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Lords of the World by  Alfred J. Church

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A PRECIOUS BOOK

[297] IT is time to explain what had happened to Cleanor while the events recorded in the last chapter were proceeding. He had remained within the physician's house during the six days' fighting in the streets. The house had been turned into something like a hospital, and the young Greek found plenty of employment in doing such services as a lay hand could render to his host's patients. The physician was naturally one of the deputation which, as has been described, waited on the conqueror on the morning of the seventh day, and he took his guest with him in the character of his assistant. Nor could Cleanor escape an emotion of relief to find himself again under Roman protection. It was a curious change from the feelings that had dominated him a few months before, but the constraining power of circumstances had been too much for him. His first care was to ascertain the fate of Theoxena and her daughter. Here it was necessary to proceed with caution. It would not be wise to make inquiries at random. The person whom he could most safely trust was Scipio, the young officer, whom he was, of course, anxious to see for other reasons. To his great delight he found that his friend was the officer in command of the guard to which the safety of the temple of Apollo in the arsenal had been committed.

[298] He found an opportunity of sending a message by a soldier who happened to be off duty for the time. Hardly an hour had elapsed when he received an answer. It ran thus:

"A thousand congratulations. We had almost given you up for lost, only that the gods are manifestly determined to make up to you for some part at least of what you have suffered. Come at once: I have much to say to you."

The meeting between the two friends was very affectionate. Cleanor, postponing the narrative of his own adventures to some future opportunity, at once took the young Roman officer into his confidence.

"You may rest assured that your friends are safe. There has been a guard over the private apartments attached to the temple; and I have taken care to have trustworthy men, as I always should in such a case. But I can tell you that your friends have had a very narrow escape. If the general had not arrived just at the right time, the whole building would have been reduced to ashes."

He then proceeded to relate the story which the reader has already heard. Cleanor listened with emotion that he could hardly conceal. How nearly had all his efforts been in vain! How narrowly had these two—who were all that remained to him of his old life—escaped destruction!

Young Scipio's narrative was hardly finished when [299] the conversation of the friends was interrupted by the arrival of an orderly bringing a message from the general. The official despatch, accompanied by a letter expressed in more familiar terms, ran thus:

I have learnt that a manuscript of the very highest value, which I have a special charge from the Senate and People of Rome to preserve, to wit, the Treatise of Hanno on Agriculture, has always been and is now in the custody of the priests of Apollo in the arsenal. I commission you, therefore, as officer commanding the guard of the said temple, to make inquiries of these same priests, and to take the book into your keeping, for which this present writing shall be your authority."

The private letter was to this effect:

"I have just learnt from Hasdrubal—and the information is so valuable that it almost reconciles me to halving had to spare the villain's life—that the precious book on Agriculture is to be found in the temple of which you have charge. Lose no time in getting it into your possession. It is supposed to contain secrets of the very greatest value. Anyhow, the authorities at home attach great importance to its preservation. To lose it would be a disaster. I can rely, I know, on your prudence and energy."

[300] "Cleanor, can you throw any light on this matter?" asked the Roman.

"No," was the answer, "except to tell you what I know about the priests. There are two attached to the temple. One is an old man—almost, as I understand, in his dotage—whom I did not see; the other, his son, middle-aged, with whom I negotiated the affair of which I told you. That is absolutely all that I know, except that my friend the physician described the son as being on the whole an honourable man, who could be trusted the more implicitly the more one made it worth his while to be true."

"That," said young Scipio, "is the man whom I saw the day that I took charge of the temple. He came to thank me. Since then he has never appeared. The services have been intermitted. They could hardly, indeed, have been carried on with all these soldiers in the place. He is the first person of whom to make inquiries."

Scipio then summoned the centurion, who was nominally his second in command. The man was a veteran who had seen more than twenty campaigns—his first experience of war had been at Pydna under the great ∆milius Paullus—an excellent soldier in his way, but without much judgment in matters outside his own narrow sphere of experience.

"Convey," young Scipio said to this officer, "a respectful request to the priest of the temple that he will favour me with an interview."

[301] In due course the priest appeared. It had been arranged between the friends that no reference should be made to the shelter given to the women.

"I am informed," said Scipio, "that you have charge, as priest of this temple, of a certain book relating to agriculture."

