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Title: A Diplomatic Woman
Author: Mee, Huan
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Diplomatic Woman" ***

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by Cornell University Digital Collections)



                           A Diplomatic Woman

                              By HUAN MEE


    HARPER & BROTHERS
    NEW YORK AND LONDON
    M D C C C C

    Copyright, 1900, by Sands & Co.

    _All rights reserved._



CONTENTS


THE RUSSIAN CIPHER

LE DIABLE

THE ABDUCTED AMBASSADOR

PRINCE FERDINAND'S ENTANGLEMENT

A DEAL WITH CHINA

MONSIEUR ROCHÉ'S DEFEAT



THE RUSSIAN CIPHER


"Saints defend us!" I pettishly exclaimed. "Is there no one in the world
with an atom of brains? I don't want to go as 'Night' or 'Morning,' nor
as 'Marguerite' or 'Pierrette,' or 'Madame la Pompadour'; I want
something original!" And I stamped my foot to give emphasis to the
remark.

"Shall it be as 'Carmen,' madame?"

I sank into a chair in dismay. "Carmen!" This was the creature's idea of
originality. It was too ludicrous for anger. I laughed, and then, as I
raised my eyes to Madame Virot's indignantly bewildered countenance, my
glance fell upon a dress in a wardrobe behind her, and I pointed to it
in a flutter of excitement.

"Some one has originality, after all," I cried. "What does that dress
represent?"

"An ice palace, madame."

"_Mon Dieu!_ It is superb."

"_Mais oui, madame, c'est magnifique, c'est un miracle_," and then,
carried away with enthusiasm, she brought it forth and dilated upon it.
A pale green dress, covered with a shimmering, sparkling net-work that
looked like frost itself.

"You see, madame, the head-dress forms the snowy pinnacle of the tower,
and the _eau de Nil_ embroidered skirt follows the frosted outlines of
the building, which is a _fac-simile_ of the ice palace raised last
winter upon the Neva. An emerald satin mask, with tiny crystal icicles
hanging from the edge, in place of the usual fringe of lace, completes
the costume."

"I must have it," I cried; "it is incomparable."

"It is sold, madame."

"I will pay double."

"Impossible!"

"Treble!"

"I would willingly give it to madame, as it pleases her fancy, but I
cannot; it was designed according to sketches sent to me."

"Tush!" I impatiently exclaimed; "make a duplicate."

"It is impossible, madame, for the dress is for the same _bal masqué_
that you will attend."

"And for whom?" I superciliously queried, for I was beside myself with
vexation. "Some nobody who has secured a card by chance, and wishes to
be thought a princess in disguise, eh?"

"I make for no such people," Madame Virot exclaimed, with a reflection
of my own annoyance. "The dress is for the Countess Zarfine. If madame
will suggest something else--"

I turned my eyes from the dress that tormented me, and racked my brains
for something that should excel its splendor, but the idea came not, and
with a contemptuous glare I faced the inoffensive milliner, who had
tried to please me for years, and had never more than half succeeded.

"To be original nowadays," I said, indifferently, "is, after all, so
commonplace, that to be commonplace is to be original. I will go as
'Carmen.'"

The daintiness of my epigram pleased me so well that I was almost
content, yet as I drove towards Le Bois the desire for the costume came
upon me again, and I was disconsolate. For it was no ordinary _bal
masqué_, where everything was to be pretence, from the characters
represented to the fable that the dancers knew not one another. It was
all to be real, and no dissimulation. There was to be no unmasking time,
but every one was to be _incognito_ from the beginning to the end. It
was rumored that even our host and hostess would drive up to their own
house and enter amid the throng. No one was to know any one, and yet
every one was to know every one; no master of the ceremonies, no host
and hostess, no introductions or formal presentations. The fact that one
was there was an official stamp upon one's passport of reputation. It
was a Bohemian idea worthy of her who had brought it to Paris--the
Countess Zarfine, wife of the Russian Ambassador, and since, perforce, I
must be masked, I would have dazzled by art instead of nature; yet it
was not to be, and I grew peevish as I nursed my discomfiture.

My landau pulled up as we entered the gates, and Monsieur Roché, the
Premier, from whom I had received in the past many diplomatic
commissions, raised his hat and extended his hand.

"Madame, the gods love me."

"Monsieur, you are too modest; you should have used the feminine."

"I wanted to see you more than any other woman in Paris," he answered,
"and therefore I repeat--'The gods love me.'"

"'Those whom the gods love,' monsieur--" and I smiled, for I would have
given worlds to quarrel with some one, and preferably my best of
friends.

"'Die young,' eh?" he chuckled. "Well, the danger for me is past." And
then, without waiting for an invitation, he calmly stepped into the
carriage and seated himself beside me.

Here was, indeed, candor too wonderful for words, and I gazed
reprovingly upon him.

"You must help me, _ma chère_," he said, gravely. "It is no pleasantry,
but a serious matter--one that touches my reputation nearly."

"Well, _mon ami_?"

"You know our relationship with Russia?"

"The pretty girl with inviting graces to a gallant who hesitates."

"Precisely," he answered, in a tone of appreciation at my simile; "but
the pretty girl's love-letters are being opened."

"Humiliating."

"More than that," he cried, impetuously; "detrimental to me. Three times
in the past month has the most secret cipher of the government been
changed, because identical with the receipt of our message by Russia its
import has become public property in the capitals of Europe."

"Then, ineffectually changed," I observed.

"Utterly. I have just left Count Zarfine, the Russian Ambassador, and he
has dared to imply, in almost undiplomatic language, that his government
suspects us of trifling. _Mon Dieu!_" Monsieur Roché cried in an
awe-stricken voice; "trifling with Russia!"

"Who holds this cipher?"

"Myself and Count Zarfine. When it is changed the new cipher is sent to
St. Petersburg by him direct to the Minister, and the documents by me,
through the diplomatic departments. We have varied the cipher three
times, we have sent different messengers each time, but the result has
always been the same. The world learned the message at once, and we are
fast becoming the laughing-stock of Europe, for the pretty girl is ready
to offer so much for alliance."

"And the Count could not help you, _mon ami_?"


"He was brusque almost to rudeness, but his wife--"

"Ah, monsieur, his wife, what of her?" I asked, with a smile, for I well
knew the fascinations of the Countess Zarfine.

"She knows, as I know," monsieur answered, "that, as in France, so in
Russia, there are powerful influences against this alliance."

He lowered his voice and continued impressively, "Influences so powerful
that it might be possible for them to obtain our secret papers, open
them, read them, and then reseal them and pass them on to their
destination."

"But that would be useless without the key to the cipher, _mon ami_."

"That is stolen in Paris."

"Ah! from whom?"

"The Count himself, and despatched at once to those awaiting it."

"Childlike in its simplicity," I murmured, with a world of satire.

"The Countess is a wonderful woman," he admitted, and then continued:
"You see how easy it is. These people can gain access to the documents
passing between France and Russia, but not to the key of the
cipher--that is stolen here."

"And, of course, the thief is known already," I cried, disdainfully.

"Almost," he replied, with the first flash of enthusiasm he had
manifested--"almost. On Wednesday we shall catch him in the very act. Of
one thing we are certain. He moves in diplomatic circles, and knows that
our final proposal will be made to Russia by the end of the week. On
Wednesday morning I hand the new cipher to the Count, at night he
despatches it, but in the hours that intervene the Countess will
discover the thief. She suspects one of her husband's secretaries."

"You have enlisted a new and powerful ally, monsieur," with a jealous
tremor in my voice.

"Tut, tut," he answered, mildly; "you are the ally I must have, for,
frankly, I do not believe a word the Countess says."

"Then the saints be praised," I ejaculated; "you are not the simpleton
that I feared you were. But you go too far, _mon ami_, for all is true
excepting one thing, the name of the spy, and that is--"

"Let us be diplomatic," he interrupted, "until we are sure. Take the
missing quantity X."

"Why not Z?" I replied, and then I own I started with slight surprise at
the coincidence, for the Countess herself cantered up to the side of the
carriage, and I took her proffered hand.

"I do not believe in Z," Monsieur Roché cried, raising his voice a
little. "Zero cannot win the race, notwithstanding her distance
allowance;" and then he looked up and bowed to the Countess Zarfine.

"I did not suspect diplomacy found recreation in horse-racing,
monsieur," she exclaimed, with an arch smile.

"Age has its follies as well as youth," he answered, and then leaned
anxiously towards her and whispered, "Any news?"

"What can there be until then?" she asked. "On the night of the day
chosen I shall know. At the _bal masqué_ I will tell you his name."

Monsieur Roché looked the picture of despair, and then, with a gesture
as though the whole world had been lost to him, spoke in an undertone to
the Countess, said something that I judged by a dainty frown she did not
favor; but in an instant the cloud had passed, and she smiled again, and
answered, "As you will."

Yet to me it still seemed that she was being forced into some action she
would not have elected of her own free choice.

Then Monsieur Roché, still a little embarrassed, turned to me. "A
message--a written message--is to be conveyed to me at the _bal masqué_;
I cannot be there, and"--how charmingly he was confused--"will you
receive it for me?"

"And take it at once to Le Quai d'Orsay," the Countess interjected.

"Bring it myself?" I cried, in simulated surprise.

"Yes," monsieur answered, and tactfully continued, "I am shamed at the
greatness of the favor I ask, but it is vital."

"Very well," I reluctantly consented. "If that be so I will do it;" and
he murmured his thanks.

"At midnight I shall pass the head of the staircase and slip a note into
your hand," the Countess exclaimed; "that will be the message."

"But we are all _incognito_," I observed, with my most ingenuous smile.

"You will easily recognize me--I shall represent the 'Franco-Russe
Alliance,'" she answered, with the ready lie of a Russian. "The National
emblems and the National colors--the Double Eagle and the
_fleur-de-lis_. And you?"

"The 'Lost Provinces,'" I replied, meeting lie with diplomatic evasion.

The look of annoyance still slumbered in the depths of her dark eyes,
and I thought, too, there was the glint of a dawning suspicion; but it
was swiftly chased away as she turned with a jest to Monsieur Roché, and
after the interchange of a few pleasantries, nodded gayly to us both and
rode off.

"You are well matched in one thing," Monsieur Roché suavely remarked, as
he watched her retreating figure, "your originality of costume."

"And in another," I replied; "the fact that neither will wear what she
has said she will."

The dear man's eyebrows shot upward in bewilderment.

"She will represent 'An Ice Palace' I, 'Carmen.'"

He looked at me for a moment in undisguised admiration, and then sank
back and whispered with contented appreciation, "_Mon Dieu!_ you are a
wonderful woman."

"And a fortunate one," I replied, "to win the approbation of so
accomplished a diplomat."

"_Ma chère_," he murmured, "men are diplomats by education, women by
intuition. It is civilization against nature."

"The dresses we have mentioned," I continued, "will probably be worn by
our maids, leaving the Countess Zarfine at liberty to carry out her
work, and me free to frustrate her; for I am certain now that it is she
who reveals the cipher. Had I not known the costume she really intends
to wear I should have devoted the night to watching the 'Franco-Russe
Alliance.' As it is, my maid, the 'Lost Provinces,' will do that for the
sake of diplomatic appearances, the Countess will be deceived, and I
shall be free. So I require another card for the carnival--get it
secretly for me."

"Success is assured," he cried, enthusiastically.

"Not so fast, _mon ami_. She already suspects me--I could see it in her
eyes--and therefore you must act with consummate tact; you must delay
the delivery of the key on some pretence until an hour before the ball,
and so render it impossible for it to be revealed to any one except at
the carnival. Then I know when it will be done--directly I have left."

"After you have left?" he cried, in bewilderment.

"After my maid has left with the Countess Zarfine's message for you."

"Ah," he sighed, and there was a world of admiration in the utterance of
that monosyllable, but a moment after, his face became grave again, as
he suggested, "Perhaps the key may be given in such a way that you
cannot prevent it--another note, for instance, skilfully passed from
hand to hand."

"I think not. She would not risk anything so liable to be discovered.
Besides, she suspects; and more," I continued, "does not the whole idea
of this _bal masqué_ proclaim the lady's love for the theatrical? No,
_mon ami_, the cipher will be given in such a manner that if a man
watched her actions every minute of the night he would see nothing, but
a woman might see much."

Monsieur smiled again, complaisantly.

"Then, too, if I fail, it is not ruin," I said, "for the documents will
not be despatched until you have heard from me. If I succeed, the
evidence against her will be strong enough to give you all the proofs
you need."

"But--"

"No more suppositions, _mon ami_; you weary me."

"You're the cleverest woman in Paris," he said, with a glance of warm
admiration, as he alighted and stood by my carriage.

"And you, for one who has left youth behind, are the most gallant man in
France," I answered, with a glow of merriment, for I already counted my
mission as accomplished.

"Left youth behind," he murmured, despondingly.

"You said so,_ mon ami_."

"It was in an undiplomatic moment."

"Therefore true, and your tongue, at least, is still youthful. _Au
revoir_, monsieur."

       *       *       *       *       *

Thérèse created a sensation. There are women even among my chosen
acquaintances who insist upon their maids being stiff, and, if possible,
ugly. Perhaps they fear the comparison which I am too satisfied with
myself to be concerned about, and on that night I was thankful that my
choice had fallen upon a girl who could so admirably play the part I had
selected for her, one whom I need not fear, by some vulgar _gaucherie_,
would spoil my plans or endanger my success.

Thérèse created a sensation, and, as she entered, the audacity of her
costume drew all eyes towards her.

Her pretty auburn curls were surmounted by the "Cap of Liberty," draped
in crape; her skirt was of the palest yellow silk, with the outlines of
our "Lost Provinces" in black; while, symbolical of the day we prayed
for, the arms of France were more than half eclipsing those of Germany.

For a moment there was the silence of admiration as she entered, and
then a hum of applause burst into a shout as each loyal heart caught the
symbolical meaning of the fading colors of the German arms, almost
hidden by the simple sweetness of our own dear _fleur-de-lis_, and
patriotic voices cried, "_Vive belle Alsace! Vive, vive Lorraine!_"

And Thérèse bore the sensation as I would have done myself. I turned a
diamond half-hoop on my finger, reflecting it was the last time I could
do so, for to-morrow it should be hers.

Strictly obedient to my instructions, she danced but little, always
following, with some ostentation of persistence, the movements of a lady
who had attracted passing attention--the embodiment of the "Franco-Russe
Alliance." It was a quaint sport we favored--the maid watching the maid.

Midnight struck, and from a secluded corner I saw the note passed to
Thérèse, who quietly descended the steps, mingled for a moment in the
kaleidoscopic throng, and so departed.

Then I added a new gown to the diamond ring, for what other girl could
have left a carnival where she was the belle because she had been told
to do so?

Like a modern Cinderella, she left it all, and yet, wiser than the
damsel of the fairy tale, left before she was discovered, and I, a
commonplace "Carmen"--for I remember there were three of us--now felt
the decisive moment had arrived. A man had been watching Thérèse as she
descended the staircase, and I touched him lightly upon the arm.

"The Provinces are lost, monsieur," I said, softly. "Be content with
operatic Spain," and I hummed a melody of Bizet's.

"You, madame?" he cried, as he recognized my voice.

"Yes, I."

"I thought she who just left was you," he said, as though anxious to
explain the attention he had devoted to Thérèse.

"And I, monsieur, know my friends too well to be deceived by a
masquerade," I answered, and, of a truth, I believe that there must have
been a tell-tale trace of sentiment in my tones. And why not? Even a
pretty widow may have sentimental moments at times when her dearest
friend is near at hand. He looked straight into my eyes as though he
would read my inmost thoughts.

"Do you mean that?"

"I mean this, Gaspard, _mon cher ami_. I want you to do me a favor.
Indeed, before the night is out there may be many favors I need to ask,
and I want you to grant them all."

"Then they must be renamed," he answered, "not favors, but pleasures."

"See," I cried, "that woman dressed in the frosted green gown--intended,
I should think, to represent an ice palace?"

"Yes."

"Do you know who she is?"

"No; who can say?" he replied, with a slight shrug of the shoulders.

"I must be near her for the rest of the night--I want to watch her."

The Countess Zarfine was walking slowly across the ballroom, her hand
resting upon the arm of a tall man in the dress of an exquisite of the
period of Louis XIV., and, quickly grasping my meaning, Gaspard strolled
aimlessly in the same direction, carrying on an animated conversation
with me all the while, which raised him greatly in my estimation as a
budding diplomat.

"They are going to sit upon the balcony," I found an instant to whisper,
and we followed them, my nerves thrilling with delight as I realized the
strength of my position, for now the Countess would feel herself secure,
thinking that I had departed.

She was seated upon a basket-chair upon the balcony overlooking the
Champs Elysées, talking, in a voice that challenged criticism, of the
new play at the Renaissance, and Gaspard skilfully led me to a seat
facing them, and took one by my side.

And then the clever boy entered with zest into the Bohemian conceit of
the _bal masqué_, for without a word of introduction he joined in their
conversation, and in an instant we were a quartette discussing the
frivolities of life.

Gradually an idle group grew round us--flattering gallants who protested
with glowing compliments "that it was too cruel of their hostess to hide
all the lovely faces of Paris behind silken masks."

"It must be because she is jealous," the Countess cried, with a smile
that showed for an instant the gleam of her teeth; "she fears the
contrast."

But then--for men, despite their deceit, are strangely truthful
sometimes--no one dared to dispute the beauty of his hostess, and her
eyes gleamed with gratified pride as her sneer was left unsupported in
the silence--yet perhaps they were suspicious.

"Still, messieurs," she exclaimed, with a ripple of laughter, "since our
faces are hidden, our freedom is greater--we may be more Bohemian." And
in an instant she produced a gold case, and, extracting a cigarette,
placed it with a gesture of impudence between her lips. "Those who love
me join with me," she continued, handing the case to the surrounding
group.

