ORIGINAL SHORT STORIES, Vol. 8.
GUY DE MAUPASSANT ORIGINAL SHORT STORIES Translated by ALBERT M. C. McMASTER, B.A. A. E. HENDERSON, B.A. MME. QUESADA and Others
How strange those old recollections are which haunt us, without our being able to get rid of them.
This one is so very old that I cannot understand how it has clung so vividly and tenaciously to my memory. Since then I have seen so many sinister things, which were either affecting or terrible, that I am astonished at not being able to pass a single day without the face of Mother Bellflower recurring to my mind’s eye, just as I knew her formerly, now so long ago, when I was ten or twelve years old.
She was an old seamstress who came to my parents’ house once a week, every Thursday, to mend the linen. My parents lived in one of those country houses called chateaux, which are merely old houses with gable roofs, to which are attached three or four farms lying around them.
The village, a large village, almost a market town, was a few hundred yards away, closely circling the church, a red brick church, black with age.
Well, every Thursday Mother Clochette came between half-past six and seven in the morning, and went immediately into the linen-room and began to work. She was a tall, thin, bearded or rather hairy woman, for she had a beard all over her face, a surprising, an unexpected beard, growing in improbable tufts, in curly bunches which looked as if they had been sown by a madman over that great face of a gendarme in petticoats. She had them on her nose, under her nose, round her nose, on her chin, on her cheeks; and her eyebrows, which were extraordinarily thick and long, and quite gray, bushy and bristling, looked exactly like a pair of mustaches stuck on there by mistake.
She limped, not as lame people generally do, but like a ship at anchor. When she planted her great, bony, swerving body on her sound leg, she seemed to be preparing to mount some enormous wave, and then suddenly she dipped as if to disappear in an abyss, and buried herself in the ground. Her walk reminded one of a storm, as she swayed about, and her head, which was always covered with an enormous white cap, whose ribbons fluttered down her back, seemed to traverse the horizon from north to south and from south to north, at each step.
I adored Mother Clochette. As soon as I was up I went into the linen- room where I found her installed at work, with a foot-warmer under her feet. As soon as I arrived, she made me take the foot-warmer and sit upon it, so that I might not catch cold in that large, chilly room under the roof.
“That draws the blood from your throat,” she said to me.
She told me stories, whilst mending the linen with her long crooked nimble fingers; her eyes behind her magnifying spectacles, for age had impaired her sight, appeared enormous to me, strangely profound, double.
She had, as far as I can remember the things which she told me and by which my childish heart was moved, the large heart of a poor woman. She told me what had happened in the village, how a cow had escaped from the cow-house and had been found the next morning in front of Prosper Malet’s windmill, looking at the sails turning, or about a hen’s egg which had been found in the church belfry without any one being able to understand what creature had been there to lay it, or the story of Jean- Jean Pila’s dog, who had been ten leagues to bring back his master’s breeches which a tramp had stolen whilst they were hanging up to dry out of doors, after he had been in the rain. She told me these simple adventures in such a manner, that in my mind they assumed the proportions of never-to-be-forgotten dramas, of grand and mysterious poems; and the ingenious stories invented by the poets which my mother told me in the evening, had none of the flavor, none of the breadth or vigor of the peasant woman’s narratives.
Well, one Tuesday, when I had spent all the morning in listening to Mother Clochette, I wanted to go upstairs to her again during the day after picking hazelnuts with the manservant in the wood behind the farm. I remember it all as clearly as what happened only yesterday.
On opening the door of the linen-room, I saw the old seamstress lying on the ground by the side of her chair, with her face to the ground and her arms stretched out, but still holding her needle in one hand and one of my shirts in the other. One of her legs in a blue stocking, the longer one, no doubt, was extended under her chair, and her spectacles glistened against the wall, as they had rolled away from her.
I ran away uttering shrill cries. They all came running, and in a few minutes I was told that Mother Clochette was dead.
I cannot describe the profound, poignant, terrible emotion which stirred my childish heart. I went slowly down into the drawing-room and hid myself in a dark corner, in the depths of an immense old armchair, where I knelt down and wept. I remained there a long time, no doubt, for night came on. Suddenly somebody came in with a lamp, without seeing me, however, and I heard my father and mother talking with the medical man, whose voice I recognized.
He had been sent for immediately, and he was explaining the causes of the accident, of which I understood nothing, however. Then he sat down and had a glass of liqueur and a biscuit.
He went on talking, and what he then said will remain engraved on my mind until I die! I think that I can give the exact words which he used.
“Ah!” said he, “the poor woman! She broke her leg the day of my arrival here, and I had not even had time to wash my hands after getting off the diligence before I was sent for in all haste, for it was a bad case, very bad.
“She was seventeen, and a pretty girl, very pretty! Would any one believe it? I have never told her story before, and nobody except myself and one other person who is no longer living in this part of the country ever knew it. Now that she is dead, I may be less discreet.
“Just then a young assistant-teacher came to live in the village; he was a handsome, well-made fellow, and looked like a non-commissioned officer. All the girls ran after him, but he paid no attention to them, partly because he was very much afraid of his superior, the schoolmaster, old Grabu, who occasionally got out of bed the wrong foot first.
“Old Grabu already employed pretty Hortense who has just died here, and who was afterwards nicknamed Clochette. The assistant master singled out the pretty young girl, who was, no doubt, flattered at being chosen by this impregnable conqueror; at any rate, she fell in love with him, and he succeeded in persuading her to give him a first meeting in the hay- loft behind the school, at night, after she had done her day’s sewing.
