Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter IX. The Ghosts of Havana Harbor
"We may now," Sogrange remarked, buttoning up his ulster, and stretching himself out to the full extent of his steamer chair, "consider ourselves at sea. I trust, my friend, that you are feeling quite comfortable."
Peter, lying at his ease upon a neighboring chair, with a pillow behind his head, a huge fur coat around his body, and a rug over his feet, had all the appearance of being very comfortable indeed. His reply, however, was a little short - almost peevish.
"I am comfortable enough for the present, thank you. Heaven knows how long it will last!"
Sogrange waved his arms towards the great uneasy plain of blue sea, the showers of foam leaping into the sunlight, away beyond the disappearing coast of France.
"Last!" he repeated. "For eight days, I hope. Consider, my dear Baron! What could be more refreshing, more stimulating to our jaded nerves than this? Think of the December fogs you have left behind, the cold, driving rain, the puddles in the street, the gray skies - London, in short, at her ugliest and worst."
"That is all very well," Peter protested, "but I have left several other things behind, too."
"As, for instance?" Sogrange inquired, genially.
"My wife," Peter informed him. "Violet objects very much to these abrupt separations. This week, too, I was shooting at Saxthorpe, and I had also several other engagements of a pleasant nature. Besides, I have reached that age when I find it disconcerting to be called out of bed in the middle of the night to answer a long distance telephone call, and told to embark on a White Star liner leaving Liverpool early the next morning. It may be your idea of a pleasure trip. It isn't mine."
Sogrange was amused. His smile, however, was hidden. Only the tip of his cigarette was visible.
"Nothing much, except that I am always seasick," Peter replied deliberately. "I can feel it coming on now. I wish that fellow would keep away with his beastly mutton broth. The whole ship seems to smell of it."
Sogrange laughed, softly but without disguise.
"Who said anything about a pleasure trip?" he demanded.
Peter turned his head.
"You did. You told me when you came on at Cherbourg that you had to go to New York to look after some property there, that things were very quiet in London, and that you hated traveling alone. Therefore, you sent for me at a few hours' notice."
"Is that what I told you?" Sogrange murmured.
"Yes! Wasn't it true?" Peter asked, suddenly alert.
"Not a word of it," Sogrange admitted. "It is quite amazing that you should have believed it for a moment."
"I was a fool," Peter confessed. "You see, I was tired and a little cross. Besides, somehow or other, I never associated a trip to America with - "
Sogrange interrupted him quietly, but ruthlessly.
"Lift up the label attached to the chair next to yours. Read it out to me."
Peter took it into his hand and turned it over. A quick exclamation escaped him.
"Great Heavens! The Count von Hern - Bernadine!"
"Just so," Sogrange assented. "Nice clear writing, isn't it?"
Peter sat bolt upright in his chair.
"Do you mean to say that Bernadine is on board?" Sogrange shook his head.
"By the exercise, my dear Baron," he said, "of a superlative amount of ingenuity, I was able to prevent that misfortune. Now lean over and read the label on the next chair."
Peter obeyed. His manner had acquired a new briskness. "La Duchesse della Nermino," he announced.
"Everything just as it should be," he declared. "Change those labels, my friend, as quickly as you can."
Peter's fingers were nimble and the thing was done in a few seconds.
"So I am to sit next the Spanish lady," he remarked, feeling for his tie.
"Not only that, but you are to make friends with her," Sogrange replied. "You are to be your captivating self, Baron. The Duchesse is to forget her weakness for hot rooms. She is to develop a taste for sea air and your society."
"Is she," Peter asked, anxiously, "old or young?"
Sogrange showed a disposition to fence with the question. "Not old," he answered; "certainly not old. Fifteen years ago she was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world."
"The ladies of Spain," Peter remarked, with a sigh, "are inclined to mature early."
"In some cases," Sogrange assured him, "there are no women in the world who preserve their good looks longer. You shall judge, my friend. Madame comes! How about that sea-sickness now?"
"Gone," Peter declared, briskly. "Absolutely a fancy of mine. Never felt better in my life."
An imposing little procession approached along the deck. There was the deck steward leading the way; a very smart French maid carrying a wonderful collection of wraps, cushions and books; a black-browed, pallid man-servant, holding a hot water bottle in his hand, and leading a tiny Pekinese spaniel, wrapped in a sealskin coat; and finally Madame la Duchesse. It was so obviously a procession intended to impress, that neither Peter nor Sogrange thought it worth while to conceal their interest.
