This etext was created by Judith Boss, Omaha, Nebraska. The equipment: an IBM-compatible 486/50, a Hewlett-Packard ScanJet IIc flatbed scanner, and Calera Recognition Systems' M/600 Series Professional OCR software and RISC accelerator board donated by Calera Recognition Systems.
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS
THE MAD KING
A RUNAWAY HORSE
All Lustadt was in an uproar. The mad king had escaped. Little knots of excited men stood upon the street corners listening to each latest rumor concerning this most absorbing occurrence. Before the palace a great crowd surged to and fro, awaiting they knew not what.
For ten years no man of them had set eyes upon the face of the boy-king who had been hastened to the grim castle of Blentz upon the death of the old king, his father.
There had been murmurings then when the lad's uncle, Peter of Blentz, had announced to the people of Lutha the sudden mental affliction which had fallen upon his nephew, and more murmurings for a time after the announcement that Peter of Blentz had been appointed Regent during the lifetime of the young King Leopold, "or until God, in His infinite mercy, shall see fit to restore to us in full mental vigor our beloved monarch."
But ten years is a long time. The boy-king had become but a vague memory to the subjects who could recall him at all.
There were many, of course, in the capital city, Lustadt, who still retained a mental picture of the handsome boy who had ridden out nearly every morning from the palace gates beside the tall, martial figure of the old king, his father, for a canter across the broad plain which lies at the foot of the mountain town of Lustadt; but even these had long since given up hope that their young king would ever ascend his throne, or even that they should see him alive again.
Peter of Blentz had not proved a good or kind ruler. Taxes had doubled during his regency. Executives and judiciary, following the example of their chief, had become tyrannical and corrupt. For ten years there had been small joy in Lutha.
There had been whispered rumors off and on that the young king was dead these many years, but not even in whispers did the men of Lutha dare voice the name of him whom they believed had caused his death. For lesser things they had seen their friends and neighbors thrown into the hitherto long-unused dungeons of the royal castle.
And now came the rumor that Leopold of Lutha had escaped the Castle of Blentz and was roaming somewhere in the wild mountains or ravines upon the opposite side of the plain of Lustadt.
Peter of Blentz was filled with rage and, possibly, fear as well.
"I tell you, Coblich," he cried, addressing his dark-visaged minister of war, "there's more than coincidence in this matter. Someone has betrayed us. That he should have escaped upon the very eve of the arrival at Blentz of the new physician is most suspicious. None but you, Coblich, had knowledge of the part that Dr. Stein was destined to play in this matter," concluded Prince Peter pointedly.
Coblich looked the Regent full in the eye.
"Your highness wrongs not only my loyalty, but my intelligence," he said quietly, "by even so much as intimating that I have any guilty knowledge of Leopold's escape. With Leopold upon the throne of Lutha, where, think you, my prince, would old Coblich be?"
"You are right, Coblich," he said. "I know that you would not be such a fool; but whom, then, have we to thank?"
"The walls have ears, prince," replied Coblich, "and we have not always been as careful as we should in discussing the matter. Something may have come to the ears of old Von der Tann. I don't for a moment doubt but that he has his spies among the palace servants, or even the guard. You know the old fox has always made it a point to curry favor with the common soldiers. When he was minister of war he treated them better than he did his officers."
"It seems strange, Coblich, that so shrewd a man as you should have been unable to discover some irregularity in the political life of Prince Ludwig von der Tann before now," said the prince querulously. "He is the greatest menace to our peace and sovereignty. With Von der Tann out of the way there would be none powerful enough to question our right to the throne of Lutha—after poor Leopold passes away."
"You forget that Leopold has escaped," suggested Coblich, "and that there is no immediate prospect of his passing away."
"He must be retaken at once, Coblich!" cried Prince Peter of Blentz. "He is a dangerous maniac, and we must make this fact plain to the people—this and a thorough description of him. A handsome reward for his safe return to Blentz might not be out of the way, Coblich."
"It shall be done, your highness," replied Coblich. "And about Von der Tann? You have never spoken to me quite so—ah—er—pointedly before. He hunts a great deal in the Old Forest. It might be possible—in fact, it has happened, before—there are many accidents in hunting, are there not, your highness?"
"There are, Coblich," replied the prince, "and if Leopold is able he will make straight for the Tann, so that there may be two hunting together in a day or so, Coblich."
"I understand, your highness," replied the minister. "With your permission, I shall go at once and dispatch troops to search the forest for Leopold. Captain Maenck will command them."
"Good, Coblich! Maenck is a most intelligent and loyal officer. We must reward him well. A baronetcy, at least, if he handles this matter well," said Peter. "It might not be a bad plan to hint at as much to him, Coblich."
And so it happened that shortly thereafter Captain Ernst Maenck, in command of a troop of the Royal Horse Guards of Lutha, set out toward the Old Forest, which lies beyond the mountains that are visible upon the other side of the plain stretching out before Lustadt. At the same time other troopers rode in many directions along the highways and byways of Lutha, tacking placards upon trees and fence posts and beside the doors of every little rural post office.
The placard told of the escape of the mad king, offering a large reward for his safe return to Blentz.
It was the last paragraph especially which caused a young man, the following day in the little hamlet of Tafelberg, to whistle as he carefully read it over.
"I am glad that I am not the mad king of Lutha," he said as he paid the storekeeper for the gasoline he had just purchased and stepped into the gray roadster for whose greedy maw it was destined.
"Why, mein Herr?" asked the man.
"This notice practically gives immunity to whoever shoots down the king," replied the traveler. "Worse still, it gives such an account of the maniacal ferocity of the fugitive as to warrant anyone in shooting him on sight."
As the young man spoke the storekeeper had examined his face closely for the first time. A shrewd look came into the man's ordinarily stolid countenance. He leaned forward quite close to the other's ear.
"We of Lutha," he whispered, "love our 'mad king'—no reward could be offered that would tempt us to betray him. Even in self-protection we would not kill him, we of the mountains who remember him as a boy and loved his father and his grandfather, before him.
"But there are the scum of the low country in the army these days, who would do anything for money, and it is these that the king must guard against. I could not help but note that mein Herr spoke too perfect German for a foreigner. Were I in mein Herr's place, I should speak mostly the English, and, too, I should shave off the 'full, reddish-brown beard.'"
Whereupon the storekeeper turned hastily back into his shop, leaving Barney Custer of Beatrice, Nebraska, U.S.A., to wonder if all the inhabitants of Lutha were afflicted with a mental disorder similar to that of the unfortunate ruler.
"I don't wonder," soliloquized the young man, "that he advised me to shave off this ridiculous crop of alfalfa. Hang election bets, anyway; if things had gone half right I shouldn't have had to wear this badge of idiocy. And to think that it's got to be for a whole month longer! A year's a mighty long while at best, but a year in company with a full set of red whiskers is an eternity."
The road out of Tafelberg wound upward among tall trees toward the pass that would lead him across the next valley on his way to the Old Forest, where he hoped to find some excellent shooting. All his life Barney had promised himself that some day he should visit his mother's native land, and now that he was here he found it as wild and beautiful as she had said it would be.
Neither his mother nor his father had ever returned to the little country since the day, thirty years before, that the big American had literally stolen his bride away, escaping across the border but a scant half-hour ahead of the pursuing troop of Luthanian cavalry. Barney had often wondered why it was that neither of them would ever speak of those days, or of the early life of his mother, Victoria Rubinroth, though of the beauties of her native land Mrs. Custer never tired of talking.
Barney Custer was thinking of these things as his machine wound up the picturesque road. Just before him was a long, heavy grade, and as he took it with open muffler the chugging of his motor drowned the sound of pounding hoof beats rapidly approaching behind him.
It was not until he topped the grade that he heard anything unusual, and at the same instant a girl on horseback tore past him. The speed of the animal would have been enough to have told him that it was beyond the control of its frail rider, even without the added testimony of the broken bit that dangled beneath the tensely outstretched chin.
Foam flecked the beast's neck and shoulders. It was evident that the horse had been running for some distance, yet its speed was still that of the thoroughly frightened runaway.
The road at the point where the animal had passed Custer was cut from the hillside. At the left an embankment rose steeply to a height of ten or fifteen feet. On the right there was a drop of a hundred feet or more into a wooded ravine. Ahead, the road apparently ran quite straight and smooth for a considerable distance.
Barney Custer knew that so long as the road ran straight the girl might be safe enough, for she was evidently an excellent horsewoman; but he also knew that if there should be a sharp turn to the left ahead, the horse in his blind fright would in all probability dash headlong into the ravine below him.
There was but a single thing that the man might attempt if he were to save the girl from the almost certain death which seemed in store for her, since he knew that sooner or later the road would turn, as all mountain roads do. The chances that he must take, if he failed, could only hasten the girl's end. There was no alternative except to sit supinely by and see the fear-crazed horse carry its rider into eternity, and Barney Custer was not the sort for that role.
Scarcely had the beast come abreast of him than his foot leaped to the accelerator. Like a frightened deer the gray roadster sprang forward in pursuit. The road was narrow. Two machines could not have passed upon it. Barney took the outside that he might hold the horse away from the dangerous ravine.
