MoboReader> Literature > The Powers and Maxine

   Chapter 2 LISA LISTENS

The Powers and Maxine By A. M. Williamson Characters: 19950

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Someone turned up the light. "I'll leave you together," said Lord Mountstuart; and the door was closed.

"What could that mean?" I wondered. I had supposed the two men had come in alone, but there must have been a third person. Who could it be? Had Lord Mountstuart been arranging a tête-à-tête between Di and Ivor Dundas?

The thought was like a hand on my throat, choking my life out. I must hear what they had to say to each other.

Without stopping to think more, I rolled over and let myself sink down into the narrow space between the low couch and the wall, sharply pulling the clinging folds of my chiffon dress after me. Then I lay still, my blood pounding in my temples and ears, and in my nostrils a faint, musty smell from the Oriental stuff that covered the lounge.

I could see nothing from where I lay, except the side of the couch, the wall, and a bit of the ceiling with the gargoyley cornice which Di had mentioned when she wanted to seem indifferent to the subject of our conversation. But I was listening with all my might for what was to come.

"Better lock the door, if you please, Dundas," said a voice, which gave me a shock of surprise, though I knew it well.

Instead of Di, it was the Foreign Secretary who spoke.

"We won't run the risk of interruptions," he went on, with that slow, clear enunciation of his which most Oxford men have, and keep all their lives, especially men of the college that was his-Balliol. "I told Mountstuart that I wanted a private chat with you. Beyond that, he knows nothing, nor does anyone else except myself. You understand that this conversation of ours, whether anything comes of it or not, is entirely confidential. I have a proposal to make. You'll agree to it or not, as you choose. But if you don't agree, forget it, with everything I may have said."

"My services and my memory are both at your disposal," answered Ivor, in such a gay, happy voice that something told me he had already talked with Diana-and that in spite of me she had not snubbed him. "I am honoured-I won't say flattered, for I'm too much in earnest-that you should place any confidence in me."

I lay there behind the lounge and sneered at this speech of his. Of course, I said to myself, he would be ready to do anything to please the Foreign Secretary, since all the big plums his ambition craved were in the gift of that man.

"Frankly, I'm in a difficulty, and it has occurred to me that you can help me out of it better than anyone else I know," said the smooth, trained voice. "It is a little diplomatic errand you will have to undertake for me tomorrow, if you want to do me a good turn."

"I will undertake it with great pleasure, and carry it through to the best of my ability," replied Ivor.

"I'm sure you can carry it through excellently," said the Foreign Secretary, still fencing. "It will be good practice, if you succeed, for-any future duties in the career which may be opening to you."

"He's bribing him with that consulship," I thought, beginning to be very curious indeed as to what I might be going to hear. My heart wasn't beating so thickly now. I could think almost calmly again.

"I thank you for your trust in me," said Ivor.

"A little diplomatic errand," repeated the Foreign Secretary. "In itself the thing is not much: that is, on the face of it. And yet, in its relation with other interests, it becomes a mission of vast importance, incalculable importance. When I have explained, you will see why I apply to you. Indeed, I came to my cousin Mountstuart's house expressly because I was told you would be at his wife's ball. My regret is, that the news which brought me in search of you didn't reach me earlier, for if it had I should have come with my wife, and have got at you in time to send you off-if you agreed to go-to-night. As it is, the matter will have to rest till to-morrow morning. It's too late for you to catch the midnight boat across the Channel."

"Across the Channel?" echoed Ivor. "You want me to go to France?"

"Yes."

"One could always get across somehow," said Ivor, thoughtfully, "if there were a great hurry."

"There is-the greatest. But in this case, the more haste, the less speed. That is, if you were to rush off, order a special train, and charter a tug or motor boat at Dover, as I suppose you mean, my object would probably be defeated. I came to you because those who are watching this business wouldn't be likely to guess I had given you a hand in it. All that you do, however, must be done quietly, with no fuss, no sign of anything unusual going on. It was natural I should come to a ball given by my wife's sister, whose husband is my cousin. No one knows of this interview of ours: I believe I may make my mind easy on that score, at least. And it is equally natural that you should start on business or pleasure of your own, for Paris to-morrow morning; also that you should meet Mademoiselle de Renzie there."