The Duchesse, save that she was tall and wrapped in magnificent furs, presented a somewhat mysterious appearance. Her features were entirely obscured by an unusually thick veil of black lace, and the voluminous nature of her outer garments only permitted a suspicion as to her figure, which was, at that time, at once the despair and the triumph of her corsetiere. With both hands she was holding her fur-lined skirts from contact with the deck, disclosing at the same time remarkably shapely feet encased in trim patent shoes with plain silver buckles, and a little more black silk stocking than seemed absolutely necessary. The deck steward, after a half-puzzled scrutiny of the labels, let down the chair next to the two men. The Duchesse contemplated her prospective neighbors with some curiosity, mingled with a certain amount of hesitation. It was at that moment that Sogrange, shaking away his rug, rose to his feet.
"Madame la Duchesse permits me to remind her of my existence?" he said, bowing low. "It is some years since we met, but I had the honor of a dance at the Palace in Madrid."
She held out her hand at once, yet somehow Peter felt sure that she was thankful for her veil. Her voice was pleasant, and her air the air of a great lady. She spoke French with the soft, sibilant intonation of the Spaniard.
"I remember the occasion perfectly, Marquis," she admitted. "Your sister and I once shared a villa in Mentone."
"I am flattered by your recollection, Duchesse," Sogrange murmured.
"It is a great surprise to meet with you here, though," she continued. "I did not see you at Cherbourg or on the train."
"I motored from Paris," Sogrange explained, "and arrived, contrary to my custom, I must confess, somewhat early. Will you permit that I introduce an acquaintance, whom I have been fortunate enough to find on board - Monsieur le Baron de Grost - Madame la Duchesse della Nermino."
Peter was graciously received and the conversation dealt, for a few moments, with the usual banalities of the voyage. Then followed the business of settling the Duchesse in her place. When she was really installed, and surrounded with all the paraphernalia of a great and fanciful lady, including a handful of long cigarettes, she raised for the first time her veil. Peter, who was at the moment engaged in conversation with her, was a little shocked by the result. Her features were worn, her face dead-white, with many signs of the ravages wrought by the constant use of cosmetics. Only her eyes had retained something of their former splendor. These latter were almost violet in color, deep-set, with dark rims, and were sufficient almost in themselves to make one forget for a moment the less prepossessing details of her appearance. A small library of books was by her side, but after a while she no longer pretended any interest in them. She was a born conversationalist, a creature of her country entirely and absolutely feminine, to whom the subtle and flattering deference of the other sex was the breath of life itself. Peter burned his homage upon her altar with a craft which amounted to genius. In less than half an hour, Madame la Duchesse was looking many years younger. The vague look of apprehension had passed from her face. Their voices had sunk to a confidential undertone, punctuated often by the music of her laughter. Sogrange, with a murmured word of apology, had slipped away long ago. Decidedly, for an Englishman, Peter was something of a marvel!
Madame la Duchesse moved her head towards the empty chair.
"He is a great friend of yours - the Marquis de Sogrange?" she asked, with a certain inflection in her tone which Peter was not slow to notice.
"Indeed no!" he answered. "A few years ago I was frequently in Paris. I made his acquaintance then, but we have met very seldom since."
"You are not traveling together, then?"
"By no means. I recognized him only as he boarded the steamer at Cherbourg."
"He is not a popular man in our world," she remarked. "One speaks of him as a schemer."
"Is there anything left to scheme for in France?" Peter asked, carelessly. "He is, perhaps, a monarchist?"
"His ancestry alone would compel a devoted allegiance to royalism," the Duchesse declared, "but I do not think that he is interested in any of these futile plots to reinstate the House of Orleans. I, Monsieur le Baron, am Spanish."
"I have scarcely lived so far out of the world as to have heard nothing of the Duchesse della Nermino," Peter replied with empressement. "The last time I saw you, Duchesse, you were in the suite of the Infanta."
"Like all Englishmen, I see you possess a memory," she said, smiling.
"Duchesse," Peter answered, lowering his voice, "without the memories which one is fortunate enough to collect as one passes along, life would be a dreary place. The most beautiful things in the world cannot remain always with us. It is well, then, that the shadow of them can be recalled to us in the shape of dreams."
Her eyes rewarded him for his gallantry. Peter felt that he was doing very well indeed. He indulged himself in a brief silence. Presently she returned to the subject of Sogrange.
"I think," she remarked, "that of all the men in the world I expected least to see the Marquis de Sogrange on board a steamer bound for New York. What can a man of his type find to amuse him in the New World?"
"One wonders, indeed," Peter assented. "As a matter of fact, I did read in a newspaper a few days ago that he was going to Mexico in connection with some excavations there. He spoke to me of it just now. They seem to have discovered a ruined temple of the Incas, or something of the sort."
The Duchesse breathed what sounded very much like a sigh of relief.
"I had forgotten," she admitted, "that New York itself need not necessarily be his destination."
"For my own part," Peter continued, "it is quite amazing, the interest which the evening papers always take in the movements of one connected ever so slightly with their world. I think that a dozen newspapers have told their readers the exact amount of money I am going to lend or borrow in New York, the stocks I am going to bull or bear, the mines I am going to purchase. My presence on an American steamer is accounted for by the journalists a dozen times over. Yours, Duchesse, if one might say so without appearing over curious, seems the most inexplicable. What attraction can America possibly have for you?"
