Sunday, February 5, 2017

SHOT WITH CRIMSON - by George Barr McCutcheon ( 2 )


https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/08/0a/f7/080af76c26b97d352c3321c63e17f05c.jpg



CHAPTER III

Paul Zimmerlein  was a mining engineer. His offices were off Fifth Avenue, somewhere above 34th Street. He stood well in his profession, he stood high as a citizen. No one questioned his integrity, his ability or his loyalty. He was a good American. At least, a great many good Americans said he was, which amounts to the same thing.

One entered his offices through a small antechamber, where a young woman at the telephone-desk made perfunctory inquiries, but always in a crisp, business like manner. She was the first cog in a smooth-running piece of machinery. Her name was Mildred, Mildred Agnew, and she had a brother in the British navy, from whom she received infrequent letters of a most unilluminating character, letters omitting date, place and ship: in which he said he was well and happy and hoped to God the Germans would come out into the open to see what the weather was like.

If your business was important, or you had an appointment, you would be conducted by a smart-looking boy into a rather imposing corner room, from whose windows you could look down fourteen storeys to the roof of an eight storey building below. Presently you would be invited into Mr. Zimmerlein’s private office. Beyond this snug little office was the drafting room, where several actively studious men of various ages bent over blue-prints and estimate sheets.

They all appeared to be good, industrious Americans; you could see them quite plainly through the glass upper half of the intervening door.

You were at once aware of an impression that this was not the place to come if you were engaged in a secret or shady enterprise, such as the exploitation of a “get-rich-quick” mining proposition or any kindred opening for the unwary. You always said to yourself that you felt quite safe in the hands of Mr. Paul Zimmerlein, and his associates.

You went about saying that you wished all men with German blood in them were like Mr. Paul Zimmerlein. He became one of your pet hobbies. You invariably referred to him when you declared that you knew at least one man of German extraction who was “absolutely on the level,” and you would unhesitatingly go about proving it if any one had the effrontery to even discuss the point with you. All you would have to do would be to point in triumph to the men who were his associates professionally, commercially and socially. The list would include many of the really significant figures in public life. Among them, for instance, you would mention several United States senators, at least two gentlemen high up in Administrative circles, practically all of the big financiers, certain members of the English Cabinet, and, in a pinch, the presidents of three South American Republics. He was on record as being violently opposed to Von Berastorff, indeed, he had said such bitter and violent things about the ex-ambassador that even the most conservative German-Americans, those who actually were opposed to the Kaiser and his policies, felt that he was going much too far.

He was about forty years of age, tall and powerfully built, with surprisingly mobile features for one whose face at a glance suggested heaviness and stolidity. His smile was ever ready and genial; his manner courtly; his eyes, which were honest and unwavering, had something sprightly in them that invited confidence and comradeship. The thick, dark hair was touched with grey at the temples, and there was a deep scar on his left cheek, received not in a German university, as you might suppose, but during a fierce and sanguinary encounter with Yaqui Indians in northern Mexico, a tragedy which cost the lives of several of his companions and brought from the people of the United States a demand that the government take drastic action in the matter. Altogether, a prepossessing, substantial figure of a man, with a delightful personality.

Shortly before noon on the day following the destruction of the great Reynolds plant by alien plotters, Zimmerlein was seated in his office, awaiting the arrival of two well-known New York merchants and a gentleman from Brazil. Half-a-dozen morning newspapers, with their sinister head-lines, lay upon his desk, neatly folded and stacked with grave orderliness. He had read them, and was lolling back in his big leather chair with a faint smile on his lips, and a far-off, frowning expression in his eyes.

The gentleman from Brazil came first.

“Sit down,” said Zimmerlein curtly. “They will be here in a few minutes.”

“That was a terrible thing last night, Zimmerlein,” said the Brazilian, nervously glancing over his shoulder in the direction of the drafting-room.

Zimmerlein made no response. He resumed his set, faraway expression, his gaze directed at the upper sash of the broad, high window, beyond which a distant, grey cloud glided slowly across a blue-white sky.

“Most shocking,” went on the Brazilian, after a moment. He had not removed his overcoat. The fur collar was still fastened closely about his neck.

Zimmerlein turned toward his visitor.

“Take off your coat, Riaz. Make yourself comfortable,” he said, affably. “Help yourself to a cigar.”

Riaz, Sebastian Riaz, diamond merchant and mine-owner of Rio Janeiro, removed his coat. “The appointment was for eleven o’clock, Mr. Zimmerlein,” he said, looking at his watch. “They are late. It is nearly twelve.”

“Permit me to remind you that you also were late. Everything is in order, my dear sir. The deal may be closed in ten minutes, or even less time than that, if there is no further haggling on your part.” He closed one eye slowly. “The contracts, the estimates, the plans are ready. Nothing is lacking except the signatures.”

“Just as they have been ready for nearly two months,” observed Riaz, also closing an eye.

“All ready except the signatures and the date.”

