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Title: By Woman's Wit Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200251h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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"GO TO DEATH; go to death; go to death; go to death. Your wife's a bride; your wife's a bride. Go to death; go to death; go to death; go to death. Your wife's a bride; your wife's a bride."
The mad refrain was hammered into Newton Moore's brain by the clang and roar of the flashing miles. A vivid streak of gold and crimson, enveloped in a cloud of vapor, crashed on over the silver-white metals—the fiery trail that men called the South East European Express.
The voice of the big compound engine spoke thus to Newton Moore. To all practical purposes he was going to his death, and was not his wife a bride still? The most valued and trusted servant of the British Secret Service Fund had kissed his wife once upon the lips, and turned his white face to the East at the bidding of his chief.
"It's the toughest job you ever had," Sir Gresham Welby had told him. "But come what may, you must get to the bottom of this business, or share the fate of Rigby and Long and Mercer. You have a free hand, and the whole of the resources of the Secret Service Fund behind you."
Moore had shuddered. He was a man cursed with a vivid imagination, and unseen terrors always unmanned him. But it was when Moore was face to face with danger that he rose so triumphantly over circumstances. He had described himself as a coward, who was a hero in spite of himself. His imagination magnified the unseen danger, but the same fine inventiveness taught him the right moment to strike.
"Are you really equal to the task?" Sir Gresham had asked suddenly.
It seemed to him that Moore looked slight and pale. His pince-nez gave him a certain suggestion of mildness.
"I don't know any other man on the staff who can undertake it," he said. "And this is no ordinary matter. Three of the best men we have ever had have been murdered mysteriously, and we are no nearer the solution of the problem than before. And yet there is not so very much to find out."
"I agree with you, Moore. We are almost ready to vouch for the integrity of Prince Boris of Contigua, and yet we know that Russia is using the Court and province to foment disaffection on the Indian frontier, and convey arms to the Mancunis. If this thing isn't stopped we shall be face to face with the most serious trouble in India before long. Signs are not wanting, too, that the Contigeans are being stirred up against Prince Boris. If there is a revolution, Russia has a fine excuse to step in and annex the province. And you know as well as I do what that would mean."
"I do," Moore replied, "and I know the country well. My last novel was founded upon Contigean politics. Princess Natalie was very pleased with the book. And I am quite sure that she is on our side."
"You are a curious mixture of a man," said Sir Gresham. "Let us hope that your imagination will find some solution of the problem. We want no more tragedies. And remember that you have an absolutely free hand. Let us know who is working the mischief and we ask no more. For the present you are practically the embodiment of the Secret Service Fund."
And now Moore was reaching his destination. Three of the bravest men he had ever served with had perished on the same mission, dying in a manner so mysterious that Her Majesty's Government were powerless to fix the blame on anyone. They had been struck down one after the other, barely before they had set foot in Tenedos, the capital of Contigua, and, for aught he knew to the contrary, the same fate awaited him twenty miles away.
For the present he was horribly frightened. Passive danger always rendered him almost physically sick. His imagination thrilled him. He could not eat, he could do no more than smoke his ubiquitous cigarettes.
Presently the long rocking line of red and gold came vibrating to a standstill, for the frontier was reached and the weary business of the Customs had to be undertaken. All this was as nothing to Moore, for his baggage had been marked through two days before. He tumbled out of the carriage and made his way to the grimy refreshment-room, where little beyond coffee and crackers could be obtained.
"I must worry something down," he muttered. "I've had nothing for thirty hours. I wonder if I could manage a cracker."
One waiter only was in attendance. He brought hot coffee of acrid flavor and two large flat crackers on a platter. One of the thin flour cakes Moore managed, but he dubiously eyed the other. Listlessly he crumbled it with his finger. Some foreign substance—paper—fell out upon the plate. Moore grew rigid with a sudden comprehension. A less imaginative man would have ordered another cracker. Moore scented a plot here. He smoothed out the scrap of paper, and surely enough there was a message there.
"Do not take this train on to Tenedos," it ran. "Contrive to miss it. In the village you can manage to obtain post horses to your destination. Do not start before six o'clock in the evening, and you will reach Tenedos by midnight. Ask to be directed to the large inn on the Varna Road."
