A.E. W. Mason.

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to a house when the man that has to live in it has a spark of
imagination, else will he go stark raving mad before the mortar's dry.
Window shutters are window shutters, but they are the doors of Bedlam as
well. Now Gaydon should have slept in this room. Gaydon's a great man.
Gaydon has a great deal of observation and common sense, and was never
plagued with a flim-flam of fancies. To be sure, I need Gaydon, but
since I have not Gaydon, I'll light a candle."

With that Wogan got out of bed. He had made himself so secure with his
key and his tilted chair and his shutters that he had not thought of
placing his candle by his bedside. It stood by his looking-glass on the
table. Now the room was so pitch dark that Wogan could do no more than
guess at the position even of the window. The table, he remembered, was
not far from the door, and the door was at some distance from his bed,
and in the wall on his right. He moved forward in the darkness with his
hands in front of him, groping for the table. The room was large; in a
little his hands touched something, and that something was a pillar of
the bed. He had missed his way in his bedroom. Wogan laughed to himself
and started off again; and the next thing which his outstretched hands
touched was a doorknob. The table should now be a little way to his
left. He was just turning away in that direction, when it occurred to
him that he ought to have felt the rim of the top bar of his tilted
chair underneath the door-handle. He stooped down and felt for the
chair; there was no chair, and he stood very still.

The fears bred of imagination had now left him; he was restored by the
shock of an actual danger. He leaned forward quietly and felt if the key
was still in the lock. But there was no lock to this door. Wogan felt
the surface of the door; it was of paper. It was plainly the door of a
cupboard in the wall, papered after the same pattern as the wall, which
by the flickering light of his single candle he had overlooked.

He opened the door and stretched out his arms into the cupboard. He
touched something that moved beneath his hand, a stiff, short crop of
hair, the hair of a man's head. He drew his arm away as though an adder
had stung it; he did not utter a cry or make a movement. He stood for a
moment paralysed, and during that moment a strong hand caught him by the
throat.

Wogan was borne backwards, his assailant sprang at him from the
cupboard, he staggered under the unexpected vigour of the attack, he
clutched his enemy, and the two men came to the ground with a crash.
Even as he fell Wogan thought, "Gaydon would never have overlooked that
cupboard."

It was the only reflection, however, for which he could afford time. He
was undermost, and the hand at his throat had the grip of a steel glove.
He fought with blows from his fists and his bent knees; he twisted his
legs about the legs of his enemy; he writhed his body if so he might
dislodge him; he grappled wildly for his throat. But all the time his
strength grew less; he felt that his temples were swelling, and it
seemed to him that his eyes must burst. The darkness of the room was
spotted with sparks of fire; the air was filled with a continuous roar
like a million chariots in a street. He saw the face of his chosen
woman, most reproachful and yet kind, gazing at him from behind the bars
which now would never be broken, and then there came a loud banging at
the door. The summons surprised them both, so hotly had they been
engaged, so unaware were they of the noise which their fall had made.

Wogan felt his assailant's hand relax and heard him say in a low muffled
voice, "It is nothing. Go to bed! I fell over a chair in the dark."

That momentary relaxation was, he knew, his last chance. He gathered his
strength in a supreme effort, lurched over onto his left side, and
getting his right arm free swung it with all his strength in the
direction of the voice. His clenched fist caught his opponent full under
the point of the chin, and the hand at Wogan's throat clutched once and
fell away limp as an empty glove. Wogan sat up on the floor and drew his
breath. That, after all, was more than his antagonist was doing. The
knocking at the door continued; Wogan could not answer it, he had not
the strength. His limbs were shaking, the sweat clotted his hair and
dripped from his face. But his opponent was quieter still. At last he
managed to gather his legs beneath him, to kneel up, to stand shakily
upon his feet. He could no longer mistake the position of the door; he
tottered across to it, removed the chair, and opened it.

The landlord with a couple of servants stepped back as Wogan showed
himself to the light of their candles. Wogan heard their exclamations,
though he did not clearly understand them, for his ears still buzzed. He
saw their startled faces, but only dimly, for he was dazzled by the
light. He came back into the room, and pointing to his assailant, - a
sturdy, broad man, who now sat up opening and shutting his eyes in a
dazed way, - "Who is that?" he asked, gasping rather than speaking the
words.

