Hunting a Very Big Boar

The terrible temptation which was assailing me will now be understood. I could so force Michael’s hand that he must kill the King. I was in a position to bid him defiance and tighten my grasp on the crown—not for its own sake, but because the King of Ruritania was to wed the Princess Flavia. What of Sapt and Fritz? Ah! but a man cannot be held to write down in cold blood the wild and black thoughts that storm his brain when an uncontrolled passion has battered a breach for them. Yet, unless he sets up as a saint, he need not hate himself for them. He is better employed, as it humbly seems to me, in giving thanks that power to resist was vouchsafed to him, than in fretting over wicked impulses which come unsought and extort an unwilling hospitality from the weakness of our nature.

It was a fine bright morning when I walked, unattended, to the princess’s house, carrying a nosegay in my hand. Policy made excuses for love, and every attention that I paid her, while it riveted my own chains, bound closer to me the people of the great city, who worshipped her. I found Fritz’s inamorata, the Countess Helga, gathering blooms in the garden for her mistress’s wear, and prevailed on her to take mine in their place. The girl was rosy with happiness, for Fritz, in his turn, had not wasted his evening, and no dark shadow hung over his wooing, save the hatred which the Duke of Strelsau was known to bear him.

“And that,” she said, with a mischievous smile, “your Majesty has made of no moment. Yes, I will take the flowers; shall I tell you, sire, what is the first thing the princess does with them?”

We were talking on a broad terrace that ran along the back of the house, and a window above our heads stood open.

“Madame!” cried the countess merrily, and Flavia herself looked out. I bared my head and bowed. She wore a white gown, and her hair was loosely gathered in a knot. She kissed her hand to me, crying:

“Bring the King up, Helga; I’ll give him some coffee.”

The countess, with a gay glance, led the way, and took me into Flavia’s morning-room. And, left alone, we greeted one another as lovers are wont. Then the princess laid two letters before me. One was from Black Michael—a most courteous request that she would honour him by spending a day at his Castle of Zenda, as had been her custom once a year in the summer, when the place and its gardens were in the height of their great beauty. I threw the letter down in disgust, and Flavia laughed at me. Then, growing grave again, she pointed to the other sheet.

“I don’t know who that comes from,” she said. “Read it.”

I knew in a moment. There was no signature at all this time, but the handwriting was the same as that which had told me of the snare in the summer-house: it was Antoinette de Mauban’s.

I have no cause to love you,” it ran, “but God forbid that you should fall into the power of the duke. Accept no invitations of his. Go nowhere without a large guard—a regiment is not too much to make you safe. Show this, if you can, to him who reigns in Strelsau.”

“Why doesn’t it say “the King”?” asked Flavia, leaning over my shoulder, so that the ripple of her hair played on my cheek. “Is it a hoax?”

“As you value life, and more than life, my queen,” I said, “obey it to the very letter. A regiment shall camp round your house today. See that you do not go out unless well guarded.”

“An order, sire?” she asked, a little rebellious.

“Yes, an order, madame—if you love me.”

“Ah!” she cried; and I could not but kiss her.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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