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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Betrayal - Chapter 13. A Bribe
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The Betrayal - Chapter 13. A Bribe Post by :Eagle55 Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2668

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The Betrayal - Chapter 13. A Bribe

CHAPTER XIII. A BRIBE

I wheeled round and peered into the darkness. Lady Angela's fingers clutched my arm. I could feel that she was trembling violently. It was Grooton whose figure loomed up almost immediately before us--Grooton, bareheaded and breathless. "What is it?" I exclaimed quickly. "I think, sir, that you had better return," he panted.

He pointed over his shoulder towards the "Brand," and I understood. In a moment I was on my way thither, running as I had not done since my college days. I stumbled over antheaps, and more than once I set my foot in a rabbit hole, but somehow I kept my balance. As I neared the cottage I slackened my speed and proceeded more stealthily. I drew close to the window and peered in. Grooton had been right indeed to fetch me. The Prince was standing before my desk, with a bundle of papers in his hand. I threw open the door and entered the room. Swift though my movement had been, a second's difficulty with the catch had given the Prince his opportunity. He was back in his easy chair when I entered, reclining there with half-closed eyes. He looked up at me with well simulated surprise.

"You are soon back, Mr. Ducaine," he remarked calmly. "Did you forget something?"

"I forgot," I answered, struggling to recover my breath, "to lock up my desk."

"An admirable precaution," he admitted, watching as I gathered my papers together, "especially if one has valuables. It is an exposed spot this, and very lonely."

"I am curious," I said, leaning against the table and facing him, "I am curious to know which of my poor possessions can possibly be of interest or value to the Prince of Malors."

The calm hauteur of his answering stare was excellently done. I had a glimpse now of the aristocrat.

"You speak in enigmas, young man," he said. "Kindly be more explicit."

"My language can scarcely be more enigmatic than your actions," I answered. "I was fool enough to trust you and I left you here alone. But you were not unobserved, Prince. My servant, I am thankful to say, is faithful. It was he who summoned me back."

"Indeed!" he murmured.

"I might add," I continued, "that I took the liberty of looking in through the side window there before entering."

"If it amused you to do so, or to set your servant to spy upon me," he said, "I see no reason to object. But your meaning is still unexplained."

"The onus of explanation," I declared, "appears to me to rest with you, Prince. I offered the hospitality of my room, presumably to a gentleman--not to a person who would seize that opportunity to examine my private papers."

"You speak with assurance, Mr. Ducaine."

"The assurance of knowledge," I answered. "I saw you at my desk from outside."

"You should consult an oculist," he declared. "I have not left this chair. My foot is still too painful."

"You lie well, Prince," I answered, "but not well enough."

He looked at me thoughtfully.

"I am endeavouring," he said, "to accommodate myself to the customs of this wonderful country of yours. In France one sends one's seconds. What do you do here to a man who calls you a liar?"

"We treat him," I answered hotly, "as the man deserves to be treated who abuses the hospitality of a stranger, and places himself in the position of a common thief."

The Prince shrugged his shoulders lightly, and helped himself to one of my cigarettes.

"You are very young, Mr. Ducaine," he said, looking at me thoughtfully. "You have no doubt your career to make in the world. So, in a greater sense of the word, have I. I propose, if you will allow me, to be quite frank with you."

"I have no wish for your confidences, Prince," I answered. "They cannot possibly concern or interest me."

"Do not be too sure of that," he said. "Like all young men of your age, you jump too readily at conclusions. It is very possible that you and I may be of service to one another, and I may add that those who have been of service to the Prince of Malors have seldom had cause to regret it."

"This conversation," I interposed, "seems to me to be beside the point. I have no desire to be of service to you. My inclinations are rather the other way."

"The matter may become more clear to you if you will only curb your impatience, my young friend," the Prince said. "It is only my ambition to serve my country, to command the gratitude of a nation which to-day regards both me and mine with mingled doubt and suspicion. I have ambitions, and I should be an easy and generous master to serve."

"I am honoured with your confidence, Prince, but I still fail to see how these matters concern me," I said, setting my teeth hard.

"With your permission I will make it quite clear," he continued. "For years your War Office has suffered from constant dread of an invasion by France. The rumour of our great projected manoeuvres in the autumn have inspired your statesmen with an almost paralysing fear. They see in these merely an excuse for marshalling and equipping an irresistible army within striking distance of your Empire. Personally I believe that they are entirely mistaken in their estimate of my country's intentions. That, however, is beside the mark. You follow me?"

"Perfectly," I assured him. "This is most interesting, although as yet it seems to me equally irrelevant."

"Your War Office," the Prince continued, "has established a Secret Council of Defence, whose only task it is to plan the successful resistance to that invasion, if ever it should take place. You, Mr. Ducaine, are, I believe, practically the secretary of that Council. You have to elaborate the digests of the meetings, to file schemes for the establishment of fortifications and camps; in a word, the result of these meetings passes through your hands. I will not beat about the bush, Mr. Ducaine. You can see that you have something in your keeping which, if passed on to me, would accomplish my whole aim. The army would be forced to acknowledge my claim upon them; the nation would hear of it."

"Well," I asked, "supposing all you say is true? What then?"

"You are a little obtuse, Mr. Ducaine," the Prince said softly. "If twenty thousand pounds would quicken your understanding--"

I picked up a small inkpot from the side of the table and hurled it at him. He sprang aside, but it caught the corner of his forehead, and he gave a shrill cry of pain. He struck a fierce blow at me, which I parried, and a moment later we were locked in one another's arms. I think that we must have been of equal strength, for we swayed up and down the room, neither gaining the advantage, till I felt my breath come short and my head dizzy. Nevertheless, I was slowly gaining the mastery. My grasp upon his throat was tightening. I had hold of his collar and tie, and I could have strangled him with a turn of my wrist. Just then the door opened. There was a quick exclamation of horrified surprise in a familiar tone. I threw him from me to the ground, and turned my head. It was Lady Angela who stood upon the threshold.

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CHAPTER XII. AN ACCIDENTThe Prince accepted my most comfortable easy chair with an air of graceful condescension. Lady Angela had already seated herself. It was late in the afternoon, and Grooton was busy in the room behind, preparing my tea. "The Prince did not care to shoot to-day," Lady Angela explained, "and I have been showing him the neighbourhood. Incidentally, I am dying for some tea, and the Prince has smoked all his cigarettes." The Prince raised his hand in polite expostulation, but he accepted a cigarette with a little sigh of relief. "You have found a very lonely spot for
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