The tall handsome girl was taking down the shutters from the shop front at No. 19 in the Konigstrasse. She went about her work languidly enough, but there was a tinge of dusky red on her cheeks and her eyes were brightened by some suppressed excitement. Old Mother Holf, leaning against the counter, was grumbling angrily because Bauer did not come. Now it was not likely that Bauer would come just yet, for he was still in the infirmary attached to the police-cells, where a couple of doctors were very busy setting him on his legs again. The old woman knew nothing of this, but only that he had gone the night before to reconnoitre; where he was to play the spy she did not know, on whom perhaps she guessed.
“You’re sure he never came back?” she asked her daughter.
“He never came back that I saw,” answered the girl. “And I was on the watch with my lamp here in the shop till it grew light.”
“He’s twelve hours gone now, and never a message! Ay, and Count Rupert should be here soon, and he’ll be in a fine taking if Bauer’s not back.”
The girl made no answer; she had finished her task and stood in the doorway, looking out on the street. It was past eight, and many people were about, still for the most part humble folk; the more comfortably placed would not be moving for an hour or two yet. In the road the traffic consisted chiefly of country carts and wagons, bringing in produce for the day’s victualling of the great city. The girl watched the stream, but her thoughts were occupied with the stately gentleman who had come to her by night and asked a service of her. She had heard the revolver shot outside; as it sounded she had blown out her lamp, and there behind the door in the dark had heard the swiftly retreating feet of the fugitives and, a little later, the arrival of the patrol. Well, the patrol would not dare to touch the king; as for Bauer, let him be alive or dead: what cared she, who was the king’s servant, able to help the king against his enemies? If Bauer were the king’s enemy, right glad would she be to hear that the rogue was dead. How finely the king had caught him by the neck and thrown him out! She laughed to think how little her mother knew the company she had kept that night.
The row of country carts moved slowly by. One or two stopped before the shop, and the carters offered vegetables for sale. The old woman would have nothing to say to them, but waved them on irritably. Three had thus stopped and again proceeded, and an impatient grumble broke from the old lady as a fourth, a covered wagon, drew up before the door.
“We don’t want anything: go on, go on with you!” she cried shrilly.
The carter got down from his seat without heeding her, and walked round to the back.
“Here you are, sir,” he cried. “Nineteen, Konigstrasse.”
A yawn was heard, and the long sigh a man gives as he stretches himself in the mingled luxury and pain of an awakening after sound refreshing sleep.
“All right; I’ll get down,” came in answer from inside.
“Ah, it’s the count!” said the old lady to her daughter in satisfied tones. “What will he say, though, about that rogue Bauer?”
Rupert of Hentzau put his head out from under the wagon-tilt, looked up and down the street, gave the carter a couple of crowns, leapt down, and ran lightly across the pavement into the little shop. The wagon moved on.
“A lucky thing I met him,” said Rupert cheerily. “The wagon hid me very well; and handsome as my face is, I can’t let Strelsau enjoy too much of it just now. Well, mother, what cheer? And you, my pretty, how goes it with you?” He carelessly brushed the girl’s cheek with the glove that he had drawn off. “Faith, though, I beg your pardon.” he added a moment later, “the glove’s not clean enough for that,” and he looked at his buff glove, which was stained with patches of dull rusty brown.
“It’s all as when you left, Count Rupert,” said Mother Holf, “except that that rascal Bauer went out last night —”
“That’s right enough. But hasn’t he returned?”
“No, not yet.”
“Hum. No signs of — anybody else?” His look defined the vague question.
The old woman shook her head. The girl turned away to hide a smile. “Anybody else” meant the king, so she suspected. Well, they should hear nothing from her. The king himself had charged her to be silent.
“But Rischenheim has come, I suppose?” pursued Rupert.
“Oh, yes; he came, my lord, soon after you went. He wears his arm in a sling.”
“Ah!” cried Rupert in sudden excitement. “As I guessed! The devil! If only I could do everything myself, and not have to trust to fools and bunglers! Where’s the count?”
“Why, in the attic. You know the way.”
“True. But I want some breakfast, mother.”
“Rosa shall serve you at once, my lord.”
