The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope
Part 3 out of 4
She came back in a few minutes, looking grave, yet very curious.
"Well, how is Johann?" I asked, beginning my dinner.
"Oh, that fellow, sir--my lord King, I mean!"
""Sir" will do, please. How is he?"
"We hardly see him now, sir."
"And why not?"
"I told him he came too often, sir," said she, tossing her head.
"So he sulks and stays away?"
"But you could bring him back?" I suggested with a smile.
"Perhaps I could," said she.
"I know your powers, you see," said I, and she blushed with pleasure.
"It's not only that, sir, that keeps him away. He's very busy
at the Castle."
"But there's no shooting on now."
"No, sir; but he's in charge of the house."
"Johann turned housemaid?"
The little girl was brimming over with gossip.
"Well, there are no others," said she. "There's not a woman there--
not as a servant, I mean. They do say--but perhaps it's false, sir."
"Let's have it for what it's worth," said I.
"Indeed, I'm ashamed to tell you, sir."
"Oh, see, I'm looking at the ceiling."
"They do say there is a lady there, sir; but, except for her,
there's not a woman in the place. And Johann has to wait on
"Poor Johann! He must be overworked. Yet I'm sure he could
find half an hour to come and see you."
"It would depend on the time, sir, perhaps."
"Do you love him?" I asked.
"Not I, sir."
"And you wish to serve the King?"
"Then tell him to meet you at the second milestone out of Zenda
tomorrow evening at ten o'clock. Say you'll be there and will walk
home with him."
"Do you mean him harm, sir?"
"Not if he will do as I bid him. But I think I've told you enough,
my pretty maid. See that you do as I bid you. And, mind,
no one is to know that the King has been here."
I spoke a little sternly, for there is seldom harm in infusing
a little fear into a woman's liking for you, and I softened
the effect by giving her a handsome present. Then we dined,
and, wrapping my cloak about my face, with Fritz leading the way,
we went downstairs to our horses again.
It was but half-past eight, and hardly yet dark; the streets
were full for such a quiet little place, and I could see that
gossip was all agog. With the King on one side and the duke
on the other, Zenda felt itself the centre of all Ruritania.
We jogged gently through the town, but set our horses to a sharper
pace when we reached the open country.
"You want to catch this fellow Johann?" asked Fritz.
"Ay, and I fancy I've baited the hook right. Our little Delilah
will bring our Samson. It is not enough, Fritz, to have no women
in a house, though brother Michael shows some wisdom there.
If you want safety, you must have none within fifty miles."
"None nearer than Strelsau, for instance," said poor Fritz,
with a lovelorn sigh.
We reached the avenue of the chateau, and were soon at the house.
As the hoofs of our horses sounded on the gravel, Sapt rushed out to meet us.
"Thank God, you're safe!" he cried. "Have you seen anything of them?"
"Of whom?" I asked, dismounting.
He drew us aside, that the grooms might not hear.
"Lad," he said to me, "you must not ride about here, unless with
half a dozen of us. You know among our men a tall young fellow,
Bernenstein by name?"
I knew him. He was a fine strapping young man, almost of my height,
and of light complexion.
"He lies in his room upstairs, with a bullet through his arm."
"The deuce he does!"
"After dinner he strolled out alone, and went a mile or so
into the wood; and as he walked, he thought he saw three men
among the trees; and one levelled a gun at him. He had
no weapon, and he started at a run back towards the house.
But one of them fired, and he was hit, and had much ado to reach
here before he fainted. By good luck, they feared to pursue him
nearer the house."
He paused and added:
"Lad, the bullet was meant for you."
"It is very likely," said I, "and it's first blood to brother Michael."
"I wonder which three it was," said Fritz.
"Well, Sapt," I said, "I went out tonight for no idle purpose,
as you shall hear. But there's one thing in my mind."
"What's that?" he asked.
"Why this," I answered. "That I shall ill requite the very great
honours Ruritania has done me if I depart from it leaving one of
those Six alive--neither with the help of God, will I."
And Sapt shook my hand on that.
An Improvement on Jacob's Ladder
In the morning of the day after that on which I swore my oath
against the Six, I gave certain orders, and then rested in greater
contentment than I had known for some time. I was at work;
and work, though it cannot cure love, is yet a narcotic to it;
so that Sapt, who grew feverish, marvelled to see me sprawling
in an armchair in the sunshine, listening to one of my friends
who sang me amorous songs in a mellow voice and induced in me a
pleasing melancholy. Thus was I engaged when young Rupert Hentzau,
who feared neither man nor devil, and rode through the demesne--
where every tree might hide a marksman, for all he knew--
as though it had been the park at Strelsau, cantered up
to where I lay, bowing with burlesque deference, and craving
private speech with me in order to deliver a message from
the Duke of Strelsau. I made all withdraw, and then he said,
seating himself by me:
"The King is in love, it seems?"
"Not with life, my lord," said I, smiling.
"It is well," he rejoined. "Come, we are alone, Rassendyll--"
I rose to a sitting posture.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I was about to call one of my gentlemen to bring your horse,
my lord. If you do not know how to address the King, my brother
must find another messenger."
"Why keep up the farce?" he asked, negligently dusting his boot
with his glove.
"Because it is not finished yet; and meanwhile I'll choose my own name."
"Oh, so be it! Yet I spoke in love for you; for indeed you are
a man after my own heart."
"Saving my poor honesty," said I, "maybe I am. But that I
keep faith with men, and honour with women, maybe I am, my lord."
He darted a glance at me--a glance of anger.
"Is your mother dead?" said I.
"Ay, she's dead."
"She may thank God," said I, and I heard him curse me softly.
"Well, what's the message?" I continued.
I had touched him on the raw, for all the world knew he had
broken his mother's heart and flaunted his mistresses in her house;
and his airy manner was gone for the moment.
"The duke offers you more than I would," he growled.
"A halter for you, sire, was my suggestion. But he offers
you safe-conduct across the frontier and a million crowns."
"I prefer your offer, my lord, if I am bound to one."
"I told Michael you would;" and the villain, his temper restored,
gave me the sunniest of smiles. "The fact is, between ourselves,"
he continued, "Michael doesn't understand a gentleman."
I began to laugh.
"And you?" I asked.
"I do," he said. "Well, well, the halter be it."
"I'm sorry you won't live to see it," I observed.
"Has his Majesty done me the honour to fasten a particular quarrel on me?"
"I would you were a few years older, though."
"Oh, God gives years, but the devil gives increase," laughed he.
"I can hold my own."
"How is your prisoner?" I asked.
"I forgot your wishes, sire. Well, he is alive."
He rose to his feet; I imitated him. Then, with a smile, he said:
"And the pretty princess? Faith, I'll wager the next Elphberg
will be red enough, for all that Black Michael will be called his father."
I sprang a step towards him, clenching my hand. He did not
move an inch, and his lip curled in insolent amusement.
"Go, while your skin's whole!" I muttered. He had repaid me with interest
my hit about his mother.
Then came the most audacious thing I have known in my life.
My friends were some thirty yards away. Rupert called to a groom
to bring him his horse, and dismissed the fellow with a crown.
The horse stood near. I stood still, suspecting nothing.
Rupert made as though to mount; then he suddenly turned to me:
his left hand resting in his belt, his right outstretched:
"Shake hands," he said.
I bowed, and did as he had foreseen--I put my hands behind me.
Quicker than thought, his left hand darted out at me,
and a small dagger flashed in the air; he struck me in the left shoulder
--had I not swerved, it had been my heart. With a cry, I staggered back.
Without touching the stirrup, he leapt upon his horse and was off like
an arrow, pursued by cries and revolver shots--the last as useless
as the first--and I sank into my chair, bleeding profusely,
as I watched the devil's brat disappear down the long avenue.
My friends surrounded me, and then I fainted.
I suppose that I was put to bed, and there lay, unconscious,
or half conscious, for many hours; for it was night when I awoke
to my full mind, and found Fritz beside me. I was weak
and weary, but he bade me be of good cheer, saying that my wound
would soon heal, and that meanwhile all had gone well,
for Johann, the keeper, had fallen into the snare we had laid
for him, and was even now in the house.
"And the queer thing is," pursued Fritz, "that I fancy he's not
altogether sorry to find himself here. He seems to think that
when Black Michael has brought off his coup, witnesses of how
it was effected--saving, of course, the Six themselves--will
not be at a premium."
This idea argued a shrewdness in our captive which led me
to build hopes on his assistance. I ordered him to be brought
in at once. Sapt conducted him, and set him in a chair
by my bedside. He was sullen, and afraid; but, to say truth,
after young Rupert's exploit, we also had our fears, and,
if he got as far as possible from Sapt's formidable six-shooter,
Sapt kept him as far as he could from me. Moreover, when he came
in his hands were bound, but that I would not suffer.
I need not stay to recount the safeguards and rewards we promised
the fellow--all of which were honourably observed and paid,
so that he lives now in prosperity (though where I may not mention);
and we were the more free inasmuch as we soon learnt that he was rather
a weak man than a wicked, and had acted throughout this matter more
from fear of the duke and of his own brother Max than for any love
of what was done. But he had persuaded all of his loyalty;
and though not in their secret counsels, was yet, by his knowledge
of their dispositions within the Castle, able to lay bare before us
the very heart of their devices. And here, in brief, is his story:
Below the level of the ground in the Castle, approached by a
flight of stone steps which abutted on the end of the drawbridge,
were situated two small rooms, cut out of the rock itself.
