, revealed to him by a careless swing of his torch. He turned sharply towards it, keeping his torch as much concealed as possible. It was empty—a small coupe of pearl-grey—a powerful two-seater, with deep, cushioned seats and luxuriously fitted body. He flashed his torch on to the maker's name and returned thoughtfully to his friend.
"Miles," he confessed, as he entered the sitting room, "there are some things I will never make fun of again. Have you a personal enemy here?"
"Not one," replied Furley. "The soldiers, who are all decent fellows, the old farmer at the back, and your father and mother are the only people with whom I have the slightest acquaintance in these parts."
"The bridge has been deliberately sawn through," Julian announced gravely.
Furley nodded. He seemed prepared for the news.
"There is something doing in this section, then," he muttered. "Julian, will you take my job on?"
"Like a bird," was the prompt response. "Tell me exactly what to do?"
Furley sat up, still nursing his leg.
"Put on your sea boots, and your oilskins over your clothes," he directed. "You will want your own stick, so take that revolver and an electric torch. You can't get across the remains of the bridge, but about fifty yards down to the left, as you leave the door, the water's only about a foot deep. Walk through it, scramble up the other side, and come back again along the edge of the dyke until you come to the place where one lands from the broken bridge. Is that clear?"
"After that, you go perfectly straight along a sort of cart track until you come to a gate. When you have passed through it, you must climb a bank on your lefthand side and walk along the top. It's a beastly path, and there are dykes on either side of you."
"Pooh!" Julian exclaimed. "You forget that I am a native of this part of the world."
"You come to a sort of stile at the end of about three hundred yards," Furley continued. "You get over that, and the bank breaks up into two. You keep to the left, and it leads you right down into the marsh. Turn seaward. It will be a nasty scramble, but there will only be about fifty yards of it. Then you get to a bit of rough ground—a bank of grass-grown sand. Below that there is the shingle and the sea. That is where you take up your post."
"Can I use my torch," Julian enquired, "and what am I to look out for?"
"Heaven knows," replied Furley, "except that there's a general suggestion of communications between some person on land and some person approaching from the sea. I don't mind confessing that I've done this job, on and off, whenever I've been down here, for a couple of years, and I've never seen or heard a suspicious thing yet. We are never told a word in our instructions, either, or given any advice. However, what I should do would be to lie flat down on the top of that bank and listen. If you hear anything peculiar, then you must use your discretion about the torch. It's a nasty job to make over to a pal, Julian, but I know you're keen on anything that looks like an adventure."
"All over it," was the ready reply. "What about leaving you alone, though, Miles?"
"You put the whisky and soda where I can get at it," Furley directed, "and I shall be all right. I'm feeling stronger every moment. I expect your sea boots are in the scullery. And hurry up, there's a good fellow. We're twenty minutes behind time, as it is."
Julian started on his adventure without any particular enthusiasm. He found the crossing, returned along the side of the bank, trudged along the cart track until he arrived at the gate, and climbed up on the dyke without misadventure. From here he made his way more cautiously, using his stick with his right hand, his torch, with his thumb upon the knob, in his left. The lull in the storm seemed to be at an end. Black, low-hanging clouds were closing in upon him. Away to the right, where the line of marshes was unbroken, the boom of the wind grew louder. A gust very nearly blew him down the bank. He was compelled to shelter for a moment on its lee side, whilst a scud of snow and sleet passed like an icy whirlwind. The roar of the sea was full in his ears now, and though he must still have been fully two hundred yards away from it, little ghostly specks of white spray were dashed, every now and then, into his face. From here he made his way with great care, almost crawling, until he came to the stile. In the marshes he was twice in salt water over his knees, but he scrambled out until he reached the grass-grown sand bank which Furley had indicated. Obeying orders, he lay down and listened intently for any fainter sounds mingled with the tumult of nature. After a few minutes, it was astonishing how his eyes found themselves able to penetrate the darkness which at first had seemed like a black wall. Some distance to the right he could make out the outline of a deserted barn, once used as a coast-guard station and now only a depository for the storing of life belts. In front of him he could trace the bank of shingle and the line of the sea, and presently the outline of some dark object, lying just out of reach of the breaking waves, attracted his attention. He watched it steadily. For some time it was as motionless as the log he presumed it to be. Then, without any warning, it hunched itself up and drew a little farther back. There was no longer any doubt. It was a human being, lying on its stomach with its head turned to the sea.
Julian, who had entered upon his adventure with the supercilious incredulity of a staunch unbeliever invited to a spiritualist's seance, was conscious for a moment of an absolutely new sensation. A person of acute psychological instincts, he found himself analysing that sensation almost as soon as it was conceived.
"There is no doubt," he confessed under his breath, "that I am afraid!"
His heart was beating with unaccustomed vigour; he was conscious of an acute tingling in all his senses. Then, still lying on his stomach, almost holding his breath, he saw the thin line of light from an electric torch steal out along the surface of the sea, obviously from the hand of his fellow watcher. Almost at that same moment the undefined agitation which had assailed him passed. He set his teeth and watched that line of light. It moved slowly sideways along the surface of the sea, as though searching for something. Julian drew himself cautiously, inch by inch, to the extremity of the sand hummock. His brain was working with a new clearness. An inspiration flashed in upon him during those few seconds. He knew the geography of the place well,—the corner of the barn, the steeple beyond, and the watcher lying in a direct line. His cipher was explained!
Perfectly cool now, Julian thought with some regret of the revolver which he had scorned to bring. He occupied himself, during these seconds of watching, by considering with care what his next action was to be. If he even set his foot upon the shingle, the watcher below would take alarm, and if he once ran away, pursuit was hopeless. The figure, so far as he could distinguish it, was more like that of a boy than a man. Julian began to calculate coolly the chances of an immediate intervention. Then things happened, and for a moment he held his breath.
The line of light had shot out once more, and this time it seemed to reveal something, something which rose out of the water and which looked like nothing so much as a long strip of zinc piping. The watcher at the edge of the sea threw down his torch and gripped the end of it, and Julian, carried away with excitement, yielded to an instant and overpowering temptation. He flashed on his own torch and watched while the eager figure seemed by some means to unscrew the top of the coil and drew from it a dark, rolled-up packet. Even at that supreme moment, the slim figure upon the beach seemed to become conscious of the illumination of which he was the centre. He swung round,—and that was just as far as Julian Orden got in his adventure. After a lapse of time, during which he seemed to live in a whirl of blackness, where a thousand men were beating at a thousand anvils, filling the world with sparks, with the sound of every one of their blows reverberating in his ears, he opened his eyes to find himself lying on his back, with one leg in a pool of salt water, which was being dashed industriously into his face by an unseen hand. By his side he was conscious of the presence of a thick-set man in a fisherman's costume of brown oilskins and a southwester pulled down as though to hide his features, obviously the man who had dealt him the blow. Then he heard a very soft, quiet voice behind him.
"He will do now. Come."
The man by his side grunted.
