By Heaven’s care, or — since a man may be over-apt to arrogate to himself great share of such attention — by good luck, I had not to trust for my life to the slender thread of an oath sworn by Rupert of Hentzau. The visions of my dazed brain were transmutations of reality; the scuffle, the rush, the retreat were not all dream.
There is an honest fellow now living in Wintenberg comfortably and at his ease by reason that his wagon chanced to come lumbering along with three or four stout lads in it at the moment when Rupert was meditating a second and murderous blow. Seeing the group of us, the good carrier and his lads leapt down and rushed on my assailants. One of the thieves, they said, was for fighting it out — I could guess who that was — and called on the rest to stand; but they, more prudent, laid hands on him, and, in spite of his oaths, hustled him off along the road towards the station. Open country lay there and the promise of safety. My new friends set off in pursuit; but a couple of revolver shots, heard by me, but not understood, awoke their caution. Good Samaritans, but not men of war, they returned to where I lay senseless on the ground, congratulating themselves and me that an enemy so well armed should run and not stand his ground. They forced a drink of rough wine down my throat, and in a minute or two I opened my eyes. They were for carrying me to a hospital; I would have none of it. As soon as things grew clear to me again and I knew where I was, I did nothing but repeat in urgent tones, “The Golden Lion, The Golden Lion! Twenty crowns to carry me to the Golden Lion.”
Perceiving that I knew my own business and where I wished to go, one picked up my hand-bag and the rest hoisted me into their wagon and set out for the hotel where Rudolf Rassendyll was. The one thought my broken head held was to get to him as soon as might be and tell him how I had been fool enough to let myself be robbed of the queen’s letter.
He was there. He stood on the threshold of the inn, waiting for me, as it seemed, although it was not yet the hour of my appointment. As they drew me up to the door, I saw his tall, straight figure and his red hair by the light of the hall lamps. By Heaven, I felt as a lost child must on sight of his mother! I stretched out my hand to him, over the side of the wagon, murmuring, “I’ve lost it.”
He started at the words, and sprang forward to me. Then he turned quickly to the carrier.
“This gentleman is my friend,” he said. “Give him to me. I’ll speak to you later.” He waited while I was lifted down from the wagon into the arms that he held ready for me, and himself carried me across the threshold. I was quite clear in the head by now and understood all that passed. There were one or two people in the hall, but Mr. Rassendyll took no heed of them. He bore me quickly upstairs and into his sitting-room. There he set me down in an arm-chair, and stood opposite to me. He was smiling, but anxiety was awake in his eyes.
“I’ve lost it,” I said again, looking up at him pitifully enough.
“That’s all right,” said he, nodding. “Will you wait, or can you tell me?”
“Yes, but give me some brandy,” said I.
Rudolf gave me a little brandy mixed in a great deal of water, and then I made shift to tell him. Though faint, I was not confused, and I gave my story in brief, hurried, yet sufficient words. He made no sign till I mentioned the letter. Then his face changed.
“A letter, too?” he exclaimed, in a strange mixture of increased apprehension and unlooked-for joy.
“Yes, a letter, too; she wrote a letter, and I carried that as well as the box. I’ve lost them both, Rudolf. God help me, I’ve lost them both! Rupert has the letter too!” I think I must have been weak and unmanned from the blow I had received, for my composure broke down here. Rudolf stepped up to me and wrung me by the hand. I mastered myself again and looked in his face as he stood in thought, his hand caressing the strong curve of his clean-shaven chin. Now that I was with him again it seemed as though I had never lost him; as though we were still together in Strelsau or at Tarlenheim, planning how to hoodwink Black Michael, send Rupert of Hentzau to his own place, and bring the king back to his throne. For Mr. Rassendyll, as he stood before me now, was changed in nothing since our last meeting, nor indeed since he reigned in Strelsau, save that a few flecks of gray spotted his hair.
My battered head ached most consumedly. Mr. Rassendyll rang the bell twice, and a short, thickset man of middle age appeared; he wore a suit of tweed, and had the air of smartness and respectability which marks English servants.
“James,” said Rudolf, “this gentleman has hurt his head. Look after it.”
James went out. In a few minutes he was back, with water, basin, towels, and bandages. Bending over me, he began to wash and tend my wound very deftly. Rudolf was walking up and down.
“Done the head, James?” he asked, after a few moments.
