VIII
THE ABDUCTION OF A PRINCESS

That afternoon they went to the palace grounds and inquired for the chief steward. After a few moments they were shown to his office in a small dwelling house just inside the gates. The steward was a red-faced little man, pleasant and accommodating. He could speak German—in fact, he was a German by birth—and they had no difficulty in presenting their request. Mr. Fraasch—Jacob Fraasch—was at first dubious, but their frank, eager faces soon gained for them his consent to see that part of the great park open to the public. Beyond certain lines they were not to trespass. Anguish asked how they could be expected to distinguish these lines, being unacquainted, and the steward grimly informed them that the members of the royal guard would establish the lines so plainly that it would be quite clear.

He then wrote for them a pass to the grounds of the royal palace of Graustark, affixing his seal. In giving this last to them he found occasion to say that the princess had instructed him to extend every courtesy possible to an American citizen. It was then that Anguish asked if he might be permitted to use his camera. There was an instant and emphatic refusal, and they were told that the pass would be rescinded if they did not leave the camera outside the gates. Reluctantly Anguish deposited his luckless box in the steward's office, and they passed into the broad avenue which led towards the palace.

A guard, who served also as a guide, stepped to their side before they had taken ten paces. Where he came from they never knew, so instantaneous was his appearance. He remained with them during the two hours spent in the wonderful park.

The palace stood in the northwestern part of the grounds, possibly a half mile from the base of the mountain. Its front faced the mountain side. The visitors were not permitted to go closer than a quarter of a mile from the structure, but attained a position from which it could be seen in all its massive, ancient splendor. Anguish, who had studied churches and old structures, painted the castles on the Rhine, and was something of a connoisseur in architecture, was of the opinion that it had been standing for more than five hundred years. It was a vast, mediaeval mass of stone, covered with moss and ivy, with towers, turrets and battlements. There had been a moat in bygone days, but modern ideas had transformed the waterway into solid, level ground. This they learned afterwards. Broad avenues approached in several directions, the castle standing at the far side of a wide circle or parade ground. The open space before the balconies was fully three hundred yards square, and was paved. From each side stretched the velvety green with its fountains, its trees, its arbors, its flowers, its grottos and its red-legged soldiers.

The park was probably a mile square, and was surrounded by a high wall, on the top of which were little guard-houses and several masked cannon. In all their travels the Americans had not seen a more delightful bit of artifice, and they wandered about with a serene content that would have appealed to anyone but their voiceless guide. He led them about the place, allowing them to form their own conclusions, draw their own inferences and make their own calculations. His only acts were to salute the guards who passed and to present arms when he had conducted his charges to the edge of forbidden territory. When they had completed their tour of inspection their guide rapidly led the way to the wall that encircled the grounds, reaching it at a point not far from the castle itself. Here was situated another large gate, through which they did not pass. Instead, they ascended some steps and came out upon the high wall. The top of this wall was several feet wide, and walking was comparatively safe. They soon understood the guide's design. The object was to walk along this wall until they reached the main gate. Why this peculiar course was to be taken they could not imagine at first. Anguish's fertile brain came to the rescue. He saw a number of women in a distant part of the grounds, and, remembering their guide's haste in conducting them to the wall, rightly conjectured that it was against custom for visitors to meet and gaze upon members of the royal household. The men and women, none of whom could be plainly distinguished from the far-away wall, were undoubtedly a part of the castle's family, and were not to be subjected to the curious gaze of sightseers. Perhaps Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Graustark, was among them.

They reached the main gate and descended, Anguish securing his camera, after which they thanked the steward and turned to fee the guide. But he had disappeared as if the ground had swallowed him.

“Well, it's a fair Versailles,” observed Anguish, as they walked down the street, glancing back at the frowning wall.

“It all goes to make me wonder why in the name of heaven we have never heard of this land of Graustark,” said Lorry, still thinking of the castle's grandeur.

“My boy, there are lots of things we don't know. We're too busy. Don't you remember that but one-half the world knows how the other half lives? I'll wager there are not twenty-five people in the United States who know there is such a country as Graustark.”

“I don't believe that a single soul over there has heard of the place,” vouchsafed Lorry, very truthfully.

“I'll accept the amendment,” said Anguish. Then he proceeded to take a snap-shot of the castle from the middle of the street. He also secured a number of views of the mountain side, of some odd little dwelling houses, and two or three interesting exposures of red-robed children. Everybody, from the children up, wore loose robes, some red, some black, some blue, but all in solid colors. Beneath these robes were baggy trousers and blouses among the men, short skirts among the women. All wore low boots and a sort of turban. These costumes, of course, were confined to the native civilians. At the hotel the garb of the aristocrats was vastly different. The women were gowned after the latest Viennese patterns, and the men, except those of the army, wore clothes almost as smart as those which covered the Americans. Miss Guggenslocker—or whatever her name might be—and her carriage companion were as exquisitely gowned as any women to be seen on the boulevards or in Hyde Park of an afternoon.

