A Fearful Adventure
( Originally Published 1851 )
The fierce brigands of Calabria are notorious for the audacity of their deeds. Desirous of a little more accurate information on the character of the outlaws of this part of Italy, we turned to the letters of Paul Louis Courier, whose works are little known in this country. Our readers may be interested by the following little story, which we translate for their edification. The author is writing to his female cousin.
" I was one day travelling in Calabria. It is a country of wicked people, who, I believe, have no great liking to any body, and are particularly ill-disposed towards the French. To tell you why would be a long affair. It is enough that they hate us to death, and that the unhappy being who should chance to fall into their hands would not pass his time in the most agreeable manner. I had for my companion a fine young fellow. I do not say this to interest you but because it is the truth. In these mountains the roads are precipices, and our horses got on with the greatest difficulty. My comrade going first, a track, which appeared to him more practicable and shorter than the regular path, led us astray. It was my fault. Ought I to have trusted to a head of twenty years? We sought our way out of the wood while it was yet light; but the more we looked for the path the farther we were off it. It was a very black night, when we came close upon a very black house. We went in, and not without suspicion. But what was to be done ? There we found a whole family of charcoal burners at table. At the first word they invited us to join them. My young man did not stop for much ceremony. In a minute or two we were eating and drinking in right earnest he at least: for my own part I could not help glancing about at the place and the people. Our hosts, indeed, looked place charcoal burners; but the house! you would have taken it for an arsenal. There was nothing to be seen but muskets, pistols, sabres, knives, cutlasses. Every thing displeased me, and I saw that I was in no favor myself. My comrade, on the contrary, was soon one of the family. He laughed, he chatted with them; and with an imprudence which I ought to have prevented, he at once said where we came from, where we were going, that we were Frenchmen. Think of our situation. Here we were amongst our mortal enemies, alone, benighted, far from all human aid. That nothing might be omitted that could tend to destroy us, he must play the rich man forsooth, promising these folks to pay them well for their hospitality; and then he must prate about his portmanteau, earnestly beseeching them to take great care of it, and put it at the head of his bed, for he wanted no other pillow. Ah, youth, youth, how you are to be pitied. Cousin, they might have thought we carried the diamonds of the crown: the treasure in his portmanteau which gave him such anxiety consisted of the letters of his mistress.
" Supper ended, they left us. Our hosts slept below; we on the story where we had been eating. In a sort of platform raised seven or eight feet, where we were to mount by a ladder, was the bed that awaited us a nest into which we had to introduce ourselves, by jumping over barrels filled with provisions for all the year. My comrade seized up-on the bed above, and was soon fast asleep, with his head upon the precious portmanteau. I was deter-mined to keep awake, so I made a good fire, and sat myself down. The night was almost passed over tranquilly enough, and I was beginning to be comfortable, when, just at the time when it appeared to me that day was about to break, I heard our host and his wife talking below me:—and putting my ear into the chimney which communicated with the lower room, I perfectly distinguished these exact words of the husband:—' Well, well, let us see:—must we kill them both ?' To which the wife replied, ' Yes,'—and I heard no more.
" How shall I tell you the rest? I could scarcely breathe; my whole body was as cold as marble; to have seen me, you could not have told whether I was dead or alive. Heavens! when I yet think upon it! We two were almost without arms;—against us were twelve or fifteen who had plenty of weapons. And then my comrade dead of sleep and fatigue ! To call him up, to make a noise, was more than I dared ;—to escape alone was an impossibility. The window was not very high but under it were two great dogs howling like wolves. Imagine if you can the distress I was in. At the end of a quarter of an hour, which seemed an age, I heard some one on the staircase, and through the chink of the door I saw the old man, with a lamp in one hand and one of his great knives in the other. He mounted, his wife after him; I was behind the door. He opened it; but before he came in he put down the lamp, which his wife took up, and coming in, with his feet naked, she being behind him said in a smothered voice, hiding the light partially with her fingers, Gently, go gently. When he reached the ladder he mounted, his knife between his teeth; and going to the head of the bed where that poor young man lay, with his throat uncovered, with one hand he took his knife, and with the other ah, my cousin he seized a ham which hung from the roof, cut a slice, and retired as he had come in. The door is reshut, the light vanishes, and I am left alone to my reflections.
" When the d appeared, all the family with a great noise came to rouse us, as we had desired. They brought us plenty to eat they served us a very proper breakfast, a capital breakfast, I assure you. Two capons formed part of it, of which, said the hostess, you must eat one, and carry away the other. When I saw the capons I at once comprehended the meaning of those terrible words. Must we kill them both?"