A Cabinet Secret
The Author deems it right to preface his work with the remark, that while the War between England and the South African Republics forms the basis of the story, the characters and incidents therein described are purely fictional, and have no sort of resemblance, either intended or implied, with living people. The Author's only desire is to show what, under certain, doubtless improbable, conditions, might very well have happened, had a secret power endeavoured to harass the Empire by taking advantage of her temporary difficulties.
A CABINET SECRET
Night was falling, and Naples Harbour, always picturesque, appeared even more so than usual in the warm light of the departing day. The city itself, climbing up the hillside, almost from the water's edge, was coloured a pale pink by the sunset, and even old Vesuvius, from whose top a thin column of black smoke was issuing, seemed somewhat less sombre than usual. Out Ischiawards, the heavens were a mass of gold and crimson colouring, and this was reflected in the calm waters of the Bay, till the whole world was a veritable glow. Taken altogether, a more beautiful evening could scarcely have been desired. And yet it is not with the city, the mountain, or the sunset, that we have to do, but with the first movement of a conspiracy that was destined ultimately to shake one of the greatest Empires, the earth has ever seen, to the very foundations of its being.
Though the world was not aware of it, and would not, in all human probability, have concerned itself very much about it even if it had, the fact remains that for some hours past two men, from a house situated on one of the loftiest pinnacles of the city, had been concentrating their attention, by means of powerful glasses, upon the harbour, closely scrutinizing every vessel that entered and dropped her anchor inside the Mole.
"Can anything have happened that she does not come?" asked the taller of the pair, as he put down his glasses, and began to pace the room. "The cable said most distinctly that the steam yacht, Princess Badroulbadour passed through the Straits of Messina yesterday at seven o'clock. Surely they should be here by this time?"
"One would have thought so," his companion replied. "It must be borne in mind, however, that the Princess is a private yacht, and it is more likely, as the wind is fair, that the owner is sailing in order to save his fuel."
"To the devil with him, then, for his English meanness," answered the other angrily. "He does not know how anxious we are to see her."
"And, everything taken into consideration, it is just as well for us and for the safety of his passengers that he does not," his friend retorted. "If he did, his first act after he dropped anchor would be to hand them over to the tender mercies of the Police. In that case we should be ruined for ever and a day. Perhaps that aspect of the affair has not struck you?"
"It is evident that you take me for a fool," the other answered angrily. "Of course, I know all that; but it does not make me any the less anxious to see them. Consider for a moment what we have at stake. Never before has there been such a chance of bringing to her knees one of the proudest nations of the earth. And to think that if that vessel does not put in an appearance within the next few hours, all our preparations may be in vain!"
"She will be here in good time, never fear," his companion replied soothingly. "She has never disappointed us yet."
"Not willingly, I will admit," the other returned; "but in this matter she may not be her own mistress. She is a beautiful woman, and for all we know to the contrary, this English milord may be prolonging the voyage in order to enjoy her society. Who knows but that he may carry her off altogether?"
"In that case his country should erect a memorial to him, similar to the Nelson Monument," said the smaller man. "For it is certain he will have rendered her as great a service as that empty-sleeved Hero ever did."
The other did not reply, but, after another impatient glance at the Harbour, once more began to pace the room. He was a tall, handsome fellow, little more than thirty years of age, and carried himself with soldierly erectness. The most casual observer would have noticed that he was irreproachably dressed, and that his manners were those of one accustomed to good society. His companion, on the other hand, was short and stout, with a round bullet head, and closely cropped hair. He was also the possessor of a pair of small twinkling eyes, and a neck so thick, that one instinctively thought of apoplexy and sudden death in connection with its owner. The room they occupied was strangely at variance with the appearance of the younger and taller man. It was little more than a garret, very dirty, and furnished in the poorest fashion. But it had one advantage: it commanded a splendid view of Naples Harbour, and, after all, that was what its present occupants required. At last, the younger man, tired of his sentry-go up and down the room, threw himself into a chair and lit a cigarette. For some minutes not a word passed between them; all the time, however, the shorter man remained at the window, his glass turned seaward, watching for the smallest sign of the vessel they were so eagerly expecting. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation which caused the other to spring to his feet.
"What is it?" cried the latter; "what do you see?"
"I fancy she is coming up now," his friend replied. "If you run your glass along the sky-line, I fancy you will be able to detect a white speck, with a tiny column of smoke above it."
The other followed the directions given him, and, after a careful scrutiny, gave it as his opinion that what his companion had said was correct. Nearly an hour elapsed, however, before they could be quite certain upon the subject. At last the matter was settled beyond doubt, and when a magnificent white yacht rounded the Mole and came to its anchorage in the Mercantile Harbour, they prepared to make their way down to the water-side in order to board her. Before they started, however, the elder of the two men effected sundry changes in his attire.
"Forgive the mummery," he remarked, as he took a somewhat clerical hat and cloak from a peg, "but, as they say upon the stage, 'the unities must be observed.' If our beautiful Countess has played her cards carefully, Monseigneur should be of great benefit to us hereafter. It would be a thousand pities to scare him away at the beginning. For this reason it will be as well for you to remember that I am her Excellency's lawyer, who has hastened to Naples in order to confer with her on a matter of considerable importance, connected with her Styrian estates. No suspicion will then be excited."
