The Net

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8. Old Trails



Mr. Bernard Dreux was regarded by his friends rather as an institution than as an individual. He was a small man, but he wore the dignity of a senator, and he possessed a pride of that intense and fastidious sort which is rarely encountered outside the oldest Southern families. He was thin, with the delicate, bird-like mannerisms of a dyspeptic, and although he was nearing fifty he cultivated all the airs and graces of beardless youth. His feet were small and highly arched, his hands were sensitive and colorless. He was an authority on art, he dabbled in music, and he had once been a lavish entertainer--that was in the early days when he had been a social leader. Now, although harassed by a lack of money which he considered degrading, he still mingled in good society, he still dressed elegantly, his hands were still white and sensitive, contrasting a little with his conscience, which had become slightly discolored and calloused. He no longer entertained, however, except by his wit; he exercised a watchful solicitude over his slender wardrobe, and his revenues were derived from sources so uncertain that he seemed to maintain his outwardly placid existence only through a series of lucky chances. But adversity had not soured Mr. Dreux; it had not dimmed his pride nor coarsened his appreciation of beauty; he remained the gentle, suave, and agreeably cynical beau. Young girls had been known to rave over him, despite their mother's frowns; fathers and brothers called him Bernie and greeted him warmly--at their clubs.

But aside from Mr. Dreux's inherited right to social recognition he was marked by another and peculiar distinction in that he was the half-brother and guardian of Myra Nell Warren. This fact alone would have assured him a wide acquaintance and a degree of popularity without regard to his personal characteristics.

While it was generally known that old Captain Warren, during a short and riotous life, had dashed through the Dreux fortune at a tremendous rate, very few people realized what an utter financial wreck he had left for the two children. There had been barely enough for them to live upon after his death, and inasmuch as Myra Nell's extravagance steadily increased as the income diminished, her half-brother was always hard pressed to keep up appearances. She was a great responsibility upon the little man's shoulders, particularly since she managed in all innocence and thoughtlessness to spend not only her own share of the income, but his also. He was many times upon the point of remonstrating with her, but invariably his courage failed him and he ended by planning some additional self-sacrifice to offset her expanding necessities.

The situation would have been far simpler had Bernie lacked that particular inborn pride which forbade him to seek employment. Not that he felt himself above work, but he recoiled from any occupation which did not carry with it a dignity matching that of his name. Since the name he bore was as highly honored as any in the State, and since his capabilities for earning a living were not greater than those of an eighteen-year-old boy, he was obliged to rely upon his wits. And his wits had become uncommonly keen.

The winter climate of New Orleans drew thither a stream of Northern tourists, and upon these strangers Mr. Dreux, in a gentlemanly manner, exercised his versatile talents. He made friends easily, he knew everybody and everything, and, being a man of leisure, his time was at the command of those travelers who were fortunate enough to meet him. He understood the good points of each and every little cafe in the foreign quarters; he could order a dinner with the rarest taste; it was due largely to him that the fame of the Ramos gin-fizz and the Sazerac cocktail became national. His grandfather, General Dreux, had drunk at the old Absinthe House with no less a person that Lafitte, the pirate, and had frequented the house on Royal Street when Lafayette and Marechal Ney were there. It was in this house, indeed, that he had met Louis Philippe. His grandson had such a wealth of intimate detail at his finger tips that it was a great pleasure and privilege to go through the French quarter with him. He exhaled the atmosphere of Southern aristocracy which is so agreeable to Northern sensibilities, he told inimitable stories, and, as for antiques, he knew every shop and bargain in the city. He was liberal, moreover, nay, ingenuous in sharing this knowledge with his new-found friends, even while admitting that he coveted certain of these bargains for his own slender collection. As a result of Mr. Dreux's knack of making friends and his intimate knowledge of art he did a very good business in antiques. Many of his acquaintances wrote him from time to time, asking him to execute commissions, which he was ever willing to do, gratuitously, of course. In this way he was able to bridge over the dull summer season and live without any unpleasant sacrifice of dignity. But it was at best a precarious means of livelihood and one which he privately detested. However, on the particular day in the summer of 1890 on which we first encounter him Mr. Dreux was well contented, for a lumber-man from Minneapolis, who had come South with no appreciation whatever of Colonial antiques, had just departed with enough worm-eaten furniture to stock a museum, and Bernie had collected his regular commission from the dealer.

