"I see you have Count Ferralti with you," remarked Uncle John.
"Ferralti—Count Ferralti. The young man standing by the window, yonder."
"I—I did not know," he said, hesitatingly. "The gentleman arrived last evening, and I had not yet learned his name. Let me see," he turned to his list of guests, who register by card and not in a book, and continued: "Ah, yes; he has given his name as Ferralti, but added no title. A count, did you say?"
"Yes," replied Uncle John.
The proprietor looked curiously toward the young man, whose back only was visible. Then he remarked that the eruption of Vesuvius was waning and the trouble nearly over for this time.
"Are the Ferraltis a good family?" asked Uncle John, abruptly.
"That I cannot tell you, Signor Merrick."
"Oh. Perhaps you know little about the nobility of your country."
"I! I know little of the nobility!" answered Floriano, indignantly. "My dear signor, there is no man better posted as to our nobility in all Italy."
"Yet you say you don't know the Ferralti family."
The proprietor reached for a book that lay above his desk.
"Observe, signor. Here is our record of nobility. It is the same as the 'Blue Book' or the 'Peerage' of England. Either fortunately or unfortunately—I cannot say—you have no need of such a book in America."
He turned the pages and ran his finger down the line of "Fs."
"Find me, if you can, a Count Ferralti in the list."
Uncle John looked. He put on his glasses and looked again. The name of Ferralti was no place in the record.
"Then there is no such count, Signor Floriano."
"And no such noble family, Signor Merrick."
Uncle John whistled softly and walked away to the window. The young man greeted him with a smile and a bow.
"I misunderstood your name last evening," he said. "I thought you were Count Ferralti."
"And that is right, sir," was the prompt reply. "Allow me to offer you my card."
Uncle John took the card and read:
"CONTE LEONARDI FERRALTI, Milano, Italia."
He carefully placed the card in his pocket-book.
"Thank you," said he. "It's a fine morning, Count."
"Charming, Mr. Merrick."
Uncle John walked away. He was glad that he had not suspected the young man unjustly. When an imposture is unmasked it is no longer dangerous.
He joined his nieces, who were all busily engaged in writing letters home, and remarked, casually:
"You've been deceived in your Italian friend, Louise. He is neither a count nor of noble family, although I suppose when you met him in New York he had an object in posing as a titled aristocrat."
The girl paused, examining the point of her pen thoughtfully.
"Are you sure, Uncle John?"
"Quite sure, my dear. I've just been through the list of Italian counts, and his name is not there. Floriano, the proprietor, who knows every aristocrat in Italy, has never before heard of him."
"How singular!" exclaimed Louise. "I wonder why he has tried to deceive us."
"Oh, the world is full of impostors; but when you are on to their game they are quite harmless. Of course we won't encourage this young man in any way. It will be better to avoid him."
"He—he seems very nice and gentlemanly," said Louise with hesitation.
The other girls exchanged glances, but made no remark. Uncle John hardly knew what to say further. He felt he was in an awkward position, for Louise was the most experienced in worldly ways of his three nieces and he had no desire to pose as a stern guardian or to deprive his girls of any passing pleasure they might enjoy. Moreover, Louise being in love with that young Weldon her mother so strongly objected to, she would not be likely to care much for this Italian fellow, and Mrs. Merrick had enjoined him to keep her daughter's mind from dwelling on her "entanglement."
"Oh, well, my dear," he said to her, "you must act as you see fit. I do not imagine we shall see much of this young man, in any event, and now that you are well aware of the fact that he is sailing under false colors, you will know how to handle him better than I can advise you."
"I shall be very careful," said Louise slowly, as she resumed her writing.
"Well then, girls, what do you say to a stroll around the village?" asked their uncle. "I'm told it's a proper place to buy silk stockings and inlaid wood-work. They come assorted, I suppose."
Beth and Patsy jumped up with alacrity, but Louise pleaded that she had several more letters to write; so the others left her and passed the rest of the forenoon in rummaging among the quaint shops of Sorrento, staring at the statue of Tasso, and enjoying the street scenes so vividly opposed to those of America. It was almost their first glimpse of foreign manners and customs. In Naples they had as yet seen nothing but darkness and falling ashes.
THE ROAD TO AMALFI
The Hotel Victoria faces the bay of Naples. Back of it are the famous gardens, and as you emerge from these you find yourself upon the narrow main street of Sorrento, not far from the Square of Tasso.
As our little party entered this street they were immediately espied by the vetturini, or cabmen, who rushed toward them with loud cries while they waved their whips frantically to attract attention. One tall fellow was dressed in a most imposing uniform of blue and gold, with a high hat bearing a cockade a la Inglese and shiny top boots. His long legs enabled him to outstrip the others, and in an almost breathless voice he begged Uncle John to choose his carriage: "the besta carrozza ina town!"
"We don't want to ride," was the answer.
The cabman implored. Certainly they must make the Amalfi drive, or to Massa Lubrense or Saint' Agata or at least Il Deserto! The others stood by to listen silently to the discussion, yielding first place to the victor in the race.
Uncle John was obdurate.
"All we want to-day is to see the town," he declared, "We're not going to ride, but walk."
"Ah, but the Amalfi road, signore! Surely you will see that."
"To-morrow, perhaps; not now."
"To-morrow, signore! It is good. At what hour, to-morrow, illustrissimo?"
"Oh, don't bother me."
"We may as well drive to Amalfi to-morrow," suggested Beth. "It is the proper thing to do, Uncle."
"All right; we'll go, then."
"You take my carrozza, signore?" begged the cabman. "It is besta ina town."
"Let us see it."
Instantly the crowd scampered back to the square, followed more leisurely by Uncle John and the girls. There the uniformed vetturio stood beside the one modern carriage in the group. It was new; it was glossy; it had beautiful, carefully brushed cushions; it was drawn by a pair of splendid looking horses.
"Is not bellissima, signore?" asked the man, proudly.
"All right," announced Uncle John, nodding approval. "Be ready to start at nine o'clock to-morrow morning."
The man promised, whereat his confreres lost all interest in the matter and the strangers were allowed to proceed without further interruption.
They found out all about the Amalfi drive that evening, and were glad indeed they had decided to go. Even Louise was pleased at the arrangement and as eager as the others to make the trip. It is one of the most famous drives in the world, along a road built upon the rocky cliff that overhangs the sea and continually winds in and out as it follows the outlines of the crags.
They had an early breakfast and were ready at nine o'clock; but when they came to the gate of the garden they found only a dilapidated carriage standing before it.
"Do you know where my rig is?" Uncle John asked the driver, at the same time peering up and down the road.
"It is me, sir signore. I am engage by you. Is it not so?"
Mr. Merrick looked at the driver carefully. It was long-legs, sure enough, but shorn of his beautiful regalia.
"Where's your uniform?" he asked.
"Ah, I have leave it home. The road is dusty, very; I must not ruin a nice dress when I work," answered the man, smiling unabashed.
"But the carriage. What has become of the fine carriage and the good horses, sir?"
"Ah, it is dreadful; it is horrible, signore. I find me the carrozza is not easy; it is not perfect; it do not remain good for a long ride. So I leave him home, for I am kind. I do not wish the signorini bella to tire and weep. But see the fine vetture you now have! Is he not easy like feathers, an' strong, an' molto buena?"
"It may be a bird, but it don't look it," said Uncle John, doubtfully. "I rented the best looking rig in town, and you bring me the worst."
"Only try, signore! Others may look; it is only you who must ride. You will be much please when we return."
"Well, I suppose we may as well take it," said the little man, in a resigned tone. "Hop in, my dears."
They entered the crazy looking vehicle and found the seats ample and comfortable despite the appearance of dilapidation everywhere prevalent. The driver mounted the box, cracked his whip, and the lean nags ambled away at a fair pace.
They passed near to the square, where the first thing that attracted Uncle John's attention was the beautiful turnout he had hired yesterday. It was standing just as it had before, and beside it was another man dressed in the splendid uniform his driver had claimed that he had left at home.
"Here—stop! Stop, I say!" he yelled at the man, angrily. But the fellow seemed suddenly deaf, and paid no heed. He cracked his whip and rattled away through the streets without a glance behind him. The girls laughed and Uncle John stopped waving his arms and settled into his seat with a groan.
"We've been swindled, my dears," he said; "swindled most beautifully. But I suppose we may as well make the best of it."
"Better," agreed Patsy. "This rig is all right, Uncle. It may not be as pretty as the other, but I expect that one is only kept to make engagements with. When it comes to actual use, we don't get it."
"That's true enough," he returned. "But I'll get even with this rascal before I've done with him, never fear."
It was a cold, raw morning, but the portiere at the Victoria had told them the sun would be out presently and the day become more genial. Indeed, the sun did come out, but only to give a discouraged look at the landscape and retire again. During this one day in which they rode to Amalfi and back, Uncle John afterward declared that they experienced seven different kinds of weather. They had sunshine, rain, hail, snow and a tornado; and then rain again and more sunshine. "Sunny Italy" seemed a misnomer that day, as indeed it does many days in winter and spring, when the climate is little better than that prevailing in the eastern and central portions of the United States. And perhaps one suffers more in Italy than in America, owing to the general lack of means to keep warm on cold days. The Italian, shivering and blue, will tell you it is not cold at all, for he will permit no reproach to lie on his beloved land; but the traveller frequently becomes discouraged, and the American contingent, especially, blames those misleading English writers who, finding relief from their own bleak island in Italian climes, exaggerated the conditions by apostrophizing the country as "Sunny Italy" and for more than a century uttered such rhapsodies in its praise that the whole world credited them—until it acquired personal experience of the matter.
Italy is beautiful; it is charming and delightful; but seldom is this true in winter or early spring.
