I RECEIVED the telegram sent to me by the Constable of Zenda at my own house in Strelsau about one o’clock. It is needless to say that I made immediate preparations to obey his summons. My wife indeed protested — and I must admit with some show of reason — that I was unfit to endure further fatigues, and that my bed was the only proper place for me. I could not listen; and James, Mr. Rassendyll’s servant, being informed of the summons, was at my elbow with a card of the trains from Strelsau to Zenda, without waiting for any order from me. I had talked to this man in the course of our journey, and discovered that he had been in the service of Lord Topham, formerly British Ambassador to the Court of Ruritania. How far he was acquainted with the secrets of his present master, I did not know, but his familiarity with the city and the country made him of great use to me. We discovered, to our annoyance, that no train left till four o’clock, and then only a slow one; the result was that we could not arrive at the castle till past six o’clock. This hour was not absolutely too late, but I was of course eager to be on the scene of action as early as possible.
“You’d better see if you can get a special, my lord,” James suggested; “I’ll run on to the station and arrange about it.”
I agreed. Since I was known to be often employed in the king’s service, I could take a special train without exciting remark. James set out, and about a quarter of an hour later I got into my carriage to drive to the station. Just as the horses were about to start, however, the butler approached me.
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” said he, “but Bauer didn’t return with your lordship. Is he coming back?”
“No,” said I. “Bauer was grossly impertinent on the journey, and I dismissed him.”
“Those foreign men are never to be trusted, my lord. And your lordship’s bag?”
“What, hasn’t it come?” I cried. “I told him to send it.”
“It’s not arrived, my lord.”
“Can the rogue have stolen it?” I exclaimed indignantly.
“If your lordship wishes it, I will mention the matter to the police.”
I appeared to consider this proposal.
“Wait till I come back,” I ended by saying. “The bag may come, and I have no reason to doubt the fellow’s honesty.”
This, I thought, would be the end of my connection with Master Bauer. He had served Rupert’s turn, and would now disappear from the scene. Indeed it may be that Rupert would have liked to dispense with further aid from him; but he had few whom he could trust, and was compelled to employ those few more than once. At any rate he had not done with Bauer, and I very soon received proof of the fact. My house is a couple of miles from the station, and we have to pass through a considerable part of the old town, where the streets are narrow and tortuous and progress necessarily slow. We had just entered the Konigstrasse (and it must be remembered that I had at that time no reason for attaching any special significance to this locality), and were waiting impatiently for a heavy dray to move out of our path, when my coachman, who had overheard the butler’s conversation with me, leant down from his box with an air of lively excitement.
“My lord,” he cried, “there’s Bauer — there, passing the butcher’s shop!”
I sprang up in the carriage; the man’s back was towards me, and he was threading his way through the people with a quick, stealthy tread. I believe he must have seen me, and was slinking away as fast as he could. I was not sure of him, but the coachman banished my doubt by saying, “It’s Bauer — it’s certainly Bauer, my lord.”
I hardly stayed to form a resolution. If I could catch this fellow or even see where he went, a most important clue as to Rupert’s doings and whereabouts might be put into my hand. I leapt out of the carriage, bidding the man wait, and at once started in pursuit of my former servant. I heard the coachman laugh: he thought, no doubt, that anxiety for the missing bag inspired such eager haste.
