The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 9: 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 dogged 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?”