Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope
Chapter XIV. The News Comes to Strelsau
ON leaving No. 19, Rischenheim walked swiftly some little way up the Konigstrasse and then hailed a cab. He had hardly raised his hand when he heard his name called, and, looking round, saw Anton von Strofzin's smart phaeton pulling up beside him. Anton was driving, and on the other seat was a large nosegay of choice flowers.
"Where are you off to?" cried Anton, leaning forward with a gay smile.
"Well, where are you? To a lady's, I presume, from your bouquet there," answered Rischenheim as lightly as he could.
"The little bunch of flowers," simpered young Anton, "is a cousinly offering to Helga von Tarlenheim, and I'm going to present it. Can I give you a lift anywhere?"'
Although Rischenheim had intended to go first to the palace, Anton's offer seemed to give him a good excuse for drawing the more likely covert first.
"I was going to the palace to find out where the king is. I want to see him, if he'll give me a minute or two," he remarked.
"I'll drive you there afterwards. Jump up. That your cab? Here you are, cabman," and flinging the cabman a crown, he displaced the bouquet and made room for Rischenheim beside him.
Anton's horses, of which he was not a little proud, made short work of the distance to my home. The phaeton rattled up to the door and both young men got out. The moment of their arrival found the chancellor just leaving to return to his own home. Helsing knew them both, and stopped to rally Anton on the matter of his bouquet. Anton was famous for his bouquets, which he distributed widely among the ladies of Strelsau.
"I hoped it was for my daughter," said the chancellor slyly. "For I love flowers, and my wife has ceased to provide me with them; moreover, I've ceased to provide her with them, so, but for my daughter, we should have none."
Anton answered his chaff, promising a bouquet for the young lady the next day, but declaring that he could not disappoint his cousin. He was interrupted by Rischenheim, who, looking round on the group of bystanders, now grown numerous, exclaimed: "What's going on here, my dear chancellor? What are all these people hanging about here for? Ah, that's a royal carriage!"
"The queen's with the countess," answered Helsing. "The people are waiting to see her come out."
"She's always worth seeing," Anton pronounced, sticking his glass in his eye.
"And you've been to visit her?" pursued Rischenheim.
"Why, yes. I--I went to pay my respects, my dear Rischenheim."
"An early visit!"
"It was more or less on business."
"Ah, I have business also, and very important business. But it's with the king."
"I won't keep you a moment, Rischenheim," called Anton, as, bouquet in hand, he knocked at the door.
"With the king?" said Helsing. "Ah, yes, but the king--"
"I'm on my way to the palace to find out where he is. If I can't see him, I must write at once. My business is very urgent."
"Indeed, my dear count, indeed! Dear me! Urgent, you say?"
"But perhaps you can help me. Is he at Zenda?"
The chancellor was becoming very embarrassed; Anton had disappeared into the house; Rischenheim buttonholed him resolutely.
"At Zenda? Well, now, I don't--Excuse me, but what's your business?"
"Excuse me, my dear chancellor; it's a secret."
"I have the king's confidence."
"Then you'll be indifferent to not enjoying mine," smiled Rischenheim.
"I perceive that your arm is hurt," observed the chancellor, seeking a diversion.
"Between ourselves, that has something to do with my business. Well, I must go to the palace. Or--stay--would her Majesty condescend to help me? I think I'll risk a request. She can but refuse," and so saying Rischenheim approached the door.
"Oh, my friend, I wouldn't do that," cried Helsing, darting after him. "The queen is--well, very much engaged. She won't like to be troubled."
Rischenheim took no notice of him, but knocked loudly. The door was opened, and he told the butler to carry his name to the queen and beg a moment's speech with her. Helsing stood in perplexity on the step. The crowd was delighted with the coming of these great folk and showed no sign of dispersing. Anton von Strofzin did not reappear. Rischenheim edged himself inside the doorway and stood on the threshold of the hall. There he heard voices proceeding from the sitting-room on the left. He recognized the queen's, my wife's, and Anton's. Then came the butler's, saying, "I will inform the count of your Majesty's wishes."
