The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 7: His Majesty Sleeps in Strelsau

Public Domain

I put my arm round Sapt’s waist and supported him out of the cellar, drawing the battered door close after me. For ten minutes or more we sat silent in the dining-room. Then old Sapt rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, gave one great gasp, and was himself again. As the clock on the mantelpiece struck one he stamped his foot on the floor, saying:

“They’ve got the King!”

“Yes,” said I, “‘all’s well!’ as Black Michael’s despatch said. What a moment it must have been for him when the royal salutes fired at Strelsau this morning! I wonder when he got the message?”

“It must have been sent in the morning,” said Sapt. “They must have sent it before news of your arrival at Strelsau reached Zenda--I suppose it came from Zenda.”

“And he’s carried it about all day!” I exclaimed. “Upon my honour, I’m not the only man who’s had a trying day! What did he think, Sapt?”

“What does that matter? What does he think, lad, now?”

I rose to my feet.

“We must get back,” I said, “and rouse every soldier in Strelsau. We ought to be in pursuit of Michael before midday.”

Old Sapt pulled out his pipe and carefully lit it from the candle which guttered on the table.

“The King may be murdered while we sit here!” I urged.

Sapt smoked on for a moment in silence.

“That cursed old woman!” he broke out. “She must have attracted their attention somehow. I see the game. They came up to kidnap the King, and--as I say--somehow they found him. If you hadn’t gone to Strelsau, you and I and Fritz had been in heaven by now!”

“And the King?”

“Who knows where the King is now?” he asked.

“Come, let’s be off!” said I; but he sat still. And suddenly he burst into one of his grating chuckles:

“By Jove, we’ve shaken up Black Michael!”

“Come, come!” I repeated impatiently.

“And we’ll shake him up a bit more,” he added, a cunning smile broadening on his wrinkled, weather-beaten face, and his teeth working on an end of his grizzled moustache. “Ay, lad, we’ll go back to Strelsau. The King shall be in his capital again tomorrow.”

“The King?”

“The crowned King!”

“You’re mad!” I cried.

“If we go back and tell the trick we played, what would you give for our lives?”

“Just what they’re worth,” said I.

“And for the King’s throne? Do you think that the nobles and the people will enjoy being fooled as you’ve fooled them? Do you think they’ll love a King who was too drunk to be crowned, and sent a servant to personate him?”

“He was drugged--and I’m no servant.”

“Mine will be Black Michael’s version.”

He rose, came to me, and laid his hand on my shoulder.

“Lad,” he said, “if you play the man, you may save the King yet. Go back and keep his throne warm for him.”

“But the duke knows--the villains he has employed know--”

“Ay, but they can’t speak!” roared Sapt in grim triumph.

“We’ve got ‘em! How can they denounce you without denouncing themselves? This is not the King, because we kidnapped the King and murdered his servant. Can they say that?”

The position flashed on me. Whether Michael knew me or not, he could not speak. Unless he produced the King, what could he do? And if he produced the King, where was he? For a moment I was carried away headlong; but in an instant the difficulties came strong upon me.

“I must be found out,” I urged.

“Perhaps; but every hour’s something. Above all, we must have a King in Strelsau, or the city will be Michael’s in four-and-twenty hours, and what would the King’s life be worth then--or his throne? Lad, you must do it!”

“Suppose they kill the King?”

“They’ll kill him, if you don’t.”

“Sapt, suppose they have killed the King?”

“Then, by heaven, you’re as good an Elphberg as Black Michael, and you shall reign in Ruritania! But I don’t believe they have; nor will they kill him if you’re on the throne. Will they kill him, to put you in?”

It was a wild plan--wilder even and more hopeless than the trick we had already carried through; but as I listened to Sapt I saw the strong points in our game. And then I was a young man and I loved action, and I was offered such a hand in such a game as perhaps never man played yet.

“I shall be found out,” I said.

“Perhaps,” said Sapt. “Come! to Strelsau! We shall be caught like rats in a trap if we stay here.”

“Sapt,” I cried, “I’ll try it!”

“Well played!” said he. “I hope they’ve left us the horses. I’ll go and see.”

“We must bury that poor fellow,” said I.

“No time,” said Sapt.

“I’ll do it.”

“Hang you!” he grinned. “I make you a King, and--Well, do it. Go and fetch him, while I look to the horses. He can’t lie very deep, but I doubt if he’ll care about that. Poor little Josef! He was an honest bit of a man.”

He went out, and I went to the cellar. I raised poor Josef in my arms and bore him into the passage and thence towards the door of the house. Just inside I laid him down, remembering that I must find spades for our task. At this instant Sapt came up.

“The horses are all right; there’s the own brother to the one that brought you here. But you may save yourself that job.”

“I’ll not go before he’s buried.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Not I, Colonel Sapt; not for all Ruritania.”

“You fool!” said he. “Come here.”

He drew me to the door. The moon was sinking, but about three hundred yards away, coming along the road from Zenda, I made out a party of men. There were seven or eight of them; four were on horseback and the rest were walking, and I saw that they carried long implements, which I guessed to be spades and mattocks, on their shoulders.

“They’ll save you the trouble,” said Sapt. “Come along.”

He was right. The approaching party must, beyond doubt, be Duke Michael’s men, come to remove the traces of their evil work. I hesitated no longer, but an irresistible desire seized me.

Pointing to the corpse of poor little Josef, I said to Sapt:

“Colonel, we ought to strike a blow for him!”

“You’d like to give him some company, eh! But it’s too risky work, your Majesty.”

“I must have a slap at ‘em,” said I.

Sapt wavered.

“Well,” said he, “it’s not business, you know; but you’ve been good boy--and if we come to grief, why, hang me, it’ll save us lot of thinking! I’ll show you how to touch them.”

He cautiously closed the open chink of the door.

Then we retreated through the house and made our way to the back entrance. Here our horses were standing. A carriage-drive swept all round the lodge.

“Revolver ready?” asked Sapt.

“No; steel for me,” said I.

“Gad, you’re thirsty tonight,” chuckled Sapt. “So be it.”

We mounted, drawing our swords, and waited silently for a minute or two. Then we heard the tramp of men on the drive the other side of the house. They came to a stand, and one cried:

“Now then, fetch him out!”

“Now!” whispered Sapt.

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