The Island Mystery/Chapter 13
IN the end Gorman made up his mind to go to Salissa. I do not suppose that the King’s gift of the Order of the Pink Vulture had much to do with his decision. Nor do I think that he went out of pure kindness of heart, in order to give Konrad Karl and Madame Ypsilante eight weeks of unalloyed delight in Paris. I know that he never had the slightest intention of trying to persuade Donovan to part with the island, and—Gorman has not much conscience, but he has some—nothing would have induced him to suggest a marriage between Miss Daisy and the disreputable King. He went to Salissa because that island seemed in a fair way to become a very interesting place.
On the very evening of Gorman’s dinner with the King I happened to meet Sir Bartholomew Bland-Potterton at another, a much duller dinner party. Sir Bartholomew was not yet Secretary of State for Balkan Problems, but he was well known as an authority on the Near East, and was in constant unofficial touch with the Foreign Office. He is a big man in his way, and I was rather surprised when he buttonholed me after the ladies had left the room. I am not a big man in any way.
“Do you happen to know a man called Gorman?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “Michael Gorman. I’ve met him. In fact, I know him pretty well.”
“Sits for Upper Offaly,” I said. “Can’t blame him for that. Four hundred a year is something these times.”
“Bit of a blackguard, I suppose? All those fellows are.”
Now, an Irishman can call another Irishman a blackguard without offence. We know each other intimately and are fond of strong language, but we do not like being called blackguards by Englishmen. They do not understand us and never will. Sir Bartholomew’s description of Gorman was in bad taste and I resented it. However, there was no use trying to explain our point of view. You cannot explain anything to that kind of Englishman.
“He’s a Member of Parliament,” I said, “of your own English Parliament. I believe that all members are honourable gentlemen.”
Sir Bartholomew is a wonderful man. He actually took that remark of mine as a testimonial to Gorman’s character. The thing is almost incredible, but he evidently felt that the word honourable, as officially used, had a meaning something like that of trustworthy.
“I wonder,” said Sir Bartholomew, “if he’s a man to whom one could talk safely on a rather confidential subject?”
“There’s always supposed to be a kind of honour among thieves,” I said.
I was still rather nettled by the contemptuous assumption that Gorman must be a blackguard simply because he is an Irish Nationalist. After all, Sir Bartholomew’s own profession is not a very respectable one. He is a diplomatist, and diplomacy is simply the name we have agreed to give to lying about national affairs. I cannot see that Sir Bartholomew has any right to take up a high moral tone when speaking of Gorman or any other Member of Parliament, Irish or English.
“I’ll look up the man to-morrow,” said Sir Bartholomew. “I daresay I’ll find him in the House of Commons during the afternoon.”
Sir Bartholomew gave me no hint about the nature of his confidential business. I suppose he did not feel I could be trusted. However, Gorman told me all about it next day.
Sir Bartholomew came on Gorman in the smoking-room of the House of Commons. He was wearing, so Gorman assures me, the very best kind of official manner, that interesting mixture of suavity and pomposity with which our mandarins approach the public. They hope, in this way, to induce us to believe that they have benevolent dispositions and immense ability. I do not know whether any one is ever deceived by this manner or thinks of a mandarin otherwise than as a fortunate person who earns a large salary by being stupid. Certainly Gorman was not in the very least impressed. Being an Irishman, Gorman knows the official class thoroughly. Ireland is a kind of laboratory for the culture of the mandarin bacillus.
“May I,” said Sir Bartholomew, “intrude on your time, and ask you one or two questions on a matter of some little importance?”
Gorman had no objection to being asked questions. Whether he would answer them or not was another matter.
“I think,” said Sir Bartholomew, “that you know King Konrad Karl of Megalia.”
That was not a question, so Gorman gave no answer. He merely puffed at his pipe which was not drawing well and looked at Sir Bartholomew’s round plump face.
“A rather wild young man,” said Sir Bartholomew. “Dissipated would perhaps be too strong a word. What do you think?”
“It is a strongish word,” said Gorman.
Sir Bartholomew tried another cast.
“Mr. Donovan is a friend of yours, I think,” he said, “and his daughter?”
“I’ve met them,” said Gorman.
Sir Bartholomew realized that he was not getting on very fast with Gorman. He relapsed a little from his high official manner and adopted a confidential tone.
“There has been a certain amount of talk in diplomatic, or shall we say semi-diplomatic circles, about King Konrad Karl, mere gossip, of course, but——”
“I never listen to gossip,” said Gorman.
This was untrue. Gorman listens to all the gossip he can and enjoys it thoroughly.
Sir Bartholomew found it necessary to unbend a little more. He unbuttoned, so to speak, the two bottom buttons of the waistcoat of pomposity which he wore.
