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The Net By Rex Beach Characters: 23465

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

To avoid the dampening effect of an early departure the three men rode out quietly from the courtyard at the rear of the house, leaving the merrymakers to their fun.

"So, this is our last ride together," Norvin said, as they left the valley and began the long ascent of the mountain that lay between them and Martinello.

"Yes. Henceforth we spare our horses. You see tomorrow we will take the morning train. Half of San Sebastiano will accompany us, too, and everybody will be dressed in his finest. Ricardo here, for instance, will wear his new brown suit-a glorious affair. Eh, Ricardo?"

"It would be as well to refrain from speaking," said the overseer, gruffly. "The road is dark. Who knows what may be waiting?"

"Nonsense! Be not always a bear. We are three armed men. I fancy Narcone, nay, even our dreadful Cardi himself, would scarcely dare molest us."

Ferara merely grunted and continued to hold his place abreast of his employer. Norvin observed that he carried his rifle across his saddle-bow, and involuntarily shifted the strap of his own weapon so that it might be ready in case of an emergency. He had rebelled, somewhat, at carrying a firearm, but Martel, after making a clean breast of his troubles that first morning, had insisted, and the American had yielded even though he felt ridiculous.

The sky was moonless to-night but crowded with stars which gave light enough so that the riders were able to follow the road without difficulty, although the shadows on either side were dense. The air was sweet, and so still that the sounds of revelry from Terranova were plainly audible. Strains of music floated up the hillside, the shouts of the master of ceremonies came distinctly as he issued his commands for a country dance. The many lights within the grounds shone cloudily among the tree-tops far below, like the effulgence from some well-lit city hidden behind a hill, now disappearing for a time, now shining out again as the road pursued its meanderings. The hurried footfalls of the horses thudded steadily in the soft dust; the saddles creaked with that music which lulls a horseman like a song.

"Youth! Youth! What a glorious thing it is!" exclaimed Martel after a fruitless attempt to hold his tongue. "Ricardo would have us go prowling like robbers when our hearts are singing loud enough for all the mountainside to hear. There is no evil in the world to-night, for the world is in love; to-morrow it bursts into happiness! And I am king over it all!"

"I shall be glad to be rid of you, just the same," grumbled the old man.

"Ricardo alone has fears, but he was never young. Think you that the gods would permit my wedding-day to be marred? Bah! One can see evil before it comes; it casts a shadow; it has a chilling breath which any one with sensibilities can feel. As for me, I see the future as clearly as if it were spread out before me in the sunshine, and there is no misfortune in it anywhere. I cannot conceive of misfortune, with all this gladness and expectancy inside me."

"They have begun the fireworks," said Blake. "It's too bad you couldn't stay to see them, Martel." He turned in his saddle, and the others reined in as a rocket soared into the night sky and burst with a shower of sparks. Others followed and a detonation sounded faintly.

"Poor people!" said the Count, gently. "I can hear them crying, 'Oh!'

'Ah!' 'Beautiful!' 'It is an angel from heaven!'"

"On the contrary, I'll warrant they're exclaiming, 'It is that angel from San Sebastiano.' You have given them a great night."

The Count laughed. "Yes. They will have much to talk and dream about. Their lives are very barren, you know, and I hope the Countess and I will be able to make them brighter as the years go by. Oh, I have plans, caro mio, so many plans I scarcely know where to begin or how to talk about them. I could never be an artist, no matter how furiously I painted, no matter how many beautiful women I drew; but I can paint smiles upon the faces of those sad women down yonder. I can bring happiness into their lives. And that will be a picture to look back upon, eh? Don't you think so? When they learn to know me, when they learn to love and trust me, there will be brighter days at Terranova and at San Sebastiano."

"They love you now, I am sure."

"I am too much a stranger yet. I have neglected my duties, but-well, in my travels I have learned some things that will be of benefit to us all. I see so much to do. It is delightful to be young and full of hopes, and to have the means of realizing them. Above all, it is delicious to know that there is one who will share those ambitions and efforts with you. I see Ricardo is disgusted with me, but he is a pessimist. He does not believe in charity and love."

