RUPERT of Hentzau was dead! That was the thought which, among all our perplexities, came back to me, carrying with it a wonderful relief. To those who have not learnt in fighting against him the height of his audacity and the reach of his designs, it may well seem incredible that his death should breed comfort at a moment when the future was still so dark and uncertain. Yet to me it was so great a thing that I could hardly bring myself to the conviction that we had done with him. True, he was dead; but could he not strike a blow at us even from beyond the gulf?
Such were the half-superstitious thoughts that forced their way into my mind as I stood looking out on the crowd which obstinately encircled the front of the palace. I was alone; Rudolf was with the queen, my wife was resting, Bernenstein had sat down to a meal for which I could find no appetite. By an effort I freed myself from my fancies and tried to concentrate my brain on the facts of our position. We were ringed round with difficulties. To solve them was beyond my power; but I knew where my wish and longing lay. I had no desire to find means by which Rudolf Rassendyll should escape unknown from Strelsau; the king, although dead, be again in death the king, and the queen be left desolate on her mournful and solitary throne. It might be that a brain more astute than mine could bring all this to pass. My imagination would have none of it, but dwelt lovingly on the reign of him who was now king in Strelsau, declaring that to give the kingdom such a ruler would be a splendid fraud, and prove a stroke so bold as to defy detection. Against it stood only the suspicions of Mother Holf — fear or money would close her lips — and the knowledge of Bauer; Bauer’s mouth also could be shut, ay, and should be before we were many days older. My reverie led me far; I saw the future years unroll before me in the fair record of a great king’s sovereignty. It seemed to me that by the violence and bloodshed we had passed through, fate, for once penitent, was but righting the mistake made when Rudolf was not born a king.
For a long while I stood thus, musing and dreaming; I was roused by the sound of the door opening and closing; turning, I saw the queen. She was alone, and came towards me with timid steps. She looked out for a moment on the square and the people, but drew back suddenly in apparent fear lest they should see her. Then she sat down and turned her face towards mine. I read in her eyes something of the conflict of emotions which possessed her; she seemed at once to deprecate my disapproval and to ask my sympathy; she prayed me to be gentle to her fault and kind to her happiness; self-reproach shadowed her joy, but the golden gleam of it strayed through. I looked eagerly at her; this would not have been her bearing had she come from a last farewell; for the radiance was there, however much dimmed by sorrow and by fearfulness.
“Fritz,” she began softly, “I am wicked — so wicked. Won’t God punish me for my gladness?”
I fear I paid little heed to her trouble, though I can understand it well enough now.
“Gladness?” I cried in a low voice. “Then you’ve persuaded him?”
She smiled at me for an instant.
“I mean, you’ve agreed?” I stammered.
Her eyes again sought mine, and she said in a whisper: “Some day, not now. Oh, not now. Now would be too much. But some day, Fritz, if God will not deal too hardly with me, I— I shall be his, Fritz.”
I was intent on my vision, not on hers. I wanted him king; she did not care what he was, so that he was hers, so that he should not leave her.
“He’ll take the throne,” I cried triumphantly.
“No, no, no. Not the throne. He’s going away.”
“Going away!” I could not keep the dismay out of my voice.
“Yes, now. But not — not for ever. It will be long — oh, so long — but I can bear it, if I know that at last!” She stopped, still looking up at me with eyes that implored pardon and sympathy.
“I don’t understand,” said I, bluntly, and, I fear, gruffly, also.
“You were right,” she said: “I did persuade him. He wanted to go away again as he went before. Ought I to have let him? Yes, yes! But I couldn’t. Fritz, hadn’t I done enough? You don’t know what I’ve endured. And I must endure more still. For he will go now, and the time will be very long. But, at last, we shall be together. There is pity in God; we shall be together at last.”
“If he goes now, how can he come back?”
“He will not come back; I shall go to him. I shall give up the throne and go to him, some day, when I can be spared from here, when I’ve done my — my work.”
I was aghast at this shattering of my vision, yet I could not be hard to her. I said nothing, but took her hand and pressed it.
“You wanted him to be king?” she whispered.
“With all my heart, madam,” said I.
“He wouldn’t, Fritz. No, and I shouldn’t dare to do that, either.”
I fell back on the practical difficulties. “But how can he go?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But he knows; he has a plan.”
