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reach. Then he snatched up the revolver and swung the king around
into a chair facing him, the muzzle of the gun pressed against his
face.

"Silence," he whispered.

The king, white and trembling, gasped as his eyes fell upon the face
of the American.

"You?" His voice was barely audible.

"Take off your clothes - every stitch of them - and if any one asks
for admittance, deny them. Quick, now," as the king hesitated. "My
life is forfeited unless I can escape. If I am apprehended I shall
see that you pay for my recapture with your life - if any one enters
this room without my sanction they will enter it to find a dead king
upon the floor; do you understand?"

The king made no reply other than to commence divesting himself of
his clothing. Barney followed his example, but not before he had
crossed to the door that opened into the main corridor and shot the
bolt upon the inside. When both men had removed their clothing
Barney pointed to the little pile of soiled peasant garb that he had
worn.

"Put those on," he commanded.

The king hesitated, drawing back in disgust. Barney paused,
half-way into the royal union suit, and leveled the revolver at
Leopold. The king picked up one of the garments gingerly between the
tips of his thumb and finger.

"Hurry!" admonished the American, drawing the silk half-hose of the
ruler of Lutha over his foot. "If you don't hurry," he added,
"someone may interrupt us, and you know what the result would be - to
you."

Scowling, Leopold donned the rough garments. Barney, fully clothed
in the uniform the king had been wearing, stepped across the
apartment to where the king's sword and helmet lay upon the side
table that had also borne the revolver. He placed the helmet upon
his head and buckled the sword-belt about his waist, then he faced
the king, behind whom was a cheval glass. In it Barney saw his
image. The king was looking at the American, his eyes wide and his
jaw dropped. Barney did not wonder at his consternation. He himself
was dumbfounded by the likeness which he bore to the king. It was
positively uncanny. He approached Leopold.

"Remove your rings," he said, holding out his hand. The king did as
he was bid, and Barney slipped the two baubles upon his fingers. One
of them was the royal ring of the kings of Lutha.

The American now blindfolded the king and led him toward the panel
which had given him ingress to the room. Through it the two men
passed, Barney closing the panel after them. Then he conducted the
king back along the dark passageway to the room which the American
had but recently quitted. At the back of the panel which led into
his former prison Barney halted and listened. No sound came from
beyond the partition. Gently Barney opened the secret door a
trifle - just enough to permit him a quick survey of the interior of
the apartment. It was empty. A smile crossed his face as he thought
of the difficulty Leopold might encounter the following morning in
convincing his jailers that he was not the American.

Then he recalled his reflection in the cheval glass and frowned.
Could Leopold convince them? He doubted it - and what then? The
American was sentenced to be shot at dawn. They would shoot the king
instead. Then there would be none to whom to return the kingship.
What would he do with it? The temptation was great. Again a throne
lay within his grasp - a throne and the woman he loved. None might
ever know unless he chose to tell - his resemblance to Leopold was
too perfect. It defied detection.

With an exclamation of impatience he wheeled about and dragged the
frightened monarch back to the room from which he had stolen him. As
he entered he heard a knock at the door.

"Do not disturb me now," he called. "Come again in half an hour."

"But it is Her Highness, Princess Emma, sire," came a voice from
beyond the door. "You summoned her."

"She may return to her apartments," replied Barney.

All the time he kept his revolver leveled at the king, from his eyes
he had removed the blind after they had entered the apartment. He
crossed to the table where the king had been sitting when he
surprised him, motioning the ragged ruler to follow and be seated.

"Take that pen," he said, "and write a full pardon for Mr. Bernard
Custer, and an order requiring that he be furnished with money and
set at liberty at dawn."

The king did as he was bid. For a moment the American stood looking
at him before he spoke again.

"You do not deserve what I am going to do for you," he said. "And
Lutha deserves a better king than the one my act will give her; but
I am neither a thief nor a murderer, and so I must forbear leaving
you to your just deserts and return your throne to you. I shall do
so after I have insured my own safety and done what I can for
Lutha - what you are too little a man and king to do yourself.

