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"It so happens," said Rosencrantz, "that you are the very man we want. In the first place, though you call yourself a Dutchman, you are German born, as I know very well, and can be trusted. Also, you know the world; you can speak four languages-German, French, English and Dutch. Moreover, you were once an actor; you should know how to disguise yourself, to play several minor parts in this great drama which is about to astonish the world."
Stork gave a grunt of disapproval.
"It seems to me," he said, "you know too much about me."
"I know more than that," said the other. "I know that you are an ex-convict, and even now are wanted by the police. However, you have nothing to fear; I intend to keep my knowledge to myself. The Baron himself will explain exactly what you will be required to do."
Once again, von Essling took up the thread of this ruthless world-wide plot. In order to hasten the decomposition of what he called the already-tottering British Empire, rebellion must be stirred up in the British colonies. The seeds of sedition must be sown broadcast, in India, in South Africa and Egypt.
Here, it appeared, both Rosencrantz and Rudolf Stork could be of the greatest assistance. According to von Essling there was little or no risk, and they might count upon being well paid. "The German Emperor," said the Baron, "does not fail to reward those who serve the Fatherland."
The offices of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were to be used as a kind of Secret Service Bureau. Whether or not England joined in the conflict, the United States would, in any case, remain neutral. From New York, intelligence could be transmitted direct to Berlin, and vice versa. Von Essling's agents-one of whom was to be Rudolf Stork-acting as spies in the war area, would transmit, or bring personally, the information they gathered to Rosencrantz, who would represent the Baron, who would sift all intelligence, and supervise cyphered telegrams to the Intelligence Department in the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin. For the present absolute secrecy was to be maintained.
Von Essling ended. There was a brief pause, during which Stork spat upon the floor.
"And may I ask," said he at length, "what guarantee I am to have? I don't, mind you, say that all this is not true; but, still, business is business, and no man takes on board a cargo without a manifest, which is a kind of passport on the sea."
"You are quite right," said the Baron. "I can supply you with credentials which will instantly dispel such doubts. I have already entrusted to Mr. Rosencrantz papers of the utmost value, which will prove to you that we are perfectly sincere, that it will be worth your while to help us."
It was then that Rosencrantz got to his feet, and shuffled about the room.
"It so happens," he observed, "that the papers you mention are in a certain leather box which was given into the charge of my secretary."
Von Essling gave vent to an exclamation of surprise.
"You take grave risks!" said he.
"My dear Baron," replied the other, "the girl can be trusted implicitly.And besides, she is totally ignorant of what the box contains."
Von Essling had something else to say, but Stork took him up.
"What happens if I'm caught?" he asked.
"If you succeed," said the Baron, "you will be amply rewarded. You will be paid according to the value of the information you obtain. But if you fail the misfortune is yours. We wash our hands of you; we know nothing whatsoever about you. That is the principle upon which the Secret Service works."
"I see," said the man. "Whatever I do is at my own risk."
"Precisely," said the Baron.
There was another pause; and then Stork got to his feet.
"I'll do it," said he. "I've every confidence in myself. If you want my candid opinion, I think I'm the very man for the job."
"Good!" said von Essling. "Self-assurance is essential. And now, there are a few questions I would like you to answer. Have you ever been to London? Could you find your own way about in that labyrinth of a city? It will probably be necessary for you to go there."
"I know London well," said Stork, "from Whitechapel to Hammersmith. At one time, I played Iago in Shakespeare's play, in a little theatre which is now pulled down, in the Portobello Road."
"Ah," said the other, "some time in the near future you and I may meet in London. I have never been there. Though I can both speak and write English with ease, I have never set foot in England."
"You are likely to leave New York?" asked Rosencrantz.
"Perhaps; I can say nothing for certain. My post here is merely a blind. I was transferred into the Diplomatic Service from the Secret Service for reasons of convenience. As a military attach?, I have many opportunities for gleaning information."
Jimmy Burke was only a boy, whose experience of the world was necessarily somewhat limited. None the less, he was well able to understand the depth of the perfidy with which he found himself confronted. The whole thing seemed too villainous to be true. He could not believe that the modern civilized world was such a hotbed of treason and deceit-a kind of magnified thieves' kitchen wherein mighty nations played the part of common footpads.
Indignation and excitement left him breathless. In fact, he was so astounded and dismayed that he had forgotten his own danger, when suddenly he was brought back to his senses by the loud slamming of a door. On the instant, as he recognized the truth, it was as if a blow had been struck him: Peggy had returned!
