An Improvement on Jacob’s Ladder
In the morning of the day after that on which I swore my oath against the Six, I gave certain orders, and then rested in greater contentment than I had known for some time. I was at work; and work, though it cannot cure love, is yet a narcotic to it; so that Sapt, who grew feverish, marvelled to see me sprawling in an armchair in the sunshine, listening to one of my friends who sang me amorous songs in a mellow voice and induced in me a pleasing melancholy. Thus was I engaged when young Rupert Hentzau, who feared neither man nor devil, and rode through the demesne—where every tree might hide a marksman, for all he knew—as though it had been the park at Strelsau, cantered up to where I lay, bowing with burlesque deference, and craving private speech with me in order to deliver a message from the Duke of Strelsau. I made all withdraw, and then he said, seating himself by me:
“The King is in love, it seems?”
“Not with life, my lord,” said I, smiling.
“It is well,” he rejoined. “Come, we are alone, Rassendyll—”
I rose to a sitting posture.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I was about to call one of my gentlemen to bring your horse, my lord. If you do not know how to address the King, my brother must find another messenger.”
“Why keep up the farce?” he asked, negligently dusting his boot with his glove.
“Because it is not finished yet; and meanwhile I’ll choose my own name.”
“Oh, so be it! Yet I spoke in love for you; for indeed you are a man after my own heart.”
“Saving my poor honesty,” said I, “maybe I am. But that I keep faith with men, and honour with women, maybe I am, my lord.”
He darted a glance at me—a glance of anger.
“Is your mother dead?” said I.
“Ay, she’s dead.”
“She may thank God,” said I, and I heard him curse me softly. “Well, what’s the message?” I continued.
I had touched him on the raw, for all the world knew he had broken his mother’s heart and flaunted his mistresses in her house; and his airy manner was gone for the moment.
“The duke offers you more than I would,” he growled. “A halter for you, sire, was my suggestion. But he offers you safe-conduct across the frontier and a million crowns.”
“I prefer your offer, my lord, if I am bound to one.”
“I told Michael you would;” and the villain, his temper restored, gave me the sunniest of smiles. “The fact is, between ourselves,” he continued, “Michael doesn’t understand a gentleman.”
I began to laugh.
“And you?” I asked.
“I do,” he said. “Well, well, the halter be it.”
“I’m sorry you won’t live to see it,” I observed.
“Has his Majesty done me the honour to fasten a particular quarrel on me?”
“I would you were a few years older, though.”
“Oh, God gives years, but the devil gives increase,” laughed he. “I can hold my own.”
“How is your prisoner?” I asked.
“I forgot your wishes, sire. Well, he is alive.”
He rose to his feet; I imitated him. Then, with a smile, he said:
“And the pretty princess? Faith, I’ll wager the next Elphberg will be red enough, for all that Black Michael will be called his father.”
I sprang a step towards him, clenching my hand. He did not move an inch, and his lip curled in insolent amusement.
“Go, while your skin’s whole!” I muttered. He had repaid me with interest my hit about his mother.
Then came the most audacious thing I have known in my life. My friends were some thirty yards away. Rupert called to a groom to bring him his horse, and dismissed the fellow with a crown. The horse stood near. I stood still, suspecting nothing. Rupert made as though to mount; then he suddenly turned to me: his left hand resting in his belt, his right outstretched: “Shake hands,” he said.
I bowed, and did as he had foreseen—I put my hands behind me. Quicker than thought, his left hand darted out at me, and a small dagger flashed in the air; he struck me in the left shoulder—had I not swerved, it had been my heart. With a cry, I staggered back. Without touching the stirrup, he leapt upon his horse and was off like an arrow, pursued by cries and revolver shots—the last as useless as the first—and I sank into my chair, bleeding profusely, as I watched the devil’s brat disappear down the long avenue. My friends surrounded me, and then I fainted.