The door of the room opened; the butler appeared, and immediately behind him Anton von Strofzin and Bernenstein. Bernenstein had the young fellow by the arm, and hurried him through the hall. They passed the butler, who made way for them, and came to where Rischenheim stood.
"We meet again," said Rischenheim with a bow.
The chancellor rubbed his hands in nervous perturbation. The butler stepped up and delivered his message: the queen regretted her inability to receive the count. Rischenheim nodded, and, standing so that the door could not be shut, asked Bernenstein whether he knew where the king was.
Now Bernenstein was most anxious to get the pair of them away and the door shut, but he dared show no eagerness.
"Do you want another interview with the king already?" he asked with a smile. "The last was so pleasant, then?"
Rischenheim took no notice of the taunt, but observed sarcastically: "There's a strange difficulty in finding our good king. The chancellor here doesn't know where he is, or at least he won't answer my questions."
"Possibly the king has his reasons for not wishing to be disturbed," suggested Bernenstein.
"It's very possible," retorted Rischenheim significantly.
"Meanwhile, my dear count, I shall take it as a personal favor if you'll move out of the doorway."
"Do I incommode you by standing here?" answered the count.
"Infinitely, my lord," answered Bernenstein stiffly.
"Hallo, Bernenstein, what's the matter?" cried Anton, seeing that their tones and glances had grown angry. The crowd also had noticed the raised voices and hostile manner of the disputants, and began to gather round in a more compact group.
Suddenly a voice came from inside the hall: it was distinct and loud, yet not without a touch of huskiness. The sound of it hushed the rising quarrel and silenced the crowd into expectant stillness. Bernenstein looked aghast, Rischenheim nervous yet triumphant, Anton amused and gratified.
"The king!" he cried, and burst into a laugh. "You've drawn him, Rischenheim!"
The crowd heard his boyish exclamation and raised a cheer. Helsing turned, as though to rebuke them. Had not the king himself desired secrecy? Yes, but he who spoke as the king chose any risk sooner than let Rischenheim go back and warn Rupert of his presence.
"Is that the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim?" called Rudolf from within. "If so, let him enter and then shut the door."
There was something in his tone that alarmed Rischenheim. He started back on the step. But Bernenstein caught him by the arm.
"Since you wish to come in, come in," he said with a grim smile.
Rischenheim looked round, as though he meditated flight. The next moment Bernenstein was thrust aside. For one short instant a tall figure appeared in the doorway; the crowd had but a glimpse, yet they cheered again. Rischenheim's hand was clasped in a firm grip; he passed unwillingly but helplessly through the door. Bernenstein followed; the door was shut. Anton faced round on Helsing, a scornful twist on his lips.
"There was a deuced lot of mystery about nothing," said he. "Why couldn't you say he was there?" And without waiting for an answer from the outraged and bewildered chancellor he swung down the steps and climbed into his phaeton.
The people round were chatting noisily, delighted to have caught a glimpse of the king, speculating what brought him and the queen to my house, and hoping that they would soon come out and get into the royal carriage that still stood waiting.
Had they been able to see inside the door, their emotion would have been stirred to a keener pitch. Rudolf himself caught Rischenheim by the arm, and without a moment's delay led him towards the back of the house. They went along a passage and reached a small room that looked out on the garden. Rudolf had known my house in old days, and did not forget its resources.
"Shut the door, Bernenstein," said Rudolf. Then he turned to Rischenheim. "My lord," he said, "I suppose you came to find out something. Do you know it now?"
Rischenheim plucked up courage to answer him.
"Yes, I know now that I have to deal with an impostor," said he defiantly.
"Precisely. And impostors can't afford to be exposed." Rischenheim's cheek turned rather pale. Rudolf faced him, and Bernenstein guarded the door. He was absolutely at their mercy; and he knew their secret. Did they know his--the news that Rupert of Hentzau had brought?
"Listen," said Rudolf. "For a few hours to-day I am king in Strelsau. In those few hours I have an account to settle with your cousin: something that he has, I must have. I'm going now to seek him, and while I seek him you will stay here with Bernenstein. Perhaps I shall fail, perhaps I shall succeed. Whether I succeed or fail, by to-night I shall be far from Strelsau, and the king's place will be free for him again."
