"Mateo Falcone"
Prosper Mérimée

On leaving Porto-Vecchio from the northwest and directing his steps towards
the interior of the island, the traveler will notice that the land rises
rapidly, and after three hours' walking over tortuous paths obstructed by
great masses of rock and sometimes cut by ravines, he will find himself on
the border of a great mâquis. The mâquis is the domain of the Corsican
shepherds and of those who are at variance with justice. It must be known
that, in order to save himself the trouble of manuring his field, the
Corsican husbandman sets fire to a piece of woodland. If the flames spread
farther than is necessary, so much the worse! In any case he is certain of a
good crop from the land fertilized by the ashes of the trees which grow upon
it. He gathers only the heads of his grain, leaving the straw, which it
would be unnecessary labor to cut. In the following spring the roots that
have remained in the earth without being destroyed send up their tufts of
sprouts, which in a few years reach a height of seven or eight feet. It is
this kind of tangled thicket that is called a mâaquis. They are made up of
different kinds of trees and shrubs, so crowded and mingled together at the
caprice of nature that only with an axe in hand can a man open a passage
through them, and mâaquis are frequently seen so thick and bushy that the
wild sheep themselves cannot penetrate them.

If you have killed a man, go into the mâaquis of Porto-Vecchio. With a good
gun and plenty of powder and balls, you can live there in safety. Do not
forget a brown cloak furnished with a hood, which will serve you for both
cover and mattress. The shepherds will give you chestnuts, milk and cheese,
and you will have nothing to fear from justice nor the relatives of the dead
except when it is necessary for you to descend to the city to replenish your
ammunition.

When I was in Corsica in 18-, Mateo Falcone had his house half a league from
this mâaquis. He was rich enough for that country, living in noble
style-that is to say, doing nothing-on the income from his flocks, which the
shepherds, who are a kind of nomads, lead to pasture here and there on the
mountains. When I saw him, two years after the event that I am about to
relate, he appeared to me to be about fifty years old or more. Picture to
yourself a man, small but robust, with curly hair, black as jet, an aquiline
nose, thin lips, large, restless eyes, and a complexion the color of tanned
leather. His skill as a marksman was considered extraordinary even in his
country, where good shots are so common. For example, Mateo would never fire
at a sheep with buckshot; but at a hundred and twenty paces, he would drop
it with a ball in the head or shoulder, as he chose. He used his arms as
easily at night as during the day. I was told this feat of his skill, which
will, perhaps, seem impossible to those who have not traveled in Corsica. A
lighted candle was placed at eighty paces, behind a paper transparency about
the size of a plate. He would take aim, then the candle would be
extinguished, and, at the end of a moment, in the most complete darkness, he
would fire and hit the paper three times out of four.

With such a transcendent accomplishment, Mateo Falcone had acquired a great
reputation. He was said to be as good a friend as he was a dangerous enemy;
accommodating and charitable, he lived at peace with all the world in the
district of Porto-Vecchio. But it is said of him that in Corte, where he had
married his wife, he had disembarrassed himself very vigorously of a rival
who was considered as redoubtable in war as in love; at least, a certain
gun-shot which surprised this rival as he was shaving before a little mirror
hung in his window was attributed to Mateo. The affair was smoothed over and
Mateo was married. His wife Giuseppa had given him at first three daughters
(which infuriated him), and finally a son, whom he named Fortunato, and who
became the hope of his family, the inheritor of the name. The daughters were
well married: their father could count at need on the poniards and carbines
of his sons-in-law. The son was only ten years old, but he already gave
promise of fine attributes.

On a certain day in autumn, Mateo set out at an early hour with his wife to
visit one of his flocks in a clearing of the mâaquis. The little Fortunato
wanted to go with them, but the clearing was too far away; moreover, it was
necessary someone should stay to watch the house; therefore the father
refused: it will be seen whether or not he had reason to repent.

He had been gone some hours, and the little Fortunato was tranquilly
stretched out in the sun, looking at the blue mountains, and thinking that
the next Sunday he was going to dine in the city with his uncle, the
Caporal, when he was suddenly interrupted in his meditations by the firing
of a musket. He got up and turned to that side of the plain whence the noise
came. Other shots followed, fired at irregular intervals, and each time
nearer; at last, in the path which led from the plain to Mateo's house,
appeared a man wearing the pointed hat of the mountaineers, bearded, covered
with rags, and dragging himself along with difficulty by the support of his
gun. He had just received a wound in his thigh.