The outer of the two had no windows, but was always lighted
with candles; the inner had one square window, which gave upon
the moat. In the outer room there lay always, day and night,
three of the Six; and the instructions of Duke Michael were,
that on any attack being made on the outer room, the three were
to defend the door of it so long as they could without risk to themselves.
But, so soon as the door should be in danger of being forced,
then Rupert Hentzau or Detchard (for one of these two was always there)
should leave the others to hold it as long as they could,
and himself pass into the inner room, and, without more ado,
kill the King who lay there, well-treated indeed,
but without weapons, and with his arms confined in fine steel chains,
which did not allow him to move his elbow more than three inches
from his side. Thus, before the outer door were stormed,
the King would be dead. And his body? For his body would be
evidence as damning as himself.
"Nay, sir," said Johann, "his Highness has thought of that.
While the two hold the outer room, the one who has killed the King
unlocks the bars in the square window (they turn on a hinge).
The window now gives no light, for its mouth is choked by a great
pipe of earthenware; and this pipe, which is large enough to let
pass through it the body of a man, passes into the moat,
coming to an end immediately above the surface of the water,
so that there is no perceptible interval between water and pipe.
The King being dead, his murderer swiftly ties a weight to the body,
and, dragging it to the window, raises it by a pulley (for,
lest the weight should prove too great, Detchard has provided one)
till it is level with the mouth of the pipe. He inserts the feet
in the pipe, and pushes the body down. Silently, without splash or sound,
it falls into the water and thence to the bottom of the moat,
which is twenty feet deep thereabouts. This done, the murderer
cries loudly, "All's well!" and himself slides down the pipe;
and the others, if they can and the attack is not too hot,
run to the inner room and, seeking a moment's delay, bar the door,
and in their turn slide down. And though the King rises not
from the bottom, they rise and swim round to the other side,
where the orders are for men to wait them with ropes,
to haul them out, and horses. And here, if things go ill,
the duke will join them and seek safety by riding;
but if all goes well, they will return to the Castle,
and have their enemies in a trap. That, sir,
is the plan of his Highness for the disposal
of the King in case of need. But it is not
to be used till the last; for, as we all know,
he is not minded to kill the King unless he can,
before or soon after, kill you also, sir. Now, sir,
I have spoken the truth, as God is my witness,
and I pray you to shield me from the vengeance of Duke Michael;
for if, after he knows what I have done, I fall into his hands,
I shall pray for one thing out of all the world--a speedy death,
and that I shall not obtain from him!"
The fellow's story was rudely told, but our questions supplemented
his narrative. What he had told us applied to an armed attack;
but if suspicions were aroused, and there came overwhelming force--such,
for instance, as I, the King, could bring--the idea of resistance would
be abandoned; the King would be quietly murdered and slid down the pipe.
And--here comes an ingenious touch--one of the Six would take his place
in the cell, and, on the entrance of the searchers, loudly demand release
and redress; and Michael, being summoned, would confess to hasty action,
but he would say the man had angered him by seeking the favour of a lady
in the Castle (this was Antoinette de Mauban) and he had confined him there,
as he conceived he, as Lord of Zenda, had right to do. But he was now,
on receiving his apology, content to let him go, and so end the gossip which,
to his Highness's annoyance, had arisen concerning a prisoner in Zenda,
and had given his visitors the trouble of this enquiry. The visitors,
baffled, would retire, and Michael could, at his leisure,
dispose of the body of the King.
Sapt, Fritz, and I in my bed, looked round on one another
in horror and bewilderment at the cruelty and cunning of the plan.
Whether I went in peace or in war, openly at the head of a corps,
or secretly by a stealthy assault, the King would be dead before
I could come near him. If Michael were stronger and overcame my party,
there would be an end. But if I were stronger, I should have no way
to punish him, no means of proving any guilt in him without proving
my own guilt also. On the other hand, I should be left as King
(ah! for a moment my pulse quickened) and it would be for the future
to witness the final struggle between him and me. He seemed to
have made triumph possible and ruin impossible. At the worst,
he would stand as well as he had stood before I crossed his path--
with but one man between him and the throne, and that man an impostor;
at best, there would be none left to stand against him. I had begun
to think that Black Michael was over fond of leaving the fighting
to his friends; but now I acknowledged that the brains,
if not the arms, of the conspiracy were his.
"Does the King know this?" I asked.
"I and my brother," answered Johann, "put up the pipe, under
the orders of my Lord of Hentzau. He was on guard that day,
and the King asked my lord what it meant. "Faith," he answered,
with his airy laugh, "it's a new improvement on the ladder of Jacob,
whereby, as you have read, sire, men pass from the earth to heaven.
We thought it not meet that your Majesty should go, in case, sire,
you must go, by the common route. So we have made you a pretty
private passage where the vulgar cannot stare at you or incommode
your passage. That, sire, is the meaning of that pipe."
And he laughed and bowed, and prayed the King's leave
to replenish the King's glass--for the King was at supper.
And the King, though he is a brave man, as are all of his House,
grew red and then white as he looked on the pipe and at the merry
devil who mocked him. Ah, sir" (and the fellow shuddered),
"it is not easy to sleep quiet in the Castle of Zenda,
for all of them would as soon cut a man's throat as play
a game at cards; and my Lord Rupert would choose it sooner
for a pastime than any other--ay, sooner than he would ruin a woman,
though that he loves also."
The man ceased, and I bade Fritz take him away and have
him carefully guarded; and, turning to him, I added:
"If anyone asks you if there is a prisoner in Zenda, you may
answer "Yes." But if any asks who the prisoner is, do not answer.
For all my promises will not save you if any man here learns
from you the truth as to the prisoner of Zenda. I'll kill you
like a dog if the thing be so much as breathed within the house!"
Then, when he was gone, I looked at Sapt.
"It's a hard nut!" said I.
"So hard," said he, shaking his grizzled head, "that as I think,
this time next year is like to find you still King of Ruritania!"
and he broke out into curses on Michael's cunning.
I lay back on my pillows.
"There seems to me," I observed, "to be two ways by which
the King can come out of Zenda alive. One is by treachery
in the duke's followers."
"You can leave that out," said Sapt.
"I hope not," I rejoined, "because the other I was about to mention is--
by a miracle from heaven!"
A Night Outside the Castle
It would have surprised the good people of Ruritania to know
of the foregoing talk; for, according to the official reports,
I had suffered a grievous and dangerous hurt from an accidental
spear-thrust, received in the course of my sport. I caused the
bulletins to be of a very serious character, and created great
public excitement, whereby three things occurred: first, I gravely
offended the medical faculty of Strelsau by refusing to summon
to my bedside any of them, save a young man, a friend of Fritz's,
whom we could trust; secondly, I received word from Marshal Strakencz
that my orders seemed to have no more weight than his,
and that the Princess Flavia was leaving for Tarlenheim
under his unwilling escort (news whereat I strove not to be
glad and proud); and thirdly, my brother, the Duke of Strelsau,
although too well informed to believe the account of the origin
of my sickness, was yet persuaded by the reports and by my seeming
inactivity that I was in truth incapable of action, and that my life
was in some danger. This I learnt from the man Johann, whom I was compelled
to trust and send back to Zenda, where, by the way, Rupert Hentzau had him
soundly flogged for daring to smirch the morals of Zenda by staying out
all night in the pursuits of love. This, from Rupert, Johann deeply resented,
and the duke's approval of it did more to bind the keeper to my side
than all my promises.
On Flavia's arrival I cannot dwell. Her joy at finding me up
and well, instead of on my back and fighting with death,
makes a picture that even now dances before my eyes till they grow
too dim to see it; and her reproaches that I had not trusted even her
must excuse the means I took to quiet them. In truth, to have her
with me once more was like a taste of heaven to a damned soul,
the sweeter for the inevitable doom that was to follow;
and I rejoiced in being able to waste two whole days with her.
And when I had wasted two days, the Duke of Strelsau arranged
The stroke was near now. For Sapt and I, after anxious consultations,
had resolved that we must risk a blow, our resolution being clinched
by Johann's news that the King grew peaked, pale, and ill, and that
his health was breaking down under his rigorous confinement.
Now a man--be he king or no king--may as well die swiftly
and as becomes a gentleman, from bullet or thrust, as rot his life out
in a cellar! That thought made prompt action advisable in the interests
of the King; from my own point of view, it grew more and more necessary.
For Strakencz urged on me the need of a speedy marriage, and my own
inclinations seconded him with such terrible insistence that I feared
for my resolution. I do not believe that I should have done the deed
I dreamt of; but I might have come to flight, and my flight would have
ruined the cause. And--yes, I am no saint (ask my little sister-in-law),
and worse still might have happened.
It is perhaps as strange a thing as has ever been in the history
of a country that the King's brother and the King's personator,
in a time of profound outward peace, near a placid, undisturbed
country town, under semblance of amity, should wage a desperate
war for the person and life of the King. Yet such was the struggle
that began now between Zenda and Tarlenheim. When I look back on the time,
I seem to myself to have been half mad. Sapt has told me that I suffered
no interference and listened to no remonstrances; and if ever a King
of Ruritania ruled like a despot, I was, in those days, the man.
