Rupert of Hentzau, by Anthony Hope

Chapter XV. A Pastime for Colonel Sapt

THE Constable of Zenda and James, Mr. Rassendyll’s servant, sat at breakfast in the hunting-lodge. They were in the small room which was ordinarily used as the bedroom of the gentleman in attendance on the king: they chose it now because it commanded a view of the approach. The door of the house was securely fastened; they were prepared to refuse admission; in case refusal was impossible, the preparations for concealing the king’s body and that of his huntsman Herbert were complete. Inquirers would be told that the king had ridden out with his huntsman at daybreak, promising to return in the evening but not stating where he was going; Sapt was under orders to await his return, and James was expecting instructions from his master the Count of Tarlenheim. Thus armed against discovery, they looked for news from me which should determine their future action.

Meanwhile there was an interval of enforced idleness. Sapt, his meal finished, puffed away at his great pipe; James, after much pressure, had consented to light a small black clay, and sat at his ease with his legs stretched before him. His brows were knit, and a curious half-smile played about his mouth.

“What may you be thinking about, friend James?” asked the constable between two puffs. He had taken a fancy to the alert, ready little fellow.

James smoked for a moment, and then took his pipe from his mouth.

“I was thinking, sir, that since the king is dead —”

He paused.

“The king is no doubt dead, poor fellow,” said Sapt, nodding.

“That since he’s certainly dead, and since my master, Mr. Rassendyll, is alive —”

“So far as we know, James,” Sapt reminded him.

“Why, yes, sir, so far as we know. Since, then, Mr. Rassendyll is alive and the king is dead, I was thinking that it was a great pity, sir, that my master can’t take his place and be king.” James looked across at the constable with an air of a man who offers a respectful suggestion.

“A remarkable thought, James,” observed the constable with a grin.

“You don’t agree with me, sir?” asked James deprecatingly.

“I don’t say that it isn’t a pity, for Rudolf makes a good king. But you see it’s impossible, isn’t it?”

James nursed his knee between his hands, and his pipe, which he had replaced, stuck out of one corner of his mouth.

“When you say impossible, sir,” he remarked deferentially, “I venture to differ from you.”

“You do? Come, we’re at leisure. Let’s hear how it would be possible.”

“My master is in Strelsau, sir,” began James.

“Well, most likely.”

“I’m sure of it, sir. If he’s been there, he will be taken for the king.”

“That has happened before, and no doubt may happen again, unless —”

“Why, of course, sir, unless the king’s body should be discovered.”

“That’s what I was about to say, James.”

James kept silence for a few minutes. Then he observed, “It will be very awkward to explain how the king was killed.”

“The story will need good telling,” admitted Sapt.

“And it will be difficult to make it appear that the king was killed in Strelsau; yet if my master should chance to be killed in Strelsau —”

“Heaven forbid, James! On all grounds, Heaven forbid!”

“Even if my master is not killed, it will be difficult for us to get the king killed at the right time, and by means that will seem plausible.”

Sapt seemed to fall into the humor of the speculation. “That’s all very true. But if Mr. Rassendyll is to be king, it will be both awkward and difficult to dispose of the king’s body and of this poor fellow Herbert,” said he, sucking at his pipe.

Again James paused for a little while before he remarked: “I am, of course, sir, only discussing the matter by way of passing the time. It would probably be wrong to carry any such plan into effect.”

“It might be, but let us discuss it — to pass the time,” said Sapt; and he leant forward, looking into the servant’s quiet, shrewd face.

“Well, then, sir, since it amuses you, let us say that the king came to the lodge last night, and was joined there by his friend Mr. Rassendyll.”

“And did I come too?”

“You, sir, came also, in attendance on the king.”

“Well, and you, James? You came. How came you?”

“Why, sir, by the Count of Tarlenheim’s orders, to wait on Mr. Rassendyll, the king’s friend. Now, the king, sir . . . This is my story, you know, sir, only my story.”

“Your story interests me. Go on with it.”

“The king went out very early this morning, sir.”

“That would be on private business?”

“So we should have understood. But Mr. Rassendyll, Herbert, and ourselves remained here.”

“Had the Count of Hentzau been?”

“Not to our knowledge, sir. But we were all tired and slept very soundly.”

“Now did we?” said the constable, with a grim smile.

“In fact, sir, we were all overcome with fatigue — Mr. Rassendyll like the rest — and full morning found us still in our beds. There we should be to this moment, sir, had we not been suddenly aroused in a startling and fearful manner.”

“You should write story books, James. Now what was this fearful manner in which we were aroused?”