“I was told a story the other day,” he said. “Perhaps I’d better not mention the name of my informant; but there can be no harm in saying that he is one of the attachés of the Embassy of a great Power, a friendly Power.”
I expect Sir Bartholomew thought this way of talking would impress Gorman. It impresses most people. Your story has a much better chance of being believed and repeated if you tell it on the authority of some one unnamed and vaguely described than it has if you merely say “young Smith, the cashier in my bank, told me to-day, that....”
“I am alluding,” said Sir Bartholomew, “to a report that has reached us of an escapade of Miss Donovan’s. That young lady—very charming I’m sure—and her father’s immensely rich, but—well, you know what young girls are.”
“Got engaged to a Royal Duke?” said Gorman, “or run away with the chauffeur?”
“Oh no, nothing of that sort. Not at all. The statement with which I’m concerned is that her father has bought an island and some kind of title for her from that unfortunate young King of Megalia.”
“So long as he paid for it,” said Gorman, “I don’t see that it’s anybody else’s business.”
“You don’t understand,” said Sir Bartholomew. “I haven’t made myself clear. The fact is——” He sank his voice to an awed whisper. “The young lady is understood to claim sovereign rights over the Island of Salissa. She calls herself—it’s almost incredible, but she calls herself a queen.”
“Well,” said Gorman, “why shouldn’t she?”
“But, my dear sir! To set up a new independent kingdom! In the existing state of Balkan affairs, when the Great Powers—— But of course it can be nothing but a girlish joke, a piece of light-hearted playfulness. She can’t mean——”
“Then why worry?” said Gorman. “Why should you and that attaché of the Embassy of a Friendly Power, the fellow you’ve been talking about—why should you and he start fussing?”
“My dear sir! my dear sir! Nothing, I assure you, is further from our wishes than fuss of any kind. But unfortunately, the Emperor—the Emperor—I respect and admire him, of course. We all do. But if the Emperor has a fault it is that he’s slightly deficient in humour. He does not easily see a joke. He’s a little—well——”
“Elephantine?” said Gorman.
Sir Bartholomew looked round hurriedly. The Division bell had just rung. The smoking-room was almost empty. This was fortunate. It would have been very awkward for a man in Sir Bartholomew’s position to be caught in the act of hearing an Emperor called elephantine.
“The Emperor,” said Sir Bartholomew, “has approached the United States Ambassador on the subject, indirectly, I need scarcely say. He requests, indeed insists that Salissa shall at once be restored to the Crown of Megalia. Now our idea is—and I think I know the views of the Foreign Office on the subject—our idea is that this little matter ought to be settled unofficially. A word to Mr. Donovan from a friend. A hint about the present critical condition of European politics. He might——”
“I don’t suppose,” said Gorman, “that Donovan cares a damn about European politics.”
Sir Bartholomew’s eyebrows went up in shocked surprise.
“It is of the first importance,” he said, “of absolutely vital importance that at the present moment, standing as we do, as all Europe stands to-day, on the verge of the smouldering crater of a volcano——”
“This is the House of Commons, of course,” said Gorman, “so I suppose you can talk that kind of language if you like. But we don’t usually do it in the smoking-room.”
Sir Bartholomew had not attained to the eminent position he occupied without learning a few lessons in tact. He changed his tone at once.
“The fact is,” he said, “that just at present we all want to avoid friction with the Emperor.”
“Ah,” said Gorman, “and your idea is——?”
“Mr. Donovan must be persuaded to give up that island. Pressure could be put on him, of course, by his own Government and by ours. His position is preposterous. He can’t set his daughter up as a European sovereign simply by writing a cheque. But we don’t want—nobody wants any publicity or scandal. If Mr. Donovan would agree, privately, to resign all claim on Salissa——”
“Why not ask him?”
Sir Bartholomew’s manner became most ingratiating.
“We feel that the good offices of a mutual friend, some one who occupies no official position, some one unconnected with the Foreign Office——In short, Mr. Gorman, would you undertake this rather delicate mission?”
“Why the devil do you hit on me for the job?”
“Ah,” said Sir Bartholomew, smiling, “you see we all know something about you, Mr. Gorman. Your business ability, your unfailing tact, your——”
“Taken as read,” said Gorman.
Sir Bartholomew cannot possibly have liked Gorman’s manner. No public men discuss serious and confidential matters with this kind of flippancy. But he had been obliged to meet even more disconcerting people in the Balkans. He prided himself on being able to negotiate with men of any manners or none.
“Knowing the work you have done for your party in America,” he went on, “knowing your friendship with the Donovans and your acquaintance with the King of Megalia, it seemed to us—not to me, you know. I don’t really matter. It seemed to us that you were the best possible person.”
