Page images

some blood-relationship with one of the victims?

He ate macaroni and Milanese cutlets and drank good Chianti wine, and was of course no wiser on this head when comfortably repleted. But he determined to be in no hurry to seek a third lodging in the Via Corta.


Four other days passed, and Douglas was distressed to realize that he still knew no more about the secret history of the exploded five than the average man in Milan's streets. Other investigators were at work with more success. On his third evening in the house of Bassano the cobbler he read an engrossing column on the subject in the GazzeWi of the day. Andrea Gulsano's executors had found among his papers an unsigned letter conveying a distinct warning that something would happen to him if he persisted in refusing a certain demand for money. it was dated three days before his death, and he was given one day to decide his fate. The (lazzetta now boldly charged the Mafia with his murder. There were circumstances, also, connected with the second of the tragedies which seemed to point to similar influences; and the (lazzetta urged the authorities to do their utmost with this one very significant and unquestionable piece of evidence. The article was entitled "Barbarism in Excelsis." and was throughout a plain challenge to the Mafia to deny responsibility for the atrocities, if it dared.

Hitherto Douglas had. greatly against inclination, kept his promise to Maria Bassano about these horrors. He had found her very interesting in other respects. She had introduced him to her lover. Marco Merano, a somewhat simple-faced greengrocer of the Via S. Ginseppe, and also to a certain sleek but not simple-faced Count Euzio Masuceio: and hls imagination had easily

seen substance for real drama in thegiddy girl's partitioned friendship between two such men. On but very feeble encouragement he believed she would have admitted him as a third sharer in the affections of her too-large heart.

So far from bidding for this privilege, however, he had ventured to point out to her some of the dangers she was, in his opinion, confronting so gaily with the Count. She had told him that he loved her. and that it was an amusement to her.

"tSigiuirino mm,'' site had said, "one is not young for ever, aud why should the rich have the pick of the pleasures? All in good time i shall settle myself down with Marco; but before then i am free to enjoy the sunshine in my own way."

"'You like to play with fire—is it not so?" he had asked, shaking his head, yet smiling as he thought of the miraculous luck by which Southern ladles do escape the shipwreck they seem to court.

"Why not?" she had responded, with ready laughter. "One need only warm one's hands at the flame, not scorch them."

"And your Marco—if he were to know?"

"Ah, but what prudence, cam signorV she had exclaimed, with a reproving click of tongue to teeth, as if he were quite a baby in the ways of a world like hers. "ii Signor Conte has many pairs of boots in his wardrobe. Where there are so many, repairs are always necessary. My Marco does not know the gentleman, but my father is celebrated for his work. There is no more clever repairer of boots in this quarter of the city. You understand, xignor'mu? Masuccio is but a customer like others. He pays me for my smiles, siguM: even as he pays my father for his stitches. What would you have?"

Douglas had seen the fount twice in these four days, the second time with a parcel in his hand. And he had liked his looks less the second time than the first. He had also summed up the simple Marco as a youth of spirit when roused, though his nose was a coarse, thick, snub thing, and his eves were downright italian, with immense eye: brows to them which suggested much latent power of action.

But this was all mere castle-building of a sort, and outside his own especial province. Now, with the Qazzettu before him, he rang his bell in the Via Corta, and in spite of his promise meant to show the news to Maria. He rang again after a time. Perhaps a customer was keeping the girl.

And then, with a deferential murmur, the cobbler himself appeared from his workshop in the attic, with his leather apron on.

"Oh. never mind,'' said Douglas; "it is not so important. 1 will not disturb you, Signor Bassano."

"My daughter has gone to the church. signorc," said the cobbler, pink-eyed as usual, and with a trembling lower ilp. Douglas always felt sorry for the man, and his air as of one silently begging for mercy after judicial or other condemnation. He viewed him somewhat as a genins in his own humble way, whose nerves were ridiculously sacrificed to the task of maintaining his fame as an unrivalled mender of boots —a cobbler with ideals. Well, that was something, even though his constitution might be too weak for an easy pursuit of such excellence in the control of leather.

But in the act of dismissing the cobbler to his last he changed his mind.

"By the way, have you seen I hix. Signor Bassano?" he asked, pointing to the "Barbarism in Excelsis" column of the paper.

"Your goodness wishes me to read it?" questioned the cobbler, fumbling at his spectacles.

"Well, you might like to glance at it," said Douglas; and, rising, he went to his window and its finger's-breudtb view of the Castello in the distance.

He lit a cigarette. A street-seller below sang "Beautiful sardines, fresh fiom the sea!" and proclaimed his beautiful sardines three times thus ere Douglas turned to look at his landlord. instantly he saw that something was troubling the man. The cobbler's hands were shaking violently, aud the paper between them, as if he and it had become palsied. His face was bent over the sheet, and his lower jaw had fallen so that Douglas could see the very positive ruin of his teeth far back. Then, before Douglas could utter a word, the paper slipped to the floor, and the cobbler pressed his palms to his head.