The horses went along at a spanking pace that was astonishing. They passed through the picturesque lanes of Sorrento, climbed the further slope, and brought the carriage to the other side of the peninsula, where the girls obtained their first view of the Gulf of Salerno, with the lovely Isles of the Sirens lying just beneath them.
And now they were on the great road that skirts the coast as far as Salerno, and has no duplicate in all the known world. For it is cut from the solid rock of precipitous cliffs rising straight from the sea, which the highway overhangs at an average height of five hundred feet, the traveller being protected only by a low stone parapet from the vast gulf that yawns beneath. And on the other side of the road the cliffs continue to ascend a like distance toward the sky, their irregular surfaces dotted with wonderful houses that cling to the slopes, and vineyards that look as though they might slip down at any moment upon the heads of timorous pilgrims.
When it rained they put up the carriage top, which afforded but partial shelter. The shower was brief, but was shortly followed by hail as big as peas, which threatened to dash in the frail roof of their carrozza. While they shrank huddled beneath the blankets, the sun came out suddenly, and the driver shed his leathern apron, cracked his whip, and began singing merrily as the vehicle rolled over the smooth road.
Our travellers breathed again, and prepared to enjoy once more the wonderful vistas that were unfolded at every turn of the winding way. Sometimes they skirted a little cove where, hundreds of feet below, the fishermen sat before their tiny huts busily mending their nets. From that distance the boats drawn upon the sheltered beach seemed like mere toys. Then they would span a chasm on a narrow stone bridge, or plunge through an arch dividing the solid mountain. But ever the road returned in a brief space to the edge of the sea-cliff, and everywhere it was solid as the hills themselves, and seemingly as secure.
They had just sighted the ancient town of Positano and were circling a gigantic point of rock, when the great adventure of the day overtook them. Without warning the wind came whistling around them in a great gale, which speedily increased in fury until it drove the blinded horses reeling against the low parapet and pushed upon the carriage as if determined to dash it over the precipice.
As it collided against the stone wall the vehicle tipped dangerously, hurling the driver from his seat to dive headforemost into the space beneath. But the man clung to the reins desperately, and they arrested his fall, leaving him dangling at the end of them while the maddened horses, jerked at the bits by the weight of the man, reared and plunged as if they would in any instant tumble themselves and the carriage over the cliff.
At this critical moment a mounted horseman, who unobserved had been following the party, dashed to their rescue. The rider caught the plunging steeds by their heads and tried to restrain their terror, at his own eminent peril, while the carriage lay wedged against the wall and the driver screamed pitifully from his dangerous position midway between sea and sky.
Then Beth slipped from her seat to the flat top of the parapet, stepped boldly to where the reins were pulling upon the terrified horses, and seized them in her strong grasp.
"Hold fast," she called calmly to the driver, and began dragging him upward, inch by inch.
He understood instantly the task she had undertaken, and in a moment his courage returned and he managed to get his foot in a crack of the rock and assist her by relieving her of part of his weight. Just above was a slight ledge; he could reach it now; and then she had him by the arm, so that another instant found him clinging to the parapet and drawing himself into a position of safety.
The wind had died away as suddenly as it came upon them. The horses, as soon as the strain upon their bits was relaxed, were easily quieted. Before those in the carriage had quite realized what had occurred the adventure was accomplished, the peril was past, and all was well again.
Uncle John leaped from the carriage, followed by Louise and Patsy. The young horseman who had come to their assistance so opportunely was none other than Count Ferralti, whom they had such good reason to distrust. He was sitting upon his horse and staring with amazement at Beth, at whose feet the driver was grovelling while tears flowed down his bronzed cheeks and he protested in an absurd mixture of English and Italian, by every saint in the calendar, that the girl had saved him from a frightful death and he would devote his future life to her service.
"It is wonderful!" murmured Ferralti. "However could such a slip of a girl do so great a deed?"
"Why, it's nothing at all," returned Beth, flushing; "we're trained to do such things in the gymnasium at Cloverton, and I'm much stronger than I appear to be."
"'Twas her head, mostly," said Patsy, giving her cousin an admiring hug; "she kept her wits while the rest of us were scared to death."
Uncle John had been observing the Count. One of the young man's hands hung limp and helpless.
"Are you hurt, sir?" he asked.
Ferralti smiled, and his eyes rested upon Louise.
"A little, perhaps, Mr. Merrick; but it is unimportant. The horses were frantic at the time and wrenched my wrist viciously as I tried to hold them. I felt something snap; a small bone, perhaps. But I am sure it is nothing of moment."
"We'd better get back to Sorrento," said Uncle John, abruptly.
"Not on my account, I beg of you," returned Ferralti, quickly. "We are half way to Amalfi now, and you may as well go on. For my part, if the wrist troubles me, I will see a surgeon at Amalfi—that is, if you permit me to accompany you."
He said this with a defferent bow and a glance of inquiry.
Uncle John could not well refuse. The young fellow might be a sham count, but the manliness and courage he had displayed in their grave emergency surely entitled him to their grateful consideration.
"You are quite welcome to join us," said Uncle John.
The driver had by now repaired a broken strap and found his equippage otherwise uninjured.
The horses stood meekly quiescent, as if they had never known a moment's fear in their lives. So the girls and their uncle climbed into the vehicle again and the driver mounted the box and cracked his whip with his usual vigor.
The wind had subsided as suddenly as it had arisen, and as they passed through Positano—which is four hundred feet high, the houses all up and down the side of a cliff like swallows' nests—big flakes of snow were gently falling around them.
Count Ferralti rode at the side of the carriage but did not attempt much conversation. His lips were tight set and the girls, slyly observing his face, were sure his wrist was hurting him much more than he cared to acknowledge.
Circling around the cliff beyond Positano the sun greeted them, shining from out a blue sky, and they wondered what had become of the bad weather they had so lately experienced.
From now on, past Prajano and into Amalfi, the day was brilliant and the temperature delightful. It was full noon by the time they alighted at the little gate-house of the ancient Cappuccini-Convento, now a hotel much favored by the tourist. Count Ferralti promised to join them later and rode on to the town to find a surgeon to look after his injured hand, while the others slowly mounted the long inclines leading in a zigzag fashion up to the old monastery, which was founded in the year 1212.
From the arbored veranda of this charming retreat is obtained one of the finest views in Europe, and while the girls sat enjoying it Uncle John arranged with a pleasant faced woman (who had once lived in America) for their luncheon.
An hour later, and just as they were sitting down to the meal, Count Ferralti rejoined them. His hand was bandaged and supported by a sling, and in answer to Louise's gentle inquiries he said, simply:
"It was as I had feared: a small bone snapped. But my surgeon is skillful, and says time will mend the wrist as good as new."
In spite of his courage he could eat no luncheon, but merely sipped a glass of wine; so Uncle John, alarmed at his pallor, insisted that he take a seat in the carriage on the return journey. Beth wanted to ride the Count's horse home, but there was no side saddle to be had, so they led the animal by a halter fastened behind the ricketty carriage, and Beth mounted the box and rode beside her friend the driver.
The pleasant weather lasted until they neared Sorrento, when another shower of rain came up. They reached their hotel damp and bedraggled, but enthusiastic over their wonderful trip and the interesting adventure it had incidentally developed.
THE EAGLE SCREAMS
Despite the glories of the Amalfi road our tourists decided it was more pleasant to loiter around Sorrento for a time than to undertake further excursions. The mornings and evenings were chill, but during the middle of the day the air was warm and delicious; so the girls carried their books and fancy-work into the beautiful gardens or wandered lazily through the high-walled lanes that shut in the villas and orange groves. Sometimes they found a gate open, and were welcomed to the orchards and permitted to pluck freely the fragrant and rich flavored fruit, which is excelled in no other section of the south country. Also Uncle John, with Beth and Patsy, frequented the shops of the wood-workers and watched their delicate and busy fingers inlaying the various colored woods; but Louise mostly kept to the garden, where Count Ferralti, being a semi-invalid, was content to sit by her side and amuse her.
In spite of her uncle's discovery of the false position assumed by this young man, Louise seemed to like his attentions and to approve his evident admiration for her. His ways might be affected and effeminate and his conversational powers indifferent; but his bandaged wrist was a constant reminder to all the nieces that he possessed courage and ready wit, and it was but natural that he became more interesting to them because just now he was to an extent helpless, and his crippled hand had been acquired in their service.
Uncle John watched the young fellow shrewdly, but could discover little harm in him except his attempt to deceive them in regard to his name and position. Yet in his mature eyes there was not much about Ferralti to arouse admiration, and the little man considered his girls too sensible to be greatly impressed by this youthful Italian's personality. So he allowed him to sit with his nieces in the gardens as much as he pleased, believing it would be ungrateful to deprive the count of that harmless recreation.
"A reg'lar chaperone might think differently," he reflected; "but thank goodness there are no dragons swimming in our cup of happiness."
One day they devoted to Capri and the Blue Grotto, and afterward they lunched at the Quisisana and passed the afternoon in the town. But the charms of Sorrento were too great for Capri to win their allegiance, and they were glad to get back to their quaint town and delightful gardens again.
The week passed all too swiftly, and then came a letter from Colonel Angeli telling them to return to Naples and witness the results of the eruption. This they decided to do, and bidding good-bye to Signor Floriano and his excellent hotel they steamed across the bay and found the "Vesuve" a vastly different hostelry from the dismal place they had left in their flight from Naples. It was now teeming with life, for, all danger being past, the tourists had flocked to the city in droves. The town was still covered with ashes, but under the brilliant sunshine it did not look as gloomy as one might imagine, and already thousands of carts were busily gathering the dust from the streets and dumping it in the waters of the bay. It would require months of hard work, though, before Naples could regain a semblance of its former beauty.
