“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.

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