The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 21: If love were all!
It was night, and I was in the cell wherein the King had lain in the Castle of Zenda. The great pipe that Rupert of Hentzau had nicknamed “Jacob’s Ladder” was gone, and the lights in the room across the moat twinkled in the darkness. All was still; the din and clash of strife were gone. I had spent the day hidden in the forest, from the time when Fritz had led me off, leaving Sapt with the princess. Under cover of dusk, muffled up, I had been brought to the Castle and lodged where I now lay. Though three men had died there--two of them by my hand--I was not troubled by ghosts. I had thrown myself on a pallet by the window, and was looking out on the black water; Johann, the keeper, still pale from his wound, but not much hurt besides, had brought me supper. He told me that the King was doing well, that he had seen the princess; that she and he, Sapt and Fritz, had been long together. Marshal Strakencz was gone to Strelsau; Black Michael lay in his coffin, and Antoinette de Mauban watched by him; had I not heard, from the chapel, priests singing mass for him?
Outside there were strange rumours afloat. Some said that the prisoner of Zenda was dead; some, that he had vanished yet alive; some, that he was a friend who had served the King well in some adventure in England; others, that he had discovered the Duke’s plots, and had therefore been kidnapped by him. One or two shrewd fellows shook their heads and said only that they would say nothing, but they had suspicions that more was to be known than was known, if Colonel Sapt would tell all he knew.
Thus Johann chattered till I sent him away and lay there alone, thinking, not of the future, but--as a man is wont to do when stirring things have happened to him--rehearsing the events of the past weeks, and wondering how strangely they had fallen out. And above me, in the stillness of the night, I heard the standards flapping against their poles, for Black Michael’s banner hung there half-mast high, and above it the royal flag of Ruritania, floating for one night more over my head. Habit grows so quick, that only by an effort did I recollect that it floated no longer for me.
Presently Fritz von Tarlenheim came into the room. I was standing then by the window; the glass was opened, and I was idly fingering the cement which clung to the masonry where “Jacob’s Ladder” had been. He told me briefly that the King wanted me, and together we crossed the drawbridge and entered the room that had been Black Michael’s.
The King was lying there in bed; our doctor from Tarlenheim was in attendance on him, and whispered to me that my visit must be brief. The King held out his hand and shook mine. Fritz and the doctor withdrew to the window.
I took the King’s ring from my finger and placed it on his.
“I have tried not to dishonour it, sire,” said I.
“I can’t talk much to you,” he said, in a weak voice. “I have had a great fight with Sapt and the Marshal--for we have told the Marshal everything. I wanted to take you to Strelsau and keep you with me, and tell everyone of what you had done; and you would have been my best and nearest friend, Cousin Rudolf. But they tell me I must not, and that the secret must be kept--if kept it can be.”
“They are right, sire. Let me go. My work here is done.”
“Yes, it is done, as no man but you could have done it. When they see me again, I shall have my beard on; I shall--yes, faith, I shall be wasted with sickness. They will not wonder that the King looks changed in face. Cousin, I shall try to let them find him changed in nothing else. You have shown me how to play the King.”
“Sire,” said I. “I can take no praise from you. It is by the narrowest grace of God that I was not a worse traitor than your brother.”
He turned inquiring eyes on me; but a sick man shrinks from puzzles, and he had no strength to question me. His glance fell on Flavia’s ring, which I wore. I thought he would question me about it; but, after fingering it idly, he let his head fall on his pillow.
“I don’t know when I shall see you again,” he said faintly, almost listlessly.
“If I can ever serve you again, sire,” I answered.
His eyelids closed. Fritz came with the doctor. I kissed the King’s hand, and let Fritz lead me away. I have never seen the King since.
Outside, Fritz turned, not to the right, back towards the drawbridge, but to the left, and without speaking led me upstairs, through a handsome corridor in the chateau.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Looking away from me, Fritz answered:
“She has sent for you. When it is over, come back to the bridge. I’ll wait for you there.”
“What does she want?” said I, breathing quickly.
He shook his head.
“Does she know everything?”
He opened a door, and gently pushing me in, closed it behind me. I found myself in a drawing-room, small and richly furnished. At first I thought that I was alone, for the light that came from a pair of shaded candles on the mantelpiece was very dim. But presently I discerned a woman’s figure standing by the window. I knew it was the princess, and I walked up to her, fell on one knee, and carried the hand that hung by her side to my lips. She neither moved nor spoke. I rose to my feet, and, piercing the gloom with my eager eyes, saw her pale face and the gleam of her hair, and before I knew, I spoke softly:
She trembled a little, and looked round. Then she darted to me, taking hold of me.
“Don’t stand, don’t stand! No, you mustn’t! You’re hurt! Sit down--here, here!”
She made me sit on a sofa, and put her hand on my forehead.
“How hot your head is,” she said, sinking on her knees by me. Then she laid her head against me, and I heard her murmur: “My darling, how hot your head is!”
Somehow love gives even to a dull man the knowledge of his lover’s heart. I had come to humble myself and pray pardon for my presumption; but what I said now was:
“I love you with all my heart and soul!”
For what troubled and shamed her? Not her love for me, but the fear that I had counterfeited the lover as I had acted the King, and taken her kisses with a smothered smile.
“With all my life and heart,” said I, as she clung to me. “Always, from the first moment I saw you in the Cathedral! There has been but one woman in the world to me--and there will be no other. But God forgive me the wrong I’ve done you!”
“They made you do it!” she said quickly; and she added, raising her head and looking in my eyes: “It might have made no difference if I’d known it. It was always you, never the King!”
“I meant to tell you,” said I. “I was going to on the night of the ball in Strelsau, when Sapt interrupted me. After that, I couldn’t--I couldn’t risk losing you before--before--I must! My darling, for you I nearly left the King to die!”
“I know, I know! What are we to do now, Rudolf?”
I put my arm round her and held her up while I said:
“I am going away tonight.”
“Ah, no, no!” she cried. “Not tonight!”
“I must go tonight, before more people have seen me. And how would you have me stay, sweetheart, except--?”
“If I could come with you!” she whispered very low.
“My God!” said I roughly, “don’t talk about that!” and I thrust her a little back from me.
“Why not? I love you. You are as good a gentleman as the King!”
Then I was false to all that I should have held by. For I caught her in my arms and prayed her, in words that I will not write, to come with me, daring all Ruritania to take her from me. And for a while she listened, with wondering, dazzled eyes. But as her eyes looked on me, I grew ashamed, and my voice died away in broken murmurs and stammerings, and at last I was silent.