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The fine old church, with its heavy gildings, its tawdry altars and its magnificent frescoes, was in such gloom that at first, on entering from the street, I could distinguish nothing plainly, but as soon as my eyes became accustomed to the light I saw within a few yards of me a countenance that was distinctly familiar, a face that caused me to pause in anxious breathlessness.
Standing there, behind those scattered kneeling women, with the faint, flickering light of the altar candles illuminating his face just sufficiently, the man's head was bowed in reverence and yet his dark, beady eyes seemed darting everywhere. By his features--those hard, rather sinister features and greyish scraggy beard that I had once before seen--I knew that he was the man who had made the secret appointment with Burton Blair, yet, contrary to my expectations, he was attired in the rough brown habit and rope girdle of a Capuchin lay brother, a silent, mournful figure as he stood with folded arms while the priest in his gorgeous vestments mumbled the prayers.
In that twilight a sepulchral chill fell upon my shoulders; the sweet smell of the incense in the darkness seemed to increase with that world of incredible magnificence, of solitude gloomily enchanted, of wealth strangely incongruous with the squalor and poverty in the piazza outside. Beyond that silent monk whose piercing mysterious eyes were fixed upon me so inquiringly were dark receding distances, traversed here and there by rainbow beams that fell from some great window, while far off a dim red light was suspended from the high, vaulted roof.
Those columns beside which I was standing rose straight to the roof, close and thick like high forest trees, testifying to the patient work of a whole generation of men all carved in living stone, all infinitely durable in spite of such rare delicacy and already transmitted to us from afar through the long-past centuries.
The monk, that man whose bearded face I had seen once before in England, had thrown himself upon his knees, and was mumbling to himself and fingering the huge rosary suspended from his girdle.
A woman dressed in black with the black _santuzza_ of the Lucchesi over her head had entered noiselessly, and was prostrated a few feet from me.
She held a miserable baby at her breast, a child but a few months old, in whose shrivelled little face there was already the stamp of death.
She was praying ardently for him, as the tapers gradually diminished, the penny tapers she had placed before the humble picture of Sant'
Antonio, this sorrowing creature. The contrast between the prodigious wealth around and the rags of the humble supplicant was overwhelming and cruel; between the persistent durability of those many thousand Saints draped in gold, and the frailty of that little being with no tomorrow.
The woman was still kneeling, her lips moving in obstinate and vain repet.i.tions. She looked at me, her eyes full of desolation, divining a pity no doubt in mine; then she turned her gaze upon the hooded Capuchin, the hard-faced, bearded man who held the key to the secret of Burton Blair.
I stood behind the ponderous column, bowed but watchful. The poor woman, after a quick glance at the splendour around, turned her eyes more anxiously upon me--a stranger. Did I really think they would listen to her, those magnificent divinities?
Ah! I did not know if they would listen. In her place I would rather have carried the child to one of those wayside shrines where the Virgin of the _contadini_ reigns. The Madonnas and Saints of Ghirlandajo and Civitali and Della Querica who inhabited that magnificent old church seemed somehow to be creatures of ceremony, hardened by secular pomp.
Strange as it may seem, I could not imagine that they would occupy themselves with a poor old woman from the olive mill or with her deformed and dying child.
Vespers ended. The dark, murmuring figures rose, shuffling away over the marble floor towards the door, and as the lights were quickly extinguished, the woman and her child became swallowed up in the gloom.
I loitered, desiring that the Capuchin should pa.s.s me, in order that I could obtain a further view of him. Should I address him, or should I remain silent and set Babbo to watch him?
He approached me slowly, his big hands hidden in the ample sleeves of his snuff-coloured habit, the garment which men of his order have new only once in ten years, and which they wear always, waking or sleeping.
I had halted before the ancient tomb of Santa Zita, that patroness of Lucca whom Dante mentions in his _Inferno_. In the little chapel a single light was burning in the great antique lantern of gold, which the proud Lucchese placed there ages ago when the black plague was feared.
As I turned, I saw that, although watching me narrowly, he still seemed to be awaiting the appearance of the man who was now, alas! no more.
