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.”

“You refuse?”

“Of course.”

“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.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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