‘Ah,’ said Lord Durwent, sighting a messenger from over the egg-timer, ‘here are the papers.’
Directly afterwards the butler entered with the four morning journals, solemnly presented them to his master (with a little more dignity than a Foreign Minister displays in handing the ambassador of an enemy country his passports), then made his exit with his eyes sedately raised, to avoid noting more than was necessary of the ‘behind-stage’ aspect of his domain.
‘Hello!’ said Lord Durwent, perusing the Morning Post; ’what’s this? Austria has delivered an ultimatum to Servia.’
‘What!’ cried one of the ladies; ’over that unpronounceable assassination?’
‘Dear me!’ said the woman who kept record of retired royalties, ’that will upset my dear friend Empress——’
But her voice was lost in the clamour, as every one, deserting breakfast, crowded about Lord Durwent, and half in jest demanded to know what the ramshackle empire had to say for itself.
In a voice that grew tremulous with anger, the host read the details, point by point, and as the seriousness of the thing broke upon the hearers, even the very lightest tongues were for the moment stilled.
With a frown the nobleman looked up as he reached the end of the ultimatum, in which one nation, for its pride, demanded that another should hand over its honour, debased and shackled.
‘It is infamous,’ said Lord Durwent.
‘I tell you what,’ said a bland youth named Maynard, who was always in high spirits at breakfast, bored at lunch, ‘frightfully bucked’ by a cup of tea at four, and invariably sentimental after dinner; ’it would do these nasty little Balkans a lot of good to hold ’em all under water for about three minutes—what?’
‘But this is more than a Balkan quarrel,’ said Lord Durwent.
‘Balkan quarrels always are,’ said the youth amiably.
In a chorus of quick questions and answers, in which surmise and conjecture played ducks and drakes with fact, the party divided into two camps, the majority taking the stand that it was a local affair and would lead to nothing; the minority, led by a retired army captain called Fensome, reading a dark augury for the future. In the midst of all the chaffing Selwyn noticed, however, that the placidity of decorum had been dropped, and both men and women were leaning forward in the unaccustomed stimulus of their brains rallying to meet a new and powerful situation.
The men did not lose that note of easy banter which seemed the rule when women were present, but in the faces of the little group who contended that danger was ahead he could detect the stiffening of the jaw and the steadying of the eye which come to those who see events riding towards them with the threat of a prairie fire driven by a wind.
‘But, good heavens!’ said Selwyn, in answer to some one’s prophecy that war would result, ’surely the big nations can stop it. Germany and you and America—we three won’t let Austria cut Servia’s throat in full daylight.’