He was told afterwards what actually happened. At the time, shut up in the darkness of the cupboard, fearing to move an inch, almost dreading to breathe, he was able to see nothing of what took place in the room.
Peggy, with cheeks flushed in the wind, and an armful of small paper parcels, came swinging along the corridor, tried to open the office door, and found it locked.
Before she had time to guess what was about to happen, the door was flung wide open, and she found herself confronted by Rosencrantz and his companions.
She stood stock-still, speechless and afraid. Her first inclination was to fly; and the next moment, she found herself wondering what had become of Jimmy.
Rosencrantz, after the manner of a cat who plays with a mouse, with extreme politeness ushered her into the room.
"And may I ask," said he, in a soft, oily voice, "may I ask what those parcels contain?"
Peggy allowed him to take them from her hand. He opened them one by one. The first contained a packet of cocoa; the next (of all iniquities!) a bundle of sausages. There was also bread, butter, sugar and lard.
"I see," said Rosencrantz, "I see. It is not sufficient for me to give orders; it is not sufficient for me to forbid you to turn my office into a kitchen and a common eating-house; but you must leave your work the very moment my back is turned."
"Is this the girl," asked von Essling, "who enjoys a position of trust?"
"I have been mistaken in her," said Rosencrantz. "There can be no doubt as to that. Where is my attach?-case?" he demanded. "Where have you put the leather box?"
At these words, it seemed to Jimmy that his heart ceased to beat. In the ordinary course of events, he would have stepped forth boldly, to share with Peggy the consequence of their joint guilt. As it was, with this colossal secret on his mind, and knowing full well that his right foot was resting on the very leather box in question, he was petrified by fear.
At times of extreme nervous tension, the senses are frequently acute. Though Peggy's frightened voice came in little above a whisper, Jimmy was able to hear her words with terrible distinctness.
"It is here, in the cupboard," she said. "I will get it-now."
Peggy Wade was an American-which is the same thing as saying that she was possessed of considerable presence of mind. In the climax that now took place, she might easily have lost her head, instead of which she did all that was within her power to avert calamity.
She approached the cupboard door and opened it. Fortunately, the hinges were towards the centre of the room, where the three men stood together. Rosencrantz and his companions could neither see into the cupboard nor observe the look of intense alarm that came into the girl's face, the moment she found herself confronted by Jimmy Burke.
She mastered herself in an instant. As quick as thought, Jimmy thrust the leather box into her hand; at which she turned quickly, and closed the door. For the time being, at least, the situation was saved.
"You have not yet told me," said Rosencrantz, in the assured tones of an inveterate bully, "why you dared to disobey my orders?"
Peggy's thoughts were still with Jimmy. Though she knew nothing of the colossal plot which had just come to light, she trembled to think of what the consequences would be, should the boy be discovered. She answered timidly, in a voice so low as to be hardly audible.
"I have no excuse," she said.
Rosencrantz gave vent to a grunt.
"I should think not," said he, with a quick shrug of the shoulders. "And where's that rascal of a boy?"
Peggy could not answer. For a moment, she thought it was best to tell a deliberate lie, and have done with it; and then, she found she could not. She just stood quite still and silent, unable to lift her eyes from the floor-a very figure of guilt.
Rudolf Stork was a man upon whom little or nothing was lost. He had the eyes of a lynx. He was one whose very liberty, perhaps, depended upon his powers of observation, his memory and his wits. Without a word, he turned upon his heel, in three strides crossed the room, and flung wide open the cupboard door.
And there stood Jimmy Burke, his head half lowered, his face white as a sheet. He took two slow steps forward towards the centre of the room where the three men stood regarding him in amazement, and then stopped dead, apparently afraid to look about him.
Rosencrantz drew in a deep breath, as a man does who is about to take a plunge into ice-cold water. Von Essling let out an oath in his own language, as he drummed with his fingers upon the silver knob of a stout malacca cane. As for Stork, his hand went quickly to his hip-pocket, and a small nickel-plated revolver glittered in the light.
"Eavesdropping!" cried Rosencrantz. "An eavesdropper-by all that's wonderful!"
"Do you realize what this means?" exclaimed the Baron, gesticulating wildly with a hand. "There's danger here! This boy must have overheard every word we said. The result may be disastrous."
