The Two Ambassadors
THE TWO AMBASSADORS.
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM.
STOURTON, for the first time since he had left Downing Street, released his hold of the despatch-box. Both doors of the railway carriage in which he was seated were locked, on both windows was pasted a modest oblong label announcing that the compartment was reserved. There was no lavatory, and he had already looked carefully under the seats. Outside on the platform a liberally tipped servant of the company stood before the carriage door to prevent any attempt at intrusion. Stourton, with a little sigh of relief, set down the box on the middle seat opposite to him, lit a cigar, and opened the evening paper.
The great black headlines, which for the the last four hours had been placarded all over London, took up one half of the paper.
CHINA AND JAPAN.
DECLARATION OF WAR.
JAPAN APPEALS TO HER ALLY.
BARON NAGASKI AT THE FOREIGN OFFICE.
CABINET COUNCIL NOW SITTING.
The headlines themselves told all that was known. The news had come without warning, and following hard upon a slight Japanese reverse on the Yalu. But the news itself was incomplete. Already the mighty engines of Fleet Street were at work. To-morrow morning's papers would provide even more sensational reading. Barely two hours ago startling intelligence had teen flashed across the Channel. Orders for the mobilisation of the French Fleet had already been posted. The two great Powers, who had, only a few weeks ago, amidst a shower of congratulations, concluded an agreement which seemed likely to ensure a permanent peace, were, with a suddenness which had no parallel in the modern history of nations, on the very brink of war.
The whistle sounded for the departure of the train. Suddenly Stourton was aware of some disturbance upon the platform. A tall, fair-haired woman, whose long opera-cloak imperfectly concealed her evening clothes, was trying to make her way past the official who stood before the carriage door. Stourton, with an exclamation of alarm, sprang to his feet and let down the window. Even in that moment of astonishment he did not forget his caution. He caught up the despatch-box and held it in his left hand.
"Esther!" he exclaimed. "What is it?"
The official stood aside. The train was already moving. She had almost to run to keep up with it.
"Heslop Stanmore is in Paris!" she cried breathlessly. "I found my maid sending him a telegram. He wanted to know—exactly—when you left. Take care!"
She could keep up no longer. She was already flushed and panting. He waved his hand reassuring and shouted a farewell. Then he fastened the window and resumed his seat.
"The little grey lady," he muttered to himself. "Esther's maid bribed—made friends with her down at ——, of course. He can't think that I'm such a blithering fool as to walk into another trap. If he tries it——" Stourton's fingers clasped something in the pocket of his overcoat, and his face was suddenly hard. He was thinking of the weeks of misery which this man had caused him less than a year ago. Another conflict might end differently.
Stourton's nerves were almost perfect, but he would scarcely have been human if he had not been conscious of some anxiety. Any successful tampering with his mission might mean the kindling of the war torch throughout the world. It might mean the pouring out to waste of the accumulated millions of centuries of industry, it might retard the whole progress of civilisation for many decades. The bare possibility of the thing was appalling. and yet when he stopped for a moment to reflect, the absolute security of his position was borne in upon him. He carried a fateful message with him, but it was a verbal one. There were no means of wresting from him words which his memory and tongue could alone make rail. He had important papers, too, but they were in cipher,—not the ordinary cipher of the Foreign Office, but a simple variation of it, to which, again, the only key had been committed to his memory and destroyed. The worst that could happen to him would be delay, and it was hard to see how even that could be engineered. These reflections brought him to a certain amount of consolation, but he did not, for a moment relax his watchfulness, though the train was speeding now on its way to Dover without any intervening stop. He sat quite still. The despatch-box was within easy reach, a loaded revolver upon his knee.
At the pier station he descended, making his way along the platform and across the gangway to the steamer. Two men of unobtrusive appearance, quietly but unfashionably dressed, were his nearest neighbours, one walking a little behind, and one in front. No sign of recognition passed between Stourton and them, yet he knew very well who they were and what their presence meant. On board the steamer he made his way at once to the cabin which had been reserved for him. The two men ordered deck-chairs outside. With the cabin door locked, and two of the shrewdest detectives from Scotland Yard within a few feet of him, Stourton felt fairly secure against even such a man as Heslop Stanmore, yet he never relaxed his watchfulness. He neither ate nor drank. He simply sat and watched the despatch-box.
