The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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Arm in arm, Prince Terniloff and his host climbed the snow-covered slope at the back of a long fir plantation, towards the little beflagged sticks which indicated their stand. There was not a human being in sight, for the rest of the guns had chosen a steeper but somewhat less circuitous route.
"Von Ragastein," the Ambassador said, "I am going to give myself the luxury of calling you by your name. You know my one weakness, a weakness which in my younger days very nearly drove me out of diplomacy. I detest espionage in every shape and form even where it is necessary. So far as you are concerned, my young friend," he went on, "I think your position ridiculous. I have sent a private despatch to Potsdam, in which I have expressed that opinion."
"So far," Dominey remarked, "I have not been overworked."
"My dear young friend," the Prince continued, "you have not been overworked because there has been no legitimate work for you to do. There will be none. There could be no possible advantage accruing from your labours here to compensate for the very bad effect which the discovery of your true name and position would have in the English Cabinet."
"I must ask you to remember," Dominey begged, "that I am here as a blind servant of the Fatherland. I simply obey orders."
"I will grant that freely," the Prince consented. "But to continue. I am now at the end of my first year in this country. I feel able to congratulate myself upon a certain measure of success. From that part of the Cabinet with whom I have had to do, I have received nothing but encouragement in my efforts to promote a better understanding between our two countries."
"The sky certainly seems clear enough just now," agreed Dominey.
"I have convinced myself," the Prince said emphatically, "that there is a genuine and solid desire for peace with Germany existing in Downing Street. In every argument I have had, in every concession I have asked for, I have been met with a sincere desire to foster the growing friendship between our countries. I am proud of my work here, Von Ragastein. I believe that I have brought Germany and England nearer together than they have been since the days of the Boer War."
"You are sure, sir," Dominey asked, "that you are not confusing personal popularity with national sentiment?"
"I am sure of it," the Ambassador answered gravely. "Such popularity as I may have achieved here has been due to an appreciation of the more healthy state of world politics now existing. It has been my great pleasure to trace the result of my work in a manuscript of memoirs, which some day, when peace is firmly established between our two countries, I shall cause to be published. I have put on record there evidences of the really genuine sentiment in favour of peace which I have found amongst the present Cabinet."
"I should esteem it an immense privilege," Dominey said, "to be given a private reading of these memoirs."
"That may be arranged," was the suave reply. "In the meantime, Von Ragastein, I want you to reconsider your position here."
"My position is not voluntary," Dominey repeated. "I am acting under orders."
"Precisely," the other acquiesced, "but matters have changed very much during the last six months. Even at the risk of offending France, England is showing wonderful pliability with regard to our claims in Morocco. Every prospect of disagreement between our two countries upon any vital matter has now disappeared."
"Unless," Dominey said thoughtfully, "the desire for war should come, not from Downing Street but from Potsdam."
"We serve an honourable master," Terniloff declared sternly, "and he has shown me his mind. His will is for peace, and for the great triumphs to which our country is already entitled by reason of her supremacy in industry, in commerce, in character and in genius. These are the weapons which will make Germany the greatest Power in the world. No empire has ever hewn its way to permanent glory by the sword alone. We have reached our stations, I see. Come to me after this drive is finished, my host. All that I have said so far has been by way of prelude."
The weather had turned drier, the snow was crisp, and a little party of women from the Hall reached the guns before the beaters were through the wood. Caroline and Stephanie both took their places by Dominey's side. The former, however, after a few minutes passed on to Terniloff's stand. Stephanie and Dominey were alone for the first time since their stormy interview in the library.
"Has Maurice been talking to you?" she asked a little abruptly.
"His Excellency and I are, to tell you the truth," Dominey confessed, "in the midst of a most interesting conversation."
"Has he spoken to you about me?"
"Your name has not yet been mentioned."
She made a little grimace. In her wonderful furs and Russian turban hat she made a rather striking picture against the background of snow.
"An interesting conversation in which my name has not been mentioned!" she repeated satirically.
"I think you were coming into it before very long," Dominey assured her. "His Excellency warned me that all he had said so far was merely the prelude to a matter of larger importance."
"Dear Maurice is so diplomatic," she murmured. "I am perfectly certain he is going to begin by remonstrating you for your shocking treatment of me."
Their conversation was interrupted for a few minutes by the sport. Dominey called the faithful Middleton to his side for a further supply of cartridges. Stephanie bided her time, which came when the beaters at last emerged from the wood.
"Shocking," Stephanie repeated reverting to their conversation, "is the mildest word in my vocabulary which I can apply to your treatment of me. Honestly, Leopold, I feel bruised all over inside. My pride is humbled."
"It is because you look at the matter only from a feminine point of view," Dominey persisted.
"And you," she answered in a low tone, "once the fondest and the most passionate of lovers, only from a political one. You think a great deal of your country, Leopold. Have I no claims upon you?"
"Upon Everard Dominey, none," he insisted. "When the time comes, and Leopold Von Ragastein can claim all that is his right, believe me, you will have no cause to complain of coldness or dilatoriness. He will have only one thought, only one hope--to end the torture of these years of separation as speedily as may be."
