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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 24. At The Feet Of The Statue
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The Net - Chapter 24. At The Feet Of The Statue Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2077

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The Net - Chapter 24. At The Feet Of The Statue

CHAPTER XXIV. AT THE FEET OF THE STATUE

Two hours after the verdict there was a meeting of the Committee of Justice, and that night the evening papers carried the following notice:


"MASS-MEETING"

"All good citizens are invited to attend a mass-meeting to-morrow morning at 10 o'clock at Clay Statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Donnelly case. Come prepared for action."


It was signed by the fifty well-known men who had been appointed to represent the people. That incredible verdict had caused a great excitement; but this bold and threatening appeal brought the city up standing. It caused men who had been loudly cursing the jury to halt and measure the true depth of their indignation. There was no other topic of conversation that night; and when the same call appeared in the morning papers, together with a ringing column headed,

"AWAKE! ARISE!"

it stirred a swift and mighty public sentiment. Never, perhaps, in any public press had so sanguinary an appeal been issued.

"Citizens of New Orleans," it read in part, "when murder overrides law and justice, when juries are bribed and suborners go unwhipped, it is time to resort to your own indefeasible right of self-preservation. Alien bands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr's blood upon your civilization. Your laws, in the very Temple of Justice, have been bought, suborners have loosed upon your streets the midnight murderers of an officer in whose grave lies the majesty of American law.

"Rise in your might, people of New Orleans! Rise!"

A similar note was struck by editorials, many of them couched in language even stronger and more suited to fan the public rage. The recent trial was called an outrageous travesty on justice; attention was directed to the damnable vagaries of recent juries which had been impaneled to try red-handed Italian murderers.

"Our city is become the haven of blackmailers and assassins, the safe vantage-ground for Sicilian stilletto bands who slay our legal officers, who buy jurors, and corrupt sworn witnesses under the hooded eyes of Justice. How much longer will this outrage be permitted?" So read a heavily typed article in the leading journal.

A wave of fierce determination ran through the whole community.

Margherita Ginini was waiting at Blake's place of business when he arrived, after a night of sleepless worry. She, too, showed evidence of a painful vigil; her hand was shaking as she held out a copy of the morning paper, inquiring:

"What is the meaning of this?"

"It means we're no longer in Sicily," he said.

"You intend to--kill those men?"

"I fear something like that may occur. The question will be put up to the people, plainly."

She clutched the edge of his desk, staring at him with wide, tragic eyes.

"Your name heads the list. Did--you do this?"

"I am the chairman of that committee. I did my part."

"But the law declares them innocent," she gasped--"all but two, and they can be tried over again."

"The law!" He smiled bitterly. "Do you believe that?"

"I believe they are guilty--who can doubt it? But this lawlessness-- this mad cry for revenge--it is against all my beliefs, my religion. Oh, my friend, can't you stop it? At least take no part in it--for my sake."

His look was hard, yet regretful,

"For your sake I would give my life gladly," he said, "but there are times when one must act his destined part. That verdict holds me up to the public as a perjurer; but that is a small matter. Oh, I have had my scruples; I have questioned my conscience, and deep in my heart I see that there is only one way. I'd be a hypocrite if I denied it. I'm wrong, perhaps, but I can't be untrue to myself."

"We know but a part of the truth," she urged, desperately. "God alone knows it all. You saw three men--there are others whom you did not see."

"They were seen by other eyes quite as trustworthy as mine."

She wrung her hands miserably, crying:

"But wait! Guilty or innocent, they have appeared in judgment, and the law has acquitted them. You urge upon the people now a crime greater than theirs. Two wrongs do not make a right. Who are you to raise yourself above that power which is supreme?"

"There's a law higher than the courts."

"Yes, one; the law of God. If our means have failed, leave their punishment to Him."

He shook his head, no trace of yielding in his eyes.

"One man was killed, and yet you contemplate the death of eleven!"

"Listen," he cried, "this cause belongs to the people who have seen their sacred institutions debauched. If I had the power to sway the citizens of New Orleans from the course which I believe they contemplate, I doubt that I could bring myself to exercise it, for it is plain that the Mafia must be exterminated. The good of the city, the safety of all of us, demands it." He regarded her curiously. "Do you realize what Maruffi's freedom would mean to you and Oliveta?"

"We are in God's hands."

"It would require a miracle to save you. Caesar would have my life, too; he told me as much with his eyes when that corrupted jury lifted the fear of death from his heart."

"So!" cried the girl. "You fear him, therefore you take this means of destroying him! You goad the public and your friends into a red rage and send them to murder your enemy."

Her hysteria was not proof against the look which leaped into his eyes--the pallor that left him facing her with the visage of a sick man.

