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The Net By Rex Beach Characters: 21440

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

During 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. He could no longer doubt that he was in love, madly infatuated with his best friend's fiancee, and the knowledge came like some crushing misfortune. It could scarcely be called a love at first sight, for he felt that he had always known and always loved this girl. He had never believed in these sudden obsessions, and more than once had been amused at Martel's ability to fall violently in love at a moment's notice, and to fall as quickly out again, but in spite of his coolest reasoning and sternest self-reproach he found the spell too strong for him. Every decent instinct commanded him to uproot this passion; every impetuous impulse burst into sudden flame and consumed his better sense, his judgment, and his loyalty, leaving him shaken and doubtful. Although this was his first serious soul conflict, he possessed more than average self-control, and he managed to conceal his feelings so well that Martel, who was the embodiment of loyalty and generosity, never for a moment suspected the truth. As for the girl, she was too full of her own happiness to see anything amiss. She took her lover's comrade into her heart with that odd unrestraint which characterized her, and, recognizing the bond which united the two young men, she strove to widen it sufficiently to include herself. It spoke well for her that she felt no jealousy of that love which a man bears for his life's best friend, but rather strove to encourage it. Her intense desire to be a part of her lover and share all his affections led her to strive earnestly for a third place in the union, with the result that Blake saw even more of her than did Savigno. She deliberately set herself the task of winning the American, a task already more than accomplished, had she but known it, and, although for some women such a course would have been neither easy nor safe, with her a misconception of motive was impossible.

She had an ardent, almost reckless manner of attacking problems; she was as intense and yet as changeful as a flame. Blake watched her varying moods with the same fascination with which one regards a wind-blown blaze, recognizing, even in her moments of repression, that she was ready to burst forth anew at the slightest breath. She was the sort of woman to dominate men, to inspire them with tremendous enthusiasm for good or for evil as they chanced to lean toward the one or the other. While she seemed wholly admirable, she exercised a damnable effect upon Norvin. He was tortured by a thousand devils, he was possessed by dreams and fancies hitherto strange and unrecognized. The nervous strain began to tell in time; he slept little, he grew weary of the struggle, things became unreal and distorted. He longed to end it all by fleeing from Sicily, and had there been more time he would have arranged for a summons to America. His mother had not been well for a long time, and he was tempted to use this fact as an excuse for immediate departure, but the thought that Martel needed him acted as an effective restraint. The vague menace of La Mafia still hung over the Count and was not lessened by the receipt of a second threatening letter a few days after Blake's arrival.

Cardi wrote again, demanding instant compliance with the terms contained in his first communication. Savigno was directed to send Ricardo Ferara at a given hour to a certain crossroads above San Sebastiano with ten thousand lire. In that case candles would be burned and masses said for the soul of the murdered Galli, so the writer promised. The letter put no penalty upon a failure to comply with these demands, beyond a vague prediction of evil. It was short and business-like and very much to the point.

As this was the first document of the kind Norvin had ever seen, he was greatly interested in it.

"Don't you think it may be the work of this fellow Narcone?" he inquired. "I understand he is the brother-in-law of Galli."

"Narcone would scarcely undertake so bold a piece of blackmail," the Count declared. "I knew him slightly before he gave himself to the campagna. He was a butcher; he was brutal and domineering, but he was a coward."

"It is not from Narcone," Ricardo pronounced, positively-they had called in the overseer for the discussion-"he is grossolano. He can neither read nor write. This letter is well spelled and well written."

"Then you think it is really from Cardi?"

Ricardo shrugged his square shoulders. "Who knows? Some say there is no such person, others declare he went to America years ago."

"What is your belief?"

"I know a man who has seen him."



"Bah! Aliandro is such a liar!" exclaimed Savigno.

"However that may be, he has seen things in his time. He says that Cardi is not what people suppose him to be-a brigand-except when it suits his desires. That is why he comes and goes and the carabinieri can never trace him. That is why he is at home in all parts of Sicily; that is why he uses men like Narcone when he chooses."

"It would please me to capture the wretch," said Martel.

"Let's try it," Norvin suggested, and accordingly a trap was laid.

Four carabinieri were sent to the appointed place, ahead of time, with directions to conceal themselves, and Ferara carried out his part of the programme. But no one came to meet him, he encountered no one coming or going to the crossroads, and returned greatly disgusted. However, at his suggestion Colonel Neri stationed the four soldier policemen at the castello to prevent any demonstration and to profit by any development which might occur.

