By REX BEACH
Author of "The Spoilers," "The Barrier," "The Silver Horde," Etc.
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS BY WALTER TITTLE
I. THE TRAIN FROM PALERMO
II. A CONFESSION AND A PROMISE
III. THE GOLDEN GIRL
IV. THE FEAST AT TERRANOVA
V. WHAT WAITED AT THE ROADSIDE
VI. A NEW RESOLVE
VII. THE SEARCH BEGINS
VIII. OLD TRAILS
IX. "ONE WHO KNOWS"
X. MYRA NELL WARREN
XI. THE KIDNAPPING
XII. LA MAFIA XIII. THE BLOOD OF HIS ANCESTORS
XIV. THE NET TIGHTENS
XV. THE END OF THE QUEST
XVII. AN OBLIGATION IS MET
XVIII. BELISARIO CARDI
XX. THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS
XXI. UNDER FIRE
XXII. A MISUNDERSTANDING
XXIII. THE TRIAL AND THE VERDICT
XXIV. AT THE FEET OF THE STATUE
XXV. THE APPEAL
XXVI. AT THE DUSK
"I DO NOT KNOW WHY I HAVE SUMMONED YOU,' SHE SAID Frontispiece
"SILENZIO!" HE GROWLED, "I PLAY MY OWN GAME, AND I LOSE"
HE WRESTLED FOR POSSESSION OF THE GUN
"P-PLEASE DON'T KILL YOURSELF, DEAR? I COULDN'T HELP IT"
THE TRAIN FROM PALERMO
The train from Palermo was late. Already long, shadowy fingers were reaching down the valleys across which the railroad track meandered. Far to the left, out of an opalescent sea, rose the fairy-like Lipari Islands, and in the farthest distance Stromboli lifted its smoking cone above the horizon. On the landward side of the train, as it reeled and squealed along its tortuous course, were gray and gold Sicilian villages perched high against the hills or drowsing among fields of artichoke and sumac and prickly pear.
To one familiar with modern Sicilian railway trains the journey eastward from Palermo promises no considerable discomfort, but twenty-five years ago it was not to be lightly undertaken—not to be undertaken at all, in fact, without an unusual equipment of patience and a resignation entirely lacking in the average Anglo-Saxon. It was not surprising, therefore, that Norvin Blake, as the hours dragged along, should remark less and less upon the beauties of the island and more and more upon the medieval condition of the rickety railroad coach in which he was shaken and buffeted about. He shifted himself to an easier position upon the seat and lighted a cheroot; for although this was his first glimpse of Sicily, he had watched the same villages come and go all through a long, hot afternoon, had seen the same groves of orange and lemon and dust-green olive-trees, the same fields of Barbary figs, the same rose-grown garden spots, until he was heartily tired of them all. He felt at liberty to smoke, for the only other occupant of the compartment was a young priest in flowing mantle and silk beaver hat.
Finding that Blake spoke Italian remarkably well for a foreigner, the priest had shown an earnest desire for closer acquaintance and now plied him eagerly with questions, hanging upon his answers with a childlike intensity of gaze which at first had been amusing.
"And so the Signore has traveled all the way from Paris to attend the wedding at Terranova. Veramente! That is a great journey. Many wonderful adventures befell you, perhaps. Eh?" The priest's little eyes gleamed from his full cheeks, and he edged forward until his knees crowded Blake's. It was evident that he anticipated a thrilling tale and did not intend to be disappointed.
"It was very tiresome, that's all, and the beggars at Naples nearly tore me asunder."
"Incredible! You will tell me about it?"
"There's nothing to tell. These European trains cannot compare with ours."
Evidently discouraged at this lack of response, the questioner tried a new line of approach.
"The Signore is perhaps related to our young Conte?" he suggested. "And yet that can scarcely be, for you are Inglese—"
"Martel and I are close friends, however. We met in Paris. We are almost like brothers."
"Truly! I have heard that he spends much time studying to be a great painter. It is very strange, but many of our rich people leave Sicily to reside elsewhere. As for me, I cannot understand it."
"Martel left when his father was killed. He says this country is behind the times, and he prefers to be out in the world where there is life and where things progress."
But the priest showed by a blank stare that he did not begin to grasp the meaning of this statement. He shook his head. "He was always a wild lad. Now as to the Signorina Ginini, who is to be his beautiful Contessa, she loves Sicily. She has spent most of her life here among us."
With a flash of interest Blake inquired: "What is she like? Martel has spoken of her a great many times, but one can't place much dependence on a lover's description."
"Bellissima!" the priest sighed, and rolled his eyes eloquently. "You have never seen anything like her, I assure you. She is altogether too beautiful. If I had my way all the beautiful women would be placed in a convent where no man could see them. Then there would be no fighting and no flirting, and the plain women could secure husbands. Beautiful women are dangerous. She is rich, too."
"Of course! That's what Martel says, and that is exactly the way he says it. But describe her."
"Oh, I have never seen her! I merely know that she is very rich and very beautiful." He went off into a number of rapturous "issimas!" "Now as for the Conte, I know him like a book. I know his every thought."
"But Martel has been abroad for ten years, and he has only returned within a month."
"To be sure, but I come from the village this side of San Sebastiano, and my second cousin Ricardo is his uomo d'affare—his overseer. It is a very great position of trust which Ricardo occupies, for I must tell you that he attends to the leasing of the entire estate during the Conte's absence in France, or wherever it is he draws those marvelous pictures. Ricardo collects the rents." With true Sicilian naivete the priest added: "He is growing rich! Beato lui! He for one will not need to go to your golden America. Is it true, Signore, that in America any one who wishes may be rich?"
"Quite true," smiled the young man. "Even our beggars are rich."
The priest wagged his head knowingly. "My mother's cousin, Alfio Amato, he is an American. You know him?"
"I'm afraid not."
"But surely—he has been in America these five years. A tall, dark fellow with fine teeth. Think! He is such a liar any one would remember him. Ebbene! He wrote that there were poor people in America as here, but we knew him too well to believe him."
"I suppose every one knows about the marriage?"
"Oh, indeed! It will unite two old families—two rich families. You know the Savigni are rich also. Even before the children were left as orphans it was settled that they should be married. What a great fortune that will make for Ricardo to oversee! Then, perhaps, he will be more generous to his own people. He is a hard man in money matters, and a man of action also; he does not allow flies to sit upon his nose. He sent his own daughter Lucrezia to Terranova when the Contessa was still a child, and what is the result? Lucrezia is no longer a servant. Indeed no, she is more like a sister to the Signorina. At the marriage no doubt she will receive a fine present, and Ricardo as well. He is as silent as a Mafioso, but he thinks."
Young Blake stretched his tired muscles, yawning.
"I'm sorry Martel couldn't marry in France; this has been a tedious trip."
"It was the Contessa's wish, then, to be wed in Sicily?"
"I believe she insisted. And Martel agreed that it was the proper thing to do, since they are both Sicilians. He was determined also that I should be present to share his joy, and so here I am. Between you and me, I envy him his lot so much that it almost spoils for me the pleasure of this unique journey."
"You are an original!" murmured the priest, admiringly, but it was evident that his thirst for knowledge of the outside world was not to be so easily quenched, for he began to question his traveling companion closely regarding America, Paris, the journey thence, the ship which bore him to Palermo, and a dozen other subjects upon which his active mind preyed. He was full of the gossip of the countryside, moreover, and Norvin learned much of interest about Sicily and the disposition of her people. One phenomenon to which the good man referred with the extremest wonder was Blake's intimacy with a Sicilian nobleman. How an American signore had become such a close friend of the illustrious Conte, who was almost a stranger, even to his own people, seemed very puzzling indeed, until Norvin explained that they had been together almost constantly during the past three years.
"We met quite by chance, but we quickly became friends—what in my country we call chums—and we have been inseparable ever since."
"And you, then, are also a great artist?"
Blake laughed at the indirect compliment to his friend.
"I am not an artist at all. I have been exiled to Europe for three years, upon my mother's orders. She has her own ideas regarding a man's education and wishes me to acquire a Continental polish. My ability to tell you all this shows that I have at least made progress with the languages, although I have doubts about the practical value of anything else I have learned. Martel has taught me Italian; I have taught him English. We use both, and sometimes we understand each other. My three years are up now, and once I have seen my good friend safely married I shall return to America and begin the serious business of life."
"You are then in business? My mother's cousin, Alfio Amato, is likewise a business man. He deals in fruit. Beware of him, for he would sell you rotten oranges and swear by the saints that they were excellent."
"Like Martel, I have land which I lease. I am, or I will be, a cotton-planter."
This opened a new field of inquiry for the priest, who was making the most of it when the train drew into a station and was stormed by a horde of chattering country folk. The platform swarmed with vividly dressed women, most of whom carried bundles wrapped up in variegated handkerchiefs, and all of whom were tremendously excited at the prospect of travel. Lean-visaged, swarthy men peered forth from the folds of shawls or from beneath shapeless caps of many colors; a pair of carabinieri idled past, a soldier in jaunty feathered hat posed before the contadini. Dogs, donkeys, fowls added their clamor to the high-pitched voices.
Twilight had settled and lights were kindling in the village, while the heights above were growing black against a rose-pink and mother-of-pearl sky. The air was cool and fragrant with the odor of growing things and the open sea glowed with a subdued, pulsating fire.
The capo stazione rushed madly back and forth striving by voice and gesture to hasten the movements of his passengers.
"Partenza! Pronto!" he cried, then blew furiously upon his bugle.
After a series of shudders and convulsions the train began to hiss and clank and finally crept on into the twilight, while the priest sat knee to knee with his companion and resumed his endless questioning.
