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PAGE 3

The Rider In The Dawn
by [?]

At the first village of Otta, where the pass narrows to a really stupendous gorge and winds its way up between pyramidal crags soaring out of a sea of green chestnut groves, one of this favoured race (by name Giuse) attempted to sell me a mule at something like twice its value. I hired the beast instead, and also the services of its master to guide me through the two great forests which lay between me and the plain of the Niolo, one on either side of the ridge ahead. He carried a gun, and wore an air of extreme ferocity which daunted me until I perceived that all the rest of the village-men were similarly favoured. Of his politeness after striking the bargain I had no cause to complain. He accepted–and apparently with the simplest credulity–my account of myself, that I was an Englishman bound in the service of the Government to inspect and report on the forests of the interior, on the timber of which King George was prepared to lend money in support of the patriot troops. He himself had served as a stripling in Paoli’s militia across the mountains on the great and terrible day of Ponte Nuovo, and by fits and starts, whenever the road allowed our two mules to travel abreast in safety, he told me the story of it, in a dialect of which I understood but one word in three, so different were its harsh aspirates and gutturals from any sounds in the Italian familiar to me.

The mules stepped out well, and in the shade of the ravine we pushed on steadily through the heat of the day. We had left the macchia far below us, and the road wound between and around sheer scarps of grey granite on the edge of precipices echoing the trickle of waters far below. We rode now in single file, and so continued until Evvisa was reached, and the upper hills began to open their folds. From Evvisa a rough track, yet scored with winter ruts, led us around the southern side of one of these mountain basins, and so to the skirts of the forest of Aitone, into the glooms of which we plunged, my guide promising to bring me out long before nightfall upon the ridge of the pass, where he would either encamp with me, or (if I preferred it) would leave me to encamp alone and find his way back to Evvisa.

So, with the sun at our backs and now almost half-way below its meridian, we threaded our way up between the enormous pine-trunks, in a gloom full of pillars which set me in mind of Cordova Cathedral. From their dark roof hung myriads of cocoons white as satin and shone in every glint of sunlight. And, whether over the carpet of pine-needles or the deeper carpet of husks where the pines gave place to beech groves, our going was always easy and even luxurious. I began to think that the difficulties of my journey were over; and as we gained the bocca at the top of the pass and, emerging from the last outskirt of pines, looked down on the weald beyond, I felt sure of it.

The plain lay at my feet like a huge saucer filled with shadow and rimmed with snowy mountains on which the sunlight yet lingered. A good road plunged down into the gloom of Valdoniello–a forest at first glance very like that through which we had been riding, but smaller in size. Its dark green tops climbed almost to our feet, and over them Giuse pointed to the town of Niolo midway across the plain, traced with his finger the course of the Golo, and pointed to the right of it where a pass would lead me through the hill-chain to Corte.

I hesitated no longer: but thanked him, paid him his price and a trifle over, and, leaving him on the ridge, struck boldly downhill on foot towards the forest.