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Mateo Falcone

by Prosper Merimee (1803-1870)

Word Count: 4686


As you leave the Port of Vecchio, heading inland in a northwesterly direction, the ground rises fairly steeply and, after a three-hour journey along winding paths obstructed by great masses of rock, and sometimes broken by ravines, you come to the edge of a very extensive maquis. This is the home of the Corsican shepherds, and of those who have fallen foul of the law. I should explain that, in order to save themselves the trouble of manuring their fields, Corsican farmers set fire to an area of woodland. Too bad if the flames spread further than intended; come what may, one can be sure of a good crop if one sows seeds on this land that has been fertilized by the ash from the trees that grew on it. When the ears of grain have been harvested (they leave the straw, which would be troublesome to gather), the tree-roots that have remained in the soil, untouched by the flames, sprout thick clumps of shoots the following spring, which within a few years grow to a height of seven or eight feet. This kind of dense brushwood is known as maquis. It is made up of various species of tree and shrub, tangled and intertwined at Nature's whim. A man would need an axe to force a way through, and sometimes the maquis can be so dense and overgrown that even the wild sheep cannot penetrate it.

If you have killed a man, go to the maquis above Porto-Vecchio, and you will be able to live in safety there, with a good rifle, gunpowder and bullets. Don't forget to take a brown cloak with a hood, which does duty for blanket and mattress. The shepherds will give you milk, cheese and chestnuts; and you will have nothing to fear from the law or from the dead man's relatives, except when you have to go down to the town to replenish your ammunition. When I was in Corsica in 18-, Mateo Falcone had his home half a league from the maquis. He was a man of some means for that district, who lived nobly-that is, without working-from the produce of his flocks that were driven to pasture on the mountains round and about by shepherds who lived like nomads. When I saw him, two years after the event I am about to relate, he looked 50 years old at most. Picture to yourself a small but robust man with tightly curled, jet-black hair, an aquiline nose, thin lips, large bright eyes, and a complexion tanned like cappuccino with cream. His skill with a rifle was said to be extraordinary, even for Corsica, where there are so many good shots. For instance, Mateo would never have shot a wild sheep with buckshot, but would kill it at a hundred and twenty paces with a bullet in the head or in the shoulder, as the mood took him. He used his weapons with as much ease by night as by day, and I have been told of one of his feats of skill which may perhaps seem incredible to anyone who has never travelled in Corsica. At eighty paces, a lighted candle would be placed behind a transparent sheet of paper the size of a plate. He would take aim, then the candle would be extinguished, and one minute later, in total darkness, he would fire, piercing the paper three times out of four.

With such an extra-ordinary talent, Mateo Falcone had earned himself a great reputation. He was said to be both a dangerous enemy and a staunch friend; moreover, he was always ready to do his moral duty, gave alms to the poor, and lived on good terms with everyone in the district of Porto-Vecchio. But rumor had it that in Corte, where he had taken a wife, he had disposed most effectively of a rival, who was said to be as formidable in war as in love: at any rate, Mateo was given credit for a rifle-shot which caught the rival off his guard as he was standing shaving at a small mirror hanging in his window. When the affair had blown over, Mateo married. His wife Giuseppa first bore him three daughters (to his fury), then finally a son, whom he named Fortunato. This boy was the hope of the family, the heir to his father's name. The daughters had married well: their father could count on the daggers and rifles of his sons-in-law if the need arose. The son was only 10 years old, but already showed great promise.

One autumn day Mateo set out early with his wife to go and inspect one of his flocks in a clearing within the maquis. Little Fortunato wanted to go with him, but the clearing was too far away; and besides, someone had to stay behind to look after the house; so his father refused his request to accompany them. As we shall see, he had cause to regret his decision. He had been away for several hours, and little Fortunato was lying quietly in the sun, gazing at the blue mountains and thinking about the following Sunday, when he would be going to have lunch in town with his uncle the caporal when his meditations were suddenly interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. He got up and looked towards the plain, whence the sound had come. Other gunshots followed at irregular intervals, coming closer all the time. Finally, on the path leading from the plain to Mateo's house, there appeared a man in a pointed cap of the sort worn by the mountain folk, bearded, in rags, and dragging himself along with great difficulty, leaning on his gun. He had just been shot in the thigh.