“She pretended to go home, but instead of going downstairs when she left the Grabus’ she went upstairs and hid among the hay, to wait for her lover. He soon joined her, and was beginning to say pretty things to her, when the door of the hay-loft opened and the schoolmaster appeared, and asked: ‘What are you doing up there, Sigisbert?’ Feeling sure that he would be caught, the young schoolmaster lost his presence of mind and replied stupidly: ‘I came up here to rest a little amongst the bundles of hay, Monsieur Grabu.’
“The loft was very large and absolutely dark, and Sigisbert pushed the frightened girl to the further end and said: ‘Go over there and hide yourself. I shall lose my position, so get away and hide yourself.’
“When the schoolmaster heard the whispering, he continued: ‘Why, you are not by yourself?’ ‘Yes, I am, Monsieur Grabu!’ ‘But you are not, for you are talking.’ ‘I swear I am, Monsieur Grabu.’ ‘I will soon find out,’ the old man replied, and double locking the door, he went down to get a light.
“Then the young man, who was a coward such as one frequently meets, lost his head, and becoming furious all of a sudden, he repeated: ‘Hide yourself, so that he may not find you. You will keep me from making a living for the rest of my life; you will ruin my whole career. Do hide yourself!’ They could hear the key turning in the lock again, and Hortense ran to the window which looked out on the street, opened it quickly, and then said in a low and determined voice: ‘You will come and pick me up when he is gone,’ and she jumped out.
“Old Grabu found nobody, and went down again in great surprise, and a quarter of an hour later, Monsieur Sigisbert came to me and related his adventure. The girl had remained at the foot of the wall unable to get up, as she had fallen from the second story, and I went with him to fetch her. It was raining in torrents, and I brought the unfortunate girl home with me, for the right leg was broken in three places, and the bones had come trough the flesh. She did not complain, and merely said, with admirable resignation: ‘I am punished, well punished!’
“I sent for assistance and for the work-girl’s relatives and told them a, made-up story of a runaway carriage which had knocked her down and lamed her outside my door. They believed me, and the gendarmes for a whole month tried in vain to find the author of this accident.
“That is all! And I say that this woman was a heroine and belonged to the race of those who accomplish the grandest deeds of history.
“That was her only love affair, and she died a virgin. She was a martyr, a noble soul, a sublimely devoted woman! And if I did not absolutely admire her, I should not have told you this story, which I would never tell any one during her life; you understand why.”
The doctor ceased. Mamma cried and papa said some words which I did not catch; then they left the room and I remained on my knees in the armchair and sobbed, whilst I heard a strange noise of heavy footsteps and something knocking against the side of the staircase.
They were carrying away Clochette’s body.
My Little Darling: So you are crying from morning until night and from night until morning, because your husband leaves you; you do not know what to do and so you ask your old aunt for advice; you must consider her quite an expert. I don’t know as much as you think I do, and yet I am not entirely ignorant of the art of loving, or, rather, of making one’s self loved, in which you are a little lacking. I can admit that at my age.
You say that you are all attention, love, kisses and caresses for him. Perhaps that is the very trouble; I think you kiss him too much.
My dear, we have in our hands the most terrible power in the world: LOVE.
Man is gifted with physical strength, and he exercises force. Woman is gifted with charm, and she rules with caresses. It is our weapon, formidable and invincible, but we should know how to use it.
Know well that we are the mistresses of the world! To tell the history of Love from the beginning of the world would be to tell the history of man himself: Everything springs from it, the arts, great events, customs, wars, the overthrow of empires.
In the Bible you find Delila, Judith; in fables we find Omphale, Helen; in history the Sabines, Cleopatra and many others.
Therefore we reign supreme, all-powerful. But, like kings, we must make use of delicate diplomacy.
Love, my dear, is made up of imperceptible sensations. We know that it is as strong as death, but also as frail as glass. The slightest shock breaks it, and our power crumbles, and we are never able to raise it again.
We have the power of making ourselves adored, but we lack one tiny thing, the understanding of the various kinds of caresses. In embraces we lose the sentiment of delicacy, while the man over whom we rule remains master of himself, capable of judging the foolishness of certain words. Take care, my dear; that is the defect in our armor. It is our Achilles’ heel.
Do you know whence comes our real power? From the kiss, the kiss alone! When we know how to hold out and give up our lips we can become queens.
The kiss is only a preface, however, but a charming preface. More charming than the realization itself. A preface which can always be read over again, whereas one cannot always read over the book.
Yes, the meeting of lips is the most perfect, the most divine sensation given to human beings, the supreme limit of happiness: It is in the kiss alone that one sometimes seems to feel this union of souls after which we strive, the intermingling of hearts, as it were.
Do you remember the verses of Sully-Prudhomme:
Caresses are nothing but anxious bliss, Vain attempts of love to unite souls through a kiss.
One caress alone gives this deep sensation of two beings welded into one —it is the kiss. No violent delirium of complete possession is worth this trembling approach of the lips, this first moist and fresh contact, and then the long, lingering, motionless rapture.
Therefore, my dear, the kiss is our strongest weapon, but we must take care not to dull it. Do not forget that its value is only relative, purely conventional. It continually changes according to circumstances, the state of expectancy and the ecstasy of the mind. I will call attention to one example.
Another poet, Francois Coppee, has written a line which we all remember, a line which we find delightful, which moves our very hearts.
After describing the expectancy of a lover, waiting in a room one winter’s evening, his anxiety, his nervous impatience, the terrible fear of not seeing her, he describes the arrival of the beloved woman, who at last enters hurriedly, out of breath, bringing with her part of the winter breeze, and he exclaims:
Oh! the taste of the kisses first snatched through the veil.