At the sound of the whirring thing behind him the animal cast an affrighted glance in its direction, and with a little squeal of terror redoubled its frantic efforts to escape. The girl, too, looked back over her shoulder. Her face was very white, but her eyes were steady and brave.
Barney Custer smiled up at her in encouragement, and the girl smiled back at him.
"She's sure a game one," thought Barney.
Now she was calling to him. At first he could not catch her words above the pounding of the horse's hoofs and the noise of his motor. Presently he understood.
"Stop!" she cried. "Stop or you will be killed. The road turns to the left just ahead. You'll go into the ravine at that speed."
The front wheel of the roadster was at the horse's right flank. Barney stepped upon the accelerator a little harder. There was barely room between the horse and the edge of the road for the four wheels of the roadster, and Barney must be very careful not to touch the horse. The thought of that and what it would mean to the girl sent a cold shudder through Barney Custer's athletic frame.
The man cast a glance to his right. His machine drove from the left side, and he could not see the road at all over the right hand door. The sight of tree tops waving beneath him was all that was visible. Just ahead the road's edge rushed swiftly beneath the right-hand fender, the wheels on that side must have been on the very verge of the embankment.
Now he was abreast the girl. Just ahead he could see where the road disappeared around a corner of the bluff at the dangerous curve the girl had warned him against.
Custer leaned far out over the side of his car. The lunging of the horse in his stride, and the swaying of the leaping car carried him first close to the girl and then away again. With his right hand he held the car between the frantic horse and the edge of the embankment. His left hand, outstretched, was almost at the girl's waist. The turn was just before them.
"Jump!" cried Barney.
The girl fell backward from her mount, turning to grasp Custer's arm as it closed about her. At the same instant Barney closed the throttle, and threw all the weight of his body upon the foot brake.
The gray roadster swerved toward the embankment as the hind wheels skidded on the loose surface gravel. They were at the turn. The horse was just abreast the bumper. There was one chance in a thousand of making the turn were the running beast out of the way. There was still a chance if he turned ahead of them. If he did not turn—Barney hated to think of what must follow.
But it was all over in a second. The horse bolted straight ahead. Barney swerved the roadster to the turn. It caught the animal full in the side. There was a sickening lurch as the hind wheels slid over the embankment, and then the man shoved the girl from the running board to the road, and horse, man and roadster went over into the ravine.
A moment before a tall young man with a reddish-brown beard had stood at the turn of the road listening intently to the sound of the hurrying hoof beats and the purring of the racing motor car approaching from the distance. In his eyes lurked the look of the hunted. For a moment he stood in evident indecision, but just before the runaway horse and the pursuing machine came into view he slipped over the edge of the road to slink into the underbrush far down toward the bottom of the ravine.
When Barney pushed the girl from the running board she fell heavily to the road, rolling over several times, but in an instant she scrambled to her feet, hardly the worse for the tumble other than a few scratches.
Quickly she ran to the edge of the embankment, a look of immense relief coming to her soft, brown eyes as she saw her rescuer scrambling up the precipitous side of the ravine toward her.
"You are not killed?" she cried in German. "It is a miracle!"
"Not even bruised," reassured Barney. "But you? You must have had a nasty fall."
"I am not hurt at all," she replied. "But for you I should be lying dead, or terribly maimed down there at the bottom of that awful ravine at this very moment. It's awful." She drew her shoulders upward in a little shudder of horror. "But how did you escape? Even now I can scarce believe it possible."
"I'm quite sure I don't know how I did escape," said Barney, clambering over the rim of the road to her side. "That I had nothing to do with it I am positive. It was just luck. I simply dropped out onto that bush down there."
They were standing side by side, now peering down into the ravine where the car was visible, bottom side up against a tree, near the base of the declivity. The horse's head could be seen protruding from beneath the wreckage.
"I'd better go down and put him out of his misery," said Barney, "if he is not already dead."
"I think he is quite dead," said the girl. "I have not seen him move."
Just then a little puff of smoke arose from the machine, followed by a tongue of yellow flame. Barney had already started toward the horse.
"Please don't go," begged the girl. "I am sure that he is quite dead, and it wouldn't be safe for you down there now. The gasoline tank may explode any minute."
"Yes, he is dead all right," he said, "but all my belongings are down there. My guns, six-shooters and all my ammunition. And," he added ruefully, "I've heard so much about the brigands that infest these mountains."
The girl laughed.
"Those stories are really exaggerated," she said. "I was born in Lutha, and except for a few months each year have always lived here, and though I ride much I have never seen a brigand. You need not be afraid."
Barney Custer looked up at her quickly, and then he grinned. His only fear had been that he would not meet brigands, for Mr. Bernard Custer, Jr., was young and the spirit of Romance and Adventure breathed strong within him.
"Why do you smile?" asked the girl.
"At our dilemma," evaded Barney. "Have you paused to consider our situation?"
The girl smiled, too.
"It is most unconventional," she said. "On foot and alone in the mountains, far from home, and we do not even know each other's name."
"Pardon me," cried Barney, bowing low. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am," and then to the spirits of Romance and Adventure was added a third, the spirit of Deviltry, "I am the mad king of Lutha."
OVER THE PRECIPICE
The effect of his words upon the girl were quite different from what he had expected. An American girl would have laughed, knowing that he but joked. This girl did not laugh. Instead her face went white, and she clutched her bosom with her two hands. Her brown eyes peered searchingly into the face of the man.
"Leopold!" she cried in a suppressed voice. "Oh, your majesty, thank God that you are free—and sane!"
Before he could prevent it the girl had seized his hand and pressed it to her lips.
Here was a pretty muddle! Barney Custer swore at himself inwardly for a boorish fool. What in the world had ever prompted him to speak those ridiculous words! And now how was he to unsay them without mortifying this beautiful girl who had just kissed his hand?
She would never forgive that—he was sure of it.
There was but one thing to do, however, and that was to make a clean breast of it. Somehow, he managed to stumble through his explanation of what had prompted him, and when he had finished he saw that the girl was smiling indulgently at him.
"It shall be Mr. Bernard Custer if you wish it so," she said; "but your majesty need fear nothing from Emma von der Tann. Your secret is as safe with me as with yourself, as the name of Von der Tann must assure you."
She looked to see the expression of relief and pleasure that her father's name should have brought to the face of Leopold of Lutha, but when he gave no indication that he had ever before heard the name she sighed and looked puzzled.
"Perhaps," she thought, "he doubts me. Or can it be possible that, after all, his poor mind is gone?"
"I wish," said Barney in a tone of entreaty, "that you would forgive and forget my foolish words, and then let me accompany you to the end of your journey."
"Whither were you bound when I became the means of wrecking your motor car?" asked the girl.
"To the Old Forest," replied Barney.
Now she was positive that she was indeed with the mad king of Lutha, but she had no fear of him, for since childhood she had heard her father scout the idea that Leopold was mad. For what other purpose would he hasten toward the Old Forest than to take refuge in her father's castle upon the banks of the Tann at the forest's verge?
"Thither was I bound also," she said, "and if you would come there quickly and in safety I can show you a short path across the mountains that my father taught me years ago. It touches the main road but once or twice, and much of the way passes through dense woods and undergrowth where an army might hide."
"Hadn't we better find the nearest town," suggested Barney, "where I can obtain some sort of conveyance to take you home?"
"It would not be safe," said the girl. "Peter of Blentz will have troops out scouring all Lutha about Blentz and the Old Forest until the king is captured."
Barney Custer shook his head despairingly.
"Won't you please believe that I am but a plain American?" he begged.
Upon the bole of a large wayside tree a fresh, new placard stared them in the face. Emma von der Tann pointed at one of the paragraphs.
"Gray eyes, brown hair, and a full reddish-brown beard," she read. "No matter who you may be," she said, "you are safer off the highways of Lutha than on them until you can find and use a razor."
"But I cannot shave until the fifth of November," said Barney.
Again the girl looked quickly into his eyes and again in her mind rose the question that had hovered there once before. Was he indeed, after all, quite sane?
"Then please come with me the safest way to my father's," she urged. "He will know what is best to do."
"He cannot make me shave," insisted Barney.
"Why do you wish not to shave?" asked the girl.
"It is a matter of my honor," he replied. "I had my choice of wearing a green wastebasket bonnet trimmed with red roses for six months, or a beard for twelve. If I shave off the beard before the fifth of November I shall be without honor in the sight of all men or else I shall have to wear the green bonnet. The beard is bad enough, but the bonnet—ugh!"
Emma von der Tann was now quite assured that the poor fellow was indeed quite demented, but she had seen no indications of violence as yet, though when that too might develop there was no telling. However, he was to her Leopold of Lutha, and her father's house had been loyal to him or his ancestors for three hundred years.
If she must sacrifice her life in the attempt, nevertheless still must she do all within her power to save her king from recapture and to lead him in safety to the castle upon the Tann.
"Come," she said; "we waste time here. Let us make haste, for the way is long. At best we cannot reach Tann by dark."
