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The Double Traitor By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 10884

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Mr. Hebblethwaite permitted himself a single moment of abstraction. He sat at the head of the table in his own remarkably well-appointed dining-room. His guests-there were eighteen or twenty of them in all-represented in a single word Success-success social as well as political. His excellently cooked dinner was being served with faultless precision. His epigrams had never been more pungent. The very distinguished peeress who sat upon his right, and whose name was a household word in the enemy's camp, had listened to him with enchained and sympathetic interest. For a single second he permitted his thoughts to travel back to the humble beginnings of his political career. He had a brief, flashlight recollection of the suburban parlour of his early days, the hard fight at first for a living, then for some small place in local politics, and then, larger and more daring schemes as the boundary of his ambitions became each year a little further extended. Beyond him now was only one more step to be taken. The last goal was well within his reach.

The woman at his right recommenced their conversation, which had been for a moment interrupted.

"We were speaking of success," she said. "Success often comes to one covered by the tentacles and parasites of shame, and yet, even in its grosser forms, it has something splendid about it. But success that carries with it no apparent drawback whatever is, of course, the most amazing thing of all. I was reading that wonderful article of Professor Wilson's last month. He quotes you very extensively. His analysis of your character was, in its way, interesting. Directly I had read it, however, I felt that it lacked one thing-simplicity. I made up my mind that the next time we talked intimately, I would ask you to what you yourself attributed your success?"

Hebblethwaite smiled graciously.

"I will not attempt to answer you in epigrams," he replied. "I will pay a passing tribute to a wonderful constitution, an invincible sense of humour, which I think help one to keep one's head up under many trying conditions. But the real and final explanation of my success is that I embraced the popular cause. I came from the people, and when I entered into politics, I told myself and every one else that it was for the people I should work. I have never swerved from that purpose. It is to the people I owe whatever success I am enjoying to-day."

The Duchess nodded thoughtfully.

"Yes," she admitted, "you are right there. Shall I proceed with my own train of thought quite honestly?"

"I shall count it a compliment," he assured her earnestly, "even if your thoughts contain criticisms."

"You occupy so great a position in political life to-day," she continued, "that one is forced to consider you, especially in view of the future, as a politician from every point of view. Now, by your own showing, you have been a specialist. You have taken up the cause of the people against the classes. You have stripped many of us of our possessions-the Duke, you know, hates the sound of your name-and by your legislation you have, without a doubt, improved the welfare of many millions of human beings. But that is not all that a great politician must achieve, is it? There is our Empire across the seas."

"Imperialism," he declared, "has never been in the foreground of my programme, but I call myself an Imperialist. I have done what I could for the colonies. I have even abandoned on their behalf some of my pet principles of absolute freedom in trade."

"You certainly have not been prejudiced," she admitted. "Whether your politics have been those of an Imperialist from the broadest point of view-well, we won't discuss that question just now. We might, perhaps, differ. But there is just one more point. Zealously and during the whole of your career, you have set your face steadfastly against any increase of our military power. They say that it is chiefly due to you and Mr. Busby that our army to-day is weaker in numbers than it has been for years. You have set your face steadily against all schemes for national service. You have taken up the stand that England can afford to remain neutral, whatever combination of Powers on the Continent may fight. Now tell me, do you see any possibility of failure, from the standpoint of a great politician, in your attitude?"

"I do not," he answered. "On the contrary, I am proud of all that I have done in that direction. For the reduction of our armaments I accept the full responsibility. It is true that I have opposed national service. I want to see the people develop commercially. The withdrawing of a million of young men, even for a month every year, from their regular tasks, would not only mean a serious loss to the manufacturing community, but it would be apt to unsettle and unsteady them. Further, it would kindle in this country the one thing I am anxious to avoid-the military spirit. We do not need it, Duchess. We are a peace-loving nation, civilised out of the crude lust for conquest founded upon bloodshed. I do believe that geographically and from every other point of view, England, with her navy, can afford to fold her arms, and if other nations should at any time be foolish enough to imperil their very existence by fighting for conquest or revenge, then we, who are strong enough to remain aloof, can only grow richer and stronger by the disasters which happen to them."

There was a m

omentary silence. The Duchess leaned back in her chair, and Mr. Hebblethwaite, always the courteous host, talked for a while to the woman on his left. The Duchess, however, reopened the subject a few minutes later.

