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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Maker Of History - Book 2 - Chapter 8. A Political Interlude
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A Maker Of History - Book 2 - Chapter 8. A Political Interlude Post by :mrslita_kabila Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2231

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A Maker Of History - Book 2 - Chapter 8. A Political Interlude

BOOK II CHAPTER VIII. A POLITICAL INTERLUDE

Duncombe laid down his cue and strolled towards the sideboard, where his guest was already mixing himself a whisky and soda.

"By the by, Runton," he said, "have you seen anything of our friend Von Rothe since that little affair at your place?"

Lord Runton shook his head.

"Not once," he answered. "He behaved very decently about it on the whole; treated it quite lightly--but he wouldn't let me go near the police. It was a long way the most unpleasant thing that ever happened in my house."

"Never any further light upon it, I suppose?" Duncombe asked.

Lord Runton shook his head.

"None. Of course we could have traced them both without a doubt if we had put it in the hands of the police, but Von Rothe wouldn't hear of it. He tried to treat it lightly, but I know that he was very much worried."

"Do you yourself believe," Duncombe asked, "that it was a political affair or an ordinary robbery?"

"I think that it was the former," Lord Runton answered. "Those people were not common adventurers. By the by, George, have you got over your little weakness yet?" he added with a smile.

Duncombe shrugged his shoulders.

"Nearly made a fool of myself, didn't I?" he remarked, with a levity which did not sound altogether natural.

"She was an uncommonly fascinating young woman," Lord Runton said, "but she didn't seem to me very old at the game. She was clever enough to fool Von Rothe, though. He admits that he told her that he was expecting a special messenger from Berlin."

Duncombe seemed to have had enough of the subject. He got up and filled his pipe.

"Is Jack coming down this week?" he asked.

"No! He wired this morning that he can't get away. Sefton isn't coming, either. Between ourselves, George, something seems to be going on at the Foreign Office which I don't understand."

"What do you mean?" Duncombe asked. "There has been no hint at any sort of trouble in the papers."

"That's just what I don't understand," Lord Runton continued. "It is certain that there is an extraordinary amount of activity at Portsmouth and Woolwich, but even the little halfpenny sensational papers make no more than a passing allusion to it. Then look at the movements of our fleet. The whole of the Mediterranean Fleet is at Gibraltar, and the Channel Squadron is moving up the North Sea as though to join the Home Division. All these movements are quite unusual."

"What do you make of them then?" Duncombe asked.

"I scarcely know," Lord Runton answered. "But I can tell you this. There have been three Cabinet Councils this week, and there is a curious air of apprehension in official circles in town, as though something were about to happen. The service clubs are almost deserted, and I know for a fact that all leave in the navy has been suspended. What I don't understand is the silence everywhere. It looks to me as though there were really going to be trouble. The Baltic Fleet sailed this morning, you know."

Duncombe nodded.

"But," he said, "even if they were ill disposed to us, as no doubt Russia is just now, what could they do? One squadron of our fleet could send them to the bottom."

"No doubt," Lord Runton answered. "But supposing they found an ally?"

"France will never go to war with us for Russia's benefit," Duncombe declared.

"Granted," Lord Runton answered, "but have you watched Germany's attitude lately?"

"I can't say that I have," Duncombe admitted, "but I should never look upon Germany as a war-seeking nation."

"No, I dare say not," Lord Runton answered. "Nor would a great many other people. Every one is willing to admit that she would like our Colonies, but no one will believe that she has the courage to strike a blow for them. I will tell you what I believe, Duncombe. I believe that no Great Power has ever before been in so dangerous a position as we are in to-day."

Duncombe sat up in his chair. The weariness passed from his face, and he was distinctly interested. Lord Runton, without being an ardent politician, was a man of common-sense, and was closely connected with more than one member of the Cabinet.

"Are you serious, Runton?" he asked.

"Absolutely! Remember, I was in Berlin for two years, and I had many opportunities of gaining an insight into affairs there. What I can see coming now I have expected for years. There are two great factors which make for war. One is the character of the Emperor himself, and the other the inevitable rot, which must creep like a disease into a great army kept always upon a war footing, through a decade or more of inactivity. The Emperor is shrewd enough to see this. Nothing can possibly exist at its best which is not used for the purpose to which it owes its existence. That is why we have this flood of literature just now telling us of the gross abuses and general rottenness of the German army. Another five years of idleness, and Germany's position as the first military nation will have passed away. Like every other great power, it is rusting for want of use. The Emperor knows this."