It was considerably after dark when Norvin Blake alighted at San Sebastiano, to be greeted effusively by a young man of about his own age who came charging through the gloom and embraced him with a great hug.
"So! At last you come!" Savigno cried. "I have been here these three hours eating my heart out, and every time I inquired of that head of a cabbage in yonder he said, 'Pazienza! The world was not made in a day!'
"'But when? When?' I kept repeating, and he could only assure me that your train was approaching with the speed of the wind. The saints in heaven—even the superintendent of the railway himself—could not tell the exact hour of its arrival, which, it seems, is never twice the same. And now, yourself? You are well?"
"Never better. And you? But there is no need to ask. You look disgustingly contented. One would think you were already married."
Martel Savigno showed a row of even, white teeth beneath his military mustache and clapped his friend affectionately on the back.
"It is good to be among my own people. I find, after all, that I am a Sicilian. But let me tell you, that train is not always late. Once, seven years ago, it arrived upon the moment. There were no passengers at the station to meet it, however, so it was forced to wait, and now, in order to keep our good-will it always arrives thus."
The Count was a well-set-up youth of an alert and active type, tall, dark, and vivacious, with a skin as smooth as a girl's. He had an impulsive, energetic nature that seldom left him in repose, and hence the contrast between the two men was marked, for Blake was of a more serious cast of features and possessed a decidedly Anglo-Saxon reserve. He was much the heavier in build, also, which detracted from his height and robbed him of that elegance which distinguished the young Sicilian. Yet the two made a fine-looking pair as they stood face to face in the yellow glare of the station lights.
"What the deuce made me agree to this trip, I don't know," the American declared. "It was vile. I've been carsick, seasick, homesick—"
"And all for poor, lovesick Martel!" The Count laughed. "Ah, but if you knew how glad I am to see you!"
"Really? Then that squares it." Blake spoke with that indefinable undernote which creeps into men's voices when friend meets friend. "I've been lost without you, too. I was quite ashamed of myself."
The Count turned to a middle-aged man who had remained in the shadows, saying: "This is Ricardo Ferara, my good right hand, of whom you have heard me speak." The overseer raised his hat, and Blake took his hand, catching a glimpse of a grizzled face and a stiff mop of iron-gray hair. "You will see to Signore Blake's baggage, Ricardo. Michele! Ippolito!" the Count called. "The carretta, quickly! And now, caro Norvin, for the last leg of your journey. Will you ride in the cart or on horseback? It is not far, but the roads are steep."
"Horseback, by all means. My muscles need exercise."
The young men mounted a pair of compact Sicilian horses, which were held by still another man in the street behind the depot, and set off up the winding road which climbed to the village above. Blake regretted the lateness of the hour, which prevented him from gaining an adequate idea of his surroundings. He could see, however, that they were picturesque, for San Sebastiano lay in a tiny step hewed out of the mountain-side and was crowded into one street overlooking the railway far below and commanding a view of the sea toward the Calabrian coast. As the riders clattered through the poorly lighted village, Blake saw the customary low-roofed houses, the usual squalid side-streets, more like steep lanes than thoroughfares, and heard the townspeople pronouncing the name of the Count of Martinello, while the ever-present horde of urchins fled from their path. A beggar appeared beside his stirrup, crying, "I die of hunger, your worship." But the fellow ran with surprising vigor and manifested a degree of endurance quite unexampled in a starving man. A glimpse of these, and then the lights were left behind and they were moving swiftly upward and into the mountains, skirting walls of stone over which was wafted the perfume of many flowers, passing fragrant groves of orange and lemon trees, and less fragrant cottages, the contents of which were bared to their eyes with utter lack of modesty. They disturbed herds of drowsy cattle and goats lying at the roadside, and all the time they continued to climb, until their horses heaved and panted.
The American's impressions of this entire journey, from the time of his leaving Paris up to the present moment, had been hurried and unreal, for he had made close connections at Rome, at Naples, and at Palermo. Having the leisurely deliberateness of the American Southerner, he disliked haste and confusion above all things. He had an intense desire, therefore, to come to anchor and to adjust himself to his surroundings.
As Martel chattered along, telling of his many doings, Blake noted that Ricardo and the man who had held the horses were following closely. Then, as the cavalcade paused at length to breathe their mounts, he saw that both men carried rifles.
"Why! We look like an American sheriff's posse, Martel," said he. "Do all Sicilian bridegrooms travel with an armed escort?"
Savigno showed a trace of hesitation. "The nights are dark; the country is wild."
"But, my dear boy, this country is surely old enough to be safe. Why, Sicily was civilized long before my country was even heard of. All sorts of ancient gods and heroes used to live here, I am told, and I supposed Diana had killed all the game long ago."
He laughed, but Savigno did not join him, and a moment later they were under way again.
After a brief gallop they drew up at a big, dark house, hidden among the deeper shadows of many trees, and in answer to Martel's shout a wide door was flung back; then by the light which streamed forth from it they dismounted and made their way up a flight of stone steps. Once inside, Savigno exclaimed:
"Welcome to my birthplace! A thousand welcomes!" Seizing Norvin by the shoulders, he whirled him about. "Let me see you once. Ah! I am glad you made this sacrifice for me, for I need you above all men." His eyes, though bright with affection, were grave—something unusual in him—and the other inquired, quickly:
"There's nothing wrong, I hope?"
Savigno tossed his head and smiled.
"Wrong! What could be wrong with me now that you are here? No! All is quite right, but I have been accursed with lonesomeness. Something was lacking, It was you, caro mio. Now, however, I am the most contented of mortals. But you must be famished, so I will show you to your room at once. Francesca has provided a feast for us, I assure you."
"Give me a moment to look around. So this is the castello? Jove! It's ripping!"
Blake found himself in a great hall similar to many he had seen in his European wanderings, but ruder and older by far. He judged the castello to be of Norman build, but remodeled to suit the taste of the Savigni. To the right, through an open door, he saw a large room where a fat Sicilian woman was laying the table; to the left was a drawing-room lighted only by a fire of fagots in a huge, black fireplace, the furniture showing curiously distorted in the long shadows. Other rooms opened towards the rear, and he realized that the old place was very large. It was unkempt also, and showed the lack of a woman's hand.
"You exaggerate!" said Savigno. "After Paris the castello will seem very mean. We Siciliani do not live in grand style, and, besides, I have spent practically no time here, since my father (may the saints receive him) left me free to wander. The place has been closed; the old servants have gone; it is dilapidated."
"On the contrary, it's just the sort of place it should be—venerable and overflowing with romance. You must rule like a medieval baron. Why, you could sell this woodwork to some millionaire countryman of mine for enough to realize a fortune."
"Per Dio! If taxes are not reduced I shall be forced to some such expedient," the Count laughed. "It was my mother's home, it is my birthplace, so I love it—even though I neglect it. As you perceive, it is high time I took a wife. But enough! If you are lacking in appetite, I am not, and Francesca is an unbearable tyrant when her meals grow cold."
He led his friend up the wide stairs and left him to prepare for supper.
"And so this ends it all," said Blake, as the two young men lounged in the big, empty drawing-room later that evening. They had dined and gossiped as only friends of their age can gossip, had relived their adventures of the past three years, and still were loath to part, even for sleep.
"How so?" queried Savigno. "You speak of marriage as if it were dissolution."
"It might as well be, so far as the other fellow is concerned."
"Nonsense! I shall not change."
"Oh, yes, you will! Besides, I am returning to America."
"Even so, we are rich; we shall travel; we shall meet frequently. You will come to Sicily. Perhaps the Contessa and I may even go to America. Friendship such as ours laughs at the leagues."
But Blake was pessimistic. "Perhaps she won't like me."
Martel laughed at this.
"Impossible! She is a woman, she has eyes, she will see you as I see you. More than that, I have told her that she must love you."
"Then that does settle it! You have hung the crepe on our future intimacy, for good and all. She will instruct your cook to put a spider in my dumpling or to do away with me by some characteristic Sicilian method."
Martel seemed puzzled by the Americanism of this speech, but Norvin merely smiled and changed to Italian.
"Do you really love her?" he asked.
"Of course! Since I was a boy so high I have known we would marry. She adores me, she is young, she is beautiful, she is—rich!"
"In Heaven's name don't use that tone in speaking of her wealth. You make me doubt you."
"No, no!" The Count smiled. "It would be the same if she were a peasant girl. We shall be so happy—oh, there is no expressing how happy we intend being."
"I've no doubt. And that makes it quite certain to end our comradeship."
"You croak like a raven!" declared the Sicilian. "What has soured you?"
"Nothing. I am a wise young man, that's all. You see, happiness is all-sufficient; it needs nothing to complete itself. It is a wall beyond which the owner does not care to wander, so, when you are quite happy with the new Countess, you will forget your friends of unmarried days."
"Would you then have me unhappily married?"
"By no means. I am full of regrets at losing you, nothing more."
"It is plain, then, that you also must marry. Is there no admirable American lady?"
"Any quantity of them, but I don't care much for women except in an impersonal sort of way, or perhaps I don't attract them. I might enjoy falling in love if it were not such a tedious process."
"It is not necessarily tedious. One may love with the suddenness of an explosion. I have done so, many times."
"I know you have, but you are a Sicilian; we go about such things in a dignified and respectable manner. Love is a serious matter with us. We don't explode."
"Yes. When you love, you marry; and you marry in the same way you buy a farm. But we have blood in our veins and lime in our bones. I have loved many women to distraction; there is only one whom I would marry."
