There rises often before my mind the picture of young Rupert, standing where Rischenheim left him, awaiting the return of his messenger and watching for some sign that should declare to Strelsau the death of its king which his own hand had wrought. His image is one that memory holds clear and distinct, though time may blur the shape of greater and better men, and the position in which he was that morning gives play enough to the imagination. Save for Rischenheim, a broken reed, and Bauer, who was gone, none knew where, he stood alone against a kingdom which he had robbed of its head, and a band of resolute men who would know no rest and no security so long as he lived. For protection he had only a quick brain, his courage, and his secret. Yet he could not fly—he was without resources till his cousin furnished them—and at any moment his opponents might find themselves able to declare the king's death and raise the city in hue and cry after him. Such men do not repent; but it may be that he regretted the enterprise which had led him on so far and forced on him a deed so momentous; yet to those who knew him it seems more likely that the smile broadened on his firm full lips as he looked down on the unconscious city. Well, I daresay he would have been too much for me, but I wish I had been the man to find him there. He would not have had it so; for I believe that he asked no better than to cross swords again with Rudolf Rassendyll and set his fortunes on the issue.
Down below, the old woman was cooking a stew for her dinner, now and then grumbling to herself that the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim was so long away, and Bauer, the rascal, drunk in some pot-house. The kitchen door stood open, and through it could be seen the girl Rosa, busily scrubbing the tiled floor; her color was high and her eyes bright; from time to time she paused in her task, and, raising her head, seemed to listen. The time at which the king needed her was past, but the king had not come. How little the old woman knew for whom she listened! All her talk had been of Bauer—why Bauer did not come and what could have befallen him. It was grand to hold the king's secret for him, and she would hold it with her life; for he had been kind and gracious to her, and he was her man of all the men in Strelsau. Bauer was a stumpy fellow; the Count of Hentzau was handsome, handsome as the devil; but the king was her man. And the king had trusted her; she would die before hurt should come to him.
There were wheels in the street—quick-rolling wheels. They seemed to stop a few doors away, then to roll on again past the house. The girl's head was raised; the old woman, engrossed in her stewing, took no heed. The girl's straining ear caught a rapid step outside. Then it came—the knock, the sharp knock followed by five light ones. The old woman heard now: dropping her spoon into the pot, she lifted the mess off the fire and turned round, saying: "There's the rogue at last! Open the door for him, Rosa."
Before she spoke Rosa had darted down the passage. The door opened and shut again. The old woman waddled to the threshold of the kitchen. The passage and the shop were dark behind the closed shutters, but the figure by the girl's side was taller than Bauer's.
"Who's there?" cried Mother Holf sharply. "The shop's shut to-day: you can't come in."
"But I am in," came the answer, and Rudolf stepped towards her. The girl followed a pace behind, her hands clasped and her eyes alight with excitement. "Don't you know me?" asked Rudolf, standing opposite the old woman and smiling down on her.
There, in the dim light of the low-roofed passage, Mother Holf was fairly puzzled. She knew the story of Mr. Rassendyll; she knew that he was again in Ruritania, it was no surprise to her that he should be in Strelsau; but she did not know that Rupert had killed the king, and she had not seen the king close at hand since his illness and his beard impaired what had been a perfect likeness. In fine, she could not tell whether it were indeed the king who spoke to her or his counterfeit.
"Who are you?" she asked, curt and blunt in her confusion. The girl broke in with an amused laugh.
"Why, it's the—" She paused. Perhaps the king's identity was a secret.
Rudolf nodded to her. "Tell her who I am," said he.
"Why, mother, it's the king," whispered Rosa, laughing and blushing. "The king, mother."
"Ay, if the king's alive, I'm the king," said Rudolf. I suppose he wanted to find out how much the old woman knew.
She made no answer, but stared up at his face. In her bewilderment she forgot to ask how he had learnt the signal that gained him admission.
"I've come to see the Count of Hentzau," Rudolf continued. "Take me to him at once."
The old woman was across his path in a moment, all defiant, arms akimbo.
