Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
Alexandre Dumas, père, the story’s narrator, explains that he has spent part of 1841 traveling on horseback in Corsica. One evening in March, he arrives at the top of a hill overlooking the towns of Olmeto and Sullacaro and surveys the scene in search of a house at which to seek hospitality for the night. The customs of the island guarantee that he will not be refused, and they specify that he must not offer any monetary recompense. He selects a home in Sullacaro that promises to be the most comfortable, taking note that all of the houses are fortified and many scarred by bullets. His guide informs him that the house is the property of Madame Savilia de Franchi.
Dumas is given the room of one of Madame de Franchi’s twin sons, Louis, who has gone to Paris to study law. The other twin, Lucien, is determined to remain in Corsica and live as his forefathers had lived, although he regrets the gradual decline of ancient traditions, which he regards as an inexorable process of degeneration. Lucien even regrets the decline in the tradition of the vendetta, although such long-standing feuds are the principal factor requiring all the houses in Olmeto and Sullacaro to be fortified.
Although Lucien and Louis have chosen very different paths in life, according to their aptitudes—the bookish Louis has never handled a gun, while Lucien, a keen huntsman, is an expert marksman—they are very devoted to one other. While waiting for dinner to be served, Lucien shows Dumas his own room, furnished in a much more archaic manner then that of the absent Louis and decorated with weapons of various sorts, several of which have histories attached to them; they include matching rifles belonging to his father and his mother.
At dinner, Madame de Franchi asks Lucien, anxiously, if he has any news of Louis. Lucien explains to Dumas that he and his brother, having been born conjoined and having required surgical intervention to separate them, still “share the same body” and are thus aware of one another’s sensations. He has felt sad for the past few days, so he knows that his brother must be in distress—but he can, at least, be certain that Louis is not dead.
Lucien also explains that he has a mission to undertake, as he has been appointed—rather reluctantly—to serve as a mediator in the vendetta between the Orlandi and Colona families. Lucien invites Dumas to accompany him, and they go to meet the present head of the Orlandi family at a remote spot to negotiate the terms for a formal agreement to be completed the following day. They visit the ruins of a house that once belonged to an ancestor of the Franchis, who had become involved some four hundred years before in a feud with the Guidices, which had only ended when the matching rifles in Lucien’s room had simultaneously killed the two brothers who were the last survivors of the Guidices.
Lucien explains that the feud between the Orlandis and the Colonas began over a stray chicken, and the agreement that he has brokered between the present heads of the Orlandis and Colonas—which they are as reluctant to sign as he is to mediate—involves the symbolic return of a live chicken as well as the signing of a notarized document and the attendance of both families at a special mass. Dumas witnesses the conciliation; although he makes no explicit comment, it is obvious to him that the agreement will not hold for long and that hostilities will be resumed in response to the slightest...
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Dumas has to leave later in the day to return to Paris. After a symbolic exchange of gifts, he sets off, bearing a letter that Lucien has given him to deliver to Louis. He attempts to do so immediately after arriving in Paris, but Louis is not at home. In response to the note he leaves, Louis calls on him the next day, surprising Dumas with the striking resemblance he bears to his identical twin. On being questioned, Louis admits that he has, indeed, been suffering personal distress, but has no time to explain further. He agrees to meet Dumas tomorrow night at a masked ball at the opera.
Louis is still distraught at the ball, and initially refuses Dumas’s invitation to join him at a supper party to be given after the ball by his friend D——. When he discovers, however, that a man named Monsieur de Chateau-Renaud will be present, and that the gentleman in question has made a bet with the host that he will bring a certain unidentified person with him, Louis decides that he will come after all. At the party, Dumas discovers that Chateau-Renaud has wagered that he will bring a young married woman with him, and that he will do so before four o’clock; Louis is on tenterhooks, evidently having something at stake in the matter.
The couple arrive a matter of minutes before the appointed hour, with the man pressuring his reluctant companion. When she realizes that she had been the object of a wager, she insists on leaving immediately and asks Louis to take her home. When the young man readily agrees, he is challenged to a duel by Chateau-Renaud. Louis has no alternative but to accept the challenge.
Dumas agrees to serve as one of Louis’s seconds, and Louis explains that Emily, the young woman whose champion he has become, has been entrusted to his guardianship by her husband, a sea captain. Deeply in love with her, Louis has made every effort to conceal his own passion, but when he had attempted to reproach her for encouraging Chateau-Renaud’s advances, she had accused him of jealousy.
Louis writes a letter to his mother and brother, claiming that he is doing so during a lucid interval of a brain fever that is sure to kill him. He explains to Dumas that he has been visited by the ghost of his father and has been told that he is about to die. Not wishing his family to know the true circumstances of his death, he asks Dumas to send the letter, in order that Lucien will not come to Paris in search of vengeance, thus imperiling his own life. Again, Dumas makes no comment, but seems to know that Louis’s gesture will be futile
Louis is shot dead by Chateau-Renaud, as he was always bound to be, having never before handled a pistol. Dumas sends the letter, but Lucien arrives before even receiving it, having felt the fatal bullet rip through his own flesh; he shows Dumas the mark that it has left on his own body. In the morning, he leaves for Paris immediately, with his mother’s blessing. When he fights Chateau-Renaud in his turn, the result of the duel is quite different, Lucien being a crack shot.