AFFAIRS OF STATE
Being an Account of Certain Surprising Adventures Which
Befell an American Family in the Land of Windmills
BURTON E. STEVENSON
AUTHOR OF "THE MARATHON MYSTERY," "THE HOLLADAY CASE," ETC.
With Illustrations by F. VAUX WILSON
TO G. H. T.:
I. THE WILES OF WOMANKIND
II. THE ROLE OF GOOD ANGEL
III. DISTINGUISHED ARRIVALS AT WEET-SUR-MER
IV. AN ADVENTURE AND A RESCUE
V. TELLIER TAKES A HAND
VI. THE PATH GROWS CROOKED
VII. AN APPEAL FOR AID
VIII. PRIDE HAS A FALL
IX. PELLETAN'S SKELETON
X. AN INTRODUCTION AND A PROMENADE
XI. THE PRINCE GAINS AN ALLY
XII. EVENTS OF THE NIGHT
XIII. THE SECOND PROMENADE
XIV. A BEARDING OF THE LION
XV. "BE BOLD, BE BOLD"
XVI. A PRINCE AND HIS IDEALS
XVII. THE DUCHESS TO THE RESCUE
XVIII. MAN'S PERFIDY
XIX. AN AMERICAN OPINION OF EUROPEAN MORALS
XX. THE DOWAGER'S BOMBSHELL
"EEF MONSIEUR PLEASE"
"IT WAS MY GREAT GOOD FORTUNE," SAID THE STRANGER, BOWING, "TO BE OF SERVICE TO A COMPATRIOT"
"OH!" SHE CRIED, WITH A LITTLE START, "THERE HE IS NOW, ALMOST NEAR ENOUGH TO HEAR!"
"WHAT IS IT?" SHE DEMANDED. "DON'T YOU SEE WE ARE ALL WAITING?"
AFFAIRS OF STATE
The Wiles of Womankind
Archibald Rushford, tall, lean, the embodiment of energy, stood at the window, hands in pockets, and stared disgustedly out at the dreary vista of sand-dunes and bathing-machines, closed in the distance by a stretch of gray sea mounting toward a horizon scarcely discernible through the drifting mist which hung above the water.
"Though why you wanted to come here at all," he continued, presumably addressing two young ladies in the room behind him, "or why you want to stay, now you are here, passes my comprehension. One might as well be buried alive, and be done with it. The sensations, I should imagine, are about the same."
"Oh, come, dad!" protested one of the girls, laughing, "you know it isn't so bad as that! There's plenty of life—not just at this hour of the morning, perhaps,"—with a fleeting glance at the empty landscape,—"but the hour is unfashionable."
"As everything seasonable and sensible seems to be here," put in her father, grimly.
"And such interesting life, too," added the other girl.
"Interesting! Bah! When I want to see monkeys and peacocks, I'll go to a menagerie."
"But you never do go to the menagerie, at home, you know, dad."
"No—because I don't care for monkeys or peacocks—in fact, I particularly detest them!"
"But lions, dad! There are lions—"
"In the menagerie at home, perhaps."
"Yes, and in this one—bigger lions than you ever dreamed of, dad!—perfect monsters of lions!"
"Oh, no, there aren't, Susie," dissented Rushford. "You don't know the species. You've mistaken a bray for a roar, just as a lot of people always do, if the bray is only loud enough. Come, now, let me know the worst. How much longer do you propose to stay here?"
"Well, dad, you see the season won't be at its height for fully a month yet—"
"A month!" echoed Rushford, in dismay. "Well, Susie, you and Nell may be able to stand it for a month, but long ere that I'll be dead—ossified, fossilised, dried up, and blown away! Maybe you girls enjoy it, though I didn't think it of you—but what can I do? I'm tired of reading day-before-yesterday's newspaper and of being two days behind the market. Two days! Think what may have happened to steel since I've heard from it! It's enough to drive a man mad!"
He got out a cigar, lighted it, and stood puffing it nervously, appalled at the vision his own words had conjured up.
"But, dad," Sue pointed out, coming to his side and taking his arm coaxingly, "you know it was just to get away from all that worry—from those horrid stocks and things—that you consented to come with us."
"Don't call the stocks hard names, Susie. Don't go back on your best friends!" protested Rushford. "Don't forget what they've done for you!"
"But, dear, you remember how strongly Doctor Samuels insisted on your taking a rest; how necessary he said it was?"
"Oh, perfectly!" responded Rushford, drily. "I've suspected right along that Samuels took his orders from you."
"From me, dad!" cried Sue, indignantly, but her eyes were shining in a most suspicious manner. "A man of his standing—"
"It doesn't matter," broke in her father, with a wave of his arm. "I'm willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that Samuels was perfectly sincere. But I still protest that there is no reason why we should conceal ourselves here. We haven't done anything—the police aren't after us—I can speak for myself, at least."
"This seemed to be such a nice, quiet place for you, dad," explained Nell, perching herself upon a table near the window and gazing pensively out at the shimmering water, which told that the sun was winning a decisive victory over the mist, and that the day would be a fine one.
"For me!" repeated her father, turning and staring at her. "You don't mean to say you chose this place on my account!"
Nell nodded, but she winked at Susie.
"And then, you know," she added, "we have always wanted to get a glimpse of a real Dutch watering-place."
"I don't believe this is a real Dutch watering-place. Nobody here speaks anything but French. Why, it's even got a French name!"
"Only two-thirds French, dad," Sue corrected.
"And everything is priced in francs."
"That is true of all Europe," asserted Nell, with superb aplomb.
"Well, Dutch, French, or Hindoo, you've had your glimpse, haven't you? Suppose we move on and get a glimpse or two of something worth seeing."
"Oh, but we've seen it all only from the outside! We've been like the audience at a show—we haven't had any part in it. And it's so much more interesting behind the scenes!"
"It's dull enough from in front, heaven knows!" agreed Rushford. "If I had my way, I'd ring down the curtain and close the show up this minute. It's the worst I ever saw! And I very much doubt if a respectable American family has any business behind the scenes!"
"You're jaundiced, dad," laughed Sue. "You're looking at the place through a yellow film of prejudice. One must enter into the spirit of the thing!"
"I'm afraid I'm too set in my ways, Susie," he said, dismally. "I've lived in America too long. You might as well ask me to dance the can-can, and be done with it!"
"Besides," continued Sue, "it's just as Nell says. We're on the outside—we haven't got a foothold. There's something the matter."
"Maybe they think I'm that Chicago cashier who got away with a million, not long ago. On second thought, though, I don't believe that would make any difference. That fellow would find a very congenial circle here. He wouldn't have any difficulty in getting behind the scenes!"
"Sue and I have been thinking it over," said Nell, "and we've concluded that it must be something about the hotel. We seem to have picked out the wrong one."
"The place is empty, and that's a fact," agreed Rushford.
"It's unnaturally so," said Sue. "Something's the matter with it. It's taboo for some reason."
"Well, it's good enough for me," remarked her father. "After all, there isn't much difference in prisons! But I want to repeat, as emphatically as possible, that I can't keep on loafing here for a month and preserve my sanity. Don't you see how much whiter my hair's getting? I'm willing to do anything in reason to oblige you, and I fully realise the importance of your sociological and ethnological studies—"
Sue's hand on his mouth stopped him.
"Take a breath, dad," she cautioned him. "Take a breath. Those were mighty long words."
"As I was about to remark," continued Rushford, calmly, taking the hand away, "I am, of course, a doting parent—who would not be with two such children? But, candidly, I don't just see where I come in. I tell you, girls, I've got to have some excitement."
"There's plenty of excitement at the Casino, dad."
"Oh, yes—faro excitement; roulette excitement. I never cared for that kind. I've always had the sense to keep out of sure-thing games, even on Wall Street."
"But the people—"
"The people! French apes in fancy waistcoats; Dutch dandies in corsets; women with painted cheeks and pencilled eyebrows whom you're ashamed to look at!"
"Some of them are respectable, dad," laughed Sue.
"One would never suspect it!"
"Oh, yes, dad; some of them belong to the nobility."
"That's no certificate of character—rather the reverse, if one may believe the papers."
"Gossip, dad; nothing but gossip. And you know how you've always hated gossip. You've told us never to believe it."
"It may be; but one could believe anything of most of the women one sees around here. My only chance for amusement is to get up a flirtation with some of them. I don't think it would be difficult—they don't seem a bit shy. Only," he added, with a sigh, "I'm getting too old."
"Yes, dad; I'm afraid you are," agreed Susie. "You wouldn't really enjoy it."
"'My days are in the yellow leaf; The flowers and fruits of love are gone; The worm, the canker, and the grief Are mine alone!'"
quoted Nell, in a solemn voice.
"Don't you be too sure!" retorted her father, threateningly, wheeling around upon her. "There's no telling what I may be driven to, if I'm kept imprisoned here much longer! 'Though I look old,'—"
"'Yet I am strong and lusty,'" finished Sue. "Of course you are, dad, and you don't look old, either. Why," gazing up at him critically, "you don't look a day over forty!"
"Don't try to bamboozle your Pa, Susie," laughed Rushford. "I can see through you! You'll be trying to make me believe next that you want a stepmother."
"I would if it would make you any happier, dad."
Her father gazed down for an instant into her pseudo-serious face, then caught her in his arms and squeezed her.
"What're you up to?" he demanded. "Trying to make a fool of your old dad? Why, Susie, own up,—you'd scratch out the eyes of the best woman in the world if she dared to look twice at me!"
"Of course I would!" admitted Susie, instantly. "You know as well as I do, dad, that even the best woman in the world isn't good enough for you."
"Let's go across to the other hotel, dad," suggested Nell, with a nonchalance intended to conceal the fact that this was the point she and Susie had been aiming at from the very first.
Her father released Susie and stared at his other daughter in amazement.
"What on earth for?" he demanded.
"Oh, everybody seems to be over there—you've noticed—"
"Yes, I've noticed that it's running over with the rag-tag and bob-tail of all Europe! If you think I'll butt into that Bedlam, my dear child, you're badly mistaken. I'd rather live with the freaks in a museum."
"But it's so quiet here."
"I'm glad of it! Besides, I thought you wanted quiet?"
"Only for your sake—don't you see, we're trying our best to please you. A moment ago, you said you wanted excitement."
