Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The Mad King online

. (page 13 of 22)
Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 13 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ground, Barney retaining his hold upon the other's throat.

Striking and clutching at one another they fought in silence for a
couple of minutes, then the soldier's struggles began to weaken. He
squirmed and gasped for breath. His mouth opened and his tongue
protruded. His eyes started from their sockets. Barney closed his
fingers more tightly upon the bearded throat. He rained heavy blows
upon the upturned face. The beating fists of his adversary waved
wildly now - the blows that reached Barney were pitifully weak.
Presently they ceased. The man struggled violently for an instant,
twitched spasmodically and lay still.

Barney clung to him for several minutes longer, until there was not
the slightest indication of remaining life. The perpetration of the
deed sickened him; but he knew that his act was warranted, for it
had been either his life or the other's. He dragged the body back to
the bushes in which he had been hiding. There he stripped off the
Austrian uniform, put his own clothes upon the corpse and rolled it
into the river.

Dressed as an Austrian private, Barney Custer shouldered the dead
soldier's gun and walked boldly through the wood to the south.
Momentarily he expected to run upon other soldiers, but though he
kept straight on his way for hours he encountered none. The thin
line of sentries along the river had been posted only to double the
preventive measures that had been taken to keep Serbian spies either
from entering or leaving the city.

Toward dawn, at the darkest period of the night, Barney saw lights
ahead of him. Apparently he was approaching a village. He went more
cautiously now, but all his care did not prevent him from running
for the second time that night almost into the arms of a sentry.
This time, however, Barney saw the soldier before he himself was
discovered. It was upon the edge of the town, in an orchard, that
the sentinel was posted. Barney, approaching through the trees,
darting from one to another, was within a few paces of the man
before he saw him.

The American remained quietly in the shadow of a tree waiting for an
opportunity to escape, but before it came he heard the approach of a
small body of troops. They were coming from the village directly
toward the orchard. They passed the sentry and marched within a
dozen feet of the tree behind which Barney was hiding.

As they came opposite him he slipped around the tree to the opposite
side. The sentry had resumed his pacing, and was now out of sight
momentarily among the trees further on. He could not see the
American, but there were others who could. They came in the shape of
a non-commissioned officer and a detachment of the guard to relieve
the sentry. Barney almost bumped into them as he rounded the tree.
There was no escape - the non-commissioned officer was within two
feet of him when Barney discovered him. "What are you doing here?"
shouted the sergeant with an oath. "Your post is there," and he
pointed toward the position where Barney had seen the sentry.

At first Barney could scarce believe his ears. In the darkness the
sergeant had mistaken him for the sentinel! Could he carry it out?
And if so might it not lead him into worse predicament? No, Barney
decided, nothing could be worse. To be caught masquerading in the
uniform of an Austrian soldier within the Austrian lines was to
plumb the uttermost depth of guilt - nothing that he might do now
could make his position worse.

He faced the sergeant, snapping his piece to present, hoping that
this was the proper thing to do. Then he stumbled through a brief
excuse. The officer in command of the troops that had just passed
had demanded the way of him, and he had but stepped a few paces from
his post to point out the road to his superior.

The sergeant grunted and ordered him to fall in. Another man took
his place on duty. They were far from the enemy and discipline was
lax, so the thing was accomplished which under other circumstances
would have been well nigh impossible. A moment later Barney found
himself marching back toward the village, to all intents and
purposes an Austrian private.

Before a low, windowless shed that had been converted into barracks
for the guard, the detail was dismissed. The men broke ranks and
sought their blankets within the shed, tired from their lonely vigil
upon sentry duty.

Barney loitered until the last. All the others had entered. He
dared not, for he knew that any moment the sentry upon the post from
which he had been taken would appear upon the scene, after
discovering another of his comrades. He was certain to inquire of
the sergeant. They would be puzzled, of course, and, being soldiers,
they would be suspicious. There would be an investigation, which
would start in the barracks of the guard. That neighborhood would at
once become a most unhealthy spot for Barney Custer, of Beatrice,

When the last of the soldiers had entered the shed Barney glanced
quickly about. No one appeared to notice him. He walked directly
past the doorway to the end of the building. Around this he found a
yard, deeply shadowed. He entered it, crossed it, and passed out
into an alley beyond. At the first cross-street his way was blocked
by the sight of another sentry - the world seemed composed entirely
of Austrian sentries. Barney wondered if the entire Austrian army
was kept perpetually upon sentry duty; he had scarce been able to
turn without bumping into one.

