Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 6

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TWO automobiles, the first a closed car carrying a royal princess who was still in a state of mental turmoil and distress, largely punctuated at times by the knowledge that she had met one man who paid no deference to her title, and the second a long, stream-line touring car bearing on its panels the arms of Baron Von Hertz, and carrying three passengers and a chauffeur in the baron's uniform, stormed up the steep ascent to the Castle Hertz, and came to a halt.

Two men emerged anxiously from the great doors and smiled with satisfaction when they identified the occupants of the second car.

"Got him!" exclaimed Kent, leaping easily from the car. "And, by the way, Baron Von Hertz, if those gates or the drawbridge still work, it might be as well to close them until we finish our business with our guest. He's able, and slippery."

The old baron, chuckling, ambled away to obey the request. Ivan alighted, the Princess Eloise had already reached earth and told her chauffeur to take his car to the garage, and Provarsk, resigned for the moment to his capture, slowly descended. He smiled cheerfully at the king, bowed with mock politeness, and quite airily waved his hand.

"Good morning, Cousin," he said. "I hope I see you well?"

The king stared at him with smouldering eyes. The princess tossed her head, turned her back, and walked into the castle.

"She doesn't seem fond of me, Cousin," whimsically exclaimed the usurper.

The king disdained reply.

"It's a very cold, formal, inhospitable place to which you have brought me, Mr. Kent," observed the baron, turning toward the American with an air of gentle reproof. "I had anticipated a welcome! Glad shouts from the peasantry! Ringing of joy bells in the castle."

"Why?" questioned Kent, drily. "Perhaps none of us regarded you as worth it." He suddenly dropped all badinage and turned to Baron Von Hertz, who had returned from his mission. "I suppose you have some place where you can keep our guest securely?"

"Several very fine, unhealthy dungeons here," cheerfully replied the baron.

The American thoughtfully stared at the usurper, and then said, "No, I don't think I like that. I don't want him to contract typhus, or influenza, or croup. He's too nice a boy for that. Besides, I may want to use him, later on. "What's up in those towers?"

"That one over there," the baron indicated with a pointed finger, "contains rather a fair prison chamber. Strong enough; but no one has entered it, so far as I know, for about a hundred years."

"Good! Can't it be made comfortable for the baron?"

"Quite easily," declared Von Hertz. "And in the meantime I can have him guarded in another chamber. Bring him along."

Provarsk unhesitatingly followed the owner of the castle with the American leisurely pacing by his side and Ivan in the rear.

"That's decent of you, Mr. Kent," the prisoner said, calmly.

"Why not? I've no ill-feeling against you, Provarsk. We've merely played in the same game and you've lost."

"So far!" the prisoner qualified.

Kent laughed approvingly.

"Now you're talking!" he declared. "That's just the kind of spirit I like. I had sort of lost interest in you a while back. You seemed too easy; but now I really begin to regard you as worth while. Hello! Here we are. Nice room, too."

He walked across and looked through a window, observing that it overlooked a precipitous cliff with a sheer drop below it of several hundred feet. No other doors save the one through which they entered gave egress. The room was spacious and quite modernly furnished. He walked back and examined the heavy, old-fashioned, cumbersome-keyed lock on the stout oaken door and spoke to Baron Von Hertz:

"Why not leave him here? With a proper guard on the outside, this makes a very nice prison for our friend, the baron. I prefer that he be treated as a distinguished guest, who has a queer desire to remain in his own room for the time being. Have I your assent, sir?"

The fine old eyes of Baron Von Hertz twinkled humorously at the American, for whom plainly he had formed a distinct liking.

"It shall be exactly as you wish, Mr. Kent," he assented. "Also you may trust me to see that your guest does not lack for prompt attention. Indeed, to make sure of it, I shall keep at least four men on guard in the corridor from now on, so that on the slightest sound from within they may hasten to learn what the Baron Provarsk desires. And that even his slightest restlessness in the night may be noted I will also have a night service as well. Prompt attention shall be the rule of the Hotel Hertz. Is there anything he wishes now, prior to our departure?"

Provarsk grinned nonchalantly and threw himself into a chair.

"Some ham and eggs, Landlord, and see to it that the eggs are fried on both sides. Bread and butter. No rancid stuff, mind you, or I'll complain to the management. Coffee! lots of it, with ample cream. The fact of the matter is that some small business affairs of mine have been so urgent that I've not had time to eat during the last twenty-four hours. I shall be glad for a rest—just a slight one, you understand, because I really must resume my industries at the first opportunity."