"Who is that?" repeated the landlord, staring at Wogan.

"Who is that?" said Wogan, leaning against the bed-post.

"Why, sir, your servant. Who should he be?"

Wogan was silent for a little, considering as well as his rambling wits
allowed this new development.

"Ah!" said Wogan, "he came here with me?" "Yes, since he is your
servant."

The landlord was evidently mystified; he was no less evidently speaking
with sincerity. Wogan reflected that to proffer a charge against the
assailant would involve his own detention in Ulm.

"To be sure," said he, "I know. This is my servant. That is precisely
what I mean." His wits were at work to find a way out of his difficulty.
"This is my servant? What then?" he asked fiercely.

"But I don't understand," said the landlord.

"You don't understand!" cried Wogan. "Was there ever such a landlord? He
does not understand. This is my servant, I tell you."

"Yes, sir, but - but - "

"Well?"

"We were roused - there was a noise - a noise of men fighting."

"There would have been no noise," said Wogan, triumphantly, "if you had
prepared a bed for my servant. He would not have crept into my cupboard
to sleep off his drunkenness."

"But, sir, there was a bed."

"You should have seen that he was carried to it. As it is, here have I
been driven to beat him and to lose my night's rest in consequence. It
is not fitting. I do not think that your inn is well managed."

Wogan expressed his indignation with so majestic an air that the
landlord was soon apologising for having disturbed a gentleman in the
proper exercise of belabouring his valet.

"We will carry the fellow away," said he.

"You will do nothing of the kind," said Wogan. "He shall get back into
his cupboard and there he shall remain till daybreak. Come, get up!"

Wogan's self-appointed valet got to his feet. There was no possibility
of an escape for him since there were three men between him and the
door. On the other hand, obedience to Wogan might save him from a charge
of attempted theft.

"In with you," said Wogan, and the man obeyed. His head no doubt was
still spinning from the blow, and he had the stupid look of one dazed.

"There is no lock to the door," said the landlord.

"There is no need of a lock," said Wogan, "so long as one has a chair.
The fellow will do very well till the morning. But I will take your
three candles, for it is not likely that I shall sleep."

Wogan smoked his pipe all the rest of the night, reclining on a couple
of chairs in front of the cupboard. In the morning he made his valet
walk three miles by his horse's side. The man dared not disobey, and
when Wogan finally let him go he was so far from the town that, had he
confederates there, he could do no harm.

Wogan continued his journey. Towns, it was proved, were no safer to him
than villages. He began to wonder how it was that no traps had been laid
for him on the earlier stages of his journey, and he suddenly hit upon
the explanation. "It was that night," said he to himself, "when the
Prince sat by the Countess with the list of my friends in his hands. The
names were all erased but three, and against those three was that other
name of Schlestadt. No doubt the Countess while she bent over her
harp-strings took a look at that list. I must run the gauntlet into
Schlestadt."

Towards evening he came to Stuttgart and rode through the Schloss Platz
and along the Königstrasse. Wogan would not sleep there, since there the
Duke of Würtemberg held his court, and in that court the Countess of
Berg was very likely to have friends. He rode onwards through the valley
along the banks of the Nesen brook until he came to its junction with
the Neckar.

A mile farther a wooden mill stood upon the river-bank, beyond the mill
was a tavern, and beyond the tavern stood a few cottages. At some
distance from the cottages along the road, Wogan could see a high brick
wall, and over the top the chimneys and the slate roof of a large house.
Wogan stopped at the tavern. It promised no particular comfort, it was a
small dilapidated house; but it had the advantage that it was free from
new paint. It seemed to Wogan, however, wellnigh useless to take
precautions in the choice of a lodging; danger leaped at him from every
quarter. For this last night he must trust to his luck; and besides
there was the splash of the water falling over the mill-dam. It was
always something to Wogan to fall asleep with that sound in his ears. He
dismounted accordingly, and having ordered his supper asked for a room.

"You will sleep here?" exclaimed his host.

"I will at all events lie in bed," returned Wogan.

The innkeeper took a lamp and led the way up a narrow winding stair.

"Have a care, sir," said he; "the stairs are steep."

