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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nabob - Chapter 12. A Corsican Election
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The Nabob - Chapter 12. A Corsican Election Post by :mlhays Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :1647

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The Nabob - Chapter 12. A Corsican Election

CHAPTER XII. A CORSICAN ELECTION

Pozzonegro--near Sartene.

At last I can give you my news, dear M. Joyeuse. During the five days we have been in Corsica we have rushed about so much, made so many speeches, so often changed carriages and mounts--now on mules, now on asses, or even on the backs of men for crossing the torrents--written so many letters, noted so many requests, visited so many schools, presented chasubles, altar-cloths, renewed cracked bells, and founded kindergartens; we have inaugurated so many things, proposed so many toasts, listened to so many harangues, consumed so much Talano wine and white cheese, that I have not found time to send even a greeting to the little family circle round the big table, from which I have been missing these two months. Happily my absence will not be for much longer, as we expect to leave the day after to-morrow, and are coming straight back to Paris. From the electioneering point of view, I think our journey has been a success. Corsica is an admirable country, indolent and poor, a mixture of poverty and pride, which makes both the nobles and the middle classes strive to keep up an appearance of easy circumstances at the price of the most painful privations. They speak quite seriously of Popolasca's fortune--that needy deputy whom death robbed of the four thousand pounds his resignation in favour of the Nabob would have brought him. All these people have, as well, an administrative mania, a thirst for places which give them any sort of uniform, and a cap to wear with the words "Government official" written on it. If you gave a Corsican peasant the choice between the richest farm in France and the shabbiest sword-belt of a village policeman, he would not hesitate and would take the belt. In that conditions of things, you may imagine what chances of election a candidate has who can dispose of a personal fortune and the Government favours. Thus, M. Jansoulet will be elected; and especially if he succeeds in his present undertaking, which has brought us here to the only inn of a little place called Pozzonegro (black well). It is a regular well, black with foliage, consisting of fifty small red-stone houses clustered round a long Italian church, at the bottom of a ravine between rigid hills and coloured sandstone rocks, over which stretch immense forests of larch and juniper trees. From my open window, at which I am writing, I see up above there a bit of blue sky, the orifice of the well; down below on the little square--which a huge nut-tree shades as though the shadows were not already thick enough--two shepherds clothed in sheep-skins are playing at cards, with their elbows on the stone of a fountain. Gambling is the bane of this land of idleness, where they get men from Lucca to do their harvesting. The two poor wretches I see probably haven't a farthing between them, but one bets his knife against a cheese wrapped up in vine leaves, and the stakes lie between them on the bench. A little priest smokes his cigar as he watches them, and seems to take the liveliest interest in their game.

And that is not all. Not a sound anywhere except the drops of water on the stone, the oaths of one of the players who swears by the _sango del seminaro_, and from underneath my room in the inn parlour the eager voice of our friend mingling with the sputterings of the illustrious Paganetti, who is interpreter, in his conversation with the not less illustrious Piedigriggio.

M. Piedigriggio (gray feet) is a local celebrity. He is a tall, old man of seventy-five, with a flowing beard and a straight back. He wears a little pilot coat, a brown wool Catalonian cap on his white locks. At his belt he carries a pair of scissors to cut the long leaves of the green tobacco he smokes into the hollow of his hand. A venerable-looking person in fact, and when he crossed the square, shaking hands with the priest, smiling protectingly at the gamblers, I would never have believed that I was looking at the famous brigand Piedigriggio, who held the woods in Monte-Rotondo from 1840 to 1860, outwitted the police and the military, and who to-day, thanks to the proscription by which he benefits, after seven or eight cold-blooded murders, moves peaceably about the country which witnessed his crimes, and enjoys a considerable importance. This is why: Piedigriggio has two sons who, nobly following in his footsteps, have taken to the carbine and the woods, in their turn not to be found, not to be caught, as their father was, for twenty years; warned by the shepherds of the movements of the police, when the latter leave a village, they make their appearance in it. The eldest, Scipio, came to mass last Sunday at Pozzonegro. To say they love them, and that the bloody hand-shake of those wretches is a pleasure to all who harbour them, would be to calumniate the peaceful inhabitants of this parish. But they fear them, and their will is law.