It seemed to me that there was a falseness in this ingenuous mood that
sat but ill upon one so contemptuously proud.

In an instant the blue smoke curled in the air from half a dozen
cigarettes.

"'Carmen,'" she cried, reproachfully, with a glance at me, "you who
should have led the way still hesitate," and she extended the case, and
carefully lighted the cigarette for me from her own.

"And you, monsieur," with a glance at the man who had been her companion
from the ballroom.

"It was a privilege I had never anticipated, and so came unprepared."

"Then she who grants permission supplies the means of enjoyment. Take
two, or three, or four, or what you will; their fragrance may be even
greater in the morning."

There was an intonation in the last words that struck me with a sense of
hidden meaning, and as the man carelessly took several, and, after
lighting one, slipped the remainder into his pocket, the truth burst
upon me in a flash--the key to the cipher had been passed.

On each cigarette paper was the key. I held it between my fingers half
consumed, and those around were obligingly burning the others before her
eyes, save for that man whom I knew still had three in his possession.
What a thoughtless fool I had been, I who held all I needed in my grasp
had myself destroyed it. The cigarette had burned down to my fingers. I
was compelled to drop it, and he trod it to dust beneath his foot.

But he still had three. With an _abandon_ worthy of "Carmen" herself I
turned my fascinations upon him; with a swift glance at Gaspard, who
instantly comprehended, I sent him to the side of the Countess, and she,
nothing loath to be the centre of a group of admirers, elated because
her mission was over, encouraged them, and kept them from her with the
arts of one born to coquetry.

The saints be praised, all men are young--or, at least, feel they
are--when a pretty woman smiles upon them. He was what a diplomat would
have called middle-aged, but--saints be praised--I am a pretty woman.

"You are the incarnation of 'Carmen' herself," he whispered, as we found
ourselves excluded from the group surrounding the Countess.

"_Merci_, monsieur, you flatter me--it is the dress attracts you."

"No; it is the sparkle of your eyes behind that envious mask, the grace
of each gesture, the soul of music in your voice, the poetry in every
motion that proclaims you the ideal 'Carmen.'"

"Save for one thing: a cigarette, _s'il vous plait_, monsieur," and I
extended my hand.

Slowly, even as though he realized that he was being drawn into a trap,
he took one of them from his pocket and hesitatingly handed it to me.

Half suspiciously, half in a fashion of tenderness, he held a match to
the cigarette, and then, almost before the paper had caught, it dropped
through my fingers to the ground; and I, with a laugh at my
carelessness, placed my heel upon it and edged it beneath my skirt.

My shoe pressed upon it lightly, my lips smiled apologetically, yet
murmured, "_Merci_, monsieur," as I awaited another to replace it.

I saw his features tighten as his eyes followed my movements, yet what
could he do? Realizing that I had discovered him, and I could not but
feel that he knew it, he gave me another, and I lighted it.

For a second we measured glances, and I knew that he fathomed my plans
as truly as I did his.

"You are a clever little devil!" he said, with almost a touch of
appreciation.

"Monsieur!"

"You have my cigarette under your shoe, but what of that? In a minute I
shall offer you my arm, you will take it, we shall go to the ballroom
and dance the cotillion."

"You are sure?"

"Perfectly. I have only to raise my voice and say 'The air is cool,' and
the Countess will understand; she will rejoin us, and that being so, a
lady cannot search for a half-burned cigarette. You have the desire of
your quest within your reach, and yet as far removed as the north is
from the south."

I looked disdainfully at him and calmly smoked.

"You are too clever to waste yourself upon such pettiness," he
whispered. "In Russia I would find you a sphere worthy of your talents,
and make you a duchess."

"I fail to understand, monsieur."

He leaned forward until his eyes looked straight into mine, and spoke
with deliberate emphasis.

"I am going to stoop and take from under your chair a cigarette, and you
must perforce permit me."

"Why?"

"Because if you attempted to resist I should prevent it. See, I slowly
stoop to regain my own."

He bent as he spoke, and then, as the inspiration flashed upon me, my
hands went swiftly to my throat, and with a sudden clutch I snapped my
necklace, and a shower of pearls scattered upon the balcony.

"My pearls!" I cried in dismay, and brushing past him to save them as
they fell, I picked up the cigarette from beneath my skirt and looked
mockingly into his face.

"You are a clever little devil!" he said, with chagrined appreciation.

I smiled, for the key to the cipher was safe in my possession.

But men count for nothing in such matters, for men can even hold
admiration for a victorious enemy--here there was a woman to deal with.

While the gallants who had clustered around the Countess were collecting
my truant pearls, she walked across and glared into my face with eyes
that blazed with fury.

In passion she tore the mask from her face, and so, because she was
pleased to confess herself, I accepted the challenge and removed mine.
She forgot her civilization, her breeding, her position, everything, and
dropped back into the barbarous language of her ancestors.

"If I only had you in Russia!" she gasped, her lips almost touching my
ear. "I'd have you flogged for this; I'd have your lying tongue torn
out, and those shoulders you're so proud of branded 'Spy,' God! If I had
you in Russia!"

"And yet," I murmured, "methinks these charms of Russia must be enjoyed
by you alone, and swiftly, too, for surely--his Excellency will resign
at once."

"God!" she cried, "if I had you in Russia!"

I turned away, but stole a backward glance at her as she stood, her
whole body trembling, her fingers clutching the balustrade to support
her quivering figure, and then he came forward and handed me my pearls.

It was the third time he had said it, and there was a crescendo of
meaning in the phrase he whispered:

"You are a clever little devil!"



LE DIABLE


We were a gathering of diplomacy, science, and beauty. Monsieur Roché,
the Premier, the first, Monsieur Vicenne, the Minister of Marine, the
second, and it was I who completed the trio.

"I have offered five million francs!" Monsieur Vicenne exclaimed, with a
gesture as though he had mentioned the total of the Treasury of the
Republic.

"But that is not so very much, monsieur," I ventured to suggest, "if the
invention be all that is pretended for it."

"Five million francs!" he ejaculated again, with wide-opened eyes, until
I feared that his eyebrows would altogether disappear into his bushy
hair.

"It is the method of calculating that is at fault," I said. "Five
million francs. It sounds stupendous; but what is it? In Napoleons,
merely two hundred and fifty thousand; in English sovereigns, only two
hundred thousand. What do you really estimate the invention to be
worth?"

"It is priceless. _Mon Dieu!_ Imagine." The dear man always spoke in
this staccato manner. "A boat--a submarine boat. Sixty knots an hour.
_Mon Dieu!_ If we--if France could possess it. England! Bah!" He snapped
his fingers disdainfully.

"And all for five million francs?"

"I would pay ten. _Nom de Diable!_ Fifteen--twenty."

"Ah!" I smiled.

Monsieur Roché laid his long fingers upon my arm.

"A commission, eh, _ma chère_?"

"Mercy, no! What do I know of such affairs?"

"Twenty million francs. _Mon Dieu!_ If you could buy for ten, sell for
twenty--eh?" sharply interjected Monsieur Vicenne.

Monsieur Roché tapped him upon the shoulder, somewhat irritably.

"Madame is the loveliest woman in Paris," he observed.

The Minister of Marine interrupted.

"You talk commonplaces," he cried. "Tell me next that the sun is
shining."

And I was constrained to rise and bow my acknowledgments for the twin
compliment.

"But she is one of the richest," Monsieur Roché continued. "Money can be
no inducement."

"To serve France?" Monsieur Vicenne hazarded.

"And the love of adventure," I added. "Monsieur, I will do my best. If I
am successful, I will claim as my reward that the first boat built upon
this invention shall be named after me."

"_L'Incomparable_," suggested M. Vicenne.

"_Merci, monsieur, mais non, 'L'Aide._'"

I had started on my journey before I had seriously considered what a
mad-brained scheme I had taken in hand. I, who knew nothing of such
things, was about to attempt to persuade where the whole diplomatic tact
of French administrators had failed. I was to be a bidder for this
wonderful boat that had startled the world; appearing to-day at Ostend,
to-morrow a thousand miles away, and all the power in the hands of a man
who was deaf to entreaty, impervious to persuasion.

The experts of the navy had pleaded to be allowed to inspect the boat.
His answer had been, "Keep level with it, and watch."

"Keep level, and watch"--it was a pleasant satire. England's latest toy,
the _Turbina_, steamed only thirty-four knots an hour, and there were
those who swore that this submarine boat at times got near to sixty.

Still the die was cast. I was to obtain, somehow, an interview with the
inventor, who was so unlike others of his species that he invented for
his own satisfaction, and not to sell his discovery. I was to offer
whatever I liked. And if, as was probable, he refused, try and induce
him to take me for a cruise, and learn what I could as fortune favored
me.

It was as foolish a scheme for them to suggest as for me to undertake;
but everything about the vessel was so secret and mysterious, that even
if I could bring back the vaguest idea of how this craft was propelled
it would be of inestimable value.

It was to the wild coast of Normandy that I was speeding, clad in a
rusty black gown and a still rustier mantle that libelled nature in the
manner it distorted me; and the day was as wild and boisterous as I
could wish for the first act of the play, comedy, or tragedy, as Fate
decreed.

The gray eve was fading to a dirty twilight, and inky clouds scurried
across the gloomy sky, as I alighted some four kilometres from the
Chateau de Lorme, and, setting my face resolutely to the wind, started
to walk the distance.

The wind, howling and biting from the sea, brought with it merciless
sheets of hail and sleety rain; and after the first ten minutes I
realized that I could get no wetter, and so I mechanically battled
onward, my wretched, ill-shapen garments streaming with water, and
flapping miserably around me.

Saints! what a walk! A dozen times I was for relinquishing the whole
thing and turning back in despair, but something kept me struggling on
until more than half the distance had been traversed, and then it was
better to press forward than to return.

On and on, the sharp hailstones stinging my cheeks, until I felt it must
be seclusion for a month before I dared appear in Paris again, and then
a turn of the road brought me before a house standing on the edge of the
cliff, an enormous mansion shrouded in blackness, and apparently
deserted.

Night had fallen, and everywhere was darkness and solitude. An avenue of
trees led to the door, and while I walked under their shelter I had an
opportunity of gaining my breath before I grasped the heavy iron
knocker, and, with determined hand, knocked until the house seemed to
shake with the echoes.

"Well?" at last came a gruff shout above my head. "Well, what is it?"

"I want shelter," I cried, irritably, and not with feigned annoyance,
for I was shivering with the damp and cold, and wished I had never left
Paris.

"This is not an inn."

"No, but it's a house," I cried, defiantly. "I must have shelter. I can
pay for it."

A man's voice chuckled--what a mirthless chuckle it was!--the window was
banged down with a thud, and I had seized the knocker to hammer again,
when the entrance-hall blazed into light, and the door was opened.

A gust of wind threw me forward, and as I recovered myself and stepped
across the threshold I caught my breath in amazement, for I, who have
viewed the mansions of the greatest, never before beheld such barbaric
splendor. It was an entrance-hall fit for the palace of a prince, and
lighted with enormous clusters of incandescent lamps.

My wretched rain-soaked dress was making pools upon the parquetry, and I
moved to a rug and surveyed my host, who was as striking as his
surroundings--a tall, thin individual, with long, gray, straggling hair
that hung round his shoulders, and a wild, unkempt beard. His eyes,
which flashed fiercely, and seemed to read one through and through, were
overhung by heavy, jet-black eyebrows.

He looked the very embodiment of Eugene Sue's Wanderer, and yet he was
politeness personified, for his eyes did not turn to the pools upon the
polished floor, nor to the wet trail I had made with my bedraggled
skirt.

"I am favored, madame," he said, bowing, with a thin, transparent hand
upon his breast.

"And I am cold and wet and hungry," I answered, prosaically, for I was
determined to be in no wise awed by these unexpected surroundings.

"Three evils so easily remedied that it is scarcely worth designating
them even as evils," he replied; and then, with another bow, escorted me
up the staircase into a spacious corridor, were he opened a door, and
stood aside for me to enter.

"I have so many guests to-night," he murmured, apologetically, "that I
fear I cannot treat you as I would wish; but you will find all your
needs supplied in the dressing-room beyond."

He paused in the doorway.

"There is only hunger left now," he exclaimed, with another chuckle,
"and dinner is at eight. May I expect you in the reception-room a few
minutes before that hour?"

"With pleasure," I answered. "And, monsieur, you have my gratitude."

He shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly, and then, with a momentary
glance at my costume, waved his hand towards the adjoining room.

"You will dress to meet my guests, madame, and look your best, for you
will meet the greatest men the world has ever seen."

With that he chuckled again, closed the door, and left me; while I shot
the bolt behind him, and stood--I confess it--and laughed--laughed a
long peal of merriment. The greatest men of the world visiting here. It
was too droll.

But I was in the house of the inventor of _Le Diable_, received as his
honored guest. Already I had been startled and surprised, and I wondered
what the next few hours might hold in store for me. A shiver brought me
back to realities. I passed into the adjoining room, a dressing-room
lined with wardrobes, containing gowns and feminine adornments, before
which even my own treasures from the Rue de la Paix were insignificant.
Through curtains beyond was the bath-room, with every dainty requisite
that a woman of fashion could desire.

In an hour I was ready to do honor to my host and his famous guests. I
missed Thérèse. But who could look anything but bewitching in the
magnificent creations at my disposal? I passed from my apartment into
the lengthy corridor, noticing that on either side, with the doors flung
open, were suites of rooms similar to my own.

My gown was, perhaps, an inch shorter than I could have wished, but in
every other respect it was perfection, hanging loosely from the low-cut
shoulders to the hem, except for an elaborate silver filigree belt that
caught in its silken folds at the waist, and I felt confident that, no
matter whom I might meet, I had no reason to be ashamed of my
appearance.

I descended the stairs, and should have wandered about the building,
impelled by natural curiosity; but I caught sight of monsieur standing
alone in the middle of a spacious room upon my left, and so I entered
and walked towards him, feeling a keen satisfaction in my improved
appearance as my train rustled across the floor.

"You have kept us all waiting," he cried, with evident annoyance in his
tone.

I glanced round in astonishment, for there was no one save our two
selves in the great apartment.

"I will present you to my guests, Madame----?" and he paused
interrogatively.

"Lerestelle," I exclaimed, still bewildered.

And then he took me by the hand, and we made the tour of the room.

Truly, as he said, his guests were the greatest ones of the earth; truly
my host was hopelessly mad, for no reception-room that the world has
ever known has been filled with such a gathering. And truly, too, he and
I were alone.

Living and dead, these imaginary creatures of his disordered brain were
massed together in hopeless confusion. He flung a witticism at Madame de
Staël, a cynicism at Voltaire, a quotation from "Fédora" at Sardou, and
a line from a sonnet at Alfred de Musset. And I bowed to the empty
chairs, and humored this weird pleasantry.

We reached the climax when my host presented me to Napoleon Bonaparte,
and I could scarcely restrain the hysteric laughter which was
dangerously near escaping. But relief came as he introduced me to the
last imaginary guest of all, the present Minister of Marine, my friend
Monsieur Vicenne.

There seemed a certain irony in the fact that the man upon whose behalf
I had braved this dwelling should have been, in the crazed mind of my
host, included with his illustrious guests. He left me beside my friend,
and I sank into a chair, with a vague uneasiness that I could not
dispel, a feeling of restless horror that deepened, as monsieur, like an
ideal host, sauntered from one chair to another, chatting lightly to
these impalpable creatures of his imagination; laughing at some jest
with this one, and anon leaning towards another, as though interchanging
a whispered confidence.

I felt I was growing hysterical: a moment longer and I should have
shrieked. The strain was becoming too great, the horror at being alone
with such a man too much; but a gong boomed without, and he, with some
imaginary beauty leaning upon his arm, passed from the room, while I
sauntered behind, and far behind, too, for I was fearful of the order of
precedence.

It was a relief to find that we two were not absolutely alone in the
house. I was conducted to a seat near my host in the dining-room by a
liveried man-servant, while a dozen more stood around the table.

Noiselessly they moved about the spacious apartment, apparently
attending to the wants of the shadowy guests, at that long table set for
a score.

The soup was brought, and placed not only before my host and myself, but
in front of every empty chair. The wine was poured into every glass, and
as each course was finished, so were the untouched plates removed and
others brought.

It would have been nearly ludicrous, but for the deadly dreariness of
the scene, the ghostly grimness of the picture, the all-pervading
nervous atmosphere of the impending unknown. I gazed at the vacant
seats, until I could almost fancy an illustrious company filling them;
not the witty, animated throng that he could see, but a gathering of
chattering skeletons, that grinned and gibed at me over the
flower-decked and silver-laden damask.

And all the while he merrily smiled and jested--smiled at this beauty
whom only his eyes could see, laughed at that jest which only his ears
could hear.

Nerves, I have always proudly averred, I know not, but now I caught at
the table to rise and flee from the room, when he fixed his eyes upon my
face, and turned confidentially towards me.

Then he raised his glass and pledged his guests. "_A vôtre santé,
madame_," he murmured to me.

"_A la vôtre, monsieur._"

As he set down his glass he placed his long, bony finger upon my arm.
"Do you know why they're all here?" he chuckled. "Ah, to try and steal
my invention--my boat, _Le Diable_."

Here, at last, was a gleam of sense, a scrap of rational talk, and it
came to me like cold water to the fainting.

"What boat?" I asked, and my brain seemed to quicken to life again.

"Ah! ah! what boat?" he said, with a grim chuckle; "what boat?--_Le
Diable_. You're the only innocent one here, and I will madden them all
by allowing you to see it. I'll show it to her, Monsieur Vicenne," he
cried, glaring fiercely at the empty chair beside me, "but not to you,
no, not to any of you," he almost shouted, with a sharp look right down
the table.

"When?" I exclaimed, scarcely able to hide my anxiety.