“We shall date them, and sign them, in our extremity,” said Zimmerlein, going to a safe which stood invitingly open in a corner of the room. He removed a small but important-looking package of papers and tossed them carelessly on the table. “Such as a visit from on high,” he added, with a smile.

“Yes,” said Riaz, and sat down again, frowning.

“We shall never be caught napping. Here are the papers, as they would say in the melodrama. By the way, do you go in for melodrama in Rio? Or are you above that form of amusement?”

Riaz remained unsmiling. “It is not as popular with us as it is with you Americans,” said he. “We see through it too readily.”

Zimmerlein unfolded and spread out several of the documents. “There!” he said. “Let him come who will. Under the sharpest eyes in America you may transfer property valued at ten millions, and no one will question the validity of the transaction. You see, my dear Riaz, you do own these mines and they are exactly what they are represented to Be. To save their lives, they can’t go behind the facts. And the purchasers are prepared to hand over the cash at any moment. Could anything be simpler?”

“Nothing,” said the Brazilian, sententiously, “except the damned little slip that sometimes comes between the cup and the lip.”

“Ah, but our cup is always at the lip,” said Zimmerlein buoyantly. “Don’t be a kill-joy, old chap.”

“All well and good, Zimmerlein, unless some one’s lip splits.” He shot an uneasy glance into the drafting-room.

“This is the most perfect machine in the world, Riaz. Have no fear. Every cog has been tested and is of the staunchest steel. Every part has been put in its proper place by the greatest genius alive.”

“I don’t have to remind you that a few cogs in the Foreign office have slipped badly.”

The door opened to admit two brisk, prosperous-looking gentlemen.

“I fear we are late,” said the foremost. “It was unavoidable, I assure you.”

“It is never too late,” said Zimmerlein, advancing to shake hands with the new-comers. Then, while they were laying aside their overcoats, he stepped swiftly to the door of the drafting-room and called out: “Thorsensel! Come here, please. And you also, Martin.”

One of the men in the outer room, laid down the instrument with which he was working over a huge blue-print; with a sigh of resignation, he removed his green eye-shield, smoothed out his wrinkled alpaca coat, and came slowly, diffidently into the private office. He was a middle-aged, stoop-shouldered, sunken-faced man, with a drooping moustache that lacked not only in pride but in colour as well. The ends were gnawed and scraggly, and there were cigarette stains along the uneven edges. Otherwise, this sickly adornment was straw-coloured. Thick spectacles enlarged his almost expressionless blue eyes; as one looked straight into them, the eyeballs seemed to be twice the normal size.

This man was John Thorsensel, civil engineer, American, born of Norwegian parentage, graduate of one of the greatest engineering universities in the country. You would go many a league before encountering a more unimposing, commonplace person, and yet here was the most astute secret servant in the German Kaiser’s vast establishment. Not Zimmerlein, nor Riaz, nor any of the important-looking individuals who skulked behind respectable names, not one of them was the head and heart of the sinister, far-reaching octopus that spread its slimy influence across the United States of America. John Thorsensel, an insignificant toiler, was the master-mind, the arch-conspirator. It was his hand that rested on the key, his thought that covered everything, his infernal ingenuity that confounded the shrewdest minds on this side of the Atlantic. The last man in the world to be suspected, such was John Thorsensel, bad angel.

Martin, the other man called to the conference, was a brisk young fellow who left a rolltop desk in the corner of the drafting-room and presented himself with stenographer’s note-book and pencil. It is worthy of mention that this book already contained the stenographic notes of the preliminary verbal discussion between the three principals to a transaction involving the sale of great mining properties in South America. Everything was perfectly prepared, even to the abrupt termination of the conference that would come naturally in case agents of the government took it into their heads to appear. Martin’s notes, jotted down weeks beforehand, broke off in the most natural way. There is no telling how many times he had sat with the note-book on his knee in just such a conference as this, without adding a single word to what already appeared on the pages. It is safe to say, however, that the notes were never transcribed.

It would have been impossible to find in the offices of Paul Zimmerlein a single incriminating line, or article, or suggestion of either, for the simple reason that no such thing existed. Nothing ever appeared in tangible form. Visitors were always welcome.

Once and once only had the slightest symptom of a creak appeared in the well-ordered machine. One man was suspected, merely suspected. There was no actual evidence against him in the hands of the conspirators, but the fact that a possibility existed was enough for them. He was an ordinary window-washer who came twice a month to the office, not oftener, in his regular round of the building. Always it was the same man who washed Zimmerlein’s windows, and always a few words passed between him and the engineer, words that no one else heard. One day the device to which his safety belt was attached gave way and he fell fourteen storeys to the roof of the building below. He was to be trusted after that.

The six men gathered in the office of Mr. Paul Zimmerlein formed a combination of intelligence, wealth, energy and evil sufficient to satisfy even the most exacting of masters. Here were the shrewdest, the safest, the soundest agents of the cruelest system in all the world. No small, half-hearted undertaking in frightfulness ever grew out of their deliberations; no sporadic, clumsy botch in the shape of needless violence; no crazy, fore-doomed project; no mistakes. They were the big men, the men who did the big things.

