The king keeps his appointment
Whether I had slept a minute or a year I knew not. I awoke with a start and a shiver; my face, hair and clothes dripped water, and opposite me stood old Sapt, a sneering smile on his face and an empty bucket in his hand. On the table by him sat Fritz von Tarlenheim, pale as a ghost and black as a crow under the eyes.
I leapt to my feet in anger.
"Your joke goes too far, sir!" I cried.
"Tut, man, we've no time for quarrelling. Nothing else would rouse you. It's five o'clock."
"I'll thank you, Colonel Sapt—" I began again, hot in spirit, though I was uncommonly cold in body.
"Rassendyll," interrupted Fritz, getting down from the table and taking my arm, "look here."
The King lay full length on the floor. His face was red as his hair, and he breathed heavily. Sapt, the disrespectful old dog, kicked him sharply. He did not stir, nor was there any break in his breathing. I saw that his face and head were wet with water, as were mine.
"We've spent half an hour on him," said Fritz.
"He drank three times what either of you did," growled Sapt.
I knelt down and felt his pulse. It was alarmingly languid and slow. We three looked at one another.
"Was it drugged—that last bottle?" I asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," said Sapt.
"We must get a doctor."
"There's none within ten miles, and a thousand doctors wouldn't take him to Strelsau today. I know the look of it. He'll not move for six or seven hours yet."
"But the coronation!" I cried in horror.
Fritz shrugged his shoulders, as I began to see was his habit on most occasions.
"We must send word that he's ill," he said.
"I suppose so," said I.
Old Sapt, who seemed as fresh as a daisy, had lit his pipe and was puffing hard at it.
"If he's not crowned today," said he, "I'll lay a crown he's never crowned."
"But heavens, why?"
"The whole nation's there to meet him; half the army—ay, and Black Michael at the head. Shall we send word that the King's drunk?"
"That he's ill," said I, in correction.
"Ill!" echoed Sapt, with a scornful laugh. "They know his illnesses too well. He's been 'ill' before!"
"Well, we must chance what they think," said Fritz helplessly. "I'll carry the news and make the best of it."
Sapt raised his hand.
"Tell me," said he. "Do you think the King was drugged?"
"I do," said I.
"And who drugged him?"
"That damned hound, Black Michael," said Fritz between his teeth.
"Ay," said Sapt, "that he might not come to be crowned. Rassendyll here doesn't know our pretty Michael. What think you, Fritz, has Michael no king ready? Has half Strelsau no other candidate? As God's alive, man the throne's lost if the King show himself not in Strelsau today. I know Black Michael."
"We could carry him there," said I.
"And a very pretty picture he makes," sneered Sapt.
Fritz von Tarlenheim buried his face in his hands. The King breathed loudly and heavily. Sapt stirred him again with his foot.
"The drunken dog!" he said; "but he's an Elphberg and the son of his father, and may I rot in hell before Black Michael sits in his place!"
For a moment or two we were all silent; then Sapt, knitting his bushy grey brows, took his pipe from his mouth and said to me:
"As a man grows old he believes in Fate. Fate sent you here. Fate sends you now to Strelsau."
I staggered back, murmuring "Good God!"
Fritz looked up with an eager, bewildered gaze.
"Impossible!" I muttered. "I should be known."
"It's a risk—against a certainty," said Sapt. "If you shave, I'll wager you'll not be known. Are you afraid?"
"Come, lad, there, there; but it's your life, you know, if you're known—and mine—and Fritz's here. But, if you don't go, I swear to you Black Michael will sit tonight on the throne, and the King lie in prison or his grave."
"The King would never forgive it," I stammered.
"Are we women? Who cares for his forgiveness?"
The clock ticked fifty times, and sixty and seventy times, as I stood in thought. Then I suppose a look came over my face, for old Sapt caught me by the hand, crying:
"Yes, I'll go," said I, and I turned my eyes on the prostrate figure of the King on the floor.
"Tonight," Sapt went on in a hasty whisper, "we are to lodge in the Palace. The moment they leave us you and I will mount our horses—Fritz must stay there and guard the King's room—and ride here at a gallop. The King will be ready—Josef will tell him—and he must ride back with me to Strelsau, and you ride as if the devil were behind you to the frontier."
I took it all in in a second, and nodded my head.
"There's a chance," said Fritz, with his first sign of hopefulness.
"If I escape detection," said I.
"If we're detected," said Sapt. "I'll send Black Michael down below before I go myself, so help me heaven! Sit in that chair, man."
I obeyed him.
He darted from the room, calling "Josef! Josef!" In three minutes he was back, and Josef with him. The latter carried a jug of hot water, soap and razors. He was trembling as Sapt told him how the land lay, and bade him shave me.
Suddenly Fritz smote on his thigh:
"But the guard! They'll know! they'll know!"
"Pooh! We shan't wait for the guard. We'll ride to Hofbau and catch a train there. When they come, the bird'll be flown."
"But the King?"
"The King will be in the wine-cellar. I'm going to carry him there now."
"If they find him?"
"They won't. How should they? Josef will put them off."
Sapt stamped his foot.
"We're not playing," he roared. "My God! don't I know the risk? If they do find him, he's no worse off than if he isn't crowned today in Strelsau."
