Among the families which were relieved by the kindly minstrations of Aquila and his wife was one which was always somewhat of a mystery to them. The head of the house was very rarely to be seen. On the very few occasions when the visitors caught a glimpse of him, he did not in the least resemble what one might expect in a dweller in one of the poorest quarters of Rome. He was a tall stalwart fellow, sunburnt to the very darkest shade that the complexion of a white man could assume, to all appearance a mountaineer fresh from his native hills. His wife was, or rather had been, a very handsome woman, a native of Minturnae, as Priscilla discovered by some chance allusion, for she was very reticent as to her previous history and her belongings generally. She suffered from chronic ague—few of the inhabitants of Minturnae, whether they remained at home or migrated to other regions, were exempt from this plague, which the air of the neighbouring marshes had made endemic. There were two children, a boy and a girl, singularly handsome little creatures, but as wild as hawks. The household was wholly unlike the neighbouring families and emphatically a puzzle. Puzzling, too, were the curious vicissitudes of its circumstances. Now and then there seemed to be an abundance of means. The wife blossomed out, so to speak, in the gay colours and gaudy jewels dear to the heart of an Italian woman; the children were made as brilliant as a couple of butterflies. The daily fare of the family was, copious and rich, and its plenty overflowed upon its neighbours, for Marulla—this was the name of the house-wife—was as generous as she was improvident. Then there were times of the direst poverty. The gay garments, and all but the absolutely necessary clothing, disappeared; the food and the drink were cut down to the very lowest at which life could be supported. Indeed, if it had not been for the seasonable assistance of Priscilla, life itself might have been imperilled.
Priscilla and Marulla.
Marulla was one of the humble friends to whom Priscilla paid a farewell visit. The woman's demeanour was certainly embarrassed. She seemed to be always on the verge of saying something which yet she could not bring herself to utter. Yet she was even more than usually affectionate. Her habit was to be reserved. Priscilla knew her to be profoundly grateful for kindnesses received, but the gratitude was not demonstrative. On this occasion, however, the reserve was broken down. When Priscilla was about to leave the house, Marulla threw herself upon the ground, clasped her round the ankles, and passionately kissed her feet, shaken all the time with dry convulsive sobs. Priscilla left her with an uneasy sense of unexplained mystery added to the grief which she felt at the breaking up of a life in which she had felt all the pure pleasure which waits upon disinterested kindness.
It was now the eleventh of the fourteen days of grace allowed by the edict of banishment, and Aquila had arranged to set out on the morrow. He and his wife were busy with their final preparations when an attendant informed them that there were two children at the gate who desired to speak with the lady Priscilla, having something which they must hand to her and no one else. "Bring them here," she said, and they were brought accordingly and turned out to be Marulla's children. The two, who indeed were inseparable, had ventured to come on an errand. This was no slight exercise of courage, for their home was several hundred yards distant, it was late at night, and the elder of the two was but eight years old. The boy produced from under his belt a scrap of paper, in which was written in scarcely legible characters, "Beware of the Pines of Liternum."
"Ah!" said Aquila, after briefly considering the document, "now I understand. Marulla's husband is a brigand. That accounts for his open-air look; yes, and for the short spells of prosperity which you noticed in their household fortunes. And now I think of it, I see how it was that he was at home last autumn. You remember how the praetor of the city was robbed actually within sight of the walls of Capua. That could not be put up with, even by our government, and they sent a large force down into the Pomptine country. Our brigand saw that the game was over for a time and came to Rome for a change of air. And now let us see what is to be done."
Happily the workmen in the tent factory had not been sent off. They had been kept back, contrary to Aquila's first intentions, to finish an order. Instead of sending them round to their destination by sea, Aquila resolved to arm them—all but one or two happened to be men capable of bearing arms—and take them with him by way of escort. He also sent word to such of his compatriots as he could communicate with at so late a time, with a hint that there were dangers to be apprehended on the route eastward, and that they ought to make preparations for meeting them. The result was that a number of parties that would otherwise have made the journey separately now joined their forces, and so made a more than respectable show of strength. For the first hundred miles or so of the road nothing happened that need be related. At Sinuessa however, the landlord of the inn, at which they stopped to bait the horses, described a party travelling, he said, a few miles in advance, which Aquila had no difficulty in identifying with that of Manasseh. There was an old man, he told them, who was carried in a litter and seemed to be in great suffering. He added that they had a government pass. He went on moreover to confide to Aquila his suspicion of the guide that was in charge.
"Rufus," he said, "is nothing more or less than a scoundrel. He has the reputation of being in league with the banditti—we have, as I dare say you know, a great many more of these fellows in these parts than we like. They don't harm us, it is true, but they destroy the reputation of the road. It is certainly a fact that several parties that have made the journey under the care of Rufus have got into trouble. This may have been an accident. If so, Rufus has been very unlucky, and it is as bad to be unlucky as it is to be wicked. But what is most suspicious in the present affair is that Rufus has persuaded the party to go round by way of Liternum. It was an easier road, he said, and with their invalid to think of, they would not really be losing any time by taking it. Well, I have lived in this country, man and boy, for sixty years, and I never heard of the road by Liternum being better than any other. But I have heard of its being a great place for banditti. The forest runs right up to the town, and the road goes through it for a couple of miles or so. What with the forest and its thickets and the marshes with their byways and their quagmires it is a very labyrinth. And the country people are in league with the robbers. It is a poor country and fever-smitten, and the fishermen and hunters and peasants find a few gold pieces mighty convenient."
