The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXVI. A Page from Tasso
For a long time Maurice rode with his head almost touching the coal black mane of his gallant Mecklenberg. Twice he glanced back to see who followed, but the volume of dust which rolled after him obscured all behind. He could hear the far-off hammer of hoofs, but this, mingling with the noise of his own horse, confused him as to the number of pursuers. He reasoned that he was well out of range, for there came no report of firearms. The road presently described a semi-circle, passing through a meager orchard. Once beyond this he turned again in the saddle.
"Only one; that is not so bad as it might be. It is one to one." But a second glance told him who this solitary pursuer was. "The devil!" he laughed--as one of Tasso's heroes might have laughed!- -"The devil! how that man loves me!" He was confident that the white horse would never overtake the black.
On they flew, pursued and pursuer. At length Maurice bit his lip and frowned. The white horse was growing larger; the distance between was lessening, slowly but certainly.
"Good boy!" he said encouragingly to the Mecklenberg. "Good boy!"
Deserted farm houses swept past; hills rose and vanished, but still the white horse crept up, up, up. The distance ere another half mile had gone had diminished to four hundred yards; from four hundred it fell to three hundred, from three hundred to two hundred. The Mecklenburg was doing glorious work, but the marvelous stride of the animal in the rear was matchless. Suddenly Maurice saw a tuft of the red plume on his helmet spring out ahead of him and sail away, and a second later came the report. One, he counted; four more were to follow. Next a stream of fire gassed along his cheek, and something warm trickled down the side of his neck. Two, he counted, his face now pale and set. The third knocked his scabbard into the air.
Quickly he shifted his saber to the left, dropped the reins and drew his own revolver. He understood. He was not to be taken prisoner. Beauvais intended to kill him offhand. Only the dead keep secrets. Maurice flung about and fired three consecutive times. The white horse reared, and the shako of his master fell into the dust, but there was no other result. As Maurice pressed the trigger for the fourth time the revolver was violently wrenched from his hand, and a thousand needles seemed to be quivering in the flesh of his arm and hand.
"My God, what a shot!" he murmured. "I am lost!"
Simultaneous with the fifth and last shot came sensation somewhat like that caused by a sound blow in the middle of the back. Strange, but he felt no pain, neither was there an accompanying numbness. Then he remembered his cuirass, which was of steel an eighth of an inch thick. It had saved his life. The needles began to leave his right hand and arm, and he knew that he had received no injury other than a shock. He passed the saber back to his right hand. He had no difficulty in holding it. Gradually his grip grew strong and steady.
Beauvais was now within twenty yards of Maurice. Had he been less eager and held his fire up to this point, Maurice had been a dead man. The white horse gained every moment. A dull fury grew into life in Maurice's heart. Instead of continuing the race, he brought the Mecklenberg to his haunches and wheeled. He made straight for Beauvais, who was surprised at this change of tactics. In the rush they passed each other and the steel hummed spitefully through space. Both wheeled again.
"Your life or mine!" snarled Maurice. His coolness, however, was proportionate to his rage. For the first time in his life the lust to kill seized him.
"It shall be yours, damn you!" replied Beauvais.
"The Austrian ambassador has your history; kill me or not, you are lost." Maurice made a sweep at his enemy's head and missed.
Beauvais replied in kind, and it flashed viciously off the point of Maurice's saber. He had only his life to lose, but it had suddenly become precious to him; Beauvais had not only his life, but all that made life worth living. His onslaught was terrible. Besides, he was fighting against odds; he wore no steel protector. Maurice wore his only a moment longer. A cut in the side severed the lacings, and the sagging of the cuirass greatly handicapped him. He pressed the spurs and dashed away, while Beauvais cursed him for a cowardly cur. Maurice, by this maneuver, gained sufficient time to rid himself of the cumbersome steel. What he lost in protection, he gained in lightness and freedom. Shortly Beauvais was at him again. The time for banter had passed; they fought grimly and silently. The end for one was death. Beauvais knew that if his antagonist escaped this time the life he longed for, the power and honor it promised, would never be his. On his side, Maurice was equally determined to live.
The horses plunged and snorted, reared and swayed and bit. Sometimes they carried their masters several yards apart, only to come smashing together again.
The sun was going down, and a clear, white light prevailed. Afar in the field a herd was grazing, but no one would call them to the sheds. Master and mistress had long since taken flight.
