On the evening of Thursday, the sixteenth of October, the Constable of Zenda was very much out of humor; he has since confessed as much. To risk the peace of a palace for the sake of a lover’s greeting had never been wisdom to his mind, and he had been sorely impatient with “that fool Fritz’s” yearly pilgrimage. The letter of farewell had been an added folly, pregnant with chances of disaster. Now disaster, or the danger of it, had come. The curt, mysterious telegram from Wintenberg, which told him so little, at least told him that. It ordered him — and he did not know even whose the order was — to delay Rischenheim’s audience, or, if he could not, to get the king away from Zenda: why he was to act thus was not disclosed to him. But he knew as well as I that Rischenheim was completely in Rupert’s hands, and he could not fail to guess that something had gone wrong at Wintenberg, and that Rischenheim came to tell the king some news that the king must not hear. His task sounded simple, but it was not easy; for he did not know where Rischenheim was, and so could not prevent his coming; besides, the king had been very pleased to learn of the count’s approaching visit, since he desired to talk with him on the subject of a certain breed of dogs, which the count bred with great, his Majesty with only indifferent success; therefore he had declared that nothing should interfere with his reception of Rischenheim. In vain Sapt told him that a large boar had been seen in the forest, and that a fine day’s sport might be expected if he would hunt next day. “I shouldn’t be back in time to see Rischenheim,” said the king.
“Your Majesty would be back by nightfall,” suggested Sapt.
“I should be too tired to talk to him, and I’ve a great deal to discuss.”
“You could sleep at the hunting-lodge, sire, and ride back to receive the count next morning.”
“I’m anxious to see him as soon as may be.” Then he looked up at Sapt with a sick man’s quick suspicion. “Why shouldn’t I see him?” he asked.
“It’s a pity to miss the boar, sire,” was all Sapt’s plea. The king made light of it.
“Curse the boar!” said he. “I want to know how he gets the dogs’ coats so fine.”
As the king spoke a servant entered, carrying a telegram for Sapt. The colonel took it and put it in his pocket.
“Read it,” said the king. He had dined and was about to go to bed, it being nearly ten o’clock.
“It will keep, sire,” answered Sapt, who did not know but that it might be from Wintenberg.
“Read it,” insisted the king testily. “It may be from Rischenheim. Perhaps he can get here sooner. I should like to know about those dogs. Read it, I beg.”
Sapt could do nothing but read it. He had taken to spectacles lately, and he spent a long while adjusting them and thinking what he should do if the message were not fit for the king’s ear. “Be quick, man, be quick!” urged the irritable king.
Sapt had got the envelope open at last, and relief, mingled with perplexity, showed in his face.
“Your Majesty guessed wonderfully well. Rischenheim can be here at eight tomorrow morning,” he said, looking up.
“Capital!” cried the king. “He shall breakfast with me at nine, and I’ll have a ride after the boar when we’ve done our business. Now are you satisfied?”
“Perfectly, sire,” said Sapt, biting his moustache.
The king rose with a yawn, and bade the colonel good-night. “He must have some trick I don’t know with those dogs,” he remarked, as he went out. And “Damn the dogs!” cried Colonel Sapt the moment that the door was shut behind his Majesty.
But the colonel was not a man to accept defeat easily. The audience that he had been instructed to postpone was advanced; the king, whom he had been told to get away from Zenda, would not go till he had seen Rischenheim. Still there are many ways of preventing a meeting. Some are by fraud; these it is no injustice to Sapt to say that he had tried; some are by force, and the colonel was being driven to the conclusion that one of these must be his resort.
“Though the king,” he mused, with a grin, “will be furious if anything happens to Rischenheim before he’s told him about the dogs.”
Yet he fell to racking his brains to find a means by which the count might be rendered incapable of performing the service so desired by the king and of carrying out his own purpose in seeking an audience. Nothing save assassination suggested itself to the constable; a quarrel and a duel offered no security; and Sapt was not Black Michael, and had no band of ruffians to join him in an apparently unprovoked kidnapping of a distinguished nobleman.
“I can think of nothing,” muttered Sapt, rising from his chair and moving across towards the window in search of the fresh air that a man so often thinks will give him a fresh idea. He was in his own quarters, that room of the new chateau which opens on to the moat immediately to the right of the drawbridge as you face the old castle; it was the room which Duke Michael had occupied, and almost opposite to the spot where the great pipe had connected the window of the king’s dungeon with the waters of the moat. The bridge was down now, for peaceful days had come to Zenda; the pipe was gone, and the dungeon’s window, though still barred, was uncovered. The night was clear and fine, and the still water gleamed fitfully as the moon, half-full, escaped from or was hidden by passing clouds. Sapt stood staring out gloomily, beating his knuckles on the stone sill. The fresh air was there, but the fresh idea tarried.
