Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/287

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Feb. 27, 1864.]
279
ONCE A WEEK.

was in the road at the entrance to the tunnel, screamed and put her hands before her eyes. And the Corporal, looking round at her for an instant, exclaimed, "No harm done yet; and there won't be any now, I hope."

Beppo heard the scream and the answer, and a bitter thought of her fear for the safety of her lover, and of his re-assuring reply to her, even then gave him an additional pang.

But as soon as ever he perceived the failure of his two shots, he dashed into the ruins, at the same moment that the Corporal—who was not aware of the impossibility of passing out at the back of them, and so rejoining the road below the tunnel—rushed forwards to secure him.

Beppo, however, who was acquainted with the locality, knew well that there were only two possibilities before him, either surrender, or the mad and desperate alternative of throwing himself down the precipice into the river. But, reckless, maddened by passion and despair as he was, and determined only that the man he detested should not have the triumph and the praise, and most of all, as he had fancied in his jealousy, the reward of taking him, he did not hesitate an instant. Throwing down his gun in the ruins, he rushed, while the Corporal was rapidly glancing round the chapel, which was the part of the building first entered from the little platform on which they had both been standing when the shots were fired, to a spot where a breach in the wall of what had been the priest's dwelling, opened sheer upon the top of the precipice.

Immediately beneath this, about half way down to the river, a depth of something more than twenty feet perhaps, the wall of rock jutted out over the stream, narrowing the distance across it by some eight or ten feet; and on the sort of promontory thus formed, where a deposit of soil had in the course of years accumulated, there had once grown a good-sized tree. Had it been there still, it would have very materially facilitated Beppo's enterprise. But it had long since decayed and fallen, and there was only a fragment of its rotting stump, nearly level with the rock from which it had sprung, remaining. Nevertheless, this stump supplied a certain amount of foot-hold on the promontory in question, making it possible for a human being to find a standing-place there. Possible, that is, if a man could have reached the spot in a quiet manner; but not such as that it should be possible for any man to jump perpendicularly down on it from a height of twenty feet, and there, in the utter absence of anything to catch hold of with the hands, remain stationary.

Nevertheless, without an instant's pause for either examination or reflection, Beppo jumped from the base of the broken wall above down on to the rotting stump, probably without having at all considered whether it was possible for him to remain there, or what step he should next take. On the other side of the river the rock was nearly as precipitous; but in consequence of the set of the current being to the side of the tunnel and the road, there was a little alluvial soil at the foot of the rocks by the margin of the water on the opposite bank; and in this foot or two of soil there was a growth of dwarfed alders and cistus bushes.

When he lighted quite unhurt on the rotting tree-stump, half way down the precipice on the other side, his body felt, even more quickly than his brain could reach the conviction, that no effort could enable him to remain there. He must either fall or make a new instantaneous spring. The former was certain, the latter only probable destruction. So, gathering all the vast though seldom-used strength of his large bony limbs for one supreme and desperate effort, he sprang right towards the bushes, and, though the leap would have at any other time, and under any other circumstances, appeared to him wholly preposterous and out of the question, lighted among them but little the worse for the adventure.

Of course all this was done and accomplished in a few seconds; and when Corporal Tenda, blundering on in his search through the ruins, came to the broken place in the wall from which Beppo had jumped, he could hardly believe his eyes, when he saw him safe on the other side of the Cardigliano.

"I thought you were going to take me, Signor Caporale?" panted Beppo. "Go and tell those who sent you, and her who brought you, that it is not so easy to take a Romagnole contadino who does not chose to be taken."

Tenda, on catching sight of him, had, in an instant, instinctively raised his rifle to his shoulder, and had his finger on the trigger; but after a moment of hesitation, he threw the muzzle up.

"It would be my duty to shoot you dead where you stand; and mind, when you join us you'll have a deal to learn, for we Bersaglieri don't fire in the way you did just now. My duty, and nothing more nor less," he repeated; "but I can't do it. I can't do it, in the first place, for her sake, and in the second place, because it would be one part for duty and two parts for myself; and that would make murder of it. I shan't shoot you, let it be how it will."

"What! Won't that serve the turn with her as well as taking me? Fire away, Cor-