He turned back into the alley and at last found a crooked passageway
between buildings that he hoped might lead him to a spot where there
was no sentry, and from which he could find his way out of the
village toward the south. The passage, after devious windings, led
into a large, open court, but when Barney attempted to leave the
court upon the opposite side he found the ubiquitous sentries upon
guard there.

Evidently there would be no escape while the Austrians remained in
the town. There was nothing to do, therefore, but hide until the
happy moment of their departure arrived. He returned to the
courtyard, and after a short search discovered a shed in one corner
that had evidently been used to stable a horse, for there was straw
at one end of it and a stall in the other. Barney sat down upon the
straw to wait developments. Tired nature would be denied no longer.
His eyes closed, his head drooped upon his breast. In three minutes
from the time he entered the shed he was stretched full length upon
the straw, fast asleep.

The chugging of a motor awakened him. It was broad daylight. Many
sounds came from the courtyard without. It did not take Barney long
to gather his scattered wits - in an instant he was wide awake. He
glanced about. He was the only occupant of the shed. Rising, he
approached a small window that looked out upon the court. All was
life and movement. A dozen military cars either stood about or moved
in and out of the wide gates at the opposite end of the enclosure.
Officers and soldiers moved briskly through a doorway that led into
a large building that flanked the court upon one side. While Barney
slept the headquarters of an Austrian army corps had moved in and
taken possession of the building, the back of which abutted upon the
court where lay his modest little shed.

Barney took it all in at a single glance, but his eyes hung long and
greedily upon the great, high-powered machines that chugged or
purred about him.

Gad! If he could but be behind the wheel of such a car for an hour!
The frontier could not be over fifty miles to the south, of that he
was quite positive; and what would fifty miles be to one of those

Barney sighed as a great, gray-painted car whizzed into the
courtyard and pulled up before the doorway. Two officers jumped out
and ran up the steps. The driver, a young man in a uniform not
unlike that which Barney wore, drew the car around to the end of the
courtyard close beside Barney's shed. Here he left it and entered
the building into which his passengers had gone. By reaching through
the window Barney could have touched the fender of the machine. A
few seconds' start in that and it would take more than an Austrian
army corps to stop him this side of the border. Thus mused Barney,
knowing already that the mad scheme that had been born within his
brain would be put to action before he was many minutes older.

There were many soldiers on guard about the courtyard. The greatest
danger lay in arousing the suspicions of one of these should he
chance to see Barney emerge from the shed and enter the car.

"The proper thing," thought Barney, "is to come from the building
into which everyone seems to pass, and the only way to be seen
coming out of it is to get into it; but how the devil am I to get
into it?"

The longer he thought the more convinced he became that utter
recklessness and boldness would be his only salvation. Briskly he
walked from the shed out into the courtyard beneath the eyes of the
sentries, the officers, the soldiers, and the military drivers. He
moved straight among them toward the doorway of the headquarters as
though bent upon important business - which, indeed, he was. At least
it was quite the most important business to Barney Custer that that
young gentleman could recall having ventured upon for some time.

No one paid the slightest attention to him. He had left his gun in
the shed for he noticed that only the men on guard carried them.
Without an instant's hesitation he ran briskly up the short flight
of steps and entered the headquarters building. Inside was another
sentry who barred his way questioningly. Evidently one must state
one's business to this person before going farther. Barney, without
any loss of time or composure, stepped up to the guard.

"Has General Kampf passed in this morning?" he asked blithely.
Barney had never heard of any "General Kampf," nor had the sentry,
since there was no such person in the Austrian army. But he did
know, however, that there were altogether too many generals for any
one soldier to know the names of them all.