There was not much time to decide. The letter might come from the hand of a friend or equally from the hand of an enemy. Moore decided to act upon the impulse that seldom played him false. He remained.
The polyglot language of the country was no sealed book to him. Within an hour he was safely housed at the large rambling building on the Varna Road, where he had found it possible to obtain a pair of horses to take him to Tenedos later on in the day.
It might have been mere suspicion on the part of Moore, but it seemed to him that the obese old landlord with the silver rings in his ears was not altogether surprised at the advent of his visitor. The former's fat countenance lacked repose, his little eyes followed Moore restlessly.
"His Excellency would like a private room?" he more than suggested.
Moore nodded carelessly. He was quite prepared to play the game according to the rules. A big, low apartment with dark panels was insufficiently lighted by two dreary candles in brass sconces. The atmosphere was dark and heavy. Moore turned the key in the lock, and hardly had he done so when another door opened and a woman entered.
The Princess stood before him, dark, beautiful, palpitating with emotion—a lovely woman with a history, an ambitious woman with a scorching hatred of Russia, and burning with a love for her own sterile country.
"Listen to me," she said. "I knew that you were coming, but, what is more to the point, others know it also. Had you gone on to Tenedos as arranged, you would have been a dead man before morning. How glad, glad I am that you accepted my warning."
"It was a sufficiently vague one, your Highness," said Moore.
"Because I could not make it more definite. If you only knew the system of espionage by which I am hampered! There is a traitor in the camp, and that traitor has obtained a prevailing influence at the Court. The Prince is utterly in his power, and he is making the most unscrupulous use of his advantage. And, worse than all, he is an agent of Russia."
All this Moore was quite prepared to hear. As Agent of the Secret Service Fund, it was his duty to come here and expose the Russian spy who was working all the mischief. This done, his task was practically complete. But, at the same time, he fully appreciated the danger that lay before him.
"Vour Highness is running a risk in coming here," he suggested.
"To a certain extent, yes. But when I accidentally discovered that you were the Agent chosen by the British Government, I knew that it must be now or never. I arranged a hunting party for to-day close here, and so I managed to elude the rest of my party. The people here are faithful and devoted to my service. In a few moments I must slip away again and join the others.
"By missing your train you have for the time being baffled those who would destroy you. Under ordinary circumstances, they will not expect you now till to-morrow evening. You will lie quiet on your arrival, and late to-morrow afternoon advise the Prince that you are in Tenedos. Then you will be asked to join us at dinner to-morrow night. After that everything depends upon your nerve and courage. If you are brave you will not only gain your point, but you will absolutely save Contigua as well. It will be in your hands to expose Zouroff and render him powerless for the future. And as to his wife, she shall be my care."
Even in the dim light Princess Natalie's eyes flashed. This woman was moved by a chord more dominant even than her patriotism—by tbe desire to be avenged upon a woman who had wronged her.
"So Zouroff is the god in the car," Moore observed. "A marvellously clever man, and absolutely unscrupulous. They say his wife is beyond compare."
"She is certainly amazingly lovely," the Princess admitted, "so lovely that she has obtained absolute sway over the husband who once loved me, nay, loves me still, were he but free from the fascinations of that beautiful witch. And Zouroff can force Boris from the throne when he chooses."
"He has some secret hold over your husband the Prince?"
"He has. I had better be perfectly frank with you. You remember the abortive attempt ten years ago to federate this peninsula into one kingdom. The Powers deposed no fewer than three princes over that. The scheme was Zouroff's, acting in the interest of Russia. And Zouroff has documentary evidence that Boris was one of the malcontents. Therefore you see how slender is our grasp of our position. Day by day the influence of Boris wanes, day by day is Zouroff stirring up the party of revolution. And to-morrow night everything is arranged for a coup d'etat. If I can force the hand of my enemy, if I can show him degraded and bound to the mob in front of the palace windows, Contigua is saved, and your mission is simultaneously accomplished. That is why I came to you—because I could trust you, and you know the ways of my people. They love me yet, they would do anything at my bidding. At the same time they are like sheep without a shepherd. Will you help me?"
The Princess extended two trembling hands to Moore. He took them in his and raised them to his lips.