"I will do anything you wish," replied Barney, "but I shall never forgive myself for having caused you the long and tedious journey that lies before us. It would be perfectly safe to go to the nearest town and secure a rig."
Emma von der Tann had heard that it was always well to humor maniacs and she thought of it now. She would put the scheme to the test.
"The reason that I fear to have you go to the village," she said, "is that I am quite sure they would catch you and shave off your beard."
Barney started to laugh, but when he saw the deep seriousness of the girl's eyes he changed his mind. Then he recalled her rather peculiar insistence that he was a king, and it suddenly occurred to him that he had been foolish not to have guessed the truth before.
"That is so," he agreed; "I guess we had better do as you say," for he had determined that the best way to handle her would be to humor her—he had always heard that that was the proper method for handling the mentally defective. "Where is the—er—ah—sanatorium?" he blurted out at last.
"The what?" she asked. "There is no sanatorium near here, your majesty, unless you refer to the Castle of Blentz."
"Is there no asylum for the insane near by?"
"None that I know of, your majesty."
For a while they moved on in silence, each wondering what the other might do next.
Barney had evolved a plan. He would try and ascertain the location of the institution from which the girl had escaped and then as gently as possible lead her back to it. It was not safe for as beautiful a woman as she to be roaming through the forest in any such manner as this. He wondered what in the world the authorities at the asylum had been thinking of to permit her to ride out alone in the first place.
"From where did you ride today?" he blurted out suddenly.
"That is where we are going now?"
"Yes, your majesty."
Barney drew a breath of relief. The way had become suddenly difficult and he took the girl's arm to help her down a rather steep place. At the bottom of the ravine there was a little brook.
"There used to be a fallen log across it here," said the girl. "How in the world am I ever to get across, your majesty?"
"If you call me that again, I shall begin to believe that I am a king," he humored her, "and then, being a king, I presume that it wouldn't be proper for me to carry you across, or would it? Never really having been a king, I do not know."
"I think," replied the girl, "that it would be eminently proper."
She had difficulty in keeping in mind the fact that this handsome, smiling young man was a dangerous maniac, though it was easy to believe that he was the king. In fact, he looked much as she had always pictured Leopold as looking. She had known him as a boy, and there were many paintings and photographs of his ancestors in her father's castle. She saw much resemblance between these and the young man.
The brook was very narrow, and the girl thought that it took the young man an unreasonably long time to carry her across, though she was forced to admit that she was far from uncomfortable in the strong arms that bore her so easily.
"Why, what are you doing?" she cried presently. "You are not crossing the stream at all. You are walking right up the middle of it!"
She saw his face flush, and then he turned laughing eyes upon her.
"I am looking for a safe landing," he said.
Emma von der Tann did not know whether to be frightened or amused. As her eyes met the clear, gray ones of the man she could not believe that insanity lurked behind that laughing, level gaze of her carrier. She found herself continually forgetting that the man was mad. He had turned toward the bank now, and a couple of steps carried them to the low sward that fringed the little brooklet. Here he lowered her to the ground.
"Your majesty is very strong," she said. "I should not have expected it after the years of confinement you have suffered."
"Yes," he said, realizing that he must humor her—it was difficult to remember that this lovely girl was insane. "Let me see, now just what was I in prison for? I do not seem to be able to recall it. In Nebraska, they used to hang men for horse stealing; so I am sure it must have been something else not quite so bad. Do you happen to know?"
"When the king, your father, died you were thirteen years old," the girl explained, hoping to reawaken the sleeping mind, "and then your uncle, Prince Peter of Blentz, announced that the shock of your father's death had unbalanced your mind. He shut you up in Blentz then, where you have been for ten years, and he has ruled as regent. Now, my father says, he has recently discovered a plot to take your life so that Peter may become king. But I suppose you learned of that, and because of it you escaped!"
"This Peter person is all-powerful in Lutha?" he asked.
"He controls the army," the girl replied.
"And you really believe that I am the mad king Leopold?"
"You are the king," she said in a convincing manner.
"You are a very brave young lady," he said earnestly. "If all the mad king's subjects were as loyal as you, and as brave, he would not have languished for ten years behind the walls of Blentz."
"I am a Von der Tann," she said proudly, as though that was explanation sufficient to account for any bravery or loyalty.
"Even a Von der Tann might, without dishonor, hesitate to accompany a mad man through the woods," he replied, "especially if she happened to be a very—a very—" He halted, flushing.
"A very what, your majesty?" asked the girl.
"A very young woman," he ended lamely.
Emma von der Tann knew that he had not intended saying that at all. Being a woman, she knew precisely what he had meant to say, and she discovered that she would very much have liked to hear him say it.
"Suppose," said Barney, "that Peter's soldiers run across us—what then?"
"They will take you back to Blentz, your majesty."
"I do not think that they will dare lay hands on me, though it is possible that Peter might do so. He hates my father even more now than he did when the old king lived."
"I wish," said Mr. Custer, "that I had gone down after my guns. Why didn't you tell me, in the first place, that I was a king, and that I might get you in trouble if you were found with me? Why, they may even take me for an emperor or a mikado—who knows? And then look at all the trouble we'd be in."
Which was Barney's way of humoring a maniac.
"And they might even shave off your beautiful beard."
Which was the girl's way.
"Do you think that you would like me better in the green wastebasket hat with the red roses?" asked Barney.
A very sad look came into the girl's eyes. It was pitiful to think that this big, handsome young man, for whose return to the throne all Lutha had prayed for ten long years, was only a silly half-wit. What might he not have accomplished for his people had this terrible misfortune not overtaken him! In every other way he seemed fitted to be the savior of his country. If she could but make him remember!
"Your majesty," she said, "do you not recall the time that your father came upon a state visit to my father's castle? You were a little boy then. He brought you with him. I was a little girl, and we played together. You would not let me call you 'highness,' but insisted that I should always call you Leopold. When I forgot you would accuse me of lese-majeste, and sentence me to—to punishment."
"What was the punishment?" asked Barney, noticing her hesitation and wishing to encourage her in the pretty turn her dementia had taken.
Again the girl hesitated; she hated to say it, but if it would help to recall the past to that poor, dimmed mind, it was her duty.
"Every time I called you 'highness' you made me give you a—a kiss," she almost whispered.
"I hope," said Barney, "that you will be guilty of lese-majeste often."
"We were little children then, your majesty," the girl reminded him.
Had he thought her of sound mind Mr. Custer might have taken advantage of his royal prerogatives on the spot, for the girl's lips were most tempting; but when he remembered the poor, weak mind, tears almost came to his eyes, and there sprang to his heart a great desire to protect and guard this unfortunate child.
"And when I was Crown Prince what were you, way back there in the beautiful days of our childhood?" asked Barney.
"Why, I was what I still am, your majesty," replied the girl. "Princess Emma von der Tann."
So the poor child, beside thinking him a king, thought herself a princess! She certainly was mad. Well, he would humor her.
"Then I should call you 'your highness,' shouldn't I?" he asked.
"You always called me Emma when we were children."
"Very well, then, you shall be Emma and I Leopold. Is it a bargain?"
"The king's will is law," she said.
They had come to a very steep hillside, up which the half-obliterated trail zigzagged toward the crest of a flat-topped hill. Barney went ahead, taking the girl's hand in his to help her, and thus they came to the top, to stand hand in hand, breathing heavily after the stiff climb.
The girl's hair had come loose about her temples and a lock was blowing over her face. Her cheeks were very red and her eyes bright. Barney thought he had never looked upon a lovelier picture. He smiled down into her eyes and she smiled back at him.
"I wished, back there a way," he said, "that that little brook had been as wide as the ocean—now I wish that this little hill had been as high as Mont Blanc."
"You like to climb?" she asked.
"I should like to climb forever—with you," he said seriously.
She looked up at him quickly. A reply was on her lips, but she never uttered it, for at that moment a ruffian in picturesque rags leaped out from behind a near-by bush, confronting them with leveled revolver. He was so close that the muzzle of the weapon almost touched Barney's face. In that the fellow made his mistake.
"You see," said Barney unexcitedly, "that I was right about the brigands after all. What do you want, my man?"
The man's eyes had suddenly gone wide. He stared with open mouth at the young fellow before him. Then a cunning look came into his eyes.
"I want you, your majesty," he said.
"Godfrey!" exclaimed Barney. "Did the whole bunch escape?"
"Quick!" growled the man. "Hold up your hands. The notice made it plain that you would be worth as much dead as alive, and I have no mind to lose you, so do not tempt me to kill you."
Barney's hands went up, but not in the way that the brigand had expected. Instead, one of them seized his weapon and shoved it aside, while with the other Custer planted a blow between his eyes and sent him reeling backward. The two men closed, fighting for possession of the gun. In the scrimmage it was exploded, but a moment later the American succeeded in wresting it from his adversary and hurled it into the ravine.
Striking at one another, the two surged backward and forward at the very edge of the hill, each searching for the other's throat. The girl stood by, watching the battle with wide, frightened eyes. If she could only do something to aid the king!
