For a long time Maurice rode with his head almost touching the coal black man_f his gallant Mecklenberg. Twice he glanced back to see who followed, but th_olume of dust which rolled after him obscured all behind. He could hear th_ar-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 o_ange, for there came no report of firearms. The road presently described _emi-circle, passing through a meager orchard. Once beyond this he turne_gain in the saddle.
"Only one; that is not so bad as it might be. It is one to one." But a secon_lance told him who this solitary pursuer was. "The devil!" he laughed—as on_f Tasso's heroes might have laughed!—"The devil! how that man loves me!" H_as 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, slowl_ut certainly.
"Good boy!" he said encouragingly to the Mecklenberg. "Good boy!"
Deserted farm houses swept past; hills rose and vanished, but still the whit_orse crept up, up, up. The distance ere another half mile had gone ha_iminished 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. Suddenl_aurice saw a tuft of the red plume on his helmet spring out ahead of him an_ail away, and a second later came the report. One, he counted; four more wer_o follow. Next a stream of fire gassed along his cheek, and something war_rickled down the side of his neck. Two, he counted, his face now pale an_et. The third knocked his scabbard into the air.
Quickly he shifted his saber to the left, dropped the reins and drew his ow_evolver. He understood. He was not to be taken prisoner. Beauvais intended t_ill him offhand. Only the dead keep secrets. Maurice flung about and fire_hree consecutive times. The white horse reared, and the shako of his maste_ell into the dust, but there was no other result. As Maurice pressed th_rigger 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 an_and.
"My God, what a shot!" he murmured. "I am lost!"
Simultaneous with the fifth and last shot came sensation somewhat like tha_aused by a sound blow in the middle of the back. Strange, but he felt n_ain, neither was there an accompanying numbness. Then he remembered hi_uirass, 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 ha_eceived no injury other than a shock. He passed the saber back to his righ_and. He had no difficulty in holding it. Gradually his grip grew strong an_teady.
Beauvais was now within twenty yards of Maurice. Had he been less eager an_eld his fire up to this point, Maurice had been a dead man. The white hors_ained every moment. A dull fury grew into life in Maurice's heart. Instead o_ontinuing the race, he brought the Mecklenberg to his haunches and wheeled.
He made straight for Beauvais, who was surprised at this change of tactics. I_he 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 proportionat_o 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'_aber. He had only his life to lose, but it had suddenly become precious t_im; Beauvais had not only his life, but all that made life worth living. Hi_nslaught was terrible. Besides, he was fighting against odds; he wore n_teel protector. Maurice wore his only a moment longer. A cut in the sid_evered the lacings, and the sagging of the cuirass greatly handicapped him.
He pressed the spurs and dashed away, while Beauvais cursed him for a cowardl_ur. Maurice, by this maneuver, gained sufficient time to rid himself of th_umbersome steel. What he lost in protection, he gained in lightness an_reedom. 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 tha_f his antagonist escaped this time the life he longed for, the power an_onor it promised, would never be his. On his side, Maurice was equall_etermined to live.
The horses plunged and snorted, reared and swayed and bit. Sometimes the_arried their masters several yards apart, only to come smashing togethe_gain.
The sun was going down, and a clear, white light prevailed. Afar in the fiel_ herd was grazing, but no one would call them to the sheds. Master an_istress had long since taken flight.
The duel went on. Maurice was growing tired. By and by he began to rely solel_n the defense. When they were close, Beauvais played for the point; th_oment the space widened he took to the edge. He saw what Maurice felt—th_eakening, and he indulged in a cruel smile. They came close; he made a_hough to give the point. Maurice, thinking to anticipate, reached. Quick a_ight 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 bon_nd stopped within a hair of the great artery that runs underneath.
The world turned red, then black. When it grew light again Maurice beheld th_ripping blade swinging aloft again. Suddenly the black horse snapped at th_hite, which veered. The stroke which would have split Maurice's skull i_wain, fell on the rear of the saddle, and the blade was so firmly imbedded i_he wooden molding that Beauvais could not withdraw it at once. Blinded b_ain as he was, and fainting, yet Maurice saw his chance. He thrust with al_is remaining strength at the brown throat so near him. And the blade wen_rue. The other's body stiffened, his head flew back, his eyes started; h_lutched wildly at the steel, but his hands had not the power to reach it. _loody foam gushed between his lips; his mouth opened; he swayed, and finall_umbled into the road—dead.
As Maurice gazed down at him, between the dead eyes and his own there passed _ision of a dark-skinned girl, who, if still living, dwelt in a lonel_onvent, thousands of miles away.
Maurice was sensible of but little pain; a pleasant numbness began to stea_ver him. His sleeve was soaked, his left hand was red, and the blood drippe_rom his fingers and made round black spots in the dust of the road. A circl_f this blackness was widening about the head of the fallen man. Mauric_atched it, fascinated… He was dead, and the fact that he was a prince did no_atter.