"It is both my duty and my inclination to do so," he said. "But I see that you have some plan ready formed in your mind. If you will honor me with your confidence, I shall esteem it a great favor."
The Princess spoke clearly and rapidly. Moore listened with interest and admiration. The plot was one that appealed directly to his imagination. It was dashing, and bold to the last degree. A lurid light shone in his eyes, his pale cheeks were aglow with an unwonted flare.
A pair of rusty, lopsided horses pounded over the cobble-stones of Tenedos in the darkness and pulled up, sobbing, at length before the chief hotel in the town. Moore found that his rooms were all ready for him.
"His Excellency would like supper and lights?" a waiter suggested.
"A light in the bedroom," said Moore, "but the sitting-room can remain in darkness. 1 require no supper; leave me alone. If I want anything I will ring."
Late as it was there were many people still astir. A spirit of unrest seemed to be in the air; there came no sound of mirth from the dull alleys below, nothing more than growls and murmurs, and more than once a subdued murmur of strife hidden by the darkness.
These people were ready for the fray. They only wanted someone to lead them on whether to peace or war mattered little. Moore knew the signs far too well to be mistaken.
With a sudden desire to learn more, he threw a heavy cloak about his shoulders, drew his hat down over his eyes, and plunged into the warm, vaporous gloom of the streets. He passed groups of men standing on the pavements, all of them engaged in a deep discussion of the situation.
From the deeper purple shadow of a minaret Moore paused to listen.
"Boris is not the man he used to be," said one. "Contigua will never be contented so long as Zouroff remains where he is."
"Say Madame Zouroff, rather," sneered another. "She is the cause of all this strife. They say the Prince is infatuated about her. She coveted the diadem belonging to the Princess, and he gave it her. I have it from Marie, the tiring-maid, who is own cousin to my wife. They will be giving Contigua to this Russian adventuress yet."
"Better put the old tiger from the hills on the throne," suggested another.
"No, no," said a third. "Old Taraz is all very well, but he is acting on the side of Russia over those smuggled rifles. Don't you know that Zouroff is plotting to clear the way for Taraz?"
All this palpitated with interest for Moore. That Contigua was seething with intrigue and plot and passion he knew perfectly well. And he knew also that Zouroff regarded Taraz as his creature and tool, whilst the latter was playing false with the man who was helping him on to the little toy throne. The wily old wolf from the hills meant to murder Zouroff without scruple directly his insurrection had proved successful.
All this Moore guessed, and a great deal besides. He was perfectly aware of the fact that the Contigeans for the most part preferred Taraz, for the simple reason that they would rather have the Hillman than the Russian.
The Court and the State were both so small that every bit of gossip and scandal that leaked out was eagerly and greedily lapped up by the people of Tenedos. The affair of the diamond tiara had afforded a toothsome dish for some few days now. And little did these inconsequent babblers realise what an important factor in the history of Contigua the gaud was destined to be.
"To-morrow will prove many things," the first man in the street observed sapiently.
"They say the signal is to be given to-morrow night from the gates of the palace, and then Taraz takes the place of Boris. There will be no riot and no bloodshed."
"There will be both before Taraz's leopards usurp the sway," a big man in a heavy cloak growled. "Had I my way, Zouroff would not live an hour. They say that he carries on his person evidences of his perfidy. If Prince Boris only dared to say the word, all Tenedos would rally to his side and tear the Russian limb from limb. What has come to our ruler I cannot think. What a man he used to be!"
The first speaker gave a heavy sigh.
"It is the old story," he said. "And there is always a woman at the bottom of it. The poor fool is bewitched by Madame Zouroff."
"Who used to be in the chorus of the Bucharest Theatre. An adventuress! A woman whom her sisters would pass by with their skirts drawn aside if they only dared! And we are all puppets who dance when she pulls the strings. Why does not the Princess call upon us? She knows that we are ready to do anything for her. Who'll strike a blow with me?"
None responded, for all were fearful of the shadows and the spies that might lurk therein.
All this was as wine to the listener. This feeling of discontent overlaying a sterling vein of loyalty inspired him. Moore's imagination was inflamed. In his mind's eye he could see himself leading these wild people on to liberty. Then his sense of humor came uppermost, and he smiled. A slight, pale-faced man in pince-nez at the head of this melodramatic mob seemed absurd.
