THE things that men call presages, presentiments, and so forth, are, to my mind, for the most part idle nothings: sometimes it is only that probable events cast before them a natural shadow which superstitious fancy twists into a Heaven sent warning; oftener the same desire that gives conception works fulfilment, and the dreamer sees in the result of his own act and will a mysterious accomplishment independent of his effort. Yet when I observe thus calmly and with good sense on the matter to the Constable of Zenda, he shakes his head and answers, “But Rudolf Rassendyll knew from the first that he would come again to Strelsau and engage young Rupert point to point. Else why did he practise with the foils so as to be a better swordsman the second time than he was the first? Mayn’t God do anything that Fritz von Tarlenheim can’t understand? a pretty notion, on my life!” And he goes off grumbling.
Well, be it inspiration, or be it delusion — and the difference stands often on a hair’s breadth — I am glad that Rudolf had it. For if a man once grows rusty, it is everything short of impossible to put the fine polish on his skill again. Mr. Rassendyll had strength, will, coolness, and, of course, courage. None would have availed had not his eye been in perfect familiarity with its work, and his hand obeyed it as readily as the bolt slips in a well-oiled groove. As the thing stood, the lithe agility and unmatched dash of young Rupert but just missed being too much for him. He was in deadly peril when the girl Rosa ran down to bring him aid. His practised skill was able to maintain his defence. He sought to do no more, but endured Rupert’s fiery attack and wily feints in an almost motionless stillness. Almost, I say; for the slight turns of wrist that seem nothing are everything, and served here to keep his skin whole and his life in him.
There was an instant — Rudolf saw it in his eyes and dwelt on it when he lightly painted the scene for me — when there dawned on Rupert of Hentzau the knowledge that he could not break down his enemy’s guard. Surprise, chagrin, amusement, or something like it, seemed blended in his look. He could not make out how he was caught and checked in every effort, meeting, it seemed, a barrier of iron impregnable in rest. His quick brain grasped the lesson in an instant. If his skill were not the greater, the victory would not be his, for his endurance was the less. He was younger, and his frame was not so closely knit; pleasure had taken its tithe from him; perhaps a good cause goes for something. Even while he almost pressed Rudolf against the panel of the door, he seemed to know that his measure of success was full. But what the hand could not compass the head might contrive. In quickly conceived strategy he began to give pause in his attack, nay, he retreated a step or two. No scruples hampered his devices, no code of honor limited the means he would employ. Backing before his opponent, he seemed to Rudolf to be faint-hearted; he was baffled, but seemed despairing; he was weary, but played a more complete fatigue. Rudolf advanced, pressing and attacking, only to meet a defence as perfect as his own. They were in the middle of the room now, close by the table. Rupert, as though he had eyes in the back of his head, skirted round, avoiding it by a narrow inch. His breathing was quick and distressed, gasp tumbling over gasp, but still his eye was alert and his hand unerring. He had but a few moments’ more effort left in him: it was enough if he could reach his goal and perpetrate the trick on which his mind, fertile in every base device, was set. For it was towards the mantelpiece that his retreat, seeming forced, in truth so deliberate, led him. There was the letter, there lay the revolvers. The time to think of risks was gone by; the time to boggle over what honor allowed or forbade had never come to Rupert of Hentzau. If he could not win by force and skill, he would win by guile and by treachery, to the test that he had himself invited. The revolvers lay on the mantelpiece: he meant to possess himself of one, if he could gain an instant in which to snatch it.
The device that he adopted was nicely chosen. It was too late to call a rest or ask breathing space: Mr. Rassendyll was not blind to the advantage he had won, and chivalry would have turned to folly had it allowed such indulgence. Rupert was hard by the mantelpiece now. The sweat was pouring from his face, and his breast seemed like to burst in the effort after breath; yet he had enough strength for his purpose. He must have slackened his hold on his weapon, for when Rudolf’s blade next struck it, it flew from his hand, twirled out of a nerveless grasp, and slid along the floor. Rupert stood disarmed, and Rudolf motionless.
“Pick it up,” said Mr. Rassendyll, never thinking there had been a trick.
“Ay, and you’ll truss me while I do it.”
“You young fool, don’t you know me yet?” and Rudolf, lowering his blade, rested its point on the floor, while with his left hand he indicated Rupert’s weapon. Yet something warned him: it may be there came a look in Rupert’s eyes, perhaps of scorn for his enemy’s simplicity, perhaps of pure triumph in the graceless knavery. Rudolf stood waiting.
