Hunting a very big boar
The terrible temptation which was assailing me will now be understood. I could so force Michael's hand that he must kill the King. I was in a position to bid him defiance and tighten my grasp on the crown—not for its own sake, but because the King of Ruritania was to wed the Princess Flavia. What of Sapt and Fritz? Ah! but a man cannot be held to write down in cold blood the wild and black thoughts that storm his brain when an uncontrolled passion has battered a breach for them. Yet, unless he sets up as a saint, he need not hate himself for them. He is better employed, as it humbly seems to me, in giving thanks that power to resist was vouchsafed to him, than in fretting over wicked impulses which come unsought and extort an unwilling hospitality from the weakness of our nature.
It was a fine bright morning when I walked, unattended, to the princess's house, carrying a nosegay in my hand. Policy made excuses for love, and every attention that I paid her, while it riveted my own chains, bound closer to me the people of the great city, who worshipped her. I found Fritz's inamorata, the Countess Helga, gathering blooms in the garden for her mistress's wear, and prevailed on her to take mine in their place. The girl was rosy with happiness, for Fritz, in his turn, had not wasted his evening, and no dark shadow hung over his wooing, save the hatred which the Duke of Strelsau was known to bear him.
"And that," she said, with a mischievous smile, "your Majesty has made of no moment. Yes, I will take the flowers; shall I tell you, sire, what is the first thing the princess does with them?"
We were talking on a broad terrace that ran along the back of the house, and a window above our heads stood open.
"Madame!" cried the countess merrily, and Flavia herself looked out. I bared my head and bowed. She wore a white gown, and her hair was loosely gathered in a knot. She kissed her hand to me, crying:
"Bring the King up, Helga; I'll give him some coffee."
The countess, with a gay glance, led the way, and took me into Flavia's morning-room. And, left alone, we greeted one another as lovers are wont. Then the princess laid two letters before me. One was from Black Michael—a most courteous request that she would honour him by spending a day at his Castle of Zenda, as had been her custom once a year in the summer, when the place and its gardens were in the height of their great beauty. I threw the letter down in disgust, and Flavia laughed at me. Then, growing grave again, she pointed to the other sheet.
"I don't know who that comes from," she said. "Read it."
I knew in a moment. There was no signature at all this time, but the handwriting was the same as that which had told me of the snare in the summer-house: it was Antoinette de Mauban's.
"I have no cause to love you," it ran, "but God forbid that you should fall into the power of the duke. Accept no invitations of his. Go nowhere without a large guard—a regiment is not too much to make you safe. Show this, if you can, to him who reigns in Strelsau."
"Why doesn't it say 'the King'?" asked Flavia, leaning over my shoulder, so that the ripple of her hair played on my cheek. "Is it a hoax?"
"As you value life, and more than life, my queen," I said, "obey it to the very letter. A regiment shall camp round your house today. See that you do not go out unless well guarded."
"An order, sire?" she asked, a little rebellious.
"Yes, an order, madame—if you love me."
"Ah!" she cried; and I could not but kiss her.
"You know who sent it?" she asked.
"I guess," said I. "It is from a good friend—and I fear, an unhappy woman. You must be ill, Flavia, and unable to go to Zenda. Make your excuses as cold and formal as you like."
"So you feel strong enough to anger Michael?" she said, with a proud smile.
"I'm strong enough for anything, while you are safe," said I.
Soon I tore myself away from her, and then, without consulting Sapt, I took my way to the house of Marshal Strakencz. I had seen something of the old general, and I liked and trusted him. Sapt was less enthusiastic, but I had learnt by now that Sapt was best pleased when he could do everything, and jealousy played some part in his views. As things were now, I had more work than Sapt and Fritz could manage, for they must come with me to Zenda, and I wanted a man to guard what I loved most in all the world, and suffer me to set about my task of releasing the King with a quiet mind.
The Marshal received me with most loyal kindness. To some extent, I took him into my confidence. I charged him with the care of the princess, looking him full and significantly in the face as I bade him let no one from her cousin the duke approach her, unless he himself were there and a dozen of his men with him.
