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As We Forgive Them Part 10

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Why had he kept this strange and mysterious friendship from us all--even from Mabel?

I gazed upon the Italian's hard, sunburnt face and tried to penetrate the mystery written there, but in vain. No man can keep a secret like the priest of the confessional, or the monk in his cell.

"And what is your intention, now that poor Blair is dead?" I asked at length.

"My intention, like yours, is to discover the truth," he replied. "It will be a difficult matter, no doubt, but I trust that we shall, in the end, succeed, and that you will regain the lost secret."

"But may not Blair's enemies make use of it in the meantime?" I queried.

"Ah! of course we cannot prevent that," answered Fra Antonio. "We have to look to the future, and allow the present to take care of itself.

You, in London, will do your best to discover whether Blair has met with foul play and at whose hands, while I, here in Italy, will try to find out whether there was any further motive than the theft of the secret."

"But if the little chamois-bag had been stolen, would not Blair himself have missed it?" I suggested. "He was quite conscious for several hours before he died."

"He might have forgotten it. Men's memories often fail them completely in the hours preceding death."

Night had fallen before the great wooden clappers, used to arouse the monks to go to prayers at two o'clock in the morning, resounded through the cloister as a reminder that I, a stranger, must take my departure.

Fra Antonio rose, lit a great old bra.s.s lantern, and conducted me along those silent corridors, out across the small piazza and down the hillside to the main road which lay straight and white in the darkness.

Then, having directed me on the road, he grasped my hand in his big palm, rough through hard toil at his patch of garden, and said--

"Rely upon me to do my best. I knew poor Blair--yes, knew him better than you did, Signor Greenwood. I knew, too, something of his remarkable secret, and therefore I am aware how strange and how mysterious are all the circ.u.mstances. I shall work on here, making inquiries, while you return to London and pursue yours. I would, however, make the suggestion to you that if you meet d.i.c.k Dawson strike up a friendship with him, and with Dolly. They are a strange pair, but friendship with them may be profitable."

"What!" I exclaimed. "Friendship with the man whom you declare was one of Blair's bitterest enemies?"

"And why not? Is it not diplomacy to be well received in the enemy's camp? Recollect that your own stake in this affair is the greatest of any one's. The secret is bequeathed to you--the secret of Burton Blair's millions!"

"And I intend to recover it," I declared firmly.

"I only hope you will, signore," he said in a voice which to me sounded full of a double meaning. "I only hope you will."

Then wishing me "_Addio, e buona fortuna_," Fra Antonio, the Capuchin and man of secrets, turned and left me standing in the dark highway.

Hardly had I advanced fifty yards before a short dark figure loomed out from the shadow of some bushes, and by the voice that hailed me I knew it to be old Babbo, whom I had believed had grown tired of awaiting me.

He had, however, evidently followed us from the church, and seeing us enter the monastery had patiently awaited my return.

"Has the signore discovered what he wished?" inquired the old Italian, quickly.

"Some of it, not all," was my rejoinder. "You saw that monk whom I met?"

"Yes. Since you have been in the convent I have made some inquiries, and find that the most popular Capuchin in the whole of Lucca is Fra Antonio, and that his charitableness is well known. It is he who begs from door to door through the city for contesimi and lire in order that the poor shall have their daily soup and bread. Report accredits him with great wealth, which on entering the Order of the Capuchins he made over as a gift to the fraternity. He is also known to have a friend to whom he is very much attached--an Englishman who has one eye so badly injured that he is known by the townspeople as the Ceco."

"The Ceco!" I cried. "What have you discovered regarding him?"

"The keeper of a little cheese-shop close to the gate by which we left the city proved very communicative. Like all her cla.s.s, she seemed to greatly admire our friend the Cappuccino. She told me of the frequent visits of this one-eyed Englishman who had lived so long in Italy that he was almost an Italian. The Ceco was in the habit, it seemed, of staying at the old albergo, the _Croce di Malto_, sometimes accompanied by a young and very pretty lady, his daughter."

"Where do they come from?"

"Oh! I've not yet been able to discover that," was Babbo's reply. "It seems, however, that the constant visits of the Ceco to the monastery have aroused the public interest. The people say that Fra Antonio nowadays is not so active in his searches after money for the poor now he is too much occupied with his English friend."

"And the girl?"

"It is evident that her beauty is remarkable, even in Lucca, this city of pretty girls," answered the old man with a grin. "She speaks Tuscan perfectly, and could, they say, easily pa.s.s for an Italian. Her back is not straight like those Inglese one sees in the Via Tornabuoni--if the signore will pardon the criticism," the old fellow added apologetically.

