The Secretary of War ended his statement. " That is all there is to tell, gentlemen, concerning the building of the new transports."
I had closed my notebook and was rising, as Ordway, the private secretary, entered.
" May I give the correspondents that freak letter that came this morning ? " he asked. His chief nodded indulgently and left the room. I opened my notebook expectantly.
" This is a very serious matter, and a great piece of news," Ordway remarked in a mock grandiose manner. " It is a declaration of war against the civilized world in the interests of peace." He threw himself into an oratorical posture and began:
" To the United States of America and to all other nations — Greeting! "
" Whereas war has too long devastated the earth and the time has now come for peace, I, the man destined to stop all war, hereby declare unto you that you shall, each and all, disarm; that your troops shall be disbanded, your navies sunk or turned to peaceful ends, your fortifications dismantled. One year from this date will I allow for disarmament and no more. At the end of that time, if no heed has been paid to my injunction, I will destroy, in rapid succession, every battleship in the world. By the happenings of the next two months you shall know that my words are the words of truth.
" Given under my hand and seal this first of June, 19—
" Signed —
" The man who will stop all war."
Ordway ceased and a laughing clamor rose.
" The biggest crank yet." " Where was it mailed ? " " I thought you said you had something really good this time." " Do you suppose he sent it to any other country than the United States ? "
Ordway raised his hand for a hearing and replied to the last question. " The letter was mailed from London, and was sent to other countries. I read the missive to one of the English attaches when it came, and he looked the matter up. This notice has been sent to all the foreign chancelleries, as well as the departments of war and of the navy. It has been done in such a wholesale fashion that I thought you could use it for a column anyway."
" But is it such a fool idea ? " asked Reid, one of the older correspondents. " Couldn't a man build a submarine in which he could run amuck and destroy battleship after battleship, something as old Jules Verne's Captain Nemo did ? "
" Not to-day," said Ordway emphatically. " The new armor of the last years, with its permanent torpedo nets, has stopped all that. The only way you can destroy a modern battleship is by ramming, or by another battleship. The day of the torpedo boat and of the submarine ended almost as it began,"
" Well," said Reid argumentatively, " why couldn't a man have a battleship ? Any one of five hundred men living to-day could afford it."
" No battleship could be built by a private citizen without some nation knowing it and stopping it," said Ordway seriously. " It takes months, reaching into years, to build one. It takes skilled naval constructors, hundreds of workmen and thousands of tons of material that must be bought in the markets of the world."
" Let's see the paper it's written on," I said.
As I held the message, Reid looked over my shoulder and read for a moment. Then, turning, he cried, " Come over here, boys, and look at this a little more closely. That's old parchment, just like that of some of those papal bulls in the glass cases over in the library."
As he spoke a sudden remembrance flashed across me. " Anybody got a microscope around here ? " I asked quickly.
" There's a reading glass," said Ordway, and opening a drawer he handed one to me. I took the paper to the sunlit window, and began examining it closely with the lens. The rest watched me curiously. At last I shook my head. " No use," I exclaimed. " I thought I had a clue, but it didn't pan out. There's a good story though, without anything more. Here, Ordway," and I handed back the letter.
The other correspondents moved away, seeking fresh fields for copy, but I lingered a moment as John King, my classmate at Columbia and my good friend, stepped forward to bid Ordway goodbye. As I watched his deeply lined, melancholy face and his emaciated form, I wondered if wealth had not come to him too late.
"Good-bye, Ordway," said John. "This is the last you'll see of me. I'm through with the daily grind at six o'clock to-night."
" I'm sorry to hear that in one way, King," said Ordway gravely. " I felt last year when you went abroad that you were running down hill and I expected, when I heard you had come into your uncle's money, that you would pull out. What are you going to do ? "
"Oh ! I shall travel again for a bit," replied John. " There are some things I want to do before I get through with this old earth, if I am to get through."
" You'll be all right," answered Ordway. " I only wish I had your chance. There's my bell now. You see how it is — tied like a slave to the wheels of the chariot, etc. But good luck, anyway, and good-bye."
He gave John a friendly grasp, and as he turned away, threw the massive folded sheet, which he still held, into the waste basket. " I guess we won't file that with the state documents," he said laughing. " Good-bye, and good luck once more."
We parted and John and I started down the corridor. We had gone but a few steps when exclaiming, " There, I've left my stick," I turned swiftly back, recovered the letter from its place in the waste basket, and emerged with my cane. Silently we walked down the broad avenue until, just before we reached my office, I turned sharply.
