The Vendetta/Chapter I
In the year 1800, toward the close of October, a foreigner, accompanied by a woman and a little girl, was standing for a long time in front of the palace of the Tuileries, near the ruins of a house recently pulled down, at the point where in our day the wing begins which was intended to unite the chateau of Catherine de Medici with the Louvre of the Valois.
The man stood there with folded arms and a bowed head, which he sometimes raised to look alternately at the consular palace and at his wife, who was sitting near him on a stone. Though the woman seemed wholly occupied with the little girl of nine or ten years of age, whose long black hair she amused herself by handling, she lost not a single glance of those her companion cast on her. Some sentiment other than love united these two beings, and inspired with mutual anxiety their movements and their thoughts. Misery is, perhaps, the most powerful of all ties.
The stranger had one of those broad, serious heads, covered with thick hair, which we see so frequently in the pictures of the Caracci. The jet black of the hair was streaked with white. Though noble and proud, his features had a hardness which spoiled them. In spite of his evident strength, and his straight, erect figure, he looked to be over sixty years of age. His dilapidated clothes were those of a foreign country. Though the faded and once beautiful face of the wife betrayed the deepest sadness, she forced herself to smile, assuming a calm countenance whenever her husband looked at her.
The little girl was standing, though signs of weariness were on the youthful face, which was tanned by the sun. She had an Italian cast of countenance and bearing, large black eyes beneath their well arched brows, a native nobleness, and candid grace. More than one of those who passed them felt strongly moved by the mere aspect of this group, who made no effort to conceal a despair which seemed as deep as the expression of it was simple. But the flow of this fugitive sympathy, characteristic of Parisians, was dried immediately; for as soon as the stranger saw himself the object of attention, he looked at his observer with so savage an air that the boldest lounger hurried his step as though he had trod upon a serpent.
After standing for some time undecided, the tall stranger suddenly passed his hand across his face to brush away, as it were, the thoughts that were ploughing furrows in it. He must have taken some desperate resolution. Casting a glance upon his wife and daughter, he drew a dagger from his breast and gave it to his companion, saying in Italian:—
"I will see if the Bonapartes remember us."
Then he walked with a slow, determined step toward the entrance of the palace, where he was, naturally, stopped by a soldier of the consular guard, with whom he was not permitted a long discussion. Seeing this man's obstinate determination, the sentinel presented his bayonet in the form of an ultimatum. Chance willed that the guard was changed at that moment, and the corporal very obligingly pointed out to the stranger the spot where the commander of the post was standing.
"Let Bonaparte know that Bartolomeo di Piombo wishes to speak with him," said the Italian to the captain on duty.
In vain the officer represented to Bartolomeo that he could not see the First Consul without having previously requested an audience in writing; the Italian insisted that the soldier should go to Bonaparte. The officer stated the rules of the post, and refused to comply with the order of this singular visitor. Bartolomeo frowned heavily, casting a terrible look at the captain, as if he made him responsible for the misfortunes that this refusal might occasion. Then he kept silence, folded his arms tightly across his breast, and took up his station under the portico which serves as an avenue of communication between the garden and the court-yard of the Tuileries. Persons who will things intensely are very apt to be helped by chance. At the moment when Bartolomeo di Piombo seated himself on one of the stone posts which was near the entrance, a carriage drew up, from which Lucien Bonaparte, minister of the interior, issued.
"Ah, Loucian, it is lucky for me I have met you!" cried the stranger.
These words, said in the Corsican patois, stopped Lucien at the moment when he was springing under the portico. He looked at his compatriot, and recognized him. At the first word that Bartolomeo said in his ear, he took the Corsican away with him.
Murat, Lannes, and Rapp were at that moment in the cabinet of the First Consul. As Lucien entered, followed by a man so singular in appearance as Piombo, the conversation ceased. Lucien took Napoleon by the arm and led him into the recess of a window. After exchanging a few words with his brother, the First Consul made a sign with his hand, which Murat and Lannes obeyed by retiring. Rapp pretended not to have seen it, in order to remain where he was. Bonaparte then spoke to him sharply, and the aide-de-camp, with evident unwillingness, left the room. The First Consul, who listened for Rapp's step in the adjoining salon, opened the door suddenly, and found his aide-de-camp close to the wall of the cabinet.
"Do you choose not to understand me?" said the First Consul. "I wish to be alone with my compatriot."
"A Corsican!" replied the aide-de-camp. "I distrust those fellows too much to—"
The First Consul could not restrain a smile as he pushed his faithful officer by the shoulders.
"Well, what has brought you here, my poor Bartolomeo?" said Napoleon.
