XV. Journeys End in Lovers' Meeting
 

Roland slept until the sun was about an hour high over the western hills. He found the captain waiting patiently for him to awake, and then that useful martinet instantly set his crew at tying up the bales which had been torn open, placing them once more in the hold. He was about to do the same with the weapons captured from Furstenberg, but Greusel stepped forward, and asked him to put pikes, battle-axes, and the long swords into the cabin.

Roland nodded his approval, saying:

"They may prove useful instruments in case of an attack on the barge. Our own swords are just a trifle short for adding interest to an assault."

When once more the hatches were down, and the deck clear, supper was served. Shortly after sunset, Roland told the captain to cast off, directing him to keep to the eastern shore, passing between what might be called the marine Castle of Pfalz and the village of Caub, with the strictest silence he could enjoin upon his crew. Pfalz stands upon a rock in the Rhine, a short distance up the river from Caub, while above that village on the hill behind are situated the strong, square towers of Gutenfels.

"Don't you intend to pay a call upon Pfalzgrafenstein?" asked Ebearhard. "It is notoriously the most pestilent robber's nest between Mayence and Cologne."

"No," said Roland. "On this occasion Pfalz shall escape. You see, Ebearhard, on our first trip down the Rhine it is not my intention to fight if I can avoid conflict. The plan which proved successful with the four castles we have visited is impossible so far as Pfalz is concerned. If we attempted to enter this waterschloss by stealth, we would be discovered by those levying contributions on the barge. There is no cover to conceal us, so I shall give Pfalz the go-by, and also Gutenfels, because the latter is not a robber castle, but is owned by the Count Palatine, a true gentleman and no thief. The next object of our attentions will be Schonburg, on the western side of the river, near Oberwesel."

As the grotesque, hexagonal bulk of the Pfalz, with its numerous jutting corners and turrets, and over all the pentagonal tower, appeared dimly in the center of the Rhine, under the clear stars, the captain ordered his men to lie flat on the deck, himself following their example. Roland and his company were already seated in the cabin, and the great barge, lying so low in the water as to be almost invisible with its black paint, floated noiseless as a dream down the swift current.

Without the slightest warning came a shock, and every man on the lockers was flung to the floor of the cabin, with cries of dismay, for too well they recognized the preliminary to their disasters of the night before. Roland sprang up on deck, and found the boat swinging round broadside to the current, which had swept it so near to the Castle that at first it seemed to have struck against one of the outlying rocks. The fantastic form of the Pfalz hung over them, looking like some weird building seen in a nightmare, its sharp, pointed pinnacles outlined against the starlit sky.

The captain, muttering sonorous German oaths, ordered his men to the sweeps, but Roland saw at once that they were too close to the ledge of rock for any chance of escape. He hurried down into the cabin.

"Every man his sword, and follow me as silently as possible!"

Up on deck again, Roland said to the captain:

"Let your rowers help the chain to bring the barge alongside, but when the robbers appear, pretend to be getting away, although you must instantly obey them when ordered to cease your efforts."

The prow of the boat ground against the solid rock, jammed in between the stout chain and the low cliff. Roland was the first to spring ashore, and the rest nimbly followed him. With every motion of the barge the bell inside the Castle rang, and now they could hear the bestirring of the garrison, and clashing of metal, although the single door of the Pfalz had not yet been opened. This door stood six feet above the plateau of rock, and could be entered or quitted only by means of a ladder.

Roland led his men to a place of effective concealment along the western wall of the Pfalz, only just in time, for as he peered round the corner, his men standing back against the wall to the rear, he saw the flash of torches from the now-open door, and the placing of a stout ladder at a steep angle between the threshold and the floor of rock below. Most of the garrison, however, did not wait for this convenience, but leaped impetuously from doorway to rock. Others slid down the ladder, and all rushed headlong towards the barge, which made its presence known by the grinding of its side against the rock, and also by the despairing orders of the captain, and the hurrying footsteps of his men on deck.

More leisurely down the ladder came two officers, followed by one whom Roland recognized as lord of the Castle, Pfalzgraf Hermann von Stahleck, a namesake and relative of the Laughing Baron of Furstenberg, and quite as ruthless a robber as he.

"Cease your efforts at the prow," shouted the Pfalzgraf to the captain when he had descended the ladder, "and concentrate your force at the stern, swinging your boat round broadside on to the landing."

The captain obeyed, and presently the boat lay in such position as the nobleman desired. Now there was a great commotion as, at a word from the Pfalzgraf, the garrison fell on the barge, and began to wrench off the hatches, a task which they well knew how to perform.

"Follow as quietly as possible," whispered Roland to the two lieutenants behind him, who, under their breath, passed on word to the men. Roland ran nimbly up the ladder. No guard was set where none had ever been needed before. Greusel was the last to ascend, then the ladder was pulled up, and the massive door swung shut, bolted and chained.

The invaders found torches stuck here and there along the wall, and the picturesque courtyard, with its irregular balconies and stairways, seemed, in the flickering light, more spacious than was actually the case.

Although for the moment in safety, Roland experienced a sense of imprisonment as he gazed round the narrow limits of this enclosure. He had endeavored to count the number of men who followed the Pfalzgraf, but their impetuosity in seeking the barge prevented an accurate estimate, although he knew there were more than double the force that obeyed him, and therefore it would be suicidal to lead his untrained coterie against the seasoned warriors of Stahleck.

