The Corsican Brothers, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 1.

DURING the early part of the month of March, in the year 1841, I traveled in Corsica.

There is nothing more agreeable than a journey through this picturesque country. Embarking at Toulon, you arrive in twenty hours at Ajaccio, or in twenty-four hours at Bastia, where you can either hire a horse for five francs per day, or purchase one for a hundred and fifty francs. Do not smile at the poorness of this price; the animal which you thus hire or buy, like that famous horse of the Gascon, which jumped from the Pont-Neuf into the Seine, does things which neither Prospero nor Nautilus could do, those heroes of the races of Chantilly and the Champ-de-Mars. He will go safely over roads where Balmah himself would have used cramp irons, and over bridges where even Auriol must have required a balance-pole.

As for the traveler, he has only to shut his eyes and let the animal go; the dangers of the road are not his business.

Besides, this horse, who surmounts with ease all the difficulties and impediments of the way, travels on an average fifteen leagues a day, without demanding any thing to eat or drink. From time to time, when you stop, in order to visit an old castle, built by some Seigneur, the hero and chief of a feudal tradition, or to take a sketch of some old tower built by the Genoese, the horse quietly crops the grass near him, or takes the bark from a tree, or perhaps licks some moss from the rocks, with which he is perfectly satisfied.

As for the night’s lodging, this is still more simple; the traveler arrives at some village, goes through the whole length of its principal street, selects the most commodious-looking house, and knocks at the door.

In a few minutes after, the master or mistress of the house appears at the threshold, invites the traveler to enter, offers him one half of his supper, and the whole of his bed, if he has but one, and the following day, while conducting him to the door, thanks him for the preference he has shown his house.

There is of course never any question of payment; your host would consider himself insulted by the most distant allusion to this subject. But if there should be a young female servant in the family, you may offer her a silk handkerchief, which mill make her a picturesque head-dress when she goes to the fête of Calvi or Corte.

Should the servant of the house be a male, he will be delighted to accept a stiletto, with which, should an opportunity offer, he might rid himself of an enemy.

It will be well, however, to inquire if the domestics are not poor relations of the master; this sometimes occurs, in which case they consent to accept for their services one or two piastres a month, with their board and lodging. And don’t believe that the masters who are thus served by their grandnephews and cousins in the fifteenth or twentieth degree, are more carelessly served for that. No such thing. Corsica, it is true, is a French department, but Corsica is yet very far from being France.

As for thieves, they are unknown in this country, but there are bandits in abundance; they must not be confounded with each other. Go without fear to Ajaccio, to Bastia, a purse filled with gold, hanging down from your saddlebow, and you will travel over the whole island, without having been exposed to the shadow of danger.

But do not go from Occana to Levaco, if you have an enemy who has denounced you as the object of his vengeance. I would not answer for your life during this short journey of two leagues only.

I was then in Corsica, as I have said before, in the beginning of March. I had arrived there from the island of Elba, had landed at Bastia, and bought there a horse at the price before mentioned. I had visited Corte and Ajaccio, and was now traveling in the province of Sartene.

The same day I went from Sartene to Sullacaro; although the distance was not great, I had to travel about ten leagues, on account of the windings of the road on a prominent point of the principal line of mountains forming the back-bone of the island, and which I had to cross. I had also provided myself with a guide for fear of getting lost.

At about 5 o’clock we arrived at the top of the hill which overlooks Olmeto and Sullacaro. Here me stopped for a moment.

“Where does your signoria intend to take lodgings?” asked my guide.

I cast my eyes upon a village lying at the foot of a hill, and which seemed almost deserted; a few females only appeared in the streets, walking very fast, and looking carefully around.

In consequence of the hospitable custom of which I have spoken before, I had but to make choice of one among the hundred or hundred and twenty houses which composed the village. I sought to discover the dwelling which seemed to offer the best chance for comfort. My eyes rested upon a square, stone mansion, built like a fortress, with machicoulis, a sort of iron grating, before the windows. This was the first time I had seen these domestic fortifications, but I must also say that the province of Sartene is the classical ground of the vendetta.

“Ha! very well,” said the guide, following with his eyes the direction of my hand, “we will go to Madame Savilia de Franchi’s . Very well — very well, indeed; your signoria has made a good choice, and I see that you do not lack experience.”

Let me not forget to mention that in the eighty-sixth department of France, the Italian language is constantly spoken.

“But,” said I, “is there not some impropriety in going thus to ask hospitality of a lady, for, if I understand you right, this house belongs to a female?”