"Mademoiselle de Renzie!" exclaimed Ivor, off his guard for an instant, and showing plainly that he was taken aback.

"Isn't she a friend of yours?" asked the Foreign Secretary rather sharply. Though I couldn't see him, I knew exactly how he would be looking at Ivor, his keen grey eyes narrowed, his clean-shaven lips drawn in, the long, well-shaped hand, of which he is said to be vain, toying with the pale Malmaison pink he always wears in his buttonhole.

"Yes, she is a friend of mine," Ivor answered. "But-"

"A 'but' already! Perhaps I'd better tell you that the mission has to do with Mademoiselle de Renzie, and, directly, with no one else. She has acted as my agent in Paris."

"Indeed! I didn't dream that she dabbled in politics."

"And you should not dream it from any word of mine, Mr. Dundas, if it weren't necessary to be entirely open with you, if you are to help me in this matter. But before we go any further, I must know whether Mademoiselle de Renzie's connection with this business will for any reason keep you out of it."

"Not if-you need my help," said Ivor, with an effort. "And I beg you won't suppose that my hesitation has anything to do with Miss de Renzie herself. I have for her the greatest respect and admiration."

"We all have," returned the Foreign Secretary, "especially those who know her best. Among her many virtues, she's one of the few women who can keep a secret-her own and others. She is a magnificent actress-on the stage and off. And now I have your promise to help me, I must tell you it's to help her as well: therefore I owe you the whole truth, or you will be handicapped. For several years Mademoiselle de Renzie has done good service-secret service, you must understand-for Great Britain."

"By Jove! Maxine a political spy!" Ivor broke out impulsively.

"That's rather a hard name, isn't it? There are better ones. And she's no traitor to her country, because, as you perhaps know, she's Polish by birth. I can assure you we've much for which to thank her cleverness and tact-and beauty. For our sakes I'm sorry that she's serving our interests professionally for the last time. For her own sake, I ought to rejoice, as she's engaged to be married. And if you can save her from coming to grief over this very ticklish business, she'll probably live happily ever after. Did you know of her engagement?"

"No," replied Ivor. "I saw Miss de Renzie often when she was acting in London a year ago; but after she went to Paris-of course, she's very busy and has crowds of friends; and I've only crossed once or twice since, on hurried visits; so we haven't met, or written to each other."

("Very good reason," I thought bitterly, behind my sofa. "You've been busy, too-falling in love with Diana Forrest.")

"It hasn't been announced yet, but I thought as an old friend you might have been told. I believe Mademoiselle wants to surprise everybody when the right time comes-if the poor girl isn't ruined irretrievably in this affair of ours."

"Is there really serious danger of that?" "The most serious. If you can't save her, not only will the Entente Cordiale be shaken to its foundations (and I say nothing of my own reputation, which is at stake), but her future happiness will be broken in the crash, and-she says-she will not live to suffer the agony of her loss. She will kill herself if disaster comes; and though suicide is usually the last resource of a coward, Mademoiselle de Renzie is no coward, and I'm inclined to think I should come to the same resolve in her place."

"Tell me what I am to do," said Ivor, evidently moved by the Foreign Secretary's strange words, and his intense earnestness.

"You will go to Paris by the first train to-morrow morning, without mentioning your intention to anyone; you will drive at once to some hotel where you have never stayed and are not known. I will find means of informing the lady what hotel you choose. You will there give a fictitious name (let us say, George Sandford) and you will take a suite, with a private sitting-room. That done, you will say that you are expecting a lady to call upon you, and will see no one else. You will wait till Mademoiselle de Renzie appears, which will certainly be as soon as she can possibly manage; and when you and she are alone together, sure that you're not being spied upon, you will put into her hands a small packet which I shall give you before we part to-night."

"It sounds simple enough," said Ivor, "if that's all."

"It is all. Yet it may be anything but simple."

