by Prosper Merimee
COMING out of Porto-Vecchio, and turning northwest toward the center of the island, the ground is seen to rise very rapidly, and, after three hours' walk by tortuous paths, blocked by large bowlders of rocks, and sometimes cut by ravines, the traveler finds himself on the edge of a very broad maquis, or open plateau. These plateaus are the home of the Corsican shepherds, and the resort of those who have come in conflict with the law. The Corsican peasant sets fire to a certain stretch of forest to spare himself the trouble of manuring his lands: so much the worse if the flames spread further than is needed. Whatever happens, he is sure to have a good harvest by sowing upon this ground, fertilized by the ashes of the trees which grew on it. When the corn is gathered, the straw is left because it is too much trouble to gather. The roots, which remain in the earth without being consumed, sprout, in the following spring, into very thick shoots, which, in a few years, reach to a height of seven or eight feet. It is this kind of underwood which is called maquis. It is composed of different kinds of trees and shrubs mixed up and entangled as in a wild state of nature. Only with hatchet in hand can a man open a way through it, and there are maquis so dense and so thick that not even the wild sheep can penetrate them.
If you have killed a man, go into the maquis of Porto-Vecchio, with a good gun and powder and shot, and you will live there in safety. Do not forget to take a brown cloak, furnished with a hood, which will serve as a coverlet and mattress. The shepherds will give you milk, cheese, chestnuts, and you will have nothing to fear from the hand of the law, nor from the relatives of the dead, except when you go down into town to renew your stock of ammunition.
When I was in Corsica in 18—, Mateo Falcone's house was half a league from this maquis. He was a comparatively rich man for that country, living handsomely, that is to say, without doing anything, from the produce of his herds, which the shepherds, a sort of nomadic people, led to pasture here and there over the mountains. When I saw him, two years after the event that I am about to tell, he seemed about fifty years of age at the most. Imagine a small, but robust man, with jet-black, curly hair, an aquiline nose, thin lips, large piercing eyes, and a deeply tanned complexion. His skill in shooting passed for extraordinary, even in his country, where there are so many crack shots. For example, Mateo would never fire on a sheep with swanshot, but, at one hundred and twenty paces, he would strike it with a bullet in its head or shoulders as he chose. He could use his gun at night as easily as by day, and I was told the following examples of his adroitness, which will seem almost incredible to those who have not traveled in Corsica. A lighted candle was placed behind a transparent piece of paper, as large as a plate, at eighty paces off. He put himself into position, then the candle was extinguished, and in a minute's time, in complete darkness, he shot and pierced the paper three times out of four.
With this conspicuous talent Mateo Falcone had earned a great reputation. He was said to be a loyal friend, but a dangerous enemy; in other respects he was obliging and gave alms, and he lived at peace with everybody in the district of Porto-Vecchio. But it is told of him that when at Corte, where he had found his wife, he had very quickly freed himself of a rival reputed to be equally formidable in love as in war; at any rate people attributed to Mateo a certain gunshot which surprised his rival while in the act of shaving before a small mirror hung in his window. After the affair had been hushed up, Mateo married. His wife Giuseppa at first presented him with three daughters, which enraged him, but finally a son came whom he named Fortunato; he was the hope of the family, the inheritor of its name. The girls were well married; their father could reckon in case of need upon the poniards and rifles of his sons-in-law. The son was only ten years old, but he had already shown signs of a promising disposition.
One autumn day Mateo and his wife set out early to visit one of their flocks in a clearing of the maquis. Little Fortunato wanted to go with them, but the clearing was too far off; besides, it was necessary that some one should stay and mind the house; so his father refused. We shall soon see that he had occasion to repent of this.
He had been gone several hours, and little Fortunato was quietly lying out in the sunshine, looking at the blue mountains, and thinking that on the following Sunday he would be going to town to have dinner at his uncle's, the corporal, when his meditations were suddenly interrupted by the firing of a gun. He got up and turned toward that side of the plain from which the sound had proceeded. Other shots followed, fired at irregular intervals, and each time they came nearer and nearer until he saw a man on the path which led from the plain to Mateo's house. He wore a pointed cap like a mountaineer, he was bearded, and clothed in rags, and he dragged himself along with difficulty, leaning on his gun. He had just received a gunshot in the thigh.
