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Chicago several years before - a crowd standing before the window of
a jeweler's shop inspecting a neat little hole that a thief had cut
in the glass with a diamond and through which he had inserted his
hand and brought forth several hundred dollars worth of loot. But
Barney Custer wore no diamond - he would as soon have worn a
celluloid collar. But women wore diamonds. Doubtless the Princess
Emma had one. He ran quickly to her side.

"Have you a diamond ring?" he whispered.

"Gracious!" she exclaimed, "you are progressing rapidly," and
slipped a solitaire from her finger to his hand.

"Thanks," said Barney. "I need the practice; but wait and you'll
see that a diamond may be infinitely more valuable than even the
broker claims," and he was gone again into the shadows of the
garage. Here upon the window pane he scratched a rough deep circle,
close to the catch. A quick blow sent the glass clattering to the
floor within. For a minute Barney stood listening for any sign that
the noise had attracted attention, but hearing nothing he ran his
hand through the hole that he had made and unlatched the frame. A
moment later he had crawled within.

Before him, in the darkness, stood a roadster. He ran his hand over
the pedals and levers, breathing a sigh of relief as his touch
revealed the familiar control of a standard make. Then he went to
the double doors. They opened easily and silently.

Once outside he hastened to the side of the waiting girl.

"It's a machine," he whispered. "We must both be in it when it
leaves the garage - it's the through express for Lustadt and makes no
stops for passengers or freight."

He led her back to the garage and helped her into the seat beside
him. As silently as possible he ran the machine into the driveway. A
hundred yards to the left, half hidden by intervening trees and
shrubbery, rose the dark bulk of a house. A subdued light shone
through the drawn blinds of several windows - the only sign of life
about the premises until the car had cleared the garage and was
moving slowly down the driveway. Then a door opened in the house
letting out a flood of light in which the figure of a man was
silhouetted. A voice broke the silence.

"Who are you? What are you doing there? Come back!"

The man in the doorway called excitedly, "Friedrich! Come! Come
quickly! Someone is stealing the automobile," and the speaker came
running toward the driveway at top speed. Behind him came Friedrich.
Both were shouting, waving their arms and threatening. Their
combined din might have aroused the dead.

Barney sought speed - silence now was useless. He turned to the left
into the street away from the center of the town. In this direction
had gone the automobile with Maenck, but by taking the first
righthand turn Barney hoped to elude the captain. In a moment
Friedrich and the other were hopelessly distanced. It was with a
sigh of relief that the American turned the car into the dark
shadows beneath the overarching trees of the first cross street.

He was running without lights along an unknown way; and beside him
was the most precious burden that Barney Custer might ever expect to
carry. Under these circumstances his speed was greatly reduced from
what he would have wished, but at that he was forced to accept grave
risks. The road might end abruptly at the brink of a ravine - it
might swerve perilously close to a stone quarry - or plunge headlong
into a pond or river. Barney shuddered at the possibilities; but
nothing of the sort happened. The street ran straight out of the
town into a country road, rather heavy with sand. In the open the
possibilities of speed were increased, for the night, though
moonless, was clear, and the road visible for some distance ahead.

The fugitives were congratulating themselves upon the excellent
chance they now had to reach Lustadt. There was only Maenck and his
companion ahead of them in the other car, and as there were several
roads by which one might reach the main highway the chances were
fair that Prince Peter's aide would miss them completely.

Already escape seemed assured when the pounding of horses' hoofs
upon the roadway behind them arose to blast their new found hope.
Barney increased the speed of the car. It leaped ahead in response
to his foot; but the road was heavy, and the sides of the ruts
gripping the tires retarded the speed. For a mile they held the lead
of the galloping horsemen. The shouts of their pursuers fell clearly
upon their ears, and the Princess Emma, turning in her seat, could
easily see the four who followed. At last the car began to draw
away - the distance between it and the riders grew gradually greater.

"I believe we are going to make it," whispered the girl, her voice
tense with excitement. "If you could only go a little faster, Mr.
Custer, I'm sure that we will."

"She's reached her limit in this sand," replied the man, "and
there's a grade just ahead - we may find better going beyond, but
they're bound to gain on us before we reach the top."