"I am going to make sure of him," he said thickly. Again he heard that clear voice from behind, this time a little raised. The words failed to reach his brain, but the tone was one of cold and angry dissent, followed by an imperative order. Then once more his senses seemed to be leaving him. He passed into the world which seemed to consist only of himself and a youth in fisherman's oilskins, who was sometimes Furley, sometimes his own sister, sometimes the figure of a person who for the last twenty-four hours had been continually in his thoughts, who seemed at one moment to be sympathising with him and at another to be playing upon his face with a garden hose. Then it all faded away, and a sort of numbness crept over him. He made a desperate struggle for consciousness. There was something cold resting against his cheek. His fingers stole towards it. It was the flask, drawn from his own pocket and placed there by some unseen hand, the top already unscrewed, and the reviving odour stealing into his nostrils. He guided it to his lips with trembling fingers. A pleasant sense of warmth crept over him. His head fell back.
When he opened his eyes again, he first turned around for the tea by his bedside, then stared in front of him, wondering if these things which he saw were indeed displayed through an upraised blind. There was the marsh—a picture of still life—winding belts of sea creeping, serpent-like, away from him towards the land, with broad pools, in whose bosom, here and there, were flashes of a feeble sunlight. There were the clumps of wild lavender he had so often admired, the patches of deep meadow green, and, beating the air with their wings as they passed, came a flight of duck over his head. Very stiff and dazed, he staggered to his feet. There was the village to his right, red-tiled, familiar; the snug farmhouses, with their brown fields and belts of trees; the curve of the white road.
And then, with a single flash of memory, it all came back to him. He felt the top of his head, still sore; looked down at the stretch of shingle, empty now of any reminiscences; and finally, leaning heavily on his stick, he plodded back to the cottage, noticing, as he drew near, the absence of the motor-car from its place of shelter. Miles Furley was seated in his armchair, with a cup of tea in his hand and Mrs. West fussing over him, as Julian raised the latch and dragged himself into the sitting room. They both turned around at his entrance. Furley dropped his teaspoon and Mrs. West raised her hands above her head and shrieked. Julian sank into the nearest chair.
"Melodrama has come to me at last," he murmured. "Give me some tea—a whole teapotful, Mrs. West—and get a hot bath ready."
He waited until their temporary housekeeper had bustled out of the room. Then he concluded his sentence.
"I have been sandbagged," he announced impressively, and proceeded to relate the night's adventure to his host.
"This," declared Julian, about a couple of hours later, as he helped himself for the second time to bacon and eggs, "is a wonderful tribute to the soundness of our constitutions. Miles, it is evident that you and I have led righteous lives."
"Being sandbagged seems to have given you an appetite," Furley observed.
"And a game leg seems to have done the same for you," Julian rejoined. "Did the doctor ask you how you did it?"
"I just said that I slipped on the marshes. One doesn't talk of such little adventures as you and I experienced last night."
"By the bye, what does one do about them?" Julian enquired. "I feel a little dazed about it all, even now living in an unreal atmosphere and that sort of thing, you know. It seems to me that we ought to have out the bloodhounds and search for an engaging youth and a particularly disagreeable bully of a man, both dressed in brown oilskins and—"
"Oh, chuck it!" Furley intervened. "The intelligence department in charge of this bit of coast doesn't do things like that. What you want to remember, Julian, is to keep your mouth shut. I shall have a chap over to see me this afternoon, and I shall make a report to him."
"All the same," persisted Julian, "we—or rather I—was without a doubt a witness to an act of treason. By some subtle means connected with what seemed to be a piece of gas pipe, I have seen communication with the enemy established."
"You don't know that it was the enemy at all," Furley grunted.
"For us others," Julian replied, "there exists the post office, the telegraph office and the telephone. I decline to believe that any reasonable person would put out upon the sea in weather like last night's for the sake of delivering a letter to any harmless inhabitant of these regions. I will have my sensation, you see, Furley. I have suffered—thank heavens mine is a thick skull!—and I will not be cheated of my compensations."
"Well, keep your mouth shut, there's a good fellow, until after I have made my report to the Intelligence Officer," Furley begged. "He'll be here about four. You don't mind being about?"
"Not in the least," Julian promised. "So long as I am home for dinner, my people will be satisfied."
"I don't know how you'll amuse yourself this morning," Furley observed, "and I'm afraid I sha'n't be able to get out for the flighting this evening."
"Don't worry about me," Julian begged. "Remember that I am practically at home. It's only three miles to the Hall from here so you mustn't look upon me as an ordinary guest. I am going for a tramp in a few minutes."
"Lucky chap!" Furley declared enviously. "Sunshine like this makes one feel as though one were on the Riviera instead of in Norfolk. Shall you visit the scene of your adventure?"
"I may," Julian answered thoughtfully. "The instinct of the sleuthhound is beginning to stir in me. There is no telling how far it may lead."
Julian started on his tramp about half an hour later. He paused first at a bend in the road, about fifty yards down, and stepped up close to the hedge.
"The instinct of the sleuthhound," he said to himself, "is all very well, but why on earth haven't I told Furley about the car?"
He paused to consider the matter, conscious only of the fact that each time he had opened his lips to mention it, he had felt a marked but purposeless disinclination to do so. He consoled himself now with the reflection that the information would be more or less valueless until the afternoon, and he forthwith proceeded upon the investigation which he had planned out.
The road was still muddy, and the track of the tyres, which were of somewhat peculiar pattern, clearly visible. He followed it along the road for a matter of a mile and a half. Then he came to a standstill before a plain oak gate and was conscious of a distinct shock. On the top bar of the gate was painted in white letters.
and it needed only the most cursory examination to establish the fact that the car whose track he had been following had turned in here. He held up his hand and stopped a luggage trolley which had just turned the bend in the avenue. The man pulled up and touched his hat.
"Where are you off to, Fellowes?" Julian enquired.
"I am going to Holt station, sir," the man replied, "after some luggage."
"Are there any guests at the Hall who motored here, do you know?" Julian asked.
"Only the young lady, sir," the man replied, "Miss Abbeway. She came in a little coupe Panhard."
Julian frowned thoughtfully.
"Has she been out in it this morning?" he asked.
The man shook his head.
"She broke down in it yesterday afternoon, sir," he answered, "about halfway up to the Hall here."
"Broke down?" Julian repeated. "Anything serious? Couldn't you put it right for her?"
"She wouldn't let me touch it, sir," the man explained. "She said she had two cracked sparking plugs, and she wanted to replace them herself. She has had some lessons, and I think she wanted a bit of practice."
"I see. Then the car is in the avenue now?"
"About half a mile up, on the left-hand side, sir, just by the big elm. Miss Abbeway said she was coming down this afternoon to put new plugs in."
"Then it's been there all the time since yesterday afternoon?" Julian persisted.
"The young lady wished it left there, sir. I could have put a couple of plugs in, in five minutes, and brought her up to the house, but she wouldn't hear of it."
"I see, Fellowes."
"Any luck with the geese last night, sir?" the man asked. "I heard there was a pack of them on Stiffkey Marshes."
"I got one. They came badly for us," Julian replied.
He made his way up the avenue. At exactly the spot indicated by the chauffeur a little coupe car was standing, drawn on to the turf. He glanced at the name of the maker and looked once more at the tracks upon the drive. Finally, he decided that his investigations were leading him in a most undesirable direction.
He turned back, walked across the marshes, where he found nothing to disturb him, and lunched with Furley, whose leg was now so much better that he was able to put it to the ground.
"What about this visitor of yours?" Julian asked, as they sat smoking afterwards. "I must be back at the Hall in time to dine to-night, you know. My people made rather a point of it."
