Rupert of Hentzau: From the Memoirs of Fritz Von Tarlenheim
Chapter XII: Before Them All!
GREAT as was the risk and immense as were the difficulties created by the course which Mr. Rassendyll adopted, I cannot doubt that he acted for the best in the light of the information which he possessed. His plan was to disclose himself in the character of the king to Helsing, to bind him to secrecy, and make him impose the same obligation on his wife, daughter, and servants. The chancellor was to be quieted with the excuse of urgent business, and conciliated by a promise that he should know its nature in the course of a few hours; meanwhile an appeal to his loyalty must suffice to insure obedience. If all went well in the day that had now dawned, by the evening of it the letter would be destroyed, the queen’s peril past, and Rudolf once more far away from Strelsau.
Then enough of the truth--no more--must be disclosed. Helsing would be told the story of Rudolf Rassendyll and persuaded to hold his tongue about the harum-scarum Englishman (we are ready to believe much of an Englishman) having been audacious enough again to play the king in Strelsau. The old chancellor was a very good fellow, and I do not think that Rudolf did wrong in relying upon him. Where he miscalculated was, of course, just where he was ignorant. The whole of what the queen’s friends, ay, and the queen herself, did in Strelsau, became useless and mischievous by reason of the king’s death; their action must have been utterly different, had they been aware of that catastrophe; but their wisdom must be judged only according to their knowledge.
In the first place, the chancellor himself showed much good sense. Even before he obeyed the king’s summons he sent for the two servants and charged them, on pain of instant dismissal and worse things to follow, to say nothing of what they had seen. His commands to his wife and daughter were more polite, doubtless, but no less peremptory. He may well have supposed that the king’s business was private as well as important when it led his Majesty to be roaming the streets of Strelsau at a moment when he was supposed to be at the Castle of Zenda, and to enter a friend’s house by the window at such untimely hours. The mere facts were eloquent of secrecy. Moreover, the king had shaved his beard--the ladies were sure of it--and this, again, though it might be merely an accidental coincidence, was also capable of signifying a very urgent desire to be unknown. So the chancellor, having given his orders, and being himself aflame with the liveliest curiosity, lost no time in obeying the king’s commands, and arrived at my house before six o’clock.
When the visitor was announced Rudolf was upstairs, having a bath and some breakfast. Helga had learnt her lesson well enough to entertain the visitor until Rudolf appeared. She was full of apologies for my absence, protesting that she could in no way explain it; neither could she so much as conjecture what was the king’s business with her husband. She played the dutiful wife whose virtue was obedience, whose greatest sin would be an indiscreet prying into what it was not her part to know.
“I know no more,” she said, “than that Fritz wrote to me to expect the king and him at about five o’clock, and to be ready to let them in by the window, as the king did not wish the servants to be aware of his presence.”
The king came and greeted Helsing most graciously. The tragedy and comedy of these busy days were strangely mingled; even now I can hardly help smiling when I picture Rudolf, with grave lips, but that distant twinkle in his eye (I swear he enjoyed the sport), sitting down by the old chancellor in the darkest corner of the room, covering him with flattery, hinting at most strange things, deploring a secret obstacle to immediate confidence, promising that to-morrow, at latest, he would seek the advice of the wisest and most tried of his counselors, appealing to the chancellor’s loyalty to trust him till then. Helsing, blinking through his spectacles, followed with devout attention the long narrative that told nothing, and the urgent exhortation that masked a trick. His accents were almost broken with emotion as he put himself absolutely at the king’s disposal, and declared that he could answer for the discretion of his family and household as completely as for his own.
“Then you’re a very lucky man, my dear chancellor,” said Rudolf, with a sigh which seemed to hint that the king in his palace was not so fortunate. Helsing was immensely pleased. He was all agog to go and tell his wife how entirely the king trusted to her honor and silence.
There was nothing that Rudolf more desired than to be relieved of the excellent old fellow’s presence; but, well aware of the supreme importance of keeping him in a good temper, he would not hear of his departure for a few minutes.
“At any rate, the ladies won’t talk till after breakfast, and since they got home only at five o’clock they won’t breakfast yet awhile,” said he.
So he made Helsing sit down, and talked to him. Rudolf had not failed to notice that the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim had been a little surprised at the sound of his voice; in this conversation he studiously kept his tones low, affecting a certain weakness and huskiness such as he had detected in the king’s utterances, as he listened behind the curtain in Sapt’s room at the castle. The part was played as completely and triumphantly as in the old days when he ran the gauntlet of every eye in Strelsau. Yet if he had not taken such pains to conciliate old Helsing, but had let him depart, he might not have found himself driven to a greater and even more hazardous deception.