The girl strained her eyes into the night before them. On the right
of the road stood an ancient ruin - grim and forbidding. As her eyes
rested upon it she gave a little exclamation of relief.

"I know where we are now," she cried. "The hill ahead is sandy, and
there is a quarter of a mile of sand beyond, but then we strike the
Lustadt highway, and if we can reach it ahead of them their horses
will have to go ninety miles an hour to catch us - provided this car
possesses any such speed possibilities."

"If it can go forty we are safe enough," replied Barney; "but we'll
give it a chance to go as fast as it can - the farther we are from
the vicinity of Blentz the safer I shall feel for the welfare of
your highness."

A shot rang behind them, and a bullet whistled high above their
heads. The princess seized the carbine that rested on the seat
between them.

"Shall I?" she asked, turning its muzzle back over the lowered top.

"Better not," answered the man. "They are only trying to frighten
us into surrendering - that shot was much too high to have been aimed
at us - they are shooting over our heads purposely. If they
deliberately attempt to pot us later, then go for them, but to do it
now would only draw their fire upon us. I doubt if they wish to harm
your highness, but they certainly would fire to hit in
self-defense."

The girl lowered the firearm. "I am becoming perfectly
bloodthirsty," she said, "but it makes me furious to be hunted like
a wild animal in my native land, and by the command of my king, at
that. And to think that you who placed him upon his throne, you who
have risked your life many times for him, will find no protection at
his hands should you be captured is maddening. Ach, Gott, if I were
a man!"

"I thank God that you are not, your highness," returned Barney
fervently.

Gently she laid her hand upon his where it gripped the steering
wheel.

"No," she said, "I was wrong - I do not need to be a man while there
still be such men as you, my friend; but I would that I were not the
unhappy woman whom Fate had bound to an ingrate king - to a miserable
coward!"

They had reached the grade at last, and the motor was straining to
the Herculean task imposed upon it.

Grinding and grating in second speed the car toiled upward through
the clinging sand. The pace was snail-like. Behind, the horsemen
were gaining rapidly. The labored breathing of their mounts was
audible even above the noise of the motor, so close were they. The
top of the ascent lay but a few yards ahead, and the pursuers were
but a few yards behind.

"Halt!" came from behind, and then a shot. The ping of the bullet
and the scream of the ricochet warned the man and the girl that
those behind them were becoming desperate - the bullet had struck one
of the rear fenders. Without again asking assent the princess turned
and, kneeling upon the cushion of the seat, fired at the nearest
horseman. The horse stumbled and plunged to his knees. Another, just
behind, ran upon him, and the two rolled over together with their
riders. Two more shots were fired by the remaining horsemen and
answered by the girl in the automobile, and then the car topped the
hill, shot into high, and with renewed speed forged into the last
quarter-mile of heavy going toward the good road ahead; but now the
grade was slightly downward and all the advantage was upon the side
of the fugitives.

However, their margin would be but scant when they reached the
highway, for behind them the remaining troopers were spurring their
jaded horses to a final spurt of speed. At last the white ribbon of
the main road became visible. To the right they saw the headlights
of a machine. It was Maenck probably, doubtless attracted their way
by the shooting.

But the machine was a mile away and could not possibly reach the
intersection of the two roads before they had turned to the left
toward Lustadt. Then the incident would resolve itself into a simple
test of speed between the two cars - and the ability and nerve of the
drivers. Barney hadn't the slightest doubt now as to the outcome.
His borrowed car was a good one, in good condition. And in the
matter of driving he rather prided himself that he needn't take his
hat off to anyone when it came to ability and nerve.

They were only about fifty feet from the highway. The girl touched
his hand again. "We're safe," she cried, her voice vibrant with
excitement, "we're safe at last." From beneath the bonnet, as though
in answer to her statement, came a sickly, sucking sputter. The
momentum of the car diminished. The throbbing of the engine ceased.
They sat in silence as the machine coasted toward the highway and
came to a dead stop, with its front wheels upon the road to safety.
The girl turned toward Barney with an exclamation of surprise and
interrogation.

