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X FALCO FALCONE
The blind singers have week after week sung of Diamante’s railway, and the big collection-box in the church of San Pasquale has been filled every evening with gifts. Signor Alfredo measures and sets stakes on the slopes of Etna, and the distaff-spinners in the dark alleys tell stories of the wonderful miracles that have been performed by the little Christ-image in the despised church. From the rich and powerful men who own the land on Etna comes letter after letter promising to give ground to the blessed undertaking.

During these last weeks every one comes with gifts. Some give building stone for the stations, some give powder to blast the lava blocks, some give food to the workmen. The poor people of Diamante, who have nothing, come in the night after their work. They come with shovels and wheelbarrows and creep out on Etna, dig the ground, and ballast the road. When Signor Alfredo and his people come in the morning they believe that the Etna goblins have broken out from their lava streams and helped on the work.

All the while people have been questioning and asking: “Where is the king of Etna, Falco Falcone? Where is the mighty Falco who has held sway on the slopes of Etna for five and twenty years? He[287] wrote to Don Ferrante’s widow that she would not be allowed to construct the railway. What did he mean by his threat? Why does he sit still when people are braving his interdiction? Why does he not shoot down the people of Corvaja when they come creeping through the night with wheelbarrows and pickaxes? Why does he not drag the blind singers down into the quarry and whip them? Why does he not have Donna Micaela carried off from the summer-palace, in order to be able to demand a cessation in the building of the railway as a ransom for her life?”

Donna Micaela says to herself: “Has Falco Falcone forgotten his promise, or is he waiting to strike till he can strike harder?”

Everybody asks in the same way: “When is Etna’s cloud of ashes to fall on the railway? When will Mongibello cataracts tear it away? When will the mighty Falco Falcone be ready to destroy it?”

While every one is waiting for Falco to destroy the railway, they talk a great deal about him, especially the workmen under Signor Alfredo.

Opposite the entrance to the church of San Pasquale, people say, stands a little house on a bare crag. The house is narrow, and so high that it looks like a chimney left standing on a burnt building site. It is so small that there is no room for the stairs inside the house; they wind up outside the walls. Here and there hang balconies and other projections that are arranged with no more symmetry than a bird’s nest on a tree-trunk.

In that house Falco Falcone was born, and his parents were only poor working-people. In that miserable hut Falco learned arrogance.

[288]

Falco’s mother was an unfortunate woman, who during the first years of her marriage brought only daughters into the world. Her husband and all her neighbors despised her.

The woman longed continually for a son. When she was expecting her fifth child she strewed salt every day on the threshold and sat and watched who should first cross it. Would it be a man or a woman? Should she bear a son or a daughter?

Every day she sat and counted. She counted the letters in the month when her child was to be born. She counted the letters in her husband’s name and in her own. She added and subtracted. It was an even number; therefore she would bear a son. The next day she made the calculation over again. “Perhaps I counted wrong yesterday,” she said.

When Falco was born his mother was much honored, and she loved him on account of it more than all her other children. When the father came in to see the child he snatched off his cap and made a low bow. Over the house-door they set a hat as a token of honor, and they poured the child’s bath water over the threshold, and let it run out into the street. When Falco was carried to the church he was laid on his god-mother’s right arm; when the neighbors’ wives came to look after his mother they courtesied to the child sleeping in his cradle.

He was also bigger and stronger than children generally are. Falco had thick hair when he was born, and when he was a week old he already had a tooth. When his mother laid him to her breast he was so wild that she laughed and said: “I think that I have brought a hero into the world.”

She was always expecting great achievements[289] from Falco, and she put pride into him. But who else hoped anything of him? Falco could not even learn to read. His mother tried to take a book and teach him the letters. She pointed to A, that is the big hat; she pointed to B, that is the spectacles; she pointed to C, that is the snake. That he could learn. Then his mother said: “If you put the spectacles and the big hat together, it makes Ba.” That he could not learn. He became angry and struck her, and she let him alone. “You will be a great man yet,” she said.

Falco was dull and bad-tempered in his childhood and youth. As a child, he would not play; as a youth, he would not dance. He had no sweetheart, but he liked to go where fighting was to be expected.

Falco had two brothers who were like other people, and who were much more esteemed than he. Falco was wounded to see himself eclipsed by his brothers, but he was too proud to show it. His mother was always on his side. After his father’s death she had him sit at the head of the table, and she never allowed any one to jest with him. “My oldest son is the best of you all,” she said.

When the people remember it all they say: “Falco is proud. He will make it a point of honor to destroy the railway.”

And they have hardly terrified themselves with one story before they remember another about him.