The duel went on. Maurice was growing tired. By and by he began to rely solely on the defense. When they were close, Beauvais played for the point; the moment the space widened he took to the edge. He saw what Maurice felt--the weakening, and he indulged in a cruel smile. They came close; he made as though to give the point. Maurice, thinking to anticipate, reached. Quick as light Beauvais raised his blade and brought it down with crushing force, standing the while in the stirrups. The blow missed Maurice's head by an inch, but it sank so deeply in his left shoulder that it splintered the collar bone and stopped within a hair of the great artery that runs underneath.
The world turned red, then black. When it grew light again Maurice beheld the dripping blade swinging aloft again. Suddenly the black horse snapped at the white, which veered. The stroke which would have split Maurice's skull in twain, fell on the rear of the saddle, and the blade was so firmly imbedded in the wooden molding that Beauvais could not withdraw it at once. Blinded by pain as he was, and fainting, yet Maurice saw his chance. He thrust with all his remaining strength at the brown throat so near him. And the blade went true. The other's body stiffened, his head flew back, his eyes started; he clutched wildly at the steel, but his hands had not the power to reach it. A bloody foam gushed between his lips; his mouth opened; he swayed, and finally tumbled into the road--dead.
As Maurice gazed down at him, between the dead eyes and his own there passed a vision of a dark-skinned girl, who, if still living, dwelt in a lonely convent, thousands of miles away.
Maurice was sensible of but little pain; a pleasant numbness began to steal over him. His sleeve was soaked, his left hand was red, and the blood dripped from his fingers and made round black spots in the dust of the road. A circle of this blackness was widening about the head of the fallen man. Maurice watched it, fascinated. . . He was dead, and the fact that he was a prince did not matter.
It seemed to Maurice that his own body was transforming into lead, and he vaguely wondered how the horse could bear up such a weight. He was sleepy, too. Dimly it came to him that he also must be dying. . . . No; he would not die there, beside this man. He still gripped his saber. Indeed, his hand was as if soldered to the wire and leather windings on the hilt. Mollendorf had said that Beauvais was invincible. . . . Beauvais was dead. Was he, too, dying? . . . No; he would not die there. The Mecklenberg started forward at a walk; a spur had touched him.
"No!" Maurice cried, throwing off the drowsiness. "My God, I will not die here! . . . Go, boy!" The Mecklenberg set off, loping easily.
His recent enemy, the great white horse, stood motionless in the center of the road, and followed him with large, inquiring eyes. He turned and looked at the silent huddled mass in the dust at his feet, and whinneyed. But he did not move; a foot still remained in the stirrup.
Soon Maurice remembered an episode of his school days, when, in the spirit of precocious research, he had applied carbolic acid to his arm. It occurred to him that he was now being bathed in that burning fluid. He was recovering from the shock. With returning sense came the increase of pain, pain so tormenting and exquisite that sobs rose in his throat and choked him. Perspiration matted his hair; every breath he took was a knife thrust, and the rise and fall of the horse, gentle as it was, caused the earth to reel and careen heavenward.
Bleiberg; he was to reach Bleiberg. He repeated this thought over and over. Bleiberg, to warn her. Why should he go to Bleiberg to warn her? What was he doing here, he who loved life so well? What had led him into this? . . . There had been a battle, but neither army had been cognizant of it. He endeavored to move his injured arm, and found it bereft of locomotion. The tendons had been cut. And he could not loosen his grip on the saber which he held in his right hand. The bridle rein swung from side to side.
Rivulets of fire began to run up and down his side; the cords in his neck were stiffening. Still the blood went drip, drip, drip, into the dust. Would he reach Bleiberg, or would he die on the way? God! for a drink of water, cold water. He set his teeth in his lips to neutralize the pain in his arm and shoulder. His lips were numb, and the pressure of his teeth was as nothing. From one moment to the next he expected to drop from the saddle, but somehow he hung on; the spark of life was tenacious. The saber dangled on one side, the scabbard on the other. The blood, drying in places, drew the skin as tight as a drumhead.
On, on, on; up long inclines, down the steeps; he lost all track of time, and the darkness thickened and the stars stood out more clearly. . . . He could look back on a clean life; true, there were some small stains, but these were human. Strange fancies jostled one another; faces long forgot reappeared; scenes from boyhood rose before him. Home! He had none, save that which was the length and breadth of his native land. On, on, on; the low snuffle of the horse sometimes aroused him from the stupor.
"Why you do this I do not know, nor shall I ask. Monsieur, my prayers go with you!" . . . She had said that to him, and had given him her hand to kiss; a princess, one of the chosen and the few. To live long enough to see her again; a final service-- and adieu! . . . Ah, but it had been a good fight, a good fight. No fine phrases; nothing but the lust for blood; a life for a life; a game in which the winner was also like to lose. A gray patch in the white of the road attracted his attention--a bridge.
