You spoke, my dear Lucille," the Duchess of Dorset said, "of your departure. Is not that a little premature?"
Lucille shrugged her beautiful shoulders, and leaned back in her corner of the couch with half-closed eyes. The Duchess, who was very Anglo-Saxon, was an easy person to read, and Lucille was anxious to know her fate.
"Why premature?" she asked. "I was sent for to use my influence with Reginald Brott. Well, I did my best, and I believe that for days it was just a chance whether I did not succeed. However, as it happened, I failed. One of his friends came and pulled him away just as he was wavering. He has declared himself now once and for all. After his speech at Glasgow he cannot draw back. I was brought all the way from America, and I want to go back to my husband."
The Duchess pursed her lips.
"When one has the honour, my dear," she said, "of belonging to so wonderful an organisation as this we must not consider too closely the selfish claims of family. I am sure that years ago I should have laughed at any one who had told me that I, Georgina Croxton, should ever belong to such a thing as a secret society, even though it had some connection with so harmless and excellent an organisation as the Primrose League."
"It does seem remarkable," Lucille murmured.
"But look what terrible times have come upon us," the Duchess continued, without heeding the interruption. "When I was a girl a Radical was a person absolutely without consideration. Now all our great cities are hot-beds of Socialism and - and anarchism. The whole country seems banded together against the aristocracy and the landowners. Combination amongst us became absolutely necessary in some shape or form. When the Prince came and began to drop hints about the way the spread of Socialism had been checked in Hungary and Austria, and even Germany, I was interested from the first. And when he went further, and spoke of the Society, it was I who persuaded Dorset to join. Dear man, he is very earnest, but very slow, and very averse to anything at all secretive. I am sure the reflection that he is a member of a secret society, even although it is simply a linking together of the aristocracy of Europe in their own defence, has kept him awake for many a night."
Lucille was a little bored.
"The Society," she said, "is an admirable one enough, but just now I am beginning to feel it a little exacting. I think that the Prince expects a good deal of one. I shall certainly ask for my release to-night."
The Duchess looked doubtful.
"Release!" she repeated. "Come, is that not rather an exaggerated expression? I trust that your stay at Dorset House has not in any way suggested an imprisonment."
"On the contrary," Lucille answered; "you and the Duke have been most kind. But you must remember that I have home of my own - and a husband of my own."
"I have no doubt," the Duchess said, "that you will be able to return to them some day. But you must not be impatient. I do not think that the Prince has given up all hopes of Reginald Brott yet."
Lucille was silent. So her emancipation was to be postponed. After all, it was what she had feared. She sat watching idly the Duchess's knitting needles. Lady Carey came sweeping in, wonderful in a black velvet gown and a display of jewels almost barbaric.
"On my way to the opera," she announced. "The Maddersons sent me their box. Will any of you good people come? What do you say, Lucille?"
Lucille shook her head.
"My toilette is deficient," she said;, "and besides, I am staying at home to see the Prince. We expect him this evening."
"You'll probably be disappointed then," Lady Carey remarked, "for he's going to join us at the opera. Run and change your gown. I'll wait."
"Are you sure that the Prince will be there?" Lucille asked.
"Then I will come," she said, "if the Duchess will excuse me."
The Duchess and Lady Carey were left alone for a few minutes. The former put down her knitting.
"Why do we keep that woman here," she asked, "now that Brott has broken away from her altogether?"
Lady Carey laughed meaningly.
"Better ask the Prince," she remarked.
The Duchess frowned.
"My dear Muriel," she said, "I think that you are wrong to make such insinuations. I am sure that the Prince is too much devoted to our cause to allow any personal considerations to intervene."
Lady Carey yawned.
"Rats!" she exclaimed.
The Duchess took up her knitting, and went on with it without remark. Lady Carey burst out laughing.
