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If the closely drawn blinds of the many windows of Westminster Buildings could have been raised that night and early morning, the place would have seemed a very hive of industry. Twenty men were hard at work in twenty different rooms. Some went about their labours doubtfully, some almost timorously, some with jubilation, one or two with real regret. Under their fingers grew the more amplified mandates which, following upon the bombshell of the already prepared telegrams, were within a few hours to paralyse industrial England, to keep her ships idle in the docks, her trains motionless upon the rails, her mines silent, her forges cold, her great factories empty. Even the least imaginative felt the thrill, the awe of the thing he was doing. On paper, in the brain, it seemed so wonderful, so logical, so certain of the desired result. And now there were other thoughts forcing their way to the front. How would their names live in history? How would Englishmen throughout the world regard this deed? Was it really the truth they were following, or some false and ruinous shadow? These were fugitive doubts, perhaps, but to more than one of those midnight toilers they presented themselves in the guise of a chill and drear presentiment.
They all heard a motor-car stop outside. No one, however, thought it worth while to discontinue his labours for long enough to look out and see who this nocturnal visitor might be. In a very short time, however, these labours were disturbed. From room to room, Julian, with Catherine and the Bishop, for whom they had called on the way, passed with a brief message. No one made any difficulty about coming to the Council room. The first protest was made when they paid the visit which they had purposely left until last. Nicholas Fenn had apparently finished or discontinued his efforts. He was seated in front of his desk, his chin almost resting upon his folded arms, and a cigarette between his lips. Bright was lounging in an easy-chair within a few feet of him. Their heads were close together; their conversation, whatever the subject of it may have been, was conducted in whispers. Apparently they had not heard Julian's knock, for they started apart, when the door was opened, like conspirators. There was something half-fearful, half-malicious in Fenn's face, as he stared at them.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "What's wrong?"
Julian closed the door.
"A great deal," he replied curtly. "We have been around to every one of the delegates and asked them to assemble in the Council room. Will you and Bright come at once?"
Fenn looked from one to the other of his visitors and remained silent for a few seconds.
"Climbing down, eh?" he asked viciously.
"We have some information to communicate," Julian announced.
Fenn moved abruptly away, out of the shadow of the electric lamp which hung over his desk. His voice was anxious, unnatural.
"We can't consider any more information," he said harshly. "Our decisions have been taken. Nothing can affect them. That's the worst of having you outsiders on the board. I was certain you wouldn't face it when the time came."
"As you yourself," Julian remarked, "are somewhat concerned in this matter, I think it would be well if you came with the others."
"I am not going to stir from this room," Fenn declared doggedly. "I have my own work to do. And as to my being concerned with what you have to say, I'll thank you to mind your own business and leave mine alone."
"Mr. Fenn," the Bishop interposed, "I beg to offer you my advice that you join us at once in the Council room."
Julian and Catherine had already left the room. Fenn leaned forward, and there was an altered note. in his tone.
"What's it mean, Bishop?" he asked hoarsely. "Are they ratting, those two?"
"What we have come here to say," the Bishop rejoined, "must be said to every one."
He turned away. Fenn and Bright exchanged quick glances.
"What do you make of it?" asked Fenn.
"They've changed their minds," Bright muttered, "that's all. They're theorists. Damn all theorists! They just blow bubbles to destroy them. As for the girl, she's been at parties all the evening, as we know."
"You're right," Fenn acknowledged. "I was a fool. Come on."
Many of the delegates had the air of being glad to escape for a few minutes from their tasks. One or two of them entered the room, carrying a cup of coffee or cocoa. Most of them were smoking. Fenn and Bright made their appearance last of all. The latter made a feeble attempt at a good-humoured remark.
"Is this a pause for refreshments?" he asked. "If so, I'm on."
Julian, who had been waiting near the door, locked it. Fenn started.
"What the devil's that for?" he demanded.
"Just a precaution. We don't want to be interrupted."
