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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 2. A Confession And A Promise
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The Net - Chapter 2. A Confession And A Promise Post by :sullc Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2463

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The Net - Chapter 2. A Confession And A Promise

CHAPTER II. 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."

"Assuredly."

"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."

"Really?"

"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--"

"No, no."

"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.

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