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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 1. The Train From Palermo
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The Net - Chapter 1. The Train From Palermo Post by :sullc Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2894

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The Net - Chapter 1. The Train From Palermo

CHAPTER I. 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--"

"Americano."

"Indeed?"

"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.

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