The numbers of the houses in the Konigstrasse begin, as anybody familiar with Strelsau will remember, at the end adjoining the station. The street being a long one, intersecting almost the entire length of the old town, I was, when I set out after Bauer, opposite number 300 or thereabouts, and distant nearly three-quarters of a mile from that important number nineteen, towards which Bauer was hurrying like a rabbit to its burrow. I knew nothing and thought nothing of where he was going; to me nineteen was no more than eighteen or twenty; my only desire was to overtake him. I had no clear idea of what I meant to do when I caught him, but I had some hazy notion of intimidating him into giving up his secret by the threat of an accusation of theft. In fact, he had stolen my bag. After him I went; and he knew that I was after him. I saw him turn his face over his shoulder, and then bustle on faster. Neither of us, pursued or pursuer, dared quite to run; as it was, our eager strides and our carelessness of collisions created more than enough attention. But I had one advantage. Most folk in Strelsau knew me, and many got out of my way who were by no means inclined to pay a like civility to Bauer. Thus I began to gain on him, in spite of his haste; I had started fifty yards behind, but as we neared the end of the street and saw the station ahead of us, not more than twenty separated me from him. Then an annoying thing happened. I ran full into a stout old gentleman; Bauer had run into him before, and he was standing, as people will, staring in resentful astonishment at his first assailant’s retreating figure. The second collision immensely increased his vexation; for me it had yet worse consequences; for when I disentangled myself, Bauer was gone! There was not a sign of him; I looked up: the number of the house above me was twenty-three; but the door was shut. I walked on a few paces, past twenty-two, past twenty-one — and up to nineteen. Nineteen was an old house, with a dirty, dilapidated front and an air almost dissipated. It was a shop where provisions of the cheaper sort were on view in the window, things that one has never eaten but has heard of people eating. The shop-door stood open, but there was nothing to connect Bauer with the house. Muttering an oath in my exasperation, I was about to pass on, when an old woman put her head out of the door and looked round. I was full in front of her. I am sure that the old woman started slightly, and I think that I did. For I knew her and she knew me. She was old Mother Holf, one of whose sons, Johann, had betrayed to us the secret of the dungeon at Zenda, while the other had died by Mr. Rassendyll’s hand by the side of the great pipe that masked the king’s window. Her presence might mean nothing, yet it seemed at once to connect the house with the secret of the past and the crisis of the present.
She recovered herself in a moment, and curtseyed to me.
“Ah, Mother Holf,” said I, “how long is it since you set up shop in Strelsau?”
“About six months, my lord,” she answered, with a composed air and arms akimbo.
“I have not come across you before,” said I, looking keenly at her.
“Such a poor little shop as mine would not be likely to secure your lordship’s patronage,” she answered, in a humility that seemed only half genuine.
I looked up at the windows. They were all closed and had their wooden lattices shut. The house was devoid of any signs of life.
“You’ve a good house here, mother, though it wants a splash of paint,” said I. “Do you live all alone in it with your daughter?” For Max was dead and Johann abroad, and the old woman had, as far as I knew, no other children.
“Sometimes; sometimes not,” said she. “I let lodgings to single men when I can.”
“Not a soul, worse luck, my lord.” Then I shot an arrow at a venture.
“The man who came in just now, then, was he only a customer?”
“I wish a customer had come in, but there has been nobody,” she replied in surprised tones.
I looked full in her eyes; she met mine with a blinking imperturbability. There is no face so inscrutable as a clever old woman’s when she is on her guard. And her fat body barred the entrance; I could not so much as see inside, while the window, choked full with pigs’ trotters and such-like dainties, helped me very little. If the fox were there, he had got to earth and I could not dig him out.
At this moment I saw James approaching hurriedly. He was looking up the street, no doubt seeking my carriage and chafing at its delay. An instant later he saw me.
“My lord,” he said, “your train will be ready in five minutes; if it doesn’t start then, the line must be closed for another half-hour.”
I perceived a faint smile on the old woman’s face. I was sure then that I was on the track of Bauer, and probably of more than Bauer. But my first duty was to obey orders and get to Zenda. Besides, I could not force my way in, there in open daylight, without a scandal that would have set all the long ears in Strelsau aprick. I turned away reluctantly. I did not even know for certain that Bauer was within, and thus had no information of value to carry with me.
“If your lordship would kindly recommend me —” said the old hag.
“Yes, I’ll recommend you,” said I. “I’ll recommend you to be careful whom you take for lodgers. There are queer fish about, mother.”
“I take the money beforehand,” she retorted with a grin; and I was as sure that she was in the plot as of my own existence.
