THE BOY ALLIES IN GREAT PERIL
Or, With the Italian Army in the Alps
CLAIR W. HAYES
Author of "The Boy Allies at Liege," "The Boy Allies on the Firing Line." "The Boy Allies with the Cossacks," "The Boy Allies in the Trenches."
THE BREWING STORM.
"Did you ever see such a mob, Hal?"
The speaker was an American lad of some seventeen years of age. He stopped in his walk as he spoke and grasped his companion by the arm. The latter allowed his gaze to rove over the thousands upon thousands of people who thronged the approach to the king's palace at Rome, before he replied:
"Some mob, Chester; some mob."
"Looks like a real army could be recruited from this bunch," continued the first speaker.
"Rather," agreed the other. "And unless I am mightily mistaken that is what will be done. Most of them are soldiers anyhow, you know."
"True. I had forgotten we were in Italy, where military service is compulsory. Then you think that Italy has at last decided to enter the war?"
"I certainly do. The Chamber of Deputies has done its best to keep Italy from becoming involved, but the voice of the people must be heeded sooner or later. I believe the time has come."
"I am sure I hope so," said Chester. "Italy's army, entirely ready for any eventuality, should turn the balance in favor of the Allies."
"And I believe it will," said Hal.
"Do you believe the announcement of a state of war between Italy and Austria will be formally made to-day?"
"I do—and so, apparently, do the others here," and Hal swept his arm about him in a comprehensive gesture. "Hear them shout!"
For a mighty cheer had suddenly risen upon the air. Wildly excited Italians—men and women from all walks of life—seemed to have gone suddenly mad. A deafening roar filled the air. Caps and hats, canes, and other articles ascended and descended in a dense cloud.
"Can you doubt, after that, that Italy is for war?" asked Hal, when at last he could make himself heard.
"I guess not," replied Chester grimly. "But why should the crowd have gathered in front of the palace rather than before the Chamber of Deputies?"
"You forget that the premier is closeted with the king," returned Hal. "In all probability, the first word of a definite step will emanate from the palace, though unofficially, of course."
"I see," said Chester. "Well—look there, Hal!"
"What's the matter?" demanded the latter, eying his companion in some surprise.
Chester seized his friend's arm with one hand and with the other pointed directly ahead. Hal gazed in the direction indicated. He saw at once what had caused Chester's sudden exclamation.
Not five yards away, right in the center of the dense crowd, but still in view of the two boys, stood an Italian army officer in full uniform. He was gazing straight ahead toward the palace steps, paying no heed to those who pushed and jostled him. He stood erect, with arms folded upon his breast.
Even as the two boys looked, an arm came from behind him, and reaching across his shoulder, a hand crept cautiously into the pocket of the officer's military cloak, which he had thrown open because of its warmth.
Hal uttered a low exclamation and was about to step forward when there came a sudden shout from the crowd, which surged in about him, cutting off his view of the Italian officer. For a single instant Hal turned his eyes toward the palace and there took one look at a second uniformed figure, who stood upon the top step and waved his arms about violently.
"I guess war has come," the boy muttered to himself, as he took a step forward and elbowed his way toward the spot where the other Italian officer stood.
Chester came close behind his friend.
By dint of hard pushing and shoving, which drew ugly remarks from some of the bystanders upon whose feet they trod, the boys at last came to the spot they sought. They had made good time and the invisible owner of the hand that had explored the officer's pocket was just withdrawing it. And in it Hal saw a white paper flutter.
He uttered a cry and dashed forward in spite of the crowd. At almost the same moment the officer came to life. Instinct must have warned him that there was something wrong. He clapped his hand to his pocket, and then uttered a fierce ejaculation in his native tongue.
He wheeled about with a cry, and his arm shot out. There was a struggle, and then the officer fell to the ground. A blow from his adversary's fist had laid him low. Hal, who was a few leaps ahead of Chester, reached out to seize the man, who, he could see, still held the bit of white paper in his hand, but the other was too quick for him.
With a sudden backward leap he was among the crowd, which, apparently, had failed to grasp the significance of the trouble. Hal uttered a quick cry to Chester and also dashed into the crowd. Chester followed him.
Ahead, but almost hidden by others of the crowd, which pressed forward the better to see what was going on upon the palace steps, Hal could see his quarry squirming his way through the dense mass of humanity.
"Stop him!" he cried, raising his voice to a shout.
The crowd paid no heed. The people were too wrapped up in what was going on before the palace to notice the three who were trying to force their way through. Again Hal cried out, but the result was the same.
For a brief instant the fugitive glanced over his shoulder, and he waved a hand at Hal. It was the first time the lad had seen his face, and he knew that he would recognize it again wherever he saw it.
"I'll get you yet," declared Hal to himself between tightly shut lips. "I'll get you if it takes a year."
He pressed on, with Chester close at his heels.
Turning and squirming and twisting their way, the lads managed to plod on through the dense crowd at a snail's pace. Ahead of them, however, Hal could see that the fugitive was making about the same progress. His hopes rose, and he called over his shoulder to Chester;
"Keep coming; we'll get him!"
Chester made no reply, for he knew none was expected. He kept close behind his friend.
Now, suddenly, the fugitive reached the edge of the crowd. For a single moment he paused, and gazed back at his pursuers. Once more he waved a hand at Hal, and then, turning, started off at a run.
Hal, seeing that his quarry was about to make good his escape, suddenly grew angry. Bringing some tactics learned on the football field into play, he dashed forward, hurling spectators to right and left. In another moment he, too, had reached the edge of the crowd and, with a cry, dashed ahead.
He did not pause to see whether Chester was behind him. All he thought of was to overtake the fugitive.
Chester, in attempting to follow his friend, stumbled over an outstretched foot and fell heavily to the ground. He was not badly hurt, but he had struck on his face and for a moment he was dazed. He dragged himself quickly to his feet and moved forward again. Some distance ahead he saw that Hal was gaining upon the fugitive.
Down the wide street ran the fugitive, with Hal close behind and gaining at every stride. As the sound of pursuing footsteps became plainer, the man looked back over his shoulder. Then he redoubled his efforts; but still Hal gained.
Suddenly the man dashed around a corner. Three seconds later Hal did the same. As he did so he caught sight of a big man before him. Hal tried to check his pace, but it was too late.
Something bright flashed in the sunlight and Hal felt a sickening thud upon his head. In vain he tried to keep his feet. He sank slowly to the ground and then fell forward on his face. And even as he lost consciousness, he thought to himself:
"What a fool I was. I should have suspected a trap. So he hit me with the butt of a revolver. I'll get even yet."
Above the fallen lad the man stood with a grim smile of satisfaction. He stirred the prostrate form with his foot and then put his revolver back in his pocket. He turned to go.
At that moment Chester dashed around the corner. The lad and the fugitive took in the situation at the same moment. Chester pulled himself up short and reached for his revolver, which he always carried in his coat pocket. But the other was too quick for him. He leaped suddenly forward and Chester's arm was seized in a vise-like grip.
In vain the lad struggled to free himself. He could not move the powerful fingers that gripped him. He kicked out with his right foot and this effort was rewarded by a cry of pain from his opponent.
"Kick me on the shins, will you?" cried the latter in German.
His free hand found the revolver in his pocket and it flashed in the sunlight once more. He attempted to reverse the weapon and seize it by the barrel, and as he did so he unconsciously loosened his grip upon Chester's arm.
The latter swung himself about suddenly and with a sweep of his arm sent the man's revolver clattering to the ground. The other uttered an exclamation of rage, and stepped back.
Chester again reached for his own revolver, but once more the other was too quick for him. He came forward with a jump, and his right fist shot out. Chester ducked this blow, but he was unprepared for the left-handed blow that followed.
As he came up after ducking the first blow, the second caught him squarely upon the point of the chin, and he toppled over. It was a clean knockout.
"I guess that will settle you," said the victor, as he surveyed the prostrate forms of his two enemies. "I guess that will teach you not to interfere in other people's business. Hello, one of them is moving."
He gazed curiously at Hal, who at that moment opened his eyes. The man stood undecided a moment. Then he took a step toward the boy, but stopped again.
"No," he muttered. "What's the use? Let him be."
He swung upon his heel and made his way down the street. A moment later he was lost to sight around a corner.
THE TWO FRIENDS.
While Hal and Chester are still upon the ground and consciousness is gradually returning, it will be well to introduce a few words concerning them, that those who have not made their acquaintance before may learn just what sort of boys our heroes are.
Hal Paine and Chester Crawford were typical American boys. With the former's mother, they had been in Berlin when the great European conflagration broke out and had been stranded there. Mrs. Paine had been able to get out of the country, but Hal and Chester were left behind.
In company with Major Raoul Derevaux, a Frenchman, and Captain Harry Anderson, an Englishman, they finally made their way into Belgium, where they arrived in time to take part in the heroic defense of Lige in the early stages of the war. Here they rendered such invaluable service to the Belgian commander that they were commissioned lieutenants in the little army of King Albert.
Both in fighting and in scouting they had proven their worth. Following the first Belgian campaign, the two lads had seen service with the British troops on the continent, where they were attached to the staff of General Sir John French, in command of the English forces. Also they had won the respect and admiration of General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief.
As related in the third book of this series, "The Boy Allies with the Cossacks," Hal and Chester had seen active service under the Russian Bear in the eastern theater of war. They fought in the midst of the Russian forces and were among the troop of 60,000 that made the first wild dash over the Carpathians to the plains of Hungary.
Returning to the western war area with despatches from the Grand Duke Nicholas to the French commander-in-chief, they had again taken up their duties with the British army. As related in "The Boy Allies in the Trenches," they had been instrumental in defeating more than one German coup, and it was through them, also, that a plot to assassinate President Poincar had failed.
Both lads were about the same age. Large and strong, they were proficient in the use of their fists and of the art of swordsmanship, and were entirely familiar with firearms. Another thing that stood them in good stead was the fact that both spoke French and German fluently. Also, each had a smattering of Italian.
