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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Devil's Paw - Chapter 20
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The Devil's Paw - Chapter 20 Post by :dmac55taz2000 Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2371

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The Devil's Paw - Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

Julian and Furley left the place together. They looked for the Bishop but found that he had slipped away.

"To Downing Street, I believe," Furley remarked. "He has some vague idea of suggesting a compromise."

"Compromise!" Julian repeated a little drearily. "How can there be any such thing! There might be delay. I think we ought to have given Stenson a week--time to communicate with America and send a mission to France."

"We are like all theorists," Furley declared moodily, stopping to relight his pipe. "We create and destroy on palter with amazing facility. When it comes to practice, we are funks."

"Are you funking this?" Julian asked bluntly.

"How can any one help it? Theoretically we are right--I am sure of it. If we leave it to the politicians, this war will go dragging on for God knows how long. It's the people who are paying. It's the people who ought to make the peace. The only thing that bothers me is whether we are doing it the right way. Is Freistner honest? Could he be self-deceived? Is there any chance that he could be playing into the hands of the Pan-Germans?"

"Fenn is the man who has had most to do with him," Julian remarked. "I wouldn't trust Fenn a yard, but I believe in Freistner."

"So do I," Furley assented, "but is Fenn's report of his promises and the strength of his followers entirely honest?"

"That's the part of the whole thing I don't like," Julian acknowledged. "Fenn's practically the corner stone of this affair. It was he who met Freistner in Amsterdam and started these negotiations, and I'm damned if I like Fenn, or trust him. Did you see the way he looked at Stenson out of the corners of his eyes, like a little ferret? Stenson was at his best, too. I never admired the man more."

"He certainly kept his head," Furley agreed. "His few straight words were to the point, too."

"It wasn't the occasion for eloquence," Julian declared. "That'll come next week. I suppose he'll try and break the Trades Unions. What a chance for an Edmund Burke! It's all right, I suppose, but I wonder why I'm feeling so damned miserable."

"The fact is," Furley confided, "you and I and the Bishop and Miss Abbeway are all to a certain extent out of place on that Council. We ought to have contented ourselves with having supplied the ideas. When it comes to the practical side, our other instincts revolt. After all, if we believed that by continuing the war we could beat Germany from a military point of view, I suppose we should forget a lot of this admirable reasoning of ours and let it go on."

"It doesn't seem a fair bargain, though," Julian sighed. "It's the lives of our men to-day for the freedom of their descendants, if that isn't frittered away by another race of politicians. It isn't good enough, Miles."

"Then let's be thankful it's going to stop," Furley declared. "We've pinned our colours to the mast, Julian. I don't like Fenn any more than you do, nor do I trust him, but I can't see, in this instance, that he has anything to gain by not running straight. Besides, he can't have faked the terms, and that's the only document that counts. And so good night and to bed," he added, pausing at the street corner, where they parted.

There was something curiously different about the demeanour of Julian's trusted servant, as he took his master's coat and hat. Even Julian, engrossed as he was in the happenings of the evening, could scarcely fail to notice it.

"You seem out of sorts to-night, Robert!" he remarked.

The latter, whose manners were usually suave and excellent, answered almost harshly.

"I have enough to make me so, sir--more than enough. I wish to give a week's notice."

"Been drinking, Robert?" his master enquired.

The man smiled mirthlessly.

"I am quite sober, sir," he answered, "but I should be glad to go at once. It would be better for both of us."

"What have you against me?" Julian asked, puzzled.

"The lives of my two boys," was the fierce reply. "Fred's gone now--died in hospital last night. It was you who talked them into soldiering."

Julian's manner changed at once, and his tone became kinder.

"You are very foolish to blame anybody, Robert. Your sons did their duty. If they hadn't joined up when they did, they would have had to join as conscripts later on."

"Their duty!" Robert repeated, with smothered scorn. "Their duty to a squirming nest of cowardly politicians--begging your pardon, sir. Why, the whole Government isn't worth the blood of one of them!"

"I am sorry about Fred," Julian said sympathetically. "All the same, Robert, you must try and pull yourself together."

The man groaned.

"Pull myself together!" he said angrily. "Mr. Orden, sir, I'm trying to keep respectful, but it's a hard thing. I've been reading the evening papers. There's an article, signed 'Paul Fiske', in the Pall Mall. They tell me that you're Paul Fiske. You're for peace, it seems--for peace with the German Emperor and his bloody crew."

"I am in favour of peace on certain terms, at the earliest possible moment," Julian admitted.

"That's where you've sold us, then--sold us all!" Robert declared fiercely. "My boys died believing they were fighting for men who would keep their word. The war was to go on till victory was won.. They died happily, believing that those who had spoken for England would keep their word. You're very soft-hearted in that article, sir, about the living. Did you think, when you sat down to write it, about the dead?--about that wilderness of white crosses out in France? You're proposing in cold blood to let those devils stay on their own dunghill."

