The project that had taken shape in the thoughts of Mr. Rassendyll’s servant, and had inflamed Sapt’s daring mind as the dropping of a spark kindles dry shavings, had suggested itself vaguely to more than one of us in Strelsau. We did not indeed coolly face and plan it, as the little servant had, nor seize on it at once with an eagerness to be convinced of its necessity, like the Constable of Zenda; but it was there in my mind, sometimes figuring as a dread, sometimes as a hope, now seeming the one thing to be avoided, again the only resource against a more disastrous issue. I knew that it was in Bernenstein’s thoughts no less than in my own; for neither of us had been able to form any reasonable scheme by which the living king, whom half Strelsau now knew to be in the city, could be spirited away, and the dead king set in his place. The change could take place, as it seemed, only in one way and at one cost: the truth, or the better part of it, must be told, and every tongue set wagging with gossip and guesses concerning Rudolf Rassendyll and his relations with the queen. Who that knows what men and women are would not have shrunk from that alternative? To adopt it was to expose the queen to all or nearly all the peril she had run by the loss of the letter. We indeed assumed, influenced by Rudolf’s unhesitating self-confidence, that the letter would be won back, and the mouth of Rupert of Hentzau shut; but enough would remain to furnish material for eager talk and for conjectures unrestrained by respect or charity. Therefore, alive as we were to its difficulties and its unending risks, we yet conceived of the thing as possible, had it in our hearts, and hinted it to one another — my wife to me, I to Bernenstein, and he to me — in quick glances and half uttered sentences that declared its presence while shunning the open confession of it. For the queen herself I cannot speak. Her thoughts, as I judged them, were bounded by the longing to see Mr. Rassendyll again, and dwelt on the visit that he promised as the horizon of hope. To Rudolf we had dared to disclose nothing of the part our imaginations set him to play: if he were to accept it, the acceptance would be of his own act, because the fate that old Sapt talked of drove him, and on no persuasion of ours. As he had said, he left the rest, and had centered all his efforts on the immediate task which fell to his hand to perform, the task that was to be accomplished at the dingy old house in the Konigstrasse. We were indeed awake to the fact that even Rupert’s death would not make the secret safe. Rischenheim, although for the moment a prisoner and helpless, was alive and could not be mewed up for ever; Bauer was we knew not where, free to act and free to talk. Yet in our hearts we feared none but Rupert, and the doubt was not whether we could do the thing so much as whether we should. For in moments of excitement and intense feeling a man makes light of obstacles which look large enough as he turns reflective eyes on them in the quiet of after-days.
A message in the king’s name had persuaded the best part of the idle crowd to disperse reluctantly. Rudolf himself had entered one of my carriages and driven off. He started not towards the Konigstrasse, but in the opposite direction: I supposed that he meant to approach his destination by a circuitous way, hoping to gain it without attracting notice. The queen’s carriage was still before my door, for it had been arranged that she was to proceed to the palace and there await tidings. My wife and I were to accompany her; and I went to her now, where she sat alone, and asked if it were her pleasure to start at once. I found her thoughtful but calm. She listened to me; then, rising, she said, “Yes, I will go.” But then she asked suddenly, “Where is the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim?”
I told her how Bernenstein kept guard over the count in the room at the back of the house. She seemed to consider for a moment, then she said:
“I will see him. Go and bring him to me. You must be here while I talk to him, but nobody else.”
I did not know what she intended, but I saw no reason to oppose her wishes, and I was glad to find for her any means of employing this time of suspense. I obeyed her commands and brought Rischenheim to her. He followed me slowly and reluctantly; his unstable mind had again jumped from rashness to despondency: he was pale and uneasy, and, when he found himself in her presence, the bravado of his bearing, maintained before Bernenstein, gave place to a shamefaced sullenness. He could not meet the grave eyes that she fixed on him.
I withdrew to the farther end of the room; but it was small, and I heard all that passed. I had my revolver ready to cover Rischenheim in case he should be moved to make a dash for liberty. But he was past that: Rupert’s presence was a tonic that nerved him to effort and to confidence, but the force of the last dose was gone and the man was sunk again to his natural irresolution.
“My lord,” she began gently, motioning him to sit, “I have desired to speak with you, because I do not wish a gentleman of your rank to think too much evil of his queen. Heaven has willed that my secret should be to you no secret, and therefore I may speak plainly. You may say my own shame should silence me; I speak to lessen my shame in your eyes, if I can.”
Rischenheim looked up with a dull gaze, not understanding her mood. He had expected reproaches, and met low-voiced apology.