"Nobody can see the count. He's not here," she blurted out.
"What, can't the king see him? Not even the king?"
"King!" she cried, peering at him. "Are you the king?"
Rosa burst out laughing.
"Mother, you must have seen the king a hundred times," she laughed.
"The king, or his ghost—what does it matter?" said Rudolf lightly.
The old woman drew back with an appearance of sudden alarm.
"His ghost? Is he?"
"His ghost!" rang out in the girl's merry laugh. "Why, here's the king himself, mother. You don't look much like a ghost, sir."
Mother Holf's face was livid now, and her eyes staring fixedly. Perhaps it shot into her brain that something had happened to the king, and that this man had come because of it—this man who was indeed the image, and might have been the spirit, of the king. She leant against the door post, her broad bosom heaving under her scanty stuff gown. Yet still—was it not the king?
"God help us!" she muttered in fear and bewilderment.
"He helps us, never fear," said Rudolf Rassendyll. "Where is Count Rupert?"
The girl had caught alarm from her mother's agitation. "He's upstairs in the attic at the top of the house, sir," she whispered in frightened tones, with a glance that fled from her mother's terrified face to Rudolf's set eyes and steady smile.
What she said was enough for him. He slipped by the old woman and began to mount the stairs.
The two watched him, Mother Holf as though fascinated, the girl alarmed but still triumphant: she had done what the king bade her. Rudolf turned the corner of the first landing and disappeared from their sight. The old woman, swearing and muttering, stumbled back into her kitchen, set her stew on the fire, and began to stir it, her eyes set on the flames and careless of the pot. The girl watched her mother for a moment, wondering how she could think of the stew, not guessing that she turned the spoon without a thought of what she did; then she began to crawl, quickly but noiselessly, up the staircase in the track of Rudolf Rassendyll. She looked back once: the old woman stirred with a monotonous circular movement of her fat arm. Rosa, bent half-double, skimmed upstairs, till she came in sight of the king whom she was so proud to serve. He was on the top landing now, outside the door of a large attic where Rupert of Hentzau was lodged. She saw him lay his hand on the latch of the door; his other hand rested in the pocket of his coat. From the room no sound came; Rupert may have heard the step outside and stood motionless to listen. Rudolf opened the door and walked in. The girl darted breathlessly up the remaining steps, and, coming to the door, just as it swung back on the latch, crouched down by it, listening to what passed within, catching glimpses of forms and movements through the chinks of the crazy hinge and the crevices where the wood of the panel sprung and left a narrow eye hole for her absorbed gazing.
Rupert of Hentzau had no thought of ghosts; the men he killed lay still where they fell, and slept where they were buried. And he had no wonder at the sight of Rudolf Rassendyll. It told him no more than that Rischenheim's errand had fallen out ill, at which he was not surprised, and that his old enemy was again in his path, at which (as I verily believe) he was more glad than sorry. As Rudolf entered, he had been half-way between window and table; he came forward to the table now, and stood leaning the points of two fingers on the unpolished dirty-white deal.
"Ah, the play-actor!" said he, with a gleam of his teeth and a toss of his curls, while his second hand, like Mr. Rassendyll's, rested in the pocket of his coat.
Mr. Rassendyll himself has confessed that in old days it went against the grain with him when Rupert called him a play-actor. He was a little older now, and his temper more difficult to stir.
"Yes, the play-actor," he answered, smiling. "With a shorter part this time, though."
"What part to-day? Isn't it the old one, the king with a pasteboard crown?" asked Rupert, sitting down on the table. "Faith, we shall do handsomely in Ruritania: you have a pasteboard crown, and I (humble man though I am) have given the other one a heavenly crown. What a brave show! But perhaps I tell you news?"
"No, I know what you've done."
"I take no credit. It was more the dog's doing than mine," said Rupert carelessly. "However, there it is, and dead he is, and there's an end of it. What's your business, play-actor?"
At the repetition of this last word, to her so mysterious, the girl outside pressed her eyes more eagerly to the chink and strained her ears to listen more sedulously. And what did the count mean by the "other one" and "a heavenly crown"?
