The Emerald Pendant by George A. Birmingham
Even as a schoolboy, Bland-Potterton was fussy and self-important At the university--Balliol was his college--he was regarded as a coming man, likely to make his mark in the world. This made him more fussy and more self-important. When he became a recognised authority on Near Eastern affairs he became pompous and more fussy than ever. His knighthood, granted in 1918, and an inevitable increase in waist measurement emphasised his pompousness without diminishing his fussiness. When the craze for creating new departments of state was at its height, Bland-Potterton, then Sir Bartholomew, was made Head of the Ministry for Balkan Affairs. It was generally felt that the right man had been put into the right place. Sir Bartholomew looked like a Minister, talked like a Minister, and, what is more important, felt like a Minister. Indeed he felt like a Cabinet Minister, though he had not yet obtained that rank. Sir Bartholomew's return from Bournmania was duly advertised in the newspapers. Paragraphs appeared every day for a week hinting at a diplomatic coup which would affect the balance of power in the Balkans and materially shorten the war. Gorman, who knew Sir Bartholomew well, found a good deal of entertainment in the newspaper paragraphs. He had been a journalist himself for many years. He understood just whom the paragraphs came from and how they got into print. He was a little surprised, but greatly interested, when he received a note from Sir Bartholomew.
"My dear Mr. Gorman," he read, "can you make it convenient to lunch with me one day next week? Shall we say in my room in the office of the Ministry--the Feodora Hotel, Piccadilly--at 1.30 p.m. There is a matter of some importance--of considerable national importance--about which we are most anxious to obtain your advice and your help. Will you fix the earliest possible day? The condition of the Near East demands--urgently demands--our attention. I am, my dear Mr. Gorman, yours, etc...."
Gorman without hesitation fixed Monday, which is the earliest day in any week except Sunday, and he did not suppose that the offices of the Ministry of Balkan Affairs would be open on Sunday.
It is not true, though it is frequently said, that Sir Bartholomew retained the services of the chef of the Feodora Hotel when he took over the building for the use of his Ministry. It is well known that Sir Bartholomew--in his zeal for the public service--often lunched in his office and sometimes invited men whom he wanted to see on business, to lunch with him. They reported that the meals they ate were uncommonly good, as the meals of a Minister of State certainly ought to be. It was no doubt in this way that the slanderous story about the chef arose and gained currency. Gorman did not believe it, because he knew that the Feodora chef had gone to Beaufort's Hotel when the other was taken over by the Government. But Gorman fully expected a good luncheon, nicely served in one of the five rooms set apart for Sir Bartholomew's use in the hotel.
He was not disappointed. The sole was all that anyone could ask. The salmi which followed it was good, and even the Feodora chef could not have sent up a better rum omelette.
Sir Bartholomew was wearing a canary-coloured waistcoat with mother-of-pearl buttons.
It seemed to Gorman that the expanse of yellow broadened as luncheon went on. Perhaps it actually did. Perhaps an atmosphere of illusion was created by the port which followed an excellent bottle of sauterne. Yellow is a cheerful colour, and Sir Bartholomew's waistcoat increased the vague feeling of hopeful well-being which the luncheon produced.
"Affairs in the Near East," said Sir Bartholomew, "are at present in a critical position."
"Always are, aren't they?" said Gorman. "Some affairs are like that, Irish affairs for instance."
Sir Bartholomew frowned slightly. He hated levity. Then the good wine triumphing over the dignity of the bureaucrat, he smiled again.
"You Irishmen!" he said. "No subject is serious for you. That is your great charm. But I assure you, Mr. Gorman, that we are at this moment passing through a crisis."
"If there's anything I can do to help you--" said Gorman. "A crisis is nothing to me. I have lived all my life in the middle of one. That's the worst of Ireland. Crisis is her normal condition."
"I think----" Sir Bartholomew lowered his voice although there was no one in the room to overhear him. "I think, Mr. Gorman, that you are acquainted with the present King of Megalia."