This man was an outlaw who had gone by night to buy gunpowder in the town and had been ambushed on the way by Corsican voltigeurs. After putting up a tremendous defence he had managed to get away, hotly pursued and taking shots at his pursuers from behind rocks. But the soldiers were close behind him, and his wound meant that it would be impossible for him to reach safety of the maquis before they caught up with him.

He came up to Fortunato and said to him:

"Are you Mateo Falcone's son?"

"Yes."

"I am Gianetto Sanpiero. The yellow-collars are after me. Hide me, I can't go any further."

"But what will my father say if I hide you without his permission?"

"He will say you did the right thing."

"How can I be sure?"

"Hide me quickly, they're coming."

"Wait till my father comes back."

"Wait? Damn it, they'll be here in five minutes! Come on, hide me, or I'll kill you."

With perfect composure, Fortunato replied, "Your gun isn't loaded, and there are no cartridges left in your carchera."

"I've still got my stiletto."

"But can you run as fast as me?" with a bound, he was out of reach.

"You are no son of Mateo Falcone! Would you have me arrested by the yellow-collars on your very doorstep?"

The child seemed agitated. "What will you give me if I hide you?" he asked, drawing closer. The bandit rummaged through his carchera, and took from it a five-franc piece, which he had no doubt set aside for buying gunpowder. Fortunato smiled at the sight of the silver coin. He seized it and said to Gianetto, "Have no fear."

At once he made a large hole in a pile of hay which stood beside the house. Gianetto hid in it, and the child covered him over so as to allow him to breathe, yet so that no one would suspect that there was a man concealed there. He also thought of a most ingenious strategy, worthy of a true renegade. He went and fetched a cat and her kittens and placed them on the pile of hay, to make it look as if it had not been disturbed recently. Then, noticing drops of blood on the path near the house, he carefully covered them with dust, after which he went and lay down again quite calmly in the sun.

A few minutes later six men in brown uniforms with yellow collars, led by a high-ranking officer, arrived at Mateo's door. The adjutant was a distant relative of Falcone. (It is a well-known fact that in Corsica degrees of kinship are traced much further back than is the case elsewhere.) His name was Tiodoro Gamba. He was a zealous man, much feared by the bandits, several of whom he had already tracked down.

"Good day, little cousin," he said to Fortunato, accosting him. "How tall you've grown! Did you see a man pass this way just now?"

"Oh, I'm not as tall as you yet, cousin," the child replied with seeming naivety.

"You soon will be. Tell me now, did you see a man pass by?"

"Did I see a man pass by?"

"Yes, a man wearing a pointed black-velvet hat and a jacket with red and yellow embroidery."

"A man with a pointed hat and a jacket with red and yellow embroidery?"

"Yes. Answer me quickly. And stop repeating my questions."

"This morning the priest came past our house on his horse-Piero. He asked me how Papa was, and I told him that ..."

"Ah, you're trying to be clever, you little devil! Tell me quickly which way Gianetto went. He's the man we're after, and I'm certain he took this path."

"Who knows?"

"Who knows? I do! I know you saw him."

"How can I have seen someone pass by, if I was asleep?"

"You weren't asleep, you little wippersnapper. The shots woke you."

"What makes you think your guns are so noisy, cousin? My father's is much louder."

"To the devil with you, you confounded little scamp! I'm quite certain you saw Gianetto. You may even have hidden him. Come on, lads! Into the house with you, and see whether our man is inside. He was hobbling along on one leg, and the wretch has got too much sense to try to make it to the maquis in that state. Anyway, the bloodstains end right here."

"And what will Papa say?" asked Fortunato with a mocking laugh. "What will he say when he hears that someone entered his house while he was out?"

"You little rogue!" said Adjutant Gamba, taking him by the ear. "I can soon make you change your tune, you know! If I give you twenty strokes with the flat of my sabre, perhaps then you'll talk."

And Fortunato still laughed contemptuously. "My father is Mateo Falcone!" he said with emphasis.

"Do you realize, you little devil, that I can take you away to Corte or Bastia? I'll make you sleep in a cell, on straw. I'll clap you in leg-irons and have you guillotined if you don't tell me where Gianetto Sanpiero is."

The child burst out laughing at this ridiculous threat. "My father is Mateo Falcone!" he repeated.

