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Affairs of State by Burton E. Stevenson

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Again a knock interrupted him.

"Come in!" he called, recklessly.

The door opened and Archibald Rushford entered. He closed the door
carefully behind him and advanced to the middle of the room.

Vernon started forward.

"Why, how are you, Mr. Rushford?" he began, with outstretched hand. "I'm
very glad to see you."

"Oh, you are?" inquired the American, keeping his own hands firmly
behind his back. "I suppose _you're_ glad to see me, too?" he added,
turning to the Prince.

"I know of no reason why I should avoid you," returned the Prince,
proudly.

"Perhaps not," assented Rushford, drily. "The standards of gentlemanly
conduct seem to be different in the Old World and in the New. I'm glad,
however, that I've caught you two together. I suppose that little farce
of pretended illness was played only for the benefit of outsiders!"

"I assure you, Mr. Rushford," began Vernon quickly, but the American
stopped him with a gesture.

"I don't care to hear," he said. "I care nothing for your two-by-four
conspiracies and intrigues. But, I repeat, I'm glad I caught both of you
together. It enables me to tell, in the same breath, what I think of
both of you, and I am very anxious to tell you, fully and completely,
for I suppose you have been surrounded all your lives by toadies who
were afraid to tell you the truth about yourselves, or who were so like
you that they couldn't see the truth--products of the same code of
morals--a code truly European! In a word, then, I think you are both
blackguards--blackguards of the most nasty and contemptible kind--the
kind that preys upon women! I may add that you have deeply shaken my
faith in human nature, for, to look at you, one would mistake you for
gentlemen!"

The words were uttered quietly, evenly, deliberately; each one given its
full value. There was a certain dignity in Rushford's aspect which made
interruption impossible; but neither man offered to interrupt. The
Prince was biting his lips desperately; Vernon turned red and white and
red again in evident amazement.

"And having said this," concluded the American, "as emphatically as
possible, I will very gladly leave you to yourselves."

"Oh, no, you won't!" cried Vernon, fiercely, in a voice hoarse with
emotion. "I, at least, demand an explanation."

"An explanation?" and Rushford laughed, a little mocking laugh. "Can't
your conscience give you an explanation? Or is it too deadened to do
that?"

"No!" said Vernon, boldly. "My conscience gives me no explanation, which
would in any degree warrant the words you have used to me, and which I
am sure you will some day regret. It is true that my conduct here has
not been wholly straightforward; but it is Prince Frederick I have
wronged and not you in any degree. Your daughter--to whom, I presume,
you referred--knew all--"

"All?" repeated Rushford, with irony.

"Perhaps not all, but I had intended waiting upon you this afternoon and
explaining to you--"

"Oh! So you thought I was entitled to an explanation! Yes, my lord, it
seems to me that your actions will require a great deal of
explaining--more, certainly, than I have the patience to listen to. So I
pray you will spare me. I don't know anything in God's wide world more
contemptible than a married man who poses as single!"

"Married!" shrieked his lordship. "Poses! Oh!"

The door opened and Pelletan's head appeared.

"I knocked," he explained, obsequiously, "once--twice--and when none
answered, Mees Rushford insiste'--"

"Miss Rushford!" cried Vernon.

"Yes, monsieur, Mees Rushford," and Pelletan stepped to one side,
disclosing Sue.

CHAPTER XX

The Dowager's Bombshell

She came no farther than the threshold and looked only at her father,
though her eyes were shining with the consciousness of some one else's
presence in the room--some one whom she had not in the least expected to
find there.

"Come, dad," she said. "Don't waste your time here. They're not worth
it," and she held out her hand to him.

But Vernon flung himself between them.

"He shall not go," he cried, "until he has heard me. It is all a
mistake--I see now where this detestable adventure in diplomacy has led
me. My dear sir, if I were what you think me, I should deserve every
word you have uttered to me--and more. But I am not married--I have
never been married--I had hoped--"

"Wait a minute," interrupted Rushford. "Don't go too fast. Come here,
Susie, and help me to understand."

Could Sue, as she came forward, have seen the gaze which Prince
Frederick bent upon her, her heart might have relented a little toward
him; but she did not see--she had eyes only for her father.

"Now go ahead," said he, when he had his arm safely around her, "and be
careful, sir," he added. "We want the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth."

"That is what you shall have," said Vernon, and passed his hand across
his forehead.

"It occurs to me," put in Collins, icily, "that the story is not wholly
yours to tell."

"It isn't?" cried Vernon, turning upon him fiercely. "I suppose I'm to
permit myself to remain in this damnable position for the sake of a lot
of third-rate diplomats in our foreign office! They can go hang, for
all I care. I chuck the whole thing! Do you hear? Do you understand? The
whole thing!"