"Quite so! Quite so!" Von Hertz replied in the same vein. "You may trust me to observe even the most minute details for your comfort."

"And before we go—sorry, Provarsk!" Kent stepped quickly across and relieved the baron of a small pocket pistol and a penknife, while the latter said, gaily, "So am I sorry! Rather hoped you'd overlook them."

He had calmly cocked his heels up on the edge of the casement and was whistling softly between his teeth when they bolted the door on him. Ivan was left on guard for the few minutes necessary for his relief and when he descended the stairs was at once directed to the small reception room in which Baron Von Hertz had received his guests on the previous night. The king and the American were standing in the centre of the room, the latter evidently repeating some former instructions.

"And you are quite certain that Captain Paulo has had sufficient time and can be depended on to the minute?" the American asked.

"Positive!" declared the king with great ear- nestness.

"And you will attend to the other arrange- ments?"

"Yes, Mr. Kent. "

"Then here goes, and—good luck to us all!"

The American would have turned from the room without further ceremony, but the king's face glowed and impetuously he held out his hand.

"Just a moment, sir," he said. "If anything goes wrong—and your mission may be dangerous ! I want you to know that I appreciate all you have done and are trying to do for me."

The American seemed embarrassed by this dis- play of gratitude. He took the king's hand, but answered, brusquely, "Pshaw! You fail to un- derstand that what I am trying to do is to save my own credit, and to make certain that John Rhodes' money is not lost. I have no sentiment—that is —to amount to anything. Good-bye."

He beckoned to Ivan and passed directly out to the still waiting touring car, into which he climbed.

"Drive us back to the palace in Marken," he ordered the chauffeur, wondering in the mean- time if Baron Von Hertz had neglected to arrange for the opening of the gates whenever his visitor wished. He saw that such instructions had been given by the very promptitude with which they were widely flung, and then settled back into his seat as the car gathered momentum, and carefully took the curves of the winding road leading to the valley below. Speculatively he studied the rich valley with its farms and clusters of farm cot- tages, appearing from that height like a great garden trimly cultivated, the distant ranges of mountains where carefully maintained forests al- ternated with fields, and, far beyond, the spires of Marken. It was a land capable of rendering profit, he decided, reflectively, and what was more, he, the American, unhampered by tradition and eager for such an experiment, would see that it did yield profit or prove his own incompetence as a manager. Also, he concluded, this was the finest sport in which he had ever engaged and better, somewhat, than trout fishing.

His meditations were brought to an abrupt stop by a sharp explosion, the car swerved, and came to a halt beside the highway. Almost as the chauf- feur's feet struck the macadam he was by his side. The cause was plain, a flattened tire sagging flaccidly under the weight above it. Anxiously the American looked at his watch. "Hang it all ! " he exclaimed savagely. "We Ve no time to lose. Not even five minutes. Any delay at the other end and " he snapped his fingers conclusively. He stood above the chauffeur while the latter unstrapped an old-style wheel and urged him to haste. He himself seized the jack, but was thrust aside by Ivan, whose mighty muscles sent the lever flying up and down. Together they worked with the adjustment, and again Ivan worked the pump with which the car was pro- vided, grumbling in the meantime that they had to resort to such old-time methods, thereby losing precious minutes from their progress. When he climbed back into the car and they moved ahead at high speed, he again studied his timepiece and said to Ivan, in that voiceless motion of the lips, "This difference of twenty minutes may upset the whole game; but we've got to do our best. It cuts us out of a chance for overcoming awkward preliminaries. Two o'clock was the hour set for everything."

Again they halted in front of the palace and the sentries saw the crippled old gentleman assisted from the car. Baron Provarsk, he explained to them, would return shortly, and had requested that he, Mr. Kent, should be conducted to the smaller throne room, there to wait. Unques- tioningly the sentries admitted the caller; for was he not the usurper's friend? And also, the news had spread, that through this old simpleton money was to come—plenty of it—enough to make them all rich. One of the lounging soldiers of fortune inside evon assisted the visitor up the wide marble steps and along the corridor where drowsy men fell back to give space.

Inside the room Ubaldo, Provarsk's captain at arms, sat beside the table talking to two other men, and his face, that had been perturbed, cleared when he saw the American ushered in. He stared at the door through which Kent and Ivan entered, as if expecting the usurper to follow them, and betrayed disappointment that this expectation was not fulfilled. Without asking consent, Ivan led Kent to a seat at the head of the table, as if unaware that this post of honour was reserved for the ruler of the country, then respectfully backed away until he stood to one side of the door.

