by Arthur Conan Doyle
It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August–the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west. Above, the stars were shining brightly, and below, the lights of the shipping glimmered in the bay. The two famous Germans stood beside the stone parapet of the garden walk, with the long, low, heavily gabled house behind them, and they looked down upon the broad sweep of the beach at the foot of the great chalk cliff in which Von Bork, like some wandering eagle, had perched himself four years before. They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.
A remarkable man this Von Bork–a man who could hardly be matched among all the devoted agents of the Kaiser. It was his talents which had first recommended him for the English mission, the most important mission of all, but since he had taken it over those talents had become more and more manifest to the half-dozen people in the world who were really in touch with the truth. One of these was his present companion, Baron Von Herling, the chief secretary of the legation, whose huge 100-horse-power Benz car was blocking the country lane as it waited to waft its owner back to London.
“So far as I can judge the trend of events, you will probably be back in Berlin within the week,” the secretary was saying. “When you get there, my dear Von Bork, I think you will be surprised at the welcome you will receive. I happen to know what is thought in the highest quarters of your work in this country.” He was a huge man, the secretary, deep, broad, and tall, with a slow, heavy fashion of speech which had been his main asset in his political career.
Von Bork laughed.
“They are not very hard to deceive,” he remarked. “A more docile, simple folk could not be imagined.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the other thoughtfully. “They have strange limits and one must learn to observe them. It is that surface simplicity of theirs which makes a trap for the stranger. One’s first impression is that they are entirely soft. Then one comes suddenly upon something very hard, and you know that you have reached the limit and must adapt yourself to the fact. They have, for example, their insular conventions which simply MUST be observed.”
“Meaning ‘good form’ and that sort of thing?” Von Bork sighed as one who had suffered much.
“Meaning British prejudice in all its queer manifestations. As an example I may quote one of my own worst blunders–I can afford to talk of my blunders, for you know my work well enough to be aware of my successes. It was on my first arrival. I was invited to a week-end gathering at the country house of a cabinet minister. The conversation was amazingly indiscreet.”
Von Bork nodded. “I’ve been there,” said he dryly.
“Exactly. Well, I naturally sent a resume of the information to Berlin. Unfortunately our good chancellor is a little heavy-handed in these matters, and he transmitted a remark which showed that he was aware of what had been said. This, of course, took the trail straight up to me. You’ve no idea the harm that it did me. There was nothing soft about our British hosts on that occasion, I can assure you. I was two years living it down. Now you, with this sporting pose of yours–”
“No, no, don’t call it a pose. A pose is an artificial thing. This is quite natural. I am a born sportsman. I enjoy it.”
“Well, that makes it the more effective. You yacht against them, you hunt with them, you play polo, you match them in every game, your four-in-hand takes the prize at Olympia. I have even heard that you go the length of boxing with the young officers. What is the result? Nobody takes you seriously. You are a ‘good old sport’ ‘quite a decent fellow for a German,’ a hard-drinking, night-club, knock-about-town, devil-may-care young fellow. And all the time this quiet country house of yours is the centre of half the mischief in England, and the sporting squire the most astute secret-service man in Europe. Genius, my dear Von Bork–genius!”
“You flatter me, Baron. But certainly I may claim my four years in this country have not been unproductive. I’ve never shown you my little store. Would you mind stepping in for a moment?”
The door of the study opened straight on to the terrace. Von Bork pushed it back, and, leading the way, he clicked the switch of the electric light. He then closed the door behind the bulky form which followed him and carefully adjusted the heavy curtain over the latticed window. Only when all these precautions had been taken and tested did he turn his sunburned aquiline face to his guest.
“Some of my papers have gone,” said he. “When my wife and the household left yesterday for Flushing they took the less important with them. I must, of course, claim the protection of the embassy for the others.”
“Your name has already been filed as one of the personal suite. There will be no difficulties for you or your baggage. Of course, it is just possible that we may not have to go. England may leave France to her fate. We are sure that there is no binding treaty between them.”
“Yes, and Belgium, too.”
Von Bork shook his head. “I don’t see how that could be. There is a definite treaty there. She could never recover from such a humiliation.”
“She would at least have peace for the moment.”
“But her honor?”
“Tut, my dear sir, we live in a utilitarian age. Honour is a mediaeval conception. Besides England is not ready. It is an inconceivable thing, but even our special war tax of fifty million, which one would think made our purpose as clear as if we had advertised it on the front page of the Times, has not roused these people from their slumbers. Here and there one hears a question. It is my business to find an answer. Here and there also there is an irritation. It is my business to soothe it. But I can assure you that so far as the essentials go–the storage of munitions, the preparation for submarine attack, the arrangements for making high explosives–nothing is prepared. How, then, can England come in, especially when we have stirred her up such a devil’s brew of Irish civil war, window-breaking Furies, and God knows what to keep her thoughts at home.”
“She must think of her future.”
“Ah, that is another matter. I fancy that in the future we have our own very definite plans about England, and that your information will be very vital to us. It is to-day or to-morrow with Mr. John Bull. If he prefers to-day we are perfectly ready. If it is to-morrow we shall be more ready still. I should think they would be wiser to fight with allies than without them, but that is their own affair. This week is their week of destiny. But you were speaking of your papers.” He sat in the armchair with the light shining upon his broad bald head, while he puffed sedately at his cigar.
The large oak-panelled, book-lined room had a curtain hung in the further corner. When this was drawn it disclosed a large, brass-bound safe. Von Bork detached a small key from his watch chain, and after some considerable manipulation of the lock he swung open the heavy door.
“Look!” said he, standing clear, with a wave of his hand.
The light shone vividly into the opened safe, and the secretary of the embassy gazed with an absorbed interest at the rows of stuffed pigeon-holes with which it was furnished. Each pigeon-hole had its label, and his eyes as he glanced along them read a long series of such titles as “Fords,” “Harbour-defences,” “Aeroplanes,” “Ireland,” “Egypt,” “Portsmouth forts,” “The Channel,” “Rosythe,” and a score of others. Each compartment was bristling with papers and plans.
“Colossal!” said the secretary. Putting down his cigar he softly clapped his fat hands.
“And all in four years, Baron. Not such a bad show for the hard-drinking, hard-riding country squire. But the gem of my collection is coming and there is the setting all ready for it.” He pointed to a space over which “Naval Signals” was printed.
“But you have a good dossier there already.”
“Out of date and waste paper. The Admiralty in some way got the alarm and every code has been changed. It was a blow, Baron–the worst setback in my whole campaign. But thanks to my check-book and the good Altamont all will be well to-night.”
The Baron looked at his watch and gave a guttural exclamation of disappointment.
“Well, I really can wait no longer. You can imagine that things are moving at present in Carlton Terrace and that we have all to be at our posts. I had hoped to be able to bring news of your great coup. Did Altamont name no hour?”
Von Bork pushed over a telegram.
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