"The jig's up," he groaned; "we're out of gasoline!"




IX

THE CAPTURE

The capture of Princess Emma von der Tann and Barney Custer was a
relatively simple matter. Open fields spread in all directions about
the crossroads at which their car had come to its humiliating stop.
There was no cover. To have sought escape by flight, thus in the
open, would have been to expose the princess to the fire of the
troopers. Barney could not do this. He preferred to surrender and
trust to chance to open the way to escape later.

When Captain Ernst Maenck drove up he found the prisoners disarmed,
standing beside the now-useless car. He alighted from his own
machine and with a low bow saluted the princess, an ironical smile
upon his thin lips. Then he turned his attention toward her
companion.

"Who are you?" he demanded gruffly. In the darkness he failed to
recognize the American whom he thought dead in Austria.

"A servant of the house of Von der Tann," replied Barney.

"You deserve shooting," growled the officer, "but we'll leave that
to Prince Peter and the king. When I tell them the trouble you have
caused us - well, God help you."

The journey to Blentz was a short one. They had been much nearer
that grim fortress than either had guessed. At the outskirts of the
town they were challenged by Austrian sentries, through which Maenck
passed with ease after the sentinel had summoned an officer. From
this man Maenck received the password that would carry them through
the line of outposts between the town and the castle - "Slankamen."
Barney, who overheard the word, made a mental note of it.

At last they reached the dreary castle of Peter of Blentz. In the
courtyard Austrian soldiers mingled with the men of the bodyguard of
the king of Lutha. Within, the king's officers fraternized with the
officers of the emperor. Maenck led his prisoners to the great hall
which was filled with officers and officials of both Austria and
Lutha.

The king was not there. Maenck learned that he had retired to his
apartments a few minutes earlier in company with Prince Peter of
Blentz and Von Coblich. He sent a servant to announce his return
with the Princess von der Tann and a man who had attempted to
prevent her being brought to Blentz.

Barney had, as far as possible, kept his face averted from Maenck
since they had entered the lighted castle. He hoped to escape
recognition, for he knew that if his identity were guessed it might
go hard with the princess. As for himself, it might go even harder,
but of that he gave scarcely a thought - the safety of the princess
was paramount.

After a few minutes of waiting the servant returned with the king's
command to fetch the prisoners to his apartments. The face of the
Princess Emma was haggard. For the first time Barney saw signs of
fear upon her countenance. With leaden steps they accompanied their
guard up the winding stairway to the tower rooms that had been
furnished for the king. They were the same in which Emma von der
Tann had been imprisoned two years before.

On either side of the doorway stood a soldier of the king's
bodyguard. As Captain Maenck approached they saluted. A servant
opened the door and they passed into the room. Before them were
Peter of Blentz and Von Coblich standing beside a table at which
Leopold of Lutha was sitting. The eyes of the three men were upon
the doorway as the little party entered. The king's face was flushed
with wine. He rose as his eyes rested upon the face of the princess.

"Greetings, your highness," he cried with an attempt at cordiality.

The girl looked straight into his eyes, coldly, and then bent her
knee in formal curtsy. The king was about to speak again when his
eyes wandered to the face of the American. Instantly his own went
white and then scarlet. The eyes of Peter of Blentz followed those
of the king, widening in astonishment as they rested upon the
features of Barney Custer.

"You told me he was dead," shouted the king. "What is the meaning
of this, Captain Maenck?"

Maenck looked at his male prisoner and staggered back as though
struck between the eyes.

"Mein Gott," he exclaimed, "the impostor!"

"You told me he was dead," repeated the king accusingly.

"As God is my judge, your majesty," cried Peter of Blentz, "this man
was shot by an Austrian firing squad in Burgova over a week ago."

"Sire," exclaimed Maenck, "this is the first sight I have had of the
prisoners except in the darkness of the night; until this instant I
had not the remotest suspicion of his identity. He told me that he
was a servant of the house of Von der Tann."

"I told you the truth, then," interjected Barney.

"Silence, you ingrate!" cried the king.

"Ingrate?" repeated Barney. "You have the effrontery to call me an
ingrate? You miserable puppy."

