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by Alexandre Dumas
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), known as Alexandre Dumas, père, is one of the most widely read and translated of all French authors. His historical romances have been adapted into at least 100 films, into plays and comic books.
Dumas visited the island of Corsica in 1834 and incorporated details of the scenery of the island, the life of the inhabitants, the survival of the vendetta, and the fierce family feuds. The story has been adapted into a number of highly-successful plays and films including the musical 'Blood Brothers'.
For more works by Alexandre Dumas, see The Index
I was travelling in Corsica early in March 1841. Corsica is a French department, but it is by no means French, and Italian is the language commonly spoken. It is free from robbers, but it is still the land of the vendetta, and the province of Sartene, wherein I was travelling, is the home of family feuds, which last for years and are always accompanied by loss of life.
I was travelling alone across the island, but I had been obliged to take a guide; and when at five o'clock we halted on a hill overlooking the village of Sullacro, my guide asked me where I would like to stay for the night. There were, perhaps, one hundred and twenty houses in Sullacro for me to choose from, so after looking out carefully for the one that promised the most comfort, I decided in favour of a strong, fortified, squarely-built house.
"Certainly," said my guide. "That is the house of Madame Savilia de Franchi. Your honour has chosen wisely."
I was a little uncertain whether it was quite the right thing for me to seek hospitality at a house belonging to a lady, for, being only thirty-six, I considered myself a young man. But I found it quite impossible to make my guide understand my feelings. The notion that my staying a night could give occasion for gossip concerning my hostess, or that it made any difference whether I was old or young, was unintelligible to a Corsican.
Madame Savilia, I learnt from the guide, was about forty, and had two sons - twins - twenty-one years old. One lived with his mother, and was a Corsican; the other was in Paris, preparing to be a lawyer.
We soon arrived at the house we sought. My guide knocked vigorously at the door, which was promptly opened by a man in velvet waistcoat and breeches and leather gaiters. I explained that I sought hospitality, and was answered in return that the house was honoured by my request. My luggage was carried off, and I entered.
In the corridor a beautiful woman, tall, and dressed in black, met me. She bade me welcome, and promised me that of her son, telling me that the house was at my service.
A maid-servant was called to conduct me to the room of M. Louis, and as supper would be served in an hour, I went upstairs.
My room was evidently that of the absent son, and the most comfortable in the house. Its furniture was all modern, and there was a well-filled bookcase. I hastily looked at the volumes; they denoted a student of liberal mind.
A few minutes later, and my host, M. Lucien de Franchi, entered. I observed that he was young, of sunburnt complexion, well made, and fearless and resolute in his bearing.
"I am anxious to see that you have all you need," he said, "for we Corsicans are still savages, and this old hospitality, which is almost the only tradition of our forefathers left, has its shortcomings for the French."
I assured him that the apartment was far from suggesting savagery.
"My brother Louis likes to live after the French fashion," Lucien answered. He went on to speak of his brother, for whom he had a profound affection. They had already been parted for ten months, and it was three or four years before Louis was expected home.
As for Lucien, nothing, he said, would make him leave Corsica. He belonged to the island, and could not live without its torrents, its rocks, and its forests. The physical resemblance between himself and his brother, he told me, was very great; but there was considerable difference of temperament.
Having completed my own change of dress, I went into Lucien's room, at his suggestion. It was a regular armoury, and all the furniture was at least 300 years old.
While my host put on the dress of a mountaineer, for he mentioned to me that he had to attend a meeting after supper, he told me the history of some of the carbines and daggers that hung round the room. Of a truth, he came of an utterly fearless stock, to whom death was of small account by the side of courage and honour.
At supper, Madame de Franchi could not help expressing her anxiety for her absent son. No letter had been received, but Lucien for days had been feeling wretched and depressed.
"We are twins," he said simply, "and however greatly we are separated, we have one and the same body, as we had at our birth. When anything happens to one of us, be it physical or mental, it at once affects the other. I know that Louis is not dead, for I should have seen him again in that case."
"You would have told me if he had come?" said Madame de Franchi anxiously.
"At the very moment, mother."
I was amazed. Neither of them seemed to express the slightest doubt or surprise at this extraordinary statement.
