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Chapter 11

DEATH OF THE BANDIT.


The sky was magnificent, the air pure and transparent; the inhabitants of Palermo awoke as if it had been a holiday—the scholars at the colleges and schools had a holiday, and the whole population seemed to have assembled in the Rue de Toledo, through the whole length of which the condemned man would have to pass to go from the church of Saint François de Sales, where He had passed the night, to the Place de la Marine, where the execution was to take place.

The windows of the houses were filled with women, whose curiosity had roused them from their beds before their usual time, and the nuns of the various convents in Palermo and its environs might be seen moving like shadows behind the gratings of the galleries; while on the flat roofs of the houses throngs of people waved to and fro like a field of grain.

The condemned man was at the gates of the church placed in a cart drawn by mules, and preceded by a number of White Penitents, the first of whom carried the cross and the four last the coffin. The executioner followed on horseback, bearing a red flag; his two assistants on foot, one on each side. Behind these came a body of Black Penitents, who closed the procession, which advanced in the midst of a double rank of militia and regular troops, while, on the outskirts of the crowd, men were running along clothed in long gray dresses, with their heads covered with hoods, having openings for the eyes and mouth, holding in one hand a bell, and in the other a large purse or bag, collecting alms for the deliverance of the soul of the criminal from purgatory.

It was reported also among the crowd that the criminal had refused to confess, and this deviation from the religious ideas entertained by all gave more weight to the rumours which had been spread abroad since the very beginning of his career, of an infernal compact between Bruno and the enemy of mankind. A feeling of terror, therefore, sat upon the curious yet mute population, and no shouts, no cries, not even a murmur, disturbed the dirge of death as it was chanted by the White Penitents at the head of the procession and the Black Penitents in the rear. Behind these last, and as fast as the culprit advanced along the Rue de Toledo, the spectators joined the procession and accompanied it towards the Place de la Marine.

As to Pascal, he was the only one who appeared perfectly calm in the midst of this agitated mass of people, and he looked upon the crowd that surrounded him without humility and without ostentation, like a man who, understanding the duties of individuals towards society in general and the rights of society in respect to individuals, did not repent that he had forgotten the last, nor complained that it avenged the first.

The procession stopped for an instant at the Place des Quatre Cantons, which forms the centre of the city, for so great a crowd were pressing forward from either side of the Rue de Cassero, that the line of troops was broken, and the centre of the road being crowded with people, the Penitents were unable to proceed.

Pascal took advantage of this sudden halt to stand up in the cart and look round him, like one about to give a final order or make a last sign; but after a long examination of the crowd, and not seeing that of which he was in search, he fell back on the truss of straw that answered the purpose of a seat, and a cloud spread over his face which seemed to increase until the procession reached the Place de la Marine; then a second stoppage occurred, and Pascal a second time stood up.

At first, he cast a careless glance to the extremity of the place opposite the gibbet, and then his looks ran over the immense crowd that filled the extensive area of the place of execution, and which appeared paved with human heads, with the exception of the terrace of the palace of the Prince de Butera, which was completely deserted. He fixed his eyes upon a rich balcony covered with damask, embroidered with gold, and sheltered from the sun by purple awnings. There, on a species of platform, and surrounded by the most elegant women, and the noblest lords of Palermo, the beautiful Gemma of Castel Nuova was seated, who, anxious to witness the last agony of her enemy, had caused her throne to be raised facing the scaffold.

The looks of Pascal Bruno and the counters met, and seemed to dart flashes of hatred and vengeance: they were still gazing on each other when a strange cry arose among the crowd that surrounded the cart. Pascal started, and turning quickly to the spot from whence the sound came, his features not only resumed their wonted expression of calmness, but a look of joy spread over them.

At this, instant the procession was again about to move on, when Bruno, with a loud voice, exclaimed—

"Stop!"

The word had a magical effect, the whole of the crowd seemed for an instant nailed to the earth, every face was turned to the condemned man, and a thousand eager looks were fixed upon him.

"What is it you want?" said the executioner,

"My confessor," said Pascal.

"The priest is gone," said the executioner; "you sent him away."

"My usual confessor is the monk on my left hand in the crowd," said Bruno. "I did not want the other; but I wish to confess to this man."

