The Brigand's Bride by Laurence Oliphant
A TALE OF SOUTHERN ITALY
The Italian peninsula during the years 1859, 1860, and 1861 offered a
particularly tempting field for adventure to ardent spirits in search of
excitement; and, attracted partly by my sympathy with the popular
movement, and partly by that simple desire, which gives so much zest to
the life of youth, of risking it on all possible occasions, I had taken an
active part, chiefly as an officious spectator, in all the principal
events of those stirring years. It was in the spring of 1862 that I found
matters beginning to settle down to a degree that threatened monotony; and
with the termination of the winter gaieties at Naples and the close of the
San Carlo, I seriously bethought me of accepting the offer of a naval
friend who was about to engage in blockade-running, and offered to land me
in the Confederate States, when a recrudescence of activity on the part of
the brigand bands in Calabria induced me to turn my attention in that
direction. The first question I had to consider was, whether I should
enjoy myself most by joining the brigands, or the troops which were
engaged in suppressing them. As the former aspired to a political
character, and called themselves patriotic bands fighting for their
church, their country, and their king,—the refugee monarch of
Naples,—one could espouse their cause without exactly laying one's
self open to the charge of being a bandit; but it was notorious in point
of fact that the bands cared for neither the pope nor the exiled king nor
their annexed country, but committed the most abominable atrocities in the
names of all the three, for the simple purpose of filling their pockets. I
foresaw not only extreme difficulty in being accepted as a member of the
fraternity, more especially as I had hitherto been identified with the
Garibaldians, but also the probability of finding myself compromised by
acts from which my conscience would revolt, and for which my life would in
all likelihood pay the forfeit. On the other hand, I could think of no
friend among the officers of the bersaglieri and cavalry regiments then
engaged in brigand-hunting in the Capitanata and Basilicata to whom I
could apply for an invitation to join them.
Under these circumstances I determined to trust to the chapter of
accidents; and, armed with a knapsack, a sketch-book, and an air-gun, took
my seat one morning in the Foggia diligence, with the vague idea of
getting as near the scene of operations as possible, and seeing what would
turn up. The air-gun was not so much a weapon of offence or defence as a
means of introduction to the inhabitants. It had the innocent appearance
of rather a thick walking-cane, with a little brass trigger projecting;
and in the afternoon I would join the group sitting in front of the
chemist's, which, for some reason or other, is generally a sort of
open-air club in a small Neapolitan town, or stroll into the single modest
cafe of which it might possibly boast, and toy abstractedly with the
trigger. This, together with my personal appearance,—for do what I
would I could never make myself look like a Neapolitan,—would be
certain to attract attention, and some one bolder than the rest would make
himself the spokesman, and politely ask me whether the cane in my hand was
an umbrella or a fishing-rod; on which I would amiably reply that it was a
gun, and that I should have much pleasure in exhibiting my skill and the
method of its operation to the assembled company. Then the whole party
would follow me to an open space, and I would call for a pack of cards,
and possibly—for I was a good shot in those days—pink the ace
of hearts at fifteen paces. At any rate, my performances usually called
forth plaudits, and this involved a further interchange of compliments and
explanations, and the production of my sketch-book, which soon procured me
the acquaintance of some ladies, and an invitation as an English artist to
the house of some respectable citizen.
So it happened that, getting out of the diligence before it reached
Foggia, I struck south, and wandered for some days from one little town to
another, being always hospitably entertained, whether there happened to be
an albergo or not, at private houses, seeing in this way more of
the manners and customs of the inhabitants than would have been otherwise
possible, gaining much information as to the haunts of the brigands, the
whereabouts of the troops, and hearing much local gossip generally. The
ignorance of the most respectable classes at this period was astounding;
it has doubtless all changed since. I have been at a town of two thousand
inhabitants, not one of whom took in a newspaper; the whole population,
therefore, was in as profound ignorance of what was transpiring in the
rest of the world as if they had been in Novaia Zemlia. I have stayed with
a mayor who did not know that England was an island; I have been the guest
of a citizen who had never heard of Scotland, and to whom, therefore, my
nationality was an enigma; but I never met any one—I mean of this
same class—who had not heard of Palmerston. He was a mysterious
personage, execrated by the "blacks" and adored by the "reds." And I shone
with a reflected lustre as the citizen of a country of which he was the
Prime Minister. As a consequence, we had political discussions, which were
protracted far into the night; for the principal meal of the twenty-four
hours was a 10-o'clock-P.M. supper, at which, after the inevitable
macaroni, were many unwholesome dishes, such as salads made of thistles,
cows' udders, and other delicacies, which deprived one of all desire for
sleep. Notwithstanding which, we rose early, my hostess and the ladies of
the establishment appearing in the early part of the day in the most
extreme deshabille. Indeed, on one occasion when I was first introduced
into the family of a respectable citizen and shown into my bedroom, I
mistook one of the two females who were making the bed for the servant,
and was surprised to see her hand a little douceur I gave her as an
earnest of attention on her part to the other, with a smile. She soon
afterward went to bed: we all did, from 11 A.M. till about 3 P.M., at
which hour I was horrified to meet her arrayed in silks and satins, and to
find that she was the wife of my host. She kindly took me a drive with her
in a carriage and pair, and with a coachman in livery.