“Yes, sir,” answered the servant, gathering together his appliances.
“Telegraph forms, then.”
James went out, and was back with the forms in an instant.
“Be ready when I ring,” said Rudolf. And he added, turning to me, “Any easier, Fritz?”
“I can listen to you now,” I said.
“I see their game,” said he. “One or other of them, Rupert or this Rischenheim, will try to get to the king with the letter.”
I sprang to my feet.
“They mustn’t,” I cried, and I reeled back into my chair, with a feeling as if a red-hot poker were being run through my head.
“Much you can do to stop ’em, old fellow,” smiled Rudolf, pausing to press my hand as he went by. “They won’t trust the post, you know. One will go. Now which?” He stood facing me with a thoughtful frown on his face.
I did not know, but I thought that Rischenheim would go. It was a great risk for Rupert to trust himself in the kingdom, and he knew that the king would not easily be persuaded to receive him, however startling might be the business he professed as his errand. On the other hand, nothing was known against Rischenheim, while his rank would secure, and indeed entitle, him to an early audience. Therefore I concluded that Rischenheim would go with the letter, or, if Rupert would not let that out of his possession, with the news of the letter.
“Or a copy,” suggested Rassendyll. “Well, Rischenheim or Rupert will be on his way by tomorrow morning, or is on his way to-night.”
Again I tried to rise, for I was on fire to prevent the fatal consequences of my stupidity. Rudolf thrust me back in my chair, saying, “No, no.” Then he sat down at the table and took up the telegraph forms.
“You and Sapt arranged a cipher, I suppose?” he asked.
“Yes. You write the message, and I’ll put it into the cipher.”
“This is what I’ve written: ‘Document lost. Let nobody see him if possible. Wire who asks.’ I don’t like to make it plainer: most ciphers can be read, you know.”
“Not ours,” said I.
“Well, but will that do?” asked Rudolf, with an unconvinced smile.
“Yes, I think he’ll understand it.” And I wrote it again in the cipher; it was as much as I could do to hold the pen.
The bell was rung again, and James appeared in an instant.
“Send this,” said Rudolf.
“The offices will be shut, sir.”
“Very good, sir; but it may take an hour to get one open.”
“I’ll give you half an hour. Have you money?”
“And now,” added Rudolf, turning to me, “you’d better go to bed.”
I do not recollect what I answered, for my faintness came upon me again, and I remember only that Rudolf himself helped me into his own bed. I slept, but I do not think he so much as lay down on the sofa; chancing to awake once or twice, I heard him pacing about. But towards morning I slept heavily, and I did not know what he was doing then. At eight o’clock James entered and roused me. He said that a doctor was to be at the hotel in half an hour, but that Mr. Rassendyll would like to see me for a few minutes if I felt equal to business. I begged James to summon his master at once. Whether I were equal or unequal, the business had to be done.
Rudolf came, calm and serene. Danger and the need for exertion acted on him like a draught of good wine on a seasoned drinker. He was not only himself, but more than himself: his excellences enhanced, the indolence that marred him in quiet hours sloughed off. But today there was something more; I can only describe it as a kind of radiance. I have seen it on the faces of young sparks when the lady they love comes through the ball-room door, and I have seen it glow more softly in a girl’s eyes when some fellow who seemed to me nothing out of the ordinary asked her for a dance. That strange gleam was on Rudolf’s face as he stood by my bedside. I dare say it used to be on mine when I went courting.
“Fritz, old friend,” said he, “there’s an answer from Sapt. I’ll lay the telegraph offices were stirred in Zenda as well as James stirred them here in Wintenberg! And what do you think? Rischenheim asked for an audience before he left Strelsau.”
I raised myself on my elbow in the bed.
“You understand?” he went on. “He left on Monday. To-day’s Wednesday. The king has granted him an audience at four on Friday. Well, then —”
“They counted on success,” I cried, “and Rischenheim takes the letter!”
“A copy, if I know Rupert of Hentzau. Yes, it was well laid. I like the men taking all the cabs! How much ahead had they, now.”
I did not know that, though I had no more doubt than he that Rupert’s hand was in the business.
“Well,” he continued, “I am going to wire to Sapt to put Rischenheim off for twelve hours if he can; failing that, to get the king away from Zenda.”
“But Rischenheim must have his audience sooner or later,” I objected.