Suddenly the constable bent forward, craning his head out and down, far as he could stretch it, towards the water. What he had seen, or seemed dimly to see, is a sight common enough on the surface of water — large circular eddies, widening from a centre; a stone thrown in makes them, or a fish on the rise. But Sapt had thrown no stone, and the fish in the moat were few and not rising then. The light was behind Sapt, and threw his figure into bold relief. The royal apartments looked out the other way; there were no lights in the windows this side the bridge, although beyond it the guards’ lodgings and the servants’ offices still showed a light here and there. Sapt waited till the eddies ceased. Then he heard the faintest sound, as of a large body let very gently into the water; a moment later, from the moat right below him, a man’s head emerged.
“Sapt!” said a voice, low but distinct.
The old colonel started, and, resting both hands on the sill, bent further out, till he seemed in danger of overbalancing.
“Quick — to the ledge on the other side. You know,” said the voice, and the head turned; with quick, quiet strokes the man crossed the moat till he was hidden in the triangle of deep shade formed by the meeting of the drawbridge and the old castle wall. Sapt watched him go, almost stupefied by the sudden wonder of hearing that voice come to him out of the stillness of the night. For the king was abed; and who spoke in that voice save the king and one other?
Then, with a curse at himself for his delay, he turned and walked quickly across the room. Opening the door, he found himself in the passage. But here he ran right into the arms of young Bernenstein, the officer of the guard, who was going his rounds. Sapt knew and trusted him, for he had been with us all through the siege of Zenda, when Michael kept the king a prisoner, and he bore marks given him by Rupert of Hentzau’s ruffians. He now held a commission as lieutenant in the cuirassiers of the King’s Guard.
He noticed Sapt’s bearing, for he cried out in a low voice, “Anything wrong, sir?”
“Bernenstein, my boy, the castle’s all right about here. Go round to the front, and, hang you, stay there,” said Sapt.
The officer stared, as well he might. Sapt caught him by the arm.
“No, stay here. See, stand by the door there that leads to the royal apartments. Stand there, and let nobody pass. You understand?”
“And whatever you hear, don’t look round.”
Bernenstein’s bewilderment grew greater; but Sapt was constable, and on Sapt’s shoulders lay the responsibility for the safety of Zenda and all in it.
“Very well, sir,” he said, with a submissive shrug, and he drew his sword and stood by the door; he could obey, although he could not understand.
Sapt ran on. Opening the gate that led to the bridge, he sped across. Then, stepping on one side and turning his face to the wall, he descended the steps that gave foothold down to the ledge running six or eight inches above the water. He also was now in the triangle of deep darkness, yet he knew that a man was there, who stood straight and tall, rising above his own height. And he felt his hand caught in a sudden grip. Rudolf Rassendyll was there, in his wet drawers and socks.
“Is it you?” he whispered.
“Yes,” answered Rudolf; “I swam round from the other side and got here. Then I threw in a bit of mortar, but I wasn’t sure I’d roused you, and I didn’t dare shout, so I followed it myself. Lay hold of me a minute while I get on my breeches: I didn’t want to get wet, so I carried my clothes in a bundle. Hold me tight, it’s slippery.”
“In God’s name what brings you here?” whispered Sapt, catching Rudolf by the arm as he was directed.
“The queen’s service. When does Rischenheim come?”
“To-morrow at eight.”
“The deuce! That’s earlier than I thought. And the king?”
“Is here and determined to see him. It’s impossible to move him from it.”
There was a moment’s silence; Rudolf drew his shirt over his head and tucked it into his trousers. “Give me the jacket and waistcoat,” he said. “I feel deuced damp underneath, though.”
“You’ll soon get dry,” grinned Sapt. “You’ll be kept moving, you see.”
“I’ve lost my hat.”
“Seems to me you’ve lost your head too.”
“You’ll find me both, eh, Sapt?”
“As good as your own, anyhow,” growled the constable.
“Now the boots, and I’m ready.” Then he asked quickly, “Has the king seen or heard from Rischenheim?”
“Neither, except through me.”
“Then why is he so set on seeing him?”
“To find out what gives dogs smooth coats.”
“You’re serious? Hang you, I can’t see your face.”
“All’s well, then. Has he got a beard now?”
“Confound him! Can’t you take me anywhere to talk?”
“What the deuce are you here at all for?”
“To meet Rischenheim.”
“To meet —?”
“Yes. Sapt, he’s got a copy of the queen’s letter.”
Sapt twirled his moustache.
