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CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
IN WHICH A STRANGE TALE IS TOLD.
"I suppose it is only just that you should now know the truth, although a most strenuous effort has been made to keep it from you," the monk remarked, as though to himself. "Well, it is this. You, as a Protestant, probably know that the treasures in the Vatican in Rome are the greatest in the world, and also that each Pope, on his jubilee or other notable anniversary, receives a vast number of presents, while the church of St. Peter's itself is constantly in receipt of quant.i.ties of ornaments and jewels as votive offerings. These are preserved in the treasury of the Vatican, and const.i.tute a collection of wealth unequalled by all the millions of modern millionaires. Well, in the early part of 1870, Pope Pius IX received, through the marvellous diplomatic channels our Holy Church possesses, secret information that it was the intention of the Italian troops to bombard and enter Rome, and sack the Palace of the Vatican. His Holiness confided his fears to his favourite, the great, Cardinal Sannini, the treasurer-general, who, having lived in this district when a peasant lad, was aware of the existence of this safe hiding-place. He, therefore, succeeded, during the months of June, July and August 1870, in secretly removing a vast quant.i.ty of the Vatican treasure from Rome and storing it in this place in order to save it from the enemy's hands. True to the fears of His Holiness, on September 20 the Italian troops, after a five days'
bombardment, entered Rome, but, fortunately, no serious attack was made upon the Vatican, while the treasure removed has remained here ever since. Cardinal Sannini was, it appears, a traitor to the Church, for although he induced Pio Nono to allow the treasure to be removed in secret, he never told him the exact spot where it was concealed, and curiously enough the two members of the Swiss Guard who had a.s.sisted the Cardinal, and alone knew the secret, both disappeared--in all probability, I believe, precipitated into that subterranean river we have just crossed. Originally, the small entrance to these galleries was only hidden by brambles, but, directly after the treasure had been safely secreted, His Eminence the Cardinal suddenly discovered that the spot on the cliff-side was well adapted for a hermitage, and he built the present hut over the small opening in the rock in order to conceal it, having first closed the hole with his own hands so that the stone-masons should not discover the entrance. For many months, during the struggle between, the Italian Government and the Holy See, he doffed the purple and lived in the cell, a hermit, but in reality guarding the enormous treasure he had so cleverly secured. But, as you know, he was captured by the terrible Poldo Pensi, dreaded down in Calabria, and was compelled, in order to save his life and reputation, to betray the existence of his h.o.a.rd. Upon this, Pensi came here in secret, saw the treasure, but being extremely superst.i.tious, as are all his cla.s.s, he dare not touch one single object. A man who had once served in his band and who had entered our monastery, a certain Fra Orazio, he sought out, and to him gave the hermitage, without, however, telling him of the secret tunnel and caves beneath. Both Sannini and the Pope died, but Fra Orazio, in ignorance of the fact that he resided over a veritable mine of wealth, continued here sixteen years, until he died, and I succeeded him in the occupancy of the cell, spending nearly six months each year here in meditation and prayer.
"In the meantime, however, the secret of His Eminence inscribed in the secret cipher used by the Vatican in the seventeenth century, seems to have pa.s.sed through Poldo Pensi into the hands of Burton Blair, his shipmate and intimate friend. The first I knew of it was about five years ago, when one day my peace was disturbed by a visit from two Englishmen, Blair and Dawson. They told me a story of the secret being given to them, but at first I would not believe that there was any truth in the hidden h.o.a.rd. We, however, investigated, and after a very long, difficult and perilous search we succeeded in revealing the truth."
"Then Dawson shared in the secret, as well as in the profits?" I remarked, astounded at the amazing truth.
"Yes, the three of us alone knew the secret, and it was then mutually arranged that it having been given by the repentant brigand to Blair, he was ent.i.tled to the greater share, while Dawson, to whom Pensi had apparently spoken before his death concerning the treasure, and who had been in possession of certain facts, should be allotted one quarter of the annual out-take, and to myself, appointed guardian of the treasure-house, one eighth to be paid, not to myself direct, as that would arouse suspicion, but by Blair's bankers in London to the Vicar-General of the Order of the Capuchins at Rome. Through five years this arrangement has been carried out. Once every six months we entered this chamber in company and selected a certain amount of gems and other articles of value which were sent by certain channels--the gems to Amsterdam for sale and the other articles to the great auction-rooms of Paris, Brussels and London, and others into the hands of renowned dealers in antiques. As you may see for yourself, this collection of gems is almost inexhaustible. Three rubies alone fetched sixty-five thousand pounds in Paris last year, while some of the emeralds have realised enormous sums, yet so ingeniously did the Signori Dawson and Blair arrange the channels by which they were placed upon the market that none ever guessed the truth."
