The Sword Maker by Robert Barr
XI. Gold Galore that Takes to Itself Wings
In the thick darkness Roland paced up and down the east bank of the Rhine at a spot nearly midway between Assmannshausen and Ehrenfels. The night was intensely silent, its stillness merely accentuated by the gentle ripple of the water current against the barge's blunt nose, which pointed upstream. Standing motionless as a statue, the massive figure of Captain Blumenfels appeared in deeper blackness against the inky hills on the other side of the Rhine. Long sweeps lay parallel to the bulwarks of the barge, and stalwart men were at their posts, waiting the word of command to handle these exaggerated oars, in defiance of wind and tide. On this occasion, however, the tide only would be against them, for the strong southern breeze was wholly favorable. Their voyage that night would be short, but strenuous; merely crossing the river, and tying up against the opposite bank; but the Rhine swirled powerfully round the rock of Ehrenfels above them, and the men at the sweeps must pull vigorously if they were not to be carried down into premature danger.
Roland, who when they left Frankfort was in point of time the youngest member of the guild, now seemed, if one could distinguish him through the gloom of the night, to have become years older, and there was an added dignity in his bearing, for, although now but a potential freebooter, he had received assurance that he would be eventually elected Emperor.
He had sent word that morning to Greusel at the Golden Anker, bidding him get together his men, and lead them up to the barge not later than an hour before the moon rose, for Roland was anxious to reach the other side of the Rhine unseen from either shore. He cautioned Greusel to make his march a silent one, and this order Joseph at first found some difficulty in carrying out, but in any case he need have entertained no fear. The strong red wine of Assmannshausen is a potent liquid, and the inhabitants of the town were accustomed to song and laughter on the one street of the place at all hours of the night.
When they arrived, the men were quiet enough, and speedily stowed themselves away in their quarters at the stern of the barge, whereupon Roland, the last to spring aboard, waved his hand at the captain to cast off. The nose of the boat was shoved away from land, and then the powerful sweeps dipped into the water. Slowly but surely she made her way across the river; silent and invisible from either bank. The current, however, swept them down opposite the twinkling lights of Assmannshausen, after which, in the more tranquil waters of the western shore, they rowed steadily upstream for about half a league, and then, with ropes tied round trees growing at the water's edge, laid up for the remainder of the night.
Roland now counseled his company to enjoy what sleep was possible, as they would be roused at the first glint of daybreak; so, with great good-nature, each man wrapped himself up in his cloak and lay down on the cabin floor.
When the eastern sky became gray, the slumberers were awakened, and a ration of bread and wine served to each. The captain already had received his instructions, and the men discarding their cloaks, followed their leader into the still gloomy forest. Here, with as little noise as might be, they climbed the steep wooded hill, and arriving at something almost like a path, a hundred yards up from the river, they turned to the right, and so marched, no man speaking above a whisper.
The forest became lighter and lighter, and at last Roland, holding up his hand to sign caution, turned to the left from the path, and farther up into the unbroken forest. They had traversed perhaps a league when another silent order brought them to a standstill, and peering through the trees to the east, the men caught glimpses of the grand, gray battlements of that famous stronghold, Rheinstein, seeing at the corner nearest them a square tower, next a machicolated curtain of wall, and a larger square tower almost as high as the first hanging over the precipice that descended to the Rhine. Inside this impregnable enclosure rose the great bulk of the Castle itself, and near at hand the massive square keep, with an octagonal turret on the southeast corner, the top of which was the highest point of the stronghold, although a round tower rising directly over the Rhine was not much lower.
Roland, advancing through the trees, but motioning his men to remain where they were, peered across to the battlements and down at the entrance gate.
Baron von Hohenfels sat so secure in his elevated robber's nest, which he deemed invincible--and, indeed, the cliff on which it stood, nearly a hundred yards high, made it so if approached from the Rhine--that he kept only one man on watch, and this sentinel was stationed on the elevated platform of the round tower. Roland saw him yawn wearily as he leaned against his tall lance, and was glad to learn that even one man kept guard, for at first he feared that all within the Castle were asleep, the round tower, until Roland had shifted his position to the north, being blotted out by the nearer square donjon keep. Now satisfied, he signaled his men to sit down, which they did. He himself took up a position behind a tree, where, unseen, he could watch the man with the lance.