Rischenheim gave a slight start, and a look of triumph spread over his face. They did not know that the king was dead.
Rudolf came nearer to him, fixing his eyes steadily on his prisoner's face.
"I don't know," he continued, "why you are in this business, my lord. Your cousin's motives I know well. But I wonder that they seemed to you great enough to justify the ruin of an unhappy lady who is your queen. Be assured that I will die sooner than let that letter reach the king's hand."
Rischenheim made him no answer.
"Are you armed?" asked Rudolf.
Rischenheim sullenly flung his revolver on the table. Bernenstein came forward and took it.
"Keep him here, Bernenstein. When I return I'll tell you what more to do. If I don't return, Fritz will be here soon, and you and he must make your own plans."
"He sha'n't give me the slip a second time," said Bernenstein.
"We hold ourselves free," said Rudolf to Rischenheim, "to do what we please with you, my lord. But I have no wish to cause your death, unless it be necessary. You will be wise to wait till your cousin's fate is decided before you attempt any further steps against us." And with a slight bow he left the prisoner in Bernenstein's charge, and went back to the room where the queen awaited him. Helga was with her. The queen sprang up to meet him.
"I mustn't lose a moment," he said. "All that crowd of people know now that the king is here. The news will filter through the town in no time. We must send word to Sapt to keep it from the king's ears at all costs: I must go and do my work, and then disappear."
The queen stood facing him. Her eyes seemed to devour his face; but she said only: "Yes, it must be so."
"You must return to the palace as soon as I am gone. I shall send out and ask the people to disperse, and then I must be off."
"To seek Rupert of Hentzau?"
She struggled for a moment with the contending feelings that filled her heart. Then she came to him and seized hold of his hand.
"Don't go," she said in low trembling tones. "Don't go, Rudolf. He'll kill you. Never mind the letter. Don't go: I had rather a thousand times that the king had it than that you should .... Oh, my dear, don't go!"
"I must go," he said softly.
Again she began to implore him, but he would not yield. Helga moved towards the door, but Rudolf stopped her.
"No," he said; "you must stay with her; you must go to the palace with her."
Even as he spoke they heard the wheels of a carriage driven quickly to the door. By now I had met Anton von Strofzin and heard from him that the king was at my house. As I dashed up the news was confirmed by the comments and jokes of the crowd.
"Ah, he's in a hurry," they said. "He's kept the king waiting. He'll get a wigging."
As may be supposed, I paid little heed to them. I sprang out and ran up the steps to the door. I saw my wife's face at the window: she herself ran to the door and opened it for me.
"Good God," I whispered, "do all these people know he's here, and take him for the king?"
"Yes," she said. "We couldn't help it. He showed himself at the door."
It was worse than I dreamt: not two or three people, but all that crowd were victims of the mistake; all of them had heard that the king was in Strelsau--ay, and had seen him.
"Where is he? Where is he?" I asked, and followed her hastily to the room.
The queen and Rudolf were standing side by side. What I have told from Helga's description had just passed between them. Rudolf ran to meet me.
"Is all well?" he asked eagerly.
I forgot the queen's presence and paid no sign of respect to her. I caught Rudolf by the arm and cried to him: "Do they take you for the king?"
"Yes," he said. "Heavens, man, don't look so white! We shall manage it. I can be gone by to-night."
"Gone? How will that help, since they believe you to be the king?"
"You can keep it from the king," he urged. "I couldn't help it. I can settle with Rupert and disappear."
The three were standing round me, surprised at my great and terrible agitation. Looking back now, I wonder that I could speak to them at all.
Rudolf tried again to reassure me. He little knew the cause of what he saw.
"It won't take long to settle affairs with Rupert," said he. "And we must have the letter, or it will get to the king after all."
"The king will never see the letter," I blurted out, as I sank back in a chair.
They said nothing. I looked round on their faces. I had a strange feeling of helplessness, and seemed to be able to do nothing but throw the truth at them in blunt plainness. Let them make what they could of it, I could make nothing.
"The king will never see the letter," I repeated. "Rupert himself has insured that."
