The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

Chapter 17

Young Rupert’s Midnight Diversions

The night came fine and clear. I had prayed for dirty weather, such as had favoured my previous voyage in the moat, but Fortune was this time against me. Still I reckoned that by keeping close under the wall and in the shadow I could escape detection from the windows of the chateau that looked out on the scene of my efforts. If they searched the moat, indeed, my scheme must fail; but I did not think they would. They had made “Jacob’s Ladder” secure against attack. Johann had himself helped to fix it closely to the masonry on the under side, so that it could not now be moved from below any more than from above. An assault with explosives or a long battering with picks alone could displace it, and the noise involved in either of these operations put them out of the question. What harm, then, could a man do in the moat? I trusted that Black Michael, putting this query to himself, would answer confidently, “None;” while, even if Johann meant treachery, he did not know my scheme, and would doubtless expect to see me, at the head of my friends, before the front entrance to the chateau. There, I said to Sapt, was the real danger. “And there,” I added, “you shall be. Doesn’t that content you?”

But it did not. Dearly would he have liked to come with me, had I not utterly refused to take him. One man might escape notice, to double the party more than doubled the risk; and when he ventured to hint once again that my life was too valuable, I, knowing the secret thought he clung to, sternly bade him be silent, assuring him that unless the King lived through the night, I would not live through it either.

At twelve o’clock, Sapt’s command left the chateau of Tarlenheim and struck off to the right, riding by unfrequented roads, and avoiding the town of Zenda. If all went well, they would be in front of the Castle by about a quarter to two. Leaving their horses half a mile off, they were to steal up to the entrance and hold themselves in readiness for the opening of the door. If the door were not opened by two, they were to send Fritz von Tarlenheim round to the other side of the Castle. I would meet him there if I were alive, and we would consult whether to storm the Castle or not. If I were not there, they were to return with all speed to Tarlenheim, rouse the Marshal, and march in force to Zenda. For if not there, I should be dead; and I knew that the King would not be alive five minutes after I ceased to breathe. I must now leave Sapt and his friends, and relate how I myself proceeded on this eventful night. I went out on the good horse which had carried me, on the night of the coronation, back from the hunting-lodge to Strelsau. I carried a revolver in the saddle and my sword. I was covered with a large cloak, and under this I wore a warm, tight-fitting woollen jersey, a pair of knickerbockers, thick stockings, and light canvas shoes. I had rubbed myself thoroughly with oil, and I carried a large flask of whisky. The night was warm, but I might probably be immersed a long while, and it was necessary to take every precaution against cold: for cold not only saps a man’s courage if he has to die, but impairs his energy if others have to die, and, finally, gives him rheumatics, if it be God’s will that he lives. Also I tied round my body a length of thin but stout cord, and I did not forget my ladder. I, starting after Sapt, took a shorter route, skirting the town to the left, and found myself in the outskirts of the forest at about half-past twelve. I tied my horse up in a thick clump of trees, leaving the revolver in its pocket in the saddle — it would be no use to me — and, ladder in hand, made my way to the edge of the moat. Here I unwound my rope from about my waist, bound it securely round the trunk of a tree on the bank, and let myself down. The Castle clock struck a quarter to one as I felt the water under me and began to swim round the keep, pushing the ladder before me, and hugging the Castle wall. Thus voyaging, I came to my old friend, “Jacob’s Ladder,” and felt the ledge of the masonry under me. I crouched down in the shadow of the great pipe — I tried to stir it, but it was quite immovable — and waited. I remember that my predominant feeling was neither anxiety for the King nor longing for Flavia, but an intense desire to smoke; and this craving, of course, I could not gratify.

The drawbridge was still in its place. I saw its airy, slight framework above me, some ten yards to my right, as I crouched with my back against the wall of the King’s cell. I made out a window two yards my side of it and nearly on the same level. That, if Johann spoke true, must belong to the duke’s apartments; and on the other side, in about the same relative position, must be Madame de Mauban’s window. Women are careless, forgetful creatures. I prayed that she might not forget that she was to be the victim of a brutal attempt at two o’clock precisely. I was rather amused at the part I had assigned to my young friend Rupert Hentzau; but I owed him a stroke — for, even as I sat, my shoulder ached where he had, with an audacity that seemed half to hide his treachery, struck at me, in the sight of all my friends, on the terrace at Tarlenheim.

Suddenly the duke’s window grew bright. The shutters were not closed, and the interior became partially visible to me as I cautiously raised myself till I stood on tiptoe. Thus placed, my range of sight embraced a yard or more inside the window, while the radius of light did not reach me. The window was flung open and someone looked out. I marked Antoinette de Mauban’s graceful figure, and, though her face was in shadow, the fine outline of her head was revealed against the light behind. I longed to cry softly, “Remember!” but I dared not — and happily, for a moment later a man came up and stood by her. He tried to put his arm round her waist, but with a swift motion she sprang away and leant against the shutter, her profile towards me. I made out who the newcomer was: it was young Rupert. A low laugh from him made me sure, as he leant forward, stretching out his hand towards her.

“Gently, gently!” I murmured. “You’re too soon, my boy!”

His head was close to hers. I suppose he whispered to her, for I saw her point to the moat, and I heard her say, in slow and distinct tones:

“I had rather throw myself out of this window!”

He came close up to the window and looked out.