“Sooner or later — there’s the world’s difference between them!” cried Rudolf Rassendyll. He sat down on the bed by me, and went on in quick, decisive words: “You can’t move for a day or two. Send my message to Sapt. Tell him to keep you informed of what happens. As soon as you can travel, go to Strelsau, and let Sapt know directly you arrive. We shall want your help.”
“And what are you going to do?” I cried, staring at him.
He looked at me for a moment, and his face was crossed by conflicting feelings. I saw resolve there, obstinacy, and the scorn of danger; fun, too, and merriment; and, lastly, the same radiance I spoke of. He had been smoking a cigarette; now he threw the end of it into the grate and rose from the bed where he had been sitting.
“I’m going to Zenda,” said he.
“To Zenda!” I cried, amazed.
“Yes,” said Rudolf. “I’m going again to Zenda, Fritz, old fellow. By heaven, I knew it would come, and now it has come!”
“But to do what?”
“I shall overtake Rischenheim or be hot on his heels. If he gets there first, Sapt will keep him waiting till I come; and if I come, he shall never see the king. Yes, if I come in time —” He broke into a sudden laugh. “What!” he cried, “have I lost my likeness? Can’t I still play the king? Yes, if I come in time, Rischenheim shall have his audience of the king of Zenda, and the king will be very gracious to him, and the king will take his copy of the letter from him! Oh, Rischenheim shall have an audience of King Rudolf in the castle of Zenda, never fear!”
He stood, looking to see how I received his plan; but amazed at the boldness of it, I could only lie back and gasp.
Rudolf’s excitement left him as suddenly as it had come; he was again the cool, shrewd, nonchalant Englishman, as, lighting another cigarette, he proceeded:
“You see, there are two of them, Rupert and Rischenheim. Now you can’t move for a day or two, that’s certain. But there must be two of us there in Ruritania. Rischenheim is to try first; but if he fails, Rupert will risk everything and break through to the king’s presence. Give him five minutes with the king, and the mischief’s done! Very well, then; Sapt must keep Rupert at bay while I tackle Rischenheim. As soon as you can move, go to Strelsau, and let Sapt know where you are.”
“But if you’re seen, if you’re found out?”
“Better I than the queen’s letter,” said he. Then he laid his hand on my arm and said, quite quietly, “If the letter gets to the king, I and I only can do what must be done.”
I did not know what he meant; perhaps it was that he would carry off the queen sooner than leave her alone after her letter was known; but there was another possible meaning that I, a loyal subject, dared not inquire into. Yet I made no answer, for I was above all and first of all the queen’s servant. Still I cannot believe that he meant harm to the king.
“Come, Fritz,” he cried, “don’t look so glum. This is not so great an affair as the other, and we brought that through safe.” I suppose I still looked doubtful, for he added, with a sort of impatience, “Well, I’m going, anyhow. Heavens, man, am I to sit here while that letter is carried to the king?”
I understood his feeling, and knew that he held life a light thing compared with the recovery of Queen Flavia’s letter. I ceased to urge him. When I assented to his wishes, every shadow vanished from his face, and he began to discuss the details of the plan with business-like brevity.
“I shall leave James with you,” said Rudolf. “He’ll be very useful, and you can rely on him absolutely. Any message that you dare trust to no other conveyance, give to him; he’ll carry it. He can shoot, too.” He rose as he spoke. “I’ll look in before I start,” he added, “and hear what the doctor says about you.”
I lay there, thinking, as men sick and weary in body will, of the dangers and the desperate nature of the risk, rather than of the hope which its boldness would have inspired in a healthy, active brain. I distrusted the rapid inference that Rudolf had drawn from Sapt’s telegram, telling myself that it was based on too slender a foundation. Well, there I was wrong, and I am glad now to pay that tribute to his discernment. The first steps of Rupert’s scheme were laid as Rudolf had conjectured: Rischenheim had started, even while I lay there, for Zenda, carrying on his person a copy of the queen’s farewell letter and armed for his enterprise by his right of audience with the king. So far we were right, then; for the rest we were in darkness, not knowing or being able even to guess where Rupert would choose to await the result of the first cast, or what precautions he had taken against the failure of his envoy. But although in total obscurity as to his future plans, I traced his past actions, and subsequent knowledge has shown that I was right. Bauer was the tool; a couple of florins apiece had hired the fellows who, conceiving that they were playing a part in some practical joke, had taken all the cabs at the station. Rupert had reckoned that I should linger looking for my servant and luggage, and thus miss my last chance of a vehicle. If, however, I had obtained one, the attack would still have been made, although, of course, under much greater difficulties. Finally — and of this at the time I knew nothing — had I evaded them and got safe to port with my cargo, the plot would have been changed. Rupert’s attention would then have been diverted from me to Rudolf; counting on love overcoming prudence, he reckoned that Mr. Rassendyll would not at once destroy what the queen sent, and had arranged to track his steps from Wintenberg till an opportunity offered of robbing him of his treasure. The scheme, as I know it, was full of audacious cunning, and required large resources — the former Rupert himself supplied; for the second he was indebted to his cousin and slave, the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim.