“And yet,” she went on, “it is because of me that the king lies dead now; and a faithful humble fellow also, caught in the net of my unhappy fortunes, has given his life for me, though he didn’t know it. Even while we speak, it may be that a gentleman, not too old yet to learn nobility, may be killed in my quarrel; while another, whom I alone of all that know him may not praise, carries his life lightly in his hand for me. And to you, my lord, I have done the wrong of dressing a harsh deed in some cloak of excuse, making you seem to serve the king in working my punishment.”
Rischenheim’s eyes fell to the ground, and he twisted his hands nervously in and out, the one about the other. I took my hand from my revolver: he would not move now.
“I don’t know,” she went on, now almost dreamily, and as though she spoke more to herself than to him, or had even forgotten his presence, “what end in Heaven’s counsel my great unhappiness has served. Perhaps I, who have place above most women, must also be tried above most; and in that trial I have failed. Yet, when I weigh my misery and my temptation, to my human eyes it seems that I have not failed greatly. My heart is not yet humbled, God’s work not yet done. But the guilt of blood is on my soul — even the face of my dear love I can see now only through its scarlet mist; so that if what seemed my perfect joy were now granted me, it would come spoilt and stained and blotched.”
She paused, fixing her eyes on him again; but he neither spoke nor moved.
“You knew my sin,” she said, “the sin so great in my heart; and you knew how little my acts yielded to it. Did you think, my lord, that the sin had no punishment, that you took it in hand to add shame to my suffering? Was Heaven so kind that men must temper its indulgence by their severity? Yet I know that because I was wrong, you, being wrong, might seem to yourself not wrong, and in aiding your kinsman might plead that you served the king’s honor. Thus, my lord, I was the cause in you of a deed that your heart could not welcome nor your honor praise. I thank God that you have come to no more hurt by it.”
Rischenheim began to mutter in a low thick voice, his eyes still cast down: “Rupert persuaded me. He said the king would be very grateful, and — would give me —” His voice died away, and he sat silent again, twisting his hands.
“I know — I know,” she said. “But you wouldn’t have listened to such persuasions if my fault hadn’t blinded your eyes.”
She turned suddenly to me, who had been standing all the while aloof, and stretched out her hands towards me, her eyes filled with tears.
“Yet,” said she, “your wife knows, and still loves me, Fritz.”
“She should be no wife of mine, if she didn’t,” I cried. “For I and all of mine ask no better than to die for your Majesty.”
“She knows, and yet she loves me,” repeated the queen. I loved to see that she seemed to find comfort in Helga’s love. It is women to whom women turn, and women whom women fear.
“But Helga writes no letters,” said the queen.
“Why, no,” said I, and I smiled a grim smile. Well, Rudolf Rassendyll had never wooed my wife.
She rose, saying: “Come, let us go to the palace.”
As she rose, Rischenheim made a quick impulsive step towards her.
“Well, my lord,” said she, turning towards him, “will you also go with me?”
“Lieutenant von Bernenstein will take care —” I began. But I stopped. The slightest gesture of her hand silenced me.
“Will you go with me?” she asked Rischenheim again.
“Madam,” he stammered, “Madam —”
She waited. I waited also, although I had no great patience with him. Suddenly he fell on his knee, but he did not venture to take her hand. Of her own accord she came and stretched it out to him, saying sadly: “Ah, that by forgiving I could win forgiveness!”
Rischenheim caught at her hand and kissed it.
“It was not I,” I heard him mutter. “Rupert set me on, and I couldn’t stand out against him.”
“Will you go with me to the palace?” she asked, drawing her hand away, but smiling.
“The Count of Luzau–Rischenheim,” I made bold to observe, “knows some things that most people do not know, madam.” She turned on me with dignity, almost with displeasure.
“The Count of Luzau–Rischenheim may be trusted to be silent,” she said. “We ask him to do nothing against his cousin. We ask only his silence.”
“Ay,” said I, braving her anger, “but what security shall we have?”
“His word of honor, my lord.” I knew that a rebuke to my presumption lay in her calling me “my lord,” for, save on formal occasions, she always used to call me Fritz.
“His word of honor!” I grumbled. “In truth, madam —”
“He’s right,” said Rischenheim; “he’s right.”
“No, he’s wrong,” said the queen, smiling. “The count will keep his word, given to me.”
Rischenheim looked at her and seemed about to address her, but then he turned to me, and said in a low tone:
“By Heaven, I will, Tarlenheim. I’ll serve her in everything —”
“My lord,” said she most graciously, and yet very sadly, “you lighten the burden on me no less by your help than because I no longer feel your honor stained through me. Come, we will go to the palace.” And she went to him, saying, “We will go together.”
There was nothing for it but to trust him. I knew that I could not turn her.
“Then I’ll see if the carriage is ready,” said I.
“Yes, do, Fritz,” said the queen. But as I passed she stopped me for a moment, saying in a whisper, “Show that you trust him.”
I went and held out my hand to him. He took and pressed it.
