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"You'd better keep a civil tongue, fellow, and just reflect upon my words," I said. "I'm no man for argument. I act."
"Act just as you like. I shall do as I think proper--you hear?"
"And you'll take the risk? Very well," I said. "You know the worst-- prison."
"And you don't," he laughed. "Otherwise you wouldn't talk like a silly idiot. Mabel is my wife, and you've no say in the matter, so that's enough for you," he added insultingly. "Instead of trying to threaten me, it is I who have a right to demand why I find you here--with her."
"I'll tell you!" I cried angrily, my hands itching to give the impudent young blackguard a sound good hiding. "I'm here to protect her, because she is in fear of her life. And I shall remain here until you have gone."
"But I'm her husband, therefore I shall stay," sneered the fellow, perfectly unmoved.
"Then she leaves with me," I said decisively.
"I'll not allow that."
"You will act just as I think proper," I exclaimed. Then, turning to Mabel, who had remained white, silent and trembling, in fear lest we should come to blows, I said, "Put on your hat and coat at once. You must return to London with me."
"She shall not!" he cried, unflinchingly. "If my curses could blast yer you'd have 'em thick."
"Mabel," I said, taking no notice of the ruffian's words, but drawing back to allow her to pa.s.s out, "please get your coat. I have a fly waiting outside."
The fellow made a movement as though to prevent her leaving the room, but in an instant my hand was heavily upon his shoulder, and by my face he saw that I was strong and determined.
"You'll repent this!" he hissed threateningly, with an imprecation, between his teeth. "I know what you are searching for--but," he laughed, "you'll never obtain that secret which gave Blair his millions.
You think you've a clue to it, but before long you'll discover your mistake."
"In not uniting with me, instead of insulting me."
"I have no necessity for the a.s.sistance of any man who would kill a helpless woman," I responded. "Recollect that in this affair you hold aloof from her, or, by Gad! without further ado, I'll seek the aid of the police, when your past history will prove rather unwelcome evidence of character."
"Do what you like," he laughed again defiantly. "By giving me over to the police you'll only be doing her the worst turn possible. If you doubt me, you'd better ask her. Be careful how you act before you make a fool of yourself and a victim of her." And with this harsh, hollow sneer he threw himself into the armchair and placed his feet on the fender in an att.i.tude of carelessness and calmly lit a cheap, rank cigar.
"There will be only one sufferer, never fear," I said meaningly. "And that will be yourself."
"All right," he said, "we shall see."
Then turning I left the room, and meeting Mabel, who stood ready dressed in the hall, whispering a hurried adieu to Bessie Wood, her old schoolfellow, I hurried her out, put her into the station fly, and drove with her back to Chipping Norton.
Even then, however, I could not understand the exact position of that young ruffian, Herbert Hales, or the true meaning of his final ominous words of open defiance.
For the present I had rescued my love from the arrogant, cold-blooded brute and blackmailer, but for how brief a s.p.a.ce I dreaded to antic.i.p.ate. My own position, utterly in the dark as I remained, was one of uncertainty and insecurity. I loved Mabel, but now had no right to do so. She was already the wife, alas! the victim, of a man of low type and of criminal instinct.
Our journey up to Paddington was uneventful, and in almost complete silence. Both our hearts, beating sadly, were too full for mere words.
The insurmountable barrier had fallen between us; we were both grief-stricken and heart-broken. The hopeful past had ended, the future was one of dull and dark despair.
On arrival in London she expressed a desire to see Mrs. Percival, and as she declined to return beneath the same roof as Dawson, I took her to the _York Hotel_ in Albemarle Street, then, re-entering the cab, I drove to Grosvenor Square, where I informed the chaperon of my lost love's whereabouts.
Not an instant did Mrs. Percival delay in seeking her, and at midnight, accompanied by Reggie, I called again at the hotel, giving her certain injunctions to refuse to see her husband, even if he discovered her, and taking a lingering farewell of her, as we had arranged to leave Charing Cross for Italy by the mail at nine o'clock on the following morning.
Both Reggie and I had arrived at the conclusion that, now I was sufficiently recovered to travel, we should not lose an instant in going out to Tuscany, and investigating the truth regarding that cipher record.
So she bade us both farewell, and urging us not to worry further upon her account, although we did not fail to detect her wild anxiety as to the result of my defiance of her ruffianly husband, she wished us all good fortune and G.o.dspeed in the exciting venture we were about to undertake, with success and a safe return.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
THE DIRECTIONS OF HIS EMINENCE.
The green, winding valley of the Serchio looks its brightest and best in the month of May the time of flowers in old-world Italy. Far removed from the great routes over which the English, Americans and Germans swarm in winter, unvisited, unknown and unexplored by any save the simple _contadini_ of the hills, the rippling river winds with tortuous bends around sharp angles and beneath overhanging trees, great cliffs and huge grey boulders worn smooth by the action of the water of ages.
