The day went by, I scarcely know how, except that my whole soul was in a tumult of rage and bitterness. I returned from my afternoon's work about 7.25, and at 10.30 I was once again at the station. I had examined the engine; given instructions to the Fochista, or stoker, about the fire; seen to the supply of oil; and got all in readiness, when, just as I was about to compare my watch with the clock in the ticket-office, a hand was laid upon my arm, and a voice in my ear said:
'Are you the engine-driver who is going on with this special train?'
I had never seen the speaker before. He was a small, dark man, muffled up about the throat, with blue glasses, a large black beard, and his hat drawn low upon his eyes.
'You are a poor man, I suppose,' he said, in a quick, eager whisper, 'and, like other poor men, would not object to be better off. Would you like to earn a couple of thousand florins?'
'In what way?'
'Hush! You are to stop at Padua, are you not, and to go on again at Ponte di Brenta?'
'Suppose you did nothing of the kind. Suppose, instead of turning off the steam, you jump off the engine, and let the train run on?'
'Impossible. There are seventy yards of embankment gone, and - - '
'Basta! I know that. Save yourself, and let the train run on. It would be nothing but an accident.'
I turned hot and cold; I trembled; my heart beat fast, and my breath failed.
'Why do you tempt me?' I faltered.
'For Italy's sake,' he whispered; 'for liberty's sake. I know you are no Italian; but, for all that, you may be a friend. This Loredano is one of his country's bitterest enemies. Stay, here are the two thousand florins.'
I thrust his hand back fiercely.
'No - no,' I said. 'No blood-money. If I do it, I do it neither for Italy nor for money; but for vengeance.'
'For vengeance!' he repeated.
At this moment the signal was given for backing up to the platform. I sprang to my place upon the engine without another word. When I again looked towards the spot where he had been standing, the stranger was gone.
I saw them take their places - Duke and Duchess, secretary and priest, valet and maid. I saw the station-master bow them into the carriage, and stand, bareheaded, beside the door. I could not distinguish their faces; the platform was too dusk, and the glare from the engine fire too strong; but I recognised her stately figure, and the poise of her head. Had I not been told who she was, I should have known her by those traits alone. Then the guard's whistle shrilled out, and the station-master made his last bow; I turned the steam on; and we started.
My blood was on fire. I no longer trembled or hesitated. I felt as if every nerve was iron, and every pulse instinct with deadly purpose. She was in my power, and I would be avenged. She should die - she, for whom I had stained my soul with my friend's blood! She should die, in the plenitude of her wealth and her beauty, and no power upon earth should save her!
The stations flew past. I put on more steam; I bade the fireman heap in the coke, and stir the blazing mass. I would have outstripped the wind, had it been possible. Faster and faster - hedges and trees, bridges, and stations, flashing past - villages no sooner seen than gone - telegraph wires twisting, and dipping, and twining themselves in one, with the awful swiftness of our pace! Faster and faster, till the fireman at my side looks white and scared, and refuses to add more fuel to the furnace. Faster and faster, till the wind rushes in our faces and drives the breath back upon our lips.
I would have scorned to save myself. I meant to die with the rest. Mad as I was - and I believe from my very soul that I was utterly mad for the time - I felt a passing pang of pity for the old man and his suite. I would have spared the poor fellow at my side, too, if I could; but the pace at which we were going made escape impossible.
Vicenza was passed - a mere confused vision of lights. Pojana flew by. At Padua, but nine miles distant, our passengers were to alight. I saw the fireman's face turned upon me in remonstrance; I saw his lips move, though I could not hear a word; I saw his expression change suddenly from remonstrance to a deadly terror, and then - merciful Heaven! then, for the first time, I saw that he and I were no longer alone upon the engine.
There was a third man - a third man standing on my right hand, as the fireman was standing on my left - a tall, stalwart man, with short curling hair, and a flat Scotch cap upon his head. As I fell back in the first shock of surprise, he stepped nearer; took my place at the engine, and turned the steam off. I opened my lips to speak to him; he turned his head slowly, and looked me in the face.