Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope
Chapter XI. What the Chancellor's Wife Saw
THE night, so precious in its silence, solitude, and darkness, was waning fast; soon the first dim approaches of day would be visible; soon the streets would become alive and people be about. Before then Rudolf Rassendyll, the man who bore a face that he dared not show in open day, must be under cover; else men would say that the king was in Strelsau, and the news would flash in a few hours through the kingdom and (so Rudolf feared) reach even those ears which we knew to be shut to all earthly sounds. But there was still some time at Mr. Rassendyll's disposal, and he could not spend it better than in pursuing his fight with Bauer. Taking a leaf out of the rascal's own book, he drew himself back into the shadow of the house walls and prepared to wait. At the worst he could keep the fellow from communicating with Rischenheim for a little longer, but his hope was that Bauer would steal back after a while and reconnoitre with a view to discovering how matters stood, whether the unwelcome visitor had taken his departure and the way to Rischenheim were open. Wrapping his scarf closely round his face, Rudolf waited, patiently enduring the tedium as he best might, drenched by the rain, which fell steadily, and very imperfectly sheltered from the buffeting of the wind. Minutes went by; there were no signs of Bauer nor of anybody else in the silent street. Yet Rudolf did not venture to leave his post; Bauer would seize the opportunity to slip in; perhaps Bauer had seen him come out, and was in his turn waiting till the coast should be clear; or, again, perhaps the useful spy had gone off to intercept Rupert of Hentzau, and warn him of the danger in the Konigstrasse. Ignorant of the truth and compelled to accept all these chances, Rudolf waited, still watching the distant beginnings of dawning day, which must soon drive him to his hiding-place again. Meanwhile my poor wife waited also, a prey to every fear that a woman's sensitive mind can imagine and feed upon.
Rudolf turned his head this way and that, seeking always the darker blot of shadow that would mean a human being. For a while his search was vain, but presently he found what he looked for--ay, and even more. On the same side of the street, to his left hand, from the direction of the station, not one, but three blurred shapes moved up the street. They came stealthily, yet quickly; with caution, but without pause or hesitation. Rudolf, scenting danger, flattened himself close against the wall and felt for his revolver. Very likely they were only early workers or late revelers, but he was ready for something else; he had not yet sighted Bauer, and action was to be looked for from the man. By infinitely gradual sidelong slitherings he moved a few paces from the door of Mother Holf's house, and stood six feet perhaps, or eight, on the right-hand side of it. The three came on. He strained his eyes in the effort to discern their features. In that dim light certainty was impossible, but the one in the middle might well be Bauer: the height, the walk, and the make were much what Bauer's were. If it were Bauer, then Bauer had friends, and Bauer and his friends seemed to be stalking some game. Always most carefully and gradually Rudolf edged yet farther from the little shop. At a distance of some five yards he halted finally, drew out his revolver, covered the man whom he took to be Bauer, and thus waited his fortune and his chance.
Now, it was plain that Bauer--for Bauer it was--would look for one of two things: what he hoped was to find Rudolf still in the house, what he feared was to be told that Rudolf, having fulfilled the unknown purpose of his visit, was gone whole and sound. If the latter tidings met him, these two good friends of his whom he had enlisted for his reinforcement were to have five crowns each and go home in peace; if the former, they were to do their work and make ten crowns. Years after, one of them told me the whole story without shame or reserve. What their work was, the heavy bludgeons they carried and the long knife that one of them had lent to Bauer showed pretty clearly.
But neither to Bauer nor to them did it occur that their quarry might be crouching near, hunting as well as hunted. Not that the pair of ruffians who had been thus hired would have hesitated for that thought, as I imagine. For it is strange, yet certain, that the zenith of courage and the acme of villainy can alike be bought for the price of a lady's glove. Among such outcasts as those from whom Bauer drew his recruits the murder of a man is held serious only when the police are by, and death at the hands of him they seek to kill is no more than an every-day risk of their employment.
"Here's the house," whispered Bauer, stopping at the door. "Now, I'll knock, and you stand by to knock him on the head if he runs out. He's got a six-shooter, so lose no time."
"He'll only fire it in heaven," growled a hoarse, guttural voice that ended in a chuckle.
"But if he's gone?" objected the other auxiliary.
"Then I know where he's gone," answered Bauer. "Are you ready?"
A ruffian stood on either side of the door with uplifted bludgeon. Bauer raised his hand to knock.
