Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.
—Troilus and Cressida.
“The knowledge that you’re alive gives me no pleasure,” growled the grim old Austrian premier.
“Thank you!” laughed John Armitage, to whom he had spoken. “You have lost none of your old amiability; but for a renowned diplomat, you are remarkably frank. When I called on you in Paris, a year ago, I was able to render you—I believe you admitted it—a slight service.”
Count Ferdinand von Stroebel bowed slightly, but did not take his eyes from the young man who sat opposite him in his rooms at the Hotel Monte Rosa in Geneva. On the table between them stood an open despatch box, and about it lay a number of packets of papers which the old gentleman, with characteristic caution, had removed to his own side of the table before admitting his caller. He was a burly old man, with massive shoulders and a great head thickly covered with iron-gray hair.
He trusted no one, and this accounted for his presence in Geneva in March, of the year 1903, whither he had gone to receive the report of the secret agents whom he had lately despatched to Paris on an errand of peculiar delicacy. The agents had failed in their mission, and Von Stroebel was not tolerant of failure. Perhaps if he had known that within a week the tapers would burn about his bier in Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, at Vienna, while his life and public services would be estimated in varying degrees of admiration or execration by the newspapers of Europe, he might not have dealt so harshly with his hard-worked spies.
It was not often that the light in the old man’s eyes was as gentle as now. He had sent his secret agents away and was to return to Vienna on the following day. The young man whom he now entertained in his apartments received his whole attention. He picked up the card which lay on the table and scrutinized it critically, while his eyes lighted with sudden humor.
The card was a gentleman’s carte de visite, and bore the name John Armitage.
“I believe this is the same alias you were using when I saw you in Paris. Where did you get it?” demanded the minister.
“I rather liked the sound of it, so I had the cards made,” replied the young man. “Besides, it’s English, and I pass readily for an Englishman. I have quite got used to it.”
“Which is not particularly creditable; but it’s probably just as well so.”
He drew closer to the table, and his keen old eyes snapped with the intentness of his thought. The hands he clasped on the table were those of age, and it was pathetically evident that he folded them to hide their slight palsy.
“I hope you are quite well,” said Armitage kindly.
“I am not. I am anything but well. I am an old man, and I have had no rest for twenty years.”