Is that not a line of exquisite sentiment, a delicate and charming observation, a perfect truth? All those who have hastened to a clandestine meeting, whom passion has thrown into the arms of a man, well do they know these first delicious kisses through the veil; and they tremble at the memory of them. And yet their sole charm lies in the circumstances, from being late, from the anxious expectancy, but from the purely—or, rather, impurely, if you prefer—sensual point of view, they are detestable.
Think! Outside it is cold. The young woman has walked quickly; the veil is moist from her cold breath. Little drops of water shine in the lace. The lover seizes her and presses his burning lips to her liquid breath. The moist veil, which discolors and carries the dreadful odor of chemical dye, penetrates into the young man’s mouth, moistens his mustache. He does not taste the lips of his beloved, he tastes the dye of this lace moistened with cold breath. And yet, like the poet, we would all exclaim:
Oh! the taste of the kisses first snatched through the veil.
Therefore, the value of this caress being entirely a matter of convention, we must be careful not to abuse it.
Well, my dear, I have several times noticed that you are very clumsy. However, you were not alone in that fault; the majority of women lose their authority by abusing the kiss with untimely kisses. When they feel that their husband or their lover is a little tired, at those times when the heart as well as the body needs rest, instead of understanding what is going on within him, they persist in giving inopportune caresses, tire him by the obstinacy of begging lips and give caresses lavished with neither rhyme nor reason.
Trust in the advice of my experience. First, never kiss your husband in public, in the train, at the restaurant. It is bad taste; do not give in to your desires. He would feel ridiculous and would never forgive you.
Beware of useless kisses lavished in intimacy. I am sure that you abuse them. For instance, I remember one day that you did something quite shocking. Probably you do not remember it.
All three of us were together in the drawing-room, and, as you did not stand on ceremony before me, your husband was holding you on his knees and kissing you at great length on the neck, the lips and throat. Suddenly you exclaimed: “Oh! the fire!” You had been paying no attention to it, and it was almost out. A few lingering embers were glowing on the hearth. Then he rose, ran to the woodbox, from which he dragged two enormous logs with great difficulty, when you came to him with begging lips, murmuring:
“Kiss me!” He turned his head with difficulty and tried to hold up the logs at the same time. Then you gently and slowly placed your mouth on that of the poor fellow, who remained with his neck out of joint, his sides twisted, his arms almost dropping off, trembling with fatigue and tired from his desperate effort. And you kept drawing out this torturing kiss, without seeing or understanding. Then when you freed him, you began to grumble: “How badly you kiss!” No wonder!
Oh, take care of that! We all have this foolish habit, this unconscious need of choosing the most inconvenient moments. When he is carrying a glass of water, when he is putting on his shoes, when he is tying his scarf—in short, when he finds himself in any uncomfortable position —then is the time which we choose for a caress which makes him stop for a whole minute in the middle of a gesture with the sole desire of getting rid of us!
Do not think that this criticism is insignificant. Love, my dear, is a delicate thing. The least little thing offends it; know that everything depends on the tact of our caresses. An ill-placed kiss may do any amount of harm.
Try following my advice.
Your old aunt, COLLETTE.
This story appeared in the Gaulois in November, 1882, under the pseudonym of “Maufrigneuse.”
THE LEGION OF HONOR
HOW HE GOT THE LEGION OF HONOR
From the time some people begin to talk they seem to have an overmastering desire or vocation.
Ever since he was a child, M. Caillard had only had one idea in his head —to wear the ribbon of an order. When he was still quite a small boy he used to wear a zinc cross of the Legion of Honor pinned on his tunic, just as other children wear a soldier’s cap, and he took his mother’s hand in the street with a proud air, sticking out his little chest with its red ribbon and metal star so that it might show to advantage.
His studies were not a success, and he failed in his examination for Bachelor of Arts; so, not knowing what to do, he married a pretty girl, as he had plenty of money of his own.
They lived in Paris, as many rich middle-class people do, mixing with their own particular set, and proud of knowing a deputy, who might perhaps be a minister some day, and counting two heads of departments among their friends.
But M. Caillard could not get rid of his one absorbing idea, and he felt constantly unhappy because he had not the right to wear a little bit of colored ribbon in his buttonhole.
When he met any men who were decorated on the boulevards, he looked at them askance, with intense jealousy. Sometimes, when he had nothing to do in the afternoon, he would count them, and say to himself: “Just let me see how many I shall meet between the Madeleine and the Rue Drouot.”
Then he would walk slowly, looking at every coat with a practiced eye for the little bit of red ribbon, and when he had got to the end of his walk he always repeated the numbers aloud.
“Eight officers and seventeen knights. As many as that! It is stupid to sow the cross broadcast in that fashion. I wonder how many I shall meet going back?”
And he returned slowly, unhappy when the crowd of passers-by interfered with his vision.
He knew the places where most were to be found. They swarmed in the Palais Royal. Fewer were seen in the Avenue de l’Opera than in the Rue de la Paix, while the right side of the boulevard was more frequented by them than the left.
They also seemed to prefer certain cafes and theatres. Whenever he saw a group of white-haired old gentlemen standing together in the middle of the pavement, interfering with the traffic, he used to say to himself:
“They are officers of the Legion of Honor,” and he felt inclined to take off his hat to them.
He had often remarked that the officers had a different bearing to the mere knights. They carried their head differently, and one felt that they enjoyed a higher official consideration and a more widely extended importance.
Sometimes, however, the worthy man would be seized with a furious hatred for every one who was decorated; he felt like a Socialist toward them.
Then, when he got home, excited at meeting so many crosses—just as a poor, hungry wretch might be on passing some dainty provision shop—he used to ask in a loud voice:
“When shall we get rid of this wretched government?”
And his wife would be surprised, and ask:
“What is the matter with you to-day?”
