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قراءة كتاب A Cabinet Secret

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‏اللغة: English
A Cabinet Secret

A Cabinet Secret

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 3

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."

"I will not detain you longer than is absolutely necessary," the other replied. "With your permission I will now explain my mission. Of course, your Excellency is aware that the British Empire is on the eve of a serious struggle with the two South African Republics. The Republics in question have been arming for several years, and there can be no sort of doubt that the war, which is now about to begin, will make the most enormous demands upon the resources and capabilities of even that great Empire. That the country, at least so far as its military organisation is concerned, is not properly prepared for such an encounter, admits of no doubt. Her armament is well known to be deficient, if not defective; she possesses but few Generals whose experience entitles them to the right of leading her troops as they should be led against a foe which will have in its ranks some of the best fighting men in the world; while the nature of the country in which she will have to fight, and the peculiar tactics of the enemy, are unfavourable to her in the highest degree. Apart from this, it has been her boast that she occupies an isolated position in Europe, if not in the world. France, Russia, Germany and Holland are avowedly unfavourable; Spain remembers Great Britain's sympathy with America in the Cuban affair; Portugal will wait to see what turn events take before she commits herself; while America will stand strictly neutral. We all remember that the larger Republic has beaten her before: it is possible that it may do so again. All these things having been taken into consideration, it must be quite clear to an observant mind that if England is ever to be humiliated, now is the time to do it. With this end in view, the Council was summoned hastily to meet in Prague. The result of their deliberations was the drawing up of a plan of action, and as soon as this had been agreed upon, I was ordered to place myself in communication with you. You were in Constantinople, and, as I have said, a message was immediately despatched by the Secretary to you."

"I received it, and am here. What am I to do?"

"I can tell you no more than that you are to make your way to England at once, via Rome and Paris. Von Rosendell is in Rome. He will meet you, and give you full particulars of the scheme which has been proposed."

"And when am I to leave Naples in order to meet him?"

"As soon as possible," the other replied; "there is no time to waste. I was to invite you to make your arrangements at once, and to telegraph the hour of your departure in the usual way."

"In that case I need not detain you any longer," she answered with chilling politeness. "Should it be necessary for me to communicate with you, I presume the usual address will find you?"


"But what? Is there anything else I am to hear?"

"There is this—that I am to go with you," the younger man put in, almost apologetically. "I received my orders from the Council this morning. I hope you do not disapprove?"

He looked at her almost beseechingly; the expression upon her face, however, betrayed neither pleasure nor annoyance. Do what he would, he could not prevent a sigh from escaping him as he became aware of it. All day he had been hoping that she would be pleased when she heard that he was to co-operate with her; now, however, his heart sank like lead. It was just the sort of enterprise he liked. It was daring, reckless to a degree; they would carry their lives in their hands, as they had so often done before; indeed, the mere fact that he was to share the dangers with her had been the greatest pleasure he had known for months past.

"If you are to accompany us," she said, scarcely looking at him, "you had better hold yourself in readiness. It will be safer if we travel apart during the time we are in Italy, and afterwards other arrangements can be made so that we——"

"We will leave you and return to the shore," interrupted the man called Luigi, who did not altogether approve the turn affairs were taking. "I have carried out my instructions, and so far as I am concerned, individually, the matter is at an end."

Five minutes later they had left the yacht, and the Countess de Venetza was apologizing to the Duke of Rotherhithe for the intrusion of her lawyer people on his yacht.

"It is really too hard," she said pathetically; "they give me no peace. When my husband died and I inherited his estates, he had no thought of the trouble and anxiety the management of them would cause me. My lawyers are perpetually grumbling because they cannot obtain interviews with me. I often think that they look upon me as a sort of Will-o'-the-Wisp, flickering about Europe, and impossible to catch. Why they could not have transacted the business with my father instead of bothering me with it, I cannot imagine. However, you will forgive me, will you not?"

The Duke, who by the way, was extremely susceptible, looked unutterable things. He had first met the Countess in Algiers a year before, and had fallen desperately in love with her before he had known her twenty-four hours. The mere fact that she did not encourage his attentions only served to attract him the more. They met at Cairo six months later—and now, when he discovered that it was in his power to do her a service by conveying her from Constantinople to Naples, he was only too glad to avail himself of the opportunity.

"It is a shame, indeed, that they should worry you so," he said sympathetically, looking as he spoke into his fair friend's eyes in a manner that would have carried consternation into the hearts of not a few mothers in England. "They worry me at home in much the same way. As I say to them, what's the use of employing lawyers and Estate Agents, and all those sort of people, if they cannot do their work without your assistance? You might just as well do it yourself in the first instance, and save their salaries. But then, you see, I am not so clever as you are, Countess, and that makes all the