The crime club, p.22
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       The Crime Club, p.22

           W. Holt-White
 
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  CHAPTER XXII

  THE PREMIERE'S STORY

  I have to confess that quite unintentionally I did my Government and mycountry a great wrong. In spite of all my very considerable experience,I did not see at the time the danger into which I was drifting, and Ihad gone too far to draw back when I realised with a shock the awfulposition in which I had placed myself.

  As you know, I was drafted into the Ministry through an rather unusualchannel. It is not often that a diplomat forsakes diplomacy to takepart in politics. An extraordinary combination of events, however,contrived to place me in a curious position, with the result that greatinfluence was brought to bear on me to give up the Embassy of which Iwas in charge, and return to England to take up a minor position in theCabinet.

  Probably, in spite of the influence which was exerted, I should neverhave consented to do this but for the fact that I knew the minorposition I was offered was merely a temporary one. I was given tounderstand clearly that it was but a stepping-stone to the Premiership.So I decided to accept the office.

  Now the country from which I returned was Russia. I was, as you maypossibly remember, Ambassador at St. Petersburg.

  I was there for many years, and enjoyed an unusually close and intimatefriendship with the Czar. That was at once the beginning of myambitions and troubles. It was, indeed, that friendship which, to agreat extent, induced me to transfer my labours from St. Petersburg toLondon.

  I do not know what acquaintance you may have of Russian affairs, norwhat knowledge you may have of the Emperor himself. I can only assureyou that, in spite of all that may be said against him, his Majesty isabsolutely sincere and honest in his desire for universal peace. Hesuffered untold agonies of mind during the struggle with Japan, andsince peace was arranged has made use of every diplomatic means tobring about a general disarmament by the Powers.

  In this aim he met, of course, with most violent opposition. Some ofthe Imperial family went so far as to accuse their kinsman and nominalruler of being a traitor to his country.

  However, in spite of all opposition, he persevered; and, as he believedthat England was also sincere in her desire for peace, he cultivated myacquaintance to a marked degree.

  Unfortunately, in an evil hour, it suddenly dawned upon me that my namemight be handed down to posterity, jointly with that of the Czar's, asthe man who paved the way to universal peace.

  But my ideas were different from those of the Czar. His Majesty wishedto work along the line of least resistance, and was quite preparedto spend years of patient effort in bringing about his dream of themillennium.

  For my part, I was, I suppose, an old man in a hurry. I could notafford to wait for years to see the triumph of my schemes. I wasgetting on in life, and it seemed to me that if I did not hasten Imight die without my ambition being realised.

  I therefore set to work entirely to remodel the Czar's ideas, and as aresult ultimately worked out the most daring plan for compelling Europeto lay down its arms that had ever been conceived.

  When that plan was fully perfected I was to take it to my own King andask for his consent to it. I knew his Majesty was as genuinely desirousfor peace as the Czar, and I really foresaw no difficulty in being ableto persuade him to sanction the scheme which I had drawn up.

  It is quite unnecessary to go into its full details here, but perhapsI had better give you a glimpse of the outline. Briefly, England wasto make use of the _entente cordiale_ to compel France, by means ofan ultimatum which would expire at the end of twenty-four hours, toconsent to stand in with Great Britain and Russia in a demand thatGermany's military force should be whittled down to the limits ofthe Swiss Militia. It was also to be stipulated that Germany's navalprogramme should always be one-half of the combined programmes of GreatBritain, Russia, and France.

  Thanks to the treaty with Great Britain made some years ago with theScandinavian States, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Spainand Italy, Germany would have been speedily isolated. She would haveawakened one morning to find herself absolutely friendless, except,perhaps, for Austria. It would have been doubtful, too, whether evenAustria would have remained faithful to her pushful friend when she sawthe whole of Europe allied against the Fatherland.

  It was certainly a daring scheme, but one which, I think, must have metwith instantaneous success. Every aspect of it had been considered, andeven the contingency provided for by the Czar and myself.

  Naturally it was impossible to carry the details of so complicated apiece of business in one's head. I was half-afraid to commit them towriting myself, and so the Czar suggested that he should, with his ownhand, draw up the lines of the agreement which we proposed to foist onEurope.

  I brought a copy of the document, made by the Czar himself, backto this country, and for three years I waited impatiently for anopportunity to present the scheme to his Majesty, and, if possible,persuade him to put it into operation.

  Those were three years of terrible anxiety. I carried the papers withme both day and night. A hundred times a day I would clap my hands tomy breast-pocket to see if they were safe, and a score of times I wouldstart up in my bed at night feverishly to ascertain if I still had themin my possession.

  But, in spite of all my care, I lost them. I kept the papers in a thinmorocco-leather case, which bore the Imperial arms of Russia. One dayI was looking through them in my room in Downing Street when I wassuddenly informed that I was wanted at the telephone. Unfortunately, atthat time I had no extension to my room.

  I need not particularise as to from whom the telephone message came.Suffice it to say that it was a summons which I could not disregard. Ihastily gathered the papers together and, as I thought, thrust theminto the breast-pocket of my coat.

