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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 22. A Misunderstanding
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The Net - Chapter 22. A Misunderstanding Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :1338

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The Net - Chapter 22. A Misunderstanding

CHAPTER XXII. A MISUNDERSTANDING

Several days later Vittoria Fabrizi led Bernie Dreux into the room where Norvin lay. The little man walked on tiptoe and wore an expression of such gloomy sympathy that Blake said:

"Please don't look so blamed pious; it makes me hurt all over."

Bernie's features lightened faintly; he smiled in a manner bordering upon the natural.

"They wouldn't let me see you before. Lord! How you have frightened us!"

"My nurse won't let me talk."

Blake's eyes rested with puzzled interrogation upon the girl, who maintained her most professional air as she smoothed his pillow and admonished him not to overtax himself. When she had disappeared noiselessly, he said:

"Well, you needn't put a rose in my hand yet awhile. Tell me what has happened? How is Myra Nell?"

"She's heartbroken, of course. She came here that first night; but the smell of drugs makes her sick."

"I suppose Maruffi got away?"

Dreux straightened in his chair; his face flushed proudly; he put on at least an inch of stature. "Haven't you heard?" he inquired, incredulously.

"How could I hear anything when I'm doctored by a deaf-mute and nursed by a divinity without a tongue?"

"Maruffi was captured that very night. Sure! Why, the whole country knows about it." Again a look of mellow satisfaction glowed on the little man's face. "My dear boy, you're a hero, of course, but--there-- are--others."

"Who caught him?"

"I did."

"_You!_" Norvin stared in open-mouthed amazement.

"That's what I said. I--me--Mr. Bernard Effingwell Dreux, the prominent cotillion leader, the second-hand dealer, the art critic and amateur detective. I unearthed the notorious and dreaded Sicilian desperado in his lair, and now he's cooling his heels in the parish prison along with his little friends."

"Why--I'm astonished."

"Naturally! I found him in Joe Poggi's house. Mr. Poggi also languishes in the bastille."

"How in the world--"

"Well, it's quite a story, and it all happened through the woman--" Bernie flushed a bit as he met his companion's eye. "When I told you about Mrs. Poggi I didn't exactly go into all the intimate--er-- details. The truth is she became deeply interested in me. I told you how I met her--Well, she wasn't averse to receiving my attentions-- Heavens, no! She ate 'em up! Before I knew it I found myself entangled in an intrigue--I had hold of an electric current and couldn't let go. When I didn't follow her around, she followed me. When I didn't make love, she did. She learned about Felicite, and there was--Excuse me!" Bernie rose, put his head cautiously outside the door to find the coast clear, then said: "Hell to pay! I tried to back out; but you can't back away from some women any more than you can back away from a prairie fire." He shook his head gloomily." It seems she wasn't satisfied with Poggi; she had ambitions. She'd caught a glimpse of the life that went on around her and wanted to take part in it. She thought I was rich, too--my name had something to do with it, I presume--at any rate, she began to talk of divorce, elopement, and other schemes that terrorized me. She was quite willing that I murder her husband, poison her relatives, or adopt any little expedient of that kind which would clear the path for our true love. I was in over my depth, but when I backed water she swam out and grabbed me. When I stayed away from her she looked me up. I tried once to tell her that I didn't really care for her--only once." The memory brought beads of sweat to the detective's brow. "Between her and Felicite I led a dog's life. If I'd had the money I'd have left town.

"I'd been meeting her on street corners up to that point; but she finally told me to come to the house while Poggi was away--it was the day you were hurt. I rebelled, but she made such a scene I had to agree or be arrested for blocking traffic. She carries a dagger, Norvin, in her stocking, or somewhere; it's no longer than your finger, but it's the meanest-looking weapon I ever saw. Well, I went, along about dark, determined to have it out with her once for all; but those aristocrats during the French Revolution had nothing on me. I know how it feels to mount the steps of the guillotine.

"The Poggi's parlor furniture is upholstered in red and smells musty. I sat on the edge of a chair, one eye on her and the other taking in my surroundings. There's a fine crayon enlargement of Joe with his uniform, in a gold frame with blue mosquito-netting over it to disappoint the flies--four ninety-eight, and we supply the frame--done by an old master of the County Fair school. There's an organ in the parlor, too, with a stuffed fish-hawk on it.

"She seemed quite subdued and coy at first, so I took heart, never dreaming she'd wear her dirk in the house. But say! That woman was raised on raw beef. Before I could wink she had it out; it has an ivory hilt, and you could split a silk thread with it. I suppose she didn't want to spoil the parlor furniture with me, although I'd never have showed against that upholstery, or else she's in the habit of preparing herself for manslaughter by a system of vocal calisthenics. At any rate, we were having it hot and heavy, and I was trying to think of some good and unselfish actions I had done, when we heard the back door of the cottage open and close, then somebody moving in the hall.