This man was a bandit (Corsican for one who is proscribed) who, having set out at night to get some powder from the town, had fallen on the way into an ambush of Corsican soldiers. After a vigorous defense he had succeeded in escaping, but they gave chase hotly, firing at him from rock to rock. He was only a little in advance of the soldiers, and his wound made it out of the question to reach the maquis before being overtaken.
He came up to Fortunato and said:—
"Are you the son of Mateo Falcone?"
"I am Gianetto Sanpiero. I am pursued by the yellow-collars. Hide me, for I cannot go any further."
"But what will my father say if I hide you without his permission?"
"He will say that you did right."
"How do you know?"
"Hide me quickly; they are coming."
"Wait till my father returns."
"Good Lord! how can I wait? They will be here in five minutes. Come, hide me, or I will kill you."
Fortunato answered with the utmost coolness:—
"Your gun is unloaded, and there are no more cartridges in your carchera."
"I have my stiletto."
"But could you run as fast as I can?"
With a bound he put himself out of reach.
"You are no son of Mateo Falcone! Will you let me be taken in front of his house?"
The child seemed moved.
"What will you give me if I hide you?" he said, drawing nearer.
The bandit felt in the leather pocket that hung from his side and took out a five-franc piece, which he had put aside, no doubt, for powder. Fortunato smiled at the sight of the piece of silver, and, seizing hold of it, he said to Gianetto:— 26
"Don't be afraid."
He quickly made a large hole in a haystack which stood close by the house, Gianetto crouched down in it, and the child covered him up so as to leave a little breathing space, and yet in such a way as to make it impossible for any one to suspect that they hay concealed a man. He acted, further, with the ingenious cunning of the savage. He fetched a cat and her kittens and put them on top of the haystack to make believe that it had not been touched for a long time. Then he carefully covered over with dust the blood stains which he had noticed on the path near the house, and, this done, he lay down again in the sun with the utmost sang-froid.
Some minutes later six men with brown uniform with yellow collars, commanded by an adjutant, stood before Mateo's door. This adjutant was a distant relative of the Falcones. (It is said that further degrees of relationship are recognized in Corsica than anywhere else.) His name was Tidora Gamba; he was an energetic man, greatly feared by the banditti, and had already hunted out many of them.
"Good day, youngster," he said, coming up to Fortunato. "How you have grown! Did you see a man pass just now?"
"Oh, I am not yet so tall as you, cousin," the child replied, with a foolish look.
"You soon will be. But tell me, have you not seen a man pass by?"
"Have I seen a man pass by?"
"Yes, a man with a pointed black velvet cap and a waistcoat embroidered in red and yellow."
"A man with a pointed cap and a waistcoat embroidered in scarlet and yellow?"
"Yes; answer sharply, and don't repeat my questions."
"The priest passed our door this morning on his horse Piero. He asked me how papa was, and I replied—"
"You are making game of me, you rascal. Tell me at once, which way Gianetto went, for it is he we are after; I am certain he took this path."
"How do you know that?"
"How do I know that? I know you have seen him."
"How can one see passers-by when one is asleep?"
"You were not asleep, you little demon; the gunshots would wake you."
"You think, then, cousin, that your guns make noise enough? My father's rifle makes much more noise."
"May the devil take you, you young scamp. I am absolutely certain you have seen Gianetto. Perhaps you have hidden him. Here, you fellows, go into the house, and see if our man is not there. He could only walk on one foot, and he has too much common sense, the villain, to have tried to reach the maquis limping. Besides, the traces of blood stop here."
"Whatever will papa say?" Fortunato asked, with a chuckle. "What will he say when he finds out that his house has been searched during his absence?"
"Do you know that I can make you change your tune, you scamp?" cried the adjutant Gamba, seizing him by the ear. "Perhaps you will speak when you have had a thrashing with the flat of a sword."
Fortunato kept on laughing derisively.
"My father is Mateo Falcone," he said significantly.
"Do you know, you young scamp, that I can take you away to Corte or to Bastia? I shall put you in a dungeon, on a bed of straw, with your feet in irons, and I shall guillotine you if you do not tell me where Gianetto Sanpiero is."