We fell again into silence; her eyes grew more calm, and seemed to look forward in patient hope to the time when her happiness should come to her. I felt like a man suddenly robbed of the exaltation of wine and sunk to dull apathy. “I don’t see how he can go,” I said sullenly.
She did not answer me. A moment later the door again opened. Rudolf came in, followed by Bernenstein. Both wore riding boots and cloaks. I saw on Bernenstein’s face just such a look of disappointment as I knew must be on mine. Rudolf seemed calm and even happy. He walked straight up to the queen.
“The horses will be ready in a few minutes,” he said gently. Then, turning to me, he asked, “You know what we’re going to do, Fritz?”
“Not I, sire,” I answered, sulkily.
“Not I, sire!” he repeated, in a half-merry, half-sad mockery. Then he came between Bernenstein and me and passed his arms through ours. “You two villains!” he said. “You two unscrupulous villains! Here you are, as rough as bears, because I won’t be a thief! Why have I killed young Rupert and left you rogues alive?”
I felt the friendly pressure of his hand on my arm. I could not answer him. With every word from his lips and every moment of his presence my sorrow grew keener that he would not stay. Bernenstein looked across at me and shrugged his shoulders despairingly. Rudolf gave a little laugh.
“You won’t forgive me for not being as great a rogue, won’t you?” he asked.
Well, I found nothing to say, but I took my arm out of his and clasped his hand. He gripped mine hard.
“That’s old Fritz!” he said; and he caught hold of Bernenstein’s hand, which the lieutenant yielded with some reluctance. “Now for the plan,” said he. “Bernenstein and I set out at once for the lodge — yes, publicly, as publicly as we can. I shall ride right through the people there, showing myself to as many as will look at me, and letting it be known to everybody where I’m going. We shall get there quite early tomorrow, before it’s light. There we shall find what you know. We shall find Sapt, too, and he’ll put the finishing touches to our plan for us. Hullo, what’s that?”
There was a sudden fresh shouting from the large crowd that still lingered outside the palace. I ran to the window, and saw a commotion in the midst of them. I flung the sash up. Then I heard a well-known, loud, strident voice: “Make way, you rascals, make way.”
I turned round again, full of excitement.
“It’s Sapt himself!” I said. “He’s riding like mad through the crowd, and your servant’s just behind him.”
“My God, what’s happened? Why have they left the lodge?” cried Bernenstein.
The queen looked up in startled alarm, and, rising to her feet, came and passed her arm through Rudolf’s. Thus we all stood, listening to the people good-naturedly cheering Sapt, whom they had recognized, and bantering James, whom they took for a servant of the constable’s.
The minutes seemed very long as we waited in utter perplexity, almost in consternation. The same thought was in the mind of all of us, silently imparted by one to another in the glances we exchanged. What could have brought them from their guard of the great secret, save its discovery? They would never have left their post while the fulfilment of their trust was possible. By some mishap, some unforeseen chance, the king’s body must have been discovered. Then the king’s death was known, and the news of it might any moment astonish and bewilder the city.
At last the door was flung open, and a servant announced the Constable of Zenda. Sapt was covered with dust and mud, and James, who entered close on his heels, was in no better plight. Evidently they had ridden hard and furiously; indeed they were still panting. Sapt, with a most perfunctory bow to the queen, came straight to where Rudolf stood.
“Is he dead?” he asked, without preface.
“Yes, Rupert is dead,” answered Mr. Rassendyll: “I killed him.”
“And the letter?”
“I burnt it.”
The queen struck in.
“The Count of Luzau–Rischenheim will say and do nothing against me,” she said.
Sapt lifted his brows a little. “Well, and Bauer?” he asked.
“Bauer’s at large,” I answered.
“Hum! Well, it’s only Bauer,” said the constable, seeming tolerably well pleased. Then his eyes fell on Rudolf and Bernenstein. He stretched out his hand and pointed to their riding-boots. “Whither away so late at night?” he asked.
“First together to the lodge, to find you, then I alone to the frontier,” said Mr. Rassendyll.
“One thing at a time. The frontier will wait. What does your Majesty want with me at the lodge?”
“I want so to contrive that I shall be no longer your Majesty,” said Rudolf.
Sapt flung himself into a chair and took off his gloves.