"It is a very large question, Robert," Julian reminded him. "The war is fast reaching a period of mutual exhaustion."

The man threw all restraint to the winds.

"Claptrap!" was his angry reply. "You wealthy people want your fleshpots again. We've a few more million men, haven't we? America has a few more millions?"

"Your own loss, Robert, has made you--and quite naturally, too--very bitter," his master said gently. "You must let those who have thought this matter out come to a decision upon it. Beyond a certain point, the manhood of the world must be conserved."

"That sounds just like fine talk to me, sir, and no more; the sort of stuff that's printed in articles and that no one takes much stock of. Words were plain enough when we started out to fight this war. We were going to crush the German military spirit and not leave off fighting until we'd done it. There was nothing said then about conserving millions of men. It was to be fought out to the end, whatever it cost."

"And you were once a pacifist!"

"Pacifist!" the man repeated passionately. "Every human being with common sense was a pacifist when the war started."

"But the war was forced upon us," Julian reminded him. "You can't deny that."

"No one wishes to, sir. It was forced upon us all right, but who made it necessary? Why, our rotten government for the last twenty years! Our politicians, Mr. Julian, that are prating now of peace before their job's done! Do you think that if we'd paid our insurance like men and been prepared, this war would ever have come? Not it! We asked for trouble, and we got it in the neck. If we make peace now, we'll be a German colony in twenty years, thanks to Mr. Stenson and you and the rest of them. A man can be a pacifist all right until his head has been punched. Afterwards, there's another name for him. Is there anything more I can get you to-night before I leave, sir?"

"Nothing, thanks. I'm sorry about Fred."

Julian, conscious of an intense weariness, undressed and went to bed very soon after the man's departure. He was already in his first doze when he awoke suddenly with a start. He sat up and listened. The sound which had disturbed him was repeated,--a quiet but insistent ringing of the front-door bell. He glanced at his watch. It was barely midnight, but unusually late for a visitor. Once more the bell rang, and this time he remembered that Robert slept out, and that he was alone in the flat. He thrust his feet into slippers, wrapped his dressing gown around him, and made his way to the front door.

Julian's only idea had been that this might be some messenger from the Council. To his amazement he found himself confronted by Catherine.

"Close the door," she begged. "Come into your sitting room."

She pushed past him and he obeyed, still dumb with surprise and the shock of his sudden awakening. Catherine herself seemed unaware of his unusual costume, reckless of the hour and the strangeness of her visit. She wore a long chinchilla coat, covering her from head to foot, and a mantilla veil about her head, which partially obscured her features. As soon as she raised it, he knew that great things had happened. Her cheeks were the colour of ivory, and her eyes unnaturally distended. Her tone was steady but full of repressed passion.

"Julian," she cried, "we have been deceived--tricked! I have come to you for help. Are the telegrams sent out yet?"

"They go at eight o'clock in the morning," he replied.

"Thank God we are in time to stop them!"

Julian looked at her for a moment, utterly incredulous.

"Stop them?" he repeated. "But how can we? Stenson has declared war."

"Thank heaven for that!" she exclaimed, her voice trembling. "Julian, the whole thing is an accursed plot. The German Socialists have never increased their strength except in their own imaginations. They are absolutely powerless. This is the most cunning scheme of the whole war. Freistner has simply been the tool of the militarists. They encouraged him to put forward these proposals and to communicate with Nicholas Fenn. When the armistice has been declared and negotiations begun, the three signatures will be repudiated. The peace they mean to impose is one of their own dictation, and in the meantime we shall have created a cataclysm here. The war will never start again. All the Allies will be at a discord."

"How have you found this out?" Julian gasped.

"From one of Germany's chief friends in England. He is high up in the diplomatic service of--of a neutral country, but he has been working for Germany ever since the commencement of the war. He has been helping in this. He has seen me often with Nicholas Fenn, and he believes that I am behind the scenes, too. He believes that I know the truth, and that I am working for Germany. He is absolutely to be relied upon. Every word that I am telling you is the truth."

"What about Fenn?" Julian demanded breathlessly.

"Nicholas Fenn has had a hundred thousand pounds of German money within the last few months," she replied. "He is one of the foulest traitors who ever breathed. Freistner's first few letters were genuine enough, but for the last six weeks he has been imprisoned in a German fortress--and Fenn knows it."

"Have you any proof of all this?" Julian asked. "Remember we have the Council to face, and they are all girt for battle."

"Yes, I have proof," she answered, "indirect but damning enough. This man has sometimes forwarded and collected for me letters from connections of mine in Germany. He handed me one to-night from a distant cousin. You know him by name General Geroldberg. The first two pages are personal. Read what he says towards the end," she added, passing it on to Julian.