"Sir," muttered one of the soldiers while touching the officer's sleeve, "Don't let's get on the wrong side of Mateo."

Gamba was plainly in a quandary. He spoke in a low voice to his soldiers, who had already searched the whole house. This was not a very lengthy operation, for a Corsican's cottage consists of one single square room. The furnishings consist of a table, benches, chests, hunting equipment, and a few household utensils. Meanwhile, little Fortunato stroked his cat, and seemed to take a malicious delight in the perplexity of the soldiers and his cousin. A soldier went up to the pile of hay. Seeing the cat, he gave the hay a half-hearted prod with his bayonet, shrugging his shoulders as if sensing that his precaution was absurd. Nothing stirred; the child's face betrayed not the slightest emotion.

The adjutant and his men were at their wits' end. Already they were looking gravely in the direction of the plain, as if tempted to head back the way they had come, when their chief, realizing that threats would make no impression on Falcone's son, decided to make one last attempt, and see what effect cajolery and bribes would have.

"Little cousin," he said. "You seem a wide-awake lad; you'll go far. But you're 'messing' with me, and if I weren't afraid of angering my cousin Mateo, I'm hanged if I wouldn't take you prisoner."

"You don't say!"

"But when my cousin gets back, I'll tell him the whole story, and he'll give you a thrashing as a reward for having lied."

"Is that so?"

"You'll see. Look, be a good kid, and I'll give you something."

"And I'll give you a piece of advice, cousin. If you waste any more time, Gianetto will be in the maquis, and then it'll take more than one fine fellow like you to fetch him out again." The adjutant took from his pocket a silver watch that was worth at least ten crowns, and, seeing little Fortunato's eyes light up at the sight of it, he held the watch suspended from its steel chain and said, "You little rogue. Wouldn't you like to have a watch like this hanging around your neck? You could stroll around the streets of Porto-Vecchio, proud as a peacock, and people would ask you what time it was, and you'd 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 has got one already-but not as nice as this one-and he's younger than you."

The child sighed.

"Well, do you want this watch, little cousin?" he said swinging it gently in his direction. Fortunato eyed the watch like a cat that has had a whole chicken placed before it. Sensing it is being teased, it dare not lay a paw on it, and from time to time it looks away, so as not to succumb to temptation nor appear too interested. But it licks its chops continually, and seems to be saying to its tormentor, "What a cruel trick to play on me!"

Yet Adjutant Gamba seemed to be sincere in his offer of the watch. Fortunato did not reach out his hand, but, smiling bitterly, said to him, "What are you trying to put over?"

"I swear I'm not. Just tell me where Gianetto is and the watch is yours."

Fortunato could not suppress a smile of disbelief; fixing his dark eyes on those of the adjutant, he tried to read in them how much faith he could place in his words.

"May I lose my commission," exclaimed the adjutant, "if I don't give you the watch as agreed. My men here are witnesses, and I cannot go back on my word as an officer."

As he spoke he moved the watch closer and closer until it was almost touching Fortunato's pale cheek. The child's face clearly showed the struggle between personal greed and the traditional claims of solidarity against the authorities that was raging within him. His bare chest was heaving, and he seemed to be fighting for breath. And still the watch swung, twisted, and occasionally bumped against the tip of his nose. At last his right hand slowly rose towards the watch; his fingertips touched it; and he felt its full weight in his palm, though the adjutant still held the end of the chain. The dial was pale blue, the case newly polished; in the sunshine it seemed ablaze...The temptation was too great.

Fortunato raised his left hand too, and, with his thumb, pointed over his shoulder at the pile of hay behind him. The adjutant understood-he let go of the chain; Fortunato found himself sole possessor of the watch. He rose with the agility of a fawn and moved ten paces away from the pile of hay, which the soldiers at once began to demolish.

Very soon the hay began to move and a man emerged from it, drenched in blood and with a dagger in his hand. But as he tried to rise to his feet, his wound which had stopped bleeding, prevented him from standing up-he fell. Throwing himself on him, Gamba ripped the stiletto from his grip. Instantly he was tightly bound, despite his struggles.

