Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope
Chapter VI. The Task of the Queen's Servants
THE doctor who attended me at Wintenberg was not only discreet, but also indulgent; perhaps he had the sense to see that little benefit would come to a sick man from fretting in helplessness on his back, when he was on fire to be afoot. I fear he thought the baker's rolling-pin was in my mind, but at any rate I extorted a consent from him, and was on my way home from Wintenberg not much more than twelve hours after Rudolf Rassendyll left me. Thus I arrived at my own house in Strelsau on the same Friday morning that witnessed the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim's two-fold interview with the king at the Castle of Zenda. The moment I had arrived, I sent James, whose assistance had been, and continued to be, in all respects most valuable, to despatch a message to the constable, acquainting him with my whereabouts, and putting myself entirely at his disposal. Sapt received this message while a council of war was being held, and the information it gave aided not a little in the arrangements that the constable and Rudolf Rassendyll made. What these were I must now relate, although, I fear, at the risk of some tediousness.
Yet that council of war in Zenda was held under no common circumstances. Cowed as Rischenheim appeared, they dared not let him out of their sight. Rudolf could not leave the room into which Sapt had locked him; the king's absence was to be short, and before he came again Rudolf must be gone, Rischenheim safely disposed of, and measures taken against the original letter reaching the hands for which the intercepted copy had been destined. The room was a large one. In the corner farthest from the door sat Rischenheim, disarmed, dispirited, to all seeming ready to throw up his dangerous game and acquiesce in any terms presented to him. Just inside the door, guarding it, if need should be, with their lives, were the other three, Bernenstein merry and triumphant, Sapt blunt and cool, Rudolf calm and clear-headed. The queen awaited the result of their deliberations in her apartments, ready to act as they directed, but determined to see Rudolf before he left the castle. They conversed together in low tones. Presently Sapt took paper and wrote. This first message was to me, and it bade me come to Zenda that afternoon; another head and another pair of hands were sadly needed. Then followed more deliberation; Rudolf took up the talking now, for his was the bold plan on which they consulted. Sapt twirled his moustache, smiling doubtfully.
"Yes, yes," murmured young Bernenstein, his eyes alight with excitement.
"It's dangerous, but the best thing," said Rudolf, carefully sinking his voice yet lower, lest the prisoner should catch the lightest word of what he said. "It involves my staying here till the evening. Is that possible?"
"No; but you can leave here and hide in the forest till I join you," said Sapt.
"Till we join you," corrected Bernenstein eagerly.
"No," said the constable, "you must look after our friend here. Come, Lieutenant, it's all in the queen's service."
"Besides," added Rudolf with a smile, "neither the colonel nor I would let you have a chance at Rupert. He's our game, isn't he, Sapt?"
The colonel nodded. Rudolf in his turn took paper, and here is the message that he wrote:
"Holf, 19, Konigstrasse, Strelsau.--All well. He has what I had, but wishes to see what you have. He and I will be at the hunting-lodge at ten this evening. Bring it and meet us. The business is unsuspected.--R."
Rudolf threw the paper across to Sapt; Bernenstein leant over the constable's shoulder and read it eagerly.
"I doubt if it would bring me," grinned old Sapt, throwing the paper down.
"It'll bring Rupert to Hentzau. Why not? He'll know that the king will wish to meet him unknown to the queen, and also unknown to you, Sapt, since you were my friend: what place more likely for the king to choose than his hunting-lodge, where he is accustomed to go when he wishes to be alone? The message will bring him, depend on it. Why, man, Rupert would come even if he suspected; and why should he suspect?"
"They may have a cipher, he and Rischenheim," objected Sapt.
"No, or Rupert would have sent the address in it," retorted Rudolf quickly.
"Then--when he comes?" asked Bernenstein.
"He finds such a king as Rischenheim found, and Sapt, here, at his elbow."
"But he'll know you," objected Bernenstein.
"Ay, I think he'll know me," said Rudolf with a smile. "Meanwhile we send for Fritz to come here and look after the king."
"That's your share, Lieutenant. Sapt, is any one at Tarlenheim?"
"No. Count Stanislas has put it at Fritz's disposal."
"Good; then Fritz's two friends, the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim and Lieutenant von Bernenstein, will ride over there to-day. The constable of Zenda will give the lieutenant twenty-four hours' leave of absence, and the two gentlemen will pass the day and sleep at the chateau. They will pass the day side by side, Bernenstein, not losing sight of one another for an instant, and they will pass the night in the same room. And one of them will not close his eyes nor take his hand off the butt of his revolver."
"Very good, sir," said young Bernenstein.
"If he tries to escape or give any alarm, shoot him through the head, ride to the frontier, get to safe hiding, and, if you can, let us know."
