The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

Chapter 3

A Merry Evening with a Distant Relative

I was not so unreasonable as to be prejudiced against the duke’s keeper because he disliked my complexion; and if I had been, his most civil and obliging conduct (as it seemed to me to be) next morning would have disarmed me. Hearing that I was bound for Strelsau, he came to see me while I was breakfasting, and told me that a sister of his who had married a well-to-do tradesman and lived in the capital, had invited him to occupy a room in her house. He had gladly accepted, but now found that his duties would not permit of his absence. He begged therefore that, if such humble (though, as he added, clean and comfortable) lodgings would satisfy me, I would take his place. He pledged his sister’s acquiescence, and urged the inconvenience and crowding to which I should be subject in my journeys to and from Strelsau the next day. I accepted his offer without a moment’s hesitation, and he went off to telegraph to his sister, while I packed up and prepared to take the next train. But I still hankered after the forest and the hunting-lodge, and when my little maid told me that I could, by walking ten miles or so through the forest, hit the railway at a roadside station, I decided to send my luggage direct to the address which Johann had given, take my walk, and follow to Strelsau myself. Johann had gone off and was not aware of the change in my plans; but, as its only effect was to delay my arrival at his sister’s for a few hours, there was no reason for troubling to inform him of it. Doubtless the good lady would waste no anxiety on my account.

I took an early luncheon, and, having bidden my kind entertainers farewell, promising to return to them on my way home, I set out to climb the hill that led to the Castle, and thence to the forest of Zenda. Half an hour’s leisurely walking brought me to the Castle. It had been a fortress in old days, and the ancient keep was still in good preservation and very imposing. Behind it stood another portion of the original castle, and behind that again, and separated from it by a deep and broad moat, which ran all round the old buildings, was a handsome modern chateau, erected by the last king, and now forming the country residence of the Duke of Strelsau. The old and the new portions were connected by a drawbridge, and this indirect mode of access formed the only passage between the old building and the outer world; but leading to the modern chateau there was a broad and handsome avenue. It was an ideal residence: when “Black Michael” desired company, he could dwell in his chateau; if a fit of misanthropy seized him, he had merely to cross the bridge and draw it up after him (it ran on rollers), and nothing short of a regiment and a train of artillery could fetch him out. I went on my way, glad that poor Black Michael, though he could not have the throne or the princess, had, at least, as fine a residence as any prince in Europe.

Soon I entered the forest, and walked on for an hour or more in its cool sombre shade. The great trees enlaced with one another over my head, and the sunshine stole through in patches as bright as diamonds, and hardly bigger. I was enchanted with the place, and, finding a felled tree-trunk, propped my back against it, and stretching my legs out gave myself up to undisturbed contemplation of the solemn beauty of the woods and to the comfort of a good cigar. And when the cigar was finished and I had (I suppose) inhaled as much beauty as I could, I went off into the most delightful sleep, regardless of my train to Strelsau and of the fast-waning afternoon. To remember a train in such a spot would have been rank sacrilege. Instead of that, I fell to dreaming that I was married to the Princess Flavia and dwelt in the Castle of Zenda, and beguiled whole days with my love in the glades of the forest — which made a very pleasant dream. In fact, I was just impressing a fervent kiss on the charming lips of the princess, when I heard (and the voice seemed at first a part of the dream) someone exclaim, in rough strident tones.

“Why, the devil’s in it! Shave him, and he’d be the King!”

The idea seemed whimsical enough for a dream: by the sacrifice of my heavy moustache and carefully pointed imperial, I was to be transformed into a monarch! I was about to kiss the princess again, when I arrived (very reluctantly) at the conclusion that I was awake.

I opened my eyes, and found two men regarding me with much curiosity. Both wore shooting costumes and carried guns. One was rather short and very stoutly built, with a big bullet-shaped head, a bristly grey moustache, and small pale-blue eyes, a trifle bloodshot. The other was a slender young fellow, of middle height, dark in complexion, and bearing himself with grace and distinction. I set the one down as an old soldier: the other for a gentleman accustomed to move in good society, but not unused to military life either. It turned out afterwards that my guess was a good one.

The elder man approached me, beckoning the younger to follow. He did so, courteously raising his hat. I rose slowly to my feet.

“He’s the height, too!” I heard the elder murmur, as he surveyed my six feet two inches of stature. Then, with a cavalier touch of the cap, he addressed me:

“May I ask your name?”

“As you have taken the first step in the acquaintance, gentlemen,” said I, with a smile, “suppose you give me a lead in the matter of names.”