She glanced at him covertly from under her sleepy eyelids. Peter's face was like the face of a child.
"You do not, perhaps, know," she said, "that I was born in Cuba. I lived there, in fact, for many years. I still have estates in the country."
"Indeed?" he answered. "Are you interested, then, in this reported salvage of the Maine?"
There was a short silence. Peter, who had not been looking at her when he had asked his question, turned his head, surprised at her lack of response. His heart gave a little jump. The Duchesse had all the appearance of a woman on the point of fainting. One hand was holding a scent bottle to her nose; the other, thin and white, ablaze with emeralds and diamonds, was gripping the side of her chair. Her expression was one of blank terror. Peter felt a shiver chill his own blood at the things he saw in her face. He himself was confused, apologetic, yet absolutely without understanding. His thoughts reverted at first to his own commonplace malady.
"You are ill, Duchesse!" he exclaimed. "You will allow me to call the deck steward? Or perhaps you would prefer your own maid? I have some brandy in this flask."
He had thrown off his rug, but her imperious gesture kept him seated. She was looking at him with an intentness which was almost tragical.
"What made you ask me that question?" she demanded.
His innocence was entirely apparent. Not even Peter could have dissembled so naturally.
"That question?" he repeated, vaguely. "You mean about the Maine? It was the idlest chance, Duchesse, I assure you. I saw something about it in the paper yesterday and it seemed interesting. But if I had had the slightest idea that the subject was distasteful to you, I would not have dreamed of mentioning it. Even now - I do not understand - "
She interrupted him. All the time he had been speaking she had shown signs of recovery. She was smiling now, faintly and with obvious effort, but still smiling.
"It is altogether my own fault, Baron," she admitted, graciously. "Please forgive my little fit of emotion. The subject is a very sore one among my countrypeople, and your sudden mention of it upset me. It was very foolish."
"Duchesse, I was a clumsy idiot!" Peter declared, penitently. "I deserve that you should be unkind to me for the rest of the voyage."
"I could not afford that," she answered, forcing another smile. "I am relying too much upon you for companionship. Ah! could I trouble you?" she added. "For the moment I need my maid. She passes there."
Peter sprang up and called the young woman, who was slowly pacing the deck. He himself did not at once return to his place. He went instead in search of Sogrange, and found him in his stateroom. Sogrange was lying upon a couch, in a silk smoking suit, with a French novel in his hand and an air of contentment which was almost fatuous. He laid down the volume at Peter's entrance.
"Dear Baron," he murmured, "why this haste! No one is ever in a hurry upon a steamer. Remember that we can't possibly get anywhere in less than eight days, and there is no task in the world, nowadays, which cannot be accomplished in that time. To hurry is a needless waste of tissue, and, to a person of my nervous temperament, exceedingly unpleasant."
Peter sat down on the edge of the bunk.
"I presume you have quite finished?" he said. "If so, listen to me. I am moving in the dark. Is it my fault that I blunder? By the merest accident I have already committed a hideous faux pas. You ought to have warned me."
"What do you mean?"
"I have spoken to the Duchesse of the Maine disaster."
The eyes of Sogrange gleamed for a moment, but he lay perfectly still.
"Why not?" he asked. "A good many people are talking about it. It is one of the strangest things I have ever heard of, that after all these years they should be trying to salve the wreck."
"It seems worse than strange," Peter declared. "What can be the use of trying to stir up bitter feelings between two nations who have fought their battles and buried the hatchet? I call it an act of insanity."
A bugle rang. Sogrange yawned and sat up.
"Would you mind touching the bell for my servant, Baron," he asked. "Dinner will be served in half an hour. Afterwards, we will talk, you and I."
Peter turned away, not wholly pleased.
"The sooner, the better," he grumbled, "or I shall be putting my foot into it again." . . .
After dinner, the two men walked on deck together. The night was dark but fine, with a strong wind blowing from the northwest. The deck steward called their attention to a long line of lights, stealing up from the horizon on their starboard side.
"That's the Lusitania, sir. She'll be up to us in half an hour."
They leaned over the rail. Soon the blue fires began to play about their mast head. Sogrange watched them thoughtfully.
"If one could only read those messages," he remarked, with a sigh, "it might help us."
Peter knocked the ash from his cigar and was silent for a time. He was beginning to understand the situation.
"My friend," he said at last, "I have been doing you an injustice. I have come to the conclusion that you are not keeping me in ignorance of the vital facts connected with our visit to America, willfully. At the present moment you know just a little more, but a very little more than I do."