So indolent was the sentry that Roland began to fear the barge would pass by unnoticed. Not for months had any sailing craft appeared on the river, and doubtless the warden regarded his office as both useless and wearisome. Brighter and brighter became the eastern sky, and at last a tinge of red appeared above the hills across the silent Rhine. Suddenly the guardian straightened up, then, shading his eyes with his right hand, he leaned over the battlements, peering to the south. A moment later the stillness was rent by a lusty shout, and the man disappeared as if he had fallen through a trap-door. Presently the notes of a bugle echoed within the walls, followed by clashes of armor and the buzzing sound of men, as though a wasp's nest had been disturbed. Half a dozen came into sight on top of the various towers and battlements, glanced at the river, and vanished as hastily as the sentinel had done.
At last the gates came ponderously open, and the first three men to emerge were on horseback, one of them hastily getting into an outer garment, but the well-trained horses, who knew their business quite as thoroughly as their riders, for they were accustomed to plunge into the river if any barge disobeyed the order commanding it to halt, turned from the gate, and dashed down the steep road that descended through the forest. The men-at-arms poured forth with sword or pike, and in turn went out of sight. They appeared to be leaderless, dashing forward in no particular formation, yet, like the horses, they knew their business. All this turmoil was not without its effect on Roland's following, who edged forward on hands and knees to discover what was going on, everyone breathless with excitement; but they saw their leader cool and motionless, counting on his fingers the number of men who passed out, for he knew exactly how many fighters the Castle contained.
"Not yet, not yet!" he whispered.
Finally three lordly individuals strode out; officers their more resplendent clothing indicated them to be, and the trio followed the others.
"Ha!" cried Roland, "old Baron Hugo drank too deeply last night to be so early astir."
He was speaking aloud now.
"Take warning from that, my lads, and never allow wine to interfere with business. Follow me, but cautiously, one after the other in single file, and look to your footing. 'Tis perilous steep between here and the gate;" and, indeed, so they found it, but all reached the level forecourt in safety, and so through the open portal.
"Close and bar those gates," was the next command, instantly obeyed.
Down the stone steps of the Castle, puffing and grunting, came a gigantic, obese individual, his face bloated with excess, his eyes bleary with the lees of too much wine. He was struggling into his doublet, assisted by a terrified old valet, and was swearing most deplorably. Seeing the crowd at the gate, and half-blindly mistaking them for his own men, he roared:
"What do you there, you hounds? To the river, every man of you, and curse your leprous, indolent souls! Why in the fiend's name--" But here he came to an abrupt stop on the lowest step, the sting of a sword's point at his throat, and now, out of breath, his purple face became mottled.
"Good morning to you, Baron Hugo von Hohenfels. These men whom you address so coarsely obey no orders but mine."
"And who, imp of Satan, are you?" sputtered the old man.
"By profession a hangman. From our fastnesses in the hills, seeing a barge float down the river, we thought it likely you would leave the Castle undefended, and so came in to execute the Prince of Robbers."
The Baron was quaking like a huge jelly. It was evident that, although noted for his cruelty, he was at heart a coward.
"You--you--you--" he stammered, "are outlaws! You are outlaws from the Hunsruck."
"How clever of you, Baron, to recognize us at once. Now you know what to expect. Greusel, unwind the rope I gave you last night. I will show you its purpose."
Greusel did as he was requested without comment, but Ebearhard approached closely to his chief, and whispered:
"Why resort to violence? We have no quarrel with this elephant. 'Tis his gold we want, and to hang him is a waste of time."
"Hush, Ebearhard," commanded Roland sternly. "The greater includes the less. I know this man, and am taking the quickest way to his treasure-house."
Ebearhard fell back, but by this time the useful Greusel had made a loop of the rope, and threw it like a cravat around the Baron's neck.
"No, no, no!" cried the frightened nobleman. "'Tis not my life you seek. That is of no use to such as you; and, besides, I have never harmed the outlaws."