The feeling, the air of discontent, still hovered like a cloud over the capital as Moore drove to the palace the next morning. Prince Boris was pleased to receive the Englishman cordially. His dark, sensitive face showed power and ambition, though the mouth was a trifle weak and sensual. And Prince Boris was not alone.
With him was a tall, slim man with a clean-shaven face and a pair of eyes that gleamed with evil black fires. A sneer was on his face as he bowed to the stranger. Moore had no need to be told who this man was.
"I can guess your errand," Zouroff remarked in sleek, purring tones, "and you will find us ready to give you every assistance. The air of Tenedos seems to be bad for you Englishmen. But then you are so adventurous."
A distinct threat underlay these last few words. A desire to fly at the throat of the speaker filled Moore. Under Zouroff's close fitting frock-coat lay goodness knows how many secrets, the documentary evidence Moore would have given years to possess. For Zouroff was a stormy petrel of intrigue and was far too cunning to be parted from that knowledge and proof of it which was power to him. Any trick of Fortune might render him outcast again; at any moment he might have to fly. For that reason he carried his secrets on his person.
"You have gauged our character correctly, sir," Moore responded. "The idiosyncrasy you speak of is the one trait that has made England great. When we undertake a thing, at any cost we succeed."
Zouroff took up the challenge lightly.
"We shall see," he responded. "As I said before, the climate is not a healthy one. If you can see a way to remedy that—"
"There is such a thing as removing the source of the pestilence."
Zouroff smiled no more. On the contrary he looked troubled. It began to come to him that here was an antagonist worthy of his steel.
Prince Boris looked on uneasily. Polite as he might be to Zouroff, he would have given his right hand to be freed from his chief adviser, the man who played him as a puppet and dangled the terror of the Powers before his eyes.
"You must not heed all my friend Zouroff says," he interpolated. "He is one who has reduced badinage to a fine art. He is not to be taken seriously."
"On the contrary, your Highness," Moore replied, "I imagine that there are times when it behoves the wise man to take M. Zouroff very seriously indeed!"
"You will dine with us at seven to-night?" the Prince asked abruptly.
Moore had been waiting for the invitation which he knew perfectly well was coming. It tickled his vanity a little to know that a counter-plot was being worked out under the nose of the arch-conspirator, Zouroff.
"I shall be only too pleased and honored," Moore replied.
At the same moment another man entered the room. He was an old man with eagle-like features. He had the fighting light in his eyes and the free swing of the hills in his brown limbs. His white flowing robes sat with wondrous grace on his powerful frame. Despite his deference, his mien was not devoid of cool insolence.
"This is Taraz of the Hills," Prince Boris said briefly. "You will meet again to-night."
Taraz deigned no glance for Moore. His Oriental hauteur was perfect. Seeing that the interview was ended, Moore turned to go. As he passed into the wide flagged corridor Zouroff followed him.
Moore turned his eyes full upon the face of the Russian.
"I will take your advice," he said, "and leave Tenedos—to-morrow!"
Moore dressed himself with scrupulous care for his part. Ostensibly he was a quiet-looking gentleman in evening dress, who was going out to dinner. As a matter of fact, he was playing a leading part in a tragedy wherein he might essay the role of the murdered hero or save Europe from a conflagration according to the whim of Dame Fate, sole spectator of the drama.
As a trusted servant of the Secret Service, the Service whose doings even the inquisitive M.P. has no right to question, Moore had been in danger before, but never in such deadly peril as this.
Zouroff meant to murder him. Zouroff knew what he was doing here. To check-mate the Russian, to stop the inflow of rifles, and to free Prince Boris from this old man of the sea was Moore's business here.
"Heaven be praised that I have a bold woman on my side," he muttered. "Within the next two hours the matter will be decided one way or another. A pity that Princess Natalie has nobody here she can really trust but me. And yet, if she succeeds, all Contigua will be at her feet to- morrow."
Moore gave the last finishing touches to his toilette, and rang the bell for the carriage.
