As We Forgive Them - novelonlinefull.com
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Suddenly turning to me as we walked towards the city gate, the Ponto Santa Maria, where the uniformed officers of the _dazio_ were lounging ready to tax every pennyworth of food-stuff entering there, he demanded--
"How did you know that I had an appointment with our friend to-night?"
"By the letter which you wrote him, and which was found in his bag after his decease," I responded frankly.
He grunted with distinct satisfaction. It struck me indeed as though he were apprehensive that Burton had before his death told me some details regarding his life. I recollected that curious cipher upon the playing-card, although I made no reference to it.
"Ah! I see!" he exclaimed presently. "But if that little wallet, or whatever it was, that he always wore either concealed within his clothes or suspended around his neck, is missing, does not it point to a tragedy--theft and murder?"
"There are distinct suspicions," was my reply. "Although, according to the doctors, he died from a purely natural cause."
"Ah! I don't believe it!" cried the monk, fiercely clenching his fist.
"One of them has succeeded at last in stealing that sachet of which he was always so very careful, and I'm positive that murder has been committed in order to conceal the theft."
"One of whom?" I inquired anxiously.
"One of his enemies."
"But are you aware what that little bag contained?"
"He never would tell me," was the Capuchin's reply, looking me straight in the face. "He only said that his secret was concealed within--and I have reason to believe that such was a fact."
"But you knew his secret?" I said, my eyes full upon him.
I noted, by the change in his dark countenance, how my allegation caused him quick apprehension. He could not totally deny it, yet he was certainly seeking some means of misleading me.
"I only know what he explained to me," he responded. "And that was not much, for, as you are aware, he was a most reticent man. He has long ago related to me, however, the somewhat romantic circ.u.mstances in which you met, what a good friend you were to him before his stroke of fortune, and how you and your friend--I forget his name--put Mabel to school at Bournemouth, and thus rescued her from that weary tramp which Burton himself had undertaken."
"But why was he on tramp in that manner?" I asked. "To me it has always been an enigma."
"And also to me. He was, I believe, in search of the key to that secret which he carried with him--the secret which, you say, he has bequeathed to you."
"Did he reveal to you nothing more?" I inquired, recollecting that from this man's remarks regarding Mabel's youth, he and Blair must have been old friends.
"Nothing. His secret remained his own, and he revealed it to n.o.body always fearing betrayal."
"But now that it is in other hands, what do you antic.i.p.ate?" I inquired, still walking at his side, for we had pa.s.sed out of the city and were out upon that wide, dirty road that led away to the Moriano Bridge and then fifteen miles up into the mountains to that leafy and rather gay summer resort well known to all Italians and some English, the Baths of Lucca.
"Well," responded my companion, very gravely, "from what I learned in London on the occasion we met, I antic.i.p.ate that poor Blair's secret has been most ingeniously stolen, and will be put to good account by the person into whose possession it has now pa.s.sed."
"To the detriment of his daughter Mabel?"
"Most certainly. She must be the princ.i.p.al sufferer," he replied, with just a suspicion of a sigh.
"Ah, if he had only confided his affairs in some one who, knowing the truth, might have combated this cunning conspiracy! But, as it is, we seem all utterly in the dark. Even his lawyers know nothing!"
"And you, to whom the secret is left, have actually lost it!" he added.
"Yes, signore, the situation is indeed a most critical one."
"In this affair, Signor Salvi," I said, "being mutual friends of poor Blair, we must endeavour to do our best to discover and punish his enemies. Tell me, therefore, if you are aware of the source of our unfortunate friend's vast wealth?"
"I am not Signor Salvi here," was the monk's quiet reply. "I am known as Fra Antonio of Arezzo, or Fra Antonio for short. The name of Salvi was given to me by poor Blair himself, who did not wish to introduce a Capuchin among his worldly friends as such. As to the source of his wealth, I believe I am acquainted with the truth."
"Then tell me, tell me!" I cried anxiously.
"For it may give us the clue to these persons who had so successfully conspired against him." Again the monk turned his dark, penetrating eyes upon me, those eyes that in the gloom of San Frediano had seemed so full of fire and yet so full of mystery.
"No," he answered in a hard, decisive tone. "I am not permitted to tell anything. He is dead--let his memory rest."
"But why?" I demanded. "In these circ.u.mstances of grave suspicion, and of the theft of the secret which is my property by right, it is surely your duty to explain what you know, in order that we may gain a clue?
Recollect, too, that the future of his daughter depends upon the truth being revealed."
