A Great Chance for a Villain

It was the custom that the Prefect of Police should send every afternoon a report to me on the condition of the capital and the feeling of the people: the document included also an account of the movements of any persons whom the police had received instructions to watch. Since I had been in Strelsau, Sapt had been in the habit of reading the report and telling me any items of interest which it might contain. On the day after my adventure in the summer-house, he came in as I was playing a hand of ecarte with Fritz von Tarlenheim.

“The report is rather full of interest this afternoon,” he observed, sitting down.

“Do you find,” I asked, “any mention of a certain fracas?”

He shook his head with a smile.

“I find this first,” he said: ” ‘His Highness the Duke of Strelsau left the city (so far as it appears, suddenly), accompanied by several of his household. His destination is believed to be the Castle of Zenda, but the party travelled by road and not by train. MM De Gautet, Bersonin, and Detchard followed an hour later, the last-named carrying his arm in a sling. The cause of his wound is not known, but it is suspected that he has fought a duel, probably incidental to a love affair.’ “

“That is remotely true,” I observed, very well pleased to find that I had left my mark on the fellow.

“Then we come to this,” pursued Sapt: ““Madame de Mauban, whose movements have been watched according to instructions, left by train at midday. She took a ticket for Dresden—”

“It’s an old habit of hers,” said I.

““The Dresden train stops at Zenda.” An acute fellow, this. And finally listen to this: “The state of feeling in the city is not satisfactory. The King is much criticized” (you know, he’s told to be quite frank) “for taking no steps about his marriage. From enquiries among the entourage of the Princess Flavia, her Royal Highness is believed to be deeply offended by the remissness of his Majesty. The common people are coupling her name with that of the Duke of Strelsau, and the duke gains much popularity from the suggestion. I have caused the announcement that the King gives a ball tonight in honour of the princess to be widely diffused, and the effect is good.”

“That is news to me,” said I.

“Oh, the preparations are all made!” laughed Fritz. “I’ve seen to that.”

Sapt turned to me and said, in a sharp, decisive voice:

“You must make love to her tonight, you know.”

“I think it is very likely I shall, if I see her alone,” said I. “Hang it, Sapt, you don’t suppose I find it difficult?”

Fritz whistled a bar or two; then he said: “You’ll find it only too easy. Look here, I hate telling you this, but I must. The Countess Helga told me that the princess had become most attached to the King. Since the coronation, her feelings have undergone a marked development. It’s quite true that she is deeply wounded by the King’s apparent neglect.”

“Here’s a kettle of fish!” I groaned.

“Tut, tut!” said Sapt. “I suppose you’ve made pretty speeches to a girl before now? That’s all she wants.”

Fritz, himself a lover, understood better my distress. He laid his hand on my shoulder, but said nothing.

“I think, though,” pursued that cold-blooded old Sapt, “that you’d better make your offer tonight.”

  By PanEris using Melati.

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