"If you mean Konrad Karl," said Gorman, "I should call him the late king. They had a revolution there, you know, and hunted him out, I believe Megalia is a republic now."
"None of the Great Powers," said Sir Bartholomew, "has ever recognised the Republic of Megalia."
He spoke as if what he said disposed of the Megalians finally. The front of his yellow waistcoat expanded when he mentioned the Great Powers. This was only proper. A man who speaks with authority about Great Powers ought to swell a little.
"The Megalian people," he went on, "have hitherto preserved a strict neutrality."
"So the king gave me to understand," said Gorman, "He says his late subjects go about and plunder their neighbours impartially. They don't mind a bit which side anybody is on so long as there is a decent chance of loot."
"The Megalians," said Sir Bartholomew, "are a fighting race, and in the critical position of Balkan Affairs--a delicate equipoise--" He seemed taken with the phrase for he repeated it--"A remarkably delicate equipoise--the intervention of the Megalian Army would turn the scale and--I feel certain--decide the issue. All that is required to secure the action of the Megalians is the presence in the country of a leader, someone whom the people know and recognise, someone who can appeal to the traditional loyalty of a chivalrous race, in short----"
"You can't be thinking of the late king?" said Gorman. "They're not the least loyal to him. They deposed him, you know. In fact by his account--I wasn't there myself at the time--but he told me that they tried to hang him. He says that if they ever catch him they certainly will hang him. He doesn't seem to have hit it off with them."
Sir Bartholomew waved these considerations aside.
"An emotional and excitable people," he said, "but, believe me, Mr. Gorman, warm-hearted, and capable of devotion to a trusted leader. They will rally round the king, if----"
"I'm not at all sure," said Gorman, "that the king will care about going there to be rallied round. It's a risk, whatever you say."
"I appreciate that point," said Sir Bartholomew. "Indeed it is just because I appreciate it so fully that I am asking for your advice and help, Mr. Gorman. You know the king. You are, I may say, his friend."
"Pretty nearly the only friend he has," said Gorman.
"Exactly. Now I, unfortunately--I fear that the king rather dislikes me."
"You weren't at all civil to him when he offered you the Order of the Pink Vulture; but I don't think he has any grudge against you on that account. He's not the sort of man who bears malice. The real question is--what is the king to get out of it? What are you offering him?"
"The Allies," said Sir Bartholomew, "would recognise him as the King of Megalia, and--er--of course, support him."
"I don't think he'd thank you for that," said Gorman, "but you can try him if you like."
Sir Bartholomew, on reflection, was inclined to agree with Gorman. Mere recognition, though agreeable to any king, is unsubstantial, and the support suggested was evidently doubtful.
"What else?" He spoke in a very confidential tone. "What other inducement would you suggest our offering? We are prepared to go a long way--to do a good deal----"
"Unfortunately for you," said Gorman, "the king is pretty well off at present. He got £6,000 three weeks ago out of Bilkins--the man who ran the egg swindle--and until that's spent he won't feel the need of money. If you could wait six weeks--I'm sure he'll be on the rocks again in six weeks--and then offer a few thousand----"
"But we can't wait," said Sir Bartholomew. "Affairs in the Near East are most critical. Unless the Megalian Army acts at once----"
"In that case," said Gorman, "the only thing for you to do is to try Madame Ypsilante."
"That woman!" said Sir Bartholomew. "I really cannot---- You must see, Mr. Gorman, that for a man in my position----"
"Is there a Lady Bland-Potterton?" said Gorman. "I didn't know."
"I'm not married," said Sir Bartholomew. "When I speak of my position--I mean my position as a member of the Government----"
"Madame has immense influence with the king," said Gorman.
