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ORDEAL AND CHOOSING.
"Thou coward! Yet Art living? canst not, wilt not find the road To the great palace of magnificent death?-- Though thousand ways lead to his thousand doors Which day and night are still unbarr'd for all." --NAT. LEE.--Oedipus.
"No man"--I am quoting my father--"can be great, or even wise, or even, properly speaking, a man at all, until he has burnt his boats"; but I imagine that those who achieve wisdom and greatness burn their boats deliberately and not--as did I, next moment--upon a sudden wild impulse.
My excuse is, the door was already closing behind the Princess. I knew she had tracked the Prince Camillo and his confessor, and that these two were within the cottage. I knew nothing of their business, save that it must be shameful, since she who had detected and would prevent it chose to hide her knowledge even from Marc'antonio and Stephanu. Then much rather (you may urge) would she choose to hide it from me. The objection is a sound one, had I paused to consider it; but (fortunately or unfortunately, as you may determine) I did not. She had stepped into peril. The door was closing behind her: in another couple of seconds it would be bolted again. I sprang for it, hurled myself in through the entry, and there, pulling myself erect, stared about me.
Four faces returned my stare; four faces, and all dismayed as though a live bombshell had dropped through the doorway. To the priest, whom my impact had flung aside against the wall, I paid no attention. My eyes fastened themselves on the table at which, with a lantern and some scattered papers between them, sat two men--the Prince, and a grey-haired officer in the blue-and-white Genoese uniform. The Prince, who had pushed back his chair and confronted his sister with hands stretched out to cover or to gather up the papers on the table, slewed round upon me a face that, as it turned, slowly stiffened with terror. The Genoese officer rose with one hand resting on the table, while with the other he fumbled at a silver chain hanging across his breast, and as he shot a glance at the Prince I could almost see his lips forming the word "treachery." The Princess's consternation was of all the most absolute. "The Crown! Where is the Crown?"--as I broke in, her voice, half imperious, half supplicatory, had panted out these words, while with outstretched hand and forefinger she pointed at the table. Her hand still pointed there, rigid as the rest of her body, as with dilated eyes she stared into mine.
"Yes, gentlemen," said I, in the easiest tone I could manage, "the Princess asks you a question, which allow me to repeat. Where is the Crown?"
"In the devil's name--" gasped the Prince.
The Genoese interrupted him. "Shut and bolt the door!" he commanded the priest, sharply.
"Master Domenico," said I, "if you move so much as a step, I will shoot you through the body."
The Genoese tugged at the chain on his breast and drew forth a whistle. "Signore," he said quietly and with another side glance at the Prince, "I do not know your name, but mine is Andrea Fornari, and I command the Genoese garrison at Nonza. Having some inherited knowledge of the Corsicans, and some fifty years' experience of my own, I do not walk into traps. A dozen men of mine stand within call here, at the back entrance, and my whistle will call me up another fifty. Bearing this in mind, you will state your business as peaceably as possible."
"Nevertheless," said I, "since I have taken a fancy--call it a whim, if you will--that the door remains at least unbolted. . . ."
He shrugged his shoulders. "It will help you nothing."
"I am an Englishman," said I.
"Indeed? Well, I have heard before now that it will explain anything and everything; but as yet my poor understanding scarcely stretches it to cover your presence here."
"Faith, sir," I answered, "to put the matter briefly, I am here because the Princess is here, whom I have followed--though without her knowledge--because I guessed her to be walking into peril."
"Excuse me. Without her knowledge, you say?" The Commandant turned to the Princess, who bowed her head but continued to gaze at me from under her lowered brows. "Absolutely, sir."
"And without knowledge of her errand? Again excuse me, but does it not occur to you that you may be intruding at this moment upon a family affair?"
Here the Prince broke in with a scornful laugh. For a minute or so his brow had been clearing, but, though he sneered, he could not as yet meet his sister's eye. I noted this as his laugh drew my gaze upon him, and it seemed that my contempt gave me a sudden clear insight; for I found myself answering the Commandant very deliberately--
"The Princess, sir, until a moment ago, perhaps knew not whether I was alive or dead, and certainly knew not that I was within a hundred miles of this place. Had she known it, she would as certainly not have confided her errand to me, mixed up as it is with her brother's shame. She would, I dare rather wager, have taken great pains to hide it from me. And yet I will not pretend that I am quite ignorant of it, as neither will I allow--family affair though it be--that I have no interest in it, seeing that it concerns the crown of Corsica."