Look where I would, I saw nothing that made life sweet to me,
and I took my life in my hand and carried it carelessly as a man dangles
an old glove. At first they strove to guard me, to keep me safe,
to persuade me not to expose myself; but when they saw how I was set,
there grew up among them--whether they knew the truth or not--
a feeling that Fate ruled the issue, and that I must be left
to play my game with Michael my own way.
Late next night I rose from table, where Flavia had sat by me,
and conducted her to the door of her apartments. There I kissed
her hand, and bade her sleep sound and wake to happy days.
Then I changed my clothes and went out. Sapt and Fritz were
waiting for me with six men and the horses. Over his saddle
Sapt carried a long coil of rope, and both were heavily armed.
I had with me a short stout cudgel and a long knife. Making
a circuit, we avoided the town, and in an hour found ourselves
slowly mounting the hill that led to the Castle of Zenda.
The night was dark and very stormy; gusts of wind and spits
of rain caught us as we breasted the incline, and the great trees
moaned and sighed. When we came to a thick clump, about a
quarter of a mile from the Castle, we bade our six friends hide
there with the horses. Sapt had a whistle, and they could
rejoin us in a few moments if danger came: but, up to now,
we had met no one. I hoped that Michael was still off his guard,
believing me to be safe in bed. However that might be,
we gained the top of the hill without accident, and found ourselves
on the edge of the moat where it sweeps under the road, separating
the Old Castle from it. A tree stood on the edge of the bank,
and Sapt,silently and diligently, set to make fast the rope.
I stripped off my boots, took a pull at a flask of brandy,
loosened the knife in its sheath, and took the cudgel between my teeth.
Then I shook hands with my friends, not heeding a last look of entreaty
from Fritz, and laid hold of the rope. I was going to have a look at
Gently I lowered myself into the water. Though the night was wild,
the day had been warm and bright, and the water was not cold.
I struck out, and began to swim round the great walls which
frowned above me. I could see only three yards ahead;
I had then good hopes of not being seen, as I crept along
close under the damp, moss-grown masonry. There were lights
from the new part of the Castle on the other side, and now
and again I heard laughter and merry shouts. I fancied
I recognized young Rupert Hentzau's ringing tones,
and pictured him flushed with wine. Recalling my thoughts
to the business in hand, I rested a moment. If Johann's
description were right, I must be near the window now.
Very slowly I moved; and out of the darkness ahead loomed a shape.
It was the pipe, curving from the window to the water:
about four feet of its surface were displayed;
it was as big round as two men. I was about to approach it,
when I saw something else, and my heart stood still. The nose
of a boat protruded beyond the pipe on the other side;
and listening intently, I heard a slight shuffle--as of a man
shifting his position. Who was the man who guarded Michael's invention?
Was he awake or was he asleep? I felt if my knife were ready,
and trod water; as I did so, I found bottom under my feet.
The foundations of the Castle extended some fifteen inches,
making a ledge; and I stood on it, out of water from my armpits upwards.
Then I crouched and peered through the darkness under the pipe, where,
curving, it left a space.
There was a man in the boat. A rifle lay by him--I saw the gleam
of the barrel. Here was the sentinel! He sat very still.
I listened; he breathed heavily, regularly, monotonously.
By heaven, he slept! Kneeling on the shelf, I drew forward
under the pipe till my face was within two feet of his.
He was a big man, I saw. It was Max Holf, the brother of Johann.
My hand stole to my belt, and I drew out my knife. Of all the deeds
of my life, I love the least to think of this, and whether it were
the act of a man or a traitor I will not ask. I said to myself:
"It is war--and the King's life is the stake." And I raised myself
from beneath the pipe and stood up by the boat, which lay moored
by the ledge. Holding my breath, I marked the spot and raised
my arm. The great fellow stirred. He opened his eyes--wide,
wider. He grasped in terror at my face and clutched at his rifle.
I struck home. And I heard the chorus of a love-song from the
Leaving him where he lay, a huddled mass, I turned to "Jacob's Ladder."
My time was short. This fellow's turn of watching might be over directly,
and relief would come. Leaning over the pipe, I examined it,
from the end near the water to the topmost extremity where it passed,
or seemed to pass, through the masonry of the wall.
There was no break in it, no chink. Dropping on my knees,
I tested the under side. And my breath went quick and fast,
for on this lower side, where the pipe should have clung close
to the masonry, there was a gleam of light! That light must come
from the cell of the King! I set my shoulder against the pipe
and exerted my strength. The chink widened a very, very little,
and hastily I desisted; I had done enough to show that the pipe
was not fixed in the masonry at the lower side.
Then I heard a voice--a harsh, grating voice:
"Well, sire, if you have had enough of my society, I will leave
you to repose; but I must fasten the little ornaments first."
It was Detchard! I caught the English accent in a moment.
"Have you anything to ask, sire, before we part?"
The King's voice followed. It was his, though it was faint
and hollow--different from the merry tones I had heard
in the glades of the forest.
"Pray my brother," said the King, "to kill me. I am dying
by inches here."
"The duke does not desire your death, sire--yet,"
sneered Detchard; "when he does behold your path to heaven!"
The King answered:
"So be it! And now, if your orders allow it, pray leave me."
"May you dream of paradise!" said the ruffian.
The light disappeared. I heard the bolts of the door run home.
And then I heard the sobs of the King. He was alone, as he thought.
Who dares mock at him?
I did not venture to speak to him. The risk of some exclamation
escaping him in surprise was too great. I dared do nothing
that night; and my task now was to get myself away in safety,
and to carry off the carcass of the dead man. To leave him there
would tell too much. Casting loose the boat, I got in. The wind
was blowing a gale now, and there was little danger of oars being heard.
I rowed swiftly round to where my friends waited. I had just reached
the spot, when a loud whistle sounded over the moat behind me.
"Hullo, Max!" I heard shouted.
I hailed Sapt in a low tone. The rope came down. I tied it
round the corpse, and then went up it myself.
"Whistle you too," I whispered, "for our men, and haul in the line.
No talk now."
They hauled up the body. Just as it reached the road,
three men on horseback swept round from the front of the Castle.
We saw them; but, being on foot ourselves, we escaped their notice.
But we heard our men coming up with a shout.
"The devil, but it's dark!" cried a ringing voice.
It was young Rupert. A moment later, shots rang out. Our people
had met them. I started forward at a run, Sapt and Fritz following me.
"Thrust, thrust!" cried Rupert again, and a loud groan following
told that he himself was not behind-hand.
"I'm done, Rupert!" cried a voice. "They're three to one.
I ran on, holding my cudgel in my hand. Suddenly a horse
came towards me. A man was on it, leaning over his shoulder.
"Are you cooked too, Krafstein?" he cried.
There was no answer.
I sprang to the horse's head. It was Rupert Hentzau.
"At last!" I cried.
For we seemed to have him. He had only his sword in his hand.
My men were hot upon him; Sapt and Fritz were running up.
I had outstripped them; but if they got close enough to fire,
he must die or surrender.
"At last!" I cried.
"It's the play-actor!" cried he, slashing at my cudgel. He cut
it clean in two; and, judging discretion better than death,
I ducked my head and (I blush to tell it) scampered for my life.
The devil was in Rupert Hentzau; for he put spurs to his horse,
and I, turning to look, saw him ride, full gallop, to the edge
of the moat and leap in, while the shots of our party fell thick
round him like hail. With one gleam of moonlight we should
have riddled him with balls; but, in the darkness, he won
to the corner of the Castle, and vanished from our sight.
"The deuce take him!" grinned Sapt.
"It's a pity," said I, "that he's a villain. Whom have we got?"
We had Lauengram and Krafstein: they lay dead; and, concealment
being no longer possible, we flung them, with Max, into the moat;
and, drawing together in a compact body, rode off down the hill.
And, in our midst, went the bodies of three gallant gentlemen.
Thus we travelled home, heavy at heart for the death of our friends,
sore uneasy concerning the King, and cut to the quick that young Rupert
had played yet another winning hand with us.
For my own part, I was vexed and angry that I had killed no
man in open fight, but only stabbed a knave in his sleep.
And I did not love to hear Rupert call me a play-actor.
I Talk with a Tempter
Ruritania is not England, or the quarrel between Duke Michael
and myself could not have gone on, with the extraordinary incidents
which marked it, without more public notice being directed to it.
Duels were frequent among all the upper classes, and private quarrels
between great men kept the old habit of spreading to their friends
and dependents. Nevertheless, after the affray which I have just related,
such reports began to circulate that I felt it necessary to be on my guard.
The death of the gentlemen involved could not be hidden from their relatives.
I issued a stern order, declaring that duelling had attained unprecedented
licence (the Chancellor drew up the document for me, and very well he did it),
and forbidding it save in the gravest cases. I sent a public and stately
apology to Michael, and he returned a deferential and courteous reply to me;
for our one point of union was--and it underlay all our differences
and induced an unwilling harmony between our actions--that we could
neither of us afford to throw our cards on the table. He, as well as
I, was a "play-actor', and, hating one another, we combined to dupe
public opinion. Unfortunately, however, the necessity for concealment
involved the necessity of delay: the King might die in his prison,
or even be spirited off somewhere else; it could not be helped.
For a little while I was compelled to observe a truce,
and my only consolation was that Flavia most warmly approved
of my edict against duelling, and, when I expressed delight
at having won her favour, prayed me, if her favour were any
motive to me, to prohibit the practice altogether.
"Wait till we are married," said I, smiling.