Their friend the Colonel personally accompanied them to the towns that had suffered the most from the eruption. At Boscatrecasa they walked over the great beds of lava that had demolished the town—banks of cinders looking like lumps of pumice stone and massed from twenty to thirty feet in thickness throughout the valley. The lava was still so hot that it was liable to blister the soles of their feet unless they kept constantly moving. It would be many more days before the interior of the mass became cold.
Through the forlorn, dust-covered vineyards they drove to San Guiseppe, where a church roof had fallen in and killed one hundred and forty people, maiming many more. The Red-Cross tents were pitched in the streets and the whole town was one vast hospital. Ottajano, a little nearer to the volcano, had been buried in scoria, and nine-tenths of the roofs had fallen in, rendering the dwellings untenable.
From here a clear view of Mt. Vesuvius could be obtained. The shape of the mountain had greatly altered and the cone had lost sixty-five feet of its altitude. But when one gazed upon the enormous bulk of volcanic deposit that littered the country for miles around, it seemed to equal a dozen mountains the size of Vesuvius. The marvel was that so much ashes and cinders could come from a single crater in so short a period.
Naples was cleaning house, but slowly and listlessly. The people seemed as cheerful and light-hearted as ever. The volcano was one of their crosses, and they bore it patiently. The theatres would remain closed for some weeks to come, but the great Museo Nationale was open, and Uncle John and his nieces were much interested in the bronze and marble statuary that here form the greatest single collection in all the world.
It was at the Museum that Mr. Merrick was arrested for the first time in his life, an experience he never afterward forgot.
Bad money is so common in Naples that Uncle John never accepted any change from anyone, but obtained all his silver coins and notes directly from the Banca Commerciale Italiana, a government institution. One morning he drove with the girls to the museum and paid the cabman a lira, but before he could ascend the steps the man was after him and holding out a leaden coin, claiming that his fare had given him bad money and must exchange it for good. This is so common a method of swindling that Uncle John paid no heed to the demands of the cabman until one of the Guard Municipale, in his uniform of dark blue with yellow buttons and cap, placed a restraining hand upon the American's shoulder.
Uncle John angrily shook him off, but the man persisted, and an interpreter employed by the museum stepped forward and explained that unless the cabman was given a good coin in exchange for the bad one the guarde would be obliged to take him before a commissionaire, or magistrate.
"But I gave him a good coin—a lira direct from the bank," declared Uncle John.
"He exhibits a bad one," returned the interpreter, calmly.
"He's a swindler!"
"He is a citizen of Naples, and entitled to a just payment," said the other, shrugging his shoulders.
"You are all leagued together," said Uncle John, indignantly. "But you will get no more money out of me, I promise you."
The result was that the stubborn American was placed under arrest. Leaving the girls at the museum in charge of Ferralti, who had made no attempt to interfere in the dispute but implored Uncle John to pay and avoid trouble, the angry prisoner was placed in the same cab he had arrived in and, with the officer seated beside him, was publicly driven to the office of the magistrate.
This official understood no English, but he glowered and frowned fiercely when the American was brought before him. The guarde and the cabman stood with bared bowed heads and in low tones preferred the charge against the prisoner; but Uncle John swaggered up to the desk and pounded his clinched fist upon it while he roared a defiance of Italian injustice and threatened to "bring over a few war-ships and blow Naples into kingdom come!"
The magistrate was startled, and ordered the prisoner searched for concealed weapons. Uncle John doubled his fists and dared the guarde to touch him.
Then the cabman was dispatched for someone who could speak English, and when an interpreter arrived the American told him to send for the United States consul and also to inform the magistrate that nothing but war between America and Italy could wipe out the affront that had been thrust upon him.
The magistrate was disturbed, and preferred not to send for the consul. He offered to release Uncle John if he would give the cabman a good lira in exchange for the bad one. The official fee would be five lira—or say three lira—or even two. Uncle John flatly refused to pay anything to anybody. Only war could settle this international complication—bloody and bitter war. The consul must cable at once for war-ships and troops. He would insist upon it. All compromise was now impossible!
The magistrate was frightened. The guarde's eyes bulged with horror and he trembled visibly. It was evident they had made a grave mistake in arresting this mad American, who was evidently a personage of great importance and able to declare war at a moment's notice. The cabman, the magistrate, the guarde and the interpreter put their heads together and chattered voluble Italian—all speaking at once in excited tones—while Uncle John continued to warn them at the top of his lungs that their country was doomed to sudden annihilation and they were the culprits responsible for the coming calamity.
As a result they bundled the irate American into the carriage again and drove him poste haste back to the museum, where they deposited him upon the steps. Then in a flash the guarde and the cabman disappeared from sight and were seen no more.
The victor smiled proudly as his nieces rushed toward him.
"Did you have to pay another lira, Uncle?" asked Patsy, anxiously.
"Not on your life, my dear," mopping his brow vigorously. "They're a lot of cutthroats and assassins—policemen, magistrates and all—but when the eagle screams they're wise enough to duck."
The girls laughed.
"And did the eagle scream, then?" Patsy enquired.
"Just a little, my dear; but if it whispered it would sound mighty loud in this mummified old world. But we've lost enough time for one day. Come; let's go see 'Narcissus' and the 'Dancing Faun.'"
"Here's a letter from my dear old friend Silas Watson," said Uncle John, delightedly. "It's from Palermo, where he has been staying with his ward—and your friend, girls—Kenneth Forbes, and he wants me to lug you all over to Sicily at once."
"That's jolly," said Patsy, with a bright smile. "I'd like to see Kenneth again."
"I suppose he is a great artist, by this time," said Beth, musingly.
"How singular!" exclaimed Louise. "Count Ferralti told me only this morning that he had decided to go to Palermo."
"Really?" said Uncle John.
"Yes, Uncle. Isn't it a coincidence?"
"Why, as for that," he answered, slowly, "I'm afraid it will prevent our seeing the dear count—or whatever he is—again, at least for some time. For Mr. Watson and Kenneth are just leaving Palermo, and he asks us to meet him in another place altogether, a town called—called—let me see; Tormenti, or Terminal, or something."
"Give me the letter, dear," said Patsy. "I don't believe it's Terminal at all. Of course not," consulting the pages, "it's Taormina."
"Is that in Sicily?" he asked.
"Yes. Listen to what Mr. Watson says: 'I'm told it is the most beautiful spot in the world, which is the same thing you hear about most beautiful places. It is eight hundred feet above the Mediterranean and nestles peacefully in the shadow of Mount Etna.'"
"Etna!" cried Uncle John, with a start. "Isn't that another volcano?"
"To be sure," said Beth, the geographer. "Etna is the biggest volcano in the world."
"Does it spout?" he asked, anxiously.
"All the time, they say. But it is not usually dangerous."
"The proper thing, when you go to Eu-rope," declared Uncle John, positively, "is to do Venice, where the turpentine comes from, and Switzerland, where they make chocolate and goat's milk, and Paris and Monte Carlo, where they kick high and melt pearls in champagne. Everybody knows that. That's what goin' to Eu-rope really means. But Sicily isn't on the programme, that I ever heard of. So we'll just tell Silas Watson that we'll see him later—which means when we get home again."
"But Sicily is beautiful," protested Patsy. "I'd as soon go there as anywhere."
"It's a very romantic place," added Louise, reflectively.
"Everybody goes to France and Switzerland," remarked Beth. "But it's because they don't know any better. Let's be original, Uncle, and keep out of the beaten track of travel."
"But the volcano!" exclaimed Mr. Merrick. "Is it necessary to stick to volcanoes to be original?"
"Etna won't hurt us, I'm sure," said Patsy.
"Isn't there a Greek theatre at Taormina?" asked Louise.
"I've never heard of it; but I suppose the Greeks have, if it's there," he replied. "But why not wait till we get home, and then go to Kieth's or Hammerstein's?"
"You don't understand, dear. This theatre is very ancient."
"Playing minstrel shows in it yet, I suppose. Well, girls, if you say Sicily, Sicily it is. All I'm after is to give you a good time, and if you get the volcano habit it isn't my fault."
"It is possible the Count said Taormina, instead of Palermo," remarked Louise, plaintively. "I wasn't paying much attention at the time. I'll ask him."
The others ignored this suggestion. Said Patsy to her uncle:
"When do we go, sir?"
"Whenever you like, my dears."
"Then I vote to move on at once," decided the girl. "We've got the best out of Naples, and it's pretty grimey here yet."
The other nieces agreed with her, so Uncle John went out to enquire the best way to get to Sicily, and to make their arrangements.
The steamer "Victor Emmanuel" of the Navigazione General Italiana line was due to leave Naples for Messina the next evening, arriving at its destination the following morning. Uncle John promptly booked places. The intervening day was spent in packing and preparing for the journey, and like all travellers the girls were full of eager excitement at the prospect of seeing something new.
"I'm told Sicily is an island," grumbled Uncle John. "Here we are, on a trip to Eu-rope, and emigrating to an island the first thing we do."
"Sicily is Europe, all right, Uncle," answered Patsy. "At least, it isn't Asia or Africa."
That assertion seemed to console him a little, and he grew cheerful again.
The evening was beautiful as they embarked, but soon after leaving the bay the little, tub-shaped steamer began to tumble and toss vigorously, so that all the passengers aboard speedily sought their berths.
Uncle John found himself in a stuffy little cabin that smelled of tar and various other flavors that were too mixed to be recognizable. As a result he passed one of the most miserable nights of his life.
Toward morning he rolled out and dressed himself, preferring the deck to his bed, and the first breath of salt air did much to restore him. Day was just breaking, and to the right he could see a tongue of fire flaming against the dark sky.