"Why not call me king?" asked Rudolf.
"They call you that in Strelsau?"
"Those that know I'm here."
"And they are—?"
"Some few score."
"And thus," said Rupert, waving an arm towards the window, "the town is quiet and the flags fly?"
"You've been waiting to see them lowered?"
"A man likes to have some notice taken of what he has done," Rupert complained. "However, I can get them lowered when I will."
"By telling your news? Would that be good for yourself?"
"Forgive me—not that way. Since the king has two lives, it is but in nature that he should have two deaths."
"And when he has undergone the second?"
"I shall live at peace, my friend, on a certain source of income that I possess." He tapped his breast-pocket with a slight, defiant laugh. "In these days," said he, "even queens must be careful about their letters. We live in moral times."
"You don't share the responsibility for it," said Rudolf, smiling.
"I make my little protest. But what's your business, play-actor? For I think you're rather tiresome."
Rudolf grew grave. He advanced towards the table, and spoke in low, serious tones.
"My lord, you're alone in this matter now. Rischenheim is a prisoner; your rogue Bauer I encountered last night and broke his head."
"Ah, you did?"
"You have what you know of in your hands. If you yield, on my honor I will save your life."
"You don't desire my blood, then, most forgiving play-actor?"
"So much, that I daren't fail to offer you life," answered Rudolf Rassendyll. "Come, sir, your plan has failed: give up the letter."
Rupert looked at him thoughtfully.
"You'll see me safe off if I give it you?" he asked.
"I'll prevent your death. Yes, and I'll see you safe."
"To a fortress, where a trustworthy gentleman will guard you."
"For how long, my dear friend?"
"I hope for many years, my dear Count."
"In fact, I suppose, as long as—?"
"Heaven leaves you to the world, Count. It's impossible to set you free."
"That's the offer, then?"
"The extreme limit of indulgence," answered Rudolf. Rupert burst into a laugh, half of defiance, yet touched with the ring of true amusement. Then he lit a cigarette and sat puffing and smiling.
"I should wrong you by straining your kindness so far," said he; and in wanton insolence, seeking again to show Mr. Rassendyll the mean esteem in which he held him, and the weariness his presence was, he raised his arms and stretched them above his head, as a man does in the fatigue of tedium. "Heigho!" he yawned.
But he had overshot the mark this time. With a sudden swift bound Rudolf was upon him; his hands gripped Rupert's wrists, and with his greater strength he bent back the count's pliant body till trunk and head lay flat on the table. Neither man spoke; their eyes met; each heard the other's breathing and felt the vapor of it on his face. The girl outside had seen the movement of Rudolf's figure, but her cranny did not serve her to show her the two where they were now; she knelt on her knees in ignorant suspense. Slowly and with a patient force Rudolf began to work his enemy's arms towards one another. Rupert had read his design in his eyes and resisted with tense muscles. It seemed as though his arms must crack; but at last they moved. Inch by inch they were driven closer; now the elbows almost touched; now the wrists joined in reluctant contact. The sweat broke out on the count's brow, and stood in large drops on Rudolf's. Now the wrists were side by side, and slowly the long sinewy fingers of Rudolf's right hand, that held one wrist already in their vise, began to creep round the other. The grip seemed to have half numbed Rupert's arms, and his struggles grew fainter. Round both wrists the sinewy fingers climbed and coiled; gradually and timidly the grasp of the other hand was relaxed and withdrawn. Would the one hold both? With a great spasm of effort Rupert put it to the proof.
The smile that bent Mr. Rassendyll's lips gave the answer. He could hold both, with one hand he could hold both: not for long, no, but for an instant. And then, in the instant, his left hand, free at last, shot to the breast of the count's coat. It was the same that he had worn at the hunting-lodge, and was ragged and torn from the boar-hound's teeth. Rudolf tore it further open, and his hand dashed in.
"God's curse on you!" snarled Rupert of Hentzau.
