RUPERT OF HENTZAU
FROM THE MEMOIRS OF FRITZ VON TARLENHEIM
Sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda
By Anthony Hope
I. THE QUEEN'S GOOD-BY II. A STATION WITHOUT A CAB III. AGAIN TO ZENDA IV. AN EDDY ON THE MOAT V. AN AUDIENCE OF THE KING VI. THE TASK OF THE QUEEN'S SERVANTS VII. THE MESSAGE OF SIMON THE HUNTSMAN VIII. THE TEMPER OF BORIS THE HOUND IX. THE KING IN THE HUNTING-LODGE X. THE KING IN STRELSAU XI. WHAT THE CHANCELLOR'S WIFE SAW XII. BEFORE THEM ALL! XIII. A KING UP HIS SLEEVE XIV. THE NEWS COMES TO STRELSAU XV. A PASTIME FOR COLONEL SAPT XVI. A CROWD IN THE KONIGSTRASSE XVII. YOUNG RUPERT AND THE PLAY-ACTOR XVIII. THE TRIUMPH OF THE KING XIX. FOR OUR LOVE AND HER HONOR XX. THE DECISION OF HEAVEN XXI. THE COMING OF THE DREAM
CHAPTER I. THE QUEEN'S GOOD-BY
A man who has lived in the world, marking how every act, although in itself perhaps light and insignificant, may become the source of consequences that spread far and wide, and flow for years or centuries, could scarcely feel secure in reckoning that with the death of the Duke of Strelsau and the restoration of King Rudolf to liberty and his throne, there would end, for good and all, the troubles born of Black Michael's daring conspiracy. The stakes had been high, the struggle keen; the edge of passion had been sharpened, and the seeds of enmity sown. Yet Michael, having struck for the crown, had paid for the blow with his life: should there not then be an end? Michael was dead, the Princess her cousin's wife, the story in safe keeping, and Mr. Rassendyll's face seen no more in Ruritania. Should there not then be an end? So said I to my friend the Constable of Zenda, as we talked by the bedside of Marshal Strakencz. The old man, already nearing the death that soon after robbed us of his aid and counsel, bowed his head in assent: in the aged and ailing the love of peace breeds hope of it. But Colonel Sapt tugged at his gray moustache, and twisted his black cigar in his mouth, saying, "You're very sanguine, friend Fritz. But is Rupert of Hentzau dead? I had not heard it."
Well said, and like old Sapt! Yet the man is little without the opportunity, and Rupert by himself could hardly have troubled our repose. Hampered by his own guilt, he dared not set his foot in the kingdom from which by rare good luck he had escaped, but wandered to and fro over Europe, making a living by his wits, and, as some said, adding to his resources by gallantries for which he did not refuse substantial recompense. But he kept himself constantly before our eyes, and never ceased to contrive how he might gain permission to return and enjoy the estates to which his uncle's death had entitled him. The chief agent through whom he had the effrontery to approach the king was his relative, the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim, a young man of high rank and great wealth who was devoted to Rupert. The count fulfilled his mission well: acknowledging Rupert's heavy offences, he put forward in his behalf the pleas of youth and of the predominant influence which Duke Michael had exercised over his adherent, and promised, in words so significant as to betray Rupert's own dictation, a future fidelity no less discreet than hearty. "Give me my price and I'll hold my tongue," seemed to come in Rupert's off-hand accents through his cousin's deferential lips. As may be supposed, however, the king and those who advised him in the matter, knowing too well the manner of man the Count of Hentzau was, were not inclined to give ear to his ambassador's prayer. We kept firm hold on Master Rupert's revenues, and as good watch as we could on his movements; for we were most firmly determined that he should never return to Ruritania. Perhaps we might have obtained his extradition and hanged him on the score of his crimes; but in these days every rogue who deserves no better than to be strung up to the nearest tree must have what they call a fair trial; and we feared that, if Rupert were handed over to our police and arraigned before the courts at Strelsau, the secret which we guarded so sedulously would become the gossip of all the city, ay, and of all Europe. So Rupert went unpunished except by banishment and the impounding of his rents.
Yet Sapt was in the right about him. Helpless as he seemed, he did not for an instant abandon the contest. He lived in the faith that his chance would come, and from day to day was ready for its coming. He schemed against us as we schemed to protect ourselves from him; if we watched him, he kept his eye on us. His ascendency over Luzau-Rischenheim grew markedly greater after a visit which his cousin paid to him in Paris. From this time the young count began to supply him with resources. Thus armed, he gathered instruments round him and organized a system of espionage that carried to his ears all our actions and the whole position of affairs at court. He knew, far more accurately than anyone else outside the royal circle, the measures taken for the government of the kingdom and the considerations that dictated the royal policy. More than this, he possessed himself of every detail concerning the king's health, although the utmost reticence was observed on this subject. Had his discoveries stopped there, they would have been vexatious and disquieting, but perhaps of little serious harm. They went further. Set on the track by his acquaintance with what had passed during Mr. Rassendyll's tenure of the throne, he penetrated the secret which had been kept successfully from the king himself. In the knowledge of it he found the opportunity for which he had waited; in its bold use he discerned his chance. I cannot say whether he were influenced more strongly by his desire to reestablish his position in the kingdom or by the grudge he bore against Mr. Rassendyll. He loved power and money; dearly he loved revenge also. No doubt both motives worked together, and he was rejoiced to find that the weapon put into his hand had a double edge; with one he hoped to cut his own path clear; with the other, to wound the man he hated through the woman whom that man loved. In fine, the Count of Hentzau, shrewdly discerning the feeling that existed between the queen and Rudolf Rassendyll, set his spies to work, and was rewarded by discovering the object of my yearly meetings with Mr. Rassendyll. At least he conjectured the nature of my errand; this was enough for him. Head and hand were soon busy in turning the knowledge to account; scruples of the heart never stood in Rupert's way.
The marriage which had set all Ruritania on fire with joy and formed in the people's eyes the visible triumph over Black Michael and his fellow-conspirators was now three years old. For three years the Princess Flavia had been queen. I am come by now to the age when a man should look out on life with an eye undimmed by the mists of passion. My love-making days are over; yet there is nothing for which I am more thankful to Almighty God than the gift of my wife's love. In storm it has been my anchor, and in clear skies my star. But we common folk are free to follow our hearts; am I an old fool for saying that he is a fool who follows anything else? Our liberty is not for princes. We need wait for no future world to balance the luck of men; even here there is an equipoise. From the highly placed a price is exacted for their state, their wealth, and their honors, as heavy as these are great; to the poor, what is to us mean and of no sweetness may appear decked in the robes of pleasure and delight. Well, if it were not so, who could sleep at nights? The burden laid on Queen Flavia I knew, and know, so well as a man can know it. I think it needs a woman to know it fully; for even now my wife's eyes fill with tears when we speak of it. Yet she bore it, and if she failed in anything, I wonder that it was in so little. For it was not only that she had never loved the king and had loved another with all her heart. The king's health, shattered by the horror and rigors of his imprisonment in the castle of Zenda, soon broke utterly. He lived, indeed; nay, he shot and hunted, and kept in his hand some measure, at least, of government. But always from the day of his release he was a fretful invalid, different utterly from the gay and jovial prince whom Michael's villains had caught in the shooting lodge. There was worse than this. As time went on, the first impulse of gratitude and admiration that he had felt towards Mr. Rassendyll died away. He came to brood more and more on what had passed while he was a prisoner; he was possessed not only by a haunting dread of Rupert of Hentzau, at whose hands he had suffered so greatly, but also by a morbid, half mad jealousy of Mr. Rassendyll. Rudolf had played the hero while he lay helpless. Rudolf's were the exploits for which his own people cheered him in his own capital. Rudolf's were the laurels that crowned his impatient brow. He had enough nobility to resent his borrowed credit, without the fortitude to endure it manfully. And the hateful comparison struck him nearer home. Sapt would tell him bluntly that Rudolf did this or that, set this precedent or that, laid down this or the other policy, and that the king could do no better than follow in Rudolf's steps. Mr. Rassendyll's name seldom passed his wife's lips, but when she spoke of him it was as one speaks of a great man who is dead, belittling all the living by the shadow of his name. I do not believe that the king discerned that truth which his wife spent her days in hiding from him; yet he was uneasy if Rudolf's name were mentioned by Sapt or myself, and from the queen's mouth he could not bear it. I have seen him fall into fits of passion on the mere sound of it; for he lost control of himself on what seemed slight provocation.
Moved by this disquieting jealousy, he sought continually to exact from the queen proofs of love and care beyond what most husbands can boast of, or, in my humble judgment, make good their right to, always asking of her what in his heart he feared was not hers to give. Much she did in pity and in duty; but in some moments, being but human and herself a woman of high temper, she failed; then the slight rebuff or involuntary coldness was magnified by a sick man's fancy into great offence or studied insult, and nothing that she could do would atone for it. Thus they, who had never in truth come together, drifted yet further apart; he was alone in his sickness and suspicion, she in her sorrows and her memories. There was no child to bridge the gulf between them, and although she was his queen and his wife, she grew almost a stranger to him. So he seemed to will that it should be.
