Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel
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"Some wine, Captain, some wine to cheer you up in this tiresome duty of guarding me!" cried Lepage, picking up a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. "Oh, but that wry-necked fellow has brought you a dirty glass! A moment, Captain! I'll wash it." And off he bounded – not even waiting to set down the bottle – into the little room beyond.
His brain was working hard now, marshalling his resources against his difficulties. The difficulties were thirty feet to fall, Sterkoff's sentries, the broad, swift current of the Krath – for even in normal times there was always a sentry on the bridge – then the search for Zerkovitch in Slavna. His resources were a mattress, a spare pair of sheets, and a phial half full of the draught which Dr. Natcheff had prescribed for the King.
"It's very unfortunate, but I've not the least notion how much would kill him," thought Lepage, as he poured the medicine – presumably a strong sedative – into the wine-glass and filled up with wine from the bottle Sterkoff had provided. He came back, holding the glass aloft with a satisfied air. "Now it's fit for a gentleman to drink out of," said he, as he set it down by Markart's hand. The Captain took it up and swallowed it at a draught.
"Ugh! Corked, I think! Beastly, anyhow!" said he.
"They poison us as well as shut us up!" cried Lepage in burlesque anger. "Try the other bottle, Captain!"
The other bottle was better, said Markart, and he drank pretty well the whole of it, Lepage standing by and watching him with keen interest. It was distressing not to know how much of the King's draught would kill; it had been necessary to err on the safe side – the side safe for Lepage, that is.
Captain Markart thought he would smoke his cigar in the little room, lying on the bed; he was tired and sleepy – very sleepy, there was no denying it. Lepage sat down and ate and drank; he found no fault with the wine in the first bottle. Then he went and looked at Markart. The Captain lay in his shirt, breeches, and boots. He was sound asleep and breathing heavily; his cigar had fallen on the sheet, but apparently had been out before it fell. Lepage regarded him with pursed lips, shrugged his shoulders, and slipped the Captain's revolver into his pocket. The Captain's recovery must be left to Fate.
For the next hour he worked at his pair of sheets, slicing, twisting, and splicing. In the end he found himself possessed of a fairly stout rope twelve or thirteen feet long, but he could find nothing solid to tie it to near the window, except the bed, and that was a yard away. He would still have a fall of some twenty feet, and the ground was hard with a spring frost. There would be need of the mattress. He put out all the lights in the room and cautiously raised the window.
The night was dark, he could not see the ground. He stood there ten minutes. Then he heard a measured tramp; a dark figure, just distinguishable, came round the corner of the Palace, walked past the window to the end of the building, turned, walked back, and disappeared.Hurriedly Lepage struck a match and took the time. Again he waited, again the figure came. Again he struck a light and took the time. He went through this process five times before he felt reasonably sure that he could rely on having ten minutes to himself if he started the moment Sterkoff's sentry had gone round the corner of the building.
He pulled the mattress up onto the sill of the window and waited. There was no sound now but of Markart's stertorous breathing. But presently the measured tramp below came, passed, turned, and passed away. Lepage gave a last tug at the fastenings of his rope, threw the end out of window, took the mattress, and dropped it very carefully as straight down as he could.
The next moment, in spite of Sterkoff, somebody had left the Palace. Why not? The runaway was aware that the King was not really suffering from influenza – he could spend an evening in Slavna without reproach!
"I wish I knew the safest way to fall!" thought Lepage, dangling at the end of his rope. It swayed about terribly; he waited awhile for it to steady itself – he feared to miss the mattress; but he could not wait long, or that measured tramp and that dark figure would come. There would be a sudden spurt of light, and a report – and what of Lepage then? He gathered his legs up behind his knees, took a long breath – and fell. As luck would have it, though he landed on the very edge of the mattress, yet he did land on it, and tumbled forward on his face, shaken, but with bones intact. There was a numb feeling above his knees – nothing worse than that.
He drew another long breath. Heavy bodies – and even mattresses – fall quickly; he must have seven or eight minutes yet!
But no! Heavy bodies, even mattresses, falling quickly, make a noise. Lepage, too, had come down with a thud, squashing hidden air out of the interstices of the mattress. The silence of night will give resonance to gentler sounds than that, which was as though a giant had squeezed his mighty sponge. Lepage, on his numb knees, listened. The steps came, not measured now, but running. The dark figure came running round the corner. What next? Next the challenge – then the spurt of light and the report! What of Lepage then? Nothing – so far as Lepage and the rest of humanity for certainty knew.
Of that nothing – actual or possible – Lepage did not approve. He hitched the mattress onto his back, bent himself nearly double, and, thus both burdened and protected, made for the river. He must have looked like a turtle scurrying to the sea, lest he should be turned over – and so left for soup in due season.
"Who goes there? Halt! Halt!"
The turtle scurried on; it was no moment to stop and discuss matters.
The spurt of light, the report! There was a hole in the mattress, but well above Lepage's head. Indeed, if hit at all, he was not most likely to be hit in the head; that vital portion of him was tucked away too carefully. He presented a broader aim; but the mattress masked him nobly.