"What is that, sir?" he enquired of an officer who passed.
"That is Stromboli, signor, the great volcano of Lipari. It is always in eruption."
Uncle John groaned.
"Volcanoes to right of us, volcanoes to left of us volleyed and thundered," he muttered dismally, as he fell back in his chair.
The sky brightened, and the breath of the breeze changed and came to him laden with delicious fragrance.
"See, signore!" called the officer, passing again; "before us is mighty Etna—you can see it clearly from the bow."
"Volcanoes in front of us, volcanoes behind us!" wailed the little man. But he walked to the bow and saw the shores of Sicily looming in advance, with the outline of the stately mountain rising above and dominating it.
Then the sun burst forth, flooding all with a golden radiance that was magical in its gorgeous effects. Patsy came on deck and stood beside her uncle, lost in rapturous admiration. Beth soon followed her.
Before long they entered the Straits of Messina and passed between the classic rock of Scylla on the Calabrian coast, and the whirlpool of Charybdis at the point of the promontory of Faro, which forms the end of the famous "Golden Sickle" enclosing the Bay of Messina.
"If this is really Eu-rope, I'm glad we came," said Uncle John, drawing a long breath as the ship came to anchor opposite the Palazzo Municipale. "I don't remember seeing anything prettier since we left New York."
Presently they had loaded their trunks and hand baggage, and incidentally themselves, into the boat of the Hotel Trinacria which came alongside in charge of a sleepy porter. After a brief examination at the custom-house, where Uncle John denied having either sugar, tobacco or perfumery, they followed on foot the truck laden with their worldly possessions, and soon reached the hotel.
A pleasant breakfast followed, which they ate before a window overlooking the busy marina, and then they drove about the town for a time to see in a casual way the "sights." In the afternoon they took the train for Taormina. Messina seemed a delightful place, but if they were going to settle in Taormina for a time it would not pay them to unpack or linger on the way.
So they rolled along the coast for a couple of hours in a quaint, old-fashioned railway carriage, and were then deposited upon the platform of the little station at Giardini.
"I'm afraid there has been a mistake," said the little man, gazing around him anxiously. "There's no town here, and I told the guard to put us off at Taormina—not this forlorn place."
Just then Beth discovered a line of carriages drawn up back of the station. The drivers were mostly asleep inside them, although several stood in a group arguing in fluent Italian the grave question as to whether Signora Gani's cow had a black patch over its left shoulder, or not.
Some of the carriages bore signs: "Hotel Timeo;" "Grand Hotel San Domenico;" "Hotel Castello-a-Mare;" "Grand Hotel Metropole," and so forth. In that of the Castello-a-Mare the man was awakening and rubbing his eyes. Uncle John said to him:
"Good morning. Had a nice rest?"
"I thank you, signore, I am well refreshed," was the reply.
"By the way, can you tell us where the town of Taormina is? I hate to trouble you; but we'd like to know."
The man waved an arm upward, and following the motion with their eyes they saw a line of precipitous cliffs that seemed impossible to scale.
"Do you desire to go to the Grand Hotel Castello-a-Mare?" enquired the driver, politely.
"Is it in Taormina?"
"Most certainly, signore."
"And you will take us?"
"With pleasure, signore."
"Oh; I didn't know. I supposed you were going to sleep again."
The man looked at him reproachfully.
"It is my business, signore. I am very attentive to my duties. If you permit me to drive you to our splendide—our magnifico hotel—you will confer a favor."
"How about the baggage?"
"The trunks, signor, we will send for later. There is really no hurry about them. The small baggage will accompany us. You will remark how excellent is my English. I am Frascatti Vietri; perhaps you have heard of me in America?"
"If I have it has escaped my memory," said Uncle John, gravely.
"Have you been to America?" asked Beth.
"Surely, signorina. I lived in Chicago, which, as you are aware, is America. My uncle had a fruit shop in South Water, a via which is Chicago. Is it not so? You will find few in Taormina who can the English speak, and none at all who can so perfectly speak it as Frascatti Vietri."
"You are wonderful," said Patsy, delighted with him. But Uncle John grew impatient to be off.
"I hate to interrupt you, Mr. Vietri," he hinted; "but if you can spare the time we may as well make a start."
The driver consented. He gracefully swung the suit-cases and travelling bags to the top of the vehicle and held the door open while his fares entered. Then he mounted to his seat, took the reins, and spoke to the horses. Some of the other drivers nodded at him cheerfully, but more as if they were sorry he must exert himself than with any resentment at his success in getting the only tourists who had alighted from the train.
As they moved away Uncle John said: "Observe the difference between the cab-drivers here and those at home. In America they fight like beasts to get a job; here they seem anxious to avoid earning an honest penny. If there could be a happy medium somewhere, I'd like it."
"Are we going to the best hotel?" asked Louise, who had seemed a trifle disconsolate because she had not seen Count Ferralti since leaving Naples.
"I don't know, my dear. It wasn't a question of choice, but of necessity. No other hotel seemed willing to receive us."
They were now winding upward over a wonderful road cut in the solid rock. It was broad and smooth and protected by a parapet of dressed limestone. Now and then they passed pleasant villas set in orchards of golden oranges or groves of olives and almonds; but there was no sign of life on any side.
The road was zigzag, making a long ascent across the face of the cape, then turning abruptly to wind back again, but always creeping upward until an open space showed the station far below and a rambling stone building at the edge of the cliff far above.
"Behold!" cried Frascatti, pointing up, "the Grand Hotel Castello-a-Mare; is it not the excellenza location?"
"Has it a roof?" asked Uncle John, critically.
"Of a certainty, signore! But it does not show from below," was the grave reply.
At times Frascatti stopped his horses to allow them to rest, and then he would turn in his seat to address his passengers in the open victoria and descant upon the beauties of the panorama each turn unfolded.
"This road is new," said he, "because we are very progressive and the old road was most difficulty. Then it was three hours from the bottom to the top. Now it is but a short hour, for our energy climbs the three miles in that brief time. Shall I stop here for the sunset, or will your excellenzi hasten on?"
"If your energy approves, we will hasten," returned Uncle John. "We love a sunset, because it's bound to set anyway, and we may as well make the best of it; but we have likewise an objection to being out after dark. Any brigands around here?"
"Brigands! Ah; the signor is merry. Never, since the days of Naxos, have brigands infested our fair country."
"When were the days of Naxos?"
"Some centuries before Christ, signor," bowing his head and making the sign of the cross.
"Very good. The brigands of those days must, of course, be dead by this time. Now, sir, when you have leisure, let us hasten."
The horses started and crept slowly upward again. None of the party was in a hurry. Such beautiful glimpses of scenery were constantly visible from the bends of the road that the girls were enraptured, and could have ridden for hours in this glorious fairyland.
But suddenly the horses broke into a trot and dragged the carriage rapidly forward over the last incline. A moment later they dashed into the court of the hotel and the driver with a loud cry of "Oo-ah!" and a crack of his whip drew up before the entrance.
The portiere and the padrone, or landlord—the latter being also the proprietaire—came out to greet them, extending to their guests a courteous welcome. The house was very full. All of the cheaper rooms were taken; but of course the Signor Americain would wish only the best and be glad to pay.
Uncle John requested them to rob him as modestly as possible without conflicting with their sense of duty, and they assured him they would do so.
The rooms were adorable. They faced the sea and had little balconies that gave one a view of the blue Mediterranean far beneath, with lovely Isola Bella and the Capo San Andrea nestling on its bosom. To the right towered the majestic peak of Etna, its crest just now golden red in the dying sunset.
The girls drew in deep breaths and stood silent in a very ecstacy of delight. At their feet was a terraced garden, running downward two hundred feet to where the crag fell sheer to the sea. It was glorious with blooming flowers of every sort that grows, and the people on the balconies imagined at the moment they had been transferred to an earthly paradise too fair and sweet for ordinary mortals. And then the glow of the sun faded softly and twilight took its place. Far down the winding road could be seen the train of carriages returning from the station, the vetturini singing their native songs as the horses slowly ascended the slope. An unseen organ somewhere in the distance ground out a Neapolitan folk song, and fresh and youthful voices sang a clear, high toned accompaniment.
Even practical Uncle John stood absorbed and admiring until the soft voice of the facchino called to ask if he wanted hot water in which to bathe before dinner.
"It's no use," said Patsy, smiling at him from the next balcony with tears in her eyes; "There's not another Taormina on earth. Here we are, and here we stay until we have to go home again."
"But, my dear, think of Paris, of Venice, of—"
"I'll think of nothing but this, Uncle John. Unless you settle down with us here I'll turn milkmaid and live all my days in Sicily!"
Beth laughed, and drew her into their room.
"Don't be silly, Patsy dear," she said, calmly, although almost as greatly affected as her cousin. "There are no cows here, so you can't be a milkmaid."
"Can't I milk the goats, then?"
"Why, the men seem to do that, dear. But cheer up. We've only seen the romance of Taormina yet; doubtless it will be commonplace enough to-morrow."
Beth's prediction, however, did not come true. The morning discovered nothing commonplace about Taormina. Their hotel was outside the walls, but a brief walk took them to the Messina Gate, a quaint archway through which they passed into the narrow streets of one of the oldest towns in Sicily. Doorways and windows of Saracen or Norman construction faced them on every side, and every inch of the ancient buildings was picturesque and charming.