Following their coup in saving the French president from the hands of traitorous Apaches in Paris, Hal and Chester had come to Rome with their mothers, whom they had found in Paris, and Chester's uncle. They had not come without protest, for both had been eager to get back to the firing line, but their mothers' entreaties had finally prevailed. As Chester's Uncle John had said, "This is none of our war. Your place, boys, is with your mothers."
Chester and Hal had sought consent to rejoin the army in vain. Neither Mrs. Paine nor Mrs. Crawford would hear of such a thing. So at last they agreed to return home. First, however, at Uncle John's suggestion, the party decided to stop in Rome.
"Italy is still a sane and peaceable country," Uncle John had said.
Naturally the lads had been greatly interested in the war demonstrations in Rome. Uncle John, who at first had "pooh-poohed" the prospect of Italy's entering the war, finally had been convinced that such a course was only a matter of time. Mrs. Paine and Mrs. Crawford, realizing how greatly interested their sons were becoming, immediately decided to return to America. They feared that some harm would come to Hal and Chester—feared that the boys might be drawn into trouble again—for they both knew their dispositions not to shirk danger.
The war situation at this time was anything but favorable to the Allies. Along the great western battle line, stretching out from the North Sea far to the south, the mighty armies were gripped in a deadlock. Occasional advances would be made by both sides and retreats would follow.
Having pushed the invader back from the very walls of Paris soon after the outbreak of hostilities, the French had shoved him across the Aisne and then across the Marne. But here the allied offensive halted. Grand assaults and heroic charges proved ineffectual. The Kaiser's troops were strongly intrenched and could not be dislodged. On their side, the Allies' positions were equally impregnable and repeated assaults by the enemy had failed to shake their lines.
In the eastern theater of war the Russians, at this moment, were meeting with some success. Several large Austrian strongholds had been captured after the bloodiest fighting of the war, and it was believed that it would only be a question of a few weeks until the Russian Grand Duke would develop his long-expected invasion of Hungary.
In the north of the eastern war arena, also, the Russians had met with some success, Poland had been invaded, and around Warsaw the great German drive had been checked. The sea was still free of German ships, with the exception of the submarines which still continued to prey upon all commerce, neutral as well as Allies'.
The situation in the Balkan states remained unchanged. It was hoped that the Balkan countries would rally to the support of the Allies, and thus form an iron ring about the Germanic powers, but this matter was no nearer a successful issue than it had been months before. However, diplomats of both sides were still busy in the Balkans, and each hoped to gain their support.
But for the last few weeks all eyes had been turned toward Italy. A member of the Austro-German Triple Alliance at the beginning of the war, Italy had refused to support a war of aggression by the Kaiser and had severed her connection with the Alliance. She had announced that she would remain neutral.
At length, however, matters reached such a pass that Italy realized she must cast her lot with the Allies. She knew that should the Germans emerge from the war victorious she had all to lose and nothing to gain. The first act of the successful German army would be to crush her. Besides, there had always been antagonism between Austria and Italy, and the drawing of Italy into the Triple Alliance in the first place was considered an act of trickery. Austria and Italy could have nothing in common.
The people of Italy demanded that she throw her military as well as her moral support to the Allies. The matter had been threshed out in the Chamber of Deputies. Wild anti-German and anti-Austrian demonstrations were almost daily occurrences in the streets of Rome and other of the larger Italian cities. The people wanted war. Here was the one country of all the powers engaged in the mighty conflict that could truthfully say: "This is a popular war."
At the instigation of the Kaiser, Austria had agreed to make many concessions to Italy in return for her neutrality. She agreed to almost anything. But the Italian government was not fooled. Austria would yield anything at the present time, and then, with the aid of her powerful ally, Germany, at the close of the war, take it away from Italy again.
So the Italian people and the Italian government decided upon war on the side of the Allies. Millions of trained fighting men, fresh from the rigors of the recent Turkish war, were ready to take the field at almost a moment's notice. The reserves had already been ordered to the colors. The Italian fleet was ready for action.
There was now no question that Italy would enter the war. The chief topic of interest was as to where she would strike first. Would she send an army to join the French and British troops recently landed on the Gallipoli peninsula and a portion of her fleet to help force the Dardanelles, or would she strike first at Austria, and if so, would the first blow be delivered by her fleet in the Adriatic, or to the north, upon the border, and through the Alps?
The Chamber of Deputies had been in continuous session now for almost two days. It was known that upon the result of this conference hinged the issue, peace or war. The chamber was still in session, but the Premier had left and sought King Victor Emmanuel at the palace for a consultation.
News of this kind travels quickly. The great mob which had assembled outside the Chamber of Deputies wended its way to the palace, where it stood awaiting some word of what action was to be taken. The people knew that the answer would not be long coming.
Hal Paine and Chester Crawford were standing in the midst of this crowd when this story opens. They had just left their mothers and Uncle John at their hotel, announcing that they would get the latest war news. The two women had offered no objection, but Uncle John had instructed them:
"Don't be gone long, boys. Remember we leave in the morning, and we expect you to do your share of the packing."
So the two lads had strolled out and joined the crowd.
When they had decided to return to America, each lad had carefully packed his British uniform, so they were now in civilian clothes. This was a matter of some regret to them, for they had been proud of their uniforms, and not without cause, and even as they walked along to-day Chester had remarked:
"We should have our uniforms on, Hal."
"Why?" demanded the latter.
"Well, just look at all these Italian officers. It makes me feel lonesome to be without my uniform."
"By Jove! it does at that," he agreed. "I can sympathize with the soldier who has such an absolute disgust for a civilian. You know there is no love lost between them."
"Right! Well, I wish I had my uniform on."
"It's a good thing you haven't, I guess. That warlike spirit of yours might get us in trouble. Every time I look at mine, I want to run back to the front instead of going home."
"It is pretty tough," agreed Chester.
"You bet it is. But what else could we do? We must please our mothers, you know."
"I suppose you're right. But just the same, several times I have had a notion to disappear."
"The same thought struck me, too; but we gave our promise, you know."
Chester shrugged his shoulders.
"It can't be helped now," he said.
"Maybe we'll have a little war of our own some day," said Hal. "Then they'll have to let us fight."
"That would be too good to be true," was Chester's reply.
It was just at the end of this conversation that the lads had joined the crowd before the palace, and Chester had made the remark that opens this story.
Hal sat up and passed his right hand gently over his head.
"Quite a bump," he muttered to himself. "What a fool I was not to have been prepared for that ruse. Well, I'll know better next time."
The lad pulled himself to his feet and gazed in the direction in which the other had disappeared. He made as if to move after him, and then changed his mind.
"Not much chance of finding him now, I guess," he muttered.
He turned on his heel, and then, for the first time, his eyes fell upon Chester's prostrate form.
"So he got you, too, eh?" he said to himself.
He hurried forward and bent over his chum. At the same moment Chester opened his eyes and smiled up at him feebly.
"Hello," he said; "where's our friend?"
"Gone," replied Hal briefly, raising Chester's head to his knee. "How do you feel?"
"A little rocky, and that's a fact," was the reply.
"What did he bump you over with—gun?"
"I don't see any marks."
"I feel 'em," said Chester, rubbing his chin ruefully. "He landed an uppercut that was a beauty."
"I am glad you are well enough to appreciate it," said Hal, with a slight smile. "He was big enough to have put you out for keeps."
"I'm not to be gotten rid of so easily," returned Chester. "Help me up."
Hal lent a supporting hand and Chester struggled to his feet.
"Dizzy?" queried Hal.
"A little," was the reply. "I'll be all right in a minute, though."
He shook his head several times and at last appeared to have gotten rid of the effects of the blow. He threw off Hal's hand.
"Well, what now?" he asked.
"I hate to see that fellow get away," he said finally. "He probably has stolen important information."
"I guess there is not much doubt of that," replied Chester, "but Rome is a pretty sizeable town. A slim chance we have of finding him."
"I'd know him if I see him," said Hal
"So will I. Did you notice the scar across his face?"
"Yes; that's why I say I would know him any place. What do you suppose it was he stole?"
"A paper of some kind; I saw that. Probably has to do with troop movements or something of the sort. You remember he stole it from an army officer."
"Yes; which reminds me that he also disposed of said army officer without much trouble. The last I saw of him he was floundering about on the ground in the midst of the crowd."
"Let's go back and have a look for him."
"Good; come on."
The boys turned and retraced their steps. Rounding a corner they came again within sight of the palace.
"Crowd still there," Hal commented briefly.
It was true. The crowd seemed to have grown rather than to have diminished.
"Something must have happened while we were gone," said Chester. "Hear them yell."
"I guess it means war," was Hal's quiet response. "Well, I'm glad."
"And so am I. This German business should be settled without much trouble now."
"Don't you believe it. The Kaiser is good for a long, hard fight yet."
They pushed their way through the crowd. Suddenly they came to a stop, their further progress being barred by a solid mass of humanity directly in front of them, Hal took Chester by the arm.
"Let's see what is going on here," he said.
By dint of hard pushing and shoving they worked their way gradually through the crowd.
"As I live, it's our friend the army officer," ejaculated Hal.
"So it is," agreed Chester, "and he seems to be rather excited. Look at him waving his arms about."
Surrounded by a curious crowd, the officer referred to was declaiming eloquently. It was plain from the attitude of the crowd, however, that he wasn't making himself plain.
"He's too excited to talk coherently," said Hal. "Maybe we can help him out a bit. Let's get through the rest of this gang."
He put his elbows in front of him, and closely followed by Chester, threw his weight upon the mass of humanity in front. The crowd parted, and the lads pushed their way through, unheeding the protests their rough methods called forth. They stopped beside the still excited officer.
"Signor—" began Hal, but the officer paid no attention to him, and continued to wave his arms violently about.
"You can't get his attention that way," said Chester. "Let me try."
He grasped the Italian officer roughly by the arm and whirled him about.
Immediately the latter's arms ceased their violent gesticulations and he turned an angry face upon Chester.
"How dare you lay your hands upon an officer of the king?" he demanded in a harsh voice.
His hand dropped to his holster.
"Here! Here!" exclaimed Hal. "Hold your horses now and don't get excited. We've come to tell you something about that paper you lost."