Ricardo entered at the moment, and the Count arose with a word of apology to his guest. He spoke earnestly with his overseer, but, as they were separated from him by the full width of the great room, Blake overheard no more than a word now and then. They were speaking in the Sicilian dialect, moreover, which was unfamiliar to him, yet he caught the mention of Ippolito, one of the men who had met him at the station, also of an orange-grove, and the word "Mafioso." Then he heard Martel say:
"The shells for the new rifle—Ippolito is a bad shot—take plenty."
When Ricardo had gone and the Count had returned to his seat, Norvin fancied he detected once more that grave look he had surprised in his friend's countenance upon their arrival at the castello.
"What were you telling Ricardo about rifles and cartridges?" he inquired.
"Eh? It was nothing. We are forced to guard our oranges; there are thieves about. I have been too long away from Martinello."
Later, as Norvin Blake composed himself to sleep he wondered idly if Martel had told him the whole truth. He recalled again the faint, grave lines that had gathered about the Count's eyes, where there had never been aught but wrinkles of merriment, and he recalled also that word "Mafioso." It conjured memories of certain tales he had heard of Sicilian outlawry and brigandage, and of that evil, shadowy society of "Friends" which he understood dominated this island. There was a story about the old Count's death also, but Martel had never told him much. Norvin tried to remember what it was, but sleep was heavy upon him and he soon gave up.
A CONFESSION AND A PROMISE
Norvin Blake slept soundly, as befitted a healthy young man with less than the usual number of cares upon his mind, and, notwithstanding the fact that he had retired at a late hour, somewhat worn by his journey, he awoke earlier than usual. Still lacking an adequate idea of his surroundings, he arose and, flinging back the blinds of his window, looked out upon a scene which set him to dressing eagerly.
The big front door of the hall below was barred when he came down, and only yielded to his efforts with a clanging which would have awakened any one except Martel, letting him out upon a well-kept terrace beneath which the hills fell away in majestic sweeps and curves to the coast-line far beneath.
It was a true Sicilian morning, filled with a dazzling glory of color, and although it was not early, from a countryman's point of view, the dewy freshness had not entirely faded, and rosy tints still lingered in the valleys and against the Calabrian coast in the distance. An odor of myrtle and jessamine came from a garden beneath the outer terrace wall, and on either side of the manor rose wooded hills the lower slopes of which were laid out in vineyards and groves of citrus fruits.
Having in full measure the normal man's unaffected appreciation of nature, Blake found himself wondering how Martel could ever leave this spot for the artificialities of Paris. The Count was amply able to live where he chose, and it was no love for art which had kept him in France these many years. On the contrary, they had both recognized the mediocrity of his talent and had often joked about it. It was perhaps no more than a youthful restlessness and craving for excitement, he concluded.
Knowing that his luxurious host would not be stirring for another hour, he set out to explore the place at his leisure, and in time came around to the stables and outhouses. It is not the front of any residence which shows its real character, any more than a woman's true nature is displayed by her Sunday attire. Norvin made friends with a surly, stiff-haired dog, then with a patriarchal old goat which he found grazing atop a wall, and at last he encountered Francesca bearing a bundle of fagots upon her head.
She was in a bad temper, it appeared, for in answer to his cheerful greeting she began to revile the names of Ippolito and Michele.
"Lazy pigs!" she cried, fiercely. "Is it not sufficient that old Francesca should bare her bones and become a shadow with the cares of the household? Is it not sufficient that she performs the labor of twenty in caring for the padrone? No! Is it not the devil's task to prepare the many outlandish delicacies he learned to eat in his travels? Yes! Ha! What of that! She must also perform the duties of an ass and bear wood for the fires! And what, think you, those two young giants are doing all the day? Sleeping, Si'or! Up all night, asleep all day! A fine business. And Francesca with a broken back!"
"I'll carry your wood," he offered, at which the mountainous old woman stared at him as if she did not in the least comprehend his words. Although her burden was enough to tax a man's strength, she balanced it easily upon her head and made no move to go.
"And the others! May they all be blinded—Attilio, Gaspare, Roberto! The hangman will get them, surely. Briganti, indeed!" She snorted like a horse. "May Belisario Cardi roast them over these very fagots." Slowly she moved her head from side to side while the bundle swayed precariously. "It is a bad business, Si'or. The padrone is mad to resist. You may tell him he is quite mad. Mark me, Ricardo knows that no good will come of it, but he is like a bull when he is angry. He lowers his head and sees blood. Veramente, it is a bad business and we shall all lose our ears." She moved off majestically, her eyes rolling in her fat cheeks, her lips moving; leaving the American to speculate as to what her evil prediction had to do with Ippolito and the firewood.
He was still smiling at her anger when Ippolito himself, astride a horse, came clattering into the courtyard and dismounted stiffly, giving him a good morning with a wide yawn.
"Corpo di Baccho!" exclaimed the rider. "I shall sleep for a century." He stretched luxuriously and, unslinging a gun from his shoulder, leaned it against the wall. Blake was surprised to find it a late model of an American repeating rifle. "Francesca!" he called loudly. "Madonna mia, I am famished!"
"Francesca was here a moment ago," Norvin volunteered. "In a frightful temper, too."
"Just so! It was the wood, I presume." He scowled. "One cannot be in ten places unless he is in ten pieces. I am glad to be here, and not here and there."
"Well, she wants you roasted by some fellow named Cardi—"
"Eh? What?" Ippolito started, jerking the horse's head by the bridle rein, through which he had thrust his arm. "What is this?"
"Belisario Cardi, I believe she said. I don't know him."
The Sicilian muttered an oath and disappeared into the stable; he was still scowling when he emerged.
Prompted by a feeling that he was close to something mysterious, Blake tried to sound the fellow.
"You are abroad early," he suggested.
But Ippolito seemed in no mood for conversation, and merely replied:
"Si, Signore, quite early."
He was a lean, swarthy youth, square-jawed and well put up. Although his clothes were poor, he wore them with a certain grace and moved like a man who is sure of himself.
"Did you see any robbers?"
"Robbers?" Ippolito's look was one of quick suspicion. "Who has ever seen a robber?"
"Come, come! I heard the Count and Ricardo talking. You have been away, among the orange-groves, all night. Am I right?"
"You are right."
"Tell me, is it common thieves or outlaws whom you watch? I have heard about your brigands."
"Ippolito!" came the harsh voice of Ricardo, who at that moment appeared around the corner of the stable. "In the kitchen you will find food."
Ippolito bowed to the American and departed, his rifle beneath his arm.
Blake turned his attention to the overseer, for his mind, once filled with an idea, was not easily satisfied. But Ricardo would give him no information. He raised his bushy, gray eyebrows at the American's question.
"Brigands? Ippolito is a great liar."
Seeing the angry sparkle in the old fellow's eyes, Norvin hastened to say:
"He told me nothing, I assure you."
"Thieves, yes! We have ladri here, as elsewhere. Sometimes it is well to take precautions."
"But Francesca was quite excited, and I heard you and Martel mention La Mafia last night," Blake persisted. "I see you all go armed. I am naturally curious. I thought you might be in trouble with the society."
"Children's tales!" said Ricardo, gruffly. "There is no society of La Mafia."
"Oh, see here! We have it even in my own country. The New Orleans papers have been full of stories about the Mala Vita, the Mafia, or whatever you choose to call it. There is a big Italian population there, you know, and they are causing our police a great deal of worry. I live in Louisiana, so I ought to know. We understand it's an offshoot of the Sicilian Mafia."
"In Naples I hear there is a Camorra. But this is Sicily. We have no societies."
"Nevertheless, I heard you say something about 'Mafioso' last night," Blake insisted.
"Perhaps," grudgingly admitted the overseer. "But La Mafia is not a man, not a society, as you say. It is—" He made a wide gesture. "It is all Sicily. You do not understand."
"No, I do not."
"Very well. One does not speak of it. Would the Signore care to see the horses?"
"Thank you, yes."
The two went into the stables together, and Blake for the time gave up the hope of learning anything further about Sicilian brigandage. Nor did Martel show any willingness to enlighten him when he tentatively introduced the subject at breakfast, but laughingly turned the conversation into another channel.
"To-day you shall see the star of my life," he declared. "Be prepared to worship as all men do."
"And promise you will not fall in love."
"Is that why you discouraged my coming until a week before your wedding? Really, if she is all you claim, we might have been such delightful enemies."
"Enemies are never that," said the Count, gravely.
I know men in my country who cherish their enemies like friends. They seem to enjoy them tremendously, until one or the other has passed on to glory. Even then they are highly spoken of."
"I am impatient for you to see her. She, of course, has many preparations to make, for the wedding-day is almost here; but it is arranged that we are to dine there to-night with her and her aunt, the Donna Teresa. Ah, Norvin mine, seven days separate me from Paradise. You can judge of my ecstasy. The hours creep, the moments are leaden. Each night when I retire, I feel faithless in allowing sleep to rob my thoughts of her. When I awake it is with the consolation that more of those miserable hours have crept away. I am like a man insane."
"I am beginning to think you really are so."
"Diamine! Wait! You have not seen her. We are to be married by a bishop."
"No doubt that will insure your happiness."
"A marriage like this does not occur every day. It will be an event, I tell you."
"And you're sure I won't be in the way this evening?"
"No, no! It is arranged. She is waiting—expecting you. She knows you already. This morning, however, you will amuse yourself—will you not?—for I must ride down to San Sebastiano and meet the colonel of carabinieri from Messina."
"Certainly. Don't mind me."
Martel hesitated an instant, then explained:
"It is a matter of business. One of my farm-hands is in prison."
"Indeed! What for?"
"Oh, it is nothing. He killed a fellow last week."
"Jove! What a peaceful, pastoral place you have here! I arrive to be met by an armed guard, I hear talk of Mafiosi, men ride out at night with rifles, and old women predict unspeakable evil. What is all the mystery?"
