Rupert of Hentzau: From the Memoirs of Fritz Von Tarlenheim
Chapter V: An Audience of the King
Having come thus far in the story that I set out to tell, I have half a mind to lay down my pen, and leave untold how from the moment that Mr.
Rassendyll came again to Zenda a fury of chance seemed to catch us all in a whirlwind, carrying us whither we would not, and ever driving us onwards to fresh enterprises, breathing into us a recklessness that stood at no obstacle, and a devotion to the queen and to the man she loved that swept away all other feeling. The ancients held there to be a fate which would have its fill, though women wept and men died, and none could tell whose was the guilt nor who fell innocent. Thus did they blindly wrong God’s providence. Yet, save that we are taught to believe that all is ruled, we are as blind as they, and are still left wondering why all that is true and generous and love’s own fruit must turn so often to woe and shame, exacting tears and blood. For myself I would leave the thing untold, lest a word of it should seem to stain her whom I serve; it is by her own command I write, that all may one day, in time’s fullness, be truly known, and those condemn who are without sin, while they pity whose own hearts have fought the equal fight. So much for her and him; for us less needs be said. It was not ours to weigh her actions; we served her; him we had served. She was our queen; we bore Heaven a grudge that he was not our king. The worst of what befell was not of our own planning, no, nor of our hoping. It came a thunderbolt from the hand of Rupert, flung carelessly between a curse and a laugh; its coming entangled us more tightly in the net of circumstances.
Then there arose in us that strange and overpowering desire of which I must tell later, filling us with a zeal to accomplish our purpose, and to force Mr. Rassendyll himself into the way we chose. Led by this star, we pressed on through the darkness, until at length the deeper darkness fell that stayed our steps. We also stand for judgment, even as she and he. So I will write; but I will write plainly and briefly, setting down what I must, and no more, yet seeking to give truly the picture of that time, and to preserve as long as may be the portrait of the man whose like I have not known. Yet the fear is always upon me that, failing to show him as he was, I may fail also in gaining an understanding of how he wrought on us, one and all, till his cause became in all things the right, and to seat him where he should be our highest duty and our nearest wish. For he said little, and that straight to the purpose; no high-flown words of his live in my memory. And he asked nothing for himself. Yet his speech and his eyes went straight to men’s hearts and women’s, so that they held their lives in an eager attendance on his bidding. Do I rave? Then Sapt was a raver too, for Sapt was foremost in the business.
At ten minutes to eight o’clock, young Bernenstein, very admirably and smartly accoutred, took his stand outside the main entrance of the castle. He wore a confident air that became almost a swagger as he strolled to and fro past the motionless sentries. He had not long to wait. On the stroke of eight a gentleman, well-horsed but entirely unattended, rode up the carriage drive. Bernenstein, crying “Ah, it is the count!” ran to meet him. Rischenheim dismounted, holding out his hand to the young officer.
“My dear Bernenstein!” said he, for they were acquainted with one another.
“You’re punctual, my dear Rischenheim, and it’s lucky, for the king awaits you most impatiently.”
“I didn’t expect to find him up so soon,” remarked Rischenheim.
“Up! He’s been up these two hours. Indeed we’ve had the devil of a time of it. Treat him carefully, my dear Count; he’s in one of his troublesome humors. For example--but I mustn’t keep you waiting. Pray follow me.”
“No, but pray tell me. Otherwise I might say something unfortunate.”
“Well, he woke at six; and when the barber came to trim his beard there were--imagine it, Count!--no less than seven gray hairs.” The king fell into a passion. “Take it off!” he said. “Take it off. I won’t have a gray beard! Take it off!’ Well what would you? A man is free to be shaved if he chooses, so much more a king. So it’s taken off.”
“His beard, my dear Count.” Then, after thanking Heaven it was gone, and declaring he looked ten years younger, he cried, “The Count of Luzau-Rischenheim breakfasts with me to-day: what is there for breakfast?” And he had the chef out of his bed and--”But, by heavens, I shall get into trouble if I stop here chattering. He’s waiting most eagerly for you. Come along.” And Bernenstein, passing his arm through the count’s, walked him rapidly into the castle.