Now, these Piedigriggios have taken it into their heads to favour our opponent in the election. And their influence is a formidable power, for they can make two whole cantons vote against us. They have long legs, the rascals, as long in proportion as the reach of their guns. Naturally, we have the police on our side, but the brigands are far more powerful. As our innkeeper said this morning: "The police, they go away; _ma the _banditti they stay." In the face of this logical reasoning we understood that the only thing to be done was to treat with the Gray-feet, to try a "job," in fact. The mayor said something of this to the old man, who consulted his sons, and it is the conditions of this treaty they are discussing downstairs. I hear the voice of our general director, "Come, my dear fellow, you know I am an old Corsican myself," and then the other's quiet replies, broken, like his tobacco, by the irritating noise of his scissors. The "dear fellow" does not seem to have much confidence, and until the coin is ringing upon the table I fancy there will not be any advance.

You see, Paganetti is known in his native country. The worth of his word is written on the square in Corte, still waiting for the monument to Paoli, on the vast fields of carrots which he has managed to plant on the Island of Ithaca, in the gaping empty purses of all those unfortunate small tradesmen, village priests, and petty nobility, whose poor savings he has swallowed up dazzling their eyes with chimerical _combinazioni_. Truly, for him to dare to come back here, it needed all his phenomenal audacity, as well as the resources now at his disposal to satisfy all claims.

And, indeed, what truth is there in the fabulous works undertaken by the Territorial Bank?

None.

Mines, which produce nothing and never will produce anything, for they exist only on paper; quarries, which are still innocent of pick or dynamite, tracts of uncultivated sandy land that they survey with a gesture, telling you, "We begin here, and we go right over there, as far as you like." It is the same with the forests. The whole of a wooded hill in Monte-Rotondo belongs to us, it seems, but the felling of the trees is impossible unless aeronauts undertake the woodman's work. It is the same with the watering-places, among which this miserable hamlet of Pozzonegro is one of the most important, with its fountain whose astonishing ferruginous properties Paganetti advertises. Of the streamers, not a shadow. Stay--an old, half-ruined Genoese tower on the shore of the Gulf of Ajaccio bears on a tarnished escutcheon, above its hermetically sealed doors, this inscription: "Paganetti's Agency. Maritime Company. Inquiry Office." Fat, gray lizards tend the office in company with an owl. As for the railways, all these honest Corsicans to whom I spoke of it smiled knowingly, replied with winks and mysterious hints, and it was only this morning that I had the exceedingly buffoonish explanation of all this reticence.

I had read among the documents which the director-general flaunts in our eyes from time to time, like a fan to puff up his impostures, the bill of sale of a marble quarry at a place said to be "Taverna," two hours' distance from Pozzonegro. Profiting by our stay here, I got on a mule this morning, without telling any one, and guided by a tall scamp of a fellow with legs like a deer--true type of a Corsican poacher or smuggler, his thick, red pipe in his mouth, his gun in a bandoleer--I went to Taverna. After a fearful progress across cracked rocks and bogs, past abysses of unsoundable depths--on the very edges of which my mule maliciously walked as though to mark them out with her shoes--we arrived, by an almost perpendicular descent, at the end of our journey. It was a vast desert of rocks, absolutely bare, all white with the droppings of gulls and sea-fowl, for the sea is at the bottom, quite near, and the silence of the place was broken only by the flow of the waves and the shrill cries of the wheeling circles of birds. My guide, who has a holy horror of excisemen and the police, stayed above on the cliff, because of a little coastguard station posted like a watchman on the shore. I made for a large red building which still maintained, in this burning solitude its three stories, in spite of broken windows and ruinous tiles. Over the worm-eaten door was an immense sign-board: "Territorial Bank. Carr----bre----54." The wind, the sun, the rain, have wiped out the rest.