"I prefer them steep."

"I am afraid that I keep the light from you, but there is no room for
two to walk abreast."

"It is an advantage. I do not like to be jostled on the stairs."

The landlord threw open a door at the top of the stairs.

"The room is a garret," he said in apology.

"So long as it has no cupboards it will serve my turn."

"Ah! you do not like cupboards."

"They fill a poor man with envy of those who have clothes to hang in
them."

Wogan ascertained that there were no cupboards. There was a key, too, in
the lock, and a chest of drawers which could be moved very suitably in
front of the door.

"It is a good garret," said Wogan, laying down his bag upon a chair.

"The window is small," continued the landlord.

"One will be less likely to fall out," said Wogan. One would also, he
thought, be less likely to climb in. He looked out of the window. It was
a good height from the ground; there was no stanchion or projection in
the wall, and it seemed impossible that a man could get his shoulders
through the opening. Wogan opened the window to try it, and the sound of
someone running came to his ears.

"Oho!" said he, but he said it to himself, "here's a man in a mighty
hurry."

A mist was rising from the ground; the evening, too, was dark. Wogan
could see no one in the road below, but he heard the footsteps
diminishing into a faint patter. Then they ceased altogether. The man
who ran was running in the direction of Stuttgart.

"Yes, your garret will do," said Wogan, in quite a different voice. He
had begun to think that this night he would sleep, and he realised now
that he must not. The man might be running on his own business, but this
was the last night before Wogan would reach his friends. Stuttgart was
only three miles away. He could take no risks, and so he must stay
awake with his sword upon his knees. Had his horse been able to carry
him farther, he would have ridden on, but the horse was even more weary
than its master. Besides, the narrow staircase made his room an
excellent place to defend.

"Get my supper," said he, "for I am very tired."

"Will your Excellency sup here?" asked the landlord.

"By no manner of means," returned Wogan, who had it in his mind to spy
out the land. "I detest nothing so much as my own company."

He went downstairs into the common room and supped off a smoked ham and
a bottle of execrable wine. While he ate a man came in and sat him down
by the fire. The man had a hot, flushed face, and when he saluted Wogan
he could hardly speak.

"You have been running," said Wogan, politely.

"Sir, running is a poor man's overcoat for a chilly evening; besides it
helps me to pay with patience the price of wine for vinegar;" and the
fellow called the landlord.

Presently two other men entered, and taking a seat by the fire chatted
together as though much absorbed in their private business. These two
men wore swords.

"You have a good trade," said Wogan to the landlord.

"The mill brings me custom."

The door opened as the landlord spoke, and a big loud-voiced man
cheerily wished the company good evening. The two companions at the fire
paid no heed to the civility; the third, who had now quite recovered his
breath, replied to it. Wogan pushed his plate away and called for a
pipe. He thought it might perhaps prove well worth his while to study
his landlord's clients before he retired up those narrow stairs. The
four men gave no sign of any common agreement, nor were they at all
curious as to Wogan. If they spoke at all, they spoke as strangers
speak. But while Wogan was smoking his first pipe a fifth man entered,
and he just gave one quick glance at Wogan. Wogan behind a cloud of
tobacco-smoke saw the movement of the head and detected the look. It
might signify nothing but curiosity, of course, but Wogan felt glad that
the stairs were narrow. He finished his pipe and was knocking out the
ashes when it occurred to him that he had seen that fifth man before;
and Wogan looked at him more carefully, and though the fellow was
disguised by the growth of a beard he recognised him. It was the servant
whom Wogan had seen one day in the Countess of Berg's livery of green
and red galloping along the road to Prague.

"I know enough now," thought Wogan. "I can go to bed. The staircase is a
pretty place with which we shall all be more familiar in an hour or
two." He laughed quietly to himself with a little thrill of enjoyment.
His fatigue had vanished. He was on the point of getting up from the
table when the two men by the fire looked round towards the last comer
and made room for him upon their settle. But he said, "I find the room
hot, and will stay by the door."

