Mathias Sandorf/Page 23
THE ENVIRONS OF CATANIA.
The coast of Sicily between Aci Reale and Catania abounds in capes and reefs and caves and cliffs and mountains. It faces the Tyrrhenian Sea just where the Straits of Messina begin, and is immediately opposite the hills of Calabria. Such as the Straits with the hills round Etna were in the days of Homer, so they are to-day, superb! If the forest in which Æneas received Achemenides has disappeared, the grotto of Galatea, the cave of Polyphemus, the isles of the Cyclops, and a little to the north Scylla and Charybdis, are still in their historic places, and we can set foot on the very spot where the Trojan hero landed when he came to found his new kingdom.
That the giant Polyphemus is credited with exploits to which our herculean Cape Matifou could not pretend, it may perhaps be as well to remember. But Cape Matifou had the advantage of being alive, while Polyphemus has been dead some three thousand years—if he ever existed, notwithstanding the story of Ulysses. Reclus has remarked that it is not unlikely that the celebrated Cyclops was simply Etna, “the crater of which during eruption glares like an immense eye at the summit of the mountain, and sends down from the top of the cliffs the rocky fringes which become islets and reefs like the Faraglioni.”
These Faraglioni, situated a few hundred yards from the shore by the road to Catania, now doubled by the railway from Syracuse to Messina, are the ancient islands of the Cyclops. The cave of Polyphemus is not far off, and along the whole coast there is heard that peculiar roar which the sea always makes when it beats against basaltic rocks.
Half way along these rocks on the evening of the 29th of August two men were to be seen quite indifferent to the charms of historic associations, but conversing of certain matters that the Sicilian gendarmes would not have been sorry to hear.
One of these men was Zirone. The other, who had just come by the Catania road, was Carpena.
“You are late,” exclaimed Zirone. “I really thought that Malta had vanished like Julia, her old neighbor, and that you were food for the tunnies and bonicous at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”
It was obvious that although fifteen years had passed over the head of Sarcany's companion neither his loquacity nor his natural effrontery had left him. With his hat over his ear, a brownish cape over his shoulders, leggings laced up to the knee, he looked what he was and what he had never ceased to be—a bandit.
“I could not come any sooner,” answered Carpena, “and it was only this morning I landed at Catania.”
“You and your men?”
“How many have you?”
“Is that all?”
“Yes, but good ones!”
“A few, and chiefly Maltese.”
“Good recruits, but not enough of them; the last few months times have been rough and costly. The gendarmes have begun to swarm in Sicily, and they will soon get as thick as—well, if your goods are good—”
“I think so, Zirone, and you will see when you try them. Besides, I have brought with me a jolly fellow, an old acrobat from the shows, active and artful, of whom yon can make a girl if you like, and who will be of great use, I fancy.”
“What was he doing at Malta?”
“Watches when he had an opportunity, handkerchiefs when he could not get watches—”
“And his name?”
“Good!” said Zirone. “We will see how to use his talents and his intelligence. Where have you put your men?”
“At the inn at Santa Grotta above Nicolosi.”
“And you are going to begin again there as landlord?”
“No, to-night,” answered Zirone, “when I have received my new orders. I am waiting here for the train from Messina. I am going to get a message from its last carriage.”
“A message from—him?”
“Yes—from him—with his marriage that never comes off he obliges me to work for my living! Bah! What would not a fellow do for such a friend?”
At this moment a distant roar that could not be mistaken for the roar of the surf was heard along the Catanian shore. It was the train Zirone was waiting for. Carpena and he then climbed up the rocks, and in a few moments they were alongside the line. Two whistles, as the train entered a short tunnel, told them it was near. Its speed was not very great. Soon the puffing of the engine became louder, the lamps showed their two white lights in the darkness, the rails in front were rendered visible by the long projecting glare.
Zirone attentively watched the train as it rolled past some three yards away from him.
A moment before the last carriage reached him a window was put down and a woman put her head out of the window. As soon as she saw the Sicilian at his post she threw him an orange, which rolled on the ground about a dozen yards from Zirone.