The child burst out laughing at this ridiculous menace.
"My father is Mateo Falcone," he repeated.
"Adjutant, do not let us embroil ourselves with Mateo," one of the soldiers whispered.
Gamba was evidently embarrassed. He talked in a low voice with his soldiers, who had already been all over the house. It was not a lengthy operation, for a Corsican hut only consists of a single square room. The furniture comprises a table, benches, boxes, and utensils for cooking and hunting. All this time little Fortunato caressed his cat, and seemed, maliciously, to enjoy the confusion of his cousin and the soldiers.
One soldier came up to the haycock. He looked at the cat and carelessly stirred the hay with his bayonet, shrugging his shoulders as though he thought the precaution ridiculous. Nothing moved, and the face of the child did not betray the least agitation.
The adjutant and his band were in despair; they looked solemnly out over the plain, half inclined to turn the way they had come; but their chief, convinced that threats would produce no effect upon the son of Falcone, thought he would make one last effort by trying the effect of favors and presents.
"My boy," he said, "you are a wide-awake young dog, I can see. You will get on. But you play a dangerous game with me; and, if I did not want to give pain to my cousin Mateo, devil take it! I would carry you off with me."
"But, when my cousin returns I shall tell him all about it, and he will give you the whip till he draws blood for having told me lies."
"How do you know that?"
"You will see. But, look here, be a good lad, and I will give you something."
"You had better go and look for Gianetto in the maquis, cousin, for if you stay any longer it will take a cleverer fellow than you to catch him."
The adjutant drew a watch out of his pocket, a silver watch worth quite ten crowns. He watched how little Fortunato's eyes sparkled as he looked at it, and he held out the watch at the end of its steel chain.
"You rogue," he said, you would like to have such a watch as this hung round your neck, and to go and walk up and down the streets of Porto-Vecchio as proud as a peacock; people would ask you the time, and you would reply, look at my watch!"
"When I am grown up, my uncle the corporal will give me a watch."
"Yes; but your uncle's son has one already—not such a fine one as this, however—for he is younger than you."
The boy sighed.
"Well, would you like this watch, kiddy?"
Fortunato ogled the watch out of the corner of his eyes, just as a cat does when a whole chicken is given to it. It dares not pounce upon the prey, because it is afraid a joke is being played on it, but it turns its eyes away now and then, to avoid succumbing to the temptation, licking its lips all the time as though to say to its master, "What a cruel joke you are playing on me!"
The adjutant Gamba, however, seemed really willing to give the watch. Fortunato did not hold out his hand; but he said to him with a bitter smile:—
"Why do you make fun of me?"
"I swear I am not joking. Only tell me where Gianetto is, and this watch is yours."
Fortunato smiled incredulously, and fixed his black eyes on those of the adjutant. He tried to find in them the faith he would fain have in his words.
"May I lose my epaulets," cried the adjutant, "if I do not give you the watch upon that condition! I call my men to witness, and then I cannot retract."
As he spoke, he held the watch nearer and nearer until it almost touched the child's pale cheeks. His face plainly expressed the conflict going on in his mind between covetousness and the claims of hospitality. His bare breast heaved violently almost to suffocation. All the time the watch dangled and twisted and even hit the tip of his nose. By degrees he raised his right hand toward the watch, his finger ends touched it; and its whole weight rested on his palm, although the adjutant still held the end of the chain loosely—. The watch face was blue—. The case was newly polished—. It seemed blazing in the sun like fire—. The temptation was too strong.
Fortunato raised his left hand at the same time, and pointed with his thumb over his shoulder to the haycock against which he was leaning. The adjutant understood him immediately, and let go the end of the chain. Fortunato felt himself sole possessor of the watch. He jumped up with the agility of a deer, and stood ten paces distant from the haycock, which the soldiers at once began to upset.
It was not long before they saw the hay move, and a bleeding man came out, poniard in hand; when, however, he tried to rise to his feet, his stiffening wound prevented him from standing. He fell down. The adjutant threw himself upon him and snatched away his dagger. He was speedily and strongly bound, in spite of his resistance.