Now that his own pressing necessities were taken care of for the moment, he began, as usual, to plan for Myra Nell's future. This would have required little thought or worry had she been an ordinary girl, but that was precisely what Miss Warren was not. The beaux of New Orleans were enthusiastically united in declaring that she was quite the contrary, quite the most extraordinary and dazzling of creatures. Bernie had led them to the slaughter methodically, one after another, with hope flaming in his breast, only to be disappointed time after time. They had merely served to increase the unhappy number which vainly swarmed about her, and to make Bernie himself the target of her satire. Popularity had not spoiled the girl, however; her attitude toward marriage was very sensible beneath the surface, and Bernie's anxious efforts at matchmaking, instead of relieving their financial distress, merely served to keep him in the antique business. Miss Warren loved admiration; she might be said to live on it; and she greeted every new admirer with a bubbling gladness which was intoxicating. But she had no appreciation of the sanctity of a promise. She looked upon an engagement to marry in the same light as an engagement to walk or dine, namely, as being subject to the weather or to a prior obligation of the same sort. Bernie was too much a gentleman to urge her into any step for which she was not ready, so he merely sighed when he saw his plans go astray, albeit confessing to moments of dismay as he foresaw himself growing old in the second-hand business. But a change had occurred lately, and although no word had passed between brother and sister, the melancholy little bachelor had been highly gratified at certain indications he had marked. It seemed to him that her choice, provided she really had chosen, was excellent; for Norvin Blake was certainly very young to be the president of the Cotton Exchange, he was free from any social entanglements, and he was rich. Moreover, his name had as many honorable associations as even Bernie's own. All in all, therefore, the little man was in an agreeable frame of mind to-day as he strolled up Canal Street, nodding here and there to his acquaintances, and turned into Blake's office.

He entered without announcing himself, and Norvin greeted him cordially. Bernie seldom announced himself, being one of those rare persons who come and go unobtrusively and who interrupt important conversations without offense.

"Do I find you busy?" he inquired, dropping into one of Blake's easy-chairs and lighting a perfumed cigarette.

"No. Business is over for the day. But I am glad to see you at any time; you're so refreshingly restful."

"How are the new duties and responsibilities coming on?"

"Oh, very well," said Blake, "Although I'm absurdly self-conscious."

"The Exchange needed new blood, I'm told. I think you are a happy choice. Opportunity has singled you out and evidently intends to bear you forward on her shoulders whether you wish or not. Jove! you have made strides! Let me see, you are thirty--"

"Two! This makes me look older than I am." Norvin touched his hair, which was gray, and Bernie nodded.

"Funny how your hair changed so suddenly. I remember seeing you four years ago at the Lexington races just after you returned from Europe the second time. You were dark then. I saw you a year later and you were gray. Did the wing of sorrow brush your brow?"

Blake shrugged. "They say fear will turn men gray."

Dreux laughed lightly. "Fancy! You afraid!"

"And why not? Have you never been afraid?"

"I? To be sure. I rather like it, too! It's invigorating--unusual. You know there's a kind of fascination about certain emotions which are in themselves unpleasant. But--my dear boy, you can't understand. We were talking about you the other night at the Boston Club after your election, and Thompson told about that affair you had with those niggers up the State, when you were sheriff. It was quite thrilling to hear him tell it."

"Indeed?"