Julian moved towards a little vacant space at the end of the table and stood there, his hands upon the back of a chair. The Bishop remained by his side, his eyes downcast as though in prayer. Catherine had accepted the seat pushed forward by Cross. The atmosphere of the room, which at first had been only expectant, became tense.
"My friends," Julian began, "a few hours ago you came to a momentous decision. You are all at work, prepared to carry that decision into effect. I have come to see you because I am very much afraid that we have been the victims of false statements, the victims of a disgraceful plot."
"Rubbish!" Fenn scoffed. "You're ratting, that's what you are."
"You'd better thank Providence," Julian replied sternly, "that there is time for you to rat, too - that is, if you have any care for your country. Now, Mr. Fenn, I am going to ask you a question. You led us to believe, this evening, that, although all letters had been destroyed, you were in constant communication with Freistner. When did you hear from him last - personally, I mean?"
"Last week," Fenn answered boldly, "and the week before that."
"And you have destroyed those letters?"
"Of course I have! Why should I keep stuff about that would hang me?"
"You cannot produce, then, any communication from Freistner, except the proposals of peace, written within the last - say - month?"
"What the mischief are you getting at?" Fenn demanded hotly. "And what right have you to stand there and cross-question me?"
"The right of being prepared to call you to your face a liar," Julian said gravely. "We have very certain information that Freistner is now imprisoned in a German fortress and will be shot before the week is out."
There was a little murmur of consternation, even of disbelief. Fenn himself was speechless. Julian went on eagerly.
"My friends," he said, "on paper, on the facts submitted to us, we took the right decision, but we ought to have remembered this. Germany's word, Germany's signature, Germany's honour, are not worth a rap when opposed to German interests. Germany, notwithstanding all her successes, is thirsting for peace. This armistice would be her salvation. She set herself out to get it - not honestly, as we have been led to believe, but by means of a devilish plot. She professed to be overawed by the peace desires of the Reichstag. The Pan-Germans professed a desire to give in to the Socialists. All lies! They encouraged Freistner to continue his negotiations here with Fenn. Freistner was honest enough. I am not so sure about Fenn."
Fenn sprang to his feet, a blasphemous exclamation broke from his lips. Julian faced him, unmoved. The atmosphere of the room was now electric.
"I am going to finish what I have to say," he went on. "I know that every one will wish me to. We are all here to look for the truth and nothing else, and, thanks to Miss Abbeway, we have stumbled upon it. These peace proposals, which look so well on paper, are a decoy. They were made to be broken. Those signatures are affixed to be repudiated. I say that Freistner has been a prisoner for weeks, and I deny that Fenn has received a single communication from him during that time. Fenn asserts that he has, but has destroyed them. I repeat that he is a liar."
"That's plain speaking," Cross declared. "Now, then, Fenn, lad, what have you to say about it?"
Fenn leaned forward, his face distorted with something which might have been anger, but which seemed more closely to resemble fear.
"This is just part of the ratting!" he exclaimed. "I never keep a communication from Freistner. I have told you so before. The preliminary letters I had you all saw, and we deliberated upon them together. Since then, all that I have had have been friendly messages, which I have destroyed."
There was a little uncertain murmur. Julian proceeded.
"You see," he said, "Mr. Fenn is not able to clear himself from my first accusation. Now let us hear what he will do with this one. Mr. Fenn started life, I believe, as a schoolmaster at a parish school, a very laudable and excellent occupation. He subsequently became manager to a firm of timber merchants in the city and commenced to interest himself in Labour movements. He rose by industry and merit to his present position - a very excellent career, but not, I should think, a remunerative one. Shall we put his present salary down at ten pounds a week?"
"What the devil concern is this of yours?" the goaded man shouted.
"Of mine and all of us," Julian retorted, "for I come now to a certain question. Will you disclose your bank book?"
Fenn reeled for a moment in his seat. He affected not to have heard the question.
