GREAT as was the risk and immense as were the difficulties created by the course which Mr. Rassendyll adopted, I cannot doubt that he acted for the best in the light of the information which he possessed. His plan was to disclose himself in the character of the king to Helsing, to bind him to secrecy, and make him impose the same obligation on his wife, daughter, and servants. The chancellor was to be quieted with the excuse of urgent business, and conciliated by a promise that he should know its nature in the course of a few hours; meanwhile an appeal to his loyalty must suffice to insure obedience. If all went well in the day that had now dawned, by the evening of it the letter would be destroyed, the queen’s peril past, and Rudolf once more far away from Strelsau. Then enough of the truth — no more — must be disclosed. Helsing would be told the story of Rudolf Rassendyll and persuaded to hold his tongue about the harum-scarum Englishman (we are ready to believe much of an Englishman) having been audacious enough again to play the king in Strelsau. The old chancellor was a very good fellow, and I do not think that Rudolf did wrong in relying upon him. Where he miscalculated was, of course, just where he was ignorant. The whole of what the queen’s friends, ay, and the queen herself, did in Strelsau, became useless and mischievous by reason of the king’s death; their action must have been utterly different, had they been aware of that catastrophe; but their wisdom must be judged only according to their knowledge.
In the first place, the chancellor himself showed much good sense. Even before he obeyed the king’s summons he sent for the two servants and charged them, on pain of instant dismissal and worse things to follow, to say nothing of what they had seen. His commands to his wife and daughter were more polite, doubtless, but no less peremptory. He may well have supposed that the king’s business was private as well as important when it led his Majesty to be roaming the streets of Strelsau at a moment when he was supposed to be at the Castle of Zenda, and to enter a friend’s house by the window at such untimely hours. The mere facts were eloquent of secrecy. Moreover, the king had shaved his beard — the ladies were sure of it — and this, again, though it might be merely an accidental coincidence, was also capable of signifying a very urgent desire to be unknown. So the chancellor, having given his orders, and being himself aflame with the liveliest curiosity, lost no time in obeying the king’s commands, and arrived at my house before six o’clock.
When the visitor was announced Rudolf was upstairs, having a bath and some breakfast. Helga had learnt her lesson well enough to entertain the visitor until Rudolf appeared. She was full of apologies for my absence, protesting that she could in no way explain it; neither could she so much as conjecture what was the king’s business with her husband. She played the dutiful wife whose virtue was obedience, whose greatest sin would be an indiscreet prying into what it was not her part to know.
“I know no more,” she said, “than that Fritz wrote to me to expect the king and him at about five o’clock, and to be ready to let them in by the window, as the king did not wish the servants to be aware of his presence.”
The king came and greeted Helsing most graciously. The tragedy and comedy of these busy days were strangely mingled; even now I can hardly help smiling when I picture Rudolf, with grave lips, but that distant twinkle in his eye (I swear he enjoyed the sport), sitting down by the old chancellor in the darkest corner of the room, covering him with flattery, hinting at most strange things, deploring a secret obstacle to immediate confidence, promising that tomorrow, at latest, he would seek the advice of the wisest and most tried of his counselors, appealing to the chancellor’s loyalty to trust him till then. Helsing, blinking through his spectacles, followed with devout attention the long narrative that told nothing, and the urgent exhortation that masked a trick. His accents were almost broken with emotion as he put himself absolutely at the king’s disposal, and declared that he could answer for the discretion of his family and household as completely as for his own.
“Then you’re a very lucky man, my dear chancellor,” said Rudolf, with a sigh which seemed to hint that the king in his palace was not so fortunate. Helsing was immensely pleased. He was all agog to go and tell his wife how entirely the king trusted to her honor and silence.
There was nothing that Rudolf more desired than to be relieved of the excellent old fellow’s presence; but, well aware of the supreme importance of keeping him in a good temper, he would not hear of his departure for a few minutes.