Rudolf knew that Rischenheim was within, and he feared that Bauer, hearing that the stranger had gone, would take the opportunity of telling the count of his visit. The count would, in his turn, warn Rupert of Hentzau, and the work of catching the ringleader would all fall to be done again. At no time did Mr. Rassendyll take count of odds against him, but in this instance he may well have thought himself, with his revolver, a match for the three ruffians. At any rate, before Bauer had time to give the signal, he sprang out suddenly from the wall and darted at the fellow. His onset was so sudden that the other two fell back a pace; Rudolf caught Bauer fairly by the throat. I do not suppose that he meant to strangle him, but the anger, long stored in his heart, found vent in the fierce grip of his fingers. It is certain that Bauer thought his time was come, unless he struck a blow for himself. Instantly he raised his hand and thrust fiercely at Rudolf with his long knife. Mr. Rassendyll would have been a dead man, had he not loosed his hold and sprung lightly away. But Bauer sprang at him again, thrusting with the knife, and crying to his associates,
"Club him, you fools, club him!"
Thus exhorted, one jumped forward. The moment for hesitation had gone. In spite of the noise of wind and pelting rain, the sound of a shot risked much; but not to fire was death. Rudolf fired full at Bauer: the fellow saw his intention and tried to leap behind one of his companions; he was just too late, and fell with a groan to the ground.
Again the other ruffians shrank back, appalled by the sudden ruthless decision of the act. Mr. Rassendyll laughed. A half smothered yet uncontrolled oath broke from one of them. "By God!" he whispered hoarsely, gazing at Rudolf's face and letting his arm fall to his side. "My God!" he said then, and his mouth hung open. Again Rudolf laughed at his terrified stare.
"A bigger job than you fancied, is it?" he asked, pushing his scarf well away from his chin.
The man gaped at him; the other's eyes asked wondering questions, but neither did he attempt to resume the attack. The first at last found voice, and he said, "Well, it'd be damned cheap at ten crowns, and that's the living truth."
His friend--or confederate rather, for such men have no friends--looked on, still amazed.
"Take up that fellow by his head and his heels," ordered Rudolf. "Quickly! I suppose you don't want the police to find us here with him, do you? Well, no more do I. Lift him up."
As he spoke Rudolf turned to knock at the door of No. 19. But even as he did so Bauer groaned. Dead perhaps he ought to have been, but it seems to me that fate is always ready to take the cream and leave the scum. His leap aside had served him well, after all: he had nearly escaped scot free. As it was, the bullet, almost missing his head altogether, had just glanced on his temple as it passed; its impact had stunned, but not killed. Friend Bauer was in unusual luck that night; I wouldn't have taken a hundred to one about his chance of life. Rupert arrested his hand. It would not do to leave Bauer at the house, if Bauer were likely to regain speech. He stood for a moment, considering what to do, but in an instant the thoughts that he tried to gather were scattered again.
"The patrol! the patrol!" hoarsely whispered the fellow who had not yet spoken. There was a sound of the hoofs of horses. Down the street from the station end there appeared two mounted men. Without a second moment's hesitation the two rascals dropped their friend Bauer with a thud on the ground; one ran at his full speed across the street, the other bolted no less quickly up the Konigstrasse. Neither could afford to meet the constables; and who could say what story this red-haired gentleman might tell, ay, or what powers he might command?
But, in truth, Rudolf gave no thought to either his story or his powers. If he were caught, the best he could hope would be to lie in the lockup while Rupert played his game unmolested. The device that he had employed against the amazed ruffians could be used against lawful authority only as a last and desperate resort. While he could run, run he would. In an instant he also took to his heels, following the fellow who had darted up the Konigstrasse. But before he had gone very far, coming to a narrow turning, he shot down it; then he paused for a moment to listen.
The patrol had seen the sudden dispersal of the group, and, struck with natural suspicion, quickened pace. A few minutes brought them where Bauer was. They jumped from their horses and ran to him. He was unconscious, and could, of course, give them no account of how he came to be in his present state. The fronts of all the houses were dark, the doors shut; there was nothing to connect the man stretched on the ground with either No. 19 or any other dwelling. Moreover, the constables were not sure that the sufferer was himself a meritorious object, for his hand still held a long, ugly knife. They were perplexed: they were but two; there was a wounded man to look after; there were three men to pursue, and the three had fled in three separate directions. They looked up at No. 19; No. 19 remained dark, quiet, absolutely indifferent. The fugitives were out of sight. Rudolf Rassendyll, hearing nothing, had started again on his way. But a minute later he heard a shrill whistle. The patrol were summoning assistance; the man must be carried to the station, and a report made; but other constables might be warned of what had happened, and despatched in pursuit of the culprits. Rudolf heard more than one answering whistle; he broke into a run, looking for a turning on the left that would take him back into the direction of my house, but he found none. The narrow street twisted and curved in the bewildering way that characterizes the old parts of the town. Rudolf had spent some time once in Strelsau; but a king learns little of back streets, and he was soon fairly puzzled as to his whereabouts. Day was dawning, and he began to meet people here and there. He dared run no more, even had his breath lasted him; winding the scarf about his face, and cramming his hat over his forehead again, he fell into an easy walk, wondering whether he could venture to ask his way, relieved to find no signs that he was being pursued, trying to persuade himself that Bauer, though not dead, was at least incapable of embarrassing disclosures; above all, conscious of the danger of his tell-tale face, and of the necessity of finding some shelter before the city was all stirring and awake.