For thirty long years, people say, Falco lived like any other poor person on Etna. On Monday he went away to his work in the fields with his brothers. He had bread in his sack for the whole week, and he made soup of beans and rice like every one else.[290] And he was glad on Saturday evening to be able to return to his home. He was glad to find the table spread, with wine and macaroni, and the bed made up with soft pillows.

It was just such a Saturday evening. Falco and Falco’s brothers were on their way home; Falco, as usual, a little behind the others, for he had a heavy and slow way of walking. But look, when the brothers reached home, no supper was waiting, the beds were not made, and the dust lay thick on the threshold. What, were all in the house dead? Then they saw their mother sitting on the floor in a dark corner of the cottage. Her hair was drawn down over her face, and she sat and traced patterns with her finger on the earth floor. “What is the matter?” said the brothers. She did not look up; she spoke as if she had spoken to the earth. “We are beggared, beggared.” “Do they want to take our house from us?” cried the brothers. “They wish to take away our honor and our daily bread.”

Then she told: “Your eldest sister has had employment with Baker Gasparo, and it has been good employment. Signor Gasparo gave Pepa all the bread left over in the shop, and she brought it to me. There has been so much that there was enough for us all. I have been happy ever since Pepa found that employment. It will give me an old age free from care, I thought. But last Monday Pepa came home to me and wept; Signora Gasparo had turned her away.”

“What had Pepa done?” asked Nino, who was next younger to Falco.

“Signora Gasparo accused Pepa of stealing bread. I went to Signora Gasparo and asked her to take[291] Pepa back. ‘No,’ she said, ‘the girl is not honest.’ ‘Pepa had the bread from Signor Gasparo,’ I said; ‘ask him.’ ‘I cannot ask him,’ said the signora; ‘he is away, and comes home next month.’ ‘Signora,’ I said, ‘we are so poor. Let Pepa come back to her place.’ ‘No,’ she said; ‘I myself will leave Signor Gasparo if he takes that girl back.’ ‘Take care,’ I said then; ‘if you take bread from me, I will take life from you.’ Then she was frightened and called others in, so that I had to go.”

“What is to be done about it?” said Nino. “Pepa must find some other work.”

“Nino,” said Mother Zia, “you do not know what that woman has said to the neighbors about Pepa and Signor Gasparo.”

“Who can prevent women from talking?” said Nino.

“If Pepa has nothing else to do, now she might at least have cooked dinner for us,” said Turiddo.

“Signora Gasparo has said that her husband let Pepa steal bread that she should—”

“Mother,” interrupted Nino, red as fire, “I do not intend to have myself put in the galleys for Pepa’s sake.”

“The galleys do not eat Christians,” said Mother Zia.

“Nino,” said Pietro, “we had better go to the town to get some food.”

As they said it they heard some one laugh behind them. It was Falco who laughed.

A while later Falco entered Signora Gasparo’s shop and asked for bread. The poor woman was frightened when Pepa’s brother came into the shop.[292] But she thought: “He has just come from his work. He has not been home yet. He knows nothing.”

“Beppo,” she said to him, for Falco’s name was not then Falco, “is the harvest a good one?” And she was prepared not to have him answer.

Falco was more talkative than usual, and immediately told her how many grapes had already been put through the press. “Do you know,” he continued, “that a farmer was murdered yesterday.”—“Alas, yes, poor Signor Riego; I heard so.” And she asked how it had happened.

“It was Salvatore who did it. But it is too dreadful for a signora to hear!”—“Oh, no, what is done can be and is told.”

“Salvatore went up to him in this way, signora.” And Falco drew his knife and laid his hand on the woman’s head. “Then he cut him across the throat from ear to ear.”

As Falco spoke, he suited the action to the word. The woman did not even have time to scream. It was the work of a master.

After that, Falco was sent to the galleys, where he remained five years.

When the people tell of that, their terror increases. “Falco is brave,” they say. “Nothing in the world can frighten him away from his purpose.”

That immediately made them think of another story.

Falco was taken to the galleys in August, where he became acquainted with Biagio, who afterwards followed him through his whole life. One day he and Biagio and a third prisoner were ordered to go to work in the fields. One of the overseers wished to construct a garden around his house. They dug[293] there quietly, but their eyes began to wander and wander. They were outside the walls; they saw the plain and the mountains; they even saw up to Etna. “It is the time,” whispered Falco to Biagio. “I will rather die than go back to prison,” said Biagio. Then they whispered to the other prisoner that he must stand by them. He did not wish to do so, because his time of punishment was soon up. “Else we will kill you,” they said, and then he agreed.