Out of every nook and cranny in the land oozed constant and reliable reports from the most trustworthy sources, from agents of both sexes; sly, secret, mysterious forces supplied them with facts that no man was supposed to know; the magic of the Far East was surpassed by these wizards who came not out of Egypt but from commonplace, unromantic circles in the Occident.

The departures of vessels from every port, the nature of their cargoes; the sailings of transports and the number of troops; the conditions in all the munitions plants and cantonments; the state of mind of the millions of workers and idlers throughout the land; the very thoughts of the people in control of the country’s affairs, it would seem. Everything! Everything was known to this resourceful clique. They were the backbone of the unrest, the uneasiness, the scepticism that swept the land. Their agents, loyal unto death, were everywhere. The secrets of sea, land and air were theirs. They could buy, buy anything they wanted with the wealth that was theirs for the asking.

Information came to them and commands were issued by them in a thousand different ways, but never in circumstances that invited suspicion. A casual meeting on the street; the passing of the time of day; a hand-shake in restaurant or club; brief and seemingly innocuous exchanges of pleasantries at the theatre; perfunctory contact with stenographers, employes, and customers in the course of a day; thus, under the eyes of all observers the secret word was given and received. With these men no word was written, no visible message was exchanged. And the German language was never spoken.

“Trains from the West are all late,” said one of the late arrivals, an elderly, grey-whiskered man. “Rhine did not get in from Chicago till nearly eleven. It was imperative that I should see him before coming here, gentlemen.”

“Well?” demanded Thorsensel.

“He says the time is not yet ripe. He has studied the situation, has had reports from many sources. It is too soon. A partial success would be far worse than a total failure. He is very positive. ‘

“All right,” said Thorsensel crisply. The matter was thus summarily disposed of. He did not believe in wasting time or words. He turned, with a questioning look, to the other prosperous-looking citizen.

“He died very suddenly last night,” said that worthy, responding to the unspoken query.

Thorsensel nodded his head with lively satisfaction.

“Anything else?”

“That young fellow we were speaking of the other day dropped in at the store this morning. He appears to be interested in a very good looking shop-girl on the second floor. I don’t know how many pairs of gloves he has bought of her in the past few weeks.”

“I know, I know,” impatiently. “Miss Group.”

“We’re making no mistake about this fellow, are we, Elberon?” demanded Zimmerlein.

“No, absolutely no. Ill stake my life on him.”

“Go on,” said Thorsensel curtly.

“The British and French Commission sails tomorrow on the Elston. There is no question about it. He had it from the same source that reported their arrival last month.”

“Martin, see that this information is on the wing immediately,” said Thorsensel. “We may accept it as authentic.”

“I should think we might,” said Zimmerlein, “when you stop to consider that no one in the United States or England is supposed to know, even now, that this Commission is in the country, that is, no one outside a very restricted circle in Washington. I’ve never known anything to be kept so completely under cover. Some of the biggest men in France and England land on our shores, transact the most important business conceivable, and get out again without so much as a whiff of the news reaching the public. Somebody deserves the Iron Cross for this, Thorsensel. It is the cleverest, smartest piece of work that has been done up to date.”

“I venture the opinion that the Elston with its precious cargo will never see land again,” was Thorsensel’s remark.

“The Kitchener job all over again, eh?” said Riaz, admiringly.

“Or the Lusitania, amended Elberon.

“Don’t speak of the Lusitania,” exclaimed Thorsensel, irritably. “You know how I feel about that piece of stupidity.”

“You were against it all the time, I know,” began Elberon.

“Of course I was. It was the gravest blunder in history. But this is no time to talk about it. Every one has reported on last night’s business. There were no casualties and no one is missing.”

“Good!” exclaimed the grey-whiskered plotter, his piggish eyes sparkling. “No one killed or injured or missing, eh? That seems all that could be expected of Providence.”

“Every man has reported,” said Thorsensel succinctly. “Even Trott, from whom we had heard nothing for two whole days. It appears he was trapped and had to lie hidden in an empty bin. He got away just in time, and without being seen. Yes, luck and God were with us last night, gentlemen. Not a life lost, nor a man scratched.”

“If we come out half as well next week, I will say that God is with us,” said Zimmerlein.

“Where were you last night, Elberon?” demanded the gaunt leader abruptly.

“I dined with some friends and went to the theatre afterwards, Thorsensel.”

“Who were they?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Heidel ”

“You needn’t finish the name,” broke in Thornsensel. “I want to warn you again not to take them into your confidence, not even in the smallest of matters.”

