THE moment with its shock and tumult of feeling brings one judgment, later reflection another. Among the sins of Rupert of Hentzau I do not assign the first and greatest place to his killing of the king. It was, indeed, the act of a reckless man who stood at nothing and held nothing sacred; but when I consider Herbert’s story, and trace how the deed came to be done and the impulsion of circumstances that led to it, it seems to have been in some sort thrust upon him by the same perverse fate that dogged our steps. He had meant the king no harm — indeed it may be argued that, from whatever motive, he had sought to serve him — and save under the sudden stress of self-defense he had done him none. The king’s unlooked-for ignorance of his errand, Herbert’s honest hasty zeal, the temper of Boris the hound, had forced on him an act unmeditated and utterly against his interest. His whole guilt lay in preferring the king’s death to his own — a crime perhaps in most men, but hardly deserving a place in Rupert’s catalogue. All this I can admit now, but on that night, with the dead body lying there before us, with the story piteously told by Herbert’s faltering voice fresh in our ears, it was hard to allow any such extenuation. Our hearts cried out for vengeance, although we ourselves served the king no more. Nay, it may well be that we hoped to stifle some reproach of our own consciences by a louder clamor against another’s sin, or longed to offer some belated empty atonement to our dead master by executing swift justice on the man who had killed him. I cannot tell fully what the others felt, but in me at least the dominant impulse was to waste not a moment in proclaiming the crime and raising the whole country in pursuit of Rupert, so that every man in Ruritania should quit his work, his pleasure, or his bed, and make it his concern to take the Count of Hentzau, alive or dead. I remember that I walked over to where Sapt was sitting, and caught him by the arm, saying:
“We must raise the alarm. If you’ll go to Zenda, I’ll start for Strelsau.”
“The alarm?” said he, looking up at me and tugging his moustache.
“Yes: when the news is known, every man in the kingdom will be on the lookout for him, and he can’t escape.”
“So that he’d be taken?” asked the constable.
“Yes, to a certainty,” I cried, hot in excitement and emotion. Sapt glanced across at Mr. Rassendyll’s servant. James had, with my help, raised the king’s body on to the bed, and had aided the wounded forester to reach a couch. He stood now near the constable, in his usual unobtrusive readiness. He did not speak, but I saw a look of understanding in his eyes as he nodded his head to Colonel Sapt. They were well matched, that pair, hard to move, hard to shake, not to be turned from the purpose in their minds and the matter that lay to their hands.
“Yes, he’d probably be taken or killed,” said Sapt.
“Then let’s do it!” I cried.
“With the queen’s letter on him,” said Colonel Sapt.
I had forgotten.
“We have the box, he has the letter still,” said Sapt.
I could have laughed even at that moment. He had left the box (whether from haste or heedlessness or malice, we could not tell), but the letter was on him. Taken alive, he would use that powerful weapon to save his life or satisfy his anger; if it were found on his body, its evidence would speak loud and clear to all the world. Again he was protected by his crime: while he had the letter, he must be kept inviolate from all attack except at our own hands. We desired his death, but we must be his body-guard and die in his defense rather than let any other but ourselves come at him. No open means must be used, and no allies sought. All this rushed to my mind at Sapt’s words, and I saw what the constable and James had never forgotten. But what to do I could not see. For the King of Ruritania lay dead.
An hour or more had passed since our discovery, and it was now close on midnight. Had all gone well we ought by this time to have been far on our road back to the castle; by this time Rupert must be miles away from where he had killed the king; already Mr. Rassendyll would be seeking his enemy in Strelsau.
“But what are we to do about — about that, then?” I asked, pointing with my finger through the doorway towards the bed.
Sapt gave a last tug at his moustache, then crossed his hands on the hilt of the sword between his knees, and leant forward in his chair.
“Nothing, he said,” looking at my face. “Until we have the letter, nothing.”
“But it’s impossible!” I cried.
