Read CHAPTER IV. of The Amulet, free online book, by Hendrik Conscience, on ReadCentral.com.

THE ATTEMPTED ASSASSINATION-THE ASSASSINATOR SLAIN.

A black shadow gliding like an almost impalpable spot, might be seen moving along the street of Saint John.

Thick clouds covered the sky.  Not a star was visible.  Here and there-at the corners of the streets and alleys-flickered a small lamp, lighted before an image of the Virgin; but these slight flames, far from diminishing the obscurity, shone in the foggy atmosphere as glowworms in the woods, which glitter but do not give light.

Silence reigned in the deserted streets.  If the inhabitants, behind their oaken windows, heard occasionally some sound interrupting the stillness of the night, it was the hurried step of some benighted artisan who made as much noise as possible with his feet in order to frighten away the robbers; or it was the slow tread of a highwayman, who, listening attentively and peering through the darkness, was on the watch for his prey; or it might be the watchmen, who cried the hour and made the pavement resound under the stroke of their halberds as if to give evil-doers a warning of their approach.

The shadow gliding at this moment along the street of St. John was that of a man completely enveloped in a large cloak, his head so covered by the hood that his eyes alone were visible.  As in passing before an image of the Virgin a feeble ray from a lamp fell upon him, one might have seen as he hurried along that his hand rested on the hilt of his sword.

Was this person an evil-doer, bent upon the commission of some crime, or, fearing danger, was he securing to himself the means of defence?

However that may be, he pursued his way undisturbed and reached a narrow winding alley, from beneath the ground of which seemed to proceed the confused noise of many voices.

The man stopped at the entrance of a cellar, to which admission was gained by a ladder, and listened to the joyous sounds which issued from within.

He put his hand in his pocket and chinked some pieces of money.

“The sign of the Silver Dice!” said he, sighing.  “How merry they are!  The dice are rolling upon the table.  Shall I not risk a shilling?  Only one?”

Yielding to the irresistible temptation, he placed his foot upon the ladder; but a sudden thought seemed to arrest him.  He sprang back, trembling, and hastened from the cellar.  A little farther in the street he stopped and murmured in an anxious voice: 

“Heavens! what was I about to do?  Risk the money upon dice?  I would certainly have lost the whole.  Pietro Mostajo, do not forget the Superintendent of Lucca!  I am saved.  Infernal temptation!  I was about to stake my head.  But, perhaps, I would not be unlucky.  I might win a fortune.  The temptation returns.  No, no, I must go seek Bufferio, and I have no time to lose.  He lives yonder:  a low dark door beside the pump.”

As he said these last words, he proceeded down the alley, but soon stopped near the pump, and said in an undertone: 

“Bufferio lives here.  How dark it is!  I can hardly see the door; but I am not mistaken.  Here the terrible ruffian has his lair.  Strange, how I tremble!  Perhaps it is a warning of some misfortune about to happen to me!  Suppose they should take my money and murder me to conceal the theft.  What shall I do?  Shall I tell my master that I could not find Bufferio?  Alas! the Superintendent of Lucca!”

After a moment of anxious thought he walked towards the low door, saying, with a sigh: 

“Come, come; I can do nothing else.  Of two evils choose the least!”

Although his words indicated an energetic resolution, his hand trembled as he raised the knocker of the little door and twice let it fall.

It gave out a deep hollow sound, as though it were the door of a vault for the dead.

A long time passed, and no noise within gave evidence that his call was heeded.

The visitor became still more terrified in the supposition, that no one was in the house, and that consequently he would be obliged to return, without concluding the affair, to his master, who would not believe him.

In the little dark door was a small opening, protected by a grating.  Behind the iron bars two eyes were fixed on the person who had knocked, and if he had been left apparently unnoticed, it was probably because two inquisitive eyes endeavored to pierce the darkness in order to recognize the untimely visitor.

A harsh voice at last asked from behind the grating: 

“Who knocked?”