James laid down his pipe, and, resting his hands on his knees, continued his story.

“This lodge, sir, this wooden lodge — for the lodge is all of wood, sir, without and within.”

“This lodge is undoubtedly of wood, James, and, as you say, both inside and out.”

“And since it is, sir, it would be mighty careless to leave a candle burning where the oil and firewood are stored.”

“Most criminal!”

“But hard words don’t hurt dead men; and you see, sir, poor Herbert is dead.”

“It is true. He wouldn’t feel aggrieved.”

“But we, sir, you and I, awaking —”

“Aren’t the others to awake, James?”

“Indeed, sir, I should pray that they had never awaked. For you and I, waking first, would find the lodge a mass of flames. We should have to run for our lives.”

“What! Should we make no effort to rouse the others?”

“Indeed, sir, we should do all that men could do; we should even risk death by suffocation.”

“But we should fail, in spite of our heroism, should we?”

“Alas, sir, in spite of all our efforts we should fail. The flames would envelop the lodge in one blaze; before help could come, the lodge would be in ruins, and my unhappy master and poor Herbert would be consumed to ashes.”

“Hum!”

“They would, at least, sir, be entirely unrecognizable.”

“You think so?”

“Beyond doubt, if the oil and the firewood and the candle were placed to the best advantage.”

“Ah, yes. And there would be an end of Rudolf Rassendyll?”

“Sir, I should myself carry the tidings to his family.”

“Whereas the King of Ruritania —”

“Would enjoy a long and prosperous reign, God willing, sir.”

“And the Queen of Ruritania, James?”

“Do not misunderstand me, sir. They could be secretly married. I should say re-married.”

“Yes, certainly, re-married.”

“By a trustworthy priest.”

“You mean by an untrustworthy priest?”

“It’s the same thing, sir, from a different point of view.” For the first time James smiled a thoughtful smile.

Sapt in his turn laid down his pipe now, and was tugging at his moustache. There was a smile on his lips too, and his eyes looked hard into James’s. The little man met his glance composedly.

“It’s an ingenious fancy, this of yours, James,” the constable remarked. “What, though, if your master’s killed too? That’s quite possible. Count Rupert’s a man to be reckoned with.”

“If my master is killed, sir, he must be buried,” answered James.

“In Strelsau?” came in quick question from Sapt.

“He won’t mind where, sir.”

“True, he won’t mind, and we needn’t mind for him.”

“Why, no, sir. But to carry a body secretly from here to Strelsau —”

“Yes, that is, as we agreed at the first, difficult. Well, it’s a pretty story, but — your master wouldn’t approve of it. Supposing he were not killed, I mean.”

“It’s a waste of time, sir, disapproving of what’s done: he might think the story better than the truth, although it’s not a good story.”

The two men’s eyes met again in a long glance.

“Where do you come from?” asked Sapt, suddenly.

“London, sir, originally.”

“They make good stories there?”

“Yes, sir, and act them sometimes.”

The instant he had spoken, James sprang to his feet and pointed out of the window.

A man on horseback was cantering towards the lodge. Exchanging one quick look, both hastened to the door, and, advancing some twenty yards, waited under the tree on the spot where Boris lay buried.

“By the way,” said Sapt, “you forgot the dog.” And he pointed to the ground.

“The affectionate beast will be in his master’s room and die there, sir.”

“Eh, but he must rise again first!”

“Certainly, sir. That won’t be a long matter.”

Sapt was still smiling in grim amusement when the messenger came up and, leaning from his home, handed him a telegram.

“Special and urgent, sir,” said he.

Sapt tore it open and read. It was the message that I sent in obedience to Mr. Rassendyll’s orders. He would not trust my cipher, but, indeed, none was necessary. Sapt would understand the message, although it said simply, “The king is in Strelsau. Wait orders at the lodge. Business here in progress, but not finished. Will wire again.”

Sapt handed it to James, who took it with a respectful little bow. James read it with attention, and returned it with another bow.

“I’ll attend to what it says, sir,” he remarked.

“Yes,” said Sapt. “Thanks, my man,” he added to the messenger. “Here’s a crown for you. If any other message comes for me and you bring it in good time, you shall have another.”

“You shall have it quick as a horse can bring it from the station, sir.”

“The king’s business won’t bear delay, you know,” nodded Sapt.

“You sha’n’t have to wait, sir,” and, with a parting salute, the fellow turned his horse and trotted away.

“You see,” remarked Sapt, “that your story is quite imaginary. For that fellow can see for himself that the lodge was not burnt down last night.”