  Instead of doing so, however, I must have missed the pocket in myhaste, and let the case drop to the floor.

  I was detained longer than I expected at the telephone, and on goingback to my room some quarter of an hour later, I instinctively felt inmy coat to see if the papers were there.

  To my horror they were gone!

  I did not dare to excite my household too much, lest the affair shouldcome to the ears of my colleagues, and they should begin to wonder whatsecret I was keeping to myself.

  Nor, indeed, was it necessary to make many inquiries. I asked if therehad been any visitors, and was told that Captain Melun had called, andhad waited some five minutes in my room, but that he had left before myreturn, saying that he was pressed for time just then, but would calllater in the day.

  From that moment I had not the slightest doubt as to where thedocuments had gone.

  I sent for Melun and taxed him with the theft. He did not deny it.

  You may think it rather strange that such a man as he should havebeen allowed to enter my house, but I must explain that I had foundhis services exceedingly useful in several matters. He was withoutscruple of any kind, and it is often, I regret to say, convenient for aminister to have some unscrupulous agent at his disposal.

  I ordered Melun to give the papers up, and he laughed in my face. Hetold me that he had mastered their contents, and quite appreciatedwhat they involved.

  Indeed, he at once made the most insolent demands. He told me that Icould well afford to pay him a quarter of a million sterling to get thepapers back. He knew that my wealth was great, and did not hesitate toblackmail me to the fullest extent.

  In the course of long and angry negotiations I was compelled to agreeto pay over this sum. Indeed I dared not refuse.

  He was not, however, content with this rapacious request. He wanted, hesaid, to rehabilitate himself properly in society, and to that end hehad the colossal impudence to demand Lady Kathleen's hand in marriage.

  I tell you frankly, Sir Paul, that I was so furious at this that Ileaped out of my chair, and, old man though I am, struck Melun acrosshis face.

  It was an action which I deeply repented, for, as compensation, hedemanded another fifty thousand pounds, and again impudently insistedupon his marriage with my daught
er.

  This, however, I steadily declined to consider for a moment. It seemedto me impossible for a man of Melun's description to fail to becontented with three hundred thousand pounds. To my dismay, I found Iwas mistaken. He repeated over and over again that I should ultimatelyconsent to his marrying Lady Kathleen, and threatened me with exposureand ruin if I still held to my refusal.

  Now I would have gladly faced exposure and ruin rather than havesacrificed my daughter to such a despicable hound as this. But,unfortunately, it was not only my ruin which was involved.

  Of a certainty it meant the ruin of British diplomacy, if not completedisaster to the British Empire.

  Disturbances in Russia alarmed the Czar. I sent Lady Kathleen over toSt. Petersburg, and she urged him to make a personal appeal to our Kingto put the plan which I had prepared into instant action.

  At the critical moment the Czar became thoroughly afraid of what theconsequences might be, and declined to make any move. Moreover, hewrote me a letter saying that, even at the cost of Kathleen's marriageto Melun, the papers must be recovered and returned to him.

  All this, of course, occasioned great delay, and Melun began to pressme hard. I made every effort, most of them legitimate, but some,I fear, not quite legal, to get the papers back. I had his roomssearched, and I had the man himself seized and searched in my presence.

  I had his friends and himself all searched on the same day and at thesame hour. It was all to no purpose. I could not get the faintest clueas to the whereabouts of the papers.

  Then Melun became more menacing than ever. He demanded L10,000 down andcomplete immunity from observation.

  And to these requests I had to accede, because he told me frankly thatif I were obstinate he would at once open up negotiations with Germany.This, of course, was what I had been dreading.

  I knew that if a breath of this business reached the Kaiser's ears itwould be the beginning of the end. I knew his Imperial Majesty too wellto harbour any hope that he would not strike while Russia and ourselveswere still in disagreement as to our course of action.

  The situation, indeed, was all the more of a nightmare to me because Ihad acted without the knowledge or consent of my King or my colleagues,and the whole brunt of the blame would have to be borne by myself.

  And what blame it would be! What everlasting shame and disgrace andmisery--not only for myself, but for this country!

  I am no child in diplomatic matters, and I saw full well that themoment Germany came into possession of the facts, the last great fightamong the nations would begin.

  That, then, is my story. Four days ago I was given a week's graceby the Czar in which to recover the papers or consent to Melun'sconditions. I dare not disobey the Czar's commands, nor is it possiblefor me any longer to ignore Melun's request. At my earnest prayer theCzar sent a special emissary to me to meet Lady Kathleen at Rouen.

  His Majesty knew that in this matter I had been compelled to take mydaughter into my confidence. He quite appreciated the necessity forthis, and was indeed most kind about the matter, though he remainedinsistent in his terms.

  You may judge how terribly concerned he was when I tell you that therepresentative he sent was a member of the Imperial family. And evenhe was not informed of the contents of the papers.

  You may realise, too, how desperate my position is, when I say thatI have at last accepted your offer of help much as a drowning manclutches at a straw.

 
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