Gianetto was bound and laid on the ground like a bundle of fagots. He turned his head toward Fortunato, who had come up to him.
"Son of—," he said to him, more in contempt than in anger.
The boy threw to him the silver piece that he had received from him, feeling conscious that he no longer deserved it; but the outlaw took no notice of the action. He merely said in a low voice to the adjutant:—
"My dear Gamba, I cannot walk; you will be obliged to carry me to the town."
"You could run as fast as a kid just now," his captor retorted brutally. "But don't be anxious; I am glad enough to have caught you; I would carry you for a league on my own back and not feel tired. All the same, my friend, we will make a litter for you out of the branches and your cloak. The farm at Crespoli will provide us with horses."
"All right," said the prisoner; "I hope you will put a little straw on your litter to make it easier for me."
While the soldiers were busy, some making a rough stretcher out of chestnut boughs, and others dressing Gianetto's wound, Mateo Falcone and his wife suddenly appeared in a turning of the path from the maquis. The wife came in, bending laboriously under the weight of a huge sack of chestnuts; while her husband jaunted up, carrying his gun in one hand, and a second gun slung in his shoulder belt. It is considered undignified for a man to carry any other burden but his weapons.
When he saw the soldiers, Mateo's first thought was that they had come to arrest him. But he had no ground for this fear; he had never quarreled with the law. On the contrary, he bore a good reputation. He was, as the saying is, particularly well thought of. But he was a Corsican, and mountain bred, and there are but few Corsican mountaineers who, if they search their memories sufficiently, cannot recall some little peccadillo, some gunshot, or dagger thrust, or such like bagatelle. Mateo's conscience was clearer than most, for it was fully ten years since he had pointed his gun at any man; yet at the same time he was cautious, and he prepared to make a brave defense if needs be.
"Wife, put down your sack," he said, "and keep yourself in readiness."
She obeyed immediately. He gave her the gun which was slung over his shoulder, as it was likely to be the one that would inconvenience him the most. He held the other gun in readiness and proceeded leisurely toward the house by the side of the trees which bordered the path, ready to throw himself behind the largest trunk for cover, and to fire at the least sign of hostility. His wife walked close behind him, holding her reloaded gun and her cartridges. It was the duty of a good housewife, in case of a conflict, to reload her husband's arms.
On his side, the adjutant was very uneasy at the sight of Mateo advancing thus upon them with measured steps, his gun pointed and finger on trigger.
"If it happens that Gianetto is related to Mateo," thought he, "or he is his friend, and he means to protect him, two of his bullets will be put into two of us as sure as a letter goes to the post, and he will aim at me in spite of our kinship! —"
In this perplexity, he put on a bold face and went forward alone toward Mateo to tell him what had happened, greeting him like an old acquaintance. But the brief interval which separated him from Mateo seemed to him of terribly long duration.
"Hullo! Ah! my old comrade," he called out. "How are you, old fellow? I am your cousin Gamba."
Mateo did not say a word, but stood still; and while the other was speaking, he softly raised the muzzle of his rifle in such a manner that by the time the adjutant came up to him it was pointing skyward.
"Good day, brother," said the adjutant, holding out his hand. "It is a very long time since I saw you."
"Good day, brother."
"I just called in when passing to say 'good day' to you and cousin Pepa. We have done a long tramp today; but we must not complain of fatigue, for we have taken a fine catch. We have got hold of Gianetto Sanpiero."
"Thank Heaven!" exclaimed Giuseppa. "He stole one of our milch goats last week."
Gamba rejoiced at these words.
"Poor devil!" said Mateo, "he was hungry."
"The fellow fought like a lion," continued the adjutant, slightly nettled. "He killed one of the men, and, not content to stop there, he broke Corporal Chardon's arm; but that is not of much consequence, for he is only a Frenchman—. Then he hid himself so cleverly that the devil could not have found him. If it had not been for my little cousin Fortunato, I should never have discovered him."
"Fortunato?" cried Mateo.
"Fortunato?" repeated Giuseppa.
"Yes; Gianetto was concealed in your haycock there, but my little cousin showed me his trick. I will speak of him to his uncle the corporal, who will send him a nice present as a reward. And both his name and yours will be in the report which I shall send to the superintendent."
