Image: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Translated by Corry Cropper, 2005.
Leaving Porto-Vecchio and heading to the northwest, toward the interior of the island, the traveler sees the terrain rise fairly quickly, and, after three hours of walking on torturous trails, obstructed by large boulders, and sometimes severed by ravines, he arrives at the edge of an expansive maquis. The maquis is the homeland of Corsican shepherds and of anyone who has had difficulties with the law. It is important to understand that the Corsican farmer, to avoid fertilizing his field, burns a certain swath of the forest: too bad if the fire spreads farther than needed; whatever happens, one is sure to have a good harvest when sowing in ground that has been fertilized by the ashes of the trees that once grew upon it. Once the grain is removed–the stalks are left, since they would be too much trouble to gather in–tree roots that are still in the ground and avoided the flames produce thick shoots the following Spring that, in a few years, can reach up to seven or eight feet high. It is this dense thicket that is called a maquis. It is made up of shoots from all kinds of trees and bushes, wildly mixed up and intertwined. Only with a machete in hand can man open a passageway for himself and we see maquis so overgrown and dense that even mountain sheep cannot penetrate them.
If you kill a man, go into the Porto-Vecchio maquis and, with a good rifle, some powder and bullets, you can avoid being arrested; don’t forget a brown coat with a hood that will serve as both a blanket and a mattress. The shepherds will give you milk, cheese and chestnuts; and you will only need to fear the police or the family of your victim when you have to go down into the city to replenish your munitions.
Mateo Falcone, when I was in Corsica, in 18–, lived about a mile from this maquis. He was a fairly rich man for his country; living nobly, that is, without doing anything, earning a living off the product of his herds that shepherds, a race of nomads, would lead to graze about the mountains. When I saw him, two years after the event that I will relate, he seemed about fifty years old at most. Imagine a small but robust man with wavy, jet-black hair, an aquiline nose, thin lips, large, wide eyes with leathery, boot-like skin. His shooting skills were considered extraordinary, even in his country, where there are so many good shooters. Mateo would never shoot at a mountain sheep with a shotgun, for example, but from a hundred and twenty feet he would kill it with a single bullet in the head or the shoulder, as he chose. At night, he employed his weapons as effortlessly as he did during the day, and I was told of something he did that will perhaps seem unbelievable to those who have not traveled in Corsica. At eighty paces a lighted candle was placed behind a transparent target the size of a plate. He took aim as the candle was blown out, and, after one minute, in complete darkness, he would shoot and strike the target three out of four times.
With this kind of transcendent talent, Mateo Falcone enjoyed an excellent reputation. He was considered a good friend as well as a dangerous enemy. Moreover, he served his neighbors, gave to the poor, and lived in peace with everyone in the district of Porto-Vecchio. But there was a rumor that in Corte, where he had taken a bride, he had vigorously eliminated a rival who was as feared in war as in love: at least a certain gun shot that killed this rival while shaving near his window in front of a little mirror was attributed to Mateo. Once that situation calmed down, Mateo married. His wife, Giuseppa, first gave him three daughters (infuriating him), and finally a son that he named Fortunato: he was the hope of his family, the one who would carry on the name. The girls married well: when needed their father could count on the knives and pistols of his sons-in-law. The son was only ten, but he already gave signs of fulfilling his father’s expectations.
On a certain autumn day, Mateo left early with his wife to visit one of his herds in a clearing in the maquis. Little Fortunato wanted to go with him but the clearing was too far away; moreover, someone needed to stay and watch the house; so the father refused: we will see if he ends up regretting this decision.
He had been gone for two hours, and little Fortunato was tranquilly lying in the sun, looking at the blue mountains and thinking that next Sunday he would go dine in the city at the home of his uncle, the Caporal (1). His daydreaming was suddenly interrupted by gunfire. He stood up and turned toward the field where he had heard the sound. More shots followed, fired at unequal intervals and each time a bit closer; finally, in the trail that connected the field to Mateo’s house, a man appeared, wearing a pointed had like those worn by the Corsican mountain men, bearded, dressed in rags, and limping along leaning on his rifle. He had just been shot in the hip.