"Would you prefer to have me call at her house, and save her coming to a hotel? I'd willingly do so if-"

"No. As I told you, should it be known that you and she meet, those who are watching her at present ought not to suspect the real motive of the meeting. So much the better for us: but we must think of her. After four o'clock every afternoon, the young Frenchman she's engaged to is in the habit of going to her house, and stopping until it's

time for her to go to work. He dines with her, but doesn't drive with her to the theatre, as that would be rather too public for the present, until their engagement's announced. He adores her, but is inconveniently jealous, like most Latins. It's practically certain that he's heard your name mentioned in connection with hers, when she was in London, and as a Frenchman invariably fails to understand that a man can admire a beautiful woman without being in love with her, your call at her house might give Mademoiselle Maxine a mauvais quart d'heure."

"I see. But if she sends him away, and comes to my hotel-"

"She'll probably make some excuse about being obliged to go to the theatre early, and thus get rid of him. She's quite clever enough to manage that. Then, as your own name won't appear on any hotel list in the papers next day, the most jealous heart need have no cause for suspicion. At the same time, if certain persons whom Mademoiselle-and we, too-have to fear, do find out that she has visited Ivor Dundas, who has assumed a false name for the pleasure of a private interview with her, interests of even deeper importance than the most desperate love affair may still, we'll hope, be guarded by the pretext of your old friendship. Now, you understand thoroughly?"

"I think so," replied Ivor, very grave and troubled, I knew by the change in his manner, out of which all the gaiety had been slowly drained. "I will do my very best."

"If you are sacrificing any important engagements of your own for the next two days, you won't suffer for it in the end," remarked the Foreign Secretary meaningly.

No doubt Ivor saw the consulship at Algiers dancing before his eyes, bound up with an engagement to Di, just as a slice of rich plum cake and white bride cake are tied together with bows of satin ribbons sometimes, in America. I didn't want him to have the consulship, because getting that would perhaps mean getting Di, too.

"Thank you," said Ivor.

"And what hotel shall you choose in Paris?" asked the Foreign Secretary. "It should be a good one, I don't need to remind you, where Mademoiselle de Renzie could go without danger of compromising herself, in case she should be recognised in spite of the veil she's pretty certain to wear. Yet it shouldn't be in too central a situation."

"Shall it be the élysèe Palace?" asked Ivor.

"That will do very well," replied the other, after reflecting for an instant. And I could have clapped my hands, in what Ivor would call my "impish joy," when it was settled; for the élysèe Palace is where Lord and Lady Mountstuart stop when they visit Paris, and they'd been talking of running over next day with Lord Robert West, to look at a wonderful new motor car for sale there-one that a Rajah had ordered to be made for him, but died before it was finished. Lady Mountstuart always has one new fad every six months at least, and her latest is to drive a motor car herself. Lord Robert is a great expert-can make a motor, I believe, or take it to pieces and put it together again; and he'd been insisting for days that she would be able to drive this Rajah car. She'd promised, that if not too tired she'd cross to Paris the day after the ball, taking the afternoon train, via Boulogne, as she wouldn't be equal to an early start. Now, I thought, how splendid it would be if she should see Maxine at the hotel with Ivor!

The Foreign Secretary was advising Ivor to wire the élysèe Palace for rooms without any delay, as there must be no hitch about his meeting Maxine, once it was arranged for her to go there. "Any misunderstanding would be fatal," he went on, as solemnly as if the safety of Maxine's head depended upon Ivor's trip. "I only wish I could have got you off to-night; and in that case you might have gone to her own house, early in the morning. She is in a frightful state of mind, poor girl. But it was only to-day that the contents of the packet reached me, and was shown to the Prime Minister. Then, it was just before I hurried round here to see you that I received a cypher telegram from her, warning me that Count Godensky-of whom you've probably heard-an attaché of the Russian embassy in Paris, somehow has come to suspect a-er-a game in high politics which she and I have been playing; her last, according to present intentions, as I told you. I have an idea that this man, who's well known in Paris society, proposed to Mademoiselle de Renzie, refused to take no for an answer, and bored her until she perhaps was goaded into giving him a severe snub. Godensky is a vain man, and wouldn't forgive a snub, especially if it had got talked about. He'd be a bad enemy: and Mademoiselle seems to think that he is a very bitter and determined enemy. Apparently she doesn't know how much he has found out, or whether he has actually found out anything at all, or merely guesses, and 'bluffs.' But one thing is unfortunately certain, I believe. Every boat and every train between London and Paris will be watched more closely than usual for the next day or two. Any known or suspected agent wouldn't get through unchallenged. But I can see no reason why you should not."