"What foolish talk!" protested the old man with heat. "Do I not love my girl Lucrezia? Do I not love you, the Countess, and-and-perhaps a few others?"

Martel laughed. "I was merely teasing you."

They resumed their journey, leaving the showering meteors behind them, and the Count, in the lightness of his heart, began humming a tune.

As for Blake, he rode as silently as Ferara, being lost in contemplation of a happiness in which he had no part. Not until this moment had he realized how entirely unnecessary he was to the existence of Martel and Margherita. He longed to remain a part of them, but saw that his desire was vain. They were complete without him, their lives would be full. He began to feel like a stranger already. It was a new sensation, for he had always seemed to be a factor in the lives of those about him; but Martel had changed with the advent of new interests and ambitions. Sicily, too, was different from any land he knew, and even Margherita Ginini was hard to understand. She seemed to be the spirit of Sicily made flesh and blood. He wondered if the very fact that she was so unusual might not help him to forget her once he was away from her influence. He hoped so, for this last week had been the most painful period of his life. He had come south, somewhat against his will, for a kaleidoscopic glimpse of Europe, never dreaming that he would carry back to America anything more than the usual flitting memories of a pleasant trip; but instead he was destined to take with him a single vivid picture. He argued that he was merely infatuated with the girl, carried away by the allurement of a new and remarkable type of woman, and that these headlong passions were neither healthy nor lasting; but his reasoning brought him no real sense of conviction, and his life, as he looked forward to it, appeared singularly flat and stale. His one consolation, poor as it seemed, lay in the fact that he had played the man to the best of his ability and was really glad, even if a bit envious, of Martel's good-fortune.

He let his thoughts run free in this manner, sitting his horse listlessly, for he was tired mentally and physically, watching the gray road idly as it slipped past beneath the muffled hoofs, and lulled by Savigno's musical humming.

It was while he was still in this half-somnolent, semidetached frame of mind that he rode into a sudden white-hot whirl of events.

Norvin Blake was never clear in his mind regarding the precise sequence of the action that followed, for he was snatched too quickly from his mental relaxation to retain any well-defined impressions. He recalled vaguely that the road lay like a mysterious canon walled in with darkness, and that his thoughts were miles away when his horse shied without warning, nearly unseating him and bringing him back to a sense of his surroundings with a shock. Simultaneously he heard a cry from Ricardo; it was a scream of agony, cutting through Savigno's song like a saber stroke. For a moment Blake's heart seemed to stop, then began pounding crazily. A stream of fire leaped out at his left side, splitting the quiet night with a detonation. The wood which had lain so silent and deserted an instant before was lit by answering flashes, the blackness at an arm's-length on every side was stabbed by wicked tongues of flame, and the road swarmed with grotesque bodies leaping and tumbling and fighting. Blake's horse reared as something black rose up beneath its forefeet and snatched at its bridle; Martel's steed lurched into it, then fell kicking and screaming, sending its mate careening to the roadside. The unexpected movement wrenched Norvin's feet from the stirrups and left him clinging desperately to mane and cantle.

It all came with a terrifying swiftness-quite as if the three riders had crossed over a powder-train at the instant of its eruption, to find themselves, in the fraction of a second, involved in chaos.

Ricardo's horse thundered away, riderless, leaving a squirming, wriggling confusion of forms in the road where the overseer was battling for his life. Martel's voice rose shrilly in a curse, and then Norvin felt himself dragged roughly from his saddle, whether by human hands or by some overhanging tree-branch he never knew. The force of his fall bruised and stunned him, but he struggled weakly to his feet only to find himself in the grasp of a man whose black visage fronted his own. He tried to break away, but his bones were like rope, his muscles were flabby and shaking. He exerted no more force than a child. In front of him something sickening, something unspeakably foul and horrible, was going on, and in its presence he was wholly unmanned. More hands seized him quickly, but he lacked the vigor to attempt an escape. On the contrary, he hung limp and paralyzed with terror. The mystery, the uncertainty, the hideous significance of that wordless scuffle in the dusty road rendered him nerveless, and he cried out shakingly, like a man in a nightmare.