"Never!" he screamed, with a flash of rage. "You want to rob me, like
the rest of them; you're all thieves!" he cried, banging his fist upon
the table, till the glasses rang again, "a crowd of hypocritical,
thieving knaves," and then as suddenly as he blazed forth he calmed
down, and resumed his meal in silence, while I, perceiving that he had
forgotten me, with the rest of his guests, stepped from my seat, and
stole quietly from the room.

I have no shame in confessing that my self-control lasted but to the
foot of the staircase, and then, like a frightened child, I caught my
skirt in my hands, and flew up the stairs, and along the corridor, never
halting until I was back in my room again, with the door securely
locked.

To pass the night in such a house was impossible, and I unfastened the
casement windows to see if the storm had spent itself. With a vicious
howl the wind tore them from my grasp and flung them back with a crash,
while the hail and rain streamed in, deadening the delicate tints of the
carpet. To leave was worse than to stay. I could not face such a night,
and, exerting all my strength, I fastened the windows again, and turned
with a nervous gasp as someone knocked upon the door.

It was only a servant with my coffee upon a silver tray, which he placed
upon a fancy Oriental stand, saying that monsieur would excuse me.

He seemed inclined to say more had I permitted, but one cannot question
the servants of one's host. I thanked him, and he bowed and left.

I had thought of sitting through the night, but the slight indulgence of
a spoonful of cognac in my coffee restored my brain to reason, while the
fatigue of my journey and the excitement of the evening had worn me to
death. I munched a few wafers, for I had scarcely eaten more than the
spectral guests, and then crept contentedly between the scented sheets,
and it seemed but an instant before the room was bathed in sunshine. The
night had passed.

What a blessing is the sunlight! Sleep had completely revived me, and in
more borrowed plumes I walked from my room, all intent upon my mission,
and with a fixed determination that I would succeed; and then another
surprise awaited me, for the dainty breakfast was only set for two, and
my host courteously greeted me, and talked as a sane man upon every-day
commonplaces.

Only once during the meal he relapsed, and then he leaned towards me and
chuckled.

"They've all gone!" he cried; "they come suddenly at times, and try and
steal my boat, but they never see it, and then, when they realize they
never will, they leave altogether. Sometimes they stay a whole week," he
continued, in a whisper, "and threaten me all the time, until I fear I
shall go mad, but last night, after you had left, I told them boldly
what I thought of them, and silently, one by one, they crept away."

"You promised me that I should see the boat?" I said, softly.

"It is a lie," he cried, with a blaze of fury.

"Very well, it's a lie," I answered, coldly, with simulated scorn.

For an instant he remained silent, and then, with a grave smile, he
craved forgiveness.

"If I promised, I will keep my word," he said, quietly. "I will trust
you; you shall see what no one in this world has seen, because I know
you are an honorable woman, and will not betray my secret."

"Thank you," I said, devoting more attention to my cutlet than I had
ever given to a Count, "but if you would rather not--"

"I never break my word," he responded. "Come to this room at five
o'clock to-morrow morning, and you shall breakfast off the Isle of Wight
at nine," and with that he rose from the table, and, courteously bowing
to me, strolled from the apartment.

The day passed swiftly, for I was absorbed in pleasant thoughts at my
own good fortune. That I could win him to sell his invention I doubted
greatly, but that I should be able to gain some insight into the
mechanism of the boat during the promised cruise, I felt assured.

The momentary thought that he was going to trust his secret with me
because he believed me an honorable woman, did uncomfortably occur to
me, but I dispelled it with disdain. What right, I asked myself, had a
man to keep such an invention to himself, when it would be a crowning
laurel to the glory of France?

Throughout the day my heart was high with elation, but as darkness fell
my spirits drooped too, for I recollected the events of the previous
night, and speculated on the wisdom, or want of wisdom, of a cruise
beneath the sea with a man who, to say the least of it, was distinctly
eccentric.

Yet he was sane enough now, and I would not waver from my purpose with
success so near to my grasp. My fears were groundless. I dined alone,
retired at ten, and slept peacefully until a quarter to five, when I
rose, and, swiftly dressing, threw a long warm cloak over my arm, and
descended the staircase.

The early morning was fine, but cold; no sign was yet apparent of the
approaching dawn, and only an indigo sky, dotted with sparkling stars,
was visible, as I passed the windows in the corridor.

My host, enveloped in a thick ulster, stood awaiting me in the
morning-room, and with a cheery smile he apologized for the hour of our
start, and opening a bottle of champagne, poured out for me a glassful.

"To our cruise."

"To our cruise," I responded, touching his glass with mine.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Quite," I answered, with rather a white smile, for I was cold, and, I
own, a trifle nervous.

He took a lantern from the table and led the way, while I followed him
along the entrance hall and down a steep flight of steps.

"You see, I guard my secret well," he said, unlocking an iron door at
the end of what seemed to be a cellar, and then carefully fastening it
behind us; "you are the first living soul to see my boat."

With the utmost care he guided me along the narrow passage, warning me
of every inequality in the ground, and casting the light, so that I
might walk with ease, until we reached a roughhewn flight of steps,
seemingly cut from the native rock, that disappeared into the blackness
beneath our feet, and there I instinctively paused and drew back.

"It is not tempting to a woman," he murmured, apologetically; "but the
house stands on the cliff, and we are descending to the caves below."

Down, down, ever down we went, until I lost count of distance; but at
last the steps ceased, and we stood upon a narrow platform of slippery
stone, and I could hear the sweesh of the sea against the sides of the
cave.

He flashed the light around. We were standing upon a ledge, about four
feet above the water, and on every side were wet and greasy rocks; the
roof above us was hidden in densest gloom, and at our feet lay the boat!

"My secret is safe, eh?" he cried, and the echoes flung back, "eh? eh?
eh?" with a flood of chuckling scorn. "Even at low water," he continued,
"the entrance to this cavern is hidden; only you and I, who move beneath
the sea, can go to and fro."

He turned the rays of the lamp upon the boat, which lay quietly rocking
in the water, a boat which seemed but little different from others of
its style; the usual build of submarine vessels, cigar-shaped, with a
conning-tower of steel, studded with thick glass port-holes, and a
man-hole next to it.

Monsieur handed the lamp to me, and I kept its light fixed upon the
vessel, while he strode across the deck, and, unscrewing the circular
trap, passed into the interior. In an instant the conning-tower blazed
with light, throwing brilliant beams from each of the round windows that
looked like eyes staring into vacancy, and then, after what seemed an
eternity, he appeared again, and beckoned me to come aboard.

For an instant I hesitated, but he walked towards me, and helped me
across the sloping deck, down the man-hole, and into the cabin below.

In one glance I perceived the luxury of the interior, a small saloon,
tapering off slightly at one end, upholstered in amber satin, save at
the smaller end, where, upon a polished switchboard, was a group of
strange handles of brass and ebony. Just in front of them a high seat
was placed, which seemed arranged so that the whole of the handles were
within the reach of a single operator, whose eyes would be on a level
with the windows of the conning-tower. To the right was a
steering-wheel, and to the left a compass.

I turned to my companion; he was busy adjusting the screws of the
man-hole, and then, when all was finished to his satisfaction, he came
towards me, and led me to the group of handles.

"It is your cruise, madame," he said, with a smile, "therefore you shall
be the captain. Draw down the handle on the right."

I pulled it sharply downward, and felt the boat sink under my feet--we
were beneath the water.

"Up!" he cried, and I obeyed him, and instantly the vessel's descent was
arrested.

"The handle next to it," he said, "an inch down," and as I moved it the
boat sprang forward, while he stood by my side, his eyes fixed on the
compass, and his hand upon the wheel, now giving a turn to the left, and
now to the right.

"We are clear of the cave," he cried, after a moment, "and in the open
sea." Then, with a glance at the clock, he continued: "It has taken
longer than usual to get away. Let _Le Diable_ show his power, if you
would breakfast where I promised. Pull down that handle, madame, as far
as it will go."

Grasping it firmly, I obeyed him, and as I did so the boat bounded
forward with such speed and suddenness that I should have fallen had he
not caught me by the arm.

"Too sudden!" he cried, with his usual chuckle. "You must not drive even
the devil too furiously."

I seated myself on a lounge, while he remained at the wheel, his eyes
alternating between the compass and a chart.

Presently he became blurred to me, for I had risen unconscionably early,
and the motion of the boat, after the first plunge, was conducive to
slumber, so that I sank back and knew no more until I felt a touch upon
my arm and found him bending over me.

"In a quarter of an hour you will breakfast," he said.

"_Merci, monsieur_," I answered; "I am hungry."

"This boat is my coffin," he suddenly ejaculated, looking me straight in
the face. "That is why I will sell it to no one."

I nodded, and tried to smile in spite of my terror at this sudden change
in his manner and the fierceness with which he gripped my wrist.

"When I am tired of life I shall drive into the midst of the Atlantic,
sink _Le Diable_ to the lowest ocean depths, and die."

"Yes, when you are tired of life," I answered.

"And who knows when that may be!" he cried. "Perhaps to-day, perhaps
to-morrow," and he chuckled in a mirthless fashion.

I gazed at him and shivered, but in a few moments his frenzy passed,
and, taking my hand, he led me towards the mechanism that controlled the
boat, and pointed to the clock. "In ten minutes more we shall be there,"
he cried.

"How do these handles work the boat?" I asked, gently, with my mind upon
my mission. "Where is the actual machinery?"

"That is my secret!" he shouted. "Pull." And he placed my fingers on
another handle. Obedient to the touch the vessel slowed, and then
stopped.

Again he placed my fingers upon a lever. "Hold it," he cried; and then
suddenly he switched out the light, and we were in densest blackness.

"Raise it gently; give me your hand."

He drew me back with him, and I waited nervously in the darkness, until
a faint, ghostly light flickered through the glass before me. A deep
green grew lighter and lighter, until at last the sunlight streamed full
in my eyes and the foam-flecked sea danced before me, with the roofs of
a town, backed by English hills, beyond it.

It was Ventnor, and we had reached the spot that he had promised.

Then we breakfasted, and all through the meal, while the morning
sunshine streamed through the circular windows, I wondered how I was to
tempt the secret from him. Of what use was it for me to return to my
friends and say I had cruised in the boat, that it was controlled by a
series of handles, and that was all I knew? As well not have ventured at
all.

"Now show me what guides the boat," I exclaimed, in my most ingenuous
voice, as he rose from the meal and moved towards the tower.

"These handles," he answered. "See!" The sunlight vanished, the
opalescent green of the sea grew darker and darker, and then blackness
enshrouded all. There was not a sound save the click of the wheel as he
moved it, and then the boat sprang forward again.

Then, in the darkness, he seized my arm and drew me towards him.

"There are no works," he whispered, "no mechanism at all. All the power
is in my brain--_I_ drive it, _I_ control it."

I laughed a nervous laugh. "You are droll, monsieur."

"And you're a fool!" he shouted, wildly. "It's my brain, I tell you,
that controls it all."

I wrenched myself free, and he switched on the light again, and then
gave a shriek that froze my blood.

I turned with a start, and my flesh prickled as I saw him standing with
madness blazing in his eyes, his attenuated hand extended, pointing to
the far end of the cabin. "Who is that?" he gasped.

"There is no one here but ourselves," I cried, trembling with
apprehension.

"You lie! Look there, and there, and there," and his bony finger pointed
to every corner of the saloon. "And there, and there! _Nom de Diable!_
They are all here!"

"Who are here?" I cried, with a weak attempt at bravado.

"They are; those who have tried to rob me of my secret--those whom you
met at dinner. Ah!" He turned swiftly and moved slowly towards me, his
body half bent, like a wild animal about to spring upon its prey.

"Ah!" he hissed again. "Those you met at dinner. Those you conspired to
bring upon the boat to rob me."

"You're mad!" I shrieked, my courage utterly deserting me.

"Mad!" he raved, pointing about the cabin and grimacing at the imaginary
intruders. "It's you who are mad. All of you, for you've come to your
death. And you're in your coffin now!"

I had gradually crept as far from him as the limited space would allow,
but he still advanced with a stealthy tread; and then, when only a few
inches separated us, and I hid my face in my trembling hands, I realized
that he had halted.

He turned, and, with a bound, made for the switchboard and stopped the
boat, pulled the lever right down, and then, snatching a heavy wrench
from the side, hammered with the fury of a maniac, until the brass and
ebony splintered to fragments, and the handles were snapped off and lay
on the floor.

I could feel the vessel sinking rapidly beneath my feet, and he stood
grinning hideously, until a slight jar showed that we could descend no
farther.

"We are at the bottom of the sea," he chuckled, "and no power on earth
can move us."

With two blows he demolished the compass and steering-gear, and then,
with a shriek of laughter, stood and viewed the wreckage.

And, dazed and bewildered, deprived of power of speech or movement, I
sank back on a seat, the words ringing in my ears, "At the bottom of the
sea, and no power on earth can move us."

How long we remained so who can say? for my senses were numbed. I kept
no count of time, and was only aroused to consciousness as I saw him,
with the wrench still in his hand, creeping towards me again.

I shut my eyes, knowing his purpose, and yet in apathy whether he struck
or not. After what seemed ages I opened them, and he had only advanced
one step. As I waited, so quietly, so slowly, that I could scarce see
any movement, he made another step, and I found myself calculating how
many more would be needful, and how long would be the time before he was
near enough to strike.

Suddenly, as I watched him, the boat gave a lurch, as though the ground
had slipped from beneath it, casting me upon the floor; while he,
flinging up his hands to save himself, missed his footing, and fell
backwards with a crash, his head striking the jagged edges of the
shattered brass-work.

I saw him lying there senseless, and then saw no more, for when I
recovered the electric light was spent, and the cabin was in densest
darkness. The boat seemed to have righted itself, for the floor was
level again, but the air had grown hot and stifling.

Not a sound broke the stillness, unless it was the beating of my heart.
There was naught but silence and inky blackness--the silence of the
tomb, the loneliness of death.

The air seemed to grow more close and stifling, and my breath came in
quick, short gasps. Better any death than this gradual suffocation. If I
could only let the water into the boat, and so die swiftly, it would be
easier. And so I crawled across the floor. Once I touched him, and drew
away; but by his side I found a wrench, and in the darkness I groped on,
till I found the steps to the tower and felt for the glass.

Poor Vanity! the reigning passion with us all. I turned my head, so that
the flying splinters of glass should not cut my face, and brought the
wrench with all my force against the window. It resisted stoutly. But
again and again I struck, until at last, with a crash, it flew outwards.
And then, in that fraction of a second, so strong is the love of life, I
wished I had held my hand.

But there came no torrent of water, only a rush of cold air, and I
realized that I was on the surface of the ocean--realized that when the
madman fell backwards upon the shattered switchboard he must have moved
the lever. But night had fallen again, and so I had not known it.

Trembling the more now that there was hope of escape, I climbed on deck
and waited for the dawn.

And with the first faint streaks upon the eastern horizon came rescue,
for a French cruiser had seen us, and steamed down like the wind to
examine _Le Diable_.

Yet, with it all, the madman kept his secret--and his coffin.

When the boat from the cruiser was but a yard away I glanced through the
open man-hole, and saw that he was moving across the cabin below, and as
I stepped upon the gunwale of the launch _Le Diable_ sank like a stone
from beneath my feet.



THE ABDUCTED AMBASSADOR


"Monsieur Roché," Thérèse murmured, and held a card before me.

"I have already told you I will receive no one," I answered, with more
than usual tartness, for the afternoon was warm, and the thought of my
evening's engagements made me feel that life was unendurable.

"It is a matter of most urgent importance," she so far forgot herself as
to urge, and I could scarcely restrain a smile, for through my maid's
prim black gown I almost fancied I could hear the rustle of the note
that had tempted her to impertinence.

Was it not enough that I had said I was not receiving? And one would
assume not, for she still stood there, and the day was too warm to scold
her.

But she was an excellent girl, the perfection of maids. To this
day I have never met one who could dress my hair as she could, nor
one who could understand my peculiar--my dearest friends say
exasperating--temper so admirably, and so my heart softened, and, with
merely an uplifting of the eyebrows, to show that I noted her
persistence, I said I would receive Monsieur Roché. And well I made a
virtue of necessity, for he was one who knew not refusal. I turned poor
virtue into my necessity, as all did whom Monsieur Roché asked to favor
him.

"One would even risk madame's anger for the happiness of seeing her," he
murmured, as he took my hand; for, though he held the reputation of one
not admiring the sweeter sex, a better gallant for turning a compliment,
a more skilful adept in the epigram of flattery, this jaded world has
never viewed.

"It is a trying hour for calling, monsieur, unless the reason be most
urgent."

"It is most urgent," he gravely assented, as he placed a slender
forefinger upon my shoulder. "_Ma chère_," he continued, softly, "you
are the cleverest woman in Paris."

"I should have better liked the compliment had you said the prettiest,"
I answered, demurely.

"Tut, tut! The whole world tells you that. Why proclaim the obvious? I
prefer to be original, and pronounce you the cleverest."

"With an object, monsieur, _n'est ce pas_?"

"With a very great object, madame--the desire for your assistance."

Monsieur Roché leaned impressively towards me.

"Have you heard the strange news," he asked, "that is being whispered in
diplomatic Paris?"

"There are many strange things whispered in diplomatic Paris," I
responded.

"Truly; but this is unprecedented. Sir Edward Rivington, the English
Ambassador, has been abducted."

"Yes. It was mentioned to me by a particularly uninteresting gallant at
last night's reception; but"--I shrugged my shoulders--"it is too
absurd."

"And therefore the more likely to be true! In fact, I know that it is
true and also that it is false."

"An enigma, monsieur?"