"You'll be all right," he replied. "As a matter of fact, he isn't coming."
"Not coming?" Julian repeated. "Jove, I should have thought you'd have had intelligence officers by the dozen down here!"
"For some reason or other," Furley confided, "the affair has been handed over to the military authorities. I have had a man down to see me this morning, and he has taken full particulars. I don't know that they'll even worry you at all—until later on, at any rate."
"Jove, that seems queer!"
"Last night's happening was queer, for that matter," Furley continued. "Their only chance, I suppose, of getting to the bottom of it is to lie doggo as far as possible. It isn't like a police affair, you see. They don't want witnesses and a court of justice. One man's word and a rifle barrel does the trick."
"I suppose," he observed, "that if I do my duty as a loyal subject, I shall drop the curtain on last night. Seems a pity to have had an adventure like that and not be able to open one's mouth about it."
"You don't want to join the noble army of gas bags," he said. "Much better make up your mind that it was a dream."
"There are times," Julian confided, "when I am not quite sure that it wasn't."
Julian entered the drawing-room at Maltenby Hall a few minutes before dinner time that evening. His mother, who was alone and, for a wonder, resting, held out her hand for him to kiss and welcomed him with a charming smile. Notwithstanding her grey hair, she was still a remarkably young-looking woman, with a great reputation as a hostess.
"My dear Julian," she exclaimed, "you look like a ghost! Don't tell me that you had to sit up all night to shoot those wretched duck?"
Julian drew a chair to his mother's side and seated himself with a little air of relief.
"Never have I been more conscious of the inroads of age," he confided. "I can remember when, ten or fifteen years ago, I used to steal out of the house in the darkness and bicycle down to the marsh with a twenty-bore gun, on the chance of an odd shot."
"And I suppose," his mother went on, "after spending half the night wading about in the salt water, you spent the other half talking to that terrible Mr. Furley."
"Quite right. We got cold and wet through in the evening; we sat up talking till the small hours; we got cold and wet again this morning—and here I am."
"A converted sportsman," his mother observed. "I wish you could convert your friend, Mr. Furley. There's a perfectly terrible article of his in the National this month. I can't understand a word of it, but it reads like sheer anarchy."
"So long as the world exists," Julian remarked, "there must be Socialists, and Furley is at least honest."
"My dear Julian," his mother protested, "how can a Socialist be honest! Their attitude with regard to the war, too, is simply disgraceful. I am sure that in any other country that man Fenn, for instance, would be shot."
"What about your house party?" Julian enquired, with bland irrelevance.
"All arrived. I suppose they'll be down directly. Mr. Hannaway Wells is here."
"Good old Wells!" Julian murmured. "How does he look since he became a Cabinet Minister?"
"Portentous," Lady Maltenby replied; with a smile. "He doesn't look as though he would ever unbend. Then the Shervintons are here, and the Princess Torski—your friend Miss Abbeway's aunt."
"The Princess Torski?" Julian repeated. "Who on earth is she?"
"She was English," his mother explained, "a cousin of the Abbeways. She married in Russia and is on her way now to France to meet her husband, who is in command of a Russian battalion there. She seems quite a pleasant person, but not in the least like her niece."
"Miss Abbeway is still here, of course?"
"Naturally. I asked her for a week, and I think she means to stay. We talked for an hour after tea this afternoon, and I found her most interesting. She has been living in England for years, it seems, down in Chelsea, studying sculpture."
"She is a remarkably clever young woman," Julian said thoughtfully, "but a little incomprehensible. If the Princess Torski is her aunt, who were her parents?"
"Her father," the Countess replied, "was Colonel Richard Abbeway, who seems to have been military attache at St. Petersburg, years ago. He married a sister of the Princess Torski's husband, and from her this young woman inherited a title which she won't use and a large fortune. Colonel Abbeway was killed accidentally in the Russo-Japanese War, and her mother died a few years ago."
"No German blood, or anything of that sort, then?"
"My dear boy, what an idea!" his mother exclaimed reprovingly. "On the contrary, the Torskis are one of the most aristocratic families in Russia, and you know what the Abbeways are. The girl is excellently bred, and I think her charming in every way. Whatever made you suggest that she might have German blood in her?"
"No idea! Anyhow, I am glad she hasn't. Who else?"
"The Bishop," his mother continued, "looking very tired, poor dear! Doctor George Lennard, from Oxford, two young soldiers from Norwich, whom Charlie asked us to be civil to—and the great man himself."
"Tell me about the great man? I don't think I've seen him to speak to since he became Prime Minister."
"He declares that this is his first holiday this year. He is looking rather tired, but he has had an hour's shooting since he arrived, and seemed to enjoy it. Here's your father."
The Earl of Maltenby, who entered a moment later, was depressingly typical. He was as tall as his youngest son, with whom he shook hands absently and whom he resembled in no other way. He had the conventionally aristocratic features, thin lips and steely blue eyes. He was apparently a little annoyed.
"Anything wrong, dear?" Lady Maltenby asked.
Her husband took up his position on the hearthrug.
"I am annoyed with Stenson," he declared.
The Countess shook her head.
"It's too bad of you, Henry," she expostulated. "You've been trying to talk politics with him. You know that the poor man was only longing for forty-eight hours during which he could forget that he was Prime Minister of England."
"Precisely, my dear," Lord Maltenby agreed. "I can assure you that I have not transgressed in any way. A remark escaped me referring to the impossibility of providing beaters, nowadays, and to the fact that out of my seven keepers, five are fighting. I consider Mr. Stenson's comment was most improper, coming from one to whom the destinies of this country are confided."
"What did he say?" the Countess asked meekly.
"Something about wondering whether any man would be allowed to have seven keepers after the war," her husband replied, with an angry light in his eyes. "If a man like Stenson is going to encourage these socialistic ideas. I beg your pardon—the Bishop, my dear."
The remaining guests drifted in within the next few moments,—the Bishop, Julian's godfather, a curious blend of the fashionable and the devout, the anchorite and the man of the people; Lord and Lady Shervinton, elderly connections of the nondescript variety; Mr. Hannaway Wells, reserved yet, urbane, a wonderful type of the supreme success of mediocrity; a couple of young soldiers, light-hearted and out for a good time, of whom Julian took charge; an Oxford don, who had once been Lord Maltenby's tutor; and last of all the homely, very pleasant-looking, middle-aged lady, Princess Torski, followed by her niece. There were a few introductions still to be effected.
Whilst Lady Maltenby was engaged in this task, which she performed at all times with the unfailing tact of a great hostess, Julian broke off in his conversation with the two soldiers and looked steadfastly across the room at Catherine Abbeway, as though anxious to revise or complete his earlier impressions of her. She was of medium height, not unreasonably slim, with a deliberate but noticeably graceful carriage. Her complexion was inclined to be pale. She had large, soft brown eyes, and hair of an unusual shade of chestnut brown, arranged with remarkably effective simplicity. She wore a long string of green beads around her neck, a black tulle gown without any relief of colour, but a little daring in its cut. Her voice and laugh, as she stood talking to the Bishop, were delightful, and neither her gestures nor her accent betrayed the slightest trace of foreign blood. She was, without a doubt, extraordinarily attractive, gracious almost to freedom in her manner, and yet with that peculiar quality of aloofness only recognisable in the elect,—a very appreciable charm. Julian found his undoubted admiration only increased by his closer scrutiny. Nevertheless, as he watched her, there was a slightly puzzled frown upon his forehead, a sense of something like bewilderment mingled with those other feelings. His mother, who had turned to speak to the object of his attentions, beckoned him, and he crossed the room at once to their side.
