The harbour is guarded by the mole of San Carlo, with the merchant shipping berthed alongside. On this mole there may at most times be seen—and very often in somewhat disquieting numbers—many a group of those houseless and homeless Bohemians whose clothes might well be destitute of pockets, considering that their owners never had, and to all appearance never will have, the wherewithal to put into them.
Today, however—it is the 18th of May, 1867—two personages slightly better dressed than the rest are noticeable amongst the crowd. That they have ever suffered from a superabundance of florins or kreutzers is improbable, unless some lucky chance has favoured them—and they certainly look as though they would stick at nothing that might induce that chance to come.
One of them calls himself Sarcany, and says he hails from Tripoli. The other is a Sicilian, Zirone by name. Together they have strolled up and down the mole at least a dozen times, and now they have halted at its furthest end and are gazing away to the horizon, to the west of the Gulf of Trieste, as if they hoped to sight the ship bringing home their fortune.
“What time is it?” asked Zirone, in Italian, which his comrade spoke as fluently as he did all the other tongues of the Mediterranean.
Sarcany made no reply.
“What a fool I am!” exclaimed the Sicilian. “It’s the time you’re hungry after you’ve had no breakfast!”
There is such a mixture of races in this part of Austria-Hungary that the presence of these two men, although they were obviously strangers to the place, provoked no attention. And besides, if their pockets were empty, no one had reason to think so, thanks to their long brown capes, which reached even to their boots.
Sarcany, the younger of the two, was about five and twenty, and of middle height, well set up, and of elegant manners and address. Sarcany, however, was not his baptismal name, and, probably, he had never been baptized, being of Tripolitan or Tunisian origin; but though his complexion was very dark, his regular features proclaimed him to be more European than African.
If ever physiognomy was deceptive, it was so in Sarcany’s case. It required a singularly keen observer to discover his consummate astuteness in that handsome face, with its large dark eyes, fine straight nose, and well-cut mouth shaded by the slight moustache. That almost impassable face betrayed none of the signs of contempt and hatred engendered by a constant state of revolt against society. If, as physiognomists pretend—and they are not infrequently right—every rascal bears witness against himself in spite of all his cleverness, Sarcany could give the assertion the lie direct. To look at him no one would suspect what he was and what he had been. He provoked none of that irresistible aversion we feel towards cheats and scoundrels; and, in consequence, he was all the more dangerous.
Where had Sarcany spent his childhood? No one knew. How had he been brought up, and by whom? In what corner of Tripoli had he nestled during his early years? To what protection did he owe his escape from the many chances of destruction in that terrible climate? No one could say—maybe not even himself; born by chance, helped on by chance, destined to live by chance! Nevertheless, during his boyhood he had picked up a certain amount of practical instruction, thanks to his having to knock about the world, mixing with people of all kinds, trusting to expedient after expedient to secure his daily bread. It was owing to this and other circumstances that he had come to have business relations with one of the richest houses in Trieste, that of the banker, Silas Toronthal, whose name is intimately connected with the development of this history.
Sarcany’s companion, the Italian, Zirone, was a man faithless and lawless, a thorough-paced adventurer, ever ready at the call of him who could pay him well, until he met with him who would pay him better, to undertake any task whatever. Of Sicilian birth, and in his thirtieth year, he was as capable of suggesting a villainy as of carrying it into effect. He might have told people where he had been born, had he known; but he never willingly said where he lived, or if he lived anywhere. It was in Sicily that the chances of Bohemian life had made him acquainted with Sarcany. And henceforth they had gone through the world, trying per fas et nefas to make a living by their wits. Zirone was a large, bearded man, brown in complexion, and black of hair, taking much pains to hide the look of the scoundrel which would persist in revealing itself in spite of all his efforts. In vain he tried to conceal his real character beneath his exuberant volubility, and, being of rather a cheerful temperament, he was just as talkative about himself as his younger companion was reserved.