"Listen. The story is that a closed carriage called for Sir Edward two
nights ago. He left the Embassy, saying he would return in an hour. He
has not been seen since, and Paris is growing perturbed at this
unwarrantable violation of international courtesy. That is the story.
But the facts are that Sir Edward has tricked France, has purposely
promulgated this mystery, and has departed on a secret mission to
England."

"I can see no reason for such ridiculous procedure. _Perfide Anglais_ is
only a Boulevard cry when there is no domestic sensation to occupy the
green hour."

"Tush!" Monsieur Roché impatiently interrupted. _Ma foi_, how impatient
these diplomats are! "France was in active negotiation with England, and
also with Italy, upon the same point. What it was matters nothing."

"You are reticent, monsieur."

"It is sufficient that it discloses that England was not wholly in our
thoughts. Now, by an unpardonable blunder, Sir Edward received among his
own certain other papers intended for Signor Faliero."

"France was playing a difficult game, monsieur."

"A delicate and diplomatic one, madame."

"And has failed."

"Been tricked," he hotly retorted. "The superscription upon the cover
was plainly to the Italian Ambassador, and Sir Edward knew that even
English diplomacy or intrigue could not be stretched to the fine point
of not at once returning the packet. He knew that we should immediately
demand it, if necessary, and that restitution could not be withheld. The
documents were handed to Sir Edward himself by one of my secretaries,
who is now open to accept a fresh appointment, and a couple of hours
later, when the error was discovered, I was met with this melodramatic
fable of abduction."

"But what is to be gained by such a fabrication? Surely Sir Edward could
say he had gone to England, if he wished to."

"What is gained," Monsieur Roché answered, incisively, "is a strong hold
upon us, we never knowing whether the papers have been inspected or not.
When he returns he will, no doubt, send the packet to me, apparently
untouched, and we can only assume that England is cognizant of its
contents. We shall be compelled to maintain the negotiations now in
progress, and all the time Sir Edward Rivington will smile, and placidly
await a _coup d'état_. It is maddening, simply maddening. _Mon Dieu!_ it
binds us hand and foot."

"I do not agree with your theories, monsieur," I said, calmly. "Sir
Edward Rivington is an Englishman, and, as a nation, they are
honorable."

"Tush! Sir Edward is a diplomat, and the code of honor is different. His
aim is to serve his country. Should I hesitate to take advantage of such
an opportunity for France?"

"You are unscrupulous, monsieur."

"For what," he cried, "do we all pay millions of francs a year? Secret
service: such information as that which Sir Edward has had placed in his
hands by chance. Is it reasonable that he would be such a child as to
neglect a stroke of policy sufficient to render his country's position
impregnable?"

"If all this be as you say, monsieur, then the damage is done, and
beyond repair."

"Utterly. There is, however, one favor I would ask of you. To actually,
indisputably, know that Sir Edward Rivington has been to England will at
least make me sure of my ground. It will be a difficult task, one worthy
of the cleverest woman, the prettiest widow in Paris." And, even in his
worry of mind, he smiled as he paid me the double compliment. "Ask where
you will in London, and they will tell you he is still in Paris. A man
would fail miserably, a woman's intuition will succeed."

I pondered over the position. Love for a little excitement, something to
relieve the ennui of a solitary existence, had induced me to undertake
many little diplomatic services for my friend Monsieur Roché, but in all
there had been something of the glamour of romance. This seemed more the
task of a secret agency, or even the Quai de l'Horloge itself. What so
simple as to discover if a man so well known in Paris as Sir Edward
Rivington had crossed the Channel?

And yet, if things were as Monsieur Roché asserted, what infinite pains
would be taken to conceal the visit! Looked at from that point of view,
the mission appeared more fitting to my disposition, and I accepted.

Why is it ever the fashion to speak of London as a city of smoke and
gloom? Paris is not all Champs-Elysées. We have our sunlight and our
shadow; and London, sublime in its rugged beauty of stability, common
alike to the city and the people, has the same; while Parliament Street,
under the bright spring sunshine, might have been one of the boulevards
of beloved Paris itself.

A far-seeing Providence must surely have intended women to shine in
diplomacy, for men are so impressionable, and some women so fascinating,
that the victory is assured before the struggle commences.

And because of this I refused to be satisfied with any of those zealous
and most polite officials and secretaries, and ultimately, because I,
too, am at times fascinating, found myself in the presence of one of the
rulers of the State, whose name in France was as well known as those of
our own politicians.

He received me graciously, and waited.

"At a reception in Paris," I said, after a moment, "I had the honor of
meeting your Ambassador, Sir Edward Rivington; the greater honor of
giving certain information, to him that was of service."

Monsieur seemed to freeze a little. Secret service is necessary, but its
agents, be they even pretty women, do not command more than the coldest
respect.

"There were further matters which he deemed it desirable I should obtain
details of, and as he was leaving suddenly for London upon a special
mission, I was instructed to follow him, and, insisting upon seeing you
in person, obtain his address, as it was not general knowledge that he
had left Paris."

Monsieur looked at me curiously. He seemed debating in his mind whether
he should tell me.

"You are under a strange misapprehension," he said, at length, leaning
back in his chair and interlacing his fingers.

"It is impossible that such can exist," I interrupted. "Those were my
instructions from Sir Edward himself."

"Then he must have changed his plans," monsieur continued, blandly.
"Assuredly he is not in London now, and, so far as I am aware, has not
left Paris; certainly on no business that could bring him to the Foreign
Office. We have our official messengers for such duties. Sir Edward
would not come himself."

"I understood the matter was too secret--"

"I am afraid you have been deceived," he answered, with a quiet smile of
amusement; "I can give you no address but the British Embassy, Paris,
and that must be well known to you already."

The interview was ended, and as I left I carried with me the conviction
that the conversation had been marked by such an absence of diplomacy on
his part that it must be truthful, and Sir Edward Rivington had not come
to England.

Yet I determined that I would stay in London, at all events until I had
something more to show for my efforts--what, I knew not; and while I
strolled, the gods came to my rescue.

My dearest friend, Gaspard Levivé, stood, hat in hand, before me.

"Madame, the fates are kinder to me than I deserve."

"Perhaps they have a better knowledge of your merit than you possess
yourself," I responded, with an upward glance. "Are you staying in
London?"

"Until this evening only. My friend, Sir Edward Rivington, has done me
the honor to ask me to be his second. I have accepted, and return to
Paris."

I stopped in bewilderment. "Sir Edward Rivington, the English
Ambassador?" I said, hurriedly.

"Yes," he answered, with a smile. "It does not sound English, does it?
But here is his letter: 'At le Duc d'Eautine's chateau to-morrow
morning. I rely upon your honor to hold this secret, and, as you are in
London, to deliver, yourself, the enclosed envelope at the Foreign
Office.'"

"_Mon Dieu!_" I cried, excitedly. "_Mon cher_, you have not delivered it
yet; you have it still?"

"I am on my way," he replied.

"Then you will not. You will hold it back; bring it to Paris, and give
it to Monsieur Roché."

"It is impossible!" he exclaimed, glancing at me in surprise.

"It is not. If you deliver this you will ruin France! For the love of
France, pause!"

"I will not be a traitor to a friend who trusts me, even for the love of
France," he answered. "I have been asked to deliver this letter; how,
then, can I carry it to Monsieur Roché? No, not for the love of France!"

"Then, Gaspard, for me!" I said, turning my eyes upon him. "Do this for
me. Prove your protestations have not been idle. Do this for me."

His face flushed crimson, and then grew pale and gray, until, in but a
few seconds, he seemed to have become death-like before my eyes.

"Why do you ask this'?" he asked, icily.

"For the sake of France," I repeated. And then, like the lifting of a
veil, I saw things clearly, realized that I was tempting him, whom I
loved to call my dearest friend, to disgrace; realized that it was not
for love of France, but for love of victory, and Monsieur Roché's
praises. Gaspard seemed to hesitate, and I trembled lest he should
consent.

"Not even for your sake can I do this," he answered, slowly; and my
heart quickened at the proof that he was as true as I believed him; yet,
because I am a woman, I must perforce feign some slight resentment that
he would not yield me what I wished he should not.

"Then leave your papers," I said, after a cold pause, "and escort me to
Paris."

"You mean it?" he cried, his eyes brightening again.

"Yes, I mean it," I calmly replied; "one cannot break long friendships
for the sake of a difference of opinion. Leave your papers, _mon cher_,
and then rejoin me."

"I asked a favor yesterday," I said, as we drew near to Paris, "I ask
another to-day. I want to accompany you to le Duc d'Eautine's."

Gaspard raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"It is an affair of honor," he protested. "You know what you ask is
impossible, unheard of."

"Again?" I pettishly ejaculated.

"But you must see it yourself," he urged, with a half-amused smile. "How
can you be present?"

"With the consent of the principals," I retorted. "Be my escort to
Versailles, and then I will release you."

"As you will," he laughed; "but may I not know your reason?"

"The merest curiosity, _mon ami_. You, having been absent from Paris,
have not heard our latest sensation. Sir Edward Rivington was abducted
nearly a week ago, and you and I are two of the very few who know where
he is."

"Impossible!"

"May be, but true. He has been abducted, and only we know by whom, and
where he is to be found. Monsieur Roché, your chief, never believed in
the rumor of abduction. He set it down as a subterfuge to delay the
return of certain private papers intended for, no matter whom, that had
fallen into Sir Edward's hands. Those papers, _mon cher_, that you
delivered yesterday. The ones that concerned my visit to London. It
might have been a wonderful thing for you, Gaspard, if you had not
delivered them, but I did not mention your own interests."

"No interests of my own," he cried, laying his hand upon mine, "could
have weighed like the heart-burning desire to serve you. There is
nothing, that my honor would allow, that I would not do to win your
faintest gratitude, and then count myself all too richly rewarded.
Nothing I would not do--"

But fortunately we steamed into the Gare du Nord; Gaspard's poetic
moment was ruined by a descent from the dizzy heights of sentiment to
the commonplace confusion of an arrival platform, and, with a diplomat's
smile at the inevitable, he accepted the position.

What creatures of impulse the sex we prefer must be. In a four hours'
journey from Calais to Paris he must needs choose the last seventy
seconds for serious conversation, in order to be interrupted at the
instant when I was most attentive. And how those supreme moments, when
lost, seem to be lost forever! Commonplaces, commonplaces, small talk
and frivolity from Paris on to Versailles, from Versailles to the
Chateau of le Duc d'Eautine.

I felt quite serious when he was speaking just before we arrived in
Paris; but had he attempted to resume the subject I should have smiled,
and he, wise in diplomacy beyond his years, realized the position, and
accepted it.

Our carriage drove into the park of the Chateau, and, leaving the main
drive, stopped, in a few minutes, where, in the shade of a magnificent
cedar, a group of men were standing, evidently awaiting it. Le Duc
d'Eautine, Monsieur Faudé, his bosom friend, and Sir Edward Rivington,
the lost Ambassador, all seemingly charmed with one another's company,
and only a suspicious-looking case, leaning against the tree, spoiled
the harmony of the gathering.

It is a thing I have since almost boasted of. I am the only woman who
has ever caused that paragon of courtesy, le Duc d'Eautine, to lose his
temper and forget all etiquette.

"_Sapristi!_" he gasped, as I alighted--"what pleasantry is this,
madame? And you, monsieur," he continued, fiercely, turning upon my poor
Gaspard--"you, monsieur, explain this intrusion, or--"

"Tut, tut, _mon cher_ Duc," I mildly interjected, "I come as a service
to you, one of my oldest friends."

"I need no service, madame."

"You need great service, _mon enfant_," I retorted, reprovingly, for my
twenty-seven years afforded me vast superiority over his twenty-five.
"You need great service. What is this foolish escapade of abducting the
representative of England, and compelling him to fight a duel in your
own park before he regains his freedom? What is--"

"It is an affair of my own, madame," he interrupted.

"An affair of your own," I cried, with a suspicion of anger in my tones.
"It is an affair of the nation, of France, when you lure an Englishman,
an Ambassador, to your house, and force him into a duel."

"I force him to nothing," he said, as we walked aside. "He has been my
guest--"

"Tut! Paris knows he has disappeared; you lured him away, and you now
hold him a prisoner here until he fights this duel, _n'est ce pas_?"

"I do not contradict. I but defend my honor; Sir Edward Rivington spoke
of me indiscreetly. He alluded to me before my friends as a mere boy; he
ridiculed my duels, laughed at our code of honor, mocked at what he
described the satisfaction of a scratch, and scoffed as only an
Englishman can. A man who has never stood before the sword of his enemy.
I challenged him; he laughed, and turned aside with the sneer that
Englishmen had neither time nor inclination for such pleasantries. He
spoke of his duty to his own country, and, in a word, covered himself
with the invulnerability of his official position. He, at the Embassy,
was in England, not in France. I removed him from his Embassy. In the
grounds of my chateau he is in France, and not in England. In France,
where a man avenges insults with his sword."

"Excellent! But if you wound him?"

"Be assured, madame, I shall not. I shall not wound him, nor shall he
touch me, but he shall learn that duelling in France is not child's
play. I will tire him until he realizes that, and then disarm him; and
my sense of honor will be satisfied when he finds his ridicule recoils
upon himself."

"And if he wound you?"

He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.

"Then I will apologize to him, and grant my swordsmanship is but a sport
for children."

"May I speak with your prisoner?"

"With my guest, madame."

"As you will. Then with your guest."

He bowed, and he and his friend drew back as I walked towards the
English Ambassador.

"Paris is more than anxious concerning you, Sir Edward."

"If Paris meant yourself, madame," he responded, "I could bless my
imprisonment."

"Then you call it imprisonment?"

"Englishmen have a manner of calling things by their right names," he
suavely observed.

"And you propose to--"

"Fight," he drawled. "I really don't care about it, but there's a medium
in all things, you know. Not but what he's been most obliging. Except
that I'm imprisoned till I give him what he calls satisfaction, I've
been very comfortable. Even allowed, on my word of honor not to
communicate the peculiar circumstances, to send my private despatches to
England."

I shuddered as I thought of those despatches. Truth to tell, in the
excitement of the situation, they and Monsieur Roché's distress had left
my memory.

"But if you wound or kill him, Sir Edward?"

"I shall do neither."

"But, if he--" I paused, and Sir Edward gravely shook his head.

"Not the faintest chance in the world," he said. "I shall tire him out,
and disarm him, thus abundantly proving my theory that these affairs of
honor in France are arranged with the minimum of inconvenience to either
party."

I could not repress a smile; there was such a wealth of humor in this
duel, where neither party intended to injure the other.

"It is merely an exhibition of swordsmanship, Sir Edward?"

"Merely that, madame."

"Then I may remain?"

"It might be disconcerting to your friend."

"But if he permit?"

"Then to me it will be an honor."

But the Duke was less easy to win. It was impossible, unheard of, and
yet, while he spoke he wavered, and graced his consent with a whisper
that I was the Tournament's Queen.

"On guard, messieurs!"

Like a flash the swords crossed, and the duel commenced.

There was an uplifting of the eyebrows on the part of the Duke, as the
trick which had disarmed many an opponent was skilfully met, a
tightening of the lips by Sir Edward as a similar attempt of his own was
as easily frustrated.

It was a duel that set my blood tingling with excitement, as pass after
pass was parried, thrust after thrust was turned aside, and neither man
gained a point, neither man lost an inch, until it seemed that equals
had met, and who was victor would never be determined; that to be
vanquished would be almost as great an honor as to vanquish.

The Duke slipped as he parried a thrust, and I thought that the
unexpected had happened; but, like lightning, the Englishman's rapier
was drawn back, and his adversary acknowledged the courtesy and skill
which had saved his life with a bow worthy of himself.

An hour passed, and still the combat waged. I wearied of the eternal "On
guard, messieurs!" It seemed so fruitless that two such masters of fence
should strive for empty victory.

"On guard, messieurs!"

Sir Edward Rivington was hesitating, and stood with the dawn of a smile
upon his face.

"On guard, messieurs! _s'il vous plait._"

The Ambassador shook his head, and, throwing down his sword, advanced,
with hand extended to his adversary.

"I tender you my apologies," he said, gravely. "I admit I spoke
triflingly of French duelling. I admit that I sneered at several of your
own affairs of honor. I confess that I regarded them as child's play,
not knowing then, as I do now, that you are a sublime master of the art
of swordsmanship, and could have killed every man who stood before you."

"Every man, save yourself, Sir Edward!" the Duke exclaimed, with a
slight smile of satisfaction.

"You were playing, as I was, for the disarm."

"And neither of us succeeded. Frankly, for the first time in my life I
have met my equal. Strange that he should be one of the nation that
discountenances the use of the rapier."

"You will accept my unconditional withdrawal," Sir Edward continued.
"Nay, more, if you desire it, it shall be more openly proclaimed."

For answer le Duc d'Eautine handed his sword to his second, and took Sir
Edward's outstretched hand in both of his.

"Sir Edward Rivington," he exclaimed, "I am too honored. Say no more. My
greatest pride is that I have won the respect of England's Ambassador;
my greatest honor that I have gained the friendship of a splendid
swordsman."

These and many other high-flown compliments, dear to our nation, passed
between them and between their seconds, until it seemed we must all have
floated back to olden times, to the stately days of the Louis--so
anxious was each man to pay courtly compliments to the other.

_Mon Dieu!_ what changeable mortals, what creatures of impulse men are;
and yet they say that we women are wavering and fickle!

"You will be my guest, _mon ami_, for just another day?" the Duke
hazarded, doubtfully, it must be confessed.

"My dear friend," replied the Ambassador, "don't you think that you have
delayed the course of diplomatic relations sufficiently long? I expect
you will get into disgrace for this attack upon my sacred person, as it
is," and he broke into a merry laugh.

"I have made one true friend," returned the Duke, seriously; "what
matter the means? Should I find it necessary to suddenly quit France, I
shall carry with me the honor of counting yourself among those whom I
hold nearest to my heart."

