Granet, on his return to Sackville Street, paid the taxicab driver, ascended the stairs and let himself into his rooms with very much the air of a man who has passed through a dream. A single glance around, however, brought him vivid realisations of his unwelcome visitor. The little plate of sandwiches, half finished, the partly emptied bottle of wine, were still there. One of her gloves lay in the corner of the easy-chair. He picked it up, drew it for a moment through his fingers, then crushed it into a ball and flung it into the fire. Jarvis, who had heard him enter, came from one of the back rooms.
"Clear these things away, Jarvis,' his master ordered. "Leave the whiskey and soda and tobacco on the table. I may be late."
Jarvis silently obeyed. As soon as he was alone, Granet threw himself into the easy-chair. He was filled with a bitter sense of being entrapped. He had been a little rash at Market Burnham, perhaps, but if any other man except Thomson had been sent there, his explanations would have been accepted without a word, and all this miserable complication would have been avoided. He thought over Isabel's coming, all that she had said. She had left him no loophole. She had the air of a young woman who knew her own mind excellently well. A single word from her to Thomson and the whole superstructure of his ingeniously built-up life might tumble to pieces. He sat with folded arms in a grim attitude of unrest, thinking bitter thoughts. They rolled into his brain like black shadows. He had been honest in the first instance. With ancestors from both countries, he had deliberately chosen the country to which he felt the greatest attachment. He remembered his long travels in Germany, he remembered on his return his growing disapproval of English slackness, her physical and moral decadence. Her faults had inspired him not with the sorrow of one of her real sons, but with the contempt of one only half bound to her by natural ties. The ground had been laid ready for the poison. He had started honestly enough. His philosophy had satisfied himself. He had felt no moral degradation in wearing the uniform of one country for the benefit of another. All this self-disgust he dated from the coming of Geraldine Conyers. Now he was weary of it all, face to face, too, with a disagreeable and insistent problem.
He started suddenly in his chair. An interruption ordinary enough, but never without a certain startling effect, had broken in upon his thoughts. The telephone on his table was ringing insistently. He rose to his feet and glanced at the clock as he crossed the room. It was five minutes past twelve. As he took up the receiver a familiar voice greeted him.
"Is that Ronnie? Yes, this is Lady Anselman. Your uncle told me to ring you up to see if you were in. He wants you to come round."
"Do come, Ronnie," his aunt continued. "I don't suppose it's anything important but your uncle seems to want it. No, I sha'n't see you. I'm just going to bed. I have been playing bridge. I'm sure the duchess cheats--I have never won at her house in my life. I'll tell your uncle you'll come, then, Ronnie. . . . Good night!"
Granet laid down the receiver. Somehow or other, the idea of action, even at that hour of the night was a relief to him. He called to Jarvis and gave him a few orders. Afterwards he turned out and walked through the streets--curiously lit and busy it seemed to him--to the corner of Park Lane, and up to the great mansion fronting the Park, which had belonged to the Anselmans for two generations. There were few lights in the windows. He was admitted at once and passed on to his uncle's own servant.
"Sir Alfred is in the study, sir," the latter announced, "if you will kindly come this way."
Granet crossed the circular hall hung with wonderful tapestry, and passed through the sumptuously-furnished library into the smaller, business man'' study, in which Sir Alfred spent much of his time. There were telephones upon his desk, a tape machine, and a private instrument connected with the telegraph department. There was a desk for his secretary, now vacant, and beyond, in the shadows of the apartment, winged bookcases which held a collection of editions de luxe, first editions, and a great collection of German and Russian literature, admittedly unique. Sir Alfred was sitting at his desk, writing a letter. He greeted his nephew with his usual cheerful nod.
"Wait before you go, Harrison," he said to his valet. "Will you take anything, Ronald? There are cigars and cigarettes here but nothing to drink. Harrison, you can put the whiskey and soda on the side, anyhow, then you can wait for me in my room. I shall not require any other service to-night. Some one must stay to let Captain Granet out. You understand?"
"Perfectly, sir," the man replied.
