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manuscripts. But, like his employer, he was avaricious, and the prospect of three hundred and sixty scudi a year was pleasant to contemplate. He bowed and smiled.
"I do not deserve so much liberality, Signor Principe," he said. "My poor services--"
"Very far from poor, my dear friend, very far from poor," interrupted Montevarchi. "Moreover, if you will have confidence in me, you can do me a very great service indeed. But it is indeed a very private matter. You are a discreet man, however, and have few friends. You are not given to talking idly of what concerns no one but yourself."
"No, Excellency," replied Meschini, laughing inwardly as he thought of the deceptions he had been practising with success during a quarter of a century.
"Well, well, this is a matter between ourselves, and one which, as you will see, will bring its own reward. For although it might not pass muster in a court of law--the courts you know, Meschini, are very sensitive about little things--" he looked keenly at his companion, whose eyes were cast down.
"Foolishly sensitive," echoed the librarian.
"Yes. I may say that in the present instance, although the law might think differently of the matter, we shall be doing a good deed, redressing a great injustice, restoring to the fatherless his birthright, in a word fulfilling the will of Heaven, while perhaps paying little attention to the laws of man. Man, my friend, is often very unjust in his wisdom."
"Very. I can only applaud your Excellency's sentiments, which do justice to a man of heart."
"No, no, I want no praise," replied the prince in a tone of deprecation. "What I need in order to accomplish this good action is your assistance and friendly help. To whom should I turn, but to the old and confidential friend of the family? To a man whose knowledge of the matter on hand is only equalled by his fidelity to those who have so long employed him?"
"You are very good, Signor Principe. I will do my best to serve you, as I have served you and his departed Excellency, the Signor Principe, your father."
"Very well, Meschini. Now I need only repeat that the reward for your services will be great, as I trust that hereafter your recompense may be adequate for having had a share in so good a deed. But, to be short, the best way to acquaint you with the matter is to show you this document which I have brought for the purpose."
Montevarchi produced the famous deed and carefully unfolded it upon the table. Then, after glancing over it once more, he handed it to the librarian. The latter bent his keen eyes upon the page and rapidly deciphered the contents. Then he read it through a second time and at last laid it down upon the table and looked up at the prince with an air of inquiry.
"You see, my dear Meschini," said Montevarchi in suave tones, "this agreement was made by Don Leone Saracinesca because he expected to have no children. Had he foreseen what was to happen-- for he has legitimate descendants alive, he would have added a clause here, at the foot of the first page--do you see? The clause he would have added would have been very short--something like this, 'Provided that the aforesaid Don Leone Saracinesca shall have no son born to him in wedlock, in which case, and if such a son be born, this present deed is wholly null, void and ineffectual.' Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly," replied Meschini, with a strange look in his eyes. He again took the parchment and looked it over, mentally inserting the words suggested by his employer. "If those words were inserted, there could be no question about the view the tribunals would take. But there must be a duplicate of the deed at the Cancellaria."
"Perhaps. I leave that to your industry to discover. Meanwhile, I am sure you agree with me that a piece of horrible injustice has been caused by this document; a piece of injustice, I repeat, which it is our sacred duty to remedy and set right."
"You propose to me to introduce this clause, as I understand, in this document and in the original," said the librarian, as though he wished to be quite certain of the nature of the scheme.
Montevarchi turned his eyes away and slowly scratched the table with his long nails.
"I mean to say," he answered in a lower voice, "that if it could be made out in law that it was the intention of the person, of Don Leone--"
"Let us speak plainly," interrupted Meschini. "We are alone. It is of no use to mince matters here. The only away to accomplish what you desire is to forge the words in both parchments. The thing can be done, and I can do it. It will be successful, without a shadow of a doubt. But I must have my price. There must be no misunderstanding. I do not think much of your considerations of justice, but I will do what you require, for money."
