Copyright
Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The Mad King online

. (page 20 of 22)
Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 20 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


turned he saw the figure of the king leaping toward him with leveled
revolver. At the king's back a company of troopers of the Royal
Horse Guard was pouring into the courtyard.

Maenck snatched his own revolver from his hip and fired point-blank
at the "king." The firing squad had turned at the sound of assault
from the rear. Some of them discharged their pieces at the advancing
troopers. Butzow gave a command and seventeen carbines poured their
deadly hail into the ranks of the Blentz retainers. At Maenck's shot
the "king" staggered and fell to the pavement.

Maenck leaped across his prostrate form, yelling to his men "Shoot
the American." Then he was lost to Barney's sight in the
hand-to-hand scrimmage that was taking place. The American tried to
regain his feet, but the shock of the wound in his breast had
apparently paralyzed him for the moment. A Blentz soldier was
running toward the prisoner standing open-mouthed against the wall.
The fellow's rifle was raised to his hip - his intention was only too
obvious.

Barney drew himself painfully and slowly to one elbow. The man was
rapidly nearing the true Leopold. In another moment he would shoot.
The American raised his revolver and, taking careful aim, fired. The
soldier shrieked, covered his face with his hands, spun around once,
and dropped at the king's feet.

The troopers under Butzow were forcing the men of Blentz toward the
far end of the courtyard. Two of the Blentz faction were standing a
little apart, backing slowly away and at the same time deliberately
firing at the king. Barney seemed the only one who noticed them.
Once again he raised his revolver and fired. One of the men sat down
suddenly, looked vacantly about him, and then rolled over upon his
side. The other fired once more at the king and the same instant
Barney fired at the soldier. Soldier and king - would-be assassin and
his victim - fell simultaneously. Barney grimaced. The wound in his
breast was painful. He had done his best to save the king. It was no
fault of his that he had failed. It was a long way to Beatrice. He
wondered if Emma von der Tann would be on the station platform,
awaiting him - then he swooned.

Butzow and his seventeen had it all their own way in the courtyard
and castle of Blentz. After the first resistance the soldiery of
Peter fled to the guardroom. Butzow followed them, and there they
laid down their arms. Then the lieutenant returned to the courtyard
to look for the king and Barney Custer. He found them both, and both
were wounded. He had them carried to the royal apartments in the
north tower. When Barney regained consciousness he found the
scowling portrait of the Blentz princess frowning down upon him. He
lay upon a great bed where the soldiers, thinking him king, had
placed him. Opposite him, against the farther wall, the real king
lay upon a cot. Butzow was working over him.

"Not so bad, after all, Barney," the lieutenant was saying. "Only a
flesh wound in the calf of the leg."

The king made no reply. He was afraid to declare his identity.
First he must learn the intentions of the impostor. He only closed
his eyes wearily. Presently he asked a question.

"Is he badly wounded?" and he indicated the figure upon the great
bed.

Butzow turned and crossed to where the American lay. He saw that the
latter's eyes were open and that he was conscious.

"How does your majesty feel?" he asked. There was more respect in
his tone than ever before. One of the Blentz soldiers had told him
how the "king," after being wounded by Maenck, had raised himself
upon his elbow and saved the prisoner's life by shooting three of
his assailants.

"I thought I was done for," answered Barney Custer, "but I rather
guess the bullet struck only a glancing blow. It couldn't have
entered my lungs, for I neither cough nor spit blood. To tell you
the truth, I feel surprisingly fit. How's the prisoner?"

"Only a flesh wound in the calf of his left leg, sire," replied
Butzow.

"I am glad," was Barney's only comment. He didn't want to be king
of Lutha; but he had foreseen that with the death of the king his
imposture might be forced upon him for life.

After Butzow and one of the troopers had washed and dressed the
wounds of both men Barney asked them to leave the room.

"I wish to sleep," he said. "If I require you I will ring."

Saluting, the two backed from the apartment. Just as they were
passing through the doorway the American called out to Butzow.

"You have Peter of Blentz and Maenck in custody?" he asked.

"I regret having to report to your majesty," replied the officer,
"that both must have escaped. A thorough search of the entire castle
has failed to reveal them."

