Rupert of Hentzau: From the Memoirs of Fritz Von Tarlenheim
Chapter XIII: A King Up His Sleeve
The tall handsome girl was taking down the shutters from the shop front at No. 19 in the Konigstrasse. She went about her work languidly enough, but there was a tinge of dusky red on her cheeks and her eyes were brightened by some suppressed excitement. Old Mother Holf, leaning against the counter, was grumbling angrily because Bauer did not come.
Now it was not likely that Bauer would come just yet, for he was still in the infirmary attached to the police-cells, where a couple of doctors were very busy setting him on his legs again. The old woman knew nothing of this, but only that he had gone the night before to reconnoitre; where he was to play the spy she did not know, on whom perhaps she guessed.
“You’re sure he never came back?” she asked her daughter.
“He never came back that I saw,” answered the girl. “And I was on the watch with my lamp here in the shop till it grew light.”
“He’s twelve hours gone now, and never a message! Ay, and Count Rupert should be here soon, and he’ll be in a fine taking if Bauer’s not back.”
The girl made no answer; she had finished her task and stood in the doorway, looking out on the street. It was past eight, and many people were about, still for the most part humble folk; the more comfortably placed would not be moving for an hour or two yet. In the road the traffic consisted chiefly of country carts and wagons, bringing in produce for the day’s victualling of the great city. The girl watched the stream, but her thoughts were occupied with the stately gentleman who had come to her by night and asked a service of her. She had heard the revolver shot outside; as it sounded she had blown out her lamp, and there behind the door in the dark had heard the swiftly retreating feet of the fugitives and, a little later, the arrival of the patrol. Well, the patrol would not dare to touch the king; as for Bauer, let him be alive or dead: what cared she, who was the king’s servant, able to help the king against his enemies? If Bauer were the king’s enemy, right glad would she be to hear that the rogue was dead. How finely the king had caught him by the neck and thrown him out! She laughed to think how little her mother knew the company she had kept that night.
The row of country carts moved slowly by. One or two stopped before the shop, and the carters offered vegetables for sale. The old woman would have nothing to say to them, but waved them on irritably. Three had thus stopped and again proceeded, and an impatient grumble broke from the old lady as a fourth, a covered wagon, drew up before the door.
“We don’t want anything: go on, go on with you!” she cried shrilly.
The carter got down from his seat without heeding her, and walked round to the back.
“Here you are, sir,” he cried. “Nineteen, Konigstrasse.”
A yawn was heard, and the long sigh a man gives as he stretches himself in the mingled luxury and pain of an awakening after sound refreshing sleep.
“All right; I’ll get down,” came in answer from inside.
“Ah, it’s the count!” said the old lady to her daughter in satisfied tones. “What will he say, though, about that rogue Bauer?”
Rupert of Hentzau put his head out from under the wagon-tilt, looked up and down the street, gave the carter a couple of crowns, leapt down, and ran lightly across the pavement into the little shop. The wagon moved on.
“A lucky thing I met him,” said Rupert cheerily. “The wagon hid me very well; and handsome as my face is, I can’t let Strelsau enjoy too much of it just now. Well, mother, what cheer? And you, my pretty, how goes it with you?” He carelessly brushed the girl’s cheek with the glove that he had drawn off. “Faith, though, I beg your pardon.” he added a moment later, “the glove’s not clean enough for that,” and he looked at his buff glove, which was stained with patches of dull rusty brown.
“It’s all as when you left, Count Rupert,” said Mother Holf, “except that that rascal Bauer went out last night--”
“That’s right enough. But hasn’t he returned?”
“No, not yet.”
“Hum. No signs of--anybody else?” His look defined the vague question.
The old woman shook her head. The girl turned away to hide a smile.
“Anybody else” meant the king, so she suspected. Well, they should hear nothing from her. The king himself had charged her to be silent.
“But Rischenheim has come, I suppose?” pursued Rupert.
“Oh, yes; he came, my lord, soon after you went. He wears his arm in a sling.”
“Ah!” cried Rupert in sudden excitement. “As I guessed! The devil! If only I could do everything myself, and not have to trust to fools and bunglers! Where’s the count?”
“Why, in the attic. You know the way.”
“True. But I want some breakfast, mother.”
“Rosa shall serve you at once, my lord.”
The girl followed Rupert up the narrow crazy staircase of the tall old house. They passed three floors, all uninhabited; a last steep flight that brought them right under the deep arched roof. Rupert opened a door that stood at the top of the stairs, and, followed still by Rosa with her mysterious happy smile, entered a long narrow room. The ceiling, high in the centre, sloped rapidly down on either side, so that at door and window it was little more than six feet above the floor. There was an oak table and a few chairs; a couple of iron bedsteads stood by the wall near the window. One was empty; the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim lay on the other, fully dressed, his right arm supported in a sling of black silk. Rupert paused on the threshold, smiling at his cousin; the girl passed on to a high press or cupboard, and, opening it, took out plates, glasses, and the other furniture of the table. Rischenheim sprang up and ran across the room.
“What news?” he cried eagerly. “You escaped them, Rupert?”
“It appears so,” said Rupert airily; and, advancing into the room, he threw himself into a chair, tossing his hat on to the table.
“It appears that I escaped, although some fool’s stupidity nearly made an end of me.” Rischenheim flushed.
“I’ll tell you about that directly,” he said, glancing at the girl who had put some cold meat and a bottle of wine on the table, and was now completing the preparations for Rupert’s meal in a very leisurely fashion.
