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made sleep impossible, yet he had so long been without the boon of
slumber that tired nature would no longer be denied.

When he awoke it was broad daylight. The sun was pouring in through
a skylight in the ceiling of his tiny chamber. Aside from this there
were no windows in the room. The sound of voices came to him with an
uncanny distinctness that made it seem that the speakers must be in
this very chamber, but a glance about the blank walls convinced him
that he was alone.

Presently he espied a small opening in the wall at the head of his
cot. He rose and examined it. The voices appeared to be coming from
it. In fact, they were. The opening was at the top of a narrow shaft
that seemed to lead to the basement of the structure - apparently
once the shaft of a dumb-waiter or a chute for refuse or soiled
clothes.

Barney put his ear close to it. The voices that came from below
were those of a man and a woman. He heard every word distinctly.

"We must search the house, fraulein," came in the deep voice of a
man.

"Whom do you seek?" inquired a woman's voice. Barney recognized it
as the voice of his captor.

"A Serbian spy, Stefan Drontoff," replied the man. "Do you know
him?"

There was a considerable pause on the girl's part before she
answered, and then her reply was in such a low voice that Barney
could barely hear it.

"I do not know him," she said. "There are several men who lodge
here. What may this Stefan Drontoff look like?"

"I have never seen him," replied the officer; "but by arresting all
the men in the house we must get this Stefan also, if he is here."

"Oh!" cried the girl, a new note in her voice, "I guess I know now
whom you mean. There is one man here I have heard them call Stefan,
though for the moment I had forgotten it. He is in the small
attic-room at the head of the stairs. Here is a key that will fit
the lock. Yes, I am sure that he is Stefan. You will find him there,
and it should be easy to take him, for I know that he is unarmed. He
told me so last night when he came in."

"The devil!" muttered Barney Custer; but whether he referred to his
predicament or to the girl it would be impossible to tell. Already
the sound of heavy boots on the stairs announced the coming of
men - several of them. Barney heard the rattle of accouterments - the
clank of a scabbard - the scraping of gun butts against the walls.
The Austrians were coming!

He looked about. There was no way of escape except the door and the
skylight, and the door was impossible.

Quickly he tilted the cot against the door, wedging its legs against
a crack in the floor - that would stop them for a minute or two. Then
he wheeled the dresser beneath the skylight and, placing the chair
on top of it, scrambled to the seat of the latter. His head was at
the height of the skylight. To force the skylight from its frame
required but a moment. A key entered the lock of the door from the
opposite side and turned. He knew that someone without was pushing.
Then he heard an oath and heavy battering upon the panels. A moment
later he had drawn himself through the skylight and stood upon the
roof of the building. Before him stretched a series of uneven roofs
to the end of the street. Barney did not hesitate. He started on a
rapid trot toward the adjoining roof. From that he clambered to a
higher one beyond.

On he went, now leaping narrow courts, now dropping to low sheds and
again clambering to the heights of the higher buildings, until he
had come almost to the end of the row. Suddenly, behind him he heard
a hoarse shout, followed by the report of a rifle. With a whir, a
bullet flew a few inches above his head. He had gained the last
roof - a large, level roof - and at the shot he turned to see how near
to him were his pursuers.

Fatal turn!

Scarce had he taken his eyes from the path ahead than his foot fell
upon a glass skylight, and with a loud crash he plunged through amid
a shower of broken glass.

His fall was a short one. Directly beneath the skylight was a bed,
and on the bed a fat Austrian infantry captain. Barney lit upon the
pit of the captain's stomach. With a howl of pain the officer
catapulted Barney to the floor. There were three other beds in the
room, and in each bed one or two other officers. Before the American
could regain his feet they were all sitting on him - all except the
infantry captain. He lay shrieking and cursing in a painful attempt
to regain his breath, every atom of which Barney had knocked out of
him.

The officers sitting on Barney alternately beat him and questioned
him, interspersing their interrogations with lurid profanity.

"If you will get off of me," at last shouted the American, "I shall
be glad to explain - and apologize."