It was by this simple means, and by thus imposing myself upon the
hospitality of these unsophisticated people, that I worked my way, by slow
degrees, chiefly on foot, into the part of the country I desired to visit;
and I trust that I in a measure repaid them for it by the stores of
information which I imparted to them, and of which they stood much in
need, and by little sketches of their homes and the surrounding scenery,
with which I presented them. I was, indeed, dependent in some measure for
hospitality of this description, as I had taken no money with me, partly
because, to tell the truth, I had scarcely got any, and partly because I
was afraid of being robbed by brigands of the little I had. I therefore
eschewed the character of a milordo Inglese; but I never succeeded
in dispelling all suspicion that I might not be a nephew of the Queen, or
at least a very near relative of Palmerston in disguise. It was so
natural, seeing what a deep interest both her Majesty and the Prime
Minister took in Italy, that they should send some one incognito whom they
could trust to tell them all about it.
Meantime, I was not surprised, when I came to know the disposition of the
inhabitants, at the success of brigandage. It has never been my fortune
before or since to live among such a timid population. One day at a large
town a leading landed proprietor received notice that if he did not pay a
certain sum in blackmail,—I forget at this distance of time the
exact amount,—his farm or masseria would be robbed. This
farm, which was in fact a handsome country house, was distant about ten
miles from the town. He therefore made an appeal to the citizens that they
should arm themselves and help him to defend his property, as he had
determined not to pay, and had taken steps to be informed as to the exact
date when the attack was to be made in default of payment. More than three
hundred citizens enrolled themselves as willing to turn out in arms. On
the day preceding the attack by the brigands, a rendezvous was given to
these three hundred on the great square for five in the morning, and
thither I accordingly repaired, unable, however, to induce my host to
accompany me, although he had signed as a volunteer. On reaching the
rendezvous, I found the landed proprietor and a friend who was living with
him, and about ten minutes afterward two other volunteers strolled up.
Five was all we could muster out of three hundred. It was manifestly
useless to attempt anything with so small a force, and no arguments could
induce any of the others to turn out; so the unhappy gentleman had the
satisfaction of knowing that the brigands had punctually pillaged his
place, carrying off all his live stock on the very day and at the very
hour they said they would. As for the inhabitants venturing any distance
from town, except under military escort, such a thing was unknown, and all
communication with Naples was for some time virtually intercepted. I was
regarded as a sort of monomaniac of recklessness because I ventured on a
solitary walk of a mile or two in search of a sketch—an act of no
great audacity on my part, for I had walked through various parts of the
country without seeing a brigand, and found it difficult to realise that
there was any actual danger in strolling a mile from a moderately large
Emboldened by impunity, I was tempted one day to follow up a most romantic
glen in search of a sketch, when I came upon a remarkably handsome peasant
girl, driving a donkey before her loaded with wood. My sudden appearance
on the narrow path made the animal shy against a projecting piece of rock,
off which he rebounded to the edge of the path, which, giving way,
precipitated him and his load down the ravine. He was brought up unhurt
against a bush some twenty feet below, the fagots of wood being scattered
in his descent in all directions. For a moment the girl's large, fierce
eyes flashed upon me with anger; but the impetuosity with which I went
headlong after the donkey, with a view of repairing my error, and the
absurd attempts I made to reverse the position of his feet, which were in
the air, converted her indignation into a hearty fit of laughter, as,
seeing that the animal was apparently uninjured, she scrambled down to my
assistance. By our united efforts we at last succeeded in hoisting the
donkey up to the path, and then I collected the wood and helped her to
load it again—an operation which involved a frequent meeting of
hands and of the eyes, which had now lost the ferocity that had startled
me at first, and seemed getting more soft and beaming every time I glanced
at them, till at last, producing my sketch-book, I ventured to remark,
"Ah, signorina, what a picture you would make! Now that the ass is loaded,
let me draw you before we part, that I may carry away the recollection of
the loveliest woman I have seen."
"First draw the donkey," she replied, "that I may carry away a
recollection of the galantuomo who first upset him over the bank,
and then helped me to load him."
Smiling at this ambiguous compliment, I gave her the sketch she desired,
and was about to claim my reward, when she abruptly remarked:
"There is not time now; it is getting late, and I must not linger, as I
have still an hour to go before reaching home. How is it that you are not
afraid to be wandering in this solitary glen by yourself? Do you not know
"I have heard of them, but I do not believe in them," I said; "besides, I
should be poor plunder for robbers."