By the time he had finished speaking he had donned the hat and cloak, and when he had given another expression to his face – for the man was a consummate actor – he was satisfied that he looked the part he was about to play. After that they descended the narrow, rickety stairs together, and passed out into the street. It was a warm afternoon, and in consequence Naples was in her most unsavoury humour. The two men, however, did not appear to trouble themselves very much about it. Side by side they made their way through the crowded streets, almost in silence. Each was thinking of the approaching interview, and of what was to result from it. Reaching the Harbour, they chartered a boat and bade the rower convey them to the white yacht which had just dropped her anchor. The man obeyed, and in less than five minutes they were lying alongside one of the most beautiful pleasure vessels that has ever upheld the shipbuilding honour of the Clyde. The Port formalities had already been complied with, and now the accommodation ladder was hanging at the side in readiness for visitors. When they drew up at its foot, the tall man, addressing the quartermaster on duty at the gangway, enquired whether Madame la Comtesse de Venetza were aboard, and, if so, whether she would permit visitors to pay their respects to her.
It was noticeable that he spoke excellent English, with scarcely a touch of foreign accent.
The man departed with the message, to presently return with the report that Madame would be pleased to see the gentleman if they would "come aboard." They accordingly climbed the ladder, and followed the quartermaster along the deck to a sumptuous saloon under the bridge. The owner of the beautiful craft was in the act of leaving the cabin as they approached it.
"Won't you come in?" he said, pausing to open the door for them. "The Countess will be very pleased to see you."
As he said this he glanced sharply at the two men, with an Englishman's innate distrust of foreigners. He saw little in them, however, to criticise, and nothing to dislike. They, on their side, found him a tall, stalwart Englishman of the typical standard – blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, close cropped hair, the latter a little inclined to be curly, well, but not over dressed, and carrying with him an air of latent strength that, in spite of his good-humoured expression, would have made most people chary of offending him. When the two men entered the cabin, he closed the door behind them and ran lightly up the ladder to the bridge.
After his departure there was a momentary, but somewhat embarrassing, silence. A long shaft of sunlight streamed in through one of the windows (for they resembled windows more than port-holes) and revealed the fact that the lady, who was reclining in a long easy-chair, was extremely beautiful. Despite the cordial message she had sent, her visitors could scarcely have been welcome, for she did not even take the trouble to rise to receive them, but allowed a tall grey-haired man, who might very well have passed for her father, to do the honours for her.
"My dear Luigi – my dear Conrad," he said, offering his right hand to the smaller of the two men and his left to the other. "It is indeed kind of you to be so quick to welcome us. The Countess is a little tired this afternoon, but she is none the less delighted to see you."
The scornful curl of the lady's lips not only belied this assertion, but indicated that miladi was in a by no means pleasant temper. The impatient movement of the little foot, peeping from beneath her dress, said as much, as plainly as any words could speak.
"We have been waiting for you all day," the younger man began. "There is news of the greatest importance to communicate. Every hour that passes is now so much time wasted."
Then, for the first time during the interview, the lady spoke.
"You infer that I might have been quicker?" she said, with a touch of scorn in her voice. "You evidently forget that, had it not been for this English milord's kindness, I should not be here even now."
It looked as if the younger man, while really uncomfortable, were trying to act as if he were not afraid of her.
"Is there not such a thing as the Oriental Express?" he asked. "Had you used that, we might have met at Turin, and have saved a great deal of trouble and valuable time."
The lady turned impatiently from him to his companion.
"What form does your news take?" she enquired. "Is it contained in a letter?"
"No, Excellenza, it was to be delivered by word of mouth," the other replied. "The Council, who were in Prague at the time, paid me the compliment of trusting to my discretion, and despatched me immediately to you. We heard that you were in Constantinople, and the Secretary undertook to have a message transmitted to you there. Our friend, Conrad here, is perhaps not aware that the Oriental Express is occasionally an impossible medium. But, while condoling with you on that score, I must congratulate your Excellency in having pressed the Duke of Rotherhithe into your service."
"Pray spare yourself the trouble," the lady replied. "I do not know that I am particularly fond of obtaining hospitality, such as his, under false pretences. It is sufficient for your purposes, is it not, that I am here, and ready to do the Council's bidding, whatever that may be. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me what is expected of me?"
"Is it safe for me to tell you here?" Luigi enquired, and as he said it he looked anxiously about him, as if he feared the presence of eavesdroppers.
"As safe as it will be anywhere," the lady answered. "It is an Englishman's yacht, and, whatever we may say of them, they are not in the habit of listening at keyholes. Now what have you to tell me?"
The man hesitated once more before he replied. He was the chosen mouth-piece of one of the most powerful organisations in Europe, and ere now affairs involving death, and worse than death, had been entrusted to him, and he had brought them to a satisfactory issue. As a rule, and certainly when dealing with men, he did not know what fear was. In this lady's presence, however, he was strangely nervous.
"Come," she said, "you are a long time telling me. Is it so very difficult to explain? Or am I to anticipate a repetition of the Palermo Incident?"
Whatever the Palermo Incident may have been, it was certainly not a pleasant recollection to either of the men before her; the elder man became uncomfortable, while the younger moved uneasily in his seat.
"You hit hard, madam," the elder man returned; "but, thank goodness, I am not thin-skinned. That the Palermo affair was a mistake, I am quite prepared to admit; it is possible, however, the success which will doubtless attend this affair, will make ample amends for it."
"You have not told me what the affair is," the lady replied. "Unless you make haste, I fear I shall not be able to hear it to-night. It would be as well for you to remember that I am not my own mistress, and that, in return for his hospitality, my host has at least some claim upon my society."