“Come, tell me what has happened today in Strelsau,” he said.
We gave a short and hurried account. He listened with few signs of approval or disapproval, but I thought I saw a gleam in his eyes when I described how all the city had hailed Rudolf as its king and the queen received him as her husband before the eyes of all. Again the hope and vision, shattered by Rudolf’s calm resolution, inspired me. Sapt said little, but he had the air of a man with some news in reserve. He seemed to be comparing what we told him with something already known to him but unknown to us. The little servant stood all the while in respectful stillness by the door; but I could see by a glance at his alert face that he followed the whole scene with keen attention.
At the end of the story, Rudolf turned to Sapt. “And your secret — is it safe?” he asked.
“Ay, it’s safe enough!”
“Nobody has seen what you had to hide?”
“No; and nobody knows that the king is dead,” answered Sapt.
“Then what brings you here?”
“Why, the same thing that was about to bring you to the lodge: the need of a meeting between yourself and me, sire.”
“But the lodge — is it left unguarded?”
“The lodge is safe enough,” said Colonel Sapt.
Unquestionably there was a secret, a new secret, hidden behind the curt words and brusque manner. I could restrain myself no longer, and sprang forward, saying: “What is it? Tell us, Constable!”
He looked at me, then glanced at Mr. Rassendyll.
“I should like to hear your plan first,” he said to Rudolf. “How do you mean to account for your presence alive in the city today, when the king has lain dead in the shooting-box since last night?”
We drew close together as Rudolf began his answer. Sapt alone lay back in his chair. The queen also had resumed her seat; she seemed to pay little heed to what we said. I think that she was still engrossed with the struggle and tumult in her own soul. The sin of which she accused herself, and the joy to which her whole being sprang in a greeting which would not be abashed, were at strife between themselves, but joined hands to exclude from her mind any other thought.
“In an hour I must be gone from here,” began Rudolf.
“If you wish that, it’s easy,” observed Colonel Sapt.
“Come, Sapt, be reasonable,” smiled Mr. Rassendyll. “Early tomorrow, we — you and I—”
“Oh, I also?” asked the colonel.
“Yes; you, Bernenstein, and I will be at the lodge.”
“That’s not impossible, though I have had nearly enough riding.”
Rudolf fixed his eyes firmly on Sapt’s.
“You see,” he said, “the king reaches his hunting-lodge early in the morning.”
“I follow you, sire.”
“And what happens there, Sapt? Does he shoot himself accidentally?”
“Well, that happens sometimes.”
“Or does an assassin kill him?”
“Eh, but you’ve made the best assassin unavailable.”
Even at this moment I could not help smiling at the old fellow’s surly wit and Rudolf’s amused tolerance of it.
“Or does his faithful attendant, Herbert, shoot him?”
“What, make poor Herbert a murderer!”
“Oh, no! By accident — and then, in remorse, kill himself.”
“That’s very pretty. But doctors have awkward views as to when a man can have shot himself.”
“My good Constable, doctors have palms as well as ideas. If you fill the one you supply the other.”
“I think,” said Sapt, “that both the plans are good. Suppose we choose the latter, what then?”
“Why, then, by tomorrow at midday the news flashes through Ruritania — yes, and through Europe — that the king, miraculously preserved today —”
“Praise be to God!” interjected Colonel Sapt; and young Bernenstein laughed.
“Has met a tragic end.”
“It will occasion great grief,” said Sapt.
“Meanwhile, I am safe over the frontier.”
“Oh, you are quite safe?”
“Absolutely. And in the afternoon of tomorrow, you and Bernenstein will set out for Strelsau, bringing with you the body of the king.” And Rudolf, after a pause, whispered, “You must shave his face. And if the doctors want to talk about how long he’s been dead, why, they have, as I say, palms.”
Sapt sat silent for a while, apparently considering the scheme. It was risky enough in all conscience, but success had made Rudolf bold, and he had learnt how slow suspicion is if a deception be bold enough. It is only likely frauds that are detected.
“Well, what do you say?” asked Mr. Rassendyll. I observed that he said nothing to Sapt of what the queen and he had determined to do afterwards.
Sapt wrinkled his forehead. I saw him glance at James, and the slightest, briefest smile showed on James’s face.