Thus, worse than widowed, she lived for three years; and once only in each year she sent three words to the man she loved, and received from him three words in answer. Then her strength failed her. A pitiful scene had occurred in which the king peevishly upbraided her in regard to some trivial matter—the occasion escapes my memory—speaking to her before others words that even alone she could not have listened to with dignity. I was there, and Sapt; the colonel's small eyes had gleamed in anger. "I should like to shut his mouth for him," I heard him mutter, for the king's waywardness had well-nigh worn out even his devotion. The thing, of which I will say no more, happened a day or two before I was to set out to meet Mr. Rassendyll. I was to seek him this time at Wintenberg, for I had been recognized the year before at Dresden; and Wintenberg, being a smaller place and less in the way of chance visitors, was deemed safer. I remember well how she was when she called me into her own room, a few hours after she had left the king. She stood by the table; the box was on it, and I knew well that the red rose and the message were within. But there was more to-day. Without preface she broke into the subject of my errand.
"I must write to him," she said. "I can't bear it, I must write. My dear friend Fritz, you will carry it safely for me, won't you? And he must write to me. And you'll bring that safely, won't you? Ah, Fritz, I know I'm wrong, but I'm starved, starved, starved! And it's for the last time. For I know now that if I send anything, I must send more. So after this time I won't send at all. But I must say good-by to him; I must have his good-by to carry me through my life. This once, then, Fritz, do it for me."
The tears rolled down her cheeks, which to-day were flushed out of their paleness to a stormy red; her eyes defied me even while they pleaded. I bent my head and kissed her hand.
"With God's help I'll carry it safely and bring his safely, my queen," said I.
"And tell me how he looks. Look at him closely, Fritz. See if he is well and seems strong. Oh, and make him merry and happy! Bring that smile to his lips, Fritz, and the merry twinkle to his eyes. When you speak of me, see if he—if he looks as if he still loved me." But then she broke off, crying, "But don't tell him I said that. He'd be grieved if I doubted his love. I don't doubt it; I don't, indeed; but still tell me how he looks when you speak of me, won't you, Fritz? See, here's the letter."
Taking it from her bosom, she kissed it before she gave it to me. Then she added a thousand cautions, how I was to carry her letter, how I was to go and how return, and how I was to run no danger, because my wife Helga loved me as well as she would have loved her husband had Heaven been kinder. "At least, almost as I should, Fritz," she said, now between smiles and tears. She would not believe that any woman could love as she loved.
I left the queen and went to prepare for my journey. I used to take only one servant with me, and I had chosen a different man each year. None of them had known that I met Mr. Rassendyll, but supposed that I was engaged on the private business which I made my pretext for obtaining leave of absence from the king. This time I had determined to take with me a Swiss youth who had entered my service only a few weeks before. His name was Bauer; he seemed a stolid, somewhat stupid fellow, but as honest as the day and very obliging.
He had come to me well recommended, and I had not hesitated to engage him. I chose him for my companion now, chiefly because he was a foreigner and therefore less likely to gossip with the other servants when we returned. I do not pretend to much cleverness, but I confess that it vexes me to remember how that stout, guileless-looking youth made a fool of me. For Rupert knew that I had met Mr. Rassendyll the year before at Dresden; Rupert was keeping a watchful eye on all that passed in Strelsau; Rupert had procured the fellow his fine testimonials and sent him to me, in the hope that he would chance on something of advantage to his employer. My resolve to take him to Wintenberg may have been hoped for, but could scarcely have been counted on; it was the added luck that waits so often on the plans of a clever schemer.
Going to take leave of the king, I found him huddled over the fire. The day was not cold, but the damp chill of his dungeon seemed to have penetrated to the very core of his bones. He was annoyed at my going, and questioned me peevishly about the business that occasioned my journey. I parried his curiosity as I best could, but did not succeed in appeasing his ill-humor. Half ashamed of his recent outburst, half-anxious to justify it to himself, he cried fretfully:
"Business! Yes, any business is a good enough excuse for leaving me! By Heaven, I wonder if a king was ever served so badly as I am! Why did you trouble to get me out of Zenda? Nobody wants me, nobody cares whether I live or die."
To reason with such a mood was impossible. I could only assure him that I would hasten my return by all possible means.
"Yes, pray do," said he. "I want somebody to look after me. Who knows what that villain Rupert may attempt against me? And I can't defend myself can I? I'm not Rudolf Rassendyll, am I?"
Thus, with a mixture of plaintiveness and malice, he scolded me. At last I stood silent, waiting till he should be pleased to dismiss me. At any rate I was thankful that he entertained no suspicion as to my errand. Had I spoken a word of Mr. Rassendyll he would not have let me go. He had fallen foul of me before on learning that I was in communication with Rudolf; so completely had jealousy destroyed gratitude in his breast. If he had known what I carried, I do not think that he could have hated his preserver more. Very likely some such feeling was natural enough; it was none the less painful to perceive.
On leaving the king's presence, I sought out the Constable of Zenda. He knew my errand; and, sitting down beside him, I told him of the letter I carried, and arranged how to apprise him of my fortune surely and quickly. He was not in a good humor that day: the king had ruffled him also, and Colonel Sapt had no great reserve of patience.
"If we haven't cut one another's throats before then, we shall all be at Zenda by the time you arrive at Wintenberg," he said. "The court moves there to-morrow, and I shall be there as long as the king is."
He paused, and then added: "Destroy the letter if there's any danger."
I nodded my head.
"And destroy yourself with it, if there's the only way," he went on with a surly smile. "Heaven knows why she must send such a silly message at all; but since she must, she'd better have sent me with it."
I knew that Sapt was in the way of jeering at all sentiment, and I took no notice of the terms that he applied to the queen's farewell. I contented myself with answering the last part of what he said.
"No, it's better you should be here," I urged. "For if I should lose the letter—though there's little chance of it—you could prevent it from coming to the king."
"I could try," he grinned. "But on my life, to run the chance for a letter's sake! A letter's a poor thing to risk the peace of a kingdom for."
"Unhappily," said I, "it's the only thing that a messenger can well carry."
"Off with you, then," grumbled the colonel. "Tell Rassendyll from me that he did well. But tell him to do something more. Let 'em say good-by and have done with it. Good God, is he going to waste all his life thinking of a woman he never sees?" Sapt's air was full of indignation.
"What more is he to do?" I asked. "Isn't his work here done?"
"Ay, it's done. Perhaps it's done," he answered. "At least he has given us back our good king."
To lay on the king the full blame for what he was would have been rank injustice. Sapt was not guilty of it, but his disappointment was bitter that all our efforts had secured no better ruler for Ruritania. Sapt could serve, but he liked his master to be a man.
"Ay, I'm afraid the lad's work here is done," he said, as I shook him by the hand. Then a sudden light came in his eyes. "Perhaps not," he muttered. "Who knows?"
A man need not, I hope, be deemed uxorious for liking a quiet dinner alone with his wife before he starts on a long journey. Such, at least, was my fancy; and I was annoyed to find that Helga's cousin, Anton von Strofzin, had invited himself to share our meal and our farewell. He conversed with his usual airy emptiness on all the topics that were supplying Strelsau with gossip. There were rumors that the king was ill; that the queen was angry at being carried off to Zenda; that the archbishop meant to preach against low dresses; that the chancellor was to be dismissed; that his daughter was to be married; and so forth. I heard without listening. But the last bit of his budget caught my wandering attention.
"They were betting at the club," said Anton, "that Rupert of Hentzau would be recalled. Have you heard anything about it, Fritz?"
If I had known anything, it is needless to say that I should not have confided it to Anton. But the suggested step was so utterly at variance with the king's intentions that I made no difficulty about contradicting the report with an authoritative air. Anton heard me with a judicial wrinkle on his smooth brow.
"That's all very well," said he, "and I dare say you're bound to say so. All I know is that Rischenheim dropped a hint to Colonel Markel a day or two ago."
"Rischenheim believes what he hopes," said I.
"And where's he gone?" cried Anton, exultantly. "Why has he suddenly left Strelsau? I tell you he's gone to meet Rupert, and I'll bet you what you like he carries some proposal. Ah, you don't know everything, Fritz, my boy?"
It was indeed true that I did not know everything. I made haste to admit as much. "I didn't even know that the count was gone, much less why he's gone," said I.
"You see?" exclaimed Anton. And he added, patronizingly, "You should keep your ears open, my boy; then you might be worth what the king pays you."
"No less, I trust," said I, "for he pays me nothing." Indeed, at this time I held no office save the honorary position of chamberlain to Her Majesty. Any advice the king needed from me was asked and given unofficially.
Anton went off, persuaded that he had scored a point against me. I could not see where. It was possible that the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim had gone to meet his cousin, equally possible that no such business claimed his care. At any rate, the matter was not for me. I had a more pressing affair in hand. Dismissing the whole thing from my mind, I bade the butler tell Bauer to go forward with my luggage and to let my carriage be at the door in good time. Helga had busied herself, since our guest's departure, in preparing small comforts for my journey; now she came to me to say good-by. Although she tried to hide all signs of it, I detected an uneasiness in her manner. She did not like these errands of mine, imagining dangers and risks of which I saw no likelihood. I would not give in to her mood, and, as I kissed her, I bade her expect me back in a few days' time. Not even to her did I speak of the new and more dangerous burden that I carried, although I was aware that she enjoyed a full measure of the queen's confidence.