“On my honor,” he said.
Then I went out and found Bernenstein sitting on a bench in the hall. The lieutenant was a diligent and watchful young man; he appeared to be examining his revolver with sedulous care.
“You can put that away,” said I rather peevishly — I had not fancied shaking hands with Rischenheim. “He’s not a prisoner any longer. He’s one of us now.”
“The deuce he is!” cried Bernenstein, springing to his feet.
I told him briefly what had happened, and how the queen had won Rupert’s instrument to be her servant.
“I suppose he’ll stick to it,” I ended; and I thought he would, though I was not eager for his help.
A light gleamed in Bernenstein’s eyes, and I felt a tremble in the hand that he laid on my shoulder.
“Then there’s only Bauer now,” he whispered. “If Rischenheim’s with us, only Bauer!”
I knew very well what he meant. With Rischenheim silent, Bauer was the only man, save Rupert himself, who knew the truth, the only man who threatened that great scheme which more and more filled our thoughts and grew upon us with an increasing force of attraction as every obstacle to it seemed to be cleared out of the way. But I would not look at Bernenstein, fearing to acknowledge even with my eyes how my mind jumped with his. He was bolder, or less scrupulous — which you will.
“Yes, if we can shut Bauer’s mouth.” he went on.
“The queen’s waiting for the carriage,” I interrupted snappishly.
“Ah, yes, of course, the carriage,” and he twisted me round till I was forced to look him in the face. Then he smiled, and even laughed a little.
“Only Bauer now!” said he.
“And Rupert,” I remarked sourly.
“Oh, Rupert’s dead bones by now,” he chuckled, and with that he went out of the hall door and announced the queen’s approach to her servants. It must be said for young Bernenstein that he was a cheerful fellow-conspirator. His equanimity almost matched Rudolf’s own; I could not rival it myself.
I drove to the palace with the queen and my wife, the other two following in a second carriage. I do not know what they said to one another on the way, but Bernenstein was civil enough to his companion when I rejoined them. With us my wife was the principal speaker: she filled up, from what Rudolf had told her, the gaps in our knowledge of how he had spent his night in Strelsau, and by the time we arrived we were fully informed in every detail. The queen said little. The impulse which had dictated her appeal to Rischenheim and carried her through it seemed to have died away; she had become again subject to fears and apprehension. I saw her uneasiness when she suddenly put out her hand and touched mine, whispering:
“He must be at the house by now.”
Our way did not lie by the house, and we came to the palace without any news of our absent chief (so I call him — as such we all, from the queen herself, then regarded him). She did not speak of him again; but her eyes seemed to follow me about as though she were silently asking some service of me; what it was I could not understand. Bernenstein had disappeared, and the repentant count with him: knowing they were together, I was in no uneasiness; Bernenstein would see that his companion contrived no treachery. But I was puzzled by the queen’s tacit appeal. And I was myself on fire for news from the Konigstrasse. It was now two hours since Rudolf Rassendyll had left us, and no word had come of him or from him. At last I could bear it no longer. The queen was sitting with her hand in my wife’s; I had been seated on the other side of the room, for I thought that they might wish to talk to one another; yet I had not seen them exchange a word. I rose abruptly and crossed the room to where they were.
“Have you need of my presence, madam, or have I your permission to be away for a time?” I asked.
“Where do you wish to go, Fritz?” the queen asked with a little start, as though I had come suddenly across her thoughts.
“To the Konigstrasse,” said I.
To my surprise she rose and caught my hand.
“God bless you, Fritz!” she cried. “I don’t think I could have endured it longer. But I wouldn’t ask you to go. But go, my dear friend, go and bring me news of him. Oh, Fritz, I seem to dream that dream again!”
My wife looked up at me with a brave smile and a trembling lip.
“Shall you go into the house, Fritz?” she asked.
“Not unless I see need, sweetheart,” said I.
She came and kissed me. “Go, if you are wanted,” she said. And she tried to smile at the queen, as though she risked me willingly.
“I could have been such a wife, Fritz,” whispered the queen. “Yes, I could.”
I had nothing to say; at the moment I might not have been able to say it if I had. There is something in the helpless courage of women that makes me feel soft. We can work and fight; they sit and wait. Yet they do not flinch. Now I know that if I had to sit and think about the thing I should turn cur.
Well, I went, leaving them there together. I put on plain clothes instead of my uniform, and dropped my revolver into the pocket of my coat. Thus prepared, I slipped out and made my way on foot to the Konigstrasse.
It was now long past midday, but many folks were at their dinner and the streets were not full. Two or three people recognized me, but I passed by almost unnoticed. There was no sign of stir or excitement, and the flags still floated high in the wind. Sapt had kept his secret; the men of Strelsau thought still that their king lived and was among them. I feared that Rudolf’s coming would have been seen, and expected to find a crowd of people near the house. But when I reached it there were no more than ten or a dozen idle fellows lounging about. I began to stroll up and down with as careless an air as I could assume.