“It’s dangerous, of course,” pursued Rudolf. “But I believe that when they see the king’s body —”
“That’s the point,” interrupted Sapt. “They can’t see the king’s body.”
Rudolf looked at him with some surprise. Then speaking in a low voice, lest the queen should hear and be distressed, he went on: “You must prepare it, you know. Bring it here in a shell; only a few officials need see the face.”
Sapt rose to his feet and stood facing Mr. Rassendyll.
“The plan’s a pretty one, but it breaks down at one point,” said he in a strange voice, even harsher than his was wont to be. I was on fire with excitement, for I would have staked my life now that he had some strange tidings for us. “There is no body,” said he.
Even Mr. Rassendyll’s composure gave way. He sprang forward, catching Sapt by the arm.
“No body? What do you mean?” he exclaimed.
Sapt cast another glance at James, and then began in an even, mechanical voice, as though he were reading a lesson he had learnt, or playing a part that habit made familiar:
“That poor fellow Herbert carelessly left a candle burning where the oil and the wood were kept,” he said. “This afternoon, about six, James and I lay down for a nap after our meal. At about seven James came to my side and roused me. My room was full of smoke. The lodge was ablaze. I darted out of bed: the fire had made too much headway; we could not hope to quench it; we had but one thought!” He suddenly paused, and looked at James.
“But one thought, to save our companion,” said James gravely.
“But one thought, to save our companion. We rushed to the door of the room where he was. I opened the door and tried to enter. It was certain death. James tried, but fell back. Again I rushed in. James pulled me back: it was but another death. We had to save ourselves. We gained the open air. The lodge was a sheet of flame. We could do nothing but stand watching, till the swiftly burning wood blackened to ashes and the flames died down. As we watched we knew that all in the cottage must be dead. What could we do? At last James started off in the hope of getting help. He found a party of charcoal-burners, and they came with him. The flames were burnt down now; and we and they approached the charred ruins. Everything was in ashes. But”— he lowered his voice —“we found what seemed to be the body of Boris the hound; in another room was a charred corpse, whose hunting-horn, melted to a molten mass, told us that it had been Herbert the forester. And there was another corpse, almost shapeless, utterly unrecognizable. We saw it; the charcoal-burners saw it. Then more peasants came round, drawn by the sight of the flames. None could tell who it was; only I and James knew. And we mounted our horses and have ridden here to tell the king.”
Sapt finished his lesson or his story. A sob burst from the queen, and she hid her face in her hands. Bernenstein and I, amazed at this strange tale, scarcely understanding whether it were jest or earnest, stood staring stupidly at Sapt. Then I, overcome by the strange thing, turned half-foolish by the bizarre mingling of comedy and impressiveness in Sapt’s rendering of it, plucked him by the sleeve, and asked, with something between a laugh and a gasp:
“Who had that other corpse been, Constable?”
He turned his small, keen eyes on me in persistent gravity and unflinching effrontery.
“A Mr. Rassendyll, a friend of the king’s, who with his servant James was awaiting his Majesty’s return from Strelsau. His servant here is ready to start for England, to tell Mr. Rassendyll’s relatives the news.”
The queen had begun to listen before now; her eyes were fixed on Sapt, and she had stretched out one arm to him, as if imploring him to read her his riddle. But a few words had in truth declared his device plainly enough in all its simplicity. Rudolf Rassendyll was dead, his body burnt to a cinder, and the king was alive, whole, and on his throne in Strelsau. Thus had Sapt caught from James, the servant, the infection of his madness, and had fulfilled in action the strange imagination which the little man had unfolded to him in order to pass their idle hours at the lodge.
Suddenly Mr. Rassendyll spoke in clear, short tones.
“This is all a lie, Sapt,” said he, and his lips curled in contemptuous amusement.
“It’s no lie that the lodge is burnt, and the bodies in it, and that half a hundred of the peasants know it, and that no man could tell the body for the king’s. As for the rest, it is a lie. But I think the truth in it is enough to serve.”
The two men stood facing one another with defiant eyes. Rudolf had caught the meaning of the great and audacious trick which Sapt and his companion had played. It was impossible now to bring the king’s body to Strelsau; it seemed no less impossible to declare that the man burnt in the lodge was the king. Thus Sapt had forced Rudolf’s hand; he had been inspired by the same vision as we, and endowed with more unshrinking boldness. But when I saw how Rudolf looked at him, I did not know but that they would go from the queen’s presence set on a deadly quarrel. Mr. Rassendyll, however, mastered his temper.
