The road, with a gentle winding, reached the middle of the forest. The huge pine-trees spread above our heads a mournful-looking vault, and gave forth a kind of long, sad wail, while at either side their straight, slender trunks formed, as it were, an army of organ-pipes, from which seemed to issue the low, monotonous music of the wind through the tree-tops.
After three hours’ walking there was an opening in this row of tangled branches. Here and there an enormous pine-parasol, separated from the others, opening like an immense umbrella, displayed its dome of dark green; then, all of a sudden, we gained the boundary of the forest, some hundreds of meters below the defile which leads into the wild valley of Niolo.
On the two projecting heights which commanded a view of this pass, some old trees, grotesquely twisted, seemed to have mounted with painful efforts, like scouts who had started in advance of the multitude heaped together in the rear. When we turned round we saw the entire forest stretched beneath our feet, like a gigantic basin of verdure, whose edges, which seemed to reach the sky, were composed of bare racks shutting in on every side.
We resumed our walk, and, ten minutes later, we found ourselves in the defile.
Then I beheld an astonishing landscape. Beyond another forest, a valley, but a valley such as I had never seen before, a solitude of stone ten leagues long, hollowed out between two high mountains, without a field or a tree to be seen. This was the Niolo valley, the fatherland of Corsican liberty, the inaccessible citadel, from which the invaders had never been able to drive out the mountaineers.
My companion said to me: “It is here, that all our bandits have taken refuge.”
Ere long we were at the further end of this chasm, so wild, so inconceivably beautiful.
Not a blade of grass, not a plant–nothing but granite. As far as our eyes could reach we saw in front of us a desert of glittering stone, heated like an oven by a burning sun which seemed to hang for that very purpose right above the gorge. When we raised our eyes toward the crests we stood dazzled and stupefied by what we saw. They looked red and notched like festoons of coral, for all the summits are made of porphyry; and the sky overhead seemed violet, lilac, discolored by the vicinity of these strange mountains. Lower down the granite was of scintillating gray, and under our feet it seemed rasped, pounded; we were walking over shining powder. At our right, along a long and irregular course, a tumultuous torrent ran with a continuous roar. And we staggered along under this heat, in this light, in this burning, arid, desolate valley cut by this ravine of turbulent water which seemed to be ever hurrying onward, without being able to fertilize these rocks, lost in this furnace which greedily drank it up without being penetrated or refreshed by it.
But suddenly there was visible at our right a little wooden cross sunk in a little heap of stones. A man had been killed there; and I said to my companion:
“Tell me about your bandits.”
“I knew the most celebrated of them, the terrible St. Lucia. I will tell you his history.
“His father was killed in a quarrel by a young man of the same district, it is said; and St. Lucia was left alone with his sister. He was a weak and timid youth, small, often ill, without any energy. He did not proclaim the _vendetta_ against the assassin of his father. All his relatives came to see him, and implored of him to take vengeance; he remained deaf to their menaces and their supplications.
“Then, following the old Corsican custom, his sister, in her indignation, carried away his black clothes, in order that he might not wear mourning for a dead man who had not been avenged. He was insensible to even this outrage, and rather than take down from the rack his father’s gun, which was still loaded, he shut himself up, not daring to brave the looks of the young men of the district.
“He seemed to have even forgotten the crime, and he lived with his sister in the obscurity of their dwelling.
“But, one day, the man who was suspected of having committed the murder was about to get married. St. Lucia did not appear to be moved by this news; but, no doubt out of sheer bravado, the bridegroom, on his way to the church, passed before the two orphans’ house.
“The brother and the sister, at their window, were eating little fried cakes when the young man saw the bridal procession moving past the house. Suddenly he began to tremble, rose up without uttering a word, made the sign of the cross, took the gun which was hanging over the fireplace, and went out.
“When he spoke of this later on, he said: ‘I don’t know what was the matter with me; it was like fire in my blood; I felt that I should do it, that in spite of everything, I could not resist, and I concealed the gun in a cave on the road to Corte.’
“An hour later, he came back, with nothing in his hand, and with his habitual sad air of weariness. His sister believed that there was nothing further in his thoughts.
“But when night fell he disappeared.
“His enemy had, the same evening, to repair to Corte on foot, accompanied by his two bridesmen.
“He was pursuing his way, singing as he went, when St. Lucia stood before him, and looking straight in the murderer’s face, exclaimed: ‘Now is the time!’ and shot him point-blank in the chest.
“One of the bridesmen fled; the other stared at the young man, saying:
“‘What have you done, St. Lucia?’
“Then he was going to hasten to Corte for help, but St. Lucia said in a stern tone:
“‘If you move another step, I’ll shoot you through the legs.’
“The other, aware that till now he had always appeared timid, said to him: ‘You would not dare to do it!’ and he was hurrying off when he fell, instantaneously, his thigh shattered by a bullet.
“And St. Lucia, coming over to where he lay, said:
“‘I am going to look at your wound; if it is not serious, I’ll leave you there; if it is mortal, I’ll finish you off.’
“He inspected the wound, considered it mortal, and slowly re-loading his gun, told the wounded man to say a prayer, and shot him through the head.
“Next day he was in the mountains.
“And do you know what this St. Lucia did after this?
“All his family were arrested by the gendarmes. His uncle, the curé, who was suspected of having incited him to this deed of vengeance, was himself put into prison, and accused by the dead man’s relatives. But he escaped, took a gun in his turn, and went to join his nephew in the cave.
“Next, St. Lucia killed, one after the other, his uncle’s accusers, and tore out their eyes to teach the others never to state what they had seen with their eyes.
“He killed all the relatives, all the connections of his enemy’s family. He massacred during his life fourteen gendarmes, burned down the houses of his adversaries, and was up to the day of his death the most terrible of the bandits, whose memory we have preserved.”
* * * * *
The sun disappeared behind Monte Cinto and the tall shadow of the granite mountain went to sleep on the granite of the valley. We quickened our pace in order to reach before night the little village of Albertaccio, nothing better than a heap of stones welded beside the stone flanks of a wild gorge. And I said as I thought of the bandit:
“What a terrible custom your _vendetta_ is!”
My companion answered with an air of resignation:
“What would you have? A man must do his duty!”