Copyright
Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The Mad King online

. (page 9 of 22)
Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 9 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


A shout of applause rose from the Royal Horse, and from the
foot-soldiers who had seen the king charge across the plain,
scattering the enemy before him.

Barney, appreciating the advantage in the sudden turn affairs had
taken following Butzow's words, swung to his saddle.

"Until Peter of Blentz brings to Lustadt one with a better claim to
the throne," he said, "we shall continue to rule Lutha, nor shall
other than Leopold be crowned her king. We approve of the amnesty
you have granted, Prince Ludwig, and Peter of Blentz is free to
enter Lustadt, as he will, so long as he does not plot against the
true king.

"Major," he added, turning to the commander of the squadron at his
back, "we are returning to the palace. Your squadron will escort us,
remaining on guard there about the grounds. Prince Ludwig, you will
see that machine guns are placed about the palace and commanding the
approaches to the cathedral."

With a nod to the cavalry major he wheeled his horse and trotted up
the slope toward Lustadt.

With a grim smile Prince Ludwig von der Tann mounted his horse and
rode toward the fort. At his side were several of the nobles of
Lutha. They looked at him in astonishment.

"You are doing his bidding, although you do not know that he is the
true king?" asked one of them.

"Were he an impostor," replied the old man, "he would have insisted
by word of mouth that he is king. But not once has he said that he
is Leopold. Instead, he has proved his kingship by his acts."




XI

A TIMELY INTERVENTION

Nine o'clock found Barney Custer pacing up and down his apartments
in the palace. No clue as to the whereabouts of Coblich, Maenck or
the king had been discovered. One by one his troopers had returned
to Butzow empty-handed, and as much at a loss as to the hiding-place
of their quarry as when they had set out upon their search.

Peter of Blentz and his retainers had entered the city and already
had commenced to gather at the cathedral.

Peter, at the residence of Coblich, had succeeded in gathering about
him many of the older nobility whom he pledged to support him in
case he could prove to them that the man who occupied the royal
palace was not Leopold of Lutha.

They agreed to support him in his regency if he produced proof that
the true Leopold was dead, and Peter of Blentz waited with growing
anxiety the coming of Coblich with word that he had the king in
custody. Peter was staking all on a single daring move which he had
decided to make in his game of intrigue.

As Barney paced within the palace, waiting for word that Leopold had
been found, Peter of Blentz was filled with equal apprehension as
he, too, waited for the same tidings. At last he heard the pound of
hoofs upon the pavement without and a moment later Coblich, his
clothing streaked with dirt, blood caked upon his face from a wound
across the forehead, rushed into the presence of the prince regent.

Peter drew him hurriedly into a small study on the first floor.

"Well?" he whispered, as the two faced each other.

"We have him," replied Coblich. "But we had the devil's own time
getting him. Stein was killed and Maenck and I both wounded, and all
morning we have spent the time hiding from troopers who seemed to be
searching for us. Only fifteen minutes since did we reach the
hiding-place that you instructed us to use. But we have him, your
highness, and he is in such a state of cowardly terror that he is
ready to agree to anything, if you will but spare his life and set
him free across the border."

"It is too late for that now, Coblich," replied Peter. "There is but
one way that Leopold of Lutha can serve me now, and that is - dead.
Were his corpse to be carried into the cathedral of Lustadt before
noon today, and were those who fetched it to swear that the king was
killed by the impostor after being dragged from the hospital at
Tafelberg where you and Maenck had located him, and from which you
were attempting to rescue him, I believe that the people would tear
our enemies to pieces. What say you, Coblich?"

The other stared at Peter of Blentz for several seconds while the
atrocity of his chief's plan filtered through his brain.

"My God!" he exclaimed at last. "You mean that you wish me to
murder Leopold with my own hands?"

"You put it too crudely, my dear Coblich," replied the other.

"I cannot do it," muttered Coblich. "I have never killed a man in
my life. I am getting old. No, I could never do it. I should not
sleep nights."

"If it is not done, Coblich, and Leopold comes into his own," said
Peter slowly, "you will be caught and hanged higher than Haman. And
if you do not do it, and the impostor is crowned today, then you
will be either hanged officially or knifed unofficially, and without
any choice in the matter whatsoever. Nothing, Coblich, but the dead
body of the true Leopold can save your neck. You have your choice,
therefore, of letting him live to prove your treason, or letting him
die and becoming chancellor of Lutha."

