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Meanwhile, the old man who seemed to be fingering the cards with increased interest was, I saw, trying to rearrange them himself by placing his finger upon one and then another, and then a third, as though he knew the proper arrangement, and was reading the record to himself.
Was it possible that he actually held the key to what we had displayed, and was learning Burton Blair's secret while we remained in ignorance of it!
Of a sudden, the wiry old seafarer straightened his back, and, looking at me, exclaimed, with a triumphant smile--
"Now, look here, Mr. Greenwood, there are four suites, aren't there?
Try them in alphabetical order--that would be clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. First take all the clubs and arrange them king, eight, knave, queen, ace, seven, nine, ten, then the diamonds, and afterwards the other two suites. Then see what you make of it."
a.s.sisted by Reggie, I proceeded to again resort the cards into suites, and to arrange them according to the rhyme in four columns of eight each upon the table, the suites as he suggested, in alphabetical order.
"At last!" shouted Reggie, almost beside himself with joy. "At last!
Why, we've got it, old chap! Look! Read the first letter on each card straight down, one after the other? What do you make it spell?"
All three of us were breathless--old Hales apparently the most excited of all--or perhaps, he had been misleading us and pretending ignorance.
I had, as yet, only placed the first suite, the clubs, but they read as follows:--
King. B O N T D R N N C R O A U I T Eight. E I T Y G O J T A E N N W N H Knave. T N H J E N T Y N D J O I D E Queen. W T E S J T H F D T O L L T C Ace. E W J I W H E O E H N D L H R Seven. E H L X H E F U F E E E F E O Nine. N E E P E F I R E R W O I O S Ten. T R F A R I F J N E I N N L S
"Why!" I cried, staring at the first intelligible word I had discovered. "The first column commences `Between.'"
"Yes, and I see other words in the other columns!" cried Reggie, excitedly s.n.a.t.c.hing some of the cards from me in his excitement, and a.s.sisting me to rearrange the other suites.
Those moments were among the most breathless and exciting of my life.
The great secret which had brought Burton Blair all his fabulous wealth was about to be revealed to us.
It might render me a millionaire as it had already done its dead possessor!
At last the cards being all arranged in their proper order, the eight diamonds, eight hearts and eight spades beneath the eight clubs, I took a pencil and wrote down the first letter on each card.
"Yes!" I cried, almost beside myself with excitement, "the arrangement is perfect. Blair's secret is revealed!"
"Why, it's some kind of record!" exclaimed Reggie. "And it begins with the words `Between the Ponte del Diavolo!' That's Italian for the Devil's Bridge, I suppose!"
"The Ponte del Diavolo is an old mediaeval bridge near Lucca," I explained quickly, and then I recollected the grave-faced Capuchin, who lived in that silent monastery close by. But at that moment all my attention was given to the transcript of the cipher, and I had no time for reflection. The letter "J" was inserted sometimes in place of a s.p.a.ce, apparently in order to throw the lettering out, and so conceal it from any chance solution.
At length, after nearly a quarter of an hour, for certain of the faded letters on the cards were almost obliterated, I discovered that the decipher I had scribbled was a strange record as follows:--"Between the Ponte del Diavolo and the point where the Serchio joins the Lima on the left bank, four hundred and fifty-six paces from the foot of the bridge, where the sun shines only one hour on the fifth of April and two hours on the fifth of May, at noon, descend twenty-four foot-holes behind where a man can defend himself against four hundred. There two big rocks one on each side. On one will be found cut the figure of an old `E.' On the right hand go down and you will find what you seek. But first find the old man who lives at the crossways."
"I wonder what it all means!" remarked Reggie, who, turning to old Mr.
Hales, added, "The latter indicates you," whereat the old fellow laughed knowingly, and we saw that he knew more of Blair's affairs than he would admit.
"It means," I said, "that some secret is concealed in that narrow, romantic valley of the Serchio, and these are the directions for its discovery. I know the winding river where through ages the water has cut deeply down into a rocky bed full of giant boulders and wild leaping torrents and deep pools. Of the pointed Ponte del Diavolo are told many quaint stories of the devil building the bridge and taking for his own the first living thing to pa.s.s over it, which proved to be a dog.