She saw a loose stone lying at a little distance from the fighters and hastened to procure it. If she could strike the brigand a single good blow on the side of the head, Leopold might easily overpower him. When she had gathered up the rock and turned back toward the two she saw that the man she thought to be the king was not much in the way of needing outside assistance. She could not but marvel at the strength and dexterity of this poor fellow who had spent almost half his life penned within the four walls of a prison. It must be, she thought, the superhuman strength with which maniacs are always credited.
Nevertheless, she hurried toward them with her weapon; but just before she reached them the brigand made a last mad effort to free himself from the fingers that had found his throat. He lunged backward, dragging the other with him. His foot struck upon the root of a tree, and together the two toppled over into the ravine.
As the girl hastened toward the spot where the two had disappeared, she was startled to see three troopers of the palace cavalry headed by an officer break through the trees at a short distance from where the battle had waged. The four men ran rapidly toward her.
"What has happened here?" shouted the officer to Emma von der Tann; and then, as he came closer: "Gott! Can it be possible that it is your highness?"
The girl paid no attention to the officer. Instead, she hurried down the steep embankment toward the underbrush into which the two men had fallen. There was no sound from below, and no movement in the bushes to indicate that a moment before two desperately battling human beings had dropped among them.
The soldiers were close upon the girl's heels, but it was she who first reached the two quiet figures that lay side by side upon the stony ground halfway down the hillside.
When the officer stopped beside her she was sitting on the ground holding the head of one of the combatants in her lap.
A little stream of blood trickled from a wound in the forehead. The officer stooped closer.
"He is dead?" he asked.
"The king is dead," replied the Princess Emma von der Tann, a little sob in her voice.
"The king!" exclaimed the officer; and then, as he bent lower over the white face: "Leopold!"
The girl nodded.
"We were searching for him," said the officer, "when we heard the shot." Then, arising, he removed his cap, saying in a very low voice: "The king is dead. Long live the king!"
AN ANGRY KING
The soldiers stood behind their officer. None of them had ever seen Leopold of Lutha—he had been but a name to them—they cared nothing for him; but in the presence of death they were awed by the majesty of the king they had never known.
The hands of Emma von der Tann were chafing the wrists of the man whose head rested in her lap.
"Leopold!" she whispered. "Leopold, come back! Mad king you may have been, but still you were king of Lutha—my father's king—my king."
The girl nearly cried out in shocked astonishment as she saw the eyes of the dead king open. But Emma von der Tann was quick-witted. She knew for what purpose the soldiers from the palace were scouring the country.
Had she not thought the king dead she would have cut out her tongue rather than reveal his identity to these soldiers of his great enemy. Now she saw that Leopold lived, and she must undo the harm she had innocently wrought. She bent lower over Barney's face, trying to hide it from the soldiers.
"Go away, please!" she called to them. "Leave me with my dead king. You are Peter's men. You do not care for Leopold, living or dead. Go back to your new king and tell him that this poor young man can never more stand between him and the throne."
The officer hesitated.
"We shall have to take the king's body with us, your highness," he said.
The officer evidently becoming suspicious, came closer, and as he did so Barney Custer sat up.
"Go away!" cried the girl, for she saw that the king was attempting to speak. "My father's people will carry Leopold of Lutha in state to the capital of his kingdom."
"What's all this row about?" he asked. "Can't you let a dead king alone if the young lady asks you to? What kind of a short sport are you, anyway? Run along, now, and tie yourself outside."
The officer smiled, a trifle maliciously perhaps.
"Ah," he said, "I am very glad indeed that you are not dead, your majesty."
Barney Custer turned his incredulous eyes upon the lieutenant.
"Et tu, Brute?" he cried in anguished accents, letting his head fall back into the girl's lap. He found it very comfortable there indeed.
The officer smiled and shook his head. Then he tapped his forehead meaningly.
"I did not know," he said to the girl, "that he was so bad. But come—it is some distance to Blentz, and the afternoon is already well spent. Your highness will accompany us."
"I?" cried the girl. "You certainly cannot be serious."
"And why not, your highness?" asked the officer. "We had strict orders to arrest not only the king, but any companions who may have been involved in his escape."
"I had nothing whatever to do with his escape," said the girl, "though I should have been only too glad to have aided him had the opportunity presented."
"King Peter may think differently," replied the man.
"The Regent, you mean?" the girl corrected him haughtily.
The officer shrugged his shoulders.
"Regent or King, he is ruler of Lutha nevertheless, and he would take away my commission were I to tell him that I had found a Von der Tann in company with the king and had permitted her to escape. Your blood convicts your highness."
"You are going to take me to Blentz and confine me there?" asked the girl in a very small voice and with wide incredulous eyes. "You would not dare thus to humiliate a Von der Tann?"
"I am very sorry," said the officer, "but I am a soldier, and soldiers must obey their superiors. My orders are strict. You may be thankful," he added, "that it was not Maenck who discovered you."
At the mention of the name the girl shuddered.
"In so far as it is in my power your highness and his majesty will be accorded every consideration of dignity and courtesy while under my escort. You need not entertain any fear of me," he concluded.
Barney Custer, during this, to him, remarkable dialogue, had risen to his feet, and assisted the girl in rising. Now he turned and spoke to the officer.
"This farce," he said, "has gone quite far enough. If it is a joke it is becoming a very sorry one. I am not a king. I am an American—Bernard Custer, of Beatrice, Nebraska, U.S.A. Look at me. Look at me closely. Do I look like a king?"
"Every inch, your majesty," replied the officer.
Barney looked at the man aghast.
"Well, I am not a king," he said at last, "and if you go to arresting me and throwing me into one of your musty old dungeons you will find that I am a whole lot more important than most kings. I'm an American citizen."
"Yes, your majesty," replied the officer, a trifle impatiently. "But we waste time in idle discussion. Will your majesty be so good as to accompany me without resistance?"
"If you will first escort this young lady to a place of safety," replied Barney.
"She will be quite safe at Blentz," said the lieutenant.
Barney turned to look at the girl, a question in his eyes. Before them stood the soldiers with drawn revolvers, and now at the summit of the hill a dozen more appeared in command of a sergeant. They were two against nearly a score, and Barney Custer was unarmed.
The girl shook her head.
"There, is no alternative, I am afraid, your majesty," she said.
Barney wheeled toward the officer.
"Very well, lieutenant," he said, "we will accompany you."
The party turned back up the hillside, leaving the dead bandit where he lay—the fellow's neck had been broken by the fall. A short distance from where the man had confronted them the two prisoners were brought to the main road where they saw still other troopers, and with them the horses of those who had gone into the forest on foot.
Barney and the girl were mounted on two of the animals, the soldiers who had ridden them clambering up behind two of their comrades. A moment later the troop set out along the road which leads to Blentz.
The prisoners rode near the center of the column, surrounded by troopers. For a time they were both silent. Barney was wondering if he had accidentally tumbled into the private grounds of Lutha's largest madhouse, or if, in reality, these people mistook him for the young king—it seemed incredible.
It had commenced slowly to dawn upon him that perhaps the girl was not crazy after all. Had not the officer addressed her as "your highness"? Now that he thought upon it he recalled that she did have quite a haughty and regal way with her at times, especially so when she had addressed the officer.
Of course she might be mad, after all, and possibly the bandit, too, but it seemed unbelievable that the officer was mad and his entire troop of cavalry should be composed of maniacs, yet they all persisted in speaking and acting as though he were indeed the mad king of Lutha and the young girl at his side a princess.
From pitying the girl he had come to feel a little bit in awe of her. To the best of his knowledge he had never before associated with a real princess. When he recalled that he had treated her as he would an ordinary mortal, and that he had thought her demented, and had tried to humor her mad whims, he felt very foolish indeed.
Presently he turned a sheepish glance in her direction, to find her looking at him. He saw her flush slightly as his eyes met hers.
"Can your highness ever forgive me?" he asked.
"Forgive you!" she cried in astonishment. "For what, your majesty?"
"For thinking you insane, and for getting you into this horrible predicament," he replied. "But especially for thinking you insane."
"Did you think me mad?" she asked in wide-eyed astonishment.
"When you insisted that I was a king, yes," he replied. "But now I begin to believe that it must be I who am mad, after all, or else I bear a remarkable resemblance to Leopold of Lutha."
"You do, your majesty," replied the girl.
Barney saw it was useless to attempt to convince them and so he decided to give up for the time.
"Have me king, if you will," he said, "but please do not call me 'your majesty' any more. It gets on my nerves."
"Your will is law—Leopold," replied the girl, hesitating prettily before the familiar name, "but do not forget your part of the compact."
He smiled at her. A princess wasn't half so terrible after all.
"And your will shall be my law, Emma," he said.
It was almost dark when they came to Blentz. The castle lay far up on the side of a steep hill above the town. It was an ancient pile, but had been maintained in an excellent state of repair. As Barney Custer looked up at the grim towers and mighty, buttressed walls his heart sank. It had taken the mad king ten years to make his escape from that gloomy and forbidding pile!
"Poor child," he murmured, thinking of the girl.
Before the barbican the party was halted by the guard. An officer with a lantern stepped out upon the lowered portcullis. The lieutenant who had captured them rode forward to meet him.