"That is a lie," said Roland. "You sent an expedition against us just a year ago."
"'Twas not I," protested Hohenfels, "but the pirate of Falkenberg. Still, no matter. I'll buy my life from you. I am a wealthy man."
"How much?" asked Roland, hesitating.
"More than all of you can carry away."
"Of a surety in gold."
"Where are the keys of your treasury?"
"In my chamber. I will bring them to you," and the Baron turned to mount the steps again.
"Not so," cried Roland. "Stand where you are, and send your man for them. If they are not here before I count twoscore, you hang, and nothing will save you."
The Baron told the trembling valet where to find the keys.
"Greusel, you and Ebearhard accompany him, and at the first sign of treachery, or any attempt to give an alarm, run him through with your swords. Does your man know where the treasury is?" he continued to the Baron.
"Oh, yes, yes!"
"How is your gold bestowed?"
"In leathern bags."
"Good. Greusel, take sixteen of the men, and bring down into the courtyard all the gold you can carry. Then we will estimate whether or not it is sufficient to buy the Baron's life, for I hold him in high esteem. He is a valuable man. See to it that there is no delay, Greusel, and never lose sight of this valet. Bring him back, laden with gold."
They all disappeared within the Castle, led by the old servitor.
"Sit you down, Baron," said Roland genially. "You seem agitated, for which there is no cause should there prove to be gold enough to outweigh you."
The ponderous noble seated himself with a weary sigh.
"And pray to the good Lord above us," went on Roland, "that your men may not return before this transaction is completed, for if they do, my first duty will be to strangle you. Even gold will not save you in that case. But still, you have another chance for your life, should such an untoward event take place. Shout to them through the closed gates that they must return to the edge of the river until you join them; then, if they obey, you are spared. Remember, I beg of you, the uselessness of an outcry, for we are in possession of Rheinstein, and you know that the Castle is unassailable from without."
The Baron groaned.
"Do not be hasty with your cord," he said dejectedly. "I will follow your command."
The robbers, however, did not return, but the treasure-searchers did, piling the bags in the courtyard, and again Hohenfels groaned dismally at the sight. Roland indicated certain sacks with the point of his sword, ordering them to be opened. Each was full of gold.
"Now, my lads," he cried, "oblige the Baron by burdening yourselves with this weight of metal, then we shall make for the Hunsruck. Open the gates. Lead the men to the point where we halted, Greusel, and there await me."
The rich company departed, and Roland beguiled the time and the weariness of the Baron by a light and interesting conversation to which there was neither reply nor interruption. At last, having allowed time for his band to reach their former halting-place, he took the rope from the Baron's neck, tied the old robber's hands behind him, then bound his feet, cutting the rope in lengths with his sword. He served the trembling valet in the same way, shutting him up within the Castle, and locking the door with the largest key in the bunch, which bunch he threw down beside his lordship.
"Baron von Hohenfels," he said, "I have kept my word with you, and now bid farewell. I leave you out-of-doors, because you seem rather scant of breath, for which complaint fresh air is beneficial. Adieu, my lord Baron."
The Baron said nothing as Roland, with a sweep of his bonnet, took leave of him, climbed the steep path and joined his waiting men. He led them along the hillside, through the forest for some distance, then descended to the water's edge. The river was blank, so they all sat down under the trees out of sight, leaving one man on watch. Here Roland spent a very anxious half-hour, mitigated by the knowledge that the men of Rheinstein were little versed in woodcraft, and so might not be able to trace the fugitives. It was likely they would make a dash in quite the opposite direction, towards the Hunsruck, because Hohenfels believed they were outlaws from that district, and did not in any way associate them with the plundered barge.
But if the robbers of Rheinstein took a fancy to sink the barge, an act only too frequently committed, then were Roland and his company in a quandary, without food, or means of crossing the river. However, he was sure that Captain Blumenfels would follow his instructions, which were to offer no resistance, but rather to assist the looters in their exactions.