"Yes. Yes. But the woman--the--er--lady has no recognised status. She----"
"Just at present," said Gorman, "she is tremendously keen on emeralds. She has got a new evening dress from Emile and there's nothing she wants more than an emerald pendant to wear with it. I'm sure she'd do her best to persuade the king to go back to Megalia if----"
"But I don't think--" said Sir Bartholomew. "Really, Mr. Gorman----"
"I'm not suggesting that you should pay for it yourself," said Gorman. "Charge it up against the Civil List or the Secret Service Fund, or work it in under 'Advances to our Allies.' There must be some way of doing it, and I really think it's your best chance."
Sir Bartholomew talked for nearly an hour. He explained several times that it was totally impossible for him to negotiate with Madame Ypsilante. The idea of bribing her with an emerald pendant shocked him profoundly. But he was bent on getting King Konrad Karl to go back to Megalia. That seemed to him a matter of supreme importance for England, for Europe and the world. In the end, after a great deal of consultation, a plan suggested itself. Madame should have her emeralds sent to her anonymously. Gorman undertook to explain to her that she was expected, by way of payment for the emeralds, to persuade the king to go back to Megalia and once more occupy the throne. Sir Bartholomew Bland-Potterton would appear at the last moment as the accredited representative of the Allied Governments, and formally lay before the king the proposal for the immediate mobilisation of the Megallian Army.
"I shall have a lot of work and worry," said Gorman, "and I'm not asking anything for myself; but if the thing comes off----"
"You can command the gratitude of the Cabinet," said Sir Bartholomew, "and anything they can do for you--an O.B.E., now, or even a knighthood------"
"No thank you," said Gorman, "but if you could see your way to starting a few munition works in Upper Offaly, my constituency, you know. The people are getting discontented, and I'm not at all sure that they'll return me at the next election unless something is done for them now."
"You shall have an aeroplane factory," said Sir Bartholomew, "two in fact. I think I may safely promise two--and shells--would your people care for making shells?"
The plan worked out exceedingly well. The pendant which Madame Ypsilante received was very handsome. It contained fourteen stones of unusual size set in circles of small diamonds. She was delighted, and thoroughly understood what was expected of her. A Government engineer went down to Upper Offaly, and secured, at enormous expense, sites for three large factories. The men who leased the land were greatly pleased, everyone else looked forward to a period of employment at very high wages, and Gorman became very popular even among the extreme Sinn Feiners. Sir Bartholomew Bland-Potterton went about London, purring with satisfaction like a large cat, and promising sensational events in the Near East which would rapidly bring the war to an end. Only King Konrad Karl was a little sad.
"Gorman, my friend," he said, "I go back to that thrice damned country and I die. They will hang me by the neck until I am dead as a door mat."
"They may not," said Gorman. "You can't be certain."
"You do not know Megalia," said the king. "It is sure, Gorman, what you would call a dead shirt. But Corinne, my beloved Corinne, says 'Go. Be a king once more.' And I--I am a blackguard, Gorman. I know it. I am not respectable. I know it. But I am a lover. I am capable of a great passion. I wave my hand. I smile. I kiss Corinne. I face the tune of the band. I say 'Behold, damn it, and Great Scott!--at the bidding of Corinne, I die.'"
"If I were you," said Gorman, "I'd conscript every able-bodied man in the country directly I got there and put the entire lot into a front line trench. There won't be anyone left to assassinate you then."
"Alas! There are the Generals and the Staff. It is not possible, Gorman, even in Megalia, to put the Staff into a trench, and that is enough. One General only and his Staff. They come to the palace. They say 'In the name of the Republic, so that the world may be safe for democracy--' and then--! There is a rope. There is a flag staff. I float in the air. They cheer. I am dead. I know it. But it is for Corinne. Good."
It was in this mood of chivalrous high romance that the king received Sir Bartholomew Bland-Potterton. Gorman was present during the interview. He had made a special effort, postponing an important engagement, in order to hear what was said. He expected to be interested and amused. He was not disappointed.