Lucien went on to regret the passing of the old customs of Corsica. His very brother had succumbed to the French spirit, and on his return would settle down as an advocate at Ajaccio, and probably prosecute men who killed their enemies in a vendetta. "And I, too, am engaged in affairs unworthy of a De Franchi," he concluded. "You have come to Corsica with curiosity about its inhabitants. If you care to set out with me after supper, I will show you a real bandit."
I accepted the invitation with pleasure.
Lucien explained to me the object of our expedition. For ten years the village of Sullacro had been divided over the quarrel of two families, the Orlandi and the Colona - a quarrel that had originated in the seizure of a paltry hen belonging to the Orlandi, which had flown into the poultry-yard of the Colonas. Nine people had already been killed in this feud, and now Lucien, as arbitrator, was to bring it to an end. The local prefect had written to Paris that one word from De Franchi would end the dispute, and Louis had appealed to him.
To-night Lucien was to arrange matters with Orlandi, as he had already done with Colona, and the meeting-place was at the ruins of the Castle of Vicentello d'Istria. It was a steep ascent, but we arrived in good time, and while we sat and waited, Lucien told me terrible stories of feuds and vengeance. Orlandi made his appearance exactly at nine o'clock, and after some discussion agreed to Lucien's terms. I found that I was expected to act as surety for Orlandi, and accepted the responsibility.
"You will now be able to tell my brother, on your return to Paris, that it's all been settled as he wished," said Lucien.
On our way home Lucien showed wonderful marksmanship with his gun, and admitted he was equally skillful with the pistol. His brother Louis, on the other hand, had never touched either gun or pistol.
Next morning came the grand reconciliation of Orlandi and Colona, in the market square in the presence of the mayor and the notary. The mayor compelled the belligerents to shake hands, a document was signed declaring the vendetta at an end, and everybody went to mass.
Later in the day I was compelled to bid good-bye to Madame de Franchi and her son, and set out for Paris; but before I left Lucien told me how in his family his father had appeared to him on his death-bed, and that, not only at death, but at any great crisis in life, an apparition appeared. He was certain by his own depression that his brother Louis was suffering.
Lucien told me his brother's address, 7, Rue du Helder, and gave me a letter which I undertook to deliver personally.
We parted with great cordiality, and a week later I was back in Paris.
I was startled by the extraordinary resemblance of M. Louis de Franchi, whom I had at once called upon, to his brother.
I was relieved to find that he was not suffering from illness, and I told him of the anxiety of his family concerning his health. M. de Franchi replied that he had not been ill, but that he had been suffering from a very bitter disappointment, aggravated by the knowledge that his own suffering caused his brother to suffer, too. He hoped, however, that time would heal the wound in his heart.
We agreed to meet the following night at the opera ball at midnight, on the young lawyer's suggestion. I rallied him on his recovery from his sorrow, but Louis only said mournfully that he was driven by fate, dragged against his will.
"I am quite sure," he said, "that it would be better for me not to go, but nevertheless I am going."
Louis was too pre-occupied to talk when we met at the masked ball, and he suddenly left me for a lady carrying violets. Later he rejoined me, and together we set off to supper at three o'clock in the morning. It was my friend D - - 's supper party, and he had included Louis in the invitation.
We found our friends waiting supper, and D - - announced that the only person who had not arrived was Château-Renard. It seemed there was a wager on that M. de Château-Renard would not arrive with a certain lady whom he had undertaken to bring to supper.
Louis, who was as pale as death, implored D - - not to mention the lady's name, and our host acceded to the request.
"Only as her husband is at Smyrna, or in India or Mexico or somewhere, and in such a case it's the same as if the lady wasn't married," D - - observed.
"I assure you her husband is coming back soon, and he is such a good fellow he would be horribly mortified to hear his wife had done anything silly in his absence."
Château-Renard had till four o'clock to save his bet. At five minutes to four he had not arrived, and Louis smiled at me over his wine. At that very moment the bell rang. D - - went to the door, and we could hear some argument going on in the hall.
Then a lady entered with obvious reluctance, escorted by D - - and Château-Renard.
"It's not yet four," said Château-Renard to D - - .
"Quite right, my boy," the other answered. "You've won your bet."