Yes, now that in a better light I could see his features, I had no hesitation in p.r.o.nouncing him to be the same man I had met a year ago at Burton's table in Grosvenor Square.
I recollected the occasion well. It was in June, in the height of the London season, and Blair had invited me to dine with several bachelor friends and go to the Empire afterwards. The man now in a religious habit, shuffling along in his worn-out sandals, had presented the very different figure of the easy-going prosperous man-of-the-world, with a fine diamond in his shirt-front and a particularly well-cut dinner jacket. Burton had introduced him to us as Signor Salvi, the celebrated engineer, and he had sat at table opposite me and chatted in excellent English. He struck me as a man who had travelled very widely, especially in the Far East, and from certain expressions he let drop I concluded that, like Burton Blair, he had been to sea, and that he was a friend of the old days before the great secret became so profitable.
The other men present on that occasion were all acquaintances of mine, two of them financiers in the City whose names were well known on the Stock Exchange, a third the heir to an earldom to which he had since succeeded, and the fourth Sir Charles Webb, a smart young Guardsman of the modern type. After a dinner of that exquisite character of which Burton Blair's French _chef_ was famous, we all drove to the Empire, and afterwards spent a couple of hours at the Grosvenor Club, concluding the evening at the Bachelors, of which Sir Charles was a member.
Now as I stood within the hushed gloom of that grand old church, watching the dark mysterious figure pacing the aisle in patience and awaiting the person who would never come, I recollected what had, on that evening long ago, aroused within me a curious feeling of resentment against him. It was this. Having left the Empire, we were standing outside on the pavement in Leicester Square calling cabs, when I overheard the Italian exclaim in his own language to Blair, "I do not like that friend of yours--Greenwood. He is far too inquisitive." At this my friend laughed, saying, "Ah, _caro mio_, you don't know him. He is my very best friend." The Italian grunted, replying, "He has been putting leading questions to me all the evening, and I have had to lie to him." Again Blair laughed. "It is not the first time you've committed that sin," was his answer. "No," the other responded in a low voice, intending that I should not overhear him, "but if you introduce me to your friends be careful that they are not quite so astute or so inquisitive as this man Greenwood. He may be a good fellow, but even if he is he surely must not know our secret, if he did, it might mean ruin to us, remember!"
And then, before Blair could make response, he mounted into a hansom which at that moment had pulled up at the kerb.
From that moment I had entertained a distinct dislike of the man who had been introduced to me as Salvi, not that I hold every foreigner in suspicion as some insular Englishmen so foolishly do, but because he had endeavoured to poison Blair's mind against me. Yet after a week the incident had entirely slipped my memory and I had never recollected it until that strange and unexpected re-encounter.
Was it possible that this monk with the sun-bronzed, bearded face was the same man who rented that apartment in the Florence slum, and whose visits there were so surrept.i.tious and mysterious? Perhaps so, because all the secrecy of his habitation would be accounted for by the fact that a Capuchin is not allowed to possess any property outside his monastery. Those infrequent visits to Florence might be made at times when, being a lay brother, he would no doubt be sent out into the country to collect from the _contadini_ alms and presents in kind for the poor in the city. Everywhere throughout Tuscany, in peasant's hut as in prince's palace, the humble, patient and charitable Capuchin is welcomed; a flask of wine and a crust is ready for him at the house of every _contadino_, and in the villas and palaces of the rich there is always a place for him in the servants' hall. How many of the Italian poor are saved annually from sheer starvation by the soup and bread dispensed daily at the door of every Capuchin monastery, it would be impossible to estimate. Suffice it to say that the Order in their snuff-coloured habits and their black skull-caps is the greatest and truest friend the starving poor possesses.
Babbo Carlini was no doubt idling outside upon the steps of the church awaiting my reappearance. Would he, I wondered, recognise in this monk the description he had obtained of Paolo Melandrini, the unknown man who was to be Mabel Blair's secretary and adviser?
The last loiterers in the antique Chapel of the Holy Sacrament had left, their footsteps echoing away across the flags to the exit, and I found myself alone with the silent, almost statuesque, man beside whom I had, only one year before stood in the Grand Circle at the Empire watching and criticising a ballet.