"You are right, sir," replied the man, "so far as this: there is such a book, and it is kept in this place; but it is not in my charge. My father is the priest, and it is in his custody."

"Let me see your father, then," said the young officer.

"Unhappily, sir," replied the man, "he is incapable of answering or even of hearing a question. He has been failing in mind for some time, and the events of the last few days have greatly affected him. This morning he had a stroke of paralysis, and has been unconscious ever since."

"But you know," said Scipio, "where the book is?"

"As a matter of fact," the priest answered, "I know, or, to put the matter more strictly, I believe that I know. But the secret has been very jealously guarded. It has been usual for the priest to hand over the charge formally to his successor when he felt himself failing. To meet the case that the priest might die suddenly, or fail for some other reason to communicate the secret in due course, the Shopetim were also in possession of it. They have also another copy of the treatise."

[302] "And where was that kept?" asked Scipio.

"In the temple of ∆sculapius, but in what part of the temple of course I know not."

"If it was there it must have perished," said the Roman. "Nothing could have been left after the tremendous fire of yesterday. Lead the way and show us the place that you have in your mind."

"It shall be done, sir," said the man. "But let me first see how it fares with my father. It is possible that he may yet revive."

Permission was, of course, granted, and he went. Before many minutes he returned.

"My father has passed away," he said in a low voice, "and without becoming conscious even for a moment; so the woman that was in attendance told me. Follow me, sir."

He led the way down a flight of steps, and then along a passage to the chamber in which it terminated. The door was carefully concealed in the wall, with the surface of which it was entirely uniform. The priest, however, had no difficulty in opening it. He pressed a secret spring, and it opened."

"This," he said, as they entered a small lofty room lighted from above, "is the priest's private chamber. The book should be somewhere here. But at this point my knowledge comes to an end."

"If I might hazard a guess," said Cleanor, "the hiding-place is somewhere in the floor. One would naturally, perhaps, look for another secret door in the wall, hence it is likely that some other way of [303] concealing it would be tried. Anyhow, let us begin with the floor."

The place was easily, as it will be seen, too easily found. As soon as the matting which covered the floor was removed, it became evident that a part of the boarding had been recently moved.

"That is it," exclaimed the four men—the centurion had accompanied the party—almost in the same breath.

"I don't like the look of this," added Cleanor, whose quick Greek intelligence had promptly taken in the situation. "It has been taken."

He was right. When the boarding was lifted, it revealed an empty space. All that remained was a wrapper of silk, which might very well have served—for there was nothing on it that absolutely indicated the fact—for a covering to the volume.

"What is to be done now?" said Scipio, as the four looked at each other with faces full of blank disappointment.

"My father," said the priest, after a short pause of reflection, "must have taken it away. He evidently did it in a hurry without carefully replacing the boards. He might have concealed the joining so well that it would have been very hard to find. See," and he put the covering back in such a way that the spot was absolutely undistinguishable from the rest of the floor. "This makes me sure that it has been done quite recently, and when he was not quite himself."

[304] "I wonder," said Cleanor, "whether by chance your guests could tell us anything about it?"

"My guests!" cried the priest, vainly endeavouring to conceal his dismay.

"Don't trouble yourself, my good friend," said Scipio with a smile. "My friend Cleanor has taken me into his confidence, and I think you have done very well in helping him in this matter. It is just possible that, as he suggests, the women may have seen something,—enough to give us a clue."

"Possibly," said the priest. "The book was far too bulky to be easily destroyed. That I know, though I have never had it in my hands. But it may have been put away where it will be hard to find."

"Cleanor," said Scipio, after a brief reflection, "will you go and see what you can find out? The priest will show you the way."

Cleanor accordingly followed the priest to the apartment which had been assigned to Theoxena and her daughter. Only the elder woman was visible. Daphne, she assured Cleanor, after an exchange of affectionate greetings, was quite well, but was busy at the moment with some needlework. When questioned about the old priest and his movements, she had no information of any importance to give. He had been very strange in manner, constantly muttering, but so indistinctly that she could not catch more than a word or two here and there. She had, it is true, caught the word "treasure" [305] once or twice. She had certainly not seen him with anything in his hands. Daphne, however, might have more to say. The old man had seemed to take a fancy to her, and had talked to her a good deal.