"To ask asylum and protection from you, if you are a true Corsican," replied Bartolomeo, roughly.
"What ill fortune drove you from the island? You were the richest, the most—"
"I have killed all the Portas," replied the Corsican, in a deep voice, frowning heavily.
The First Consul took two steps backward in surprise.
"Do you mean to betray me?" cried Bartolomeo, with a darkling look at Bonaparte. "Do you know that there are still four Piombos in Corsica?"
Lucien took an arm of his compatriot and shook it.
"Did you come here to threaten the savior of France?" he said.
Bonaparte made a sign to Lucien, who kept silence. Then he looked at Piombo and said:—
"Why did you kill the Portas?"
"We had made friends," replied the man; "the Barbantis reconciled us. The day after we had drunk together to drown our quarrels, I left home because I had business at Bastia. The Portas remained in my house, and set fire to my vineyard at Longone. They killed my son Gregorio. My daughter Ginevra and my wife, having taken the sacrament that morning, escaped; the Virgin protected them. When I returned I found no house; my feet were in its ashes as I searched for it. Suddenly they struck against the body of Gregorio; I recognized him in the moonlight. 'The Portas have dealt me this blow,' I said; and, forthwith, I went to the woods, and there I called together all the men whom I had ever served, —do you hear me, Bonaparte?—and we marched to the vineyard of the Portas. We got there at five in the morning; at seven they were all before God. Giacomo declares that Eliza Vanni saved a child, Luigi. But I myself bound him to his bed before setting fire to the house. I have left the island with my wife and child without being able to discover whether, indeed, Luigi Porta is alive."
Bonaparte looked with curiosity at Bartolomeo, but without surprise.
"How many were there?" asked Lucien.
"Seven," replied Piombo. "All of them were your persecutors in the olden times."
These words roused no expression of hatred on the part of the two brothers.
"Ha! you are no longer Corsicans!" cried Piombo, with a sort of despair. "Farewell. In other days I protected you," he added, in a reproachful tone. "Without me, your mother would never have reached Marseille," he said, addressing himself to Bonaparte, who was silent and thoughtful, his elbow resting on a mantel-shelf.
"As a matter of duty, Piombo," said Napoleon at last, "I cannot take you under my wing. I have become the leader of a great nation; I command the Republic; I am bound to execute the laws."
"Ha! ha!" said Bartolomeo, scornfully.
"But I can shut my eyes," continued Bonaparte. "The tradition of the Vendetta will long prevent the reign of law in Corsica," he added, as if speaking to himself. "But it must be destroyed, at any cost."
Bonaparte was silent for a few moments, and Lucien made a sign to Piombo not to speak. The Corsican was swaying his head from right to left in deep disapproval.
"Live here, in Paris," resumed the First Consul, addressing Bartolomeo; "we will know nothing of this affair. I will cause your property in Corsica to be bought, to give you enough to live on for the present. Later, before long, we will think of you. But, remember, no more vendetta! There are no woods here to fly to. If you play with daggers, you must expect no mercy. Here, the law protects all citizens; and no one is allowed to do justice for himself."
"He has made himself the head of a singular nation," said Bartolomeo, taking Lucien's hand and pressing it. "But you have both recognized me in misfortune, and I am yours, henceforth, for life or death. You may dispose as you will of the Piombos."
With these words his Corsican brow unbent, and he looked about him in satisfaction.
"You are not badly off here," he said, smiling, as if he meant to lodge there himself. "You are all in red, like a cardinal."
"Your success depends upon yourself; you can have a palace, also," said Bonaparte, watching his compatriot with a keen eye. "It will often happen that I shall need some faithful friend in whom I can confide."
A sigh of joy heaved the vast chest of the Corsican, who held out his hand to the First Consul, saying:—
"The Corsican is in you still."
Bonaparte smiled. He looked in silence at the man who brought, as it were, a waft of air from his own land,—from that isle where he had been so miraculously saved from the hatred of the "English party"; the land he was never to see again. He made a sign to his brother, who then took Piombo away. Lucien inquired with interest as to the financial condition of the former protector of their family. Piombo took him to a window and showed him his wife and Ginevra, seated on a heap of stones.
"We came from Fontainebleau on foot; we have not a single penny," he said.
Lucien gave his purse to his compatriot, telling him to come to him the next day, that arrangements might be made to secure the comfort of the family. The value of Piombo's property in Corsica, if sold, would scarcely maintain him honorably in Paris.
Fifteen years elapsed between the time of Piombo's arrival with his family in Paris and the following event, which would be scarcely intelligible to the reader without this narrative of the foregoing circumstances.