"But you have friends, who would pay to ransom you, I suppose, if you were
"My life is not worth a hundred scudi to any of them," I replied,
laughing; "but I am willing to forego the please of drawing you now, bellissima,
if you will tell me where you live, and let me come and paint you there at
"You're a brave one," she said, with a little laugh; "there is not another
man in all Ascoli who would dare to pay me a visit without an escort of
twenty soldiers. But I am too grateful for your amiability to let you run
such a risk. Addio, Signor Inglese. There are many reasons why I
can't let you draw my picture, but I am not ungrateful, see!"—and
she offered me her cheek, on which I instantly imprinted a chaste and
"Don't think that you've seen the last of me, carrissima," I called
out, as she turned away. "I shall live on the memory of that kiss till I
have an opportunity of repeating it."
And as I watched her retreating figure with an artist's eye, I was struck
with its grace and suppleness, combined, as I had observed while she was
helping me to lead the donkey, with an unusual degree of muscular strength
for a woman.
The spot at which this episode had taken place was so romantic that I
determined to make a sketch of it, and the shades of evening were closing
in so fast that they warned me to hurry if I would reach the town before
dark. I had just finished it and was stooping to pick up by air-gun, when
I heard a sudden rush, and before I had time to look up I was thrown
violently forward on my face, and found myself struggling in the embrace
of a powerful grasp, from which I had nearly succeeded in freeing myself,
when the arms which were clasping me were reinforced by several more
pairs, and I felt a rope being passed round my body.
"All right, signors!" I exclaimed. "I yield to superior numbers. You need
not pull so hard; let me get up, and I promise to go with you quietly."
And by this time I had turned sufficiently on my back to see that four men
were engaged in tying me up.
"Tie his elbows together and let him get up," said one; "he is not armed.
Here, Giuseppe, carry his stick and paint-box while I feel his pockets. Corpo
di Baccho! twelve bajocchi," he exclaimed, producing those copper
coins with an air of profound disgust. "It is to be hoped he is worth more
to his friends. Now, young man, trudge, and remember that the first sign
you make of attempting to run away means four bullets through you."
As I did not anticipate any real danger, and as a prolonged detention was
a matter of no consequence to a man without an occupation, I stepped
forward with a light heart, rather pleased than otherwise with
anticipations of the brigand's cave, and turning over in my mind whether
or not I should propose to join the band.
We had walked an hour and it had become dark, when we turned off the road,
up a narrow path that led between rocky sides to a glade, at the extremity
of which, under an overhanging ledge, was a small cottage, with what
seemed to be a patch of garden in front.
"Ho! Anita!" called out the man who appeared to be the leader of the band;
"open! We have brought a friend to supper, who will require a night's
An old woman with a light appeared, and over her shoulder, to my delight,
I saw the face I had asked to be allowed to paint so shortly before. I was
about to recognise her with an exclamation, when I saw a hurried motion of
her finger to her lip, which looked a natural gesture to the casual
observer, but which I construed into a sign of prudence.
"Where did you pick him up, Croppo?" she asked, carelessly. "He ought to
be worth something."
"Just twelve bajocchi," he answered, with a sneering laugh. "Come, amico
mio, you will have to give us the names of some of your friends."
"I am tolerably intimate with his Holiness the Pope, and I have a bowing
acquaintance with the King of Naples, whom may God speedily restore to his
own," I replied, in a light and airy fashion, which seemed exceedingly to
exasperate the man called Croppo.
"Oh, yes, we know all about that; we never catch a man who does not
profess to be a Nero of the deepest dye in order to conciliate our
sympathies. It is just as well that you should understand, my friend, that
all are fish who come into our net. The money of the pope's friends is
quite as good as the money of Garibaldi's. You need not hope to put us off
with your Italian friends of any colour; what we want is English gold—good,
solid English gold, and plenty of it."
"Ah," said I, with a laugh, "if you did but know, my friend, how long I
have wanted it too! If you could only suggest an Englishman who would pay
you for my life, I would write to him immediately, and we would go halves
in the ransom. Hold!" I said, a bright idea suddenly striking me. "Suppose
I were to write to my government—how would that do?"
Croppo was evidently puzzled; my cheerful and unembarrassed manner
apparently perplexed him. He had a suspicion that I was even capable of
the audacity of making a fool of him, and yet that proposition about the
government rather staggered him; there might be something in it.
"Don't you think," he remarked, grimly, "it would add to the effect of
your communication if you were to enclose your own ears in your letter? I
can easily supply them; and if you are not a little more guarded in your
speech you may possibly have to add your tongue."
"It would not have the slightest effect," I replied, paying no heed to his
threat; "you don't know Palmerston as I do. If you wish to get anything
out of him you must be excessively civil. What does he care about my
ears?" And I laughed with such scornful contempt that Croppo this time
felt that he had made a fool of himself, and I observed the lovely girl
behind, while the corners of her mouth twitched with suppressed laughter,
make a sign of caution.
