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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church

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A DILEMMA

[234] THE Archon was not a little struck by the energy and intelligence of the new comer, and proposed a further conference on the matter. The two accordingly retired to the magistrate's private apartment. What had happened was sufficiently plain. If the magistrate had entertained any lingering doubts, these were dissipated when the Corsican related to him what Rufus had said. "He would be here to repeat it," he went on, "but he has his prejudices, and just now he doesn't feel quite at ease when he sees a magistrate and his lictors and the other paraphernalia of a court. We may take it for granted, therefore, that the young man has been seized by the brigands. The question is—what is to be done?"

"The scoundrels will follow their usual course," said the Archon, "and will demand a ransom; And the ransom will have to be paid. It is not likely to be unreasonably large. The fellows [235] know their business too well to ask impossible sums. Indeed, I have often wondered how nicely they suit their demands to what they are likely to get."

"I daresay," remarked the Corsican with a smile, "they have more friends in Corinth than anybody knows. They must certainly have some well-informed person to give them a hint."

"And the ransom will have to be paid," the Archon went on. "It is a hateful necessity. Again and again I have felt my blood boil when I had to make a treaty, as it were, with these low-bred villains. I do think that if Rome takes away our arms, she ought to protect us. When Corinth was her own mistress, these scoundrels would have been swept off the face of the earth before the month was out. All this, however, is beside the purpose. The ransom must be paid, and if the young man's friends have any difficulty in raising the money, I shall be glad to contribute."

"That is very kind of you," said the Corsican, "and what you say about paying the ransom is quite true. But there is another side to the affair which, if you will allow me to say it, you do not seem to have taken into consideration."

"Go on," said the magistrate; "I never supposed that I was infallible. A man must be a [236] sad fool if he can sit in a court of justice for ten years, as I have done, without finding out that he can make mistakes."

"This, sir," replied the Corsican, "is not a common case of holding to ransom. These betting fellows are mixed up with it. Their object, of course, is to keep Eubulus from running. They tried to do it with poison, unless I am very much mistaken, and failed; now they have had recourse to another dodge, and I am afraid they are very likely to succeed."

At this moment Cleonicé, who was something of a spoiled child, and felt no hesitation about entering her father's sanctum, came into the room. The magistrate, who knew that it was his business to accept her will and pleasure, invited her to hear the matter in discussion. "And indeed," he went on, "we shall be very glad if you can throw any light upon it. My good friend here and I are very much perplexed. Perhaps you will be able to suggest something, and it ought to interest you, for it concerns the young man who pulled you out of the water the other day. To put the matter shortly, the brigands have laid hold of him, and we want to know how to get him out of their hands."

Cleonicé was quite sure that the matter did concern her. She was a little vexed at feeling [237] the blush that rose to her face, but she did not pretend to any lack of interest.

"They will ask a ransom," she said, "and the ransom will have to be paid. There will be no difficulty, I suppose, about that. Eubulus has good friends in Corinth."

"Very true," replied her father, "but as my friend here points out, it is a matter of time. Eubulus must be back before the race is run, and that is now but a few days off. These ransom affairs cannot be finished quickly. Neither side trusts the other. And if the brigands choose to make delay, they easily can."

Cleonicé, after considering the problem to be solved, was obliged to confess that it puzzled her. Her father suggested a rescuing expedition, but soon allowed that it was impracticable. In the first place the city, though fairly well furnished with ordinary guardians of the peace, had no disciplined force at command, and this was a service, too, in which even an effective force may very easily fail. When the soldier is pitted against the brigand, he is very apt to be beaten. It is true that a State resolutely determined to clear its territory of banditti is bound to succeed sooner or later. But the success comes later rather than sooner. And, as has been said before, this was a question, and a very urgent question, [238] of time. The brigands might be driven from their usual haunts, but they would find others. Wherever they went, they would take their prisoner with them; and if pushed too hard, they might kill him. It would not be the best policy to do so, but temper, always a force not easy to calculate, and especially violent in men used to deeds of violence when they feel themselves driven into a corner, has to be reckoned with. The Corsican suggested that possibly the bearer of the false message might be made use of. He was a scoundrel, but still it might be made worth while even for a scoundrel to act straight. There was much to be said against the plan, but it might be better than nothing, and so might be used in the last resort.

Cleonicé left her father and the Corsican still debating, and retired to her chamber to think the matter over by herself. A little further reflection showed her that the first thing to be done was to communicate with Priscilla. That lady had showed so friendly and so practical an interest in the welfare of Eubulus, that it was her right to be at least informed of what had happened. To her accordingly the girl repaired without further delay.

But Priscilla, with all her acuteness, common sense and readiness of resource, could add nothing [239] in conference. The dilemma still presented itself in all its cruel cogency. Force was inapplicable, and no adequate stratagem could be devised. The idea of employing the fraudulent messenger was hardly worth considering.

The situation had been discussed for half an hour or more without making any apparent progress when an idea suddenly presented itself to the girl's mind. She smote her hands together, and cried "By Hermes!" then she paused and excused herself to her companion, "I know that you don't like this way of talking, but it is an old habit, and the words were out of my mouth before I was aware. But it is really a happy thought, a godsend, if there ever was one. You know, or rather I should say, you don't know, that my foster-mother lives in one of the villages which lie near to the brigand head-quarters. Her husband is the chief man of the place, and though he is supposed to be on the side of order, and would not, I am sure, lift his hand against a traveller, yet he is on good terms with the brigands. This is a kind of alliance that holds good, I take it, all the world over. The villagers, whose lot, after all, is a hard one—they do all the work and get but little for it—are paid for what they do, and the robbers, on the other hand, could not carry on without the villagers' [240] goodwill. This good woman loves me as much as if I were her own child, and I am sure that she, and for the matter of that, her husband, would do anything they possibly could to help me. Yes! I will see whether I can't get Manto to do something for that unlucky young man."

"But how will you get at her," asked Priscilla. "Where is your messenger? Whom can you trust? Not that scoundrel, surely, who brought the forged letter?

"No!" replied the girl, "certainly not. I would not trust him an inch further than I can see. No, I would sooner take the message myself."

"Well!" said Priscilla, "that would be one way of doing it. But let me tell my husband; perhaps he may be able to think of something."

Cleonicé was more serious than her friend imagined in what she said. "Yes, yes, tell him, and if he suggests anything, let me know at once." And she hurried back to her father's house.


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