THE PRISONER OF ZENDA
by Anthony Hope
1 The Rassendylls—With a Word on the Elphbergs 2 Concerning the Colour of Men's Hair 3 A Merry Evening with a Distant Relative 4 The King Keeps his Appointment 5 The Adventures of an Understudy 6 The Secret of a Cellar 7 His Majesty Sleeps in Strelsau 8 A Fair Cousin and a Dark Brother 9 A New Use for a Tea-Table 10 A Great Chance for a Villain 11 Hunting a Very Big Boar 12 I Receive a Visitor and Bait a Hook 13 An Improvement on Jacob's Ladder 14 A Night Outside the Castle 15 I Talk with a Tempter 16 A Desperate Plan 17 Young Rupert's Midnight Diversions 18 The Forcing of the Trap 19 Face to Face in the Forest 20 The Prisoner and the King 21 If Love Were All! 22 Present, Past—and Future?
The Rassendylls—With a Word on the Elphbergs
"I wonder when in the world you're going to do anything, Rudolf?" said my brother's wife.
"My dear Rose," I answered, laying down my egg-spoon, "why in the world should I do anything? My position is a comfortable one. I have an income nearly sufficient for my wants (no one's income is ever quite sufficient, you know), I enjoy an enviable social position: I am brother to Lord Burlesdon, and brother-in-law to that charming lady, his countess. Behold, it is enough!"
"You are nine-and-twenty," she observed, "and you've done nothing but—"
"Knock about? It is true. Our family doesn't need to do things."
This remark of mine rather annoyed Rose, for everybody knows (and therefore there can be no harm in referring to the fact) that, pretty and accomplished as she herself is, her family is hardly of the same standing as the Rassendylls. Besides her attractions, she possessed a large fortune, and my brother Robert was wise enough not to mind about her ancestry. Ancestry is, in fact, a matter concerning which the next observation of Rose's has some truth.
"Good families are generally worse than any others," she said.
Upon this I stroked my hair: I knew quite well what she meant.
"I'm so glad Robert's is black!" she cried.
At this moment Robert (who rises at seven and works before breakfast) came in. He glanced at his wife: her cheek was slightly flushed; he patted it caressingly.
"What's the matter, my dear?" he asked.
"She objects to my doing nothing and having red hair," said I, in an injured tone.
"Oh! of course he can't help his hair," admitted Rose.
"It generally crops out once in a generation," said my brother. "So does the nose. Rudolf has got them both."
"I wish they didn't crop out," said Rose, still flushed.
"I rather like them myself," said I, and, rising, I bowed to the portrait of Countess Amelia.
My brother's wife uttered an exclamation of impatience.
"I wish you'd take that picture away, Robert," said she.
"My dear!" he cried.
"Good heavens!" I added.
"Then it might be forgotten," she continued.
"Hardly—with Rudolf about," said Robert, shaking his head.
"Why should it be forgotten?" I asked.
"Rudolf!" exclaimed my brother's wife, blushing very prettily.
I laughed, and went on with my egg. At least I had shelved the question of what (if anything) I ought to do. And, by way of closing the discussion—and also, I must admit, of exasperating my strict little sister-in-law a trifle more—I observed:
"I rather like being an Elphberg myself."
When I read a story, I skip the explanations; yet the moment I begin to write one, I find that I must have an explanation. For it is manifest that I must explain why my sister-in-law was vexed with my nose and hair, and why I ventured to call myself an Elphberg. For eminent as, I must protest, the Rassendylls have been for many generations, yet participation in their blood of course does not, at first sight, justify the boast of a connection with the grander stock of the Elphbergs or a claim to be one of that Royal House. For what relationship is there between Ruritania and Burlesdon, between the Palace at Strelsau or the Castle of Zenda and Number 305 Park Lane, W.?
Well then—and I must premise that I am going, perforce, to rake up the very scandal which my dear Lady Burlesdon wishes forgotten—in the year 1733, George II. sitting then on the throne, peace reigning for the moment, and the King and the Prince of Wales being not yet at loggerheads, there came on a visit to the English Court a certain prince, who was afterwards known to history as Rudolf the Third of Ruritania. The prince was a tall, handsome young fellow, marked (maybe marred, it is not for me to say) by a somewhat unusually long, sharp and straight nose, and a mass of dark-red hair—in fact, the nose and the hair which have stamped the Elphbergs time out of mind. He stayed some months in England, where he was most courteously received; yet, in the end, he left rather under a cloud. For he fought a duel (it was considered highly well bred of him to waive all question of his rank) with a nobleman, well known in the society of the day, not only for his own merits, but as the husband of a very beautiful wife. In that duel Prince Rudolf received a severe wound, and, recovering therefrom, was adroitly smuggled off by the Ruritanian ambassador, who had found him a pretty handful. The nobleman was not wounded in the duel; but the morning being raw and damp on the occasion of the meeting, he contracted a severe chill, and, failing to throw it off, he died some six months after the departure of Prince Rudolf, without having found leisure to adjust his relations with his wife—who, after another two months, bore an heir to the title and estates of the family of Burlesdon. This lady was the Countess Amelia, whose picture my sister-in-law wished to remove from the drawing-room in Park Lane; and her husband was James, fifth Earl of Burlesdon and twenty-second Baron Rassendyll, both in the peerage of England, and a Knight of the Garter. As for Rudolf, he went back to Ruritania, married a wife, and ascended the throne, whereon his progeny in the direct line have sat from then till this very hour—with one short interval. And, finally, if you walk through the picture galleries at Burlesdon, among the fifty portraits or so of the last century and a half, you will find five or six, including that of the sixth earl, distinguished by long, sharp, straight noses and a quantity of dark-red hair; these five or six have also blue eyes, whereas among the Rassendylls dark eyes are the commoner.
That is the explanation, and I am glad to have finished it: the blemishes on honourable lineage are a delicate subject, and certainly this heredity we hear so much about is the finest scandalmonger in the world; it laughs at discretion, and writes strange entries between the lines of the "Peerages".
It will be observed that my sister-in-law, with a want of logic that must have been peculiar to herself (since we are no longer allowed to lay it to the charge of her sex), treated my complexion almost as an offence for which I was responsible, hastening to assume from that external sign inward qualities of which I protest my entire innocence; and this unjust inference she sought to buttress by pointing to the uselessness of the life I had led. Well, be that as it may, I had picked up a good deal of pleasure and a good deal of knowledge. I had been to a German school and a German university, and spoke German as readily and perfectly as English; I was thoroughly at home in French; I had a smattering of Italian and enough Spanish to swear by. I was, I believe, a strong, though hardly fine swordsman and a good shot. I could ride anything that had a back to sit on; and my head was as cool a one as you could find, for all its flaming cover. If you say that I ought to have spent my time in useful labour, I am out of Court and have nothing to say, save that my parents had no business to leave me two thousand pounds a year and a roving disposition.
"The difference between you and Robert," said my sister-in-law, who often (bless her!) speaks on a platform, and oftener still as if she were on one, "is that he recognizes the duties of his position, and you see the opportunities of yours."
"To a man of spirit, my dear Rose," I answered, "opportunities are duties."
"Nonsense!" said she, tossing her head; and after a moment she went on: "Now, here's Sir Jacob Borrodaile offering you exactly what you might be equal to."
"A thousand thanks!" I murmured.
"He's to have an Embassy in six months, and Robert says he is sure that he'll take you as an attache. Do take it, Rudolf—to please me."
Now, when my sister-in-law puts the matter in that way, wrinkling her pretty brows, twisting her little hands, and growing wistful in the eyes, all on account of an idle scamp like myself, for whom she has no natural responsibility, I am visited with compunction. Moreover, I thought it possible that I could pass the time in the position suggested with some tolerable amusement. Therefore I said:
"My dear sister, if in six months' time no unforeseen obstacle has arisen, and Sir Jacob invites me, hang me if I don't go with Sir Jacob!"
"Oh, Rudolf, how good of you! I am glad!"
"Where's he going to?"
"He doesn't know yet; but it's sure to be a good Embassy."
"Madame," said I, "for your sake I'll go, if it's no more than a beggarly Legation. When I do a thing, I don't do it by halves."
My promise, then, was given; but six months are six months, and seem an eternity, and, inasmuch as they stretched between me and my prospective industry (I suppose attaches are industrious; but I know not, for I never became attache to Sir Jacob or anybody else), I cast about for some desirable mode of spending them. And it occurred to me suddenly that I would visit Ruritania. It may seem strange that I had never visited that country yet; but my father (in spite of a sneaking fondness for the Elphbergs, which led him to give me, his second son, the famous Elphberg name of Rudolf) had always been averse from my going, and, since his death, my brother, prompted by Rose, had accepted the family tradition which taught that a wide berth was to be given to that country. But the moment Ruritania had come into my head I was eaten up with a curiosity to see it. After all, red hair and long noses are not confined to the House of Elphberg, and the old story seemed a preposterously insufficient reason for debarring myself from acquaintance with a highly interesting and important kingdom, one which had played no small part in European history, and might do the like again under the sway of a young and vigorous ruler, such as the new King was rumoured to be. My determination was clinched by reading in The Times that Rudolf the Fifth was to be crowned at Strelsau in the course of the next three weeks, and that great magnificence was to mark the occasion. At once I made up my mind to be present, and began my preparations. But, inasmuch as it has never been my practice to furnish my relatives with an itinerary of my journeys and in this case I anticipated opposition to my wishes, I gave out that I was going for a ramble in the Tyrol—an old haunt of mine—and propitiated Rose's wrath by declaring that I intended to study the political and social problems of the interesting community which dwells in that neighbourhood.
"Perhaps," I hinted darkly, "there may be an outcome of the expedition."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well," said I carelessly, "there seems a gap that might be filled by an exhaustive work on—"
"Oh! will you write a book?" she cried, clapping her hands. "That would be splendid, wouldn't it, Robert?"
"It's the best of introductions to political life nowadays," observed my brother, who has, by the way, introduced himself in this manner several times over. Burlesdon on Ancient Theories and Modern Facts and The Ultimate Outcome, by a Political Student, are both works of recognized eminence.
"I believe you are right, Bob, my boy," said I.
"Now promise you'll do it," said Rose earnestly.
"No, I won't promise; but if I find enough material, I will."