"I do not know the general by sight," replied the sentry.

Here was a pretty mess, indeed. Doubtless the sergeant would know a
great deal more than would be good for Barney Custer. The young man
looked toward the door through which he had just entered. His sole
object in coming into the spider's parlor had been to make it
possible for him to come out again in full view of all the guards
and officers and military chauffeurs, that their suspicions might
not be aroused when he put his contemplated coup to the test.

He glanced toward the door. Machines were whizzing in and out of
the courtyard. Officers on foot were passing and repassing. The
sentry in the hallway was on the point of calling his sergeant.

"Ah!" cried Barney. "There is the general now," and without waiting
to cast even a parting glance at the guard he stepped quickly
through the doorway and ran down the steps into the courtyard.
Looking neither to right nor to left, and with a convincing air of
self-confidence and important business, he walked directly to the
big, gray machine that stood beside the little shed at the end of
the courtyard.

To crank it and leap to the driver's seat required but a moment.
The big car moved smoothly forward. A turn of the steering wheel
brought it around headed toward the wide gates. Barney shifted to
second speed, stepped on the accelerator and the cut-out
simultaneously, and with a noise like the rattle of a machine gun,
shot out of the courtyard.

None who saw his departure could have guessed from the manner of it
that the young man at the wheel of the gray car was stealing the
machine or that his life depended upon escape without detection. It
was the very boldness of his act that crowned it with success.

Once in the street Barney turned toward the south. Cars were
passing up and down in both directions, usually at high speed. Their
numbers protected the fugitive. Momentarily he expected to be
halted; but he passed out of the village without mishap and reached
a country road which, except for a lane down its center along which
automobiles were moving, was blocked with troops marching southward.
Through this soldier-walled lane Barney drove for half an hour.

From a great distance, toward the southeast, he could hear the boom
of cannon and the bursting of shells. Presently the road forked. The
troops were moving along the road on the left toward the distant
battle line. Not a man or machine was turning into the right fork,
the road toward the south that Barney wished to take.

Could he successfully pass through the marching soldiers at his
right? Among all those officers there surely would be one who would
question the purpose and destination of this private soldier who
drove alone in the direction of the nearby frontier.

The moment had come when he must stake everything on his ability to
gain the open road beyond the plodding mass of troops. Diminishing
the speed of the car Barney turned it in toward the marching men at
the same time sounding his horn loudly. An infantry captain,
marching beside his company, was directly in front of the car. He
looked up at the American. Barney saluted and pointed toward the
right-hand fork.

The captain turned and shouted a command to his men. Those who had
not passed in front of the car halted. Barney shot through the
little lane they had opened, which immediately closed up behind him.
He was through! He was upon the open road! Ahead, as far as he could
see, there was no sign of any living creature to bar his way, and
the frontier could not be more than twenty-five miles away.



In his castle at Lustadt, Leopold of Lutha paced nervously back and
forth between his great desk and the window that overlooked the
royal gardens. Upon the opposite side of the desk stood an old
man - a tall, straight, old man with the bearing of a soldier and the
head of a lion. His keen, gray eyes were upon the king, and sorrow
was written upon his face. He was Ludwig von der Tann, chancellor of
the kingdom of Lutha.

At last the king stopped his pacing and faced the old man, though he
could not meet those eagle eyes squarely, try as he would. It was
his inability to do so, possibly, that added to his anger. Weak
himself, he feared this strong man and envied him his strength,
which, in a weak nature, is but a step from hatred. There evidently
had been a long pause in their conversation, yet the king's next
words took up the thread of their argument where it had broken.

"You speak as though I had no right to do it," he snapped. "One
might think that you were the king from the manner with which you
upbraid and reproach me. I tell you, Prince von der Tann, that I
shall stand it no longer."

The king approached the desk and pounded heavily upon its polished
surface with his fist. The physical act of violence imparted to him
a certain substitute for the moral courage which he lacked.

"I will tell you, sir, that I am king. It was not necessary that I
consult you or any other man before pardoning Prince Peter and his
associates. I have investigated the matter thoroughly and I am
convinced that they have been taught a sufficient lesson and that
hereafter they will be my most loyal subjects."

