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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 6. A New Resolve
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The Net - Chapter 6. A New Resolve Post by :sullc Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2410

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The Net - Chapter 6. A New Resolve

CHAPTER VI. A NEW RESOLVE

All Sicily blazed with the account of the assassination of the Count of Martinello and his overseer. All Italy took it up and called for vengeance. There went forth to the world by wire, by post, and through the public press a many-voiced and authoritative promise that the brigandage which had cursed the island for so many generations should be extirpated. The outrage was the one topic of conversation from Trapani to Genoa, from Brindisi to Venice, in clubs, in homes, upon the streets. Carbineers and soldiers came pouring into Terranova and San Sebastiano. They scoured the mountains and patrolled the roads; they searched the houses and farms, the valleys and thickets, and as the days dragged on, proving the futility of their efforts, still more carbineers arrived. But no trace of Cardi, of Narcone, or of the other outlaws was discovered. Rewards were offered, doubled, trebled; the north coast seethed with excitement.

The rank of the young Count and his fiancee enlisted the interest of the nobility, the lively-minded middle classes were romantically stirred by the picture of the lonely girl stricken on the eve of her wedding, and yet notwithstanding the fact that towns were searched, forests dragged as with a net, no quarry came to bay.

Colonel Neri explained it to Norvin, as he rode in to San Sebastiano after thirty-six hours in the saddle.

"It is this accursed Sicilian Mafia," he growled. "The common people are shocked, horrified, sympathetic, and yet they fear to show their true feelings. They dare not tell what they know. Mark you, those men are not hiding in the forests, they are here in San Sebastiano or the other villages under our very noses; perhaps they are strutting the streets of Palermo or Bagheria or Messina marked by a hundred eyes, discussed by a hundred tongues, and yet we cannot surprise a look or win the slightest hint. Fifty arrests have been made, but there will be fifty alibis proven. It is maddening, it is damnable, it is-- Sicily!" He swore wearily beneath his breath, and twirled his mustache with listless fingers.

"Then you are losing hope?"

"No. I had none to begin with, for I know these people. But we are doing everything possible. God in heaven! The country is wild. From Rome has come the order, definite, explicit, to stamp out the banditti, if it requires an army; enough soldiers are coming to defeat the Germans. But the more we have the less we shall accomplish. 'Sweep Sicily!' 'Stamp out the Mafia!' What does Rome know about the Mafia? Signore, did we arrest one half of those whom we know to be Mafiosi, Rome would need to send us, not an army of soldiers, but regiments of stone masons to enlarge our prisons. No! Send back the armed men, give me ten thousand of your American dollars, and ten of my carbineers, and I will catch Cardi, though it would require the cunning of the devil. However, we may find something; who can tell? At any rate we will try."

"Can't you work secretly?"

"It is being done, but we are too many. We make too much noise. The Sicilian distrusts the law and above all he distrusts his neighbor. He will perjure himself to acquit a Mafioso rather than betray him and become a victim of his vengeance. He who talks little is wise. Of that which does not concern him he says neither good nor evil; that is a part of the Sicilians' training. But--miracles have happened, and God may intervene for that saintly girl at Terranova. And now tell me, how is the poor child bearing up?"

"I haven't seen her since we brought in Martel's body. I couldn't, in fact, although I have sent word for her to call me when she is ready. It seems a long time since--since--"

Neri shook his head in sorrowful agreement.

"I have never seen such grief. My heart bleeds. She was so still! Not a tear! Not an outcry! It was terrible! Weak women do not act in that manner. But you have suffered also, and I judge you have rested no more than I."

"I can't rest," Blake said, dully. "I can do nothing but think." He did not reveal the nature of the thoughts which in the short space of thirty-six hours had put lines into his face. Instead, he scanned the officer's countenance with fearful eyes to see if by any chance he had guessed the truth. Blake had found himself looking thus at every one since the tragedy, and it was a source of constant wonder to him that his secret had remained his own. It seemed that they must know and loathe him as he loathed himself. But on the contrary he was treated with sympathy on all sides, and it was taken merely as an example of the outlaws' cunning that they had refrained from injuring a foreigner. To illustrate how curiously the Sicilian mind works on these subjects, there were some who even spoke of it as demonstrating the fairness of the bandits, thus to exclude Savigno's friend from any connection with their quarrel.

