A Fair Cousin and a Dark Brother
Then, at last, I was left alone. I called my new servant (we had chosen, to succeed poor Josef, a young man who had never known the King), had a brandy-and-soda brought to me, and observed to Sapt that I trusted that I might now have a rest. Fritz von Tarlenheim was standing by.
"By heaven!" he cried, "we waste time. Aren't we going to throw Black Michael by the heels?"
"Gently, my son, gently," said Sapt, knitting his brows. "It would be a pleasure, but it might cost us dear. Would Michael fall and leave the King alive?"
"And," I suggested, "while the King is here in Strelsau, on his throne, what grievance has he against his dear brother Michael?"
"Are we to do nothing, then?"
"We're to do nothing stupid," growled Sapt.
"In fact, Fritz," said I, "I am reminded of a situation in one of our English plays--The Critic--have you heard of it? Or, if you like, of two men, each covering the other with a revolver. For I can't expose Michael without exposing myself--"
"And the King," put in Sapt.
"And, hang me if Michael won't expose himself, if he tries to expose me!"
"It's very pretty," said old Sapt.
"If I'm found out," I pursued, "I will make a clean breast of it, and fight it out with the duke; but at present I'm waiting for a move from him."
"He'll kill the King," said Fritz.
"Not he," said Sapt.
"Half of the Six are in Strelsau," said Fritz.
"Only half? You're sure?" asked Sapt eagerly.
"Then the King's alive, for the other three are guarding him!" cried Sapt.
"Yes--you're right!" exclaimed Fritz, his face brightening. "If the King were dead and buried, they'd all be here with Michael. You know Michael's back, colonel?"
"I know, curse him!"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," said I, "who are the Six?"
"I think you'll make their acquaintance soon," said Sapt. "They are six gentlemen whom Michael maintains in his household: they belong to him body and soul. There are three Ruritanians; then there's a Frenchman, a Belgian, and one of your countrymen."
"They'd all cut a throat if Michael told them," said Fritz.
"Perhaps they'll cut mine," I suggested.
"Nothing more likely," agreed Sapt. "Who are here, Fritz?"
"De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard."
"The foreigners! It's as plain as a pikestaff. He's brought them, and left the Ruritanians with the King; that's because he wants to commit the Ruritanians as deep as he can."
"They were none of them among our friends at the lodge, then?" I asked.
"I wish they had been," said Sapt wistfully. "They had been, not six, but four, by now."
I had already developed one attribute of royalty--a feeling that I need not reveal all my mind or my secret designs even to my intimate friends. I had fully resolved on my course of action. I meant to make myself as popular as I could, and at the same time to show no disfavour to Michael. By these means I hoped to allay the hostility of his adherents, and make it appear, if an open conflict came about, that he was ungrateful and not oppressed.
Yet an open conflict was not what I hoped for.
The King's interest demanded secrecy; and while secrecy lasted, I had a fine game to play in Strelsau, Michael should not grow stronger for delay!
I ordered my horse, and, attended by Fritz von Tarlenheim, rode in the grand new avenue of the Royal Park, returning all the salutes which I received with punctilious politeness. Then I rode through a few of the streets, stopped and bought flowers of a pretty girl, paying her with a piece of gold; and then, having attracted the desired amount of attention (for I had a trail of half a thousand people after me), I rode to the residence of the Princess Flavia, and asked if she would receive me. This step created much interest, and was met with shouts of approval. The princess was very popular, and the Chancellor himself had not scrupled to hint to me that the more I pressed my suit, and the more rapidly I brought it to a prosperous conclusion, the stronger should I be in the affection of my subjects. The Chancellor, of course, did not understand the difficulties which lay in the way of following his loyal and excellent advice. However, I thought I could do no harm by calling; and in this view Fritz supported me with a cordiality that surprised me, until he confessed that he also had his motives for liking a visit to the princess's house, which motive was no other than a great desire to see the princess's lady-in-waiting and bosom friend, the Countess Helga von Strofzin.