"You will have the supper I have ordered ready for me at midnight," he remarked. "If 1 am not here by then the meal will not be required."
Practically Moore had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours. The mere thought of food filled him with a sense of nausea, though under ordinary circumstances his appetite was normal. However dainty the meal at the palace might be, Moore knew that he would touch none of it.
Vivid and agitated as was Moore's imagination, it did not blind him to the disturbed state of the streets as he drove along. Knots of men were gathered together eagerly discussing the state of affairs, and for the nonce the women were swept back to the shelter of the homesteads. In the Palace Square hundreds of people were loitering as if waiting for something.
They seemed moody and discontented rather than openly rebellious. They had the air of men who were prepared to follow one leader, provided they could not get another one that they liked better.
"It will be touch and go," Moore murmured. "If the Princess is successful, Contigua and the situation are both saved."
Meanwhile inside the palace the note was one of comedy. In a pillared hall, carved and fretted, and ornamented with painted panels and figures in armor, Prince Boris and his consort were receiving their guests. For the most part, indeed, with the solitary exception of Taraz, they were all dressed in the stereotyped Western mould, and the whole party numbered exactly twelve.
Moore presently found himself vaguely made known to all of them. But there was no interest for him there beyond the Prince and Princess, Taraz, and Zouroff, and last, but by no means least, the brilliant adventuress whom Zouroff called his wife.
A slight, fair woman, with a dazzling smile and teeth. In the red lips and deep blue eyes, Moore recognised the diabolical beauty of de L'Enclos, that power over men that fascinated them and drove them mad. There was something cruel about such loveliness. The ivory whiteness of the woman's shoulders was concealed as yet, for the salon was chilly, and Madame Zouroff had a filmy wrap around her.
From time to time she glanced in the direction of the Princess, and then Moore saw plainly the full treachery of that flashing smile. Nothing was lost to the eyes of the man who was a novelist as well as a man of action.
Conversation proceeded fitfully, for the Prince appeared uneasy and distrait, and the Princess maintained a stern silence. Her face was white and waxen as the camellias at her breast, her eyes glowed with a steadfast fire.
"She looks like a leopard in a cage," Madame Zouroff whispered to her husband.
"Exactly what she is," the Russian answered carelessly. "Natalie is a clever woman, and one who knows when she is beaten; and I shall find the means to tame her before the evening is over."
"The people are uneasy, you think?"
"I am certain of it. I have successfully alienated them from their Prince. Any leader is better than none, and Taraz is preferable to Russia. If they only knew that they are synonymous! But they don't. If you listen carefully you can hear the murmur of the crowd in the Square."
Madame smiled as her little pink ears caught the distant murmur. It was like the rise of an angry tide.
A servant in livery threw back the folding-doors with the announcement that dinner was served. Moore caught the eye of Princess Natalie as she passed him, and the look she gave him braced his courage.
The man of action was himself now. The dread of the unknown, the unforeseen, had passed out of him in the presence of the fray. He felt a buoyant sense of triumph, saw luminous visions of success.
For some time the dinner proceeded in silence. Then, as the wine loosened the tongues of the guests, something like gaiety prevailed. Alert, vigorous, catlike, Moore glanced round the table. Nothing escaped his lightning glance.
The hour was approaching. Outside the murmur of voices grew louder, even so as to intrude upon the conversation of the dinner-table. Some rude orator was apparently addressing the mob. A scornful smile flitted over Princess Natalie's face.
"These Western ideas of popular liberty are contagious," she said.
In the light of the one solitary lamp on the dinner-table the features of the speaker were more waxlike than before. As to the rest of the room, it was in total darkness. In the shadows the liveried servants were flitting around.
"Prince Boris had much to answer for," Zouroff smiled.
"And you are doubtless blameless?" Natalie asked.
The question was a challenge. Conversation went out like a falling star. Natalie rose and ordered the servants from the room. With a loud snap she turned the key in the lock. A shudder of excitement ran round the room. With a little smile Madame Zouroff threw back her wrap and reclined in her chair.
"You must be strong to speak to me thus," Zouroff said hoarsely.