Sir Bartholomew Bland-Potterton was at his very best. He made a long speech about the sacred cause of European civilisation, and the supremely important part which the King of Megalia was called upon to play in securing victory and lasting peace. He also talked about the rights of small nationalities. King Konrad Karl rose to the same level of lofty sentiment in his reply. He went further than Sir Bartholomew for he talked about democracy in terms which were affectionate, a rather surprising thing for a monarch whose power, when he had it, was supposed to be absolute.
"I go," he said. "If necessary I offer up myself as a fatted calf, a sacrifice, a burnt ewe lamb upon the altar of liberty. I say to the people--to my people 'Damn it, cut off my head.' It's what they will do."
"Dear me," said Sir Bartholomew. "Dear me. I trust not. I hope not. You will have the support, the moral support, of all the Allies. I should be sorry to think--we should all be sorry----"
The king, who was standing in the middle of the hearthrug, struck a fine attitude, laying his hand on his breast.
"It will be as I say," he said. "Gorman knows. Corinne, though she says 'No, no, never,' she knows. The people of Megalia, what are they? I will tell you. Butchers and pigs. Pork butchers. To them it is sport to kill a king. But you say 'Go,' and Gorman says 'Go.' And the cause of Europe says 'Go.' And Corinne she also. Good. The Prime Minister of Megalia trots out his hatchet. I say 'By Jove, here is my neck."
Sir Bartholomew Bland-Pottertan was greatly affected. He even promised that a British submarine would patrol the Megalian coast with a view to securing the king's safety. He might perhaps have gone on to offer a squadron of aeroplanes by way of body-guard, but while he was speaking, Madame burst into the room.
She was evidently highly excited. Her face, beneath its coating of powder, was flushed. Her eyes were unusually bright. Her hair--a most unusual thing with her--appeared to be coming down. She rushed straight to the king and flung her arms round his neck.
"Konrad," she said, "my Konrad. You shall not go to Megalia. Never, never will I say 'Be a King.' Never shall you live with those so barbarous people. I said 'Go.' I admit it. I was wrong, my Konrad. Behold!"
She released the king from her embrace, fumbled in her handbag and drew out a small leather case. She opened it, took out a magnificent looking pendant. She flung it on the ground and trampled on it. Gorman stepped forward to rescue the emeralds.
"Don't do that," he said. "Hang it all! Don't. Give the thing back if you like, but don't destroy it. Those stones must be immensely valuable."
"Valuable!" Madame's voice rose to a shriek. "What is valuable compared to the safety of my Konrad? Valuable? They are worth ten pounds. Ten pounds, Gorman! I took them to Goldstein to-day. He knows jewels, that Goldstein. He is expert and he said 'They are shams. They are worth--at most ten pounds.'"
Gorman stared for a moment at the stones which lay on the floor in their crushed setting. Then he turned to Sir Bartholomew.
"You don't mean to say," he said, "that you were such a d----d ass as to send Madame sham stones?"
Sir Bartholomew's face was a sufficient answer to the question. Gorman took him by the arm and led him out of the room without a word.
"You'd better go home," he said. "Madame Ypsilante is violent when roused, and it is not safe for you to stay. But how could you have been such an idiot----!"
"I never thought of her having the stones valued," said Sir Bartholomew.
"Of course she had them valued," said Gorman. "Anyone else in the world would have known that she'd be sure to have them valued. Of all the besotted imbeciles--and they call you a statesman!"
Sir Bartholomew, having got safely into the street, began to recover a little, and attempted a defence of himself.
"But," he said, "a pendant like that--emeralds of that size are enormously expensive. The Government would not have sanctioned it. After all, Mr. Gorman, we are bound to be particularly careful about the expenditure of public funds. It is one of the proudest traditions of British statesmanship that it is scrupulously honourable even to the point of being niggardly in sanctioning the expenditure of the tax-payer's money."
"Good Lord!" said Gorman. "I didn't think--I really did not think that I could be surprised by anything in politics--But when you talk to me--You oughtn't to do it, Potterton. You really ought not. Public funds. Tax-payers' money. Scrupulously honourable, and--niggardly. Good Lord!"