"But all this is, strictly speaking, the property of the Church of Rome," remarked Reggie.
"No," answered the big monk in his broken English; "according to Cardinal Sannini, His Holiness, after the peace with Italy, made a free gift to him of the whole of it as a mark of regard, and knowing too that with Rome in the occupation of the Italian troops it would be difficult to get the great collection of jewels back again into the treasury without exciting suspicion."
"Then all this is mine!" I exclaimed, even then unable to fully realise the truth.
"All," answered the monk, "except the share to me, or rather to my Order, for distribution to the poor, as payment for its guardianship, and that to the Signor Dawson--with, I suppose," and he turned towards Reggie, "some acknowledgment to your friend. I warned you against him once," he added, "but it was owing to what Dawson told me--lies."
"I have already pledged myself to continue to act towards your Order as Burton Blair has done," I replied. "As to Dawson that is another matter, but certainly my friend Seton here will not be forgotten, nor you personally, as the faithful holder of the secret."
"Any reward of mine goes to my Order," was the manly fellow's quiet reply. "We are forbidden to possess money, our small personal wants being supplied by the father superior, and of this world's riches we desire none save that necessary to relieve the poor and afflicted."
"You shall have some for that purpose, never fear," I laughed.
Then, as the air exhausted by the lights seemed to grow more foul, we decided to return to the cell so cunningly constructed at the mouth of the narrow outer gallery.
We had reached the brink of that terrible abyss where the black flood roared deep below, and I had pa.s.sed over the narrow hand-bridge and gained the opposite side safely, when, without warning, a pair of strong hands seized me in the darkness, and almost ere I could utter a cry I was forced backwards to the edge of the awful chasm.
The hands held me in an iron grip by the throat and arm, and so suddenly had I been seized that for the first instant I believed it to be a joke on Reggie's part--for he was fond of horseplay when in jubilant spirits.
"My G.o.d!" I however heard him cry a second later, as I suppose the flickering lamplight fell upon my a.s.sailant's countenance, "why, it's Dawson!"
Knowledge of the terrible truth that I had been seized by my worst enemy, who had followed us in, well knowing the place, aroused within me a superhuman strength, and I grappled with the fellow in a fierce death struggle. Ere my two companions could reach and rescue me we were swaying to and fro in the darkness on the very edge of the abyss into which it was his intention to hurl me to the same death that the two Swiss Guards had probably been consigned by the wily cardinal.
I realised his murderous intention none too quickly, for with a fierce oath he panted--
"You sha'n't escape me now! That blow in the fog didn't have the desired effect, but once down there you'll never intrude again upon my affairs. Down you go!"
I felt my strength fail me as he forced me back still further, locked in his deadly embrace. In the darkness one of my companions gripped me and saved me, but at that instant I had recourse to an old Charterhouse trick, and twisting suddenly, so that my opponent stood in my place, I tripped him backwards, at the same moment slipping from his grasp.
It was the work of a second. In the uncertain glimmer from the lamp I saw him stumble, clutch wildly at the air, and with an awful cry of rage and despair he fell backwards, down into the Stygian blackness where the rushing waters swept him down to subterranean regions, unknown and unexplored.
My escape from death was a.s.suredly the narrowest man had ever had, and I stood panting, breathless, bewildered, until Reggie took me by the arm and led me forward in silence more impressive than any words.
THE MOTIVE AND THE MORAL.
On the following night we took leave of the strong, big-handed monk on the railway platform in Lucca, and entered the train on the first stage of our journey back to England. He was to return at once to his hermit cell above the swirling Serchio, and remain, as before, the silent guardian of that great secret which, had it been revealed, would have astounded the world.
Anxiety consumed us, knowing not how Mabel had fared. Yet with the knowledge that the baneful influence of the adventurer Dawson had been now removed, we returned home somewhat easier in mind. I was wealthy, it was true, rich beyond my wildest dreams, yet the hope of the possession of Mabel as my wife, that had been the mainspring of my life, had been snapped, and in those pensive hours as the sleeping-car express tore northward across the plains of Lombardy and through Switzerland and France, my despairing thoughts were all of her and of her future.