There has been there, certainly, a commencement of operations, for a large square, gaping hole, cut out with a punch, is still open in the ground, showing along its crumbling sides, like a leopard's spots, red slabs with brown veins, and at the bottom, in the brambles, enormous blocks of the marble, called in the trade "black-heart" (marble spotted with red and brown), condemned blocks that no one could make anything of for want of a road leading to the quarry or a harbour to make the coast accessible for freight ships, and for want, above all, of subsidies considerable enough to carry out one or the other of these two projects. So the quarry remains abandoned, at a few cable-lengths from the shore, as cumbrous and useless as Robinson Crusoe's canoe in the same unfortunate circumstances. These details of the heart-rending story of our sole territorial wealth were furnished by a miserable caretaker, shaking with fever, whom I found in the low-ceilinged room of the yellow house trying to roast a piece of kid over the acrid smoke of a pistachio bush.

This man, who in himself is the whole staff of the Territorial Bank in Corsica, is Paganetti's foster-father, an old lighthouse-keeper upon whom the solitude does not weigh. Our director-general leaves him there partly for charity and partly because letters dated from the Taverna quarry, now and again, make a good show at the shareholders' meetings. I had the greatest difficulty extracting a little information from this poor creature, three parts savage, who looked upon me with cautious mistrust, half hidden behind the long hair of his goat-skin _pelone_. He told me, however, without intending it, what the Corsicans understand by the word "railway," and why they put on mysterious airs when they speak of it. As I was trying to find out if he knew anything about the scheme for a railway in the country, this old man, instead of smiling knowingly like his compatriots, said, quite naturally, in passable French, his voice rusty and benumbed like an ancient, little-used lock:

"Oh, sir, no need of a railway here."

"But it would be most valuable, most useful; it would facilitate communications."

"I don't say no; but with the police we have enough here."

"The policemen?"

"Certainly."

This _quid pro quo went on for some five minutes before I discovered that here the secret police service is called "the railway." As there are many Corsican policemen on the Continent they use this euphemism to designate the ignoble calling they follow. You inquire of the relations, "Where is your brother Ambrosini? What is your uncle Barbicaglia doing?" They will answer with a little wink, "He has a place on the railway," and every one knows what that means. Among the people, the peasants, who have never seen a railway and don't know what it is, it is quite seriously believed that the great occult administration of the Imperial police has no other name than that. Our principal agent in the country shares this touching simplicity of belief. It shows you the real state of the "Line from Ajaccio to Bastia, passing by Bonifacio, Porto Vecchio, etc.," as it is written on the big, green-backed books of the house of Paganetti. In fact all the goods of the Territorial Bank consist of a few sign-boards and two ruins, the whole not worthy of lying in the "old materials" yard in the Rue Saint-Ferdinand; every night as I go to sleep I hear the old vanes grating and the old doors banging on emptiness.

But in this case, where have gone, where are going now, the enormous sums M. Jansoulet has spent during the last five months--not to count what came from the outside, attracted by the magic of his name? I thought, as you did, that all these soundings, borings, purchasings of land that the books set forth in fine round-hand were exaggerated beyond measure. But who could suspect such effrontery? This is why the director was so opposed to the idea of bringing me on the electioneering trip. I don't want to have an explanation now. My poor Nabob has quite enough trouble in this election. Only, whenever we get back, I shall lay before him all the details of my long inquiry, and, whether he wants it or not, I will get him out of this den of thieves. They have finished below. Old Piedigriggio is crossing the square, pulling up the slip-knot of his long peasant's purse, which looks to me well filled. The bargain is made, I conclude. Good-bye, hurriedly, my dear M. Joyeuse; remember me to your daughters and ask them to keep a tiny little place for me round the work-table.

PAUL DE GERY.

The electioneering whirlwind which had enveloped them in Corsica, crossed the sea behind them like a blast of the sirocco and filled the flat in the Place Vendome with a mad wind of folly. It was overrun from morning to night by the habitual element, augmented now by a constant arrival of little dark men, brown as the locust-bean, with regular features and thick beards, some turbulent and talkative, like Paganetti, others silent, self-contained and dogmatic: the two types of the race upon which the same climate produces different effects. All these famished islanders, in the depths of their savage country, promised each other to meet at the Nabob's table. His house had become an inn, a restaurant, a market-place. In the dining-room, where the table was kept constantly laid, there was always to be found some newly arrived Corsican, with the bewildered and greedy appearance of a country cousin, having something to eat.