"I do; but it must be excitement with an object. I haven't got any use for the infernal, purposeless chattering I hear all around me every time I go out on the dyke. Damn a man, anyhow, who can't find anything better to do than to run around to summer-resorts and flirt with other men's wives! I tell you, girls, I want to get back to New York!"
"Give us another month, dad!" pleaded Sue, catching his arm again, as he stamped up and down. "You know that you promised to stay with us two months, at the very least. We can't go around without a chaperon."
Her father's face relaxed as he looked down at her, and he smiled grimly.
"So we get down to the real reason, at last, do we?" he queried. "I thought all this solicitude for my health was a trifle unnatural. I'm useful as a chaperon, am I? See here, girls, I can put in my time more profitably at the stock exchange, and have a heap more fun. I'll hire a chaperon for you, or half a dozen, if you want them, and pull out for New York. What do you say? I don't know the first principles of the business, anyway."
"Oh, yes, you do, dad!" protested Susie. "You're a perfectly ideal chaperon."
"I am? The ideal chaperon, then, must be one who never does any chaperoning!"
"That's it, exactly!" cried Nell, clapping her hands delightedly. "How quickly you see things, dad!"
"So that's it!" and he stood for a moment looking darkly at his offspring. "Well, you girls are old enough to take care of yourselves. If you can't, it's high time you were learning how!"
"Oh, we're perfectly able to take care of ourselves," Sue assured him. "You mustn't worry about us for a moment, dad."
"I'm not likely to. But, in that case, why do you want me along at all?"
"Why, don't you see, dad, it's you who give us the odour of respectability. By ourselves, we should be social outcasts, impossible, not to be spoken to—except by men. It isn't convenable."
"Oh, I see," said Rushford. "The first great principle of European society seems to be, 'Think the worst of every one.'"
"Not precisely, dad; but no unmarried woman may venture outside the circumference of the family circle. That's the great European convention—the basic principle of her social order."
"A sort of 'tag, you're it,' game, isn't it? The family circle is a kind of dead line—the ring of fire which keeps out the wild beasts. Step over, and you're lost!"
"Of course," said Nell, "it is only to unmarried women that the rule applies."
"Oh, certainly," assented her father. "Married women are allowed more latitude—in fact, from such French novels as I've read, I should infer that they usually swing clear around the circle! It's a reaction, I suppose; a sort of compensation for the privations of their youth. I don't like it. Let's go home!"
"But your promise, dad!" pleaded Sue, permitting the faintest suspicion of moisture to appear in her dark eyes. "And you know you really do need a vacation."
Her father looked down at her, saw the moisture, and surrendered.
"You're a humbug," he said; "and this vacation business is another. A man spends two or three months loafing around because somebody tells him he's looking badly and ought to take a rest; and before he knows it, he's accumulated so much rust in his system that he never gets it all out again. His machinery creaks more or less for the rest of his life. The wise man postpones his vacation to the next world."
"Well, let's call it a jaunt," suggested Susie. "A jaunt somehow implies hurry and bustle, with plenty of exercise."
"And I don't know which is the bigger fool," pursued her father, not heeding her; "the fellow who takes a vacation every year on his own hook, or the one who permits his daughters to drag him away from his comfortable home and his morning paper and the business which gives him his interest in life, and maroon him in a desert of a Dutch watering-place, where there's absolutely nothing for a self-respecting man to do but smoke himself to death and wait for a paper which never comes till day after to-morrow!"
"It sounds terribly involved, but I'll help you reason it out, dad, any time you like," said Susie, obligingly. "And you'll stay, won't you, dear?"
"Oh, I'll stay, since your heart's so set upon it. I'll try to bear up and find a diversion of some kind and not rust out any more than I can help. I might dig in the sand or make mud pies or play mumbly-peg. But I draw the line at plunging into that whirlpool across the street. My bed here is nearly as comfortable as the one at home, and the grub's first-rate."
"Very well, dad," agreed Susie, instantly seizing the concession, but speaking as though it were she who was making it, "we'll stay here, then. Only I do wish there were a few more people," she added, with a sigh. "I hate to sit down in that big, empty dining-room. I imagine I'm at an Egyptian banquet, and that there are horrid, rattly skeletons sitting in all those high, covered chairs."
"What you need is some fresh air," said her father. "You girls get your hats and go for a walk. You're growing morbid. If you think of skeletons again, I'll give you a liver pill."
"Won't you come, dad?"
"No; you know you don't want me. Besides, I see the panjandrum who brings the mail coming up the dyke down yonder."
He stood gazing down the Digue until his womenkind reappeared, bedight, ready for the walk.
"You'll do," he said, looking them over critically. "In fact, my dears, if I wasn't afraid of making you conceited, I'd say I'd never seen two handsomer girls in my life."
"Now it's you who are blarneying, dad!" cried Susie, but she dimpled with pleasure nevertheless, and so did Nell.
"No I'm not," retorted Rushford; "and I dare say there are plenty of other men, even in this Dutch limbo, who have an eye for beauty; let them break their hearts, if they have any, but keep your own hearts whole, my dears."
They were laughing in earnest, now, as they looked up in his face, which had grown suddenly serious.
"Why, dad, what ails you?" questioned Sue. "I think it is you who need the pill!"
Rushford's face cleared; they were heart-whole thus far—there could be no doubt of that.
"Perhaps I do," he agreed. "Or perhaps it's only that I'm beginning to feel the responsibilities of my position."
"As chaperon," he explained.
"Dear dad!" cried Susie, and squeezed his arm. "Do you suppose that as long as we have you, either of us will ever think of another man?"
"I don't know," said her father, dubiously. "I scarcely believe I'm so fascinating as all that. But I just wanted to remind you, girls, that there's plenty of nice boys at home—boys whom you can trust, through and through—boys who are clean, and honest, and worth loving. If you must lose your hearts—and I suppose it's inevitable, some day—please do me the favour of choosing two of them. I'll sleep better at night and breathe easier by day!"
The Role of Good Angel
Rushford waved them good-bye from the door as they sallied forth into the bright sunlight, paused a moment to look after them admiringly, and then turned slowly back into the hotel, smiling softly to himself. He sauntered through the deserted vestibule, and its emptiness struck him as it had never done before.
"Really," he said to himself, "we seem to be the only patrons the house has got. I'll have to look over my bill."
He went on to the desk and demanded his letters of the boy in resplendent uniform who presided there.
"There are none, monsieur," answered that individual, blandly.
"What!" cried Rushford, his smile vanished in an instant. "Are you sure?"
The boy answered with a shrug and a significant gesture toward the letter-rack on the wall. It was visibly, incontestably empty.
Rushford turned away in disgust.
"Those fellows at the office are assuming altogether too much responsibility," he muttered savagely, as he wandered on into the smoking-room. "I told them I didn't want to be bothered with little things, but I certainly expected to hear from them once in a while. If I don't look out, they'll reduce me to the status of a rubber stamp! I'll have to stir them up," and he gloomily extracted from the rack the newly-arrived, two-days-old London paper, brought by the little rickety train which struggled through at uncertain and infrequent intervals from Zunderburg to Weet-sur-Mer, lighted a fresh cigar, and sat down to a perusal of the news.
He proceeded in the most leisurely manner, for he knew that he had plenty of time. Indeed, the paper once finished, the remainder of the day would stretch before him an empty wilderness—a waste as monotonous and bare as the beach he had grown so weary of gazing at. So he gave careful and minute attention to every item. He was in the midst of a long and wholly uninteresting account of a charity bazaar, which the Princess of Wales had opened, and where the Duchess of Blank-Blank had made a tremendous hit and much money for a worthy cause, by selling her kisses for a guinea each, when his attention was attracted by a discreet shuffling of feet on the floor beside his chair. He looked up to see standing there the little fat Alsatian-German-French proprietor of the hotel.
"Why, hello, Pelletan," he said. "Want to speak to me?"
"Eef monsieur please," and Pelletan rubbed his chubby hands together in visible embarrassment.
"All right; sit down."
Monsieur Pelletan coughed deprecatingly and deposited his plump body on the extreme edge of a chair. It was easy to see that he was much depressed—his usually rosy cheeks hung flaccid, his mustachios drooped limply, his little black eyes were suffused and needed frequent wiping—a service performed by a hand that was none too steady.
"Eet iss a matter of pusiness, monsieur," he began, falteringly. "You haf perhaps perceive' t'at our custom hass fallen off."
Rushford glanced about the deserted smoking-room.
"No," he said; "I haven't seen any to fall off. I've been wondering how you managed to pay out."
"Ah, monsieur," cried Pelletan, wringing his hands, "t'at iss eet—I haf been paying out unt paying out until t'e las' franc iss gone. I wass at no time reech, monsieur; at t'is moment I am in ruins!"
And, indeed, he looked the part.
"You mean you'll have to shut up shop?" inquired Rushford.
"Eet preaks my heart to say eet, monsieur; but I fear eet will come to t'at, unless—"
"Unless what?" asked Rushford, eyeing him as he hesitated.
"Unless I shall pe able to interes' monsieur—"
Rushford grunted and stared out of the window at the dunes, puffing his cigar meditatively. He thought of the comfortable bed, of the admirable cuisine—he would hate to give them up. It would mean going to the other hotel, and the mere idea made him shiver. Anything but that!
His host watched him in an agony of apprehension.
"What does it cost a day to run this shebang?" asked the American at last.
Monsieur Pelletan, with feverish haste, produced a paper from his pocket.
"I haf anticipate' monsieur's question; t'is statement will show heem."
Rushford took it and glanced at the total.
"Hmmmm. Four hundred and eighty francs—say a hundred dollars."
"T'at, monsieur," explained Pelletan, "iss based upon our present custom. As pusiness increase', so do t'e expense increase."
"But not in t'e same ratio as t'e receipts. A full house wins so much as six hundret francs t'e tay."
"Yes," assented Rushford, "a full house is a mighty nice thing. But now you seem to be holding only a bob-tail."
"No matter—go ahead with the story. You say it costs you a hundred dollars a day to keep your doors open. What's the heaviest item?"
"T'e greates' item at present iss t'e chef. He iss a fery goot one—I haf feared to let heem go."
"That was right. You'd better not let him go if you want to keep us here. How many rooms have you?"