"That's fair enough," said Robert.
"Oh, material doesn't matter!" she said, pouting.
But this time she could get no more than a qualified promise out of me. To tell the truth, I would have wagered a handsome sum that the story of my expedition that summer would stain no paper and spoil not a single pen. And that shows how little we know what the future holds; for here I am, fulfilling my qualified promise, and writing, as I never thought to write, a book—though it will hardly serve as an introduction to political life, and has not a jot to do with the Tyrol.
Neither would it, I fear, please Lady Burlesdon, if I were to submit it to her critical eye—a step which I have no intention of taking.
Concerning the Colour of Men's Hair
It was a maxim of my Uncle William's that no man should pass through Paris without spending four-and-twenty hours there. My uncle spoke out of a ripe experience of the world, and I honoured his advice by putting up for a day and a night at "The Continental" on my way to—the Tyrol. I called on George Featherly at the Embassy, and we had a bit of dinner together at Durand's, and afterwards dropped in to the Opera; and after that we had a little supper, and after that we called on Bertram Bertrand, a versifier of some repute and Paris correspondent to The Critic. He had a very comfortable suite of rooms, and we found some pleasant fellows smoking and talking. It struck me, however, that Bertram himself was absent and in low spirits, and when everybody except ourselves had gone, I rallied him on his moping preoccupation. He fenced with me for a while, but at last, flinging himself on a sofa, he exclaimed:
"Very well; have it your own way. I am in love—infernally in love!"
"Oh, you'll write the better poetry," said I, by way of consolation.
He ruffled his hair with his hand and smoked furiously. George Featherly, standing with his back to the mantelpiece, smiled unkindly.
"If it's the old affair," said he, "you may as well throw it up, Bert. She's leaving Paris tomorrow."
"I know that," snapped Bertram.
"Not that it would make any difference if she stayed," pursued the relentless George. "She flies higher than the paper trade, my boy!"
"Hang her!" said Bertram.
"It would make it more interesting for me," I ventured to observe, "if I knew who you were talking about."
"Antoinette Mauban," said George.
"De Mauban," growled Bertram.
"Oho!" said I, passing by the question of the 'de'. "You don't mean to say, Bert—?"
"Can't you let me alone?"
"Where's she going to?" I asked, for the lady was something of a celebrity.
George jingled his money, smiled cruelly at poor Bertram, and answered pleasantly:
"Nobody knows. By the way, Bert, I met a great man at her house the other night—at least, about a month ago. Did you ever meet him—the Duke of Strelsau?"
"Yes, I did," growled Bertram.
"An extremely accomplished man, I thought him."
It was not hard to see that George's references to the duke were intended to aggravate poor Bertram's sufferings, so that I drew the inference that the duke had distinguished Madame de Mauban by his attentions. She was a widow, rich, handsome, and, according to repute, ambitious. It was quite possible that she, as George put it, was flying as high as a personage who was everything he could be, short of enjoying strictly royal rank: for the duke was the son of the late King of Ruritania by a second and morganatic marriage, and half-brother to the new King. He had been his father's favourite, and it had occasioned some unfavourable comment when he had been created a duke, with a title derived from no less a city than the capital itself. His mother had been of good, but not exalted, birth.
"He's not in Paris now, is he?" I asked.
"Oh no! He's gone back to be present at the King's coronation; a ceremony which, I should say, he'll not enjoy much. But, Bert, old man, don't despair! He won't marry the fair Antoinette—at least, not unless another plan comes to nothing. Still perhaps she—" He paused and added, with a laugh: "Royal attentions are hard to resist—you know that, don't you, Rudolf?"
"Confound you!" said I; and rising, I left the hapless Bertram in George's hands and went home to bed.
The next day George Featherly went with me to the station, where I took a ticket for Dresden.
"Going to see the pictures?" asked George, with a grin.
George is an inveterate gossip, and had I told him that I was off to Ruritania, the news would have been in London in three days and in Park Lane in a week. I was, therefore, about to return an evasive answer, when he saved my conscience by leaving me suddenly and darting across the platform. Following him with my eyes, I saw him lift his hat and accost a graceful, fashionably dressed woman who had just appeared from the booking-office. She was, perhaps, a year or two over thirty, tall, dark, and of rather full figure. As George talked, I saw her glance at me, and my vanity was hurt by the thought that, muffled in a fur coat and a neck-wrapper (for it was a chilly April day) and wearing a soft travelling hat pulled down to my ears, I must be looking very far from my best. A moment later, George rejoined me.
"You've got a charming travelling companion," he said. "That's poor Bert Bertrand's goddess, Antoinette de Mauban, and, like you, she's going to Dresden—also, no doubt, to see the pictures. It's very queer, though, that she doesn't at present desire the honour of your acquaintance."
"I didn't ask to be introduced," I observed, a little annoyed.
"Well, I offered to bring you to her; but she said, 'Another time.' Never mind, old fellow, perhaps there'll be a smash, and you'll have a chance of rescuing her and cutting out the Duke of Strelsau!"
No smash, however, happened, either to me or to Madame de Mauban. I can speak for her as confidently as for myself; for when, after a night's rest in Dresden, I continued my journey, she got into the same train. Understanding that she wished to be let alone, I avoided her carefully, but I saw that she went the same way as I did to the very end of my journey, and I took opportunities of having a good look at her, when I could do so unobserved.
As soon as we reached the Ruritanian frontier (where the old officer who presided over the Custom House favoured me with such a stare that I felt surer than before of my Elphberg physiognomy), I bought the papers, and found in them news which affected my movements. For some reason, which was not clearly explained, and seemed to be something of a mystery, the date of the coronation had been suddenly advanced, and the ceremony was to take place on the next day but one. The whole country seemed in a stir about it, and it was evident that Strelsau was thronged. Rooms were all let and hotels overflowing; there would be very little chance of my obtaining a lodging, and I should certainly have to pay an exorbitant charge for it. I made up my mind to stop at Zenda, a small town fifty miles short of the capital, and about ten from the frontier. My train reached there in the evening; I would spend the next day, Tuesday, in a wander over the hills, which were said to be very fine, and in taking a glance at the famous Castle, and go over by train to Strelsau on the Wednesday morning, returning at night to sleep at Zenda.
Accordingly at Zenda I got out, and as the train passed where I stood on the platform, I saw my friend Madame de Mauban in her place; clearly she was going through to Strelsau, having, with more providence than I could boast, secured apartments there. I smiled to think how surprised George Featherly would have been to know that she and I had been fellow travellers for so long.
I was very kindly received at the hotel—it was really no more than an inn—kept by a fat old lady and her two daughters. They were good, quiet people, and seemed very little interested in the great doings at Strelsau. The old lady's hero was the duke, for he was now, under the late King's will, master of the Zenda estates and of the Castle, which rose grandly on its steep hill at the end of the valley a mile or so from the inn. The old lady, indeed, did not hesitate to express regret that the duke was not on the throne, instead of his brother.
"We know Duke Michael," said she. "He has always lived among us; every Ruritanian knows Duke Michael. But the King is almost a stranger; he has been so much abroad, not one in ten knows him even by sight."
"And now," chimed in one of the young women, "they say he has shaved off his beard, so that no one at all knows him."
"Shaved his beard!" exclaimed her mother. "Who says so?"
"Johann, the duke's keeper. He has seen the King."
"Ah, yes. The King, sir, is now at the duke's hunting-lodge in the forest here; from here he goes to Strelsau to be crowned on Wednesday morning."
I was interested to hear this, and made up my mind to walk next day in the direction of the lodge, on the chance of coming across the King. The old lady ran on garrulously:
"Ah, and I wish he would stay at his hunting—that and wine (and one thing more) are all he loves, they say—and suffer our duke to be crowned on Wednesday. That I wish, and I don't care who knows it."
"Hush, mother!" urged the daughters.
"Oh, there's many to think as I do!" cried the old woman stubbornly.
I threw myself back in my deep armchair, and laughed at her zeal.
"For my part," said the younger and prettier of the two daughters, a fair, buxom, smiling wench, "I hate Black Michael! A red Elphberg for me, mother! The King, they say, is as red as a fox or as—"
And she laughed mischievously as she cast a glance at me, and tossed her head at her sister's reproving face.
"Many a man has cursed their red hair before now," muttered the old lady—and I remembered James, fifth Earl of Burlesdon.
"But never a woman!" cried the girl.
"Ay, and women, when it was too late," was the stern answer, reducing the girl to silence and blushes.
"How comes the King here?" I asked, to break an embarrassed silence. "It is the duke's land here, you say."
"The duke invited him, sir, to rest here till Wednesday. The duke is at Strelsau, preparing the King's reception."
"Then they're friends?"
"None better," said the old lady.
But my rosy damsel tossed her head again; she was not to be repressed for long, and she broke out again:
"Ay, they love one another as men do who want the same place and the same wife!"
The old woman glowered; but the last words pricked my curiosity, and I interposed before she could begin scolding:
"What, the same wife, too! How's that, young lady?"
"All the world knows that Black Michael—well then, mother, the duke—would give his soul to marry his cousin, the Princess Flavia, and that she is to be the queen."
"Upon my word," said I, "I begin to be sorry for your duke. But if a man will be a younger son, why he must take what the elder leaves, and be as thankful to God as he can;" and, thinking of myself, I shrugged my shoulders and laughed. And then I thought also of Antoinette de Mauban and her journey to Strelsau.
"It's little dealing Black Michael has with—" began the girl, braving her mother's anger; but as she spoke a heavy step sounded on the floor, and a gruff voice asked in a threatening tone:
"Who talks of 'Black Michael' in his Highness's own burgh?"
The girl gave a little shriek, half of fright—half, I think, of amusement.
"You'll not tell of me, Johann?" she said.
"See where your chatter leads," said the old lady.
The man who had spoken came forward.
"We have company, Johann," said my hostess, and the fellow plucked off his cap. A moment later he saw me, and, to my amazement, he started back a step, as though he had seen something wonderful.
"What ails you, Johann?" asked the elder girl. "This is a gentleman on his travels, come to see the coronation."
The man had recovered himself, but he was staring at me with an intense, searching, almost fierce glance.
"Good evening to you," said I.
"Good evening, sir," he muttered, still scrutinizing me, and the merry girl began to laugh as she called—
"See, Johann, it is the colour you love! He started to see your hair, sir. It's not the colour we see most of here in Zenda."
