THE GREAT PRINCE SHAN
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
"A club for diplomats and gentlemen," Prince Karschoff remarked, looking lazily through a little cloud of tobacco smoke around the spacious but almost deserted card room. "The classification seems comprehensive enough, yet it seems impossible to get even a decent rubber of bridge."
Sir Daniel Harker, a many years retired plenipotentiary to one of the smaller Powers, shrugged his shoulders.
"Personally, I have come to the conclusion," he declared, "that the raison d'etre for the club seems to be passing. There is no diplomacy, nowadays, and every man who pays his taxes is a gentleman. Kingley, you are the youngest. Ransack the club and find a fourth."
The Honourable Nigel Kingley smiled lazily from the depths of his easy-chair. He was a young Englishman of normal type, long-limbed, clean-shaven, with good features, a humorous mouth and keen grey eyes.
"In actual years," he admitted, "I may have the advantage of you two, but so far as regards the qualities of youth, Karschoff is the youngest man here. Besides, no one could refuse him anything."
"It is a subterfuge," the Prince objected, "but if I must go, I will go presently. We will wait five minutes, in case Providence should be kind to us."
The three men relapsed into silence. They were seated in a comfortable recess of the card room of the St. Philip's Club. The atmosphere of the apartment seemed redolent with suggestions of faded splendour. There was a faint perfume of Russian calf from the many rows of musty volumes which still filled the stately bookcases. The oil paintings which hung upon the walls belonged to a remote period. In a distant corner, four other men were playing bridge, speechless and almost motionless, the white faces of two of them like cameos under the electric light and against the dark walls. There was no sound except the soft patter of the cards and the subdued movements of a servant preparing another bridge table by the side of the three men. Then the door of the room was quietly opened and closed. A man of youthful middle-age, carefully dressed, with a large, clean-shaven face, blue eyes, and fair hair sprinkled with grey, came towards them. He was well set up, almost anxiously ingratiating in manner.
"You see now what Providence has sent," Sir Daniel Harker observed under his breath.
"It is enough to make an atheist of one, this!" the Prince muttered.
"Any bridge?" the newcomer enquired, seating himself at the table and shuffling one of the packs of cards.
The three men rose to their feet with varying degrees of unwillingness.
"Immelan is too good for us," Sir Daniel grumbled. "He always wins."
"I am lucky," the newcomer admitted, "but I may be your partner; in which case, you too will win."
"If you are my partner," the Prince declared, "I shall play for five pounds a hundred. I desire to gamble. London is beginning to weary me."
"Mr. Kingley is a better player, though not so lucky," Immelan acknowledged, with a little bow.
"Never believe it, with all due respect to our young friend here," Sir Daniel replied, as he cut a card. "Kingley plays like a man with brain but without subtlety. In a duel between you two, I would back Immelan every time."
Kingley took his place at the table with a little gesture of resignation. He looked across the table to where Immelan sat displaying the card which he had just cut. The eyes of the two men met. A few seconds of somewhat significant silence followed. Then Immelan gathered up the cards.
"I have the utmost respect for Mr. Kingley as an adversary," he said.
The latter bowed a little ironically.
"May you always preserve that sentiment! To-day, chance seems to have made us partners. Your deal, Mr. Immelan."
"What stakes?" the Prince enquired, settling himself down in his chair.
"They are for you to name," Immelan declared.
The Prince laughed shortly.
"I believe you are as great a gambler at heart as I am," he observed.
"With Mr. Kingley for my partner, and the game one of skill," was the courteous reply, "I do not need to limit my stakes."
A servant crossed the room, bringing a note upon a tray. He presented it to Kingley, who opened and read it through without change of countenance. When he had finished it, however, he laid his cards face downwards upon the table.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I owe you my most profound apologies. I am called away at once on a matter of urgent business."
"But this is most annoying," the Prince declared irritably.
"Here comes my saviour," Kingley remarked, as another man entered the card room. "Henderson will take my place. Glad I haven't to break you up, after all. Henderson, will you play a rubber?"
The newcomer assented. Nigel Kingley made his adieux and crossed the room. Immelan watched him curiously.
"What is our friend Kingley's profession?" he enquired.
"He has no profession," Sir Daniel replied. "He has never come into touch with the sordid needs of these money-grubbing days. He is the nephew and heir of the Earl of Dorminster."
Immelan looked away from the retreating figure.
"Lord Dorminster," he murmured. "The same Lord Dorminster who was in the Government many years ago?"
"He was Foreign Secretary when I was Governor of Jamaica," Sir Daniel answered. "A very brilliant man he was in those days."
Immelan nodded thoughtfully.
"I remember," he said.
Nigel Kingley, on leaving the St. Philip's Club, was driven at once, in the automobile which he found awaiting him, to a large corner house in Belgrave Square, which he entered with the air of an habitue. The waiting major-domo took him at once in charge and piloted him across the hall.
"His lordship is very much occupied, Mr. Nigel," he announced. "He is not seeing any other callers. He left word, however, that you were to be shown in the moment you arrived."
"His lordship is quite well, I hope?"
"Well in health, sir, but worried, and I don't wonder at it," the man replied, speaking with the respectful freedom of an old servant. "I never thought I'd live to see such times as these."
A man in the early sixties, still good-looking, notwithstanding a somewhat worn expression, looked up from his seat at the library table on Kingley's entrance. He nodded, but waited until the door was closed behind the retreating servant before he spoke.
"Good of you to come, Nigel," he said. "Bring your chair up here."
"Bad news?" the newcomer enquired.
There was a brief silence, during which Nigel, knowing his uncle's humours, leaned back in his chair and waited. Upon the table was a little pile of closely written manuscript, and by their side several black-bound code books, upon which the "F.O.Private" still remained, though almost obliterated with time. Lord Dorminster's occupation was apparent. He was decoding a message of unusual length. Presently he turned away from the table, however, and faced his nephew. His hands travelled to his waistcoat pocket. He drew out a cigarette from a thin gold case, lit it and began to smoke. Then he crossed his legs and leaned a little farther back in his chair.
"Nigel," he said, "we are living in strange times."
"No one denies that, sir," was the grave assent.
Lord Dorminster glanced at the calendar which stood upon the desk.
"To-day," he continued, "is the twenty-third day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty-four. Fifteen years ago that terrible Peace Treaty was signed. Since then you know what the history of our country has been. I am not blowing my own trumpet when I say that nearly every man with true political insight has been cast adrift. At the present moment the country is in the hands of a body of highly respectable and well-meaning men who, as a parish council, might conduct the affairs of Dorminster Town with unqualified success. As statesmen they do not exist. It seems to me, Nigel, that you and I are going to see in reality that spectre which terrified the world twenty years ago. We are going to see the breaking up of a mighty empire."
"Tell me what has happened or is going to happen," Nigel begged.
"Well, for one thing," his uncle replied, "the Emperor of the East is preparing for a visit to Europe. He will be here probably next month. You know whom I mean, of course?"
"Prince Shan!" Nigel exclaimed.
"Prince Shan of China," Lord Dorminster assented. "His coming links up many things which had been puzzling me. I tell you, Nigel, what happens during Prince Shan's visit will probably decide the destinies of this country, and yet I wouldn't mind betting you a thousand to one that there isn't a single official of the Government who has the slightest idea as to why he is coming, or that he is coming at all."
"Do you know?" Nigel asked.
"I can only surmise. Let us leave Prince Shan for the moment, Nigel. Now listen. You go about a great deal. What do people say about me—honestly, I mean? Speak with your face to the light."
"They call you a faddist and a scaremonger," Nigel confessed, "yet there are one or two, especially at the St. Philip's Club, diplomatists and ambassadors whose place in the world has passed away, who think and believe differently. You know, sir, that I am amongst them."
Lord Dorminster nodded kindly.
"Well," he said, "I fancy I am about to prove myself. Seven years ago, it was," he went on reminiscently, "when the new National Party came into supreme power. You know one of their first battle cries—'Down with all secret treaties! Down with all secret diplomacy! Let nothing exist but an honest commercial understanding between the different countries of the world!' How Germany and Russia howled with joy! In place of an English statesman with his country's broad interests at heart, we have in Berlin and Petrograd half a dozen representatives of the great industries, whose object, in their own words, is, I believe, to develop friendly commercialism and a feeling of brotherhood between the nations. Not only our ambassadors but our secret service were swept clean out of existence. I remember going to Broadley, the day he was appointed Foreign Minister, and I asked him a simple question. I asked him whether he did not consider it his duty to keep his finger upon the pulses of the other great nations, however friendly they might seem, to keep himself assured that all these expressions of good will were honourable, and that in the heart of the German nation that great craving for revenge which is the natural heritage of the present generation had really become dissipated. Broadley smiled at me. 'Lord Dorminster,' he said, 'the chief cause of wars in the past has been suspicion. We look upon espionage as a disgraceful practice. It is the people of Germany with whom we are in touch now, not a military oligarchy, and the people of Germany no more desire war than we do. Besides, there is the League of Nations.' Those were Broadley's views then, and they are his views to-day. You know what I did?"
Nigel assented cautiously.
"I suppose it is an open secret amongst a few of us," he observed. "You have been running an unofficial secret service of your own."