"Oh, yes! He made you out a great hero. I never knew why you went in for politics, or at least why, if you went in at all, you didn't try for something worth while. You could have gone to the legislature just as easily. But for a Blake to be sheriff! Well, it knocked us all silly when we heard of it, and I don't understand it yet. We pictured you locking up drunken men, serving subpoenas, and selling widows' farms over their heads."

"There's really more to a sheriff's duties than that."

"So I judged from Thompson's blood-curdling tales. I felt very anaemic and insignificant as I listened to him."

"It doesn't hurt a gentleman to hold a minor political office, even in a tough parish. I think men ought to try themselves out and find what they are made of."

"It isn't your lack of exclusiveness that strikes one; it's your nerve."

"Oh, that's mostly imaginary. I haven't much, really. But the truth is I'm interested in courage. They say a man always admires the quality in which he is naturally lacking, and wants to acquire it. I'm interested in brave men, too; they fascinate me. I've studied them; I've tried to analyze courage and find out what it is, where it lies, how it is developed, and all about it, because I have, perhaps, a rather foolish craving to be able to call myself fairly brave."

"If you hadn't made a reputation for yourself, this sort of modesty would convict you of cowardice," Dreux exclaimed. "It sounds very funny, coming from you, and I think you are posing. Now with me it is wholly different. I couldn't stand what you have; why, the sight of a dead man would unsettle me for months and, as for risking my life or attempting the life of a fellow creature--well, it would be a physical impossibility. I--I'd just turn tail. You are exceptional, though you may not know it; you're not normal. The majority of us, away back in the woodsheds of our minds, recognize ourselves as cowards, and I differ from the rest in that I'm brave enough to admit it."

"How do you know you are a coward?"

"Oh, any little thing upsets me."

"Your people were brave enough."

"Of course, but conditions were different in those days; we're more advanced now. There's nothing refined about swinging sabers around your head like a windmill and chopping off Yankee arms and legs; nor is there anything especially artistic in two gentlemen meeting at dawn under the oaks with shotguns loaded with scrap iron." Mr. Dreux shuddered. "I'm tremendously glad the war is over and duels are out of fashion."

"Well, be thankful that antiques are not out of fashion. There is still a profit in them, I suppose?"

Dreux shook his head mournfully. "Not in the good stuff. I just sold the original sword of Jean Lafitte to a man who makes preserved tomatoes. It is the eighth in three weeks. The business in Lafitte sabers is very fair lately. General Jackson belt-buckles are moving well, too, not to mention plug hats worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration. There was a fabulous hardwood king at the St. Charles whom I inflamed with the beauties of marquetrie du bois. It was all modern, of course, made in Baltimore, but I found him a genuine Sinurette four-poster which was very fine. I also discovered a royal Sevres vase for him, worth a small fortune, but he preferred a bath sponge used by Louis XIV. I assured him the sponge was genuine, so he bought a Buhl cabinet to put it in. I took the vase for Myra Nell."

"Do you think Myra Nell would care to be Queen of the Carnival?" Norvin inquired.

"Care?" Bernie started forward in his chair, his eyes opened wide. "You're--joking! Is--is there any--" He relaxed suddenly, and after an instant's hesitation inquired, "What do you mean?"

"I mean what I say. She can be Queen if she wishes."

Dreux shook his head reluctantly. "She'd be delighted, of course; she'd go mad at the prospect, but--frankly, she can't afford it." He flushed under Blake's gaze.

"I'm sorry, Bernie. I've been told to ask her."

"I am very much obliged to you for the honor, and it's worth any sacrifice, but--Lord! It is disgusting to be poor." He prodded viciously with his cane.

"It is a great thing for any girl to be Queen. The chance may not come again."

Dreux made a creditable effort to conceal his disappointment, but he was really beside himself with chagrin. "You needn't tell me," he said, "but there is no use of my even dreaming of it; I've figured over the expense too often. She was Queen of Momus last year--that's why I've had to vouch for so many Lafitte swords and Davis high hats. If those tourists ever compare notes they'll think that old pirate must have been a centipede or a devilfish to wield all those weapons." "I would like to have her accept," Blake persisted.