Wogan changed his mind at the words; he did not get up. On the contrary,
he filled his pipe a second time very thoughtfully. He had stayed too
long in the room, it seemed; the little staircase was, after all, likely
to prove of no service. He did not betray himself by any start or
exclamation, he did not even look up, but bending his head over his pipe
he thought over the disposition of the room. The fireplace was on his
right; the door was opposite to him; the window in the wall at his left.
The window was high from the ground and at some distance. On the other
hand, he had certain advantages. He was in a corner, he had the five men
in front of him, and between them and himself stood a solid table. A
loaded pistol was in his belt, his sword hung at his side, and his
hunting knife at his waist. Still the aspect of affairs was changed.

"Five men," thought he, "upon a narrow staircase are merely one man who
has to be killed five times, but five men in a room are five
simultaneous assailants. I need O'Toole here, I need O'Toole's six feet
four and the length of his arm and the weight of him - these things I
need - but are there five or only four?" And he was at once aware that
the two men at the fire had ceased to talk of their business. No one,
indeed, was speaking at all, and no one so much as shuffled a foot.
Wogan raised his head and proceeded to light his pipe; and he saw that
all the five men were silently watching him, and it seemed to him that
those five pairs of eyes were unnaturally bright.

However, he appeared to be entirely concerned with his pipe, which,
however hard he puffed at it, would not draw. No doubt the tobacco was
packed too tight in the bowl. He loosened it, and when he had loosened
it the pipe had gone out. He fumbled in his pocket and discovered in the
breast of his coat a letter. This letter he glanced through to make sure
that it was of no importance, and having informed himself upon the point
he folded it into a long spill and walked over to the hearth.

The five pairs of eyes followed his movements. He, however, had no
attention to spare. He bent down, lit his spill in the flame, and
deliberately lighted his pipe. The tobacco rose above the rim of the
bowl like a head of ale in a tankard. Wogan, still holding the burning
spill in his right hand, pressed down the tobacco with the little finger
of his left, and lighted the pipe again. By this time his spill had
burned down to his fingers. He dropped the end into the fire and walked
back to his seat. The five pairs of eyes again turned as he turned. He
stumbled at a crack in the floor, fell against the table with a clatter
of his sword, and rolled noisily into his seat. When he sat down a
careful observer might have noticed that his pistol was now at full
cock.

He had barely seated himself when the polite man, who had come first
hot and short of breath into the room, crossed the floor and leaning
over the table said with a smile and the gentlest voice, "I think, sir,
you ought to know that we are all very poor men."

"I, too," replied Wogan, "am an Irishman."

The polite man leaned farther across the table; his voice became
wheedling in its suavity. "I think you ought to know that we are all
very poor men."

"The repetition of the remark," said Wogan, "argues certainly a poverty
of ideas."

"We wish to become less poor."

"It is an aspiration which has pushed many men to creditable feats."

"You can help us."

"My prayers are at your disposal," said Wogan.

"By more than your prayers;" and he added in a tone of apology, "there
are five of us."

"Then I have a guinea apiece for you," and Wogan thrust the table a
little away from him to search his pockets. It also gave him more play.

"We do not want your money. You have a letter which we can coin."

Wogan smiled.

"There, sir, you are wrong."

The polite man waved the statement aside. "A letter from Prince
Sobieski," said he.

"I had such a letter a minute ago, but I lit my pipe with it under your
nose."

The polite man stepped back; his four companions started to their feet.

The servant from Ohlau cried out with an oath, "It's a lie."

Wogan shrugged his shoulders and crossed his legs.

"Here's a fine world," said he. "A damned rag of a lackey gives a
gentleman the lie."

"You will give me the letter," said the polite man, coming round the
table. He held his right hand behind his back.

"You can sweep up the ashes from the hearth," said Wogan, who made no
movement of any kind. The polite man came close to his side; Wogan let
him come. The polite man stretched out his left hand towards Wogan's
pocket. Wogan knocked the hand away, and the man's right arm swung
upwards from behind his back with a gleaming pistol in the hand. Wogan
was prepared for him; he had crossed his legs to be prepared, and as the
arm came round he kicked upwards from the knee. The toe of his heavy
boot caught the man upon the point of the elbow. His arm was flung up;
the pistol exploded and then dropped onto the floor. That assailant was
for the time out of action, but at the same moment the lackey came
running across the floor, his shoulders thrust forward, a knife in his
hand.

