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The Prince accepted my most comfortable easy chair with an air of graceful condescension. Lady Angela had already seated herself. It was late in the afternoon, and Grooton was busy in the room behind, preparing my tea.
"The Prince did not care to shoot to-day," Lady Angela explained, "and I have been showing him the neighbourhood. Incidentally, I am dying for some tea, and the Prince has smoked all his cigarettes."
The Prince raised his hand in polite expostulation, but he accepted a cigarette with a little sigh of relief.
"You have found a very lonely spot for your dwelling-house, Mr. Ducaine," he said. "You English are so fond of solitude."
"It suits me very well," I answered, "for just now I have a great deal of work to do. I am safely away from all distractions here."
Lady Angela smiled at me.
"Not quite so safe perhaps, Mr. Ducaine, as you fondly imagined," she remarked. "I am afraid that we disturbed you. You look awfully busy."
She glanced towards my writing-table. It was covered with papers, and a map of the southern counties leaned up against the wall. The Prince also was glancing curiously in the same direction.
"I have finished my work for the day," I said, rising. "If you will permit me, I will put it away."
Grooton brought in tea. The Prince was politely curious as to the subject matter of those closely written sheets of paper.
"You are perhaps interested in literature, Mr. Ducaine," he remarked.
"Immensely," I answered, waving my hand towards my bookshelves.
"But you yourself--you no doubt write?"
"Oh, one tries," I answered, pouring out the tea.
"It may be permitted then to wish you success," he remarked dryly.
"You are very good," I answered.
Lady Angela calmly interposed. The Prince ate buttered toast and drank tea with a bland affectation of enjoyment. They rose almost immediately afterwards.
"You are coming up to the house this evening, Mr. Ducaine?" Lady Angela asked.
"I am due there now," I answered. "If you will allow me, I will walk back with you."
The Prince touched my arm as Lady Angela passed out before us.
"I am anxious, Mr. Ducaine," he said, looking me in the face, "for a few minutes' private conversation with you. I shall perhaps be fortunate enough to find you at home to-morrow."
He did not wait for my answer, for Lady Angela looked back, and he hastened to her side. He seemed in no hurry, however, to leave the place. The evening was cloudy and unusually dark. A north wind was tearing through the grove of stunted firs, and the roar of the incoming sea filled the air with muffled thunder. The Prince looked about him with a little grimace.
"It is indeed a lonely spot," he remarked. "One can imagine anything happening here. Did I not hear of a tragedy only the other day--a man found dead?"
"If you have a taste for horrors, Prince," I remarked, "you can see the spot from the edge of the cliff here."
The Prince moved eagerly forward.
"I disclaim all such weakness," he said, "but the little account which I read, or did some one tell me of it?--ah, I forget; but it interested me."
I pointed downwards to where the creek-riven marshes merged into the sands.
"It was there--a little to the left of the white palings," I said. "The man was supposed to have been cast up from the sea."
He measured the distance with his eye. I anticipated his remark.
"The tide is only halfway up now," I said, "and on that particular night there was a terrible gale."
"Nevertheless," he murmured, half to himself, "it is a long way. Was the man what you call identified, Mr. Ducaine?"
"There were no letters or papers found upon him?"
The Prince looked at me sharply.
"That," he said softly, "was strange. Does it not suggest to you that he may have been robbed?"
"I had not thought of it," I answered. "The verdict, I believe, was simply Found drowned."
"Found drowned," the Prince repeated. "Ah! Found drowned. By-the-bye," he added suddenly, "who did find him?"
"I did," I said coolly.
"You?" The Prince peered at me closely through the dim light. "That," he said reflectively, "is interesting."
"You find it so interesting," I remarked, "that perhaps you could help to solve the question of the man's identity."
He seemed startled.
"I?" he exclaimed. "But, no. Why should you think that?"
I turned to join Lady Angela. He did not immediately follow.
"Why did you bring him?" I asked her softly. "You had some reason."
"He was making inquiries about you," she answered, "secretly and openly. I thought you ought to know, and I could think of no other way of putting you on your guard."
"The Prince of Malors!" I murmured. "He surely would not stoop to play the spy."
She was silent, and moved a step or two farther away from the spot where he still stood as though absorbed. His angular figure was clearly defined through the twilight against the empty background of space. He was on the very edge of the cliff, almost looking over.
"I know very little about him myself," she said hurriedly, "but I have heard the others talk, Lord Chelsford especially. He is a man, they say, with a twofold reputation. He has played a great part in the world of pleasure, almost a theatrical part; but, you know, the French people like that."
"It is true," I murmured. "They love their heroes decked in tinsel." She nodded.
"They say that it is part of a pose, and that he has serious political ambitions. He contemplates always some great scheme which shall make him the idol, if only for a day, of the French mob. A day would be sufficient, for he would strike while--Prince, be careful," she called out. "Ah!"