The young men did not permit this diversion to interrupt their daily trips to Terranova, although as a matter of precaution they added Ippolito to their party. He was delighted at the change of duty, because, as Norvin discovered, it brought him to the side of Lucrezia Ferara. Thus it happened that Martel had reason to regret the choice of his bodyguard, for on the very first visit Ippolito began to strut and swagger before the girl and allowed the secret to escape him, whereupon it was carried to the Countess.

She appealed to Martel to leave San Sebastiano for the time being, to postpone the wedding, or at least to go to Messina for it; but of course he refused and tried to laugh down her misgivings, and of course she appealed privately to Blake for assistance.

"You must use your influence to change his mind," she said, earnestly. "He declares he will not be overawed by these ruffians. He says that to pay them the least attention would be to encourage them to another attempt when we return, but-he does not know the Mafia as I know it. You will do this for me?"

"Of course, if you wish it, although I agree with Martel, and I'm sure he won't listen to me. He can't play the coward. The wedding is only two days off now. Why, to-morrow is the gala-day! How could he notify the whole district, when all his preparations have been completed? What excuse could he give without confessing his fear and making himself liable to a later and stronger attack?"

"The country people need not know anything about it. Let them come and make merry. He can leave now, tonight. We will join him at Messina."

Norvin shook his head. "I'll do what I can, since you wish it, but I'm sure he won't consent to any change of plan. I'm sure, also, that you are needlessly troubled."

"Perhaps," she acknowledged, doubtfully. "And yet Martel's father-"

"Yes, yes. But conditions are not what they were fifteen years ago. This is merely a blackmailing scheme, and if he ignores it he'll probably never hear of it again. On the other hand, if he allows it to drive him away it will be repeated upon his return."

She searched his face with her eyes, and his wits reeled at her earnest gaze. He was conscious of a single wild desire that such anxiety might be for him. How gladly he would yield to her wishes-how gladly he would yield to any wish of hers! He was a foreigner; he hated this island and its people, for the most part, and yet if he stood in Martel's place he would willingly change his life to correspond with hers. He would become Sicilian in body and soul. She had the power to dissolve his habits, his likes and dislikes, and reconstruct him through and through.

"I hope you are right," she said at last. "And yet-it is said that no one escapes the Mafia."

"This isn't the Mafia. It is the work of some brigand-"

"What is the difference? The one merges into the other. Blood has been spilled; the forces are at work."

Suddenly she seized him by the arm, and her eyes blazed. "Look you," she cried, "if Martel should be injured, if these men should dare-all Sicily would not hold them. No power could save them, no hiding-place could be so secret, no lies so cunning, that I would not know. You understand?"

Blake saw that the girl was at last aroused to that intensity of feeling which he had recognized as latent in her. Love had caused her to glow, but it had required this breath of fear to fan the fire into full strength. He was deeply moved and answered simply: "I understand. I-never knew how much you loved him."

Her humor changed, and she smiled.

"One is foolish, perhaps, to be so frank, but that is my nature. You would not have me change it?"

"You couldn't if you tried."

"Martel has always known I loved him. I could never conceal it. I never wished to. If he had not seen it I would have told him. Just now, when I heard he was threatened-well, you see."

"Ippolito had no business to mention the matter. I suppose his tongue ran away with him. Tongues have a way of doing such things when their owners are in love."

"He is not for Lucrezia."

"Why? He's a fine fellow."

"Oh, but Lucrezia is superior. I have taught her a great many things. She is more like a sister to me than a servant, and I could not see her married to a farm-hand. She can do much better than to marry Ippolito."

"Love goes where it pleases," said the American with so much feeling that Margherita's eyes leaped to his.

"You know? Ah, my good friend, then you have loved?"

He nodded. "I have. I do."

She was instan

tly all eagerness, and beamed upon him with a frank delight that stabbed him.

"Martel? Does he know?"

"No, You see, there's no use-no possibility."

"I'm sorry. There must be some great mistake. I cannot conceive of so sad a thing."

"Please don't try," he exclaimed, panic-stricken at thought of the dangerous ground he was treading and miserably afraid she would guess the truth in spite of him.

