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- The Grand Babylon Hotel - 29/45 -
Grand Babylon had seven persons of Royal blood under its roof - sent a curt message to Felix that the portrait must be removed. Felix respectfully declined to remove it, and the Prince left for another hotel, where he was robbed of two thousand pounds' worth of jewellery. The Royal audience chamber of the Grand Babylon, if people only knew it, is one of the sights of London, but it is never shown, and if you ask the hotel servants about its wonders they will tell you only foolish facts concerning it, as that the Turkey carpet costs fifty pounds to clean, and that one of the great vases is cracked across the pedestal, owing to the rough treatment accorded to it during a riotous game of Blind Man's Buff, played one night by four young Princesses, a Balkan King, and his aides-de-camp.
In one of the window recesses of this magnificent apartment, on a certain afternoon in late July, stood Prince Aribert of Posen. He was faultlessly dressed in the conventional frock-coat of English civilization, with a gardenia in his button-hole, and the indispensable crease down the front of the trousers. He seemed to be fairly amused, and also to expect someone, for at frequent intervals he looked rapidly over his shoulder in the direction of the door behind the Royal chair. At last a little wizened, stooping old man, with a distinctly German cast of countenance, appeared through the door, and laid some papers on a small table by the side of the chair.
'Ah, Hans, my old friend!' said Aribert, approaching the old man. 'I must have a little talk with you about one or two matters. How do you find His Royal Highness?'
The old man saluted, military fashion. 'Not very well, your Highness,' he answered. 'I've been valet to your Highness's nephew since his majority, and I was valet to his Royal father before him, but I never saw - ' He stopped, and threw up his wrinkled hands deprecatingly.
'You never saw what?' Aribert smiled affectionately on the old fellow. You could perceive that these two, so sharply differentiated in rank, had been intimate in the past, and would be intimate again.
'Do you know, my Prince,' said the old man, 'that we are to receive the financier, Sampson Levi - is that his name? - in the audience chamber? Surely, if I may humbly suggest, the library would have been good enough for a financier?'
'One would have thought so,' agreed Prince Aribert, 'but perhaps your master has a special reason. Tell me,' he went on, changing the subject quickly, 'how came it that you left the Prince, my nephew, at Ostend, and returned to Posen?'
'His orders, Prince,' and old Hans, who had had a wide experience of Royal whims and knew half the secrets of the Courts of Europe, gave Aribert a look which might have meant anything. 'He sent me back on an - an errand, your Highness.'
'And you were to rejoin him here?'
'Just so, Highness. And I did rejoin him here, although, to tell the truth, I had begun to fear that I might never see my master again.'
'The Prince has been very ill in Ostend, Hans.'
'So I have gathered,' Hans responded drily, slowly rubbing his hands together. 'And his Highness is not yet perfectly recovered.'
'Not yet. We despaired of his life, Hans, at one time, but thanks to an excellent constitution, he came safely through the ordeal.'
'We must take care of him, your Highness.'
'Yes, indeed,' said Aribert solemnly, 'his life is very precious to Posen.'
At that moment, Eugen, Hereditary Prince of Posen, entered the audience chamber. He was pale and languid, and his uniform seemed to be a trouble to him. His hair had been slightly ruffled, and there was a look of uneasiness, almost of alarmed unrest, in his fine dark eyes. He was like a man who is afraid to look behind him lest he should see something there which ought not to be there. But at the same time, here beyond doubt was Royalty. Nothing could have been more striking than the contrast between Eugen, a sick man in the shabby house at Ostend, and this Prince Eugen in the Royal apartments of the Grand Babylon Hotel, surrounded by the luxury and pomp which modern civilization can offer to those born in high places. All the desperate episode of Ostend was now hidden, passed over. It was supposed never to have occurred. It existed only like a secret shame in the hearts of those who had witnessed it. Prince Eugen had recovered; at any rate, he was convalescent, and he had been removed to London, where he took up again the dropped thread of his princely life. The lady with the red hat, the incorruptible and savage Miss Spencer, the unscrupulous and brilliant Jules, the dark, damp cellar, the horrible little bedroom - these things were over. Thanks to Prince Aribert and the Racksoles, he had emerged from them in safety. He was able to resume his public and official career. The Emperor had been informed of his safe arrival in London, after an unavoidable delay in Ostend; his name once more figured in the Court chronicle of the newspapers. In short, everything was smothered over. Only - only Jules, Rocco, and Miss Spencer were still at large; and the body of Reginald Dimmock lay buried in the domestic mausoleum of the palace at Posen; and Prince Eugen had still to interview Mr Sampson Levi.