"A detachment of the Royal Horse Guards escorting His Majesty the King, who is returning to Blentz," he said in reply to the officer's sharp challenge.
"The king!" exclaimed the officer. "You have found him?" and he advanced with raised lantern searching for the monarch.
"At last," whispered Barney to the girl at his side, "I shall be vindicated. This man, at least, who is stationed at Blentz must know his king by sight."
The officer came quite close, holding his lantern until the rays fell full in Barney's face. He scrutinized the young man for a moment. There was neither humility nor respect in his manner, so that the American was sure that the fellow had discovered the imposture.
From the bottom of his heart he hoped so. Then the officer swung the lantern until its light shone upon the girl.
"And who's the wench with him?" he asked the officer who had found them.
The man was standing close beside Barney's horse, and the words were scarce out of his month when the American slipped from his saddle to the portcullis and struck the officer full in the face.
"She is the Princess von der Tann, you boor," said Barney, "and let that help you remember it in future."
The officer scrambled to his feet, white with rage. Whipping out his sword he rushed at Barney.
"You shall die for that, you half-wit," he cried.
Lieutenant Butzow, he of the Royal Horse, rushed forward to prevent the assault and Emma von der Tann sprang from her saddle and threw herself in front of Barney.
Butzow grasped the other officer's arm.
"Are you mad, Schonau?" he cried. "Would you kill the king?"
The fellow tugged to escape the grasp of Butzow. He was crazed with anger.
"Why not?" he bellowed. "You were a fool not to have done it yourself. Maenck will do it and get a baronetcy. It will mean a captaincy for me at least. Let me at him—no man can strike Karl Schonau and live."
"The king is unarmed," cried Emma von der Tann. "Would you murder him in cold blood?"
"He shall not murder him at all, your highness," said Lieutenant Butzow quietly. "Give me your sword, Lieutenant Schonau. I place you under arrest. What you have just said will not please the Regent when it is reported to him. You should keep your head better when you are angry."
"It is the truth," growled Schonau, regretting that his anger had led him into a disclosure of the plot against the king's life, but like most weak characters fearing to admit himself in error even more than he feared the consequences of his rash words.
"Do you intend taking my sword?" asked Schonau suddenly, turning toward Lieutenant Butzow standing beside him.
"We will forget the whole occurrence, lieutenant," replied Butzow, "if you will promise not to harm his majesty, or offer him or the Princess von der Tann further humiliation. Their position is sufficiently unpleasant without our adding to the degradation of it."
"Very well," grumbled Schonau. "Pass on into the courtyard."
Barney and the girl remounted and the little cavalcade moved forward through the ballium and the great gate into the court beyond.
"Did you notice," said Barney to the princess, "that even he believes me to be the king? I cannot fathom it."
Within the castle they were met by a number of servants and soldiers. An officer escorted them to the great hall, and presently a dark visaged captain of cavalry entered and approached them. Butzow saluted.
"His Majesty, the King," he announced, "has returned to Blentz. In accordance with the commands of the Regent I deliver his august person into your safe keeping, Captain Maenck."
Maenck nodded. He was looking at Barney with evident curiosity.
"Where did you find him?" he asked Butzow.
He made no pretense of according to Barney the faintest indication of the respect that is supposed to be due to those of royal blood. Barney commenced to hope that he had finally come upon one who would know that he was not king.
Butzow recounted the details of the finding of the king. As he spoke, Maenck's eyes, restless and furtive, seemed to be appraising the personal charms of the girl who stood just back of Barney.
The American did not like the appearance of the officer, but he saw that he was evidently supreme at Blentz, and he determined to appeal to him in the hope that the man might believe his story and untangle the ridiculous muddle that a chance resemblance to a fugitive monarch had thrown him and the girl into.
"Captain," said Barney, stepping closer to the officer, "there has been a mistake in identity here. I am not the king. I am an American traveling for pleasure in Lutha. The fact that I have gray eyes and wear a full reddish-brown beard is my only offense. You are doubtless familiar with the king's appearance and so you at least have already seen that I am not his majesty.
"Not being the king, there is no cause to detain me longer, and as I am not a fugitive and never have been, this young lady has been guilty of no misdemeanor or crime in being in my company. Therefore she too should be released. In the name of justice and common decency I am sure that you will liberate us both at once and furnish the Princess von der Tann, at least, with a proper escort to her home."
Maenck listened in silence until Barney had finished, a half smile upon his thick lips.
"I am commencing to believe that you are not so crazy as we have all thought," he said. "Certainly," and he let his eyes rest upon Emma von der Tann, "you are not mentally deficient in so far as your judgment of a good-looking woman is concerned. I could not have made a better selection myself.
"As for my familiarity with your appearance, you know as well as I that I have never seen you before. But that is not necessary—you conform perfectly to the printed description of you with which the kingdom is flooded. Were that not enough, the fact that you were discovered with old Von der Tann's daughter is sufficient to remove the least doubt as to your identity."
"You are governor of Blentz," cried Barney, "and yet you say that you have never seen the king?"
"Certainly," replied Maenck. "After you escaped the entire personnel of the garrison here was changed, even the old servants to a man were withdrawn and others substituted. You will have difficulty in again escaping, for those who aided you before are no longer here."
"There is no man in the castle of Blentz who has ever seen the king?" asked Barney.
"None who has seen him before tonight," replied Maenck. "But were we in doubt we have the word of the Princess Emma that you are Leopold. Did she not admit it to you, Butzow?"
"When she thought his majesty dead she admitted it," replied Butzow.
"We gain nothing by discussing the matter," said Maenck shortly. "You are Leopold of Lutha. Prince Peter says that you are mad. All that concerns me is that you do not escape again, and you may rest assured that while Ernst Maenck is governor of Blentz you shall not escape and go at large again.
"Are the royal apartments in readiness for his majesty, Dr. Stein?" he concluded, turning toward a rat-faced little man with bushy whiskers, who stood just behind him.
The query was propounded in an ironical tone, and with a manner that made no pretense of concealing the contempt of the speaker for the man he thought the king.
The eyes of the Princess Emma were blazing as she caught the scant respect in Maenck's manner. She looked quickly toward Barney to see if he intended rebuking the man for his impertinence. She saw that the king evidently intended overlooking Maenck's attitude. But Emma von der Tann was of a different mind.
She had seen Maenck several times at social functions in the capital. He had even tried to win a place in her favor, but she had always disliked him, even before the nasty stories of his past life had become common gossip, and within the year she had won his hatred by definitely indicating to him that he was persona non grata, in so far as she was concerned. Now she turned upon him, her eyes flashing with indignation.
"Do you forget, sir, that you address the king?" she cried. "That you are without honor I have heard men say, and I may truly believe it now that I have seen what manner of man you are. The most lowly-bred boor in all Lutha would not be so ungenerous as to take advantage of his king's helplessness to heap indignities upon him.
"Leopold of Lutha shall come into his own some day, and my dearest hope is that his first act may be to mete out to such as you the punishment you deserve."
Maenck paled in anger. His fingers twitched nervously, but he controlled his temper remarkably well, biding his time for revenge.
"Take the king to his apartments, Stein," he commanded curtly, "and you, Lieutenant Butzow, accompany them with a guard, nor leave until you see that he is safely confined. You may return here afterward for my further instructions. In the meantime I wish to examine the king's mistress."
For a moment tense silence reigned in the apartment after Maenck had delivered his wanton insult.
Emma von der Tann, her little chin high in the air, stood straight and haughty, nor was there any sign in her expression to indicate that she had heard the man's words.
Barney was the first to take cognizance of them.
"You cur!" he cried, and took a step toward Maenck. "You're going to eat that, word for word."
Maenck stepped back, his hand upon his sword. Butzow laid a hand upon Barney's arm.
"Don't, your majesty," he implored, "it will but make your position more unpleasant, nor will it add to the safety of the Princess von der Tann for you to strike him now."
Barney shook himself free from Butzow, and before either Stein or the lieutenant could prevent had sprung upon Maenck.
The latter had not been quick enough with his sword, so that Barney had struck him twice, heavily in the face before the officer was able to draw. Butzow had sprung to the king's side, and was attempting to interpose himself between Maenck and the American. In a moment more the sword of the infuriated captain would be in the king's heart. Barney turned the first thrust with his forearm.
"Stop!" cried Butzow to Maenck. "Are you mad, that you would kill the king?"
Maenck lunged again, viciously, at the unprotected body of his antagonist.
"Die, you pig of an idiot!" he screamed.
Butzow saw that the man really meant to murder Leopold. He seized Barney by the shoulder and whirled him backward. At the same instant his own sword leaped from his scabbard, and now Maenck found himself facing grim steel in the hand of a master swordsman.
The governor of Blentz drew back from the touch of that sharp point.
"What do you mean?" he cried. "This is mutiny."
"When I received my commission," replied Butzow, quietly, "I swore to protect the person of the king with my life, and while I live no man shall affront Leopold of Lutha in my presence, or threaten his safety else he accounts to me for his act. Return your sword, Captain Maenck, nor ever again draw it against the king while I be near."
Slowly Maenck sheathed his weapon. Black hatred for Butzow and the man he was protecting smoldered in his eyes.