Collins turned away with a shrug of despair. The situation had got
beyond his control.

"It is an explanation which I owe to the Prince of Markeld as well as to
yourself, Mr. Rushford," went on Vernon, more slowly, speaking calmly by
a great effort, "and which I was just about to make to him when you came
in. I am not Lord Vernon--I am merely his younger brother. I bear a
certain resemblance to him, and a lot of paper-diplomats persuaded me to
impersonate him here in order to leave him free to carry out the
negotiations for the succession to Schloshold-Markheim without being
embarrassed by the representations of either side. I recall how
half-heartedly he approved of the scheme, which had its origin in the
fertile brain of Mr. Collins there. I see the reason now, though I
didn't suspect it then. As to the succession, Monsieur le Prince, for
all I know, the whole thing may by this time be settled. Collins could
probably tell you, if he would--"

"It is not settled,'' muttered Collins.

"So you see," went on Vernon without heeding him, "I have done you an
even greater wrong than you imagined."

"Yes," said the Prince, in a hoarse voice, "you have."

"But settled or not," said the other, "I wash my hands of it! I've had
enough!"

Rushford held out his hand with a quick gesture.

"I beg your pardon," he said, simply. "I see that I was not mistaken in
my first estimate of you, after all--I am very glad."

"I was coming to you this afternoon," added the Englishman, taking the
outstretched hand, eagerly, "to tell you that I am merely Viscount
Cranford and not Lord Vernon--a very insignificant fellow, not a great
one--and to ask for your daughter, Miss Nell. I ask you now. Though
first let me make it clear to you that the title is of little
importance."

"The only title we Americans care about," responded Rushford, slowly,
"is that of gentleman. My daughter's husband need have no other--but he
must have that. We don't give our daughters away, sir, as I've already
explained to--"

Susie pinched his arm viciously in an agony of alarm. Then she pulled
his head down to her, her eyes shining, and whispered a quick sentence
in his ear.

"Yes, that's it!" he nodded. "Nell is waiting for us--our apartment is
just up the stair. You'd better go tell her the story, young man! Knock
at the door, make her admit you, make her listen! Oh, a lover should
know how--yes, I see you do! And God bless you!" he added, as Cranford
wrung his hand, flung open the door, and disappeared along the hall.

"And we must go too, dad," said Sue, in a low voice. "At once. Come."

"Yes," assented her father. "Yes--yet wait a minute, Susie," and he
stopped, his eyes on Markeld. "I'd hate to think I'd done any other man
the same injustice I did that young Englishman. Perhaps the Prince of
Markeld has also an explanation. If so, I shall be very glad to hear
it."

Susie's hand trembled on her father's arm, and she caught her breath
with a little gasp; but she kept her eyes steadily on the floor--she had
pride enough for that. Oh, she rejoiced that she had pride enough for
that!

The Prince gazed at her a moment, then, with face ashy gray, he shook
his head.

"I have none," he said, in a low voice, and Susie shivered at the words.

"But I have!" cried some one from the door; and, turning, they beheld
there on the threshold a handsome old lady, with hair snowy white,
figure erect, face imperious--the Dowager Duchess of Markheim. Behind
her, in the twilight of the hall, could be dimly seen the mustachios of
Monsieur Tellier, with Glueck's face glaring at him. "I am not so proud,"
she went on, advancing into the room. "I am quite willing to give my
reasons for breaking off the match. Is this the girl?" she asked,
abruptly.

Susie looked at her with fiery eyes; their glances crossed; one almost
expected to see the sparks fly as of two blades meeting.

"I am not hard-hearted," continued the duchess, after a moment. "But
there are certain affairs of state which must always take precedence of
any mere personal inclination. Did _I_ marry to please myself?" and her
voice shook a little. "By no means--it is no secret. Yet I was faithful
to my husband and to my house. I have never regretted it. Now all that
I have left to love is that boy yonder, and I intend to see that he
makes a match which is worthy of him. Yes, I love him--but he must not
degrade his name--not even for his happiness. It was solicitude for him
that brought me here--I feared--"

Her voice broke; perhaps she had a vision of that tragedy fifty years
ago, when, at her mother's side, she had stared out through the mists of
the morning--

"But no matter," she added, hastily.

"May I ask, madame," inquired Rushford, "how marriage with my daughter
would degrade your nephew?"

"It is impossible, in the first place," she answered, readily, "that he
should marry the daughter of an inn-keeper."

"Of an inn-keeper?" repeated Rushford, in a puzzled tone.