There was nothing to be done; James’s face urged me towards the station. I turned away. But at this instant a loud, merry laugh sounded from inside the house. I started, and this time violently. The old woman’s brow contracted in a frown, and her lips twitched for a moment; then her face regained its composure; but I knew the laugh, and she must have guessed that I knew it. Instantly I tried to appear as though I had noticed nothing. I nodded to her carelessly, and bidding James follow me, set out for the station. But as we reached the platform, I laid my hand on his shoulder, saying:
“The Count of Hentzau is in that house, James.”
He looked at me without surprise; he was as hard to stir to wonder as old Sapt himself.
“Indeed, sir. Shall I stay and watch?”
“No, come with me,” I answered. To tell the truth, I thought that to leave him alone in Strelsau to watch that house was in all likelihood to sign his death warrant, and I shrank from imposing the duty on him. Rudolf might send him if he would; I dared not. So we got into our train, and I suppose that my coachman, when he had looked long enough for me, went home. I forgot to ask him afterwards. Very likely he thought it a fine joke to see his master hunting a truant servant and a truant bag through the streets in broad daylight. Had he known the truth, he would have been as interested, though, maybe, less amused.
I arrived at the town of Zenda at half-past three, and was in the castle before four. I may pass over the most kind and gracious words with which the queen received me. Every sight of her face and every sound of her voice bound a man closer to her service, and now she made me feel that I was a poor fellow to have lost her letter and yet to be alive. But she would hear nothing of such talk, choosing rather to praise the little I had done than to blame the great thing in which I had failed. Dismissed from her presence, I flew open-mouthed to Sapt. I found him in his room with Bernenstein, and had the satisfaction of learning that my news of Rupert’s whereabouts was confirmed by his information. I was also made acquainted with all that had been done, even as I have already related it, from the first successful trick played on Rischenheim to the moment of his unfortunate escape. But my face grew long and apprehensive when I heard that Rudolf Rassendyll had gone alone to Strelsau to put his head in that lion’s mouth in the Konigstrasse.
“There will be three of them there — Rupert, Rischenheim, and my rascal Bauer,” said I.
“As to Rupert, we don’t know,” Sapt reminded me. “He’ll be there if Rischenheim arrives in time to tell him the truth. But we have also to be ready for him here, and at the hunting lodge. Well, we’re ready for him wherever he is: Rudolf will be in Strelsau, you and I will ride to the lodge, and Bernenstein will be here with the queen.”
“Only one here?” I asked.
“Ay, but a good one,” said the constable, clapping Bernenstein on the shoulder. “We sha’n’t be gone above four hours, and those while the king is safe in his bed. Bernenstein has only to refuse access to him, and stand to that with his life till we come back. You’re equal to that, eh, Lieutenant?”
I am, by nature, a cautious man, and prone to look at the dark side of every prospect and the risks of every enterprise; but I could not see what better dispositions were possible against the attack that threatened us. Yet I was sorely uneasy concerning Mr. Rassendyll.
Now, after all our stir and runnings to and fro, came an hour or two of peace. We employed the time in having a good meal, and it was past five when, our repast finished, we sat back in our chairs enjoying cigars. James had waited on us, quietly usurping the office of the constable’s own servant, and thus we had been able to talk freely. The man’s calm confidence in his master and his master’s fortune also went far to comfort me.
“The king should be back soon,” said Sapt at last, with a glance at his big, old-fashioned silver watch. “Thank God, he’ll be too tired to sit up long. We shall be free by nine o’clock, Fritz. I wish young Rupert would come to the lodge!” And the colonel’s face expressed a lively pleasure at the idea.
Six o’clock struck, and the king did not appear. A few moments later, a message came from the queen, requesting our presence on the terrace in front of the chateau. The place commanded a view of the road by which the king would ride back, and we found the queen walking restlessly up and down, considerably disquieted by the lateness of his return. In such a position as ours, every unusual or unforeseen incident magnifies its possible meaning, and invests itself with a sinister importance which would at ordinary times seem absurd. We three shared the queen’s feelings, and forgetting the many chances of the chase, any one of which would amply account for the king’s delay, fell to speculating on remote possibilities of disaster. He might have met Rischenheim — though they had ridden in opposite directions; Rupert might have intercepted him — though no means could have brought Rupert to the forest so early. Our fears defeated common sense, and our conjectures outran possibility. Sapt was the first to recover from this foolish mood, and he rated us soundly, not sparing even the queen herself. With a laugh we regained some of our equanimity, and felt rather ashamed of our weakness.