Today, however, Zirone was very moderate in what he had to say. He was obviously anxious about his dinner. The night before, fortune had been unkind to them at the gambling-table, and the resources of Sarcany had been exhausted. What they were to do next neither knew. They could only reckon on chance, and as that Providence of the Beggars did not seek them out on the mole of San Carlo, they decided to go in search of it along the streets of the new town.
There, up and down the squares, quays, and promenades on both sides of the harbour leading to the grand canal which runs through Trieste, there goes, comes, throngs, hastens, and tears along in the fury of business a population of some seventy thousand inhabitants of Italian origin whose mother-tongue is lost in a cosmopolitan concert of all the sailors, traders, workmen, and officials who shout and chatter in English, German, French, or Slav. Although this new town is rich, it by no means follows that all who tread its streets are fortunate. No! Even the wealthiest could hardly compete with the foreign merchants—English, Armenian, Greeks, and Jews—who lord it at Trieste, and whose sumptuous establishments would do no discredit to the capital of Austria-Hungary. But, beyond these, how many are the poorer folks wandering from morning to night along the busy streets, bordered with lofty buildings closed like strong rooms, where lie the goods of all descriptions attracted to this free port, so happily placed at the farthest corner of the Adriatic! How many there are, breakfastless and dinnerless, loitering on the quays, where the vessels of the wealthiest shipping firm of the Continent—the Austrian Lloyds—are unloading the treasures brought from every part of the world! How many outcasts there are, such as are found in London, Liverpool, Marseilles, Havre, Antwerp, and Leghorn, who elbow the opulent ship owners, thronging round the warehouses, where admittance is forbidden them, round the Exchange, whose doors will never open for them, and everywhere round the Tergesteum, where the merchant has planted his office and counting-house and lives in perfect accord with the Chamber of Commerce!
It is admitted that in all the great maritime towns of the old and new world there exists a class of unfortunates peculiar to these important centres. Whence they come we know not; whither they go we are equally ignorant. Amongst them the number of unclassed is considerable. Many of them are foreigners. The railroads and the steamers have thrown them in, as it were, on to a dust heap, and there they lie, crowding the thoroughfares, with the police striving in vain to clear them away.
Sarcany and Zirone, after a farewell look across the gulf to the lighthouse on St. Theresa Point, left the mole, passed between the Teatro Communale and the square, and reached the Piazza Grande, where they talked for a quarter of an hour in front of the fountain which is built of the stone from the neighbouring Karst Hill, and stands by the statue to Charles VI.
Then they turned to the left and came back. To tell the truth Zirone eyed the passers-by as if he had an irresistible desire to feed on them. Then they turned towards the large square of Tergesteum just as the hour struck to close the Exchange.
“There it is, empty—like we are!” said the Sicilian with a laugh, but without any wish to laugh.
But the indifferent Sarcany seemed to take not the slightest notice of his companion’s mistimed pleasantry as he indulged in a hungry yawn.
Then they crossed the triangle past the bronze statue of the Emperor Leopold I. A shrill whistle from Zirone—quite a street boy’s whistle—put to flight the flock of blue pigeons that were cooing on the portico of the old Exchange, like the grey pigeons in the square of Saint Mark at Venice.
Then they reached the Corso, which divides new from old Trieste. A wide street destitute of elegance, with well patronized shops destitute of taste, and more like the Regent Street of London or the Broadway of New York than the Boulevard des Italiens of Paris. In the street a great number of people; but of vehicles only a few, and these going between the Piazza Grande and the Piazza della Legna—names sufficiently indicating the town’s Italian origin.
Sarcany appeared insensible to all temptation, but Zirone as he passed the shops could not help giving an envious glance into those he had not the means to enter. And there was much there that looked inviting, particularly in the provision shops, and chiefly in the “birrerie,” where the beer flows more freely than in any other town of Austria-Hungary.
“There’s rather more hunger and thirst about in this Corso,” said the Sicilian, whose tongue rattled against his parched lips with the click of a castanet.
Sarcany’s only reply to this observation was a shrug of his shoulders.