"Per Dio!" he exclaimed, jumping up with fury. "Understand, Signor
Inglese, that Croppo is not to be trifled with. I have a summary way of
treating disrespect," and he drew a long and exceedingly sharp-looking
"So you would kill the goose" ("and I certainly am a goose," I reflected)
"that may lay a golden egg." But my allusion was lost upon him, and I saw
my charmer touch her forehead significantly, as though to imply to Croppo
that I was weak in the upper story.
"An imbecile without friends and twelve bajocchi in his pocket," he
muttered, savagely. "Perhaps the night without food will restore his
senses. Come, fool!" and he roughly pushed me into a dark little chamber
adjoining. "Here, Valeria, hold the light."
So Valeria was the name of the heroine of the donkey episode. As she held
a small oil-lamp aloft I perceived that the room in which I was to spend
the night had more the appearance of a cellar than a chamber; it had been
excavated on two sides from the bank; on the third there was a small hole
about six inches square, apparently communicating with another room, and
on the fourth was the door by which I had entered, and which opened into
the kitchen and general living-room of the inhabitants. There was a heap
of onions running to seed, the fagots of fire-wood which Valeria had
brought that afternoon, and an old cask or two.
"Won't you give him some kind of a bed?" she asked Croppo.
"Bah! he can sleep on the onions," responded that worthy. "If he had been
more civil and intelligent he should have had something to eat. You
three," he went on, turning to the other men, "sleep in the kitchen, and
watch that the prisoner does not escape. The door has a strong bolt
besides. Come, Valeria."
And the pair disappeared, leaving me in a dense gloom, strongly pervaded
by an ordour of fungus and decaying onions. Groping into one of the casks,
I found some straw, and spreading it on a piece of plank, I prepared to
pass the night sitting with my back to the driest piece of wall I could
find, which happened to be immediately under the air-hole—a
fortunate circumstance, as the closeness was often stifling. I had
probably been dozing for some time in a sitting position, when I felt
something tickle the top of my head. The idea that it might be a large
spider caused me to start, when, stretching up my hand, it came in contact
with what seemed to be a rag, which I had not observed. Getting carefully
up, I perceived a faint light gleaming through the aperture, and then saw
that a hand was protruded through it, apparently waving the rag. As I felt
instinctively that the hand was Valeria's, I seized the finger-tips, which
was all I could get hold of, and pressed them to my lips. They were
quickly drawn away, and then the whisper reached my ears:
"Are you hungry?"
"Then eat this," and she passed me a tin pannikin full of cold macaroni,
which would just go through the opening.
"Dear Valeria," I said, with my mouth full, "how good and thoughtful you
"Hush! he'll hear."
"Where is he?"
"Asleep in the bed just behind me."
"How do you come to be in his bedroom?"
"Because I'm his wife."
"Oh!" A long pause, during which I collapsed upon my straw seat, and
swallowed macaroni thoughtfully. As the result of my meditations,
"Can't you get me out of this infernal den?"
"Perhaps, if they all three sleep in the kitchen; at present one is awake.
Watch for my signal, and if they all three sleep I will manage to slip the
bolt. Then you must give me time to get back into bed, and when you hear
me snore you may make the attempt. They are all three sleeping on the
floor, so be very careful where you tread; I will also leave the front
door a little open, so that you can slip through without noise."
"Hand me that cane—it is my fishing-rod, you know—through this
hole; you can leave the sketch-book and paint-box under the tree that the
donkey fell against; I will call for them some day soon. And, Valeria,
don't you think we could make our lips meet through this beastly hole?"
"Impossible. There's my hand; heavens! Croppo would murder me if he knew.
Now keep quiet till I give the signal. Oh, do let go my hand!"
"Remember, Valeria, bellissima, carissima, whatever happens, that I
But I don't think she heard this, and I went and sat on the onions,
because I could see the hole better and the smell of them kept me awake.
It was at least two hours after this that the faint light appeared at the
hole in the wall and a hand was pushed through. I rushed at the
"Here's your fishing-rod," she said, when I had released them and she had
passed me my air-gun. "Now be very careful how you tread. There is one
asleep across the door, but you can open it about two feet. Then step over
him; then make for a gleam of moonlight that comes through the crack of
the front door, open it very gently, and slip out. Addio, caro Inglese;
mind you wait till you hear me snoring."
Then she lingered, and I heard a sigh.
"What is it, sweet Valeria?" and I covered her hand with kisses.
"I wish Croppo had blue eyes like you."