"If you don't mind, Ronnie, I will finish this letter while he brings the whiskey and soda," Sir Alfred said.
Captain Granet strolled around the room. There was no sound for a moment but the scratching of Sir Alfred's quill pen across the paper. Presently Harrison returned with the whiskey and soda. Sir Alfred handed him a note.
"To be sent to-night, Harrison," he directed; "no answer."
The man withdrew, closing the door behind him. Sir Alfred, with his hands in his pockets, walked slowly around. When he came back he turned out all the lights except the heavily shaded one over his desk, and motioned his nephew to draw his easy-chair up to the side.
"Well, Ronnie," he said, "I suppose you are wondering why I have sent for you at this hour of the night?"
"I am," Granet admitted frankly. "Is there any news?--anything behind the news, perhaps I should say?"
"What there is, is of no account," Sir Alfred replied. "We are going to talk pure human nature, you and I for the next hour. The fate of empires is a matter for the historians. It is your fate and mine which just now counts for most."
"There is some trouble?" Granet asked quickly,--"some suspicion?"
"None whatever," Sir Alfred repeated firmly. "My position was never more secure than it is at this second. I am the trusted confidant of the Cabinet. I have done, not only apparently but actually, very important work for them. Financially, too, my influence as well as my resources have been of vast assistance to this country."
Granet nodded and waited. He knew enough of his uncle to be aware that he would develop his statement in his own way.
"When all has gone well," Sir Alfred continued, "when all seems absolutely peaceful and safe, it is sometimes the time to pause and consider. We are at that spot at the present moment. You have been lucky, in your way, Ronnie. Three times, whilst fighting for England, you have managed to penetrate the German lines and receive from them communications of the greatest importance. Since your return home you have been of use in various ways. This last business in Norfolk will not be forgotten. Then take my case. What Germany knows of our financial position, our strength and our weakness, is due to me. That Germany is at the present time holding forty millions of money belonging to the city of London, is also owing to me. In a dozen other ways my influence has been felt. As I told you before, we have both, in our way, been successful, but we have reached the absolute limit of our effectiveness."
"What does that mean?" Granet asked.
"It means this," Sir Alfred explained. "When this war was started, I, with every fact and circumstance before me, with more information, perhaps, than any other man breathing, predicted peace within three months. I was wrong. Germany to-day is great and unconquered, but Germany has lost her opportunity. This may be a war of attrition, or even now the unexpected may come, but to all effects and purposes Germany is beaten."
"Do you mean this?" Granet exclaimed incredulously.
"Absolutely," his uncle assured him. "Remember that I know more than you do. There is a new and imminent danger facing the dual alliance. What it is you will learn soon enough. The war may drag on for many months but the chances of the great German triumph we have dreamed of, have passed. They know it as well as we do. I have seen the writing on the wall for months. To-day I have concluded all my arrangements. I have broken off all negotiations with Berlin. They recognise the authority and they absolve me. They know that it will be well to have a friend here when the time comes for drawing up the pact."
Granet gripped the sides of his chair with his hand. It seemed to him impossible that with these few commonplace words the fate of all Europe was being pronounced.
"Do you mean that Germany will be crushed?" he demanded.
Sir Alfred shook his head.
"I still believe that impossible," he said, "but the peace of exhaustion will come, and come surely, before many months have passed. It is time for us to think of ourselves. So far as I am concerned, well, there is that one censored letter--nothing in itself, yet damning if the code should be discovered. As for you, well, you are safe from anything transpiring in France, and although you seem to have been rather unlucky there, you appear to be safe as regards Norfolk. You must make up your mind now to follow my lead. Take a home command, do the rest of your soldiering quietly, and shout with the others when the day of peace comes. These last few months must be our great secret. At heart we may have longed to call ourselves sons of a mightier nation, but fate is against us. We must continue Englishmen."
"You've taken my breath away," Granet declared. "Let me realise this for a moment."