"My love to King Rudolf, the real King Rudolf," said she. "Though you carry what will make him think little of my love."
"I have no desire he should think too much of it, sweet," said I. She caught me by the hands, and looked up in my face.
"What a friend you are, aren't you, Fritz?" said she. "You worship Mr. Rassendyll. I know you think I should worship him too, if he asked me. Well, I shouldn't. I am foolish enough to have my own idol." All my modesty did not let me doubt who her idol might be. Suddenly she drew near to me and whispered in my ear. I think that our own happiness brought to her a sudden keen sympathy with her mistress.
"Make him send her a loving message, Fritz," she whispered. "Something that will comfort her. Her idol can't be with her as mine is with me."
"Yes, he'll send something to comfort her," I answered. "And God keep you, my dear."
For he would surely send an answer to the letter that I carried, and that answer I was sworn to bring safely to her. So I set out in good heart, bearing in the pocket of my coat the little box and the queen's good-by. And, as Colonel Sapt said to me, both I would destroy, if need were—ay, and myself with them. A man did not serve Queen Flavia with divided mind.
CHAPTER II. A STATION WITHOUT A CAB
The arrangements for my meeting with Mr. Rassendyll had been carefully made by correspondence before he left England. He was to be at the Golden Lion Hotel at eleven o'clock on the night of the 15th of October. I reckoned to arrive in the town between eight and nine on the same evening, to proceed to another hotel, and, on pretence of taking a stroll, slip out and call on him at the appointed hour. I should then fulfil my commission, take his answer, and enjoy the rare pleasure of a long talk with him. Early the next morning he would have left Wintenberg, and I should be on my way back to Strelsau. I knew that he would not fail to keep his appointment, and I was perfectly confident of being able to carry out the programme punctually; I had, however, taken the precaution of obtaining a week's leave of absence, in case any unforeseen accident should delay my return. Conscious of having done all I could to guard against misunderstanding or mishap, I got into the train in a tolerably peaceful frame of mind. The box was in my inner pocket, the letter in a portemonnaie. I could feel them both with my hand. I was not in uniform, but I took my revolver. Although I had no reason to anticipate any difficulties, I did not forget that what I carried must be protected at all hazards and all costs.
The weary night journey wore itself away. Bauer came to me in the morning, performed his small services, repacked my hand-bag, procured me some coffee, and left me. It was then about eight o'clock; we had arrived at a station of some importance and were not to stop again till mid-day. I saw Bauer enter the second-class compartment in which he was traveling, and settled down in my own coupe. I think it was at this moment that the thought of Rischenheim came again into my head, and I found myself wondering why he clung to the hopeless idea of compassing Rupert's return and what business had taken him from Strelsau. But I made little of the matter, and, drowsy from a broken night's rest, soon fell into a doze. I was alone in the carriage and could sleep without fear or danger. I was awakened by our noontide halt. Here I saw Bauer again. After taking a basin of soup, I went to the telegraph bureau to send a message to my wife; the receipt of it would not merely set her mind at case, but would also ensure word of my safe progress reaching the queen. As I entered the bureau I met Bauer coming out of it. He seemed rather startled at our encounter, but told me readily enough that he had been telegraphing for rooms at Wintenberg, a very needless precaution, since there was no danger of the hotel being full. In fact I was annoyed, as I especially wished to avoid calling attention to my arrival. However, the mischief was done, and to rebuke my servant might have aggravated it by setting his wits at work to find out my motive for secrecy. So I said nothing, but passed by him with a nod. When the whole circumstances came to light, I had reason to suppose that besides his message to the inn-keeper, Bauer sent one of a character and to a quarter unsuspected by me.
We stopped once again before reaching Wintenberg. I put my head out of the window to look about me, and saw Bauer standing near the luggage van. He ran to me eagerly, asking whether I required anything. I told him "nothing"; but instead of going away, he began to talk to me. Growing weary of him, I returned to my seat and waited impatiently for the train to go on. There was a further delay of five minutes, and then we started.
"Thank goodness!" I exclaimed, leaning back comfortably in my seat and taking a cigar from my case.
But in a moment the cigar rolled unheeded on to the floor, as I sprang eagerly to my feet and darted to the window. For just as we were clearing the station, I saw being carried past the carriage, on the shoulders of a porter, a bag which looked very much like mine. Bauer had been in charge of my bag, and it had been put in the van under his directions. It seemed unlikely that it should be taken out now by any mistake. Yet the bag I saw was very like the bag I owned. But I was not sure, and could have done nothing had I been sure. We were not to stop again before Wintenberg, and, with my luggage or without it, I myself must be in the town that evening.
We arrived punctual to our appointed time. I sat in the carriage a moment or two, expecting Bauer to open the door and relieve me of my small baggage. He did not come, so I got out. It seemed that I had few fellow-passengers, and these were quickly disappearing on foot or in carriages and carts that waited outside the station. I stood looking for my servant and my luggage. The evening was mild; I was encumbered with my hand-bag and a heavy fur coat. There were no signs either of Bauer or of baggage. I stayed where I was for five or six minutes. The guard of the train had disappeared, but presently I observed the station-master; he seemed to be taking a last glance round the premises. Going up to him I asked whether he had seen my servant; he could give me no news of him. I had no luggage ticket, for mine had been in Bauer's hands; but I prevailed on him to allow me to look at the baggage which had arrived; my property was not among it. The station-master was inclined, I think, to be a little skeptical as to the existence both of bag and of servant. His only suggestion was that the man must have been left behind accidentally. I pointed out that in this case he would not have had the bag with him, but that it would have come on in the train. The station-master admitted the force of my argument; he shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands out; he was evidently at the end of his resources.
Now, for the first time and with sudden force, a doubt of Bauer's fidelity thrust itself into my mind. I remembered how little I knew of the fellow and how great my charge was. Three rapid movements of my hand assured me that letter, box, and revolver were in their respective places. If Bauer had gone hunting in the bag, he had drawn a blank. The station-master noticed nothing; he was stating at the dim gas lamp that hung from the roof. I turned to him.
"Well, tell him when he comes—" I began.
"He won't come to-night, now," interrupted the stationmaster, none too politely. "No other train arrives to-night."
"Tell him when he does come to follow me at once to the Wintenbergerhof. I'm going there immediately." For time was short, and I did not wish to keep Mr. Rassendyll waiting. Besides, in my new-born nervousness, I was anxious to accomplish my errand as soon as might be. What had become of Bauer? The thought returned, and now with it another, that seemed to connect itself in some subtle way with my present position: why and whither had the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim set out from Strelsau a day before I started on my journey to Wintenberg?
"If he comes I'll tell him," said the station-master, and as he spoke he looked round the yard.
There was not a cab to be seen! I knew that the station lay on the extreme outskirts of the town, for I had passed through Wintenberg on my wedding journey, nearly three years before. The trouble involved in walking, and the further waste of time, put the cap on my irritation.
"Why don't you have enough cabs?" I asked angrily.
"There are plenty generally, sir," he answered more civilly, with an apologetic air. "There would be to-night but for an accident."
Another accident! This expedition of mine seemed doomed to be the sport of chance.
"Just before your train arrived," he continued, "a local came in. As a rule, hardly anybody comes by it, but to-night a number of men—oh, twenty or five-and-twenty, I should think—got out. I collected their tickets myself, and they all came from the first station on the line. Well, that's not so strange, for there's a good beer-garden there. But, curiously enough, every one of them hired a separate cab and drove off, laughing and shouting to one another as they went. That's how it happens that there were only one or two cabs left when your train came in, and they were snapped up at once."
Taken alone, this occurrence was nothing; but I asked myself whether the conspiracy that had robbed me of my servant had deprived me of a vehicle also.
"What sort of men were they?" I asked.
"All sorts of men, sir," answered the station-master, "but most of them were shabby-looking fellows. I wondered where some of them had got the money for their ride."
The vague feeling of uneasiness which had already attacked me grew stronger. Although I fought against it, calling myself an old woman and a coward, I must confess to an impulse which almost made me beg the station-master's company on my walk; but, besides being ashamed to exhibit a timidity apparently groundless, I was reluctant to draw attention to myself in any way. I would not for the world have it supposed that I carried anything of value.
"Well, there's no help for it," said I, and, buttoning my heavy coat about me, I took my hand-bag and stick in one hand, and asked my way to the hotel. My misfortunes had broken down the station-master's indifference, and he directed me in a sympathetic tone.
"Straight along the road, sir," said he, "between the poplars, for hard on half a mile; then the houses begin, and your hotel is in the first square you come to, on the right."
