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HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
The long dining-room was almost filled with a troop of guests who had arrived on the previous day. Most of the men were gathered round the huge sideboard, on which was a formidable array of silver-covered hot-water dishes. Places were laid along the flower-decked table for thirty or forty. I stood apart for a few moments whilst the Duke was greeting some of his guests. Ray, who was sitting alone, motioned me to a place by him.
"Come and sit here, Ducaine," he said; "that is," he added, with a sudden sarcastic gleam in his dark eyes, "unless you still have what the novelists call an unconquerable antipathy to me. I don't want to rob you of your appetite."
"I did not expect to see you down here again so soon, Colonel Ray," I answered gravely. "I congratulate you upon your nerves."
Ray laughed softly to himself.
"You would have me go shuddering past the fatal spot, I suppose, with shaking knees and averted head, eh? On the contrary, I have been down on the sands for more than an hour this morning, and have returned with an excellent appetite."
I looked at him curiously.
"I saw you returning," I said. "Your boots looked as though you had been wading in the wet sand. You were not there without a purpose."
"I was not," he admitted. "I seldom do anything without a purpose."
For a moment he abandoned the subject. He proceeded calmly with his breakfast, and addressed a few remarks to a man across the table, a man with short cropped hair and beard, and a shooting dress of sombre black.
"You are quite right," he said, turning towards me suddenly. "I had a purpose in going there. I thought that the gentleman whose untimely fate has enlisted your sympathies might have dropped something which would have been useful to me."
For the moment I forgot this man's kindness to me. I looked at him with a shudder.
"If you are in earnest," I said, "I trust that you were unsuccessful."
I fancied that there was that in his glance which suggested the St. Bernard looking down on the terrier, and I chafed at it.
"It would have been better for you," he said, grimly, "had my search met with better result."
"For me?" I repeated.
"For you! Yes! The man came to see you. If he had been alive you might have been in his toils by now. He was a very cunning person, and those who sent him were devils."
"How do you know these things?" I asked, amazed.
"From the letters which I ripped from his coat," he answered.
"He came to Braster to see me, then?" I exclaimed.
"And the letters which you took from him--were they addressed to me?"
I was getting angry, but Ray remained imperturbable.
"I think," I said, "you will admit that I have a right to them."
"Not a shadow of a doubt of it," he answered. "In fact, it was so obvious that I destroyed them."
"Destroyed my letters!"
"Precisely! I chose that course rather than allow them to fall into your hands."
"You admit, then," I said, "that I had a right to them."
"Indubitably. But they do not exist."
"You read them, without doubt. You can acquaint me with their contents."
"Some day," he said, "I probably shall. But not yet. Believe me or not, as you choose, but there are certain positions in which ignorance is the only possible safe state. You are in such a position at the present moment."
"Are you," I asked, "my moral guardian?"
"I have at least," he said, "incurred certain responsibilities on your behalf. You could no longer hold your present post and be in communication with the sender of those letters."
My anger died away despite myself. The man's strength and honesty of purpose were things which I could not bring myself to doubt. I continued my breakfast in silence.
"By-the-bye," he remarked presently, "you, too, my young friend, were out early this morning."
"I was writing all night," I answered. "I had documents to put in the safe."
He shot a quick searching glance at me.
"You have been to the safe this morning, then?"
I answered him with a composure at which I inwardly marvelled.
"Certainly! It was the object of my coming here."
"You entered the room with the Duke. Was he in the study at that hour?"
"No, I went upstairs to him. I had a question to ask."
"And you have met Lord Blenavon? What do you think of him?"
"We were at Magdalen together for a term," I answered. "He was good enough to remember me."
Ray smiled, but he did not speak another word to me all the breakfast-time. Once I made a remark to him, and his reply was curt, almost rude. I left the room a few minutes afterwards, and came face to face in the hall with Lady Angela.
"I am glad, Mr. Ducaine," she remarked, "that your early morning labours have given you an appetite. You have been in to breakfast, have you not?"
"Your father was good enough to insist upon it," I answered.
"You have seen him already this morning, then?"
"For a few minutes only," I explained. "I went up to his room."
"I trust so far that everything is going on satisfactorily?" she inquired, raising her eyes to mine.
I did not answer her at once. I was engaged in marvelling at the wonderful pallor of her cheeks.
"So far as I am concerned, I think so," I said. "Forgive me, Lady Angela," I added, "but I think that you must have walked too far this morning. You are very pale."
"I am tired," she admitted.
There was a lounge close at hand. She moved slowly towards it, and sat down. There was no spoken invitation, but I understood that I was permitted to remain with her.
"Do you know," she said, looking round to make sure that we were alone, "I dread these meetings of the Council. I have always the feeling that something terrible will happen. I knew Lord Ronald very well, and his mother was one of my dearest friends. I am sure that he was perfectly innocent. And to-day he is in a madhouse. They say that he will never recover."
I did not wish to speak about these things, even with Lady Angela. I tried to lead the conversation into other channels, but she absolutely ignored my attempt.
"There is something about it all so grimly mysterious," she said. "It seems almost as though there must be a traitor, if not in the Council itself, in some special and privileged position."
She looked up at me as though asking for confirmation of her views. I shook my head.
"Lady Angela," I said, "would you mind if I abstained from expressing any opinion at all? It is a subject which I feel it is scarcely right for me to discuss."
She looked at me with wide-open eyes, a dash of insolence mingled with her surprise. I do not know what she was about to say, for at that moment the young man with the sombre shooting suit and closely cropped hair paused for a moment on his way out of the breakfast-room. He glanced at me, and I received a brief impression of an unwholesome-looking person with protuberant eyeballs, thin lashes, and supercilious mouth.
"I trust that the day's entertainment will include something more than a glimpse of Lady Angela," he said, with a low bow.
She raised her eyes. It seemed to me, who was watching her closely, that she shrank a little back in her seat. I was sure that she shared my instinctive dislike of the man.
"I think not," she said. "Perhaps you are expecting me to come down with the lunch and compliment you all upon your prowess."
"It would be delightful!" he murmured.
She shook her head.
"There are too many of you, and I am too few," she said lightly. "Besides, shooting is one of the few sports with which I have no sympathy at all. I shall try and get somewhere away from the sound of your guns."
"I myself," he said, "am not what you call a devotee of the sport. I wonder if part of the day one might play truant. Would Lady Angela take pity upon an unentertained guest?"
"I should find it a shocking nuisance," she said, coolly. "Besides, it would not be allowed. You will find that when my father has once marshalled you, escape is a thing not to be dreamed of. Every one says that he is a perfect martinet where a day's shooting is concerned."
He smiled enigmatically. "We shall see," he remarked, as he turned away. Lady Angela watched him disappear. "Do you know who that is?" she asked me. I shook my head. "Some one French, very French," I remarked. "He should be," she remarked. "That is Prince Henri de Malors. He represents the hopes of the Royalists in France."
"It is very interesting," I murmured. "May I ask is he an old family friend?"
"Our families have been connected by marriage," she answered. "He and Blenavon saw a great deal of one another in Paris, very much to the disadvantage of my brother, I should think. I believe that there was some trouble at the Foreign Office about it."
"It is very interesting," I repeated.
"Blenavon was very foolish," she declared. "It was obviously a most indiscreet friendship for him, and Paris was his first appointment. But I must go and speak to some of these people."
She rose and left me a little abruptly. I escaped by one of the side entrances, and hurried back to my cottage.
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