He ordered Greusel to take with him six men, and search the Castle, bringing into the courtyard whomsoever they might find; also to discover whether any window existed that looked out upon the eastern landing-place. The remainder of his men he grouped at the door, under command of Ebearhard.

"I fear, Ebearhard," he said, "that I boasted prematurely in thinking good luck would attend me now that I lead what appears to be an obedient following. Here we are in a trap, and unless we can escape through rat-holes, I admit that I fail to see for the moment how we are to get safely afloat again."

"We are in better fettle than the Pfalzgraf and his men outside," returned Ebearhard, "because this fortress is doubtless well supplied with provisions, and is considered impregnable, while the Pfalzgraf's impetuous chaps, who did not know enough to stay in comfortable quarters when they had them, are without shelter and without food. You have certainly done the best you could in the circumstances, and for those circumstances you are free of blame, since, not being a wizard, you could scarcely know of the chain."

"Indeed, Ebearhard, it is just in that respect I blame myself, neglecting your own good example, who discovered the chain at Furstenberg. This trap is a new invention, and, so far as I know, has never before been attempted on the Rhine. I might have remembered that Stahleck here is cousin to the Red Margrave, who likely has told him of the device. Indeed, the chances are that Stahleck himself was the contriver of the chain, for he seems a man of much more craft and intelligence than that huge, laughing animal farther up the river. I should have ordered the captain to tie up against the eastern bank, and then sent some men in a small boat to learn if the way was clear. No, Ebearhard, I blame myself for this muddle, and, through anxiety to pass the Pfalz, I have landed myself and my men within its walls. I must pace this courtyard for a time, and ponder what next to do. Go you, Ebearhard, with the men to the door. Allow no talking or noise. Listen intently, and report to me if you hear anything. You see, Ebearhard, the devil of it is that Stahleck, like his cousin with Cologne, swears allegiance to the Archbishop of Mayence, and here am I, after destroying the fief of one Archbishop, securely snared in the fief of another. I fear their Lordships' next meeting with me will not pass off so amicably as did the last."

"Next meeting?" cried Ebearhard in astonishment; "have you ever met the Archbishops?"

Roland gasped, realizing that his absorption in one subject had nearly caused him to betray his momentous secret.

"Ah, I remember," continued Ebearhard. "It was on account of the Archbishop's presence in Bonn that you returned from that town when first you journeyed up the Rhine."

"Yes," said Roland, with relief.

"It seems to me," went on Ebearhard consolingly, "that even if we may not leave the Castle, at least the Pfalzgraf cannot penetrate into the stronghold, therefore we are safe enough."

"Not so, Ebearhard," replied his chief. "The Pfalzgraf has the barge, remember, and it can carry his whole force to Caub or elsewhere, returning with ample provisions and siege instruments that will batter in the door despite all we can do. Nevertheless, let us keep up our hearts. Get you to the gate, Ebearhard. I must have time to think before Greusel returns."

Alone, with bent head, he paced back and forwards across the courtyard under the wavering light of the torches. Very speedily he concluded that no plan could be formed until Greusel made his report regarding the intricacies of the Castle.

"My luck is against me! My luck is against me!" he said aloud to himself, as if the sound of his own voice might suggest some way out of the difficulty.

"Luck always turns against a thief and a marauder," said a sweet and clear voice behind him; "and how can it be otherwise, when the gallows-tree stands at the end of his journey."

Roland stopped in his walk, and turned abruptly towards the sound. He saw standing there, just descended from the stairway at her back, one quite evidently a lady; not more than eighteen, perhaps, but nevertheless with a flash of defiance in her somber eyes, which were bent fearlessly upon him. The two tirewomen accompanying her shrank timorously to the background, palpably panic-stricken, and ready to faint with fright.

"Ah, Madam, how came you here?" cried Roland, ignoring her insulting words, too much surprised by her beauty of face and form to think of aught else.

"I came here, because your bully upstairs hammered at my door and bade me open, which I would not do, defying him to break it down if he had the power. It so happened that he possessed the power, and used it."

"I deeply regret that you should have been disturbed, Madam. My lieutenant erred through over-zeal, and I ask your pardon for the offense."

The girl laughed.

"Why, sir, you are the politest of pirates, but, indeed, your lieutenant seems a harsh man. Without even removing his bonnet, he commanded me to betake myself to the courtyard and report to his chief, which obediently I have done."

"I did not guess that women inhabited this robber's nest. My lieutenant is searching for men in hiding, so please accept my assurance that you will suffer no further annoyance. You are surely not alone in this house?"

"Oh no. Her ladyship the Pfalzgraf's wife, and her entourage, have sought shelter in another part of the Castle, and presently they will all troop down here, prisoners to your most ungallant subordinate; that is, should their doors prove no stouter than mine, or if your furious men have not dislocated their shoulders."

"How came you to be absent from her ladyship's party?"

"Because, urbane pirate captain, I am an unwilling prisoner in this stronghold, being an obstreperous person, who refused to obey my superiors; those set in authority over me. Consequently am I immured in this dismal dungeon of the water-rats, and thus, youthful pirate, I welcome even so red-handed an outlaw as yourself."

"Then are we in like case, my lady of midnight beauty, for I, too, am a prisoner in Pfalzgrafenstein, and, when you came, was cogitating some plan of escape. Therefore, rebellious maiden, the sword of this red-handed freebooter is most completely at your service," and the speaker once more doffed his bonnet with a gallant sweep that caused the plume to kiss the flagstones at his feet, and he bowed low to the brave girl who had shown no fear of him.