At Calais the same programme was repeated, only this time, without speech but as though by previous arrangement, the two man shared his coupé in the train. Stourton, ignoring their presence, behaved exactly as though he had only himself to rely upon. With the despatch-box upon his knees, covered over by a thick travelling-rug, he sat alert and sleepless throughout the whole of the journey. Still nothing happened. Paris was reached without incident.
Here on the platform the two men closed in upon him, one on either side. Although they had no luggage, they chartered a small station omnibus, and a few minutes after the arrival of the train they were on their way to the British Embassy. The grey twilight of dawn was already breaking over the city, but there were traces still on the boulevards of the excitement which throughout the night had kept the streets and cafés thronged with people. The news from the East had stirred Paris in the same degree as London. Everywhere it was agreed that a favourable reply from England to the appeal of her ally must mean war, and already momentous steps had been taken. Stourton smiled slightly as he looked in upon one of the still brilliantly lit cafés. He carried the news which was to decide the question of peace and war. A word from him, and these people might have gone quietly home to their beds. and that word was to be spoken during the next few minutes.
The omnibus drew up at last before the great white stone front of the Embassy. The three men alighted, and his two companions watched Stourton admitted. Then, raising their hats slightly, they turned away. Their errand was finished.
Stourton breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped inside the hall.
"Is Sir Charles better, Morton?" he asked the man who admitted him.
"His Excellency is complaining of his head a good deal, Mr. Stourton," the man answered. "Monsieur Camillon sent for him about midnight, and has only just returned. You will find him in the study, sir. He gave orders that you were to go straight in immediately you arrived."
Stourton did not hesitate for a moment. Already he was beginning to think of his bath and a whisky-and-soda. A few more such errands as this, and even his nerves would suffer. He crossed the hall at once and entered the study.
The room was dimly lit, but a familiar figure rose at once from the couch.
"At last, Stourton. Come here to my desk, and we'll have some more light. You have the despatches?"
"You are better, Sir Charles?" Stourton asked, as he drew out his keys and laid the box before him.
"Better, but abominably ill," the Ambassador answered wearily. "Everything here is in a ferment. Camillon has lost his head. There isn't a man in the Cabinet who can discuss the position of affairs calmly. What is it to be, Stourton?"
"Peace, Sir Charles," Stourton answered. "The whole thing will fizzle out in a few days. As a matter of fact, I think even you will be surprised at the message you will have to carry to Camillon."
"You have it there? Good! Ring the bell and order a carriage. I am nearly beside myself with pain, but Camillon is waiting."
Stourton glanced at the clock. It was barely six. Sir Charles was certainly in a very queer way. His voice sounded hoarse and unnatural. His movements were the movements of a man racked with pain.
"It will take me an hour, sir, to reset the cipher," Stourton said. "In case of urgency I have the gist of the whole matter in a verbal message. Would it not be well if you delivered that unofficially to Monsieur Camillon, and I would undertake to have the despatch copied for you by eight o'clock?"
"It is a good idea," Sir Charles said wearily. "Give me your message."
"It is short enough," Stourton answered. "You are to assure Monsieur Camillon that England refuses absolutely to recognise China as a Power, and the fact of her alliance with Russia, although a source of regret to us, does not come within the scope of our obligations. We pledge ourselves not to move a single warship Eastwards or to act in any way so as to disturb the present balance of power."
"The news," Sir Charles said quietly, "is good. Be so kind, Stourton, as to ring the bell. I will be off at once."
Stourton moved to the bell, and Sir Charles, drawing up the blind, for a moment looked down upon the street below. But though his fingers rested for a moment upon the knob, Stourton never pressed it. When Sir Charles turned round, he looked into the muzzle of a revolver.
"Are you mad, Stourton?" the Ambassador asked, taking a quick step back.
