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The Isle of Unrest

Henry Seton Merriman

  Produced by Distributed Proofreaders


  By Henry Seton Merriman



  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.








  “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 hangingstill and sullen over the Mediterranean. A mistral was blowing. The lastyellow rays shone fiercely upon the towering coast of Corsica, and thewindows of the village of Olmeta glittered like gold.

  There are two Olmetas in Corsica, both in the north, both on the westcoast, both perched high like an eagle’s nest, both looking down uponthose lashed waters of the Mediterranean, which are not the waters thatpoets sing of, for they are as often white as they are blue; they areseldom glassy except in the height of summer and sailors tell that theyare as treacherous as any waters of the earth. Neither aneroid norweather-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 itwill blow one day beneath a cloudless sky, lashing the whole sea whitelike milk, and blow harder to-morrow under racing clouds.

  The great chestnut trees in and around Olmeta groaned and strained in thegrip of their lifelong foe. The small door, the tiny windows, of everyhouse were rigorously closed. The whole place had a wind-swept airdespite 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 withOlmeta-di-Tuda, and not that other Olmeta--the virtuous, di Capocorso, infact, 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 thechurch. For Cap Corse is the good boy of Corsica, where men thinksorrowfully of the wilder communes to the south, and raise their eyebrowsat the very mention of Corte and Sartene--where, at all events, the womenhave 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-setman, and must have been strong. He had, indeed, carried his lead up fromthe road that runs by the Guadelle river. Was he not to be traced all theway up the short cut through the olive terraces by one bloody footprintat regular intervals? You could track his passage across the “Place,” towards the fountain of which he had fallen short like a poisoned ratthat tries to reach water and fails.

  He lay quite alone, still grasping the gun which he had never laid asidesince boyhood. No one went to him; no one had attempted to help him. Helay as he had fallen, with a thin stream of blood running slowly from onetrouser-leg. For this was Corsican work--that is to say, dirty work--frombehind a rock, in the back, at close range, without warning or mercy, ashonest men would be ashamed to shoot the merest beast of the forest. Itwas as likely as not a charge of buck-shot low down in the body, leavingthe rest to hemorrhage or gangrene.

  All Olmeta knew of it, and every man took care that it should be nobusiness of his. Several had approached, pipe in mouth, and looked at thedead man without comment; but all had gone away again, idly,indifferently. For in this the most beautiful of the islands, human lifeis 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 womenwere racing through the olive groves to get the first taste of that.Perhaps some one had gone towards Oletta to meet the Abbé Susini, whosebusiness in a measure this must be.

  The sun suddenly dipped behind the heavy bank of clouds and the mountainsdarkened. Although it lies in the very centre of the Mediterranean,Corsica is a gloomy land, and the summits of her high mountains are moreoften covered than clear. It is a land of silence and brooding quiet. Thewomen 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 theshadow of the great trees, smoking their pipes in silence, and lookingwith a studied indifference at nothing. Each was prepared to swear beforea jury at the Bastia assizes that he knew nothing of the “accident,” asit is here called, to Pietro Andrei, and had not seen him crawl up toOlmeta to die. Indeed, Pietro Andrei’s death seemed to be nobody’sbusiness, though we are told that not so much as a sparrow may fallunheeded.

  The Abbé Susini was coming now--a little fiery man, with the walk of onewho was slightly bow-legged, though his cassock naturally concealed thisdefect. 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 isto say that he was different from any other European race, and would, assure as there is corn in Egypt, be overbearing, masterful, impossible. Hewas, of course, clean shaven, as brown as old oak, with little flashingblack eyes. His cassock was a good one, and his hat, though dusty,shapely and new. But his whole bearing threw, as it were, into theobserver’s face the suggestion that the habit does not make the priest.

  He came forward without undue haste, and displayed little surprise and nohorror.

  “Quite like old times,” he said to himself, remembering the days of LouisPhilippe. He knelt down beside the dead man, and perhaps the attitudereminded him of his calling; for he fell to praying, and made the gestureof the cross over Andrei’s head. Then suddenly he leapt to his feet, andshook his lean fist out towards the valley and St. Florent, as if he knewwhence 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 gendarmesthis--this--”

  “Three days,” added one of the bystanders, who had drawn near. And hesaid it with a certain pride, as of one well pleased to belong to avirtuous community.

  But the priest was not listening. He had already turned aside in hisquick, jerky way; for he was a comparatively young man. He was lookingthrough the olives towards the south.

  “It is the women,” he said, and his face suddenly hardened. He wasimpulsive, it appeared--quick to feel for others, fiery in his anger,hasty in his judgment.