"No, hardly yet, sir," said the unknown lady. "Now I know why you were so persistent. You have wagered to bring me here to supper, and I supposed you were taking me to sup with one of my own friends."
Both Château-Renard and D - - besought the lady to stay, but the fair unknown, after expressing her thanks to D - - for his welcome, turned to M. Louis de Franchi, and asked him to escort her home. Louis at once sprang forward.
Château-Renard, furious, insisted that he would know whom to hold accountable.
"If I am the person meant," said Louis, with great dignity, "you will find me at home at 7, Rue du Helder all day to-morrow."
Louis departed with his fair companion, and though Château-Renard was ostentatiously cheerful, the end of the supper-party was not at all a festive business.
At ten o'clock the same morning I arrived at the rooms of M. Louis de Franchi. The seconds of Château-Renard had already called, and I passed them on the stairs.
Louis had written me a note; with another friend, Baron Giordano Martelli, the affair was to be arranged with Baron de Châteaugrand, and M. de Boissy, the gentleman I had met on the stairs.
I looked at the cards of these two men, and asked Louis if the matter was of any great seriousness.
Louis replied by telling the story of the quarrel. A friend of his, a sea captain, had married a beautiful woman, so beautiful and so young that Louis could not help falling in love with her. As an honourable man he had kept away from the house, and then on being reproached by his friend, had frankly told him the reason.
In return, his friend, who was just setting off for Mexico, commended his wife, Emilie, whom he adored and trusted absolutely, to his care, and asked his wife to consider Louis de Franchi as her brother. For six months the captain had been away, and Emilie had been living at her mother's. To this house, among other visitors, had come M. de Château-Renard, and from the first, this typical man of the world had been an object of dislike to Louis. Emilie's flirtations with Château-Renard at last provoked a remonstrance from Louis, and in return the lady told him that he was in love with her himself, and that he was absurd in his notions. After that Louis had left off calling on Emilie, but gossip was soon busy with the lady's name.
An anonymous letter had made an appointment for Louis with the lady of the violets at the masked ball, and from this person he was informed again not only of Emilie's infidelity, but further, that M. de Château-Renard had wagered he would bring her to supper at D - - 's.
The rest I knew, and I could only assent mournfully that things must go on, and that the proposals of Château-Renard's seconds could not be declined.
But M. Louis de Franchi had never touched sword or pistol in his life! However, there was nothing for it but to return M. de Châteaugrand's call.
Martelli and I found that Château-Renard's two supporters were both polite men of the world. They were as indifferent as Louis was to the choice of weapons, and by a spin of a coin it was decided that pistols were to be used.
The place agreed upon for the duel was the Bois de Vincennes, and the time nine o'clock the following morning.
I called in the evening on Louis to ask him if he had any instructions for me; but his only reply was "Counsel comes with the night," so I waited on him next morning.
He was just finishing a letter when I entered, and he bade his servant Joseph leave us undisturbed for ten minutes.
"I am anxious," said Louis, "that my friend Giordano Martelli, who is a Corsican, should not know of this letter. But you must promise to carry out my wishes, and then my family may be saved a second misfortune. Now, please read the letter."
I read the letter Louis had written. It was to his mother, and it said that he was dying of brain fever. Her son, writing in a lucid interval, was beyond hope of recovery. It would be posted to her a quarter of an hour after his death. There was an affectionate postscript to Lucien.
"What does this mean? I don't understand it," I said.
"It means that at ten minutes past nine I shall be dead. I have been forewarned, that is all. My father appeared to me last night and announced my death."
He spoke so simply of this visit, that if it was an illusion it was as terribly convincing as the truth.
"There is one thing more," said Louis. "If my brother was to hear that I had been killed in a duel, he would at once leave Sullacro to come and fight the man who had killed me. And then if he were killed in his turn my mother would be thrice widowed. To prevent that I have written this letter. If it is believed that I have died of brain fever no one can be blamed." He paused. "Unless, unless - but no, that must not be."
I knew that my own strange fear was his.
On the way to Vincennes Baron Giordano stopped to get a case of pistols, powder, and balls, and we arrived at our destination just as M. de Château-Renard's carriage drove up. At M. de Châteaugrand's suggestion we all made our way to a certain glade away from the public pathway.