“At any rate, the ladies won’t talk till after breakfast, and since they got home only at five o’clock they won’t breakfast yet awhile,” said he.
So he made Helsing sit down, and talked to him. Rudolf had not failed to notice that the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim had been a little surprised at the sound of his voice; in this conversation he studiously kept his tones low, affecting a certain weakness and huskiness such as he had detected in the king’s utterances, as he listened behind the curtain in Sapt’s room at the castle. The part was played as completely and triumphantly as in the old days when he ran the gauntlet of every eye in Strelsau. Yet if he had not taken such pains to conciliate old Helsing, but had let him depart, he might not have found himself driven to a greater and even more hazardous deception.
They were conversing together alone. My wife had been prevailed on by Rudolf to lie down in her room for an hour. Sorely needing rest, she had obeyed him, having first given strict orders that no member of the household should enter the room where the two were except on an express summons. Fearing suspicion, she and Rudolf had agreed that it was better to rely on these injunctions than to lock the door again as they had the night before.
But while these things passed at my house, the queen and Bernenstein were on their way to Strelsau. Perhaps, had Sapt been at Zenda, his powerful influence might have availed to check the impulsive expedition; Bernenstein had no such authority, and could only obey the queen’s peremptory orders and pathetic prayers. Ever since Rudolf Rassendyll left her, three years before, she had lived in stern self-repression, never her true self, never for a moment able to be or to do what every hour her heart urged on her. How are these things done? I doubt if a man lives who could do them; but women live who do them. Now his sudden coming, and the train of stirring events that accompanied it, his danger and hers, his words and her enjoyment of his presence, had all worked together to shatter her self-control; and the strange dream, heightening the emotion which was its own cause, left her with no conscious desire save to be near Mr. Rassendyll, and scarcely with a fear except for his safety. As they journeyed her talk was all of his peril, never of the disaster which threatened herself, and which we were all striving with might and main to avert from her head. She traveled alone with Bernenstein, getting rid of the lady who attended her by some careless pretext, and she urged on him continually to bring her as speedily as might be to Mr. Rassendyll. I cannot find much blame for her. Rudolf stood for all the joy in her life, and Rudolf had gone to fight with the Count of Hentzau. What wonder that she saw him, as it were, dead? Yet still she would have it that, in his seeming death, all men hailed him for their king. Well, it was her love that crowned him.
As they reached the city, she grew more composed, being persuaded by Bernenstein that nothing in her bearing must rouse suspicion. Yet she was none the less resolved to seek Mr. Rassendyll at once. In truth, she feared even then to find him dead, so strong was the hold of her dream on her; until she knew that he was alive she could not rest. Bernenstein, fearful that the strain would kill her, or rob her of reason, promised everything; and declared, with a confidence which he did not feel, that beyond doubt Mr. Rassendyll was alive and well.
“But where — where?” she cried eagerly, with clasped hands.
“We’re most likely, madam, to find him at Fritz von Tarlenheim’s,” answered the lieutenant. “He would wait there till the time came to attack Rupert, or, if the thing is over, he will have returned there.”
“Then let us drive there at once,” she urged.
Bernenstein, however, persuaded her to go to the palace first and let it be known there that she was going to pay a visit to my wife. She arrived at the palace at eight o’clock, took a cup of chocolate, and then ordered her carriage. Bernenstein alone accompanied her when she set out for my house about nine. He was, by now, hardly less agitated than the queen herself.
In her entire preoccupation with Mr. Rassendyll, she gave little thought to what might have happened at the hunting lodge; but Bernenstein drew gloomy auguries from the failure of Sapt and myself to return at the proper time. Either evil had befallen us, or the letter had reached the king before we arrived at the lodge; the probabilities seemed to him to be confined to these alternatives. Yet when he spoke in this strain to the queen, he could get from her nothing except, “If we can find Mr. Rassendyll, he will tell us what to do.”
