Rupert of Hentzau: From the Memoirs of Fritz Von Tarlenheim
Chapter XI: What the Chancellor's Wife Saw
THE night, so precious in its silence, solitude, and darkness, was waning fast; soon the first dim approaches of day would be visible; soon the streets would become alive and people be about. Before then Rudolf Rassendyll, the man who bore a face that he dared not show in open day, must be under cover; else men would say that the king was in Strelsau, and the news would flash in a few hours through the kingdom and (so Rudolf feared) reach even those ears which we knew to be shut to all earthly sounds. But there was still some time at Mr. Rassendyll’s disposal, and he could not spend it better than in pursuing his fight with Bauer. Taking a leaf out of the rascal’s own book, he drew himself back into the shadow of the house walls and prepared to wait. At the worst he could keep the fellow from communicating with Rischenheim for a little longer, but his hope was that Bauer would steal back after a while and reconnoitre with a view to discovering how matters stood, whether the unwelcome visitor had taken his departure and the way to Rischenheim were open. Wrapping his scarf closely round his face, Rudolf waited, patiently enduring the tedium as he best might, drenched by the rain, which fell steadily, and very imperfectly sheltered from the buffeting of the wind. Minutes went by; there were no signs of Bauer nor of anybody else in the silent street. Yet Rudolf did not venture to leave his post; Bauer would seize the opportunity to slip in; perhaps Bauer had seen him come out, and was in his turn waiting till the coast should be clear; or, again, perhaps the useful spy had gone off to intercept Rupert of Hentzau, and warn him of the danger in the Konigstrasse. Ignorant of the truth and compelled to accept all these chances, Rudolf waited, still watching the distant beginnings of dawning day, which must soon drive him to his hiding-place again. Meanwhile my poor wife waited also, a prey to every fear that a woman’s sensitive mind can imagine and feed upon.
Rudolf turned his head this way and that, seeking always the darker blot of shadow that would mean a human being. For a while his search was vain, but presently he found what he looked for--ay, and even more. On the same side of the street, to his left hand, from the direction of the station, not one, but three blurred shapes moved up the street.
They came stealthily, yet quickly; with caution, but without pause or hesitation. Rudolf, scenting danger, flattened himself close against the wall and felt for his revolver. Very likely they were only early workers or late revelers, but he was ready for something else; he had not yet sighted Bauer, and action was to be looked for from the man. By infinitely gradual sidelong slitherings he moved a few paces from the door of Mother Holf’s house, and stood six feet perhaps, or eight, on the right-hand side of it. The three came on. He strained his eyes in the effort to discern their features. In that dim light certainty was impossible, but the one in the middle might well be Bauer: the height, the walk, and the make were much what Bauer’s were. If it were Bauer, then Bauer had friends, and Bauer and his friends seemed to be stalking some game. Always most carefully and gradually Rudolf edged yet farther from the little shop. At a distance of some five yards he halted finally, drew out his revolver, covered the man whom he took to be Bauer, and thus waited his fortune and his chance.
Now, it was plain that Bauer--for Bauer it was--would look for one of two things: what he hoped was to find Rudolf still in the house, what he feared was to be told that Rudolf, having fulfilled the unknown purpose of his visit, was gone whole and sound. If the latter tidings met him, these two good friends of his whom he had enlisted for his reinforcement were to have five crowns each and go home in peace; if the former, they were to do their work and make ten crowns. Years after, one of them told me the whole story without shame or reserve. What their work was, the heavy bludgeons they carried and the long knife that one of them had lent to Bauer showed pretty clearly.
But neither to Bauer nor to them did it occur that their quarry might be crouching near, hunting as well as hunted. Not that the pair of ruffians who had been thus hired would have hesitated for that thought, as I imagine. For it is strange, yet certain, that the zenith of courage and the acme of villainy can alike be bought for the price of a lady’s glove. Among such outcasts as those from whom Bauer drew his recruits the murder of a man is held serious only when the police are by, and death at the hands of him they seek to kill is no more than an every-day risk of their employment.
“Here’s the house,” whispered Bauer, stopping at the door. “Now, I’ll knock, and you stand by to knock him on the head if he runs out. He’s got a six-shooter, so lose no time.”
“He’ll only fire it in heaven,” growled a hoarse, guttural voice that ended in a chuckle.
“But if he’s gone?” objected the other auxiliary.
“Then I know where he’s gone,” answered Bauer. “Are you ready?”
A ruffian stood on either side of the door with uplifted bludgeon. Bauer raised his hand to knock.
Rudolf knew that Rischenheim was within, and he feared that Bauer, hearing that the stranger had gone, would take the opportunity of telling the count of his visit. The count would, in his turn, warn Rupert of Hentzau, and the work of catching the ringleader would all fall to be done again. At no time did Mr. Rassendyll take count of odds against him, but in this instance he may well have thought himself, with his revolver, a match for the three ruffians. At any rate, before Bauer had time to give the signal, he sprang out suddenly from the wall and darted at the fellow. His onset was so sudden that the other two fell back a pace; Rudolf caught Bauer fairly by the throat. I do not suppose that he meant to strangle him, but the anger, long stored in his heart, found vent in the fierce grip of his fingers. It is certain that Bauer thought his time was come, unless he struck a blow for himself.
Instantly he raised his hand and thrust fiercely at Rudolf with his long knife. Mr. Rassendyll would have been a dead man, had he not loosed his hold and sprung lightly away. But Bauer sprang at him again, thrusting with the knife, and crying to his associates,
“Club him, you fools, club him!”
Thus exhorted, one jumped forward. The moment for hesitation had gone.