It seemed to Maurice that his own body was transforming into lead, and h_aguely 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 di_here, beside this man. He still gripped his saber. Indeed, his hand was as i_oldered to the wire and leather windings on the hilt. Mollendorf had sai_hat Beauvais was invincible… . Beauvais was dead. Was he, too, dying?… No; h_ould not die there. The Mecklenberg started forward at a walk; a spur ha_ouched him.
"No!" Maurice cried, throwing off the drowsiness. "My God, I will not di_ere!… Go, boy!" The Mecklenberg set off, loping easily.
His recent enemy, the great white horse, stood motionless in the center of th_oad, and followed him with large, inquiring eyes. He turned and looked at th_ilent huddled mass in the dust at his feet, and whinneyed. But he did no_ove; a foot still remained in the stirrup.
Soon Maurice remembered an episode of his school days, when, in the spirit o_recocious research, he had applied carbolic acid to his arm. It occurred t_im that he was now being bathed in that burning fluid. He was recovering fro_he shock. With returning sense came the increase of pain, pain so tormentin_nd exquisite that sobs rose in his throat and choked him. Perspiration matte_is hair; every breath he took was a knife thrust, and the rise and fall o_he 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 h_oing here, he who loved life so well? What had led him into this?… There ha_een a battle, but neither army had been cognizant of it. He endeavored t_ove his injured arm, and found it bereft of locomotion. The tendons had bee_ut. And he could not loosen his grip on the saber which he held in his righ_and. The bridle rein swung from side to side.
Rivulets of fire began to run up and down his side; the cords in his neck wer_tiffening. Still the blood went drip, drip, drip, into the dust. Would h_each Bleiberg, or would he die on the way? God! for a drink of water, col_ater. He set his teeth in his lips to neutralize the pain in his arm an_houlder. 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 someho_e 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 tigh_s a drumhead.
On, on, on; up long inclines, down the steeps; he lost all track of time, an_he darkness thickened and the stars stood out more clearly… . He could loo_ack on a clean life; true, there were some small stains, but these wer_uman. Strange fancies jostled one another; faces long forgot reappeared; scenes from boyhood rose before him. Home! He had none, save that which wa_he length and breadth of his native land. On, on, on; the low snuffle of th_orse sometimes aroused him from the stupor.
"Why you do this I do not know, nor shall I ask. Monsieur, my prayers go wit_ou!"… She had said that to him, and had given him her hand to kiss; _rincess, 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. N_ine phrases; nothing but the lust for blood; a life for a life; a game i_hich the winner was also like to lose. A gray patch in the white of the roa_ttracted his attention—a bridge.
"Water!" he murmured.
Mottled with the silver of the stars, it ran along through the fields; _rook, shallow and narrow, but water. The perfume of the grasses was sweet; the horse sniffed joyously. He stopped of his own accord. Maurice had strengt_nough to dismount. The saber slid from his grasp. He staggered down to th_ater. In kneeling a faintness passed over him; he rolled into the brook an_ay there until the water, almost clogging his throat and nostrils, revive_im. He crawled to his knees, coughing and choking. The contact of the col_ith 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. H_rank 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 an_ire 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. H_tooped to regain his saber, and fell into the dust; though to him it was no_e who fell, but the earth which rose. He struggled to his feet, leane_anting on his saber, and tried to steady himself. He laughed hysterically. H_ad dismounted, but he knew that he could never climb to the back of th_orse; and Bleiberg might yet be miles away. To walk the distance; was i_ossible? 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 _arce it was! One man dead and another dying; the beginning and the end of th_ar. The comic opera! La Grande Duchesse! And the fool of an Englishman wa_laying Fritz! He started down the road, his body slouched forward, the sabe_railing in the dust… .
"Voici le sabre de mon pere!"
The hand of madness had touched him. The Mecklenberg followed at his heels a_ dog would have followed his master.
Less than a mile away a yellow haze wavered in the sky. It was the reflectio_f the city lights.
Maurice passed under the town gates, the wild song on his lips, his eye_loodshot, his hair dank about his brow, conscious of nothing but the mad, rollicking rhythm. Nobody molested him; those he met gave him the full widt_f 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 wa_nown throughout the city that the king's army had been defeated and tha_adame was approaching. Students began their depredations. They buil_onfires. They raided the office of the official paper, and destroyed th_resses and type. Later they marched around the Hohenstaufenplatz, yelling an_inging.
Once a gendarme tried to stop Maurice and inquire into his business. Th_nquisition was abruptly ended by a cut from the madman's sword. The gendarm_ook 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 scrapin_long 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 Mauric_ould stop long enough to laugh. How easy it was to walk! All he had to do wa_o lift a foot, and the pavement would rise to meet it. The moon, standin_igh behind him, cast a long, weird shadow, and he staggered after it and cu_t it with the saber. It was only when he saw the lights of the royal palac_nd the great globes on the gate posts that sanity returned. This sanity wa_f short duration.
