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CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
DESCRIBES A STARTLING DISCOVERY.
I looked and saw that upon a kind of natural platform on the rock was built a small stone hut, upon the grey-tiled roof of which we were gazing down.
"Yes, there are the `twenty-four foot-holes' mentioned in the record, no doubt," I said. "I wonder if anybody lives down there."
"Well, let's descend and investigate," suggested Reggie anxiously, and a few moments later we had struck a narrow track leading from the chestnut wood direct to the roughly-cut steps that went down to a narrow opening between two rocks. Upon the right hand one we found deeply graven an old-fashioned capital E, about a foot long, and pa.s.sing by it we saw that a rough and perilous track led zigzag down to the small hut, the closed door and small barred window of which caused us the wildest curiosity as to what was within.
Next moment, however, the truth was plain. The front of the little place was pointed, and upon the apex was a small stone cross.
It was a hermit's cell, like so many similar ancient places of retreat and contemplation in old-world Italy, and an instant later, as we pa.s.sed the rocks and came cautiously down the path, the door opened, and there issued forth the hermit himself, who, to my surprise, I recognised as no other person than the burly, dark-bearded monk, Antonio!
"Gentlemen," he exclaimed, speaking in Italian, as he greeted us, "this is certainly an unexpected meeting," and he indicated the stone bench that ran along the outside of the low little hut, which I saw was so cunningly concealed by the overhanging trees as to be invisible either from the river or from the opposite bank. As we seated ourselves at his direction, he hitched up his faded brown habit beneath his waist-cord and himself sat down beside us.
I expressed surprise at finding him there, but he only smiled, saying--
"You are disappointed at discovering nothing else--eh?"
"We expected to reveal the secret of the Cardinal Sannini," was my frank response, well knowing that he was in possession of the truth, and suspecting that, with the one-eyed Englishman, he had been partner with Blair.
The monk's strongly-marked, sunburnt features a.s.sumed a puzzled expression, for he saw that we had gained some knowledge, yet he hesitated to make inquiry lest he should betray himself. Capuchins, like Jesuits, are wonderful diplomatists. Doubtless, the monk's personal fascination was somewhat due to his splendid presence. A man of fine physique, he had a handsome, open face, with clean-cut, powerful features, softened by eyes in which seemed the light of perpetual youth, with a candid, una.s.suming expression, brightened by a twinkling humour about the lips.
"You have recovered the record, then," he remarked at last, looking straight into my face.
"Yes, and having read it," I answered, "I am here to investigate and claim the secret bequeathed to me."
He drew a long breath, glanced for an instant at both of us, and his s.h.a.ggy black brows contracted. It was hot where we sat, for the brilliant Italian sun beat straight down upon us, therefore, without replying to me, he rose and invited us into his cool little cell, a square bare room with boarded floor, the furniture consisting of a low, old-fashioned wooden bedstead, with a piece of old brown blanket for coverlet, a Renaissance _prie-dieu_ in old carved oak, black with age, a chair, a hanging lamp, and upon the wall a great crucifix.
"Well, and the Signor Dawson?" he asked at last, when Reggie had seated himself on the edge of the bed, and I had taken the chair. "What does he say?"
"I have no necessity to ask his opinion," I responded quickly. "By law the Cardinal's secret is mine, and no one can dispute it."
"Except its present holder," was his quiet remark.
"Its present holder has no right to it. Burton Blair has made gift of it to me, and it is therefore mine," I declared.
"I do not dispute that," answered the dark-faced monk. "But as guardian of the Cardinal's secret, I have a right to know the manner in which the record upon the cards came into your hands, and how you gained the key to the cipher."
I related to him exactly what he wished to ascertain, whereupon he answered--
"You have certainly succeeded where I antic.i.p.ated that you would fail, and your presence here to-day surprises me. Apparently you have overcome every obstacle, and are now here to claim from me what is undoubtedly yours by right." He seemed fair-minded, yet I confess I was loth to trust men of his stamp very far, and was therefore still suspicious.
"Before we go further, however," he said, standing with his hands in the wide sleeves of his habit, "I would ask whether it is your intention to continue the methods of the Signor Blair, who allotted one-eighth part of the money derived from the secret to our Order of Capuchins?"
"Certainly," I answered, rather surprised. "My desire is to regard in every particular my dead friend's obligations."
"Then that is a promise," he said with some eagerness. "You make that solemnly--you take an oath? Raise your hand!" And he pointed to the great crucifix upon the white-washed wall.
I raised my hand and exclaimed--
"I swear to act as Burton Blair has acted."