"Nonsense! There is no mystery. Do you think I would drag you, my best friend, into danger?" Savigno's lips were smiling, but he awaited an answer with some restraint. "That would not be quite the—quite a nice thing to do, would it?"
"So, that's it! Now I know you have something on your mind. And it must be of considerable importance or you would have told me before this."
"You are right," the Count suddenly declared, "although I hoped you would not discover it. I might have known. But I suppose it is better to make a clean breast of it now. I have enemies, my friend, and I assure you I do not cherish them."
"The Countess Margherita is a famous beauty, eh? Well! It is not remarkable that you should have rivals."
"No, no. This has nothing to do with her, unless our approaching marriage has roused them to make a demonstration. Have you ever heard of—Belisario Cardi?"
"Not until this morning. Who is he?"
"I would give much to know. If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said he is an imaginary character, used to frighten people—a modern Fra Diavolo, a mere name with which to inspire terror—for nobody has ever seen him. Now, however, he seems real enough, and I learn that the carabinieri believe in his existence." Martel pushed back the breakfast dishes and, leaning his elbows upon the table, continued, after a pause: "To you Sicily is all beauty and peace and fragrance; she is old and therefore civilized, so you think. Everything you have seen so far is reasonably modern, eh?" He showed his white teeth as Blake assured him:
"It's the most peaceful, restful spot I ever saw."
"You see nothing but the surface. Sicily is much what she was in my grandfather's time. You have inquired about La Mafia. Well, there is such a thing. It killed my father. It forced me to give up my home and be an exile." At Norvin's exclamation of astonishment, he nodded." There's a long story behind it which you could not appreciate without knowing my father and the character of our Sicilian people, for, after all, Sicilian character constitutes La Mafia. It is no sect, no cult, no secret body of assassins, highwaymen, and robbers, as you foreigners imagine; it is a national hatred of authority, an individual expression of superiority to the law."
"In our own New Orleans we are beginning to talk of the Mafia, but with us it is a mysterious organization of Italian criminals. We treat it as somewhat of a joke."
"Be not so sure. Some day it may dominate your American cities as it does all Sicily."
"Still I don't understand. You say it is an organization and yet it is not; it terrorizes a whole island and yet you say it is no more than your national character. It must have a head, it must have arms."
"It has no head, or, rather, it has many heads. It is not a band. It is the Sicilian intolerance of restraint, the individual's sense of superiority to moral, social, and political law. It is the freemasonry that results from this common resistance to authority. It is an idea, not an institution; it is Sicily's curse and that which makes her impossible of government. I do not mean to deny that we have outlawry and brigandage; they are merely the most violent demonstrations of La Mafia. It afflicts the cities; it is a tyranny in the country districts. La Mafia taxes us with blackmail, it saddles us with a great force of carabinieri, it gives food and drink and life to men like Belisario Cardi. Every landholder, every man of property, contributes to its support. You still do not understand, but you will as I go along. As an instance of its workings, all fruit-growers hereabouts are obliged to maintain watchmen, in addition to their regular employees. Otherwise their groves will be robbed. These guards are Mafiosi. Let us say that one of us opposes this monopoly. What happens? He loses his crop in a night; his trees are cut down. Should he appeal to the law for protection, he is regarded as a weakling, a man of no spirit. This is but one small example of the workings of La Mafia; as a matter of fact, it permeates the political, the business, and the social life of the whole island. Knowing the impotence of the law to protect any one, peaceable citizens shield the criminals. They perjure themselves to acquit a Mafioso rather than testify against him and thus incur the certainty of some fearful vengeance. Should the farmer persist in his independence, something ends his life, as in my father's case. The whole country is terrorized by a conspiracy of a few bold and masterful men. It is unbearable. There are, of course, Capi-Mafia—leaders—whose commands are enforced, but there is no single well-organized society. It is a great interlocking system built upon patronage, friendship, and the peculiar Sicilian character."
"Now I think I begin to understand."
"My father was not strong enough to throw off the yoke and it meant his death. I was too young to take his place, but now that I am a man I intend to play a man's part, and I have served notice. It means a battle, but I shall win."
To Martel's hasty and very incomplete sketch of the hidden influences of Sicilian life Blake listened with the greatest interest, noting the grave determination that had settled upon his friend; yet he could scarcely bring himself to accept an explanation that seemed so far-fetched. The whole theory of the Mafia struck him as grotesque and theatrical.
"And one man has already been killed, you say?" he asked.
"Yes, I discharged all the watchmen whom I knew to be Mafiosi. It caused a commotion, I can tell you, and no little uneasiness among the country people, who love me even if, to them, I have been a more or less imaginary person since my father's death. Naturally they warned me to desist in this mad policy of independence. A week ago one of my campieri, Paolo—he who is now in prison—surprised a fellow hacking down my orange-trees and shot him. The miscreant proved to be a certain Galli, whom I had discharged. He left a family, I regret to say, but his reputation was bad. Notwithstanding all this, Paolo is still in prison despite my utmost efforts. The machinery of the Mafia is in motion, they will perjure witnesses, they will spend money in any quantity to convict my poor Paolo. Heaven knows what the result will be."
"And where does this bogey-man enter—this Belisario Cardi?"
"I have had a letter from him."
"It is in the hands of the carabinieri, hence this journey of my friend, Colonel Neri, from Messina."
"What did the letter say?"
"It demanded a great sum of money, with my life as the penalty for refusal. It was signed by Cardi; there was no mistaking the name. If it had been from Narcone, for instance, I would have paid no attention to it, for he is no more than a cattle-thief. But Belisario Cardi! My boy, you don't appreciate the significance of that name. I should not care to fall into his hands, I assure you, and have my feet roasted over a slow fire—"
"Good heavens!" Norvin cried, rising abruptly from his chair. "You don't really mean he's that sort?"
"As a matter of fact," the Count reassured his guest, "I don't believe in his existence at all. It is merely a name to be used upon occasion. But as for the punishment, that is perhaps the least I might expect if I were so unfortunate as to be captured."
"Why, this can't be! Do you realize that this is the year 1886? Such things are not possible any longer. In your father's time—yes."
"All things are possible in Sicily," smiled Savigno. "We are a century behind the times. But, caro mio, I did wrong to tell you—"
"I shall come to no harm, believe me. I am known to be young, rich, and my marriage is but a few days off. What more natural, therefore, than for some Mafioso to try to frighten me and profit by the dreaded name of Cardi? I am a stranger here in my own birthplace. When I become better known, there will be no more feeble attempts at blackmail. Other landholders have maintained their independence, and I shall do the same, for an enemy who fears to fight openly is a coward, and I am in the right."
"I am glad I came. I shall be glad, too, when you are married and safely off on your wedding journey."
"I feared to tell you all this lest you should think I had no right to bring you here at such a time—"
"Don't be an utter idiot, Martel."
"You are an American; you have your own way of looking at things. Of course, if anything should happen—if ill-fortune should overtake me before the marriage—"
"See here! If there is the slightest danger, the faintest possibility, you ought to go away, as you did before," Norvin declared, positively.
"I am no longer a child. I am to be married a week hence. Wild horses could not drag me away."
"You could postpone it—explain it to the Countess—"
"There is no necessity; there is no cause for alarm, even. All the same, I feel much easier with you here. Margherita has relatives, to be sure, but they are—well, I have no confidence in them. In the remote possibility that the worst should come, you could look out for her, and I am sure you would. Am I right?"
"Of course you are."
"And now let us think of something pleasanter. We won't talk of it any more, eh?"
"I'm perfectly willing to let it drop. You know I would do anything for you or yours, so we needn't discuss that point any further."
"Good!" Martel rose and with his customary display of affection flung an arm about his friend's shoulders. "And now Ricardo is waiting to go to San Sebastiano, so you must amuse yourself for an hour or two. I have had the billiard-table recovered, and the cushions are fairly good. You will find books in the library, perhaps a portfolio of my earlier drawings—"
"Billiards!" exclaimed the American, fervently, whereupon the Count laughed.
"Till I return, then, a riverderci!" He seized his hat and strode out of the room.
THE GOLDEN GIRL
Shortly after the heat of the day had begun to subside the two friends set out for Terranova. Ricardo accompanied them—it seemed he went everywhere with Martel—following at a distance which allowed the young men freedom to talk, his watchful eyes scanning the roadside as if even in the light of day he feared some lurking danger.
The prospect of seeing his fiancee acted like wine upon Savigno, and from his exuberant spirits it was evident that he had completely forgotten his serious talk at the breakfast table. His disposition was mercurial, and if he had ever known real forebodings they were forgotten now.
It was a splendid ride along a road which wound in serpentine twinings high above the sea, now breasting ridges bare of all save rock and spurge, and now dipping into valleys shaded by flowering trees and cloyed with the scent of blooms. It meandered past farms, in haphazard fashion, past vineyards and gardens and groves of mandarin, lime, and lemon, finally toiling up over a bold chestnut-studded shoulder of the range, where Blake drew in to enjoy the scene. A faint haze, impalpable as the memory of dreams, lay over the land, the sea was azure, the mountains faintly purple. A gleam of white far below showed Terranova, and when the American had voiced his appreciation the three horsemen plunged downward, leaving a rolling cloud of yellow dust behind them.
The road from here on led through a wild and somewhat forbidding country, broken by ravines and watercourses and quite densely wooded with thickets which swept upward into the interior as far as the eye could reach; but in the neighborhood of Terranova the land blossomed and flowered again as on the other side of the mountains.
Leaving the main road by a driveway, the three horsemen swung through spacious grounds and into a courtyard behind the house, where an old man came shuffling slowly forward, his wrinkled face puckered into a smile of welcome.
