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The brougham containing the man who had figured in the “Milan” table list as Mr. Sabin, and his companion, turned into the Strand and proceeded westwards. Close behind it came Harcutt’s private cab—only a few yards away followed Densham’s hansom. The procession continued in the same order, skirting Trafalgar Square and along Pall Mall.
Each in a different manner, the three men were perhaps equally interested in these people. Geoffrey Densham was attracted as an artist by the extreme and rare beauty of the girl. Wolfenden’s interest was at once more sentimental and more personal. Harcutt’s arose partly out of curiosity, partly from innate love of adventure. Both Densham and Harcutt were exceedingly interested as to their probable destination. From it they would be able to gather some idea as to the status and social position of Mr. Sabin and his companion. Both were perhaps a little surprised when the brougham, which had been making its way into the heart of fashionable London, turned into Belgrave Square and pulled up before a great, porticoed house, brilliantly lit, and with a crimson drugget and covered way stretched out across the pavement. Harcutt sprang out first, just in time to see the two pass through the opened doorway, the man leaning heavily upon his stick, the girl, with her daintily gloved fingers just resting upon his coat-sleeve, walking with that uncommon and graceful self-possession which had so attracted Densham during her passage through the supper-room at the “Milan” a short while ago.
Harcutt looked after them, watching them disappear with a frown upon his forehead.
“Rather a sell, isn’t it?” said a quiet voice in his ear.
He turned abruptly round. Densham was standing upon the pavement by his side.
“Great Scott!” he exclaimed testily. “What are you doing here?”
Densham threw away his cigarette and laughed.
“I might return the question, I suppose,” he remarked. “We both followed the young lady and her imaginary papa! We were both anxious to find out where they lived—and we are both sold!”
“Very badly sold,” Harcutt admitted. “What do you propose to do now? We can’t wait outside here for an hour or two!”
“No, we can’t do that,” he said. “Have you any plan?”
Harcutt shook his head.
“Can’t say that I have.”
They were both silent for a moment. Densham was smiling softly to himself. Watching him, Harcutt became quite assured that he had decided what to do.
“Let us consider the matter together,” he suggested, diplomatically. “We ought to be able to hit upon something.”
Densham shook his head doubtfully.
“No,” he said; “I don’t think that we can run this thing in double harness. You see our interests are materially opposed.”
Harcutt did not see it in the same light.
“Pooh! We can travel together by the same road,” he protested. “The time to part company has not come yet. Wolfenden has got a bit ahead of us to-night. After all, though, you and I may pull level, if we help one another. You have a plan, I can see! What is it?”
Densham was silent for a moment.
“You know whose house this is?” he asked.
“Of course! It’s the Russian Ambassador’s!”
Densham drew a square card from his pocket, and held it out under the gas-light. From it, it appeared that the Princess Lobenski desired the honour of his company at any time that evening between twelve and two.
“A card for to-night, by Jove!” Harcutt exclaimed.
Densham nodded, and replaced it in his pocket.
“You see, Harcutt,” he said, “I am bound to take an advantage over you! I only got this card by an accident, and I certainly do not know the Princess well enough to present you. I shall be compelled to leave you here! All that I can promise is, that if I discover anything interesting I will let you know about it to-morrow. Good-night!”
Harcutt watched him disappear through the open doors, and then walked a little way along the pavement, swearing softly to himself. His first idea was to wait about until they came out, and then follow them again. By that means he would at least be sure of their address. He would have gained something for his time and trouble. He lit a cigarette, and walked slowly to the corner of the street. Then he turned back and retraced his steps. As he neared the crimson strip of drugget, one of the servants drew respectfully aside, as though expecting him to enter. The man’s action was like an inspiration to him. He glanced down the vista of covered roof. A crowd of people were making their way up the broad staircase, and amongst them Densham. After all, why not? He laughed softly to himself and hesitated no longer. He threw away his cigarette and walked boldly in. He was doing a thing for which he well knew that he deserved to be kicked. At the same time, he had made up his mind to go through with it, and he was not the man to fail through nervousness or want of savoir faire.
At the cloak-room the multitude of men inspired him with new confidence. There were some, a very fair sprinkling, whom he knew, and who greeted him indifferently, without appearing in any way to regard his presence as a thing out of the common. He walked up the staircase, one of a little group; but as they passed through the ante-room to where in the distance Prince and Princess Lobenski were standing to receive their guests, Harcutt adroitly disengaged himself—he affected to pause for a moment or two to speak to an acquaintance. When he was left alone, he turned sharp to the right and entered the main dancing-salon.
He was quite safe now, and his spirits began to rise. Yonder was Densham, looking very bored, dancing with a girl in yellow. So far at least he had gained no advantage. He looked everywhere in vain, however, for a man with a club foot and the girl in white and diamonds. They must be in one of the inner rooms. He began to make a little tour.
Two of the ante-chambers he explored without result. In the third, two men were standing near the entrance, talking. Harcutt almost held his breath as he came to an abrupt stop within a yard or two of them. One was the man for whom he had been looking, the other—Harcutt seemed to find his face perfectly familiar, but for the moment he could not identify him. He was tall, with white hair and moustaches. His coat was covered with foreign orders, and he wore English court dress. His hands were clasped behind his back; he was talking in a low, clear tone, stooping a little, and with eyes steadfastly fixed upon his companion. Mr. Sabin was leaning a little forward, with both hands resting upon his stick. Harcutt was struck at once with the singular immobility of his face. He did not appear either interested or amused or acquiescent. He was simply listening. A few words from the other man came to Harcutt’s ears, as he lingered there on the other side of the curtain.