A silence, menacing in its intensity, fell upon the little
assemblage. The king trembled. His rage choked him. The others
looked as though they scarce could believe the testimony of their
own ears. All there, with the possible exception of the king, knew
that he deserved even more degrading appellations; but they were
Europeans, and to Europeans a king is a king - that they can never
forget. It had been the inherent suggestion of kingship that had
bent the knee of the Princess Emma before the man she despised.

But to the American a king was only what he made himself. In this
instance he was not even a man in the estimation of Barney Custer.
Maenck took a step toward the prisoner - a menacing step, for his
hand had gone to his sword. Barney met him with a level look from
between narrowed lids. Maenck hesitated, for he was a great coward.
Peter of Blentz spoke:

"Sire," he said, "the fellow knows that he is already as good as
dead, and so in his bravado he dares affront you. He has been
convicted of spying by the Austrians. He is still a spy. It is
unnecessary to repeat the formality of a trial."

Leopold at last found his voice, though it trembled and broke as he
spoke.

"Carry out the sentence of the Austrian court in the morning," he
said. "A volley now might arouse the garrison in the town and be
misconstrued."

Maenck ordered Barney escorted from the apartment, then he turned
toward the king.

"And the other prisoner, sire?" he inquired.

"There is no other prisoner," he said. "Her highness, the Princess
von der Tann, is a guest of Prince Peter. She will be escorted to
her apartment at once."

"Her highness, the Princess von der Tann, is not a guest of Prince
Peter." The girl's voice was low and cold. "If Mr. Custer is a
prisoner, her highness, too, is a prisoner. If he is to be shot, she
demands a like fate. To die by the side of a MAN would be infinitely
preferable to living by the side of your majesty."

Once again Leopold of Lutha reddened. For a moment he paced the
room angrily to hide his emotion. Then he turned once to Maenck.

"Escort the prisoner to the north tower," he commanded, "and this
insolent girl to the chambers next to ours. Tomorrow we shall talk
with her again."

Outside the room Barney turned for a last look at the princess as he
was being led in one direction and she in another. A smile of
encouragement was on his lips and cold hopelessness in his heart.
She answered the smile and her lips formed a silent "good-bye." They
formed something else, too - three words which he was sure he could
not have mistaken, and then they parted, he for the death chamber
and she for what fate she could but guess.

As his guard halted before a door at the far end of a long corridor
Barney Custer sensed a sudden familiarity in his surroundings. He
was conscious of that sensation which is common to all of us - of
having lived through a scene at some former time, to each minutest
detail.

As the door opened and he was pushed into the room he realized that
there was excellent foundation for the impression - he immediately
recognized the apartment as the same in which he had once before
been imprisoned. At that time he had been mistaken for the mad king
who had escaped from the clutches of Peter of Blentz. The same king
was now visiting as a guest the fortress in which he had spent ten
bitter years as a prisoner.

"Say your prayers, my friend," admonished Maenck, as he was about to
leave him alone, "for at dawn you die - and this time the firing
squad will make a better job of it."

Barney did not answer him, and the captain departed, locking the
door after him and leaving two men on guard in the corridor. Alone,
Barney looked about the room. It was in no wise changed since his
former visit to it. He recalled the incidents of the hour of his
imprisonment here, thought of old Joseph who had aided his escape,
looked at the paneled fireplace, whose secret, it was evident, not
even the master of Blentz was familiar with - and grinned.

"'For at dawn you die!'" he repeated to himself, still smiling
broadly. Then he crossed quickly to the fireplace, running his
fingers along the edge of one of the large tiled panels that hid the
entrance to the well-like shaft that rose from the cellars beneath
to the towers above and which opened through similar concealed exits
upon each floor. If the floor above should be untenanted he might be
able to reach it as he and Joseph had done two years ago when they
opened the secret panel in the fireplace and climbed a hidden ladder
to the room overhead; and then by vacant corridors reached the far
end of the castle above the suite in which the princess had been
confined and near which Barney had every reason to believe she was
now imprisoned.