"I crave your pardon, sir," stammered the fellow, with puzzled eyes. "I expected to see no one."
"Give him a glass to drink my health in; and I'll bid you good night, and thanks to you, ladies, for your courtesy and pleasant conversation."
So speaking, I rose to my feet, and with a slight bow turned to the door. The young girl ran to light me on the way, and the man fell back to let me pass, his eyes still fixed on me. The moment I was by, he started a step forward, asking:
"Pray, sir, do you know our King?"
"I never saw him," said I. "I hope to do so on Wednesday."
He said no more, but I felt his eyes following me till the door closed behind me. My saucy conductor, looking over her shoulder at me as she preceded me upstairs, said:
"There's no pleasing Master Johann for one of your colour, sir."
"He prefers yours, maybe?" I suggested.
"I meant, sir, in a man," she answered, with a coquettish glance.
"What," asked I, taking hold of the other side of the candlestick, "does colour matter in a man?"
"Nay, but I love yours—it's the Elphberg red."
"Colour in a man," said I, "is a matter of no more moment than that!'—and I gave her something of no value.
"God send the kitchen door be shut!" said she.
"Amen!" said I, and left her.
In fact, however, as I now know, colour is sometimes of considerable moment to a man.
A Merry Evening with a Distant Relative
I was not so unreasonable as to be prejudiced against the duke's keeper because he disliked my complexion; and if I had been, his most civil and obliging conduct (as it seemed to me to be) next morning would have disarmed me. Hearing that I was bound for Strelsau, he came to see me while I was breakfasting, and told me that a sister of his who had married a well-to-do tradesman and lived in the capital, had invited him to occupy a room in her house. He had gladly accepted, but now found that his duties would not permit of his absence. He begged therefore that, if such humble (though, as he added, clean and comfortable) lodgings would satisfy me, I would take his place. He pledged his sister's acquiescence, and urged the inconvenience and crowding to which I should be subject in my journeys to and from Strelsau the next day. I accepted his offer without a moment's hesitation, and he went off to telegraph to his sister, while I packed up and prepared to take the next train. But I still hankered after the forest and the hunting-lodge, and when my little maid told me that I could, by walking ten miles or so through the forest, hit the railway at a roadside station, I decided to send my luggage direct to the address which Johann had given, take my walk, and follow to Strelsau myself. Johann had gone off and was not aware of the change in my plans; but, as its only effect was to delay my arrival at his sister's for a few hours, there was no reason for troubling to inform him of it. Doubtless the good lady would waste no anxiety on my account.
I took an early luncheon, and, having bidden my kind entertainers farewell, promising to return to them on my way home, I set out to climb the hill that led to the Castle, and thence to the forest of Zenda. Half an hour's leisurely walking brought me to the Castle. It had been a fortress in old days, and the ancient keep was still in good preservation and very imposing. Behind it stood another portion of the original castle, and behind that again, and separated from it by a deep and broad moat, which ran all round the old buildings, was a handsome modern chateau, erected by the last king, and now forming the country residence of the Duke of Strelsau. The old and the new portions were connected by a drawbridge, and this indirect mode of access formed the only passage between the old building and the outer world; but leading to the modern chateau there was a broad and handsome avenue. It was an ideal residence: when "Black Michael" desired company, he could dwell in his chateau; if a fit of misanthropy seized him, he had merely to cross the bridge and draw it up after him (it ran on rollers), and nothing short of a regiment and a train of artillery could fetch him out. I went on my way, glad that poor Black Michael, though he could not have the throne or the princess, had, at least, as fine a residence as any prince in Europe.
Soon I entered the forest, and walked on for an hour or more in its cool sombre shade. The great trees enlaced with one another over my head, and the sunshine stole through in patches as bright as diamonds, and hardly bigger. I was enchanted with the place, and, finding a felled tree-trunk, propped my back against it, and stretching my legs out gave myself up to undisturbed contemplation of the solemn beauty of the woods and to the comfort of a good cigar. And when the cigar was finished and I had (I suppose) inhaled as much beauty as I could, I went off into the most delightful sleep, regardless of my train to Strelsau and of the fast-waning afternoon. To remember a train in such a spot would have been rank sacrilege. Instead of that, I fell to dreaming that I was married to the Princess Flavia and dwelt in the Castle of Zenda, and beguiled whole days with my love in the glades of the forest—which made a very pleasant dream. In fact, I was just impressing a fervent kiss on the charming lips of the princess, when I heard (and the voice seemed at first a part of the dream) someone exclaim, in rough strident tones.
"Why, the devil's in it! Shave him, and he'd be the King!"
The idea seemed whimsical enough for a dream: by the sacrifice of my heavy moustache and carefully pointed imperial, I was to be transformed into a monarch! I was about to kiss the princess again, when I arrived (very reluctantly) at the conclusion that I was awake.
I opened my eyes, and found two men regarding me with much curiosity. Both wore shooting costumes and carried guns. One was rather short and very stoutly built, with a big bullet-shaped head, a bristly grey moustache, and small pale-blue eyes, a trifle bloodshot. The other was a slender young fellow, of middle height, dark in complexion, and bearing himself with grace and distinction. I set the one down as an old soldier: the other for a gentleman accustomed to move in good society, but not unused to military life either. It turned out afterwards that my guess was a good one.
The elder man approached me, beckoning the younger to follow. He did so, courteously raising his hat. I rose slowly to my feet.
"He's the height, too!" I heard the elder murmur, as he surveyed my six feet two inches of stature. Then, with a cavalier touch of the cap, he addressed me:
"May I ask your name?"
"As you have taken the first step in the acquaintance, gentlemen," said I, with a smile, "suppose you give me a lead in the matter of names."
The young man stepped forward with a pleasant smile.
"This," said he, "is Colonel Sapt, and I am called Fritz von Tarlenheim: we are both in the service of the King of Ruritania."
I bowed and, baring my head, answered:
"I am Rudolf Rassendyll. I am a traveller from England; and once for a year or two I held a commission from her Majesty the Queen."
"Then we are all brethren of the sword," answered Tarlenheim, holding out his hand, which I took readily.
"Rassendyll, Rassendyll!" muttered Colonel Sapt; then a gleam of intelligence flitted across his face.
"By Heaven!" he cried, "you're of the Burlesdons?"
"My brother is now Lord Burlesdon," said I.
"Thy head betrayeth thee," he chuckled, pointing to my uncovered poll. "Why, Fritz, you know the story?"
The young man glanced apologetically at me. He felt a delicacy which my sister-in-law would have admired. To put him at his ease, I remarked with a smile:
"Ah! the story is known here as well as among us, it seems."
"Known!" cried Sapt. "If you stay here, the deuce a man in all Ruritania will doubt of it—or a woman either."
I began to feel uncomfortable. Had I realized what a very plainly written pedigree I carried about with me, I should have thought long before I visited Ruritania. However, I was in for it now.
At this moment a ringing voice sounded from the wood behind us:
"Fritz, Fritz! where are you, man?"
Tarlenheim started, and said hastily:
"It's the King!"
Old Sapt chuckled again.
Then a young man jumped out from behind the trunk of a tree and stood beside us. As I looked at him, I uttered an astonished cry; and he, seeing me, drew back in sudden wonder. Saving the hair on my face and a manner of conscious dignity which his position gave him, saving also that he lacked perhaps half an inch—nay, less than that, but still something—of my height, the King of Ruritania might have been Rudolf Rassendyll, and I, Rudolf, the King.
For an instant we stood motionless, looking at one another. Then I bared my head again and bowed respectfully. The King found his voice, and asked in bewilderment:
"Colonel—Fritz—who is this gentleman?"
I was about to answer, when Colonel Sapt stepped between the King and me, and began to talk to his Majesty in a low growl. The King towered over Sapt, and, as he listened, his eyes now and again sought mine. I looked at him long and carefully. The likeness was certainly astonishing, though I saw the points of difference also. The King's face was slightly more fleshy than mine, the oval of its contour the least trifle more pronounced, and, as I fancied, his mouth lacking something of the firmness (or obstinacy) which was to be gathered from my close-shutting lips. But, for all that, and above all minor distinctions, the likeness rose striking, salient, wonderful.
Sapt ceased speaking, and the King still frowned. Then, gradually, the corners of his mouth began to twitch, his nose came down (as mine does when I laugh), his eyes twinkled, and, behold! he burst into the merriest fit of irrepressible laughter, which rang through the woods and proclaimed him a jovial soul.
"Well met, cousin!" he cried, stepping up to me, clapping me on the back, and laughing still. "You must forgive me if I was taken aback. A man doesn't expect to see double at this time of day, eh, Fritz?"
"I must pray pardon, sire, for my presumption," said I. "I trust it will not forfeit your Majesty's favour."
"By Heaven! you'll always enjoy the King's countenance," he laughed, "whether I like it or not; and, sir, I shall very gladly add to it what services I can. Where are you travelling to?"
"To Strelsau, sire—to the coronation."
The King looked at his friends: he still smiled, though his expression hinted some uneasiness. But the humorous side of the matter caught him again.
"Fritz, Fritz!" he cried, "a thousand crowns for a sight of brother Michael's face when he sees a pair of us!" and the merry laugh rang out again.
"Seriously," observed Fritz von Tarlenheim, "I question Mr. Rassendyll's wisdom in visiting Strelsau just now."
The King lit a cigarette.
"Well, Sapt?" said he, questioningly.
"He mustn't go," growled the old fellow.
"Come, colonel, you mean that I should be in Mr. Rassendyll's debt, if—"
"Oh, ay! wrap it up in the right way," said Sapt, hauling a great pipe out of his pocket.
"Enough, sire," said I. "I'll leave Ruritania today."
"No, by thunder, you shan't—and that's sans phrase, as Sapt likes it. For you shall dine with me tonight, happen what will afterwards. Come, man, you don't meet a new relation every day!"
"We dine sparingly tonight," said Fritz von Tarlenheim.
"Not we—with our new cousin for a guest!" cried the King; and, as Fritz shrugged his shoulders, he added: "Oh! I'll remember our early start, Fritz."
"So will I—tomorrow morning," said old Sapt, pulling at his pipe.
