The valley seemed, indeed, a toy kingdom sequestered from the great outside world, yet so rich and productive within itself that it was independent of all else.
Uncle John gazed with amazement. Who could have guessed this delightful spot was hidden safe within the heart of the bleak, bare mountain surrounding it? But suddenly he bethought himself.
"What place is this, Tato?" he asked; "and where is our friend Ferralti, who needs me?"
There was no reply.
He turned around to find the boy had disappeared. Moreover, the passage had disappeared. Only a wall of rock was behind him, and although his eyes anxiously searched the rifts and cracks of its rough surface, no indication of the opening through which he had passed could be discovered.
THE HIDDEN VALLEY
Uncle John's first inspiration was to sit down upon a stone to think. He drew out his pipe and lighted it, to assist his meditations.
These were none too pleasant. That he had been cleverly entrapped, and that by a child scarcely in its teens, was too evident to need reflection. And what a secure trap it was! The mountains ranged all around the valley were impossible to scale, even by an Alpine climber, and to one who was not informed of its location the existence of the valley itself was unimaginable.
"I had not believed Ferralti was so shrewd," he muttered, wonderingly. "That something was wrong about the fellow I knew, of course; but I had not suspected such a thing as this. Now, then, first of all let me mark this spot, so that I will remember it. Just back of where I now stand is the entrance or outlet to the tunnel through the wall. It is closed, I suppose, by a swinging stone, like the one on the opposite side. I saw that one opened—opened by some person concealed from view, as soon as the boy sang his bit of song which was the signal agreed upon. And I was fool enough, after that warning, to walk straight through the tunnel! You're getting old, John Merrick; that's the only way I can account for your folly. But Ferralti hasn't won the odd trick yet, and if I keep my wits about me he isn't likely to win."
Thus ruminating, Uncle John searched the rocky wall carefully and believed he would know the place again, although which of the rough stones of its surface formed the doorway to the tunnel he could not guess.
A ledge of rock served as a path leading to right and left around this end of the valley, or "pocket" in the mountain, as it could more properly be called. Uncle John turned to the right, striding along with his usual deliberation, smoking his pipe and swinging his cane as he approached the stone dwelling that formed the center of the little settlement. As yet no sign of human life had he observed since Tato had disappeared, although a few cows were standing in a green meadow and some goats scrambled among the loose rocks at the further end of the enclosure.
Around the house the grounds had been laid out in gardens, with flowers and shrubbery, hedges and shade trees scattered about. Chickens clucked and strutted along the paths and an air of restfulness and peace brooded over all.
Uncle John was plainly mystified until he drew quite close to the dwelling, which had many verandas and balconies and bore every evidence of habitation. Then, to his astonishment, he beheld the form of a man stretched lazily in a wicker chair beside the entrance, and while he paused, hesitating, the man sat up and bowed politely to him.
"Good morning, Signor Merreek."
It was Victor Valdi, or, ignoring the fictitious name, the mysterious personage known as "Il Duca."
"Behold my delight, Signor Merreek, to receive you in my poor home," continued the man. "Will you not be seated, caro amico?"
The words were soft and fair, but the dark eyes gleamed with triumph and a sneer curled the thin lips.
"Thank you," said Uncle John; "I believe I will."
He stepped upon the veranda and sat down opposite his host.
"I came to see Count Ferralti, who is hurt, I understand," he continued.
"It is true, signore, but not badly. The poor count is injured mostly in his mind. Presently you shall see him."
"No hurry," observed Uncle John. "Pleasant place you have here, Duke."
"It is very good of you to praise it, signore. It is my most ancient patrimony, and quite retired and exclusive."
"So I see."
"The house you have honored by your presence, signore, was erected some three hundred and thirty years ago, by an ancestor who loved retirement. It has been in my family ever since. We all love retirement."
"Very desirable spot for a brigand, I'm sure," remarked the American, puffing his pipe composedly.
"Brigand? Ah, it pleases you to have humor, signore, mia. Brigand! But I will be frank. It is no dishonor to admit that my great ancestors of past centuries were truly brigands, and from this quiet haven sallied forth to do mighty deeds. They were quite famous, I am told, those olden Dukes d'Alcanta."
"I do not question it."
"Our legends tell of how my great ancestors demanded tribute of the rich who passed through their domain—for all this end of Sicily was given to us by Peter of Aragon, and remained in our possession until the second Ferdinand robbed us of it. Those times were somewhat wild and barbarous, signore, and a gentleman who protected his estates and asked tribute of strangers was termed a brigand, and became highly respected. But now it is different. We are civilized and meek, and ruled most lovingly by Italy. They will tell you there is no brigandage in all Sicily."
"So I understand."
"To-day I am nobody. My very name is forgotten. Those around this mountain know nothing of my little estate, and I am content. I desire not glory: I desire not prominence; to live my life in seclusion, with the occasional visit of a friend like yourself, is enough to satisfy me."
"You seem well known in Taormina."
"Quite a mistake, signore."
"And the natives must have climbed these peaks at times and looked down into your secluded kingdom."
"If so, they have forgotten it."
"I give to the churches and the poor, but in secret. If I have an enemy, he disappears—I do not know how; no one knows."
"Of course not. You are an improvement on your ancestors, Duke. Instead of being a brigand you belong to the Mafia, and perform your robberies and murders in security. Very clever, indeed."
"But again you are wrong, signore," replied the Duke, with a frown. "I have never known of this Mafia, of which you speak, nor do I believe it exists. For myself, I am no robber, but a peaceful merchant."
"A merchant?" returned Uncle John, surprised by the statement.
"To be sure. I have some ancient and very valuable relics in my possession, treasured most carefully from the mediaeval days. These I sell to my friends—who are fortunately all foreigners like yourself and can appreciate such treasures—and so obtain for myself and my family a modest livelihood."
"And you expect to sell something to me?" asked Uncle John, understanding very well the Sicilian's meaning.
"It is my earnest hope, signore."
The American fell silent, thinking upon the situation. The fierce looking brigand beside him was absurd enough, in his way, but doubtless a dangerous man to deal with. Uncle John was greatly interested in the adventure. It was such a sharp contrast to the hum-drum, unromantic American life he had latterly known that he derived a certain enjoyment from the novel experience. If the girls did not worry over his absence he would not much regret his visit to Il Duca's secluded valley.
It was already midday, and his nieces would be expecting him to luncheon. When he did not appear they would make enquiries, and try to find him. It occurred to him how futile all such attempts must prove. Even to one acquainted with the mountain paths the entrance to the duke's domain was doubtless a secret, and the brigand had plainly hinted that the native Sicilians were too cautious to spy upon him or molest him in any way.
So far, the only person he had seen was Il Duca himself. The child who had decoyed him was, of course, somewhere about, and so also was Ferralti. How many servants or followers the brigand might have was as yet a mystery to the new arrival.
In the side pocket of Uncle John's loose coat lay a loaded revolver, which he had carried ever since he had received Mr. Watson's warning letter. He had never imagined a condition of danger where he could not use this weapon to defend himself, and as long as it remained by him he had feared nothing. But he had been made a prisoner in so deft a manner that he had no opportunity to expostulate or offer any sort of resistance. Later there might be a chance to fight for his liberty, and the only sensible action was to wait and bide his time.
"For example," the Duke was saying, in his labored, broken English, "I have here a priceless treasure—very antique, very beautiful. It was in one time owned by Robert the Norman, who presented it to my greatest ancestor."
He drew an odd-shaped ring from his pocket and handed it to the American. It was of dull gold and set with a half dozen flat-cut garnets. Perhaps antique; perhaps not; but of little intrinsic value.
"This ring I have decided to sell, and it shall be yours, Signor Merreek, at a price far less than is represented by its historic worth. I am sure you will be glad to buy it."
"For how much?" asked Uncle John, curiously.
"A trifle; a mere hundred thousand lira."
"Twenty thousand dollars!"
"The ring of King Roger. How cheap! But, nevertheless, you shall have it for that sum."
Uncle John smiled.
"My dear Duke," he replied, "you have made a sad mistake. I am a comparatively poor man. My fortune is very modest."
The brigand lay back in his chair and lighted a fresh cigarette.
"I fear you undervalue yourself, my dear guest," he said. "Recently have I returned from America, where I was told much of the wealth of Signor John Merreek, who is many times a millionaire. See," drawing a paper from his pocket, "here is a list of the stocks and securities you own. Also of government and railway bonds, of real estate and of manufactures controlled by your money. I will read, and you will correct me if an error occurs."
Uncle John listened and was amazed. The schedule was complete, and its total was many millions. It was a better list of holdings than Uncle John possessed himself.
"You foreigners make queer mistakes, Duke," said he, taking another tack. "This property belongs to another John Merrick. It is a common name, and that is doubtless why you mistook me for the rich John Merrick."
"I have noticed," returned the Duke, coldly, "that this strange delusion of mind is apt to overtake my guests. But do not be alarmed; it will pass away presently, and then you will realize that you are yourself. Remember that I crossed the Atlantic on your steamship, signore. Many people there on board spoke of you and pointed you out to me as the great man of finance. Your own niece that is called Patsy, she also told me much about you, and of your kindness to her and the other young signorini. Before I left New York a banker of much dignity informed me you would sail on the ship 'Princess Irene.' If a mistake has been made, signore, it is yours, and not mine. Is your memory clearer now?"
Uncle John laughed frankly. The rascal was too clever for him to dispute with.
"Whoever I am," said he, "I will not buy your ring."
"I am pained," replied the brigand, lightly. "But there is ample time for you to reflect upon the matter. Do not decide hastily, I implore you. I may have been too liberal in making my offer, and time may assist me in fixing a just price for the relic. But we have had enough of business just now. It is time for our midday collation. Oblige me by joining us, signore."