"Precisely! I have had a few agents at work for over a year, and when I have finished decoding this last dispatch, I shall have evidence which will prove beyond a doubt that we are on the threshold of terrible events. The worst of it is—well, we have been found out."
"What do you mean?" Nigel asked quickly.
His uncle's sensitive lips quivered.
"You knew Sidwell?"
"Sidwell was found stabbed to the heart in a cafe in Petrograd, three weeks ago," Lord Dorminster announced. "An official report of the enquiry into his death informs his relatives that his death was due to a quarrel with some Russian sailors over one of the women of the quarter where he was found."
"Horrible!" Nigel muttered.
"Sidwell was one of those unnatural people, as you know," Lord Dorminster went on, "who never touched wine or spirits and who hated women. To continue. Atcheson was a friend of yours, wasn't he?"
"Of course! He was at Eton with me. It was I who first brought him here to dine. Don't tell me that anything has happened to Jim Atcheson!"
"This dispatch is from him," Lord Dorminster replied, indicating the pile of manuscript upon the table,—"a dispatch which came into my hands in a most marvellous fashion. He died last week in a nursing home in—well, let us say a foreign capital. The professor in charge of the hospital sends a long report as to the unhappy disease from which he suffered. As a matter of fact, he was poisoned."
Nigel Kingley had been a soldier in his youth and he was a brave man. Nevertheless, the horror of these things struck a cold chill to his heart. He seemed suddenly to be looking into the faces of spectres, to hear the birth of the winds of destruction.
"That is all I have to say to you for the moment," his uncle concluded gravely. "In an hour I shall have finished decoding this dispatch, and I propose then to take you into my entire confidence. In the meantime, I want you to go and talk for a few minutes to the cleverest woman in England, the woman who, in the face of a whole army of policemen and detectives, crossed the North Sea yesterday afternoon with this in her pocket."
"You don't mean Maggie?" Nigel exclaimed eagerly.
His uncle nodded.
"You will find her in the boudoir," he said. "I told her that you were coming. In an hour's time, return here."
Lord Dorminster rose to his feet as his nephew turned to depart. He laid his hand upon the latter's shoulder, and Nigel always remembered the grave kindliness of his tone and expression.
"Nigel," he sighed, "I am afraid I shall be putting upon your shoulders a terrible burden, but there is no one else to whom I can turn."
"There is no one else to whom you ought to turn, sir," the young man replied simply. "I shall be back in an hour."
Lady Maggie Trent, a stepdaughter of the Earl of Dorminster, was one of those young women who had baffled description for some years before she had commenced to take life seriously. She was neither fair nor dark, petite nor tall. No one could ever have called her nondescript, or have extolled any particular grace of form or feature. Her complexion had defied the ravages of sun and wind and that moderate indulgence in cigarettes and cocktails which the youth of her day affected. Her nose was inclined to be retrousse, her mouth tender but impudent, her grey eyes mostly veiled in expression but capable of wonderful changes. She was curled up in a chair when Nigel entered, immersed in a fashion paper. She held out her left hand, which he raised to his lips.
"Well, Nigel, dear," she exclaimed, "what do you think of my new profession?"
"I hate it," he answered frankly.
She sighed and laid down the fashion paper resignedly.
"You always did object to a woman doing anything in the least useful. Do you realise that if anything in the world can save this stupid old country, I have done it?"
"I realise that you've been running hideous risks," he replied.
She looked at him petulantly.
"What of it?" she demanded. "We all run risks when we do anything worth while."
"Not quite the sort that you have been facing."
She smiled thoughtfully.
"Do you know exactly where I have been?" she asked.
"No idea," he confessed. "What my uncle has just told me was a complete revelation, so far as I was concerned. I believed, with the rest of the world, what the newspapers announced—that you were visiting Japan and China, and afterwards the South Sea Islands, with the Wendercombes."
"Dad wanted to tell you," she said, "but it was I who made him promise not to. I was afraid you would be disagreeable about it. We arranged it all with the Wendercombes, but as a matter of fact I did not even start with them. For the last eight months, I have been living part of the time in Berlin and part of the time in a country house near the Black Forest."
"Not a bit of it! I have been governess to the two daughters of Herr Essendorf."
"Essendorf, the President of the German Republic?"
Lady Maggie nodded.
"He isn't a bit like his pictures. He is a huge fat man and he eats a great deal too much. Oh, the horror of those meals!" she added, with a little shudder. "Think of me, dear Nigel, who never eat more than an omelette and some fruit for luncheon, compelled to sit down every day to a mittagessen! I wonder I have any digestion left at all."
"Do you mean that you were there under your own name?" he asked incredulously.
She shook her head.
"I secured some perfectly good testimonials before I left," she said. "They referred to a Miss Brown, the daughter of Prebendary Brown. I was Miss Brown."
"Great Heavens!" Nigel muttered under his breath. "You heard about Atcheson?"
"Poor fellow, they got him all right. You talk about thrills, Nigel," she went on. "Do you know that the last night before I left for my vacation, I actually heard that fat old Essendorf chuckling with his wife about how his clever police had laid an English spy by the heels, and telling her, also, of the papers which they had discovered and handed over. All the time the real dispatch, written by Atcheson when he was dying, was sewn into my corsets. How's that for an exciting situation?"
"It's a man's job, anyhow," Nigel declared.
She shrugged her shoulders and abandoned the personal side of the subject.
"Have you been in Germany lately, Nigel?" she enquired.
"Not for many years," he answered.
She stretched herself out upon the couch and lit a cigarette.
"The Germany of before the war of course I can't remember," she said pensively. "I imagine, however, that there was a sort of instinctive jealous dislike towards England and everything English, simply because England had had a long start in colonisation, commerce and all the rest of it. But the feeling in Germany now, although it is marvellously hidden, is something perfectly amazing. It absolutely vibrates wherever you go. The silence makes it all the more menacing. Soon after I got to Berlin, I bought a copy of the Treaty of Peace and read it. Nigel, was it necessary to have been so bitterly cruel to a beaten enemy?"
"Logically it would seem not," Nigel admitted. "Actually, we cannot put ourselves back into the spirit of those days. You must remember that it was an unprovoked war, a war engineered by Germany for the sheer purposes of aggression. That is why a punitive spirit entered into our subsequent negotiations."
"I expect history will tell us some day," she continued, "that we needed a great statesman of the Beaconsfield type at the Peace table. However, that is all ended. They sowed the seed at Versailles, and I think we are going to reap the harvest."
"After all," Nigel observed thoughtfully, "it is very difficult to see what practical interference there could be with the peace of the world. I can very well believe that the spirit is there, but when it comes to hard facts—well, what can they do? England can never be invaded. The war of 1914 proved that. Besides, Germany now has a representative on the League of Nations. She is bound to toe the line with the rest."
"It is not in Germany alone that we are disliked," Maggie reminded him. "We seem somehow or other to have found our way into the bad books of every country in Europe. Clumsy statesmanship is it, or what?"
"I should attribute it," Nigel replied, "to the passing of our old school of ambassadors. After all, ambassadors are born, not made, and they should be—they very often were—men of rare tact and perceptions. We have no one now to inform us of the prejudices and humours of the nations. We often offend quite unwittingly, and we miss many opportunities of a rapprochement. It is trade, trade, trade and nothing else, the whole of the time, and the men whom we sent to the different Courts to further our commercial interests are not the type to keep us informed of the more subtle and intricate matters which sometimes need adjustment between two countries."
"That may be the explanation of all the bad feeling," Maggie admitted, "and you may be right when you say that any practical move against us is almost impossible. Dad doesn't think so, you know. He is terribly exercised about the coming of Prince Shan."
"I must get him to talk to me," Nigel said. "As a matter of fact, I don't think that we need fear Asiatic intervention over here. Prince Shan is too great a diplomatist to risk his country's new prosperity."
"Prince Shan," Maggie declared, "is the one man in the world I am longing to meet. He was at Oxford with you, wasn't he, Nigel?"
"For one year only. He went from there to Harvard."
"Tell me what he was like," she begged.
"I have only a hazy recollection of him," Nigel confessed. "He was a most brilliant scholar and a fine horseman. I can't remember whether he did anything at games."
"Extraordinarily so. He was very reserved, though, and even in those days he was far more exclusive than our own royal princes. We all thought him clever, but no one dreamed that he would become Asia's great man. I'll tell you all that I can remember about him another time, Maggie. I'm rather curious about that report of Atcheson's. Have you any idea what it is about?"
She shook her head.
"None at all. It is in the old Foreign Office cipher and it looks like gibberish. I only know that the first few lines he transcribed gave dad the jumps."
"I wonder if he has finished it by now."
"He'll send for you when he has. How do you think I am looking, Nigel?"
"Wonderful," he answered, rising to his feet and standing with his elbow upon the mantelpiece, gazing down at her. "But then you are wonderful, aren't you, Maggie? You know I always thought so."
She picked up a mirror from the little bag by her side and scrutinized her features.
"It can't be my face," she decided, turning towards him with a smile. "I must have charm."
"Your face is adorable," he declared.
"Are you going to flirt with me?" she asked, with a faint smile at the corners of her lips. "You always do it so well and so convincingly. And I hate foreigners. They are terribly in earnest but there is no finesse about them. You may kiss me just once, please, Nigel, the way I like."