Pelletan produced a second slip of paper.
"For t'at, also, I wass prepared, my tear Monsieur Rushford," he said. "T'e tariff of charges iss also t'ere."
Rushford looked it over with some care. Then he stared out across the sands again, the corners of his mouth twitching. Evidently the proposal appealed to his sense of humour.
"See here, Pelletan," he said, abruptly, turning back, "is there a hoodoo on the house, or what's the matter?"
"A—I peg monsieur's pardon," stammered Pelletan.
"How does it happen that the hotel over there is full and this one's empty?"
"Eet iss t'is way, monsieur," explained the Frenchman, eagerly. "For many year, long pefore t'is new part off t'e house wass puilt, we enjoyed t'e confidence unt patronage of Hiss Highness, t'e Prince of Zeit-Zeit, who spent at least two month in efery season here. While t'e Prince wass here, we were crowded—oh, to t'e smalles' room!—efen at ot'er times, we tid well, for he gafe t'e house a prestige. But last vinter he die, unt hiss heir, hiss son, despite t'e care of heem which we haf taken, t'e anxieties he hass cause' us, yet which we haf cheerfully porne—t'at ingrate hass t'e pad taste to prefer t'e ot'er house! Our ot'er customers haf followed heem—like sheep! Eet iss as t'ough we had lost our star!"
"In t'e guide-book off Monsieur Karl," Pelletan explained.
"Is that such a tragedy?"
"I haf always t'ought it t'e fery worst t'at could happen," said Pelletan, "but t'is iss as pad."
It was only by a supreme effort that Rushford managed to choke back the chuckle which rose in his throat.
"Is Zeit-Zeit the little purblind, monkey-faced fellow who is wheeled around in a big red chair every day?"
"T'e fery same, monsieur—a great Highness."
Rushford made a grimace of disgust.
"What's the matter with him?" he asked. "Does he only need a bath, or is it more than skin deep?"
"Eet iss an hereditary trait, monsieur."
"Hereditary taint, you mean! You're better off without him; why, he'd infect the whole house, Pelletan."
Pelletan gazed at him aghast.
"Monsieur is choking!" he said.
"I'm in deadly earnest, but I don't expect you to understand, for you've got an hereditary taint, too, Pelletan, which shows itself principally in your spine."
Pelletan turned pale.
"I assure you, monsieur," he stammered, "I am fery—"
"No matter," broke in Rushford. "All European inn-keepers have it, and it has never been known to result fatally, so don't worry. But why did you think I'd take hold of this thing?"
"I haf heard so much," explained Pelletan, "of t'e enterprise of t'e Americans, t'at I t'ought perhaps you might—"
"Win back Zeit-Zeit? Not on your life! If he comes, I go! But I tell you what I'll do, Pelletan. I'll make you a proposition."
"Proceed, monsieur," and the other's face began to beam anticipatively.
"For one month I'll pay all the expenses of this hostelry, rent included, and allow you one hundred francs a day for your services. I take all the receipts. At the end of that time, I withdraw and leave you to your own devices. What do you say?"
Monsieur Pelletan reflected. At least, it was postponing the inevitable for a month, and in a month what may not happen? Besides, at the end of the month, he would be richer by three thousand francs.
"I accept, monsieur," he said, with fervour. "I am t'ankful a t'ousand time!"
"All right; I take possession at once. We can have a notary draw up a formal agreement. Now let's run over this schedule of prices," and he turned to Pelletan's carefully prepared statement.
"Fery well, monsieur."
"I see you have two apartments de luxe at one hundred francs a day. Hereafter they will be two hundred francs."
"From t'at, off course, t'ere will be a tiscount?" he stammered.
"Not a cent; not the tenth of a cent. Two hundred francs net."
"But, monsieur, efen at t'e old price, we haf always gif a tiscount! It iss only Americans who pay t'e full price. Ot'er people expec'—"
Rushford waved his hand.
"I don't care what they expect. Besides, there's going to be one hotel in Europe where Americans get a square deal. If your compatriots don't want to patronise my house, they can go to that low-down lunatic asylum across the street. By the way, what's its name?"
"T'e Grand Hotel Splendide," answered Pelletan, glowing with delight at his companion's power of invective.
"H—m," said the latter; "the worse a hotel is, the bigger name it seems to have. But about the discount. Let me repeat for you, Pelletan, a business axiom. To give a discount is to admit that your goods are not worth the price you ask for them, and that you're willing to cheat anybody who doesn't know enough to beat you down. All the business of Europe seems to be run in just that way, but ours won't be. Our goods are worth the price!"
"But," began Pelletan, humbly, "efen at Ostend—"
"This is not Ostend. This is Weet-sur-Mer—a place more home-like, more comfortable, preferable in every way, and with greater natural advantages than Ostend ever had or ever will have. Only a fool would go to Ostend when he could come to Weet-sur-Mer and stop at the Grand Hotel Royal."
Pelletan rubbed his hands in delight.
"You really t'ink so, monsieur?" he murmured.
"No matter what I think. Besides, you can go back to your old schedule, if you want to, at the end of the month. But I'm fixing this new schedule to suit myself, and I don't want to be interrupted. These ordinary apartments will be thirty to forty francs, according to size. Single rooms will be ten francs. Breakfast will be four francs, dinner ten francs—in a word, we double our income without increasing our expenses. That's the secret of all high finance, my friend."
"But, monsieur," stammered Pelletan, more and more astounded, "eef t'ere iss no one to pay, what does it matter?"
"There will be some one to pay—leave that to me. You don't understand American enterprise, Pelletan. I'm going to astonish you. Now mind one thing—if Zeit-Zeit comes over here and wants an apartment, you're to shut him out—I won't have him in the house—not at any price!"
Pelletan grew pale at the thought.
"Refuse t'e Prince of Zeit-Zeit!" he stammered.
"Yes—if you let him in, I'll kick him out. And another thing—the service has got to be first-class—the best in Europe—nothing gaudy, you understand, but a quiet elegance that will make us talked about. Do you think you can accomplish it?"
"I vill do my pest, monsieur," promised Pelletan.
"The place, of course, I'll have to take as I find it," went on Rushford, with a glance around, "though it's littered up with gewgaws and dinkey furniture which ought to be made into a bonfire. If I had a little more time, I'd re-decorate the whole house. Those imitation marble pillars over there are an insult to the intelligence."
"T'ey haf peen t'ought fery beautiful, monsieur," murmured Pelletan, humbly.
"Yes—I've noticed that Europeans have a weakness for imitations. It's a defect of character, I suppose. But there's one thing you can do—and right away. Send that boy at the desk up to his room and tell him to rip all that gold braid off his coat. To look at him, you'd think he was a major-general."
Pelletan stared at his partner to see if he was in earnest.
"Oh, I know it will be a deprivation," said the American, a glint of humour in his eyes. "You can raise his wages a franc a day to make up for it."
"Fery well, monsieur," and Pelletan crossed over to the desk and gave the boy his commands. The latter dragged away up the stair with a countenance in which grief and joy struggled for the mastery. "Anyt'ing else, monsieur?" asked the Frenchman, coming back.
"No, I don't think of anything just at this moment. But you do your part and I'll do mine. Now suppose you go out and get the notary, while I work my brain a bit."
Pelletan staggered rather than walked to the door, his head in his hands, fairly overwhelmed. A moment later, Rushford saw him hurrying down the street. He got out a third cigar and settled back in his chair with a chuckle of satisfaction.
"Maybe I'll get some fun out of this thing, after all," he said. "It'll offer a little diversion, anyway. Now, how shall we begin to advertise?"
"M. le Proprietaire, is he here?" inquired a voice, and Rushford looked around to see a man in resplendent uniform standing at the door.
"That's me, I reckon," he said.
"This is my first day," explained the man; "I will know monsieur hereafter. I have a telegram," and he produced it. "Monsieur will make acknowledgment here," he added, and held out a narrow white slip of paper.
Rushford signed his name mechanically, dropped a franc into the itching palm, and waited till the messenger went out. Then he looked at the address on the envelope. It was:
Proprietor Grand Hotel Royal, Weet-sur-Mer.
"Well," he said, "it's mine—I guess there's no question of that—I'm the proprietor—pro tem," and he tore the envelope open. A low whistle escaped him as he read the message. Then he slapped his leg and laughed. "It's a freak of the market," he cried. "A freak of the market! And it's just my luck to be in on the ground floor!"
He folded the telegram and placed it carefully in his pocket. Then he fell again into a meditation punctuated by frequent chuckles. But at the end of a very few minutes, Monsieur Pelletan was back again, with a thin little notary in tow, and the necessary papers were soon drawn up.
"You have only to sign, monsieur," said the notary, after he had finished reading them aloud, and he handed his formidable pen to Rushford.
Monsieur Pelletan rubbed his hands together nervously as the American hesitated and looked at him.
"It's not too late to draw out," remarked Rushford. "If you're not satisfied—"
"I haf no tesire to traw out, monsieur," protested Pelletan, quickly. "I am entirely satisfied!"
"I have one other condition to make," added the American.
"What iss eet, monsieur?" questioned Pelletan, looking at him apprehensively.
"You understand I'm to be a silent partner in this thing."
"A silent partner—in other words, nobody's to know I'm backing you unless I choose to tell them—absolutely no one. Do you agree?"
"Oh, gladly, monsieur!" cried Pelletan, with a deep breath of relief. After all, is not glory the next best thing to riches?
"And your friend?"
The notary nodded a solemn promise of secrecy.
"All right," and Rushford signed. Pelletan hastily affixed his signature, and the thing was done. "Now, my friend," continued the American, "which is the swellest suite of rooms you've got in the house?"
"De luxe A," responded Pelletan. "Monsieur wishes—"
"I wish you to get it ready at once—"
"Monsieur will occupy it himself, no toubt?"
"No, I won't; I'll stay right where I am. But between seven and eight o'clock to-morrow morning, there will arrive an English ship of war—"
"A sheep-of-t'e-war!" echoed Pelletan, growing pale.
"Certainly, a ship of war, and from it there will disembark a man named Vernon and his suite of four or five people. You will give him apartment A."
Pelletan caught his breath.
"Monsieur Vernon iss, I suppose, a friend?" he stammered.