"Mrs. Poggi turned green--not white--green! And I began to picture the head-lines in the morning papers! 'The Bachelor and the Policeman's Wife,' they seemed to say. It wasn't Poggi, however, as I discovered when the fellow called to her. He was breathing heavily, as if he had been running. She signaled me to keep quiet, then went out; and I heard them talking, but couldn't understand what was said. When she came back she was greener than ever, and told me to go, which I did, realizing that the day of miracles is not done. I fell down three times, and ran over a child getting out of that neighborhood." Blake, who had listened eagerly, inquired:

"The man was Maruffi?"

"Exactly! I got back to the club in time to hear about his arrest and escape and your fight here. The town was ringing with it; everybody was horrified and amazed. What particularly stunned me was the news that Maruffi, not Poggi, was the head of the Mafia; but my experience in criminal work has taught me to be guided by circumstances, and not theory, so when I learned more about Caesar's escape I fell to wondering where he could hide. Then I recalled his secret meetings with Joe Poggi and that scalding volcano of emotion from whom I had just been delivered. Her fright, when she let me out, something familiar in the voice which called to her, came back, and--well, I couldn't help guessing the truth. Maruffi was in the house of one of the officers who was supposed to be hunting him."

"But his capture?"

"Simple enough. I went to O'Neil and told him. We got a posse together and went after him. We descended in such force and so suddenly that he didn't have a chance to resist. If I'd known who he was at first I'd have tried to take him single-handed."

"Then it's well you didn't know." Blake smiled.

"What bothers me," Dreux confessed, "is how Mrs. Poggi regards my action. I--I hate to appear a cad. I'd apologize if I dared."

Vittoria appeared to warn Dreux that his visit must end. When the little man had gone Norvin inquired:

"You knew of Maruffi's arrest?"

"Oh, yes!"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were in no condition to hear news of importance."

"Is that why you have been so silent?"

"Hush! You have talked quite enough for the present."

"You act strangely--differently," he insisted.

"I am your nurse. I am responsible for your recovery, so I do as I am ordered."

"And you haven't changed?" he inquired, wistfully.

"Not at all, I am quite the same--quite the same girl you knew in Sicily!" He did not relish her undertone, and wondered if illness had quickened his imagination, if he was forever seeing more in her manner, hearing more in her words than she meant. There was something intangibly cold and distant about her, or seemed to be. During the first feverish hours after his return to consciousness he had seen her hanging over him with a wonderful loving tenderness--it was that which had closed his wounds and brought him back toward health so swiftly; but as his brain had cleared and he had grown more rational this vision had disappeared along with his other fancies.

He wondered whether knowledge of his pseudo-engagement to Myra Nell had anything to do with her manner. He knew that she was in the girl's confidence. Naturally, he himself was not quite at his ease in regard to Miss Warren. The rumor about his advancing the money for her Carnival expenses had been quieted through Bernie's efforts, and the knowledge of it restricted to a necessary few. Although Myra Nell had refused his offers of marriage and treated the matter lightly, he could not help feeling that this attitude was assumed or exaggerated to cover her humiliation--or was it something deeper? It would be terrible if she really cared for him in earnest. Her own character protected her from scandal. The breaking-off of his supposed engagement with her could not hurt her--unless she really loved him. He closed his eyes, cursing Bernie inwardly. After a time he again addressed Vittoria.

"Tell me," he said, "how Maruffi came to spare you. My last vision was of him aiming--"

"He had but four shots."

"Four?"

"Yes, he had used two in his escape from the officers--before he came here."

"I see! It was horrible. I felt as if I had failed you at the critical moment, just as I failed--"

"As you failed whom?"

"Martel!" The word sounded in his ears with a terrible significance; he could hardly realize that he had spoken it. He had always meant to tell her, of course, but the moment had taken him unawares. His conscience, his inmost feeling, had found a voice apart from his volition. There was a little silence. At length she said in a low, constrained tone.

"Did you fail--him?"

"I--I did," he said, chokingly; and, the way once opened, he made a full and free confession of his craven fear that night on the road to Terranova, told her of the inherent cowardice which had ever since tortured and shamed him, and of his efforts to reconstruct his whole being. "I wanted to expiate my sin," he finished, "and, above all, I have longed to prove myself a man in your sight."

She listened with white, set face, slightly averted. When she turned to him at last, he saw that her eyes were wet with tears.

"I cannot judge of these matters," she said. "You--you were no coward the other night, amico mio. You were the bravest of the brave. You saved my life. As for that other time, do not ask me to turn back and judge. You perhaps blame yourself too much. It was not as if you could have saved Martel. It is rather that you should have at least tried-- that is how you feel, is it not? You had to reckon with your own sense of honor. Well, you have won your fight; you have become a new person, and you are not to be held responsible for any action of that Norvin Blake I knew in Sicily, who, indeed, did not know his own weakness and could not guard against it. Ever since I met you here in New Orleans I have known you for a brave, strong man. It is splendid--the way in which you have conquered yourself--splendid! Few men could have done it. Be comforted," she added, with a note of tenderness that answered the pleading in his eyes--"there is no bitterness in my heart."

