The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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There had been a dinner party and a very small reception afterwards at the great Embassy in Carlton House Terrace. The Ambassador, Prince Terniloff, was bidding farewell to his wife's cousin, the Princess Eiderstrom, the last of his guests. She drew him on one side for a moment.
"Your Excellency," she said, "I have been hoping for a word with you all the evening."
"And I with you, dear Stephanie," he answered. "It is very early. Let us sit down for a moment."
He led her towards a settee but she shook her head.
"You have an appointment at half-past eleven," she said. "I wish you to keep it."
"You know, then?"
"I lunched to-day at the Carleton grill room. In the reception-room I came face to face with Leopold Von Ragastein."
The Ambassador made no remark. It seemed to be his wish to hear first all that his companion had to say. After a moment's pause she continued:
"I spoke to him, and he denied himself. To me! I think that those were the most terrible seconds of my life. I have never suffered more. I shall never suffer so much again."
"It was most unfortunate," the Prince murmured sympathetically.
"This evening," she went on, "I received a visit from a man whom I took at first to be an insignificant member of the German bourgeoisie. I learnt something of his true position later. He came to me to explain that Leopold was engaged in this country on secret service, that he was passing under the name which he gave me,--Sir Everard Dominey, an English baronet, long lost in Africa. You know of this?"
"I know that to-night I am receiving a visit from Sir Everard Dominey."
"He is to work under your auspices?"
"By no means," the Prince rejoined warmly. "I am not favourably inclined towards this network of espionage. The school of diplomacy in which I have been brought up tries to work without such ignoble means."
"One realises that," she said. "Leopold is coming, however, to-night, to pay his respects to you."
"He is waiting for me now in my study," the Ambassador asserted.
"You will do me the service of conveying to him a message from me," she continued. "This man Seaman pointed out to me the unwisdom of any association between myself and Leopold, under present conditions. I listened to all that he had to say. I reserved my decision. I have now considered the matter. I will compromise with necessity. I will be content with the acquaintance of Sir Everard Dominey, but that I will have."
"For myself," the Ambassador reflected, "I do not even know what Von Ragastein's mission over here is, but if in Berlin they decide that, for the more complete preservation of his incognito, association between you and him is undesirable--"
She laid her fingers upon his arm.
"Stop!" she ordered. "I am not of Berlin. I am not a German. I am not even an Austrian. I am Hungarian, and though I am willing to study your interests, I am not willing to place them before my own life. I make terms, but I do not surrender. Those terms I will discuss with Leopold. Ah, be kind to me!" she went on, with a sudden change of voice. "Since these few minutes at midday I have lived in a dream. Only one thing can quiet me. I must speak to him. I must decide with him what I will do. You will help?"
"An acquaintance between you and Sir Everard Dominey," he admitted, "is certainly a perfectly natural thing."
"Look at me," she begged.
He turned and looked into her face. Underneath her beautiful eyes were dark lines; there was something pitiful about the curve of her mouth. He remembered that although she had carried herself throughout the evening with all the dignity which was second nature to her, he had overheard more than one sympathetic comment upon her appearance.
"I can see that you are suffering," he remarked kindly.
"My eyes are hot, and inside I am on fire," she continued. "I must speak to Leopold. Freda has asked me to stay and talk to her for an hour. My car waits. Arrange that he drives me home. Oh! believe me, dear friend, I am a very human woman, and there is nothing in the world to be gained by treating me as though I were of wood or stone. Tonight I can see him without observation. If you refuse, I shall take other means. I will make no promises. I will not even promise that I will not call out before him in the streets that he is a liar, that his life is a lie. I will call him Leopold Von Ragastein--"
"Hush!" he begged her. "Stephanie, you are nervous. I have not yet answered your entreaty."
"I consent," he promised. "After our interview, I shall bring the young man to Freda's room and present him. You will be there. He can offer you his escort."
She suddenly stooped and kissed his hand. An immense relief was in her face.
"Now I will keep you no longer. Freda is waiting for me."
The Ambassador strolled thoughtfully away into his own den at the back of the house, where Dominey was waiting for him.
"I am glad to see you," the former said, holding out his hand. "For five minutes I desire to talk to your real self. After that, for the rest of your time in England, I will respect your new identity."