"How much?" asked Montevarchi in a thick voice. His heart misgave him, for he had placed himself in the man's power, and Meschini's authoritative tone showed that the latter knew it, and meant to use his advantage.
"I will be moderate, for I am a poor man. You shall give me twenty thousand scudi in cash, on the day the verdict is given in favour of Don Giovanni Saracinesca, Marchese di San Giacinto. That is your friend's name, I believe."
Montevarchi started as the librarian named the sum, and he turned very pale, passing his bony hand upon the edge of the table.
"I would not have expected this of you!" he exclaimed.
"You have your choice," returned the other, bringing his yellow face nearer to his employer's and speaking very distinctly. "You know what it all means. Saracinesca, Sant' Ilario, and Barda to your son-in-law, besides all the rest, amounting perhaps to several millions. To me, who get you all this, a paltry twenty thousand. Or else--" he paused and his bright eyes seemed to penetrate into Montevarchi's soul. The latter's face exhibited a sudden terror, which Meschini understood.
"Or else?" said the prince. "Or else, I suppose you will try and intimidate me by threatening to expose what I have told you?"
"Not at all, Excellency," replied the old scholar with sudden humility. "If you do not care for the bargain let us leave it alone. I am only your faithful servant, Signor Principe. Do not suspect me of such ingratitude! I only say that if we undertake it, the plan will be successful. It is for you to decide. Millions or no millions, it is the same to me. I am but a poor student. But if I help to get them for you--or for your son-in-law--I must have what I asked. It is not one per cent--scarcely a broker's commission! And you will have so much. Not but what your Excellency deserves it all, and is the best judge."
"One per cent?" muttered Montevarchi. "Perhaps not more than half per cent. But is it safe?" he asked suddenly, his fears all at once asserting themselves with a force that bewildered him.
"Leave all that to me," answered Meschini confidently. "The insertion shall be made, unknown to any one, in this parchment and in the one in the Chancery. The documents shall be returned to their places with no observation, and a month or two later the Marchese di San Giacinto can institute proceedings for the recovery of his birthright. I would only advise you not to mention the matter to him. It is essential that he should be quite innocent in order that the tribunal may suspect nothing. You and I, Signor Principe, can stay at home while the case is proceeding. We shall not even see the Signor Marchese's lawyers, for what have we to do with it all? But the Signor Marchese himself must be really free from all blame, or he will show a weak point. Now, when all is ready, he should go to the Cancellaria and examine the papers there for himself. He himself will suspect nothing. He will be agreeably surprised."
"And how long will it take you to do the--the work?" asked Montevarchi in hesitating tones.
"Let me see," Meschini began to make a calculation under his breath. "Ink, two days--preparing parchment for experiments, a week--writing, twice over, two days--giving age, drying and rubbing, three days, at least. Two, nine, eleven, fourteen. A fortnight," he said aloud. "I cannot do it in less time than that. If the copy in the Chancery is by another hand it will take longer."
"But how can you work at the Chancery?" asked the prince, as though a new objection had presented itself.
"Have no fear, Excellency. I will manage it so that no one shall find it out. Two visits will suffice. Shall I begin at once? Is it agreed?"
Montevarchi was silent for several minutes, and his hands moved uneasily.
"Begin at once," he said at last, as though forcing himself to make a determination. He rose to go as he spoke.
"Twenty thousand scudi on the day the verdict is given in favour of the Signor Marchese. Is that it?"
"Yes, yes. That is it. I leave it all to you."
"I will serve your Excellency faithfully, never fear."
"Do, Meschini. Yes. Be faithful as you have always been. Remember, I am not avaricious. It is in the cause of sound justice that I stoop to assume the appearance of dishonesty. Can a man do more? Can one go farther than to lose one's self-esteem by appearing to transgress the laws of honour in order to accomplish a good object; for the sake of restoring the birthright to the fatherless and the portion to the widow, or indeed to the widower, in this case? No, my dear friend. The means are more than justified by the
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