A cab took us direct from Charing Cross to Great Russell Street, where I found a note from her dated from Grosvenor Square, asking me to call there on the instant of our return. This I did after a hasty wash, and Carter showed me unceremoniously and at once up to that big white-and-gold drawing-room so familiar to me.
In a few moments she entered, looking sweet and charming in her mourning, a smile upon her lips, her hand extended to me in glad welcome. Her face, I thought, betrayed a keen anxiety, and the pallor of her cheeks showed how sorely her heart was torn by grief and terror.
"Yes, Mabel, I am back again," I said, holding her hand and gazing into her eyes. "I have discovered your father's secret!"
"What?" she cried in eager surprise, "you have? Tell me what it is--do tell me," she urged breathlessly.
I first obtained from her a promise of secrecy, and then, standing with her, I described our visit to the lonely hermit's cell, our reception by the monk Antonio, and our subsequent discoveries.
She listened in blank amazement at my story of the hidden treasure of the Vatican, until I described the attack made upon me by Dawson, and its tragic sequel, whereupon she cried--
"Then if that man is dead--actually dead--I am free!"
"How? Explain!" I demanded.
"Well, now that circ.u.mstances have combined to thus liberate me, I will confess to you," she responded after a brief pause. Her face had suddenly flushed and glancing across at the door, she first rea.s.sured herself that it was closed. Then in a deep, intense voice she said, looking straight into my face with those wonderful eyes of hers, "I have been the victim of a foul, base plot which I will explain, so that, knowing the whole truth, you may be able to judge how I have suffered, and whether I have not acted from a sense of right and duty. For devilish cunning and ingenuity the conspiracy against me surely has no equal, as you will see. I have only now succeeded in discovering the real truth and the deep hidden motive behind it all. My first meeting with Herbert Hales was apparently accidental, in Widemarsh Street, Hereford. I was only a girl just finishing my schooldays, and as full of romantic ideas concerning men as all girls are. I saw him often, and although I knew that he picked up a precarious living on race-courses, I allowed him to court me. At first I confess that I fell deeply in love with him, a fact which he did not fail to detect, and during that summer at Mayvill I met him secretly on many evenings in the park. After we had thus been acquainted about three months, he one night suggested that we should marry, but by that time, having detected that his love for me was only feigned, I refused. Evening after evening we met, but I steadfastly declined to marry him, until one night he showed himself in his true colours, for to my abject amazement he told me that he was well acquainted with my father's life-story, and further he alleged that there was one dark incident connected with it--namely that my father, in order to possess himself of the secret by which he had gained his wealth, had murdered the Italian seaman, Pensi, on board the _Annie Curtis_ off the Spanish coast. I refused to hear such a terrible allegation, but to my surprise he caused me to meet my father's friend, the man Dawson, by appointment, and the last-named declared that he was the actual witness of my father's crime. When we were alone that same night as we walked by a bypath across the park he put his intentions to me plainly--namely, that I should be compelled to accept him as my husband, and marry him is secret against my father's knowledge.
Otherwise he would give information to the police regarding the allegation against my father."
"The blackguard!" I cried.
Continuing, she said, "He pointed out how Dawson, my father's closest friend, was the actual witness, and so completely did I find myself and my father's reputation in his unscrupulous hands, that I was compelled, after a week of vain resistance, to accept his condition of secrecy and consent to the odious marriage. From that moment, although I returned home the instant we were made man and wife, I was completely in his power, and had to pay blackmail to him at every demand. After he had secured me as his victim, his true pa.s.sionate instincts--those of a man who lived by his wits and to whom a woman's heart was of no account-- were almost instantly revealed, and from that moment until the present, although believed to be a single girl, and chaperoned to all sorts of functions in the brightest set in London, yet I lived in mortal terror of the man who was by law my husband."
She paused to gain breath, and I saw that her lips were white, and that she was trembling.
"Fortunately," she went on at last, "you were able to rescue me, otherwise the plot would have been successful in every particular.