"Nor I," answered Ivor, laughing a little. "I think I could make some trouble for anyone who tried to stop me."

"Caution above all! Remember you're in training for a diplomatic career, what? If you should lose the packet I'm going to give you, I prophesy that in twenty-four hours the world would be empty of Maxine de Renzie: for the circumstances surrounding her in this transaction are peculiar, the most peculiar I've ever been entangled in, perhaps, in rather a varied experience; and they intimately concern her fiancé, the Vicomte Raoul du Laurier-"

"Raoul du Laurier!" exclaimed Ivor. "So she's engaged to marry him!"

"Yes. Do you know him?"

"I have friends who do. He's in the French Foreign Office, though they say he's more at home in the hunting field, or writing plays-"

"Which don't get produced. Quite so. But they will get produced some day, for I believe he's an extremely clever fellow in his way-in everything except the diplomatic 'trade' which his father would have him take up, and got him into, through Heaven knows what influence. No; Du Laurier's no fool, and is said to be a fine sportsman, as well as almost absurdly good-looking. Mademoiselle Maxine has plenty of excuse for her infatuation-for I assure you it's nothing less. She'd jump into the fire for this young man, and grill with a Joan of Arc smile on her face."

This would have been pleasant hearing for Ivor, if he'd ever been really in love with Maxine; but I was obliged to admit to myself that he hadn't, for he didn't seem to care in the least. On the contrary, he grew a little more cheerful.

"I can see that du Laurier's being in the French Foreign Office might make it rather awkward for Miss de Renzie if she-if she's been rather too helpful to us," he said.

"Exactly. And thereby hangs a tale-a sensational and even romantic tale almost complicated enough for the plot of a novel. When you meet Mademoiselle to-morrow afternoon or evening, if she cares to take you into her confidence, in reward for your services, in regard to some private interests of her own which have got themselves wildly mixed up with the gravest political matters, she's at liberty to do so as far as I'm concerned, for you are to be trusted, and deserve to be trusted. You may say that to her from me, if the occasion arises. I hope with all my heart that everything may go smoothly. If not-the Entente Cordiale may burst like a bomb. I-who have made myself responsible in the matter, with the clear understanding that England will deny me if the scheme's a failure-shall be shattered by a flying fragment. The favourite actress of Paris will be asphyxiated by the poisonous fumes; and you, though I hope no worse harm may come to you, will mourn for the misfortunes of others. Your responsibility will be such that it will be almost as if you carried the destructive bomb itself, until you get the packet into the hands of Maxine de Renzie." "Good heavens, I shall be glad when she has it!" said Ivor.

"You can't be gladder than she-or I. And here it is," replied the Foreign Secretary. "I consider it great luck to have found such a messenger, at a house I could enter without being suspected of any motive more subtle than a wish to eat a good supper, or to meet some of the prettiest women in London."

I would have given a great deal to see what he was giving Ivor to take to Maxine, and I was half tempted to lift myself up and peep at the two from behind the lounge, but I could tell from their voices that they were standing quite near, and it would have been too dangerous. The Foreign Secretary, who is rather a nervous man, and fastidious about a woman's looks, never could bear me: and I believe he would have thought it almost as justifiable as drowning an ugly kitten, to choke me if he knew I'd overheard his secrets.

However, Ivor's next words gave me some inkling of what I wished to know. "It's importance evidently doesn't consist in bulk," he said lightly. "I can easily carry the case in my breast pocket."

"Pray put it there at once, and guard it as you would guard the life and honour of a woman," said the Foreign Secretary solemnly. "Now, I, must go and look for my wife. It's better that you and I shouldn't be seen together. One never knows who may have got in among the guests at a crush like this. I will go out at one door, and when you've waited for a few minutes, you can go, by way of another."

A moment later there was silence in the room, and I knew that Ivor was alone. What if I spoke, and startled him? All that is impish in me longed to see how his face would look; but there was too much at stake. Not only would I hate to have him scorn me for an eavesdropper, but I had already built up a great plan for the use I could make of what I had overheard.

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