This man was an outlaw, who, having gone to the town by night to buy powder,
had fallen on the way into an ambuscade of Corsican light-infantry. After a
vigorous defense he was fortunate in making his retreat, closely followed
and firing from rock to rock. But he was only a little in advance of the
soldiers, and his wound prevented him from gaining the mâaquis before being
overtaken.

He approached Fortunato and said: "You are the son of Mateo Falcone?"-"Yes."

"I am Gianetto Saupiero. I am followed by the yellow-collars. Hide me, for I
can go no farther."

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

"He will say that you have done well."

"How do you know?"

"Hide me quickly; they are coming."

"Wait till my father gets back."

"How can I wait? Malediction! They will be here in five minutes Come, hide
me, or I will kill you."

Fortunato answered him with the utmost coolness:

"Your gun is empty, and there are no more cartridges in your belt."

"I have my stiletto."

"But can you run as fast as I can?"

He gave a leap and put himself out of reach.

"You are not the son of Mateo Falcone! Will you then let me be captured
before your house?"

The child appeared moved.

"What will you give me if I hide you?" said he, coming nearer.

The outlaw felt in a leather pocket that hung from his belt, and took out a
five-franc piece, which he had doubtless saved to buy ammunition with.
Fortunato smiled at the sight of the silver piece; he snatched it, and said
to Gianetto:

"Fear nothing."

Immediately he made a great hole in a pile of hay that was near the house.
Gianetto crouched down in it and the child covered him in such a way that he
could breathe without it being possible to suspect that the hay concealed a
man. He bethought himself further, and, with the subtlety of a toleraby
ingenious savage, placed a cat and her kittens on the pile, that it might
not appear to have been recently disturbed. Then, noticing the traces of
blood on the path near the house, he covered them carefully with dust, and,
that done, he again stretched himself out in the sun with the greatest
tranquillity.

A few moments afterwards, six men in brown uniforms with yellow collars, and
commanded by an Adjutant, were before Mateo's door. This Adjutant was a
distant relative of Falcone's. (In Corsica the degrees of relationship are
followed much further than elsewhere.) His name was Tiodoro Gamba; he was an
active man, much dreaded by the outlaws, several of whom he had already
entrapped.

"Good day, little cousin," said he, approaching Fortunato; "how tall you
have grown. Have you seen a man go past here just now?"

"Oh! I am not yet so tall as you, my cousin," replied the child with a
simple air.

"You soon will be. But haven't you seen a man go by here, tell me?"

"If I have seen a man go by?"

"Yes, a man with a pointed hat of black velvet, and a vest embroidered with
red and yellow."

"A man with a pointed hat, and a vest embroidered with red and yellow?"

"Yes, answer quickly, and don't repeat my questions!"

"This morning the curé passed before our door on his horse, Piero. He asked
me how papa was, and I answered him-"

"Ah, you little scoundrel, you are playing sly! Tell me quickly which way
Gianetto went? We are looking for him, and I am sure he took this path."

"Who knows?"

"Who knows? It is I know that you have seen him."

"Can any one see who passes when they are asleep?"

"You were not asleep, rascal; the shooting woke you up."

"Then you believe, cousin, that your guns make so much noise? My father's
carbine has the advantage of them."

"The devil take you, you cursed little scapegrace! I am certain that you
have seen Gianetto. Perhaps, even, you have hidden him. Come, comrades, go
into the house and see if our man is there. He could only go on one foot,
and the knave has too much good sense to try to reach the mâaquis limping
like that. Moreover, the bloody tracks stop here."

"And what will papa say?" asked Fortunato with a sneer. "What will he say if
he knows that his house has been entered while he was away?"

"You rascal," said the Adjutant, taking him by the ear, "do you know that it
only remains for me to make you change your tone? Perhaps you will speak
differently after I have given you twenty blows with the flat of my sword."

Fortunato continued to sneer.

"My father is Mateo Falcone," said he with emphasis.