"What perception!" Sogrange murmured. "My dear Baron, sometimes you amaze me. You are absolutely right. I have some pieces and I am convinced that they would form a puzzle the solution of which would be interesting to us, but how or where they fit in, I frankly don't know. You have the facts so far."
"Certainly," Peter replied.
"You have heard of Sirdeller?"
"You mean the Sirdeller?" Peter asked.
"Naturally. I mean the man whose very movements sway the money markets of the world, the man who could, if he chose, ruin any nation, make war impossible; who could if he had ten more years of life and was allowed to live, draw to himself and his own following the entire wealth of the universe."
"Very eloquent," Peter remarked. "We 'll take the rest for granted."
"Then," Sogrange continued, "you have probably also heard of Don Pedro, Prince of Marsine, one time Pretender to the Throne of Spain?"
"Quite a striking figure in European politics," Peter assented, quickly. "He is suspected of radical proclivities, and is still, it is rumored, an active plotter against the existing monarchy."
"Very well," Sogrange said. "Now listen carefully. Four months ago, Sirdeller was living at the Golden Villa, near Nice. He was visited more than once by Marsine, introduced by the Count von Hern. The result of those visits was a long series of cablegrams to certain great engineering firms in America. Almost immediately, the salvage of the Maine was started. It is a matter of common report that the entire cost of these works is being undertaken by Sirdeller."
"Now," Peter murmured, "you are really beginning to interest me."
"This week," Sogrange went on, "it is expected that the result of the salvage works will be made known. That is to say, it is highly possible that the question of whether the Maine was blown up from outside or inside, will be settled once and for all. This week, mind, Baron. Now see what happens. Sirdeller returns to America, The Count von Hern and Prince Marsine come to America. The Duchesse della Nermino comes to America, The Duchesse, Sirdeller and Marsine are upon this steamer. The Count von Hern travels by the Lusitania only because it was reported that Sirdeller at the last minute changed his mind and was traveling by that boat. Mix these things up in your brain - the conjurer's hat, let us call it," Sogrange concluded, laying his hand upon Peter's arm, "Sirdeller, the Duchesse, Von Hern, Marsine, the raising of the Maine - mix them up and what sort of an omelette appears?"
Peter whistled softly.
"No wonder," he said, "that you couldn't make the pieces of the puzzle fit. Tell me more about the Duchesse?"
Sogrange considered for a moment.
"The principal thing about her which links her with the present situation," he explained, "is that she was living in Cuba at the time of the Maine disaster, married to a rich Cuban."
The affair was suddenly illuminated by the searchlight of romance. Peter, for the first time, saw not the light, but the possibility of it.
"Marsine has been living in Germany, has he not?" he asked.
"He is a personal friend of the Kaiser," Sogrange replied.
They both looked up and listened to the crackling of the electricity above their heads.
"I expect Bernadine is a little annoyed," Peter remarked.
"It isn't pleasant to be out of the party," Sogrange agreed. "Nearly everybody, however, believed at the last moment that Sirdeller had transferred his passage to the Lusitania."
"It's going to cost him an awful lot in marconigrams," Peter said. "By the bye, wouldn't it have been better for us to have traveled separately, and incognito?"
Sogrange shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"Von Hern has at least one man on board," he replied. "I do not think that we could possibly have escaped observation. Besides, I rather imagine that any move we are able to make in this matter must come before we reach Fire Island."
"Have you any theory at all?" Peter asked.
"Not the ghost of a one," Sogrange admitted. "One more fact, though, I forgot to mention. You may find it important. The Duchesse comes entirely against Von Hern's wishes. They have been on intimate terms for years, but for some reason or other he was exceedingly anxious that she should not take this voyage. She, on the other hand, seemed to have some equally strong reason for coming. The most useful piece of advice I could give you would be to cultivate her acquaintance."
"The Duchesse - "
Peter never finished his sentence. His companion drew him suddenly back into the shadow of a lifeboat.
A door had opened from lower down the deck, and a curious little procession was coming towards them. A man, burly and broad-shouldered, who had the air of a professional bully, walked by himself ahead. Two others of similar build walked a few steps behind. And between them a thin, insignificant figure, wrapped in an immense fur coat and using a strong walking stick, came slowly along the deck. It was like a procession of prison warders guarding a murderer, or perhaps a nerve-racked royal personage moving the end of his days in the midst of enemies. With halting steps the little old man came shambling along. He looked neither to the left nor to the right. His eyes were fixed and yet unseeing, his features were pale and bony. There was no gleam of life, not even in the stone-cold eyes. Like some machine-made man of a new and physically degenerate age, he took his exercise under the eye of his doctor, a strange and miserable-looking object.
"There goes Sirdeller," Sogrange whispered. "Look at him - the man whose might is greater than any emperor's. There is no haven in the universe to which he does not hold the key. Look at him - master of the world!"
Peter shivered. There was something depressing in the sight of that mournful procession.