“You swear you won’t touch me while I pick it up?” asked Rupert, shrinking back a little, and thereby getting an inch or two nearer the mantelpiece.
“You have my promise: pick it up. I won’t wait any longer.”
“You won’t kill me unarmed?” cried Rupert, in alarmed scandalized expostulation.
“No; but —”
The speech went unfinished, unless a sudden cry were its ending. And, as he cried, Rudolf Rassendyll, dropping his sword on the ground, sprang forward. For Rupert’s hand had shot out behind him and was on the butt of one of the revolvers. The whole trick flashed on Rudolf, and he sprang, flinging his long arms round Rupert. But Rupert had the revolver in his hand.
In all likelihood the two neither heard nor heeded, though it seemed to me that the creaks and groans of the old stairs were loud enough to wake the dead. For now Rosa had given the alarm, Bernenstein and I— or I and Bernenstein (for I was first, and, therefore, may put myself first)— had rushed up. Hard behind us came Rischenheim, and hot on his heels a score of fellows, pushing and shouldering and trampling. We in front had a fair start, and gained the stairs unimpeded; Rischenheim was caught up in the ruck and gulfed in the stormy, tossing group that struggled for first footing on the steps. Yet, soon they were after us, and we heard them reach the first landing as we sped up to the last. There was a confused din through all the house, and it seemed now to echo muffled and vague through the walls from the street without. I was conscious of it, although I paid no heed to anything but reaching the room where the king — where Rudolf — was. Now I was there, Bernenstein hanging to my heels. The door did not hold us a second. I was in, he after me. He slammed the door and set his back against it, just as the rush of feet flooded the highest flight of stairs. And at the moment a revolver shot rang clear and loud.
The lieutenant and I stood still, he against the door, I a pace farther into the room. The sight we saw was enough to arrest us with its strange interest. The smoke of the shot was curling about, but neither man seemed wounded. The revolver was in Rupert’s hand, and its muzzle smoked. But Rupert was jammed against the wall, just by the side of the mantelpiece. With one hand Rudolf had pinned his left arm to the wainscoting higher than his head, with the other he held his right wrist. I drew slowly nearer: if Rudolf were unarmed, I could fairly enforce a truce and put them on an equality; yet, though Rudolf was unarmed, I did nothing. The sight of his face stopped me. He was very pale and his lips were set, but it was his eyes that caught my gaze, for they were glad and merciless. I had never seen him look thus before. I turned from him to young Hentzau’s face. Rupert’s teeth were biting his under lip, the sweat dropped, and the veins swelled large and blue on his forehead; his eyes were set on Rudolf Rassendyll. Fascinated, I drew nearer. Then I saw what passed. Inch by inch Rupert’s arm curved, the elbow bent, the hand that had pointed almost straight from him and at Mr. Rassendyll pointed now away from both towards the window. But its motion did not stop; it followed the line of a circle: now it was on Rupert’s arm; still it moved, and quicker now, for the power of resistance grew less. Rupert was beaten; he felt it and knew it, and I read the knowledge in his eyes. I stepped up to Rudolf Rassendyll. He heard or felt me, and turned his eyes for an instant. I do not know what my face said, but he shook his head and turned back to Rupert. The revolver, held still in the man’s own hand, was at his heart. The motion ceased, the point was reached.
I looked again at Rupert. Now his face was easier; there was a slight smile on his lips; he flung back his comely head and rested thus against the wainscoting; his eyes asked a question of Rudolf Rassendyll. I turned my gaze to where the answer was to come, for Rudolf made none in words. By the swiftest of movements he shifted his grasp from Rupert’s wrist and pounced on his hand. Now his forefinger rested on Rupert’s and Rupert’s was on the trigger. I am no soft-heart, but I laid a hand on his shoulder. He took no heed; I dared do no more. Rupert glanced at me. I caught his look, but what could I say to him? Again my eyes were riveted on Rudolf’s finger. Now it was crooked round Rupert’s, seeming like a man who strangles another.
I will not say more. He smiled to the last; his proud head, which had never bent for shame, did not bend for fear. There was a sudden tightening in the pressure of that crooked forefinger, a flash, a noise. He was held up against the wall for an instant by Rudolf’s hand; when that was removed he sank, a heap that looked all head and knees.