Not the least peculiar result of the truce and of the secrecy
which dictated it was that the town of Zenda became in the day-time
--I would not have trusted far to its protection by night--
a sort of neutral zone, where both parties could safely go;
and I, riding down one day with Flavia and Sapt, had an encounter
with an acquaintance, which presented a ludicrous side, but was
at the same time embarrassing. As I rode along, I met a dignified
looking person driving in a two-horsed carriage. He stopped his horses,
got out, and approached me, bowing low. I recognized the Head of the
"Your Majesty's ordinance as to duelling is receiving our best attention,"
he assured me.
If the best attention involved his presence in Zenda, I determined at once
to dispense with it.
"Is that what brings you to Zenda, Prefect?" I asked.
"Why no, sire; I am here because I desired to oblige the British Ambassador."
"What's the British Ambassador doing dans cette galere?"
said I, carelessly.
"A young countryman of his, sire--a man of some position--is missing.
His friends have not heard from him for two months, and there is reason
to believe that he was last seen in Zenda."
Flavia was paying little attention. I dared not look at Sapt.
"A friend of his in Paris--a certain M. Featherly--has given us
information which makes it possible that he came here, and the
officials of the railway recollect his name on some luggage."
"What was his name?"
"Rassendyll, sire," he answered; and I saw that the name meant
nothing to him. But, glancing at Flavia, he lowered his voice,
as he went on: "It is thought that he may have followed a lady here.
Has your Majesty heard of a certain Madame de Mauban?"
"Why, yes," said I, my eye involuntarily travelling towards the Castle.
"She arrived in Ruritania about the same time as this Rassendyll."
I caught the Prefect's glance; he was regarding me with enquiry
writ large on his face.
"Sapt," said I, "I must speak a word to the Prefect.
Will you ride on a few paces with the princess?"
And I added to the Prefect: "Come, sir, what do you mean?"
He drew close to me, and I bent in the saddle.
"If he were in love with the lady?" he whispered. "Nothing has
been heard of him for two months;" and this time it was the eye
of the Prefect which travelled towards the Castle.
"Yes, the lady is there," I said quietly. "But I don't suppose
Mr. Rassendyll--is that the name?--is."
"The duke," he whispered, "does not like rivals, sire."
"You're right there," said I, with all sincerity.
"But surely you hint at a very grave charge?"
He spread his hands out in apology. I whispered in his ear:
"This is a grave matter. Go back to Strelsau--"
"But, sire, if I have a clue here?"
"Go back to Strelsau," I repeated. "Tell the Ambassador that
you have a clue, but that you must be left alone for a week or two.
Meanwhile, I'll charge myself with looking into the matter."
"The Ambassador is very pressing, sir."
"You must quiet him. Come, sir; you see that if your suspicions
are correct, it is an affair in which we must move with caution.
We can have no scandal. Mind you return tonight."
He promised to obey me, and I rode on to rejoin my companions,
a little easier in my mind. Enquiries after me must be stopped
at all hazards for a week or two; and this clever official
had come surprisingly near the truth. His impression might
be useful some day, but if he acted on it now it might mean
the worse to the King. Heartily did I curse George Featherly
for not holding his tongue.
"Well," asked Flavia, "have you finished your business?"
"Most satisfactorily," said I. "Come, shall we turn round?
We are almost trenching on my brother's territory."
We were, in fact, at the extreme end of the town, just where
the hills begin to mount towards the Castle. We cast our eyes
up, admiring the massive beauty of the old walls, and we saw a
cortege winding slowly down the hill. On it came.
"Let us go back," said Sapt.
"I should like to stay," said Flavia; and I reined my horse beside hers.
We could distinguish the approaching party now. There came first
two mounted servants in black uniforms, relieved only by a silver badge.
These were followed by a car drawn by four horses: on it, under a heavy pall,
lay a coffin; behind it rode a man in plain black clothes, carrying his hat
in his hand. Sapt uncovered, and we stood waiting, Flavia keeping by me
and laying her hand on my arm.
"It is one of the gentlemen killed in the quarrel, I expect,"
I beckoned to a groom.
"Ride and ask whom they escort," I ordered.
He rode up to the servants, and I saw him pass on to the gentleman
who rode behind.
"It's Rupert of Hentzau," whispered Sapt.
Rupert it was, and directly afterwards, waving to the procession
to stand still, Rupert trotted up to me. He was in a frock-coat,
tightly buttoned, and trousers. He wore an aspect of sadness,
and he bowed with profound respect. Yet suddenly he smiled,
and I smiled too, for old Sapt's hand lay in his left breast-pocket,
and Rupert and I both guessed what lay in the hand inside the pocket.
"Your Majesty asks whom we escort," said Rupert. "It is my
dear friend, Albert of Lauengram."
"Sir," said I, "no one regrets the unfortunate affair more than I.
My ordinance, which I mean to have obeyed, is witness to it."
"Poor fellow!, said Flavia softly, and I saw Rupert's eyes flash
at her. Whereat I grew red; for, if I had my way, Rupert Hentzau
should not have defiled her by so much as a glance. Yet he did it
and dared to let admiration be seen in his look.
"Your Majesty's words are gracious," he said. "I grieve for my friend.
Yet, sire, others must soon lie as he lies now."
"It is a thing we all do well to remember, my lord," I rejoined.
"Even kings, sire," said Rupert, in a moralizing tone;
and old Sapt swore softly by my side.
"It is true," said I. "How fares my brother, my lord?"
"He is better, sire."
"I am rejoiced."
"He hopes soon to leave for Strelsau, when his health is secured."
"He is only convalescent then?"
"There remain one or two small troubles," answered the insolent fellow,
in the mildest tone in the world.
"Express my earnest hope," said Flavia, "that they may soon cease
to trouble him."
"Your Royal Highness's wish is, humbly, my own," said Rupert,
with a bold glance that brought a blush to Flavia's cheek.
I bowed; and Rupert, bowing lower, backed his horse and signed
to his party to proceed. With a sudden impulse, I rode after him.
He turned swiftly, fearing that, even in the presence of the dead
and before a lady's eyes, I meant him mischief.
"You fought as a brave man the other night," I said.
"Come, you are young, sir. If you will deliver your prisoner
alive to me, you shall come to no hurt."
He looked at me with a mocking smile; but suddenly he rode nearer to me.
"I'm unarmed," he said; "and our old Sapt there could
pick me off in a minute."
"I'm not afraid," said I.
"No, curse you!" he answered. "Look here, I made you
a proposal from the duke once."
"I'll hear nothing from Black Michael," said I.
"Then hear one from me." He lowered his voice to a whisper.
"Attack the Castle boldly. Let Sapt and Tarlenheim lead."
"Go on," said I.
"Arrange the time with me."
"I have such confidence in you, my lord!"
"Tut! I'm talking business now. Sapt there and Fritz
will fall; Black Michael will fall--"
"--Black Michael will fall, like the dog he is; the prisoner,
as you call him, will go by "Jacob's Ladder"--ah, you know that!--
to hell! Two men will be left--I, Rupert Hentzau, and you,
the King of Ruritania."
He paused, and then, in a voice that quivered with eagerness, added:
"Isn't that a hand to play?--a throne and your princess!
And for me, say a competence and your Majesty's gratitude."
"Surely," I exclaimed, "while you're above ground, hell wants its master!"
"Well, think it over," he said. "And, look you, it would take more
than a scruple or two to keep me from yonder girl," and his evil eye
flashed again at her I loved.
"Get out of my reach!" said I; and yet in a moment I began
to laugh for the very audacity of it.
"Would you turn against your master?" I asked.
He swore at Michael for being what the offspring of a legal,
though morganatic, union should not be called, and said to me
in an almost confidential and apparently friendly tone:
"He gets in my way, you know. He's a jealous brute! Faith,
I nearly stuck a knife into him last night; he came most
cursedly mal a propos!"
My temper was well under control now; I was learning something.
"A lady?" I asked negligently.
"Ay, and a beauty," he nodded. "But you've seen her."
"Ah! was it at a tea-party, when some of your friends got on
the wrong side of the table?"
"What can you expect of fools like Detchard and De Gautet?
I wish I'd been there."
"And the duke interferes?"
"Well," said Rupert meditatively, "that's hardly a fair way
of putting it, perhaps. I want to interfere."
"And she prefers the duke?"
"Ay, the silly creature! Ah, well, you think about my plan," and,
with a bow, he pricked his horse and trotted after the body of his friend.
I went back to Flavia and Sapt, pondering on the strangeness of the man.
Wicked men I have known in plenty, but Rupert Hentzau remains unique
in my experience. And if there be another anywhere, let him be caught
and hanged out of hand. So say I!
"He's very handsome, isn't he?" said Flavia.
Well, of course, she didn't know him as I did; yet I was put out,
for I thought his bold glances would have made her angry.
But my dear Flavia was a woman, and so--she was not put out.
On the contrary, she thought young Rupert very handsome--as,
beyond question, the ruffian was.
"And how sad he looked at his friend's death!" said she.
"He'll have better reason to be sad at his own,"
observed Sapt, with a grim smile.
As for me, I grew sulky; unreasonable it was perhaps,
for what better business had I to look at her with love
than had even Rupert's lustful eyes? And sulky I remained till,
as evening fell and we rode up to Tarlenheim, Sapt having fallen
behind in case anyone should be following us, Flavia, riding close
beside me, said softly, with a little half-ashamed laugh:
"Unless you smile, Rudolf, I cry. Why are you angry?"
