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Westward, the late June twilight deepened into a violet and moonless darkness. The lights in St. James's Park glittered like motionless fireflies; a faint wind rustled amongst the drooping leaves of the trees. Up here the atmosphere was different. It seemed a long way from Shoreditch.
Outside the principal of the official residences in Downing Street, there was a tented passage-way and a strip of drugget across the pavement. Within, the large reception rooms were crowded with men and women. There was music, and many forms of entertainment were in progress; the popping of champagne corks; the constant murmur of cheerful conversation. The Prime Minister was giving a great political reception, and men and women of every degree and almost every nationality were talking and mingling together. The gathering was necessarily not select, but it was composed of people who counted. The Countess of Grenside, who was the Prime Minister's sister and the head of his household, saw to that.
They stood together at the head of the staircase, a couple curiously unlike not only in appearance but in disposition and tastes. Lady Grenside was tall and fair, almost florid in complexion, remarkably well-preserved, with a splendid presence and figure. She had been one of the beauties of her day, and even now, in the sixth year of her widowhood, was accounted a remarkably handsome woman. Mr. Foley, her brother, was also tall, but gaunt and thin, with a pronounced stoop. His grey imperial gave him an almost foreign appearance. He had the forehead of a philosopher but the mouth of a humourist. His eyes, shrewd and penetrating--he wore no glasses although he was nearly sixty years of age--were perhaps his best feature.
"Tell me, my dear Stephen," she asked, as the tide of incoming guests finally ceased and they found themselves at liberty, "why are you looking so disturbed? It seems to me that every one has arrived who ought to come, and judging by the noise they are making, every one is thoroughly enjoying themselves. Why are people so noisy nowadays, I wonder?"
Mr. Foley smiled.
"What an observant person you are! To tell you the truth, there was just one guest whom I was particularly anxious to see here to-night. He promised to come, but so far I am afraid that he has not arrived."
"Not that awful man Maraton?"
"No use calling him names, Catharine," he continued grimly. "Maraton is one of the most important problems we have to face within the next few weeks. I suppose there is no chance of his having slipped in without our having noticed him?"
Lady Grenside shook her head.
"I should imagine not. I am quite sure that I haven't shaken hands to-night with any one who reminded me in the least of what this man must be. Very likely Elisabeth will discover him if he is here. She has just gone off on one of her tours of inspection."
Mr. Foley shrugged his shoulders. He was, after all, a philosopher.
"I am afraid Elisabeth won't get very far," he remarked. "Carton was in her train, and Ellison and Aubrey weren't far behind. She is really quite wonderful. I never in all my life saw any one look so beautiful as she does to-night."
Lady Grenside made a little grimace as she laid her fingers upon her brother's arm and pointed towards an empty settee close at hand.
"Beautiful, yes," she sighed, "but oh, so difficult!"
Almost at that moment, Elisabeth had paused on her way through the furthest of the three crowded rooms--and Maraton, happening simultaneously to glance in her direction, their eyes met. They were both above the average height, so they looked at one another over the heads of many people, and in both their faces was something of the same expression--the faint interest born of a relieved monotony. The girl deliberately turned towards him. He was an unknown guest and alone. There were times when her duties came quite easily.
"I am afraid that you are not amusing yourself," she remarked, with some faint yet kindly note of condescension in her tone.
"You are very kind," he answered, his eyebrows slightly lifted. "I certainly am not. But then I did not come here to amuse myself."
"Indeed? A sense of duty brought you, perhaps?"
"A sense of duty, beyond a doubt," the man assented politely.
She felt like passing on--but she also felt like staying, so she stayed.
"Cannot I help you towards the further accomplishment of your duty, then?" she enquired.
He looked at her and the grim severity of his face was lightened by a smile.
"You could help me more easily to forget it," he replied.
She opened her lips, hesitated and closed them again. Already she had recognised the fact that this was not a man to be snubbed. Neither had she, notwithstanding her momentary irritation, any real desire to do so.
"You do not know many people here?"
"I know no one," he confessed.
"I am Elisabeth Landon," she told him. "Mr. Foley is my uncle. My mother and I live with him and always help him to entertain."
"Hence your interest in a lonely stranger," he remarked. "Please have no qualms about me. I am always interested when I am permitted to watch my fellow creatures, especially when the types are novel to me."
She looked at him searchingly for a moment. As yet she had not succeeded in placing him. His features were large but well-shaped, his cheek-bones a little high, his forehead massive, his deep-set eyes bright and marvellously penetrating. He had a mouth long and firm, with a slightly humorous twist at the corners. His hair was black and plentiful. He might have been of any age between thirty-five and forty. His limbs and body were powerful; his head was set with the poise of an emperor. His clothes were correct and well worn, he was entirely at his ease. Yet Elisabeth, who was an observant person, looked at him and wondered. He would have been more at home, she thought, out in the storms of life than in her uncle's drawing-rooms. Yet what was he? He lacked the trimness of the soldier; of the debonair smartness of the modern fighting man there was no trace whatsoever in his speech or appearance. The politicians who were likely to be present she knew. What was there left? An explorer, perhaps, or a colonial. Her curiosity became imperious.