This man was a bandit (2) who, having left at night to go buy gunpowder in the city, had fallen into an ambush by Corsican voltigeurs (3). After a vigorous defense, he managed to retreat, hotly pursued while firing from rock to rock. But he was only a little ahead of the soldiers, and his wound made it impossible for him to reach the maquis before being overtaken.
He approached Fortunato and said to him!
“Are you Mateo Falcone’s son?”
“I am Gianetto Sanpiero. The yellow collars are chasing me (4). Hide me. I can’t go any farther.”
“And what will my father say if I hide you without his permission?”
“He’ll say that you did well.”
“Hide me fast; they’re coming.”
“Wait for my father to come back.”
“Wait! Damn it! They’ll be here in five minutes. Come on. Hide me or I’ll kill you.”
Fortunato calmly answered him:
“You’re rifle is empty, and you don’t have any more rounds in you carchera (5).”
“I have my stiletto.”
“But can you run as fast as I can?” He leapt out of range.
“You are not Mateo Falcone’s son! Will you let me stop in front of your house?”
The child seemed touched.
“What will you give me if I hide you?” he said as he came nearer.
The bandit searched a leather pocket hanging from his belt, and he took out a five-franc coin that he had undoubtedly saved to buy gunpowder. Fortunato smiled at the sight of the silver coin; he took it and told Gianetto: “Don’t worry.”
He immediately made a large hole in a haystack next to the house. Gianetto crept inside and the child covered him up in such a manner as to leave him some breathing room, while making it impossible to guess that the hay hid a man. He thought, additionally, of a savage, ingenious little trick. He went and got a cat and her kittens and placed them on the haystack to make it seem that it hadn’t been disturbed for some time. Then, noticing the drops of blood on the trail next to the house, he carefully covered them with dust, and, once that was done, he tranquilly lay back down in the sun.
Several minutes later, six men in brown uniforms with yellow collars and commanded by an adjutant, were in front of Mateo’s door. This adjutant was a distant relative of Falcone. (We know that in Corsica, family relationships are followed much further than elsewhere.) His name was Tiodoro Gamba: he was an active man, feared by banditsâ€”he had already tracked down several of them.
“Hello, little cousin,” he said to Fortunato as he approached him; “My how you have grown! Did you see a man go by here a few minutes ago?”
“Oh! I’m still not as big as you, cousin,” the child replied coyly.
“You’ll grow soon enough. But didn’t you see a man go by? Tell me.”
“Did I see a man?”
“Yes, a man with a pointed hat of black velour and a vest embroidered in red and yellow?”
“A man with a pointed hat and a red and yellow vest?”
“Yes, answer quickly and don’t repeat my questions.”
“This morning, the priest went by our door on his horse Piero. He asked me how dad was and I answered that…
“Hey! Little smart-ass, stop being deceptive! Tell me quickly where Gianetto went. We’re looking for him; and I’m certain he took this trail.”
“Who knows? I know that you saw him.”
“Do you see people going by when you’re asleep?”
“You weren’t sleeping, worthless brat; the shooting woke you up.”
“So, cousin, you think that your rifles make that much noise. My father’s pistol makes a lot more.”
“Go to hell! Little wretch! I am certain that you saw Gianetto. Maybe you even hid him. Come on men, go into this house and see if our man isn’t there. He was only going on one paw and he’s got too much sense, that one, to have tried to reach the maquis with a limp. Besides, the trail of blood stops here.”
“And what will dad say?” asked Fortunato with a laugh. “What will he say if he knows you went into his house while he was out?
“Worthless brat!” said Gamba as he took him by the ear. “Don’t you know that I can make you change your tune? Maybe if I smack you twenty times with the flat of my sword you’ll start singing.”
And Fortunato kept grinning.
“My father is Mateo Falcone!” he said emphatically.
“You know, little wretch, I can take you to Corte and to Bastia. I’ll make you sleep in a cell, on straw, with irons on your ankles, and I’ll have you guillotined if you don’t tell me where Gianetto Sanpiero is.”
The child burst in to laughter at this ridiculous threat. He repeated, “My father is Mateo Falcone!”
“Adjutant,” said one of the voltigeurs quietly, “Let’s not offend Mateo.”