"Ha! Aliandro!" cried the Count. "What do I see? The rheumatism is gone at last, grazie Dio!"
Aliandro's loose lips parted over his toothless gums and he mumbled:
"Illustrissimo, the accursed affliction is worse."
"Impossible! Then why these capers? My dear Aliandro, you are shamming. Why, you came leaping like a goat."
"As God is my judge, carino, I can sleep only in the sun. It is like the tortures of the devil, and my bones creak like a gate."
"And yet each day I declare to myself: 'Aliandro, that rascal, is growing younger as the hours go by. It is well we are not rivals in love or I should be forced to hate him!'" The old man chuckled and beamed upon Savigno, who proceeded to make Norvin known.
Aliandro's face had once been long and pointed, but with the loss of teeth and the other mysterious shrinkages of time it had shortened until in repose the chin and the nose seemed to meet like the points of calipers. When he moved his jaws his whole countenance lengthened magically, as if made of some substance more elastic than flesh. It stretched and shortened rapidly now, in the most extraordinary fashion, for the Count had a knack of pleasing people.
"And where are the ladies?" Savigno inquired.
Aliandro cocked a watery eye at the heavens and replied:
"They will be upon the loggiato at this hour, Illustrissimo. The Donna Teresa will have a book." He squinted respectfully at a small note which Martel handed him, then inquired, "Do you wish change?"
"Not at all. It is yours for your courtesy."
"Grazie! Grazie! A million thanks." The old fellow made off with surprising agility.
"What a sham he is!" the Count laughed, as he and Norvin walked on around the house. "He will do no labor, and yet the Contessa supports him in idleness. There is a Mafioso for you! He has been a brigand, a robber. He is, to this day, as you see. Margherita has an army of such people who impose upon her. Every time I am here I tip him. Every time he receives it with the same words."
Although the country-seat of the Ginini was known as a castello, it was more in the nature of a comfortable and pretentious villa. It had dignity, however, and drowsed upon a commanding eminence fronted by a splendid terraced lawn which one beheld through clumps of flowering shrubs and well-tended trees. Here and there among the foliage gleamed statuary, and the musical purl of a fountain fell upon the ear.
As the young men mounted to the loggiato, or covered gallery, a delicate, white-haired Italian lady arose and came to meet them.
"Ah, Martel, my dear boy! We have been expecting you," she cried.
It was the Donna Teresa Fazello, and she turned a sweet face upon Mattel's friend, bidding him welcome to Terranova with charming courtesy. She was still exchanging with him the pleasantries customary upon first meetings when he heard the Count exclaim softly, and, looking up, saw him bowing low over a girl's hands. Her back was half turned toward Norvin, but although he had not seen her features clearly, he felt a great surprise. His preconceived notion of her had been all wrong; It seemed, for she was not dark—on the contrary, she was as tawny as a lioness. Her hair, of which there was an abundance, was not the ordinary Saxon yellow, but iridescent, as if burned by the fierce heat of a tropical sun. The neck and cheeks were likewise golden, or was it the light from her splendid crown?
He was still staring at her when she turned and came forward to give him her hand, thus allowing her full glory to flash upon him.
"Welcome!" she said, in a voice as low-pitched as a cello string, and her lover, watching eagerly for some sign from his friend, smiled delightedly at the emotion he saw leap up in Norvin's face. That young man was quite unconscious of Martel's espionage—unconscious of everything, in fact, save the splendid creature who stood smiling at him as if she had known him all her days. His first impression, that she was all golden, all gleaming, like a flame, did not leave him; for the same warm tints that were in her hair were likewise present in her cheeks, her neck, her hands. It was like the hue which underlies old ivory. Her skin was clear and of unusual pallor, yet it seemed to radiate warmth. Something rich and vivid in her voice also lent strength to the odd impression she had given him, as if her very speech were gold made liquid. Except for the faintest tinge of olive, her cheeks were colorless, yet they spoke of perfect health, and shone with that same pale, effulgent glow, like the reflection of a late sun. Her lips were richly red and as fresh as a half-opened flower, affording the only contrast to that puzzling radiance. Her unusual effect was due as much perhaps to the color of her eyes as to her hair and skin, for while they were really of a greenish hazel they held the fires of an opal in their depths. They were Oriental, slumbrous, meditative, and the black pupils were of an exaggerated size. Her brows were dark and met above a finely chiseled nose.
All in all, Blake was quite taken aback, for he had not been prepared for such a vision, and a sort of panic robbed him of speech. But when his halting tongue had done its duty and his eyes had turned once more to the aunt, some irresistible power swept them back to the young woman's face. The more he observed her the more he was puzzled by that peculiar effect, that glow which seemed to envelop her. Even her gown, of some shimmering material, lent its part to the illusion. Yellow was undeniably her color; she seemed steeped in it.
He had to make a determined effort to recover his composure.
Savigno fell quickly into a lover's rhapsody, devouring the girl with ardent glances under which she thrilled, and soon they began to chatter of the wedding preparations.
"It was very good of you to come so long a way," said the Countess at last, turning to the American for a second time. "Martel has told us all about you and about your adventures together."
"Not all!" cried Savigno, lightly. "We have pasts, I assure you."
"Martel tries so hard to impress us with his wickedness," the aunt explained. "But we know him to be jesting. Perhaps you will confound him here before us."
"I shall do nothing of the sort," Blake laughed. "Who am I to rob him of a delightfully wicked past upon which he can pretend to look back in horror? It is the only past he will ever have, so why spoil it for him? On the contrary, I am prepared to lend a hand and to start him off with a list of damning disclosures which it will require years to live down."
"Pray begin," urged the Count with an air of intense satisfaction. "Eh? He hesitates. Then I shall begin for him. In the first place, Margherita, he openly declares that I covet your riches."
The Countess joined in the laughter at this, and Norvin could only say:
"I had not met you then, Signorina."
"He was quite serious, nevertheless, and predicted that marriage would end our friendship, arguing that supreme happiness is but another term for supreme selfishness."
"At least I did not question the certainty of your happiness."
The girl spoke up gravely:
"I don't agree with you, Signor Blake. I should hate to think it will make us selfish. It seems to me that such—love as we share will make us very good and sweet and generous."
When she spoke of love she hesitated and lowered her eyes until the quivering lashes swept her cheeks, but no flush of embarrassment followed. Norvin realized that with all her reserve she could not blush, had probably never blushed.
"You shouldn't place the least dependence on the words of a man's best friend under such conditions," he told her, "for he covers his chagrin at losing a comrade by a display of pessimism which he doesn't really feel."
Norvin suddenly wished the Countess would not allow her glance to linger upon him so long and searchingly. It filled him with a most disturbing self-consciousness. He was relieved when the Donna Teresa engaged him in conversation and the lovers were occupied with each other. It was some time later that the Countess addressed her aunt excitedly:
"Listen! What do you think of this, zia mia? The authorities will not admit poor Paolo to bail, and he is still in prison."
"Poor fellow!" cried the Donna Teresa. "It is La Mafia."
"Perhaps it is better for him to remain where he is," Martel said. "He is at least safe, for the time being. Here is something you may not know: Galli's wife is sister to Gian Narcone."
"Then she will probably kill Paolo," said the Countess Margherita, calmly.
Blake exclaimed wonderingly: "I say—this is worse than Breathitt County, Kentucky. You talk of murders and outlaws as we discuss the cotton crop or the boll-weevil. This is the most fatal country I ever saw."
"It is a great pity that such things exist," the Donna Teresa agreed, "but one grows accustomed to them in time. It has been so ever since I was a child—we do not seem to progress, here in Sicily. Now in Italy it is much more civilized, much more restful."
"How hard it must be to do right," said the Countess, musingly. "Look at Paolo, for instance; he kills a wretched thief quite innocently, and yet the law holds him in prison. It is necessary, of course, to be severe with robbers like this Galli and his brother-in-law, who is an open outlaw, and yet, I suppose if I were that Galli's wife I should demand blood to wash my blood. She is only a wife."
"You sympathize with her?" exclaimed Martel in astonishment.
"Deeply! I am not so sorry the man was killed, but a wife has rights. She will doubtless follow him."
"Do you believe in the vendetta?" Norvin asked, curiously.
"Who does not? The law is full of tricks. There is a saying which runs, 'The gallows for the poor, justice for the fool!'"
"You are a Mafiosa," cried the scandalized aunt.
"It is one of Aliandro's sayings. He has lived a life! He often tells me stories."
"Aliandro is a terrible liar," Martel declared. "I fear his adventures are much like his rheumatism."
"You do not exact a reckoning from your enemies in America?" queried Margherita.
"Oh, we do, but not with quite so much enthusiasm as you do," Blake answered her. "We aren't ordinarily obliged to kill people in order to protect our property, and wives don't go about threatening vengeance when their husbands meet with accidents. The police take care of such things."
"A fine country! It must be so peaceful for old people," ejaculated the aunt.
"We have some outlaws, to be sure, like your notorious Belisario Cardi—"
"Cardi is but a name," said the girl. "He does not exist."
Intercepting a warning glance from Martel, Blake said no more, and the talk drifted to more agreeable subjects.
But the Count, being possessed of a nervous temperament which called for constant motion, could not long remain inactive, and now, having poured his extravagant devotion into his sweetheart's ears, he rose, saying:
"I must go to the village. The baker, the confectioner, the butcher, all have many things to prepare for the festa, and I must order the fireworks from Messina. Norvin will remain here while Ricardo and I complete the arrangements. I tell you it will be a celebration to awaken the countryside. For an hour then, addio!" He touched his lips to Margherita's fingers and, bowing to her aunt, ran down the steps.
"Some gadfly stings him," said the Donna Teresa, fondly. "He is like a child; he cannot remain seated. He comes, he goes, like the wind. There is no holding him."
