The Great Impersonation/Chapter 16
Even in the great dining-room of Dominey Hall, the mahogany table which was its great glory was stretched that evening to its extreme capacity. Besides the house party, which included the Right Honourable Gerald Watson, a recently appointed Cabinet Minister, there were several guests from the neighbourhood—the Lord Lieutenant of the County and other notabilities. Caroline, with the Lord Lieutenant on one side of her and Terniloff on the other played the part of hostess adequately but without enthusiasm. Her eyes seldom left for long the other end of the table, where Stephanie, at Dominey's left hand, with her crown of exquisitely coiffured red-gold hair, her marvellous jewellery, her languorous grace of manner, seemed more like one of the beauties of an ancient Venetian Court than a modern Hungarian Princess gowned in the Rue de la Paix. Conversation remained chiefly local and concerned the day's sport and kindred topics. It was not until towards the close of the meal that the Duke succeeded in launching his favourite bubble.
"I trust, Everard," he said, raising his voice a little as he turned towards his host, "that you make a point of inculcating the principles of National Service into your tenantry here."
Dominey's reply was a little dubious.
"I am afraid they do not take to the idea very kindly in this part of the world," he confessed. "Purely agricultural districts are always a little difficult."
"It is your duty as a landowner," the Duke insisted, "to alter their point of view. There is not the slightest doubt," he added, looking belligerently over the top of his pince nez at Seaman, who was seated at the opposite side of the table, "that before long we shall find ourselves—and in a shocking state of unpreparedness, mind you—at war with Germany."
Lady Maddeley, the wife of the Lord Lieutenant, who sat at his side, seemed a little startled. She was probably one of the only people present who was not aware of the Duke's foible.
"Do you really think so?" she asked. "The Germans seem such civilised people, so peaceful and domestic in their home life, and that sort of thing."
The Duke groaned. He glanced down the table to be sure that Prince Terniloff was out of hearing.
"My dear Lady Maddeley," he declared, "Germany is not governed like England. When the war comes, the people will have had nothing to do with it. A great many of them will be just as surprised as you will be, but they will fight all the same."
Seaman, who had kept silence during the last few moments with great difficulty, now took up the Duke's challenge.
"Permit me to assure you, madam," he said, bowing across the table, "that the war with Germany of which the Duke is so afraid will never come. I speak with some amount of knowledge because I am a German by birth, although naturalised in this country. I have as many and as dear friends in Berlin as in London, and with the exception of my recent absence in Africa, where I had the pleasure to meet our host, I spent a great part of my time going back and forth between the two capitals. I have also the honour to be the secretary of a society for the promotion of a better understanding between the citizens of Germany and England."
"Rubbish!" the Duke exclaimed. "The Germans don't want a better understanding. They only want to fool us into believing that they do."
Seaman looked a little pained. He stuck to his guns, however.
"His Grace and I," he observed, "are old opponents on this subject."
"We are indeed," the Duke agreed. "You may be an honest man, Mr. Seaman, but you are a very ignorant one upon this particular topic."
"You are probably both right in your way," Dominey intervened, very much in the manner of a well-bred host making his usual effort to smooth over two widely divergent points of view. "There is no doubt a war party in Germany and a peace party, statesmen who place economic progress first, and others who are tainted with a purely military lust for conquest. In this country it is very hard for us to strike a balance between the two."
Seaman beamed his thanks upon his host.
"I have friends," he said impressively, "in the very highest circles of Germany, who are continually encouraging my work here, and I have received the benediction of the Kaiser himself upon my efforts to promote a better feeling in this country. And if you will forgive my saying so, Duke, it is such ill-advised and ill-founded statements as you are constantly making about my country which is the only bar to a better understanding between us."
"I have my views," the Duke snapped, "and they have become convictions. I shall continue to express them at all times and with all the eloquence at my command."
The Ambassador, to whom portions of this conversation had now become audible, leaned a little forward in his place.
"Let me speak first as a private individual," he begged, "and express my well-studied opinion that war between our two countries would be simply race suicide, an indescribable and an abominable crime. Then I will remember what I represent over here, and I will venture to add in my ambassadorial capacity that I come with an absolute and heartfelt mandate of peace. My task over here is to secure and ensure it."
Caroline flashed a warning glance at her husband.