"If he wishes peace," said Barney, "let him apologize to the princess."
"You had better apologize, captain," counseled Butzow, "for if the king should command me to do so I should have to compel you to," and the lieutenant half drew his sword once more.
There was something in Butzow's voice that warned Maenck that his subordinate would like nothing better than the king's command to run him through.
He well knew the fame of Butzow's sword arm, and having no stomach for an encounter with it he grumbled an apology.
"And don't let it occur again," warned Barney.
"Come," said Dr. Stein, "your majesty should be in your apartments, away from all excitement, if we are to effect a cure, so that you may return to your throne quickly."
Butzow formed the soldiers about the American, and the party moved silently out of the great hall, leaving Captain Maenck and Princess Emma von der Tann its only occupants.
Barney cast a troubled glance toward Maenck, and half hesitated.
"I am sorry, your majesty," said Butzow in a low voice, "but you must accompany us. In this the governor of Blentz is well within his authority, and I must obey him."
"Heaven help her!" murmured Barney.
"The governor will not dare harm her," said Butzow. "Your majesty need entertain no apprehension."
"I wouldn't trust him," replied the American. "I know his kind."
BARNEY FINDS A FRIEND
After the party had left the room Maenck stood looking at the princess for several seconds. A cunning expression supplanted the anger that had shown so plainly upon his face but a moment before. The girl had moved to one side of the apartment and was pretending an interest in a large tapestry that covered the wall at that point. Maenck watched her with greedy eyes. Presently he spoke.
"Let us be friends," he said. "You shall be my guest at Blentz for a long time. I doubt if Peter will care to release you soon, for he has no love for your father—and it will be easier for both if we establish pleasant relations from the beginning. What do you say?"
"I shall not be at Blentz long," she replied, not even looking in Maenck's direction, "though while I am it shall be as a prisoner and not as a guest. It is incredible that one could believe me willing to pose as the guest of a traitor, even were he less impossible than the notorious and infamous Captain Maenck."
Maenck smiled. He was one of those who rather pride themselves upon the possession of racy reputations. He walked across the room to a bell cord which he pulled. Then he turned toward the girl again.
"I have given you an opportunity," he said, "to lighten the burdens of your captivity. I hoped that you would be sensible and accept my advances of friendship voluntarily," and he emphasized the word "voluntarily," "but—"
He shrugged his shoulders.
A servant had entered the apartment in response to Maenck's summons.
"Show the Princess von der Tann to her apartments," he commanded with a sinister tone.
The man, who was in the livery of Peter of Blentz, bowed, and with a deferential sign to the girl led the way from the room. Emma von der Tann followed her guide up a winding stairway which spiraled within a tower at the end of a long passage. On the second floor of the castle the servant led her to a large and beautifully furnished suite of three rooms—a bedroom, dressing-room and boudoir. After showing her the rooms that were to be hers the servant left her alone.
As soon as he had gone the Princess von der Tann took another turn through the suite, looking to the doors and windows to ascertain how securely she might barricade herself against unwelcome visitors.
She found that the three rooms lay in an angle of the old, moss-covered castle wall.
The bedroom and dressing-room were connected by a doorway, and each in turn had another door opening into the boudoir. The only connection with the corridor without was through a single doorway from the boudoir. This door was equipped with a massive bolt, which, when she had shot it, gave her a feeling of immense relief and security. The windows were all too high above the court on one side and the moat upon the other to cause her the slightest apprehension of danger from the outside.
The girl found the boudoir not only beautiful, but extremely comfortable and cozy. A huge log-fire blazed upon the hearth, and, though it was summer, its warmth was most welcome, for the night was chill. Across the room from the fireplace a full length oil of a former Blentz princess looked down in arrogance upon the unwilling occupant of the room. It seemed to the girl that there was an expression of annoyance upon the painted countenance that another, and an enemy of her house, should be making free with her belongings. She wondered a little, too, that this huge oil should have been bung in a lady's boudoir. It seemed singularly out of place.
"If she would but smile," thought Emma von der Tann, "she would detract less from the otherwise pleasant surroundings, but I suppose she serves her purpose in some way, whatever it may be."
There were papers, magazines and books upon the center table and more books upon a low tier of shelves on either side of the fireplace. The girl tried to amuse herself by reading, but she found her thoughts continually reverting to the unhappy situation of the king, and her eyes momentarily wandered to the cold and repellent face of the Blentz princess.
Finally she wheeled a great armchair near the fireplace, and with her back toward the portrait made a final attempt to submerge her unhappy thoughts in a current periodical.
When Barney and his escort reached the apartments that had been occupied by the king of Lutha before his escape, Butzow and the soldiers left him in company with Dr. Stein and an old servant, whom the doctor introduced as his new personal attendant.
"Your majesty will find him a very attentive and faithful servant," said Stein. "He will remain with you and administer your medicine at proper intervals."
"Medicine?" ejaculated Barney. "What in the world do I need of medicine? There is nothing the matter with me."
Stein smiled indulgently.
"Ah, your majesty," he said, "if you could but realize the sad affliction that clouds your life! You may never sit upon your throne until the last trace of this sinister mental disorder is eradicated, so take your medicine voluntarily, or otherwise Joseph will be compelled to administer it by force. Remember, sire, that only through this treatment will you be able to leave Blentz."
After Stein had left the room Joseph bolted the door behind him. Then he came to where Barney stood in the center of the apartment, and dropping to his knees took the young man's hand in his and kissed it.
"God has been good indeed, your majesty," he whispered. "It was He who made it possible for old Joseph to deceive them and find his way to your side."
"Who are you, my man?" asked Barney.
"I am from Tann," whispered the old man, in a very low voice. "His highness, the prince, found the means to obtain service for me with the new retinue that has replaced the old which permitted your majesty's escape. There was another from Tann among the former servants here.
"It was through his efforts that you escaped before, you will recall. I have seen Fritz and learned from him the way, so that if your majesty does not recall it it will make no difference, for I know it well, having been over it three times already since I came here, to be sure that when the time came that they should recapture you I might lead you out quickly before they could slay you."
"You really think that they intend murdering me?"
"There is no doubt about it, your majesty," replied the old man. "This very bottle"—Joseph touched the phial which Stein had left upon the table—"contains the means whereby, through my hands, you were to be slowly poisoned."
"Do you know what it is?"
"Bichloride of mercury, your majesty. One dose would have been sufficient, and after a few days—perhaps a week—you would have died in great agony."
"But I am not the king, Joseph," said the young man, "so even had they succeeded in killing me it would have profited them nothing."
Joseph shook his head sadly.
"Your majesty will pardon the presumption of one who loves him," he said, "if he makes so bold as to suggest that your majesty must not again deny that he is king. That only tends to corroborate the contention of Prince Peter that your majesty is not—er, just sane, and so, incompetent to rule Lutha. But we of Tann know differently, and with the help of the good God we will place your majesty upon the throne which Peter has kept from you all these years."
Barney sighed. They were determined that he should be king whether he would or no. He had often thought he would like to be a king; but now the realization of his boyish dreaming which seemed so imminent bade fair to be almost anything than pleasant.
Barney suddenly realized that the old fellow was talking. He was explaining how they might escape. It seemed that a secret passage led from this very chamber to the vaults beneath the castle and from there through a narrow tunnel below the moat to a cave in the hillside far beyond the structure.
"They will not return again tonight to see your majesty," said Joseph, "and so we had best make haste to leave at once. I have a rope and swords in readiness. We shall need the rope to make our way down the hillside, but let us hope that we shall not need the swords."
"I cannot leave Blentz," said Barney, "unless the Princess Emma goes with us."
"The Princess Emma!" cried the old man. "What Princess Emma?"
"Princess von der Tann," replied Barney. "Did you not know that she was captured with me!"
The old man was visibly affected by the knowledge that his young mistress was a prisoner within the walls of Blentz. He seemed torn by conflicting emotions—his duty toward his king and his love for the daughter of his old master. So it was that he seemed much relieved when he found that Barney insisted upon saving the girl before any thought of their own escape should be taken into consideration.
"My first duty, your majesty," said Joseph, "is to bring you safely out of the hands of your enemies, but if you command me to try to bring your betrothed with us I am sure that his highness, Prince Ludwig, would be the last to censure me for deviating thus from his instructions, for if he loves another more than he loves his king it is his daughter, the beautiful Princess Emma."
"What do you mean, Joseph," asked Barney, "by referring to the princess as my betrothed? I never saw her before today."
"It has slipped your majesty's mind," said the old man sadly; "but you and my young mistress were betrothed many years ago while you were yet but children. It was the old king's wish that you wed the daughter of his best friend and most loyal subject."
Here was a pretty pass, indeed, thought Barney. It was sufficiently embarrassing to be mistaken for the king, but to be thrown into this false position in company with a beautiful young woman to whom the king was engaged to be married, and who, with the others, thought him to be the king, was quite the last word in impossible positions.
Following this knowledge there came to Barney the first pangs of regret that he was not really the king, and then the realization, so sudden that it almost took his breath away, that the girl was very beautiful and very much to be desired. He had not thought about the matter until her utter impossibility was forced upon him.