"He neither smokes nor drinks," Sogrange continued. "Women, as a sex, do not exist for him. His religion is a doubting Calvinism. He has a doctor and a clergyman always by his side to inject life and hope if they can. Look at him well, my friend. He represents a great moral lesson."
"Thanks! "Peter replied. "I am going to take the taste of him out of my mouth with a whiskey and soda. Afterwards, I'm for the Duchesse."
But the Duchesse, apparently, was not for Peter. He found her in the music-room with several of the little Marconi missives spread out before her, and she cut him dead. Peter, however, was a brave man, and skilled at the game of bluff. So he stopped by her side and without any preamble addressed her.
"Duchesse," he said, "you are a woman of perceptions. Which do you believe, then, in your heart to be the more trustworthy - the Count von Hern or I?"
She simply stared at him. He continued promptly.
"You have received your warning, I see."
"From the Count von Hern. Why believe what he says? He may be a friend of yours - he may be a dear friend - but in your heart you know that he is both unscrupulous and selfish. Why accept his word and distrust me? I, at least, am honest."
She raised her eyebrows.
"Honest?" she repeated. "Whose word have I for that save your own? And what concern is it of mine if you possess every one of the bourgeois qualities in the world? You are presuming, sir."
"My friend Sogrange will tell you that I am to be trusted," Peter persisted.
"I see no reason why I should trouble myself about your personal characteristics," she replied, coldly. "They do not interest me."
"On the contrary, Duchesse," Peter continued, fencing wildly, "you have never in your life been more in need of any one's services than you are of mine."
The conflict was uneven. The Duchesse was a nervous, highly strung woman. The calm assurance of Peter's manner oppressed her with a sense of his mastery. She sank back upon the couch from which she had arisen.
"I wish you would tell me what you mean," she said. "You have no right to talk to me in this fashion. What have you to do with my affairs?"
"I have as much to do with them as the Count von Hem," Peter insisted, boldly.
"I have known the Count von Hern," she answered, "for very many years. You have been a shipboard acquaintance of mine for a few hours."
"If you have known the Count von Hern for many years," Peter asserted, "you have found out by this time that he is an absolutely untrustworthy person."
"Supposing he is," she said, "will you tell me what concern it is of yours? Do you suppose for one moment that I am likely to discuss my private affairs with a perfect stranger?"
"You have no private affairs," Peter declared, sternly. "They are the affairs of a nation."
She glanced at him with a little shiver.
From that moment he felt that he was gaining ground. She looked around the room. It was still filled, but in their corner they were almost unobserved.
"How much do you know?" she asked in a low tone which shook with passion.
Peter smiled enigmatically.
"Perhaps more, even, than you, Duchesse," he replied. "I should like to be your friend. You need one - you know that."
She rose abruptly to her feet.
"For to-night it is enough," she declared, wrapping her fur cloak around her. "You may talk to me to-morrow, Baron. I must think. If you desire really to be my friend, there is, perhaps, one service which I may require of you. But to-night, no!"
Peter stood aside and allowed her to step past him. He was perfectly content with the progress he had made. Her farewell salute was by no means ungracious. As soon as she was out of sight, he returned to the couch where she had been sitting. She had taken away the marconigrams, but she had left upon the floor several copies of the New York Herald. He took them up and read them carefully through. The last one he found particularly interesting, so much so that he folded it up, placed it in his coat pocket, and went off to look for Sogrange, whom he found at last in the saloon, watching a noisy game of "Up Jenkins!" Peter sank upon the cushioned seat by his side.
"You were right," he remarked. "Bernadine has been busy."
"I trust," he said, "that the Duchesse is not proving faithless?"
"So far," Peter replied, "I have kept my end up. Tomorrow will be the test. Bernadine had filled her with caution. She thinks that I know everything -- whatever everything may be. Unless I can discover a little more than I do now, to-morrow is going to be an exceedingly awkward day for me."
"There is every prospect of your acquiring a great deal of valuable information before then," Sogrange declared. "Sit tight, my friend. Something is going to happen."
On the threshold of the saloon, ushered in by one of the stewards, a tall, powerful-looking man, with a square, well-trimmed black beard, was standing looking around as though in search of some one. The steward pointed out, with an unmistakable movement of his head, Peter and Sogrange, The man approached and took the next table.
"Steward," he directed, "bring me a glass of Vermouth and some dominoes."
Peter's eyes were suddenly bright. Sogrange touched his foot under the table and whispered a word of warning. The dominoes were brought. The newcomer arranged them as though for a game. Then he calmly withdrew the double-four and laid it before Sogrange.
"It has been my misfortune, Marquis," he said, "never to have made your acquaintance, although our mutual friends are many, and I think I may say that I have the right to claim a certain amount of consideration from you and your associates. You know me?"
