25. The Appeal
On the iron balcony of a house in the vicinity of the parish prison the two Sicilian girls were standing. Across from them loomed the great decaying structure with its little iron-barred windows and its steel-ribbed doors behind which lay their countrymen. From inside came the echo of a great hammering, as if a gallows were being erected; but the square and the streets outside were quiet.
"What time is it now?" Oliveta had repeated this question already a dozen times.
"It is after ten."
"I hear nothing as yet, do you?"
"We could hear if it were not for that dreadful pounding yonder in the jail."
"Hush! They are building barricades."
The peasant girl gasped and seized the iron railing in front of her.
"Madonna mia! I am dying. Do you think Signore Blake will yield to your appeal and turn the mob?"
"I'm afraid not," said Vittoria, faintly.
"He can do more than any other, for he is powerful; they will listen to him. If Caesar should escape! I am shamed through and through to have loved such a man, and yet to have him killed like a rat in a hole! I pray, and I know not what I pray for--my thoughts are whirling so. Do you hear anything from the city?"
There was a moment's pause.
"Those barricades will not allow them to enter, even if our friend does not persuade them to disperse."
"I have heard there is sometimes shooting." Vittoria shuddered. "It is terrible for men to become brutes."
"The time is growing late," Oliveta quavered.
There was another period of silence while they strained their ears for the faintest sound, but the fresh breeze wafted nothing to them. On a neighboring gallery two housewives were gossiping; a child was playing on the walk beneath, and his piping laughter sounded strangely incongruous. From across the way rose that desultory pounding as spikes were driven home and beams were nailed in place. Through a grated aperture in the prison wall an armed man peered down the street.
"Caesar is cunning," Oliveta broke out. "He is not one to be easily caught. He is brave, too. Ah, God! how I loved him and how I have hated him!" Ever since Maruffi's capture she had remained in a frame of mind scarcely rational, fluctuating between a silent, sullen mood of revenge and a sense of horror at her betrayal of the man who had once possessed her whole heart.
"It can't be that you still care for him?"
"No, I loathe him, and if he escapes he would surely kill me. Yet sometimes I wish it." She began mumbling to herself. "Look!" she cried, suddenly. "What is this?"
A public hack came swinging into view, its horses at a gallop. It drew up before the main gate of the prison, a man leaped forth and began pounding for admittance. Some one spoke to him through a grating.
"What does he say?" queried the peasant girl.
"I cannot hear. Perhaps he comes to say there is no--Mother of God! Listen!"
From somewhere toward the heart of the city came a faint murmur.
"It is the rumble of a wagon on the next street," gasped Oliveta.
The sound died away. The girls stood frozen at attention with their senses strained. Then it rose again, louder. Soon there was no mistaking it. A whisper came upon the breeze, it mounted into a long-drawn humming, which in turn grew to a steady drone of voices broken by waves of cheering. It gathered volume rapidly, and straggling figures came running into view, followed by knots and groups of fleet-footed youths. The driver of the carriage rose on his box, looked over his shoulder, then whipped his horses into a gallop and fled. As he did so a slowly moving wagon laden with timbers turned in from a side street. It was driven by a somnolent negro, who finally halted his team and stared in dull lack of comprehension at what he saw approaching.
By now the street beneath the girls was half filled with people; it echoed to a babble of voices, to the shuffle and tread of a coming multitude, and an instant later out of every thoroughfare which fronted upon the grim old prison structure streamed the people of New Orleans.
"See! They are unarmed!" Oliveta's fingers sank into her sister's wrist.
Then through the press came a body of silent men, four abreast and shoulder to shoulder. The crowd opened to let them through, cheering frenziedly. They wore an air of sober responsibility; they carried guns, and looked to neither right nor left. Directly beneath the waiting women they passed, and at their head marched Norvin Blake and Bernie Dreux together with two men unknown to the girls.
Vittoria leaned forward horror-stricken, and although she tried to call she did not hear her voice above the confusion; Oliveta clutched her, murmuring distractedly.
The avenues were jammed from curb to curb; telegraph-poles, lamp-posts, trees held a burden of human forms; windows and house-tops were filling in every direction; a continuous roar beat thunderously against the prison walls.