It was decided that Joseph should leave the king's apartment at once and discover in what part of the castle Emma von der Tann was imprisoned. Their further plans were to depend upon the information gained by the old man during his tour of investigation of the castle.
In the interval of his absence Barney paced the length of his prison time and time again. He thought the fellow would never return. Perhaps he had been detected in the act of spying, and was himself a prisoner in some other part of the castle! The thought came to Barney like a blow in the face, for he realized that then he would be entirely at the mercy of his captors, and that there would be none to champion the cause of the Princess von der Tann.
When his nervous tension had about reached the breaking point there came a sound of stealthy movement just outside the door of his room. Barney halted close to the massive panels. He heard a key fitted quietly and then the lock grated as it turned.
Barney thought that they had surely detected Joseph's duplicity and had come to make short work of the king before other traitors arose in their midst entirely to frustrate their plans. The young American stepped to the wall behind the door that he might be out of sight of whoever entered. Should it prove other than Joseph, might the Lord help them! The clenched fists, square-set chin, and gleaming gray eyes of the prisoner presaged no good for any incoming enemy.
Slowly the door swung open and a man entered the room. Barney breathed a deep sigh of relief—it was Joseph.
"Well?" cried the young man from behind him, and Joseph started as though Peter of Blentz himself had laid an accusing finger upon his shoulder. "What news?"
"Your majesty," gasped Joseph, "how you did startle me! I found the apartments of the princess, sire. There is a bare chance that we may succeed in rescuing her, but a very bare one, indeed.
"We must traverse a main corridor of the castle to reach her suite, and then return by the same way. It will be a miracle if we are not discovered; but the worst of it is that next to her apartments, and between them and your majesty's, are the apartments of Captain Maenck.
"He is sure to be there and officers and servants may be coming and going throughout the entire night, for the man is a convivial fellow, sitting at cards and drink until sunrise nearly every day."
"And when we have brought the princess in safety to my quarters," asked Barney, "what then? How shall we conduct her from the castle? You have not told me that as yet."
The old man explained then the plan of escape. It seemed that one of the two huge tile panels that flanked the fireplace on either side was in reality a door hiding the entrance to a shaft that rose from the vaults beneath the castle to the roof. At each floor there was a similar secret door concealing the mouth of the passage. From the vaults a corridor led through another secret panel to the tunnel that wound downward to the cave in the hillside.
"Beyond that we shall find horses, your majesty," concluded the old man. "They have been hidden in the woods since I came to Blentz. Each day I go there to water and feed them."
During the servant's explanation Barney had been casting about in his mind for some means of rescuing the princess without so great risk of detection, and as the plan of the secret passageway became clear to him he thought that he saw a way to accomplish the thing with comparative safety in so far as detection was concerned.
"Who occupies the floor above us, Joseph?" he asked.
"It is vacant," replied the old man.
"Good! Come, show me the entrance to the shaft," directed Barney.
"You will go without attempting to succor the Princess Emma?" exclaimed the old fellow in ill-concealed chagrin.
"Far from it," replied Barney. "Bring your rope and the swords. I think we are going to find the rescuing of the Princess Emma the easiest part of our adventure."
The old man shook his head, but went to another room of the suite, from which he presently emerged with a stout rope about fifty feet in length and two swords. As he buckled one of the weapons to Barney his eyes fell upon the American's seal ring that encircled the third finger of his left hand.
"The Royal Ring of Lutha!" exclaimed Joseph. "Where is it, your majesty? What has become of the Royal Ring of the Kings of Lutha?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Joseph," replied the young man. "Should I be wearing a royal ring?"
"The profaning miscreants!" cried Joseph. "They have dared to filch from you the great ring that has been handed down from king to king for three hundred years. When did they take it from you?"
"I have never seen it, Joseph," replied the young man, "and possibly this fact may assure you where all else has failed that I am no true king of Lutha, after all."
"Ah, no, your majesty," replied the old servitor; "it but makes assurance doubly sure as to your true identity, for the fact that you have not the ring is positive proof that you are king and that they have sought to hide the fact by removing the insignia of your divine right to rule in Lutha."
Barney could not but smile at the old fellow's remarkable logic. He saw that nothing short of a miracle would ever convince Joseph that he was not the real monarch, and so, as matters of greater importance were to the fore, he would have allowed the subject to drop had not the man attempted to recall to the impoverished memory of his king a recollection of the historic and venerated relic of the dead monarchs of Lutha.
"Do you not remember, sir," he asked, "the great ruby that glared, blood-red from its center, and the four sets of golden wings that formed the setting? From the blood of Charlemagne was the ruby made, so history tells us, and the setting represented the protecting wings of the power of the kings of Lutha spread to the four points of the compass. Now your majesty must recall the royal ring, I am sure."
Barney only shook his head, much to Joseph's evident sorrow.
"Never mind the ring, Joseph," said the young man. "Bring your rope and lead me to the floor above."
"The floor above? But, your majesty, we cannot reach the vaults and tunnel by going upward!"
"You forget, Joseph, that we are going to fetch the Princess Emma first."
"But she is not on the floor above us, sire; she is upon the same floor as we are," insisted the old man, hesitating.
"Joseph, who do you think I am?" asked Barney.
"You are the king, my lord," replied the old man.
"Then do as your king commands," said the American sharply.
Joseph turned with dubious mutterings and approached the tiled panel at the left of the fireplace. Here he fumbled about for a moment until his fingers found the hidden catch that held the cunningly devised door in place. An instant later the panel swung inward before his touch, and standing to one side, the old fellow bowed low as he ushered Barney into the Stygian darkness of the space beyond their vision.
Joseph halted the young man just within the doorway, cautioning him against the danger of falling into the shaft, then he closed the panel, and a moment later had found the lantern he had hidden there and lighted it. The rays disclosed to the American the rough masonry of the interior of a narrow, well-built shaft. A rude ladder standing upon a narrow ledge beside him extended upward to lose itself in the shadows above. At its foot the top of another ladder was visible protruding through the opening from the floor beneath.
No sooner had Joseph's lantern shown him the way than Barney was ascending the ladder toward the floor above. At the next landing he waited for the old man.
Joseph put out the light and placed the lantern where they could easily find it upon their return. Then he cautiously slipped the catch that held the panel in place and slowly opened the door until a narrow line of lesser darkness showed from without.
For a moment they stood in silence listening for any sound from the chamber beyond, but as nothing occurred to indicate that the apartment was occupied the old man opened the portal a trifle further, and finally far enough to permit his body to pass through. Barney followed him. They found themselves in a large, empty chamber, identical in size and shape with that which they had just quitted upon the floor below.
From this the two passed into the corridor beyond, and thence to the apartments at the far end of the wing, directly over those occupied by Emma von der Tann.
Barney hastened to a window overlooking the moat. By leaning far out he could see the light from the princess's chamber shining upon the sill. He wished that the light was not there, for the window was in plain view of the guard on the lookout upon the barbican.
Suddenly he caught the sound of voices from the chamber beneath. For an instant he listened, and then, catching a few words of the dialogue, he turned hurriedly toward his companion.
"The rope, Joseph! And for God's sake be quick about it."
For half an hour the Princess von der Tann succeeded admirably in immersing herself in the periodical, to the exclusion of her unhappy thoughts and the depressing influence of the austere countenance of the Blentz Princess hanging upon the wall behind her.
But presently she became unaccountably nervous. At the slightest sound from the palace-life on the floor below she would start up with a tremor of excitement. Once she heard footsteps in the corridor before her door, but they passed on, and she thought she discerned the click of a latch a short distance further on along the passageway.
Again she attempted to gather up the thread of the article she had been reading, but she was unsuccessful. A stealthy scratching brought her round quickly, staring in the direction of the great portrait. The girl would have sworn that she had heard a noise within her chamber. She shuddered at the thought that it might have come from that painted thing upon the wall.
What was the matter with her? Was she losing all control of herself to be frightened like a little child by ghostly noises?
She tried to return to her reading, but for the life of her she could not keep her eyes off the silent, painted woman who stared and stared and stared in cold, threatening silence upon this ancient enemy of her house.
Presently the girl's eyes went wide in horror. She could feel the scalp upon her head contract with fright. Her terror-filled gaze was frozen upon that awful figure that loomed so large and sinister above her, for the thing had moved! She had seen it with her own eyes. There could be no mistake—no hallucination of overwrought nerves about it. The Blentz Princess was moving slowly toward her!
Like one in a trance the girl rose from her chair, her eyes glued upon the awful apparition that seemed creeping upon her. Slowly she withdrew toward the opposite side of the chamber. As the painting moved more quickly the truth flashed upon her—it was mounted on a door.
The crack of the door widened and beyond it the girl saw dimly, eyes fastened upon her. With difficulty she restrained a shriek. The portal swung wide and a man in uniform stepped into the room.
It was Maenck.
Emma von der Tann gazed in unveiled abhorrence upon the leering face of the governor of Blentz.
"What means this intrusion?" cried the girl.
"What would you have here?"
"You," replied Maenck.