This was murmured so softly that I may have been mistaken, but I'm nearly
sure that was what she said; then she drew softly away, and two minutes
afterward I heard her snoring. As the first sound issued from her lovely
nostrils I stealthily approached the door, gently pushed it open,
stealthily stepped over a space which I trusted cleared the recumbent
figure that I could not see, cleared him, stole gently on for the streak
of moonlight, trod squarely on something that seemed like an outstretched
hand, for it gave under my pressure and produced a yell, felt that I must
now rush for my life, dashed the door open, and down the path with four
yelling ruffians at my heels. I was a pretty good runner, but the moon was
behind a cloud and the way was rocky; moreover, there must have been a
short cut I did not know, for one of my pursuers gained upon me with
unaccountable rapidity—he appeared suddenly within ten yards of my
heels. The others were at least a hundred yards behind. I had nothing for
it but to turn round, let him almost run against the muzzle of my air-gun,
pull the trigger, and see him fall in his tracks. It was the work of a
second, but it checked my pursuers. They had heard no noise, but they
found something that they did not bargain for, and lingered a moment;
then, they took up the chase with redoubled fury. But I had too good a
start; and where the path joined the main road, instead of turning down
toward the town as they expected I would, I dodged round in the opposite
direction, the uncertain light this time favouring me, and I heard their
footsteps and their curses dying away on the wrong track. Nevertheless I
ran on at full speed, and it was not till the day was dawning that I began
to feel safe and relax my efforts. The sun had been up an hour when I
reached a small town, and the little locanda was just opening for
the day when I entered it, thankful for a hot cup of coffee and a dirty
little room, with a dirtier bed, where I could sleep off the fatigue and
excitement of the night. I was strolling down almost the only street in
the afternoon when I met a couple of carabineers riding into it, and
shortly after encountered the whole troop, to my great delight in command
of an intimate friend whom I had left a month before in Naples.
"Ah, caro mio," he exclaimed, when he saw me, "well met! What on
earth are you doing here? Looking for those brigands you were so anxious
to find when you left Naples? Considering that you are in the heart of
their country, you should not have much difficulty in gratifying your
"I have had an adventure or two," I replied, carelessly. "Indeed, that is
partly the reason you find me here. I was just thinking how I could get
safely back to Ascoli, when your welcome escort appeared; for I suppose
you are going there and will let me take advantage of it."
"Only too delighted; and you can tell me your adventures. Let us dine
together to-night, and I will find you a horse to ride on with us in the
I am afraid my account of the episode with which I have acquainted the
reader was not strictly accurate in all its details, as I did not wish to
bring down my military friends on poor Valeria; so I skipped all allusion
to her and my detention in her home, merely saying that I had had a
scuffle with brigands and had been fortunate enough to escape under cover
of the night. As we passed it next morning I recognised the path which led
up to Valeria's cottage, and shortly after observed that young woman
herself coming up the glen.
"Holloa!" I said, with great presence of mind, as she drew near, "my
lovely model, I declare! Just you ride on, old fellow, while I stop and
ask her when she can come and sit to me again."
"You artists are sad rogues; what chances your profession must give you!"
remarked my companion, as he cast an admiring glance on Valeria and rode
"There is nothing to be afraid of, lovely Valeria," I said, in a low tone,
as I lingered behind; "be sure I will never betray either your or your
rascally—hem! I mean your excellent Croppo. By the by, was that man
much hurt that I was obliged to trip up?"
"Hurt! Santa Maria! he is dead, with a bullet through his heart. Croppo
says it must have been magic, for he had searched you and he knew you were
not armed, and he was within a hundred yards of you when poor Pippo fell,
and he heard no sound."
"Croppo is not far wrong," I said, glad of the opportunity thus offered of
imposing on the ignorance and credulity of the natives. "He seemed
surprised that he could not frighten me the other night. Tell him he was
much more in my power than I was in his, dear Valeria," I added, looking
tenderly into his eyes. "I didn't want to alarm you; that was the reason I
let him off so easily; but I may not be so merciful next time. Now,
sweetest, that kiss you owe me, and which the wall prevented your giving
me the other night." She held up her face with the innocence of a child as
I stooped from my saddle.
"I shall never see you again, Signor Inglese," she said, with a sigh; "for
Croppo says it is not safe, after what happened the night before last, to
stay another hour. Indeed, he went off yesterday, leaving me orders to
follow to-day; but I went first to put your sketch-book under the bush
where the donkey fell, and where you will find it."
It took us another minute or two to part after this; and when I had ridden
away I turned to look back, and there was Valeria gazing after me.
