Read an Excerpt
By William Heffernan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 William Heffernan
All rights reserved.
FRANCE, MARCH 1940
The cell was dark, and even during the day the narrow slit of a window near the ceiling gave just enough light to let them make out each other's darkened features.
It had been that way from the first. When the heavy steel door had swung open, the light from the corridor had blinded Auguste and he had not been able to see the face of the man who was pushed inside.
You can always tell French prisons by the stink. Those had been the first words Auguste had heard him speak in his Corsican-accented French.
"You're lucky you arrived when you did," Auguste had said. "They just emptied the piss bucket. Later it gets worse."
They remained together for over two months in the dark sweating stench-ridden hole, talking about their homeland, their beliefs, their friends and families back in Corsica; everything except the actions, committed separately, that now brought them together. Often they spoke about women, because doing so made it easier to be without them. Sartene spoke of his wife back in Corsica, of their first meeting, their formal courtship and the birth of their son. He spoke more with a sense of reverence than passion, but in his words it could be seen that passion had been there as well. For Auguste the conversation was different. There was no wife, only the available women of Marseille and Bastia and the other seaport towns and cities that had taken up his youth.
Together they fought off the loneliness and despair with their words. And with their hands and feet they fought the rats that came out to compete for the dry meat and tasteless soup that was pushed through the narrow opening at the bottom of the cell door each evening. Sartene said there were five rats, insisting he had learned to distinguish them by the sound of their movements and methods of attack. The smallest and most devious he had named Napoleon, recalling that the king of Austria had once called the French emperor a Corsican gutter rat and had then given him his daughter for a bride.
Sartene's knowledge of military history had amazed Auguste at first; his discussions of battles and strategies seemed endless. Auguste had not been sure if the stories were accurate, but he had listened to them and discussed them, fascinated, like a small child hearing Bible stories told by nuns. And he had grown to respect the man's quiet sense of dignity. Despite the misery of the cell, he had never heard Sartene complain, other than expressing his contempt for French authority. He had simply accepted what had been forced upon him with the knowledge that he had the ability to endure.
It was June 21, 1940, when the cell door swung open again, blinding them. They were led down a long stone corridor, feeling their way with their hands, stumbling on the stone stairs that led up to even brighter light. Ten minutes passed before their eyes began to focus, the pain that had seared them fading into a mild throbbing in their temples. They were in a large stonewalled room, furnished only with a long writing table and a chair placed behind it. A French officer stood next to the chair, but they ignored him, staring instead at each other, two men who in the past months had become as close as brothers, clearly seeing one another for the first time in full light.
They were both filthy, their faces and hands crusted with dirt, their beards tangled with bits of food. Sores covered their faces and necks, and between the dirt and the pustules the fragments of skin showing through held the gray pallor of death.
Sartene was slightly more than average height, but he seemed taller. His lean, raw-boned body stood erect, and his severe dark eyes were accented by a classically curved nose. His hair, matted and knotted, showed flecks of gray through the filth, but his beard was dark and youthful, even though he was clearly in his mid-forties.
Auguste was shorter by several inches but had the same hard body, the same sense of physical strength common to the people of their island. His hair was thinner than Sartene's and small patches had fallen away from poor nutrition, but it was still dark even though he too was well past forty.
He looked at Sartene and smiled. They were opposites in appearance. Sartene's features were sharp and aristocratic, while his were the flat wide features of a peasant. The same was true of their hands. Sartene had the long slender fingers of a pianist. His were wide and stumpy, a butcher's hands. Yet despite the physical differences, they were the same in spirit. And they both smelled bad.
A faint smile formed beneath Sartene's ragged beard, almost as though he were reading Auguste's thoughts. "You need a bath, Auguste," he said.
Auguste nodded solemnly, then glanced at the French officer, who took a step back to the window, opened it, then remained there, away from the stench.
Sartene noticed the movement and stepped toward the desk. He was immediately followed by Auguste.
A look of displeasure flashed across the officer's face. He was a colonel, dressed in full uniform, the blouse heavy with the ribbons of past decorations. He was tall, also in his mid-forties, with a long, skinny neck, and his head was pear-shaped, ending in a receding hairline that made it look as though it came to a point.
He drew a deep breath, then seemed to regret that he had. He seemed nervous and embarrassed, and he opened the conversation with a stiff abruptness.
"I have called you here because the government of France is prepared to grant you each a pardon in return for certain services. I assure you they are services that any true Frenchman would be honored to perform." The colonel spoke the words as though struggling to overcome his uneasiness.