"O wise old Sapt!" cried the King. "Come, Mr. Rassendyll—by the way, what name did they give you?"
"Your Majesty's," I answered, bowing.
"Well, that shows they weren't ashamed of us," he laughed. "Come, then, cousin Rudolf; I've got no house of my own here, but my dear brother Michael lends us a place of his, and we'll make shift to entertain you there;" and he put his arm through mine and, signing to the others to accompany us, walked me off, westerly, through the forest.
We walked for more than half an hour, and the King smoked cigarettes and chattered incessantly. He was full of interest in my family, laughed heartily when I told him of the portraits with Elphberg hair in our galleries, and yet more heartily when he heard that my expedition to Ruritania was a secret one.
"You have to visit your disreputable cousin on the sly, have you?" said he.
Suddenly emerging from the wood, we came on a small and rude hunting-lodge. It was a one-storey building, a sort of bungalow, built entirely of wood. As we approached it, a little man in a plain livery came out to meet us. The only other person I saw about the place was a fat elderly woman, whom I afterwards discovered to be the mother of Johann, the duke's keeper.
"Well, is dinner ready, Josef?" asked the King.
The little servant informed us that it was, and we soon sat down to a plentiful meal. The fare was plain enough: the King ate heartily, Fritz von Tarlenheim delicately, old Sapt voraciously. I played a good knife and fork, as my custom is; the King noticed my performance with approval.
"We're all good trenchermen, we Elphbergs," said he. "But what?—we're eating dry! Wine, Josef! wine, man! Are we beasts, to eat without drinking? Are we cattle, Josef?"
At this reproof Josef hastened to load the table with bottles.
"Remember tomorrow!" said Fritz.
"Ay—tomorrow!" said old Sapt.
The King drained a bumper to his "Cousin Rudolf," as he was gracious—or merry—enough to call me; and I drank its fellow to the "Elphberg Red," whereat he laughed loudly.
Now, be the meat what it might, the wine we drank was beyond all price or praise, and we did it justice. Fritz ventured once to stay the King's hand.
"What?" cried the King. "Remember you start before I do, Master Fritz—you must be more sparing by two hours than I."
Fritz saw that I did not understand.
"The colonel and I," he explained, "leave here at six: we ride down to Zenda and return with the guard of honour to fetch the King at eight, and then we all ride together to the station."
"Hang that same guard!" growled Sapt.
"Oh! it's very civil of my brother to ask the honour for his regiment," said the King. "Come, cousin, you need not start early. Another bottle, man!"
I had another bottle—or, rather, a part of one, for the larger half travelled quickly down his Majesty's throat. Fritz gave up his attempts at persuasion: from persuading, he fell to being persuaded, and soon we were all of us as full of wine as we had any right to be. The King began talking of what he would do in the future, old Sapt of what he had done in the past, Fritz of some beautiful girl or other, and I of the wonderful merits of the Elphberg dynasty. We all talked at once, and followed to the letter Sapt's exhortation to let the morrow take care of itself.
At last the King set down his glass and leant back in his chair.
"I have drunk enough," said he.
"Far be it from me to contradict the King," said I.
Indeed, his remark was most absolutely true—so far as it went.
While I yet spoke, Josef came and set before the King a marvellous old wicker-covered flagon. It had lain so long in some darkened cellar that it seemed to blink in the candlelight.
"His Highness the Duke of Strelsau bade me set this wine before the King, when the King was weary of all other wines, and pray the King to drink, for the love that he bears his brother."
"Well done, Black Michael!" said the King. "Out with the cork, Josef. Hang him! Did he think I'd flinch from his bottle?"
The bottle was opened, and Josef filled the King's glass. The King tasted it. Then, with a solemnity born of the hour and his own condition, he looked round on us:
"Gentlemen, my friends—Rudolf, my cousin ('tis a scandalous story, Rudolf, on my honour!), everything is yours to the half of Ruritania. But ask me not for a single drop of this divine bottle, which I will drink to the health of that—that sly knave, my brother, Black Michael."
And the King seized the bottle and turned it over his mouth, and drained it and flung it from him, and laid his head on his arms on the table.
And we drank pleasant dreams to his Majesty—and that is all I remember of the evening. Perhaps it is enough.
The King Keeps His Appointment
Whether I had slept a minute or a year I knew not. I awoke with a start and a shiver; my face, hair and clothes dripped water, and opposite me stood old Sapt, a sneering smile on his face and an empty bucket in his hand. On the table by him sat Fritz von Tarlenheim, pale as a ghost and black as a crow under the eyes.
I leapt to my feet in anger.
"Your joke goes too far, sir!" I cried.
"Tut, man, we've no time for quarrelling. Nothing else would rouse you. It's five o'clock."
"I'll thank you, Colonel Sapt—" I began again, hot in spirit, though I was uncommonly cold in body.
"Rassendyll," interrupted Fritz, getting down from the table and taking my arm, "look here."
The King lay full length on the floor. His face was red as his hair, and he breathed heavily. Sapt, the disrespectful old dog, kicked him sharply. He did not stir, nor was there any break in his breathing. I saw that his face and head were wet with water, as were mine.
"We've spent half an hour on him," said Fritz.
"He drank three times what either of you did," growled Sapt.
I knelt down and felt his pulse. It was alarmingly languid and slow. We three looked at one another.
"Was it drugged—that last bottle?" I asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," said Sapt.
"We must get a doctor."
"There's none within ten miles, and a thousand doctors wouldn't take him to Strelsau today. I know the look of it. He'll not move for six or seven hours yet."
"But the coronation!" I cried in horror.
Fritz shrugged his shoulders, as I began to see was his habit on most occasions.
"We must send word that he's ill," he said.
"I suppose so," said I.
Old Sapt, who seemed as fresh as a daisy, had lit his pipe and was puffing hard at it.
"If he's not crowned today," said he, "I'll lay a crown he's never crowned."
"But heavens, why?"
"The whole nation's there to meet him; half the army—ay, and Black Michael at the head. Shall we send word that the King's drunk?"
"That he's ill," said I, in correction.
"Ill!" echoed Sapt, with a scornful laugh. "They know his illnesses too well. He's been 'ill' before!"
"Well, we must chance what they think," said Fritz helplessly. "I'll carry the news and make the best of it."
Sapt raised his hand.
"Tell me," said he. "Do you think the King was drugged?"
"I do," said I.
"And who drugged him?"
"That damned hound, Black Michael," said Fritz between his teeth.
"Ay," said Sapt, "that he might not come to be crowned. Rassendyll here doesn't know our pretty Michael. What think you, Fritz, has Michael no king ready? Has half Strelsau no other candidate? As God's alive, man the throne's lost if the King show himself not in Strelsau today. I know Black Michael."
"We could carry him there," said I.
"And a very pretty picture he makes," sneered Sapt.
Fritz von Tarlenheim buried his face in his hands. The King breathed loudly and heavily. Sapt stirred him again with his foot.
"The drunken dog!" he said; "but he's an Elphberg and the son of his father, and may I rot in hell before Black Michael sits in his place!"
For a moment or two we were all silent; then Sapt, knitting his bushy grey brows, took his pipe from his mouth and said to me:
"As a man grows old he believes in Fate. Fate sent you here. Fate sends you now to Strelsau."
I staggered back, murmuring "Good God!"
Fritz looked up with an eager, bewildered gaze.
"Impossible!" I muttered. "I should be known."
"It's a risk—against a certainty," said Sapt. "If you shave, I'll wager you'll not be known. Are you afraid?"
"Come, lad, there, there; but it's your life, you know, if you're known—and mine—and Fritz's here. But, if you don't go, I swear to you Black Michael will sit tonight on the throne, and the King lie in prison or his grave."
"The King would never forgive it," I stammered.
"Are we women? Who cares for his forgiveness?"
The clock ticked fifty times, and sixty and seventy times, as I stood in thought. Then I suppose a look came over my face, for old Sapt caught me by the hand, crying:
"Yes, I'll go," said I, and I turned my eyes on the prostrate figure of the King on the floor.
"Tonight," Sapt went on in a hasty whisper, "we are to lodge in the Palace. The moment they leave us you and I will mount our horses—Fritz must stay there and guard the King's room—and ride here at a gallop. The King will be ready—Josef will tell him—and he must ride back with me to Strelsau, and you ride as if the devil were behind you to the frontier."
I took it all in in a second, and nodded my head.
"There's a chance," said Fritz, with his first sign of hopefulness.
"If I escape detection," said I.
"If we're detected," said Sapt. "I'll send Black Michael down below before I go myself, so help me heaven! Sit in that chair, man."
I obeyed him.
He darted from the room, calling "Josef! Josef!" In three minutes he was back, and Josef with him. The latter carried a jug of hot water, soap and razors. He was trembling as Sapt told him how the land lay, and bade him shave me.
Suddenly Fritz smote on his thigh:
"But the guard! They'll know! they'll know!"
"Pooh! We shan't wait for the guard. We'll ride to Hofbau and catch a train there. When they come, the bird'll be flown."
"But the King?"
"The King will be in the wine-cellar. I'm going to carry him there now."
"If they find him?"
"They won't. How should they? Josef will put them off."
Sapt stamped his foot.
"We're not playing," he roared. "My God! don't I know the risk? If they do find him, he's no worse off than if he isn't crowned today in Strelsau."
So speaking, he flung the door open and, stooping, put forth a strength I did not dream he had, and lifted the King in his hands. And as he did so, the old woman, Johann the keeper's mother, stood in the doorway. For a moment she stood, then she turned on her heel, without a sign of surprise, and clattered down the passage.
"Has she heard?" cried Fritz.
"I'll shut her mouth!" said Sapt grimly, and he bore off the King in his arms.
For me, I sat down in an armchair, and as I sat there, half-dazed, Josef clipped and scraped me till my moustache and imperial were things of the past and my face was as bare as the King's. And when Fritz saw me thus he drew a long breath and exclaimed:—
"By Jove, we shall do it!"
It was six o'clock now, and we had no time to lose. Sapt hurried me into the King's room, and I dressed myself in the uniform of a colonel of the Guard, finding time as I slipped on the King's boots to ask Sapt what he had done with the old woman.
"She swore she'd heard nothing," said he; "but to make sure I tied her legs together and put a handkerchief in her mouth and bound her hands, and locked her up in the coal-cellar, next door to the King. Josef will look after them both later on."