But Mr. Rassendyll still smiled. Then he drew out a letter. A glance at it showed him the queen's seal. As he glanced Rupert made another effort. The one hand, wearied out, gave way, and Mr. Rassendyll had no more than time to spring away, holding his prize. The next moment he had his revolver in his hand—none too soon, for Rupert of Hentzau's barrel faced him, and they stood thus, opposite to one another, with no more than three or four feet between the mouths of their weapons.
There is, indeed, much that may be said against Rupert of Hentzau, the truth about him well-nigh forbidding that charity of judgment which we are taught to observe towards all men. But neither I nor any man who knew him ever found in him a shrinking from danger or a fear of death. It was no feeling such as these, but rather a cool calculation of chances, that now stayed his hand. Even if he were victorious in the duel, and both did not die, yet the noise of the firearms would greatly decrease his chances of escape. Moreover, he was a noted swordsman, and conceived that he was Mr. Rassendyll's superior in that exercise. The steel offered him at once a better prospect for victory and more hope of a safe fight. So he did not pull his trigger, but, maintaining his aim the while, said:
"I'm not a street bully, and I don't excel in a rough-and-tumble. Will you fight now like a gentleman? There's a pair of blades in the case yonder."
Mr. Rassendyll, in his turn, was keenly alive to the peril that still hung over the queen. To kill Rupert would not save her if he himself also were shot and left dead, or so helpless that he could not destroy the letter; and while Rupert's revolver was at his heart he could not tear it up nor reach the fire that burnt on the other side of the room. Nor did he fear the result of a trial with steel, for he had kept himself in practice and improved his skill since the days when he came first to Strelsau.
"As you will," said he. "Provided we settle the matter here and now, the manner is the same to me."
"Put your revolver on the table, then, and I'll lay mine by the side of it."
"I beg your pardon," smiled Rudolf, "but you must lay yours down first."
"I'm to trust you, it seems, but you won't trust me!"
"Precisely. You know you can trust me; you know that I can't trust you."
A sudden flush swept over Rupert of Hentzau's face. There were moments when he saw, in the mirror of another's face or words, the estimation in which honorable men held him; and I believe that he hated Mr. Rassendyll most fiercely, not for thwarting his enterprise, but because he had more power than any other man to show him that picture. His brows knit in a frown, and his lips shut tight.
"Ay, but though you won't fire, you'll destroy the letter," he sneered. "I know your fine distinctions."
"Again I beg your pardon. You know very well that, although all Strelsau were at the door, I wouldn't touch the letter."
With an angry muttered oath Rupert flung his revolver on the table. Rudolf came forward and laid his by it. Then he took up both, and, crossing to the mantelpiece, laid them there; between there he placed the queen's letter. A bright blaze burnt in the grate; it needed but the slightest motion of his hand to set the letter beyond all danger. But he placed it carefully on the mantelpiece, and, with a slight smile on his face, turned to Rupert, saying: "Now shall we resume the bout that Fritz von Tarlenheim interrupted in the forest of Zenda?"
All this while they had been speaking in subdued accents, resolution in one, anger in the other, keeping the voice in an even, deliberate lowness. The girl outside caught only a word here and there; but now suddenly the flash of steel gleamed on her eyes through the crevice of the hinge. She gave a sudden gasp, and, pressing her face closer to the opening, listened and looked. For Rupert of Hentzau had taken the swords from their case and put them on the table. With a slight bow Rudolf took one, and the two assumed their positions. Suddenly Rupert lowered his point. The frown vanished from his face, and he spoke in his usual bantering tone.
"By the way," said he, "perhaps we're letting our feelings run away with us. Have you more of a mind now to be King of Ruritania? If so, I'm ready to be the most faithful of your subjects."
"You honor me, Count."
"Provided, of course, that I'm one of the most favored and the richest. Come, come, the fool is dead now; he lived like a fool and he died like a fool. The place is empty. A dead man has no rights and suffers no wrongs. Damn it, that's good law, isn't it? Take his place and his wife. You can pay my price then. Or are you still so virtuous? Faith, how little some men learn from the world they live in! If I had your chance!"