Slowly Coblich turned toward the door. "You are right," he said,
"but may God have mercy on my soul. I never thought that I should
have to do it with my own hands."

So saying he left the room and a moment later Peter of Blentz smiled
as he heard the pounding of a horse's hoofs upon the pavement
without.

Then the Regent entered the room he had recently quitted and spoke
to the nobles of Lutha who were gathered there.

"Coblich has found the body of the murdered king," he said. "I have
directed him to bring it to the cathedral. He came upon the impostor
and his confederate, Lieutenant Butzow, as they were bearing the
corpse from the hospital at Tafelberg where the king has lain
unknown since the rumor was spread by Von der Tann that he had been
killed by bandits.

"He was not killed until last evening, my lords, and you shall see
today the fresh wounds upon him. When the time comes that we can
present this grisly evidence of the guilt of the impostor and those
who uphold him, I shall expect you all to stand at my side, as you
have promised."

With one accord the noblemen pledged anew their allegiance to Peter
of Blentz if he could produce one-quarter of the evidence he claimed
to possess.

"All that we wish to know positively is," said one, "that the man
who bears the title of king today is really Leopold of Lutha, or
that he is not. If not then he stands convicted of treason, and we
shall know how to conduct ourselves."

Together the party rode to the cathedral, the majority of the older
nobility now openly espousing the cause of the Regent.


At the palace Barney was about distracted. Butzow was urging him to
take the crown whether he was Leopold or not, for the young
lieutenant saw no hope for Lutha, if either the scoundrelly Regent
or the cowardly man whom Barney had assured him was the true king
should come into power.

It was eleven o'clock. In another hour Barney knew that he must
have found some new solution of his dilemma, for there seemed little
probability that the king would be located in the brief interval
that remained before the coronation. He wondered what they did to
people who stole thrones. For a time he figured his chances of
reaching the border ahead of the enraged populace. All had depended
upon the finding of the king, and he had been so sure that it could
be accomplished in time, for Coblich and Maenck had had but a few
hours in which to conceal the monarch before the search was well
under way.

Armed with the king's warrants, his troopers had ridden through the
country, searching houses, and questioning all whom they met.
Patrols had guarded every road that the fugitives might take either
to Lustadt, Blentz, or the border; but no king had been found and no
trace of his abductors.

Prince von der Tann, Barney was convinced, was on the point of
deserting him, and going over to the other side. It was true that
the old man had carried out his instructions relative to the placing
of the machine guns; but they might be used as well against him,
where they stood, as for him.

From his window he could see the broad avenue which passes before
the royal palace of Lutha. It was crowded with throngs moving toward
the cathedral. Presently there came a knock upon the closed door of
his chamber.

At his "Enter" a functionary announced: "His Royal Highness Ludwig,
Prince von der Tann!"

The old man was much perturbed at the rumors he had heard relative
to the assassination of the true Leopold. Soldier-like, he blurted
out his suspicions and his ultimatum.

"None but the royal blood of Rubinroth may reign in Lutha while
there be a Rubinroth left to reign and old Von der Tann lives," he
cried in conclusion.

At the name "Rubinroth" Barney started. It was his mother's name.
Suddenly the truth flashed upon him. He understood now the reticence
of both his father and mother relative to her early life.

"Prince Ludwig," said the young man earnestly, "I have only the good
of Lutha in my heart. For three weeks I have labored and risked
death a hundred times to place the legitimate heir to the crown of
Lutha upon his throne. I - "

He hesitated, not knowing just how to commence the confession he was
determined to make, though he was positive that it would place Peter
of Blentz upon the throne, since the old prince had promised to
support the Regent could it be proved that Barney was an impostor.

"I," he started again, and then there came an interruption at the
door.

"A messenger, your majesty," announced the doorman, "who says that
he must have audience at once upon a matter of life and death to the
king."

"We will see him in the ante-chamber," replied Barney, moving toward
the door. "Await us here, Prince Ludwig."

A moment later he re-entered the apartment. There was an expression
of renewed hope upon his face.

