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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAvenger - Chapter 30. The Queen Of Mexonia
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Avenger - Chapter 30. The Queen Of Mexonia Post by :vonjohn Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :659

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Avenger - Chapter 30. The Queen Of Mexonia

CHAPTER XXX. THE QUEEN OF MEXONIA

Wrayson, who had been prepared for something surprising, was yet startled out of his composure. The affairs of the unhappy Royal House of Mexonia were the property of the world. He half rose to his feet, but Madame de Melbain instantly waved him back again.

"My friends," she said, "deem it advisable that my whereabouts should not be known. I certainly am very anxious that my incognita should be preserved."

She paused, and Wrayson, without hesitation, answered her unspoken question. Unconsciously, too, he found himself using the same manner of address as the others.

"Madame," he said, "whatever you choose to tell me will be sacred."

She bowed her head slightly.

"I am going to tell you a good deal," she said, glancing across at Louise.

Louise opened her lips as though about to intervene. Madame de Melbain continued, however, without a break.

"I am going to tell you more than may seem necessary," she said, "because I believe that I am one of those unfortunate persons whose evil lot it is to bring unhappiness upon their friends. So far as I can avoid this, Mr. Wrayson, I mean to. Further--it is possible that I may ask you--presently--to render me a service."

Wrayson bowed low. He felt that she was already well aware of his willingness.

"First, then, let me tell you," she continued, leaning back in her chair, and looking away across the valley with eyes whose light was wholly reminiscent, "that we three were schoolgirls together, Louise, Amy--whom you know better, perhaps, as the Baroness de Sturm--and myself. We were at a convent near Brussels. There were not many pupils, and we three were friends....

"We had a great deal of liberty--more liberty, perhaps, than our friends would have approved of. We worked, it is true, in the mornings, but in the afternoons we rode or played tennis in the Bois. It was there that I met Prince Frederick, who afterwards became my husband.

"I was only sixteen years old, and just as silly, I suppose, as a girl brought up as I had been brought up was certain to be. I was very much flattered by Prince Frederick's attentions, and quite ready to respond to them. My own family was noble, and the match was not considered a particularly unequal one, for though Frederick was of the Royal House, he was a long way from the succession. Still, there was a good deal of trouble when a messenger from Frederick went to my father. He declared that I was altogether too young; my mother, on the other hand, was just as anxious to conclude the match. Eventually it was arranged that the betrothal should take place in six months--and Frederick went back to Mexonia."

Madame de Melbain paused for a moment. Wrayson felt, from her slightly altered attitude and a significant lowering of her voice, that she was reaching the part of her narrative which she found the most difficult.

"We girls," she continued, "went back to school, and just at that time Louise's brother came over to Brussels. I think that I have already told you that the supervision over us was far from strict. There was nothing to prevent Captain Fitzmaurice being a good deal with us. We had picnics, tennis parties, rides! Long before the six months were up I understood how foolish I had been. I wrote to Prince Frederick and begged him to release me from our uncompleted engagement. His answer was to appear in person. He made a scene. My mother and father were now wholly on his side. Within a few weeks he had lost both a cousin and a brother. His succession to the throne was almost a certainty. His own people were just as anxious to have him married. I did not know why then, but I found out later on. They had their way. I believe that things are different in an English home. In mine, I can assure you that I never had any chance. I entered upon my married life without the least possibility of happiness. Needless to say, I never realized any! For the last four years my husband has been trying for a divorce! Very soon it is possible that he will succeed."

Wrayson leaned a little towards her.

"Is it permitted, Madame, to ask a question?"

"Why not?"

"You have fought against this divorce, you and your friends, so zealously. Yet your life has been unhappy. Release could scarcely have been anything but a relief to you!"

Madame de Melbain raised her head slightly. Her brows were a little contracted. From her eyes there flashed the silent fire of a queen's disdain.

"Release! Yes, I would welcome that! If it were death it would be very welcome! But divorce--he to divorce me, he, whose brutality and infidelities are the scandal of every Court in Europe! No! A divorce I never shall accept. Separation I have insisted upon."

Wrayson hesitated for a moment.

"May I be pardoned," he said, "if I repeat to you what I saw in print lately--in a famous English paper? They spoke of this divorce case which has lasted so long; they spoke of it as about to be finally decided. There was some fresh evidence about to be produced, a special court was to be held."

Madame de Melbain turned, if possible, a shade paler.

"Yes!" she said slowly, "I have heard of that. We have all heard of that. I want to tell you, Mr. Wrayson, what that fresh evidence consists of."

Wrayson bowed and waited. Somehow he felt that he was on the eve of a great discovery.

