PRINCE SERGIUS MARAZOFF looked at the letter in his hand, and frowned. A recent lion in London society, he had been voted charming. His manners reminded people of Chesterfield and D'Orsay, with a dash of Bayard and the Cid thrown in. Wealthy princes in a state of bachelorhood are proverbially more fascinating than other people.
All the same the expression on the face of the Prince at this moment was anything but pleasant to see. The handsome features showed the wild Calmuc blood, the cruel Tartar strain. Under the thin veneer the tiger slept. The tiger looked out of Sergius's eyes at that moment.
The Asiatic vim seemed strangely out of place in one of the Long's most perfectly appointed sitting rooms. One does not look to see a panther lying before the fireplace in my lady's boudoir.
"A thousand curses on the woman," the Prince muttered. "Why does she worry, knowing that I am never likely to yield? And in any case, she is quite powerless to gain her ends."
Prince Sergius read the letter again. Then he tore it in a thousand pieces.
"Pshaw!" he went on. "What care I for her threats. Ten chances to one if I ever return to Russia again, and if I don't my estates are mortgaged to the last penny. The Czar will confiscate nothing there. The thing is a sham and delusion, to persuade people I have a stake in my own country. Personally, I prefer securities in London or Paris."
A gigantic servant in livery flung open the door.
"A lady to see your Excellency," he said.
"To see me! She has been here before, Fritz?"
"Even so, Prince. She left the letter last night. I said you were engaged, but she persisted. Your Excellency will instruct me."
Fritz came no further than the door. He knew his noble master in his present mood. The Calmuc was uppermost. A lurid light flashed in the eyes of the Prince, the light of murder.
"Throw her into the street," he said, hoarsely. "No, on second thoughts, you will show the lady up here, Fritz."
Fritz disappeared with more alacrity than befits a person in his exalted station. Prince Sergius might charm a ballroom by his graceful leading a cotillion, but he could also keep a servant waiting with a match for a cigarette until the flame burnt out against his fingers. He paid for this kind of thing.
Again Fritz flung open the door and a lady entered. That she had foreign blood in her veins was evident; that she was singularly beautiful was patent to the dimmest eye. Otherwise she could have passed for an Englishwoman of distinction. Sergius smiled as he indicated a chair.
"So you have found me out, Marie?" he said.
"I found you out long ago, Sergius," was the coolly contemptuous reply, rendered in the most excellent English. "I daresay you wonder what brings me here?"
"I don't wonder at all. But you won't get it."
"You have the diamonds here in England."
"To be perfectly frank, I have. They are in my possession, locked safely away at the present moment. You see, I am quite open."
"It mast be a novel sensation to you. I saw a paragraph in Truth to the effect that you had the Azoff diamonds here, also that you are to wear them to the Duchess of Grandsire's fancy dress ball on Friday."
"Correct again. I am going as an Indian Rajah."
The woman addressed as Marie laughed scornfully.
"And yet those stones are mine," she said, "as surely as you are my cousin. My mother on her death-bed gave those diamonds into your possession, and charged you to find me out and hand them over to me."
"Who told you so?"
"My old nurse Urza, who was present at the time."
"Then you accept her word in preference to mine?"
"Sergius, I would accept the word of the vulgarist guttersnipe before yours."
Prince Sergius's eyes grew lurid. Just for the moment he wished himself back in Russia again. But his voice rang steady enough.
"Listen to me," he said. "You were a Marazoff; you might be a princess to-day if your head had not been filled with a lot of rubbish about 'liberty' and the like. Then you crowned your folly by running away with a poor English author and marrying him. I am right?"
"Perfectly, and I have never regretted it."
"Possibly not. You look as serenely beautiful as ever. But your dress, pardon me, does not point to affluent or even easy circumstances."
"We are miserably poor," Marie Lorraine responded calmly. "My husband's profession never was a well-paid one. For the last three months he has been very ill. I have known the want of a meal. And all I ask now is that you will give to me what my mother intended I should have."
"Diamonds worth at the very least £100,000!"
"The value has nothing whatever to do with it. You know those jewels are mine. They were the personal property of my mother, and if she had not faded out of life so suddenly, I should have had them from her own hand."
"If you can prove the fact, they are yours."
"But I cannot. Otherwise you would not make the offer. Urza is dead also; and even if she were not, her word would weigh little against yours. At the present time I have just £27. When that is gone what will become of us heaven only knows."