“Still it’s strange that he doesn’t come,” murmured the queen, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking along the road to where the dark masses of the forest trees bounded our view. It was already dusk, but not so dark but that we could have seen the king’s party as soon as it came into the open.
If the king’s delay seemed strange at six, it was stranger at seven, and by eight most strange. We had long since ceased to talk lightly; by now we had lapsed into silence. Sapt’s scoldings had died away. The queen, wrapped in her furs (for it was very cold), sat sometimes on a seat, but oftener paced restlessly to and fro. Evening had fallen. We did not know what to do, nor even whether we ought to do anything. Sapt would not own to sharing our worst apprehensions, but his gloomy silence in face of our surmises witnessed that he was in his heart as disturbed as we were. For my part I had come to the end of my endurance, and I cried, “For God’s sake, let’s act! Shall I go and seek him?”
“A needle in a bundle of hay,” said Sapt with a shrug.
But at this instant my ear caught the sound of horses cantering on the road from the forest; at the same moment Bernenstein cried, “Here they come!” The queen paused, and we gathered round her. The horse-hoofs came nearer. Now we made out the figures of three men: they were the king’s huntsmen, and they rode along merrily, singing a hunting chorus. The sound of it brought relief to us; so far at least there was no disaster. But why was not the king with them?
“The king is probably tired, and is following more slowly, madam,” suggested Bernenstein.
This explanation seemed very probable, and the lieutenant and I, as ready to be hopeful on slight grounds as fearful on small provocation, joyfully accepted it. Sapt, less easily turned to either mood, said, “Ay, but let us hear,” and raising his voice, called to the huntsmen, who had now arrived in the avenue. One of them, the king’s chief huntsman Simon, gorgeous in his uniform of green and gold, came swaggering along, and bowed low to the queen.
“Well, Simon, where is the king?” she asked, trying to smile.
“The king, madam, has sent a message by me to your majesty.”
“Pray, deliver it to me, Simon.”
“I will, madam. The king has enjoyed fine sport; and, indeed, madam, if I may say so for myself, a better run. —”
“You may say, friend Simon,” interrupted the constable, tapping him on the shoulder, “anything you like for yourself, but, as a matter of etiquette, the king’s message should come first.”
“Oh, ay, Constable,” said Simon. “You’re always so down on a man, aren’t you? Well, then, madam, the king has enjoyed fine sport. For we started a boar at eleven, and —”
“Is this the king’s message, Simon?” asked the queen, smiling in genuine amusement, but impatiently.
“Why, no, madam, not precisely his majesty’s message.”
“Then get to it, man, in Heaven’s name,” growled Sapt testily. For here were we four (the queen, too, one of us!) on tenterhooks, while the fool boasted about the sport that he had shown the king. For every boar in the forest Simon took as much credit as though he, and not Almighty God, had made the animal. It is the way with such fellows.
Simon became a little confused under the combined influence of his own seductive memories and Sapt’s brusque exhortations.
“As I was saying, madam,” he resumed, “the boar led us a long way, but at last the hounds pulled him down, and his majesty himself gave the coup de grace. Well, then it was very late.”
“It’s no earlier now,” grumbled the constable.
“And the king, although indeed, madam, his majesty was so gracious as to say that no huntsman whom his majesty had ever had, had given his majesty —”
“God help us!” groaned the constable.
Simon shot an apprehensive apologetic glance at Colonel Sapt. The constable was frowning ferociously. In spite of the serious matters in hand I could not forbear a smile, while young Bernenstein broke into an audible laugh, which he tried to smother with his hand.
“Yes, the king was very tired, Simon?” said the queen, at once encouraging him and bringing him back to the point with a woman’s skill.
“Yes, madam, the king was very tired; and as we chanced to kill near the hunting-lodge —”
I do not know whether Simon noticed any change in the manner of his audience. But the queen looked up with parted lips, and I believe that we three all drew a step nearer him. Sapt did not interrupt this time.