A voice commanded him to be silent, a hot breath beat against his cheek; but he could not restrain his hysteria, and one of his captors began to throttle him. He heard his name called and saw Savigno's figure outlined briefly against the gray background, saw another figure blend with it, then heard Martel's voice end in a rising cry which lived to haunt his memory. It rose in protest, in surprise, as if the Count doubted even at the last that death could really claim him. Then it broke in a thin, wavering shriek.

Blake may have fainted; at any rate, his body was beyond his control, and his next remembrance was of being half dragged, half thrust forward out into the lesser shadows. There was no longer any struggling, although men were speaking excitedly and he could hear them panting; some one was working the ejector of a rifle as if it had stuck. A tall man was wiping his hands upon some dried grass pluck'ed from the roadside, and he was cursing.

"Who is this?" he cried, thrusting his face into the American's and showing a brutal countenance bristly with a week's growth of beard.

"The stranger," one of Blake's captors answered, whereupon the tall man uttered a violent exclamation.

"Wait!" cried the other. "He is already dying. He cannot stand."

Some one else explained, "It is indeed the American, but he is wounded."

"Let me finish the work; he has seen too much," said the first speaker, roughly.

"No, no! He is the American. Do you not understand?"

"Remember the order, Narcone," cautioned another.

But Narcone continued to curse as if mastered by the craving to kill, and if the others had not laid hands upon him he might have made good his intention. They argued with him, all at once, and in the midst of the confusion which ensued a new voice called from the darkness:

"What have you there?"

"The American! He cannot stand."

A square figure came swiftly throug

h the group, muttering angrily, and the others fell back to give him room, all but Narcone, who repeated, doggedly:

"Let me finish the work if you fear to do so."

His companions broke out at him again in a babble of argument, whereupon the new-comer shouted at them in a furious voice:

"Silenzio! Who did this?"

No one answered for a moment, but at length the brigand who held Blake's hands pinioned at his back with a sash or scarf ventured to suggest:

"I am not so sure he is injured. We pulled him down first; he may only be frightened."

"There was to be no shooting," growled the leader of the band.

"Eh? But you saw for yourself. There was nothing else to do," said

Narcone. "That Ricardo was an old wolf."

The thick-set man, whom Norvin took to be the infamous Cardi himself, cried sharply:

"Come, come, Signore, speak! Are you hurt?"

The prisoner shook his head mechanically, although he did not know whether he was injured or not. His denial seemed to satisfy the chief, who said with relief:

"It is well. We did not wish to harm you. There would be consequences, you understand? And now a match, somebody."

"It is not necessary," Narcone assured him with a laugh. "Of what use to learn a trade like mine if one cannot strike true? The knife went home, twice-once for us, once for poor Galli, who was murdered. It was like killing sheep." Picking up the wisp of grass which he had dropped, he began to dry his hands once more.

A tiny flame flickered in the darkness. It was lowered until it shone upon the upturned face of Ricardo Ferara where he lay sprawled in the dust, his teeth showing beneath his gray mustache, then died away, and the black outlines of the bull-necked man leaped into relief again as he stooped to examine Martel.

Not until that instant did the full, crushing horror of the affair come home to the American, for events had crowded one another so closely that his mind was confused; but when, in the halting yellow glare, he saw those two slack forms and the crooked, unnatural postures in which death had left them, his consciousness cleared and he strained at his bonds like a fear-maddened horse.