"Don't look so shocked," she exclaimed. "It's funny. I can't help being a bit slangy. You do take everything so seriously. Of course you can see that the Prince is waiting to make a fool of himself over Lucille. He has been trying more or less all his life."
"He may admire her," the Duchess said. "I am sure that he would not allow that to influence him in his present position. By the bye, she is anxious to leave us now that the Brott affair is over. Do you think that the Prince will agree?"
Lady Carey's face hardened.
"I am sure that he will not," she said coolly. "There are reasons why she may not at present be allowed to rejoin her husband."
The Duchess used her needles briskly.
"For my part," she said, "I can see no object in keeping her here any longer. Mr. Brott has shown himself quite capable of keeping her at arm's length. I cannot see what further use she is."
Lady Carey heard the flutter of skirts outside and rose.
"There are wheels within wheels," she remarked. "My dear Lucille, what a charming toilette. We shall have the lady journalists besieging us in our box. Paquin, of course. Good-night, Duchess. Glad to see you're getting on with the socks, or stockings, do you call them?"
Insolent aristocratic, now and then attractive in some strange suggestive way, Lady Carey sat in front of the box and exchanged greetings with her friends. Presently the Prince came in and took the chair between the two women. Lady Carey greeted him with a nod.
"Here's Lucille dying to return to her lawful husband," she remarked. "Odd thing, isn't it? Most of the married women I ever knew are dying to get away from theirs. You can make her happy or miserable in a few moments."
The Prince leaned over between them, but he looked only at Lucille.
"I wish that I could," he murmured. "I wish that that were within my power."
"It is," she answered coolly. "Muriel is quite right. I am most anxious to return to my husband."
The Prince said nothing. Lady Carey, glancing towards him at that moment, was surprised at certain signs of disquietude in his face which startled her.
"What is the matter with you?" she asked almost roughly.
"Matter with me? Nothing," he answered. "Why this unaccustomed solicitude?"
Lady Carey looked into his face fiercely. He was pale, and there was a strained look about his eyes. He seemed, too, to be listening. >From outside in the street came faintly to their ears the cry of a newsboy.
"Get me an evening paper," she whispered in his ear.
He got up and left the box. Lucille was watching the people below and had not appreciated the significance of what had been passing between the two. Lady Carey leaned back in the box with half-closed eyes. Her fingers were clenched nervously together, her bosom was rising and falling quickly. If he had dared to defy her! What was it the newsboys were calling? What a jargon! Why did not Saxe Leinitzer return? Perhaps-he was afraid! Her heart stood still for a moment, and a little half-stifled cry broke from her lips. Lucille looked around quickly.
"What is the matter, Muriel?" she asked. "Are you faint?"
"Faint, no," Lady Carey answered roughly. "I'm quite well. Don't take any notice of me. Do you hear? Don't look at me."
Lucille obeyed. Lady Carey sat quite still with her hand pressed to her side. It was a stifling pain. She was sure that she had heard at last. "Sudden death of a visitor at the Carlton Hotel." The place was beginning to go round.
Saxe Leinitzer returned. His face to her seemed positively ghastly. He carried an evening paper in his hand. She snatched it away from him. It was there before her in bold, black letters:
"Sudden death in the Carlton Hotel."
Her eyes, dim a moment ago, suddenly blazed fire upon him.
"It shall be a life for a life," she whispered. "If you have killed him you shall die."
Lucille looked at them bewildered. And just then came a sharp tap at the box door. No one answered it, but the door was softly opened. Mr. Sabin stood upon the threshold.
"Pray, don't let me disturb you," he said. "I was unable to refrain from paying you a brief visit. Why, Prince, Lady Carey! I can assure you that I am no ghost."
He glanced from one to the other with a delicate smile of mockery parting his thin lips. For upon the Prince's forehead the perspiration stood out like beads, and he shrank away from Mr. Sabin as from some unholy thing. Lady Carey had fallen back across her chair. Her hand was still pressed to her side, and her face was very pale. A nervous little laugh broke from her lips.