The man in the cloak started back.  The unexpected question so close to his ear made him tremble violently.  However, he soon controlled himself and replied in Italian: 

“Woman, I do not understand the Flemish tongue.  You must know Italian, as Bufferio is a Roman.  Tell me if Bufferio is at home.”

“Who are you?” she replied, in Italian jargon.

“Who am I?  I come to arrange a secret affair with Bufferio, and I do not choose to tell my name.”

“You are an agent of the bailiff, and you wish to deceive me.  Go on your way and leave me in peace.  Bufferio is not at home.”

The man took some pieces of silver from his pocket and rattled them together.

“You are mistaken, woman.  I have need of the services of Bufferio for an important affair.  He may gain a few crowns of gold.  I come with the cash in hand:  you understand.”

Two bolts grated in their rusty staples, and the door opened.

“Enter, signor,” said the woman, “and follow me.”

“I do not see you; it is as black as Erebus; where is the staircase?” cried out the other.

“Follow me, signor.  Give me your hand; I will precede you.”

She seized the hand of the visitor, and whilst guiding him to the staircase, she said: 

“Your hand trembles, signor.  Are you afraid?”

“I afraid!” said the other, in a faltering voice.  “Afraid of what?  The darkness makes me totter.”

“It may be, signor; but I thought your hand was cold and trembling.  Here is the staircase; now follow me.”

The man ascended the staircase behind her, stumbling up the well-worn steps, striking his head and elbows against invisible objects, and grumbling and swearing as if to show that he was not agitated by fear.

Having reached the first story, the woman opened a door and introduced her companion into a room lighted by the smoking flame of an iron lamp.  She showed him a miserable chair, and said: 

“Sit down, signor, if you please, and wait a while.  I will go call Bufferio, he is engaged at play in the neighborhood.  Should any one knock at the door during my absence, pay no attention to it; I will lock the door on the outside and take the key with me.”

The man looked at her surprised and troubled.  Her bony limbs, the gray locks which fell upon her cheeks, her large mouth and long teeth, made her appear to his eyes a hideous being, a worthy companion for Bufferio.

He listened to the sound of her receding steps, until he heard the key grate in the lock of the door.

Then he looked around him and examined with mistrust and surprise the apartment of Bufferio and the objects it contained.

The room was neither well furnished nor clean:  a table, three rickety chairs, an oaken bench, a few earthenware vessels near the fireplace, and a bed, constituted all the furniture.  It was not, however, these common objects which fixed the gaze of the visitor.  What he could not see without shuddering, was the number of strange arms suspended all around the walls of the room.  In the midst of rusty swords, sharp daggers and knives of every size and shape, he saw short clubs with iron heads, steel chains like the bit of a horse, ropes with running knots, and various other articles whose use was inexplicable to him, although he was convinced that these singular instruments were intended for no good purpose.

On the table, beside the lamp, was a large knife, and near it a piece of linen and some sand for scouring, showing that the woman had been occupied in cleaning these arms when the knock at the door interrupted her.

All these instruments of murder filled with terror the heart of the man who was contemplating them.  He turned his eyes away from them, trembling as he reflected upon the horror of his position.  However, a few moments only were left him, for the door of the house soon opened and he heard steps on the staircase.

The woman entered and said: 

“Bufferio will soon be here.  When he has the dice in his hand, it is difficult to tear him away.  Nevertheless, he will come.  I think, signor, that he has drank deeply.  Look well to yourself, and if you value your life, do not irritate him, for he would make as little scruple of maltreating you as he would of crushing a worm.  Apart from that, he is the best man in the world.”

She seated herself at the table, took up the knife and linen, and continued her occupation, whilst observing the stranger with a suspicious eye.

He had pulled the hood of the cloak over his face and seated himself in silence, fixing his eye vaguely upon space, like a man wearied by long waiting.  He was deeply agitated, and from time to time his whole frame shook.  Every time that he glanced towards the table he met the penetrating look of the frightful Megaera, who, while continuing to clean the blade of the large knife, considered him from head to foot, and seemed endeavoring to discover who he was and with what intention he had come.