"Quit France! All nonsense," brusquely interjected Sir Edward. "Put your
best team to a coach, and I'll drive you all back to Paris; then, for a
moment, the urgency of State affairs, _et après_, in a poor way you will
permit me to return your hospitality. At seven, _mes amis_, at the
'Bristol.'"

Sir Edward Rivington must have been a past master of all the arts. As he
handled his rapier perfectly, so he drove the four-in-hand; and,
doubtless, in all other things he was equally admirable. These English
are so thorough.

And of a truth he was certainly charming in conversation, for I, who sat
beside him, can vouch for it.

"Will the budding flowers of diplomatic relations have withered owing to
your absence, Sir Edward?" I ventured to ask as we drove through St.
Cloud.

"No; I do not think so," he answered, with a laugh. "But, seriously, it
is a little troublesome. They must have been retarded somewhat, and I
shall possibly be blamed for taking a brief holiday at such an important
moment."

"Then you will call it a holiday?"

He looked at me with a slight elevation of the eyebrows.

"Naturally!"

"You are more than generous, Sir Edward."

"Tut, tut! but still, things may be a trifle unpleasant. For instance,
an hour before le Duc d'Eautine's pressing invitation that I should
become his guest arrived, I received a bundle of official papers from
your Premier, Monsieur Roché, and, not realizing that I was going to
take a holiday, placed them at once in my safe, where they now repose,
untouched and unlocked at."

"Untouched and unlocked at!" I cried, my blood tingling with delight at
the kindness of the fates.

"Yes; it sounds undiplomatic, does it not?"

"Are we driving direct to the Embassy?"

"Why not? It will destroy the ridiculous rumor of abduction."

"Then, Sir Edward, as a distinct favor to me, will you not at once open
the bundle and give to me, in order that I may myself return it to my
friend, Monsieur Roché, a document placed there by error, which is not
addressed to you?"

"Certainly," he replied, flicking the leaders with his whip. "I should
have returned it under any conditions, but, since you wish it, I will do
so through you."

I sighed a sigh of deep contentment. "You will make me ever your
debtor," I murmured.

"Not at all. But is this the reason of your visit to Versailles?" he
inquired after a moment, with a strange little smile.

"Suppose you exchange a little small talk with your other friends, and
not devote all your attention to me," I suggested, in a tone of mild
reproof.

And, generously discreet, Sir Edward obeyed my desires, till we rolled
into Paris, I passing the while in thinking what a fortunate thing it
was that Gaspard had not given way to my temptations and purloined his
Excellency's private despatches.



PRINCE FERDINAND'S ENTANGLEMENT


Monsieur Roché waltzed divinely, and so thoroughly original was that
charming man that he never once made allusion to either the crush or the
heat. Yet they were both insufferable.

We strolled into the conservatory, and, taking my fan from my hand, he
gently waved it before me, keeping time to the distant strains of the
waltz, which we preferred to sit out.

"To be beautiful and accomplished," he murmured, as he seated himself
beside me, "is no excuse for idleness when a woman is also brilliant."

I recognized the prelude to a commission, and became attentive, for I
was _ennui_ of the tiring pleasures that make up the daily routine of
the existence of a woman of fashion.

"It is different from the English affair," he whispered, reflectively.

"And so it need be!" I replied, a little testily, for Gaspard Levivé and
I had been somewhat ill at ease with each other since we journeyed
_tête-à-tête_ from London to Paris.

"It is what a woman's soul craves for--romance."

"A commission from Monsieur le Premier, and yet romantic," I cried, with
a laugh. "Monsieur fears to plead his own cause, and would send a
persuasive ambassador, _n'est ce pa_?"

"One as skilful in tact and diplomacy as she is in herself perfection,"
the flatterer answered; and then, "It is not a service to myself," he
added, somewhat stiffly, for my bachelor friend was sensitive on these
little matters, and rather prided himself on a flattering unction that
he laid to his soul, that no woman in Paris--but I wander, for as he
spoke I took my fan abruptly from his hand, and gazed severely right
through his perplexed face into the ballroom beyond.

"I fail to understand," I said, stonily. "A commission from some one
else? Are my services, then, at the command of any one who condescends
to require them?"

He put out his hand deprecatingly.

"I imagined," I said, fluttering my fan viciously, "that I dealt with
diplomats who regarded my service as much their secret as my own;" and I
spoke with warmth, for I felt I had deserved better of him than this.

From my heart I loved these commissions for the excitement they afforded
me, and not for mere gain; for what was that to me? My most hazardous
adventure brought me the souvenir I chose--a plain gold bangle engraved
with the date; my most romantic, a diamond necklace worthy of an
empress.

Monsieur Roché stayed the fan that I was fluttering wildly in my
indignation, and gently took my fingers in his own.

"Why is a woman the sternest critic--the harshest judge of her best
friends?" he asked. "You are an accomplished woman, a clever woman, a
beautiful woman, and yet--"

"Simply a woman," I interjected.

"And therefore as lacking in reason as all others of your sex, and as
prone to jump at erroneous conclusions. No one in the world knows of
what you call your Secret Service save those whom you have met and
defeated, and they would be the last to proclaim it."

I felt miserably repentant--what creatures of impulse even the cleverest
of women are!--so, smiling upon him, I handed back the fan.

"The vanquished must deliver up his sword," I cried. "I own I was in the
wrong, so take a woman's weapon as a sign."

"My dearest friend is in Paris," he said, as he slowly waved the
ostrich-plumes, "and in great trouble."

I glanced interestedly towards him as he continued:

"Prince Humbert of Elvirna is the man; the trouble, Prince Ferdinand,
his son; the cause, as usual, a woman."

"Cheap cynicism but poorly becomes a man of intellect, much less a
diplomat, monsieur."

"Then I will amend the phrase," he answered, contritely, "and say the
cause, a woman, and leave 'as usual' out."

"It is strange that man, who owes all that is the better part of his
life to woman, should so often make her the object of his sneers," I
observed.

"Strange, save that he so often owes all that is the worst," he
answered, with a passing shade of irritation. "This young fool, this
man, who must marry for the good of the tiny kingdom which will be his
own some day, has chosen--"

"To follow his own affections," I interrupted, with a smile.

"Tush! He has chosen to become enamored of the _passée_ charms of a
third-rate actress--an adventuress searching for youthful fools with
simple hearts and simple brains who cannot discriminate between nature
and art, and would never credit the brightness of their siren's eyes was
due to belladonna."

"He will get over it, _mon cher_. Even you, I doubt not, have had your
weaknesses."

Monsieur scowled at my covert allusion, but ignored it.

"Do you think that this wretched play-actress will give him an
opportunity until it is too late?" he asked. "He now lives in Arcadia,
wanders from morn till eve in leafy woods, whispering sentimental folly
and admiring sunsets, living only in the light of his goddess's eyes,
cooing with this soiled dove, while his father vainly implores for his
return to reason and to duty."

"And the remedy, _mon cher_?"

"Yourself."

"I scarcely comprehend."

"The boy is only infatuated. Infatuation gives way to greater
temptation. He would fall madly in love with the first fresh, pretty
face he saw."

"Thank you, monsieur!" I cried, with mock indignation, and, rising, I
courtesied to the ground before the perplexed gaze of my friend, who
shivered at his blunder.

He twisted his mustache with energy, but did not speak; and I, regaining
possession of my fan, waved it with an air of lofty scorn, and tried to
keep back the smile that, despite my efforts, was breaking round the
curves of my lips.

"Let us be serious, and quite frank with each other," he said at length.
"I want you to go for a week to the solitudes of the Forest of Lecrese,
in the Kingdom of Elvirna, and, winning this young headstrong from his
folly, add yet another service to those which have made me eternally
your debtor. Show him--it will be so easy!--what poor theatrical
blandishments are possessed by this play-actress when compared with the
wit and sparkle of a brilliant woman--what faded beauty when nature
challenges art. Surely it is to your taste, for is it not romantic?"

"It is romantic," I acquiesced. "But let us, as you say, be frank.
Pursue the story further. Suppose the cure prove efficacious--what then?
Is there one greater than I who in turn will win him from me? One more
beautiful, more accomplished, more fascinating, who will say, 'Again,
most simple youth, you are mistaken. Behold! I am the only woman worthy
of your love.'"

The diplomatist chuckled. "If," he said, "I thought there could be one
possessing such unheard-of charms, I would not dare to say so--but there
is no one! I simply ask you to destroy this wretched entanglement, and
then, if the Fates decree that he must surrender utterly to your beauty,
so be it. It is better for a man to break his heart for love of a good
woman than have it broken by a false one. It is a romance with endless
possibilities. Do you consent?"

I reflected. It was a peculiar mission, and, moreover, one in which
failure would be such a crushing blow to vanity, that my only refuge
would be a convent. What if I set myself to fascinate a man and--failed!
Yet there was such a glamour of excitement with it. To match myself
against this adventuress, to fight for a man's honor, to triumph for the
right. All men's eyes confessed me beautiful. Impartially I had scanned
myself, posed as my harshest critic--and a woman can be her own severest
critic if she will--and I too had finished by saying, however
reluctantly, "Yes, _ma chère_, you really are rather pretty." There was
something exhilarating in the thought that here was the opportunity to
prove myself right or wrong, and men truthful or mere flatterers.

"I consent," I cried, "on two conditions: that, success or failure,
Prince Humbert does not meet me in my character study, and that I am
allowed absolute freedom of action, whatever course I take."

"Agreed on all things, and I thank you."

We rose, and I placed my hand upon his arm. "Modesty is woman's sweetest
charm," he remarked, and I gazed into his face, vainly striving to
fathom the meaning of an observation so apropos of nothing. "Why mention
failure?" he continued, and we returned to the ballroom.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Woods of Lecrese, bathed in the glowing fire of an audacious sunset,
were enough to awaken sentimental yearnings in the breast of one even
more worldly than I. A long, undulating road swept far into the purple
distance, losing itself among the trees that interlaced above; on either
side a cool vista of virgin greensward spread from the carriage-drive,
only relieved by the crimson splashes of the fallen leaves that foretold
the coming autumn, and yet not so severely as to make one dread the
winter. All was solitude and peace. A dangerous hour, and a dangerous
place, I told myself, for a foolish youth and a designing woman.

I stopped the carriage, and stepped out on to the roadway.

"Knock out the axle-pin," I cried, "and throw it into that thicket; then
take a horse each, and ride for assistance."

I spoke in the same tone as I might have ordered my coffee, but who,
save my own servants, would have carried out such inane orders without
an implied protest? "Go to the blacksmith in the first village you come
to."

So they left me, and I, like the lost princess of a fairy-tale, stood by
my broken-down carriage, and awaited the Prince, for I knew he must ride
this way, and it pleased me that we thus should meet.

A glance in the mirror of my travelling-case stilled any doubts I might
have had. I was free from the dust of travel; indeed, I had driven but
five kilometres that it might be so. An ostrich-feather-trimmed cloak of
silver gray suited me to perfection, and the evening light, with just
the fading glow in the sky, was most becoming.

Presently the cantering of a horse upon the road told me of the approach
of him whom I awaited. I wearily rested my head upon my hand, and leaned
against the carriage, and so absorbed did I become in my woman's
thoughts as to what manner of man he would be, that it was his voice
that roused me to the knowledge of his presence.

I glanced upward, and he pleased me well. A man rather above the average
height, well knit and athletic, with clear-cut, sensitive features, a
slight mustache, a kindly look of good-temper in his frank, blue eyes,
and a cap set jauntily upon the side of his head of curling hair.
Scarcely the man, I thought, to be the easy dupe of a vulgar
adventuress; but the world is so strange.

He vaulted lightly from his horse, and, cap in hand, walked towards me;
and I saw the look that I have seen in the eyes of other men come into
his.

He did not crave pardon for speaking. He came as a man of the world to a
woman in distress; came and counted there could be no offence.

"You have had an accident," he said; "can I be of service to you?"

"It is nothing," I answered, with a swift glance into his eyes; "my
servants have gone to seek a blacksmith, or a coach-builder."

"The nearest is twenty kilometres away: we are far from civilization at
Lecrese; you cannot wait until they return."

"And the nearest village?"

"Five kilometres."

I gazed around in some perplexity up to the sky, where the rosy tints
were fading from the fleecy clouds, and then back into his face for
inspiration. "If you are riding that way," I said, "I will ask you to
send me a carriage from there."

He laughed a merry, good-tempered laugh, as though a child had asked for
the moon, and again reminded me of our distance from civilization.

"Can you walk five kilometres?" he asked, with such a serious look upon
his face that I smiled with amusement.

"Of course," I answered; "do you take me for an old woman?"

"No," he cried, with boyish emphasis; "only I thought, perhaps--"

"Perhaps I was one of those poor creatures to whom exertion is
purgatory. Show me the road, please."

"It is the one I am taking myself."

"Which, although an interesting announcement, scarcely suffices to
indicate the direction," I murmured.

"I mean, if you will permit, we will walk together."

"For the moment, at least," I cried, "circumstances have made the
highway our joint property: then let us share companionship for mutual
benefit;" and I drew my cloak about my shoulders, while he, laughing a
strange little laugh, as though he scarcely understood me, swung his
horse's bridle on his arm, and we strolled along together.

What need to recount what happened upon that walk, for have I not said
that it was a dangerous place for a foolish youth and a designing woman?

What need either to speak of other days when we met by chance again, and
I saw a glow of pleasure in his face; what need to speak of his moments
of gloom, when, even as we talked, the light went out of his eyes; and
I, who have felt the pulse of love so often that I know its every beat,
told myself that he was wondering how he was to break with the other
woman, the one whom I had never met.

And I, too, felt ill at ease; the country is so different from the
capital. In the life that I had lived, to-night's dangerous
_tête-à-tête_ was forgotten in the rush of to-morrow's engagements, but
here it was different; I yearned for finality, and a release from a
position that was becoming embarrassing.

Deprived of the company of my cavalier, I walked alone in the woods of
Lecrese, priding myself that victory was mine, and in yet a few days I
might say to him that I journeyed to Paris in full confidence that he
would follow me.

Then, in the silence of the sultry afternoon, I heard his voice, and
another in reply, that told me that if I chose to play the eavesdropper
I might behold my rival, the actress; and I did choose, because I was
upon a diplomatic mission, and--because I am a woman.

Through a cluster of bushes I gently forced my way, sighing as a jealous
thorn caught me and ripped a strip from my silken mantle; and then,
drawing the branches upon one side, I looked into the glade, where she
was resting upon the trunk of a fallen tree. He sat by her
side--and--angels defend us!--held her hand.

Though it be against my desires, the truth is the truth. She was not
painted, neither was she old, or even plain, and, worst of all, as she
sat listening to him there was a look upon her face that spoke
faithfully to me that she loved him.

And he looked back at her with the reflection of the same light within
his eyes.

Yet, what a clever little adventuress she was. I laughed scornfully to
myself as they continued their conversation.

"What are these distinctions that the world calls difference of class?"
she said, in a thoughtful voice. "Who has ordained that this man and
that woman shall marry because they are on the same social scale?"

"Why talk of such things?" he answered. "How can it affect us? I am a
poor student--"

"And I a poorer girl," she interrupted, "on a visit all too brief."

"On a visit that must last forever. I worship you, and you love me."

"I have not said so," she murmured, so softly that I could scarcely
catch the words.

"Your eyes have told me; you will not sacrifice our love."

"Oh, if I were only a man," she said, placing both hands upon his
shoulders.

"What, then, my love?" and he would have embraced her.

"Nothing," she answered, and the look in her eyes restrained him. "Let
us go."

They passed on together, and I could not but smile at the manner in
which the wretched little flirt pretended to keep him from her, and yet
with every action strengthened the chain that bound him.

Then as they moved onward I discreetly followed, for I had fixed in my
mind that I would spoil this rustic love-making, and show her that I
knew her for what she was.

Not a poor girl, as she was pleased to term herself, but a common
actress from some booth of Montmartre, a skilled adventuress, who had
set herself to delude a foolish boy, knowing what was to be gained
thereby. And in truth he was a foolish boy, a most annoying one, a most
deceitful one, for I had made no progress when I had counted all was
won.

He left her at the gate of a tiny cottage, and, as soon as the bend in
the road had hidden him from view, I walked through the garden, and,
lifting the latch, boldly entered.

Mademoiselle had removed her hat, and stood resting her head against the
latticed window, gazing up the path that he had taken.

She turned as I entered, and stood looking towards me, and yet not with
so very much wonderment, for suddenly she broke into a smile.

"You have entered to rest a while," she said. "You are welcome; we are
not altogether strangers, for I have heard so much of you."

"Heard of me?" I queried, rather sharply, for this girl seemed to have
the manners of such as myself.

"Certainly," she replied, still smiling; "you are the _grand dame_ whose
carriage broke down, and who is so charmed with the rustic delights of
Lecrese that she prolongs her stay indefinitely," and there was a tinge
of becoming satire in her voice.

"How do you know that?"

"You are the only one who would walk in the woods in a costume fit only
for driving in the Bois de Boulogne," she answered, and I flushed with
annoyance, for she looked so cool, while I was hot with the glowing of
the sun and the burning of my temper.

"We cannot all pretend to rustic innocence, mademoiselle."

"Nor succeed, if we did, madame," she retorted, and then the flash of
anger left her face. "You will forgive me," she cried, taking my hand.
"I forget myself; you will rest and take tea with me."

I would have bargained my soul for a cup of tea, but I ignored the
offer, and continued, "I have come to speak with you on a matter of
importance."

"Be seated," she answered, coldly, and she, too, sat and waited.

She plagued me because of her calmness and dignity, the air of
superiority she assumed towards me.

"Don't you think this farce has been played long enough, mademoiselle?"
I asked, scornfully, and she merely raised her eyebrows, and maintained
her unruffled composure.

