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Chapter 4

THE PRINCE AND THE BANDIT.


Scarcely a year had passed after the events we have just related before all Sicily—from Messina to Palermo—from Cephalu to Cape Passaro—was filled with reports of the exploits of the bandit Pascal Bruno. Considering the previous history of his family, his adventurous character, and the badly-organised state of society in his native country, it is not astonishing that Pascal Bruno should so rapidly have become the extraordinary character he desired to be. He had, as it were, established himself as a judge over justice itself; so that throughout all Sicily, and particularly at Bauso and its environs, no arbitrary act could be performed without escaping the notice of his tribunal; and as most of his judgments affected the powerful only, the weak were almost always on his side.

In this manner, when some rich lord imposed a heavy rent on a poor farmer—when a marriage was about to be broken off though the cupidity of a family—when an iniquitous sentence was passed on an innocent man—Bruno, after receiving notice, would shoulder his carbine, let loose his four Corsican dogs (his only band), mount his Valda Noto horse—half Arabian and half mountaineer, like himself—leave the little fortress of Castel Nuovo, where he had taken up his abode, go to the lord, the father, or the judge, and the rent was reduced, the marriage took place, or the prisoner was set at liberty.

From this, it may be very well understood, that all those men to whom he had thus been a benefactor would pay for the benefits they had received by devotion to his interests, and that every attempt made to capture him would be sure to fail, through the grateful watchfulness of the peasants, who warned him by signals agreed on beforehand of the dangers that threatened him.

Then, again, the most strange tales were told of him by everybody; for the simpler men's minds are, the fonder they are of believing the marvellous. They said, that on a stormy night, when the whole island trembled, Pascal Bruno entered into a compact with a sorceress, by which he obtained from her, giving his soul in exchange, the gift of being invisible, and the faculty of transporting himself in an instant from one end of the island to the other; as well as being rendered invulnerable, either by lead, iron, or fire. The bargain, they said, was to stand good for three years, Bruno having only signed it for the purpose of accomplishing an act of vengeance, for which purpose this term, short as it was, would be sufficient.

As for Pascal, far from destroying this belief, he perceived it was beneficial to him, and he endeavoured, on the contrary, to give it the appearance of truth. These various tales had often afforded him the means of establishing his invincible nature, by attributing to it a knowledge of circumstances which it must be imagined would otherwise have been perfectly unknown to him. The speed of his horse, by whose aid he could find himself in the morning at incredible distances from the place where he had been seen at night, convinced them of his locomotive faculty. A circumstance, also, of which he had taken advantage, like a skilful man, had left no doubt of his invulnerable nature; it was as follows:—

The murder of Gaetano had produced a great sensation; the Prince of Carini had given orders to all the commanders of companies to endeavour to arrest the assassin, who, however, led those who followed him a long chase through his audacity and cunning; they had, therefore, transmitted these orders to their agents.

The chief justice of Spadafora was informed, one morning, that Pascal Bruno had passed through the village during the night on his way to Divieto; the two following nights, therefore, he placed men in ambuscade on the road-side, thinking he would return by the same road he had taken when going, and take advantage of the night to perform his journey.

Wearied out by their two nights' watching, the morning of the third day, which was Sunday, the soldiers had assembled at a drinking-shop about twenty steps from the road-side: they were about to begin their breakfast, when some one brought them word that Pascal Bruno was quietly coming along the road from the direction of Divieto: as they had no time to conceal themselves, they waited for him where they were, and when he was within fifty yards of the inn, they sallied out and drew up before the door, without, however, appearing to notice him. Bruno, on his side, saw these preparations for the attack without any apparent uneasiness, and, instead of retracing his steps, an easy task, he put his horse into a gallop and continued his journey. As soon as the soldiers perceived his intention, they got their muskets ready, and the moment he passed before them, the whole company saluted him with a general discharge; but neither horse nor rider was touched, and they emerged safe and sound from the cloud of smoke in which they had been for an instant enveloped. The soldiers looked at them and shook their heads, and proceeded to recount what had happened to the judge of Spadafora.

The report of this adventure reached Bauso the same evening; and several of the inhabitants, whose imagination was more lively than that of their neighbours, began to think Pascal Bruno was enchanted, and that lead and iron when they struck him became soft and flattened. The next day this assertion was proved by incontestable evidence; for they found his jacket at the justice's door, pierced in thirteen places by bullets, and the thirteen flattened balls were found in one of the pockets. Some unbelievers, however, and among them was Caesar Alletto, a notary of Calvaruso, from whose lips we had these particulars, maintained that the bandit himself, having miraculously escaped from the volley of musketry, and wishing to profit by the circumstance, had hung his jacket to a tree and pierced it with bullets in thirteen places. But, notwithstanding this opinion, the majority were convinced of his bearing a charmed life, and the terror Pascal already inspired was considerably increased.

