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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church




[207] THE three confederates had in their pay one of the slaves belonging to the trainer's household. This fellow played the same part as do the touts, on an English racecourse. He reported performances, gave the current gossip of the establishment—in short, kept his employers supplied with the latest information about what had happened or was expected to happen. Beyond this he did not go; he was not acquainted with their schemes, but simply told them what he heard or saw. From this man the three heard of Eubulus's sudden illness, of his speedy recovery, and of Dromeus's departure. The news was, of course, a disappointment. So much time had been lost, and they were no nearer their end. Still things might have been worse. It was an immense relief that Dromeus had disappeared. He might have turned against them; and his evidence, for which it would not have been difficult for him to find corroboration, would [208] have been most damaging. That danger, anyhow, was over. Still the question remained, and the time for finding an answer was short. How were they to save themselves against the consequence of Eubulus's victory, an event now more likely than ever? They knew from their agent that the young man was none the worse for his illness, and they lost no time, as may be imagined, in meeting to review the situation.

Ariston was disposed to take credit to himself for having foretold or at least hinted at the failure of the enterprise.

"I have always held," he said, "that there is nothing like cold steel. Your poisons are very clever, I allow, if you can only get them to work without intermission. And I allow that it is a great advantage that very often you are not called to account for administering them. But then 'there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.' As we have just seen, there are antidotes to be reckoned with. And if you get home to a man's heart with a dagger, there is no antidote for that."

"It's all very well," said Cleon, whose annoyance at the failure of his scheme was not a little increased by such talk, "it is all very well to talk about the dagger, but who is going to use it? When and where will you find the opportunity? [209] This young fellow is just now the observed of all observers. Where do you propose to get at him? In the trainer's house? Why, it is guarded like a tyrant's palace. They were always careful; but now, after this last business, they are more careful than ever. In the streets? with scores of people always running after him? You might by the greatest good luck deal him a blow. But what then? Where is your chance of escape? Why, you would be infallibly torn to pieces. I must own that this sort of thing is not to my liking. Why, I would sooner pay up than face a howling mob of Corinthians when I had just stabbed their favourite runner."

"My dear Cleon," retorted Ariston, "you are really somewhat wanting in imagination. You don't suppose that I am going to behave like some silly boy, who when he has a quarrel with a companion has no other idea of making it straight than giving him a box on the ear. No, I know a better way than that, and I will tell you what it is. I propose that we forge a message from Eubulus's father—I don't know whether you are aware that he is now living at Mantinea—to this effect: that he is dying, and that he must see his son before his death, having some secret of immense importance to communicate to him. Well, he sets out—he is not [210] the sort of fellow to neglect a message of that kind—and we waylay him."

"That sounds easy enough," said Cleon, "but how are we to waylay him? He is certain not to be alone, and we are likely to fail just as much as in the Dromeus business, and with much worse consequences to ourselves."

"A want of imagination again," said Ariston. "I didn't mean, of course, that you and I and Democles were to waylay him. Have you ever heard of Pauson the robber chief? Well; I know how to get into touch with him, and my plan is that he and his band should do the waylaying. As to after developments, we must leave them for the present. I am still for putting the young fellow out of the way. Still, I am not bigoted to that idea. If it can be arranged—for a certainty, mark you, and no possible mistake—that he does not win tie race, let him live. That, however, may be postponed for the present. What must be done at once is the getting hold of Pauson, for there is no time to lose. Now, my friends, what do you say to this? Have you got any better scheme of your own? If not, do you approve? If you do, I will start in the course of a few hours."

Agree they did—in fact, there was scarcely a [211] choice—and Ariston's scheme seemed to have some promise of success. Meanwhile two actors, whose earlier appearance in the drama I am representing, my readers will doubtless remember, had again come upon the stage. These were the Corsican captain of the ship The Twin Brothers  and the bandit chief from the Gallinarian Wood. The wheat trade carried on by Manasseh and Company, if the phrase may be allowed, had not been interrupted by the banishment of the Jews from Rome; the business had been temporarily assigned to a Gentile partner. But the Corsican's employment had been interrupted by another cause. The Twin Brothers, which, under the charge of an incompetent pilot, had been damaged by being run upon one of the moles in the harbour of Ostia, had been laid up for repairs. The captain had arranged for the execution of this work, and acting on permanent instructions from his employers had charged some one whom he could trust with the business of seeing that they were properly executed. He was quite aware that this sort of thing did not fall within his own province, and he was also rejoiced to get quit of a tedious piece of business which would keep him hanging about the harbour just at the season of the year when it was even less agreeable than usual. The [212] question then presented itself, where should his enforced holiday be spent? There were various reasons that suggested Corinth. The chief, for whom he had a genuine respect, was there, and he might be of service to him and his son, and then there was the forthcoming spectacle of the Isthmian Games. There were also permanently interesting features in the place. The city was one of the great centres of the carrying trade of the world, and the Corsican was sure that he might pick up some knowledge about professional details which would be of service to him in his work. He was about to set out, and purposed to make his journey by sea, when he bethought him of the bandit chief. The man was probably by this time ready, or nearly ready, to get about again. What was he to do? or what was to be done with him? The Corsican felt himself in a way responsible for him, and he came, without much hesitation, to the conclusion to take him with him to Corinth. Accordingly he altered his route, made his way to the place where the man had been left to recover from his injuries, and finding him fairly well restored, brought him to Corinth in his company.

The two had been in the town a day or so, and happened to be standing near the southern [213] gate of the city when a traveller who had the appearance of being equipped for a journey, for his horse carried heavy saddle-bags, passed out by the gate. The time was near sunset, and as the road happened not to bear a very good reputation, the proceeding struck the two as somewhat strange. The Corsican, whose hearty manners put him on friendly terms with everybody, spoke to the porter in charge of the gate.

"I do not know what you think, but this is hardly the time that I should choose for starting on a journey, especially if I had to travel by this road, which, they tell me, is not as safe as it might be."

"It is a little odd," replied the porter, "but I suppose that he knows what he is about."

"Do you know him?" asked the Corsican.

"Oh, yes, I know him," said the porter, with a smile. "He is no greenhorn, as you might think. He knows the point of a sword from the hilt, if any man in Corinth does."

"Who is he?"

"Well, his name is Ariston; he is a betting man, and as sharp as they make them; much more in the way, I should say, of lightening other people's purses than of letting other people lighten his. But it is not my business to give him advice. If it had been a young fellow now, [214] one who did not know his way about, I might have made so bold as to say a word; but Ariston is not one of that sort: he must go his own way."



Rufus, the ex-bandit—he had definitely retired from the profession—pulled his companion's cloak, and whispered that they should move out of earshot.

"I could not quite catch what the fellow said; he talked such queer Greek." Rufus, it may be explained, was bilingual, as were many of the Italians of the south, but his Greek was naturally something of a patois, while the porter's speech was fairly pure, of course with the broad vowels of the Corinthian dialect, but still good enough. "You were talking about the traveller—was it not so?"

The Corsican explained to his companion what had been said. Rufus mused awhile.

"Maybe," he said, "he wants to meet these gentlemen of the road. You see I know something of the ins and outs of the business. I have had to do in my time with some very respectable persons indeed, and what used to happen when they had something particular to tell us, [215] was that they were taken prisoners. It seemed straightforward to other people."

"Well, my good Rufus," said the Corsican, "there could hardly be a better judge in such matters than you. It is quite clear that there is some plot hatching, but I don't know that it is any business of ours to meddle with it. But we will keep our ears and eyes open, and it is quite possible that we may understand what puzzles other people."

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