Gamba was obviously at a loss. He whispered with his soldiers who had already searched the entire house. This was not a long operation, since a Corsican’s cabin is made up of a single square room. The furniture is nothing more than a table, benches, trunks and a few odds and ends for hunting or cooking. All the while, little Fortunato stroked his cat and seemed to enjoy the confusion of the voltigeurs and of his cousin.
A soldier walked up to the haystack. He saw the cat and thrust his bayonet into the hay, shrugging his shoulders as if he felt that this precaution was ridiculous. Nothing moved; and the child’s face did not betray the slightest emotion.
The adjutant and his troops had no idea what to think; they were already seriously looking back at the field as if ready to go back the way they had come, when their leader, convinced that threats would have not effect on Falcone’s son, wanted to have one more go and try the power of caresses and gifts.
“Little cousin,” he said, “you seem very bright to me! You’ll go far. But you’re playing a mean game with me; and if I didn’t fear troubling my cousin Mateo, damn it, I’d take you with me.”
“But when my cousin comes back, I’ll tell him what happened, and for having lied to me he’ll spank you until you bleed.”
“You’ll see… but, say… be a good boy and I’ll give you something.”
“Cousin, I’ll give you my opinion: if you wait any longer, Gianetto will be in the maquis and then it’ll take more than one brute like you to go in and get him.”
The adjutant pulled a silver watch from his pocket that was worth at least 20 francs; and, noticing that little Fortunato’s eyes sparkled when he saw it, while holding the watch by the end of its steel chain, he told him, “Rascal! You’d like to have a watch like this one hanging from your collar, and you’d walk around the streets of Porto-Vecchio, proud as a peacock; and people would ask you: ‘What time is it?’ and you would say: ‘look at my watch.'”
“When I’m grown up, my uncle, the Caporal, will give me a watch.”
“Yes. But your uncle’s son already has one… not as nice as this one, to be sure… But he is younger than you.”
The child sighed.
“Well, do you want this watch, little cousin?”
Fortunato, staring at the watch out of the corner of his eye, looked like a cat that has just been given an entire chicken. Since he thinks he’s being tricked he doesn’t dare stretch out his claws and, from time to time, he turns his eyes away in order to avoid the temptation; but he licks his chops all the while and he seems to say to his master: “Your joke is cruel!”
The adjutant Gamba, however, seemed to be acting in good faith in offering his watch. Fortunato did not reach for the watch but said to him with a bitter smile: “Why are you teasing me?”
“I swear! I am not teasing. Just tell me where Gianetto is and this watch is yours.”
Fortunato let a small incredulous smile form on his lips and, fixing his black eyes on the adjutants’, he attempted to read his level of sincerity.
“May I lose my stripes,” the adjutant exclaimed, “if I don’t give you the watch after you’ve told me! My men are witnesses; and I can’t go back on my promise.”
As he spoke he moved the watch closer until it nearly touched the child’s pale cheek. Fortunato’s face revealed the combat going on inside him between lust and proper respect for the rules of hospitality. His naked chest rose forcefully and he seemed on the verge of suffocating. At the same time, the watch swung back and forth, turned and even touched the end of his nose several times. Finally, little by little, his right hand rose to the watch: the end of his fingers touched it; then he held it completely in his hand while the adjutant kept a hold of the end of the chain… the watch’s face was azure… its frame newly refurbished… in the sun it seemed made of fire…. The temptation was too strong.
Fortunato lifted his left hand and pointed with his thumb, over his shoulder, at the haystack he was leaning on. The adjutant understood immediately. He let go of the end of the chain; Fortunato felt himself the sole owner of the watch. He stood up with the agility of a deer and went ten feet away from the haystack that the voltigeurs began to stir up.
It was not long before the hay began to move and a bleeding man, knife in hand, emerged: but as he tried to stand up, his now cold wound would not allow him to stay on his feet. He fell. The adjutant threw himself on him and tore his knife from his hand. He was quickly and securely bound despite his resistance.
Gianetto, lying on the ground and tied like a bundle of sticks, turned his head toward Fortunato, who had come closer. “Son of a…!” he said to him with more contempt than anger. The child threw the silver coin he had received to him, feeling that he no longer deserved it; but the outlaw did not seem to pay any attention to this gesture. He told the adjutant calmly: “My dear Gamba, I cannot walk; you will have to carry me to town.”
