A great chance for a villain
It was the custom that the Prefect of Police should send every afternoon a report to me on the condition of the capital and the feeling of the people: the document included also an account of the movements of any persons whom the police had received instructions to watch. Since I had been in Strelsau, Sapt had been in the habit of reading the report and telling me any items of interest which it might contain. On the day after my adventure in the summer-house, he came in as I was playing a hand of ecartewith Fritz von Tarlenheim.
"The report is rather full of interest this afternoon," he observed, sitting down.
"Do you find," I asked, "any mention of a certain fracas?"
He shook his head with a smile.
"I find this first," he said: "'His Highness the Duke of Strelsau left the city (so far as it appears, suddenly), accompanied by several of his household. His destination is believed to be the Castle of Zenda, but the party travelled by road and not by train. MM De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard followed an hour later, the last-named carrying his arm in a sling. The cause of his wound is not known, but it is suspected that he has fought a duel, probably incidental to a love affair.'"
"That is remotely true," I observed, very well pleased to find that I had left my mark on the fellow.
"Then we come to this," pursued Sapt: "'Madame de Mauban, whose movements have been watched according to instructions, left by train at midday. She took a ticket for Dresden—'"
"It's an old habit of hers," said I.
"'The Dresden train stops at Zenda.' An acute fellow, this. And finally listen to this: 'The state of feeling in the city is not satisfactory. The King is much criticized' (you know, he's told to be quite frank) 'for taking no steps about his marriage. From enquiries among the entourage of the Princess Flavia, her Royal Highness is believed to be deeply offended by the remissness of his Majesty. The common people are coupling her name with that of the Duke of Strelsau, and the duke gains much popularity from the suggestion.' I have caused the announcement that the King gives a ball tonight in honour of the princess to be widely diffused, and the effect is good."
"That is news to me," said I.
"Oh, the preparations are all made!" laughed Fritz. "I've seen to that."
Sapt turned to me and said, in a sharp, decisive voice:
"You must make love to her tonight, you know."
"I think it is very likely I shall, if I see her alone," said I. "Hang it, Sapt, you don't suppose I find it difficult?"
Fritz whistled a bar or two; then he said: "You'll find it only too easy. Look here, I hate telling you this, but I must. The Countess Helga told me that the princess had become most attached to the King. Since the coronation, her feelings have undergone a marked development. It's quite true that she is deeply wounded by the King's apparent neglect."
"Here's a kettle of fish!" I groaned.
"Tut, tut!" said Sapt. "I suppose you've made pretty speeches to a girl before now? That's all she wants."
Fritz, himself a lover, understood better my distress. He laid his hand on my shoulder, but said nothing.
"I think, though," pursued that cold-blooded old Sapt, "that you'd better make your offer tonight."
"Or, any rate, go near it: and I shall send a 'semi-official' to the papers."
"I'll do nothing of the sort—no more will you!" said I. "I utterly refuse to take part in making a fool of the princess."
Sapt looked at me with his small keen eyes. A slow cunning smile passed over his face.
"All right, lad, all right," said he. "We mustn't press you too hard. Soothe her down a bit, if you can, you know. Now for Michael!"
"Oh, damn Michael!" said I. "He'll do tomorrow. Here, Fritz, come for a stroll in the garden."
Sapt at once yielded. His rough manner covered a wonderful tact—and as I came to recognize more and more, a remarkable knowledge of human nature. Why did he urge me so little about the princess? Because he knew that her beauty and my ardour would carry me further than all his arguments—and that the less I thought about the thing, the more likely was I to do it. He must have seen the unhappiness he might bring on the princess; but that went for nothing with him. Can I say, confidently, that he was wrong? If the King were restored, the princess must turn to him, either knowing or not knowing the change. And if the King were not restored to us? It was a subject that we had never yet spoken of. But I had an idea that, in such a case, Sapt meant to seat me on the throne of Ruritania for the term of my life. He would have set Satan himself there sooner than that pupil of his, Black Michael.
The ball was a sumptuous affair. I opened it by dancing a quadrille with Flavia: then I waltzed with her. Curious eyes and eager whispers attended us. We went in to supper; and, half way through, I, half mad by then, for her glance had answered mine, and her quick breathing met my stammered sentences—I rose in my place before all the brilliant crowd, and taking the Red Rose that I wore, flung the ribbon with its jewelled badge round her neck. In a tumult of applause I sat down: I saw Sapt smiling over his wine, and Fritz frowning. The rest of the meal passed in silence; neither Flavia nor I could speak. Fritz touched me on the shoulder, and I rose, gave her my arm, and walked down the hall into a little room, where coffee was served to us. The gentlemen and ladies in attendance withdrew, and we were alone.
The little room had French windows opening on the gardens. The night was fine, cool, and fragrant. Flavia sat down, and I stood opposite her. I was struggling with myself: if she had not looked at me, I believe that even then I should have won my fight. But suddenly, involuntarily, she gave me one brief glance—a glance of question, hurriedly turned aside; a blush that the question had ever come spread over her cheek, and she caught her breath. Ah, if you had seen her! I forgot the King in Zenda. I forgot the King in Strelsau. She was a princess—and I an impostor. Do you think I remembered that? I threw myself on my knee and seized her hands in mine. I said nothing. Why should I? The soft sounds of the night set my wooing to a wordless melody, as I pressed my kisses on her lips.
She pushed me from her, crying suddenly:
"Ah! is it true? or is it only because you must?"
"It's true!" I said, in low smothered tones—"true that I love you more than life—or truth—or honour!"
She set no meaning to my words, treating them as one of love's sweet extravagances. She came close to me, and whispered:
"Oh, if you were not the King! Then I could show you how I love you! How is it that I love you now, Rudolf?"
"Yes—just lately. I—I never did before."
