Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope
Chapter X. The King in Strelsau
MR. RASSENDYLL reached Strelsau from Zenda without accident about nine o'clock in the evening of the same day as that which witnessed the tragedy of the hunting-lodge. He could have arrived sooner, but prudence did not allow him to enter the populous suburbs of the town till the darkness guarded him from notice. The gates of the city were no longer shut at sunset, as they had used to be in the days when Duke Michael was governor, and Rudolf passed them without difficulty. Fortunately the night, fine where we were, was wet and stormy at Strelsau; thus there were few people in the streets, and he was able to gain the door of my house still unremarked. Here, of course, a danger presented itself. None of my servants were in the secret; only my wife, in whom the queen herself had confided, knew Rudolf, and she did not expect to see him, since she was ignorant of the recent course of events. Rudolf was quite alive to the peril, and regretted the absence of his faithful attendant, who could have cleared the way for him. The pouring rain gave him an excuse for twisting a scarf about his face and pulling his coat-collar up to his ears, while the gusts of wind made the cramming of his hat low down over his eyes no more than a natural precaution against its loss. Thus masked from curious eyes, he drew rein before my door, and, having dismounted, rang the bell. When the butler came a strange hoarse voice, half-stifled by folds of scarf, asked for the countess, alleging for pretext a message from myself. The man hesitated, as well he might, to leave the stranger alone with the door open and the contents of the hall at his mercy. Murmuring an apology in case his visitor should prove to be a gentleman, he shut the door and went in search of his mistress. His description of the untimely caller at once roused my wife's quick wit; she had heard from me how Rudolf had ridden once from Strelsau to the hunting-lodge with muffled face; a very tall man with his face wrapped in a scarf and his hat over his eyes, who came with a private message, suggested to her at least a possibility of Mr. Rassendyll's arrival. Helga will never admit that she is clever, yet I find she discovers from me what she wants to know, and I suspect hides successfully the small matters of which she in her wifely discretion deems I had best remain ignorant. Being able thus to manage me, she was equal to coping with the butler. She laid aside her embroidery most composedly.
"Ah, yes," she said, "I know the gentleman. Surely you haven't left him out in the rain?" She was anxious lest Rudolf's features should have been exposed too long to the light of the hall-lamps.
The butler stammered an apology, explaining his fears for our goods and the impossibility of distinguishing social rank on a dark night. Helga cut him short with an impatient gesture, crying, "How stupid of you!" and herself ran quickly down and opened the door--a little way only, though. The first sight of Mr. Rassendyll confirmed her suspicions; in a moment, she said, she knew his eyes.
"It is you, then?" she cried. "And my foolish servant has left you in the rain! Pray come in. Oh, but your horse!" She turned to the penitent butler, who had followed her downstairs. "Take the baron's horse round to the stables," she said.
"I will send some one at once, my lady."
"No, no, take it yourself--take it at once. I'll look after the baron."
Reluctantly and ruefully the fat fellow stepped out into the storm. Rudolf drew back and let him pass, then he entered quickly, to find himself alone with Helga in the hall. With a finger on her lips, she led him swiftly into a small sitting-room on the ground floor, which I used as a sort of office or place of business. It looked out on the street, and the rain could be heard driving against the broad panes of the window. Rudolf turned to her with a smile, and, bowing, kissed her hand.
"The baron what, my dear countess?" he inquired.
"He won't ask," said she with a shrug. "Do tell me what brings you here, and what has happened."
He told her very briefly all he knew. She hid bravely her alarm at hearing that I might perhaps meet Rupert at the lodge, and at once listened to what Rudolf wanted of her.
"Can I get out of the house, and, if need be, back again unnoticed?" he asked.
"The door is locked at night, and only Fritz and the butler have keys."
Mr. Rassendyll's eye traveled to the window of the room.
"I haven't grown so fat that I can't get through there," said he. "So we'd better not trouble the butler. He'd talk, you know."
"I will sit here all night and keep everybody from the room."
"I may come back pursued if I bungle my work and an alarm is raised."
"Your work?" she asked, shrinking back a little.
"Yes," said he. "Don't ask what it is, Countess. It is in the queen's service."