"Within a league," said Roland to his men, "stand three pirate castles: Rheinstein, which we have just left; Falkenberg, but a short distance below, and then Sonneck. If nothing happens to the barge, I expect to finish with all three before nightfall; for, the strongholds being so close together, we must work rapidly, and not allow news of our doings to leap in advance of us."
"But suppose," said Kurzbold, "that Hohenfels' men hold the barge at the landing for their own use?"
"We will wait here for another half-hour," replied Roland, "and then, if we see nothing of the boat, proceed along the water's edge until we learn what has become of her. I do not think the thieves will interfere with the barge, as they have not been angered either by disobedience of their orders to land, or resistance after the barge is by the shore. Besides, I count on the fact that the officers, at least, will be anxious to let the barge proceed, hoping other laden boats may follow, and, indeed, I think for this reason they will be much more moderate in their looting than we have been."
Before he had finished speaking, the man on watch by the water announced the barge in sight, floating down with the current. At this they all emerged from the forest. Captain Blumenfels, carefully scanning the shore, saw them at once, and turned the boat's head towards the spot where they stood.
The bags of gold were bolted away in the stout lockers extending on each side of the cabin. While this was being done, Roland gave minute instructions to the captain regarding the next item in the programme, and once more entered the forest with his men.
The task before them was more difficult than the spoiling of Rheinstein, because the huge bulk of Falkenberg stood on a summit of treeless rock; the Castle itself, a gigantic, oblong gray mass, with a slender square campanile some distance from it, rising high above its battlements on the slope that went down towards the Rhine, forming thus an excellent watch-tower. But although the conical hill of rock was bare of the large trees that surrounded Rheinstein, there were plenty of bowlders and shrubbery behind which cover could be sought. On this occasion the marauding guild could not secure a position on a level with the battlements of the Castle, as had been the case behind Rheinstein, and, furthermore, they were compelled to make their dash for the gate up-hill.
But these disadvantages were counterbalanced by the fact that Falkenberg was situated much higher than Rheinstein, and was farther away from the river, so that when the garrison descended to the water's edge it could not return as speedily as was the case with Hohenfels' men. Rheinstein stood directly over the water, and only two hundred and sixty feet above it, while, comparatively speaking, Falkenberg was back in the country. Still all these castles had been so long unmolested, and considered themselves so secure, that adequate watching had fallen into abeyance, and at Falkenberg guard was kept by one lone man on the tall campanile. The attacking party saw no one on the battlements of the Castle, so worked their way round the hill until the man on the tower was hidden from them by the bulk of the Castle itself, and thus they crawled like lizards from bush to bush, from stone to stone, and from rock-ledge to rock-ledge, taking their time, and not deserting one position of obscurity until another was decided upon. The fact that the watchman was upon the Rhine side of the Castle greatly favored a stealthy approach from any landward point.
At last the alarm was given; the gate opened, and, as it proved, every man in the Castle went headlong down the hill. The amateur cracksmen therefore had everything their own way, and while this at first seemed an advantage, they speedily found it the reverse, for although they wandered from room to room, the treasure could not be discovered. The interior of Falkenberg was unknown to Roland, this being one of the strongholds where he had been compelled to sleep in an outhouse. At last they found the door to the treasure-chamber, for Roland suggested it was probably in a similar position to that at Rheinstein, and those who had accompanied Hohenfels' valet made search according to this hint, and were rewarded by coming upon a door so stoutly locked that all their efforts to force it open were fruitless.
Deeply disappointed, with a number of the men grumbling savagely, they were compelled to withdraw empty handed, warned by approaching shouts that the garrison was returning, so the men crawled away as they had come, and made for the river, where on this occasion the boat already awaited them.
The lord of Falkenberg proved as moderate in his exactions as the men of Rheinstein. Many bales had been cut open, and the thieves, with the knowledge of cloth-weavers, selected in every case only the best goods, but of these had taken merely enough for one costume each.
Although the company had made so early a beginning, it was past noon by the time they reached the barge on the second occasion. A substantial meal was served, for every man was ravenously hungry, besides being disgusted to learn that there were ups and downs even in there were ups and downs even in the trade of thievery.