They then took the first turning to the left, and reached the bank of the canal near the Ponto Rosso—a swing bridge. This they crossed, and went along the quays, where vessels of light draught were busy unloading. Here the shops and stalls looked much less tempting. When he reached the church of St. Antonio, Sarcany turned sharply to the right. His companion followed him in silence. Then they went back along the Corso, and crossed the old town, whose narrow streets, impracticable for vehicles as soon as they begin to climb the slopes of the Karst, are so laid out as to prevent their being enfiladed by that terrible wind, the bora, which blows icily from the northeast. In this old town of Trieste, Zirone and Sarcany, the moneyless, found themselves more at home than among the richer quarters of the new.
It was, in fact, in the basement of a modest hotel not far from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore that they had lodged since their arrival in the Illyrian capital. But as the landlord, who remained unpaid, might become pressing as to his little bill, which grew larger from day to day, they sheered off from this dangerous shoal, crossed the square, and loitered for a few minutes near the Arco di Riccardo.
The study of Roman architecture did not prove very satisfying, and as nothing had turned up in the almost deserted streets, they began the ascent of the rough footpaths leading almost to the top of the Karst, to the terrace of the cathedral.
“Curious idea to climb up here,” muttered Zirone, as he tightened his cape round his waist.
But he did not abandon his young companion, and away he went along the line of steps, called by courtesy roads, which lead up the slopes of the Karst. Ten minutes afterwards, hungrier and thirstier than ever, they reached the terrace.
From this elevated spot there is a magnificent view extending across the Gulf of Trieste to the open sea, including the port, with its fishing boats passing and repassing, and its steamers and trading ships outward and homeward bound, and the whole of the town, with its suburbs and farthest houses clustering along the hills. The view had no charms for them! They were thinking of something very different, of the many times they had come here already to ponder on their misery! Zirone would have preferred a stroll along the rich shops of the Corso. Perhaps the luck might reach them here, which they were so impatiently waiting for!
At the end of the steps leading on to the terrace near the Byzantine cathedral of Saint Just there was an enclosure, formerly a cemetery, and now a museum of antiquities. There were no tombs, but odds and ends of sepulchral stones lying in disorder under the lower branches of the trees—Roman stelae, medieval cippi, pieces of triglyphs, and metopes of different ages of the Renaissance, vitrified cubes with traces of cinders, all thrown anyhow among the grass.
The gate of the enclosure was open. Sarcany had only to push it. He entered, followed by Zirone, who contented himself with this melancholy reflection:
“If we wanted to commit suicide, this is just the place!”
“And if someone proposed it to you?” asked Sarcany ironically.
“I’d decline, my friend! Give me one happy day in ten, and I ask no more!”
“It shall be given you—and something more as well.”
“May all the saints of Italy hear you, and heaven knows they’re counted by the hundred!”
“Come along,” said Sarcany.
They went along a semicircular path between a double row of urns and sat themselves down on a large Roman rose-window, which had fallen flat on the ground.
At first they remained silent. This suited Sarcany, but it did not suit his companion. And after one or two half-stifled yawns, Zirone broke out with:
“This something that we’ve been fools enough to wait for is a long time coming.”
Sarcany made no reply.
“What an idea,” continued Zirone, “to come and look for it among these ruins! I’m afraid we’re on the wrong track, my friend. What are we likely to find in this old graveyard? Even the spirits abandon this place once they shed their mortal carcasses. When I join them I shall not worry about a dinner that’s late, or a supper that never comes! Time to go.”
Sarcany, deep in thought, with his looks lost in vacancy, did not move.
Zirone waited a few minutes without saying anything. Then his habitual loquacity urged him to speak.
“Sarcany,” he said, “do you know in what form I should like this something to appear? In the form of one of those cashier people from Toronthal’s with a pocket-book stuffed full of banknotes which he could hand over to us on behalf of the said banker with a thousand apologies for keeping us waiting so long.”
“Listen, Zirone,” answered Sarcany, knitting his brows, “for the last time I tell you that there’s nothing to be hoped for from Silas Toronthal.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Yes, he gave a definite refusal to my last demands; all the credit I have with him is exhausted.”