The Commandant glanced at the Prince, then at the priest, who stood passive, listening, with his back to the wall, his loose-lidded eyes studying me from the lantern's penumbra.
"What possible interest--" begun the Commandant.
"By the crown of Corsica," I interrupted, "I mean the material crown of the late King Theodore, at this moment concealed (if I mistake not) somewhere in this cottage. In it I may claim a certain interest, seeing that I brought it from England to this island, and that the Prince Camillo here--whose father gave it to me--is trading it to you by fraud. Yes, messere, he may claim that it belongs to him by right; but he obtained it from me by fraud, as neither he nor his sister can deny. That perhaps might pass: but when he--he a son of Corsica--goes on to sell it to Genoa, I reassert my claim."
Again the Commandant shrugged his shoulders. It consoled me to note that his glance at the Prince was by no means an admiring one.
"I am a soldier," he said curtly. "I do not deal in sentiment; nor is it my business, when a bargain comes to me--a bargain in which I can serve my country--to inquire into how's and why's."
"I grant that, sir," said I. "It is your business, now that the crown--with what small profit may go with it--lies under your hand, to grasp it for Genoa. But as a soldier and a brave man, you understand that now you must grasp it by force. God knows in what hope, if in any, the Princess here tracked out your plot; but at least she can compel you--I can compel you--we two, weak as we are, can compel you--to use force. The honour of a race--and that a royal one--shall at least not pass to you on the mere signature of that coward sitting there." I swung round upon the Prince. "You may give up trying to hide those papers, sir, since every one in this room knows what compact you were in the act of signing."
The Princess stepped forward. "All this," she said to me in a low, hard voice, "I could have done without help of you." Her tone promised that she would never forgive, but she looked only at her brother. "Camillo," she said, standing before him, "this Englishman has said only what I came to say. It is not my fault that he is here and has guessed. When I was sure, I hid my knowledge even from Marc'antonio and Stephanu; and he--he shall die for having overheard. The Genoese will see to that, and the Commandant, as he is a gentleman, will write in his report that he took the crown from us, having caught us at unawares. . . . I cannot shoot you, my brother. Even you would not ask this of me--of me that have served you, and that serve you now in the end. . . . See, I make no reproaches. . . . We were badly brought up, we two, and when you were young and helpless, vile men took hold on you and taught you to be capable of--of this thing. But we are Colonne, we two, and can end as Colonne." She dipped a hand within the bosom of her bodice and drew out a phial. "Dear, I will drink after you. It will not be hard; no, believe me, it will not be so very hard--a moment, a pang perhaps, and everything will yet be saved. O brother, what is a pang, a moment, that you can weigh it against a lifetime of dishonour!"
The Prince sprang up cursing.
"Dishonour? And who are you that talk to me of dishonour?--you that come straying here out of the night with your cicisbeo at your heels? You, with the dew on you and your dress bedraggled, arrive straight from companioning in the woods and prate to me of shame--of the blood of the Colonne!" He smote a hand on the table and spat forth a string of vile names upon her, mixed with curses; abominable words before which she drew back cowering, yet less (I think) from the lash of them than from shock and horror of his incredible baseness. Passion twisted his mouth; his tongue stammered with the gush of his abuse; but he was lying, and knew that he was lying, for his eyes would meet neither hers nor mine. Only after drawing breath did he for a moment look straight at her, and then it was to demand; "And who, pray, has driven me to this? What has made Corsica so bitter to me that in weariness I am here to resign it? You, my sister--you, and what is known of you. . . . Why can I do nothing with the patriots? Why were there no recruits? Why, when I negotiated, did the Paolists listen as to a child and smile politely and show me their doors? Again, because of you, O my sister!--because there is not a household in Corsica but has heard whisperings of you, and of Brussels, and of the house in Brussels where you were sought and found. Blood of the Colonne!--and now the blood of the Colonne takes an English lover to warm it! Blood of--"
With one hand I caught him by the throat, with the other by the girdle, and flung him clean across the table into the corner, oversetting the lantern, but not extinguishing the light, for the Commandant caught it up deftly. As he set it back on the table I heard him grunt, and--it seemed to me--with approval.
"I will allow no shooting, sir," said he, quickly, yet with easy authority, noting my hand go down to my gun-stock.