“Without any doubt,” answered he, quite astonished, “but what impropriety can your signoria suppose there could be in so doing?”

“If this lady is young,” replied I, from a feeling of propriety, or perhaps, excuse me, of Parisian self-esteem, “cannot my presence at night under her roof expose her to observation?”

“Expose her?” answered the guide, evidently trying to give some meaning to this expression, which I had Italianized with the usual importance which characterizes us Frenchmen, when we conclude to run the risk of speaking a foreign language.

“Ah! certainly,” exclaimed I, beginning to feel a little impatient; “this lady is a widow, is she not?”

“Yes, eccellenza.”

“Well, will she be disposed to receive a young gentleman at her house?”

In 1851 I was thirty-six years and a half old, and I took great pleasure in giving myself the title of young gentleman.

“If she will receive a young gentleman?” repeated the guide; “well, what difference can it make to her, if you are young or old?”

I saw that I should get nothing out of him by this mode of questioning.

“How old is Madame Savilia?” said I.

“About forty.”

“Ah!” exclaimed I again, always pursuing my own ideas; “that is very well indeed. She has children, no doubt?”

“Two sons — haughty young gentlemen.”

“Shall I see them?”

“You’ll see one of them — the one who lives with her.”

“And the other?”

“The other lives at Paris.”

“What is their age?”

“Twenty-one years.”

“Both of them?”

“Yes, they are twins.”

“And what is their profession?”

“The one who is at Paris will be a lawyer.”

“And the other?”

“The other will be a Corsican.”

“Ah, ha!” exclaimed I, finding this answer the more characteristic as it was made in the most natural tone. “Well, then, let us go to the house of Madame Savilia de Franchi.”

We then continued our journey.

In ten minutes we entered the village. I then observed a circumstance, which I had not been able to discover at a distance from the top of the hill. Every house was fortified like that of Madame Savilia, not exactly with machicoulis, the poverty of their proprietors no doubt not permitting this luxury in their fortifications; but the lower part of the windows were simply guarded by thick planks, provided with openings large enough to pass a gun through. Other windows were furnished with bricks. I inquired from my guide what these loopholes were called here; he said they were called ”aretiere,” and this answer proved to me that the Corsican “vendetta” is of older date than the use of firearms.

As we advanced in the streets, the village took a more profound aspect of solitude and sadness. Several houses appeared to have sustained a siege, and bore numerous marks of bullets.

From time to time we saw through the loopholes the glance of an eye, which observed us in passing with curiosity; but it was impossible to discover whether those eyes belonged to a male or female.

We at length reached the house, which I had pointed out to my guide, and which, indeed, was the most respectable looking in the village. One thing only struck me with surprise — the house apparently fortified by machicoulis, which had first attracted my attention, was in reality not protected; that is, its windows had neither planks, nor bricks, nor loop-holes, but only common sashes, guarded at night by wooden shutters.

It is true that these shutters bore traces in which the eye of an observer could not fail to recognize bullet-holes. But they were evidently of long standing, and had probably been there some ten years or more.

My guide had hardly knocked at the door, when it was opened, not timidly, with hesitation and only half way, but promptly, and in all its width, and a footman made his appearance.

When I say a footman, I am mistaken, I should have said a man. It is the livery that makes the footman; but the man who opened the door for us, was simply dressed in a velvet vest and pantaloons of the same material, and leather spatterdashes. His pantaloons were tied at the waist by a sash of spotted silk, outside of which appeared the handle of a knife of Spanish fashion.

“My friend,” said I to him, “it is surely an indiscretion in a stranger who knows not a single soul in Sullacaro, to request the hospitality of your mistress?”

“No, certainly not, eccellenza,” said he, “the stranger confers a favor on the house where he stops. Maria,” continued he, speaking to a servant girl who came up behind him, “go and inform Madame Savilia that a French traveler calls upon her to receive hospitality.”

At the same time he descended the eight steps, stiff and upright, like the degrees of a ladder, which led from the entry door, and took my horse by the bridle.

I took advantage of this kind invitation to ease and indulgence, one of the most agreeable that can he made to a traveler. I then undertook to ascend with as little difficulty as possible the aforesaid ladder, and advanced some steps into the interior.

At a turn of the corridor, I suddenly found myself before a tall lady, dressed in black, apparently between thirty-eight and forty years of age, yet still beautiful. I immediately concluded that this was the mistress of the house, and I stopped.

“Madame,” said I, with a bow, “you will find me very indiscreet; but the custom of the country excuses me, and the invitation of your servant has authorized me to enter.”