“Had I nothing to do but to look at pretty faces--which, by Heaven, I wish heartily were the case--I would beg you to stay,” said Rupert, rising and making her a profound bow.
“I’ve no wish to hear what doesn’t concern me,” she retorted scornfully.
“What a rare and blessed disposition!” said he, holding the door for her and bowing again.
“I know what I know,” she cried to him triumphantly from the landing.
“Maybe you’d give something to know it too, Count Rupert!”
“It’s very likely, for, by Heaven, girls know wonderful things!” smiled Rupert; but he shut the door and came quickly back to the table, now frowning again. “Come, tell me, how did they make a fool of you, or why did you make a fool of me, cousin?”
While Rischenheim related how he had been trapped and tricked at the Castle of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau made a very good breakfast. He offered no interruption and no comments, but when Rudolf Rassendyll came into the story he looked up for an instant with a quick jerk of his head and a sudden light in his eyes. The end of Rischenheim’s narrative found him tolerant and smiling again.
“Ah, well, the snare was cleverly set,” he said. “I don’t wonder you fell into it.”
“And now you? What happened to you?” asked Rischenheim eagerly.
“I? Why, having your message which was not your message, I obeyed your directions which were not your directions.”
“You went to the lodge?”
“And you found Sapt there?--Anybody else?”
“Why, not Sapt at all.”
“Not Sapt? But surely they laid a trap for you?”
“Very possibly, but the jaws didn’t bite.” Rupert crossed his legs and lit a cigarette.
“But what did you find?”
“I? I found the king’s forester, and the king’s boar-hound, and--well, I found the king himself, too.”
“The king at the lodge?”
“You weren’t so wrong as you thought, were you?”
“But surely Sapt, or Bernenstein, or some one was with him?”
“As I tell you, his forester and his boar-hound. No other man or beast, on my honor.”
“Then you gave him the letter?” cried Rischenheim, trembling with excitement.
“Alas, no, my dear cousin. I threw the box at him, but I don’t think he had time to open it. We didn’t get to that stage of the conversation at which I had intended to produce the letter.”
“But why not--why not?”
Rupert rose to his feet, and, coming just opposite to where Rischenheim sat, balanced himself on his heels, and looked down at his cousin, blowing the ash from his cigarette and smiling pleasantly.
“Have you noticed,” he asked, “that my coat’s torn?”
“I see it is.”
“Yes. The boar-hound tried to bite me, cousin. And the forester would have stabbed me. And--well, the king wanted to shoot me.”
“Yes, yes! For God’s sake, what happened?”
“Well, they none of them did what they wanted. That’s what happened, dear cousin.”
Rischenheim was staring at him now with wide-opened eyes. Rupert smiled down on him composedly.
“Because, you see,” he added, “Heaven helped me. So that, my dear cousin, the dog will bite no more, and the forester will stab no more.
Surely the country is well rid of them?”
A silence followed. Then Rischenheim, leaning forward, said in a low whisper, as though afraid to hear his own question:
“And the king?”
“The king? Well, the king will shoot no more.”
For a moment Rischenheim, still leaning forward, gazed at his cousin.
Then he sank slowly back into his chair.
“My God!” he murmured: “my God!”
“The king was a fool,” said Rupert. “Come, I’ll tell you a little more about it.” He drew a chair up and seated himself in it.
While he talked Rischenheim seemed hardly to listen. The story gained in effect from the contrast of Rupert’s airy telling; his companion’s pale face and twitching hands tickled his fancy to more shameless jesting.
But when he had finished, he gave a pull to his small smartly-curled moustache and said with a sudden gravity:
“After all, though, it’s a serious matter.”
Rischenheim was appalled at the issue. His cousin’s influence had been strong enough to lead him into the affair of the letter; he was aghast to think how Rupert’s reckless dare-deviltry had led on from stage to stage till the death of a king seemed but an incident in his schemes. He sprang suddenly to his feet, crying:
“But we must fly--we must fly!”
“No, we needn’t fly. Perhaps we’d better go, but we needn’t fly.”
“But when it becomes known?” He broke off and then cried:
“Why did you tell me? Why did you come back here?”
“Well, I told you because it was interesting, and I came back here because I had no money to go elsewhere.”
“I would have sent money.”
“I find that I get more when I ask in person. Besides, is everything finished?”
“I’ll have no more to do with it.”
“Ah, my dear cousin, you despond too soon. The good king has unhappily gone from us, but we still have our dear queen. We have also, by the kindness of Heaven, our dear queen’s letter.”
“I’ll have no more to do with it.”
“Your neck feeling--?” Rupert delicately imitated the putting of a noose about a man’s throat.
Rischenheim rose suddenly and flung the window open wide.
“I’m suffocated,” he muttered with a sullen frown, avoiding Rupert’s eyes.
“Where’s Rudolf Rassendyll?” asked Rupert. “Have you heard of him?”
“No, I don’t know where he is.”
“We must find that out, I think.”
Rischenheim turned abruptly on him.
“I had no hand in this thing,” he said, “and I’ll have no more to do with it. I was not there. What did I know of the king being there? I’m not guilty of it: on my soul, I know nothing of it.”
“That’s all very true,” nodded Rupert.
“Rupert,” cried he, “let me go, let me alone. If you want money, I’ll give it to you. For God’s sake take it, and get out of Strelsau!”