Rupert of Hentzau: From the Memoirs of Fritz Von Tarlenheim
Chapter IV: An Eddy on the Moat
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 to-morrow 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.”
“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.