"So there's to be a festa?" Blake observed with interest.
"Oh, indeed! It will be a great event. It was Mattel's idea." Margherita arose and the young man followed. "See, out there upon the terrace there will be dancing. You have never seen a Sicilian merrymaking? You have never seen the tarantella! Then you will be interested. On the night before the ceremony the people will come from the whole countryside. There will be music, games, fireworks. Oh, it will be a celebrazione. My cousins from Messina will be here, the bishop, many fine people. I—I am more excited than Martel. I can scarcely wait." The girl's face mirrored her emotion and her eyes were as deep as the sea. She seemed for the moment very far away, uplifted in contemplation of the great change so soon to occur in her life, and Norvin began to suspect her of a tremendous depth of feeling. Unknown even to herself she was smouldering; unawakened fires were stirred by the consciousness of coming wifehood. Out here in the sun she was more tawny than ever, and, recalling the threat against her lover, the young man fell to wondering how she would take misfortune if it ever came. Feeling his eyes upon her, she met his gaze frankly with a smile.
"What is it? You have something to say."
He recovered himself with an effort.
"No! Only—you are so different from what I expected."
"And you also," she laughed. "You are much more agreeable; I like you immensely, and I want you to tell me all about yourself."
That was a wonderful afternoon for Blake. The Sicilian girl took him into her confidence without the slightest restraint. There was no period of getting acquainted; it was as if they had known each other for a lifetime. He never ceased marveling at her beauty and his ears grew ever more eager for her voice. Martel made no secret of his delight at their instantaneous liking for each other, and the dinner that evening was the gayest that had brightened Terranova for years.
Inasmuch as the ride to San Sebastiano was long, the young men were forced to leave early, but they were scarcely out of hearing before Martel drew his horse in beside Norvin and, laying a hand upon his friend's arm, inquired, breathlessly:
"Well? Come, come, brother of mine! You know I perish of eagerness. What have you to say? The truth, between man and man."
Blake answered him with an odd hesitation:
"You must know without asking. There's nothing to say—except that she—she is like a golden flame. She sets one afire. She is different— wonderful. I—I—"
"Exactly!" Savigno laughed with keenest contentment. "There is no other."
When Blake retired that night it was not to sleep at once, for he was troubled by a growing fear of himself that would not be lightly put aside.
THE FEAST AT TERRANOVA
During the next few days Norvin Blake saw much of the Countess Margherita, for every afternoon he and Martel rode to Terranova. The preparations for the wedding neared completion and the consciousness of a coming celebration had penetrated the countryside. Among all who looked forward to the big event, perhaps the one who watched the hours fly with the greatest degree of suspense was the American. He had half faced the truth on that night after his first meeting with the girl, and the succeeding days enforced the conviction he would have been glad to escape. He could no longer doubt that he was in love, madly infatuated with his best friend's fiancee, and the knowledge came like some crushing misfortune. It could scarcely be called a love at first sight, for he felt that he had always known and always loved this girl. He had never believed in these sudden obsessions, and more than once had been amused at Martel's ability to fall violently in love at a moment's notice, and to fall as quickly out again, but in spite of his coolest reasoning and sternest self-reproach he found the spell too strong for him. Every decent instinct commanded him to uproot this passion; every impetuous impulse burst into sudden flame and consumed his better sense, his judgment, and his loyalty, leaving him shaken and doubtful. Although this was his first serious soul conflict, he possessed more than average self-control, and he managed to conceal his feelings so well that Martel, who was the embodiment of loyalty and generosity, never for a moment suspected the truth. As for the girl, she was too full of her own happiness to see anything amiss. She took her lover's comrade into her heart with that odd unrestraint which characterized her, and, recognizing the bond which united the two young men, she strove to widen it sufficiently to include herself. It spoke well for her that she felt no jealousy of that love which a man bears for his life's best friend, but rather strove to encourage it. Her intense desire to be a part of her lover and share all his affections led her to strive earnestly for a third place in the union, with the result that Blake saw even more of her than did Savigno. She deliberately set herself the task of winning the American, a task already more than accomplished, had she but known it, and, although for some women such a course would have been neither easy nor safe, with her a misconception of motive was impossible.
She had an ardent, almost reckless manner of attacking problems; she was as intense and yet as changeful as a flame. Blake watched her varying moods with the same fascination with which one regards a wind-blown blaze, recognizing, even in her moments of repression, that she was ready to burst forth anew at the slightest breath. She was the sort of woman to dominate men, to inspire them with tremendous enthusiasm for good or for evil as they chanced to lean toward the one or the other. While she seemed wholly admirable, she exercised a damnable effect upon Norvin. He was tortured by a thousand devils, he was possessed by dreams and fancies hitherto strange and unrecognized. The nervous strain began to tell in time; he slept little, he grew weary of the struggle, things became unreal and distorted. He longed to end it all by fleeing from Sicily, and had there been more time he would have arranged for a summons to America. His mother had not been well for a long time, and he was tempted to use this fact as an excuse for immediate departure, but the thought that Martel needed him acted as an effective restraint. The vague menace of La Mafia still hung over the Count and was not lessened by the receipt of a second threatening letter a few days after Blake's arrival.
Cardi wrote again, demanding instant compliance with the terms contained in his first communication. Savigno was directed to send Ricardo Ferara at a given hour to a certain crossroads above San Sebastiano with ten thousand lire. In that case candles would be burned and masses said for the soul of the murdered Galli, so the writer promised. The letter put no penalty upon a failure to comply with these demands, beyond a vague prediction of evil. It was short and business-like and very much to the point.
As this was the first document of the kind Norvin had ever seen, he was greatly interested in it.
"Don't you think it may be the work of this fellow Narcone?" he inquired. "I understand he is the brother-in-law of Galli."
"Narcone would scarcely undertake so bold a piece of blackmail," the Count declared. "I knew him slightly before he gave himself to the campagna. He was a butcher; he was brutal and domineering, but he was a coward."
"It is not from Narcone," Ricardo pronounced, positively—they had called in the overseer for the discussion—"he is grossolano. He can neither read nor write. This letter is well spelled and well written."
"Then you think it is really from Cardi?"
Ricardo shrugged his square shoulders. "Who knows? Some say there is no such person, others declare he went to America years ago."
"What is your belief?"
"I know a man who has seen him."
"Bah! Aliandro is such a liar!" exclaimed Savigno.
"However that may be, he has seen things in his time. He says that Cardi is not what people suppose him to be—a brigand—except when it suits his desires. That is why he comes and goes and the carabinieri can never trace him. That is why he is at home in all parts of Sicily; that is why he uses men like Narcone when he chooses."
"It would please me to capture the wretch," said Martel.
"Let's try it," Norvin suggested, and accordingly a trap was laid.
Four carabinieri were sent to the appointed place, ahead of time, with directions to conceal themselves, and Ferara carried out his part of the programme. But no one came to meet him, he encountered no one coming or going to the crossroads, and returned greatly disgusted. However, at his suggestion Colonel Neri stationed the four soldier policemen at the castello to prevent any demonstration and to profit by any development which might occur.
The young men did not permit this diversion to interrupt their daily trips to Terranova, although as a matter of precaution they added Ippolito to their party. He was delighted at the change of duty, because, as Norvin discovered, it brought him to the side of Lucrezia Ferara. Thus it happened that Martel had reason to regret the choice of his bodyguard, for on the very first visit Ippolito began to strut and swagger before the girl and allowed the secret to escape him, whereupon it was carried to the Countess.
She appealed to Martel to leave San Sebastiano for the time being, to postpone the wedding, or at least to go to Messina for it; but of course he refused and tried to laugh down her misgivings, and of course she appealed privately to Blake for assistance.
"You must use your influence to change his mind," she said, earnestly. "He declares he will not be overawed by these ruffians. He says that to pay them the least attention would be to encourage them to another attempt when we return, but—he does not know the Mafia as I know it. You will do this for me?"
"Of course, if you wish it, although I agree with Martel, and I'm sure he won't listen to me. He can't play the coward. The wedding is only two days off now. Why, to-morrow is the gala-day! How could he notify the whole district, when all his preparations have been completed? What excuse could he give without confessing his fear and making himself liable to a later and stronger attack?"
"The country people need not know anything about it. Let them come and make merry. He can leave now, tonight. We will join him at Messina."
Norvin shook his head. "I'll do what I can, since you wish it, but I'm sure he won't consent to any change of plan. I'm sure, also, that you are needlessly troubled."
"Perhaps," she acknowledged, doubtfully. "And yet Martel's father—"
"Yes, yes. But conditions are not what they were fifteen years ago. This is merely a blackmailing scheme, and if he ignores it he'll probably never hear of it again. On the other hand, if he allows it to drive him away it will be repeated upon his return."
She searched his face with her eyes, and his wits reeled at her earnest gaze. He was conscious of a single wild desire that such anxiety might be for him. How gladly he would yield to her wishes—how gladly he would yield to any wish of hers! He was a foreigner; he hated this island and its people, for the most part, and yet if he stood in Martel's place he would willingly change his life to correspond with hers. He would become Sicilian in body and soul. She had the power to dissolve his habits, his likes and dislikes, and reconstruct him through and through.
"I hope you are right," she said at last. "And yet—it is said that no one escapes the Mafia."
"This isn't the Mafia. It is the work of some brigand—"
"What is the difference? The one merges into the other. Blood has been spilled; the forces are at work."
Suddenly she seized him by the arm, and her eyes blazed. "Look you," she cried, "if Martel should be injured, if these men should dare—all Sicily would not hold them. No power could save them, no hiding-place could be so secret, no lies so cunning, that I would not know. You understand?"
