Une Vie



Four days later the travelling carriage arrived that was to take them to Marseilles.

After the first night Jeanne had become accustomed to Julien’s kisses and caresses, although her repugnance to a closer intimacy had not diminished. She thought him handsome, she loved him. She again felt happy and cheerful.

The farewells were short and without sadness. The baroness alone seemed tearful. As the carriage was just starting she placed a purse, heavy as lead, in her daughter’s hand, saying, “That is for your little expenses as a bride.”

Jeanne thrust the purse in her pocket and the carriage started.

Toward evening Julien said: “How much money did your mother give you in that purse?”

She had not given it a thought, and she poured out the contents on her knees. A golden shower filled her lap: two thousand francs. She clapped her hands. “I shall commit all kinds of extravagance,” she said as she replaced it in the purse.

After travelling eight days in terribly hot weather they reached Marseilles. The following day the Roi-Louis, a little mail steamer which went to Naples by way of Ajaccio, took them to Corsica.

Corsica! Its “maquis,” its bandits, its mountains! The birthplace of Napoleon! It seemed to Jeanne that she was leaving real life to enter into a dream, although wide awake. Standing side by side on the bridge of the steamer, they looked at the cliffs of Provence as they passed swiftly by them. The calm sea of deep blue seemed petrified beneath the ardent rays of the sun.

“Do you remember our excursion in Père Lastique’s boat?” said Jeanne.

Instead of replying, he gave her a hasty kiss on the ear.

The paddle-wheels struck the water, disturbing its torpor, and a long track of foam like the froth of champagne remained in the wake of the boat, reaching as far as the eye could see. Jeanne drank in with delight the odor of the salt mist that seemed to go to the very tips of her fingers. Everywhere the sea. But ahead of them there was something gray, not clearly defined in the early dawn; a sort of massing of strange-looking clouds, pointed, jagged, seemed to rest on the waters.

Presently it became clearer, its outline more distinct on the brightening sky; a large chain of mountains, peaked and weird, appeared. It was Corsica, covered with a light veil of mist. The sun rose behind it, outlining the jagged crests like black shadows. Then all the summits were bathed in light, while the rest of the island remained covered with mist.

The captain, a little sun-browned man, dried up, stunted, toughened and shrivelled by the harsh salt winds, appeared on the bridge and in a voice hoarse after twenty years of command and worn from shouting amid the storms, said to Jeanne:

“Do you perceive it, that odor?”

She certainly noticed a strong and peculiar odor of plants, a wild aromatic odor.

“That is Corsica that sends out that fragrance, madame,” said the captain. “It is her peculiar odor of a pretty woman. After being away for twenty years, I should recognize it five miles out at sea. I belong to it. He, down there, at Saint Helena, he speaks of it always, it seems, of the odor of his native country. He belongs to my family.”

And the captain, taking off his hat, saluted Corsica, saluted down yonder, across the ocean, the great captive emperor who belonged to his family.

Jeanne was so affected that she almost cried.

Then, pointing toward the horizon, the captain said: “Les Sanguinaires.”

Julien was standing beside his wife, with his arm round her waist, and they both looked out into the distance to see what he was alluding to. They at length perceived some pyramidal rocks which the vessel rounded presently to enter an immense peaceful gulf surrounded by lofty summits, the base of which was covered with what looked like moss.

Pointing to this verdant growth, the captain said: “Le maquis.”

As they proceeded on their course the circle of mountains appeared to close in behind the steamer, which moved along slowly in such a lake of transparent azure that one could sometimes see to the bottom.

The town suddenly appeared perfectly white at the end of the gulf, on the edge of the water, at the base of the mountains. Some little Italian boats were anchored in the dock. Four or five rowboats came up beside the Roi-Louis to get passengers.

Julien, who was collecting the baggage, asked his wife in a low tone: “Twenty sous is enough, is it not, to give to the porter?” For a week he had constantly asked the same question, which annoyed her each time. She replied somewhat impatiently: “When one is not sure of giving enough, one gives too much.”

He was always disputing with the hotel proprietors, with the servants, the drivers, the vendors of all kinds, and when, by dint of bargaining, he had obtained a reduction in price, he would say to Jeanne as he rubbed his hands: “I do not like to be cheated.”

She trembled whenever a bill came in, certain beforehand of the remarks that he would make about each item, humiliated at this bargaining, blushing up to the roots of her hair beneath the contemptuous glances of the servants as they looked after her husband, while they held in their hand the meagre tip.