"To the palace!" he cried; "to the palace! To warn her!" And he stumble_gainst 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 ou_f the guard room and came running to the gates, which they opened. The bod_f 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, tha_ay, had gone forth from the city, a gay and gallant figure, who sat his hors_o well that he earned their admiration. What could this mean? And where wer_he others? Had there been a desperate battle?
"Run back to the guard room, one of you, and fetch some brandy. He lives." An_ieutenant Scharfenstein took his hand from the insensible man's heart.
Pulsation was there, but weak and intermittent. "Sergeant, take ten men an_lear the square. If they refuse to leave, kill! Madame is not yet queen b_ny means."
The men scattered. One soon returned with the brandy. Scharfenstein moistene_he wounded man's lips and placed his palm under the nose. Shortly Mauric_pened his eyes, his half-delirious eyes.
"To the palace!" he said, "to the palace—Ah!" He saw the faces staring down a_im. He struggled. Instinctively they all stood back. What seemed incredibl_o them, he got to his knees, from his knees to his feet, and propped himsel_gainst a gate post. "Your life or mine!" he cried. "Come on; a man can di_ut once!" He lunged, and again they retreated. He laughed. "It was a goo_ight!" He reeled off toward the palace steps. They did not hinder him, bu_hey followed, expecting each moment to see him fall. But, he fell not. One b_ne he mounted the steps, steadying himself with the saber. He gained th_anding, once more steadied himself, and vanished into the palace.
"He is out of his head!" cried Scharfenstein, rushing up the steps. "God know_hat has happened!"
He was in time to see Maurice lurch into the arms of Captain von Mitter, wh_ad barred the way to the private apartments.
"Carewe!… What has happened? God's name, you are soaked in blood!" Von Mitte_eld Maurice at arm's length. "A battle?"
"Aye, a battle; one man is dead and another soon will be!" A transien_ucidity beamed in Maurice's eyes. "We were betrayed by the native troops; they ran to meet Madame… . Marshal Kampf, Prince Frederick, and th_uirassiers are prisoners… . I escaped. Beauvais, gave chase… . Wanted to kil_e… . He gave me this. I ran him through the throat… . Knew him in Sout_merica… . He's dead! Inform the archbishop and her Highness that Madame i_earing the city. The king—"
"Hush!" said von Mitter, with a finger on his lip; "hush! The king died at si_'clock. God rest his soul!" He crossed himself. "A disgraceful day! Curse th_cheming woman, could she not let us bury him in peace? Prince Frederick'_ather refused to send us aid."
"I am dying," said Maurice with a sob. "Let me lie down somewhere; if I fall _m a dead man." After a pause: "Take me into the throne room. I shall las_ill 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? Yo_ill not die, my friend, though the cut is a nasty one. What is an arm? Lif_s worth a thousand of them! Quick! help me with him, Max!" for Maurice wa_eaching blindly toward him.
The three troopers who had followed Scharfenstein came up, and the five o_hem managed to carry Maurice into the throne room, and deposit him on th_ushions at the foot of the dais. There they left him.
"Bad!" said von Mitter, as he came limping out into the corridor. "And he mad_uch a brave show when he left here this afternoon. I have grown to love th_ellow. A gallant man. I knew that the native troops were up to something. S_id the Colonel. Ach! I would give a year of my life to have seen him an_eauvais. To kill Beauvais, the best saber in the kingdom—it must have been _ight 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. H_ad 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 th_tudents, who have not manliness enough even to respect the dead. The cowardl_ervants are all gone; save the king's valet. There are only seven of us i_ll. I will seek the king's physician; the dead are dead, so let us concer_urselves 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 a_ll, all alone!"
The archbishop was kneeling at the foot of the bed. In his heart was th_itterness of loss and defeat. His dreams of greatness for this clay! Th_orldly pomp which was to have attended it! Life was but a warm breath on th_irror of eternity; for one the mirror was clear again.
The square soon grew quiet; the students and the cuirassiers had met for th_ast time. In the throne room shadows and silence prevailed. Maurice lay upo_he cushions, the hilt of the saber still in his hand. Consciousness ha_eturned, a clear, penetrating consciousness. At the foot of the throne, h_hought, and, mayhap, close to one not visible to the human eye! What _heckerboard he had moved upon, and now the checkmate! So long as the pain di_ot diminish, he was content; a sudden ease was what he dreaded. Life wa_truggling to retain its hold. He did not wish to die; he was young; ther_ere long years to come; the world was beautiful, and to love was the glor_ver it all. He wondered if Beauvais still lay in the road where he had lef_im. Again he could see that red saber swinging high; and he shivered.
Half an hour passed, then came the distant murmur of voices, which expande_nto tumult. The victorious army, the brave and gallant army, had entered th_ity, and was streaming toward the palaces. Huzzas rose amid the blaring o_ugles. The timorous came forth and added to the noise. The conquerors troope_nto the palace, and Madame the duchess looked with shining eyes at the thron_f her forefathers.