“I am indignant,” he replied, “at the injustice I see going on around us. Oh, the Communards were certainly right!”
After dinner he would go out again and look at the shops where the decorations were sold, and he examined all the emblems of various shapes and colors. He would have liked to possess them all, and to have walked gravely at the head of a procession, with his crush hat under his arm and his breast covered with decorations, radiant as a star, amid a buzz of admiring whispers and a hum of respect.
But, alas! he had no right to wear any decoration whatever.
He used to say to himself: “It is really too difficult for any man to obtain the Legion of Honor unless he is some public functionary. Suppose I try to be appointed an officer of the Academy!”
But he did not know how to set about it, and spoke on the subject to his wife, who was stupefied.
“Officer of the Academy! What have you done to deserve it?”
He got angry. “I know what I am talking about. I only want to know how to set about it. You are quite stupid at times.”
She smiled. “You are quite right. I don’t understand anything about it.”
An idea struck him: “Suppose you were to speak to M. Rosselin, the deputy; he might be able to advise me. You understand I cannot broach the subject to him directly. It is rather difficult and delicate, but coming from you it might seem quite natural.”
Mme. Caillard did what he asked her, and M. Rosselin promised to speak to the minister about it; and then Caillard began to worry him, till the deputy told him he must make a formal application and put forward his claims.
“What were his charms?” he said. “He was not even a Bachelor of Arts.” However, he set to work and produced a pamphlet, with the title, “The People’s Right to Instruction,” but he could not finish it for want of ideas.
He sought for easier subjects, and began several in succession. The first was, “The Instruction of Children by Means of the Eye.” He wanted gratuitous theatres to be established in every poor quarter of Paris for little children. Their parents were to take them there when they were quite young, and, by means of a magic lantern, all the notions of human knowledge were to be imparted to them. There were to be regular courses. The sight would educate the mind, while the pictures would remain impressed on the brain, and thus science would, so to say, be made visible. What could be more simple than to teach universal history, natural history, geography, botany, zoology, anatomy, etc., etc., in this manner?
He had his ideas printed in pamphlets, and sent a copy to each deputy, ten to each minister, fifty to the President of the Republic, ten to each Parisian, and five to each provincial newspaper.
Then he wrote on “Street Lending-Libraries.” His idea was to have little pushcarts full of books drawn about the streets. Everyone would have a right to ten volumes a month in his home on payment of one sou.
“The people,” M. Caillard said, “will only disturb itself for the sake of its pleasures, and since it will not go to instruction, instruction must come to it,” etc., etc.
His essays attracted no attention, but he sent in his application, and he got the usual formal official reply. He thought himself sure of success, but nothing came of it.
Then he made up his mind to apply personally. He begged for an interview with the Minister of Public Instruction, and he was received by a young subordinate, who was very grave and important, and kept touching the knobs of electric bells to summon ushers, and footmen, and officials inferior to himself. He declared to M. Caillard that his matter was going on quite favorably, and advised him to continue his remarkable labors, and M. Caillard set at it again.
M. Rosselin, the deputy, seemed now to take a great interest in his success, and gave him a lot of excellent, practical advice. He, himself, was decorated, although nobody knew exactly what he had done to deserve such a distinction.
He told Caillard what new studies he ought to undertake; he introduced him to learned societies which took up particularly obscure points of science, in the hope of gaining credit and honors thereby; and he even took him under his wing at the ministry.
One day, when he came to lunch with his friend—for several months past he had constantly taken his meals there—he said to him in a whisper as he shook hands: “I have just obtained a great favor for you. The Committee of Historical Works is going to intrust you with a commission. There are some researches to be made in various libraries in France.”
Caillard was so delighted that he could scarcely eat or drink, and a week later he set out. He went from town to town, studying catalogues, rummaging in lofts full of dusty volumes, and was hated by all the librarians.
One day, happening to be at Rouen, he thought he should like to go and visit his wife, whom he had not seen for more than a week, so he took the nine o’clock train, which would land him at home by twelve at night.
He had his latchkey, so he went in without making any noise, delighted at the idea of the surprise he was going to give her. She had locked herself in. How tiresome! However, he cried out through the door:
“Jeanne, it is I!”
She must have been very frightened, for he heard her jump out of her bed and speak to herself, as if she were in a dream. Then she went to her dressing room, opened and closed the door, and went quickly up and down her room barefoot two or three times, shaking the furniture till the vases and glasses sounded. Then at last she asked:
“Is it you, Alexander?”
“Yes, yes,” he replied; “make haste and open the door.”
As soon as she had done so, she threw herself into his arms, exclaiming:
“Oh, what a fright! What a surprise! What a pleasure!”
He began to undress himself methodically, as he did everything, and took from a chair his overcoat, which he was in the habit of hanging up in the hall. But suddenly he remained motionless, struck dumb with astonishment—there was a red ribbon in the buttonhole:
“Why,” he stammered, “this—this—this overcoat has got the ribbon in it!”
In a second, his wife threw herself on him, and, taking it from his hands, she said:
“No! you have made a mistake—give it to me.”
But he still held it by one of the sleeves, without letting it go, repeating in a half-dazed manner:
“Oh! Why? Just explain—Whose overcoat is it? It is not mine, as it has the Legion of Honor on it.”
She tried to take it from him, terrified and hardly able to say:
“Listen—listen! Give it to me! I must not tell you! It is a secret. Listen to me!”
But he grew angry and turned pale.
“I want to know how this overcoat comes to be here? It does not belong to me.”
Then she almost screamed at him:
“Yes, it does; listen! Swear to me—well—you are decorated!”
She did not intend to joke at his expense.
He was so overcome that he let the overcoat fall and dropped into an armchair.