"It was something that fellow said to me," said I,
but I was smiling as we reached the door and dismounted.
There a servant handed me a note: it was unaddressed.
"Is it for me?" I asked.
"Yes, sire; a boy brought it."
I tore it open:
Johann carries this for me. I warned you once. In the name of God,
and if you are a man, rescue me from this den of murderers!--A. de M.
I handed it to Sapt; but all that the tough old soul said in reply
to this piteous appeal was:
"Whose fault brought her there?"
Nevertheless, not being faultless myself, I took leave to pity
Antoinette de Mauban.
A Desperate Plan
As I had ridden publicly in Zenda, and had talked there with
Rupert Hentzau, of course all pretence of illness was at an end.
I marked the effect on the garrison of Zenda: they ceased to be
seen abroad; and any of my men who went near the Castle reported
that the utmost vigilance prevailed there. Touched as I was by
Madame de Mauban's appeal, I seemed as powerless to befriend her
as I had proved to help the King. Michael bade me defiance;
and although he too had been seen outside the walls, with more
disregard for appearances than he had hitherto shown,
he did not take the trouble to send any excuse for his failure
to wait on the King. Time ran on in inactivity, when every moment
was pressing; for not only was I faced with the new danger which
the stir about my disappearance brought on me, but great murmurs
had arisen in Strelsau at my continued absence from the city.
They had been greater, but for the knowledge that Flavia was with me;
and for this reason I suffered her to stay, though I hated to have her
where danger was, and though every day of our present sweet intercourse
strained my endurance almost to breaking. As a final blow,
nothing would content my advisers, Strakencz and the Chancellor
(who came out from Strelsau to make an urgent representation to me),
save that I should appoint a day for the public solemnization of my betrothal,
a ceremony which in Ruritania is well nigh as binding and great a thing
as the marriage itself. And this--with Flavia sitting by me--
I was forced to do, setting a date a fortnight ahead, and appointing
the Cathedral in Strelsau as the place. And this formal act being
published far and wide, caused great joy throughout the kingdom,
and was the talk of all tongues; so that I reckoned there were
but two men who chafed at it--I mean Black Michael and myself;
and but one who did not know of it--that one the man whose
name I bore, the King of Ruritania.
In truth, I heard something of the way the news was received
in the Castle; for after an interval of three days, the man Johann,
greedy for more money, though fearful for his life, again found
means to visit us. He had been waiting on the duke when the
tidings came. Black Michael's face had grown blacker still,
and he had sworn savagely; nor was he better pleased when young
Rupert took oath that I meant to do as I said, and turning to
Madame de Mauban, wished her joy on a rival gone. Michael's
hand stole towards his sword (said Johann), but not a bit did
Rupert care; for he rallied the duke on having made a better
King than had reigned for years past in Ruritania.
"And," said he, with a meaning bow to his exasperated master,
"the devil sends the princess a finer man than heaven had marked
out for her, by my soul, it does!" Then Michael harshly bade him
hold his tongue, and leave them; but Rupert must needs first
kiss madame's hand, which he did as though he loved her,
while Michael glared at him.
This was the lighter side of the fellow's news; but more
serious came behind, and it was plain that if time pressed
at Tarlenheim, it pressed none the less fiercely at Zenda.
For the King was very sick: Johann had seen him, and he was wasted
and hardly able to move. "There could be no thought of taking
another for him now." So alarmed were they, that they had sent
for a physician from Strelsau; and the physician having been
introduced into the King's cell, had come forth pale and trembling,
and urgently prayed the duke to let him go back and meddle
no more in the affair; but the duke would not, and held him
there a prisoner, telling him his life was safe if the King lived
while the duke desired and died when the duke desired--not otherwise.
And, persuaded by the physician, they had allowed Madame de Mauban
to visit the King and give him such attendance as his state needed,
and as only a woman can give. Yet his life hung in the balance;
and I was still strong and whole and free. Wherefore great gloom reigned
at Zenda; and save when they quarrelled, to which they were very prone,
they hardly spoke. But the deeper the depression of the rest,
young Rupert went about Satan's work with a smile in his eye
and a song on his lip; and laughed "fit to burst" (said Johann)
because the duke always set Detchard to guard the King when
Madame de Mauban was in the cell--which precaution was, indeed,
not unwise in my careful brother. Thus Johann told his tale
and seized his crowns. Yet he besought us to allow him to stay
with us in Tarlenheim, and not venture his head again in the lion's den;
but we had need of him there, and, although I refused to constrain him,
I prevailed on him by increased rewards to go back and carry tidings
to Madame de Mauban that I was working for her, and that, if she could,
she should speak one word of comfort to the King. For while suspense
is bad for the sick, yet despair is worse still, and it might be
that the King lay dying of mere hopelessness, for I could learn
of no definite disease that afflicted him.
"And how do they guard the King now?" I asked,
remembering that two of the Six were dead, and Max Holf also.
"Detchard and Bersonin watch by night, Rupert Hentzau
and De Gautet by day, sir," he answered.
"Only two at a time?"
"Ay, sir; but the others rest in a room just above,
and are within sound of a cry or a whistle."
"A room just above? I didn't know of that. Is there any
communication between it and the room where they watch?"
"No, sir. You must go down a few stairs and through
the door by the drawbridge, and so to where the King is lodged."
"And that door is locked?"
"Only the four lords have keys, sir."
I drew nearer to him.
"And have they keys of the grating?" I asked in a low whisper.
"I think, sir, only Detchard and Rupert."
"Where does the duke lodge?"
"In the chateau, on the first floor. His apartments
are on the right as you go towards the drawbridge."
"And Madame de Mauban?"
"Just opposite, on the left. But her door is locked after
she has entered."
"To keep her in?"
"Perhaps for another reason?"
"It is possible."
"And the duke, I suppose, has the key?"
"Yes. And the drawbridge is drawn back at night, and of that,
too, the duke holds the key, so that it cannot be run across
the moat without application to him."
"And where do you sleep?"
"In the entrance hall of the chateau, with five servants."
"They have pikes, sir, but no firearms. The duke will not
trust them with firearms."
Then at last I took the matter boldly in my hands. I had failed
once at "Jacob's Ladder;" I should fail again there. I must make
the attack from the other side.
"I have promised you twenty thousand crowns," said I.
"You shall have fifty thousand if you will do what
I ask of you tomorrow night. But, first, do those
servants know who your prisoner is?"
"No, sir. They believe him to be some private enemy
of the duke's."
"And they would not doubt that I am the King?"
"How should they?" he asked.
"Look to this, then. Tomorrow, at two in the morning exactly,
fling open the front door of the chateau. Don't fail by an instant."
"Shall you be there, sir?"
"Ask no questions. Do what I tell you. Say the hall is close,
or what you will. That is all I ask of you."
"And may I escape by the door, sir, when I have opened it?"
"Yes, as quick as your legs will carry you. One thing more.
Carry this note to madame--oh, it's in French, you can't read it--
and charge her, for the sake of all our lives, not to fail
in what it orders."
The man was trembling but I had to trust to what he had of courage
and to what he had of honesty. I dared not wait, for I feared
that the King would die.
When the fellow was gone, I called Sapt and Fritz to me, and unfolded
the plan that I had formed. Sapt shook his head over it.
"Why can't you wait?" he asked.
"The King may die."
"Michael will be forced to act before that."
"Then," said I, "the King may live."
"Well, and if he does?"
"For a fortnight?" I asked simply.
And Sapt bit his moustache.
Suddenly Fritz von Tarlenheim laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Let us go and make the attempt," said he.
"I mean you to go--don't be afraid," said I.
"Ay, but do you stay here, and take care of the princess."
A gleam came into old Sapt's eye.
"We should have Michael one way or the other then," he chuckled;
"whereas if you go and are killed with the King, what will become
of those of us who are left?"
"They will serve Queen Flavia," said I, "and I would to God
I could be one of them."
A pause followed. Old Sapt broke it by saying sadly, yet with
an unmeant drollery that set Fritz and me laughing:
"Why didn't old Rudolf the Third marry your--great-grandmother, was it?"
"Come," said I, "it is the King we are thinking about."
"It is true," said Fritz.
"Moreover," I went on, "I have been an impostor for the profit
of another, but I will not be one for my own; and if the King
is not alive and on his throne before the day of betrothal comes,
I will tell the truth, come what may."
"You shall go, lad," said Sapt.
Here is the plan I had made. A strong party under Sapt's command
was to steal up to the door of the chateau. If discovered prematurely,
they were to kill anyone who found them--with their swords, for I wanted
no noise of firing. If all went well, they would be at the door when
Johann opened it. They were to rush in and secure the servants
if their mere presence and the use of the King's name were not enough.
At the same moment--and on this hinged the plan--a woman's cry was to
ring out loud and shrill from Antoinette de Mauban's chamber.
Again and again she was to cry: "Help, help! Michael, help!"
and then to utter the name of young Rupert Hentzau. Then, as we
hoped, Michael, in fury, would rush out of his apartments opposite,
and fall alive into the hands of Sapt. Still the cries would go on;
and my men would let down the drawbridge; and it would be strange if
Rupert, hearing his name thus taken in vain, did not descend from where
he slept and seek to cross. De Gautet might or might not come with him:
that must be left to chance.