“Why, no, Fritz,” he answered thoughtfully. “It’s not possible yet; it may become so. But if we can catch Rupert in the next day, or even in the next two days, it’s not impossible. Only let me have the letter, and I’ll account for the concealment. What? Is the fact that crimes are known never concealed, for fear of putting the criminal on his guard?”
“You’ll be able to make a story, sir,” James put in, with a grave but reassuring air.
“Yes, James, I shall be able to make a story, or your master will make one for me. But, by God, story or no story, the letter mustn’t be found. Let them say we killed him ourselves if they like, but —”
I seized his hand and gripped it.
“You don’t doubt I’m with you?” I asked.
“Not for a moment, Fritz,” he answered.
“Then how can we do it?”
We drew nearer together; Sapt and I sat, while James leant over Sapt’s chair.
The oil in the lamp was almost exhausted, and the light burnt very dim. Now and again poor Herbert, for whom our skill could do nothing, gave a slight moan. I am ashamed to remember how little we thought of him, but great schemes make the actors in them careless of humanity; the life of a man goes for nothing against a point in the game. Except for his groans — and they grew fainter and less frequent — our voices alone broke the silence of the little lodge.
“The queen must know,” said Sapt. “Let her stay at Zenda and give out that the king is at the lodge for a day or two longer. Then you, Fritz — for you must ride to the castle at once — and Bernenstein must get to Strelsau as quick as you can, and find Rudolf Rassendyll. You three ought to be able to track young Rupert down and get the letter from him. If he’s not in the city, you must catch Rischenheim, and force him to say where he is; we know Rischenheim can be persuaded. If Rupert’s there, I need give no advice either to you or to Rudolf.”
“James and I stay here. If any one comes whom we can keep out, the king is ill. If rumors get about, and great folk come, why, they must enter.”
“But the body?”
“This morning, when you’re gone, we shall make a temporary grave. I dare say two,” and he jerked his thumb towards poor Herbert.
“Or even,” he added, with his grim smile, “three — for our friend Boris, too, must be out of sight.”
“You’ll bury the king?”
“Not so deep but that we can take him out again, poor fellow. Well, Fritz, have you a better plan?”
I had no plan, and I was not in love with Sapt’s plan. Yet it offered us four and twenty hours. For that time, at least, it seemed as if the secret could be kept. Beyond that we could hardly hope for success; after that we must produce the king; dead or alive, the king must be seen. Yet it might be that before the respite ran out Rupert would be ours. In fine, what else could be chosen? For now a greater peril threatened than that against which we had at the first sought to guard. Then the worst we feared was that the letter should come to the king’s hands. That could never be. But it would be a worse thing if it were found on Rupert, and all the kingdom, nay, all Europe, know that it was written in the hand of her who was now, in her own right, Queen of Ruritania. To save her from that, no chance was too desperate, no scheme too perilous; yes, if, as Sapt said, we ourselves were held to answer for the king’s death, still we must go on. I, through whose negligence the whole train of disaster had been laid, was the last man to hesitate. In all honesty, I held my life due and forfeit, should it be demanded of me — my life and, before the world, my honor.
So the plan was made. A grave was to be dug ready for the king; if need arose, his body should be laid in it, and the place chosen was under the floor of the wine-cellar. When death came to poor Herbert, he could lie in the yard behind the house; for Boris they meditated a resting-place under the tree where our horses were tethered. There was nothing to keep me, and I rose; but as I rose, I heard the forester’s voice call plaintively for me. The unlucky fellow knew me well, and now cried to me to sit by him. I think Sapt wanted me to leave him, but I could not refuse his last request, even though it consumed some precious minutes. He was very near his end, and, sitting by him, I did my best to soothe his passing. His fortitude was good to see, and I believe that we all at last found new courage for our enterprise from seeing how this humble man met death. At least even the constable ceased to show impatience, and let me stay till I could close the sufferer’s eyes.