Early in the afternoon they made for the delicate Castle of Sonneck, whose slender turrets stood out beautifully against the blue sky. Here excellent cover was found within sight of the doorway, for Sonneck stood alone on its rock without the protection of a wall.
In this case the experience of Rheinstein was repeated, with the exception that it was not the master of the Castle they encountered, but a frightened warder, who, with a sharp sword to influence him, produced keys and opened the treasury. Not nearly so large a haul of gold was made as in the first instance, yet enough was obtained to constitute a most lucrative day's work, and with this they sought the barge in high spirits.
They waited in the shadow of the hills until dusk, then quietly made their way across the river behind the shelter of the two islands, and so came to rest alongside the bank, just above the busy town of Lorch, scarcely two leagues down the river from the berth they had occupied the night before. After the barge was tied up, Roland walked on deck with the captain, listening to his account of events from the level of the river surface. It proved that, all in all, Roland could suggest no amendment of the day's proceedings. So far as Blumenfels was concerned, everything had gone without a hitch.
As they promenaded thus, one of the men came forward, and said, rather cavalierly:
"Commander, your comrades wish to see you in the cabin."
Roland made no reply, but continued his conversation with the captain until he learned from that somewhat reticent individual all he wished to know. Then he walked leisurely aft, and descended into the cabin, where he found the eighteen seated on the lockers, as if the conclave were a deliberate body like the Electors, who had come to some momentous decision.
"We have unanimously passed a resolution," said Kurzbold, "that the money shall be divided equally amongst us each evening. You do not object, I suppose?"
"No; I don't object to your passing a resolution."
"Very good. We do not wish to waste time just now in the division, because we are going to Lorch, intending to celebrate our success with a banquet. Would Greusel, Ebearhard, and yourself care to join us?"
"I cannot speak for the other two," returned Roland quietly; "but personally I shall be unable to attend, as there are some plans for the future which need thinking over."
"In that case we shall not expect you," went on Kurzbold, who seemed in no way grieved at the loss of his commander's company.
"Perhaps," suggested John Gensbein, "our chief will drop in upon us later in the evening. We learned at Assmannshausen that the Krone is a very excellent tavern, so we shall sup there."
"How did you know we were to stop at Lorch?" asked Roland, wondering if in any way they had heard he was to meet Goebel's emissary in this village.
"We were not sure," replied Gensbein, "but we made inquiries concerning all the villages and castles down the Rhine, and have taken notes."
"Ah, in that case you are well qualified as a guide. I may find occasion to use the knowledge thus acquired."
"We are all equally involved in this expedition," said Kurzbold impatiently, "and you must not imagine yourself the only person to be considered. But we lose time. What we wish at the present moment is that you will unlock one of these chests, and divide amongst us a bag of gold. The rest is to be partitioned when we return this evening; and after that, Herr Roland, we shall not need to trouble you by asking for more money."
"Are the thirty thalers I gave you the other day all spent, Herr Kurzbold?"
"No matter for that," replied this insubordinate ex-president. "The money in the lockers is ours, and we demand a portion of it now, with the remainder after the banquet."
Without another word, Roland took the bunch of keys from his belt, opened one of the lockers, lifted out a bag of gold, untied the thongs, and poured out the coins on the lid of the chest, which he locked again.
"There is the money," he said to Kurzbold. "I shall send Greusel and Ebearhard to share in its distribution, and thus you can invite them to your banquet. My own portion you may leave on the lid of the locker."
With that he departed up on deck again, and said to his officers:
"Kurzbold, on behalf of the men, has demanded a bag of gold. You will go to the cabin and receive your share. They will also invite you to a banquet at the Krone. Accept that invitation, and if possible engage a private room, as you did at Assmannshausen, to prevent the men talking with any of the inhabitants. Keep them roystering there until all the village has gone to bed; then convoy them back to the barge as quietly as you can. A resolution has been passed that the money is to be divided amongst our warriors on their return, but I imagine that they will be in no condition to act as accountants when I have the pleasure of beholding them again, so if anything is said about the apportionment, suggest a postponement of the ceremony until morning. I need not add that I expect you both to drink sparingly, for this is advice I intend to follow myself."