He blew a shrill whistle, and a man stepped out of a doorway. He was an enormous Sicilian, tall, sinewy and with a countenance as dark and fierce as his master's. In his belt was a long knife, such as is known as a stilleto.
"Tommaso," said the Duke, "kindly show Signor Merreek to his room, and ask Guido if luncheon is ready to be served."
"Va bene, padrone," growled the man, and turned obediently to escort the American.
Uncle John entered the house, traversed a broad and cool passage, mounted to the second floor and found himself in a pleasant room with a balcony overlooking the valley. It was comfortably furnished, and with a bow that was not without a certain grim respect the man left him alone and tramped down the stairs again. There had been no attempt to restrain his liberty or molest him in any way, yet he was not slow to recognize the fact that he was a prisoner. Not in the house, perhaps, but in the valley. There was no need to confine him more closely. He could not escape.
He bathed his hands and face, dried them on a fresh towel, and found his toilet table well supplied with conveniences. In the next room some one was pacing the floor like a caged beast, growling and muttering angrily at every step.
Uncle John listened. "The brigand seems to have more than one guest," he thought, and smiled at the other's foolish outbursts.
Then he caught a word or two of English that made him start. He went to the door between the two rooms and threw it open, finding himself face to face with Count Ferralti.
GUESTS OF THE BRIGAND
"Good morning, Count," said Uncle John, cheerfully.
The other stared at him astonished.
"Good heavens! Have they got you, too?" he exclaimed.
"Why, I'm visiting his excellency, Il Duca, if that's what you mean," replied Mr. Merrick. "But whether he's got me, or I've got him, I haven't yet decided."
The young man's jaw was tied in a bandage and one of his eyes was black and discolored. He looked agitated and miserable.
"Sir, you are in grave danger; we are both in grave danger," he announced, "unless we choose to submit to being robbed by this rascally brigand."
"Then," observed Uncle John, "let's submit."
"Never! Not in a thousand years!" cried Ferralti, wildly. And then this singular young man sank into a chair and burst into tears.
Uncle John was puzzled. The slender youth—for he was but a youth in spite of his thin moustaches—exhibited a queer combination of courage and weakness; but somehow Uncle John liked him better at that moment than he ever had before. Perhaps because he now realized he had unjustly suspected him.
"You seem to have been hurt, Count," he remarked.
"Why, I was foolish enough to struggle, and that brute Tommaso pounded me," was the reply. "You were wise to offer no resistance, sir."
"As for that, I hadn't a choice," said Uncle John, smiling. "When did they get you, Ferralti?"
"Last evening. I walked in the garden of the hotel and they threw a sack over my head. I resisted and tried to cry out. They beat me until I was insensible and then brought me here, together with my travelling cases, which they removed from my room to convey the impression that I had gone away voluntarily. When I awakened from my swoon I was in this room, with the doctor bending over me."
"Oh, they have a doctor in this accursed den, as well as a priest and a lawyer. The Duke entreated my pardon. He will punish his men for abusing me. But he holds me a safe prisoner, just the same."
"He wants a ransom. He will force me to purchase an ancient brass candlestick for fifty thousand lira."
Uncle John looked at his companion thoughtfully.
"Tell me, Count Ferralti," he said, "who you really are. I had believed you were Il Duca's accomplice, until now. But if he has trapped you, and demands a ransom, it is because you are a person of some consequence, and able to pay. May I not know as much about your position in life as does this brigand duke?"
The young man hesitated. Then he spread out his hands with an appealing gesture and said:
"Not yet, Mr. Merrick! Do not press me now, I implore you. Perhaps I have done wrong to try to deceive you, but in good time I will explain everything, and then you will understand me better."
"You are no count."
"That is true, Mr. Merrick."
"You are not even an Italian."
"That is but partly true, sir."
"You have seen fit to deceive us by—"
Tommaso threw wide the door.
"Il dejune e servito," he said gruffly.
"What does that mean?" asked Uncle John.
"Luncheon is ready. Shall we go down?"
"Yes; I'm hungry."
They followed the man to the lower floor, where he ushered them into a low, cool room where a long table was set. The walls were whitewashed and bore some religious prints, gaudily colored. A white cloth covered the table, which was well furnished with modern crockery and glass, and antique silverware.
At the head of the table were two throne-like chairs, one slightly larger and more elevated than the other. In the more important seat was a withered old woman with a face like that of a mummy, except that it was supplied with two small but piercing jet eyes that seemed very much alive as they turned shrewdly upon the strangers. She was the only one of the company they found seated. The Duke stood behind the smaller chair beside her, and motioned the Americans to occupy two places at the side of the table next him. Opposite them, in the places adjoining the elevated dais, were two remarkable individuals whom Uncle John saw for the first time. One was a Cappuccin monk, with shaven crown and coarse cassock fastened at the waist by a cord. He was blind in one eye and the lid of the other drooped so as to expose only a thin slit. Fat, awkward and unkempt, he stood holding to the back of his chair and swaying slightly from side to side. Next to him was a dandified appearing man who was very slight and thin of form but affected the dress and manners of extreme youth. Ferralti whispered to Uncle John that this was the doctor.
The table dropped a step in heighth from these places, and the balance of its length was occupied by several stalwart Sicilians, clothed in ordinary peasant costume, and a few silent, heavy-featured women. Tato was not present.
"Signori," said the Duke to the Americans, "allow me to present you to my mother, the head of our illustrious family; one who is known, admired and feared throughout Sicily as her Excellenza la Duchessa d'Alcanta."
With the words the Duke bowed low to the old woman. Uncle John and Ferralti also bowed low. The lines of servitors humbly bent themselves double. But the Duchessa made no acknowledgment. Her bead like eyes searched the faces of the "guests" with disconcerting boldness, and then dropped to her plate.
At this signal the fat priest mumbled a blessing upon the food, the Duke waved his hand, and all the company became seated.
Uncle John felt as if he were taking part in a comic opera, and enjoyed the scene immensely. But now his attention was distracted by the stewards bringing in steaming platters of macaroni and stewed mutton, from which they first served the Duchessa, and then the Duke, and afterward the guests. The servants waited hungry-eyed until these formalities were completed, and then swept the platters clean and ate ravenously.
Uncle John plied his knife and fork busily and found the food excellently prepared. Ferralti seemed to have little appetite. Some of his teeth had been knocked out and his broken wrist, which had but partially healed, had been wrenched in the scrimmage of the night before so that it caused him considerable pain.
The Duke attempted little conversation, doubtless through deference to the aged Duchessa, who remained absolutely silent and unresponsive to her surroundings. He praised his wine, however, which he said was from their own vineyards, and pressed the Americans to drink freely.
When she had finished her meal the Duchessa raised a hand, and at the signal the whole company arose and stood at their places while two of the women assisted her to retire. She leaned upon their shoulders, being taller than her son, but displayed surprising vigor for one so advanced in years.
When she had gone the others finished at their leisure, and the conversation became general, the servants babbling in their voluble Italian without any restraint whatever.
Then the Duke led his prisoners to the veranda and offered them cigars. These were brought by Tato, who then sat in the duke's lap and curled up affectionately in his embrace, while the brigand's expression softened and he stroked the boy's head with a tender motion.
Uncle John watched the little scene approvingly. It was the first time he had seen Tato since the child had lured him through the tunnel.
"Your son, Duke?" he asked.
"Yes, signore; my only child. The heir to my modest estate."
"And a very good brigand, already, for his years," added Mr. Merrick. "Ah, Tato, Tato," shaking his head at the child, "how could you be so cruel as to fool an innocent old chap like me?"
"I did not deceive you, signore. You but misunderstood me. I said Signor Ferralti was hurt, and so he was."
"But you said he needed my assistance."
"Does he not, signore?"
"How do you speak such good English?"
"Father Antoine taught me."
"My child is a linguist," remarked the Duke, complacently. "Sh—he has been taught English, German and French, even from the days of infancy. It is very good for me, for now Tato can entertain my guests."
"Have you no Italian guests, then?" asked Uncle John.
"No, since Italy owns Sicily, and I am a loyal subject. Neither have I many Germans or Frenchmen, although a few wander my way, now and then. But the Americans I love, and often they visit me. There were three last year, and now here are two more to honor me with their presence."
"The Americans make easier victims, I suppose."
"Oh, the Americans are very rich, and they purchase my wares liberally. By the way, Signor Ferralti," turning to the young man, "have you decided yet the little matter of your own purchase?"
"I will not buy your candlestick, if that is what you refer to," was the response.
"By no means. Fifty thousand lira, for a miserable bit of brass!"
"But I forgot to tell you, signore; the candlestick is no longer for sale," observed the Duke, with an evil smile. "Instead, I offer you a magnificent bracelet which is a hundred years old."
"Thank you. What's the price?"
"A hundred thousand lira, signore."
Ferralti started. Then in turn he smiled at his captor.
"That is absurd," said he. "I have no wealth at all, sir, but live on a small allowance that barely supplies my needs. I cannot pay."
"I will take that risk, signore," said the brigand, coolly. "You have but to draw me an order on Mr. Edward Leighton, of New York, for one hundred thousand lira—or say twenty thousand dollars—and the bracelet is yours."
"Edward Leighton! My father's attorney! How did you know of him, sir?"
"I have an agent in New York," answered the Duke, "and lately I have been in your city myself."
"Then, if you know so much, you scoundrelly thief, you know that my father will not honor a draft for such a sum as you demand. I doubt if my father would pay a single dollar to save me from assassination."
"We will not discuss that, signore, for I regret to say that your father is no longer able to honor drafts. However, your attorney can do so, and will, without question."
Ferralti stared at him blankly.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
The Duke shook the ashes from his cigar and examined the glowing end with interest.
"Your father," was the deliberate reply, "was killed in a railway accident, four days ago. I have just been notified of the fact by a cable from America."