"Yes," said Bernenstein simply. Sapt had chosen well, and the young officer made nothing of the peril and ruin that her Majesty's service might ask of him.
A restless movement and a weary sigh from Rischenheim attracted their attention. He had strained his ears to listen till his head ached, but the talkers had been careful, and he had heard nothing that threw light on their deliberations. He had now given up his vain attempt, and sat in listless inattention, sunk in an apathy.
"I don't think he'll give you much trouble," whispered Sapt to Bernenstein, with a jerk of his thumb towards the captive.
"Act as if he were likely to give you much," urged Rudolf, laying his hand on the lieutenant's arm.
"Yes, that's a wise man's advice," nodded the constable approvingly. "We were well governed, Lieutenant, when this Rudolf was king."
"Wasn't I also his loyal subject?" asked young Bernenstein.
"Yes, wounded in my service," added Rudolf; for he remembered how the boy--he was little more then--had been fired upon in the park of Tarlenheim, being taken for Mr. Rassendyll himself.
Thus their plans were laid. If they could defeat Rupert, they would have Rischenheim at their mercy. If they could keep Rischenheim out of the way while they used his name in their trick, they had a strong chance of deluding and killing Rupert. Yes, of killing him; for that and nothing less was their purpose, as the constable of Zenda himself has told me.
"We would have stood on no ceremony," he said. "The queen's honor was at stake, and the fellow himself an assassin."
Bernenstein rose and went out. He was gone about half an hour, being employed in despatching the telegrams to Strelsau. Rudolf and Sapt used the interval to explain to Rischenheim what they proposed to do with him. They asked no pledge, and he offered none. He heard what they said with a dulled uninterested air. When asked if he would go without resistance, he laughed a bitter laugh. "How can I resist?" he asked. "I should have a bullet through my head."
"Why, without doubt," said Colonel Sapt. "My lord, you are very sensible."
"Let me advise you, my lord," said Rudolf, looking down on him kindly enough, "if you come safe through this affair, to add honor to your prudence, and chivalry to your honor. There is still time for you to become a gentleman."
He turned away, followed by a glance of anger from the count and a grating chuckle from old Sapt.
A few moments later Bernenstein returned. His errand was done, and horses for himself and Rischenheim were at the gate of the castle. After a few final words and clasp of the hand from Rudolf, the lieutenant motioned to his prisoner to accompany him, and they two walked out together, being to all appearance willing companions and in perfect friendliness with one another. The queen herself watched them go from the windows of her apartment, and noticed that Bernenstein rode half a pace behind, and that his free hand rested on the revolver by his side.
It was now well on in the morning, and the risk of Rudolf's sojourn in the castle grew greater with every moment. Yet he was resolved to see the queen before he went. This interview presented no great difficulties, since her Majesty was in the habit of coming to the constable's room to take his advice or to consult with him. The hardest task was to contrive afterwards a free and unnoticed escape for Mr. Rassendyll. To meet this necessity, the constable issued orders that the company of guards which garrisoned the castle should parade at one o'clock in the park, and that the servants should all, after their dinner, be granted permission to watch the manoeuvres. By this means he counted on drawing off any curious eyes and allowing Rudolf to reach the forest unobserved. They appointed a rendezvous in a handy and sheltered spot; the one thing which they were compelled to trust to fortune was Rudolf's success in evading chance encounters while he waited. Mr. Rassendyll himself was confident of his ability to conceal his presence, or, if need were, so to hide his face that no strange tale of the king being seen wandering, alone and beardless, should reach the ears of the castle or the town.
While Sapt was making his arrangements, Queen Flavia came to the room where Rudolf Rassendyll was. It was then nearing twelve, and young Bernenstein had been gone half an hour. Sapt attended her to the door, set a sentry at the end of the passage with orders that her Majesty should on no pretence be disturbed, promised her very audibly to return as soon as he possibly could, and respectfully closed the door after she had entered. The constable was well aware of the value in a secret business of doing openly all that can safely be done with openness.
All of what passed at that interview I do not know, but a part Queen Flavia herself told to me, or rather to Helga, my wife; for although it was meant to reach my ear, yet to me, a man, she would not disclose it directly. First she learnt from Mr. Rassendyll the plans that had been made, and, although she trembled at the danger that he must run in meeting Rupert of Hentzau, she had such love of him and such a trust in his powers that she seemed to doubt little of his success. But she began to reproach herself for having brought him into this peril by writing her letter. At this he took from his pocket the copy that Rischenheim had carried. He had found time to read it, and now before her eyes he kissed it.
"Had I as many lives as there are words, my queen," he said softly, "for each word I would gladly give a life."
"Ah, Rudolf, but you've only one life, and that more mine than yours. Did you think we should ever meet again?"
"I didn't know," said he; and now they were standing opposite one another.