Daphne accordingly was fetched by her mother, and came in covered with a charming confusion, which, in the young Greek's eyes, added not a little to her beauty. It was the fact, indeed, that the few days of peace which she had enjoyed with her mother in their place of refuge had made a marvellous change for the better in her looks. The hunted expression had gone out of her eyes, which, deep as ever, were now limpid and calm. The cheeks which, when Cleanor had last seen them, were wan and worn, were already rounded, and touched with the delicate tint of returning health. Cleanor did not fail to note all this with the greatest satisfaction, but for the time he was absorbed by the interest of the story which she had to tell about the old priest.

"I saw the old man," she said, "on the first day of our coming here. He seemed to take me for someone else. In fact, once or twice he called me by some name which sounded like Judith, but I could not catch it distinctly. Commonly he spoke to me as his daughter. He had no son, he said, I was all that he had left. He had evidently something on his mind that troubled him greatly. He would talk about "a treasure" which he had in his [306] keeping, and which he must hand over to the right, person, only that he did not know where this person was. 'Anyhow,' and when he said this his voice seemed to grow stronger, and his eyes to lighten up, 'anyhow, the enemy must not be allowed to get it' After the uproar that took place in the temple one day—we did not know what had happened, but we guessed that the Romans had made their way in, and we were very much frightened—he was much worse. That same evening he said to me, 'Daughter, I want you to help me. Come with me.' He took me down a flight of steps, and then along a passage which seemed to end in a wall. When we were almost at the end, he said, 'Now, turn round and shut your eyes. You must not see what I am going to do.' I did what he told me, and waited. In about half an hour he came back, panting very much and breathing hard. He carried a great roll in his arms. I could not see what it was."

"Did it look like a book?" asked Cleanor.

"Yes," replied the girl, "it might have been a book. I asked him whether I should carry it for him. 'No,' he said, 'no woman has ever touched it. Indeed, no woman has ever seen it before. I hope that I have not done wrong. But what was I to do? I had no one else to help me. And anyhow, the enemy must never have it.' We went up the passage, and down another, till we came to a place where one of the stones in the pavement had a ring in it. 'Now you must help me,' he said. 'I have [307] got to take that stone up.' We both pulled away at the stone as hard as we could. For some time we seemed to make no impression at all. Then he went away and came in a few minutes with a lantern, for by this time it was getting quite dark, and a chisel. 'Work the mortar away from the edges,' he said, 'my eyes are too old to see.' So I worked the mortar out, and then we pulled again. I don't think that I did very much, but he seemed to get wonderfully strong with the excitement. At last we felt that it was beginning to give, and in the end we pulled it quite away. I heard what sounded like the lapping of water a long way below. Then the old man took the roll and dropped it into the hole. After that we put the stone back into its place."

"And you can take us to the place?" asked Cleanor.

"Certainly," replied the girl.

"I must tell my friends," said Cleanor, "what I have heard. Wait while I go."

In the course of a few minutes he returned with Scipio and the centurion. At the latter's suggestion the party provided themselves with torches, and then proceeded, under Daphne's guidance, to the indicated spot. The stone was removed from its place, an operation which required so great an exertion of strength that there was something almost miraculous in its having been accomplished before by a decrepit old man and a girl. The priest, it was clear, must have worked with frantic energy.

[308] The first thing was to lower a burning torch. The light revealed a depth which might be estimated at some sixty or seventy feet. At the bottom there was a stream which seemed, as far as could be estimated from the sound, to be moving with some rapidity. Judging from the height of the temple above the level of the harbour, the water seemed to be a land-spring which flowed into it some way below the surface. The chance of recovering anything dropped into such a place seemed remote, without reckoning the very considerable chance of its being irretrievably damaged.

Scipio was discussing with Cleanor and the centurion the best method of proceeding, when Daphne's keen eyes discovered that something seemed to be resting on a ledge that projected from the side of the well some twenty feet below the surface. What it was could not be seen, but it was obviously worth investigating. The only way of doing this was to lower someone with ropes, and Cleanor, who was lighter than either of the Romans, volunteered for the service. After some delay ropes of adequate strength were obtained, Cleanor was lowered to the spot, and the missing treasure, for the object which Daphne had descried was nothing less, was recovered.

"The Roman Commonwealth," said Scipio, making a polite obeisance, "owes very much to this young lady."


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