At last, no longer able to resist his feeling of anxiety, he rose and said: 

“Woman, show me the way out.  I have not time to wait longer.  I will return to-morrow, during the day.”

“I hear Bufferio whistling in the street,” she replied.

“He is even now placing the key in the door.”

The stranger, as if perfectly satisfied with this intelligence, fell back in his chair, with a suppressed sigh, and listened in an agony of fear to the heavy footsteps on the staircase.

Bufferio appeared at the door, and looked distrustfully at the man who had interrupted him at his game.

The ruffian Bufferio was of giant build.  He was obliged to stoop in order to enter the door.  His head was thrown back defiantly, and his hand rested upon the hilt of a dagger which was held by his girdle.  A broad-brimmed hat shaded his face; his whole dress was of dark-brown cloth, scarcely distinguishable in the darkness of night.  Under his prominent eyebrows twinkled very small eyes, and a cruel, withering smile played about his mouth.

He made an imperious gesture to the woman and pointed to the door.  She left the room grumbling, but gave no other evidence of dissatisfaction.

The ruffian shut the door, took a chair, and said to the stranger, in a rough and coarse voice: 

Perche me disturba? Why do you disturb me?  Who are you?”

This question was very embarrassing to the stranger.  He replied, stammering: 

“Is it necessary, Signor Bufferio, that you should know my name before doing me a service for which I will pay you liberally?”

On hearing these words, the ruffian struck his forehead with his hand, as if he thought he recognized the voice of the visitor; but he did not stop to reflect longer.

“Come tell me quickly what you want; they are waiting for me at the tavern of the Silver Dice, and I have no time to lose.”

“It is an affair of importance, Signor Bufferio.”

“Yes; my wife told me I might gain a few crowns of gold.  Speak.  Why do you beat about the bush in this manner?  What embarrasses you?  Do you think you are dealing with a dishonest man?  Fear nothing.  Not a hair of your head shall be touched in my house.”

This assurance restored the stranger’s confidence, and he said, in a more steady voice: 

“Signor Bufferio, you must know that I have an enemy who insults and outrages me, and who threatens to drive me to ruin.”

“I understand.  You wish to be avenged by my instrumentality.”

“Yes, signor.  How many golden crowns do you ask for such a service?”

“That depends upon the rank of the individual, and upon the kind of service you desire.  A few blows with a stick, a scratch on the face, do not cost as much as a mortal wound.”

“The wound must be mortal, signor.”

“And who is your enemy?  A nobleman or a common citizen?  Rich or poor?”

“He is a nobleman, signor, and the possessor of an ample fortune.”

“A nobleman?  And who are you, who make yourself responsible for payment?”

“I am a poor servant out of service.”

The ruffian smiled incredulously.

“Ah!” said he, ironically, “a poor servant out of service!  Come, throw back your hood.  You have red hair; you often play at dice; your name is Julio; you live near the bridge De la Vigne with the Signor Simon Turchi.  Is not that true?  You were trying to deceive me.”

Julio, thus unexpectedly recognized, was mute from astonishment, and, trembling from head to foot, stared at the ruffian, who did not appear in the least displeased, but said, in an encouraging tone: 

“Be calm; you need not be disturbed because I know who you are.  My trade is to keep the most important affairs secret.  Fear nothing, I will not betray you.”

It was some minutes before Julio had recovered himself sufficiently to speak.

“I am sorry that you know my name,” said he; “but no matter.  I desire to know, Signor Bufferio, what price you demand for ridding me forever of my enemy?”

“Your enemy?” said the ruffian, laughing.  “A gentleman your enemy?  You are still endeavoring to deceive me.  You mean your master’s enemy?”

“No, my personal enemy, who has calumniated me to my master, and who has striven to have me ignominiously discharged.”

