The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 2: Concerning the Colour of Men's Hair
It was a maxim of my Uncle William’s that no man should pass through Paris without spending four-and-twenty hours there. My uncle spoke out of a ripe experience of the world, and I honoured his advice by putting up for a day and a night at “The Continental” on my way to--the Tyrol. I called on George Featherly at the Embassy, and we had a bit of dinner together at Durand’s, and afterwards dropped in to the Opera; and after that we had a little supper, and after that we called on Bertram Bertrand, a versifier of some repute and Paris correspondent to The Critic. He had a very comfortable suite of rooms, and we found some pleasant fellows smoking and talking. It struck me, however, that Bertram himself was absent and in low spirits, and when everybody except ourselves had gone, I rallied him on his moping preoccupation. He fenced with me for a while, but at last, flinging himself on a sofa, he exclaimed:
“Very well; have it your own way. I am in love--infernally in love!”
“Oh, you’ll write the better poetry,” said I, by way of consolation.
He ruffled his hair with his hand and smoked furiously. George Featherly, standing with his back to the mantelpiece, smiled unkindly.
“If it’s the old affair,” said he, “you may as well throw it up, Bert. She’s leaving Paris tomorrow.”
“I know that,” snapped Bertram.
“Not that it would make any difference if she stayed,” pursued the relentless George. “She flies higher than the paper trade, my boy!”
“Hang her!” said Bertram.
“It would make it more interesting for me,” I ventured to observe, “if I knew who you were talking about.”
“Antoinette Mauban,” said George.
“De Mauban,” growled Bertram.
“Oho!” said I, passing by the question of the `de’. “You don’t mean to say, Bert--?”
“Can’t you let me alone?”
“Where’s she going to?” I asked, for the lady was something of a celebrity.
George jingled his money, smiled cruelly at poor Bertram, and answered pleasantly:
“Nobody knows. By the way, Bert, I met a great man at her house the other night--at least, about a month ago. Did you ever meet him--the Duke of Strelsau?”
“Yes, I did,” growled Bertram.
“An extremely accomplished man, I thought him.”
It was not hard to see that George’s references to the duke were intended to aggravate poor Bertram’s sufferings, so that I drew the inference that the duke had distinguished Madame de Mauban by his attentions. She was a widow, rich, handsome, and, according to repute, ambitious. It was quite possible that she, as George put it, was flying as high as a personage who was everything he could be, short of enjoying strictly royal rank: for the duke was the son of the late King of Ruritania by a second and morganatic marriage, and half-brother to the new King. He had been his father’s favourite, and it had occasioned some unfavourable comment when he had been created a duke, with a title derived from no less a city than the capital itself. His mother had been of good, but not exalted, birth.
“He’s not in Paris now, is he?” I asked.
“Oh no! He’s gone back to be present at the King’s coronation; a ceremony which, I should say, he’ll not enjoy much. But, Bert, old man, don’t despair! He won’t marry the fair Antoinette--at least, not unless another plan comes to nothing. Still perhaps she--” He paused and added, with a laugh: “Royal attentions are hard to resist--you know that, don’t you, Rudolf?”
“Confound you!” said I; and rising, I left the hapless Bertram in George’s hands and went home to bed.
The next day George Featherly went with me to the station, where I took a ticket for Dresden.
“Going to see the pictures?” asked George, with a grin.
George is an inveterate gossip, and had I told him that I was off to Ruritania, the news would have been in London in three days and in Park Lane in a week. I was, therefore, about to return an evasive answer, when he saved my conscience by leaving me suddenly and darting across the platform. Following him with my eyes, I saw him lift his hat and accost a graceful, fashionably dressed woman who had just appeared from the booking-office. She was, perhaps, a year or two over thirty, tall, dark, and of rather full figure. As George talked, I saw her glance at me, and my vanity was hurt by the thought that, muffled in a fur coat and a neck-wrapper (for it was a chilly April day) and wearing a soft travelling hat pulled down to my ears, I must be looking very far from my best. A moment later, George rejoined me.
“You’ve got a charming travelling companion,” he said. “That’s poor Bert Bertrand’s goddess, Antoinette de Mauban, and, like you, she’s going to Dresden--also, no doubt, to see the pictures. It’s very queer, though, that she doesn’t at present desire the honour of your acquaintance.”
“I didn’t ask to be introduced,” I observed, a little annoyed.
“Well, I offered to bring you to her; but she said, ‘Another time.’ Never mind, old fellow, perhaps there’ll be a smash, and you’ll have a chance of rescuing her and cutting out the Duke of Strelsau!”
No smash, however, happened, either to me or to Madame de Mauban. I can speak for her as confidently as for myself; for when, after a night’s rest in Dresden, I continued my journey, she got into the same train. Understanding that she wished to be let alone, I avoided her carefully, but I saw that she went the same way as I did to the very end of my journey, and I took opportunities of having a good look at her, when I could do so unobserved.
As soon as we reached the Ruritanian frontier (where the old officer who presided over the Custom House favoured me with such a stare that I felt surer than before of my Elphberg physiognomy), I bought the papers, and found in them news which affected my movements. For some reason, which was not clearly explained, and seemed to be something of a mystery, the date of the coronation had been suddenly advanced, and the ceremony was to take place on the next day but one. The whole country seemed in a stir about it, and it was evident that Strelsau was thronged. Rooms were all let and hotels overflowing; there would be very little chance of my obtaining a lodging, and I should certainly have to pay an exorbitant charge for it. I made up my mind to stop at Zenda, a small town fifty miles short of the capital, and about ten from the frontier. My train reached there in the evening; I would spend the next day, Tuesday, in a wander over the hills, which were said to be very fine, and in taking a glance at the famous Castle, and go over by train to Strelsau on the Wednesday morning, returning at night to sleep at Zenda.
Accordingly at Zenda I got out, and as the train passed where I stood on the platform, I saw my friend Madame de Mauban in her place; clearly she was going through to Strelsau, having, with more providence than I could boast, secured apartments there. I smiled to think how surprised George Featherly would have been to know that she and I had been fellow travellers for so long.
I was very kindly received at the hotel--it was really no more than an inn--kept by a fat old lady and her two daughters. They were good, quiet people, and seemed very little interested in the great doings at Strelsau. The old lady’s hero was the duke, for he was now, under the late King’s will, master of the Zenda estates and of the Castle, which rose grandly on its steep hill at the end of the valley a mile or so from the inn. The old lady, indeed, did not hesitate to express regret that the duke was not on the throne, instead of his brother.
“We know Duke Michael,” said she. “He has always lived among us; every Ruritanian knows Duke Michael. But the King is almost a stranger; he has been so much abroad, not one in ten knows him even by sight.”
“And now,” chimed in one of the young women, “they say he has shaved off his beard, so that no one at all knows him.”