The boasting, clamorous race of election agents is the same everywhere; but these were unusually fiery, had a zeal even more impassioned and the vanity of turkey-cocks, all worked up to white heat. The most insignificant recorder, inspector, mayor's secretary, village schoolmaster, spoke as if he had the whole country behind him, and the pockets of his threadbare black coat full of votes. And it is a fact, in Corsican parishes (Jansoulet had seen it for himself) families are so old, have sprung from so little, have so many ramifications, that any poor fellow breaking stones on the road is able to claim relationship with the greatest personages of the island, and is thereby able to exert a serious influence. These complications are aggravated still more by the national temperament, which is proud, secretive, scheming, and vindictive; so it follows that one has to be careful how one walks amid the network of threads stretching from one extremity of the people to the other.

The worst was that all these people were jealous of each other, detested each other, and quarrelled across the table about the election, exchanging black looks and grasping the handles of their knives at the least contradiction. They spoke very loud and all at once, some in the hard, sonorous Genoese dialect, and others in the most comical French, all choking with suppressed oaths. They threw in each other's teeth names of unknown villages, dates of local scandals, which suddenly revived between two fellow guests two centuries of family hatreds. The Nabob was afraid of seeing his luncheons end tragically, and strove to calm all this violence and conciliate them with his large good-natured smile. But Paganetti reassured him. According to him, the vendetta, though still existing in Corsica, no longer employs the stiletto or the rifle except very rarely, and among the lowest classes. The anonymous letter had taken their place. Indeed, every day unsigned letters were received at the Place Vendome written in this style:

"M. Jansoulet, you are so generous that I cannot do less than point out to you that the Sieur Bornalinco (Ange-Marie) is a traitor, bought by your enemies. I could say very differently about his cousin Bornalinco (Louis-Thomas), who is devoted to the good cause, etc."

Or again:

"M. Jansoulet, I fear your chances of election will come to nothing, and are on a poor foundation for success if you continue to employ one named Castirla (Josue), of the parish of Omessa. His relative, Luciani, is the man you need."

Although he no longer read any of these missives, the poor candidate suffered from the disturbing effect of all these doubts and of all these unchained passions. Caught in the gearing of those small intrigues, full of fears, mistrustful, curious, feverish, he felt in every aching nerve the truth of the Corsican proverb, "The greatest ill you can wish your enemy is an election in his house."

It may be imagined that the check-book and the three deep drawers in the mahogany cabinet were not spared by this hoard of devouring locusts which had fallen upon "Moussiou Jansoulet's" dwelling. Nothing could be more comic than the haughty manner in which these good islanders effected their loans, briskly, and with an air of defiance. At the same time it was not they who were the worst--except for the boxes of cigars which sank in their pockets as though they all meant to open a "Civette" on their return to their own country. For just as the very hot weather inflames and envenoms old sores, so the election had given an astonishing new growth to the pillaging already established in the house. Money was demanded for advertising expenses, for Moessard's articles, which were sent to Corsica in bales of thousands of copies, with portraits, biographies, pamphlets--all the printed clamour that it was possible to raise round a name. And always the usual work of the suction-pumps went on, those pumps now fixed to this great reservoir of millions. Here, the Bethlehem Society, a powerful machine working with regular, slow-recurring strokes, full of impetus; the Territorial Bank, a marvellous exhauster, indefatigable, with triple and quadruple rows of pumps, several thousand horse-power, the Schwalbach pump, the Bois l'Hery pump, and how many others as well? Some enormous and noisy with screaming pistons, some quite dumb and discreet with clack-valves knowingly oiled, pumps with tiny valves, dear little pumps as fine as the sting of insects, and like them, leaving a poison in the place whence they have drawn life; all working together and bound to bring about if not a complete drought, at least a serious lowering of level.