“And you offer me golden crowns?  How long is it since servants became possessed of such treasures?  You request to have a mortal wound inflicted upon a gentleman?  Well, you must give me fifteen gold crowns.”

“Fifteen crowns!” exclaimed Julio, with assumed astonishment.  “So large a sum!  I do not own that much.”

“Then pay me twelve; but it must be in advance, before I strike the blow.”

“I will pay you immediately, before leaving.”

“Give me your hand, Julio; it is a bargain.  Now tell me exactly what you or your master requires of me.”

“Not my master:  I alone.”

“It is all the same.  What am I to do, and when is it to be done?”

“This very night, Bufferio.”

“To-night?  This will oblige me to renounce my game with the Portuguese sailor; and yet I might have won some gold pieces there.”

“Listen, Signor Bufferio.  To-night, at eleven o’clock, a young nobleman, accompanied by two lute-players, will come from the direction of the convent of the Dominicans; he will turn the corner at Prince Street, and will proceed towards the church of St. James.  He will thus be obliged to pass before the stone well at the head of Hoboken Street.  You will conceal yourself behind the well with two or three faithful companions, and as the young gentleman passes, you will attack and kill him.”

“The affair has been well planned,” remarked the ruffian.  “I could manage it by myself; but since you desire it, I will take with me a couple of my brave companions.  How will I recognize the one I am to strike?”

“His dress is entirely brown, and his cap is ornamented with a white plume; in the darkness you will be able to perceive only the white plume:  that will be a certain sign.”

Bufferio shook his head doubtfully.

“Have you nothing else to observe?” he asked.

“I will merely inform you that I will accompany the young gentleman, and when he falls, I will take from his person a writing, which, if it were discovered, might involve me in great danger.  You will recognize me by this Spanish cape, and I will cry out very loud, that you and your men may know that I am not an enemy.”

“Now where are the gold crowns?”

“Do you accept the commission, Bufferio?”

“I will fulfil it as though I were laboring for myself.”

Julio took from his pocket some gold crowns, then continued to draw them out one by one, until he held twelve in his hand.  He endeavored to conceal from the ruffian that he possessed more than the sum agreed upon; but Bufferio must have suspected his intention, for he smiled, and said in a decided manner: 

“You have more gold crowns.  I knew it from the first; people do not generally enter into such affairs with only the sum absolutely required.  You need not deceive me.  Give me the stipulated amount; I ask no more.”

As soon as the other had handed him the money, Bufferio approached the lamp, examined and weighed each piece of gold, and then said: 

“It is good coin.  Have no anxiety, Julio, I will go for my comrades.  There is but little time left-only a good half hour.”

Julio took leave of the ruffian, and was about to quit the room, but he stopped and said:  “Signor Bufferio, you will not tell your companions who requested this service of you?”

“I tell nothing to my companions.  The proverb says, If you wish to lose your liberty, trust your secrets to others.”

“You perfectly understand what you have to do?”

“Yes, yes.  At eleven o’clock, behind the well in Hoboken.  Street, a young gentleman with a white plume in his hat.  Be quiet, I myself will deal the blow, and I will not miss the mark.”

“Adieu, Bufferio.”

“Adieu, Julio.”

The ruffian accompanied the servant to the lower story, opened the door of the street, and closed it behind him.

When Julio found himself in the open air, he walked a short distance, then stopped, drew a long breath as if a heavy weight had fallen from his shoulders, and said, joyously: 

“Heavens! what an escape!  I doubt if I am really alive.  The difficult affair is at last concluded.  The signor says that I am a coward.  I would like to see him in that room with that infernal woman and the terrible Bufferio.  Now I must go to Geronimo.  My greatest difficulty is yet to come.  If I get through it successfully, I may well say that I was born under a lucky star.  But I cannot tarry, I have still a long distance to walk.”

He quickened his pace and soon reached the street on which the Dominican Convent stood; he passed the Abbey of Saint Michael and the Mint, and entered the grand square without being molested.

