Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Distributed Proofreaders
THE ISLE OF UNREST
HENRY SETON MERRIMAN
GOING TO THE WARS
Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet mind,
To war and arms I fly.
True: a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much
Lov'd I not honour more.
I. THE MOVING FINGER
II. CHEZ CLEMENT
III. A BY-PATH
IV. A TOSS-UP
V. IN THE RUE DU CHERCHE-MIDI
VII. JOURNEY'S END
VIII. AT VASSELOT
IX. THE PROMISED LAND
X. THUS FAR
XI. BY SURPRISE
XII. A SUMMONS
XVI. A MASTERFUL MAN
XVII. WITHOUT DRUM OR TRUMPET
XVIII. A WOMAN OF ACTION
XIX. THE SEARCH
XXI. FOR FRANCE
XXII. IN THE MACQUIS
XXIII. AN UNDERSTANDING
XXIV. "CE QUE FEMME VEUT"
XXV. ON THE GREAT ROAD
XXVI. THE END OF THE JOURNEY
XXVII. THE ABBE'S SALAD
XXIX. A BALANCED ACCOUNT
XXX. THE BEGINNING AND THE END
THE ISLE OF UNREST
THE MOVING FINGER.
"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it."
The afternoon sun was lowering towards a heavy bank of clouds hanging
still and sullen over the Mediterranean. A mistral was blowing. The last
yellow rays shone fiercely upon the towering coast of Corsica, and the
windows of the village of Olmeta glittered like gold.
There are two Olmetas in Corsica, both in the north, both on the west
coast, both perched high like an eagle's nest, both looking down upon
those lashed waters of the Mediterranean, which are not the waters that
poets sing of, for they are as often white as they are blue; they are
seldom glassy except in the height of summer and sailors tell that they
are as treacherous as any waters of the earth. Neither aneroid nor
weather-wisdom may, as a matter of fact, tell when a mistral will arise,
how it will blow, how veer, how drop and rise, and drop again. For it
will blow one day beneath a cloudless sky, lashing the whole sea white
like milk, and blow harder to-morrow under racing clouds.
The great chestnut trees in and around Olmeta groaned and strained in the
grip of their lifelong foe. The small door, the tiny windows, of every
house were rigorously closed. The whole place had a wind-swept air
despite the heavy foliage. Even the roads, and notably the broad "Place,"
had been swept clean and dustless. And in the middle of the "Place,"
between the fountain and the church steps, a man lay dead upon his face.
It is as well to state here, once for all, that we are dealing with
Olmeta-di-Tuda, and not that other Olmeta--the virtuous, di Capocorso, in
fact, which would shudder at the thought of a dead man lying on its
"Place," before the windows of the very Mairie, under the shadow of the
church. For Cap Corse is the good boy of Corsica, where men think
sorrowfully of the wilder communes to the south, and raise their eyebrows
at the very mention of Corte and Sartene--where, at all events, the women
have for husbands, men--and not degenerate Pisan vine-snippers.
It was not so long ago either. For the man might have been alive to-day,
though he would have been old and bent no doubt; for he was a thick-set
man, and must have been strong. He had, indeed, carried his lead up from
the road that runs by the Guadelle river. Was he not to be traced all the
way up the short cut through the olive terraces by one bloody footprint
at regular intervals? You could track his passage across the "Place,"
towards the fountain of which he had fallen short like a poisoned rat
that tries to reach water and fails.
He lay quite alone, still grasping the gun which he had never laid aside
since boyhood. No one went to him; no one had attempted to help him. He
lay as he had fallen, with a thin stream of blood running slowly from one
trouser-leg. For this was Corsican work--that is to say, dirty work--from
behind a rock, in the back, at close range, without warning or mercy, as
honest men would be ashamed to shoot the merest beast of the forest. It
was as likely as not a charge of buck-shot low down in the body, leaving
the rest to hemorrhage or gangrene.
All Olmeta knew of it, and every man took care that it should be no
business of his. Several had approached, pipe in mouth, and looked at the
dead man without comment; but all had gone away again, idly,
indifferently. For in this the most beautiful of the islands, human life
is held cheaper than in any land of Europe.
Some one, it was understood, had gone to tell the gendarmes down at St.
Florent. There was no need to send and tell his wife--half a dozen women
were racing through the olive groves to get the first taste of that.
Perhaps some one had gone towards Oletta to meet the Abbe Susini, whose
business in a measure this must be.
The sun suddenly dipped behind the heavy bank of clouds and the mountains
darkened. Although it lies in the very centre of the Mediterranean,
Corsica is a gloomy land, and the summits of her high mountains are more
often covered than clear. It is a land of silence and brooding quiet. The
women are seldom gay; the men, in their heavy clothes of dark corduroy,
have little to say for themselves. Some of them were standing now in the
shadow of the great trees, smoking their pipes in silence, and looking
with a studied indifference at nothing. Each was prepared to swear before
a jury at the Bastia assizes that he knew nothing of the "accident," as
it is here called, to Pietro Andrei, and had not seen him crawl up to
Olmeta to die. Indeed, Pietro Andrei's death seemed to be nobody's
business, though we are told that not so much as a sparrow may fall
The Abbe Susini was coming now--a little fiery man, with the walk of one
who was slightly bow-legged, though his cassock naturally concealed this
defect. He was small and not too broad, with a narrow face and clean,
straight features--something of the Spaniard, something of the Greek,
nothing Italian, nothing French. In a word, this was a Corsican, which is
to say that he was different from any other European race, and would, as
sure as there is corn in Egypt, be overbearing, masterful, impossible. He
was, of course, clean shaven, as brown as old oak, with little flashing
black eyes. His cassock was a good one, and his hat, though dusty,
shapely and new. But his whole bearing threw, as it were, into the
observer's face the suggestion that the habit does not make the priest.
He came forward without undue haste, and displayed little surprise and no
"Quite like old times," he said to himself, remembering the days of Louis
Philippe. He knelt down beside the dead man, and perhaps the attitude
reminded him of his calling; for he fell to praying, and made the gesture
of the cross over Andrei's head. Then suddenly he leapt to his feet, and
shook his lean fist out towards the valley and St. Florent, as if he knew
whence this trouble came.
"Provided they would keep their work in their own commune," he cried,
"instead of bringing disgrace on a parish that has not had the gendarmes
"Three days," added one of the bystanders, who had drawn near. And he
said it with a certain pride, as of one well pleased to belong to a
But the priest was not listening. He had already turned aside in his
quick, jerky way; for he was a comparatively young man. He was looking
through the olives towards the south.
"It is the women," he said, and his face suddenly hardened. He was
impulsive, it appeared--quick to feel for others, fiery in his anger,
hasty in his judgment.
From the direction in which he and the bystanders looked, came the hum of
many voices, and the high, incessant shrieks of one who seemed demented.
Presently a confused procession appeared from the direction of the south,
hurrying through the narrow street now called the Rue Carnot. It was
headed by a woman, who led a little child, running and stumbling as he
ran. At her heels a number of women hurried, confusedly shouting,
moaning, and wailing. The men stood waiting for them in dead silence--a
characteristic scene. The leading woman seemed to be superior to her
neighbours, for she wore a black silk handkerchief on her head instead of
a white or coloured cotton. It is almost a mantilla, and marks as clear a
social distinction in Corsica as does that head-dress in Spain. She
dragged at the child, and scarce turned her head when he fell and
scrambled as best he could to his feet. He laughed and crowed with
delight, remembering last year's carnival with that startling,
photographic memory of early childhood which never forgets.
At every few steps the woman gave a shriek as if she were suffering some
intermittent agony which caught her at regular intervals. At the sight of
the crowd she gave a quick cry of despair, and ran forward, leaving her
child sprawling on the road. She knelt by the dead man's side with shriek
after shriek, and seemed to lose all control over herself, for she gave
way to those strange gestures of despair of which many read in novels and
a few in the Scriptures, and which come by instinct to those who have no
reading at all. She dragged the handkerchief from her head, and threw it
over her face. She beat her breast. She beat the very ground with her
clenched hands. Her little boy, having gathered his belongings together
and dusted his cotton frock, now came forward, and stood watching her
with his fingers at his mouth. He took it to be a game which he did not
understand; as indeed it was--the game of life.
The priest scratched his chin with his forefinger, which was probably a
habit with him when puzzled, and stood looking down out of the corner of
his eyes at the ground.
It was he, however, who moved first, and, stooping, loosed the clenched
fingers round the gun. It was a double-barrelled gun, at full cock, and
every man in the little crowd assembled carried one like it. To this day,
if one meets a man, even in the streets of Corte or Ajaccio, who carries
no gun, it may be presumed that it is only because he pins greater faith
on a revolver.
Neither hammer had fallen, and the abbe gave a little nod. It was, it
seemed, the usual thing to make quite sure before shooting, so that there
might be no unnecessary waste of powder or risk of reprisal. The woman
looked at the gun, too, and knew the meaning of the raised hammers.
She leapt to her feet, and looked round at the sullen faces.
"And some of you know who did it," she said; "and you will help the
murderer when he goes to the macquis, and take him food, and tell him
when the gendarmes are hunting him."
She waved her hand fiercely towards the mountains, which loomed, range
behind range, dark and forbidding to the south, towards Calvi and Corte.
But the men only shrugged their shoulders; for the forest and the
mountain brushwood were no longer the refuge they used to be in this the
last year of the iron rule of Napoleon III, who, whether he possessed or
not the Corsican blood that his foes deny him, knew, at all events, how
to rule Corsica better than any man before or since.
"No, no," said the priest, soothingly. "Those days are gone. He will be
taken, and justice will be done."
But he spoke without conviction, almost as if he had no faith in this
vaunted regeneration of a people whose history is a story of endless
strife--as if he could see with a prophetic eye thirty years into the
future, down to the present day, when the last state of that land is
worse than the first.
"Justice!" cried the woman. "There is no justice in Corsica! What had
Pietro done that he should lie there? Only his duty--only that for which
he was paid. He was the Perucca's agent, and because he made the idlers
pay their rent, they threatened him. Because he put up fences, they
raised their guns to him. Because he stopped their thieving and their
lawlessness, they shoot him. He drove their cattle from the fields
because they were Perucca's fields, and he was paid to watch his master's
interests. But Perucca they dare not touch, because his clan is large,
and would hunt the murderer down. If he was caught, the Peruccas would
make sure of the jury--ay! And of the judge at Bastia--but Pietro is not
of Corsica; he has no friends and no clan, so justice is not for him."