Ferralti sat trembling and regarding the man with silent horror.
"Is this true, sir?" asked Uncle John, quickly; "or is it only a part of your cursed game?"
"It is quite true, signore, I regret being obliged to break the ill news so abruptly; but this gentleman thought himself too poor to purchase my little bracelet, and it was necessary to inform him that he is suddenly made wealthy—not yet so great a Croesus as yourself, Signor Merreek, but still a very rich man."
Ferralti ceased trembling, but the horror still clung to his eyes.
"A railway wreck!" he muttered, hoarsely. "Where was it, sir? Tell me, I beseech you! And are you sure my father is dead?"
"Very sure, signore. My informant is absolutely reliable. But the details of the wreck I do not know. I am only informed of the fact of your father's death, and that his will leaves you his entire fortune."
Ferralti arose and staggered away to his room, and Uncle John watched him go pityingly, but knew no way to comfort him. When he had gone he asked gently:
"His father was an American, Duke?"
"And wealthy, you say?"
"Exceedingly wealthy, signore."
"What was his name?"
"Ah; about that ring, my dear guest. Do you think a hundred and fifty thousand lira too much for it?"
"You said a hundred thousand."
"That was this morning, signore. The ring has increased in value since. To-morrow, without doubt, it will be worth two hundred thousand."
Tato laughed at the rueful expression on the victim's face, and, a moment after, Uncle John joined in his laughter.
"Very good, duke," he said. "I don't wish to rob you. Let us wait until to-morrow."
The brigand seemed puzzled.
"May I ask why, Signor Merreek—since you are warned?" he enquired.
"Why, it's this way, Duke. I'm just a simple, common-place American, and have lived a rather stupid existence for some time. We have no brigands at home, nor any hidden valleys or protected criminals like yourself. The romance of my surroundings interests me; your methods are unique and worth studying; if I am so rich as you think me a few extra hundred thousand lira will be a cheap price to pay for this experience. Is it not so?"
The Duke frowned.
"Do you play with me?" he asked, menacingly.
"By no means. I'm just the spectator. I expect you to make the entertainment. I'm sure it will be a good show, although the price is rather high."
Il Duca glared, but made no reply at the moment. Instead, he sat stroking Tato's hair and glowering evilly at the American.
The child whispered something in Italian, and the man nodded.
"Very well, signore," he said, more quietly. "To-morrow, then, if it so pleases you."
Then, taking Tato's hand, he slowly arose and left the veranda.
For a moment the American looked after them with a puzzled expression. Then he said to himself, with a smile: "Ah, I have solved one mystery, at any rate. Tato is a girl!"
A DIFFICULT POSITION
And now Uncle John, finding himself left alone, took his walkingstick and started out to explore the valley.
He felt very sorry for young Ferralti, but believed his sympathy could in no way lighten the blow caused by the abrupt news of his parent's death. He would wish to be alone with his grief for a time. By and by Mr. Merrick intended to question his fellow prisoner and try to find out something of his history.
The dale was very beautiful as it lay basking in the afternoon sun. Near the house was a large vegetable garden, which, being now shaded by the overhanging cliffs, was being tended by a sour-visaged Sicilian. Uncle John watched him for a time, but the fellow paid no heed to him. Every servant connected with the duke's establishment seemed surly and morose, and this was the more remarkable because the country folk and villagers Uncle John had met were usually merry and light-hearted.
Down by the brook were green meadows and groves of fruit trees. The little gentleman followed the stream for some distance, and finally came upon a man seated on the bank above a broad pool, intently engaged in fishing. It proved to be the dandified old doctor, who wore gloves to protect his hands and a broad-rimmed straw hat to shade his face.
Uncle John stood beside the motionless figure for a moment, watching the line. Then, forgetting he was in a foreign country, he asked carelessly:
"Not yet," was the quiet reply, in clear English. "It is too early to interest the fishes. An hour later they will bite."
"Then why did you come so soon?"
"To escape that hell-hole yonder," nodding his head toward the house.
Uncle John was surprised.
"But you are not a prisoner, doctor," he ventured to say.
"Except through the necessity of earning a livelihood. Il Duca pays well—or rather the Duchessa does, for she is the head of this household. I am skillful, and worth my price, and they know it."
"You say the Duchessa is the head of the house?"
"Assuredly, signore. Il Duca is her slave. She plans and directs everything, and her son but obeys her will."
"Did she send him to America?"
"I think so. But do not misunderstand me. The Duke is clever on his own account, and almost as wicked as his old mother. And between them they are training the child to be as bad as they are. It is dreadful."
"Have you been here long?"
"For seven years, signore."
"But you can resign whenever you please?"
"Why not? But the doubt makes me uneasy, sometimes. In another year I would like to go to Venice, and retire from professional life. I am a Venetian, you observe; no dastardly brigand of a Sicilian. And in another year I shall have sufficient means to retire and end my days in peace. Here I save every centessimo I make, for I can spend nothing."
Uncle John sat down upon the bank beside the confiding Venetian.
"Doctor," said he, "I am somewhat puzzled by this man you call Il Duca, as well as by my audacious capture and the methods employed to rob me. I'd like your advice. What shall I do?"
"The only possible thing, signore. Submit."
"Why is it the only possible thing?"
"Have you not yet discovered? Unless you pay, your friends will never hear from you again. Il Duca, by his mother's favor, is king here. He will murder you if you oppose his demands."
"It is quite certain, signore. He has murdered several obstinate people since I have been here, and the outside world will never know their fate. It is folly to oppose the king. Were you not rich you would not be here. Il Duca knows the exact wealth of every American who travels abroad and is likely to visit Sicily. Many escape him, but a few wander into his toils, for he is wonderfully sagacious. Mark you: he does not demand your all; he merely takes tribute, leaving his victims sufficient to render life desirable to them. If he required their all, many would as soon forfeit life as make the payment; but a tithe they will spare for the privilege of living. That is why he is so successful. And that is why he remains undisturbed. For an American, being robbed so simply, never tells of his humiliating experience. He goes home, and avoids Sicily ever after."
"H-m-m. I understand."
"But if you do not pay, you are not permitted to leave this place. You are killed at once, and the incident is over. Il Duca does not love to murder, but he takes no chances."
"I see. But suppose I pay, and then make complaint to the Italian government?"
"It has been done, signore. But the government is very blind. It does not know Il Duca d' Alcanta. Its officials are convinced he does not exist. They investigate carefully, and declare the tale is all a myth."
"Then there is no way of escape?"
"Absolutely none. Such a condition is almost inconceivable, is it not? and in this enlightened age? But it exists, and is only harmful when its victims are stubborn and rebellious. To be cheerful and pay promptly is the only sensible way out of your difficulty."
"Thank you," said Uncle John. "I shall probably pay promptly. But tell me, to satisfy my curiosity, how does your duke murder his victims?"
"He does not call it murder, as I do; he says they are suicides, or the victims of accident. They walk along a path and fall into a pit. It is deep, and they are killed. The pit is also their tomb. They are forgotten, and the trap is already set for their successors."
"Rather a gloomy picture, doctor."
"Yes. I tell you this because my nature is kind. I abhor all crime, and much prefer that you should live. But, if you die, my salario continues. I am employed to guard the health of the Duke's family—especially the old Duchessa—and have no part in this detestable business."
"Isn't that a bite?"
"No, signore. It is the current. It is not time for the fish to bite."
Uncle John arose.
"Good afternoon, doctor."
"Good afternoon, signore."
He left the old fellow sitting there and walked on. The valley was about a half mile long and from a quarter to a third of a mile in width. It resembled a huge amphitheatre in shape.
The American tramped the length of the brook, which disappeared into the rocky wall at the far end. Then he returned through the orchards to the house.
The place was silent and seemed deserted. There was a languor in the atmosphere that invited sleep. Uncle John sought his room and lay down for an afternoon nap, soon falling into a sound slumber.
When he awoke he found Ferralti seated beside his bed. The young man was pale, but composed.
"Mr. Merrick," said he, "what have you decided to do?"
Uncle John rubbed his eyes and sat up.
"I'm going to purchase that ring," he answered, "at the best price the Duke will make me."
"I am disappointed," returned Ferralti, stiffly. "I do not intend to allow myself to be robbed in this way."
"Then write a farewell letter, and I'll take it to your friends."
"It may not be necessary, sir."
Uncle John regarded him thoughtfully.
"What can you do?" he asked.
Ferralti leaned forward and whispered, softly: "I have a stout pocket-knife, with a very long blade. I shall try to kill the Duke. Once he is dead his people will not dare to oppose us, but will fly in terror. It is only Il Duca's audacity and genius that enables this robber's den to exist."
"You would rather attempt this than pay?"
"Sir, I could not bear the infamy of letting this scoundrel triumph over me."
"Well, Ferralti, you are attempting a delicate and dangerous task, but so far as I can, I will help you."
He took the revolver from his pocket and handed it to his companion.
"It's loaded in every chamber," he whispered. "Perhaps it will serve your purpose better than a knife."
Ferralti's eyes sparkled.
"Good!" he exclaimed, concealing the weapon. "I shall watch for my opportunity, so as to make no mistake. Meantime, do you bargain with the Duke, but postpone any agreement to pay."
"All right, my lad. I'll wait to see what happens. It may add a good deal to the cost of that ring, if you fail; but I'll take the chances of that for the sake of the game."
He paused a moment, and then added:
"Is your father really dead, Count?"
"Yes; the Duke has sent me the cablegram he received from his agent. I cannot doubt his authority. My father and I have not been friendly, of late years. He was a severe man, cold and unsympathetic, but I am sorry we could not have been reconciled before this awful fate overtook him. However, it is now too late for vain regrets. I tried not to disobey or antagonize my one parent, but he did not understand my nature, and perhaps I failed to understand his."
He sighed, and rising from his chair walked to the window to conceal his emotion.