Then I burst out laughing, and even old Sapt grimly smiled.
"I fancy," said he, "that when Josef tells them the King is gone they'll think it is because we smelt a rat. For you may swear Black Michael doesn't expect to see him in Strelsau today."
I put the King's helmet on my head. Old Sapt handed me the King's sword, looking at me long and carefully.
"Thank God, he shaved his beard!" he exclaimed.
"Why did he?" I asked.
"Because Princess Flavia said he grazed her cheek when he was graciously pleased to give her a cousinly kiss. Come though, we must ride."
"Is all safe here?"
"Nothing's safe anywhere," said Sapt, "but we can make it no safer."
Fritz now rejoined us in the uniform of a captain in the same regiment as that to which my dress belonged. In four minutes Sapt had arrayed himself in his uniform. Josef called that the horses were ready. We jumped on their backs and started at a rapid trot. The game had begun. What would the issue of it be?
The cool morning air cleared my head, and I was able to take in all Sapt said to me. He was wonderful. Fritz hardly spoke, riding like a man asleep, but Sapt, without another word for the King, began at once to instruct me most minutely in the history of my past life, of my family, of my tastes, pursuits, weaknesses, friends, companions, and servants. He told me the etiquette of the Ruritanian Court, promising to be constantly at my elbow to point out everybody whom I ought to know, and give me hints with what degree of favour to greet them.
"By the way," he said, "you're a Catholic, I suppose?"
"Not I," I answered.
"Lord, he's a heretic!" groaned Sapt, and forthwith he fell to a rudimentary lesson in the practices and observances of the Romish faith.
"Luckily," said he, "you won't be expected to know much, for the King's notoriously lax and careless about such matters. But you must be as civil as butter to the Cardinal. We hope to win him over, because he and Michael have a standing quarrel about their precedence."
We were by now at the station. Fritz had recovered nerve enough to explain to the astonished station master that the King had changed his plans. The train steamed up. We got into a first-class carriage, and Sapt, leaning back on the cushions, went on with his lesson. I looked at my watch—the King's watch it was, of course. It was just eight.
"I wonder if they've gone to look for us," I said.
"I hope they won't find the King," said Fritz nervously, and this time it was Sapt who shrugged his shoulders.
The train travelled well, and at half-past nine, looking out of the window, I saw the towers and spires of a great city.
"Your capital, my liege," grinned old Sapt, with a wave of his hand, and, leaning forward, he laid his finger on my pulse. "A little too quick," said he, in his grumbling tone.
"I'm not made of stone!" I exclaimed.
"You'll do," said he, with a nod. "We must say Fritz here has caught the ague. Drain your flask, Fritz, for heaven's sake, boy!"
Fritz did as he was bid.
"We're an hour early," said Sapt. "We'll send word forward for your Majesty's arrival, for there'll be no one here to meet us yet. And meanwhile—"
"Meanwhile," said I, "the King'll be hanged if he doesn't have some breakfast."
Old Sapt chuckled, and held out his hand.
"You're an Elphberg, every inch of you," said he. Then he paused, and looking at us, said quietly, "God send we may be alive tonight!"
"Amen!" said Fritz von Tarlenheim.
The train stopped. Fritz and Sapt leapt out, uncovered, and held the door for me. I choked down a lump that rose in my throat, settled my helmet firmly on my head, and (I'm not ashamed to say it) breathed a short prayer to God. Then I stepped on the platform of the station at Strelsau.
A moment later, all was bustle and confusion: men hurrying up, hats in hand, and hurrying off again; men conducting me to the buffet; men mounting and riding in hot haste to the quarters of the troops, to the Cathedral, to the residence of Duke Michael. Even as I swallowed the last drop of my cup of coffee, the bells throughout all the city broke out into a joyful peal, and the sound of a military band and of men cheering smote upon my ear.
King Rudolf the Fifth was in his good city of Strelsau! And they shouted outside—
"God save the King!"
Old Sapt's mouth wrinkled into a smile.
"God save 'em both!" he whispered. "Courage, lad!" and I felt his hand press my knee.
The Adventures of an Understudy
With Fritz von Tarlenheim and Colonel Sapt close behind me, I stepped out of the buffet on to the platform. The last thing I did was to feel if my revolver were handy and my sword loose in the scabbard. A gay group of officers and high dignitaries stood awaiting me, at their head a tall old man, covered with medals, and of military bearing. He wore the yellow and red ribbon of the Red Rose of Ruritania—which, by the way, decorated my unworthy breast also.
"Marshal Strakencz," whispered Sapt, and I knew that I was in the presence of the most famous veteran of the Ruritanian army.
Just behind the Marshal stood a short spare man, in flowing robes of black and crimson.
"The Chancellor of the Kingdom," whispered Sapt.
The Marshal greeted me in a few loyal words, and proceeded to deliver an apology from the Duke of Strelsau. The duke, it seemed, had been afflicted with a sudden indisposition which made it impossible for him to come to the station, but he craved leave to await his Majesty at the Cathedral. I expressed my concern, accepted the Marshal's excuses very suavely, and received the compliments of a large number of distinguished personages. No one betrayed the least suspicion, and I felt my nerve returning and the agitated beating of my heart subsiding. But Fritz was still pale, and his hand shook like a leaf as he extended it to the Marshal.
Presently we formed procession and took our way to the door of the station. Here I mounted my horse, the Marshal holding my stirrup. The civil dignitaries went off to their carriages, and I started to ride through the streets with the Marshal on my right and Sapt (who, as my chief aide-de-camp, was entitled to the place) on my left. The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous, and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent, and (in large measure) criminal class. These social and local divisions corresponded, as I knew from Sapt's information, to another division more important to me. The New Town was for the King; but to the Old Town Michael of Strelsau was a hope, a hero, and a darling.
The scene was very brilliant as we passed along the Grand Boulevard and on to the great square where the Royal Palace stood. Here I was in the midst of my devoted adherents. Every house was hung with red and bedecked with flags and mottoes. The streets were lined with raised seats on each side, and I passed along, bowing this way and that, under a shower of cheers, blessings, and waving handkerchiefs. The balconies were full of gaily dressed ladies, who clapped their hands and curtsied and threw their brightest glances at me. A torrent of red roses fell on me; one bloom lodged in my horse's mane, and I took it and stuck it in my coat. The Marshal smiled grimly. I had stolen some glances at his face, but he was too impassive to show me whether his sympathies were with me or not.
"The red rose for the Elphbergs, Marshal," said I gaily, and he nodded.
I have written "gaily," and a strange word it must seem. But the truth is, that I was drunk with excitement. At that moment I believed—I almost believed—that I was in very truth the King; and, with a look of laughing triumph, I raised my eyes to the beauty-laden balconies again . . . and then I started. For, looking down on me, with her handsome face and proud smile, was the lady who had been my fellow traveller—Antoinette de Mauban; and I saw her also start, and her lips moved, and she leant forward and gazed at me. And I, collecting myself, met her eyes full and square, while again I felt my revolver. Suppose she had cried aloud, "That's not the King!"
Well, we went by; and then the Marshal, turning round in his saddle, waved his hand, and the Cuirassiers closed round us, so that the crowd could not come near me. We were leaving my quarter and entering Duke Michael's, and this action of the Marshal's showed me more clearly than words what the state of feeling in the town must be. But if Fate made me a King, the least I could do was to play the part handsomely.
"Why this change in our order, Marshal?" said I.
The Marshal bit his white moustache.
"It is more prudent, sire," he murmured.
I drew rein.
"Let those in front ride on," said I, "till they are fifty yards ahead. But do you, Marshal, and Colonel Sapt and my friends, wait here till I have ridden fifty yards. And see that no one is nearer to me. I will have my people see that their King trusts them."
Sapt laid his hand on my arm. I shook him off. The Marshal hesitated.
"Am I not understood?" said I; and, biting his moustache again, he gave the orders. I saw old Sapt smiling into his beard, but he shook his head at me. If I had been killed in open day in the streets of Strelsau, Sapt's position would have been a difficult one.
Perhaps I ought to say that I was dressed all in white, except my boots. I wore a silver helmet with gilt ornaments, and the broad ribbon of the Rose looked well across my chest. I should be paying a poor compliment to the King if I did not set modesty aside and admit that I made a very fine figure. So the people thought; for when I, riding alone, entered the dingy, sparsely decorated, sombre streets of the Old Town, there was first a murmur, then a cheer, and a woman, from a window above a cookshop, cried the old local saying:
"If he's red, he's right!" whereat I laughed and took off my helmet that she might see that I was of the right colour and they cheered me again at that.
It was more interesting riding thus alone, for I heard the comments of the crowd.
"He looks paler than his wont," said one.
"You'd look pale if you lived as he does," was the highly disrespectful retort.
"He's a bigger man than I thought," said another.
"So he had a good jaw under that beard after all," commented a third.
"The pictures of him aren't handsome enough," declared a pretty girl, taking great care that I should hear. No doubt it was mere flattery.
But, in spite of these signs of approval and interest, the mass of the people received me in silence and with sullen looks, and my dear brother's portrait ornamented most of the windows—which was an ironical sort of greeting to the King. I was quite glad that he had been spared the unpleasant sight. He was a man of quick temper, and perhaps he would not have taken it so placidly as I did.
At last we were at the Cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshal and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes—the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment I believe that he had not realized that the King was in very truth come to Strelsau.
Of what followed next I remember nothing. I knelt before the altar and the Cardinal anointed my head. Then I rose to my feet, and stretched out my hand and took from him the crown of Ruritania and set it on my head, and I swore the old oath of the King; and (if it were a sin, may it be forgiven me) I received the Holy Sacrament there before them all. Then the great organ pealed out again, the Marshal bade the heralds proclaim me, and Rudolf the Fifth was crowned King; of which imposing ceremony an excellent picture hangs now in my dining-room. The portrait of the King is very good.
Then the lady with the pale face and the glorious hair, her train held by two pages, stepped from her place and came to where I stood. And a herald cried:
"Her Royal Highness the Princess Flavia!"
She curtsied low, and put her hand under mine and raised my hand and kissed it. And for an instant I thought what I had best do. Then I drew her to me and kissed her twice on the cheek, and she blushed red, and—then his Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop slipped in front of Black Michael, and kissed my hand and presented me with a letter from the Pope—the first and last which I have received from that exalted quarter!