On the way he kept his hand in his pocket, that he might enjoy the pleasure of passing the gold coin through his fingers.  He muttered to himself that he had gained three gold crowns which his master would never see again, were he to live a hundred years.  Once free from his present care and anxiety, he would take his seat at a gaming-table, where he would remain all day, and perhaps he could win heaps of gold.

Absorbed in these thoughts, he reached Geronimo’s residence and knocked at the door.  It was soon opened, and he was conducted into a room on the ground floor, where the young gentleman, in his cap and cloak, seemed to be waiting the arrival of friends.

“Peace be to this house!” said Julio, bowing.  “Signor, I bring you a message which I would deliver with more pleasure were it less sad.  My poor master is ill with fever, and is unable to leave his bed.  He begs you to excuse him from accompanying you to-night to the serenade.”

Geronimo’s countenance assumed an expression of deep compassion.  The young man concluded that his own happiness, his approaching marriage with Miss Van de Werve, had touched the heart of his poor friend, and that his present state of health was the consequence of these painful emotions.

“Did the fever attack him suddenly, Julio?” he asked.  “Is he very ill?”

No, signor.  It may not have any bad consequences; but he could not venture to expose himself to the cold and damp night-air.”

Geronimo seemed in deep thought.

“Signor, my master did not send me solely to inform you of his indisposition; he directed me to accompany you to the serenade, and to protect you in case of danger.  He knows how courageous I am, and that were five or six to attack you, I would not flee before them.”

“I accept your services, Julio.  You always seemed to me to be a devoted servant.  The lute-players have not yet arrived.  Go to the kitchen and tell the cook to give you a pint of beer.”

Julio went to the kitchen, but found the cook asleep.  He awoke him, gave him his master’s order, and received the pint of beer.

He expected, while drinking, to talk with the servant, and he had commenced speaking of quarrels, combats, knives, and the heroic deeds in which he had been the actor, but the servant had scarcely seated himself before he fell again into a deep sleep.  Julio emptied his glass in silence, until a knock at the door and the sound of stringed instruments announced the arrival of the lute-players.

Geronimo called him, and on entering the ante-chamber he found Geronimo ready to go out with the lute-players.

Julio was troubled on remarking that these latter were armed.  If these people were brave men, Bufferio and his comrades would have to deal with an equal number of adversaries.  Who could foresee the termination of the struggle?  However, he felt reassured on reflecting that Geronimo and the lute-players, being attacked unexpectedly, would not have time to defend themselves.

They left the house together, passed the Dominican Convent, and soon reached Prince Street, at the upper end of which was the stone well behind which Bufferio was concealed, if he had been faithful to his promise.

Up to that time Julio had walked in advance of the others, in order to appear bold and intrepid; he now commenced to fall back, and placed himself in the rear.  His heart failed him; for, however well the plans had been laid, the blow might miss its aim, or might not cause death.

They were within about one hundred feet of the well.

The young gentleman, wholly ignorant of the danger which threatened him, was thinking of his unhappy friend, Simon Turchi, overpowered by a heart sorrow, tossing on a bed of suffering, while he was on his way to serenade his beloved Mary.  He also, in his own mind, deplored the involved condition of Simon’s business affairs, and determined to save him, even at the cost of great personal sacrifices, as soon as his marriage would render him independent.

What would the young cavalier have thought had he known that at a few steps, distance from him, three assassins, hired by Simon Turchi, were lying in wait to kill him.  But no, his mind was filled with compassion and affectionate feelings for his cruel enemy.

The little band was not far from Hoboken Street; Julio gazed fixedly into the darkness to discover if any one was near the well.

Suddenly he perceived a dark shadow advancing.  Trembling in an agony of fear, and in order to make himself known to the ruffians, Julio suddenly drew his sword and exclaimed: 

Al assassino!  Ajusto! ajusto! Murder! help! help!”

But he had spoken too soon for the success of his designs; for, being put upon his guard by this exclamation, Geronimo drew his sword, and placed his back against the wall of the house that he might not be assailed from behind.