And when Rupert set his foot on the drawbridge? There was my part:
for I was minded for another swim in the moat; and, lest I should grow weary,
I had resolved to take with me a small wooden ladder, on which I could rest
my arms in the water--and my feet when I left it. I would rear it against
the wall just by the bridge; and when the bridge was across, I would
stealthily creep on to it--and then if Rupert or De Gautet crossed
in safety, it would be my misfortune, not my fault. They dead,
two men only would remain; and for them we must trust to the confusion
we had created and to a sudden rush. We should have the keys
of the door that led to the all-important rooms. Perhaps they
would rush out. If they stood by their orders, then the King's life
hung on the swiftness with which we could force the outer door;
and I thanked God that not Rupert Hentzau watched, but Detchard.
For though Detchard was a cool man, relentless, and no coward,
he had neither the dash nor the recklessness of Rupert.
Moreover, he, if any one of them, really loved Black Michael,
and it might be that he would leave Bersonin to guard the King,
and rush across the bridge to take part in the affray on the other side.
So I planned--desperately. And, that our enemy might be the better
lulled to security, I gave orders that our residence should be brilliantly
lighted from top to bottom, as though we were engaged in revelry;
and should so be kept all night, with music playing and people
moving to and fro. Strakencz would be there, and he was to conceal
our departure, if he could, from Flavia. And if we came not again
by the morning, he was to march, openly and in force to the Castle,
and demand the person of the King; if Black Michael were not there,
as I did not think he would be, the Marshal would take Flavia with him,
as swiftly as he could, to Strelsau, and there proclaim Black Michael's
treachery and the probable death of the King, and rally all that there was
honest and true round the banner of the princess. And, to say truth,
this was what I thought most likely to happen. For I had great doubts
whether either the King or Black Michael or I had more than a day to live.
Well, if Black Michael died, and if I, the play-actor, slew Rupert Hentzau
with my own hand, and then died myself, it might be that Fate would deal
as lightly with Ruritania as could be hoped, notwithstanding that she
demanded the life of the King--and to her dealing thus with me,
I was in no temper to make objection.
It was late when we rose from conference, and I betook me to
the princess's apartments. She was pensive that evening;
yet, when I left her, she flung her arms about me and grew,
for an instant, bashfully radiant as she slipped a ring on my finger.
I was wearing the King's ring; but I had also on my little finger
a plain band of gold engraved with the motto of our family:
"Nil Quae Feci." This I took off and put on her, and signed
to her to let me go. And she, understanding, stood away
and watched me with dimmed eyes.
"Wear that ring, even though you wear another when you are queen," I said.
"Whatever else I wear, this I will wear till I die and after,"
said she, as she kissed the ring.
Young Rupert's Midnight Diversions
The night came fine and clear. I had prayed for dirty weather,
such as had favoured my previous voyage in the moat, but Fortune
was this time against me. Still I reckoned that by keeping close
under the wall and in the shadow I could escape detection from
the windows of the chateau that looked out on the scene of my efforts.
If they searched the moat, indeed, my scheme must fail;
but I did not think they would. They had made "Jacob's Ladder"
secure against attack. Johann had himself helped to fix it closely
to the masonry on the under side, so that it could not now be moved
from below any more than from above. An assault with explosives
or a long battering with picks alone could displace it,
and the noise involved in either of these operations
put them out of the question. What harm, then, could a man
do in the moat? I trusted that Black Michael,
putting this query to himself, would answer confidently,
"None;" while, even if Johann meant treachery, he did not know my scheme,
and would doubtless expect to see me, at the head of my friends,
before the front entrance to the chateau. There, I said to Sapt,
was the real danger.
"And there," I added, "you shall be. Doesn't that content you?"
But it did not. Dearly would he have liked to come with me,
had I not utterly refused to take him. One man might escape
notice, to double the party more than doubled the risk;
and when he ventured to hint once again that my life
was too valuable, I, knowing the secret thought he clung to,
sternly bade him be silent, assuring him that unless the King
lived through the night, I would not live through it either.
At twelve o'clock, Sapt's command left the chateau of Tarlenheim
and struck off to the right, riding by unfrequented roads,
and avoiding the town of Zenda. If all went well, they would
be in front of the Castle by about a quarter to two.
Leaving their horses half a mile off, they were to steal up
to the entrance and hold themselves in readiness for the opening
of the door. If the door were not opened by two, they were to send
Fritz von Tarlenheim round to the other side of the Castle.
I would meet him there if I were alive, and we would consult
whether to storm the Castle or not. If I were not there,
they were to return with all speed to Tarlenheim, rouse the Marshal,
and march in force to Zenda. For if not there, I should be dead;
and I knew that the King would not be alive five minutes after
I ceased to breathe.
I must now leave Sapt and his friends, and relate how I myself
proceeded on this eventful night. I went out on the good horse
which had carried me, on the night of the coronation,
back from the hunting-lodge to Strelsau. I carried a revolver
in the saddle and my sword. I was covered with a large cloak,
and under this I wore a warm, tight-fitting woollen jersey, a pair
of knickerbockers, thick stockings, and light canvas shoes.
I had rubbed myself thoroughly with oil, and I carried a large flask
of whisky. The night was warm, but I might probably be immersed
a long while, and it was necessary to take every precaution against cold:
for cold not only saps a man's courage if he has to die, but impairs
his energy if others have to die, and, finally, gives him rheumatics,
if it be God's will that he lives. Also I tied round my body a length
of thin but stout cord, and I did not forget my ladder. I, starting
after Sapt, took a shorter route, skirting the town to the left,
and found myself in the outskirts of the forest at about half-past twelve.
I tied my horse up in a thick clump of trees, leaving the revolver
in its pocket in the saddle--it would be no use to me--and, ladder in hand,
made my way to the edge of the moat. Here I unwound my rope from about
my waist, bound it securely round the trunk of a tree on the bank,
and let myself down. The Castle clock struck a quarter to one
as I felt the water under me and began to swim round the keep,
pushing the ladder before me, and hugging the Castle wall.
Thus voyaging, I came to my old friend, "Jacob's Ladder,"
and felt the ledge of the masonry under me. I crouched down
in the shadow of the great pipe--I tried to stir it, but it was
quite immovable--and waited. I remember that my predominant
feeling was neither anxiety for the King nor longing for Flavia,
but an intense desire to smoke; and this craving, of course,
I could not gratify.
The drawbridge was still in its place. I saw its airy,
slight framework above me, some ten yards to my right,
as I crouched with my back against the wall of the King's cell.
I made out a window two yards my side of it and nearly on the same level.
That, if Johann spoke true, must belong to the duke's apartments;
and on the other side, in about the same relative position,
must be Madame de Mauban's window. Women are careless,
forgetful creatures. I prayed that she might not forget
that she was to be the victim of a brutal attempt at two o'clock precisely.
I was rather amused at the part I had assigned to my young friend Rupert Hentzau;
but I owed him a stroke--for, even as I sat, my shoulder ached where he had,
with an audacity that seemed half to hide his treachery, struck at me,
in the sight of all my friends, on the terrace at Tarlenheim.
Suddenly the duke's window grew bright. The shutters were
not closed, and the interior became partially visible to me
as I cautiously raised myself till I stood on tiptoe. Thus placed,
my range of sight embraced a yard or more inside the window,
while the radius of light did not reach me. The window was
flung open and someone looked out. I marked Antoinette de
Mauban's graceful figure, and, though her face was in shadow,
the fine outline of her head was revealed against the light behind.
I longed to cry softly, "Remember!" but I dared not--and happily,
for a moment later a man came up and stood by her. He tried to
put his arm round her waist, but with a swift motion she sprang away
and leant against the shutter, her profile towards me.
I made out who the newcomer was: it was young Rupert.
A low laugh from him made me sure, as he leant forward,
stretching out his hand towards her.
"Gently, gently!" I murmured. "You're too soon, my boy!"
His head was close to hers. I suppose he whispered to her,
for I saw her point to the moat, and I heard her say, in slow
and distinct tones:
"I had rather throw myself out of this window!"
He came close up to the window and looked out.
"It looks cold," said he. "Come, Antoinette,
are you serious?"
She made no answer so far as I heard; and he smiting his
hand petulantly on the window-sill, went on, in the voice
of some spoilt child:
"Hang Black Michael! Isn't the princess enough for him?
Is he to have everything? What the devil do you see
in Black Michael?"
"If I told him what you say--" she began.
"Well, tell him," said Rupert, carelessly; and, catching her
off her guard, he sprang forward and kissed her, laughing,
and crying, "There's something to tell him!"
If I had kept my revolver with me, I should have been very
sorely tempted. Being spared the temptation, I merely added
this new score to his account.
"Though, faith," said Rupert, "it's little he cares. He's mad
about the princess, you know. He talks of nothing but cutting
the play-actor's throat."
Didn't he, indeed?
"And if I do it for him, what do you think he's promised me?"
The unhappy woman raised her hands above her head, in prayer or in despair.
"But I detest waiting," said Rupert; and I saw that he was about
to lay his hand on her again, when there was a noise of a door
in the room opening, and a harsh voice cried:
"What are you doing here, sir?"
Rupert turned his back to the window, bowed low, and said,
in his loud, merry tones: "Apologizing for your absence, sir.
Could I leave the lady alone?"
The newcomer must be Black Michael. I saw him directly,
as he advanced towards the window. He caught young Rupert
by the arm.