Martelli and Châteaugrand measured, the distance together, while Louis bade me farewell, asking me to accept his watch, and begging me to keep the duel out of the papers, and to prevail upon Giordano not to let any word of the matter reach Sullacro.
M. Château-Renard was at his post. Baron Giordano gave Louis his pistol.
Châteaugrand called out, "Gentlemen, are you ready?" Then he clapped his hands "One, two, three."
Two shots went off at the same moment, and Louis de Franchi fell. His opponent was unhurt. I rushed to Louis and raised him up. Blood came to his lips. It was useless to send for a surgeon.
Château-Renard had withdrawn, but his seconds hastened to express their horror at the fatal ending of the combat.
Châteaugrand added that he hoped M. de Franchi bore no malice against his opponent.
"No, no, I forgive him!" said Louis. "But tell him to leave Paris. He must go."
The dying man spoke with difficulty. He reminded me of my promise, and asked me, as he fell back, to look at my watch.
It was exactly ten minutes past nine, and Louis was dead.
We carried the body back to the house, and Giordano made the required statement to the District Commissioner of Police. Then the house was sealed by the police, and Louis de Franchi was laid to rest in Père-La-chaise. But M. de Château-Renard could not be persuaded to leave Paris, though MM. de Boissy and de Châteaugrand both did their best to induce him to go.
One night, five days after the funeral, I was working late at my writing-table, when my servant entered, and told me in a frightened tone that M. de Franchi wanted to speak to me.
"Who?" I said, in astonishment.
"M. de Franchi, sir, your friend - the gentleman who has been here once or twice to see you."
"You must be out of your senses, Victor! Don't you know that he died five days ago?"
"Yes, sir; and that's why I am so upset. I heard a ring at the bell, and when I opened the door, he walked in, asked if you were at home, and told me to tell you that M. de Franchi desired to speak with you."
"Are you out of your mind, my good man? I suppose the hall is badly lit, and you were half-asleep and heard the name wrong. Go back and ask the name again."
"No, sir, I will swear that I'm not mistaken. I'm sure I heard and saw perfectly."
"Very well, then, show him in."
Victor went back to the door, trembling all the time, and said, "Please step in, sir."
My hasty sensation of terror was quickly dispelled. It was Lucien who was apologising to me for disturbing me at such an hour.
"The fact is," he said, "I only arrived ten minutes ago, and you will understand how impossible it was not to come and see you at once."
I at once thought of the letter I had sent. In five days it could not have reached Sullacro.
"Good heaven!" I cried. "Nothing is known to you?"
"Everything is known," he said quietly.
Lucien mentioned that on going to his brother's house, the people were so panic-stricken that they refused the door to him.
"Tell me," I said, when we were alone. "You must have been on your way here when you heard the fatal news?"
"On the contrary, I was at Sullacro. Have you for-forgotten what I told you about the apparitions in my family?"
"Has your brother appeared to you?" I cried.
"Yes. He told me he had been killed in a duel by M. de Château-Renard. I saw my brother in his room the day he was killed," Lucien went on, "and that night in a dream I saw the place where the duel was fought, and heard the name of M. de Château-Renard. And I have come to Paris to kill the man who killed my brother. My brother had never touched a pistol in his life, and it was as easy to kill him as to kill a tame stag. My mother knows why I have come. She is a true Corsican, and she kissed me on the forehead and said 'Go!'"
The next morning Lucien wrote to Giordano and sent a challenge to Château-Renard. Then he went with me to Vincennes, and, though he had never been there in his life before, Lucien walked straight to the spot where his brother had fallen. He turned round, walked twenty paces, and said, "This is where the villain stood, and to-morrow he will lie here."
Lucien predicted with absolute confidence the death of Château-Renard. The challenge was accepted, the same seconds acted, and on the morrow we assembled in the fatal glade. Château-Renard was obviously uneasy. The signal was given, both men fired, and, sure enough, Château-Renard fell, shot through the temple as Lucien had foretold.
Then, for the first time since Louis' death, Lucien burst into tears. He dropped his pistol and threw himself into my arms. "My brother, my dear brother!" he cried.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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