The executioner gave a look of impatience and denial; but at the same instant the people, who had heard the request of the condemned man, cried out—

"The confessor! the confessor!"

The executioner was obliged to submit, and the crowd made way for the monk: he was a tall young man, of a swarthy complexion, and seemed as if he were exhausted by the austerities of the cloister; he went up to the cart and climbed into it.

At the same instant Bruno fell on his knees—this was a general signal; on the pavement, in the street, on the balconies at the windows, on the roofs of the houses, every one knelt; all excepting the executioner, who remained on horseback, and his assistants, who stood by his side. At the same instant the Penitents began to chant the prayers for the dying, to conceal by the voices the words of the confession.

"I have been long expecting you," observed Bruno. "I was waiting here for you," replied Ali, for he it was.

"I was afraid they would not keep the promise they made me," said Bruso; "and that you would meet the same fate as myself."

"No," said Ali, "they have kept their promise; I am at liberty."

"Listen then," said Bruno.

"I am attentive," replied Ali.

"There, on my right hand—" Bruno turned in that direction, for his hands were bound, and he had no other means of pointing—"you see a balcony covered with gold embroidery."

"Yes," said Ali.

"On that balcony is a young and beautiful woman, with flowers in her hair—"

"I see her," interrupted Ali; "she is on her knees at prayers like the rest."

"That woman," said Bruno, "is the Countess Gemma, of Castel Nuova."

"Beneath whose window I was waiting when you were wounded in the shoulder?" asked Ali.

"Yes," replied Bruno, "that woman is the cause of all my misfortunes; she forced me to commit my first crime; she has brought me here!"

"Well," said Ali.

"I should not die in peace if I knew that she would survive me happy and honoured," continued Bruno. "You may die in peace," said the youth.

"Thanks, thanks, Ali!" said Bruno, impressively.

"Let me embrace you once more father," said Ali.

"Adieu!" said Bruno.

"Farewell for ever!" said Ali.

The young monk embraced the culprit as a priest is in the habit of doing when he gives absolution to the sinner, and he then alighted from the cart and mingled with the crowd.

"Go on," said Bruno, imperatively; and the procession again obeyed him, as if the speaker had the right to command.

Every one arose; Gemma reseated herself, and the procession moved on towards the scaffold.

When it arrived at the foot of the gibbet, the executioner descended from his horse, mounted the scaffold, climbed up the ladder, and fixed his blood-coloured flag on the cross-piece above, satisfied himself that the cord was well fastened, and threw off his coat that he might have more freedom of action.

Pascal immediately sprang out of the cart, thrust aside with his shoulders the hangmen's men, who wished to assist him, rapidly mounted the scaffold, and placed himself against the ladder which he had to climb backwards. At the same instant, the Penitent who carried the cross placed it in front of the bandit, so that he might see it in its dying moments. The Penitents who carried the coffin seated themselves upon it, and the troops formed themselves into a semicircle round the scaffold, leaving in the centre the two bands of Penitents, the executioner, his assistants, and their victim, Pascal mounted the ladder, refusing all assistance, with the calmness he had hitherto displayed, and as Gemma's balcony was facing him, it was even observed that he cast his eyes in that direction and smiled. At the same instant, the executioner passed the cord round his neck, seized him by the middle of his body, and cast him off the ladder; he then slipped down the cord, and pressed with his whole weight on the shoulders of the culprit, while the assistants, clinging to his legs, pulled at the lower part of his body; but suddenly the rope broke, not being able to bear the weight of four persons, and the whole party, the executioner, his assistants, and their victim, were rolling on the scaffold.

One man arose before the rest—it was Pascal Bruno, whose hands had burst the cords with which they were tied; he stood up in the midst of a general silence, having in his right side a knife the executioner had in his rage at the accident plunged into it the whole length of its blade.

"Wretch!" cried the bandit, addressing the hangman, "you are neither fit for an executioner nor a bandit; you can neither hang nor assassinate."

With these words, he drew out the reeking knife from his right side, and plunging it into his left side near his heart fell dead.

Then there arose a terrific shout and a wild tumult in the crowd, some rushed away from the spot, while others attacked the scaffold.

The body of the condemned man was carried away by the Penitents, and the executioner was nearly torn in pieces by the people.

Alexandre Dumas pere

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