Stork crouched like a tiger. The expression upon the man's face was terrible. Slowly, he raised his revolver at arm's length, directing the muzzle straight at Jimmy's heart.
"There's only one way," said he. "It's not pleasant, but I'll do it."
Beyond doubt, he would have fired, had not the Baron seized his wrist.
"Do nothing foolish!" he exclaimed. "You forget the girl. There's a witness-in the girl!"
Stork lowered his revolver, turned slowly, and stared hard at Peggy, who quailed before the ferocity of those pale, cat-like eyes.
Rosencrantz, who was a coward at heart, had no desire to see murder done on his own premises; he had never bargained for that. Since matters had already gone too far, and seeing some explanation was necessary, he did his best to laugh it off.
"Enough, my friend!" he cried. "That is enough. You desired to frighten him, and have done so. See, the boy is trembling. It will teach him a lesson to the very end of his life."
This was not true; but, still, it was good enough to pass, to act as a shield for Rudolf Stork. Von Essling had not yet recovered his presence of mind; indeed, he was still so put out he could not stand still, but, tucking his malacca cane under his arm, set to pacing backwards and forwards in the room.
"This is serious," he muttered; "terribly serious." Then he pulled up suddenly in front of Jimmy, whom he regarded steadfastly, looking the boy up and down, from head to foot.
"It may be all right," said he at last, with something that was not far from a sigh of relief. "Fortunately the boy is young. And yet," he added, "I cannot think why he hid himself. It is all a mystery."
"I think," said Rosencrantz, "I can explain. He was there by chance. He did not know that I intended to return to the office, and having deliberately disobeyed my orders, he had a natural desire to avoid me."
The Baron von Essling shrugged his shoulders. Rosencrantz turned sharply upon Jimmy and the girl, who now stood side by side.
"You will both leave this place at once," said he, "and you will not return. Understand, I never wish to see your faces again."
At that, he went to the door and threw it open, making a motion of the hand for them to go.
They were about to leave, when Stork seized Jimmy roughly by a shoulder. He was a strong man, as the boy could tell from the iron grip that held him as if he were in a vice.
"Wait a bit," said he. "Easy now. We'd be blind fools to let you go like that. Listen here, my boy, and let what I've got to say sink into your memory. Breathe so much as a single word to any living soul of what you've heard to-night, and I'll find it out. You may set your mind at rest on that. I'm not a mild man, nor a plaster saint; some folk might say that sometimes I'm a little quick of temper. At any rate, I tell you this: I'll stick at nothing, if you neglect the advice I give you gratis. So, just beware, take warning; mum's the word."
And at that, he sent Jimmy flying headlong through the doorway.
As the boy recovered his balance-and indeed, he only just saved himself from stretching his length upon the floor-he found Peggy at his side, with a white face and trembling lips, and her hands clasped together.
"Oh, come," she cried, "we must go away from here. Jimmy, I never knew that I could be so frightened." Somehow she was breathless.
Very quickly, side by side, they ran down flight after flight of steps, until, at last, they found themselves upon the sidewalk of the famous street that traverses New York from end to end. A little after, they stood together at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Broadway.
It was night, and the great city was alive. The people were thronging to the theatres; the street-cars were crowded, their bells clanging incessantly; news-boys raced across the street. Broadway was a blaze of light; thousands of advertisements, brilliantly illumined with all the colours of the rainbow, caught the eye in all directions. Peggy drew near to Jimmy, and took his arm and pressed it.
"Whatever happened, Jimmy?" she asked. "I'm kind of dazed. I don't really understand."
"I don't know that I do," said the boy. "Even now, I can't believe that it wasn't all a dream."
For a little time, they walked along in silence. It was Peggy who spoke again.
"You had better come back with me," she said. "I must tell Aunt Marion I've been dismissed. Somehow I don't think we ought to leave each other now."
There was another pause; and then Peggy gave a shudder.
"That man was terrible," she said. "I can see him now. Do you know, Jimmy, he meant to kill you."
The boy laughed. Now that he was quit of the atmosphere of that room wherein had been disclosed the terrible, almost overpowering plot that was to shake to its very foundations the whole civilized world, it was easy enough to laugh. For all that, his boyish confidence in himself had not yet wholly returned. Quite apart from the fact that his life had been threatened, he had received a shock from which he was not likely to recover for some time to come.
It was quite late when they arrived at Peggy's home in Hoboken, where they found Peggy's aunt, Miss Daintree, laying the table for supper.