"How nice of you to be so frank, Prince!" she said. "The Duke sometimes forgets, in the pursuit of his hobby, that a private dinner table is not a platform. I insist upon it that we discuss something of more genuine interest."
"There isn't a more vital subject in the world," the Duke declared, resigning himself, however, to silence.
"We will speak," the Ambassador suggested, "of the way in which our host brought down those tall pheasants."
"You will tell me, perhaps," Seaman suggested to the lady to his right, "how you English women have been able to secure for yourselves so much more liberty than our German wives enjoy?"
"Later on," Stephanie whispered to her host, with a little tremble in her voice, "I have a surprise for you."
After dinner, Dominey's guests passed naturally enough to the relaxations which each preferred. There were two bridge tables, Terniloff and the Cabinet Minister played billiards, and Seaman, with a touch which amazed every one, drew strange music from the yellow keys of the old-fashioned grand piano in the drawing-room. Stephanie and her host made a slow progress through the hall and picture gallery. For some time their conversation was engaged solely with the objects to which Dominey drew his companion's attention. When they had passed out of possible hearing, however, of any of the other guests, Stephanie's fingers tightened upon her companion's arm.
"I wish to speak to you alone," she said, "without the possibility of any one overhearing."
Dominey hesitated and looked behind.
"Your guests are well occupied," she continued a little impatiently, "and in any case I am one of them. I claim your attention."
Dominey threw open the door of the library and turned on a couple of the electric lights. She made her way to the great open fireplace, on which a log was burning, looked down into the shadows of the room and back again at her host's face.
"For one moment," she begged, "turn on all the lights. I wish to be sure that we are alone."
Dominey did as he was bidden. The furthermost corners of the room, with its many wings of book-filled shelves, were illuminated. She nodded.
"Now turn them all out again except this one," she directed, "and wheel me up an easy-chair.— No, I choose this settee. Please seat yourself by my side."
"Is this going to be serious?" he asked, with some slight disquietude.
"Serious but wonderful," she murmured, lifting her eyes to his. "Will you please listen to me, Leopold?"
She was half curled up in a corner of the settee, her head resting slightly upon her long fingers, her brown eyes steadily fixed upon her companion. There was an atmosphere about her of serious yet of tender things. Dominey's face seemed to fall into more rigid lines as he realised the appeal of her eyes.
"Leopold," she began, "I left this country a few weeks ago, feeling that you were a brute, determined never to see you again, half inclined to expose you before I went as an impostor and a charlatan. Germany means little to me, and a patriotism which took no account of human obligations left me absolutely unresponsive. I meant to go home and never to return to London. My heart was bruised, and I was very unhappy."
She paused, but her companion made no sign. She paused for so long, however, that speech became necessary.
"You are speaking, Princess," he said calmly, "to one who is not present. My name is no longer Leopold."
She laughed at him with a curious mixture of tenderness and bitterness.
"My friend," she continued, "I am terrified to think, besides your name, how much of humanity you have lost in your new identity. To proceed it suited my convenience to remain for a few days in Berlin, and I was therefore compelled to present myself at Potsdam. There I received a great surprise. Wilhelm spoke to me of you, and though, alas! my heart is still bruised, he helped me to understand."
"Is this wise?" he asked a little desperately.
She ignored his words.
"I was taken back into favour at Court," she went on. "For that I owe to you my thanks. Wilhelm was much impressed by your recent visit to him, and by the way in which you have established yourself here. He spoke also with warm commendation of your labours in Africa, which he seemed to appreciate all the more as you were sent there an exile. He asked me, Leopold," she added, dropping her voice a little, "if my feelings towards you remained unchanged."
Dominey's face remained unrelaxed. Persistently he refused the challenge of her eyes.
"I told him the truth," she proceeded. "I told him how it all began, and how it must last with me—to the end. We spoke even of the duel. I told him what both your seconds had explained to me,—that turn of the wrist, Conrad's wild lunge, how he literally threw himself upon the point of your sword. Wilhelm understands and forgives, and he has sent you this letter."
She drew a small grey envelope from her pocket. On the seal were the Imperial Hohenzollern arms. She passed it to him.
"Leopold," she whispered, "please read that."
He shook his head, although he accepted the letter with reluctant fingers.