Indeed," I added, "the spot is one of the wildest and most romantic in all rural Tuscany. Strange, too, the Fra Antonio should live in the monastery only three miles from the spot indicated."
"Who is Fra Antonio?" asked Hales, still gazing upon the cards thoughtfully.
I explained, whereupon the old fellow smiled, and I felt certain that he recognised in the monk's description one of Blair's friends of days bygone.
"Who actually wrote this record?" I inquired of him. "It was not Blair, that's plain."
"No," was his reply. "Now that it has been legally left to you by our friend, and that you have succeeded in deciphering it, I may as well tell you something more concerning it."
"Yes, do," we both cried eagerly with one breath.
"Well, it happened in this way," explained the thin old fellow, pressing down the tobacco hard into his long clay. "Some years ago I was serving as first mate on the barque _Annie Curtis_ of Liverpool, engaged in the Mediterranean fruit trade and running regularly between Naples, Smyrna, Barcelona, Algiers and Liverpool. Our crew was a mixed one of English, Spaniards and Italians, and among the latter was an old fellow named Bruno. He was a mysterious individual from Calabria, and among the crew it was whispered that he had once been the head of a noted band of brigands who had terrorised that most southern portion of Italy, and who had only recently been exterminated by the Carabineers. The other Italians nicknamed him Baffitone, which in their language is, I believe, Big Moustache. He was a hard worker, drank next to nothing, and was apparently rather well-educated, for he spoke and wrote English quite well, and further he was always worrying everybody to devise ciphers, the solution of which he would set himself in his leisure to puzzle out.
One day, on a religious feast, made excuse by the Italians for a holiday, I found him in the forecastle writing something on a small pack of cards. He tried to conceal what he was doing, but, my curiosity aroused, I detected at once how he had arranged them, and the very fact told me what a remarkably ingenious cipher he had discovered."
The old man paused for a moment, as though he hesitated to tell us the whole truth. Presently when he had lit his pipe with a spill, he resumed, saying--
"I left the sea, came back to my wife here, and for fully six years saw nothing of the Italian until one day, looking well and prosperous in a suit of brand new clothes and a new hard hat, he called upon me. He was still on the _Annie Curtis_, but she was in dry dock, and therefore he was, he said, having a bit of a spree ash.o.r.e. He remained here with me for two days, and with his little camera, evidently a fresh acquisition he snapshotted every conceivable object, including this house. Before he went away he took me into his confidence and told me that what had been suspected of him on board the _Annie Curtis_ was true, that he was none other than the notorious Poldo Pensi, the brigand whose daring and ferocity had long been chronicled in Italian song and story. He had, however, since the breaking up of his band, become a reformed character, and rather than profit by certain knowledge that he had obtained while an outlaw, he worked for his living on board an English ship. The knowledge, he said, was obtained from a certain Cardinal Sannini of the Vatican whom he had held to ransom, and was of such a character that he might become a rich man any day he wished, but having regard to the fact that the Government had offered a large reward for his capture either dead or alive, he deemed it best to conceal his ident.i.ty and sail the seas. But he told me, here in this room, as we sat smoking together the night before he departed, that the secret was on record, but in such a manner that any one discovering it would not be able to read it without possessing the key to the cipher."
"Then he left it on these cards!" I cried, interrupting.
"Exactly. The secret of Cardinal Sannini, obtained by the notorious outlaw Poldo Pensi, whose terrible band ravaged half Italy twenty-five years ago, and who compelled Pope Pius IX himself to pay tribute to them, is written here--just as you have deciphered it."
"Is this man Pensi dead?" I inquired.
"Oh yes, he died and was buried at sea, somewhere off Lisbon, before Burton Blair came into possession of the cards. The secret, I ascertained, was wrung from Cardinal Sannini, who, while on his way across the wild, inhospitable country between Reggio and Gerace was seized by Pensi and his gang, taken up to their stronghold--a small mountain village about three miles from Nicastro--and there held prisoner, a large ransom being about to be demanded of the Holy See.
For certain reasons, it seemed, the wily old Cardinal in question did not desire that the Vatican should be made aware of his capture, therefore he made it a condition of his release that he should reveal a certain very remarkable secret--the secret written upon the cards--which he did, and in exchange for which Pensi released him."
