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قراءة كتاب A Cabinet Secret

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A Cabinet Secret

A Cabinet Secret

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
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cheerful countenance could scarcely have been discovered in all Paris. I had promised myself that I would give him a good rating for his unpunctuality, but, as usual, I found that when he did arrive it was impossible for me to be angry with him. De Belleville, as I have already remarked, boasts the most ingratiating manners I know; is an ideal companion, for the reason that he is never put out or, apart from his unpunctuality, puts others out. He is one of the best hosts in Europe, and regards life as life regards him, that is to say, with invariable cheerfulness and goodfellowship.

Having taken our places in the carriage, we set off for the D'Etrebilles' residence in the Faubourg St Germain. Throughout the drive my companion rattled on continually. He was well up, none better, in the gossip of the day, and could use his knowledge to the wittiest effect. Fortunately, the D'Etrebilles were at home, and appeared delighted to see us. They were, moreover, kind enough to congratulate me upon my acceptance of my new position in the English Cabinet.

"As you are strong, be merciful," said D'Etrebille, with a smile. "Remember, the peace of Europe is in your hands, and at the end of your term of office we shall require it of you again intact."

"A life-long study of European politics," said De Belleville, "has convinced me that the peace of Europe is never so much assured as when the various nations are struggling to be at each other's throats. This is a point of which so many people, renowned for their political perspicuity, seem to lose sight. Our very good friend and visitor, the Czar, would have us disarm and turn our swords into ploughshares. By this time, however, he must agree that, if only from a humanitarian point of view, he has made a mistake. It may appear paradoxical, but there is certainly nothing that promotes peace so much as war. I never feel sure in my own mind that the next year will be a quiet one until I am told that the military bloodhounds are about to be unchained. By the way, what do you think of your country's prospects of war in South Africa?"

"If I am to judge the situation by your own theory, I should say that the possibilities are remote," I replied. "From my own stand-point, however, I am by no means so optimistic. The look-out is undoubtedly a grave one, and, while I have the greatest faith in our strength to assert our own supremacy, I cannot help thinking that matters may in the end prove somewhat different to our expectations."

Without wishing to pose as a prophet after the event, on looking back on all that has happened, I cannot help being struck by the aptness of my prophecy. This, however, is no place for such reflections. What I have to do is to tell my story as quickly and concisely as possible, and, above all, to avoid undue digressions.

Strange indeed is the way in which a face or a voice once seen or heard, if only for a moment, has the power of seizing and taking possession of the memory, when there is little or no reason that it should not be forgotten. It was certainly so in my case on this particular afternoon, for, during the time I was with the D'Etrebilles, during our drive in the Bois afterwards, and in fact for the remainder of the evening, the face of the woman I had seen entering my hotel a few hours before, haunted me continually.

It went to the Opera with me, accompanied me to a supper at the Amphitryon Club afterwards, and returned with me again to my hotel. The memory of a pair of beautiful eyes, such as hers undoubtedly were, might appear to many men a light burden to have placed upon them. By some strange irony of Fate, however, it was otherwise with me. Instead of being charmed by them, I dreaded them with a fear that was as inexplicable as it was unpleasant. I laughed at myself for my folly, ascribed my absurd condition to indigestion, and endeavoured by every means in my power to drive the matter from my mind. I went to bed and tried to sleep. I was not successful, however. When I closed my eyes, the eyes of the woman were still there, gazing at me with a steadfastness that produced a sensation almost describable as hypnotic. I tried to picture other scenes, recalled the events of the day—De Belleville's prophecies for the future—his witty remarks on Paris topics—but without success. At last, unable to bear it any longer, I rose from my bed, turned on the electric light, and, having donned a dressing-gown, began to pace the room. I had drunk scarcely any wine that evening, so that my condition could not be ascribed to that source. Nevertheless, an ill defined, yet none the less real, fear was steadily taking possession of me. I could not remember ever having been affected in this way before. Could it be that I had not the same power over my intellect as of yore? In other words, was this the beginning of some brain trouble that would eventually land me in a lunatic asylum? I knew in my inmost heart that such was not the case. Yet how to account for the eyes that haunted me so peculiarly, I could not say. Until I had seen the woman's face that afternoon, I had been as rational and evenly balanced a man as could have been discovered in the French capital. No! it was all nonsense! My internal economy was a little out of gear, my nerves and brain were indirectly affected, and this illusion was the result. In that case the eyes, haunting as they were, would disappear before the magic wand of Calomel.

Being too wide awake to return to bed, I seated myself in a chair and took up a book on the Eastern Question which I had been reading during the day, and in which I was greatly interested. The fact that I did not entertain the same views with regard to the Russo-Chinese-Japanese entente as the author only added to my enjoyment of the work. I remembered that when I had taken it up in the morning I had found it difficult to lay it aside again; now, however, though I glued my eyes to the pages by sheer will pressure, I was scarcely conscious of the printed words before me. As I read, or rather tried to read, it appeared to me that somebody was standing in the room, a few paces from my chair, intently regarding me. More than once I involuntarily looked up, only to find, as it is needless to state, that there was no one there. At last I put down the book in despair, went to the window and, leaning my arms upon the sill, looked out. Sleeping Paris lay before and around me, scarcely a sound was to be heard; once the roll of distant carriage-wheels, from the Rue de Rivoli, came up to me, then the irregular striking of the clocks in the neighbourhood announcing the hour of three.

As I stood at the window, I thought of the crisis which England was approaching. Many years had elapsed since she had been involved in a great war. In these days epoch succeeds epoch with incredible rapidity, and public opinion has the knack of changing with each one. The stolidity, the self-reserve, the faculty of being able to take the hard knocks and yet continue the fight, that had characterised us at the time of Waterloo and the Crimea, did that still exist? Then again, were we as fully prepared as we might be? Were our Generals as competent as of yore, or had the long spell of peace wrought a change in them also? They were weighty questions, and a man might very well have been pardoned had he asked them of himself with an anxious heart. Our "splendid isolation" had been the jeer and taunt of the world. Would that very isolation prove our downfall, if by any evil chance matters took a wrong turn with us? For a moment I could see England as she would be were her armies to be defeated in the present struggle. The croaking prophecies of her enemies would have proved too true,

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