"Margherita," he cried, desperately, "can't you--won't you--"

"Oh," she interposed, peremptorily, "do not say it. I forbid you to speak." Then, as he fell silent, she continued in a manner she strove to make natural: "That dear girl, Myra Nell Warren, has inquired about you daily. She has been distracted, heartbroken. Believe me, caro Norvin, there is a true and loving woman whom you cannot cast aside. She seems frivolous on the surface, I grant you. Even I have been deceived. But at the time of Mr. Dreux's dreadful faux pas she was so hurt, she grieved so that I couldn't but believe she felt deeply."

Norvin flushed dully and said nothing.

Vittoria smiled down upon him with a look that was half maternal in its sweetness.

"All this has been painful for you," she said, "and you have become over-excited. You must not talk any more now. You are to be moved soon."

"Aren't you going to be my nurse any more?"

"You are to be taken home."

His hand encountered hers, and he tried to thank her for what she had done, but she rose and, admonishing him to sleep, left the room somewhat hurriedly.

In the short time which intervened before Norvin was taken to his own quarters Vittoria maintained her air of cool detachment. Myra Nell came once, bringing Bernie with her, much to the sick man's relief; his other friends began to visit him in rapidly increasing numbers; he gradually took up the threads of his every-day life which had been so rudely severed. Meanwhile, he had ample time to think over his situation. He could not persuade himself that Vittoria had been right in her reading of Myra Nell. Perhaps she had only put this view forward to shield herself from the expression of a love she was not ready to receive. He could not believe that he had been deluded, that there was in reality no hope for him.

Mardi Gras week found him still in bed and unable to witness Myra Nell's triumph. During the days of furious social activity she had little time to give him, for the series of luncheons, of pageants, of gorgeous tableaux and brilliant masked balls kept her in a whirl of rapturous confusion, and left her scant leisure in which to snatch even her beauty sleep.

Since she was to be the flower of the festival, and since her beauty was being saved for the grand climax of the whole affair, she had no idea of sacrificing it. Proteus, Momus, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, and the other lesser societies celebrated their distinctive nights with torch and float and tableau; the city was transformed by day with bunting and flags, by night it was garlanded with fire; merrymakers thronged the streets, their carnival spirit entered into every breast. It was a glad, mad week of gaiety, of dancing, of laughter, of flirting and love-making under the glamour of balmy skies and velvet torch-lit nights; and to the pleasure of the women was added the delicious torture of curiosity regarding those mysterious men in masks who came through a blaze of fire and departed, no one knew whither.

As the spirit of the celebration mounted, Myra Nell abandoned herself to it; she lived amid a bewilderment of social obligations, through which she strove incessantly to discover the identity of her King. Finding herself unsuccessful in this, her excitement redoubled. At last came his entrance to the city; the booming cannon, the applauding thousands, his royal progress through the streets toward the flower-festooned stand where she looked down upon the multitude. Miss Warren's maids of honor were the fairest of all this fair city, and yet she stood out of that galaxy as by far the most entrancing.

Her royal consort came at length, a majestic figure upon a float of ivory and gold; he took the goblet from her hand; he pledged her with silent grace while the assembled hordes shouted their allegiance to the pair. She knew he must be very handsome underneath his mask; and he was bold also, in a quite unkingly way, for there was more in his glance than the greeting of a monarch; there was ardent love, a burning adoration which thrilled her breast and fanned her curiosity to a leaping flame. This was, indeed, life, romance, the purple splendor for which she had been born. She could scarcely contain herself until the hour of the Rex ball, when she knew her chance would come to match her charm and beauty against his voiceless secrecy. She was no longer a make-believe queen, but a royal ruler, beloved by her subjects, adored by her throne-mate. Then the glittering ball that followed!--the blazing lights, the splendid pantomime, the great shifting kaleidoscope of beauteous ladies and knightly men in gold and satin and coats of mail! And, above all, the maddening mystery of that king at her side whose glances were now melting with melancholy, now ablaze with eagerness, and whose whispered words, muffled behind his mask, were not those of a monarch, but rather those of a bold and audacious lover! He poured his vows into her blushing ear; he set her wits to scampering madly; his sincere passion, together with the dream-like unreality of the scene, intoxicated her. Who could he be? How dared he say these things? What faint familiar echo did his voice possess? Which one of her many admirers had the delightful effrontery to court her thus ardently beneath a thousand eyes? He was drunk with the glory of this hour, it seemed, for he whispered words she dared not listen to. What preposterous proposals he voiced; what insane audacity he showed! And yet he was in deadly earnest, too. She canvassed her many suitors in her mind, she tried artfully to trap him into some betrayal; the game thrilled her with a keen delight. At last she realized there was but one who possessed such brazen impudence, and told him she had known him from the first, whereat he laughed with the abandon of a pagan and renewed the fervor of his suit.