The army of vigilantes drew up before the main gate, and a man smote it with the butt of his shotgun, demanding entrance. The crowd, anticipating a volley from within, surged back, leaving them isolated. A dozen bluecoats struggled to clear the sidewalks next the structure, but they might as well have tried to stem a rising tide with their naked hands; they were buffeted briefly, then swallowed up.
In answer to a command, the armed men scattered, surrounding the building with a cordon of steel; then the main body renewed its assault. But the oaken barrier, stoutly reinforced, withstood them gallantly, and a brief colloquy occurred, after which they made their way to a small side door which directly faced the two women across the street. This was not so heavily constructed as the front gate and promised an easier entrance; but it was likewise locked and barred. Then some one spied the wagon and its load of timbers, now hopelessly wedged into the press, and a rush was made toward it. A beam was raised upon willing shoulders, and with this as a battering-ram a breach was begun.
Every crash was the signal for a shout from the multitude, and when the door finally gave way a triumphant roar arose. The armed men swarmed into the opening and disappeared one by one, all but two who stood with backs to the door and faced the crowd warningly. It was evident that some sort of order prevailed among them, and that this was more than an unorganized assault.
Through the close-packed ranks, on and on around the massive pile, ran the word that the vigilantes were within; it was telegraphed from house-top to house-top. Then a silence descended, the more sinister and ominous because of the pandemonium which had preceded it.
Thus far Vittoria and her companion had seen and heard all that occurred, for their position commanded a view of both fronts of the building; but now they had only their ears to guide them.
"Come, let us leave now! We have seen enough." Vittoria cried, and strove to drag Oliveta from her post. But the girl would not yield, she did not seem to hear, her eyes were fixed with strained and fascinated horror upon that shattered aperture which showed like a gaping wound. Her bloodless lips were whispering; her fingers, where they gripped the iron railing, were like claws.
"Quickly! Quickly!" moaned Vittoria. "We did not come to see this monstrous thing. Oliveta, spare yourself!" In the silence her voice sounded so loudly and shrilly that people on the adjoining balcony turned curious, uncomprehending faces toward her.
Moment after moment that hush continued, then from within came a renewed hammering, hollow, measured; above it sounded the faint cries of terrified prisoners. This died away after a time, and some one said:
"They're into the corridors at last. It won't be long now."
A moment later a dull, unmistakable reverberation rolled forth like the smothered sound of a subterranean explosion; it was followed by another and another--gunshots fired within brick walls and flag-paved courtyards.
It shattered that sickening, unending suspense which caused the pulse to flutter and the breath to lag; the crowd gave tongue in a howl of hoarse delight. Then followed a peculiar shrilling chorus--that familiar signal known as the "dago whistle"--which was like the piercing cry of lost souls. "Who killa da Chief?" screamed the hoodlums, then puckered their lips and piped again that mocking signal. As the booming of the guns continued, now singly, now in volley, the maddened populace squeezed toward that narrow entrance through which the avengers had disappeared; but they were halted by the guards and forced to content themselves by greeting every shot with an exultant cry. The streets in all directions were tossing and billowing like the waves of the sea; men capered and flung their arms aloft, shrieking; women and children waved their aprons and kerchiefs, sobbing and spent with excitement. It was a wild and grotesque scene, unspeakably terrible, inhumanly ferocious.
Through it the two Sicilian girls clung to each other, fainting, revolted, fascinated. When they could summon strength they descended to the street and fought their way out of the bedlam. Norvin Blake was not a willing participant in the lynching, although he had gone to the meeting at Clay Statue determined to do what he considered his duty. He had felt no doubt as to the outcome of the mass-meeting even before he saw its giant proportions, and even before it had sounded its approval of the first speaker's words, for he knew how deeply his townspeople were stirred by the astounding miscarriage of justice. At the rally of the Committee on the afternoon previous it had been urged to proceed with the execution at once, and the counsel of the more conservative had barely prevailed. Blake knew perhaps better than his companions to what lengths the rage of a mob will go, and he confessed to a secret fear of the result. Therefore, although he marched in the vanguard of the storming party, it was more to exercise a restraining influence and to prevent violence against unoffending foreigners, than to take part in the demonstration. As for the actual shedding of blood, his instinct revolted from it, while his reason recognized its necessity and defended it.
