His majesty sleeps in strelsau
I put my arm round Sapt's waist and supported him out of the cellar, drawing the battered door close after me. For ten minutes or more we sat silent in the dining-room. Then old Sapt rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, gave one great gasp, and was himself again. As the clock on the mantelpiece struck one he stamped his foot on the floor, saying:
"They've got the King!"
"Yes," said I, "'all's well!' as Black Michael's despatch said. What a moment it must have been for him when the royal salutes fired at Strelsau this morning! I wonder when he got the message?"
"It must have been sent in the morning," said Sapt. "They must have sent it before news of your arrival at Strelsau reached Zenda—I suppose it came from Zenda."
"And he's carried it about all day!" I exclaimed. "Upon my honour, I'm not the only man who's had a trying day! What did he think, Sapt?"
"What does that matter? What does he think, lad, now?"
I rose to my feet.
"We must get back," I said, "and rouse every soldier in Strelsau. We ought to be in pursuit of Michael before midday."
Old Sapt pulled out his pipe and carefully lit it from the candle which guttered on the table.
"The King may be murdered while we sit here!" I urged.
Sapt smoked on for a moment in silence.
"That cursed old woman!" he broke out. "She must have attracted their attention somehow. I see the game. They came up to kidnap the King, and—as I say—somehow they found him. If you hadn't gone to Strelsau, you and I and Fritz had been in heaven by now!"
"And the King?"
"Who knows where the King is now?" he asked.
"Come, let's be off!" said I; but he sat still. And suddenly he burst into one of his grating chuckles:
"By Jove, we've shaken up Black Michael!"
"Come, come!" I repeated impatiently.
"And we'll shake him up a bit more," he added, a cunning smile broadening on his wrinkled, weather-beaten face, and his teeth working on an end of his grizzled moustache. "Ay, lad, we'll go back to Strelsau. The King shall be in his capital again tomorrow."
"The crowned King!"
"You're mad!" I cried.
"If we go back and tell the trick we played, what would you give for our lives?"
"Just what they're worth," said I.
"And for the King's throne? Do you think that the nobles and the people will enjoy being fooled as you've fooled them? Do you think they'll love a King who was too drunk to be crowned, and sent a servant to personate him?"
"He was drugged—and I'm no servant."
"Mine will be Black Michael's version."
He rose, came to me, and laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Lad," he said, "if you play the man, you may save the King yet. Go back and keep his throne warm for him."
"But the duke knows—the villains he has employed know—"
"Ay, but they can't speak!" roared Sapt in grim triumph.
"We've got 'em! How can they denounce you without denouncing themselves? This is not the King, because we kidnapped the King and murdered his servant. Can they say that?"
The position flashed on me. Whether Michael knew me or not, he could not speak. Unless he produced the King, what could he do? And if he produced the King, where was he? For a moment I was carried away headlong; but in an instant the difficulties came strong upon me.
"I must be found out," I urged.
"Perhaps; but every hour's something. Above all, we must have a King in Strelsau, or the city will be Michael's in four-and-twenty hours, and what would the King's life be worth then—or his throne? Lad, you must do it!"
"Suppose they kill the King?"
"They'll kill him, if you don't."
"Sapt, suppose they have killed the King?"
"Then, by heaven, you're as good an Elphberg as Black Michael, and you shall reign in Ruritania! But I don't believe they have; nor will they kill him if you're on the throne. Will they kill him, to put you in?"
It was a wild plan—wilder even and more hopeless than the trick we had already carried through; but as I listened to Sapt I saw the strong points in our game. And then I was a young man and I loved action, and I was offered such a hand in such a game as perhaps never man played yet.
"I shall be found out," I said.
"Perhaps," said Sapt. "Come! to Strelsau! We shall be caught like rats in a trap if we stay here."
"Sapt," I cried, "I'll try it!"
"Well played!" said he. "I hope they've left us the horses. I'll go and see."
"We must bury that poor fellow," said I.
"No time," said Sapt.
"I'll do it."
"Hang you!" he grinned. "I make you a King, and—Well, do it. Go and fetch him, while I look to the horses. He can't lie very deep, but I doubt if he'll care about that. Poor little Josef! He was an honest bit of a man."
He went out, and I went to the cellar. I raised poor Josef in my arms and bore him into the passage and thence towards the door of the house. Just inside I laid him down, remembering that I must find spades for our task. At this instant Sapt came up.
"The horses are all right; there's the own brother to the one that brought you here. But you may save yourself that job."
"I'll not go before he's buried."
"Yes, you will."
"Not I, Colonel Sapt; not for all Ruritania."
"You fool!" said he. "Come here."
He drew me to the door. The moon was sinking, but about three hundred yards away, coming along the road from Zenda, I made out a party of men. There were seven or eight of them; four were on horseback and the rest were walking, and I saw that they carried long implements, which I guessed to be spades and mattocks, on their shoulders.
"They'll save you the trouble," said Sapt. "Come along."
He was right. The approaching party must, beyond doubt, be Duke Michael's men, come to remove the traces of their evil work. I hesitated no longer, but an irresistible desire seized me.
Pointing to the corpse of poor little Josef, I said to Sapt:
"Colonel, we ought to strike a blow for him!"
"You'd like to give him some company, eh! But it's too risky work, your Majesty."
"I must have a slap at 'em," said I.