“That is bad.”
“Very bad, but it is so.”
“Good, if your credit is exhausted,” continued Zirone, “it’s because you’ve had the credit! And to what is that due? To your having many times placed your zeal and intelligence at the service of his firm in certain matters of delicacy. Now, during the first months of our stay in Trieste, Toronthal did not show himself too stingy in money matters. You still must have some hold over him, if you threatened him...”
“What was to be done has already been done,” replied Sarcany, with a shrug, “and you cannot go to him for a meal! No! I have no hold over him now; but I may have and shall have, and when that day comes he shall pay me capital and compound interest for what he’s refused me today! I fancy his business is under a cloud, and that he’s mixed up in several doubtful things. Several of those failures in Germany, at Berlin and Munich, have had their effect in Trieste, and Silas Toronthal seemed rather upset when I saw him last. Let the water get troubled, and when it is troubled...”
“Quite so,” exclaimed Zirone, “but meanwhile we have only water to drink! Look here, Sarcany, I think you might try one more shot at Toronthal! You might tap his cash-box once more, and get enough out of it to pay our passage to Sicily by way of Malta.”
“And what should we do in Sicily?”
“That’s my business. I know the country, and I can introduce you to a few Maltese, who are a very tough lot, and with them we might do something. If there’s nothing to be done here, we might as well clear out, and let this wretched banker pay the cost. If you know anything about him, he would rather see you out of Trieste!”
Sarcany shook his head.
“It cannot last much longer, you’ll see. We’ve come to the end now,” added Zirone.
He rose and stamped on the ground with his foot, as if it were a stepmother unwilling to help him. At the instant he did so he caught sight of a pigeon feebly fluttering down just outside the enclosure. The pigeon’s tired wings could hardly move, as slowly it sank to the ground.
Zirone, without asking himself to which of the hundred and seventy-seven species of pigeons now known to ornithological nomenclature the bird belonged, saw only one thing—that the species it belonged to was edible.
The bird was evidently exhausted. It had tried to settle on the cornice of the cathedral. Not being able to reach it, it had dropped on to the roof of the small niche which gave shelter to the statue of St. Just; but its feeble feet could not support it there, and it had slipped on to the capital of a ruined column.
Sarcany, silent and still, hardly followed the pigeon in its flight, but Zirone never lost sight of it. The bird came from the north. A long journey had reduced it to this state of exhaustion. Evidently it was bound for some more distant spot; for it immediately started to fly again, and the trajectory curve it traced in the air compelled it to make a fresh halt on one of the lower branches of the trees in the old cemetery.
Zirone resolved to catch it, and quietly ran off to the tree. He soon reached the gnarled trunk, climbed up it to the fork, and there waited motionless and mute, like a dog pointing at the game perched above his head.
The pigeon did not see him, and made another start; but its strength again failed it, and a few paces from the tree it fell into the grass.
To jump to the ground, stretch out his hands, and seize the bird was the work of an instant for the Sicilian. And quite naturally he was about to wring its neck, when he stopped, gave a shout of surprise, and ran back to Sarcany.
“A carrier pigeon!” he said.
“I’d say its carrying days are over,” replied Sarcany.
“Perhaps so,” said Zirone, “and all the worse for those waiting for the message.”
“A message!” exclaimed Sarcany. “Wait, Zirone, wait! Give him a reprieve!”
And he stopped his companion, who had again caught hold of the neck. Then he took the tiny packet, opened it, and drew forth—a cryptogram.
The message contained only eighteen words arranged in three vertical columns, and this is what it said:
ihnalz zaemen ruiopn
arnuro trvree tqssl
odxhnp estlev eeuart
aeeeil ennios noupvg
spesdr erssur ouitse
eedgnc toeedt artuee
There was nothing to show whence the message came, or whither it was being sent. Only these eighteen words each composed of an equal number of letters. Could they be made into sense without the key? It was not very likely—unless by some very clever decipherer!
