The Great Impersonation/Chapter 24
The next morning saw the breaking-up of Dominey's carefully arranged shooting party. The Prince took his host's arm and led him to one side for a few moments, as the cars were being loaded up. His first few words were of formal thanks. He spoke then more intimately.
"Von Ragastein," he said, "I desire to refer back for a moment to our conversation the other day."
Dominey shook his head and glanced behind.
"I know only one name here, Prince."
"Dominey, then. I will confess that you play and carry the part through perfectly. I have known English gentlemen all my life, and you have the trick of the thing. But listen. I have already told you of my disapproval of this scheme in which you are the central figure."
"It is understood," Dominey assented.
"That," the Prince continued, "is a personal matter. What I am now going to say to you is official. I had despatches from Berlin last night. They concern you."
Dominey seemed to stiffen a little.
"I am given to understand," the Ambassador continued, "that you practically exist only in the event of that catastrophe which I, for one, cannot foresee. I am assured that if your expose should take place at any time, your personation will be regarded as a private enterprise, and there is nothing whatever to connect you with any political work."
"Up to the present that is absolutely so," Dominey agreed.
"I am further advised to look upon you as my unnamed and unsuspected successor here, in the event of war. For that reason I am begged to inaugurate terms of intimacy with you, to treat you with the utmost confidence, and, if the black end should come, to leave in your hands all such unfulfilled work as can be continued in secrecy and silence. I perhaps express myself in a somewhat confused manner."
"I understand perfectly," Dominey replied. "The authorities have changed their first idea as to my presence here. They want to keep every shadow of suspicion away from me, so that in the event of war I shall have an absolutely unique position, an unsuspected yet fervently patriotic German, living hand in glove with the upper classes of English Society. One can well imagine that there would be work for me."
"Our understanding is mutual," Terniloff declared. "What I have to say to you, therefore, is that I hope you will soon follow us to London and give me the opportunity of offering you the constant hospitality of Carlton House Gardens."
"You are very kind, Prince," Dominey said. "My instructions are, as soon as I have consolidated my position here—an event which I fancy I may consider attained—to establish myself in London and to await orders. I trust that amongst other things you will then permit me to examine the memoirs you spoke of the other day."
"Naturally, and with the utmost pleasure," the Ambassador assented. "They are a faithful record of my interviews and negotiations with certain Ministers here, and they reflect a desire and intention for peace which will, I think, amaze you.— I venture now upon a somewhat delicate question," he continued, changing the subject of their conversation abruptly, as they turned back along the terrace. "Lady Dominey will accompany you?"
"Of that I am not sure," Dominey replied thoughtfully. "I have noticed, Prince, if I may be allowed to say so, your chivalrous regard for that lady. You will permit me to assure you that in the peculiar position in which I am placed I shall never forget that she is the wife of Everard Dominey."
Terniloff shook hands heartily.
"I wanted to hear that from you," he admitted. "You I felt instinctively were different, but there are many men of our race who are willing enough to sacrifice a woman without the slightest scruple, either for their passions or their policy. I find Lady Dominey charming."
"She will never lack a protector in me," Dominey declared.
There were more farewells and, soon after, the little procession of cars drove off. Rosamund herself was on the terrace, bidding all her guests farewell. She clung to Dominey's arm when at last they turned back into the empty hall.
"What dear people they were, Everard!" she exclaimed. "I only wish that I had seen more of them. The Duchess was perfectly charming to me, and I never knew any one with such delightful manners as Prince Terniloff. Are you going to miss them very much, dear?"
"Not a bit," he answered. "I think I shall take a gun now and stroll down the meadows and across the rough ground. Will you come with me, or will you put on one of your pretty gowns and entertain me downstairs at luncheon? It is a very long time since we had a meal alone together."
She shook her head a little sadly.
"We never have had," she answered. "You know that, Everard, and alas! I know it. But we are going on pretending, aren't we?"
He raised her fingers to his lips and kissed them.