“His brother is a general in the Bavarian ”

“It doesn’t matter. I know all that. And one of her brothers is in the Reichstag. But you must not overlook the fact that a great many of these people are loyal to America. That is a point you don’t seem able to get through your head, Elberon. The worst enemy, the direst peril we have to contend with is the American-German, if you grasp the distinction. No one seems to have used the hyphen in just that way, Elberon, but there is such a thing as the American-German, and we’ve got to steer clear of him. He’s not as uncommon as you may think, either. This man you were with last night is one. He would turn you over to the authorities in a flash if he got a breath of the truth. A word to the wise, Elberon, means a word to you.”
“A man is one thing or the other,” said the other, flushing. “He’s either a German or an American. There’s nothing in the hyphen.”
“You’re quite right,” agreed Thorsensel. “The man you were with last night is an American in spite of his name and his antecedents. I happen to know. Somewhere in this city there is a list of the people I define as American-Germans. It is a rather formidable list, let me tell you. They happen to be traitors, damn them.”
“Traitors? I thought you said they were loyal.”
“You’d see what would happen to them if they ever set foot on German soil,” said Thorsensel, and it was not difficult, even for the stolid Elberon, to see what he meant by loyalty.
An hour later the meeting came to an end, and the men went their several ways, unsuspected by the troubled, harassed watch-dogs of the nation. In that hour they had confidently, almost contemptuously, forwarded the consummation of other enterprises even more startling than the blowing up of the Reynolds plant. Remote assassinations were drawn a trifle nearer; plans leading to the bombing of New York by aeroplanes that were to rise up out of the sea from monster submarines; a new and not to be denied smashing of the Welland Canal; well-timed collisions of ships in the lower Hudson, and other basins, with results more stupendous than anything yet conceived; deceptive peace propaganda for the guileless and unwary American proletariat; subtle interference in the Halls of Congress; almost everything, it may be said, except the transfer of valuable mines in Brazil. That trifling detail was left to another day.
Within the next hour, a message was on its way through the air to far-off Berlin, giving in singularly accurate figures the military losses sustained by the Allies at a spot in New Jersey recently occupied by the great Reynolds concern.

CHAPTER IV

At the end of ten days the excitement and horror occasioned by the blowing up of the Reynolds plant had succumbed to the great American curse: indifference. Amateur secret service men brazenly proclaiming themselves, went about more actively than ever, showing their badges and looking up clues at the same time, doing more harm than good, for while professional intelligence men were compelled to accept them as liabilities, the grateful aliens quite properly regarded them as assets.

The burning of two grain warehouses in Chicago, the wrecking of a train loaded with motor trucks, three dock fires in Brooklyn, and the partially suppressed account of an explosion on board a man-of-war in home waters, provided the public with its daily supply of pessimism. Scores of alien suspects were seized, examined and interned. Others were caught with “the goods,” so to speak, and were flung into prison to await, in most cases, the minimum penalty for maximum intentions. But at no time was the finger of accusing Justice levelled at any one of the men or women who made the wheels go round.

Late in the afternoon of a cold, blustering day a young man presented himself at the Carstairs home. He was a smart-looking, upstanding chap in the uniform of a captain of Infantry. The new butler announced that Miss Hansbury was at home and was expecting Captain Steele.

You would go far before finding a manlier, handsomer fellow than this young American soldier. Lithe, and tall, and graceful, he was every inch a man and a thoroughbred. Only a few months before, he had given up a splendid position down town, with a salary that few young men commanded and prospects that even fewer entertained, and eagerly offered himself, heart and soul, to the army that was to lift his country out of the pit of commercialism and give it a place among the proud.

He had won his sword and his shoulder straps with the ease of one who earnestly strives, and at the same time he had conquered in an enterprise sweetly remote from the horrors of war. Louise Hansbury, beautiful and gifted, was wearing the emblem of surrender on the third finger of her left hand.

He was to dine with the Carstairs that evening; as a privileged person, he came long ahead of the other guests of the evening. There was to be a distinguished company. A Cabinet officer, a prominent Southern Senator, an Admiral of the Navy, a Foreign Ambassador, to say nothing of more than one potentate in the realm of finance. And women whose names were not more widely-known than their deeds in these days of great endeavour, women who had put aside frivolity and selfishness and social gluttony for the cold, hard business of making the country safe.

Mrs. Carstairs, herself, was the chairman of one of the most important of the Relief Organizations controlled and operated exclusively by women; far from being a mere figure-head, she was an active, zealous worker, an inspiration to her associates.

One of the guests of the evening was to be an Italian Countess whose labours in the war hospitals of her native land had made her one of the most conspicuous women in all Europe.

Louise Hansbury was the daughter of Davenport Carstairs’ only sister, now deceased. Since the death of her mother, her father had died when she was a small child, the girl had made her home with this adoring uncle. She possessed a somewhat meagre fortune, sufficient to guarantee independence, however, if she chose to care for herself, a circumstance that would have excited resistance in Davenport Carstairs had it ever come up for discussion.

“How are you, dearest?” inquired the young officer, holding her off to look anxiously, searchingly into her eyes. The colour of health was just beginning to flow in her cheeks.

“Gorgeous,” she replied, her eyes agleam with love and happiness.

