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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Double Traitor By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 8970

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Anna was seated, a few days later, with her dearest friend, the Princess of Thurm, in a corner of the royal enclosure at Ascot. For the first time since their arrival they found themselves alone. From underneath her parasol the Princess looked at her friend curiously.

"Anna," she said, "something has happened to you."

"Perhaps, but explain yourself," Anna replied composedly.

"It is so simple. There you sit in a Doucet gown, perfection as ever, from the aigrette in your hat to those delicately pointed shoes. You have been positively hunted by all the nicest men-once or twice, indeed, I felt myself neglected-and not a smile have I seen upon your lips. You go about, looking just a little beyond everything. What did you see, child, over the tops of the trees in the paddock, when Lord Wilton was trying so hard to entertain you?"

"An affair of moods, I imagine," Anna declared. "Somehow I don't feel quite in the humour for Ascot to-day. To be quite frank," she went on, turning her head slowly, "I rather wonder that you do, Mildred."

The Princess raised her eyebrows.

"Why not? Everything, so far as I am concerned, is couleur de rose. Madame Blanche declared yesterday that my complexion would last for twenty years. I found a dozen of the most adorable hats in Paris. The artist who designs my frocks was positively inspired the last time I sat to him. I am going to see Maurice in a few weeks, and meanwhile I have several new flirtations which interest me amazingly. As for you, my child, one would imagine that you had lost your taste for all frivolity. You are as cold as granite. Be careful, dear. The men of to-day, in this country, at any rate, are spoilt. Sometimes they are even uncourtier-like enough to accept a woman's refusal."

"Well," Anna observed, smiling faintly, "even a lifetime at Court has not taught me to dissimulate. I am heavy-hearted, Mildred. You wondered what I was looking at when I gazed over those green trees under which all those happy people were walking. I was looking out across the North Sea. I was looking through Belgium to Paris. I saw a vast curtain roll up, and everything beyond it was a blood-stained panorama."

A shade rested for a moment on her companion's fair face. She shrugged her shoulders.

"We've known for a long time, dear, that it must come."

"But all the same, in these last moments it is terrible," Anna insisted. "Seriously, Mildred, I wonder that I should feel it more than you. You are absolutely English. Your father is English, your mother is English. It is only your husband that is Austrian. You have lived in Austria only for seven years. Has that been sufficient to destroy all your patriotism, all your love for your own country?"

The Princess made a little grimace.

"My dear Anna," she said, "I am not so serious a person as you are. I am profoundly, incomprehensibly selfish. The only human being in the whole world for whom I have had a spark of real affection is Maurice, and I adore him. What he has told me to do, I have done. What makes him happy makes me happy. For his sake, even, I have forgotten and shall always forget that I was born an Englishwoman. Circumstances, too," she went on thoughtfully, "have made it so easy. England is such a changed country. When I was a child, I could read of the times when our kings really ruled, of our battles for dominion, of our fight for colonies, of our building up a great empire, and I could feel just a little thrill. I can't now. We have gone ahead of Napoleon. From a nation of shop-keepers we have become a nation of general dealers-a fat, over-confident, bourgeois people. Socialism has its hand upon the throat of the classes. Park Lane, where our aristocracy lived, is filled with the mansions of South African Jews, whom one must meet here or keep out of society altogether. Our country houses have gone the same way. Our Court set is dowdy, dull to a degree, and common in a different fashion. You are right. I have lost my love for England, partly because of my marriage, partly because of those things which have come to England herself."

For the first time there was a little flush of colour in Anna's exquisitely pale cheeks. There was even animation in her tone as she turned towards her friend.

"Mildred," she exclaimed, "it is splendid to hear you say what is really in your mind! I am so glad you have spoken to me like this. I feel these things, too. Now I am not nearly so English as you. My

mother was English and my father Austrian. Therefore, only half of me should be English. Yet, although I am so much further removed from England than you are, I have suddenly felt a return of all my old affection for her."

"You are going to tell me why?" her companion begged.

"Of course! It is because I believe-it is too ridiculous-but I believe that I am in your position with the circumstances reversed. I am beginning to care in the most foolish way for an unmistakable Englishman."

"If we had missed this little chance of conversation," the Princess declared, "I should have been miserable for the rest of my life! There is the Duke hanging about behind. For heaven's sake, don't turn. Thank goodness he has gone away! Now go on, dear. Tell me about him at once. I can't imagine who it may be. I have watched you with so many men, and I know quite well, so long as that little curl is at the corner of your lips, that they none of them count. Do I know him?"

"I do not think so," Anna replied. "He is not a very important person."

"It isn't the man you were dining with in the Café de Berlin when Prince

Karl came in?"

"Yes, it is he!"

The Princess made a little grimace.

"But how unsuitable, my dear," she exclaimed, "if you are really in earnest! What is the use of your thinking of an Englishman? He is quite nice, I know. His mother and my mother were friends, and we met once or twice. He was very kind to me in Paris, too. But for a serious affair-"

"Well, it may not come to that," Anna interrupted, "but there it is. I suppose that it is partly for his sake that I feel this depression."

"I should have thought that he himself would have been a little out of sympathy with his country just now," the Princess remarked. "They tell me that the Foreign Office ate humble pie with the Kaiser for that affair shockingly. They not only removed him from the Embassy, but they are going to give him nothing in Europe. I heard for a fact that the Kaiser requested that he should not be attached to any Court with which Germany had diplomatic relations."

Anna nodded. "I believe that it is true," she admitted, "but I am not sure that he realises it himself. Even if he does, well, you know the type. He is English to the backbone."

"But there are Englishmen," the Princess insisted earnestly, "who are amenable to common sense. There are Englishmen who are sorrowing over the decline of their own country and who would not be so greatly distressed if she were punished a little."

"I am afraid Mr. Norgate is not like that," Anna observed drily. "However, one cannot be sure. Bother! I thought people were very kind to leave us so long in peace. Dear Prince, how clever of you to find out our retreat!"

The Ambassador stood bareheaded before them.

"Dear ladies," he declared, "you are the lode-stones which would draw one even through these gossamer walls of lace and chiffons, of draperies as light as the sunshine and perfumes as sweet as Heine's poetry."

"Very pretty," Anna laughed, "but what you really mean is that you were looking for two of your very useful slaves and have found them."

The Ambassador glanced around. Their isolation was complete.

"Ah! well," he murmured, "it is a wonderful thing to be so charmingly aided towards such a wonderful end."

"And to have such complete trust in one's friends," Anna remarked, looking him steadfastly in the face.

The Prince did not flinch. His smile was perfectly courteous and acknowledging.

"That is my happiness," he admitted. "I will tell you the reason which directed my footsteps this way," he added, drawing a small betting book from his pocket. "You must back Prince Charlie for the next race. I will, if you choose, take your commissions. I have a man waiting at the rails."

"Twenty pounds for me, please," the Princess declared. "I have the horse marked on my card, but I had forgotten for the moment."

"And the same for me," Anna begged. "But did you really come only to bring us this valuable tip, Prince?"

The Ambassador stooped down.

"There is a dispatch on its way to me," he said softly, "which I believe concerns you. It might be necessary for you to take a short journey within the next few days."

"Not back to Berlin?" Anna exclaimed.

Their solitude had been invaded by now, and the Princess was talking to two or three men who were grouped about her chair. The Ambassador stooped a little lower.

"To Rome," he whispered.

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