The Illustrious Prince

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 27 - A Prisoner


Dr. Spencer Whiles was sitting in a very comfortable easy chair, smoking a particularly good cigar, with a pile of newspapers by his side. His appearance certainly showed no signs of hardship. His linen, and the details of his toilet generally, supplied from some mysterious source into which he had not inquired, were much improved. Notwithstanding his increased comfort, however, he was looking perplexed, even a little worried, and the cause of it was there in front of him, in the advertisement sheets of the various newspapers which had been duly laid upon his table.

The Prince came in quietly and closed the door behind him.

"Good afternoon, my friend!" he said. "I understood that you wished to see me."

The doctor had made up his mind to adopt a firm attitude. Nevertheless the genial courtesy of the Prince's tone and manner had the same effect upon him as it had upon most people. He half rose to his feet and became at once apologetic.

"I hope that I have not disturbed you, Prince," he said. "I thought that I should like to have a word or two with you concerning something which I have come across in these journals."

He tapped them with his forefinger, and the Prince nodded thoughtfully.

"Your wonderful Press!" he exclaimed. "How much it is responsible for! Well, Dr. Whiles, what have the newspapers to say to you?"

The doctor handed across a carefully folded journal and pointed to a certain paragraph.

"Will you kindly read this?" he begged.

The Prince accepted the sheet and read the paragraph aloud:

"FIFTY POUNDS REWARD! Disappeared from his home in Long Whatton on Wednesday morning last, Herbert Spencer Whiles, Surgeon. The above reward will be paid to any one giving information which will lead to the discovery of his present whereabouts. Was last seen in a motor car, Limousine body, painted dark green, leaving Long Whatton in the direction of London."

The Prince laid down the paper, smiling.

"Well?" he asked. "That seems clear enough. Some one is willing to give fifty pounds to know where you are."

The doctor tapped the advertisement with his forefinger impressively.

"Fifty pounds!" he repeated. "There isn't a person in the world to whom the knowledge of my movements is worth fifty pounds--except--"

"Except?" the Prince murmured.

"Except Mr. Inspector Jacks," Dr. Whiles said slowly.

The Prince seemed scarcely to grasp the situation.

"Well," he said, "fifty pounds is not a great deal of money. Some unknown person--possibly, as you suggest, Mr. Jacks--is willing to give fifty pounds to discover your whereabouts. I, on the other hand, am giving a thousand guineas to keep you here as my guest. The odds do not seem even, do they?"

"Put in that way," Dr. Whiles admitted, "they certainly do not. But there is another thing which has come into my mind."

The Prince smiled and helped himself to one of the very excellent cigarettes which had been provided for the delectation of his visitor.

"Pray treat me with every confidence, Dr. Whiles," he said. "Tell me exactly what is in your thoughts."

"Well, then, I will," the doctor answered. "Sitting here with nothing particular to do, one has plenty of leisure to think. For the first time, I have seriously tried to puzzle out what Mr. Inspector Jacks really wanted with me, why he came down to ask me about the person whom I treated for injuries resulting from a bicycle accident one Wednesday evening not long ago, why he took me up to London to see if I could identify that person in a very different guise. I have tried to put the pieces together and to ask myself what he meant by it all."

"With so much time upon your hands, Dr. Whiles," the Prince remarked, "you can scarcely fail to have arrived at some reasonable explanation."

"I don't know whether it is reasonable or not," the doctor answered, "but the obvious explanation is getting on my nerves. There are two things which I cannot get away from. One is that I cannot for the life of me imagine your riding a bicycle twelve or fifteen miles north of London between eleven o'clock and midnight; and the other--"

"Come, the other?" the Prince remarked encouragingly.

"The other," the doctor continued, "is the fact that within half a mile of my house runs the main London and North Western line."

"The London and North Western Railway line," the Prince repeated, "and what has that to do with it?"

