The secret of a cellar
We were in the King's dressing-room—Fritz von Tarlenheim, Sapt, and I. I flung myself exhausted into an armchair. Sapt lit his pipe. He uttered no congratulations on the marvellous success of our wild risk, but his whole bearing was eloquent of satisfaction. The triumph, aided perhaps by good wine, had made a new man of Fritz.
"What a day for you to remember!" he cried. "Gad, I'd like to be King for twelve hours myself! But, Rassendyll, you mustn't throw your heart too much into the part. I don't wonder Black Michael looked blacker than ever—you and the princess had so much to say to one another."
"How beautiful she is!" I exclaimed.
"Never mind the woman," growled Sapt. "Are you ready to start?"
"Yes," said I, with a sigh.
It was five o'clock, and at twelve I should be no more than Rudolf Rassendyll. I remarked on it in a joking tone.
"You'll be lucky," observed Sapt grimly, "if you're not the late Rudolf Rassendyll. By Heaven! I feel my head wobbling on my shoulders every minute you're in the city. Do you know, friend, that Michael has had news from Zenda? He went into a room alone to read it—and he came out looking like a man dazed."
"I'm ready," said I, this news making me none the more eager to linger.
Sapt sat down.
"I must write us an order to leave the city. Michael's Governor, you know, and we must be prepared for hindrances. You must sign the order."
"My dear colonel, I've not been bred a forger!"
Out of his pocket Sapt produced a piece of paper.
"There's the King's signature," he said, "and here," he went on, after another search in his pocket, "is some tracing paper. If you can't manage a 'Rudolf' in ten minutes, why—I can."
"Your education has been more comprehensive than mine," said I. "You write it."
And a very tolerable forgery did this versatile hero produce.
"Now, Fritz," said he, "the King goes to bed. He is upset. No one is to see him till nine o'clock tomorrow. You understand—no one?"
"I understand," answered Fritz.
"Michael may come, and claim immediate audience. You'll answer that only princes of the blood are entitled to it."
"That'll annoy Michael," laughed Fritz.
"You quite understand?" asked Sapt again. "If the door of this room is opened while we're away, you're not to be alive to tell us about it."
"I need no schooling, colonel," said Fritz, a trifle haughtily.
"Here, wrap yourself in this big cloak," Sapt continued to me, "and put on this flat cap. My orderly rides with me to the hunting-lodge tonight."
"There's an obstacle," I observed. "The horse doesn't live that can carry me forty miles."
"Oh, yes, he does—two of him: one here—one at the lodge. Now, are you ready?"
"I'm ready," said I.
Fritz held out his hand.
"In case," said he; and we shook hands heartily.
"Damn your sentiment!" growled Sapt. "Come along."
He went, not to the door, but to a panel in the wall.
"In the old King's time," said he, "I knew this way well."
I followed him, and we walked, as I should estimate, near two hundred yards along a narrow passage. Then we came to a stout oak door. Sapt unlocked it. We passed through, and found ourselves in a quiet street that ran along the back of the Palace gardens. A man was waiting for us with two horses. One was a magnificent bay, up to any weight; the other a sturdy brown. Sapt signed to me to mount the bay. Without a word to the man, we mounted and rode away. The town was full of noise and merriment, but we took secluded ways. My cloak was wrapped over half my face; the capacious flat cap hid every lock of my tell-tale hair. By Sapt's directions, I crouched on my saddle, and rode with such a round back as I hope never to exhibit on a horse again. Down a long narrow lane we went, meeting some wanderers and some roisterers; and, as we rode, we heard the Cathedral bells still clanging out their welcome to the King. It was half-past six, and still light. At last we came to the city wall and to a gate.
"Have your weapon ready," whispered Sapt. "We must stop his mouth, if he talks."
I put my hand on my revolver. Sapt hailed the doorkeeper. The stars fought for us! A little girl of fourteen tripped out.
"Please, sir, father's gone to see the King."
"He'd better have stayed here," said Sapt to me, grinning.
"But he said I wasn't to open the gate, sir."
"Did he, my dear?" said Sapt, dismounting. "Then give me the key."
The key was in the child's hand. Sapt gave her a crown.
"Here's an order from the King. Show it to your father. Orderly, open the gate!"
I leapt down. Between us we rolled back the great gate, led our horses out, and closed it again.
"I shall be sorry for the doorkeeper if Michael finds out that he wasn't there. Now then, lad, for a canter. We mustn't go too fast while we're near the town."
Once, however, outside the city, we ran little danger, for everybody else was inside, merry-making; and as the evening fell we quickened our pace, my splendid horse bounding along under me as though I had been a feather. It was a fine night, and presently the moon appeared. We talked little on the way, and chiefly about the progress we were making.
"I wonder what the duke's despatches told him," said I, once.
"Ay, I wonder!" responded Sapt.
We stopped for a draught of wine and to bait our horses, losing half an hour thus. I dared not go into the inn, and stayed with the horses in the stable. Then we went ahead again, and had covered some five-and-twenty miles, when Sapt abruptly stopped.
"Hark!" he cried.
I listened. Away, far behind us, in the still of the evening—it was just half-past nine—we heard the beat of horses' hoofs. The wind blowing strong behind us, carried the sound. I glanced at Sapt.
"Come on!" he cried, and spurred his horse into a gallop. When we next paused to listen, the hoof-beats were not audible, and we relaxed our pace. Then we heard them again. Sapt jumped down and laid his ear to the ground.