"I should think any woman might love you," she said, critically, after a moment's meditation. "You are good and brave and true."

"Most discerning of women!" he cried, with an elaborate bow. "Those are but a few of my admirable traits." He was relieved to see that she had no suspicion of his feelings, for she was extremely quick of wit and her intuition was keen. No doubt, her failure to read him was due to her absorption in her own affairs. He had arrived at a better knowledge of her capabilities to-day and began to realize that she was as changeable as a chameleon. One moment she could be like the sirocco in warmth and languor, the next as sparkling as the sunlit ocean. Again she could be steeped in a dreamy abstraction or alive with a pagan joy of life. She might have been sixteen or thirty, as her mood chanced to affect her. Of all the crossed strains that go to make up the Sicilian race she had inherited more of the Oriental than the Greek or Roman. Somewhere back in the Ginini family there was Saracen blood, he felt sure.

Blake was as good as his word, and made her wishes known to Martel, who laughingly accused him of a lack of faith in his own arguments. The Count was bubbling with spirits at the immediate nearness of his nuptials, and declined to consider anything which might interfere with them. He joyfully told Blake that the tickets were already bought and all arrangements made to leave for Messina immediately after the ceremony, which would take place in the church at Terranova. They would catch the boat for Naples on the evening after the wedding, he explained, and Blake was to accompany them at least that far on his way to America. Meanwhile, he had no intention of foregoing the pleasure of to-morrow's celebration, even if Belisario Cardi himself should appear, to dispute his coming. It was the first, the last, and the only time he intended marrying, and he had promised himself to enjoy the occasion to the utmost, despite those letters, which, after all, were not to be taken seriously. So the matter was allowed to stand.

The country people had begun to assemble when Martel and his friend arrived at the Ginini manor on the following afternoon, and the grounds were filling with gaily dressed peasants. The train from Messina had brought Margherita's relatives, and the bishop had sent word that he would arrive in ample time for the ceremony on the next morning. The contadini were coming in afoot, astride of donkeys and mules, or in gaily painted carts pictured with the miracles of the saints and the conquests of the Moors. There were dark-haired men and women, wild-haired boys with roses above their ears, girls with huge ear-rings and fringed shawls which swept the ground as they walked. As yet they had not entirely lost their restraint, but Martel went among them with friendly hand-clasps and exuberant greetings, renewing old acquaintances and welcoming new until at last their shyness disappeared and they began to laugh and chatter unaffectedly.

Savigno had traveled, he told them. He had arranged many surprises for his friends. There would be games, dances, music, and a wonderful entertainment in the big striped tent yonder, supplied by a troupe of players which he had brought all the way from Palermo. As for the feast, well, the tables were already stretched under the trees, as they could see, and if any one wished to tantalize his nostrils just let him wander past the kitchen in the rear, where a dozen women had been at work since dawn. But that was not all; there would be gifts for the children and prizes for the best dancers. The handsomest woman would receive a magnificent shawl the like of which had never been dreamed of in Terranova, and then to prevent jealousy the others would receive presents also. But he would not say too much. Let them wait and see. Finally there would be fireworks, enough to satisfy every one; and all he asked of them was that they drink the health of the Countess Margherita and wish her lifelong happiness. It was to be a memorable occasion, he hoped, and if they did not enjoy themselves as never before, then he and his bride would feel that their wedding had been a great, a colossal failure.

But it seemed, as night approached, that Martel had no reason to doubt the quality of his entertainment, for the guests gave themselves up to joy as only southerners can, forgetting poverty, hardship, and all the grinding cares of their barren lives. They yielded quickly to the passion of the festa, and Blake began to see Sicily for the first time. He would have liked to enter into their merrymaking, but felt himself too much a stranger.

The feast was elaborate; no ristorante could have equaled it, no one but a spendthrift lover like Martel would have furnished it. But it was not until darkness came and the trees began to twinkle and glow with their myriad lights that the fun reached its highest pitch. Then there was true Sicilian dancing, true Sicilian joking, love-making. Eyes were bright, cheeks were flushed, lips were parted, and the halls of Terranova echoed to a bacchanalian tumult.