"This much," the doctor answered, "that on that very night, about half an hour before your--shall we call it bicycle accident?--the special train from Liverpool to London passed along that line. You will remember the tragic occurrence which took place before she reached London, the murder of the man Hamilton Fynes. If you read the report of the evidence at the inquest, you will notice the engine driver's declaration that the only time on the whole journey when he travelled at less than forty miles an hour was when passing over the viaduct and before entering the tunnel which is plainly visible from my house."

"This is very interesting," the Prince remarked, "but it is not new. We have known all this before. Perhaps, though, some fresh thing has come into your mind connected with these happenings. If so, please do not hesitate. Let me hear it."

"It is a fresh thing to me," the doctor said,--"fresh, in a sense, though all the time I have had an uneasy feeling at the back of my head. I know now what it was which brought Inspector Jacks to see me. I know now what it was he had at the back of his head concerning the man who met with a bicycle accident at this psychological moment."

"Inspector Jacks is a very shrewd fellow," the Prince said. "I should not be in the least surprised if you were entirely right."

The doctor moved restlessly in his chair. His eyes remained on his companion's face, as though fascinated.

"Can't you understand," he said, "that Inspector Jacks is on your track? Rightly or wrongly, he believes that you had something to do with the murder on the train that night."

The Prince nodded amiably. He seemed in no way discomposed.

"I feel convinced," he said, "that you are right. I agree with you. I believe that Inspector Jacks has had that idea for some little time now."

The doctor gripped the sides of his chair and stared at this man who discussed a matter so terrible with calm and perfect ease.

"Yes, I have felt that more than once," the Prince continued. "My presence upon the spot at that precise moment with injuries which had to be explained somehow or other, was, without doubt, unfortunate."

The two men sat for several moments without further speech. The doctor's features seemed to reflect something of the horror which he undoubtedly felt. The Prince appeared only a trifle bored.

"So that is why," the former exclaimed hoarsely, "I have been appointed your physician in chief!"

"I had given you the credit, my dear doctor," the Prince said smoothly, "of having arrived at that decision some time ago. To a man of your perceptions there can scarcely have been any question about it at all. Besides, even Princes, you know, do not give fees of a thousand guineas for nothing."

Dr. Whiles rose slowly to his feet.

"You know the secret of that murder!" he declared.

"Why ask me?" the Prince answered. "If I tell you that I do, you may find conscientious scruples about remaining here. A man is not bound, you know, to give himself away. Make the best of things, and do not try to see too far."

The doctor was looking a little shaken.

"If you were mixed up in that affair," he said, "and if I remain here when my evidence is needed, I become an accomplice."

"Only if you remain here voluntarily," the Prince reminded him cheerfully. "Remember that and be comforted. No effort that you could make now would bring you into touch with Mr. Inspector Jacks until I am quite prepared. So you see, my dear doctor, that you have nothing with which to reproach yourself. I will not insult you," he continued, "by suggesting that a reward of fifty pounds could possibly have influenced your attitude. If you have suffered your mind to dwell upon it for a single moment, try and remember the relative unimportance of such an amount when compared with a thousand guineas."

The doctor moved to the window and back again.

"Supposing," he said, "I decline to remain here? Supposing I say that, believing you now to have a guilty knowledge of this murder, I repudiate our bargain? Supposing I say that I will have nothing more to do with your thousand guineas,--that I will leave this house?"

"Then we come to close quarters," the Prince answered, "and you force me to tell you in plain words that, until I am ready for you to leave it, you are as much a prisoner in this room as though the keys of the strongest fortress in Europe were turned upon you. I have told you this before. I thought that we perfectly understood one another."

"I did not understand," the doctor protested. "I knew that there was trouble, but I did not know that it was this!"

"The fact of your knowing or not knowing makes no difference," the Prince answered. "You are no longer a free agent. The only question for you to decide is whether you remain here willingly or whether you will force me to remind you of our bargain."

The doctor was sitting down again now. All the time he watched the Prince with a gleam in his eyes, partly of horror, partly of fear. He no longer doubted but that he was in the presence of a criminal.

