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HOME > Classical Novels > Columba > CHAPTER XVII
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 Once rid of his unruly escort, Orso proceeded calmly on his way, far more absorbed by the prospective1 pleasure of seeing Miss Nevil than stirred by any fear of coming across his enemies.  
“The lawsuit2 I must bring against these Barricini villains,” he mused3, “will necessitate4 my going down to Bastia. Why should I not go there with Miss Nevil? And once at Bastia, why shouldn’t we all go together to the springs of Orezza?”
Suddenly his childish recollections of that picturesque5 spot rose up before him. He fancied himself on the verdant6 lawn that spreads beneath the ancient chestnut-trees. On the lustrous7 green sward, studded with blue flowers like eyes that smiled upon him, he saw Miss Lydia seated at his side. She had taken off her hat, and her fair hair, softer and finer than any silk, shone like gold in the sunlight that glinted through the foliage8. Her clear blue eyes looked to him bluer than the sky itself. With her cheek resting on one hand, she was listening thoughtfully to the words of love he poured tremblingly into her ear. She wore the muslin gown in which she had been dressed that last day at Ajaccio. From beneath its folds peeped out a tiny foot, shod with black satin. Orso told himself that he would be happy indeed if he might dare to kiss that little foot—but one of Miss Lydia’s hands was bare and held a daisy. He took the daisy from her, and Lydia’s hand pressed his, and then he kissed the daisy, and then he kissed her hand, and yet she did not chide10 him . . . and all these thoughts prevented him from paying any attention to the road he was travelling, and meanwhile he trotted12 steadily13 onward14. For the second time, in his fancy, he was about to kiss Miss Nevil’s snow-white hand, when, as his horse stopped short, he very nearly kissed its head, in stern reality. Little Chilina had barred his way, and seized his bridle16.
“Where are you going to, Ors’ Anton’?” she said. “Don’t you know your enemy is close by?”
“My enemy!” cried Orso, furious at being interrupted at such a delightful17 moment. “Where is he?”
“Orlanduccio is close by, he’s waiting for you! Go back, go back!”
“Ho! Ho! So he’s waiting for me! Did you see him?”
“Yes, Ors’ Anton’! I was lying down in the heather when he passed by. He was looking round everywhere through his glass.”
“And which way did he go?”
“He went down there. Just where you were going!”
“Thank you!”
“Ors’ Anton’, hadn’t you better wait for my uncle? He must be here soon—and with him you would be safe.”
“Don’t be frightened, Chili15. I don’t need your uncle.”
“If you would let me, I would go in front of you.”
“No, thanks! No, thanks!”
And Orso, spurring his horse, rode rapidly in the direction to which the little girl had pointed18.
His first impulse had been one of blind fury, and he had told himself that fortune was offering him an excellent opportunity of punishing the coward who had avenged19 the blow he had received by mutilating a horse. But as he moved onward the thought of his promise to the prefect, and, above all, his fear of missing Miss Nevil’s visit, altered his feelings, and made him almost wish he might not come upon Orlanduccio. Soon, however, the memory of his father, the indignity20 offered to his own horse, and the threats of the Barricini, stirred his rage afresh, and incited21 him to seek his foe22, and to provoke and force him to a fight. Thus tossed by conflicting feelings, he continued his progress, though now he carefully scrutinized23 every thicket24 and hedge, and sometimes even pulled up his horse to listen to the vague sounds to be heard in any open country. Ten minutes after he had left little Chilina (it was then about nine o’clock in the morning) he found himself on the edge of an exceedingly steep declivity25. The road, or rather the very slight path, which he was following, ran through a maquis that had been lately burned. The ground was covered with whitish ashes, and here and there some shrubs26, and a few big trees, blackened by the flames, and entirely27 stripped of their leaves, still stood erect—though life had long since departed out of them. The sight of a burned maquis is enough to make a man fancy he has been transported into midwinter in some northern clime, and the contrast between the barrenness of the ground over which the flames have passed, with the luxuriant vegetation round about it, heightens this appearance of sadness and desolation. But at that moment the only thing that struck Orso in this particular landscape was one point—an important one, it is true, in his present circumstances. The bareness of the ground rendered any kind of ambush28 impossible, and the man who has reason to fear that at any moment he may see a gun-barrel thrust out of a thicket straight at his own chest, looks on a stretch of smooth ground, with nothing on it to intercept29 his view, as a kind of oasis30. After this burned maquis came a number of cultivated fields, inclosed, according to the fashion of that country, with breast-high walls, built of dry stones. The path ran between these fields, producing, from a distance, the effect of a thick wood.
The steepness of the declivity made it necessary for Orso to dismount. He was walking quickly down the hill, which was slippery with ashes (he had thrown the bridle on his horse’s neck), and was hardly five-and-twenty paces from one of these stone fences, when, just in front of him, on the right-hand side of the road, he perceived first of all the barrel of a gun, and then a head, rising over the top of the wall. The gun was levelled, and he recognised Orlanduccio, just ready to fire. Orso swiftly prepared for self-defence, and the two men, taking deliberate aim, stared at each other for several seconds, with that thrill of emotion which the bravest must feel when he knows he must either deal death or endure it.
Vile31 coward!” shouted Orso.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when he saw the flash of Orlanduccio’s gun, and almost at the same instant a second shot rang out on his left from the other side of the path, fired by a man whom he had not noticed, and who was aiming at him from behind another wall. Both bullets struck him. The first, Orlanduccio’s, passed through his left arm, which Orso had turned toward him as he aimed. The second shot struck him in the chest, and tore his coat, but coming in contact with the blade of his dagger32, it luckily flattened33 against it, and only inflicted34 a trifling35 bruise36. Orso’s left arm fell helpless at his side, and the barrel of his gun dropped for a moment, but he raised it at once, and aiming his weapon with his right hand only, he fired at Orlanduccio. His enemy’s head, which was only exposed to the level of the eyes, disappeared behind the wall. Then Orso, swinging round to the left, fired the second barrel at a man in a cloud of smoke whom he could hardly see. This face likewise disappeared. The four shots had followed each other with incredible swiftness; no trained soldiers ever fired their volleys in quicker succession. After Orso’s last shot a great silence fell. The smoke from his weapon rose slowly up into the sky. There was not a movement, not the slightest sound from behind the wall. But for the pain in his arm, he could have fancied the men on whom he had just fired had been phantoms37 of his own imagination.
Fully9 expecting a second volley, Orso moved a few steps, to place himself behind one of the burned trees that still stood upright in the maquis. Thus sheltered, he put his gun between his knees, and hurriedly reloaded it. Meanwhile his left arm began to hurt him horribly, and felt as if it were being dragged down by a huge weight.
What had become of his adversaries38? He could not understand. If they had taken to flight, if they had been wounded, he would certainly have heard some noise, some stir among the leaves. Were they dead, then? Or, what was far more likely, were they not waiting behind their wall for a chance of shooting at him again. In his uncertainty39, and feeling his strength fast failing him, he knelt down on his right knee, rested his wounded arm upon the other, and took advantage of a branch that protruded40 from the trunk of the burned tree to support his gun. With his finger on the trigger, his eye fixed41 on the wall, and his ear strained to catch the slightest sound, he knelt there, motionless, for several minutes, which seemed to him a century. At last, behind him, in the far distance, he heard a faint shout, and ............
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