It was late in the afternoon when they returned to the hotel. After dinner, during which they were again objects of interest, they strolled off towards the castle, smoking their cigars and enjoying the glorious air. Being a stranger in a strange land, Lorry acted on the romantic painter's advice and also stuck a revolver in his pocket. He laughed at the suggestion tha there might be use for the weapon in such a quiet, model, well-regulated town, but Anguish insisted:

“I've seen a lot of these fellows around town who look like genuine brigands and cutthroats, and I think it just as well that we be prepared,” asserted he, positively, and his friend gratified what he called a whim.

At ten o'clock the slender moon dropped behind the mountain, and the valley, which had been touched with its tender light, gradually took on the somberness and stillness of a star-lit night. The town slumbered at eleven, and there were few lights to be seen in the streets or in the houses. Here and there strolled the white-uniformed police guards; occasionally soldiers hurried barracksward; now and then belated citizens moved through the dense shadows on the sidewalks, but the Americans saw still life in its reality. Returning from their stroll beside the castle-walls, far to the west of where they had entered the grounds that afternoon, they paused in the middle of Castle Avenue, near the main gate, and looked down the dark, deserted street. Far away could be seen the faint glare from their hotel; one or two street-lamps burned in the business part of the city; aside from these evidences of life there was nothing but darkness, silence, peacefulness about them everywhere.

“Think of Paris or New York at eleven o'clock,” said Lorry, a trifle awed by the solitude of the sleeping city.

“It's as dead as a piece of prairie-land,” said his friend. “'Gad, it makes me sleepy to look down that street. It's a mile to the hotel, too, Lorry. We'd better move along.”

“Let's lie down near the hedge, smoke another cigar and wait till midnight. It is too glorious a night to be lost in sleep,” urged Lorry, whose heart was light over the joys of the day to come. “I can dream just as well here, looking at that dark old castle with its one little tower-light, as I could if I tried to sleep in a hard bed down at the hotel.”

Anguish, who was more or less of a dreamer himself, consented, and, after lighting fresh cigars, they threw themselves on the soft, dry grass near the tall hedge that fenced the avenue as it neared the castle grounds. For half an hour they talked by fits and starts; long silences were common, broken only by brief phrases which seemed so to disturb the one to whom they were addressed that he answered gruffly and not at all politely. Their cigars, burnt to mere stubs, were thrown away, and still the waking dreamers stretched themselves in the almost impenetrable shade of the hedge, one thinking of the face he had seen, the other picturing in his artist eye the painting he had vowed to create from the moon-lit castle of an hour ago.

“Some one coming,” murmured the painter, half rising to his elbow attentively.

“Soldiers,” said the other briefly. “They'll not disturb us.”

“They'll not even see us, I should say. It's as dark as Egypt under this hedge. They'll pass if we keep quiet.”

The figures of two men could be seen approaching from the city, dim and ghostly in the semi-blackness of the night. Like two thieves the Americans waited for them to pass. To their exceeding discomfiture, however, the pedestrians halted directly in front of their resting place and seated themselves leisurely upon a broad, flat stone at the roadside. It was too dark to see if they were soldiers, notwithstanding the fact that they were less than fifteen feet away.

“He should be here at twelve,” said one of the new comers in a low voice and in fairly good English. The other merely grunted. There was a silence of some duration, broken by the first speaker.

“If this job fails and you are caught it will mean years of servitude.”

“But in that case we are to have ten thousand gavvos apiece for each year we lie in prison. It's fair pay—not only for our failure, but for our silence,” said the other, whose English was more difficult to understand.

Anguish's fingers gripped Lorry's leg, but there was no sound from either of the thoroughly aroused dreamers. “A plot, as I live,” thought each, with a thrill.

“We must be careful to speak only in English. There are not twenty people in Edelweiss who understand it, but the night has ears. It is the only safe tongue. Geddos speaks it well. He should be here.” It was the first speaker who uttered these words, little knowing that he had listeners other than the man to whom he spoke.

A dark figure shot across the roadway, and, almost before the Americans were aware of it, the party numbered three.

“Ah, Geddos, you are punctual.”

“I have found it ever a virtue.” responded the newcomer.

“Have you secured your men?”

“I have, your—”

“Sh! Call me Michael, on your life! They are ready and willing to undertake the venture?”