"Positively," I reflected, "I am over head and ears in love with the girl,
and I believe she is with me. I ought to have nipped my feelings in the
bud when she told me she was his wife; but then he is a brigand, who
threatened both my ears and my tongue, to say nothing of my life. To what
extent is the domestic happiness of such a ruffian to be respected?" And I
went on splitting the moral straws suggested by this train of thought
until I had recovered my sketch-book and overtaken my escort, with whom I
rode triumphantly back into Ascoli, where my absence had been the cause of
much anxiety and my fate was even then being eagerly discussed. My friends
with whom I usually sat round the chemist's door were much exercised by
the reserve which I manifested in reply to the fire of cross-examination
to which I was subjected for the next few days; and English eccentricity,
which was proverbial even in this secluded town, received a fresh
illustration in the light and airy manner with which I treated a capture
and escape from brigands, which I regarded with such indifference that I
could not be induced even to condescend to details. "It was a mere
scuffle; there were only four; and, being an Englishman, I polished them
all off with the 'box,'" and I closed my fist and struck a scientific
attitude of self-defence, branching off into a learned disquisition on the
pugilistic art, which filled my hearers with respect and amazement. From
this time forward the sentiment with which I regarded my air-gun underwent
a change. When a friend had made me a present of it a year before I
regarded it in the light of a toy and rather resented the gift as too
juvenile. "I wonder he did not give me a kite or a hoop," I mentally
reflected. Then I had found it useful among Italians, who are a trifling
people and like playthings; but now that it had saved my life and sent a
bullet through a man's heart, I no longer entertained the same feeling of
contempt for it. Not again would I make light of it—this potent
engine of destruction which had procured me the character of being a
magician. I would hide it from human gaze and cherish it as a sort of
fetich. So I bought a walking-stick and an umbrella, and strapped it up
with them, wrapped in my plaid; and when, shortly after, an unexpected
remittance from an aunt supplied me with money enough to buy a horse from
one of the officers of my friend's regiment, which soon after arrived, and
I accepted their invitation to accompany them on their brigand-hunting
expeditions, not one of them knew that I had such a weapon as an air-gun
in my possession.
Our modus operandi on these occasions was as follows: On receiving
information from some proprietor that the brigands were threatening his
property,—it was impossible to get intelligence from the peasantry,
for they were all in league with the brigands; indeed, they all took a
holiday from regular work and joined a band for a few weeks from time to
time,—we proceeded, with a force sufficiently strong to cope with
the supposed strength of the band, to the farm in question. The bands were
all mounted, and averaged from 200 to 400 men each. It was calculated that
upward of 2000 men were thus engaged in harrying the country, and this
enabled the Neri to talk of the king's forces engaged in legitimate
warfare against those of Victor Emmanuel. Riding over the vast plains of
Capitanata, we would discern against the sky outline the figure of a
solitary horseman. This we knew to be a picket. Then there was no time to
be lost, and away we would go for him helter-skelter across the plain; he
would instantly gallop in on the main body, probably occupying a masseria.
If they thought they were strong enough they would show fight. If not they
would take to their heels in the direction of the mountains, with us in
full cry after them. If they were hardly pressed they would scatter, and
we were obliged to do the same, and the result would be that the swiftest
horsemen might possibly effect a few captures. It was an exciting species
of warfare, partaking a good deal more of the character of a hunting-field
than of cavalry skirmishing. Sometimes, where the ground was hilly, we had
bersaglieri with us, and as the brigands took to the mountains the warfare
assumed a different character. Sometimes, in default of these active
little troops, we took local volunteers, whom we found a very poor
substitute. On more than one occasion when we came upon the brigands in a
farm they thought themselves sufficiently strong to hold it against us,
and once the cowardice of the volunteers was amusingly illustrated. The
band was estimated at about 200, and we had 100 volunteers and a
detachment of 50 cavalry. On coming under the fire of the brigands the
cavalry captain, who was in command, ordered the volunteers to charge,
intending when they had dislodged the enemy to ride him down on the open;
but the volunteer officer did not repeat the word and stood stock-still,
his men all imitating his example.
"Charge! I say," shouted the cavalry captain, "why don't you charge? I
believe you're afraid!"
"E vero," said the captain of volunteers, shrugging his shoulders.
"Here, take my horse—you're only fit to be a groom; and you, men,
dismount and let these cowards hold your horses, while you follow me."
And, jumping from his horse, the gallant fellow, followed by his men,
charged the building, from which a hot fire was playing upon them, sword
in hand. In less than a quarter of an hour the brigands were scampering,
some on foot and some on horseback, out of the farm buildings, followed by
a few stray and harmless shots from such of the volunteers as had their
hands free. We lost three men killed and five wounded in this little
skirmish, and killed six of the brigands, besides making a dozen
prisoners. When I say "we" I mean my companions, for, having no weapon, I
had discreetly remained with the volunteers. The scene of this gallant
exploit was on the classic battle-field of Cannae. This captain, who was
not the friend I had joined the day after my brigand adventure, was a most
plucky and dashing cavalry officer, and was well seconded by his men, who
were all Piedmontese and of a very different temperament from the
Neapolitans. On one occasion a band of 250 brigands waited for us on the
top of a small hill, never dreaming that we should charge up it with the
odds five to one against us; but we did, and after firing a volley at us,
which emptied a couple of saddles, they broke and fled when we were about
twenty yards from them. Then began one of the most exciting scurries
across country it was ever my fortune to be engaged in. The brigands
scattered—so did we; and I found myself with two troopers in chase
of a pair of bandits, one of whom seemed to be the chief of the band. A
small stream wound through the plain, which we dashed across. Just beyond
was a tributary ditch, which would have been considered a fair jump in the
hunting-field: both brigands took it in splendid style. The hindmost was
not ten yards ahead of the leading trooper, who came a cropper; on which
the brigand reined up, fired a pistol-shot into the prostrate horse and
man, and was off; but the delay cost him dear. The other trooper, who was
a little ahead of me, got safely over. I followed suit. In another moment
he had fired his carabine into the brigand's horse, and down they both
came by the run. We instantly reined up, for I saw there was no chance of
overtaking the remaining brigand, and the trooper was in the act of
cutting down the man as he struggled to his feet, when to my horror I
recognised the lovely features of—Valeria.