Bernie Dreux's amazing assumption of dictatorship had relieved him of the duty of heading the mob, a thing for which he was profoundly grateful. When the main body of vigilantes had armed itself, he fell in beside his friend with some notion of helping and protecting him. But the little man proved amply equal to the occasion. He was unwaveringly grim and determined It was he who faced the oaken gate and demanded entrance in the name of the people; it was he who suggested the use of the battering-ram; and it was he who first fought his way through the breach, at the risk of bullets from within. Blake followed to find him with his fowling-piece at the head of the prison captain, and demanding the keys to the cells.
The posse had gained a partial entrance, but another iron-ribbed door withheld them from the body of the prison, and there followed a delay while this was broken down. Meanwhile, from within came the sound of turning locks and of clanging steel doors, also a shuffling of many feet and cries of mortal terror, which told that the prisoners had been freed to shift for themselves in this extremity.
In truth, a scene was being enacted within more terrible than that outside, for as the deputies released the prisoners, commanding them to save themselves if they could, a frightful confusion ensued. Not only did the eleven Sicilians cry to God, but the other inmates of the place who feared their crimes had overtaken them joined in the appeal. Men and women, negroes and whites, felons and minor evil-doers, rushed to and fro along the galleries and passageways, fighting with one another, tearing one another from places of refuge, seeking new and securer points of safety. They huddled in dark corners; they crept under beds, beneath stairways, and into barrels. They burrowed into rubbish piles only to be dragged out by the hair or the heels and to see their jealous companions seize upon these sanctuaries.
Terror is swiftly contagious; the whole place became a seething pit of dismay. Some knelt and prayed, while others trampled upon them; they rose from their knees to beat with bleeding fists upon barred doors and blind partitions; but as their fear of death increased and the chorus of their despair mounted higher there came another pounding, nearer, louder--the sound of splitting wood and of rending metal. To escape was impossible; to remain was madness; of hiding-places there was a fearful scarcity. The regulators came rushing into the prison proper, with footsteps echoing loudly through the barren corridors. Out into the open court they swarmed, then up the iron stairways to the galleries that ringed it about, peering into cells as they went, ousting the wretched inmates from remotest corners. But the chamber in which they knew their quarry had been housed was empty, so they paused undecided, while from all sides came the smothered sounds of terror like the mewling and squeaking of mice hidden in a wall.
Suddenly some one shouted, "There they are!" and pointed to the topmost gallery, which ran in front of the condemned cells. A rush began, but at the top of the winding stairs another grating barred the way. Through this, however, could be seen Salvatore di Marco, Giordano Bolla, and the elder Cressi. The three Sicilians had fled to this last stronghold, slammed the steel door behind them, and now crouched in the shelter of a brick column. Some one hammered at the lock, and the terrified prisoners started to their feet with an agonized appeal for mercy. As they exposed themselves to view a man fired through the bars. His aim was true; Di Marco flung his arms aloft and pitched forward on his face. Crazed by this, his two companions rushed madly back and forth; but they were securely penned in, and appeal was futile. Another shot boomed deafeningly in the close confines of the place, and Cressi plunged to his death; then Bolla followed, his bloody hands gripping the bars, his face upturned in a hideous grimace, and his eyes, which stared through at his slayers, glazing slowly.
Down the ringing stairs marched the grim-featured men who had set themselves this task, and among them Bernie Dreux strode, issuing orders. The weapon in his hand was hot, his shoulder was bruised, for he had long been unaccustomed to the use of firearms.
Then began a systematic search of the men's department of the prison; but no new victims were discovered, only the ordinary prisoners who were well-nigh speechless with fright.
"Where are the others?" went up the cry, and some one answered:
"On the women's side."
The band passed through to the adjoining portion of the double building, and, keys having been secured, the rapidity of their search increased. Into the twin courtyard they filed; then while some investigated the cookhouse others climbed to the topmost tier of cells. As the quest narrowed, six of the Sicilians, who had lain concealed in a compartment on the first floor, broke out in a desperate endeavor to escape, but they were caught between the opposing ranks, as in the jaws of a trap. The cell door clanged to behind them; they found themselves at bay in the open yard. Resistance was useless; they sank to their knees and set up a cry for mercy. They shrieked, they sobbed, they groveled; but their enemies were open to no appeal, untouched by any sense of compunction. They were men wholly dominated by a single fixed idea, as merciless as machines.
