Story type: Essay
Once, no doubt, Corsica was a savage, untamed, untrimmed kind of country, and a man’s life was little safer than it is to-day in the neighbouring island of Sardinia. There were brigands and bandits and families engaged in the private warfare of the vendetta, so that things were as lively and exciting as they get in parts of Virginia at times. Killing was certainly no murder, and even yet the vendetta flourishes to some extent. There is nothing harder than to get a high-spirited southern population ready to acknowledge the majesty of the law. The attitude of the inland Corsican, even to this day, is that of a young East-Ender whom I knew. When he was asked to give evidence against his particular enemy, he replied, “But if I do, they’ll jug him, and I won’t be able to get even with him.” He preferred handling the man himself.
Yet nowadays Corsica has greatly changed from what it was in Paoli’s time. French justice is a fairly good brand of justice after all. The magistrates administer the law, and the system of military roads all over the island makes it easy for the police to get about. When a criminal gets away from them he has to take to the hills and to keep there. It is such solitary fugitives who still give the stranger a notion that the country is essentially criminal. But he is a bandit, not a brigand. He may rob, but he does not kidnap. His idea of ransom is what is in a man’s pockets, not what his Government will pay to prevent having his throat cut. After all, there is such a thing in England as highway robbery, and in Corsica robbery is usually without violence. If a bandit is treated as a gentleman he will be polite, even though he points a gun at a visitor’s stomach and requests him to hand over all he happens to have about him.
I went to Corsica from Leghorn with a friend of mine who knew no more of the island than I did. We landed at Bastia, where, by the way, Nelson also landed and was severely repulsed, and found the town one of the most barren and uninviting places in the world. It is hot, glaring, sandy, stony, sun-burnt, a most unpleasing introduction to one of the most beautiful and interesting islands in the Mediterranean, or, for that matter, in the world. For the island is fertile and is yet barren; it is mountainous and has great stretches of plain in it along the eastern shore. Though it is but fifty miles across and little more than a hundred long, there is a real range of rugged high mountains in it, two of them, Monte Cinto and Monte Rotondo, being nearly 9000 feet high, while three others, Pagliorba, Padre and d’Oro are over 7000 feet. The rocks of these ranges are primary and metamorphic, and the scenery is bold. Yet it is kindly and gracious for the forests are thick. On the peaks, and in the recesses of the loftier forests, a wild black sheep, the mufflon, can still be hunted. And the tumbling streams and rivers are full of trout. There are few better trout streams in Europe than the Golo, which runs into the sea on the east coast through a big salt-water lagoon called Biguglia. When I saw it the stream was in fine order, and I longed to get out of the train to throw a fly upon it. For the island is now so civilised that a railway runs from Bastia across the summit of the island by the towns of Corte and Vivario down to Ajaccio. But when I and my friend were there the train only ran to Corte. We had to drive from there across the summit to Vivario, whither the rail had reached, in the western slope of the hills. Corte sits queen-like on the summit of the island, and is quiet and ancient. Yet some day it will be, like Orezza with its strong iron waters, a health resort. The French go more and more to Corsica, and the intruding English have what is practically an English hotel at Ajaccio. There is another in the forests of Vizzavona.
It is a quick descent from the summit to Ajaccio, which lies smiling in its gulf, that is somewhat like one of the deep indentations of Puget Sound. We stayed there for a week and during that time took a diligence and went up to Vico. It was on this little forty-mile journey among the hills that I saw most of Corsica’s character. And at first it was curiously melancholy to me. As we drove inland we met numbers of the peasants, men and women, and at first it seemed as if a great epidemic must have devastated the country. Almost every woman we saw was in black. But this comes from a habit that they have of wearing black for three years after any of their relatives die. Even in a healthy country (and the lowlands, or the plage of Corsica, is not healthy in summer) most families must lose a member in three years, and thus it happens that most of the women are in perpetual mourning. The solidarity of the family is great in Corsica. It must be or women would not renounce their natural and beautiful dress to adorn themselves with colours. It was curious to see at times some young girl not in mourning. I could not help thinking that she had an unfair advantage over her darkly-dressed fellows.
We came at last to Vico in the hills, and found it picturesque to the last degree, and quite equally unsanitary. It was at once beautifully picturesque and foully offensive. Nothing less than a tropical thunderstorm could have cleansed it. But none of its inhabitants minded. They loafed about the deadly streams of filth and were quite unconscious of anything disagreeable in the air. A Spanish village is purity itself to such a place as Vico. But then the proud and haughty Corsicans object to doing any work except upon their own fields. If an ordinance had been passed to cleanse Vico’s streets and that dreadful main drain, its stream from the hills, it would have been necessary to import Italians to do it. For all hard labour outside mere tillage is done by them. I would willingly have employed a couple to clean up the little inn at which we stayed for the night. It would have been a public service.
In the morning my friend and I started on a little walk to a village higher in the hills called Renno. We went up a good open road, cut here and there through le maquis, the scrub or bush of Corsica. And as we went we got a good view of many little mountain villages, which hang for the most part on the slope of the hills, being neither in the valley nor on the summit. We were high enough to be among the chestnuts; vineyards there were none. And at last we came to Renno, and found the villagers taking a sad holiday. I spoke to them in bad Italian, and found that it seemed good Corsican to them, perhaps even classical Corsican, if there be such a thing, and learnt that there had been a funeral of a little child that morning. They proposed to do no more work that day. Most of the men were loafing along a wall by their little inn, and they were soon reinforced by many women. In a few minutes the village had almost forgotten the funeral in the excitement of seeing two strangers, foreigners, Englishmen. They told us that so far as they remember no foreigner, not even a Frenchman, had been there before. Their village was indeed lost to the world; they looked on Vico, evil-smelling Vico, as a great, fine town: Ajaccio was a distant and immense city. But no one from Renno had been there. It was indeed possible that most of the inhabitants had never seen the sea. There was something touching in this quaint and simple isolation, and the men were simple too. I invited the whole male population of the place to drink with me at the poor little cabaret. The drink they took (it was the only drink save some sour wine) was white brandy at ten centimes the glass. To make friends in this time-honoured way with the whole village cost me less than two francs. And I had to use my “Corsican” freely to satisfy in some small measure their curiosity about the world beyond le maquis, and beyond the sea. They asked me how it was that I, a stranger and an Englishman, spoke Corsican. To this I replied that it was spoken, though doubtless in a corrupt form, in the neighbouring mainland, Italy. And on hearing this they chattered volubly, being greatly excited on the difficult point as to how Italians had learnt it. It is a small world, and most of us are alike. Did not the lad from Pondicherry, the French settlement in Hindustan, to whom I spoke in French, ask me how it was I spoke “Pondicherry?”
Corsica certainly has a character of its own; it resembles no other island that I know. It is fertile, and might be more fertile yet if its native inhabitants chose to work. But the Corsican is haughty and indolent, he does not care to work in his forests or to do a hand’s turn off his own family property. Even in that he grows no cereal crops to speak of; it is easier to sit and watch the olive ripen and the vineyards colour their fruit. They rear horses and cattle, asses and mules, and sometimes hunt in the hills for pigs or goats, or the wild black sheep. And even yet they hunt each other, for not even French law and French police can eradicate revenge from the Corsican heart. They are a curious subtle people, not at all like the French or the Italians. And, to speak the truth, they have some more unamiable characteristics than these, which lead them to hereditary blood feuds. It is said, I know not with what accuracy, that most of the mouchards, or spies, and the agents provocateurs of the French police, are Corsican by birth. But certainly Corsica has produced more than these, since it was the birthplace of Paoli and of Napoleon.