“I see. Well, supposing I undertake the job, what am I to say to Donovan? He’s paid a big price for that island. Is he to get his money back?”
“Of course, of course. No one expects Mr. Donovan to make any financial sacrifice.”
“Who’s going to pay?”
“The King. King Konrad Karl.”
“That King,” said Gorman, “isn’t very good at paying.”
“In this case he will have no choice. The Emperor will insist on his paying.”
“The Emperor is a powerful man,” said Gorman, “but even he would hardly be able to make King Konrad Karl fork out what he hasn’t got. You may safely bet your last shilling that most of what Donovan paid for that island is spent, chucked away, gone scat.”
“The Emperor,” said Sir Bartholomew, “will be responsible for the return in full of the purchase price.”
“Very well,” said Gorman, “and now suppose Donovan won’t sell. Suppose he simply says ‘No.’”
“There is an alternative policy,” said Sir Bartholomew. “It has occurred to some of us who are interested in the matter—I am not now speaking with the authority of any ambassador, certainly not with the formal approval of our Foreign Office. It has occurred to me—I will put it that way. It has occurred to me that the matter might be settled quite satisfactorily to all parties, to the Emperor certainly if—— The King of Megalia is, I think, unmarried.”
“There’s Madame Ypsilante,” said Gorman, “a lady——”
“A lady! Pooh! In these cases there is always a lady. But the King is unmarried. Miss Donovan, so we understand, wishes to be a queen. You catch my meaning?”
“Perfectly. You want me to arrange a marriage between——”
“My dear Mr. Gorman! I want nothing of the sort. I do not ask you to arrange anything. I merely say that if such a marriage were to take place the Emperor would probably be satisfied. I am aware that the personal character of King Konrad Karl is not such—— But he is a young man. There are possibilities of improvement.”
“There’s certainly room for it.”
“Exactly. And the influence of a good woman is just what is needed. A young, sweet, innocent girl has a marvellous influence. She appeals to that best which is present even in the worst of us.” Sir Bartholomew liked this phrase. He repeated it. “That best, that astonishing best, which is always present even in the worst of us. She might call it out. She might make a new man of King Konrad Karl.”
Gorman looked at Sir Bartholomew with an expression of grave and interested inquiry.
“You think that if Miss Donovan married the King she would save him from the clutches of Madame Ypsilante.”
“Not a doubt of it. And what a splendid thing that would be! It’s just the sort of an idea which would make a strong appeal to a girl. Women like the idea of reforming their husbands. Besides, the prospect for her is in other respects most brilliant. She would be recognized by the Emperor. She would be received in the most exclusive Courts of Europe. But I need not expatiate. You understand the position.”
“I don’t remember any case of an American heiress marrying a king,” said Gorman.
“Just so. This would be unique, splendid. And I need not say, Mr. Gorman, that if you see your way to oblige us in this matter your services will not go unrecognized. If there is any particular way in which you would like us to show our appreciation you have only to mention it. The next Honours List——”
“All right,” said Gorman, “I’ll go. Where is Salissa?”
“In the Cyrenian Sea. It’s an island. Quite charming, I believe. I am sure you will enjoy the trip. Your best plan will be to see Steinwitz about the matter. Steinwitz is managing director——”
“Quite so. I know him. Cyrenian Sea Steam Navigation Company.”
“His ships go there,” said Sir Bartholomew. “I have no doubt that he will arrange for you to make the voyage comfortably. I may mention, between ourselves, that Steinwitz is interested in the success of the negotiations.”
“Acting for the Emperor?”
“Well, yes. Unofficially. He is in a certain sense the agent of the Emperor.”
“All right,” said Gorman. “I’ll see him. And if I pull the thing off I may count on——?”
“You may ask for what you like,” said Sir Bartholomew. “You’ve only got to drop me a hint. Anything in reason. A knighthood? Or a baronetcy? I think we could manage a baronetcy. A post in the Government? A Civil List pension? Your services to literature fully entitle you——”
“On the whole,” said Gorman, “I think I’ll ask for Home Rule for Ireland.”
“Ah,” said Sir Bartholomew, “you Irish! Always witty! Always sparkling, paradoxical, brilliant! I shall tell the Prime Minister what you say. He’ll enjoy it. What should we do without you Irish? Life would be dull indeed. What is it the poet says? Wordsworth, I think. ‘Turning to mirth, All things of earth, As only boyhood can.’ You are all boys. That is why we love you. Your freshness. Your delightful capacity for the absurd. I feel that in choosing you for this delicate mission we have chosen the right man. Only an Irishman could hope to succeed in an affair of this kind. Good-bye, Mr. Gorman, and be sure to let me know in good time what we are to do for you. I’ll charge myself with seeing that your claim is not overlooked.”