Present, past—and future?
The details of my return home can have but little interest. I went straight to the Tyrol and spent a quiet fortnight—mostly on my back, for a severe chill developed itself; and I was also the victim of a nervous reaction, which made me weak as a baby. As soon as I had reached my quarters, I sent an apparently careless postcard to my brother, announcing my good health and prospective return. That would serve to satisfy the inquiries as to my whereabouts, which were probably still vexing the Prefect of the Police of Strelsau. I let my moustache and imperial grow again; and as hair comes quickly on my face, they were respectable, though not luxuriant, by the time that I landed myself in Paris and called on my friend George Featherly. My interview with him was chiefly remarkable for the number of unwilling but necessary falsehoods that I told; and I rallied him unmercifully when he told me that he had made up his mind that I had gone in the track of Madame de Mauban to Strelsau. The lady, it appeared, was back in Paris, but was living in great seclusion—a fact for which gossip found no difficulty in accounting. Did not all the world know of the treachery and death of Duke Michael? Nevertheless, George bade Bertram Bertrand be of good cheer, "for," said he flippantly, "a live poet is better than a dead duke." Then he turned on me and asked:
"What have you been doing to your moustache?"
"To tell the truth," I answered, assuming a sly air, "a man now and then has reasons for wishing to alter his appearance. But it's coming on very well again."
"What? Then I wasn't so far out! If not the fair Antoinette, there was a charmer?"
"There is always a charmer," said I, sententiously.
But George would not be satisfied till he had wormed out of me (he took much pride in his ingenuity) an absolutely imaginary love-affair, attended with the proper soupcon of scandal, which had kept me all this time in the peaceful regions of the Tyrol. In return for this narrative, George regaled me with a great deal of what he called "inside information" (known only to diplomatists), as to the true course of events in Ruritania, the plots and counterplots. In his opinion, he told me, with a significant nod, there was more to be said for Black Michael than the public supposed; and he hinted at a well-founded suspicion that the mysterious prisoner of Zenda, concerning whom a good many paragraphs had appeared, was not a man at all, but (here I had much ado not to smile) a woman disguised as a man; and that strife between the King and his brother for this imaginary lady's favour was at the bottom of their quarrel.
"Perhaps it was Madame de Mauban herself," I suggested.
"No!" said George decisively, "Antoinette de Mauban was jealous of her, and betrayed the duke to the King for that reason. And, to confirm what I say, it's well known that the Princess Flavia is now extremely cold to the King, after having been most affectionate."
At this point I changed the subject, and escaped from George's "inspired" delusions. But if diplomatists never know anything more than they had succeeded in finding out in this instance, they appear to me to be somewhat expensive luxuries.
While in Paris I wrote to Antoinette, though I did not venture to call upon her. I received in return a very affecting letter, in which she assured me that the King's generosity and kindness, no less than her regard for me, bound her conscience to absolute secrecy. She expressed the intention of settling in the country, and withdrawing herself entirely from society. Whether she carried out her designs, I have never heard; but as I have not met her, or heard news of her up to this time, it is probable that she did. There is no doubt that she was deeply attached to the Duke of Strelsau; and her conduct at the time of his death proved that no knowledge of the man's real character was enough to root her regard for him out of her heart.
I had one more battle left to fight—a battle that would, I knew, be severe, and was bound to end in my complete defeat. Was I not back from the Tyrol, without having made any study of its inhabitants, institutions, scenery, fauna, flora, or other features? Had I not simply wasted my time in my usual frivolous, good-for-nothing way? That was the aspect of the matter which, I was obliged to admit, would present itself to my sister-in-law; and against a verdict based on such evidence, I had really no defence to offer. It may be supposed, then, that I presented myself in Park Lane in a shamefaced, sheepish fashion. On the whole, my reception was not so alarming as I had feared. It turned out that I had done, not what Rose wished, but—the next best thing—what she prophesied. She had declared that I should make no notes, record no observations, gather no materials. My brother, on the other hand, had been weak enough to maintain that a serious resolve had at length animated me.
When I returned empty-handed, Rose was so occupied in triumphing over Burlesdon that she let me down quite easily, devoting the greater part of her reproaches to my failure to advertise my friends of my whereabouts.
"We've wasted a lot of time trying to find you," she said.
"I know you have," said I. "Half our ambassadors have led weary lives on my account. George Featherly told me so. But why should you have been anxious? I can take care of myself."
"Oh, it wasn't that," she cried scornfully, "but I wanted to tell you about Sir Jacob Borrodaile. You know, he's got an Embassy—at least, he will have in a month—and he wrote to say he hoped you would go with him."
"Where's he going to?"
"He's going to succeed Lord Topham at Strelsau," said she. "You couldn't have a nicer place, short of Paris."
"Strelsau! H'm!" said I, glancing at my brother.
"Oh, that doesn't matter!" exclaimed Rose impatiently. "Now, you will go, won't you?"
"I don't know that I care about it!"
"Oh, you're too exasperating!"
"And I don't think I can go to Strelsau. My dear Rose, would it be—suitable?"
"Oh, nobody remembers that horrid old story now."
Upon this, I took out of my pocket a portrait of the King of Ruritania. It had been taken a month or two before he ascended the throne. She could not miss my point when I said, putting it into her hands:
"In case you've not seen, or not noticed, a picture of Rudolf V, there he is. Don't you think they might recall the story, if I appeared at the Court of Ruritania?"
My sister-in-law looked at the portrait, and then at me.
"Good gracious!" she said, and flung the photograph down on the table.