Etiquette seconded Fritz's hopes. While I was ushered into the princess's room, he remained with the countess in the ante-chamber: in spite of the people and servants who were hanging about, I doubt not that they managed a tete-a-tete; but I had no leisure to think of them, for I was playing the most delicate move in all my difficult game. I had to keep the princess devoted to me--and yet indifferent to me: I had to show affection for her--and not feel it. I had to make love for another, and that to a girl who--princess or no princess--was the most beautiful I had ever seen. Well, I braced myself to the task, made no easier by the charming embarrassment with which I was received. How I succeeded in carrying out my programme will appear hereafter.
"You are gaining golden laurels," she said. "You are like the prince in Shakespeare who was transformed by becoming king. But I'm forgetting you are King, sire."
"I ask you to speak nothing but what your heart tells you-- and to call me nothing but my name."
She looked at me for a moment.
"Then I'm glad and proud, Rudolf," said she. "Why, as I told you, your very face is changed."
I acknowledged the compliment, but I disliked the topic; so I said:
"My brother is back, I hear. He made an excursion, didn't he?"
"Yes, he is here," she said, frowning a little.
"He can't stay long from Strelsau, it seems," I observed, smiling. "Well, we are all glad to see him. The nearer he is, the better."
The princess glanced at me with a gleam of amusement in her eyes.
"Why, cousin? Is it that you can--?"
"See better what he's doing? Perhaps," said I. "And why are you glad?"
"I didn't say I was glad," she answered.
"Some people say so for you."
"There are many insolent people," she said, with delightful haughtiness.
"Possibly you mean that I am one?"
"Your Majesty could not be," she said, curtseying in feigned deference, but adding, mischievously, after a pause: "Unless, that is--"
"Well, unless what?"
"Unless you tell me that I mind a snap of my fingers where the Duke of Strelsau is."
Really, I wished that I had been the King.
"You don't care where cousin Michael--"
"Ah, cousin Michael! I call him the Duke of Strelsau."
"You call him Michael when you meet him?"
"Yes--by the orders of your father."
"I see. And now by mine?"
"If those are your orders."
"Oh, decidedly! We must all be pleasant to our dear Michael."
"You order me to receive his friends, too, I suppose?"
"You call them that, too?"
"To be in the fashion, I do. But I order you to receive no one unless you like."
"I pray for myself. I could not order."
As I spoke, there came a cheer from the street. The princess ran to the window.
"It is he!" she cried. "It is--the Duke of Strelsau!"
I smiled, but said nothing. She returned to her seat. For a few moments we sat in silence. The noise outside subsided, but I heard the tread of feet in the ante-room. I began to talk on general subjects. This went on for some minutes. I wondered what had become of Michael, but it did not seem to be for me to interfere. All at once, to my great surprise, Flavia, clasping her hands asked in an agitated voice:
"Are you wise to make him angry?"
"What? Who? How am I making him angry?"
"Why, by keeping him waiting."
"My dear cousin, I don't want to keep him--"
"Well, then, is he to come in?"
"Of course, if you wish it."
She looked at me curiously.
"How funny you are," she said. "Of course no one could be announced while I was with you."
Here was a charming attribute of royalty!
"An excellent etiquette!" I cried. "But I had clean forgotten it; and if I were alone with someone else, couldn't you be announced?"
"You know as well as I do. I could be, because I am of the Blood;" and she still looked puzzled.
"I never could remember all these silly rules," said I, rather feebly, as I inwardly cursed Fritz for not posting me up. "But I'll repair my fault."
I jumped up, flung open the door, and advanced into the ante-room. Michael was sitting at a table, a heavy frown on his face. Everyone else was standing, save that impudent young dog Fritz, who was lounging easily in an armchair, and flirting with the Countess Helga. He leapt up as I entered, with a deferential alacrity that lent point to his former nonchalance. I had no difficulty in understanding that the duke might not like young Fritz.