Blake saw that the girl was at last aroused to that intensity of feeling which he had recognized as latent in her. Love had caused her to glow, but it had required this breath of fear to fan the fire into full strength. He was deeply moved and answered simply: "I understand. I—never knew how much you loved him."
Her humor changed, and she smiled.
"One is foolish, perhaps, to be so frank, but that is my nature. You would not have me change it?"
"You couldn't if you tried."
"Martel has always known I loved him. I could never conceal it. I never wished to. If he had not seen it I would have told him. Just now, when I heard he was threatened—well, you see."
"Ippolito had no business to mention the matter. I suppose his tongue ran away with him. Tongues have a way of doing such things when their owners are in love."
"He is not for Lucrezia."
"Why? He's a fine fellow."
"Oh, but Lucrezia is superior. I have taught her a great many things. She is more like a sister to me than a servant, and I could not see her married to a farm-hand. She can do much better than to marry Ippolito."
"Love goes where it pleases," said the American with so much feeling that Margherita's eyes leaped to his.
"You know? Ah, my good friend, then you have loved?"
He nodded. "I have. I do."
She was instantly all eagerness, and beamed upon him with a frank delight that stabbed him.
"Martel? Does he know?"
"No, You see, there's no use—no possibility."
"I'm sorry. There must be some great mistake. I cannot conceive of so sad a thing."
"Please don't try," he exclaimed, panic-stricken at thought of the dangerous ground he was treading and miserably afraid she would guess the truth in spite of him.
"I should think any woman might love you," she said, critically, after a moment's meditation. "You are good and brave and true."
"Most discerning of women!" he cried, with an elaborate bow. "Those are but a few of my admirable traits." He was relieved to see that she had no suspicion of his feelings, for she was extremely quick of wit and her intuition was keen. No doubt, her failure to read him was due to her absorption in her own affairs. He had arrived at a better knowledge of her capabilities to-day and began to realize that she was as changeable as a chameleon. One moment she could be like the sirocco in warmth and languor, the next as sparkling as the sunlit ocean. Again she could be steeped in a dreamy abstraction or alive with a pagan joy of life. She might have been sixteen or thirty, as her mood chanced to affect her. Of all the crossed strains that go to make up the Sicilian race she had inherited more of the Oriental than the Greek or Roman. Somewhere back in the Ginini family there was Saracen blood, he felt sure.
Blake was as good as his word, and made her wishes known to Martel, who laughingly accused him of a lack of faith in his own arguments. The Count was bubbling with spirits at the immediate nearness of his nuptials, and declined to consider anything which might interfere with them. He joyfully told Blake that the tickets were already bought and all arrangements made to leave for Messina immediately after the ceremony, which would take place in the church at Terranova. They would catch the boat for Naples on the evening after the wedding, he explained, and Blake was to accompany them at least that far on his way to America. Meanwhile, he had no intention of foregoing the pleasure of to-morrow's celebration, even if Belisario Cardi himself should appear, to dispute his coming. It was the first, the last, and the only time he intended marrying, and he had promised himself to enjoy the occasion to the utmost, despite those letters, which, after all, were not to be taken seriously. So the matter was allowed to stand.
The country people had begun to assemble when Martel and his friend arrived at the Ginini manor on the following afternoon, and the grounds were filling with gaily dressed peasants. The train from Messina had brought Margherita's relatives, and the bishop had sent word that he would arrive in ample time for the ceremony on the next morning. The contadini were coming in afoot, astride of donkeys and mules, or in gaily painted carts pictured with the miracles of the saints and the conquests of the Moors. There were dark-haired men and women, wild-haired boys with roses above their ears, girls with huge ear-rings and fringed shawls which swept the ground as they walked. As yet they had not entirely lost their restraint, but Martel went among them with friendly hand-clasps and exuberant greetings, renewing old acquaintances and welcoming new until at last their shyness disappeared and they began to laugh and chatter unaffectedly.
Savigno had traveled, he told them. He had arranged many surprises for his friends. There would be games, dances, music, and a wonderful entertainment in the big striped tent yonder, supplied by a troupe of players which he had brought all the way from Palermo. As for the feast, well, the tables were already stretched under the trees, as they could see, and if any one wished to tantalize his nostrils just let him wander past the kitchen in the rear, where a dozen women had been at work since dawn. But that was not all; there would be gifts for the children and prizes for the best dancers. The handsomest woman would receive a magnificent shawl the like of which had never been dreamed of in Terranova, and then to prevent jealousy the others would receive presents also. But he would not say too much. Let them wait and see. Finally there would be fireworks, enough to satisfy every one; and all he asked of them was that they drink the health of the Countess Margherita and wish her lifelong happiness. It was to be a memorable occasion, he hoped, and if they did not enjoy themselves as never before, then he and his bride would feel that their wedding had been a great, a colossal failure.
But it seemed, as night approached, that Martel had no reason to doubt the quality of his entertainment, for the guests gave themselves up to joy as only southerners can, forgetting poverty, hardship, and all the grinding cares of their barren lives. They yielded quickly to the passion of the festa, and Blake began to see Sicily for the first time. He would have liked to enter into their merrymaking, but felt himself too much a stranger.
The feast was elaborate; no ristorante could have equaled it, no one but a spendthrift lover like Martel would have furnished it. But it was not until darkness came and the trees began to twinkle and glow with their myriad lights that the fun reached its highest pitch. Then there was true Sicilian dancing, true Sicilian joking, love-making. Eyes were bright, cheeks were flushed, lips were parted, and the halls of Terranova echoed to a bacchanalian tumult.
There had been an elaborate supper inside also, to which the more prominent townspeople had been invited and from which Norvin Blake was only too eager to escape as it drew to an end. The strain to which he had been subjected for the past week was growing unbearable, and the sight of Margherita Ginini clad like a vision in some elaborate Parisian gown so intensified his distress that he was glad to slip away into the open air at the first opportunity. He found Ricardo leaning against the bole of a eucalyptus-tree, observing the throng with watchful eyes.
"Why aren't you making merry?" Blake inquired.
The overseer shrugged his shoulders, replying, somberly, "I am waiting."
"Who knows? There are strangers here." "You mean,"—Blake's manner changed quickly—"there may be enemies?"
"If Cardi is in the mountains behind Martinello, may he not be here at Terranova? I am looking for a thick, black man. Aliandro has described him."
"Cardi would scarcely come to a wedding feast," said Blake, with a certain feeling of uneasiness.
"Scarcely," the overseer agreed.
"Have you seen anything?"
"Where is Ippolito?"
Ricardo grunted. "Asleep in the stable. The imbecile is drunk."
To the American these Sicilian people looked very much alike. They were all a bit fantastic, and the scene reminded him of a fancy-dress ball where all the men represented brigands. Many of them were, or seemed to be, of truculent countenance; some wore piratical ear-rings, others had shawls wrapped about their heads as if for concealment. Any one of them might have been a brigand, for all he knew, and he saw how easy it would be for a handful of evil-intentioned persons to mingle unobserved with such a throng. Yet his better sense told him that he was silly to imagine such things. He had allowed old women's tales to upset his nerves.
A half-hour later, as he was watching the crowd from the loggiato, Margherita appeared, and he thought for a moment that she too might feel some vague foreboding, but her first words reassured him.
"My good friend, I missed you," she said, "but I had no chance of leaving until this moment." Coming close to him, she inquired: "Has something gone amiss? You have seemed sad all this evening. I do not know, but I fear your heart is—heavy."
He answered, unsteadily: "Perhaps it is. I—don't know."
"It is that certain woman."
"I dare say. I'm a great fool, you know."
"Don't say that. This is perhaps the only chance I shall have of seeing you alone."
"I'm glad," he broke out in a tone that startled her. "Glad for you. I have tried not to be a death's-head at your feast, but it has been a struggle."
"We women see things. Martel, boy that he is, does not suspect, and yet I, who have known you so short a time, have read your secret. It is our happiness which makes you sad."
"No, no. I'm not that sort. I share your happiness. I want it to continue."
"If I had one wish it would be that she might care for you as I care for Martel. And who knows? Perhaps she may. You say it is impossible, yet life is full of blind ways and unseen turnings. Somehow I feel that she will."
"You are very good," he managed to say. Then yielding to a sudden impulse, he took her hand and kissed it. A moment later she left him, but the touch of her cool flesh against his lips remained an unforgetable impression.
Savigno appeared, yawning prodigiously.
"Dio!" he exclaimed with a grimace. "Those cousins of hers are deadly dull; I do not blame you for escaping. And the judge, and the notary's wife, and that village doctor! Colonel Neri is a good chap, notwithstanding his mustache in which he takes so much pride. He nurses it like a child, and yet it is older than I. Poor friend of mine, you are a martyr, thus to endure for me."
"It's tremendously interesting, particularly this part out here," Norvin asserted. "I saw them dancing what I took to be the tarantella a moment ago. Those peasant boys are like leaping fauns."
"Yes, and they will continue to dance for hours yet. I fear the Donna Teresa will not retire at her usual hour. What a day it has been! It is fine to give people happiness. That is one of my new discoveries."
"Believe me, I think of nothing else. That is why we must be going soon. We cannot wait even for the fireworks, as much as I would like to. It is a long road to Martinello and we must be up early in the morning. You do not object?"
"On the contrary, I was about to bear you off in spite of yourself."
"Then I will have Ippolito fetch the horses."
"Ippolito has been demonstrating the mastery of wine over matter. He is asleep in the manger."
"Drunk? Oh, the idiot! He has the appetite of a shark, but the belly of a herring. I ought to warm his soles with a cane," declared Savigno, angrily.
"Don't be too hard on him. I suspect Lucrezia would not listen to his suit, poor chap. He's sick from unrequited passion."