During the long hours since the night of his friend's death Blake had looked at himself in all his nakedness of soul, and the sight was not pleasant. He could never escape the thought that if he had acted the part of a man, if he had resisted with the promptness and vigor of his companions, the result might have been different and Martel might at this moment be on his way to Rome with his bride, alive and well. On such occasions he felt like a murderer. But his mind was not always undivided in this self-condemnation; there were times when with some show of justice he told himself that the result would have been the same or even worse if he had fought; and he tried to ease his conscience by dwelling on the possibility that under other circumstances he might not have proved a coward. He had been physically tired, worn out; his nervous force had been spent. At the moment of ambush his mind had been far away and he had had no time in which to gather his wits. Moral courage, he knew, is quite different from physical courage, which may depend upon one's digestion, one's state of mind, or the amount of sleep one has had. It is sometimes present in physical weaklings, and men of great daring may entirely lack it. A man's behavior when suddenly attacked and overpowered is a test of his nerve rather than his true nature. Still, at the last, he was always faced by the stark, ugly fact that he had been tried and found wanting. Conversation with Neri he found rather a relief.

"I wonder what the Countess will do?" he said.

"What would any one do? She will grieve for a long while, but time will gradually rob her of her sorrow. She will remember Martel as a saint and marry some sinner like you or me."

"Marry? Never!"

"Never?" The Colonel raised his brows. "She is young, she is human, she is full of fire. It would be a great pity if she did not allow herself to love--a great pity indeed."

"I'm afraid she's thinking more of vengeance than of love."

"Perhaps, but hatred is short-lived, while love grows younger all the time. The world is full of great loves, but great hates usually consume themselves quickly. I hope she will leave all thoughts of such things to us who make a business of them."

"If you fail, as you fear, she might feel bound to take up the task where you leave it."

"And she might succeed. But--"

"But what?"

"Revenge is a cold bedfellow, and women are designed to cherish finer sentiments. As for Lucrezia, she will doubtless swear a vendetta, like those Sardinians."

"She has."

"Indeed! Well, she is the kind to nourish hatred, for she is like her father, silent, somber, unforgiving, whereas the Contessa is all sunshine. But hear me talk! I am dying of fatigue. The funeral is at twelve? It will be very sad and the poor girl will be under the greatest strain then, so we must be with her, you and I. And then I must be off again upon the trail of this infamous Cardi, who is, and who is not. Ah, well!" He yawned widely. "We may accomplish the impossible, or if not we may press him so closely that he will sail for your America, which would not be so bad, after all."

Of course the country people turned out for the funeral, but for the most part they came from curiosity. To Norvin the presence of such spectators at the last sacred rites for the dead seemed sacrilegious, indecent, and he knew that it must add to Margherita's pain. It was an endless, heart-rending ordeal, a great somber, impressive pageant, of which he remembered little save a tall, tawny girl crushed beneath a grief so great that his own seemed trivial in comparison.

She was in such a state of physical collapse after the service that she did not send for him until the second day following. He came timidly even then, for he was at a loss how to comfort her, vividly conscious as he was of his own guilt and shame. He found her crouched upon one of the old stone benches in the garden in the full hot glare of the sun. It relieved him to find that she had lost her unnatural self-control, having fallen, it seemed, into much the same mood he would have expected in any woman. It had been so hard to find what to say heretofore--for she was braver than those about her and her grief was so deep as to render words of comfort futile. Her eyes now were heavy and full of haunting shadows, her ivory cheeks were pale, her lips tremulous, and she seemed at last to crave sympathy.

"I do not know why I have summoned you," she said, leaving her hand in his, "unless it is because my loneliness has begun and I lack the courage to face it."

"I have been waiting. It will always be so, Contessa. I shall come from across the world whenever you need me."

She smiled listlessly. "You are very good. I knew you were waiting. It seems so strange to know that he is gone"--her voice caught, her eyes filled, then cleared without overflowing--"and that the world is moving on again in the same way and only I am left standing by the wayside. You cannot wait with me; you must move on with the rest of the world. You had planned to go home, and you must, for you have your work and it calls you."

