The Devil's Paw by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
There were one or two amongst those present in the Council room at Westminster that evening, who noted and never forgot a certain indefinable dignity which seemed to come to Stenson's aid and enabled him to face what must have been an unwelcome and anxious ordeal without discomposure or disquiet. He entered the room accompanied by Julian and Phineas Cross, and he had very much the air of a man who has come to pay a business visit, concerning the final issue of which there could be no possible doubt. He shook hands with the Bishop gravely but courteously, nodded to the others with whom he was acquainted, asked the names of the few strangers present, and made a careful mental note of what industries and districts they represented. He then accepted a chair by the side of the Bishop, who immediately opened the proceedings.
"My friends," the latter began, "as I sent word to you a little time ago, Mr. Stenson has preferred to bring you his answer himself. Our ambassador - Mr. Julian Orden - waited upon him at Downing Street at the hour arranged upon, and, in accordance with his wish to meet you all, Mr. Stenson is paying us this visit."
The Bishop hesitated, and the Prime Minister promptly drew his chair a little farther into the circle.
"Gentlemen," he said, "the issue which you have raised is so tremendous, and its results may well be so catastrophic, that I thought it my duty to beg Mr. Orden to arrange for me to come and speak to you all, to explain to you face to face why, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, I cannot do your bidding."
"You don't want peace, then?" one of the delegates from the other side of the table asked bluntly.
"We do not," was the quiet reply. "We are not ready for it."
"The country is," Fenn declared firmly. "We are."
"So your ambassador has told me," was the calm reply. "In point of numbers you may be said, perhaps, to represent the nation. In point of intellect, of knowledge - of inner knowledge, mind - I claim that I represent it. I tell you that a peace now, even on the terms which your Socialist allies in Germany have suggested, would be for us a peace of dishonour."
"Will you tell us why?" the Bishop begged.
"Because it is not the peace we promised our dead or our living heroes," Mr. Stenson said slowly. "We set out to fight for democracy - your cause. That fight would be a failure if we allowed the proudest, the most autocratic, the most conscienceless despot who ever sat upon a throne to remain in his place."
"But that is just what we shall not do," Fenn interrupted. "Freistner has assured us of that.
The peace is not the Kaiser's peace. It is the peace of the Socialist Party in Germany, and the day the terms are proclaimed, democracy there will score its first triumph."
"I find neither in the European Press nor in the reports of our secret service agents the slightest warrant for any such supposition," Mr. Stenson pronounced with emphasis.
"You have read Freistner's letter?" Fenn asked.
"Every word of it," the Prime Minister replied. "I believe that Freistner is an honest man, as honest as any of you, but I think that he is mistaken. I do not believe that the German people are with him. I am content to believe that those signatures are genuine. I will even believe that Germany would welcome those terms of peace, although she would never allow them to proceed from her own Cabinet. But I do not believe that the clash and turmoil which would follow their publication would lead to the overthrow of the German dynasty. You give me no proof of it, gentlemen. You have none yourselves. And therefore I say that you propose to work in the dark, and it seems to me that your work may lead to an evil end. I want you to listen to me for one moment," he went on, his face lighting up with a flash of terrible earnestness. "I am not going to cast about in my mind for flowery phrases or epigrams. We are plain men here together, with our country's fate in the balance. For God's sake, realise your responsibilities. I want peace. I ache for it.
But there will be no peace for Europe while Germany remains an undefeated autocracy.
We've promised our dead and our living to oust that corrupt monster from his throne.
We've promised it to France our glorious Allies. We've shaken hands about it with America, whose ships are already crowding the seas, and whose young manhood has taken the oath which ours has taken. This isn't the time for peace. I am not speaking in the dark when I tell you that we have a great movement pending in the West which may completely alter the whole military situation. Give us a chance. If you carry out your threat, you plunge this country into revolution, you dishonour us in the face of our Allies; you will go through the rest of your lives, every one of you, with a guilt upon your souls, a stain upon your consciences, which nothing will ever obliterate. You see, I have kept my word - I haven't said much. I cannot ask for the armistice you suggest. If you take this step you threaten - I do not deny its significance you will probably stop the war. One of you will come in and take my place. There will be turmoil, confusion, very likely bloodshed. I know what the issue will be, and yet I know my duty. There is not one member of my Cabinet who is not with me. We refuse your appeal."
Every one at the table seemed to be talking at the same time to every one else. Then Cross's voice rose above the others. He rose to his feet to ensure attention.
"Bishop," he said, "there is one point in what Mr. Stenson has been saying which I think we might and ought to consider a little more fully, and that is, what guarantees have we that Freistner really has the people at the back of him, that he'll be able to cleanse that rat pit at Berlin of the Hohenzollern and his clan of junkers - the most accursed type of politician who ever breathed? We ought to be very sure about this. Fenn's our man. What about it, Fenn?"
"Freistner's letters for weeks," Fenn answered, "have spoken of the wonderful wave of socialistic feeling throughout the country. He is an honest man, and he does not exaggerate. He assures us that half the nation is pledged."
"One man," David Sands remarked thoughtfully. "If, there is a weak point about this business, which I am not prepared wholly to admit, it is that the entire job on that side seems to be run by one man. There's a score of us. I should like to hear of more on the other side."