Some of the houses had been turned into shops, mostly for the sale of curios. Uncle John and his nieces had scarcely passed a hundred yards into the town when one of these shops arrested their attention. It was full of antique jewelry, antique furniture, antique laces and antique pottery—all of the most fascinating description. The jewelry was tarnished and broken, the lace had holes in it and the furniture was decrepit and unsteady; but the proprietor cared nothing for such defects. All was very old, and he knew the tourist was eager to buy. So he scattered his wares inside and outside his salesroom, much as the spider spreads his web for the unwary, and waited for the inevitable tourist with a desire to acquire something ancient and useless.
The girls could not be induced to pass the shop. They entered the square, low room and flooded the shopman with eager questions. Notwithstanding Frascatti's assertion that few in Taormina could speak English, this man was quite intelligible and fixed his prices according to the impression his wares made upon the artistic sense of the young American ladies.
It was while they were intently inspecting some laces that the proprietor suddenly paused in his chatter, removed his hat and bowed almost to the floor, his face assuming at the same time a serious and most humble expression.
Turning around they saw standing outside the door a man whom they recognized at once as their fellow passenger aboard the "Princess Irene."
"Oh, Signor Valdi!" cried Patsy, running toward him, "how strange to find you again in this out-of-the-way place."
The Italian frowned, but in a dignified manner took the hand of all three girls in turn and then bowed a greeting to Mr. Merrick.
Uncle John thought the fellow had improved in appearance. Instead of the flannel shirt and Prince Albert coat he had affected on shipboard he now wore a native costume of faded velvet, while a cloak of thin but voluminous cloth swung from his shoulders, and a soft felt hat shaded his dark eyes.
His appearance was entirely in keeping with the place, and the American noticed that the villagers who passed doffed their hats most respectfully to this seemingly well-known individual. But mingled with their polite deference was a shyness half fearful, and none stopped to speak but hurried silently on.
"And how do we happen to find you here, Signor Valdi?" Patsy was saying. "Do you live in Taormina?"
"I am of this district, but not of Taormina," he replied. "It is chance that you see me here. Eh, Signor Bruggi, is it not so?" casting one of his characteristic fierce glances at the shopkeeper.
"It is so, your excellency."
"But I am glad you have come to the shadow of Etna," he continued, addressing the Americans with slow deliberation. "Here the grandeur of the world centers, and life keeps time with Nature. You will like it? You will stay?"
"Oh, for a time, anyway," said Patsy.
"We expect to meet some friends here," explained Uncle John. "They are coming down from Palermo, but must have been delayed somewhere on the way."
"Who are they?" asked Valdi, brusquely.
"Americans, of course; Silas Watson and Kenneth Forbes. Do you know of them?"
"No," said the other. He cast an uneasy glance up and down the street. "I will meet you again, signorini," he added. "Which is your hotel?"
"The Castello-a-Mare. It is delightful," said Beth.
He nodded, as if pleased. Then, folding his cloak about him, he murmured "adios!" and stalked away without another word or look.
"Queer fellow," remarked Uncle John.
The shopkeeper drew a long breath and seemed relieved.
"Il Duca is unusual, signore," he replied.
"Duke!" cried the girls, in one voice.
The man seemed startled.
"I—I thought you knew him; you seemed friends," he stammered.
"We met Signor Valdi on shipboard," said Uncle John.
"Valdi? Ah, yes; of course; the duke has been to America."
"Isn't his name Valdi?" asked Beth, looking the man straight in the eyes. "Has he another name here, where he lives?"
The shopman hesitated.
"Who knows?" was the evasive reply. "Il Duca has many names, but we do not speak them. When it is necessary to mention him we use his title—the duke."
"Why?" asked the girl.
"Why, signorina? Why? Perhaps because he does not like to be talked about. Yes; that is it, I am sure."
"Where does he live?" asked Patsy.
The man seemed uneasy under so much questioning.
"Somewhere in the mountains," he said, briefly. "His estates are there. He is said to be very rich and powerful. I know nothing more, signorini."
Realizing that little additional information could be gleaned from this source they soon left the shop and wandered into the Piazzo Vittorio Emanuele, and from thence by the narrow lane to the famous Teatro Greco.
For a time they admired this fascinating ruin, which has the best preserved stage of any Greek theatre now in existence. From the top of the hill is one of the most magnificent views in Sicily, and here our travellers sat in contemplative awe until Uncle John declared it was time to return to their hotel for luncheon.
As they passed the portiere's desk Mr. Merrick paused to ask that important official:
"Tell me, if you please, who is Signor Victor Valdi?"
"Yes; the Duke di Valdi, I suppose you call him."
"I have never heard of him," replied the man.
"But every one seems to know him in Taormina."
"Is it so? We have but one duke near to us, and he—. But never mind. I do not know this Valdi."
"A thin faced man, with black eyes. We met him on the steamer coming from America."
The portiere dropped his eyes and turned toward his desk.
"Luncheon is served, signore," he remarked. "Also, here is a letter for you, which arrived this morning."
Uncle John took the letter and walked on to rejoin the girls.
"It seems hard work to find out anything about this Valdi," he said. "Either the folks here do not know him, or they won't acknowledge his acquaintance. We may as well follow suit, and avoid him."
"I don't like his looks a bit," observed Beth. "He seems afraid and defiant at the same time, and his temper is dreadful. It was only with great difficulty he could bring himself to be polite to us."
"Oh, I always got along with him all right," said Patsy. "I'm sure Signor Valdi isn't as bad as he appears. And he's a duke, too, girls—a real duke!"
"So it seems," Uncle John rejoined; "yet there is something queer about the fellow, I agree with Beth; I don't like him."
"Did Mr. Watson say when he would join us here?" enquired Louise, when they were seated at the little round table.
"No; but here's a letter from him. I'd quite forgotten it."
He tore open the envelope and carefully read the enclosure.
"Too bad," said he. "We might have stayed a few days in Messina. Watson says he and Kenneth have stopped at Girgenti—wherever that is—to study the temples. Wonder if they're Solomon's? They won't get to Taormina before Saturday."
"It won't matter," declared Patsy, "so long as they arrive then. And I'd a good deal rather be here than in Messina, or any other place. Of course we'll all be glad to see Kenneth."
"Mr. Watson wants us to be very careful while we are in Sicily," continued Uncle John, referring to the letter. "Listen to this: 'Don't let the girls wear jewelry in public places, or display their watches openly; and take care, all of you, not to show much money. If you buy anything, have it sent to your hotel to be paid for by the hall porter. And it is wise not to let anyone know who you are or how long you intend to remain in any one place. This may strike you as an absurd precaution; but you must remember that you are not in America, but in an isolated Italian province, where government control is inefficient. The truth is that the terrible Mafia is still all powerful on this island, and brigandage is by no means confined to the neighborhood of Castrogiovanni, as the guide books would have you believe. The people seem simple and harmless enough, but Kenneth and I always keep our revolvers handy, and believe it is a reasonable precaution. I don't want to frighten you, John; merely to warn you. Sicily is full of tourists, and few are ever molested; but if you are aware of the conditions underlying the public serenity you are not so liable to run yourself and your nieces into needless dangers.' How's that for a hair-curler, girls?"
"It sounds very romantic," said Louise, smiling. "Mr. Watson is such a cautious man!"
"But it's all rubbish about there being danger in Taormina," declared Patsy, indignantly. "Mr. Watson has been in the wilds of the interior, which Baedecker admits is infested with brigands. Here everyone smiles at us in the friendliest way possible."
"Except the duke," added Beth, with a laugh.
"Oh, the duke is sour by nature," Patsy answered; "but if there really was danger, I'm sure he'd protect us, for he lives here and knows the country."
"You are sure of a lot of things, dear," said her cousin, smiling. "But it will do no harm to heed the advice, and be careful."
They all agreed to that, and Uncle John was glad to remember he had two brand new revolvers in the bottom of his trunk, which he could use in an emergency if he could manage to find the cartridges to load them with.
He got them out next morning, and warned his nieces not to touch the dangerous things when they entered his room. But Patsy laughed at him, saying:
"You are behind the times, Uncle. Beth has carried a revolver ever since we started."
"Beth!" he cried, horrified.
"Just as a precaution," said that young lady, demurely.
"But you're only a child!"
"Even so, Uncle, I have been taught to shoot in Cloverton, as a part of my education. Once I won a medal—think of that! So I brought my pet revolver along, although I may never have need to use it."
Uncle John looked thoughtful.
"It doesn't seem like a girlish accomplishment, exactly," he mused. "When I was young and went into the West, the times were a bit unsettled, and I used to carry a popgun myself. But I never shot at a human being in my life. There were women in the camps that could shoot, too; but the safest place was always in front of them. If Beth has won a medal, though, she might hit something."
"Don't try, Beth," said Louise; "you ought to make a hit without shooting."
"Thank you, dear."
As they left their hotel for a walk they came upon Count Ferralti, who was standing in the court calmly smoking a cigarette. His right hand was still in a sling.
No one was greatly surprised at his appearance, but Uncle John uttered an exclamation of impatience. It annoyed him that this fellow, whose antecedents were decidedly cloudy, should be "chasing around" after one of his nieces, Beth and Patsy smiled at each other significantly as the young man was discovered, but Louise, with a slight blush, advanced to greet Ferralti in her usual pleasant and cordial way.
There was no use resenting the intrusion. They owed a certain consideration to this boyish Italian for his assistance on the Amalfi road. But Uncle John almost wished he had left them to escape as best they might, for the obligation was getting to be decidedly onerous.
While Ferralti was expressing his astonishment at so "unexpectedly" meeting again his American friends, Uncle John discovered their English speaking cocchiere, Frascatti Vietri, lolling half asleep on the box of his victoria.
"Would your energy like to drive us this morning?" he asked.
"It is my duty, signore, if you wish to go," was the reply.
"Then you are engaged. Come, girls; hop in, if you want to ride."