“You are welcome to the mother,” answered Madame de Franchi, “and you will soon be welcomed by the son. From this moment, sir, the house belongs to you — dispose of it as your own.”

“I ask your hospitality for one night only, madame. To-morrow morning, at daybreak, I shall have to take my leave.”

“You are at liberty to do as you please, sir; but I hope you will abandon that plan, and favor us with a longer stay.”

I bowed a second time.

“Maria,” continued Madame de Franchi, “show the gentleman to Louis’ room. Make a fire immediately, and bring up some warm water. Excuse me,” continued she, addressing me again, while in the mean time the girl prepared to execute her orders, “I know that the first want of the traveler is fire and water. Please to follow the girl, and ask her for the things you may be in need of. We take supper in an hour, and my son, who will be in before that time, will have the pleasure, with your permission, of introducing himself to your presence.”

“You will excuse my traveling dress, I hope, madame.”

“Yes, sir,” said she, with a smile, “but on condition that on your side you will excuse the rusticity of this reception.”

The servant girl went up stairs — I bowed a last time, and followed her.

The room was situated in the first story, and had its windows on the back part of the house, commanding a view of a handsome garden, planted with myrtle trees and laurel roses; a charming rivulet passed through it, carrying its pure water to the Taravo. In the background the view was intercepted by a sort of hedge of fir trees, planted so near to each other as to have the appearance of a wall. Like all the rooms in Italian houses, the partition walls were whitewashed, and ornamented with landscapes painted in fresco.

I understood immediately that this room, which was the one formerly occupied by the now absent son, had been given to me as the most comfortable in the house.

I then took a fancy, while Maria was busily engaged in making the fire, and preparing warm water, to take an inventory of the furniture of my room, thinking it might give me some idea of the character of him who formerly occupied it.

From the project, I proceeded immediately to the execution of my plan, by turning on my left heel, and thus making a circular movement round my own centre, which permitted me to take a view of all the articles by which I was surrounded.

The furniture was quite modern, a circumstance which in this part of the island, where civilization had not yet reached, I considered an evidence of a refined and elegant taste. It consisted of an iron bedstead, provided with three mattresses and a pillow, of a divan, four arm-chairs, six chairs, two book-cases and a writing-desk, all in mahogany, and evidently proceeding from the shop of the first cabinet-maker of Ajaccio.

The divan, the armchairs and chairs, were covered with flower-printed calico, curtains of the same material surrounded the bed and shaded the windows.

I had proceeded thus far with my inventory, when Maria left the room, and thus permitted me to go further in my investigation.

I opened the library, and found there a collection of all our great poets: Corneille, Racine, Molière, Lafontaine, Ronsard, Victor Hugo and Lamartine; our historians, Mézeray, Chateaubriand, A. Thierry; our scientific men, Cuvier, Beudant, Elias de Beaumont; lastly, some volumes of novels, amongst which I discovered, with a certain pride, my Impressions de Voyage.

The keys were left on the drawers of the writing desk; I opened one of them.

It contained some manuscripts, fragments of a history of Corsica, a sketch on the means of abolishing the custom of the vendetta, some French verses, and a few Italian sonnets.

This was all I wanted, and I had the presumption to think that I needed nothing more to form a correct opinion of Mons. Louis de Franchi’s character.

I fancied he must of course be a peaceable, studious young man, and an admirer of French improvements and reform.

I then understood his reasons for going to Paris to study the law. There was no doubt a project of civilization in this pursuit.

These reflections I made while I was dressing. My toilette, as I had said to Madame de Franchi, though not lacking the picturesque, required some apology. It consisted of a black velvet jacket, open at the seams of the sleeves, in order to admit the air during the hottest part of the day, and through which crevàs é l’Espagnole appeared a striped silk shirt; a similar pair of breeches; Spanish spatterdashes covering the leg from the knee down to the foot, open at the side, and embroidered in silk of various colors, and a felt hat completed my toilette, the latter taking almost any form that I might give it, but most particularly that of a sombrero.

I was just putting a finish to this dress, which I recommend to travelers as the most comfortable that I know of, when my door opened, and the same man who had received me appeared. He came to inform me that his young master, Signor Lucien de Franchi, had just arrived, and requested the honor of welcoming me, provided I was visible.

I told him that I was ready to receive Signor Lucien de Franchi, and that all the honor of his visit would be conferred on me.

A moment after, I heard some one rapidly mounting the stairs, and my host immediately made his appearance.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dumas/alexandre_pere/corsican-brothers/chapter1.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37