"You misunderstand me," I answered, and indeed I was but shifting its balance on my bandolier, which had slipped awry in the struggle. "There are reasons why I cannot kill this man. But you will give me leave to answer just two of his slanders upon this lady. It is false that I came here to-night by her invitation or in her company, as it is God's truth that for many months until we met in this room and in your presence she has not set eyes on me. She could not have known even that I lived since the hour when her brother there--yes, Princess, your brother there--left me broken and maimed at the far end of the island. For the rest, he utters slanders to which I have no clue save that I know them to be slanders. But at a venture, if you would know how they grew and who nurtured them, I think the priest yonder can tell you."
The Commandant waved a hand politely. "You have spoken well, sir. Believe me, on this point no more is necessary. I have no doubt-- there can be no doubt--that the Prince lies under a misapprehension. Nevertheless, there are circumstances which lay me under obligation to him." He paused. "And you will admit that you have placed the lady--thoughtlessly no doubt--in a false position."
"Well and good, sir," I replied. "If, in your opinion as a man of honour, the error demands a victim, by all means call in your soldiers and settle me. I stipulate only that you escort the lady back to her people with honour, under a flag of truce; and I protest only, as she has protested, that this traitor has no warrant to sell you his country's rights."
The Prince had picked himself up, and stood sulkily, still in his corner. I suppose that he was going to answer this denunciation, when the priest's voice broke in, smooth and unctuous.
"Pardon me, messeri, but there occurs to me a more excellent way. This Englishman has brought dishonour on one of the Colonne: therefore it is most necessary that he should die. But before dying let him make the only reparation--and marry her."
I turned on him, staring: and in the flicker of his eyes as he lifted them for one instant towards his master, I read the whole devilish cunning of the plot. They might securely let her go, as an Englishman's widow. The fact had merely to be proclaimed and the islanders would have none of her. I am glad to remember that--my brain keeping clear, albeit my pulse, already fast enough, leapt hotly and quickened its speed--I had presence of mind to admire the suggestion coolly, impersonally, and quite as though it affected me no jot.
The Commandant bent his brows. Behind them--as it seemed to me--I could read his thought working.
"If you, sir, have no objection," he said slowly, looking up and addressing me with grave politeness, "I see much to be said for the reverend father's proposal."
He turned to the Prince, who--cur that he was--directed his spiteful glee upon his sister.
"It appears, O Camilla, that in our race to save each other's honour I am to be winner. Nay, you may wear your approaching widowhood with dignity, and boast in time to come that your husband once bore the crown of Corsica."
"Prince Camillo," said the Commandant, quietly, "I am here to-night in the strict service of my Republic, to do my best for her: but I warn you that if you a second time address your sister in that tone I shall reserve the right to remember it later as a plain Genoese gentleman. Sir," he faced about and addressed me again, "am I to understand that you accept?"
I looked at the Princess. She met my look proudly, with eyes set in a face pale as death. I could not for the life of me read whether they forbade me or implored. They seemed to forbid, protest . . . and yet (the bliss of it!) for one half instant they had also seemed to implore. Thank God at least they did not scorn!
"Princess," I said, "these men propose to do me an infinite honour-- an honour far above my deserving--and to kill me while my heart yet beats with the pride of it. Yet say to me now if I must renounce it, and I will die bearing you no grudge. Take thought, not of me, but of yourself only, and sign to me if I must renounce."
Still she eyed me, pale and unblinking. Her bosom panted, and for a moment she half-raised her hand; but dropped it again.
"I think, sir," said I, facing around on the Commandant, I think by this time the day must be breaking. Will you kindly open the shutters? Also you would oblige me further--set it down to an Englishman's whim--by forming up your men outside; and we will have a soldier's wedding."
"Willingly, cavalier." The Commandant stepped to the shutter and unbarred it, letting in daylight with the cool morning breeze--a greenish-grey daylight, falling across the glade without as softly as ever through cathedral aisles, and a breeze that was wine to the taste as it breathed through the exhausted air of the cottage--a sacramental dawn, and somewhere deep in the arcades of the tree-boles a solitary bird singing!
The Commandant leaned forth and blew his whistle. The bird's song ceased, and was followed by the tramp of men. My brain worked so clearly, I could almost count their footsteps. I saw them, across the Commandant's shoulder, as they filed past the corner of the window and, having formed into platoon, grounded arms, the butts of their muskets thudding softly on the turf--a score of men in blue-and-white uniforms, spick and span in the clear morning light.
