I don't know what prompted me to return to Paris in the winter of 18--, except that after my exploits in Ruritania I had fallen into wearisome habits. I thought of little else, and had no conversation as a result – or so my little sister-in-law complained of me – for I could not speak of a place where, as my friends supposed, I had never set foot, lest I betray some undue knowledge of her mountains and her forests, and, worst of all, her cities. Round and round my thoughts ran, from Zenda to Cousin Rudolf to the Princess Flavia to Sapt sucking on the points of his moustache, to Fritz and his pretty wife and thence to Flavia again. Her wedding had followed hard on the heels of mine inglorious arrival home and the photographic spread in the Daily Express had had my lady Burlesdon cooing for hours.
"It says her train was encrusted with ten thousand pearls," she informed me, poring over the glossy print. "Eighteen flower girls and oh! Petals from hundreds and hundreds of white roses were thrown underfoot as she floated down the aisle like an angel from heaven."
"Where else would an angel come from?" I asked, which annoyed Rose quite nearly as much as my indolence and melancholy airs. But when she had gone her length, she retired with all the honours of our fencing, and left me alone with the paper. Poor reproduction as it might be, it was the first time I had seen Flavia's face since the day after the battle at Zenda.
It was the winter of 18— that she was crowned queen at Strelsau, and, truth be told, I could not well bear the endless prognostications of rain or disaster, the lengthy articles explaining Ruritanian royal protocol, why this thing or another happened, and the smug proclamations of the Queen's everlasting happiness in the blinding light of the King's passionate love (the Daily Express waxing lyrical again). If I could have looked on it with the calmness and felicity of a mere acquaintance – but there, I am not merely acquainted, and no one in possession of the knowledge would expect it of me.
The Channel crossing was unpleasantly choppy, and many of my fellow passengers fled below to the privacy of their cabins, where they could be ill in peace. I hope I am a competent seaman; enough that I stayed in the bar without fear of embarrassment and consoled myself for my lack of company with a dram or two of whisky. If only I had been left to my own devices, I might have whiled away the hours thinking of sensible reasons not to have read my brother's latest monograph – this time a defence of parliamentary process, and a thoughtful analysis of the protocol involved in the introduction of a Private Members' Bill (so he tells me) – or, at the last gasp, to unearth my copy from the depths of my luggage and make trivial annotations.
However, as my luck would have it, George Featherly had made his annual pilgrimage back to his ancestral homeland – with her inferior wines, her haughty women and his aunts, it was more of a purgatory for him than a pilgrimage, in fact, poor George! – and was celebrating his return to Paris in an expansive mood. "Rudolf, old boy!" he said, upon spotting me (this was a good hour into my solitude). "Come and have a drink!"
I am many things, but not the fellow to refuse a friendly countenance; at least not without an immediately obvious reason, which I could not produce. With a motion to the hopeful waiter, George gifted me half a bottle of what I'd been drinking and told me to take my medicine. "You can't disappear for months on end and then turn up with a face like a wet weekend," he explained forcefully. "If you didn't have the decency to be in some dire trouble, you might spare a thought for your friends and make up a lusty story to tell about it."
"How do you know I wasn't?" I asked, accepting the glass he pushed over to me.
"Because, my dear chap, I was the one who ransacked half of Europe looking for you," said George equably. That is George's great sin – too thorough by half. "Thank God you hadn't wandered past Austria, that's all I can say. Stoneleigh has the Russian embassy and you'll never meet a worse bore – always jawing on about Afghanistan and the grandson of Dost Mohammed. Still, I'd have written to him." His eye, when it rested on me, seemed to have the twinkle of a triumphant Bo-Peep. "If only I'd known there was a lady in the case, of course – "
"Enough about that," I said in some exasperation, and George laughed.
"There, there. Was it Antoinette Mauban after all, then, or was I barking up the wrong tree?"
"De Mauban," I said, for it seemed a pity that she should be deprived of the article as well as everything else. "But no, it was – another lady."