"For the queen I will do anything and everything, as Fritz would."
He took her hand and pressed it in a friendly, encouraging way.
"Then I may issue my orders?" he asked, smiling.
"They shall be obeyed."
"Then a dry cloak, a little supper, and this room to myself, except for you."
As he spoke the butler turned the handle of the door. My wife flew across the room, opened the door, and, while Rudolf turned his back, directed the man to bring some cold meat, or whatever could be ready with as little delay as possible.
"Now come with me," she said to Rudolf, directly the servant was gone.
She took him to my dressing-room, where he got dry clothes; then she saw the supper laid, ordered a bedroom to be prepared, told the butler that she had business with the baron and that he need not sit up if she were later than eleven, dismissed him, and went to tell Rudolf that the coast was clear for his return to the sitting-room. He came, expressing admiration for her courage and address; I take leave to think that she deserved his compliments. He made a hasty supper; then they talked together, Rudolf smoking his cigar. Eleven came and went. It was not yet time. My wife opened the door and looked out. The hall was dark, the door locked and its key in the hands of the butler. She closed the door again and softly locked it. As the clock struck twelve Rudolf rose and turned the lamp very low. Then he unfastened the shutters noiselessly, raised the window and looked out.
"Shut them again when I'm gone," he whispered. "If I come back, I'll knock like this, and you'll open for me."
"For heaven's sake, be careful," she murmured, catching at his hand.
He nodded reassuringly, and crossing his leg over the windowsill, sat there for a moment listening. The storm was as fierce as ever, and the street was deserted. He let himself down on to the pavement, his face again wrapped up. She watched his tall figure stride quickly along till a turn of the road hid it. Then, having closed the window and the shutters again, she sat down to keep her watch, praying for him, for me, and for her dear mistress the queen. For she knew that perilous work was afoot that night, and did not know whom it might threaten or whom destroy.
From the moment that Mr. Rassendyll thus left my house at midnight on his search for Rupert of Hentzau, every hour and almost every moment brought its incident in the swiftly moving drama which decided the issues of our fortune. What we were doing has been told; by now Rupert himself was on his way back to the city, and the queen was meditating, in her restless vigil, on the resolve that in a few hours was to bring her also to Strelsau. Even in the dead of night both sides were active. For, plan cautiously and skillfully as he might, Rudolf fought with an antagonist who lost no chances, and who had found an apt and useful tool in that same Bauer, a rascal, and a cunning rascal, if ever one were bred in the world. From the beginning even to the end our error lay in taking too little count of this fellow, and dear was the price we paid.
Both to my wife and to Rudolf himself the street had seemed empty of every living being when she watched and he set out. Yet everything had been seen, from his first arrival to the moment when she closed the window after him. At either end of my house there runs out a projection, formed by the bay windows of the principal drawing-room and of the dining room respectively. These projecting walls form shadows, and in the shade of one of them--of which I do not know, nor is it of moment--a man watched all that passed; had he been anywhere else, Rudolf must have seen him. If we had not been too engrossed in playing our own hands, it would doubtless have struck us as probable that Rupert would direct Rischenheim and Bauer to keep an eye on my house during his absence; for it was there that any of us who found our way to the city would naturally resort in the first instance. As a fact, he had not omitted this precaution. The night was so dark that the spy, who had seen the king but once and never Mr. Rassendyll, did not recognize who the visitor was, but he rightly conceived that he should serve his employer by tracking the steps of the tall man who made so mysterious an arrival and so surreptitious a departure from the suspected house. Accordingly, as Rudolf turned the corner and Helena closed the window, a short, thickset figure started cautiously out of the projecting shadow, and followed in Rudolf's wake through the storm. The pair, tracker and tracked, met nobody, save here and there a police constable keeping a most unwilling beat. Even such were few, and for the most part more intent on sheltering in the lee of a friendly wall and thereby keeping a dry stitch or two on them than on taking note of passers-by. On the pair went. Now Rudolf turned into the Konigstrasse. As he did so, Bauer, who must have been nearly a hundred yards behind (for he could not start till the shutters were closed) quickened his pace and reduced the interval between them to about seventy yards. This he might well have thought a safe distance on a night so wild, when the rush of wind and the pelt of the rain joined to hide the sound of footsteps.