Blake learned from many sources that Myra Nell had made a gorgeous Queen. The papers lauded her grace, her beauty, the magnificence of her costumes. Bernie was full of it and could talk of nothing else when he dropped in as usual.

"She's all tired out, and I reckon she'll sleep for a week. I hope so, anyhow."

"I'm sorry I couldn't see her, but I'm glad I escaped the Carnival. The Mardi Gras is hard enough on the women; but it kills us men."

"I should say so. Look at me--a wreck." After a moment he added: "You think Myra Nell is all frivolity and glitter, but she isn't; she's as deep as the sea, Norvin. I can't tell you how glad I am that you two-- "Blake stirred uneasily. "I--I admire you tremendously, for you're just what I wanted to be and couldn't. I'm talking foolishly, I know, but this Carnival has made me see Myra Nell in a new light; I see now that she was born for joy and luxury and splendor and--and those things which you can give her. She's been a care to me. I've been her mother; I've actually made her dresses--but I'm glad now for all my little sacrifices." Two tears gathered and trickled down Mr. Dreux's cheeks, while Blake marveled at the strange mixture of qualities in this withered little beau. Bernie's words left him very uncomfortable, however, and the hours that followed did not lessen the feeling.

Although Myra Nell sent him daily messages and gifts--now books, now flowers, now a plate of fudge which she had made with her own hands and which he was hard put to dispose of--she nevertheless maintained a shy embarrassment and came to see him but seldom. When she did call, her attitude was most unusual: she overflowed with gossip, yet she talked with a nervous hesitation; when she found his eyes upon her she stammered, flushed, and paled; and he caught her stealing glances of miserable appeal at him. She was very different from the girl he had known and had learned to love in a big, impersonal way. He attributed the change to his own failure in responding to her timid advances, and this made him quite unhappy.

Nor did he see much of Vittoria, although Oliveta came daily to inquire about his progress.

He was up and about in time for the Mafia trial; but his duties in connection with it left him little leisure for society, which he was indeed glad to escape. New Orleans, he found, was on tiptoe for the climax of the tragedy which had so long been its source of ferment; the public was roused to a new and even keener suspense than at any time--not so much, perhaps, by the reopening of the case as by the rumors of bribery and corruption which were gaining ground. A startling array of legal talent had appeared for the defense; the trial was expected to prove the greatest legal battle in the history of the commonwealth.

Maruffi, with his genius for control, had assumed an iron-bound leadership and laughed openly at the possibility of a conviction. He had struck the note of persecution, making a patriotic appeal to the Italian populace; and the foreign section of the city seethed in consequence.

On the opening day the court-room was packed, the halls and corridors of the Criminal Court building were filled to suffocation, the neighboring streets were jammed with people clamoring for admittance and hungry for news from within. Then began the long, tedious task of selecting a jury. Public opinion had run so high that this was no easy undertaking. As day after day went by in the monotonous examination and challenge of talesmen, as panel after panel was exhausted with no result, not only did the ridiculous shortcomings of our jury system become apparent, but also the fact that the Mafia had, as usual, made full use of its sinister powers of intimidation. In view of the atrocious character of the crime and the immense publicity given it, those citizens who were qualified by intelligence to act as jurors had of necessity read and heard sufficient to form an opinion, and were therefore automatically debarred from service. It became necessary to place the final adjudication of the matter in the hands of men who were either utterly indifferent to the public weal or lacked the intelligence to read and weigh and think.

A remarkable wave of humanity seemed to have overwhelmed the city. Four out of every five men examined professed a disbelief in capital punishment, which, although it merely covered a fear of the Mafia's antagonism, nevertheless excused them for cause. Day after day this mockery went on.

As the list of talesmen grew into the hundreds and the same extraordinary antipathy to hanging continued to manifest itself, it occasioned remark, then ridicule. It would have been laughable had it not been so significant. The papers took it up, urging, exhorting, demanding that there be a stiffening of backbone; but to no effect. More than this, the Mafia had reigned so long and so autocratically, it had so shamefully abused the courts in the past, that a large proportion of honest men declared themselves unwilling to believe Sicilian testimony unless corroborated, and this prevented them from serving.

A week went by, and then another, and still twelve men who could try the issue fairly had not been found. Some few had been accepted, to be sure, but they were not representative of the city, and the list of talesmen who had been examined and excused on one pretext or another numbered fully a thousand.

Meanwhile, Maruffi smiled and shrugged and maintained his innocence.

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