In those lonely reaches of the river as it dashes on with many cascades from the giant Apennines to the sea, the brilliant kingfisher and the stately heron are in possession, and live their lives undisturbed by human intrusion. As we walked on, having left the carriage that had brought us up from Lucca at the quaint mediaeval bridge called the Ponte del Diavolo, the rural, quiet and picturesque beauty of the scene became impressed upon us. The silence was unbroken, save for the hum of the myriad insects in the sun, and the low music of the water which at that point is shallow, running over its rocky bed.
On arrival at the _Universo_ in Lucca, my first impulse was to go up to the monastery and see Fra Antonio. Yet so intimate did he appear to be with Blair's partner, the ex-boatswain Dawson, that we resolved to first explore the spot and take some observations. Therefore at eight that morning we had entered one of those dusty old travelling Tuscan carriages, the horses of which bore many jingling bells, and now, as noon was approaching, we found ourselves on the left bank of the river, counting the four hundred and fifty-six foot-paces as directed by the secret record upon the cards.
To avoid being watched by our driver, to whom we had given instructions to go back to a little wayside trattoria, or eating-house, which we had pa.s.sed, but who we knew would endeavour to secretly watch our movements, we were at first compelled, on account of the absence of a path, to make a detour through a small wood, rejoining the river bank at some distance further up.
Therefore, as we reached the water, standing amid the high undergrowth that grew upon the banks, we could only look back at the bridge and guess that we were about one hundred foot-paces from it.
Then, tramping steadily forward in single file we pushed our way with difficulty through the tall gra.s.s, briars, giant ferns and tangled creepers, slowly onward towards the spot indicated. In places the trees met overhead, and the sun shining through the foliage struck the rippling water with pretty effect.
According to the record the spot must be in the open, for the sun shone upon it for one hour at noon on the fifth of April and for two hours on the fifth of May. It was now the nineteenth of May, therefore the duration of the sunshine would, we roughly calculated, be about a quarter of an hour longer.
In some places the river was open to the sun, while in others, so high were the banks on either side, the light could never penetrate there.
From the crevices of the overhanging rocks, mountain pines and other trees had taken root and grown to huge size, bending over until their branches almost swept the stream, while our progress was made slower and more difficult by the unevenness of the bank and the wild tangle of the undergrowth.
One fact was proved--no one had approached the spot for a considerable time, for we found not a twig severed or a leaf disturbed by previous intruders.
At last, after we had climbed high along a rocky cliff that descended sheer into the water, and had calculated four hundred and twenty steps from the old pointed bridge, we suddenly rounded a bend in the river and came upon a s.p.a.ce where the stream, still a hundred feet or so below, broadened out, so that it lay open to the sky for forty yards or so.
"It must be here!" I cried in eager antic.i.p.ation, halting and quickly surveying the spot. "The directions are to descend twenty-four foot-holes. I suppose that means steps cut in the rock. We must find them." And both of us began to search eagerly, but in that tangled growth we could discover no trace of them.
"The record says that we go down behind where a man can hold himself against four hundred," exclaimed Reggie, reading from a copy of the transcript which he took from his pocket. "That appears as if the entry is in some narrow crevice between two rocks. Do you see any such likely spot?"
I looked eagerly around but was compelled to admit that I discerned nothing that coincided with the description.
So sheer was the grey limestone cliff, going down to the water, that I approached its edge with caution and then, throwing myself upon my stomach, I crept forward and peered over its insecure edge. In doing so a huge piece of rock became loosened and fell with a roar and splash into the stream.
I took careful observations, but could distinguish absolutely nothing to correspond with what the old outlaw, Poldo Pensi, had recorded.
For a full half-hour we searched in vain, until it became plain that, as we had not measured accurately the foot-paces from the Devil's Bridge, we were not at the exact spot. We therefore retraced our steps slowly and laboriously through the tangled briars and undergrowth, our clothes suffering considerably, and then restarted from the actual base of the bridge. So completely had we been out of reckoning that at the three hundred and eighty-seventh pace we pa.s.sed the spot where we had made such minute search, and continuing our way forward we halted at the four hundred and fifty-sixth foot-pace in the top of a high encampment very similar to the other, only wilder and even more inaccessible.
"There seems nothing here," remarked Reggie, whose face was torn by brambles and was bleeding.
I gazed around and was reluctantly compelled to endorse his statement.
The trees were large and shady where we stood, some of them overhanging the deep chasm through which the river wound. Cautiously, we both crept forward, flat upon our stomachs, to the edge of the cliff, taking that precaution as we knew not whether the edge might be rotten, and presently we peered over.
"Why, look!" cried my friend, pointing to a spot about half-way down the deep swirling stream as it came round the sudden bend, "there's steps and a path leading down just a little higher up. And see! what's that?"