"No," said Rushford, "I've never seen him. But we'll have to treat him well. He's the head of the British foreign office, Pelletan; and one of the high nobility. Beside him, Zeit-Zeit will look like thirty cents!"
Distinguished arrivals at Weet-sur-Mer
Even at this unaccustomed hour of the morning, the beach was black with people. It was not to bathe that they had come, for a chill north wind was blowing; nor was it to promenade, for they were not promenading; indeed, it was the fashionable hour for neither of these things, and no one ever dreamed of doing them at any hour other than the fashionable one. It was rather the fashionable hour to turn painfully over in one's bed, and ring the bell, and signify that coffee and rolls would be acceptable.
This morning there had been scant time for such refreshment, or for that preliminary stretching which is so grateful to bodies wearied by late hours and too-rapid living. Instead, nearly all the sojourners at Weet-sur-Mer had arisen aching from their beds, had hurried forth to the beach, and stood there now, facing unanimously seawards, staring toward the dim horizon, only moving convulsively from time to time in the effort to keep warm. Those who had glasses used them; those who had none, strained nature's binoculars to the limit of vision. From all of which it will be seen that the notary had done his work well, and that neither had Monsieur Pelletan been backward in spreading the great news of the unparalleled occurrence which was about to happen.
"He iss to arrive between t'e hours of seven unt eight," he had announced. "Hiss Highness, pe it understood, Lord Vernon, t'e great Englishman. He comes in a special vessel—a sheep-of-t'e-war," he added with a triumphant flourish. "He could pring mit' him t'e whole nafy of England, if he wish'!" Ah, what an honour for Weet-sur-Mer! And what a blow for the Grand Hotel Splendide across the way!
Yet Monsieur Pelletan did not in the least understand how it had come to pass; he suspected his partner of some sort of clairvoyance, of some supernatural power of compelling events, and his admiration for him had deepened to awe. But into this question he did not permit himself to enter deeply; he was content to know that fame and prosperity were returning with a rush to the Grand Hotel Royal. Already there had been a score of applicants for rooms; the corridors were again assuming that air of liveliness and gaiety which had characterised them in those golden days when the August Prince of Zeit-Zeit had been his annual guest. He was no longer ashamed to meet the proprietor of the Grand Hotel Splendide face to face in the full day; he was a different person from the despairing individual of the day before; in a word, he was no longer in ruins! He had been restored, as so many ruins are, by the hand of an American!
At this moment he held the centre of the stage, and it was easy to read in his bearing the consciousness that he deserved the limelight. A strip of crimson carpet had been stretched across the sand to the very water's edge; on either side of it a dozen decorous footmen were aligned, and between them Monsieur Pelletan proudly marched, his head in air, his back very straight, preceding a big, hooded invalid's chair.
Immediately a murmur arose.
"He is ill then!"
"Why the chair?"
"He is coming to take the baths."
The murmur no doubt penetrated to the ears of the little Alsatian, but he made no sign. He was aware that the envious eyes of the proprietor of the Grand Hotel Splendide were upon him; he would show him that here was a guest more majestic, more worthy of honour than even the Prince of Zeit-Zeit!—a Highness, in short, so extraordinary as to cause that August personage to resemble, in some incomprehensible way, the sum of one franc fifty centimes! Otherwise there would have been no carpet, for the sand was hard and dry. Otherwise, too, perhaps, Monsieur Pelletan would have been content to permit his major-domo to represent him at the water's edge, for he was not accustomed to exposing himself thus to the sharp airs of the morning. His fat red cheeks and plump nose were turning a dull purple—ah, how good would a glass of cognac taste!—but he bore this discomfort with the greatest fortitude, for, after all, an occasion such as this was worth some sacrifice.
And, be it said, his was not the only purple nose in evidence. There were many men who stared straight before them, daring to look neither to the right nor left; and many women who were thankful for the heavy veils they had had the forethought to put on. Even rouge, however cunningly applied, cannot hide certain ugly lines in the face in the clear, cruel light of the morning!
Strange how the same breeze will give to some cheeks a dull repulsiveness and to others an entrancing glow! A word to lovers: Would you test your mistress's blood and spirit, persuade her to a walk some sharp day in winter; or, if she will not be persuaded, use a little artifice. Then, after wind and frost have had their will of her for half an hour, take a look at her. Are her cheeks glowing, are her eyes bright, is she having a good time? If not, take heed!
There were four cheeks upon the beach at Weet-sur-Mer that morning glowing as I would have your true love's glow; drawing men's eyes and women's, too—the one in admiration, the other in envy. Yes, envy! though more than one shivering fair spoke a low, slurring word about "those coarse Americans!"
Both Pelletan and the notary had been careful to respect Rushford's wish that his connection with the hotel be kept to themselves; in all their boastings, rejoicings, explanations, his name had not been whispered; and not even to his daughters had that gentleman confided the secret of his plan to get the excitement he had craved so badly. He had feared, perhaps, that they would not enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing—women, even American women, are sometimes strangely deficient in the sense of humour. But they had both been struck by their host's impressive obsequiousness—a very orgasm of servility, which Pelletan had hitherto reserved for personages of the blood royal.
"What ails the man?" Susie had asked at dinner the night before, her eyes on Monsieur Pelletan's writhing form. "He seems to have the stomach-ache."
"He is probably fishing for a tip," said Nell. "It seems to me that I've seen those symptoms before in a less violent form."
"Don't you tip him," commanded their father. "I'll attend to all that," and he beckoned to Pelletan with his finger and whispered a rapid sentence in his ear.
"What did you say to him, dad?" inquired Sue, gazing in some astonishment after their host's retreating coat-tails.
"I told him to go 'way back and sit down," answered Rushford, going calmly on with his meal.
"Dad, is it true that Lord Vernon is to arrive to-morrow morning?"
"I suppose so."
"In a ship of war?"
"Yes—I've heard that, too."
"You'll take us down to the beach, won't you, dad?"
"What! A free-born American citizen go toadying after the English aristocracy!"
"But we'll need a cicerone, dad."
"What for, I'd like to know?"
"Oh, what are cicerones always for? To get us a good place, to be sure!"
So here he was, in the forefront of the crowd, with his womenkind beside him, and no doubt the discerning reader has already guessed that it was to their cheeks I referred some pages back. There were many grandes dames upon the beach that morning—some the real thing, a little plain, a little faded, rather touching to look upon—others, for the most part articles de Paris, very tall and plump and even handsome, if one likes the gorgeous type, with gowns created by the great costumers and paid for heaven knows how! But I always think with a little warmth of pride and admiration of those two American girls standing there, wind-blown and radiant. Coarse, madame! Ah, what would you not give for a little of that coarseness! After all, freshness is a woman's greatest charm, as you very well know, madame, though you try your best to think otherwise; and, alas, you are fast losing yours! For, as you have found—as untold thousands have found before you, and will yet find—one can't squander one's youth and keep it, too! Aye, more than that. The sins of the night stare at one from one's glass on the morrow, and will not be massaged away. Take your baths, madame, in milk, or wine, or perfumed water; summon your masseuse, your beauty-doctor. Let them rub you and knead you and pinch you, coat you with cold cream or grease you with oil of olives. Redden cheeks and lips, whiten hands and shoulders, polish nails, pencil eyebrows, squeeze in the waist, pad out the hips—swallow, at the last, that little tablet which you slip from the jewelled case at your wrist. It is all in vain. You deceive no man nor woman. They look into your eyes and smile, but behind the smile there is a shudder!
Nell and Susie Rushford, with the wind playing in their hair and kissing their cheeks, that morning, were miracles of freshness; two divine messages, two phantoms of delight, sent from the New World to the Old.
And one was dark, with tints of violet In hair and eyes, and one was blond as she Who rose—a second daybreak—from the sea, Gold-tressed and azure-eyed.
Nell, the elder, was tall and fair, like her father, rather sedate, with not quite the sparkle of Susie, two years her junior, the counterpart of the little mother whom she had never seen. And both were erect and bright-eyed as only American girls seem to know completely how to be; visibly healthy, happy, and pure-minded. I should like to pause and look at them a moment longer, for I have always been a little in love with them myself; I should like to add to the verses of our own dear poet certain lines of Wordsworth, of Burns, of Byron—but you, dear reader, will recall them readily, especially if you belong, as I hope you do, to the great and glorious fraternity of true lovers; if your heart burns and your pulses leap at mention of a certain name, at sight of a dear face—
There came a sudden hum of excitement from the crowd.
"Look, look!" cried Susie. "There it is!" and she clapped her glasses to her eyes again.
Far out against the horizon appeared a smudge of smoke, which grew and spread until those with glasses could perceive beneath it the low, dark lines of a man-of-war. It was true then! Some had permitted themselves to doubt the story spread so industriously by Monsieur Pelletan and his friend, the notary—the proprietor of the Grand Hotel Splendide had counselled scepticism. Now they could doubt no longer, and they drew a deep breath. A ship of war at Weet-sur-Mer!
Straight toward the beach she steamed, looming larger and ever larger; then her speed slackened, slackened, until at last she lay rolling quietly a quarter of a mile off-shore. A shrill piping came over the water as the crew was mustered amidships and the boarding-stairs lowered.
"Well, he must be a swell!" said Sue, "or they wouldn't take all that trouble. There goes the boat."
And splash it went into the water, the crew tumbled in, and two men slowly helped another down the stairs, while the crew stood at attention. Some baggage was lowered, then the oars dipped together and a little spurt of foam appeared under the bow.
"Why, it's like a moving-picture machine!" cried Susie, with a little gasp of enjoyment. "Or a comic opera!" she added, wrestling with her glasses to get them focussed on the moving boat. "The hero's sitting in the stern," she announced. "He's all wrapped up and there's another man holding him. I can't see anything of him but his eyes, for he's got a handkerchief or something over the lower part of his face. He must be awfully ill, poor fellow!"
"Probably got the grip," observed her father, practically. "Wants to keep out the damp air. I think he'd be better off at home in bed."
"Oh, but then," protested Nell—
"Then we shouldn't have this show," said her father, and laughed grimly at the thought that neither would fortune have smiled so promptly on the Grand Hotel Royal.