Thus, then, a little after nine in the morning the queen’s carriage drove up to my door. The ladies of the chancellor’s family had enjoyed a very short night’s rest, for their heads came bobbing out of window the moment the wheels were heard; many people were about now, and the crown on the panels attracted the usual small crowd of loiterers. Bernenstein sprang out and gave his hand to the queen. With a hasty slight bow to the onlookers, she hastened up the two or three steps of the porch, and with her own hand rang the bell. Inside, the carriage had just been observed. My wife’s waiting-maid ran hastily to her mistress; Helga was lying on her bed; she rose at once, and after a few moments of necessary preparations (or such preparations as seem to ladies necessary, however great the need of haste may be) hurried downstairs to receive her Majesty — and to warn her Majesty. She was too late. The door was already open. The butler and the footman both had run to it, and thrown it open for the queen. As Helga reached the foot of the stairs, her Majesty was just entering the room where Rudolf was, the servants attending her, and Bernenstein standing behind, his helmet in his hand.
Rudolf and the chancellor had been continuing their conversation. To avoid the observations of passers-by (for the interior of the room is easy to see from the street), the blind had been drawn down, and the room was in deep shadow. They had heard the wheels, but neither of them dreamt that the visitor could be the queen. It was an utter surprise to them when, without their orders, the door was suddenly flung open. The chancellor, slow of movement, and not, if I may say it, over-quick of brain, sat in his corner for half a minute or more before he rose to his feet. On the other hand, Rudolf Rassendyll was the best part of the way across the room in an instant. Helga was at the door now, and she thrust her head round young Bernenstein’s broad shoulders. Thus she saw what happened. The queen, forgetting the servants, and not observing Helsing — seeming indeed to stay for nothing, and to think of nothing, but to have her thoughts and heart filled with the sight of the man she loved and the knowledge of his safety — met him as he ran towards her, and, before Helga, or Bernenstein, or Rudolf himself, could stay her or conceive what she was about to do, caught both his hands in hers with an intense grasp, crying:
“Rudolf, you’re safe! Thank God, oh, thank God!” and she carried his hands to her lips and kissed them passionately.
A moment of absolute silence followed, dictated in the servants by decorum, in the chancellor by consideration, in Helga and Bernenstein by utter consternation. Rudolf himself also was silent, but whether from bewilderment or an emotion answering to hers, I know not. Either it might well be. The stillness struck her. She looked up in his eyes; she looked round the room and saw Helsing, now bowing profoundly from the corner; she turned her head with a sudden frightened jerk, and glanced at my motionless deferential servants. Then it came upon her what she had done. She gave a quick gasp for breath, and her face, always pale, went white as marble. Her features set in a strange stiffness, and suddenly she reeled where she stood, and fell forward. Only Rudolf’s hand bore her up. Thus for a moment, too short to reckon, they stood. Then he, a smile of great love and pity coming on his lips, drew her to him, and passing his arm about her waist, thus supported her. Then, smiling still, he looked down on her, and said in a low tone, yet distinct enough for all to hear:
“All is well, dearest.”
My wife gripped Bernenstein’s arm, and he turned to find her pale-faced too, with quivering lips and shining eyes. But the eyes had a message, and an urgent one, for him. He read it; he knew that it bade him second what Rudolf Rassendyll had done. He came forward and approached Rudolf; then he fell on one knee, and kissed Rudolf’s left hand that was extended to him.
“I’m very glad to see you, Lieutenant von Bernenstein,” said Rudolf Rassendyll.