I thanked him curtly (for I had not quite forgiven him his earlier incivility), and started on my walk, weighed down by my big coat and the handbag. When I left the lighted station yard I realized that the evening had fallen very dark, and the shade of the tall lank trees intensified the gloom. I could hardly see my way, and went timidly, with frequent stumbles over the uneven stones of the road. The lamps were dim, few, and widely separated; so far as company was concerned, I might have been a thousand miles from an inhabited house. In spite of myself, the thought of danger persistently assailed my mind. I began to review every circumstance of my journey, twisting the trivial into some ominous shape, magnifying the significance of everything which might justly seem suspicious, studying in the light of my new apprehensions every expression of Bauer's face and every word that had fallen from his lips. I could not persuade myself into security. I carried the queen's letter, and—well, I would have given much to have old Sapt or Rudolf Rassendyll by my side.
Now, when a man suspects danger, let him not spend his time in asking whether there be really danger or in upbraiding himself for timidity, but let him face his cowardice, and act as though the danger were real. If I had followed that rule and kept my eyes about me, scanning the sides of the road and the ground in front of my feet, instead of losing myself in a maze of reflection, I might have had time to avoid the trap, or at least to get my hand to my revolver and make a fight for it; or, indeed, in the last resort, to destroy what I carried before harm came to it. But my mind was preoccupied, and the whole thing seemed to happen in a minute. At the very moment that I had declared to myself the vanity of my fears and determined to be resolute in banishing them, I heard voices—a low, strained whispering; I saw two or three figures in the shadow of the poplars by the wayside. An instant later, a dart was made at me. While I could fly I would not fight; with a sudden forward plunge I eluded the men who rushed at me, and started at a run towards the lights of the town and the shapes of the houses, now distant about a quarter of a mile. Perhaps I ran twenty yards, perhaps fifty; I do not know. I heard the steps behind me, quick as my own. Then I fell headlong on the road—tripped up! I understood. They had stretched a rope across my path; as I fell a man bounded up from either side, and I found the rope slack under my body. There I lay on my face; a man knelt on me, others held either hand; my face was pressed into the mud of the road, and I was like to have been stifled; my hand-bag had whizzed away from me. Then a voice said:
"Turn him over."
I knew the voice; it was a confirmation of the fears which I had lately been at such pains to banish. It justified the forecast of Anton von Strofzin, and explained the wager of the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim—for it was Rischenheim's voice.
They caught hold of me and began to turn me on my back. Here I saw a chance, and with a great heave of my body I flung them from me. For a short instant I was free; my impetuous attack seemed to have startled the enemy; I gathered myself up on my knees. But my advantage was not to last long. Another man, whom I had not seen, sprang suddenly on me like a bullet from a catapult. His fierce onset overthrew me; I was stretched on the ground again, on my back now, and my throat was clutched viciously in strong fingers. At the same moment my arms were again seized and pinned. The face of the man on my chest bent down towards mine, and through the darkness I discerned the features of Rupert of Hentzau. He was panting with the sudden exertion and the intense force with which he held me, but he was smiling also; and when he saw by my eyes that I knew him, he laughed softly in triumph. Then came Rischenheim's voice again.
"Where's the bag he carried? It may be in the bag."
"You fool, he'll have it about him," said Rupert, scornfully. "Hold him fast while I search."
On either side my hands were still pinned fast. Rupert's left hand did not leave my throat, but his free right hand began to dart about me, feeling, probing, and rummaging. I lay quite helpless and in the bitterness of great consternation. Rupert found my revolver, drew it out with a gibe, and handed it to Rischenheim, who was now standing beside him. Then he felt the box, he drew it out, his eyes sparkled. He set his knee hard on my chest, so that I could scarcely breathe; then he ventured to loose my throat, and tore the box open eagerly.
"Bring a light here," he cried. Another ruffian came with a dark-lantern, whose glow he turned on the box. Rupert opened it, and when he saw what was inside, he laughed again, and stowed it away in his pocket.
"Quick, quick!" urged Rischenheim. "We've got what we wanted, and somebody may come at any moment."
A brief hope comforted me. The loss of the box was a calamity, but I would pardon fortune if only the letter escaped capture. Rupert might have suspected that I carried some such token as the box, but he could not know of the letter. Would he listen to Rischenheim? No. The Count of Hentzau did things thoroughly.
"We may as well overhaul him a bit more," said he, and resumed his search. My hope vanished, for now he was bound to come upon the letter.
Another instant brought him to it. He snatched the pocketbook, and, motioning impatiently to the man to hold the lantern nearer, he began to examine the contents. I remember well the look of his face as the fierce white light threw it up against the darkness in its clear pallor and high-bred comeliness, with its curling lips and scornful eyes. He had the letter now, and a gleam of joy danced in his eyes as he tore it open. A hasty glance showed him what his prize was; then, coolly and deliberately he settled himself to read, regarding neither Rischenheim's nervous hurry nor my desperate, angry glance that glared up at him. He read leisurely, as though he had been in an armchair in his own house; the lips smiled and curled as he read the last words that the queen had written to her lover. He had indeed come on more than he thought.
Rischenheim laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Quick, Rupert, quick," he urged again, in a voice full of agitation.
"Let me alone, man. I haven't read anything so amusing for a long while," answered Rupert. Then he burst into a laugh, crying, "Look, look!" and pointing to the foot of the last page of the letter. I was mad with anger; my fury gave me new strength. In his enjoyment of what he read Rupert had grown careless; his knee pressed more lightly on me, and as he showed Rischenheim the passage in the letter that caused him so much amusement he turned his head away for an instant. My chance had come. With a sudden movement I displaced him, and with a desperate wrench I freed my right hand. Darting it out, I snatched at the letter. Rupert, alarmed for his treasure, sprang back and off me. I also sprang up on my feet, hurling away the fellow who had gripped my other hand. For a moment I stood facing Rupert; then I darted on him. He was too quick for me; he dodged behind the man with the lantern and hurled the fellow forward against me. The lantern fell on the ground.
"Give me your stick!" I heard Rupert say. "Where is it? That's right!"
Then came Rischenheim's voice again, imploring and timid:
"Rupert, you promised not to kill him."
The only answer was a short, fierce laugh. I hurled away the man who had been thrust into my arms and sprang forward. I saw Rupert of Hentzau; his hand was raised above his head and held a stout club. I do not know what followed; there came—all in a confused blur of instant sequence—an oath from Rupert, a rush from me, a scuffle, as though some one sought to hold him back; then he was on me; I felt a great thud on my forehead, and I felt nothing more. Again I was on my back, with a terrible pain in my head, and a dull, dreamy consciousness of a knot of men standing over me, talking eagerly to one another.
I could not hear what they were saying; I had no great desire to hear. I fancied, somehow, that they were talking about me; they looked at me and moved their hands towards me now and again. I heard Rupert's laugh, and saw his club poised over me; then Rischenheim caught him by the wrist. I know now that Rischenheim was reminding his cousin that he had promised not to kill me, that Rupert's oath did not weigh a straw in the scales, but that he was held back only by a doubt whether I alive or my dead body would be more inconvenient to dispose of. Yet then I did not understand, but lay there listless. And presently the talking forms seemed to cease their talking; they grew blurred and dim, running into one another, and all mingling together to form one great shapeless creature that seemed to murmur and gibber over me, some such monster as a man sees in his dreams. I hated to see it, and closed my eyes; its murmurings and gibberings haunted my ears for awhile, making me restless and unhappy; then they died away. Their going made me happy; I sighed in contentment; and everything became as though it were not.
Yet I had one more vision, breaking suddenly across my unconsciousness. A bold, rich voice rang out, "By God, I will!"
"No, no," cried another. Then, "What's that?" There was a rush of feet, the cries of men who met in anger or excitement, the crack of a shot and of another quickly following, oaths, and scuffling. Then came the sound of feet flying. I could not make it out; I grew weary with the puzzle of it. Would they not be quiet? Quiet was what I wanted. At last they grew quiet; I closed my eyes again. The pain was less now; they were quiet; I could sleep.
When a man looks back on the past, reviewing in his mind the chances Fortune has given and the calls she has made, he always torments himself by thinking that he could have done other and better than in fact he did. Even now I lie awake at night sometimes, making clever plans by which I could have thwarted Rupert's schemes. In these musings I am very acute; Anton von Strofzin's idle talk furnishes me with many a clue, and I draw inferences sure and swift as a detective in the story books. Bauer is my tool, I am not his. I lay Rischenheim by the heels, send Rupert howling off with a ball in his arm, and carry my precious burden in triumph to Mr. Rassendyll. By the time I have played the whole game I am indeed proud of myself. Yet in truth—in daylight truth—I fear that, unless Heaven sent me a fresh set of brains, I should be caught in much the same way again. Though not by that fellow Bauer, I swear! Well, there it was. They had made a fool of me. I lay on the road with a bloody head, and Rupert of Hentzau had the queen's letter.
CHAPTER III. AGAIN TO ZENDA
By Heaven's care, or—since a man may be over-apt to arrogate to himself great share of such attention—by good luck, I had not to trust for my life to the slender thread of an oath sworn by Rupert of Hentzau. The visions of my dazed brain were transmutations of reality; the scuffle, the rush, the retreat were not all dream.