"You little scamp, you know very well that I can carry you off to Corte or
to Bastia. I will make you lie in a dungeon, on straw, with your feet in
shackles, and I will have you guillotined if you don't tell me where
Gianetto is."

The child burst out laughing at this ridiculous menace. He repeated:

"My father is Mateo Falcone."

"Adjutant," said one of the soldiers in a low voice, "let us have no
quarrels with Mateo."

Gamba appeared evidently embarrassed. He spoke in an undertone with the
soldiers who had already visited the house. This was not a very long
operation, for the cabin of a Corsican consists only of a single square
room, furnished with a table, some benches, chests, house-keeping utensils
and those of the chase. In the meantime, little Fortunato petted his cat and
seemed to take a wicked enjoyment in the confusion of the soldiers and of
his cousin.

One of the men approached the pile of hay. He saw the cat, and gave the pile
a careless thrust with his bayonet, shrugging his shoulders as if he felt
that his precaution was ridiculous. Nothing moved; the boy's face betrayed
not the slightest emotion.

The Adjutant and his troop were cursing their luck. Already they were
looking in the direction of the plain, as if disposed to return by the way
they had come, when their chief, convinced that menaces would produce no
impression of Falcone's son, determined to make a last effort, and try the
effect of caresses and presents.

"My little cousin," said he, "you are a very wide-awake little fellow. You
will get along. But you are playing a naughty game with me; and if I wasn't
afraid of making trouble for my cousin, Mateo, the devil take me, but I
would carry you off with me."

"Bah!"

"But when my cousin comes back I shall tell him about this, and he will whip
you till the blood comes for having told such lies."

"You don't say so!"

"You will see. But hold on!-be a good boy and I will give you something."

"Cousin, let me give you some advice: if you wait much longer Gianetto will
be in the mâaquis and it will take a smarter man than you to follow him."

The Adjutant took from his pocket a silver watch worth about ten crowns, and
noticing that Fortunato's eyes sparkled at the sight of it, said, holding
the watch by the end of its steel chain:

"Rascal! you would like to have such a watch as that hung around your neck,
wouldn't you, and to walk in the streets of Porto-Vecchio proud as a
peacock? People would ask you what time it was, and you would say: 'Look at
my watch.' "

"When I am grown up, my uncle, the Caporal, will give me a watch."

"Yes; but your uncle's little boy has one already; not so fine as this
either. But then, he is younger than you."

The child sighed.

"Well! Would you like this watch, little cousin?"

Fortunato, casting sidelong glances at the watch, resembled a cat that has
been give a whole chicken. It feels that it is being made sport of, and does
not dare to use its claws; from time to time it turns its eyes away so as
not to be tempted, licking its jaws all the while, and has the appearance of
saying to its master, "How cruel your joke is!"

How ever, the Adjutant seemed in earnest in offering his watch. Fortunato
did not reach out his hand for it, but said with a bitter smile:

"Why do you make fun of me?"

"Good God! I am not making fun of you. Only tell me where Gianetto is and
the watch is yours."

Fortunato smiled incredulously, and fixing his black eyes on those of the
Adjutant tried to read there the faith he ought to have had in his words.

"May I lose my epaulettes," cried the Adjutant, "if I do not give you the
watch on this condition. These comrades are witnesses; I cannot deny it."

While speaking he gradually held the watch nearer till it almost touched the
child's pale face, which plainly showed the struggle that was going on in
his soul between covetousness and respect for hospitality. His breast
swelled with emotion; he seemed about to suffocate. Meanwhile the watch was
slowly swaying and turning, sometimes brushing against his cheek. Finally,
his right hand was gradually stretched toward it; the ends of his fingers
touched it; then its whole weight was in his hand, the Adjutant still
keeping hold of the chain. The face was light blue; the cases newly
burnished. In the sunlight it seemed to be all on fire. The temptation was
too great. Fortunato raised his left hand and pointed over his shoulder with
his thumb at the hay against which he was reclining. The Adjutant understood
him at once. He dropped the end of the chain and Fortunato felt himself the
sole possessor of the watch. He sprang up with the agility of a deer and
stood ten feet from the pile, which the soldiers began at once to overturn.