Bernie Dreux glanced at the speaker quickly, feeling a warm glow suffuse his withered body at the hint of encouragement for his private hopes. What more natural, he reasoned, than for Blake to wish his future wife to accept the highest social honor that New Orleans can confer? Norvin's next words offered further encouragement, yet awoke a very conflicting emotion.

"In view of the circumstances, and in view of all it means to Myra Nell, I would consider it a privilege to lend you whatever you require. She need never know."

Involuntarily the little bachelor flushed and drew himself up.

"Thanks! It's very considerate of you, but--I can't accept, really."

"Even for her sake?"

"If I didn't know you so well, or perhaps if you didn't know us so well, I'd resent such a proposal."

"Nonsense! Don't be foolish." Realizing thoroughly what this sacrifice meant to Miss Warren's half-brother, Norvin continued: "Suppose we say nothing further about it for the time being. Perhaps you will feel differently later."

After a pause Dreux said: "Heaven knows where these carnivals will end if we continue giving bigger pageants every year. It's a frightful drain on the antique business, and I'm afraid I will have to drop out next season. I scarcely know what to do."

"Why don't you marry?" Blake inquired.

"Marry?" Dreux smiled whimsically. "That lumber king had a daughter, but she was freckled."

"Felicite Delord isn't freckled."

Bernie said nothing for a moment, and then inquired quietly:

"What do you know about Felicite?"

"All there is to know, I believe. Enough, at any rate, to realize that you ought to marry her."

As Dreux made no answer, he inquired, "She is willing, of course?"

"Of course."

"Then why don't you do it?"

"The very fact that people--well, that I know I ought to, perhaps. Then, too, my situation. I have certain obligations which I must live up to."

"Don't be forever thinking of yourself. There are others to be considered."

"Exactly. Myra Nell, for instance."

"It seems to me you owe something to Felicite."

"My dear boy, you don't talk like a--like a--"

"Southern gentleman?" Blake smiled. "Nevertheless, Miss Delord is a delightful little person and you can make her happy. If Myra Nell should be Queen of the Mardi Gras it would round out her social career. She will marry before long, no doubt, and then you will be left with no obligations beyond those you choose to assume. Nobody knows of your relations with Felicite."

"You know," said the bachelor stiffly, "and therefore others must know, hence it is quite impossible. I'd prefer not to discuss it if you don't mind."

"Certainly. I want you to keep that loan in mind, however. I think you owe it to your sister to accept. At any rate, I am glad we had this opportunity of speaking frankly."

"Ah," said Bernie, suddenly, as if seizing with relief upon a chance to end the discussion, "I think I heard some one in the outer office."

"To be sure," exclaimed Blake. "That must be Donnelly. I had an appointment with him here which I'd forgotten all about."

"The Chief of Police? He's quite a friend of yours."

"Yes, we met while I was sheriff. He's a remarkably able officer--one of those men I like to study."

"Well, then, I'll be going," said Bernie, rising.

"No, stay and meet him." Blake rose to greet a tall, angular man of about Dreux's age, who came in without knocking. Chief Donnelly had an impassive face, into which was set a pair of those peculiar smoky-blue eyes which have become familiar upon our frontiers. He acknowledged his introduction to Bernie quietly, and measured the little man curiously.

"Mr. Dreux is a friend of mine, and he was anxious to meet you, so I asked him to stay," Norvin explained.

"If I'm not intruding," Bernie said.

"Oh, there's nothing much on my mind," the Chief declared. "I've come in for some information which I don't believe Blake can give me." To Norvin he said, "I remembered hearing that you'd been to Italy, so I thought you might help me out."

Mr. Dreux sat back, eliminated himself from the conversation in his own effective manner, and regarded the officer as a mouse might gaze upon a lion.

