Jack Harkaway and His Son's Escape from the Brigands of Greece
JACK HARKAWAY AND HIS SON'S ESCAPE FROM THE BRIGANDS OF GREECE., CHAPTER I.
THE CONTESSA'S LETTER TO MR. MOLE--ON PLEASURE BENT--THE MENDICANT FRIAR--MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS--HOUSE BREAKING.
When Mrs. Harkaway's maid returned to the villa, she got scolded for being so long upon an errand of some importance with which she had been entrusted.
Thereupon, she was prepared with twenty excuses, all of which were any thing but the truth.
The words of warning which the brigand had called after her had not been without their due effect.
"She had been detained," she said, "by the Contessa Maraviglia for the letter which she brought back to Mr. Mole."
The letter was an invitation to a grand ball which was to be given by the contessa at the Palazzo Maraviglia, and to which the Harkaways were going.
Dick Harvey had been at work in this business, and had made the contessa believe indirectly that Mr. Mole was a most graceful dancer, and that it would be an eternal shame for a _bal masqué_ to take place in the neighbourhood without being graced by his--Mole's--presence.
The result was that during lunch Mr. Mole received from the maid the following singular effusion.
"Al Illustrissimo Signor Mole," which, being translated, means, "To the illustrious Mr. Mole."
"Hullo!" said the tutor, looking around him and dropping his eye on Dick, "who is this from?"
"From the Contessa Maraviglia," replied the girl.
Mr. Mole gave her a piercing glance.
The contessa's letter was a sort of puzzle to poor old Mole.
"The Contessa Maraviglia begs the honour of the Signor Mole's company on the 16th instant. She can accept no refusal, as the _fête_ is especially organised in honour of Signor Mole, whose rare excellence in the poetry of motion has elevated dancing into an art."
Isaac Mole read and re-read this singular letter, until he grew more and more fogged.
He thought that the contessa had failed to express herself clearly in English on account of her imperfect knowledge of our language; but he was soon corrected in this impression.
The lady in question, it transpired, was English.
So poor Mole did what he thought best under the circumstances, and that was to consult with Dick Harvey.
"Dear me!" echoed Dick, innocently; "why, you have made an impression here, Mr. Mole."
"Do you think so?" said Mole, doubtfully.
"Beyond question. This contessa is smitten, sir, with your attractions; but I can assist you here."
"Thank you, my dear Harvey, thank you," replied Mr. Mole eagerly.
"Yes; I can let the contessa know that there is no hope for her."
Isaac Mole's vanity was tickled at this.
"Don't you think it would be cruel to undeceive her?"
"Cruel, sir!" said Dick, with severe air, "no, sir; I don't. It is my duty to tell her all."
Mr. Mole looked alarmed.
"What do you mean?"
"That you are a married man."
"I say, I say--"
"Yes, sir, very much married," pursued Dick, relentlessly; "that you have had three wives, and were nearly taking a fourth."
"All more or less black."
"However, there is no help for it; you will have to go to this ball."
"You will, though. The contessa has heard of your fame in the ball room--"
"In bygone years, no doubt--and she does not know of the little matters which have happened since to spoil your activity, if not your grace."
As he alluded to the "little matters," he glanced at Mr. Mole's wooden legs.
Mr. Mole thought it over, and then he read through the letter again.
"You are right, Harvey," he said with an air of determination; "and my mind's made up."
"So much the better, for your absence would be sadly missed at the ball."
"You misunderstand me, Harvey; I shall not go."
Dick looked frightened.
"Don't say that, Mr. Mole, I beg, don't; it would be dangerous."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"I mean that this lady is English by birth, but she has lived in the land of the Borgias, where they yet know how to use poison."
"And if her love were slighted, she might recollect it."
Mr. Mole looked precious uncomfortable.
"It is really very embarrassing, Harvey," said he; "my personal attractions are likely to get me into trouble."
And yet, in spite of his embarrassment, Mr. Mole was not altogether displeased at the fancy.
He strutted up and down, showing the fall in his back to the best advantage, and was very evidently conscious that he was rather a fine man.
"Yes, sir," said Harvey, with great gravity; "your fatal beauty is likely to lead you into a mess."
At the words "fatal beauty," Mr. Mole made a grimace.
It was rather a strong dose for even him to swallow.
"Draw it mild, Harvey," said he, "pray draw it mild."
Dick shook his head with great seriousness.
