A Fair Cousin and a Dark Brother

A real king’s life is perhaps a hard one; but a pretended king’s is, I warrant, much harder. On the next day, Sapt instructed me in my duties—what I ought to do and what I ought to know—for three hours; then I snatched breakfast, with Sapt still opposite me, telling me that the King always took white wine in the morning and was known to detest all highly seasoned dishes. Then came the Chancellor, for another three hours; and to him I had to explain that the hurt to my finger (we turned that bullet to happy account) prevented me from writing—whence arose great to-do, hunting of precedents and so forth, ending in my “making my mark,” and the Chancellor attesting it with a superfluity of solemn oaths. Then the French ambassador was introduced, to present his credentials; here my ignorance was of no importance, as the King would have been equally raw to the business (we worked through the whole corps diplomatique in the next few days, a demise of the Crown necessitating all this bother).

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.

“Yes—only half.”

“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!”

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