The oars flashed suddenly upright; two men sprang from the bow, with a fine disregard of a wetting, and pulled the boat far in. Then the bemuffled figure was lifted tenderly and carried to the waiting chair, where Monsieur Pelletan was bowing with his head almost touching the carpet. The invalid was started toward the hotel without delay, three men accompanying him, under the leadership of Pelletan; the baggage was heaped on the beach and taken in charge by the hotel porters. A moment later the boat shoved off.
A few waited to watch it make its way back to the ship, which immediately steamed away toward the horizon; others followed the procession headed by the invalid's chair; still others hurried ahead to confer their patronage upon the Grand Hotel Royal; but the greater part hastened back to their rooms to get something hot and bracing. From one end to the other, the place was a-buzz with wagging tongues. Why should the foreign secretary of the British Empire have chosen Weet-sur-Mer as his abiding place? Merely because he was ill and wished to rest? Bah! To believe that would be to show a mind the most credulous, would be to evince an ignorance of high diplomacy the most profound. Again, why should he have made the journey from England in a ship of war? Depend upon it, there was a mystery here; a mystery not to be solved in a moment even by such eminent amateurs as those assembled at Weet-sur-Mer. It would take time—it would take study. But it was worth it! There was something behind all this-something more than appeared on the surface —in a word, a Plot! And the best place to study it,—the only place, indeed,—was the Grand Hotel Royal.
So, instantly, there was a great packing of luggage, a despatching of couriers, an engaging of rooms, a settling of bills which drove the proprietor of the Splendide half mad with chagrin. He protested, he swore, he offered concessions the most unheard of—all in vain. His day was over!
Rushford, his work as cicerone des dames accomplished, returned leisurely to the hotel, while the girls started for their accustomed walk. He smiled grimly to himself as he entered the office, the scene was so different from that of yesterday. For the moment, all was excitement. Monsieur Pelletan and his assistants were busy attending to the wants of their distinguished guest; down in the kitchen, the chef was cursing the stupidity of the unfortunate menials under him and striving madly to prove himself worthy the occasion—the greatest of his life! Every moment, a porter toiled up to the door with a load of luggage; every moment some one arrived demanding a room—and not one murmured at the tariff! The lift groaned and creaked under the unaccustomed weights put upon it and moved more slowly than ever. Pelletan, as he hurried past, mopping his perspiring brow, had time only for a single glance at his good angel—but what a glance! Such a glance, no doubt, Columbus caught from his lieutenants at the cry of "Land Ho!"
Rushford, leaning over the desk, watching the confusion with an amusement which had banished every trace of ennui, felt his arm touched. He turned and recognised the be-gilt messenger of the day before.
"A second telegram for monsieur," said that functionary, with an amiable grin, and produced the message.
There was no time for hesitation. Rushford took it, signed the blank, and fished up the expected tip.
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave!" he murmured, and looked at the address on the little white envelope. It read:
_M. le Proprietaire,
Grand Hotel Royal,
"The plot thickens!" he murmured. "Well, it's really for me. Let's see," and he tore it open. He whistled again as he read the message; then he called the nearest boy. "Tell Monsieur Pelletan to come here at once," he said. "Tell him I must speak to him on a matter of importance."
At the end of a moment, the little man puffed down the stair, exhausted, radiant!
"Iss eet not grand!" he cried. "What a change from yesterday! T'ough how you haf accomplishe' eet, monsieur—"
"No matter," interrupted Rushford. "Which is the next best of your apartments, Pelletan?"
"T'e nex' best? Why, apartment B, monsieur. Eet iss t'e counterpart of apartment A, only on t'e nort' side of t'e house instead of t'e sout'."
"And it is still empty?"
"At two hundret francs t'e tay? Oh, yess, monsieur; only a Prince can afford eet now."
"Well, you will prepare it at once—"
"Ah, monsieur himself will take eet! T'at iss just! I shall pe too happy—"
"No, no; you've just said that only a Prince can afford it and it's my business to produce him! Let's see—it's nearly nine—well, at ten o'clock, there will arrive in a special train—"
Monsieur Pelletan had turned pale.
"Een a special train?" he faltered. "What! Some one else?"
"Yes—at ten o'clock—"
"Who iss eet will arrive, monsieur?" questioned Pelletan faintly.
"His Highness, Prince Frederick of Markeld, ambassador from the court of Schloshold-Markheim," answered Rushford, dwelling upon every word. "We will give him apartment B."
An Adventure and a Rescue
It was not until Rushford opened his paper an hour later that he fully understood the remarkable situation of which the Grand Hotel Royal had, by the merest chance, become the centre.
"It is extremely unfortunate [said the Times] that Lord Vernon should have been taken ill at just this time, when the question of the succession of Schloshold-Markheim is hanging in the balance. Lord Vernon is the only man in the cabinet capable of dealing with the situation, which is as delicate as can be imagined. On the one side are arrayed the sympathies of our reigning house and perhaps even our own honour; on the other, the plainly expressed desires of the German Emperor.
"The late Prince Christian left no direct heirs, so that, in any event, the succession must be through a collateral branch. The claims of the rivals, Prince George, of Schloshold, and Prince Ferdinand, of Markheim, are therefore evenly balanced. On one side of the scale, however, the German Emperor has thrown the weight of his influence. On the other side is the moral influence of practically all the rest of Europe, but this will scarcely be of any value to Prince Ferdinand unless he can enlist the active support of Great Britain, which, it may be, Lord Vernon, though reluctant to withhold, will find impossible to give. It is not to be denied that, from a disinterested view-point, Prince Ferdinand seems by far the more worthy of the two claimants.
"Lord Vernon is suffering with a very severe attack of influenza, which has been developing for some days, and which has, at last, become so serious that his physicians have commanded a complete rest for a week or ten days. One may well conceive Lord Vernon's reluctance to heed this advice, but he has very wisely decided to do so. The little seaside resort of Weet-sur-Mer, on the Dutch coast, has been selected as the place for his sojourn, and he will be taken there to-morrow on H. M. S. Dauntless. Sir John Scaddam, his physician, and two of his secretaries, Mr. Arthur Collins and Mr. George Blake, will accompany him, although work of any kind has been absolutely forbidden him for at least a week. It is believed that the bracing atmosphere of Weet-sur-Mer will effect a cure in that time.
"Weet-sur-Mer is comparatively little known, at least in England. It is really the old Dutch fishing-village of Weet-zurlindenhofen; but a number of years ago it was exploited as a watering-place and re-christened Weet-sur-Mer by some enthusiast more anxious to advertise the fact that one may bathe there than to observe the rules of etymology. It is rather out of the way, and the route by rail is so circuitous and uncertain that it was judged best to spare Lord Vernon the fatigue of such a journey by conveying him directly thither upon the Dauntless. He hopes to find there a quiet and seclusion which would be impossible at any of the larger resorts.
"We understand that Prince George is with the German Emperor at Berlin, and that Prince Ferdinand, who is at Markheim, has commissioned his cousin, Prince Frederick, of Markeld, to place his claims before our foreign office. His reception at this time can hardly fail to cause acute embarrassment."
There was a half-column more of comment and veiled suggestion that perhaps the wisest course for the foreign office to pursue, now that Lord Vernon's guiding hand was for the moment withdrawn, would be to let affairs take their course; though it was difficult to see how this could consistently be done if Prince Frederick succeeded in gaining a formal audience and placing his case before the government. Already, it seemed, the jingo papers were taunting the administration with undue truckling to the wishes of Germany, with a lack of stamina and backbone in short—with something like treachery toward Prince Ferdinand and treason toward the royal family, with which the Prince was distantly allied.
Rushford gave a long whistle of astonishment; then he laid the paper on his knees and stared thoughtfully out across the sands for some minutes.
"Of course, Markeld has followed Vernon here," he said, at last. "I rather admire his pluck. And I'd like to be present at the interview—it'll be interesting. Why, hello, Pelletan," he added, as the latter approached him humbly, as a slave approaches the Sultan. "Want to speak to me?" "Eef monsieur please," answered the little Frenchman, who was plainly labouring under deep excitement.
"All right; what is it?"
"Wass monsieur serious in hees command t'at I exclude t'e Prince of Zeit-Zeit?"
"Never more serious in my life. He's barred! We take only human beings—not monstrosities. Has he applied?"
"Yess, monsieur; he tesires hees old apartment."
"Which was that?"
"Apartment A, monsieur; he hass always had t'e pest in t'e house when he come here mit' hees fat'er."
"Well, apartment A's already taken; even if it were empty, he shouldn't have it. Where's your nerve, Pelletan—here's your chance for revenge!"
"But to refuse a Prince!" murmured Pelletan. "Eet iss somet'ing unheard of!"
"It will make you famous! It's a big ad for the house! 'The Grand Hotel Royal refuses to receive the Prince of Zeit-Zeit.' Think what a stir that will make! Besides, you have no choice—I require it!"
"Fery well, monsieur," agreed Pelletan, with a gesture of despairing obedience. "T'ere iss one t'ing more—I haf an idea."
"That's good; let's have it," said Rushford, encouragingly. "There's nothing like ideas."
"Monsieur will remember," began Pelletan, in a voice carefully lowered, "t'at we agreed to touble t'e price of entertainment."
"Yes—what of it? Anybody been kicking?"
"No—au contraire, monsieur—t'e house iss full—efery leetle room."
"You see you don't need Zeit-Zeit; it's quite like the old times, isn't it?"
"Yess—only petter, monsieur; far petter. Oh, eet iss wunderschoen!"
"Well, go ahead; what's the idea?"
"Since t'e house iss full," said Pelletan, impressively, "and t'ere are many more asking for rooms—oh, temanding t'em—t'e Prince among t'e number!—why may not we again touble t'e price?" and he leaned back in his chair, looking triumphantly at his partner. But his face fell as the latter shook his head. "No?" he asked. "Eet will not do?"
"No," said Rushford, slowly; "I'm afraid it won't do. You see it would be a kind of ex post facto proceeding—"
"A—I ton't quite comprehen', monsieur."
"No matter—trust me—see what's happened since yesterday," and he waved his hand at the busy corridor.
"Oh, eet iss kolossal!" cried Pelletan. "I shall nefer cease to atmire monsieur. Perhaps," he suggested timidly, "since he hass peen so successful, monsieur may pe tempted to remain permanently. Surely he would pe one great success! In a year—two year—we would eclipse Ostend—monsieur himself hass said eet!"