"Please don't think of it. I sha'n't leave you for a long time. I promised Martel--"

"You promised? Then he had reason to suspect?"

"He would not acknowledge the possibility, and yet he must have had a premonition."

"Oh, why will men trust themselves when women know! If he had told me, if he had confided his fears to me, I could have told him what to do."

"I couldn't leave now, even if I wished, for I might be needed by the--the law. You understand? It isn't finished with me yet."

"The law will not need you," she told him bitterly. "The law will do nothing. The task is for other hands."

After a pause he said, "I had news from home to-day,--rather bad news." Then at her quick look of inquiry he went on: "Nothing serious, I hope, nothing to take me away. My mother is ill and has cabled me to come."

"Then you will go at once, of course?"

"No. I've tried to explain to her the situation here, and the necessity of my remaining for a time at least. Unless she grows worse I shall stay and try to help Neri in his search."

"It is a great comfort to have you near, for in you I see a part of-- Martel. You were his other half. But there are other aching hearts, it seems. That mother calls to you, and you ought to go. Besides, I must begin my work."

"What work?"

She met his eyes squarely. "You know without asking. Neri will fail; no Italian could succeed; no one could succeed except a Sicilian. I am one."

"You mean to bring those men to justice?"

She nodded. "Certainly! Who else can do it?"

"But, my dear Signorina, think what that means. They are of a class with which you can have no contact. They are the dregs; there is the Mafia to reckon with. How will you go about it?"

"I will become one of them, if necessary."

He answered her in a shocked voice. "No, no! You are mad to think of it. If you were a man you might have some chance for success, but you--a girl, a gentlewoman!"

"I am a Sicilian. I am rich, too. I have resources." She took him by the arm as she had done that first time when the thought of Martel's danger had roused her. "I told you no power could save them; no hiding-place could be so secret, no lies so cunning that I would not know. Well! Those soldiers have failed and will continue to fail. But you see they did not love Martel. I shall live for this thing."

"I won't allow you to dwell on the subject; it isn't natural, and it isn't good for you. The desire to see justice done is commendable and proper, but the desire for revenge isn't. You must not sacrifice your life to it. There is a law of compensation; those men will be apprehended."

"Where is my compensation? What had Martel done to warrant this?"

He fell silent, and she shook her head as if to indicate the hopelessness of answering her. After a moment of meditation he began again, gravely:

"If you feel that way, I shall make you an offer. Give up your idea of taking an active personal part in this quest, and I will assume your place. We will work together, but you will direct while I face the risks."

"You are a stranger. We would be sure to fail. I thank you, but my mind is made up."

"If it becomes known, you will be in great danger. Think! Life is before you, and all its possibilities. Please let other hands do this."

"It is useless to argue," she said, firmly. "I am like rock. I have begun already and I have accomplished more than Colonel Neri and his carbineers. I see Aliandro coming now, and I think he has news. He knows many things of which the soldiers do not dream, for he is one of the people. You will excuse me?"

"Of course, but--I can't let you undertake so dangerous a task without a protest. I shall come back, if I may."

He rose as the old man shuffled down the path, and went in search of the Donna Teresa, for he was determined to offer every discouragement in his power to what struck him as an extremely rash and perilous course. Men like Belisario Cardi, or Narcone the Butcher, would hesitate no more in attacking a woman than a man. He knew the whole Sicilian country to be a web of intrigue and secret understandings, sensitive to the slightest touch and possessed of many means of communication. It was a great ear which heard the slightest stir, and its unfailing efficiency was shown by the ease with which the bandits had forestalled every effort of the authorities.

In the hall of the manor house he encountered Lucrezia and stopped to speak to her.

"You would do a great deal to protect the Countess, would you not?" he asked.

"Yes, Signore. She has been both a sister and a mother to me. But what do you mean?"

Ferara's daughter was a robust girl of considerable physical charm, but although her training at Terranova had done much for her, it was still evident that she was a country woman. She had nursed her grief with all the sullen fierceness of a peasant, and even now her face and eyes were swollen from weeping.