“That’s true; but, excuse me, sir —”

“Pray go on, James. I’ve told you that I’m interested.”

“He can’t see that it won’t be burnt down to-night. A fire, sir, is a thing that may happen any night.”

Then old Sapt suddenly burst into a roar, half-speech, half laughter.

“By God, what a thing!” he roared; and James smiled complacently.

“There’s a fate about it,” said the constable. “There’s a strange fate about it. The man was born to it. We’d have done it before if Michael had throttled the king in that cellar, as I thought he would. Yes, by heavens, we’d have done it! Why, we wanted it! God forgive us, in our hearts both Fritz and I wanted it. But Rudolf would have the king out. He would have him out, though he lost a throne — and what he wanted more — by it. But he would have him out. So he thwarted the fate. But it’s not to be thwarted. Young Rupert may think this new affair is his doing. No, it’s the fate using him. The fate brought Rudolf here again, the fate will have him king. Well, you stare at me. Do you think I’m mad, Mr. Valet?”

“I think, sir, that you talk very good sense, if I may say so,” answered James.

“Sense?” echoed Sapt with a chuckle. “I don’t know about that. But the fate’s there, depend on it!”

The two were back in their little room now, past the door that hid the bodies of the king and his huntsman. James stood by the table, old Sapt roamed up and down, tugging his moustache, and now and again sawing the air with his sturdy hairy hand.

“I daren’t do it,” he muttered: “I daren’t do it. It’s a thing a man can’t set his hand to of his own will. But the fate’ll do it — the fate’ll do it. The fate’ll force it on us.”

“Then we’d best be ready, sir,” suggested James quietly. Sapt turned on him quickly, almost fiercely.

“They used to call me a cool hand,” said he. “By Jove, what are you?”

“There’s no harm in being ready, sir,” said James, the servant.

Sapt came to him and caught hold of his shoulders. “Ready?” he asked in a gruff whisper.

“The oil, the firewood, the light,” said James.

“Where, man, where? Do you mean, by the bodies?”

“Not where the bodies are now. Each must be in the proper place.”

“We must move them then?”

“Why, yes. And the dog too.”

Sapt almost glared at him; then he burst into a laugh.

“So be it,” he said. “You take command. Yes, we’ll be ready. The fate drives.”

Then and there they set about what they had to do. It seemed indeed as though some strange influence were dominating Sapt; he went about the work like a man who is hardly awake. They placed the bodies each where the living man would be by night — the king in the guest-room, the huntsman in the sort of cupboard where the honest fellow had been wont to lie. They dug up the buried dog, Sapt chuckling convulsively, James grave as the mute whose grim doings he seemed to travesty: they carried the shot-pierced, earth-grimed thing in, and laid it in the king’s room. Then they made their piles of wood, pouring the store of oil over them, and setting bottles of spirit near, that the flames having cracked the bottles, might gain fresh fuel. To Sapt it seemed now as if they played some foolish game that was to end with the playing, now as if they obeyed some mysterious power which kept its great purpose hidden from its instruments. Mr. Rassendyll’s servant moved and arranged and ordered all as deftly as he folded his master’s clothes or stropped his master’s razor. Old Sapt stopped him once as he went by.

“Don’t think me a mad fool, because I talk of the fate,” he said, almost anxiously.

“Not I, sir,” answered James, “I know nothing of that. But I like to be ready.”

“It would be a thing!” muttered Sapt.

The mockery, real or assumed, in which they had begun their work, had vanished now. If they were not serious, they played at seriousness. If they entertained no intention such as their acts seemed to indicate, they could no longer deny that they had cherished a hope. They shrank, or at least Sapt shrank, from setting such a ball rolling; but they longed for the fate that would give it a kick, and they made smooth the incline down which it, when thus impelled, was to run. When they had finished their task and sat down again opposite to one another in the little front room, the whole scheme was ready, the preparations were made, all was in train; they waited only for that impulse from chance or fate which was to turn the servant’s story into reality and action. And when the thing was done, Sapt’s coolness, so rarely upset, yet so completely beaten by the force of that wild idea, came back to him. He lit his pipe again and lay back in his chair, puffing freely, with a meditative look on his face.

“It’s two o’clock, sir,” said James. “Something should have happened before now in Strelsau.”

“Ah, but what?” asked the constable.

Suddenly breaking on their ears came a loud knock at the door. Absorbed in their own thoughts, they had not noticed two men riding up to the lodge. The visitors wore the green and gold of the king’s huntsmen; the one who had knocked was Simon, the chief huntsman, and brother of Herbert, who lay dead in the little room inside.