“Yes, but they do not understand the true conditions. I have told them that we are to rob the castle and carry the booty to Ganlook before morning.”

“They do not know the real object of the raid, then. That is as I desired. Are they trusty and experienced men?”

“The best—or the worst—that I could find in Vienna. Not one understands our language, and they are so ignorant of our town that they are entirely dependent on me. They know nothing whatever of the Princess, Michael, and will do only as they are told, realizing that if caught they will be guillotined. I have told them it is the royal palace we are to rifle. Ostrom, here, and I are the only ones, except yourself and the men who will aid us inside the castle, who know the truth, sir.”

“It cannot fail, unless those inside prove false or unworthy,” said the hoarse-voiced Ostrom. Anguish's fingers were gripping Lorry's leg so fiercely that the blood was ready to burst out, but he did not feel the pain. Here, then, was some gigantic plot in which the person of the Princess herself was to be considered. Was it an assassination?

“You have five of these Viennese?”

“Yes. Two to stand beneath the window to receive the booty as we lower it to the ground, one to stand guard at the west gate and two to attend the carriage and horses in the ravine beyond the castle.”

“When did these men arrive?”

“This morning. I kept them in my sister's home until an hour ago. They are now in the ravine, awaiting Ostrom and myself. Are you sure, Michael, that the guards and the cook have been made to understand every detail? The faintest slip will mean ruin.”

“They are to be trusted fully. Their pay is to be high enough to make it an object to be infallible. The guard, Dushan, will leave the gate unwatched, and you will chloroform him—with his consent, of course. You will enter, as I have explained before, crawl along in the dark shadow of the wall until you reach the arbor that leads to the kitchen and scullery. Here another guard, Rabbo—known to Ostrom as a comrade in Her Royal Highness's service not more than a year ago—will be encountered. He will be bound and gagged without the least noise or struggle. Just as the clock strikes two the cook will walk past the scullery window, in the basement, thrice, carrying a lighted candle. You will see this light through the window, and will know that all is well inside the castle. Ostrom, you will then lead the two Viennese to a place directly beneath the third window in the Princess's sleeping apartment. There are several clumps of shrubbery there, and under these they will hide, protected from the gaze of any watchman who is not with us. You and Geddos will be admitted to the scullery by the cook, who will conduct you to the hall leading to Her Highness's bed-room. The man who guards her door is called Dannox. He will not be at his post, but will accompany you when you leave the castle. You will understand how carefully you must enter her room and how deeply she must be chloroformed. In the adjoining room her lady-in-waiting, the Countess Dagmar, sleeps. If her door is ajar, you are to creep in and chloroform her, leaving her undisturbed. Then the Princess is to be wrapped in the cloth you take with you and lowered from the window to the men below. They are to remain in hiding until you have left the castle and have reached their side. It will not be difficult, if caution is observed, for you to get outside of the wall and to the carriage in the ravine. I have given you this plan of action before, I know, but I desire to impress it firmly upon your minds. There must not be the slightest deviation. The precision of clock-work is necessary.”

The man named Michael hissed the foregoing into the ears of his companions, the palsied Americans hearing every word distinctly. They scarcely breathed, so tremendous was the restraint imposed upon their nerves. A crime so huge, so daring as the abduction of a Princess, the actual invasion of a castle to commit the theft of a human being just as an ordinary burglar would steal in and make way with the contents of a silver chest, was beyond their power of comprehension.

“We understand fully how it is to be done, and we shall get her to Ganlook on time,” said Geddos, confidently.

“Not a hair of her head must be harmed,” cautioned the arch-conspirator. “In four days I shall meet you at Ganlook. You will keep her in close confinement until you hear from me. Have you the guard's uniforms that you are to wear to-night?”

“They are with the carriage in the ravine; Ostrom and I will don them before going to the castle. In case we are seen they will throw observers off the track long enough for us to secure a good start in our flight.”

“Remember, there is to be no failure. This may mean death to you; certainly a long prison term if you are apprehended. I know it is a daring deed, but it is just of the kind that succeeds. Who would dream that mortal man could find the courage to steal a princess of the realm from her bed and spirit her away from under the very noses of her vaunted guardsmen? It is the bold, the impossible plan that wins.”

“We cannot fail if your men on the inside do their work well,” said Geddos, repeating what Ostrom had said. “All depends on their faithfulness.”