Uncle John remained silent, and presently Tommaso entered to notify them that dinner would be served in a half hour, and the Duke expected them to join him at the table.
The next morning Mr. Merrick bargained pleasantly with his jailer, who seemed not averse to discussing the matter at length; but no conclusion was reached. Ferralti took no part in the conversation, but remained sullen and silent, and the Duke did not press him.
The day after, however, he insisted that he had dallied long enough, although after much argument on the part of his enforced guests he agreed to give them three days to decide, with the understanding that each day they delayed would add a goodly sum to their ransom. If at the end of the three days the Americans remained obdurate, he would invite them to take a little walk, and the affair would be terminated.
Ferralti hugged his revolver and awaited his opportunity. It seemed to Uncle John that he might have had a hundred chances to shoot the brigand, who merited no better fate than assassination at their hands; but although Ferralti was resolved upon the deed he constantly hesitated to accomplish it in cold blood, and the fact that he had three days grace induced him to put off the matter as long as possible.
He came to regret most bitterly his indecision; for something in the young man's eyes must have put the brigand on his guard. When they awoke on the third morning, which was the fifth since their imprisonment, some one had searched their rooms thoroughly. The revolver and the knife were both gone, and the loss rendered them absolutely helpless.
UNCLE JOHN PLAYS EAVESDROPPER
It now seemed to Uncle John that further resistance to the demands of Il Duca was as useless as it was dangerous. He resented the necessity of paying a ransom as much as any man could; but imprisoned as he was in a veritable "robbers' den," without means of communicating with the authorities or the outside world, and powerless to protect his life from the vengeance of the unprincipled scoundrel who held him, the only safe and sane mode of procedure was to give in as gracefully as possible.
He formed this conclusion during a long walk around the valley, during which he once more noted the absolute seclusion of the place and the impossibility of escape by scaling the cliffs. The doctor was fishing again by the brook, but paid no heed when Uncle John tramped by. The sight of the dapper little man gave Mr. Merrick a thought, and presently he turned back and sat down beside the fisherman.
"I want to get out of this," he said, bluntly. "It was fun, at first, and rather interesting; but I've had enough of it."
The physician kept his eye on the line and made no reply.
"I want you to tell me how to escape," continued Uncle John. "It's no use saying that it can't be done, for nothing is impossible to a clever man, such as I believe you to be."
Still no reply.
"You spoke, the other day, of earning enough money to go home and live in peace for the rest of your days. Here, sir, is your opportunity to improve upon that ambition. The brigand is trying to exact a large ransom from me; I'll give it to you willingly—every penny—if you'll show me how to escape."
"Why should you do that?" enquired the doctor, still intent upon his line. "Does it matter to you who gets your money?"
"Of course," was the prompt reply. "In one case I pay it for a service rendered, and do it gladly. On the other hand, I am robbed, and that goes against the grain. Il Duca has finally decided to demand fifty thousand dollars. It shall be yours, instead, if you give me your assistance."
"Signore," said the other, calmly, "I would like this money, and I regret that it is impossible for me to earn it. But there is no means of escape from this place except by the passage through the rocks, which passage only three people know the secret of opening—Il Duca himself, the child Tato, and the old Duchessa. Perhaps Tommaso also knows; I am not certain; but he will not admit he has such knowledge. You see, signore, I am as much a prisoner as yourself."
"There ought to be some way to climb these cliffs; some secret path or underground tunnel," remarked Uncle John, musingly.
"It is more than a hundred years since this valley was made secure by a brigand ancestor of our Duchessa," was the reply. "It may be two or three centuries ago, for all I know. And ever since it has been used for just this purpose: to hold a prisoner until he was ransomed—and no such man has ever left the place alive unless he paid the price."
"Then you cannot help me?" asked Uncle John, who was weary of hearing these pessimistic declarations.
"I cannot even help myself; for I may not resign my position here unless the Duke is willing I should go."
"Good morning, doctor."
The prisoner returned slowly toward the dwelling, with its group of outhouses. By chance he found a path leading to the rear of these which he had not traversed before, and followed it until he came to a hedge of thickly set trees of some variety of cactus, which seemed to have been planted to form an enclosure. Cautiously pushing aside the branches bordering a small gap in this hedge, Uncle John discovered a charming garden lying beyond, so he quickly squeezed himself through the opening and entered.
The garden was rudely but not badly kept. There was even some attempt at ornamentation, and many of the shrubs and flowers were rare and beautiful. Narrow walks traversed the masses of foliage, and several leafy bowers invited one to escape the heat of the midday sun in their shelter. It was not a large place, and struck one as being overcrowded because so many of the plants were taller than a man's head.
Uncle John turned down one path which, after several curves and turns, came to an abrupt ending beneath the spreading branches of an acacia tree which had been converted into a bower by a thick, climbing vine, whose matted leaves and purple blossoms effectually screened off the garden beyond.
While he stood gazing around him to find a way out without retracing his steps, a clear voice within a few feet of him caused him to start. The voice spoke in vehement Italian, and came from the other side of the screen of vines. It was sharp and garrulous in tone, and although Uncle John did not understand the words he recognized their dominating accent.
The Duke replied, slowly and sullenly, and whatever he said had the effect of rousing the first speaker to fierce anger.
The American became curious. He found a place where the leaves were thinner than elsewhere, and carefully pressing them apart looked through the opening. Beyond was a clear space, well shaded and furnished with comfortable settles, tables and chairs. It adjoined a wing of the dwelling, which stood but a few paces away and was evidently occupied by the women of the household. The old Duchessa, her face still like a death mask but her eyes glittering with the brightness of a serpent's, sat enthroned within a large chair in the center of a family group. It was her sharp voice that had first aroused the American's attention. Opposite her sat the Duke, his thin face wearing an expression of gloom and dissatisfaction. The child Tato occupied a stool at her father's feet, and in the background were three serving women, sewing or embroidering. Near the Duke stood the tall brigand known as Pietro.
Answering the old woman's fierce tirade, Tato said:
"It is foolish to quarrel in Italian. The servants are listening."
"Let us then speak in English," returned the Duchessa. "These are matters the servants should not gossip about."
The Duke nodded assent. Both Tato and her grandmother spoke easily the foreign tongue; the Duke was more uncertain in his English, but understood it perfectly.
"I am still the head of this family," resumed the Duchessa, in a more moderate tone. "I insist that my will be obeyed."
"Your dignity I have the respect for," replied the Duke, laboredly; "but you grow old and foolish."
"Yes; you are absurd. You live in past centuries. You think to-day we must do all that your ancestors did."
"Can you do better?"
"Yes; the world has change. It has progress. With it I advance, but you do not. You would murder, rob, torture to-day as the great Duke, your grandfather, did. You think we still are of the world independent. You think we are powerful and great. Bah! we are nothing—we are as a speck of dust. But still we are the outlaws and the outcasts of Sicily, and some day Italy will crush us and we will be forgotten."
"I dare them to molest us!"
"Because you are imbecile. The world you do not know. I have travel; I see many countries; and I am wise."
"But you are still my vassal, my slave; and I alone rule here. Always have you rebelled and wanted to escape. Only my iron will has kept you here and made you do your duty."
"Since you my brother Ridolfo killed, I have little stomach for the trade of brigand. It is true. But no longer is this trade necessary. We are rich. Had I a son to inherit your business, a different thought might prevail; but I have only Tato, and a girl cannot be a successful brigand."
"Why not?" cried the old Duchessa, contemptuously. "It is the girl—always the girl—you make excuses for. But have I not ruled our domain—I, who am a woman?"
Tato herself answered, in a quiet voice.
"And what have you become, nonna, more than an outcast?" she enquired. "What use to you is money, or a power that the world would sneer at, did the world even suspect that you exist? You are a failure in life, my nonna, and I will not be like you."
The Duchessa screamed an epithet and glared at the child as if she would annihilate her; but no fitting words to reply could she find.
Uncle John smiled delightedly. He felt no sense of humiliation or revolt at eavesdropping in this den of thieves, and to be able to gain so fair a revelation of the inner life of this remarkable family was a diversion not lightly to be foregone.
"So far, we have managed to escape the law," resumed the Duke. "But always it may not be our fortune to do this, if we continue this life. It is now a good time to stop. Of one American we will gain a quarter of a million lira—a fortune—and of the other one hundred and fifty thousand lira. With what we already have it is enough and more. Quietly we will disband our men and go away. In another land we live the respectable life, in peace with all, and Tato shall be the fine lady, and forget she once was a brigand's daughter."
The child sprang up in glee, and clasping her father's neck with both arms kissed him with passionate earnestness.
Silently the Duchessa watched the scene. Her face was as pallid and immobile as ever; even the eyes seemed to have lost expression. But the next words showed that she was still unconquered.
"You shall take the money of the fat pig of an American; it is well to do so. But the youth who boldly calls himself Ferralti shall make no tribute to this family. He shall die as I have declared."
"I will not take the risk," asserted the Duke, sourly.
"Have the others who lie in the pit told tales?" she demanded.
"No; but they died alone. Here are two Americans our prisoners, and they have many and powerful friends, both at Taormina and at Naples. The man Merrick, when he goes, will tell that Ferralti is here. To obtain his person, alive or dead, the soldiers will come here and destroy us all. It is folly, and shows you are old and imbecile."
"Then go!" she cried, fiercely. "Go, you and Tato; take your money and escape. And leave me my valley, and the youth Ferralti, and my revenge. Then, if I die, if the soldiers destroy me, it is my own doing."
"In this new world, of which you know nothing, escape is not possible," replied the duke, after a moment's thought. "Ferralti must be accounted for, and because I captured him they would accuse me of his death, and even Tato might be made to suffer. No, madame. Both the Americans must be killed, or both set free for ransom."
Uncle John gave a start of dismay. Here was a development he had not expected.
