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The Isle of Unrest, Page 2

Henry Seton Merriman



  “Comme on est heureux quand on sait ce qu’on veut!”

  It was the dinner hour at the Hotel Clément at Bastia; and the event wasof greater importance than the outward appearance of the house wouldseem to promise. For there is no promise at all about the house on theleft-hand side of Bastia’s one street, the Boulevard du Palais, whichbears, as its only sign, a battered lamp with the word “Clément” printedacross it. The ground floor is merely a rope and hemp warehouse. A smallCorsican donkey, no bigger than a Newfoundland dog, lives in thebasement, and passes many of his waking hours in what may be termed theentrance hall of the hotel, appearing to consider himself in some sort aconcierge. The upper floors of the huge Genoese house are let out inlarge or small apartments to mysterious families, of which the youngermembers are always to be met carrying jugs carefully up and down thegreasy, common staircase.

  The first floor is the Hotel Clément, or, to be more correct, one is“chez Clément” on the first floor.

  “You stay with Clément,” will be the natural remark of any on board theMarseilles or Leghorn steamer, on being told that the travellerdisembarks at Bastia.

  “We shall meet to-night chez Clément,” the officers say to each other onleaving the parade ground at four o’clock.

  “Déjeuner chez Clément,” is the usual ending to a notice of a marriage,or a first communion, in the _Petit Bastiais_, that greatest of allfoolscap-size journals.

  It is comforting to reflect, in these times of hurried changes, that thetraveller to Bastia may still find himself chez Clément--may still haveto kick at the closed door of the first-floor flat, and find that dooropened by Clément himself, always affable, always gentlemanly, with thesame crumbs strewed carelessly down the same waistcoat, or, if it isevening time, in his spotless cook’s dress. One may be sure of the samegrave welcome, and the easy transition from grave to gay, the smiling,grand manner of conducting the guest to one of those vague and darksomebedrooms, where the jug and the basin never match, where the floor is ofred tiles, with a piece of uncertain carpet sliding hither and thither,with the shutters always shut, and the mustiness of the middle ageshanging heavy in the air. For Bastia has not changed, and never will. Andit is not only to be fervently hoped, but seems likely, that Clément willnever grow old, and never die, but continue to live and demonstrate thestartling 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 artilleryofficers were already seated at the square table near the fireplace,which was and is still exclusively the artillery table. The other_habitués_ were in their places at one or other of the half-dozen tablesthat fill the room--two gentlemen from the Prefecture, a civil engineerof the projected railway to Corte, a commercial traveller of the oldschool, and, at the corner table, farthest from the door, Colonel Gilbertof the Engineers. A clever man this, who had seen service in the Crimea,and had invariably distinguished himself whenever the opportunityoccurred; but he was one of those who await, and do not seekopportunities. Perhaps he had enemies, or, what is worse, no friends; forat the age of forty he found himself appointed to Bastia, one of thewaste places of the War Office, where an inferior man would have donebetter.

  Colonel Gilbert was a handsome man, with a fair moustache, a highforehead, surmounted by thin, receding, smooth hair, and good-natured,idle eyes. He lunched and dined chez Clément always, and was frankly,good naturedly bored at Bastia. He hated Corsica, had no sympathy withthe Corsican, and was a Northern Frenchman to the tips of his long whitefingers.

  “Your Bastia, my good Clément,” he said to the host, who invariably cameto the dining-room with the roast and solicited the opinion of each guestupon the dinner in a few tactful, easy words--“your Bastia is a sadplace.”