"We're not French. We're Corsican," Sartene said.
"Corsica is part of France," the colonel said, his voice softer.
"Only according to the French," Sartene said.
The colonel drew a heavy breath and then winced as if trying to remind himself not to do it again. "The point is moot," he said. "Perhaps you're not aware of certain events—"
His words were cut off by Sartene's laughter. "No, colonel, I'm afraid we are not."
The colonel colored, then drew himself up and turned to the window. It was all becoming too much for him. The army, his army, had crumbled within days. The cowards within it were handing France to the Germans like a Christmas package. And now these new orders. Recruiting these men to fight for France. These filthy arrogant thieving bastards.
"Perhaps you could tell us the latest news, my colonel," Auguste said. He had widened his eyes, feigning deep interest.
The colonel raised his chin. He allowed himself to look at them down the length of his nose. "Today," he said, struggling for dignity, "traitors within the government and the army of France have signed an armistice with Germany. Those traitors, led by Marshal Pétain, plan to establish a separate and illegal government at Vichy. But the fight against the Boches goes on. It is for this that I'm asking your help." The final word seemed to catch in his throat.
Sartene turned to Auguste and shrugged. "I wasn't aware that France and Germany were at war. Since I've only been here a little more than two months, it must have been an unusually short war," he said.
The muscles along the colonel's jaw danced against the bone, and his left eye fluttered in a nervous spasm. "As I said, the war continues and will continue until France is free."
"I've heard Corsicans speak those same words all my life, colonel," Auguste said. "It seems to have changed very little. As always, the big fish eats the smaller fish, only in turn to be eaten by still a bigger fish. Perhaps we're reaching the final result in Europe. Bouillabaisse, with a German chef."
Sartene's laughter broke the silence that followed. "I, for one, never cared much for German cooking." His cold eyes found the French officer, "But then I always found that French cooks were like French politicians, a bit overbearing. Why don't you tell us what kind of stew you have in mind, colonel?"
The colonel looked into Sartene's eyes, then glanced away, uncomfortable with the cold hardness he found there. He reached out and took two sheets of paper from the desk, looked at the first and then across the desk at Auguste. The document seemed to give him some sense of confidence.
"According to the records provided by the warden, you, Auguste Pavlovi, can expect to spend the next ten years in this not too pleasant place." He switched the papers, then, pursing his lips, looked back at Sartene. "You, Monsieur Sartene, are expected to be the guest of the government for the next seven years." He hesitated, eyeing the report again. "There's also a footnote, however, indicating that Buonaparte Sartene may not be your true identity and that if another suspected identity could be proved, that sentence would be greatly increased." He smiled at Sartene, trying to appear friendly. "If I'm not mistaken, Sartene is the name of a small, rather insignificant village in the south of Corsica, is it not?"
"Everything that isn't French is insignificant to Frenchmen," Sartene said. "But you're not here to discuss geography, colonel, you're here to get something from us." There was a faint smile on Sartene's lips that contrasted with the look in his eyes.
The colonel shuffled the papers in his hands, then returned them to the desk, folded his hands behind his back and turned toward the window. His left eye had begun to flutter again.
"The government of France is prepared to offer you each a full pardon for all past offenses under any identity, if you agree to lead resistance forces in an area north of Marseille."
"Which government of France are you speaking about?" Auguste asked.
"The government of Free France," the colonel said, ignoring the insult. "You will be expected to lead partisans who would attack both Nazi and Vichy forces, as well as Italian troops that are presently preparing to occupy the Alpine zone along the Italian border."
"And for this we get pardons that may be useless if Germany continues to occupy France." Auguste shrugged. "Perhaps Buonaparte and I should wait to hear what Vichy has to offer," he said.
The colonel turned on Auguste, his voice harsh for the first time. "You may regret such a choice," he said.
Auguste stuck out his lower lip and nodded. "What will you do, colonel?"
Sartene raised his hand, watching the colonel struggle with the humiliation he felt. "Why is it when governments despise certain people they always try to make their actions sound generous when they find they need those same people? If I'm not mistaken, colonel, you simply need men who can act violently and then hide from the authorities. Now, I don't mind killing Germans rather than remaining here," he said. "The possibility of killing wayward Frenchmen also doesn't offend me." He paused to smile at the colonel. "But I won't do it just for a pardon. In addition to some piece of paper that says my so-called crimes no longer exist, I want one thing more."
The colonel stared in disbelief. "And what's that?" he asked.
