Lord Romsey sprang to his feet.
“Good God, man! Do you know what you are saying?” he exclaimed.
“Perfectly,” the other replied. “I told you that my errand was a serious one. Shall I proceed?”
The Minister slowly resumed his seat. From behind the electric lamp his face was ghastly white. In that brief pause which followed he seemed to be looking through the walls of the room into an ugly chapter of his future. He saw the headlines in the newspapers, the leading articles, the culmination of all the gossip and mutterings of the last few months, the end of his political career—a disgraceful and ignoble end! Surely no man had ever been placed in so painful a predicament. It was treason to parley. It was disgraceful to send this man away.
“Germany wants peace,” his visitor continued calmly. “She may not have accomplished all she wished to have accomplished by this war, and she is still as strong as ever from a military point of view, but she wants peace. I need say no more than that.”
Lord Romsey shook his head.
“Even if I had the influence, which I haven’t,” he began, “it isn’t a matter of the Government at all. The country would never stand it.”
“Then you had better convert the country,” was the prompt reply. “Look upon it as your duty. Remember this—you are the man in all this world, and not the Kaiser, who is responsible for this war. But for your solemn words pledging your country to neutrality, Germany would never have forced the issue as she has done. Now it is for you to repair the evil. I tell you that we want peace. The first overtures may come ostensibly through Washington, if you will, but they must come in reality from you.”
The Minister leaned back in his chair. His was the calmness of despair.
“You might as well ask me,” he said simply, “to order our Fleet out of the North Sea.”
Mr. Sidney rose to his feet.
“I think,” he advised, “that you had better try what you can do, Lord Romsey. We shall give you little time. We may even extend it, if we find traces of your influence. You have two colleagues, at least, who are pacifists at heart. Take them on one side, talk in a whisper at first. Plant just a little seed but be careful that it grows. We do not expect impossibilities, only—remember what failure will mean to you.”
Lord Romsey looked steadfastly at his visitor. Mr. Sidney was tall and spare, and there was certainly nothing of the Teuton or the American in his appearance or accent. His voice was characterless, his restraint almost unnatural. Relieved of his more immediate fears, the Minister was conscious of a renewed instinct of strong curiosity.
“How can I communicate with you, Mr.—Sidney?” he asked.
“In no way,” the other replied. “When I think it advisable I shall come to see you again.”
“Are you an American or a German or an Englishman?”