Sergius crossed the room, and from a travelling bag produced a cheque-hook. He slapped it open with an irritating smile upon his face.
"A woman's conversation is like a woman's letter," he said. "All the gist comes in the postscript. Will £500 be enough?"
Marie Lorraine responded nothing. The Prince filled in a cheque for the suggested amount, and passed it over to her. Without the slightest semblance of passion Mrs. Lorraine tore the pink slip into minute fragments and puffed them contemptuously in the face of her companion.
"It is not charity I want," she said, "but my own."
"Meaning the Azoff diamonds of course?"
"Precisely. Once for all, are you going to continue to act the thief?"
The wrath of the listener boiled over. The warmth seemed to melt off the varnish and the vile stuff beneath stood revealed. An impetuous torrent of Russian poured from Marazoff's lips, a stream of brutal blasphemy that caused Marie to cover her ears.
"You coward!" she gasped indignantly. "You shall pay for this."
Sergius smiled again. The fit of passion had burned away.
"Don't talk nonsense," he said. "What can ye do to me."
"I can obtain possession of my own—and I will."
"Pshaw! You are full of your husband's romances. Revenge and Nemesis are all very well in books. In real life they go for nothing. Far better have taken my cheque and gone off as one of those sensible decadent heroines would do."
Marie Lorraine drew her cloak around her.
"I am going," she said. "Nor am I disappointed at the result of my errand. Why I really did come, you will learn later on."
So saying, the speaker swept down the steps and into the street. In Piccadilly a resolute looking young man with a fair moustache accosted her.
"Well, did you satisfy yourself, Mrs. Lorraine?" he asked eagerly.
"Perfectly," was the reply. "There is no mistake this time. You have the key and your friends will be there at the proper time."
"Oh, that's all right. You can safely leave the stage management of the farce to me. All you have to do is to see to the Amsterdam trip."
"My ticket I have already, and my disguise also, thanks to you. How nice it is to have a lot of friends who are actors."
Whereupon the two laughed, shook hands, and parted.
BY common consent the Duchess of Grandsire's fancy dress ball was looked forward to as the most brilliant function of an unusually brilliant season. The entertainments at Grandsire House, Grosvenor Square, were always on a most elaborate scale, but the present function bid fair to surpass them all.
To say that Royalty would be present would be to use a mere figure of speech. A thousand invitations had gone out, and the fortunate ones enjoyed to the full the envy and malice of those outside the pale. The mere possession of a card was in itself a passport to Belgravia. A thousand lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men. It was a fairyland of electric light, costly flowers, and gorgeous dresses gathered from the remotest recesses of the earth.
But there is no reason to attempt a description of such a pageant; nothing less than the gifted pen of a Morning Post reporter could do it justice. To be conspicuous amongst such a notable gathering was a distinction in itself, and it was given to few to obtain this cachet. It was universally awarded, however, to Prince Sergius Marazoff. His handsome and graceful form was seen to advantage in the gorgeous dress of an Eastern potentate, his turban and tunic fairly blazed with the famous Azoff diamonds. With the exception of a fortunate few American peeresses, Sergius Marazoff presented the greatest personal value from the auctioneer's point of view. If envious glances could have killed, Prince Sergius that night would have died five hundred deaths before as many pairs of gleaming eyes.
But time and the hour runs through the roughest as well as the smoothest day, and the flowers began to droop on the walls of Grandsire House. The dusky morn was creeping up from the east as Prince Sergius stood on the marble vestibule impatiently waiting for his brougham.
"Confusion to the fools," he muttered impatiently; "is there a cab to be got?"
A night cab with a driver half-asleep was crawling by at the same moment. Into this Prince Sergius stepped, closed the door after a muttered direction, and despite his rage fell into a doze.
He was aroused presently by the stopping of the cab, the throwing open of the door, and the glow of a lantern burning like some flaming eye inside. In a dreamy kind of way Prince Sergius became aware of the fact that he was in a narrow 'cul de sac,' and immediately opposite to a stone building, the windows of which were heavily barred with iron. Up a flight of steps was a substantial-looking door, beyond which could be seen a whitewashed passage. The holder of the lantern was dressed in blue, he had a row of pewter buttons on his coat and a helmet on his head. Outside the cab stood another officer of the law, similarly attired.
"What does all this mean?" the Prince demanded, haughtily.