But hot on the sound of the discharge came a shout and an oath from Bernenstein. He was hurled away from the door, and through it burst Rischenheim and the whole score after him. They were jostling one another and crying out to know what passed and where the king was. High over all the voices, coming from the back of the throng, I heard the cry of the girl Rosa. But as soon as they were in the room, the same spell that had fastened Bernenstein and me to inactivity imposed its numbing power on them also. Only Rischenheim gave a sudden sob and ran forward to where his cousin lay. The rest stood staring. For a moment Rudolf eyed them. Then, without a word, he turned his back. He put out the right hand with which he had just killed Rupert of Hentzau, and took the letter from the mantelpiece. He glanced at the envelope, then he opened the letter. The handwriting banished any last doubt he had; he tore the letter across, and again in four pieces, and yet again in smaller fragments. Then he sprinkled the morsels of paper into the blaze of the fire. I believe that every eye in the room followed them and watched till they curled and crinkled into black, wafery ashes. Thus, at last the queen’s letter was safe.
When he had thus set the seal on his task he turned round to us again. He paid no heed to Rischenheim, who was crouching down by the body of Rupert; but he looked at Bernenstein and me, and then at the people behind us. He waited a moment before he spoke; then his utterance was not only calm but also very slow, so that he seemed to be choosing his words carefully.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “a full account of this matter will be rendered by myself in due time. For the present it must suffice to say that this gentleman who lies here dead sought an interview with me on private business. I came here to find him, desiring, as he professed, to desire, privacy. And here he tried to kill me. The result of his attempt you see.”
I bowed low, Bernenstein did the like, and all the rest followed our example.
“A full account shall be given,” said Rudolf. “Now let all leave me, except the Count of Tarlenheim and Lieutenant von Bernenstein.”
Most unwillingly, with gaping mouths and wonder-struck eyes, the throng filed out of the door. Rischenheim rose to his feet.
“You stay, if you like,” said Rudolf, and the count knelt again by his kinsman.
Seeing the rough bedsteads by the wall of the attic, I touched Rischenheim on the shoulder and pointed to one of them. Together we lifted Rupert of Hentzau. The revolver was still in his hand, but Bernenstein disengaged it from his grasp. Then Rischenheim and I laid him down, disposing his body decently and spreading over it his riding cloak, still spotted with the mud gathered on his midnight expedition to the hunting-lodge. His face looked much as before the shot was fired; in death, as in life, he was the handsomest fellow in all Ruritania. I wager that many tender hearts ached and many bright eyes were dimmed for him when the news of his guilt and death went forth. There are ladies still in Strelsau who wear his trinkets in an ashamed devotion that cannot forget. Well, even I, who had every good cause to hate and scorn him, set the hair smooth on his brow; while Rischenheim was sobbing like a child, and young Bernenstein rested his head on his arm as he leant on the mantelpiece, and would not look at the dead. Rudolf alone seemed not to heed him or think of him. His eyes had lost their unnatural look of joy, and were now calm and tranquil. He took his own revolver from the mantelpiece and put it in his pocket, laying Rupert’s neatly where his had been. Then he turned to me and said:
“Come, let us go to the queen and tell her that the letter is beyond reach of hurt.”
Moved by some impulse, I walked to the window and put my head out. I was seen from below, and a great shout greeted me. The crowd before the doors grew every moment; the people flocking from all quarters would soon multiply it a hundred fold; for such news as had been carried from the attic by twenty wondering tongues spreads like a forest-fire. It would be through Strelsau in a few minutes, through the kingdom in an hour, through Europe in but little longer. Rupert was dead and the letter was safe, but what were we to tell that great concourse concerning their king? A queer feeling of helpless perplexity came over me and found vent in a foolish laugh. Bernenstein was by my side; he also looked out, and turned again with an eager face.
“You’ll have a royal progress to your palace,” said he to Rudolf Rassendyll.
Mr. Rassendyll made no answer, but, coming to me, took my arm. We went out, leaving Rischenheim by the body. I did not think of him; Bernenstein probably thought that he would keep his pledge given to the queen, for he followed us immediately and without demur. There was nobody outside the door. The house was very quiet, and the tumult from the street reached us only in a muffled roar. But when we came to the foot of the stairs we found the two women. Mother Holf stood on the threshold of the kitchen, looking amazed and terrified. Rosa was clinging to her; but as soon as Rudolf came in sight, the girl sprang forward and flung herself on her knees before him, pouring out incoherent thanks to Heaven for his safety. He bent down and spoke to her in a whisper; she looked up with a flush of pride on her face. He seemed to hesitate a moment; he glanced at his hands, but he wore no ring save that which the queen had given him long ago. Then he disengaged his chain and took his gold watch from his pocket. Turning it over, he showed me the monogram, R. R.
