I Talk with a Tempter

Ruritania is not England, or the quarrel between Duke Michael and myself could not have gone on, with the extraordinary incidents which marked it, without more public notice being directed to it. Duels were frequent among all the upper classes, and private quarrels between great men kept the old habit of spreading to their friends and dependents. Nevertheless, after the affray which I have just related, such reports began to circulate that I felt it necessary to be on my guard. The death of the gentlemen involved could not be hidden from their relatives. I issued a stern order, declaring that duelling had attained unprecedented licence (the Chancellor drew up the document for me, and very well he did it), and forbidding it save in the gravest cases. I sent a public and stately apology to Michael, and he returned a deferential and courteous reply to me; for our one point of union was—and it underlay all our differences and induced an unwilling harmony between our actions—that we could neither of us afford to throw our cards on the table. He, as well as I, was a “play-actor’, and, hating one another, we combined to dupe public opinion. Unfortunately, however, the necessity for concealment involved the necessity of delay: the King might die in his prison, or even be spirited off somewhere else; it could not be helped. For a little while I was compelled to observe a truce, and my only consolation was that Flavia most warmly approved of my edict against duelling, and, when I expressed delight at having won her favour, prayed me, if her favour were any motive to me, to prohibit the practice altogether.

“Wait till we are married,” said I, smiling.

Not the least peculiar result of the truce and of the secrecy which dictated it was that the town of Zenda became in the day-time—I would not have trusted far to its protection by night—a sort of neutral zone, where both parties could safely go; and I, riding down one day with Flavia and Sapt, had an encounter with an acquaintance, which presented a ludicrous side, but was at the same time embarrassing. As I rode along, I met a dignified looking person driving in a two-horsed carriage. He stopped his horses, got out, and approached me, bowing low. I recognized the Head of the Strelsau Police.

“Your Majesty’s ordinance as to duelling is receiving our best attention,” he assured me.

If the best attention involved his presence in Zenda, I determined at once to dispense with it.

“Is that what brings you to Zenda, Prefect?” I asked.

“Why no, sire; I am here because I desired to oblige the British Ambassador.”

“What’s the British Ambassador doing dans cette galere?” said I, carelessly.

“A young countryman of his, sire—a man of some position—is missing. His friends have not heard from him for two months, and there is reason to believe that he was last seen in Zenda.”

Flavia was paying little attention. I dared not look at Sapt.

“What reason?”

“A friend of his in Paris—a certain M. Featherly—has given us information which makes it possible that he came here, and the officials of the railway recollect his name on some luggage.”

“What was his name?”

“Rassendyll, sire,” he answered; and I saw that the name meant nothing to him. But, glancing at Flavia, he lowered his voice, as he went on: “It is thought that he may have followed a lady here. Has your Majesty heard of a certain Madame de Mauban?”

“Why, yes,” said I, my eye involuntarily travelling towards the Castle.

“She arrived in Ruritania about the same time as this Rassendyll.”

  By PanEris using Melati.

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