For a moment the thing was done, ruin averted, and safety secured. Everything had been at stake; that there was such a man as Rudolf Rassendyll might have been disclosed; that he had once filled the king’s throne was a high secret which they were prepared to trust to Helsing under stress of necessity; but there remained something which must be hidden at all costs, and which the queen’s passionate exclamation had threatened to expose. There was a Rudolf Rassendyll, and he had been king; but, more than all this, the queen loved him and he the queen. That could be told to none, not even to Helsing; for Helsing, though he would not gossip to the town, would yet hold himself bound to carry the matter to the king. So Rudolf chose to take any future difficulties rather than that present and certain disaster. Sooner than entail it on her he loved, he claimed for himself the place of her husband and the name of king. And she, clutching at the only chance that her act left, was content to have it so. It may be that for an instant her weary, tortured brain found sweet rest in the dim dream that so it was, for she let her head lie there on his breast and her eyes closed, her face looking very peaceful, and a soft little sigh escaping in pleasure from her lips.
But every moment bore its peril and exacted its effort. Rudolf led the queen to a couch, and then briefly charged the servants not to speak of his presence for a few hours. As they had no doubt perceived, said he, from the queen’s agitation, important business was on foot; it demanded his presence in Strelsau, but required also that his presence should not be known. A short time would free them from the obligation which he now asked of their loyalty. When they had withdrawn, bowing obedience, he turned to Helsing, pressed his hand warmly, reiterated his request for silence, and said that he would summon the chancellor to his presence again later in the day, either where he was or at the palace. Then he bade all withdraw and leave him alone for a little with the queen. He was obeyed; but Helsing had hardly left the house when Rudolf called Bernenstein back, and with him my wife. Helga hastened to the queen, who was still sorely agitated; Rudolf drew Bernenstein aside, and exchanged with him all their news. Mr. Rassendyll was much disturbed at finding that no tidings had come from Colonel Sapt and myself, but his apprehension was greatly increased on learning the untoward accident by which the king himself had been at the lodge the night before. Indeed, he was utterly in the dark; where the king was, where Rupert, where we were, he did not know. And he was here in Strelsau, known as the king to half a dozen people or more, protected only by their promises, liable at any moment to be exposed by the coming of the king himself, or even by a message from him.
Yet, in face of all perplexities, perhaps even the more because of the darkness in which he was enveloped, Rudolf held firm to his purpose. There were two things that seemed plain. If Rupert had escaped the trap and was still alive with the letter on him, Rupert must be found; here was the first task. That accomplished, there remained for Rudolf himself nothing save to disappear as quietly and secretly as he had come, trusting that his presence could be concealed from the man whose name he had usurped. Nay, if need were, the king must be told that Rudolf Rassendyll had played a trick on the chancellor, and, having enjoyed his pleasure, was gone again. Everything could, in the last resort, be told, save that which touched the queen’s honor.
At this moment the message which I despatched from the station at Hofbau reached my house. There was a knock at the door. Bernenstein opened it and took the telegram, which was addressed to my wife. I had written all that I dared to trust to such a means of communication, and here it is:
“I am coming to Strelsau. The king will not leave the lodge today. The count came, but left before we arrived. I do not know whether he has gone to Strelsau. He gave no news to the king.”
“Then they didn’t get him!” cried Bernenstein in deep disappointment.
“No, but he gave no news to the king,” said Rudolf triumphantly.
They were all standing now round the queen, who sat on the couch. She seemed very faint and weary, but at peace. It was enough for her that Rudolf fought and planned for her.
“And see this,” Rudolf went on. “‘The king will not leave the lodge today.’ Thank God, then, we have today!”
“Yes, but where’s Rupert?”
“We shall know in an hour, if he’s in Strelsau,” and Mr. Rassendyll looked as though it would please him well to find Rupert in Strelsau. “Yes, I must seek him. I shall stand at nothing to find him. If I can only get to him as the king, then I’ll be the king. We have today!”
My message put them in heart again, although it left so much still unexplained. Rudolf turned to the queen.
“Courage, my queen,” said he. “A few hours now will see an end of all our dangers.”
“And then?” she asked.
“Then you’ll be safe and at rest,” said he, bending over her and speaking softly. “And I shall be proud in the knowledge of having saved you.”
“I must go,” Helga heard him whisper as he bent lower still, and she and Bernenstein moved away.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09