"Don't you be deceived, Mr. Mole," said he; "use the greatest care, for this poor countess is to be pitied. Her love is likely to turn to violent hate if she finds herself slighted--the poignard or the poisoned chalice may yet be called to play a part in your career."
Mr. Mole turned pale.
Yet he tried to laugh.
A hollow ghastly laugh it was too, that told how he felt more plainly than words could have done.
"Don't, Harvey; don't, I beg!" he said in faltering tones; "it sounds like some dreadful thing one sees upon the stage."
"In all these southern countries you know, Mr. Mole, a man's life is not worth much."
"A hired assassin or bravo will cut a throat or stab a man in the back for a few francs."
"I should advise you not to keep out after dark--and avoid dark corners. These people can poison you, too, with a bouquet or a jewel. Accept a flower or a nosegay, but don't smell it."
"Is it your wish to make me uncomfortable?"
"How can you think it?"
"Do you wish me to dream all night, and disturb Mrs. Mole, and not to get a wink of sleep?"
"Certainly not; that's why I am giving you advice; but pray understand the contessa thinks you are a single man."
"Good gracious me; it is very unpleasant to have a contessa in love with one."
"I don't know that; most men wouldn't say so. There are, I'll be bound, forty men within a mile of this house who would give their ears to have received such a letter."
Mr. Mole smiled--a self-satisfied, complacent smile,
"Do you think so?"
"I know it."
Mole lifted his collar and shot his cuffs over his hands, as he stomped across the room, and looked into a glass.
"Well, well, Harvey, I suppose I must go to the ball; but you will bear me witness that I only go for reasons of prudence, and that I am not going to be led away by any little silly reasons of vanity?"
"Of course," returned Dick, gravely.
"Besides, I go disguised."
"And what disguise would you recommend?"
"Why that is a matter for reflection," said Dick. "I should think that you ought almost to keep up the character."
"The character!" said Mole. "What character?"
"A Terpsichorean personage," replied Dick, with the air of one discussing a grave problem. "Say, for instance, a ballet girl."
Mr. Mole gasped.
"No, no; not a ballet girl."
"A fairy queen, then."
"Don't, Dick; don't, I beg."
"Or, if you object to the costume of the gentler sex, what do you say to the spangles and wand of a harlequin?"
"Do you really think that such a costume would become me?"
"Do I think?" iterated Dick. "Do I _know!_ Of course it would become you. You will look the part to the life: it wants a figure to show off such a dress and to be shown off by it."
"But what about my--my wooden legs, Dick?"
"Oh, I'll provide you with cork ones, and here they are," said Harvey, producing a pair.
And so it was settled.
Mr. Mole was to go to the ball, and his disguise was to be well-known spangles and colours of a harlequin.
Harvey himself chose a clown's costume and carried over his shoulder Mole's wooden legs, in case any thing happened to the cork ones he was walking on for the first time.
Harkaway was to go as a knight of old.
Magog Brand selected the character of Quasimodo, the hunchback of Nôtre Dame.
Jefferson selected the character of Julius Caesar, a costume which his fine, stalwart form set off to considerable advantage.
Mrs. Harkaway was to go as Diana, the huntress, and Mrs. Harvey made Marie Stuart her choice.
Little Emily and Paquita went in dresses of the Charles the Second period.
These young ladies were escorted by young Jack and Harry Girdwood, who were richly habited as young Venetian nobles of the sixteenth century.
As they passed through the garden door a man stood in their path.
He wore a long serge gown, with a cowl, like a mendicant monk, and as they approached he put out his open hand for alms.
"Bother the beggars!" said Mr. Mole, tartly.
The monk shrank back into his cowl, and stood aside while the party went by.
The garden door was held by the maid servant while they passed on, and when they were out of hearing, she dropped a small silver coin into the mendicant friar's hand.
"There," she said, "I can spare you something, father, although those rich English cannot or will not, the heretics and pagans!"
The friar, who was seemingly an aged man, muttered his thanks, and the girl retired and closed the door, locking it behind her.
No sooner was the door closed than the mendicant monk whistled a low but very distinct note, and lo! two men appeared upon the scene.
It looked as though they had just come up trap-doors in the earth, so suddenly did they show in sight.
"Captain Mathias," said the disguised monk to the first who came up, "I have learnt all we wish to know."
"You have?" ejaculated, not the man addressed by the mendicant monk, but the other. "Out with it, then."
"Still your impatience, Toro, if you can.--"
"Well, then, learn that Mole goes as--"
"Bother Mole!" interrupted Toro, harshly. "How does our great foe go?"