Barney scowled. He had hoped to place these two conspirators once
and for all where they would never again threaten the peace of the
throne of Lutha - in hell. For a moment he lay in thought. Then he
addressed the officer again.

"Leave your force here," he said, "to guard us. Ride, yourself, to
Lustadt and inform Prince von der Tann that it is the king's desire
that every effort be made to capture these two men. Have them
brought to Lustadt immediately they are apprehended. Bring them dead
or alive."

Again Butzow saluted and prepared to leave the room.

"Wait," said Barney. "Convey our greetings to the Princess von der
Tann, and inform her that my wound is of small importance, as is
also that of the - Mr. Custer. You may go, lieutenant."

When they were alone Barney turned toward the king. The other lay
upon his side glaring at the American. When he caught the latter's
eyes upon him he spoke.

"What do you intend doing with me?" he said. "Are you going to keep
your word and return my identity?"

"I have promised," replied Barney, "and what I promise I always
perform."

"Then exchange clothing with me at once," cried the king, half
rising from his cot.

"Not so fast, my friend," rejoined the American. "There are a few
trifling details to be arranged before we resume our proper
personalities."

"Do you realize that you should be hanged for what you have done?"
snarled the king. "You assaulted me, stole my clothing, left me here
to be shot by Peter, and sat upon my throne in Lustadt while I lay a
prisoner condemned to death."

"And do you realize," replied Barney, "that by so doing I saved your
foolish little throne for you; that I drove the invaders from your
dominions; that I have unmasked your enemies, and that I have once
again proven to you that the Prince von der Tann is your best friend
and most loyal supporter?"

"You laid your plebeian hands upon me," cried the king, raising his
voice. "You humiliated me, and you shall suffer for it."

Barney Custer eyed the king for a long moment before he spoke again.
It was difficult to believe that the man was so devoid of gratitude,
and so blind as not to see that even the rough treatment that he had
received at the American's hands was as nothing by comparison with
the service that the American had done him. Apparently Leopold had
already forgotten that three times Barney Custer had saved his life
in the courtyard below. From the man's demeanor, now that his life
was no longer at stake, Barney caught an inkling of what his
attitude might be when once again he was returned to the despotic
power of his kingship.

"It is futile to reason with you," he said. "There is only one way
to handle such as you. At present I hold the power to coerce you,
and I shall continue to hold that power until I am safely out of
your two-by-four kingdom. If you do as I say you shall have your
throne back again. If you refuse, why by Heaven you shall never have
it. I'll stay king of Lutha myself."

"What are your terms?" asked the king.

"That Prince Peter of Blentz, Captain Ernst Maenck, and old Von
Coblich be tried, convicted, and hanged for high treason," replied
the American.

"That is easy," said the king. "I should do so anyway immediately I
resumed my throne. Now get up and give me my clothes. Take this cot
and I will take the bed. None will know of the exchange."

"Again you are too fast," answered Barney. "There is another
condition."

"Well?"

"You must promise upon your royal honor that Ludwig, Prince von der
Tann, remain chancellor of Lutha during your life or his."

"Very well," assented the king. "I promise," and again he half rose
from his cot.

"Hold on a minute," admonished the American; "there is yet one more
condition of which I have not made mention."

"What, another?" exclaimed Leopold testily. "How much do you want
for returning to me what you have stolen?"

"So far I have asked for nothing for myself," replied Barney. "Now
I am coming to that part of the agreement. The Princess Emma von der
Tann is betrothed to you. She does not love you. She has honored me
with her affection, but she will not wed until she has been formally
released from her promise to wed Leopold of Lutha. The king must
sign such a release and also a sanction of her marriage to Barney
Custer, of Beatrice. Do you understand what I want?"

The king went livid. He came to his feet beside the cot. For the
moment, his wound was forgotten. He tottered toward the impostor.

"You scoundrel!" he screamed. "You scoundrel! You have stolen my
identity and my throne and now you wish to steal the woman who loves
me."

"Don't get excited, Leo," warned the American, "and don't talk so
loud. The Princess doesn't love you, and you know it as well as I.
She will never marry you. If you want your dinky throne back you'll
have to do as I desire; that is, sign the release and the sanction.