"Certainly, Prince," Sogrange replied. "I am charmed. Permit me to present my friend, the Baron de Grost."
The newcomer bowed and glanced a little nervously around.
"You will permit me," he begged. "I travel incognito. I have lived so long in England that I have permitted myself the name of an Englishman. I am traveling under the name of Mr. James Fanshawe."
"Mr. Fanshawe, by all means," Sogrange agreed. "In the meantime -"
"I claim my rights as a corresponding member of the Double-Four," the newcomer declared. "My friend the Count von Hern finds menace to certain plans of ours in your presence upon this steamer. Unknown to him, I come to you openly. I claim your aid, not your enmity."
"Let us understand one another clearly," Sogrange said. "You claim our aid in what?"
Mr. Fanshawe glanced around the saloon and lowered his voice.
"I claim your aid towards the overthrowing of the usurping House of Brangaza and the restoration to power in Spain of my own line."
Sogrange was silent for several moments. Peter was leaning forward in his place, deeply interested. Decidedly, this American trip seemed destined to lead towards events!
"Our active aid towards such an end," Sogrange said at last, "is impossible. The Society of the Double-Four does not interfere in the domestic policy of other nations for the sake of individual members."
"Then let me ask you why I find you upon this steamer?" Mr. Fanshawe demanded, in a tone of suppressed excitement. "Is it for the sea voyage that you and your friend the Baron de Grost cross the Atlantic this particular week, on the same steamer as myself, as Mr. Sirdeller, and - and the Duchesse? One does not believe in such coincidences! One is driven to conclude that it is your intention to interfere."
"The affair almost demands our interference," Sogrange replied, smoothly. "With every due respect to you, Prince, there are great interests involved in this move of yours."
The Prince was a big man, but for all his large features and bearded face his expression was the expression of a peevish and passionate child. He controlled himself with an effort.
"Marquis," he said, "this is necessary - I say that it is necessary that we conclude an alliance."
Sogrange nodded approvingly.
"It is well spoken," he said, "but remember - the Baron de Grost represents England and the English interests of our Society."
The Prince of Marsine's face was not pleasant to look upon.
"Forgive me if you are an Englishman by birth, Baron," he said, turning towards him, "but a more interfering nation in other people's affairs than England has never existed in the pages of history. She must have a finger in every pie. Bah!"
Peter leaned over from his place.
"What about Germany - Mr. Fanshawe?" he asked, with emphasis.
The Prince tugged at his beard. He was a little nonplussed.
"The Count von Hern," he confessed, "has been a good friend to me. The rulers of his country have always been hospitable and favorably inclined towards my family. The whole affair is of his design. I myself could scarcely have moved in it alone. One must reward one's helpers. There is no reason, however," he added, with a meaning glance at Peter, "why other helpers should not be admitted."
"The reward which you offer to the Count von Hern," Peter remarked, "is of itself absolutely inimical to the interests of my country."
"Listen! "the Prince demanded, tapping the table before him. "It is true that within a year I am pledged to reward the Count von Hern in certain fashion. It is not possible that you know the terms of our compact, but from your words it is possible that you have guessed. Very well. Accept this from me. Remain neutral now, allow this matter to proceed to its natural conclusion, let your government address representations to me when the time comes, adopting a bold front, and I promise that I will obey them. It will not be my fault that I am compelled to disappoint the Count von Hern. My seaboard would be at the mercy of your fleet. Superior force must be obeyed."
"It is a matter, this," Sogrange said, "for discussion between my friend and me. I think that you will find that we are neither of us unreasonable. In short, Prince, I see no insuperable reason why we should not come to terms."
"You encourage me," the Prince declared, in a gratified tone. "Do not believe, Marquis, that I am actuated in this matter wholly by motives of personal ambition. No, it is not so. A great desire has burned always in my heart, but it is not that alone which moves me. I assure you that of my certain knowledge Spain is honeycombed - is rotten with treason. A revolution is a certainty. How much better that that revolution should be conducted in a dignified manner; that I, with my reputation for democracy which I have carefully kept before the eyes of my people, should be elected President of the new Spanish Republic, even if it is the gold of the American which places me there. In a year or two, what may happen who can say? This craving for a republic is but a passing dream. Spain, at heart, is monarchial. She will be led back to the light. It is but a short step from the president's chair to the throne."
Sogrange and his companion sat quite still. They avoided looking at each other.
"There is one thing more," the Prince continued, dropping his voice, as if, even at that distance, he feared the man of whom he spoke. "I shall not inform the Count von Hern of our conversation. It is not necessary, and, between ourselves, the Count is jealous. He sends me message after message that I remain in my stateroom, that I seek no interview with Sirdeller, that I watch only. He is too much of the spy - the Count von Hern. He does not understand that code of honor, relying upon which I open my heart to you."
"You have done your cause no harm," Sogrange assured him, with subtle sarcasm. "We come now to the Duchesse."