The girl followed Rupert up the narrow crazy staircase of the tall old house. They passed three floors, all uninhabited; a last steep flight that brought them right under the deep arched roof. Rupert opened a door that stood at the top of the stairs, and, followed still by Rosa with her mysterious happy smile, entered a long narrow room. The ceiling, high in the centre, sloped rapidly down on either side, so that at door and window it was little more than six feet above the floor. There was an oak table and a few chairs; a couple of iron bedsteads stood by the wall near the window. One was empty; the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim lay on the other, fully dressed, his right arm supported in a sling of black silk. Rupert paused on the threshold, smiling at his cousin; the girl passed on to a high press or cupboard, and, opening it, took out plates, glasses, and the other furniture of the table. Rischenheim sprang up and ran across the room.
“What news?” he cried eagerly. “You escaped them, Rupert?”
“It appears so,” said Rupert airily; and, advancing into the room, he threw himself into a chair, tossing his hat on to the table.
“It appears that I escaped, although some fool’s stupidity nearly made an end of me.” Rischenheim flushed.
“I’ll tell you about that directly,” he said, glancing at the girl who had put some cold meat and a bottle of wine on the table, and was now completing the preparations for Rupert’s meal in a very leisurely fashion.
“Had I nothing to do but to look at pretty faces — which, by Heaven, I wish heartily were the case — I would beg you to stay,” said Rupert, rising and making her a profound bow.
“I’ve no wish to hear what doesn’t concern me,” she retorted scornfully.
“What a rare and blessed disposition!” said he, holding the door for her and bowing again.
“I know what I know,” she cried to him triumphantly from the landing. “Maybe you’d give something to know it too, Count Rupert!”
“It’s very likely, for, by Heaven, girls know wonderful things!” smiled Rupert; but he shut the door and came quickly back to the table, now frowning again. “Come, tell me, how did they make a fool of you, or why did you make a fool of me, cousin?”
While Rischenheim related how he had been trapped and tricked at the Castle of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau made a very good breakfast. He offered no interruption and no comments, but when Rudolf Rassendyll came into the story he looked up for an instant with a quick jerk of his head and a sudden light in his eyes. The end of Rischenheim’s narrative found him tolerant and smiling again.
“Ah, well, the snare was cleverly set,” he said. “I don’t wonder you fell into it.”
“And now you? What happened to you?” asked Rischenheim eagerly.
“I? Why, having your message which was not your message, I obeyed your directions which were not your directions.”
“You went to the lodge?”
“And you found Sapt there? — Anybody else?”
“Why, not Sapt at all.”
“Not Sapt? But surely they laid a trap for you?”
“Very possibly, but the jaws didn’t bite.” Rupert crossed his legs and lit a cigarette.
“But what did you find?”
“I? I found the king’s forester, and the king’s boar-hound, and — well, I found the king himself, too.”
“The king at the lodge?”
“You weren’t so wrong as you thought, were you?”
“But surely Sapt, or Bernenstein, or some one was with him?”
“As I tell you, his forester and his boar-hound. No other man or beast, on my honor.”
“Then you gave him the letter?” cried Rischenheim, trembling with excitement.
“Alas, no, my dear cousin. I threw the box at him, but I don’t think he had time to open it. We didn’t get to that stage of the conversation at which I had intended to produce the letter.”
“But why not — why not?”
Rupert rose to his feet, and, coming just opposite to where Rischenheim sat, balanced himself on his heels, and looked down at his cousin, blowing the ash from his cigarette and smiling pleasantly.
“Have you noticed,” he asked, “that my coat’s torn?”
“I see it is.”
“Yes. The boar-hound tried to bite me, cousin. And the forester would have stabbed me. And — well, the king wanted to shoot me.”
“Yes, yes! For God’s sake, what happened?”
“Well, they none of them did what they wanted. That’s what happened, dear cousin.”
Rischenheim was staring at him now with wide-opened eyes. Rupert smiled down on him composedly.
“Because, you see,” he added, “Heaven helped me. So that, my dear cousin, the dog will bite no more, and the forester will stab no more. Surely the country is well rid of them?”
A silence followed. Then Rischenheim, leaning forward, said in a low whisper, as though afraid to hear his own question:
“And the king?”
“The king? Well, the king will shoot no more.”
For a moment Rischenheim, still leaning forward, gazed at his cousin. Then he sank slowly back into his chair.
“My God!” he murmured: “my God!”
“The king was a fool,” said Rupert. “Come, I’ll tell you a little more about it.” He drew a chair up and seated himself in it.
While he talked Rischenheim seemed hardly to listen. The story gained in effect from the contrast of Rupert’s airy telling; his companion’s pale face and twitching hands tickled his fancy to more shameless jesting. But when he had finished, he gave a pull to his small smartly-curled moustache and said with a sudden gravity:
“After all, though, it’s a serious matter.”