“Go slow,” he said gently. “Don’t tax yourself too much. It’s a serious job, this business of getting well.”

“But I am well, you goose. I never felt better in my life.”

“You never were more beautiful,” he said softly.

“I’d much rather hear you say that than something really serious,” she cried, smiling divinely into his dazzled eyes.

“You’ve had pneumonia,” he said sternly, after the moment it took to regain a temporarily lost air of authority. “Mighty sick you’ve been, darling, and...”

“And I’m not to get my feet wet, or sit in a draft, or,  very good, Captain! Orders is orders, sir.” She stood off and saluted him with mock solemnity.

“I’m so glad you came early, Derrol,” she cried, abruptly abandoning her frivolous air. “I’ve  wanted you so much. This has been a long, oh, an age, dear. You knew that poor Hodges was killed by an automobile, didn’t you? I never know what I put in my letters. And there is all this talk about Belgium being a nest of spies at the outset, and oh, that would be too much. Sit here with me, Derrol, and you might hold me close to you, just for a little while. It yes, it does give me strength to feel your arms about me.” After a few moments, the troubled look that had been lurking in his eyes for a long time, reappeared. A light frown clouded his brow. He glanced over his shoulder, and, when he spoke, his voice was even lower than it had been before.

“Louise dear, something very strange and mysterious has happened. Don’t be alarmed, dear. It has turned out all right. But, ‘gad, it might have resulted very seriously. Do you remember that I told you about ten days ago, in this very room, that I suspected a certain officer in our camp of being well, crooked?”

“Yes, I remember quite well, Derrol. Is  he?”

He smiled grimly. “That remains to be seen. I had observed one or two things about him that excited my suspicions, but I mentioned the matter to no one. The next day after I spoke to you about it, I decided to go to headquarters with my fears. As a matter of fact, by that time I really had something tangible to report. I was received by the general himself. He was dumbfounded. Instantly an investigation was started. The officer I mentioned was missing from camp. It was found that he had gone to New York the night before, but was expected back in the morning—just as I was. That was ten days ago. He has never returned. It has been proved beyond all question that he was a spy. There is no doubt in my mind that he got a tip while in New York, and beat it for parts unknown. Now the infernal part of the business is that I never mentioned my suspicions to a soul except to you,—never even breathed them outside of this room until the next day.”

She was staring at him in perplexity. “But, Derrol dear, what does it all mean? You certainly cannot think that I repeated”

“Of course not, dear, certainly not. I...”

“In the first place, I had not been outside the apartment,” she went on in suppressed excitement. “And I give you my word of honour that I did not mention the matter to a soul in this house. Not one word, Derrol. If you...”

“Calm yourself, Louise,” he urged, pressing her hands. “The chances are that he found out he was suspected before he left camp, and even as I was telling you he may have been on his way to safety. I have not told any one that I spoke of the matter here, you may be quite sure of that. That would bring trouble and annoyance to you and well, I couldn’t allow that, you know. Just the same, he has disappeared, completely, utterly. He got the scent somehow, and didn’t lose a minute. Saved himself from facing a firing squad, you may be sure. So far as we have been able to discover, I am the only man who knew that he was up to something wrong. That’s the maddening part of it. I you see, I actually had the goods on him.”

“You looked over your shoulder just now, Derrol,” she said, the colour ebbing from her cheek. “Do you  suspect any one here? Any one of the servants? They have all been with us for years, except poor Hodges, and he is dead, and I know that Uncle Davenport trusts them implicitly.”

He held her a little closer. His lips were close to her ear, and the half-whispered words were fraught with the deepest meaning.

“See here, Louise, it’s a desperately serious thing to say, and I know I’m a fresh, half-baked upstart, and all that sort of thing, but I just can’t help feeling that if I hadn’t spoken of that matter here last week, we would have nabbed Mr. Spy practically red-handed.”

“Oh, Derrol!” she whispered, aghast. “You don’t know what you are saying.”

“It’s the way I feel, just the same,” said he stubbornly.

“Then you do think the warning came from this house?” She attempted to withdraw herself from his arms.

“God bless you, darling, I don’t think it came from you, or in any way through you,” he cried miserably.

“Then, whom do you suspect?” she demanded.

“It might have been Hodges,” he said, his eyes narrowing as he looked away from her.

“But Hodges was an Englishman, and violently anti-German. It couldn’t have been Hodges.”

“In any event, he’s dead and can’t defend himself,” said he. “I trust you, dearest, not to repeat a word of what I’ve just been saying, not a word to any one.”

“You are very foolish, Derrol, but I promise. Not even to Uncle Davenport or Aunt Frieda. They would be shocked beyond words if they knew you”

“That’s right, dear, not even to Mr. or Mrs. Carstairs, or that bustling young son of theirs.”

“It would be far more sensible to suspect me than either of them,” she said.

A latch-key turned in the front door, and a moment later young Alfred Carstairs came whistling into the hall.

“Hullo!” he called out, peering in upon them from the dimly lighted hallway. He was shedding his overcoat. “How’s the camp, Derrol? Getting into shape?”