"Stay, man!" I shouted, throwing myself from my horse. "It's a woman!
touch her if you dare!" And then, seeing the man's eye gleam with
indignation, I added, "Brave soldiers, such as you have proved yourself to
be, do not kill women; though your traducers say you do, do not give them
cause to speak truth. I will be responsible for this woman's safety. Here,
to make it sure you had better strap us together." I piqued myself
exceedingly on this happy inspiration, whereby I secured an arm-in-arm
walk, of a peculiar kind, it is true, with Valeria; and indeed my
readiness to sacrifice myself seemed rather to astonish the soldier, who
hesitated. However, his comrade, whose horse had been shot in the ditch,
now came up, and seconded my proposal as I offered him a mount on mine.
"How on earth am I to let you escape, dear Valeria?" I whispered, giving
her a sort of affectionate nudge; the position of our arms prevented my
squeezing hers as I could have wished, and the two troopers kept behind
us, watching us, I thought, suspiciously.
"It is quite impossible now—don't attempt it," she answered;
"perhaps there may be an opportunity later."
"Was that Croppo who got away?" I asked.
"Yes. He could not get his cowardly men to stand on that hill."
"What a bother those men are behind, dearest! Let me pretend to scratch my
nose with this hand that is tied to yours, which I can thus bring to my
I accomplished this manoeuvre rather neatly, but parties now came
straggling in from other directions, and I was obliged to give up
whispering and become circumspect. They all seemed rather astonished at
our group, and the captain laughed heartily as he rode up and called out,
"Who have you got tied to you there, caro mio?"
"Croppo's wife. I had her tied to me for fear she should escape; besides,
she is not bad-looking."
"What a prize!" he exclaimed. "We have made a tolerable haul this time—twenty
prisoners in all, among them the priest of the band. Our colonel has just
arrived, so I am in luck; he will be delighted. See the prisoners are
being brought up to him now; but you had better remount and present yours
in a less singular fashion."
When we reached the colonel we found him examining the priest. His
breviary contained various interesting notes written on some of the
"Administered extreme unction to A——, shot by Croppo's order;
my share ten scudi.
"Ditto, ditto, to R——, hung by Croppo's order, my share two
"Ditto, ditto, to S——, roasted by Croppo's order to make him
name an agent to bring his ransom; overdone by mistake, and died, so got
"Ditto, ditto, to P——, executed by the knife by Croppo's order
"M—— and F—— and D——, three new
members, joined to-day; confessed them, and received the usual fees."
He was a dark, beetle-browed-looking ruffian, this holy man; and the
colonel, when he had finished examining his book of prayer and crime,
tossed it to me, saying, "There! that will show your friends in England
the kind of politicians we make war against. Ha! what have we here? This
is more serious." And he unfolded a piece of paper which had been
concealed in the breast of the priest. "This contains a little valuable
information," he added, with a grim smile. "Nobody like priests and women
for carrying about political secrets, so you may have made a valuable
capture," and he turned to where I stood with Valeria; "let her be
Now the colonel was a very pompous man, and the document he had just
discovered on the priest added to his sense of self-importance. When,
therefore, a large, carefully folded paper was produced from the
neighbourhood of Valeria's lovely bosom his eyes sparkled with admiration.
"Ho, ho!" he exclaimed, as he clutched it eagerly, "the plot is
thickening!" And he spread out triumphantly, before he had himself seen
what it was, the exquisitely drawn portrait of a donkey. There was a
suppressed titter, which exploded into a shout when the bystanders looked
into the colonel's indignant face. I only was affected differently as my
gaze fell upon this touching evidence of dear Valeria's love for me, and I
glanced at her tenderly. "This has a deeper significance than you think
for," said the colonel, looking round angrily. "Croppo's wife does not
carefully secrete a drawing like that on her person for nothing. See, it
is done by no common artist. It means something, and must be preserved."
"It may have a biblical reference to the state of Italy. You remember
Issachar was likened to an ass between two burdens. In that case it
probably emanated from Rome," I remarked; but nobody seemed to see the
point of the allusion, and the observation fell flat.