But Bauer reasoned as a townsman, and Rudolf Rassendyll had the quick ear of a man bred in the country and trained to the woodland. All at once there was a jerk of his head; I know so well the motion which marked awakened attention in him. He did not pause nor break his stride: to do either would have been to betray his suspicions to his follower; but he crossed the road to the opposite side to that where No. 19 was situated, and slackened his pace a little, so that there was a longer interval between his own footfalls. The steps behind him grew slower, even as his did; their sound came no nearer: the follower would not overtake. Now, a man who loiters on such a night, just because another head of him is fool enough to loiter, has a reason for his action other than what can at first sight be detected. So thought Rudolf Rassendyll, and his brain was busied with finding it out.
Then an idea seized him, and, forgetting the precautions that had hitherto served so well, he came to a sudden stop on the pavement, engrossed in deep thought. Was the man who dogged his steps Rupert himself? It would be like Rupert to track him, like Rupert to conceive such an attack, like Rupert to be ready either for a fearless assault from the front or a shameless shot from behind, and indifferent utterly which chance offered, so it threw him one of them. Mr. Rassendyll asked no better than to meet his enemy thus in the open. They could fight a fair fight, and if he fell the lamp would be caught up and carried on by Sapt's hand or mine; if he got the better of Rupert, the letter would be his; a moment would destroy it and give safety to the queen. I do not suppose that he spent time in thinking how he should escape arrest at the hands of the police whom the fracas would probably rouse; if he did, he may well have reckoned on declaring plainly who he was, of laughing at their surprise over a chance likeness to the king, and of trusting to us to smuggle him beyond the arm of the law. What mattered all that, so that there was a moment in which to destroy the letter? At any rate he turned full round and began to walk straight towards Bauer, his hand resting on the revolver in the pocket of his coat.
Bauer saw him coming, and must have known that he was suspected or detected. At once the cunning fellow slouched his head between his shoulders, and set out along the street at a quick shuffle, whistling as he went. Rudolf stood still now in the middle of the road, wondering who the man was: whether Rupert, purposely disguising his gait, or a confederate, or, after all, some person innocent of our secret and indifferent to our schemes. On came Bauer, softly, whistling and slushing his feet carelessly through the liquid mud. Now he was nearly opposite where Mr. Rassendyll stood. Rudolf was well-nigh convinced that the man had been on his track: he would make certainty surer. The bold game was always his choice and his delight; this trait he shared with Rupert of Hentzau, and hence arose, I think, the strange secret inclination he had for his unscrupulous opponent. Now he walked suddenly across to Bauer, and spoke to him in his natural voice, at the same time removing the scarf partly, but not altogether, from his face.
"You're out late, my friend, for a night like this."
Bauer, startled though he was by the unexpected challenge, had his wits about him. Whether he identified Rudolf at once, I do not know; I think that he must at least have suspected the truth.
"A lad that has no home to go to must needs be out both late and early, sir," said he, arresting his shuffling steps, and looking up with that honest stolid air which had made a fool of me.
I had described him very minutely to Mr. Rassendyll; if Bauer knew or guessed who his challenger was, Mr. Rassendyll was as well equipped for the encounter.
"No home to go to!" cried Rudolf in a pitying tone. "How's that? But anyhow, Heaven forbid that you or any man should walk the streets a night like this. Come, I'll give you a bed. Come with me, and I'll find you good shelter, my boy."
Bauer shrank away. He did not see the meaning of this stroke, and his eye, traveling up the street, showed that his thoughts had turned towards flight. Rudolf gave no time for putting any such notion into effect. Maintaining his air of genial compassion, he passed his left arm through Bauer's right, saying:
"I'm a Christian man, and a bed you shall have this night, my lad, as sure as I'm alive. Come along with me. The devil, it's not weather for standing still!"