"Julian is going to take you in to dinner, Miss Abbeway," the Countess announced, "and I hope you will be kind to him, for he's been out all night and a good part of the morning, too, shooting ducks and talking nonsense with a terrible Socialist."
Lady Maltenby passed on. Julian, leaning on his stick, looked down with a new interest into the face which had seldom been out of his thoughts since their first meeting, a few weeks ago.
"Tell me, Mr. Orden," she asked, "which did you find the more exhausting—tramping the marshes for sport, or discussing sociology with your friend?"
"As a matter of fact," he replied, "we didn't tramp the marshes. We stood still and got uncommonly wet. And I shot a goose, which made me very happy."
"Then it must have been the conversation," she declared. "Is your friend a prophet or only one of the multitude?"
"A prophet, most decidedly. He is a Mr. Miles Furley, of whom you must have heard."
She started a little.
"Miles Furley!" she repeated. "I had no idea that he lived in this part of the world."
"He has a small country house somewhere in Norfolk," Julian told her, "and he takes a cottage down here at odd times for the wild-fowl shooting."
"Will you take me to see him to-morrow?" she asked.
"With pleasure, so long as you promise not to talk socialism with him."
"I will promise that readily, out of consideration to my escort. I wonder how it is," she went on, looking up at him a little thoughtfully, "that you dislike serious subjects so much."
"A frivolous turn of mind, I suppose," he replied. "I certainly prefer to talk art with you."
"But nowadays," she protested, "it is altogether the fashion down at Chelsea to discard art and talk politics."
"It's a fashion I shouldn't follow," he advised. "I should stick to art, if I were you."
"Well, that depends upon how you define politics, of course. I don't mean Party politics. I mean the science of living, as a whole, not as a unit."
The Princess ambled up to them.
"I don't know what your political views are, Mr. Orden," she said, "but you must look out for shocks if you discuss social questions with my niece. In the old days they would never have allowed her to live in Russia. Even now, I consider some of her doctrines the most pernicious I ever heard."
"Isn't that terrible from an affectionate aunt!"
Catherine laughed, as the Princess passed on. "Tell me some more about your adventures last night?"
She looked up into his face, and Julian was suddenly conscious from whence had come that faint sense of mysterious trouble which had been with him during the last few minutes. The slight quiver of her lips brought it all back to him. Her mouth, beyond a doubt, with its half tender, half mocking curve, was the mouth which he had seen in that tangled dream of his, when he had lain fighting for consciousness upon the marshes.
Julian, absorbed for the first few minutes of dinner by the crystallisation of this new idea which had now taken a definite place in his brain, found his conversational powers somewhat at a discount. Catherine very soon, however, asserted her claim upon his attention.
"Please do your duty and tell me about things," she begged. "Remember that I am Cinderella from Bohemia, and I scarcely know a soul here."
"Well, there aren't many to find out about, are there?" he replied. "Of course you know Stenson?"
"I have been gazing at him with dilated eyes," she confided. "Is that not the proper thing to do? He seems to me very ordinary and very hungry."
"Well, then, there is the Bishop."
"I knew him at once from his photographs. He must spend the whole of the time when he isn't in church visiting the photographer. However, I like him. He is talking to my aunt quite amiably. Nothing does aunt so much good as to sit next a bishop."
"The Shervintons you know all about, don't you?" he went on. "The soldiers are just young men from the Norwich barracks, Doctor Lennard was my father's tutor at Oxford, and Mr. Hannaway Wells is our latest Cabinet Minister."
"He still has the novice's smirk," she remarked. "A moment ago I heard him tell his neighbour that he preferred not to discuss the war. He probably thinks that there is a spy under the table."
"Well, there we are—such as we are," Julian concluded. "There is no one left except me."
"Then tell me all about yourself," she suggested. "Really, when I come to think of it, considering the length of our conversations, you have been remarkably reticent. You are the youngest of the family, are you not? How many brothers are there?"
"There were four," he told her. "Henry was killed at Ypres last year. Guy is out there still. Richard is a Brigadier."
"I am a barrister by profession, but I went out with the first Inns of Court lot for a little amateur soldiering and lost part of my foot at Mons. Since then I have been indulging in the unremunerative and highly monotonous occupation of censoring."
"Monotonous indeed, I should imagine," she agreed. "You spend your time reading other people's letters, do you not, just to be sure that there are no communications from the enemy?"
"Precisely," he assented. "We discover ciphers and all sorts of things."
"What brainy people you must be!"
"We are, most of us."
"Do you do anything else?"
"Well, I've given up censoring for the present," he confided. "I am going back to my profession."
"As a barrister?"
"Just so. I might add that I do a little hack journalism."
"How modest!" she murmured. "I suppose you write the leading articles for the Times!"
"For a very young lady," Julian observed impressively, "you have marvellous insight. How did you guess my secret?"
"I am better at guessing secrets than you are," she retorted a little insolently.
He was silent for some moments. The faint curve of her lips had again given him almost a shock.
"Have you a brother?" he asked abruptly.
"Because I met some one quite lately—within the last few hours, as a matter of fact—with a mouth exactly like yours."
"But what a horrible thing!" she exclaimed, drawing out a little mirror from the bag by her side and gazing into it. "How unpleasant to have any one else going about with a mouth exactly like one's own! No, I never had a brother, Mr. Orden, or a sister, and, as you may have heard, I am an enfant mechante. I live in London, I model very well, and I talk very bad sociology. As I think I told you, I know your anarchist friend, Miles Furley."
"I shouldn't call Furley an anarchist," protested Julian.
"Well, he is a Socialist. I admit that we are rather lax in our definitions. You see, there is just one subject, of late years, which has brought together the Socialists and the Labour men, the Syndicalists and the Communists, the Nationalists and the Internationalists. All those who work for freedom are learning breadth. If they ever find a leader, I think that this dear, smug country of yours may have to face the greatest surprise of its existence."
Julian looked at her curiously.
"You have ideas, Miss Abbeway."
"So unusual in a woman!" she mocked. "Do you notice how every one is trying to avoid the subject of the war? I give them another half-course, don't you? I am sure they cannot keep it up."
"They won't go the distance," Julian whispered. "Listen."
"The question to be considered," Lord Shervinton pronounced, "is not so much when the war will be over as what there is to stop it? That is a point which I think we can discuss without inviting official indiscretions."
"If other means fail," declared the Bishop, "Christianity will stop it. The conscience of the world is already being stirred."
"Our enemies," the Earl pronounced confidently from his place at the head of the table, "are already a broken race. They are on the point of exhaustion. Austria is, if possible, in a worse plight. That is what will end the war—the exhaustion of our opponents."
"The deciding factor," Mr. Hannaway Wells put in, with a very non-committal air, "will probably be America. She will bring her full strength into the struggle just at the crucial moment. She will probably do what we farther north have as yet failed to do: she will pierce the line and place the German armies in Flanders in peril."