"Yes, but that was four years ago," Norvin replied.

"All the better. Were you ever in Sicily?"

Blake started. The sudden mention of Sicily was like a touch upon an exposed nerve.

"I was in Sicily twice," he said, slowly.

"Then perhaps you can help me, after all. I recalled some sort of experience you had over there with the Mafia, and took a chance."

The Chief drew from his pocket a note-book which he consulted. "Did you ever hear of a Sicilian named--Narcone? Gian Narcone?" He looked up to see that his friend's face had gone colorless.

Blake nodded silently.

"Also a chap named--some nobleman--" He turned again to his memorandum-book.

"Martel Savigno, Count of Martinello," Norvin supplied in a strained, breathless voice.

"That's him! Why, you must know all about this affair."

Blake rose and began to pace his office while the others watched him curiously, amazed at his agitated manner and his evident effort to control his features. Neither of his two friends had deemed him capable of such an exhibition of feeling.

As a matter of fact, Norvin had grown to pride himself upon his physical self-command and above all upon his impassivity of countenance. He had cultivated it purposely, for it formed a part of his later training--what he chose to call his course in courage. But this sudden probing of an old wound, this unexpected reference to the most painful part of his life, had found him off his guard and with his nerves loose.

After his return from Europe he had set himself vigorously to the task of uprooting his cowardice. Realizing that his parish had always been lawless, it occurred to him that the office of sheriff would compel an exercise of whatever courage he had in him. It had been absurdly easy to win the election, but afterward--the memory of the bitter fight which followed often made him cringe. Strangely enough, his theory had not worked out. He found that his cowardice was not a sick spot which could be cauterized or cut out, but rather that it was like some humor of the blood, or something ingrained in the very structure of his nervous tissue. But although his lack of physical courage seemed constitutional and incurable, he had a great and splendid pride which enabled him to conceal his weakness from the world. Time and again he had balked, had shied like a frightened horse; time and again he had roweled himself with cruel spurs and ridden down his unruly terrors by force of will. But the struggle had burned him out, had calcined his youth, had grayed his hair, and left him old and tired. Even now, when he had begun to consider his self-mastery complete, it had required no more than the unexpected mention of Martel Savigno's name and that of his murderer to awaken pangs of poignant distress, the signs of which he could not altogether conceal.

When after an interval of several minutes he felt that he had himself sufficiently in hand to talk without danger of self-betrayal, he seated himself and inquired:

"What do you wish to know about--the Count of Martinello and Narcone the bandit?"

"I want to know all there is," said Donnelly. "Perhaps we can get at it quicker if you will tell me what you know. I had no idea you were familiar with the case. It's remarkable how these old trails recross."

"I--I know everything about the murder of Martel Savigno, for I saw it. I was there. He was my best friend. That is the story of which you read. That is why the mention of his name upset me, even after nearly five years."

Bernie Dreux uttered an exclamation and hitched forward in his chair. This new side of Blake's character fascinated him.

"If you will tell me the circumstances it will help me piece out my record," said the Chief, so Blake began reluctantly, hesitatingly, giving the facts clearly, but with a constraint that bore witness to his pain in the recital.

When he had finished, it was Donnelly's turn to show surprise.

"That is remarkable!" he exclaimed. "To think that you have seen Gian Narcone! D'you suppose you would know him again after four years?" He shot a keen glance at his friend.

"I am quite sure I would. But come, you haven't told me anything yet."

"Well, Narcone is in New Orleans."

"What?" Blake leaned forward in his chair, his eyes blazing.

"At least I'm informed that he is. I received a letter some time ago containing most of the information you've just given me, and stating that there are extradition papers for him in New York. The letter says that some of his old gang have confessed to their part in the murder and have implicated Narcone so strongly that he will hang if they can get him back to Sicily."

"I believe that. But who is your informant?"