Gianetto, lying on the ground trussed like a bundle of firewood, turned his head towards Fortunato, who had stepped forward again. "You son of a... ," he said with more contempt than anger. The child flipped back the silver coin he had accepted from the prisoner, feeling that he no longer deserved it; but the outlaw seemed not to even notice the gesture. With great composure he said to the adjutant, "My dear Gamba, I can't walk; you're going to have to carry me into town."

"You were running faster than a fleeing buck a moment ago," retorted the victor pitilessly. "But set your mind at rest; I'm so pleased to have caught you that I could carry you on my back for three miles without tiring. In any case, my friend, we'll make you a stretcher out of some branches and your overcoat, and we can get horses at Crespoli's farm."

"That's good," said the prisoner, "and just put a bit of straw on the litter, so I'll be more comfortable."

While the soldiers were busy improvising a litter with chestnut branches and dressing Gianetto's wound, Mateo Falcone and his wife suddenly rounded the bend leading from the maquis. The woman was plodding laboriously forward, bent beneath the weight of an enormous sack of chestnuts, while her husband ambled along with only a rifle in his hand, and another slung over his shoulder-it is unbecoming for a man to carry any burden but his weapons.

Mateo's first thought on seeing the soldiers was that they had come to arrest him. But why should such an idea cross his mind? Had Mateo perhaps tangled with the law? No; he enjoyed a good reputation. He was, as they say, a man of high standing. But he was a Corsican and a man of the mountains, and there are few Corsicans from the mountains who, if they delve in their memories, cannot find some offense-a gunshot, a knifing, or some such trifling matter. Mateo had a clearer conscience than most, for it was more than ten years since he had pointed his gun at any man. But nevertheless he was circumspect, and he prepared mentally to defend himself vigorously should the need arise.

"Woman," he said to Giuseppa, "put down your sack and be ready." She instantly obeyed. He handed her the gun that was slung over his shoulder, which might get in the way. He loaded the one he was carrying and advanced circumspectly towards the house, keeping close to the trees at the roadside, and ready, at the slightest hint of hostility, to dash behind the largest trunk, where he could fire from under cover. His wife walked at his heels, carrying his spare gun and his cartridge-pouch. In the event of combat it is the task of a good wife to load her husband's weapon.

The adjutant, for his part, felt extremely ill at ease at the sight of Mateo advancing with measured steps, gun at the ready and finger on the trigger. "If by any chance," he thought, "Mateo should turn out to be a relative of Gianetto, or if he were a friend of his and meant to protect him, the very wads from his two guns would hit two of us, as sure as a letter reaches its destination. And if he were to take aim at me, notwithstanding our kinship..."

In this dilemma, he took the courageous course of advancing alone to meet Mateo and tell him of the affair, hailing him like a long-lost friend. But the short distance that separated him from Mateo seemed interminable.

"Hey there, old comrade!" he called. "How are things, my old friend? It's me, your cousin Gamba."

Mateo had halted with no word of reply, and as the other spoke he slowly raised the barrel of his gun until, at the moment when the adjutant reached him, it was pointing towards the sky. "Buon giorno, fratllo" ("Good day, brother," the traditional greeting between Corsicans), said the adjutant, offering him his hand. "I haven't seen you in ages."

"Buon giorno, fratello," answered Mateo much to the officer's relief.

"As I was passing, I came to say hello to you and cousin Pepa. We've had a long haul today, but, although we're exhausted, there's no call to feel sorry for us, for we've made a splendid catch. We've just collared Gianetto Sanpiero."

"God be praised!" exclaimed Giuseppa. "He stole a milk goat from us only last week."

These words delighted Gamba.

"Poor devil," said Mateo. "He was hungry."

"The rogue defended himself like a lion," continued the adjutant, somewhat disconcerted that Mateo felt for him. "He killed one of my men and, not content with that, he broke Corporal Chardon's arm. Not that that matters-Chardon's only a Frenchman. And then he went and hid so well that the devil himself wouldn't have discovered him. If it hadn't been for my little cousin Fortunato here I'd never have been able to find him."

"Fortunato?" exclaimed Mateo.

"Fortunato?" repeated Giuseppa.

"Yes. Gianetto had hidden under that pile of hay over there. But my little cousin showed me what the game was. I'll tell his uncle the caporal, so he can send him a fine present for his trouble. And both your names will appear in the report I shall be sending to the Public Prosecutor."

