If love were all!
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.
She drew herself away from me and stood against the wall, while I sat on the edge of the sofa, trembling in every limb, knowing what I had done--loathing it, obstinate not to undo it. So we rested a long time.
"I am mad!" I said sullenly.
"I love your madness, dear," she answered.
Her face was away from me, but I caught the sparkle of a tear on her cheek. I clutched the sofa with my hand and held myself there.
"Is love the only thing?" she asked, in low, sweet tones that seemed to bring a calm even to my wrung heart. "If love were the only thing, I would follow you--in rags, if need be--to the world's end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing?"
I made no answer. It gives me shame now to think that I would not help her.
She came near me and laid her hand on my shoulder. I put my hand up and held hers.
"I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some, Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them! But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell."
I kissed her hand.
"Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House. I don't know why God has let me love you; but I know that I must stay."
Still I said nothing; and she, pausing a while, then went on:
"Your ring will always be on my finger, your heart in my heart, the touch of your lips on mine. But you must go and I must stay. Perhaps I must do what it kills me to think of doing."
I knew what she meant, and a shiver ran through me. But I could not utterly fail her. I rose and took her hand.
"Do what you will, or what you must," I said. "I think God shows His purposes to such as you. My part is lighter; for your ring shall be on my finger and your heart in mine, and no touch save of your lips will ever be on mine. So, may God comfort you, my darling!"
There struck on our ears the sound of singing. The priests in the chapel were singing masses for the souls of those who lay dead. They seemed to chant a requiem over our buried joy, to pray forgiveness for our love that would not die. The soft, sweet, pitiful music rose and fell as we stood opposite one another, her hands in mine.
"My queen and my beauty!" said I.
"My lover and true knight!" she said. "Perhaps we shall never see one another again. Kiss me, my dear, and go!"
I kissed her as she bade me; but at the last she clung to me, whispering nothing but my name, and that over and over again --and again--and again; and then I left her.
Rapidly I walked down to the bridge. Sapt and Fritz were waiting for me. Under their directions I changed my dress, and muffling my face, as I had done more than once before, I mounted with them at the door of the Castle, and we three rode through the night and on to the breaking day, and found ourselves at a little roadside station just over the border of Ruritania. The train was not quite due, and I walked with them in a meadow by a little brook while we waited for it. They promised to send me all news; they overwhelmed me with kindness--even old Sapt was touched to gentleness, while Fritz was half unmanned. I listened in a kind of dream to all they said. "Rudolf! Rudolf! Rudolf!" still rang in my ears--a burden of sorrow and of love. At last they saw that I could not heed them, and we walked up and down in silence, till Fritz touched me on the arm, and I saw, a mile or more away, the blue smoke of the train. Then I held out a hand to each of them.
"We are all but half-men this morning," said I, smiling. "But we have been men, eh, Sapt and Fritz, old friends? We have run a good course between us."
"We have defeated traitors and set the King firm on his throne," said Sapt.
Then Fritz von Tarlenheim suddenly, before I could discern his purpose or stay him, uncovered his head and bent as he used to do, and kissed my hand; and as I snatched it away, he said, trying to laugh:
"Heaven doesn't always make the right men kings!"
Old Sapt twisted his mouth as he wrung my hand.
"The devil has his share in most things," said he.
The people at the station looked curiously at the tall man with the muffled face, but we took no notice of their glances. I stood with my two friends and waited till the train came up to us. Then we shook hands again, saying nothing; and both this time--and, indeed, from old Sapt it seemed strange--bared their heads, and so stood still till the train bore me away from their sight. So that it was thought some great man travelled privately for his pleasure from the little station that morning; whereas, in truth it was only I, Rudolf Rassendyll, an English gentleman, a cadet of a good house, but a man of no wealth nor position, nor of much rank. They would have been disappointed to know that. Yet had they known all they would have looked more curiously still. For, be I what I might now, I had been for three months a King, which, if not a thing to be proud of, is at least an experience to have undergone. Doubtless I should have thought more of it, had there not echoed through the air, from the towers of Zenda that we were leaving far away, into my ears and into my heart the cry of a woman's love--"Rudolf! Rudolf! Rudolf!"
Hark! I hear it now!