The Prince leaned towards him. It was just at this moment that a steward entered with a marconigram, which he presented to the Prince. The latter tore it open, glanced it through, and gave vent to a little exclamation. The fingers which held the missive trembled. His eyes blazed with excitement. He was absolutely unable to control his feelings.
"My two friends," he cried, in a tone broken with emotion, "it is you first who shall hear the news! This message has just arrived. Sirdeller will have received its duplicate. The final report of the works in Havana Harbor will await us on our arrival in New York, but the substance of it is this. The Maine was sunk by a torpedo, discharged at close quarters underneath her magazine. Gentlemen, the House of Brangaza is ruined!"
There was a breathless silence.
"Your information is genuine?" Sogrange asked, softly.
"Without a doubt," the Prince replied. "I have been expecting this message. I shall cable to Von Hern. We are still in communication. He may not have heard."
"We were about to speak of the Duchesse," Peter reminded him.
The Prince shook his head.
"Another time," he declared. "Another time."
He hurried away. It was already half past ten and the saloon was almost empty. The steward came up to them.
"The saloon is being closed for the night, sir," he announced.
"Let us go on deck," Peter suggested.
They found their way up on to the windward side of the promenade, which was absolutely deserted. Far away in front of them now were the disappearing lights of the Lusitania. The wind roared by as the great steamer rose and fell on the black stretch of waters. Peter stood very near to his companion.
"Listen, Sogrange," he said, "the affair is clear now save for one thing."
"You mean Sirdeller's motives?"
"Not at all," Peter answered. "An hour ago, I came across the explanation of these. The one thing I will tell you afterwards. Now listen. Sirdeller came abroad last year for twelve months' travel. He took a great house in San Sebastian."
"Where did you hear this?" Sogrange asked.
"I read the story in the New York Herald," Peter continued. "It is grossly exaggerated, of course, but this is the substance of it. Sirdeller and his suite were stopped upon the Spanish frontier and treated in an abominable fashion by the customs officers. He was forced to pay a very large sum, unjustly I should think. He paid under protest, appealed to the authorities, with no result. At San Sebastian he was robbed right and left, his privacy intruded upon. In short, he took a violent dislike and hatred to the country and every one concerned in it. He moved with his entire suite to Nice, to the Golden Villa. There he expressed himself freely concerning Spain and her Government. Count von Hern heard of it and presented Marsine. The plot was, without doubt, Bernadine's. Can't you imagine how he would put it? 'A revolution,' he would tell Sirdeller, 'is imminent in Spain. Here is the new President of the Republic. Money is no more to you than water. You are a patriotic American. Have you forgotten that a warship of your country with six hundred of her devoted citizens was sent to the bottom by the treachery of one of this effete race? The war was an inefficient revenge. The country still flourishes. It is for you to avenge America. With money Marsine can establish a republic in Spain within twenty-four hours.' Sirdeller hesitates. He would point out that it had never been proved that the destruction of the Maine was really due to Spanish treachery. It is the idea of a business man which followed. He, at his own expense, would raise the Maine. If it were true that the explosion occurred from outside, he would find the money. You see, the message has arrived. After all these years the sea has given up its secret. Marsine will return to Spain with an unlimited credit behind him. The House of Brangaza will crumble up like a pack of cards."
Sogrange looked out into the darkness. Perhaps he saw in that great black gulf the pictures of these happenings which his companion had prophesied. Perhaps, for a moment, he saw the panorama of a city in flames, the passing of a great country under the thrall of these new ideas. At any rate, he turned abruptly away from the side of the vessel, and taking Peter's arm, walked slowly down the deck.
"You have solved the puzzle, Baron," he said, gravely. "Now tell me the one thing. Your story seems to dovetail everywhere."
"The one thing," Peter said, "is connected with the Duchesse. It was she, of her own will, who decided to come to America. I believe that, but for her coming, Bernadine and the Prince would have waited in their own country. Money can flash from America to England over the wires. It does not need to be fetched. They have still one fear. It is connected with the Duchesse. Let me think."
They walked up and down the deck. The lights were extinguished one by one, except in the smoking-room. A strange breed of sailors from the lower deck came up with mops and buckets. The wind changed its quarter and the great ship began to roll. Peter stopped abruptly.
"I find this motion most unpleasant," he said. "I am going to bed. To-night I cannot think. To-morrow, I promise you, we will solve this. Hush!"
He held out his hand and drew his companion back into the shadow of a lifeboat. A tall figure was approaching them along the deck. As he passed the little ray of light thrown out from the smoking-room, the man's features were clearly visible. It was the Prince. He was walking like one absorbed in thought. His eyes were set like a sleep-walker's. With one hand he gesticulated. The fingers of the other were twitching all the time. His head was lifted to the skies. There was something in his face which redeemed it from its disfiguring petulance.