"An English knight of old."
"It shall be my task," said Toro, "to keep up his character, and give it a realistic look by a hand-to-hand fight."
"Don't be rash," said the mendicant friar, "or you may chance to be beaten."
"I can risk my life on it."
"You have--you do; every hour that you live here imperils it. Did you see the party go?"
"I did," said Mathias.
The latter was no other than the captain of the brigands. Already they were upon a footing of equality, for the two adventurers had had opportunities, which they had not failed to seize.
They had courage, ready wit, presence of mind, boldness daring, and cunning, and so it fell out that they who had made the acquaintance of the brigand's gang under such very unpleasant auspices, became two of the principal members of it within a few days.
But to resume.
"Tell me, Hunston," said Toro, "does Jefferson go to the ball?"
The Italian said nothing, but his lips moved, and his lowering brow was as expressive as words could be to his old comrade.
It boded ill for Jefferson.
They had met in fair fight, and he, Toro, had been defeated.
That defeat was as bitter as gall to him.
He would be avenged.
And if he could not cope with the doughty Anglo-American, then let him look to it.
What strength and skill failed to achieve, the assassin's knife would accomplish.
"Did you see the girl that attended him to the gate?" demanded the mendicant friar, or Hunston, as it would be better to call him, since there is no further need of concealment.
"And recognised her, Mathias?" he asked of the brigand captain.
"Yes; it is the pretty girl we stopped with her lover, the coy Marietta."
"Now that they are well off, we may as well set to work," said Hunston.
Hunston threw back his friar's cowl and produced a key.
"They have had many a good hunt for this," he said, with his old sinister laugh.
"I dare say."
"It was a lucky thing that the dainty little Marietta dropped it."
"Yes, it makes matters much easier for us to begin with."
The door yielded to the touch of the sham mendicant friar, and the three worthies entered the grounds.
Silently they stepped across a grassplot, keeping a thick shrubbery between them and the house as far as they could, when just as they gained the shelter of a trellissed verandah, a dog within set up a most alarming noise.
The three robbers exchanged uneasy glances.
"Curse the beast!" muttered Mathias the captain; "he will ruin us."
Toro got ready his long hunting-knife and looked about.
But the dog was out of sight.
A lucky thing it was too for our old friend little Mike, for a touch with that ugly instrument would soon have stopped his singing.
Now, just above the verandah was a half-opened window, and into this Mathias peered anxiously.
No signs of Mike.
A voice was heard now calling to the faithful guardian of the house to be silent, but Mike refused emphatically to be comforted; thereupon, the person very imprudently called the dog to her and tied him up.
This did not quiet him.
So the person in question tripped down the garden to see if there was really any reason for the dog's singular behaviour.
In passing down the path she went so close to the verandah, that the skirts of her dress actually brushed aside the creeping plants which garnished the trellis work.
"Snarling, barking little beast!" quoth Marietta to herself, "and all about nothing; I wish they would lose him."
But when she got to the bottom of the garden and discovered the garden door open, she altered her tone.
"How very silly of me to leave the door unlocked," she said to herself. "Poor little fellow, poor Mike, I'm coming, good dog. Heard someone, I suppose. Good gracious, what's that? I thought I saw something move there. I'm getting as nervous as a cat ever since those men stopped us and made me kiss them, the beasts. Ugh I how I loathe them, although there was one of them that was really not very bad-looking. I wonder where that poor old friar went to. What was that? Oh, how nervous I feel. I wish they had left me some one in the house besides that old deaf Constantino; he's nice company truly for a girl. Bother the dog, what a noise he is kicking up."
And chatting thus, Marietta re-entered the house.
Meanwhile Mathias had clambered up the iron balcony and pushing open the glass door, or rather window, he entered the room.
It was the dining-room, and the remnants of a very sumptuous repast were yet upon the table.
"I'll just take a glass of wine."
He did, too.
He took several glasses of wine, and then, as the fumes of the good liquor mounted to his brain, he grew generous, and he lowered a bottle out of the window to his two comrades beneath.
Toro grasped it, and sucked down a good half of it before it left his lips.
Then Hunston finished it off at a draught.
When Mathias had regaled himself, he made a move to the door.
There was no one about.
Not a sound.
Now was his time.
His object was to explore the house, and ascertain in what particular part of it the cash, the jewels, and the plate were kept.
When they had secured these, they could content themselves for the present at least.