In spite of the noise of wind and pelting rain, the sound of a shot risked much; but not to fire was death. Rudolf fired full at Bauer: the fellow saw his intention and tried to leap behind one of his companions; he was just too late, and fell with a groan to the ground.
Again the other ruffians shrank back, appalled by the sudden ruthless decision of the act. Mr. Rassendyll laughed. A half smothered yet uncontrolled oath broke from one of them. “By God!” he whispered hoarsely, gazing at Rudolf’s face and letting his arm fall to his side.
“My God!” he said then, and his mouth hung open. Again Rudolf laughed at his terrified stare.
“A bigger job than you fancied, is it?” he asked, pushing his scarf well away from his chin.
The man gaped at him; the other’s eyes asked wondering questions, but neither did he attempt to resume the attack. The first at last found voice, and he said, “Well, it’d be damned cheap at ten crowns, and that’s the living truth.”
His friend--or confederate rather, for such men have no friends--looked on, still amazed.
“Take up that fellow by his head and his heels,” ordered Rudolf.
“Quickly! I suppose you don’t want the police to find us here with him, do you? Well, no more do I. Lift him up.”
As he spoke Rudolf turned to knock at the door of No. 19. But even as he did so Bauer groaned. Dead perhaps he ought to have been, but it seems to me that fate is always ready to take the cream and leave the scum.
His leap aside had served him well, after all: he had nearly escaped scot free. As it was, the bullet, almost missing his head altogether, had just glanced on his temple as it passed; its impact had stunned, but not killed. Friend Bauer was in unusual luck that night; I wouldn’t have taken a hundred to one about his chance of life. Rupert arrested his hand. It would not do to leave Bauer at the house, if Bauer were likely to regain speech. He stood for a moment, considering what to do, but in an instant the thoughts that he tried to gather were scattered again.
“The patrol! the patrol!” hoarsely whispered the fellow who had not yet spoken. There was a sound of the hoofs of horses. Down the street from the station end there appeared two mounted men. Without a second moment’s hesitation the two rascals dropped their friend Bauer with a thud on the ground; one ran at his full speed across the street, the other bolted no less quickly up the Konigstrasse. Neither could afford to meet the constables; and who could say what story this red-haired gentleman might tell, ay, or what powers he might command?
But, in truth, Rudolf gave no thought to either his story or his powers.
If he were caught, the best he could hope would be to lie in the lockup while Rupert played his game unmolested. The device that he had employed against the amazed ruffians could be used against lawful authority only as a last and desperate resort. While he could run, run he would. In an instant he also took to his heels, following the fellow who had darted up the Konigstrasse. But before he had gone very far, coming to a narrow turning, he shot down it; then he paused for a moment to listen.
The patrol had seen the sudden dispersal of the group, and, struck with natural suspicion, quickened pace. A few minutes brought them where Bauer was. They jumped from their horses and ran to him. He was unconscious, and could, of course, give them no account of how he came to be in his present state. The fronts of all the houses were dark, the doors shut; there was nothing to connect the man stretched on the ground with either No. 19 or any other dwelling. Moreover, the constables were not sure that the sufferer was himself a meritorious object, for his hand still held a long, ugly knife. They were perplexed: they were but two; there was a wounded man to look after; there were three men to pursue, and the three had fled in three separate directions. They looked up at No. 19; No. 19 remained dark, quiet, absolutely indifferent. The fugitives were out of sight. Rudolf Rassendyll, hearing nothing, had started again on his way. But a minute later he heard a shrill whistle.
The patrol were summoning assistance; the man must be carried to the station, and a report made; but other constables might be warned of what had happened, and despatched in pursuit of the culprits. Rudolf heard more than one answering whistle; he broke into a run, looking for a turning on the left that would take him back into the direction of my house, but he found none. The narrow street twisted and curved in the bewildering way that characterizes the old parts of the town. Rudolf had spent some time once in Strelsau; but a king learns little of back streets, and he was soon fairly puzzled as to his whereabouts. Day was dawning, and he began to meet people here and there. He dared run no more, even had his breath lasted him; winding the scarf about his face, and cramming his hat over his forehead again, he fell into an easy walk, wondering whether he could venture to ask his way, relieved to find no signs that he was being pursued, trying to persuade himself that Bauer, though not dead, was at least incapable of embarrassing disclosures; above all, conscious of the danger of his tell-tale face, and of the necessity of finding some shelter before the city was all stirring and awake.
At this moment he heard horses’ hoofs behind him. He was now at the end of the street, where it opened on the square in which the barracks stand. He knew his bearings now, and, had he not been interrupted, could have been back to safe shelter in my house in twenty minutes. But, looking back, he saw the figure of a mounted constable just coming into sight behind him. The man seemed to see Rudolf, for he broke into a quick trot. Mr. Rassendyll’s position was critical; this fact alone accounts for the dangerous step into which he allowed himself to be forced. Here he was, a man unable to give account of himself, of remarkable appearance, and carrying a revolver, of which one barrel was discharged. And there was Bauer, a wounded man, shot by somebody with a revolver, a quarter of an hour before. Even to be questioned was dangerous; to be detained meant ruin to the great business that engaged his energies. For all he knew, the patrol had actually sighted him as he ran. His fears were not vain; for the constable raised his voice, crying, “Hi, sir--you there--stop a minute!”
Resistance was the one thing worse than to yield. Wit, and not force, must find escape this time. Rudolf stopped, looking round again with a surprised air. Then he drew himself up with an assumption of dignity, and waited for the constable. If that last card must be played, he would win the hand with it.
“Well, what do you want?” he asked coldly, when the man was a few yards from him; and, as he spoke, he withdrew the scarf almost entirely from his features, keeping it only over his chin. “You call very peremptorily,” he continued, staring contemptuously. “What’s your business with me?”