Should I address him and claim acquaintance? His openly-expressed disapproval of myself caused me to hesitate. It was quite apparent that he had held me in apprehension on that night at Grosvenor Square, therefore in the present circ.u.mstances his suspicion would undoubtedly become increased. Should I boldly address him and thus show my fearlessness, as well as my acquaintance with his subterfuges? or should I withdraw and watch his subsequent movements?
I at length decided on the former course--for two reasons. The first was that I felt confident he had recognised me as Burton's friend; and the second because in dealing with such a man the open declaration of knowledge is always the more advantageous in the end than the careful concealment of such facts as I already knew. If I set a watch upon him his suspicions would become heightened, whereas if I acted openly I might succeed in disarming him.
Therefore, turning upon my heel, I strolled straight towards where he had halted as though he were patiently awaiting Blair's arrival.
"Pardon me, signore," I exclaimed in Italian, "but if I mistake not we have met before--in London, a year ago--was it not?"
"Ah," he exclaimed, his face relaxing into a pleasant smile as he extended his big, hard hand, "I have been wondering all this time, Signor Greenwood, if you would recognise me is this dress. I am very pleased to resume our acquaintance--very." And he emphasised his words, meant or feigned, by a strong, close grip.
I expressed surprise at finding the erratic traveller and man-of-the-world to be, in reality, an inhabitant of the cloister, to which in a low voice, in reverence that we were within that sacred place, he responded--
"I will tell you all about it later. It is not so remarkable as it no doubt strikes you. As a Capuchin I a.s.sure you my quiet, reflective life is far preferable to that of the man who, like yourself, mixes with the world and is compelled to live the fevered life of to-day, wherein fortunate unscrupulousness is accounted meritorious and the greatest of sins is that of one's evil living being found out."
"Yes, I quite understand," I replied, surprised nevertheless at his a.s.sertion and wondering whether, after all, he was merely attempting to mislead me. "The life of the cloister must be one of a sweet and infinite calm. But if I mistake not," I added, "you are here by appointment to meet our mutual friend, Burton Blair."
He raised his dark eyebrows slightly, and I could have sworn that my words caused him to start. Yet so cleverly did he conceal any surprise I had caused him that he replied in a quiet, natural tone--
"That is so. I am here to see him."
"Then I regret to tell you that you will never see him again," I said in a low, earnest voice.
"Why?" he gasped, his black eyes wide open in surprise.
"Because," I answered, "because poor Burton Blair is dead--and his secret has been stolen."
"What!" he cried, with a look of abject terror and in a voice so loud that his exclamation echoed along the high, vaulted roof. "Blair dead-- and the secret stolen! _Dio_! impossible--impossible!"
THE HOUSE OF SILENCE.
The effect of my words upon the burly Capuchin, whose form seemed almost gigantic on account of the thickness of his inartistic habit, was as curious as it was unexpected.
My announcement of Blair's death seemed to completely unnerve him.
Apparently he had been waiting there, keeping the appointment, all unconscious of the untimely end of the man with whom he had been on terms of such secret and intimate friendship.
"Tell me--tell me how it happened," he gasped in Italian in a low, hushed voice, as though he feared that some eavesdropper might be lurking in those dark recesses.
In a few brief words I explained the truth, to which he listened in silence. Then, when I had finished, he muttered something, crossed himself, and, as the approaching footsteps of the sacristan aroused us both, we walked forward and out into the dusk of the broad piazza.
Old Carlini, was was lounging upon a bench smoking the end of a cigar, noticed us in an instant and I saw him open his eyes in wonderment, although further than that he betrayed no sign.
"Poverino! Poverino!" repeated the monk as we strolled together slowly beside the old red walls of the once-proud city. "To think that our poor friend Burton died so suddenly--and without a word!"
"Not exactly without a word," I said. "He gave several directions, one of which was that he placed his daughter Mabel beneath my care."
"Ah, the little Mabel," he sighed. "Surely it is ten years since I saw her in Manchester. She was then about eleven, a tall, dark-haired, rather pretty child, a striking likeness of her mother--poor woman."
"You knew her mother, then?" I asked in some surprise.
He nodded in the affirmative, but gave no further information.