"The moat would hold more than the King!" said he,
with a significant gesture.
"Does your Highness threaten me?" asked Rupert.
"A threat is more warning than most men get from me."
"Yet," observed Rupert, "Rudolf Rassendyll has been much threatened,
and yet lives!"
"Am I in fault because my servants bungle?" asked Michael scornfully.
"Your Highness has run no risk of bungling!" sneered Rupert.
It was telling the duke that he shirked danger as plain as
ever I have heard a man told. Black Michael had self-control.
I dare say he scowled--it was a great regret to me that I could not
see their faces better--but his voice was even and calm,
as he answered:
"Enough, enough! We mustn't quarrel, Rupert.
Are Detchard and Bersonin at their posts?"
"They are, sir."
"I need you no more."
"Nay, I'm not oppressed with fatigue," said Rupert.
"Pray, sir, leave us," said Michael, more impatiently.
"In ten minutes the drawbridge will be drawn back,
and I presume you have no wish to swim to your bed."
Rupert's figure disappeared. I heard the door open and shut
again. Michael and Antoinette de Mauban were left together.
To my chagrin, the duke laid his hand on the window and closed it.
He stood talking to Antoinette for a moment or two.
She shook her head, and he turned impatiently away.
She left the window. The door sounded again,
and Black Michael closed the shutters.
"De Gautet, De Gautet, man!" sounded from the drawbridge.
"Unless you want a bath before your bed, come along!"
It was Rupert's voice, coming from the end of the drawbridge.
A moment later he and De Gautet stepped out on the bridge.
Rupert's arm was through De Gautet's, and in the middle
of the bridge he detained his companion and leant over.
I dropped behind the shelter of "Jacob's Ladder."
Then Master Rupert had a little sport. He took from De
Gautet a bottle which he carried, and put it to his lips.
"Hardly a drop!" he cried discontentedly, and flung it in the moat.
It fell, as I judged from the sound and the circles on the water,
within a yard of the pipe. And Rupert, taking out his revolver,
began to shoot at it. The first two shots missed the bottle,
but hit the pipe. The third shattered the bottle. I hoped
that the young ruffian would be content; but he emptied
the other barrels at the pipe, and one, skimming over the pipe,
whistled through my hair as I crouched on the other side.
"'Ware bridge!" a voice cried, to my relief.
Rupert and De Gautet cried, "A moment!" and ran across.
The bridge was drawn back, and all became still. The clock struck
a quarter-past one. I rose and stretched myself and yawned.
I think some ten minutes had passed when I heard a slight
noise to my right. I peered over the pipe, and saw a dark figure
standing in the gateway that led to the bridge. It was a man.
By the careless, graceful poise, I guessed it to be Rupert again.
He held a sword in his hand, and he stood motionless for a minute
or two. Wild thoughts ran through me. On what mischief was
the young fiend bent now? Then he laughed low to himself;
then he turned his face to the wall, took a step in my direction,
and, to my surprise, began to climb down the wall. In an instant
I saw that there must be steps in the wall; it was plain.
They were cut into or affixed to the wall, at intervals of about
eighteen inches. Rupert set his foot on the lower one.
Then he placed his sword between his teeth, turned round,
and noiselessly let himself into the water. Had it been a matter
of my life only, I would have swum to meet him.
Dearly would I have loved to fight it out with him
then and there--with steel, on a fine night,
and none to come between us. But there was the King!
I restrained myself, but I could not bridle my swift breathing,
and I watched him with the intensest eagerness.
He swam leisurely and quietly across. There were more steps
up on the other side, and he climbed them. When he set foot
in the gateway, standing on the drawn-back bridge, he felt
in his pocket and took something out. I heard him unlock the door.
I could hear no noise of its closing behind him. He vanished from my sight.
Abandoning my ladder--I saw I did not need it now--I swam
to the side of the bridge and climbed half way up the steps.
There I hung with my sword in my hand, listening eagerly.
The duke's room was shuttered and dark. There was a light
in the window on the opposite side of the bridge. Not a sound
broke the silence, till half-past one chimed from the great clock
in the tower of the chateau.
There were other plots than mine afoot in the Castle that night.
The Forcing of the Trap
The position wherein I stood does not appear very favourable
to thought; yet for the next moment or two I thought profoundly.
I had, I told myself, scored one point. Be Rupert Hentzau's
errand what it might, and the villainy he was engaged on what
it would, I had scored one point. He was on the other side of
the moat from the King, and it would be by no fault of mine if
ever he set foot on the same side again. I had three left to deal with:
two on guard and De Gautet in his bed. Ah, if I had the keys!
I would have risked everything and attacked Detchard and Bersonin
before their friends could join them. But I was powerless.
I must wait till the coming of my friends enticed someone
to cross the bridge--someone with the keys. And I waited,
as it seemed, for half an hour, really for about five minutes,
before the next act in the rapid drama began.
All was still on the other side. The duke's room remained
inscrutable behind its shutters. The light burnt steadily
in Madame de Mauban's window. Then I heard the faintest,
faintest sound: it came from behind the door which led to the
drawbridge on the other side of the moat. It but just reached
my ear, yet I could not be mistaken as to what it was. It was made
by a key being turned very carefully and slowly. Who was turning it?
And of what room was it the key? There leapt before my eyes the picture
of young Rupert, with the key in one hand, his sword in the other,
and an evil smile on his face. But I did not know what door it was,
nor on which of his favourite pursuits young Rupert was spending
the hours of that night.
I was soon to be enlightened, for the next moment--before
my friends could be near the chateau door--before Johann
the keeper would have thought to nerve himself for his task--
there was a sudden crash from the room with the lighted window.
It sounded as though someone had flung down a lamp; and the
window went dark and black. At the same instant a cry rang out,
shrill in the night: "Help, help! Michael, help!" and was
followed by a shriek of utter terror.
I was tingling in every nerve. I stood on the topmost step,
clinging to the threshold of the gate with my right hand and
holding my sword in my left. Suddenly I perceived that the
gateway was broader than the bridge; there was a dark corner
on the opposite side where a man could stand. I darted across
and stood there. Thus placed, I commanded the path, and no man
could pass between the chateau and the old Castle till he had
tried conclusions with me.
There was another shriek. Then a door was flung open
and clanged against the wall, and I heard the handle
of a door savagely twisted.
"Open the door! In God's name, what's the matter?"
cried a voice--the voice of Black Michael himself.
He was answered by the very words I had written in my letter.
A fierce oath rang out from the duke, and with a loud thud
he threw himself against the door. At the same moment I heard
a window above my head open, and a voice cried: "What's the
matter?" and I heard a man's hasty footsteps. I grasped my sword.
If De Gautet came my way, the Six would be less by one more.
Then I heard the clash of crossed swords and a tramp of feet and
--I cannot tell the thing so quickly as it happened, for all
seemed to come at once. There was an angry cry from madame's room,
the cry of a wounded man; the window was flung open; young Rupert
stood there sword in hand. He turned his back, and I saw his body
go forward to the lunge.
"Ah, Johann, there's one for you! Come on, Michael!"
Johann was there, then--come to the rescue of the duke!
How would he open the door for me? For I feared that Rupert
had slain him.
"Help!" cried the duke's voice, faint and husky.
I heard a step on the stairs above me; and I heard a stir down
to my left, in the direction of the King's cell. But, before
anything happened on my side of the moat, I saw five or six
men round young Rupert in the embrasure of madame's window.
Three or four times he lunged with incomparable dash
and dexterity. For an instant they fell back, leaving a ring
round him. He leapt on the parapet of the window, laughing as
he leapt, and waving his sword in his hand. He was drunk with
blood, and he laughed again wildly as he flung himself headlong
into the moat.
What became of him then? I did not see: for as he leapt,
De Gautet's lean face looked out through the door by me, and,
without a second's hesitation, I struck at him with all the
strength God had given me, and he fell dead in the doorway
without a word or a groan. I dropped on my knees by him.
Where were the keys? I found myself muttering: "The keys,
man, the keys?" as though he had been yet alive and could
listen; and when I could not find them, I--God forgive me!--
I believe I struck a dead man's face.
At last I had them. There were but three. Seizing the largest,
I felt the lock of the door that led to the cell. I fitted in the
key. It was right. The lock turned. I drew the door close behind me
and locked it as noiselessly as I could, putting the key in my pocket.
I found myself at the top of a flight of steep stone stairs.
An oil lamp burnt dimly in the bracket. I took it down and held it
in my hand; and I stood and listened.
"What in the devil can it be?" I heard a voice say.
It came from behind a door that faced me at the bottom of the stairs.
And another answered:
"Shall we kill him?"
I strained to hear the answer, and could have sobbed with
relief when Detchard's voice came grating and cold:
"Wait a bit. There'll be trouble if we strike too soon."
There was a moment's silence. Then I heard the bolt of the door
cautiously drawn back. Instantly I put out the light I held,
replacing the lamp in the bracket.
"It's dark--the lamp's out. Have you a light?"
said the other voice--Bersonin's.
No doubt they had a light, but they should not use it.
It was come to the crisis now, and I rushed down the steps
and flung myself against the door. Bersonin had unbolted it
and it gave way before me. The Belgian stood there sword in hand,
and Detchard was sitting on a couch at the side of the room.
