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THE GREAT ADVENTURE.
"He that luvith a starre To follow her, sinke or swym, Hath never a feare how farre, For the world it longith to hym: For the road it longith to hym And the fieldes that marcche beside-- Lift up thi herte, my maister then, So inery to-morn we ride." --The Squyres Delyt.
So the Gauntlet sailed for the island of Giraglia; and we two, having watched her for a while as she stood out to make her offing, trod out our camp-fire and turned our faces northward. Marc'antonio's last action before starting was to unhobble the goats and free the hogs from their wooden collars and headpieces. As he finished operating he turned them loose one by one with a parting smack on the buttocks, and they ran from us among the thickets, where we heard their squeals change to grunts of delight.
Brutes though they were, I could understand their delight, having lived with them, and in even such thraldom as theirs. From my neck also it seemed that a heavy collar-weight fell loose and slipped itself as, having passed Nat's grave in the hollow, we left the pine-forest at our feet and wound our way up among the granite pinnacles, upward, still upward, into the clear air. Aloft there, beyond the pass, the kingdom of Corsica broke on our view, laid out in wide prospect; the distant glittering peaks of Monte d'Oro and Monte Rotondo, the forests hitched on their shoulders like green mantles, the creased valleys leading down their rivers to the shore; a magic kingdom ringed with a sea of iris blue; a kingdom bequeathed to me. A few months ago I had shouted with joy to possess it; to-day, with more admiring eyes, I worshipped it for the lists of my greater adventure; and surely Nat's spirit marched with me to the air of his favourite song--
"If doughty deeds my lady please, Right soon I'll mount my steed; And strong his arm and fast his seat That bears frae me the meed . . ."
But, in fact, it was not until the third morning of our journey that Marc'antonio (who, like every Corsican, abhorred walking) was able to purchase us a steed apiece in the shape of two lean and shaggy hill ponies. They belonged to a decayed gentleman--of the best blood in the island, as he assured me--whom poverty had driven with his family to inhabit a shepherd's hut above the Restorica on the flank of Monte Rotondo where it looks towards Corte. We had slept the night under his roof, and I remember that I was awakened next morning on my bed of dry fern by the small chatter of the children, themselves awaking one by one as the daylight broke. After breakfast our host led us down to the pasture where the ponies were tethered; and when he and Marc'antonio had haggled for twenty minutes, and I was in the act of mounting, three of the children, aged from five downwards, came toddling with bunches of a blue flower unknown to me, but much like a gentian, which they had gathered on the edge of the tumbling Restorica, some way up-stream. I took my bunch and pinned it on my hat as I rode, hailing the omen--
"For you alone I ride the ring, For you I wear the blue . . ."
And--how went the chorus?
"Then tell me how to woo thee, love; O tell me how to woo thee; For thy dear sake nae care I'll take--"
The only care taken by Marc'antonio was to follow the bridle-tracks winding among the foothills, and give a wide berth to the highroad running north and south through Corte, especially to the bridges crossing the Golo River, at each of which, he assured me, we should find a guard posted of Paoli's militia. Luckily, he knew all the fords, and in the hill-villages off the road the inhabitants showed no suspicion of us, but took it for granted that we were the good Paolists we passed for. Marc'antonio answered all their guileless questions by giving out that we were two roving commissioners travelling northward to delimit certain pievi in the Nebbio, at the foot of Cape Corso--an explanation which secured for us the best of victuals as well as the highest respect.
For awhile our course, bending roughly parallel with the Golo, led us almost due east, and at length brought us out upon the flat shore of the Tuscan Sea. Here the mountains, which had confined us to the river valley, run northward with a sharp twist, and turning with them we rode once more with our faces set toward our destination, keeping the tall range on our left hand, and on our right the melancholy sea-marshes where men cannot dwell for the malaria, and where for hour after hour we rode in a silence unbroken save by the plash of fish in the lagoon, or the cry of a heron solitary among the reeds. This desolation lasted all the way to Biguglia, where we turned aside again among the foothills to avoid the fortress of Bastia and the traffic of the roads about it. Beyond Bastia we were safe in the fastnesses of Cape Corso, across which, from this eastern shore to the western, and to the camp at Olmeta, one only pass (so Marc'antonio informed me) was practicable. I guessed we were nearing it when he began to mutter to himself in the intervals of scanning the crags high on our left; for this was to him, he confessed, an almost unknown country. But the gap, when we came abreast of it, could scarcely be mistaken. With a glance around, as though to take our bearings, he abruptly headed off for it, and, having climbed the first slope, reined up and sat for a moment, rigid in his saddle as a statue, listening.
