About five miles from Zenda--on the opposite side from that on which the Castle is situated, there lies a large tract of wood. It is rising ground, and in the centre of the demesne, on the top of the hill, stands a fine modern chateau, the property of a distant kinsman of Fritz's, the Count Stanislas von Tarlenheim. Count Stanislas himself was a student and a recluse. He seldom visited the house, and had, on Fritz's request, very readily and courteously offered me its hospitality for myself and my party. This, then, was our destination; chosen ostensibly for the sake of the boar-hunting (for the wood was carefully preserved, and boars, once common all over Ruritania, were still to be found there in considerable numbers), really because it brought us within striking distance of the Duke of Strelsau's more magnificent dwelling on the other side of the town. A large party of servants, with horses and luggage, started early in the morning;we followed at midday, travelling by train for thirty miles, and then mounting our horses to ride the remaining distance to the chateau.
We were a gallant party. Besides Sapt and Fritz, I was accompanied by ten gentlemen: every one of them had been carefully chosen, and no less carefully sounded, by my two friends, and all were devotedly attached to the person of the King. They were told a part of the truth; the attempt on my life in the summer-house was revealed to them, as a spur to their loyalty and an incitement against Michael. They were also informed that a friend of the King's was suspected to be forcibly confined within the Castle of Zenda. His rescue was one of the objects of the expedition; but, it was added, the King's main desire was to carry into effect certain steps against his treacherous brother, as to the precise nature of which they could not at present be further enlightened. Enough that the King commanded their services, and would rely on their devotion when occasion arose to call for it. Young, well-bred, brave, and loyal, they asked no more: they were ready to prove their dutiful obedience, and prayed for a fight as the best and most exhilarating mode of showing it.
Thus the scene was shifted from Strelsau to the chateau of Tarlenheim and Castle of Zenda, which frowned at us across the valley. I tried to shift my thoughts also, to forget my love, and to bend all my energies to the task before me. It was to get the King out of the Castle alive. Force was useless: in some trick lay the chance; and I had already an inkling of what we must do. But I was terribly hampered by the publicity which attended my movements. Michael must know by now of my expedition; and I knew Michael too well to suppose that his eyes would be blinded by the feint of the boar-hunt. He would understand very well what the real quarry was. That, however, must be risked--that and all it might mean; for Sapt, no less than myself, recognized that the present state of things had become unendurable. And there was one thing that I dared to calculate on--not, as I now know, without warrant. It was this--that Black Michael would not believe that I meant well by the King. He could not appreciate--I will not say an honest man, for the thoughts of my own heart have been revealed-- but a man acting honestly. He saw my opportunity as I had seen it, as Sapt had seen it; he knew the princess--nay (and I declare that a sneaking sort of pity for him invaded me), in his way he loved her; he would think that Sapt and Fritz could be bribed, so the bribe was large enough. Thinking thus, would he kill the King, my rival and my danger? Ay, verily, that he would, with as little compunction as he would kill a rat. But he would kill Rudolf Rassendyll first, if he could; and nothing but the certainty of being utterly damned by the release of the King alive and his restoration to the throne would drive him to throw away the trump card which he held in reserve to baulk the supposed game of the impudent impostor Rassendyll. Musing on all this as I rode along, I took courage.
Michael knew of my coming, sure enough. I had not been in the house an hour, when an imposing Embassy arrived from him. He did not quite reach the impudence of sending my would-be assassins, but he sent the other three of his famous Six--the three Ruritanian gentlemen-- Lauengram, Krafstein, and Rupert Hentzau. A fine, strapping trio they were, splendidly horsed and admirably equipped. Young Rupert, who looked a dare-devil, and could not have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three, took the lead, and made us the neatest speech, wherein my devoted subject and loving brother Michael of Strelsau, prayed me to pardon him for not paying his addresses in person, and, further, for not putting his Castle at my disposal; the reason for both of these apparent derelictions being that he and several of his servants lay sick of scarlet fever, and were in a very sad, and also a very infectious state. So declared young Rupert with an insolent smile on his curling upper lip and a toss of his thick hair--he was a handsome villain, and the gossip ran that many a lady had troubled her heart for him already.
"If my brother has scarlet fever," said I, "he is nearer my complexion than he is wont to be, my lord. I trust he does not suffer?"
"He is able to attend to his affairs, sire."
"I hope all beneath your roof are not sick. What of my good friends, De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard? I heard the last had suffered a hurt."
Lauengram and Krafstein looked glum and uneasy, but young Rupert's smile grew broader.
"He hopes soon to find a medicine for it, sire," he answered.
And I burst out laughing, for I knew what medicine Detchard longed for-- it is called Revenge.
"You will dine with us, gentlemen?" I asked.
Young Rupert was profuse in apologies. They had urgent duties at the Castle.
"Then," said I, with a wave of my hand, "to our next meeting, gentlemen. May it make us better acquainted."
"We will pray your Majesty for an early opportunity," quoth Rupert airily; and he strode past Sapt with such jeering scorn on his face that I saw the old fellow clench his fist and scowl black as night.
For my part, if a man must needs be a knave, I would have him a debonair knave, and I liked Rupert Hentzau better than his long-faced, close-eyed companions. It makes your sin no worse, as I conceive, to do it a la mode and stylishly.
Now it was a curious thing that on this first night, instead of eating the excellent dinner my cooks had prepared for me, I must needs leave my gentlemen to eat it alone, under Sapt's presiding care, and ride myself with Fritz to the town of Zenda and a certain little inn that I knew of. There was little danger in the excursion; the evenings were long and light, and the road this side of Zenda well frequented. So off we rode, with a groom behind us. I muffled myself up in a big cloak.