“I’ve always said as much,” he remarked in tones of satisfaction. He need not have said it; he would have been more than human not to think it.
“Where can you take me to?” asked Rudolf impatiently.
“Any room with a door and a lock to it,” answered old Sapt. “I command here, and when I say ‘Stay out’— well, they don’t come in.”
“Not the king?”
“The king is in bed. Come along,” and the constable set his toe on the lowest step.
“Is there nobody about?” asked Rudolf, catching his arm.
“Bernenstein; but he will keep his back toward us.”
“Your discipline is still good, then, Colonel?”
“Pretty well for these days, your Majesty,” grunted Sapt, as he reached the level of the bridge.
Having crossed, they entered the chateau. The passage was empty, save for Bernenstein, whose broad back barred the way from the royal apartments.
“In here,” whispered Sapt, laying his hand on the door of the room whence he had come.
“All right,” answered Rudolf. Bernenstein’s hand twitched, but he did not look round. There was discipline in the castle of Zenda.
But as Sapt was half-way through the door and Rudolf about to follow him, the other door, that which Bernenstein guarded, was softly yet swiftly opened. Bernenstein’s sword was in rest in an instant. A muttered oath from Sapt and Rudolf’s quick snatch at his breath greeted the interruption. Bernenstein did not look round, but his sword fell to his side. In the doorway stood Queen Flavia, all in white; and now her face turned white as her dress. For her eyes had fallen on Rudolf Rassendyll. For a moment the four stood thus; then Rudolf passed Sapt, thrust Bernenstein’s brawny shoulders (the young man had not looked round) out of the way, and, falling on his knee before the queen, seized her hand and kissed it. Bernenstein could see now without looking round, and if astonishment could kill, he would have been a dead man that instant. He fairly reeled and leant against the wall, his mouth hanging open. For the king was in bed, and had a beard; yet there was the king, fully dressed and clean shaven, and he was kissing the queen’s hand, while she gazed down on him in a struggle between amazement, fright, and joy. A soldier should be prepared for anything, but I cannot be hard on young Bernenstein’s bewilderment.
Yet there was in truth nothing strange in the queen seeking to see old Sapt that night, nor in her guessing where he would most probably be found. For she had asked him three times whether news had come from Wintenberg and each time he had put her off with excuses. Quick to forbode evil, and conscious of the pledge to fortune that she had given in her letter, she had determined to know from him whether there were really cause for alarm, and had stolen, undetected, from her apartments to seek him. What filled her at once with unbearable apprehension and incredulous joy was to find Rudolf present in actual flesh and blood, no longer in sad longing dreams or visions, and to feel his live lips on her hand.
Lovers count neither time nor danger; but Sapt counted both, and no more than a moment had passed before, with eager imperative gestures, he beckoned them to enter the room. The queen obeyed, and Rudolf followed her.
“Let nobody in, and don’t say a word to anybody,” whispered Sapt, as he entered, leaving Bernenstein outside. The young man was half-dazed still, but he had sense to read the expression in the constable’s eyes and to learn from it that he must give his life sooner than let the door be opened. So with drawn sword he stood on guard.
It was eleven o’clock when the queen came, and midnight had struck from the great clock of the castle before the door opened again and Sapt came out. His sword was not drawn, but he had his revolver in his hand. He shut the door silently after him and began at once to talk in low, earnest, quick tones to Bernenstein. Bernenstein listened intently and without interrupting. Sapt’s story ran on for eight or nine minutes. Then he paused, before asking:
“You understand now?”
“Yes, it is wonderful,” said the young man, drawing in his breath.
“Pooh!” said Sapt. “Nothing is wonderful: some things are unusual.”
Bernenstein was not convinced, and shrugged his shoulders in protest.
“Well?” said the constable, with a quick glance at him.
“I would die for the queen, sir,” he answered, clicking his heels together as though on parade.
“Good,” said Sapt. “Then listen,” and he began again to talk. Bernenstein nodded from time to time. “You’ll meet him at the gate,” said the constable, “and bring him straight here. He’s not to go anywhere else, you understand me?”
“Perfectly, Colonel,” smiled young Bernenstein.
“The king will be in this room — the king. You know who is the king?”
“And when the interview is ended, and we go to breakfast —”
“I know who will be the king then. Yes, Colonel.”
“Good. But we do him no harm unless —”
“It is necessary.”
Sapt turned away with a little sigh. Bernenstein was an apt pupil, but the colonel was exhausted by so much explanation. He knocked softly at the door of the room. The queen’s voice bade him enter, and he passed in. Bernenstein was left alone again in the passage, pondering over what he had heard and rehearsing the part that it now fell to him to play. As he thought he may well have raised his head proudly. The service seemed so great and the honor so high, that he almost wished he could die in the performing of his role. It would be a finer death than his soldier’s dreams had dared to picture.