They let him up, scowling ferociously. He had promised to explain,
but now that he was confronted by the immediate necessity of an
explanation that would prove at all satisfactory as to how he
happened to be wandering around the rooftops of Burgova, he
discovered that his powers of invention were entirely inadequate.
The need for explaining, however, was suddenly removed. A shadow
fell upon them from above, and as they glanced up Barney saw the
figure of an officer surrounded by several soldiers looking down
upon him.

"Ah, you have him!" cried the newcomer in evident satisfaction.
"It is well. Hold him until we descend."

A moment later he and his escort had dropped through the broken
skylight to the floor beside them.

"Who is the mad man?" cried the captain who had broken Barney's
fall. "The assassin! He tried to murder me."

"I cannot doubt it," replied the officer who had just descended,
"for the fellow is no other than Stefan Drontoff, the famous Serbian
spy!"

"Himmel!" ejaculated the officers in chorus. "You have done a good
day's work, lieutenant."

"The firing squad will do a better work in a few minutes," replied
the lieutenant, with a grim pointedness that took Barney's breath
away.




III

BEFORE THE FIRING SQUAD

They marched Barney before the staff where he urged his American
nationality, pointing to his credentials and passes in support of
his contention.

The general before whom he had been brought shrugged his shoulders.
"They are all Americans as soon as they are caught," he said; "but
why did you not claim to be Prince Peter of Blentz? You have his
passes as well. How can you expect us to believe your story when you
have in your possession passes for different men?

"We have every respect for our friends the Americans. I would even
stretch a point rather than chance harming an American; but you will
admit that the evidence is all against you. You were found in the
very building where Drontoff was known to stay while in Burgova. The
young woman whose mother keeps the place directed our officer to
your room, and you tried to escape, which I do not think that an
innocent American would have done.

"However, as I have said, I will go to almost any length rather than
chance a mistake in the case of one who from his appearance might
pass more readily for an American than a Serbian. I have sent for
Prince Peter of Blentz. If you can satisfactorily explain to him how
you chance to be in possession of military passes bearing his name I
shall be very glad to give you the benefit of every other doubt."

Peter of Blentz. Send for Peter of Blentz! Barney wondered just
what kind of a sensation it was to stand facing a firing squad. He
hoped that his knees wouldn't tremble - they felt a trifle weak even
now. There was a chance that the man might not recall his face, but
a very slight chance. It had been his remarkable likeness to Leopold
of Lutha that had resulted in the snatching of a crown from Prince
Peter's head.

Likely indeed that he would ever forget his, Barney's, face, though
he had seen it but once without the red beard that had so added to
Barney's likeness to the king. But Maenck would be along, of course,
and Maenck would have no doubts - he had seen Barney too recently in
Beatrice to fail to recognize him now.

Several men were entering the room where Barney stood before the
general and his staff. A glance revealed to the prisoner that Peter
of Blentz had come, and with him Von Coblich and Maenck. At the same
instant Peter's eyes met Barney's, and the former, white and
wide-eyed came almost to a dead halt, grasping hurriedly at the arm
of Maenck who walked beside him.

"My God!" was all that Barney heard him say, but he spoke a name
that the American did not hear. Maenck also looked his surprise, but
his expression was suddenly changed to one of malevolent cunning and
gratification. He turned toward Prince Peter with a few
low-whispered words. A look of relief crossed the face of the Blentz
prince.

"You appear to know the gentleman," said the general who had been
conducting Barney's examination. "He has been arrested as a Serbian
spy, and military passes in your name were found upon his person
together with the papers of an American newspaper correspondent,
which he claims to be. He is charged with being Stefan Drontoff,
whom we long have been anxious to apprehend. Do you chance to know
anything about him, Prince Peter?"

"Yes," replied Peter of Blentz, "I know him well by sight. He
entered my room last night and stole the military passes from my
coat - we all saw him and pursued him, but he got away in the dark.
There can be no doubt but that he is the Serbian spy."

"He insists that he is Bernard Custer, an American," urged the
general, who, it seemed to Barney, was anxious to make no mistake,
and to give the prisoner every reasonable chance - a state of mind
that rather surprised him in a European military chieftain, all of
whom appeared to share the popular obsession regarding the
prevalence of spies.