There is an honest fellow now living in Wintenberg comfortably and at his ease by reason that his wagon chanced to come lumbering along with three or four stout lads in it at the moment when Rupert was meditating a second and murderous blow. Seeing the group of us, the good carrier and his lads leapt down and rushed on my assailants. One of the thieves, they said, was for fighting it out—I could guess who that was—and called on the rest to stand; but they, more prudent, laid hands on him, and, in spite of his oaths, hustled him off along the road towards the station. Open country lay there and the promise of safety. My new friends set off in pursuit; but a couple of revolver shots, heard by me, but not understood, awoke their caution. Good Samaritans, but not men of war, they returned to where I lay senseless on the ground, congratulating themselves and me that an enemy so well armed should run and not stand his ground. They forced a drink of rough wine down my throat, and in a minute or two I opened my eyes. They were for carrying me to a hospital; I would have none of it. As soon as things grew clear to me again and I knew where I was, I did nothing but repeat in urgent tones, "The Golden Lion, The Golden Lion! Twenty crowns to carry me to the Golden Lion."
Perceiving that I knew my own business and where I wished to go, one picked up my hand-bag and the rest hoisted me into their wagon and set out for the hotel where Rudolf Rassendyll was. The one thought my broken head held was to get to him as soon as might be and tell him how I had been fool enough to let myself be robbed of the queen's letter.
He was there. He stood on the threshold of the inn, waiting for me, as it seemed, although it was not yet the hour of my appointment. As they drew me up to the door, I saw his tall, straight figure and his red hair by the light of the hall lamps. By Heaven, I felt as a lost child must on sight of his mother! I stretched out my hand to him, over the side of the wagon, murmuring, "I've lost it."
He started at the words, and sprang forward to me. Then he turned quickly to the carrier.
"This gentleman is my friend," he said. "Give him to me. I'll speak to you later." He waited while I was lifted down from the wagon into the arms that he held ready for me, and himself carried me across the threshold. I was quite clear in the head by now and understood all that passed. There were one or two people in the hall, but Mr. Rassendyll took no heed of them. He bore me quickly upstairs and into his sitting-room. There he set me down in an arm-chair, and stood opposite to me. He was smiling, but anxiety was awake in his eyes.
"I've lost it," I said again, looking up at him pitifully enough.
"That's all right," said he, nodding. "Will you wait, or can you tell me?"
"Yes, but give me some brandy," said I.
Rudolf gave me a little brandy mixed in a great deal of water, and then I made shift to tell him. Though faint, I was not confused, and I gave my story in brief, hurried, yet sufficient words. He made no sign till I mentioned the letter. Then his face changed.
"A letter, too?" he exclaimed, in a strange mixture of increased apprehension and unlooked-for joy.
"Yes, a letter, too; she wrote a letter, and I carried that as well as the box. I've lost them both, Rudolf. God help me, I've lost them both! Rupert has the letter too!" I think I must have been weak and unmanned from the blow I had received, for my composure broke down here. Rudolf stepped up to me and wrung me by the hand. I mastered myself again and looked in his face as he stood in thought, his hand caressing the strong curve of his clean-shaven chin. Now that I was with him again it seemed as though I had never lost him; as though we were still together in Strelsau or at Tarlenheim, planning how to hoodwink Black Michael, send Rupert of Hentzau to his own place, and bring the king back to his throne. For Mr. Rassendyll, as he stood before me now, was changed in nothing since our last meeting, nor indeed since he reigned in Strelsau, save that a few flecks of gray spotted his hair.
My battered head ached most consumedly. Mr. Rassendyll rang the bell twice, and a short, thickset man of middle age appeared; he wore a suit of tweed, and had the air of smartness and respectability which marks English servants.
"James," said Rudolf, "this gentleman has hurt his head. Look after it."
James went out. In a few minutes he was back, with water, basin, towels, and bandages. Bending over me, he began to wash and tend my wound very deftly. Rudolf was walking up and down.
"Done the head, James?" he asked, after a few moments.
"Yes, sir," answered the servant, gathering together his appliances.
"Telegraph forms, then."
James went out, and was back with the forms in an instant.
"Be ready when I ring," said Rudolf. And he added, turning to me, "Any easier, Fritz?"
"I can listen to you now," I said.
"I see their game," said he. "One or other of them, Rupert or this Rischenheim, will try to get to the king with the letter."
I sprang to my feet.
"They mustn't," I cried, and I reeled back into my chair, with a feeling as if a red-hot poker were being run through my head.
"Much you can do to stop 'em, old fellow," smiled Rudolf, pausing to press my hand as he went by. "They won't trust the post, you know. One will go. Now which?" He stood facing me with a thoughtful frown on his face.
I did not know, but I thought that Rischenheim would go. It was a great risk for Rupert to trust himself in the kingdom, and he knew that the king would not easily be persuaded to receive him, however startling might be the business he professed as his errand. On the other hand, nothing was known against Rischenheim, while his rank would secure, and indeed entitle, him to an early audience. Therefore I concluded that Rischenheim would go with the letter, or, if Rupert would not let that out of his possession, with the news of the letter.
"Or a copy," suggested Rassendyll. "Well, Rischenheim or Rupert will be on his way by to-morrow morning, or is on his way to-night."
Again I tried to rise, for I was on fire to prevent the fatal consequences of my stupidity. Rudolf thrust me back in my chair, saying, "No, no." Then he sat down at the table and took up the telegraph forms.
"You and Sapt arranged a cipher, I suppose?" he asked.
"Yes. You write the message, and I'll put it into the cipher."
"This is what I've written: 'Document lost. Let nobody see him if possible. Wire who asks.' I don't like to make it plainer: most ciphers can be read, you know."
"Not ours," said I.
"Well, but will that do?" asked Rudolf, with an unconvinced smile.
"Yes, I think he'll understand it." And I wrote it again in the cipher; it was as much as I could do to hold the pen.
The bell was rung again, and James appeared in an instant.
"Send this," said Rudolf.
"The offices will be shut, sir."
"Very good, sir; but it may take an hour to get one open."
"I'll give you half an hour. Have you money?"
"And now," added Rudolf, turning to me, "you'd better go to bed."
I do not recollect what I answered, for my faintness came upon me again, and I remember only that Rudolf himself helped me into his own bed. I slept, but I do not think he so much as lay down on the sofa; chancing to awake once or twice, I heard him pacing about. But towards morning I slept heavily, and I did not know what he was doing then. At eight o'clock James entered and roused me. He said that a doctor was to be at the hotel in half an hour, but that Mr. Rassendyll would like to see me for a few minutes if I felt equal to business. I begged James to summon his master at once. Whether I were equal or unequal, the business had to be done.
Rudolf came, calm and serene. Danger and the need for exertion acted on him like a draught of good wine on a seasoned drinker. He was not only himself, but more than himself: his excellences enhanced, the indolence that marred him in quiet hours sloughed off. But to-day there was something more; I can only describe it as a kind of radiance. I have seen it on the faces of young sparks when the lady they love comes through the ball-room door, and I have seen it glow more softly in a girl's eyes when some fellow who seemed to me nothing out of the ordinary asked her for a dance. That strange gleam was on Rudolf's face as he stood by my bedside. I dare say it used to be on mine when I went courting.
"Fritz, old friend," said he, "there's an answer from Sapt. I'll lay the telegraph offices were stirred in Zenda as well as James stirred them here in Wintenberg! And what do you think? Rischenheim asked for an audience before he left Strelsau."
I raised myself on my elbow in the bed.
"You understand?" he went on. "He left on Monday. To-day's Wednesday. The king has granted him an audience at four on Friday. Well, then—"
"They counted on success," I cried, "and Rischenheim takes the letter!"
"A copy, if I know Rupert of Hentzau. Yes, it was well laid. I like the men taking all the cabs! How much ahead had they, now."
I did not know that, though I had no more doubt than he that Rupert's hand was in the business.
"Well," he continued, "I am going to wire to Sapt to put Rischenheim off for twelve hours if he can; failing that, to get the king away from Zenda."
"But Rischenheim must have his audience sooner or later," I objected.
"Sooner or later—there's the world's difference between them!" cried Rudolf Rassendyll. He sat down on the bed by me, and went on in quick, decisive words: "You can't move for a day or two. Send my message to Sapt. Tell him to keep you informed of what happens. As soon as you can travel, go to Strelsau, and let Sapt know directly you arrive. We shall want your help."
"And what are you going to do?" I cried, staring at him.
He looked at me for a moment, and his face was crossed by conflicting feelings. I saw resolve there, obstinacy, and the scorn of danger; fun, too, and merriment; and, lastly, the same radiance I spoke of. He had been smoking a cigarette; now he threw the end of it into the grate and rose from the bed where he had been sitting.
"I'm going to Zenda," said he.
"To Zenda!" I cried, amazed.
"Yes," said Rudolf. "I'm going again to Zenda, Fritz, old fellow. By heaven, I knew it would come, and now it has come!"
"But to do what?"
"I shall overtake Rischenheim or be hot on his heels. If he gets there first, Sapt will keep him waiting till I come; and if I come, he shall never see the king. Yes, if I come in time—" He broke into a sudden laugh. "What!" he cried, "have I lost my likeness? Can't I still play the king? Yes, if I come in time, Rischenheim shall have his audience of the king of Zenda, and the king will be very gracious to him, and the king will take his copy of the letter from him! Oh, Rischenheim shall have an audience of King Rudolf in the castle of Zenda, never fear!"
