I MUST confess that as I descended to the supper-room I could not help thinking of Lucien’s last remark, “The other is my mother’s carbine;” and this circumstance compelled me to regard Madame de Franchi more closely than I had hitherto done.
When her son entered the salle à manger, he respectfully kissed her hand, and she received this homage with queenly dignity.
“I am afraid that we have kept you waiting, mother,” said Lucien; “I must ask your pardon.”
“In any case, that would be my fault, madame,” I said, bowing to her. “Monsieur Lucien has been telling me and pointing out many curious things, and by my reiterated questions I have delayed him.”
“Rest assured,” she said, “I have not been kept waiting; I have but this moment come downstairs. But,” she continued, addressing Lucien, “I was rather anxious to ask you what news there was of Louis.”
“Your son has been ill, madame?” I asked.
“Lucien is afraid so,” she said.
“Have you received a letter from your brother?” I inquired.
“No,” he replied, “and that is the very thing that makes me uneasy.”
“But, then, how can you possibly tell that he is out of sorts?”
“Because during the last few days I have been suffering myself.”
“I hope you will excuse my continual questions; but, really, your answer does not make matters any clearer.”
“Well, you know that we are twins, don’t you?”
“Yes, my guide told me as much.”
“Were you also informed that when we came into the world we were joined together?”
“No; I was ignorant of that circumstance.”
“Well, then, it was a fact, and we were obliged to be cut asunder. So that, you see, however distant we may be, we have ever the same body, so that any impression, physical or moral, which one may receive is immediately reflected in the other. During the last few days I felt triste, morose, dull, and without any predisposing cause, so far as I am aware. I have experienced terrible pains in the region of the heart, and palpitations, so it is evident to me that my brother is suffering some great grief.”
I looked with astonishment at this young man, who affirmed such a strange thing without the slightest fear of contradiction, and his mother also appeared to entertain the same conviction as he did.
Madame de Franchi smiled sadly, and said, “The absent are in the hands of God, the great point is that you are certain that he is alive.”
“Yes,” replied Lucien, calmly, “for if he were dead I should have seen him.”
“And you would have told me, would you not, my son?”
“Oh, of course, mother, at once.”
“I am satisfied. Excuse me, monsieur,” she continued, turning to me, “I trust you will pardon my maternal anxiety. Not only are Louis and Lucien my sons, but they are the last of their race. Will you please take the chair at my right hand? Lucien, sit here.”
She indicated to the young man the vacant place at her left hand.
We seated ourselves at the extremity of a long table, at the opposite end of which were laid six other covers, destined for those who in Corsica are called the family; that is to say, the people who in large establishments occupy a position between the master and the servants.
The table was abundantly supplied with good cheer. But I confess that although at the moment blessed with a very good appetite, I contented myself with eating and drinking as it were mechanically, for my senses were not in any way attracted by the pleasures of the table. For, indeed, it appeared to me that I had entered into a strange world when I came into that house, and that I was now living in a dream.
Who could this woman be who was accustomed to carry a carbine like a soldier?
What sort of person could this brother be, who felt the same grief that his brother experienced at a distance of three hundred leagues?
What sort of mother could this be who made her son declare that if he saw the spirit of his dead brother he would tell her at once?
These were the questions that perplexed me, and it will be readily understood they gave me ample food for thought.
However, feeling that continual silence was not polite, I made an effort to collect my ideas. I looked up.
The mother and son at the same instant perceived that I wished to enter into conversation.
“So,” said Lucien to me, as if he were continuing his remarks, “so you made up your mind to come to Corsica?”
“Yes, as you see, I had for a long time had a desire to do so, and at last I have accomplished it.”
“Ma foi! you have done well not to delay your visit; for with the successive encroachments of French tastes and manners those who come to look for Corsica in a few years will not find it.”
“However,” I replied, “if the ancient national spirit retires before civilization and takes refuge in any corner of the island, it certainly will be in the province of Sartène, and in the valley of the Tavaro.”
“Do you think so, really?” said the young man, smiling.
“Yes, and it appears to me that here at the present moment there is a beautiful and noble tablet of ancient Corsican manners.”
“Yes, and nevertheless, even here, between my mother and myself, in the face of four hundred years of reminiscences of this old fortified mansion, the French spirit has come to seek out my brother—has carried him away to Paris, when he will return to us a lawyer. He will live in Ajaccio instead of dwelling in his ancestral home. He will plead—if he possess the talent—he may be nominated procureur du roi perhaps; then he will pursue the poor devils who have ‘taken a skin,’ as they say here. He will confound the assassin with the avenger—as you yourself have done already. He will demand, in the name of the law, the heads of those who had done what their fathers would have considered themselves dishonoured not to have done. He will substitute the judgment of men for the justice of God; and in the evening, when he shall have claimed a head for the scaffold, he will believe that he has performed his duty, and has brought his stone as a tribute to the temple of Civilization, as our préfect says. Oh! mon Dieu! mon Dieu!”
The young man raised his eyes to heaven, as Hannibal is reported to have done after the battle of Zama.
“But,” I replied, “you must confess that it is the will of God to equalize these things, since in making your brother a proselyte of the new order He has kept you here as a representative of the old manners and customs.”
“Yes; but what is there to prove that my brother will not follow the example of his uncle instead of following mine? And even I myself may be about to do something unworthy of a de Franchi.”
“You!” I exclaimed, with astonishment.
“Yes, I. Do you wish me to tell you why you have come into this province of Sartène?”
“Yes, tell me.”
