21. Under Fire
Blake heard Margherita's breath release itself. She was staring as if at an apparition. His mind, working with feverish speed, sought vainly to grasp the situation. Maruffi had broken away and come for his vengeance, but how or why this had been made possible he could not conceive. It sufficed that the man was here in the flesh, sinister, terrible, malignant as hell. Blake knew that the ultimate test of his courage had come.
He felt the beginnings of that same shuddering, sickening weakness with which he was only too familiar; felt the strength running out from his body as water escapes from a broken vessel. He froze with the sense of his physical impotency, and yet despite this chaos of conflicting emotions his inner mind was clear; it was bitter, too, with a ferocious self-disgust.
There was a breathless pause before Maruffi spoke.
"Lucrezia Ferara!" he said, hoarsely, as if wishing to test the sound of the name. "So Oliveta is the daughter of the overseer, and you are Savigno's sweetheart." His words were directed at Margherita, who answered in a thin, shrill, broken voice:
"What--are you doing--here?"
"I came for that wanton's blood. Give her to me."
"Oliveta? She is--gone."
The Sicilian cursed. "Gone? Where?"
"Away. Into the street. You--you cannot find her."
"Christ!" Maruffi reached upward and tore open the collar of his shirt.
Blake spoke for the first time, but his voice was dead and lifeless.
"Yes. She's gone. You're wanted. You must go with me!"
Maruffi gave a snarling, growling cry and his gesture showed that he was armed. Involuntarily Blake shrank back; his hand groped for his hip, but, half-way, encountered the pile of silken cushions upon which Margherita had been lying; his fingers sank into them nervously, his other hand gripped the carven footboard of the couch. He had no weapon. He had not dreamed of such a necessity.
In this imminent peril a new fear swept over him greater than any he had ever known. It was not the fear of death. It was something far worse. For the moment, it seemed to him inevitable that Margherita Ginini should, at last, learn the truth concerning him, should see him as he was that night at Terranova. Swift upon the heels of his long-deferred declaration of love would come the proof that he was a craven. Then he thought of her danger, realizing that this man was quite capable in his fury of killing her, too, and he stiffened in every fiber. His cowardice fell away from him like a rotten garment, and he stood erect.
Maruffi, it seemed, had not heard his last words, or else his mind was still set upon Oliveta. "Gone!" he exclaimed. "Then I shall not see her face grow black within my fingers--not yet. God! How I ran!" He cursed again. "But I shall not fare so badly, after all." He stirred, and with his movement Blake flew to action. Swiftly, with one sweep of his right hand, he brought the silken cushions up before his breast and lunged at his enemy. At the same instant Maruffi fired.
In the closed room the detonation was deafening; it rattled the windows, it seemed to bulge the very walls. Blake felt a heavy blow which drove the floss-filled pillows against his body with the force of a giant hammer, it tore them from his grip, it crushed the breath from his lungs and spun him half around. Seeing that he did not fall, Maruffi cocked and fired a second time without aiming, but his victim was upon him like a tiger and together they crashed back against the wall, locked in each other's arms.
Blake's will propelled him splendidly. All that indecision with which fear works upon the mind had left him, but the old contraction of his nerves still hampered his action. The blaze from Maruffi's second shot half blinded him and its breath smote him like a blow.
"Two!" he counted, wonderingly. A pain in his left side, due to that first sledge-hammer impact, was spreading slowly, but he had crossed the room under the belching muzzle of the revolver and was practically unharmed.
There began a struggle--the more terrible since it was unequal--in which the weaker man had to drive his body at the cost of tremendous effort. Blake was like a leader commanding troops which had begun to retreat. But more power came to him under the spur of action and the pressing realization that he must give Margherita a chance to get safely away. If he could not wrest the weapon from Maruffi's hands he knew that he must receive those four remaining bullets in his own body. He rather doubted that he could take that weight of lead.
He shouted to her to run, while he wrestled for possession of the gun. He had flung his right arm about his adversary's body, his other hand gripped his wrist; his head was pressed against Maruffi's chest. The weapon described swift circles, jerking parabolas and figures as the men strained to wrest it from each other. Maruffi strove violently to free his imprisoned hand, and in doing so he discharged the revolver a third time. The bullet brought a shower of plaster from the ceiling, and Blake counted with fierce exultation,
He gasped his warning to the woman again, then twined his leg about his antagonist's in a wrestler's hold, striving mightily to bear Maruffi against the wall. But Caesar was like an oak-tree. Failing to move him, Blake suddenly flung himself backward, with all his weight, lifting at the same instant in the hope of a fall. In this he was all but successful. The two reeled out into the room, tripped, went to their knees, then rose, still intertwined in that desperate embrace. The odd, stiff feeling in Blake's side had increased rapidly; it began to numb his muscles and squeeze his lungs. His eyes were stinging with sweat and smoke; his ears were roaring. As they swayed and turned he saw that Margherita had made no effort to escape and he was seized with an extraordinary rage, which for a brief time renewed his strength.