I suppose that I was put to bed, and there lay, unconscious, or half conscious, for many hours; for it was night when I awoke to my full mind, and found Fritz beside me. I was weak and weary, but he bade me be of good cheer, saying that my wound would soon heal, and that meanwhile all had gone well, for Johann, the keeper, had fallen into the snare we had laid for him, and was even now in the house.
“And the queer thing is,” pursued Fritz, “that I fancy he’s not altogether sorry to find himself here. He seems to think that when Black Michael has brought off his coup, witnesses of how it was effected—saving, of course, the Six themselves—will not be at a premium.”
This idea argued a shrewdness in our captive which led me to build hopes on his assistance. I ordered him to be brought in at once. Sapt conducted him, and set him in a chair by my bedside. He was sullen, and afraid; but, to say truth, after young Rupert’s exploit, we also had our fears, and, if he got as far as possible from Sapt’s formidable six-shooter, Sapt kept him as far as he could from me. Moreover, when he came in his hands were bound, but that I would not suffer.
I need not stay to recount the safeguards and rewards we promised the fellow—all of which were honourably observed and paid, so that he lives now in prosperity (though where I may not mention); and we were the more free inasmuch as we soon learnt that he was rather a weak man than a wicked, and had acted throughout this matter more from fear of the duke and of his own brother Max than for any love of what was done. But he had persuaded all of his loyalty; and though not in their secret counsels, was yet, by his knowledge of their dispositions within the Castle, able to lay bare before us the very heart of their devices. And here, in brief, is his story:
Below the level of the ground in the Castle, approached by a flight of stone steps which abutted on the end of the drawbridge, were situated two small rooms, cut out of the rock itself. The outer of the two had no windows, but was always lighted with candles; the inner had one square window, which gave upon the moat. In the outer room there lay always, day and night, three of the Six; and the instructions of Duke Michael were, that on any attack being made on the outer room, the three were to defend the door of it so long as they could without risk to themselves. But, so soon as the door should be in danger of being forced, then Rupert Hentzau or Detchard (for one of these two was always there) should leave the others to hold it as long as they could, and himself pass into the inner room, and, without more ado, kill the King who lay there, well-treated indeed, but without weapons, and with his arms confined in fine steel chains, which did not allow him to move his elbow more than three inches from his side. Thus, before the outer door were stormed, the King would be dead. And his body? For his body would be evidence as damning as himself.
“Nay, sir,” said Johann, “his Highness has thought of that. While the two hold the outer room, the one who has killed the King unlocks the bars in the square window (they turn on a hinge). The window now gives no light, for its mouth is choked by a great pipe of earthenware; and this pipe, which is large enough to let pass through it the body of a man, passes into the moat, coming to an end immediately above the surface of the water, so that there is no perceptible interval between water and pipe. The King being dead, his murderer swiftly ties a weight to the body, and, dragging it to the window, raises it by a pulley (for, lest the weight should prove too great, Detchard has provided one) till it is level with the mouth of the pipe. He inserts the feet in the pipe, and pushes the body down. Silently, without splash or sound, it falls into the water and thence to the bottom of the moat, which is twenty feet deep thereabouts. This done, the murderer cries loudly, ‘All’s well!’ and himself slides down the pipe; and the others, if they can and the attack is not too hot, run to the inner room and, seeking a moment’s delay, bar the door, and in their turn slide down. And though the King rises not from the bottom, they rise and swim round to the other side, where the orders are for men to wait them with ropes, to haul them out, and horses. And here, if things go ill, the duke will join them and seek safety by riding; but if all goes well, they will return to the Castle, and have their enemies in a trap. That, sir, is the plan of his Highness for the disposal of the King in case of need. But it is not to be used till the last; for, as we all know, he is not minded to kill the King unless he can, before or soon after, kill you also, sir. Now, sir, I have spoken the truth, as God is my witness, and I pray you to shield me from the vengeance of Duke Michael; for if, after he knows what I have done, I fall into his hands, I shall pray for one thing out of all the world—a speedy death, and that I shall not obtain from him!”