The three nieces and Uncle John just filled the victoria. The count was disconsolate at being so cleverly dropped from the party, but could only flourish his hat and wish them a pleasant drive.
They descended the winding road to the coast, where Frascatti took the highway to Sant' Alessio, a charming drive leading to the Taormina Pass.
"By the way," Uncle John asked the driver, "do you know of a duke that lives in this neighborhood?"
The laughing face of the Sicilian suddenly turned grave.
"No, signore. There is the Prince di Scaletta; but no duke on this side the town."
"But on the other side?"
"Oh; in the mountains? To be sure there are noblemen there; old estates almost forgotten in our great civilization of to-day. We are very progressive in Taormina, signore. There will be a fountain of the ice cream soda established next summer. Quite metropolitan, ne c'e?"
"Quite. But, tell me, Frascatti, have you a duke in the mountains back of Taormina?"
"Signore, I beg you to pay no attention to the foolish stories you may hear from our peasants. There has been no brigandage here for centuries. I assure you the country is perfectionly safe—especial if you stay within the town or take me on your drives. They know me, signore, and even Il Duca dares not trifle with my friends."
"Why should he, Frascatti, if there is no brigandage? Is it the Mafia?"
"Ah, I have heard that Mafia spoken of, but mostly when I lived in America, which is Chicago. Here we do not know of the Mafia."
"But you advise us to be careful?"
"Everywhere, illustrissimo signore, it is well to be what you call the circumspection. I remember that in the State street of Chicago, which is America, peaceful citizens were often killed by bandits. Eh, is it not so?"
"Quite probable," said Uncle John, soberly.
"Then, what will you? Are we worse than Americans, that you fear us? Never mind Il Duca, or the tales they foolishly whisper of him. Here you may be as safe and happy as in Chicago—which is America."
He turned to his horses and urged them up a slope. The girls and Uncle John eyed one another enquiringly.
"Our duke seems to bear no good reputation," said Beth, in a tone so low that Frascatti could not overhear. "Everyone fears to speak of him."
"Singular," said Uncle John, "that Patsy's friend turns out to be a mystery, even in his own home. I wonder if he is a leader of the Mafia, or just a common brigand?"
"In either case," said Patsy, "he will not care to injure us, I am sure. We all treated him very nicely, and I just made him talk and be sociable, whether he wanted to or not. That ought to count for something in our favor. But my opinion is that he's just a gruff old nobleman who lives in the hills and makes few friends."
"And hasn't a name, any more than Louise's count has. Is it customary, my dear, for all Italian noblemen to conceal their identity?"
"I do not know, Uncle," answered Louise, casting down her eyes.
UNCLE JOHN DISAPPEARS
Uncle John grew to love Taormina. Its wildness and ruggedness somehow reminded him of the Rockies in the old pioneer days, and he wandered through all the lanes of the quaint old town until he knew every cornice and cobblestone familiarly, and the women who sat weaving or mending before their squalid but picturesque hovels all nodded a greeting to the cheery little American as he passed by.
He climbed Malo, too, a high peak crowned by a ruined castle; and also Mt. Venere, on the plateau of which an ancient city had once stood. His walking tours did him good, and frequently while the girls lay stretched upon the grass that lined the theatre enclosure, to idle the time or read or write enthusiastic letters home, Uncle John, scorning such laziness, would take his stick and climb mountains, or follow the rough paths that diverged from the highway just beyond the Catania Gate.
The tax gatherer whose tiny office was just inside the gate came to know the little gentleman very well, and although he could speak no English he would bob his grizzled head and murmur: "Buon giorno, signore!" as the stranger passed out on his daily stroll.
One afternoon Mr. Merrick went down the hill path leading from the Castello-a-Mare to Capo di San Andrea, and as he passed around a narrow ledge of rock came full upon two men seated upon a flat stone. One was Valdi and the other Ferralti, and they seemed engaged in earnest conversation when he interrupted them. The Count smiled frankly and doffed his hat; the Duke frowned grimly, but also nodded.
Uncle John passed on. The path was wild and little frequented. He felt in his side pocket and grasped the handle of his revolver; but there was no attempt to follow or molest him. Nevertheless, when he returned from the beach he came up the longer winding roadway and was glad of the company of a ragged goatherd who, having no English, entertained "Il Signore" by singing ditties as he drove his goats before him.
The misgivings Uncle John had originally conceived concerning Count Ferralti returned in full force with this incident; but he resolved to say nothing of it to his nieces. Silas Watson would be with them in a couple of days more and he would consult the shrewd lawyer before he took any decisive action.
Next morning after breakfast he left his nieces in the garden and said he would take a walk through the town and along the highway west, toward Kaggi.
"I'll be back in an hour or so," he remarked, "for I have some letters to write and I want them to catch the noon mail."
So the girls sat on the terrace overlooking the sea and Etna, and breathed the sweet air and enjoyed the caressing sunshine, until they noticed the portiere coming hastily toward them.
"Pardon, signorini," he said, breathlessly, "but it will be to oblige me greatly if you will tell me where Signor Ferralti is."
"He is not of our party," answered Patsy, promptly; but Louise looked up as if startled, and said: "I have been expecting him to join us here."
"Then you do not know?" exclaimed the portiere, in an anxious tone.
"Know what, sir?" asked the girl.
"That Signor Ferralti is gone. He has not been seen by any after last evening. He did not occupy his room. But worse, far worse, will I break you the news gently—his baggage is gone with him!"
"His baggage gone!" echoed Louise, greatly disturbed. "And he did not tell you? You did not see him go?"
"Alas, no, signorina. His bill is still unsettled. He possessed two large travelling cases, which must have been carried out at the side entrance with stealth most deplorable. The padrone is worried. Signor Ferralti is American, and Americans seldom treat us wrongfully."
"Signor Ferralti is Italian," answered Louise, stiffly.
"The name is Italian, perhaps; but he speaks only the English," declared the portiere.
"He is not a rogue, however. Assure your master of that fact. When Mr. Merrick returns he will settle Count Ferralti's bill."
"Oh, Louise!" gasped Patsy.
"I don't understand it in the least," continued Louise, looking at her cousins as if she were really bewildered. "I left him in the courtyard last evening to finish his cigar, and he said he would meet us in the garden after breakfast. I am sure he had no intention of going away. And for the honor of American travellers his account here must be taken care of."
"One thing is singular," observed Beth, calmly. "There has been no train since last you saw him. If Count Ferralti has left the hotel, where could he be?"
The portiere brightened.
"Gia s'intende!" he exclaimed, "he must still be in Taormina—doubtless at some other hotel."
"Will you send and find out?" asked Louise.
"I will go myself, and at once," he answered. "And thank you, signorina, for the kind assurance regarding the account. It will relieve the padrone very much."
He hurried away again, and an uneasy silence fell upon the nieces.
"Do you care for this young man. Louise?" asked Beth, pointedly, after the pause had become awkward.
"He is very attentive and gentlemanly, and I feel you have all wronged him by your unjust suspicions," she replied, with spirit.
"That does not answer my question, dear," persisted her cousin. "Are you especially fond of him?"
"What right have you to question me in this way, Beth?"
"No right at all, dear. I am only trying to figure out our doubtful position in regard to this young man—a stranger to all of us but you."
"It is really none of our business," observed Patsy, quickly. "We're just a lot of gossips to be figuring on Count Ferralti at all. And although this sudden disappearance looks queer, on the face of it, the gentleman may simply have changed his boarding place."
"I do not think so," said Louise. "He liked this hotel very much."
"And he may have liked some of its guests," added Patsy, smiling. "Well, Uncle John will soon be back, and then we will talk it over with him."
Uncle John was late. The portiere returned first. He had been to every hotel in the little town, but none of them had received a guest since the afternoon train of yesterday. Count Ferralti had disappeared as if by magic, and no one could account for it.
Noon arrived, but no Uncle John. The girls became dispirited and anxious, for the little man was usually very prompt in keeping his engagements, and always had returned at the set time.
They waited until the last moment and then entered the salle a manger and ate their luncheon in gloomy silence, hoping every moment to hear the sound of their uncle's familiar tread.
After luncheon they held a hurried consultation and decided to go into town and search for him. So away they trooped, asking eager questions in their uncertain Italian but receiving no satisfactory reply until they reached the little office of the tax gatherer at the Catania Gate.
"Ah, si, signorini mia," he answered, cheerfully, "il poco signore passato da stamattini."
But he had not returned?
They looked at one another blankly.
"See here," said Patsy; "Uncle John must have lost his way or met with an accident. You go back to the hotel, Louise, and wait there in case he returns home another way. Beth and I will follow some of these paths and see if we can find him."
"He may have sprained an ankle, and be unable to walk," suggested Beth. "I think Patsy's advice is good."
So Louise returned through the town and the other girls began exploring the paths that led into the mountains from every turn of the highway. But although they searched eagerly and followed each path a mile or more of its length, no sign of life did they encounter—much less a sight of their missing uncle. The paths were wild and unfrequented, only on the Catania road itself a peasant now and then being found patiently trudging along or driving before him a donkey laden with panniers of oranges or lemons for the markets of Taormina.
On some of the solitary rocky paths they called to Uncle John by name, hoping that their voices might reach him; but only the echoes replied. Finally they grew discouraged.
"It will be sunset before we get back, even if we start this minute," said Beth, finally. "Let us return, and get some one to help us."
Patsy burst into tears.
"Oh, I'm sure he's lost, or murdered, or kidnapped!" she wailed. "Dear, dear Uncle John! Whatever shall we do, Beth?"
"Why, he may be at home, waiting for us to get back. Don't give way, Patsy; it will do no good, you know."
They were thoroughly tired when, just at sunset, they reached the hotel. Louise came to meet them, and by the question in her eyes they knew their uncle had not returned.