“Rudolfus Rex,” he whispered with a whimsical smile, and pressed the watch into the girl’s hand, saying: “Keep this to remind you of me.”
She laughed and sobbed as she caught it with one hand, while with the other she held his.
“You must let go,” he said gently. “I have much to do.”
I took her by the arm and induced her to rise. Rudolf, released, passed on to where the old woman stood. He spoke to her in a stern, distinct voice.
“I don’t know,” he said, “how far you are a party to the plot that was hatched in your house. For the present I am content not to know, for it is no pleasure to me to detect disloyalty or to punish an old woman. But take care! The first word you speak, the first act you do against me, the king, will bring its certain and swift punishment. If you trouble me, I won’t spare you. In spite of traitors I am still king in Strelsau.”
He paused, looking hard in her face. Her lip quivered and her eyes fell.
“Yes,” he repeated, “I am king in Strelsau. Keep your hands out of mischief and your tongue quiet.”
She made no answer. He passed on. I was following, but as I went by her the old woman clutched my arm. “In God’s name, who is he?” she whispered.
“Are you mad?” I asked, lifting my brows. “Don’t you know the king when he speaks to you? And you’d best remember what he said. He has servants who’ll do his orders.”
She let me go and fell back a step. Young Bernenstein smiled at her; he at least found more pleasure than anxiety in our position. Thus, then, we left them: the old woman terrified, amazed, doubtful; the girl with ruddy cheeks and shining eyes, clasping in her two hands the keepsake that the king himself had given her.
Bernenstein had more presence of mind than I. He ran forward, got in front of both of us, and flung the door open. Then, bowing very low, he stood aside to let Rudolf pass. The street was full from end to end now, and a mighty shout of welcome rose from thousands of throats. Hats and handkerchiefs were waved in mad exultation and triumphant loyalty. The tidings of the king’s escape had flashed through the city, and all were there to do him honor. They had seized some gentleman’s landau and taken out the horses. The carriage stood now before the doors of the house. Rudolf had waited a moment on the threshold, lifting his hat once or twice; his face was perfectly calm, and I saw no trembling in his hands. In an instant a dozen arms took gentle hold of him and impelled him forward. He mounted into the carriage; Bernenstein and I followed, with bare heads, and sat on the back seat, facing him. The people were round as thick as bees, and it seemed as though we could not move without crushing somebody. Yet presently the wheels turned, and they began to drag us away at a slow walk. Rudolf kept raising his hat, bowing now to right, now to left. But once, as he turned, his eyes met ours. In spite of what was behind and what was in front, we all three smiled.
“I wish they’d go a little quicker,” said Rudolf in a whisper, as he conquered his smile and turned again to acknowledge the loyal greetings of his subjects.
But what did they know of any need for haste? They did not know what stood on the turn of the next few hours, nor the momentous question that pressed for instant decision. So far from hurrying, they lengthened our ride by many pauses; they kept us before the cathedral, while some ran and got the joy bells set ringing; we were stopped to receive improvised bouquets from the hands of pretty girls and impetuous hand-shakings from enthusiastic loyalists. Through it all Rudolf kept his composure, and seemed to play his part with native kingliness. I heard Bernenstein whisper, “By God, we must stick to it!”
At last we came in sight of the palace. Here also there was a great stir. Many officers and soldiers were about. I saw the chancellor’s carriage standing near the portico, and a dozen other handsome equipages were waiting till they could approach. Our human horses drew us slowly up to the entrance. Helsing was on the steps, and ran down to the carriage, greeting the king with passionate fervor. The shouts of the crowd grew louder still.
But suddenly a stillness fell on them; it lasted but an instant, and was the prelude to a deafening roar. I was looking at Rudolf and saw his head turn suddenly and his eyes grow bright. I looked where his eyes had gone. There, on the top step of the broad marble flight, stood the queen, pale as the marble itself, stretching out her hands towards Rudolf. The people had seen her: she it was whom this last rapturous cheer greeted. My wife stood close behind her, and farther back others of her ladies. Bernenstein and I sprang out. With a last salute to the people Rudolf followed us. He walked up to the highest step but one, and there fell on one knee and kissed the queen’s hand. I was by him, and when he looked up in her face I heard him say:
“All’s well. He’s dead, and the letter burnt.”