"Curse you!" cried Mateo under his breath.
By this time they had rejoined the company. Gianetto was already laid on his litter, and they were ready to set out. When he saw Mateo in Gamba's company he smiled a strange smile; then, turning toward the door of the house, he spat on the threshold.
"It is the house of a traitor!" he exclaimed.
No man but one willing to die would have dared to utter the word "traitor" in connection with Falcone. A quick stroke from a dagger, without need for a second, would have immediately wiped out the insult. But Mateo made no other movement beyond putting his hand to his head like a dazed man.
Fortunato went into the house when he saw his father come up. He reappeared shortly, carrying a jug of milk, which he offered with downcast eyes to Gianetto.
"Keep off me!" roared the outlaw.
Then turning to one of the soldiers, he said:—
"Comrade, give me a drink of water."
The soldier placed the flask in his hands, and the bandit drank the water given him by a man with whom he had but now exchanged gunshots. He then asked that his hands might be tied crossed over his breast instead of behind his back.
"I prefer," he said, "to lie down comfortably."
They granted him his request. Then, at a sign from the adjutant, they set out, first bidding adieu to Mateo, who answered never a word, and descended at a quick pace toward the plain.
Well-nigh ten minutes elapsed before Mateo opened his mouth. The child looked uneasily first at his mother, then at his father, who leant on his gun, looking at him with an expression of concentrated anger.
"Well, you have made a pretty beginning," said Mateo at last in a voice calm, but terrifying to those who knew the man.
"Father," the boy cried out, with tears in his eyes, just ready to fall at his knees.
"Out of my sight!" shouted Mateo.
The child stopped motionless a few steps off from his father, and began to sob.
Giuseppa came near him. She had just seen the end of the watch chain hanging from out his shirt.
"Who gave you that watch?" she asked severely.
"My cousin the adjutant."
Falcone seized the watch and threw it against a stone with such force that it broke into a thousand pieces.
"Woman," he said, "is this my child?"
Giuseppa's brown cheeks flamed brick-red.
"What are you saying, Mateo? Do you know to whom you are speaking?"
"Yes, very well. This child is the first traitor of his race."
Fortunato's sobs and hiccoughs redoubled, and Falcone kept his lynx eyes steadily fixed on him. At length he struck the ground with the butt end of his gun; then he flung it across his shoulder, retook the way to the maquis, and ordered Fortunato to follow him. The child obeyed.
Giuseppa ran after Mateo, and seized him by the arm.
"He is your son," she said in a trembling voice, fixing her black eyes on those of her husband, as though to read all that was passing in his mind.
"Leave go," replied Mateo; "I am his father."
Giuseppa kissed her son, and went back crying into the hut. She threw herself on her knees before an image of the Virgin, and prayed fervently. When Falcone had walked about two hundred yards along the path, he stopped at a little ravine and went down into it. He sounded the ground with the butt end of his gun, and found it soft and easy to dig. The spot seemed suitable to his purpose.
"Fortunato, go near to that large rock."
The boy did as he was told, then knelt down.
"Father, father, do not kill me!"
"Say your prayers!" repeated Mateo in a terrible voice.
The child repeated the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, stammering and sobbing. The father said "Amen!" in a firm voice at the close of each prayer.
"Are those all the prayers you know?"
"I know also the Ave Maria and Litany, that my aunt taught me, father."
"It is long, but never mind."
The child finished the Litany in a faint voice.
"Have you finished?"
"Oh, father, father, forgive me! forgive me! I will never do it again. I will beg my cousin the corporal with all my might to pardon Gianetto!"
He went on imploring. Mateo loaded his rifle and took aim.
"May God forgive you!" he said.
The boy made a frantic effort to get up and clasp his father's knees, but he had no time. Mateo fired, and Fortunato fell stone dead.
Without throwing a single glance at the body, Mateo went back to his house to fetch a spade with which to bury his son. He had only returned a little way along the path when he met Giuseppa, who had run out, alarmed by the sound of the firing.
"What have you done?" she cried.
"Where is he?"
"In the ravine; I am going to bury him. He died a Christian. I shall have a mass sung for him. Let some one tell my son-in-law Tiodoro Bianchi to come and live with us."