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Chapter 5

THE ROBBER'S CASTLE.


Some time after the event we have just related, Bruno learnt that a convoy of money, escorted by four gens-d'armes and a brigadier was about to leave Messina for Palermo; it was the ransom of the Prince Moncada Paterno; which, in consequence of a financial operation, which did great honour to the imagination of Ferdinand the Fourth, had just helped to swell the Neapolitan budget instead of increasing the treasure of Casuba, according to its first destination.

The following is the history of the transaction, as it was told me in Sicily, and, as it is as curious as it is authentic, we think it deserves the trouble of being told; besides, it will give some idea of the simple manner in which taxes are imposed in Sicily.

We have already related the manner in which the Prince de Moncada Paterno was made prisoner by the Barbary Corsairs near the little village of Tugello, on his return from the island of Pantalleria. He was carried, along with all his followers, to Algiers, and there the price of his ransom and that of his attendants was modestly fixed at the sum of five hundred thousand piastres (about one hundred thousand pounds sterling), half to be paid before his departure, and the other half after his return to Sicily.

The prince wrote to his steward to inform him of the situation in which he found himself placed, and desired him to send, as quickly as possible, the two hundred and fifty thousand piastres in exchange for which he was to be liberated. As the Prince of Moncada Paterno was one of the richest noblemen in Sicily, the sum was easily made up and sent to Africa; and faithful to his promise, like a true follower of the prophet, the Dey released the Prince of Paterno, taking his word of honour that before a year had passed by he would remit the remaining two hundred and fifty thousand piastres.

The prince returned to Sicily and endeavoured to collect the sum necessary for the second instalment of his ransom in his own principality, when an order came from Ferdinand IV., who, seeing that he was at war with the regency, had no wish that his subjects should enrich his enemies; he therefore opposed the proceedings of the prince, and ordered the two hundred and fifty thousand piastres in question to be paid into the treasury at Messina.

The Prince of Paterno, who was a man of honour a well as a faithful subject, obeyed the order of his sovereign and the voice of his conscience at the same time, so that his ransom cost him seven hundred and fifty thousand piastres, two-thirds of which were sent to the infidel Corsair, and the other third placed at Messina in the hands of the Prince de Carini, the agent of the Christian pirate. This was the sum the viceroy was sending to Palermo, the seat of government, under the escort of four gens-d'armes and a brigadier; the last being likewise charged with the duty of delivering a letter from the prince to his dear Gemma, whom he requested to join him at Messina, where the business of government would still detain him for several months.

On the evening when the convoy would have to pass near Bauso, Bruno unfastened his four Corsican dogs, crossed the village, of which he had become the lord, in their company, and placed himself in ambuscade on the road between Divieto and Spadafora. He had remained there about an hour, when he heard the wheels of a waggon and the tramp of horsemen. He looked to the priming of his carbine, satisfied himself that his dagger was not fixed in its sheath, whistled to his dogs, who laid themselves down at his feet, and remained standing upright in the middle of the road.

A few minutes afterwards, the convoy appeared at a turning in the road, and advanced to within fifty paces of the man who was waiting for its coming up. When the gens-d'armes perceived him, they hailed him with, "Who goes there?"

"Pascal Bruno," replied the bandit; and, at the sound of a peculiar whistle, his powerful dogs, trained for the purpose, fiercely attacked the little troop.

At the name of Pascal Bruno, the four gens-d'armes had taken to their heels, and the dogs by natural instinct pursued the runaways. The brigadier, who remained alone by the waggon, drew his sabre and rushed at the bandit. Pascal raised his carbine to his shoulder as coolly and slowly as if he were about to shoot at a mark, determining not to fire until the horseman was within ten paces of him; but the instant he placed his finger on the trigger, and before he had time to fire, both horse and man rolled in the dust. Ali had stealthily followed without saying a word to Bruno, and seeing the brigadier about to charge him, he had crawled along the road like a serpent and cut the horse's hamstrings with his yataghan. As to the brigadier, his fall was so rapid and unexpected that his head struck against the stones, and he was rendered totally insensible.

Bruno went up to him, after satisfying himself that there was no feint attempted to be practised upon him, and with the assistance of Ali he placed him in the waggon he had so lately escorted; then placing the reins in the hands of the young Arab, he desired him to take the waggon and the brigadier to the fortress. Bruno himself then went up to the wounded horse, took the brigadier's carbine from the saddle, to which it was attached, and searched in the holsters and took out a roll of paper which he found there; he then whistled to his dogs, who returned with their mouths covered with blood, and followed the capture he had just made.

When he arrived in the court-yard of his little fortress, he closed the gate behind him, took the brigadier (who was still insensible) on his shoulder, carried him into a room, and placed him on a mattress on which he was in the habit of throwing himself with all his clothes on; then, whether through forgetfulness or imprudence, he placed the carbine he had taken from the saddle in a corner, and left the room.

Five minutes afterwards the brigadier opened his eyes, looked round, and found himself in a place that was completely unknown to him; and, believing he was under the influence of a dream, he felt round him to ascertain whether he was really awake. It was then that he felt a pain in his forehead, and placing his hand on it, he withdrew it covered with blood: he found that he was wounded. The wound brought back his recollection, and he remembered he had been stopped on the road by a single man, deserted in a most cowardly manner by the gens-d'armes who accompanied him, and that at the instant he was about to attack that man his horse suddenly fell; beyond that he could recall nothing to his mind.

The brigadier was a brave man, but he felt that the responsibility of this disastrous adventure rested on him, and his heart was filled with shame and rage at the disgraceful conduct of his men. He looked round the room to discover if possible where he was; but everything was strange to him. He rose, went to the window, and saw that it overlooked the country. It was then that a ray of hope entered his breast, for he could easily leap out of the window, go in search of assistance, and return and avenge himself upon his captor.

He had just opened the window for the purpose of executing his project when, casting a parting glance into the chamber, he perceived his carbine standing near the head of the bed; at this unexpected sight his heart beat violently, for other thoughts besides those of flight instantly took possession of his mind. He looked round to ascertain whether he was really alone, and when he was satisfied that no one had seen or could see him, he seized the weapon, in which he saw a more hazardous means of safety, but a speedier vengeance. After having ascertained that the priming was safe, and finding, by passing the ramrod down the barrel, that it was loaded, he replaced it where he had found it, and lay down as if he had not as yet recovered his senses; but he had scarcely stretched himself out on the mattress before Bruno entered the room.

He had a piece of lighted fir in his hand, which he threw into the fire-place, where he set fire to the wood already placed there for the purpose; then he went to a cupboard formed in the wall, and took out two plates, two glasses, two flasks of wine, and a roast shoulder of mutton, which he placed on the table, and appeared to be waiting until the brigadier recovered his consciousness that he might do the honours of the repast.

The room in which the scene we are narrating took place was longer than it was wide, having a single window at one end, a single door at the other, and the chimney between the two. The brigadier, now a captain of the gens-d'armes at Messina, who has given us all these particulars, was lying down, as we have said, parallel to the window; Bruno was standing before the fire-place, with his eyes vaguely fixed on the door, and he appeared to become every instant more and more thoughtful.

This was the moment for which the brigadier was waiting—the decisive moment when he must stake everything for one object—life against life, head against head. He rose, resting upon his left hand, and stretched out his other slowly towards his carbine, but without taking his eye off Bruno; he took hold of it between the lock and the butt-end, and then remained an instant in that position without daring to make another movement, alarmed even at the beating of his own heart, which was so violent that the bandit might almost have heard it had he not been so entirely lost in thought; then, seeing that he gave himself up to his fate as it were, he resumed his confidence, rose on one knee, looked once more at the window, his only means of retreat, placed the carbine to his shoulder, took aim at Bruno like a man who knew that his life depended on his self-possession, and fired.

Bruno quietly stooped down, picked up something that lay at his feet, held the object to the light, and, turning towards the brigadier, who remained mute with astonishment—

"Comrade," he said, "when next you attempt to shoot me let your balls be of silver, for unless they are they will be only flattened against me in this manner. However, I am happy you have so far recovered yourself, for I begin to feel hungry; we will, therefore, if it is agreeable, sit down to our supper."

The brigadier remained in the same attitude in which he had fired, his hair bristling on his head, and the perspiration standing in thick drops on his forehead. The next instant the door opened, and Ali, yataghan in hand, rushed into the room.

"It is nothing, my boy, nothing," said Bruno; "the brigadier discharged his carbine, that is all; make yourself easy, and go to rest; have no fear for me."

Ali left the room without answering, and went and laid himself down across the first door-way upon the panther's skin that served him for a bed.

"Well," continued Bruno, turning towards the brigadier and filling the two glasses with wine, "did you not hear me?"

"I did," replied the brigadier, rising, "and since I have not been able to kill you, were you the very devil himself, I would drink with you."

Uttering these words, he walked boldly up to the table, took up the glass, touched the brim of Bruno's, and drank off the wine at a draught.

"What is your name?" asked Bruno.

"Paolo Tommassi, brigadier of gens-d'armerie, at your service," was the reply.

"Well, Paolo Tommassi," continued Bruno, placing his hand on his shoulder, "you are a brave fellow, and I have a great inclination to make you a promise."

"What is it?" asked the brigadier.

"To let no one but you," said Bruno, "obtain the reward of three thousand ducats that is set upon my head."

"That is an excellent idea," observed the brigadier.

"Truly so; but it must first come to maturity," said Bruno; "in the meantime, as I am not yet tired of my life, take a seat, and let us sup; and we will talk the matter over by-and-by."

"May I cross myself before I eat?" said Tommassi. "Certainly," replied Bruno.

"I thought it might, perhaps, be unpleasant to you," said the brigadier; "we are not always sure."

"Anything you like," said Bruno.

