The Prisoner of Zenda

(photo by Jim Marshall)

Ana and David Alexander Grant run a mountain pension in Southeast Europe. Life in the back of beyond is not without incident.  


Les and Delia arrived in the middle of a downpour without their luggage.

“Bit of a monsoon,” Les quipped.

“The isobars!” Delia remarked.

I apologised for our weather. “It was lovely yesterday.”

“Our luggage is still in Vienna,” Delia said. “They’ll send it on!”

“Tomorrow or the next day,” Les added. “So, we’ve just what we’re standing in!”

They both chuckled. I don’t believe we’ve ever had such engagingly upbeat guests. They appeared to view the loss of their luggage as nothing more than a colourful mishap.

Half an hour after they arrived they were ensconced in the lounge. I brought tea and biscuits. Without their things and confined to the hotel because of the weather, we wondered how they would amuse themselves. We needn’t have worried.

“I’ve never read this!” Les said, holding up a copy of The Prisoner of Zenda.

I didn’t know we had anything so venerable among the dog-eared paperbacks on the lounge bookshelf, an accumulation of books bequeathed by previous guests. There are bodice-ripping historical romances. (Some of these arrived with two botanists from Basel, neither of whom, in manner or apppearance, gave the slightest impression of literary or actual aspirations leaning towards the vigorous unfastening of bodices.) There are also a lot of romcoms, which is a bit surprising, since most of our clients are outdoorsy sorts whom I would imagine to be more in the market for first-hand accounts of skateboarding to the South Pole than tales of off-beat intimacy.

But that’s human nature for you.

“You’ve seen the film,” Delia said. Then, to me: “He loves the classics.”

“Ronald Colman,” I said, pleased that I remembered who starred in The Prisoner of Zenda.

“He looks a bit like Ronald Colman, don’t you think?” Delia looked at me and pointed at her husband.

“Do not!” her husband said.

“He does look a bit like Ronald Colman,” Ana said when I went back to the kitchen.

“And she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow,” I said, “A bit older . . . but with that statuesque sort of . . .”

I was going to say “beauty” but my wife’s expression suggested that waxing lyrical about the physical attributes of another woman might damage the fabric of marital harmony. My ruminations trailed away to that place where ruminations trail away to expire.

“How’s the book?” I asked Les at dinnertime.

“An absolute hoot!” he said. “Thrills and spills! The film doesn’t do justice to the printed word!”

“Mine’s not bad either,” Delia said. “This was on your shelf. I’ve never read it but I’ve always meant to!” She held up a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

I considered two things:

Someone had brought this undoubtedly original but very long analysis of globalization for holiday reading;


Delia, without her luggage and confined by the weather to a small mountain hotel, had chosen the Piketty ouevre as a source of diversion.

Again. Human nature. Who knew?

“Delia’s an economist,” Les said.

“He flatters me!” She looked at her husband indulgently. “I just teach economics.”

“She teaches economics,” I told Ana.


“Gwyneth Paltrow.”

Ana gave me that look. “You know what happpens in The Prisoner of Zenda, don’t you?”

“No. Actually.”

“Ronald Colman plays the king and he also plays the king’s cousin. They’re lookalikes.”

“I see,” I said, not really seeing.

“The king is a weak sort of character, gullible and flirtatious.”

My wife’s gaze was appraising, perhaps even critical. I felt the situation moving in a slightly ominous direction.

“His cousin is a perfect gentleman, brave and strong and faithful.”

I stuck out my chest. A character like me! “The gentleman prevails?” I suggested.

“Maybe you should ask Gwyneth,” Ana said a little tartly.

“No need,” I said, leaning forward to give my wife a tender peck on the cheek.

And just then, in our own little corner of Ruritania, the sun came out.