Soon, however, there was a change. The workmen and business folk, their meal finished, began to come out of their houses and from the restaurants. The loafers before No. 19 spoke to many of them. Some said, “Indeed?” shook their heads, smiled and passed on: they had no time to waste in staring at the king. But many waited; lighting their cigars or cigarettes or pipes, they stood gossiping with one another, looking at their watches now and again, lest they should overstay their leisure. Thus the assembly grew to the number of a couple of hundred. I ceased my walk, for the pavement was too crowded, and hung on the outskirts of the throng. As I loitered there, a cigar in my mouth, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turning round, I saw the lieutenant. He was in uniform. By his side was Rischenheim.
“You’re here too, are you?” said I. “Well, nothing seems to be happening, does it?”
For No. 19 showed no sign of life. The shutters were up, the door closed; the little shop was not open for business that day.
Bernenstein shook his head with a smile. His companion took no heed of my remark; he was evidently in a state of great agitation, and his eyes never left the door of the house. I was about to address him, when my attention was abruptly and completely diverted by a glimpse of a head, caught across the shoulders of the bystanders.
The fellow whom I saw wore a brown wide-awake hat. The hat was pulled down low over his forehead, but nevertheless beneath its rim there appeared a white bandage running round his head. I could not see the face, but the bullet-shaped skull was very familiar to me. I was sure from the first moment that the bandaged man was Bauer. Saying nothing to Bernenstein, I began to steal round outside the crowd. As I went, I heard somebody saying that it was all nonsense; the king was not there: what should the king do in such a house? The answer was a reference to one of the first loungers; he replied that he did not know what the devil the king did there, but that the king or his double had certainly gone in, and had as certainly not yet come out again. I wished I could have made myself known to them and persuaded them to go away; but my presence would have outweighed my declarations, and been taken as a sure sign that the king was in the house. So I kept on the outskirts and worked my way unobtrusively towards the bandaged head. Evidently Bauer’s hurt had not been so serious as to prevent him leaving the infirmary to which the police had carried him: he was come now to await, even as I was awaiting, the issue of Rudolf’s visit to the house in the Konigstrasse.
He had not seen me, for he was looking at No. 19 as intently as Rischenheim. Apparently neither had caught sight of the other, or Rischenheim would have shown some embarrassment, Bauer some excitement. I wormed my way quickly towards my former servant. My mind was full of the idea of getting hold of him. I could not forget Bernenstein’s remark, “Only Bauer now!” If I could secure Bauer we were safe. Safe in what? I did not answer to myself, but the old idea was working in me. Safe in our secret and safe in our plan — in the plan on which we all, we here in the city, and those two at the hunting-lodge, had set our minds! Bauer’s death, Bauer’s capture, Bauer’s silence, however procured, would clear the greatest hindrance from its way.
Bauer stared intently at the house; I crept cautiously up behind him. His hand was in his trousers’ pocket; where the curve of the elbow came there with a space between arm and body. I slipped in my left arm and hooked it firmly inside his. He turned round and saw me.
“Thus we meet again, Bauer,” said I.
He was for a moment flabbergasted, and stared stupidly at me.
“Are you also hoping to see the king?” I asked.
He began to recover himself. A slow, cunning smile spread over his face.
“The king?” he asked.
“Well, he’s in Strelsau, isn’t he? Who gave you the wound on your head?”
Bauer moved his arm as though he meant to withdraw it from my grasp. He found himself tightly held.
“Where’s that bag of mine?” I asked.
I do not know what he would have answered, for at this instant there came a sound from behind the closed door of the house. It was as if some one ran rapidly and eagerly towards the door. Then came an oath in a shrill voice, a woman’s voice, but harsh and rough. It was answered by an angry cry in a girl’s intonation. Full of eagerness, I drew my arm from Bauer’s and sprang forward. I heard a chuckle from him and turned round, to see his bandaged head retreating rapidly down the street. I had no time to look to him, for now I saw two men, shoulder to shoulder, making their way through the crowd, regardless of any one in their way, and paying no attention to abuse or remonstrances. They were the lieutenant and Rischenheim. Without a moment’s hesitation I set myself to push and battle a way through, thinking to join them in front. On they went, and on I went. All gave place before us in surly reluctance or frightened willingness. We three were together in the first rank of the crowd when the door of the house was flung open, and a girl ran out. Her hair was disordered, her face pale, and her eyes full of alarm. There she stood on the doorstep, facing the crowd, which in an instant grew as if by magic to three times its former size, and, little knowing what she did, she cried in the eager accents of sheer terror:
“Help, help! The king! The king!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09