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The Baron Hellman, comfortably seated at the brilliantly decorated round dining table, between Catherine, on one side, and a lady to whom he had not been introduced, contemplated the menu through his immovable eyeglass with satisfaction, unfolded his napkin, and continued the conversation with his hostess, a few places away, which the announcement of dinner had interrupted.
"You are quite right, Princess," he admitted.
"The position of neutrals, especially in the diplomatic world, becomes, in the case of a war like this, most difficult and sometimes embarrassing. To preserve a correct attitude is often a severe strain upon one's self-restraint."
The Princess nodded sympathetically.
"A very charming young man, the Baron," she confided to the General who had taken her in to dinner. "I knew his father and his uncle quite well, in those happy days before the war, when one used to move from country to country."
"Diplomatic type of features," the General remarked, who hated all foreigners. "It's rather bad luck on them," he went on, with bland insularity, "that the men of the European neutrals - Dutch, Danish, Norwegians or Swedes - all resemble Germans so much more than Englishmen."
The Baron turned towards Catherine and ventured upon a whispered compliment. She was wearing a wonderful pre-war dress of black velvet, close-fitting yet nowhere cramping her naturally delightful figure. A rope of pearls hung from her neck-her only ornament.
"It is permitted, Countess, to express one's appreciation of your toilette?" he ventured.
"In England it is not usual," she reminded him, with a smile, "but as you are such an old friend of the family, we will call it permissible. It is, as a matter of fact, the last gown I had from Paris. Nowadays, one thinks of other things."
"You are one of the few women," he observed, "who mix in the great affairs and yet remain intensely feminine."
"Just now," she sighed, "the great affairs do not please me."
"Yet they are interesting," he replied. "The atmosphere at the present moment is electric, charged with all manner of strange possibilities. But we talk too seriously. Will you not let me know the names of some of your guests? With General Crossley I am already acquainted."
"They really don't count for very much," she said, a little carelessly. "This is entirely aunt's Friday night gathering, and they are all her friends. That is Lady Maltenby opposite you, and her husband on the other side of my aunt."
"Maltenby," he repeated. "Ah, yes! There is one son a Brigadier, is there not? And another one sees sometimes about town - a Mr. Julian Orden"
"He is the youngest son."
"Am I exceeding the privileges of friendship, Countess," the Baron continued, "if I enquire whether there was not a rumour of an engagement between yourself and Mr. Orden, a few days ago ?"
"It is in the air," she admitted, "but at present nothing is settled. Mr. Orden has peculiar habits. He disappeared from Society altogether, a few days ago, and has only just returned."
"A censor, was he not?"
"Something of the sort," Catherine assented. "He went out to France, though, and did extremely well. He lost his foot there."
"I have noticed that he uses a stick," the Baron remarked. "I always find him a young man of pleasant and distinguished appearance."
"Well," Catherine continued, "that is Mr. Braithwaiter the playwright, a little to the left - the man, with the smooth grey hair and eyeglass. Mrs. Hamilton Beardsmore you know, of course; her husband is commanding his regiment in Egypt."
"The lady on my left?"
"Lady Grayson. She comes up from the country once a month to buy food. You needn't mind her. She is stone deaf and prefers dining to talking."
"I am relieved," the Baron confessed, with a little sigh. "I addressed her as we sat down, and she made no reply. I began to wonder if I had offended."
"The man next me," she went on, "is Mr. Millson Gray. He is an American millionaire, over here to study our Y.M.C.A. methods. He can talk of nothing else in the world but Y.M.C.A. huts and American investments, and he is very hungry."
"The conditions," the Baron observed, "seem favourable for a tete-a-tete."
Catherine smiled up into his imperturbable face. The wine had brought a faint colour to her cheeks, and the young man sighed regretfully at the idea of her prospective engagement. He had always been one of Catherine's most pronounced admirers.
"But what are we to talk about?" she asked. "On the really interesting subjects your lips are always closed. You are a marvel of discretion, you know, Baron - even to me."
"That is perhaps because you hide your real personality under so many aliases."
"I must think that over," she murmured.
"You," he continued, "are an aristocrat of the aristocrats. I can quite conceive that you found your position in Russia incompatible with modern ideas. The Russian aristocracy, if you will forgive my saying so, is in for a bad time which it has done its best to thoroughly deserve. But in England your position is scarcely so comprehensible. Here you come to a sanely governed country, which is, to all effects and purposes, a country governed by the people for the people. Yet here, within two years, you have made yourself one of the champions of democracy. Why? The people are not ill-treated. On the contrary, I should call them pampered."
"You do not understand," she explained earnestly. "In Russia it was the aristocracy who oppressed the people, shamefully and malevolently. In England it is the bourgeoisie who rule the country and stand in the light of Labour. It is the middleman, the profiteer, the new capitalist here who has become an ugly and a dominant power. Labour has the means by which to assert itself and to claim its rights, but has never possessed the leaders or the training. That has been the subject of my lectures over here from the beginning. I want to teach the people how to crush the middleman. I want to show them how to discover and to utilise their strength."
"Is not that a little dangerous?" he enquired. "You might easily produce a state of chaos."
"For a time, perhaps," she admitted, "but never for long. You see, the British have one transcendental quality; they possess common sense. They are not idealists like the Russians. The men with whom I mix neither walk with their heads turned to the clouds nor do they grope about amongst the mud. They just look straight ahead of them, and they ask for what they see in the path."
"I see," he murmured. "And now, having reached just this stage in our conversation, let me ask you this. You read the newspapers?"
"Diligently," she assured him.