  From the direction in which he and the bys
tanders looked, came the hum ofmany 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 washeaded by a woman, who led a little child, running and stumbling as heran. At her heels a number of women hurried, confusedly shouting,moaning, and wailing. The men stood waiting for them in dead silence--acharacteristic scene. The leading woman seemed to be superior to herneighbours, for she wore a black silk handkerchief on her head instead ofa white or coloured cotton. It is almost a mantilla, and marks as clear asocial distinction in Corsica as does that head-dress in Spain. Shedragged at the child, and scarce turned her head when he fell andscrambled as best he could to his feet. He laughed and crowed withdelight, 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 someintermittent agony which caught her at regular intervals. At the sight ofthe crowd she gave a quick cry of despair, and ran forward, leaving herchild sprawling on the road. She knelt by the dead man’s side with shriekafter shriek, and seemed to lose all control over herself, for she gaveway to those strange gestures of despair of which many read in novels anda few in the Scriptures, and which come by instinct to those who have noreading at all. She dragged the handkerchief from her head, and threw itover her face. She beat her breast. She beat the very ground with herclenched hands. Her little boy, having gathered his belongings togetherand dusted his cotton frock, now came forward, and stood watching herwith his fingers at his mouth. He took it to be a game which he did notunderstand; as indeed it was--the game of life.

  The priest scratched his chin with his forefinger, which was probably ahabit with him when puzzled, and stood looking down out of the corner ofhis eyes at the ground.

  It was he, however, who moved first, and, stooping, loosed the clenchedfingers round the gun. It was a double-barrelled gun, at full cock, andevery 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 carriesno gun, it may be presumed that it is only because he pins greater faithon a revolver.

  Neither hammer had fallen, and the abbé gave a little nod. It was, itseemed, the usual thing to make quite sure before shooting, so that theremight be no unnecessary waste of powder or risk of reprisal. The womanlooked 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 themurderer when he goes to the macquis, and take him food, and tell himwhen the gendarmes are hunting him.”

  She waved her hand fiercely towards the mountains, which loomed, rangebehind range, dark and forbidding to the south, towards Calvi and Corte.But the men only shrugged their shoulders; for the forest and themountain brushwood were no longer the refuge they used to be in this thelast year of the iron rule of Napoleon III, who, whether he possessed ornot the Corsican blood that his foes deny him, knew, at all events, howto rule Corsica better than any man before or since.

  “No, no,” said the priest, soothingly. “Those days are gone. He will betaken, and justice will be done.”

  But he spoke without conviction, almost as if he had no faith in thisvaunted regeneration of a people whose history is a story of endlessstrife--as if he could see with a prophetic eye thirty years into thefuture, down to the present day, when the last state of that land isworse than the first.

  “Justice!” cried the woman. “There is no justice in Corsica! What hadPietro done that he should lie there? Only his duty--only that for whichhe was paid. He was the Perucca’s agent, and because he made the idlerspay their rent, they threatened him. Because he put up fences, theyraised their guns to him. Because he stopped their thieving and theirlawlessness, they shoot him. He drove their cattle from the fieldsbecause they were Perucca’s fields, and he was paid to watch his master’sinterests. But Perucca they dare not touch, because his clan is large,and would hunt the murderer down. If he was caught, the Peruccas wouldmake sure of the jury--ay! And of the judge at Bastia--but Pietro is notof 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’sback, but she made no attempt to move him. For although Pietro Andrei wasan Italian, his wife was Corsican--a woman of Bonifacio, that grim townon a rock so often besieged and never yet taken by a fair fight. She hadbeen brought up in, as it were, an atmosphere of conventionallawlessness, and knew that it is well not to touch a dead man till thegendarmes have seen him, but to send a child or an old woman to thegendarmerie, and then to stand aloof and know nothing; and feignstupidity; so that the officials, when they arrive, may find the wholevillage 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 nowand set. She arranged the black silk handkerchief on her head, and sether 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 countryeach man must execute his own justice. It has always been so, and it willbe so, so long as there are any Corsicans left. And if there is no manleft, then the women must do it.”

  She tied her apron tighter, as if about to undertake some hard domesticduty, and brushed the dust from her black dress.

  “Come here,” she said, turning to the child, and lapsing into the softdialect of the south and east--“come here, thou child of Pietro Andrei.”

  The child came forward. He was probably two years old, and understoodnothing that was passing.

  “See here, you of Olmeta,” she said composedly; and, stooping down, shedipped 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 anddragged 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 thatyour own mother did it to you at Sartene, where you come from.”

  The abbé made no answer, but, taking the child by the arm, dragged himgently away from his mother. With his other hand he sought in his pocketfor a handkerchief. But he was a lone man, without a housekeeper, and thehandkerchief 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 thechild’s face.

  “There,” he said to the woman, “take him home, for I hear the gendarmescoming.”

  Indeed, the trotting of horses and the clank of the long swinging sabrescould be heard on the road below the village, and one by one theonlookers dropped away, leaving the Abbé Susini alone at the foot of thechurch steps.