“Mateo Falcone” is set in Corsica in the seventeenth century in the region of Porto-Vecchio, which is midway between the town of Corte and the maquis, the wild country of the Corsican highlands where outlaws and misfits find refuge from law and authority. Mateo Falcone, a forty-eight-year-old father of three married daughters and one ten-year-old son, is a successful sheep rancher. He sets off to gather his flock one afternoon. His wife, Guiseppa, accompanies him, and they leave their son, Fortunato alone.
Fortunato daydreams in the autumn sun. He anticipates going into town in a few days to have dinner with his uncle, a local notable, or ”corporal.” Suddenly, gunshots echo from nearby. On nearby path, a wounded man appears. He has been shot in his thigh. Seeing Fortunato, he asks whether the boy is the son of Mateo Falcone. He introduces himself as Gianetto Sanpiero, the implication being that he has a tie to Falcone and thus a right to expect asylum. Fortunato at first declines to hide Gianetto, but when the bandit offers a piece of silver, the boy conceals him beneath the hay.
Six soldiers arrive, led by adjutant Tiodoro Gamba, who addresses Fortunato as “cousin,” once again implying a tie to the Falcones. Tiodoro wants to know whether Fortunato has seen a man on the trail. Fortunato evades Tiodoro’s questions, and Tiodoro suspects that the boy is in complicity with Gianetto. He threatens to beat Fortunato, but the boy only replies that he is Mateo Falcone’s son, and the lieutenant understands that he dare not harm Fortunato for fear of angering the father. The soldiers search the property but find nothing. Finally, Tiodoro attempts to bribe Fortunato with a shiny new watch:
“As he spoke he brought the watch closer and closer until it was almost touching Fortunato’s pale cheek. The child’s face clearly showed the struggle between cupidity and the claims of hospitality that was raging within him. His bare chest was heaving, and he seemed to be fighting for breath. And still the watch swung, twisted, and occasionally bumped against the tip of his nose. At last his right hand slowly rose towards the watch; his fingertips touched it; and he felt its full weight in his palm, though the adjutant still held the end of the chain. The dial was pale blue, the case newly furbished; in the sunshine it seemed ablaze. … The temptation was too great.” (Excerpt from ”Mateo Falcone” translated by Nicholas Jotcham)
Fortunato accepts the bribe and silently nods in the direction of the haystack. The soldiers discover Gianetto, who curses the boy. Fortunato throws the silver back at Gianetto. The prisoner accepts his capture; the soldiers treat him with respect, even though he has killed one of them and wounded another.
Mateo and Guiseppa return from the pastures. Tiodoro advances cautiously and explains to Mateo what has happened. The soldiers leave with their prisoner. When Mateo ascertains the facts, he tersely asks his wife whether the boy is really his child. Fortunato collapses in tears, sobbing and crying, and the wife becomes hysterical. Mateo commands Fortunato to leave with him into the high country.
As Mateo and Fortunato climb into the mountains, Guiseppa prays inside the house to an icon of the Virgin Mary. In a ravine, Mateo commands Fortunato to kneel and say his prayers. When he finishes praying, Fortunato begs for mercy, but Mateo gives none. He raises his rifle and shoots.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Prosper Merimee, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.