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Franz's band of cutthroats," replied Barney. "Tell me what manner of
riddle you are propounding."

Then a sudden light of understanding flashed through Barney's mind.

"Man!" he exclaimed. "Tell me - you have found the true king? He is
at a hospital in Tafelberg?"

"Yes, your majesty, I have found the true king, and it is so that he
was at the Tafelberg sanatorium last evening. It was beside the
remnants of your wrecked automobile that two of the men of Tafelberg
found you.

"One leg was pinioned beneath the machine which was on fire when
they discovered you. They brought you to my shop, which is the first
on the road into town, and not guessing your true identity they took
my word for it that you were an old acquaintance of mine and without
more ado turned you over to my care."

Barney scratched his head in puzzled bewilderment. He began to
doubt if he were in truth himself, or, after all, Leopold of Lutha.
As no one but himself could, by the wildest stretch of imagination,
have been in such a position, he was almost forced to the conclusion
that all that had passed since the instant that his car shot over
the edge of the road into the ravine had been but the hallucinations
of a fever-excited brain, and that for the past three weeks he had
been lying in a hospital cot instead of experiencing the strange and
inexplicable adventures that he had believed to have befallen him.

But yet the more he thought of it the more ridiculous such a
conclusion appeared, for it did not in the least explain the pony
tethered without, which he plainly could see from where he stood
within the shop, nor did it satisfactorily account for the blotch of
blood upon his shoulder from a wound so fresh that the stain still
was damp; nor for the sword which Joseph had buckled about his waist
within Blentz's forbidding walls; nor for the arms and ammunition he
had taken from the dead brigands - all of which he had before him as
tangible evidence of the rationality of the past few weeks.

"My friend," said Barney at last, "I cannot wonder that you have
mistaken me for the king, since all those I have met within Lutha
have leaped to the same error, though not one among them made the
slightest pretense of ever having seen his majesty. A ridiculous
beard started the trouble, and later a series of happenings, no one
of which was particularly remarkable in itself, aggravated it, until
but a moment since I myself was almost upon the point of believing
that I am the king.

"But, my dear Herr Kramer, I am not the king; and when you have
accompanied me to the hospital and seen that your patient still is
there, you may be willing to admit that there is some justification
for doubt as to my royalty."

The old man shook his head.

"I am not so sure of that," he said, "for he who lies at the
hospital, providing you are not he, or he you, maintains as sturdily
as do you that he is not Leopold. If one of you, whichever be
king - providing that you are not one and the same, and that I be not
the only maniac in the sad muddle - if one of you would but trust my
loyalty and love for the true king and admit your identity, then I
might be of some real service to that one of you who is really
Leopold. Herr Gott! My words are as mixed as my poor brain."

"If you will listen to me, Herr Kramer," said Barney, "and believe
what I tell you, I shall be able to unscramble your ideas in so far
as they pertain to me and my identity. As to the man you say was
found beneath my car, and who now lies in the sanatorium of
Tafelberg, I cannot say until I have seen and talked with him. He
may be the king and he may not; but if he insists that he is not, I
shall be the last to wish a kingship upon him. I know from sad
experience the hardships and burdens that the thing entails."

Then Barney narrated carefully and in detail the principal events of
his life, from his birth in Beatrice to his coming to Lutha upon
pleasure. He showed Herr Kramer his watch with his monogram upon it,
his seal ring, and inside the pocket of his coat the label of his
tailor, with his own name written beneath it and the date that the
garment had been ordered.

When he had completed his narrative the old man shook his head.

"I cannot understand it," he said; "and yet I am almost forced to
believe that you are not the king."

"Direct me to the sanatorium," suggested Barney, "and if it be
within the range of possibility I shall learn whether the man who
lies there is Leopold or another, and if he be the king I shall
serve him as loyally as you would have served me. Together we may
assist him to gain the safety of Tann and the protection of old
Prince Ludwig."

"If you are not the king," said Kramer suspiciously, "why should you
be so interested in aiding Leopold? You may even be an enemy. How
can I know?"

"You cannot know, my good friend," replied Barney. "But had I been
an enemy, how much more easily might I have encompassed my designs,
whatever they might have been, had I encouraged you to believe that
I was king. The fact that I did not, must assure you that I have no
ulterior designs against Leopold."