The Cabinet Minister's views were popular. There was a little murmur of approval, something which sounded almost like a purr of content. It was just one more expression of that strangely discreditable yet almost universal failing,—the over-reliance upon others. The quiet remark of the man who suddenly saw fit to join in the discussion struck a chilling and a disturbing note.
"There is one thing which could end the war at any moment," Mr. Stenson said, leaning a little forward, "and that is the will of the people."
There was perplexity as well as discomfiture in the minds of his hearers.
"The people?" Lord Shervinton repeated. "But surely the people speak through the mouths of their rulers?"
"They have been content to, up to the present," the Prime Minister agreed, "but Europe may still see strange and dramatic events before many years are out."
"Do go on, please," the Countess begged.
Mr. Stenson shook his head.
"Even as a private individual I have said more than I intended," he replied. "I have only one thing to say about the war in public, and that is that we are winning, that we must win, that our national existence depends upon winning, and that we shall go on until we do win. The obstacles between us and victory, which may remain in our minds, are not to be spoken of."
There was a brief and somewhat uncomfortable pause. It was understood that the subject was to be abandoned. Julian addressed a question to the Bishop across the table. Lord Maltenby consulted Doctor Lennard as to the date of the first Punic War. Mr. Stenson admired the flowers. Catherine, who had been sitting with her eyes riveted upon the Prime Minister, turned to her neighbour.
"Tell me about your amateur journalism, Mr. Orden?" she begged. "I have an idea that it ought to be interesting."
"Deadly dull, I can assure you."
"You write about politics? Or perhaps you are an art critic? I ought to be on my best behaviour, in case."
"I know little about art," he assured her. "My chief interest in life—outside my profession, of course—lies in sociology."
His little confession had been impulsive. She raised her eyebrows.
"You are in earnest, I believe!" she exclaimed. "Have I really found an Englishman who is in earnest?"
"I plead guilty. It is incorrect philosophy but a distinct stimulus to life."
"What a pity," she sighed, "that you are so handicapped by birth! Sociology cannot mean anything very serious for you. Your perspective is naturally distorted."
"What about yourself?" he asked pertinently.
"The vanity of us women!" she murmured. "I have grown to look upon myself as being an exception. I forget that there might be others. You might even be one of our prophets—a Paul Fiske in disguise."
His eyes narrowed a little as he looked at her closely. From across the table, the Bishop broke off an interesting discussion on the subject of his addresses to the working classes, and the Earl set down his wineglass with an impatient gesture.
"Does no one really know," Mr. Stenson asked, "who Paul Fiske is?"
"No one, sir," Mr. Hannaway Wells replied. "I thought it wise, a short time ago, to set on foot the most searching enquiries, but they were absolutely fruitless."
The Bishop coughed.
"I must plead guilty," he confessed, "to having visited the offices of The Monthly Review with the same object. I left a note for him there, in charge of the editor, inviting him to a conference at my house. I received no reply. His anonymity seems to be impregnable."
"Whoever he may be," the Earl declared, "he ought to be muzzled. He is a traitor to his country."
"I cannot agree with you, Lord Maltenby," the Bishop said firmly. "The very danger of the man's doctrines lies in their clarity of thought, their extraordinary proximity to the fundamental truths of life."
"The man is, at any rate," Doctor Lennard interposed, "the most brilliant anonymous writer since the days of Swift and the letters of Junius."
Mr. Stenson for a moment hesitated. He seemed uncertain whether or no to join in the conversation. Finally, impulse swayed him.
"Let us all be thankful," he said, "that Paul Fiske is content with the written word. If the democracy of England found themselves to-day with such a leader, it is he who would be ruling the country, and not I."
"The man is a pacifist!" the Earl protested.
"So we all are," the Bishop declared warmly. "We are all pacifists in the sense that we are lovers of peace. There is not one of us who does not deplore the horrors of to-day. There is not one of us who is not passionately seeking for the master mind which can lead us out of it."
"There is only one way out," the Earl insisted, "and that is to beat the enemy."
"It is the only obvious way," Julian intervened, joining in the conversation for the first time, "but meanwhile, with every tick of the clock a fellow creature dies."
"It is a question," Mr. Hannaway Wells reflected, "whether the present generation is not inclined to be mawkish with regard to human life. History has shown us the marvellous benefits which have accrued to the greatest nations through the lessening of population by means of warfare."
"History has also shown us," Doctor Lennard observed, "that the last resource of force is force. No brain has ever yet devised a logical scheme for international arbitration."
"Human nature, I am afraid, has changed extraordinarily little since the days of the Philistines," the Bishop confessed.
Julian turned to his companion.
"Well, they've all settled it amongst themselves, haven't they?" he murmured. "Here you may sit and listen to what may be called the modern voice."
"Yet there is one thing wanting," she whispered. "What do you suppose, if he were here at this moment, Paul Fiske would say? Do you think that he would be content to listen to these brazen voices and accept their verdict?"
"Without irreverence," Julian answered, "or comparison, would Jesus Christ?"
"With the same proviso," she retorted, "I might reply that Jesus Christ, from all we know of him, might reign wonderfully in the Kingdom of Heaven, but he certainly wouldn't be able to keep together a Cabinet in Downing Street! Still, I am beginning to believe in your sincerity. Do you think that Paul Fiske is sincere?"
"I believe," Julian replied, "that he sees the truth and struggles to express it."
The women were leaving the table. She leaned towards him.
"Please do not be long," she whispered. "You must admit that I have been an admirable dinner companion. I have talked to you all the time on your own subject. You must come and talk to me presently about art."
Julian, with his hand on the back of his chair, watched the women pass out of the soft halo of the electric lights into the gloomier shadows of the high, vaulted room, Catherine a little slimmer than most of the others, and with a strange grace of slow movement which must have come to her from some Russian ancestor. Her last words lingered in his mind. He was to talk to her about art! A fleeting vision of the youth in the yellow oilskins mocked him. He remembered his morning's tramp and the broken-down motor-car under the trees. The significance of these things was beginning to take shape in his mind. He resumed his seat, a little dazed.
Maltenby was one of those old-fashioned houses where the port is served as a lay sacrament and the call of the drawing-room is responded to tardily. After the departure of the women, Doctor Lennard drew his chair up to Julian's.
"An interesting face, your dinner companion's," he remarked. "They tell me that she is a very brilliant young lady."
"She certainly has gifts," acknowledged Julian.
"I watched her whilst she was talking to you," the Oxford don continued. "She is one of those rare young women whose undoubted beauty is put into the background by their general attractiveness. Lady Maltenby was telling me fragments of her history. It appears that she is thinking of giving up her artistic career for some sort of sociological work."
"It is curious," Julian reflected, "how the cause of the people has always appealed to gifted Russians. England, for instance, produces no real democrats of genius. Russia seems to claim a monopoly of them."
"There is nothing so stimulating as a sense of injustice for bringing the best out of a man or woman," Doctor Lennard pointed out. "Russia, of course, for many years has been shamefully misgoverned."
The conversation, owing to the intervention of other of the guests, became general and platitudinal. Soon after, Mr. Stenson rose and excused himself. His secretary; who had been at the telephone, desired a short conference. There was a brief silence after his departure.
"Stenson," the Oxonian observed, "is beginning to show signs of strain."