“I am—you say I am—decorated?”
“Yes, but it is a secret, a great secret.”
She had put the glorious garment into a cupboard, and came to her husband pale and trembling.
“Yes,” she continued, “it is a new overcoat that I have had made for you. But I swore that I would not tell you anything about it, as it will not be officially announced for a month or six weeks, and you were not to have known till your return from your business journey. M. Rosselin managed it for you.”
“Rosselin!” he contrived to utter in his joy. “He has obtained the decoration for me? He—Oh!”
And he was obliged to drink a glass of water.
A little piece of white paper fell to the floor out of the pocket of the overcoat. Caillard picked it up; it was a visiting card, and he read out:
“You see how it is,” said his wife.
He almost cried with joy, and, a week later, it was announced in the Journal Officiel that M. Caillard had been awarded the Legion of Honor on account of his exceptional services.
The Bondels were a happy family, and although they frequently quarrelled about trifles, they soon became friends again.
Bondel was a merchant who had retired from active business after saving enough to allow him to live quietly; he had rented a little house at Saint-Germain and lived there with his wife. He was a quiet man with very decided opinions; he had a certain degree of education and read serious newspapers; nevertheless, he appreciated the gaulois wit. Endowed with a logical mind, and that practical common sense which is the master quality of the industrial French bourgeois, he thought little, but clearly, and reached a decision only after careful consideration of the matter in hand. He was of medium size, with a distinguished look, and was beginning to turn gray.
His wife, who was full of serious qualities, had also several faults. She had a quick temper and a frankness that bordered upon violence. She bore a grudge a long time. She had once been pretty, but had now become too stout and too red; but in her neighborhood at Saint-Germain she still passed for a very beautiful woman, who exemplified health and an uncertain temper.
Their dissensions almost always began at breakfast, over some trivial matter, and they often continued all day and even until the following day. Their simple, common, limited life imparted seriousness to the most unimportant matters, and every topic of conversation became a subject of dispute. This had not been so in the days when business occupied their minds, drew their hearts together, and gave them common interests and occupation.
But at Saint-Germain they saw fewer people. It had been necessary to make new acquaintances, to create for themselves a new world among strangers, a new existence devoid of occupations. Then the monotony of loneliness had soured each of them a little; and the quiet happiness which they had hoped and waited for with the coming of riches did not appear.
One June morning, just as they were sitting down to breakfast, Bondel asked:
“Do you know the people who live in the little red cottage at the end of the Rue du Berceau?”
Madame Bondel was out of sorts. She answered:
“Yes and no; I am acquainted with them, but I do not care to know them.”
“Why not? They seem to be very nice.”
“This morning I met the husband on the terrace and we took a little walk together.”
Seeing that there was danger in the air, Bendel added: “It was he who spoke to me first.”
His wife looked at him in a displeased manner. She continued: “You would have done just as well to avoid him.”
“Because there are rumors about them.”
“Oh! rumors such as one often hears!”
M. Bondel was, unfortunately, a little hasty. He exclaimed:
“My dear, you know that I abhor gossip. As for those people, I find them very pleasant.”
She asked testily: “The wife also?”
“Why, yes; although I have barely seen her.”
The discussion gradually grew more heated, always on the same subject for lack of others. Madame Bondel obstinately refused to say what she had heard about these neighbors, allowing things to be understood without saying exactly what they were. Bendel would shrug his shoulders, grin, and exasperate his wife. She finally cried out: “Well! that gentleman is deceived by his wife, there!”
The husband answered quietly: “I can’t see how that affects the honor of a man.”
She seemed dumfounded: “What! you don’t see?—you don’t see?—well, that’s too much! You don’t see!—why, it’s a public scandal! he is disgraced!”
He answered: “Ah! by no means! Should a man be considered disgraced because he is deceived, because he is betrayed, robbed? No, indeed! I’ll grant you that that may be the case for the wife, but as for him—”
She became furious, exclaiming: “For him as well as for her. They are both in disgrace; it’s a public shame.”
Bondel, very calm, asked: “First of all, is it true? Who can assert such a thing as long as no one has been caught in the act?”
Madame Bondel was growing uneasy; she snapped: “What? Who can assert it? Why, everybody! everybody! it’s as clear as the nose on your face. Everybody knows it and is talking about it. There is not the slightest doubt.”
He was grinning: “For a long time people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. This man loves his wife and speaks of her tenderly and reverently. This whole business is nothing but lies!”
Stamping her foot, she stammered: “Do you think that that fool, that idiot, knows anything about it?”
Bondel did not grow angry; he was reasoning clearly: “Excuse me. This gentleman is no fool. He seemed to me, on the contrary, to be very intelligent and shrewd; and you can’t make me believe that a man with brains doesn’t notice such a thing in his own house, when the neighbors, who are not there, are ignorant of no detail of this liaison—for I’ll warrant that they know everything.”
Madame Bondel had a fit of angry mirth, which irritated her husband’s nerves. She laughed: “Ha! ha! ha! they’re all the same! There’s not a man alive who could discover a thing like that unless his nose was stuck into it!”
The discussion was wandering to other topics now. She was exclaiming over the blindness of deceived husbands, a thing which he doubted and which she affirmed with such airs of personal contempt that he finally grew angry. Then the discussion became an angry quarrel, where she took the side of the women and he defended the men. He had the conceit to declare: “Well, I swear that if I had ever been deceived, I should have noticed it, and immediately, too. And I should have taken away your desire for such things in such a manner that it would have taken more than one doctor to set you on foot again!”
Boiling with anger, she cried out to him: “You! you! why, you’re as big a fool as the others, do you hear!”
He still maintained: “I can swear to you that I am not!”