The carrying of arms in Strelsau was forbidden. Bauer had no wish to get into trouble with the police, and, moreover, he had intended nothing but a reconnaissance; he was therefore without any weapon, and he was a child in Rudolf's grasp. He had no alternative but to obey the suasion of Mr. Rassendyll's arm, and they two began to walk down the Konigstrasse. Bauer's whistle had died away, not to return; but from time to time Rudolf hummed softly a cheerful tune, his fingers beating time on Bauer's captive arm. Presently they crossed the road. Bauer's lagging steps indicated that he took no pleasure in the change of side, but he could not resist.
"Ay, you shall go where I am going, my lad," said Rudolf encouragingly; and he laughed a little as he looked down at the fellow's face.
Along they went; soon they came to the small numbers at the station end of the Konigstrasse. Rudolf began to peer up at the shop fronts.
"It's cursed dark," said he. "Pray, lad, can you make out which is nineteen?"
The moment he had spoken the smile broadened on his face. The shot had gone home. Bauer was a clever scoundrel, but his nerves were not under perfect control, and his arm had quivered under Rudolf's.
"Nineteen, sir?" he stammered.
"Ay, nineteen. That's where we're bound for, you and I. There I hope we shall find--what we want."
Bauer seemed bewildered: no doubt he was at a loss how either to understand or to parry the bold attack.
"Ah, this looks like it," said Rudolf, in a tone of great satisfaction, as they came to old Mother Holf's little shop. "Isn't that a one and a nine over the door, my lad? Ah, and Holf! Yes, that's the name. Pray ring the bell. My hands are occupied."
Rudolf's hands were indeed occupied; one held Bauer's arm, now no longer with a friendly pressure, but with a grip of iron; in the other the captive saw the revolver that had till now lain hidden.
"You see?" asked Rudolf pleasantly. "You must ring for me, mustn't you? It would startle them if I roused them with a shot." A motion of the barrel told Bauer the direction which the shot would take.
"There's no bell," said Bauer sullenly.
"Ah, then you knock?"
"I suppose so."
"In any particular way, my friend?"
"I don't know," growled Bauer.
"Nor I. Can't you guess?"
"No, I know nothing of it."
"Well, we must try. You knock, and--Listen, my lad. You must guess right. You understand?"
"How can I guess?" asked Bauer, in an attempt at bluster.
"Indeed, I don't know," smiled Rudolf. "But I hate waiting, and if the door is not open in two minutes, I shall arouse the good folk with a shot. You see? You quite see, don't you?" Again the barrel's motion pointed and explained Mr. Rassendyll's meaning.
Under this powerful persuasion Bauer yielded. He lifted his hand and knocked on the door with his knuckles, first loudly, then very softly, the gentler stroke being repeated five times in rapid succession. Clearly he was expected, for without any sound of approaching feet the chain was unfastened with a subdued rattle. Then came the noise of the bolt being cautiously worked back into its socket. As it shot home a chink of the door opened. At the same moment Rudolf's hand slipped from Bauer's arm. With a swift movement he caught the fellow by the nape of the neck and flung him violently forward into the roadway, where, losing his footing, he fell sprawling face downwards in the mud. Rudolf threw himself against the door: it yielded, he was inside, and in an instant he had shut the door and driven the bolt home again, leaving Bauer in the gutter outside. Then he turned, with his hand on the butt of his revolver. I know that he hoped to find Rupert of Hentzau's face within a foot of his.
Neither Rupert nor Rischenheim, nor even the old woman fronted him: a tall, handsome, dark girl faced him, holding an oil-lamp in her hand. He did not know her, but I could have told him that she was old Mother Holf's youngest child, Rosa, for I had often seen her as I rode through the town of Zenda with the king, before the old lady moved her dwelling to Strelsau. Indeed the girl had seemed to haunt the king's foot-steps, and he had himself joked on her obvious efforts to attract his attention, and the languishing glances of her great black eyes. But it is the lot of prominent personages to inspire these strange passions, and the king had spent as little thought on her as on any of the romantic girls who found a naughty delight in half-fanciful devotion to him--devotion starting, in many cases, by an irony of which the king was happily unconscious, from the brave figure that he made at his coronation and his picturesque daring in the affair of Black Michael. The worshipers never came near enough to perceive the alteration in their idol.
