Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/286

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[Feb. 27, 1864.
ONCE A WEEK.

body behind me all the time. I could see nobody when I stopped to listen, but from time to time I have heard steps, and I seemed to feel as if somebody was near me and following me. I am afraid the soldiers are on my track. Go back, Beppo! go back! make haste!"

"Feel as if he was near to you! Double—triple traitress! Yes, you have felt his nearness to you—his breath on your cheek. Faugh! loathsome creature! And now you are come to earn your reward and his by betraying me into his hands! Let him come on!"

"Oh, Beppo! oh, God! Beppo! For the holy Virgin's sake! don't say! don't think!——kill me! throw me into the river! I will jump in if you bid me!—but go back! don't lose time! Hark! there are steps in the tunnel! They are running! They have heard us! Beppo! run!"

"Run where? You have managed it very well! Let your lover come and earn your hand! Let him come! And unless you want to make the next world as well as this a hell to me——stand out of the way of this, yourself!" tapping the gun-barrel as he spoke the last words.

The steps coming rapidly through the tunnel were now heard close at hand, and Beppo retreated back across the little plot of ground in front of the ruined buildings on the ledge of rock, till he placed his back against the wall, and then examined the priming of his musket.

In the next instant the Corporal and one of his men emerged from the tunnel.

"We heard his voice," cried the former. "Let him surrender and all will be well. Signora Giulia, this has been the saddest night's work to me that I ever had to do. Signor Beppo," he called aloud, "I summon you to surrender!"

"And I tell you to take me, if you want me!" answered Beppo, whose voice made the two men first aware of his exact whereabouts. "Observe, I am armed!"

"I have had to do with armed men before now, Signor Beppo," returned the Corporal quietly; "but then I was not so loth to do them a mischief as I am to hurt you; and that makes a difference. But I am going to take you, because it is my duty, and I can't help it. We are two to one, see!"

"You are three to one, you mean!" said Beppo, with a fierce sneer.

"Oh, Signor Beppo!" replied Tenda, "I should have scorned to say such a word as that, if I had been you. La Signora Giulia—"

"If you mean to take me, come on!" shouted Beppo. "Here stands the prize you are playing for. Surely you can't hesitate to come on and win it."

"What must be, must," said the Corporal, giving a glance as he spoke at the priming of his own weapon, and springing up on the parapet wall, and then confronting Beppo, who kept his ground with his back to the ruins, about some ten paces from him. It was possible to enter the ruined building, and it might be practicable for a man engaged in escaping from the pursuit of another to dodge about among the fragments of walls of the chapel, and the miniature dwelling that had been attached to it. But there was no possibility of escaping from the little bit of land which juts out in the manner that has been described; unless, indeed, the possibility—so desperate as hardly to be considered a possibility—of throwing oneself from the ledge of rock into the boiling stream beneath be deemed such.

The little bit of ground which separated Beppo from the Corporal, and on which the ruined walls behind the former are built, will be understood, if the description of the locality has been successfully made intelligible to the reader, to be on the outside of the rock, through which the tunnel was bored, in such sort that a very short passage might have been bored from the chapel into the tunnel, which passage would, in that case, have entered the tunnel at right angles.

"If you advance a step, I fire!" cried Beppo. "I have a right to fire in self-defence."

"Signor Beppo," said the Corporal, standing quite still, and holding the muzzle of his piece pointed upwards, while that of Beppo was levelled at him,—" Signor Beppo, I and my comrade are going to take you, because it is our bounden duty to do so;—not, God knows, because I have any wish or liking for the job; but I beg you to observe for your own sake, that if you shoot me, you will have to answer for murder done in resisting an officer in the execution of his duty, whereas, if I should have the misfortune to shoot you, I shall be held to have done no more than my duty under the circumstances. And having warned you how the matter stands, I must do my duty."

So saying, but without levelling his rifle, the Corporal made a stride forwards towards the deserter, and in the same instant Beppo fired, first one barrel, and in the next second the other barrel of his piece, both harmlessly, as was likely enough to be the case, even at ten paces distance, when the aim was that of a peasant, who had never fired a gun under such circumstances, or in a hurry before.

At the sound of the two shots, Giulia, who