"Aha!" said George, unbelieving. "And I daresay you'll refuse to bandy her name in public and remove all identifying features from your story to salve your pride."
"To salve my pride?" I asked in some surprise.
George so loves to have the news before everyone else. If something appears in the newspaper that he didn't already know, he sulks for days. Nothing else I could have said or done would have brought me so high in his favour. "You haven't heard?" he asked theatrically. "The lady is to be married at last. Her hopes of the Duke dashed on the ground – quite literally, I've been told – she has settled for a respectable, if I may use the word, poet – if I may use that word."
He went on in this vein for some time, taking satisfaction in my discomfiture, and so we passed the evening: he cruelly doubting the lady's motives and I troubled and marvelling. But after all, what could be more natural? Passion had proven a chancy bedfellow, whereas Bertram was a steady soul for a poet.
I was disgorged from the loving embrace of the P&O early the next morning, and found myself in a fortunate, if lonely, position. Through a little adroitness and address, I was able to swing on to the first Paris train of the day ahead of even the most dedicated civil service mandarin, which George is not. But I resolved to call upon Bertram, and, more importantly, the future Madame Bertrand, as soon as I had settled in at the Continental. That my appearance might startle her, I was prepared for; that it might grieve and agitate her, I could not be. It was best, I judged, to get it over with quickly and privately, as a kind of vaccination. It would be impossible for me to remain in Paris and be without her company; we moved in the same circles and, moreover, should I be seen to shun the acquaintance, it would only fuel the forest fires of George's imagination. Worse still, like all diplomats he gossiped like an old woman quilting. Dear God, spare me that at least!
That it might prove no simple matter to see Madame de Mauban alone occurred to me. She was in a delicate position: on the one hand, she had been the rumoured paramour of a duke, albeit a royal one; on the other, she was in the business of contracting a marriage and it would be as well for her if no aspersions were cast on her virtue. Probably she would restrict her male acquaintance to other people's parties; probably, too, she would be cautious about her callers. But I must see her, and in circumstances where she might betray herself in safety.
Bertram, however, was easy enough to get hold of; in the year since we met he had signally failed to change his habits, and I wondered if he intended to put it off until after the wedding. He seemed rather dazed by his good fortune in winning the hand of the fair madame; he regarded the golden pavements of Paris with a bemused eye and ventured haphazard additions to my conversation. I had only felicitated him once and for a little time, when he said: "I can't stay long. I must see Antoinette."
"Certainly," I said, pardoning the anxious lover, but not without a pang.
"It's just that – " he checked himself sharply and looked at me with a wild surmise. "I don't suppose you – " He hesitated again.
"My dear fellow," I said, "what on earth are you supposing? Tell me, and I'll prove myself to your satisfaction."
"Very well," said Bertram, thrusting his fingers into his artfully disordered locks. "Hang it if I don't know you better than that! In your travels, Rudolf, did you ever come across a man – I don't say gentleman – by the name of Rupert Hentzau?"
Faced with such a direct assault, I might have lost my nerve – that is, for a moment I was dumbfounded, and then I heard my voice saying, quite naturally and with a shrug, "I fell foul of him once; I shan't make that mistake again. Why, have you?"
"When was that?" said Bertram, his brow furrowing. "He wasn't out of Ruritania for a full two years before the affair at Zenda; George made sure of it for me. He couldn't have known Antoinette long at all."
"My travels and his exile overlapped by nearly a fortnight," I said, "and if you think that couldn't have been long enough to make the Tyrol too hot to hold him – !"
"He presumes too much on his acquaintance with her," said Bertram, the lines of his forehead deepening into a scowl. "And she – I never know what she thinks."
"Women are regular sphinxes in any case," I said soothingly. "Likely she doesn't know how to get rid of him civilly, and she can't heave him ho."
"Do you think so?" But Bertram seemed to sink further into despair. "If you know him, though, you know he's a damned plausible fellow, for all that he's a scoundrel. Women are regular fools, too, and the worst of it is that they usually keep it close until it's too late."