"During the last five years," he said, slowly, "I've often tried to be a man, but never until last night have I succeeded fully. When I signed that call to arms I felt that I was writing Maruffi's death-warrant. I hesitated for a time, then I put aside all thoughts of myself, and now I'm prepared to meet this accusation. I knew it would come. The world--my world--knows that Maruffi's life or mine hinges on his liberty; if he dies by the mob to-day, that world will call me coward for my act; it will say that I roused the passions of the populace to save myself. Nevertheless, I was chosen leader of that committee, and I did their will--as I shall do the will of the people."

"The will of the people! You know very well that the people have no will. They do what their leaders tell them."

"My name is written. I am sorry that I cannot do as you wish."

"But surely you do not deceive yourself," she insisted. "This is wrong, oh, so inconceivably, so terribly wrong! You do not possess the divine power to bestow life. How then can you dare to take it? By what possible authority do you decree the destruction of your fellow-men whom the law has adjudged innocent?"

"By the sovereign authority of the public good. By the inherited right of self-protection."

"You would shoot them down, like caged animals?"

"Those eleven individuals have ceased to exist as men. They represent an infection, a diseased spot which must be cut out. They stand for disorder and violence; to free them would be a crime, to give them arms to defend themselves would be merely to increase their evil."

"There is a child among them, too; would you have his death upon your conscience?"

"I told Gino he should come to no harm, and, God willing, he sha'n't."

"How can you hope to stem the rage of a thousand madmen? A mob will stop at no half measures. There are two men among the prisoners who are entitled to another trial. Do you think the people will spare them if they take the others?" He shrugged his shoulders doubtfully, and she shuddered. "You shall not have the death of those defenseless men upon your soul!" she cried. "Your hands at least shall remain clean."

"Please don't urge me," he said.

"But I do. I ask you to take no part in this barbarous uprising."

"And I must refuse you."

She looked at him wildly; her face was ashen as she continued:

"You have said that you love me. Can't you make this sacrifice for me? Can't you make this concession to my fears, my conscience, my beliefs? I am only a woman, and I cannot face this grim and awful thing. I cannot think of your part in it."

The look she gave him went to his heart.

"Margherita!" he cried, in torture; "don't you see I have no choice? I couldn't yield, even if the price were--you and your love. You wouldn't rob me of my manhood?"

"I could never touch hands which were stained with the blood of defenseless men--not even in friendship, you--understand?"

"I understand!" For a second time the color left his face.

Her glance wavered again, she swayed, then groped for the door, while he stood like stone in his tracks.

"Good-by!" he said, lifelessly.

"Good-by!" she answered, in the same tone. "I have done my part. You are a man, and you must do yours as you see it. But may God save you from bloodshed."

Long before the hour set for the gathering at Clay Statue the streets in that vicinity began to fill. Men continued on past their places of business; shops and offices remained closed; the wide strip of neutral ground which divided the two sides of the city's leading thoroughfare began to pack. Around the base of the monument groups of citizens congregated until the cars were forced to slow down and proceed with a clangor of gongs which served only as a tocsin to draw more recruits. Vehicles came to a halt, were wedged dose to the curbs, and became coigns of vantage; office windows, store-fronts, balconies, and roof-tops began to cluster with a human freight.

After a week of wind and rain the sun had risen in a sky that was cloudless, save for a few thin streaks of shining silver which resembled long polished rapiers or the gleaming spear-points of a host still hidden below the horizon. The fragrance of shrubs and flowers, long dormant, weighted the breeze. It was a glorious morning, fit for love and laughter and little children.

Nor did the rapidly swelling assemblage resemble in any measure a mob bent upon violence. It was composed mainly of law-abiding business men who greeted each other genially; in their grave, intelligent faces was no hint of savagery or brutality. All traffic finally ceased, the entire neighborhood was massed and clotted with waiting humanity; then, as the hour struck, a running salvo of applause came from the galleries and a cheer from the street when a handful of men was seen crowding its way up to the base of the statue. It was composed of a half-dozen prominent men who had been identified with the Committee of Justice; among them was Norvin Blake. A hush followed as one of them mounted the pedestal and began to speak. He was recognized as Judge Blackmar, a wealthy lawyer, and his well-trained voice filled the wide spaces from wall to wall; it went out over the sea of heads and up to the crowded roof-tops.

He told of the reasons which had inspired this indignation meeting; he recounted the history of the Mafia in New Orleans, and recalled its many outrages culminating in the assassination of Chief Donnelly.

