“The whole affair is a very simple one,” he said. “A member of my household was assassinated last night. It was probably a plot against my own life. Those things are more common with us, perhaps, than over here.”
“Jolly country, China, I should think,” one of the younger members of the group remarked. “You can buy a man’s conscience there for ninepence.”
Prince Shan looked across at the speaker gravely.
“The market value here,” he observed, “seems a little higher, but the supply greater.”
“Touche!” Karschoff laughed. “There is another point of view, too. The further east you go, the less value life has. Westwards, it becomes an absolute craze to preserve and coddle it, to drag it out to its furthermost span. The American millionaire, for example, has a resident physician attached to his household and is likely to spend the aftermath of his life in a semi-drugged and comatose condition. And in the East, who cares? If not to-day—to-morrow! Inevitability, which is the nightmare of the West, is the philosophy of the East. By the by, Prince,” he added, “have you any theory as to last night’s attempt?”
“That is just the question,” Prince Shan replied, “which two very intelligent gentlemen from Scotland Yard asked me this morning. Theory? Why should I have a theory?”
“The attempt was without a doubt directed against you,” Karschoff observed. “Do you imagine that it was personal or political?”
“How can I tell?” the Prince rejoined carelessly. “Why should any one desire my death? These things are riddles. Ah! Here comes my friend Immelan!” he went on. “Immelan, help us in this discussion. You are not one of those who place the gift of life above all other things in the world!”
“My own or another’s?” Immelan asked, with blunt cynicism.
“I trust,” was the bland reply, “that you are, as I have always esteemed you, an altruist.”
Prince Shan shrugged his shoulders. He was a very agreeable figure in the centre of the little group of men, the hands which held his malacca cane behind his back, the smile which parted his lips benign yet cryptic.
“Because,” he explained, “it is a great thing to have more regard for the lives of others than for one’s own, and there are times,” he added, “when it is certainly one’s own life which is in the more precarious state.”
There was a little dispersal of the crowd, a chorus of congratulations and farewells. Immelan and Prince Shan were left alone. The former seemed to have turned paler. The sun was warm, and yet he shivered.
“Just what do you mean by that, Prince?” he asked.
“You shall walk with me to my house, and I will tell you,” was the quiet reply.
“I suppose,” Immelan suggested, as the two men reached the house in Curzon Street, “it would be useless to ask you to break your custom and lunch with me at the Ritz or at the club?”