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LORD CHELSFORD'S DIPLOMACY
I dined alone with Lord and Lady Chelsford. From the moment of our arrival at Chelsford House my host had encouraged nothing but the most general conversation. It happened that they were alone, as a great dinner party had been postponed at the last moment owing to some Royal indisposition. Lord Chelsford in his wife's presence was careful to treat me as an ordinary guest; but directly she had left the room and we were alone he abandoned his reticence.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "from the time of our last conversation at the War Office and our subsequent tete-a-tete I have reposed in you the most implicit confidence."
"I have done my best, sir," I answered, "to deserve it."
"I believe you," he declared. "I am going now to extend it. I am going to tell you something which will probably surprise you very much. Since the first time when you found your documents tampered with, every map and every word of writing entrusted to the safe, either at Braster House or Cavendish Square, has been got at. Exact copies of them are in Paris to-day."
I looked at him in blank amazement. The thing seemed impossible.
"But in very many cases," I protested, "the code word for opening the safe has been known only to Colonel Ray, the Duke, and myself."
"The fact remains as I have stated it," Lord Chelsford said slowly. "My information is positive. When you came to me and suggested that you should make two copies of everything, one correct, one a mass of incorrectness, I must admit that I thought the idea farfetched and unworkable. Events, however, have proved otherwise. I have safely received everything which you sent me, and up to the present, with the exception of that first plan of the Winchester forts, our secrets are unknown. But now we have come to a deadlock."
"If you do not mind telling me, Lord Chelsford, I should very much like to know why you did not explain the exact circumstances to Ray and the Duke this afternoon."
Lord Chelsford nodded.
"I thought that you would ask that," he said. "It is not altogether an easy question to answer. Remember this. The French War Office are to-day in possession of an altogether false scheme of our proposed defences--a scheme which, if they continue to regard it as genuine, should prove nothing short of disastrous to them. Only you and I are in the secret at present. Positively I did not feel that I cared to extend that knowledge to a single other person."
"But you might have told Colonel Ray and the Duke separately," I remarked. "The Duke has never been my friend, and Ray has other causes for being angry with me just at present; but between them they rescued me from something like starvation, and it is terrible for them to think of me as they are doing now."
Lord Chelsford poured himself out a glass of wine, and held it up to the light for a moment.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "a secret is a very subtle thing. Though the people who handle it are men of the most unblemished honour and reputation, still the fewer they are, the safer the life of that secret."
"But the Duke and Colonel Ray!" I protested.
"I might remind you," Lord Chelsford said, smiling, "that those are precisely the two persons who shared with you the knowledge of the word which opened the safe."
"I presume that you do not suspect either of them?" I remarked.
"The absurdity is obvious," Lord Cheisford answered. "But the force of my former remark remains. I like that secret better when it rests between you and me. It means, I know, that for a time--I promise you that it shall be only for a time--you must lose your friends, but the cause is great enough, and it should be within our power to reward you later on."
"Oh, I am willing enough," I answered. "But may I ask what you are going to do with me?"
Lord Chelsford smoked in silence for several moments.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "who is there in the household of the Duke who opens that safe and copies those papers? Who is the traitor?"
"God only knows!" I answered. "It is a hopeless mystery."
"Yet we must solve it," Lord Chelsford said, "and quickly. If a single batch of genuine maps and plans were tampered with, disparities would certainly appear, and the thing might be suspected. Besides, upon the face of it, the thing is terribly serious."
"You have a plan," I said.
"I have," Lord Chelsford answered calmly. "You remember Grooton?"
"Certainly! He was a servant at Braster."
"And the very faithful servant of his country also," Lord Chelsford remarked. "You know, I believe, that he was a secret service man. He is entirely safe, and I have sent for him. Now I imagine that the Duke will wish our new secretary to live still at the 'Brand'--he preferred it in your case, as you will remember. Our new secretary is going to be my nephew. He is very stolid and honest, and fortunately not a chatterbox. He is going to be the nominal secretary, but I want you to be the one who really does the work."
"I am afraid I don't understand!" I was forced to admit.
"It will mean," Lord Cheisford said, "some privation and a great deal of inconvenience for you. But I am going to ask you to face it, for the end to be gained is worth it. I want you also to be at the 'Brand,' but to lie hidden all the day time. You can have one of the upstair rooms fitted as a writing room. Then you and my nephew can do the transposition. And beyond all that I want you to think--to think and to watch."
My heart leaped with joy to think that after all I was not to go into exile. Then the quiet significance of Lord Chelsford's last words were further impressed upon me by the added gravity of his manner.