He had a dispute with the boatmen who landed him.

The first tree Jeanne saw was a palm. They went to a great, empty hotel at the corner of an immense square and ordered breakfast.

After an hour’s rest they arranged an itinerary for their trip, and at the end of three days spent in this little town, hidden at the end of the blue gulf, and hot as a furnace enclosed in its curtain of mountains, which keep every breath of air from it, they decided to hire some saddle horses, so as to be able to cross any difficult pass, and selected two little Corsican stallions with fiery eyes, thin and unwearying, and set out one morning at daybreak. A guide, mounted on a mule, accompanied them and carried the provisions, for inns are unknown in this wild country.

The road ran along the gulf and soon turned into a kind of valley, and on toward the high mountains. They frequently crossed the dry beds of torrents with only a tiny stream of water trickling under the stones, gurgling faintly like a wild animal in hiding.

The uncultivated country seemed perfectly barren. The sides of the hills were covered with tall weeds, yellow from the blazing sun. Sometimes they met a mountaineer, either on foot or mounted on a little horse, or astride a donkey about as big as a dog. They all carried a loaded rifle slung across their backs, old rusty weapons, but redoubtable in their hands.

The pungent odor of the aromatic herbs with which the island is overgrown seemed to make the air heavy. The road ascended gradually amid the long curves of the mountains. The red or blue granite peaks gave an appearance of fairyland to the wild landscape, and on the foothills immense forests of chestnut trees looked like green brush, compared with the elevations above them.

Sometimes the guide, reaching out his hand toward some of these heights, would repeat a name. Jeanne and Julien would look where he pointed, but see nothing, until at last they discovered something gray, like a mass of stones fallen from the summit. It was a little village, a hamlet of granite hanging there, fastened on like a veritable bird’s nest and almost invisible on the huge mountain.

Walking their horses like this made Jeanne nervous. “Let us go faster,” she said. And she whipped up her horse. Then, as she did not hear her husband following her, she turned round and laughed heartily as she saw him coming along, pale, and holding on to his horse’s mane as it bounced him up and down. His very appearance of a “beau cavalier” made his awkwardness and timidity all the more comical.

They trotted along quietly. The road now ran between two interminable forests of brush, which covered the whole side of the mountain like a garment. This was the “Maquis,” composed of scrub oak, juniper, arbutus, mastic, privet, gorse, laurel, myrtle and boxwood, intertwined with clematis, huge ferns, honeysuckle, cytisus, rosemary, lavender and brambles, which covered the sides of the mountain with an impenetrable fleece.

They were hungry. The guide rejoined them and led them to one of those charming springs so frequent in rocky countries, a tiny thread of iced water issuing from a little hole in the rock and flowing into a chestnut leaf that some passerby had placed there to guide the water into one’s mouth.

Jeanne felt so happy that she could hardly restrain herself from screaming for joy.

They continued their journey and began to descend the slope winding round the Bay of Sagone. Toward evening they passed through Cargese, the Greek village founded by a colony of refugees who were driven from their country. Tall, beautiful girls, with rounded hips, long hands and slender waists, and singularly graceful, were grouped beside a fountain. Julien called out, “Good evening,” and they replied in musical tones in the harmonious language of their own land.

When they reached Piana they had to beg for hospitality, as in ancient times and in desert lands. Jeanne trembled with joy as they waited for the door to be opened after Julien knocked. Oh, this was a journey worth while, with all the unexpected of unexplored paths.

It happened to be the home of a young couple. They received the travellers as the patriarchs must have received the guest sent by God. They had to sleep on a corn husk mattress in an old moldy house. The woodwork, all eaten by worms, overrun with long boring-worms, seemed to emit sounds, to be alive and to sigh.

They set off again at daybreak, and presently stopped before a forest, a veritable forest of purple granite. There were peaks, pillars, bell-towers, wondrous forms molded by age, the ravaging wind and the sea mist. As much as three hundred metres in height, slender, round, twisted, hooked, deformed, unexpected and fantastic, these amazing rocks looked like trees, plants, animals, monuments, men, monks in their garb, horned devils, gigantic birds, a whole population of monsters, a menagerie of nightmares petrified by the will of some eccentric divinity.