"Something must be done, and at once," said Beth, decidedly. She was the younger of the three girls, but in this emergency took the lead because of her calm and unruffled disposition and native good sense. "Is Frascatti in the courtyard?"
Patsy ran to see, and soon brought the vetturino into their sitting room. He could speak English and knew the neighborhood thoroughly. He ought to be able to advise them.
Frascatti listened intently to their story. He was very evidently impressed.
"Tell me, then, signorini," he said, thoughtfully; "is Senor Merreek very rich?"
"Why do you ask?" returned Beth, suspiciously. She remembered the warning conveyed in Mr. Watson's letter.
"Of course, I know that all the Americans who travel are rich," continued Frascatti. "I have myself been in Chicago, which is America. But is Signor Merreek a very rich and well acquainted man in his own country? Believe me, it is well that you answer truly."
"I think he is."
The man looked cautiously around, and then came nearer and dropped his voice to a whisper.
"Are you aware that Il Duca knows this?" he asked.
Beth thought a moment.
"We met the man you call Il Duca, but who told us he was Signor Victor Valdi, on board the ship, where many of the passengers knew my uncle well. If he listened to their conversation he would soon know all about John Merrick, of course."
Frascatti wagged his head solemnly.
"Then, signorina," he said, still speaking very softly, "I assure you there is no need to worry over your uncle's safety."
"What do you mean?" demanded Beth.
"People do not lose their way in our mountains," he replied. "The paths are straight, and lead all to the highways. And there is little danger of falling or of being injured. But—I regret to say it, signorini—it is a reflection upon our advanced civilization and the good name of our people—but sometimes a man who is rich disappears for a time, and no one knows how it is, or where he may be. He always returns; but then he is not so rich."
"I understand. My uncle is captured by brigands, you think."
"There are no brigands, signorina."
"Or the Mafia, then."
"I do not know the Mafia. All I know is that the very rich should keep their riches secret when they travel. In Chicago, which is America, they will knock you upon the head for a few miserable dollars; here my countrymen scorn to attack or to rob the common people. But when a man is so very rich that he does not need all of his money, there are, I regret to say, some lawless ones in Sicily who insist that he divide with them. But the prisoner is always well treated, and when he pays he is sent away very happy."
"Suppose he does not pay?"
"Ah, signorina, will not a drowning man clutch the raft that floats by? And the lawless ones do not take his all—merely a part."
The girls looked at one another helplessly.
"What must we do, Frascatti?" asked Patsy.
"Wait. In a day—two days, perhaps—you will hear from your uncle. He will tell you how to send money to the lawless ones. You will follow his instructions, and he will come home with smiles and singing. I know. It is very regrettable, but it is so."
"It will not be so in this case," said Beth, indignantly. "I will see the American consul—"
"I am sorry, but there is none here."
"I will telegraph to Messina for the military. They will search the mountains, and bring your brigands to justice."
Frascatti smiled sadly.
"Oh, yes; perhaps they will come. But the military is Italian—not Sicilian—and has no experience in these parts. The search will find nothing, except perhaps a dead body thrown upon the rocks to defy justice. It is very regrettable, signorina; but it is so."
Patsy was wringing her hands, frantic with terror. Louise was white and staring. Beth puckered her pretty brow in a frown and tried to think.
"Ferralti is also gone," murmured Louise, in a hoarse voice. "They will rob or murder him with Uncle John!"
"I am quite convinced," said Beth, coldly, "that your false count is a fellow conspirator of the brigand called Il Duca. He has been following us around to get a chance to ensnare Uncle John."
"Oh, no, no, Beth! It is not so! I know better than that."
"He would lie to you, of course," returned the girl bitterly. "As soon as the trap was set he disappeared, bag and baggage, and left the simple girl he had fooled to her own devices."
"You do not know what you are saying," retorted Louise, turning her back to Beth and walking to a window. From where they stood they could hear her sobbing miserably.
"Whether Frascatti is right or not," said Patsy, drying her eyes and trying to be brave, "we ought to search for Uncle John at once."
"I think so, too," agreed Beth. Then, turning to the Sicilian, she said: "Will you get together as many men as possible and search the hills, with lanterns, for my uncle? You shall be well paid for all you do."
"Most certainly, signorina, if it will please you," he replied. "How long do you wish us to search?"
"Until you find him."
"Then must we grow old in your service. Non fa niente! It is regrettable, but—"
"Will you go at once?" stamping her foot angrily.
"Most certainly, signorina."
"Then lose no time. I will go with you and see you start."
She followed the man out, and kept at his side until he had secured several servants with lanterns for the search. The promise of high caparra or earnest money made all eager to join the band, but the padrone could only allow a half dozen to leave their stations at the hotel. In the town, however, whither Beth accompanied them, a score of sleepy looking fellows were speedily secured, and under the command of Frascatti, who had resolved to earn his money by energy and good will because there was no chance of success, they marched out of the Catania Gate and scattered along the mountain paths.
"If you find Uncle John before morning I will give you a thousand lira additional," promised Beth.
"We will search faithfully," replied her captain, "but the signorina must not be disappointed if the lawless ones evade us. They have a way of hiding close in the caves, where none may find them. It is regrettable, very; but it is so."
Then he followed his men to the mountains, and as the last glimmer from his lantern died away the girl sighed heavily and returned alone through the deserted streets to the hotel.
Clouds hid the moon and the night was black and forbidding; but it did not occur to her to be afraid.
DAYS OF ANXIETY
Uncle John's nieces passed a miserable night. Patsy stole into his room and prayed fervently beside his bed that her dear uncle might be preserved and restored to them in health and safety. Beth, meantime, paced the room she shared with Patsy with knitted brows and flashing eyes, the flush in her cheeks growing deeper as her anger increased. An ungovernable temper was the girl's worst failing; the abductors of her uncle were arousing in her the most violent passions of which she was capable, and might lead her to adopt desperate measures. She was only a country girl, and little experienced in life, yet Beth might be expected to undertake extraordinary things if, as she expressed it, if she "got good and mad!"
No sound was heard during the night from the room occupied by Louise, but the morning disclosed a white, drawn face and reddened eyelids as proof that she had rested as little as her cousins.
Yet, singularly enough, Louise was the most composed of the three when they gathered in the little sitting room at daybreak, and tried earnestly to cheer the spirits of her cousins. Louise never conveyed the impression of being especially sincere, but the pleasant words and manners she habitually assumed rendered her an agreeable companion, and this faculty of masking her real feelings now stood her in good stead and served to relieve the weight of anxiety that oppressed them all.
Frascatti came limping back with his tired followers in the early dawn, and reported that no trace of the missing man had been observed. There were no brigands and no Mafia; on that point all his fellow townsmen agreed with him fully. But it was barely possible some lawless ones who were all unknown to the honest Taorminians had made the rich American a prisoner.
Il Duca? Oh, no, signorini! A thousand times, no. Il Duca was queer and unsociable, but not lawless. He was of noble family and a native of the district. It would be very wrong and foolish to question Il Duca's integrity.
With this assertion Frascatti went to bed. He had not shirked the search, because he was paid for it, and he and his men had tramped the mountains faithfully all night, well knowing it would result in nothing but earning their money.
On the morning train from Catania arrived Silas Watson and his young ward Kenneth Forbes, the boy who had so unexpectedly inherited Aunt Jane's fine estate of Elmhurst on her death. The discovery of a will which gave to Kenneth all the property their aunt had intended for her nieces had not caused the slightest estrangement between the young folks, then or afterward. On the contrary, the girls were all glad that the gloomy, neglected boy, with his artistic, high-strung temperament, would be so well provided for. Without the inheritance he would have been an outcast; now he was able to travel with his guardian, the kindly old Elmhurst lawyer, and fit himself for his future important position in the world. More than all this, however, Kenneth had resolved to be a great landscape painter, and Italy and Sicily had done much, in the past year, to prepare him for this career.
The boy greeted his old friends with eager delight, not noticing for the moment their anxious faces and perturbed demeanor. But the lawyer's sharp eyes saw at once that something was wrong.
"Where is John Merrick?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm so glad you've come!" cried Patsy, clinging to his hand.
"We are in sore straits, indeed, Mr. Watson," said Louise.
"Uncle John is lost," explained Beth, "and we're afraid he is in the hands of brigands."
Then she related as calmly as she could all that had happened. The relation was clear and concise. She told of their meeting with Valdi on the ship, of Count Ferralti's persistence in attaching himself to their party, and of Uncle John's discovery that the young man was posing under an assumed name. She did not fail to mention Ferralti's timely assistance on the Amalfi drive, or his subsequent devoted attentions to Louise; but the latter Beth considered merely as an excuse for following them around.
"In my opinion," said she, "we have been watched ever since we left America, by these two spies, who had resolved to get Uncle John into some unfrequented place and then rob him. If they succeed in their vile plot, Mr. Watson, we shall be humiliated and disgraced forever."
"Tut-tut," said he; "don't think of that. Let us consider John Merrick, and nothing else."
Louise protested that Beth had not been fair in her conclusions. The Count was an honorable man; she would vouch for his character herself.
But Mr. Watson did not heed this defense. The matter was very serious—how serious he alone realized—and his face was grave indeed as he listened to the descriptions of that terrible Il Duca whom the natives all shrank from and refused to discuss.
When he had learned all the nieces had to tell he hastened into the town and telegraphed the American consul at Messina. Then he found the questura, or police office, and was assured by the officer in attendance that the disappearance of Mr. Merrick was already known to the authorities and every effort was being made to find him.
"Do you think he has been abducted by brigands?" asked the lawyer.