"As we were about to remark, my dear prince," he said, "I swear that
the royal blood of the Rubinroths flows in my veins, and as God is
my judge, none other than the true Leopold of Lutha shall be crowned
today. And now we must prepare for the coronation. If there be
trouble in the cathedral, Prince Ludwig, we look to your sword in
protection of the king."

"When I am with you, sire," said Von der Tann, "I know that you are
king. When I saw how you led the troops in battle, I prayed that
there could be no mistake. God give that I am right. But God help
you if you are playing with old Ludwig von der Tann."

When the old man had left the apartment Barney summoned an aide and
sent for Butzow. Then he hurried to the bath that adjoined the
apartment, and when the lieutenant of horse was announced Barney
called through a soapy lather for his confederate to enter.

"What are you doing, sire?" cried Butzow in amazement.

"Cut out the 'sire,' old man," shouted Barney Custer of Beatrice.
"this is the fifth of November and I am shaving off this alfalfa.
The king is found!"

"What?" cried Butzow, and upon his face there was little to indicate
the rejoicing that a loyal subject of Leopold of Lutha should have
felt at that announcement.

"There is a man in the next room," went on Barney, "who can lead us
to the spot where Coblich and Maenck guard the king. Get him in
here."

Butzow hastened to comply with the American's instructions, and a
moment later returned to the apartment with the old shopkeeper of
Tafelberg.

As Barney shaved he issued directions to the two. Within the room
to the east, he said, there were the king's coronation robes, and in
a smaller dressingroom beyond they would find a long gray cloak.

They were to wrap all these in a bundle which the old shopkeeper was
to carry.

"And, Butzow," added Barney, "look to my revolvers and your own, and
lay my sword out as well. The chances are that we shall have to use
them before we are ten minutes older."

In an incredibly short space of time the young man emerged from the
bath, his luxuriant beard gone forever, he hoped. Butzow looked at
him with a smile.

"I must say that the beard did not add greatly to your majesty's
good looks," he said.

"Never mind the bouquets, old man," cried Barney, cramming his arms
into the sleeves of his khaki jacket and buckling sword and revolver
about him, as he hurried toward a small door that opened upon the
opposite side of the apartment to that through which his visitors
had been conducted.

Together the three hastened through a narrow, little-used corridor
and down a flight of well-worn stone steps to a door that let upon
the rear court of the palace.

There were grooms and servants there, and soldiers too, who saluted
Butzow, according the old shopkeeper and the smooth-faced young
stranger only cursory glances. It was evident that without his beard
it was not likely that Barney would be again mistaken for the king.

At the stables Butzow requisitioned three horses, and soon the trio
was galloping through a little-frequented street toward the
northern, hilly environs of Lustadt. They rode in silence until they
came to an old stone building, whose boarded windows and general
appearance of dilapidation proclaimed its long tenantless condition.
Rank weeds, now rustling dry and yellow in the November wind, choked
what once might have been a luxuriant garden. A stone wall, which
had at one time entirely surrounded the grounds, had been almost
completely removed from the front to serve as foundation stone for a
smaller edifice farther down the mountainside.

The horsemen avoided this break in the wall, coming up instead upon
the rear side where their approach was wholly screened from the
building by the wall upon that exposure.

Close in they dismounted, and leaving the animals in charge of the
shopkeeper of Tafelberg, Barney and Butzow hastened toward a small
postern-gate which swung, groaning, upon a single rusted hinge. Each
felt that there was no time for caution or stratagem. Instead all
depended upon the very boldness and rashness of their attack, and so
as they came through into the courtyard the two dashed headlong for
the building.

Chance accomplished for them what no amount of careful execution
might have done, and they came within the ruin unnoticed by the four
who occupied the old, darkened library.

Possibly the fact that one of the men had himself just entered and
was excitedly talking to the others may have drowned the noisy
approach of the two. However that may be, it is a fact that Barney
and the cavalry officer came to the very door of the library
unheard.

There they halted, listening. Coblich was speaking.

"The Regent commands it, Maenck," he was saying. "It is the only
thing that can save our necks. He said that you had better be the
one to do it, since it was your carelessness that permitted the
fellow to escape from Blentz."

Huddled in a far corner of the room was an abject figure trembling
in terror. At the words of Coblich it staggered to its feet. It was
the king.