"Your Highness is at Marlborough-street Police Station," was the gruff reply. "I have a warrant for your arrest."
"A warrant for my arrest? Absurd!"
"So it may be, your Highness; but I've got my duty to do all the same. You will have to get out, if you please."
Fuming with rage, Prince Sergius complied. At a sign from the sergeant the cab drove away, and Marazoff was led up the steps into the station and the door clanged behind him. Inside everything was bare but clean. At a desk in a kind of office sat an inspector with a big book before him. He bowed respectfully to the Prince.
"I greatly regret to put you to all this trouble," he said. "But my duty was to execute the warrant without delay."
"And having done so," Sergius sneered; "will you be good enough to read the charge, and send for my carriage without delay."
The inspector, politely, but none the less firmly, pointed out the impossibility of doing anything of the kind. Then he proceeded to read over the warrant received from the Russian police.
Prince Sergius was startled. Like most men he had had his youthful political indiscretions, but he had regarded them as relegated to obscurity long ago. And who could have so faithfully and accurately reported these peccadilloes to the Government of his own country. And how wise had he been to remove as much property as possible from Russian soil.
"They can't extradite me on that," he exclaimed.
"I am of the same opinion," responded the inspector. "But the legal forms will be complied with. You will be brought before the magistrates to-morrow, when doubtless an application for bail will be entertained."
"And meanwhile I am to be imprisoned here?"
Such appeared to be the case. In vain the haughty Russian stormed and raved. There were other indignities yet he had to suffer. All his money and papers were taken from him, his jewels and priceless sword, and when these were duly scheduled in a big ledger, Sergius had to feign the same as correct.
"They will be perfectly secure in the safe here," said the polite inspector. "I am quite distressed to cause you all this bother, but my duty would compel me to do the same in the case of a prince of blood."
With a bitter smile upon his lips and rage and fury in his heart, Sergius followed the inspector down a long passage. The latter opened a door with a key and displayed a cell with a truckle bed inside.
"Am I to sleep here?" Sergius gasped.
"Even so, your Highness," was the reply. "I regret the lack of accommodation. But we have so few distinguished prisoners."
Without another word the Prince threw himself on the hard mattress. Somebody should suffer for this he told himself. And then the door clanged and the key turned, and all was silence.
It was an hour later before the Prince slept. When he woke again it was broad daylight. The place seemed very still and deserted. After a long time a step was heard coming along the flagged corridor, and the door of the cell was opened after a long fumbling with the key. And then there appeared no blue coated policeman, but the Prince's own secretary, one Murray by name.
"Thank goodness I have found you," said the latter. "I began to imagine that you were the victim of some foul play. A letter came to me this morning describing your whereabouts and enclosing this key."
"But I am in Marlborough-street Police Station, Murray."
"Nothing of the kind, your Highness. This place used to be a house of detention, but it has been empty for years. Somebody has got into the place, and made use of it with the intention of robbing you. Are your jewels—"
"You are right, Murray. Of course that warrant was all a sham. Quick, follow me to the office. The jewels were placed in the safe there."
But, alas, those priceless diamonds were in the safe no longer. The safe was merely a deal cupboard, a 'property' affair. Inside was all Prince Sergius's papers, his watch, money, and sword intact, but the diamonds were gone.
In the next half-hour it was vividly impressed upon Murray that he had fully earned his last quarter's salary. Fortunately, he had brought with him a change of clothing for his employer.
"To Scotland Yard, quick," Sergius muttered, the veins standing out on his forehead like whipcord. "We'll have the miscreants yet."
* * * * *
But even a Russian prince can't have all that he wants. Scotland Yard did take the matter up, but nothing came of it, for the simple reason that, Russian like, Prince Sergius kept his suspicions of Marie Lorraine to himself. To implicate her would have been to cause an inquiry into the whole question, and perhaps the loss of the jewels in any case. And thus it came about that before the week was out the diamonds had been altered beyond all recognition, and disposed of in the great jewel mart at Amsterdam. Marie had been as good as her word, she had got her own again. And as to the police and inspector and the cabman, they had all apparently vanished into thin air.
There is one literary man in London with a beautiful wife who seems to thrive on letters amazingly, and that is Charles Lorraine. He frequently complains of being hard up for the plot of a story, but he is not the least likely ever to make public the true solution of the mystery of the Azoff diamonds.