IT was some time before the prolonged absence of Carna caused any alarm at the villa. When she was on one of her errands of kindness among the sick, it was difficult to say when she would return. But in the course of the afternoon the old physician returned, not a little wrath that he had been sent on a fool's errand. He had been told that an old farmer, living close to the north-west of the island some seven or eight miles from the villa was lying dangerously ill, and he had found the supposed patient in vigorous health, and not a little angry at being supposed to be anything else. This seemed to make things look somewhat serious. It was easy to guess that the trick played upon the physician had something to do with the message brought to Carna. It was remembered that the stranger had asked that he should accompany the girl; it was at least possible that she knew him to be out of the way, and that she would not have made the request had she not known it.
While the Count, who had just returned from an inspection of his crews, was talking the matter over with his daughter and two of his officers who happened to be present, a new cause for suspicion and alarm presented itself. Carna's pet dog had found its way back with a bit of broken cord round its neck, and refused to be comforted, tearing and pulling at the dresses of the attendant, and saying, as plainly as a dog could say it, that there was something wrong, that it must be attended to at once, and that he would show them how to do it, if they would only follow him. When the rope round his neck was examined more closely, it was found that it had been gnawed in two. "He has been tied up and has broken away," said the Count, when this was pointed out to him.
"And if I know the dear little thing," broke in Ælia, "he would not have left his mistress as long as he could be near her. I am sure that some mischief has happened to her." And this was the general impression, though, who could have ventured on so audacious an outrage it was impossible to guess.
The dog had remained with Carna, showing his love, not by fierce resistance like that made by his powerful companion, for which he had the sagacity to know he had not sufficient strength, but by keeping as close to her as he could. After she had been made a prisoner, and while the party were preparing for a start, he had been tied to a tree. It had been intended that he should go with his mistress, for whom, as has been said, her captors showed throughout a certain consideration, but it so happened that in the bustle of departure he was forgotten. When he saw her go and found himself left behind, he set himself with all his might to gnaw the rope which fastened him to the tree. This task took him a long time, for he was an old dog, and his teeth were not as good as they had been. Finding himself free he started in headlong pursuit, easily tracking the party by the scent, but after a while he halted; a happy thought—is it possible that, in the teeth of all accumulated evidences, any one can deny that dogs can think?—a happy thought then struck his mind, quickened to its utmost capacity of intelligence by love and grief. We may translate it into human language thus: "If I follow her and overtake her, what good can I do? But if I go back and make the people at home understand that something has happened to her, then I can help her to some purpose." This was his conclusion, anyhow. How he arrived at it only He knows who makes all things great and small, and "divideth to all severally as He will." He turned back, ran with breathless speed to the villa, and did all that could be done, short of speaking, to show that his dear mistress was in trouble.
Meanwhile, however, much time had been lost, and the day was already far advanced. Anxious as was the Count to set out, he could not but perceive that haste might defeat the object of his journey. To start when the light was failing would probably be to miss important signs of what had happened, and, very possibly, to risk success. All preparations, however, were made. The men who were to form the pursuing party were chosen. As it may be supposed, there was no lack of volunteers. There was not a single being at the villa or its dependencies that would not have given a great deal and borne a great deal to see Carna again in safety. But it would be possible to, take only a small number, if the pursuit was to be rapid and effective. Some of the most active of the crews of the war-ships accordingly were chosen, sailors having then as now a cheerful activity that makes them particularly valuable members of a land expedition. The Count added others from his own establishment, and he determined to conduct the party himself. It was arranged that it should start the following day, as soon as it should be sufficiently light.
One of the slaves who was early astir on the following morning found fixed to an outside gate of the villa a document, rudely written and roughly folded, which bore the Count's address. It was found, when opened, to contain the following message, expressed in ungrammatical Latin, mingled with one or two British words:
"She whom you seek is not far off, and may be recovered by you if you are wise. If you attempt to regain her by force, she will be lost to you altogether. But if you wish to have her again with you safely and without trouble, send one whom you can trust with a hundred gold pieces at midnight three days after the receiving of this letter to the place to which she was yesterday fetched. Let your messenger go alone, and ask no questions then or afterwards."