"You shall pretend all that you like, dear Rosamund," he promised, "and I will be the shadow of your desires. No!— No tears!" he added quickly, as she turned away. "Remember there is nothing but happiness for you now. Whoever I am or am not, that is my one aim in life."
She clutched at his hand passionately, and suddenly, as though finding it insufficient, twined her arms around his neck and kissed him.
"Let me come with you," she begged. "I can't bear to let you go. I'll be very quiet. Will you wait ten minutes for me?"
"Of course," he answered.
He strolled down towards the gun room, stood by the fire for a moment, and then wandered out into the courtyard, where Middleton and a couple of beaters were waiting for him with the dogs. He had scarcely taken a step towards them, however, when he stopped short. To his amazement Seaman was there, standing a little on one side, with his eyes fixed upon the windows of the servants' quarters.
"Hullo, my friend!" he exclaimed. "Why, I thought you went by the early train from Thursford Station?"
"Missed it by two minutes," Seaman replied with a glance towards the beaters. "I knew all the cars were full for the eleven o'clock, so I thought I'd wait till the afternoon."
"And where have you been to for the last few hours, then?"
Seaman had reached his side now and was out of earshot of the others.
"Trying to solve the mystery of Johann Wolff's sudden departure last night. Come and walk down the avenue with me a short way."
"A very short distance, then. I am expecting Lady Dominey."
They passed through the thin iron gates and paced along one of the back entrances to the Hall.
"Do not think me indiscreet," Seaman began. "I returned without the knowledge of any one, and I kept out of the way until they had all gone. It is what I told you before. Things which I do not understand depress me, and behold! I have found proof this morning of a further significance in Wolff's sudden departure."
"Proceed," Dominey begged.
"I learned this morning, entirely by accident, that Mr. Pelham's servant was either mistaken or wilfully deceived me. Wolff did not accompany your butler to the station."
"And how did you find that out?" Dominey demanded.
"It is immaterial! What is material is that there is a sort of conspiracy amongst the servants here to conceal the manner of his leaving. Do not interrupt me, I beg! Early this morning there was a fresh fall of snow which has now disappeared. Outside the window of the room which I found locked were the marks of footsteps and the tracks of a small car."
"And what do you gather from all this?" Dominey asked.
"I gather that Wolff must have had friends in the neighbourhood," Seaman replied, "or else—"
"My last supposition sounds absurd," Seaman confessed, "but the whole matter is so incomprehensible that I was going to say—or else he was forcibly removed."
Dominey laughed softly.
"Wolff would scarcely have been an easy man to abduct, would he," he remarked, "even if we could hit upon any plausible reason for such a thing! As a matter of fact, Seaman," he concluded, turning on his heel a little abruptly as he saw Rosamund standing in the avenue, "I cannot bring myself to treat this Johann Wolff business seriously. Granted that the man was a spy, well, let him get on with it. We are doing our job here in the most perfect and praiseworthy fashion. We neither of us have the ghost of a secret to hide from his employers."
"In a sense that is true," Seaman admitted.
"Well, then, cheer up," Dominey enjoined. "Take a little walk with us, and we will see whether Parkins cannot find us a bottle of that old Burgundy for lunch. How does that sound?"
"If you will excuse me from taking the walk," Seaman begged, "I would like to remain here until your return."
"You are more likely to do harm," Dominey reminded him, "and set the servants talking, if you show too much interest in this man's disappearance."
"I shall be careful," Seaman promised, "but there are certain things which I cannot help. I work always from instinct, and my instinct is never wrong. I will ask no more questions of your servants, but I know that there is something mysterious about the sudden departure of Johann Wolff."
Dominey and Rosamund returned about one o'clock to find a note from Seaman, which the former tore open as his companion stood warming her feet in front of the fire. There were only a few lines:
"I am following an idea. It takes me to London. Let us meet there within a few days.
"Has he really gone?" Rosamund asked.
"Back to London."
She laughed happily. "Then we shall lunch à deux after all! Delightful! I have my wish!"
There was a sudden glow in Dominey's face, a glow which was instantly suppressed.
"Shall I ever have mine?" he asked, with a queer little break in his voice.