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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE RELEASE

[246] IT is needless to describe minutely the preparation of Cleonicé and her allies for their expedition to the hills. The Corsican and Rufus were provided with horses from the Archon's stables, and furnished themselves with arms such as could be carried without any display. Cleonicé, it is hardly necessary to say, made a very good-looking boy. She had to shorten her hair, but not to crop it, for it was the fashion for the young to wear it long, even beyond the limits of boyhood. It was not wholly without a pang that she made this sacrifice, but it was not a time for hesitating at trifles. A skilful application of dye gave a sunburnt look to her face and hands. Altogether [247] the disguise was as successful as could be desired. Everything was complete while the sun was still high in the heavens, and the start was made in such good time that the travellers might expect to reach their journey's end about sunset.

The plan of operations had of course to be left to Cleonicé, for she, and she alone of the three, knew anything about the region to be traversed. Her object was to reach her foster-mother's cottage without observation, and the way in which she hoped to accomplish this end was as follows. The road was bordered on one side by a wood, and she proposed that she and her companions should diverge into this while still two miles or so short of the place where the outposts of the robbers might be expected to be found. She had a thorough knowledge of the locality. When she was some ten years old she had paid a long visit to her foster-mother. Her health had seemed in some danger of failing, and the family physician had recommended a complete change of life. Archias had proposed to take a house somewhere out of Corinth, but the physician had declared that this would not be enough.

"She wants," he said, "something more than a change of air. You say that Sicyon is a bracing place, that it looks north, and so on. Very [248] true; I often recommend it for that reason. But that wouldn't help this child much. You take a house at Sicyon; well, but she would be living there in exactly the same way as she is living here. 'No lessons,' you say. Very good; but still the same atmosphere. The same abundance, the same luxuries—everything, in fact, the same. Now I want to change all that. She must live a different life; she must be turned from an aristocrat into a peasant. There's her foster-mother. Why not send the child to her for a year? Hardships! Yes; that is exactly what she wants. I would not put her into a family of the very poorest. That would be overdoing it. But a plain-living household, where they have the genuine peasant fare, that is the thing."

And so it was settled. Cleonicé went for a year to her foster-mother's cottage, and the change was as thorough as could be desired, and it had all the bracing and restoring effect upon her health that the physician had expected. It was then that she began to learn all the ins and outs, all the highways and byeways of the great wood at the edge of which the cottage stood. This knowledge she had increased by frequent visits in after years. When the summer was at its hottest in Corinth, Archias had taken the most commodious cottage [249] in the village, and it had been the girl's delight to explore the forest recesses. The knowledge thus acquired she was now about to put to a use which she had certainly never anticipated.

She and her companions struck into a green road which would take them, she knew, by almost a straight line to the cottage. The distance was traversed without incident. When the party was about three hundred yards from its destination, she called a halt. There was a shed used by wood-cutters for sleep and meals when they were busy with their spring or autumn work. It was now unoccupied, and here the Corsican and Rufus were to wait, and she would join them when her errand had been accomplished.

Manto, the foster-mother, was busy preparing her husband's evening meal, when she was startled to see a quite unknown figure standing in the doorway of her cottage. For it was not only unknown, but of an appearance wholly unfamiliar. It was a handsome lad attired in an elegant riding costume whom she saw, and for a minute or so her powers of recognition absolutely failed her. Then her visitor bade her good-evening, and the voice—it is curious how we recognize voices, for the recognition is an absolutely unaided effort of memory—seemed to bring back some recollection. The recollection became more vivid when she [250] heard a pet name which had been frequently on the lips of her foster-child in former days, and it became absolute recognition when the stranger threw his arms round her and kissed her on either cheek.

"Good Heavens, my darling! what is the meaning of this?" she gasped out. "You are not really changed, are you?"

Stories of change from youth to maiden and maiden to youth were among the legends told in Greek cottages of old days, and Manto had not failed to hear them.

"Changed!" cried Cleonicé. "Certainly not. I am still your dear daughter, as you are still my dear mother."

"But what does all this mean—this riding coat and breeches? You make a very good looking young man, I must allow, my dear child; but still I like you better as you really are."

"In a moment, dearest mother," said Cleonicé. She was burning with impatience to do her errand, but she knew also that the subject must not be too abruptly introduced. "All in good time, mother," she said; "but just tell me all about yourself and everybody. How is father?" Father was Manto's husband, and she was always especially pleased when her foster-child called him by this name. "And Theon?" Theon, [251] it should be said, was the foster-brother, who was then serving in the body guard of Herod Agrippa.

Her questions duly answered, she went on to give news of Tecmessa, and her baby, the finest baby, she said, in Corinth. It was not difficult, as may be readily understood, to bring in the name of Eubulus. Theon in former days had won a boys' race at the Isthmus and another at Nemea, and Manto, besides the common interest which all Greeks felt in the great national games, was always keen to hear about them. Cleonicé was strictly guarded in her praises of the young man, but she enlarged on the incident that had brought them together. Manto listened with rapt attention to the story of how her darling had been rescued from the imminent danger of drowning, grew pale with horror at the description, artfully prolonged and heightened in fact by the narrator, of the peril—"My clothes had kept me up so far, but I was just beginning to sink," she said—and was ready to do anything for the young hero who had come to the rescue at exactly the right moment. Now was the time, the girl felt, for introducing the business on which she had come. "And now," she went on, "the robbers have caught him. They sent a false message that his father was dying and wanted to see him. They have him [252] somewhere here, and they will not let him go till the race is over. It will break his heart to lose it—perhaps they will kill him."

"And you have come to rescue him? Oh, you brave child!"