The woman was Namir, Sarcany's spy. A few seconds afterward she had disappeared with the train in the direction of Aci Reale.
Zirone picked up the orange, or rather the two halves of orange skin that were sewed together. The Spaniard and he then hurried behind a lofty rock, broke open the orange skin and drew out a letter which contained the following message:
“I hope to join you at Nicolosi in five or six days. Be particularly careful of a Dr. Antekirtt.”
Evidently Sarcany had learned at Ragusa that this mysterious personage, who had so much exercised public curiosity, had twice visited Mme. Bathory's house. Hence a certain uneasiness on his part, although he had hitherto defied everybody and everything; and hence also his sending this message to Zirone, not through the post, but by Namir.
Zirone put the letter in his pocket, extinguished the lantern, and, addressing Carpena, said:
“Have you ever heard of a Dr. Antekirtt?”
“No,” answered the Spaniard, “but perhaps Pescador has. That little beggar knows everything.”
“We will see about it, then,” said Zirone. “There is no danger in going out at night, is there?”
“Less than in going out during the day!”
“Yes—in the day there are the gendarmes who are so thoughtless! Come on! In three hours we must be inside your place at Santa Grotta!”
And crossing the railway, they took to the footpaths well known to Zirone, and were soon lost to sight as they crossed the lower buttresses of Etna.
For eighteen years there had existed in Sicily, and principally at Palermo, its capital, a formidable association of malefactors. Bound together by a sort of Freemasonry, their adherents were to be counted in thousands. Theft and fraud by every possible means were the objects of the Society of Maffia, to which a number of shopkeepers and working-people paid a sort of annual tithe to be allowed to carry on their trade without molestation.
At this time Sarcany and Zirone—this was before the Trieste conspiracy—were among the chiefs of the Maffia, and none were more zealous than they.
However, with the general progress, with a better administration of the towns, if not of the country round them, the association became somewhat interfered with in its proceedings. The tithes and black-mail fell off, and most of the members separated and tried to get a more lucrative means of existence by brigandage. The government of Italy then underwent a change, owing to the unification, and Sicily, like the other provinces, had to submit to the common lot, to accept other laws, and especially to receive the yoke of conscription. Rebels who would not conform to the new laws, and fugitives who refused to serve in the army, then betook themselves to the “maffissi” and other unscupulous ruffians, and formed themselves into gangs to scour the country.
Zirone was at the head of one of these gangs, and when the share of Count Sandorfs possessions which had fallen to Sarcany, had been run through, he and his friend had returned to their old life and waited till another opportunity offered to acquire a fortune. The opportunity came—the marriage of Sarcany with Toronthal's daughter. We know how that had failed up to the present, and the reasons for the failure.
Sicily at the time in question was singularly favorable for the pursuit of brigandage. The ancient Trinacria in its circuit of 450 miles round the points of the triangle, Cape Faro on the north-east, Cape Marsala on the west, and Cape Passaro on the south-east, includes the mountains of Pelores and Nebrodes, the independent volcanic group of Etna, the streams of Giarella, Cantara, and Platani, and torrents, valleys, plains, and towns communicating with each other with difficulty, villages perched on almost inaccessible rocks, convents isolated in the gorges or on the slopes, a number of refuges in which retreat was possible, and an infinity of creeks by which the sea offered innumerable means of flight. This slip of Sicilian ground is the world in miniature; in it everything that is met with on the globe can be found—mountains, volcanoes valleys, meadows, rivers, rivulets, lakes, torrents, towns, villages, hamlets, harbors, creeks, promontories, capes, reefs, breakers all ready for the use of a population of nearly three millions of inhabitants scattered over a surface of sixteen thousand square miles.
Where could there be found a better region for the operations of banditti? And so, although they were decreasing in number, although the Sicilian brigand, like his cousin of Calabria, seemed to have had his day, although they are prescribed—at least in modern literature—although they have begun to find work more profitable than robbery, yet travelers do well to take every precaution when they venture into the country so dear to Cacus, and so blessed by Mercury.
