The Count of Monte Cristo – Day 142 of 400

“A friend!” responded Peppino; and, advancing alone towards the sentry, he said a few words to him in a low tone; and then he, like the first, saluted the nocturnal visitors, making a sign that they might proceed.

Behind the sentinel was a staircase with twenty steps. Franz and the count descended these, and found themselves in a mortuary chamber. Five corridors diverged like the rays of a star, and the walls, dug into niches, which were arranged one above the other in the shape of coffins, showed that they were at last in the catacombs. Down one of the corridors, whose extent it was impossible to determine, rays of light were visible. The count laid his hand on Franz’s shoulder. “Would you like to see a camp of bandits in repose?” he inquired.

“Exceedingly,” replied Franz.

“Come with me, then. Peppino, put out the torch.” Peppino obeyed, and Franz and the count were in utter darkness, except that fifty paces in advance of them a reddish glare, more evident since Peppino had put out his torch, was visible along the wall. They advanced silently, the count guiding Franz as if he had the singular faculty of seeing in the dark. Franz himself, however, saw his way more plainly in proportion as he went on towards the light, which served in some manner as a guide. Three arcades were before them, and the middle one was used as a door. These arcades opened on one side into the corridor where the count and Franz were, and on the other into a large square chamber, entirely surrounded by niches similar to those of which we have spoken. In the midst of this chamber were four stones, which had formerly served as an altar, as was evident from the cross which still surmounted them. A lamp, placed at the base of a pillar, lighted up with its pale and flickering flame the singular scene which presented itself to the eyes of the two visitors concealed in the shadow. A man was seated with his elbow leaning on the column, and was reading with his back turned to the arcades, through the openings of which the new-comers contemplated him. This was the chief of the band, Luigi Vampa. Around him, and in groups, according to their fancy, lying in their mantles, or with their backs against a sort of stone bench, which went all round the columbarium, were to be seen twenty brigands or more, each having his carbine within reach. At the other end, silent, scarcely visible, and like a shadow, was a sentinel, who was walking up and down before a grotto, which was only distinguishable because in that spot the darkness seemed more dense than elsewhere. When the count thought Franz had gazed sufficiently on this picturesque tableau, he raised his finger to his lips, to warn him to be silent, and, ascending the three steps which led to the corridor of the columbarium, entered the chamber by the middle arcade, and advanced towards Vampa, who was so intent on the book before him that he did not hear the noise of his footsteps.

“Who comes there?” cried the sentinel, who was less abstracted, and who saw by the lamp-light a shadow approaching his chief. At this challenge, Vampa rose quickly, drawing at the same moment a pistol from his girdle. In a moment all the bandits were on their feet, and twenty carbines were levelled at the count. “Well,” said he in a voice perfectly calm, and no muscle of his countenance disturbed, “well, my dear Vampa, it appears to me that you receive a friend with a great deal of ceremony.”

“Ground arms,” exclaimed the chief, with an imperative sign of the hand, while with the other he took off his hat respectfully; then, turning to the singular personage who had caused this scene, he said, “Your pardon, your excellency, but I was so far from expecting the honor of a visit, that I did not really recognize you.”

“It seems that your memory is equally short in everything, Vampa,” said the count, “and that not only do you forget people’s faces, but also the conditions you make with them.”

“What conditions have I forgotten, your excellency?” inquired the bandit, with the air of a man who, having committed an error, is anxious to repair it.

“Was it not agreed,” asked the count, “that not only my person, but also that of my friends, should be respected by you?”

“And how have I broken that treaty, your excellency?”

“You have this evening carried off and conveyed hither the Vicomte Albert de Morcerf. Well,” continued the count, in a tone that made Franz shudder, “this young gentleman is one of my friends—this young gentleman lodges in the same hotel as myself—this young gentleman has been up and down the Corso for eight hours in my private carriage, and yet, I repeat to you, you have carried him off, and conveyed him hither, and,” added the count, taking the letter from his pocket, “you have set a ransom on him, as if he were an utter stranger.”

“Why did you not tell me all this—you?” inquired the brigand chief, turning towards his men, who all retreated before his look. “Why have you caused me thus to fail in my word towards a gentleman like the count, who has all our lives in his hands? By heavens, if I thought one of you knew that the young gentleman was the friend of his excellency, I would blow his brains out with my own hand!”

“Well,” said the count, turning towards Franz, “I told you there was some mistake in this.”

“Are you not alone?” asked Vampa with uneasiness.

“I am with the person to whom this letter was addressed, and to whom I desired to prove that Luigi Vampa was a man of his word. Come, your excellency,” the count added, turning to Franz, “here is Luigi Vampa, who will himself express to you his deep regret at the mistake he has committed.” Franz approached, the chief advancing several steps to meet him. “Welcome among us, your excellency,” he said to him; “you heard what the count just said, and also my reply; let me add that I would not for the four thousand piastres at which I had fixed your friend’s ransom, that this had happened.”

“But,” said Franz, looking round him uneasily, “where is the Viscount?—I do not see him.”

“Nothing has happened to him, I hope,” said the count frowningly.

“The prisoner is there,” replied Vampa, pointing to the hollow space in front of which the bandit was on guard, “and I will go myself and tell him he is free.” The chief went towards the place he had pointed out as Albert’s prison, and Franz and the count followed him. “What is the prisoner doing?” inquired Vampa of the sentinel.

“Ma foi, captain,” replied the sentry, “I do not know; for the last hour I have not heard him stir.”

“Come in, your excellency,” said Vampa. The count and Franz ascended seven or eight steps after the chief, who drew back a bolt and opened a door. Then, by the gleam of a lamp, similar to that which lighted the columbarium, Albert was to be seen wrapped up in a cloak which one of the bandits had lent him, lying in a corner in profound slumber. “Come,” said the count, smiling with his own peculiar smile, “not so bad for a man who is to be shot at seven o’clock to-morrow morning.” Vampa looked at Albert with a kind of admiration; he was not insensible to such a proof of courage.

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