His actual danger, however, was at an end. One of the band removed the rifle which still hung from his shoulders and which he had forgotten; another slipped the scarf from his wrists and directed him to go. He staggered away down the road along which he and Martel and Ricardo had come, walking like a sick man, for he was crippled with, fright. After a few steps he began to run, heavily, awkwardly at first, stumbling as if his joints were loose; but as his body awoke and the blood surged through him he went faster and faster until he was fleeing like a wild animal. And as he ran his terror grew. He fell many times, goblin shapes pursued him or leaped forth from the shadows, but he knew that no matter how fast he fled he could never escape the thing he had met back there in the night. It was not the grisly sight of his murdered friend nor the bared teeth of Ricardo Ferara grinning upward out of the road which filled him with the greatest horror; it was the knowledge of his own foul, sickening cowardice. He ran wildly as if to leave it behind, but it trod in his tracks and kept step with him.

The pyrotechnics at Terranova were nearly over and the grounds echoed to the applause of the delighted spectators. The Donna Teresa was leaning upon the arm of Colonel Neri and saying:

"No one but that extravagant Martel would have entertained these poor people so magnificently, but there is no reasoning with him when he has an idea."

"It is the finest display since the fair at San Felice two years ago," the Colonel acknowledged. They had come out upon the open piazza which overlooked the lawn, and the other guests who had been present at the supper had followed suit and were gathered there to admire the spectacle.

"The country people will never finish discussing it. Why, it has been the greatest event this village ever witnessed. And Margherita! Have you ever seen her so beautiful?" The old lady spoke with pride, for she was very happy.

"Never!" Colonel Neri fondled his mustache tenderly. "She is ablaze with love. Oh, that Martel has broken all our hearts, lucky fellow! I could hate him if I did not like him so."

"You men, without exception, pretend to adore her but it is flattery; you know that she loves it and that it pleases me. Now Martel-Madonna mia! What is this?" She broke off sharply and pointed toward the main gateway to the grounds.

By the light that gleamed from the trees on each side of the driveway men could be seen approaching at a run; others were hurrying toward them across the terrace, calling excitedly to one another. A woman screamed something unintelligible, but the tone of her voice brought a hush over the merrymakers.

In the midst of the group coming up the road was one who labored heavily. He was bareheaded, gray with dust, and he staggered as if wounded.

"Some one has been hurt," exclaimed the Colonel. "Maledetto! There has been a fight." He dropped his companion's arm and hastened to the steps, then halfway down paused, staring. He whirled quickly and cried to the old lady: "Wait! Do not come."

But Madame Fazello had seen the white face of the runner, and screamed:

"Mother of God! The American!"

The other guests from the balcony pressed forward with alarmed inquiries. No one guessed as yet what had befallen, but the loud voices died away, a murmuring tide swept the merrymakers toward the castello.

"What has happened, Signore?" Colonel Neri was crying. "Speak!"

"The Mafia!" Blake gasped. "Martel-is-" His knees sagged and he would have pitched forward had not the soldier supported him. "We met them-in the woods. Cardi-"

"Cardi!" echoed the Colonel in a harsh voice.

"Cardi!" came from a dozen frightened throats. The Donna Teresa uttered a second shrill cry, and then through the ranks of staring, chalk-faced peasants the Countess came running swiftly.

"Cardi!" she cried. "What is this I hear?"

"Go away, Signorina, I beseech you," exclaimed the Colonel of carbineers. "Something dreadful has occurred." But she disregarded him and faced Norvin Blake.

He raised his dripping, dust-smeared face and nodded, whereat she closed her eyes an instant and swayed. But she made no outcry.

"Take her-away," he wheezed painfully. "God in heaven! Don't you-understand?"

Even yet there was no coherent speech and the people merely stared at one another or inquired, dully:

"What did he say? What is this about Cardi?"

"Take her away," Blake repeated. But the Countess recovered herself and with a little gesture bade him go on. He told his story haltingly, clinging to the Colonel to prevent himself from falling, his matted head rolling weakly from side to side. When he had finished a furious clamor broke forth from the men, the women, and the children. Neri commanded them roughly to silence.

