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 but he knows her better now) was withdrawn with its wound in her heart: and between them Death was stepping forward to make the misunderstanding final.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.
THE WOOING OF PRINCESS CAMILLA.
“Take heed of loving me,
At least remember I forbade it thee; . . .
If thou love me, take heed of loving me.”
DONNE, The Prohibition.