Jeanne had ceased talking, her heart was full. She took Julien’s hand and squeezed it, overcome with a longing for love in presence of the beauty of nature.

Suddenly, as they emerged from this chaos, they saw before them another gulf, encircled by a wall of blood-red granite. And these red rocks were reflected in the blue waters.

“Oh, Julien!” faltered Jeanne, unable to speak for wonder and choking with her emotion. Two tears fell from her eyes. Julien gazed at her in astonishment and said:

“What is the matter, my pet?”

She wiped away her tears, smiled and replied in a rather shaky voice:

“Nothing—I am nervous—I do not know—it just came over me. I am so happy that the least thing affects me.”

He could not understand these feminine attacks of “nerves,” the shocks of these vibrant beings, excited at nothing, whom enthusiasm stirs as might a catastrophe, whom an imperceptible sensation completely upsets, driving them wild with joy or despair.

These tears seemed absurd to him, and thinking only of the bad road, he said:

“You would do better to watch your horse.”

They descended an almost impassable path to the shore of the gulf, then turned to the right to ascend the gloomy Val d’Ota.

But the road was so bad that Julien proposed that they should go on foot. Jeanne was delighted. She was enchanted at the idea of walking, of being alone with him after her late emotion.

The guide went ahead with the mule and the horses and they walked slowly.

The mountain, cleft from top to bottom, spreads apart. The path lies in this breach, between two gigantic walls. A roaring torrent flows through the gorge. The air is icy, the granite looks black, and high above one the glimpse of blue sky astonishes and bewilders one.

A sudden noise made Jeanne start. She raised her eyes. An immense bird flew away from a hollow; it was an eagle. His spread wings seemed to brush the two walls of the gorge and he soared into the blue and disappeared.

Farther on there was a double gorge and the path lay between the two in abrupt zigzags. Jeanne, careless and happy, took the lead, the pebbles rolling away beneath her feet, fearlessly leaning over the abysses. Julien followed her, somewhat out of breath, his eyes on the ground for fear of becoming dizzy.

All at once the sun shone down on them, and it seemed as if they were leaving the infernal regions. They were thirsty, and following a track of moisture, they crossed a wilderness of stones and found a little spring conducted into a channel made of a piece of hollowed-out wood for the benefit of the goatherds. A carpet of moss covered the ground all round it, and Jeanne and Julien knelt down to drink.

As they were enjoying the fresh cold water, Julien tried to draw Jeanne away to tease her. She resisted and their lips met and parted, and the stream of cold water splashed their faces, their necks, their clothes and their hands, and their kisses mingled in the stream.

They were a long time reaching the summit of the declivity, as the road was so winding and uneven, and they did not reach Evisa until evening and the house of Paoli Palabretti, a relative of their guide.

He was a tall man, somewhat bent, with the mournful air of a consumptive. He took them to their room, a cheerless room of bare stone, but handsome for this country, where all elegance is ignored. He expressed in his language—the Corsican patois, a jumble of French and Italian—his pleasure at welcoming them, when a shrill voice interrupted him. A little swarthy woman, with large black eyes, a skin warmed by the sun, a slender waist, teeth always showing in a perpetual smile, darted forward, kissed Jeanne, shook Julien’s hand and said: “Good-day, madame; good-day, monsieur; I hope you are well.”

She took their hats, shawls, carrying all on one arm, for the other was in a sling, and then she made them all go outside, saying to her husband: “Go and take them for a walk until dinner time.”

M. Palabretti obeyed at once and walked between the two young people as he showed them the village. He dragged his feet and his words, coughing frequently, and repeating at each attack of coughing:

“It is the air of the Val, which is cool, and has struck my chest.”

He led them on a by-path beneath enormous chestnut trees. Suddenly he stopped and said in his monotonous voice: “It is here that my cousin, Jean Rinaldi, was killed by Mathieu Lori. See, I was there, close to Jean, when Mathieu appeared at ten paces from us. ‘Jean,’ he cried, ‘do not go to Albertacce; do not go, Jean, or I will kill you. I warn you!’

“I took Jean’s arm: ‘Do not go there, Jean; he will do it.’

“It was about a girl whom they were both after, Paulina Sinacoupi.

“But Jean cried out: ‘I am going, Mathieu; you will not be the one to prevent me.’

“Then Mathieu unslung his gun, and before I could adjust mine, he fired.