"My what?" he stammered.
"Your bank book," Julian repeated calmly. "As you only received your last instalment from Germany this week, you probably have not yet had time to purchase stocks and shares or property wherever your inclination leads you. I imagine, therefore, that there would be a balance there of something like thirty thousand pounds, the last payment made to you by a German agent now in London."
Fenn sprang to his feet. He had all the appearance of a man about to make a vigorous and exhaustive defence. And then suddenly he swayed, his face became horrible to look upon, his lips were twisted.
"Brandy!" he cried. "Some one give me brandy! I am ill!"
He collapsed in a heap. They carried him on to a seat set against the wall, and Catherine bent over him. He lay there, moaning. They loosened his collar and poured restoratives between his teeth. For a time he was silent. Then the moaning began again. Julian returned to the table.
"Believe me," he said earnestly, "this is as much a tragedy to me as to any one present. I believe that every one of you here except - " he glanced towards the sofa - "except those whom we will not name have gone into this matter honestly, as I did. We've got to chuck it. Tear up your telegrams. Let me go to see Stenson this minute. I see the truth about this thing now as I never saw it before. There is no peace for us with Germany until she is on her knees, until we have taken away all her power to do further mischief. When that time comes let us be generous. Let us remember that her working men are of the same flesh and blood as ours and need to live as you need to live. Let us see that they are left the means to live. Mercy to all of them - mercy, and all the possibilities of a free and generous life. But to Hell with every one of those who are responsible for the poison which has crept throughout all ranks in Germany, which, starting from the Kaiser and his friends, has corrupted first the proud aristocracy, then the industrious, hard-working and worthy middle classes, and has even permeated to some extent the ranks of the people themselves, destined by their infamous ruler to carry on their shoulders the burden of an unnatural, ungodly, and unholy ambition. There is much that I ought to say, but I fancy that I have said enough. Germany must be broken, and you can do it. Let the memory of those undispatched telegrams help you. Spend your time amongst the men you represent. Make them see the truth. Make them understand that every burden they lift, every time they wield the pickaxe, every blow they strike in their daily work, helps. I was going to speak about what we owe to the dead. I won't. We must beat Germany to her knees. We can and we will. Then will come the time for generosity."
Phineas Cross struck the table with the flat of his hand.
"Boys," he said, "I feel the sweat in every pore of my body. We've nigh done a horrible thing. We are with you, Mr. Orden. But about that little skunk there? How did you find him out?"
"Through Miss Abbeway," Julian answered. "You have her to thank. I can assure you that every charge I have made can be substantiated."
There was a little murmur of confidence. Everyone seemed to find speech difficult.
"One word more," Julian went on. "Don't disband this Council. Keep it together, just as it is. Keep this building. Keep our association and sanctify it to one purpose victory."
A loud clamour of applause answered him. Once more Cross glanced towards the prostrate form upon the sofa.
"Let no one interfere," Julian enjoined. "There is an Act which will deal with him. He will be removed from this place presently, and he will not be heard of again for a little time. We don't want a soul to know how nearly we were duped. It rests with every one of you to destroy all the traces of what might have happened. You can do this if you will. To-morrow call a meeting of the Council. Appoint a permanent chairman, a new secretary, draw out a syllabus of action for promoting increased production, for stimulating throughout every industry a passionate desire for victory. If speaking, writing, or help of mine in any way is wanted, it is yours. I will willingly be a disciple of the cause. But this morning let me be your ambassador. Let me go to the Premier with a message from you. Let me tell him what you have resolved."
"Hands up all in favour!" Cross exclaimed.
Every hand was raised. Bright came back from the couch, blinking underneath his heavy spectacles but meekly acquiescent.
"Let us remember this hour," the Bishop begged, "as something solemn in our lives. The Council of Labour shall justify itself, shall voice the will or the people, fighting for victory."
"For the Peace which comes through Victory!" Julian echoed.
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