"Ah!" cried the Italian. "So you have it, eh? Give it to me!"
He held out a hand expectantly.
"No, we haven't it," replied Hal, "but—"
"Give me the paper!" cried the officer, his voice becoming shrill with anger.
"I tell you we haven't the paper," said Hal.
"That's a lie!" shouted the Italian. "You knocked me down and stole the paper."
He clutched Hal by the arm.
"Let go of me," said the lad angrily. "We are trying to help you and—"
The Italian officer now suddenly drew his revolver, and pointed it squarely at Hal.
"Give me the paper or I shall shoot," he said more quietly.
He staggered suddenly backward and the revolver dropped to the ground with a clatter. The Italian wheeled and confronted the angry face of Chester, who had struck up the weapon.
"What's the matter with you? Can't you see we are trying to help you?" demanded Chester.
At this point there came a diversion. Members of the crowd who had witnessed the dispute between the officer and the two lads suddenly set up a cry of "spies."
Others behind them took it up.
"Spies! Spies!" a hundred voices rang out.
The crowd surged in about them.
Hal gave one quick look about, and then said quietly to Chester:
"We are in for it now, old man. We'll have to make a break for it."
"All right," said Chester grimly. "Lead the way."
Once more the Italian officer stretched forth a detaining hand, but this time Hal wasted no time in explanation. He struck out straight from the shoulder, and the officer toppled to the ground.
"Second fall for him to-day," muttered Hal between his teeth.
He felt Chester's arm press his elbow.
"Come on," he said.
Side by side the lads stepped forward in the very faces of the mob that barred their path, and for a moment the crowd gave back. Then one man, bolder than the rest, sprang forward and sought to clutch Chester's arm. The lad's fist met him half way and he dropped silently to the ground.
An angry roar went up from the crowd.
Chester's hand dropped to his pocket. Hal perceived the motion and cried out:
"No guns, Chester!"
Chester realized the soundness of the warning and his revolver remained where it was.
Two of the crowd sprang forward together, but Hal and Chester, with their greater strength and reach, disposed of them easily. A blow from behind landed on Chester's neck and he staggered forward. He recovered himself in a moment, however, and shouted.
"Rush 'em, Hal!"
The latter also realized that to stand still and fight gave the crowd behind too great an opening and he obeyed Chester's injunction. At the same moment both sprang forward, and the crowd opened before them.
Straight ahead they went, striking out right and left, but rushing forward as fast as possible all the time. Men fell on both sides of them beneath their heavy blows, and so far neither lad had received a severe jolt.
At that moment, however, Hal felt a keen pain in his left arm. He glanced down curiously and saw a tiny stream of red spout forth. His lips set in a thin line.
"Guns, Chester," he said quietly, halting in his tracks. "They are using knives."
"Good," said Chester, also halting. "Back to back."
The lads whipped out their automatics simultaneously, and, back to back, confronted the crowd. Hal spoke.
"We are not spies," he shouted, "but we are not going to be killed without a fight. We are British army officers. Stand back!"
Before the threatening muzzles of the two automatics the crowd hesitated. Then, from directly ahead of Chester, a shot rang out. The lad heard something whiz past his head, and from beyond came a cry of pain.
"Shot one of his own number," muttered the lad.
His finger tightened on the trigger as he saw a man about to leap forward regardless of the automatic.
"I'm going to shoot, Hal," he called.
"I guess it can't be helped," replied the lad quietly. "When I give the word turn loose on 'em, and then we'll make another break."
He hesitated a single instant and then called:
"Ready!" came the reply.
"Then—" began Hal, and suddenly cried, "Wait!"
For at that moment the crowd in front of him suddenly began to scatter, and from beyond Hal made out a troop of Italian cavalry bearing down on them with drawn sabers. Hal lowered his weapon and called out:
"It's all right, Chester!"
AN OLD FRIEND.
"What's the meaning of this?" demanded an officer, pulling in his horse beside the two lads, while his troop gave their attention to driving back the crowd, which gave ground slowly.
"We were attacked by the crowd, captain," Hal explained.
"Why?" asked the officer.
"We were accused of being spies."
"By an Italian army officer back there," replied Hal, making a gesture with his hand.
"Here he comes now," interrupted Chester.
The man who had caused all the trouble now came pompously forward. At sight of him, the mounted officer sprang from the saddle and came to attention.
"What is the matter, sir?" he asked.
"Arrest these two," said his superior, pointing to Hal and Chester. "They are spies, and they knocked me down."
The Italian captain motioned to half a dozen of his men. He also pointed to the two lads.
"Arrest them," he said quietly.
The men surrounded the lads.
"But—" began Chester.
"No words," said the officer. "Take them before General Ferrari," he ordered his men.
He motioned to the commander of the troop to accompany them.
"I shall be there to make the charge against them," he said.
The young officer saluted.
"Very well, sir," he replied. He turned to the lads. "March," he ordered.
There was no help for it, as the lads realized in a moment. Accordingly they made no further protests and marched off, surrounded on all sides.
As they walked along the street there came a new diversion. A man came hurrying toward them. Hal and Chester recognized him in an instant.
"Uncle John!" cried Chester.
He glanced at Hal and smiled sheepishly.
"We seem always to be in trouble when he appears," said Chester with a slight smile.
Uncle John addressed the officer in command of the squad.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"The meaning of what, sir?" asked the officer respectfully, for he was impressed by Uncle John's manner.
"What are you doing with these two lads?"
"They are under arrest, sir."
"What!" ejaculated Uncle John. "Under arrest, and what for?"
"They are spies."
"Spies!" The good man staggered back. He forced a smile. "You are joking with me," he said.
The Italian officer drew himself up.
"I never joke of serious matters," he said quietly. "But what interest have you in these prisoners?"
"Well, I have considerable interest," was the reply. "One of them happens to be my nephew. What have they been doing?"
"I couldn't say as to that. All I know is that they are spies."
"You're crazy," shouted Uncle John, now becoming angry. "They are British army officers, and American citizens."
The young officer drew himself up.
"Crazy, am I?" he demanded. "March!" he ordered his men.
"Here, hold on a minute," gasped Uncle John. "I didn't mean to ruffle your feelings; but one of those boys is my nephew. I tell you they are British officers."
"I trust they will be able to prove it," said the Italian.
"What?" demanded Uncle John. "Why?"
"Because," replied the officer with a pleasant smile, "they probably will be shot if they don't."
"Shot!" gasped Uncle John.
"Exactly. That is the usual treatment accorded spies."
"But I tell you—"
"You can tell the rest to General Ferrari," said the Italian officer. "Forward, men."
Uncle John was brushed unceremoniously aside in spite of his protests, and the lads were led away.
"Don't worry, Uncle John," Chester called back to him. "We'll get out of this all right. Tell mother to have no fear."
"I'll see the ambassador!" shouted Uncle John. "I'll get you out of this. I'll show these confounded Italians they are not half as big as Uncle Sam."
"Poor old Uncle John," said Chester to Hal. "He does get excited so easily. I'll bet the ambassador is due for an unpleasant half hour."
"I'd give a whole lot to be there to hear what transpires," agreed Hal.
In front of a large and imposing building the Italian officer called a halt; and a few minutes later ordered the prisoners up the steps.
"Where are we going?" demanded Hal.
"You'll find out soon enough," was the reply.
"You're very civil and courteous, to be sure," said Hal.
"I can see no reason for being courteous to a spy," replied the officer.
"Perhaps not," returned the lad; "but when we are out of this I believe I shall hunt you up and pull your nose."
"What!" exclaimed the officer, stepping back. "Pull my nose! Such American impudence! I have a notion to pull your nose right here."
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Chester, grinning.
"And what have you to say about it?" exclaimed the now angry officer.
"Oh, nothing," replied Chester. "Just a kindly word of warning; that's all."
The officer stared at both lads angrily, as they stood at the top of the steps, and seemed about to say more, when a second officer appeared in the doorway and motioned for all to enter.
"Move on there," said the first officer angrily.
The lads obeyed without replying.
Inside the building they were led through a long corridor, and thence to a room which they were motioned to enter. Inside stood a tall, stout man attired in full military uniform.
"General Ferrari, I guess," Chester whispered to his friend.
Hal nodded in assent. It was indeed General Ferrari, and he came forward.
"What have we here?" he demanded, addressing the officer.
"Spies, sir," was the reply.
"Where did you find them?"
The officer explained.
"So Colonel Fuesco found them, eh? You say they stole an important document from him?"
"Yes, sir, and the colonel will be here directly, sir."
"Good, you may go. Leave a guard outside the door."
The officer saluted and took his departure, casting a sneering glance at the two lads.
"Sit down," commanded the general.
The lads obeyed, and the general took a seat at a huge desk at the far end of the room and immediately plunged into a mass of correspondence. For half an hour he was busy with his letters and paid no attention to the boys. The latter also sat silently.
An orderly entered the room and announced:
"Colonel Fuesco, sir."
"Show him in," said the general.
A moment later and the colonel came blustering in. He gazed angrily at the two lads and spoke to General Ferrari in a whisper. Then both turned upon the lads.
"Have you the paper?" demanded the general.
"No, sir," replied Hal. "We never had it in the first place. Will you allow me to explain, sir?"
"Proceed," said the general.
"First," said Hal, "I would inform your excellency that we are officers in the British army, having recently come from France."
He then went ahead with the story of how they had seen Colonel Fuesco relieved of his papers before the palace a short time ago. At the conclusion of the story the colonel sniffed audibly.
"A likely tale," he sneered.
"Silence, colonel," said the general sharply. "I shall go at this matter in my own way. Can you prove your identity?" he asked of Hal.
"With time, yes," was the reply.
At this moment the orderly again entered the room.
"The officer you were expecting, sir," he said to General Ferrari.
"Have him enter," said the general, and the orderly saluted and disappeared.
"There can be no doubt that these are spies, sir," said Colonel Fuesco.
Chester became suddenly angry.
"That's a lie," he said flatly.
"What!" exclaimed the doughty colonel. "You call me a liar?"