"Water!" he murmured.
Mottled with the silver of the stars, it ran along through the fields; a brook, shallow and narrow, but water. The perfume of the grasses was sweet; the horse sniffed joyously. He stopped of his own accord. Maurice had strength enough to dismount. The saber slid from his grasp. He staggered down to the water. In kneeling a faintness passed over him; he rolled into the brook and lay there until the water, almost clogging his throat and nostrils, revived him. He crawled to his knees, coughing and choking. The contact of the cold with the burning wound caused a delightful sensation.
"Water!" he said, and splashed it in his face.
The horse had come down from the road. He had not waited for an invitation. He drank thirstily at the side of his master. The water gurgled in his long, black throat.
"Good boy!" Maurice called, and dashed water against his shoulder. "Good boy!" he remembered that the horse in biting the white one had saved his life.
Each handful of the cold liquid caused him to gasp; but soon the fever and fire died out, leaving only the duller pain. When he rose from his knees, however, he found that the world had not yet ceased its wild reeling. He stooped to regain his saber, and fell into the dust; though to him it was not he who fell, but the earth which rose. He struggled to his feet, leaned panting on his saber, and tried to steady himself. He laughed hysterically. He had dismounted, but he knew that he could never climb to the back of the horse; and Bleiberg might yet be miles away. To walk the distance; was it possible? To reach Bleiberg before Madame. . . . Madame the duchess and her army! He laughed again, but there was a wild strain in his laughter. Ah, God! what a farce it was! One man dead and another dying; the beginning and the end of the war. The comic opera! La Grande Duchesse! And the fool of an Englishman was playing Fritz! He started down the road, his body slouched forward, the saber trailing in the dust. . . .
"Voici le sabre de mon pere!"
The hand of madness had touched him. The Mecklenberg followed at his heels as a dog would have followed his master.
Less than a mile away a yellow haze wavered in the sky. It was the reflection of the city lights.
Maurice passed under the town gates, the wild song on his lips, his eyes bloodshot, his hair dank about his brow, conscious of nothing but the mad, rollicking rhythm. Nobody molested him; those he met gave him the full width of the road. A strange picture they presented, the man and the troop horse. Some one recognized the trappings of the horse; half an hour later it was known throughout the city that the king's army had been defeated and that Madame was approaching. Students began their depredations. They built bonfires. They raided the office of the official paper, and destroyed the presses and type. Later they marched around the Hohenstaufenplatz, yelling and singing.
Once a gendarme tried to stop Maurice and inquire into his business. The inquisition was abruptly ended by a cut from the madman's sword. The gendarme took to his legs. Maurice continued, and the Mecklenberg tramped on after him. Into the Konigstrasse they turned. At this time, before the news was known, the street was deserted. Up the center of it the man went, his saber scraping along the asphalt, the horse always following.
Voici le sabre de mon pere! Tu vas le mettre a ton cote! Apres la victoire, j'espere Te revoir en bonne sante. . . . .
The street lamps swayed; sometimes a dozen revolved on one post, and Maurice would stop long enough to laugh. How easy it was to walk! All he had to do was to lift a foot, and the pavement would rise to meet it. The moon, standing high behind him, cast a long, weird shadow, and he staggered after it and cut at it with the saber. It was only when he saw the lights of the royal palace and the great globes on the gate posts that sanity returned. This sanity was of short duration.
"To the palace!" he cried; "to the palace! To warn her!" And he stumbled against the gates, still calling, "To the palace! To the palace!"
The cuirassiers who had been left behind to protect the inmates of the palace, were first aroused by the yelling and singing of the students. They rushed out of the guard room and came running to the gates, which they opened. The body of a man rolled inside. They stopped and examined him; the uniform was theirs. The face they looked into was that of the handsome young foreigner who, that day, had gone forth from the city, a gay and gallant figure, who sat his horse so well that he earned their admiration. What could this mean? And where were the others? Had there been a desperate battle?
"Run back to the guard room, one of you, and fetch some brandy. He lives." And Lieutenant Scharfenstein took his hand from the insensible man's heart. Pulsation was there, but weak and intermittent. "Sergeant, take ten men and clear the square. If they refuse to leave, kill! Madame is not yet queen by any means."
The men scattered. One soon returned with the brandy. Scharfenstein moistened the wounded man's lips and placed his palm under the nose. Shortly Maurice opened his eyes, his half- delirious eyes.