"But I knew," she said, her eyes shining brightly; "I knew always that we should meet once more. Not how, nor where, but just that we should. So I lived, Rudolf."
"God bless you!" he said.
"Yes, I lived through it all."
He pressed her hand, knowing what that phrase meant and must mean for her.
"Will it last forever?" she asked, suddenly gripping his hand tightly. But a moment later she went on: "No, no, I mustn't make you unhappy, Rudolf. I'm half glad I wrote the letter, and half glad they stole it. It's so sweet to have you fighting for me, for me only this time, Rudolf--not for the king, for me!"
"Sweet indeed, my dearest lady. Don't be afraid: we shall win."
"You will win, yes. And then you'll go?" And, dropping his hand, she covered her face with hers.
"I mustn't kiss your face," said he, "but your hands I may kiss," and he kissed her hands as they were pressed against her face.
"You wear my ring," she murmured through her fingers, "always?"
"Why, yes," he said, with a little laugh of wonder at her question.
"And there is--no one else?"
"My queen!" said he, laughing again.
"No, I knew really, Rudolf, I knew really," and now her hands flew out towards him, imploring his pardon. Then she began to speak quickly: "Rudolf, last night I had a dream about you, a strange dream. I seemed to be in Strelsau, and all the people were talking about the king. It was you they meant; you were the king. At last you were the king, and I was your queen. But I could see you only very dimly; you were somewhere, but I could not make out where; just sometimes your face came. Then I tried to tell you that you were king--yes, and Colonel Sapt and Fritz tried to tell you; the people, too, called out that you were king. What did it mean? But your face, when I saw it, was unmoved, and very pale, and you seemed not to hear what we said, not even what I said. It almost seemed as if you were dead, and yet king. Ah, you mustn't die, even to be king," and she laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Sweetheart," said he gently, "in dreams desires and fears blend in strange visions, so I seemed to you to be both a king and a dead man; but I'm not a king, and I am a very healthy fellow. Yet a thousand thanks to my dearest queen for dreaming of me."
"No, but what could it mean?" she asked again.
"What does it mean when I dream always of you, except that I always love you?"
"Was it only that?" she said, still unconvinced.
What more passed between them I do not know. I think that the queen told my wife more, but women will sometimes keep women's secrets even from their husbands; though they love us, yet we are always in some sort the common enemy, against whom they join hands. Well, I would not look too far into such secrets, for to know must be, I suppose, to blame, and who is himself so blameless that in such a case he would be free with his censures?
Yet much cannot have passed, for almost close on their talk about the dream came Colonel Sapt, saying that the guards were in line, and all the women streamed out to watch them, while the men followed, lest the gay uniforms should make them forgotten. Certainly a quiet fell over the old castle, that only the constable's curt tones broke, as he bade Rudolf come by the back way to the stables and mount his horse.
"There's no time to lose," said Sapt, and his eye seemed to grudge the queen even one more word with the man she loved.
But Rudolf was not to be hurried into leaving her in such a fashion. He clapped the constable on the shoulder, laughing, and bidding him think of what he would for a moment; then he went again to the queen and would have knelt before her, but that she would not suffer, and they stood with hands locked. Then suddenly she drew him to her and kissed his forehead, saying: "God go with you, Rudolf my knight."
Thus she turned away, letting him go. He walked towards the door; but a sound arrested his steps, and he waited in the middle of the room, his eyes on the door. Old Sapt flew to the threshold, his sword half-way out of its sheath. There was a step coming down the passage, and the feet stopped outside the door.
"Is it the king?" whispered Rudolf.
"I don't know," said Sapt.
"No, it's not the king," came in unhesitating certainty from Queen Flavia.
They waited: a low knock sounded on the door. Still for a moment they waited. The knock was repeated urgently.
"We must open," said Sapt. "Behind the curtain with you, Rudolf."
The queen sat down, and Sapt piled a heap of papers before her, that it might seem as though he and she transacted business. But his precautions were interrupted by a hoarse, eager, low cry from outside, "Quick! in God's name, quick!"
They knew the voice for Bernenstein's. The queen sprang up, Rudolf came out, Sapt turned the key. The lieutenant entered, hurried, breathless, pale.
"Well?" asked Sapt.
"He has got away?" cried Rudolf, guessing in a moment the misfortune that had brought Bernenstein back.
"Yes, he's got away. Just as we left the town and reached the open road towards Tarlenheim, he said, 'Are we going to walk all the way? I was not loath to go quicker, and we broke into a trot. But I--ah, what a pestilent fool I am!"
"Never mind that--go on."
"Why, I was thinking of him and my task, and having a bullet ready for him, and--"
"Of everything except your horse?" guessed Sapt, with a grim smile.
"Yes; and the horse pecked and stumbled, and I fell forward on his neck. I put out my arm to recover myself, and--I jerked my revolver on to the ground."