She laughed so impertinently that he felt his heart beat and a chill run down his back. For the third time he said:
“I should have seen it!”
She rose, still laughing in the same manner. She slammed the door and left the room, saying: “Well! if that isn’t too much!”
Bondel remained alone, ill at ease. That insolent, provoking laugh had touched him to the quick. He went outside, walked, dreamed. The realization of the loneliness of his new life made him sad and morbid. The neighbor, whom he had met that morning, came to him with outstretched hands. They continued their walk together. After touching on various subjects they came to talk of their wives. Both seemed to have something to confide, something inexpressible, vague, about these beings associated with their lives; their wives. The neighbor was saying:
“Really, at times, one might think that they bear some particular ill- will toward their husband, just because he is a husband. I love my wife—I love her very much; I appreciate and respect her; well! there are times when she seems to have more confidence and faith in our friends than in me.”
Bondel immediately thought: “There is no doubt; my wife was right!”
When he left this man he began to think things over again. He felt in his soul a strange confusion of contradictory ideas, a sort of interior burning; that mocking, impertinent laugh kept ringing in his ears and seemed to say: “Why; you are just the same as the others, you fool!” That was indeed bravado, one of those pieces of impudence of which a woman makes use when she dares everything, risks everything, to wound and humiliate the man who has aroused her ire. This poor man must also be one of those deceived husbands, like so many others. He had said sadly: “There are times when she seems to have more confidence and faith in our friends than in me.” That is how a husband formulated his observations on the particular attentions of his wife for another man. That was all. He had seen nothing more. He was like the rest—all the rest!
And how strangely Bondel’s own wife had laughed as she said: “You, too —you, too.” How wild and imprudent these creatures are who can arouse such suspicions in the heart for the sole purpose of revenge!
He ran over their whole life since their marriage, reviewed his mental list of their acquaintances, to see whether she had ever appeared to show more confidence in any one else than in himself. He never had suspected any one, he was so calm, so sure of her, so confident.
But, now he thought of it, she had had a friend, an intimate friend, who for almost a year had dined with them three times a week. Tancret, good old Tancret, whom he, Bendel, loved as a brother and whom he continued to see on the sly, since his wife, he did not know why, had grown angry at the charming fellow.
He stopped to think, looking over the past with anxious eyes. Then he grew angry at himself for harboring this shameful insinuation of the defiant, jealous, bad ego which lives in all of us. He blamed and accused himself when he remembered the visits and the demeanor of this friend whom his wife had dismissed for no apparent reason. But, suddenly, other memories returned to him, similar ruptures due to the vindictive character of Madame Bondel, who never pardoned a slight. Then he laughed frankly at himself for the doubts which he had nursed; and he remembered the angry looks of his wife as he would tell her, when he returned at night: “I saw good old Tancret, and he wished to be remembered to you,” and he reassured himself.
She would invariably answer: “When you see that gentleman you can tell him that I can very well dispense with his remembrances.” With what an irritated, angry look she would say these words! How well one could feel that she did not and would not forgive—and he had suspected her even for a second? Such foolishness!
But why did she grow so angry? She never had given the exact reason for this quarrel. She still bore him that grudge! Was it?—But no—no—and Bondel declared that he was lowering himself by even thinking of such things.
Yes, he was undoubtedly lowering himself, but he could not help thinking of it, and he asked himself with terror if this thought which had entered into his mind had not come to stop, if he did not carry in his heart the seed of fearful torment. He knew himself; he was a man to think over his doubts, as formerly he would ruminate over his commercial operations, for days and nights, endlessly weighing the pros and the cons.
He was already becoming excited; he was walking fast and losing his calmness. A thought cannot be downed. It is intangible, cannot be caught, cannot be killed.
Suddenly a plan occurred to him; it was bold, so bold that at first he doubted whether he would carry it out.
Each time that he met Tancret, his friend would ask for news of Madame Bondel, and Bondel would answer: “She is still a little angry.” Nothing more. Good Lord! What a fool he had been! Perhaps!
Well, he would take the train to Paris, go to Tancret, and bring him back with him that very evening, assuring him that his wife’s mysterious anger had disappeared. But how would Madame Bondel act? What a scene there would be! What anger! what scandal! What of it?—that would be revenge! When she should come face to face with him, unexpectedly, he certainly ought to be able to read the truth in their expressions.
He immediately went to the station, bought his ticket, got into the car, and as soon as he felt him self being carried away by the train, he felt a fear, a kind of dizziness, at what he was going to do. In order not to weaken, back down, and return alone, he tried not to think of the matter any longer, to bring his mind to bear on other affairs, to do what he had decided to do with a blind resolution; and he began to hum tunes from operettas and music halls until he reached Paris.
As soon as he found himself walking along the streets that led to Tancret’s, he felt like stopping, He paused in front of several shops, noticed the prices of certain objects, was interested in new things, felt like taking a glass of beer, which was not his usual custom; and as he approached his friend’s dwelling he ardently hoped not meet him. But Tancret was at home, alone, reading. He jumped up in surprise, crying: “Ah! Bondel! what luck!”
Bondel, embarrassed, answered: “Yes, my dear fellow, I happened to be in Paris, and I thought I’d drop in and shake hands with you.”
“That’s very nice, very nice! The more so that for some time you have not favored me with your presence very often.”
“Well, you see—even against one’s will, one is often influenced by surrounding conditions, and as my wife seemed to bear you some ill-will”
“Jove! ‘seemed’—she did better than that, since she showed me the door.”
“What was the reason? I never heard it.”
“Oh! nothing at all—a bit of foolishness—a discussion in which we did not both agree.”
“But what was the subject of this discussion?”