This dread of Bruno was so great and so well established that, spreading from the lower orders, it had infected even the higher classes, and to such an extent that, a few months before the time at which we have arrived, being in want of two hundred ounces of gold for one of his philanthropic projects (it was to rebuild an inn which had been burnt down), he addressed himself to the Prince of Butera to obtain a loan of the money, describing to him a place in the mountains where he would go to receive it, and begging of him to bury it at the precise spot, so that on the night he mentioned he might go and seek it. In case this request, which, however, more resembled a command, was not attended to, Bruno warned the prince there would be open war between the king of the mountains and the king of the plains; but that if, on the contrary, the prince would be kind enough to lend it to him, the two hundred ounces of gold would be faithfully returned out of the first money he should be able to carry off from the royal treasure.

The prince of Butera was one of those characters which have become extremely rare in modern times: he was one of the ancient Sicilian nobility, as adventurous and chivalrous as the Normans, by whom their constitution and society were formed. His name was Hercules, and he seemed formed after the model of that ancient hero. He could knock down a restive horse with a blow of his fist; break a bar of iron, half an inch thick, on his knee; and bend a piastre with his finger. An occurrence, in which he had exhibited the greatest presence of mind, had made him the idol of the people of Palermo. In 1770, there was a scarcity of bread in the city; a riot was the consequence; the governor had appealed to the ultima ratio, and the cannon were drawn out in the Toledo street; the people were moving towards the guns; the gunner, with match in hand, was in the act of firing on the people, when the Prince of Butera seated himself over the mouth of a cannon, as coolly as if it had been a chair, and in that situation made so eloquent and rational a speech that the mob dispersed of its own accord, and the gunner threw away the match, and the gun returned into the arsenal innocent of human blood. But this was not the only cause of his popularity.

He was in the habit every morning of walking on his terrace, which overlooked the Place de la Marine, and as the gates of his palace were open to everybody, at daybreak he always found a number of poor people assembled; on that account he constantly wore a huge buckskin waistcoat, whose immense pockets were filled every morning by his servant with carlins and half-carlins, all of which, to the very last piece, disappeared during his walk, and that with words and actions that belonged to himself alone, so that he always seemed as if he was about to knock down those on whom he was bestowing charity.

"Your excellency," said a poor woman, surrounded by her family, "have pity on a poor mother with five children."

"An excellent reason," replied the prince, in an angry tone; "ami their father?" and shaking his fist in her face, he dropped a handful of money into her apron.

"My lord prince," said another, "I am without food."

"You fool," replied the prince, giving him a cuff, and at the same time enough to procure him food for a week; "do I make bread? Why do you not go to the baker's?"

On this account, whenever the prince passed along the street every head was uncovered, and if he had said the word, he might have been made King of Sicily; but that idea never entered his head, and so he remained Prince of Butera.

This liberality of his, however, met with a reprover, and that within the walls of the prince's palace, and this reprover was his major-domo. It is clear that a man with a character like that we have endeavoured to trace must necessarily keep a splendid table; in fact, he kept in every sense of the word open house, so that every day he had from five-and-twenty to thirty guests at the least to dine with him; among these, seven or eight were perfect strangers to him; while, on the other hand, there were others who seated themselves as regularly as boarders at a table d'hôte.

Among these last there was a certain Captain Altavilla, who had gained his epaulettes by following Cardinal Ruffo from Palermo to Naples; and who returned from Naples to Palermo with a pension of a thousand ducats. Unfortunately, the captain was somewhat of a gambler, and this would have caused his pension to be insufficient for his wants, if he had not discovered two plans by means of which his quarterly pay had become the least important part of his revenue; the first of these plans, and one, as I have already said, that was open to all the world, was to dine every day with the prince; and the second was, every day, with the most scrupulous regularity, to put the silver cover of the plate off which he had dined into his pocket.

The manouvre continued for some time before this daily abstraction was noticed; but, well furnished as the plate-chests of the prince might be, they began to exhibit certain vacant spaces. The suspicions of the major-domo immediately fell on the follower of Cardinal Ruffo; he, therefore, carefully watched him, and after two or three days his suspicions were changed into certainty.

