Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope
Chapter VIII. The Temper of Boris the Hound
Looking back now, in the light of the information I have gathered, I am able to trace very clearly, and almost hour by hour, the events of this day, and to understand how chance, laying hold of our cunning plan and mocking our wiliness, twisted and turned our device to a predetermined but undreamt-of issue, of which we were most guiltless in thought or intent. Had the king not gone to the hunting-lodge, our design would have found the fulfilment we looked for; had Rischenheim succeeded in warning Rupert of Hentzau, we should have stood where we were. Fate or fortune would have it otherwise. The king, being weary, went to the lodge, and Rischenheim failed in warning his cousin. It was a narrow failure, for Rupert, as his laugh told me, was in the house in the Konigstrasse when I set out from Strelsau, and Rischenheim arrived there at half past four. He had taken the train at a roadside station, and thus easily outstripped Mr. Rassendyll, who, not daring to show his face, was forced to ride all the way and enter the city under cover of night. But Rischenheim had not dared to send a warning, for he knew that we were in possession of the address and did not know what steps we might have taken to intercept messages. Therefore he was obliged to carry the news himself; when he came his man was gone. Indeed Rupert must have left the house almost immediately after I was safe away from the city. He was determined to be in good time for his appointment; his only enemies were not in Strelsau; there was no warrant on which he could be apprehended; and, although his connection with Black Michael was a matter of popular gossip, he felt himself safe from arrest by virtue of the secret that protected him. Accordingly he walked out of the house, went to the station, took his ticket to Hofbau, and, traveling by the four o'clock train, reached his destination about half-past five. He must have passed the train in which Rischenheim traveled; the first news the latter had of his departure was from a porter at the station, who, having recognized the Count of Hentzau, ventured to congratulate Rischenheim on his cousin's return. Rischenheim made no answer, but hurried in great agitation to the house in the Konigstrasse, where the old woman Holf confirmed the tidings. Then he passed through a period of great irresolution. Loyalty to Rupert urged that he should follow him and share the perils into which his cousin was hastening. But caution whispered that he was not irrevocably committed, that nothing overt yet connected him with Rupert's schemes, and that we who knew the truth should be well content to purchase his silence as to the trick we had played by granting him immunity. His fears won the day, and, like the irresolute man he was, he determined to wait in Strelsau till he heard the issue of the meeting at the lodge. If Rupert were disposed of there, he had something to offer us in return for peace; if his cousin escaped, he would be in the Konigstrasse, prepared to second the further plans of the desperate adventurer. In any event his skin was safe, and I presume to think that this weighed a little with him; for excuse he had the wound which Bernenstein had given him, and which rendered his right arm entirely useless; had he gone then, he would have been a most inefficient ally.
Of all this we, as we rode through the forest, knew nothing. We might guess, conjecture, hope, or fear; but our certain knowledge stopped with Rischenheim's start for the capital and Rupert's presence there at three o'clock. The pair might have met or might have missed. We had to act as though they had missed and Rupert were gone to meet the king. But we were late. The consciousness of that pressed upon us, although we evaded further mention of it; it made us spur and drive our horses as quickly, ay, and a little more quickly, than safety allowed. Once James's horse stumbled in the darkness and its rider was thrown; more than once a low bough hanging over the path nearly swept me, dead or stunned, from my seat. Sapt paid no attention to these mishaps or threatened mishaps. He had taken the lead, and, sitting well down in his saddle, rode ahead, turning neither to right nor left, never slackening his pace, sparing neither himself nor his beast. James and I were side by side behind him. We rode in silence, finding nothing to say to one another. My mind was full of a picture--the picture of Rupert with his easy smile handing to the king the queen's letter. For the hour of the rendezvous was past. If that image had been translated into reality, what must we do? To kill Rupert would satisfy revenge, but of what other avail would it be when the king had read the letter? I am ashamed to say that I found myself girding at Mr. Rassendyll for happening on a plan which the course of events had turned into a trap for ourselves and not for Rupert of Hentzau.
Suddenly Sapt, turning his head for the first time, pointed in front of him. The lodge was before us; we saw it looming dimly a quarter of a mile off. Sapt reined in his horse, and we followed his example. All dismounted, we tied our horses to trees and went forward at a quick, silent walk. Our idea was that Sapt should enter on pretext of having been sent by the queen to attend to her husband's comfort and arrange for his return without further fatigue next day. If Rupert had come and gone, the king's demeanor would probably betray the fact; if he had not yet come, I and James, patrolling outside, would bar his passage. There was a third possibility; he might be even now with the king. Our course in such a case we left unsettled; so far as I had any plan, it was to kill Rupert and to convince the king that the letter was a forgery--a desperate hope, so desperate that we turned our eyes away from the possibility which would make it our only resource.