Before General Ferrari or Hal could move to stay him, he stepped close to Chester and struck him in the face.
Hal, knowing Chester's quick temper, became alarmed and cried out sharply:
"Don't hit him, Chester."
But he spoke too late. The blow aroused Chester's fighting blood and he took no thought of consequences. His right fist shot out sharply, and struck squarely upon the nose, the colonel reeled back and fell to the floor.
He was up in a moment, however, and in spite of his commander's sharp order, closed with Chester. The two rocked back and forth, as Hal and General Ferrari sought to separate them.
And at this moment a newcomer entered the room. He was a young man, thin and tall, and his face showed the marks of hard service. He was attired in the uniform of a French major. He, too, took a hand in attempting to separate the combatants.
As the five struggled about, Hal caught a glimpse of the newcomer's face, and he gave a cry of wonder, uttering a name that caused Chester to release his hold upon the Italian officer and step back in surprise and pleasure.
"Major Derevaux!" exclaimed Hal.
A NEW RECRUIT.
The French officer also stepped back in surprise, for until that moment he had not had time to glance at the two lads. He, too, gave vent to an exclamation of pleasure and held out both hands.
"Hal! Chester!" he cried.
Each lad seized upon a hand and wrung it heartily. General Ferrari and Colonel Fuesco stood back and eyed them curiously. Finally the general spoke to the Frenchman.
"You know these boys?" he asked.
"Know them!" repeated Major Derevaux. "Well, I should say I do. They are Lieutenants Paine and Crawford, of His British majesty's service, sir."
"Then they are not German or Austrian spies?"
"What! These lads German spies! If you but knew of what invaluable service they have been to the cause of the Allies, you would be proud to shake hands with them. Why, let me tell you," and forgetting all other matters for the moment, Major Derevaux plunged into an account of the boys' triumphs since joining the allied forces.
At the conclusion of this recital, General Ferrari extended a hand to each of the boys.
"I am indeed glad to know two such gallant lads," he said. "I felt sure when I first saw you that there must be some mistake in your cases."
"But they stole my paper!" cried Colonel Fuesco.
"That is not true," said Major Derevaux. "I can vouch for their loyalty."
"But who can vouch for you?" demanded the colonel. "How is General Ferrari to know that you, too, are not a spy, coming to him with false credentials?"
"I can answer that question," replied the general. "As it happens, I have known Major Derevaux for years. He has often visited at my home, he and his parents. You owe these lads an apology, colonel."
"He knocked me down," replied the colonel, pointing to Chester.
"So he did," said the general, "and you deserved it."
Chester now approached the colonel and extended a hand.
"I bear you no ill will," he said.
The officer glanced at him searchingly for a moment, and then took the hand.
"I have done you and your friend an injustice," he said. "I am sorry."
"Say no more about it," replied Chester.
Colonel Fuesco also shook hands with Hal.
"But what of my paper?" he demanded of the general.
"I can give you a description of the man who took it," said Hal, and did so. When he mentioned that the man had a scar on his face, the two Italian officers uttered a cry.
"Hans Robard!" they exclaimed.
"You know him, then?" asked Chester.
"Rather," said the general dryly. "He is an Austrian, and attached to the Austrian embassy here. Of course there has as yet been no formal declaration of war between Italy and Austria, but it has been known for days that war was sure to come. Colonel Fuesco here has been entrusted with important documents relating to troop movements, and it is this document that Robard has stolen. It must be recovered."
"We are willing to help all we can," said Chester. "With a little forethought we should have been able to recover it ourselves. Robard made monkeys of us."
"He made a monkey of me, too," said the colonel ruefully.
"The thing to be done," said Chester, "is to get track of him."
"That's easy enough," was the reply. "He can be found at the embassy; but he will deny that he has the paper. Also, we cannot arrest him. Being a member of a foreign embassy, in times of peace he is immune from arrest."
"And he will take the paper with him when he leaves Italy," said Major Derevaux.
"It was stolen once," said Hal thoughtfully. "Why cannot it be stolen again?"
"What do you mean?" asked Colonel Fuesco.
"Just what I say. Robard stole the document from you. Some one must recover it from Robard without his knowledge."
"An excellent idea!" exclaimed General Ferrari. "But who will do this work?"
"We shall be glad to undertake it, your excellency," said Hal.
"You! But you are so young for such a piece of work."
"Don't you believe it, general," Major Derevaux interrupted. "If the papers can be recovered, these lads can get them. You could not put the mission in better hands."
"But the danger—"
"We have been in danger before, sir," said Chester quietly.
The general considered a moment, and then brought a hand down on his desk with tremendous force.
"So be it!" he exclaimed. "And if you are successful, Italy will know how to reward you."
"We seek no reward, sir," said Hal quietly. "Then we are at liberty to go now, sir?"
"Yes. I shall not hamper you with instructions."
"All we wish to know, sir," said Hal, "is whether Robard still is at the Austrian embassy."
"He is," was the reply, "and will be until some time to-morrow, when the ambassador will be given his passports."
"Can I be of any assistance?" asked Colonel Fuesco, stepping forward.
"If you can, we shall call on you," replied Hal.
"Good," said the colonel, and, drawing out a card, he scribbled an address on it. "You will find me there," he said. "I shall remain at my quarters in the hopes that I may be given a hand in the game."
The lads shook hands with the general and walked to the door.
"Wait a moment, boys," said Major Derevaux. "I want a few words with the general, and then I shall be at liberty to go with you."
"If it is all the same to you, Major Derevaux," said the general, "I would prefer to postpone our conference until this evening. I have several matters that require my immediate attention."
Major Derevaux accepted this postponement graciously, and announced that he would accompany the boys at once. As they would have passed out, the general's orderly once more entered the room.
"The American ambassador is without, sir," he said, "and demands an immediate interview with you."
General Ferrari turned to Colonel Fuesco.
"You see what trouble you have brought down on my head," he said, with a smile. "I won't bother to see the ambassador now," he said to his orderly. "I shall send these lads to greet him."
In response to these words, Hal and Chester, accompanied by Major Derevaux and Colonel Fuesco, made their way from the room. In the corridor they encountered the American ambassador and Uncle John. The latter was walking back and forth nervously and muttering angrily to himself.
"Here we are, Uncle John," said Chester.
Uncle John jumped as though he had been shot, for he had not perceived their approach.
"You young rascals," he exclaimed, "so you have been released, eh?"
"Yes," said Chester quickly, "we have been released providing we can really apprehend the man who is the spy."
"What do you mean?" asked Uncle John anxiously.
Hal followed Chester's lead, for he wished no obstacle to be put in their path.
"If we can catch the spy, we shall be permitted to go free," he said,
"I see," said Uncle John. "But I can't see that spy-catching is any of your business."
"Well, we have promised to do the best we can," said Chester.
"In that case, I have nothing to say," said Uncle John. "But remember we are due to sail for home to-morrow."
"Oh, we can wait over for the next ship," said Chester.
"Perhaps," said Uncle John, with a twinkle in his eye. "We shall see what your mothers have to say about that."
Hal now bethought himself to introduce Uncle John to his friends. This accomplished, the American ambassador announced that he would be moving, and took his departure. The others Uncle John invited to have lunch with him in a nearby hotel.
Over the table, Hal asked Major Derevaux what he was doing in Rome.
"I don't know as it is my secret now," replied the major. "I am here with a despatch from General Joffre. I cannot say exactly what the despatch contains, but at a guess I would say it has to do with the entrance of Italy into the war, and plans for a possible simultaneous advance between all the troops opposed to the Austro-German army."
"I see," said Hal. "That would be a great thing. I wish we were going back to the front with you."
"Well, you're not," said Uncle John briefly.
"We won't argue about it," said Chester, smiling. "But you never can tell what will happen."
Uncle John changed the subject abruptly. When the conversation reached this stage he always felt uncomfortable.
"When are you going to start spy-hunting?" he asked.
Chester looked at Hal.
"What do you think?" he inquired.
"Well, I should say not until to-night," replied Hal. "I don't believe we could do much good in the day time."
"My idea exactly," agreed Chester. "We may have to make a few preparations."
"I would like to go with you boys," said Major Derevaux, "but I fear it will be impossible. I must return immediately I have had my interview with General Ferrari."
Uncle John had been sitting silent during all this conversation, but now he straightened in his chair and brought his fist down on the table with a bang.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "All this talk makes me feel young again. What's the matter with my joining this expedition?"
The two lads gazed at him in wonder. Uncle John saw the amazement written on their features.
"I mean it," he continued. "I want a hand in this game myself. Here, waiter, check!" he called.
He paid the check and rose from the table.
"You wait here for me," he instructed the boys.
"Where are you going?" asked Chester.
"Going to buy a gun," replied Uncle John; "going to outfit myself to join the spy-hunters."
He stalked from the room.
ON THE TRAIL.
The stars were shining when Hal and Chester, accompanied by Uncle John, made their way from the hotel toward the Austrian legation. Uncle John was chuckling to himself as he walked between his two younger companions.
"What is so funny, Uncle John?" asked Chester.
"I was just thinking what your mothers would say if they knew where we were going," was the reply; "particularly if they knew where I was going. I guess they think I am too old for this foolishness, but I tell you, a man likes to be young again."
"What did you tell mother? Where did you say we were going?" asked Hal.
"I told her we were going out—I didn't say where," was the answer. "I'm something of a strategist myself, you know."
"I see you are," replied Chester.
"Now I want you boys to understand that I am under your orders," said Uncle John. "You are older heads at this game than I am. I am willing to obey orders."
"Which is the first essential of every good soldier," said Chester quietly.
"By the way," said Uncle John, patting his pocket, "this is the first time I have had a gun in my hands for a good many years. However, I used to be able to hit the side of a barn. I guess I haven't forgotten. Do you think we shall have to do any shooting?"
"I hope not," said Hal, "but you never can tell."
Uncle John lapsed into silence and the three made their way along slowly. The hour was early, and, as Hal had said, there was no rush.
"Have you formed any definite plan?" asked Chester of Hal, as they walked along.
"Well, no," was the reply. "We shall have to let events shape themselves."