"Pardon me, general," interrupted Maenck. "I am well acquainted
with Mr. Custer, who spent some time in Lutha a couple of years ago.
This man is not he."

"That is sufficient, gentlemen, I thank you," said the general. He
did not again look at the prisoner, but turned to a lieutenant who
stood near-by. "You may remove the prisoner," he directed. "He will
be destroyed with the others - here is the order," and he handed the
subaltern a printed form upon which many names were filled in and at
the bottom of which the general had just signed his own. It had
evidently been waiting the outcome of the examination of Stefan
Drontoff.

Surrounded by soldiers, Barney Custer walked from the presence of
the military court. It was to him as though he moved in a strange
world of dreams. He saw the look of satisfaction upon the face of
Peter of Blentz as he passed him, and the open sneer of Maenck. As
yet he did not fully realize what it all meant - that he was marching
to his death! For the last time he was looking upon the faces of his
fellow men; for the last time he had seen the sun rise, never again
to see it set.

He was to be "destroyed." He had heard that expression used many
times in connection with useless horses, or vicious dogs.
Mechanically he drew a cigarette from his pocket and lighted it.
There was no bravado in the act. On the contrary it was done almost
unconsciously. The soldiers marched him through the streets of
Burgova. The men were entirely impassive - even so early in the war
they had become accustomed to this grim duty. The young officer who
commanded them was more nervous than the prisoner - it was his first
detail with a firing squad. He looked wonderingly at Barney,
expecting momentarily to see the man collapse, or at least show some
sign of terror at his close impending fate; but the American walked
silently toward his death, puffing leisurely at his cigarette.

At last, after what seemed a long time, his guard turned in at a
large gateway in a brick wall surrounding a factory. As they entered
Barney saw twenty or thirty men in civilian dress, guarded by a
dozen infantrymen. They were standing before the wall of a low brick
building. Barney noticed that there were no windows in the wall. It
suddenly occurred to him that there was something peculiarly grim
and sinister in the appearance of the dead, blank surface of
weather-stained brick. For the first time since he had faced the
military court he awakened to a full realization of what it all
meant to him - he was going to be lined up against that ominous brick
wall with these other men - they were going to shoot them.

A momentary madness seized him. He looked about upon the other
prisoners and guards. A sudden break for liberty might give him
temporary respite. He could seize a rifle from the nearest soldier,
and at least have the satisfaction of selling his life dearly. As he
looked he saw more soldiers entering the factory yard.

A sudden apathy overwhelmed him. What was the use? He could not
escape. Why should he wish to kill these soldiers? It was not they
who were responsible for his plight - they were but obeying orders.
The close presence of death made life seem very desirable. These
men, too, desired life. Why should he take it from them uselessly?
At best he might kill one or two, but in the end he would be killed
as surely as though he took his place before the brick wall with the
others.

He noticed now that these others evinced no inclination to contest
their fates. Why should he, then? Doubtless many of them were as
innocent as he, and all loved life as well. He saw that several were
weeping silently. Others stood with bowed heads gazing at the
hard-packed earth of the factory yard. Ah, what visions were their
eyes beholding for the last time! What memories of happy firesides!
What dear, loved faces were limned upon that sordid clay!

His reveries were interrupted by the hoarse voice of a sergeant,
breaking rudely in upon the silence and the dumb terror. The fellow
was herding the prisoners into position. When he was done Barney
found himself in the front rank of the little, hopeless band.
Opposite them, at a few paces, stood the firing squad, their gun
butts resting upon the ground.

The young lieutenant stood at one side. He issued some instructions
in a low tone, then he raised his voice.

"Ready!" he commanded. Fascinated by the horror of it, Barney
watched the rifles raised smartly to the soldiers' hips - the
movement was as precise as though the men were upon parade. Every
bolt clicked in unison with its fellows.

"Aim!" the pieces leaped to the hollows of the men's shoulders.
The leveled barrels were upon a line with the breasts of the
condemned. A man at Barney's right moaned. Another sobbed.