"No," laughed the other, "I don't think I'd care to remain. Though, of course," he added, "the possibility of great success is always fascinating."
"Oh, eet iss more t'an a possibility," cried Pelletan. "Eet is a certainty."
"A certainty is not so fascinating as a possibility," the American pointed out, his eyes twinkling.
"Unt t'en," continued Pelletan, persuasively, fancying, no doubt, that he saw some signs of yielding in his partner's face, "eef monsieur remains, he can haf t'e house done ofer to suit heem; he can t'row away t'e furniture he does not like; he can paint out t'e marble columns; he can cause all t'e servants to pe tressed to hees taste. He would make one grand sensation! T'e house would pe t'e talk of Europe, tint we would soon pe reech—oh, reech!" and the little Frenchman stretched his arms wide to indicate the vast extent of the wealth that was awaiting them.
But Rushford shook his head.
"No, Pelletan," he said; "no, I really can't do it. It's utterly impossible, or your impassioned eloquence would certainly prevail. There's nothing I'd like better than to show the hotel-keepers of Europe a thing or two—they are more conceited with less reason for being so than any other class of men I know. But I've got to go back to America before long to look after my business there. Besides, I don't really feel that hotel-keeping is my lifework. I'm afraid it would pall upon me after a time. But I tell you what I'll do, if you wish, Pelletan. I'll tear up the agreement and say no more about it. You may have all the profits."
"Oh!" cried the Frenchman, dazzled by this munificence, by the golden vision which danced before his eyes. Then he hesitated. With his partner's marvellous influence withdrawn, might not the whole wonderful structure come tumbling about his ears? It would be like pulling out the foundation! What would prevent his guests from packing up and leaving to-morrow? "No, monsieur," he said, slowly, at last, "I prefer eet as eet iss."
"Very well," and Rushford laughed again; it was not the first time his partners in business had been afraid to do without him! "Let it be that way, then. Have you got that agreement with you?"
"Yess, monsieur; eet iss here," and he produced it from an inner pocket.
"Let me have it a minute."
Pelletan gave it to him with trembling hand. His partner opened it, got out his fountain-pen, and changed a word in the contract.
"There," he said, "that's more fair, Pelletan."
Pelletan paled as he looked at the paper and his eyes grew misty. Instead of one hundred francs daily, he would receive two hundred. Ah, these magnificent Americans!
The interview to which the Times looked forward with so much apprehension was, it seemed, indefinitely postponed. The Prince of Markeld had, indeed, immediately upon his arrival, caused his presence to be formally announced to Lord Vernon, but the latter had responded that he was, for the present, under the orders of his physician, who forbade him to see any one or to transact business of any kind. Whereat the Prince had twisted his mustachios fiercely (with an accompaniment, no doubt, of sub voce profanity) and had proceeded to amuse himself until luncheon with an exceedingly ugly bulldog he had brought with him.
He had luncheon in his apartment, smoked a cigarette or two, despatched a telegram describing the state of affairs to Prince Ferdinand, and then, looking from his window and perceiving that all the world was abroad, prepared for a walk along the beach. At the door, he happened to look back and caught his dog's eyes fixed wistfully upon him.
"Ah, Jax, old boy," he said, "it is unfair to leave you shut up here with only Glueck for company. Like to come along?"
Jax wriggled his delight.
"And you'll behave yourself?"
Jax promised as clearly as a dog could.
"Very well, then," and the Prince went down the stair, with Jax, half-delirious with joy, behind him.
Now the Prince was a very good-looking fellow, erect and clean, as German noblemen have a way of being—besides, he was a Prince, a commander of favours from the world and women, not a mere suitor for them as most poor mortals are—and more than one pair of eyes gazed at him languishingly from under pencilled brows as he strolled moodily along the beach, golden yellow in the sunlight; more than one crimson mouth shaped itself to an entrancing smile; more than one sullied heart beat high at thought of a brilliant future.
But on this occasion, none of the sirens won an answering glance, for the Prince was in no mood for flirtation—and, besides, he was used to sirens. So he strolled on, deep in thought. This affair of state, which rested upon his shoulders, promised to go badly; if Lord Vernon persisted in his refusal to see him, he was checkmated at the start, before he had opportunity to make a move. Delay meant ruin, and his cousin had trusted everything to him. He knew very well that the Emperor would not delay; that he would use every minute to strengthen his position; that he would compel events, not dance attendance on them. He, the Prince, must see Lord Vernon at any cost; he must demand an audience; he must appeal to his patriotism, his sense of honour, the love of fair play which every Englishman possesses; he must make refusal impossible—
He paused and looked up, conscious of a sudden commotion on the beach just ahead of him. Then he saw his dog dancing frantically about a young lady who held in her arms a little white spaniel, which she had evidently just snatched up from annihilation.
Markeld started forward with a leap, but at that instant a tall figure emerged from a hooded chair nearby, and with a quick and well-directed kick, sent the dog spinning.
"Oh, thank you!" cried Susie Rushford, looking up into a very handsome face.
"It was my great good fortune," said the stranger, bowing, "to be of service to a compatriot."
"Oh, you are an American?"
"No; an Englishman; but at least we speak the same language! I don't know the word for it"
"Neither do I—compatriot will do. You were just in time!"
"And you did it very neatly," added Nell, admiringly, glancing at the discomfited Jax, who was looking about him dazedly.
"Thank you," and the stranger, checking the words which were evidently upon his lips, bowed again, turned quickly back to his chair, buried himself in its recesses, and retired behind a newspaper.
"Well!" gasped Sue, meeting her sister's astonished eyes, "I must say—"
But what she must have said will remain forever a mystery, for just then the Prince of Markeld came hurrying up.
"I hope there is no damage," he said, speaking with just the slightest accent. "He is my dog," he added, seeing their questioning glance. "I am very sorry. I was a little preoccupied and was not noticing him. He is usually a very good dog. I cannot understand why he should have attacked yours."
"He isn't mine," laughed Susie, patting the spaniel upon his silky head; "he just ran to me for refuge."
"Evidently a most intelligent dog," observed the Prince, gravely.
"You think so?" asked Susie, her colour deepening just the faintest bit. "Ah, here is the owner, now," she added, as a little faded old woman came panting up.
"Oh, thank you, mademoiselle!" cried the newcomer, snatching the dog from Susie's arms. "Thank you! He was a bad boy—he run away!" and she held him close against her heart.
"It was nothing," protested Susie. "I am very glad I happened to be just here. Though I don't suppose that either I or the dog was in danger of being eaten," she added to Markeld, as the little old woman trotted tremulously away. "Your dog doesn't look especially ferocious."
"Still, I beg a thousand pardons," repeated the Prince. "I should have kept my eye on him. Come here, Jax," he called, "and make your apologies to the ladies."
Jax crawled up very humbly and Susie stooped and patted his head.
"Poor Jax," she said. "It wasn't your fault, I know. I'm sure that little spaniel insulted you!"
Jax licked her hand gratefully, and the Prince looked on with an admiration he did not attempt to conceal.
"Would you like him?" he asked, eagerly.
Susie started up with crimsoning cheeks.
"No, thank you," she said, and taking her sister's arm, she walked on, chin in air.
The Prince gazed after her, wide-eyed, for a moment, then turned resolutely and continued on his way.
"Well," began Nell, at the end of a minute, "he quite took my breath away!"
"Which he?" queried Sue.
"Both of them; but the first especially. That kick bespoke football training."
"And he has evidently kept in condition," added Sue. "The owner of the dog wasn't a bad-looking fellow, either—interesting, too, I haven't a doubt, and I do like interesting people! But the nerve of him—offering me his dog! I'm afraid we need a chaperon, after all, my dear."
"Yes," agreed Nell, "perhaps we do. But it would be an awful bother."
They walked on to the end of the beach, then mounted to the Digue and strolled slowly back toward the hotel, enjoying the breeze, the colour, the sunshine, the strange and varied life of the place.
Stretching along the landward side of the dyke stood a row of little houses, green and pink and white, with tile roofs mounting steeply upward, their red surfaces broken by innumerable dormers. These had once been the homes of honest and industrious fishermen, but time had changed all that. They had been remodelled to suit the demands of business, and every house had now on the lower floor an expensive little shop with monsieur sitting complacently at the door and madame, fat and voluble, at the money-drawer, and on the floor above, a still more expensive suite of rooms to let—rooms panelled in white and gold, resplendent with rococo mouldings, and crowded with abominable furniture, intended to be coquettish—gilt chairs, scalloped tables, embroidered lambrequins, ottomans smothered in plush and fringe, beds draped with curtains until they were all but air-tight—in effect more French than France.
Here and there between the houses, a glimpse might be had of the low country beyond, with its sluggish canal choked with rushes, a dingy windmill here and there, and stretching away on either side the flat meadows crinkling with yellow grain, and the green pastures dotted with huge black-and-white cattle. A narrow road, straight as a line in Euclid, and bordered by a row of trees each the counterpart of all the others, mounted toward the horizon, leading, principally, to a low, yellow house about a mile away, displaying above its door the appropriate motto, "Lust en Rust." There, either in the cool, vine-shaded garden, in the long, low-ceilinged dining-room, or in some smaller and more ornate apartment, one might breakfast, dine, what not, in the fashion of the country—which, for the most part, meant the drinking of a muddy liquid with an unpronounceable name and the eating of wafelen and poffertjes, and of little cheeses calculated to appal the strongest stomach.
The shops and the landscape—the cosmopolitan crowd with its Babel of many tongues—the great hotels, built of stucco in the nouveau-riche style so rasping to sensitive nerves—the striped awnings, the low balconies, the gaudy house-fronts—all these our heroines looked at and commented on and revelled in with the joy of fresh and unspoiled youth. It was life they were tasting—strange, interesting, intoxicating life—and they drank deep of it.
As they neared the hotel entrance, they saw coming from the other direction, pushed by two men, an invalid chair. They stood aside to let it pass, and its occupant, carefully wrapped in a great steamer-rug, glanced up at them with a quizzical light in his eyes.
They shrank back together against the wall with a simultaneous gasp of dismay, for the invalid was their athletic rescuer of an hour before.
The chair went on to the desk, where it paused, while its occupant wrote a hasty sentence on a slip of paper, which he tore from his notebook. A moment later, it was presented to Susie by one of his attendants. She took it mechanically, and, with a low bow, the messenger hurried back to the chair.