And yet the cryptogram could not be indecipherable!
The characters told him nothing, and Sarcany, who was at first much disappointed, stood perplexed. Did the message contain any important news, and, above all, was it of compromising nature? Evidently the precautions had been taken to prevent its being read, if it fell into other hands than those for whom it was intended. To make use of neither the post nor the telegraph, but the extraordinary means of the carrier pigeon showed that it must refer to something it was desired to keep secret.
“Perhaps,” said Sarcany, “there lies in these lines a mystery that’ll make our fortune.”
“And then,” answered Zirone, “this pigeon will represent the luck that we’ve been running after all the morning! And I was going to strangle it! Anyhow, it’s important to keep the message, and we can cook the messenger.”
“Not so fast, Zirone,” interrupted Sarcany, who again saved the bird’s life. “Perhaps the pigeon may tell us whither it was bound, providing, of course that the person who ought to have the message lives in Trieste.”
“And then? That won’t tell you how to read the message, Sarcany.”
“Nor to know where it came from.”
“Exactly. But of two correspondents I shall know one, and that may tell me how I am to find the other. So, instead of killing this bird, we’ll feed it, restore its strength, and help it reach its destination.”
“With the letter?” asked Zirone.
“With the letter—of which I am going to make an exact copy, and that I shall keep until the time comes to use it.”
And Sarcany took a notebook from his pocket, and in pencil he made a careful facsimile of the message. Knowing that in most cryptograms it was important not to alter in the least the form and arrangement, he took great care to keep the words exactly in the same order and position and at the same distances as in the document. Then he put the facsimile in his pocket, the message in its case, and the case in its place under the pigeon’s wing.
Zirone looked on. He did not share in the hope that a fortune was to be made out of the mystery.
“And now?” he asked.
“Now,” answered Sarcany, “do what you can for the messenger.”
The pigeon was more exhausted by hunger than fatigue. Its wings were intact, without strain or breakage, and showed that its temporary weakness was due neither to a shot from a sportsman nor a stone from a street boy. It was hungry—it was thirsty; that was all.
Zirone looked about, and found on the ground a few grains of corn, which the bird ate greedily. Then he quenched its thirst with a few drops of water, which the last shower had left in a piece of ancient pottery. So well did he do his work that in half an hour the pigeon was refreshed and restored, and quite able to resume its interrupted journey.
“If it’s going far,” said Sarcany, “if its destination is beyond Trieste, it does not matter to us if it falls on the way, for we shall have lost sight of it, and it will be impossible for us to follow. But if it’s going to one of the houses in Trieste, its strength is sufficient to take it there, for it’ll only have to fly for a couple of minutes or so.”
“Right you are,” replied the Sicilian, “but how are we to see where it drops, even if it’s in Trieste?”
“We can manage that, I think,” answered Sarcany. And this is what they did.
The cathedral consists of two old Roman churches, one dedicated to the Virgin, one to Saint Just, the patron saint of Trieste. It is flanked by a very high tower, which rises from the angle of the front, and is pierced with a large rose window beneath which is the chief door. This tower commands a view over the plateau on Karst Hill, and over the whole city, which lies spread as on a map below. From this lofty standpoint they could see down on the roofs of all the houses, even on to those clustering on the nearer slopes of the hill that stretched away to the shore of the gulf. It was therefore not impossible to follow the pigeon in its flight, and recognize the house on which it found refuge, provided it was not bound for some other city of the Illyrian peninsula.
The attempt might succeed. It was at least worth trying. They only had to set the bird at liberty.
Sarcany and Zirone left the old cemetery, crossed the open space by the cathedral, and walked towards the tower. One of the ogival doors—the one under the dripstone beneath St. Just’s niche—was open. They entered, and began to ascend the stairs, which led to the roof.
It took them two or three minutes to reach the top. They stood just underneath the roof, and there was no balcony. But there were two windows opening out on each side of the tower, giving a view to each point of the double horizon of hills and sea.