" Come in here," I said, dragging John into a cafe. We sat down at one of the small tables. " You used to do the Smithsonian and scientific stories for your paper, didn't you ? " I asked.
John was sitting staring into vacancy. He paid no attention to my question and I repeated it twice before he turned nervously with a shake of the head and asked sharply, " What is it ? "
I repeated the question once more.
" Yes," he said abstractedly.
" Well, who do you know that owns any radium ?"
He thought for a moment and said slowly, "Why, the Smithsonian people have a little, of course, and there's some in half a dozen places in the city."
" But from whom could we get some most easily ? " I inquired.
" Oh ! I know," he answered. " Dorothy Hal-dane has some. She's here in Washington working with part of her brother's radium, and she's with her cousin Mrs. Hartnell."
" Who's Dorothy Haldane ? Any relation to Tom Haldane who was just ahead of us, the chap who went into the Physical Laboratory at Columbia and who's doing private research now ? "
" His sister. She is Barnard A. M., and his research assistant."
" Regular bluestocking," I remarked with some dislike, for the learned research woman never appealed to me.
" Oh, no," said John. " Not at all. She is one of the prettiest, nicest girls I ever knew."
" Any feeling about your remarks, John ? " I said hopefully.
" Of course not," he answered with some irritation. " There'll never be any more feeling. Since Anna's death there can't be. I know you'll like Dorothy, though. What do you want her radium for ? "
" There's just a chance that I may have a scoop, and if you'll take me up there to-night I'll let you in."
" I'll take you up there," said John, " but you can have your scoop to yourself. For the last word of copy I ever write will be in print before we call."
That afternoon came an unexpected Cabinet change. For hours I interviewed, and wrote, telephoned and telegraphed, reaching my room at half after eight, to find John just ready to leave without me. He had written the story of the man who was to stop all war, only to see it killed by more important news. His experience had been that of every man in the secretary's office, a common fate in the crowding rush of newspaper life. I had never seen John more distrait than that night, and we walked up to the Hartnells in utter silence.
I so completely expected, despite John's assurances, to find a stooping, bespectacled student type inside the Hartnells' door, that the girl who rose as I entered gave me a sudden shock of amazement and delight. She was the sunniest, daintiest type of American girl you could meet the country through. Her mobile face was lit with glowing life and interest in the world around. Her fine firm form showed no trace of scholastic life. Her laugh was like rippling water. Her eyes held the fine deep beauty of a summer's night. With her was a dark and clear-cut Southerner who was introduced to me as Richard Regnier. The talk went hither and thither until John broached my search for radium.
" What is your need of radium, Mr. Orrington ? " said Miss Haldane.
I hesitated for a moment and John broke in. " Don't be afraid of Regnier, Jim. He's no newspaper man. He's a reformer like myself. We're co-members of the Tuberculosis League and the Civic League and the Peace Society. Now what's up ? You haven't told me yet."
So urged, I told the story of the morning and brought forth the heavy parchment which I had retrieved from the waste basket. Regnier sat immobile during the whole tale, though Dorothy broke into it with pointed questions a dozen times.
" That's what I want the radium for," I said in ending.
" But what has radium to do with that letter ? " asked John.
" Just this," I replied. " As you may have seen, I held that letter to the light under a reading glass, which acted as a burning glass, for some minutes. I was looking for invisible ink, which could be brought out by heating. I didn't find any, but as I turned away, the paper came for a moment into the shadow and I saw a slight gleam like the glimmer of phosphorescence on water. Now last year I met an old scientist, Von Meyren, who happened to mention that he had found that certain inks which had been used for parchments in olden times held a substance which becomes phosphorescent when exposed to radium. He got a second letter in that way once, from beneath a message one of the Popes sent to a king of France. You see parchment was and is expensive, and hard to get. They used the same piece over and over again, removing the old inks by scraping or dissolving. Somehow the radium brought out the stuff that had been apparently removed. When Reid said ' Papal Bulls ' it gave me an idea. It is barely possible that the man who wrote the letter might have written something on that piece of parchment before and then erased it, I thought I'd try radium on the chance. There may be nothing in it, but it will do no harm, will it. Miss Haldane ? "
" Oh, no," said Miss Haldane. " I have some of my brother's radium right here. I'll bring it down and we'll expose the letter to it."
A moment later she returned, this time with her cousin Mrs. Hartnell. " Now we will darken the room," she said, holding out a small lead case with hinged cover, " and try this wonder worker. But you must not move from your places. If you get in the way of the rays, you are likely to be badly burned."
