THE ISLE OF UNREST
BY 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 VI. NEIGHBOURS VII. JOURNEY'S END VIII. AT VASSELOT IX. THE PROMISED LAND X. THUS FAR XI. BY SURPRISE XII. A SUMMONS XIII. WAR XIV. GOSSIP XV. WAR XVI. A MASTERFUL MAN XVII. WITHOUT DRUM OR TRUMPET XVIII. A WOMAN OF ACTION XIX. THE SEARCH XX. WOUNDED 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 XXVIII. GOLD 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 unheeded.
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 horror.
"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 this—this—"
"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 virtuous community.
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 child's face.
"There," he said to the woman, "take him home, for I hear the gendarmes coming."
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 church steps.
"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 foolscap-size journals.
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 better.
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 fingers.
"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 place."
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 again.
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, no doubt."
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 in it.
"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 has enemies.
"L'intrigue c'est tromper son homme; L'habilete c'est faire qu'il se trompe lui-meme."
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 they parted.
"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 woman."
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 yellow—eh?"
He paused, and seeing that the other made no reply, continued in the same careless strain.
"If you or one of the other proprietors on this side of the mountains would sell—perhaps."
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 years.
"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, your stirrup!"
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 forage.
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 being courageous."
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 like."
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 mathematical mistress.
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 finger.
"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 outstretched hand.
"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 knees.
"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 yield—if any."
"But we can ask him those particulars."
"And pay for each answer," retorted Mademoiselle Brun, folding the letter reflectively.
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 new one.
"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 over.
"We shall descend into the well again to-morrow," she said, closing her books.
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 finished it.
"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 reason why.
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 on earth.
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 nearest.
"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 you."
"She is laughing at me," cried the baroness, shaking a vivacious forefinger at Mademoiselle Brun. "But I do not mind; we cannot all be wise—eh?"
"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 mademoiselle."
"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, mademoiselle."
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 was silenced.
"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 compliments.
"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 Mademoiselle Brun.
"Yes," said Denise, seeing his surprise. "And you would advise me to accept it?"
"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.