At one o’clock Colonel Sapt came out. “Go to bed till six,” said he to Bernenstein.
“I’m not sleepy.”
“No, but you will be at eight if you don’t sleep now.”
“Is the queen coming out, Colonel?”
“In a minute, Lieutenant.”
“I should like to kiss her hand.”
“Well, if you think it worth waiting a quarter of an hour for!” said Sapt, with a slight smile.
“You said a minute, sir.”
“So did she,” answered the constable.
Nevertheless it was a quarter of an hour before Rudolf Rassendyll opened the door and the queen appeared on the threshold. She was very pale, and she had been crying, but her eyes were happy and her air firm. The moment he saw her, young Bernenstein fell on his knee and raised her hand to his lips.
“To the death, madame,” said he, in a trembling voice.
“I knew it, sir,” she answered graciously. Then she looked round on the three of them. “Gentlemen,” said she, “my servants and dear friends, with you, and with Fritz who lies wounded in Wintenberg, rest my honor and my life; for I will not live if the letter reaches the king.”
“The king shall not have it, madame,” said Colonel Sapt. He took her hand in his and patted it with a clumsy gentleness; smiling, she extended it again to young Bernenstein, in mark of her favor. They two then stood at the salute, while Rudolf walked with her to the end of the passage. There for a moment she and he stood together; the others turned their eyes away and thus did not see her suddenly stoop and cover his hand with her kisses. He tried to draw it away, not thinking it fit that she should kiss his hand, but she seemed as though she could not let it go. Yet at last, still with her eyes on his, she passed backwards through the door, and he shut it after her.
“Now to business,” said Colonel Sapt dryly; and Rudolf laughed a little.
Rudolf passed into the room. Sapt went to the king’s apartments, and asked the physician whether his Majesty were sleeping well. Receiving reassuring news of the royal slumbers, he proceeded to the quarters of the king’s body-servant, knocked up the sleepy wretch, and ordered breakfast for the king and the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim at nine o’clock precisely, in the morning-room that looked out over the avenue leading to the entrance to the new chateau. This done, he returned to the room where Rudolf was, carried a chair into the passage, bade Rudolf lock the door, sat down, revolver in hand, and himself went to sleep. Young Bernenstein was in bed just now, taken faint, and the constable himself was acting as his substitute; that was to be the story, if a story were needed. Thus the hours from two to six passed that morning in the castle of Zenda.
At six the constable awoke and knocked at the door; Rudolf Rassendyll opened it.
“Slept well?” asked Sapt.
“Not a wink,” answered Rudolf cheerfully.
“I thought you had more nerve.”
“It wasn’t want of nerve that kept me awake,” said Mr. Rassendyll.
Sapt, with a pitying shrug, looked round. The curtains of the window were half-drawn. The table was moved near to the wall, and the arm-chair by it was well in shadow, being quite close to the curtains.
“There’s plenty of room for you behind,” said Rudolf; “And when Rischenheim is seated in his chair opposite to mine, you can put your barrel against his head by just stretching out your hand. And of course I can do the same.”
“Yes, it looks well enough,” said Sapt, with an approving nod. “What about the beard?”
“Bernenstein is to tell him you’ve shaved this morning.”
“Will he believe that?”
“Why not? For his own sake he’d better believe everything.”
“And if we have to kill him?”
“We must run for it. The king would be furious.”
“He’s fond of him?”
“You forget. He wants to know about the dogs.”
“True. You’ll be in your place in time?”
Rudolf Rassendyll took a turn up and down the room. It was easy to see that the events of the night had disturbed him. Sapt’s thoughts were running in a different channel.
“When we’ve done with this fellow, we must find Rupert,” said he.
“Rupert? Rupert? True; I forgot. Of course we must,” said he confusedly.
Sapt looked scornful; he knew that his companion’s mind had been occupied with the queen. But his remarks — if he had meditated any — were interrupted by the clock striking seven.
“He’ll be here in an hour,” said he.
“We’re ready for him,” answered Rudolf Rassendyll. With the thought of action his eyes grew bright and his brow smooth again. He and old Sapt looked at one another, and they both smiled.
“Like old times, isn’t it, Sapt?”
“Aye, sire, like the reign of good King Rudolf.”
Thus they made ready for the Count of Luzau–Rischenheim, while my cursed wound held me a prisoner at Wintenberg. It is still a sorrow to me that I know what passed that morning only by report, and had not the honor of bearing a part in it. Still, her Majesty did not forget me, but remembered that I would have taken my share, had fortune allowed. Indeed I would most eagerly.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09