I counted them and drew a long breath. "Master priest," said I, and held out my hand to the Princess, "in your Church, I believe, matrimony is a sacrament. If you are ready, I am ready."
His loose lip twitched as he stepped forward. . . . When he paused in his muttering I lifted the Princess's cold hand and drew a seal from my pocket--a heavy seal with a ring attached, which I fitted on her finger; and so I held her hand, letting drop on it by degrees the weight of the heavy seal.
From the first she had offered no resistance, made no protest. I pressed the seal into the palm of her hand, not telling her that it was her own father's great seal of Corsica. But I folded her fingers back on it, reverently touched the one encircled by the ring, and said I--
"It is the best I can give;" and a little later, "It is all I brought in my pockets but this handkerchief. Take that, too; lead me out; and bandage my eyes, my wife."
She took my arm obediently and we stepped out by the doorway, bridegroom and bride, in face of the soldiery. A sergeant saluted and came forward for the Commandant's orders.
"A moment, sir," said I, and, laying two fingers on the Commandant's arm, I nodded towards the bole of a stout pine-tree across the clearing. "Will that distance suit you?"
He nodded in reply and as I swung on my heel touched my arm in his turn.
"You will do me the honour, sir, to shake hands?"
"Most willingly, sir." I shook hands with him, casting, as I did so, a glance over my shoulder at the Prince and Father Domenico, who hung back in the doorway--two men afraid. "Come," said I to the Princess, and, as she seemed to hesitate, "Come, my wife," I commanded, and walked to the pine-tree, she following. I held out the handkerchief. She took it, still obediently, and as she took it I clasped her hand and lifted it to my lips.
"Nay," said I, challenging, "what was it you told your brother? A moment? A pang? What are they to weigh against a lifetime of dishonour?"
I saw her blench: yet even while she bandaged me at my bidding, I did not arrive at understanding the folly--the cruel folly of that speech. Nay, even when, having bandaged me, she stepped away and left me, I considered not nor surmised what second meaning might be read in it.
Shall I confess the truth? I was too consciously playing a part and making a handsome exit. After all, had I not some little excuse? . . . Here was I, young, lusty, healthful, with a man's career before me, and across it, trenched at my feet, the grave. A saying of Billy Priske's comes into my mind--a word spoken, years after, upon a poor fisherman of Constantine parish whose widow, as by will directed, spent half his savings on a tombstone of carved granite. "A man," said Billy, "must cut a dash once in his lifetime, though the chance don't come till he's dead." . . . Looking back across these years I can smile at the boy I was and forgive his poor brave flourish. But his speech was thoughtless: the woman (ah! but he knows her better now) was withdrawn with its wound in her heart: and between them Death was stepping forward to make the misunderstanding final.
I remember setting my shoulder-blades firmly against the bole of the tree. A kind of indignation sustained me; a scorn to be cut off thus, a scorn especially for the two cowards by the doorway. They were talking with the Commandant. Their voices sounded across the interval between me and the firing-party. Why were they wasting time? . . .
I could not distinguish their words, save that twice I heard the Prince curse viciously. The hound (I told myself, shutting my teeth) might have restrained his tongue for a few moments.
The voices ceased. In a long pause I heard the insects humming in the grasses at my feet. Would the moment never come?
It came at last. A flash of light winked above the edge of my bandage, and close upon it broke the roar and rattle of the volley . . . Death? I put out my hands and groped for it. Where was Death?
Nay, perhaps this was Death? If so, what fools were men to fear it! The hum of the insects had given place to silence--absolute silence. If bullet had touched me, I had felt no pang at all. I was standing, yes, surely I was standing . . . Slowly it broke on me that I was unhurt, that they had fired wide, prolonging their sport with me; and I tore away the bandage, crying out upon them to finish their cruelty.
At a little distance sat the Princess watching me, her gun across her knees. Beyond her and beyond the cottage, by the edge of the wood the firing-party had fallen into rank and were marching off among the pine-stems, the Prince and Father Domenico with them. I stared stupidly after the disappearing uniforms, and put out a hand as if to brush away the smoke which yet floated across the clearing. The Commandant, turning to follow his men, at the same moment lifted his hand in salute. So he, too, passed out of sight.
I turned to the Princess. She arose slowly and came to me.
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