"This Arcadian love-making," I cried, reddening with vexation, "this
whispering of paradise, this thistle-down entanglement. Don't you think
it is time to say good-bye?"

"Quite," she answered, with supreme contempt. "Good-bye," and she
returned to the window.

Then something--who can follow the subtle changes that occur in a
woman's heart?--something came into mine, and instead of anger I felt a
pang of pity for the girl who so disdained me. I walked towards her, and
laid my hand upon her arm.

"You know it must be so," I said.

"Yes, it must be so."

"He is of one world and you of another."

"You know that?" she said, in surprise.

"Yes, I know who you are, and who he is. Your words in the wood an hour
since were romance, and romance is out of date. It is impossible. Your
paths lie asunder: you must take yours, and leave him his."

I had placed my arm around her shoulder, and somehow the contempt I felt
for this play-actress had vanished, and my eyes were misty as she turned
hers towards me. Then in a second she was crying softly in my arms.

"You will say good-bye," I whispered.

"Yes," she answered, her face still hidden, "I will say good-bye."

"To-day?"

"Yes, to-day--within an hour he will return, and then, with courage
taken into both my hands, I will say good-bye. I have been sadly
foolish, and now I will break his heart because I wasted wisdom until
too late."

I did not tell her that men's hearts, and the hearts of princes in
particular, do not break so easily. Neither did I say that the heart
that fluttered against my own was nearer breaking than his would ever
be, but I kissed her again, and so we waited until we heard his
Highness's whistle, as he approached the gate, and, gaining no response,
walked up to the door and knocked.

"Come in," I cried, for her permission was so choked that it could not
reach him, and he entered and stood gazing in annoyed bewilderment.

"You, madame?"

"I, monsieur."

"What does this mean?"

She walked across and took his hand, holding it tightly between both her
own.

"Only this, dear," she whispered, "we have had our dream, and now the
awakening comes. It was all my fault, and you must leave me, and forget
we ever met--but, no, do not forget; remember me as the wickedest woman
whom you have ever known. The one who falsely won your love, and then
spurned it, and left you with only a bitter knowledge of the evil of the
world."

"You mean that you have fooled me, and do not love me?" he said,
stonily.

"Yes, I have fooled you," she answered, and she seemed to shrink beneath
the lie that her love told her would teach him the sooner to forget.

"And you do not love me?" he repeated, his face growing gray in the
glowing sunlight.

"I do not love you," she answered, and the boy believed her.

"Good-bye," he said; "shall I murmur my gratitude for the few hours of
happiness in my fool's paradise?"

Then, while the sneers still hovered around his lips, while I counted
all was ended, she flung her arms around him, and drew his head down,
until his cheek touched hers.

"Not so, my own," she sobbed, "not so; we must part, but not like this.
I cannot live if you should think me so worthless. We must part; you
must go one way and I the other, but I love you, dear, I love you."

"Mademoiselle," I cried, sharply, "this is mere childishness, this is
the weakest folly;" and she, with her eyes glistening, turned again from
him, and answered, wearily:

"Yes, 'tis folly, 'tis madness--good-bye."

"No," he cried, wildly, "you shall not go!"

"She must--she shall," I answered, angrily.

"Are you bereft of reason that you would so disgrace yourself--your
State?"

"It is no disgrace to marry the noblest woman this world has seen," he
retorted, hotly, and I admired him for the blaze of passion in his eyes.

"You speak like a child," I cried. "She says good-bye because she knows
that you must part. Prince Ferdinand of Elvirna cannot wed a nobody."

"Prince Ferdinand!" she gasped, and, stepping back a pace, gazed through
her tears into his face.

"Eh! Prince Ferdinand," he answered, in scorn, "and curse the day that
made me so. I am no struggling student. Curse the day that made me
Prince, I say! Curse the day!"

"Prince Ferdinand," she repeated, and I thought the girl must be
bewitched, for she smiled.

I caught him by the arm and drew him towards me, for I could see by the
look on her face that she was no scheming adventuress.

"If there be disgrace," I cried, witheringly, "it is yours. You came
with deceit and falsehood. You won her heart, pretending to be such as
she, no better in the world's eyes, and no worse."

"Were I Prince a thousand times over, and a thousand times on that," he
answered, softly, "I would give it all for her."

"Happily, there must be two to the bargain, and she is too true a woman
to hold you, when she knows it means your social ruin."

"On the contrary, madame; now I know he is what he is I will marry him."

Her face was wreathed in smiles, smiles that had chased away the mist of
sorrow's tears, and I shuddered as I realized that I had brought about
the very end that I came to prevent.

"You will marry him?" I gasped.

"_Oui_, madame," she replied, and courtesied to the ground. "You know
me. Are we not what the world calls eligibles?"

I could only gaze in bewilderment.

"Tell the Prince who I am," she cried, with a roguish laugh; and then,
as I still stood silent, she courtesied again to the ground before him.

"René, only daughter of the Compte de Pontiers, may it please your
Highness," she murmured.

He would have taken her to his arms in a rush of delight, but she
ceremoniously waved him back.

"Present us with all due form and etiquette, madame."

It was a strange introduction, for three times did they bow with court
formality to each other, and then the rustic lovers came to life again,
and he clasped her in his arms.

"If you knew he was such an exalted personage, and knew me not to be a
poor actress upon a visit, as I pretended," René cried, turning towards
me, "why did you insist that I must break away from happiness because of
my position? Surely we are what our world calls eligibles?"

And while I, in a generous instant, would have confessed the whole
truth, a flush came over her face.

"My father must never know of this foolish masquerade," she said,
gravely.

"You never met Prince Ferdinand until two minutes since," I answered.
"Is it not so? We will say that his Highness's infatuation for an
actress died the natural death of most infatuations; and then, a little
later, make known his coming alliance with no less a lady than René,
daughter of the Compte de Pontiers."

So ended Prince Ferdinand's entanglement. So ended my romantic mission
that was such a successful failure; and now sometimes when I admire that
diamond necklace I wonder if an accusation might not be formulated
against me for obtaining jewels under false pretences. And yet--why?



A DEAL WITH CHINA


For the moment the exhilarating fascination of "Le Pole Nord" had
absolutely enthralled the heart of feminine Paris.

To skate for an hour and then sit and sip one's coffee, to hold an
informal reception among one's own particular enemies, or to flirt with
one's dearest friends for the remainder of the afternoon, was now the
amusement upon which Society had set its approving hall-mark, and for
once in the way the craze that fashionable Paris had smiled upon was
something in the nature of pleasure, and not a task.

It was delight to glide across the ice to the strains of that excellent
orchestra; it was premature paradise to know that one's tailor-made
gown, edged with fur to maintain an illusive suggestion of winter, need
not await a frost before it could pique one's bosom companion; it was
new life to feel one's blood tingling with the glow of health and new
elation; to realize that one had successfully mastered the intricacies
of double grape-vines and Canadian eights; and it was fashionable, for
did not the Duchess de Maussapet, the Countess Venezia, and all others
we poor women have been taught to imitate, grace the assembly almost
every afternoon?

We had danced a quadrille upon the ice, and as the final bars died away
my eyes met those of my diplomatic friend Monsieur Roché, as he leaned
against a pillar, and there was a look upon his face, a peculiar gesture
as he bowed to me, that told me why so staid a man had joined the
frivolities of "Le Pole Nord."

Yet it went against my heart to dismiss my companion, for he was the
most handsome instructor that "Le Pole Nord" possessed, an Apollo in his
fur-trimmed jacket and jaunty cap, and all my feminine friends were
dying to skate with him. It went against my heart to give him up to a
woman who would only bore him.

He sighed as he unfastened my skates, and I sighed too, and walked to
where Monsieur Roché was waiting.

And the poor man did look so absurd in his silk hat and conventional
frock-coat compared with my late companion; but that man was now skating
with a woman I detested, and I promptly dismissed him from my thoughts.

"I have looked everywhere for you," Monsieur Roché exclaimed, as he took
my hand.

"There is only one place where I could be, monsieur, and that is here.
To be away from 'Le Pole Nord' at this time of the day is to be out of
the world. Would you care to cultivate the art with my assistance?"

"I wish for your guidance over something even more slippery than ice,"
he answered, as we seated ourselves upon a lounge.

"Well?"

"You know that we are entertaining an envoy from China, who presumably
tours the world on a voyage of pleasure and enlightenment."

"His Excellency Hun Sun?"

"Precisely." Monsieur Roché leaned towards me until his lips almost
touched my ear. "This journey of pleasure is a subterfuge. The
Ambassador comes from China to France."

"And the object of his visit?"

"To gain a pledge from France for defensive, or even offensive,
protection."

I pursed my lips, for who in the world did not know that England and
Russia would have to be reckoned with?

"There are powers in China," Monsieur Roché continued, "who have offered
such inducements to tempt this protective alliance that we cannot resist
them. Who those powers may be, whether the Emperor himself or those who
do not love him, concerns you nothing. Hun Sun came to me and gave the
message by word of mouth, but because of the secrecy which must be
maintained in such a matter, no writing was to pass between France and
China which, if by any chance intercepted, could be brought up
against"--Monsieur Roché paused--"those who had sent him."

"We civilized nations are far behind the heathen in diplomacy," I
murmured.

"Far behind," he acquiesced. "Many a man would be happier if he had
never learned to write. There was to be no writing between us that could
incriminate. Hun Sun gave me the message, asked for a witness, and
before that witness, who was Gaspard Levivé, my chief secretary, handed
me a small gold seal. If France agreed, our answer was to be a mere
interchange of diplomatic courtesies, sealed with that seal, and all
would be understood."

"It seems over-elaborated and cumbersome caution, _mon ami_, for surely
the man trusted to bring the message could be trusted to take the
answer."

"Except that as it is he can never know the answer, _ma chère_. However,
it is not the methods of this diplomacy that I wished to consult you
upon, but this: when his Excellency handed me the seal, I placed it upon
the table by my side; five minutes afterwards he left, and when I turned
to the table it was gone, and no one but ourselves had been near it. By
'ourselves' I mean Hun Sun, myself, and Gaspard Levivé. There seems to
be no possible reason for his Excellency to steal what he need not have
delivered; there would be no sense in my concealing what no one need
know I have received, and so--"

"There is only Gaspard?" I sharply interjected, and I felt my pulses
throb with indignation, for who knew better than I, since the affair of
the abducted Ambassador, that the man I was honored in calling my
dearest friend was as true as any who served our country.

"There is only Gaspard," monsieur repeated.

"Then you insinuate that your secretary, my friend, has stolen the
seal?" I cried, angrily.

"I insinuate nothing," he answered. "I come to you, because you have
solved many difficult problems, to help me in this."

"And I refuse, monsieur. You are a poor diplomat to attempt to gain a
woman's sympathy by attacking one whom she esteems and admires."

"I think not, for I have already aroused your deepest interest in my
unfortunate position."

"Indeed!"

"Certainly; because one is implicated whom," Monsieur Roché glanced into
my face and smiled, "you esteem and admire."

"I repeat that you are a poor diplomat," I cried, angrily, "and I will
prove it. Because you have chosen to insult my friend, because you have
chosen to insinuate that he is a traitor and a thief, I renounce my
position. I refuse this commission and all others, and I have the honor
to wish you good-day and good-bye. Now, monsieur, have I proved that you
are a poor diplomat? A child in what you count yourself a master?"

I had risen, and stood looking down upon him, and I felt there was a
tinge of scorn and perhaps contempt in my glance, but he took my hand
and gently drew me down to the lounge beside him.

"You have only proved," he said, "what a woman's true regard is worth.
_Mon Dieu!_ how could any man be a traitor whom you have placed so high
in your esteem?"

"Then I have misunderstood you," I quickly answered. "I take back to
myself all that I have said. I become a penitent, I accept this and all
other commissions, and think you, monsieur, absolutely the best and
nicest man in Paris."

He looked at me with almost a twinkle in his eyes, and then, "Am I not a
good diplomat?" he mildly interjected.

"You are a most unscrupulous politician," I answered. "You never
suspected Gaspard?"

"Never. I was merely quickening your interest in the position. Am I not
a good diplomat?"

"You're the most irritating middle-aged man in France."

My companion shrugged his shoulders, smiled for a moment, and then
leaned towards me. "I did not steal it, and Gaspard did not." He raised
his eyebrows.

"Hun Sun stole it himself."

"Precisely my own opinion," Monsieur Roché murmured, appreciatively.
"He, although a chosen envoy to France, is against us. He was bound to
deliver his message, but in the same instant he rendered it futile. We
cannot own that we have lost the seal, and without it we cannot accept."

"And your object in seeking me at such an hour is to ask me to regain
the seal?"

"Yes, _ma chère_, you are the one woman in the world who is brilliant
enough to do it, because--"

"Not so much sugar, if you please, monsieur. Thank you;" and I took my
cup from his hand, leaving him to apply my remark in its double sense,
and smiled with satisfaction because I noticed that Paul was cutting
figures and flourishes in solitude. I knew that empty-headed woman would
bore him.

"But I may count upon your assistance?" Monsieur le Premier plaintively
interjected.

"To regain the seal is utterly impossible," I quietly answered.

"Impossible?"

"Altogether. The man who could rob you before your very eyes is too
clever to allow himself to be robbed in turn. I do not care for missions
without a hope of success. There is but one thing you can do: bribe Hun
Sun to come over to the side of France."

"Unfortunately, Hun Sun has departed for the land where bribery is
unknown."

I sat forward in my seat in amazement; even monsieur's diplomatic manner
of putting it did not completely hide his meaning.

"When did it happen?"

"Late last night. He returned from his appointment with me to his suite
at L'Imperatrice Hôtel, and, after transacting some business with his
secretary Ling Wen, retired for the night, and forever. Living diplomats
mourn a talented man, who has gone to join the politicians who have
preceded him--or, at least, some of them."

"And that being so, _mon ami_, I undertake the mission. You may make
your plans, for I promise you shall have the seal within twenty-four
hours--unless," I added, "it was never taken to the hotel."

"You mean it?" he cried, a flush of pleasure chasing the sallow lines of
worry from his face.

"In spite of cheap masculine cynicism, _mon cher_, a woman sometimes
means what she says. I think I can regain it for you. Where is the--"

"The body was removed secretly in the early morning to the Chinese
Embassy."

"And no one knows of his Excellency's death?"

"Outside those pledged to silence, no one."

"Let me see," I murmured, reflectively; "his secretary's name is--?"

"Ling Wen, with, say, twenty odd additions."

"Ling Wen will be sufficient. At seven o'clock to-night, monsieur, you
will send an imperative message that you must see Ling Wen at once,
and--No, that is all you need do. You will not skate? Then, _mon ami, au
revoir_."

It was ten minutes past seven when my _coupé_, drew up at the door of
L'Imperatrice Hôtel, and I requested to be conducted to the apartments
of his Excellency Hun Sun; and I felt pleased with myself, for my
much-tried milliner had obliterated volumes of misdeeds with a gown and
cloak that were perfection. A shade of perplexity gathered upon the face
of the waiter as he heard my request, and that perplexity was deepened
in the features of monsieur le manager, when he was called and listened
to my desire.

"His Excellency Hun Sun had only just departed."

I had serious thoughts of recommending that man to Monsieur Roché as an
uncultivated diplomat.

"And"--he seemed prepared to sink into the ground at the humiliation of
disappointing me--"his Excellency's secretary, Ling Wen, had also just
been called away."

"It did not matter; I would wait;" and because my own countrymen can
refuse a pretty woman nothing, I gained my point, and was conducted by
the gentleman himself to the suite of the envoy, to await, as he again
so diplomatically put it, "the one who should first return."

There were three rooms--a reception-room, a bedroom, and a study--and I
trembled with excitement as I realized that the object of my visit, the
stolen seal, was somewhere in those rooms, and in a few minutes I might
be passing out of the hotel, and all would be over.

An obliging bunch of keys lay invitingly upon the study table, and
rapidly I opened drawer after drawer in that apartment and the bedroom,
and became more and more irritated, as my search proved ever fruitless.

The reception-room only was left, and my vexation evaporated in a laugh
of approaching triumph, as I realized that a cunning man would hide what
he had to hide in the most open room, and not in the most private.

There was only an ormolu writing-table with fancy drawers that refused
to yield to the persuasion of my keys, but a broad-bladed Oriental knife
tempted me, and, thrusting it into the edge, I pressed upon it, and
forced the front from the drawer.

It came with a sharp snap, and a quiet chuckle caused me to turn with a
start.

His Excellency's secretary, Ling Wen, was sitting in a chair, his hands
upon his knees, smiling blandly at me.

I did not speak. For the first time in my life I could not find the
right words to say, but could only gaze into the face of Ling Wen, who
sat there, his long fingers spread out over the knees of his yellow,
embroidered silk robe. I glanced at the clock. I had been at work over
an hour.

"You are searching for something," he said, quietly--"pray continue;"
and the invitation was too gracious not to be accepted. I swept the
contents of the drawer upon the carpet.

There were only a few bundles of official-looking papers. I pushed them
aside with my shoe and frowned in annoyance.

"So it is not a paper you seek, madame?" Ling Wen suavely murmured.
"That is good."

"It is a trifle," I nervously answered; "a trinket that I mislaid when I
stayed here last."

Ling Wen, with his hand upon his chin, nodded; but I did not like the
nod, for with it oozed a smile that seemed more a compliment to my
readiness of invention than belief in my veracity.

"A trinket?" he said, rising from his seat, his sharp, narrow eyes
directed full upon me.

"One I valued greatly, your Excellency."

"Women are ever careless of what they value most," he answered; "allow
me to help you."

And then I could not restrain a half-cry of annoyance, for he commenced
his search where I should have done an hour ago; and taking a Sèvres
vase from the mantel-piece, turned it upside down, and something
glittering in the light rolled out upon the carpet.

It was the seal I sought, a large ruby cut with a monogram and mounted
in filigree gold.