The lute-players, screaming from fright, ran away, and Julio stood in the middle of the street brandishing his sword.

All this had passed almost instantaneously after the first alarm given by Julio.  The man whom he had seen coming from the well, followed by two companions, rushed to the side of the street where Geronimo had made a stand to defend himself.  The assassin, who was in advance of the two others, fell upon Geronimo and gave him a sword-thrust which he supposed pierced his body; but a skilful movement parried the blow, and the aggressor himself fell with such force upon Geronimo’s sword that the blade passed through his body.

The assassin fell heavily, and in a plaintive voice, as though bidding adieu to life, exclaimed: 

O mojo! I die!  Bufferio is dead!”

Disregarding the villain who had fallen, the gentleman rushed upon the other two and wounded one in the shoulder.  Convinced that they had to deal with a powerful and skilful adversary, they turned and fled, Geronimo pursuing them far beyond the well.

Julio followed him, crying, vociferating, and striking with his sword in the dark, as though he were contending with numerous enemies.  When Geronimo returned with the servant to the spot where he had left the dead body of the ruffian, he found three or four watchmen calling for help.  Many heads were thrust from the windows, and one citizen even ventured out of his house with a lamp in his hand.

The watchmen, having inquired as to what had taken place, examined the body to see if there were any signs of life.

“Leave him!” said one; “it is Bufferio.  God be praised! the man has at last met the fate which he deserved.”

In the meantime, Julio had commenced to boast.  He related that he had to deal with two assassins at once, that he had wounded one in the face, and pierced the other with his sword.  How the latter had been able to run away, was unaccountable; no doubt he would be found near at hand, dead or dying.

The young gentleman, who really believed the story of Turchi’s servant, thanked him for his assistance, and acknowledged that he owed his life to him, as he had given the warning of the approach of the assassins.

The dead body was removed behind the well until the city authorities should order its burial.

The head watchman approached Geronimo, and said to him: 

“Where do you live, signor?  Two of my men will accompany you, lest some other accident might befall you.  Do not refuse the offer.  The villains who escaped might be on the watch for you, in order to avenge the death of their companions.”

“What shall I do?” said the gentleman to Julio.  “I cannot give the serenade without the lute-players, and, besides, I could not sing after such emotion.  But Miss Van de Werve is expecting it, and if I do not go, she will imagine that some accident has happened to me.  It would be better for me to see Mr. Van de Werve, so as to remove any cause of anxiety.  I accept your offer, watchmen, and I will liberally recompense the services you render me.  I must return to Kipdorp, and you will do me the favor to wait a few minutes, in order to accompany me to my dwelling.  Follow me.”

Geronimo, the watchmen, and Julio soon reached the residence of Mr. Van de Werve.  He knocked, and was immediately admitted.

The young gentleman again thanked Julio with the liveliest gratitude for his assistance, and promised to tell his master how courageously he had acted, and the eminent services he had rendered him.

Julio bade adieu, and hastened to his master’s dwelling.  He was about to knock, but, to his great terror, the door was opened at once, as though some one were waiting for him.

“Is it you, Julio?” asked a man, in the darkness.

The servant recognized his master’s voice, and entered the door.

“Well,” said he, in a stifled tone, “is he dead?”

“Who?”

“Who!  Geronimo?”

“On the contrary, Bufferio is dead.  Geronimo ran him through the body.”

“Then you have not the pocket-book?”

“Certainly not.”

“And the gold crowns?”

“I gave them to Bufferio.”

“Pietro Mostajo, you have betrayed me!” hissed the infuriated signor in the ear of his servant, shaking him convulsively by the arm.  “Tell me quickly what has happened!  Tremble, stupid coward! the Superintendent of Lucca shall know who you are!”

Ebbene che sia!” answered Julio.  “Then the Signor Geronimo shall also know who hired Bufferio to assassinate him.”

A hoarse cry like a stifled groan resounded through the vestibule.  The door was closed.