"So soon as they liberate you in the morning, make the best of your
way to Brosnov, on the Serbian frontier. Await me there. When I can,
I shall come. Again we may exchange clothing and you can return to
Lustadt. I shall cross over into Siberia out of your reach, for I
know you too well to believe that any sense of honor or gratitude
would prevent you signing my death-warrant at the first opportunity.
Now, come!"

Once again Barney led the blindfolded king through the dark corridor
to the room in the opposite tower - to the prison of the American. At
the open panel he shoved him into the apartment. Then he drew the
door quietly to, leaving the king upon the inside, and retraced his
steps to the royal apartments. Crossing to the center table, he
touched an electric button. A moment later an officer knocked at the
door, which, in the meantime, Barney had unbolted.

"Enter!" said the American. He stood with his back toward the door
until he heard it close behind the officer. When he turned he was
apparently examining his revolver. If the officer suspected his
identity, it was just as well to be prepared. Slowly he raised his
eyes to the newcomer, who stood stiffly at salute. The officer
looked him full in the face.

"I answered your majesty's summons," said the man.

"Oh, yes!" returned the American. "You may fetch the Princess
Emma."

The officer saluted once more and backed out of the apartment.
Barney walked to the table and sat down. A tin box of cigarettes lay
beside the lamp. Barney lighted one of them. The king had good taste
in the selection of tobacco, he thought. Well, a man must need have
some redeeming characteristics.

Outside, in the corridor, he heard voices, and again the knock at
the door. He bade them enter. As the door opened Emma von der Tann,
her head thrown back and a flush of anger on her face, entered the
room. Behind her was the officer who had been despatched to bring
her. Barney nodded to the latter.

"You may go," he said. He drew a chair from the table and asked the
princess to be seated. She ignored his request.

"What do you wish of me?" she asked. She was looking straight into
his eyes. The officer had withdrawn and closed the door after him.
They were alone, with nothing to fear; yet she did not recognize
him.

"You are the king," she continued in cold, level tones, "but if you
are also a gentleman, you will at once order me returned to my
father at Lustadt, and with me the man to whom you owe so much. I do
not expect it of you, but I wish to give you the chance.

"I shall not go without him. I am betrothed to you; but until
tonight I should rather have died than wed you. Now I am ready to
compromise. If you will set Mr. Custer at liberty in Serbia and
return me unharmed to my father, I will fulfill my part of our
betrothal."

Barney Custer looked straight into the girl's face for a long
moment. A half smile played upon his lips at the thought of her
surprise when she learned the truth, when suddenly it dawned upon
him that she and he were both much safer if no one, not even her
loyal self, guessed that he was other than the king. It is not
difficult to live a part, but often it is difficult to act one. Some
little word or look, were she to know that he was Barney Custer,
might betray them; no, it was better to leave her in ignorance,
though his conscience pricked him for the disloyalty that his act
implied.

It seemed a poor return for her courage and loyalty to him that her
statement to the man she thought king had revealed. He marveled that
a Von der Tann could have spoken those words - a Von der Tann who but
the day before had refused to save her father's life at the loss of
the family honor. It seemed incredible to the American that he had
won such love from such a woman. Again came the mighty temptation to
keep the crown and the girl both; but with a straightening of his
broad shoulders he threw it from him.

She was promised to the king, and while he masqueraded in the king's
clothes, he at least would act the part that a king should. He drew
a folded paper from his inside pocket and handed it to the girl.

"Here is the American's pardon," he said, "drawn up and signed by
the king's own hand."

She opened it and, glancing through it hurriedly, looked up at the
man before her with a questioning expression in her eyes.

"You came, then," she said, "to a realization of the enormity of
your ingratitude?"

The man shrugged.

"He will never die at my command," he said.

"I thank your majesty," she said simply. "As a Von der Tann, I have
tried to believe that a Rubinroth could not be guilty of such
baseness. And now, tell me what your answer is to my proposition."

"We shall return to Lustadt tonight," he replied. "I fear the
purpose of Prince Peter. In fact, it may be difficult - even
impossible - for us to leave Blentz; but we can at least make the
attempt."