"Baron Provarsk did not return with you, sir ? " Ubaldo asked with an effort at politeness.

The American again consulted his watch be- fore answering, and a look of satisfaction crept over his face. Leisurely he snapped the case shut, slipped the timepiece back into his pocket, leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands together carelessly. A dry grin broke over his lips, as he looked at Ubaldo and then answered.

"No, Baron Provarsk did not return with me. In fact, the last I saw of him he was—er—whistling with satisfaction while waiting for some ham and eggs, some bread and butter, and a cup of coffee to be served with pure cream."

The three adventurers looked at one another perplexed. It was Ubaldo who spoke.

"When may we expect him, sir, may I ask?" "Why, as for that, not at all," Kent answered, with evident candour.

"For what reason?" Ubaldo demanded, while his comrades looked their intense anxiety.

"Well, mainly for this reason," Kent said, with the same dry grin. "As you, being his right-hand man, doubtless know, the principal thing he wanted was money, and after that power! Pro- varsk is no fool, I can tell you. Pretty far-sighted, I should say. He wanted to see the king. Insisted on it, I believe. As a result of it all, they seem to have come to a most satisfactory understand- ing. Quite satisfactory, one might conclude. The baron is thus rendered quite happy by being en- abled, with money, to go his way rejoicing. The king is probably equally happy at being enabled to return to his throne without any fuss whatever, and so there you are!"

"You mean weVe been sold out?" This time Ubaldo 's voice rose to an angry roar, and his two comrades lent their anger to the occasion.

"Put it that way if it suits you best," Kent remarked, carelessly lifting his hand to conceal a yawn.

Ubaldo 's companions broke for the door and out into the corridor bawling, " Betrayed! We've been betrayed ! Sold out by that ' * And what they called Provarsk would not have been pleas- ant to the usurper's ears. Ubaldo turned, hesi- tantly, as if to call them back, and Kent seized the opportunity to give a noiseless command to Ivan.

"When I get them all inside," he said, "you slip out quickly and see that the palace gates are not barred," and then, speaking aloud, he called to Ubaldo.

"It seems to me that your fellows are making a pretty good-sized noise over nothing. Noise isn't going to help you."

In the corridor outside could be heard oaths, hoarse exclamations and the sound of running bootheels over the tiled floors. Several of Pro- varsk 's adventurers came tearing into the throne room, shaking their fists and wanting to know if what they had heard was the truth. Their leader tried in vain to control them for some minutes, and at last, when he obtained attention, did so by outbawling them all.

"Silence! Silence, there, you men! Who's leader here? You or me? I tell you to hold your tongues until we find out about this. Do you hear me?"

Slowly and sullenly they became subdued. Ubaldo then turned fiercely on the American, who sat impassive at the head of the table, his manner portraying nothing more than a melan- choly, almost disinterested curiosity in his sur- roundings.

"Now, you limping old fossil !" Ubaldo snarled, "you'll tell us exactly what happened. And don't forget this; if you don't tell the truth, I'll cook you, inch by inch, and then throw the cinders into the streets."

The "old fossil" looked mildly surprised.

"I thought I did tell you," he said. "If I've got to tell it again, suppose you call all your men in to hear it. It strikes me that you're only one of them, and that any man that joined your ex- pedition has just as much right to know what is up as you have."

" That 's right ! You 're right there ! " the other adventurers in the room yelled in chorus, some of them in the meantime scowling at Ubaldo and muttering to their neighbours that he was the one, after all, who had got them into the mess. Ubaldo recognised the sign of danger, and tried to quell it ; but he was unheeded in the turmoil. Two of the guardsmen rushed out of the room to summon their comrades. Ubaldo was vainly trying to bring those within the room to a cooler state of mind when the others began to arrive, some of them hurriedly pulling on their tunics and frowsy- headed, attesting that they had been aroused from sleep. Kent, imperturbably watching, de- cided that they were all there, inasmuch as the two men who had rushed out to give the summons came in last, accompanied by the gate sentries, and the corridor was still.