"But Sannini was one of the highest placed Cardinals in Rome," I exclaimed. "Why, at the death of Pio Nono, he was believed to be designed as his successor to the Pontificate."
"True," remarked the old man, who seemed well versed in all the recent history of St. Peter's at Rome. "The secret divulged by the Cardinal is undoubtedly one of very great value, and he did so in order to save his own reputation, I believe, for from what the outlaw told me, they had discovered that he was in the extreme south in direct opposition to the Pope's orders, and in order to stir up some religious ill-feeling against Pio Nono. Hence Sannini, so trusted by His Holiness, was compelled at all hazards to keep the facts of his capture an absolute secret. Pensi related how, before releasing the Cardinal, he went himself in secret to a certain spot in Tuscany, and ascertained that what the great ecclesiastic had divulged was absolutely the truth. He was then released, and given safe escort back to Cosenza, whence he took train back to Rome."
"But how came Burton Blair possessed of the secret?" I inquired eagerly.
"Ah!" remarked the old fellow, showing the palms of his hard brown hands, "that's the question. I know that upon these very cards, Poldo Pensi, the ex-brigand of Calabria, inscribed the Cardinal's directions in English. Indeed you will note that the wording betrays a foreigner.
Those faded capital letters were traced by him on board the _Annie Curtis_, and he certainly held the secret safely until his death. What he told me I never divulged until--well, until I was compelled to by Burton Blair on that night when he recognised this house from Poldo's photograph, and rediscovered me."
"Compelled you!" Reggie exclaimed. "How?"
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
"WORSE THAN DEATH."
The tall old fellow looked at me with his grey eyes and shook his head.
"Burton Blair knew rather too much," he answered evasively. "He had, it seemed, been raised to chief mate of the _Annie Curtis_, when I left her, and Poldo, the man who had held dukes and cardinals and other great men to ransom, worked patiently under him. Then after a bad go of fever Poldo died, and strangely enough gave--so Blair declared--the pack of cards with the secret into his hands. d.i.c.ky Dawson, however, who was also on board as bo'sun, and who had lived half his life on Italian brigs in the Adriatic, declares that this story is untrue, and that Blair stole the little bag containing the cards from beneath Poldo's pillow half an hour before he died. That, however, may be the truth, or a lie, yet the facts remain, that Poldo must have let out some portion of his secret in the delirium of the fever and that the little cards pa.s.sed into Blair's possession. Three weeks after the Italian's death, Blair, on landing at Liverpool, carrying with him the cards and the snap-shot photograph, set out on that very long and fatiguing journey up and down all the roads in England, in order to find me, and learn from me the key to the secret of the outlaws which I held."
"And when at last he found you, what then?"
"He alleged solemnly that Bruno had given it to him as a dying gift, and that his reason for seeking me was because the old outlaw had, before he died, requested to see the photograph from his sea-chest, and looking upon it for a long time, had said to himself reflectively in Italian, `There lives in that house the only man who knows my secret.' For that reason Blair evidently secured the picture after the Italian's death.
On arrival here he showed me the cards, and promised me a thousand pounds if I would reveal the Italian's confidences. As the man was dead, I saw no reason to withhold them, and in exchange for a promise to pay the amount I told him what he wanted to know, and among other matters explained the rearrangement of the cards, so that he could decipher them. The key to the cipher I had learnt on that festival when I had discovered Poldo writing upon a pack of cards a message, evidently intended for the Cardinal himself at Rome, for I have since established the fact that the outlaw and the ecclesiastic were in frequent but secret communication prior to the latter's death."
"But this man Dawson must have profited enormously by the revelation made by Blair," I remarked. "They seem to have been most intimate friends."
"Of course he profited," Hales replied. "Blair, possessing this remarkable secret, went in deadly fear of d.i.c.ky, the bo'sun, who might declare, as he had already done, that he had stolen it from the dying man. He was well aware that Dawson was an unscrupulous sailor of the very worst type, therefore he considered it a very judicious course, I suppose, to go into partnership with him and a.s.sist in the exploration of the secret. But poor Blair must have been in the fellow's hands all through although it is plain that the gains Blair made were enormous, while those of d.i.c.ky have been equal, although it seems probable that the latter has lived in absolute obscurity."