"Come, Count, you'd be the last man to trust Rupert of Hentzau."
"If I made it worth his while?"
"But he's a man who would take the pay and betray his associate."
Again Rupert flushed. When he next spoke his voice was hard, cold, and low.
"By God, Rudolf Rassendyll," said he, "I'll kill you here and now."
"I ask no better than that you should try."
"And then I'll proclaim that woman for what she is in all Strelsau." A smile came on his lips as he watched Rudolf's face.
"Guard yourself, my lord," said Mr. Rassendyll.
"Ay, for no better than—There, man, I'm ready for you." For Rudolf's blade had touched his in warning.
The steel jangled. The girl's pale face was at the crevice of the hinge. She heard the blades cross again and again. Then one would run up the other with a sharp, grating slither. At times she caught a glimpse of a figure in quick forward lunge or rapid wary withdrawal. Her brain was almost paralyzed.
Ignorant of the mind and heart of young Rupert, she could not conceive that he tried to kill the king. Yet the words she had caught sounded like the words of men quarreling, and she could not persuade herself that the gentlemen fenced only for pastime. They were not speaking now; but she heard their hard breathing and the movement of their unresting feet on the bare boards of the floor. Then a cry rang out, clear and merry with the fierce hope of triumph: "Nearly! nearly!"
She knew the voice for Rupert of Hentzau's, and it was the king who answered calmly, "Nearly isn't quite."
Again she listened. They seemed to have paused for a moment, for there was no sound, save of the hard breathing and deep-drawn pants of men who rest an instant in the midst of intense exertion. Then came again the clash and the slitherings; and one of them crossed into her view. She knew the tall figure and she saw the red hair: it was the king. Backward step by step he seemed to be driven, coming nearer and nearer to the door. At last there was no more than a foot between him and her; only the crazy panel prevented her putting out her hand to touch him. Again the voice of Rupert rang out in rich exultation, "I have you now! Say your prayers, King Rudolf!"
"Say your prayers!" Then they fought. It was earnest, not play. And it was the king—her king—her dear king, who was in great peril of his life. For an instant she knelt, still watching. Then with a low cry of terror she turned and ran headlong down the steep stairs. Her mind could not tell what to do, but her heart cried out that she must do something for her king. Reaching the ground floor, she ran with wide-open eyes into the kitchen. The stew was on the hob, the old woman still held the spoon, but she had ceased to stir and fallen into a chair.
"He's killing the king! He's killing the king!" cried Rosa, seizing her mother by the arm. "Mother, what shall we do? He's killing the king!"
The old woman looked up with dull eyes and a stupid, cunning smile.
"Let them alone," she said. "There's no king here."
"Yes, yes. He's upstairs in the count's room. They're fighting, he and the Count of Hentzau. Mother, Count Rupert will kill—"
"Let them alone. He the king? He's no king," muttered the old woman again.
For an instant Rosa stood looking down on her in helpless despair. Then a light flashed into her eyes.
"I must call for help," she cried.
The old woman seemed to spring to sudden life. She jumped up and caught her daughter by the shoulder.
"No, no," she whispered in quick accents. "You—you don't know. Let them alone, you fool! It's not our business. Let them alone."
"Let me go, mother, let me go! Mother, I must help the king!"
"I'll not let you go," said Mother Holf.
But Rosa was young and strong; her heart was fired with terror for the king's danger.
"I must go," she cried; and she flung her mother's grasp off from her so that the old woman was thrown back into her chair, and the spoon fell from her hand and clattered on the tiles. But Rosa turned and fled down the passage and through the shop. The bolts delayed her trembling fingers for an instant. Then she flung the door wide. A new amazement filled her eyes at the sight of the eager crowd before the house. Then her eyes fell on me where I stood between the lieutenant and Rischenheim, and she uttered her wild cry, "Help! The king!"
With one bound I was by her side and in the house, while Bernenstein cried, "Quicker!" from behind.