But thus time went, and it was nearly five in the morning before I bade them farewell and mounted my horse. They took theirs and led them away to the stables behind the lodge; I waved my hand and galloped off on my return to the castle. Day was dawning, and the air was fresh and pure. The new light brought new hope; fears seemed to vanish before it; my nerves were strung to effort and to confidence. My horse moved freely under me and carried me easily along the grassy avenues. It was hard then to be utterly despondent, hard to doubt skill of brain, strength of hand, or fortune’s favor.
The castle came in sight, and I hailed it with a glad cry that echoed among the trees. But a moment later I gave an exclamation of surprise, and raised myself a little from the saddle while I gazed earnestly at the summit of the keep. The flag staff was naked; the royal standard that had flapped in the wind last night was gone. But by immemorial custom the flag flew on the keep when the king or the queen was at the castle. It would fly for Rudolf V. no more; but why did it not proclaim and honor the presence of Queen Flavia? I sat down in my saddle and spurred my horse to the top of his speed. We had been buffeted by fate sorely, but now I feared yet another blow.
In a quarter of an hour more I was at the door. A servant ran out, and I dismounted leisurely and easily. Pulling off my gloves, I dusted my boots with them, turned to the stableman and bade him look to the horse, and then said to the footman:
“As soon as the queen is dressed, find out if she can see me. I have a message from his Majesty.”
The fellow looked a little puzzled, but at this moment Hermann, the king’s major-domo, came to the door.
“Isn’t the constable with you, my lord?” he asked.
“No, the constable remains at the lodge with the king,” said I carelessly, though I was very far from careless. “I have a message for her Majesty, Hermann. Find out from some of the women when she will receive me.”
“The queen’s not here,” said he. “Indeed we’ve had a lively time, my lord. At five o’clock she came out, ready dressed, from her room, sent for Lieutenant von Bernenstein, and announced that she was about to set out from the castle. As you know, the mail train passes here at six.” Hermann took out his watch. “Yes, the queen must just have left the station.”
“Where for?” I asked, with a shrug for the woman’s whim. “Why, for Strelsau. She gave no reasons for going, and took with her only one lady, Lieutenant von Bernenstein being in attendance. It was a bustle, if you like, with everybody to be roused and got out of bed, and a carriage to be made ready, and messages to go to the station, and —”
“She gave no reasons?”
“None, my lord. She left with me a letter to the constable, which she ordered me to give to his own hands as soon as he arrived at the castle. She said it contained a message of importance, which the constable was to convey to the king, and that it must be intrusted to nobody except Colonel Sapt himself. I wonder, my lord, that you didn’t notice that the flag was hauled down.”
“Tut, man, I wasn’t staring at the keep. Give me the letter.” For I saw that the clue to this fresh puzzle must lie under the cover of Sapt’s letter. That letter I must myself carry to Sapt, and without loss of time.
“Give you the letter, my lord? But, pardon me, you’re not the constable.” He laughed a little.
“Why, no,” said I, mustering a smile. “It’s true that I’m not the constable, but I’m going to the constable. I had the king’s orders to rejoin him as soon as I had seen the queen, and since her Majesty isn’t here, I shall return to the lodge directly a fresh horse can be saddled for me. And the constable’s at the lodge. Come, the letter!”
“I can’t give it you, my lord. Her Majesty’s orders were positive.”
“Nonsense! If she had known I should come and not the constable, she would have told me to carry it to him.”
“I don’t know about that, my lord: her orders were plain, and she doesn’t like being disobeyed.”
The stableman had led the horse away, the footman had disappeared, Hermann and I were alone. “Give me the letter,” I said; and I know that my self-control failed, and eagerness was plain in my voice. Plain it was, and Hermann took alarm. He started back, clapping his hand to the breast of his laced coat. The gesture betrayed where the letter was; I was past prudence; I sprang on him and wrenched his hand away, catching him by the throat with my other hand. Diving into his pocket, I got the letter. Then I suddenly loosed hold of him, for his eyes were starting out of his head. I took out a couple of gold pieces and gave them to him.