Carefully Barney's fingers traversed the edges of the panel. No
hidden latch rewarded his search. Again and again he examined the
perfectly fitted joints until he was convinced either that there was
no latch there or that it was hid beyond possibility of discovery.
With each succeeding minute the American's heart and hopes sank
lower and lower. Two years had elapsed since he had seen the secret
portal swing to the touch of Joseph's fingers. One may forget much
in two years; but that he was at work upon the right panel Barney
was positive. However, it would do no harm to examine its mate which
resembled it in minutest detail.

Almost indifferently Barney turned his attention to the other panel.
He ran his fingers over it, his eyes following them. What was that?
A finger-print? Upon the left side half way up a tiny smudge was
visible. Barney examined it more carefully. A round, white figure of
the conventional design that was burned into the tile bore the
telltale smudge.

Otherwise it differed apparently in no way from the numerous other
round, white figures that were repeated many times in the scheme of
decoration. Barney placed his thumb exactly over the mark that
another thumb had left there and pushed. The figure sank into the
panel beneath the pressure. Barney pushed harder, breathless with
suspense. The panel swung in at his effort. The American could have
whooped with delight.

A moment more and he stood upon the opposite side of the secret door
in utter darkness, for he had quickly closed it after him. To strike
a match was but the matter of a moment. The wavering light revealed
the top of the ladder that led downward and the foot of another
leading aloft. He struck still more matches in search of the rope.
It was not there, but his quest revealed the fact that the well at
this point was much larger than he had imagined - it broadened into a
small chamber.

The light of many matches finally led him to the discovery of a
passageway directly behind the fireplace. It was narrow, and after
spanning the chimney descended by a few rough steps to a slightly
lower level. It led toward the opposite end of the castle. Could it
be possible that it connected directly with the apartments in the
farther tower - in the tower where the king was and the Princess
Emma? Barney could scarce hope for any such good luck, but at least
it was worth investigating - it must lead somewhere.

He followed it warily, feeling his way with hands and feet and
occasionally striking a match. It was evident that the corridor lay
in the thick wall of the castle, midway between the bottoms of the
windows of the second floor and the tops of those upon the
first - this would account for the slightly lower level of the
passage from the floor of the second story.

Barney had traversed some distance in the darkness along the
forgotten corridor when the sound of voices came to him from beyond
the wall at his right. He stopped, motionless, pressing his ear
against the side wall. As he did so he became aware of the fact that
at this point the wall was of wood - a large panel of hardwood. Now
he could hear even the words of the speaker upon the opposite side.

"Fetch her here, captain, and I will talk with her alone." The voice
was the king's. "And, captain, you might remove the guard from
before the door temporarily. I shall not require them, nor do I wish
them to overhear my conversation with the princess."

Barney could hear the officer acknowledge the commands of the king,
and then he heard a door close. The man had gone to fetch the
princess. The American struck a match and examined the panel before
him. It reached to the top of the passageway and was some three feet
in width.

At one side were three hinges, and at the other an ancient spring
lock. For an instant Barney stood in indecision. What should he do?
His entry into the apartments of the king would result in alarming
the entire fortress. Were he sure the king was alone it might be
accomplished. Should he enter now or wait until the Princess Emma
had been brought to the king?

With the question came the answer - a bold and daring scheme. His
fingers sought the lock. Very gently, he unlatched it and pushed
outward upon the panel. Suddenly the great doorway gave beneath his
touch. It opened a crack letting a flood of light into his dark cell
that almost blinded him.

For a moment he could see nothing, and then out of the glaring blur
grew the figure of a man sitting at a table - with his back toward
the panel.

It was the king, and he was alone. Noiselessly Barney Custer
entered the apartment, closing the panel after him. At his back now
was the great oil painting of the Blentz princess that had hid the
secret entrance to the room. He crossed the thick rugs until he
stood behind the king. Then he clapped one hand over the mouth of
the monarch of Lutha and threw the other arm about his neck.

"Make the slightest outcry and I shall kill you," he whispered in
the ear of the terrified man.

Across the room Barney saw a revolver lying upon a small table. He
raised the king to his feet and, turning his back toward the weapon
dragged him across the apartment until the table was within easy


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Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 16 of 22)