I held out my hand, Michael took it, and I embraced him. Then I drew him with me into the inner room.
"Brother," I said, "if I had known you were here, you should not have waited a moment before I asked the princess to permit me to bring you to her."
He thanked me, but coldly. The man had many qualities, but he could not hide his feelings. A mere stranger could have seen that he hated me, and hated worse to see me with Princess Flavia; yet I am persuaded that he tried to conceal both feelings, and, further, that he tried to persuade me that he believed I was verily the King. I did not know, of course; but, unless the King were an impostor, at once cleverer and more audacious than I (and I began to think something of myself in that role), Michael could not believe that. And, if he didn't, how he must have loathed paying me deference, and hearing my "Michael" and my "Flavia!"
"Your hand is hurt, sire," he observed, with concern.
"Yes, I was playing a game with a mongrel dog" (I meant to stir him), "and you know, brother, such have uncertain tempers."
He smiled sourly, and his dark eyes rested on me for a moment.
"But is there no danger from the bite?" cried Flavia anxiously.
"None from this," said I. "If I gave him a chance to bite deeper, it would be different, cousin."
"But surely he has been destroyed?" said she.
"Not yet. We're waiting to see if his bite is harmful."
"And if it is?" asked Michael, with his sour smile.
"He'll be knocked on the head, brother," said I.
"You won't play with him any more?" urged Flavia.
"Perhaps I shall."
"He might bite again."
"Doubtless he'll try," said I, smiling.
Then, fearing Michael would say something which I must appear to resent (for, though I might show him my hate, I must seem to be full of favour), I began to compliment him on the magnificent condition of his regiment, and of their loyal greeting to me on the day of my coronation. Thence I passed to a rapturous description of the hunting-lodge which he had lent me. But he rose suddenly to his feet. His temper was failing him, and, with an excuse, he said farewell. However, as he reached the door he stopped, saying:
"Three friends of mine are very anxious to have the honour of being presented to you, sire. They are here in the ante-chamber."
I joined him directly, passing my arm through his. The look on his face was honey to me. We entered the ante-chamber in fraternal fashion. Michael beckoned, and three men came forward.
"These gentlemen," said Michael, with a stately courtesy which, to do him justice, he could assume with perfect grace and ease, "are the loyalest and most devoted of your Majesty's servants, and are my very faithful and attached friends."
"On the last ground as much as the first," said I, "I am very pleased to see them."
They came one by one and kissed my hand--De Gautet, a tall lean fellow, with hair standing straight up and waxed moustache; Bersonin, the Belgian, a portly man of middle height with a bald head (though he was not far past thirty); and last, the Englishman, Detchard, a narrow-faced fellow, with close-cut fair hair and a bronzed complexion. He was a finely made man, broad in the shoulder and slender in the hips. A good fighter, but a crooked customer, I put him down for. I spoke to him in English, with a slight foreign accent, and I swear the fellow smiled, though he hid the smile in an instant.
"So Mr. Detchard is in the secret," thought I.
Having got rid of my dear brother and his friends, I returned to make my adieu to my cousin. She was standing at the door. I bade her farewell, taking her hand in mine.
"Rudolf," she said, very low, "be careful, won't you?"
"You know--I can't say. But think what your life is to--"
Was I right to play the part, or wrong to play the part? I know not: evil lay both ways, and I dared not tell her the truth.
"Only to Ruritania?" I asked softly.
A sudden flush spread over her incomparable face.
"To your friends, too," she said.
"And to your cousin," she whispered, "and loving servant."
I could not speak. I kissed her hand, and went out cursing myself.
Outside I found Master Fritz, quite reckless of the footmen, playing at cat's-cradle with the Countess Helga.
"Hang it!" said he, "we can't always be plotting. Love claims his share."
"I'm inclined to think he does," said I; and Fritz, who had been by my side, dropped respectfully behind.