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.