Moore was watching the speaker intently. He sat but one chair removed, and the Englishman seemed to be carefully measuring the distance between them with his eye. On Natalie's right hand was Taraz, grave and immovable as the carved eagle on a lectern. The eyes of the Princess were blazing; the thin veneer of civilisation had peeled off.
"I am stronger than you imagine," she cried.
Madame Zouroff laughed. Natalie turned upon her furiously.
"You shameless creature," she cried. "You steal my husband's love from me, you boast of it in the market-place. And in your hair and on your breast you wear the jewels that are mine. He gave them you, and you dare flaunt them before me."
"And you dare malign my wife's name!" Zouroff cried.
"Your wife is too vicious to be anything but virtuous," Natalie retorted. "I do not blame the Prince. I know that once the fascination is removed, he will be a man again. And it is going to be removed to-night. Give me those jewels."
The haughty command swept Madame Zouroff almost off her feet for the moment. She made an involuntary movement to her breast.
"No, no," Zouroff shouted. "It shall not be."
"And I say it shall. It shall, it shall, and now."
As Natalie uttered the last word with a scream she rose to her feet and reached across the table. As she did so Moore noticed that The hilt of a dagger gleamed in her corsage. Then he turned his eyes again to Zouroff.
The next instant the lamp upon the table went crashing over and expired, leaving the whole room in intense darkness, save for a tiny pool of vaporous blue flame upon the fair white damask. With a cry most of the guests made for the door, only to find the key in the lock missing.
A thin hysterical chuckle broke from Moore's lips. His brain was aflame, and his fingers were tingling for action, for the time had come at last.
No sooner had the lamp gone over than he literally dived for Zouroff. Up to now the whole thing had fallen out exactly as he and Natalie had planned. The room was in intense darkness, the rest of the frightened guests were huddled up near the door; there was no chance of interruption. And upon Zouroff's person were papers worth a king's ransom.
Moore landed fairly on the neck of his antagonist. With delirious joy he clutched the Russian by the throat and bore him to the ground. All Moore's sinewy strength and agility were exerted. He was fighting for the success of his mission, he was fighting for his own life, and to avenge the three good men who had gone before him.
Zouroff was no stripling, and no coward to boot, but he had been utterly taken by surprise. He was in the grip of a man who was quite prepared to strangle him if necessary; he knew that he was fighting for his days in the land.
But that grip was not to be shaken off, it held on till the great red lights filled the Russian's eyes and the sound of the sea roared in his ears. Zouroff dropped, dropped into the tepid waters of oblivion. He felt ghostly hands seeking in his pockets, a heaping rush of the warm red tide, and then unconsciousness.
Moore had the papers. He drew from his hip pocket a slender pair of handcuffs and snapped them on the wrists of the Russian. At the same moment a frightened mob of servants burst open the doors, throwing back the windows so that the room might have the benefit of the light from the Square. The blast of air caught the blue vapor on the dinner table, and set it all in a great yellow blaze.
There was light enough now with a vengeance. Only five people remained. On the floor, with a dagger in his heart, lay Taraz, stone dead. The features were calm and placid, for a death mercifully swift had overtaken him.
The flames rose higher and higher. Down below in the Square some hundreds of people were packed, hot, eager, impetuous Already something of the truth had flashed like wildfire across the black mass. As Zouroff staggered to his feet the Princess caught him by the arm, and dragged him, dazed and blind and staggering with weakness, out on the balcony.
The lurid light behind lit up the two figures. There was one long hoarse roar from the human wolves below, and then a silence almost painful in its grim, clinging intensity. For the people there knew what had happened as if they had seen the tragedy of the darkness.
* * * * *
AN HOUR later and Tenedos was all aflare with torches. For Taraz was no more, and Zouroff lay where he was incapable of further mischief. His power was broken, the weapons he relied upon were in Moore's possession. And every man in the yelling mob was aflame with patriotism and reeking with the fumes of madness inspired by Natalie's proclamation from the balcony with the flashing flames behind her.
"Are you satisfied?" she asked Newton Moore. "Are you sure you have succeeded?"
"I have nothing more to desire," said Moore. "and I am not disposed to ask any awkward questions. But for you I should have failed. You certainly seemed to understand the psychological moment. And if this thing can only be kept out of the European papers—"
Princess Natalie smiled significantly.
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