The Prisoner of Zenda
Chapter 22: Present, Past--and Future?
The details of my return home can have but little interest. I went straight to the Tyrol and spent a quiet fortnight--mostly on my back, for a severe chill developed itself; and I was also the victim of a nervous reaction, which made me weak as a baby. As soon as I had reached my quarters, I sent an apparently careless postcard to my brother, announcing my good health and prospective return. That would serve to satisfy the inquiries as to my whereabouts, which were probably still vexing the Prefect of the Police of Strelsau. I let my moustache and imperial grow again; and as hair comes quickly on my face, they were respectable, though not luxuriant, by the time that I landed myself in Paris and called on my friend George Featherly. My interview with him was chiefly remarkable for the number of unwilling but necessary falsehoods that I told; and I rallied him unmercifully when he told me that he had made up his mind that I had gone in the track of Madame de Mauban to Strelsau. The lady, it appeared, was back in Paris, but was living in great seclusion--a fact for which gossip found no difficulty in accounting. Did not all the world know of the treachery and death of Duke Michael? Nevertheless, George bade Bertram Bertrand be of good cheer, “for,” said he flippantly, “a live poet is better than a dead duke.” Then he turned on me and asked:
“What have you been doing to your moustache?”
“To tell the truth,” I answered, assuming a sly air, “a man now and then has reasons for wishing to alter his appearance. But it’s coming on very well again.”
“What? Then I wasn’t so far out! If not the fair Antoinette, there was a charmer?”
“There is always a charmer,” said I, sententiously.
But George would not be satisfied till he had wormed out of me (he took much pride in his ingenuity) an absolutely imaginary love-affair, attended with the proper soupçon of scandal, which had kept me all this time in the peaceful regions of the Tyrol. In return for this narrative, George regaled me with a great deal of what he called “inside information” (known only to diplomatists), as to the true course of events in Ruritania, the plots and counterplots. In his opinion, he told me, with a significant nod, there was more to be said for Black Michael than the public supposed; and he hinted at a well-founded suspicion that the mysterious prisoner of Zenda, concerning whom a good many paragraphs had appeared, was not a man at all, but (here I had much ado not to smile) a woman disguised as a man; and that strife between the King and his brother for this imaginary lady’s favour was at the bottom of their quarrel.
“Perhaps it was Madame de Mauban herself,” I suggested.
“No!” said George decisively, “Antoinette de Mauban was jealous of her, and betrayed the duke to the King for that reason. And, to confirm what I say, it’s well known that the Princess Flavia is now extremely cold to the King, after having been most affectionate.”
At this point I changed the subject, and escaped from George’s “inspired” delusions. But if diplomatists never know anything more than they had succeeded in finding out in this instance, they appear to me to be somewhat expensive luxuries.
While in Paris I wrote to Antoinette, though I did not venture to call upon her. I received in return a very affecting letter, in which she assured me that the King’s generosity and kindness, no less than her regard for me, bound her conscience to absolute secrecy. She expressed the intention of settling in the country, and withdrawing herself entirely from society. Whether she carried out her designs, I have never heard; but as I have not met her, or heard news of her up to this time, it is probable that she did. There is no doubt that she was deeply attached to the Duke of Strelsau; and her conduct at the time of his death proved that no knowledge of the man’s real character was enough to root her regard for him out of her heart.
I had one more battle left to fight--a battle that would, I knew, be severe, and was bound to end in my complete defeat. Was I not back from the Tyrol, without having made any study of its inhabitants, institutions, scenery, fauna, flora, or other features? Had I not simply wasted my time in my usual frivolous, good-for-nothing way? That was the aspect of the matter which, I was obliged to admit, would present itself to my sister-in-law; and against a verdict based on such evidence, I had really no defence to offer. It may be supposed, then, that I presented myself in Park Lane in a shamefaced, sheepish fashion. On the whole, my reception was not so alarming as I had feared. It turned out that I had done, not what Rose wished, but--the next best thing--what she prophesied. She had declared that I should make no notes, record no observations, gather no materials. My brother, on the other hand, had been weak enough to maintain that a serious resolve had at length animated me.
When I returned empty-handed, Rose was so occupied in triumphing over Burlesdon that she let me down quite easily, devoting the greater part of her reproaches to my failure to advertise my friends of my whereabouts.
“We’ve wasted a lot of time trying to find you,” she said.
“I know you have,” said I. “Half our ambassadors have led weary lives on my account. George Featherly told me so. But why should you have been anxious? I can take care of myself.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that,” she cried scornfully, “but I wanted to tell you about Sir Jacob Borrodaile. You know, he’s got an Embassy--at least, he will have in a month--and he wrote to say he hoped you would go with him.”
“Where’s he going to?”
“He’s going to succeed Lord Topham at Strelsau,” said she. “You couldn’t have a nicer place, short of Paris.”
“Strelsau! H’m!” said I, glancing at my brother.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter!” exclaimed Rose impatiently. “Now, you will go, won’t you?”
“I don’t know that I care about it!”
“Oh, you’re too exasperating!”
“And I don’t think I can go to Strelsau. My dear Rose, would it be--suitable?”
“Oh, nobody remembers that horrid old story now.”
Upon this, I took out of my pocket a portrait of the King of Ruritania. It had been taken a month or two before he ascended the throne. She could not miss my point when I said, putting it into her hands:
“In case you’ve not seen, or not noticed, a picture of Rudolf V, there he is. Don’t you think they might recall the story, if I appeared at the Court of Ruritania?”
My sister-in-law looked at the portrait, and then at me.
“Good gracious!” she said, and flung the photograph down on the table.
“What do you say, Bob?” I asked.
Burlesdon got up, went to a corner of the room, and searched in a heap of newspapers. Presently he came back with a copy of the Illustrated London News. Opening the paper, he displayed a double-page engraving of the Coronation of Rudolf V at Strelsau. The photograph and the picture he laid side by side. I sat at the table fronting them; and, as I looked, I grew absorbed. My eye travelled from my own portrait to Sapt, to Strakencz, to the rich robes of the Cardinal, to Black Michael’s face, to the stately figure of the princess by his side. Long I looked and eagerly. I was roused by my brother’s hand on my shoulder. He was gazing down at me with a puzzled expression.
“It’s a remarkable likeness, you see,” said I. “I really think I had better not go to Ruritania.”
Rose, though half convinced, would not abandon her position.
“It’s just an excuse,” she said pettishly. “You don’t want to do anything. Why, you might become an ambassador!”
“I don’t think I want to be an ambassador,” said I.
“It’s more than you ever will be,” she retorted.
That is very likely true, but it is not more than I have been.
The idea of being an ambassador could scarcely dazzle me. I had been a king!