He held her for a moment in his arms, tenderly, but with a reserve to which she was accustomed from him. Presently she thrust him away. Her own colour had risen a little.
"Delightful," she murmured. "Think of the wasted months! No one has kissed me, Nigel, since we said good-bye."
"Have you made up your mind to marry me yet?" he asked.
"My dear," she answered, patting his hand, "do restrain your ardour. Do you really want to marry me?"
"Of course I do!"
"You don't love me."
"I am awfully fond of you," he assured her, "and I don't love any one else."
She shook her head.
"It isn't enough, Nigel," she declared, "and, strange to say, it's exactly how I feel about you."
"I don't see why it shouldn't be enough," he argued. "Perhaps we have too much common sense for these violent feelings."
"It may be that," she admitted doubtfully. "On the other hand, don't let's run any risk. I should hate to find an affinity, and all that sort of thing, after marriage—divorce in these days is such shocking bad form. Besides, honestly, Nigel, I don't feel frivolous enough to think about marriage just now. I have the feeling that even while the clock is ticking we are moving on to terrible things. I can't tell you quite what it is. I carried my life in my hands during those last few days abroad. I dare say this is the reaction."
He smiled reassuringly.
"After all, you are safe at home now, dear," he reminded her, "and I really am very fond of you, Maggie."
"And I'm quite absurdly fond of you, Nigel," she acknowledged. "It makes me feel quite uncomfortable when I reflect that I shall probably have to order you to make love to some one else before the week is out."
"I shall do nothing of the sort," he declared firmly. "I am not good at that sort of thing. And who is she, anyhow?"
They were interrupted by a sudden knock at the door—not the discreet tap of a well-bred domestic, but a flurried, almost an imperative summons. Before either of them could reply, the door was opened and Brookes, the elderly butler, presented himself upon the threshold. Even before he spoke, it was clear that he brought alarming news.
"Will you step down to the library at once, sir?" he begged, addressing Nigel.
"What is the matter, Brookes?" Maggie demanded anxiously.
"I fear that his lordship is not well," the man replied.
They all hurried out together. Brookes was evidently terribly perturbed and went on talking half to himself without heeding their questions.
"I thought at first that his lordship must have fainted," he said. "I heard a queer noise, and when I went in, he had fallen forward across the table. Parkins has rung for Doctor Wilcox."
"What sort of a noise?" Nigel asked.
"It sounded like a shot," the man faltered.
They entered the library, Nigel leading the way. Lord Dorminster was lying very much as Brookes had described him, but there was something altogether unnatural in the collapse of his head and shoulders and his motionless body. Nigel spoke to him, touched him gently, raised him at last into a sitting position. Something on which his right hand seemed to have been resting clattered on to the carpet. Nigel turned around and waved Maggie back.
"Don't come," he begged.
"Is it a stroke?" she faltered.
"I am afraid that he is dead," Nigel answered simply.
They went out into the hall and waited there in shocked silence until the doctor arrived. The latter's examination lasted only a few seconds. Then he pointed to the telephone.
"This is very terrible," he said. "I am afraid you had better ring up Scotland Yard, Mr. Kingley. Lord Dorminster appears either to have shot himself, as seems most probable," he added, glancing at the revolver upon the carpet, "or to have been murdered."
"It is incredible!" Nigel exclaimed. "He was the sanest possible man, and the happiest, and he hadn't an enemy in the world."
The physician pointed downwards to the revolver. Then he unfastened once more the dead man's waistcoat, opened his shirt and indicated a small blue mark just over his heart.
"That is how he died," he said. "It must have been instantaneous."
Time seemed to beat out its course in leaden seconds whilst they waited for the superintendent from Scotland Yard. Nigel at first stood still for some moments. From outside came the cheerful but muffled roar of the London streets, the hooting of motor horns, the rumbling of wheels, the measured footfall of the passing multitude. A boy went by, whistling; another passed, calling hoarsely the news from the afternoon papers. A muffin man rang his bell, a small boy clattered his stick against the area bailing. The whole world marched on, unmoved and unnoticing. In this sombre apartment alone tragedy reigned in sinister silence. On the sofa, Lord Dorminster, who only half an hour ago had seemed to be in the prime of life and health, lay dead.
Nigel moved towards the writing-table and stood looking at it in wonder. The code book still remained, but there was not the slightest sign of any manuscript or paper of any sort. He even searched the drawers of the desk without result. Every trace of Atcheson's dispatch and Lord Dorminster's transcription of it had disappeared!
On a certain day some weeks after the adjourned inquest and funeral of Lord Dorminster, Nigel obtained a long-sought-for interview with the Right Honourable Mervin Brown, who had started life as a factory inspector and was now Prime Minister of England. The great man received his visitor with an air of good-natured tolerance.
"Heard of you from Scotland Yard, haven't I, Lord Dorminster?" he said, as he waved him to a seat. "I gather that you disagreed very strongly with the open verdict which was returned at the inquest upon your uncle?"
"The verdict was absolutely at variance with the facts," Nigel declared. "My uncle was murdered, and a secret report of certain doings on the continent, which he was decoding at the time, was stolen."
"The medical evidence scarcely bears out your statement," Mr. Mervin Brown pointed out dryly, "nor have the police been able to discover how any one could have obtained access to the room, or left it, without leaving some trace of their visit behind. Further, there are no indications of a robbery having been attempted."
"I happen to know more than any one else about this matter," Nigel urged,—"more, even, than I thought it advisable to mention at the inquest—and I beg you to listen to me, Mr. Mervin Brown. I know that you considered my uncle to be in some respects a crank, because he was far-seeing enough to understand that under the seeming tranquillity abroad there is a universal and deep-seated hatred of this country."
"I look upon that statement as misleading and untrue," the Minister declared. "Your late uncle belonged to that mischievous section of foreign politicians who believed in secret treaties and secret service, and who fostered a state of nervous unrest between countries otherwise disposed to be friendly. We have turned over a new leaf, Lord Dorminster. Our efforts are all directed towards developing an international spirit of friendliness and trust."
"Utopian but very short-sighted," Nigel commented. "If my uncle had lived to finish decoding the report upon which he was engaged, I could have offered you proof not only of the existence of the spirit I speak of, but of certain practical schemes inimical to this country."
"The papers you speak of have disappeared," Mr. Mervin Brown observed, with a smile.
"They were taken away by the person who murdered my uncle," Nigel insisted.
The Right Honourable gentleman nodded.
"Well, you know my views about the affair," he said. "I may add that they are confirmed by the police. I am in no way prejudiced, however, and am willing to listen to anything you may have to say which will not take you more than a quarter of an hour," he added, glancing at the clock upon his table.
"Here goes, then," Nigel began. "My uncle was a statesman of the old school who had no faith in the Utopian programme of the present Government of this country. When you abandoned any pretence of a continental secret service, he at his own expense instituted a small one of his own. He sent two men out to Germany and one to Russia. The one sent to Russia was the man Sidwell, whose murder in a Petrograd cafe you may have read of. Of the two sent to Germany, one has disappeared, and the other died in hospital, without a doubt poisoned, a few days after he had sent the report to England which was stolen from my uncle's desk. That report was brought over by Lady Maggie Trent, Lord Dorminster's stepdaughter, who was really the brains of the enterprise and under another name was acting as governess to the children of Herr Essendorf, President of the German Republic. Half an hour before his death, my uncle was decoding this dispatch in his library. I saw him doing it, and I saw the dispatch itself. He told me that so far as he had gone already, it was full of information of the gravest import; that a definite scheme was already being formulated against this country by an absolutely unique and dangerous combination of enemies."
"Those enemies being?"
Nigel shook his head.
"That I can only surmise," he replied. "My uncle had only commenced to decode the dispatch when I last saw him."
"Then I gather, Lord Dorminster," the Minister said, "that you connect your uncle's death directly with the supposed theft of this document?"
"And the conclusion you arrive at, then?"
"Is an absolutely logical one," Nigel declared firmly. "I assert that other countries are not falling into line with our lamentable abnegation of all secret service defence, and that, in plain words, my uncle was murdered by an agent of one of these countries, in order that the dispatch which had come into his hands should not be decoded and passed on to your Government."
The Right Honourable gentleman smiled slightly. He was a man of some natural politeness, but he found it hard to altogether conceal his incredulity.
"Well, Lord Dorminster," he promised, "I will consider all that you have said. Is there anything more I can do for you?"
"Yes!" Nigel replied boldly. "Induce the Cabinet to reestablish our Intelligence Department and secret service, even on a lesser scale, and don't rest until you have discovered exactly what it is they are plotting against us somewhere on the continent."
"To carry out your suggestions, Lord Dorminster," the Minister pointed out, "would be to be guilty of an infringement of the spirit of the League of Nations, the existence of which body is, we believe, a practical assurance of our safety."
Nigel rose to his feet.
"As man to man, sir," he said, "I see you don't believe a word of what I have been telling you."
"As man to man," the other admitted pleasantly, as he touched the bell, "I think you have been deceived."