The young man stepped forward with a pleasant smile.

“This,” said he, “is Colonel Sapt, and I am called Fritz von Tarlenheim: we are both in the service of the King of Ruritania.”

I bowed and, baring my head, answered:

“I am Rudolf Rassendyll. I am a traveller from England; and once for a year or two I held a commission from her Majesty the Queen.”

“Then we are all brethren of the sword,” answered Tarlenheim, holding out his hand, which I took readily.

“Rassendyll, Rassendyll!” muttered Colonel Sapt; then a gleam of intelligence flitted across his face.

“By Heaven!” he cried, “you’re of the Burlesdons?”

“My brother is now Lord Burlesdon,” said I.

“Thy head betrayeth thee,” he chuckled, pointing to my uncovered poll. “Why, Fritz, you know the story?”

The young man glanced apologetically at me. He felt a delicacy which my sister-inlaw would have admired. To put him at his ease, I remarked with a smile:

“Ah! the story is known here as well as among us, it seems.”

“Known!” cried Sapt. “If you stay here, the deuce a man in all Ruritania will doubt of it — or a woman either.”

I began to feel uncomfortable. Had I realized what a very plainly written pedigree I carried about with me, I should have thought long before I visited Ruritania. However, I was in for it now.

At this moment a ringing voice sounded from the wood behind us:

“Fritz, Fritz! where are you, man?”

Tarlenheim started, and said hastily:

“It’s the King!”

Old Sapt chuckled again.

Then a young man jumped out from behind the trunk of a tree and stood beside us. As I looked at him, I uttered an astonished cry; and he, seeing me, drew back in sudden wonder. Saving the hair on my face and a manner of conscious dignity which his position gave him, saving also that he lacked perhaps half an inch — nay, less than that, but still something — of my height, the King of Ruritania might have been Rudolf Rassendyll, and I, Rudolf, the King.

For an instant we stood motionless, looking at one another. Then I bared my head again and bowed respectfully. The King found his voice, and asked in bewilderment:

“Colonel — Fritz — who is this gentleman?”

I was about to answer, when Colonel Sapt stepped between the King and me, and began to talk to his Majesty in a low growl. The King towered over Sapt, and, as he listened, his eyes now and again sought mine. I looked at him long and carefully. The likeness was certainly astonishing, though I saw the points of difference also. The King’s face was slightly more fleshy than mine, the oval of its contour the least trifle more pronounced, and, as I fancied, his mouth lacking something of the firmness (or obstinacy) which was to be gathered from my close-shutting lips. But, for all that, and above all minor distinctions, the likeness rose striking, salient, wonderful.

Sapt ceased speaking, and the King still frowned. Then, gradually, the corners of his mouth began to twitch, his nose came down (as mine does when I laugh), his eyes twinkled, and, behold! he burst into the merriest fit of irrepressible laughter, which rang through the woods and proclaimed him a jovial soul.

“Well met, cousin!” he cried, stepping up to me, clapping me on the back, and laughing still. “You must forgive me if I was taken aback. A man doesn’t expect to see double at this time of day, eh, Fritz?”

“I must pray pardon, sire, for my presumption,” said I. “I trust it will not forfeit your Majesty’s favour.”

“By Heaven! you’ll always enjoy the King’s countenance,” he laughed, “whether I like it or not; and, sir, I shall very gladly add to it what services I can. Where are you travelling to?”

“To Strelsau, sire — to the coronation.”

The King looked at his friends: he still smiled, though his expression hinted some uneasiness. But the humorous side of the matter caught him again.

“Fritz, Fritz!” he cried, “a thousand crowns for a sight of brother Michael’s face when he sees a pair of us!” and the merry laugh rang out again.

“Seriously,” observed Fritz von Tarlenheim, “I question Mr. Rassendyll’s wisdom in visiting Strelsau just now.”

The King lit a cigarette.

“Well, Sapt?” said he, questioningly.

“He mustn’t go,” growled the old fellow.

“Come, colonel, you mean that I should be in Mr. Rassendyll’s debt, if —”

“Oh, ay! wrap it up in the right way,” said Sapt, hauling a great pipe out of his pocket.

“Enough, sire,” said I. “I’ll leave Ruritania today.”

“No, by thunder, you shan’t — and that’s sans phrase, as Sapt likes it. For you shall dine with me tonight, happen what will afterwards. Come, man, you don’t meet a new relation every day!”

“We dine sparingly tonight,” said Fritz von Tarlenheim.