The Count of Luzau-Rischenheim was a young man; he was no more versed in affairs of this kind than Bernenstein, and it cannot be said that he showed so much aptitude for them. He was decidedly pale this morning; his manner was uneasy, and his hands trembled. He did not lack courage, but that rarer virtue, coolness; and the importance--or perhaps the shame--of his mission upset the balance of his nerves. Hardly noting where he went, he allowed Bernenstein to lead him quickly and directly towards the room where Rudolf Rassendyll was, not doubting that he was being conducted to the king’s presence.
“Breakfast is ordered for nine,” said Bernenstein, “but he wants to see you before. He has something important to say; and you perhaps have the same?”
“I? Oh, no. A small matter; but--er--of a private nature.”
“Quite so, quite so. Oh, I don’t ask any questions, my dear Count.”
“Shall I find the king alone?” asked Rischenheim nervously.
“I don’t think you’ll find anybody with him; no, nobody, I think,”
answered Bernenstein, with a grave and reassuring air.
They arrived now at the door. Here Bernenstein paused.
“I am ordered to wait outside till his Majesty summons me,” he said in a low voice, as though he feared that the irritable king would hear him.
“I’ll open the door and announce you. Pray keep him in a good temper, for all our sakes.” And he flung the door open, saying, “Sire, the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim has the honor to wait on your Majesty.” With this he shut the door promptly, and stood against it. Nor did he move, save once, and then only to take out his revolver and carefully inspect it.
The count advanced, bowing low, and striving to conceal a visible agitation. He saw the king in his arm-chair; the king wore a suit of brown tweeds (none the better for being crushed into a bundle the night before); his face was in deep shadow, but Rischenheim perceived that the beard was indeed gone. The king held out his hand to Rischenheim, and motioned him to sit in a chair just opposite to him and within a foot of the window-curtains.
“I’m delighted to see you, my lord,” said the king.
Rischenheim looked up. Rudolf’s voice had once been so like the king’s that no man could tell the difference, but in the last year or two the king’s had grown weaker, and Rischenheim seemed to be struck by the vigor of the tones in which he was addressed. As he looked up, there was a slight movement in the curtains by him; it died away when the count gave no further signs of suspicion, but Rudolf had noticed his surprise: the voice, when it next spoke, was subdued.
“Most delighted,” pursued Mr. Rassendyll. “For I am pestered beyond endurance about those dogs. I can’t get the coats right, I’ve tried everything, but they won’t come as I wish. Now, yours are magnificent.”
“You are very good, sire. But I ventured to ask an audience in order to--”
“Positively you must tell me about the dogs. And before Sapt comes, for I want nobody to hear but myself.”
“Your Majesty expects Colonel Sapt?”
“In about twenty minutes,” said the king, with a glance at the clock on the mantelpiece.
At this Rischenheim became all on fire to get his errand done before Sapt appeared.
“The coats of your dogs,” pursued the king, “grow so beautifully--”
“A thousand pardons, sire, but--”
“Long and silky, that I despair of--”
“I have a most urgent and important matter,” persisted Rischenheim in agony.
Rudolf threw himself back in his chair with a peevish air. “Well, if you must, you must. What is this great affair, Count? Let us have it over, and then you can tell me about the dogs.”
Rischenheim looked round the room. There was nobody; the curtains were still; the king’s left hand caressed his beardless chin; the right was hidden from his visitor by the small table that stood between them.
“Sire, my cousin, the Count of Hentzau, has entrusted me with a message.”
Rudolf suddenly assumed a stern air.
“I can hold no communication, directly or indirectly, with the Count of Hentzau,” said he.
“Pardon me, sire, pardon me. A document has come into the count’s hands which is of vital importance to your Majesty.”
“The Count of Hentzau, my lord, has incurred my heaviest displeasure.”
“Sire, it is in the hopes of atoning for his offences that he has sent me here to-day. There is a conspiracy against your Majesty’s honor.”
“By whom, my lord?” asked Rudolf, in cold and doubting tones.
“By those who are very near your Majesty’s person and very high in your Majesty’s love.”
“Sire, I dare not. You would not believe me. But your Majesty will believe written evidence.”
“Show it me, and quickly. We may be interrupted.”
“Sire, I have a copy--”
“Oh, a copy, my lord?” sneered Rudolf.