"Are you aware of a very curious note of unrest during the last few days - hints at a crisis in the war which nothing in the military situation seems to justify - vague but rather gloomy suggestions of an early peace?"
"Every one is talking about it," she agreed. "I think that you and I have some idea as to what it means."
"Have we?" he asked quietly.
"And somehow," she went on, dropping her voice a little, "I believe that your knowledge goes farther than mine"
He gave no sign, made no answer. Some question from across the table, with reference to the action of one of his country's Ministers, was referred to him. He replied to it and drifted quite naturally into a general conversation. Without any evident effort, he seemed to desire to bring his tete-a-tete with Catherine to a close. She showed no sign of disappointment; indeed she fell into his humour and made vigorous efforts to attack the subject of Y.M.C.A. huts with her neighbour on the right. The rest of the meal passed in this manner, and it was not until they met, an hour later, in the Princess' famous reception room, that they exchanged more than a casual word. The Princess liked to entertain her guests in a fashion of her own. The long apartment, with its many recesses and deep windows, an apartment which took up the whole of one side of the large house, had all the dignity and even splendour of a drawing-room, and yet, with its little palm court, its cosy divans, its bridge tables and roulette board, encouraged an air of freedom which made it eminently habitable.
"I wonder, Baron," she asked, "what time you are leaving, and whether I could rely upon your escort to the Lawsons' dance? Don't hesitate to say if you have an engagement, as it only means my telephoning to some friends."
"I am entirely at your service, Countess," he answered promptly. "As a matter of fact, I have already promised to appear there myself for an hour."
"You would like to play bridge now, perhaps?" she asked.
"The Princess was kind enough to invite me," he replied, "but I ventured to excuse myself. I saw that the numbers were even without me, and I hoped for a little more conversation with you."
They seated themselves in an exceedingly comfortable corner. A footman brought them coffee, and a butler offered. strange liqueurs. Catherine leaned back with a little sigh of relief.
"Every one calls this room of my aunt's the hotel lounge," she remarked. "Personally, I love it."
"To me, also, it is the ideal apartment," he confessed. "Here we are alone, and I may ask you a question which was on my lips when we had tea together at the Carlton, and which, but for our environment, I should certainly have asked you at dinner time."
"You may ask me anything," she assured him, with a little smile. "I am feeling happy and loquacious. Don't tempt me to talk, or I shall give away all my life's secrets."
"I will only ask you for one just now," he promised. "Is it true that you have to-day had some disagreement with - shall I say a small congress of men who have their meetings down at Westminster, and with whom you have been in close touch for some time?"
Her start was unmistakable.
"How on earth do you know anything about that?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"These are the days," he said, "when, if one is to succeed in my profession, one must know everything."
She did not speak for a moment. His question had been rather a shock to her. In a moment or two, however, she found herself wondering how to use it for her own advantage.
"It is true," she admitted.
He looked intently at the point of his patent shoe.
"Is this not a case, Countess," he ventured, "in which you and I might perhaps come a little closer together?"
"If you have anything to suggest, I am ready to listen," she said.
"I wonder," he went on, "if I am right in some of my ideas? I shall test them. You have taken up your abode in England. That was natural, for domestic reasons. You have shown a great interest in a certain section of the British public. It is my theory that your interest in England is for that section only; that as a country, you are no more an admirer of her characteristics than I am."
"You are perfectly right," she answered coolly.
"Your interest," he proceeded, "is in the men and women toilers of the world, the people who carry on their shoulders the whole burden of life, and whose position you are continually desiring to ameliorate. I take it that your sympathy is international?"
"It is," she assented
"People of this order in - say - Germany, excite your sympathy in the same degree?"
"Therefore," he propounded, "you are working for the betterment of the least considered class, whether it be German, Austrian, British, or French?"
"That also is true," she agreed.
"I pursue my theory, then. The issue of this war leaves you indifferent, so long as the people come to their own?"
"My work for the last few weeks amongst those men of whom you have been speaking," she pointed out, "should prove that."
"We are through the wood and in the open, then," he declared, with a little sigh of relief. "Now I am prepared to trade secrets with you. I am not a friend of this country. Neither my Chief nor my Government have the slightest desire to see England win the war."
"That I knew," she acknowledged.
"Now I ask you for information," he continued. "Tell me this? Your pseudo-friends have presented the supposed German terms of peace to Mr. Stenson. What was the result?"
"He is taking twenty-four hours to consider them."
"And what will happen if he refuses?" the Baron asked, leaning a little towards her. "Will they use their mighty weapon? Will they really go the whole way, or will they compromise?"
"They will not compromise," she assured him. "The telegrams to the secretaries of the various Trades Unions are already written out. They will be despatched five minutes after Mr. Stenson's refusal to sue for an armistice has been announced."
"You know that?" he persisted.
"I know it beyond any shadow of doubt."
He nodded slowly.
"Your information," he admitted, "is valuable to me. Well though I am served, I cannot penetrate into the inner circles of the Council itself. Your news is good."
"And now," she said, "I expect the most amazing revelations from you."
"You shall have them, with pleasure," he replied. "Freistner has been in a German fortress for some weeks and may be shot at any moment. The supposed strength of the Socialist Party in Germany is an utter sham. The signatures attached to the document which was handed to your Council some days ago will be repudiated. The whole scheme of coming into touch with your Labour classes has been fostered and developed by the German War Cabinet. England will be placed in the most humiliating and ridiculous position. It will mean the end of the war."
"And Germany?" she gasped.
"Germany," the Baron pronounced calmly, "will have taken the first great step up the ladder in her climb towards the dominance of the world."
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