Roland paced the deck deep in thought until his difficult contingent departed towards the twinkling lights of the village, then he went to the cabin, poured his share of the gold into his pouch, and followed the company at a distance into Lorch. He avoided the Krone, and after inquiring his way, stopped at the much smaller hostelry, Mergler's Inn. Here he gave his name, and asking if any one waited for him, was conducted upstairs to a room where he found Herr Kruger just about to sit down to his supper. A stout lad nearing twenty years of age stood in the middle of the room, and from his appearance Roland did not need the elder man's word for it that this was his son.
"I took the precaution of bringing him with me," said Kruger, "as I thought two horsemen were better than one in the business I had undertaken."
"You were quite right," returned Roland, "and I congratulate you upon so stalwart a traveling companion. With your permission I shall order a meal, and sup with you, thus we may save time by talking while we eat, because you will need to depart as speedily as possible."
"You mean in the darkness? To-night?"
"Yes; as soon as you can get away. There are urgent reasons why you should be on the road without delay. How came you here?"
"On horseback; first down the Main, then along the Rhine."
"Very well. In the darkness you will return by the way you came, but only as far as the Castle of Ehrenfels, three leagues from here. There you are to rouse up the custodian, and in safety spend the remainder of the night. To-morrow morning he will furnish you a guide to conduct you through the forest to Wiesbaden, and from thence you know your way to Frankfort, which you should reach not later than evening."
At this point the landlord, who had been summoned, came in.
"I will dine with my friends here," said Roland. "I suppose I need not ask if you possess some of the good red wine of Lorch, which they tell me equals that of Assmannshausen?"
"Of the very best, mein Herr, the product of my own vineyard, and I can therefore guarantee it sound. As for equaling that of Assmannshausen, we have always considered it superior, and, indeed, many other good judges agree with us."
"Then bring me a stoup of it, and you will be enabled to add my opinion to that of the others."
When the landlord produced the wine, Roland raised it to his lips, and absorbed a hearty draught.
"This is indeed most excellent, landlord, and does credit alike to your vines and your inn. I wish to send two large casks of so fine a wine to a merchant of my acquaintance in Frankfort, and my friend, Herr Kruger, has promised to convey it thither. If you can spare me two casks of such excellent vintage, they will make an evenly balanced burden for the horse."
"Surely, mein Herr."
"Choose two of those long casks, landlord, with bung-holes of the largest at the sides. Do you possess such a thing as a pack-saddle?"
"And you, my young friend," he said, turning to Kruger's son, "rode here on a saddle?"
"No" interjected his father; "I ride a saddle, but my son was forced to content himself with a length of Herr Goebel's coarse cloth, folded four times, and strapped to the horse's back."
"Then the cloth may still be used as a cushion for the pack-saddle, and you, my lad, will be compelled to walk, to which I dare venture you are well accustomed."
The lad grinned, but made no objection.
"Now, landlord, while we eat, fill your casks with wine, then place the pack-saddle on the back of this young man's horse, and the casks thereon, for I dare say you have men expert in such a matter."
"There are no better the length of the Rhine," said the landlord proudly.
"Lay the casks so that the bung-holes are upward, and do not drive the bungs more tightly in place than is necessary, for they are to be extracted before Frankfort is reached, that another friend of mine may profit by the wine. When this is done, bring me word, and let me know how much I owe you."
The landlord gone, the three men fell to their meal.
"There is more gold," said Roland, "than I expected, and it is impossible even for two of you to carry it in bags attached to your belts. Besides, if you are molested, such bestowal of it would prove most unsafe. A burden of wine, however, is too common either to attract notice or arouse cupidity. I propose, then, when we leave here, to bring you to the barge belonging to Herr Goebel, and taking out the bungs, we will pour the gold into the barrels, letting the wine that is displaced overflow to the ground. Then we will stoutly drive in the bungs, and should the guards question you at the gates of Frankfort, you may let them taste the wine if they insist, and I dare say it will contain no flavor of the metal."