There was a movement in the hay, and a bloody man with a poniard in his hand
appeared. He tried to rise to his feet, but his stiffened leg would not
permit it and he fell. The Adjutant at once grappled with him and took away
his stiletto. He was immediately secured, notwithstanding his resistance.

Gianetto, lying on the earth and bound like a fagot, turned his head towards
Fortunato, who had approached.

"Son of-!" said he, with more contempt than anger.

The child threw him the silver piece which he had received, feeling that he
no longer deserved it; but the outlaw paid no attention to the movement, and
with great coolness said to the Adjutant:

"My dear Gamba, I cannot walk; you will be obliged to carry me to the city."

"Just now you could run faster than a buck," answered the cruel captor; "but
be at rest. I am so pleased to have you that I would carry you a league on
my back without fatigue. Besides, comrade, we are going to make a litter for
you with your cloak and some branches, and at the Crespoli farm we shall
find horses."

"Good," said the prisoner. "You will also put a little straw on your litter
that I may be more comfortable."

While some of the soldiers were occupied in making a kind of stretcher out
of some chestnut boughs and the rest were dressing Gianetto's wound, Mateo
Falcone and his wife suddenly appeared at a turn in the path that led to the
mâaquis. The woman was staggering under the weight of an enormous sack of
chestnuts, while her husband was sauntering along, carrying one gun in his
hands, while another was slung across his shoulders, for it is unworthy of a
man to carry other burdens than his arms.

At the sight of the soldiers Mateo's first thought was that they had come to
arrest him. But why this thought? Had he then some quarrels with justice?
No. Ne enjoyed a good reputation. He was said to have a particularly good
name, but he was a Corsican and a highlander, and there are few Corsican
highlanders who, in scrutinizing their memory, cannot find some peccadillo,
such as a gun-shot, dagger-thrust, or similar trifles. Mateo more than
others had a clear conscience; for more than ten years he had not pointed
his carbine at a man, but he was always prudent, and put himself into a
position to make a good defense if necessary. "Wife," said he to Giuseppa,
"put down the sack and hold yourself ready."

She obeyed at once. He gave her the gun that was slung across his shoulders,
which would have bothered him, and, cocking the one he held in his hands,
advanced slowly towards the house, walking among the trees that bordered the
road, ready at the least hostile demonstration, to hide behind the largest,
whence he could fire from under cover. His wife followed closely behind,
holding his reserve weapon and his cartridge-box. The duty of a good
housekeeper, in case of a fight, is to load her husband's carbines.

On the other side the Adjutant was greatly troubled to see Mateo advance in
this manner, with cautious steps, his carbine raised, and his finger on the
trigger.

"If by chance," thought he, "Mateo should be related to Gianetto, or if he
should be his friend and wish to defend him, the contents of his two guns
would arrive amongst us a certainly as as letter in the post; and if he
should see me, notwithstanding the relationship!"

In this perplexity he took a bold step. It was to advance alone towards
Mateo and tell him of the affair while accosting him as an old acquaintance,
but the short space that separated him from Mateo seemed terribly long.

"Hello! old comrade," cried he. "How do you do, my good fellow? It is I,
Gamba, your cousin."

Without answering a word, Mateo stopped, and in proportion as the other
spoke, slowly raised the muzzle of his gun so that it was pointing upward
when the Adjutant joined him.

"Good-day, brother," said the Adjutant, holding out his hand. "It is a long
time since I have seen you."

"Good-day, brother."

"I stopped while passing, to say good-day to you and to cousin Pepa here. We
have had a long journey to-day, but have no reason to complain, for we have
captured a famous prize. We have just seized Gianetto Saupiero."

"God be praised!" cried Giuseppa. "He stole a milch goat from us last week."

These words reassured Gamba.

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

"The villain fought like a lion," continued the Adjutant, a little
mortified. "He killed one of my soldiers, and not content with that, broke
Caporal Chardon's arm; but that matters little, he is only a Frenchman.
Then, too, he was so well hidden that the devil couldn't have found him.
Without my little cousin, Fortunato, I should never have discovered him."

"Fortunato!" cried Mateo.

"Fortunato!" repeated Giuseppa.

"Yes, Gianetto was hidden under the hay-pile yonder, but my little cousin
showed me the trick. I shall tell his uncle, the Caporal, that he may send
him a fine present for his trouble. Both his name and yours will be in the
report that I shall send to the Attorney-general."