"I am sorry," the Prince continued, "that you have allowed this little matter to disturb you. I thought that we had arranged it all at our last interview. If you did not surmise my reasons for keeping you here, then I am afraid I gave you credit for more intelligence than you possess. You will excuse me now, I am sure," he added, rising. "I have some letters to send off before I change. By the bye, do you care to give me your parole? It might, perhaps, lessen the inconvenience to which you are unfortunately subject."

The doctor shook his head.

"No," he said, "I will not give my parole!"

Late that night, he tried the handle of his door and found it open. The corridor outside was in thick darkness. He felt his way along by the wall. Suddenly, from behind, a pair of large soft hands gripped him by the throat. Slowly he was drawn back--almost strangled.

"Let me go!" he called out, struggling in vain to find a body upon which he could gain a grip.

The grasp only tightened.

"Back to your rooms!" came a whisper through the darkness.

The doctor returned. When he staggered into his sitting room, he turned up the electric light. There were red marks upon his throat and perspiration upon his forehead. He opened the door once more and looked out upon the landing, striking a match and holding it over his head. There was no one in sight, yet all the time he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched. For the first time in his life he wondered whether a thousand guineas was, after all, such a magnificent fee!

Almost at the same time the Prince sat back in the shadows of the Duchess of Devenham's box at the Opera and talked quietly to Lady Grace.

"But tell me, Prince," she begged, "I know that you are glad to go home, but won't you really miss this a little,--the music, the life, all these things that make up existence here? Your own country is wonderful, I know, but it has not progressed so far, has it?"

He shook his head.

"I think," he said, "that the portion of our education which we have most grievously neglected is the development of our recreations. But then you must remember that we are to a certain extent without that craving for amusement which makes these things necessary for you others. We are perhaps too serious in my country, Lady Grace. We lack altogether that delightful air of irresponsibility with which you Londoners seem to make your effortless way through life."

She was a little perplexed.

"I don't believe," she said, "that in your heart you approve of us at all."

"Do not say that, Lady Grace," he begged. "It is simply that I have been brought up in so different a school. This sort of thing is very wonderful, and I shall surely miss it. Yet nowadays the world is being linked together in marvellous fashion. Tokio and London are closer today than ever they have been in the world's history."

"And our people?" she asked. "Do you really think that our people are so far apart? Between you and me, for instance," she added, meaning to ask the question naturally enough, but suddenly losing confidence and looking away from him,--"between you and me there seems no radical difference of race. You might almost be an Englishman--not one of these men of fashion, of course, but a statesman or a man of letters, some one who had taken hold of the serious side of life."

"You pay me a very delightful compliment," he murmured.

"Please repay me, then, by being candid," she answered. "Consider for a moment that I am a typical English girl, and tell me whether I am so very different from the Japanese women of your own class?"

He hesitated for a moment. The question was not without its embarrassments.

"Men," he said, "are very much the same, all the world over. They are like the coarse grass which grows everywhere. But the flowers, you know, are different in every country."

Lady Grace sighed. Perhaps she had been a trifle too daring! She was willing enough, at any rate, to let the subject drift away.

"Soon the curtain will go up," she said, "and we can talk no longer. I should like to tell you, though, how glad I am--how glad we all are--that you can come to us next week."

"I can assure you that I am looking forward to it," he answered a little gravely. "It is my farewell to all of you, you know, and it seems to me that those who will be your father's guests are just those with whom I have been on the most intimate terms since I came to England.

She nodded.

"Penelope is coming," she said quickly,--"you know that?--Penelope and Sir Charles Somerfield."

"Yes," he answered, "I heard so."

The curtain went up. The faint murmur of the violins was suddenly caught up and absorbed in the thunderous music of a march. Lady Grace moved nearer to the front. Prince Maiyo remained where he was among the shadows. The music was in his ears, but his eyes were half closed.