"A most excellent suggestion," said Herr Kruger with enthusiasm. "An admirable plan; for I confess I looked forward with some anxiety to this journey, laden down with bags of gold under my cloak."
"Yes. You are simply an honest drinker, tired of the white wine of Frankfort, and providing yourself with the stronger fluid that Lorch produces. I am sure you will deliver the money safely to Herr Goebel, somewhat in drink, it is true, but, like the rest of us, none the worse for that when the fumes are gone."
The repast finished, and all accounts liquidated, the trio left the inn, and, leading the two horses, reached the barge without observation. Here the bungs were removed from the casks, and the three men, assisted by the captain, quietly and speedily opened bag after bag, pouring the coins down into the wine; surely a unique adulteration, astonishing even to so heady a fluid as the vintage of Lorch. From the whole amount Roland deducted two thousand thalers, which he divided equally between two empty bags.
"This thousand thalers," said he to Kruger, "is to be shared by your son and yourself, in addition to whatever you may receive from Herr Goebel. The other you will hand to the custodian of Ehrenfels Castle, saying it came from his friend Roland, and is recompense for the money he lent the other day. That will be an effective letter of introduction to him. Say that I ask him to send his son with you as guide through the forest to Wiesbaden; and so good-night and good luck to you."
It was long after midnight when the guild came roystering up the bank of the Rhine to the barge. The moon had risen, and gave them sufficient light to steer a reasonably straight course without danger of falling into the water. Ebearhard was with them, but Greusel walked rapidly ahead, so that he might say a few words to his chief before the others arrived.
"I succeeded in preventing their talking with any stranger, but they have taken aboard enough wine to make them very difficult and rather quarrelsome if thwarted. When I proposed that they should leave the counting until to-morrow morning they first became suspicious, and then resented the imputation that they were not in fit condition for such a task. I recommend, therefore, that you allow them to divide the money to-night. It will allay their fear that some trick is to be played upon them, and if you hint at intoxication, they are likely to get out of hand. As it does not matter when the money is distributed, I counsel you to humor them to-night, and postpone reasoning until to-morrow."
"I'll think about it," said Roland.
"They have bought several casks of wine, and are taking turns in carrying them. Will you allow this wine to come aboard, even if you determine to throw it into the water to-morrow?"
"Oh, yes," said Roland, with a shrug of the shoulders. "Coax them into the cabin as quietly as possible, and keep them there if you can, for should they get on deck, we shall lose some of them in the river."
Greusel turned back to meet the bellowing mob, while Roland roused the captain and his men.
"Get ready," he said to Blumenfels, "and the moment I raise my hand, shove off. Make for this side of the larger island, and come to rest there for the remainder of the night. Command your rowers to put their whole force into the sweeps."
This was done accordingly, and well done, as was the captain's custom. The late moon threw a ghostly light over the scene, and the barren island proved deserted and forbidding, as the crew tied up the barge alongside. Most of the lights in Lorch had gone out, and the town lay in the silence of pallid moonbeams like a city of the dead. Roland stood on deck with Greusel and Ebearhard by his side, the latter relating the difficulties of the evening. There had been singing in the cabin during the passage across, then came a lull in the roar from below, followed by a shout that betokened danger. An instant later the crowd came boiling up the short stair to the deck, Kurzbold in command, all swords drawn, and glistening in the moonlight.
"You scoundrel!" he cried to Roland, "those lockers are full of empty bags."
"I know that," replied Roland, quietly. "The money is in safe keeping, and will be honestly divided at the conclusion of this expedition."
"You thief! You robber!" shouted Kurzbold, flourishing his weapon.
"Quite accurate," replied Roland, unperturbed. "I was once called a Prince of Thieves when I did not deserve the title. Now I have earned it."
"You have earned the penalty of thieving, and we propose to throw you into the Rhine."
"Not, I trust, before you learn where the money is deposited."
Drunk as they were, this consideration staggered them, but Kurzbold was mad with rage and wine.
"Come on, you poltroons!" he shouted. "There are only three of them."
"Draw your swords, gentlemen," whispered Roland, flashing his own blade in the moonlight.
Greusel and Ebearhard obeyed his command.