“You were just running as fast as a mountain goat,” the cruel victor retorted; “But don’t worry: I’m so happy to have caught you that I would carry you two miles on my back without getting tired. I tell you what, friend, we’re going to make a stretcher out of some branches and your coat; and at Crespoli’s farm we’ll find some horses.”
“Good,” the prisoner said; “Put a little straw on the stretcher, too, so I can be more comfortable.”
While the voltigeurs were making a stretcher for Gianetto out of chestnut branches and bandaging his wound, Mateo Falcone and his wife appeared suddenly at a bend in a trail leading from the maquis. The woman advanced with difficulty, bending under the weight of an enormous bag of chestnuts, while her husband strolled along, carrying only a rifle in his hand and another over his shoulder; for it is shameful for a man to carry anything but his weapons.
At the sight of the soldiers, Mateo’s first thought was that they had come to arrest him. But why? Did Mateo have anything to answer for to the law? No. He had a good reputation. He was, as they say, a highly regarded individual; but he was Corsican and from the mountains and there are but few Corsicans from the mountains who, when examining their past, cannot think of some little peccadillo, like shootings, stabbings and other trifles. Mateo, more than most, had a clean conscience; it had been over ten years since he aimed his rifle at a man; but he needed to be careful and he got into a defensive posture just in case.
“Woman,” he said to Giuseppa, “put down your sack and get ready.” She obeyed immediately. He gave her the rifle that he had around his shoulder and that could have hindered him. He loaded the one he was carrying and walked slowly toward his house, staying in the trees that lined the trail and ready, at the slightest hostile move, to get behind a large trunk in order to fire from a protected position. His wife walked just behind him, holding his second rifle and his ammo belt. The duty of a good wife, should a fight break out, is to load her husband’s weapons.
On the other side, the adjutant was extremely troubled to see Mateo coming toward him from tree trunk to tree trunk, his rifle in the ready position and his finger on the trigger. He thought: what if Mateo happened to be a relative of Gianetto or if he was a friend that he would want to defend, the bullets of his two rifles would certainly hit two of us, and if he aimed at me, regardless of our family ties!…
In this difficult situation, he made a courageous decision: he decided to walk alone toward Mateo and tell him what had happened, greeting him like an old friend; but the short distance that seperated him from Mateo seemed terribly wide.
“Hello! Hey! Old friend,” he shouted, “how are you? It’s me, Gamba, your cousin.”
Mateo, without replying, had stopped and, as the other man spoke, he lifted up the end of his rifle, pointing it to the sky by the time the adjutant reached him.
“Hello, brother,” (6) the adjutant said extending his hand. “I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“I was just passing by and wanted to stop and say, ‘hello,’ to you and my cousin Pepa. We’ve had a long hike today; but we aren’t at all tired because we got some big game. We just collared Gianetto Sanpiero.”
“God be praised!” Giuseppa cried. “He stole a milk goat from us last week.”
These words relieved Gamba.
“Poor devil!” Mateo said, “he was hungry.”
“He defended himself like a lion,” continued the adjutant, somewhat mortified; “He killed one of my men and, not satisfied with that, he broke corporal Chardon’s arm. But there’s not much harm done in that: he’s French… After that he hid so well that the devil himself couldn’t have found him. Without my little cousin Fortunato, I never could have found him.”
“Fortunato!” Mateo cried.
“Fortunato!” Giuseppa repeated.
“Yeah, Gianetto had hidden under that haystack over there; but my little cousin showed me his trick. I’ll tell my uncle the Caporal about it so that he can send him a nice gift for his trouble. And his name and yours will be in the report that I’ll send to the Attorney General’s office.
“Damn it!” Mateo said under his breath.
They had arrived at the house. Gianetto was already reclining on his stretcher, ready to leave. When he saw Mateo in the company of Gamba, he smiled a strange smile; then, turning toward the door of the house, he spit on the porch and said: “House of a traitor!”
Only a man determined to die would dare pronounce the word “traitor” when applying it to Falcone. A knife blade through the throat would have instantly repaid the insult. But Mateo made no other gesture than to bring his hand to his forehead like a man weighed down with problems.