At this moment he heard horses' hoofs behind him. He was now at the end of the street, where it opened on the square in which the barracks stand. He knew his bearings now, and, had he not been interrupted, could have been back to safe shelter in my house in twenty minutes. But, looking back, he saw the figure of a mounted constable just coming into sight behind him. The man seemed to see Rudolf, for he broke into a quick trot. Mr. Rassendyll's position was critical; this fact alone accounts for the dangerous step into which he allowed himself to be forced. Here he was, a man unable to give account of himself, of remarkable appearance, and carrying a revolver, of which one barrel was discharged. And there was Bauer, a wounded man, shot by somebody with a revolver, a quarter of an hour before. Even to be questioned was dangerous; to be detained meant ruin to the great business that engaged his energies. For all he knew, the patrol had actually sighted him as he ran. His fears were not vain; for the constable raised his voice, crying, "Hi, sir--you there--stop a minute!"
Resistance was the one thing worse than to yield. Wit, and not force, must find escape this time. Rudolf stopped, looking round again with a surprised air. Then he drew himself up with an assumption of dignity, and waited for the constable. If that last card must be played, he would win the hand with it.
"Well, what do you want?" he asked coldly, when the man was a few yards from him; and, as he spoke, he withdrew the scarf almost entirely from his features, keeping it only over his chin. "You call very peremptorily," he continued, staring contemptuously. "What's your business with me?"
With a violent start, the sergeant--for such the star on his collar and the lace on his cuff proclaimed him--leant forward in the saddle to look at the man whom he had hailed. Rudolf said nothing and did not move. The man's eyes studied his face intently. Then he sat bolt upright and saluted, his face dyed to a deep red in his sudden confusion.
"And why do you salute me now?" asked Rudolf in a mocking tone. "First you hunt me, then you salute me. By Heaven, I don't know why you put yourself out at all about me!"
"I--I--" the fellow stuttered. Then trying a fresh start, he stammered, "Your Majesty, I didn't know--I didn't suppose--"
Rudolf stepped towards him with a quick, decisive tread.
"And why do you call me 'Your Majesty'?" he asked, still mockingly.
"It--it--isn't it your Majesty?"
Rudolf was close by him now, his hand on the horse's neck.
He looked up into the sergeant's face with steady eyes, saying:
"You make a mistake, my friend. I am not the king."
"You are not--?" stuttered the bewildered fellow.
"By no means. And, sergeant--?"
"Sir, you mean."
"A zealous officer, sergeant, can make no greater mistake than to take for the king a gentleman who is not the king. It might injure his prospects, since the king, not being here, mightn't wish to have it supposed that he was here. Do you follow me, sergeant?"
The man said nothing, but stared hard. After a moment Rudolf continued:
"In such a case," said he, "a discreet officer would not trouble the gentleman any more, and would be very careful not to mention that he had made such a silly mistake. Indeed, if questioned, he would answer without hesitation that he hadn't seen anybody even like the king, much less the king himself."
A doubtful, puzzled little smile spread under the sergeant's moustache.
"You see, the king is not even in Strelsau," said Rudolf.
"Not in Strelsau, sir?"
"Why, no, he's at Zenda."
"Ah! At Zenda, sir?"
"Certainly. It is therefore impossible--physically impossible--that he should be here."
The fellow was convinced that he understood now.
"It's certainly impossible, sir," said he, smiling more broadly.
"Absolutely. And therefore impossible also that you should have seen him." With this Rudolf took a gold piece from his pocket and handed it to the sergeant. The fellow took it with something like a wink.
"As for you, you've searched here and found nobody," concluded Mr. Rassendyll. "So hadn't you better at once search somewhere else?,
"Without doubt, sir," said the sergeant, and with the most deferential salute, and another confidential smile, he turned and rode back by the way he had come. No doubt he wished that he could meet a gentleman who was--not the king--every morning of his life. It hardly need be said that all idea of connecting the gentleman with the crime committed in the Konigstrasse had vanished from his mind. Thus Rudolf won freedom from the man's interference, but at a dangerous cost--how dangerous he did not know. It was indeed most impossible that the king could be in Strelsau.