We were now very near the hunting-lodge, being about forty yards from the front of it. All at once Sapt threw himself on his stomach on the ground.
"Give me a match," he whispered.
James struck a light, and, the night being still, the flame burnt brightly: it showed us the mark of a horse's hoof, apparently quite fresh, and leading away from the lodge. We rose and went on, following the tracks by the aid of more matches till we reached a tree twenty yards from the door. Here the hoof marks ceased; but beyond there was a double track of human feet in the soft black earth; a man had gone thence to the house and returned from the house thither. On the right of the tree were more hoof-marks, leading up to it and then ceasing. A man had ridden up from the right, dismounted, gone on foot to the house, returned to the tree, remounted, and ridden away along the track by which we had approached.
"It may be somebody else," said I; but I do not think that we any of us doubted in our hearts that the tracks were made by the coming of Hentzau. Then the king had the letter; the mischief was done. We were too late.
Yet we did not hesitate. Since disaster had come, it must be faced. Mr. Rassendyll's servant and I followed the constable of Zenda up to the door, or within a few feet of it. Here Sapt, who was in uniform, loosened his sword in its sheath; James and I looked to our revolvers. There were no lights visible in the lodge; the door was shut; everything was still. Sapt knocked softly with his knuckles, but there was no answer from within. He laid hold of the handle and turned it; the door opened, and the passage lay dark and apparently empty before us.
"You stay here, as we arranged," whispered the colonel. "Give me the matches, and I'll go in."
James handed him the box of matches, and he crossed the threshold. For a yard or two we saw him plainly, then his figure grew dim and indistinct. I heard nothing except my own hard breathing. But in a moment there was another sound--a muffled exclamation, and a noise of a man stumbling; a sword, too, clattered on the stones of the passage. We looked at one another; the noise did not produce any answering stir in the house; then came the sharp little explosion of a match struck on its box; next we heard Sapt raising himself, his scabbard scraping along the stones; his footsteps came towards us, and in a second he appeared at the door.
"What was it?" I whispered.
"I fell," said Sapt.
"Come and see. James, stay here."
I followed the constable for the distance of eight or ten feet along the passage.
"Isn't there a lamp anywhere?" I asked.
"We can see enough with a match," he answered. "Here, this is what I fell over."
Even before the match was struck I saw a dark body lying across the passage.
"A dead man?" I guessed instantly.
"Why, no," said Sapt, striking a light: "a dead dog, Fritz." An exclamation of wonder escaped me as I fell on my knees. At the same instant Sapt muttered, "Ay, there's a lamp," and, stretching up his hand to a little oil lamp that stood on a bracket, he lit it, took it down, and held it over the body. It served to give a fair, though unsteady, light, and enabled us to see what lay in the passage.
"It's Boris, the boar-hound," said I, still in a whisper, although there was no sign of any listeners.
I knew the dog well; he was the king's favorite, and always accompanied him when he went hunting. He was obedient to every word of the king's, but of a rather uncertain temper towards the rest of the world. However, de mortuis nil nisi bonum; there he lay dead in the passage. Sapt put his hand on the beast's head. There was a bullet-hole right through his forehead. I nodded, and in my turn pointed to the dog's right shoulder, which was shattered by another ball.
"And see here," said the constable. "Have a pull at this."
I looked where his hand now was. In the dog's mouth was a piece of gray cloth, and on the piece of gray cloth was a horn coat-button. I took hold of the cloth and pulled. Boris held on even in death. Sapt drew his sword, and, inserting the point of it between the dog's teeth, parted them enough for me to draw out the piece of cloth.
"You'd better put it in your pocket," said the constable. "Now come along"; and, holding the lamp in one hand and his sword (which he did not resheathe) in the other, he stepped over the body of the boar-hound, and I followed him.
We were now in front of the door of the room where Rudolf Rassendyll had supped with us on the day of his first coming to Ruritania, and whence he had set out to be crowned in Strelsau. On the right of it was the room where the king slept, and farther along in the same direction the kitchen and the cellars. The officer or officers in attendance on the king used to sleep on the other side of the dining-room.
"We must explore, I suppose," said Sapt. In spite of his outward calmness, I caught in his voice the ring of excitement rising and ill-repressed. But at this moment we heard from the passage on our left (as we faced the door) a low moan, and then a dragging sound, as if a man were crawling along the floor, painfully trailing his limbs after him. Sapt held the lamp in that direction, and we saw Herbert the forester, pale-faced and wide-eyed, raised from the ground on his two hands, while his legs stretched behind him and his stomach rested on the flags.
"Who is it?" he said in a faint voice.