"Now let's don't have any heroics about it. You have the
proposition. Now I am going to sleep. In the meantime you may think
it over. If the papers are not ready when it comes time for us to
leave, and from the way I feel now I rather think I shall be ready
to mount a horse by morning, I shall ride back to Lustadt as king of
Lutha, and I shall marry her highness into the bargain, and you may
go hang!

"How the devil you will earn a living with that king job taken away
from you I don't know. You're a long way from New York, and in the
present state of carnage in Europe I rather doubt that there are
many headwaiters jobs open this side of the American metropolis, and
I can't for the moment think of anything else at which you would
shine - with all due respect to some excellent headwaiters I have
known."

For some time the king remained silent. He was thinking. He
realized that it lay in the power of the American to do precisely
what he had threatened to do. No one would doubt his identity. Even
Peter of Blentz had not recognized the real king despite Leopold's
repeated and hysterical claims.

Lieutenant Butzow, the American's best friend, had no more suspected
the exchange of identities. Von der Tann, too, must have been
deceived. Everyone had been deceived. There was no hope that the
people, who really saw so little of their king, would guess the
deception that was being played upon them. Leopold groaned. Barney
opened his eyes and turned toward him.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"I will sign the release and the sanction of her highness' marriage
to you," said the king.

"Good!" exclaimed the American. "You will then go at once to
Brosnov as originally planned. I will return to Lustadt and get her
highness, and we will immediately leave Lutha via Brosnov. There you
and I will effect a change of raiment, and you will ride back to
Lustadt with the small guard that accompanies her highness and me to
the frontier."

"Why do you not remain in Lustadt?" asked the king. "You could as
well be married there as elsewhere."

"Because I don't trust your majesty," replied the American. "It must
be done precisely as I say or not at all. Are you agreeable?"

The king assented with a grumpy nod.

"Then get up and write as I dictate," said Barney. Leopold of Lutha
did as he was bid. The result was two short, crisply worded
documents. At the bottom of each was the signature of Leopold of
Lutha. Barney took the two papers and carefully tucked them beneath
his pillow.

"Now let's sleep," he said. "It is getting late and we both need
the rest. In the morning we have long rides ahead of us. Good
night."

The king did not respond. In a short time Barney was fast asleep.
The light still burned.




XIV

"THE KING'S WILL IS LAW"

The Blentz princess frowned down upon the king and impostor
impartially from her great gilt frame. It must have been close to
midnight that the painting moved - just a fraction of an inch. Then
it remained motionless for a time. Again it moved. This time it
revealed a narrow crack at its edge. In the crack an eye shone.

One of the sleepers moved. He opened his eyes. Stealthily he
raised himself on his elbow and gazed at the other across the
apartment. He listened intently. The regular breathing of the
sleeper proclaimed the soundness of his slumber. Gingerly the man
placed one foot upon the floor. The eye glued to the crack at the
edge of the great, gilt frame of the Blentz princess remained
fastened upon him. He let his other foot slip to the floor beside
the first. Carefully he raised himself until he stood erect upon the
floor. Then, on tiptoe he started across the room.

The eye in the dark followed him. The man reached the side of the
sleeper. Bending over he listened intently to the other's breathing.
Satisfied that slumber was profound he stepped quickly to a wardrobe
in which a soldier had hung the clothing of both the king and the
American. He took down the uniform of the former, casting from time
to time apprehensive glances toward the sleeper. The latter did not
stir, and the other passed to the little dressing-room adjoining.

A few minutes later he reentered the apartment fully clothed and
wearing the accouterments of Leopold of Lutha. In his hand was a
drawn sword. Silently and swiftly he crossed to the side of the
sleeping man. The eye at the crack beside the gilded frame pressed
closer to the aperture. The sword was raised above the body of the
slumberer - its point hovered above his heart. The face of the man
who wielded it was hard with firm resolve.

His muscles tensed to drive home the blade, but something held his
hand. His face paled. His shoulders contracted with a little
shudder, and he turned toward the door of the apartment, almost
running across the floor in his anxiety to escape. The eye in the
dark maintained its unblinking vigilance.

With his hand upon the knob a sudden thought stayed the fugitive's
flight. He glanced quickly back at the sleeper - he had not moved.
Then the man who wore the uniform of the king of Lutha recrossed the
apartment to the bed, reached beneath one of the pillows and
withdrew two neatly folded official-looking documents. These he
placed in the breastpocket of his uniform. A moment later he was
walking down the spiral stairway to the main floor of the castle.