“You’re all bent on having me a rascal,” he said coldly. “Fritz and Bernenstein here urge me; you, Sapt, try to force me. James, there, is in the plot, for all I know.”
“I suggested it, sir,” said James, not defiantly or with disrespect, but as if in simple dutiful obedience to his master’s implied question.
“As I thought — all of you! Well, I won’t be forced. I see now that there’s no way out of this affair, save one. That one I’ll follow.”
We none of us spoke, but waited till he should be pleased to continue.
“Of the queen’s letter I need say nothing and will say nothing,” he pursued. “But I will tell them that I’m not the king, but Rudolf Rassendyll, and that I played the king only in order to serve the queen and punish Rupert of Hentzau. That will serve, and it will cut this net of Sapt’s from about my limbs.”
He spoke firmly and coldly; so that when I looked at him I was amazed to see how his lips twitched and that his forehead was moist with sweat. Then I understood what a sudden, swift, and fearful struggle he had suffered, and how the great temptation had wrung and tortured him before he, victorious, had set the thing behind him. I went to him and clasped his hand: this action of mine seemed to soften him.
“Sapt, Sapt,” he said, “you almost made a rogue of me.”
Sapt did not respond to his gentler mood. He had been pacing angrily up and down the room. Now he stopped abruptly before Rudolf, and pointed with his finger at the queen.
“I make a rogue of you?” he exclaimed. “And what do you make of our queen, whom we all serve? What does this truth that you’ll tell make of her? Haven’t I heard how she greeted you before all Strelsau as her husband and her love? Will they believe that she didn’t know her husband? Ay, you may show yourself, you may say they didn’t know you. Will they believe she didn’t? Was the king’s ring on your finger? Where is it? And how comes Mr. Rassendyll to be at Fritz von Tarlenheim’s for hours with the queen, when the king is at his hunting lodge? A king has died already, and two men besides, to save a word against her. And you — you’ll be the man to set every tongue in Strelsau talking, and every finger pointing in suspicion at her?”
Rudolf made no answer. When Sapt had first uttered the queen’s name, he had drawn near and let his hand fall over the back of her chair. She put hers up to meet it, and so they remained. But I saw that Rudolf’s face had gone very pale.
“And we, your friends?” pursued Sapt. “For we’ve stood by you as we’ve stood by the queen, by God we have — Fritz, and young Bernenstein here, and I. If this truth’s told, who’ll believe that we were loyal to the king, that we didn’t know, that we weren’t accomplices in the tricking of the king — maybe, in his murder? Ah, Rudolf Rassendyll, God preserve me from a conscience that won’t let me be true to the woman I love, or to the friends who love me!”
I had never seen the old fellow so moved; he carried me with him, as he carried Bernenstein. I know now that we were too ready to be convinced; rather that, borne along by our passionate desire, we needed no convincing at all. His excited appeal seemed to us an argument. At least the danger to the queen, on which he dwelt, was real and true and great.
Then a sudden change came over him. He caught Rudolf’s hand and spoke to him again in a low, broken voice, an unwonted softness transforming his harsh tones.
“Lad,” he said, “don’t say no. Here’s the finest lady alive sick for her lover, and the finest country in the world sick for its true king, and the best friends — ay, by Heaven, the best friends — man ever had, sick to call you master. I know nothing about your conscience; but this I know: the king’s dead, and the place is empty; and I don’t see what Almighty God sent you here for unless it was to fill it. Come, lad — for our love and her honor! While he was alive I’d have killed you sooner than let you take it. He’s dead. Now — for our love and her honor, lad!”
I do not know what thoughts passed in Mr. Rassendyll’s mind. His face was set and rigid. He made no sign when Sapt finished, but stood as he was, motionless, for a long while. Then he slowly bent his head and looked down into the queen’s eyes. For a while she sat looking back into his. Then, carried away by the wild hope of immediate joy, and by her love for him and her pride in the place he was offered, she sprang up and threw herself at his feet, crying:
“Yes, yes! For my sake, Rudolf — for my sake!”
“Are you, too, against me, my queen?” he murmured caressing her ruddy hair.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09