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 Strelsau Police.
"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," she said.
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.