"Which is the best plan, after all," said Chester.
An hour's walk brought them to the embassy building.
"The first thing," said Hal, "is to find out if Robard is in."
"And how are you going to do that?" asked Uncle John.
"Simple," replied Hal. "I'll go up and ask."
He approached the door and rang the bell. A servant opened the door.
"Is Herr Robard in?" asked Hal in perfect German.
The man shook his head.
"I have an important message for him," said Hal. "When shall I find him in?"
The servant glanced at him sharply, then leaned close.
"Are you the messenger Herr Robard expects?" he asked, in a low voice.
Hal glanced sharply about him, more for effect than anything else, and replied, speaking softly:
"From the Wilhelmstrasse."
"Good," said the man, nodding his pleasure. "I am instructed to tell you to come back at a little before ten o'clock."
"Will Herr Robard be here then?"
"Possibly not, but you can wait."
"I shall be here," said Hal, and walked down the steps.
He rejoined Chester and Uncle John, who had waited around the corner.
"I was beginning to fear something had happened to you," said Uncle John.
"What luck?" demanded Chester.
"Better than could be expected," said Hal, and repeated the conversation with the servant.
"And who do you suppose this messenger is?" asked Chester.
"A German secret agent," replied Hal decidedly.
"That was the first thought that flashed through my head when he asked me who I was, which is the reason I took a long chance and mentioned the Wilhelmstrasse."
"You seem to have hit the nail on the head," said Chester.
"Which was luck," said Hal.
"Or quick wit," interposed Uncle John.
"Well," said Chester, "what next? And what are we to do while you are in the house? Surely you are not expecting that we shall all be admitted?"
"No," replied Hal, "and my plan is this: I shall reach the house somewhat earlier than the time set, moving up my watch to avoid suspicion should anything be said. Thus I shall make sure that Robard has not returned. I shall wait.
"Now, when the servant leaves the room, I shall, in some manner, raise the window facing the spot where you stood while I went up to the door a moment ago. Then you and Uncle John can come in. Of course, I may not be left in that particular room to wait, but I shall manage some way. I'll cover your entrance with my gun."
"Good," said Chester, "but then what? Will you try to take the papers forcibly or by stealth?"
"Whichever way seems the most likely to succeed," said Hal briefly. "Something must be left to chance."
"Well," said Chester, "we may as well return to the hotel for a couple of hours. It's early yet."
"Not much," said Uncle John. "I don't want to have to answer any questions. Not me. Let's go some place else."
"We'll walk about, then," Hal decided.
This was done.
At fifteen minutes to ten o'clock Hal once more mounted the steps to the Austrian embassy. Chester and Uncle John took their places at the spot agreed upon, and waited.
The same servant opened the door for Hal.
"You are early," he said, somewhat suspiciously it seemed to Hal.
"Why, no," replied the lad, manifesting surprise. "I am on the dot, as I always am. Ten o'clock."
"But it is not ten yet," said the man.
Hal drew out his watch and looked at it.
"Ten to the minute," he said, and held it up so the man could see.
"Your watch is wrong," was the reply. "However, I suppose it makes no difference. Come in."
He held the door open while Hal entered, then closed it.
"This way," he said, and led the way down the hall. Fortunately, he turned into a room facing upon the street where Chester and Uncle John waited without, though it was the room beyond the one beneath the window of which they stood. But, Hal noticed, there was a door between the two rooms.
"Ought to be easy enough," he told himself.
"You can wait here for Herr Robard," said the servant, and moved to withdraw.
"This is the Herr Robard's private office, I take it," said Hal.
"You are wrong," was the reply. "His office is just across the hall. But no one is allowed to enter there unless the Herr is with him, and the door is always locked."
"I see," said Hal, mentally thanking the man for the information, which had come a great deal easier than he had expected. "The Herr is a careful man. It is as it should be."
"You can make yourself at home here until he comes," said the servant. "There are magazines and books. I have other matters to attend to."
"All right," said Hal, for he now wished to get rid of the man without more loss of time; he had gained all the information he could hope for without laying himself open to suspicion.
The man withdrew. Hal glanced at his watch.
"Ten-five," he muttered. "That means ten minutes to ten. Robard may come sooner than expected. I must hurry."
Quietly he arose and silently crossed the room. He tried the knob to the door of the next room. The door was locked. He glanced down. There was a key in the lock, and it turned easily. Hal unlocked the door and passed into the room beyond.
Quickly he crossed to the window, and then paused a moment, listening attentively. There was no sound. Unfastening the catch, the lad raised the window gently. It went up without so much as a sound. Hal poked his head out, and called in a low voice:
He stepped back and drew his revolver and took his place in the shadow, commanding a view of both doors to the room.
He heard faint sounds without, and concluded rightly that Chester was giving Uncle John a hand up. A moment later Uncle John's head appeared at the window, and he clambered into the room. He was unable to see Hal in the darkness and called:
"Where are you, Hal?"
"Sh—h—h!" whispered Hal. "Come over here."
Uncle John obeyed silently.
There came a whistle from without. Hal recognized it as that of Chester. He hurried to the window and peered out.
"What's the matter?" he called.
"The window is too high, I can't reach the sill," was the reply. "Give me a hand."
Hal started to lay down his gun and lend a hand, but thought better of it. He called to Uncle John.
"Help Chester up," he whispered, and again took his position guarding the doors, with drawn revolver.
Uncle John approached the window and leaned out. He seized Chester's uplifted hand, and pulled. A moment later Chester came scrambling through the window.
"A pretty good climb, if you ask me," he said.
At that moment the door from the hall was thrown open, and a man appeared in the doorway. In his hand he held a revolver, which he pointed straight at Uncle John and Chester, who stood in plain sight before the window.
"Hands up!" he called.
There was nothing for it but to obey. Uncle John's and Chester's hands went high in the air.
Hal, well back from the light which streamed through the open door and the window, slunk further back in the darkness. He was unnoticed, and he knew that he held the whip hand.
"So," said the man in the doorway, "burglars, eh? Well, I shall attend to your cases."
With revolver levelled in a steady hand he advanced further into the room.
UNCLE JOHN IN TROUBLE.
A few paces in front of Chester and Uncle John the newcomer paused.
"Armed?" he asked.
Chester made no reply. Uncle John remained silent.
"We'll see," said the newcomer briefly.
Still covering them with his weapon, he put his free hand in Chester's pocket and relieved the lad of his revolver. A similar operation and Uncle John's gun came forth. Uncle John could keep quiet no longer.
"There goes my gun," he said sorrowfully.
In spite of the seriousness of the situation Chester was forced to laugh.
"Don't worry; you'll get it back," he replied.
"You think so, eh?" sneered the newcomer. "Tell me," addressing Chester, "what are you doing here?"
"That's for you to find out," replied the lad.
"Well, I'll find out," exclaimed the man. "Do you know who I am?"
"Why, yes; your name is Robard, isn't it?"
The other stepped back in surprise.
"So you know me, eh!" he exclaimed. "Then you are not burglars."
"Hardly," replied Chester.
"Then what are you doing here?"
"I can't see that it will do any harm to tell you," was Chester's answer. "We are after the paper you stole from Colonel Fuesco to-day."
"Oho! And by any chance are you the same youngster I encountered in the street?"
"The same," replied Chester briefly.
"And where is the other? Surely," peering closely at Uncle John, "you are not he. He was younger."
"Right you are," replied Uncle John. "But I guess he'll turn up when he is most needed."
"You think so? Then he had better turn up quickly." He turned again to Chester. "So you came after the paper," he said. "I am very sorry to say that you will not get it."
"Then you have sent it to Vienna," said Chester, somewhat crestfallen.
"Oh, no, I still have it right here," and Robard tapped the breast pocket of his coat.
"Thanks," said Chester. "I just wanted to know where you kept it."
"I suppose you think you are very smart," said the Austrian, somewhat angry at having betrayed himself.
"Smart enough, I guess," returned Chester.
"Come, I have had enough of this," exclaimed the Austrian. "Hold your hands up now, and march out of this room ahead of me."
He waved his revolver from one to the other, and stepped aside that the two might pass ahead of him. Uncle John and Chester obeyed his injunction and moved toward the door. The Austrian took a step after them.
It was at this moment that Hal came into action.
With a sudden spring he leaped upon the Austrian from behind. With one hand he seized the wrist that held the revolver, and turned it upward. With the other he clutched the man by the throat, shutting off his wind and preventing him from crying out. Hal called to Chester:
Chester and Uncle John wheeled about and lent a hand in subduing the Austrian. Three against one, it was easy work, and after a short struggle Robard lay panting on the floor. Hal drew his own revolver and covered him.
"One move and you are a dead man," he said quietly.
Robard glared up at him angrily. Chester smiled at him pleasantly.
"You see I am smarter than you gave me credit for," he said.
The Austrian made no response.
"He keeps the paper in his pocket, Hal," said Chester.
"So I heard him say," replied Hal.
He bent over the Austrian and thrust a hand into his pocket. He pulled forth a batch of papers, and walking over to the window, ran through them hurriedly.
"Find it?" asked Chester, walking over to him.
Hal extended a paper.
"I guess this is it, all right," he said, and thrust the document into his pocket.
At that moment there came a startled cry from Uncle John, followed by a heavy thud. Hal and Chester wheeled quickly, just in time to see Robard disappearing through the door, which closed after him with a bang. A key turned in the lock. The thud they had heard was Uncle John toppling to the floor as the result of a blow delivered by the Austrian, who, catching Uncle John off his guard, had sprung to his feet and attacked him.
Hal jumped to the door, while Chester bent over Uncle John and assisted him to his feet.
"The scoundrel!" exclaimed Uncle John. "He took me by surprise. He gave me no warning."
"Surely you didn't expect him to," said Chester, somewhat angry.
Hal sprang to Chester's side.
"Quick!" he exclaimed. "We must get out of here. Robard will have assistance in a moment."
"Which way? Out the window?" asked Chester.
"I guess that will be the best way," said Hal. "You first, Uncle John."