This line of reasoning proved quite convincing to the old
shopkeeper, and at last he consented to lead Barney to the
sanatorium. Together they traversed the quiet village streets to the
outskirts of the town, where in large, park-like grounds the
well-known sanatorium of Tafelberg is situated in quiet
surroundings. It is an institution for the treatment of nervous
diseases to which patients are brought from all parts of Europe, and
is doubtless Lutha's principal claim upon the attention of the outer
world.

As the two crossed the gardens which lay between the gate and the
main entrance and mounted the broad steps leading to the veranda an
old servant opened the door, and recognizing Herr Kramer, nodded
pleasantly to him.

"Your patient seems much brighter this morning, Herr Kramer," he
said, "and has been asking to be allowed to sit up."

"He is still here, then?" questioned the shopkeeper with a sigh that
might have indicated either relief or resignation.

"Why, certainly. You did not expect that he had entirely recovered
overnight, did you?"

"No," replied Herr Kramer, "not exactly. In fact, I did not know
what I should expect."

As the two passed him on their way to the room in which the patient
lay, the servant eyed Herr Kramer in surprise, as though wondering
what had occurred to his mentality since he had seen him the
previous day. He paid no attention to Barney other than to bow to
him as he passed, but there was another who did - an attendant
standing in the hallway through which the two men walked toward the
private room where one of them expected to find the real mad king of
Lutha.

He was a dark-visaged fellow, sallow and small-eyed; and as his
glance rested upon the features of the American a puzzled expression
crossed his face. He let his gaze follow the two as they moved on up
the corridor until they turned in at the door of the room they
sought, then he followed them, entering an apartment next to that in
which Herr Kramer's patient lay.

As Barney and the shopkeeper entered the small, whitewashed room,
the former saw upon the narrow iron cot the figure of a man of about
his own height. The face that turned toward them as they entered was
covered by a full, reddish-brown beard, and the eyes that looked up
at them in troubled surprise were gray. Beyond these Barney could
see no likenesses to himself; yet they were sufficient, he realized,
to have deceived any who might have compared one solely to the
printed description of the other.

At the doorway Kramer halted, motioning Barney within.

"It will be better if you talk with him alone," he said. "I am sure
that before both of us he will admit nothing."

Barney nodded, and the shopkeeper of Tafelberg withdrew and closed
the door behind him. The American approached the bedside with a
cheery "Good morning."

The man returned the salutation with a slight inclination of his
head. There was a questioning look in his eyes; but dominating that
was a pitiful, hunted expression that touched the American's heart.

The man's left hand lay upon the coverlet. Barney glanced at the
third finger. About it was a plain gold band. There was no royal
ring of the kings of Lutha in evidence, yet that was no indication
that the man was not Leopold; for were he the king and desirous of
concealing his identity, his first act would be to remove every
symbol of his kingship.

Barney took the hand in his.

"They tell me that you are well on the road to recovery," he said.
"I am very glad that it is so."

"Who are you?" asked the man.

"I am Bernard Custer, an American. You were found beneath my car at
the bottom of a ravine. I feel that I owe you full reparation for
the injuries you received, though it is beyond me how you happened
to be found under the machine. Unless I am truly mad, I was the only
occupant of the roadster when it plunged over the embankment."

"It is very simple," replied the man upon the cot. "I chanced to be
at the bottom of the ravine at the time and the car fell upon me."

"What were you doing at the bottom of the ravine?" asked Barney
quite suddenly, after the manner of one who administers a third
degree.

The man started and flushed with suspicion.

"That is my own affair," he said.

He tried to disengage his hand from Barney's, and as he did so the
American felt something within the fingers of the other. For an
instant his own fingers tightened upon those that lay within them,
so that as the others were withdrawn his index finger pressed close
upon the thing that had aroused his curiosity.

It was a large setting turned inward upon the third finger of the
left hand. The gold band that Barney had seen was but the opposite
side of the same ring.

A quick look of comprehension came to Barney's eyes. The man upon
the cot evidently noted it and rightly interpreted its cause, for,
having freed his hand, he now slipped it quickly beneath the
coverlet.