"It is the man who dreams of power," Peter whispered. "It is one of his best moments, this. He forgets the vulgar means by which he intends to rise. He thinks only of himself, the dictator, king, perhaps emperor. He is of the breed of egoists."
Again and again the Prince passed, manifestly unconscious even of his whereabouts. Peter and Sogrange crept away unseen to their staterooms.
In many respects the room resembled a miniature court of justice. The principal sitting-room of the royal suite, which was the chief glory of the Adriatic, had been stripped of every superfluous article of furniture or embellishment. Curtains had been removed, all evidences of luxury disposed of. Temporarily the apartment had been transformed into a bare, cheerless place. Seated on a high chair, with his back to the wall, was Sirdeller. At his right hand was a small table, on which stood a glass of milk, a phial, a stethoscope. Behind his doctor. At his left hand a smooth-faced, silent young man - his secretary. Before him stood the Duchesse, Peter and Sogrange. Guarding the door was one of the watchmen, who, from his great physique, might well have been a policeman out of livery. Sirdeller himself, in the clear light which streamed through the large window, seemed more aged and shrunken than ever. His eyes were deep set. No tinge of color was visible in his cheeks. His chin protruded, his shaggy gray eyebrows gave him an unkempt appearance. He wore a black velvet gown, a strangely cut black morning coat and trousers, felt slippers, and his hands were clasped upon a stout ash walking-stick. He eyed the newcomers keenly but without expression.
"The lady may sit," he said.
He spoke almost in an undertone, as though anxious to avoid the fatigue of words. The guardian of the door placed a chair, into which the Duchesse subsided. Sirdeller held his right hand towards his doctor, who felt his pulse. All the time Sirdeller watched him, his lips a little parted, a world of hungry excitement in his eyes. The doctor closed his watch with a snap and whispered something in Sirdeller's ear, apparently reassuring.
"I will hear this story," Sirdeller announced. "In two minutes every one must leave. If it takes longer, it must remain unfinished."
Peter spoke up briskly.
"The story is this," he began. "You have promised to assist the Prince of Marsine to transform Spain into a republic, providing the salvage operations on the Maine prove that that ship was destroyed from outside. The salvage operations have been conducted at your expense and finished. It has been proved that the Maine was destroyed by a mine or torpedo from the outside. Therefore, on the assumption that it was the treacherous deed of a Spaniard or Cuban imagining himself to be a patriot, you are prepared to carry out your undertaking and supply the Prince of Marsine with means to overthrow the Kingdom of Spain."
Peter paused. The figure on the chair remained motionless. No flicker of intelligence or interest disturbed the calm of his features. It was a silence almost unnatural. "I have brought the Duchesse here," Peter continued, "to tell you the truth as to the Maine disaster."
Not even then was there the slightest alteration in those ashen gray features. The Duchesse looked up. She had the air of one only too eager to speak and finish.
"In those days," she said, "I was the wife of a rich Cuban gentleman, whose name I withhold. The American officers on board the Maine used to visit at our house. My husband was jealous; perhaps he had cause."
The Duchesse paused. Even though the light of tragedy and romance side by side seemed suddenly to creep into the room, Sirdeller listened as one come back from a dead world.
"One night," the Duchesse went on, "my husband's suspicions were changed into knowledge. He came home unexpectedly. The American - the officer - I loved him - he was there on the balcony with me. My husband said nothing. The officer returned to the ship. That night my husband came into my room. He bent over my bed. 'It is not you,' he whispered, 'whom I shall destroy, for the pain of death is short. Anguish of mind may live. To-night six hundred ghosts may hang about your pillow!'"
Her voice broke. There was something grim and unnatural in that curious stillness. Even the secretary was at last breathing a little faster. The watchman at the door was leaning forward. Sirdeller simply moved his hand to the doctor, who held up his finger while he felt the pulse. The beat of his watch seemed to sound through the unnatural silence. In a minute he spoke.
"The lady may proceed," he announced.
"My husband," the Duchesse continued, "was an officer in charge of the Mines and Ordnance Department. He went out that night in a small boat, after a visit to the strong house. No soul has ever seen or heard of him since, or his boat. It is only I who know!"
Her voice died away. Sirdeller stretched out his hand and very deliberately drank a tablespoonful or two of his milk.
"I believe the lady's story," he declared. "The Marsine affair is finished. Let no one be admitted to have speech with me again upon this subject."
He had half turned towards his secretary. The young man bowed. The doctor pointed towards the door. The Duchesse, Peter and Sogrange filed slowly out. In the bright sunlight the Duchesse burst into a peal of hysterical laughter. Even Peter felt, for a moment, unnerved. Suddenly he, too, laughed.
"I think," he said, "that you and I had better get out of the way, Sogrange, when the Count von Hern meets us at New York!"