She knelt down again as she spoke and laid her hand on her dead husband's
back, but she made no attempt to move him. For although Pietro Andrei was
an Italian, his wife was Corsican--a woman of Bonifacio, that grim town
on a rock so often besieged and never yet taken by a fair fight. She had
been brought up in, as it were, an atmosphere of conventional
lawlessness, and knew that it is well not to touch a dead man till the
gendarmes have seen him, but to send a child or an old woman to the
gendarmerie, and then to stand aloof and know nothing; and feign
stupidity; so that the officials, when they arrive, may find the whole
village at work in the fields or sitting in their homes, while the dead,
who can tell no tales, has suddenly few friends and no enemies.
Then Andrei's widow rose slowly to her feet. Her face was composed now
and set. She arranged the black silk handkerchief on her head, and set
her dress in order. She was suddenly calm and quiet. "But see," she said,
looking round into eyes that failed to meet her own, "in this country
each man must execute his own justice. It has always been so, and it will
be so, so long as there are any Corsicans left. And if there is no man
left, then the women must do it."
She tied her apron tighter, as if about to undertake some hard domestic
duty, and brushed the dust from her black dress.
"Come here," she said, turning to the child, and lapsing into the soft
dialect of the south and east--"come here, thou child of Pietro Andrei."
The child came forward. He was probably two years old, and understood
nothing that was passing.
"See here, you of Olmeta," she said composedly; and, stooping down, she
dipped her finger in the pool of blood that had collected in the dust.
"See here--and here."
As she spoke she hastily smeared the blood over the child's face and
dragged him away from the priest, who had stepped forward.
"No, no," he protested. "Those times are past."
"Past!" said the woman, with a flash of fury. "All the country knows that
your own mother did it to you at Sartene, where you come from."
The abbe made no answer, but, taking the child by the arm, dragged him
gently away from his mother. With his other hand he sought in his pocket
for a handkerchief. But he was a lone man, without a housekeeper, and the
handkerchief was missing. The child looked from one to the other,
laughing uncertainly, with his grimly decorated face.
Then the priest stooped, and with the skirt of his cassock wiped the
"There," he said to the woman, "take him home, for I hear the gendarmes
Indeed, the trotting of horses and the clank of the long swinging sabres
could be heard on the road below the village, and one by one the
onlookers dropped away, leaving the Abbe Susini alone at the foot of the
"Comme on est heureux quand on sait ce qu'on veut!"
It was the dinner hour at the Hotel Clement at Bastia; and the event was
of greater importance than the outward appearance of the house would
seem to promise. For there is no promise at all about the house on the
left-hand side of Bastia's one street, the Boulevard du Palais, which
bears, as its only sign, a battered lamp with the word "Clement" printed
across it. The ground floor is merely a rope and hemp warehouse. A small
Corsican donkey, no bigger than a Newfoundland dog, lives in the
basement, and passes many of his waking hours in what may be termed the
entrance hall of the hotel, appearing to consider himself in some sort a
concierge. The upper floors of the huge Genoese house are let out in
large or small apartments to mysterious families, of which the younger
members are always to be met carrying jugs carefully up and down the
greasy, common staircase.
The first floor is the Hotel Clement, or, to be more correct, one is
"chez Clement" on the first floor.
"You stay with Clement," will be the natural remark of any on board the
Marseilles or Leghorn steamer, on being told that the traveller
disembarks at Bastia.
"We shall meet to-night chez Clement," the officers say to each other on
leaving the parade ground at four o'clock.
"Dejeuner chez Clement," is the usual ending to a notice of a marriage,
or a first communion, in the _Petit Bastiais_, that greatest of all
It is comforting to reflect, in these times of hurried changes, that the
traveller to Bastia may still find himself chez Clement--may still have
to kick at the closed door of the first-floor flat, and find that door
opened by Clement himself, always affable, always gentlemanly, with the
same crumbs strewed carelessly down the same waistcoat, or, if it is
evening time, in his spotless cook's dress. One may be sure of the same
grave welcome, and the easy transition from grave to gay, the smiling,
grand manner of conducting the guest to one of those vague and darksome
bedrooms, where the jug and the basin never match, where the floor is of
red tiles, with a piece of uncertain carpet sliding hither and thither,
with the shutters always shut, and the mustiness of the middle ages
hanging heavy in the air. For Bastia has not changed, and never will. And
it is not only to be fervently hoped, but seems likely, that Clement will
never grow old, and never die, but continue to live and demonstrate the
startling fact that one may be born and live all one's life in a remote,
forgotten town, and still be a man of the world.
The soup had been served precisely at six, and the four artillery
officers were already seated at the square table near the fireplace,
which was and is still exclusively the artillery table. The other
_habitues_ were in their places at one or other of the half-dozen tables
that fill the room--two gentlemen from the Prefecture, a civil engineer
of the projected railway to Corte, a commercial traveller of the old
school, and, at the corner table, farthest from the door, Colonel Gilbert
of the Engineers. A clever man this, who had seen service in the Crimea,
and had invariably distinguished himself whenever the opportunity
occurred; but he was one of those who await, and do not seek
opportunities. Perhaps he had enemies, or, what is worse, no friends; for
at the age of forty he found himself appointed to Bastia, one of the
waste places of the War Office, where an inferior man would have done
Colonel Gilbert was a handsome man, with a fair moustache, a high
forehead, surmounted by thin, receding, smooth hair, and good-natured,
idle eyes. He lunched and dined chez Clement always, and was frankly,
good naturedly bored at Bastia. He hated Corsica, had no sympathy with
the Corsican, and was a Northern Frenchman to the tips of his long white
"Your Bastia, my good Clement," he said to the host, who invariably came
to the dining-room with the roast and solicited the opinion of each guest
upon the dinner in a few tactful, easy words--"your Bastia is a sad
This evening Colonel Gilbert was in a less talkative mood than usual, and
exchanged only a nod with his artillery colleagues as he passed to his
own small table. He opened his newspaper, and became interested in it at
once. It was several days old, and had come by way of Nice and Ajaccio
from Paris. All France was at this time eager for news, and every
Frenchman studied the journal of his choice with that uneasiness which
seems to foreshadow in men's hearts the approach of any great event. For
this was the spring of 1870, when France, under the hitherto iron rule of
her adventurer emperor, suddenly began to plunge and rear, while the
nations stood around her wondering who should receive the first kick. The
emperor was ill; the cheaper journals were already talking of his
funeral. He was uneasy and restless, turning those dull eyes hither
and thither over Europe--a man of inscrutable face and deep hidden
plans--perhaps the greatest adventurer who ever sat a throne. Condemned
by a French Court of Peers in 1840 to imprisonment for life, he went to
Ham with the quiet question, "But how long does perpetuity last in
France?" And eight years later he was absolute master of the country.
Corsica in particular was watching events, for Corsica was cowed. She had
come under the rule of this despot, and for the first time in her history
had found her master. Instead of being numbered by hundreds, as they were
before and are again now at the end of the century, the outlaws hiding in
the mountains scarce exceeded a score. The elections were conducted more
honestly than had ever been before, and the Continental newspapers spoke
hopefully of the dawn of civilization showing itself among a people who
have ever been lawless, have ever loved war better than peace.
"But it is a false dawn," said the Abbe Susini of Olmeta, himself an
insatiable reader of newspapers, a keen and ardent politician. Like the
majority of Corsicans, he was a staunch Bonapartist, and held that the
founder of that marvellous dynasty was the greatest man to walk this
earth since the days of direct Divine inspiration.
It was only because Napoleon III was a Bonaparte that Corsica endured his
tyranny; perhaps, indeed, tyranny and an iron rule suited better than
equity or tolerance a people descended from the most ancient of the
fighting races, speaking a tongue wherein occur expressions of hate and
strife that are Tuscan, Sicilian, Greek, Spanish, and Arabic.
Now that the emperor's hand was losing its grip on the helm, there were
many in Corsica keenly alive to the fact that any disturbance in France
would probably lead to anarchy in the turbulent island. There were even
some who saw a hidden motive in the appointment of Colonel Gilbert as
engineer officer to a fortified place that had no need of his services.
Gilbert himself probably knew that his appointment had been made in
pursuance of the emperor's policy of road and rail. For Corsica was to be
opened up by a railway, and would have none of it. And though to-day the
railway from Bastia to Ajaccio is at last open, the station at Corte
remains a fortified place with a loopholed wall around it.
But Colonel Gilbert kept his own counsel. He sat, indeed, on the board of
the struggling railway--a gift of the French Government to a department
which has never paid its way, has always been an open wound. But he never
spoke there, and listened to the fierce speeches of the local members
with his idle, easy smile. He seemed to stand aloof from his new
neighbours and their insular interests. He was, it appeared, a cultured
man, and perhaps found none in this wild island who could understand his
thoughts. His attitude towards his surroundings was, in a word, the usual
indifferent attitude of the Frenchman in exile, reading only French
newspapers, fixing his attention only on France, and awaiting with such
patience as he could command the moment to return thither.
"Any news?" asked one of the artillery officers--a sub-lieutenant
recently attached to his battery, a penniless possessor of an historic
name, who perhaps had dreams of carving his way through to the front
The colonel shrugged his shoulders.
"You may have the papers afterwards," he said; for it was not wise to
discuss any news in a public place at that time. "See you at the Reunion,
And he did not speak again except to Clement, who came round to take the
opinion of each guest upon the fare provided.
"Passable," said the colonel--"passable, my good Clement. But do you
know, I could send you to prison for providing this excellent leveret at
this time of year. Are there no game laws, my friend?"
But Clement only laughed and spread out his hands, for Corsica chooses to
ignore the game laws. And the colonel, having finished his coffee,
buckled on his sword, and went out into the twilight streets of what was
once the capital of Corsica. Bastia, indeed, has, like the majority of
men and women, its history written on its face. On the high land above
the old port stands the citadel, just as the Genoese merchant-adventurers
planned it five hundred years ago. Beneath the citadel, and clustered
round the port, is the little old Genoese town, no bigger than a village,
which served for two hundred and fifty years as capital to an island in
constant war, against which it had always to defend itself.