He sat quite still. A rush of thoughts had crowded into his brain. First and foremost was the thought of Geraldine. If he could cover up his traces! If it were true that he was set free now from his pledges! Then he remembered his visitor of the evening and his heart sank.
"Look here," he confessed, "in a way this is a huge relief. I, like you, thought it was to last for three months and I thought I could stick it. While the excitement of the thing was about it was easy enough, but listen, uncle. That Norfolk affair--I am not really out of that."
"What do you mean?" Sir Alfred demanded anxiously. "This fellow Thomson?"
"Thomson, of course," Granet assented, "but the real trouble has come to me in a different way. I told you that the girl got me out of it. She couldn't stand the second cross-examination. She was driven into a corner, and finally, to clear herself, said that we were engaged to be married. She has come up to London, came to me to-night. She expects me to marry her."
"How much does she know?" Sir Alfred asked.
"Everything," Granet groaned. "It was she who had told me of the waterway across the marshes. She saw me there with Collins, just before the flare was lit. She knew that I lied to them when they found me."
Sir Alfred sighed.
"It's a big price, Ronnie," he said, "but you'll have to pay it. The sooner you marry the girl and close her mouth, the better."
"If it hadn't been for that damned fellow Thomson," Granet muttered, "there would never have been a suspicion."
"If it hadn't been for the same very enterprising gentleman," Sir Alfred observed, "my correspondence would never have been tampered with."
Granet leaned a little forward.
"Thomson is our one remaining danger," he said. "I have had the feeling since first he half recognised me. We met, you know, in Belgium. It was just when I was coming out of the German lines. Somehow or other he must have been on my track ever since. I took no notice of it. I thought it was simply because--because he was engaged to Geraldine Conyers."
"You are rivals in love, too, eh?" Sir Alfred remarked.
"Geraldine Conyers is the girl I want to marry," Granet admitted.
"Thomson," Sir Alfred murmured to himself,--"Surgeon-Major Hugh Thomson. He seems to be the only man, Ronnie, from whom we have the least danger to fear. Personally, I think I am secure. I do not believe that that single letter will be ever deciphered, and if it is, three-parts of the Cabinet are my friends. I could ruin the Stock Exchange to-morrow, bring London's credit, for a time, at any rate, below the credit of Belgrade."
"All the same, it seems to me," Granet declared grimly, "that we should both be more comfortable if there were no Surgeon-Major Thomson."
The very last dispatches I had to deal with," Sir Alfred continued, "made allusion to him. They don't love some of his work in Berlin, I can tell you. What sort of a man is he, Ronnie? Can he be bought? A hundred thousand pounds would be a fortune to a man like that."
"There is only one way of dealing with him," Granet said fiercely. "I have tried it once. I expect I'll have to try again."
Sir Alfred leaned across the table.
"Don't be rash, Ronnie," he advised. "And yet, remember this. The man is a real danger, both to you and to me. He is the only man who has had anything to do with the Intelligence Department here, who is worth a snap of the fingers. Now go home, Ronnie. You came here--well, never mind what you were when you came here. You are going back an Englishman. If they won't send you to the Front again, bother them for some work here, and stick to it. You will get no reports nor any visitors. I have strangled the whole system. You and I are cut loose from it. We are free-lances. Mind, I still believe that in the end German progress and German culture will dominate the world, but it may not be in our day. It just happens that we have stuck a little too soon. Let us make the best of things, Ronnie. You have many years of life. I have some of unabated power. Let us be thankful that we were wise enough to stop in time."
Granet rose to his feet. His uncle watched him curiously.
"You're young, of course, Ronnie," he continued indulgently. "You haven't yet fitted your burden on to your shoulders properly. England or Germany, you have some of both in you. After all, it isn't a vital matter under which banner you travel. It isn't quite like that with me. I have lived here all my life and I wouldn't care to live anywhere else, but that's because I carry my own country with me. It's English air I breathe but it's a German heart I still carry with me. Good night, Ronnie! Remember about Thomson."
The two men wrung hands and Granet made his way towards the door.
"About Thomson," he repeated to himself, as the servant conducted him towards the door.Next