Firstly, therefore, he tied up the silver spoons and knives and forks from the dinner table in a napkin, and dropped the bundle into Toro's hat below.
Then he crept back through the room into the passage.
This done, he waited for a while to listen, and assuring himself that the coast was clear, he crept up.
On the next landing there were seven doors.
Six were shut, so he peeped into the seventh room, and just then he heard a noise below.
Someone coming up stairs.
What could he do?
He stole back to the stairs and listened. It was Marietta.
It was really a most embarrassing job now, for there was no retreat, so he crept upon tip-toe into the room, of which the door stood ajar.
It was a bedroom, dimly lighted by an oil lamp.
A cursory glance showed him that this room had only been lately vacated, and that one or more of the ladies had been dressing here for the ball.
Within a few feet of the door was a looking-glass let into the wall as a panel, and reaching from floor to ceiling.
Mathias listened in great anxiety for the footsteps on the stairs, and every moment they sounded nearer and nearer.
"I hope she will not come in here," thought the robber, "else I shall have to make her sure."
He showed how he meant to "make her sure" by toying with the hilt of his dagger.
Mathias crouched down, and crept under the bed, just in time, as the pert young lady skipped into the room.
Her first care was to turn up the lamp, and by its light she looked about her.
"I think they might have taken me to the ball with them," she said, saucily shaking her curls off her face. "I should have looked better than some of them, I'll be bound. I'm dead beat with fatigue. I've had all the work dressing them, and they are to get all the fun."
She was silent for some few minutes, and Mathias grew anxious.
What could be going forward?
He would vastly like to know.
Unable to control his curiosity, he peeped out, and then he saw pretty Marietta's portrait in the long looking-glass panel.
She looked prettier than ever now, for, shocking to relate, the young lady was undressing.
Mathias was not to say a bashful man, so he did not draw back.
On the contrary, he stared with all his eyes.
Pretty Marietta little thought, as she stood before the glass, that such a desperate villain was watching every movement.
Marietta, wholly unconscious that she was watched by the vile brigand chief, walked up and down before the glass, shooting admiring glances at herself over her white and well rounded shoulders.
"Dress, and rank, and money do wonders," she said. "Why are we not all about equal? I'm as good as the best of them, I'm sure, and very much better looking."
With this mixture of feminine vanity and republican sentiments, she bustled about, putting the room a bit in order.
Now her first job was to put away several dresses.
The first of these was a short Spanish skirt of pink satin, with deep black lace flounces.
"I wonder how I should look in this?" she murmured.
She held up the dress beside her to test the colour against her complexion.
Beautiful; yes, this was her frank opinion, and, really, we are by no means sure but that her own estimate was very near the mark.
On went the dress.
She strutted up and down, and then, when she had feasted her eyes enough upon her own loveliness, she plaited her hair, and, twisting it up into a rich knot behind, she stuck a high comb into it, and fastened the thick lace veil about her.
Mathias watched it all.
He gloated over that pretty little picture, and, shameless rascal! chuckled to think how little she suspected his presence.
"There," she said, folding the veil about her head with the most coquettish manner, "if I don't look the prettiest señorita alive, why, call me--call me anything odious--yes, even an Englishwoman--ha, ha, ha! How that would please my mistress!"
And then she figured about before the glass, and capered through a Spanish bolero with considerable grace and dexterity, while she sang an impromptu verse to an old air.
The verse was naturally doggerel, and maybe given in English as follows--
Rarely has been
A sweeter or better
Face or form seen;
My chestnut tresses,
And my Spanish fall,
Would eclipse all the dresses
At the masked ball.
Then why, Marietta.
Pluck up, you'd better,
Your courage and go!"
And as she came to the last line, this impudent little maid whirled round, spinning her skirts about her like a top.
Mathias was enraptured.
With difficulty he kept himself from applauding.
"She'd make her fortune upon the stage," he said to himself.
Marietta had made quite a conquest; a double conquest, it might almost be said.
The hidden robber was enraptured, and she was scarcely less pleased with herself.
"I'll go," she said to herself, "Why should I not? They'll never find it out; I can do just as Cenerentola (Cinderella) did, and who knows but that some prince might fall over head and ears in love with me? I can get back long before they do."
Out she skipped too, and tripped down the stairs.
She was off to the ball.
Little dreamt she that for the last half hour her life hung upon the most slender thread.
And now, the coast being clear, the three brigands prepared to carry out their plans.