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Mr. Sabin and his niece had finished their dinner, and were lingering a little over an unusually luxurious dessert. Wolfenden had sent some muscatel grapes and peaches from the forcing houses at Deringham Hall—such peaches as Covent Garden could scarcely match, and certainly not excel. Mr. Sabin looked across at Helène as they were placed upon the table, with a significant smile.
“An Englishman,” he remarked, pouring himself out a glass of burgundy and drawing the cigarettes towards him, “never knows when he is beaten. As a national trait it is magnificent, in private life it is a little awkward.”
Helène had been sitting through the meal, still and statuesque in her black dinner gown, a little more pale than usual, and very silent. At Mr. Sabin’s remark she looked up quickly.
“Are you alluding to Lord Wolfenden?” she asked.
Mr. Sabin lit his cigarette, and nodded through the mist of blue smoke.
“To no less a person,” he answered, with a shade of mockery in his tone. “I am beginning to find my guardianship no sinecure after all! Do you know, it never occurred to me, when we concluded our little arrangement, that I might have to exercise my authority against so ardent a suitor. You would have found his lordship hard to get rid of this morning, I am afraid, but for my opportune arrival.”
“By no means,” she answered. “Lord Wolfenden is a gentleman, and he was not more persistent than he had a right to be.”
“Perhaps,” Mr. Sabin remarked, “you would have been better pleased if I had not come?”
“I am quite sure of it,” she admitted; “but then it is so like you to arrive just at a crisis! Do you know, I can’t help fancying that there is something theatrical about your comings and goings! You appear—and one looks for a curtain and a tableau. Where could you have dropped from this morning?”
“From Cromer, in a donkey-cart,” he answered smiling. “I got as far as Peterborough last night, and came on here by the first train. There was nothing very melodramatic about that, surely!”
“It does not sound so, certainly. Your playing golf with Lord Wolfenden afterwards was commonplace enough!”
“I found Lord Wolfenden very interesting,” Mr. Sabin said thoughtfully. “He told me a good deal which was important for me to know. I am hoping that to-night he will tell me more.”
“To-night! Is he coming here?”
Mr. Sabin assented calmly.
“Yes. I thought you would be surprised. But then you need not see him, you know. I met him riding upon the sands this afternoon—at rather an awkward moment, by the bye—and asked him to dine with us.”
“He refused, of course?”
“Only the dinner; presumably he doubted our cook, for he asked to be allowed to come down afterwards. He will be here soon.”
“Why did you ask him?”
Mr. Sabin looked keenly across the table. There was something in the girl’s face which he scarcely understood.
“Well, not altogether for the sake of his company, I must confess,” he replied. “He has been useful to me, and he is in the position to be a great deal more so.”
The girl rose up. She came over and stood before him. Mr. Sabin knew at once that something unusual was going to happen.
“You want to make of him,” she said, in a low, intense tone, “what you make of every one—a tool! Understand that I will not have it!”
The single word, and the glance which flashed from his eyes, was expressive, but the girl did not falter.
“Oh! I am weary of it,” she cried, with a little passionate outburst. “I am sick to death of it all! You will never succeed in what you are planning. One might sooner expect a miracle. I shall go back to Vienna. I am tired of masquerading. I have had more than enough of it.”
Mr. Sabin’s expression did not alter one iota; he spoke as soothingly as one would speak to a child.
“I am afraid,” he said quietly, “that it must be dull for you. Perhaps I ought to have taken you more into my confidence; very well, I will do so now. Listen: you say that I shall never succeed. On the contrary, I am on the point of success; the waiting for both of us is nearly over.”
The prospect startled, but did not seem altogether to enrapture her. She wanted to hear more.
“I received this dispatch from London this morning,” he said. “Baron Knigenstein has left for Berlin to gain the Emperor’s consent to an agreement which we have already ratified. The affair is as good as settled; it is a matter now of a few days only.”
“Germany!” she exclaimed, incredulously, “I thought it was to be Russia.”
“So,” he answered, “did I. I have to make a certain rather humiliating confession. I, who have always considered myself keenly in touch with the times, especially since my interest in European matters revived, have remained wholly ignorant of one of the most extraordinary phases of modern politics. In years to come history will show us that it was inevitable, but I must confess that it has come upon me like a thunder clap. I, like all the world, have looked upon Germany and England as natural and inevitable allies. That is neither more nor less than a colossal blunder! As a matter of fact, they are natural enemies!”
She sank into a chair, and looked at him blankly.
“But it is impossible,” she cried. “There are all the ties of relationship, and a common stock. They are sister countries.”
“Don’t you know,” he said, “that it is the like which irritates and repels the like. It is this relationship which has been at the root of the great jealousy, which seems to have spread all through Germany. I need not go into all the causes of it with you now; sufficient it is to say that all the recent successes of England have been at Germany’s expense. There has been a storm brewing for long; to-day, to-morrow, in a week, surely within a month, it will break.”