"Have pity - have pity!" he cried. "Do not kill me, and I will go
away where none will ever know that I live. You can tell Peter that
I am dead. Tell him anything, only spare my life. Oh, why did I ever
listen to the cursed fool who tempted me to think of regaining the
crown that has brought me only misery and suffering - the crown that
has now placed the sentence of death upon me."

"Why not let him go?" suggested the trooper, who up to this time had
not spoken. "If we don't kill him, we can't be hanged for his
murder."

"Don't be too sure of that," exclaimed Maenck. "If he goes away and
never returns, what proof can we offer that we did not kill him,
should we be charged with the crime? And if we let him go, and later
he returns and gains his throne, he will see that we are hanged
anyway for treason.

"The safest thing to do is to put him where he at least cannot come
back to threaten us, and having done so upon the orders of Peter,
let the king's blood be upon Peter's head. I, at least, shall obey
my master, and let you two bear witness that I did the thing with my
own hand." So saying he drew his sword and crossed toward the king.

But Captain Ernst Maenck never reached his sovereign.

As the terrified shriek of the sorry monarch rang through the
interior of the desolate ruin another sound mingled with it,
half-drowning the piercing wail of terror.

It was the sharp crack of a revolver, and even as it spoke Maenck
lunged awkwardly forward, stumbled, and collapsed at Leopold's feet.
With a moan the king shrank back from the grisly thing that touched
his boot, and then two men were in the center of the room, and
things were happening with a rapidity that was bewildering.

About all that he could afterward recall with any distinctness was
the terrified face of Coblich, as he rushed past him toward a door
in the opposite side of the room, and the horrid leer upon the face
of the dead trooper, who foolishly, had made a move to draw his
revolver.


Within the cathedral at Lustadt excitement was at fever heat. It
lacked but two minutes of noon, and as yet no king had come to claim
the crown. Rumors were running riot through the close-packed
audience.

One man had heard the king's chamberlain report to Prince von der
Tann that the master of ceremonies had found the king's apartments
vacant when he had gone to urge the monarch to hasten his
preparations for the coronation.

Another had seen Butzow and two strangers galloping north through
the city. A third told of a little old man who had come to the king
with an urgent message.

Peter of Blentz and Prince Ludwig were talking in whispers at the
foot of the chancel steps. Peter ascended the steps and facing the
assemblage raised a silencing hand.

"He who claimed to be Leopold of Lutha," he said, "was but a mad
adventurer. He would have seized the throne of the Rubinroths had
his nerve not failed him at the last moment. He has fled. The true
king is dead. Now I, Prince Regent of Lutha, declare the throne
vacant, and announce myself king!"

There were a few scattered cheers and some hissing. A score of the
nobles rose as though to protest, but before any could take a step
the attention of all was directed toward the sorry figure of a
white-faced man who scurried up the broad center aisle.

It was Coblich.

He ran to Peter's side, and though he attempted to speak in a
whisper, so out of breath, and so filled with hysterical terror was
he that his words came out in gasps that were audible to many of
those who stood near by.

"Maenck is dead," he cried. "The impostor has stolen the king."

Peter of Blentz went white as his lieutenant. Von der Tann heard
and demanded an explanation.

"You said that Leopold was dead," he said accusingly.

Peter regained his self-control quickly.

"Coblich is excited," he explained. "He means that the impostor has
stolen the body of the king that Coblich and Maenck had discovered
and were bringing to Lustadt."

Von der Tann looked troubled.

He knew not what to make of the series of wild tales that had come
to his ears within the past hour. He had hoped that the young man
whom he had last seen in the king's apartments was the true Leopold.
He would have been glad to have served such a one, but there had
been many inexplicable occurrences which tended to cast a doubt upon
the man's claims - and yet, had he ever claimed to be the king? It
suddenly occurred to the old prince that he had not. On the contrary
he had repeatedly stated to Prince Ludwig's daughter and to
Lieutenant Butzow that he was not Leopold.

It seemed that they had all been so anxious to believe him king that
they had forced the false position upon him, and now if he had
indeed committed the atrocity that Coblich charged against him, who
could wonder? With less provocation men had before attempted to
seize thrones by more dastardly means.

Peter of Blentz was speaking.

