A new use for a tea-table
If I were to detail the ordinary events of my daily life at this time, they might prove instructive to people who are not familiar with the inside of palaces; if I revealed some of the secrets I learnt, they might prove of interest to the statesmen of Europe. I intend to do neither of these things. I should be between the Scylla of dullness and the Charybdis of indiscretion, and I feel that I had far better confine myself strictly to the underground drama which was being played beneath the surface of Ruritanian politics. I need only say that the secret of my imposture defied detection. I made mistakes. I had bad minutes: it needed all the tact and graciousness whereof I was master to smooth over some apparent lapses of memory and unmindfulness of old acquaintances of which I was guilty. But I escaped, and I attribute my escape, as I have said before, most of all, to the very audacity of the enterprise. It is my belief that, given the necessary physical likeness, it was far easier to pretend to be King of Ruritania than it would have been to personate my next-door neighbour. One day Sapt came into my room. He threw me a letter, saying:
"That's for you—a woman's hand, I think. But I've some news for you first."
"The King's at the Castle of Zenda," said he.
"How do you know?"
"Because the other half of Michael's Six are there. I had enquiries made, and they're all there—Lauengram, Krafstein, and young Rupert Hentzau: three rogues, too, on my honour, as fine as live in Ruritania."
"Well, Fritz wants you to march to the Castle with horse, foot, and artillery."
"And drag the moat?'I asked.
"That would be about it," grinned Sapt, "and we shouldn't find the King's body then."
"You think it's certain he's there?"
"Very probable. Besides the fact of those three being there, the drawbridge is kept up, and no one goes in without an order from young Hentzau or Black Michael himself. We must tie Fritz up."
"I'll go to Zenda," said I.
"Oh, perhaps. You'll very likely stay there though, if you do."
"That may be, my friend," said I carelessly.
"His Majesty looks sulky," observed Sapt. "How's the love affair?"
"Damn you, hold your tongue!" I said.
He looked at me for a moment, then he lit his pipe. It was quite true that I was in a bad temper, and I went on perversely:
"Wherever I go, I'm dodged by half a dozen fellows."
"I know you are; I send 'em," he replied composedly.
"Well," said Sapt, puffing away, "it wouldn't be exactly inconvenient for Black Michael if you disappeared. With you gone, the old game that we stopped would be played—or he'd have a shot at it."
"I can take care of myself."
"De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard are in Strelsau; and any one of them, lad, would cut your throat as readily—as readily as I would Black Michael's, and a deal more treacherously. What's the letter?"
I opened it and read it aloud:
"If the King desires to know what it deeply concerns the King to know, let him do as this letter bids him. At the end of the New Avenue there stands a house in large grounds. The house has a portico, with a statue of a nymph on it. A wall encloses the garden; there is a gate in the wall at the back. At twelve o'clock tonight, if the King enters alone by that gate, turns to the right, and walks twenty yards, he will find a summerhouse, approached by a flight of six steps. If he mounts and enters, he will find someone who will tell him what touches most dearly his life and his throne. This is written by a faithful friend. He must be alone. If he neglects the invitation his life will be in danger. Let him show this to no one, or he will ruin a woman who loves him: Black Michael does not pardon."
"No," observed Sapt, as I ended, "but he can dictate a very pretty letter."
I had arrived at the same conclusion, and was about to throw the letter away, when I saw there was more writing on the other side.
"Hallo! there's some more."
"If you hesitate," the writer continued, "consult Colonel Sapt—"
"Eh," exclaimed that gentleman, genuinely astonished. "Does she take me for a greater fool than you?"
I waved to him to be silent.
"Ask him what woman would do most to prevent the duke from marrying his cousin, and therefore most to prevent him becoming king? And ask if her name begins with—A?"
I sprang to my feet. Sapt laid down his pipe.
"Antoinette de Mauban, by heaven!" I cried.
"How do you know?" asked Sapt.
I told him what I knew of the lady, and how I knew it. He nodded.
"It's so far true that she's had a great row with Michael," said he, thoughtfully.
"If she would, she could be useful," I said.
"I believe, though, that Michael wrote that letter."
"So do I, but I mean to know for certain. I shall go, Sapt."