"Why not?" Lord Shervinton pointed out. "He came into office full of the most wonderful enthusiasm. His speeches rang through the world like a clarion note. He converted waverers. He lit fires which still burn. But he is a man of movement. This present stagnation is terribly irksome to him. I heard him speak last week, and I was disappointed. He seems to have lost his inspiration. What he needs is a stimulus of some sort, even of disaster."
"I wonder," the Bishop reflected, "if he is really afraid of the people?"
"I consider his remark concerning them most ill-advised," Lord Maltenby declared pompously.
"I know the people," the Bishop continued, "and I love them. I think, too, that they trust me. Yet I am not sure that I cannot see a glimmering of what is at the back of Stenson's mind. There are a good many millions in the country who honestly believe that war is primarily an affair of the politicians; who believe, too, that victory means a great deal more to what they term 'the upper classes' than it does to them. Yet, in every sense of the word, they are bearing an equal portion of the fight, because, when it comes down to human life, the life of the farm labourer's son is of the same intrinsic value as the life of the peer's."
Lord Maltenby moved a little in his chair. There was a slight frown upon his aristocratic forehead. He disagreed entirely with the speaker, with whom he feared, however, to cross swords. Mr. Hannaway Wells, who had been waiting for his opportunity, took charge of the conversation. He spoke in a reserved manner, his fingers playing with the stem of his wineglass.
"I must confess," he said, "that I feel the deepest interest in what the Bishop has just said. I could not talk to you about the military situation, even if I knew more than you do, which is not the case, but I think it is clear that we have reached something like a temporary impasse. There certainly seems to be no cause for alarm upon any front, yet, not only in London, but in Paris and even Rome, there is a curious uneasiness afoot, for which no one can, account which no one can bring home to any definite cause. In the same connection, we have confidential information that a new spirit of hopefulness is abroad in Germany. It has been reported to us that sober, clear-thinking men—and there are a few of them, even in Germany—have predicted peace before a month is out."
"The assumption is," Doctor Lennard interpolated, "that Germany has something up her sleeve."
"That is not only the assumption," the Cabinet Minister replied, "but it is also, I believe, the truth."
"One could apprehend and fear a great possible danger," Lord Shervinton observed, "if the Labour Party in Germany were as strong as ours, or if our own Labour, Party were entirely united. The present conditions, however, seem to me to give no cause for alarm."
"That is where I think you are wrong," Hannaway Wells declared. "If the Labour Party in Germany were as strong as ours, they would be strong enough to overthrow the Hohenzollern clique, to stamp out the militarism against which we are at war, to lay the foundations of a great German republic with whom we could make the sort of peace for which every Englishman hopes. The danger, the real danger which we have to face, would lie in an amalgamation of the Labour Party, the Socialists and the Syndicalists in this country, and in their insisting upon treating with the weak Labour Party in Germany."
"I agree with the Bishop," Julian pronounced. "The unclassified democracy of our country may believe itself hardly treated, but individually it is intensely patriotic. I do not believe that its leaders would force the hand of the country towards peace, unless they received full assurance that their confreres in Germany were able to assume a dominant place in the government of that country—a place at least equal to the influence of the democracy here."
Doctor Lennard glanced at the speaker a little curiously. He had known Julian since he was a boy but had never regarded him as anything but a dilettante.
"You may not know it," he said, "but you are practically expounding the views of that extraordinary writer of whom we were speaking—Paul Fiske."
"I have been told," the Bishop remarked, cracking a walnut, "that Paul Fiske is the pseudonym of a Cabinet Minister."
"And I," Hannaway Wells retorted, "have been informed most credibly that he is a Church of England clergyman."
"The last rumour I heard," Lord Shervinton put in, "was that he is a grocer in a small way of business at Wigan."
"Dear me!" Doctor Lennard remarked. "The gossips have covered enough ground! A man at a Bohemian club of which I am a member—the Savage Club, in fact—assured me that he was an opium drugged journalist, kept alive by the charity of a few friends; a human wreck, who was once the editor of an important London paper."
"You have some slight connection with journalism, have you not, Julian?" the Earl asked his son condescendingly. "Have you heard no reports?"
"Many," Julian replied, "but none which I have been disposed to credit. I should imagine, myself, that Paul Fiske is a man who believes, having created a public, that his written words find an added value from the fact that he obviously desires neither reward nor recognition; just in the same way as the really earnest democrats of twenty years ago scoffed at the idea of a seat in Parliament, or of breaking bread in any way with the enemy."
"It was a fine spirit, that," the Bishop declared. "I am not sure that we are not all of us a little over-inclined towards compromises. The sapping away of conscience is so easy."
The dining-room door was thrown open, and the butler announced a visitor.
"Colonel Henderson, your lordship."
They all turned around in their places. The colonel, a fine, military-looking figure of a man, shook hands with Lord Maltenby.
"My most profound apologies, sir," he said, as he accepted a chair. "The Countess was kind enough to say that if I were not able to get away in time for dinner, I might come up afterwards."
"You are sure that you have dined?"
"I had something at Mess, thank you."
"A glass of port, then?"
The Colonel helped himself from the decanter which was passed towards him and exchanged greetings with several of the guests to whom his host introduced him.
"No raids or invasions, I hope, Colonel?" the latter asked.
"Nothing quite so serious as that, I am glad to say. We have had a little excitement of another sort, though. One of my men caught a spy this morning."
Every one was interested. Even after three years of war, there was still something fascinating about the word.
"Dear me!" Lord Maltenby exclaimed. "I should scarcely have considered our out-of-the-way part of the world sufficiently important to attract attentions of that sort."
"It was a matter of communication," the Colonel confided. "There was an enemy submarine off here last night, and we have reason to believe that a message was landed. We caught one fellow just at dawn."
"What did you do with him?" the Bishop asked.
"We shot him an hour ago," was the cool reply.
"Are there any others at large?" Julian enquired, leaning forward.
"One other," the Colonel acknowledged, sipping his wine appreciatively. "My military police here, however, are very intelligent, and I should think it very doubtful whether he can escape."
"Was the man who was shot a foreigner?" the Earl asked. "I trust that he was not one of my tenants?"
"He was a stranger," was the prompt assurance.
"And his companion?" Julian ventured.
"His companion is believed to have been quite a youth. There is a suggestion that he escaped in a motor-car, but he is probably hiding in the neighbourhood."
Lord Maltenby frowned. There seemed to him something incongruous in the fact that a deed of this sort should have been committed in his domain without his knowledge. He rose to his feet.
"The Countess is probably relying upon some of us for bridge," he said. "I hope, Colonel, that you will take a hand."
The men rose and filed slowly out of the room. The Colonel, however, detained his host, and Julian also lingered.
"I hope, Lord Maltenby," the former said, "that you will excuse my men, but they tell me that they find it necessary to search your garage for a car which has been seen in the neighbourhood."
"Search my garage?" Lord Maltenby repeated, frowning.
"There is no doubt," the Colonel explained, "that a car was made use of last night by the man who is still at large, and it is very possible that it was stolen. You will understand, I am sure, that any enquiries which my men may feel it their duty to make are actuated entirely by military necessity."