It would seem that some hundred years ago, just before the island became
nominally a French possession, Bastia, for some reason or another, took
it into its municipal head to grow, and it ran as it were all down the
hill to that which is now the new harbour. It built two broad streets of
tall Genoese houses, of which one somehow missed fire, and became a slum,
while the other, with its great houses but half inhabited, is to-day the
Boulevard du Palais, where fashionable Bastia promenades itself--when
it is too windy, as it almost always is, to walk on the Place St.
Nicholas--where all the shops are, and where the modern European
necessities of daily life are not to be bought for love or money.
There are, however, two excellent knife-shops in the Boulevard du Palais,
where every description of stiletto may be purchased, where, indeed, the
enterprising may buy a knife which will not only go shrewdly into a foe,
but come right out on the other side--in front, that is to say, for no
true Corsican is so foolish as to stab anywhere but in the back--and,
protruding thus, will display some pleasing legend, such as "Vendetta,"
or "I serve my master," or "Viva Corsica," roughly engraved on the long
blade. There is a macaroni warehouse. There are two of those mysterious
Mediterranean provision warehouses, with some ancient dried sausages
hanging in the window, and either doorpost flanked by a tub of sardines,
highly, and yet, it would seem, insufficiently, cured. There is a tiny
book-shop displaying a choice of religious pamphlets and a fly-blown
copy of a treatise on viniculture. And finally, an ironmonger will sell
you anything but a bath, while he thrives on a lively trade in
percussion-caps and gunpowder.
Colonel Gilbert did not pause to look at these bewildering shop-windows,
for the simple reason that he knew every article there displayed.
He was, it will be remembered, a leisurely Frenchman, than whom there are
few human beings of a more easily aroused attention. Any small street
incident sufficed to make him pause. He had the air of one waiting for a
train, who knows that it will not come for hours yet. He strolled down
the boulevard, smoking a cigarette, and presently turned to the right,
emerging with head raised to meet the sea-breeze upon that deserted
promenade, the Place St. Nicholas.
Here he paused, and stood with his head slightly inclined to one side--an
attitude usually considered to be indicative of the artistic temperament,
and admired the prospect. The "Place" was deserted, and in the middle the
great statue of Napoleon stood staring blankly across the sea towards
Elba. There is, whether the artist intended it or not, a look of stony
amazement on this marble face as it gazes at the island of Elba lying
pink and hazy a few miles across that rippled sea; for on this side of
Corsica there is more peace than in the open waters of the Gulf of Lyons.
"Surely," that look seems to say, "the world could never expect that puny
island to hold me."
Colonel Gilbert stood and looked dreamily across the sea. It was plain to
the most incompetent observer that the statue represented one class of
men--those who make their opportunities; while Gilbert, with his high and
slightly receding forehead, his lazy eyes and good-natured mouth, was a
fair type of that other class which may take advantage of opportunities
that offer themselves. The majority of men have not even the pluck to do
that, which makes it easy for mediocre people to get on in this world.
Colonel Gilbert turned on his heel and walked slowly back to the Reunion
des Officiers--the military club which stands on the Place St. Nicholas
immediately behind the statue of Napoleon--a not too lively place of
entertainment, with a billiard-room, a reading-room, and half a dozen
iron tables and chairs on the pavement in front of the house. Here the
colonel seated himself, called for a liqueur, and sat watching a clear
moon rise from the sea beyond the Islet of Capraja.
It was the month of February, and the southern spring was already in the
air. The twilight is short in these latitudes, and it was now nearly
night. In Corsica, as in Spain, the coolest hour is between sunset and
nightfall. With complete darkness there comes a warm air from the ground.
This was now beginning to make itself felt; but Gilbert had not only the
pavement, but the whole Place St. Nicholas to himself. There are two
reasons why Corsicans do not walk abroad at night--the risk of a chill
and the risk of meeting one's enemy.
Colonel Gilbert gave no thought to these matters, but sat with crossed
legs and one spurred heel thrown out, contentedly waiting as if for that
train which he must assuredly catch, or for that opportunity, perhaps,
which was so long in coming that he no longer seemed to look for it. And
while he sat there a man came clanking from the town--a tired man, with
heavy feet and the iron heels of the labourer. He passed Colonel Gilbert,
and then, seeming to have recognized him by the light of the moon,
paused, and came back.
"Monsieur le colonel," he said, without raising his hand to his hat, as a
Frenchman would have done.
"Yes," replied the colonel's pleasant voice, with no ring of recognition
"It is Mattei--the driver of the St. Florent diligence," explained the
man, who, indeed, carried his badge of office, a long whip.
"Of course; but I recognized you almost at once," said the colonel, with
that friendliness which is so noticeable in the Republic to-day.
"You have seen me on the road often enough," said the man, "and I have
seen you, Monsieur le Colonel, riding over to the Casa Perucca."
"You know Perucca's agent, Pietro Andrei?"
"He was shot in the back on the Olmeta road this afternoon."
Colonel Gilbert gave a slight start.
"Is that so?" he said at length, quietly, after a pause.
"Yes," said the diligence-driver; and without further comment he walked
on, keeping well in the middle of the road, as it is wise to do when one
"L'intrigue c'est tromper son homme; L'habilete c'est faire qu'il se
For an idle-minded man, Colonel Gilbert was early astir the next morning,
and rode out of the town soon after sunrise, following the Vescovato
road, and chatting pleasantly enough with the workers already on foot and
in saddle on their way to the great plain of Biguglia, where men may
labour all day, though, if they spend so much as one night there, must
surely die. For the eastern coast of Corsica consists of a series of
level plains where malarial fever is as rife as in any African swamp, and
the traveller may ride through a fertile land where eucalyptus and palm
grow amid the vineyards, and yet no human being may live after sunset.
The labourer goes forth to his work in the morning accompanied by his
dog, carrying the ubiquitous double-barrelled gun at full cock, and
returns in the evening to his mountain village, where, at all events, he
may breathe God's air without fear.
The colonel turned to the right a few miles out, following the road which
leads straight to that mountain wall which divides all Corsica into the
"near" and the "far" side--into two peoples, speaking a different
dialect, following slightly different customs, and only finding
themselves united in the presence of a common foe. The road mounts
steadily, and this February morning had broken grey and cloudy, so that
the colonel found himself in the mists that hang over these mountains
during the spring months, long before he reached the narrow entrance to
the grim and soundless Lancone Defile. The heavy clouds had nestled down
the mountains, covering them like a huge thickness of wet cotton-wool.
The road, which is little more than a mule-path, is cut in the face of
the rock, and, far below, the river runs musically down to Lake Biguglia.
The colonel rode alone, though he could perceive another traveller on the
winding road in front of him--a peasant in dark clothes, with a huge felt
hat, astride on a little active Corsican horse--sure of foot, quick and
nervous, as fiery as the men of this strange land.
The defile is narrow, and the sun rarely warms the river that runs
through the depths where the foot of man can never have trodden since God
fashioned this earth. Colonel Gilbert, it would appear, was accustomed to
solitude. Perhaps he had known it so well during his sojourn in this
island of silence and loneliness, that he had fallen a victim to its
dangerous charms, and being indolent by nature, had discovered that it is
less trouble to be alone than to cultivate the society of man. The
Lancone Defile has to this day an evil name. It is not wise to pass
through it alone, for some have entered one end never to emerge at the
other. Colonel Gilbert pressed his heavy charger, and gained rapidly on
the horseman in front of him. When he was within two hundred yards of
him, at the highest part of the pass and through the narrow defile, he
sought in the inner pocket of his tunic--for in those days French
officers possessed no other clothes than their uniform--and produced a
letter. He examined it, crumpled it between his fingers, and rubbed it
across his dusty knee so that it looked old and travel-stained at once.
Then, with the letter in his hand, he put spurs to his horse and galloped
after the horseman in front of him. The man turned almost at once in his
saddle, as if care rode behind him there.
"Hi! mon ami," cried the colonel, holding the letter high above his head.
"You have, I imagine, dropped this letter?" he added, as he approached
the other, who now awaited him.
"Where? No; but I have dropped no letter. Where was it? On the road?"
"Down there," answered the colonel, pointing back with his whip, and
handing over the letter with a final air as if it were no affair of his.
"Perucca," read the man, slowly, in the manner of one having small
dealings with pens and paper, "Mattei Perucca--at Olmeta."
"Ah," said the colonel, lighting a cigarette. He had apparently not
troubled to read the address on the envelope.
In such a thinly populated country as Corsica, faces are of higher import
than in crowded cities, where types are mingled and individuality soon
fades. The colonel had already recognized this man as of Olmeta--one of
those, perhaps, who had stood smoking on the "Place" there when Pietro
Andrei crawled towards the fountain and failed to reach it.
"I am going to Olmeta," said the man, "and you also, perhaps."
"No; I am exercising my horse, as you see. I shall turn to the left at
the cross-roads, and go towards Murato. I may come round by Olmeta
later--if I lose my way."
The man smiled grimly. In Corsica men rarely laugh.
"You will not do that. You know this country too well for that. You are
the officer connected with the railway. I have seen you looking through
your instruments at the earth, in the mountains, in the rocks, and down
in the plains--everywhere."
"It is my work," answered the colonel, tapping with his whip the gold
lace on his sleeve. "One must do what one is ordered."
The other shrugged his shoulders, not seeming to think that necessary.
They rode on in silence, which was only broken from time to time by the
colonel, who asked harmless questions as to the names of the mountain
summits now appearing through the riven clouds, or the course of the
rivers, or the ownership of the wild and rocky land. At the cross-roads
"I am returning to Olmeta," said the peasant, as they neared the
sign-post, "and will send that letter up to the Casa Perucca by one of my
children. I wonder"--he paused, and, taking the letter from his jacket
pocket, turned it curiously in his hand--"I wonder what is in it?"
The colonel shrugged his shoulders and turned his horse's head. It was,
it appeared, no business of his to inquire what the letter contained, or
to care whether it be delivered or not. Indeed, he appeared to have
forgotten all about it.
"Good day, my friend--good day," he said absent-mindedly.
And an hour later he rode up to the Casa Perucca, having approached that
ancient house by a winding path from the valley below, instead of by the
high-road from the Col San Stefano to Olmeta, which runs past its very
gate. The Casa Perucca is rather singularly situated, and commands one of
the most wonderful views in this wild land of unrivalled prospects. The
high-road curves round the lower slope of the mountains as round the base
of a sugar-loaf, and is cut at times out of the sheer rock, while a
little lower it is begirt by huge trees. It forms as it were a cornice,
perched three thousand feet above the valley, over which it commands a
view of mountain and bay and inlet, but never a house, never a church,
and the farthest point is beyond Calvi, thirty miles away. There is but
one spur--a vast buttress of fertile land thrown against the mountain, as
a buttress may be thrown against a church tower.