"Let the coronation proceed," he cried, "that Lutha may have a true
king to frustrate the plans of the impostor and the traitors who had
supported him."

He cast a meaning glance at Prince von der Tann.

There were many cries for Peter of Blentz. "Let's have done with
treason, and place upon the throne of Lutha one whom we know to be
both a Luthanian and sane. Down with the mad king! Down with the
impostor!"

Peter turned to ascend the chancel steps.

Von der Tann still hesitated. Below him upon one side of the aisle
were massed his own retainers. Opposite them were the men of the
Regent, and dividing the two the parallel ranks of Horse Guards
stretched from the chancel down the broad aisle to the great doors.
These were strongly for the impostor, if impostor he was, who had
led them to victory over the men of the Blentz faction.

Von der Tann knew that they would fight to the last ditch for their
hero should he come to claim the crown. Yet how would they fight - to
which side would they cleave, were he to attempt to frustrate the
design of the Regent to seize the throne of Lutha?

Already Peter of Blentz had approached the bishop, who, eager to
propitiate whoever seemed most likely to become king, gave the
signal for the procession that was to mark the solemn bearing of the
crown of Lutha up the aisle to the chancel.

Outside the cathedral there was the sudden blare of trumpets. The
great doors swung violently open, and the entire throng were upon
their feet in an instant as a trooper of the Royal Horse shouted:
"The king! The king! Make way for Leopold of Lutha!"




XII

THE GRATITUDE OF A KING

At the cry silence fell upon the throng. Every head was turned
toward the great doors through which the head of a procession was
just visible. It was a grim looking procession - the head of it, at
least.

There were four khaki-clad trumpeters from the Royal Horse Guards,
the gay and resplendent uniforms which they should have donned today
conspicuous for their absence. From their brazen bugles sounded
another loud fanfare, and then they separated, two upon each side of
the aisle, and between them marched three men.

One was tall, with gray eyes and had a reddish-brown beard. He was
fully clothed in the coronation robes of Leopold. Upon his either
hand walked the others - Lieutenant Butzow and a gray-eyed,
smooth-faced, square-jawed stranger.

Behind them marched the balance of the Royal Horse Guards that were
not already on duty within the cathedral. As the eyes of the
multitude fell upon the man in the coronation robes there were cries
of: "The king! Impostor!" and "Von der Tann's puppet!"

"Denounce him!" whispered one of Peter's henchmen in his master's
ear.

The Regent moved closer to the aisle, that he might meet the
impostor at the foot of the chancel steps. The procession was moving
steadily up the aisle.

Among the clan of Von der Tann a young girl with wide eyes was
bending forward that she might have a better look at the face of the
king. As he came opposite her her eyes filled with horror, and then
she saw the eyes of the smooth-faced stranger at the king's side.
They were brave, laughing eyes, and as they looked straight into her
own the truth flashed upon her, and the girl gave a gasp of dismay
as she realized that the king of Lutha and the king of her heart
were not one and the same.

At last the head of the procession was almost at the foot of the
chancel steps. There were murmurs of: "It is not the king," and "Who
is this new impostor?"

Leopold's eyes were searching the faces of the close-packed nobility
about the chancel. At last they fell upon the face of Peter. The
young man halted not two paces from the Regent. The man went white
as the king's eyes bored straight into his miserable soul.

"Peter of Blentz," cried the young man, "as God is your judge, tell
the truth today. Who am I?"

The legs of the Prince Regent trembled. He sank upon his knees,
raising his hands in supplication toward the other. "Have pity on
me, your majesty, have pity!" he cried.

"Who am I, man?" insisted the king.

"You are Leopold Rubinroth, sire, by the grace of God, king of
Lutha," cried the frightened man. "Have mercy on an old man, your
majesty."

"Wait! Am I mad? Was I ever mad?"

"As God is my judge, sire, no!" replied Peter of Blentz.

Leopold turned to Butzow.

"Remove the traitor from our presence," he commanded, and at a word
from the lieutenant a dozen guardsmen seized the trembling man and
hustled him from the cathedral amid hisses and execrations.


Following the coronation the king was closeted in his private
audience chamber in the palace with Prince Ludwig.

"I cannot understand what has happened, even now, your majesty," the


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEdgar Rice BurroughsThe Mad King → online text (page 9 of 22)