Sarcany and Zirone posted themselves at the windows, which looked out over Trieste towards the northwest.
The clock in the old sixteenth-century castle on the top of the Karst, behind the cathedral, struck four. It was still broad daylight. The air was clear, and the sun shone brightly on the waters of the Adriatic, and most of the houses received the light with their fronts facing the tower. Thus far, circumstances were favourable.
Sarcany took the pigeon in his hands; stroked it, spoke to it, gave it a last caress, and threw it free.
The bird flapped its wings, but at first it dropped so quickly that it looked as though it was going to finish its career of aerial messenger with a cruel fall.
The excitable Sicilian could not restrain a cry of disappointment.
“Wait! All is not yet lost!” said Sarcany.
The pigeon had found its equilibrium in the denser lower air, and, making a sudden curve, flew off towards the northwest.
Sarcany and Zirone followed it with their eyes.
In its flight there was no hesitation. It went straight to its home, which it would have reached an hour earlier had it not been for its compulsory halt among the trees of the old graveyard.
Sarcany and his companion watched it with the most anxious attention. They asked themselves if it was going beyond the town—and then all their scheming would come to naught.
It did nothing of the kind.
“I see it! I see it!” said Zirone, whose sight was of the keenest.
“What you have to look for,” said Sarcany, “is where it stops, so as to fix the exact spot.”
A few minutes after its departure the pigeon settled on a house with one tall gable rising above the rest, in the midst of a clump of trees, in that part of the town near the hospital and public garden. Then it disappeared into a dormer window opening on to the mansard, which was surmounted by a weather vane of wrought iron that ought to have been the work of Quentin Matsys—if Trieste had been in Flanders.
The general direction being ascertained, it would not be very difficult to find the weather vane and gable and window, and, in short, the house inhabited by the person for whom the cryptogram was intended.
Sarcany and Zirone immediately made their way down the tower, and down the hill, and along the roads leading to the Piazza della Legna. There they had to lay their course so as to reach the group of houses forming the eastern quarter of the city.
When they reached the junction of two main roads, the Corsa Stadion leading to the public garden, and the Acquedotto, a fine avenue of trees leading to the large brewery of Boschetto, the adventurers were in some doubt as to the true direction. Should they take the right or the left? Instinctively they turned to the right, intending to examine, one after the other, every house along the avenue above which they had noticed the vane among the trees.
They went along in this manner, inspecting in turn every gable and roof along the Acquedotto, but found nothing like the one they sought. At last they reached the end.
“There it is!” exclaimed Zirone.
And there was the weather vane swinging slowly on its iron spindle above a dormer window, round which, were several pigeons.
There was no mistake. It was the identical house to which the pigeon had flown.
The house was of modest exterior and formed one of the block at the beginning of the Acquedotto.
Sarcany made inquiries at the neighbouring shops, and learnt all he wished to know.
The house for many years had belonged and been inhabited by Count Ladislas Zathmar.
“Who is this Count Zathmar?” asked Zirone, to whom the name meant nothing.
“He is the Count Zathmar!” answered Sarcany.
“But perhaps if we were to ask him...”
“Later on, Zirone; there’s no hurry! Take it coolly, and now to our hotel!”
“Yes, it’s dinnertime for those who have got something to dine on!” said Zirone bitterly.
“We may not dine tonight, but it’s possible we shall dine tomorrow,” answered Sarcany.
“Who knows? Perhaps with Count Zathmar!”
They walked along quietly—why should they hurry?—and soon reached their modest hotel, still much too rich for them seeing they could not pay their bill.
What a surprise was in store! A letter had arrived, addressed to Sarcany.
The letter contained a note for 200 florins, and these words—nothing more:
Enclosed is the last money you will get from me. It’s enough to pay your passage to Sicily. Go, and let me hear no more of you.
“Capital!” exclaimed Zirone, “The banker thinks better of it just in time! Assuredly we need never despair of those financial folks!”
“That’s what I say,” said Sarcany.
“And the coin will do for us to leave Trieste.”
“No! Not just yet!”