In the guardroom the troopers of the Royal Horse who were not on
guard were stretched in slumber. Only a corporal remained awake. As
the man entered the guardroom the corporal glanced up, and as his
eyes fell upon the newcomer, he sprang to his feet, saluting.

"Turn out the guard!" he cried. "Turn out the guard for his
majesty, the king!"

The sleeping soldiers, but half awake, scrambled to their feet,
their muscles reacting to the command that their brains but half
perceived. They snatched their guns from the racks and formed a line
behind the corporal. The king raised his fingers to the vizor of his
helmet in acknowledgment of their salute.

"Saddle up quietly, corporal," he said. "We shall ride to Lustadt
tonight."

The non-commissioned officer saluted. "And an extra horse for Herr
Custer?" he said.

The king shook his head. "The man died of his wound about an hour
ago," he said. "While you are saddling up I shall arrange with some
of the Blentz servants for his burial - now hurry!"

The corporal marched his troopers from the guardroom toward the
stables. The man in the king's clothes touched a bell which was
obviously a servant call. He waited impatiently a reply to his
summons, tapping his finger-tips against the sword-scabbard that was
belted to his side. At last a sleepy-eyed man responded - a man who
had grown gray in the service of Peter of Blentz. At sight of the
king he opened his eyes in astonishment, pulled his foretop, and
bowed uneasily.

"Come closer," whispered the king. The man did so, and the king
spoke in his ear earnestly, but in scarce audible tones. The eyes of
the listener narrowed to mere slits - of avarice and cunning, cruelly
cold and calculating. The speaker searched through the pockets of
the king's clothes that covered him. At last he withdrew a roll of
bills. The amount must have been a large one, but he did not stop to
count it. He held the money under the eyes of the servant. The
fellow's claw-like fingers reached for the tempting wealth. He
nodded his head affirmatively.

"You may trust me, sire," he whispered.

The king slipped the money into the other's palm. "And as much
more," he said, "when I receive proof that my wishes have been
fulfilled."

"Thank you, sire," said the servant.

The king looked steadily into the other's face before he spoke
again.

"And if you fail me," he said, "may God have mercy on your soul."
Then he wheeled and left the guardroom, walking out into the
courtyard where the soldiers were busy saddling their mounts.

A few minutes later the party clattered over the drawbridge and down
the road toward Blentz and Lustadt. From a window of the apartments
of Peter of Blentz a man watched them depart. When they passed
across a strip of moonlit road, and he had counted them, he smiled
with relief.

A moment later he entered a panel beside the huge fireplace in the
west wall and disappeared. There he struck a match, found a candle
and lighted it. Walking a few steps he came to a figure sleeping
upon a pile of clothing. He stooped and shook the sleeper by the
shoulder.

"Wake up!" he cried in a subdued voice. "Wake up, Prince Peter; I
have good news for you."

The other opened his eyes, stretched, and at last sat up.

"What is it, Maenck?" he asked querulously.

"Great news, my prince," replied the other.

"While you have been sleeping many things have transpired within the
walls of your castle. The king's troopers have departed; but that is
a small matter compared with the other. Here, behind the portrait of
your great-grandmother, I have listened and watched all night. I
opened the secret door a fraction of an inch - just enough to permit
me to look into the apartment where the king and the American lay
wounded. They had been talking as I opened the door, but after that
they ceased - the king falling asleep at once - the American feigning
slumber. For a long time I watched, but nothing happened until near
midnight. Then the American arose and donned the king's clothes.

"He approached Leopold with drawn sword, but when he would have
thrust it through the heart of the sleeping man his nerve failed
him. Then he stole some papers from the room and left. Just now he
has ridden out toward Lustadt with the men of the Royal Horse who
captured the castle yesterday."

Before Maenck was half-way through his narrative, Peter of Blentz
was wide awake and all attention. His eyes glowed with suddenly
aroused interest.

"Somewhere in this, prince," concluded Maenck, "there must lie the
seed of fortune for you and me."

Peter nodded. "Yes," he mused, "there must."