Dominey bowed in silence. His host pointed to the sideboard.
"Come," he continued, "there are cigars and cigarettes at your elbow, whisky and soda on the sideboard. Make yourself at home in that chair there. Africa has rally changed you very little. Do you remember our previous meeting, in Saxony?"
"I remember it perfectly, your Excellency."
"His Majesty knew how to keep Court in those days," the Ambassador went on. "One was tempted to believe oneself at an English country party. However, that much of the past. You know, of course, that I entirely disapprove of your present position here?"
"I gathered as much, your Excellency."
"We will have no reserves with one another," the Prince declared, lighting a cigar. "I know quite well that you form part of a network of espionage in this country which I consider wholly unnecessary. That is simply a question of method. I have no doubt that you are here with the same object as I am, the object which the Kaiser has declared to me with his own lips is nearest to his heart--to cement the bonds of friendship between Germany and England."
"You believe, sir, that that is possible?"
"I am convinced of it," was the earnest reply. "I do not know what the exact nature of your work over here is to be, but I am glad to have an opportunity of putting before you my convictions. I believe that in Berlin the character of some of the leading statesmen here has been misunderstood and misrepresented. I find on all sides of me an earnest and sincere desire for peace. I have convinced myself that there is not a single statesman in this country who is desirous of war with Germany."
Dominey was listening intently, with the air of one who hears unexpected things. "But, your Excellency," he ventured, "what about the matter from our point of view? There are a great many in our country, whom you and I know of, who look forward to a war with England as inevitable. Germany must become, we all believe, the greatest empire in the world. She must climb there, as one of our friends once said, with her foot upon the neck of the British lion."
"You are out of date," the Ambassador declared earnestly. "I see now why they sent you to me. Those days have passed. There is room in the world for Great Britain and for Germany. The disintegration of Russia in the near future is a certainty. It is eastward that we must look for any great extension of territory."
"These things have been decided?"
"Absolutely! They form the soul of my mission here. My mandate is one of peace, and the more I see of English statesmen and the more I understand the British outlook, the more sanguine I am as to the success of my efforts. This is why all this outside espionage with which Seaman is so largely concerned seems to me at times unwise and unnecessary."
"And my own mission?" Dominey enquired.
"Its nature," the Prince replied, "is not as yet divulged, but if, as I have been given to understand, it is to become closely connected with my own, then I am very sure you will presently find that its text also is Peace."
Dominey rose to his feet, prepared to take his leave.
"These matters will be solved for us," he murmured.
"There is just one word more, on a somewhat more private matter," Terniloff said in an altered tone. "The Princess Eiderstrom is upstairs."
"In this house?"
"Waiting for a word with you. Our friend Seaman has been with her this evening. I understand that she is content to subscribe to the present situation. She makes one condition, however."
"She insists upon it that I present Sir Everard Dominey."
The latter did not attempt to conceal his perturbation. "I need scarcely point out to you, sir," he protested, "that any association between the Princess and myself is likely to largely increase the difficulties of my position here."
The Ambassador sighed.
"I quite appreciate that," he admitted. "Both Seaman and I have endeavoured to reason with her, but, as you are doubtless aware, the Princess is a woman of very strong will. She is also very powerfully placed here, and it is the urgent desire of the Court at Berlin to placate in every way the Hungarian nobility. You will understand, of course, that I speak from a political point of view only. I cannot ignore the fact of your unfortunate relations with the late Prince, but in considering the present position you will, I am sure, remember the greater interests."
His visitor was silent for a moment.
"You say that the Princess is waiting here?"
"She is with my wife and asks for your escort home. My wife also looks forward to the pleasure of renewing her acquaintance with you."
"I shall accept your Excellency's guidance in the matter," Dominey decided.
The Princess Terniloff was a woman of world culture, an artist, and still an extremely attractive woman. She received the visitor whom her husband brought to her in a very charming little room furnished after the style of the simplest French period, and she did her best to relieve the strain of what she understood must be a somewhat trying moment.
"We are delighted to welcome you to London, Sir Everard Dominey," she said, taking his hand, "and I hope that we shall often see you here. I want to present you to my cousin, who is interested in you, I must tell you frankly, because of your likeness to a very dear friend of hers. Stephanie, this is Sir Everard Dominey--the Princess Eiderstrom."