"It is strange," Mr. Stenson pointed out, "that so little news of this gain of strength on the part of the Socialists has been allowed to escape from Germany. However rigid their censorship, copies of German newspapers reach us every day from neutral countries. I cannot believe that Socialism has made the advance Freistner claims for it, and I agree with our friends, Mr. Cross and Mr. Sands here, that you ought to be very sure that Freistner is not deceived before you take this extreme measure."
"We are content to trust to our brothers in Germany," Fenn declared.
"I am not convinced that we should be wise to do so," Julian intervened. "I am in favour of our taking a few more days to consider this matter."
"And I am against any delay," Fenn objected hotly. "I am for immediate action."
"Let me explain where I think we have been a little hasty," Julian continued earnestly. "I gather that the whole correspondence between this body and the Socialist Party in Germany has been carried on by Mr. Fenn and Freistner. There are other well-known Socialists in Germany, but from not one of these have we received any direct communication. Furthermore - and I say this without wishing to impugn in any way the care with which I am sure our secretary has transcribed these letters - at a time lake this I am forced to remember that I have seen nothing but copies."
Fenn was on his feet in a moment, white with passion.
"Do you mean to insinuate that I have altered or forged the letters?" he shouted.
"I have made no insinuations," Julian replied. "At the same time, before we proceed to extremities, I propose that we spend half an hour studying the originals."
"That's common sense," Cross declared. "There's no one can object to that. I'm none so much in favour of these typewritten slips myself."
Fenn turned to whisper to Bright. Mr. Stenson rose to his feet. The glare of the unshaded lamp fell upon his strained face. He seemed to have grown older and thinner since his entrance into the room.
"I can neither better nor weaken my cause by remaining," he said. "Only let this be my parting word to you. Upon my soul as an Englishman, I believe that if you send out those telegrams to-night, if you use your hideous and, deadly weapon against me and the Government, I believe that you will be guilty of this country's ruin, as you certainly will of her dishonour. You have the example of Russia before you. And I will tell you this, too, which take into your hearts. There isn't one of those men who are marching, perhaps to-night, perhaps tomorrow, to a possible death, who would thank you for trying, to save their lives or bodies at the expense of England's honour. Those about to die would be your sternest critics. I can say no more."
Julian walked with the Premier towards the door.
"Mr. Stenson," he declared, "you have said just what could be said from your point of view, and God knows, even now, who is in the right! You are looking at the future with a very full knowledge of many things of which we are all ignorant. You have, quite naturally, too, the politician's hatred of the methods these people propose. I myself am inclined to think that they are a little hasty."
"Orden," Mr. Stenson replied sternly, "I did not come to you to-night as a politician. I have spoken as a man and an Englishman, as I speak to you now. For the love of your country and her honour, use your influence with these people. Stop those telegrams.
Work for delay at any cost. There's something inexplicable, sinister, about the whole business. Freistner may be an honest man, but I'll swear that he hasn't the influence or the position that these people have been led to believe. And as for Nicholas Fenn - "
The Prime Minister paused. Julian waited anxiously.
"It is my belief," the former concluded deliberately, "that thirty seconds in the courtyard of the Tower, with his back to the light, would about meet his case."
They parted at the door, and Julian returned to his seat, uneasy and perplexed. Around the Council table voices were raised in anger. Fenn, who was sitting moodily with folded arms, his chair drawn a little back from the table, scowled at him as he took his place.
Furley, who had been whispering to the Bishop, turned towards Julian.
"It seems," he announced, "that the originals of most of Freistner's communications have been destroyed."
"And why not?" Fenn demanded passionately. "Why should I keep letters which would lay a rope around my neck any day they were found? You all know as well as I do that we've been expecting the police to raid the place ever since we took it."
"I am a late comer," Julian observed, "but surely some of you others have seen the original communications ?"
Thomas Evans spoke up from the other end of the table, - a small, sturdily built man, a great power in South Wales.
"To be frank," he said, "I don't like these insinuations. Fenn's been our secretary from the first. He opened the negotiations, and he's carried them through. We either trust him, or we don't. I trust him."
"And I'm not saying you're not right, lad." Cross declared. "I'm for being cautious, but it's more with the idea that our German friends themselves may be a little too sanguine."
"I will pledge my word," Fenn pronounced fiercely, "to the truth of all the facts I have laid before you. Whatever my work may have been, to-day it is completed. I have brought you a people's peace from Germany. This very Council was formed for the purpose of imposing that peace upon the Government. Are you going to back out now, because a dilettante writer, an aristocrat who never did a stroke of work in his life, casts sneering doubts upon my honesty? I've done the work you gave me to do. It's up to you to finish it, I represent a million working men. So does David Sands there, Evans and Cross, and you others. What does Orden represent? Nobody and nothing! Miles Furley? A little band of Socialists who live in their gardens and keep bees! My lord Bishop? Just his congregation from week to week! Yet it's these outsiders who've come in and disturbed us. I've had enough of it and them. We've wasted the night, but I propose that the telegrams go out at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. Hands up for it!"
It was a counter-attack which swept everything before it. Every hand in the room except the Bishop's, Furley's, Cross's and Julian's was raised. Fenn led the way towards the door.
"We've our work to do, chaps," he said. "We'll leave the others to talk till daylight, if they want to."