"You may be right, sire," said he, shaking his grey head sadly. "I have known better men than the duke do worse things than that for love."
I could quite appreciate the remark, but I said:
"There's something beside love, Marshal. Love's for the heart; is there nothing my brother might like for his head?"
"I pray that you wrong him, sire."
"Marshal, I'm leaving Strelsau for a few days. Every evening I will send a courier to you. If for three days none comes, you will publish an order which I will give you, depriving Duke Michael of the governorship of Strelsau and appointing you in his place. You will declare a state of siege. Then you will send word to Michael that you demand an audience of the King—You follow me?"
"—In twenty-four hours. If he does not produce the King" (I laid my hand on his knee), "then the King is dead, and you will proclaim the next heir. You know who that is?"
"The Princess Flavia."
"And swear to me, on your faith and honour and by the fear of the living God, that you will stand by her to the death, and kill that reptile, and seat her where I sit now."
"On my faith and honour, and by the fear of God, I swear it! And may Almighty God preserve your Majesty, for I think that you go on an errand of danger."
"I hope that no life more precious than mine may be demanded," said I, rising. Then I held out my hand to him.
"Marshal," I said, "in days to come, it may be—I know not—that you will hear strange things of the man who speaks to you now. Let him be what he may, and who he may, what say you of the manner in which he has borne himself as King in Strelsau?"
The old man, holding my hand, spoke to me, man to man.
"I have known many of the Elphbergs," said he, "and I have seen you. And, happen what may, you have borne yourself as a wise King and a brave man; ay, and you have proved as courteous a gentleman and as gallant a lover as any that have been of the House."
"Be that my epitaph," said I, "when the time comes that another sits on the throne of Ruritania."
"God send a far day, and may I not see it!" said he.
I was much moved, and the Marshal's worn face twitched. I sat down and wrote my order.
"I can hardly yet write," said I; "my finger is stiff still."
It was, in fact, the first time that I had ventured to write more than a signature; and in spite of the pains I had taken to learn the King's hand, I was not yet perfect in it.
"Indeed, sire," he said, "it differs a little from your ordinary handwriting. It is unfortunate, for it may lead to a suspicion of forgery."
"Marshal," said I, with a laugh, "what use are the guns of Strelsau, if they can't assuage a little suspicion?"
He smiled grimly, and took the paper.
"Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim go with me," I continued.
"You go to seek the duke?" he asked in a low tone.
"Yes, the duke, and someone else of whom I have need, and who is at Zenda," I replied.
"I wish I could go with you," he cried, tugging at his white moustache. "I'd like to strike a blow for you and your crown."
"I leave you what is more than my life and more than my crown," said I, "because you are the man I trust more than all other in Ruritania."
"I will deliver her to you safe and sound," said he, "and, failing that, I will make her queen."
We parted, and I returned to the Palace and told Sapt and Fritz what I had done. Sapt had a few faults to find and a few grumbles to utter. This was merely what I expected, for Sapt liked to be consulted beforehand, not informed afterwards; but on the whole he approved of my plans, and his spirits rose high as the hour of action drew nearer and nearer. Fritz, too, was ready; though he, poor fellow, risked more than Sapt did, for he was a lover, and his happiness hung in the scale. Yet how I envied him! For the triumphant issue which would crown him with happiness and unite him to his mistress, the success for which we were bound to hope and strive and struggle, meant to me sorrow more certain and greater than if I were doomed to fail. He understood something of this, for when we were alone (save for old Sapt, who was smoking at the other end of the room) he passed his arm through mine, saying:
"It's hard for you. Don't think I don't trust you; I know you have nothing but true thoughts in your heart."
But I turned away from him, thankful that he could not see what my heart held, but only be witness to the deeds that my hands were to do.
Yet even he did not understand, for he had not dared to lift his eyes to the Princess Flavia, as I had lifted mine.