He stood, looking to see how I received his plan; but amazed at the boldness of it, I could only lie back and gasp.
Rudolf's excitement left him as suddenly as it had come; he was again the cool, shrewd, nonchalant Englishman, as, lighting another cigarette, he proceeded:
"You see, there are two of them, Rupert and Rischenheim. Now you can't move for a day or two, that's certain. But there must be two of us there in Ruritania. Rischenheim is to try first; but if he fails, Rupert will risk everything and break through to the king's presence. Give him five minutes with the king, and the mischief's done! Very well, then; Sapt must keep Rupert at bay while I tackle Rischenheim. As soon as you can move, go to Strelsau, and let Sapt know where you are."
"But if you're seen, if you're found out?"
"Better I than the queen's letter," said he. Then he laid his hand on my arm and said, quite quietly, "If the letter gets to the king, I and I only can do what must be done."
I did not know what he meant; perhaps it was that he would carry off the queen sooner than leave her alone after her letter was known; but there was another possible meaning that I, a loyal subject, dared not inquire into. Yet I made no answer, for I was above all and first of all the queen's servant. Still I cannot believe that he meant harm to the king.
"Come, Fritz," he cried, "don't look so glum. This is not so great an affair as the other, and we brought that through safe." I suppose I still looked doubtful, for he added, with a sort of impatience, "Well, I'm going, anyhow. Heavens, man, am I to sit here while that letter is carried to the king?"
I understood his feeling, and knew that he held life a light thing compared with the recovery of Queen Flavia's letter. I ceased to urge him. When I assented to his wishes, every shadow vanished from his face, and he began to discuss the details of the plan with business-like brevity.
"I shall leave James with you," said Rudolf. "He'll be very useful, and you can rely on him absolutely. Any message that you dare trust to no other conveyance, give to him; he'll carry it. He can shoot, too." He rose as he spoke. "I'll look in before I start," he added, "and hear what the doctor says about you."
I lay there, thinking, as men sick and weary in body will, of the dangers and the desperate nature of the risk, rather than of the hope which its boldness would have inspired in a healthy, active brain. I distrusted the rapid inference that Rudolf had drawn from Sapt's telegram, telling myself that it was based on too slender a foundation. Well, there I was wrong, and I am glad now to pay that tribute to his discernment. The first steps of Rupert's scheme were laid as Rudolf had conjectured: Rischenheim had started, even while I lay there, for Zenda, carrying on his person a copy of the queen's farewell letter and armed for his enterprise by his right of audience with the king. So far we were right, then; for the rest we were in darkness, not knowing or being able even to guess where Rupert would choose to await the result of the first cast, or what precautions he had taken against the failure of his envoy. But although in total obscurity as to his future plans, I traced his past actions, and subsequent knowledge has shown that I was right. Bauer was the tool; a couple of florins apiece had hired the fellows who, conceiving that they were playing a part in some practical joke, had taken all the cabs at the station. Rupert had reckoned that I should linger looking for my servant and luggage, and thus miss my last chance of a vehicle. If, however, I had obtained one, the attack would still have been made, although, of course, under much greater difficulties. Finally—and of this at the time I knew nothing—had I evaded them and got safe to port with my cargo, the plot would have been changed. Rupert's attention would then have been diverted from me to Rudolf; counting on love overcoming prudence, he reckoned that Mr. Rassendyll would not at once destroy what the queen sent, and had arranged to track his steps from Wintenberg till an opportunity offered of robbing him of his treasure. The scheme, as I know it, was full of audacious cunning, and required large resources—the former Rupert himself supplied; for the second he was indebted to his cousin and slave, the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim.
My meditations were interrupted by the arrival of the doctor. He hummed and ha'd over me, but to my surprise asked me no questions as to the cause of my misfortune, and did not, as I had feared, suggest that his efforts should be seconded by those of the police. On the contrary, he appeared, from an unobtrusive hint or two, to be anxious that I should know that his discretion could be trusted.
"You must not think of moving for a couple of days," he said; "but then, I think we can get you away without danger and quite quietly."
I thanked him; he promised to look in again; I murmured something about his fee.
"Oh, thank you, that is all settled," he said. "Your friend Herr Schmidt has seen to it, and, my dear sir, most liberally."
He was hardly gone when 'my friend Herr Schmidt'—alias Rudolf Rassendyll—was back. He laughed a little when I told him how discreet the doctor had been.
"You see," he explained, "he thinks you've been very indiscreet. I was obliged, my dear Fritz, to take some liberties with your character. However, it's odds against the matter coming to your wife's ears."
"But couldn't we have laid the others by the heels?"
"With the letter on Rupert? My dear fellow, you're very ill."
I laughed at myself, and forgave Rudolf his trick, though I think that he might have made my fictitious inamorata something more than a baker's wife. It would have cost no more to make her a countess, and the doctor would have looked with more respect on me. However, Rudolf had said that the baker broke my head with his rolling-pin, and thus the story rests in the doctor's mind to this day.
"Well, I'm off," said Rudolf.
"Why, to that same little station where two good friends parted from me once before. Fritz, where's Rupert gone?"
"I wish we knew."
"I lay he won't be far off."
"Are you armed?"
"The six-shooter. Well, yes, since you press me, a knife, too; but only if he uses one. You'll let Sapt know when you come?"
"Yes; and I come the moment I can stand?"
"As if you need tell me that, old fellow!"
"Where do you go from the station?"
"To Zenda, through the forest," he answered. "I shall reach the station about nine to-morrow night, Thursday. Unless Rischenheim has got the audience sooner than was arranged, I shall be in time."
"How will you get hold of Sapt?"
"We must leave something to the minute."
"God bless you, Rudolf."
"The king sha'n't have the letter, Fritz."
There was a moment's silence as we shook hands. Then that soft yet bright look came in his eyes again. He looked down at me, and caught me regarding him with a smile that I know was not unkind.
"I never thought I should see her again," he said. "I think I shall now, Fritz. To have a turn with that boy and to see her again—it's worth something."
"How will you see her?"
Rudolf laughed, and I laughed too. He caught my hand again. I think that he was anxious to infect me with his gayety and confidence. But I could not answer to the appeal of his eyes. There was a motive in him that found no place in me—a great longing, the prospect or hope of whose sudden fulfilment dwarfed danger and banished despair. He saw that I detected its presence in him and perceived how it filled his mind.
"But the letter comes before all," said he. "I expected to die without seeing her; I will die without seeing her, if I must, to save the letter."
"I know you will," said I.
He pressed my hand again. As he turned away, James came with his noiseless, quick step into the room.
"The carriage is at the door, sir," said he.
"Look after the count, James," said Rudolf. "Don't leave him till he sends you away."
"Very well, sir."
I raised myself in bed.
"Here's luck," I cried, catching up the lemonade James had brought me, and taking a gulp of it.
"Please God," said Rudolf, with a shrug.
And he was gone to his work and his reward—to save the queen's letter and to see the queen's face. Thus he went a second time to Zenda.
CHAPTER IV. AN EDDY ON THE MOAT
On the evening of Thursday, the sixteenth of October, the Constable of Zenda was very much out of humor; he has since confessed as much. To risk the peace of a palace for the sake of a lover's greeting had never been wisdom to his mind, and he had been sorely impatient with "that fool Fritz's" yearly pilgrimage. The letter of farewell had been an added folly, pregnant with chances of disaster. Now disaster, or the danger of it, had come. The curt, mysterious telegram from Wintenberg, which told him so little, at least told him that. It ordered him—and he did not know even whose the order was—to delay Rischenheim's audience, or, if he could not, to get the king away from Zenda: why he was to act thus was not disclosed to him. But he knew as well as I that Rischenheim was completely in Rupert's hands, and he could not fail to guess that something had gone wrong at Wintenberg, and that Rischenheim came to tell the king some news that the king must not hear. His task sounded simple, but it was not easy; for he did not know where Rischenheim was, and so could not prevent his coming; besides, the king had been very pleased to learn of the count's approaching visit, since he desired to talk with him on the subject of a certain breed of dogs, which the count bred with great, his Majesty with only indifferent success; therefore he had declared that nothing should interfere with his reception of Rischenheim. In vain Sapt told him that a large boar had been seen in the forest, and that a fine day's sport might be expected if he would hunt next day. "I shouldn't be back in time to see Rischenheim," said the king.
"Your Majesty would be back by nightfall," suggested Sapt.
"I should be too tired to talk to him, and I've a great deal to discuss."
"You could sleep at the hunting-lodge, sire, and ride back to receive the count next morning."
"I'm anxious to see him as soon as may be." Then he looked up at Sapt with a sick man's quick suspicion. "Why shouldn't I see him?" he asked.
"It's a pity to miss the boar, sire," was all Sapt's plea. The king made light of it.
"Curse the boar!" said he. "I want to know how he gets the dogs' coats so fine."
As the king spoke a servant entered, carrying a telegram for Sapt. The colonel took it and put it in his pocket.