Stephanie, who was seated upon the couch from which her cousin had just risen, held out her hand to Dominey, who made her a very low and formal bow. Her gown was of unrelieved black. Wonderful diamonds flashed around her neck, and she wore also a tiara fashioned after the Hungarian style, a little low on her forehead. Her manner and tone still indicated some measure of rebellion against the situation.
"You have forgiven me for my insistence this morning?" she asked. "It was hard for me to believe that you were not indeed the person for whom I mistook you."
"Other people have spoken to me of the likeness," Dominey replied. "It is a matter of regret to me that I can claim to be no more than a simple Norfolk baronet."
"Without any previous experience of European Courts?"
"Without any at all."
"Your German is wonderfully pure for an untravelled man."
"Languages were the sole accomplishment I brought away from my misspent school days."
"You are not going to bury yourself in Norfolk, Sir Everard?" the Princess Terniloff enquired.
"Norfolk is very near London these days," Dominey replied, "and I have experienced more than my share of solitude during the last few years. I hope to spend a portion of my time here."
"You must dine with us one night," the Princess insisted, "and tell us about Africa. My husband would be so interested."
"You are very kind."
Stephanie rose slowly to her feet, leaned gracefully over and kissed her hostess on both cheeks, and submitted her hand to the Prince, who raised it to his lips. Then she turned to Dominey.
"Will you be so kind as to see me home?" she asked. "Afterwards, my car can take you on wherever you choose to go."
"I shall be very happy," Dominey assented.
He, too, made his farewells. A servant in the hall handed him his hat and coat, and he took his place in the car by Stephanie's side. She touched the electric switch as they glided off. The car was in darkness.
"I think," she murmured, "that I could not have borne another moment of this juggling with words. Leopold--we are alone!"
He caught the flash of her jewels, the soft brilliance of her eyes as she leaned towards him. His voice sounded, even to himself, harsh and strident.
"You mistake, Princess. My name is not Leopold. I am Everard Dominey."
"Oh, I know that you are very obstinate," she said softly, "very obstinate and very devoted to your marvellous country, but you have a soul, Leopold; you know that there are human duties as great as any your country ever imposed upon you. You know what I look for from you, what I must find from you or go down into hell, ashamed and miserable."
He felt his throat suddenly dry.
"Listen," he muttered, "until the hour strikes, I must remain to you as to the world, alone or in a crowd--Everard Dominey. There is one way and one way only of carrying through my appointed task."
She gave a little hysterical sob.
"Wait," she begged. "I will answer you in a moment. Give me your hand."
He opened the fingers which he had kept clenched together, and he felt the hot grip of her hand, holding his passionately, drawing it toward her until the fingers of her other hand, too, fell upon it. So she sat for several moments.
"Leopold" she continued presently, "I understand. You are afraid that I shall betray our love. You have reason. I am full of impulses and passion, as you know, but I have restraint. What we are to one another when we are alone, no soul in this world need know. I will be careful. I swear it. I will never even look at you as though my heart ached for your notice, when we are in the presence of other people. You shall come and see me as seldom as you wish. I will receive you only as often as you say. But don't treat me like this. Tell me you have come back. Throw off this hideous mask, if it be only for a moment."
He sat quite still, although her hands were tearing at his, her lips and eyes beseeching him.
"Whatever may come afterwards," he pronounced inexorably, "until the time arrives I am Everard Dominey. I cannot take advantage of your feelings for Leopold Von Ragastein. He is not here. He is in Africa. Perhaps some day he will come back to you and be all that you wish."
She flung his hands away. He felt her eyes burning into his, this time with something more like furious curiosity.
"Let me look at you," she cried. "Let me be sure. Is this just some ghastly change, or are you an imposter? My heart is growing chilled. Are you the man I have waited for all these years? Are you the man to whom I have given my lips, for whose sake I offered up my reputation as a sacrifice, the man who slew my husband and left me?"
"I was exiled," he reminded her, his own voice shaking with emotion. "You know that.
So far as other things are concerned, I am exiled now. I am working out my expiation." She leaned back in her seat with an air of exhaustion. Her eyes closed. Then the car drove in through some iron gates and stopped in front of her door, which was immediately opened. A footman hurried out. She turned to Dominey.