"There are two," he said. "They're only a mile behind. Thank God the road curves in and out, and the wind's our way."
We galloped on. We seemed to be holding our own. We had entered the outskirts of the forest of Zenda, and the trees, closing in behind us as the track zigged and zagged, prevented us seeing our pursuers, and them from seeing us.
Another half-hour brought us to a divide of the road. Sapt drew rein.
"To the right is our road," he said. "To the left, to the Castle. Each about eight miles. Get down."
"But they'll be on us!" I cried.
"Get down!" he repeated brusquely; and I obeyed. The wood was dense up to the very edge of the road. We led our horses into the covert, bound handkerchiefs over their eyes, and stood beside them.
"You want to see who they are?" I whispered.
"Ay, and where they're going," he answered.
I saw that his revolver was in his hand.
Nearer and nearer came the hoofs. The moon shone out now clear and full, so that the road was white with it. The ground was hard, and we had left no traces.
"Here they come!" whispered Sapt.
"It's the duke!"
"I thought so," he answered.
It was the duke; and with him a burly fellow whom I knew well, and who had cause to know me afterwards—Max Holf, brother to Johann the keeper, and body-servant to his Highness. They were up to us: the duke reined up. I saw Sapt's finger curl lovingly towards the trigger. I believe he would have given ten years of his life for a shot; and he could have picked off Black Michael as easily as I could a barn-door fowl in a farmyard. I laid my hand on his arm. He nodded reassuringly: he was always ready to sacrifice inclination to duty.
"Which way?" asked Black Michael.
"To the Castle, your Highness," urged his companion. "There we shall learn the truth."
For an instant the duke hesitated.
"I thought I heard hoofs," said he.
"I think not, your Highness."
"Why shouldn't we go to the lodge?"
"I fear a trap. If all is well, why go to the lodge? If not, it's a snare to trap us."
Suddenly the duke's horse neighed. In an instant we folded our cloaks close round our horses' heads, and, holding them thus, covered the duke and his attendant with our revolvers. If they had found us, they had been dead men, or our prisoners.
Michael waited a moment longer. Then he cried:
"To Zenda, then!" and setting spurs to his horse, galloped on.
Sapt raised his weapon after him, and there was such an expression of wistful regret on his face that I had much ado not to burst out laughing.
For ten minutes we stayed where we were.
"You see," said Sapt, "they've sent him news that all is well."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"God knows," said Sapt, frowning heavily. "But it's brought him from Strelsau in a rare puzzle."
Then we mounted, and rode as fast as our weary horses could lay their feet to the ground. For those last eight miles we spoke no more. Our minds were full of apprehension. "All is well." What did it mean? Was all well with the King?
At last the lodge came in sight. Spurring our horses to a last gallop, we rode up to the gate. All was still and quiet. Not a soul came to meet us. We dismounted in haste. Suddenly Sapt caught me by the arm.
"Look there!" he said, pointing to the ground.
I looked down. At my feet lay five or six silk handkerchiefs, torn and slashed and rent. I turned to him questioningly.
"They're what I tied the old woman up with," said he. "Fasten the horses, and come along."
The handle of the door turned without resistance. We passed into the room which had been the scene of last night's bout. It was still strewn with the remnants of our meal and with empty bottles.
"Come on," cried Sapt, whose marvellous composure had at last almost given way.
We rushed down the passage towards the cellars. The door of the coal-cellar stood wide open.
"They found the old woman," said I.
"You might have known that from the handkerchiefs," he said.
Then we came opposite the door of the wine-cellar. It was shut. It looked in all respects as it had looked when we left it that morning.
"Come, it's all right," said I.
A loud oath from Sapt rang out. His face turned pale, and he pointed again at the floor. From under the door a red stain had spread over the floor of the passage and dried there. Sapt sank against the opposite wall. I tried the door. It was locked.
"Where's Josef?" muttered Sapt.
"Where's the King?" I responded.
Sapt took out a flask and put it to his lips. I ran back to the dining-room, and seized a heavy poker from the fireplace. In my terror and excitement I rained blows on the lock of the door, and I fired a cartridge into it. It gave way, and the door swung open.
"Give me a light," said I; but Sapt still leant against the wall.
He was, of course, more moved than I, for he loved his master. Afraid for himself he was not—no man ever saw him that; but to think what might lie in that dark cellar was enough to turn any man's face pale. I went myself, and took a silver candlestick from the dining-table and struck a light, and, as I returned, I felt the hot wax drip on my naked hand as the candle swayed to and fro; so that I cannot afford to despise Colonel Sapt for his agitation.
I came to the door of the cellar. The red stain turning more and more to a dull brown, stretched inside. I walked two yards into the cellar, and held the candle high above my head. I saw the full bins of wine; I saw spiders crawling on the walls; I saw, too, a couple of empty bottles lying on the floor; and then, away in the corner, I saw the body of a man, lying flat on his back, with his arms stretched wide, and a crimson gash across his throat. I walked to him and knelt down beside him, and commended to God the soul of a faithful man. For it was the body of Josef, the little servant, slain in guarding the King.
I felt a hand on my shoulders, and, turning, saw Sapt, eyes glaring and terror-struck, beside me.
"The King? My God! the King?" he whispered hoarsely.
I threw the candle's gleam over every inch of the cellar.
"The King is not here," said I.