So speaking, he flung the door open and, stooping, put forth a strength I did not dream he had, and lifted the King in his hands. And as he did so, the old woman, Johann the keeper's mother, stood in the doorway. For a moment she stood, then she turned on her heel, without a sign of surprise, and clattered down the passage.
"Has she heard?" cried Fritz.
"I'll shut her mouth!" said Sapt grimly, and he bore off the King in his arms.
For me, I sat down in an armchair, and as I sat there, half-dazed, Josef clipped and scraped me till my moustache and imperial were things of the past and my face was as bare as the King's. And when Fritz saw me thus he drew a long breath and exclaimed:—
"By Jove, we shall do it!"
It was six o'clock now, and we had no time to lose. Sapt hurried me into the King's room, and I dressed myself in the uniform of a colonel of the Guard, finding time as I slipped on the King's boots to ask Sapt what he had done with the old woman.
"She swore she'd heard nothing," said he; "but to make sure I tied her legs together and put a handkerchief in her mouth and bound her hands, and locked her up in the coal-cellar, next door to the King. Josef will look after them both later on."
Then I burst out laughing, and even old Sapt grimly smiled.
"I fancy," said he, "that when Josef tells them the King is gone they'll think it is because we smelt a rat. For you may swear Black Michael doesn't expect to see him in Strelsau today."
I put the King's helmet on my head. Old Sapt handed me the King's sword, looking at me long and carefully.
"Thank God, he shaved his beard!" he exclaimed.
"Why did he?" I asked.
"Because Princess Flavia said he grazed her cheek when he was graciously pleased to give her a cousinly kiss. Come though, we must ride."
"Is all safe here?"
"Nothing's safe anywhere," said Sapt, "but we can make it no safer."
Fritz now rejoined us in the uniform of a captain in the same regiment as that to which my dress belonged. In four minutes Sapt had arrayed himself in his uniform. Josef called that the horses were ready. We jumped on their backs and started at a rapid trot. The game had begun. What would the issue of it be?
The cool morning air cleared my head, and I was able to take in all Sapt said to me. He was wonderful. Fritz hardly spoke, riding like a man asleep, but Sapt, without another word for the King, began at once to instruct me most minutely in the history of my past life, of my family, of my tastes, pursuits, weaknesses, friends, companions, and servants. He told me the etiquette of the Ruritanian Court, promising to be constantly at my elbow to point out everybody whom I ought to know, and give me hints with what degree of favour to greet them.
"By the way," he said, "you're a Catholic, I suppose?"
"Not I," I answered.
"Lord, he's a heretic!" groaned Sapt, and forthwith he fell to a rudimentary lesson in the practices and observances of the Romish faith.
"Luckily," said he, "you won't be expected to know much, for the King's notoriously lax and careless about such matters. But you must be as civil as butter to the Cardinal. We hope to win him over, because he and Michael have a standing quarrel about their precedence."
We were by now at the station. Fritz had recovered nerve enough to explain to the astonished station master that the King had changed his plans. The train steamed up. We got into a first-class carriage, and Sapt, leaning back on the cushions, went on with his lesson. I looked at my watch—the King's watch it was, of course. It was just eight.
"I wonder if they've gone to look for us," I said.
"I hope they won't find the King," said Fritz nervously, and this time it was Sapt who shrugged his shoulders.
The train travelled well, and at half-past nine, looking out of the window, I saw the towers and spires of a great city.
"Your capital, my liege," grinned old Sapt, with a wave of his hand, and, leaning forward, he laid his finger on my pulse. "A little too quick," said he, in his grumbling tone.
"I'm not made of stone!" I exclaimed.
"You'll do," said he, with a nod. "We must say Fritz here has caught the ague. Drain your flask, Fritz, for heaven's sake, boy!"
Fritz did as he was bid.
"We're an hour early," said Sapt. "We'll send word forward for your Majesty's arrival, for there'll be no one here to meet us yet. And meanwhile—"
"Meanwhile," said I, "the King'll be hanged if he doesn't have some breakfast."
Old Sapt chuckled, and held out his hand.
"You're an Elphberg, every inch of you," said he. Then he paused, and looking at us, said quietly, "God send we may be alive tonight!"
"Amen!" said Fritz von Tarlenheim.
The train stopped. Fritz and Sapt leapt out, uncovered, and held the door for me. I choked down a lump that rose in my throat, settled my helmet firmly on my head, and (I'm not ashamed to say it) breathed a short prayer to God. Then I stepped on the platform of the station at Strelsau.
A moment later, all was bustle and confusion: men hurrying up, hats in hand, and hurrying off again; men conducting me to the buffet; men mounting and riding in hot haste to the quarters of the troops, to the Cathedral, to the residence of Duke Michael. Even as I swallowed the last drop of my cup of coffee, the bells throughout all the city broke out into a joyful peal, and the sound of a military band and of men cheering smote upon my ear.
King Rudolf the Fifth was in his good city of Strelsau! And they shouted outside—
"God save the King!"
Old Sapt's mouth wrinkled into a smile.
"God save 'em both!" he whispered. "Courage, lad!" and I felt his hand press my knee.