"Well," said he, "it's not business, you know; but you've been good boy—and if we come to grief, why, hang me, it'll save us lot of thinking! I'll show you how to touch them."
He cautiously closed the open chink of the door.
Then we retreated through the house and made our way to the back entrance. Here our horses were standing. A carriage-drive swept all round the lodge.
"Revolver ready?" asked Sapt.
"No; steel for me," said I.
"Gad, you're thirsty tonight," chuckled Sapt. "So be it."
We mounted, drawing our swords, and waited silently for a minute or two. Then we heard the tramp of men on the drive the other side of the house. They came to a stand, and one cried:
"Now then, fetch him out!"
"Now!" whispered Sapt.
Driving the spurs into our horses, we rushed at a gallop round the house, and in a moment we were among the ruffians. Sapt told me afterwards that he killed a man, and I believe him; but I saw no more of him. With a cut, I split the head of a fellow on a brown horse, and he fell to the ground. Then I found myself opposite a big man, and I was half conscious of another to my right. It was too warm to stay, and with a simultaneous action I drove my spurs into my horse again and my sword full into the big man's breast. His bullet whizzed past my ear—I could almost swear it touched it. I wrenched at the sword, but it would not come, and I dropped it and galloped after Sapt, whom I now saw about twenty yards ahead. I waved my hand in farewell, and dropped it a second later with a yell, for a bullet had grazed my finger and I felt the blood. Old Sapt turned round in the saddle. Someone fired again, but they had no rifles, and we were out of range. Sapt fell to laughing.
"That's one to me and two to you, with decent luck," said he. "Little Josef will have company."
"Ay, they'll be a partie carree," said I. My blood was up, and I rejoiced to have killed them.
"Well, a pleasant night's work to the rest!" said he. "I wonder if they noticed you?"
"The big fellow did; as I stuck him I heard him cry, 'The King!'"
"Good! good! Oh, we'll give Black Michael some work before we've done!"
Pausing an instant, we made a bandage for my wounded finger, which was bleeding freely and ached severely, the bone being much bruised. Then we rode on, asking of our good horses all that was in them. The excitement of the fight and of our great resolve died away, and we rode in gloomy silence. Day broke clear and cold. We found a farmer just up, and made him give us sustenance for ourselves and our horses. I, feigning a toothache, muffled my face closely. Then ahead again, till Strelsau lay before us. It was eight o'clock or nearing nine, and the gates were all open, as they always were save when the duke's caprice or intrigues shut them. We rode in by the same way as we had come out the evening before, all four of us—the men and the horses—wearied and jaded. The streets were even quieter than when we had gone: everyone was sleeping off last night's revelry, and we met hardly a soul till we reached the little gate of the Palace. There Sapt's old groom was waiting for us.
"Is all well, sir?" he asked.
"All's well," said Sapt, and the man, coming to me, took my hand to kiss.
"The King's hurt!" he cried.
"It's nothing," said I, as I dismounted; "I caught my finger in the door."
"Remember—silence!" said Sapt. "Ah! but, my good Freyler, I do not need to tell you that!"
The old fellow shrugged his shoulders.
"All young men like to ride abroad now and again, why not the King?" said he; and Sapt's laugh left his opinion of my motives undisturbed.
"You should always trust a man," observed Sapt, fitting the key in the lock, "just as far as you must."
We went in and reached the dressing-room. Flinging open the door, we saw Fritz von Tarlenheim stretched, fully dressed, on the sofa. He seemed to have been sleeping, but our entry woke him. He leapt to his feet, gave one glance at me, and with a joyful cry, threw himself on his knees before me.
"Thank God, sire! thank God, you're safe!" he cried, stretching his hand up to catch hold of mine.
I confess that I was moved. This King, whatever his faults, made people love him. For a moment I could not bear to speak or break the poor fellow's illusion. But tough old Sapt had no such feeling. He slapped his hand on his thigh delightedly.
"Bravo, lad!" cried he. "We shall do!"
Fritz looked up in bewilderment. I held out my hand.
"You're wounded, sire!" he exclaimed.
"It's only a scratch," said I, "but—" I paused.
He rose to his feet with a bewildered air. Holding my hand, he looked me up and down, and down and up. Then suddenly he dropped my hand and reeled back.
"Where's the King? Where's the King?" he cried.
"Hush, you fool!" hissed Sapt. "Not so loud! Here's the King!"
A knock sounded on the door. Sapt seized me by the hand.
"Here, quick, to the bedroom! Off with your cap and boots. Get into bed. Cover everything up."
I did as I was bid. A moment later Sapt looked in, nodded, grinned, and introduced an extremely smart and deferential young gentleman, who came up to my bedside, bowing again and again, and informed me that he was of the household of the Princess Flavia, and that her Royal Highness had sent him especially to enquire how the King's health was after the fatigues which his Majesty had undergone yesterday.
"My best thanks, sir, to my cousin," said I; "and tell her Royal Highness that I was never better in my life."
"The King," added old Sapt (who, I began to find, loved a good lie for its own sake), "has slept without a break all night."
The young gentleman (he reminded me of "Osric" in Hamlet) bowed himself out again. The farce was over, and Fritz von Tarlenheim's pale face recalled us to reality—though, in faith, the farce had to be reality for us now.
"Is the King dead?" he whispered.
"Please God, no," said I. "But he's in the hands of Black Michael!"