The girl crimsoned.
Maenck regarded her sneeringly.
"You coward!" she cried. "Leave my apartments at once. Not even Peter of Blentz would countenance such abhorrent treatment of a prisoner."
"You do not know Peter my dear," responded Maenck. "But you need not fear. You shall be my wife. Peter has promised me a baronetcy for the capture of Leopold, and before I am done I shall be made a prince, of that you may rest assured, so you see I am not so bad a match after all."
He crossed over toward her and would have laid a rough hand upon her arm.
The girl sprang away from him, running to the opposite side of the library table at which she had been reading. Maenck started to pursue her, when she seized a heavy, copper bowl that stood upon the table and hurled it full in his face. The missile struck him a glancing blow, but the edge laid open the flesh of one cheek almost to the jaw bone.
With a cry of pain and rage Captain Ernst Maenck leaped across the table full upon the young girl. With vicious, murderous fingers he seized upon her fair throat, shaking her as a terrier might shake a rat. Futilely the girl struck at the hate-contorted features so close to hers.
"Stop!" she cried. "You are killing me."
The fingers released their hold.
"No," muttered the man, and dragged the princess roughly across the room.
Half a dozen steps he had taken when there came a sudden crash of breaking glass from the window across the chamber. Both turned in astonishment to see the figure of a man leap into the room, carrying the shattered crystal and the casement with him. In one hand was a naked sword.
"The king!" cried Emma von der Tann.
"The devil!" muttered Maenck, as, dropping the girl, he scurried toward the great painting from behind which he had found ingress to the chambers of the princess.
Maenck was a coward, and he had seen murder in the eyes of the man rushing upon him. With a bound he reached the picture which still stood swung wide into the room.
Barney was close behind him, but fear lent wings to the governor of Blentz, so that he was able to dart into the passage behind the picture and slam the door behind him a moment before the infuriated man was upon him.
The American clawed at the edge of the massive frame, but all to no avail. Then he raised his sword and slashed the canvas, hoping to find a way into the place beyond, but mighty oaken panels barred his further progress. With a whispered oath he turned back toward the girl.
"Thank Heaven that I was in time, Emma," he cried.
"Oh, Leopold, my king, but at what a price," replied the girl. "He will return now with others and kill you. He is furious—so furious that he scarce knows what he does."
"He seemed to know what he was doing when he ran for that hole in the wall," replied Barney with a grin. "But come, it won't pay to let them find us should they return."
Together they hastened to the window beyond which the girl could see a rope dangling from above. The sight of it partially solved the riddle of the king's almost uncanny presence upon her window sill in the very nick of time.
Below, the lights in the watch tower at the outer gate were plainly visible, and the twinkling of them reminded Barney of the danger of detection from that quarter. Quickly he recrossed the apartment to the wall-switch that operated the recently installed electric lights, and an instant later the chamber was in total darkness.
Once more at the girl's side Barney drew in one end of the rope and made it fast about her body below her arms, leaving a sufficient length terminating in a small loop to permit her to support herself more comfortably with one foot within the noose. Then he stepped to the outer sill, and reaching down assisted her to his side.
Far below them the moonlight played upon the sluggish waters of the moat. In the distance twinkled the lights of the village of Blentz. From the courtyard and the palace came faintly the sound of voices, and the movement of men. A horse whinnied from the stables.
Barney turned his eyes upward. He could see the head and shoulders of Joseph leaning from the window of the chamber directly above them.
"Hoist away, Joseph!" whispered the American, and to the girl: "Be brave. Shut your eyes and trust to Joseph and—and—"
"And my king," finished the girl for him.
His arm was about her shoulders, supporting her upon the narrow sill. His cheek so close to hers that once he felt the soft velvet of it brush his own. Involuntarily his arm tightened about the supple body.
"My princess!" he murmured, and as he turned his face toward hers their lips almost touched.
Joseph was pulling upon the rope from above. They could feel it tighten beneath the girl's arms. Impulsively Barney Custer drew the sweet lips closer to his own. There was no resistance.
"I love you," he whispered. The words were smothered as their lips met.
Joseph, above, wondered at the great weight of the Princess Emma von der Tann.
"I love you, Leopold, forever," whispered the girl, and then as Joseph's Herculean tugging seemed likely to drag them both from the narrow sill, Barney lifted the girl upward with one hand while he clung to the window frame with the other. The distance to the sill above was short, and a moment later Joseph had grasped the princess's hand and was helping her over the ledge into the room beyond.
At the same instant there came a sudden commotion from the interior of the room in the window of which Barney still stood waiting for Joseph to remove the rope from about the princess and lower it for him. Barney heard the heavy feet of men, the clank of arms, and muttered oaths as the searchers stumbled against the furniture.
Presently one of them found the switch and instantly the room was flooded with light, which revealed to the American a dozen Luthanian troopers headed by the murderous Maenck.
Barney looked anxiously aloft. Would Joseph never lower that rope! Within the room the men were searching. He could hear Maenck directing them. Only a thin portiere screened him from their view. It was but a matter of seconds before they would investigate the window through which Maenck knew the king had found ingress.
Yes! It had come.
"Look to the window," commanded Maenck. "He may have gone as he came."
Two of the soldiers crossed the room toward the casement. From above Joseph was lowering the rope; but it was too late. The men would be at the window before he could clamber out of their reach.
"Hoist away!" he whispered to Joseph. "Quick now, my man, and make your escape with the Princess von der Tann. It is the king's command."
Already the soldiers were at the window. At the sound of his voice they tore aside the draperies; at the same instant the pseudo-king turned and leaped out into the blackness of the night.
There were exclamations of surprise and rage from the soldiers—a woman's scream. Then from far below came a dull splash as the body of Bernard Custer struck the surface of the moat.
Maenck, leaning from the window, heard the scream and the splash, and jumped to the conclusion that both the king and the princess had attempted to make their escape in this harebrained way. Immediately all the resources at his command were put to the task of searching the moat and the adjacent woods.
He was sure that one or both of the prisoners would be stunned by impact with the surface of the water, and then drowned before they regained consciousness, but he did not know Bernard Custer, nor the facility and almost uncanny ease with which that young man could negotiate a high dive into shallow water.
Nor did he know that upon the floor above him one Joseph was hastening along a dark corridor toward a secret panel in another apartment, and that with him was the Princess Emma bound for liberty and safety far from the frowning walls of Blentz.
As Barney's head emerged above the surface of the moat he shook it vigorously to free his eyes from water, and then struck out for the further bank.
Long before his pursuers had reached the courtyard and alarmed the watch at the barbican, the American had crawled out upon dry land and hastened across the broad clearing to the patch of stunted trees that grew lower down upon the steep hillside before the castle.
He shrank from the thought of leaving Blentz without knowing positively that Joseph had made good the escape of himself and the princess, but he finally argued that even if they had been retaken, he could serve her best by hastening to her father and fetching the only succor that might prevail against the strength of Blentz—armed men in sufficient force to storm the ancient fortress.
He had scarcely entered the wood when he heard the sound of the searchers at the moat, and saw the rays of their lanterns flitting hither and thither as they moved back and forth along the bank.
Then the young man turned his face from the castle and set forth across the unfamiliar country in the direction of the Old Forest and the castle Von der Tann.
The memory of the warm lips that had so recently been pressed to his urged him on in the service of the wondrous girl who had come so suddenly into his life, bringing to him the realization of a love that he knew must alter, for happiness or for sorrow, all the balance of his existence, even unto death.
He dreaded the day of reckoning when, at last, she must learn that he was no king. He did not have the temerity to hope that her courage would be equal to the great sacrifice which the acknowledgment of her love for one not of noble blood must entail; but he could not believe that she would cease to love him when she learned the truth.
So the future looked black and cheerless to Barney Custer as he trudged along the rocky, moonlit way. The only bright spot was the realization that for a while at least he might be serving the one woman in all the world.
All the balance of the long night the young man traversed valley and mountain, holding due south in the direction he supposed the Old Forest to lie. He passed many a little farm tucked away in the hollow of a hillside, and quaint hamlets, and now and then the ruins of an ancient feudal stronghold, but no great forest of black oaks loomed before him to apprise him of the nearness of his goal, nor did he dare to ask the correct route at any of the homes he passed.
His fatal likeness to the description of the mad king of Lutha warned him from intercourse with the men of Lutha until he might know which were friends and which enemies of the hapless monarch.
Dawn found him still upon his way, but with the determination fully crystallized to hail the first man he met and ask the way to Tann. He still avoided the main traveled roads, but from time to time he paralleled them close enough that he might have ample opportunity to hail the first passerby.
The road was becoming more and more mountainous and difficult. There were fewer homes and no hamlets, and now he began to despair entirely of meeting any who could give him direction unless he turned and retraced his steps to the nearest farm.
Directly before him the narrow trail he had been following for the past few miles wound sharply about the shoulder of a protruding cliff. He would see what lay beyond the turn—perhaps he would find the Old Forest there, after all.
But instead he found something very different, though in its way quite as interesting, for as he rounded the rugged bluff he came face to face with two evil-looking fellows astride stocky, rough-coated ponies.