"Why, man, you know us," said the constable, stepping up to him. "What's happened here?"
The poor fellow was very faint, and, I think, wandered a little in his brain.
"I've got it, sir," he murmured; "I've got it, fair and straight. No more hunting for me, sir. I've got it here in the stomach. Oh, my God!" He let his head fall with a thud on the floor.
I ran and raised him. Kneeling on one knee, I propped his head against my leg.
"Tell us about it," commanded Sapt in a curt, crisp voice while I got the man into the easiest position that I could contrive.
In slow, struggling tones he began his story, repeating here, omitting there, often confusing the order of his narrative, oftener still arresting it while he waited for fresh strength. Yet we were not impatient, but heard without a thought of time. I looked round once at a sound, and found that James, anxious about us, had stolen along the passage and joined us. Sapt took no notice of him, nor of anything save the words that dropped in irregular utterance from the stricken man's lips. Here is the story, a strange instance of the turning of a great event on a small cause.
The king had eaten a little supper, and, having gone to his bedroom, had stretched himself on the bed and fallen asleep without undressing. Herbert was clearing the dining-table and performing similar duties, when suddenly (thus he told it) he found a man standing beside him. He did not know (he was new to the king's service) who the unexpected visitor was, but he was of middle height, dark, handsome, and "looked a gentleman all over." He was dressed in a shooting-tunic, and a revolver was thrust through the belt of it. One hand rested on the belt, while the other held a small square box.
"Tell the king I am here. He expects me," said the stranger. Herbert, alarmed at the suddenness and silence of the stranger's approach, and guiltily conscious of having left the door unbolted, drew back. He was unarmed, but, being a stout fellow, was prepared to defend his master as best he could. Rupert--beyond doubt it was Rupert--laughed lightly, saying again, "Man, he expects me. Go and tell him," and sat himself on the table, swinging his leg. Herbert, influenced by the visitor's air of command, began to retreat towards the bedroom, keeping his face towards Rupert.
"If the king asks more, tell him I have the packet and the letter," said Rupert. The man bowed and passed into the bedroom. The king was asleep; when roused he seemed to know nothing of letter or packet, and to expect no visitor. Herbert's ready fears revived; he whispered that the stranger carried a revolver. Whatever the king's faults might be--and God forbid that I should speak hardly of him whom fate used so hardly--he was no coward. He sprang from his bed; at the same moment the great boar-hound uncoiled himself and came from beneath, yawning and fawning. But in an instant the beast caught the scent of a stranger: his ears pricked and he gave a low growl, as he looked up in his master's face. Then Rupert of Hentzau, weary perhaps of waiting, perhaps only doubtful whether his message would be properly delivered, appeared in the doorway.
The king was unarmed, and Herbert in no better plight; their hunting weapons were in the adjoining room, and Rupert seemed to bar the way. I have said that the king was no coward, yet I think, that the sight of Rupert, bringing back the memory of his torments in the dungeon, half cowed him; for he shrank back crying, "You!" The hound, in subtle understanding of his master's movement, growled angrily.
"You expected me, sire?" said Rupert with a bow; but he smiled. I know that the sight of the king's alarm pleased him. To inspire terror was his delight, and it does not come to every man to strike fear into the heart of a king and an Elphberg. It had come more than once to Rupert of Hentzau.
"No," muttered the king. Then, recovering his composure a little, he said angrily, "How dare you come here?"
"You didn't expect me?" cried Rupert, and in an instant the thought of a trap seemed to flash across his alert mind. He drew the revolver halfway from his belt, probably in a scarcely conscious movement, born of the desire to assure himself of its presence. With a cry of alarm Herbert flung himself before the king, who sank back on the bed. Rupert, puzzled, vexed, yet half-amused (for he smiled still, the man said), took a step forward, crying out something about Rischenheim--what, Herbert could not tell us.
"Keep back," exclaimed the king. "Keep back."
Rupert paused; then, as though with a sudden thought, he held up the box that was in his left hand, saying:
'"Well, look at this sire, and we'll talk afterwards," and he stretched out his hand with the box in it.
Now the king stood on a razor's edge, for the king whispered to Herbert, "What is it? Go and take it."
But Herbert hesitated, fearing to leave the king, whom his body now protected as though with a shield. Rupert's impatience overcame him: if there were a trap, every moment's delay doubled his danger. With a scornful laugh he exclaimed, "Catch it, then, if you're afraid to come for it," and he flung the packet to Herbert or the king, or which of them might chance to catch it.