The sun had sunk behind the range, and the herbage at our feet lay in a bronze shadow; but light still bathed the sea behind us, and over it a company of gulls kept flashing and wheeling and clamouring. While I listened, following Marc'antonio's example, it seemed to me that an echo from the summit directly above us took up the gull's cry and repeated it, prolonging the note. Marc'antonio lifted and waved a hand.
"That will be Stephanu," he announced; and sure enough, before we had pushed a couple of furlongs up the slope, we caught sight of Stephanu descending a steep scree to meet us.
He and Marc'antonio nodded salutation brusquely, as though they had parted but a few hours ago. Marc'antonio, though relieved to see him, wore a judicial frown.
"What of the Princess, O Stephanu?" he demanded.
"The Princess is well enough, for aught I know," answered Stephanu, with a glance at me.
"You can speak before the cavalier. He knows not everything until we tell him; but he is one of us, and that I will engage."
Stephanu shrugged his shoulders. "The Princess is well enough, for aught I know," he repeated.
"But what fool's talk is this? The Prince packed you off, meaning mischief of some kind--what mischief you, being on the spot, should have been able to guess."
"It is God's truth, then, that I could not," Stephanu admitted sullenly; "and what is more, neither could you in my place have made a guess--no, not with all your wisdom."
"But you travelled back with all speed? You have seen her?"
"I travelled back with all speed." Stephanu repeated the words as a child repeats a lesson, but whether ironically or not his face did not tell. "Also I have seen her. And that is the devil of it."
"Will you explain?"
"She will have nothing to do with me; nor with you. I told her that you would be upon the road and following close after me. Naturally I said nothing of the cavalier here, for I knew nothing--"
"Did she ask?" I inquired.
Stephanu appeared to search his memory. "Now I come to think of it she did let fall a word. . . . But I for my part supposed you to be dead; and, by the way, signore, you will accept my compliments on your recovery."
Marc'antonio's frown had deepened. "You mean to tell me, Stephanu," he persisted, "that the Princess will have none of us?"
"She bade me go my ways, and not come near her; which was cold welcome for a man after a nine day's sweat. She added that if I or Marc'antonio came spying upon her, or in any way interfering until she sent for us, she would appeal to her brother against us."
"Was the Prince present when she said this?"
"He was not. He was away hunting, she said, in the direction of Nonza; but in fact he must have gone reconnoitring, for he had left the camp all but empty--no one at home but Andrea and Jacopo Galloni, whose turn it was with the cooking--these and the Princess. But the Prince has returned since then, for I heard his horn as I crossed the pass."
Stephanu, as we moved forward, kept alongside Marc'antonio's bridle, or as nearly alongside as the narrow track allowed. I, bringing up the rear, could not see the trouble in Marc'antonio's face, but I heard it in his voice as he put question after question. "The Princess was not a prisoner." "No; nor under any constraint that Stephanu could detect. She had her gun; was in fact cleaning and oiling its lock very leisurably when he had walked into camp. He had found her there, seated on a rock, with Andrea and Jacopo Galloni at a little distance below preparing the meal and taking no notice of her. In fact, they could not see her, because the rock overhung them."
"She must have been sitting there for sentry," said Stephanu, "At any rate, there was no other guard set on the camp. Well, if so, she took it easily enough; but catching sight of me she stood up, put her finger to her lip and pointed over the ledge. Thereupon I peered over, but drew back my head before Andrea and Jacopo could spy me. So I stood before her, expecting to be praised for the despatch I had made on the road; but she praised me not. She motioned me to follow her a little way out of earshot of the men below, to a patch of tall-growing junipers within which, when first we pitched camp, she had chosen to make her bower. Then she turned on me, and I saw that in some way I had vexed her, for her eyes were wrathful; and, said she, 'Why have you made this speed?' 'Because, O Princess, you have need of me,' I answered. 'I have no need of you,' she said; 'but where is Marc'antonio? And the young Englishman--is he yet alive?' 'O Princess,' I answered again, 'I did not go all the way to the old camp, but only so far that the man Priske could not mistake his road to it. Then, having put him in the way, I turned back and have travelled night and day. Of the young Englishman I can tell you nothing; but of Marc'antonio I can promise that he will be on the road and not far behind me.'"
"Grazie," muttered Marc'antonio; "but how could you be sure I had received the message?"
"Because the Princess had charged you to be at that post until released. Therefore I knew you would not have quitted it, if alive; and if you were dead--" Stephanu shrugged his shoulders. "I was in a hurry, you understand; and in a hurry a man must take a few risks."
"I am not saying you did ill," growled Marc'antonio, slightly mollified.