Until yesterday, I was entirely unaware of the real motive of forcing me into that marriage, but now it is revealed I can see the deep cunning of the master mind that planned it. Herbert Hales, it seems, first sought me out because of a chance remark of old Mr. Hales regarding my father's great and mysterious fortune. An adventurer, he saw that he might contract marriage with myself, as heiress to my father's possessions.
When we had been acquainted about a month, Dawson chanced to be over from Italy, staying with us at Mayvill for a few days, and one evening while out shooting wood pigeons he discovered us walking together at the edge of the wood skirting the park. The instant he saw us he formed a devilish design, and next day, set about making inquiries regarding Hales, and, ascertaining the character of the man, met him and made a curious compact with him to the effect that if he, Dawson, so arranged matters that a secret marriage was contracted between myself and Hales, the latter was, in the case of my father's death, to receive the sum of two thousand a year in lieu of any claim against the estate on his wife's behalf. He pointed out to Hales that by a secret marriage with me he would obtain a source of continual revenue, as I dare not refuse his demands for money, because if I, on my part, exposed the secret of our union, he could at once take up his correct position as the husband of the millionaire's daughter. This having been arranged, he told Hales many true facts concerning my father's life at sea in order to mislead me, but added an allegation which, being corroborated by himself, I unfortunately believed to be true, that my father had committed murder in order to obtain that little pack of cards with the cipher upon them.
Dawson, who had quickly judged the character of Hales, secretly aided him to get me completely in his power, although, of course, I was entirely unaware of it. His motive in securing my marriage in such compulsory circ.u.mstances was a far-seeing one, for he recognised that had I married the man I loved, my husband would, on my father's death, see that my rights as heiress were properly established, while if, on the other hand, I were Hales' wife, afraid to acknowledge my matrimonial _mesalliance_, and Hales was by the compact entirely in his power, he would in the end obtain complete possession of my father's money. He knew, of course, that his position as one of the holders of the secret of the Vatican treasure, as it now turns out to be, made it imperative for my father to leave the management of my affairs in his hands, and therefore he took every precaution to secure complete possession upon my poor father's death. The ingenious manner in which he secretly placed Herbert Hales in possession of certain facts which, I believed, were only known to my father and myself, the subtle manner in which he corroborated his own untruth, alleging that my father was guilty of a crime, and the secrecy with which he aided Hales to marry me under sheer compulsion were, I can now see, marvels of clever conspiracy. I feared, nay, I felt convinced all along, that the terrible secret of my father as known to Hales was the awful truth, and it is only yesterday that, with the aid of old Mr. Hales, I succeeded in discovering in a back street in Grimsby a man named Palmer, who was seaman on board the _Annie Curtis_ and present at the Italian's death. He tells me that the allegation against my father is absolutely false, and that on the contrary he was the man's best and kindest friend, and in acknowledgment of this, the Italian gave him the little chamois leather bag containing the cards. My fears as to the secret having been obtained by foul play are therefore entirely set at rest; and the stain removed from my poor father's memory."
"But the mode of your father's death?" I said, amazed at this remarkable revelation of craft and deception.
"Ah!" she sighed, "my opinion has altered. He died from natural causes just at a moment when a secret attempt was to be made to a.s.sa.s.sinate him. By that same train up to Manchester, Herbert Hales--who was, of course, unknown to my father--and the man Dawson travelled in company, and I have no doubt that it was their intention if opportunity was afforded, to strike a blow with the same fatal knife with which the attempt was later made upon you. Death, however, cheated them of their victim."
"But this villainous scoundrel who is your husband? What of him?"
"The judgment of Heaven has already fallen upon him," was her low, almost mechanical answer. "What!" I gasped eagerly. "Is he dead?"
"He quarrelled here with Dawson on the night you left London, and again the one-eyed man exhibited that remarkable craft he possessed, for, in order to rid himself of Hales and the ugly facts of which he was in possession, he appears to have given confidential information to the police of a certain robbery committed about a year ago after Kempton Park races, in which the man from whom a large sum of money was stolen was so severely injured that he died. Two detectives went to Hales'
lodgings in Lower Seymour Street about two o'clock in the morning. They demanded admittance to his room, but he, realising that Dawson had carried out his threat and that the truth was out, barricaded himself in. When they at last forced the door, they found him stretched dead upon the floor with a revolver lying beside him."
"Then you are free, Mabel--free to marry me!" I cried, almost beside myself with joy.
She hung her head, and answered in a tone so low that I could hardly catch the words--