* * * * *
Nigel, even as a prophet of woe, was a very human person and withal a philosopher. He strolled along Piccadilly and turned into Bond Street, thoroughly enjoying one of the first spring days of the season. Flower sellers were busy at every corner; the sky was blue, with tiny flecks of white clouds, there was even some dust stirred by the little puffs of west wind. He exchanged greetings with a few acquaintances, lingered here and there before the shop windows, and presently developed a fit of contemplation engendered by the thoughts which were all the time at the back of his mind. Bond Street was crowded with vehicles of all sorts, from wonderfully upholstered automobiles to the resuscitated victoria. The shop windows were laden with the treasures of the world, buyers were plentiful, promenaders multitudinous. Every one seemed to be cheerful but a little engrossed in the concrete act of living. Nigel almost ran into Prince Karschoff, at the corner of Grafton Street.
"Dreaming, my friend?" the latter asked quietly, as he laid his hand upon Nigel's shoulder.
"Guilty," Nigel confessed. "You are an observant man, Prince. Tell me whether anything strikes you about the Bond Street of to-day, compared with the Bond Street of, say, ten years ago?"
The Russian glanced around him curiously. He himself was a somewhat unusual figure in his distinctively cut morning coat, his carefully tied cravat, his silk hat, black and white check trousers and faultless white spats.
"A certain decline of elegance," he murmured. "And is it my fancy or has this country become a trifle Americanised as regards the headgear of its men?"
"I believe our thoughts are moving in the same groove," he said. "To me there seems to be a different class of people here, as though the denizens of West Kensington, suddenly enriched, had come to spend their money in new quarters. Not only that, but there is a difference in the wares set out in the shops, an absence of taste, if you can understand what I mean, as though the shopkeepers themselves understood that they were catering for a new class of people."
"It is the triumph of your bourgeoisie," the Russian declared. "Your aristocrat is no longer able to survive. Noblesse oblige has no significance to the shopman. He wants the fat cheques, and he caters for the people who can write them. Let us pursue our reflections a little farther and in a different direction, my friend," he added, glancing at his watch. "Lunch with me at the Ritz, and we will see whether the cookery, too, has been adapted to the new tastes."
Nigel hesitated for a moment, a somewhat curious hesitation which he many times afterwards remembered.
"I am not very keen on restaurants for a week or two," he said doubtfully. "Besides, I had half promised to be at the club."
"Not to-day," Karschoff insisted. "To-day let us listen to the call of the world. Woman is at her loveliest in the spring. The Ritz Restaurant will look like a bouquet of flowers. Perhaps 'One for you and one for me.' At any rate, one is sure of an omelette one can eat."
The two men turned together towards Piccadilly.
Luncheon at the Ritz was an almost unexpectedly pleasant meal. The two men sat at a table near the door and exchanged greetings with many acquaintances. Karschoff, who was in an unusually loquacious frame of mind, pointed out many of the habitues of the place to his companion.
"I am become a club and restaurant lounger in my old age," he declared, a little bitterly. "Almost a boulevardier. Still, what else is there for a man without a country to do?"
"You know everybody," Nigel replied, without reference to his companion's lament. "Tell me who the woman is who has just entered?"
Karschoff glanced in the direction indicated, and for a moment his somewhat saturnine expression changed. A smile played upon his lips, his eyes seemed to rest upon the figure of the girl half turned away from them with interest, almost with pleasure. She was of an unusual type, tall and dark, dressed in black with the simplicity of a nun, with only a little gleam of white at her throat. Her hair—so much of it as showed under her flower-garlanded hat—was as black as jet, and yet, where she stood in the full glare of the sunlight, the burnish of it was almost wine-coloured. Her cheeks were pale, her expression thoughtful. Her eyes, rather heavily lidded, were a deep shade of violet. Her mouth was unexpectedly soft and red.
"Ah, my friend, no wonder you ask!" Karschoff declared with enthusiasm. "That is a woman whom you must know."
"Tell me her name," Nigel persisted with growing impatience.
"Her name," Karschoff replied, "is Naida Karetsky. She is the daughter of the man who will probably be the next President of the Russian Republic. You see, I can speak those words without a tremor. Her father at present represents the shipping interests of Russia and England. He is one of the authorised consuls."
"Is he of the party?"
Karschoff scrutinised the approaching figures through his eyeglass and nodded.
"Her father is the dark, broad-shouldered man with the square beard," he indicated. "Immelan, as you can see, is the third. They are coming this way. We will speak of them afterwards."
Naida, with her father and Oscar Immelan, left some acquaintances with whom they had been talking and, preceded by a maitre d'hotel, moved in the direction of the two men. The girl recognised the Prince with a charming little bow and was on the point of passing on when she appeared to notice his companion. For a moment she hesitated. The Prince, anticipating her desire to speak, rose at once to his feet.
"Mademoiselle," he said, bending over her hand, "welcome back to England! You bring with you the first sunshine we have seen for many days."
"Are you being meteorological or complimentary?" she asked, smiling. "Will you present your companion? I have heard of Mr. Kingley."
"With the utmost pleasure," the Prince replied. "Mr. Kingley, through the unfortunate death of a relative, is now the Earl of Dorminster—Mademoiselle Karetsky."
Nigel, as he made his bow, was conscious of an expression of something more than ordinary curiosity in the face of the girl who had herself aroused his interest.
"You are the son, then," she enquired, "of Lord Dorminster who died about a month ago?"
"His nephew," Nigel explained. "My uncle was unfortunately childless."
"I met your uncle once in Paris," she said. "It will give me great pleasure to make your better acquaintance. Will you and my dear friend here," she added, turning to the Prince, "take coffee with us afterwards? I shall then introduce you to my father. Oscar Immelan you both know, of course."
They murmured their delighted assent, and she passed on. Nigel watched her until she took her place at the table.
"Surely that girl is well-born?" he observed. "I have never seen a more delightful carriage."
"You are right," Karschoff told him. "Karetsky is a well-to-do man of commerce, but her mother was a Baroness Kolchekoff, a distant relative of my own. The Kolchekoffs lived on their estates, and as a matter of fact we never met. Naida has gone over to the people, though, body and soul."
"She is extraordinarily beautiful," Nigel remarked.
His companion was swinging his eyeglass back and forth by its cord.
"Many men have thought so," he replied. "For myself, there is antagonism in my blood against her. I wonder whether I have done well or ill in making you two acquainted."
Nigel felt a sudden desire to break through a certain seriousness which had come over his own thoughts and which was reflected in the other's tone. He shrugged his shoulders slightly and filled his glass with wine.
"Every man in the world is the better," he propounded, "for adding to the circle of his acquaintances a beautiful woman."
"Sententious and a trifle inaccurate," the Prince objected, with a sudden flash of his white teeth. "The beauty which is not for him has been many a man's undoing. But seriously, my quarrel with Naida is one of prejudice only. She is the confidante and the inspiration of Matinsky, and though one realises, of course, that so long as there is a Russian Republic there must be a Russian President, I suppose I should scarcely be human if I did not hate him."
"Surely," Nigel queried, "she must be very much his junior?"
"Matinsky is forty-four," Karschoff said. "Naida is twenty-six or twenty-seven. The disparity of years, you see, is not so great. Matinsky, however, is married to an invalid wife, and concerning Naida I have never heard one word of scandal. But this much is certain. Matinsky has the blandest confidence in her judgment and discretion. She has already been his unofficial ambassador in several capitals of Europe. I am convinced that she is here with a purpose. But enough of my country-people. We came here to be gay. Let us drink another bottle of wine."
The joy of living seemed for a moment to reassert itself in Karschoff's face. His momentary fierceness, reminiscent of his Tartar ancestry, had passed, but it had left a shadow behind.
"At least one should be grateful," he conceded a moment later, "for the distinction such a woman as Naida Karetsky brings into a room like this. Our Bond Street lament finds its proof here. Except for their clothes—so ill-worn, too, most of them—the women here remind one of Blackpool, and their men of Huddersfield. I am inclined to wish that I had taken you to Soho."
Nigel shook his head. His eyes had strayed to a distant corner of the room, where Naida and her two companions were seated.
"We cannot escape anywhere," he declared, "from this overmastering wave of mediocrity. A couple of generations and a little intermarriage may put things right. A Chancellor of the Exchequer with genius, fifteen years ago, might even have prevented it."
"You can claim, at any rate, a bloodless and unapparent revolution," the Prince observed. "You chivied your aristocracy of birth out of existence with yellow papers, your aristocracy of mind with a devastating income tax. This is the class whom you left to gorge,—the war profiteers. I hope that whoever writes the history of these times will see that it is properly illustrated."
In the lounge, they had barely seated themselves before Naida, with her father and Immelan, appeared. The little party at once joined up, and Naida seated herself next to Nigel. She talked very slowly, but her accent amounted to little more than a prolongation of certain syllables, which had the effect of a rather musical drawl. Her father, after the few words of introduction had been spoken, strolled away to speak to some acquaintances, and Immelan and the Prince discussed with measured politeness one of the commonplace subjects of the moment. Naida and her companion became almost isolated.
"I met your uncle once," Naida said, "at a dinner party in Paris. I remember that he attracted me. He represented a class of Englishman of whom I had met very few, the thinking aristocrat with a sense for foreign affairs. It was some years ago, that. He remained outside politics, did he not, until his death?"