The Casa Perucca is built upon this spur of land, and the Perucca
estate--that is to say, the land attached to the Casa (for property is
held in small tenures in Corsica)--is all that lies outside the road. In
the middle ages the position would have been unrivalled, for it could be
attacked from one side only, and doubtless the Genoese Bank of St. George
must have had bitter reckonings with some dead and forgotten rebel, who
had his stronghold where the Casa now stands. The present house is
Italian in appearance--a long, low, verandahed house, built in two parts,
as if it had at one time been two houses, and only connected later by a
round tower, now painted a darker colour than the adjacent buildings.
There are occasional country houses like it to be found in Tuscany,
notably on the heights behind Fiesole.
The wall defining the peninsula is ten feet high, and is built actually
on the roadside, so that the Casa Perucca, with its great wooden gate,
turns a very cold shoulder upon its poor neighbours. It is, as a matter
of fact, the best house north of Calvi, and the site of it one of the
oldest. Its only rival is the Chateau de Vasselot, which stands deserted
down in the valley a few miles to the south, nearer to the sea, and
farther out of the world, for no high-road passes near it.
Beneath the Casa Perucca, on the northern slope of the shoulder, the
ground falls away rapidly in a series of stony chutes, and to the south
and west there are evidences of the land having once been laid out in
terraces in the distant days when Corsicans were content to till the most
fertile soil in Europe--always excepting the Island of Majorca--but now
in the wane of the third empire, when every Corsican of any worth had
found employment in France, there were none to grow vines or cultivate
the olive. There is a short cut up from the valley from the mouldering
Chateau de Vasselot, which is practicable for a trained horse. And
Colonel Gilbert must have known this, for he had described a circle in
the wooded valley in order to gain it. He must also have been to the Casa
Perucca many times before, for he rang the bell suspended outside the
door built in the thickness of the southern wall, where a horseman would
not have expected to gain admittance. This door was, however, constructed
without steps on its inner side, for Corsica has this in common with
Spain, that no man walks where he can ride, so that steps are rarely
built where a gradual slope will prove more convenient.
There was something suggestive of a siege in the way in which the door
was cautiously opened, and a man-servant peeped forth.
"Ah!" he said, with relief, "it is the Colonel Gilbert. Yes; monsieur may
see him, but no one else. Ah! But he is furious, I can tell you. He is in
the verandah--like a wild beast. I will take monsieur's horse."
Colonel Gilbert went through the palms and bamboos and orange-trees
alone, towards the house; and there, walking up and down, and stopping
every moment to glance towards the door, of which the bell still sounded,
he perceived a large, stout man, clad in light tweed, wearing an old
straw hat and carrying a thick stick.
"Ah!" cried Perucca, "so you have heard the news. And you have come, I
hope, to apologize for your miserable France. It is thus that you govern
Corsica, with a Civil Service made up of a parcel of old women and young
counter-jumpers! I have no patience with your prefectures and your young
men with flowing neck-ties and kid gloves. Are we a girls' school to be
governed thus? And you--such great soldiers! Yes, I will admit that the
French are great soldiers, but you do not know how to rule Corsica. A
tight hand, colonel. Holy name of thunder!" And he stamped his foot with
a decisiveness that made the verandah tremble.
The colonel laughed pleasantly.
"They want some men of your type," he said.
"Ah!" cried Perucca, "I would rule them, for they are cowards; they are
afraid of me. Do you know, they had the impertinence to send one of their
threatening letters to poor Andrei before they shot him. They sent him a
sheet of paper with a cross drawn on it. Then I knew he was done for.
They do not send that _pour rire_."
He stopped short, and gave a jerk of the head. There was somewhere in his
fierce old heart a cord that vibrated to the touch of these rude mountain
customs; for the man was a Corsican of long descent and pure blood. Of
such the fighting nations have made good soldiers in the past, and even
Rome could not make them slaves.
"Or you could do it," went on Perucca, with a shrewd nod, looking at him
beneath shaggy brows. "The velvet glove--eh? That would surprise them,
for they have never felt the touch of one. You, with your laugh and idle
ways, and behind them the perception--the perception of the devil--or a
The colonel had drawn forward a basket chair, and was leaning back in it
with crossed legs, and one foot swinging.
"I? Heaven forbid! No, my friend; I require too little. It is only the
discontented who get on in the world. But, mind you, I would not mind
trying on a small scale. I have often thought I should like to buy a
little property on this side of the island, and cultivate it as they do
up in Cap Corse. It would be an amusement for my exile, and one could
perhaps make the butter for one's bread--green Chartreuse instead of
He paused, and seeing that the other made no reply, continued in the same
"If you or one of the other proprietors on this side of the mountains
But Perucca shook his head resolutely.
"No; we should not do that. You, who have had to do with the railway,
must know that. We will let our land go to rack and ruin, we will starve
it and not cultivate it, we will let the terraces fall away after the
rains, we will live miserably on the finest soil in Europe--we may
starve, but we won't sell."
Gilbert did not seem to be listening very intently. He was watching the
young bamboos now bursting into their feathery new green, as they waved
to and fro against the blue sky. His head was slightly inclined to one
side, his eyes were contemplative.
"It is a pity," he said, after a pause, "that Andrei did not have a
better knowledge of the insular character. He need not have been in
Olmeta churchyard now."
"It is a pity," rapped out Perucca, with an emphatic stick on the wooden
floor, "that Andrei was so gentle with them. He drove the cattle off the
land. I should have driven them into my own sheds, and told the owners to
come and take them. He was too easy-going, too mild in his manners. Look
at me--they don't send me their threatening letters. You do not find any
crosses chalked on my door--eh?"
And indeed, as he stood there, with his square shoulders, his erect
bearing and fiery, dark eyes, Mattei Perucca seemed worthy of the name of
his untamed ancestors, and was not a man to be trifled with.
"Eh--what?" he asked of the servant who had approached timorously,
bearing a letter on a tray. "For me? Something about Andrei, from those
fools of gendarmes, no doubt."
And he tore open the envelope which Colonel Gilbert had handed to the
peasant a couple of hours earlier in the Lancone Defile. He fixed his
eye-glasses upon his nose, clumsily, with one hand, and then unfolded the
letter. It was merely a sheet of blank paper, with a cross drawn upon it.
His face suddenly blazed red with anger. His eyes glared at the paper
through the glasses placed crookedly upon his nose.
"Holy name!" he cried. "Look at this--this to _me_! The dogs!"
The colonel looked at the paper with a shrug of the shoulders.
"You will have to sell," he suggested lightly; and glancing up at
Perucca's face, saw something there that made him leap to his feet.
"Hulloa! Here," he said quickly--"sit down."
And as he forced Perucca into the chair, his hands were already at the
old man's collar. And in five minutes, in the presence of Colonel Gilbert
and two old servants, Mattei Perucca died.
"One can be but what one is born."
If any one had asked the Count Lory de Vasselot who and what he was, he
would probably have answered that he was a member of the English Jockey
Club. For he held that that distinction conferred greater honour upon him
than the accident of his birth, which enabled him to claim for
grandfather the first Count de Vasselot, one of Murat's aides-de-camp, a
brilliant, dashing cavalry officer, a boyhood's friend of the great
Napoleon. Lory de Vasselot was, moreover, a cavalry officer himself, but
had not taken part in any of the enterprises of an emperor who held that
to govern Frenchmen it is necessary to provide them with a war every four
"Bon Dieu!" he told his friends, "I did not sleep for two nights after I
was elected to that great club."
Lory de Vasselot, moreover, did his best to live up to his position. He
never, for instance, had his clothes made in Paris. His very gloves came
from a little shop in Newmarket, where only the seamiest and clumsiest of
hand-coverings are provided, and horn buttons are a _sine qua non_.
To desire to be mistaken for an Englishman is a sure sign that you belong
to the very best Parisian set, and Lory de Vasselot's position was an
enviable one, for so long as he kept his hat on and stood quite still and
did not speak, he might easily have been some one connected with the
British turf. It must, of course, be understood that the similitude of de
Vasselot's desire was only an outward one. We all think that every other
nation would fain be English, but as all other countries have a like
pitying contempt for us, there is perhaps no harm done. And it is to be
presumed that if some candid friend were to tell de Vasselot that the
moment he uncovered his hair, or opened his lips, or made a single
movement, he was hopelessly and unmistakably French from top to toe, he
would not have been sorely distressed.
It will be remembered that the Third Napoleon--the last of that strange
dynasty--raised himself to the Imperial throne--made himself, indeed, the
most powerful monarch in Europe--by statecraft, and not by power of
sword. With the magic of his name he touched the heart of the most
impetuous people in the world, and upon the uncertain, and, as it is
whispered, not always honest suffrage of the plebiscite, climbed to the
unstable height of despotism. For years he ruled France with a sort of
careless cynicism, and it was only when his health failed that his hand
began to relax its grip. In the scramble for place and power, the
grandson of the first Count de Vasselot might easily have gained a prize,
but Lory seemed to have no ambition in that direction. Perhaps he had no
taste for ministry or bureau, nor cared to cultivate the subtle knowledge
of court and cabinet, which meant so much at this time. His tastes were
rather those of the camp; and, failing war, he had turned his thoughts to
sport. He had hunted in England and fished in Norway. In the winter of
1869, he went to Africa for big game, and, returning in the early weeks
of March, found France and his dear Paris gayer, more insouciant, more
brilliant than ever.
For the empire had never seemed more secure than it did at this moment,
had never stood higher in the eyes of the world, had never boasted so
lavish a court. Paris was at her best, and Lory de Vasselot exclaimed
aloud, after the manner of his countrymen, at the sight of the young buds
and spring flowers around the Lac in the Bois de Boulogne, as he rode
there this fresh morning.
He had only arrived in Paris the night before, and, dining at the Cercle
Militaire, had accepted the loan of a horse.
"One will at all events see one's friends in the wood," he said. But
riding there in an ultra-English suit of cords at the fashionable hour,
he found that he had somehow missed the fashion. The alleys, which had
been popular a year ago, were now deserted; for there is nothing so
fickle as social taste, and the riders were all at the other side of the
Route de Longchamps.