“A lady of my acquaintance, whom you may perhaps know by name, Madame Boutin.”
“Ah! really. Well, I think that my wife has forgotten her grudge, for this very morning she spoke to me of you in very pleasant terms.”
Tancret started and seemed so dumfounded that for a few minutes he could find nothing to say. Then he asked: “She spoke of me—in pleasant terms?”
“You are sure?”
“Of course I am. I am not dreaming.”
“And then—as I was coming to Paris I thought that I would please you by coming to tell you the good news.”
“Why, yes—why, yes—”
Bondel appeared to hesitate; then, after a short pause, he added: “I even had an idea.”
“What is it?”
“To take you back home with me to dinner.”
Tancret, who was naturally prudent, seemed a little worried by this proposition, and he asked: “Oh! really—is it possible? Are we not exposing ourselves to—to—a scene?”
“No, no, indeed!”
“Because, you know, Madame Bendel bears malice for a long time.”
“Yes, but I can assure you that she no longer bears you any ill—will. I am even convinced that it will be a great pleasure for her to see you thus, unexpectedly.”
“Well, then! let us go along. I am delighted. You see, this misunderstanding was very unpleasant for me.”
They set out together toward the Saint-Lazare station, arm in arm. They made the trip in silence. Both seemed absorbed in deep meditation. Seated in the car, one opposite the other, they looked at each other without speaking, each observing that the other was pale.
Then they left the train and once more linked arms as if to unite against some common danger. After a walk of a few minutes they stopped, a little out of breath, before Bondel’s house. Bondel ushered his friend into the parlor, called the servant, and asked: “Is madame at home?”
“Please ask her to come down at once.”
They dropped into two armchairs and waited. Both were filled with the same longing to escape before the appearance of the much-feared person.
A well-known, heavy tread could be heard descending the stairs. A hand moved the knob, and both men watched the brass handle turn. Then the door opened wide, and Madame Bondel stopped and looked to see who was there before she entered. She looked, blushed, trembled, retreated a step, then stood motionless, her cheeks aflame and her hands resting against the sides of the door frame.
Tancret, as pale as if about to faint, had arisen, letting fall his hat, which rolled along the floor. He stammered out: “Mon Dieu—madame—it is I—I thought—I ventured—I was so sorry—”
As she did not answer, he continued: “Will you forgive me?”
Then, quickly, carried away by some impulse, she walked toward him with her hands outstretched; and when he had taken, pressed, and held these two hands, she said, in a trembling, weak little voice, which was new to her husband:
“Ah! my dear friend—how happy I am!”
And Bondel, who was watching them, felt an icy chill run over him, as if he had been dipped in a cold bath.
FOUND ON A DROWNED MAN
Madame, you ask me whether I am laughing at you? You cannot believe that a man has never been in love. Well, then, no, no, I have never loved, never!
Why is this? I really cannot tell. I have never experienced that intoxication of the heart which we call love! Never have I lived in that dream, in that exaltation, in that state of madness into which the image of a woman casts us. I have never been pursued, haunted, roused to fever heat, lifted up to Paradise by the thought of meeting, or by the possession of, a being who had suddenly become for me more desirable than any good fortune, more beautiful than any other creature, of more consequence than the whole world! I have never wept, I have never suffered on account of any of you. I have not passed my nights sleepless, while thinking of her. I have no experience of waking thoughts bright with thought and memories of her. I have never known the wild rapture of hope before her arrival, or the divine sadness of regret when she went from me, leaving behind her a delicate odor of violet powder.
I have never been in love.
I have also often asked myself why this is. And truly I can scarcely tell. Nevertheless I have found some reasons for it; but they are of a metaphysical character, and perhaps you will not be able to appreciate them.
I suppose I am too critical of women to submit to their fascination. I ask you to forgive me for this remark. I will explain what I mean. In every creature there is a moral being and a physical being. In order to love, it would be necessary for me to find a harmony between these two beings which I have never found. One always predominates; sometimes the moral, sometimes the physical.
The intellect which we have a right to require in a woman, in order to love her, is not the same as the virile intellect. It is more, and it is less. A woman must be frank, delicate, sensitive, refined, impressionable. She has no need of either power or initiative in thought, but she must have kindness, elegance, tenderness, coquetry and that faculty of assimilation which, in a little while, raises her to an equality with him who shares her life. Her greatest quality must be tact, that subtle sense which is to the mind what touch is to the body. It reveals to her a thousand little things, contours, angles and forms on the plane of the intellectual.
Very frequently pretty women have not intellect to correspond with their personal charms. Now, the slightest lack of harmony strikes me and pains me at the first glance. In friendship this is not of importance. Friendship is a compact in which one fairly shares defects and merits. We may judge of friends, whether man or woman, giving them credit for what is good, and overlooking what is bad in them, appreciating them at their just value, while giving ourselves up to an intimate, intense and charming sympathy.
In order to love, one must be blind, surrender one’s self absolutely, see nothing, question nothing, understand nothing. One must adore the weakness as well as the beauty of the beloved object, renounce all judgment, all reflection, all perspicacity.
I am incapable of such blindness and rebel at unreasoning subjugation. This is not all. I have such a high and subtle idea of harmony that nothing can ever fulfill my ideal. But you will call me a madman. Listen to me. A woman, in my opinion, may have an exquisite soul and charming body without that body and that soul being in perfect harmony with one another. I mean that persons who have noses made in a certain shape should not be expected to think in a certain fashion. The fat have no right to make use of the same words and phrases as the thin. You, who have blue eyes, madame, cannot look at life and judge of things and events as if you had black eyes. The shade of your eyes should correspond, by a sort of fatality, with the shade of your thought. In perceiving these things, I have the scent of a bloodhound. Laugh if you like, but it is so.