The fellow’s story was rudely told, but our questions supplemented his narrative. What he had told us applied to an armed attack; but if suspicions were aroused, and there came overwhelming force—such, for instance, as I, the King, could bring—the idea of resistance would be abandoned; the King would be quietly murdered and slid down the pipe. And—here comes an ingenious touch—one of the Six would take his place in the cell, and, on the entrance of the searchers, loudly demand release and redress; and Michael, being summoned, would confess to hasty action, but he would say the man had angered him by seeking the favour of a lady in the Castle (this was Antoinette de Mauban) and he had confined him there, as he conceived he, as Lord of Zenda, had right to do. But he was now, on receiving his apology, content to let him go, and so end the gossip which, to his Highness’s annoyance, had arisen concerning a prisoner in Zenda, and had given his visitors the trouble of this enquiry. The visitors, baffled, would retire, and Michael could, at his leisure, dispose of the body of the King.
Sapt, Fritz, and I in my bed, looked round on one another in horror and bewilderment at the cruelty and cunning of the plan. Whether I went in peace or in war, openly at the head of a corps, or secretly by a stealthy assault, the King would be dead before I could come near him. If Michael were stronger and overcame my party, there would be an end. But if I were stronger, I should have no way to punish him, no means of proving any guilt in him without proving my own guilt also. On the other hand, I should be left as King (ah! for a moment my pulse quickened) and it would be for the future to witness the final struggle between him and me. He seemed to have made triumph possible and ruin impossible. At the worst, he would stand as well as he had stood before I crossed his path—with but one man between him and the throne, and that man an impostor; at best, there would be none left to stand against him. I had begun to think that Black Michael was over fond of leaving the fighting to his friends; but now I acknowledged that the brains, if not the arms, of the conspiracy were his.
“Does the King know this?” I asked.
“I and my brother,” answered Johann, “put up the pipe, under the orders of my Lord of Hentzau. He was on guard that day, and the King asked my lord what it meant. ‘Faith,’ he answered, with his airy laugh, ‘it’s a new improvement on the ladder of Jacob, whereby, as you have read, sire, men pass from the earth to heaven. We thought it not meet that your Majesty should go, in case, sire, you must go, by the common route. So we have made you a pretty private passage where the vulgar cannot stare at you or incommode your passage. That, sire, is the meaning of that pipe.’ And he laughed and bowed, and prayed the King’s leave to replenish the King’s glass—for the King was at supper. And the King, though he is a brave man, as are all of his House, grew red and then white as he looked on the pipe and at the merry devil who mocked him. Ah, sir” (and the fellow shuddered), “it is not easy to sleep quiet in the Castle of Zenda, for all of them would as soon cut a man’s throat as play a game at cards; and my Lord Rupert would choose it sooner for a pastime than any other—ay, sooner than he would ruin a woman, though that he loves also.”
The man ceased, and I bade Fritz take him away and have him carefully guarded; and, turning to him, I added:
“If anyone asks you if there is a prisoner in Zenda, you may answer ‘Yes.’ But if any asks who the prisoner is, do not answer. For all my promises will not save you if any man here learns from you the truth as to the prisoner of Zenda. I’ll kill you like a dog if the thing be so much as breathed within the house!”
Then, when he was gone, I looked at Sapt.
“It’s a hard nut!” said I.
“So hard,” said he, shaking his grizzled head, “that as I think, this time next year is like to find you still King of Ruritania!” and he broke out into curses on Michael’s cunning.
I lay back on my pillows.
“There seems to me,” I observed, “to be two ways by which the King can come out of Zenda alive. One is by treachery in the duke’s followers.”
“You can leave that out,” said Sapt.
“I hope not,” I rejoined, “because the other I was about to mention is—by a miracle from heaven!”