I opened my mouth to reply to this, but then I had the glimmer of a notion, and I wisely shut it again until it had worked itself out.
Bertram went on, "My God, one only has to think of Black Michael! It's intolerable. Some women are easy prey for blackguards, Rudolf, and Antoinette is one of them. I forgave her the duke, but once was enough!"
I wondered with some amusement if Madame de Mauban had in turn forgiven Bertram his indiscretion with one of the Opera Garnier's prettiest little ballet dancers, and the near penury he had reduced himself to in the event, but I said nothing, for at that moment the idea presented itself fully-formed. "Do you think – " I began, but broke off, shaking my head. "No, a stupid idea."
"What?" said Bertram, his interest immediately piqued.
"Well, I was only considering whether I might help, if I could tell her about – what happened in the Tyrol."
"Really?" said Bertram, brightening for the first time since I'd seen him that day.
"It's confoundedly difficult, is the thing," I said, sighing. "I don't much care for the thought of breaking a confidence – breaking several, actually – when it might not even take."
"Nonsense," said Bertram straightaway. "I admire you for it, Rudolf, don't think I don't! But there's too much at stake here, you know – and for a woman, Antoinette's no gossip. She'd never breathe a word. Why," and this last came bitterly, "she barely tells me a thing about Black Michael, and the man was a brute to her."
"Perhaps she means to put the whole matter behind her," I said. "Surely – "
"Then why does she let Rupert of Hentzau hang around her?" demanded Bertram, and, feeling uncommonly helpless and as if I'd paid for his compliments in false coin, I bought him several drinks.
It was darkening into twilight by the time we wended our way to the little house in Rue Saint-Marie, but, as Bertram assured me several times too often for comfort, Antoinette was sure to have no engagements, because she had promised to dine with him. She had rewarded his shaky trust, as it happened, and we were ushered into her drawing room by a soft-voiced parlour maid, who went up to inform her mistress of her guests.
"Ah, Madame de Mauban," said Bertram as she entered, a little to my surprise. I hadn't expected to find him so formal with his beloved lady. But then, these matters are idiosyncratic. "May I present to you – "
Antoinette saw me and froze in her step. A look of something very like terror crossed her face, which I could not understand, and she stood like one waiting for the death blow to fall.
"I know Mr Rassendyll," she said, her face very white beneath the discreet powder. I tensed, but In the soft lamplight I saw the small hand clenching her handkerchief, those ivory knuckles, and the set reservation of her jaw, and it stirred me to pity when half a thought before I could have cursed her. Bertram was looking between us with a sudden suspicion, all of George's intemperate fancies returning to him at once and jockeying for a blue rosette. I opened my mouth to come up with some plausible tale, when she said, very simply: "Mr Featherly introduced us once, I believe."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance again," I said, bending over her hand for not an instant longer than was proper.
"I wanted him to speak to you," said Bertram with a kind of desperate frankness. Antoinette turned her gaze to him, wondering. "About – well, he's travelled much and had a large acquaintance – "
"Some of whom I believe we have in common," I said, bowing again.
"Oh," said Antoinette. She passed the handkerchief from her right to her left hand, and then back again, hardly seeming to notice it. "Yes, I believe we do, sir."
"I shall leave you two to discuss them in peace," said Bertram, with a valiant effort at gallantry. "My dear madame, may I bury myself in your library until dinner?"
"Of course you must," she said – really the only thing she could say – and he departed, shutting the door behind him.
I said immediately: "I do not come to grieve you, Madame. It was merely that I thought it better that we spoke privately before we met publicly. I didn't know you were in Paris this winter – though, in retrospect," I added, "a little forethought must have told me."
"You, in Paris? Oh, no!" she said, subsiding ungracefully into a chair. Her eyes closed, as if to shut me out. "Nothing now could be more distressing. They will seize upon the resemblance at a moment, and the on-dit will be that I am the worst kind of horse-trader."