“Getting shapelier every minute,” said Derrol Steele, crossing over to shake hands with the youth.

“Where’s mother?” inquired Alfred, looking over the officer’s shoulder at his cousin, who had not risen.

“Lying down, Alfie. She has been on the go all day. Much beauty is required for this evening. She’s giving it a chance to catch her napping.”

“By golly, it’s the only thing that ever does catch her napping,” said Alfred warmly. “She’s a wonder, Derrol. She’d be a field-marshal if she ever got into the army.”

“I haven’t the least doubt of it,” said Captain Steele, smiling. Even as he uttered the jesting words, a strange, uncanny sense of their importance took root in his mind.

Very serious topics were discussed by the guests at Mrs. Carstairs’ dinner that evening. No one felt the least restraint, nor the slightest hesitancy in speaking freely of matters that never were mentioned in the open. Questions that could not have been answered outside the most secret recesses of the State department were frankly asked here, and answered by some one who spoke with authority. No man feared his neighbour, nor his neighbour’s wife, for here were assembled only those to whom the Government itself could look with confidence. These were the people on the inside of everything, the spokes of the inner wheel, the people who knew what was going on in Washington, in London, and in Paris. No alien ears were here to listen, no alien eyes to watch; sanctuary for the true and loyal.

One man there held his tongue, and spoke not of the things that were vital: Captain Derrol Steele. It was not modesty alone that kept him silent in this imposing group, nor the recognition of his own insignificance. He had had his lesson. He was young enough to profit by it.

True, the wine may have had something to do with it. It usually does. A beguiling lubricant is this thing that gets into the rustiest of brains and produces a smooth combination of thought and thoughtlessness. In any case, tongues wagged loosely and wits were never keener than in this atmosphere of ripe security. A good many secrets were out for an airing. They were supposed, in good time, to get back into their closets and lie there as snugly as if they had never been disturbed.

Mrs. Carstairs was never more brilliant than on this particular evening. Always clever, but never witty, she was at her best when surrounded by personalities such as these; when confronted by problems which permitted her profound mentality to rise to its highest level and her singularly clear-headed vision to project itself across spaces that defy even the most far-seeing of men. She went below the surface of everything; she saw nothing from a superficial point of view. What men liked in her, and what other women envied and sometimes hated, was the rare faculty of saying little unless she was prepared to say a great deal more.
More than one great statesman had said, on occasion, that it was too bad she wasn’t a man! With a mind like that, well, there’s no telling! No wonder Davenport Carstairs was proud of her!

And yet, with all this unstinted praise, with all this respectful admiration, there was not a man among them who would have exchanged places with Davenport Carstairs. Despite her beauty, her no uncertain charm of manner, her strangely old-fashioned femininity, no man coveted her. As a matter of fact, they were a little bit awed by Frieda Carstairs.

The foreign ambassador was leaving early. He explained to his hostess that a very important conference was to be held that night in his rooms at the hotel. He was profoundly apologetic, but if she knew how much depended on the outcome of this very, very important meeting, and so on, and so on. She said she understood perfectly; affairs of state, she went on to say, always lead up to a state of affairs, and that, of course, was hopeless unless taken in time.

He was a little bewildered. Fearing that she had not fully grasped his meaning, he proceeded to elaborate a little. It wasn’t really a state of affairs, nor, for that matter, an affair of state. Time, of course, yes, time was the essence of everything in these bitter days. She was quite right; the whole trouble with the Allies had been the wasting of time; now they realized the importance of doing things promptly. She said she was glad that they were not letting the grass grow under their feet. He mumbled something about winter and the nothing much growing outside the tropics, and floundered with further confidences.

Leaning quite close to her he whispered something in her ear. It left her perfectly calm.

“This, you understand, my dear madam, is not to be repeated, strictly confidential, absolutely, ah, on the quiet, as you say over here.”

“I sha’n’t even repeat it to my husband,” said she.

The ambassador looked relieved. “I fear he would not approve of my mentioning a matter that he seems to have withheld from you himself.”

She smiled.

“Possess your soul in peace, my dear Ambassador. I am as good as he at keeping a secret.”

“It is most imperative that this shouldn’t get out, so to speak,” said he, wishing in his soul that he had not let it out himself.

“You have spoken to the Sphinx,” said she gravely.

She happened to glance down the table at this juncture. Something hypnotic drew her gaze directly to Captain Steele. He was regarding her steadily. There was a queer, intent look in his eyes. For an instant their gaze held, and then he looked away. She turned to speak to the man on her left. If he had been an observing person, he would have noticed the tired look that suddenly clouded her eyes, briefly, fittingly, it is true, but remaining long enough to have been detected by one less absorbed in himself than he. No doubt his pride would have been hurt had he observed it.

