The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 13: An Improvement on Jacob's Ladder
In the morning of the day after that on which I swore my oath against the Six, I gave certain orders, and then rested in greater contentment than I had known for some time. I was at work; and work, though it cannot cure love, is yet a narcotic to it; so that Sapt, who grew feverish, marvelled to see me sprawling in an armchair in the sunshine, listening to one of my friends who sang me amorous songs in a mellow voice and induced in me a pleasing melancholy. Thus was I engaged when young Rupert Hentzau, who feared neither man nor devil, and rode through the demesne--where every tree might hide a marksman, for all he knew--as though it had been the park at Strelsau, cantered up to where I lay, bowing with burlesque deference, and craving private speech with me in order to deliver a message from the Duke of Strelsau. I made all withdraw, and then he said, seating himself by me:
“The King is in love, it seems?”
“Not with life, my lord,” said I, smiling.
“It is well,” he rejoined. “Come, we are alone, Rassendyll--”
I rose to a sitting posture.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I was about to call one of my gentlemen to bring your horse, my lord. If you do not know how to address the King, my brother must find another messenger.”
“Why keep up the farce?” he asked, negligently dusting his boot with his glove.
“Because it is not finished yet; and meanwhile I’ll choose my own name.”
“Oh, so be it! Yet I spoke in love for you; for indeed you are a man after my own heart.”
“Saving my poor honesty,” said I, “maybe I am. But that I keep faith with men, and honour with women, maybe I am, my lord.”
He darted a glance at me--a glance of anger.
“Is your mother dead?” said I.
“Ay, she’s dead.”
“She may thank God,” said I, and I heard him curse me softly. “Well, what’s the message?” I continued.
I had touched him on the raw, for all the world knew he had broken his mother’s heart and flaunted his mistresses in her house; and his airy manner was gone for the moment.
“The duke offers you more than I would,” he growled. “A halter for you, sire, was my suggestion. But he offers you safe-conduct across the frontier and a million crowns.”
“I prefer your offer, my lord, if I am bound to one.”
“I told Michael you would;” and the villain, his temper restored, gave me the sunniest of smiles. “The fact is, between ourselves,” he continued, “Michael doesn’t understand a gentleman.”
I began to laugh.
“And you?” I asked.
“I do,” he said. “Well, well, the halter be it.”
“I’m sorry you won’t live to see it,” I observed.
“Has his Majesty done me the honour to fasten a particular quarrel on me?”
“I would you were a few years older, though.”
“Oh, God gives years, but the devil gives increase,” laughed he. “I can hold my own.”
“How is your prisoner?” I asked.
“I forgot your wishes, sire. Well, he is alive.”
He rose to his feet; I imitated him. Then, with a smile, he said:
“And the pretty princess? Faith, I’ll wager the next Elphberg will be red enough, for all that Black Michael will be called his father.”
I sprang a step towards him, clenching my hand. He did not move an inch, and his lip curled in insolent amusement.
“Go, while your skin’s whole!” I muttered. He had repaid me with interest my hit about his mother.
Then came the most audacious thing I have known in my life. My friends were some thirty yards away. Rupert called to a groom to bring him his horse, and dismissed the fellow with a crown. The horse stood near. I stood still, suspecting nothing. Rupert made as though to mount; then he suddenly turned to me: his left hand resting in his belt, his right outstretched: “Shake hands,” he said.
I bowed, and did as he had foreseen--I put my hands behind me. Quicker than thought, his left hand darted out at me, and a small dagger flashed in the air; he struck me in the left shoulder--had I not swerved, it had been my heart. With a cry, I staggered back. Without touching the stirrup, he leapt upon his horse and was off like an arrow, pursued by cries and revolver shots--the last as useless as the first--and I sank into my chair, bleeding profusely, as I watched the devil’s brat disappear down the long avenue. My friends surrounded me, and then I fainted.
I suppose that I was put to bed, and there lay, unconscious, or half conscious, for many hours; for it was night when I awoke to my full mind, and found Fritz beside me. I was weak and weary, but he bade me be of good cheer, saying that my wound would soon heal, and that meanwhile all had gone well, for Johann, the keeper, had fallen into the snare we had laid for him, and was even now in the house.
“And the queer thing is,” pursued Fritz, “that I fancy he’s not altogether sorry to find himself here. He seems to think that when Black Michael has brought off his coup, witnesses of how it was effected--saving, of course, the Six themselves--will not be at a premium.”
This idea argued a shrewdness in our captive which led me to build hopes on his assistance. I ordered him to be brought in at once. Sapt conducted him, and set him in a chair by my bedside. He was sullen, and afraid; but, to say truth, after young Rupert’s exploit, we also had our fears, and, if he got as far as possible from Sapt’s formidable six-shooter, Sapt kept him as far as he could from me. Moreover, when he came in his hands were bound, but that I would not suffer.
I need not stay to recount the safeguards and rewards we promised the fellow--all of which were honourably observed and paid, so that he lives now in prosperity (though where I may not mention); and we were the more free inasmuch as we soon learnt that he was rather a weak man than a wicked, and had acted throughout this matter more from fear of the duke and of his own brother Max than for any love of what was done. But he had persuaded all of his loyalty; and though not in their secret counsels, was yet, by his knowledge of their dispositions within the Castle, able to lay bare before us the very heart of their devices. And here, in brief, is his story:
Below the level of the ground in the Castle, approached by a flight of stone steps which abutted on the end of the drawbridge, were situated two small rooms, cut out of the rock itself. The outer of the two had no windows, but was always lighted with candles; the inner had one square window, which gave upon the moat. In the outer room there lay always, day and night, three of the Six; and the instructions of Duke Michael were, that on any attack being made on the outer room, the three were to defend the door of it so long as they could without risk to themselves. But, so soon as the door should be in danger of being forced, then Rupert Hentzau or Detchard (for one of these two was always there) should leave the others to hold it as long as they could, and himself pass into the inner room, and, without more ado, kill the King who lay there, well-treated indeed, but without weapons, and with his arms confined in fine steel chains, which did not allow him to move his elbow more than three inches from his side. Thus, before the outer door were stormed, the King would be dead. And his body? For his body would be evidence as damning as himself.