"I can tell you nothing," he repeated. "Much as I regret it, my lips are sealed."
"By an oath taken years ago--before I entered the Order of the Capuchins," he responded. Then after a pause, he added, with a sigh, "It is all strange--stranger perhaps than any man has dreamed--yet I can tell you nothing, Mr. Greenwood, absolutely nothing."
I was silent. His words were highly tantalising, as well as disappointing. I had not yet made up my mind whether he was actually my enemy or my friend.
At one moment he seemed simple, honest and straightforward as are all men of his religious order, yet at others there seemed within him that craft and cunning, that clever diplomacy and far-seeing ac.u.men of the Jesuit, traits of a character warped into ingenuity and double-dealing.
The very fact that Burton Blair had always hidden from me his friendship--if friendship it were--for this stalwart monk with the bronzed and furrowed face, caused me to entertain a kind of vague distrust in him. And yet, when I recollected the tone of the letter he had written to Blair, how could I doubt but their friendship, if secret, was a real and genuine one? Nevertheless, I recollected those words I had overheard on the pavement of Leicester Square, and they caused me to ponder and to doubt.
I walked on beside this man, heedless of our destination. We were quite in the country now. The immobility of everything, the luminous brilliancy of the tints of that winter afterglow gave the grey, olive-clad Tuscan hills something of sadness. That great, calm silence over everything, that unchanging stillness in the air, those motionless lights and great shadows gave one the impression of a pause in the dizzy movement of centuries, of a reflectiveness, of an intense waiting, or rather a look of melancholy thrown back on a past anterior to suns and human beings, races and religions.
Before us, as we rounded a bend in the road, I saw a huge, white old monastery standing high upon the hillside half hidden by the grey-green trees.
It was the Convent of the Cappuccini, he told me--his home.
I halted for a moment, gazing upon the white, almost windowless building, scorched by three hundred summers, standing like a stronghold, as once it was, against the background of the purple Apennines. I listened to the clanking of the old bell that sent out its summons with the same note of age, the same old voice as in centuries gone. It was then, in that moment, that the charm of old-world Lucca and her beautiful surroundings became impressed upon me. I felt, for the first time, stealing up from everywhere, an atmosphere of separateness, as it were, from the rest of the world, of mystery--a living essence of what the place is--destructible, alas! but still impregnating all things, exhaling from all things--surely the dying soul of once-brilliant Tuscany.
And there beside me, overwhelming all my thoughts, as the shadow of the giant Sphinx falls lengthening upon the desert sands, stood that big, bronzed monk in the faded brown habit, his feet bare, his waist bound by a hempen cord, his countenance a mystery, yet within his heart the great secret which no power could induce him to divulge--the secret of wealth that had been bequeathed to me.
"Poor Blair is dead!" he repeated again and again in fairly good English, as though almost unable as yet to realise that his friend was no more. Nevertheless, I was slow to become convinced that he spoke seriously. He might be misleading me, after all.
At his invitation I accompanied him up the steep, winding road until we came to the ponderous gate of the monastery, at which he rang. A solemn bell clanged loudly, and a few moments later the little grille was opened, revealing the white-bearded face of the janitor, who instantly admitted us.
He took me across the silent cloister, in the middle of which was a wonderful mediaeval well of wrought ironwork, and then along endless stone corridors, each lit by its single oil lamp, which rendered the place only more gloomy and depressing.
From the chapel at the end of the great building came the low chanting of the monks, but beyond, the quiet was that of the grave. The dark, ghostly figures pa.s.sed us noiselessly and seemed to draw aside into the darkness; the door of the refectory stood open, showing by the two or three dim lights magnificent carvings, wonderful frescoes and the two long rows of time-blackened oak benches at which the Brothers sat at meals.
Suddenly my conductor stopped before a small door, which he opened with his key, and I found myself within a tiny, carpetless cubicle containing a truckle bed, a chair, a well-filled bookcase and a writing-table.
Upon the wall was a large wooden crucifix before which he crossed himself on entering.
"This is my home," he explained in English. "Not very luxurious, it is true, but I would not exchange it for a palace in the world outside.
Here we are all brothers, with the superior as our father to supply us with all our worldly wants, even to our snuff. There are no jealousies, no bickerings, no backbitings or rivalry. All are equal, all perfectly contented, for we have each one of us learnt the very difficult lesson of brotherly love." And he drew the single chair for me to seat myself, for I was hot and tired after that long, steep ascent from the town.