"Damnation!" muttered Mateo softly.

They had rejoined the squad of soldiers. Gianetto had already been placed on the litter, ready for departure. When he saw Mateo in the company of Gamba, he smiled scornfully. Then, turning towards the door of the house, he spat on the threshold and said, "House of a traitor!"

Only a man resigned to death would have dared call Falcone a traitor. One quick dagger-thrust would instantly have repaid him for the insult once and for all. Yet Mateo merely raised his hand to his brow like a man in despair.

Fortunato had gone inside the house on seeing his father arrive. He soon reappeared with a bowl of milk, which he offered to the prisoner with downcast eyes.

"Keep away from me!" roared the outlaw, in a voice of thunder. Then, turning to one of the voltigeurs, he said to him, "Give me a drink, comrade."

The soldier handed him his water-bottle, and the bandit drank the water offered to him by a man with whom he had just exchanged rifle shots. Then he asked to have his hands tied across his chest instead of behind his back. "I like to lie comfortably," he explained.

They hastened to comply with his request. Then the adjutant gave the signal to depart, bade farewell to Mateo, who did not reply, and set off back towards the plains at a brisk march. Almost ten minutes passed before Mateo spoke a word. The child glanced uneasily first at his mother, then at his father, who was leaning on his gun, contemplating him with an expression of concentrated fury.

"A fine beginning!" said Mateo at last, in a voice that was too calm-one terrifying to anyone who knew the man.

"Father!" cried the child, advancing with tears in his eyes as if to throw himself at his feet. But Mateo shouted, "Out of my sight!" And the child stopped and stood sobbing a few paces from his father.

Giuseppa stepped forward. She had just noticed the watch-chain, one end of which was dangling from Fortunato's shirt.

"Who gave you that watch?" she asked severely.

"My cousin the adjutant."

Falcone seized the watch and hurled it against a rock, smashing it into a thousand pieces.

"Woman," he said, "is this child mine?"

Giuseppa's brown cheeks turned brick-red, "What are you saying, Mateo? -do you realize who you are talking to?"

"This child is the first of his line to have committed a betrayal."

Fortunato's sobs and hiccoughs intensified-Falcone continued to stare at him like a wildcat. Finally he struck the ground with the butt of his gun, then shouldered it and set off again on the path leading to the maquis, calling on Fortunato to follow him. The child obeyed. Giuseppa ran after Mateo and seized him by the arm.

"He is your son," she said in a trembling voice, fixing her dark eyes on those of her husband as if trying to read his thoughts.

"Leave me alone," replied Mateo, "I am his father."

Giuseppa kissed her son and retreated, weeping, into the cottage. She fell to her knees before an image of the Virgin and prayed fervently. Meanwhile, Falcone walked a couple of hundred paces along the path and did not stop until he reached a small ravine, into which he descended. He sounded the earth with the butt of his gun and found it soft. Easy to dig-the place seemed suitable.

"Fortunato, go and stand by that big stone," he said without emotion.

The child did as he was ordered.

"Kneel down and say your prayers."

"Father! Don't kill me, father!"

"Say your prayers!" repeated Mateo in a terrible voice.

Stammering and sobbing, the child recited the Our Father and the Apostles' Creed. At the end of each prayer his father uttered a loud "Amen!"

"Are those all the prayers you know?"

"Father, I know the Hail Mary too, and the Rosary-aunt taught me."

"It's rather long, but no matter."

The child finished the litany in a whisper.

"Have you finished?"

"Oh, father, mercy! Forgive me! I won't do it again! I'll beg my uncle the caporal until Gianetto is reprieved!"

He went on speaking. Mateo had raised his gun and was taking aim, saying to his son, "May God forgive you!" The child made a desperate effort to get up and clasp his father by the knees, but he was too late. Mateo fired, and Fortunato fell like a rock-dead.

Without a glance at the corpse, Mateo set off for the house to fetch a spade with which to bury his son. He had gone only a few paces when he met Giuseppa, who had run up in alarm on hearing the rifle-shot.

"What have you done?" she cried.

"Justice."

"Where is he?"

"In the ravine; I'm going to bury him. He died like a Christian; I shall have a mass sung for him. Tell my son-in-law, Tiodoro Bianchi, to come and live with us."





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