"Can we not take Mr. Custer with us?" she asked. "Prince Peter may
disregard your majesty's commands and, after you are gone, have him
shot. Do not forget that he kept the crown from Peter of Blentz - it
is certain that Prince Peter will never forget it."

"I give you my word, your highness, that I know positively that if I
leave Blentz tonight Prince Peter will not have Mr. Custer shot in
the morning, and it will so greatly jeopardize his own plans if we
attempt to release the prisoner that in all probability we ourselves
will be unable to escape."

She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment.

"You give me your word that he will be safe?" she asked.

"My royal word," he replied.

"Very well, let us leave at once."

Barney touched the bell once more, and presently an officer of the
Blentz faction answered the summons. As the man closed the door and
approached, saluting, Barney stepped close to him.

"We are leaving for Tann tonight," he said, "at once. You will
conduct us from the castle and procure horses for us. All the time I
shall walk at your elbow, and in my hand I shall carry this," and he
displayed the king's revolver. "At the first indication of defection
upon your part I shall kill you. Do you perfectly understand me?"

"But, your majesty," exclaimed the officer, "why is it necessary
that you leave thus surreptitiously? May not the king go and come in
his own kingdom as he desires? Let me announce your wishes to Prince
Peter that he may furnish you with a proper escort. Doubtless he
will wish to accompany you himself, sire."

"You will do precisely what I say without further comment," snapped
Barney. "Now get a - " He had been about to say: "Now get a move on
you," when it occurred to him that this was not precisely the sort
of language that kings were supposed to use to their inferiors. So
he changed it. "Now get a couple of horses for her highness and
myself, as well as your own, for you will accompany us to Tann."

The officer looked at the weapon in the king's hand. He measured
the distance between himself and the king. He well knew the reputed
cowardice of Leopold. Could he make the leap and strike up the
king's hand before the timorous monarch found even the courage of
the cornered rat to fire at him? Then his eyes sought the face of
the king, searching for the signs of nervous terror that would make
his conquest an easy one; but what he saw in the eyes that bored
straight into his brought his own to the floor at the king's feet.

What new force animated Leopold of Lutha? Those were not the eyes
of a coward. No fear was reflected in their steely glitter. The
officer mumbled an apology, saluted, and turned toward the door. At
his elbow walked the impostor; a cavalry cape that had belonged to
the king now covered his shoulders and hid the weapon that pressed
its hard warning now and again into the short-ribs of the Blentz
officer. Just behind the American came the Princess Emma von der
Tann.

The three passed through the deserted corridors of the sleeping
castle, taking a route at Barney's suggestion that led them to the
stable courtyard without necessitating traversing the main corridors
or the great hall or the guardroom, in all of which there still were
Austrian and Blentz soldiers, whose duties or pleasures had kept
them from their blankets.

At the stables a sleepy groom answered the summons of the officer,
whom Barney had warned not to divulge the identity of himself or the
princess. He left the princess in the shadows outside the building.
After what seemed an eternity to the American, three horses were led
into the courtyard, saddled, and bridled. The party mounted and
approached the gates. Here, Barney knew, might be encountered the
most serious obstacle in their path. He rode close to the side of
their unwilling conductor. Leaning forward in his saddle, he
whispered in the man's ear.

"Failure to pass us through the gates," he said, "will be the signal
for your death."

The man reined in his mount and turned toward the American.

"I doubt if they will pass even me without a written order from
Prince Peter," he said. "If they refuse, you must reveal your
identity. The guard is composed of Luthanians - I doubt if they will
dare refuse your majesty."

Then they rode on up to the gates. A soldier stepped from the
sentry box and challenged them.

"Lower the drawbridge," ordered the officer. "It is Captain
Krantzwort on a mission for the king."

The soldier approached, raising a lantern, which he had brought from
the sentry box, and inspected the captain's face. He seemed ill at
ease. In the light of the lantern, the American saw that he was
scarce more than a boy - doubtless a recruit. He saw the expression
of fear and awe with which he regarded the officer, and it occurred
to him that the effect of the king's presence upon him would be
absolutely overpowering. Still the soldier hesitated.