"Fritz," said I, as we entered the town, "there's an uncommonly pretty girl at this inn."
"How do you know?" he asked.
"Because I've been there," said I.
"Since--?" he began.
"No. Before," said I.
"But they'll recognize you?"
"Well, of course they will. Now, don't argue, my good fellow, but listen to me. We're two gentlemen of the King's household, and one of us has a toothache. The other will order a private room and dinner, and, further, a bottle of the best wine for the sufferer. And if he be as clever a fellow as I take him for, the pretty girl and no other will wait on us."
"What if she won't?" objected Fritz.
"My dear Fritz," said I, "if she won't for you, she will for me."
We were at the inn. Nothing of me but my eyes was visible as I walked in. The landlady received us; two minutes later, my little friend (ever, I fear me, on the look-out for such guests as might prove amusing) made her appearance. Dinner and the wine were ordered. I sat down in the private room. A minute later Fritz came in.
"She's coming," he said.
"If she were not, I should have to doubt the Countess Helga's taste."
She came in. I gave her time to set the wine down--I didn't want it dropped. Fritz poured out a glass and gave it to me.
"Is the gentleman in great pain?" the girl asked, sympathetically.
"The gentleman is no worse than when he saw you last," said I, throwing away my cloak.
She started, with a little shriek. Then she cried:
"It was the King, then! I told mother so the moment I saw his picture. Oh, sir, forgive me!"
"Faith, you gave me nothing that hurt much," said I.
"But the things we said!"
"I forgive them for the thing you did."
"I must go and tell mother."
"Stop," said I, assuming a graver air. "We are not here for sport tonight. Go and bring dinner, and not a word of the King being here."
She came back in a few minutes, looking grave, yet very curious.
"Well, how is Johann?" I asked, beginning my dinner.
"Oh, that fellow, sir--my lord King, I mean!"
""Sir" will do, please. How is he?"
"We hardly see him now, sir."
"And why not?"
"I told him he came too often, sir," said she, tossing her head.
"So he sulks and stays away?"
"But you could bring him back?" I suggested with a smile.
"Perhaps I could," said she.
"I know your powers, you see," said I, and she blushed with pleasure.
"It's not only that, sir, that keeps him away. He's very busy at the Castle."
"But there's no shooting on now."
"No, sir; but he's in charge of the house."
"Johann turned housemaid?"
The little girl was brimming over with gossip.
"Well, there are no others," said she. "There's not a woman there-- not as a servant, I mean. They do say--but perhaps it's false, sir."
"Let's have it for what it's worth," said I.
"Indeed, I'm ashamed to tell you, sir."
"Oh, see, I'm looking at the ceiling."
"They do say there is a lady there, sir; but, except for her, there's not a woman in the place. And Johann has to wait on the gentlemen."
"Poor Johann! He must be overworked. Yet I'm sure he could find half an hour to come and see you."
"It would depend on the time, sir, perhaps."
"Do you love him?" I asked.
"Not I, sir."
"And you wish to serve the King?"
"Then tell him to meet you at the second milestone out of Zenda tomorrow evening at ten o'clock. Say you'll be there and will walk home with him."
"Do you mean him harm, sir?"
"Not if he will do as I bid him. But I think I've told you enough, my pretty maid. See that you do as I bid you. And, mind, no one is to know that the King has been here."
I spoke a little sternly, for there is seldom harm in infusing a little fear into a woman's liking for you, and I softened the effect by giving her a handsome present. Then we dined, and, wrapping my cloak about my face, with Fritz leading the way, we went downstairs to our horses again.
It was but half-past eight, and hardly yet dark; the streets were full for such a quiet little place, and I could see that gossip was all agog. With the King on one side and the duke on the other, Zenda felt itself the centre of all Ruritania. We jogged gently through the town, but set our horses to a sharper pace when we reached the open country.
"You want to catch this fellow Johann?" asked Fritz.
"Ay, and I fancy I've baited the hook right. Our little Delilah will bring our Samson. It is not enough, Fritz, to have no women in a house, though brother Michael shows some wisdom there. If you want safety, you must have none within fifty miles."
"None nearer than Strelsau, for instance," said poor Fritz, with a lovelorn sigh.
We reached the avenue of the chateau, and were soon at the house. As the hoofs of our horses sounded on the gravel, Sapt rushed out to meet us.
"Thank God, you're safe!" he cried. "Have you seen anything of them?"
"Of whom?" I asked, dismounting.
He drew us aside, that the grooms might not hear.
"Lad," he said to me, "you must not ride about here, unless with half a dozen of us. You know among our men a tall young fellow, Bernenstein by name?"
I knew him. He was a fine strapping young man, almost of my height, and of light complexion.
"He lies in his room upstairs, with a bullet through his arm."
"The deuce he does!"
"After dinner he strolled out alone, and went a mile or so into the wood; and as he walked, he thought he saw three men among the trees; and one levelled a gun at him. He had no weapon, and he started at a run back towards the house. But one of them fired, and he was hit, and had much ado to reach here before he fainted. By good luck, they feared to pursue him nearer the house."
He paused and added:
"Lad, the bullet was meant for you."
"It is very likely," said I, "and it's first blood to brother Michael."
"I wonder which three it was," said Fritz.
"Well, Sapt," I said, "I went out tonight for no idle purpose, as you shall hear. But there's one thing in my mind."
"What's that?" he asked.
"Why this," I answered. "That I shall ill requite the very great honours Ruritania has done me if I depart from it leaving one of those Six alive--neither with the help of God, will I."
And Sapt shook my hand on that.
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