"You have found it," he said, with a guileless smile, as I picked it up.

"I can never thank you sufficiently," I replied, and then, as he
shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly, I, in the elation of my victory,
bestowed my most dazzling smile upon him and begged him to forgive my
unceremonious intrusion.

"You ask too much," he replied, with a glance that made me feel how well
I was suited by my gown--"you ask too much, madame; my privilege must be
ever to remember it."

The seal was in my hand as he gently placed my cloak around my
shoulders, in my left hand as he raised my right to his lips, still
there as he bowed again and again to me, and I walked towards the door,
tried it, and found it locked.

"The door is locked!" I cried, sharply.

"Exactly," he murmured, blandly; "the door is locked."

I walked across the room again, and, throwing back my cloak from my
shoulders, sank upon a lounge, while he seated himself opposite me, and,
with his hands again spread out upon his knees, watched and waited for
me to speak; but I would not, and presently he broke the silence.

"I caught sight of that trinket when it dropped," he said, smoothly,
"and it seemed to me that I have seen it once before in the possession
of my master, his Excellency Hun Sun."

"Well?" I demanded, spitefully, for it was bitter to see my victory
dwindling to failure, to know that I had been frustrated, and my boast
to Monsieur Roché was idle.

"Well, what then?"

"That being so, I ask to examine it more closely."

"And if I refuse, your Excellency," I sneered. "Even the Chinese, I
presume, do not use force to a woman."

"Even the French," he answered, "do not, I presume, permit barefaced
theft."

"I tell you the trinket is mine, and that should be sufficient. If you
knew me you dare not doubt my word."

"You are but a grudging courtier of your own charms," he answered, with
a ceremonious bow. "Who could once see Madame Lerestelle and ever forget
her?"

I placed the seal upon a Moorish stool by my side, and he nodded
approvingly.

"Let us consider the matter from a diplomatic point of view, your
Excellency."

"I have the most profound respect for diplomacy, madame, for I am
ignorant even of its rudiments."

The idea that first came to me when Monsieur Roché recounted the
incident had grown in my mind until it became fixed as the truth. I
determined to force this bland heathen into submission, or at least
acquiescence.

"Ling Wen."

"Madame."

I leaned impressively towards him and sank my voice to a whisper.

"Why did you remove Hun Sun?"

Only a slight in-drawing of the lips followed my question, a twitch for
the fraction of a second passed over his expressionless features.

"You are aware, then, that his Excellency is dead?"

"Yes. Why did you murder him?"

"This is childish, madame, and outside the point at issue."

"Neither the one nor the other, Ling Wen, for because I know this you
are going to hand me that seal and conduct me to my carriage."

"You will be pleased to prove it, madame."

"Undoubtedly. Hun Sun was sent with a message to be delivered by word of
mouth to France. A message that dare not be written."

Ling Wen nodded ever so slightly.

"It may be so, madame; I do not know."

"A man who knew what Hun Sun did was too dangerous to be allowed to
return to China, for he might hold even the Emperor himself within the
hollow of his hand."

"I follow your reasoning, madame; it is excellent."

"The life of a man in China is always counted as insignificant. Is it
not so, Ling Wen?"

"Who could be so ungallant as to contradict you?" he suavely responded.

"Hun Sun was sent with the message, and you, Ling Wen, were to kill him
when he had delivered it."

"Well, madame?"

"Because I know this, you will give me the seal and conduct me to my
carriage."

Ling Wen shook his head.

"No, madame, the price is too high for a series of deductions, clever
though they be. His Excellency died from natural causes."

"You are sure the physicians will say so?"

"Their opinion will not be asked. The French government cannot insult
our illustrious dead. Hun Sun is dead. That is sufficient."

"But because of the part you have played, Ling Wen, I demand the seal as
the price of my silence."

He rose from his seat and paced the room, and when he spoke again his
voice, for a Chinaman, had grown strangely incisive.

"I should not be swayed by a threat, madame, but if I can grant you a
favor, I will."

"Call it by which name you please," I cried, seeing signs of his
wavering.

"Why do you want the seal?"

"Are you for France or Russia, Ling Wen?"

"I am for China," he answered, quietly; "even a heathen has patriotism.
Why do you want the seal?"

I sat and pondered. How much must I tell him, and how much hold back? I
looked anxiously at the seal as it lay upon the stool, and he
interpreted my glance.

"For the moment," he said, "it is on neutral ground, and shall remain so
until we have diplomatically solved the problem."

I still hesitated; but there was no other way, and so perforce I took
the only one open to me.

"It is to seal an alliance between France and China."

"Ah!" He smiled with delight, nodded his head approvingly, and spread
out his long fingers, as though he warmed them at a fire.

I took new courage to my heart.

"Hun Sun delivered it to Monsieur Roché, and the instant after purloined
it and rendered his mission futile. Hun Sun was in the pay of Russia."

"Ss's the dog!" Ling Wen hissed; "I always suspected it. The dog!"

"But you, Ling Wen, will make amends for the deed of this traitor?"

"Gladly," he cried; "the neutrality is broken." He bent over, took the
seal in his fingers, and I extended my hand to receive it.

"You are as clever as you are beautiful," he said, "and deserve to
succeed, but unfortunately you cannot."

He dropped the seal into the open pocket of his loose silk robe.

"What do you mean?" I cried, starting in passionate amazement from my
seat.

"You have much to learn, madame, before you become a skilled diplomat;
you are too trustful, too confiding, and, as others of your lovely sex,
you talk too much. I, too, am in the pay of Russia."

I drew my breath through my closed teeth, and clinched my hands, for I
could have killed him as he stood and blandly smiled. I had been tricked
and fooled. I had failed, and worse than failed, for I had dealt an
irreparable blow at my own country.

"You play a rash game, Ling Wen," I cried, with cold rage.

"But a successful one, madame."

"France's representations to Peking will secure your disgrace for the
part you have played in this affair."

"Tush! France can make no representations with his Excellency Hun Sun's
mission unanswered."

"We can at least show how we have been cajoled."

"And if it were believed, the desire of China for alliance with a power
which had proved so stupid would vanish; but it would not be believed;
they would say you were scheming for delay. You had better take defeat
with a pleasant grace."

I smothered my rage, and smiled a thin smile.

"Very well, Ling Wen," I answered; "I will learn diplomacy from you, and
put a good face upon the matter."

"It is the truest wisdom to accept the inevitable with complacency," he
murmured.

"You may see me to my carriage."

"I would that our ambitions were the same," he said, as he unlocked and
opened the door. "I am humiliated in refusing you."

"Where there are victors there must be vanquished," I answered, as one
who spoke a platitude, for I was disheartened and wretched at my
failure.

He took my hand, and raised it to his lips.

"_Au revoir_, madame."

"Perhaps France can pay more than Russia, Ling Wen?" and I looked at him
inquiringly.

"No country can pay better than Russia for secret service, madame," he
answered; and then a dull sparkle came into his narrow eyes, and he
pushed the door to, and laid his hand upon my arm.

"Sit down," he said, and I walked with him, my eyes cast down upon the
carpet, fearful lest he should see the triumph glowing in them; with a
grain of fortune, the victory yet was mine.

The inspiration came to me, clear as the noonday sun, when he opened the
door for me to leave.

I trembled lest he should detect the new color rising in my cheeks, and
with my glance still cast down, I took my seat again, and waited.

He stood beside me, and rested his long, thin fingers lightly on my
shoulder.

"No country can pay better than Russia for secret service, madame," he
repeated, with emphasis.

"It is not to be thought of," I answered, hesitatingly.

"Think what Russia would pay for your services, you in the heart of the
secrets of diplomatic France."

"Not sufficient to destroy my patriotism," I said, lest it should seem
that I yielded too easily.

"The ardor of one's patriotism regulates one's price," he responded.
"Think what would they not pay you."

"Tush!" I cried; "this is foolishness. You wish to tempt me to place
myself in your power, for fear I may yet prove dangerous. What authority
do you possess to make promises for Russia? It is childish; I will go."

I moved to rise from my seat, but he restrained me.

"You are a clever woman," he said, "and that is why I would have you on
our side. I tell you frankly that your value would be incalculable to
Russia--to the Russian party in China. On behalf of Russia, I can make
the payment whatever you desire."

"It is difficult to believe, _mon ami_," I replied, with a laugh, and I
looked him in the face now, for a little excitement was pardonable. "The
protestations you made earlier in the evening have proved too false to
inspire confidence."

"That may be so," he exclaimed, with a quiet chuckle, "but if I can show
you an official document of the Russian government proclaiming me what I
say I am, giving me such powers as I say I possess, what then?"

"Then we will discuss the position diplomatically," I answered. "Where
is the paper?"

"In the adjoining room," he said, and again I bent my eyes upon the
ground.

"It is made jointly to Hun Sun and myself. We were the two great Russian
allies in China, and we, by strange coincidence, were chosen to deliver
this message to France. Your deduction that I killed Hun Sun, although
clever, is wrong. The Emperor of China does not guard his secrets quite
so barbarously. Hun Sun was advanced in years, and died a natural
death."

"Then let me see this paper and I will believe you, and perhaps--"

He smiled and turned away from me, and I rose from my seat.

"I will bring it to you."

"We are not allies yet, Ling Wen, and I do not trust you. I will come."

"As you will," he answered. "I admire your caution, for it tells me how
invaluable you will be to us;" and with a bow he crossed the room, and
held the door of the inner apartment open for me to enter.

I half advanced, paused irresolute, and then drew back.

"You may precede me," I said. "I will again be candid. I do not trust
you;" and I stood aside for him to pass, and took the handle of the
door, which opened towards me, in my left hand.

He laughed quietly again, and turned and faced me.

"An excess of caution is bad diplomacy, madame," he said, "for it
creates suspicion. If I did not know how impossible it was, I should
think you still had designs upon the seal."

With another soft chuckle he passed on and entered the doorway; and then
like a flash, the instant his back was turned, I caught his silk
embroidered robe in my right hand, and with my left flung to the door
and locked it.

There was a guttural exclamation from within as he tried to tear his
gown free, but my glance fell upon the Oriental knife that I had used
before, and, holding the silk in my hand, with a slash I cut it through,
and the seal, which lay in the corner of the deep pocket, was again in
my possession.

Ling Wen was beating furiously upon the panels, so I took the precaution
of locking the outer door as I departed, and descended the stairs,
elated with a feeling of supreme contentment, for was not my promise to
Monsieur Roché amply and well fulfilled?



MONSIEUR ROCHÉ'S DEFEAT


"_Mon ami_, you jest!"

"I never jest," Monsieur Roché snappishly replied. "Before the week is
through Paris will have a sensation, the ministry will be defeated--more
than defeated, disgraced. I have been deceived, miserably betrayed, and
by the man I trusted most. A friend of yours, madame--Gaspard Levivé."

"It is not true," I cried; and the blood mounted to my cheeks in anger,
for truly Gaspard Levivé was a friend of mine, one whom I delighted to
call my greatest friend.

"It is only too true," Monsieur Roché gravely answered. "I am disgraced,
and the young fool is ruined. At least not ruined," he bitterly
continued: "doubtless he will be rewarded by the new ministry."

"If this be the prelude to a commission, monsieur, I refuse it."

"There is no commission, madame; the day is hopelessly lost. I have been
betrayed by my own secretary."

We had met crossing the Place de la Concorde, and had stayed talking by
the Luxor Obelisk, and now I deliberately obscured Monsieur Roché with
my sunshade, and gazed up the vista of the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de
Triomphe. Suddenly I turned, closed my parasol with a vicious snap, and
looked angrily into his face.

"I accept the commission, monsieur; tell me all."

He placed his hand upon my arm.

"You are angry, _ma chère_, and so am I. You are wounded, and I am also.
Let it pass; there is no commission."

"Some mystery," I cried.

"No mystery and no solution; all is too wretchedly clear. You are
anxious to defend Gaspard, so am I; but it is useless; he stands
self-condemned, and we had best forget his very existence."

"Tell me," I said, stonily.

"He has stolen a document from my safe and sold it to those who can, who
will, use it to disgrace and overthrow me."

"It is false."

"A month ago France was insulted--deliberately insulted in such a manner
that it became almost a declaration of war. It was equivalent to a
challenge for war, and yet one that we dare not take up. War to France
would mean ruin. She would inevitably lose, and sink to the condition of
a second-rate power."

"Well!"

"We decided we could not go to war. We must diplomatically ignore the
slur, at least until we were more prepared; but it was a matter for
France, and not for the ministry alone. If our course of action became
known, it might be the first step towards revolution. There was no help
for it, and I privately conferred with the head of the opposition, my
greatest political enemy, Monsieur Desormes."

"One of the most unscrupulous men in France."

"One of the greatest diplomats."

"The terms are frequently synonymous, monsieur. Proceed."

"Wonderful to relate, he was with us. War was impossible--we dare not
declare it, we must accept the distasteful position--but I insisted that
his support of that policy should be given me in writing, that he should
bind himself to an adhesion to our views, so that he could not withdraw;
and he agreed, and wrote a confidential document in which he declared
that he stood firm with us for peace. That document has been stolen from
my safe by Gaspard Levivé, and returned to Desormes, who now laughs in
my face, sneeringly announcing that he will publicly charge my ministry
with degrading France in the eyes of Europe, and crush us."

"You go too fast, monsieur; why stolen by Gaspard Levivé?"

"Because he for a few hours had the key of my safe in his possession. It
is he or I."

"I would sooner suspect you, monsieur."

"Last night I left my keys with him. This morning before I arrived he
had a mysterious visitor, a woman--"

"Well, monsieur, what of that?"

"When I opened the safe the letter was gone, and a blank sheet of paper
substituted; that is all."

"And his explanation?"

"He refuses any. Declines even to say who the visitor was, or why she
called."

"I see no case against him," I said, soberly, but my heart was chilling
because of this unknown woman.

"That is not all," Monsieur Roché continued, "for I know who she
was--the Countess Renazé, the closest friend of Mlle. Desormes, one of
the most bewitching women in Paris, beautiful enough to tempt any man
from his duty. I found this handkerchief with her monogram and crest in
his room."

"Good-day, monsieur."

"Good-bye, _ma chère_; we've both made a mistake--good-bye."

I did not want to talk with my diplomatic friend; I did not want to talk
with any one. I left him, and walked towards the Boulevard des
Capucines, the words ringing in my ears, "We've both made a mistake." I
hated myself, I hated diplomats, and I wondered if I was so wretched
because Gaspard was false to France or because he had been false to me.

Then as I strolled, a little scene came back to my mind that I had
witnessed that morning upon the platform of the Gare du Nord. The
Countess Renazé was departing for London. I could see her now as she
leaned from the carriage window. So it could not be she who had called
upon Gaspard, and Monsieur Roché's reasoning was at fault in that
particular. Why not in more than that; why not in all?

But my next thought condemned Gaspard almost beyond appeal, for I
remembered that, as the train started, the Countess dropped her lace
handkerchief from between her fingers, and, too late to hand it back,
her friend, Mlle. Desormes, the daughter of Monsieur Roché's enemy,
picked it up. It was she who had called upon Gaspard immediately
afterwards, and had coaxed or tricked him into delivering the paper to
her; and I, who would have given all to prove Gaspard's innocence, had
found evidence to condemn him even more strongly.

I stopped in sudden surprise, for the man whom I would have avoided
stood before me.

"You have heard I am ruined and disgraced," he said, for he could not
but perceive the constraint in my manner.

"I have just left Monsieur Roché. How could you be so mad?"

His lips twitched even as though my words came as a shock to him.

"I thought one woman would believe me. I was on my way to ask for your
assistance."

"Assistance is impossible, monsieur, with half-hearted confidences. A
lady called upon you, and you refuse her name."

"Monsieur Roché discovered that it was the Countess Renazé."

"It was Mlle. Desormes," I said, coldly. Gaspard's face turned even a
shade paler, and his eyes fell before my gaze.

"You know that?" he said, in astonishment.

"Yes; why did you not tell Monsieur Roché?"

"Because there are circumstances in which explanation may be counted as
half-confession."

"Indeed."

"I was appalled at the accusation, and such an admission must have
stamped my guilt. Think, the daughter of the very man who had tricked
us, Monsieur Roché's implacable enemy. It was impossible, and so I kept
silent."

"It was a criminal silence, a worse falsehood than a spoken untruth. Why
did she call?"

Gaspard flushed, and after a moment's pause spoke in a voice that was
hesitating and constrained.

"I had promised to lend her a government book upon the island of
Martinique."

And then--for I could scarce restrain a smile--it was so ridiculous for
one of the belles of Paris to take to the study of official reports; he
hotly continued: "Now you see why I did not tell Monsieur Roché the
truth, for even you do not believe it. It seems too childish, too
ridiculous."

"It seems too childish to be false, _mon ami_," I answered; "but are you
sure there was not some little--what shall I say when a beautiful woman
and a clever man are concerned?--some little--"

"You need say nothing, Aidë," he answered, looking me straight in the
face; "you know there was not."

And my heart seemed to suddenly grow so light that I forgot the serious
business that troubled us.

"Well, _mon cher_ Gaspard, I think it is a mistake; a promising diplomat
ought to have tendencies towards matrimony, because it is so
respectable."

"Only let me get this wretched problem solved, Aidë, and then I will
give you a commission to find me a wife. But I am hard to please," he
laughed. "She must be the most beautiful woman in Paris, the most
brilliant, and the most accomplished."

I think there must have been just a tinge of heightened color in my
cheeks, and we were both smiling, forgetful of misfortune; but I had
promised to find this paragon, and so I lightly laid my hand on his, and
murmured, "Gaspard, _mon cher_, she is the very woman you shall marry."

I believe it was in his thoughts to say more, but I stopped him. "Let us
get back to serious realities," I said. "Mlle. Desormes called upon you
ostensibly for the Yellow Book that you promised to lend her. Was she
left alone in your room?"