"I have passed through a series of rather remarkable adventures
since I came to Lutha," said Barney apparently quite irrelevantly,
after the two had remained silent for a moment. "Shortly after my
car fell upon you I was mistaken for the fugitive King Leopold by
the young lady whose horse fell into the ravine with my car. She is
a most loyal supporter of the king, being none other than the
Princess Emma von der Tann. From her I learned to espouse the cause
of Leopold."

Step by step Barney took the man through the adventures that had
befallen him during the past three weeks, closing with the story of
the death of the boy, Rudolph.

"Above his dead body I swore to serve Leopold of Lutha as loyally as
the poor, mistaken child had served me, your majesty," and Barney
looked straight into the eyes of him who lay upon the little iron
cot.

For a moment the man held his eyes upon those of the American, but
finally, under the latter's steady gaze, they dropped and wandered.

"Why do you address me as 'your majesty'?" he asked irritably.

"With my forefinger I felt the ruby and the four wings of the
setting of the royal ring of the kings of Lutha upon the third
finger of your left hand," replied Barney.

The king started up upon his elbow, his eyes wild with apprehension.

"It is not so," he cried. "It is a lie! I am not the king."

"Hush!" admonished Barney. "You have nothing to fear from me.
There are good friends and loyal subjects in plenty to serve and
protect your majesty, and place you upon the throne that has been
stolen from you. I have sworn to serve you. The old shopkeeper, Herr
Kramer, who brought me here, is an honest, loyal old soul. He would
die for you, your majesty. Trust us. Let us help you. Tomorrow,
Kramer tells me, Peter of Blentz is to have himself crowned as king
in the cathedral at Lustadt.

"Will you sit supinely by and see another rob you of your kingdom,
and then continue to rob and throttle your subjects as he has been
doing for the past ten years? No, you will not. Even if you do not
want the crown, you were born to the duties and obligations it
entails, and for the sake of your people you must assume them now."

"How am I to know that you are not another of the creatures of that
fiend of Blentz?" cried the king. "How am I to know that you will
not drag me back to the terrors of that awful castle, and to the
poisonous potions of the new physician Peter has employed to
assassinate me? I can trust none.

"Go away and leave me. I do not want to be king. I wish only to go
away as far from Lutha as I can get and pass the balance of my life
in peace and security. Peter may have the crown. He is welcome to
it, for all of me. All I ask is my life and my liberty."

Barney saw that while the king was evidently of sound mind, his was
not one of those iron characters and courageous hearts that would
willingly fight to the death for his own rights and the rights and
happiness of his people. Perhaps the long years of bitter
disappointment and misery, the tedious hours of imprisonment, and
the constant haunting fears for his life had reduced him to this
pitiable condition.

Whatever the cause, Barney Custer was determined to overcome the
man's aversion to assuming the duties which were rightly his, for in
his memory were the words of Emma von der Tann, in which she had
made plain to him the fate that would doubtless befall her father
and his house were Peter of Blentz to become king of Lutha. Then,
too, there was the life of the little peasant boy. Was that to be
given up uselessly for a king with so mean a spirit that he would
not take a scepter when it was forced upon him?

And the people of Lutha? Were they to be further and continually
robbed and downtrodden beneath the heel of Peter's scoundrelly
officials because their true king chose to evade the
responsibilities that were his by birth?

For half an hour Barney pleaded and argued with the king, until he
infused in the weak character of the young man a part of his own
tireless enthusiasm and courage. Leopold commenced to take heart and
see things in a brighter and more engaging light. Finally he became
quite excited about the prospects, and at last Barney obtained a
willing promise from him that he would consent to being placed upon
his throne and would go to Lustadt at any time that Barney should
come for him with a force from the retainers of Prince Ludwig von
der Tann.

"Let us hope," cried the king, "that the luck of the reigning house
of Lutha has been at last restored. Not since my aunt, the Princess
Victoria, ran away with a foreigner has good fortune shone upon my
house. It was when my father was still a young man - before he had
yet come to the throne - and though his reign was marked with great
peace and prosperity for the people of Lutha, his own private
fortunes were most unhappy.