We were grouped in a semi-circle before a bared table whereon was placed the open letter in a holder, confronted with the leaden casket. I was given the place of honor, directly in front, and Miss Haldane put her chair beside mine. Carefully she opened the hinged door in the front of the radium holder, stepped to the switch, threw off the electric light, and came to sit beside me.
We waited in perfect silence, our eyes bent on the blackness before us. I could hear her regular breathing, I could feel the brush of her skirt as she leaned forward, and I forgot all else, — the noise of the city without, the audience within, both disappeared from my consciousness. There was but a vast rolling ocean of blackness, and she and I, bound by a swiftly tightening chain, were being dragged closer and closer together. Old Von Meyren's pet saying, " Love ! Pah ! What is it but an excess of positive electrons in a certain man, urging him towards the negative electrons in a certain woman ? " kept ringing in my ears, the while I indignantly refuted it. Again and again it persisted, and with it came the thought that the waves from the radium were the chain which bound us.
I had forgotten the letter utterly when suddenly I heard a slight catch in the regular breathing beside me, and a soft warm hand, raised swiftly, brushed mine for a moment as it was raised. The sharp thrill shook me into consciousness. I looked before me, and there, glimmering into light, a single curve came from the darkness, then a straight line, then appeared a large U. One by one letters filled out, whole words appeared, — " United States " first, " July " second, and a single capital " I " next. Word after word appeared. Half lines filled into sentences. I could hear behind me a quick, almost sobbing breath that half penetrated my mind, but leaning forward close beside was Miss Haldane. At last in a clear low voice she began to read, " I, the man who will stop all war, hereby declare that I will destroy one battleship of the United States during the first week of July, 19—, one battleship of England during the second week of July, 19—, one battleship of France during the third week of July, 19—, one battleship of Germany during the fourth week of July, 19—. I shall follow that destruction by sinking, in regular order, one battleship of each of the other great powers. May the Lord have mercy on the souls of them who suffer for the cause of peace ! "
She stopped and we waited, watching the glowing signal for what seemed hours, for what was minutes. No more appeared, though the brightness of the words of the second message did not dim. At last Miss Haldane rose and with a quick movement turned on the lights and shut the cover. The letter returned to its former appearance. I sat blinking. Regnier still sat immobile. John held his face in his hands. Mrs. Hartnell sat with closed eyes.
" Do you believe it ? " I asked Miss Haldane quickly.
She nodded gravely. " It's what he means to do," she said. " He wrote it that way first, and then erased it and made it general afterwards."
" I don't believe it," said Mrs. Hartnell, sharply. " It's impossible."
" It certainly doesn't seem probable," said John, at last raising his face. Regnier alone did not speak.
For a moment we were silent, each busy with the thoughts the message had roused within him. At last I rose with an effort. " Good-night, Miss Haldane," I said, " I thank you for your help."
" I am very glad you brought the letter to me," she said simply, " I am going back to New York to-morrow so I cannot ask you to call upon me here, but if you are in New York won't you come and see me and give me any news you may have of this threatening peril? "
" I shall be only too glad to do so," I responded. My heart bounding, I had reached the door when Miss Haldane called after me.
" Oh, Mr. Orrington, would you be willing to let me have the letter ? I should like to show it to my brother. I'll send it to you any time you wish."
" Certainly you may have it," I replied, and I handed her the parchment.
Regnier left the house with John and me. We walked in silence to the corner where Regnier turned off. As we parted, he hesitated for a moment.
" You were strangely right in your surmise, Mr. Orrington," he said slowly. " I am very glad to have been present at so curious an event."
" Queer chap Regnier," said John musingly, as we watched the retreating form. " Clever scientist and good fellow, but queer. I hope he'll never get Dorothy Haldane. She wouldn't be happy with him."
My heart sank like lead. " Do you think there's much chance that he will ? " I queried anxiously.
" To tell the truth," answered John slowly, " I don't know." We had come by this time to the door of John's hotel. " I'm not going to ask you up to-night. Jim," he said, " I'm utterly fagged out and exhausted. Besides, I must get off early in the morning. So good-night and good-bye both."
He paused and I could see the muscles of his face twitching and his hands nervously clasping. He went on with a rush, " Don't forget me while I'm gone, old man, will you ? Remember our commencement night when we walked up Riverside, and talked of the great future lying before us ? Of all I cared for then, not one remains except yourself. Of all the health and vigor I had then, only a shred is left. I shall not see you for two years anyway. There's nobody left to write to me. Don't forget me. Drop me a line occasionally, care Barings, will you ? "
With such an intensity of pleading came the last words that I was shaken despite myself. " Write you ? I guess I will," I cried. " Don't you worry about that." We grasped hands and parted.