However, in the last few years the Sicilian gendarmerie always on the alert, had made many successful forays into the eastern provinces, and many bands had fallen into ambuscades and been partly destroyed. One of these bands was Zirone's, which had thus been reduced to thirty men, and on account of this he had conceived the idea of infusing some foreign blood into his troop, and Maltese blood more particularly. He knew that in the Manderraggio, which he used to frequent, bandits out of work could be picked up in hundreds, and that was why Carpena had gone to Valetta, and if he had only brought back a dozen men, they were at least picked men. There was nothing surprising in the Spaniard showing himself so devoted to Zirone. The trade suited him, but as he was a coward by nature, he put himself as little as possible within range of the rifles. It pleased him best to prepare matters, to draw up plans, to keep this tavern at Santa Grotta, situated in a frightful gorge on the lower slopes of the volcano.
Although Sarcany and Zirone knew all about Carpena's share in the matter of Andrea Ferrato, Carpena knew nothing of the Trieste affair. He thought he had become connected with honest brigands who had been carrying on their “trade” for many years in the mountains of Sicily.
Zirone and Carpena in the course of their walk of eight Italian miles from the rocks of Polyphemus to Nicolosi, met with no mishap, in the sense that not a single gendarme was seen on the road. They went along the rough footpaths among the vineyards and olive-trees, orange-trees and cedars, and through the clumps of ash-trees, cork-trees, and fig-trees. Now and then they went up one of the dry torrent beds which seem from a distance to resemble macadamized roads in which the roller has left the pebbles unbroken. The Sicilian and the Spaniard passed through the villages of San Giovanni and Tramestieri at a considerable height above the level of the Mediterranean. About half-past ten they reached Nicolosi, situated as in the middle of an open plain flanking on the north and west the eruptive cones of Montpilieri, Monte Rossi and Serra Pizzuta.
The town has six churches, a convent dedicated to San Nicolo D'Arena, and two taverns—a significant token of its importance. But with these taverns Carpena and Zirone had nothing to do. Santa Grotta was an hour further on, in one of the deepest gorges in the volcanic range, and they arrived there before midnight.
People were not asleep at Santa Grotta. They were at supper with an accompaniment of shouts and curses. Carpena's recruits were there, and the honors were being done by an old fellow named Benito. The rest of the gang, some forty in number, were then about twenty miles off to the westward, on the other side of the Etna. There were therefore at Santa Grotta only the dozen Maltese recruited by the Spaniard, and among these Pescador—otherwise Point Pescade—was playing quite a prominent part, at the same time as he heard, saw, and noted everything, so as to forget nothing that might prove useful.
And one of the things he had made a mental note of was Benito's shout to his comrades just before Carpena and Zirone arrived.
“Be quiet, you Maltese, be quiet! They will hear you at Cassone, where the central commissary, the amiable quæstor of the province, has sent a detachment of carbineers!”
A playful threat considering how far Cassone was from Santa Grotta. But the new-comers supposed their vociferations might possibly reach the ears of the soldiers and moderated them considerably as they drank off large flasks of the Etna wine that Benito himself poured out for them. In short, they were more or less intoxicated when the door opened.
“Jolly fellows!” exclaimed Zirone as he entered. “Carpena has been lucky, and I see that Benito has done his work well.”
“These gallant fellows were dying of thirst!” answered Benito.
“And from that worst of deaths,” said Zirone, with a grin, “you thought to save them. Good! Now let them go to sleep. We will make their acquaintance to-morrow.”
“Why wait till to-morrow?” said one of the recruits.
“Because you are too drunk to understand and obey orders.”
“Drunk! Drunk! After drinking a bottle or two of this washy wine when we are accustomed to gin and whisky in the Manderaggio!”
“And who are you?” asked Zirone.
“That is little Pescador,” answered Carpena,
“And who are you?” asked Pescador.
“That is Zirone,” answered the Spaniard.
Zirone looked attentively at the young bandit whom Carpena had praised so much, and who introduced himself in such a free and easy manner. Doubtless he thought he looked intelligent and daring, for he gave an approving nod. Then he spoke to Pescador:
“You have been drinking like the others?”
“More than the others.”