"What in the world," she began dazedly; then she unfolded the paper and read:
"Lord Vernon will be deeply grateful if he is not mentioned in connection with today's adventure."
Tellier Takes a Hand
The Prince continued his walk to the limits of the beach, with Jax trotting humbly at his heels; then he returned slowly to the hotel and mounted to his apartment.
"That will do, Glueck," he said, as he gave him his hat and gloves. "Don't let me be disturbed."
And Glueck, with his imperturbable mahogany face, silently withdrew to mount guard without the door.
The Prince sat down, lighted a cigarette, and stared moodily out of the window, down upon the shifting crowd which still thronged the beach. His hand, hanging inert by his side, became suddenly the receptacle for a moist nose.
"Ah, Jax; and did she pat you on the head, old boy?" he asked. "And are you properly proud?"
Jax wiggled his remnant of a tail.
"Would you like to belong to her, Jax, and get patted every day? Yet she wouldn't take you—snapped me off short as that stump of yours when I offered you to her. Why was that, Jax?"
Jax couldn't say, not being familiar with the ways of fair Americans, and the Prince patted him softly on his nobbly crown.
"Just the same, she was a beauty, Jax; slim, straight, full of fire—a thoroughbred; and with a sense of humour, my dear, which you will find in not many women. Did you notice her cheeks, Jax, and her eyes? But of course not; you were very properly grovelling before her. And I owe you eternal gratitude, old boy; but for you, I'd have stalked past without seeing her. That would have been a pity, wouldn't it?"
There was a knock at the door and Glueck's head appeared.
"I thought I told you," began the Prince—
"Your Highness will pardon me," explained Glueck, quickly, "but there is a man here who insists that Your Highness will see him."
"Who is he?"
"This is his card, Your Highness," and Glueck entered the room. "I have sent it back once, saying that Your Highness was not to be disturbed. He returned it, insisting—"
Markeld took the card, glanced at it, and read:
"M. Andre Tellier, Paris. Agent du Service de Surete"
Beneath this was a pencilled line—"Concerning the question of the succession."
The Prince stared at it a moment in some astonishment, not unmixed with irritation. What could this fellow know concerning the succession? It was most probably simply an impertinence. The Paris police were famous for impertinences.
Glueck started for the door; since his master's boyhood, he had watched over him, attended him—he could read his countenance like an open book. The Prince glanced up.
"Where are you going?" he demanded.
"I go to tell the imbecile that Your Highness will not see him," responded Glueck, impassively, his hand on the knob.
The Prince smiled. He had a great fondness for his old retainer.
"Wait," he said. "We must not permit ourselves to be governed by first impressions, nor swayed by prejudice. It is just possible that this fellow has something to tell me which I ought to hear. I can't afford to disregard any chance. So inform M. Tellier that I will see him," and he lighted a fresh cigarette resignedly.
As he watched the smoke turn gray in the sunlight, it suddenly occurred to him that, in some unaccountable manner, the question of the succession had receded somewhat into the background; it no longer seemed to him of such overwhelming consequence; at least, he had not been thinking of it a moment before, but of something very different—
There appeared at the door a figure which drew a stare of surprise from Markeld, accustomed as he was to eccentric habiliment. It was arrayed in a long, mouse-gray frock coat and shiny black trousers; a hand gloved in lavender kid carried a top hat, while the other caressed, from time to time, the carefully-waxed mustachios and imperial adorning a countenance which was a singular mixture of craft and vanity. The little eyes were half-concealed under drooping, baggy lids, the nose was long and sharp, the lips very thin and severe, though at this moment parted in a smile meant to be ingratiating. The figure entered and bowed profoundly, disclosing Glueck's disgusted face in the doorway.
"Monsieur Tellier?" asked the Prince.
Tellier bowed again, and the Prince noticed the white line of scalp leading, with geometrical precision, from the brow to the bald spot on the crown, and then on down the back of the head. It reminded him, somehow, of the Lake of Constance, with the Rhine flowing through it.
"You have something to communicate?" he continued, repressing a smile.
"Something of the first importance, Your Highness," said the Frenchman; "otherwise I should not have taken the liberty of disturbing Your Highness."
"Very well," and the Prince motioned him to a chair. "Sit down. I shall be glad to hear you."
"It is something," said the Frenchman, with a glance at the open door, "which should be communicated, if Your Highness please, in confidence."
"Glueck, shut the door," commanded the Prince. "Now, my dear sir, proceed."
"Your Highness is, of course, aware," began the detective, sitting down with a back very straight, and drooping his lids until his eyes were almost closed, "that France is deeply interested in this question of the succession, and that its sympathies are wholly with Prince Ferdinand, the cousin of Your Highness, and whom, I understand, Your Highness represents."
"We should naturally expect France's sympathy," he said.
"France," proclaimed Tellier, raising his chin proudly, "is always on the side of justice and decency."
"More especially," continued the Prince, drily, "when the Emperor of Germany happens to be on the other side. Come now, confess—if the Emperor were for us, you would be against us—is it not so?"
Tellier permitted the faintest shadow of a smile to flicker across his lips.
"Your Highness speaks with a bluntness disconcerting," he said, deprecatingly.
"I wished merely to clear the air," said the Prince, "and to prick at the outset the bubble with which you were trying to dazzle me. Let me assure you that we thoroughly understand France's attitude in this matter. She is on our side simply because she sees an opportunity of humiliating, through us, an old enemy."
"'At least," said Tellier, "Your Highness agrees that we are on your side—the reasons for this attitude do not concern me. I only know that we are anxious to do all we can to help Your Highnesses cause. Consequently, when it was learned that Lord Vernon was coming to this place, the Department of State, fearing some duplicity, asked that a competent man be sent here to—to—"
"Keep an eye out for developments," said the Prince, seeing that the other hesitated for a word, "and to watch for an opportunity of forcing England's hand."
"Precisely, Your Highness; and my superiors did me the honour of selecting me for this delicate task."
"A wise choice, I do not doubt," said the Prince, gravely. That Tellier had any important revelation to make he did not in the least believe; but there seemed a chance of extracting some amusement from the situation—and time was hanging heavily on his hands—would hang heavily until the hour of the promenade to-morrow.
"I hope to prove it so, Your Highness!" cried the detective, flushing with pleasure at the compliment. "In fact, I think that I may say I have already proved it so!"
"Ah!" said the Prince, and lighted another cigarette.
"I arrived soon after Your Highness; I took a wagon from Zunderburg, rather than lose precious time by waiting for the train of this afternoon. I was very weary, for the journey from Paris is a trying one; but before seeking repose, indeed without even permitting myself to think of my own fatigue, I ascertained that Lord Vernon occupied apartment A de luxe, and Your Highness apartment B de luxe, in this hotel."
"Indeed!" said the Prince.
"I naturally took care at once to secure a room here, since it was of the first importance that I should be in a position to see everything that might occur."
"Naturally," agreed the Prince.
"Though it was very difficult, since every room was taken. For another man, it would have been impossible."
"But for you, I see, nothing is impossible," observed the Prince.
"Very few things, Your Highness," agreed Tellier, modestly. "In this case I had but to speak a single word," and he paused with an air of triumph.
"Wonderful!" cried the Prince, and clapped his hands softly. "Some day I must get you to teach me that word. It must be very useful. Well, what next?"
"An hour's rest," Tellier continued, "and I was myself again. I soon made the acquaintance of a chamber-maid—a girl who keeps her eyes open—and I learned many things—"
"It was not to tell me them that you came here, I trust," interposed the Prince. "I care little for backstairs gossip."
"Oh, not at all! As Your Highness says, they would, most probably, not interest you. But to one in my profession, no fact is uninteresting; no occurrence is too trivial to be noticed."
"Well, get on to your story, then," said the Prince, with some impatience.
"Just after luncheon today, Your Highness walked on the beach," said Tellier, "accompanied by the dog yonder."
Jax growled softly as he caught the Frenchman's eye, which pleased him no more than it had Glueck.
"That is true," agreed the Prince. "What of it?"
"The dog attacked a small spaniel, which sought refuge with two ladies, one of whom picked it up."
"All ancient history, I assure you, Monsieur Tellier. Yet, wait a moment. Do you happen to know who the ladies were?"
"They are sisters," said Tellier. "Their name is Rushford; their father is a tall American, who incessantly smokes a cigar and reads a newspaper in the office of the hotel. If Your Highness wishes, I can make further inquiries."
"Not at all!" cried the Prince, violently. "I won't countenance such impertinence! Go on with the story."
Tellier bowed to indicate the most implicit obedience.
"It happened that I was near by," he said, "at the moment of the encounter. I had taken my stand near a large beach-chair, which, for reasons, interested me. I was nonchalant, impassive; alert, without seeming to be so. Many of the women passing I had met upon the boulevards under circumstances the most peculiar; concerning many of the men I knew more than they would wish the world to know. Seeing me standing there, some of them turned pale, others grew red with emotion. Some went by endeavouring to appear not to have seen me; others threw me appealing glances. Never, by the quiver of a lash, did I show that I recognised them. I stood and waited—like the Sphinx."
"For what?" inquired the Prince, whose sense of humour had returned to him.
"For the denouement, Your Highness. I knew that, sooner or later, it would come. I knew it could not escape me, Tellier—the evidence of duplicity which I was seeking."
"But," objected the Prince, "what duplicity can there be? If Lord Vernon is ill—"
"Your Highness will pardon me for interrupting; but much depends upon that 'if.' If, on the other hand, the illness is only for the moment assumed—"
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Markeld. "What reason could he have for assuming illness? That would be childish!"
The Frenchman smiled a self-satisfied smile, as he softly caressed his imperial, and his little eyes glowed with anticipated triumph.
"Let us deal with the facts first, if Your Highness will permit, and with reasons afterwards. I was, then, standing by the chair in the attitude which I have described, when your dog appeared and attacked the spaniel. As the young lady stooped and picked it up, your dog sprang against her, frightening her so that she cried aloud."
"And you stood by without offering to assist her?" demanded the Prince, with some indignation.