"Brigands, signore?" was the astonished reply. "There are no brigands in this district at all. We drove them out many years ago."
"How about Il Duca?"
"And who is that, signore?"
"Don't you know?"
"I assure you we have no official knowledge of such a person. There are dukes in Sicily, to be sure; but 'Il Duca' means nothing. Perhaps you can tell me to whom you refer?"
"See here," said the lawyer, brusquely; "I know your methods, questore mia, but they won't prove effective in this case. If you think an American is helpless in this country you are very much mistaken. But, to save time, I am willing to submit to your official requirements. I will pay you well for the rescue of my friend."
"All shall be done that is possible."
"But if you do not find him at once, and return him to us unharmed, I will have a regiment of soldiers in Taormina to search your mountains and break up the bands of brigands that infest them. When I prove that brigands are here and that you were not aware of them, you will be disgraced and deposed from your office."
The official shrugged his shoulders, a gesture in which the Sicilian is as expert as the Frenchman.
"I will welcome the soldiery," said he; "but you will be able to prove nothing. The offer of a reward may accomplish more—if it is great enough to be interesting."
"How great is that?"
"Can I value your friend? You must name the reward yourself. But even then I can promise nothing. In the course of our duty every effort is now being made to find the missing American. But we work in the dark, as you know. Your friend may be a suicide; he may have lost his mind and wandered into the wilderness; he may have committed some crime and absconded. How do I know? You say he is missing, but that is no reason the brigands have him, even did brigands exist, which I doubt. Rest assured, signore, that rigid search will be made. It is my boast that I leave no duty unfulfilled."
Mr. Watson walked back to the telegraph office and found an answer to his message. The American consul was ill and had gone to Naples for treatment. When he returned, his clerk stated, the matter of the disappearance of John Merrick would immediately be investigated.
Feeling extremely helpless and more fearful for his friend than before, the lawyer returned to the hotel for a conference with the nieces.
"How much of a reward shall I offer?" he asked. "That seems to be the only thing that can be depended upon to secure results."
"Give them a million—Uncle John won't mind," cried Patsy, earnestly.
"Don't give them a penny, sir," said Beth. "If they are holding him for a ransom Uncle is in no personal danger, and we have no right to assist in robbing him."
"But you don't understand, my dear," asserted the lawyer. "These brigands never let a victim go free unless they are well paid. That is why they are so often successful. If John Merrick is not ransomed he will never again be heard of."
"But this is not a ransom, sir. You propose to offer a reward to the police."
"Let me explain. The ways of the Italian police are very intricate. They know of no brigandage here, and cannot find a brigand. But if the reward is great enough to divide, they know where to offer a share of it, in lieu of a ransom, and will force the brigands to accept it. In that way the police gets the glory of a rescue and a share of the spoils. If we offer no reward, or an insignificant one, the brigands will be allowed to act as they please."
"That is outrageous!" exclaimed Beth.
"Yes. The Italian government deplores it. It is trying hard to break up a system that has existed for centuries, but has not yet succeeded."
"Then I'd prefer to deal directly with the brigands."
"So would I, if—"
"If what, sir?"
"If we were sure your uncle is in their hands. Do you think the party you sent out last night searched thoroughly?"
"I hope so."
"I will send out more men at once. They shall search the hills in every direction. Should they find nothing our worst fears will be confirmed, and then—"
"Well, Mr. Watson?"
"Then we must wait for the brigands to dictate the terms of a ransom, and make the best bargain we can."
"That seems sensible," said Kenneth, and both Patsy and Louise agreed with him, although it would be tedious waiting.
But Beth only bit her lip and frowned.
Mr. Watson's searching party was maintained all day—for two days, and three; but without result. Then they waited for the brigands to act. But a week dragged painfully by and no word of John Merrick's whereabouts reached the ears of the weary watchers.
When Uncle John passed through the west gate for a tramp along the mountain paths he was feeling in an especially happy and contented mood. The day was bright and balmy, the air bracing, the scenery unfolded step by step magnificent and appealing. To be in this little corner of the old world, amid ruins antedating the Christian era, and able to wholly forget those awful stock and market reports of Wall street, was a privilege the old gentleman greatly appreciated.
So away he trudged, exploring this path or that leading amongst the rugged cliffs, until finally he began to take note of his erratic wanderings and wonder where he was. Climbing an elevated rock near the path he poised himself upon its peak and studied the landscape spread out beneath him.
There was a patch of sea, with the dim Calabrian coast standing sentry behind it. The nearer coast was hidden from view, but away at the left was a dull white streak marking the old wall of Taormina, and above this the ruined citadel and the ancient castle of Mola—each on its separate peak.
"I must be getting back," he thought, and sliding down the surface of the rock he presently returned to the path from whence he had climbed.
To his surprise he found a boy standing there and looking at him with soft brown eyes that were both beautiful and intelligent. Uncle John was as short as he was stout, but the boy scarcely reached to his shoulder. He was slender and agile, and clothed in a grey corduroy suit that was better in texture than the American had seen other Sicilian youths wear. As a rule the apparel of the children in this country seemed sadly neglected.
Yet the most attractive thing about this child was his face, which was delicate of contour, richly tinted to harmonize with his magnificent brown eyes, and so sensitive and expressive that it seemed able to convey the most subtle shades of emotion. He seemed ten or twelve years of age, but might have been much older.
As soon as the American had returned to the path the boy came toward him in an eager, excited way, and exclaimed:
"Is it not Signor Merrick?"
The English was fluent, and only rendered softer by the foreign intonation.
"It is," said Uncle John, cheerfully. "Where did you drop from, my lad? I thought these hills were deserted, until now."
"I am sent by a friend," answered the boy, speaking rapidly and regarding the man with appealing glances. "He is in much trouble, signore, and asks your aid."
"A friend? Who is it?"
"The name he gave me is Ferralti, signore. He is near to this place, in the hills yonder, and unable to return to the town without assistance."
"Ferralti. H-m-m. Is he hurt?"
"Badly, signore; from a fall on the rocks."
"And he sent for me?"
"Yes, signore. I know you by sight—who does not?—and as I hurried along I saw you standing on the rock. It is most fortunate. Will you hasten to your friend, then? I will lead you to him."
Uncle John hesitated. He ought to be getting home, instead of penetrating still farther into these rocky fastnesses. And Ferralti was no especial friend, to claim his assistance. But then the thought occurred that this young Italian had befriended both him and his nieces in an extremity, and was therefore entitled to consideration when trouble in turn overtook himself. The natural impulse of this thought was to go to his assistance.
"All right, my lad," said he. "Lead on, and I'll see what can be done for Ferralti. Is it far?"
"Not far, signore."
With nervous, impatient steps the child started up the narrow path and Uncle John followed—not slowly, but scarcely fast enough to satisfy his zealous guide.
"What is your name, little one?"
"Where do you live?"
"Near by, signore."
"And how did you happen to find Ferralti?"
"By chance, signore."
Uncle John saved his remaining breath for the climb. He could ask questions afterward.
The path was in a crevasse where the rocks seemed once to have split. It was narrow and steep, and before long ended in a cul de sac. The little man thought they had reached their destination, then; but without hesitation the boy climbed over a boulder and dropped into another path on the opposite side, holding out a hand to assist the American.
Uncle John laughed at the necessity, but promptly slid his stout body over the boulder and then paused to mop his brow.
"Much farther, Tato?"
"Just a step, signore."
"It is lucky you found Ferralti, or he might have died in these wilds without a soul knowing he was here."
"That is true, signore."
"Well, is this the path?"
"Yes, signore. Follow me, please."
The cliffs were precipitous on both sides of them. It was another crevasse, but not a long one. Presently the child came to a halt because the way ended and they could proceed no farther. He leaned against the rock and in a high-pitched, sweet voice sang part of a Sicilian ditty, neither starting the verse nor ending it, but merely trilling out a fragment.
Uncle John regarded him wonderingly; and then, with a sudden suspicion, he demanded:
"You are not playing me false, Tato?"
"I, signore?" smiling frankly into the man's eyes; "you need never fear Tato, signore. To be your friend, and Signor Ferralti's friend, makes me very proud."
The rock he leaned against fell inward, noiselessly, and disclosed a passage. It was short, for there was light at the other end.
The strange child darted in at once.
"This way, signore. He is here!"
Uncle John drew back. He had forgotten until now that these mountains are dangerous. And something strange in the present proceedings, the loneliness of the place and the elfish character of his guide, suddenly warned him to be cautious.
"See here, my lad," he called: "I'll go no farther."
Instantly Tato was at his side again, grasping the man's hand in his tiny brown one and searching his face with pleading eyes.
"Ah, signore, you will not fail your friend, when he is so near you and in such great trouble? See! I who am a stranger and not even his countryman, even I weep for the poor young man, and long to comfort him. Do you, his friend, refuse him aid because you have fear of the wild mountains and a poor peasant boy?"
Tears really stood in the beautiful brown eyes. They rolled down his cheeks, as with both hands he pressed that of Uncle John and urged him gently forward.
"Oh, well; lead on, Tato. I'll see the other side of your tunnel, anyhow. But if you play me tricks, my lad—"
He paused, for a wonderful vision had opened before him. Coming through the short passage hewn in the rocks the American stood upon a ledge facing a most beautiful valley, that was hemmed in by precipitous cliffs on every side. From these stern barriers of the outside world the ground sloped gradually toward the center, where a pretty brook flowed, its waters sparkling like diamonds in the sunlight as it tumbled over its rocky bed. Groves of oranges and of olive, lemon and almond trees occupied much of the vale, and on a higher point at the right, its back to the wall of rock that towered behind it, stood a substantial yet picturesque mansion of stone, with several outbuildings scattered on either side.