There had been an elaborate supper inside also, to which the more prominent townspeople had been invited and from which Norvin Blake was only too eager to escape as it drew to an end. The strain to which he had been subjected for the past week was growing unbearable, and the sight of Margherita Ginini clad like a vision in some elaborate Parisian gown so intensified his distress that he was glad to slip away into the open air at the first opportunity. He found Ricardo leaning against the bole of a eucalyptus-tree, observing the throng with watchful eyes.

"Why aren't you making merry?" Blake inquired.

The overseer shrugged his shoulders, replying, somberly, "I am waiting."

"For what?"

"Who knows? There are strangers here."

"You mean,"-Blake's manner changed quickly-"there may be enemies?"

"If Cardi is in the mountains behind Martinello, may he not be here at Terranova? I am looking for a thick, black man. Aliandro has described him."

"Cardi would scarcely come to a wedding feast," said Blake, with a certain feeling of uneasiness.

"Scarcely," the overseer agreed.

"Have you seen anything?"


"Where is Ippolito?"

Ricardo grunted. "Asleep in the stable. The imbecile is drunk."

To the American these Sicilian people looked very much alike. They were all a bit fantastic, and the scene reminded him of a fancy-dress ball where all the men represented brigands. Many of them were, or seemed to be, of truculent countenance; some wore piratical ear-rings, others had shawls wrapped about their heads as if for concealment. Any one of them might have been a brigand, for all he knew, and he saw how easy it would be for a handful of evil-intentioned persons to mingle unobserved with such a throng. Yet his better sense told him that he was silly to imagine such things. He had allowed old women's tales to upset his nerves.

A half-hour later, as he was watching the crowd from the loggiato, Margherita appeared, and he thought for a moment that she too might feel some vague foreboding, but her first words reassured him.

"My good friend, I missed you," she said, "but I had no chance of leaving until this moment." Coming close to him, she inquired: "Has something gone amiss? You have seemed sad all this evening. I do not know, but I fear your heart is-heavy."

He answered, unsteadily: "Perhaps it is. I-don't know."

"It is that certain woman."

"I dare say. I'm a great fool, you know."

"Don't say that. This is perhaps the only chance I shall have of seeing you alone."

"I'm glad," he broke out in a tone that startled her. "Glad for you. I have tried not to be a death's-head at your feast, but it has been a struggle."

"We women see things. Martel, boy that he is, does not suspect, and yet I, who have known you so short a time, have read your secret. It is our happiness which makes you sad."

"No, no. I'm not that sort. I share your happiness. I want it to continue."

"If I had one wish it would be that she might care for you as I care for Martel. And who knows? Perhaps she may. You say it is impossible, yet life is full of blind ways and unseen turnings. Somehow I feel that she will."

"You are very good," he managed to say. Then yielding to a sudden impulse, he took her hand and kissed it. A moment later she left him, but the touch of her cool flesh against his lips remained an unforgetable impression.

Savigno appeared, yawning prodigiously.

"Dio!" he exclaimed with a grimace. "Those cousins of hers are deadly dull; I do not blame you for escaping. And the judge, and the notary's wife, and that village doctor! Colonel Neri is a good chap, notwithstanding his mustache in which he takes so much pride. He nurses it like a child, and yet it is older than I. Poor friend of mine, you are a martyr, thus to endure for me."

"It's tremendously interesting, particularly this part out here," Norvin asserted. "I saw them dancing what I took to be the tarantella a moment ago. Those peasant boys are like leaping fauns."

"Yes, and they will continue to dance for hours yet. I fear the Donna Teresa will not retire at her usual hour. What a day it has been! It is fine to give people happiness. That is one of my new discoveries."

"Remember to-morrow."

"Believe me, I think of nothing else. That is why we must be going soon. We cannot wait even for the fireworks, as much as I would like to. It is a long road to Martinello and we must be up early in the morning. You do not object?"

"On the contrary, I was about to bear you off in spite of yourself."

"Then I will have Ippolito fetch the horses."

"Ippolito has been demonstrating the mastery of wine over matter. He is asleep in the manger."

"Drunk? Oh, the idiot! He has the appetite of a shark, but the belly of a herring. I ought to warm his soles with a cane," declared Savigno, angrily.

"Don't be too hard on him. I suspect Lucrezia would not listen to his suit, poor chap. He's sick from unrequited passion."

"Very well, we will leave him to sleep it off. I couldn't be harsh with him at this time. And now we had best begin presenting our good-nights, although I hate to go."

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