"What do you mean? You've not met Rupert? You've not got the letter?"
"No, no; but the king can never read it."
Then Rudolf seized me by the shoulder and fairly shook me; indeed I must have seemed like a man in a dream or a torpor.
"Why not, man; why not?" he asked in urgent low tones. Again I looked at them, but somehow this time my eyes were attracted and held by the queen's face. I believe that she was the first to catch a hint of the tidings I brought. Her lips were parted, and her gaze eagerly strained upon me. I rubbed my hand across my forehead, and, looking up stupidly at her, I said:
"He never can see the letter. He's dead."
There was a little scream from Helga; Rudolf neither spoke nor moved; the queen continued to gaze at me in motionless wonder and horror.
"Rupert killed him," said I. "The boar-hound attacked Rupert; then Herbert and the king attacked him; and he killed them all. Yes, the king is dead. He's dead."
Now none spoke. The queen's eyes never left my face. "Yes, he's dead." said I; and I watched her eyes still. For a long while (or long it seemed) they were on my face; at last, as though drawn by some irresistible force, they turned away. I followed the new line they took. She looked at Rudolf Rassendyll, and he at her. Helga had taken out her handkerchief, and, utterly upset by the horror and shock, was lying back in a low chair, sobbing half-hysterically; I saw the swift look that passed from the queen to her lover, carrying in it grief, remorse, and most unwilling joy. He did not speak to her, but put out his hand and took hers. She drew it away almost sharply, and covered her face with both hands.
Rudolf turned to me. "When was it?"
"And the .... He's at the lodge?"
"Yes, with Sapt and James."
I was recovering my senses and my coolness.
"Nobody knows yet," I said. "We were afraid you might be taken for him by somebody. But, my God, Rudolf, what's to be done now?"
Mr. Rassendyll's lips were set firm and tight. He frowned slightly, and his blue eyes wore a curious entranced expression. He seemed to me to be forgetful of everything, even of us who were with him, in some one idea that possessed him. The queen herself came nearer to him and lightly touched his arm with her hand. He started as though surprised, then fell again into his reverie.
"What's to be done, Rudolf?" I asked again.
"I'm going to kill Rupert of Hentzau," he said. "The rest we'll talk of afterwards."
He walked rapidly across the room and rang the bell. "Clear those people away," he ordered. "Tell them that I want to be quiet. Then send a closed carriage round for me. Don't be more than ten minutes."
The servant received his peremptory orders with a low bow, and left us. The queen, who had been all this time outwardly calm and composed, now fell into a great agitation, which even the consciousness of our presence could not enable her to hide.
"Rudolf, must you go? Since--since this has happened--"
"Hush, my dearest lady," he whispered. Then he went on more loudly, "I won't quit Ruritania a second time leaving Rupert of Hentzau alive. Fritz, send word to Sapt that the king is in Strelsau--he will understand--and that instructions from the king will follow by midday. When I have killed Rupert, I shall visit the lodge on my way to the frontier."
He turned to go, but the queen, following, detained him for a minute.
"You'll come and see me before you go?" she pleaded.
"But I ought not," said he, his resolute eyes suddenly softening in a marvelous fashion.
"Yes, my queen."
Then I sprang up, for a sudden dread laid hold on me.
"Heavens, man," I cried, "what if he kills you--there in the Konigstrasse?"
Rudolf turned to me; there was a look of surprise on his face. "He won't kill me," he answered.
The queen, looking still in Rudolf's face, and forgetful now, as it seemed, of the dream that had so terrified her, took no notice of what I said, but urged again: "You'll come, Rudolf?"
"Yes, once, my queen," and with a last kiss of her hand he was gone.
The queen stood for yet another moment where she was, still and almost rigid. Then suddenly she walked or stumbled to where my wife sat, and, flinging herself on her knees, hid her face in Helga's lap; I heard her sobs break out fast and tumultuously. Helga looked up at me, the tears streaming down her cheeks. I turned and went out. Perhaps Helga could comfort her; I prayed that God in His pity might send her comfort, although she for her sin's sake dared not ask it of Him. Poor soul! I hope there may be nothing worse scored to my account.