"Mr. Ducaine," he said, "you must see for yourself that I am running a very serious risk in making these plans with you behind the backs of the Duke of Rowchester and Colonel Ray. The Duke is a man of the keenest sense of honour, as his recent commercial transactions have shown. He has parted with a hundred thousand pounds rather than that the shadow of a stigma should rest upon his name. He is also my personal friend, and very sensitive of any advice or criticism. Then Ray--a V.C., and one of the most popular soldiers in England to-day--he also is quick tempered, and he also is my friend. You can see for yourself that in acting as I am, behind the backs of these men, I am laying myself open to very grave trouble. Yet I see no alternative. There is a rank traitor either on the Military Board or closely connected with the Duke's household. He does not know it, nor do they know it, but everyone of his servants has been vigorously and zealously watched without avail. The circle has been drawn closer and closer, Mr. Ducaine. Down in Braster you may be able to help me in narrowing it down till only one person is within it. Listen!"
Lady Chelsford entered, gorgeous in white satin and a flaming tiara. She looked at me, I thought, a little gravely.
"Morton," she said, "I want you to spare me a minute. Mr. Ducaine will excuse you, I am sure."
Lord Cheisford and she left the room together. I, feeling the heat of the apartment, walked to the window, and raising the sash looked out into the cool dark evening. At the door, drawn up in front of Lord Cheisford's brougham, was a carriage with a tall footman standing facing me. I recognized him and the liveries in a moment. It was the Rowchester carriage. Some one from Rowchester House was even now with Lord and Lady Chelsford.
Fresh complications, then! Had the Duke come to see me off, or had his suspicions been aroused? Was he even now insisting upon an explanation with Lord Cheisford? The minutes passed, and I began to get restless and anxious. Then the door opened, and Lord Chelsford entered alone. He came over at once to my side. He was looking perplexed and a little annoyed.
"Ducaine," he said, "Lady Angela Harberly is here."
I started, and I suppose my face betrayed me.
"And she wishes to see you," he continued. "Lady Chelsford is chaperoning her to-night to Suffolk House, but she says that she should have come here in any case. She believes that you are going to China."
"Did you tell her?" I asked.
"I have told her nothing," he answered. "The question is, what you are to tell her. I understand, Ducaine, that Lady Angela was engaged to be married to Colonel Ray."
"I believe that she is," I admitted.
"Then I do not understand her desire to see you," Lord Chelsford said. "The Duke of Rowchester is my friend and relative, Ducaine, and I do not see how I can permit this interview."
"And I," said a quiet thrilling voice behind his back, "do not know how you are going to prevent it."
She closed the door behind her. She was so frail and so delicately beautiful in her white gown, with the ropes of pearls around her neck, the simply parted hair, and her dark eyes were so plaintive and yet so tender, that the angry exclamation died away on Lord Cheisford's lips.
"Angela," he said, "Mr. Ducaine is here. You can speak with him if you will, but it must be in my presence. You must not think that I do not trust you--both of you. But I owe this condition to your father."
She came over to me very timidly. She seemed to me so beautiful, so exquisitely childish, that I touched the fingers of the hand she gave me with a feeling of positive reverence.
"You have come to wish me God-speed," I murmured. "I shall never forget it."
"You are really going, then?"
"I am going for a little time out of your life, Lady Angela," I answered. "It is necessary: Lord Chelsford knows that. But I am not going in disgrace. I am very thankful to be able to tell you that."
"It was not necessary to tell me," she answered. "Am I not here?"
I bent low over her hand, which rested still in mine.
"Mine is not a purposeless exile--nor altogether an unhappy one--now," I said. "I have work to do, Lady Angela, and I am going to it with a good heart. When we meet again I hope that it may be differently. Your coming--the memory of it will stand often between me and loneliness. It will sweeten the very bitterest of my days."
"You are really going--to China?" she murmured.
I glanced towards Lord Chelsford. His back was turned to us. If he understood the meaning of my pause he made no sign.
"I may not tell you where I am going or why," I answered. "But I will tell you this, Lady Angela. I shall come back, and as you have come to see me to-night, so shall I come to you before long. If you will trust me I will prove myself worthy of it."
She did not answer me with any word at all, but with a sudden little forward movement of both her hands, and I saw that her eyes were swimming in tears. Yet they shone into mine like stars, and I saw heaven there.
"I am sorry," Lord Chelsford said, gravely interposing, "but Lady Chelsford will be waiting for you, Angela. And I think that I must ask you to remember that I cannot sanction, or appear by my silence to sanction, anything of this sort."
So he led her away, but what did I care? My heart was beating with the rapture of her backward glance. I cared neither for Ray nor the Duke nor any living person. For with me it was the one supreme moment of a man's lifetime, come too at the very moment of my despair. I was no longer at the bottom of the pit. The wonderful gates stood open.
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