His Highness, the Prince of Saxe Leinitzer!"
Duson stood away from the door with a low bow. The Prince - in the buttonhole of whose frock-coat was a large bunch of Russian violets, passed across the threshold. Mr. Sabin rose slowly from his chair.
"I fear," the Prince said suavely, "that I am an early visitor. I can only throw myself upon your indulgence and plead the urgency of my mission."
His arrival appeared to have interrupted a late breakfast of the Continental order. The small table at which Lucille and Mr. Sabin were seated was covered with roses and several dishes of wonderful fruit. A coffee equipage was before Lucille. Mr. Sabin, dressed with his usual peculiar care and looking ten years younger, had just lit a cigarette.
"We have been anticipating your visit, Prince," Mr. Sabin remarked, with grim courtesy. "Can we offer you coffee or a liqueur?"
"I thank you, no," the Prince answered. "I seldom take anything before lunch. Let me beg that you do not disturb yourselves. With your permission I will take this easy-chair. So! That is excellent. We can now talk undisturbed."
Mr. Sabin bowed.
"You will find me," he said, "an excellent listener."
The Prince smiled in an amiable manner. His eyes were fixed upon Lucille, who had drawn her chair a little away from the table. What other woman in the world who had passed her first youth could sit thus in the slanting sunlight and remain beautiful?
"I will ask you to believe," the Prince said slowly, "how sincerely I regret this unavoidable interference in a domestic happiness so touching. Nevertheless, I have come for the Countess. It is necessary that she returns to Dorset House this morning."
"You will oblige me," Mr. Sabin remarked, "by remembering that my wife is the Duchesse de Souspennier, and by so addressing her."
The Prince spread out his hands - a deprecating gesture.
"Alas!" he said, "for the present it is not possible. Until the little affair upon which we are now engaged is finally disposed of it is necessary that Lucille should be known by the title which she bears in her own right, or by the name of her late husband, Mr. James B. Peterson."
"That little affair," Mr. Sabin remarked, "is, I presume, the matter which you have come to explain to me."
The Prince smiled and shook his head.
"Explain! My dear Duke, that is not possible. It is not within your rights to ask questions or to require any explanation as to anything which Lucille is required to do by us. You must remember that our claim upon her comes before yours. It is a claim which she cannot evade or deny. And in pursuance of it, Countess, I deeply regret having to tell you that your presence at Dorset House within the next hour is demanded."
Lucille made no answer, but looked across the table at Mr. Sabin with a little grimace.
"It is a comedy," she murmured. "After all, it is a comedy!"
Mr. Sabin fingered his cigarette thoughtfully.
"I believe," he said, "that the Duchess realises her responsibilities in this matter. I myself have no wish to deny them. As ordinary members we are both pledged to absolute obedience. I therefore place no embargo upon the return of my wife to Dorset House. But there are certain conditions, Prince, that considering the special circumstances of the case I feel impelled to propose."
"I can recognise," the Prince said, "no conditions."
"They are very harmless," Mr. Sabin continued calmly. "The first is that in a friendly way, and of course under the inviolable law of secrecy, you explain to me for what part Lucille is cast in this little comedy; the next that I be allowed to see her at reasonable intervals, and finally that she is known by her rightful name as Duchesse de Souspennier."
The forced urbanity which the Prince had assumed fell away from him without warning. The tone of his reply was almost a sneer.
"I repeat," he said, "that I can recognise no conditions."
"It is perhaps," Mr. Sabin continued, "the wrong word to use. We submit to your authority, but you and I are well aware that your discretionary powers are large. I ask you to use them."
"And I," the Prince said, "refuse. Let me add that I intend to prevent any recurrence of your little adventure of last night. Lucille shall not see you again until her task is over. And as for you, my dear Duke, I desire only your absence. I do not wish to hurt your feelings, but your name has been associated in the past with too many failures to inspire us with any confidence in engaging you as an ally. Countess, a carriage from Dorset House awaits you."
But Lucille sat still, and Mr. Sabin rose slowly to his feet.
"I thank you, Prince," he said, "for throwing away the mask. Fighting is always better without the buttons. It is true that I have failed more than once, but it is also true that my failures have been more magnificent than your waddle across the plain of life. As for your present authority, I challenge you to your face that you are using it to gain your private ends. What I have said to you I shall repeat to those whose place is above yours. Lucille shall go to Dorset House, but I warn you that I hold my life a slight thing where her welfare is concerned. Your hand is upon the lever of a great organization, I am only a unit in the world. Yet I would have you remember that more than once, Prince, when you and I have met with the odds in your favour the victory has been mine. Play the game fairly, and you have nothing to fear from me but the open opposition I have promised you. Bring but the shadow of evil upon her, misuse your power but ever so slightly against her, and I warn you that I shall count the few years of life left to me a trifle - of less than no account - until you and I cry quits."
The Prince smiled, a fat, good-natured smile, behind which the malice was indeed well hidden.
"Come, come, my dear Souspennier," he declared. "This is unworthy of you. It is positively melodramatic. It reminds me of the plays of my Fatherland, and of your own Adelphi Theatre. We should be men of the world, you and I. You must take your defeats with your victories. I can assure you that the welfare of the Countess Lucille shall be my special care."
Lucille for the first time spoke. She rose from her chair and rested her hands affectionately upon her husband's shoulder.
"Dear Victor," she said, "remember that we are in London, and, need I add, have confidence in me. The Prince of Saxe Leinitzer and I understand one another, I believe. If we do not it is not my fault. My presence here at this moment should prove to you how eagerly I shall look forward to the time when our separation is no longer necessary."
She passed away into the inner room with a little farewell gesture tender and regretful. Mr. Sabin resumed his seat.
"I believe, Prince," he said, "that no good can come of any further conference between you and me. We understand one another too well. Might I suggest therefore that you permit me to ring?"
The Prince rose to his feet.
"You are right," he said. "The bandying of words between you and me is a waste of time. We are both of us too old at the game. But come, before I go I will do you a good turn. I will prove that I am in a generous mood."
Mr. Sabin shrugged his shoulders.
"If anything in this world could inspire me with fear," he remarked, "it would be the generosity of the Prince of Saxe Leinitzer."
The Prince sighed.
"You always misunderstand me," he murmured. "However, I will prove my words. You spoke of an appeal."
"Certainly," Mr. Sabin answered. "I intend to impeach you for making use of the powers entrusted to you for your own private ends - in other words, for making an arbitrary misuse of your position."
The Prince nodded.
"It is very well put," he said. "I shall await the result of your appeal in fear and trembling. I confess that I am very much afraid. But, come now, I am going to be generous. I am going to help you on a little. Do you know to whom your appeal must be made?"
"To the Grand Duke!" Mr. Sabin replied.
The Prince shook his head.
"Ah me!" he said, "how long indeed you have been absent from the world. The Grand Duke is no longer the head of our little affair. Shall I tell you who has succeeded him?"
"I can easily find out," Mr. Sabin answered.
"Ah, but I warned you that I was in a generous mood," the Prince said, with a smile. "I will save you the trouble. With your permission I will whisper the name in your ear. It is not one which we mention lightly."
He stepped forward and bent his head for a moment. Afterwards, as he drew back, the smile upon his lips broadened until he showed all his teeth. It was a veritable triumph. Mr. Sabin, taken wholly by surprise, had not been able to conceal his consternation.
"It is not possible," he exclaimed hoarsely. "He would not dare."
But in his heart he knew that the Prince had spoken the truth.