"Outside all practical politics," Nigel assented. "He had his interests, though."
She looked at him thoughtfully.
"Have you inherited them?" she asked.
He declined the challenge of her eyes. After all, she belonged to the Russia whose growing strength was the greatest menace to European peace, and whose attitude towards England was entirely uncertain.
"My uncle and I were scarcely intimate," he said. "I was never really in his confidence."
"Not so much so as Lady Maggie Trent? She would be your cousin?"
"It is not a relationship of blood," Nigel replied. "Lady Maggie was the daughter of my uncle's second wife."
"She is very charming," Naida murmured.
"I find her delightful," Nigel agreed.
"She is not only charming, but she has intelligence," Naida continued. "I think that Lord Dorminster was very fond of her, that he trusted her with many of his secrets."
"Had he secrets?" Nigel asked.
She remained for a moment very thoughtful, smoking a thin cigarette through a long holder and watching the little rings of smoke.
"You are right," she said at last. "I find your attitude the only correct one. Did you know that Maggie was a friend of mine, Lord Dorminster?"
"I can very well believe it," he answered, "but I have never heard her speak of you."
"Ah! But she has been away for some months. You have not seen much of her, perhaps, since her return?"
"Very little," he acquiesced. "She only arrived in London just before my uncle's death, and since then I have had to spend some time at Dorminster."
"As a matter of curiosity," Naida enquired, "when do you expect to see her again?"
"This afternoon, I hope," he replied,—"directly I leave here, in fact."
"Then you will give her a little message for me, please?"
"With great pleasure!"
"Tell her from me—mind she understands this, if you please—that she is not to leave England again until we have met."
"Is this a warning?" he asked.
She looked at him searchingly.
"I wonder," she reflected, "how much of you is Lord Dorminster's nephew."
"And I, in my turn," he rejoined, with sudden boldness, "wonder how much of you is Matinsky's envoy."
She began to laugh softly.
"We shall perhaps be friends, Lord Dorminster," she said. "I should like to see more of you."
"You will permit me to call upon you," he begged eagerly.
"Will you come? We are at the Milan Court for a little time. My father is trying to get a house. My sister is coming over to look after him. I am unfortunately only a bird of passage."
"Then I shall not run the risk of missing you," he declared. "I shall call very soon."
Immelan intervened,—grim, suspicious, a little disturbed. For some reason or other, the meeting between these two young people seemed to have made him uneasy.
"Your father has desired me to present his excuses to Lord Dorminster," he announced, "and to escort you back to the Milan. He has been telephoned for from the Consulate."
Naida rose to her feet with some apparent reluctance.
"You will not delay your call too long, Lord Dorminster?" she enjoined, as she gave him her hand. "I shall expect you the first afternoon you are free."
"I shall not delay giving myself the pleasure," he assured her.
She nodded and made her adieux to the Prince. The two men stood together and watched her depart with her companion.
"Really, one gains much through being an onlooker," the Prince reflected. "There go the spirit of Russia and the spirit of Germany. You dabble in these things, my friend Dorminster. Can you guess what they are met for—for whom they wait?"
"I might guess," Nigel replied, "but I would rather be told."
"They wait for the master spirit," Karschoff declared, taking his arm. "They wait for the great Prince Shan."
Nigel and Maggie had tea together in the little room which the latter had used as a boudoir. They were discussing the question of her future residence there.
"I am afraid," he declared, "that you will have to marry me."
"It would have its advantages," she admitted thoughtfully. "I am really so fond of you, Nigel. I should be married at St. Mary Abbot's, Kensington, and have the Annersley children for bridesmaids. Don't you think I should look sweet in old gold and orange blossoms?"
"Don't tantalise me," he begged.
"We really must decide upon something," she insisted. "I hate giving up my rooms here, I should hate having my worthy aunt as resident duenna, and I suppose it would be gloriously improper for us two to go on living here if I didn't. Are you quite sure that you love me, Nigel?"
"I am not quite so sure as I was this morning," he confessed, holding out his cup for some more tea. "I met a perfectly adorable girl to-day at luncheon at the Ritz. Such eyes, Maggie, and the slimmest, most wonderful figure you ever saw!"
"Who was the cat?" Maggie enquired with asperity.
"She is Russian. Her name is Naida Karetsky. Karschoff introduced me."
Maggie was suddenly serious. There was just a trace of the one expression he had never before seen in her face—fear—lurking in her eyes, even asserting itself in her tone.
"Naida Karetsky?" she repeated. "Tell me exactly how you met her?"
"She was lunching with her father and Oscar Immelan. She stopped to speak to Karschoff and asked him to present me. Afterwards, she invited us to take coffee in the lounge."
"She went out of her way to make your acquaintance, then?"
"Yes, I suppose she did."
"You know who she is?"
"The daughter of one of the Russian Consuls over here, I understood."
"She is more than that," Maggie declared nervously. "She is the inspiration of the President himself. She is the most vital force in Russian politics. She is the woman whom I wanted you to know, to whom I told you that I wished you to pay attentions. And now that you know her, I am afraid."
"Where did you meet her?" he asked curiously.
"We were at school together in Paris. She was two years older than I, but she stayed there until she was twenty. Afterwards we met in Florence."
Nigel was greatly interested.
"Somehow or other, nothing that you can tell me about her surprises me," he admitted. "She has the air of counting for great things in the world. She is very beautiful, too."
"She is beautiful enough," Maggie replied, "to have turned the head of the great Paul Matinsky himself. They say that he would give his soul to be free to marry her. As it is, she is the uncrowned Tsarina of Russia."
Nigel frowned slightly.
"Isn't that going rather a long way?" he objected.
"Not when one remembers what manner of a man Matinsky is," Maggie replied. "He may have his faults, but he is an absolute idealist so far as regards his private life. There has never been a word of scandal concerning him and Naida, nor will there ever be. But in his eyes, Naida has that most wonderful gift of all,—she has vision. He once told a man with whom I spoke in Berlin that Naida was the one person in the world to whom a mistake was impossible. Nigel, did she give you any idea at all what she was over here for?"
"Not as yet," he replied, "but she has asked me to go and see her."
"Did she seem interested in you personally, or was it because your name is Dorminster?"
"I hoped it was a personal interest, but I cannot tell. She asked me whether I had inherited my uncle's hobby."
"What did you tell her?" she asked eagerly.
"Very little. She seemed sympathetic, but after all she is in the enemy camp. She and Immelan seemed on particularly good terms."
"Yet I don't believe that she is committed as yet," Maggie declared. "She always used to speak so affectionately of England. Nigel, do you think that I have vision?"
"I am sure that you have," he answered.
"Very well, then, I will tell you what I see," she continued. "I see Naida Karetsky for Russia, Oscar Immelan for Germany, Austria and Sweden, and Prince Shan for Asia—here—meeting in London—within the next week or ten days, to take counsel together to decide whether the things which are being plotted against us to-day shall be or shall not be. Of Immelan we have no hope. He conceals it cleverly enough, but he hates England with all the fervour of a zealot. Naida is unconvinced. She is to be won. And Prince Shan—"
"Well, what about him?" Nigel demanded, a little carried away by Maggie's earnestness.
She shook her head.
"I don't know," she confessed. "If the stories one hears about him are true, no man nor any woman could ever influence him. At least, though, one could watch and hope."
"Prince Shan is supposed to be coming to Paris, not to London," Nigel remarked.
"If he goes to Paris," Maggie said, "Naida and Immelan will go. So shall we. If he comes here, it will be easier. Tell me, Nigel, did you see the Prime Minister?"
"I saw him," Nigel replied, "but without the slightest result. He is clearly of the opinion that the open verdict was a merciful one. In other words, he believes that it was a case of suicide."
"How wicked!" Maggie exclaimed.
"I suppose it is trying the ordinary Britisher a little high," Nigel remarked, "to ask him to believe that he was murdered in cold blood, here in the heart of London, by the secret service agent of a foreign Power. The strangest part of it all is that it is true. To think that those few pages of manuscript would have told us exactly what we have to fear! Why, I actually had them in my hand."
"And I in my corsets!" Maggie groaned.
They were both silent for a moment. Then Nigel moved towards the door and opened it.
"Come downstairs into the library, will you, Maggie?" he begged. "Let us go in for a little reconstruction."
They found Brookes in the hall and took him with them. The blinds in the room had never been raised, and there was still that nameless atmosphere which lingers for long in an apartment which has become associated with tragedy. Instinctively they all moved quietly and spoke in hushed voices. Nigel sat in the chair where his uncle had been found dead and made a mental effort to reconstruct the events which must have immediately preceded the tragedy.
"I know that this was all thrashed out at the inquest, Brookes," he said, "but I want you to tell me once more. You see how far it is from this table to the door. My uncle must have had abundant warning of any one approaching. Was there no other way by which any one could have entered the room?"
"There was, your lordship," the man replied, "and I have regretted several times since that I did not mention it at the inquest. The cleaners were here on the morning of that day, and the window at the farther end of the room was unfastened—I even believe that it was open."
Nigel rose and examined the window in question. It was almost flush with the ground, and although there were iron railings separating it from the street, a little gate opening from the area entrance made ingress not only possible but easy. Nigel returned to his chair.