Wogan had just time to notice that the lackey's coat was open at his
breast. He stood up, leaned over the table, caught the lapels one in
each hand as the fellow rushed at him, and lifting the coat up off his
shoulders violently jammed it backwards down his arms as though he would
strip him of it. The lackey stood with his arms pinioned at his elbows
for a second. During that second Wogan drew his hunting knife from his
belt and drove it with a terrible strength into the man's chest.

"There's a New Year's gift for your mistress, the Countess of Berg,"
cried Wogan; and the lackey swung round with the force of the blow and
then hopped twice in a horrible fashion with his feet together across
the room as though returning to his place, and fell upon the floor,
where he lay twisting.

The polite man was nursing his elbow in a corner; there were three
others left, - the man with the cheery voice, who had no weapon but a
knobbed stick, and the companions on the settle. These two had swords
and had drawn them. They leaped over the lackey's body and rushed at
Wogan one a little in advance of the other. Wogan tilted the heavy table
and flung it over to make a barricade in front of him. It fell with a
crash, and the lower rim struck upon the instep of the leader and pinned
his foot. His companion drew back; he himself uttered a cry and wrenched
at his foot. Wogan with his left hand drew his sword from the scabbard,
and with the same movement passed it through his opponent's body. The
man stood swaying, pinned there by his foot and held erect. Then he made
one desperate lunge, fell forward across the barricade, and hung there.
Wogan parried the lunge; the sword fell from the man's hand and
clattered onto the floor within the barricade. Wogan stamped upon it
with his heel and snapped the blade. He had still two opponents; and as
they advanced again he suddenly sprung onto the edge of the table, gave
one sweeping cut in a circle with his sword, and darted across the room.
The two men gave ground; Wogan passed between them. Before they could
strike at his back he was facing them again. He had no longer his
barricade, but on the other hand his shoulders were against the door.

The swordsman crossed blades with him, and at the first pass Wogan
realised with dismay that his enemy was a swordsman in knowledge as well
as in the possession of the weapon. He had a fencer's suppleness of
wrist and balance of body; he pressed Wogan hard and without flurry. The
blade of his sword made glittering rings about Wogan's, and the point
struck at his breast like an adder.

Wogan was engaged with his equal if not with his better. He was fighting
for his life with one man, and he would have to fight for it with two,
nay, with three. For over his opponent's shoulder he saw his first
polite antagonist cross to the table and pick up from the ground the
broken sword. One small consolation Wogan had; the fellow picked it up
with his left hand, his right elbow was still useless. But even that
consolation lasted him for no long time, for out of the tail of his eye
he could see the big fellow creeping up with his stick raised along the
wall at his right.

Wogan suddenly pressed upon his opponent, delivering thrust upon thrust,
and forced him to give ground. As the swordsman drew back, Wogan swept
his weapon round and slashed at the man upon his right. But the stroke
was wide of its mark, and the big man struck at the sword with his
stick, struck with all his might, so that Wogan's arm tingled from the
wrist to the shoulder. That, however, was the least part of the damage
the stick did. It broke Wogan's sword short off at the hilt.

Both men gave a cry of delight. Wogan dropped the hilt.

"I have a loaded pistol, my friends; you have forgotten that," he cried,
and plucked the pistol from his belt. At the same moment he felt behind
him with his left hand for the knob of the door. He fired at the
swordsman and his pistol missed, he flung it at the man with the stick,
and as he flung it he sprang to the right, threw open the door, darted
into the passage, and slammed the door to.

It was the work of a second. The men sprang at him as he opened the
door; as he slammed it close a sword-point pierced the thin panel and
bit like a searing iron into his shoulder. Wogan uttered a cry; he heard
an answering shout in the room, he clung to the handle, setting his foot
against the wall, and was then stabbed in the back. For his host was
waiting for him in the passage.

Wogan dropped the door-handle and turned. That last blow had thrown him
into a violent rage. Possessed by rage, he was no longer conscious of
wounds or danger; he was conscious only of superhuman strength. The
knife was already lifted to strike again. Wogan seized the wrist which
held the knife, grappled with the innkeeper, and caught him about the


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Online LibraryA.E. W. MasonClementina → online text (page 5 of 20)