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Norgate sat, the following afternoon, upon the leather-stuffed fender of a fashionable mixed bridge club in the neighbourhood of Berkeley Square, exchanging greetings with such of the members as were disposed to find time for social amenities. A smartly-dressed woman of dark complexion and slightly foreign appearance, who had just cut out of a rubber, came over and seated herself by his side. She took a cigarette from her case and accepted a match from Norgate.
"So you are really back again!" she murmured. "It scarcely seems possible."
"I am just beginning to realise it myself," he replied. "You haven't altered, Bertha."
"My dear man," she protested, "you did not expect me to age in a month, did you? It can scarcely be more than that since you left for Berlin. Are you not back again sooner than you expected?"
"Very much sooner," he admitted. "I came in for some unexpected leave, which I haven't the slightest intention of spending abroad, so here I am."
"Not, apparently, in love with Berlin," the lady, whose name was Mrs. Paston Benedek, remarked.
Norgate's air of complete candour was very well assumed.
"I shall never be a success as a diplomatist," he confessed. "When I dislike a place or a person, every one knows it. I hated Berlin. I hate the thought of going back again."
The woman by his side smiled enigmatically.
"Perhaps," she murmured, "you may get an exchange."
"Perhaps," Norgate assented. "Meanwhile, even a month away from London seems to have brought a fresh set of people here. Who is the tall, thin young man with the sunburnt face? He seems familiar, somehow, but I can't place him."
"He is a sailor," she told him. "Captain Baring his name is."
"Friend of yours?"
She looked at him sidewise.
"Why do you ask?"
"Jealousy," Norgate sighed, "makes one observant. You were lunching with him in the Carlton Grill. You came in with him to the club this afternoon."
"Sherlock Holmes!" she murmured. "There are other men in the club with whom I lunch--even dine."
Norgate glanced across the room. Baring was playing bridge at a table close at hand, but his attention seemed to be abstracted. He looked often towards where Mrs. Benedek sat. There was a restlessness about his manner scarcely in keeping with the rest of his appearance.
"One misses a great deal," Norgate regretted, "through being only an occasional visitor here."
"As, for instance?"
"The privilege of being one of those fortunate few."
She laughed at him. Her eyes were full of challenge. She leaned a little closer and whispered in his ear: "There is still a vacant place."
"For to-night or to-morrow?" he asked eagerly.
"For to-morrow," she replied. "You may telephone--3702 Mayfair--at ten o'clock."
He scribbled down the number. Then he put his pocket-book away with a sigh.
"I'm afraid you are treating that poor sailor-man badly," he declared.
"Sometimes," she confided, "he bores me. He is so very much in earnest. Tell me about Berlin and your work there?"
"I didn't take to Germany," Norgate confessed, "and Germany didn't take to me. Between ourselves--I shouldn't like another soul in the club to know it--I think it is very doubtful if I go back there."
"That little contretemps with the Prince," she murmured under her breath.
He stiffened at once.
"But how do you know of it?"
She bit her lip. For a moment a frown of annoyance clouded her face. She had said more than she intended.
"I have correspondents in Berlin," she explained. "They tell me of everything. I have a friend, in fact, who was in the restaurant that night."
"What a coincidence!" he exclaimed.
She nodded and selected a fresh cigarette.
"Isn't it! But that table is up. I promised to cut in there. Captain Baring likes me to play at the same table, and he is here for such a short time that one tries to be kind. It is indeed kindness," she added, taking up her gold purse and belongings, "for he plays so badly."
She moved towards the table. It happened to be Baring who cut out, and he and Norgate drifted together. They exchanged a few remarks.
"I met you at Marseilles once," Norgate reminded him. "You were with the Mediterranean Squadron, commanding the Leicester, I believe."
"Thought I'd seen you somewhere before," was the prompt acknowledgment. "You're in the Diplomatic Service, aren't you?"
Norgate admitted the fact and suggested a drink. The two men settled down to exchange confidences over a whisky and soda. Baring looked around him with some disapprobation.
"I can't really stick this place," he asserted. "If it weren't for--for some of the people here, I'd never come inside the doors. It's a rotten way of spending one's time. You play, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, I play," Norgate admitted, "but I rather agree with you. How wonderfully well Mrs. Benedek is looking, isn't she!"
Baring withdrew his admiring eyes from her vicinity.
"Prettiest and smartest woman in London," he declared.
"By-the-by, is she English?" Norgate asked.
"A mixture of French, Italian, and German, I believe," Baring replied. "Her husband is Benedek the painter, you know."
"I've heard of him," Norgate assented. "What are you doing now?"
"I've had a job up in town for a week or so, at the Admiralty," Baring explained. "We are examining the plans of a new--but you wouldn't be interested in that."
"I'm interested in anything naval," Norgate assured him.
"In any case, it isn't my job to talk about it," Baring continued apologetically. "We've just got a lot of fresh regulations out. Any one would think we were going to war to-morrow."
"I suppose war isn't such an impossible event," Norgate remarked. "They all say that the Germans are dying to have a go at you fellows."
"They wouldn't have a dog's chance," he declared. "That's the only drawback of having so strong a navy. We don't stand any chance of getting a fight."
"You'll have all you can do to keep up, judging by the way they talk in Germany," Norgate observed.
"Are you just home from there?"
Norgate nodded. "I am at the Embassy in Berlin, or rather I have been," he replied. "I am just home on six months' leave."
"And that's your real impression?" Baring enquired eagerly. "You really think that they mean to have a go at us?"
"I think there'll be a war soon," Norgate confessed. "It probably won't commence at sea, but you'll have to do your little lot, without a doubt."
Baring gazed across the room. There was a hard light in his eyes.
"Sounds beastly, I suppose," he muttered, "but I wish to God it would come! A war would give us all a shaking up--put us in our right places. We all seem to go on drifting any way now. The Services are all right when there's a bit of a scrap going sometimes, but there's a nasty sort of feeling of dry rot about them, when year after year all your preparations end in the smoke of a sham fight. Now I am on this beastly land job--but there, I mustn't bother you with my grumblings."
"I am interested," Norgate assured him. "Did you say you were considering something new?"
"Plans of a new submarine," he confided. "There's no harm in telling you as much as that."
Mrs. Benedek, who was dummy for the moment, strolled over to them.
"I am not sure," she murmured, "whether I like the expression you have brought back from Germany with you, Mr. Norgate."
Norgate smiled. "Have I really acquired the correct diplomatic air?" he asked. "I can assure you that it is an accident--or perhaps I am imitative."
"You have acquired," she complained, "an air of unnatural reserve. You seem as though you had found some problem in life so weighty that you could not lose sight of it even for a moment. Ah!"
The glass-topped door had been flung wide open with an unusual flourish. A barely perceptible start escaped Norgate. It was indeed an unexpected appearance, this! Dressed with a perfect regard to the latest London fashion, with his hair smoothly brushed and a pearl pin in his black satin tie, Herr Selingman stood upon the threshold, beaming upon them.
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