Already evil rumours, vague as yet, were going the round of the Bourse. Was this a move of the enemy? For Jansoulet was waging a furious money war against Hemerlingue, trying to thwart all his financial operations, and was losing considerable sums at the game. He had against him his own fury, his adversary's coolness, and the blunderings of Paganetti, who was his man of straw. In any case his golden star was no longer in the ascendant. Paul de Gery knew this through Joyeuse, who was now a stock-broker's accountant and well up in the doings on the Bourse. What troubled him most, however, was the Nabob's singular agitation, his need of constant distraction which had succeeded his former splendid calm of strength and security, the loss, too, of his southern sobriety. He kept himself in a continual state of excitement, drinking great glasses of _raki before his meals, laughing long, talking loud, like a rough sailor ashore. You felt that here was a man overdoing himself to escape from some heavy care. It showed, however, in the sudden contraction of all the muscles of his face, as some unhappy thought crossed his mind, or when he feverishly turned the pages of his little gilt-edged note-book. The serious interview that Paul wanted so much Jansoulet would not give him at any price. He spent his nights at the club, his mornings in bed, and from the moment he awoke his room was full of people who talked to him as he dressed, and to whom he replied, sponge in hand. If, by a miracle, de Gery caught him alone for a second, he fled, stopping his words with a "Not now, not now, I beg of you." In the end the young man had recourse to drastic measures.

One morning, towards five o'clock, when Jansoulet came home from his club, he found a letter on the table near his bed. At first he took it to be one of the many anonymous denunciations he received daily. It was indeed a denunciation, but it was signed and undisguised; and it breathed in every word the loyalty and the earnest youthfulness of him who wrote it. De Gery pointed out very clearly all the infamies and all the double dealing which surrounded him. With no beating about the bush he called the rogues by their names. There was not one of the usual guests whom he did not suspect, not one who came with any other object than to steal and to lie. From the top to the bottom of the house all was pillage and waste. Bois l'Hery's horses were unsound, Schwalbach's gallery was a swindle, Moessard's articles a recognised blackmail. De Gery had made a long detailed memorandum of these scandalous abuses, with proofs in support of it. But he specially recommended to Jansoulet's attention the accounts of the Territorial Bank as the real danger of the situation. Attracted by the Nabob's name, as chairman of the company, hundreds of shareholders had fallen into the infamous trap--poor seekers of gold, following the lucky miner. In the other matters it was only money he lost; here his honour was at stake. He would discover what a terrible responsibility lay upon him if he examined the papers of the business, which was only deception and cheatery from one end to the other.

"You will find the memorandum of which I speak," said Paul de Gery, at the end of his letter, "in the top drawer of my desk along with sundry receipts. I have not put them in your room, because I mistrust Noel like the rest. When I go away to-night I will give you the key. For I am going away, my dear benefactor and friend, I am going away full of gratitude for the good you have done me, and heartbroken that your blind confidence has prevented me from repaying you even in part. As things are now, my conscience as an honest man will not let me stay any longer useless at my post. I am looking on at a disaster, at the sack of a palace, which I can do nothing to prevent. My heart burns at all I see. I give handshakes which shame me. I am your friend, and I seem their accomplice. And who knows that if I went on living in such an atmosphere I might not become one?"

This letter, which he read slowly and carefully, even between the lines and through the words, made so great an impression on the Nabob that, instead of going to bed, he went at once to find his young secretary. De Gery had a study at the end of the row of public rooms where he slept on a sofa. It had been a provisional arrangement, but he had preferred not to change it.

The house was still asleep. As he was crossing the lofty rooms, filled with the vague light of a Parisian dawn (those blinds were never lowered, as no evening receptions were held there), the Nabob stopped, struck by the look of sad defilement his luxury wore. In the heavy odour of tobacco and various liqueurs which hung over everything, the furniture, the ceilings, the woodwork could be seen, already faded and still new. Spots on the crumpled satins, ashes staining the beautiful marbles, dirty footmarks on the carpets. It reminded one of a huge first-class railway carriage incrusted with all the laziness, the impatience, the boredom of a long journey, and all the wasteful, spoiling disdain of the public for a luxury for which it has paid. In the middle of this set scene, still warm from the atrocious comedy played there every day, his own image, reflected in twenty cold and staring looking-glasses, stood out before him, forbidding yet comical, in absolute contrast to his elegant clothes, his eyes swollen, his face bloated and inflamed.