“It’s urgent, you fool,” said I. “Hold your tongue about it.” And without waiting to study his amazed red face, I turned and ran towards the stable. In five minutes I was on a fresh horse, in six I was clear of the castle, heading back fast as I could go for the hunting-lodge. Even now Hermann remembers the grip I gave him — though doubtless he has long spent the pieces of gold.
When I reached the end of this second journey, I came in for the obsequies of Boris. James was just patting the ground under the tree with a mattock when I rode up; Sapt was standing by, smoking his pipe. The boots of both were stained and sticky with mud. I flung myself from my saddle and blurted out my news. The constable snatched at his letter with an oath; James leveled the ground with careful accuracy; I do not remember doing anything except wiping my forehead and feeling very hungry.
“Good Lord, she’s gone after him!” said Sapt, as he read. Then he handed me the letter.
I will not set out what the queen wrote. The purport seemed to us, who did not share her feelings, pathetic indeed and moving, but in the end (to speak plainly) folly. She had tried to endure her sojourn at Zenda, she said; but it drove her mad. She could not rest; she did not know how we fared, nor how those in Strelsau; for hours she had lain awake; then at last falling asleep, she had dreamt.
“I had had the same dream before. Now it came again. I saw him so plain. He seemed to me to be king, and to be called king. But he did not answer nor move. He seemed dead; and I could not rest.” So she wrote, ever excusing herself, ever repeating how something drew her to Strelsau, telling her that she must go if she would see “him whom you know,” alive again. “And I must see him — ah, I must see him! If the king has had the letter, I am ruined already. If he has not, tell him what you will or what you can contrive. I must go. It came a second time, and all so plain. I saw him; I tell you I saw him. Ah, I must see him again. I swear that I will only see him once. He’s in danger — I know he’s in danger; or what does the dream mean? Bernenstein will go with me, and I shall see him. Do, do forgive me: I can’t stay, the dream was so plain.” Thus she ended, seeming, poor lady, half frantic with the visions that her own troubled brain and desolate heart had conjured up to torment her. I did not know that she had before told Mr. Rassendyll himself of this strange dream; though I lay small store by such matters, believing that we ourselves make our dreams, fashioning out of the fears and hopes of today what seems to come by night in the guise of a mysterious revelation. Yet there are some things that a man cannot understand, and I do not profess to measure with my mind the ways of God.
However, not why the queen went, but that she had gone, concerned us. We had returned to the house now, and James, remembering that men must eat though kings die, was getting us some breakfast. In fact, I had great need of food, being utterly worn out; and they, after their labors, were hardly less weary. As we ate, we talked; and it was plain to us that I also must go to Strelsau. There, in the city, the drama must be played out. There was Rudolf, there Rischenheim, there in all likelihood Rupert of Hentzau, there now the queen. And of these Rupert alone, or perhaps Rischenheim also, knew that the king was dead, and how the issue of last night had shaped itself under the compelling hand of wayward fortune. The king lay in peace on his bed, his grave was dug; Sapt and James held the secret with solemn faith and ready lives. To Strelsau I must go to tell the queen that she was widowed, and to aim the stroke at young Rupert’s heart.
At nine in the morning I started from the lodge. I was bound to ride to Hofbau and there wait for a train which would carry me to the capital. From Hofbau I could send a message, but the message must announce only my own coming, not the news I carried. To Sapt, thanks to the cipher, I could send word at any time, and he bade me ask Mr. Rassendyll whether he should come to our aid, or stay where he was.
“A day must decide the whole thing,” he said. “We can’t conceal the king’s death long. For God’s sake, Fritz, make an end of that young villain, and get the letter.”
So, wasting no time in farewells, I set out. By ten o’clock I was at Hofbau, for I rode furiously. From there I sent to Bernenstein at the palace word of my coming. But there I was delayed. There was no train for an hour.