"I come, you must remember, Mr. Hebblethwaite," she observed, "from long generations of soldiers, and you, as you have reminded me, from a long race of yeomen and tradespeople. Therefore, without a doubt, our point of view must be different. That, perhaps, is what makes conversation between us so interesting. To me, a conflict in Europe, sooner or later, appears inevitable. With England preserving a haughty and insular neutrality, which, from her present military condition, would be almost compulsory, the struggle would be between Russia, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Russia is an unknown force, but in my mind I see Austria and Italy, with perhaps one German army, holding her back for many months, perhaps indefinitely. On the other hand, I see France overrun by the Germans very much as she was in 1870. I adore the French, and I have little sympathy with the Germans, but as a fighting race I very reluctantly feel that I must admit the superiority of the Germans. Very well, then. With Ostend, Calais, Boulogne, and Havre seized by Germany, as they certainly would be, and turned into naval bases, do you still believe that England's security would be wholly provided for by her fleet?"

Mr. Hebblethwaite smiled.

"Duchess," he said, "sooner or later I felt quite sure that our conversation would draw near to the German bogey. The picture you draw is menacing enough. I look upon its probability as exactly on the same par as the overrunning of Europe by the yellow races."

"You believe in the sincerity of Germany?" she asked.

"I do," he admitted firmly. "There is a military element in Germany which is to be regretted, but the Germans themselves are a splendid, cultured, and peace-loving people, who are seeking their future not at the point of the sword but in the counting-houses of the world. If I fear the Germans, it is commercially, and from no other point of view."

"I wish I could feel your confidence," the Duchess sighed.

"I have myself recently returned from Berlin," Mr. Hebblethwaite continued. "Busby, as you know, has been many times an honoured guest there at their universities and in their great cities. He has had every opportunity of probing the tendencies of the people. His mind is absolutely and finally made up. Not in all history has there ever existed a race freer from the lust of bloodthirsty conquest than the German people of to-day."

Mr. Hebblethwaite concluded his sentence with some emphasis. He felt that his words were carrying conviction. Some of the conversation at their end of the table had been broken off to listen to his pronouncements. At that moment his butler touched him upon the elbow.

"Mr. Bedells has just come up from the War Office, sir," he announced.

"He is waiting outside. In the meantime, he desired me to give you this."

The butler, who had served an archbishop, and resented often his own presence in the establishment of a Radical Cabinet Minister, presented a small silver salver on which reposed a hastily twisted up piece of paper. Mr. Hebblethwaite, with a little nod, unrolled it and glanced towards the Duchess, who bowed complacently. With the smile still upon his lips, a confident light in his eyes, Mr. Hebblethwaite held out the crumpled piece of paper before him and read the hurriedly scrawled pencil lines:

"Germany has declared war against Russia and presented an ultimatum to France. I have other messages."

Mr. Hebblethwaite was a strong man. He was a man of immense self-control. Yet in that moment the arteries of life seemed as though they had ceased to flow. He sat at the head of his table, and his eyes never left those pencilled words. His mind fought with them, discarded them, only to find them still there hammering at his brain, traced in letters of scarlet upon the distant walls. War! The great, unbelievable tragedy, the one thousand-to-one chance in life which he had ever taken! His hand almost fell to his side. There was a queer little silence. No one liked to ask him a question; no one liked to speak. It was the Duchess at last who murmured a few words, when the silence had become intolerable.

"It is bad news?" she whispered.

"It is very bad news indeed," Mr. Hebblethwaite answered, raising his voice a little, so that every one at the table might hear him. "I have just heard from the War Office that Germany has declared war against Russia. You will perhaps, under the circumstances, excuse me."

He rose to his feet. There was a queer singing in his ears. The feast seemed to have turned to a sickly debauch. All that pinnacle of success seemed to have fallen away. The faces of his guests, even, as they looked at him, seemed to his conscience to be expressing one thing, and one thing only-that same horrible conviction which was deadening his own senses. He and the others-could it be true?-had they taken up lightly the charge and care of a mighty empire and dared to gamble upon, instead of providing for, its security? He thrust the thought away; and the natural strength of the man began to reassert itself. If they had done ill, they had done it for the people's sake. The people must rally to them now. He held his head high as he left the room.

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