During the last week of Ruritanian Oktoberfest, an English lady, Stella Vanderbolt, and her maid arrive at Sternberg station with the intent of visiting a college friend who is staying at the Sternberg castle. A dashing Ruritanian cavalry captain, Hauptman Rupert von Hentzau, sees the women struggling with their luggage; he introduces himself and retains a laborer to carry the valises. The man turns out to be Charles Faustmann, a boxer of some minor notoriety, who had just arrived from Strelsau for a bout scheduled the next day. Von Hentzau, who is a cousin of Baron von Sternberg, invites Charles to come along to the castle; he says that the Baron was something of a boxer himself, before the injury that crippled him, and would be glad to meet Charles.Also, there has been some trouble in the area—rioting, murders, something of that sort, he’s heard—and while visitors would probably be safe in the village, they would definitely be safe in the castle. They all travel together, the cavalryman flirting gallantly with both the lady and her maid while the boxer ridges alongside the diver.
The schloss covers the top of the hill overlooking Sternberg village. It’s surrounded by a moat; the grey stone walls encircle an area about 120ft wide by 200 feet long, and the keep rises 60 feet high or more. It was built in he 1400s, when the Turks and Hungarians were serious threats, but has since been renovated to be more of a residence and less a fortress. The gatehouse is in the northeast corner; the carriage enters there, travels up the slope to the west end of the castle, makes the turn and comes to the keep.
Von Hentzau takes them into the keep and introduces them to Erik von Sternberg. He is lying on a couch, and apologizes for being unable to rise. He explains that he was in Vienna during the Martian attack and was injured will fighting the raiders. He is pleased to meet the visitors, particularly Faustmann, and they talk boxing for a few minutes. Charles commits a social blunder by asking whether the Baron ever made money at boxing, but von Sternberg gently points out than a gentleman fights for honor. The cavalryman suggests that Charles’s bout tomorrow be held in the castle bailey, so the baron and his servants can watch; the baron takes enthusiastically to the idea. He invites everyone to dinner, including Charles-which is rather stretching the boxer’s “minor celebrity” status, but the baron can’t get out and is hungry for new people to talk to.
While waiting for dinner, Faustmann gets a servant’s tour of the castle. While in the kitchen, he hears a little more about the troubles von Hentzau mentioned. In the neighboring village of Tausendorf, four men apparently went mad and attacked their families and anyone else they ran across. Details are not clear, but it appears it took a great deal of effort to stop the madmen: “Old Fritz said he shot one right in the chest and it didn’t even slow him down…at least, that’s what Old Fritz said..” Several people were killed.
Meanwhile, Lady Stella goes to the third floor of the keep to visit her friend, Margaret Heathmoor, who is hard at work in her laboratory. Margaret had studied medicine at Oxford at the same time Lady Stella was there and, as two of the few female students, they became friends. Margaret then moved to Vienna to pursue her studies, and met the Baron there. Now Margaret is working on behalf of the baron, trying to devise a serum to induce regeneration of his back and legs. She tries to explain the theory to Lady Stella but did not specialize in medicine or biology, and gets lost about fifteen seconds into the explanation. Margaret is upset and distracted; she explains that her formula should be perfect but in fact, when tested, it has serious problems, and she can’t understand the disparity between her predictions and the results. She needs to get results within a short time; the baron has an understanding with a young countess, but the countess can’t be expected to marry a cripple, and there are plenty of eligible bachelors who are quite willing to replace him. Lady Stella is curious as to exactly what the problems are, but Margaret becomes distraught. It might have been an unfortunate scene, but a distraction arises in the form of someone entering the laboratory—a Mr. Sator, from Vienna, who is assisting Margaret. Lady Stella resolves to investigate through other avenues.
At dinner, the Baron is entertaining, telling the story of his fight with the Martians, talking about Ruritania’s right to have a colony on Mars as Britain and other major powers do, and asking about unrest in the capital. It becomes clear that, while von Sternberg is courteous and friendly, he is not intellectually gifted and has a narrow point of view. By contrast, young von Hentzau takes a keen interest in everyone and is clever, witty, and charming—so charming, in fact, that he leaves dinner early to go off with one of the servant girls. Margaret Heathmoor also leaves early, to go back to work in her lab. Mr Sator is also at dinner, but he asks few questions, and his own replies are terse and unencouraging. He perks up when Charles speaks about his ambitions as a fighter, and asks whether Charles is also a swordsman, but on learning that the answer is no, he immediately loses interest and goes back to picking at his dinner. Lady Stella is faintly horrified at the thought of watching boxing, more so in light of Charles’ slightly manic, and mercenary, enthusiasm.The dessert arrives and everyone’s attention is occupied by an excellent baumkuchen, coffee and brandy.
After dinner, Lady Stella retires to her rooms on the third floor of the keep; some time during the evening, she sees a carriage leave the castle. Charles stays up late, worrying about the next day’s fight; from his window in the servant’s quarters, he sees that the lights are still on in the laboratory.
The next morning dawns crisp and clear, a beautiful October day. The festival crowd begins to stream up from the village. Charles spends his time working the crowd, making sure people know his name—a plan which could backfire, if he loses the match. He hears news of more murders last night. In the village of Denewald, only three miles away, two more men went on a crazed killing spree. The cook’s assistant relates that her brother talked to their cousin whose girlfriend’s best friend was from Denewald, and she said that he said that he said that she said the madmen were amazingly strong and tough; one took a mattock blow straight to the forehead that should have killed anyone, but he got up and kept fighting until, finally, enough men with clubs and axes piled on to put him down. Three men, five women and three children were killed, and several other men seriously injured. No one has an explanation for why the men would have gone mad. There is talk of demon possession; the parish priest discounts this, but has already sent a message to the bishop anyway.
Noon arrives, and with it, the boxing match. The baron donates several barrels of beer to the proceedings, which the crowd appreciates. The time comes, and Charles faces his opponent. Neither Margaret nor Stella attend; Mr Sator is present but spends most of his time gazing over the crowd rather than the fight. In contrast, the baron watches every detail of the fight keenly.The local champion, it turns out, is Luther Hartmann, a brawny man perhaps a year or two younger than Charles and just as big. Charles swallows nervously but bets on himself to win. In the first round, Charles feints and then lands one good blow, which gathers him a point but doesn’t really stagger his foe. In round two, Luther adjusts his defense, and Charles fails to get in a good hit; Luther doesn’t get one past Charles’ defenses either, but his eyes promise that it’s just a matter of time. In the third round, it’s much the same; the air is thinner here than in Strelsau and Charles is starting to feel it. Both men are covered in sweat. Most of the crowd is chanting for Luther. During the break, Charles goes back and increases his bet. He’s ahead, a little, on points, and if he can survive the final round, at least he’ll make money. No, he decides, that’s not good enough. No one is going to remember a fighter who just barely beat his opponent. He needs a big win—something that will have people talking about him, something they’ll hear about back in Strelsau. His brows go down, his jaw tightens. He strides back into the ring. They fight, circling, throwing a quick jab, both men looking for an opening. Finally, with thirty seconds left, Luther wades in. He’s fast, two quick lefts and then a brutal right that comes out of nowhere…but somehow, Charles guesses what’s coming. he ducks and turns and takes the blow on the shoulder, and Luther is off balance for just that instant that Charles needs. He steps across and hammers a left into the ribs, a right into the gut, a left jab, and another right heavy into the solar plexus. As the bell rings, Luther is still on his feet but doubled up, trying to breathe, clearly out of the fight. Ten seconds before, the crowd was chanting Luther’s name, but now it’s “Charles! Charles! Charles!”…