"Then," said the old woman, positively, "let them both die."
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Tato. "Not that, grandmother!"
"Certainly not so," agreed the Duke. "We want their money."
"You are already rich," said the Duchessa. "You have yourself said so, and I know it is truth."
"This new world," explained the Duke, "contains of luxuries many that you have no understanding of. To be rich to-day requires more money than in your days, madre mia. With these ransoms, which already we have won, we shall have enough. Without this money my Tato would lack much that I desire for her. So of new murders I will take no risk, for the bambina's sake."
"And my revenge?"
"Bah, of what use is it? Because the boy's father married my sister Bianca, and ill-treated her, must we kill their offspring?"
"He is his father's son. The father, you say, is dead, and so also is my child Bianca. Then my hatred falls upon the son Arturo, and he must die to avenge the wrong to our race."
"More proof that you are imbecile," said the Duke, calmly. "He shall not die. He is nothing to us except a mine from whence to get gold."
"He is my grandson. I have a right to kill him."
"He is my nephew. He shall live."
"Do you defy me?"
"With certainty. I defy you. The new world permits no crazy nonna to rule a family. That is my privilege. If you persist, it is you who shall go to the pit. If you have reason, you shall remain in your garden in peace. Come, Tato; we will retire."
He arose and took the child's hand. The old woman sat staring at them in silence, but with an evil glint in her glistening eyes.
Uncle John turned around and softly made his retreat from the garden. His face wore a startled and horrified expression and on his forehead stood great beads of sweat that the sultriness of the day did not account for.
But he thought better of Il Duca.
They met an hour later at luncheon, all but the Duchessa, who sulked in her garden. Tato was bright and smiling, filled with a suppressed joy which bubbled up in spite of the little one's effort to be dignified and sedate. When her hand stole under the table to find and press that of her father, Uncle John beamed upon her approvingly; for he knew what had occurred and could sympathize with her delight.
The Duke, however, was more sombre than usual. He had defied his mother, successfully, so far; but he feared the terrible old woman more than did Tato, because he knew more of her history and of the bold and wicked deeds she had perpetrated in years gone by. Only once had a proposed victim escaped her, and that was when her own daughter Bianca had fallen in love with an American held for ransom and spirited him away from the valley through knowledge of the secret passage. It was well Bianca had fled with her lover; otherwise her mother would surely have killed her. But afterward, when the girl returned to die in the old home, all was forgiven, and only the hatred of her foreign husband, whose cruelty had driven her back to Sicily, remained to rankle in the old Duchessa's wicked heart.
No one knew her evil nature better than her son. He entertained a suspicion that he had not conquered her by his recent opposition to her will. Indeed, he would never have dared to brave her anger except for Tato's sake. Tato was his idol, and in her defense the cowardly brigand had for the moment become bold.
Tato laughed and chatted with Uncle John all through the meal, even trying at times to cheer the doleful Ferralti, who was nearly as glum and unsociable as her father. The servants and brigands at the lower end of the table looked upon the little one admiringly. It was evident she was a general favorite.
On the porch, after luncheon, the Duke broached the subject of the ransoms again, still maintaining the fable of selling his antique jewelry.
"Sir," said Uncle John, "I'm going to submit gracefully, but upon one condition."
The Duke scowled.
"I allow no conditions," he said.
"You'd better allow this one," Uncle John replied, "because it will make it easier for all of us. Of my own free will and accord I will make a present to Tato of fifty thousand dollars, and she shall have it for her dowry when she marries."
Tato clapped her hands.
"How did you know I am a girl, when I wear boys' clothes?" she asked.
Even the duke smiled, at that, but the next moment he shook his head solemnly.
"It will not do, signore," he declared, answering Uncle John's proposition. "This is a business affair altogether. You must purchase the ring, and at once."
The little American sighed. It had been his last hope.
"Very well," he said; "have your own way."
"You will send to your friends for the money?"
"Whenever you say, Duke. You've got me in a hole, and I must wiggle out the best way I can."
The brigand turned to Ferralti.
"And you, signore?" he asked.
"I do not know whether I can get the money you demand."
"But you will make the attempt, as I shall direct?"
"Then, signori, it is all finished. In a brief time you will leave my hospitable roof."
"The sooner the better," declared Ferralti.
They sat for a time in silence, each busy with his thoughts.
"Go to your grandmother, Tato," said the Duke, "and try to make your peace with her. If she is too angry, do not remain. To-morrow you must go into town with letters from these gentlemen to their friends."
The child kissed him and went obediently to do his will. Then the brigand spoke to Tommaso, who brought writing material from the house and placed it upon a small table.
Uncle John, without further demur, sat down to write. The Duke dictated what he should say, although he was allowed to express the words in his own characteristic style, and he followed his instructions implicitly, secretly admiring the shrewdness of the brigand's methods.
It was now Ferralti's turn. He had just seated himself at the table and taken the pen when they were startled by a shrill scream from the rear of the house. It was followed by another, and another, in quick succession.
It was Tato's voice, and the duke gave an answering cry and sprang from the veranda to dart quickly around the corner of the house. Uncle John followed him, nearly as fearful as the child's father.
Tommaso seized a short rifle that stood near and ran around the house in the other direction, when Ferralti, who for a moment had seemed dazed by the interruption, followed Tommaso rather than the others.
As they came to the rear they were amazed to see the old Duchessa, whom they had known to be feeble and dependent upon her women, rush through the garden hedge with the agility of a man, bearing in her arms the struggling form of little Tato.
The child screamed pitifully, but the woman glared upon Tommaso and Ferralti, as she passed them, with the ferocity of a tiger.
"She is mad!" cried Ferralti. "Quick, Tommaso; let us follow her."
The brigand bounded forward, with the young man scarce a pace behind him. The woman, running with wonderful speed in spite of her burden, began to ascend a narrow path leading up the face of a rugged cliff.
A yell of anguish from behind for a moment arrested Ferralti's rapid pursuit. Glancing back he saw the Duke running frantically toward them, at the same time waving his arms high above his head.
"The pit!" he shouted. "She is making for the pit. Stop her, for the love of God!"
Ferralti understood, and dashed forward again at full speed. Tommaso also understood, for his face was white and he muttered terrible oaths as he pressed on. Yet run as they might, the mad duchessa was inspired with a strength so superhuman that she kept well in advance.
But the narrow path ended half way up the cliff. It ended at a deep chasm in the rocks, the edge of which was protected by a large flat stone, like the curb of a well.
With a final leap the old woman gained this stone, and while the dreadful pit yawned at her feet she turned, and with a demoniacal laugh faced her pursuers, hugging the child close to her breast.
Tommaso and Ferralti, who were nearest, paused instinctively. It was now impossible for them to prevent the tragedy about to be enacted. The Duke, spurred on by fear, was yet twenty paces in their rear, and in a moment he also stopped, clasping his hands in a gesture of vain entreaty.
"Listen, Lugui!" his mother called to him, in a dear, high voice. "This is the child that has come between us and turned you from a man into a coward. Here alone is the cause of our troubles. Behold! I will remove it forever from our path."
With the words she lifted Tato high above her head and turned toward the pit—that terrible cleft in the rocks which was believed to have no bottom.
At her first movement Tommaso had raised his gun, and the Duke, perceiving this, called to him in an agonized voice to fire. But either the brigand wavered between his loyalty to the Duke or the Duchessa, or he feared to injure Tato, for he hesitated to obey and the moments were precious.
The child's fate hung in the balance when Ferralti snatched the weapon from the brigand's hands and fired it so hastily that he scarcely seemed to take aim.
A wild cry echoed the shot. The woman collapsed and fell, dropping Tato at her feet, where they both tottered at the edge of the pit. The child, however, clung desperately to the outer edge of the flat stone, while the Duchessa's inert form seemed to hesitate for an instant and then disappeared from view.
Tommaso ran forward and caught up the child, returning slowly along the path to place it in the father's arms. Ferralti was looking vaguely from the weapon he held to the pit, and then back again, as if not fully understanding what he had done.
"Thank you, signore," said the Duke, brokenly, "for saving my precious child."
"But I have slain your mother!" cried the young man, horrified.
"The obligation is even," replied the duke. "She was also your grandmother."
Ferralti stood motionless, his face working convulsively, his tongue refusing to utter a sound.
"But he did not shoot my grandmother at all," said Tato, who was sobbing against her father's breast; "for I heard the bullet strike the rock beside us. My grandmother's strength gave way, and she fainted. It was that that saved me, padre mia."
NEWS AT LAST
Kenneth Forbes had always been an unusual boy. He had grown up in an unfriendly atmosphere, unloved and uncared for, and resented this neglect with all the force of his impetuous nature. He had hated Aunt Jane, and regarded her as cruel and selfish—a fair estimate of her character—until Aunt Jane's nieces taught him to be more considerate and forgiving. Patricia, especially, had exercised a gentler influence upon the arbitrary youth, and as a consequence they had become staunch friends.
When the unexpected inheritance of a fortune changed the boy's condition from one of dependence to one of importance he found he had no longer any wrongs to resent; therefore his surly and brusque moods gradually disappeared, and he became a pleasant companion to those he cared for. With strangers he still remained reserved and suspicious, and occasionally the old sullen fits would seize him and it was well to avoid his society while they lasted.
On his arrival at Taormina, Kenneth had entered earnestly into the search for Uncle John, whom he regarded most affectionately; and, having passed the day tramping over the mountains, he would fill the evening with discussions and arguments with the nieces concerning the fate of their missing uncle.
But as the days dragged wearily away the search slackened and was finally abandoned. Kenneth set up his easel in the garden and began to paint old Etna, with its wreath of snow and the soft gray cloud of vapor that perpetually hovered over it.