"There was no need, Your Highness," responded Tellier, easily. "In the first place, she was, of course, in no real danger. In the second place, I perceived instantly that fate was playing into my hands. In fact, the incident could not have been more a propos if it had been arranged by my guardian angel. For from the chair beside which I was stationed a man sprang out and kicked the dog away. Your Highness must have remarked his agility and strength—may even have seen his face."
"No," said the Prince. "I was not near enough to see it distinctly."
"I saw it, Your Highness, very distinctly, and I assure you that it was that of a man in the full enjoyment of health. Even from his agility, Your Highness could doubtless judge whether the man was seriously ill."
The Prince hitched about in his chair a little impatiently. He was beginning to find the Frenchman tedious.
"Most certainly he was not seriously ill," he agreed; "nor, I should say, even slightly so. What is that to me? Pray have done with this mystery!"
Tellier's face was glowing with all a Frenchman's pride in a coup de theatre—his moment of triumph had arrived.
"Of all the eyes which witnessed that episode, seemingly so slight and so unimportant," he said, proudly, "mine were the only ones which saw its full significance. Your Highness will, no doubt, be surprised when I inform you that this gentleman, so agile and so athletic, was no other than Lord Vernon!"
The Path Grows Crooked
In the sitting-room of apartment A, in the south wing of the Grand Hotel Royal, Lord Vernon was tramping nervously up and down while his companions regarded him with evident anxiety.
"I tell you fellows," he was saying, "it can't be kept up—I thought so from the first, but all the rest of you seemed to think it would be so infernally easy that I was ashamed to say anything. I knew something was sure to happen to give us away, and something has happened. What was I to do? Sit there like a mummy and allow that dog to frighten those girls to death? What the deuce are you laughing at, Collins?"
"I'm laughing at your tragic tone. No, you couldn't have sat still—though I don't suppose the young ladies were in any serious danger. They were pretty, no doubt?"
"Ah!" said Vernon, with a mental smacking of the lips at the entrancing picture the words called up.
"That, of course, made it doubly impossible to sit still. Did they know you?"
"Oh, no; never saw me before; hadn't the slightest suspicion that they were talking to such a famous personage. They said they were Americans."
"Then I don't see that any harm has been done."
"Unfortunately, when I was coming back, all bundled up in my chair, we ran right into them down here at the door, and they recognised me instantly—I could tell that by their gasp of amazement as they shrank back against the wall."
"Still, if you preserved a cold and haughty demeanour, they may have concluded they were mistaken."
"Cold and haughty nothing!" broke in the third man. "I was there and I'll swear he winked."
"No, I didn't wink," laughed Vernon. "Though perhaps I should if I'd dared—they're mighty taking girls!"
"Well, what did you do?" demanded Collins, with just a trace of impatience.
Again Vernon laughed.
"I sent 'em back a note asking 'em not to tell," he said.
Collins threw up his hands in horror and the third man grinned sardonically. Vernon looked at them and kept on laughing.
"You two fellows take it too seriously," he added. "I don't believe they'll tell."
"I thought you knew women better than that," said Collins, reproachfully.
"I do know them—better than any dried-up diplomat, at least,—and I believe we can trust these two—for a few days, anyway. How much time do we need?"
"A week, at the very least. Fancy asking a woman to keep a secret for a week! And as for taking it too seriously, you know how much depends on it."
"Yes," observed Vernon, sarcastically, "you fellows seem to think the peace of Europe depends on it."
"I should say that would not be overstating it in the least," said Collins, with a solemnity almost religious.
"Oh, nonsense; you diplomatic fellows make mountains out of molehills; you see a storm in every cloud; you imagine the lightning's going to strike you every time it flashes! You're all nerves!"
"Anyway, you agreed—"
"Yes, I know I agreed," interrupted Vernon, irritably, "and I was a fool to do it."
"Besides," added Blake, "we've got to play very close, since it happens that Markeld is in this very hotel. We supposed, of course, that he would go on to London. I must say that I think he showed exceedingly poor taste in following us here."
"Oh, I don't know," said Vernon. "I think it was rather enterprising. I only wish we could treat the poor devil fairly."
"Well, since he is here," continued Blake, "there's only one thing for you to do, and that is to stay under cover."
"But, confound it!" protested Vernon, "I can't stay cooped up here in these rooms all the time!"
"That's the only safe way," observed Collins. "Suppose Markeld should find out how the land lies! The fat would be in the fire for sure; and we'd be in a mighty awkward position! Suppose the jingoes got hold of it!" and he turned pale at the thought.
"Well, I won't stay shut up, that's certain," said Vernon, doggedly. "As for the jingoes, let them rave!"
"That's easy to say," retorted Collins, with irony, "when some one else has to bear the brunt of it."
Vernon snorted impatiently.
"You may frighten yourself whenever you please," he said, "but you can't frighten me. I've heard the cry of 'Wolf! Wolf!' entirely too often."
"But the wolf came at last," Blake pointed out.
"Well, it isn't coming this time; and I don't care if it is. I repeat, categorically and imperatively, I won't stay shut up!"
"You agreed to obey our instructions, you know."
"Every one has the right to rebel against a tyrant!"
"At least," said Collins, yielding the ground grudgingly, "you must remember always to keep on your sick-togs when you do go out, and to try to look a little less scandalously healthy than you are. Now, if you'd kept on your wraps when you jumped out of the chair—"
"How was I to kick a dog with a rug around my legs? You fellows don't give me credit for what I did do. I'd just got into a most interesting conversation with those girls, when up came a fellow whom I knew instinctively to be Markeld."
He stopped as he caught the others' astounded gaze.
"Yes, Markeld!" he repeated, defiantly. "I've an idea that he is the owner of the dog. I suppose I should have sent James to inquire who the dog belonged to before I ventured forth!"
"No matter," said Collins, impatiently. "What did you do?"
"I was guilty of unpardonable rudeness," answered Vernon. "I broke away from those girls as though they had the plague, jumped into my chair, and buried myself behind my newspaper. They must have thought I'd escaped from somewhere."
"So Markeld didn't see you, it doesn't matter what they thought," remarked Collins.
"Oh, doesn't it?"
"Surely you're not going to run any further risks for the sake of a girl more or less!"
"My dear Collins!" said Vernon, with chill politeness; "I have always suspected that a course in diplomacy sucked the blood out of a man and substituted ice-water in its stead. Now I know it. Permit me to add that you have not seen the girl—either girl—though I don't suppose that would make the slightest difference."
"May I inquire what you propose to do?" asked Collins, flushing a little.
"I propose to cultivate the acquaintance of the beautiful Americans in every way I can. After all, what does it matter to me who rules over a little twopenny duchy called Schloshold-Markheim?"
"I suppose your promise is of equal indifference to you!"
"Damn my promise! See here, Collins; don't push me too far; the worm will turn. Of course, I'll keep my promise; but don't irritate me. I'm all on edge over this thing now—a little more, and I'll be capable of doing something—"
A tap at the door interrupted him, and he disappeared between two curtains into the inner room, where an invalid chair, buried in wraps, stood by the window. Near it was a little table covered with medicine bottles, glasses, spoons—in a word, all the paraphernalia of prolonged and serious illness.
Blake opened the door and took the card that was presented to him.
"The Prince of Markeld," he said, looking at it. "Ah, yes; you will tell His Highness that there has been no change in the condition of Lord Vernon, who thanks him for his kind inquiries."
He closed the door and turned back into the room.
"Now, what do you think that means?" he asked, of Collins. "That's the second time today. He's getting importunate."
Collins stared out of the window gloomily.
"Perhaps he suspects already," he said. "I've been told he's a clever fellow—in fact, he's proved it once or twice."
"Suppose he does suspect—what shall we do?"
"Convince him to the contrary. Where's Scaddam?"
"In his room, I suppose."
"Better send for him."
"May I come out?" inquired a voice from the inner room.
"Yes, come ahead," called Collins, and Vernon reappeared. "Now, my friend," he continued rapidly, "you'd better go in and put on your war-togs." Vernon groaned. "Put 'em on thick. I believe Markeld suspects the trick we're playing, and we've got to fool him—we've got to show him what a sick man you are."
"How could he suspect?" demanded Vernon, incredulously. "Even if he saw me, he couldn't recognise me—he doesn't know me."
"Perhaps those girls have already given you away."
"Nonsense! You fellows are afraid of your own shadows. He can't suspect!"
"Just the same, we've got to be prepared for emergencies. Have you got plenty of pepper?"
Vernon groaned again.
"Plenty! I tell you fellows I'll ruin my health if I keep this up much longer. I might easily burst a blood-vessel. People often do when they sneeze."
"Well, we'll have to take the risk," said Blake, with grim complacency.
"Much risk you take! In fact, I saw you sprinkling pepper on my handkerchief this morning, when there wasn't the slightest need of it."
"Now, see here," protested Collins, sharply, "what's the use of all this argument? We've got to see this thing through, whether we like it or not. I've sent for Scaddam, so he'll be on the scene in case of emergencies—"
"You mean, if I break a blood-vessel?" inquired Vernon, politely.
"Oh, break your grandmother! I tell you—"
There was a second tap on the door and Vernon again made a dive for the inner room. This time, a note was handed in. Collins closed the door, tore open the envelope nervously, and ran his eyes quickly over the contents.
"Come out here, you beggar," he called, and Vernon reappeared on the threshold. "Take a look at this," he added, and held out the note. "Maybe you won't be so cocksure hereafter that diplomats are always making mountains out of mole-hills."
Vernon took the paper and read it slowly, his face growing blanker and more blank as he proceeded. Then he went back to the beginning and read it aloud:
"The Prince of Markeld admired greatly Lord Vernon's recent prompt and chivalrous action, which he had the privilege of witnessing. He is sure, however, that His Lordship's illness cannot be so serious as represented, and hopes that His Lordship will not persist in refusing him an audience. Such a course would be neither ingenuous nor fair."
For a moment, no one spoke, then Blake gave vent to a low whistle.
"Well," he said, dazedly; "so the cat's out of the bag! What's to be done?"
"There's only one thing that can be done," Collins said sharply. "I've already pointed out what that is," and he sat down at the table and wrote a rapid message. "How will this do? 'Lord Vernon will be pleased to see the Prince of Markeld at five o'clock this afternoon. He has no recollection of having recently performed any prompt or chivalrous action. The Prince has doubtless been misinformed.' That gives us half an hour—neither too much time, nor too little."