Blake explained briefly his concern, but when he had finished, the girl surprised him by breaking forth into a furious denunciation of the assassins. She surrendered to her passion with complete abandon, and began to curse the names of Cardi and Gian Narcone horribly.

"We demand blood to wash our blood," she cried. "I curse them and their souls, living and dead, in the name of God who made my father, in the name of Christ who died for him, in the name of the holy saints who could not save him. In the name of the whole world I curse them. May they pray and not be heard. May they repent unforgiven and lie unburied. May every living thing that bears their names die in agony before their eyes. May their women and unborn children be afflicted with every unclean thing until they pray for death at my hands--"

"Lucrezia!" He seized her roughly and clapped his hand over her mouth, for her voice was rising steadily and threatened to rouse the whole household. Her cheeks were white, she was shaking with long, tearless sobs. She would have broken out again when he released her had he not commanded her to be silent. He tried to explain that this work of vengeance was not for her or for the Countess, and to point out the ruin that was sure to follow any attempt on their part to take up the work of the carabinieri, but she shook her head, declaring stubbornly:

"We have sworn it."

The more he argued the more obstinate she became, until, seeing the ineffectiveness of his pleas, he gave up any further effort to move her, sorry that he had raised such a storm. He went on in search of Madam Fazello, with Lucrezia's parting words ringing ominously in his ears:

"If we die, we shall be buried; if we live, we shall give them to the hangman."

From Margherita's aunt he got but little comfort or hope of assistance.

"Oh, my dear boy, I agree with your every word," the old lady said. "But what can I do? I know better than you what it will lead to, but Margherita is like iron--there is no reasoning with her. She would sacrifice herself, Lucrezia, even me, to see Martel avenged, and if she does not have her way she will burn herself to ashes. As for Lucrezia, she is demented, and they do nothing all day but scheme and plan with Aliandro, who is himself as bad as any bandit. I have no voice with them; they do with me as they will." She hid her face in her trembling fingers and wept softly. "And to think--we were all so happy with Martel!"

"Nevertheless, somebody must dissuade them from this enterprise. It is no matter for two girls and an old man to undertake."

"I pray hourly for guidance, but I am frightened, so frightened! When Margherita talks to me, when I see her high resolve, I am ready to follow; then when I am alone I become like water again."

"What are her plans?"

"I do not know. I have begged her to take her sorrow to God. The bishop who came from Messina to marry Martel and remained to bury him has joined me. There is a convent at Palermo--"

"No, no!" Blake cried, vehemently. "Not that! That life is not for her. She must do nothing at all until her grief has had time to moderate."

"It will never be less. You do not know her. But you are the one to reason with her."

Realizing that the old lady was powerless, he returned to the garden and tried once more to weaken the girl's resolution, but without success. It was with a very troubled mind that he took the train back to San Sebastiano that afternoon.

The more he thought it over, the more certain he became that it was his duty to remain in Sicily until Margherita had reached her right senses. Martel had put a trust in him, and what could be more important than to prevent her from carrying out this fantastic enterprise? He would take up the search for the assassins in her place, allowing her to work through him and in that way satisfying her determination. What she needed above all things was distraction, occupation. If she remained persistent they would work side by side until justice had been done, and meanwhile he would become a part of her life. He might make himself necessary to her. At least he would prevent her from doing anything rash and perhaps fatal. In time he would prevail upon her to travel, to seek recreation, and then her youth would be bound to tell. That would be the work of a friend indeed, that would remove at least a part of the obligation which rested upon him. Some day, he reasoned, the Countess might even marry and be happy in spite of what had occurred. As he contemplated the idea, it began to seem less improbable. What if she should come to care for him? He would still be true to Martel, for how could he protect her better than by making her his wife? His heart leaped at the thought, but then his old self-disgust returned, reminding him that he had yet to prove himself a man.

As he stepped down from the train at San Sebastiano the station master met him with a telegram. Even before he opened it he guessed its contents, and his spirits sank. Was he never to escape these maddening questions of duty--never to be free to pursue his heart's desire?

It was a cablegram, and read:

"Come quickly.