She raised him with her hand. Her lips moved, but it seemed as though she could find no words to speak. She put her arm through his, and thus they stood for an instant, fronting all Strelsau. Again the cheers rang out, and young Bernenstein sprang forward, waving his helmet and crying like a man possessed, “God save the king!” I was carried away by his enthusiasm and followed his lead. All the people took up the cry with boundless fervor, and thus we all, high and low in Strelsau, that afternoon hailed Mr. Rassendyll for our king. There had been no such zeal since Henry the Lion came back from his wars, a hundred and fifty years ago.
“And yet,” observed old Helsing at my elbow, “agitators say that there is no enthusiasm for the house of Elphberg!” He took a pinch of snuff in scornful satisfaction.
Young Bernenstein interrupted his cheering with a short laugh, but fell to his task again in a moment. I had recovered my senses by now, and stood panting, looking down on the crowd. It was growing dusk and the faces became blurred into a white sea. Yet suddenly I seemed to discern one glaring up at me from the middle of the crowd — the pale face of a man with a bandage about his head. I caught Bernenstein’s arm and whispered, “Bauer,” pointing with my finger where the face was. But, even as I pointed, it was gone; though it seemed impossible for a man to move in that press, yet it was gone. It had come like a cynic’s warning across the scene of mock triumph, and went swiftly as it had come, leaving behind it a reminder of our peril. I felt suddenly sick at heart, and almost cried out to the people to have done with their silly shouting.
At last we got away. The plea of fatigue met all visitors who made their way to the door and sought to offer their congratulations; it could not disperse the crowd that hung persistently and contentedly about, ringing us in the palace with a living fence. We still heard their jests and cheers when we were alone in the small saloon that opens on the gardens. My wife and I had come here at Rudolf’s request; Bernenstein had assumed the duty of guarding the door. Evening was now falling fast, and it grew dark. The garden was quiet; the distant noise of the crowd threw its stillness into greater relief. Rudolf told us there the story of his struggle with Rupert of Hentzau in the attic of the old house, dwelling on it as lightly as he could. The queen stood by his chair — she would not let him rise; when he finished by telling how he had burnt her letter, she stooped suddenly and kissed him off the brow. Then she looked straight across at Helga, almost defiantly; but Helga ran to her and caught her in her arms.
Rudolf Rassendyll sat with his head resting on his hand. He looked up once at the two women; then he caught my eye, and beckoned me to come to him. I approached him, but for several moments he did not speak. Again he motioned to me, and, resting my hand on the arm of his chair, I bent my head close down to his. He glanced again at the queen, seeming afraid that she would hear what he wished to say.
“Fritz,” he whispered at last, “as soon as it’s fairly dark I must get away. Bernenstein will come with me. You must stay here.”
“Where can you go?”
“To the lodge. I must meet Sapt and arrange matters with him.”
I did not understand what plan he had in his head, or what scheme he could contrive. But at the moment my mind was not directed to such matters; it was set on the sight before my eyes.
“And the queen?” I whispered in answer to him.
Low as my voice was, she heard it. She turned to us with a sudden, startled movement, still holding Helga’s hand. Her eyes searched our faces, and she knew in an instant of what we had been speaking. A little longer still she stood, gazing at us. Then she suddenly sprang forward and threw herself on her knees before Rudolf, her hands uplifted and resting on his shoulders. She forgot our presence, and everything in the world, save her great dread of losing him again.
“Not again, Rudolf, my darling! Not again! Rudolf, I can’t bear it again.”
Then she dropped her head on his knees and sobbed.
He raised his hand and gently stroked the gleaming hair. But he did not look at her. He gazed out at the garden, which grew dark and dreary in the gathering gloom. His lips were tight set and his face pale and drawn.
I watched him for a moment, then I drew my wife away, and we sat down at a table some way off. From outside still came the cheers and tumult of the joyful, excited crowd. Within there was no sound but the queen’s stifled sobbing. Rudolf caressed her shining hair and gazed into the night with sad, set eyes. She raised her head and looked into his face.
“You’ll break my heart,” she said.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51