"All I can say," he remarked, quietly, "is just about what I've said before. Baron Provarsk is at this moment the contented guest of the king. He's in a place where you men can't reach him. I fancy he will remain there so long as he fears he might meet any of you. In fact, he doesn't seem eager to renew the acquaintance of any of you. I don't believe he likes you. Indeed, he has been unkind enough, once or twice, to refer to you as a lot of jackasses, and what he said about Mr.—what's this your name is—Ubaldo? I don't care to repeat. Why, Mr. Ubaldo, do you know, he said to me, Provarsk did, that if all your brains were taken out of your skull and boiled into tallow, they wouldn't make a candle for a glow worm! He said your head would make a fine snare drum ! For goodness' sake, man! Don't be angry with me! I'm just telling you what the Baron Pro- varsk said after he left the palace with me this morning." Ubaldo grew red with anger and sputtered, and his temper was not assisted by the remarks of some of his army.

Kent observed with satisfaction that Ivan had disappeared from his post by the doorway. In an instant's lull in the turmoil about him, he heard the faint, clarion warning of an automobile horn that played the same gentle notes indicative of the approach of the royal automobile, and, keenly alive to the necessity of holding this swarm of adventurers a few minutes longer, rapped on the table with his bare knuckles and called, in his powerful voice, "Gentlemen! Attention, please! Let me finish."

He waited until they were again quiet, strain- ing his ears the while for a repetition of the horn's warning, but hearing nothing, settled to his task.

"Now let us be reasonable," he said. "You are all reasonable men, I take it. You joined this expedition, somehow, with the hope of bettering yourselves making money, securing a steady place. Well, you didn't get it. You are done. Your jig is up. You are in jeopardy. You Ve no more chance than a lot of dogs in a city pound. There is no one now but the king who can grant you amnesty. You couldn't escape from Marken if you tried. You know what they usually do with fellows like you are, when they catch them, don't you? If you don 't, I '11 tell you. They hang them ! Why, I wouldn't give a centime for all of your chances, unless you can square it, someway, with the king. There's no use for you to fight. You are probably pretty good, and used to it ; but fifty men can't do anything against—say—five thou- sand good, husky peasants armed with everything from a blunderbuss to a high-powered, flat tra- jectory rifle. They'd get you, sure! The only thing for you chaps to do is to lay down your hands. "

He cocked his head sidewise and paused, in a listening attitude, for again he heard the horn, quite distinctly now. His suspense grew and with it ran his resolution to hold this mob to the last moment.

"Don't pay any attention to him!'* shouted Ubaldo. "Don't be fools!"

"Why, that's what Provarsk called you," Kent said, plaintively. "He said that if you had had the wisdom of a garden worm, everything would have been all right. And he said "

"Shut up!" yelled Ubaldo, menacingly, drop- ping his hand to the hilt of his sword. "I'll run you through if you don't! You men keep quiet. Hear what I've got to say. You don't know but what this old paralytic is a liar, sent here by the king to blindfold you !"

The crowd glared at the American as if this suggestion had not hitherto dawned upon them. " Very unkind of you, " Kent murmured. "And maybe they are already convinced that you are one."

Ubaldo wasted no time in retort.

"The only chance we've got," he said, loudly, "is to hold this palace until Baron Provarsk re- turns, or until we can make terms ! Besides, we 've got this old imbecile as a hostage and, if he's a friend of the king's, they'll let us go rather than let him be toasted. Get back to the gates, some of you fellows. Others of you go to the walls. Don't let any one but Provarsk in. I've warned you about that before, and now you see what kind of a fix you are in by not obeying my orders. Get out and ready to defend yourselves," he shouted to spur them to action. But before any of them could obey, the pretended paralytic had leapt from his chair and now stood in the door with his hand upraised, and his eyes blazing at them.

"Stop!" he commanded.

They paused, astonished at his physical agility, and the aspect of power presented by his com- manding gesture. Suddenly, while they hesitated, through the corridor rang the loud blare of a trumpet.

"Gentlemen ! You are too late ! See ! "

He sprang to the hangings that barred the view of the corridor, jerked them aside, and the dis- comfited adventurers huddled backward to a solid group when they saw that the corridor was nearly filled with trimly-uniformed soldiers of the royal army who stood quietly with rifles at the "Ready."

There was another blast of a trumpet, and the American moved slowly toward the side of the doorway, announcing as he did so, "Here comes the king!"

In a desperate, awed silence, helpless and defeated, they fixed their eyes on the door through which, followed by the Princess Eloise, Baron Von Glutz and Captain Paulo, and accompanied by a body guard, the king entered, walked slowly across the room and then halted and scornfully eyed them, man by man, these who would have murdered him for a usurper's hire.

"I present to Your Majesty," said a calm, sarcastic voice, "fifty gentlemen-at-arms. A fine batch of jailbirds who at present are idle, having just been mustered out."