"My orders are very strict, sir," he said. "I am to let no one
leave without a written order from Prince Peter. If the sergeant or
the lieutenant were here they would know what to do; but they are
both at the castle - only two other soldiers are at the gates with
me. Wait, and I will send one of them for the lieutenant."

"No," interposed the American. "You will send for no one, my man.
Come closer - look at my face."

The soldier approached, holding his lantern above his head. As its
feeble rays fell upon the face and uniform of the man on horseback,
the sentry gave a little gasp of astonishment.

"Now, lower the drawbridge," said Barney Custer, "it is your king's
command."

Quickly the fellow hastened to obey the order. The chains creaked
and the windlass groaned as the heavy planking sank to place across
the moat.

As Barney passed the soldier he handed him the pardon Leopold had
written for the American.

"Give this to your lieutenant," he said, "and tell him to hand it to
Prince Peter before dawn tomorrow. Do not fail."

A moment later the three were riding down the winding road toward
Blentz. Barney had no further need of the officer who rode with
them. He would be glad to be rid of him, for he anticipated that the
fellow might find ample opportunity to betray them as they passed
through the Austrian lines, which they must do to reach Lustadt.

He had told the captain that they were going to Tann in order that,
should the man find opportunity to institute pursuit, he might be
thrown off the track. The Austrian sentries were no great distance
ahead when Barney ordered a halt.

"Dismount," he directed the captain, leaping to the ground himself
at the same time. "Put your hands behind your back."

The officer did as he was bid, and Barney bound his wrists securely
with a strap and buckle that he had removed from the cantle of his
saddle as he rode. Then he led him off the road among some weeds and
compelled him to lie down, after which he bound his ankles together
and stuffed a gag in his mouth, securing it in place with a bit of
stick and the chinstrap from the man's helmet. The threat of the
revolver kept Captain Krantzwort silent and obedient throughout the
hasty operations.

"Good-bye, captain," whispered Barney, "and let me suggest that you
devote the time until your discovery and release in pondering the
value of winning your king's confidence in the future. Had you
chosen your associates more carefully in the past, this need not
have occurred."

Barney unsaddled the captain's horse and turned him loose, then he
remounted and, with the princess at his side, rode down toward
Blentz.



X

A NEW KING IN LUTHA

As the two riders approached the edge of the village of Blentz a
sentry barred their way. To his challenge the American replied that
they were "friends from the castle."

"Advance," directed the sentry, "and give the countersign."

Barney rode to the fellow's side, and leaning from the saddle
whispered in his ear the word "Slankamen."

Would it pass them out as it had passed Maenck in? Barney scarcely
breathed as he awaited the result of his experiment. The soldier
brought his rifle to present and directed them to pass. With a sigh
of relief that was almost audible the two rode into the village and
the Austrian lines.

Once within they met with no further obstacle until they reached the
last line of sentries upon the far side of the town. It was with
more confidence that Barney gave the countersign here, nor was he
surprised that the soldier passed them readily; and now they were
upon the highroad to Lustadt, with nothing more to bar their way.

For hours they rode on in silence. Barney wanted to talk with his
companion, but as king he found nothing to say to her. The girl's
mind was filled with morbid reflections of the past few hours and
dumb terror for the future. She would keep her promise to the king;
but after - life would not be worth the living; why should she live?
She glanced at the man beside her in the light of the coming dawn.
Ah, why was he so like her American in outward appearances only?
Their own mothers could scarce have distinguished them, and yet in
character no two men could have differed more widely. The man turned
to her.

"We are almost there," he said. "You must be very tired."

The words reflected a consideration that had never been a
characteristic of Leopold. The girl began to wonder if there might
not possibly be a vein of nobility in the man, after all, that she
had never discovered. Since she had entered his apartments at Blentz
he had been in every way a different man from the Leopold she had
known of old. The boldness of his escape from Blentz supposed a
courage that the king had never given the slightest indication of in
the past. Could it be that he was making a genuine effort to become
a man - to win her respect?

They were approaching Lustadt as the sun rose. A troop of horse was
just emerging from the north gate. As it neared them they saw that
the cavalrymen wore the uniforms of the Royal Horse Guard. At their
head rode a lieutenant. As his eyes fell upon the face of the
princess and her companion, he brought his troopers to a halt, and,
with incredulity plain upon his countenance, advanced to meet them,
his hand raised in salute to the king. It was Butzow.