"Fire!" There was the hideous roar of the volley. Barney Custer
crumpled forward to the ground, and three bodies fell upon his. A
moment later there was a second volley - all had not fallen at the
first. Then the soldiers came among the bodies, searching for signs
of life; but evidently the two volleys had done their work. The
sergeant formed his men in line. The lieutenant marched them away.
Only silence remained on guard above the pitiful dead in the factory
yard.

The day wore on and still the stiffening corpses lay where they had
fallen. Twilight came and then darkness. A head appeared above the
top of the wall that had enclosed the grounds. Eyes peered through
the night and keen ears listened for any sign of life within. At
last, evidently satisfied that the place was deserted, a man crawled
over the summit of the wall and dropped to the ground within. Here
again he paused, peering and listening.

What strange business had he here among the dead that demanded such
caution in its pursuit? Presently he advanced toward the pile of
corpses. Quickly he tore open coats and searched pockets. He ran his
fingers along the fingers of the dead. Two rings had rewarded his
search and he was busy with a third that encircled the finger of a
body that lay beneath three others. It would not come off. He pulled
and tugged, and then he drew a knife from his pocket.

But he did not sever the digit. Instead he shrank back with a
muffled scream of terror. The corpse that he would have mutilated
had staggered suddenly to its feet, flinging the dead bodies to one
side as it rose.

"You fiend!" broke from the lips of the dead man, and the ghoul
turned and fled, gibbering in his fright.

The tramp of soldiers in the street beyond ceased suddenly at the
sound from within the factory yard. It was a detail of the guard
marching to the relief of sentries. A moment later the gates swung
open and a score of soldiers entered. They saw a figure dodging
toward the wall a dozen paces from them, but they did not see the
other that ran swiftly around the corner of the factory.

This other was Barney Custer of Beatrice. When the command to fire
had been given to the squad of riflemen, a single bullet had creased
the top of his head, stunning him. All day he had lain there
unconscious. It had been the tugging of the ghoul at his ring that
had roused him to life at last.

Behind him, as he scurried around the end of the factory building,
he heard the scattering fire of half a dozen rifles, followed by a
scream - the fleeing hyena had been hit. Barney crouched in the
shadow of a pile of junk. He heard the voices of soldiers as they
gathered about the wounded man, questioning him, and a moment later
the imperious tones of an officer issuing instructions to his men to
search the yard. That he must be discovered seemed a certainty to
the American. He crouched further back in the shadows close to the
wall, stepping with the utmost caution.

Presently to his chagrin his foot touched the metal cover of a
manhole; there was a resultant rattling that smote upon Barney's
ears and nerves with all the hideous clatter of a boiler shop. He
halted, petrified, for an instant. He was no coward, but after being
so near death, life had never looked more inviting, and he knew that
to be discovered meant certain extinction this time.

The soldiers were circling the building. Already he could hear them
nearing his position. In another moment they would round the corner
of the building and be upon him. For an instant he contemplated a
bold rush for the fence. In fact, he had gathered himself for the
leaping start and the quick sprint across the open under the noses
of the soldiers who still remained beside the dying ghoul, when his
mind suddenly reverted to the manhole beneath his feet. Here lay a
hiding place, at least until the soldiers had departed.

Barney stooped and raised the heavy lid, sliding it to one side.
How deep was the black chasm beneath he could not even guess.
Doubtless it led into a coal bunker, or it might open over a pit of
great depth. There was no way to discover other than to plumb the
abyss with his body. Above was death - below, a chance of safety.

The soldiers were quite close when Barney lowered himself through
the manhole. Clinging with his fingers to the upper edge his feet
still swung in space. How far beneath was the bottom? He heard the
scraping of the heavy shoes of the searchers close above him, and
then he closed his eyes, released the grasp of his fingers, and
dropped.




IV

A RACE TO LUTHA

Barney's fall was not more than four or five feet. He found himself
upon a slippery floor of masonry over which two or three inches of
water ran sluggishly. Above him he heard the soldiers pass the open
manhole. It was evident that in the darkness they had missed it.

For a few minutes the fugitive remained motionless, then, hearing no
sounds from above he started to grope about his retreat. Upon two
sides were blank, circular walls, upon the other two circular
openings about four feet in diameter. It was through these openings
that the tiny stream of water trickled.