"You have not told me your name," she reminded him.
"My name is Maraton," he replied, a little grimly.
There was a brief silence--not without a certain dramatic significance to the girl who stood there with slightly parted lips. The smooth serenity of her forehead was broken by a frown; her beautiful blue eyes were troubled. She seemed somehow to have dilated, to have drawn herself up. Her air of politeness, half gracious, half condescending, had vanished. It was as though in spirit she were preparing for battle.
"You seem to have heard of me," he remarked drily.
"Who has not heard of you!" she answered in a low tone. "I am sorry. You have made me break my word."
She was recovering herself now. A certain icy aloofness seemed to have crept into her manner. Her head was held at a different angle. Even the words seemed to leave her lips differently. Her tone was one of measured indignation.
"Yes, you! When Mr. Foley told me that he had asked you to come here to-night, I vowed that I would not speak to you."
"A perfectly reasonable decision," he agreed, without the slightest change of expression, "but am I really to be blamed for this unfortunate incident? You cannot say that I thrust myself upon your notice."
His eyebrows were ever so slightly uplifted. She was not absolutely sure that there was not something very suggestive of amusement in his deep-set eyes. She bit her lip. Naturally he was not a gentleman!
"I thought that you were a neglected guest," she explained coldly. "I do not understand how it is that you have managed to remain undiscovered."
He shook his head doubtfully.
"I made my entrance with the others. I saw a very charming lady at the head of the stairs--your mother, I believe--who gave me her fingers and called me Mr. Martin. Your uncle shook hands with me, looking over my head to welcome some one behind. I passed on with the rest. The fault remains, beyond a doubt, with your majordomo and my uncommon name."
"Since I have discovered you, then," she declared, "you had better let me take you to my uncle. He has been looking everywhere for you for the last hour. We will go this way."
She laid the extreme tips of her fingers upon his coat sleeve. He glanced down at them for a moment. Her reluctance was evident.
"Perhaps," he suggested coolly, "we should make faster progress if I were to follow you."
She took no further notice of him for some time. Then very suddenly she drew him to one side out of the throng, into an almost empty anteroom--a dismal little apartment lined with shelves full of blue books and Parliamentary records.
"I am content to obey my guide," he remarked, "but why this abrupt flight?"
She hesitated. Then she raised her eyes and looked at him. Perhaps some instinct told her that the truth was best.
"Because Mr. Culvain was in that crowd," she told him. "Mr. Culvain has been looking for you everywhere. It is only to see you that he came here this evening. My uncle is anxious to talk with you first."
"I am flattered," he murmured, smiling.
"I think that you should be," she asserted. "Personally, I do not understand my uncle's attitude."
"With regard to me?"
"With regard to you."
"You think, perhaps, that I should not be permitted here at all as a guest?"
"I do think that," she replied, looking steadily into his eyes. "I think more than that. I think that your place is in Sing Sing prison."
The corners of his mouth twitched. His amusement maddened her; her eyes flashed. Underneath her white satin gown her bosom was rising and falling quickly.
He became suddenly grave.
"Do you take life seriously, Lady Elisabeth?" he asked.
"Certainly," she answered firmly. "I do not think that human life is a thing to be trifled with. I agree with the Times."
"In what it said about me?"
"And what was that? It is neglectful of me, I know, but I never see the Times."
"It held you entirely responsible for the death of those poor men in Chicago," she told him. "It named you as their murderer."
"A very sensible paper, the Times," he agreed. "The responsibility was entirely mine."
She looked at him for a moment in horror.
"You can dare to admit that here--to me?"
"Why not?" he answered calmly. "So long as it is my conviction, why not proclaim it? I love the truth. It is the one virtue which has never been denied me."
Her eyes flashed. She made no effort whatever to conceal her detestation.
"And they let you go--those Americans?" she cried. "I do not understand!"
"There are probably many other considerations in connection with the affair which you do not understand," he observed. "However--they had their opportunity. I walked the streets openly, I travelled to New York openly, I took my steamer ticket to England under my own name. The papers, I believe, chronicled every stage of my journey."
"It was disgraceful!" she declared. "The people in office over there are cowards."
"Not at all," he objected. "They were very well advised. They acted with shrewd common sense. America is no better prepared for a revolution than England is."
"Do you imagine," she demanded, her voice trembling, "that you will be permitted to repeat in this country your American exploits?"