"Very well, we will leave him to sleep it off. I couldn't be harsh with him at this time. And now we had best begin presenting our good-nights, although I hate to go."
WHAT WAITED AT THE ROADSIDE
To avoid the dampening effect of an early departure the three men rode out quietly from the courtyard at the rear of the house, leaving the merrymakers to their fun.
"So, this is our last ride together," Norvin said, as they left the valley and began the long ascent of the mountain that lay between them and Martinello.
"Yes. Henceforth we spare our horses. You see tomorrow we will take the morning train. Half of San Sebastiano will accompany us, too, and everybody will be dressed in his finest. Ricardo here, for instance, will wear his new brown suit—a glorious affair. Eh, Ricardo?"
"It would be as well to refrain from speaking," said the overseer, gruffly. "The road is dark. Who knows what may be waiting?"
"Nonsense! Be not always a bear. We are three armed men. I fancy Narcone, nay, even our dreadful Cardi himself, would scarcely dare molest us."
Ferara merely grunted and continued to hold his place abreast of his employer. Norvin observed that he carried his rifle across his saddle-bow, and involuntarily shifted the strap of his own weapon so that it might be ready in case of an emergency. He had rebelled, somewhat, at carrying a firearm, but Martel, after making a clean breast of his troubles that first morning, had insisted, and the American had yielded even though he felt ridiculous.
The sky was moonless to-night but crowded with stars which gave light enough so that the riders were able to follow the road without difficulty, although the shadows on either side were dense. The air was sweet, and so still that the sounds of revelry from Terranova were plainly audible. Strains of music floated up the hillside, the shouts of the master of ceremonies came distinctly as he issued his commands for a country dance. The many lights within the grounds shone cloudily among the tree-tops far below, like the effulgence from some well-lit city hidden behind a hill, now disappearing for a time, now shining out again as the road pursued its meanderings. The hurried footfalls of the horses thudded steadily in the soft dust; the saddles creaked with that music which lulls a horseman like a song.
"Youth! Youth! What a glorious thing it is!" exclaimed Martel after a fruitless attempt to hold his tongue. "Ricardo would have us go prowling like robbers when our hearts are singing loud enough for all the mountainside to hear. There is no evil in the world to-night, for the world is in love; to-morrow it bursts into happiness! And I am king over it all!"
"I shall be glad to be rid of you, just the same," grumbled the old man.
"Ricardo alone has fears, but he was never young. Think you that the gods would permit my wedding-day to be marred? Bah! One can see evil before it comes; it casts a shadow; it has a chilling breath which any one with sensibilities can feel. As for me, I see the future as clearly as if it were spread out before me in the sunshine, and there is no misfortune in it anywhere. I cannot conceive of misfortune, with all this gladness and expectancy inside me."
"They have begun the fireworks," said Blake. "It's too bad you couldn't stay to see them, Martel." He turned in his saddle, and the others reined in as a rocket soared into the night sky and burst with a shower of sparks. Others followed and a detonation sounded faintly.
"Poor people!" said the Count, gently. "I can hear them crying, 'Oh!' 'Ah!' 'Beautiful!' 'It is an angel from heaven!'"
"On the contrary, I'll warrant they're exclaiming, 'It is that angel from San Sebastiano.' You have given them a great night."
The Count laughed. "Yes. They will have much to talk and dream about. Their lives are very barren, you know, and I hope the Countess and I will be able to make them brighter as the years go by. Oh, I have plans, caro mio, so many plans I scarcely know where to begin or how to talk about them. I could never be an artist, no matter how furiously I painted, no matter how many beautiful women I drew; but I can paint smiles upon the faces of those sad women down yonder. I can bring happiness into their lives. And that will be a picture to look back upon, eh? Don't you think so? When they learn to know me, when they learn to love and trust me, there will be brighter days at Terranova and at San Sebastiano."
"They love you now, I am sure."
"I am too much a stranger yet. I have neglected my duties, but—well, in my travels I have learned some things that will be of benefit to us all. I see so much to do. It is delightful to be young and full of hopes, and to have the means of realizing them. Above all, it is delicious to know that there is one who will share those ambitions and efforts with you. I see Ricardo is disgusted with me, but he is a pessimist. He does not believe in charity and love."
"What foolish talk!" protested the old man with heat. "Do I not love my girl Lucrezia? Do I not love you, the Countess, and—and—perhaps a few others?"
Martel laughed. "I was merely teasing you."
They resumed their journey, leaving the showering meteors behind them, and the Count, in the lightness of his heart, began humming a tune.
As for Blake, he rode as silently as Ferara, being lost in contemplation of a happiness in which he had no part. Not until this moment had he realized how entirely unnecessary he was to the existence of Martel and Margherita. He longed to remain a part of them, but saw that his desire was vain. They were complete without him, their lives would be full. He began to feel like a stranger already. It was a new sensation, for he had always seemed to be a factor in the lives of those about him; but Martel had changed with the advent of new interests and ambitions. Sicily, too, was different from any land he knew, and even Margherita Ginini was hard to understand. She seemed to be the spirit of Sicily made flesh and blood. He wondered if the very fact that she was so unusual might not help him to forget her once he was away from her influence. He hoped so, for this last week had been the most painful period of his life. He had come south, somewhat against his will, for a kaleidoscopic glimpse of Europe, never dreaming that he would carry back to America anything more than the usual flitting memories of a pleasant trip; but instead he was destined to take with him a single vivid picture. He argued that he was merely infatuated with the girl, carried away by the allurement of a new and remarkable type of woman, and that these headlong passions were neither healthy nor lasting; but his reasoning brought him no real sense of conviction, and his life, as he looked forward to it, appeared singularly flat and stale. His one consolation, poor as it seemed, lay in the fact that he had played the man to the best of his ability and was really glad, even if a bit envious, of Martel's good-fortune.
He let his thoughts run free in this manner, sitting his horse listlessly, for he was tired mentally and physically, watching the gray road idly as it slipped past beneath the muffled hoofs, and lulled by Savigno's musical humming.
It was while he was still in this half-somnolent, semidetached frame of mind that he rode into a sudden white-hot whirl of events.
Norvin Blake was never clear in his mind regarding the precise sequence of the action that followed, for he was snatched too quickly from his mental relaxation to retain any well-defined impressions. He recalled vaguely that the road lay like a mysterious canon walled in with darkness, and that his thoughts were miles away when his horse shied without warning, nearly unseating him and bringing him back to a sense of his surroundings with a shock. Simultaneously he heard a cry from Ricardo; it was a scream of agony, cutting through Savigno's song like a saber stroke. For a moment Blake's heart seemed to stop, then began pounding crazily. A stream of fire leaped out at his left side, splitting the quiet night with a detonation. The wood which had lain so silent and deserted an instant before was lit by answering flashes, the blackness at an arm's-length on every side was stabbed by wicked tongues of flame, and the road swarmed with grotesque bodies leaping and tumbling and fighting. Blake's horse reared as something black rose up beneath its forefeet and snatched at its bridle; Martel's steed lurched into it, then fell kicking and screaming, sending its mate careening to the roadside. The unexpected movement wrenched Norvin's feet from the stirrups and left him clinging desperately to mane and cantle.
It all came with a terrifying swiftness—quite as if the three riders had crossed over a powder-train at the instant of its eruption, to find themselves, in the fraction of a second, involved in chaos.
Ricardo's horse thundered away, riderless, leaving a squirming, wriggling confusion of forms in the road where the overseer was battling for his life. Martel's voice rose shrilly in a curse, and then Norvin felt himself dragged roughly from his saddle, whether by human hands or by some overhanging tree-branch he never knew. The force of his fall bruised and stunned him, but he struggled weakly to his feet only to find himself in the grasp of a man whose black visage fronted his own. He tried to break away, but his bones were like rope, his muscles were flabby and shaking. He exerted no more force than a child. In front of him something sickening, something unspeakably foul and horrible, was going on, and in its presence he was wholly unmanned. More hands seized him quickly, but he lacked the vigor to attempt an escape. On the contrary, he hung limp and paralyzed with terror. The mystery, the uncertainty, the hideous significance of that wordless scuffle in the dusty road rendered him nerveless, and he cried out shakingly, like a man in a nightmare.
A voice commanded him to be silent, a hot breath beat against his cheek; but he could not restrain his hysteria, and one of his captors began to throttle him. He heard his name called and saw Savigno's figure outlined briefly against the gray background, saw another figure blend with it, then heard Martel's voice end in a rising cry which lived to haunt his memory. It rose in protest, in surprise, as if the Count doubted even at the last that death could really claim him. Then it broke in a thin, wavering shriek.
Blake may have fainted; at any rate, his body was beyond his control, and his next remembrance was of being half dragged, half thrust forward out into the lesser shadows. There was no longer any struggling, although men were speaking excitedly and he could hear them panting; some one was working the ejector of a rifle as if it had stuck. A tall man was wiping his hands upon some dried grass pluck'ed from the roadside, and he was cursing.
"Who is this?" he cried, thrusting his face into the American's and showing a brutal countenance bristly with a week's growth of beard.
"The stranger," one of Blake's captors answered, whereupon the tall man uttered a violent exclamation.
"Wait!" cried the other. "He is already dying. He cannot stand."
Some one else explained, "It is indeed the American, but he is wounded."
"Let me finish the work; he has seen too much," said the first speaker, roughly.
"No, no! He is the American. Do you not understand?"
"Remember the order, Narcone," cautioned another.
But Narcone continued to curse as if mastered by the craving to kill, and if the others had not laid hands upon him he might have made good his intention. They argued with him, all at once, and in the midst of the confusion which ensued a new voice called from the darkness: