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Chapter 9

THE SIEGE.


A few moments after, Ali again entered the room, carrying on ids shoulders two or three muskets of the same calibre, and a basket full of cartridges. Pascal Bruno opened all the windows, that he might be able to face in any direction, and Ali, taking a musket in his hand, was about to place himself at one of them.

"No, my boy," said Pascal, in an affectionate and parental tone of voice, "that is no one's duty but mine; I have no wish to attach your fate to mine; I do not wish to drag you into the surf along with me; you are young; nothing, as yet, has removed your life out of the beaten track; take my advice, continue to live like the rest of the world."

"Father," replied the youth, with his gentle voice, "why do you not wish me to defend you as Lionna did? You know I have none to look to but you in the world, and that, if you die, I must die with you!"

"No, Ali," said Bruno, "if I die, I shall perhaps leave behind me some mysterious and terrible mission to be accomplished, which I can trust to no one but my child; my boy, therefore, must live to do what his father commands him."

"It is right," said Ali; "the father is the master, and the child must obey."

Ali seized Pascal's hand, and kissed it.

"Can I be of no service to you, father?" observed the lad.

"Yes; load the guns," said Bruno, and Ali addressed himself to the task,

"And what can I do?" said the Maltese, from the corner in which he had ensconced himself.

"You, captain? you shall have the task of carrying the flag of truce if it be needful."

At this instant Pascal Bruno saw the muskets of a second troop descending the mountain: they advanced in so direct a line towards the isolated olive-tree, at the foot of which lay the body of Placido, that it was evident it was the appointed place of rendezvous.

Those who marched first stumbled over the corpse. Upon this they formed a circle round it; but no one could recognise it, the teeth of Lionna had so much disfigured it; however, as it was at this olive-tree Placido had appointed a meeting, and as the body was at its foot, and no other living being in the neighbourhood, it was evident that the dead man was Placido himself.

The soldiers accordingly guessed that their plot had been discovered, and, consequently, that Bruno was on his guard; they, therefore, began to consider how they should act.

Pascal, standing at the window, watched all their movements; but the moon issuing suddenly from behind a cloud, a ray of light fell upon his figure, and one of the soldiers seeing him, pointed him out to his comrades.

"The bandit! the bandit!" was heard from all the troops, and a volley of shot was instantly poured in at the window.

A few of the balls flattened themselves against the wall, others whistled past the ears and over the head of the party at whom they were directed, and lodged in the mouldings of the ceiling.

Pascal replied by discharging four muskets in succession as they were handed to him by Ali: four men fell.

The soldiers, who were not troops of the line, but a kind of national guard organised for the protection of the high road, hesitated a little when they saw death pay them so sudden a visit; for all the men, reckoning on Placido's treason, had entertained the hope of making an easy capture: instead of which, it was now evident that it was an absolute siege they were about to undertake, and they were in want of everything necessary for that purpose.

The walls of the little fortress were lofty, and the gates strong—they had neither ladders nor hatchets. There was, however, the possibility of killing Pascal while at the window levelling his musket; but this seemed but a poor chance to men who believed their adversary was invulnerable.

Accordingly, the most prudent manouvre seemed to be to retire out of gunshot and deliberate on their future proceedings; but their retreat was not rapid enough to prevent Pascal Bruno despatching two more messengers of death after them.

Pascal, perceiving that the siege was raised for an instant, went to the opposite window that overlooked the village: the discharge of the muskets had attracted the attention of the first party, so that he had scarcely shown himself at the opening when he was saluted with a shower of bullets; but the same miraculous good luck again preserved him. It seemed like enchantment: while, on his side, every shot he fired told upon the soldiers, and Pascal was made aware of his success by the oaths they uttered.

A similar occurrence happened to this troop as to the other; its ranks were thrown into disorder, but, instead of taking to flight, they stood up close against the walls of the fortress, and by this manouvre they made it impossible for Bruno to fire without thrusting half his body out of the window; and, as the bandit thought it impolitic to expose himself to unnecessary danger, the firing in consequence of this mutual act of prudence ceased for an instant.

"Have we got rid of them?" asked the Maltese; "may we cry Victory!"

"Not yet," observed Bruno, "it is only a suspension of arms; the enemy have, no doubt, gone to the village to procure ladders and hatchets; we shall, no doubt, soon have news of them. But make yourself easy," continued the bandit, filling two glasses; "as we cannot remain quiet with them, we must give them something in return. Ali, go and fetch a barrel of powder.—Here's to your health, captain!"

"What are you going to do with the powder?" asked the Maltese, with an uneasy look.

"Oh! not much; but you shall see!" replied Bruno. Ali entered the room, bearing on his shoulder the barrel of gunpowder.

"That's right," said Bruno; "now take a gimlet and make a hole in the barrel."

Ali obeyed with the passive readiness that was the distinctive mark of his devotion to Bruno.

While this was going on, Pascal tore up a napkin into strips, which he tied together, and rolled them in the powder he took out of a cartridge; he then put this match into the hole Ali had made in the barrel, and closed it with wet powder, which had the effect also of keeping the match in its place. He had scarcely finished his preparations when the sound of a hatchet was heard at the gate.

"Am I a good prophet?" said Bruno, as he rolled the barrel towards the door of the chamber which overlooked a staircase leading to the castle court, and then going back to fetch a piece of lighted fir from the fire.

"Ah!" said the Maltese, "now I begin to understand what you are going to do."

"Father," said Ali, "they are coming from the mountain with ladders."

Bruno ran to the window from which he had fired in the first instance and plainly saw his adversaries, who had procured the scaling implement they so much needed, and, ashamed of their first retreat, were returning to the charge with renewed confidence.

"Are the guns loaded?" asked Bruno.

"Yes, father," replied Ali, handing him a carbine.

Bruno, without looking back, took the gun the boy offered him, slowly brought it to his shoulder, and levelled with more care than he had yet exhibited; he fired, and one of the two men who carried the ladder fell.

Another man took his place, and Bruno took a second musket: the other soldier fell by the side of his comrade.

Two other men succeeded those who were killed and fell in their turn; upon this the scaling party, leaving their ladder, retired a second time, after firing another volley as useless as their previous discharges.

In the meantime, those who were besieging the gate redoubled their blows, and the dogs on their side barked furiously; every moment the blows became more violent and the barking fiercer. At length, one side of the gate was forced in and two or three men entered by the opening; and by the cries of distress they uttered, their comrades judged that they had fallen into the hands of more terrible enemies than they had calculated on; but they could not fire upon the dogs without the risk of killing the men.

After a short time, one party of the besiegers had entered through the door one after the other; the court was soon filled, and then began a combat, like one of those that were exhibited in the ancient circus, between the soldiers and the four monstrous dogs, who fiercely defended the narrow staircase that led to the first floor of the fortress. Suddenly, the door at the top of the staircase opened, and the barrel of powder Bruno had prepared bounded from stair to stair and exploded like a bombshell in the midst of the combatants.

The explosion was terrible; one of the walls fell in ruins, and everything in the court-yard was blown to atoms.

The besiegers were for an instant stupefied; but in the meantime the two troops had united themselves, and presented an effective force of more than 300 men. A deep feeling of shame overwhelmed the multitude when they saw themselves kept in check by a single man.

The leaders took advantage of this feeling to encourage them, and a breach having been made by the fall of the wall, they marched up to it in a body in good order, and having cleared every obstacle, they spread themselves over the whole of the court-yard and were soon before the staircase.

When they reached this spot, there was another moment of hesitation: at length some of them, encouraged by their comrades, began to ascend the stairs, the rest of the party following. The staircase was soon carried; but those who were at the head would soon have felt an inclination to retreat if it had been possible; this, however, was no longer the case—they were obliged, therefore, to attempt the door, which yielded without resistance.

The besiegers, uttering shouts of triumph, ran round the first chamber; but at that instant the door of the second room opened, and the soldiers perceived Bruno seated on a barrel of gunpowder, a pistol in each hand, while the terrified Maltese rushed through the open, doorway crying out, in accents so full of truth and terror as to leave no doubt on the subject:—

"Stand back! stand back!" he cried, "the fortress is mined; if you advance another step we shall all be blown to atoms!"

The door was closed as if by enchantment, and the shouts of victory were changed into cries of terror. The whole body of the besiegers might have been seen precipitating themselves down the narrow staircase that led to the court-yard—some among them leaped through the windows—it seemed as if every man felt the ground tremble beneath his feet, and at the end of five minutes Bruno was again master of his fortress.

As to the Maltese, he took advantage of the opportunity and left the castle.

Pascal, no longer hearing any sound, arose and went to the window. The siege had been converted into a blockade; a guard was placed at every opening, and the men who performed this duty had sheltered themselves from the bandit's fire behind carts and barrels. It was evident that a new plan for carrying on the campaign had been adopted.

"So it seems they intend to starve us out," observed Bruno.

"The dogs!" exclaimed Ali.

"Do not insult the poor beasts who died while defending us, call them men—men!" said Bruno, smiling sarcastically.

"Father!" said Ali.

"Well, my boy," said Bruno, kindly.

"Do you not see?" said Ali.

"What?" asked Bruno.

"That light!"

"Ay, truly," said Bruno; "what can it mean? It cannot be daybreak yet; and, besides, it comes from the north, and not the east."

"The village is on fire!" exclaimed Ali.

"By heavens you are right!" said Bruno.

At that instant loud cries of distress were heard; Bruno rushed to the door and found himself face to face with the Maltese.

"Is that you, captain?" said Pascal.

"Yes, it is I—I myself, don't deceive yourself and take me for another; I come as a friend."

"You are welcome," said Bruno; "but what has taken place?"

"That which has taken place is," said the Maltese, "that, in utter despair at not having taken you, the soldiers set fire to the village, and refuse to assist in extinguishing it unless the villagers will consent to march against you, as they have had enough of it themselves."

"And the peasants?" asked Bruno.

"Have refused," said the Maltese.

"Ay, ay—I knew that beforehand," said Bruno; "they had rather that all their houses should be burned to the ground than touch a hair of my head. Well, captain, go back to those who sent you, and tell them to extinguish the flames."

"What do you mean?" asked the Maltese.

"I will give myself up," said Bruno.

"Give yourself up, father?" cried Ali.

"Yes, but I promised to surrender to one man alone, and I will only give myself up to him. Let them, therefore, as I have said—let them put out the flames, and then send to Messina in search of the man I shall name."

"And who is this man?" asked the Maltese.

"Paolo Tomassi, a brigadier in the gendarmerie," replied Bruno.

"Have you any other request to make?" asked the Maltese.

"One only," replied Bruno, and he spoke to the Maltese in a whisper.

"I hope you are not asking for my life?" said Ali.

"Have I not told you I should perhaps require your assistance after my death?" said Bruno.

"Pardon me, father," said Ali, "I had forgotten that."

"Away, captain, and do as I have said," said Bruno; "when I see the flames extinguished I shall know my terms are accepted."

"Do you not wish me to be the bearer of the news?" asked the merchant.

"Did I not say you should be my negociator? By-the-by," continued Pascal, "how many houses are burnt?"

"Two when I came away," replied the Maltese.

"There are three hundred and fifteen ounces in this purse, distribute them among the sufferers."

"Adieu!" said the Maltese, shaking Bruno by the hand.

Bruno threw his pistol away, again seated himself on his powder barrel and fell into a deep reverie.

The young Arab extended himself on his tiger's skin, and remained motionless, closing his eyes as if he slept. By degrees the light of the fire expired—Bruno's conditions had been accepted.

At the expiration of about an hour, the door of the room opened, and a man appeared on the threshold, who, perceiving that neither Bruno nor Ali noticed him, gave an affected cough.

Bruno turned round and perceived Paolo Tomassi.

"Ah! is that you, brigadier?" said he, smiling; "it is a pleasure to send for you—you have not kept us waiting long."

"Why, no," replied the brigadier, "they met me on the road about a quarter of an hour ago as I was bringing up my party, and they said that you wanted to see me."

"It is true," said Bruno; "I wanted to show you that I am a man of my word."

"Zounds, I know that well enough," said the brigadier.

"And as I promised that you should receive the three thousand ducats in question," said Bruno, "I wish to keep my word."

"Perdition!" said the brigadier, with great energy.

"What do you mean, comrade?" said Bruno.

"I mean," said the brigadier, "that I would rather gain three thousand ducats in any other manner—in the lottery, for instance."

"And why so?" asked Bruno.

"Because you are a fine fellow, and men like you are scarce," was the brigadier's reply.

"Bah! what's that to you?" said Bruno; "it will be promotion for you, brigadier."

"I know it," replied Paolo, with a look of despair. "And so you mean to deliver yourself up?"

"I surrender," said Bruno.

"On your honour?" said Paolo.

"On my honour," replied Bruno; "therefore, you may send all those rascals away. I wish to have nothing more to do with them."

Paolo Tomassi went to the window.

"You may all of you retire," he cried; "I will answer for the prisoner: go and report his capture at Messina." The soldiers shouted for joy.

"And now," said Bruno to the brigadier, "we will finish the supper these fools interrupted."

"With all my heart," replied Paolo, "for I have come eight leagues in three hours, and I am dying with hunger and thirst."

"Well," said Bruno, "since you are so well inclined, and as we have but one night to spend in each other's company, let us pass it merrily. Ali, go and fetch the ladies out of the cellar, if they have not been frightened to death."

Ali performed his mission, and the party enjoyed themselves as best they could. In the morning, the brigadier and his prisoner set out for Messina.

Five days after the events we have just related, the Prince of Carini was informed, in the presence of the beautiful Gemma, who had just ended her penance at the Convent of the Visitation, and who had only eight days previously returned to the world, that at length his orders had been executed, and that Pascal Bruno was taken and placed in one of the prisons of Messina.

"In that case, the Prince of Goto will pay the three thousand ducats promised for his capture; see that the brigand is tried and afterwards executed."

"Dear prince," said Gemma, in that gentle voice to whose appeal the count could refuse nothing, "I have always been curious to see this man of whom I have heard so much."

"Your wish shall be gratified, my dear angel; he shall be hanged at Palermo."

Alexandre Dumas pere

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