He hesitated. "Their presence here," he added, "may prove an
antidote to the ambitions of others who lately have taken it upon
themselves to rule Lutha for me."

There was no mistaking the king's meaning, but Prince Ludwig did not
show by any change of expression that the shot had struck him in a
vulnerable spot; nor, upon the other hand, did he ignore the
insinuation. There was only sorrow in his voice when he replied.

"Sire," he said, "for some time I have been aware of the activity of
those who would like to see Peter of Blentz returned to favor with
your majesty. I have warned you, only to see that my motives were
always misconstrued. There is a greater power at work, your majesty,
than any of us - greater than Lutha itself. One that will stop at
nothing in order to gain its ends. It cares naught for Peter of
Blentz, naught for me, naught for you. It cares only for Lutha. For
strategic purposes it must have Lutha. It will trample you under
foot to gain its end, and then it will cast Peter of Blentz aside.
You have insinuated, sire, that I am ambitious. I am. I am ambitious
to maintain the integrity and freedom of Lutha.

"For three hundred years the Von der Tanns have labored and fought
for the welfare of Lutha. It was a Von der Tann that put the first
Rubinroth king upon the throne of Lutha. To the last they were loyal
to the former dynasty while that dynasty was loyal to Lutha. Only
when the king attempted to sell the freedom of his people to a
powerful neighbor did the Von der Tanns rise against him.

"Sire! the Von der Tanns have always been loyal to the house of
Rubinroth. And but a single thing rises superior within their
breasts to that loyalty, and that is their loyalty to Lutha." He
paused for an instant before concluding. "And I, sire, am a Von der

There could be no mistaking the old man's meaning. So long as
Leopold was loyal to his people and their interests Ludwig von der
Tann would be loyal to Leopold. The king was cowed. He was very much
afraid of this grim old warrior. He chafed beneath his censure.

"You are always scolding me," he cried irritably. "I am getting
tired of it. And now you threaten me. Do you call that loyalty? Do
you call it loyalty to refuse to compel your daughter to keep her
plighted troth? If you wish to prove your loyalty command the
Princess Emma to fulfil the promise you made my father - command her
to wed me at once."

Von der Tann looked the king straight in the eyes.

"I cannot do that," he said. "She has told me that she will kill
herself rather than wed with your majesty. She is all I have left,
sire. What good would be accomplished by robbing me of her if you
could not gain her by the act? Win her confidence and love, sire. It
may be done. Thus only may happiness result to you and to her."

"You see," exclaimed the king, "what your loyalty amounts to! I
believe that you are saving her for the impostor - I have heard as
much hinted at before this. Nor do I doubt that she would gladly
connive with the fellow if she thought there was a chance of his
seizing the throne."

Von der Tann paled. For the first time righteous indignation and
anger got the better of him. He took a step toward the king.

"Stop!" he commanded. "No man, not even my king, may speak such
words to a Von der Tann."

In an antechamber just outside the room a man sat near the door that
led into the apartment where the king and his chancellor quarreled.
He had been straining his ears to catch the conversation which he
could hear rising and falling in the adjoining chamber, but till now
he had been unsuccessful. Then came Prince Ludwig's last words
booming loudly through the paneled door, and the man smiled. He was
Count Zellerndorf, the Austrian minister to Lutha.

The king's outraged majesty goaded him to an angry retort.

"You forget yourself, Prince von der Tann," he cried. "Leave our
presence. When we again desire to be insulted we shall send for

As the chancellor passed into the antechamber Count Zellerndorf rose
and greeted him warmly, almost effusively. Von der Tann returned his
salutations with courtesy but with no answering warmth. Then he
passed on out of the palace.

"The old fox must have heard," he mused as he mounted his horse and
turned his face toward Tann and the Old Forest.

When Count Zellerndorf of Austria entered the presence of Leopold of
Lutha he found that young ruler much disturbed. He had resumed his
restless pacing between desk and window, and as the Austrian entered
he scarce paused to receive his salutation. Count Zellerndorf was a
frequent visitor at the palace. There were few formalities between
this astute diplomat and the young king; those had passed gradually
away as their acquaintance and friendship ripened.

