The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 8: A Fair Cousin and a Dark Brother
A real king’s life is perhaps a hard one; but a pretended king’s is, I warrant, much harder. On the next day, Sapt instructed me in my duties--what I ought to do and what I ought to know--for three hours; then I snatched breakfast, with Sapt still opposite me, telling me that the King always took white wine in the morning and was known to detest all highly seasoned dishes. Then came the Chancellor, for another three hours; and to him I had to explain that the hurt to my finger (we turned that bullet to happy account) prevented me from writing--whence arose great to-do, hunting of precedents and so forth, ending in my “making my mark,” and the Chancellor attesting it with a superfluity of solemn oaths. Then the French ambassador was introduced, to present his credentials; here my ignorance was of no importance, as the King would have been equally raw to the business (we worked through the whole corps diplomatique in the next few days, a demise of the Crown necessitating all this bother).
Then, at last, I was left alone. I called my new servant (we had chosen, to succeed poor Josef, a young man who had never known the King), had a brandy-and-soda brought to me, and observed to Sapt that I trusted that I might now have a rest. Fritz von Tarlenheim was standing by.
“By heaven!” he cried, “we waste time. Aren’t we going to throw Black Michael by the heels?”
“Gently, my son, gently,” said Sapt, knitting his brows. “It would be a pleasure, but it might cost us dear. Would Michael fall and leave the King alive?”
“And,” I suggested, “while the King is here in Strelsau, on his throne, what grievance has he against his dear brother Michael?”
“Are we to do nothing, then?”
“We’re to do nothing stupid,” growled Sapt.
“In fact, Fritz,” said I, “I am reminded of a situation in one of our English plays--The Critic--have you heard of it? Or, if you like, of two men, each covering the other with a revolver. For I can’t expose Michael without exposing myself--”
“And the King,” put in Sapt.
“And, hang me if Michael won’t expose himself, if he tries to expose me!”
“It’s very pretty,” said old Sapt.
“If I’m found out,” I pursued, “I will make a clean breast of it, and fight it out with the duke; but at present I’m waiting for a move from him.”
“He’ll kill the King,” said Fritz.
“Not he,” said Sapt.
“Half of the Six are in Strelsau,” said Fritz.
“Only half? You’re sure?” asked Sapt eagerly.
“Then the King’s alive, for the other three are guarding him!” cried Sapt.
“Yes--you’re right!” exclaimed Fritz, his face brightening. “If the King were dead and buried, they’d all be here with Michael. You know Michael’s back, colonel?”
“I know, curse him!”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said I, “who are the Six?”
“I think you’ll make their acquaintance soon,” said Sapt. “They are six gentlemen whom Michael maintains in his household: they belong to him body and soul. There are three Ruritanians; then there’s a Frenchman, a Belgian, and one of your countrymen.”
“They’d all cut a throat if Michael told them,” said Fritz.
“Perhaps they’ll cut mine,” I suggested.
“Nothing more likely,” agreed Sapt. “Who are here, Fritz?”
“De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard.”
“The foreigners! It’s as plain as a pikestaff. He’s brought them, and left the Ruritanians with the King; that’s because he wants to commit the Ruritanians as deep as he can.”
“They were none of them among our friends at the lodge, then?” I asked.
“I wish they had been,” said Sapt wistfully. “They had been, not six, but four, by now.”
I had already developed one attribute of royalty--a feeling that I need not reveal all my mind or my secret designs even to my intimate friends. I had fully resolved on my course of action. I meant to make myself as popular as I could, and at the same time to show no disfavour to Michael. By these means I hoped to allay the hostility of his adherents, and make it appear, if an open conflict came about, that he was ungrateful and not oppressed.
Yet an open conflict was not what I hoped for.
The King’s interest demanded secrecy; and while secrecy lasted, I had a fine game to play in Strelsau, Michael should not grow stronger for delay!
I ordered my horse, and, attended by Fritz von Tarlenheim, rode in the grand new avenue of the Royal Park, returning all the salutes which I received with punctilious politeness. Then I rode through a few of the streets, stopped and bought flowers of a pretty girl, paying her with a piece of gold; and then, having attracted the desired amount of attention (for I had a trail of half a thousand people after me), I rode to the residence of the Princess Flavia, and asked if she would receive me. This step created much interest, and was met with shouts of approval. The princess was very popular, and the Chancellor himself had not scrupled to hint to me that the more I pressed my suit, and the more rapidly I brought it to a prosperous conclusion, the stronger should I be in the affection of my subjects. The Chancellor, of course, did not understand the difficulties which lay in the way of following his loyal and excellent advice. However, I thought I could do no harm by calling; and in this view Fritz supported me with a cordiality that surprised me, until he confessed that he also had his motives for liking a visit to the princess’s house, which motive was no other than a great desire to see the princess’s lady-in-waiting and bosom friend, the Countess Helga von Strofzin.
Etiquette seconded Fritz’s hopes. While I was ushered into the princess’s room, he remained with the countess in the ante-chamber: in spite of the people and servants who were hanging about, I doubt not that they managed a tete-a-tete; but I had no leisure to think of them, for I was playing the most delicate move in all my difficult game. I had to keep the princess devoted to me--and yet indifferent to me: I had to show affection for her--and not feel it. I had to make love for another, and that to a girl who--princess or no princess--was the most beautiful I had ever seen. Well, I braced myself to the task, made no easier by the charming embarrassment with which I was received. How I succeeded in carrying out my programme will appear hereafter.
“You are gaining golden laurels,” she said. “You are like the prince in Shakespeare who was transformed by becoming king. But I’m forgetting you are King, sire.”
“I ask you to speak nothing but what your heart tells you--and to call me nothing but my name.”
She looked at me for a moment.
“Then I’m glad and proud, Rudolf,” said she. “Why, as I told you, your very face is changed.”
I acknowledged the compliment, but I disliked the topic; so I said:
“My brother is back, I hear. He made an excursion, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he is here,” she said, frowning a little.
“He can’t stay long from Strelsau, it seems,” I observed, smiling. “Well, we are all glad to see him. The nearer he is, the better.”
The princess glanced at me with a gleam of amusement in her eyes.
“Why, cousin? Is it that you can--?”
“See better what he’s doing? Perhaps,” said I. “And why are you glad?”
“I didn’t say I was glad,” she answered.
“Some people say so for you.”
“There are many insolent people,” she said, with delightful haughtiness.
“Possibly you mean that I am one?”
“Your Majesty could not be,” she said, curtseying in feigned deference, but adding, mischievously, after a pause: “Unless, that is--”
“Well, unless what?”
“Unless you tell me that I mind a snap of my fingers where the Duke of Strelsau is.”
Really, I wished that I had been the King.
“You don’t care where cousin Michael--”
“Ah, cousin Michael! I call him the Duke of Strelsau.”
“You call him Michael when you meet him?”
“Yes--by the orders of your father.”
“I see. And now by mine?”
“If those are your orders.”
“Oh, decidedly! We must all be pleasant to our dear Michael.”
“You order me to receive his friends, too, I suppose?”
“You call them that, too?”
“To be in the fashion, I do. But I order you to receive no one unless you like.”
“I pray for myself. I could not order.”
As I spoke, there came a cheer from the street. The princess ran to the window.
“It is he!” she cried. “It is--the Duke of Strelsau!”