Pure triumph filled me. It was I—Rudolf Rassendyll—who had won her! I caught her round the waist.
"You didn't love me before?" I asked.
She looked up into my face, smiling, as she whispered:
"It must have been your Crown. I felt it first on the Coronation Day."
"Never before?" I asked eagerly.
She laughed low.
"You speak as if you would be pleased to hear me say 'Yes' to that," she said.
"Would 'Yes' be true?"
"Yes," I just heard her breathe, and she went on in an instant: "Be careful, Rudolf; be careful, dear. He will be mad now."
"What, Michael? If Michael were the worst—"
"What worse is there?"
There was yet a chance for me. Controlling myself with a mighty effort, I took my hands off her and stood a yard or two away. I remember now the note of the wind in the elm trees outside.
"If I were not the King," I began, "if I were only a private gentleman—"
Before I could finish, her hand was in mine.
"If you were a convict in the prison of Strelsau, you would be my King," she said.
And under my breath I groaned, "God forgive me!" and, holding her hand in mine, I said again:
"If I were not the King—"
"Hush, hush!" she whispered. "I don't deserve it—I don't deserve to be doubted. Ah, Rudolf! does a woman who marries without love look on the man as I look on you?"
And she hid her face from me.
For more than a minute we stood there together; and I, even with my arm about her, summoned up what honour and conscience her beauty and the toils that I was in had left me.
"Flavia," I said, in a strange dry voice that seemed not my own, "I am not—"
As I spoke—as she raised her eyes to me—there was a heavy step on the gravel outside, and a man appeared at the window. A little cry burst from Flavia, as she sprang back from me. My half-finished sentence died on my lips. Sapt stood there, bowing low, but with a stern frown on his face.
"A thousand pardons, sire," said he, "but his Eminence the Cardinal has waited this quarter of an hour to offer his respectful adieu to your Majesty."
I met his eye full and square; and I read in it an angry warning. How long he had been a listener I knew not, but he had come in upon us in the nick of time.
"We must not keep his Eminence waiting," said I.
But Flavia, in whose love there lay no shame, with radiant eyes and blushing face, held out her hand to Sapt. She said nothing, but no man could have missed her meaning, who had ever seen a woman in the exultation of love. A sour, yet sad, smile passed over the old soldier's face, and there was tenderness in his voice, as bending to kiss her hand, he said:
"In joy and sorrow, in good times and bad, God save your Royal Highness!"
He paused and added, glancing at me and drawing himself up to military erectness:
"But, before all comes the King—God save the King!"
And Flavia caught at my hand and kissed it, murmuring:
"Amen! Good God, Amen!"
We went into the ballroom again. Forced to receive adieus, I was separated from Flavia: everyone, when they left me, went to her. Sapt was out and in of the throng, and where he had been, glances, smiles, and whispers were rife. I doubted not that, true to his relentless purpose, he was spreading the news that he had learnt. To uphold the Crown and beat Black Michael—that was his one resolve. Flavia, myself—ay, and the real King in Zenda, were pieces in his game; and pawns have no business with passions. Not even at the walls of the Palace did he stop; for when at last I handed Flavia down the broad marble steps and into her carriage, there was a great crowd awaiting us, and we were welcomed with deafening cheers. What could I do? Had I spoken then, they would have refused to believe that I was not the King; they might have believed that the King had run mad. By Sapt's devices and my own ungoverned passion I had been forced on, and the way back had closed behind me; and the passion still drove me in the same direction as the devices seduced me. I faced all Strelsau that night as the King and the accepted suitor of the Princess Flavia.
At last, at three in the morning, when the cold light of dawning day began to steal in, I was in my dressing-room, and Sapt alone was with me. I sat like a man dazed, staring into the fire; he puffed at his pipe; Fritz was gone to bed, having almost refused to speak to me. On the table by me lay a rose; it had been in Flavia's dress, and, as we parted, she had kissed it and given it to me.
Sapt advanced his hand towards the rose, but, with a quick movement, I shut mine down upon it.
"That's mine," I said, "not yours—nor the King's either."
"We struck a good blow for the King tonight," said he.
I turned on him fiercely.
"What's to prevent me striking a blow for myself?" I said.
He nodded his head.
"I know what's in your mind," he said. "Yes, lad; but you're bound in honour."
"Have you left me any honour?"
"Oh, come, to play a little trick on a girl—"
"You can spare me that. Colonel Sapt, if you would not have me utterly a villain—if you would not have your King rot in Zenda, while Michael and I play for the great stake outside—You follow me?"
"Ay, I follow you."
"We must act, and quickly! You saw tonight—you heard—tonight—"
"I did," said he.
"Your cursed acuteness told you what I should do. Well, leave me here a week—and there's another problem for you. Do you find the answer?"
"Yes, I find it," he answered, frowning heavily. "But if you did that, you'd have to fight me first—and kill me."
"Well, and if I had—or a score of men? I tell you, I could raise all Strelsau on you in an hour, and choke you with your lies—yes, your mad lies—in your mouth."
"It's gospel truth," he said—"thanks to my advice you could."
"I could marry the princess, and send Michael and his brother together to—"
"I'm not denying it, lad," said he.
"Then, in God's name," I cried, stretching out my hands to him, "let us go to Zenda and crush this Michael and bring the King back to his own again." The old fellow stood and looked at me for full a minute.
"And the princess?" he said.
I bowed my head to meet my hands, and crushed the rose between my fingers and my lips.
I felt his hand on my shoulder, and his voice sounded husky as he whispered low in my ear:
"Before God, you're the finest Elphberg of them all. But I have eaten of the King's bread, and I am the King's servant. Come, we will go to Zenda!"
And I looked up and caught him by the hand. And the eyes of both of us were wet.