He lost no time now in turning his steps towards his refuge. It was past five o'clock, day came quickly, and the streets began to be peopled by men and women on their way to open stalls or to buy in the market. Rudolf crossed the square at a rapid walk, for he was afraid of the soldiers who were gathering for early duty opposite to the barracks. Fortunately he passed by them unobserved, and gained the comparative seclusion of the street in which my house stands, without encountering any further difficulties. In truth, he was almost in safety; but bad luck was now to have its turn. When Mr. Rassendyll was no more than fifty yards from my door, a carriage suddenly drove up and stopped a few paces in front of him. The footman sprang down and opened the door. Two ladies got out; they were dressed in evening costume, and were returning from a ball. One was middle-aged, the other young and rather pretty. They stood for a moment on the pavement, the younger saying:
"Isn't it pleasant, mother? I wish I could always be up at five o'clock."
"My dear, you wouldn't like it for long," answered the elder. "It's very nice for a change, but--"
She stopped abruptly. Her eye had fallen on Rudolf Rassendyll. He knew her: she was no less a person than the wife of Helsing the chancellor; his was the house at which the carriage had stopped. The trick that had served with the sergeant of police would not do now. She knew the king too well to believe that she could be mistaken about him; she was too much of a busybody to be content to pretend that she was mistaken.
"Good gracious!" she whispered loudly, and, catching her daughter's arm, she murmured, "Heavens, my dear, it's the king!"
Rudolf was caught. Not only the ladies, but their servants were looking at him.
Flight was impossible. He walked by them. The ladies curtseyed, the servants bowed bare-headed. Rudolf touched his hat and bowed slightly in return. He walked straight on towards my house; they were watching him, and he knew it. Most heartily did he curse the untimely hours to which folks keep up their dancing, but he thought that a visit to my house would afford as plausible an excuse for his presence as any other. So he went on, surveyed by the wondering ladies, and by the servants who, smothering smiles, asked one another what brought his Majesty abroad in such a plight (for Rudolf's clothes were soaked and his boots muddy), at such an hour--and that in Strelsau, when all the world thought he was at Zenda.
Rudolf reached my house. Knowing that he was watched he had abandoned all intention of giving the signal agreed on between my wife and himself and of making his way in through the window. Such a sight would indeed have given the excellent Baroness von Helsing matter for gossip! It was better to let every servant in my house see his open entrance. But, alas, virtue itself sometimes leads to ruin. My dearest Helga, sleepless and watchful in the interest of her mistress, was even now behind the shutter, listening with all her ears and peering through the chinks. No sooner did Rudolf's footsteps become audible than she cautiously unfastened the shutter, opened the window, put her pretty head out, and called softly: "All's safe! Come in!"
The mischief was done then, for the faces of Helsing's wife and daughter, ay, and the faces of Helsing's servants, were intent on this most strange spectacle. Rudolf, turning his head over his shoulder, saw them; a moment later poor Helga saw them also. Innocent and untrained in controlling her feelings, she gave a shrill little cry of dismay, and hastily drew back. Rudolf looked round again. The ladies had retreated to the cover of the porch, but he still saw their eager faces peering from between the pillars that supported it.
"I may as well go in now," said Rudolf, and in he sprang. There was a merry smile on his face as he ran forward to meet Helga, who leant against the table, pale and agitated.
"They saw you?" she gasped.
"Undoubtedly," said he. Then his sense of amusement conquered everything else, and he sat down in a chair, laughing.
"I'd give my life," said he, "to hear the story that the chancellor will be waked up to hear in a minute or two from now!"
But a moment's thought made him grave again. For whether he were the king or Rudolf Rassendyll, he knew that my wife's name was in equal peril. Knowing this, he stood at nothing to serve her. He turned to her and spoke quickly.
"You must rouse one of the servants at once. Send him round to the chancellor's and tell the chancellor to come here directly. No, write a note. Say the king has come by appointment to see Fritz on some private business, but that Fritz has not kept the appointment, and that the king must now see the chancellor at once. Say there's not a moment to lose."
She was looking at him with wondering eyes.
"Don't you see," he said, "if I can impose on Helsing, I may stop those women's tongues? If nothing's done, how long do you suppose it'll be before all Strelsau knows that Fritz von Tarlenheim's wife let the king in at the window at five o'clock in the morning?"
"I don't understand," murmured poor Helga in bewilderment.
"No, my dear lady, but for Heaven's sake do what I ask of you. It's the only chance now."
"I'll do it," she said, and sat down to write.
Thus it was that, hard on the marvelous tidings which, as I conjecture, the Baroness von Helsing poured into her husband's drowsy ears, came an imperative summons that the chancellor should wait on the king at the house of Fritz von Tarlenheim.
Truly we had tempted fate too far by bringing Rudolf Rassendyll again to Strelsau.