There followed a nightmare scene; a horrid, bellowing uproar of voices and detonations, of groans and prayers and curses. The armed men emptied their weapons blindly into that writhing tangle of forms, and as one finished he stepped back while another took his place. The prison rocked with the din of it; the wretches were shot to pieces, riddled, by that horizontal hail which mowed and mangled like an invisible scythe. Now a figure struggled to its feet only to become the target for a fusillade; again one twisted in his agony only to be filled with missiles fired from so short a range that his garments were torn to rags. The pavement became wet and slippery; in one brief moment that section of the yard became a shambles.
Then men went up and poked among the bodies with the hot muzzles of their rifles, turning the corpses over for identification; and as each stark face was recognized a name went echoing out through the dingy corridors to the mob beyond.
Larubio, the cobbler, had attempted a daring ruse. The firing had ceased when up out of that limp and sodden heap he rose, his gray hair matted, his garments streaming. They thrust their rifles against his chest and killed him quickly.
Nine men had died by now, and only two remained, Normando and Maruffi. The former was found shortly, where he had squeezed himself into a dog-kennel which stood under the stairs; but the vigilantes, it seemed, had had enough of slaughter, so he was rushed into the street, where the crowd tore him to pieces as wolves rend a rabbit. Even his garments were ripped to rags and distributed as ghastly souvenirs.
Norvin Blake had been a witness to only a part of this brutality, but what he had seen had sickened him, and had increased his determination to find Gino Cressi. He shared not at all in the sanguinary exaltation which possessed his fellow-townsmen; instead he longed for the end and hoped he would be able to forget what he had seen. He would have fled but for his fear of what might happen to the Cressi boy. Corridor after corridor he searched, peering into cells, under cots, into corners and crannies, while through the cavernous old building the other hunters stormed. He was hard pressed to keep ahead of them, and when he finally found the lad they were dose at his heels.
They came upon him with the lad clinging to his knees, and a shout went up.
"Here's the Cressi kid. He gave the signal; let him have it!"
But Norvin turned upon them, saying:
"You can't kill this boy."
"Step aside, Blake," ordered a red-faced man, raising and cocking his weapon.
Norvin seized the rifle-barrel and turned it aside roughly. The two stared at each other with angry eyes.
"He's only a baby, don't you understand? Good God! You have children of your own."
"I--I--" The fellow hesitated. "So he is. Damnation! What has come over me?" He lowered his gun and turned against the others who were clamoring behind him. "This is--awful," he murmured, shakingly, when the crowd had passed on. "I've done all I intend to." He flung his rifle from him with a gesture of repugnance, and went out of the cell.
Norvin continued to stand guard over his charge while the search for Maruffi went on, for he dared not trust these men who had gone mad. Thus he did not learn that his arch enemy had been taken until he saw him rushed past in the hands of his captors. Caesar had fought as best he could against overwhelming odds, and continued to resist now in a blind fury; but a rope was about his neck, at the end of which were a dozen running men; a dozen gun-butts hustled him on his way to the open air. Blake closed the cell door upon Gino Cressi and followed, drawn by a magnetic force he could not resist.
The main gate of the prison opened before the rush of that tangled, growling handful of men, and they swept straight out into the turmoil that filled the streets. An instant later Maruffi was beset by five thousand maniacs; he was kicked, he was beaten, he was spat upon, he was overwhelmed by an avalanche of humanity. His progress to the gallows was a short but a terrible one, marked by a series of violent whirlpools which set through that river of people. The uproar was deafening; spectators screamed hoarsely, but did not hear their voices.
From where Blake paused beside the gate he traced the Sicilian's progress plainly, marveling at the fellow's vitality, for it seemed impossible that any human being could withstand that onslaught. A coil of rope sailed upward, a negro perched in a tree passed it over a limb, and the next instant the head and shoulders of the Capo-Mafia rose above the dense level of standing forms. He was writhing horribly, but, seizing the rope with his hands, he drew himself upward; his blackened face glared down upon his executioners. The grinning negro kicked at the dark head beneath him, once, twice, three times, so violently that he lost his balance and fell, whereupon a bellowing shout of laughter arose more terrible than any sound heretofore. Still the Sicilian clung to the rope which was strangling him. Then puffs of smoke curled up in the sunshine, and the crowd rolled back upon itself, leaving the gibbet ringed with armed men. Maruffi's body was swayed and spun as if by invisible hands; his fingers slipped; he settled downward.
Blake turned and hid his face against the cold, damp walls, for he was very sick.