"Anyone with half a soul could paint that!" said Patsy; and as a proof of her assertion the boy did very well indeed, except that his uneasiness on Mr. Merrick's account served to distract him more or less.
Nor was Kenneth the only uneasy one. Mr. Watson, hard-headed man of resource as he was, grew more and more dejected as he realized the impossibility of interesting the authorities in the case. The Sicilian officials were silent and uncommunicative; the Italians wholly indifferent. If strangers came to Taormina and got into difficulties, the government was in no way to blame. It was their duty to tolerate tourists, but those all too energetic foreigners must take care of themselves.
Probably Mr. Watson would have cabled the State Department at Washington for assistance had he not expected each day to put him in communication with his friend, and in the end he congratulated himself upon his patience. The close of the week brought a sudden and startling change in the situation.
The girls sat on the shaded terrace one afternoon, watching the picture of Etna grow under Kenneth's deft touches, when they observed a child approaching them with shy diffidence. It was a beautiful Sicilian boy, with wonderful brown eyes and a delicate profile. After assuring himself that the party of young Americans was quite separate from any straggling guest of the hotel, the child came near enough to say, in a low tone:
"I have a message from Signor Merrick."
They crowded around him eagerly then, raining questions from every side; but the boy shrank away and said, warningly:
"If we are overheard, signorini mia, it will be very bad. No one must suspect that I am here."
"Is my uncle well?" asked Patsy, imploringly.
"Quite well, mees."
"And have you also news of Count Ferralti?" anxiously enquired Louise.
"Oh, Ferralti? He is better. Some teeth are knocked out, but he eats very well without them," replied the child, with an amused laugh.
"Where are our friends, my lad?" Kenneth asked.
"I cannot describe the place, signore; but here are letters to explain all." The child produced a bulky package, and after a glance at each, in turn, placed it in Patsy's hands. "Read very secretly, signorini, and decide your course of action. To-morrow I will come for your answer. In the meantime, confide in no one but yourselves. If you are indiscreet, you alone will become the murderers of Signor Merrick and the sad young Ferralti."
"Who are you?" asked Beth, examining the child closely.
"I am called Tato, signorina mia."
"Where do you live?"
"It is all explained in the letters, believe me."
Beth glanced at Patricia, who was examining the package, and now all crowded around for a glimpse of Uncle John's well-known handwriting. The wrapper was inscribed:
"To Miss Doyle, Miss De Graf and Miss Merrick, Hotel Castello-a-Mare, Taormina. By the safe hands of Tato."
Inside were two letters, one addressed to Louise personally. She seized this and ran a little distance away, while Beth took Uncle John's letter from Patsy's trembling hands, and having opened it read aloud in a clear and composed voice the following:
"My dear Nieces: (and also my dear friends, Silas Watson and Kenneth Forbes, if they are with you) Greeting! You have perhaps been wondering at my absence, which I will explain by saying that I am visiting a noble acquaintance in a very cozy and comfortable retreat which I am sure would look better from a distance. My spirits and health are A No. 1 and it is my intention to return to you as soon as you have executed a little commission for me, which I want you to do exactly as I hereby instruct you. In other words, if you don't execute the commission you will probably execute me.
"I have decided to purchase a valuable antique ring from my host, at a price of fifty thousand dollars, which trifling sum I must have at once to complete the transaction, for until full payment is made I cannot rejoin you. Therefore you must hasten to raise the dough. Here's the programme, my dear girls: One of you must go by first train to Messina and cable Isham, Marvin & Co. to deposit with the New York correspondents of the Banca Commerciale Italiana fifty thousand dollars, and have instructions cabled to the Messina branch of that bank to pay the sum to the written order of John Merrick. This should all be accomplished within twenty-four hours. Present the enclosed order, together with my letter of credit and passport, which will identify my signature, and draw the money in cash. Return with it to Taormina and give it secretly to the boy Tato, who will bring it to me. I will rejoin you within three hours after I have paid for the ring.
"This may seem a strange proceeding to you, my dears, but you must not hesitate to accomplish it—if you love me. Should my old friend Silas Watson be now with you, as I expect him to be, he will assist you to do my bidding, for he will be able to realize, better than I can now explain, how important it is to me.
"Also I beg you to do a like service for Count Ferralti, who is entrusting his personal commission, to Louise. He also must conclude an important purchase before he can return to Taormina.
"More than this I am not permitted to say in this letter. Confide in no stranger, or official of any sort, and act as secretly and quietly as possible. I hope soon to be with you.
"Very affectionately, UNCLE JOHN."
"What does it all mean?" asked Patsy, bewildered, when Beth had finished reading.
"Why, it is clear enough, I'm sure," said Kenneth. "Uncle John is imprisoned by brigands, and the money he requires is his ransom. We must get it as soon as possible, you know, and luckily he is so rich that he won't miss this little draft at all."
Beth sat silent, angrily staring at the letter.
"I suppose," said Patsy, hesitating, "the robbers will do the dear uncle some mischief, if he doesn't pay."
"Just knock him on the head, that's all," said the boy. "But there's no need to worry. We can get the money easily."
Suddenly Beth jumped up.
"Where's that girl?" she demanded, sharply.
"Tato, my dear coz, is a boy," answered Kenneth; "and he disappeared ages ago."
"You must be blind," said Beth, scornfully, "not to recognize a girl when you see one. A boy, indeed!"
"Why, he dressed like a boy," replied Kenneth, hesitatingly.
"So much the more disgraceful," sniffed Beth. "She belongs to those brigands, I suppose."
"Looks something like Victor Valdi," said Patsy, thoughtfully.
"Il Duca? Of course! I see it myself, now. Patricia, it is that wicked duke who has captured Uncle John."
"I had guessed that," declared Patsy, smiling.
"He must be a handsome rascal," observed Kenneth, "for the child is pretty as a picture."
"He isn't handsome at all," replied Beth; "but there is a look about the child's eyes that reminds me of him."
"That's it, exactly," agreed Patsy.
Louise now approached them with a white, frightened face.
"Isn't it dreadful!" she moaned. "They are going to kill Ferralti unless he gives them thirty thousand dollars."
"And I don't believe he can raise thirty cents," said Patsy, calmly.
"Oh, yes, he can," answered Louise, beginning to cry. "Hi—his—father is d—dead, and has left him—a—fortune."
"Don't blubber, Lou," said the boy, chidingly; "in that case your dago friend is as well off as need be. But I suppose you're afraid the no-account Count won't figure his life is worth thirty thousand dollars. It does seem like an awful price to pay for a foreigner."
"It isn't that," said Louise, striving to control her emotion. "He says he hates to be robbed. He wouldn't pay a penny if he could help it."
"Good for the Count! I don't blame him a bit," exclaimed Beth. "It is a beastly shame that free born Americans should be enslaved by a crew of thieving Sicilians, and obliged to purchase their freedom!"
"True for you," said Kenneth, nodding. "But what are we going to do about it?"
"Pay, of course," decided Patsy, promptly. "Our Uncle John is too precious to be sacrificed for all the money in the world. Come; let's go and find Mr. Watson. We ought not to lose a moment's time."
The lawyer read Uncle John's letter carefully, as well as the one from Count Ferralti, which Louise confided to him with the request that he keep the young man's identity a secret for a time, until he could reveal it to her cousins in person.
"The only thing to be done," announced Mr. Watson, "is to carry out these instructions faithfully. We can send the cable messages from here, and in the morning Louise and I will take the train for Messina and remain there until we get the money."
"It's an outrage!" cried Beth.
"Of course, my dear. But it can't be helped. And your uncle is wise to take the matter so cheerfully. After all, it is little enough to pay for one's life and liberty, and our friend is so wealthy that he will never feel the loss at all."
"It isn't that; it's the principle of the thing that I object to," said the girl. "It's downright disgraceful to be robbed so easily."
"To be sure; but the disgrace is Italy's, not ours. Object all you want to, Beth, dear," continued the old lawyer, smiling at her; "but nevertheless we'll pay as soon as possible, and have done with it. What we want now is your Uncle John, and we want him mighty badly."
"Really, the pirates didn't charge enough for him," added Patsy.
So Mr. Watson sent the cables to John Merrick's bankers and Count Ferralti's attorney, and the next morning went with Louise to Messina.
Frascatti drove all the party down the road to the station at Giardini, and as the train pulled out, Beth, who had remained seated in the victoria with Patricia and Kenneth, suddenly stood up to pull the vetturino's sleeve.
"Tell me, Frascatti," she whispered, "isn't that Il Duca's child? Look—that little one standing in the corner?"
"Why, yes; it is really Tato," answered the man, before he thought to deny it.
"Very well; you may now drive us home," returned Beth, a shade of triumph in her voice.
BETH BEGINS TO PLOT
Once back in their sitting-room behind closed doors, Beth, Patsy and Kenneth got their three heads together and began eagerly to discuss a plot which Beth had hinted of on the way home and now unfolded in detail. And while they still whispered together a knock at the door startled them and made them look rather guilty until the boy answered the call and admitted little Tato.
The child's beautiful face wore a smile of demure satisfaction as Tato bowed respectfully to the young Americans.
Kenneth winked at Beth from behind the visitor's back.
"As you have a guest," he remarked, with a yawn that was somewhat rude, "I shall now go and take my nap."
"What, do you sleep so early in the day, you lazy-bones?" asked Patsy, brightly.
"Any time, my dear, is good enough for an overworked artist," he replied. "Au revoir, my cousins. See you at luncheon."
With this he strolled away, and when he had gone Beth said to Tato:
"Won't you sit down, signorina?"
"Do you mean me?" asked the child, as if surprised.
"Yes; I can see plainly that you are a girl."
"And a pretty one, too, my dear," added Patsy.
Tato blushed as if embarrassed, but in a moment smiled upon the American girls.
"Do you think me immodest, then?" she asked, anxiously.