Now Barney was sure that he would be recognized. For two years he
and the Luthanian officer had been inseparable. Surely Butzow would
penetrate his disguise. He returned his friend's salute, looked him
full in the eyes, and asked where he was riding.

"To Blentz, your majesty," replied Butzow, "to demand an audience.
I bear important word from Prince von der Tann. He has learned the
Austrians are moving an entire army corps into Lutha, together with
siege howitzers. Serbia has demanded that all Austrian troops be
withdrawn from Luthanian territory at once, and has offered to
assist your majesty in maintaining your neutrality by force, if
necessary."

As Butzow spoke his eyes were often upon the Princess Emma, and it
was quite evident that he was much puzzled to account for her
presence with the king. She was supposed to be at Tann, and Butzow
knew well enough her estimate of Leopold to know that she would not
be in his company of her own volition. His expression as he
addressed the man he supposed to be his king was far from
deferential. Barney could scarce repress a smile.

"We will ride at once to the palace," he said. "At the gate you may
instruct one of your sergeants to telephone to Prince von der Tann
that the king is returning and will grant him audience immediately.
You and your detachment will act as our escort."

Butzow saluted and turned to his troopers, giving the necessary
commands that brought them about in the wake of the pseudo-king.
Once again Barney Custer, of Beatrice, rode into Lustadt as king of
Lutha. The few people upon the streets turned to look at him as he
passed, but there was little demonstration of love or enthusiasm.

Leopold had awakened no emotions of this sort in the hearts of his
subjects. Some there were who still remembered the gallant actions
of their ruler on the field of battle when his forces had defeated
those of the regent, upon that other occasion when this same
American had sat upon the throne of Lutha for two days and had led
the little army to victory; but since then the true king had been
with them daily in his true colors. Arrogance, haughtiness, and
petty tyranny had marked his reign. Taxes had gone even higher than
under the corrupt influence of the Blentz regime. The king's days
were spent in bed; his nights in dissipation. Old Ludwig von der
Tann seemed Lutha's only friend at court. Him the people loved and
trusted.

It was the old chancellor who met them as they entered the
palace - the Princess Emma, Lieutenant Butzow, and the false king. As
the old man's eyes fell upon his daughter, he gave an exclamation of
surprise and of incredulity. He looked from her to the American.

"What is the meaning of this, your majesty?" he cried in a voice
hoarse with emotion. "What does her highness in your company?"

There was neither fear nor respect in Prince Ludwig's tone - only
anger. He was demanding an accounting from Leopold, the man; not
from Leopold, the king. Barney raised his hand.

"Wait," he said, "before you judge. The princess was brought to
Blentz by Prince Peter. She will tell you that I have aided her to
escape and that I have accorded her only such treatment as a woman
has a right to expect from a king."

The girl inclined her head.

"His majesty has been most kind," she said. "He has treated me with
every consideration and respect, and I am convinced that he was not
a willing party to my arrest and forcible detention at Blentz; or,"
she added, "if he was, he regretted his action later and has made
full reparation by bringing me to Lustadt."

Prince von der Tann found difficulty in hiding his surprise at this
evidence of chivalry in the cowardly king. But for his daughter's
testimony he could not have believed it possible that it lay within
the nature of Leopold of Lutha to have done what he had done within
the past few hours.

He bowed low before the man who wore the king's uniform. The
American extended his hand, and Von der Tann, taking it in his own,
raised it to his lips.

"And now," said Barney briskly, "let us go to my apartments and get
to work. Your highness" - and he turned toward the Princess
Emma - "must be greatly fatigued. Lieutenant Butzow, you will see
that a suite is prepared for her highness. Afterward you may call
upon Count Zellerndorf, whom I understand returned to Lustadt
yesterday, and notify him that I will receive him in an hour. Inform
the Serbian minister that I desire his presence at the palace
immediately. Lose no time, lieutenant, and be sure to impress upon
the Serbian minister that immediately means immediately."


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Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 17 of 22)