The prince left his place and came and stood above him, where he lay convulsed upon the carpet. 'Poor moth!' I heard his highness murmur. 'Alas, poor moth! must we again inquire which is the more fatal--weakness or wickedness? And can a sympathy with ideas, surely not ignoble in themselves, conduct a man to this dishonourable death?'
By this time I had pushed the door open and walked into the room. 'Your highness,' said I, 'this is no time for moralising; with a little promptness we may save this creature's life; and as for the other, he need cause you no concern, for I have him safely under lock and key.'
The prince had turned about upon my entrance, and regarded me certainly with no alarm, but with a profundity of wonder which almost robbed me of my self-possession. 'My dear madam,' he cried at last, 'and who the devil are you?'
I was already on the floor beside the dying man. I had, of course, no idea with what drug he had attempted his life, and I was forced to try him with a variety of antidotes. Here were both oil and vinegar, for the prince had done the young man the honour of compounding for him one of his celebrated salads; and of each of these I administered from a quarter to half a pint, with no apparent efficacy. I next plied him with the hot coffee, of which there may have been near upon a quart.
'Have you no milk?' I inquired.
'I fear, madam, that milk has been omitted,' returned the prince.
'Salt, then,' said I; 'salt is a revulsive. Pass the salt.'
'And possibly the mustard?' asked his highness, as he offered me the contents of the various salt-cellars poured together on a plate.
'Ah,' cried I, 'the thought is excellent! Mix me about half a pint of mustard, drinkably dilute.'
Whether it was the salt or the mustard, or the mere combination of so many subversive agents, as soon as the last had been poured over his throat, the young sufferer obtained relief.
'There!' I exclaimed, with natural triumph, 'I have saved a life!'
'And yet, madam,' returned the prince, 'your mercy may be cruelty disguised. Where the honour is lost, it is, at least, superfluous to prolong the life.'
'If you had led a life as changeable as mine, your highness,' I replied, 'you would hold a very different opinion. For my part, and after whatever extremity of misfortune or disgrace, I should still count to-morrow worth a trial.'
'You speak as a lady, madam,' said the prince; 'and for such you speak the truth. But to men there is permitted such a field of license, and the good behaviour asked of them is at once so easy and so little, that to fail in that is to fall beyond the reach of pardon. But will you suffer me to repeat a question, put to you at first, I am afraid, with some defect of courtesy; and to ask you once more, who you are and how I have the honour of your company?'
'I am the proprietor of the house in which we stand,' said I.
'And still I am at fault,' returned the prince.
But at that moment the timepiece on the mantel-shelf began to strike the hour of twelve; and the young man, raising himself upon one elbow, with an expression of despair and horror that I have never seen excelled, cried lamentably, 'Midnight! oh, just God!' We stood frozen to our places, while the tingling hammer of the timepiece measured the remaining strokes; nor had we yet stirred, so tragic had been the tones of the young man, when the various bells of London began in turn to declare the hour. The timepiece was inaudible beyond the walls of the chamber where we stood; but the second pulsation of Big Ben had scarcely throbbed into the night, before a sharp detonation rang about the house. The prince sprang for the door by which I had entered; but quick as he was, I yet contrived to intercept him.
'Are you armed?' I cried.
'No, madam,' replied he. 'You remind me appositely; I will take the poker.'
'The man below,' said I, 'has two revolvers. Would you confront him at such odds?'
He paused, as though staggered in his purpose.
'And yet, madam,' said he, 'we cannot continue to remain in ignorance of what has passed.'
'No!' cried I.