“And you have kept your senses?”
“Bah ! It has not hurt me in the least.”
“Then tell me this, for Carpena says you may give me some information that I want.”
And Zirone threw him a half piastre which Pescador instantly slipped into his waistcoat pocket as a professional juggler would a ball.
“He is obliging!” said Zirone.
“Very obliging!” replied Pescador. “And now what do you want?”
“You know Malta?”
“Malta, Italy, Istria, Dalmatia, and the Adriatic,” answered Pescador.
“You have traveled?”
“Much; but always at my own expense.”
“I'll see that you never travel otherwise; for when it is the Government that pays—”
“It costs too much,” interrupted Pescador.
“Exactly,” replied Zirone, who was delighted to have found a new companion with whom he could talk.
“And now?” asked Pescador.
“And now, Pescador, in your numerous voyages did you ever hear of a certain Doctor Antekirtt?”
In spite of all his cleverness Point Pescade had never expected that; but he was sufficiently master of himself hot to betray his surprise.
How Zirone, who was not at Ragusa during the stay of “Savarena,” nor at Malta while the “Ferrato” was there, could have heard of the doctor was a puzzler. But with his decision of character he saw that his reply might be of use to him, and he did not hesitate to say at once—
“Doctor Antekirtt! Oh, perfectly! People talk of nothing else throughout the Mediterranean!”
“Have you seen him?”
“But do you know who he is?”
“A poor fellow, a hundred times a millionaire, who never goes about without a million in each pocket, and he has at least six! An unfortunate who is reduced to practice medicine as an amusement, sometimes on a schooner, sometimes on a steam yacht; a man who has a cure for every one of the 22,000 maladies with which nature has gratified the human species.”
The mountebank of former days was again in his glory, and the fluency of his patter astonished Zirone, and none the less Carpena, who muttered—
“What a recruit!”
Pescador was silent and lighted a cigarette, from which the smoke seemed to come out of his eyes, his nose and his ears as he pleased.
“You say the doctor is rich?” asked Zirone.
“Rich enough to buy Sicily, and turn it into an English garden,” replied Pescador.
Then thinking the moment had come for him to inspire Zirone with the idea of the scheme he had resolved to put into execution, he continued:
“And look here, Captain Zirone, if I have not seen Doctor Antekirtt I have seen one of his yachts, for they say he has quite a fleet to sail about the sea in.”
“One of his yachts?”
“Yes, the ‘Ferrato,’ which would suit me nicely to go for a sail in the Bay of Naples with a princess or two.”
“Where did you see the yacht?”
“The day before yesterday at Valetta as we were going on board with Sergeant Carpena. She was then at her moorings in the military port, but they said she was going out four-and-twenty hours after us.”
“To Sicily, to Catania!”
“To Catania?” asked Zirone.
The coincidence between the departure of Dr. Antekirtt and the warning he had received from Sarcany to beware of him could not but awake Zirone's suspicions.
Point Pescade saw that some secret thought was working in Zirone's brain, but what was it? Not being able to guess, he resolved to press Zirone more directly, and when he had asked—
“What does the doctor want in Sicily, and at Catania more especially?”
“Eh! By Saint Agatha, he is coming to visit the town! He is going to ascend Mount Etna! He is going to travel like the rich traveler that he is!”
“Pescador,” said Zirone, with a certain amount of suspicion, “you seem to have known this man some time.”
“Not so long as I would like to if I had an opportunity.”
“What do you mean?”
“That if Dr. Antekirtt, as is probable, comes for a walk in our ground we might as well make his excellency pay his footing.”
“Indeed!” said Zirone.
“And if that only comes to a million or two it will be good business.”
“You are right.”
“And in that case Zirone and his friends would not have been fools.”
“Good!” said Zirone with a smile. “After that compliment you can go to sleep.”
“That will suit me, for I know what I shall get dreaming about.”
“The millions of Dr. Antekirtt—dreams of gold!”
And then Pescador, having given his cigarette its last puff, went off to join his companions in the barn of the inn, while Carpena retired to his room.