This insolence had a strange result. In an instant, with a fierce growl and a mighty bound, Boris was at the stranger's throat. Rupert had not seen or had not heeded the dog. A startled oath rang out from him. He snatched the revolver from his belt and fired at his assailant. This shot must have broken the beast's shoulder, but it only half arrested his spring. His great weight was still hurled on Rupert's chest, and bore him back on his knee. The packet that he had flung lay unheeded. The king, wild with alarm and furious with anger at his favorite's fate, jumped up and ran past Rupert into the next room. Herbert followed; even as they went Rupert flung the wounded, weakened beast from him and darted to the doorway. He found himself facing Herbert, who held a boar-spear, and the king, who had a double-barreled hunting-gun. He raised his left hand, Herbert said--no doubt he still asked a hearing--but the king leveled his weapon. With a spring Rupert gained the shelter of the door, the bullet sped by him, and buried itself in the wall of the room. Then Herbert was at him with the boar-spear. Explanations must wait now: it was life or death; without hesitation Rupert fired at Herbert, bringing him to the ground with a mortal wound. The king's gun was at his shoulder again.
"You damned fool!" roared Rupert, "if you must have it, take it," and gun and revolver rang out at the same moment. But Rupert--never did his nerve fail him--hit, the king missed; Herbert saw the count stand for an instant with his smoking barrel in his hand, looking at the king, who lay on the ground. Then Rupert walked towards the door. I wish I had seen his face then! Did he frown or smile? Was triumph or chagrin uppermost? Remorse? Not he!
He reached the door and passed through. That was the last Herbert saw of him; but the fourth actor in the drama, the wordless player whose part had been so momentous, took the stage. Limping along, now whining in sharp agony, now growling in fierce anger, with blood flowing but hair bristling, the hound Boris dragged himself across the room, through the door, after Rupert of Hentzau. Herbert listened, raising his head from the ground. There was a growl, an oath, the sound of the scuffle. Rupert must have turned in time to receive the dog's spring. The beast, maimed and crippled by his shattered shoulder, did not reach his enemy's face, but his teeth tore away the bit of cloth that we had found held in the vise of his jaws. Then came another shot, a laugh, retreating steps, and a door slammed. With that last sound Herbert woke to the fact of the count's escape; with weary efforts he dragged himself into the passage. The idea that he could go on if he got a drink of brandy turned him in the direction of the cellar. But his strength failed, and he sank down where we found him, not knowing whether the king were dead or still alive, and unable even to make his way back to the room where his master lay stretched on the ground.
I had listened to the story, bound as though by a spell. Halfway through, James's hand had crept to my arm and rested there; when Herbert finished I heard the little man licking his lips, again and again slapping his tongue against them. Then I looked at Sapt. He was as pale as a ghost, and the lines on his face seemed to have grown deeper. He glanced up, and met my regard. Neither of us spoke; we exchanged thoughts with our eyes. "This is our work," we said to one another. "It was our trap, these are our victims." I cannot even now think of that hour, for by our act the king lay dead.
But was he dead? I seized Sapt by the arm. His glance questioned me.
"The king," I whispered hoarsely.
"Yes, the king," he returned.
Facing round, we walked to the door of the dining-room. Here I turned suddenly faint, and clutched at the constable. He held me up, and pushed the door wide open. The smell of powder was in the room; it seemed as if the smoke hung about, curling in dim coils round the chandelier which gave a subdued light. James had the lamp now, and followed us with it. But the king was not there. A sudden hope filled me. He had not been killed then! I regained strength, and darted across towards the inside room. Here too the light was dim, and I turned to beckon for the lamp. Sapt and James came together, and stood peering over my shoulder in the doorway.
The king lay prone on the floor, face downwards, near the bed. He had crawled there, seeking for some place to rest, as we supposed. He did not move. We watched him for a moment; the silence seemed deeper than silence could be. At last, moved by a common impulse, we stepped forward, but timidly, as though we approached the throne of Death himself. I was the first to kneel by the king and raise his head. Blood had flowed from his lips, but it had ceased to flow now. He was dead.
I felt Sapt's hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw his other hand stretched out towards the ground. I turned my eyes where he pointed. There, in the king's hand, stained with the king'sblood, was the box that I had carried to Wintenberg and Rupert of Hentzau had brought to the lodge that night. It was not rest, but the box that the dying king had sought in his last moment. I bent, and lifting his hand unclasped the fingers, still limp and warm.
Sapt bent down with sudden eagerness. "Is it open?" he whispered.
The string was round it; the sealing-wax was unbroken. The secret had outlived the king, and he had gone to his death unknowing. All at once--I cannot tell why--I put my hand over my eyes; I found my eyelashes were wet.
"Is it open?" asked Sapt again, for in the dim light he could not see.
"No," I answered.
"Thank God!" said he. And, for Sapt's, the voice was soft.