The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 16: A Desperate Plan
As I had ridden publicly in Zenda, and had talked there with Rupert Hentzau, of course all pretence of illness was at an end. I marked the effect on the garrison of Zenda: they ceased to be seen abroad; and any of my men who went near the Castle reported that the utmost vigilance prevailed there. Touched as I was by Madame de Mauban’s appeal, I seemed as powerless to befriend her as I had proved to help the King. Michael bade me defiance; and although he too had been seen outside the walls, with more disregard for appearances than he had hitherto shown, he did not take the trouble to send any excuse for his failure to wait on the King. Time ran on in inactivity, when every moment was pressing; for not only was I faced with the new danger which the stir about my disappearance brought on me, but great murmurs had arisen in Strelsau at my continued absence from the city. They had been greater, but for the knowledge that Flavia was with me; and for this reason I suffered her to stay, though I hated to have her where danger was, and though every day of our present sweet intercourse strained my endurance almost to breaking. As a final blow, nothing would content my advisers, Strakencz and the Chancellor (who came out from Strelsau to make an urgent representation to me), save that I should appoint a day for the public solemnization of my betrothal, a ceremony which in Ruritania is well nigh as binding and great a thing as the marriage itself. And this--with Flavia sitting by me--I was forced to do, setting a date a fortnight ahead, and appointing the Cathedral in Strelsau as the place. And this formal act being published far and wide, caused great joy throughout the kingdom, and was the talk of all tongues; so that I reckoned there were but two men who chafed at it--I mean Black Michael and myself; and but one who did not know of it--that one the man whose name I bore, the King of Ruritania.
In truth, I heard something of the way the news was received in the Castle; for after an interval of three days, the man Johann, greedy for more money, though fearful for his life, again found means to visit us. He had been waiting on the duke when the tidings came. Black Michael’s face had grown blacker still, and he had sworn savagely; nor was he better pleased when young Rupert took oath that I meant to do as I said, and turning to Madame de Mauban, wished her joy on a rival gone. Michael’s hand stole towards his sword (said Johann), but not a bit did Rupert care; for he rallied the duke on having made a better King than had reigned for years past in Ruritania. “And,” said he, with a meaning bow to his exasperated master, “the devil sends the princess a finer man than heaven had marked out for her, by my soul, it does!” Then Michael harshly bade him hold his tongue, and leave them; but Rupert must needs first kiss madame’s hand, which he did as though he loved her, while Michael glared at him.
This was the lighter side of the fellow’s news; but more serious came behind, and it was plain that if time pressed at Tarlenheim, it pressed none the less fiercely at Zenda. For the King was very sick: Johann had seen him, and he was wasted and hardly able to move. “There could be no thought of taking another for him now.” So alarmed were they, that they had sent for a physician from Strelsau; and the physician having been introduced into the King’s cell, had come forth pale and trembling, and urgently prayed the duke to let him go back and meddle no more in the affair; but the duke would not, and held him there a prisoner, telling him his life was safe if the King lived while the duke desired and died when the duke desired--not otherwise. And, persuaded by the physician, they had allowed Madame de Mauban to visit the King and give him such attendance as his state needed, and as only a woman can give. Yet his life hung in the balance; and I was still strong and whole and free. Wherefore great gloom reigned at Zenda; and save when they quarrelled, to which they were very prone, they hardly spoke. But the deeper the depression of the rest, young Rupert went about Satan’s work with a smile in his eye and a song on his lip; and laughed “fit to burst” (said Johann) because the duke always set Detchard to guard the King when Madame de Mauban was in the cell--which precaution was, indeed, not unwise in my careful brother. Thus Johann told his tale and seized his crowns. Yet he besought us to allow him to stay with us in Tarlenheim, and not venture his head again in the lion’s den; but we had need of him there, and, although I refused to constrain him, I prevailed on him by increased rewards to go back and carry tidings to Madame de Mauban that I was working for her, and that, if she could, she should speak one word of comfort to the King. For while suspense is bad for the sick, yet despair is worse still, and it might be that the King lay dying of mere hopelessness, for I could learn of no definite disease that afflicted him.
“And how do they guard the King now?” I asked, remembering that two of the Six were dead, and Max Holf also.
“Detchard and Bersonin watch by night, Rupert Hentzau and De Gautet by day, sir,” he answered.
“Only two at a time?”
“Ay, sir; but the others rest in a room just above, and are within sound of a cry or a whistle.”
“A room just above? I didn’t know of that. Is there any communication between it and the room where they watch?”
“No, sir. You must go down a few stairs and through the door by the drawbridge, and so to where the King is lodged.”
“And that door is locked?”
“Only the four lords have keys, sir.”
I drew nearer to him.
“And have they keys of the grating?” I asked in a low whisper.
“I think, sir, only Detchard and Rupert.”
“Where does the duke lodge?”
“In the chateau, on the first floor. His apartments are on the right as you go towards the drawbridge.”
“And Madame de Mauban?”
“Just opposite, on the left. But her door is locked after she has entered.”
“To keep her in?”
“Perhaps for another reason?”
“It is possible.”
“And the duke, I suppose, has the key?”
“Yes. And the drawbridge is drawn back at night, and of that, too, the duke holds the key, so that it cannot be run across the moat without application to him.”
“And where do you sleep?”
“In the entrance hall of the chateau, with five servants.”
“They have pikes, sir, but no firearms. The duke will not trust them with firearms.”
Then at last I took the matter boldly in my hands. I had failed once at “Jacob’s Ladder;” I should fail again there. I must make the attack from the other side.
“I have promised you twenty thousand crowns,” said I. “You shall have fifty thousand if you will do what I ask of you tomorrow night. But, first, do those servants know who your prisoner is?”
“No, sir. They believe him to be some private enemy of the duke’s.”
“And they would not doubt that I am the King?”
“How should they?” he asked.
“Look to this, then. Tomorrow, at two in the morning exactly, fling open the front door of the chateau. Don’t fail by an instant.”
“Shall you be there, sir?”
“Ask no questions. Do what I tell you. Say the hall is close, or what you will. That is all I ask of you.”
“And may I escape by the door, sir, when I have opened it?”
“Yes, as quick as your legs will carry you. One thing more. Carry this note to madame--oh, it’s in French, you can’t read it--and charge her, for the sake of all our lives, not to fail in what it orders.”
The man was trembling but I had to trust to what he had of courage and to what he had of honesty. I dared not wait, for I feared that the King would die.
When the fellow was gone, I called Sapt and Fritz to me, and unfolded the plan that I had formed. Sapt shook his head over it.
“Why can’t you wait?” he asked.
“The King may die.”
“Michael will be forced to act before that.”
“Then,” said I, “the King may live.”