And then he set to work to piece together all that he had said and heard. From the time that Zirone to his great astonishment had spoken to him of Dr. Antekirtt, had he done the best for the interests that were intrusted to him? Let us see.
In coming to Sicily the doctor hoped to again meet with Sarcany, and perhaps Toronthal, in case he accompanied him, which was not improbable, considering that they had left Ragusa together. Failing Sarcany, he reckoned on capturing Zirone, and by bribe or threat making him reveal where Sarcany and Toronthal could be found. That was his plan, and this was how he intended executing it.
In his youth the doctor had several times visited Sicily, particularly the district round Etna. He knew the different roads by which the ascent is made, the most used being that which passes by a house built at the commencement of the central cone, and which is known as the “Casa degli Inglesi.”
Zirone's gang, for which Carpena had been recruiting at Malta, was then at work on the Etna slopes, and it was certain that the arrival of a personage as famous as Dr. Antekirtt would produce the usual effect at Catania. If the doctor were to put it about that he was going to make the ascent of Etna Zirone would be sure to hear of it, especially with the help of Point Pescade. The scheme had begun well, for Zirone himself had introduced the subject of the doctor to Pescade.
The trap which was to be laid for Zirone, and in which there was a good chance of his being caught, was the following:
The night before the doctor was to make the ascent of the volcano a dozen well-armed men from the “Ferrato” were to make their way secretly to the Casa degli Inglesi. In the morning the doctor, accompanied by Luigi, Pierre, and a guide, would leave Catania and follow the usual road so as to reach the Casa degli Inglesi about eight in the evening, and then pass the night like all tourists do who wish to see the sun rise over the mountains of Calabria.
Zirone, urged by Point Pescade, would doubtless endeavor to capture the doctor, thinking he had only to do with him and his two companions; but when he reached the Casa degli Inglesi he would be received by the sailors of the “Ferrato” and resistance would be impossible.
Point Pescade, knowing this scheme, had happily profited by the circumstances that presented themselves to put this idea of capturing the doctor into Zirone's head. It meant a heavy ransom, and would also work in with the message he had received. If he was to be careful of this man, would it not be better for him to seize him even if he lost the ransom? And Zirone decided to do so and wait for further instructions from Sarcany. But to be certain of success, as he had not his whole gang with him, he resolved to make the attempt with Carpena's Maltese much to the comfort of Pescade, as the dozen ruffians would be no match for the “Ferrato” men.
But Zirone trusted nothing to chance. As Pescador had told him that the steam yacht was to arrive in the morning, he left Santa Grotta early, and walked down to Catania. Not being known, he could go there without danger.
In a few hours the steam yacht arrived at her moorings, not near the quay, which is always crowded with ships, but a sort of entrance harbor between the north jetty and a huge mass of blackish lava which the eruption of 1669 sent down into the sea.
Already at daybreak Cape Matifou and eleven men of the “Ferrato” crew under Luigi had been landed at Catania and separately had started on the road to the Casa degli Inglesi. Zirone knew nothing of this landing, and as the “Ferrato” was moored a cable's length from the shore he could not even see what was passing on board.
About six o'clock in the evening the gig brought ashore two passengers. These were the doctor and Pierre Bathory. They went up the Via Stesicoro and the Strada Etnea toward the Villa Bellini, a public garden perhaps one of the most beautiful in Europe, with its masses of flowers, its varied slopes, its terraces shaded with large trees, its running streams, and the superb volcano plumed with mist rising in the background.
Zirone had followed the two passengers, doubting not that one of them was this famous Dr. Antekirtt. He even managed to get rather near them in the crowd that the music had attracted to the Villa Bellini, but he did not do this without being noticed by the doctor and Pierre. If this suspicious fellow were the Zirone they were looking for, here was a fine opportunity for enticing him still further into the snare that they had laid.
And so about eleven o'clock in the evening, when they were leaving the garden to return on board, the doctor, replying to Pierre, in a loud tone, said:
“Yes, it is understood! We start to-morrow, and will sleep at the Casa degli Inglesi”
Doubtless the spy had learned what he wanted, for a moment afterward he had disappeared.