"Read it," said the king. He had dined and was about to go to bed, it being nearly ten o'clock.
"It will keep, sire," answered Sapt, who did not know but that it might be from Wintenberg.
"Read it," insisted the king testily. "It may be from Rischenheim. Perhaps he can get here sooner. I should like to know about those dogs. Read it, I beg."
Sapt could do nothing but read it. He had taken to spectacles lately, and he spent a long while adjusting them and thinking what he should do if the message were not fit for the king's ear. "Be quick, man, be quick!" urged the irritable king.
Sapt had got the envelope open at last, and relief, mingled with perplexity, showed in his face.
"Your Majesty guessed wonderfully well. Rischenheim can be here at eight to-morrow morning," he said, looking up.
"Capital!" cried the king. "He shall breakfast with me at nine, and I'll have a ride after the boar when we've done our business. Now are you satisfied?"
"Perfectly, sire," said Sapt, biting his moustache.
The king rose with a yawn, and bade the colonel good-night. "He must have some trick I don't know with those dogs," he remarked, as he went out. And "Damn the dogs!" cried Colonel Sapt the moment that the door was shut behind his Majesty.
But the colonel was not a man to accept defeat easily. The audience that he had been instructed to postpone was advanced; the king, whom he had been told to get away from Zenda, would not go till he had seen Rischenheim. Still there are many ways of preventing a meeting. Some are by fraud; these it is no injustice to Sapt to say that he had tried; some are by force, and the colonel was being driven to the conclusion that one of these must be his resort.
"Though the king," he mused, with a grin, "will be furious if anything happens to Rischenheim before he's told him about the dogs."
Yet he fell to racking his brains to find a means by which the count might be rendered incapable of performing the service so desired by the king and of carrying out his own purpose in seeking an audience. Nothing save assassination suggested itself to the constable; a quarrel and a duel offered no security; and Sapt was not Black Michael, and had no band of ruffians to join him in an apparently unprovoked kidnapping of a distinguished nobleman.
"I can think of nothing," muttered Sapt, rising from his chair and moving across towards the window in search of the fresh air that a man so often thinks will give him a fresh idea. He was in his own quarters, that room of the new chateau which opens on to the moat immediately to the right of the drawbridge as you face the old castle; it was the room which Duke Michael had occupied, and almost opposite to the spot where the great pipe had connected the window of the king's dungeon with the waters of the moat. The bridge was down now, for peaceful days had come to Zenda; the pipe was gone, and the dungeon's window, though still barred, was uncovered. The night was clear and fine, and the still water gleamed fitfully as the moon, half-full, escaped from or was hidden by passing clouds. Sapt stood staring out gloomily, beating his knuckles on the stone sill. The fresh air was there, but the fresh idea tarried.
Suddenly the constable bent forward, craning his head out and down, far as he could stretch it, towards the water. What he had seen, or seemed dimly to see, is a sight common enough on the surface of water—large circular eddies, widening from a centre; a stone thrown in makes them, or a fish on the rise. But Sapt had thrown no stone, and the fish in the moat were few and not rising then. The light was behind Sapt, and threw his figure into bold relief. The royal apartments looked out the other way; there were no lights in the windows this side the bridge, although beyond it the guards' lodgings and the servants' offices still showed a light here and there. Sapt waited till the eddies ceased. Then he heard the faintest sound, as of a large body let very gently into the water; a moment later, from the moat right below him, a man's head emerged.
"Sapt!" said a voice, low but distinct.
The old colonel started, and, resting both hands on the sill, bent further out, till he seemed in danger of overbalancing.
"Quick—to the ledge on the other side. You know," said the voice, and the head turned; with quick, quiet strokes the man crossed the moat till he was hidden in the triangle of deep shade formed by the meeting of the drawbridge and the old castle wall. Sapt watched him go, almost stupefied by the sudden wonder of hearing that voice come to him out of the stillness of the night. For the king was abed; and who spoke in that voice save the king and one other?
Then, with a curse at himself for his delay, he turned and walked quickly across the room. Opening the door, he found himself in the passage. But here he ran right into the arms of young Bernenstein, the officer of the guard, who was going his rounds. Sapt knew and trusted him, for he had been with us all through the siege of Zenda, when Michael kept the king a prisoner, and he bore marks given him by Rupert of Hentzau's ruffians. He now held a commission as lieutenant in the cuirassiers of the King's Guard.
He noticed Sapt's bearing, for he cried out in a low voice, "Anything wrong, sir?"
"Bernenstein, my boy, the castle's all right about here. Go round to the front, and, hang you, stay there," said Sapt.
The officer stared, as well he might. Sapt caught him by the arm.
"No, stay here. See, stand by the door there that leads to the royal apartments. Stand there, and let nobody pass. You understand?"
"And whatever you hear, don't look round."
Bernenstein's bewilderment grew greater; but Sapt was constable, and on Sapt's shoulders lay the responsibility for the safety of Zenda and all in it.
"Very well, sir," he said, with a submissive shrug, and he drew his sword and stood by the door; he could obey, although he could not understand.
Sapt ran on. Opening the gate that led to the bridge, he sped across. Then, stepping on one side and turning his face to the wall, he descended the steps that gave foothold down to the ledge running six or eight inches above the water. He also was now in the triangle of deep darkness, yet he knew that a man was there, who stood straight and tall, rising above his own height. And he felt his hand caught in a sudden grip. Rudolf Rassendyll was there, in his wet drawers and socks.
"Is it you?" he whispered.
"Yes," answered Rudolf; "I swam round from the other side and got here. Then I threw in a bit of mortar, but I wasn't sure I'd roused you, and I didn't dare shout, so I followed it myself. Lay hold of me a minute while I get on my breeches: I didn't want to get wet, so I carried my clothes in a bundle. Hold me tight, it's slippery."
"In God's name what brings you here?" whispered Sapt, catching Rudolf by the arm as he was directed.
"The queen's service. When does Rischenheim come?"
"To-morrow at eight."
"The deuce! That's earlier than I thought. And the king?"
"Is here and determined to see him. It's impossible to move him from it."
There was a moment's silence; Rudolf drew his shirt over his head and tucked it into his trousers. "Give me the jacket and waistcoat," he said. "I feel deuced damp underneath, though."
"You'll soon get dry," grinned Sapt. "You'll be kept moving, you see."
"I've lost my hat."
"Seems to me you've lost your head too."
"You'll find me both, eh, Sapt?"
"As good as your own, anyhow," growled the constable.
"Now the boots, and I'm ready." Then he asked quickly, "Has the king seen or heard from Rischenheim?"
"Neither, except through me."
"Then why is he so set on seeing him?"
"To find out what gives dogs smooth coats."
"You're serious? Hang you, I can't see your face."
"All's well, then. Has he got a beard now?"
"Confound him! Can't you take me anywhere to talk?"
"What the deuce are you here at all for?"
"To meet Rischenheim."
"Yes. Sapt, he's got a copy of the queen's letter."
Sapt twirled his moustache.
"I've always said as much," he remarked in tones of satisfaction. He need not have said it; he would have been more than human not to think it.
"Where can you take me to?" asked Rudolf impatiently.
"Any room with a door and a lock to it," answered old Sapt. "I command here, and when I say 'Stay out'—well, they don't come in."
"Not the king?"
"The king is in bed. Come along," and the constable set his toe on the lowest step.
"Is there nobody about?" asked Rudolf, catching his arm.
"Bernenstein; but he will keep his back toward us."
"Your discipline is still good, then, Colonel?"
"Pretty well for these days, your Majesty," grunted Sapt, as he reached the level of the bridge.
Having crossed, they entered the chateau. The passage was empty, save for Bernenstein, whose broad back barred the way from the royal apartments.
"In here," whispered Sapt, laying his hand on the door of the room whence he had come.
"All right," answered Rudolf. Bernenstein's hand twitched, but he did not look round. There was discipline in the castle of Zenda.
But as Sapt was half-way through the door and Rudolf about to follow him, the other door, that which Bernenstein guarded, was softly yet swiftly opened. Bernenstein's sword was in rest in an instant. A muttered oath from Sapt and Rudolf's quick snatch at his breath greeted the interruption. Bernenstein did not look round, but his sword fell to his side. In the doorway stood Queen Flavia, all in white; and now her face turned white as her dress. For her eyes had fallen on Rudolf Rassendyll. For a moment the four stood thus; then Rudolf passed Sapt, thrust Bernenstein's brawny shoulders (the young man had not looked round) out of the way, and, falling on his knee before the queen, seized her hand and kissed it. Bernenstein could see now without looking round, and if astonishment could kill, he would have been a dead man that instant. He fairly reeled and leant against the wall, his mouth hanging open. For the king was in bed, and had a beard; yet there was the king, fully dressed and clean shaven, and he was kissing the queen's hand, while she gazed down on him in a struggle between amazement, fright, and joy. A soldier should be prepared for anything, but I cannot be hard on young Bernenstein's bewilderment.