She was at the front window crying for help.
"Jump! For--God's sake, jump!" he shouted, but she did not obey. Instead she ran toward the combatants and seized Maruffi's free arm, in a measure checking his effort to break the other man's hold. Her closeness to danger agonized Blake, the more as he felt his own strength ebbing, under that stabbing pain in his side. He centered his force in the grip of his left hand, clinging doggedly while the Sicilian flung his two assailants here and there as a dog worries a scarf.
Blake fancied he heard a stamping of feet in the hall outside and the sound of voices, of heavy bodies crashing against the door. Maruffi heard it, too, for with a bellow of fury he redoubled his exertions. A sweep of his arm flung the girl aside; with a mighty wrench of his body he carried Blake half across the room, loosening his hold. Then he seized him by the throat and forced his head back.
HE WRESTLED FOR POSSESSION OF THE GUN
The shouting outside was increasing, the pounding was growing louder. Blake's breath was cut off and his strength went swiftly; his death grip on the Sicilian's body slackened. As he tore at the fingers which were throttling him, his left hand slipped, citing to Maruffi's sleeve, and finally began clawing blindly for the weapon. The next moment he was hurled aside, so violently that he fell, his feet entangled in the cushions with which he had defended himself against the first shot.
He rose and renewed his attack, hearing Margherita cry out in horror. This time Maruffi took deliberate aim, and when he fired the figure lurching toward him was halted as if by some giant fist.
"Four!" Blake counted. He was hit, he knew, but he still had strength; there were but two more shots to come. Then he was dazed to find himself upon his knees. As if through a film he saw the Italian turn away and raise his weapon toward the girl, who was wrenching at the door.
"Maruffi!" he shouted. "Oh, God!" then he closed his eyes to shut out what followed. But he heard nothing, for he slipped forward, face down, and felt himself falling, falling, into silence and oblivion.
As O'Connell made his way toward St. Phillip Street he nursed a growing resentment at the news Norvin Blake had given him. His feeling toward Caesar Maruffi had all the fierceness of private hatred, calling for revenge, and he considered himself ill-used in that he had not even been permitted to witness the arrest. He knew Maruffi's countrymen would be likely to make a demonstration, and he was grimly desirous of being present when this occurred.
As he neared the heart of the Italian section he saw a blue-coated officer running toward him.
"What's up?" he cried. "Have the dagoes started something?"
"Maruffi was pinched, but he got away," the other answered. "Johnson is hurt, and--"
O'Connell lost the remaining words, for he had broken into a run.
A crowd had gathered in front of a little shop where the wounded policeman had been carried to await the arrival of an ambulance, and even before O'Connell had heard the full story of the escape Acting-Chief O'Neil drove up behind a lathered horse. He leaped from his mud-stained buggy, demanding, hoarsely:
"Where is he--Maruffi?"
Officer Dean, Johnson's companion, met him at the door of the shop.
"He made his break while I was 'phoning you," he answered.
"Hell! Didn't you frisk him?" roared the Chief.
"Sure! But we missed his gun."
"Caesar carries it on a cord around his neck--nigger-fashion," briefly explained O'Connell.
Dean was running on excitedly: "I heard Johnson holler, but before I could get out into the street Maruffi had shot him twice and was into that alley yonder. I tried to follow, but lost him, so I came back and sent in the alarm."
The Acting Chief cursed under his breath, and with a few sharp orders hurried off the few officers who had reached the scene. Then as an ambulance appeared he passed into the room where Johnson lay. As he emerged a moment later O'Connell drew him aside.
"Maruffi won't try to leave town till it's good and dark," he said. "He's got a girl, and I've an idea he'll ask her to hide him out."
"It was his girl who turned him up--she and Blake--"
O'Connell cried, sharply: "Wait! Does he know she did that? If he does, he'll make for her, sure."
"That may be. Those two women are all alone, and I'd feel better if they were safely out of the way. I'll leave you there on the way back."
An instant later they were clattering over the uneven flags while their vehicle rocked and bounded in a way that threatened to hurl them out.
Even before they reached their destination they saw people running through the dusk toward the house in which the two girls lived and heard a shot muffled behind walls. O'Neil reined the horse to his haunches as the shrill cry of a woman rang out above them, and the next moment he and O'Connell were inside, rushing up the stairs with headlong haste. They were brought to a stop before a bolted door from behind which came the sounds of a furious struggle.
"Blake! Norvin Blake!" shouted O'Connell.