"I don't know. The letter is anonymous."

A sudden wild hope sprang up in Blake's mind. He dared not trust it, yet it clamored for credence.

"Was it written by a--woman?" he queried, tensely.

"No; at least I don't think so. It was written on one of these new-fangled typewriting machines. I left it at the office, or you could judge for yourself."

"If it is typewritten, how do you know whether--"

"I tell you I don't know. But I can guess pretty closely. It was one of the Pallozzo gang. This Narcone--he calls himself Vito Sabella, by the way--is a leader of the Quatrones. The two factions have been at war lately and some member of the Pallozzo outfit has turned him up."

The light died out of Norvin's face, his body relaxed. He had followed so many clues, his quest had been so long and fruitless, that he met disappointment half-way.

Up to this moment Bernie Dreux had listened without a word or movement, but now he stirred and inquired, hesitatingly:

"Pardon me, but what is this Pallozzo gang and who are the Quatrones? I'm tremendously interested in this affair."

"The Pallozzos and the Quatrones," Donnelly explained, "are two Italian gangs which have come into rivalry over the fruit business. They unload the ships, you know, and they have clashed several times. You probably heard about their last mix-up--one man killed and four wounded."

"I never read about such things," Dreux acknowledged, at which the Chief's eyes twinkled and once more wandered over the little man's immaculate figure.

"You are familiar with our Italian problem, aren't you?"

"I--I'm afraid not. I know we have a large foreign population in the city--in fact, I spend much of my time on the other side of Canal Street--but I didn't know there was any particular problem."

"Well, there is, and a very serious one, too," Blake assured him. "It's giving our friend Donnelly and the rest of the city officials trouble enough and to spare. There have been some eighty killings in the Italian quarter."

"Eighty-four," said Donnelly. "And about two hundred outrages of one sort or another."

"And almost no convictions. Am I right?"

"You are. We can't do a thing with them. They are a law to themselves, and they ignore us and ours absolutely. It's getting worse, too. Fine situation to exist in the midst of a law-abiding American community, isn't it?" Donnelly appealed to Dreux.

"Now that will show you how little a person may know of his own home," reflected Bernie. "Has it anything to do with this Mafia we hear so much about?"

"It has. But the Mafia is going to end," Donnelly announced positively. "I've gone on record to that effect. If those dagos can't obey our laws, they'll have to pull their freight. It's up to me to put a finish to this state of affairs or acknowledge I'm a poor official and don't know my business. The reform crowd has seized upon it as a weapon to put me out of office, claiming that I've sold out to the Italians and don't want to run 'em down, so I've got to do something to show I'm not asleep on my beat. I've never had a chance before, but now I'm going after this Vito Sabella and land him. Will you look him over, Norvin, and see if he's the right party?"

"Of course. I owe Narcone a visit and I'm glad of this chance. But granting that he is Narcone, how can you get him out of New Orleans? He'll fight extradition and the Quatrones will support him."

"I'm blamed if I know. I'll have to figure that out," said the Chief as he rose to go. "I'm mighty glad I had that hunch to come and see you, and I wish you were a plain-clothes man instead of the president of the Cotton Exchange. I think you and I could clean out this Mafia and make the town fit for a white man to live in. If you'll drop in on me at eight o'clock to-night we'll walk over toward St. Phillip Street and perhaps get a look at your old friend Narcone. If you care to come along, Mr. Dreux, I'd be glad to have you."

Bernie Dreux threw up his shapely hands in hasty refusal. "Oh dear, no!" he protested. "I haven't lost any Italian murderers. This expedition, which you're planning so lightly, may lead to--Heaven knows what. At any rate, I should only be in the way, so if it's quite the same to you I'll send regrets."

"Quite the same," Donnelly laughed, then to Norvin: "If you think this dago may recognize you, you'd better tote a gun. At eight, then."

"At eight," agreed Blake and escorted him to the door.