“It looks cold,” said he. “Come, Antoinette, are you serious?”

She made no answer so far as I heard; and he smiting his hand petulantly on the window-sill, went on, in the voice of some spoilt child:

“Hang Black Michael! Isn’t the princess enough for him? Is he to have everything? What the devil do you see in Black Michael?”

“If I told him what you say —” she began.

“Well, tell him,” said Rupert, carelessly; and, catching her off her guard, he sprang forward and kissed her, laughing, and crying, “There’s something to tell him!”

If I had kept my revolver with me, I should have been very sorely tempted. Being spared the temptation, I merely added this new score to his account.

“Though, faith,” said Rupert, “it’s little he cares. He’s mad about the princess, you know. He talks of nothing but cutting the play-actor’s throat.”

Didn’t he, indeed?

“And if I do it for him, what do you think he’s promised me?”

The unhappy woman raised her hands above her head, in prayer or in despair.

“But I detest waiting,” said Rupert; and I saw that he was about to lay his hand on her again, when there was a noise of a door in the room opening, and a harsh voice cried:

“What are you doing here, sir?”

Rupert turned his back to the window, bowed low, and said, in his loud, merry tones: “Apologizing for your absence, sir. Could I leave the lady alone?”

The newcomer must be Black Michael. I saw him directly, as he advanced towards the window. He caught young Rupert by the arm.

“The moat would hold more than the King!” said he, with a significant gesture.

“Does your Highness threaten me?” asked Rupert.

“A threat is more warning than most men get from me.”

“Yet,” observed Rupert, “Rudolf Rassendyll has been much threatened, and yet lives!”

“Am I in fault because my servants bungle?” asked Michael scornfully.

“Your Highness has run no risk of bungling!” sneered Rupert.

It was telling the duke that he shirked danger as plain as ever I have heard a man told. Black Michael had self-control. I dare say he scowled — it was a great regret to me that I could not see their faces better — but his voice was even and calm, as he answered:

“Enough, enough! We mustn’t quarrel, Rupert. Are Detchard and Bersonin at their posts?”

“They are, sir.”

“I need you no more.”

“Nay, I’m not oppressed with fatigue,” said Rupert.

“Pray, sir, leave us,” said Michael, more impatiently. “In ten minutes the drawbridge will be drawn back, and I presume you have no wish to swim to your bed.”

Rupert’s figure disappeared. I heard the door open and shut again. Michael and Antoinette de Mauban were left together. To my chagrin, the duke laid his hand on the window and closed it. He stood talking to Antoinette for a moment or two. She shook her head, and he turned impatiently away. She left the window. The door sounded again, and Black Michael closed the shutters.

“De Gautet, De Gautet, man!” sounded from the drawbridge. “Unless you want a bath before your bed, come along!”

It was Rupert’s voice, coming from the end of the drawbridge. A moment later he and De Gautet stepped out on the bridge. Rupert’s arm was through De Gautet’s, and in the middle of the bridge he detained his companion and leant over. I dropped behind the shelter of “Jacob’s Ladder.”

Then Master Rupert had a little sport. He took from De Gautet a bottle which he carried, and put it to his lips.

“Hardly a drop!” he cried discontentedly, and flung it in the moat.

It fell, as I judged from the sound and the circles on the water, within a yard of the pipe. And Rupert, taking out his revolver, began to shoot at it. The first two shots missed the bottle, but hit the pipe. The third shattered the bottle. I hoped that the young ruffian would be content; but he emptied the other barrels at the pipe, and one, skimming over the pipe, whistled through my hair as I crouched on the other side.

“‘Ware bridge!” a voice cried, to my relief.

Rupert and De Gautet cried, “A moment!” and ran across. The bridge was drawn back, and all became still. The clock struck a quarter-past one. I rose and stretched myself and yawned.

I think some ten minutes had passed when I heard a slight noise to my right. I peered over the pipe, and saw a dark figure standing in the gateway that led to the bridge. It was a man. By the careless, graceful poise, I guessed it to be Rupert again. He held a sword in his hand, and he stood motionless for a minute or two. Wild thoughts ran through me. On what mischief was the young fiend bent now? Then he laughed low to himself; then he turned his face to the wall, took a step in my direction, and, to my surprise, began to climb down the wall. In an instant I saw that there must be steps in the wall; it was plain. They were cut into or affixed to the wall, at intervals of about eighteen inches. Rupert set his foot on the lower one. Then he placed his sword between his teeth, turned round, and noiselessly let himself into the water. Had it been a matter of my life only, I would have swum to meet him. Dearly would I have loved to fight it out with him then and there — with steel, on a fine night, and none to come between us. But there was the King! I restrained myself, but I could not bridle my swift breathing, and I watched him with the intensest eagerness.

He swam leisurely and quietly across. There were more steps up on the other side, and he climbed them. When he set foot in the gateway, standing on the drawn-back bridge, he felt in his pocket and took something out. I heard him unlock the door. I could hear no noise of its closing behind him. He vanished from my sight.

Abandoning my ladder — I saw I did not need it now — I swam to the side of the bridge and climbed half way up the steps. There I hung with my sword in my hand, listening eagerly. The duke’s room was shuttered and dark. There was a light in the window on the opposite side of the bridge. Not a sound broke the silence, till half-past one chimed from the great clock in the tower of the chateau.

There were other plots than mine afoot in the Castle that night.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38