Rupert of Hentzau: From the Memoirs of Fritz Von Tarlenheim
Chapter XVI: A Crowd in the Konigstrasse
The project that had taken shape in the thoughts of Mr. Rassendyll’s servant, and had inflamed Sapt’s daring mind as the dropping of a spark kindles dry shavings, had suggested itself vaguely to more than one of us in Strelsau. We did not indeed coolly face and plan it, as the little servant had, nor seize on it at once with an eagerness to be convinced of its necessity, like the Constable of Zenda; but it was there in my mind, sometimes figuring as a dread, sometimes as a hope, now seeming the one thing to be avoided, again the only resource against a more disastrous issue. I knew that it was in Bernenstein’s thoughts no less than in my own; for neither of us had been able to form any reasonable scheme by which the living king, whom half Strelsau now knew to be in the city, could be spirited away, and the dead king set in his place.
The change could take place, as it seemed, only in one way and at one cost: the truth, or the better part of it, must be told, and every tongue set wagging with gossip and guesses concerning Rudolf Rassendyll and his relations with the queen. Who that knows what men and women are would not have shrunk from that alternative? To adopt it was to expose the queen to all or nearly all the peril she had run by the loss of the letter. We indeed assumed, influenced by Rudolf’s unhesitating self-confidence, that the letter would be won back, and the mouth of Rupert of Hentzau shut; but enough would remain to furnish material for eager talk and for conjectures unrestrained by respect or charity.
Therefore, alive as we were to its difficulties and its unending risks, we yet conceived of the thing as possible, had it in our hearts, and hinted it to one another--my wife to me, I to Bernenstein, and he to me--in quick glances and half uttered sentences that declared its presence while shunning the open confession of it. For the queen herself I cannot speak. Her thoughts, as I judged them, were bounded by the longing to see Mr. Rassendyll again, and dwelt on the visit that he promised as the horizon of hope. To Rudolf we had dared to disclose nothing of the part our imaginations set him to play: if he were to accept it, the acceptance would be of his own act, because the fate that old Sapt talked of drove him, and on no persuasion of ours. As he had said, he left the rest, and had centered all his efforts on the immediate task which fell to his hand to perform, the task that was to be accomplished at the dingy old house in the Konigstrasse. We were indeed awake to the fact that even Rupert’s death would not make the secret safe. Rischenheim, although for the moment a prisoner and helpless, was alive and could not be mewed up for ever; Bauer was we knew not where, free to act and free to talk. Yet in our hearts we feared none but Rupert, and the doubt was not whether we could do the thing so much as whether we should. For in moments of excitement and intense feeling a man makes light of obstacles which look large enough as he turns reflective eyes on them in the quiet of after-days.
A message in the king’s name had persuaded the best part of the idle crowd to disperse reluctantly. Rudolf himself had entered one of my carriages and driven off. He started not towards the Konigstrasse, but in the opposite direction: I supposed that he meant to approach his destination by a circuitous way, hoping to gain it without attracting notice. The queen’s carriage was still before my door, for it had been arranged that she was to proceed to the palace and there await tidings.
My wife and I were to accompany her; and I went to her now, where she sat alone, and asked if it were her pleasure to start at once. I found her thoughtful but calm. She listened to me; then, rising, she said,
“Yes, I will go.” But then she asked suddenly, “Where is the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim?”
I told her how Bernenstein kept guard over the count in the room at the back of the house. She seemed to consider for a moment, then she said:
“I will see him. Go and bring him to me. You must be here while I talk to him, but nobody else.”
I did not know what she intended, but I saw no reason to oppose her wishes, and I was glad to find for her any means of employing this time of suspense. I obeyed her commands and brought Rischenheim to her. He followed me slowly and reluctantly; his unstable mind had again jumped from rashness to despondency: he was pale and uneasy, and, when he found himself in her presence, the bravado of his bearing, maintained before Bernenstein, gave place to a shamefaced sullenness. He could not meet the grave eyes that she fixed on him.
I withdrew to the farther end of the room; but it was small, and I heard all that passed. I had my revolver ready to cover Rischenheim in case he should be moved to make a dash for liberty. But he was past that: Rupert’s presence was a tonic that nerved him to effort and to confidence, but the force of the last dose was gone and the man was sunk again to his natural irresolution.
“My lord,” she began gently, motioning him to sit, “I have desired to speak with you, because I do not wish a gentleman of your rank to think too much evil of his queen. Heaven has willed that my secret should be to you no secret, and therefore I may speak plainly. You may say my own shame should silence me; I speak to lessen my shame in your eyes, if I can.”
Rischenheim looked up with a dull gaze, not understanding her mood. He had expected reproaches, and met low-voiced apology.
“And yet,” she went on, “it is because of me that the king lies dead now; and a faithful humble fellow also, caught in the net of my unhappy fortunes, has given his life for me, though he didn’t know it. Even while we speak, it may be that a gentleman, not too old yet to learn nobility, may be killed in my quarrel; while another, whom I alone of all that know him may not praise, carries his life lightly in his hand for me. And to you, my lord, I have done the wrong of dressing a harsh deed in some cloak of excuse, making you seem to serve the king in working my punishment.”
Rischenheim’s eyes fell to the ground, and he twisted his hands nervously in and out, the one about the other. I took my hand from my revolver: he would not move now.
“I don’t know,” she went on, now almost dreamily, and as though she spoke more to herself than to him, or had even forgotten his presence,
“what end in Heaven’s counsel my great unhappiness has served. Perhaps I, who have place above most women, must also be tried above most; and in that trial I have failed. Yet, when I weigh my misery and my temptation, to my human eyes it seems that I have not failed greatly.
