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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 3. The Golden Girl
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The Net - Chapter 3. The Golden Girl Post by :sullc Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :694

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The Net - Chapter 3. The Golden Girl

CHAPTER III. 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."

"The outlaw?"

"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.

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CHAPTER IV. THE FEAST AT TERRANOVADuring 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.
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CHAPTER II. A CONFESSION AND A PROMISENorvin 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
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