Julian turned up the lamp and read the few lines to which she pointed:

By the bye, dear cousin, if you should receive a shock within the next few days by hearing that our three great men have agreed to an absurd peace, do not worry. Their signatures have been obtained for some document which we do not regard seriously, and it is their intention to repudiate them as soon as a certain much-looked for event takes place. When the peace comes, believe me, it will be a glorious one for us. What we have won by the sword we shall hold, and what has been wrested from us by cunning and treachery, we shall regain.

"That man," Catherine declared, "is one of the Kaiser's intimates. He is one of the twelve iron men of Germany. Now I will tell you the name of the man with whom I, have spent the evening. It is Baron Hellman. Believe me, he knows, and he has told me the truth. He has had this letter by him for a fortnight, as he told me frankly that he thought it too compromising to hand over. To-night he changed his mind."

Julian stood speechless for a moment, his fists clenched, his eyes ablaze.

Catherine threw herself into his easy-chair and loosened her coat.

"Oh, I am tired!" she moaned. "Give me some water, please, or some wine."

He found some hock in the sideboard, and after she had drunk it they sat for some few minutes in agitated silence. The street sounds outside had died away. Julian's was the topmost flat in the block, and their isolation was complete. He suddenly realised the position.

"Perhaps," he suggested, with an almost ludicrous return to the commonplace, "the first thing to be done is for me to dress."

She looked at him as though she had noticed his dishabille for the first time. For a moment their feet seemed to be on the earth again.

"I suppose I seem to you crazy to come to you at such an hour," she said. "One doesn't think of those things, somehow."

"You are quite right," he agreed. "They are unimportant."

Then suddenly the sense of the silence, of their solitude, of their strange, uncertain relations to one another, swept in upon them both. For a moment the sense of the great burden she was carrying fell from Catherine's shoulders. She was back in a simpler world. Julian was no longer a leader of the people, the brilliant sociologist, the apostle of her creed. He was the man who during the last few weeks had monopolised her thoughts to an amazing extent, the man for whose aid and protection she had hastened, the man to whom she was perfectly content to entrust the setting right of this ghastly blunder. Watching him, she suddenly felt that she was tired of it all, that she would like to creep away from the storm and rest somewhere. The quiet and his presence seemed to soothe her. Her tense expression relaxed, her eyes became softer. She smiled at him gratefully.

"Oh, I cannot tell you," she exclaimed, "how glad I am to be with you just now! Everything in the outside world seems so terrible. Do you mind--it is so silly, but after all a woman cannot be as strong as a man, can she?--would you mind very much just holding my hand for a moment and staying here quite quietly. I have had a horrible evening, and when I came in, my head felt as though it would burst. You do not mind?"

Julian smiled as he leaned towards her. A kind of resentment of which he had been conscious, even though in some measure ashamed of it, resentment at her unswerving loyalty to the task she had set herself, melted away. He suddenly knew why he had kissed her, on that sunny morning on the marshes, an ecstatic and incomprehensible moment which had seemed sometimes, during these days of excitement, as though it had belonged to another life and another world. He took both her hands in his, and, stooping down, kissed her on the lips.

"Dear Catherine," he said, "I am so glad that you came to me. I think that during these last few days we have forgotten to be human, and it might help us--for after all, you know, we are engaged!"

"But that," she whispered, "was only for my sake."

"At first, perhaps," he admitted, "but now for mine."

Her little sigh of content, as she stole nearer to him, was purely feminine. The moments ticked on in restful and wonderful silence. Then, unwillingly, she drew away from his protecting arm.

"My dear," she said, "you look so nice as you are, and it is such happiness to be here, but there is a great task before us."

"You are right," he declared, straightening himself. "Wait for a few minutes, dear. We shall find them all at Westminster--the place will be open all night. Close your eyes and rest while I am away."

"I am rested," she answered softly, "but do not be long. The car is outside, and on the way I have more to tell you about Nicholas Fenn."

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CHAPTER XXIIf the closely drawn blinds of the many windows of Westminster Buildings could have been raised that night and early morning, the place would have seemed a very hive of industry. Twenty men were hard at work in twenty different rooms. Some went about their labours doubtfully, some almost timorously, some with jubilation, one or two with real regret. Under their fingers grew the more amplified mandates which, following upon the bombshell of the already prepared telegrams, were within a few hours to paralyse industrial England, to keep her ships idle in the docks, her trains motionless upon the rails,
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CHAPTER XIXThere were one or two amongst those present in the Council room at Westminster that evening, who noted and never forgot a certain indefinable dignity which seemed to come to Stenson's aid and enabled him to face what must have been an unwelcome and anxious ordeal without discomposure or disquiet. He entered the room accompanied by Julian and Phineas Cross, and he had very much the air of a man who has come to pay a business visit, concerning the final issue of which there could be no possible doubt. He shook hands with the Bishop gravely but courteously, nodded
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