“You have come here to satisfy your curiosity as a man of the world, an artist, or a poet. I do not know what you are, nor do I ask; you can tell us when you leave, if you wish; if not, you need not inform us; you are perfectly free to do as you like. Well, you have come in the hope of seeing some village Vendetta, of being introduced to some original bandit, such as Mr. Merimée has described in ‘Columba.’ ”
“Well, it appears to me that I have not made such a bad choice, for if my eyes do not deceive me, your house is the only one in the village that is not fortified.”
“That only proves I have degenerated, as I have said. My father, my grandfather, and my ancestors for many generations have always taken one side or the other in the disputes which in the last ten years have divided the village. And do you know what I have become in the midst of musket shots and stabs? Well, I am the arbitrator. You have come into the province of Sartène to see bandits; is not that the fact? So come with me this evening and I will show you one.”
“What! will you really allow me to go with you this evening?”
“Certainly, if it will amuse you. It entirely depends upon yourself.”
“I accept, then, with much pleasure.”
“Our guest is fatigued,” said Madame de Franchi, looking meaningly at her son, as if she felt ashamed Corsica had so far degenerated.
“No, mother, no, he had better come; and when in some Parisian salon people talk of the terrible Vendettas, of the implacable Corsican bandits who strike terror into the hearts of children in Bastia and Ajaccio, he will be able to tell them how things actually are.”
“But what is the great motive for this feud, which, as I understand, is now by your intercession to be for ever extinguished?”
“Oh,” replied Lucien, “in a quarrel it is not the motive that matters, it is the result. If a fly causes a man’s death the man is none the less dead because a fly caused it.”
I saw that he hesitated to tell me the cause of this terrible war, which for the last ten years had desolated the village of Sullacaro.
But, as may be imagined, the more he attempted to conceal it the more anxious I was to discover it.
“But,” said I, “this quarrel must have a motive; is that motive a secret?”
“Good gracious, no! The mischief arose between the Orlandi and the Colona.”
“On what occasion?”
“Well, a fowl escaped from the farm yard of the Orlandi and flew into that of the Colona.
“The Orlandi attempted to get back the hen, the Colona declared it belonged to them. The Orlandi then threatened to bring the Colona before the judge and make them declare on oath it was theirs. And then the old woman in whose house the hen had taken refuge wrung its neck, and threw the dead fowl into her neighbour’s face, saying—
“ ‘Well, then, if it belongs to you, eat it.’
“Then one of the Orlandi picked up the fowl by the feet, and attempted to beat the person who had thrown it in his sister’s face; but just as he was about to do so, one of the Colona appeared, who, unfortunately, carried a loaded gun, and he immediately sent a bullet through the Orlandi’s heart.”
“And how many lives have been sacrificed since?”
“Nine people have been killed altogether.”
“And all for a miserable hen not worth twelve sous?”
“Yes, but as I said just now, it is not the cause, but the effect that we have to look at.”
“Since there were nine people killed, then, there might easily be a dozen.”
“Yes, very likely there would be if they had not appointed me as arbitrator.”
“At the intercession of one of the two families no doubt?”
“Oh! dear no, at my brother’s request, who heard of the matter at the Chancellor’s house. I asked him what on earth they had to do in Paris with the affairs of an out-of-the-way little village in Corsica; but it seems the préfect mentioned it when he wrote to Paris, and said that if I were to say a word the whole thing would finish like a farce, by a marriage and a public recitation; so my brother took the hint, and replied he would answer for me. What could I do?” added the young man, throwing back his head proudly; “it shall never be said that a de Franchi passed his word for his brother, and that his brother did not fulfil the engagement.”
“And so you have arranged everything?”
“I am afraid so.”
“And we shall see the chief of one of these two parties this evening, no doubt?”
“Just so; last night I saw the other.”
“Are we going to see an Orlandi or a Colona?”
“Is it far from here?”
“In the ruins of the Castle of Vicentello d’Istria.”
“Ah! yes—they told me those ruins were close by.”
“Yes, they are about a league from here.”
“So in three-quarters of an hour we shall be there?”
“Yes, in about that time.”
“Lucien,” said Madame de Franchi, “remember you speak for yourself. For a mountaineer as you are it is scarcely three-quarters of an hour distance, but recollect that our guest may not be able to proceed so quickly.”
“That is true; we had better allow ourselves an hour and a half at least.”
“In that case you have no time to lose,” said Madame de Franchi, as she glanced at the clock.
“Mother,” said Lucien as he rose, “you will excuse our leaving you, will you not?”
She extended her hand to him, and the young man kissed it with the same respect as he had previously done.
Then turning to me, Lucien said—
“If you prefer to finish your supper quietly, and to smoke your cigar afterwards——”
“No, no!” I cried; “hang it, you have promised me a bandit, and I must have one.”
“Well, then, let us take our guns and be off.”
I bowed respectfully to Madame de Franchi, and we left the room, preceded by Griffo, who carried a light.
Our preparations did not occupy us very long.
I clasped a travelling belt round my waist, from which was suspended a sort of hunting-knife, and in the folds of which I carried powder and ball.
Lucien soon re-appeared with his cartridge case, and carrying a double-barrelled Manton, and a sort of peaked cap, woven for him by some Penelope of Sullacaro.
“Shall I go with your Excellency?” asked Griffo.
“No, it will be useless,” replied Lucien; “but you may as well loose Diamond, as we might put up a pheasant, and the moon is so clear we should be able to shoot as well as in daylight.”
An instant afterwards a great spaniel bounded out, and jumped joyously around its master.
We had not gone many paces from the house when Lucien turned round and said—
“By-the-by, Griffo, tell them if they hear any shots on the mountain that it is we who have fired them.”
“Very well, your Excellency.”
“If we did not take some such precautions,” said Lucien, “they would think that hostilities had recommenced, and we should soon hear our shots echoing in the streets of Sullacaro. A little farther on you will see a footpath to the right that will lead us directly up the mountain.”