My heart is not yet humbled, God’s work not yet done. But the guilt of blood is on my soul--even the face of my dear love I can see now only through its scarlet mist; so that if what seemed my perfect joy were now granted me, it would come spoilt and stained and blotched.”
She paused, fixing her eyes on him again; but he neither spoke nor moved.
“You knew my sin,” she said, “the sin so great in my heart; and you knew how little my acts yielded to it. Did you think, my lord, that the sin had no punishment, that you took it in hand to add shame to my suffering? Was Heaven so kind that men must temper its indulgence by their severity? Yet I know that because I was wrong, you, being wrong, might seem to yourself not wrong, and in aiding your kinsman might plead that you served the king’s honor. Thus, my lord, I was the cause in you of a deed that your heart could not welcome nor your honor praise. I thank God that you have come to no more hurt by it.”
Rischenheim began to mutter in a low thick voice, his eyes still cast down: “Rupert persuaded me. He said the king would be very grateful, and--would give me--” His voice died away, and he sat silent again, twisting his hands.
“I know--I know,” she said. “But you wouldn’t have listened to such persuasions if my fault hadn’t blinded your eyes.”
She turned suddenly to me, who had been standing all the while aloof, and stretched out her hands towards me, her eyes filled with tears.
“Yet,” said she, “your wife knows, and still loves me, Fritz.”
“She should be no wife of mine, if she didn’t,” I cried. “For I and all of mine ask no better than to die for your Majesty.”
“She knows, and yet she loves me,” repeated the queen. I loved to see that she seemed to find comfort in Helga’s love. It is women to whom women turn, and women whom women fear.
“But Helga writes no letters,” said the queen.
“Why, no,” said I, and I smiled a grim smile. Well, Rudolf Rassendyll had never wooed my wife.
She rose, saying: “Come, let us go to the palace.”
As she rose, Rischenheim made a quick impulsive step towards her.
“Well, my lord,” said she, turning towards him, “will you also go with me?”
“Lieutenant von Bernenstein will take care--” I began. But I stopped.
The slightest gesture of her hand silenced me.
“Will you go with me?” she asked Rischenheim again.
“Madam,” he stammered, “Madam--”
She waited. I waited also, although I had no great patience with him.
Suddenly he fell on his knee, but he did not venture to take her hand.
Of her own accord she came and stretched it out to him, saying sadly:
“Ah, that by forgiving I could win forgiveness!”
Rischenheim caught at her hand and kissed it.
“It was not I,” I heard him mutter. “Rupert set me on, and I couldn’t stand out against him.”
“Will you go with me to the palace?” she asked, drawing her hand away, but smiling.
“The Count of Luzau-Rischenheim,” I made bold to observe, “knows some things that most people do not know, madam.” She turned on me with dignity, almost with displeasure.
“The Count of Luzau-Rischenheim may be trusted to be silent,” she said.
“We ask him to do nothing against his cousin. We ask only his silence.”
“Ay,” said I, braving her anger, “but what security shall we have?”
“His word of honor, my lord.” I knew that a rebuke to my presumption lay in her calling me “my lord,” for, save on formal occasions, she always used to call me Fritz.
“His word of honor!” I grumbled. “In truth, madam--”
“He’s right,” said Rischenheim; “he’s right.”
“No, he’s wrong,” said the queen, smiling. “The count will keep his word, given to me.”
Rischenheim looked at her and seemed about to address her, but then he turned to me, and said in a low tone:
“By Heaven, I will, Tarlenheim. I’ll serve her in everything--”
“My lord,” said she most graciously, and yet very sadly, “you lighten the burden on me no less by your help than because I no longer feel your honor stained through me. Come, we will go to the palace.” And she went to him, saying, “We will go together.”
There was nothing for it but to trust him. I knew that I could not turn her.
“Then I’ll see if the carriage is ready,” said I.
“Yes, do, Fritz,” said the queen. But as I passed she stopped me for a moment, saying in a whisper, “Show that you trust him.”
I went and held out my hand to him. He took and pressed it.
“On my honor,” he said.
Then I went out and found Bernenstein sitting on a bench in the hall.
The lieutenant was a diligent and watchful young man; he appeared to be examining his revolver with sedulous care.
“You can put that away,” said I rather peevishly--I had not fancied shaking hands with Rischenheim. “He’s not a prisoner any longer. He’s one of us now.”
“The deuce he is!” cried Bernenstein, springing to his feet.
I told him briefly what had happened, and how the queen had won Rupert’s instrument to be her servant.
“I suppose he’ll stick to it,” I ended; and I thought he would, though I was not eager for his help.
A light gleamed in Bernenstein’s eyes, and I felt a tremble in the hand that he laid on my shoulder.
“Then there’s only Bauer now,” he whispered. “If Rischenheim’s with us, only Bauer!”
I knew very well what he meant. With Rischenheim silent, Bauer was the only man, save Rupert himself, who knew the truth, the only man who threatened that great scheme which more and more filled our thoughts and grew upon us with an increasing force of attraction as every obstacle to it seemed to be cleared out of the way. But I would not look at Bernenstein, fearing to acknowledge even with my eyes how my mind jumped with his. He was bolder, or less scrupulous--which you will.
“Yes, if we can shut Bauer’s mouth.” he went on.
“The queen’s waiting for the carriage,” I interrupted snappishly.
“Ah, yes, of course, the carriage,” and he twisted me round till I was forced to look him in the face. Then he smiled, and even laughed a little.
“Only Bauer now!” said he.
“And Rupert,” I remarked sourly.
“Oh, Rupert’s dead bones by now,” he chuckled, and with that he went out of the hall door and announced the queen’s approach to her servants.
It must be said for young Bernenstein that he was a cheerful fellow-conspirator. His equanimity almost matched Rudolf’s own; I could not rival it myself.