“Jean leaped two feet in the air, like a child skipping, yes, monsieur, and he fell back full on me, so that my gun went off and rolled as far as the big chestnut tree over yonder.

“Jean’s mouth was wide open, but he did not utter a word; he was dead.”

The young people gazed in amazement at the calm witness of this crime. Jeanne asked:

“And what became of the assassin?”

Paoli Palabretti had a long fit of coughing and then said:

“He escaped to the mountain. It was my brother who killed him the following year. You know, my brother, Philippi Palabretti, the bandit.”

Jeanne shuddered.

“Your brother a bandit?”

With a gleam of pride in his eye, the calm Corsican replied:

“Yes, madame. He was celebrated, that one. He laid low six gendarmes. He died at the same time as Nicolas Morali, when they were trapped in the Niolo, after six days of fighting, and were about to die of hunger.

“The country is worth it,” he added with a resigned air in the same tone in which he said: “It is the air of the Val, which is cool.”

Then they went home to dinner, and the little Corsican woman behaved as if she had known them for twenty years.

But Jeanne was worried. When Julien again held her in his arms, would she experience the same strange and intense sensation that she had felt on the moss beside the spring? And when they were alone together that evening she trembled lest she should still be insensible to his kisses. But she was reassured, and this was her first night of love.

The next day, as they were about to set out, she decided that she would not leave this humble cottage, where it seemed as though a fresh happiness had begun for her.

She called her host’s little wife into her room and, while making clear that she did not mean it as a present, she insisted, even with some annoyance, on sending her from Paris, as soon as she arrived, a remembrance, a remembrance to which she attached an almost superstitious significance.

The little Corsican refused for some time, not wishing to accept it. But at last she consented, saying:

“Well, then, send me a little pistol, a very small one.”

Jeanne opened her eyes in astonishment. The other added in her ear, as one confides a sweet and intimate secret: “It is to kill my brother-in-law.” And smiling, she hastily unwound the bandages around the helpless arm, and showing her firm, white skin with the scratch of a stiletto across it, now almost healed, she said: “If I had not been almost as strong as he is, he would have killed me. My husband is not jealous, he knows me; and, besides, he is ill, you know, and that quiets your blood. And, besides, madame, I am an honest woman; but my brother-in-law believes all that he hears. He is jealous for my husband and he will surely try it again. Then I shall have my little pistol; I shall be easy, and sure of my revenge.”

Jeanne promised to send the weapon, kissed her new friend tenderly and they set out on their journey.

The rest of the trip was nothing but a dream, a continual series of embraces, an intoxication of caresses. She saw nothing, neither the landscape, nor the people, nor the places where they stopped. She saw nothing but Julien.

On arriving at Bastia, they had to pay the guide. Julien fumbled in his pockets. Not finding what he wanted, he said to Jeanne: “As you are not using your mother’s two thousand francs, give them to me to carry. They will be safer in my belt, and it will avoid my having to make change.”

She handed him her purse.

They went to Leghorn, visited Florence, Genoa and all the Cornici. They reached Marseilles on a morning when the north wind was blowing. Two months had elapsed since they left the “Poplars.” It was now the 15th of October.

Jeanne, affected by the cold wind that seemed to come from yonder, from far-off Normandy, felt sad. Julien had, for some time, appeared changed, tired, indifferent, and she feared she knew not what.

They delayed their return home four days longer, not being able to make up their minds to leave this pleasant land of the sun. It seemed to her that she had come to an end of her happiness.

At length they left. They were to make all their purchases in Paris, prior to settling down for good at the “Poplars,” and Jeanne looked forward to bringing back some treasures, thanks to her mother’s present. But the first thing she thought of was the pistol promised to the little Corsican woman of Evisa.

The day after they arrived she said to Julien: “Dear, will you give me that money of mamma’s? I want to make my purchases.”

He turned toward her with a look of annoyance.

“How much do you want?”

“Why—whatever you please.”

“I will give you a hundred francs,” he replied, “but do not squander it.”

She did not know what to say, amazed and confused. At length she faltered: “But—I—handed you the money to——”

He did not give her time to finish.

“Yes, of course. Whether it is in my pocket or yours makes no difference from the moment that we have the same purse. I do not refuse you, do I, since I am giving you a hundred francs?”

She took the five gold pieces without saying a word, but she did not venture to ask for any more, and she bought nothing but the pistol.

Eight days later they set out for the “Poplars.”

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