Barney came to the conclusion that he had dropped into a sewer. To
get out the way he had entered appeared impossible. He could not
leap upward from the slimy, concave bottom the distance he had
dropped. To follow the sewer upward would lead him nowhere nearer
escape. There remained no hope but to follow the trickling stream
downward toward the river, into which his judgment told him the
entire sewer system of the city must lead.

Stooping, he entered the ill-smelling circular conduit, groping his
way slowly along. As he went the water deepened. It was half way to
his knees when he plunged unexpectedly into another tube running at
right angles to the first. The bottom of this tube was lower than
that of the one which emptied into it, so that Barney now found
himself in a swiftly running stream of filth that reached above his
knees. Downward he followed this flood - faster now for the fear of
the deadly gases which might overpower him before he could reach the
river.

The water deepened gradually as he went on. At last he reached a
point where, with his head scraping against the roof of the sewer,
his chin was just above the surface of the stream. A few more steps
would be all that he could take in this direction without drowning.
Could he retrace his way against the swift current? He did not know.
He was weakened from the effects of his wound, from lack of food and
from the exertions of the past hour. Well, he would go on as far as
he could. The river lay ahead of him somewhere. Behind was only the
hostile city.

He took another step. His foot found no support. He surged
backward in an attempt to regain his footing, but the power of the
flood was too much for him. He was swept forward to plunge into
water that surged above his head as he sank. An instant later he had
regained the surface and as his head emerged he opened his eyes.

He looked up into a starlit heaven! He had reached the mouth of the
sewer and was in the river. For a moment he lay still, floating upon
his back to rest. Above him he heard the tread of a sentry along the
river front, and the sound of men's voices.

The sweet, fresh air, the star-shot void above, acted as a powerful
tonic to his shattered hopes and overwrought nerves. He lay inhaling
great lungsful of pure, invigorating air. He listened to the voices
of the Austrian soldiery above him. All the buoyancy of his inherent
Americanism returned to him.

"This is no place for a minister's son," he murmured, and turning
over struck out for the opposite shore. The river was not wide, and
Barney was soon nearing the bank along which he could see occasional
camp fires. Here, too, were Austrians. He dropped down-stream below
these, and at last approached the shore where a wood grew close to
the water's edge. The bank here was steep, and the American had some
difficulty in finding a place where he could clamber up the
precipitous wall of rock. But finally he was successful, finding
himself in a little clump of bushes on the river's brim. Here he lay
resting and listening - always listening. It seemed to Barney that
his ears ached with the constant strain of unflagging duty that his
very existence demanded of them.

Hearing nothing, he crawled at last from his hiding place with the
purpose of making his way toward the south and to the frontier as
rapidly as possible. He could hope only to travel by night, and he
guessed that this night must be nearly spent. Stooping, he moved
cautiously away from the river. Through the shadows of the wood he
made his way for perhaps a hundred yards when he was suddenly
confronted by a figure that stepped from behind the bole of a tree.

"Halt! Who goes there?" came the challenge.

Barney's heart stood still. With all his care he had run straight
into the arms of an Austrian sentry. To run would be to be shot. To
advance would mean capture, and that too would mean death.

For the barest fraction of an instant he hesitated, and then his
quick American wits came to his aid. Feigning intoxication he
answered the challenge in dubious Austrian that he hoped his maudlin
tongue would excuse.

"Friend," he answered thickly. "Friend with a drink - have one?"
And he staggered drunkenly forward, banking all upon the credulity
and thirst of the soldier who confronted him with fixed bayonet.

That the sentry was both credulous and thirsty was evidenced by the
fact that he let Barney come within reach of his gun. Instantly the
drunken Austrian was transformed into a very sober and active engine
of destruction. Seizing the barrel of the piece Barney jerked it to
one side and toward him, and at the same instant he leaped for the
throat of the sentry.

So quickly was this accomplished that the Austrian had time only for
a single cry, and that was choked in his windpipe by the steel
fingers of the American. Together both men fell heavily to the


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Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 12 of 22)