"Quite so," the Earl acceded, still a little puzzled. "You will find my head chauffeur a most responsible man. He will, I am sure, give them every possible information. So far as I am aware, however, there is no strange car in the garage. Do you know of any, Julian?"
"Only Miss Abbeway's," his son replied. "Her little Panhard was out in the avenue all night, waiting for her to put some plugs in. Every one else seems to have come by train."
The Colonel raised his eyebrows very slightly and moved slowly towards the door.
"The matter is in the hands of my police," he said, "but if you could excuse me for half a moment, Lord Maltenby, I should like to speak to your head chauffeur."
"By all means," the Earl replied. "I will take you round to the garage myself."
Julian entered the drawing-room hurriedly a few minutes later. He glanced around quickly, conscious of a distinct feeling of disappointment. His mother, who was arranging a bridge table, called him over to her side.
"You have the air, my dear boy, of missing some one," she remarked with a smile.
"I want particularly to speak to Miss Abbeway," he confided.
Lady Maltenby smiled tolerantly.
"After nearly two hours of conversation at dinner! Well, I won't keep you in suspense. She wanted a quiet place to write some letters, so I sent her into the boudoir."
Julian hastened off, with a word of thanks. The boudoir was a small room opening from the suite which had been given to the Princess and her niece a quaint, almost circular apartment, hung with faded blue Chinese silk and furnished with fragments of the Louis Seize period,—a rosewood cabinet, in particular, which had come from Versailles, and which was always associated in Julian's mind with the faint fragrance of two Sevres jars of dried rose leaves. The door opened almost noiselessly.
Catherine, who was seated before a small, ebony writing table, turned her head at his entrance.
"You?" she exclaimed.
Julian listened for a moment and then closed the door. She sat watching him, with the pen still in her fingers.
"Miss Abbeway," he said, "have you heard any news this evening?"
The pen with which she had been tapping the table was suddenly motionless. She turned a little farther around.
"News?" she repeated. "No! Is there any?"
"A man was caught upon the marshes this morning and shot an hour ago. They say that he was a spy."
She sat as though turned to stone.
"The military police are still hunting for his companion. They are now searching the garage here to see if they can find a small, grey, coupe car."
This time she remained speechless, but all those ill-defined fears which had gathered in his heart seemed suddenly to come to a head. Her appearance had changed curiously during the last hour. There was a hunted, almost a desperate gleam in her eyes, a drawn look about her mouth as she sat looking at him.
"How do you know this?" she asked.
"The Colonel of the regiment stationed here has just arrived. He is down in the garage now with my father."
"Shot!" she murmured. "Most Dieu!"
"I want to help you," he continued.
Her eyes questioned him almost fiercely.
"You are sure?"
"I am sure."
"You know what it means?"
"How did you guess the truth?"
"I remembered your mouth," he told her. "I saw your car last night, and I traced it up the avenue this morning."
"A mouth isn't much to go by," she observed, with a very wan smile.
"It happens to be your mouth," he replied.
She rose to her feet and stood for a moment as though listening. Then she thrust her hand down into the bosom of her gown and produced a small roll of paper wrapped in a sheet of oilskin. He took it from her at once and slipped it into the breast pocket of his coat.
"You understand what you are doing?" she persisted.
"Perfectly;" he replied.
She crossed the room towards the hearthrug and stood there for a moment, leaning against the mantelpiece.
"Is there anything else I can do?" he asked.
She turned around. There was a wonderful change in her face.
"No one saw me," she said. "I do not think that there is any one but you who could positively identify the car. Neither my aunt nor the maid who is with us has any idea that I left my room last night."
"Absolutely destroyed," she assured him with a smile. "Some day I hope I'll find courage to ask you whether you thought them becoming."
"Some day," he retorted, a little grimly, "I am going to have a very serious talk with you, Miss Abbeway."
"Shall you be very stern?"
He made no response to her lighter mood. The appeal in her eyes left him colder than ever.
"I wish to save your life," he declared, "and I mean to do it. At the same time, I cannot forget your crime or my complicity in it."
"If you feel like that, then," she said a little defiantly, "tell the truth. I knew the risk I was running. I am not afraid, even now. You can give me back those papers, if you like. I can assure you that the person on whom they are found will undoubtedly be shot."
"Then I shall certainly retain possession of them," he decided.
"You are very chivalrous, sir," she ventured, smiling.
"I happen to be only selfish," Julian replied. "I even despise myself for what I am doing. I am turning traitor myself, simply because I could not bear the thought of what might happen to you if you were discovered."
"You like me, then, a little, Mr. Orden?" she asked.
"Twenty-four hours ago," he sighed, "I had hoped to answer that question before it was asked."
"This is very tantalising," she murmured. "You are going to save my life, then, and afterwards treat me as though I were a leper?"
"I shall hope," he said, "that you may have explanations—that I may find—"
She held out her hand and stopped him. Once more, for a moment, her eyes were distended, her form was tense. She was listening intently.
"There is some one coming," she whispered—"two or three men, I think. What fools we have been! We ought to have decided—about the car."
Her teeth came together for a moment. It was her supreme effort at self-control. Then she laughed almost naturally, lit a cigarette, and seated herself upon the arm of an easy-chair.
"You are interfering shockingly with my correspondence," she declared, "and I am sure that they want you for bridge. Here comes Lord Maltenby to tell you so," she added, glancing towards the door.
Lord Maltenby was very pompous, very stiff, and yet apologetic. He considered the whole affair in which he had become involved ridiculous.
"Miss Abbeway," he said, "I beg to present to you Colonel Henderson. An unfortunate occurrence took place here last night, which it has become the duty of—er—Colonel Henderson to clear up. He wishes to ask you a question concerning—er—a motor-car."
Colonel Henderson frowned. He stepped a little forward with the air of wishing to exclude the Earl from further speech.
"May I ask, Miss Abbeway," he began, "whether the small coupe car, standing about a hundred yards down the back avenue, is yours?"
"It is," she assented, with a little sigh. "It won't go."
"It won't go?" the Colonel repeated.
"I thought you might know something about cars," she explained. "They tell me that two of the sparking plugs are cracked. I am thinking of replacing them tomorrow morning, if I can get Mr. Orden to help me."
"How long has the car been there in its present condition, then?" the Colonel enquired.
"Since about five o'clock yesterday afternoon," she replied.
"You don't think it possible that it could have been out on the road anywhere last night, then?"
"Out on the road!" she laughed. "Why, I couldn't get it up to the garage! You go and look at it, Colonel, if you understand cars. Fellowes, the chauffeur here, had a look at the plugs when I brought it in, and you'll find that they haven't been touched."
"I trust," the Earl intervened, "that my chauffeur offered to do what was necessary?"
"Certainly he did, Lord Maltenby," she assured him. "I am trying hard to be my own mechanic, though, and I have set my mind on changing those plugs myself to-morrow morning."
"You are your own chauffeur, then, Miss Abbeway?" her inquisitor asked.
"You can change a wheel, perhaps?"
"Theoretically I can, but as a matter of fact I have never had to do it.'"
"Your tyres," Colonel Henderson continued, "are of somewhat unusual pattern."
"They are Russian," she told him. "I bought them for that reason. As a matter of fact, they are very good tyres."