Lory turned his horse's head in that direction, and was riding leisurely,
when he heard an authoritative voice apparently directed towards himself.
He was in one of the narrow _allees_, "reserved for cavaliers," and,
turning, perceived that the soft sandy gravel had prevented his hearing
the approach of other riders--a man and a woman. And the woman's horse
was beyond control. It was a little, fiery Arab, leaping high in the air
at each stride, and timing a nasty forward jerk of the head at the worst
moment for its rider's comfort.
There was no time to do anything but touch his own trained charger with
the spur and gallop ahead. He turned in his saddle. The Arab was gaining
on him, and gradually leaving behind the heavy horse and weighty rider
who were giving chase. The woman, with a set white face, was jerking at
the bridle with her left hand in an odd, mechanical, feeble way, while
with her right, she held to the pommel of her saddle. But she was swaying
forward in an unmistakable manner. She was only half conscious, and in a
moment must fall.
Lory glanced behind her, and saw a stout built man, with a fair moustache
and a sunburnt face, riding his great horse in the stirrups like a
jockey, his face alight with that sudden excitement which sometimes
blazes in light blue eyes. He made a quick gesture, which said as plainly
as words--"You must act, and quickly; I can do nothing."
And the three thundered on. The rides in the Bois de Boulogne are all
bordered on either side by thick trees. If Lory de Vasselot pulled
across, he would send the maddened Arab into the forest, where the first
low branch must of a necessity batter in its rider's head. He rode on,
gradually edging across to what in France is the wrong side of the road.
"Hold on, madame; hold on," he said, in a quick low voice.
But the woman did not seem to hear him. She had dropped the bridle now,
and the Arab had thrown it forward over its head.
Then Lory gradually reined in. The woman was reeling in the saddle as the
Arab thundered alongside. The wind blew back the long habit, and showed
her foot to be firmly in the stirrup.
"Stirrup, madame!" shouted Lory, as if she were miles away. "Mon Dieu,
But she only looked ahead with glazed eyes.
Then, edging nearer with a delicate spur, de Vasselot shook off his own
right stirrup, and, leaning down, lifted the fainting woman with his
right arm clean out of the saddle. He rested her weight upon his thigh,
and, feeling cautiously with his foot, found her stirrup and kicked it
free. He pulled up slowly, and, drawing aside, allowed the lady's
companion to pass him at a steady gallop after the Arab.
The lady was now in a dead faint, her dark red hair hanging like a rope
across de Vasselot's arm. She was, fortunately, not a big woman; for it
was no easy position to find one's self in, on the top, thus, of a large
horse with a senseless burden and no help in sight. He managed, however,
to dismount, and rather breathlessly carried the lady to the shade of the
trees, where he laid her with her head on a mound of rising turf, and,
lifting aside her hair, saw her face for the first time.
"Ah! That dear baroness!" he exclaimed; and, turning, he found himself
bowing rather stiffly to the gentleman, who had now returned, leading the
runaway horse. He was not, it may be mentioned, the baron.
While the two men were thus regarding each other in a polite silence, the
baroness opened a pair of remarkably bright brown eyes, at first with
wonder, and then with understanding, and finally with wonder again when
they lighted on de Vasselot.
"Lory!" she cried. "But where have you fallen from?"
"It must have been from heaven, baroness," he replied, "for I assuredly
came at the right moment."
He stood looking down at her--a lithe, neat, rather small-made man. Then
he turned to attend to his horse. The baroness was already busy with her
hair. She rose to her feet and smoothed her habit.
"Ah, good!" she laughed. "There is no harm done. But you saved my life,
my dear Lory. One cannot have two opinions as to that. If it were not
that the colonel is watching us, I should embrace you. But I have not
introduced you. This is Colonel Gilbert--my dear and good cousin, Lory de
Vasselot. The colonel is from Bastia, by the way, and the Count de
Vasselot pretends to be a Corsican. I mention it because it is only
friendly to tell you that you have something more than the weather and my
gratitude in common."
She laughed as she spoke; then became suddenly grave, and sat down again
with her hand to her eyes.
"And I am going to faint," she added, with ghastly lips that tried to
smile, "and nobody but you two men,"
"It is the reaction," said Colonel Gilbert, in his soothing way. But he
exchanged a quick glance with de Vasselot. "It will pass, baroness."
"It is well to remember at such a moment that one is a sportswoman,"
suggested de Vasselot.
"And that one has de Vasselot blood in one's veins, you mean. You may as
well say it." She rose as she spoke, and looked from one to the other
with a brave laugh. "Bring me that horse," she said.
De Vasselot conveyed by one inimitable gesture that he admired her
spirit, but refused to obey her. Colonel Gilbert smiled contemplatively,
He was of a different school--of that school of Frenchmen which owes its
existence to Napoleon III.--impassive, almost taciturn--more British than
the typical Briton. De Vasselot, on the contrary, was quick and
vivacious. His fine-cut face and dark eyes expressed a hundred things
that his tongue had no time to put into words. He was hard and brown and
sunburnt, which at once made him manly despite his slight frame.
"Ah," he cried, with a gay laugh, "that is better. But seriously, you
know, you should have a patent stirrup--"
He broke off, described the patent stirrup in three gestures, how it
opened and released the foot. He showed the rider falling, the horse
galloping away, the released lady-rider rising to her feet and satisfying
herself that no bones were broken--all in three more gestures.
"Voila!" he said; "I shall send you one."
"And you as poor--as poor," said the baroness, whose husband was of the
new nobility, which is based, as all the world knows, on solid
manufacture. "My friend, you cannot afford it."
"I cannot afford to lose _you_" he said, with a sudden gravity, and with
eyes which, to the uninitiated, would undoubtedly have conveyed the
impression that she was the whole world to him. "Besides," he added, as
an after-thought, "it is only sixteen francs."
The baroness threw up her gay brown eyes.
"Just Heaven," she exclaimed, "what it is to be able to inspire such
affection--to be valued at sixteen francs!"
Then--for she was as quick and changeable as himself--she turned, and
touched his arm with her thickly-gloved hand.
"Seriously, my cousin, I cannot thank you, and you, Colonel Gilbert, for
your promptness and your skill. And as to my stupid husband, you know, he
has no words; when I tell him, he will only grunt behind his great
moustache, and he will never thank you, and will never forget. Never!
Remember that." And with a wave of the riding-whip, which was attached to
her wrist, she described eternity.
De Vasselot turned with a deprecatory shrug of the shoulders, and busied
himself with the girths of his saddle. At the touch and the sight of the
buckles, his eyes became grave and earnest. And it is not only Frenchmen
who cherish this cult of the horse, making false gods of saddle and
bridle, and a sacred temple of the harness-room. Very seriously de
Vasselot shifted the side-saddle from the Arab to his own large and
gentle horse--a wise old charger with a Roman nose, who never wasted his
mettle in park tricks, but served honestly the Government that paid his
The Baroness de Melide watched the transaction in respectful silence, for
she too took _le sport_ very seriously, and had attended a course of
lectures at a riding-school on the art of keeping and using harness. Her
colour was now returning--that brilliant, delicate colour which so often
accompanies dark red hair--and she gave a little sigh of resignation.
Colonel Gilbert looked at her, but said nothing. He seemed to admire her,
in the same contemplative way that he had admired the moon rising behind
the island of Capraja from the Place St. Nicholas in Bastia.
De Vasselot noted the sigh, and glanced sharply at her over the shoulder
of the big charger.
"Of what are you thinking?" he said.
"Of the millennium, mon ami"
"Yes," she answered, gathering the bridle; "when women shall perhaps be
allowed to be natural. Our mothers played at being afraid--we play at
As she spoke she placed a neat foot in Colonel Gilbert's hand, who lifted
her without effort to the saddle. De Vasselot mounted the Arab, and they
rode slowly homewards by way of the Avenue de Longchamps, through the
Porte Dauphine, and up that which is now the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne,
which was quiet enough at this time of day. The baroness was inclined to
be silent. She had been more shaken than she cared to confess to two
soldiers. Colonel Gilbert probably saw this, for he began to make
conversation with de Vasselot.
"You do not come to Corsica," he said.
"I have never been there--shall never go there," answered de Vasselot.
"Tell me--is it not a terrible place? The end of the world, I am told. My
mother"--he broke off with a gesture of the utmost despair. "She is
dead!" he interpolated--"always told me that it was the most terrible
place in the world. At my father's death, more than thirty years ago, she
quitted Corsica, and came to live in Paris, where I was born, and where,
if God is good, I shall die."
"My cousin, you talk too much of death," put in the baroness, seriously.
"As between soldiers, baroness," replied de Vasselot, gaily. "It is our
trade. You know the island well, colonel?"
"No, I cannot say that. But I know the Chateau de Vasselot."
"Now, that is interesting; and I who scarcely know the address! Near
Calvi, is it not? A waste of rocks, and behind each rock at least one
bandit--so my dear mother assured me."
"It might be cultivated," answered Colonel Gilbert, indifferently. "It
might be made to yield a small return. I have often thought so. I have
even thought of whiling away my exile by attempting some such scheme. I
once contemplated buying a piece of land on that coast to try. Perhaps
you would sell?"
"Sell!" laughed de Vasselot. "No; I am not such a scoundrel as that. I
would toss you for it, my dear colonel; I would toss you for it, if you
And as they turned out of the avenue into one of the palatial streets
that run towards the Avenue Victor Hugo, he made the gesture of throwing
a coin into the air.
IN THE RUE DU CHERCHE-MIDI.
"Il ne faut jamais se laisser trop voir, meme a ceux qui nous aiment."
It was not very definitely known what Mademoiselle Brun taught in the
School of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the Rue du Cherche-Midi in
Paris. For it is to be feared that Mademoiselle Brun knew nothing except
the world; and it is precisely that form of knowledge which is least
cultivated in a convent school.
"She has had a romance," whispered her bright-eyed charges, and lapsed
into suppressed giggles at the mere mention of such a word in connection
with a little woman dressed in rusty black, with thin grey hair, a thin
grey face, and a yellow neck.