"I don't quite see the connection," I said.
"Don't you? One of the stories coming out of Zenda was that I had tried to seduce the King and failed, or succeeded, and either way so maddened one brother against the other that – " She raised her hand as if to brush away dirt. "Then, of course, my name was coupled with yours half a dozen times and – my God! I can't stand it!" And she plunged her head into her hands.
"I take your meaning," I said ruefully. "We'd best get our stories straight if we have any hope of retaining our reputations."
"Rupert is here," said Antoinette, quite as if that settled the matter, in a tone of deadened despair.
"Yes, I know," I said. "Monsieur Bertrand mentioned him."
"Ah, so that is why you are here," she said. "I wasn't sure."
I said, bowing, "Forgive my deception of your fiancé, Madame. It was in a good cause." She brushed this away, too, with a countenance so full of hopelessness that I could not stand by, but drew nearer to her and knelt by her side.
"I have deceived him, too," she said, with what might have been a shrug of the shoulders had she not borne such tremendous weight.
"What is Rupert's business in Paris?" I asked. "Blackmail?"
"What would be the use?" There was such weariness in her face and voice that my heart smote me. "All of Paris knows I loved Michael now, and there are no letters for him to publish, that I might face fresh humiliation. In any case, I was never in the best society."
This was true, but I pursued my questioning further. "Can you tell me anything of his object?"
"Ah, no!" she said, and hid her face. I sat back on my heels, shocked most, oddly enough, by the sheer effrontery of a man who would seek to seduce where he had slain. Had Rupert of Hentzau been before me once more, I would not have stayed my hand this time.
"What has he said to you?"
Antoinette lifted her shoulders again. She was silent for a long time – these things are difficult for women (and men, I think) to say. "What else would you expect of Rupert?" she asked me. "A carte blanche, if you will, and to forgive and forget all that has passed. I can hardly avoid him. I would have to explain – "
She stopped, and let out a long sigh.
"What of your friends?" I asked. "Couldn't they help?"
"What friends?" She dropped her eyes to the carpet. "I have no friends, monsieur. Those who might have helped me in my extremity cast me aside when I followed Michael to Zenda, and those who would not – are not my friends."
"Bertram – "
"One, perhaps," she allowed. "But I told you I have deceived him. He knows nothing of what happened at Zenda, nothing of Michael or – or anything else."
"Maybe if you made a clean breast of it," I said, but she was already shaking her head and I knew in my heart of hearts that Bertram would not understand, even if she elided my part in the affair.
"He is not – " and here she hesitated. "He is a very good man. But – "
"What draws you to him?" I asked boldly.
"I have only a little money left," said Antoinette. "My annuity dwindles more with every year."
If money were all, I know, she would have accepted Rupert's offer; or, if that proved too repugnant (and Antoinette de Mauban might be the one woman in the world who found him so), tackled a finer-plumed bird than Bertram Bertrand. So I remained silent, unwilling to contradict a lady even when she expressed such an opinion, and eventually she said:
"Don't you understand? It's safer this way…"
I thought of the women in my acquaintance whom I might have married: bright, kind-hearted angels all, and not one of them Flavia. Any of them might have provided me with a happy home, with a settled life and the odd redheaded child. Then I would never dread nor desire a telegram from Strelsau. They would never blot out Flavia's memory, of course, but she would become a dream to be folded within the pages of an old beloved book, to be recalled on pleasantly melancholy evenings.
But through Flavia I had cut myself to the quick – touched something that was beyond the most beautiful words in the whole, extensive English language – found a mirror that revealed to me the shape of my soul. Knowing that, to marry another…
Well, it was daunting, after all.
"He doesn't need to blackmail you," I said slowly. I had thought I might say, "You blackmail yourself", but it was too cruel to say to a woman so clearly exhausted. "You know he could, for all that you teeter on the brink of ruin anyway, because you wouldn't bear the brunt of his revelations. Do you still…"
"I still protect the King, if that's what you mean," she finished. Looking a little defiant, she added: "And why not, after all? He has been my ally."