Yet there was in truth nothing strange in the queen seeking to see old Sapt that night, nor in her guessing where he would most probably be found. For she had asked him three times whether news had come from Wintenberg and each time he had put her off with excuses. Quick to forbode evil, and conscious of the pledge to fortune that she had given in her letter, she had determined to know from him whether there were really cause for alarm, and had stolen, undetected, from her apartments to seek him. What filled her at once with unbearable apprehension and incredulous joy was to find Rudolf present in actual flesh and blood, no longer in sad longing dreams or visions, and to feel his live lips on her hand.
Lovers count neither time nor danger; but Sapt counted both, and no more than a moment had passed before, with eager imperative gestures, he beckoned them to enter the room. The queen obeyed, and Rudolf followed her.
"Let nobody in, and don't say a word to anybody," whispered Sapt, as he entered, leaving Bernenstein outside. The young man was half-dazed still, but he had sense to read the expression in the constable's eyes and to learn from it that he must give his life sooner than let the door be opened. So with drawn sword he stood on guard.
It was eleven o'clock when the queen came, and midnight had struck from the great clock of the castle before the door opened again and Sapt came out. His sword was not drawn, but he had his revolver in his hand. He shut the door silently after him and began at once to talk in low, earnest, quick tones to Bernenstein. Bernenstein listened intently and without interrupting. Sapt's story ran on for eight or nine minutes. Then he paused, before asking:
"You understand now?"
"Yes, it is wonderful," said the young man, drawing in his breath.
"Pooh!" said Sapt. "Nothing is wonderful: some things are unusual."
Bernenstein was not convinced, and shrugged his shoulders in protest.
"Well?" said the constable, with a quick glance at him.
"I would die for the queen, sir," he answered, clicking his heels together as though on parade.
"Good," said Sapt. "Then listen," and he began again to talk. Bernenstein nodded from time to time. "You'll meet him at the gate," said the constable, "and bring him straight here. He's not to go anywhere else, you understand me?"
"Perfectly, Colonel," smiled young Bernenstein.
"The king will be in this room—the king. You know who is the king?"
"And when the interview is ended, and we go to breakfast—"
"I know who will be the king then. Yes, Colonel."
"Good. But we do him no harm unless—"
"It is necessary."
Sapt turned away with a little sigh. Bernenstein was an apt pupil, but the colonel was exhausted by so much explanation. He knocked softly at the door of the room. The queen's voice bade him enter, and he passed in. Bernenstein was left alone again in the passage, pondering over what he had heard and rehearsing the part that it now fell to him to play. As he thought he may well have raised his head proudly. The service seemed so great and the honor so high, that he almost wished he could die in the performing of his role. It would be a finer death than his soldier's dreams had dared to picture.
At one o'clock Colonel Sapt came out. "Go to bed till six," said he to Bernenstein.
"I'm not sleepy."
"No, but you will be at eight if you don't sleep now."
"Is the queen coming out, Colonel?"
"In a minute, Lieutenant."
"I should like to kiss her hand."
"Well, if you think it worth waiting a quarter of an hour for!" said Sapt, with a slight smile.
"You said a minute, sir."
"So did she," answered the constable.
Nevertheless it was a quarter of an hour before Rudolf Rassendyll opened the door and the queen appeared on the threshold. She was very pale, and she had been crying, but her eyes were happy and her air firm. The moment he saw her, young Bernenstein fell on his knee and raised her hand to his lips.
"To the death, madame," said he, in a trembling voice.
"I knew it, sir," she answered graciously. Then she looked round on the three of them. "Gentlemen," said she, "my servants and dear friends, with you, and with Fritz who lies wounded in Wintenberg, rest my honor and my life; for I will not live if the letter reaches the king."
"The king shall not have it, madame," said Colonel Sapt. He took her hand in his and patted it with a clumsy gentleness; smiling, she extended it again to young Bernenstein, in mark of her favor. They two then stood at the salute, while Rudolf walked with her to the end of the passage. There for a moment she and he stood together; the others turned their eyes away and thus did not see her suddenly stoop and cover his hand with her kisses. He tried to draw it away, not thinking it fit that she should kiss his hand, but she seemed as though she could not let it go. Yet at last, still with her eyes on his, she passed backwards through the door, and he shut it after her.
"Now to business," said Colonel Sapt dryly; and Rudolf laughed a little.
Rudolf passed into the room. Sapt went to the king's apartments, and asked the physician whether his Majesty were sleeping well. Receiving reassuring news of the royal slumbers, he proceeded to the quarters of the king's body-servant, knocked up the sleepy wretch, and ordered breakfast for the king and the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim at nine o'clock precisely, in the morning-room that looked out over the avenue leading to the entrance to the new chateau. This done, he returned to the room where Rudolf was, carried a chair into the passage, bade Rudolf lock the door, sat down, revolver in hand, and himself went to sleep. Young Bernenstein was in bed just now, taken faint, and the constable himself was acting as his substitute; that was to be the story, if a story were needed. Thus the hours from two to six passed that morning in the castle of Zenda.
At six the constable awoke and knocked at the door; Rudolf Rassendyll opened it.
"Slept well?" asked Sapt.
"Not a wink," answered Rudolf cheerfully.
"I thought you had more nerve."
"It wasn't want of nerve that kept me awake," said Mr. Rassendyll.
Sapt, with a pitying shrug, looked round. The curtains of the window were half-drawn. The table was moved near to the wall, and the arm-chair by it was well in shadow, being quite close to the curtains.
"There's plenty of room for you behind," said Rudolf; "And when Rischenheim is seated in his chair opposite to mine, you can put your barrel against his head by just stretching out your hand. And of course I can do the same."
"Yes, it looks well enough," said Sapt, with an approving nod. "What about the beard?"
"Bernenstein is to tell him you've shaved this morning."
"Will he believe that?"
"Why not? For his own sake he'd better believe everything."
"And if we have to kill him?"
"We must run for it. The king would be furious."
"He's fond of him?"
"You forget. He wants to know about the dogs."
"True. You'll be in your place in time?"
Rudolf Rassendyll took a turn up and down the room. It was easy to see that the events of the night had disturbed him. Sapt's thoughts were running in a different channel.
"When we've done with this fellow, we must find Rupert," said he.
"Rupert? Rupert? True; I forgot. Of course we must," said he confusedly.
Sapt looked scornful; he knew that his companion's mind had been occupied with the queen. But his remarks—if he had meditated any—were interrupted by the clock striking seven.
"He'll be here in an hour," said he.
"We're ready for him," answered Rudolf Rassendyll. With the thought of action his eyes grew bright and his brow smooth again. He and old Sapt looked at one another, and they both smiled.
"Like old times, isn't it, Sapt?"
"Aye, sire, like the reign of good King Rudolf."
Thus they made ready for the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim, while my cursed wound held me a prisoner at Wintenberg. It is still a sorrow to me that I know what passed that morning only by report, and had not the honor of bearing a part in it. Still, her Majesty did not forget me, but remembered that I would have taken my share, had fortune allowed. Indeed I would most eagerly.
CHAPTER V. AN AUDIENCE OF THE KING
Having come thus far in the story that I set out to tell, I have half a mind to lay down my pen, and leave untold how from the moment that Mr. Rassendyll came again to Zenda a fury of chance seemed to catch us all in a whirlwind, carrying us whither we would not, and ever driving us onwards to fresh enterprises, breathing into us a recklessness that stood at no obstacle, and a devotion to the queen and to the man she loved that swept away all other feeling. The ancients held there to be a fate which would have its fill, though women wept and men died, and none could tell whose was the guilt nor who fell innocent. Thus did they blindly wrong God's providence. Yet, save that we are taught to believe that all is ruled, we are as blind as they, and are still left wondering why all that is true and generous and love's own fruit must turn so often to woe and shame, exacting tears and blood. For myself I would leave the thing untold, lest a word of it should seem to stain her whom I serve; it is by her own command I write, that all may one day, in time's fullness, be truly known, and those condemn who are without sin, while they pity whose own hearts have fought the equal fight. So much for her and him; for us less needs be said. It was not ours to weigh her actions; we served her; him we had served. She was our queen; we bore Heaven a grudge that he was not our king. The worst of what befell was not of our own planning, no, nor of our hoping. It came a thunderbolt from the hand of Rupert, flung carelessly between a curse and a laugh; its coming entangled us more tightly in the net of circumstances. Then there arose in us that strange and overpowering desire of which I must tell later, filling us with a zeal to accomplish our purpose, and to force Mr. Rassendyll himself into the way we chose. Led by this star, we pressed on through the darkness, until at length the deeper darkness fell that stayed our steps. We also stand for judgment, even as she and he. So I will write; but I will write plainly and briefly, setting down what I must, and no more, yet seeking to give truly the picture of that time, and to preserve as long as may be the portrait of the man whose like I have not known. Yet the fear is always upon me that, failing to show him as he was, I may fail also in gaining an understanding of how he wrought on us, one and all, till his cause became in all things the right, and to seat him where he should be our highest duty and our nearest wish. For he said little, and that straight to the purpose; no high-flown words of his live in my memory. And he asked nothing for himself. Yet his speech and his eyes went straight to men's hearts and women's, so that they held their lives in an eager attendance on his bidding. Do I rave? Then Sapt was a raver too, for Sapt was foremost in the business.