“If it were money—a question of monetary recompense—the secret service purse of my country opens easily, and it is well filled. If it were anything less simple, the proposal could but be made. I am taking the thing, you understand, at your own computation of its worth! I am taking it for granted that it carries with it the power you claim for it. Assuming these things, I am prepared to treat with you. I am going on leave very shortly, and I could myself conduct the negotiations.”
Harcutt would have moved away, but he was absolutely powerless. Naturally, and from his journalistic instincts, he was one of the most curious of men. He had recognised the speaker. The interview was pregnant with possibilities. Who was this Mr. Sabin, that so great a man should talk with him so earnestly? He was looking up now, he was going to speak. What was he going to say? Harcutt held his breath. The idea of moving away never occurred to him now.
“Yet,” Mr. Sabin said slowly, “your country should be a low bidder. The importance of such a thing to you must be less than to France, less than to her great ally. Your relations here are close and friendly. Nature and destiny seemed to have made you allies. As yet there has been no rift—no sign of a rift.”
“You are right,” the other man answered slowly; “and yet who can tell what lies before us? In less than a dozen years the face of all Europe may be changed. The policy of a great nation is, to all appearance, a steadfast thing. On the face of it, it continues the same, age after age. Yet if a change is to come, it comes from within. It develops slowly. It grows from within, outwards, very slowly, like a secret thing. Do you follow me?”
“I think—perhaps I do,” Mr. Sabin admitted deliberately.
The Ambassador’s voice dropped almost to a whisper, and but for its singularly penetrating quality Harcutt would have heard no more. As it was, he had almost to hold his breath, and all his nerves quivered with the tension of listening.
“Even the Press is deceived. The inspired organs purposely mislead. Outside to all the world there seems to be nothing brewing; yet, when the storm bursts, one sees that it has been long in gathering—that years of careful study and thought have been given to that hidden triumph of diplomacy. All has been locked in the breasts of a few. The thing is full-fledged when it is hatched upon the world. It has grown strong in darkness. You understand me?”
“Yes; I think that I understand you,” Mr. Sabin said, his piercing eyes raised now from the ground and fixed upon the other man’s face. “You have given me food for serious thought. I shall do nothing further till I have talked with you again.”
Harcutt suddenly and swiftly withdrew. He had stayed as long as he dared. At any moment his presence might have been detected, and he would have been involved in a situation which even the nerve and effrontery acquired during the practice of his profession could not have rendered endurable. He found a seat in an adjoining room, and sat quite still, thinking. His brain was in a whirl. He had almost forgotten the special object of his quest. He felt like a conspirator. The fascination of the unknown was upon him. Their first instinct concerning these people had been a true one. They were indeed no ordinary people. He must follow them up—he must know more about them. Once more he thought over what he had heard. It was mysterious, but it was interesting. It might mean anything. The man with Mr. Sabin he had recognised the moment he spoke. It was Baron von Knigenstein, the German Ambassador. Those were strange words of his. He pondered them over again. The journalistic fever was upon him. He was no longer in love. He had overheard a few words of a discussion of tremendous import. If only he could get the key to it! If only he could follow this thing through, then farewell to society paragraphing and playing at journalism. His reputation would be made for ever!
He rose, and finding his way to the refreshment-room, drank off a glass of champagne. Then he walked back to the main salon. Standing with his back to the wall, and half-hidden by a tall palm tree, was Densham. He was alone. His arms were folded, and he was looking out upon the dancers with a gloomy frown. Harcutt stepped softly up to him.
“Well, how are you getting on, old chap?” he whispered in his ear.
Densham started, and looked at Harcutt in blank surprise.
“Why, how the—excuse me, how on earth did you get in?” he exclaimed.
Harcutt smiled in a mysterious manner.
“Oh! we journalists are trained to overcome small difficulties,” he said airily. “It wasn’t a very hard task. The Morning is a pretty good passport. Getting in was easy enough. Where is—she?”
Densham moved his head in the direction of the broad space at the head of the stairs, where the Ambassador and his wife had received their guests.
“She is under the special wing of the Princess. She is up at that end of the room somewhere with a lot of old frumps.”
“Have you asked for an introduction?”
“Yes, I asked young Lobenski. It is no good. He does not know who she is; but she does not dance, and is not allowed to make acquaintances. That is what it comes to, anyway. It was not a personal matter at all. Lobenski did not even mention my name to his mother. He simply said a friend. The Princess replied that she was very sorry, but there was some difficulty. The young lady’s guardian did not wish her to make acquaintances for the present.”
“Her guardian! He’s not her father, then?”
“No! It was either her guardian or her uncle! I am not sure which. By Jove! There they go! They’re off.”
They both hurried to the cloak-room for their coats, and reached the street in time to see the people in whom they were so interested coming down the stairs towards them. In the glare of the electric light, the girl’s pale, upraised face shone like a piece of delicate statuary. To Densham, the artist, she was irresistible. He drew Harcutt right back amongst the shadows.
“She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life,” he said deliberately. “Titian never conceived anything more exquisite. She is a woman to paint and to worship!”
“What are you going to do now?” Harcutt asked drily. “You can rave about her in your studio, if you like.”
“I am going to find out where she lives, if I have to follow her home on foot! It will be something to know that.”
“Two of us,” Harcutt protested. “It is too obvious.”
“I can’t help that,” Densham replied. “I do not sleep until I have found out.”
Harcutt looked dubious.
“Look here,” he said, “we need not both go! I will leave it to you on one condition.”
“You must let me know to-morrow what you discover.”
“Agreed,” he decided. “There they go! Good-night. I will call at your rooms, or send a note, to-morrow.”
Densham jumped into his cab and drove away. Harcutt looked after them thoughtfully.
“The girl is very lovely,” he said to himself, as he stood on the pavement waiting for his carriage; “but I do not think that she is for you, Densham, or for me! On the whole, I am more interested in the man!”
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