The three hurried to the window, and Uncle John put a leg over the sill. As he did so a sharp shot rang out and Uncle John withdrew his leg hurriedly. He tumbled over to the floor, and seizing his foot in his hand, rocked himself back and forward.
"Hit?" asked Chester anxiously.
"I'm afraid so," replied Uncle John, apparently very much frightened.
Chester bent over him.
He looked at the heel of Uncle John's shoe, and then exclaimed.
"Get up. You are all right. The bullet just carried your heel away."
Uncle John rose to his feet.
"Felt like I had been plugged through the leg," he said. "Just the shock, I guess. Well, what now, boys? We can't get out that way."
"We'll have to go through the door, then," said Chester.
He approached and tried the knob.
"It's locked," said Hal. "I tried it a moment ago. However, that's the way we shall have to go out. Stand back a little."
He drew his revolver, put the muzzle to the lock and fired. There was a loud explosion and the room filled with smoke. Hal seized the knob and threw the door open.
"Where are your guns?" he asked Chester hurriedly.
"Robard took them," replied Chester.
"Then they must be in the room. Find them quickly."
Chester looked hurriedly about. At last his eyes lighted upon them, on a little table at the far end of the room, where the Austrian had laid them.
"All right," said Chester, picking them up and passing one to Uncle John. "The sooner we make a start the better."
"Let's go then," said Hal.
He poked his head cautiously out the door and looked down the hall. There was no one in sight.
"Coast clear," he called over his shoulder. "Follow me!"
He sprang into the hall and started for the front door on a dead run. Chester was right behind him, and Uncle John followed close upon Chester's heels.
Hal was just about to seize the knob in his free hand, when it was turned from the outside.
"Back, quick," called the lad. "Some one coming."
He wheeled about as he spoke and the other two did likewise. They had barely regained their retreat when heavy footsteps were heard in the hall.
"This way," called a voice in German.
The footsteps came toward them, stopped before the door a moment, and then passed on.
"Now for another trial," whispered Hal.
Again he poked his head out and saw that the coast was apparently clear.
"Come on!" he cried, and made a second dash for the front door. Chester followed him, as did Uncle John.
This time Hal reached the door without trouble and threw it open. Without pausing, he dashed through it and down the steps. Chester was right behind him. But as Uncle John also would have passed out, there came a shot from behind and he toppled to the floor.
In the excitement neither Chester nor Hal noticed this and they had gone half a block before they discovered that Uncle John was not with them.
"Great Scott! What can have happened to him?" exclaimed Chester.
"Probably got caught," replied Hal.
"Then we must go back after him. Come on."
"Wait a minute," said Hal. "Don't forget this paper we recovered. It must be returned to General Ferrari, Uncle John or no Uncle John."
"But we can't let them kill him!" cried Chester.
"They won't kill him," said Hal positively. "They would be afraid to do that. First I must deliver this paper, and then we shall try to rescue Uncle John. But the paper is first. You know that."
"You are right, of course," Chester agreed. "Besides Uncle John knew what he was up against before he came with us. He'll have to wait until we can help him."
"All right, then. Now my idea is for you to wait here while I return this paper to General Ferrari. Then I shall come back and we will see what can be done. If they should take Uncle John from the house you follow them."
"Suits me," said Chester. "Get back as soon as you can."
Hal waved a hand and hurried away in the darkness.
"Guess I'll see if I can learn anything," said Chester to himself, after Hal had disappeared.
He approached the embassy cautiously. He could see lights within, but the shades were drawn and he could distinguish nothing. Once he thought he heard sounds of a struggle in the house, but he could not be sure.
He was on the point of entering, but it occurred to him that if he should fall into the enemy's hands he could do Uncle John little good.
"I'll wait until Hal comes back, anyhow," he decided at last.
He walked some distance from the embassy, still remaining close enough to see any one who should leave by the front door, and sat down on the steps before a large stone house.
"Hope Hal gets a move on," he muttered to himself, as he settled himself as comfortably as possible.
UNCLE JOHN SHOWS HIS METTLE.
When Uncle John fell to the floor, his first feeling was one of anger. He scarcely felt the sharp pain in his leg, where a bullet had grazed the skin. He saw Chester disappearing ahead of him, and his first thought was to get up and hurry after him.
He pulled himself to his feet and again moved toward the door. As he did so he felt a pair of arms thrown about him from behind. Uncle John turned to give battle to this assailant.
Now Uncle John was a big man and in his youth had been noted for his strength. Time had sapped his prowess, however, and he knew that he was no match for his adversary. Nevertheless, he determined to fight it out.
With an effort he shook off the encircling arms and faced his opponent, who proved to be none other than Robard himself. Bethinking himself of the days of his youth, when he had been considered something of a boxer, Uncle John decided to keep the other at arm's length, if possible. Therefore he squared off in most approved fashion.
It was plain that the Austrian was not an exponent of the art of self-defense and Uncle John sent three hard blows to the man's face, before the latter stepped back and sought to bring his revolver to bear. But Uncle John had no mind to be shot down and he sprang forward and seized the other in a fierce embrace. This style of fighting was more to the Austrian's liking.
A big man himself, he was nothing loath to test Uncle John's wrestling ability. He threw his arms about him, and the two struggled up and down the long hall, panting and gasping.
But the Austrian was a younger man and he soon realized that Uncle John was beginning to tire. The latter realized it also and knew that if he would be successful, it must be immediately. He put a foot in back of the Austrian and pushed hard. Robard lost his balance and fell, but he kept his grip, and Uncle John was pulled to the floor with him.
Uncle John freed an arm and planted his fist squarely in the Austrian's face. The latter gave a cry of rage and shouted for help. Uncle John smiled grimly.
"You'll need it," he said.
Again he raised a fist and brought it down with all his force. The Austrian's arms relaxed their grip. He quivered a bit, and then sank back unconscious. Uncle John got to his feet.
"I'm not so bad at that," he told himself modestly. "I wish the boys could have been here to see that. Now to get out of here."
He moved toward the door, but even as he would have opened it, it moved back and three men stepped inside. They saw Uncle John and the unconscious form of Robard at first glance, and sprang upon Uncle John with a shout.
Uncle John drew a long breath and waded into the midst of them.
The newcomers also proved to be novices in the fistic art, and as long as Uncle John was able to keep them at long range he gave a good account of himself. But, realizing that they were getting the worst of this kind of fighting, one of the men gave a command to close in. In vain Uncle John strove to keep them off. One threw himself to the floor, and avoiding a heavy kick, grasped Uncle John by the leg, pulling him down. The others piled on top of him.
Two minutes later Uncle John had ceased to struggle, and lay powerless in the hands of his captors.
"Well, you've got me," he said. "Now what?"
Still keeping a tight grip upon him, the men assisted Uncle John to his feet. One drew a revolver and covered him. The other two went to the assistance of Robard, who was just getting to his feet. The latter came forward with an angry gleam in his eye.
"So I've got you at last," he said. "Well, I'll see that you don't get away this time."
"You weren't big enough to get me alone," said Uncle John, panting from his exertions.
"I wasn't, eh!" shouted Robard, now furiously angry. "I've got you now, and you shall pay. Take that!"
He dealt Uncle John a heavy blow with the back of his hand.
In his early days Uncle John had been noted for his fiery temper. It was said of him that when his temper was aroused, he became a maniac. So it was now.
Taking no thought of the man who held the revolver almost in his face, Uncle John, his cheek red from the imprint of the Austrian's hand, uttered a cry of rage, and leaped forward. His move was so unexpected that the man with the revolver did not fire, and when at last he had again brought his revolver to bear, he feared to press the trigger lest he might hit his friend as well as foe.
Uncle John, in a moment, was the center of a struggling, shouting mass. His fists flew about like flails and he kicked out with his feet whenever occasion presented itself. One, two, three heavy blows he landed upon Robard's face, and the Austrian suddenly collapsed in a heap. Still fighting mad, Uncle John whirled upon the other three, who now closed with him.
A right-handed jolt caught one of them flush on the jaw and he toppled over backwards without so much as a groan. The other brought a fist heavily to Uncle John's nose, bringing blood, but before he could repeat the blow, Uncle John had placed him hors de combat with a terrific left-handed punch to the abdomen.
Then the third man drew back and presented his revolver, but Uncle John sprang forward with a cry and before the man's finger could press the trigger, Uncle John had seized him about the middle. Raising him high in the air, he swung him to one side, and the man's head struck the wall with a crunch even as the revolver exploded.
Uncle John dropped the limp body and surveyed the field. His anger had departed and he was again a cool and self-possessed American gentleman of middle age.
"There's that temper of mine again," he said reprovingly to himself. "Why, I might have killed somebody. After all these years I should have it under control. I guess I'll be moving before some one makes me real mad."
He stooped and picked up his hat, which had fallen on the floor, took one last look at his fallen foes, and opened the door and passed out.
Down the street he saw a solitary figure sitting upon the steps in front of a large stone house, and he walked in the other direction.
"I've had trouble enough for one night," he told himself. "Guess I will give that fellow a wide berth."
And had he gone toward the seated figure he would have avoided more trouble for all concerned, and Hal and Chester would probably never have seen active service with the Italian army. For the figure that caused Uncle John to turn his footsteps in the opposite direction was Chester, awaiting the return of Hal.
"Wonder why those young scalawags didn't come back to help me?" mused Uncle John, as he walked along toward the hotel. "I'll tell them what I think of them for running away and leaving me to do all the fighting."
Uncle John glanced at his watch.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "Twelve o'clock! Why, it doesn't seem fifteen minutes since we went in that house. Guess Hal and Chester have returned to the hotel by this time. What shall I tell the women folks? They'll wonder what a man of my age is prowling about the streets of Rome for at this hour of the night."
He entered his hotel and made his way toward the elevator. It descended, and as he would have entered, he bumped squarely into Mrs. Paine and Mrs. Crawford.
"John," cried the latter, "where is Chester?"
"Where is Hal?" demanded Mrs. Paine anxiously.
"Why, they—aren't they—they'll be here in a few minutes," stuttered Uncle John.
"Where are they?" demanded the two anxious mothers in a single voice.