"I am not sure," was the calm answer. "At any rate, I am taking no risks. If you move a step backwards or forwards, I shall fire!"
Sir Charles became at once as motionless as a lay figure. Stourton leaned forward and switched on the electric light all round the room. Then he moved towards Sir Charles. He was beset by a horrible perplexity. He had either made a must ghastly blunder, or he was the victim of an extraordinary piece of necromancy.
"Tell me the cipher exchange for March," he asked with dry lips.
Sir Charles shrugged his shoulders.
"Your journey seems to have upset you, Mr. Stourton," he said calmly. "Be so good us to address me, if at all, with more respect."
"The cipher exchange—for March," Stourton repeated doggedly.
Sir Charles laughed shortly.
"Do you imagine," he said, "that I am going to submit to a cross-examination from you? Have done with this folly, Mr. Stourton. Stand aside and let me pass!"
"You do not go alive from this room," Stourton answered hoarsely, "until—until—"
He leaned forward, and a sudden cry broke from his lips.
"If you attempt to escape, I shall shoot you like a dog!" he cried, "You are not Sir Charles. You are a wonderful masquerader, I admit, but that is what you are—an impostor. Come, off with your mask! Who are you, and what do you expect to get by this? Remember, you are covered, and I shoot straight. What have you to say?"
Sir Charles laughed—and at the sound the sweat broke out on Stourton's forehead.
"You there!" he gasped. "Where is Sir Charles? If you try to escape, I'll kill you!"
"Escape, my dear nephew-in-law?" was the smiling reply. "How is it possible? I am not armed, and I am not fond of firearms. Escape! Why should I think of such a thing? I am interested here—interested and even amused."
Stourton was past taunts. To think that he had been outwitted after all was maddening, but his anxiety kept him cool.
"Where is Sir Charles?"
"Doubtless at Monsieur Camillon's," was the suave answer. "I believe that the first arrangement was that he should wait there for your coming. Unfortunately a violent attack of headache compelled Sir Charles—in my person—to return unexpectedly."
"And what do you propose to do now?" Stourton asked grimly.
Heslop Stanmore shrugged his shoulders.
"My young friend," he said, "I have no plans. I am in your hands. Lock me up if you will. Put me anywhere, so that it is not necessary for you to stand with that diabolical little weapon pointed at my head."
Stourton walked to the door, locked it and put the key in his pocket. Then he he sat down in an easy-chair and tried to think. All the time his eyes were fixed upon the pseudo- Ambassador.
"By means of a trick more or less ingenious, certainly lucky," he said thoughtfully, "you have obtained from me some very valuable information. The question which puzzles me is, how are you going to profit by it? That information will be placarded all over Paris by midday, and until midday you will certainly remain—my guest."
"I see your difficulty, my young friend," he remarked. "Let me help you, if I may. I had a use for your information, provided its tenor had been different. Five minutes earlier knowledge of war might have meant a good deal to me. The pacific intentions of your Government are simply of no interest to me. Take my parole, dispose of me as you will. I simply am not interested. If it had been more fateful news—that which you have so kindly vouchsafed to me—it might have been worth my while to have risked something to have got away. As it is, you may treat me as a harmless lunatic."
Stourton suddenly sprang up. He heard a familiar voice in the hall and a sound of footsteps. He unlocked the door, and almost immediately it was thrown open. Sir Charles entered. He addressed Stourton sharply.
"What infernal muddle is this?" he exclaimed. "Surely my instructions were clear enough? I have been waiting for you at Monsieur Camillon's."
"The explanation, sir, is there," Stourton answered, pointing to the further end of the room.
The Ambassador and the pseudo-Ambassador were face to face. Sir Charles gazed at his double in horrified silence. The latter, with a gently deprecating smile, appeared to be making a deliberate examination of the details of Sir Charles's dress and person.
"Heavens, sir! who are you?" Sir Charles exclaimed at last.
Stanmore waved his hand towards Stourton.
"This young gentleman will explain," he said suavely. "Forgive my close observation: I am always interested in these little studies of mine. I perceive that I have libelled you in one or two small details. The height and presence I could not hope to gain—I was obliged to remain seated; but it vexes me extremely that I should have parted my hair at least an inch too much to the left. Nevertheless, Sir Charles, I trust that you will not consider me altogether a caricature."