"I can't understand this not having been mentioned at the inquest, Brookes," he said.
"I was waiting for the question to be asked, your lordship. It was perfectly clear to every one there, if your lordship will excuse my saying so, that both the coroner and the police seemed to have made up their minds that it was a case of suicide."
"I had the same idea with reference to the coroner, at any rate, Brookes," he said. "So long as the verdict was returned in the form it was, I am not sure that it was not better so."
He dismissed the man with a little nod and sat turning over the code books which still stood upon the table.
"You and I, at any rate, Maggie, know the truth," he said, "and so long as we can get no help from the proper quarters, I think that we should do better to let the matter remain as it is. We don't want to direct people's attention to us. We want to lull suspicion so far as we can, to be free to watch the three."
The telephone bell rang, and as Nigel moved his arm to take off the receiver, he knocked over one of the black, morocco-bound code books, A sheet of paper with a few words upon it came fluttering to the ground. Maggie picked it up, glanced at it carelessly at first and then with interest.
"Nigel," she exclaimed, "you see whose handwriting this is? Could it be part of the decoded dispatch?"
The telephone enquiry had been unimportant. Nigel pushed the instrument away. They both looked eagerly at the page of manuscript paper. It was numbered "8" at the top, and the few words written upon it in Lord Dorminster's writing were obviously the continuation of a paragraph:
The name of the middle one, then, of the three secret cities, into which at all costs some one must find his way, is Kroten, and the telephone number which is all the clue I have been able to get, up to the present, to the London end of the affair, is Mayfair 146.
"This is just where he got to in the decoding!" Nigel declared. "I wonder whether it's any use looking for the rest."
They searched through every page of the heavy code books in vain. Then they returned to their study of the single page. Nigel dragged down an atlas and studied it.
"Kroten," he muttered. "Here it is,—a small place about six hundred miles from Petrograd, apparently the centre of a barren, swampy district, population thirty thousand, birth rate declining, industries nil. Cheerful sort of spot it seems!"
"I have more luck than you!" Maggie cried, her finger tracing out a line in the open telephone book. "Look!"
Nigel glanced over her shoulder and read the entry to which she was pointing:
"Immelan Oscar, 13 Clarges Street, W. Mayfair 146."
Nigel played golf at Ranelagh, on the following Sunday morning, with Jere Chalmers, a young American in the Diplomatic Service, who had just arrived in London and brought a letter of introduction to him. They had a pleasant game and strolled off from the eighteenth green to the dressing rooms on the best of terms with each other.
"Say, Dorminster," his young companion enjoined, "let's get through this fixing-up business quickly. I've had a kind of feeling for a cocktail, these last four holes, which I can't exactly put into words. Besides, I want to have a word or two with you before the others come down."
"I shan't be a minute," Nigel promised. "I'm going to change into flannels after lunch—that is, if you don't mind playing a set or two at tennis. My cousin-in-law Maggie Trent, whom you'll meet at luncheon, is rather keen, and she doesn't care about golf."
"I'm game for anything," the other agreed, lifting his head spluttering from the basin. "Gee, that's good! Get a move on, there's a good fellow. I have a fancy for just five minutes with you out on the lawn, with the ice chinking in our glasses."
Nigel finished smoothing his hair, and the two men strolled through the hall, gave an order to a red-coated attendant, and found a secluded table under a marvellous tree in the gardens on the other side. Chalmers had become a little thoughtful.
"Dorminster," he declared, "yours is a wonderful country."
"Just how is it appealing to you at the moment?" Nigel enquired.
"I'll try and tell you," was the meditative reply. "It's your extraordinary insouciance. It seems to me, as a budding diplomat, that you are running the most ghastly risks on earth."
"In what direction?"
The young American shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, you've got a thoroughly democratic Government—not such a bad Government, I should say, as things go. They've bled your bourgeoisie a bit, and serve 'em right, but with an empire to keep up you're losing all touch upon international politics. Your ambassadors have been exchanged for trade consuls, the whole of your secret service staff has been disbanded, you place your entire faith on this sacred League of Nations. Say, Dorminster, you're taking risks!"
"You mustn't forget," Dorminster replied, "that it was your country who started the League of Nations."
"President Wilson did," Chalmers grunted. "You can't say that the country ever backed him up. That's the worst of us on the other side—we so seldom really get a common voice."
"The League of Nations was a thundering good idea," Nigel declared, "but it belongs to Utopia and not to this vulgar planet."
"Just so," Chalmers rejoined, "and yet you are about the only nation who ever took it into her bosom and suckled it. To be perfectly frank with you, now, what other nation in the world is there, except yours, which is obeying the conventions strictly? I tell you frankly, we keep our eye on Japan, and we build a good many commercial ships which would astonish you if you examined them thoroughly. Our National Guard, too, know a bit more about soldiering than their grandfathers. You people, on the other hand, seem to have become infatuated pacifists. I can't tell tales out of school, but I don't like the way things are going on eastwards. Asia means something different now that that amazing fellow, Prince Shan, has made a great nation of China."
"I am entirely in accord with you," Nigel agreed, "but what is one to do about it? Our present Government has a big majority, trade at home and abroad is prosperous, the income tax is down to a shilling in the pound and looks like being wiped out altogether. Everybody is fat and happy."
"Just as they were in 1914," Chalmers remarked significantly.
"More so," Dorminster asserted. "In those days we had our alarmists. Nowadays, they too seem to have gone to sleep. My uncle—"
"Your uncle was an uncommonly shrewd man," Chalmers interrupted. "I was going to talk about him."
"After lunch," Nigel suggested, rising to his feet. "Here come my cousin and some of her tennis friends. Karschoff is lunching with us, too. You know him, don't you? Come along and I'll introduce you to the others."
It was a very cheerful party who, after a few minutes under the trees, strolled into luncheon and took their places at the round table reserved for them at the end of the room. Maggie at once took possession of Chalmers.
"I have been so anxious to meet you, Mr. Chalmers," she said. "They tell me that you represent the modern methods in American diplomacy, and that therefore you have been made first secretary over the heads of half a dozen of your seniors. How they must dislike you, and how clever you must be!"
"I don't know that I'm so much disliked," the young man answered, with a twinkle in his eyes, "but I flatter myself that I have brought a new note into diplomacy. I was always taught that there were thirty-seven different ways of telling a lie, which is to state a diplomatic fact. I have swept them all away. I tell the truth."
"How daring," Maggie murmured, "and how wonderfully original! What should you say, now, if I asked you if my nose wanted powdering?"
"I should start by saying that the question was outside the sphere of my activities," he decided. "I should then proceed to add, as a private person, that a little dab on the left side would do it no harm."
"I begin to believe," she confessed, "that all I have heard of you is true."
"Tell me exactly what you have heard," he begged. "Leave out everything that isn't nice. I thrive on praise and good reports."
"To begin with, then, that you are an extraordinarily shrewd young man," she replied, "that you speak seven languages perfectly and know your way about every capital of Europe, and that you have ideas of your own as to what is going to happen during the next six or seven years."
"You've been moving in well-informed circles," he admitted. "Now shall I proceed to turn the tables upon you?"
"You can't possibly know anything about me," she declared confidently.
"I could tell you what I've discovered from personal observation," he replied.
"That sounds like compliments or candour," she murmured. "I'm terrified of both."
"Well, I guess I'm not out to frighten you," he assured her. "I'll keep the secrets of my heart hidden—until after luncheon, at any rate—-and just ask you—how you enjoyed your stay in Berlin?"
Maggie's manner changed. She lowered her voice.
"In Berlin?" she repeated.
"In the household of the erstwhile leather manufacturer, the present President, Herr Essendorf. I hope you liked those fat children. They always seemed to me loathsome little brats."
"What do you know about my stay in Berlin?" she demanded.
"Everything there is to be known," he answered. "To tell you the truth, our people there were a trifle anxious about you. I was the little angel watching from above."
"You are, without a doubt," Maggie pronounced, "a most interesting young man. We will talk together presently."
"A hint which sends me back to my mutton," the young man observed. "Dorminster," he added, turning to his host, "I heard the other day, on very good authority, that you were thinking of writing a novel. If you are, study the lady who has just entered. There is a type for you, an intelligence which might baffle even your attempts at analysis."
Naida, escorted by her father and Immelan, took her place at an adjacent table. She bowed to Nigel and Karschoff before sitting down, and her eyes travelled over the rest of the party with interest. Then she recognised Maggie and waved her hand.
"Immelan is a very constant admirer," Prince Karschoff remarked, a little uneasily.
"Is that her father?" Maggie asked.
The Prince nodded.
"He is one of the ambassadors of commerce from my country," he said. "In place of diplomacy, he superintends the exchange of shipping cargoes and talks freights. I suppose Immelan and he are all the time comparing notes, but I scarcely see where my dear friend Naida comes in."
"There is still the oldest interest in the world for her to fall back upon," Chalmers murmured. "One hears that Immelan is devoted."
"Scandalmonger!" the Prince declared severely. "Young man from the New World," he proceeded, "get on with your lunch and drink your iced water. Let the vision of those two remind you that it was your people who foisted the League of Nations upon us, and be humble, even sorrowful, when you view one of the sad results."