And then came the Duke of Strelsau. His step trembled, I swear, and he looked to the right and to the left, as a man looks who thinks on flight; and his face was patched with red and white, and his hand shook so that it jumped under mine, and I felt his lips dry and parched. And I glanced at Sapt, who was smiling again into his beard, and, resolutely doing my duty in that station of life to which I had been marvellously called, I took my dear Michael by both hands and kissed him on the cheek. I think we were both glad when that was over!
But neither in the face of the princess nor in that of any other did I see the least doubt or questioning. Yet, had I and the King stood side by side, she could have told us in an instant, or, at least, on a little consideration. But neither she nor anyone else dreamed or imagined that I could be other than the King. So the likeness served, and for an hour I stood there, feeling as weary and blase as though I had been a king all my life; and everybody kissed my hand, and the ambassadors paid me their respects, among them old Lord Topham, at whose house in Grosvenor Square I had danced a score of times. Thank heaven, the old man was as blind as a bat, and did not claim my acquaintance.
Then back we went through the streets to the Palace, and I heard them cheering Black Michael; but he, Fritz told me, sat biting his nails like a man in a reverie, and even his own friends said that he should have made a braver show. I was in a carriage now, side by side with the Princess Flavia, and a rough fellow cried out:
"And when's the wedding?" and as he spoke another struck him in the face, crying "Long live Duke Michael!" and the princess coloured—it was an admirable tint—and looked straight in front of her.
Now I felt in a difficulty, because I had forgotten to ask Sapt the state of my affections, or how far matters had gone between the princess and myself. Frankly, had I been the King, the further they had gone the better should I have been pleased. For I am not a slow-blooded man, and I had not kissed Princess Flavia's cheek for nothing. These thoughts passed through my head, but, not being sure of my ground, I said nothing; and in a moment or two the princess, recovering her equanimity, turned to me.
"Do you know, Rudolf," said she, "you look somehow different today?"
The fact was not surprising, but the remark was disquieting.
"You look," she went on, "more sober, more sedate; you're almost careworn, and I declare you're thinner. Surely it's not possible that you've begun to take anything seriously?"
The princess seemed to hold of the King much the same opinion that Lady Burlesdon held of me.
I braced myself up to the conversation.
"Would that please you?" I asked softly.
"Oh, you know my views," said she, turning her eyes away.
"Whatever pleases you I try to do," I said; and, as I saw her smile and blush, I thought that I was playing the King's hand very well for him. So I continued and what I said was perfectly true:
"I assure you, my dear cousin, that nothing in my life has affected me more than the reception I've been greeted with today."
She smiled brightly, but in an instant grew grave again, and whispered:
"Did you notice Michael?"
"Yes," said I, adding, "he wasn't enjoying himself."
"Do be careful!" she went on. "You don't—indeed you don't—keep enough watch on him. You know—"
"I know," said I, "that he wants what I've got."
Then—and I can't justify it, for I committed the King far beyond what I had a right to do—I suppose she carried me off my feet—I went on:
"And perhaps also something which I haven't got yet, but hope to win some day."
This was my answer. Had I been the King, I should have thought it encouraging:
"Haven't you enough responsibilities on you for one day, cousin?"
Bang, bang! Blare, blare! We were at the Palace. Guns were firing and trumpets blowing. Rows of lackeys stood waiting, and, handing the princess up the broad marble staircase, I took formal possession, as a crowned King, of the House of my ancestors, and sat down at my own table, with my cousin on my right hand, on her other side Black Michael, and on my left his Eminence the Cardinal. Behind my chair stood Sapt; and at the end of the table, I saw Fritz von Tarlenheim drain to the bottom his glass of champagne rather sooner than he decently should.
I wondered what the King of Ruritania was doing.
The Secret of a Cellar
We were in the King's dressing-room—Fritz von Tarlenheim, Sapt, and I. I flung myself exhausted into an armchair. Sapt lit his pipe. He uttered no congratulations on the marvellous success of our wild risk, but his whole bearing was eloquent of satisfaction. The triumph, aided perhaps by good wine, had made a new man of Fritz.
"What a day for you to remember!" he cried. "Gad, I'd like to be King for twelve hours myself! But, Rassendyll, you mustn't throw your heart too much into the part. I don't wonder Black Michael looked blacker than ever—you and the princess had so much to say to one another."
"How beautiful she is!" I exclaimed.
"Never mind the woman," growled Sapt. "Are you ready to start?"
"Yes," said I, with a sigh.
It was five o'clock, and at twelve I should be no more than Rudolf Rassendyll. I remarked on it in a joking tone.
"You'll be lucky," observed Sapt grimly, "if you're not the late Rudolf Rassendyll. By Heaven! I feel my head wobbling on my shoulders every minute you're in the city. Do you know, friend, that Michael has had news from Zenda? He went into a room alone to read it—and he came out looking like a man dazed."
"I'm ready," said I, this news making me none the more eager to linger.
Sapt sat down.
"I must write us an order to leave the city. Michael's Governor, you know, and we must be prepared for hindrances. You must sign the order."
"My dear colonel, I've not been bred a forger!"
Out of his pocket Sapt produced a piece of paper.
"There's the King's signature," he said, "and here," he went on, after another search in his pocket, "is some tracing paper. If you can't manage a 'Rudolf' in ten minutes, why—I can."
"Your education has been more comprehensive than mine," said I. "You write it."
And a very tolerable forgery did this versatile hero produce.
"Now, Fritz," said he, "the King goes to bed. He is upset. No one is to see him till nine o'clock tomorrow. You understand—no one?"
"I understand," answered Fritz.
"Michael may come, and claim immediate audience. You'll answer that only princes of the blood are entitled to it."
"That'll annoy Michael," laughed Fritz.
"You quite understand?" asked Sapt again. "If the door of this room is opened while we're away, you're not to be alive to tell us about it."
"I need no schooling, colonel," said Fritz, a trifle haughtily.
"Here, wrap yourself in this big cloak," Sapt continued to me, "and put on this flat cap. My orderly rides with me to the hunting-lodge tonight."
"There's an obstacle," I observed. "The horse doesn't live that can carry me forty miles."
"Oh, yes, he does—two of him: one here—one at the lodge. Now, are you ready?"
"I'm ready," said I.
Fritz held out his hand.
"In case," said he; and we shook hands heartily.
"Damn your sentiment!" growled Sapt. "Come along."
He went, not to the door, but to a panel in the wall.
"In the old King's time," said he, "I knew this way well."
I followed him, and we walked, as I should estimate, near two hundred yards along a narrow passage. Then we came to a stout oak door. Sapt unlocked it. We passed through, and found ourselves in a quiet street that ran along the back of the Palace gardens. A man was waiting for us with two horses. One was a magnificent bay, up to any weight; the other a sturdy brown. Sapt signed to me to mount the bay. Without a word to the man, we mounted and rode away. The town was full of noise and merriment, but we took secluded ways. My cloak was wrapped over half my face; the capacious flat cap hid every lock of my tell-tale hair. By Sapt's directions, I crouched on my saddle, and rode with such a round back as I hope never to exhibit on a horse again. Down a long narrow lane we went, meeting some wanderers and some roisterers; and, as we rode, we heard the Cathedral bells still clanging out their welcome to the King. It was half-past six, and still light. At last we came to the city wall and to a gate.
"Have your weapon ready," whispered Sapt. "We must stop his mouth, if he talks."
I put my hand on my revolver. Sapt hailed the doorkeeper. The stars fought for us! A little girl of fourteen tripped out.
"Please, sir, father's gone to see the King."
"He'd better have stayed here," said Sapt to me, grinning.
"But he said I wasn't to open the gate, sir."
"Did he, my dear?" said Sapt, dismounting. "Then give me the key."
The key was in the child's hand. Sapt gave her a crown.
"Here's an order from the King. Show it to your father. Orderly, open the gate!"
I leapt down. Between us we rolled back the great gate, led our horses out, and closed it again.
"I shall be sorry for the doorkeeper if Michael finds out that he wasn't there. Now then, lad, for a canter. We mustn't go too fast while we're near the town."
Once, however, outside the city, we ran little danger, for everybody else was inside, merry-making; and as the evening fell we quickened our pace, my splendid horse bounding along under me as though I had been a feather. It was a fine night, and presently the moon appeared. We talked little on the way, and chiefly about the progress we were making.
"I wonder what the duke's despatches told him," said I, once.
"Ay, I wonder!" responded Sapt.
We stopped for a draught of wine and to bait our horses, losing half an hour thus. I dared not go into the inn, and stayed with the horses in the stable. Then we went ahead again, and had covered some five-and-twenty miles, when Sapt abruptly stopped.
"Hark!" he cried.
I listened. Away, far behind us, in the still of the evening—it was just half-past nine—we heard the beat of horses' hoofs. The wind blowing strong behind us, carried the sound. I glanced at Sapt.
"Come on!" he cried, and spurred his horse into a gallop. When we next paused to listen, the hoof-beats were not audible, and we relaxed our pace. Then we heard them again. Sapt jumped down and laid his ear to the ground.
"There are two," he said. "They're only a mile behind. Thank God the road curves in and out, and the wind's our way."
We galloped on. We seemed to be holding our own. We had entered the outskirts of the forest of Zenda, and the trees, closing in behind us as the track zigged and zagged, prevented us seeing our pursuers, and them from seeing us.
Another half-hour brought us to a divide of the road. Sapt drew rein.
"To the right is our road," he said. "To the left, to the Castle. Each about eight miles. Get down."
"But they'll be on us!" I cried.
"Get down!" he repeated brusquely; and I obeyed. The wood was dense up to the very edge of the road. We led our horses into the covert, bound handkerchiefs over their eyes, and stood beside them.
"You want to see who they are?" I whispered.
"Ay, and where they're going," he answered.
I saw that his revolver was in his hand.
Nearer and nearer came the hoofs. The moon shone out now clear and full, so that the road was white with it. The ground was hard, and we had left no traces.
"Here they come!" whispered Sapt.
"It's the duke!"
"I thought so," he answered.