"You will not enter," she pleaded, "for a short time?"
"If you will permit me to pay you a visit, it will give me great pleasure," he answered formally. "I will call, if I may, on my return from Norfolk."
She gave him her hand with a sad smile.
"Let my people take you wherever you want to go," she invited, "and remember," she added, dropping her voice, "I do not admit defeat. This is not the last word between us."
She disappeared in some state, escorted through the great front door of one of London's few palaces by an attractive major-domo and footman in the livery of her House. Dominey drove back to the Carlton, where in the lounge he found the band playing, crowds still sitting around, amongst whom Seaman was conspicuous, in his neat dinner clothes and with his cherubic air of inviting attention from prospective new acquaintances. He greeted Dominey enthusiastically.
"Come," he exclaimed, "I am weary of solitude! I have seen scarcely a face that I recognise. My tongue is parched with inaction. I like to talk, and there has been no one to talk to. I might as well have opened up my little house in Forest Hill."
"I'll talk to you if you like," Dominey promised a little grimly, glancing at the clock and hastily ordering a whisky and soda. "I will begin by telling you this," he added, lowering his tone. "I have discovered the greatest danger I shall have to face during my enterprise."
"What is that?"
"A woman--the Princess Eiderstrom."
Seaman lit one of his inevitable cigars and threw one of his short, fat legs over the other. He gazed for a moment with an air of satisfaction at his small foot, neatly encased in court shoes.
"You surprise me," he confessed. "I have considered the matter. I cannot see any great difficulty."
"Then you must be closing your eyes to it willfully," Dominey retorted, "or else you are wholly ignorant of the Princess's temperament and disposition."
"I believe I appreciate both," Seaman replied, "but I still do not see any peculiar difficulty in the situation. As an English nobleman you have a perfect right to enjoy the friendship of the Princess Eiderstrom."
"And I thought you were a man of sentiment!" Dominey scoffed. "I thought you understood a little of human nature. Stephanie Eiderstrom is Hungarian born and bred. Even race has never taught her self- restraint. You don't seriously suppose that after all these years, after all she has suffered--and she has suffered--she is going to be content with an emasculated form of friendship? I talk to you without reserve, Seaman. She has made it very plain to-night that she is going to be content with nothing of the sort."
"What takes place between you in private," Seaman began--
"Rubbish!" his companion interrupted. "The Princess is an impulsive, a passionate, a distinctly primitive woman, with a good deal of the wild animal in her still. Plots or political necessities are not likely to count a snap of the fingers with her."
"But surely," Seaman protested, "she must understand that your country has claimed you for a great work?"
Dominey shook his head.
"She is not a German," he pointed out. "On the contrary, like a great many other Hungarians, I think she rather dislikes Germany and Germans. Her only concern is the personal question between us. She considers that every moment of the rest of my life should be devoted to her."
"Perhaps it is as well," Seaman remarked, "that you have arranged to go down to-morrow to Dominey. I will think out a scheme. Something must be done to pacify her."
The lights were being put out. The two men rose a little unwillingly. Dominey felt singularly indisposed for sleep, but anxious at the same time to get rid of his companion. They strolled into the darkened hall of the hotel together.
"I will deal with the matter for you as well as I can," Seaman promised. "To my mind, your greatest difficulty will be encountered to-morrow. You know what you have to deal with down at Dominey."
Dominey's face was very set and grave.
"I am prepared," he said.
Seaman still hesitated.
"Do you remember," he asked, "that when we talked over your plans at Cape Town, you showed me a picture of--of Lady Dominey?"
"May I have one more look at it?" Dominey, with fingers that trembled a little, drew from the breast pocket of his coat a leather case, and from that a worn picture. The two men looked at it side by side beneath one of the electric standards which had been left burning. The face was the face of a girl, almost a child, and the great eyes seemed filled with a queer, appealing light. There was something of the same suggestion to be found in the lips, a certain helplessness, an appeal for love and protection to some stronger being.
Seaman turned away with a little grunt, and commented:
"Permitting myself to reassume for a moment or two the ordinary sentiments of an ordinary human being, I would sooner have a dozen of your Princesses to deal with than the original of that picture."