The guard stood over them with his loaded rifle in his hand. On account of their fetters, Falco and Biagio hopped with feet together over to the guard. They swung their shovels over him, and before he had time to think of shooting he was thrown down, bound, and had a clump of earth in his mouth. Thereupon the prisoners pried open their chains with the shovels, so that they could take a step, and crept away over the plain to the hills.

When night came Falco and Biagio abandoned the prisoner whom they had taken with them. He was old and feeble, so that he would have hindered their flight. The next day he was seized by the carabinieri, and shot.

They shudder when they think of it. “Falco is merciless,” they say. They know that he will not spare the railway.

Story after story comes to frighten the poor people working on the railway on the slopes of Etna.

They tell of all the sixteen murders that Falco has committed. They tell of his attacks and plunderings.

There is one story more terrifying than all the others together.

[294]

When Falco escaped from the galleys he lived in the woods and caves, and in the big quarry near Diamante. He soon gathered a band about him, and became a wonderful and famous brigand hero.

All his family were held in much greater consideration than before. They were respected, as the mighty are respected. They scarcely needed to work, for Falco loved his relations and was generous to them. But he was not lenient towards them; he was very stern.

Mother Zia was dead, and Nino was married and lived in his father’s cottage. It happened one day that Nino needed money, and he knew no better way than to go to the priest,—not Don Matteo, but to old Don Giovanni. “Your Reverence,” said Nino to him, “my brother asks you for five hundred lire.” “Where shall I find five hundred lire?” said Don Giovanni. “My brother needs them; he must have them,” said Nino.

Then old Don Giovanni promised to give the money, if he only were given time to collect it. Nino was hardly willing to agree to that. “You can scarcely expect me to take five hundred lire from my snuff-box,” said Don Giovanni. And Nino granted him three days’ respite. “But beware of meeting my brother during that time,” he said.

The next day Don Giovanni rode to Nicolosi to try to claim a payment. Who should he meet on the way but Falco and two of his band. Don Giovanni threw himself from his donkey and fell on his knees before Falco. “What does this mean, Don Giovanni?”—“As yet I have no money for you, Falco, but I will try to get it. Have mercy upon me!”

[295]

Falco asked, and Don Giovanni told the whole story. “Your Reverence,” said Falco, “he has been deceiving you.” He begged Don Giovanni to go with him to Diamante. When they came to the old house Don Giovanni rode in behind the wall of San Pasquale, and Falco called Nino out. Nino came out on one of the balconies. “Eh, Nino!” said Falco, and laughed. “You have cheated the priest out of money?” “Do you know it already?” said Nino. “I was just going to tell it to you.”

Now Falco became sterner. “Nino,” he said, “the priest is my friend, and he believes that I have wished to rob him. You have done very wrong.” He suddenly put his gun to his shoulder and shot Nino down, and when he had done so he turned to Don Giovanni, who had almost fallen from his donkey with terror. “You see now, your Reverence, that I had no part in Nino’s designs on you!”

And that happened twenty years ago, when Falco had not been a brigand for more than five years.

“Will Falco spare the railway,” people say, as they tell it, “when he did not spare his own brother?”

There was yet more.

After Nino’s murder there was a vendetta over Falco. Nino’s wife was so terrified when she found her husband dead that half her body became paralyzed, and she could no longer walk. But she took her place at the window in the old cottage. There she has sat for twenty years with a gun beside her, and waited for Falco. And of her the great brigand has been afraid. For twenty years he has not gone past the home of his ancestors.

[296]

The woman has not deserted her post. No one ever goes to the church of San Pasquale without seeing her revengeful eyes shining behind the panes. Who has ever seen her sleep? Who has seen her work? She could do nothing but await her husband’s murderer.

When people hear that, they are even more afraid. Falco has luck on his side, they think. The woman who wishes to kill him cannot move from her place. He has luck on his side. He will also succeed in destroying the railway. Fortune has never failed Falco. The carabinieri have hunted, but have never been able to catch him. The carabinieri have feared Falco more than Falco has feared the carabinieri.

People tell a story of a young carabiniere lieutenant who once pursued Falco. He had arranged a line of beaters and hunted Falco from one thicket to another. At last the officer was certain that he had Falco shut in in a grove. A guard was stationed round the wood, and the officer searched the covert, gun in hand. But however much he searched, he saw no Falco. He came out, and met a peasant. “Have you seen Falco Falcone?”—“Yes, signor; he just went by me, and he asked me to greet you.”—“Diavolo!”—“He saw you in the thicket, and he was just going to shoot you, but he did not do so, because he thought that perhaps it was your duty to prosecute him.”—“Diavolo! Diavolo!”—“But if you try another time—”—“Diavolo! Diavolo! Diavolo!”