"I can't be responsible, directly or indirectly, for a political flirtation," Chalmers grumbled. "Besides, why should there be any politics about it at all? Mademoiselle Karetsky is quite attractive enough to turn the head even of a seasoned old boulevardier like you, Prince."
"That young man," Karschoff said deliberately, "will find himself before long face to face with a blighted career. He has no respect for age, and he is shockingly lacking in finesse. All the same, on one point I am agreed. I don't think there is a man breathing who could resist Naida if she wished to call him to her."
The little party broke up presently and wandered out into the gardens. They sat for a while upon the lawn, drinking their coffee and exchanging greetings with acquaintances. In the distance, the orchestra was playing soft music, with a fine regard for the atmosphere of the pleasant, almost languorous spring afternoon. Everywhere were signs of contentment, even gaiety, and here the alien streak of unfamiliar newcomers was far less pronounced. When the time came for tennis, Chalmers led the way with Maggie. As soon as they were out of hearing of the others, she turned towards him a little abruptly.
"Tell me exactly what you know about my stay in Berlin," she demanded.
"Everything," he answered gravely.
"I mean that the New World to-day has progressed where the Old World seems to have been stricken with a terrible blindness. Our secret-service system has never been better, and frankly I hear many things which I don't like. I am going to talk to Lord Dorminster this afternoon very seriously, but in the meantime I wanted to speak to you. I heard a rumour that you thought of going back to Berlin."
"I don't know how you heard it, but the rumour is not altogether untrue," she admitted. "I have not yet made up my mind."
"Don't go," he begged.
"You think they really do know all about me?"
"I know that they do. I don't mind telling you that you had the shave of your life on the Dutch frontier last time, and I don't mind telling you, also, that we had two of our men shadowing you. One of them acted on his own initiative, or you would never have crossed the frontier."
"I rather wondered why they let me out," she observed. "Perhaps you can explain why Frau Essendorf keeps on writing to me under my pseudonym of 'Miss Brown' and to my reputed address in Lincolnshire, begging me to return."
"I could tell you that, too," he replied. "They want you back in Berlin."
"They really do know, then, that I brought over the dispatch from Atcheson?" she asked.
"They know it," he assured her. "They know, too, that it was chiefly a wasted labour. Their London agents saw to that."
"Perhaps," she suggested, "you know who their London agents are?"
"Sooner or later in our conversation," he remarked, "we were bound to arrive at a point—"
"Come along and let us make up a set then," she intervened.
Naida, deserted by her father, who had found a taxicab to take him back to the purlieus of Piccadilly and auction bridge, sauntered along at the back of the tennis nets until she arrived at the court where Nigel and his party were playing.
"I should like to watch this game for a few minutes," she told her companion. "The men are such opposite types and yet both so good-looking. And Lady Maggie fascinates me."
Immelan fetched two chairs, and they settled down to watch the set. Nigel, with his clean, well-knit figure, looked his best in spotless white flannels. Chalmers, a more powerful and muscular type, also presented a fine appearance. The play was fast and sometimes brilliant. Nigel had Maggie for a partner, and Chalmers one of her friends, and the set was as nearly equal as possible. Naida leaned forward in her chair, following every stroke with interest.
"I find this most fascinating," she murmured. "I hope that Lord Dorminster and his cousin will win. Your sympathies, of course, are on the other side."
"You are right," Immelan assented. "My sympathies are on the other side."
There was a lull in the game for a moment or two. The sun was troublesome, and the players were changing courts. Naida turned towards her companion thoughtfully.
"My friend," she said, glancing around as though to be sure that they were not overheard, "there are times when you move me to wonder. In the small things as well as the large, you are so unchanging. I think that you would see an Englishman die, whether he were your friend or your enemy, very much as you kick a poisonous snake out of your path."
"It is quite true," was the calm reply.
"But America was once your enemy," she continued, watching Chalmers' powerful service.
"With America we made peace," he explained. "With England, never. If you would really appreciate and understand the reason for that undying hatred which I and millions of my fellow countrymen feel, it will cost you exactly one shilling. Go to any stationer's and buy a copy of the Treaty of Versailles. Read it word by word and line by line. It is the most brutal document that was ever printed. It will help you to understand."
She nodded slowly.
"Paul always declared," she said, "that in those days England had no statesmen—no one who could feel what lay beyond the day-by-day horizon. When I think of that Treaty, my friend, I sympathise with you. It is not a great thing to forge chains of hate for a beaten enemy."
"If you realise this, are you not then our friend?" Immelan asked.
She appeared for a few moments to be engrossed in the tennis. Her companion, however, waited for her answer.
"In a way," she acknowledged, "I find something magnificent in your wonderfully conceived plans for vengeance, and in the spirit which has evolved and kept them alive through all these years. Then, on the other hand, I look at home, and I ask myself whether you do not make what they would call over here a cat's-paw of my country."
"Ours is the most natural and most beneficial of all possible alliances," Immelan insisted. "Germany and Russia, hand in hand, can dominate the world."
"I am not sure that it is an equal bargain, though, which you seek to drive with us," she said. "Germany aims, of course, at world power, but you are still fettered by the terms of that Treaty. You cannot build a great fleet of warships or aeroplanes; you cannot train great armies; you cannot lay up for yourselves all the store that is necessary for a successful war. So you bring your brains to Russia, and you ask us to do these things; but Russia does not aim at world power. Russia seeks only for a great era of self-development. She, too, has a mighty neighbour at her gates. I am not sure that your bargain is a fair one."
"It is the first time that I have heard you talk like this," Immelan declared, with a little tremor in his tone.
"I have been in England twice during the last few months," Naida said. "You know very well at whose wish I came, I have been studying the conditions here, studying the people so far as I can. I find them such a kindly race. I find their present Government so unsuspicious, so genuinely altruistic. After all, that Treaty belongs to an England that has passed. The England of to-day would never go to war at all. They believe here that they have solved the problem of perpetual peace."
Immelan smiled a little bitterly.
"Dear lady," he said, "if I lose your help, if you go back to Petrograd and talk to Paul Matinsky as you are talking to me, do you know that you will break the heart of a nation?"
She shook her head.
"Paul does not look upon me as infallible," she protested. "Besides, there are other considerations. And now, please, we will talk of the tennis. I do not know whether it is my fancy, but that man there to your left, in grey, seems to me to be taking an interest in our conversation. He cannot possibly overhear, and he has not glanced once in our direction, yet I have an instinct for these things."
Immelan glanced in the direction of the stranger,—a quiet-looking, spare man dressed in a grey tweed suit, clean-shaven and of early middle-age. There was nothing about his appearance to distinguish him from a score or more of other loiterers.
"You are quite right," her companion admitted. "One should not talk of these things even where the birds may listen, but it is so difficult. As for that man, he could not possibly hear, but there might be others. One passes behind on the grass so noiselessly."
They relapsed into silence. Naida, leaning a little forward, became once more engrossed in the play. Her eyes were fixed upon Nigel. It was his movements which she followed, his strokes which she usually applauded. Immelan sat by her side and watched.
"They are well matched," he remarked presently.
"Mr. Chalmers has a wonderful service," she declared, "but Lord Dorminster has more skill. Oh, bravo!"
The set at that moment was finished by a backhanded return from Nigel, which skimmed over the net at a great pace, completely out of reach of the opposing couple. The players strolled across to the seats under the trees. Naida smiled at Nigel, and he came over to her side. Once again he was conscious of that peculiar sense of pleasure and well-being which he felt in her company.
"You play tennis very well, Lord Dorminster," she said.
"I found inspiration," he answered.
"In your partner?"
"Maggie is always charming to play with. I was thinking of the onlookers."
"Mr. Immelan is very interested in tennis," she remarked, with a smile which challenged him.
"Even more so."
"Tell me about games in Russia," he begged, seating himself on the grass by her side.
"We have none," she replied. "I learnt my tennis at Cannes, where, curiously enough, I saw you play three years ago."
"You were there then?" he asked with interest.
"For a few days only. We were motoring from Spain to Monte Carlo. Cannes was very crowded, but you see I remembered."
Her voice seemed to have some lingering charm in it, some curiously potent suggestion of personal interest which stirred his pulses. He looked up and met her eyes. For a moment the world of tennis fields, of pleasant chatter and of holiday-makings, passed away. He rose abruptly to his feet. This time he avoided looking at her.
"You must come over and speak to Maggie," he begged. "Perhaps Mr. Immelan will spare you for a few moments."
Immelan bowed, sphinxlike but coldly furious. The two strolled away together.
When the next set was over, Naida, who had rejoined her companion, had disappeared. On one of their vacated chairs was seated the quiet-looking stranger in grey. Chalmers passed his arm through Nigel's and led him in that direction.
"I want you two to know each other," he said. "Jesson, this is Lord Dorminster—Mr. Gilbert Jesson—Lord Dorminster."
The two men shook hands, Nigel a little vaguely. He was at first unable to place this newcomer.
"Mr. Jesson," Chalmers explained, dropping his voice a little, "was a highly privileged and very much valued member of our Intelligence Department, until he resigned a few months ago. I think that if you could spare an hour or two any time this evening, Dorminster, it would interest you very much to know exactly the reason for Mr. Jesson's resignation."
