The Coasts Of Chance: Evening at the Black Bull can be found in




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In talking with H. Bedford Jones, that well-known reincarnation of Alexandre Dumas, Sr., about doing some work for GOLDEN FLEECE, he made the remark that "many a noble barque, in history, has gone to wreck on the coasts of chance." We caught at the phrase. "There," an exclaimed, "is the subject for a series! Little known historical dramas, great dreams, crafty plots, where some unforeseen pebble stubbed the toe of history!" Maybe our metaphors were mixed, but Mr. Bodford-Jones got the idea, an proved by this, his final story of the series to come—

EVENING AT THE BLACK BULL

MY FRIEND HEBERLEIN comes into my office and calmly settles down and raises hob with my business in a most annoying manner. I can't resist him; no one ran resist him. He has a hypnotic charm that amounts to genius. If he says: "Stop!" the clock on the desk ceases work—he's that kind. When he came in yesterday, I saw at a glance that he was all lit up; not with liquor but with a new idea. He pulled up a chair, fastened his black and glittering eye upon me, and let me have both barrels.

"Harry, I've been looking into history. I'm making a collection of what's positively the most fascinating line of stories you ever heard! You know, a lot of queer things happened that don't get into the history books; odd, trifling matters that changed the course of human events, in a greater or lesser degree. Who knows that, if a man hadn't stopped to shave, Bonaparte would have gone to the guillotine? It's a fact."

"Tell it to the marines," I said crossly. "Here I've got a pile of work——"

"Well, listen!" he said, and with a groan of resignation I listened. "What I've got on my mind right now, is rich stuff. In the middle of the seventeenth century, when Cromwell ruled in England and Mazarin in France, a piddling little unknown robber baron over in Italy changed the whole course of the world's commerce and even history; and it all happened because a scoundrelly Frenchman couldn't keep his hands off a gal! Can you heat that!"

"I don't believe it," was my weak response. Haberlein leaned forward.

"I'll prove it to you. Leghorn, at that time, was one of the greatest free ports in the world, the greatest center of commerce in the Mediterranean; even the Moslem merchants could come there unmolested. The English, however, had settled Leghorn heavily and were in practical control of commerce there. Leghorn was in the territory of Tuscany, ruled by the Grand Duke, one of the last of the old Medici family. Got it?"

I nodded. He shoved aside my papers, spread himself on the desk, and pitched in.

"That's just the background. France hated and feared England; the war for all the commerce of the east was on, but it remained underground. With that in mind, I want you to look at the Italian coast, at the highway north of Leghorn and Florence. I want to make you see the man who was whipping his horse along, riding hell for leather, in a late afternoon. He was only a short distance outside the town of Corthia, for which he was making—"

The magic of that voice persuaded me, moved me. haunted me. The yellow spurting dust of the road, the chestnut trees, the sharp Italian hills, uprose before me. And the man, who with whip and spur urged his lathered, wheezing horse along the curving road.

A little man, ferret-nosed, with very wide shoulders and very long arms, and in his sharp features a peculiar deadly expression. At an inbend of the road, the Tavern of the Black Bull suddenly appeared, and a sigh of relief escaped him.

It was a pleasant inn, to anyone who knew not its evil name, with high oak trees shading the courtyard from the hot Italian sun. A structure half of outward stone, half built into the steep hillside.

The staggering horse cluttered to a halt in the courtyard, the rider slid down. No grooms came forth; no one was in sight save the innkeeper, a burly man who stood in the entrance and emitted a cheery but wary word of greeting.

"Welcome, Ser Nicolo! Whether pursuing or pursued, you've come no the right place! Are you followed?"

"No, blast you! Do I have to be a fugitive because I'm riding hard?" The little man not so little now the the stood on his feet, stumbled stiffly across the stones. "A fresh horse, quickly! I must reach Duke Raymond of Corthia at once!"

"You'll do that without killing another horse." "The duke will be here at any moment; he's overdue now. He's riding out from town on business."

"The usual business, eh? Good!" Ser Nicolo clapped the other on the shoulder. "Inside! You're going to have business and plenty of it, in another hour or less."

In the vast, gloomy ordinary of that sinister inn, Ser Nicolo settled himself comfortably at a table, opposite the innkeeper.

"What news?" the latter demanded. Ser Nicolo gulped down his wine and grunted.

"For Raymond, not for you."

"Careful, Ser Nicolo!" said the burly man. "You may be the most famous spadassin in Italy, your stiletto the highest priced and surest but after all, you're a hired bravo. This is Duke Raymond's tavern, and I'm in his confidence."

Ser Nieolo grinned faintly. "True. News? Well, Cromwell rules in England, Mazarin rules France for the boy Louis, and Raymond rules in Corthia. A fine weapon, a fine gem, a fine woman—Raymond welcomes any of the three. I bring him jewels and a woman—the daughter of a Genoese merchant and her lover, a puling Frenchman. They'll be here in an hour. Enough said?"

"Enough, aye! Hello, here's Francesco now; his job must be finished."

SOMEWHERE in the cavernous recesses of the place, whose immense oak beams were black with age and smoke, a massive door creaked open. A low, shuddering sound echoed faintly; the groans of a man in mortal agony. A swaggering figure came forward to the table, a stout fellow whose bare forearms and leathern apron were splashed with ominous crimson; he flung down a folded parchment.

"There it is, signed and sealed and witnessed," he said. The innkeeper took it.

"A good thing for you Raymond is late! You've been slow."

"I had to string up the stubborn devil three times and then go to work on him with hot pincers," said Francesco. "But he gave in at last. He can still walk."

"Give him a horse and turn him loose. Then tell Maria to prepare the big upper chamber; guests are coming. Is the meal ready for Duke Raymond?"

"Aye. And speak of the devil—there he is!"

A clatter of hooves from the courtyard, a ringing, impetuous voice; the host went rushing out, grooms appeared from nowhere, and the Black Bull took on life. Ser Nicolo gulped hastily at his wine and stood up to meet the man he served.

Raymond of Corthia strode in, bidding his half-dozen guards make themselves scarce in the kitchens. He took the parchment, glanced at it, and tucked it away with a nod. He looked at Ser Nicolo, and came eagerly to him, like a hawk pouncing.

"What's this? You, Nicolo? Corpo di Baccho! I thought you were in Genoa!"

Ser Nicolo bowed; greatest assassin in Italy he might be, but to Raymond of Corthia he was mightily respectful, and with reason.

Ruler of a tiny hill-estate that was no more than a town, with a few square miles outside...

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