"The Princess said so, however. 'You are a fool, O Stephanu,' she told me; 'and as for needing you or Marc'antonio, on the contrary, I forbid you both to join the camp for a while. Go back. If you meet Marc'antonio upon the road, give him this message for me.' 'But where, O Princess,' I asked, 'are we to await your pleasure?' 'Fare north, if you will, to Cape Corso,' she said, 'where that old mad Englishman boasts that he will reach my mother in her prison at Giraglia. He has gone thither alone, refusing help; and you may perhaps be useful to him.'"
Marc'antonio's growl grew deeper. "Was that all?" he asked.
"That was all."
"Then there is mischief here. The Prince, O Stephanu, did not without purpose send you out of the way. Now, whatever he purposed he must have meant to do quickly, before we two should return to the camp--"
"He had mischief in his heart, I will swear," assented Stephanu, after a glance at me and another at Marc'antonio, who reassured him with a nod. "And that the Princess plainly guessed, by her manner at parting, when I set out with the man Priske. She was sorry enough then to say good-bye to me," he added, half boastfully.
"Nevertheless," answered Marc'antonio with some sarcasm, "she appears to have neglected to confide to you what she feared."
Stephanu spread out his hands. "The Prince, and the reverend Father--who can tell what passes in their minds?"
"Not you, at any rate! Very well, then--the Princess was apprehensive. . . . Yet now, when the mischief (whatever it is) should either be done or on the point of doing, she will have none of our help. Clearly she knows more, yet will have none of our help. That is altogether puzzling to me. . . . And she sends us north. . . . Very well again; we will go north, but not far!"
He glanced back at me over his shoulder. I read his meaning--that he wished to plan his campaign privately with Stephanu--and, reining in my pony, I fell back out of earshot.
The pass towards which we were climbing stood perhaps three thousand feet above the shore and the high road we had left; and the track, when it reached the steeper slopes, ran in long zigzagging terraces at the angles of which our ponies had sometimes to scramble up stairways cut in the living rock. As the sun sank a light mist gradually spread over the coast below us, the distant islands grew dim, and we rode suspended, as it were, over a bottomless vale and a sea without horizon. Slowly, out of these ghostly wastes, the moon lifted herself in full circle, and her rays, crossing the cope of heaven, lit up a tall grey crag on the ridge above us, and the stem of a white-withered bush hanging from it--an isolated mass which (my companions told me) marked the summit of the ascent.
"The path leads round the base of it," said Stephanu. "We shall reach it in another twenty minutes."
"But will it not be guarded?" I asked.
He hunched his shoulders. "The Prince is no general. A hundred times our enemies might have destroyed us; but they prefer to leave us alone. It is more humiliating."
Marc'antonio rode forward deep in thought, his chin sunk upon his breast. At the summit, under the shadow of the great rock, he reined up, and slewing himself about in his saddle addressed Stephanu again.
"As I remember, there is a track below which branches off to the right, towards Nonza. It will take us wide of Olmeta and we can strike down into the lowland somewhere between the two. The Princess commands us to make for the north; so we shall be obeying her, and at the same time we can bivouac close enough to take stock at sunrise and, maybe, learn some news of the camp--yet not so close that our horses can be heard, if by chance one should whinny."
"As to that you may rest easy," Stephanu assured him. "It is known that many of the farms below keep ponies in stable."
From the pass we looked straight down upon another sea, starlit and dimly discernible, and upon slopes and mountain spurs descending into dense woodland over which, along the bluffs of the ridge, the lights of a few lonely hill-farms twinkled. Stephanu found for us the track of which Marc'antonio had spoken, and although on this side of the range the shadows of the crags made an almost total darkness, our ponies took us down at a fair pace. After thirty, or it may be forty, minutes of this jolting and (to me) entirely haphazard progress, Marc'antonio again reined up, on the edge of a mountain-stream which roared across our path so loudly as to drown his instructions. But at a sign from him Stephanu stepped back and took my bridle, and within a couple of minutes I felt that my pony's feet were treading good turf and, at a cry from my guide, ducked my head to avoid the boughs as we threaded our way down through an orchard of stalwart olives.
The slope grew gentler as we descended, and eased almost to a level on the verge of a high road running north and south under the glimmer of the moon--or rather of the pale light heralding the moon's advent. Marc'antonio looked about him and climbed heavily from his saddle. He had been riding since dawn.
I followed his example, though with difficulty--so stiff were my limbs; picketed my pony; and, having unstrapped the blanket from my saddle-bow, wrapped it about me and stretched myself on the thin turf to munch the ration of crust which Marc'antonio doled out from his bag; for he carried our provender.
"Never grudge a hard day's work when 'tis over," said he, as he passed me the wine-skin. "Yonder side of the mountain breeds malaria even in winter, but on this side a man may sleep and rise fit for adventure."