"Read the superscription," she directed.
He obeyed her. It was addressed in a strange, straggling handwriting to Sir Everard Dominey, Baronet. He broke the seal unwillingly and drew out the letter. It was dated barely a fortnight back. There was neither beginning or ending; just a couple of sentences scrawled across the thick notepaper:
"It is my will that you offer your hand in marriage to the Princess Stephanie of Eiderstrom. Your union shall be blessed by the Church and approved by my Court.
Dominey sat as a man enthralled with silence. She watched him.
"Not on your knees yet?" she asked, with faint but somewhat resentful irony. "Can it be, Leopold, that you have lost your love for me? You have changed so much and in so many ways. Has the love gone?"
Even to himself his voice sounded harsh and unnatural, his words instinct with the graceless cruelty of a clown.
"This is not practical," he declared. "Think! I am as I have been addressed here, and as I must remain yet for months to come—Everard Dominey, an Englishman and the owner of this house—the husband of Lady Dominey."
"Where is your reputed wife?" Stephanie demanded, frowning.
"In the nursing home where she has been for the last few months," he replied. "She has already practically recovered. She cannot remain there much longer."
"You must insist upon it that she does."
"I ask you to consider the suspicions which would be excited by such a course," Dominey pleaded earnestly, "and further, can you explain to me in what way I, having already, according to belief of everybody, another wife living, can take advantage of this mandate?"
She looked at him wonderingly.
"You make difficulties? You sit there like the cold Englishman whose place you are taking, you whose tears have fallen before now upon my hand, whose lips—"
"You speak of one who is dead," Dominey interrupted, "dead until the coming of great events may bring him to life again. Until that time your lover must be dumb."
Then her anger blazed out. She spoke incoherently, passionately, dragged his face down to hers and clenched her fist the next moment as though she would have struck it. She broke down with a storm of tears.
"Not so hard—not so hard, Leopold!" she implored. "Oh! yours is a great task, and you must carry it through to the end, but we have his permission—there can be found a way—we could be married secretly. At least your lips—your arms! My heart is starved, Leopold."
He rose to his feet. Her arms were still twined about his neck, her lips hungry for his kisses, her eyes shining up into his. "Have pity on me, Stephanie," he begged. "Until our time has come there is dishonour even in a single kiss. Wait for the day, the day you know of."
She unwound her arms and shivered slightly. Her hurt eyes regarded him wonderingly.
"Leopold," she faltered, "what has changed you like this? What has dried up all the passion in you? You are a different man. Let me look at you."
She caught him by the shoulders, dragged him underneath the electric globe, and stood there gazing into his face. The great log upon the hearth was spluttering and fizzing. Through the closed door came the faint wave of conversation and laughter from outside. Her breathing was uneven, her eyes were seeking to rend the mask from his face.
"Can you have learnt to care for any one else?" she muttered. "There were no women in Africa. This Rosamund Dominey, your reputed wife—they tell me that she is beautiful, that you have been kindness itself to her, that her health has improved since your coming, that she adores you. You wouldn't dare—"
"No," he interrupted, "I should not dare."
"Then what are you looking at?" she demanded. "Tell me that?"
Her eyes were following the shadowed picture which had passed out of the room. He saw once more the slight, girlish form, the love-seeking light in those pleading dark eyes, the tremulous lips, the whole sweet appeal for safety from a frightened child to him, the strong man. He felt the clinging touch of those soft fingers laid upon his, the sweetness of those marvellously awakened emotions, so cruelly and drearily stifled through a cycle of years. The woman's passion by his side seemed suddenly tawdry and unreal, the seeking of her lips for his something horrible. His back was towards the door, and it was her cry of angry dismay which first apprised him of a welcome intruder. He swung around to find Seaman standing upon the threshold—Seaman, to him a very angel of deliverance.
"I am indeed sorry to intrude, Sir Everard," the newcomer declared, with a shade of genuine concern on his round, good-humoured face. "Something has happened which I thought you ought to know at once. Can you spare me a moment?"
The Princess swept past them without a word of farewell or a backward glance. She had the carriage and the air of an insulted queen. A shade of deeper trouble came into Seaman's face as he stepped respectfully to one side.
"What is it that has happened?" Dominey demanded.
"Lady Dominey has returned," was the quiet reply.