The little Italian Countess spoke very frankly of conditions in her country, of specific needs that called for immediate action on the part of the American government, of plots and counterplots in the very heart of the army, of political and ecclesiastical intrigue that sapped the courage of the people, and of the serious situation on the Isonzo where victorious Italian armies were in constant danger of collapse because of an utter lack of support from behind the lines. She went so far as to say that in the event of a supreme assault by the Austro-Germans, the Italian armies would have to relinquish their hard-earned gains and fall back, perhaps in actual defeat.

“But the Austrians are down and out themselves.” declared the cabinet member. He spoke loudly, for he was at the far end of the table. “They haven’t a good solid kick left in them, much less anything like a supreme assault, Countess.”

“Let us hope you are right,” returned the Italian woman, the line deepening between her eyes. “I only know that the Italians are in no condition to withstand a great offensive if it should come. Oh, if only England, and France, and you, gentlemen, could but be made to realize the importance of a real victory over the Austrians, if you could only be made to see how desperately we are in need of all the support you can give us in men, and guns, and food, and aye, in confidence, too. If the German Emperor knew the truth about our position on the Isonzo and in Trentino,  he would not wait, he would not hesitate. He would move like lightning. He would send a million men to the aid of the Austrians. He would strike with all his might, and then, when it was all over, you, all of you, would grate your teeth while he laughed over another of your blunders.”

The men all smiled tolerantly. She was a woman. That was just the way a high-strung, emotional woman would talk.

“It would be quite simple, Countess,” said Davenport Carstairs, “if the Kaiser had even half a million men to spare. He is being kept pretty busy in France and Flanders just now.”

“Ah, but in Russia,” she cried vehemently. “What of the damned Russians?” In her excitement she spoke the language of the army. Of her hearers, the men seemed a little more shocked than the women. “Are they keeping him pretty busy? No! Are they holding his vast armies in check? No! They are doing more than that. They are shoving him back, driving him and all of his men and guns out of Russia. Driving them down into Italy and over to Flanders, that is what they are doing. And you, you and France and England, will not wake up until it is too late. When the beastly Russians have driven the Germans into Paris, and across the English Channel, and down to Rome, then you will understand.”

“But the Italians will hold the ground they have gained,” protested one of the men. “I talked with members of the commission before they sailed the other day, and there wasn’t one of them who expressed the slightest uneasiness about the Italian front. On the other hand, they were of the opinion that the Italians would continue to advance. The Austrians are shot to pieces.”

“Italy was not represented in that secret mission, my dear sir,” said the Countess, a trifle curtly. “You do not know what the Italians know, and what they are actually dreading. They know they cannot resist a great offensive.”

“Well, as long as the Germans are ignorant of the true state of affairs, I can’t see that there is much to worry about,” said Carstairs pleasantly.

“But the Germans will not remain in ignorance for ever, Mr. Carstairs,” exclaimed the Countess. “They find out everything, everything, in time.”

“Not everything,” said the Admiral of the navy, blandly. “Their marvellous spy system failed completely in the case of the Franco-British special mission. The members of the party came, remained here for more than a fortnight, sailed for home last week, and Germany never had so much as an inkling of the visit. By this time the Campion is no doubt safely through the danger zone. I call that beating the devil with his own stick.”

“The Campion?” fell sharply from the lips of Mrs. Carstairs.

“You are mistaken, Admiral. They sailed on the Elston,” said her husband.

The Admiral beamed. “My dear sir, the entire party was transferred to the Campion ten hours after the Elston sailed out of this port. The Secretary took no chances. He had that devilish Kitchener betrayal in mind. There was the possibility, you know, of a leak somewhere. One never can tell. So everything that could be thought of was done to frustrate the ‘system.’ The destruction of the Elston with those men on board would have been a greater disaster to the Allies than the loss of Kitchener or half the battle front in France. I happen to know the transfer was made safely and according to plans. The Elston continued her voyage in convoy, but she was laden with nothing more precious than food for the Germans.”

“Food for the Germans?” cried the Italian Countess, aghast.

The Admiral’s smile broadened. “The most indigestible food that is made in America,” said he. After a moment’s perplexity, she smiled and clapped her hands.

Once more Mrs. Carstairs’ gaze was drawn irresistibly to the young captain half way up the table. His eyes were fixed on her again, and again, as before, after an instant they were averted. Something in his steady look seared her like a hot iron. He seemed to be searching the innermost recesses of her brain, and she quailed. His face grew suddenly pale and drawn, paler even than her own.

The Admiral, having come sharply into prominence, continued to play his high cards. He leaned back in his chair, neglecting a dessert of which he was especially fond, and with considerable bumptiousness rambled on sonorously.

“We’ve been expecting word all day from Admiral Sims. The convoy is a swift one. Both the Campion and the Elston should reach port today, or at the very latest tomorrow. I confess we’ve all been anxious. They are wiring me from Washington as soon as...By the way, Mrs. Carstairs, I took the liberty of instructing my aide to telephone me here in case the report comes tonight. Hope you don’t mind. I thought”

“Of course I don’t mind, Admiral,” she said warmly. “On the contrary, I am glad you thought of it. We are all terribly interested.” Late in the evening, in fact, just as the guests were preparing to depart, the Admiral was called to the telephone. When he rejoined the group a few minutes afterward, his expression was serious.