"No, I shall go," said he.
"You may go as far as the gate."
"I shall go to the summer-house."
"I'm hanged if you shall!"
I rose and leant my back against the mantelpiece.
"Sapt, I believe in that woman, and I shall go."
"I don't believe in any woman," said Sapt, "and you shan't go."
"I either go to the summer-house or back to England," said I.
Sapt began to know exactly how far he could lead or drive, and when he must follow.
"We're playing against time," I added. "Every day we leave the King where he is there is fresh risk. Every day I masquerade like this, there is fresh risk. Sapt, we must play high; we must force the game."
"So be it," he said, with a sigh.
To cut the story short, at half-past eleven that night Sapt and I mounted our horses. Fritz was again left on guard, our destination not being revealed to him. It was a very dark night. I wore no sword, but I carried a revolver, a long knife, and a bull's-eye lantern. We arrived outside the gate. I dismounted. Sapt held out his hand.
"I shall wait here," he said. "If I hear a shot, I'll—"
"Stay where you are; it's the King's only chance. You mustn't come to grief too."
"You're right, lad. Good luck!"
I pressed the little gate. It yielded, and I found myself in a wild sort of shrubbery. There was a grass-grown path and, turning to the right as I had been bidden, I followed it cautiously. My lantern was closed, the revolver was in my hand. I heard not a sound. Presently a large dark object loomed out of the gloom ahead of me. It was the summer-house. Reaching the steps, I mounted them and found myself confronted by a weak, rickety wooden door, which hung upon the latch. I pushed it open and walked in. A woman flew to me and seized my hand.
"Shut the door," she whispered.
I obeyed and turned the light of my lantern on her. She was in evening dress, arrayed very sumptuously, and her dark striking beauty was marvellously displayed in the glare of the bull's-eye. The summer-house was a bare little room, furnished only with a couple of chairs and a small iron table, such as one sees in a tea garden or an open-air cafe.
"Don't talk," she said. "We've no time. Listen! I know you, Mr. Rassendyll. I wrote that letter at the duke's orders."
"So I thought," said I.
"In twenty minutes three men will be here to kill you."
"Yes. You must be gone by then. If not, tonight you'll be killed—"
"Or they will."
"Listen, listen! When you're killed, your body will be taken to a low quarter of the town. It will be found there. Michael will at once arrest all your friends—Colonel Sapt and Captain von Tarlenheim first—proclaim a state of siege in Strelsau, and send a messenger to Zenda. The other three will murder the King in the Castle, and the duke will proclaim either himself or the princess—himself, if he is strong enough. Anyhow, he'll marry her, and become king in fact, and soon in name. Do you see?"
"It's a pretty plot. But why, madame, do you—?"
"Say I'm a Christian—or say I'm jealous. My God! shall I see him marry her? Now go; but remember—this is what I have to tell you—that never, by night or by day, are you safe. Three men follow you as a guard. Is it not so? Well, three follow them; Michael's three are never two hundred yards from you. Your life is not worth a moment if ever they find you alone. Now go. Stay, the gate will be guarded by now. Go down softly, go past the summer-house, on for a hundred yards, and you'll find a ladder against the wall. Get over it, and fly for your life."
"And you?" I asked.
"I have my game to play too. If he finds out what I have done, we shall not meet again. If not, I may yet—But never mind. Go at once."
"But what will you tell him?"
"That you never came—that you saw through the trick."
I took her hand and kissed it.
"Madame," said I, "you have served the King well tonight. Where is he in the Castle?"
She sank her voice to a fearful whisper. I listened eagerly.
"Across the drawbridge you come to a heavy door; behind that lies—Hark! What's that?"
There were steps outside.
"They're coming! They're too soon! Heavens! they're too soon!" and she turned pale as death.
"They seem to me," said I, "to be in the nick of time."
"Close your lantern. See, there's a chink in the door. Can you see them?"
I put my eye to the chink. On the lowest step I saw three dim figures. I cocked my revolver. Antoinette hastily laid her hand on mine.
"You may kill one," said she. "But what then?"
A voice came from outside—a voice that spoke perfect English.
"Mr. Rassendyll," it said.
I made no answer.