There was another shot – the northwest corner of the mattress this time. But the mattress was on the river's edge. The next instant it was floating on the current of the Krath, and Sterkoff's sentry was indulging in some very pretty practice at it. He hit it every time, until the swift current carried it round the bend and out of sight.
The whole thing seemed strange and rather uncanny to the sentry. He grounded his rifle and wiped his brow. It had looked like a carpet taking a walk on its own account – and then a swim! Superior officers might be accustomed to such strange phenomena. The sentry was not. He set off at a round pace to the guard-room; he did not even stay to notice the white rope which dangled in the air from a first-floor window. Had he stopped, he would have heard Markart's invincible, drug-laden snoring.
Lepage had separated himself from his good friend and ally, the mattress, and dived under water while the sentry blazed away. He welcomed the current which bore him rapidly from the dangerous neighborhood of the Palace. He came to the surface fifty feet down stream and made for the other side. He could manage no more than a very slanting course, but he was a strong swimmer, lightly dressed, with an in-door man's light kid shoes. He felt no distress; rather a vivid, almost gleeful, excitement came upon him as he battled with the strong, cold stream. He began to plume himself on the mattress. Only a Frenchman would have thought of that! A Slavna man would have ran away with unguarded flanks. A Volsenian would have stayed to kill the sentry, and be shot down by Sterkoff's guard. Only a Frenchman would have thought of the mattress!
He made land a quarter of a mile below the Palace. Ah, it was colder on the road there than struggling with the cold water! But his spirit was not quenched. He laughed again – a trifle hysterically, perhaps. In spite of Sterkoff he was spending the evening out! He set his feet for Slavna – briskly, too! Nay, he ran, for warmth's sake, and because of what the sentry might even now be reporting to Sterkoff, and, through him, to General Stenovics. The thought brought him to a stand-still again; there might be a cordon of sentries across the road! After a moment's hesitation he broke away from the main road, struck due south, and so ran when he could, walked when he must, two miles.
He was getting terribly tired now, but not cold – rather he was feverishly hot inside his clammy garments. He turned along a country cross-road which ran west, and passed through a village, leaving the H?tel de Paris on the main road far to his right. At last he reached the main road south and turned up it, heading again for Slavna and for the bridge which crossed the South River. He passed the bridge without being challenged as the Cathedral clock struck midnight from St. Michael's Square. The worst of his task was accomplished. If now he could find Zerkovitch!
But he was sore spent; running was out of the question now; he slunk slowly and painfully along the south boulevard, clinging close to the fences of the gardens, seeking the shelter of the trees which overhung them.
Draggled, hatless, dirty, infinitely weary, at last he reached Zerkovitch's house at the corner where the boulevard and the Street of the Fountain meet. He opened the garden gate and walked in. Spent as he was, he breathed a "Bravo!" when he saw a light burning in the hall. He staggered on, rang the bell, and fairly fell in a lump outside the door.
He had done well; he, a man of peace, busy with clothes – he had done well that night! But he was finished. When Zerkovitch opened the door, he found little more than a heap of dank and dirty raiment; he hauled it in and shut the door. He supported Lepage into the study, sat him down by the fire, and got brandy for him to drink, pouring out full half a tumbler. Lepage took it and drank the better part of it at a gulp.
"The King died at five o'clock, Monsieur Zerkovitch," he said. He drank the rest, let the tumbler fall with a crash in the fender, buried his head on his breast, and fell into blank unconsciousness.
He was out of the battle – as much as Markart, who slept the clock round in spite of Stenovics's shakings and Dr. Natcheff's rubbings and stimulants. But he had done his part. It was for Zerkovitch to do his now.
The King had died at five o'clock? It was certainly odd, that story, because Zerkovitch had just returned from the offices of The Patriot; and, immediately before he left, he had sent down to the foreman-printer an official communiqu?, to be inserted in his paper. It was to the effect that Captain Mistitch and a guard of honor of fifty men would leave Slavna next morning at seven o'clock for Dobrava, to be in readiness to receive the King, who had made magnificent progress, and was about to proceed to his country seat to complete his convalescence.
Captain Mistitch and a guard of honor for Dobrava! Zerkovitch decided that he would, if possible, ride ahead of them to Dobrava – that is, part of the way. But first he called his old housekeeper and told her to put Lepage to bed.
"Don't worry about anything he says. He's raving," he added thoughtfully.
But poor Lepage raved no more that night. He did not speak again till all was over. He had done his part.
At five o'clock in the morning, Zerkovitch left Slavna, hidden under a sack in a carrier's cart. He obtained a horse at a high price from a farmer three miles along the road, and thence set out for the Castle at his best speed. At six, Captain Mistitch, charged with Stafnitz's careful instructions, set out with his guard of honor along the same road – going to Dobrava to await the arrival of the King, who lay dead in the Palace on the Krath!
But since they started at six, and not at seven, as the official communiqu? led Zerkovitch to suppose, he had an hour less to spare than he thought. Moreover, they went not fifty strong, but one hundred.
These two changes – of the hour and the force – were made as soon as Stenovics and Stafnitz learned of Lepage's escape. A large force and a midnight march would have aroused suspicion in Slavna. The General did what he could safely do to meet the danger which the escape suggested – the danger that news of the King's death might be carried to Praslok before Mistitch and his escort got there.