What an obvious and disenchanting to-morrow to the mad life he was leading!

He lost himself for a moment in dreary thought; then he gave his shoulders a vigorous shake, a movement frequent with him--it was like a peddler shifting his pack--as though to rid himself of too cruel cares, and again took up the burden every man carried with him, which bows his back, more or less, according to his courage or his strength, and went into de Gery's room, who was already up, standing at his desk sorting papers.

"First of all, my friend," said Jansoulet, softly shutting the door for their interview, "answer me frankly. Is it really for the motives given in your letter that you have resolved to leave me? Is there not, beneath it all, one of those scandals that I know are being circulated in Paris against me? I am sure you would be loyal enough to warn me and to give me the opportunity of--of clearing myself to you."

Paul assured him that he had no other reasons for going, but that those were surely sufficient, since it was a matter of conscience.

"Then, my boy, listen to me, and I am sure of keeping you. Your letter, so eloquent of honesty and sincerity, has told me nothing that I have not been convinced of for three months. Yes, my dear Paul, you were right. Paris is more complicated than I thought. What I needed, when I arrived, was an honest and disinterested cicerone to put me on my guard against people and things. I met only swindlers. Every worthless rascal in the town has left the mud of his boots on my carpets. I was looking at them just now--my poor drawing-rooms. They need a fine sweeping out. And I swear to you they shall have it, by God, and with no light hand! But I must wait for that until I am a deputy. All these scoundrels are of use to me for the election, and this election is far too necessary now for me to risk losing the smallest chance. In a word, this is the situation: Not only does the Bey mean to keep the money I lent him three months ago, but he has replied to my summons by a counter action for eighty millions, the sum out of which he says I cheated his brother. It is a frightful theft, an audacious libel. My fortune is mine, my own. I made it by my trade as a merchant. I had Ahmed's favour; he gave me the opportunity of becoming rich. It is possible I may have put on the screw a little tightly sometimes. But one must not judge these things from a European standpoint. Over there, the enormous profits the Levantines make is an accepted fact--a known thing. It is the ransom those savages pay for the western comfort we bring them. That wretch Hemerlingue, who is suggesting all this persecution against me, has done just as much. But what is the use of talking? I am in the lion's jaws. While waiting for me to go to defend myself at his tribunals--and how I know it, justice of the Orient!--the Bey has begun by putting an embargo on all my goods, ships, and palaces, and what they contain. The affair was conducted quite regularly by a decree of the Supreme Court. Young Hemerlingue had a hand in that, you can see. If I am made a deputy, it is only a joke. The court takes back its decree and they give me back my treasure with every sort of excuse. If I am not elected I lose everything, sixty, eighty millions, even the possibility of making another fortune. It is ruin, disgrace, dishonour. Are you going to abandon me in such a crisis? Think--I have only you in the whole world. My wife--you have seen her, you know what help, what support she is to her husband. My children--I might as well not have any. I never see them; they would scarcely know me in the street. My horrible wealth has killed all affection around me and has enveloped me with shameless self-seeking. I have only my mother to love me, and she is far away, and you who came to me from my mother. No, you will not leave me alone amid all the scandals that are creeping around me. It is awful--if you only knew! At the club, at the play, wherever I go I seem to see the little viper's head of the Baroness Hemerlingue, I hear the echo of her hiss, I feel the venom of her bite. Everywhere mocking looks, conversation stopped when I appear, lying smiles, or kindness mixed with a little pity. And then the deserters, and the people who keep out of the way as at the approach of a misfortune. Look at Felicia Ruys: just as she had finished my bust she pretends that some accident, I know not what, has happened to it, in order to avoid having to send it to the _Salon_. I said nothing, I affected to believe her. But I understood that there again was some new evil report. And it is such a disappointment to me. In a crisis as grave as this everything has its importance. My bust in the exhibition, signed by that famous name, would have helped me greatly in Paris. But no, everything falls away, every one fails me. You see now that I cannot do without you. You must not desert me."

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