The strained look passed from her face. Her tone became more natural.
"But, dear," she pleaded, "there is no need to wait. Your Sovereign gives you permission. Your political chief will more than endorse it."
"I am on the spot," Dominey replied, "and believe me I know what is safest and best. I cannot live as two men and keep my face steadfast to the world. The Prince, however, has not spoken to me yet. I will hear what he has to say."
Stephanie turned a little haughtily away.
"You are putting me in the position of a supplicant!" she exclaimed. "To-night we must have an understanding."
The little party moved on all together to another cover. Rosamund had joined them and hung on to Dominey's arm with delight. The brisk walk across the park had brought colour to her cheeks. She walked with all the free and vigorous grace of a healthy woman. Dominey found himself watching her, as she deserted him a little later on to stand by Terniloff's side, with a little thrill of tangled emotions. He felt a touch on his arm. Stephanie, who was passing with another of the guns, paused to whisper in his ear:
"There might be a greater danger--one that has evaded even your cautious mind--in overplaying your part!"
Dominey was taken possession of by Caroline on their walk to the next stand. She planted herself on a shooting stick by his side and commenced to take him roundly to task.
"My dear Everard," she said, "you are one of the most wonderful examples of the reformed rake I ever met! You have even acquired respectability. For heaven's sake, don't disappoint us all!"
"I seem to be rather good at that," Dominey observed a little drearily.
"Well, you are the master of your own actions, are you not?" she asked. "What I want to say in plain words is, don't go and make a fool of yourself with Stephanie."
"I have not the least intention of doing anything of the sort."
"Well, she has! Mark my words, Everard, I know that woman. She is clever and brilliant and anything else you like, but for some reason or other she has set her mind upon you. She looks at dear little Rosamund as though she hadn't a right to exist. Don't look so sorry for yourself. You must have encouraged her."
Dominey was silent. Fortunately, the exigencies of the next few minutes demanded it. His cousin waited patiently until there came a pause in the shooting.
"Now let me hear what you have to say for yourself, sir? So far as I can see, you've been quite sweet to your wife, and she adores you. If you want to have an affair with the Princess, don't begin it here. You'll have your wife ill again if you make her jealous."
"My dear Caroline, there will be no affair between Stephanie and me. Of that you may rest assured."
"You mean to say that this is altogether on her side, then?" Caroline persisted.
"You exaggerate her demeanour," he replied, "but even if what you suggest were true--"
"Oh, I don't want a lot of protestations!" she interrupted. "I am not saying that you encourage her much, because I don't believe you do. All I want to point out is that, having really brought your wife back almost to health, you must be extraordinarily and wonderfully careful. If you want to talk nonsense with Stephanie, do it in Belgrave Square."
Dominey was watching the gyrations of a falling pheasant. His left hand was stretched out towards the cartridge bag which Caroline was holding. He clasped her fingers for a moment before he helped himself.
"You are rather a dear," he said. "I would not do anything to hurt Rosamund for the world."
"If you can't get rid of your old tricks altogether and must flirt," she remarked, "well, I'm always somewhere about. Rosamund wouldn't mind me, because there are a few grey hairs in my sandy ones.-- And here comes your man across the park--looks as though he had a message for you. So long as nothing has happened to your cook, I feel that I could face ill tidings with composure."
Dominey found himself watching with fixed eyes the approach of his rather sad-faced manservant through the snow. Parkins was not dressed for such an enterprise, nor did he seem in any way to relish it. His was the stern march of duty, and, curiously enough, Dominey felt from the moment he caught sight of him that he was in some respects a messenger of Fate. Yet the message which he delivered, when at last he reached his master's side, was in no way alarming.
"A person of the name of Miller has arrived here, sir," he announced, "from Norwich. He is, I understand, a foreigner of some sort, who has recently landed in this country. I found it a little difficult to understand him, but her Highness's maid conversed with him in German, and I understand that he either is or brings you a message from a certain Doctor Schmidt, with whom you were acquainted in Africa."
The warning whistle blew at that moment, and Dominey swung round and stood at attention. His behaviour was perfectly normal. He let a hen pheasant pass over his head, and brought down a cock from very nearly the limit distance. He reloaded before he turned to Parkins.
"Is this person in a hurry?" he said.
"By no means, sir," the man replied. "I told him that you would not be back until three or four o'clock, and he is quite content to wait."
"Look after him yourself then, Parkins," he directed. "We shall not be shooting late today. Very likely I will send Mr. Seaman back to talk to him."
The man raised his hat respectfully and turned back towards the house. Caroline was watching her companion curiously.
"Do you find many of your acquaintances in Africa look you up, Everard?" she asked.
"Except for Seaman," Dominey replied, looking through the barrels of his gun, "who really does not count because we crossed together, this is my first visitor from the land of fortune. I expect there will be plenty of them by and by, though. Colonials have a wonderful habit of sticking to one another."