"My mother died at my birth, and the last days of my father's life
were filled with suffering from the cancer that was slowly killing
him. Let us pray, Herr Custer, that you have brought new life to the
fortunes of my house."

"Amen, your majesty," said Barney. "And now I'll be off for
Tann - there must not be a moment lost if we are to bring you to
Lustadt in time for the coronation. Herr Kramer will watch over you,
but as none here guesses your true identity you are safer here than
anywhere else in Lutha. Good-bye, your majesty. Be of good heart.
We'll have you on the road to Lustadt and the throne tomorrow
morning."

After Barney Custer had closed the door of the king's chamber behind
him and hurried down the corridor, the door of the room next the
king's opened quietly and a dark-visaged fellow, sallow and
small-eyed, emerged. Upon his lips was a smile of cunning
satisfaction, as he hastened to the office of the medical director
and obtained a leave of absence for twenty-four hours.




VIII

THE CORONATION DAY

Toward dusk of the day upon which the mad king of Lutha had been
found, a dust-covered horseman reined in before the great gate of
the castle of Prince Ludwig von der Tann. The unsettled political
conditions which overhung the little kingdom of Lutha were evident
in the return to medievalism which the raised portcullis and the
armed guard upon the barbican of the ancient feudal fortress
revealed. Not for a hundred years before had these things been done
other than as a part of the ceremonials of a fete day, or in honor
of visiting royalty.

At the challenge from the gate Barney replied that he bore a message
for the prince. Slowly the portcullis sank into position across the
moat and an officer advanced to meet the rider.

"The prince has ridden to Lustadt with a large retinue," he said,
"to attend the coronation of Peter of Blentz tomorrow."

"Prince Ludwig von der Tann has gone to attend the coronation of
Peter!" cried Barney in amazement. "Has the Princess Emma returned
from her captivity in the castle of Blentz?"

"She is with her father now, having returned nearly three weeks
ago," replied the officer, "and Peter has disclaimed responsibility
for the outrage, promising that those responsible shall be punished.
He has convinced Prince Ludwig that Leopold is dead, and for the
sake of Lutha - to save her from civil strife - my prince has patched
a truce with Peter; though unless I mistake the character of the
latter and the temper of the former it will be short-lived.

"To demonstrate to the people," continued the officer, "that Prince
Ludwig and Peter are good friends, the great Von der Tann will
attend the coronation, but that he takes little stock in the
sincerity of the Prince of Blentz would be apparent could the latter
have a peep beneath the cloaks and look into the loyal hearts of the
men of Tann who rode down to Lustadt today."

Barney did not wait to hear more. He was glad that in the gathering
dusk the officer had not seen his face plainly enough to mistake him
for the king. With a parting, "Then I must ride to Lustadt with my
message for the prince," he wheeled his tired mount and trotted down
the steep trail from Tann toward the highway which leads to the
capital.

All night Barney rode. Three times he wandered from the way and was
forced to stop at farmhouses to inquire the proper direction; but
darkness hid his features from the sleepy eyes of those who answered
his summons, and daylight found him still forging ahead in the
direction of the capital of Lutha.

The American was sunk in unhappy meditation as his weary little
mount plodded slowly along the dusty road. For hours the man had not
been able to urge the beast out of a walk. The loss of time
consequent upon his having followed wrong roads during the night and
the exhaustion of the pony which retarded his speed to what seemed
little better than a snail's pace seemed to assure the failure of
his mission, for at best he could not reach Lustadt before noon.

There was no possibility of bringing Leopold to his capital in time
for the coronation, and but a bare possibility that Prince Ludwig
would accept the word of an entire stranger that Leopold lived, for
the acknowledgment of such a condition by the old prince could
result in nothing less than an immediate resort to arms by the two
factions. It was certain that Peter would be infinitely more anxious
to proceed with his coronation should it be rumored that Leopold
lived, and equally certain that Prince Ludwig would interpose every
obstacle, even to armed resistance, to prevent the consummation of
the ceremony.

Yet there seemed to Barney no other alternative than to place before
the king's one powerful friend the information that he had. It would
then rest with Ludwig to do what he thought advisable.