Do you think that lieutenant came back? Do you not think that he instantly sought out a district where he did not need to hunt brigands?

[297]

And the workmen on Etna asked themselves: “Who will protect us against Falco? He is terrible. Even the soldiers tremble before him.”

They remember that Falco Falcone is now an old man. He no longer plunders post-wagons; he does not carry off land-owners. He sits quiet generally in the quarry near Diamante, and instead of robbing money and estates, he takes money and estates under his protection.

He takes tribute from the great landed proprietors and guards their estates from other thieves, and it has become calm and peaceful on Etna, for he allows no one to injure those who have paid a tax to him.

But that is not reassuring. Since Falco has become friends with the great, he can all the more easily destroy the railway.

And they remember the story of Niccola Galli, who is overseer on the estate of the Marquis di San Stefano on the southern side of Etna. Once his workmen struck in the middle of the harvest time. Niccola Galli was in despair. The wheat stood ripe, and he could not get it reaped. His workmen would not work; they lay down to sleep at the edge of a ditch.

Niccola placed himself on a donkey and rode down to Catania to ask his lord for advice. On the way he met two men with guns on their shoulders. “Whither are you riding, Niccola?”

Before Niccola had time to say many words they took his donkey by the bit and turned him round. “You must not ride to the Marquis, Niccola?”—“Must I not?”—“No; you must ride home.”

As they went along, Niccola sat and shook on his donkey. When they were again at home the men[298] said: “Now show us the way to the fields!” And they went out to the laborers. “Work, you scoundrels! The marquis has paid his tribute to Falco Falcone. You can strike in other places, but not here.” That field was reaped as never before. Falco stood on one side of it and Biagio on the other. The grain is soon harvested with such overseers.

When the people remember that, their terror does not decrease. “Falco keeps his word,” they say. “He will do what he has threatened to do.”

No one has been a robber chief as long as Falco. All the other famous heroes are dead or captives. He alone keeps himself alive and in his profession by incredible good fortune and skill.

Gradually he has collected about him all his family. His brothers-in-law and nephews are all with him. Most of them have been sent to the galleys, but not one of them thinks whether he suffers in prison; he only asks if Falco is satisfied with him.

In the newspapers there are often accounts of Falco’s deeds. Englishmen thrust a note of ten lire into their guide’s hand if he will show them the way to Falco’s quarry. The carabinieri no longer shoot at him, because he is the last great brigand.

He so little fears to be captured that he often comes down to Messina or Palermo. He has even crossed the sound and been in Italy. He went to Naples when Guglielmo and Umberto were there to christen a battle-ship. He travelled to Rome when Umberto and Margherita celebrated their silver wedding.

The people think of it all, and tremble. “Falco[299] is loved and admired,” the workmen say. “The people worship Falco. He can do what he will.”

They know too that when Falco saw Queen Margherita’s silver wedding, it pleased him so much that he said: “When I have lived on Etna for five and twenty years, I shall celebrate my silver wedding with Mongibello.”

People laughed at that and said that it was a good idea of Falco’s. For he had never had a sweetheart, but Mongibello with its caves and forests and craters and ice-fields had served and protected him like a wife. To no one in the world did Falco owe such gratitude as to Mongibello.

People ask when Falco and Mongibello are going to celebrate their silver wedding. And people answer that it will be this spring. Then the workmen think: “He is coming to destroy our railway on the day of Mongibello.”

They are filled with doubt and terror. They soon will not dare to work any more. The nearer the time approaches when Falco is to celebrate his union with Mongibello, the more there are who leave Signor Alfredo. Soon he is practically alone at the work.

There are not many people in Diamante who have seen the big quarry on Etna. They have learned to avoid it because Falco Falcone lives there. They have been careful to keep out of range of his gun.

They have not seen the great hole in Mongibello’s side from which their ancestors, the Greeks, took stone in remote times. They have not seen the beautifully colored walls, and the mighty rocks that look like ruined pillars. Perhaps they do not know[300] that on the bottom of the quarry grow more magnificent flowers than in a conservatory. There it is no longer Sicily; it is India.

In the quarry are mandarin trees, so yellow with fruit that they look like gigantic sun-flowers; the camellias are as big as tambourines; and on the ground between the trees lie masses of magnificent figs and downy peaches embedded in fallen rose-leaves.

One evening Falco is sitting alone in the quarry. Falco is busy making a wreath, and he has beside him a mass of flowers. The string he is using is as thick as a rope; he holds his foot on the ball so that it shall not roll away from h............
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