"Now hold on here," said Uncle John, regaining his composure with an effort. "I'll explain. Hal and Chester are all right. They'll be here in a few minutes."
"And what on earth is the matter with you, John?" asked Mrs. Crawford in surprise.
"What's the matter with me?"
"Yes. Your collar is half off, your clothes are dirty and there is blood on your shoe. What is the matter?"
"Well, nothing much," replied Uncle John in great confusion, "you see, I had—I had a—"
"And were Hal and Chester with you?" asked Mrs. Paine.
"Yes, that is no. I mean—" stuttered Uncle John.
"Come now, John, no fibbing," said Mrs. Crawford. "You were in trouble, and Hal and Chester were with you. Where are they now?"
"Well, to tell the truth, I don't know where they are," said Uncle John. "I supposed they would be here by this time."
In a few words he explained what had transpired.
"They left the house without being hurt?" asked Mrs. Paine.
"Then where can they be now?" demanded Mrs. Crawford.
"I'm sure I don't know, unless they have stopped for a talk with the general, and that's about the size of it."
"I guess you are right," replied Mrs. Paine with relief. "But why didn't you tell us all this before you went out to-night?"
"Yes, why didn't you?" demanded Mrs. Crawford.
"Well," said Uncle John slowly, "we didn't want to worry you."
"You are getting too old for such foolishness," declared Mrs. Crawford.
"I thought so myself," replied Uncle John, "but I know better now. If you had seen the licking I handed those four Austrians you would think I was a boy again."
"I'll think you have reached your second childhood if you ever let me hear of anything like it again," declared his sister.
Uncle John was growing tired of this conversation. He wanted to be let alone.
"I'll go out and see if I can find the boys," he said.
"Please do," said Mrs. Paine.
"And see that you keep out of mischief yourself," adjured Mrs. Crawford.
Uncle John shook his head as he walked away.
"These women are funny things," he said. "I wonder what can have happened to those boys? They've probably gone back to look for me. Guess I had better head that way myself. I may come in handy, you never can tell."
He patted the revolver, which still rested securely in his pocket.
"I may have use for this next time," he muttered, as he quickened his steps toward the Austrian legation.
Chester rose to his feet, as he saw a figure hurrying toward him.
"Must be Hal," he said.
He was right. A moment later Hal came up to him.
"Did you give the general the paper?" asked Chester.
"Yes. Any one come out of the house?"
"I haven't seen any one, and I have been right here all the time you were gone."
"Hear any sounds from within?"
"Thought I did several times, but I couldn't be sure. Thought I heard a shot once."
"Well, we had better go and have a look. I don't believe they will harm Uncle John, but he probably is beginning to be worried by this time."
He led the way and Chester followed him. Hal mounted the steps without hesitancy and turned the knob of the door. The door opened and the lad stepped inside, where he halted with a cry of surprise. Chester peered over his shoulder.
"Looks like a cyclone had struck this place," Hal ejaculated.
It did indeed. Robard was lying upon the floor, with a man on either side of him, and a fourth lay some distance away, his skull crushed in.
"Uncle John probably was the cyclone," said Chester briefly. "I have heard that he used to be considerable of a fighter in his younger days."
"And still he could hardly have done all this," said Hal.
"Remember Alexis," said Chester sententiously.
"That's different," replied Hal.
"Well, maybe so, but—"
Chester broke off and grabbed Hal by the arm.
"Sh-h-h," he whispered.
Hal listened attentively for a few seconds. The faint sound of footsteps could be heard approaching from further back in the house. At the same moment Robard groaned, moved about and sat up. The hands of the two lads dropped to their pockets.
But before they could draw their weapons, they were startled by a voice behind them.
"Hands up!" it said.
There was no mistaking the menace in the quiet tones and Hal and Chester realized that the owner of the voice meant business.
"Good work, Fritz," came the voice of Robard, and he pulled himself to his feet with some difficulty and advanced toward the boys. "I'll thank you for your guns," he said. "No, I'll get them myself," he added as both boys moved their hands toward the weapons.
He suited the action to the word and relieved the lads of their automatics.
"Now stand back there against the wall," he commanded.
The boys obeyed.
Robard now gave his attention to the injured men on the floor. Two of them showed signs of returning consciousness and soon were able to get to their feet. The other could not be revived, and at a command from Robard, he was carried to another room.
"Well, I've got you this time," said Robard to Hal and Chester, "and this time I'll guarantee you don't get away."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," said Hal with a smile. "We are pretty hard to hold on to."
"I'll hold on to you, never fear," was the response. "I'd like to get my hands on the other."
"Then he has gotten away?" queried Chester.
"Oh, yes, he got away all right," said Robard with a frown. "He's as strong as an ox, and a real fighter."
"Then he was responsible for all this human wreckage we found when we came in?" demanded Hal.
"He was," was the grim reply, "but the next time I get my hands on him there will be a different story to tell. Why, he's a madman when he gets started."
"Then I would advise you to keep away from him," said Hal.
The sound of footsteps outside the door prevented Robard from replying. Levelling a revolver at the lads, he motioned them to be silent, and took up a position at the side of the hall, where he would be concealed by the door when it swung inward.
A hand turned the knob and the door swung back. Uncle John's face appeared in the doorway. He saw Hal and Chester immediately and advanced with a smile.
"So here you are," he said. "Your mothers—"
The sentence died on his lips as Robard, who had stepped quietly from behind the door, brought the butt of his heavy revolver down upon his head. Uncle John dropped to the floor like a log.
The action had been so sudden that neither Hal nor Chester had time to give a cry of warning, though both would have done so, in spite of Robard's command for them to remain quiet. As Uncle John fell, Chester stepped forward, but he was confronted by the barrel of Robard's gun.
"Stand back," said the Austrian.
Chester obeyed. There was nothing else he could do in the face of certain death should he refuse.
Now Robard called two of his men, and Uncle John was carried into an adjoining room. Robard motioned Hal and Chester in also.
Uncle John was laid upon the bed, and at a command from Robard, was tightly bound. Hal and Chester were also tied to chairs, after which Robard took his leave, saying:
"I'll see you the first thing in the morning."
"What are you going to do with us?" demanded Chester.
"I haven't decided yet," was the reply. "But wait. If you will return me the paper you took from me I shall let you all go now."
"It's too late," said Hal quietly. "I gave the paper to General Ferrari."
"I had surmised as much," said Robard. "Well, good-night."
He waved a hand airily and stepped from the room. Then he turned and poked his head back through the door.
"A word more," he said. "In case you should unloose your bonds, I would advise you not to try to escape. There will be a man on guard here in the hall all night, and another outside, so you cannot leave by the window."
"Thanks," said Hal dryly.
Robard withdrew his head and a key grated in the lock.
"Well, now what are we going to do?" asked Hal.
"You've got me," replied Chester. "Say, do you know this reminds me of old times—of the days in France, Belgium and Russia."
"You bet," agreed Hal, "and those were the good old days."
At this juncture Uncle John moaned feebly and his eyelids fluttered. A moment later the lids opened and he gazed at Hal and Chester curiously. Then the light of comprehension dawned upon his face and he spoke:
"So they have got us all, eh?"
"Yes, they've got us," replied Chester.
"The trouble will be to keep us," said Hal. "How do you feel, sir?"
"Not much," replied Uncle John. "What did he hit me with, a crowbar?"
"No, just a revolver butt," replied Chester, grinning.
"How did they happen to capture you boys?"
"We came back here looking for you, as soon as Hal had delivered the paper to General Ferrari," Chester explained.
"Your mothers are worried almost to death," said Uncle John.
"I'm afraid they will worry a whole lot more before we get out of here," said Chester. "I don't know what Robard will do with us."
"Perhaps we may see the Austrian ambassador," said Hal hopefully. "Certainly he would stand for no such work as this."
"I don't know about that," said Chester. "They are likely to all be alike."
"Well, we shall just have to make the best of it," said Hal.
"By the way, Uncle John," said Chester, "you must be considerable of a fighter. You laid these fellows out in great shape a while ago."
"I did do a pretty fair job," admitted his uncle, "but they made me mad."
"I vote that we try to get a little sleep," said Hal. "It won't be very comfortable here in these chairs, but we shall have to make the best of it. Perhaps with the coming of daylight something will turn up."
Chester tugged at his bonds in vain.
"Can't budge 'em," he said.
Hal closed his eyes.
"I'm going to try to get forty winks," he said. "Good night."
Chester followed his friend's example, and Uncle John also composed himself to sleep. And in spite of their uncomfortable positions, presently all slumbered.
Hal was the first to awaken. The key turning in the lock of the door aroused him. Sunlight streamed in through the closed window. The face of Robard appeared in the door, and he entered the room.
"Good morning," he said.
At the sound of his voice, Chester and Uncle John opened their eyes.
"Good morning," replied Hal. "I trust you have come to liberate us."
"Of your bonds, yes," was the reply; "but I regret to say that I cannot set you free."
"What are you going to do with us?"
"Take you to Austria."
"To Austria! Great Scott! What for?"
"For no particular reason," said Robard, and his face suddenly took on a savage look, "except that you have thwarted me, and for that you shall pay. I shall probably lose my rank for my failure to obtain the papers, and if I do I want some one to take my spite out on. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," replied Hal quietly. "It is very like a coward."
Robard took a threatening step forward.
"A coward, am I?" he cried in a loud voice.
He made as though to strike the lad, then suddenly changed his mind.
"I'll wait," he said. "I promise you shall regret those words before I am through with you."
"And when do we start?" asked Chester.
"To-night; after dark. A special train will be ready for the Austrian ambassador and his suite. You shall go with us. Of course the ambassador shall know nothing of your presence, for he would not permit me to work out a personal grudge in this way. I shall keep you out of his sight."
"The ambassador has been given his passports then?" asked Chester.
"He has, to Italy's sorrow. We shall wipe her off the map."
"Don't forget you have a pretty sizable job on your hands already," said Hal.
Robard made no reply, but turning on his heel, strode from the room.