It would seem, however, that there is a point where even a
mother-superior must come down, as it were, into the market-place and
meet the world. That point is where the convent purse rattles thinly and
the mother-superior must face hunger. It had, in fact, been intimated to
the conductors of the School of the Sisterhood of the Sacred Heart by the
ladies of the quarter of St. Germain, that the convent teaching taught
too little of one world and too much of another. And the mother-superior,
being a sensible woman, agreed to engage a certain number of teachers
from the outer world. Mademoiselle Brun was vaguely entitled an
instructress, while Mademoiselle Denise Lange bore the proud title of
Mademoiselle Brun, with her compressed mouth, her wrinkled face, and her
cold hazel eyes, accepted the situation, as we have to accept most
situations in this world, merely because there is no choice.
"What can you teach?" asked the soft-eyed mother-superior.
"Anything," replied Mademoiselle Brun, with a direct gaze, which somehow
cowed the nun.
"She has had a romance," whispered some wag of fourteen, when
Mademoiselle Brun first appeared in the schoolroom; and that became the
accepted legend regarding her.
"What are you saying of me?" she asked one day, when her rather sudden
appearance caused silence at a moment when silence was not compulsory.
"That you once had a romance, mademoiselle," answered some daring girl.
And perhaps the dusky wrinkles lapsed into gentler lines, for some one
had the audacity to touch mademoiselle's hand with a birdlike tap of one
"And you must tell it to us."
For there were no nuns present, and mademoiselle was suspected of having
a fine contempt for the most stringent of the convent laws.
"But why not, mademoiselle?"
"Because the real romances are never told," replied Mademoiselle Brun.
But that was only her way, perhaps, of concealing the fact that there was
nothing to tell. She spoke in a low voice, for her class shared the long
schoolroom this afternoon with the mathematical class. The room did not
lend itself to description, for it had bare walls and two long windows
looking down disconsolately upon a courtyard, where a grey cat sunned
herself in the daytime and bewailed her lot at night. Who, indeed, would
be a convent cat?
At the far end of the long room Mademoiselle Denise Lange was
superintending, with an earnest face, the studies of five young ladies.
It was only necessary to look at the respective heads of the pupils to
conclude that these young persons were engaged in mathematical problems,
for there is nothing so discomposing to the hair as arithmetic.
Mademoiselle Lange herself seemed no more capable of steering a course
through a double equation than her pupils, for she was young and pretty,
with laughing lips and fair hair, now somewhat ruffled by her
calculations. When, however, she looked up, it might have been perceived
that her glance was clear and penetrating.
There was no more popular person in the Convent of the Sacred Heart than
Denise Lange, and in no walk of life is personal attractiveness so
much appreciated as in a girls' school. It is only later in life that
_ces demoiselles_ begin to find that their neighbour's beauty is
but skin-deep. The nuns--"fond fools," Mademoiselle Brun called
them--concluded that because Denise was pretty she must be good. The
girls loved Denise with a wild and exceedingly ephemeral affection,
because she was little more than a girl herself, and was, like
themselves, liable to moments of deep arithmetical despondency.
Mademoiselle Brun admitted that she was fond of Denise because she was
her second cousin, and that was all.
When worldly mammas, essentially of the second empire, who perhaps had
doubts respecting a purely conventional education, made inquiries on this
subject, the mother-superior, feeling very wicked and worldly, usually
made mention of the mathematical mistress, Denise Lange, daughter of the
great and good general who was killed at Solferino. And no other word of
identification was needed. For some keen-witted artist had painted a
great salon picture of, not a young paladin, but a fat old soldier,
eighteen stone, on his huge charger, with shaking red cheeks and blazing
eyes, standing in his stirrups, bursting out of his tight tunic, and
roaring to his _enfants_ to follow him to their death.
It was after the battle of Solferino that Mademoiselle Brun had come into
Denise Lange's life, taking her from her convent school to live in a dull
little apartment in the Rue des Saints Peres, educating her, dressing
her, caring for her with a grim affection which never wasted itself in
words. How she pinched and saved, and taught herself that she might teach
others; how she triumphantly made both ends meet,--are secrets which,
like Mademoiselle Brun's romance, she would not tell. For French women
are not only cleverer and more capable than French men, but they are
cleverer and more capable than any other women in the world. History,
moreover, will prove this; for nearly all the great women that the world
has seen have been produced by France.
Denise and Mademoiselle Brun still lived in the dull little apartment
in the Rue des Saints Peres--that narrow street which runs southward
from the Quai Voltaire to the Boulevard St. Germain, where the cheap
frame-makers, the artists' colourmen, and the dealers in old prints have
their shops. To the convent school, the old woman and the young girl,
walking daily through the streets to their work, brought with them that
breath of worldliness which the advance of civilization seemed to render
desirable to the curriculum of a girls' school.
"It must be heavenly, mademoiselle, to walk in the streets quite alone,"
said one of Mademoiselle Brun's pupils to her one day.
"It is," was the reply; "especially near the gutter."
But this afternoon there was no conversation, for the literature class
knew that Mademoiselle Brun was in a contrary humour.
"She is looking at that dear Denise with discontented eyes. She is in a
shocking temper," had been the whispered warning from mouth to mouth.
And in truth Mademoiselle Brun constantly glanced down the length of the
schoolroom to where Denise was sitting. But a seeing eye could well
perceive that it was not with Denise, but with the schoolroom, that the
little old woman was discontented. Perhaps she had at times a cruel
thought that the Rue des Saints Peres, emphasized as it were by the Rue
du Cherche-Midi, was hardly gay for a young life. Perhaps the soft touch
of spring that was in the March air stirred up restless longings in the
soul of this little grey town-mouse.
And while she was watching Denise, the cross-grained old nun who acted as
concierge to this quiet house came into the room, and handed Denise a
long blue envelope.
"It is addressed in a man's handwriting," she said warningly.
"Then let us by all means send for the tongs," answered Denise, taking
the letter with a mock air of alarm.
But she looked at it curiously, and glanced towards Mademoiselle Brun
before she opened it. It was, perhaps, characteristic of the little old
schoolmistress to show no interest whatever. And yet to her it probably
seemed an age before Denise came towards her, carrying the letter in her
"At first," said the girl, "I thought it was a joke--a trick of one of
the girls. But it is serious enough. It is a romance inside a blue
envelope--that is all."
She gave a joyous laugh, and threw the letter down on Mademoiselle Brun's
"It is my father's cousin, Mattei Perucca, who has died suddenly, and has
left me an estate in Corsica," she continued, impatiently opening the
letter, which Mademoiselle Brun fingered with pessimistic distrust. "See
here! that is the address of my estate in Corsica, where I shall invite
you to stay with me--I, who stand before you in my old black alpaca, and
would borrow a hairpin if you can spare it."
Her hands were busy with her hair as she spoke; and she seemed to touch
life and its entanglements as lightly. Mademoiselle Brun, however, read
the letter very gravely. For she was a wise old Frenchwoman, who knew
that it is only bad news which may safely be accepted as true.
The letter, which was accompanied by an enclosure, was from a
Marseilles solicitor, and began by inquiring as to the identity of
Mademoiselle Denise Lange, instructress at the convent school in the Rue
du Cherche-Midi, with the daughter of the late General Lange, who met his
death on the field of Solferino. It then proceeded to explain that Denise
Lange had inherited the property known as the Perucca property, in the
commune of Calvi, in the Island of Corsica. Followed a schedule of the
said property, which included the historic chateau, known as the Casa
Perucca. The solicitor concluded with a word for himself, after the
manner of his kind, and clearly demonstrated that no other lawyer was so
capable as he to arrange the affairs of Mademoiselle Denise Lange.
"Jean Jacques Moreau," read Mademoiselle Brun, with some scorn, the
signature of the Marseilles notary. "An imbecile, your Jean Jacques--an
imbecile, like his great and mischievous namesake. He does not say of
what malady your second cousin died, or what income the property will
"But we can ask him those particulars."
"And pay for each answer," retorted Mademoiselle Brun, folding the letter
She was remembering that a few minutes earlier she had been thinking that
their present existence was too narrow for Denise; and now, in the
twinkling of an eye, life seemed to be opening out and spreading with a
rapidity which only the thoughts of youth could follow and the energy of
spring keep pace with.
"Then we will go to Marseilles and ask the questions ourselves, and then
he cannot charge for each answer, for I know he could never keep count."
But Mademoiselle Brun only looked grave, and would not rise to Denise's
lighter humour. It almost seemed, indeed, as if she were afraid--she who
had never known fear through all the years of pinch and struggle, who had
faced a world that had no use for her, that would not buy the poor
services she had to sell. For to know the worst is always a relief, and
to exchange it for something better is like exchanging an old coat for a
"And in the mean time--" said Mademoiselle Brun, turning sharply upon her
pupils, who had taken the opportunity of abandoning French literature.
"In the mean time," said Denise, turning reluctantly away--"in the mean
time, I am filling a vat of so many cubic metres, from a well so many
metres deep, with a pail containing four litres, and of course the pail
has a leak in it, and the well becomes deeper as one draws from it, and
the Casa Perucca is, I suppose, a dream."
She went back to her work, and in a few moments was quite absorbed in it.
And it was Mademoiselle Brun who could not settle to her French
literature, nor compose her thoughts at all. For change is the natural
desire of youth, and the belief that it must be for the better, part and
parcel of the astounding optimism of that state of life.
A few minutes later Denise remembered the enclosure--a letter in a thick
white envelope, which was still lying on her desk. She opened it.
"MADEMOISELLE" (the letter ran),
"I think I have the pleasure of addressing the daughter of an old
comrade-in-arms, and this must be my excuse for at once approaching my
object. I hear by accident that you have inherited from the late Mattei
Perucca his small property near Olmeta in Corsica. I knew Mattei Perucca,
and the property you inherit is not unknown to one who has had official
dealings with landowners in Corsica. I tell you frankly that it would be
impossible, in the present disturbed state of the island, for you to live
at Olmeta, and I ask you as frankly whether you are disposed to sell me
your small estate. I have long cherished the scheme of buying a small
parcel of land in Corsica for the purpose of showing the natives that
agriculture may be made profitable in so fertile an island, by dint of
industry and a firm and unswerving honesty. The Perucca property would
suit my purpose. You may be doing a good action in handing over your
tenants to one who understands the Corsican nature. I, in addition to
relieving the monotony of my present exile at Bastia, may perhaps be
inaugurating a happier state of affairs in this most unfortunate country.
"Awaiting your answer, I am, mademoiselle,
"Your obedient servant,
"LOUIS GILBERT (Colonel)."