"For five minutes, perhaps, while I went to fetch it."

"And your room communicates with that of Monsieur Roché?"

"Yes."

"Then it is simplicity itself; in that five minutes she stole the
paper."

"It is not simplicity itself Aidë; far from it. Last night I locked the
safe. Monsieur Roché went early, and left the key with me, and I saw the
letter there when placing other documents in the safe. This morning
before he arrived I unlocked it, took some papers out, and locked it
again, and Monsieur Roché found it so when he arrived. So it is
impossible to believe that Mlle. Desormes could have accomplished the
theft."

"It seems impossible, Gaspard, because we do not know the method."

"There is but one key, and that did not leave my possession. The packet
was to all intents and purposes intact this morning, the seal Monsieur
Roché stamped upon it a month ago unbroken, but the contents had been
stolen."

"She may have substituted a counterfeit for the original," I answered.
"It is a favorite trick with a woman," and I smiled as I recollected a
similar affair that had occurred between ourselves.

"And forged Monsieur Roché's private seal?"

"My dear Gaspard," I cried, irritably, "what is the use of adopting this
supercilious air of obstruction? Papers are not spirited from steel
safes. It must have been stolen, and it is for us to discover how, and
regain it."

"I only seek to show how inexplicable the thing is," he answered.

"In detail, yes, but on the broad principle it is as plain as sunlight.
Why should Monsieur Roché open the packet to-day?"

"Because of Monsieur Desormes's insolent threats of exposure and
disgrace."

"Ah! now see, _mon ami_, how easy it becomes. A paper which incriminates
Monsieur Desormes, which proclaims in his own writing his complicity in
the policy adopted by the present ministry, was in Monsieur Roché's
safe. This morning his daughter calls upon you on a preposterously
transparent errand. She, one of the beauties of Paris, desires the loan
of the recently issued report on Martinique; that necessitates your
leaving her, and when she is gone, the paper is missing."

"The inference, on the broad principle, is that she stole it."

"Then that is the inference upon which we will base our work, _mon
ami_."

"So you do not credit that in me she had a willing accomplice?"

"Should I be walking with you this afternoon if I did?" I said. "Only
one thing I am sure about, and that is that Mlle. Desormes, in some
inexplicable manner, stole that paper this morning, and must have it
still. I am going to her at once, and next time we meet, _mon ami_, I
will hand it back to you."

"You seem confident, Aidë."

"And that is victory half accomplished,_ mon cher; au revoir_."

Ten minutes later I entered the court-yard of one of the mansions of the
Boulevard Haussmann, and requested to see Mlle. Desormes. We were slight
acquaintances, and already I counted that I had forced her to obey me,
and to submit, for, although a very pretty and charming girl, she was
too young and too inexperienced to be a match for a woman who was
fighting for the good name of the man--But why confuse sentiment with
diplomacy?

Mlle. Desormes received me in her boudoir with a smile of welcome, and
thrust down amid the cushions of her chair, only half-concealed, was
that eternal book on Martinique.

"Have you seen your father to-day, mademoiselle?" I asked, quietly,
after a few moments' chat upon commonplaces.

"No," she cried, with a start, and then hastily added, "Has anything
happened to him?"

"Nothing," I replied, reassuringly; "but have you communicated with him
to-day?"

"No," she answered. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I desire to know," I enigmatically responded, and I could not
but admire the clever look of perplexity upon her face. "As you have not
done so, the matter is more easily arranged."

"What matter, madame?"

"This, mademoiselle. You called at Le Quai d'Orsay this morning and
brought something away with you that you ought not to have done. Now the
position is simple. You will give it to me, and no more will be said. If
you do not, I shall compel you."

"Compel!" she cried, with a glint of spirit in her eyes. "Compel,
madame."

"Compel, mademoiselle."

For an instant she seemed inclined to resent my emphatic demand, but
with a careless shrug of the shoulders she turned to me again, and
handed me that wretched book on Martinique.

I only drew my breath and gazed at her, my temper rising dangerously as
I realized the utter uselessness of the course I had taken with this
woman. A sudden surprise, because I had judged her young and
inexperienced.

"I will not question your right, madame," she cried, with a fine touch
of scorn. "You say you have come for that book, and I have given it to
you. Shall we now say _au revoir_?"

"You must be deeply interested in Martinique," I viciously exclaimed;
and she flushed until the color spread all over her cheeks, even invaded
with a warm tint the whiteness of her neck, and yet, like a school-girl,
she hung her head, and answered nothing.

"When the pretty women of Paris take to the study of government
reports," I continued, with a sneer, endeavoring to irritate her until
she spoke hastily, and perhaps gave me my opportunity, "there must
indeed be other reasons in the background. Martinique doubtless
possesses unique attractions for you, mademoiselle."

"This is shameful," she cried, springing passionately to her feet, "and
from you, Madame Lerestelle, one whom I have always admired."

"Tush!" I cried, impatiently; and I too rose and faced her. "Why did you
call upon Monsieur Levivé this morning? Only for a book on
Martinique--only that?"

She gazed into my eyes with a strange look of surprise, and then her
lips twitched for a second, and as she held her forefinger up to me she
had the effrontery to smile in my face.

"_Ma chérie_," she cried, with a laugh; "you're jealous."

"Mademoiselle!"

"Tut, tut!" she cried. "Now don't deny it, because it is the only
possible excuse for the way you have been talking to me. But a woman can
easily excuse jealousy when she is not in love with the same man."

I was numbed with indignation at the manner in which this _ingénue_
played with me, and she had had the audacity to place her arm around my
waist.

"Confidence for confidence, _ma chère_," she murmured. "My father
discovered that Monsieur Decassé and I loved each other, and had him
transferred to Martinique, and," she looked up into my face, "even dry
official reports of the progress of the island are interesting to me,
because the man I love is there, and may even have written them."

Diplomacy vanished. I felt as helpless as a child in the hands of this
innocent, whose ready tongue found such excuses, and with a spasm of
rage I caught her by the wrist.

"Let us finesse no more, mademoiselle," I cried, sharply, "for the time
is gone. I care for Martinique as much as you do, and you know what I
have called for as well as I. Not this Yellow Book you brought away as
an excuse, but the paper missing from Monsieur Roché's room. Will you
give me that or not?"

"I do not understand you," she quietly replied.

"Give me that document which you, at your father's instigation, stole
this morning."

She drew herself away, and her slight, girlish figure seemed to grow in
dignity before me.

"How dare you?" she said. "How dare you?"

"I dare anything, when you have ruined the man I love. Give me that
paper?"

"You are mad!"

"Mad or not, mademoiselle, I do not leave this house--"

"Monsieur Desormes desires to see you in his study, mademoiselle."

The servant withdrew, and I turned again to her.

"And now," I cried, and my blood throbbed hotly in my veins, "now you
will still say you know nothing of this theft?"

"I say nothing now," she scornfully retorted. "You shall come with me
and hear what I have to say."

She walked almost unconcernedly towards the door, and then turned and
faced me.

"Follow me, Madame Lerestelle," she cried, and in bitter tones added,
"and follow me closely, lest a day should come when you will assert I
gave my father the clew of what he should speak to you."

And, with no qualms of conscience, I followed her, and so closely that
we entered Monsieur Desormes's study together.

He was what those who are foreigners to us would describe as "the
typical Frenchman." Though his years must have been fifty, he looked
scarcely forty, and his upright military carriage, his dark mustache
waxed to dagger points, and close-cropped hair, made him appear even
younger still. He was what his appearance proclaimed him, an urbane,
clever, and unscrupulous diplomat. He rose and graciously bowed to me,
even as though I were an expected guest.

"Your visit is a pleasure as illimitable in its delight as in its
surprise, madame," he softly murmured.

"Yet a most unfitting moment for pedantic compliments," Mlle. Desormes
warmly interjected; and I marvelled at the rage that still blazed within
her eyes.

"I called on Monsieur Levivé at the Quai d'Orsay this morning," she
continued, turning sharply upon her father; "why I did so concerns but
you and me alone. To-day a paper has been stolen from Monsieur Roché's
room, which adjoins Monsieur Levivé's, and I am charged with the theft."

Monsieur Desormes's eyebrows shot upward. "You?" he ejaculated.

"I," she answered, in cold passion. "I am accused of this theft. My name
is linked with that of Monsieur Levivé, as the one who tempted him to
dishonor. My name--can you realize the stigma, monsieur?"

"I can realize no connection of circumstances," he replied,
contemptuously, and she crossed the room, and, laying her hand upon his
desk, looked him full in the face.

"It seems that this paper incriminated you," she exclaimed; and I saw
that then he started.

"It is a paper that pledged you to support, or, at any rate, not to
oppose, the ministry, monsieur," I interrupted; "and it has been
stolen."

"I am aware of that, madame. I decided that it was better for France not
to keep that pledge."

"But not better for me," mademoiselle cried, "and I am even before
France."

"It is your own folly that has caused you to be suspected," he
responded.

"It is the devices that men call dishonesty and statesmen diplomacy,"
she answered; and he put his arm around her waist and drew her back
until she was seated upon the edge of his chair.

"Pretty little girls must not use cynical epigrams," he said, softly, as
one petting a spoiled child. "Now, come, what is it you want?"

"I want nothing," she burst out, indignantly, "but I demand justice. I
demand to be freed from this insinuation of theft. I do not ask, I
demand, that Monsieur Levivé, who is innocent, shall be relieved from
suspicion, and you shall confess how you have stolen this paper."

"Purloined, _ma petite_," he exclaimed, as he playfully pinched her ear.

"Stolen," she doggedly repeated. "Stolen, not caring whom you ruined,
man or woman."

"Tut, tut; what an undiplomatic little girl she is," he laughed, with a
wonderful depth of fondness in his tone; and then he rose, and, after
pacing the room for a minute, turned to me.

"Madame Lerestelle," he exclaimed, "I am known in political life as the
most unscrupulous man in France; that is the reputation I have won, and
the one I live to retain. As a man, I admire Monsieur Roché; as a
politician, I despise him. I consider that his theories are imbecilic,
his policy meaningless, and his ministry an insult to the country--"

"Monsieur, I differ--"

"Madame, I respect you the more. You are a friend of Monsieur Roché's,
but, because I think what I do think, I will annihilate him. Because I
work for the glory of France, and not for my own ends, I have stooped to
pledge my written word only to steal it back."

"Diplomacy," mademoiselle murmured, with a world of scorn, and he shook
his head reprovingly, then placed his hand quietly upon her arm.

"But my daughter shall not be suspected of connivance with me, and still
more, no innocent man shall suffer. Monsieur Levivé is incapable of
betraying a trust. Even you, madame," and he shot a meaning glance at
me, "could not persuade him to break his faith, and you know it."

I bowed my head, and wondered how it was Monsieur Desormes was not
universally admired.

"He shall not be disgraced; no shadow of a slur shall rest upon him, for
I, madame, will write an explanation that shall satisfy Monsieur Roché,
and you shall give it to him yourself."

I bowed my thanks, and he sat down at his desk, and, drawing a sheet of
official paper towards him, rapidly covered it and handed it to me. It
commenced with the usual courtesies which we have such an innate liking
for addressing one another with, and then the letter continued: "Because
others who are innocent, monsieur, have been suspected, I am prepared to
place in your possession the name of the man and his method. His name
is--"

The writing finished there, and I held out my hand for the second sheet,
which he had completed while I read.

"You will not ask it, madame?" Monsieur Desormes suggested.

"As you will, monsieur. I have your word that your letter will entirely
free those who are innocent from suspicion?"

"You have the word of a--"

"Diplomat?" mademoiselle interrupted, with her anger still smouldering.

"Of a Frenchman," monsieur finished, as he folded the sheets and sealed
the envelope.

"And now," he continued, as he addressed it to Monsieur Roché and handed
it to me, "there is a favor I must crave of you. I am an implacable
enemy, but, I hope, not a false friend. You must give me twenty-four
hours, so that the plans I have matured may not be frustrated."

"I scarcely comprehend, monsieur."

"If a man has been an enemy to Monsieur Roché, and an ally with me, I
must protect him."

"That is your only object?"

"You have my word, madame."

"Then you have mine, monsieur. This letter shall not be delivered until
to-morrow evening."

He raised my fingers to his lips with a smile of satisfaction, and I,
having whispered to mademoiselle that after all it was scarcely worth
while mentioning Martinique, and gained a smile of mingled thanks and
forgiveness, departed, satisfied with the success of my mission, and
happy in the knowledge that I had played for the highest stakes that it
had been my lot to know--played and won.

There are Boulevard cynics who would declare that, being a woman, I must
be miserable because I did not know the name of the thief or the
miraculous method he employed. Others, more cynical still, who would say
that I cared nothing, because I counted upon coaxing all from _mon cher_
Gaspard; but it would be false. I cared nothing for him who had stolen;
my thoughts were all with him whose honor I had saved. For that reason I
grudged the delay, but, tried more sorely than ever in my life before,
it was not until the following night, enclosed with a note of my own,
that I sent Monsieur Desormes's confession to Monsieur Roché.

And as I sat after it had gone, still free from curiosity as to the
thief, still proud of my success for Gaspard's sake, the thought, for
the first time, came that the Premier was also deeply indebted to me,
for his ministry was saved.

I paid fastidious attention to my toilet, for one dared not look
anything but one's best at Madame de Voussêt's receptions, and Gaspard
was such a frequent visitor.

Yet I never looked worse to my own mind, and all the satisfaction seemed
to be with Thérèse.

"_Mais oui! madame, c'est superb_," she cried, with an exaggerated
gesture of admiration; and although she possessed many faults, I never
had to chide her for lack of truthfulness.

"Monsieur Roché, madame," she announced a moment later, and I said I
would receive him in my boudoir, feeling gratified that he should not be
lacking in the swift expression of his thanks.

Yet when I greeted him he seemed perplexed, and taking the packet I had
sent him from his pocket, he read aloud my own note: "The enclosed
letter from Monsieur Desormes will explain the theft of the paper, and
prove the innocence of Gaspard, whom you so unjustly accused."

I nodded.

"Do you know the contents of Monsieur Desormes's letter, madame?"

"Partially. 'Because others who are innocent, monsieur, have been
suspected, I am prepared to place in your possession the name of the
man.' That is what Monsieur Desormes wrote."

Monsieur Roché gravely shook his head and handed the letter to me, and I
took it with a chill at my heart, dreading that I had been deceived.

I opened the envelope and withdrew two sheets of paper--blank.

Save at the bottom of the second sheet, where--as a sign of the writing
which in the day that had passed had faded, just legible--could be
discerned "sormes."

That was all that was left of the words that a day before covered the
sheet. The end of the man's signature. The rest had vanished.

I pointed it out to Monsieur Roché, and the perplexity upon his face
grew to startled surprise as he caught my meaning glance.

"The last time I saw those sheets, monsieur, they were covered with
writing."

"Ah!"

"Monsieur Desormes has been as good as his word; he has saved an
innocent man from ruin. His pledge to you was written with this same
ink, and faded away a few hours afterwards, leaving only the blank
sheet. He has been as good as his word."

"And as good as his intent," Monsieur Roché responded. "He will
overthrow the ministry. But for you, _ma chère_, this is a night of
glowing and thrilling victory. Allow me to see you to your carriage."


THE END



BY THOMAS A. JANVIER


IN THE SARGASSO SEA. A Novel.

A particularly good story of adventure.... The appeal to the red blood
in a man's veins is persistent, and the book is full of that vivid color
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Those who like wild romance will enjoy the book from start to
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THE AZTEC TREASURE-HOUSE. A Romance of Contemporaneous Antiquity.
Illustrated by Frederic Remington.

This powerful story may well be ranked among the wonder books. No
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ever read.--_Christian at Work_, N. Y.


THE UNCLE OF AN ANGEL, and Other Stories.

Janvier stands in the first rank as a writer of short stories, and a new
volume coming from him is sure to meet with success. In the present
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IN OLD NEW YORK. With 13 Maps and 58 Illustrations.

Mr. Janvier has presented his material with an artist's eye for effect,
making a most happily conceived and skilfully executed historical
monograph.--_Advance_, Chicago.



THE ODD NUMBER SERIES


THE GULISTAN: Being the Rose-Garden of Shaikh Sa'di. Translated by Sir
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THE NEW GOD. By Richard Voss. Translated by Mary A. Robinson.

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DOÑA PERFECTA. By B. Pérez Galdós. Translated by Mary J. Serrano.

PARISIAN POINTS OF VIEW. By Ludovic Halévy. Translated by E. V. B.
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TALES OF TWO COUNTRIES. By Alexander Kielland. Translated by William
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MODERN GHOSTS. By Guy de Maupassant and others. Translated.

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PASTELS IN PROSE. Translated by Stuart Merrill. Illustrated by H. W.
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THE ODD NUMBER. Tales by Guy de Maupassant. Translated by Jonathan
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THREE GRINGOS IN VENEZUELA AND CENTRAL AMERICA. Illustrated.

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THE PRINCESS ALINE. Illustrated by C. D. Gibson.

THE EXILES, AND OTHER STORIES. Illustrated.

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OUR ENGLISH COUSINS. Illustrated.

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     sees, and is essentially good natured.... Mr. Davis's faculty
     of appreciation and enjoyment is fresh and strong: he makes
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     not prove himself a master of the art.--_Chicago Times._



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MORIAH'S MOURNING, and Other Half-Hour Sketches. Illustrated.

IN SIMPKINSVILLE. Character Tales. Illustrated.

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CARLOTTA'S INTENDED, and Other Tales. Illustrated.

A GOLDEN WEDDING, and Other Tales. Illustrated.

THE STORY OF BABETTE: A Little Creole Girl.

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and diversified.--_Churchman_, N.Y.

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THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF AN OLD MAID.

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