He offered, very politely, to share his blanket with Stephanu, but Stephanu declined. Those two might share one loyalty and together take counsel for it, but between them as men there could be no liking nor acceptance of favours.
I lay listening for a while to the mutter of their voices as they talked there together under the olives; but not for long. The few words and exclamations that reached me carried no meaning. In truth I was worn out. Very soon the chatter of the stream, deep among the trees--the stream which we had just now avoided--confused itself with their talk, and I slept.
* * * * * * *
Of a sudden I started and sat up erect. I had been dreaming, and in my dream I had seen two figures pass along the road beyond the fringe of the trees. They had passed warily, yet hurriedly, across the patch of it now showing white between the olive trunks, under the risen moon. Yet how could this have happened if I had dreamed it merely? The moon, when I fell asleep, had not surmounted the ridge behind me, and that patch of road, now showing so white and clear, had been dim, if not quite invisible. None the less I could be sworn that two figures had passed up the road . . . two men . . .
Marc'antonio and Stephanu?--reconnoitring perhaps? I rubbed my eyes. No: Marc'antonio and Stephanu lay a few paces away, stretched in profound sleep under the moonlight drifting between the olive boughs; and yonder, past the fringe of the orchard, shone the patch of white high road. Two figures, half a minute since, had passed along it. I could be sworn to it, even while reason insisted that I had been dreaming.
I flung off my rug, and, stepping softly to the verge of the orchard's shadow, peered out upon the road. To my right--that is to say, northward--it stretched away level and visibly deserted so far as the bend, little more than a gunshot distant, where it curved around the base of low cliff and disappeared. A few paces on this side of the cliff glimmered the rail of a footbridge, and to this spot my ears traced the sound of running water which had been singing through my dreams--the same stream which had turned us aside to seek our bivouac. Not even yet could I believe that my two wayfarers had been phantoms merely. I had given them two minutes' start at least, and by this time they might easily have passed the bend. Threading my way swiftly between the boles of the olive trees, I skirted the road to the edge of the stream and stood for a moment at pause before stepping out upon the footbridge and into the moonlight.
The water at my feet, scarcely seen through the dark ferns, ran swiftly and without noise as through a trough channelled in the living rock; but it brought its impetus from a cascade that hummed aloft somewhere in the darkness with a low continuous thunder as of a mill with a turning wheel. I lifted my head to the sound, and in that instant my ears caught a slight creak from the footbridge on my left. I faced about, and stood rigid, at gaze. A woman was stepping across the bridge, there in the moonlight; a slight figure, cloaked and hooded and hurrying fast; a woman, with a gun slung behind her and the barrel of it glimmering. It was the Princess.
I let her pass, and as she turned the bend of the road I stole out to the footbridge and across it in pursuit. I knew now that the two wayfarers had not been phantoms of my dreaming; that she was following, tracking them, and that I must track and follow her. Beyond the bend the road twisted over a low-lying spur of the mountain between outcrops of reddish-coloured rock, and then ran straight for almost three hundred yards, with olive orchards on either hand; so that presently I could follow and hold her in sight, myself keeping well within the trees' line of shadow.
Twice she turned to look behind her, but rapidly and as if in no great apprehension of pursuit; or perhaps her own quest had made her reckless. At the end of this straight and almost level stretch the road rose steeply to wind over another foot-hill, and here she broke into a run. I pressed after her up the ascent, and from the knap of it, with a shock, found myself looking down at close hand upon a small dim bay of the sea with a white edge of foam curving away into a loom of shore above which a solitary light twinkled. The road, following the curve of the shore a few paces above the waves, lay bare in the moonlight, without cover to right or left, until, a mile away perhaps, it melted into the grey of night. Along that distance my eyes sought and sought in vain for the figure that had been running scarcely two hundred yards ahead of me. The Princess had disappeared.
For a short while I stood at fault; but searching the bushes on my left, I was aware of a parting between them, overgrown indeed, yet plainly indicating a track; along which I had pushed but two-score of paces--perhaps less--before a light glimmered between the greenery and I stepped into an open clearing in full view of a cottage, the light of which fell obliquely across the turf through a warped or cracked window-shutter.
"Camillo!"--it was the Princess's voice, half imperious, half pleading; and from beyond the angle of the cottage wall came the noise of a latch shaken. "Open to me, Camillo, or by the Mother of Christ I will blow the door in! I have a gun, Camillo, and I swear to you!"
The challenge was not answered. Crouching almost on all fours I sprang across the ray of light and gained the wall's shadow. There, as I drew breath, I heard the latch shaken again, more impatiently.
The bolt was drawn. Peering around the angle of the wall, I saw the light fall full on her face as the door opened and she stepped into the cottage.
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