"Prince Ludwig appeared angry when he passed through the
antechamber," ventured Zellerndorf. "Evidently your majesty found
cause to rebuke him."

The king nodded and looked narrowly at the Austrian. "The Prince von
der Tann insinuated that Austria's only wish in connection with
Lutha is to seize her," he said.

Zellerndorf raised his hands in well-simulated horror.

"Your majesty!" he exclaimed. "It cannot be that the prince has
gone to such lengths to turn you against your best friend, my
emperor. If he has I can only attribute it to his own ambitions. I
have hesitated to speak to you of this matter, your majesty, but now
that the honor of my own ruler is questioned I must defend him.

"Bear with me then, should what I have to say wound you. I well
know the confidence which the house of Von der Tann has enjoyed for
centuries in Lutha; but I must brave your wrath in the interest of
right. I must tell you that it is common gossip in Vienna that Von
der Tann aspires to the throne of Lutha either for himself or for
his daughter through the American impostor who once sat upon your
throne for a few days. And let me tell you more.

"The American will never again menace you - he was arrested in
Burgova as a spy and executed. He is dead; but not so are Von der
Tann's ambitions. When he learns that he no longer may rely upon the
strain of the Rubinroth blood that flowed in the veins of the
American from his royal mother, the runaway Princess Victoria, there
will remain to him only the other alternative of seizing the throne
for himself. He is a very ambitious man, your majesty. Already he
has caused it to become current gossip that he is the real power
behind the throne of Lutha - that your majesty is but a figure-head,
the puppet of Von der Tann."

Zellerndorf paused. He saw the flush of shame and anger that
suffused the king's face, and then he shot the bolt that he had come
to fire, but which he had not dared to hope would find its target so
denuded of defense.

"Your majesty," he whispered, coming quite close to the king, "all
Lutha is inclined to believe that you fear Prince von der Tann. Only
a few of us know the truth to be the contrary. For the sake of your
prestige you must take some step to counteract this belief and stamp
it out for good and all. I have planned a way - hear it.

"Von der Tann's hatred of Peter of Blentz is well known. No man in
Lutha believes that he would permit you to have any intercourse with
Peter. I have brought from Blentz an invitation to your majesty to
honor the Blentz prince with your presence as a guest for the
ensuing week. Accept it, your majesty.

"Nothing could more conclusively prove to the most skeptical that
you are still the king, and that Von der Tann, nor any other, may
not dare to dictate to you. It will be the most splendid stroke of
statesmanship that you could achieve at the present moment."

For an instant the king stood in thought. He still feared Peter of
Blentz as the devil is reputed to fear holy water, though for
converse reasons. Yet he was very angry with Von der Tann. It would
indeed be an excellent way to teach the presumptuous chancellor his

Leopold almost smiled as he thought of the chagrin with which Prince
Ludwig would receive the news that he had gone to Blentz as the
guest of Peter. It was the last impetus that was required by his
weak, vindictive nature to press it to a decision.

"Very well," he said, "I will go tomorrow."

It was late the following day that Prince von der Tann received in
his castle in the Old Forest word that an Austrian army had crossed
the Luthanian frontier - the neutrality of Lutha had been violated.
The old chancellor set out immediately for Lustadt. At the palace he
sought an interview with the king only to learn that Leopold had
departed earlier in the day to visit Peter of Blentz.

There was but one thing to do and that was to follow the king to
Blentz. Some action must be taken immediately - it would never do to
let this breach of treaty pass unnoticed.

The Serbian minister who had sent word to the chancellor of the
invasion by the Austrian troops was closeted with him for an hour
after his arrival at the palace. It was clear to both these men that
the hand of Zellerndorf was plainly in evidence in both the
important moves that had occurred in Lutha within the past
twenty-four hours - the luring of the king to Blentz and the entrance
of Austrian soldiery into Lutha.

Following his interview with the Serbian minister Von der Tann rode

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 13 of 22)