Fortunato had gone into the house when he saw his father arrive. He reappeared soon with a cup of milk that he presented with downturned eyes to Gianetto. “Get away from me,” yelled the outlaw in a thundering voice. Then, turning to one of the soldiers: “Comrade, give me a drink,” he said. The soldier held his gourd to his lips and bandit drank the water given to him by a man with whom he had just exchanged gunfire. Then he asked that his hands be tied in front of him instead of behind his back. “I like to be comfortable,” he said. The soldiers quickly accomadated him; then the adjutant gave the signal to leave, said goodbye to Mateo, who didn’t answer, and quickly walked to the field below.
Ten minutes passed before Mateo spoke. The child’s worried gaze went from his mother to his father who, leaning on his rifle, looked at him with an expression of concentrated anger.
“You’re starting well!” Mateo finally said in a calm voice that would frighten those who knew the man.
“My father!” the child cried out as, with tears in his eye, he walked toward his father as if he were going to throw himself at his feet. But Mateo yelled at him: “Behind me!” And the child stopped a few feet away from his father and sobbed, motionless.
Giuseppa approached. She had just noticed the watch chain sticking out of Fortunato’s shirt.
“Who gave you this watch?” she asked gravely.
“My cousin the adjutant.”
Falcone grabbed the watch and, throwing it forcefully against a rock, broke it into a thousand pieces.
“Woman,” he said, “is this child mine?”
Giuseppa’s brown cheeks turned brick-red.
“What are you saying, Mateo? And do you know who you’re talking to?”
“This child is the first of his race to have betrayed someone.”
Fortunato’s sobs doubled and Falcone kept his lynx-like eyes fixed on him. Then he tapped the ground with the butt of his rifle before resting it over his shoulder and walking up the trail to the maquis, yelling at Fortunato to follow him. The child obeyed.
Giuseppa ran after Mateo and grabbed his arm.
“He’s your son,” she told him, her voce trembling, her black eyes fixed on her husband’s, trying to read his thoughts.
“Leave me,” Mateo replied. “I am his father.”
Giuseppa kissed her son and returned in tears to the house. She threw herself to her knees and fervently prayed to an image of the Virgin. Meanwhile, Falcone walked some two hundred feet along the trail and stopped in a little ravine that intersected it. He tested the ground with the butt of his rifle: it was soft and easy to dig. The place seemed suitable for his intentions.
“Fortunato, go next to that large stone.”
The child did as he was commanded, then he knelt down.
“Say your prayers.”
“My father, my father, don’t kill me!”
“Say your prayers!” Mateo repeated in a terrifying voice.
The child, sobbing and stammering, recited the Pater and the Credo. The father, in a strong voice, replied Amen! at then end of each prayer.
“Are those the only prayers you know?”
“My father, I also know the Ave Maria and the litany that my aunt taught me.”
“It’s long. But go ahead.”
The child finished in a faltering voice.
“Are you finished?”
“My Father, mercy! Forgive me! I won’t do it again! I’ll beg my couin the Caporal to pardon Gianetto!”
He kept talking. Mateo had loaded his rifle and took aim as he said: “May God forgive you!” The child made a desperate attempt to stand and grab his father’s knees; but hid did not have time. Mateo fired and Fortunato fell dead.
Without even glancing at the corpse, Mateo went back down the trail to the house to look for a shovel to bury his son. He had only taken a few steps when he met Giuseppa who came running when she heard the gunshot.
“What did you do?” she cried.
“Where is he?”
“In the ravine. I’m going to bury him. He died a christian death; I’ll have a mass sung for him. Send for my son-in-law Tiodoro Bianchi and have him come live with us.”
(1) The Caporali were, in the past, leaders chosen by Corsican towns when they revolted against feudal lords. Today this name is still sometimes given to a man who, thanks to his properties, his contacts and his clients, exercises an influence and a sort of effective ministry on a region. The Corsicans are divided, according to an ancient tradition, into five casts: thegentlemen (some of whom are called the magnificent, others signori), the caporali, thecitizens, the plebeians and the foreigners.
(2) This word is here a synonym of outlaw.
(3) This is a corps organized just a few years ago by the government that serves in conjunction with the military and regular police.
(4) The voltigeurs’ uniform at the time was brown with a yellow collar.
(5) Leather belt that serves both as an ammunition belt and as a wallet.
(6) Buon giorno, fratello, the common greeting of Corsicans.