"By no means, my dear," Beth assured her. "I suppose you have an excellent reason for wearing boys' clothes."
"So I have, signorina. I live in the mountains, where dresses catch in the crags, and bother a girl. And my father has always been heart-broken because he had no son, and likes to see me in this attire. He has many errands for me, too, where a boy may go unnoticed, yet a girl would attract too much attention. This is one of the errands, signorini. But now tell me, if you please, how have you decided to answer the letters of Signor Merrick and Signor Ferralti?"
"Oh, there was but one way to answer them, Tato," replied Beth, composedly. "We have sent Mr. Watson and our cousin Louise Merrick to Messina to get the money. If our friends in America act promptly Mr. Watson and Louise will return by to-morrow afternoon's train, and be prepared to make the payment."
"That is well, signorina," responded Tato.
"We are to give the money to you, I suppose?" said Patsy.
"Yes; I will return for it to-morrow afternoon," answered the child, with business-like gravity. Then she looked earnestly from one to the other of the two girls. "You must act discreetly, in the meantime, you know. You must not talk to anyone, or do anything to imperil your uncle's safety."
"Of course not, Tato."
"I beg you not, signorini. The uncle is a good man, and brave. I do not wish him to be injured."
"Nor do we, Tato."
"And the young man is not a coward, either. He has been kind to me. But he is sad, and not so pleasant to talk with as the uncle."
"True enough, Tato," said Beth.
Patsy had been examining the child with curious intentness. The little one was so lovely and graceful, and her voice sounded so soft and womanly, that Patsy longed to take her in her arms and hug her.
"How old are you, dear?" she asked.
Tato saw the friendly look, and answered with a smile.
"Perhaps as old as you, signorina, although I am so much smaller. I shall be fifteen in a month."
Tato laughed merrily.
"Ah, you might well say 'so young,' amico mia! To be grown up is much nicer; do you not think so? And then I shall not look such a baby as now, and have people scold me when I get in the way, as they do little bambini."
"But when you are grown you cannot wear boys' clothing, either."
"We have a saying in Sicily that 'each year has its sunshine and rain,' which means its sorrow and its joy," she answered. "Perhaps I sometimes think more of the tears than of the laughter, although I know that is wrong. Not always shall I be a mountaineer, and then the soft dresses of the young girls shall be my portion. Will I like them better? I do not know. But I must go now, instead of chattering here. Farewell, signorini, until to-morrow."
"Will you not remain with us?"
"Oh, no; although you are kind. I am expected home. But to-morrow I will come for the money. You will be silent?"
The child smiled upon them pleasantly. It was a relief to deal with two tender girls instead of cold and resentful men, such as she had sometimes met. At the door she blew a kiss to them, and darted away.
In the courtyard Frascatti saw her gliding out and discreetly turned his head the other way.
Tato took the old road, circling around the theatre and through the narrow, winding streets of the lower town to the Catania Gate. She looked back one or twice, but no one noticed her. If any of the villagers saw her approaching they slipped out of her path.
Once on the highway, however, Tato became lost in reflection. Her mission being successfully accomplished, it required no further thought; but the sweet young American girls had made a strong impression upon the lonely Sicilian maid, and she dreamed of their pretty gowns and ribbons, their fresh and comely faces, and the gentleness of their demeanor.
Tato was not gentle. She was wild and free and boyish, and had no pretty gowns whatever. But what then? She must help her father to get his fortune, and then he had promised her that some day they would go to Paris or Cairo and live in the world, and be brigands no longer.
She would like that, she thought, as she clambered up the steep paths; and perhaps she would meet these American girls again, or others like them, and make them her friends. She had never known a girl friend, as yet.
These ambitions would yesterday have seemed far in the dim future; but now that her stern old grandmother was gone it was possible her father would soon fulfill his promises. While the Duchessa lived she ruled them all, and she was a brigand to the backbone. Now her father's will prevailed, and he could refuse his child nothing.
Kenneth was not an expert detective, but he had managed to keep Tato in sight without being suspected by her. He had concealed himself near the Catania Gate, through which he knew she must pass, and by good luck she had never looked around once, so intent were her musings.
When she came to the end of the path and leaned against the rock to sing the broken refrain which was the "open sesame" to the valley, the boy was hidden snug behind a boulder where he could watch her every movement.
Then the rock opened; Tato passed in, and the opening closed behind her.
Kenneth found a foothold and climbed up the wall of rock, higher and higher, until at last he crept upon a high ridge and looked over.
The hidden valley lay spread before him in all its beauty, but the precipice at his feet formed a sheer drop of a hundred feet or more, and he drew back with a shudder.
Then he took courage to look again, and observed the house, on the porch of which stood Tato engaged in earnest conversation with a tall, dark Sicilian. Uncle John was nowhere to be seen, but the boy understood that he was there, nevertheless, and realized that his prison was so secure that escape was impossible.
And now he climbed down again, a much more difficult feat than getting up. But although he was forced to risk his life several times, he was agile and clear-headed, and finally dropped to the path that led to the secret door of the passage.
His next thought was to mark the exact location of the place, so that he could find it again; and as he returned slowly along the paths through the rocky fissures he took mental note of every curve and communication, and believed he could now find his way to the retreat of the brigands at any time he chose.
PATSY'S NEW FRIEND
"I must say that I don't like the job," said Patsy, the next morning, as she stood by the window and faced Beth and Kenneth. "Suppose we fail?"
"In the bright lexicon of youth—"
"Shut up, Ken. If we fail," said Beth, "we will be no worse off than before."
"And if we win," added the boy, "they'll think twice before they try to rob Americans again."
"Well, I'm with you, anyhow," declared Patricia. "I can see it's risky, all right; but as you say, no great harm will be done if we slip up."
"You," announced Beth, gravely, "must be the captain."
"It isn't in me, dear. You figured the thing out, and Ken and I will follow your lead."
"No," said Beth, decidedly; "I'm not quick enough, either in thought or action, to be a leader, Patsy. And there's a bit of deception required that I couldn't manage. That clever little thing, Tato, would know at once I was up to some mischief; but she would never suspect you."
"I like that compliment," replied Patricia. "I may deserve it, of course; but it strikes me Louise is the one best fitted for such work."
"We can't let Louise into this plot," said the boy, positively; "she'd spoil it all."
"Don't be silly, Patsy," said Beth. "You're genuine and frank, and the child likes you. I could see that yesterday. All you have to do is to be nice to her and win her confidence; and then, when the climax comes, you must be the spokesman and talk straight out from the shoulder. You can do that all right."
"I'll bet on her," cried Kenneth, with an admiring look at the girl.
"Then," said Patsy, "it is all arranged, and I'm the captain. And is it agreed that we won't lisp a word to Mr. Watson or Louise?"
"Not a word."
"Here," said Kenneth, drawing a revolver from his pocket, "is Uncle John's pop-gun. It's the only one I could find in his room, so he must have taken the other with him. Be careful of it, Patsy, for it's loaded all 'round. Can you shoot?"
"No; but I suppose the pistol can. I know enough to pull the trigger."
"And when you do, remember to point it away from your friends. Now hide it, my dear, and be careful of it."
Patsy concealed the weapon in the bosom of her dress, not without making a wry face and shivering a bit.
"Have you got your revolver, Beth?" asked the boy.
"And she can shoot just wonderfully!" exclaimed Patsy. "Yesterday she picked an orange off a tree with a bullet. You should have seen her."
"I know," said Ken, nodding. "I've seen Beth shoot before, and she's our main reliance in this conspiracy. For my part, I can hit a mark sometimes, and sometimes I can't. See here." He exhibited a beautiful pearl and silver-mounted weapon which he drew from his pocket. "Mr. Watson and I have carried revolvers ever since we came to Sicily, but we've never had occasion to use them. I can hardly believe, even now, that this beautiful place harbors brigands. It's such a romantic incident in our prosaic world of to-day. And now, young ladies, we are armed to the teeth and can defy an army. Eh, Captain Pat?"
"If you're not more respectful," said the girl, "I'll have you court-marshalled and drummed out of camp."
On the afternoon train came Louise and Mr. Watson from Messina. The American agents had responded promptly, and the bank had honored the orders and delivered the money without delay.
"It is all safe in my satchel," said the lawyer, as they rode together to the hotel; "and our dear friends are as good as rescued already. It's pretty bulky, Kenneth—four hundred thousand lira—but it is all in notes on the Banca d'Italia, for we couldn't manage gold."
"Quite a haul for the brigand," observed Kenneth, thoughtfully.
"True; but little enough for the lives of two men. That is the way I look at the transaction. And, since our friends can afford the loss, we must be as cheerful over the thing as possible. It might have been a tragedy, you know."
"I'm glad it is all over," she said, gratefully.
The conspirators looked at one another and smiled, but held their peace.
Arriving at the hotel, Beth and Kenneth at once disappeared, saying they were going to town, as they would not be needed longer. Patsy accompanied their cousin and the lawyer to the sitting-room, where presently Tato came to them.
"Well, little one," said the lawyer, pleasantly, "We have secured the money required to enable Mr. Merrick to purchase the ring, and Mr.—er—Count Ferralti to buy his bracelet. Will you count it?"
"Yes, signore, if you please," replied Tato, with a sober face.
Mr. Watson drew out two packages of bank notes and placed them upon the table. The child, realizing the importance of the occasion, carefully counted each bundle, and then replaced the wrappers.
"The amounts are correct, signore," she said. "I thank you for making my task so easy. And now I will go."
The lawyer brought a newspaper and wrapped the money in it once again.
"It is always dangerous to carry so much money," said he; "but now no one will be likely to suspect the contents of your package."
"No one would care to molest me," she said; "for they fear those that protect me. Good afternoon, signore. Your friends will be with you in time to dine in your company. Good afternoon, signorini," turning to Patsy and Louise.