"Run to the village, some one, and give the alarm," he ordered in the voice of a sick man. "Call Sandro and his men and bid them bring extra horses."

A half-dozen fleet-footed youths broke away and were off before he had finished speaking. Then Blake was helped into the hall of the castello, where the confusion was less.

Lucrezia Ferara, who had been in the rear of the house and was among the last to hear the evil tidings, came running to him with colorless lips and eyes distended, crying:

"The truth, Signore, for the love of Christ! They tell me he is murdered, but I know it is a lie."

The notary's wife attempted to calm her, but the girl began to scream, flinging herself upon her knees at the feet of the American, begging him to tell her it was all a mistake.

"My father would not die," she cried, loudly. "He was here but an hour ago and he kissed me."

She would not be calmed and became so violent that it required force to remove her. As soon as she was out of the way, Colonel Neri began questioning Norvin rapidly, at the same time striving by his own example to steady the young man, who was in a terrible condition of collapse. Bit by bit, the soldier learned all there was to learn of the shocking story, and through it all the Countess Margherita stood at his elbow, never speaking. Her eyes were glazed with horror, her lips were whispering something over and over, but when her cousin appealed to her to leave the scene she seemed not to hear him. She only stood and stared at the exhausted man until he could bear it no longer and, hiding his face in his hands, he began to shiver and cringe and sob.

It seemed to him that she must know; that all these people must know the truth, and see his shame as if it were blazoned in fire. Their horror was for him; their looks were changing even now to contempt and hatred. Why did they not accuse him openly instead of staring with wide, shocked eyes? Realization had come to him long before he had reached Terranova, and he was sick with loathing for himself. Now, therefore, in every blanched cheek, in every parted lip, he felt an accusation. He supposed all the world would have to know it, and it was a thing he could never live down. He wished he might have died as Martel had died, might die even now, and escape this torture; but with every breath life flowed back into him, his heart was no longer bursting, his lungs were no longer splitting.

"Why do you wait?" he queried at length, thinking of Martel out there on the lonely mountainside. "Why don't you go fetch him?"

Neri said, soothingly: "Help will be here in a few moments, Signore.

You could not sit a horse yet a while."

"I?" Blake asked blankly, and shuddered. So they expected him to return through that darkness-to guide them to the horror from which he had just fled! He would not go! His mind recoiled at the thought and terror came upon him afresh. Nevertheless, he made an effort at self-control, lurched to his feet, and chattered through clicking teeth: "Come on! I'm ready."

"Presently! Presently! There will be men and horses here in a moment." In a lower tone the Colonel urged: "For the love of our Saviour, can you not send the Contessa away? I am afraid she is dying."

Blake went to the girl and laid a shaking hand upon her arm, stammering, wretchedly:

"Contessa, you-you-" He could not go on and turned appealingly to the others.

"You say he is dead?" she inquired dully. "How can that be when you told me there was no danger?"

"I did not know. Oh-" he lowered his working features. "If it had only been I, instead!"

She nodded. "That would have been better."

From somewhere to the rear of the house came the shrill screams of

Lucrezia, and the Countess cried: "Poor child! They did not even spare

Ricardo, but-after all, he was only a father."

Neri said, gently: "Let me help you, Signorina. The doctor is with your aunt, but I will call him."

"He cannot give me back Martel," she answered in the same dull, lifeless tone.

Voices, footsteps, sounded outside and a man in the cocked hat and uniform of a lieutenant of carbineers came briskly into the hall and saluted his superior.

"We are ready, sir."

The Countess roused herself, saying: "Then come! I too am ready."

"Heaven above us!" Neri faltered. "You are not going." He took her by the hand and led her away from the door. "No, my child, we will go alone. You must wait." His face was twitching, and the sweat dripped from his square jaw as he nodded to Blake.

They went out into the mocking glare of the garden lights, leaving her standing in the great hall like a statue of ivory, her lips dumbly framing the name of her lover.

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