They were conversing together alone. My wife had been prevailed on by Rudolf to lie down in her room for an hour. Sorely needing rest, she had obeyed him, having first given strict orders that no member of the household should enter the room where the two were except on an express summons. Fearing suspicion, she and Rudolf had agreed that it was better to rely on these injunctions than to lock the door again as they had the night before.
But while these things passed at my house, the queen and Bernenstein were on their way to Strelsau. Perhaps, had Sapt been at Zenda, his powerful influence might have availed to check the impulsive expedition; Bernenstein had no such authority, and could only obey the queen’s peremptory orders and pathetic prayers. Ever since Rudolf Rassendyll left her, three years before, she had lived in stern self-repression, never her true self, never for a moment able to be or to do what every hour her heart urged on her. How are these things done? I doubt if a man lives who could do them; but women live who do them. Now his sudden coming, and the train of stirring events that accompanied it, his danger and hers, his words and her enjoyment of his presence, had all worked together to shatter her self-control; and the strange dream, heightening the emotion which was its own cause, left her with no conscious desire save to be near Mr. Rassendyll, and scarcely with a fear except for his safety. As they journeyed her talk was all of his peril, never of the disaster which threatened herself, and which we were all striving with might and main to avert from her head. She traveled alone with Bernenstein, getting rid of the lady who attended her by some careless pretext, and she urged on him continually to bring her as speedily as might be to Mr. Rassendyll. I cannot find much blame for her. Rudolf stood for all the joy in her life, and Rudolf had gone to fight with the Count of Hentzau. What wonder that she saw him, as it were, dead? Yet still she would have it that, in his seeming death, all men hailed him for their king. Well, it was her love that crowned him.
As they reached the city, she grew more composed, being persuaded by Bernenstein that nothing in her bearing must rouse suspicion. Yet she was none the less resolved to seek Mr. Rassendyll at once. In truth, she feared even then to find him dead, so strong was the hold of her dream on her; until she knew that he was alive she could not rest.
Bernenstein, fearful that the strain would kill her, or rob her of reason, promised everything; and declared, with a confidence which he did not feel, that beyond doubt Mr. Rassendyll was alive and well.
“But where--where?” she cried eagerly, with clasped hands.
“We’re most likely, madam, to find him at Fritz von Tarlenheim’s,”
answered the lieutenant. “He would wait there till the time came to attack Rupert, or, if the thing is over, he will have returned there.”
“Then let us drive there at once,” she urged.
Bernenstein, however, persuaded her to go to the palace first and let it be known there that she was going to pay a visit to my wife. She arrived at the palace at eight o’clock, took a cup of chocolate, and then ordered her carriage. Bernenstein alone accompanied her when she set out for my house about nine. He was, by now, hardly less agitated than the queen herself.
In her entire preoccupation with Mr. Rassendyll, she gave little thought to what might have happened at the hunting lodge; but Bernenstein drew gloomy auguries from the failure of Sapt and myself to return at the proper time. Either evil had befallen us, or the letter had reached the king before we arrived at the lodge; the probabilities seemed to him to be confined to these alternatives. Yet when he spoke in this strain to the queen, he could get from her nothing except, “If we can find Mr.
Rassendyll, he will tell us what to do.”
Thus, then, a little after nine in the morning the queen’s carriage drove up to my door. The ladies of the chancellor’s family had enjoyed a very short night’s rest, for their heads came bobbing out of window the moment the wheels were heard; many people were about now, and the crown on the panels attracted the usual small crowd of loiterers. Bernenstein sprang out and gave his hand to the queen. With a hasty slight bow to the onlookers, she hastened up the two or three steps of the porch, and with her own hand rang the bell. Inside, the carriage had just been observed. My wife’s waiting-maid ran hastily to her mistress; Helga was lying on her bed; she rose at once, and after a few moments of necessary preparations (or such preparations as seem to ladies necessary, however great the need of haste may be) hurried downstairs to receive her Majesty--and to warn her Majesty. She was too late. The door was already open. The butler and the footman both had run to it, and thrown it open for the queen. As Helga reached the foot of the stairs, her Majesty was just entering the room where Rudolf was, the servants attending her, and Bernenstein standing behind, his helmet in his hand.