"Miss Abbeway," the Colonel said, "I don't know whether you are aware that my police are in search of a spy who is reported to have escaped from the marshes last night in a small motor-car which was left at a certain spot in the Salthouse road. I do not believe that there are two tyres such as yours in Norfolk. How do you account for their imprint being clearly visible along the road to a certain spot near Salthouse? My police have taken tracings of them this morning."
Catherine remained perfectly speechless. A slow smile of triumph dawned upon her accuser's lips. Lord Maltenby's eyebrows were upraised as though in horror.
"Perhaps," Julian interposed, "I can explain the tyre marks upon the road. Miss Abbeway drove me down to Furley's cottage, where I spent the night, late in the afternoon. The marks were still there when I returned this morning, because I noticed them."
"The same marks?" the Colonel asked, frowning.
"Without a doubt the same marks," Julian replied. "In one place, where we skidded a little, I recognized them."
Colonel Henderson smiled a little more naturally.
"I begin to have hopes," he acknowledged frankly, "that I have been drawn into another mare's nest. Nevertheless, I am bound to ask you this question, Miss Abbeway. Did you leave your room at all during last night?"
"Not unless I walked in my sleep," she answered, "but you had better make enquiries of my aunt, and Parkins, our maid. They sleep one on either side of me."
"You would not object," the Colonel continued, more cheerfully still, "if my people thought well to have your things searched?"
"Not in the least," Catherine replied coolly, "only if you unpack my trunks, I beg that you will allow my maid to fold and unfold my clothes."
"I do not think," Colonel Henderson said to Lord Maltenby, "that I have any more questions to ask Miss Abbeway at present."
"In which case we will return to the drawing-room," the Earl suggested a little stiffly. "Miss Abbeway, you will, I trust, accept my apologies for our intrusion upon you. I regret that any guest of mine should have been subjected to a suspicion so outrageous."
Catherine laughed softly.
"Not outrageous really, dear Lord Maltenby," she said. "I do not quite know of what I have been suspected, but I am sure Colonel Henderson would not have asked me these questions if it had not been his duty."
"If you had not been a guest in this house, Miss Abbeway," the Colonel assured her, with some dignity, "I should have had you arrested first and questioned afterwards."
"You come of a race of men, Colonel Henderson, who win wars," she declared graciously. "You know your own mind."
"You will be joining us presently, I hope?" Lord Maltenby enquired from the door.
"In a very few minutes," she promised.
The door closed behind them. Catherine waited for a moment, then she sank a little hysterically into a chair.
"I cannot avoid a touch of melodrama, you see," she confessed. "It goes with my character and nationality. But seriously, now that that is over, I do not consider myself in the slightest danger. The poor fellow who was shot this morning belongs to a different order of people. He has been a spy over here since the beginning of the war."
"And what are you?" he asked bluntly.
She laughed up in his face.
"A quite attractive young woman," she declared,—"at least I feel sure you will think so when you know me better."
It was about half-past ten on the following morning when Julian, obeying a stentorian invitation to enter, walked into Miles Furley's sitting room. Furley was stretched upon the couch, smoking a pipe and reading the paper.
"Good man!" was his hearty greeting. "I hoped you'd look me up this morning."
Julian dragged up the other dilapidated-looking easy-chair to the log fire and commenced to fill his pipe from the open jar.
"How's the leg?" he enquired.
"Pretty nearly all right again," Furley answered cheerfully. "Seems to me I was frightened before I was hurt. What about your head?"
"No inconvenience at all," Julian declared, stretching himself out. "I suppose I must have a pretty tough skull."
"News enough, of a sort, if you haven't heard it. They caught the man who sandbagged me, and who I presume sawed your plank through, and shot him last night."
"The devil they did!" Furley exclaimed, taking his pipe from his mouth. "Shot him? Who the mischief was he, then?"
"It appears," Julian replied, "that he was a German hairdresser, who escaped from an internment camp two years ago and has been at large ever since, keeping in touch, somehow or other, with his friends on the other side. He must have known the game was up as soon as he was caught. He didn't even attempt any defence."
"Shot, eh?" Furley repeated, relighting his pipe. "Serves him damned well right!"
"You think so, do you?" Julian remarked pensively.
"Who wouldn't? I hate espionage. So does every Englishman. That's why we are such duffers at the game, I suppose."
Julian watched his friend with a slight frown.
"How in thunder did you get mixed up with this affair, Furley?" he asked quietly.
Furley's bewilderment was too natural to be assumed. He removed his pipe from his teeth and stared at his friend.
"What the devil are you driving at, Julian?" he demanded. "I can assure you that I went out, the night before last, simply to make one of the rounds which falls to my lot when I am in this part of the world and nominated for duty. There are eleven of us between here and Sheringham, special constables of a humble branch of the secret service, if you like to put it so. We are a well-known institution amongst the initiated. I've plodded these marshes sometimes from midnight till daybreak, and although one's always hearing rumours, until last night I have never seen or heard of a single unusual incident."
"You had no idea, then," Julian persisted, "what it was that you were on the look-out for the night before last? You had no idea, say, from any source whatever, that there was going to be an attempt on the part of the enemy to communicate with friends on this side?"
"Good God, no! Even to have known it would have been treason."
"You admit that?"
Furley drew himself stiffly up in his chair. His mass of brown hair seemed more unkempt than usual, his hard face sterner than ever by reason of its disfiguring frown.
"What the hell do you mean, Julian?"
"I mean," Julian replied, "that I have reason to suspect you, Furley, of holding or attempting to hold secret communication with an enemy country."
The pipestem which he was holding snapped in Furley's fingers. His eyes were filled with fury.
"Damn you, Julian!" he exclaimed. "If I could stand on two legs, I'd break your head. How dare you come here and talk such rubbish."
"Isn't there some truth in what I have just said?" Julian asked sternly.
"Not a word."
Julian was silent for a moment. Furley was sitting upright upon the sofa, his keen eyes aglint with anger.
"I am waiting for an explanation, Julian," he announced.
"You shall have it," was the prompt reply. "The companion of the man who was shot, for whom the police are searching at this moment, is a guest in my father's house. I have had to go to the extent of lying to save her from detection."
"Her?" Furley gasped.
"Yes! The youth in fisherman's oilskins, into whose hands that message passed last night, is Miss Catherine Abbeway. The young lady has referred me to you for some explanation as to its being in her possession."
Furley remained absolutely speechless for several moments. His first expression was one of dazed bewilderment. Then the light broke in upon him. He began to understand. When he spoke, all the vigour had left his tone.
"You'll have to let me think about this for a moment, Julian," he said.
"Take your own time. I only want an explanation."
Furley recovered himself slowly. He stretched out his hand towards the pipe rack, filled another pipe and lit it. Then he began.
"Julian," he said, "every word that I have spoken to you about the night before last is the truth. There is a further confession, however, which under the circumstances I have to make. I belong to a body of men who are in touch with a similar association in Germany, but I have no share in any of the practical doings—the machinery, I might call it—of our organisation. I have known that communications have passed back and forth, but I imagined that this was done through neutral countries. I went out the night before last as an ordinary British citizen, to do my duty. I had not the faintest idea that there was to be any attempt to land a communication here, referring to the matters in which I am interested. I should imagine that the proof, of my words lies in the fact that efforts were made to prevent my reaching my beat, and that you, my substitute, whom I deliberately sent to take my place, were attacked."