"I'll expect to be paid for my services," Sartene said. "Not in money, colonel." He paused to smile again. "I trust the French franc has lost its value of late. What I want, in writing of course, is the right to emigrate from France after the war, to the French colony of my choice. And," he added, raising his hand again, "I want this permission to extend to my wife and the family of my son, Jean."
"That's all?" the colonel asked, watching as Sartene nodded. "And where are your family and your son's family now?"
"They live in an insignificant Corsican village," Sartene said.
The colonel sighed, then stared at the floor, shaking his head. He looked up. "And you?" he asked Auguste.
"I would accept the same offer, my colonel. And I'd like it to include my brother, Benito."
"And where is he?"
"He is the guest of another French resort in Bastia."
"Agreed," the colonel said. "Although I must tell you honestly that it's doubtful you'll live long enough to collect your payment." He paused, smiling to himself at the madness of it all, then continued. "I understand your bitterness and your belief that you're being used. I can only say that it's not easy for me to ask for your help. Unfortunately there's no choice."
He was struggling now for some degree of dignity. Quickly, he opened a drawer in the writing table and removed a large rolled map and spread it on the table. "You will select your men from among those presently here," he said, speaking with clipped authority. "You may also recruit people in the countryside as you choose. Weapons and supplies are something you will have to procure for yourselves, I'm afraid." He jabbed his finger at the map. "You will establish a base of operations near Mount Ventoux. The nearest town of any size is Carpentras, and you will find men there loyal to France. You will have papers identifying yourselves to them, as well as your initial area of operation, which will extend west from Mount Ventoux to the Rhone, from Avignon in the south to Montélimar in the north. Are there any questions?"
"Yes, colonel," Auguste said. "What's your name?"
The colonel flushed. "Martin," he said. "Why do you ask?"
Auguste smiled. "I want to remember the name of the one Frenchman who wanted to let me out of prison, instead of put me in one."CHAPTER 2
The base camp was in a dense pine forest at the two-thousand-foot level of Mount Ventoux. It was autumn, and already the fast approach of winter could be felt. From the summit, four thousand feet above them, the snow had already begun to move down the mountain. Auguste sat across a campfire from Sartene, hugging himself against the cold. He could see the frustration in his friend's face; his fists were clenched and he was flexing his thumbs. It was a nervous habit he had developed in recent months.
"Soon we'll need wanner clothing for the men, Buonaparte," he said.
Sartene nodded, then looked to his left, watching the approach of a stocky dark-haired young man in his late twenties, slightly older than his own son. "I'll ask Francesco to arrange it," he said.
Francesco Canterina squatted in front of the fire. Despite the chill in the air the sleeves of his sweater were pulled up above his elbows, exposing his heavily muscled forearms. His handsome face seemed impassive beneath a black beret, tufts of wavy black hair protruding from its sides, the dark, cruel eyes detracting from otherwise pleasant features. A cigarette dangled loosely in the corner of his mouth. Almost mechanically, he produced a long, slender knife, tested the blade with his thumb, then began sharpening it against a whetstone. He seemed about to speak when Sartene broke the silence.
"You know the Vichy military warehouse in Avignon?" Sartene asked.
Francesco nodded. "The one along the river," he said.
"We'll need warmer clothing soon," Sartene said. "Shipments should have arrived there. I'd like you to take four men and see if you can appropriate enough for us."
"How many men do we have now?" Francesco asked.
"Fifty-three." Sartene watched him sharpen the knife. He was good with a knife and he treated it with the reverence of a craftsman.
"I'll try to get more. So we can equip any new men who join us," Francesco said.
Sartene stared into the fire. "If you can," he said, thinking of how few men had joined them in the past month. "If not, we'll do the same as with the weapons. Allow the dead to provide for the living."
Francesco paused as if deciding how to continue. "I was just about to tell you," he said. "Word has come from Carpentras. Troops from the Boche garrison at Montélimar executed twenty this morning. Many were old men. Others were only children."
"Did the pigs give a reason?" Auguste asked.
"Payment for our last raid," Francesco said. "I'm told they placed a notice on each of the bodies before they withdrew."
"How is it with those who are left?" Sartene asked.
Francesco drew heavily on the cigarette, then threw the butt into the fire. "It's mostly women who are left now. Mothers and grandmothers and small babies. They just wish everyone would leave. The Boches, Vichy, even us."
Sartene ran a hand along his face. He was clean-shaven now, and his sharp angular features were more visible, adding to the fierceness of his eyes. "Pick your men, Francesco," he said. "You should leave now."
Excerpted from The Corsican by William Heffernan. Copyright © 1983 William Heffernan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.