In a few brief words, Peggy told her aunt as much as she knew of what had happened; whereat Aunt Marion expressed neither surprise nor disappointment. She listened with a sweet smile, and rewarded Peggy with a kiss, saying that she was more glad than sorry, since the firm of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had never been to her liking. Besides, as she pointed out, Peggy was worth a great deal more than they paid her. There were thousands of chances for a good stenographer in New York, so after all Peggy had no cause to despair.
Jimmy stayed to supper; but, despite the fact that both he and Peggy had been deprived of the illicit joys of a "picnic," he had neither any appetite nor any wish to talk, but remained pensive and grave as a judge.
Afterwards, seated before the fire with those two women, one on either side, he told the whole truth, in defiance of Rudolf Stork. And that was surely a strange audience to listen to a story of such world-wide dimensions, fraught with such unheard-of possibilities. The one was a woman who had already reached middle age, whose hair was touched with grey, whose life had been spent for the most part in those simple, sunlit joys which are God's gift to the really good. And the other was a girl who might still have been at school.
They listened in still amazement, finding it all not easy to believe. And when Jimmy had come to the end of his narrative, and his face was flushed and his eyes bright, he looked to Aunt Marion, as the eldest-and presumedly the wisest-for some practical advice. But that kind-hearted, loving lady knew, perhaps, even less of the world than he.
She thought at first that it would be best to go at once to the police; but, when Jimmy suggested that the New York police were notoriously corrupt, she agreed that, perhaps, the British consul was a more suitable person. Accordingly, after a long discussion, it was arranged that Jimmy and Peggy should go together to that gentleman's office the following day.
That night, the boy slept on a sofa; but Aunt Marion had made him promise that he would remain with them, as their guest, until he had obtained some new employment. There was a box-room which she could easily convert into a bedroom. She knew Jimmy well, and loved the boy; she even knew the story of "Swiftsure Burke." She knew that Jimmy was quite penniless, and would have to make his own way in the world; and she was anxious to do all she could to help him.
Jimmy spent the following morning bringing the few worldly goods he possessed from his old lodgings in New York itself to the other side of the harbour. He had enough money at home to pay the week's rent he owed, and the cab fare and the ferry-boat. And when he had done that, he found himself with nothing in the world-but "Swiftsure Burke's" lucky, dented sixpence.
At about three o'clock in the afternoon, the boy and girl sallied forth together, to interview the British consul. They had an exceedingly vague notion of what they were going to say to that all-important personage when they met him; they had not even a very exact idea as to what the duties of a consul were. None the less, they were quite convinced that he would explain the whole affair.
As it turned out, the consul was on a holiday-as his Britannic Majesty's consuls frequently are. However, they were shown into the presence of a certain Mr. Ridgeway, who introduced himself as the consul's private secretary.
This Mr. Ridgeway listened to the boy's story with an expression of mingled astonishment and disgust. At one moment, he was really alarmed; at the next, he was perfectly convinced that the whole thing was a hoax. But, towards the end, when Jimmy became very excited, and Peggy wrung her hands, he could scarcely fail to see that the boy was terribly in earnest. Moreover, he knew the Baron von Essling by reputation-which reputation was certainly not of the best. Still, he could hardly bring himself to believe either that such a cold-blooded, deliberate plot really did exist, or that a military attach? could so abuse a position of the greatest trust.
He promised, however, to tell the whole story to the consul when he returned, and pointed out that in due course, no doubt, the Foreign Office would be informed. In the meantime, Jimmy was to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut. On no account whatsoever was he to say a word to any one of what he knew.
The boy was determined to remember this advice, which-strangely enough-coincided with that of Rudolf Stork. As he came down the front doorsteps of the consulate, though he was out of work and practically a pauper, though he was conscious of the fact that he was living on the charity of others who could not afford to support him and upon whom he had no claim, he walked with a lighter tread than ever in his life before. He could not but feel proud of the fact that, for some mysterious reason, he was, indeed, a person of importance.
A man was leaning against the railings, both hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets, a battered hat jammed over his eyes-one of the inevitable loafers who are to be found in the streets of every city in the world. As Jimmy reached the bottom step, this man looked at him sharply from over his shoulder, and then slouched away.
The boy stood stock still, staring after the man with the battered hat, with parted lips and widely opened eyes. He did not speak or move, until Peggy suddenly touched his arm.
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