My meditations were interrupted by the arrival of the doctor. He hummed and ha’d over me, but to my surprise asked me no questions as to the cause of my misfortune, and did not, as I had feared, suggest that his efforts should be seconded by those of the police. On the contrary, he appeared, from an unobtrusive hint or two, to be anxious that I should know that his discretion could be trusted.
“You must not think of moving for a couple of days,” he said; “but then, I think we can get you away without danger and quite quietly.”
I thanked him; he promised to look in again; I murmured something about his fee.
“Oh, thank you, that is all settled,” he said. “Your friend Herr Schmidt has seen to it, and, my dear sir, most liberally.”
He was hardly gone when ‘my friend Herr Schmidt’— alias Rudolf Rassendyll — was back. He laughed a little when I told him how discreet the doctor had been.
“You see,” he explained, “he thinks you’ve been very indiscreet. I was obliged, my dear Fritz, to take some liberties with your character. However, it’s odds against the matter coming to your wife’s ears.”
“But couldn’t we have laid the others by the heels?”
“With the letter on Rupert? My dear fellow, you’re very ill.”
I laughed at myself, and forgave Rudolf his trick, though I think that he might have made my fictitious inamorata something more than a baker’s wife. It would have cost no more to make her a countess, and the doctor would have looked with more respect on me. However, Rudolf had said that the baker broke my head with his rolling-pin, and thus the story rests in the doctor’s mind to this day.
“Well, I’m off,” said Rudolf.
“Why, to that same little station where two good friends parted from me once before. Fritz, where’s Rupert gone?”
“I wish we knew.”
“I lay he won’t be far off.”
“Are you armed?”
“The six-shooter. Well, yes, since you press me, a knife, too; but only if he uses one. You’ll let Sapt know when you come?”
“Yes; and I come the moment I can stand?”
“As if you need tell me that, old fellow!”
“Where do you go from the station?”
“To Zenda, through the forest,” he answered. “I shall reach the station about nine tomorrow night, Thursday. Unless Rischenheim has got the audience sooner than was arranged, I shall be in time.”
“How will you get hold of Sapt?”
“We must leave something to the minute.”
“God bless you, Rudolf.”
“The king sha’n’t have the letter, Fritz.”
There was a moment’s silence as we shook hands. Then that soft yet bright look came in his eyes again. He looked down at me, and caught me regarding him with a smile that I know was not unkind.
“I never thought I should see her again,” he said. “I think I shall now, Fritz. To have a turn with that boy and to see her again — it’s worth something.”
“How will you see her?”
Rudolf laughed, and I laughed too. He caught my hand again. I think that he was anxious to infect me with his gayety and confidence. But I could not answer to the appeal of his eyes. There was a motive in him that found no place in me — a great longing, the prospect or hope of whose sudden fulfilment dwarfed danger and banished despair. He saw that I detected its presence in him and perceived how it filled his mind.
“But the letter comes before all,” said he. “I expected to die without seeing her; I will die without seeing her, if I must, to save the letter.”
“I know you will,” said I.
He pressed my hand again. As he turned away, James came with his noiseless, quick step into the room.
“The carriage is at the door, sir,” said he.
“Look after the count, James,” said Rudolf. “Don’t leave him till he sends you away.”
“Very well, sir.”
I raised myself in bed.
“Here’s luck,” I cried, catching up the lemonade James had brought me, and taking a gulp of it.
“Please God,” said Rudolf, with a shrug.
And he was gone to his work and his reward — to save the queen’s letter and to see the queen’s face. Thus he went a second time to Zenda.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51