It was the duke; and with him a burly fellow whom I knew well, and who had cause to know me afterwards—Max Holf, brother to Johann the keeper, and body-servant to his Highness. They were up to us: the duke reined up. I saw Sapt's finger curl lovingly towards the trigger. I believe he would have given ten years of his life for a shot; and he could have picked off Black Michael as easily as I could a barn-door fowl in a farmyard. I laid my hand on his arm. He nodded reassuringly: he was always ready to sacrifice inclination to duty.
"Which way?" asked Black Michael.
"To the Castle, your Highness," urged his companion. "There we shall learn the truth."
For an instant the duke hesitated.
"I thought I heard hoofs," said he.
"I think not, your Highness."
"Why shouldn't we go to the lodge?"
"I fear a trap. If all is well, why go to the lodge? If not, it's a snare to trap us."
Suddenly the duke's horse neighed. In an instant we folded our cloaks close round our horses' heads, and, holding them thus, covered the duke and his attendant with our revolvers. If they had found us, they had been dead men, or our prisoners.
Michael waited a moment longer. Then he cried:
"To Zenda, then!" and setting spurs to his horse, galloped on.
Sapt raised his weapon after him, and there was such an expression of wistful regret on his face that I had much ado not to burst out laughing.
For ten minutes we stayed where we were.
"You see," said Sapt, "they've sent him news that all is well."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"God knows," said Sapt, frowning heavily. "But it's brought him from Strelsau in a rare puzzle."
Then we mounted, and rode as fast as our weary horses could lay their feet to the ground. For those last eight miles we spoke no more. Our minds were full of apprehension. "All is well." What did it mean? Was all well with the King?
At last the lodge came in sight. Spurring our horses to a last gallop, we rode up to the gate. All was still and quiet. Not a soul came to meet us. We dismounted in haste. Suddenly Sapt caught me by the arm.
"Look there!" he said, pointing to the ground.
I looked down. At my feet lay five or six silk handkerchiefs, torn and slashed and rent. I turned to him questioningly.
"They're what I tied the old woman up with," said he. "Fasten the horses, and come along."
The handle of the door turned without resistance. We passed into the room which had been the scene of last night's bout. It was still strewn with the remnants of our meal and with empty bottles.
"Come on," cried Sapt, whose marvellous composure had at last almost given way.
We rushed down the passage towards the cellars. The door of the coal-cellar stood wide open.
"They found the old woman," said I.
"You might have known that from the handkerchiefs," he said.
Then we came opposite the door of the wine-cellar. It was shut. It looked in all respects as it had looked when we left it that morning.
"Come, it's all right," said I.
A loud oath from Sapt rang out. His face turned pale, and he pointed again at the floor. From under the door a red stain had spread over the floor of the passage and dried there. Sapt sank against the opposite wall. I tried the door. It was locked.
"Where's Josef?" muttered Sapt.
"Where's the King?" I responded.
Sapt took out a flask and put it to his lips. I ran back to the dining-room, and seized a heavy poker from the fireplace. In my terror and excitement I rained blows on the lock of the door, and I fired a cartridge into it. It gave way, and the door swung open.
"Give me a light," said I; but Sapt still leant against the wall.
He was, of course, more moved than I, for he loved his master. Afraid for himself he was not—no man ever saw him that; but to think what might lie in that dark cellar was enough to turn any man's face pale. I went myself, and took a silver candlestick from the dining-table and struck a light, and, as I returned, I felt the hot wax drip on my naked hand as the candle swayed to and fro; so that I cannot afford to despise Colonel Sapt for his agitation.
I came to the door of the cellar. The red stain turning more and more to a dull brown, stretched inside. I walked two yards into the cellar, and held the candle high above my head. I saw the full bins of wine; I saw spiders crawling on the walls; I saw, too, a couple of empty bottles lying on the floor; and then, away in the corner, I saw the body of a man, lying flat on his back, with his arms stretched wide, and a crimson gash across his throat. I walked to him and knelt down beside him, and commended to God the soul of a faithful man. For it was the body of Josef, the little servant, slain in guarding the King.
I felt a hand on my shoulders, and, turning, saw Sapt, eyes glaring and terror-struck, beside me.
"The King? My God! the King?" he whispered hoarsely.
I threw the candle's gleam over every inch of the cellar.
"The King is not here," said I.
His Majesty Sleeps in Strelsau
I put my arm round Sapt's waist and supported him out of the cellar, drawing the battered door close after me. For ten minutes or more we sat silent in the dining-room. Then old Sapt rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, gave one great gasp, and was himself again. As the clock on the mantelpiece struck one he stamped his foot on the floor, saying:
"They've got the King!"
"Yes," said I, "'all's well!' as Black Michael's despatch said. What a moment it must have been for him when the royal salutes fired at Strelsau this morning! I wonder when he got the message?"
"It must have been sent in the morning," said Sapt. "They must have sent it before news of your arrival at Strelsau reached Zenda—I suppose it came from Zenda."
"And he's carried it about all day!" I exclaimed. "Upon my honour, I'm not the only man who's had a trying day! What did he think, Sapt?"
"What does that matter? What does he think, lad, now?"
I rose to my feet.
"We must get back," I said, "and rouse every soldier in Strelsau. We ought to be in pursuit of Michael before midday."
Old Sapt pulled out his pipe and carefully lit it from the candle which guttered on the table.
"The King may be murdered while we sit here!" I urged.
Sapt smoked on for a moment in silence.
"That cursed old woman!" he broke out. "She must have attracted their attention somehow. I see the game. They came up to kidnap the King, and—as I say—somehow they found him. If you hadn't gone to Strelsau, you and I and Fritz had been in heaven by now!"
"And the King?"
"Who knows where the King is now?" he asked.
"Come, let's be off!" said I; but he sat still. And suddenly he burst into one of his grating chuckles:
"By Jove, we've shaken up Black Michael!"
"Come, come!" I repeated impatiently.
"And we'll shake him up a bit more," he added, a cunning smile broadening on his wrinkled, weather-beaten face, and his teeth working on an end of his grizzled moustache. "Ay, lad, we'll go back to Strelsau. The King shall be in his capital again tomorrow."
"The crowned King!"
"You're mad!" I cried.
"If we go back and tell the trick we played, what would you give for our lives?"
"Just what they're worth," said I.
"And for the King's throne? Do you think that the nobles and the people will enjoy being fooled as you've fooled them? Do you think they'll love a King who was too drunk to be crowned, and sent a servant to personate him?"
"He was drugged—and I'm no servant."
"Mine will be Black Michael's version."
He rose, came to me, and laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Lad," he said, "if you play the man, you may save the King yet. Go back and keep his throne warm for him."
"But the duke knows—the villains he has employed know—"
"Ay, but they can't speak!" roared Sapt in grim triumph.
"We've got 'em! How can they denounce you without denouncing themselves? This is not the King, because we kidnapped the King and murdered his servant. Can they say that?"
The position flashed on me. Whether Michael knew me or not, he could not speak. Unless he produced the King, what could he do? And if he produced the King, where was he? For a moment I was carried away headlong; but in an instant the difficulties came strong upon me.
"I must be found out," I urged.
"Perhaps; but every hour's something. Above all, we must have a King in Strelsau, or the city will be Michael's in four-and-twenty hours, and what would the King's life be worth then—or his throne? Lad, you must do it!"
"Suppose they kill the King?"
"They'll kill him, if you don't."
"Sapt, suppose they have killed the King?"
"Then, by heaven, you're as good an Elphberg as Black Michael, and you shall reign in Ruritania! But I don't believe they have; nor will they kill him if you're on the throne. Will they kill him, to put you in?"
It was a wild plan—wilder even and more hopeless than the trick we had already carried through; but as I listened to Sapt I saw the strong points in our game. And then I was a young man and I loved action, and I was offered such a hand in such a game as perhaps never man played yet.
"I shall be found out," I said.
"Perhaps," said Sapt. "Come! to Strelsau! We shall be caught like rats in a trap if we stay here."
"Sapt," I cried, "I'll try it!"
"Well played!" said he. "I hope they've left us the horses. I'll go and see."
"We must bury that poor fellow," said I.
"No time," said Sapt.
"I'll do it."
"Hang you!" he grinned. "I make you a King, and—Well, do it. Go and fetch him, while I look to the horses. He can't lie very deep, but I doubt if he'll care about that. Poor little Josef! He was an honest bit of a man."
He went out, and I went to the cellar. I raised poor Josef in my arms and bore him into the passage and thence towards the door of the house. Just inside I laid him down, remembering that I must find spades for our task. At this instant Sapt came up.
"The horses are all right; there's the own brother to the one that brought you here. But you may save yourself that job."
"I'll not go before he's buried."
"Yes, you will."
"Not I, Colonel Sapt; not for all Ruritania."
"You fool!" said he. "Come here."
He drew me to the door. The moon was sinking, but about three hundred yards away, coming along the road from Zenda, I made out a party of men. There were seven or eight of them; four were on horseback and the rest were walking, and I saw that they carried long implements, which I guessed to be spades and mattocks, on their shoulders.
"They'll save you the trouble," said Sapt. "Come along."
He was right. The approaching party must, beyond doubt, be Duke Michael's men, come to remove the traces of their evil work. I hesitated no longer, but an irresistible desire seized me.
Pointing to the corpse of poor little Josef, I said to Sapt:
"Colonel, we ought to strike a blow for him!"
"You'd like to give him some company, eh! But it's too risky work, your Majesty."
"I must have a slap at 'em," said I.
"Well," said he, "it's not business, you know; but you've been good boy—and if we come to grief, why, hang me, it'll save us lot of thinking! I'll show you how to touch them."
He cautiously closed the open chink of the door.
Then we retreated through the house and made our way to the back entrance. Here our horses were standing. A carriage-drive swept all round the lodge.
"Revolver ready?" asked Sapt.
"No; steel for me," said I.
"Gad, you're thirsty tonight," chuckled Sapt. "So be it."
We mounted, drawing our swords, and waited silently for a minute or two. Then we heard the tramp of men on the drive the other side of the house. They came to a stand, and one cried:
"Now then, fetch him out!"
"Now!" whispered Sapt.