"Very well," answered the monk, apparently satisfied that I was a man of honour. "Then I suppose the secret, strange as it will strike you, must now be revealed to you. Think, Signore, at this moment you are a comparatively poor man, yet in half an hour you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams--worth millions, just as Burton Blair became."
I listened to him, scarcely believing my ears. Yet what was the possession of riches to me, now that I had lost my love?
From a little cupboard he took a small, rusty old hurricane lamp, and carefully lit it, while we both watched with breathless interest. Then he closed the door and securely locked and barred it, afterwards placing the shutters to the iron-barred window, so that we were quickly in darkness. Was some supernatural illusion about to be shown us? We stood open-mouthed in expectation.
A moment later he dragged his low ponderous bedstead away from the corner, where we saw that in the floor was a cunningly-concealed trap-door, which, on being lifted, disclosed a deep, dark, well-like hole beneath.
"Be careful," he cautioned us, "the steps are rather difficult in places," and holding the lantern he soon disappeared, leaving us to follow him down a roughly-hewn spiral flight of foot-holes in the stone, deeper and deeper into the solid rock, damp and slimy in places where the water percolated through and fell in loudly-sounding drops.
"Bend low!" ordered our guide, and we saw the faint glimmer of this lamp lighting our path along a narrow, tortuous burrow which ran away at right angles and sloped down still further into the heart of the cliff.
In places we went through a veritable quagmire of mud and slime, while the close atmosphere smelt foul and earthy.
Suddenly we emerged into a great opening, the dimensions of which we could not ascertain with that one single glimmering light.
"These caverns run for miles," explained the monk. "The galleries run in all directions right under the city of Lucca and over towards the Arno. They have never been explored. Listen!"
In the weird darkness we heard the distant roaring of tumbling waters far away.
"That is the subterranean river, the stream that divides the secret from all men save yourself," he said. Then he went forward again, keeping along one side of the gigantic cavern through which we were pa.s.sing, and we followed, approaching nearer those thundering waters, until at last he told us to halt, and appeared to be examining the rough walls upon which shone great glittering stalact.i.tes.
Presently he found a large white mark similar to the letter E on the rock upon the cliff-side, and placed his lantern on the floor.
"Don't move another step forward," he said. Then he produced from a hole, where it appeared to be well hidden, a long, roughly-made footbridge, consisting of a single plank, with a light handrail on each side. This he pushed before him while I held the lantern, until he came to the edge of a deep chasm and then bridged it across so that we could pa.s.s over.
When in the centre, he held aloft the lantern, and as we peered down a hundred feet we shuddered to see, deep down in the chasm, the rushing flood of black water roaring away into the bowels of the earth, a terrible trap to those who ventured to explore that weird, dank place.
Having pa.s.sed safely over we again skirted a wall of rock to the right, traversed a long, narrow tunnel and at last emerged into another open s.p.a.ce, of the dimensions of which we could gather no idea.
Here the monk set down his lantern in a niche wherein stood several candles stuck upon rude boards and secured between three nails. When they were lit and our eyes grew accustomed to the light, we saw that the chamber was not a large one, but that it was long, narrow and somewhat drier than the rest.
"See!" exclaimed the Capuchin, with a wave of his hand. "It is all there, Signor Greenwood, and all yours."
Then I realised to my utter amazement that around the walls of the place, piled high, one on the other, were sacks of untanned hide filled to bursting. One pile close to my hand I touched, and found that what was within them was hard, angular and unyielding. There were many small, old-fashioned chests which, from their strong appearance, banded with rusted iron and studded with nails, must, I knew, contain the mysterious riches that raised Burton Blair from homeless wayfarer to millionaire.
"Why, surely this is an actual h.o.a.rd of treasure!" I cried.
"Yes," answered Fra Antonio in his deep, ba.s.s voice. "The hidden treasure of the Vatican. See," he added, "it is all here except that portion taken out by the Signor Blair," and opening one of the ma.s.sive chests, he held his lantern above and displayed such a miscellaneous collection of golden chalices, monstrances, patens, jewel-embroidered vestments and magnificent gems, such as had never before dazzled my eyes.
Both Reggie and I stood utterly dumbfounded. At first I seemed to be living in some fairy world of legend and romance, but when a moment later the rugged, bearded face of the Capuchin recalled to me all the past, I stood open-mouthed in wonder.
The secret of Burton Blair was disclosed--and the secret was now mine!
"Ah!" exclaimed the monk, laughing, "no doubt this revelation is, to you, an amazing one. Did I not, however, promise you that in half an hour you would become many times over a millionaire?"
"Yes; but tell me the history of all this great wealth," I urged, for he had cut open one or two of the leathern bags, and I saw that each of them was filled with gold and gems mostly set in crucifixes and ornaments of an ecclesiastical character.