"Mother of God!" he walled, "protect me and my poor little house! Oh, my daughter! What misery! What mis'

He stopped abruptly, stated at

Douglas with his pink-rimmed eyes, aud almost regained his composure. "it is nothing, signorino,'' he whispered. "The nignorino will graciously excuse me?" And. with a very humble bow, he sidled away and shut the door behind him.

Douglas heard his irregular footfalls on the staircase, then a shuUling ami a thud. And then, hearing other sounds below, and supposing Maria had returned from her devotions, h. opened the door and all but collided with a gray-bearded dwarf of a man no higher than his armpits, with iarg.'. close-laid ears that deepened the grotesque impression he made. "Oh!" Douglas exclaimed.

But with a curt gesture the little man passed him.

"i am of the family," he said gruffly, and went on up to the cobbler's den.

Feeling excited, he scarcely knew why, Douglas now took his hat and the paper and descended the stairs, this time to flud Maria herself, prayer-book in hand, on the threshold of the house.

''l ;nn going for a little walk," he told her. "Your father has a visitor. Perhaps it were not uncivil to call him half a visitor, be is so small. He mtne in without knocking." The girl hastily crossed herself. "A deformed old man, xigorinot" she asked lu a low voice, with fear in her eyes, "Precisely. But what is the matter?" Maria Hassano was briefly convulsed like her father. While she shook, her bosom swelled and swelled; and then, with a sob of breath, she rushed into the house.

Douglas would have followed her. but she waved him back.

"1io, earo signore!'' she whispered, with the fear still spoiling her beauty. "Go away!" She snatched at her rosary, and he left her clinging to the beads and rapidly parting them, with lips that seemed to lie struggling dumbly in an effort to pray.

But yet another slight sensation was in store for Douglas this day.

Ravelling at the meaning of these extraordinary agitations in Bassano and his daughter, he marched down the street towards the centre of the city, and was met by Marco Merano in his workaday blue blouse. He did not recognize him until the man lifted his cap, stopped, and spoke.

"You have your thoughts, signore. any one can see," he said jocosely.

"Oh. it's you!" said Douglas, "Yes, l have my thoughts, as you say."

He would have gone on: but the other's question, "ls my little girl in the house, signoref" checked him.

"Yes," he said. "But—perhaps you will not be weicome to her at this moment. lt is a guess of mine. There is a visitor, a small, stunted man with ears like an elephant's, who has upset her. He is with her father; but she—-''

He got thus far before he realized the intensity of the change in the young

greengrocer's countenance. Marco was gritting his white teeth like a dog, and there was a passionate beetling of those marked eyebrows of his,

".What is it now?" Douglas asked. '"A man so high, with a white beard?" retorted Marco.

"A man just so high, with a white or gray beard."

"Then." said Marco, "may the Evil One seize him!" He whisked to the rightabout. "1 go your way now, signore." he added. "She will not speak to me for days, l think. She will weep and go to church more than ever, and l shall be to her as if l were not a live man. lt has been so before. This Bolla—he has a power over her father which it torments her to see. The last time was when the poor Bauti met with her end. She was then so ill, sigmnr, that But why talk of it, especially when she would not forgive me if she could hear me? Do not tell her that you have seen me, signore. She has her moods, like other girls, lt is nothing worse than that."

But Douglass mind was now keenly on the alert.

"La Bella Bauti, you say?" he asked. "She was of this street, was she not?" The young greengrocer pointed over his shoulder.

''Yes," he said. "That is where she lived with her mother as a young girl. 'She always retained an affection for the neighborhood. When she wore diamonds like a princess and drove in her own carriage, it was still to Bassano that her boots and little shoes came to be repaired. From sympathy with the friends of her youth, siynore."

"Yes?" said Douglas, disguising bis avidity. "And that other. Andrea <Juisano? He also lived here?"

"That is true, signore; and"—Marco laughed rather bitterly, as if be resented the inclination at such a time-"it was the same with him, sigtmre. as touching his boots, Bassano worked for him as for the poor Hanti. Cw\m xttnto! tbat is what disquiets me. After the tJuisano tragedy l jested with Maria in saying that it was a fatality for her father to mend a man's boots, and she was furious with me. lt will be the saine again unless 1 hold my tongue. Name of a she-dog! And that ugly little Holla here as before! But l turn off by this street. To the pleasure of seeing you again, sig-tiorino!"

"One moment.'' said Douglas, "This Holla, you call him? Do yon tell me he is, as it were, a coincidence with these mishaps?"

"l do not know, signwc," replied the young greengrocer, with the appearance of suspicion now in his eyes, "lt is not to be talked about. 1 WiY'dcre/" He strode across the road. Douglas turned to the window of a little wineshop and understood why his heart beat so fast. He read the cardboard slips in the window about the jjood red wine at twenty, thirty, and forty centesimi the litre, and told himself that at last he had a clue to the mystery of the exploded five. He could see not at all whither the clue positively pointed. He knew only that a voice had cried joyfully within him. and that his whole brain approved the cause for such exultation. For many minutes he gazed absorbedly at these intimations about cheap red wine. The wine-vendor himself showed a head behind them without disturbing him. Even when the man hung up a new tard, announcing excellent white wine of Astl at fifty centesimi the litre, side by side with the others, Douglas paid heed neither to it nor the cunning merchant's face.