“My cousin has the original, and will forward it at your Majesty’s command. A copy of a letter of her Majesty’s--”
“Of the queen’s?”
“Yes, sire. It is addressed to--” Rischenheim paused.
“Well, my lord, to whom?”
“To a Mr. Rudolf Rassendyll.”
Now Rudolf played his part well. He did not feign indifference, but allowed his voice to tremble with emotion as he stretched out his hand and said in a hoarse whisper, “Give it me, give it me.”
Rischenheim’s eyes sparkled. His shot had told: the king’s attention was his; the coats of the dogs were forgotten. Plainly he had stirred the suspicions and jealousy of the king.
“My cousin,” he continued, “conceives it his duty to lay the letter before your Majesty. He obtained it--”
“A curse on how he got it! Give it me!”
Rischenheim unbuttoned his coat, then his waistcoat. The head of a revolver showed in a belt round his waist. He undid the flap of a pocket in the lining of his waistcoat, and he began to draw out a sheet of paper.
But Rudolf, great as his powers of self-control were, was but human.
When he saw the paper, he leant forward, half rising from his chair. As a result, his face came beyond the shadow of the curtain, and the full morning light beat on it. As Rischenheim took the paper out, he looked up. He saw the face that glared so eagerly at him; his eyes met Rassendyll’s: a sudden suspicion seized him, for the face, though the king’s face in every feature, bore a stern resolution and witnessed a vigor that were not the king’s. In that instant the truth, or a hint of it, flashed across his mind. He gave a half-articulate cry; in one hand he crumpled up the paper, the other flew to his revolver. But he was too late. Rudolf’s left hand encircled his hand and the paper in an iron grip; Rudolf’s revolver was on his temple; and an arm was stretched out from behind the curtain, holding another barrel full before his eyes, while a dry voice said, “You’d best take it quietly.” Then Sapt stepped out.
Rischenheim had no words to meet the sudden transformation of the interview. He seemed to be able to do nothing but stare at Rudolf Rassendyll. Sapt wasted no time. He snatched the count’s revolver and stowed it in his own pocket.
“Now take the paper,” said he to Rudolf, and his barrel held Rischenheim motionless while Rudolf wrenched the precious document from his fingers.
“Look if it’s the right one. No, don’t read it through; just look. Is it right? That’s good. Now put your revolver to his head again. I’m going to search him. Stand up, sir.”
They compelled the count to stand up, and Sapt subjected him to a search that made the concealment of another copy, or of any other document, impossible. Then they let him sit down again. His eyes seemed fascinated by Rudolf Rassendyll.
“Yet you’ve seen me before, I think,” smiled Rudolf. “I seem to remember you as a boy in Strelsau when I was there. Now tell us, sir, where did you leave this cousin of yours?” For the plan was to find out from Rischenheim where Rupert was, and to set off in pursuit of Rupert as soon as they had disposed of Rischenheim.
But even as Rudolf spoke there was a violent knock at the door. Rudolf sprang to open it. Sapt and his revolver kept their places. Bernenstein was on the threshold, open-mouthed.
“The king’s servant has just gone by. He’s looking for Colonel Sapt.
The King has been walking in the drive, and learnt from a sentry of Rischenheim’s arrival. I told the man that you had taken the count for a stroll round the castle, and I did not know where you were. He says that the king may come himself at any moment.”
Sapt considered for one short instant; then he was back by the prisoner’s side.
“We must talk again later on,” he said, in low quick tones. “Now you’re going to breakfast with the king. I shall be there, and Bernenstein.
Remember, not a word of your errand, not a word of this gentleman! At a word, a sign, a hint, a gesture, a motion, as God lives, I’ll put a bullet through your head, and a thousand kings sha’n’t stop me. Rudolf, get behind the curtain. If there’s an alarm you must jump through the window into the moat and swim for it.”
“All right,” said Rudolf Rassendyll. “I can read my letter there.”
“Burn it, you fool.”
“When I’ve read it I’ll eat it, if you like, but not before.”
Bernenstein looked in again. “Quick, quick! The man will be back,” he whispered.
“Bernenstein, did you hear what I said to the count?”
“Yes, I heard.”
“Then you know your part. Now, gentlemen, to the king.”
“Well,” said an angry voice outside, “I wondered how long I was to be kept waiting.”