That various matters lay heavy on the mind of Prince Eugen was beyond question. He seemed to have withdrawn within himself. Despite the extraordinary experiences through which he had recently passed, events which called aloud for explanations and confidence between the nephew and the uncle, he would say scarcely a word to Prince Aribert. Any allusion, however direct, to the days at Ostend, was ignored by him with more or less ingenuity, and Prince Aribert was really no nearer a full solution of the mystery of Jules' plot than he had been on the night when he and Racksole visited the gaming tables at Ostend. Eugen was well aware that he had been kidnapped through the agency of the woman in the red hat, but, doubtless ashamed at having been her dupe, he would not proceed in any way with the clearing-up of the matter.
'You will receive in this room, Eugen?' Aribert questioned him.
'Yes,' was the answer, given pettishly. 'Why not? Even if I have no proper retinue here, surely that is no reason why I should not hold audience in a proper manner? . . . Hans, you can go.' The old valet promptly disappeared.
'Aribert,' the Hereditary Prince continued, when they were alone in the chamber, 'you think I am mad.'
'My dear Eugen,' said Prince Aribert, startled in spite of himself. 'Don't be absurd.'
'I say you think I am mad. You think that that attack of brain fever has left its permanent mark on me. Well, perhaps I am mad. Who can tell? God knows that I have been through enough lately to drive me mad.'
Aribert made no reply. As a matter of strict fact, the thought had crossed his mind that Eugen's brain had not yet recovered its normal tone and activity. This speech of his nephew's, however, had the effect of immediately restoring his belief in the latter's entire sanity. He felt convinced that if only he could regain his nephew's confidence, the old brotherly confidence which had existed between them since the years when they played together as boys, all might yet be well. But at present there appeared to be no sign that Eugen meant to give his confidence to anyone.
The young Prince had come up out of the valley of the shadow of death, but some of the valley's shadow had clung to him, and it seemed he was unable to dissipate it.
'By the way,' said Eugen suddenly, 'I must reward these Racksoles, I suppose. I am indeed grateful to them. If I gave the girl a bracelet, and the father a thousand guineas - how would that meet the case?'
'My dear Eugen!' exclaimed Aribert aghast. 'A thousand guineas! Do you know that Theodore Racksole could buy up all Posen from end to end without making himself a pauper. A thousand guineas! You might as well offer him sixpence.'
'Then what must I offer?'
'Nothing, except your thanks. Anything else would be an insult. These are no ordinary hotel people.'
'Can't I give the little girl a bracelet?' Prince Eugen gave a sinister laugh.
Aribert looked at him steadily. 'No,' he said.
'Why did you kiss her - that night?' asked Prince Eugen carelessly.
'Kiss whom?' said Aribert, blushing and angry, despite his most determined efforts to keep calm and unconcerned.
'The Racksole girl.'
'When do you mean?'
'I mean,' said Prince Eugen, 'that night in Ostend when I was ill. You thought I was in a delirium. Perhaps I was. But somehow I remember that with extraordinary distinctness. I remember raising my head for a fraction of an instant, and just in that fraction of an instant you kissed her. Oh, Uncle Aribert!'
'Listen, Eugen, for God's sake. I love Nella Racksole. I shall marry her.'
'You!' There was a long pause, and then Eugen laughed. 'Ah!' he said. 'They all talk like that to start with. I have talked like that myself, dear uncle; it sounds nice, and it means nothing.'
'In this case it means everything, Eugen,' said Aribert quietly. Some accent of determination in the latter's tone made Eugen rather more serious.
'You can't marry her,' he said. 'The Emperor won't permit a morganatic marriage.'
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