He led her to the window, and explained to her for some moments the story of the faded images which represented one chapter out of the mythology of his country. And then she stopped him.
“Always,” she said, “you and I seem to be talking of things that are dead and past, or of a future which is out of our reach. Isn’t it possible to speak now and then of the present?”
“Of the actual present?” he asked softly. “Of this very moment?”
“Of this very moment, if you will,” she answered. “Your fairy tale the other night was wonderful, but it was a long way off.”
The Prince was summoned away somewhat abruptly to bid farewell to a little stream of departing guests. Today, more than ever, he seemed to belong, indeed to the world of real and actual things, for a cousin of his mother’s, a Lady Stretton-Wynne, was helping him receive his guests—his own aunt, as Penelope told herself more than once, struggling all the time with a vague incredulity. When he was able to rejoin her, she was examining a curious little coffer which stood upon an ivory table.
“Show me the mystery of this lock,” she begged. “I have been trying to open it ever since you went away. One could imagine that the secrets of a nation might be hidden here.”
He smiled, and taking the box from her hands, touched a little spring. Almost at once the lid flew open.
“I am afraid,” he said, “that it is empty.”
She peered in.
“No,” she exclaimed, “there is something there! See!” She thrust in her hand and drew out a small, curiously shaped dagger of fine blue steel and a roll of silken cord. She held them up to him.
“What are these?” she asked. “Are they symbols—the cord and the knife of destiny?”
He took them gently from her hand and replaced them in the box. She heard the lock go with a little click, and looked into his face, surprised at his silence.
“Is there anything the matter?” she asked. “Ought I not to have taken them up?”
Almost as the words left her lips, she understood. His face was inscrutable, but his very silence was ominous. She remembered a drawing in one of the halfpenny papers, the drawing of a dagger found in a horrible place. She remembered the description of that thin silken cord, and she began to tremble.
“I did not know that anything was in the box,” he said calmly. “I am sorry if its contents have alarmed you.”
She scarcely heard his words. The room seemed wheeling round with her, the floor unsteady beneath her feet. The atmosphere of the place had suddenly become horrible,—the faint odor of burning leaves, the pictures, almost like caricatures, which mocked her from the walls, the grinning idols, the strangely shaped weapons in their cases of black oak. She faltered as she crossed the room, but recovered herself.
“Aunt,” she said, “if you are ready, I think that we ought to go.”