"What do you say, Bob?" I asked.
Burlesdon got up, went to a corner of the room, and searched in a heap of newspapers. Presently he came back with a copy of the Illustrated London News. Opening the paper, he displayed a double-page engraving of the Coronation of Rudolf V at Strelsau. The photograph and the picture he laid side by side. I sat at the table fronting them; and, as I looked, I grew absorbed. My eye travelled from my own portrait to Sapt, to Strakencz, to the rich robes of the Cardinal, to Black Michael's face, to the stately figure of the princess by his side. Long I looked and eagerly. I was roused by my brother's hand on my shoulder. He was gazing down at me with a puzzled expression.
"It's a remarkable likeness, you see," said I. "I really think I had better not go to Ruritania."
Rose, though half convinced, would not abandon her position.
"It's just an excuse," she said pettishly. "You don't want to do anything. Why, you might become an ambassador!"
"I don't think I want to be an ambassador," said I.
"It's more than you ever will be," she retorted.
That is very likely true, but it is not more than I have been.
The idea of being an ambassador could scarcely dazzle me. I had been a king!
So pretty Rose left us in dudgeon; and Burlesdon, lighting a cigarette, looked at me still with that curious gaze.
"That picture in the paper—" he said.
"Well, what of it? It shows that the King of Ruritania and your humble servant are as like as two peas."
My brother shook his head.
"I suppose so," he said. "But I should know you from the man in the photograph."
"And not from the picture in the paper?"
"I should know the photograph from the picture: the picture's very like the photograph, but—"
"It's more like you!" said my brother.
My brother is a good man and true—so that, for all that he is a married man and mighty fond of his wife, he should know any secret of mine. But this secret was not mine, and I could not tell it to him.
"I don't think it's so much like me as the photograph," said I boldly. "But, anyhow, Bob, I won't go to Strelsau."
"No, don't go to Strelsau, Rudolf," said he.
And whether he suspects anything, or has a glimmer of the truth, I do not know. If he has, he keeps it to himself, and he and I never refer to it. And we let Sir Jacob Borrodaile find another attache.
Since all these events whose history I have set down happened I have lived a very quiet life at a small house which I have taken in the country. The ordinary ambitions and aims of men in my position seem to me dull and unattractive. I have little fancy for the whirl of society, and none for the jostle of politics. Lady Burlesdon utterly despairs of me; my neighbours think me an indolent, dreamy, unsociable fellow. Yet I am a young man; and sometimes I have a fancy—the superstitious would call it a presentiment—that my part in life is not yet altogether played; that, somehow and some day, I shall mix again in great affairs, I shall again spin policies in a busy brain, match my wits against my enemies', brace my muscles to fight a good fight and strike stout blows. Such is the tissue of my thoughts as, with gun or rod in hand, I wander through the woods or by the side of the stream. Whether the fancy will be fulfilled, I cannot tell—still less whether the scene that, led by memory, I lay for my new exploits will be the true one—for I love to see myself once again in the crowded streets of Strelsau, or beneath the frowning keep of the Castle of Zenda.
Thus led, my broodings leave the future, and turn back on the past. Shapes rise before me in long array—the wild first revel with the King, the rush with my brave tea-table, the night in the moat, the pursuit in the forest: my friends and my foes, the people who learnt to love and honour me, the desperate men who tried to kill me. And, from amidst these last, comes one who alone of all of them yet moves on earth, though where I know not, yet plans (as I do not doubt) wickedness, yet turns women's hearts to softness and men's to fear and hate. Where is young Rupert of Hentzau—the boy who came so nigh to beating me? When his name comes into my head, I feel my hand grip and the blood move quicker through my veins: and the hint of Fate—the presentiment—seems to grow stronger and more definite, and to whisper insistently in my ear that I have yet a hand to play with young Rupert; therefore I exercise myself in arms, and seek to put off the day when the vigour of youth must leave me.
One break comes every year in my quiet life. Then I go to Dresden, and there I am met by my dear friend and companion, Fritz von Tarlenheim. Last time, his pretty wife Helga came, and a lusty crowing baby with her. And for a week Fritz and I are together, and I hear all of what falls out in Strelsau; and in the evenings, as we walk and smoke together, we talk of Sapt, and of the King, and often of young Rupert; and, as the hours grow small, at last we speak of Flavia. For every year Fritz carries with him to Dresden a little box; in it lies a red rose, and round the stalk of the rose is a slip of paper with the words written: "Rudolf—Flavia—always." And the like I send back by him. That message, and the wearing of the rings, are all that now bind me and the Queen of Ruritania. Far—nobler, as I hold her, for the act—she has followed where her duty to her country and her House led her, and is the wife of the King, uniting his subjects to him by the love they bear to her, giving peace and quiet days to thousands by her self-sacrifice. There are moments when I dare not think of it, but there are others when I rise in spirit to where she ever dwells; then I can thank God that I love the noblest lady in the world, the most gracious and beautiful, and that there was nothing in my love that made her fall short in her high duty.
Shall I see her face again—the pale face and the glorious hair? Of that I know nothing; Fate has no hint, my heart no presentiment. I do not know. In this world, perhaps—nay, it is likely—never. And can it be that somewhere, in a manner whereof our flesh-bound minds have no apprehension, she and I will be together again, with nothing to come between us, nothing to forbid our love? That I know not, nor wiser heads than mine. But if it be never—if I can never hold sweet converse again with her, or look upon her face, or know from her her love; why, then, this side the grave, I will live as becomes the man whom she loves; and, for the other side, I must pray a dreamless sleep.
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