"KENEAR."

He regarded it gravely for a moment, striving to balance his duty to Martel and the girl against his duty to his mother, but his hesitation was brief. He stepped into the little telegraph office with the mandarin-tree peering in at the open window and wrote his answer. He did not try to deceive himself; the mere fact that Dr. Kenear had been summoned from New Orleans showed as plainly as the message itself that his mother's condition was more serious than he had supposed. She was alone with many responsibilities upon her frail shoulders, and she was calling for her son. There was but one thing to do.

He stopped at the barracks to explain the necessity for his immediate departure to Colonel Neri, who was most sympathetic. "You are not needed here," the soldier assured him, "and you would have to go, even though you were. You made your statement at the inquest; there is nothing further for you to do until we accomplish the capture of somebody. Even then I doubt if you could identify any one of those bandits."

"I think I should know Narcone anywhere."

The Colonel shrugged. "Narcone has been swallowed by the earth. As for Cardi and the rest, they have become thin smoke and the wind has carried them away. We are precisely where we were at the start. Perhaps it is fortunate for you that you have not been called upon to testify against any of the band, for even the fact that you are a foreigner might not save you from--unpleasant results."

Norvin reasoned silently that if this were indeed true it more than confirmed his fears for the Countess, and after a brief hesitation he told the soldier what he had learned at his visit to Terranova. Neri rose and paced the room in agitation.

"Oh! She is mad indeed!" he exclaimed. "What can she do that we have not already done? Aliandro? Bah! He is a doddering old reprobate who will spread news instead of gather it. He has a bad record, and although he loved Martel and doubtless loves Margherita, I have no confidence in him whatever. She will accomplish nothing but her own undoing."

"I am afraid so, too. That is why I shall return to Sicily as soon as possible."

"Indeed? Then you plan to come back? Martel was fortunate to have so good a friend as you, Signore. We must both do all we can to prevent this folly on the part of his sweetheart. You may rest assured that I shall make every effort in your absence." The Colonel extended his hand, and Norvin took it, feeling some relief in the knowledge that there was at least one man close to the girl upon whose caution he could rely and upon whose good offices he could count. He had grown to like the soldier during their brief acquaintance, and the fact that Neri knew and appreciated the situation helped to reconcile him to the thought of going away.

He was not ready to leave Sicily, however, without one final appeal, and accordingly he stopped at Terranova on the following morning on his way to Messina, where a boat was sailing for Naples that night. But he found no change in the Countess; on the contrary, she told him gently but firmly that she had made up her mind once for all and that she would resent any further efforts at dissuasion.

"Won't you even wait until I return?" he inquired.

She shook her head and smiled sadly.

"Do not let us deceive ourselves, amico mio; you will not return."

"On the contrary, I shall. You make it necessary for me to return whether I wish to or not."

"The ocean is wide, the world moves. You are a foreigner and you will forget. It is only in Sicily that people remember."

"Will you give me time to prove you wrong?"

"I could not allow it. You have your own life to live; you have a multitude of duties. Martel, you see, was only your friend. But with me it is different. He was my lover; my life was a part of his and my duty will not let me sleep."

"You have no reason to say I will forget."

"It is the way of the world. Then, too, there is the other woman. You will see her. You will find a way, perhaps."

But he replied, doggedly, "I shall return to Sicily."

"When?"

"I can't tell. A month from now--two months at the longest."

"It would be very sweet to have you near," she said musingly, "for I am lonely, very lonely, and with you I feel at rest, at peace in a way. But something drives me, Signore, and I cannot promise. If you should not forget, if you should wish to join hands with me, then I should thank God and be very glad. But I sha'n't wish for it; that would be unfair."

His voice shook as he said, "I am going to prove to you that your life is not hopelessly wrecked, and to show you that there is something worth living for."

She laid her two cool hands in his and looked deeply into his eyes, but if she saw what lay in them she showed no altered feeling in her words or tone.

"Martel would be glad to have you near me, I am sure," she said, "but I shall only pray for your safety and your happiness in that far-off America. Good-by."

He kissed her fingers, vowing silently to devote his whole life to her, and finding it very hard to leave.

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