In astonishment at seeing me, Bersonin recoiled; Detchard jumped
to his sword. I rushed madly at the Belgian: he gave way before me,
and I drove him up against the wall. He was no swordsman,
though he fought bravely, and in a moment he lay on the floor before me.
I turned--Detchard was not there. Faithful to his orders,
he had not risked a fight with me, but had rushed straight
to the door of the King's room, opened it and slammed it behind him.
Even now he was at his work inside.
And surely he would have killed the King, and perhaps me also,
had it not been for one devoted man who gave his life for the King.
For when I forced the door, the sight I saw was this:
the King stood in the corner of the room: broken by his sickness,
he could do nothing; his fettered hands moved uselessly up and down,
and he was laughing horribly in half-mad delirium.
Detchard and the doctor were together in the middle of the room;
and the doctor had flung himself on the murderer,
pinning his hands to his sides for an instant.
Then Detchard wrenched himself free from the feeble grip,
and, as I entered, drove his sword through the hapless man.
Then he turned on me, crying:
We were sword to sword. By blessed chance, neither he
nor Bersonin had been wearing their revolvers.
I found them afterwards, ready loaded, on the mantelpiece
of the outer room: it was hard by the door, ready to their hands,
but my sudden rush in had cut off access to them.
Yes, we were man to man: and we began to fight,
silently, sternly, and hard. Yet I remember little of it,
save that the man was my match with the sword--nay, and more,
for he knew more tricks than I; and that he forced me back
against the bars that guarded the entrance to "Jacob's Ladder."
And I saw a smile on his face, and he wounded me in the left arm.
No glory do I take for that contest. I believe that the man
would have mastered me and slain me, and then done his butcher's work,
for he was the most skilful swordsman I have ever met;
but even as he pressed me hard, the half-mad, wasted,
wan creature in the corner leapt high in lunatic mirth, shrieking:
"It's cousin Rudolf! Cousin Rudolf! I'll help you, cousin Rudolf!"
and catching up a chair in his hands (he could but just lift it
from the ground and hold it uselessly before him) he came towards us.
Hope came to me.
"Come on!" I cried. "Come on! Drive it against his legs."
Detchard replied with a savage thrust. He all but had me.
"Come on! Come on, man!" I cried. "Come and share the fun!"
And the King laughed gleefully, and came on, pushing his chair before him.
With an oath Detchard skipped back, and, before I knew what
he was doing, had turned his sword against the King.
He made one fierce cut at the King, and the King,
with a piteous cry, dropped where he stood. The stout ruffian
turned to face me again. But his own hand had prepared his destruction:
for in turning he trod in the pool of blood that flowed from the dead physician.
He slipped; he fell. Like a dart I was upon him. I caught him by the throat,
and before he could recover himself I drove my point through his neck,
and with a stifled curse he fell across the body of his victim.
Was the King dead? It was my first thought. I rushed to
where he lay. Ay, it seemed as if he were dead, for he had
a great gash across his forehead, and he lay still in a huddled
heap on the floor. I dropped on my knees beside him, and leant
my ear down to hear if he breathed. But before I could there was
a loud rattle from the outside. I knew the sound: the drawbridge
was being pushed out. A moment later it rang home against the wall
on my side of the moat. I should be caught in a trap and the King with me,
if he yet lived. He must take his chance, to live or die. I took my sword,
and passed into the outer room. Who were pushing the drawbridge out--my men?
If so, all was well. My eye fell on the revolvers, and I seized one;
and paused to listen in the doorway of the outer room. To listen, say I?
Yes, and to get my breath: and I tore my shirt and twisted a strip of it
round my bleeding arm; and stood listening again. I would have given
the world to hear Sapt's voice. For I was faint, spent, and weary.
And that wild-cat Rupert Hentzau was yet at large in the Castle.
Yet, because I could better defend the narrow door at the top
of the stairs than the wider entrance to the room,
I dragged myself up the steps, and stood behind it listening.
What was the sound? Again a strange one for the place
and time. An easy, scornful, merry laugh--the laugh of young
Rupert Hentzau! I could scarcely believe that a sane man would laugh.
Yet the laugh told me that my men had not come; for they must have shot
Rupert ere now, if they had come. And the clock struck half-past two!
My God! The door had not been opened! They had gone to the bank!
They had not found me! They had gone by now back to Tarlenheim,
with the news of the King's death--and mine. Well, it would
be true before they got there. Was not Rupert laughing in triumph?
For a moment, I sank, unnerved, against the door. Then I
started up alert again, for Rupert cried scornfully:
"Well, the bridge is there! Come over it!
And in God's name, let's see Black Michael.
Keep back, you curs! Michael, come and fight for her!"
If it were a three-cornered fight, I might yet bear my part.
I turned the key in the door and looked out.
Face to Face in the Forest
For a moment I could see nothing, for the glare of lanterns
and torches caught me full in the eyes from the other side
of the bridge. But soon the scene grew clear: and it was
a strange scene. The bridge was in its place. At the far end
of it stood a group of the duke's servants; two or three carried
the lights which had dazzled me, three or four held pikes in rest.
They were huddled together; their weapons were protruded before them;
their faces were pale and agitated. To put it plainly, they looked
in as arrant a fright as I have seen men look, and they gazed
apprehensively at a man who stood in the middle of the bridge,
sword in hand. Rupert Hentzau was in his trousers and shirt;
the white linen was stained with blood, but his easy, buoyant pose
told me that he was himself either not touched at all or merely scratched.
There he stood, holding the bridge against them, and daring them to come on;
or, rather, bidding them send Black Michael to him; and they,
having no firearms, cowered before the desperate man
and dared not attack him. They whispered to one another;
and in the backmost rank, I saw my friend Johann,
leaning against the portal of the door and stanching
with a handkerchief the blood which flowed from a wound in his cheek.
By marvellous chance, I was master. The cravens
would oppose me no more than they dared attack Rupert.
I had but to raise my revolver, and I sent him to his account
with his sins on his head. He did not so much as know that I was there.
I did nothing--why, I hardly know to this day. I had killed one man
stealthily that night, and another by luck rather than skill--
perhaps it was that. Again, villain as the man was, I did not
relish being one of a crowd against him--perhaps it was that.
But stronger than either of these restrained feelings came
a curiosity and a fascination which held me spellbound,
watching for the outcome of the scene.
"Michael, you dog! Michael! If you can stand, come on!"
cried Rupert; and he advanced a step, the group shrinking back
a little before him. "Michael, you bastard! Come on!"
The answer to his taunts came in the wild cry of a woman:
"He's dead! My God, he's dead!"
"Dead!" shouted Rupert. "I struck better than I knew!"
and he laughed triumphantly. Then he went on: "Down with your
weapons there! I'm your master now! Down with them, I say!"
I believe they would have obeyed, but as he spoke came new things.
First, there arose a distant sound, as of shouts and knockings
from the other side of the chateau. My heart leapt. It must be my men,
come by a happy disobedience to seek me. The noise continued,
but none of the rest seemed to heed it. Their attention was chained
by what now happened before their eyes. The group of servants parted
and a woman staggered on to the bridge. Antoinette de Mauban
was in a loose white robe, her dark hair streamed over her shoulders,
her face was ghastly pale, and her eyes gleamed wildly in the light
of the torches. In her shaking hand she held a revolver, and,
as she tottered forward, she fired it at Rupert Hentzau.
The ball missed him, and struck the woodwork over my head.
"Faith, madame," laughed Rupert, "had your eyes been no more deadly
than your shooting, I had not been in this scrape--nor Black Michael
She took no notice of his words. With a wonderful effort,
she calmed herself till she stood still and rigid.
Then very slowly and deliberately she began to raise her arm again,
taking most careful aim.
He would be mad to risk it. He must rush on her, chancing the bullet,
or retreat towards me. I covered him with my weapon.
He did neither. Before she had got her aim, he bowed in his most
graceful fashion, cried "I can't kill where I've kissed,"
and before she or I could stop him, laid his hand on the parapet
of the bridge, and lightly leapt into the moat.
At that very moment I heard a rush of feet, and a voice I knew--Sapt's--
cry: "God! it's the duke--dead!" Then I knew that the King needed me
no more, and throwing down my revolver, I sprang out on the bridge.
There was a cry of wild wonder, "The King!" and then I, like Rupert
of Hentzau, sword in hand, vaulted over the parapet, intent on finishing
my quarrel with him where I saw his curly head fifteen yards off
in the water of the moat.
He swam swiftly and easily. I was weary and half crippled with
my wounded arm. I could not gain on him. For a time I made no sound,
but as we rounded the corner of the old keep I cried:
"Stop, Rupert, stop!"
I saw him look over his shoulder, but he swam on. He was
under the bank now, searching, as I guessed, for a spot that
he could climb. I knew there to be none--but there was my rope,
which would still be hanging where I had left it. He would come
to where it was before I could. Perhaps he would miss it--
perhaps he would find it; and if he drew it up after him,
he would get a good start of me. I put forth all my remaining
strength and pressed on. At last I began to gain on him; for he,
occupied with his search, unconsciously slackened his pace.
Ah, he had found it! A low shout of triumph came from him.
He laid hold of it and began to haul himself up. I was near
enough to hear him mutter: "How the devil comes this here?'
I was at the rope, and he, hanging in mid air, saw me, but I
could not reach him.
"Hullo! who's here?" he cried in startled tones.
For a moment, I believe, he took me for the King--I dare say
I was pale enough to lend colour to the thought; but an instant
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