The school bell rang as Denise finished reading the letter. The class was
"We shall descend into the well again to-morrow," she said, closing her
The girls trooped out into the forlorn courtyard, leaving Mademoiselle
Brun and Denise alone in the schoolroom. Mademoiselle Brun read the
second letter with a silent concentration. She glanced up when she had
"Of course you will sell," she said.
Denise was looking out of the tall closed windows at the few yards of sky
that were visible above the roofs. Some fleecy clouds were speeding
across the clear ether.
"No," she answered slowly; "I think I shall go to Corsica. Tell me," she
added, after a pause--"I suppose I have Corsican blood in my veins?"
"I suppose so," admitted Mademoiselle Brun, reluctantly.
"Chaque homme a trois caracteres: celui qu'il a, celui qu'il montre,
et celui qu'il croit avoir."
By one of the strokes of good fortune which come but once to the most
ardent student of fashion, the Baroness de Melide had taken up horsiness
at the very beginning of that estimable craze. It was, therefore, in mere
sequence to this pursuit that she fixed her abode on the south side of
the Champs Elysees, and within a stone's throw of the Avenue du Bois de
Boulogne, before the world found out that it was quite impossible to live
elsewhere. It is so difficult, in truth, to foretell the course of
fashion, that one cannot help wondering why the modern soothsayers, who
eke out what appears to be a miserable existence in the smaller streets
of the Faubourg St. Honore and in the neighbourhood of Bond Street, do
not turn their second-sight to the contemplation of the future of streets
and districts, instead of telling the curious a number of vague facts
respecting their past and vaguer prophecies as to the future.
If, for instance, Cagliostro had foretold that to-day the Chausee
d'Antin would be deserted; that the faubourg would have completely ousted
the Rue St. Honore; that the Avenue de la Grande Armee should be,
fashionably speaking, dead after a short and brilliant life; and that
the little streets of the Faubourg St. Germain should be all that is most
_chic_--what fortunes might have been made! Indeed, no one in a trance
or in his right mind can tell to-day why it is right to walk on the
right-hand side of the Boulevard des Italiens and the Boulevard des
Capucines, and heinously wrong to walk on the left; while, on the
contrary, no self-respecting Parisian would allow himself to be seen on
the right-hand pavement of the Boulevard de la Madeleine. Indeed, these
things are a mystery, and the wise seek only to obey, and not to ask the
It would be difficult to lay before the English reader the precise social
position of the Baroness de Melide. For there are wheels within wheels,
or, more properly perhaps, shades within shades, in the social world of
Paris, which are quite unsuspected on this side of the Channel. Indeed,
our ignorance of social France is only surpassed by the French ignorance
of social England. The Baroness de Melide was rich, however, and the
rich, as we all know, have nothing to fear in this world. As a matter of
fact, Monsieur de Melide dated his nobility from Napoleon's creation, and
madame's grandfather was of the Emigration. By conviction, they belonged
to the Anglophile school, and theirs was one of the prettiest little
houses between the Avenue Victor Hugo and the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne,
which is more important than ancestors.
It was to this miniature palace that Mademoiselle Brun and Denise were
bidden, to the new function of afternoon tea, the day after the receipt
of the lawyer's letter. Madame de Melide would take no denial.
"I have already heard of Denise's good fortune; and from whom do you
think?" she wrote. "From my dear good cousin, Lory de Vasselot, who is,
if you will believe it, a Corsican neighbour--the Vasselot and Perucca
estates actually adjoin. Both, I need hardly tell you, bristle with
bandits, and are quite impossible. But I have quite decided that Lory
shall marry Denise. Come, therefore, without fail. I need not tell you to
see that Denise looks pretty. The good God has seen to that for you. And
as for Lory, he is an angel. I cannot think why I did not marry him
myself--except that he did not ask me. And then there is my stupid, whom
nobody else would have, and who now sends his dear love to his oldest
friend.--Your devoted JANE."
The Baroness de Melide was called Jeanne, but she had enthusiastically
changed that name for its English version at the period when England was,
as it were, first discovered by social France.
When Mademoiselle Brun and Denise arrived, they found the baroness
beautifully dressed as usual, and very French, for the empress was at
this time the leader of the world's women, as the emperor--that clever
_parvenu_--was undoubtedly the first monarch in Europe. It behoves not a
masculine pen to attempt a description of Madame de Melide's costume,
which, moreover, was of a bygone mode, and nothing is so unsightly in
death as a deceased fashion.
"How good of you to come!" she cried, embracing both ladies in turn, with
a fervour which certainly seemed to imply that she had no other friends
In truth, she had, for the moment, none so dear; for there are certain
warm hearts that are happy in always loving, not the highest, but the
"Let me see, now," she added, vigorously dragging forward chairs. "I
asked some one to meet you--some one I particularly wanted you to become
acquainted with, but I cannot remember who it is." As she spoke she
consulted a little red morocco betting-book.
"Lory!" she cried, after a short search. "Yes, of course it was Lory de
Vasselot--my cousin. And--will you believe it?--he saved my life the
other day, all in a moment! Yes! I saw death, quite close, before my
eyes. Ugh! And I, who am so wicked! You do not know what it is to be
wicked and to know it, Denise--you who are so young. But that dear
Mademoiselle Brun, she knows."
"Thank you," said mademoiselle.
"And Lory saved me, ah! so cleverly. There is no better horseman in the
army, they say. Yes; he will certainly come this afternoon, unless there
is a race at Longchamps. Now, is there a race, I wonder?"
"For the moment," said Mademoiselle Brun, very gravely, "I cannot tell
"She is laughing at me," cried the baroness, shaking a vivacious
forefinger at Mademoiselle Brun. "But I do not mind; we cannot all be
"And what a dull world for the rest of us if you were," said Mademoiselle
Brun; and Lory de Vasselot, coming into the room at this moment, was met
by her sour smile.
"Ah!" cried the baroness, "here he is. I present you, my dear Lory, to
Mademoiselle Brun, a terrible friend of mine, and to Mademoiselle Lange,
who, as you know, has just inherited the other half of Corsica."
"My congratulations," answered Lory, shaking hands with Denise in the
English fashion. "An inheritance is so nice when it is quite new."
"And figure to yourself that this dear child has no notion how it has all
come about! She only knows the bare fact that some one is dead, and she
has gained--well, a white elephant, one may suppose."
De Vasselot's quick face suddenly turned grave.
"Ah," he said, "then I can tell you how it has all come about. Though I
confess at once that I have never been to Corsica, and have never found
myself a halfpenny the richer for owning land there."
He paused for a moment, and glanced at Mademoiselle Brun.
"Unless," he interpolated, "such personal matters will bore
"But mademoiselle is the good angel of Mademoiselle Lange, my dear, dull
Lory," explained the baroness; and the object of the elucidation looked
at him more keenly than so trifling an incident would seem to warrant.
"You will not be betraying secrets to the first-comer," she said.
Still de Vasselot seemed to hesitate, as if choosing his words.
"And," he said at length, "they shot your cousin's agent in the back,
almost in the streets of Olmeta, and Mattei Perucca himself died
suddenly, presumably from apoplexy, brought on by a great anger at
receiving a letter threatening his life--that is how it has come about,
He broke off short, with a quick gesture and a flash of his eyes, usually
so pleasant and smiling.
"I have that from a reliable source," he went on, after a pause, during
which Mademoiselle Brun looked steadily at Denise and said nothing.
"Gracious heavens!" exclaimed the baroness, in a whisper; and for once
"A faithful correspondent on the island," explained de Vasselot. "Though
why he is faithful I cannot tell you. Some family legend, perhaps--I
cannot tell. It is the Abbe Susini of Olmeta who has told me this. He it
was who told me of your--well, I can only call it your misfortune,
mademoiselle. For there is assuredly a curse upon Corsica as there is
upon Ireland. It cannot govern itself, and no other can govern it. The
Napoleons have been the only men to make anything of the island, but a
man who is driving a pair of horses down the Champs Elysees cannot give
much thought to his little dog that runs behind. And it is in the
Bonaparte blood to drive, not only a pair, but a four-in-hand in the
thickest traffic of the world. The Abbe Susini tells me that when the
emperor's hand was firm, Corsica was almost orderly, justice was almost
administered, banditism was for the moment made to feel the hand of the
law, and the authorities could count the number of outlaws evading their
grip in the mountains. But since the emperor's illness has taken a
dangerous turn things have gone back again. Corsica is, it seems, a
weather-glass by which one may tell the state of the political weather in
France; and now it is disturbed, mademoiselle."
He had become graver as he spoke, and now found himself addressing Denise
almost as if she were a man. There is as much difference in listeners as
there is in talkers. And Lory de Vasselot, who belonged to the new school
of Frenchmen--the open-air, the vigorous, the sportsmanlike--found his
interlocutor listening with clear eyes fixed frankly on his face.
Intelligence betrays itself in listening more than in talking, and de
Vasselot, with characteristic and an eminently national intuition,
perceived that this girl from a covent school in the Rue du Cherche-Midi
was not a person to whom to address drawing-room generalities, and those
insults to the feminine comprehension which a bygone generation called
"But a woman need surely have nothing to fear," said Denise, who had the
habit of carrying her head rather high, and now spoke as if this implied
more than a mere trick of deportment.
"A woman! You are not going to Corsica, mademoiselle?"
"But I am," she answered.
De Vasselot turned thoughtfully, and brought forward a chair. He sat down
and gravely contemplated Mademoiselle Brun, whose attitude--upright in a
low chair, with crossed hands and a compressed mouth--betrayed nothing. A
Frenchman is not nearly so artificial as the shallow British observer has
been pleased to conclude. He is, in fact, much more a child of nature
than either an Englishman or a German. Lory de Vasselot's expression said
as plainly as words to Mademoiselle Brun--
"And what have _you_ been about?"
It was so obvious that Mademoiselle Brun, almost imperceptibly, shrugged
one shoulder. She was powerless, it appeared.
"But, if you will permit me to say so," said Lory, sitting down and
drawing near to Denise in his earnestness, "that is impossible. I will
not trouble you with details, but it is an impossibility. I understand
that Mattei Perucca and his agent were the two strongest men in the
northern district, and they only attempted to hold their own, nothing
more. With the result that you know."
"But there are many ways of attempting to hold one's own," persisted
Denise; and she shook her head with a wisdom which only belongs to youth.