“Our precautions were well taken, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “The Elston was torpedoed this morning. Practically everybody on board was lost.”

There was a moment’s silence. Then Captain Steele spoke.

“So the Germans did know that the Commission sailed out of New York harbour on the Elston. It would seem, Admiral, that the spy sits pretty close to the head of your board, I mean, of course, your board of strategy.”

“By Gad!” growled the distressed sailor-man. “It it is absolutely incredible. There couldn’t have been a leak down there.”

“Have you an idea how many people actually knew that the party was sailing on the Elston?” inquired the young man. His face was very white.

The Admiral glanced around the room, rather helplessly. “Of course the fact was known to quite a number of people, such as we are here, but, what are we to do if we can’t trust ourselves? Nothing could have been more carefully guarded. Not a line in the newspapers, not a word uttered in public, not a....”

“The information could not have come from any one directly connected with the Navy department, Admiral,” said Steele slowly.

“I’m glad to hear you say that, sir,” said the Admiral, stiffening.

“For the simple and obvious reason that it was the Elston and not the Campion they went after. A spy in such a position would have known of the transfer.”

“On the other hand, it may have been pure chance that they attacked the Elston,” said Davenport Carstairs, a queer huskiness in his voice. “Coincidence, and nothing more. Thank heaven, they didn’t get the Campion.”

Steele was the last to leave. He said good night to Louise Hansbury in the little hall outside. He had rung for the elevator. The door, on the latch, had been closed behind them and they were quite alone for a few minutes.

“Louise,” he said, and suddenly his voice, scarcely more than a whisper, sounded strange and unnatural to her, “it’s a horrible thing to say, but the trouble is right here in this house. You heard what the Admiral said? I can’t explain how it all happened, but suddenly I had a well, a revelation. A great, flaring light seemed to flash in my face. I give you my word, it was actually blinding. I thought my heart would never beat again. I saw through everything. It is all as plain as day to me. God help us all, dearest, it’s unspeakable. I’ve just got to tell you, so that you may be on your guard. Tomorrow or as soon as possible, at any rate, you must make an excuse to get away from here, for a visit, or anything you can think of. But get away you must!”

“Do you know what you are saying, Derrolf” she whispered, clutching his arm. She was trembling like a leaf, and swayed. An expression of the utmost dread and horror filled her eyes.

“Yes, I do. It is terrible, but, by heaven, it’s true, as true as we live and breathe.”

She covered her face with her hands. “Oh, Derrol, I felt it too, tonight. What are we to do? What can be done?”

“Hush! Here is the elevator. I can’t say anything more tonight. I don’t have to go back to Camp till tomorrow night. Tomorrow morning, I’ll call up. I must see you alone and not here.”

“I go out every morning for a walk, about eleven,” she breathed.

The elevator door slid open.

“Good night,” said he. She clasped his hand in silence. Then she went back into the apartment, and, as one drugged, passed the drawingroom door and staggered down the hall toward her bedroom.

Mrs. Carstairs, alone in the drawing-room, saw the girl pass, and stepped quickly to the door.

“Louise, dear, are you ill!” she called out.

“No, Aunt Frieda. I’m all right. Good night.”

“Good night, dear. Sleep late.”

The door down the long hall closed softly, and Frieda Carstairs turned back into the drawingroom with a sigh. Her husband was looking over the night mail that had been piled on his desk in the study. She went in to him.

“I wonder if poor, dear Alfred is struggling with that abominable nightmare of his,” she said. “Really, Davenport, the boy is wearing himself out. I don’t see why physics should be so difficult for him.”

“They were difficult for me, my dear,” said he, looking up. Their eyes met, and she smiled gently, lovingly. He took her firm, steady hand and pressed it to his cheek..

“I think I’ll run in and shoo him off to bed. If only he wouldn’t smoke that dreadful pipe while he studies. He breathes nothing but smoke.”

“Doesn’t hurt him a bit,” said he. “They’ve got sheet-iron lungs, you see,—these sophomores.”

She left him and went down to her son’s room. Carstairs was staring fixedly, intently into space when she returned, he knew not how long afterwards. He came out of his reverie with a start when she spoke to him from the door.

“Alfie is going out for a breath of fresh air,” she said. “It seemed to me his room was stuffier and smokier than I’ve ever known it to be before. Really, dear, he is dreadfully trying. ”

“My dear, you’ve never been a boy,” said he, collecting himself and smiling. “You don’t know what it is to be completely self-satisfied.”

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” said Alfred, coming up behind his mother. “Are you going to sit up much longer, mother?”

“A little while. Hurry back, dear. Don’t go out without your overcoat. There is quite a chill in the air.”

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/8a/ea/17/8aea17e134c2e85038e4179c8ec8dcb1.jpg


No comments:

Post a Comment