  This evening Colonel Gilbert was in a less talkative mood than usual, andexchanged only a nod with his artillery colleagues as he passed to hisown small table. He opened his newspaper, and became interested in it atonce. It was several days old, and had come by way of Nice and Ajacciofrom Paris. All France was at this time eager for news, and everyFrenchman studied the journal of his choice with that uneasiness whichseems to foreshadow in men’s hearts the approach of any great event. Forthis was the spring of 1870, when France, under the hitherto iron rule ofher adventurer emperor, suddenly began to plunge and rear, while thenations stood around her wondering who should receive the first kick. Theemperor was ill; the cheaper journals were already talking of hisfuneral. He was uneasy and restless, turning those dull eyes hitherand thither over Europe--a man of inscrutable face and deep hiddenplans--perhaps the greatest adventurer who ever sat a throne. Condemnedby a French Court of Peers in 1840 to imprisonment for life, he went toHam with the quiet question, “But how long does perpetuity last inFrance?” And eight years later he was absolute master of the country.

  Corsica in particular was watching events, for Corsica was cowed. She hadcome under the rule of this despot, and for the first time in her historyhad found her master. Instead of being numbered by hundreds, as they werebefore and are again now at the end of the century, the outlaws hiding inthe mountains scarce exceeded a score. The elections were conducted morehonestly than had ever been before, and the Continental newspapers spokehopefully of the dawn of civilization showing itself among a people whohave ever been lawless, have ever loved war better than peace.

  “But it is a false dawn,” said the Abbé Susini of Olmeta, himself aninsatiable reader of newspapers, a keen and ardent politician. Like themajority of Corsicans, he was a staunch Bonapartist, and held that thefounder of that marvellous dynasty was the greatest man to walk thisearth since the days of direct Divine inspiration.

  It was only because Napoleon III was a Bonaparte that Corsica endured histyranny; perhaps, indeed, tyranny and an iron rule suited better thanequity or tolerance a people descended from the most ancient of thefighting races, speaking a tongue wherein occur expressions of hate andstrife that are Tuscan, Sicilian, Greek, Spanish, and Arabic.

  Now that the emperor’s hand was losing its grip on the helm, there weremany in Corsica keenly alive to the fact that any disturbance in Francewould probably lead to anarchy in the turbulent island. There were evensome who saw a hidden motive in the appointment of Colonel Gilbert asengineer officer to a fortified place that had no need of his services.

  Gilbert himself probably knew that his appointment had been made inpursuance of the emperor’s policy of road and rail. For Corsica was to beopened up by a railway, and would have none of it. And though to-day therailway from Bastia to Ajaccio is at last open, the station at Corteremains a fortified place with a loopholed wall around it.

  But Colonel Gilbert kept his own counsel. He sat, indeed, on the board ofthe struggling railway--a gift of the French Government to a departmentwhich has never paid its way, has always been an open wound. But he neverspoke there, and listened to the fierce speeches of the local memberswith his idle, easy smile. He seemed to stand aloof from his newneighbours and their insular interests. He was, it appeared, a culturedman, and perhaps found none in this wild island who could understand histhoughts. His attitude towards his surroundings was, in a word, the usualindifferent attitude of the Frenchman in exile, reading only Frenchnewspapers, fixing his attention only on France, and awaiting with suchpatience as he could command the moment to return thither.

  “Any news?” asked one of the artillery officers--a sub-lieutenantrecently attached to his battery, a penniless possessor of an historicname, who perhaps had dreams of carving his way through to the frontagain.

  The colonel shrugged his shoulders.

  “You may have the papers afterwards,” he said; for it was not wise todiscuss any news in a public place at that time. “See you at the Réunion,no doubt.”

  And he did not speak again except to Clément, who came round to take theopinion of each guest upon the fare provided.

p; “Passable,” said the colonel--“passable, my good Clément. But do youknow, I could send you to prison for providing this excellent leveret atthis time of year. Are there no game laws, my friend?”

  But Clement only laughed and spread out his hands, for Corsica chooses toignore the game laws. And the colonel, having finished his coffee,buckled on his sword, and went out into the twilight streets of what wasonce the capital of Corsica. Bastia, indeed, has, like the majority ofmen and women, its history written on its face. On the high land abovethe old port stands the citadel, just as the Genoese merchant-adventurersplanned it five hundred years ago. Beneath the citadel, and clusteredround 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 inconstant war, against which it had always to defend itself.

