The day was a warm one. My journey from London, via Paris and Dresden, had fatigued me more than I had imagined. The forest of Zenda was quiet, the silence broken only by the murmuring of lazy birds. The sun crept between the leaves of the trees, I had my back against a singularly comfortable tree trunk, and there were several hours before I must be in Strelsau. Small wonder if I dozed...
'Imbecile! A man doesn't grow a beard back overnight!'
I would have taken this curious exchange as a development of my dream, but for the sudden rude pressure in my ribs. Opening my eyes, I found that a young man of dark hair and insolent expression had placed his boot there.
I let out an angry exclamation, but, finding myself covered by a pistol, thought better of springing to my feet to avenge my pride in any physical manner.
'He's English,' said the other man, whom I deduced from his accent to be English himself.
'What's that to you? He makes a pretty present for the Duke. It will amuse him if nothing else.' And, to me, 'Stand up!'
I did not like his manner, but I had scant choice. 'I haven't the pleasure...' I ventured, as I rose to my feet.
'A thousand pardons.' Not one of them could have been sincere. 'Rupert Hentzau, at your service – though, now I come to think of it, you're rather at mine. And John Detchard, who believes that you may be a countryman of his. We serve his grace the Duke of Strelsau, and propose to take you to his presence now. If you're wise, you won't argue.'
Wisdom is not perhaps a virtue with which my friends would readily credit me – certainly it is not one with which my sister-in-law Rose would readily credit me – and at this moment I rather cursed my own lack of that particular quality. It was, for example, becoming clear that I would have been wise not to have crossed the frontier into Ruritania. None the less, I did not argue.
'Your name?' my captor demanded as we hurried towards the railway station. The Duke of Strelsau was, I gathered, in that city. The landlady of the inn where I had stayed last night had told me that the castle of Zenda and the estates through which we passed were his property.
'My name? Rassendyll. Rudolf Rassendyll.'
Rupert Hentzau laughed, and made an allusion to my heritage, which, while insulting, was not technically incorrect, and which I suppose I had better explain as swiftly and as delicately as possible. Hentzau was clearly familiar with the story, but my readers may not be.
In brief, then, Countess Amelia, wife of the fifth earl of Burlesdon, and my great-grandmother, was linked in popular rumour with Rudolf III of Ruritania, and the occasion of the birth of the sixth earl fell more closely than respectability would prefer it to the departure (from England) of that monarch and (from this life) of the fifth earl. And Hentzau was not the first to make the imputation that my own red hair, sharp nose, and blue eyes - indeed, my remarkable similarity to the current king of Ruritania - were a result of this royal connection.
'Strange coincidence,' he said, 'that brings you here just at the moment when the Duke has... well, you'll see.'
'Are you sure the Duke will be pleased to see him?' Detchard asked.
'If he isn't,' Hentzau said carelessly, 'he's entirely at liberty to send him packing.'
I did not much like the sound of that.
I gathered that this journey from Zenda to Strelsau had been organised in advance; indeed, they had come from the capital that same morning, and this was merely a flying visit, whose purposes I might, Hentzau said, hear later on, if I was lucky. A third man met us at the station; this, said Detchard, was the Count Albert von Lauengram, 'a sort of cousin of yours, and a king up the Duke's sleeve'.
I cannot say that Lauengram looked pleased at this, though whether it was the association with my good, but not royal, house, or Hentzau's flippant summary of his role in the game that annoyed him I can't tell. At any rate, these self-proclaimed friends of the Duke of Strelsau had enough cachet in the environs of Zenda to secure another first-class ticket at a moment's notice with no questions from the stationmaster.
We had, of course, a first-class compartment to ourselves, and as the train drew away from Zenda my captors began a conversation amongst themselves. After spending a substantial period of time on the continent, including three years at a German university, my grasp of the language is, I flatter myself, as good as a native speaker's, and I found no difficulty understanding the words they spoke. The substance of their exchange was less easy to follow.
'Gentlemen,' said Hentzau, 'don't you think that fate has dealt us an ace?'
'We've no need to play an ace,' Lauengram objected. 'We're safe enough if we only keep our opponent from playing the king.'
'And, in a few turns, play our own king,' Detchard commented with a suggestive leer.
Lauengram flushed. 'We may have been dealt a queen by then,' he said.
'Not a hope of it,' Detchard said. 'She won't have it.'
'She might,' Hentzau said, 'if his grace were only a little more persuasive – but then, she might not. But I say we should play our ace.'
Well aware that I was the ace in question, I wondered uncomfortably whether aces scored high or low in this game – and how one played them.
The men bickered in this fashion for some minutes. The original plan seemed at first to be favoured, and I thought that this ace must be discarded, probably by way of the carriage door (there was, I recalled from my Baedeker, a long viaduct just to the north of Strelsau, which we must surely be approaching). These men could hardly release me to prattle of what I had heard. My one hope, then, lay with the slippery Rupert Hentzau, who seemed to seek to spare my life for his own amusement. I did not trust him. I attempted stoicism, and rather wished that my German was not quite so good. The conversation boded no good to me.
At length, however, Hentzau seemed to sway his companions, and he turned to me.
'Well, my friend,' he said, 'you're reprieved, and I hope you're grateful.'
I did not quite trust myself to reply, but I managed a faint smile.