“Rather dangerous!” muttered the Constable of Zenda as he hurried to the door, James following him.

Simon was astonished when Sapt opened the door.

“Beg pardon, Constable, but I want to see Herbert. Can I go in?” And he jumped down from his horse, throwing the reins to his companion.

“What’s the good of your going in?” asked Sapt. “Herbert’s not here.”

“Not here? Then where is he?”

“Why, he went with the king this morning.”

“Oh, he went with the king, sir? Then he’s in Strelsau, I suppose?”

“If you know that, Simon, you’re wiser than I am.”

“But the king is in Strelsau, sir.”

“The deuce he is! He said nothing of going to Strelsau. He rose early and rode off with Herbert, merely saying they would be back to-night.”

“He went to Strelsau, sir. I am just from Zenda, and his Majesty is known to have been in town with the queen. They were both at Count Fritz’s.”

“I’m much interested to hear it. But didn’t the telegram say where Herbert was?”

Simon laughed.

“Herbert’s not a king, you see,” he said. “Well, I’ll come again tomorrow morning, for I must see him soon. He’ll be back by then, sir?”

“Yes, Simon, your brother will be here tomorrow morning.”

“Or what’s left of him after such a two-days of work,” suggested Simon jocularly.

“Why, yes, precisely,” said Sapt, biting his moustache and darting one swift glance at James. “Or what’s left of him, as you say.”

“And I’ll bring a cart and carry the boar down to the castle at the same time, sir. At least, I suppose you haven’t eaten it all?”

Sapt laughed; Simon was gratified at the tribute, and laughed even more heartily himself.

“We haven’t even cooked it yet,” said Sapt, “but I won’t answer for it that we sha’n’t have by tomorrow.”

“All right, sir; I’ll be here. By the way, there’s another bit of news come on the wires. They say Count Rupert of Hentzau has been seen in the city.”

“Rupert of Hentzau? Oh, pooh! Nonsense, my good Simon. He daren’t show his face there for his life.”

“Ah, but it may be no nonsense. Perhaps that’s what took the king to Strelsau.”

“It’s enough to take him if it’s true,” admitted Sapt.

“Well, good day, sir.”

“Good day, Simon.”

The two huntsmen rode off. James watched them for a little while.

“The king,” he said then, “is known to be in Strelsau; and now Count Rupert is known to be in Strelsau. How is Count Rupert to have killed the king here in the forest of Zenda, sir?”

Sapt looked at him almost apprehensively.

“How is the king’s body to come to the forest of Zenda?” asked James. “Or how is the king’s body to go to the city of Strelsau?”

“Stop your damned riddles!” roared Sapt. “Man, are you bent on driving me into it?”

The servant came near to him, and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“You went into as great a thing once before, sir,” said he.

“It was to save the king.”

“And this is to save the queen and yourself. For if we don’t do it, the truth about my master must be known.”

Sapt made him no answer. They sat down again in silence.

There they sat, sometimes smoking, never speaking, while the tedious afternoon wore away, and the shadows from the trees of the forest lengthened. They did not think of eating or drinking; they did not move, save when James rose and lit a little fire of brushwood in the grate. It grew dusk and again James moved to light the lamp. It was hard on six o’clock, and still no news came from Strelsau.

Then there was the sound of a horse’s hoofs. The two rushed to the door, beyond it, and far along the grassy road that gave approach to the hunting-lodge. They forgot to guard the secret and the door gaped open behind them. Sapt ran as he had not run for many a day, and outstripped his companion. There was a message from Strelsau!

The constable, without a word of greeting, snatched the envelope from the hand of the messenger and tore it open. He read it hastily, muttering under his breath “Good God!” Then he turned suddenly round and began to walk quickly back to James, who, seeing himself beaten in the race, had dropped to a walk. But the messenger had his cares as well as the constable. If the constable’s thoughts were on a crown, so were his. He called out in indignant protest:

“I have never drawn rein since Hofbau, sir. Am I not to have my crown?”

Sapt stopped, turned, and retraced his steps. He took a crown from his pocket. As he looked up in giving it, there was a queer smile on his broad, weather-beaten face.

“Ay,” he said, “every man that deserves a crown shall have one, if I can give it him.”

Then he turned again to James, who had now come up, and laid his hand on his shoulder.

“Come along, my king-maker,” said he.

James looked in his face for a moment. The constable’s eyes met his; and the constable nodded.

So they turned to the lodge where the dead king and his huntsman lay. Verily the fate drove.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38