"To the palace!" he said, "to the palace--Ah!" He saw the faces staring down at him. He struggled. Instinctively they all stood back. What seemed incredible to them, he got to his knees, from his knees to his feet, and propped himself against a gate post. "Your life or mine!" he cried. "Come on; a man can die but once!" He lunged, and again they retreated. He laughed. "It was a good fight!" He reeled off toward the palace steps. They did not hinder him, but they followed, expecting each moment to see him fall. But, he fell not. One by one he mounted the steps, steadying himself with the saber. He gained the landing, once more steadied himself, and vanished into the palace.
"He is out of his head!" cried Scharfenstein, rushing up the steps. "God knows what has happened!"
He was in time to see Maurice lurch into the arms of Captain von Mitter, who had barred the way to the private apartments.
"Carewe! . . . What has happened? God's name, you are soaked in blood!" Von Mitter held Maurice at arm's length. "A battle?"
"Aye, a battle; one man is dead and another soon will be!" A transient lucidity beamed in Maurice's eyes. "We were betrayed by the native troops; they ran to meet Madame. . . . Marshal Kampf, Prince Frederick, and the cuirassiers are prisoners. . . . I escaped. Beauvais, gave chase. . . . Wanted to kill me. . . . He gave me this. I ran him through the throat. . . . Knew him in South America. . . . He's dead! Inform the archbishop and her Highness that Madame is nearing the city. The king--"
"Hush!" said von Mitter, with a finger on his lip; "hush! The king died at six o'clock. God rest his soul!" He crossed himself. "A disgraceful day! Curse the scheming woman, could she not let us bury him in peace? Prince Frederick's father refused to send us aid."
"I am dying," said Maurice with a sob. "Let me lie down somewhere; if I fall I am a dead man." After a pause: "Take me into the throne room. I shall last till Madame comes. Let her find me there. . . . The brandy!"
Scharfenstein held the flask to the sufferer's lips.
"The throne room?" repeated von Mitter, surprised at this strange request. "Well, why not? For what is a throne when there is no king to sit on it? You will not die, my friend, though the cut is a nasty one. What is an arm? Life is worth a thousand of them! Quick! help me with him, Max!" for Maurice was reaching blindly toward him.
The three troopers who had followed Scharfenstein came up, and the five of them managed to carry Maurice into the throne room, and deposit him on the cushions at the foot of the dais. There they left him.
"Bad!" said von Mitter, as he came limping out into the corridor. "And he made such a brave show when he left here this afternoon. I have grown to love the fellow. A gallant man. I knew that the native troops were up to something. So did the Colonel. Ach! I would give a year of my life to have seen him and Beauvais. To kill Beauvais, the best saber in the kingdom--it must have been a fight worthy of the legends. A bad day! They will laugh at us. But, patience, the archbishop has something to say before the curtain falls. Poor young man! He will lose his arm, if not his life."
"But how comes he into all this?" asked Scharfenstein, perplexedly.
"It is not for me or you to question, Max," said von Mitter, looking down. He had his own opinion, but he was not minded to disclose it.
"What are you going to do?"
"Perform my duty until the end," sourly. "Go you and help against the students, who have not manliness enough even to respect the dead. The cowardly servants are all gone; save the king's valet. There are only seven of us in all. I will seek the king's physician; the dead are dead, so let us concern ourselves with the living;" and he limped off toward the private apartments.
Scharfenstein hurried away to the square.
In the royal bedchamber a girl murmured over a cold hand. "God pity me; I am all, all alone!"
The archbishop was kneeling at the foot of the bed. In his heart was the bitterness of loss and defeat. His dreams of greatness for this clay! The worldly pomp which was to have attended it! Life was but a warm breath on the mirror of eternity; for one the mirror was clear again.
The square soon grew quiet; the students and the cuirassiers had met for the last time. In the throne room shadows and silence prevailed. Maurice lay upon the cushions, the hilt of the saber still in his hand. Consciousness had returned, a clear, penetrating consciousness. At the foot of the throne, he thought, and, mayhap, close to one not visible to the human eye! What a checkerboard he had moved upon, and now the checkmate! So long as the pain did not diminish, he was content; a sudden ease was what he dreaded. Life was struggling to retain its hold. He did not wish to die; he was young; there were long years to come; the world was beautiful, and to love was the glory over it all. He wondered if Beauvais still lay in the road where he had left him. Again he could see that red saber swinging high; and he shivered.
Half an hour passed, then came the distant murmur of voices, which expanded into tumult. The victorious army, the brave and gallant army, had entered the city, and was streaming toward the palaces. Huzzas rose amid the blaring of bugles. The timorous came forth and added to the noise. The conquerors trooped into the palace, and Madame the duchess looked with shining eyes at the throne of her forefathers.