"Break it down!" O'Neil ordered. He set his back against the opposite wall, then launched himself like a catapult. The patrolman followed suit, but although the panels strained and split the heavy door held.
"By God! he's in there!" the Chief cried, as he set his shoulder to the barrier for a second time. "Once more! Together!" Through a crevice which had opened in the upper panels they caught a glimpse of the dimly lighted room. What they saw made them struggle like madmen.
Another shot sounded, and O'Neil in desperation inserted his fingers in the opening and tore at it. Through the aperture O'Connell saw Maruffi run to an open window at the rear, then pause long enough to snatch the taper from its sconce at the foot of the little shrine and, stooping, touch its flame to the long lace curtains. They promptly flashed into a blaze. Parting them, he bestrode, the sill, lowered himself outside, and disappeared. It was an old but effective ruse to delay pursuit.
"Quick! He's set fire to the place," O'Connell gasped, and dashed down the hall.
A tremendous final heave of O'Neil's body cleared his way, a few strides and he was at the window, ripping the blazing hangings down and flinging them into the court below. When he turned it was to behold in the dim twilight Vittoria Fabrizi kneeling beside Blake. Her arms were about him, her yellow hair entwined his figure.
"A light! Somebody get a light!" the Chief roared to those who had followed him up the stairs, then seeing a lamp near by he lit it hurriedly, revealing the full disorder of the room. He knelt beside Vittoria, who drew the fallen man closer to her, moaning something in Italian which O'Neil could not understand. But her look told him enough, and, rising, he ordered some one to run for a doctor. Strangers, white-faced and horrified, were crowding in; the sound of other feet came from the stairs outside, questions and explanations were noisily exchanged. O'Neil swore roundly at the crowd and drove it ahead of him down into the street, where he set a man to guard the door. Then he returned and helped the girl examine her lover's wounds. Her fingers were steady and sure, but in her face was such an abandonment of grief as he had never seen, and her voice was little more than a rasping whisper. They were still working when the doctor came, followed a moment later by a disheveled, stricken figure of tragedy which O'Neil recognized as Oliveta.
At sight of her foster-sister the peasant girl broke into a passion of weeping, but Vittoria checked her with an imperious word, meanwhile keeping her tortured eyes upon the physician. She waited upon him, forestalling his every thought and need with a mechanical dexterity that bore witness to her training, but all the while her eyes held a pitiful entreaty. Not until she heard O'Neil call for an ambulance did she rouse herself to connected speech. Then she exclaimed with hysterical insistence:
"You shall not take him away! I am a nurse; he shall stay here. Who better than I could attend to him?"
"He can stay here if you have a place for him," said the doctor. O'Neil drew him aside, inquiring, "Will he live?"
The doctor indicated Vittoria with a movement of his head. "I'm sure of it. That girl won't let him die."
The news of that combat traveled fast and far and it came to Myra Nell Warren among the first. Despite the dreadful false position in which Bernie had placed her with respect to Norvin, the girl had but one thought and that was to go to her friend. She could not endure the sight of blood, and her somewhat child-like imagination conjured up a gory spectacle. She was afraid that if she tried to act as nurse she would faint or run away when most needed. But she was determined to go to him and to assist in any way she could. It was not consistent with her ideas of loyalty to shrink from the sight of suffering even though she could do nothing to relieve it.
When she mounted the stairs to Oliveta's living-quarters she was pale and agitated, and she faltered on the threshold at the sight of strangers. Within were a newspaper reporter, a doctor, the Chief of Police, the Mayor of the city, while outside a curious throng was gathered. Seeing Miss Fabrizi, she ran toward her, sobbing nervously.
"Where is he, Vittoria? Tell me that he's--safe!"
Some one answered, "He's safe and resting quietly."
"T-take me to him."
A spasm stirred Vittoria's tired features; she petted the girl with a comforting hand, while Mayor Wright said, gently:
"It must have been a great shock to you, Myra Nell, as it was to all of us, but you may thank God he has been spared to you."
The reporter made a note upon his pad, and began framing the heart interest of his story. Here was a new and interesting aspect of an event worth many columns.
Vittoria led the girl toward her room, but outside the door Myra Nell paused, shaking in every limb.
"You--you love him?" asked the other woman.
The look which Miss Warren gave her stabbed like a knife, and when the girl had sunk to her knees beside the bed, with Blake's name upon her lips, Vittoria stood for a long moment gazing down upon her dazedly.
Later, when she had sent Myra Nell home and silence lay over the city, Norvin's nurse stole into the great front room where she had experienced so much of gladness and horror that night, and made her way wearily to the little image of the Virgin. She noted with a start that the candle was gone, so she lit a new one and, kneeling for many minutes, prayed earnestly for strength to do the right and to quench the leaping, dazzling flame which had been kindled in her heart.