"I should be very pleased indeed," Nigel replied. "Won't you both come and dine in Belgrave Square to-night? I was going to ask you, anyhow, Chalmers. Naida Karetsky has promised to come, and my cousin will be hostess."
"It will give me very great pleasure," Jesson acquiesced. "You will understand," he added, "that the information which Mr. Chalmers has just given you concerning myself is entirely confidential."
"We three will have a little talk to ourselves afterwards," he suggested. "At eight o'clock—Number 17, Belgrave Square."
Jesson strolled away after a little desultory conversation. Chalmers looked after him thoughtfully.
"Harmless-looking chap, isn't he?" he observed. "Yet I'll let you in on this, Dorminster: there isn't another living person who knows so much of what is going on behind the scenes in Europe as that man."
"Why has he chucked his job, then?" Nigel enquired.
"He will tell you that to-night," was Chalmers' quiet reply.
"I don't think I shall marry you, after all," Maggie announced that evening, as she stood looking at herself in one of the gilded mirrors with which the drawing-room at Belgrave Square was adorned.
"Why not?" Nigel asked, with polite anxiety.
"You are exhibiting symptoms of infidelity," she declared. "Your flirtation with Naida this afternoon was most pronounced, and you went out of your way to ask her to dine to-night."
"I like that!" Nigel complained. "Supposing it were true, I should simply be obeying orders. It was you who incited me to devote myself to her."
"The sacrifices we women make for the good of our country," Maggie sighed. "However, you needn't have taken me quite so literally. Do you admire her very much, Nigel?"
He smiled. His manner, however, was not altogether free from self-consciousness.
"Of course I do," he admitted. "She's a perfectly wonderful person, isn't she? Let's get out of this Victorian environment," he added, looking around the huge apartment with its formal arrangement of furniture and its atmosphere of prim but faded elegance. "We'll go into the smaller room and tell Brookes to bring us some cocktails and cigarettes. Chalmers won't expect to be received formally, and Mademoiselle Karetsky will appreciate the cosmopolitan note of our welcome."
"We do look a little too domestic, don't we?" Maggie replied, as she passed through the portiere which Nigel was holding up. "I'm not at all sure that I ought to come and play hostess like this, without an aunt or anything. I must think of my reputation. I may decide to marry Mr. Chalmers, and Americans are very particular about that sort of thing."
"From what I have seen of him, I should think that Chalmers would make you an excellent husband," Nigel declared, as he rang the bell. "You need a firm hand, and I should think he would be quite capable of using it."
"You take the matter far too calmly," she objected. "I can assure you that I am getting peevish. I hate all Russian women with creamy complexions and violet-coloured eyes."
"They are wonderful eyes," Nigel declared, after he had given Brookes an order.
Maggie looked at him curiously.
"Naida is for your betters, sir," she reminded him. "You must not forget that she is to rule over Russia some day."
"Just at present," Nigel observed, "Paul Matinsky has a perfectly good wife of his own."
"Invalids always live long."
"Presidents and emperors can always get divorces," Maggie insisted, "especially in this irreligious age."
"Matinsky isn't that sort," Nigel said cheerfully. "Even an old gossip like Karschoff calls him a purist, and you yourself have spoken of his principles."
Maggie shrugged her shoulders.
"All right," she remarked. "If you are determined to rush into danger, I suppose you must. There is just one more point to be considered, though. I suppose you know that if you succeed any farther with Naida, you will introduce a personal note into our coming struggle."
"What do you mean?" Nigel demanded.
"Why, Immelan, of course," she replied. "He's head over ears in love with Naida. Any one can see that."
Nigel laughed scornfully.
"My dear child," he protested, "can you imagine a woman like Naida thinking seriously of a fellow like Immelan?—a scheming, Teutonic adventurer, without even the breeding of his class!"
Maggie laughed softly for several moments.
"My dear Nigel," she exclaimed, "what a luxury to get at the man of you! I haven't seen your eyes flash like that for ages. The cocktails, thank goodness! Shake one for me till it froths all the way up the glass, please, and then give me a cigarette."
Nigel obeyed orders, helped himself, and glanced at the clock as Brookes left the room.
"How nice of you to come half an hour early, Maggie!" he remarked.
She made a little grimace.
"The first time you have noticed it," she said dolefully. "Do you realise, Nigel, that it is nearly a week since you proposed to me? Apart from your penchant for Naida, don't you really want to marry me any more?"
He came across the room and stood looking down at her thoughtfully. She was wearing a somewhat daringly fashioned black lace gown, which showed a good deal of her white shoulders and neck. Her brown hair was simply but artistically arranged. She was piquante, alluring, with a provocative smile at the corners of her lips and a challenging gleam in her eyes. The daintiness and femininity of her were enthralling.
"You would make an adorable wife," he reflected.
"For some one else?"
"An unspeakable proposition," he assured her.
"You're very nice-looking, Nigel," she murmured.
"You're terribly attractive, Maggie!"
"Then why is it," she sighed, "that we neither of us want to marry the other?"
"If a serious proposition would really be of interest to you," he began,—
She made a little grimace.
"You heard them coming," she interrupted.
The three expected guests arrived almost together, bringing with them, at any rate so far as Chalmers and Naida were concerned, an atmosphere of light-heartedness which was later on to make the little dinner party a complete success. Naida, too, was in black, a gown simpler than Maggie's but full of distinction. She wore no jewellery except a wonderful string of pearls. Her black hair was brushed straight back from her forehead but drooped a little over her ears. She seemed to bring with her a larger share of girlishness than any of them had previously observed in her, as though she had made up her mind for this one evening to cast herself adrift from the graver cares of life and to indulge in the frivolities which after all were the heritage of her youth. She sat at Nigel's right hand and plied him with questions as to the lighter side of his life,—his favourite sport, books, and general occupation. She gave evidences of humour which delighted everybody, and Nigel, though he would at times have welcomed, and did his best to initiate, an incursion into more serious subjects, found himself compelled to admire the tact with which she continually foiled him.
"It is a mistake," she declared once, "to believe that a woman is ever serious unless she is forced to be. All our natural proclivities are towards gaiety. We are really butterflies by instinct, and we are at our best when we are natural. Don't you agree with me, Maggie?"
"From the bottom of my heart," Maggie assented. "Nothing but conscience ever induces me to pull a long face and turn my thoughts to serious things. And I haven't a great deal of conscience."
"So you see," Naida continued, smiling up at her host, "when you try to get a woman to talk politics or sociology with you, you are brushing a little of the down off her wings. We really want to be told—other things."
"I should imagine," he replied, "that my sex frequently indulged you."
"Not so much as I should desire," she assured him. "I have somehow or other acquired an undeserved reputation for brains. In Russia especially, when I meet a stranger, they don't even look at my frock or the way my hair is done. They plunge instead into a subject of which I know nothing—philosophy or history, or international politics."
"Do you know nothing of international politics?" Nigel asked.
"A home thrust," she declared, laughing. "I suppose that is a subject upon which I have some glimmerings of knowledge. Really not very much, though, but then I have a theory about that. I think sometimes that the clearest judgments are formed by some one who comes a little fresh to a subject, some one who hasn't been dabbling in it half their lifetime and acquired prejudices. Do you always provide strawberries for your guests, Lord Dorminster? If so, I should like to come and live here."
"If you will promise to come and live here," he replied, "I will provide strawberries if I have to start a nursery garden in Jersey."
"Maggie," Naida announced across the table, "Lord Dorminster has proposed to me. The matter of strawberries has brought us together. I don't think I shall accept him. There are no means of making him keep his bargain."
"He'd make an awfully good husband," Maggie declared. "If no one else wants me, I shall probably marry him myself some day."
Naida shook her head.
"Lord Dorminster is more my type," she declared. "Besides, you have had your chance if you really wanted him. I have a great friend in Russia who prophesies that I shall never marry. That does not please me. I think not to be married is the worst fate that can happen to any woman."
"The remedy," Nigel told her, "is in your own hands."
Jesson, quieter than the others, was still an interesting personality, often intervening with a shrewd remark and listening to the sallies of the others with a humorous gleam in his spectacle-shielded eyes. When at last the girls left them for a time, Nigel led the way at once into the library, where coffee and liqueurs were served.
"I expect the others will find their way here in a few minutes," he said, as the door closed behind Brookes and his satellite. "You had something to say to me, Chalmers, about Mr. Jesson here."
"All that I have to say is in the nature of a testimonial," the young American replied. "Jesson was easily one of our best men in Europe. He resigned a few months ago simply because he wants a job with you fellows."
"I don't quite understand," Nigel began.
"Let me explain," Jesson begged. "I spent the last three years poking about Europe, and so far as the United States is concerned, there's nothing doing. My reports aren't worth much more than the paper they are written on, and while I'm drawing my money from Washington, it's not my business to collect information that affects other countries. That's why I've sent in my resignation. There are great events brewing eastwards, Lord Dorminster, and I want to take a hand in the game."
"Do you want to work for us?" Nigel asked.
"You're right," was the quiet reply. "I guess that's how I've figured it out. You see, I'm one of those Americans who still consider themselves half English. Next to the United States, Great Britain is the country for me. I know what I'm talking about, Lord Dorminster, and I've come to the conclusion that there's a lot of trouble in store for you people."