"Both before my marriage and afterwards," Madame de Melbain said quietly, "I wrote to--Captain Fitzmaurice. I was always impulsive--when I was younger, and my letters, especially one written on the eve of my marriage, would no doubt decide the case against me. Captain Fitzmaurice was killed--in Natal, but in a mysterious way news has reached me of the letters since his death."

"In what way?" Wrayson asked.

For the first time, Madame de Melbain glanced a little nervously about her. Against listeners, however, they seemed absolutely secure. There was no hiding-place, nor any one within sight. Upon the land was everywhere the silence of a great heat. Even in the shade where they sat the still air was hot and breathless. Down in the valley the cows stood knee deep in the stream, and a blue haze hung over the vineyards.

"Nearly eighteen months ago," Madame de Melbain continued, "I received a letter signed by the name of Morris Barnes. The writer said that he had just arrived from South Africa, and had picked up on one of the battlefields there a bundle of letters, which he had come to the conclusion must have been written by me. He did not mince matters in the least. He was a blackmailer pure and simple. He had given me the first chance of buying these letters! What was my offer?"

A sharp ejaculation broke from Wrayson's lips. Louise signed to him to be silent.

"Amy was with me when the letters came," Madame de Melbain continued. "She left at once for England to see this man. The sum he demanded was impossible. All that she could do was to ask for time, and to arrange to pay him so much a month whilst we were considering how to raise the money. He accepted this, and promised to keep silence. He kept his word, but for a time only. He made inquiries, and he seems to have come to the conclusion that the money was on the other side. At any rate, he approached the advisers of my husband. He was in treaty with them for the letters--when he--when he met with his death!"

Wrayson had a feeling that the heat was becoming intolerable. He dared not look at Louise. His eyes were fixed upon the still expressionless face of the woman whose story was slowly unfolding its tragic course.

"A rumour of this," Madame de Melbain continued, "reached us in Mexonia! I telegraphed to Amy! She and Louise were at their wits' ends. Louise decided to go and see this man Barnes, to make her way, if she could, into his flat, to search for and, if she could find them, to steal these letters. She carried out her purpose or rather her attempted purpose. The rest you know, for it was you who saved her!"

"The man," Wrayson said hoarsely, "was murdered."

Madame de Melbain inclined her head.

"So I have understood," she remarked.

"He was murdered," Wrayson continued in a harsh, unnatural voice, "on that very night, the night when he was to have made over these letters to your--enemies! The message was telephoned to me! He was to go to the Hotel Francis. He was warned that there was danger. And there was! He was murdered--while the cab waited--to take him there!"

Her eyes held his--she did not flinch.

"The man who telephoned to me--Bentham his name was, the agent of your enemies,--he, too, was murdered!"

"So I have heard," she said calmly.

"The letters!" he faltered. "Where are they?"

"No one knows," she answered. "That is why I live always on the brink of a volcano. Many people are searching for them. No one as yet has succeeded. But that may come at any moment."

"Madame," he said, "can you tell me who killed these men?"

She raised her eyebrows.

"I cannot," she answered coldly.

"Madame," he declared, "the man Barnes was a pitiful blackmailing little Jew! For all I know, he deserved death a dozen times over--ay, and Bentham too! But the law does not look upon it like that. Whoever killed these men will assuredly be hanged if they are caught. Don't you think that your friends are a little too zealous?"

She met his gaze unflinchingly.

"If friends of mine have done these things," she said, "they are at least unknown to me!"

He drew a short choking breath of relief. Yet even now the mystery was deeper than ever! He began to think out loud.

"A friend of yours it must have been," he declared. "Barnes was murdered when in a few hours he would have parted with those letters to your enemies; Bentham was murdered when he was on the point of discovering them! There is some one working for you, guarding you, who desires to remain unknown. I wonder!"

He stopped short. A sudden illumining idea flashed through his mind. He looked at Madame de Melbain fixedly.

"This man Duncan who has disappeared so suddenly," he said thickly. "Whom did you say--who was it that he reminded you of?"

Madame de Melbain lost at last her composure. She was white to the lips, her eyes seemed suddenly lit with a horrible dread. She pushed out her hands as though to thrust it from her.

"He was killed!" she cried. "It was not he! He is dead! Don't dare to speak of anything so horrible!"

Then, before they could realize that he was actually amongst them, he was there. They heard only a crashing of boughs, the parting of the hedge. He was there on his knees, with his arms around the terrified woman who had sobbed out his name. Louise, too, swayed upon her feet, her fascinated eyes fixed upon the newcomer. Wrayson understood, then, that in some way this man had indeed come back from the dead.

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