"And your friend, Madame," I said. "For life, and, God willing, beyond that!"
For the tangles and contradictions of Antoinette de Mauban's life had suddenly become clear to me, even as she raised her head and set her shoulders. Her marriage would buy her security from Rupert – at least for a time – and security from want and security from passion, too, when it came down to it, for there is a certain type of nature which feels emotions deeply and finds numbness a blessed relief rather than a horror. But Rupert spun stickier webs than that; he combined threat and saviour in his person – if Antoinette capitulated, he would treat her well for the weeks or months it took for him to ruin her; if she did not, it would take him all of a day, for one of the many people who had succumbed to Rupert of Hentzau's charm was the wife of France's wealthiest newspaper proprietor.
"When must you decide?" I asked.
"Until Hentzau returns from Monte Carlo," said Antoinette.
"When is that?"
"When he has lost a fortune at baccarat, and at the roulette table, and at dice," said Antoinette. "Perhaps a fortnight."
"Plenty of time, then," I said, standing up and brushing off my knees.
"For what, monsieur?"
She looked at me then with a face so full of misery that my throat closed in sympathy. My God! To have not one friend and confidant is only to exist, not to live. The prisoner in the windowless cell is not half so wretched if he can tap on the wall between him and his fellow.
For I recognised her face, you see. I had seen it once before after I returned to England, when I was nearly consumed by despondency. I say nearly! It was very nearly; sometimes still my old enemy dogs me at the heels. But I had one bright shining light: one day, I might – nay, must – return to Ruritania, for one more great task, and then I must not be found wanting.
But in Antoinette de Mauban, grieving and sick at heart, with no hope on the horizon, despair had grown like a cancer, clutching at her mind. It had sapped her energy and will – the energy and will of a woman who had once risked everything, life and soul, to save a kingdom.
Even as this came to me, a little colour came back into her face.
"You think I can escape him," she said. "Take ship for London and – go where? Where is there that he could not find me?"
She frowned a little. It occurred to me that she knew Rupert rather better than I did – and I think I have the measure of him fairly closely – and I held my tongue.
I will not mislead you: dinner was an awkward affair. Antoinette was deep in thought and her replies were mechanical; Bertram watched her like a hawk and couldn't come up with decent conversation to save his life; I – well, I was running my mind's eye over my atlas and trying to remember the names of transatlantic steamers.
Bertram rose from the table first, declining port, and striding into the hall to reclaim his hat and coat. Antoinette glanced at me for the first time since we'd sat down to eat.
"Very well," she said. "Rupert will assuredly follow me wherever I go in Europe, he has made that much obvious. But where else can I afford to go?"
"You forget, I am the King of Ruritania," I said, and her face softened a little. "Ruritania owes you much, I think, and, besides, they must keep the secret, too. But if they won't frank you – why, I will."
"It seems alien to think of money as no object," she said. "It has been so long – but if I can truly go wherever I wish – I have always wanted to travel."
"If I may offer advice," I said, "and I suppose I may offer it, at least – go somewhere with clean air, Madame. Somewhere unpolluted by – "
"Yes," she said. She lightened before me, as if shedding an ounce of her burdens. "Somewhere that none of us has ever been…"
She curtsied to us as we left. It was well into the evening by then, and I was willing to curse our lack of foresight in coming here on foot. Paris can be bitingly cold and – as is the way of these things – not a hack was to be seen. Bertram stamped his feet along the pavement as we went, and it came to me suddenly that he was angry with me.
Well he might be, but he didn't know that. I contemplated this, and the guilt curdled in my stomach. Bertram had long nurtured a passion for Antoinette de Mauban and he was so near to his heart's desire…I am a lover myself, and I cannot brook the idea of being kept apart from her.
"What is it, Bert?" I asked in the end.
Bertram kicked at a dirty lump of snow which hadn't yet had the decency to melt, and declined to respond. I sighed.
