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- Graustark - 20/57 -


"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.

IX

THE EXPLOIT OF LORRY AND ANGUISH

During the half hour spent in the grassy ditch or gutter, they spoke not more than half a dozen times and in the faintest of whispers. They could hear the guard pacing the driveway inside the ponderous gate, but aside from his footsteps no sound was distinguishable. A sense of oppression came over the two watchers as the minutes grew longer and more deathlike in their stillness. Each found himself wondering why the leaves did not stir in the trees, why there were no nightbirds, no crickets, no croaking frogs, no sign of life save that steady, clocklike tread inside the wall. So dark was it that the wall itself was but a deeper shadow against the almost opaque blackness beyond. No night, it seemed to them, had ever been so dark, so still. After the oppression came the strange feeling of dread, the result of an enforced contemplation of the affair in which they were to take a hand, ignorant of everything except the general plan.

They knew nothing of the surroundings. If they failed, there was the danger of being shot by the guards before an explanation could be made. If they succeeded, it must be through sheer good fortune and not through prowess of mind or muscle. Once inside the castle, how could they hope to follow the abductors at a safe distance and still avoid the danger of being lost or of running into trusty guards? The longer they lay there the more hazardous became the part they had so recklessly ventured to play. In the heart of each there surged a growing desire to abandon the plan, yet neither could bring himself to the point of proposing the retreat from the inspired undertaking. Both knew the sensible, judicious act would be to alarm the guards and thus avoid all possible chance of a fiasco. With misgivings and doubts in their hearts the two self-appointed guardians of the Princess lay there upon the grass, afraid to give up the project, yet fearing the outcome.

"The dickens will be to pay, Lorry, if they dispose of this guard on the inside and lock the gate. Then how are we to follow?" whispered Anguish.

Lorry was thoughtful for a while. He felt the chill of discouragement in his heart.

"In that case we must lie outside and wait till they come out with the Princess. Then make a sudden assault and rescue her. In the darkness we can make them think there are a dozen rescuers," he whispered at length. After a while Anguish asked another appalling question, the outgrowth of brain-racking study:

"Suppose these fellows, who will be in guards' uniform, should turn about and capture us. What then? We are strangers, and our


Graustark - 20/57

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