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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

AMONG THE HILLS

[216] ARISTON had calculated his time with sufficient nicety. Riding at a smart pace for about an hour and a half, he came to a spot where he had calculated on finding some of the bandit troop on the watch for travellers. And there, accordingly, he found them. The men were allowed to deal as they thought best with wayfarers who did not seem to be of any particular importance or to promise any noteworthy gain. The poor they left absolutely unharmed. It was an axiom in their occupation to make friends with this class. In every age and all the world over the professional robber has claimed to be the champion of the poor. He does his best, he would say, to redress the inequalities of life, to make the rich a little less rich, if he does not accomplish very much to making the poor less poor. Practically they know that their days are numbered if for any reason the labouring class of the region where they are at work turn against them. Travellers of the middle class were allowed [217] to pass on paying a toll which was nicely calculated to suit the apparent means, present or future, of the victim. A long experience had taught the members of the band who were detailed for outpost duty what they might reasonably and profitably ask from those who came in their way. Ariston seemed to be of the class who would pay a moderate toll. When he was informed of the amount which was expected of him, five shillings or so, he acknowledged that it was perfectly reasonable. "As a matter of fact, however," he went on, "I have come here on business, and profitable business too, I hope. Perhaps you will take me to Pauson—Pauson is still in command, I presume—for I am bound to put him in possession of the facts. Meanwhile, gentlemen, I am much obliged to you for your courtesy. I am not a rich man, but if the price of as good a flagon of wine as can be got in this country is of any use to you, it is at your service." And he pressed a silver coin into the hand of each of his two captors.

Pauson and his men were bivouacking in an open space in the wood which bordered the road on both sides. They were about to sit down to their evening meal, at which Ariston was asked to join them. A sign had passed between his captors or friends, as we may be pleased to call them, [218] indicating that this hospitality might be properly extended to him. The meal finished, Ariston suggested a private interview with the chief, and on obtaining it, proceeded to propound his plan.

"I will be perfectly straightforward with you," he went on, after explaining that he wanted to have Eubulus captured and carried off. "I am acting for some friends. It is essential for us that Eubulus should not win the race. For helping us to that result we are ready to pay you. That then is your first profit out of the business. Then the young man has friends in Corinth, friends who will be willing to pay ransom, but not, I take it, a very high ransom. They are not old friends, you will understand, and they are not, as far as we know, really rich. Still there will be a ransom, I do not doubt. You will easily reckon out what you may judiciously ask. Now comes in another consideration. I don't conceal from you that, on the whole, we should prefer to have the young man put out of the way altogether. 'Dead men tell no tales'; that, I take it, is a proverb that you fully appreciate. What I propose, then, is that when you have fixed the amount of ransom which you think of asking, you will give us the choice of paying it, and with it, of course, the [219] liberty of dealing with the young man as we see fit." The chief looked at his visitor with an admiration that was half ironical.

"You gentlemen of the city," he said, after a pause, are thorough-going. We simple folk out in the country here cannot pretend to come up to you. We don't like killing people. Of course it has to be done from time to time. If a man is foolish enough to resist when we want to take him—well, he leaves us no choice. Then again, if a man's friends don't care to ransom him—we always are strictly moderate in our charges—then again we have no choice. It must be established as a rule without an exception—no ransom, no release. Why, if we were to let men go without payment made, we should have half Corinth coming out to spend their holidays free of expense among the mountains. To think that we should keep an idle fellow for a month, eating and drinking of the best—we never stint our guests, and their appetites are tremendous after the first day or two—and that he should get off scot-free at the last, the idea is absolutely preposterous. But to take ransom for him, and then let him be killed before he gets home—that is not our way. It would be a serious injury to our character, for we have to think of that just like other people."

[220] "But it wouldn't be your doing," said Ariston, "it would be ours."

"The world is very uncharitable," replied Pauson, "and especially in its dealings with us, and we should have the thing laid at our door for a certainty. You see when we take ransom for a prisoner we give him what is virtually a safe conduct to his home. If we were to let him go and then take him again it would be pure villainy, and killing him or letting him be killed—for it comes to the same thing—when he is on his way back would be altogether unfair."

"Well," said Ariston, "if you won't have it, you won't, and we must make another plan. But you understand that the young man is not to get back to Corinth before the race. That is essential."

"I understand," answered Pauson. "And how do you propose to get him here?"

Ariston explained the plan of the forged message. "And here," he went on, "you may be able to help us. We want a messenger. Can you find us one?"

"Well," said the chief, "Corinth is not exactly the place my men would choose for spending a day's holiday. It is too close and shut up, and sometimes very unhealthy. I have known men who were in the soundest health die there in a quite unaccountable way. No: [221] we prefer the air of the hills. But stay; I think that I can help you after all. We had a new recruit join us last night. He might do: they don't know his face, you see; and they have a prejudice against those of us whom they do know. Where did you say the message was to come from?"

"From Mantinea," replied Ariston.

"That suits exactly; if I remember rightly the fellow comes from Mantinea, ran away, I take it, from his master, and made a little mistake about money."

The recruit from Mantinea was accordingly sent for. It turned out that his case had been accurately divined by the brigand chief, who, of course, was familiar with the causes which swelled his numbers. He had forged his master's signature to a receipt, and had misappropriated the money. Signature, it should be explained, is used in the first meaning of the word, the affixing of sign or seal. Writing was a comparatively rare accomplishment in those days, and a document was "signed" when the person for whom it was drawn up put his sign or seal upon it. The man had fled from Mantinea [222] as soon as he found that his malpractices would be discovered. He had overheard talk about making a second application to the debtor from whom he had received payment, and he knew that inquiries must result in detection. Accordingly he made his escape from the town, and carried the seal, to which by Eumenes' carelessness—and Eumenes, as has been said, did not manage his affairs with prudence—he had had access. The whole business now became easy enough. It would have been difficult to successfully imitate a handwriting throughout a whole letter, but nothing of the kind was wanted. The usual communication in such a case would be this. A notary would take down from dictation or would prepare according to instructions a statement of what was to be said, and to this the sign of the person from whom it proceeded would be affixed. The miscellaneous gathering of which Pauson's band was composed contained a rascal who had served in a notary's office, and who could write the clerkly handwriting common to this class of employés. One notary's handwriting was scarcely distinguishable from that of another. What may be called a professional appearance was common to all documents so prepared. The fact that from beginning to end they were written in capitals made them [223] appear, except, perhaps, to the eyes of an expert, absolutely alike. The ex-scribe lost no time in preparing a letter that purposed to be addressed by Eumenes to his son Eubulus. It ran thus:

"Eumenes to his son Eubulus with hearty greeting. I charge you by all that you have received at my hands and by all the love which I know you bear to me that you come hither without delay. I am stricken with a mortal disease, and I have that to say to you which greatly concerns the happiness of your mother and your brothers and sisters. I speak not of yourself, for I know it is your nature to think rather of others."

To this document the seal was duly applied. So furnished, the messenger set forth.


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