As the boys had feared, they were given no opportunity to make a personal appeal to the Austrian ambassador. All day long they were kept in their improvised prison. They slept a little and talked a little, but try as they would they were unable to so much as loosen their bonds. But they all agreed on one thing, as expressed by Chester:
"We'll make a break for freedom at the first opportunity, no matter what the odds against us."
One of Robard's hirelings brought them a bite to eat about noon and again shortly after 6 o'clock. Darkness fell and still Robard himself had failed to appear.
"Maybe the time for departure has been postponed," said Chester.
"Hardly," replied Uncle John. "If the ambassador has been given his passports and has made arrangements to leave Italy he'll probably go at the appointed time."
It was at this juncture that footsteps were heard without. The key turned in the lock and a moment later Robard stood before them.
"Well," he said cheerfully, "all ready for your little trip?"
"We're not what you would call ready," replied Hal, with an attempt at levity, "but if you say it's time to move, we may as well agree with you."
"Your reasoning is to be commended," said Robard. He stepped to the door and raised his voice in a shout. A moment later a second man stood beside him. "Untie these fellows while I keep them covered," he ordered, at the same time producing a brace of automatics.
The man stepped forward and with a few quick movements relieved the prisoners of their bonds. He stepped back.
"Stand up!" commanded Robard, levelling his revolvers, "and mind, no tricks."
Hal, Chester and Uncle John obeyed. It was a wonderful relief to be on their feet again and be able to stretch their cramped muscles.
"By George! this feels better," said Chester.
"Rather," agreed Hal dryly.
Robard moved to one side of the room.
"Out you go," he said, motioning toward the door with his revolver, but still keeping the three covered.
"Which way?" asked Hal, playing for time.
"Out the door is all you need to know," was the reply. "You'll find pleasant company there."
One of the revolvers covered Hal threateningly.
Hal walked toward the door, followed by Chester and then Uncle John. Robard followed close behind, with his man at his heels.
Outside the door Hal led the way down the hall toward the front door, where he saw perhaps half a dozen other figures standing about. These proved to be more Austrians. Near the door Hal halted at a word of command from Robard and the three prisoners soon were surrounded. Their captors were all dressed in civilian attire, but from their military bearings, Hal and Chester concluded that they were Austrian army officers.
Robard turned to one who stood somewhat apart from the others.
"Everything ready?" he asked.
"All ready," was the reply. "The baggage has been sent on ahead of us and the train to Venice will leave within the hour."
"Good! And the ambassador?"
"Will be here within half an hour," was the answer.
Hal's heart leaped. Here, he thought, would be a chance to demand his freedom, and that of his companions. He was loath to believe that a man in the capacity of an ambassador would countenance such proceedings. But his hopes were doomed to disappointment.
Within the half hour mentioned, the door was flung suddenly open and a small man hurried in. He gazed quickly about him and then spoke to Robard.
"Everything ready?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," was Robard's answer.
The ambassador—for such the newcomer was—gazed rapidly about him. His eyes rested on Hal, Chester and Uncle John.
"Who are these?" he demanded with a wave of his hand in their direction.
"These," said Robard, taking a step forward, and throwing a warning look at the three prisoners, "are a trio who have too much knowledge of some of our plans. I thought it best to take them along, sir."
Hal took a quick step forward, but even as he opened his mouth to speak, he felt something cold pressed against the back of his neck by a hand from behind. He closed his lips and fell back.
The ambassador was silent a moment before replying. Then he said:
"You are sure you are not taking too much upon yourself? You are certain you are right in your surmise?"
"It is not a surmise, sir; it is a fact," returned Robard.
For another moment the ambassador hesitated. Then he said with a shrug of his shoulders:
"Very well then. Come; let us go."
He led the way out the door, the others following. Hal, Chester and Uncle John were kept closely in the center of the little knot of men as all made their way down the steps to where three large automobiles stood waiting at the curb. The ambassador and Robard climbed into the first, and Hal found himself separated from his friends as he was pushed into the second machine; Chester and Uncle John were in the third.
Twenty minutes later the three prisoners found themselves in a first class section on the special express for Venice, vigilantly guarded by two Austrians, who had been placed in charge of them after they had been securely tied up at Robard's command. Robard himself had entered another compartment with the ambassador.
"You'll be safer this way," the Austrian had said with a smile, after testing their bonds to make sure they were secure.
"Looks like we were pretty safe any way you might put us," replied Hal grimly.
"You Americans are pretty slippery customers; I won't take any chances with you," was the rejoinder, and Robard took his leave.
A few moments later a slight motion told the prisoners that the train had started.
"Well, here we go," said Chester with a laugh. "We've been started for the enemy's country in this manner before."
"Only on previous occasions our destination was Berlin instead of Venice," replied Hal.
"Which is not our destination after all," said Uncle John. "Our true destination is back to the hotel where we left your mothers."
"And I am sure we shall reach it eventually," said Hal hopefully.
"How long does it take to get to Venice?" asked Chester.
"I don't know exactly," replied Uncle John. "But we shall be there by daylight surely."
"Perhaps we may get a chance to make a break for liberty," said Chester.
"Don't bank on that, Chester," replied Hal. "It looks as though these fellows do things a little more thoroughly than their German cousins. Still there is always a chance."
"While there's life there's hope, eh?" said Uncle John. "We'll see."
"In the meantime," said Hal, "we may as well try to get a little sleep."
"A good idea," agreed Chester. "Here goes."
He closed his eyes and was soon in the land of dreams. Hal and Uncle John followed suit.
How long they slept they did not know, but they were awakened by rough hands shaking them and the sound of gruff voices. Hal opened his eyes. Daylight streamed in through the windows of the compartment.
"Get up!" commanded a harsh voice.
Hal rubbed his eyes and called to Chester and Uncle John.
"What's the matter?" asked the latter sleepily.
"Venice, I guess," was the reply.
Again their bonds were removed, and under cover of the revolvers of their captors, which the latter kept concealed in their coats but which the three prisoners knew were ever ready, Hal, Chester and Uncle John stepped from the car.
The Austrian ambassador and Robard had alighted before them, and Hal could see them talking and gesticulating excitedly.
"Wonder what's up?" he muttered.
"Which way from here, do you suppose?" asked Chester.
"Trieste, I should say," replied Uncle John. "They will want to get over the border as soon as possible, and I guess they will head in that direction."
"My idea, too," agreed Hal.
What was their surprise, then, when, instead of boarding another train, as Hal had confidently believed would be done, the ambassador led the way into the station and then to the street beyond. Here Robard disappeared for a brief moment, and returning, motioned the ambassador and others to follow him.
Again the prisoners found themselves shoved into a large touring car, which started immediately in the wake of the one which bore Robard and the ambassador.
"Some funny business here, as sure as you're born," said Chester excitedly.
"Must be," declared Hal grimly. "Robard and the ambassador have something up their sleeves. Wonder if the Italian authorities are not on their guard. There is no telling what these fellows may do."
"I don't imagine the Italian authorities are watching them any too closely," remarked Uncle John. "You know men in such positions are supposed to be men of honor."
"Which the ambassador undoubtedly is," said Chester. "If there is anything wrong, you can take my word that Robard is the gentleman who is responsible for it."
"You have hit the nail on the head there, old fellow," agreed Hal.
After a ten-minute drive the machine came to an abrupt stop.
"Out you go," said a gruff voice in very poor English.
It was the voice of one of their captors and the prisoners obeyed.
Ahead, the ambassador and Robard were walking down the steps to the canal, and a few moments later a large closed gondola came toward them.
The ambassador entered, followed by Robard, and the prisoners found themselves aboard also a moment later. The gondola moved off.
"Well, what next?" demanded Chester.
"It's too deep for me," was the reply. "But we are going to learn something; that's sure. Perhaps it's a good thing we were captured and brought along. Who knows? we may be able to avert some mischief."
"Let us sincerely hope so," said Uncle John earnestly. "I know that you boys are experienced in this line of work, but you can count on me to the last ditch."
"You didn't need to tell us that, Uncle John," said Chester. "We knew it."
The gondola stopped.
A PLOT IS FOILED.
"Out with you," commanded one of their captors, when he saw that the ambassador and Robard had made their way up the short flight of steps.
No urging was necessary. The prisoners, closely followed by their guards, made their way in the same direction. A hundred yards ahead, they were suddenly turned to the left, where they caught sight of a small house. Into this they were marched and then on into a room at the far end of the short hall.
"Guess you'll be safe enough in there. No need to tie you up," said the voice of Robard, who came up at this moment.
The door slammed, a key grated harshly and the prisoners were left alone.
"Now what in the name of all that's wonderful do you suppose this means?" asked Chester. "Think they are going to leave us here to starve or perish of thirst?"
"No, I guess not," was the reply. "My opinion is that Robard is up to something funny, and that he has enticed the ambassador here on some pretext or another."
"What do you think he is up to?" demanded Chester.
"If I knew I'd have told you a long while ago," said Hal. "Now, if we—"
He paused as Chester held up a warning hand. The latter moved toward the wall at the far end of the room as Hal eyed him curiously. The lad placed his ear against the wall, and listened intently for a moment; then he motioned Hal and Uncle John to approach.
"The ambassador and Robard are in the next room," he whispered. "I can hear them talking. Listen."
Hal and Uncle John also laid their ears to the wall.
"But," and the ambassador's voice came faintly to them, "such a thing as you suggest is dishonorable."
"What has that to do with it, sir?" came Robard's reply. "Our enemies would do the same thing had they the opportunity. All's fair in war, you know, sir."
"Not that," said the ambassador. "You must remember that until I have crossed the frontier I am still the ambassador to Italy. I am upon my honor to leave the country peaceably."
"But no one would know you had a hand in the matter, sir."
"That is not the point," was the reply.
"But I have made all arrangements," protested Robard. "Everything is ready. The chief of the Italian general staff is in Venice at this moment, and at noon will inspect the large stores of ammunition at the northern outskirts of the city. A word from you and ammunition, chief of staff and all will be destroyed."
"I will give no such word," was the angry response. "Besides," and the ambassador considered a moment, "why do you wish a word from me in this matter? It could have been done without my consent."