Sir Charles had regained his composure. He eyed him up and down grimly.
"On the contrary, sir," he said, "I congratulate you. The resemblance is at any rate close enough to warrant your acquaintance with a French prison. Now, Stourton."
Stourton explained rapidly. An immense relief came into the Ambassador's face as he delivered his message.
"Thank Heaven!" he exclaimed fervently. "I will go at once to Monsieur Camillon's, and take this effigy with me. No, I can't do that. We mustn't give ourselves away. Keep him under lock and key, Stourton, till the news is on the boulevards, and then kick him out. Work out your draft despatch and send Blount round with it. He will be here in half an hour."
Sir Charles hurried away. Stourton took his troublesome connection up to his own quarters, made him relinquish his wig and moustache, and brought him back to the study. He established himself in an easy-chair with a little sigh of relief.
"If one might venture to suggest a cup of coffee——" he remarked: "and—Sir Charles does not smoke. I do. I have been suffering for the last two hours."
Stourton ordered the coffee and threw him his cigarette-case. He made himself quite at home. When he had finished his work, Stourton rose and faced him sternly. Already the din on the boulevards had commenced.
"Stanmore," he said, "this is the second time you have tried to ruin me. Now it is my turn. What is to prevent my handing you over to the police? You are here under false pretences. In the eyes of the law you are a burglar."
Stanmore shook his head.
"My young friend," he said quietly, "you know very well that you cannot do it. You dare not admit that you were—pardon me—so easily deceived. Your Embassy would be the laughing-stock of your fellow-diplomats. Besides, the French police know me. They would examine the charge with perfect gravity— and release me!"
"If I let you go," Stourton said, "will you give me your word of honour to leave me alone in future? Try your tricks on someone else, if you will. I've had my share. I am fond of the Service, and I have had two narrow escapes—through you. Give me your word of honour that this shall be your last escapade where I am concerned, and you can go."
Stanmore shook his head gravely.
"My dear Stourton," he said, "believe me, in your own interests, I cannot do this. You are, I am pleased to say, a connection of mine, and I am very much interested in your career. The two—er—incidents to which you have referred have brightened you up amazingly. You have no idea how much you have improved already. If I were to give you that promise, you would relax your vigilance at once. No, no! It is much better as it is. Always be on your guard against me. I may turn up at any moment."
Stourton opened the door in silence. His uncle-in-law walked out.
Sir Charles asked Stourton to lunch with him next day. The Ambassador was in the nervous state of a man just recovering from an immense strain, and in the midst of a shower of congratulations there was one point on which he was particularly irritable. He alluded to it as soon as they were alone.
"I don't like these stories of enormous buying of English Consols and French Rentes just an hour before Camillon issued the news," he said. "They say that it was one man on both markets. They watch that sort of thing at Downing Street. I only hope they don't suspect a leakage."
Stourton answered Sir Charles's unspoken thought.
"I did not let him go," he said, "till the news was on the boulevards."
Sir Charles grunted and dismissed the subject. But it came into Stourton's mind again when at breakfast-time one morning, about a fortnight later, Esther, with a cry of delight, opened a large morocco case.
"Ronald! Did you ever see anything so beautiful?" she exclaimed breathlessly.
Stourton was reading the note.
"My dear Niece—and Nephew-in-law—
"I have always felt that my wedding present was a most inadequate offering, and I hope that you will allow me, now that Fortune has been more kind, to make atonement. I do not often speculate, but I am thankful to say that my last venture was crowned with complete success.
"My best regards to your husband. I envy his luxurious quarters at the Place Diplomatique. The view from Sir Charles's library down the Boulevard St. Antoine especially commends itself to me.
"Believe me, my dear Esther,
"Ever your affectionate Uncle."
Esther looked over her husband's shoulder.
"What does he mean, Ronald?" she asked, perplexed.
Stourton threw the note into the flames.
"I have not the least idea," he answered.