"So she is held to ransom by a set of brigands," cried the Count, when he had read this document. "I should not have thought that such a thing had been possible in Britain. But the times have been getting worse and worse. We have long been weakening our hold upon the province, and we had better clear out altogether, if we cannot do better than this. But I suppose we have no choice. We must not endanger the dear girl's life. But now the question is about the money. I do not think that I have so much in gold in the house; but we can borrow somewhere what is wanted.
"Perhaps," said the Count's secretary, whom he had summoned to consult with him, "the peddler can help you. He has the reputation of being richer than he looks."
"Well," replied the Count, "that would be a simple way out of the difficulty, if it can be managed. Meanwhile, let me see what I have got of my own at hand."
It was found that eighty gold pieces were forthcoming, and the peddler was summoned and asked whether he could make up the balance.
"My Lord," said the man when he was brought into the Count's presence and had heard the story, "I will make no idle pretence of poverty. I have what you want, and it is entirely at your lordship's service. But will you let me see the letter in which this demand for ransom is made?"
The Count handed him the document, and he examined it long and carefully.
"My lord," he said, "the more I look at this, the more I am confirmed in certain suspicions which have been growing up in my mind. I have been thinking of this matter, and of other matters which seem to me to be connected with it all the night. It will take long to explain, and, of course, after all I may be wrong; still, I think you would do well to hear what I have got to say."
The Count, who had previously had reasons for thinking well of the peddler's intelligence, bade him proceed.
"In the first place," continued the man, "I think this letter is a blind. It is made to look like the work of some very rude and ignorant person. But the pretence is not well kept up. You will see, if you look at the handwriting a little more closely, that it is feigned. The writer was perfectly able to make it a great deal better than it is, if he had so chosen, and he has sometimes forgotten his part. Some of the letters, some even of the words, particularly of the small words, about which he would naturally be less careful, are quite well-formed. Now a really bad writer, I mean one who writes badly because he does not know how to write well, is always bad; every letter he forms is misshapen."
The Count examined the document and acknowledged that this comment upon it was just. And he began to see too what was naturally more apparent to him, as an educated man, than it was to the peddler, that the style was hardly what would have been expected from an ignorant scribe.
"What, then, is your conclusion?" he asked.
"About that," returned the other, "I am not so certain. That this is a blind, as I said, I am sure; and this talk about the ransom consequently is a deception. 'Three days,' you see it says. That would be three days lost. No, my lord, it is not by robbers that this has been planned."
"What then?" cried the Count, flushing a fiery red as a sudden thought occurred to him. "Carna is very beautiful. Do you think——"
"No," said the peddler, "I think not. A lover would not lay so elaborate a plot as I fancy I can see here. I think the Lady Carna is a hostage, or——"
He paused, and continued after a few minutes of silence. "I have much to piece together, and it would take long, and lose much precious time. That is the last thing that we should do. They have got too much start already. We must not let them improve it more than we can help. You will let me go with you, and I shall have leisure to put all I have got to say together without hindering you. But the sooner we are on their track the better."
To this the Count readily agreed, and preparations for immediate departure were made. It was with difficulty that Ælia could be persuaded that she must be left behind. But when it was pointed out to her that her presence must inevitably make the progress of the party more slow, and increase their anxieties, she reluctantly gave way. At the last moment an unexpected addition was made to the party in the person of the Saxon prisoner.
"My lord," said the peddler, to whom the young man had communicated his earnest desire to be allowed to go; "it may seem a strange thing for me to say, but you cannot have a better helper in this matter than this young fellow. He is as strong as any horse, and as keen and intelligent a youth as I ever saw. And in this case too his wits will be doubly sharp, and his arm doubly strong, for he worships the very ground that the Lady Carna treads upon."
"Very well," replied the Count, with a smile, "let him go. After all, it is quite as safe to take a lion about with one, as to leave him at home."
The pet dog was, of course, a valued member of the expedition.