This was quite true, but somehow, stated in this abrupt way, it struck the girl with confusion, especially when Manto looked at her with a penetrating glance. She coloured up to the roots of her hair.

"My father," she began—then she remembered that her father knew nothing of what she was doing. "Well," she stammered, "I could not help being interested, and trying to do something. All Corinth, you know, is wild about him."

"Yes, dear," said Manto, "and you love him," going to the point with the directness of her class.

"Certainly not," cried Cleonicé with another furious blush. "He hasn't said a word about love to me."

"That'll come in good time, my dear," said Manto, and she evidently considered the matter as good as settled. "But now what is it that you want me to do?"

"To set him free," replied the girl.

Manto's face fell. That was a very difficult and risky business, and she did not see how she was to [253] set about it. Just at this moment the husband returned. He was carrying a basket, and was evidently in a great hurry.

"Give me a snack just to go on with," he said to his wife. "I have some business to do at the camp, and must do it at once. They"—he did not specify any further who was meant by the "they"—"have taken some one on the road, and I have been getting something for him from the inn. He seems to be a person of some importance, for he can't do, it seems, with common fare. I have got a roast fowl and a flask of Chian here for him, and I must take them to him, for he will be wanting his meal."

"Yes, father," said Manto, "but here is the dear child from Corinth, who wants to speak to you."

"The dear child from Corinth," repeated the man in amazement. "What do you mean?"

"Surely," said Cleonicé, "you haven't forgotten me, though I must allow that I am not dressed as usual."

There was no time to lose, and the story was told again. The shepherd, for this was the man's occupation, was not less taken aback than his wife had been.

"Set him free!" he exclaimed, when he saw what he was asked to do. "Set him free! [254] But what are Manto and I to do afterwards, for we shall certainly not be able to stay here any longer?"

"I have thought of that, dear father," said Cleonicé. "That can easily be settled, if you are willing. My father has a farm about to become empty just now on the Sicyon road. He will put you into that, and you will be twice as comfortable as you are here, and nothing disagreeable to do."

"Well," said the shepherd, "I don't want a reward. I am ready to do anything in my power for you, my dear child; but one has to look ahead a bit. But now let us consider what is to be done."

This was not difficult to see. The prisoner was in charge of two of the band. These would have to be disposed of in some way, and the readiest and safest way was to drug their drink. The shepherd, who had served the robbers for some years, was implicitly trusted. All his interests were supposed to be identical with theirs; it was the accepted rule that he had a share in the ransom of a prisoner, and no one so much as imagined that he would ever have an interest in setting a prisoner free.

"By good luck," he said, "I bought a couple of flasks. It would save me a journey, I thought to [255] myself, to get it at once, and now the second will come in handy."

"But how about the drug?" said Manto.

"Oh!" replied the shepherd, "I have something here that will do perfectly well. It is something that I give the sheep now and then when they have the colic. I'll warrant that it does the business, and in pretty quick time, too. But now I must be off."

Everything went well. Eubulus, who had a happy, faculty of getting on in every company, and making the best of every situation, was already on friendly terms with his guards. When the shepherd made his appearance with the fowl and the flask of Chian, he at once proposed to the men that they should pledge him in the wine. This he did out of simple bonhomie, but it worked into his deliverer's hands with admirable effect.

"Will you have it neat or mixed?" asked the shepherd. The men would have preferred the drink without water; but prudence prevailed.

"Well," said one of them, "for my part I think that water somewhat spoils the taste. But we have to be careful. Supposing that we should fall asleep? There would be a pretty to do?"

The shepherd retired to the kitchen of the hut to mix the bowl, and had, of course, an admirable [256] opportunity of putting in the narcotic. When he returned with the doctored wine, he was thinking how he could manage to warn the young man against the beverage, and was not a little perplexed by the problem to be solved. Eubulus relieved him quite unintentionally. "For myself," he said, "I prefer water. I am in training, and wine does not suit me."

"The better for us," whispered one of the guards to the other, "though we must really be careful."

"Then, gentlemen," said the shepherd, "I will wish you good-night. I must be off home, where my wife is waiting supper for me."


[Illustration]

EUBOLUS IN THE HANDS OF THE BRIGANDS.

He left the hut, but, of course, only to wait outside for so long as might be necessary before the drug did its work. It was amusing, or would have been amusing, to one not directly interested in the matter, to note the working out of the plan. The talk of the two men grew louder, then there was an attempt at singing, and in a few minutes absolute silence. The shepherd looked in, and saw that both the men were stretched on the floor, snoring loudly enough, it might have been said, to bring the house down. On this he slipped in, cut the string by which the prisoner's ankles were tied together, and the rope—by which he was bound to a staple in the wall [257] and whispered in his ear—he might have shouted the words for all power of hearing that was left to the guards—"Come along, sir, now is your time," and he led the way to the cottage.

Manto meanwhile had been collecting her personal belongings. All the furniture of the cottage would have to be abandoned. Luckily there was very little of this; the average cottage of the Greek labouring man was very scantily furnished. But she had a few ornaments, a necklace and such like, a band of coins, and some other trifles, and a gala dress. These things, with Cleonicé's help, she made up into a bundle, not without tears, which the girl did her best to dispel.

Everything was ready when the shepherd returned. The meal was hastily dispatched, neither of the women, however, being disposed to share it. In less than half an hour they had rejoined the party in the barn. Rufus, who had the strongest horse, took up Manto behind him; the Corsican and Cleonicé rode on before, and the shepherd with Eubulus made his way through the wood to the high road on foot. Before dawn on the following day they were all safe at Corinth.


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