“I’ll ride,” I cried to myself, only to remember the next moment that, if I rode, I should come to my journey’s end much later. There was nothing for it but to wait, and it may be imagined in what mood I waited. Every minute seemed an hour, and I know not to this day how the hour wore itself away. I ate, I drank, I smoked, I walked, sat, and stood. The stationmaster knew me, and thought I had gone mad, till I told him that I carried most important despatches from the king, and that the delay imperiled great interests. Then he became sympathetic; but what could he do? No special train was to be had at a roadside station: I must wait; and wait, somehow, and without blowing my brains out, I did.
At last I was in the train; now indeed we moved, and I came nearer. An hour’s run brought me in sight of the city. Then, to my unutterable wrath, we were stopped, and waited motionless twenty minutes or half an hour. At last we started again; had we not, I should have jumped out and run, for to sit longer would have driven me mad. Now we entered the station. With a great effort I calmed myself. I lolled back in my seat; when we stopped I sat there till a porter opened the door. In lazy leisureliness I bade him get me a cab, and followed him across the station. He held the door for me, and, giving him his douceur, I set my foot on the step.
“Tell him to drive to the palace,” said I, “and be quick. I’m late already, thanks to this cursed train.”
“The old mare’ll soon take you there, sir,” said the driver. I jumped in. But at this moment I saw a man on the platform beckoning with his hand and hastening towards me. The cabman also saw him and waited. I dared not tell him to drive on, for I feared to betray any undue haste, and it would have looked strange not to spare a moment to my wife’s cousin, Anton von Strofzin. He came up, holding out his hand delicately gloved in pearl-gray kid, for young Anton was a leader of the Strelsau dandies.
“Ah, my dear Fritz!” said he. “I am glad I hold no appointment at court. How dreadfully active you all are! I thought you were settled at Zenda for a month?”
“The queen changed her mind suddenly,” said I, smiling. “Ladies do, as you know well, you who know all about them.”
My compliment, or insinuation, produced a pleased smile and a gallant twirling of his moustache.
“Well, I thought you’d be here soon,” he said, “but I didn’t know that the queen had come.”
“You didn’t? Then why did you look for me?”
He opened his eyes a little in languid, elegant surprise. “Oh, I supposed you’d be on duty, or something, and have to come. Aren’t you in attendance?”
“On the queen? No, not just now.”
“But on the king?”
“Why, yes,” said I, and I leaned forward. “At least I’m engaged now on the king’s business.”
“Precisely,” said he. “So I thought you’d come, as soon as I heard that the king was here.”
It may be that I ought to have preserved my composure. But I am not Sapt nor Rudolf Rassendyll.
“The king here?” I gasped, clutching him by the arm.
“Of course. You didn’t know? Yes, he’s in town.”
But I heeded him no more. For a moment I could not speak, then I cried to the cabman:
“To the palace. And drive like the devil!”
We shot away, leaving Anton open-mouthed in wonder. For me, I sank back on the cushions, fairly aghast. The king lay dead in the hunting-lodge, but the king was in his capital!
Of course, the truth soon flashed through my mind, but it brought no comfort. Rudolf Rassendyll was in Strelsau. He had been seen by somebody and taken for the king. But comfort? What comfort was there, now that the king was dead and could never come to the rescue of his counterfeit?
In fact, the truth was worse than I conceived. Had I known it all, I might well have yielded to despair. For not by the chance, uncertain sight of a passer-by, not by mere rumor which might have been sturdily denied, not by the evidence of one only or of two, was the king’s presence in the city known. That day, by the witness of a crowd of people, by his own claim and his own voice, ay, and by the assent of the queen herself, Mr. Rassendyll was taken to be the king in Strelsau, while neither he nor Queen Flavia knew that the king was dead. I must now relate the strange and perverse succession of events which forced them to employ a resource so dangerous and face a peril so immense. Yet, great and perilous as they knew the risk to be even when they dared it, in the light of what they did not know it was more fearful and more fatal still.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09