"I'll walk a little way with you; may I?" asked Patsy, smiling into Tato's splendid eyes.
"To be sure, signorina," was the quick response.
Patricia caught up a sunshade and followed the child out at the side entrance, which was little used. Tato took the way along the old road, and Patsy walked beside her, chatting brightly of the catacombs, the Norman villa that showed its checkered tower above the trees and the ancient wall that still hemmed in the little village.
"I love Taormina," she said, earnestly, "and shall be sorry to leave it. You must be very happy, Tato, to be able to live here always."
"It is my birthplace," she said; "but I long to get away from it and see other countries. The view is fine, they say; but it tires me. The air is sweet and pure; but it oppresses me. The climate is glorious; but I have had enough of it. In other places there is novelty, and many things that Sicily knows nothing of."
"That is true," replied Patsy, tucking the little one's arm underneath her own, with a sympathetic gesture. "I know just how you feel, Tato. You must come to America some day, and visit me. I will make you very welcome, dear, and you shall be my friend."
The child looked into her face earnestly.
"You do not hate me, signorina, because—because—"
"Because my errand to you has been so lawless and—and—unfriendly?"
"Ah, Tato, you do not choose this life, do you?"
"It is forced on you by circumstances, is it not?"
"I know. You would not long so wistfully to change your condition if you enjoyed being a little brigand. But nothing that has passed must interfere with our friendship, dear. If I were in your place, you see, I would do just as you have done. It is not a very honest life, Tato, nor one to be proud of; but I'm not going to blame you one bit."
They had passed the Catania Gate and reached the foot of one of the mountain paths. Tato paused, hesitatingly.
"Oh, I'll go a little farther," said Patsy, promptly. "No one will notice two girls, you know. Shall I carry your parcel for a time?"
"No," replied the child, hugging it close with her disengaged arm. But she offered no objection when Patsy continued to walk by her side.
"Have you any brothers or sisters, Tato?"
"Have you a mother?"
"No, signorina. My father and I are alone."
"I know him well, Tato. We were on the ship together, crossing the ocean. He was gruff and disagreeable, but I made him talk to me and smile."
"I know; he has told me of the Signorina Patsy. He is fond of you."
"Yet he robbed my uncle."
The child flushed, and drew away her arm.
"That is it. That is why you should hate me," she replied, bitterly. "I know it is robbery, and brigandage, although my father masks it by saying he sells antiques. Until now I have seen nothing wrong in this life, signorina; but you have made me ashamed."
"Because you are so good and gentle, and so forgiving."
"In reality, Tato, I am resentful and unforgiving. You will find out, soon, that I am a very human girl, and then I will not make you ashamed. But your father's business is shameful, nevertheless."
Tato was plainly puzzled, and knew not what to reply. But just then they reached the end of the crevasse, and the child said:
"You must return now, Signorina Patsy."
"But why cannot I go on with you, and come back with my uncle?"
Tato hesitated. Accustomed as she was to duplicity and acting, in her capacity as lure for her thieving father, the child was just now softened by Patsy's kindly manner and the successful accomplishment of her mission. She had no thought of any treachery or deception on the part of the American girl, and the request seemed to her natural enough.
"If you like," she decided, "you may come as far as the barrier, and there wait for your uncle. It will not be long."
"Very well, dear."
Tato clambered over the dividing rock and dropped into the path beyond. Patsy sprang lightly after her. A short distance farther and they reached the barrier.
"This is the place, signorina. You will sit upon that stone, and wait until your uncle appears." She hesitated, and then added, softly: "I may not see you again. But you will not forget me?"
"Never, Tato. And if you come to America you must not forget to visit me. Remember, whatever happens, that we are friends, and must always remain so."
The child nodded, gratefully. Then, leaning against the face of the cliff, she raised her voice and warbled clearly the bit of song that served as the signal to her father.
TURNING THE TABLES
No sooner had the notes ceased than Kenneth sprang from behind a rock that had concealed him and grasped the child in his strong arms, trying to cover her mouth at the same time to prevent her from crying out.
Tato developed surprising strength. The adventure of yesterday had so thoroughly frightened her that when she found herself again seized she struggled madly. The boy found that he could scarcely hold her, so he enfolded her in both his arms and, letting her scream as she might, picked up her tiny form and mounted the slope of the hill, leaping from rock to rock until he came to a broad boulder twenty feet or more above the path. Here he paused, panting, and awaited results.
The rock doors had opened promptly. Even while Kenneth struggled with the brigand's daughter Patsy could see straight through the tunnel and into the valley beyond. The child had dropped her bundle in the effort to escape, and while Kenneth was leaping with her up the crags Patsy ran forward and secured the money, returning quickly to her position facing the tunnel.
And now they heard shouts and the sound of hastening feet as Il Duca ran from the tunnel, followed closely by two of his brigands. They paused a moment at the entrance, as if bewildered, but when the father saw his child in the grasp of a stranger and heard her screams he answered with a roar of fury and prepared to scramble up the rock to rescue her.
That was where Patsy showed her mettle. She hastily covered the brigand with her revolver and shouted warningly:
"Stop, or you are a dead man!"
It was wonderfully dramatic and effective.
Il Duca shrank back, scowling, for he had no weapon at hand. Leaning against the entrance to his valley he glared around to determine the number of his foes and the probable chance of defeating them.
Kenneth laughed boyishly at his discomfiture. Kneeling down, the youth grasped Tato by both wrists and lowered her body over the edge of the rock so that her feet just touched a little ledge beneath. He continued to hold fast to her wrists, though, and there she remained, stretched against the face of the rock fronting the path, in full view of all, but still unable to move.
From this exasperating sight Il Duca glanced at Patsy. She was holding the revolver rigidly extended, and her blue eyes blazed with the excitement of the moment. It was a wonder she did not pull the trigger inadvertently, and the thought that she might do so caused the brigand to shudder.
Turning half around he beheld a third enemy quietly seated upon the rocks directly across the path from Kenneth, her pose unconcerned as she rested her chin lightly upon her left hand. It was Beth, who held her revolver nonchalantly and gazed upon the scene below her with calm interest.
The Duke gave a cough to clear his throat. His men hung back of him, silent and motionless, for they did not like this absolute and dangerous defiance of their chief.
"Tell me, then, Tato," he called in English, "what is the cause of this trouble?"
"I do not know, my father, except that these are friends of Signor Merrick who have secretly followed me here."
The carefully arranged programme gave Patsy a speech at this point, but she had entirely forgotten it.
"Let me explain," said Beth, coldly. "You have dared to detain in your robbers' den the persons of Mr. Merrick and Count Ferralti. You have also demanded a ransom for their release. That is brigandage, which is denounced by the laws of Sicily. We have appealed to the authorities, but they are helpless to assist us. Therefore, being Americans, we have decided to assist ourselves. We command you to deliver to us on this spot, safe and uninjured, the persons of our friends, and that without any unnecessary delay."
The Duke listened with a sneer.
"And if we refuse, signorina?"
"If you refuse—if you do not obey at once—I swear that I will shoot your child, Tato, whose body yonder awaits my bullet. And afterward I shall kill you."
As she spoke she levelled the revolver and aimed it carefully at the exposed body of the child.
The brigand paled, and grasped the rock to steady himself.
"Bah! No girl can shoot from that distance," he exclaimed, scornfully.
"Indeed! Take care of your finger," called Beth, and a shot echoed sharply along the mountain side.
The brigand jumped and uttered a yell, at the same time whipping his right hand underneath his left arm; for Beth's bullet had struck one of his fingers and then flattened itself against the cliff.
That settled all argument, as far as Il Duca was concerned; for he now had ample evidence that the stern-eyed girl above him could shoot, and was not to be trifled with. All his life he had ruled by the terror of his threats; to-day he was suddenly vanquished by a determination he dared not withstand.
"Enough!" he cried. "Have your way."
He spoke to his men in Italian, and they hastened through the tunnel, glad to escape.
Following their departure there was a brief silence, during which all stood alert. Then, Tato, still half suspended against the cliff, said in a clear, soft voice:
"Father, if you think you can escape, let them shoot me, and keep your prisoners. The money for their ransom I brought to this place, and they will pay it even yet to save their friends from your vengeance. Do not let these wild Americans defeat us, I beg of you. I am not afraid. Save yourself, and let them shoot me, if they will!"
Kenneth afterward declared that he thought "the jig was up" then, for they had no intention whatever of harming Tato. It was all merely a bit of American "bluff," and it succeeded because the brigand was a coward, and dared not emulate his daughter's courage.
"No, no, Tato!" cried the Duke, brokenly, as he wrung his hands in anguish. "There is more money to be had, but I have only one child. They shall not harm a hair of your head, my pretty one!"
Patsy wanted to yell "bravo!" but wisely refrained. Her eyes were full of tears, though, and her resolution at ebb tide.
Fortunately the men had made haste. They returned with surprising promptness, pushing the amazed prisoners before them.
Uncle John, as he emerged from the tunnel, looked around upon the tragic scene and gasped:
"Well, I declare!"
Count Ferralti was more composed, if equally surprised. He lifted his hat politely to Beth and Patsy, and smiled with great satisfaction.
"You are free," said Il Duca, harshly. "Go!"
They lost no time in getting the brigands between themselves and the mouth of the tunnel, and then Kenneth gently drew Tato to a place beside him and assisted her to clamber down the path.
"Good bye, little one," he said, pleasantly; "you're what we call a 'brick' in our country. I like you, and I'm proud of you."
Tato did not reply. With streaming eyes she was examining her father's shattered hand, and sobbing at sight of the blood that dripped upon the rocks at his feet.
"Get inside!" called Beth, sharply; "and close up that rock. Lively, now!"
The "girl who could shoot" still sat toying with her revolver, and the mountaineers obeyed her injunction. The rock promptly closed, and the group of Americans was left alone.