“They will not be found wanting. Your cut-throats must be sent on to Caias with the empty carriage after you have reached Ganlook in safety. You will need them no more. Ostrom will pay them, and they are to leave the country as quickly as possible. At Caias they will be able to join a pack-train that will carry them to the Great Northern Railroad. From there they will have no trouble in reaching Vienna. You will explain to them, Geddos. All we need them for, as you know, is to prove by their mere presence in case of capture that the attempt was no more than a case of burglary conceived by a band of Viennese robbers. There will be no danger of capture if you once get her outside the walls. You can be half way to Ganlook before she is missed from the castle. Nor can she be found at Ganlook if you follow the instructions I gave last night. It is now nearly one o'clock, and in half an hour the night will be as dark as Erebus. Go, men; you have no more time to lose, for this must be accomplished slowly, carefully, deliberately. There must be no haste until you are ready for the race to Ganlook. Go, but for God's sake, do not harm her! And do not fail!”

“Failure means more to us than to you, Michael,” half whispered the hoarse Ostrom.

“Failure means everything to me! I must have her!”

Already the two hirelings were moving off toward the road that ran west of the castle grounds. Michael watched them for a moment and then started swiftly in the direction of the city. The watchers had not been able to distinguish the faces of the conspirators, but they could never forget the calm, cold voice of Michael, with its quaint, jerky English.

“What shall we do?” whispered Anguish when the men were out of hearing.

“God knows!” answered Lorry. “This is the most damnable thing I ever heard of. Are we dreaming? Did we really see and hear those men?” He had risen to his feet, his companion sitting weakly before him.

“There's no question about it! It's a case of abduction, and we have it in our power to spoil the whole job. By Gad, but this is luck, Gren!” Anguish was quivering with excitement as he rose to his feet. “Shall we notify old Dangloss or alarm the steward? There's no time to be lost if we want to trap these fellows. The chief devil is bound to escape, for we can't get him and the others, too, and they won't peach on him. Come, we must be lively! What are you standing there for? Damn it, the trap must be set!”

“Wait! Why not do the whole job ourselves?”

“How-what do you mean?”

“Why should we alarm anybody? We know the plans as well as these scoundrels themselves. Why not follow them right into the castle, capture them red-handed, and then do the alarming? I'm in for saving the Princess of Graustark with our own hands and right under the noses of her vaunted guardsmen, as Michael says.” Lorry was thrilled by the spirit of adventure. His hand gripped his friend's arm and his face was close to his ear. “It is the grandest opportunity two human beings ever had to distinguish themselves!”

“Great heaven, man! We can't do such a thing!” gasped Anguish.

“It's the easiest thing in the world. Besides, if we fail, we have nothing to lose. If we succeed, see what we've done! Don't hesitate, old man! Come on! Come on! We'll take 'em ourselves, as sure as fate. Have you no nerve? What kind of an American are you? This chance won't come in ten lifetimes! Good God, man, are we not equal to those two scoundrels?”

“Two? There are at least ten of them!”

“You fool! The three guards are disposed of in advance, two of the Viennese are left with the horses, two are chucked off under the princess' window, and one stands at the gate. We can slug the man at the gate, the fellows under the window are harmless, and that leaves but our two friends and the cook. We have every advantage in the world. Can't you see?”

“You are right! Come on! I'll risk it with you. We will save the Princess of Graustark!”

“Don't you see it will be just as easy for us to enter the castle as for these robbers? The way will be clear, and will be kept clear. Jove, man, we need not be more than thirty seconds behind them. Is your pistol all right?”

By this time the two men were speeding along the grassy stretch toward the road that ran beside the wall. They looked to their pistols, and placed them carefully in outside coat pockets.

“We must throw away these heavy canes,” whispered the painter to his friend, who was a pace or so ahead.

“Keep it! We'll need one of them to crack that fellow's head at the gate. 'Gad, it's dark along here!”

“How the devil are we to know where to go?”

“We'll stop when we come to the gate where we climbed up the wall to-day. That is the only entrance I saw along the west wall, and it is near the castle. Just as soon as the gang enters that gate we'll crawl up and get rid of the fellow who stands watch.” It was so dark that they could barely see the roadway, and they found it necessary to cease talking as they slunk along beside the wall. Occasionally they paused to listen, fearing that they might draw too close upon the men who had gone before. At last they came to a big gate and halted.

“Is this the gate?” whispered Anguish.

“Sh! Yes, I'm quite sure. We are undoubtedly near the castle, judging by the distance we have come. Let us cross the road and lie directly opposite. Be careful!”

Like panthers they stole across the road and down a short, grassy embankment. At Anguish's suggestion Lorry wrapped his handkerchief tightly about the heavy end of his cane, preparing in that way to deaden the sound of the blow that was to fall upon the Vienna man's head. Then they threw aside their hats, buttoned their coats tightly, and sank down to wait, with bounding hearts and tingling nerves, the arrival of the abductors, mutely praying that they were at the right gate.

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