The half then, at least, of Rosa's attachment was justly due to the man who now stood opposite to her, looking at her with surprise by the murky light of the strong-smelling oil-lamp. The lamp shook and almost fell from her hand when she saw him; for the scarf had slid away, and his features were exposed to full view. Fright, delight, and excitement vied with one another in her eyes.
"The king!" she whispered in amazement. "No, but--" And she searched his face wonderingly.
"Is it the beard you miss?" asked Rudolf, fingering his chin. "Mayn't kings shave when they please, as well as other men?" Her face still expressed bewilderment, and still a lingering doubt. He bent towards her, whispering:
"Perhaps I wasn't over-anxious to be known at once."
She flushed with pleasure at the confidence he seemed to put in her.
"I should know you anywhere," she whispered, with a glance of the great black eyes. "Anywhere, your Majesty."
"Then you'll help me, perhaps?"
"With my life."
"No, no, my dear young lady, merely with a little information. Whose home is this?"
"Ah! She takes lodgers?"
The girl appeared vexed at his cautious approaches. "Tell me what you want to know," she said simply.
"Then who's here?"
"My lord the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim."
"And what's he doing?"
"He's lying on the bed moaning and swearing, because his wounded arm gives him pain."
"And is nobody else here?"
She looked round warily, and sank her voice to a whisper as she answered:
"No, not now--nobody else."
"I was seeking a friend of mine," said Rudolf. "I want to see him alone. It's not easy for a king to see people alone."
"Well, you know whom I mean."
"Yes. No, he's gone; but he's gone to find you."
"To find me! Plague take it! How do you know that, my pretty lady?"
"Bauer told me."
"Ah, Bauer! And who's Bauer?"
"The man who knocked. Why did you shut him out?"
"To be alone with you, to be sure. So Bauer tells you his master's secrets?"
She acknowledged his raillery with a coquettish laugh. It was not amiss for the king to see that she had her admirers.
"Well, and where has this foolish count gone to meet me?" asked Rudolf lightly.
"You haven't seen him?"
"No; I came straight from the Castle of Zenda."
"But," she cried, "he expected to find you at the hunting lodge. Ah, but now I recollect! The Count of Rischenheim was greatly vexed to find, on his return, that his cousin was gone."
"Ah, he was gone! Now I see! Rischenheim brought a message from me to Count Rupert."
"And they missed one another, your Majesty?"
"Exactly, my dear young lady. Very vexatious it is, upon my word!" In this remark, at least, Rudolf spoke no more and no other than he felt. "But when do you expect the Count of Hentzau?" he pursued.
"Early in the morning, your Majesty--at seven or eight."
Rudolf came nearer to her, and took a couple of gold coins from his pocket.
"I don't want money, your Majesty," she murmured.
"Oh, make a hole in them and hang them round your neck."
"Ah, yes: yes, give them to me," she cried, holding out her hand eagerly.
"You'll earn them?" he asked, playfully holding them out of her reach.
"By being ready to open to me when I come at eleven and knock as Bauer knocked."
"Yes, I'll be there."
"And by telling nobody that I've been here to-night. Will you promise me that?"
"Not my mother?"
"Nor the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim?"
"Him least of all. You must tell nobody. My business is very private, and Rischenheim doesn't know it."
"I'll do all you tell me. But--but Bauer knows."
"True," said Rudolf. "Bauer knows. Well, we'll see about Bauer."
As he spoke he turned towards the door. Suddenly the girl bent, snatched at his hand and kissed it.
"I would die for you," she murmured.
"Poor child!" said he gently. I believe he was loath to make profit, even in the queen's service, of her poor foolish love. He laid his hand on the door, but paused a moment to say:
"If Bauer comes, you have told me nothing. Mind, nothing! I threatened you, but you told me nothing."
"He'll tell them you have been here."
"That can't be helped; at least they won't know when I shall arrive again. Good-night."
Rudolf opened the door and slipped through, closing it hastily behind him. If Bauer got back to the house, his visit must be known; but if he could intercept Bauer, the girl's silence was assured. He stood just outside, listening intently and searching the darkness with eager eyes.