He immediately informed the prince of the discovery he had made, who reflected for an instant, and then answered, that so long as the captain merely took his own cover he should take no notice; but that if he put his neighbour's into his pocket, why then he would consider how he would act. In consequence of this, Captain Altavilla continued to be one of the most regular guests of his excellency Prince Hercules de Butera.

The prince was at Castrogiovanni, where he had a villa, when Bruno's letter was brought to him. He read it, and asked if the messenger was waiting for an answer. He was told, "no" and immediately he put the letter into his pocket, with as much sang froid as if it had merely been on some trivial subject.

The night fixed upon by Bruno had arrived; the spot he had indicated in his letter was on the southern ridge of mount Etna, near one of the numerous extinct volcanoes that were indebted for their existence of a day to its eternal fires—an existence, nevertheless, sufficient for the destruction of cities. The volcano in question was called Montebaldo; for each of these terrible hills received a name at the time it was raised up from the earth. Ten minutes' walk from its base a colossal and isolated tree arose, called the chesnut of a hundred horses, because around its trunk, the circumference of which is equal to 178 feet, and beneath its foliage, which of itself forms a forest, a hundred horsemen and their steeds can take shelter.

It was at the root of this tree Bruno was to seek the money he wished to borrow of the prince; consequently, about eleven o'clock in the evening he left Centorbi, and towards midnight he began to discern by the light of the moon the gigantic tree, and the small house built between its stems, in which its immense produce is harvested. As he drew near, Pascal thought he could distinguish a shadow cast upon one of the five trunks which arose from the same root. Soon afterwards the shade appeared a reality; the bandit stopped, cocked his carbine, and cried, "Who goes there?"

"A man, to be sure!" exclaimed a powerful voice. "Why, zounds! you did net expect the money could come alone?"

"No, certainly not," said Bruno; "but I did not think the man who brought it would have been bold enough to wait for my coming."

"Then you are not acquainted with Prince Heretics de Butera? that is all."

"How! yourself my lord?" said Bruno, throwing his carbine over his shoulder and advancing hat in hand to the prince.

"Yes, it is I, you rogue," replied the prince; "I, who thought a bandit might be in want of money the same as any other man; and I did not wish to refuse my purse even to a bandit, only I took the fancy of bringing it myself for fear he should imagine I was afraid of him."

"Your excellency is worthy of your high reputation," said Bruno.

"And you, are you deserving of yours?" asked the prince.

"It depends upon how I have been spoken of to your excellency," said Bruno, "for I have more than one reputation."

"Good," continued the prince; "I see you are not deficient in ability or resolution; I admire brave men, let me meet with them where I will. Listen to me; will you change your Calabrian dress for the uniform of a captain and fight against the French? I will raise a company for you on my own estates, and purchase your epaulettes."

"Thank you, my lord, thank you," said Bruno, "your offer is like that of a magnificent prince; but I have a certain act of vengeance to accomplish that will keep me for some time longer in Sicily; after that we shall see."

"Well," said the prince, "you are free; but, believe me, you had better accept my offer."

"I cannot, your excellency," said Bruno.

"Well then," said the prince, "here is the money you asked for; go to the devil with it, and take care you don't get yourself hanged on the gibbet opposite my door on the Place de la Marine."

Bruno balanced the purse in his hand.

"It seems to me that the purse is very heavy, my lord," said he.

"That is because I did not wish a fellow like you should be able to brag that he had fixed a limit to the liberality of the Prince of Butera; so, instead of the two hundred ounces of gold you asked for, I have put three hundred in the purse."

"Whatever sum you have been pleased to bring, my lord, it shall be faithfully returned to you," said Bruno.

"I give; I never lend," said the prince.

"And I borrow or I steal—I never beg," replied Bruno; "take back your purse, my lord, I shall address myself to Prince Ventimille, or to Prince de la Cattolica."

"Well, let it be so," said the prince; "I never met with a more capricious bandit: four rascals like you would drive me mad; so I shall leave. Farewell!"

"Adieu, my lord!" said Bruno, "and may St Rosalie protect you."

The prince departed, with his hands in the pockets of his buckskin waistcoat, and whistling a favourite air; Bruno remained motionless watching his departure, and it was not until he had lost sight of him that he, on his side, retired, heaving a deep sigh.

The next day, the innkeeper whose house had been burned down received, by the hands of Ali, the Prince of Butera's three hundred ounces of gold.

Alexandre Dumas pere

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