“You may be right,” she said; “but who of all the Frenchwomen I know would care to reckon themselves the debtors of Germany?”
“You will owe Germany nothing, for she will be paid and overpaid for all she does. Russia has made terms with the Republic of France. Politically, she has nothing to gain by a rupture; but with Germany it is different. She and France are ready at this moment to fly at one another’s throats. The military popularity of such a war would be immense. The cry to arms would ring from the Mediterranean to the Rhine.”
“Oh! I hope that it may not be war,” she said. “I had hoped always that diplomacy, backed by a waiting army, would be sufficient. France at heart is true, I know. But after all, it sounds like a fairy tale. You are a wonderful man, but how can you hope to move nations? What can you offer Germany to exact so tremendous a price?”
“I can offer,” Mr. Sabin said calmly, “what Germany desires more than anything else in the world—the key to England. It has taken me six years to perfect my schemes. As you know, I was in America part of the time I was supposed to be in China. It was there, in the laboratory of Allison, that I commenced the work. Step by step I have moved on—link by link I have forged the chain. I may say, without falsehood or exaggeration, that my work would be the work of another man’s lifetime. With me it has been a labour of love. Your part, my dear Helène, will be a glorious one; think of it, and shake off your depression. This hole and corner life is not for long—the time for which we have worked is at hand.”
She did not look up, there was no answering fire of enthusiasm in her dark eyes. The colour came into her cheeks and faded away. Mr. Sabin was vaguely disturbed.
“In what way,” she said, without directly looking at him, “is Lord Wolfenden likely to be useful to you?”
Mr. Sabin did not reply for some time, in fact he did not reply at all. This new phase in the situation was suddenly revealed to him. When he spoke his tone was grave enough—grave with an undertone of contempt.
“Is it possible, Helène,” he said, “that you have allowed yourself to think seriously of the love-making of this young man? I must confess that such a thing in connection with you would never have occurred to me in my wildest dreams!”
“I am the mistress of my own affections,” she said coldly. “I am not pledged to you in any way. If I were to say that I intended to listen seriously to Lord Wolfenden—even if I were to say that I intended to marry him—well, there is no one who would dare to interfere! But, on the other hand, I have refused him. That should be enough for you. I am not going to discuss the matter at all; you would not understand it.”
“I must admit,” Mr. Sabin said, “that I probably should not. Of love, as you young people conceive it, I know nothing. But of that greater affection—the passionate love of a man for his race and his kind and his country—well, that has always seemed to me a thing worth living and working and dying for! I had fancied, Helène, that some spark of that same fire had warmed your blood, or you would not be here to-day.”
“I think,” she answered more gently, “that it has. I too, believe me, love my country and my people and my order. If I do not find these all-engrossing, you must remember that I am a woman, and I am young; I do not pretend to be capable only of impersonal and patriotic love.”
“Ay, you are a woman, and the blood of some of your ancestors will make itself felt,” he added, looking at her thoughtfully. “I ought to have considered the influence of sex and heredity. By the bye, have you heard from Henri lately?”
She shook her head.
“Not since he has been in France. We thought that whilst he was there it would be better for him not to write.”
Mr. Sabin nodded.
“Most discreet,” he remarked satirically. “I wonder what Henri would say if he knew?”
The girl’s lip curled a little.
“If even,” she said, “there was really something serious for him to know, Henri would survive it. His is not the temperament for sorrow. For twenty minutes he would be in a paroxysm. He would probably send out for poison, which he would be careful not to take; and play with a pistol, if he were sure that it was not loaded. By dinner time he would be calm, the opera would soothe him still more, and by the time it was over he would be quite ready to take Mademoiselle Somebody out to supper. With the first glass of champagne his sorrow would be drowned for ever. If any wound remained at all, it would be the wound to his vanity.”
“You have considered, then, the possibility of upsetting my schemes and withdrawing your part?” Mr. Sabin said quietly. “You understand that your marriage with Henri would be an absolute necessity—that without it all would be chaos?”
“I do not say that I have considered any such possibility,” she answered. “If I make up my mind to withdraw, I shall give you notice. But I will admit that I like Lord Wolfenden, and I detest Henri! Ah! I know of what you would remind me; you need not fear, I shall not forget! It will not be to-day, nor to-morrow, that I shall decide.”
A servant entered the room and announced Lord Wolfenden. Mr. Sabin looked up.
“Where have you shown him?” he asked.
“Into the library, sir,” the girl answered.
Mr. Sabin swore softly between his teeth, and sprang to his feet.
“Excuse me, Helène,” he exclaimed, “I will bring Lord Wolfenden into the drawing-room. That girl is an idiot; she has shown him into the one room in the house which I would not have had him enter for anything in the world!”
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