"Affairs have reached such a crisis," said he, "that we who live in an organized and civilized community find our laws ineffective and are forced to protect ourselves as best we may. When courts fail, the people must act. What protection is left us, when our highest police official is slain in our very midst by the Mafia and his assassins turned loose upon us? This is not the first case of wilful murder and supine justice; our court records are full of similar ones. The time has come to say whether we shall tolerate these outrages further or whether we shall set aside the verdict of an infamous and perjured jury and cleanse our city of the ghouls which prey upon it. I ask you to consider this question fairly. You have been assembled, not behind closed doors, nor under the cloak of darkness, but in the heart of the city, in the broad light of day, to take such action as honest men must take to save their homes against a public enemy. What is your answer?"

A roar broke from all sides; an incoherent, wordless growling rumbled down the street. Those on the outskirts of the assemblage who had come merely from curiosity, or in doubt that anything would be accomplished, began to press closer.

A restless murmur, broken by the cries of excitable men, arose when the second speaker took his place. Then as he spoke the temper of the people began to manifest itself undeniably. The crowd swayed and cheered; certain demands were voiced insistently; a wave of intense excitement swept it as it heard its desires so boldly proclaimed. As the heaving sea is lashed to fury by the wind, the people's rage mounted higher with every sentence of the orator; every pause was greeted with howls. Men stared into the faces around them, and, seeing their own emotions mirrored, they were swept by an ever-increasing agitation. There was a general impulse to advance at once upon the parish prison, and knots of stragglers were already making in that direction, while down from the telegraph-poles, from roofs and shed-tops men were descending. All that seemed lacking for a concerted movement was a leader, a bold figure, a ringing voice to set this army in motion.

Blake had been selected to make the third address and to put the issue squarely up to the people; but, as he wedged his way forward to enact his role, up to the feet of the statue squirmed and wriggled a figure which assumed the place just vacated by the second speaker.

It was Bernie Dreux, but a different Bernie from the man his amazed friends in the crowd thought they knew. He was pale, and his limbs shook under him, but his eyes blazed with a fire which brought a hush of attention to all within sight of him. Up there against the heroic figure of Henry Clay he looked more diminutive, more insignificant than ever; but oddly enough he had attained a sudden dignity which made him seem intensely masterful and alive. For a moment he paused, erect and motionless, surveying that restless multitude which rocked and rumbled for the distance of a full city square in both directions; then he began. His voice, though high-pitched from emotion, was as clear and ringing as a trumpet; it pierced to the farthest limits of the giant audience and stirred it like a battle signal. The blood of his forefathers had awakened at last; and old General Dreux, the man of iron and fire and passion, was speaking through his son.

"People of New Orleans," he cried, "I desire neither fame nor name nor glory; I am here not as one of the Committee of Public Safety, but as a plain citizen. Let me therefore speak for you; let mine be the lips which give your answer. Fifty of our trusted townsmen were appointed to assist in bringing the murderers of Chief Donnelly to justice. They told us to wait upon the law. We waited, and the law failed. Our court and our jury were debauched; our Committee comes back to us now, the source from which it took its power, and acknowledges that it can do no more. It lays the matter in our hands and asks for our decision. Let me deliver the message: Justice must be done! Dan Donnelly must be avenged to-day!"

The clamor which had greeted the words of the previous speakers was as nothing to the titanic bellow which burst forth acclaiming Dreux's.

"This is the hour for action, not for talk," he continued, when he had stilled them. "The Anglo-Saxon is slow to anger, and because of that the Mafia has thrived among us; but once he is aroused, once his rights are invaded and his laws assailed, his rage is a thing to reckon with. Our Committee asks us if we are ready to take justice into our own hands, and I answer, Yes!"

A chaos of waving arms and of high-flung hats, a deafening crash of voices again answered.

"Then our speakers shall lead us. Judge Blackmar shall be the first in command; Mr. Slade, who spoke after him, shall be second, and I shall be the third in authority. Arm yourselves quickly, gentlemen, and may God have mercy upon the souls of those eleven murderers."

He leaped lightly down, and the great assemblage burst into motion, streaming out Canal Street like a storming army. It boiled into side streets and through every avenue which led in the direction of the prison. At each corner it gathered strength; every thoroughfare belched forth reinforcements; hundreds who had entertained no faintest notion of taking part fell in, were swallowed up in the seething tide, and went shouting to the very gates of the jail.

Once that tossing river of humanity had been given force and direction its character changed; it became a mailed dragon, it suddenly blossomed with steel. Peaceful, middle-aged men who had stood beside the monument buttoned up in peculiarly bulky overcoats were now marching silently with weapons at their shoulders.

Strangest of all, perhaps, was the greeting this army received on every side. The flotsam and jetsam which swirled along in its eddies or followed in its wake cheered, howled, and danced deliriously; men, women, and children from doorways and galleries raised their voices lustily, and applauded as if at some favorite carnival parade. In notable contrast was the bearing of the armed men themselves; they marched through the echoing streets like a regiment of mutes.

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