Maraton smiled a little sadly.
"Need we discuss these things, Lady Elisabeth?"
"Yes, we need!" she replied promptly. "This is my one opportunity. You and I will probably never exchange another word so long as we live. I have read your book--every word of it. I have read it several times. In that book you have shown just as much of yourself as you chose, and no more. Although I have hated the idea that I might ever have to speak to you, now that you are here, now that it has come to pass, I am going to ask you a question."
"People ask me so many questions!"
"Tell me this," she continued, without heeding his interruption. "Do you, in your heart, believe that you are justified in going about the world preaching your hateful doctrines, seeking out the toilers only to fill them with discontent and to set them against their employers, preaching everywhere bloodshed and anarchy, inflaming the minds of people who in ordinary times are contented, even happy? You have made yourself feared and hated in every country of the world. You have brought America almost to the verge of revolution. And now, just when England needs peace most, when affairs on the Continent are so threatening and every one connected with the Government of the country is passing through a time of the gravest anxiety, you intend, they say, to start a campaign here. You say that you love the truth. Answer me this question truthfully, then. Do you believe that you are justified?"
He had listened to her at first with a slight, tolerant smile upon his lips, a smile which faded gradually away. He was sombre, almost stern, when she had finished. He seemed in some curious way to have assumed a larger shape, to have become more imposing. His attitude had a strange and indefinable influence upon her.
She was suddenly conscious of her youth and inexperience--bitterly and rebelliously conscious of them--before he had even opened his lips. Her own words sounded crude and unconvincing.
"I am not one of the flamboyant orators of the Socialist party, Lady Elisabeth," he said, "nor am I one of those who are able to see much joy or very much hopefulness in life under present conditions. For every word I have spoken and every line I have written, I accept the full and complete responsibility."
"Those men who were murdered in Chicago, murdered at your instigation because they tried to break the strike--what of them?"
He looked at her as one might have looked at a child.
"Their lives were a necessary sacrifice in a good cause," he declared. "Does one think now of the sea of blood through which France once purged herself? Believe me, young lady, there is nothing in the world more to be avoided than this sentimental and exaggerated reverence for life. It is born of a false ideal, artistically and actually. Life is a sacrifice to be offered in a just cause when necessary.
"I imagine that this is your uncle."
Mr. Foley was standing upon the threshold of the room, his hand outstretched, his thin, long face full of conviction.
"My niece has succeeded in discovering you, then, Mr. Maraton," he said. "I am glad."
Maraton smiled as he shook hands.
"I have certainly had the pleasure of making your niece's acquaintance," he admitted. "We have had quite an interesting discussion."
Elisabeth turned away without looking towards him.
"I will leave Mr. Maraton to you, uncle," she said. "He will tell you that I have been very candid indeed. We were coming face to face with Mr. Culvain, so I brought him in here."
She did not glance again in Maraton's direction, nor did she offer him any form of farewell salutation. Mr. Foley frowned slightly as he glanced after her. Maraton, too, watched her leave the room. She paused for a moment on the threshold to gather up her train, a graceful but at the same time imperious gesture. She left them without a backward look. Mr. Foley turned quickly towards his companion and was relieved at the expression which he found in his face.
"My niece is a little earnest in her views," he remarked, "too much so, I am afraid, for a practical politician. She is quite well-informed and a great help to me at times."
"I found her altogether charming," Maraton said quietly. "She has, too, the unusual gift of honesty."
Mr. Foley was once more a little uneasy. It was impossible for him to forget Elisabeth's outspoken verdict upon this man and all his works.
"The young are never tolerant," he murmured.
"And quite rightly," Maraton observed. "There is nothing more to be envied in youth than its magnificent certainty. It knows! . . . I am flattered, Mr. Foley, that you should have received me in your house to-night. Your niece's attitude towards me, even if a trifle crude, is, I am afraid, the general one amongst your class in this country."
"To be frank with you, I agree," Mr. Foley assented. "I, personally, Mr. Maraton, am trying to be a dissenter. It is for that reason that I begged you to come here to-night and discuss the matter with me before you committed yourself to any definite plan of action in this country."
"Your message was a surprise to me," Maraton admitted calmly. "At the same time, it was a summons which I could not disregard. As you see, I am here."
Mr. Foley drew a key from his pocket and led the way across the room towards a closed door.
"I want to make sure that we are not disturbed. I am going to take you through to my study, if I may."
They passed into a small inner room, plainly but comfortably furnished.
"My own den," Mr. Foley explained, closing the door behind him with an air of relief. "Will you smoke, Mr. Maraton, or drink anything?"
"Neither, thank you," Maraton answered. "I am here to listen. I am curious to hear what there is that you can have to say to me."
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