Our plans were now all made, even as we proceeded to carry them out, and as they will hereafter appear. The next morning we were to start on the hunting excursion. I had made all arrangements for being absent, and now there was only one thing left to do—the hardest, the most heart-breaking. As evening fell, I drove through the busy streets to Flavia's residence. I was recognized as I went and heartily cheered. I played my part, and made shift to look the happy lover. In spite of my depression, I was almost amused at the coolness and delicate hauteur with which my sweet lover received me. She had heard that the King was leaving Strelsau on a hunting expedition.
"I regret that we cannot amuse your Majesty here in Strelsau," she said, tapping her foot lightly on the floor. "I would have offered you more entertainment, but I was foolish enough to think—"
"Well, what?" I asked, leaning over her.
"That just for a day or two after—after last night—you might be happy without much gaiety;" and she turned pettishly from me, as she added, "I hope the boars will be more engrossing."
"I'm going after a very big boar," said I; and, because I could not help it, I began to play with her hair, but she moved her head away.
"Are you offended with me?" I asked, in feigned surprise, for I could not resist tormenting her a little. I had never seen her angry, and every fresh aspect of her was a delight to me.
"What right have I to be offended? True, you said last night that every hour away from me was wasted. But a very big boar! that's a different thing."
"Perhaps the boar will hunt me," I suggested. "Perhaps, Flavia, he'll catch me."
She made no answer.
"You are not touched even by that danger?"
Still she said nothing; and I, stealing round, found her eyes full of tears.
"You weep for my danger?"
Then she spoke very low:
"This is like what you used to be; but not like the King—the King I—I have come to love!"
With a sudden great groan, I caught her to my heart.
"My darling!" I cried, forgetting everything but her, "did you dream that I left you to go hunting?"
"What then, Rudolf? Ah! you're not going—?"
"Well, it is hunting. I go to seek Michael in his lair."
She had turned very pale.
"So, you see, sweet, I was not so poor a lover as you thought me. I shall not be long gone."
"You will write to me, Rudolf?"
I was weak, but I could not say a word to stir suspicion in her.
"I'll send you all my heart every day," said I.
"And you'll run no danger?"
"None that I need not."
"And when will you be back? Ah, how long will it be!"
"When shall I be back?" I repeated.
"Yes, yes! Don't be long, dear, don't be long. I shan't sleep while you're away."
"I don't know when I shall be back," said I.
"Soon, Rudolf, soon?"
"God knows, my darling. But, if never—"
"Hush, hush!" and she pressed her lips to mine.
"If never," I whispered, "you must take my place; you'll be the only one of the House then. You must reign, and not weep for me."
For a moment she drew herself up like a very queen.
"Yes, I will!" she said. "I will reign. I will do my part though all my life will be empty and my heart dead; yet I'll do it!"
She paused, and sinking against me again, wailed softly.
"Come soon! come soon!"
Carried away, I cried loudly:
"As God lives, I—yes, I myself—will see you once more before I die!"
"What do you mean?" she exclaimed, with wondering eyes; but I had no answer for her, and she gazed at me with her wondering eyes.
I dared not ask her to forget, she would have found it an insult. I could not tell her then who and what I was. She was weeping, and I had but to dry her tears.
"Shall a man not come back to the loveliest lady in all the wide world?" said I. "A thousand Michaels should not keep me from you!"
She clung to me, a little comforted.
"You won't let Michael hurt you?"
"Or keep you from me?"
"Nor anyone else?"
And again I answered:
Yet there was one—not Michael—who, if he lived, must keep me from her; and for whose life I was going forth to stake my own. And his figure—the lithe, buoyant figure I had met in the woods of Zenda—the dull, inert mass I had left in the cellar of the hunting-lodge—seemed to rise, double-shaped, before me, and to come between us, thrusting itself in even where she lay, pale, exhausted, fainting, in my arms, and yet looking up at me with those eyes that bore such love as I have never seen, and haunt me now, and will till the ground closes over me—and (who knows?) perhaps beyond.