  It would seem that some hundred years ago, just before the island becamenominally a French possession, Bastia, for some reason or another, tookit into its municipal head to grow, and it ran as it were all down thehill to that which is now the new harbour. It built two broad streets oftall 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 theBoulevard du Palais, where fashionable Bastia promenades itself--whenit is too windy, as it almost always is, to walk on the Place St.Nicholas--where all the shops are, and where the modern Europeannecessities 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, theenterprising 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 notrue 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 longblade. There is a macaroni warehouse. There are two of those mysteriousMediterranean provision warehouses, with some ancient dried sausageshanging in the window, and either doorpost flanked by a tub of sardines,highly, and yet, it would seem, insufficiently, cured. There is a tinybook-shop displaying a choice of religious pamphlets and a fly-blowncopy of a treatise on viniculture. And finally, an ironmonger will sellyou anything but a bath, while he thrives on a lively trade inpercussion-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 arefew human beings of a more easily aroused attention. Any small streetincident sufficed to make him pause. He had the air of one waiting for atrain, who knows that it will not come for hours yet. He strolled downthe boulevard, smoking a cigarette, and presently turned to the right,emerging with head raised to meet the sea-breeze upon that desertedpromenade, the Place St. Nicholas.

  Here he paused, and stood with his head slightly inclined to one side--anattitude usually considered to be indicative of the artistic temperament,and admired the prospect. The “Place” was deserted, and in the middle thegreat statue of Napoleon stood staring blankly across the sea towardsElba. There is, whether the artist intended it or not, a look of stonyamazement on this marble face as it gazes at the island of Elba lyingpink and hazy a few miles across that rippled sea; for on this side ofCorsica 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 punyisland to hold me.”

  Colonel Gilbert stood and looked dreamily across the sea. It was plain tothe most incompetent observer that the statue represented one class ofmen--those who make their opportunities; while Gilbert, with his high andslightly receding forehead, his lazy eyes and good-natured mouth, was afair type of that other class which may take advantage of opportunitiesthat offer themselves. The majority of men have not even the pluck to dothat, 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 Reuniondes Officiers--the military club which stands on the Place St. Nicholasimmediately behind the statue of Napoleon--a not too lively place ofentertainment, with a billiard-room, a reading-room, and half a dozeniron tables and chairs on the pavement in front of the house. Here thecolonel seated himself, called for a liqueur, and sat watching a clearmoon rise from the sea beyond the Islet of Capraja.

  It was the month of February, and the southern spring was already in theair. The twilight is short in these latitudes, and it was now nearlynight. In Corsica, as in Spain, the coolest hour is between sunset andnightfall. With complete darkness there comes a warm air from the ground.This was now beginning to make itself felt; but Gilbert had not only thepavement, but the whole Place St. Nicholas to himself. There are tworeasons why Corsicans do not walk abroad at night--the risk of a chilland the risk of meeting one’s enemy.

  Colonel Gilbert gave no thought to these matters, but sat with crossedlegs and one spurred heel thrown out, contentedly waiting as if for thattrain 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. Andwhile he sat there a man came clanking from the town--a tired man, withheavy 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 aFrenchman would have done.

  “Yes,” replied the colonel’s pleasant voice, with no ring of recognitionin it.

  “It is Mattei--the driver of the St. Florent diligence,” explained theman, who, indeed, carried his badge of office, a long whip.

  “Of course; but I recognized you almost at once,” said the colonel, withthat friendliness which is so noticeable in the Republic to-day.

  “You have seen me on the road often enough,” said the man, “and I haveseen you, Monsieur le Colonel, riding over to the Casa Perucca.”

  “Of course.”

  “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 walkedon, keeping well in the middle of the road, as it is wise to do when onehas enemies.