Rischenheim was appalled at the issue. His cousin’s influence had been strong enough to lead him into the affair of the letter; he was aghast to think how Rupert’s reckless dare-deviltry had led on from stage to stage till the death of a king seemed but an incident in his schemes. He sprang suddenly to his feet, crying:
“But we must fly — we must fly!”
“No, we needn’t fly. Perhaps we’d better go, but we needn’t fly.”
“But when it becomes known?” He broke off and then cried:
“Why did you tell me? Why did you come back here?”
“Well, I told you because it was interesting, and I came back here because I had no money to go elsewhere.”
“I would have sent money.”
“I find that I get more when I ask in person. Besides, is everything finished?”
“I’ll have no more to do with it.”
“Ah, my dear cousin, you despond too soon. The good king has unhappily gone from us, but we still have our dear queen. We have also, by the kindness of Heaven, our dear queen’s letter.”
“I’ll have no more to do with it.”
“Your neck feeling —?” Rupert delicately imitated the putting of a noose about a man’s throat.
Rischenheim rose suddenly and flung the window open wide.
“I’m suffocated,” he muttered with a sullen frown, avoiding Rupert’s eyes.
“Where’s Rudolf Rassendyll?” asked Rupert. “Have you heard of him?”
“No, I don’t know where he is.”
“We must find that out, I think.”
Rischenheim turned abruptly on him.
“I had no hand in this thing,” he said, “and I’ll have no more to do with it. I was not there. What did I know of the king being there? I’m not guilty of it: on my soul, I know nothing of it.”
“That’s all very true,” nodded Rupert.
“Rupert,” cried he, “let me go, let me alone. If you want money, I’ll give it to you. For God’s sake take it, and get out of Strelsau!”
“I’m ashamed to beg, my dear cousin, but in fact I want a little money until I can contrive to realize my valuable property. Is it safe, I wonder? Ah, yes, here it is.”
He drew from his inner pocket the queen’s letter. “Now if the king hadn’t been a fool!” he murmured regretfully, as he regarded it.
Then he walked across to the window and looked out; he could not himself be seen from the street, and nobody was visible at the windows opposite. Men and women passed to and fro on their daily labors or pleasures; there was no unusual stir in the city. Looking over the roofs, Rupert could see the royal standard floating in the wind over the palace and the barracks. He took out his watch; Rischenheim imitated his action; it was ten minutes to ten.
“Rischenheim,” he called, “come here a moment. Here — look out.”
Rischenheim obeyed, and Rupert let him look for a minute or two before speaking again.
“Do you see anything remarkable?” he asked then.
“No, nothing,” answered Rischenheim, still curt and sullen in his fright.
“Well, no more do I. And that’s very odd. For don’t you think that Sapt or some other of her Majesty’s friends must have gone to the lodge last night?”
“They meant to, I swear,” said Rischenheim with sudden attention.
“Then they would have found the king. There’s a telegraph wire at Hofbau, only a few miles away. And it’s ten o’clock. My cousin, why isn’t Strelsau mourning for our lamented king? Why aren’t the flags at half-mast? I don’t understand it.”
“No,” murmured Rischenheim, his eyes now fixed on his cousin’s face.
Rupert broke into a smile and tapped his teeth with his fingers.
“I wonder,” said he meditatively, “if that old player Sapt has got a king up his sleeve again! If that were so —” He stopped and seemed to fall into deep thought. Rischenheim did not interrupt him, but stood looking now at him, now out of the window. Still there was no stir in the streets, and still the standards floated at the summit of the flag staffs. The king’s death was not yet known in Strelsau.
“Where’s Bauer?” asked Rupert suddenly. “Where the plague can Bauer be? He was my eyes. Here we are, cooped up, and I don’t know what’s going on.”
“I don’t know where he is. Something must have happened to him.”
“Of course, my wise cousin. But what?”
Rupert began to pace up and down the room, smoking another cigarette at a great pace. Rischenheim sat down by the table, resting his head on his hand. He was wearied out by strain and excitement, his wounded arm pained him greatly, and he was full of horror and remorse at the event which happened unknown to him the night before.
“I wish I was quit of it,” he moaned at last. Rupert stopped before him.
“You repent of your misdeeds?” he asked. “Well, then, you shall be allowed to repent. Nay, you shall go and tell the king that you repent. Rischenheim, I must know what they are doing. You must go and ask an audience of the king.”