The brigadier made the sign of the cross, seated himself at the table, and attacked the shoulder of mutton like a man whose conscience was perfectly at ease, and who knew that he had done, under very difficult and trying circumstances, all that a brave soldier could do. Bruno kept him nobly in countenance; and, certainly, to see these two men seated at the same table, drinking out of the same bottle, and helping themselves from the same dish, no one would have imagined that each in his turn had, within the last hour, done all he could to kill the other.

For an instant they were both silent, partly on account of the important business in which they were engaged, and partly from the preoccupation of their minds. Paolo Tommassi was the first to give utterance to the double idea on which his mind was engaged.

"Comrade," he said, "you live well here; it must be allowed you have excellent wine, certainly, and you do the honours of the table like a right-good fellow; but I acknowledge I should enjoy all this much better if I knew when I was to leave here."

"To-morrow morning, I presume," replied Bruno. "You will not keep me here as a prisoner, then?" asked the brigadier, eagerly.

"A prisoner! why what the devil should I do with you here?" asked Bruno.

"Hem!" said the brigadier, "so far it is not so bad; but—" he continued, evidently embarrassed, "that is not all."

"What else is there?" said Bruno, filling the brigadiers glass.

"Why—is—" said the brigadier, holding his glass up before the lamp; "it is rather a delicate question, you see."

"Go on," said Bruno; "I am listening."

"You will not be angry, I hope, at what I am about to say?"

"I think you ought to know my character better by this time," said Bruno.

"True, true, you are not irritable, I know that well," said the brigadier. "I am speaking about a certain waggon—there, now its out."

"That is down in the court-yard," observed Bruno, holding his glass up to the light in his turn.

"I am rather doubtful," replied the brigadier; "but you understand me, I cannot go without my waggon."

"Very well, then, you shall take it with you," said Bruno.

"Untouched?"

"Hum!" said Bruno; "it will not be much short, considering the sum it contains. I shall only take what I am absolutely in need of."

"Are you in want of much?" asked the brigadier, with anxiety.

"I want three thousand ounces," said Bruno.

"Well, that is reasonable enough," said the brigadier; "a good many people would not be so delicate as you are."

"You may make yourself quite easy in the matter, for I will give you a receipt for what I take," said Bruno.

"Talking of receipts," said the brigadier, rising, "that's well thought of, for it reminds me of some papers I had in my holsters."

"Don't make yourself uneasy about them," observed Bruno; "here they are."

"You will do me the greatest service by returning them to me," said the brigadier.

"I know that," said Bruno, "for I have satisfied myself of their importance; the first is your brigadier's commission; I have made a note at the foot of that, declaring that you have conducted yourself so well that you deserve to be made a quarter-master. The second is my description, and I have taken the liberty to make a few small corrections as to particular signs; for instance, I have added charmed: the third paper is a letter from his excellency the viceroy to the Countess Oemma, of Castel Nuovo; and I have too much gratitude for this lady, who has lent me this castle of hers, to place any restraint on her loving correspondence. Here are your papers, my brave fellow; one more glass to your health, and sleep tranquilly. To-morrow, at five o'clock, we will put you on your road; it is much more prudent, I can assure you, to travel by day than by night, for perhaps you may not always have the good fortune of falling into such good hands."

"I think you are right," said Tommassi, rolling up his papers, "and you appear to me to be an honester fellow than many more apparently honest folks of my acquaintance."

"I am happy to leave you with such favourable impressions on your mind," said Bruno, "you will sleep the more pleasantly; by-the-by, I must give you one caution, do not go down into the court-yard, or my dogs might by chance make a meal of you."

"Thank you for the caution," said the brigadier. "Good-night," exclaimed Bruno, and he went out of the room, leaving the brigadier to continue his supper, or go to sleep till the hour appointed for his departure.

Next morning at five o'clock, according to agreement, Bruno entered his guest's chamber, whom he found up and ready to start, he conducted him down stairs, and led him to the gate; there was the waggon, together with a magnificent horse, and all the harness that belonged to the animal Ali's yataghan had rendered unserviceable. Bruno begged of his friend, Tommassi, to accept of this present as a keepsake. The brigadier was too well pleased to allow the offer to be made twice; he therefore mounted his new steed, started the team in the waggon, and left quite delighted with his new acquaintance.

Bruno watched his departure, and when he was about twenty paces off, he cried out, "Above all, do not forget to give the beautiful Countess Gemma the Prince of Carini's letter."

Tommassi made a sign with his head and disappeared round the corner of the road.

And now, if our readers wish to know how Pascal Bruno was not killed by the discharge of Tommassi's carbine, we will give them the answer we received from Signor Caesar Aletto, the notary of Calvaruso: it is, that it is probable that on the road to the fortress, the bandit took the precaution of removing the bullet from the carbine. But Paolo Tommassi always considered that it was a much simpler explanation to attribute it to magic.

We give our readers both these opinions, and they are at perfect liberty to adopt that which suits them best.

Alexandre Dumas pere

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