"You are the proprietor of this inn, are you not?" demanded the
duchess. "Tellier, here has the papers. Come forward, Tellier."

"Oh, I understand," and Rushford laughed, not pleasantly. "No, I didn't
tell you, Susie," he added, catching his daughter's astonished glance.
"It was merely an escapade of mine. I was bored, and so I arranged with
Pelletan to have a little fun by backing the hotel for a month--Pelletan
had reached the end of his resources. He'd have had to shut up shop, and
I didn't want to move. I assure you, madame, that at home I am not an
inn-keeper. If I was, I shouldn't be in the least ashamed of it, unless
I were a bad one. Suppose we pass on to the next count."

There was a movement at the door and Nell came running to her father and
threw her arms about him. Cranford followed her and held out his hands.

"Congratulate me," he said, simply, but with shining face.

"I do," said Rushford, and kissed his daughter. "It seems we've got
your difficulty happily settled, Nell; but we've another on hand which
seems considerably more complicated. Now, madame, if you will proceed
with the indictment."

The duchess seemed a little shaken; after all, a man who could play with
great hotels demanded some consideration!

"The second reason is even more serious," she said, "at least, my nephew
seemed to so consider it. He laughed at the first one; he is still
young; he still believes in the nonsense of the romancers."

"Does he?" commented Rushford. "That's one point in his favour,
certainly. So he would have married my daughter, would he, even though I
did keep a hotel! That was kind of him! What's the next count, madame?"

"It is that your daughter, while pretending to be his advocate, was
really in the plot against him--a double traitor to him because posing
as his friend."

"In the plot?" cried Cranford. "But that's absurd! She was not in the
plot!"

"Is it the head of the plot who is addressing me?" inquired the duchess,
icily. "No doubt my nephew has already told you--"

The Prince stopped her.

"The Viscount Cranford answers to me," he said, briefly.

The duchess paled as she looked at him.

"Not that, Fritz!" she cried. "Not that!"

"Too late, madame," he said. "My honour demands it."

The duchess shivered, and her face seemed suddenly to shrink and age.
Then she stood proudly upright. What honour demanded she would be the
last to evade.

"Perhaps monsieur will deny," she said, looking at Cranford, coldly,
"that he wrote this note to her and her sister the very first day of
his sojourn here?" and she held out to him the slip of paper.

Cranford took it and read it at a glance, while Nell stared at it with
starting eyes.

"No," he said, "I don't deny that I wrote it; but--"

"And perhaps mademoiselle herself will deny that she asserted to
Monsieur Tellier that she did not know her rescuer? Here are her words,"
and she produced a second note.

"I deny nothing," said Susie, proudly, and she looked the duchess
unflinchingly in the face.

Cranford walked straight over to the Prince of Markeld.

"Wasn't it Miss Rushford who told you?" he asked.

"No, it was the note," answered the Prince, fiercely.

"Which Tellier stole from Miss Rushford's desk," added Cranford,
sternly, "leaving this tracing in its stead," and he took from his
pocketbook a slip of paper. "Such methods are doubtless characteristic
of the Paris police, but they seem to me almost as unworthy as those
employed by us."

"You are right," agreed the Prince, his face livid. "That dog shall pay
for it!"

"My nephew had nothing whatever to do with it," broke in the duchess,
sharply. "It was I who secured the note, who persuaded him to--"

But the Prince stopped her with a gesture.

"Miss Rushford was not in the plot," continued Cranford, earnestly. "I
hope you will believe me. That it should have come so near wrecking my
own life was bad enough; that it should wreck another's--an innocent
person's--that would be frightful! She warned me explicitly that she
would no longer be a party to the deception, that she was going to tell
you--I thought she had told you. I remember well how warmly she spoke of
your cause; how she detested the course I was pursuing--how she made me
ashamed of myself--ashamed to look at her. I suppose some mistaken
notion of honour held her back from telling, since it was in her service
and her sister's that I had disclosed myself--"

"A message for His Lordship," said Pelletan from the door.

Cranford took it.

"You will pardon me," he said. "It is marked urgent," and he tore it
open. His face brightened as he read it. "Monsieur le Prince," he said,
warmly, turning to Markeld, "I congratulate you from the bottom of my
heart!" and he handed him the message.

Markeld took the paper and glanced at it, then, with beaming eyes, held
out his hand. And the duchess, looking on, grew suddenly young again!

"What is it?" she demanded. "Don't you see we are all waiting?"

"'Prince George, of Schloshold, has just died of an apoplexy,'" the
Prince read. "'You will inform the Prince of Markeld that we will
support his house to the limit of our power. Vernon,'"

"God be praised!" cried the duchess. "God be praised," and she caught at
the door to keep herself from falling. "He was a bad man," she added in
another tone. "Therefore he needs our prayers!"