This proof that d.i.c.k Dawson, against whom the monk had warned Burton Blair, was actually the friend of the Capuchin brother rendered the situation more puzzling and more complicated. I recognised in these frequent consultations a secret plot against my friend, a conspiracy which had apparently been carried to a successful issue.

The girl Dolly, whoever she was, had of course never been to the monastery, but she had evidently been in Lucca as a partic.i.p.ator in the plot to obtain Burton Blair's valuable secret, the secret that was now mine by law.

We there and then resolved to make inquiries at the _Croce di Malto_, that antique old hostelry in a narrow side street peculiarly Italian, and which still prefers to be designated as an albergo, in preference to the modern name of hotel.

d.i.c.k Dawson, known as the Ceco, was undoubtedly in London, but with the connivance and aid of that crafty and ingenious man of secrets, who had so cleverly endeavoured to establish with me a false friendship.

Was it actually this man who hid his evil deeds beneath his shabby religious habit who was responsible for the death of poor Blair and the mysterious disappearance of that strange little object which was his most treasured possession. I somehow felt convinced that such was the actual truth.

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

WHICH EXPLAINS THE PERIL OF MABEL BLAIR.

From inquiries made by old Babbo next morning at the _Cross of Malta_, it appeared quite plain that Mr. Richard Dawson, whoever he was, constantly visited Lucca, and always with the object of consulting the popular Capuchin brother.

Sometimes the one-eyed Englishman who spoke Italian so well would journey up to the monastery and remain there several hours, and at others Fra Antonio would come to the inn and there remain closeted in closest secrecy with the visitor.

The Ceco, so called because of his defective vision, was apparently a man of means, for his tips to the waiters and maids were always generous, and when a guest, he and his daughter always ordered the best that could be procured. They came from Florence, the _padrone_ thought, but of that he was not quite certain. The letters and telegrams he received securing rooms were dispatched from various towns in both France and Italy, which seemed to show that they were constantly travelling.

That was all the information we could gather. The ident.i.ty of the mysterious Paolo Melandrini was, as yet, unproven. My primary object in travelling to Italy was not accomplished, but I nevertheless felt satisfied that I had at last discovered two of poor Blair's most intimate and yet secret friends.

But why the secrecy? When I recollected how close had been our friendship, I felt surprised, and even a trifle annoyed that he had concealed the existence of these men from me. Much as I regretted to think ill of a friend who was dead, I could not suppress a suspicion that his acquaintance with those men was part of his secret, and that the latter was some dishonourable one.

Soon after midday, I crammed my things into my valise, and, impelled by a strong desire to return to safeguard, the interests of Mabel Blair, left Lucca for London. Babbo travelled with me as far as Pisa, where we changed, he journeying back to Florence and I picking up the sleeping-car express on its way through from Rome to Calais.

While standing on the platform at Pisa, however, the shabby old man, who had grown, thoughtful during the past half-hour or so, suddenly said--

"A strange idea has occurred to me, ignore. You will recollect that I learned in the Via Cristofano that the Signor Melandrini wore gold-rimmed gla.s.ses. Is it possible that he does so in Florence in order to conceal his defective sight?"

"Why--I believe so!" I cried. "I believe you've guessed the truth!

But on the other hand, neither his servant nor the neighbours suspected him of being a foreigner."

"He speaks Italian very well," agreed the old man, "but they said he had a slight accent."

"Well," I said, excited at this latest theory. "Return at once to the Via San Cristofano and make further inquiries regarding the mysterious individual's eyesight and his gla.s.ses. The old woman who keeps his rooms has no doubt seen him without his gla.s.ses, and can tell you the truth."

"Signore," was the old fellow's answer. And I then wrote down for him my address in London to which he was to dispatch a telegram if his suspicions were confirmed.

Ten minutes later, the roaring Calais-Rome express, the limited train of three _wagon-lits_, dining-car and baggage-car, ran into the great vaulted station, and, wishing the queer old Babbo farewell, I climbed in and was allotted my berth for Calais.

To describe the long, wearying journey back from the Mediterranean to the Channel, with those wheels grinding for ever beneath, and the monotony only broken by the announcement that a meal was ready, is useless. You, who read this curious story of a man's secret, who have travelled backwards and forwards over that steel road to Rome, know well how wearisome it becomes, if you have been a constant traveller between England and Italy.

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As We Forgive Them Part 10 summary

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