"But if you knew all this," cried Aquila, "why in the world did you not warn the party?"
"My dear sir," replied the man, "you are asking a little too much of me. I would not harm a traveller for all the world: I never did such a thing in my life, and I never will. But I can't set myself against the whole country-side. As it is, I leave them alone and they leave me alone. If a traveller asks me a question I give him a true answer, as far as I know it. If your friends—I call them your friends, because you seem to know them—had asked my advice I should have given it them fair and square; I should have said, Keep to the old road, but I should not have said, If you go by Liternum you will very likely fall among thieves. It would have been as much as my life is worth to say it. Life at Sinuessa, sir, if you will believe me, is not worth very much; still I am for holding to it as long as I can. And now, sir, if I may make bold to advise you, I should say, Hurry on. You have got a strong party here, and will be more than a match for the robbers. Your friends will not be very much in advance, and you may very well come up in time, if they are attacked. Your good lady, of course, will stop here. You may trust me, sir, to do my best for her; but if you like, leave two or three of your men by way of a guard."
Priscilla, as might have been expected, scouted the idea of being left behind. "You will want every man," she said, "or, anyhow, the more you can put in the field against these villains, the better your chance. And I, too, may be of use."
Priscilla had made the journey so far in a carriage. This was dispensed with for the present. The innkeeper furnished a rough pony, which she mounted; and the party started without losing a moment. One thing became evident after some distance had been traversed. The guide had simply told a lie when he had recommended the Liternum road as especially good for travelling. It was a by-road and was not in the perfect condition which was characteristic of the great Roman Viae. This confirmed the inn-keeper's suspicions. And these suspicions were soon to be turned into certainty. Between the tenth and eleventh milestone—the whole distance between Sinuessa and Liternum was fourteen miles—the sound of a horse urged at full gallop could be plainly heard. The next minute the rider came in view. He was a young Jew who acted as body-servant to Raphael, and was known by sight to some of the company.
"Thanks be to the Lord of hosts!" he cried. "My master and his father are sore beset. Those villains of guards have sold us. My master sent me back on the chance of finding some help. As I was riding off, one of the guards sent an arrow after me. By good luck it did nothing more than graze my horse's off hind leg. So it was as good as a spur, and he galloped faster than ever. But another inch would have lamed him. Hurry on, gentlemen; there is not a moment to lose."
Aquila took action immediately. Four of the party whose courage and presence of mind he had reason to trust were sent on at once on horseback to the supposed scene of action. Their instructions were to create a diversion rather than to deliver an attack. Their presence would at least, he thought, cause some delay in the proceedings of the bandits. The rest of the party followed with as much speed as they could accomplish. They had in fact but a very short distance to traverse. Half an hour's quick march brought them to a spot where the road entered the pine-forest, and in another five minutes they came upon a full view of the affair. Their own horsemen were drawn up across the road, confronted by a double row of brigands. On one side of the way the treacherous guide could be seen bound to a tree. It was afterwards found that he stipulated for this treatment, it being a matter of obvious policy to show to any spectator, if such should chance to present himself, that the bandits treated him as they treated their other captives. A closer inspection would have shown, first, that the bands were by no means inconveniently tight, that in fact he could release himself from them whenever the farce was played out; and, secondly, that his serene and even smiling countenance did not seem to express the feeling that might naturally have been expected under the circumstances. He looked like a man who had made a lucky venture rather than one who had met with a disastrous failure, the failure of the guide who had unwittingly led his party into the midst of a den of robbers. On the other side of the road might be seen Raphael in the same plight. His bonds, however, were as tight as they could be made, and there was certainly no smile on his face. Of the escort, all but three or four had taken to their heels: these were standing in the road, unbound, quite indifferent spectators, it might have been thought, of what was going on. The road itself was strewed with the contents of packages which had been unloaded from the mules. The robbers had been busily employed in rifling them, when the arrival of Aquila's advanced guard had diverted their attention.
The captain of the brigands felt, as soon as he caught sight of the well armed and resolute looking party under Aquila's immediate command that his venture had failed, and that the only hope for himself and his companions lay in immediate flight. He gave a signal, and in a few moments every man of the band had disappeared in the depths of the wood. Aquila did not care to pursue them. It was quite impossible for him to burden his party with prisoners, even if he could have found time to capture them. One man, however, remained in his hands, and this was the brigand captain. He caught his foot in the rope by which one of the mules was tethered to a tree, and fell heavily to the ground, spraining his ankle severely. The followers might be allowed to escape, but the captain was a prize which it would not be right to neglect. Three of the riders leapt from their horses, and secured him, while he was still breathless and faint with pain. When a few minutes later the captain was exhibited to Aquila he recognized at once the mysterious mountaineer of the Suburra. The brigand captain was no other than Marulla's husband.