"I give Monsieur le Prince the congratulations of France," said an oily
voice, and Monsieur Tellier bowed low.

"Oh!" cried Nell, and shrank away from him.

"Is that the scoundrel?" demanded Cranford. And he started across the
room.

"One moment," interposed the Prince, "don't soil your hands on him.
Glueck!" he called, raising his voice.

And Glueck appeared on the instant.

His master indicated Tellier with the motion of a finger.

It was wonderful to see how Glueck's face brightened--almost into a
smile--as he laid his hand on Tellier's shoulder.

"Canaille!" hissed the latter, and shook the hand away. "Do not touch
me--do not defile me with those dirty fingers. Oh, I will go! I have my
task accomplished! And you are fools, imbeciles--all--all--from that fat
Dutchman, who thinks his wife still living--"

But Glueck was again upon him, this time not to be shaken off, and an
instant later he and his victim disappeared together into the shadows of
the hall.

"Just the same," shrieked Tellier's voice hoarsely from the distance,
"it was I who was right! In every detail! A veritable triumph! A success
of--"

The voice sank into a gurgle and was still.

Pelletan, his face livid, clutching blindly at the wall for support,
stumbled forth into the hall, along the corridor, down the stair, until
at last he found Tellier, his face purple, rearranging his cravat before
a mirror in the hotel office.

"Iss she not lifing?" he asked, huskily.

"Living!" echoed Tellier, whirling upon him fiercely. "No, pig-head, she
has been dead these three years! But you are no more a pig-head than
those others. Oh, they shall answer, they shall repay, they shall atone!
I will have my revenge--"

But Pelletan did not stop to listen. He groped his way across the room,
his eyes shining, his lips trembling, repeating over and over a single
word--

"Paris! Paris! Paris!"

Behind the desk he stumbled, through the little door, and dropped to his
knees before Saint Genevieve, the protector of the city which he loved.

"You haf done eet!" he murmured, looking up at her with limpid eyes.
"You haf seen how I suffered, unt you haf taken pity. Gott sie dank!
Gott sie dank!"

CHAPTER XXI

Pardon

As Tellier's voice died away along the hall, a silence fell upon the
room which he had left--a silence from which the duchess was the first
to rouse herself.

"Come, Fritz," she said, "we must go. We have work to do," and she held
out her hand to him.

He took a step toward her, hesitated, stopped.

"In a moment, madame," said he. "Before I go, I have an apology to make
and a pardon to crave."

"Of whom?" demanded the duchess.

For answer, the Prince turned to Susie, so near that he almost touched
her--so near that she could see the trembling of his hands, the
throbbing of his heart.

"Miss Rushford," he said, in a voice low, carefully repressed, but
vibrant with emotion, "I know that I have played the scoundrel; I know
that I have no right whatever to address you; I know that I have done
everything I could to forfeit your respect. Believe me, the cup is
bitter--the more so, since I myself prepared it!"

His voice was trembling so that for the moment he could not go on.

"No, no!" cried the duchess, from the door, "you wrong yourself, Fritz.
It was I prepared it--it is I who am to blame!"

But he motioned her to silence.

"It was I prepared it," he repeated, "by my unjust suspicions and
ungentlemanly action. I shall drain it with what manhood I have. And I
hope, mademoiselle, that you will, in time, find it in your heart to
pardon me and to think of me with kindness. I can only repeat to you
what I have already told your father--that I love you truly and
deeply--with my whole heart--as I shall always love you--always--Oh, if
I had not been a fool!"

The duchess, looking on from the door, felt a sudden wave of tenderness
sweep over her. Perhaps she recalled her own youth--perhaps it was not
quite the truth that she had never regretted--perhaps she was softened
by the emotions of the moment. She came to Susie and took her hand in
hers.

"Mademoiselle," she said, softly, "I also ask pardon--you will not bear
ill-will against an old woman, who imagined that she was acting wisely.
I feel that I am going to love you. You have spirit--you are worthy to
be even a Markeld. You must forgive that poor boy yonder."

"I think I shall put him on probation," said Susie, glancing up with
bright eyes into the eager face beside her.

The Prince sank to his knee, his face suddenly radiant with joy, caught
her hand and covered it with kisses.

"Six months, a year, ten years!" he cried. "I shall be content!"

"Ten years! Nonsense!" cried the duchess. "Ten days, mademoiselle. You
do not love him if you make it an instant longer!"

"No, not ten days, madame," corrected Susie, with a laugh that was half
a sob. "Let us say ten minutes!"

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