"And he saw?"
"He saw, curse him. For a second he waited; then he smiled, and turned, and dug his spurs in and was off, straight across country towards Strelsau. Well, I was off my horse in a moment, and I fired three times after him."
"You hit?" asked Rudolf.
"I think so. He shifted the reins from one hand to the other and wrung his arm. I mounted and made after him, but his horse was better than mine and he gained ground. We began to meet people, too, and I didn't dare to fire again. So I left him and rode here to tell you. Never employ me again, Constable, so long as you live," and the young man's face was twisted with misery and shame, as, forgetting the queen's presence, he sank despondently into a chair.
Sapt took no notice of his self-reproaches. But Rudolf went and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"It was an accident," he said. "No blame to you."
The queen rose and walked towards him; Bernenstein sprang to his feet.
"Sir," said she, "it is not success but effort that should gain thanks," and she held out her hand.
Well, he was young; I do not laugh at the sob that escaped his lips as he turned his head.
"Let me try something else!" he implored.
"Mr. Rassendyll," said the queen, "you'll do my pleasure by employing this gentleman in my further service. I am already deep in his debt, and would be deeper." There was a moment's silence.
"Well, but what's to be done?" asked Colonel Sapt. "He's gone to Strelsau."
"He'll stop Rupert" mused Mr. Rassendyll. "He may or he mayn't."
"It's odds that he will."
"We must provide for both."
Sapt and Rudolf looked at one another.
"You must be here!" asked Rudolf of the constable. "Well, I'll go to Strelsau." His smile broke out. "That is, if Bernenstein'll lend me a hat."
The queen made no sound; but she came and laid her hand on his arm. He looked at her, smiling still.
"Yes, I'll go to Strelsau," said he, "and I'll find Rupert, ay, and Rischenheim too, if they're in the city."
"Take me with you," cried Bernenstein eagerly.
Rudolf glanced at Sapt. The constable shook his head. Bernenstein's face fell.
"It's not that, boy," said old Sapt, half in kindness, half in impatience. "We want you here. Suppose Rupert comes here with Rischenheim!"
The idea was new, but the event was by no means unlikely.
"But you'll be here, Constable," urged Bernenstein, "and Fritz von Tarlenheim will arrive in an hour."
"Ay, young man," said Sapt, nodding his head; "but when I fight Rupert of Hentzau, I like to have a man to spare, and he grinned broadly, being no whit afraid of what Bernenstein might think of his courage. "Now go and get him a hat," he added, and the lieutenant ran off on the errand.
But the queen cried:
"Are you sending Rudolf alone, then--alone against two?"
"Yes, madam, if I may command the campaign," said Sapt. "I take it he should be equal to the task."
He could not know the feelings of the queen's heart. She dashed her hand across her eyes, and turned in mute entreaty to Rudolf Rassendyll.
"I must go," he said softly. "We can't spare Bernenstein, and I mustn't stay here."
She said no more. Rudolf walked across to Sapt.
"Take me to the stables. Is the horse good? I daren't take the train. Ah, here's the lieutenant and the hat."
"The horse'll get you there to-night," said Sapt. "Come along. Bernenstein, stay with the queen."
At the threshold Rudolf paused, and, turning his head, glanced once at Queen Flavia, who stood still as a statue, watching him go. Then he followed the constable, who brought him where the horse was. Sapt's devices for securing freedom from observation had served well, and Rudolf mounted unmolested.
"The hat doesn't fit very well," said Rudolf.
"Like a crown better, eh?" suggested the colonel.
Rudolf laughed as he asked, "Well, what are my orders?"
"Ride round by the moat to the road at the back; then through the forest to Hofbau; you know your way after that. You mustn't reach Strelsau till it's dark. Then, if you want a shelter--"
"To Fritz von Tarlenheim's, yes! From there I shall go straight to the address."
"Make an end of him this time."
"Please God. But if he goes to the lodge? He will, unless Rischenheim stops him."
"I'll be there in case--but I think Rischenheim will stop him."
"If he comes here?"
"Young Bernenstein will die before he suffers him to reach the king."
"Be kind to her."
"Bless the man, yes!"
"And good luck."
At a swift canter Rudolf darted round the drive that led from the stables, by the moat, to the old forest road behind; five minutes brought him within the shelter of the trees, and he rode on confidently, meeting nobody, save here and there a yokel, who, seeing a man ride hard with his head averted, took no more notice of him than to wish that he himself could ride abroad instead of being bound to work. Thus Rudolf Rassendyll set out again for the walls of Strelsau, through the forest of Zenda. And ahead of him, with an hour's start, galloped the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim, again a man, and a man with resolution, resentment, and revenge in his heart.
The game was afoot now; who could tell the issue of it?