Duncombe for many reasons was fascinated by his friend's quiet words. Apart from their obvious plausibility, they brought with them many startling suggestions. Had chance, he wondered, really made Phyllis Poynton and her brother pawns in the great game? He felt himself stirred to a rare emotion by the flood of possibilities which swept in suddenly upon him. Lord Runton noted with surprise the signs of growing excitement in his listener.

"Go on, Runton. Anything else?"

Lord Runton helped himself to a cigarette, and leaned across to light it.

"Of course," he continued, "I know that there are a great many people who firmly believe that for commercial reasons Germany would never seek a quarrel with us. I will agree with them so far as to say that I do not believe that a war with England would be popular amongst the bourgeois of Germany. On the other hand, they would be quite powerless to prevent it. The Emperor and his ministers have the affair in their own hands. A slight break in our diplomatic relations, some trifle seized hold of by the Press and magnified at once into an insult, and the war torch is kindled. To-day war does not come about by the slowly growing desire of nations. The threads of fate are in the hands of a few diplomatists at Berlin and London--a turn of the wrist, and there is tension which a breath can turn either way. You ask me why the Emperor should choose England for attack. There are many reasons: first, because England alone could repay him for the struggle; secondly, because he is intensely and miserably jealous of our own King, who has avoided all his own hot-headed errors, and has yet played a great and individual part in the world's affairs; thirdly, because England is most easily attacked. I could give you other reasons if you wanted them."

"Quite enough," Duncombe answered. "What do you suppose would be the _casus belli_?"

"The progress of the Russian fleet through English waters," Lord Runton answered promptly. "Russia's interest in such a misunderstanding would be, of course, immense. She has only to fire on an English ship, by mistake of course, and the whole fat would be in the fire. England probably would insist upon the squadron being detained, Germany would protest against any such action. We might very well be at war with Russia and Germany within ten days. Russia would immediately either make terms with Japan, or abandon any active operations in Manchuria and move upon India. Germany would come for us."

"Is this all purely imagination?" Duncombe asked, "or have you anything to go on?"

"So far as I am concerned," Lord Runton said slowly, "I, of course, know nothing. But I have a strong idea that the Government have at least a suspicion of some secret understanding between Russia and Germany. Their preparations seem almost to suggest it. Of course we outsiders can only guess, after all, at what is going on, but it seems to me that there is a chance to-day for our Government to achieve a diplomatic _coup_."

"In what direction?"

"An alliance with France. Mind, I am afraid that there are insurmountable obstacles, but if it were possible it would be checkmate to our friend the Emperor, and he would have nothing left but to climb down. The trouble is that in the absence of any definite proof of an understanding between Russia and Germany, France could not break away from her alliance with the former. Our present arrangement would ensure, I believe, a benevolent neutrality, but an alliance, if only it could be compassed, would be the greatest diplomatic triumph of our days. Hullo! Visitors at this hour. Wasn't that your front-door bell, Duncombe?"

"It sounded like it," Duncombe answered. "Perhaps it is your man."

"Like his cheek, if it is!" Lord Runton answered, rising to his feet and strolling towards the sideboard. "I told him I would telephone round to the stables when I was ready. I suppose it is rather late, though I sha'n't apologize for keeping you up."

"I hope you won't," Duncombe answered. "I have never been more interested in my life--for many reasons. Don't bother about your man. Groves will see to him. Help yourself to another whisky and soda, and come and sit down."

There was a knock at the door, and the butler appeared.

"There are three gentlemen outside, sir, who wish to see you," he announced to Duncombe. "They will not give their names, but they say that their business is important, or they would not have troubled you so late."

Duncombe glanced at the clock. It was past midnight.

"Three gentlemen," he repeated, "at this time of night. But where on earth have they come from, Groves?"

"They did not say, sir," the man answered. "One of them I should judge to be a foreigner. They have a motor car outside."

Lord Runton held out his hand.

"Well, it's time I was off, anyhow," he remarked. "Come over and have lunch to-morrow. Don't bother about me. I'll stroll round to the stables and start from there. Good night."

Duncombe hesitated. He was on the point of asking his friend to stay, but before he could make up his mind Runton had lit a cigarette and strolled away.

"You can show the gentlemen in here, Groves," Duncombe said.

"Very good, sir."

The man disappeared. Duncombe, after a moment's hesitation, crossed the room, and opening an oak cupboard, slipped a small revolver into his pocket.

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