“But the king is —”
“We shall know that better when you’ve asked for your audience. See here.”
Rupert sat down by his cousin and instructed him in his task. This was no other than to discover whether there were a king in Strelsau, or whether the only king lay dead in the hunting lodge. If there were no attempt being made to conceal the king’s death, Rupert’s plan was to seek safety in flight. He did not abandon his designs: from the secure vantage of foreign soil he would hold the queen’s letter over her head, and by the threat of publishing it insure at once immunity for himself and almost any further terms which he chose to exact from her. If, on the other hand, the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim found a king in Strelsau, if the royal standards continued to wave at the summit of their flag staffs, and Strelsau knew nothing of the dead man in the lodge, then Rupert had laid his hand on another secret; for he knew who the king in Strelsau must be. Starting from this point, his audacious mind darted forward to new and bolder schemes. He could offer again to Rudolf Rassendyll what he had offered once before, three years ago — a partnership in crime and the profits of crime — or if this advance were refused, then he declared that he would himself descend openly into the streets of Strelsau and proclaim the death of the king from the steps of the cathedral.
“Who can tell,” he cried, springing up, enraptured and merry with the inspiration of his plan, “who can tell whether Sapt or I came first to the lodge? Who found the king alive, Sapt or I? Who left him dead, Sapt or I? Who had most interest in killing him — I, who only sought to make him aware of what touched his honor, or Sapt, who was and is hand and glove with the man that now robs him of his name and usurps his place while his body is still warm? Ah, they haven’t done with Rupert of Hentzau yet!”
He stopped, looking down on his companion. Rischenheim’s fingers still twitched nervously and his cheeks were pale. But now his face was alight with interest and eagerness. Again the fascination of Rupert’s audacity and the infection of his courage caught on his kinsman’s weaker nature, and inspired him to a temporary emulation of the will that dominated him.
“You see,” pursued Rupert, “it’s not likely that they’ll do you any harm.”
“I’ll risk anything.”
“Most gallant gentleman! At the worst they’ll only keep you a prisoner. Well, if you’re not back in a couple of hours, I shall draw my conclusions. I shall know that there’s a king in Strelsau.”
“But where shall I look for the king?”
“Why, first in the palace, and secondly at Fritz von Tarlenheim’s. I expect you’ll find him at Fritz’s, though.”
“Shall I go there first, then?”
“No. That would be seeming to know too much.”
“You’ll wait here?”
“Certainly, cousin — unless I see cause to move, you know.”
“And I shall find you on my return?”
“Me, or directions from me. By the way, bring money too. There’s never any harm in having a full pocket. I wonder what the devil does without a breeches-pocket?”
Rischenheim let that curious speculation alone, although he remembered the whimsical air with which Rupert delivered it. He was now on fire to be gone, his ill-balanced brain leaping from the depths of despondency to the certainty of brilliant success, and not heeding the gulf of danger that it surpassed in buoyant fancy.
“We shall have them in a corner, Rupert,” he cried.
“Ay, perhaps. But wild beasts in a corner bite hard.”
“I wish my arm were well!”
“You’ll be safer with it wounded,” said Rupert with a smile.
“By God, Rupert, I can defend myself.”
“True, true; but it’s your brain I want now, cousin.”
“You shall see that I have something in me.”
“If it please God, dear cousin.”
With every mocking encouragement and every careless taunt Rischenheim’s resolve to prove himself a man grew stronger. He snatched up a revolver that lay on the mantelpiece and put it in his pocket.
“Don’t fire, if you can help it,” advised Rupert. Rischenheim’s answer was to make for the door at a great speed. Rupert watched him go, and then returned to the window. The last his cousin saw was his figure standing straight and lithe against the light, while he looked out on the city. Still there was no stir in the streets, still the royal standard floated at the top of the flag staffs.
Rischenheim plunged down the stairs: his feet were too slow for his eagerness. At the bottom he found the girl Rosa sweeping the passage with great apparent diligence.
“You’re going out, my lord?” she asked.
“Why, yes; I have business. Pray stand on one side, this passage is so cursedly narrow.”
Rosa showed no haste in moving.
“And the Count Rupert, is he going out also?” she asked.
“You see he’s not with me. He’ll wait.” Rischenheim broke off and asked angrily: “What business is it of yours, girl? Get out of the way!”
She moved aside now, making him no answer. He rushed past; she looked after him with a smile of triumph. Then she fell again to her sweeping. The king had bidden her be ready at eleven. It was half-past ten. Soon the king would have need of her.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09