That night I dined with the colonel, and after dinner I persuaded him to
let me visit Valeria in prison, as I wished to take the portrait of the
wife of the celebrated brigand chief. I thanked my stars that my friend
who had seen her when we met in the glen was away on duty with his
detachment and could not testify to our former acquaintance.
My meeting with Valeria on this occasion was too touching and full of
tender passages to be of any general interest. Valeria told me that she
was still a bride, that she had only been married a few months, and that
she had been compelled to become Croppo's wife against her choice, as the
brigand's will was too powerful to be resisted; but that, though he was
jealous and attached to her, he was stern and cruel, and, so far from
winning her love since her marriage, he had rather estranged it by his
fits of passion and ferocity. As may be imagined, the portrait, which was
really very successful, took some time in execution, the more especially
as we had to discuss the possibilities of Valeria's escape.
"We are going to be transferred to-morrow to the prison at Foggia," she
said. "If while we were passing through the market-place a disturbance of
some sort could be created, as it is market-day and all the country people
know me and are my friends, a rescue might be attempted. I know how to
arrange for that, only they must see some chance of success."
A bright thought suddenly struck me; it was suggested by a trick I had
played shortly after my arrival in Italy.
"You know I am something of a magician, Valeria; you have had proof of
that. If I create a disturbance by magic to-morrow when you are passing
through the market-place, you won't stay to wonder what is the cause of
the confusion, but instantly take advantage of it to escape."
"Trust me for that, caro mio."
"And if you escape when shall we meet again?"
"I am known too well now to risk another meeting. I shall be in hiding
with Croppo, where it will be impossible for you to find me, nor while he
lives could I ever dare to think of leaving him; but I shall never forget
you,"—and she pressed my hands to her lips,—"though I shall no
longer have the picture of the donkey to remember you by."
"See, here's my photograph; that will be better," said I, feeling a little
annoyed—foolishly, I admit. Then we strained each other to our
respective hearts and parted. Now it so happened that my room in the lacanda
in which I was lodging overlooked the market-place. Here at ten o'clock in
the morning I posted myself; for that was the hour, as I had been careful
to ascertain, when the prisoners were to start for Foggia. I opened the
window about three inches and fixed it there; I took out my gun, put eight
balls in it, and looked down upon the square. It was crowded with the
country people in their bright-coloured costumes chaffering over their
produce. I looked above them to the tall campanile of the church which
filled one side of the square. I receded a step and adjusted my gun on the
ledge of the window to my satisfaction. I then looked down the street in
which the prison was situated, and which debouched on the square, and
awaited events. At ten minutes past ten I saw the soldiers at the door of
the prison form up, and then I knew that the twenty prisoners of whom they
formed the escort were starting; but the moment they began to move I fired
at the big bell in the campanile, which responded with a loud clang. All
the people in the square looked up. As the prisoners entered the square,
which they had begun to cross in its whole breadth, I fired again and
again. The bell banged twice, and the people began to buzz about. "Now," I
thought, "I must let the old bell have it." By the time five more balls
had struck the bell with a resounding din the whole square was in
commotion. A miracle was evidently in progress or the campanile was
bewitched. People began to run hither and thither; all the soldiers
forming the escort gaped open-mouthed at the steeple as the clangour
continued. As soon as the last shot had been fired I looked down into the
square and saw all this, and I saw that the prisoners were attempting to
escape, and in more than one instance had succeeded, for the soldiers
began to scatter in pursuit, and the country people to form themselves
into impeding crowds as though by accident; but nowhere could I see
Valeria. When I was quite sure she had escaped I went down and joined the
crowd. I saw three prisoners captured and brought back, and when I asked
the officer in command how many had escaped he said three—Croppo's
wife, the priest, and another.
When I met my cavalry friends at dinner that evening it was amusing to
hear them speculate upon the remarkable occurrence which had, in fact,
upset the wits of the whole town. Priests and vergers and sacristans had
visited the campanile, and one of them had brought away a flattened piece
of lead, which looked as if it might have been a bullet; but the
suggestion that eight bullets could have hit the bell in succession
without anybody hearing a sound was treated with ridicule. I believe the
bell was subsequently exorcised with holy water. I was afraid to remain
with the regiment with my air-gun after this, lest some one should
discover it and unravel the mystery; besides, I felt a sort of traitor to
the brave friends who had so generously offered me their hospitality; so I
invented urgent private affairs which demanded my immediate return to
Naples, and on the morning of my departure found myself embraced by all
the officers of the regiment from the colonel downward, who in the fervour
of their kisses thrust sixteen waxed moustache-points against my cheeks.
About eighteen months after this I heard of the capture and execution of
Croppo, and I knew that Valeria was free; but I had unexpectedly inherited
a property and was engaged to be married. I am now a country gentleman
with a large family. My sanctum is stocked with various mementos of my
youthful adventures, but none awakens in me such thrilling memories as are
excited by the breviary of the brigand priest and the portrait of the