The weather, I have said, was sultry; in order to ventilate the dining-room and yet preserve the uninhabited appearance of the mansion to the front, the window of the library had been widely opened, and the door of communication between the two apartments left ajar. To this interval I now applied my eye.
Wax tapers, set in silver candlesticks, shed their chastened brightness on the damask of the tablecloth and the remains of a cold collation of the rarest delicacy. The two gentlemen had finished supper, and were now trifling with cigars and maraschino; while in a silver spirit lamp, coffee of the most captivating fragrance was preparing in the fashion of the East. The elder of the two, he who had first arrived, was placed directly facing me; the other was set on his left hand. Both, like the man in the butler's pantry, seemed to be intently listening; and on the face of the second I thought I could perceive the marks of fear. Oddly enough, however, when they came to speak, the parts were found to be reversed.
'I assure you,' said the elder gentleman, 'I not only heard the slamming of a door, but the sound of very guarded footsteps.'
'Your highness was certainly deceived,' replied the other. 'I am endowed with the acutest hearing, and I can swear that not a mouse has rustled.' Yet the pallor and contraction of his features were in total discord with the tenor of his words.
His highness (whom, of course, I readily divined to be Prince Florizel) looked at his companion for the least fraction of a second; and though nothing shook the easy quiet of his attitude, I could see that he was far from being duped. 'It is well,' said he; 'let us dismiss the topic. And now, sir, that I have very freely explained the sentiments by which I am directed, let me ask you, according to your promise, to imitate my frankness.'
'I have heard you,' replied the other, 'with great interest.'
'With singular patience,' said the prince politely.
'Ay, your highness, and with unlooked-for sympathy,' returned the young man. 'I know not how to tell the change that has befallen me. You have, I must suppose, a charm, to which even your enemies are subject.' He looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and visibly blanched. 'So late!' he cried. 'Your highness--God knows I am now speaking from the heart--before it be too late, leave this house!'
The prince glanced once more at his companion, and then very deliberately shook the ash from his cigar. 'That is a strange remark,' said he; 'and a propos de bottes, I never continue a cigar when once the ash is fallen; the spell breaks, the soul of the flavour flies away, and there remains but the dead body of tobacco; and I make it a rule to throw away that husk and choose another.' He suited the action to the words.
'Do not trifle with my appeal,' resumed the young man, in tones that trembled with emotion. 'It is made at the price of my honour and to the peril of my life. Go--go now! lose not a moment; and if you have any kindness for a young man, miserably deceived indeed, but not devoid of better sentiments, look not behind you as you leave.'
'Sir,' said the prince, 'I am here upon your honour; assure you upon mine that I shall continue to rely upon that safeguard. The coffee is ready; I must again trouble you, I fear.' And with a courteous movement of the hand, he seemed to invite his companion to pour out the coffee.
The unhappy young man rose from his seat. 'I appeal to you,' he cried, 'by every holy sentiment, in mercy to me, if not in pity to yourself, begone before it is too late.'
'Sir,' replied the prince, 'I am not readily accessible to fear; and if there is one defect to which I must plead guilty, it is that of a curious disposition. You go the wrong way about to make me leave this house, in which I play the part of your entertainer; and, suffer me to add, young man, if any peril threaten us, it was of your contriving, not of mine.'
'Alas, you do not know to what you condemn me,' cried the other. 'But I at least will have no hand in it.' With these words he carried his hand to his pocket, hastily swallowed the contents of a phial, and, with the very act, reeled back and fell across his chair upon the floor.