“Yes, madam, the king was very tired, and as we chanced to kill near the hunting-lodge, the king bade us carry our quarry there, and come back to dress it tomorrow; so we obeyed, and here we are — that is, except Herbert, my brother, who stayed with the king by his majesty’s orders. Because, madam, Herbert is a handy fellow, and my good mother taught him to cook a steak and —”
“Stayed where with the king?” roared Sapt.
“Why, at the hunting-lodge, Constable. The king stays there to-night, and will ride back tomorrow morning with Herbert. That, madam, is the king’s message.”
We had come to it at last, and it was something to come to. Simon gazed from face to face. I saw him, and I understood at once that our feelings must be speaking too plainly. So I took on myself to dismiss him, saying:
“Thanks, Simon, thanks: we understand.”
He bowed to the queen; she roused herself, and added her thanks to mine. Simon withdrew, looking still a little puzzled.
After we were left alone, there was a moment’s silence. Then I said:
“Suppose Rupert —”
The Constable of Zenda broke in with a short laugh.
“On my life,” said he, “how things fall out! We say he will go to the hunting-lodge, and — he goes!”
“If Rupert goes — if Rischenheim doesn’t stop him!” I urged again.
The queen rose from her seat and stretched out her hands towards us.
“Gentlemen, my letter!” said she.
Sapt wasted no time.
“Bernenstein,” said he, “you stay here as we arranged. Nothing is altered. Horses for Fritz and myself in five minutes.”
Bernenstein turned and shot like an arrow along the terrace towards the stables.
“Nothing is altered, madam,” said Sapt, “except that we must be there before Count Rupert.”
I looked at my watch. It was twenty minutes past nine. Simon’s cursed chatter had lost a quarter of an hour. I opened my lips to speak. A glance from Sapt’s eyes told me that he discerned what I was about to say. I was silent.
“You’ll be in time?” asked the queen, with clasped hands and frightened eyes.
“Assuredly, madam,” returned Sapt with a bow.
“You won’t let him reach the king?”
“Why, no, madam,” said Sapt with a smile.
“From my heart, gentlemen,” she said in a trembling voice, “from my heart —”
“Here are the horses,” cried Sapt. He snatched her hand, brushed it with his grizzly moustache, and — well, I am not sure I heard, and I can hardly believe what I think I heard. But I will set it down for what it is worth. I think he said, “Bless your sweet face, we’ll do it.” At any rate she drew back with a little cry of surprise, and I saw the tears standing in her eyes. I kissed her hand also; then we mounted, and we started, and we rode, as if the devil were behind us, for the hunting-lodge.
But I turned once to watch her standing on the terrace, with young Bernenstein’s tall figure beside her.
“Can we be in time?” said I. It was what I had meant to say before.
“I think not, but, by God, we’ll try,” said Colonel Sapt. And I knew why he had not let me speak.
Suddenly there was a sound behind us of a horse at the gallop. Our heads flew round in the ready apprehension of men on a perilous errand. The hoofs drew near, for the unknown rode with reckless haste.
“We had best see what it is,” said the constable, pulling up.
A second more, and the horseman was beside us. Sapt swore an oath, half in amusement, half in vexation.
“Why, is it you, James?” I cried.
“Yes, sir,” answered Rudolf Rassendyll’s servant.
“What the devil do you want?” asked Sapt.
“I came to attend on the Count von Tarlenheim, sir.”
“I did not give you any orders, James.”
“No, sir. But Mr. Rassendyll told me not to leave you, unless you sent me away. So I made haste to follow you.”
Then Sapt cried: “Deuce take it, what horse is that?”
“The best in the stables, so far as I could see, sir. I was afraid of not overtaking you.”
Sapt tugged his moustaches, scowled, but finally laughed.
“Much obliged for your compliment,” said he. “The horse is mine.”
“Indeed, sir?” said James with respectful interest.
For a moment we were all silent. Then Sapt laughed again.
“Forward!” said he, and the three of us dashed into the forest.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09