He was groping all the time, like a man in the dark who knows for a truth that there is something to be found. What should he do? And then he decided that he would take the most obvious of courses, He would wait and follow this deformed imp of a Bolla.

From the wine-shop window he commanded a view of the cobbler's door at the end of the street. He watched zealously for five more minutes, with his back to the advertisements of the good and excellent wine: zealously, yet with dissimulation, smoking and reading to some extent at the same time. Then, whom should he see come round the corner from the Piazza d'Armi but the well-groomed Count Fazio! He just obtained a glimpse of the gentleman's slender form, pinched at the waist, and of the red flower in his button-hole. The next moment the man had entered the house without knocking. To be sine, the door was generally thus open to the turn of a handle: but Douglas had learnt that the conventional thing to do was to knock before entering.

Leaving the wine-shop, Douglas returned slowly to his lodging. He had some notion that a general embroilment might ensue in that modest house: and if so. it were perchance some advantage to him to take a hand in it.

Nor were his intuitions altogether at fault here also. He found the door open, and the Count, with an inflamed lace, on the point of passing towards the pavement. Farther inside was Maria, also red faced and excited, though with tears on her cheeks,

The separation between them was immediate when Douglas appeared. With a sweep of his hat. the elaborateness of which hinted at irony, Masuccio stepped from the house, and. after an unfriendly gaze at Douglas, vanished round the corner. The girl rushed from the hall into the little shop to the right; and there, when he presumed to follow her. Douglas found her almost doubled on a chair, rocking herself and shedding abundant tears,

"My dear child," he said, "what is I1 all about? What has happened to distress you?" She did not reply, but wept on. l'pon the counter was a neat parcel. tied with white tape, evidently, from its shape, containing a boot.

"Tell me the trouble, little one." Douglas urged, as he looked at the snowy parting in the girl's black hair. "Has be—that fellow—insulted you?"

She glanced up thou with an expression in her tear-charged blue eyes for which a romantic artist might have paid a good price.

"is the door shut, sii)uorinof she whispered.

He shut it softly.

"We are alone." he said.

Then Maria Bassauo burst forth.

"i wish he was dead, signurinu," she cried. "And i wish further that i was in Paradise with my dearest mother. This wicked earth! But no—1 will uot do it. i will be true to my Marco."

"The Count "suggested Douglas.

"Yes, xiijmninit," she exclaimed, responsive to his prompting. "He threatens that unless i consent to sacrifice myself to hini to-morrow he will make a scandal of me. He is so enamored. i did not think he had such a heart of fire. 1 do not love him—no; but i have taken his presents, many of them, and he has twice kissed my lips. and i am a very unfortunate young woman to have let him go so far. He desires to carry me away to his country house by Hologua. Do i say desires'; He insists. And he tells me that, if. when he comes for his miserable boot in the morning—there, behold it by your hand!—if 1 am still obstinate he will find out my poor Marco,

and—and Ah! but who shall

say what will then comc to us all? They will perhaps fight, and i :it least shall be disgraced. Signorlno, i hate him worse, i think, than that other. What a house is this!"

"Poor little girl!" murmured Douglas, stroking the course black hair of her head by the broad parting. "But. you know. i told you before"

She shook off his hand.

"That is not all, cmv signoir," she almost screamed, with a fresh fiood of tears, and the terror as before staring through the tears. "There was my pomfather lying like one dead on the Boor upstairs. He, that accursed other, found him so. i would uot help him to his seuses at first, when 1 saw for what purpose that other had come. But it is enough, signorino! i must uoi talk. This is no house for so gracious and kind-hearted a stranger as you. signorino. Would to heaven my poor father could escape from the city! That is what i have begged and begged. We are of Parma ourselves. There ure our blood-relatives, and there we might live happy aud peaceful lives, with perhaps Marco, if God willed—if—if things were otherwise. it is because of a weakness of mind in my poor father. But come, i must be courageous aud wipe my eyes, siguvre.''

She stood up aud jerked her thick black plait behind her. tried to smile, aud used her handkerchief to her face.

Douglas himself was more perturbed now thau she seemed.

"That is right. Courage! courage!" he said at a venture. "But you talk of the mail'Bulla, do you not—him with the ears?"

The girl's hands clenched into a list by the side of the Count's parcel, aud her full rosy lips tightened grimly. (She drew breath before she replied.

"N'o, Hipuore, i talk not of him. AmI. excuse me, but it is the hour when Marco comes sometimes." She forced another smile: without much difficulty either, thanks to her blessed mercurial temperament. "Marco will not like it if he finds you here with me—thus."

"He will not come to-day." said Douglas thoughtlessly. "He was in the

street just uow when that other

But for charity's sake don't glare at me like that!"

The girl's temper had taken yet another turn. No turkey-cock in Doug

« PreviousContinue »