"I apologise – I'd forgotten I'd actually met Madame de Mauban before. You know how George is – all those flying introductions. A face is there one moment and gone the next."
"For such a short meeting, she certainly remembered you," said Bertram bitterly.
It came on me in a flash that he was jealous of the long conversation I'd had with his lady love and – you know, I feel that I should have laughed. It was a ridiculous accusation, and there was nothing to say to it. I don't know why annoyance won the day – perhaps it was my guilt.
"For God's sake, Bert!" I exclaimed. Bertram's head snapped around at my peremptory tone. "It was my colour! Don't you know the King of Ruritania when you see him?"
Bertram has a perfect face for goggling. I don't know what it is, but he's a caricaturist's dream. His eyes bulged wide, and he stared at me so fixedly that I began to think I had underestimated him. But then he said:
"My God! So that's it! Was it true, then, that Black Michael was never her object?"
This query irritated me so much that I was driven to reply, "No!" Belatedly I was recalled to myself, and I added: "Anyway, how would I know?"
"I don't know," said Bertram, narrowing his eyes at me, "but I can't but suspect that you do."
"You're imagining things," I said loftily, and deserted him at the corner to find my way to the shipping offices of Paris. Rupert had friends in the city, Antoinette said, and so it fell to me to book her passage.
I arranged it satisfactorily, and it was a very short time – some two days, which I know now were spent in a fever of anxiety as to Rupert of Hentzau's precipitate return – before I met Antoinette de Mauban once again, this time at the bottom of the gangway leading up to the Fotheringhay Castle.
I fancy that as she walked towards me that her step was lighter than I had ever seen it; certainly, some of the strain around her eyes and mouth had loosened. It was still there – perhaps it would never go away, for such are the burdens of the night watches – but she stood straighter, with that kind of steely determination I had witnessed in her before.
She took a deep breath.
"Even now, I fear he is watching me," she said.
"It doesn't matter," I told her with all the confidence I could muster in my voice. "If anyone tries to prevent you – " and I drew aside my coat to show her my revolver.
"Sometimes guns throw wide," she said.
"Not mine," I assured her.
She nodded, and cast one last look at the roofs and steeples of Paris. She didn't seem regretful; perhaps there had been too much trouble here for it to be called home.
"Thank you, monsieur," she said. Her mouth twisted for a moment, dissatisfied. "It was a simple answer, wasn't it? I should have thought of it."
"I don't think it's like that," I said slowly. I'd spent some time the previous night mulling it over. "I wonder if it's more to do with that old canard – a trouble shared and all that. You saw your own way clear enough once you knew it was there. Remembering it was the hard part."
"Ah," said Antoinette de Mauban. "Friendship!"
She smiled at me. I had never seen her smile before, and it transformed her face into something exquisitely happy.
"It will be difficult, I think, but to have only one friend has helped beyond measure. I will find two, if I can."
"Write, if you can!" I urged her.
She gave my hands one last squeeze and turned away to walk purposefully up the gangplank. At the top, she paused and called:
"I obey, my ally, my friend, my king!"
I don't often blush, but when I do it is always a sight to be seen.
To conclude this tale, I stayed in Paris a full month to see Rupert of Hentzau's face when he found his bird had flown. I conceived wild plans to expose him, to run him out of Paris that my friend might return to her city, to kill him in a duel that somehow I might get away with. But Fate took a hand here, and Rupert heard the news of Antoinette de Mauban's disappearance in Monte Carlo. I have it on good authority that he went rather white around the lips, and that night drank more than was his wont (which is to say a great deal), lost twenty thousand pounds at the roulette table and won it back at baccarat, ruining his bosom companion Bourdaloue. Bourdaloue hanged himself. Rupert got even drunker, and was carried on board his passage to Rome cursing Antoinette – and occasionally the name of yours truly dropped from his lips. For my part, I swore – more discreetly – that the next time we met I would kill him: for my own sake, for that of Ruritania, and for Antoinette de Mauban.