We heard a shrill cry, and we saw the Prince sway on the verge of the cliff. He threw up his arms and clutched wildly at the air, but he was too late to save himself. We saw the ground crumble beneath his feet, and with a second cry of despair he disappeared.
Grooton, Lady Angela, and I reached the edge of the cliff at about the same moment. We peered over in breathless anxiety. Lady Angela clutched my arm, and for a moment I did not in the least care what had happened to the Prince.
"Don't be frightened," I whispered. "The descent is not by any means sheer. He can't possibly have got to the bottom. I will clamber down and look for him,"
"Oh, you mustn't," she exclaimed. "It is not safe. How terrible it looks down there!"
I raised my voice and shouted. Almost immediately there came an answer.
"I am here, my friends, in the middle of a bush. I dare not move. It is so dark I cannot see where to put my foot. Can you lower me a lantern, and I will see if I can climb up?"
Grooton hastened back to the cottage.
"I think you will be all right," I cried out. "It is not half as steep as it looks."
"I believe," he answered, "that I can see a path up. But I will wait until the lantern comes."
The lantern arrived almost immediately. We lowered it to him by a rope, and he examined the face of the cliff.
"I think that I can get up," he cried out, "but I should like to help myself with the rope. Can you both hold it tightly?"
"All right," I answered. "We've got it."
He clambered up with surprising agility. But as he reached the edge of the cliff he groaned heavily.
"Are you hurt?" Lady Angela asked.
"It is my foot," he muttered, "my left foot. I twisted it in falling."
Grooton and I helped him to the cottage. He hobbled painfully along with tightly clenched lips.
"I shall have to ask for a pony cart to get up to the house, I am afraid," he said. "I am very sorry to give you so much trouble, Mr. Ducaine."
"The trouble is nothing,". I answered, "but I am wondering how on earth you managed to fall over the cliff."
"I myself, I scarcely know," he answered, as he sipped the brandy which Grooton had produced. "I am subject to fits of giddiness, and one came over me as I stood there looking down. I felt the ground sway, and remember no more. I am very sorry to give you tall this trouble, but indeed I fear that I cannot walk."
"We will send you down a cart," I declared. "You will have rather a rough drive across the grass, but there is no other way."
"You are very kind," he declared. "I am in despair at my clumsiness."
I gave him my box of cigarettes. Lady Angela hesitated.
"I think," she said, "that I ought to stay with you, Prince, while Mr. Ducaine goes up for the cart."
"Indeed, Lady Angela, you are very kind," he answered, "but I could not permit it. I regret to say that I am in some pain, and I have a weakness for being alone when I suffer. If I desire anything Mr. Ducaine's servant will be at hand."
So we left him there. At any other time the prospect of that walk with Lady Angela would have filled me with joy. But from the first moment of leaving the cottage I was uneasy.
"What do you think of that man?" I asked her abruptly. "I mean personally?"
"I hate him," she answered coolly. "He is one of those creatures whose eyes and mouth, and something underneath his most respectful words, seem always to suggest offensive things. I find it very hard indeed to be civil to him."
"Do you happen to know what Colonel Ray thinks of him?" I asked her.
"I have no special knowledge of Colonel Ray's likes or dislikes," she answered.
"Forgive me," I said. "I thought that you and he were very intimate, and that you might know. I wonder whether he takes the Prince seriously."
"Colonel Ray is one of my best friends," she said, "but I am not in his confidence."
A slight reserve had crept into her tone. I stole a glance at her face; paler and more delicate than ever it seemed in the gathering darkness. Her lips were firmly set, but her eyes were kind. A sudden desire for her sympathy weakened me.
"Lady Angela," I said, "I must talk to some one. I do not know whom to trust. I do not know who is honest. You are the only person whom I dare speak to at all."
She looked round cautiously. We were out of the plantation now, in the open park, where eavesdropping was impossible.
"You have a difficult post, Mr. Ducaine," she said, "and you will remember--"
"Oh, I remember," I interrupted. "You warned me not to take' it. But think in what a position I was. I had no career, I was penniless. How could I throw away such a chance?"
"Something has happened--this morning, has it not?" she asked.
She waited for me to go on. She was deeply interested. I could hear her breath coming fast, though we were walking at a snail's pace. I longed to confide in her absolutely, but I dared not.
"Do not ask me to tell you what it was," I said. "The knowledge would only perplex and be a burden to you. It is all the time like poison in my brain."
We were walking very close together. I felt her fingers suddenly upon my arm and her soft breath upon my cheek.
"But if you do not tell me everything--how can you expect my sympathy, perhaps my help?"
"I may not ask you for either," I answered sadly. "The knowledge of some things must remain between your father and myself."
"Between my father--and yourself!" she repeated.
I was silent, and then we both started apart. Behind us we could hear the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching, soft quick footsteps, muffled and almost noiseless upon the spongy turf. We stood still.
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