"We want to talk to you. Will you promise not to shoot till we've done?"
"Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Detchard?" I said.
"Never mind names."
"Then let mine alone."
"All right, sire. I've an offer for you."
I still had my eye to the chink. The three had mounted two steps more; three revolvers pointed full at the door.
"Will you let us in? We pledge our honour to observe the truce."
"Don't trust them," whispered Antoinette.
"We can speak through the door," said I.
"But you might open it and fire," objected Detchard; "and though we should finish you, you might finish one of us. Will you give your honour not to fire while we talk?"
"Don't trust them," whispered Antoinette again.
A sudden idea struck me. I considered it for a moment. It seemed feasible.
"I give my honour not to fire before you do," said I; "but I won't let you in. Stand outside and talk."
"That's sensible," he said.
The three mounted the last step, and stood just outside the door. I laid my ear to the chink. I could hear no words, but Detchard's head was close to that of the taller of his companions (De Gautet, I guessed).
"H'm! Private communications," thought I. Then I said aloud:
"Well, gentlemen, what's the offer?"
"A safe-conduct to the frontier, and fifty thousand pounds English."
"No, no," whispered Antoinette in the lowest of whispers. "They are treacherous."
"That seems handsome," said I, reconnoitring through the chink. They were all close together, just outside the door now.
I had probed the hearts of the ruffians, and I did not need Antoinette's warning. They meant to "rush" me as soon as I was engaged in talk.
"Give me a minute to consider," said I; and I thought I heard a laugh outside.
I turned to Antoinette.
"Stand up close to the wall, out of the line of fire from the door," I whispered.
"What are you going to do?" she asked in fright.
"You'll see," said I.
I took up the little iron table. It was not very heavy for a man of my strength, and I held it by the legs. The top, protruding in front of me, made a complete screen for my head and body. I fastened my closed lantern to my belt and put my revolver in a handy pocket. Suddenly I saw the door move ever so slightly—perhaps it was the wind, perhaps it was a hand trying it outside.
I drew back as far as I could from the door, holding the table in the position that I have described. Then I called out:
"Gentlemen, I accept your offer, relying on your honour. If you will open the door—"
"Open it yourself," said Detchard.
"It opens outwards," said I. "Stand back a little, gentlemen, or I shall hit you when I open it."
I went and fumbled with the latch. Then I stole back to my place on tiptoe.
"I can't open it!" I cried. "The latch has caught."
"Tut! I'll open it!" cried Detchard. "Nonsense, Bersonin, why not? Are you afraid of one man?"
I smiled to myself. An instant later the door was flung back. The gleam of a lantern showed me the three close together outside, their revolvers levelled. With a shout, I charged at my utmost pace across the summer-house and through the doorway. Three shots rang out and battered into my shield. Another moment, and I leapt out and the table caught them full and square, and in a tumbling, swearing, struggling mass, they and I and that brave table, rolled down the steps of the summerhouse to the ground below. Antoinette de Mauban shrieked, but I rose to my feet, laughing aloud.
De Gautet and Bersonin lay like men stunned. Detchard was under the table, but, as I rose, he pushed it from him and fired again. I raised my revolver and took a snap shot; I heard him curse, and then I ran like a hare, laughing as I went, past the summer-house and along by the wall. I heard steps behind me, and turning round I fired again for luck. The steps ceased.
"Please God," said I, "she told me the truth about the ladder!" for the wall was high and topped with iron spikes.
Yes, there it was. I was up and over in a minute. Doubling back, I saw the horses; then I heard a shot. It was Sapt. He had heard us, and was battling and raging with the locked gate, hammering it and firing into the keyhole like a man possessed. He had quite forgotten that he was not to take part in the fight. Whereat I laughed again, and said, as I clapped him on the shoulder:
"Come home to bed, old chap. I've got the finest tea-table story that ever you heard!"
He started and cried: "You're safe!" and wrung my hand. But a moment later he added:
"And what the devil are you laughing at?"
"Four gentlemen round a tea-table," said I, laughing still, for it had been uncommonly ludicrous to see the formidable three altogether routed and scattered with no more deadly weapon than an ordinary tea-table.
Moreover, you will observe that I had honourably kept my word, and not fired till they did.