De Vasselot spread out his hands in utter despair. The end of the world,
it seemed, was at hand. And Denise only laughed.
"And when I have regulated my own affairs, I will undertake the
management of your estate at a high salary," she said.
"There is only one thing to do," said Lory, gravely, "and I have done it
myself. I have abandoned the idea of ever receiving a halfpenny of rent.
I have allowed the land to go out of cultivation. The vine-terraces are
falling, the olive trees are dying for want of cultivation. A few
peasants graze their cattle in my garden, I understand. The house itself
is only saved from falling down by the fact that it is strongly built of
stone. I would sell for a mere song, if I could find a serious offer of
that trifle; but nobody buys land in Corsica--for the peasants recognize
no title deeds and respect no rights of ownership. I had indeed an offer
the other day, but it was undoubtedly a joke, and I treated it as such."
"Denise also has had an offer to buy the Perucca property," said
"Yes," said Denise, seeing his surprise. "And you would advise me to
"If it is a serious one, most decidedly."
"It is serious enough," answered Denise. "It is from a Colonel Gilbert,
an officer stationed at Bastia."
"Ah!" he exclaimed; and at that moment another caller entered the room,
and he rose with eager politeness.
So it happened that Mademoiselle Brun could not see his face, and was
left wondering what the exclamation meant.
Several other callers now appeared--persons of the Baroness de Melide's
own world, who had a hundred society tricks, and bowed or shook hands
according to the latest mode. This was not Mademoiselle Brun's world, and
she was not interested to hear the latest gossip from that hotbed of
scandal, the Tuileries, nor did the ever-changing face of the political
world command her attention. She therefore rose, and stiffly took her
leave. De Vasselot accompanied them to the hall.
Denise paused in the entrance, and turned to him.
"Seriously," she said, "do you advise me to accept this offer to sell
"I scarcely feel authorized to give you any advice upon the subject,"
answered Lory, reluctantly. "Though, after all, we are neighbours."
"Then, I should say not, mademoiselle. At all events, do nothing in
haste. And, if I may ask it, will you communicate with me before you
They had come in an open cab, which was waiting on the shady side of the
"A young man who changes his mind very quickly," commented Mademoiselle
Brun, as they drove away.
"The offender never pardons."
De Vasselot returned to the Baroness de Melide's pretty drawing-room, and
there, after the manner of his countrymen, made himself agreeable in that
vivacious manner which earns the contempt of all honest and, if one may
say so, thick-headed Englishmen. He laughed with one, and with another
almost wept. Indeed, to see him sympathize with an elderly countess whose
dog was grievously ill, one could only conclude that he too had placed
all his affections upon a canine life.
He outstayed the others, and then, holding out his hand to the baroness,
"Good-bye! What do you mean?"
"I am going to Corsica," he explained airily.
"But where did you get that idea, mon ami?"
"It came. A few moments ago, I made up my mind." And, with a gesture, he
described the arrival of the idea, apparently from heaven, upon his head,
and then a sideward jerk of the arm seemed to indicate the sudden and
irrevocable making up of his own mind.
"But what for?" cried the lady. "You were not even born there. Your
father died thirty years ago--you will not even find his tomb. Your dear
mother left the place in horror, just before you were born. Besides, you
promised her that you would never return to Corsica--and she who has been
dead only five years! Is it filial, I ask you, my cousin? Is it filial?"
"Such a promise, of course, only held good during her lifetime," answered
Lory. "Since there is no one left behind to be anxious on my account, it
is assuredly no one's affair whether I go or stay."
"And now you are asking me to say it will break my heart if you go," said
the baroness, with a gay glance of her brown eyes; "and you may ask--and
She shook hands as she spoke.
"Go, ingratitude!" she said. "But tell me, what will bring you back?"
"War," he answered, with a laugh, pausing for a moment on the threshold.
And three days later Lory de Vasselot stood on the deck of a small
trading steamer that rolled sideways into Calvi Bay, on the shoulder, as
it were, of one of those March mistrals which serve as the last kick of
the dying winter. De Vasselot had taken the first steamer he could find
at Marseilles, with a fine disregard for personal comfort, which was part
of his military training and parcel of his sporting instincts. He was,
like many islanders, a good sailor, for, strange as it may seem, a man
may inherit from his forefathers not only a taste for the sea, but a
stout heart to face its grievous sickness.
There are few finer sights than Calvi Bay when the heavens are clear and
the great mountains of the interior tower above the bare coast-hills. But
now the clouds hung low over the island, and the shape of the heights was
only suggested by a deeper shadow in the grey mist. The little town
nestling on a promontory looked gloomy and deserted with its small square
houses and medieval fortress--Calvi the faithful, that fought so bravely
for the Genoese masters whose mark lies in every angle of its square
stronghold; Calvi, where, if (as seems likely) the local historian is to
be believed, the greatest of all sailors was born, within a day's ride of
that other sordid little town where the greatest of all soldiers first
saw the light. Assuredly Corsica has done its duty--has played its part
in the world's history--with Christopher Columbus and Napoleon as leading
De Vasselot landed in a small boat, carrying his own simple luggage. He
had not been very sociable on the trading steamer; had dined with the
captain, and now bade him farewell without an exchange of names. There is
a small inn on the wharf facing the anchorage and the wave-washed steps
where the fishing-boats lie. Here the traveller had a better lunch than
the exterior of the house would appear to promise, and found it easy
enough to keep his own counsel; for he was now in Corsica, where silence
is not only golden, but speech is apt to be fatal.
"I am going to St. Florent," he said to the woman who had waited on him.
"Can I have a carriage or a horse? I am indifferent which."
"You can have a horse," was the reply, "and leave it at Rutali's at St.
Florent when you have done with it. The price is ten francs. There are
parts of the road impassable for a carriage in this wind."
De Vasselot replied by handing her ten francs, and asked no further
questions. If you wish to answer no questions, ask none.
The horse presently appeared, a little thin beast, all wires, carrying
its head too high, boring impatiently--masterful, intractable.
"He wants riding," said the man who led him to the door, half sailor,
half stableman, who made fast de Vasselot's portmanteau to the front of
the high Spanish saddle with a piece of tarry rope and simple nautical
He nodded curtly, with an upward jerk of the head, as Lory climbed into
the saddle and rode away; for there is nothing so difficult to conceal as
"A soldier," muttered the stable-man. "A gendarme, as likely as not."
De Vasselot did not ask the way, but trusted to Fortune, who as usual
favoured him who left her a free hand. There is but one street in Calvi,
but one way out of the town, and a cross-road leading north and south.
Lory turned to the north. He had a map in his pocket, which he knew
almost by heart; for he was an officer of the finest cavalry in the
world, and knew his business as well as any. And it is the business of
the individual trooper to find his way in an unknown country. That a
couple of hours' hard riding brought him to his own lands, de Vasselot
knew not nor heeded, for he was aware that he could establish his rights
only by force of martial law, and with a miniature army at his back; for
civil law here is paralyzed by a cloud of false witnesses, while equity
is administered by a jury which is under the influence of the two
strongest of human motives, greed and fear.
At times the solitary rider mounted into the clouds that hung low upon
the hills, shutting in the valleys beneath their grey canopy, and again
descended to deep gorges; where brown water churned in narrow places. And
at all times he was alone. For the Government has built roads through
these rocky places, but it has not yet succeeded in making traffic upon
With the quickness of his race de Vasselot noted everything--the trend of
the watersheds, the colour of the water, the prevailing wind as indicated
by the growth of the trees--a hundred petty details of Nature which would
escape any but a trained comprehension, or that wonderful eye with which
some men are born, who cannot but be gipsies all their lives, whether
fate has made them rich or poor; who cannot live in towns, but must
breathe the air of open heaven, and deal by sea or land with the wondrous
works of God.
It was growing dusk when de Vasselot crossed the bridge that spans the
Aliso--his own river, that ran through and all around his own land--and
urged his tired horse along the level causeway built across the old
river-bed into the town of St. Florent. The field-workers were returning
from vineyard and olive grove, but appeared to take little heed of him as
he trotted past them on the dusty road. These were no heavy, agricultural
boors, of the earth earthy, but lithe, dark-eyed men and women, who
tilled the ground grudgingly, because they had no choice between that and
starvation. Their lack of curiosity arose, not from stupidity, but from a
sort of pride which is only seen in Spain and certain South American
States. The proudest man is he who is sufficient for himself.
A single inquiry enabled de Vasselot to find the house of Rutali; for St.
Florent is a small place, with Ichabod written large on its crumbling
houses. It was a house like another--that is to say, the ground floor was
a stable, while the family lived above in an atmosphere of its own and
the stable drainage.
The traveller gave Rutali a small coin, which was coldly accepted--for a
Corsican never refuses money like a Spaniard, but accepts it grudgingly,
mindful of the insult--and left St. Florent by the road that he had come,
on foot, humbly carrying his own portmanteau. Thus Lory de Vasselot, went
through his paternal acres with a map. His intention was to catch a
glimpse of the Chateau de Vasselot, and walk on to the village of Olmeta,
and there beg bed and board from his faithful correspondent, the Abbe
He followed the causeway across the marsh to the mouth of the river, and
here turned to the left, leaving the _route nationale_ to Calvi on the
right. That which he now followed was the narrower _route
departementale_, which borders the course of the stream Guadelle, a
tributary to the Aliso. The valley is flat here--a mere level of river
deposit, damp in winter, but dry and sandy in the autumn. Here are
cornfields and vineyards all in one, with olives and almonds growing amid
the wheat--a promised land of milk and honey. There are no walls, but
great hedges of aloe and prickly pear serve as a sterner landmark. At the
side of the road are here and there a few crosses--the silent witnesses
that stand on either side of every Corsican road--marking the spot where
such and such a one met his death, or was found dead by his friends.
Above, perched on the slope that rises abruptly on the left-hand side of
the road, the village of Oletta looks out over the plain towards St.
Florent and the sea--a few brown houses of dusky stone, with roofs of
stone; a square-towered church, built just where the cultivation ceases
and the rocks and the macquis begin.
De Vasselot quitted the road where it begins sharply to ascend, and took
the narrow path that follows the course of the river, winding through the
olive groves around the great rock that forms a shoulder of Monte Torre,
and breaks off abruptly in a sheer cliff. He looked upward with a
soldier's eye at this spot, designed by nature as the site of a fort
which could command the whole valley and the roads to Corte and Calvi.