For a time both men were buried in thought. Suddenly Maenck snapped
his fingers. "I have it!" he cried. He bent toward Prince Peter's
ear and whispered his plan. When he was done the Blentz prince
grasped his hand.

"Just the thing, Maenck!" he cried. "Just the thing. Leopold will
never again listen to idle gossip directed against our loyalty. If I
know him - and who should know him better - he will heap honors upon
you, my Maenck; and as for me, he will at least forgive me and take
me back into his confidence. Lose no time now, my friend. We are
free now to go and come, since the king's soldiers have been
withdrawn."

In the garden back of the castle an old man was busy digging a hole.
It was a long, narrow hole, and, when it was completed, nearly four
feet deep. It looked like a grave. When he had finished the old man
hobbled to a shed that leaned against the south wall. Here were
boards, tools, and a bench. It was the castle workshop. The old man
selected a number of rough pine boards. These he measured and sawed,
fitted and nailed, working all the balance of the night. By dawn, he
had a long, narrow box, just a trifle smaller than the hole he had
dug in the garden. The box resembled a crude coffin. When it was
quite finished, including a cover, he dragged it out into the garden
and set it upon two boards that spanned the hole, so that it rested
precisely over the excavation.

All these precautions methodically made, he returned to the castle.
In a little storeroom he searched for and found an ax. With his
thumb he felt of the edge - for an ax it was marvelously sharp. The
old fellow grinned and shook his head, as one who appreciates in
anticipation the consummation of a good joke. Then he crept
noiselessly through the castle's corridors and up the spiral
stairway in the north tower. In one hand was the sharp ax.


The moment Lieutenant Butzow had reached Lustadt he had gone
directly to Prince von der Tann; but the moment his message had been
delivered to the chancellor he sought out the chancellor's daughter,
to tell her all that had occurred at Blentz.

"I saw but little of Mr. Custer," he said. "He was very quiet. I
think all that he has been through has unnerved him. He was slightly
wounded in the left leg. The king was wounded in the breast. His
majesty conducted himself in a most valiant and generous manner.
Wounded, he lay upon his stomach in the courtyard of the castle and
defended Mr. Custer, who was, of course, unarmed. The king shot
three of Prince Peter's soldiers who were attempting to assassinate
Mr. Custer."

Emma von der Tann smiled. It was evident that Lieutenant Butzow had
not discovered the deception that had been practiced upon him in
common with all Lutha - she being the only exception. It seemed
incredible that this good friend of the American had not seen in the
heroism of the man who wore the king's clothes the attributes and
ear-marks of Barney Custer. She glowed with pride at the narration
of his heroism, though she suffered with him because of his wound.

It was not yet noon when the detachment of the Royal Horse arrived
in Lustadt from Blentz. At their head rode one whom all upon the
streets of the capital greeted enthusiastically as king. The party
rode directly to the royal palace, and the king retired immediately
to his apartments. A half hour later an officer of the king's
household knocked upon the door of the Princess Emma von der Tann's
boudoir. In accord with her summons he entered, saluted
respectfully, and handed her a note.

It was written upon the personal stationary of Leopold of Lutha.
The girl read and reread it. For some time she could not seem to
grasp the enormity of the thing that had overwhelmed her - the daring
of the action that the message explained. The note was short and to
the point, and was signed only with initials.



DEAREST EMMA:

The king died of his wounds just before midnight. I
shall keep the throne. There is no other way. None
knows and none must ever know the truth. Your father
alone may suspect; but if we are married at once our
alliance will cement him and his faction to us. Send
word by the bearer that you agree with the wisdom
of my plan, and that we may be wed at once - this
afternoon, in fact.

The people may wonder for a few days at the strange
haste, but my answer shall be that I am going to the
front with my troops. The son and many of the high
officials of the Kaiser have already established the
precedent, marrying hurriedly upon the eve of their
departure for the front.

With every assurance of my undying love, believe me,

Yours,
B. C.


The girl walked slowly across the room to her writing table. The
officer stood in respectful silence awaiting the answer that the
king had told him to bring. The princess sat down before the carved
bit of furniture. Mechanically she drew a piece of note paper from a
drawer. Many times she dipped her pen in the ink before she could
determine what reply to send. Ages of ingrained royalistic


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20 22

Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 20 of 22)