“Not we — with our new cousin for a guest!” cried the King; and, as Fritz shrugged his shoulders, he added: “Oh! I’ll remember our early start, Fritz.”

“So will I— tomorrow morning,” said old Sapt, pulling at his pipe.

“O wise old Sapt!” cried the King. “Come, Mr. Rassendyll — by the way, what name did they give you?”

“Your Majesty’s,” I answered, bowing.

“Well, that shows they weren’t ashamed of us,” he laughed. “Come, then, cousin Rudolf; I’ve got no house of my own here, but my dear brother Michael lends us a place of his, and we’ll make shift to entertain you there;” and he put his arm through mine and, signing to the others to accompany us, walked me off, westerly, through the forest.

We walked for more than half an hour, and the King smoked cigarettes and chattered incessantly. He was full of interest in my family, laughed heartily when I told him of the portraits with Elphberg hair in our galleries, and yet more heartily when he heard that my expedition to Ruritania was a secret one.

“You have to visit your disreputable cousin on the sly, have you?” said he.

Suddenly emerging from the wood, we came on a small and rude hunting-lodge. It was a one-storey building, a sort of bungalow, built entirely of wood. As we approached it, a little man in a plain livery came out to meet us. The only other person I saw about the place was a fat elderly woman, whom I afterwards discovered to be the mother of Johann, the duke’s keeper.

“Well, is dinner ready, Josef?” asked the King.

The little servant informed us that it was, and we soon sat down to a plentiful meal. The fare was plain enough: the King ate heartily, Fritz von Tarlenheim delicately, old Sapt voraciously. I played a good knife and fork, as my custom is; the King noticed my performance with approval.

“We’re all good trenchermen, we Elphbergs,” said he. “But what? — we’re eating dry! Wine, Josef! wine, man! Are we beasts, to eat without drinking? Are we cattle, Josef?”

At this reproof Josef hastened to load the table with bottles.

“Remember tomorrow!” said Fritz.

“Ay — tomorrow!” said old Sapt.

The King drained a bumper to his “Cousin Rudolf,” as he was gracious — or merry — enough to call me; and I drank its fellow to the “Elphberg Red,” whereat he laughed loudly.

Now, be the meat what it might, the wine we drank was beyond all price or praise, and we did it justice. Fritz ventured once to stay the King’s hand.

“What?” cried the King. “Remember you start before I do, Master Fritz — you must be more sparing by two hours than I.”

Fritz saw that I did not understand.

“The colonel and I,” he explained, “leave here at six: we ride down to Zenda and return with the guard of honour to fetch the King at eight, and then we all ride together to the station.”

“Hang that same guard!” growled Sapt.

“Oh! it’s very civil of my brother to ask the honour for his regiment,” said the King. “Come, cousin, you need not start early. Another bottle, man!”

I had another bottle — or, rather, a part of one, for the larger half travelled quickly down his Majesty’s throat. Fritz gave up his attempts at persuasion: from persuading, he fell to being persuaded, and soon we were all of us as full of wine as we had any right to be. The King began talking of what he would do in the future, old Sapt of what he had done in the past, Fritz of some beautiful girl or other, and I of the wonderful merits of the Elphberg dynasty. We all talked at once, and followed to the letter Sapt’s exhortation to let the morrow take care of itself.

At last the King set down his glass and leant back in his chair.

“I have drunk enough,” said he.

“Far be it from me to contradict the King,” said I.

Indeed, his remark was most absolutely true — so far as it went.

While I yet spoke, Josef came and set before the King a marvellous old wicker-covered flagon. It had lain so long in some darkened cellar that it seemed to blink in the candlelight.

“His Highness the Duke of Strelsau bade me set this wine before the King, when the King was weary of all other wines, and pray the King to drink, for the love that he bears his brother.”

“Well done, Black Michael!” said the King. “Out with the cork, Josef. Hang him! Did he think I’d flinch from his bottle?”

The bottle was opened, and Josef filled the King’s glass. The King tasted it. Then, with a solemnity born of the hour and his own condition, he looked round on us:

“Gentlemen, my friends — Rudolf, my cousin (’tis a scandalous story, Rudolf, on my honour!), everything is yours to the half of Ruritania. But ask me not for a single drop of this divine bottle, which I will drink to the health of that — that sly knave, my brother, Black Michael.”

And the King seized the bottle and turned it over his mouth, and drained it and flung it from him, and laid his head on his arms on the table.

And we drank pleasant dreams to his Majesty — and that is all I remember of the evening. Perhaps it is enough.

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