"Malediction!" said Mateo in a low voice.

They had rejoined the detachment. Gianetto was already lying on the litter
ready to set out. When he saw Mateo and Gamba in company he smiled a strange
smile, then, turning his head towards the door of the house, he spat on the
sill, saying:

"House of a traitor."

Only a man determined to die would dare pronounce the word traitor to
Falcone. A good blow with the stiletto, which there would be no need of
repeating, would have immediately paid the insult. However, Mateo made no
other movement than to place his hand on his forehead like a man who is
dazed:

Fortunato had gone into the house when his father arrived, but now he
reappeared with a bowl of milk which he handed with downcast eyes to
Gianetto.

"Get away from me!" cried the outlaw, in a loud voice. Then, turning to one
of the soldiers, he said:

"Comrade, give me a drink."

The soldier placed his gourd in his hands, and the prisoner drank the water
handed to him by a man with whom he had just exchanged bullets. He then
asked them to tie his hands across his breast instead of behind his back.

"I like," said he, "to lie at my ease."

They hastened to satisfy him; then the Adjutant gave the signal to start,
said adieu to Mateo, who did not respond, and descended with rapid steps
towards the plain.

Nearly ten minutes elapsed before Mateo spoke. The child looked with
restless eyes, now at his mother, now at his father, who was leaning on his
gun and gazing at him with an expression of concentrated rage

"You begin well," said Mateo at last with a calm voice, but frightful to one
who knew the man.

"Oh, father!" cried the boy, bursting into tears, and making a forward
movement as if to throw himself on his knees. But Mateo cried, "Away from
me!"

The little fellow stopped and sobbed, immovable, a few feet from his father.

Giuseppa drew near. She had just discovered the watch-chain, the end of
which was hanging out of Fortunato's jacket.

"Who gave you that watch?" demanded she in a severe tone.

"My cousin, the Adjutant."

Falcone seized the watch and smashed it in a thousand pieces against a rock.

"Wife," said he, "is this my child?"

Giuseppa's cheeks turned a brick-red.

"What are you saying, Mateo? Do you know to whom you speak?"

"Very well, this child is the first of his race to commit treason."

Fortunato's sobs and gasps redoubled as Falcone kept his lynx-eyes upon him.
Then he struck the earth with his gun-stock, shouldered the weapon, and
turned in the direction of the mâaquis, calling to Fortunato to follow. The
boy obeyed. Giuseppa hastened after Mateo and seized his arm.

"He is your son," said she with a trembling voice, fastening her black eyes
on those of her husband to read what was going on in his heart.

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

Giuseppa embraced her son, and bursting into tears entered the house. She
threw herself on her knees before an image of the Virgin and prayed
ardently. In the meanwhile Falcone walked some two hundred paces along the
path and only stopped when he reached a little ravine which he descended. He
tried the earth with the buttend of his carbine, and found if soft and easy
to dig. The place seemed to be convenient for his design.

"Fortunato, go close to that big rock there."

The child did as he was commanded, then he kneeled.

"Say your prayers."

"Oh, father, father, do not kill me!"

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

The boy, stammering and sobbing, recited the Pater and the Credo. At the end
of each prayer the father loudly answered, "Amen!"

"Are those all the prayers you know?"

"Oh! father, I know the Ave Maria and the litany that my aunt taught me."

"It is very long, but no matter."

The child finished the litany in a scarcely audible tone.

"Are you finished?"

"Oh! my father, have mercy! Pardon me! I will never do so again. I will beg
my cousin, the Caporal, to pardon Gianetto."

He was still speaking. Mateo raised his gun, and, taking aim, said:

"May God pardon you!"

The boy made a desperate effort to rise and grasp his father's knees, but
there was not time. Mateo fired and Fortunato fell dead.

Without casting a glance on the body, Mateo returned to the house for a
spade with which to bury his son. He had gone but a few steps when he met
Giuseppa, who, alarmed by the shot, was hastening hither.

"What have you done?" cried she.

"Justice."

"Where is he?"

"In the ravine. I am going to bury him. He died a Christian. I shall have a
mass said for him. Have my son-in-law, Tiodoro Bianchi, sent for to come and
live with us."

***