Driving the spurs into our horses, we rushed at a gallop round the house, and in a moment we were among the ruffians. Sapt told me afterwards that he killed a man, and I believe him; but I saw no more of him. With a cut, I split the head of a fellow on a brown horse, and he fell to the ground. Then I found myself opposite a big man, and I was half conscious of another to my right. It was too warm to stay, and with a simultaneous action I drove my spurs into my horse again and my sword full into the big man's breast. His bullet whizzed past my ear—I could almost swear it touched it. I wrenched at the sword, but it would not come, and I dropped it and galloped after Sapt, whom I now saw about twenty yards ahead. I waved my hand in farewell, and dropped it a second later with a yell, for a bullet had grazed my finger and I felt the blood. Old Sapt turned round in the saddle. Someone fired again, but they had no rifles, and we were out of range. Sapt fell to laughing.
"That's one to me and two to you, with decent luck," said he. "Little Josef will have company."
"Ay, they'll be a partie carree," said I. My blood was up, and I rejoiced to have killed them.
"Well, a pleasant night's work to the rest!" said he. "I wonder if they noticed you?"
"The big fellow did; as I stuck him I heard him cry, 'The King!'"
"Good! good! Oh, we'll give Black Michael some work before we've done!"
Pausing an instant, we made a bandage for my wounded finger, which was bleeding freely and ached severely, the bone being much bruised. Then we rode on, asking of our good horses all that was in them. The excitement of the fight and of our great resolve died away, and we rode in gloomy silence. Day broke clear and cold. We found a farmer just up, and made him give us sustenance for ourselves and our horses. I, feigning a toothache, muffled my face closely. Then ahead again, till Strelsau lay before us. It was eight o'clock or nearing nine, and the gates were all open, as they always were save when the duke's caprice or intrigues shut them. We rode in by the same way as we had come out the evening before, all four of us—the men and the horses—wearied and jaded. The streets were even quieter than when we had gone: everyone was sleeping off last night's revelry, and we met hardly a soul till we reached the little gate of the Palace. There Sapt's old groom was waiting for us.
"Is all well, sir?" he asked.
"All's well," said Sapt, and the man, coming to me, took my hand to kiss.
"The King's hurt!" he cried.
"It's nothing," said I, as I dismounted; "I caught my finger in the door."
"Remember—silence!" said Sapt. "Ah! but, my good Freyler, I do not need to tell you that!"
The old fellow shrugged his shoulders.
"All young men like to ride abroad now and again, why not the King?" said he; and Sapt's laugh left his opinion of my motives undisturbed.
"You should always trust a man," observed Sapt, fitting the key in the lock, "just as far as you must."
We went in and reached the dressing-room. Flinging open the door, we saw Fritz von Tarlenheim stretched, fully dressed, on the sofa. He seemed to have been sleeping, but our entry woke him. He leapt to his feet, gave one glance at me, and with a joyful cry, threw himself on his knees before me.
"Thank God, sire! thank God, you're safe!" he cried, stretching his hand up to catch hold of mine.
I confess that I was moved. This King, whatever his faults, made people love him. For a moment I could not bear to speak or break the poor fellow's illusion. But tough old Sapt had no such feeling. He slapped his hand on his thigh delightedly.
"Bravo, lad!" cried he. "We shall do!"
Fritz looked up in bewilderment. I held out my hand.
"You're wounded, sire!" he exclaimed.
"It's only a scratch," said I, "but—" I paused.
He rose to his feet with a bewildered air. Holding my hand, he looked me up and down, and down and up. Then suddenly he dropped my hand and reeled back.
"Where's the King? Where's the King?" he cried.
"Hush, you fool!" hissed Sapt. "Not so loud! Here's the King!"
A knock sounded on the door. Sapt seized me by the hand.
"Here, quick, to the bedroom! Off with your cap and boots. Get into bed. Cover everything up."
I did as I was bid. A moment later Sapt looked in, nodded, grinned, and introduced an extremely smart and deferential young gentleman, who came up to my bedside, bowing again and again, and informed me that he was of the household of the Princess Flavia, and that her Royal Highness had sent him especially to enquire how the King's health was after the fatigues which his Majesty had undergone yesterday.
"My best thanks, sir, to my cousin," said I; "and tell her Royal Highness that I was never better in my life."
"The King," added old Sapt (who, I began to find, loved a good lie for its own sake), "has slept without a break all night."
The young gentleman (he reminded me of "Osric" in Hamlet) bowed himself out again. The farce was over, and Fritz von Tarlenheim's pale face recalled us to reality—though, in faith, the farce had to be reality for us now.
"Is the King dead?" he whispered.
"Please God, no," said I. "But he's in the hands of Black Michael!"
A Fair Cousin and a Dark Brother
A real king's life is perhaps a hard one; but a pretended king's is, I warrant, much harder. On the next day, Sapt instructed me in my duties—what I ought to do and what I ought to know—for three hours; then I snatched breakfast, with Sapt still opposite me, telling me that the King always took white wine in the morning and was known to detest all highly seasoned dishes. Then came the Chancellor, for another three hours; and to him I had to explain that the hurt to my finger (we turned that bullet to happy account) prevented me from writing—whence arose great to-do, hunting of precedents and so forth, ending in my "making my mark," and the Chancellor attesting it with a superfluity of solemn oaths. Then the French ambassador was introduced, to present his credentials; here my ignorance was of no importance, as the King would have been equally raw to the business (we worked through the whole corps diplomatique in the next few days, a demise of the Crown necessitating all this bother).
Then, at last, I was left alone. I called my new servant (we had chosen, to succeed poor Josef, a young man who had never known the King), had a brandy-and-soda brought to me, and observed to Sapt that I trusted that I might now have a rest. Fritz von Tarlenheim was standing by.
"By heaven!" he cried, "we waste time. Aren't we going to throw Black Michael by the heels?"
"Gently, my son, gently," said Sapt, knitting his brows. "It would be a pleasure, but it might cost us dear. Would Michael fall and leave the King alive?"
"And," I suggested, "while the King is here in Strelsau, on his throne, what grievance has he against his dear brother Michael?"
"Are we to do nothing, then?"
"We're to do nothing stupid," growled Sapt.
"In fact, Fritz," said I, "I am reminded of a situation in one of our English plays—The Critic—have you heard of it? Or, if you like, of two men, each covering the other with a revolver. For I can't expose Michael without exposing myself—"
"And the King," put in Sapt.
"And, hang me if Michael won't expose himself, if he tries to expose me!"
"It's very pretty," said old Sapt.
"If I'm found out," I pursued, "I will make a clean breast of it, and fight it out with the duke; but at present I'm waiting for a move from him."
"He'll kill the King," said Fritz.
"Not he," said Sapt.
"Half of the Six are in Strelsau," said Fritz.
"Only half? You're sure?" asked Sapt eagerly.
"Then the King's alive, for the other three are guarding him!" cried Sapt.
"Yes—you're right!" exclaimed Fritz, his face brightening. "If the King were dead and buried, they'd all be here with Michael. You know Michael's back, colonel?"
"I know, curse him!"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," said I, "who are the Six?"
"I think you'll make their acquaintance soon," said Sapt. "They are six gentlemen whom Michael maintains in his household: they belong to him body and soul. There are three Ruritanians; then there's a Frenchman, a Belgian, and one of your countrymen."
"They'd all cut a throat if Michael told them," said Fritz.
"Perhaps they'll cut mine," I suggested.
"Nothing more likely," agreed Sapt. "Who are here, Fritz?"
"De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard."
"The foreigners! It's as plain as a pikestaff. He's brought them, and left the Ruritanians with the King; that's because he wants to commit the Ruritanians as deep as he can."
"They were none of them among our friends at the lodge, then?" I asked.
"I wish they had been," said Sapt wistfully. "They had been, not six, but four, by now."
I had already developed one attribute of royalty—a feeling that I need not reveal all my mind or my secret designs even to my intimate friends. I had fully resolved on my course of action. I meant to make myself as popular as I could, and at the same time to show no disfavour to Michael. By these means I hoped to allay the hostility of his adherents, and make it appear, if an open conflict came about, that he was ungrateful and not oppressed.
Yet an open conflict was not what I hoped for.
The King's interest demanded secrecy; and while secrecy lasted, I had a fine game to play in Strelsau, Michael should not grow stronger for delay!
I ordered my horse, and, attended by Fritz von Tarlenheim, rode in the grand new avenue of the Royal Park, returning all the salutes which I received with punctilious politeness. Then I rode through a few of the streets, stopped and bought flowers of a pretty girl, paying her with a piece of gold; and then, having attracted the desired amount of attention (for I had a trail of half a thousand people after me), I rode to the residence of the Princess Flavia, and asked if she would receive me. This step created much interest, and was met with shouts of approval. The princess was very popular, and the Chancellor himself had not scrupled to hint to me that the more I pressed my suit, and the more rapidly I brought it to a prosperous conclusion, the stronger should I be in the affection of my subjects. The Chancellor, of course, did not understand the difficulties which lay in the way of following his loyal and excellent advice. However, I thought I could do no harm by calling; and in this view Fritz supported me with a cordiality that surprised me, until he confessed that he also had his motives for liking a visit to the princess's house, which motive was no other than a great desire to see the princess's lady-in-waiting and bosom friend, the Countess Helga von Strofzin.
Etiquette seconded Fritz's hopes. While I was ushered into the princess's room, he remained with the countess in the ante-chamber: in spite of the people and servants who were hanging about, I doubt not that they managed a tete-a-tete; but I had no leisure to think of them, for I was playing the most delicate move in all my difficult game. I had to keep the princess devoted to me—and yet indifferent to me: I had to show affection for her—and not feel it. I had to make love for another, and that to a girl who—princess or no princess—was the most beautiful I had ever seen. Well, I braced myself to the task, made no easier by the charming embarrassment with which I was received. How I succeeded in carrying out my programme will appear hereafter.
"You are gaining golden laurels," she said. "You are like the prince in Shakespeare who was transformed by becoming king. But I'm forgetting you are King, sire."
"I ask you to speak nothing but what your heart tells you—and to call me nothing but my name."
She looked at me for a moment.
"Then I'm glad and proud, Rudolf," said she. "Why, as I told you, your very face is changed."
I acknowledged the compliment, but I disliked the topic; so I said:
"My brother is back, I hear. He made an excursion, didn't he?"
"Yes, he is here," she said, frowning a little.
"He can't stay long from Strelsau, it seems," I observed, smiling. "Well, we are all glad to see him. The nearer he is, the better."