An hour from Lustadt the road wound through a dense forest, whose
pleasant shade was a grateful relief to both horse and rider from
the hot sun beneath which they had been journeying the greater part
of the morning. Barney was still lost in thought, his eyes bent
forward, when at a sudden turning of the road he came face to face
with a troop of horse that were entering the main highway at this
point from an unfrequented byroad.

At sight of them the American instinctively wheeled his mount in an
effort to escape, but at a command from an officer a half dozen
troopers spurred after him, their fresh horses soon overtaking his
jaded pony.

For a moment Barney contemplated resistance, for these were troopers
of the Royal Horse, the body which was now Peter's most effective
personal tool; but even as his hand slipped to the butt of one of
the revolvers at his hip, the young man saw the foolish futility of
such a course, and with a shrug and a smile he drew rein and turned
to face the advancing soldiers.

As he did so the officer rode up, and at sight of Barney's face gave
an exclamation of astonishment. The officer was Butzow.

"Well met, your majesty," he cried saluting. "We are riding to the
coronation. We shall be just in time."

"To see Peter of Blentz rob Leopold of a crown," said the American
in a disgusted tone.

"To see Leopold of Lutha come into his own, your majesty. Long live
the king!" cried the officer.

Barney thought the man either poking fun at him because he was not
the king, or, thinking he was Leopold, taking a mean advantage of
his helplessness to bait him. Yet this last suspicion seemed unfair
to Butzow, who at Blentz had given ample evidence that he was a
gentleman, and of far different caliber from Maenck and the others
who served Peter.

If he could but convince the man that he was no king and thus gain
his liberty long enough to reach Prince Ludwig's ear, his mission
would have been served in so far as it lay in his power to serve it.
For some minutes Barney expended his best eloquence and logic upon
the cavalry officer in an effort to convince him that he was not
Leopold.

The king had given the American his great ring to safeguard for him
until it should be less dangerous for Leopold to wear it, and for
fear that at the last moment someone within the sanatorium might
recognize it and bear word to Peter of the king's whereabouts.
Barney had worn it turned in upon the third finger of his left hand,
and now he slipped it surreptitiously into his breeches pocket lest
Butzow should see it and by it be convinced that Barney was indeed
Leopold.

"Never mind who you are," cried Butzow, thinking to humor the king's
strange obsession. "You look enough like Leopold to be his twin, and
you must help us save Lutha from Peter of Blentz."

The American showed in his expression the surprise he felt at these
words from an officer of the prince regent.

"You wonder at my change of heart?" asked Butzow.

"How can I do otherwise?"

"I cannot blame you," said the officer. "Yet I think that when you
know the truth you will see that I have done only that which I
believed to be the duty of a patriotic officer and a true
gentleman."

They had rejoined the troop by this time, and the entire company was
once more headed toward Lustadt. Butzow had commanded one of the
troopers to exchange horses with Barney, bringing the jaded animal
into the city slowly, and now freshly mounted the American was
making better time toward his destination. His spirits rose, and as
they galloped along the highway, he listened with renewed interest
to the story which Lieutenant Butzow narrated in detail.

It seemed that Butzow had been absent from Lutha for a number of
years as military attache to the Luthanian legation at a foreign
court. He had known nothing of the true condition at home until his
return, when he saw such scoundrels as Coblich, Maenck, and Stein
high in the favor of the prince regent. For some time before the
events that had transpired after he had brought Barney and the
Princess Emma to Blentz he had commenced to have his doubts as to
the true patriotism of Peter of Blentz; and when he had learned
through the unguarded words of Schonau that there was a real
foundation for the rumor that the regent had plotted the
assassination of the king his suspicions had crystallized into
knowledge, and he had sworn to serve his king before all
others - were he sane or mad. From this loyalty he could not be
shaken.

"And what do you intend doing now?" asked Barney.

"I intend placing you upon the throne of your ancestors, sire,"
replied Butzow; "nor will Peter of Blentz dare the wrath of the
people by attempting to interpose any obstacle. When he sees Leopold
of Lutha ride into the capital of his kingdom at the head of even so
small a force as ours he will know that the end of his own power is


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Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 6 of 22)