Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
The Firing of the Shot
By Julia Constance Fletcher (George Fleming) (18531938)
[Vestigia. By George Fleming. 1884.]
THE CANDLE had burnt itself out in its socket. There was no sound in the room but the heavy breathing of the weary sleeper and the ticking of Valdezs watch, which lay before him on the table. He sat there, counting the hours.
And at last the dawn broke, chill and gray; the dim light struggling in at the window made a faint glimmer upon the glasses which stood beside the untouched food. To the old man keeping his faithful watch beside the sleeper, this was perhaps the hardest hour of alltill the darkness wore slowly away; the sky turned to a clear stainless blue; and all the city awoke to the radiance of the April day.
Soon the bells began their joyous clash and clamor. It was hardly eight oclock when the two men stepped out into the street together, but the rejoicing populace was astir already, and hurrying towards the new quarter of the Macao.
Home was in festa, heavy and splendid Rome. Bright flags fluttered, and many-colored carpets and rugs were suspended from every available window. All along the Via Nazionale, a double row of gaudily-decked Venetian masts, hung with long wreaths and brilliant flapping banners, marked the course where the royal carriages were to pass. But it was farther on, at the Piazza dell Indipendenza, that the crowd was already thickest. The cordon of soldiers had been stationed here since early morning. Looking down from any of the neighboring balconies upon that swarming sea of holiday-makers, it seemed impossible that even the great Piazza could contain more; and yet at every instant the place grew fuller and fuller; a steady stream of people poured in from every side street; peasants from the country in gay festa dress; shepherds from the Campagna in cloaks of matted sheepskin; and strapping black-haired girls with shrill voices and the step of queens, who had come all the way from Trastevere to look on at the spectacle,there was no end, no cessation to the thickening and the growing excitement of the crowd.
Dino had taken his place very early. It was exactly at the corner of the Piazza, where a street-lamp made a support for his back, and prevented him from being brushed aside by the gathering force and pressure of the multitude. He had found a safe place for Palmira to stand, on the iron ledge which ran around the lamp-post. The childs little pale face rose high above the crowd; she was quiet from very excess of excitement, only from time to time she stooped to touch her brothers shoulder in token of mute content.
Valdez stood only a few paces behind them. He had kept the revolver in his own possession to the last moment. It was arranged that he should pass it to Dino at a preconcerted signal, and as the King came riding past for the second time.
Dino had scarcely spoken all that morning, but otherwise there was no sign of unusual excitement about him. He was deadly pale; at short intervals a faint red flush came and went like a stain upon his colorless cheek. But he answered all little Palmiras questions very patiently. The morning seemed very long to him, that was all. He stood fingering the handkerchief in his pocket with which he was to give Valdez the signal for passing him the weapon.
It was more than twenty-four hours now since he had tasted food, and the long abstinence was beginning to tell upon him; at times his head felt dizzy, and if he closed his eyes the continuous roar and chatter of the crowd sankdied away far offlike the sound of the surf upon a distant shore. At one moment he let himself go entirely to this curious new sensation of drifting far away; it was barely an instant of actual time, but he recovered himself with a start which ran like ice from head to foot; it was a horrible sensation, like a slow return from the very nothingness of death. He shivered and opened his eyes wide and looked about him. He seemed to have been far, far away from it all in that one briefest pause of semi-unconsciousness, yet his eyes opened on the same radiant brightness of the sunshine; a holiday sun shining bravely down on glancing arms and fretting horses; on the dark line of the soldiers pressing back the people, and the many-colored dresses, the laughing, talking, good-natured faces of the gesticulating crowd.
One of these mounted troopers was just in front of Dino. As the human mass surged forward, urged by some unexplainable impulse of excitement and curiosity, this mans horse began backing and plunging. The young soldier turned around in his saddle, and his quick glance fell upon Palmiras startled face.
Dino looked at him without answering. He wondered vaguely if this soldier boy with the friendly blue eyes and the rosy face would be one of the first to fall upon him when he was arrested? And then his thoughts escaped him againthe dimness came over his eyes.
He roused himself with a desperate effort. He began to count the number of windows in the house opposite; then the number of policemen stationed at the street corner; an officer went galloping by; he fixed his eyes upon the glancing uniform until it became a mere spot of brightness in the distance.
The cheers rise higher, sink deeper. He is coming, the young soldier King, the master of Italy, the popular hero. See! hats are waving, men are shouting,the infection of enthusiasm catches and runs like fire along the line of eager, expectant faces. Here he comes. The roar lifts, swells, grows louder and louder; the military bands on either side of the piazza break with one accord into the triumphant ringing rhythm of the royal march. They have seen the troops defile before them with scarcely a sign of interest; but now, at sight of that little isolated group of riders with the plumed and glittering helmets, there comes one mad instant of frantic acclamation, when every man in that crowd feels that he too has some part and possession in all the compelling, alluring splendor and success in life.
And just behind the royal cavalier, among the glittering group of aides-de-camp, rode the young Marchese Balbi. He was so near that Dino could scarcely believe their eyes did not actually meet; but if Gasparo recognized him he gave no sign, riding on with a smile upon his happy face, his silver-mounted accoutrements shining bravely in the sun.
Dino scarcely heeded him; at that moment he had forgotten everything unconnected with the sight of that one familiar face. His mother, his old home,Italia even,had grown dim and unreal; he forgot them all in the sensation of that quick rush of renewed affection. All the old pride, the old delight, in Gasparo, which had made so great a part of his boyhood, came back upon him with the irresistible claims of reawakened tenderness. He was there to commit a murder; and out of all that crowd he saw only the one face which he knewand he loved it.
That curious sense of floating away, far away from everything living, fell upon him again. He lost all count of time. He could never tell how long it was before he heard little Palmira cry out in shrill tones of childish excitement:
Dino started; it seemed to him as if he started wide awake. He drew himself up like a soldier standing at attention; his brain was steady; his senses all alert. He watched eagerly; the white plumes were slowly advancing between the two serried ranks of the soldiery. He waited until he could distinguish the Kings face distinctly; he saw him lean a little forward and pat his restive horse
It was all over in an instantthe soundthe plunging of the frightened horses. He saw the white plume of the King pass by unscathed and Gasparo Balbi, who was riding nearest him, throw up his arms and fall buckward, quietly, into the rising cloud of dust.
A great cry broke from the people all about himit rang in his earsit sounded far away like the beating of a furious tide upon the distant, distant shore. A blackness, a horrible blackness which he could feel, passed over his face like a cloud. And then he knew nothing more.
Tis no wonder the poor giovane fainted, he said sympathetically, addressing the little crowd about him. Tis no wonder he fainted, Perdio! As it so happens I was looking straight at him,he was not ten paces away from the villain who fired the shot.