And yet, once I imagined that I was in love for an hour, for a day. I had foolishly yielded to the influence of surrounding circumstances. I allowed myself to be beguiled by a mirage of Dawn. Would you like me to tell you this short story?
I met, one evening, a pretty, enthusiastic little woman who took a poetic fancy to spend a night with me in a boat on a river. I would have preferred a room and a bed; however, I consented to the river and the boat.
It was in the month of June. My fair companion chose a moonlight night in order the better to stimulate her imagination.
We had dined at a riverside inn and set out in the boat about ten o’clock. I thought it a rather foolish kind of adventure, but as my companion pleased me I did not worry about it. I sat down on the seat facing her; I seized the oars, and off we starred.
I could not deny that the scene was picturesque. We glided past a wooded isle full of nightingales, and the current carried us rapidly over the river covered with silvery ripples. The tree toads uttered their shrill, monotonous cry; the frogs croaked in the grass by the river’s bank, and the lapping of the water as it flowed on made around us a kind of confused murmur almost imperceptible, disquieting, and gave us a vague sensation of mysterious fear.
The sweet charm of warm nights and of streams glittering in the moonlight penetrated us. It was delightful to be alive and to float along thus, and to dream and to feel at one’s side a sympathetic and beautiful young woman.
I was somewhat affected, somewhat agitated, somewhat intoxicated by the pale brightness of the night and the consciousness of my proximity to a lovely woman.
“Come and sit beside me,” she said.
She went on:
“Recite some poetry for me.”
This appeared to be rather too much. I declined; she persisted. She certainly wanted to play the game, to have a whole orchestra of sentiment, from the moon to the rhymes of poets. In the end I had to yield, and, as if in mockery, I repeated to her a charming little poem by Louis Bouilhet, of which the following are the last verses:
“I hate the poet who with tearful eye Murmurs some name while gazing tow’rds a star, Who sees no magic in the earth or sky, Unless Lizette or Ninon be not far.
“The bard who in all Nature nothing sees Divine, unless a petticoat he ties Amorously to the branches of the trees Or nightcap to the grass, is scarcely wise.
“He has not heard the Eternal’s thunder tone, The voice of Nature in her various moods, Who cannot tread the dim ravines alone, And of no woman dream mid whispering woods.”
I expected some reproaches. Nothing of the sort. She murmured:
“How true it is!”
I was astonished. Had she understood?
Our boat had gradually approached the bank and become entangled in the branches of a willow which impeded its progress. I placed my arm round my companion’s waist, and very gently approached my lips towards her neck. But she repulsed me with an abrupt, angry movement.
“Have done, pray! How rude you are!”
I tried to draw her toward me. She resisted, caught hold of the tree, and was near flinging us both into the water. I deemed it prudent to cease my importunities.
“I would rather capsize you. I feel so happy. I want to dream. This is so delightful.” Then, in a slightly malicious tone, she added:
“Have you already forgotten the verses you repeated to me just now?”
She was right. I became silent.
She went on:
And I plied the oars once more.
I began to think the night long and my position ridiculous.
My companion said to me:
“Will you make me a promise?”
“Yes. What is it?”
“To remain quiet, well-behaved and discreet, if I permit you—”
“What? Say what you mean!”
“Here is what I mean: I want to lie down on my back at the bottom of the boat with you by my side. But I forbid you to touch me, to embrace me —in short—to caress me.”
I promised. She said warningly:
“If you move, ‘I’ll capsize the boat.”
And then we lay down side by side, our eyes turned toward the sky, while the boat glided slowly through the water. We were rocked by its gentle motion. The slight sounds of the night came to us more distinctly in the bottom of the boat, sometimes causing us to start. And I felt springing up within me a strange, poignant emotion, an infinite tenderness, something like an irresistible impulse to open my arms in order to embrace, to open my heart in order to love, to give myself, to give my thoughts, my body, my life, my entire being to some one.
My companion murmured, like one in a dream:
“Where are we; Where are we going? It seems to me that I am leaving the earth. How sweet it is! Ah, if you loved me—a little!!!”
My heart began to throb. I had no answer to give. It seemed to me that I loved her. I had no longer any violent desire. I felt happy there by her side, and that was enough for me.
And thus we remained for a long, long time without stirring. We had clasped each other’s hands; some delightful force rendered us motionless, an unknown force stronger than ourselves, an alliance, chaste, intimate, absolute, of our beings lying there side by side, belonging to each other without contact. What was this? How do I know? Love, perhaps?
Little by little the dawn appeared. It was three o’clock in the morning. Slowly a great brightness spread over the sky. The boat knocked up against something. I rose up. We had come close to a tiny islet.
But I remained enchanted, in an ecstasy. Before us stretched the firmament, red, pink, violet, spotted with fiery clouds resembling golden vapor. The river was glowing with purple and three houses on one side of it seemed to be burning.
I bent toward my companion. I was going to say, “Oh! look!” But I held my tongue, quite dazed, and I could no longer see anything except her. She, too, was rosy, with rosy flesh tints with a deeper tinge that was partly a reflection of the hue of the sky. Her tresses were rosy; her eyes were rosy; her teeth were rosy; her dress, her laces, her smile, all were rosy. And in truth I believed, so overpowering was the illusion, that the dawn was there in the flesh before me.
She rose softly to her feet, holding out her lips to me; and I moved toward her, trembling, delirious feeling indeed that I was going to kiss Heaven, to kiss happiness, to kiss a dream that had become a woman, to kiss the ideal which had descended into human flesh.
She said to me: “You have a caterpillar in your hair.” And, suddenly, I felt as sad as if I had lost all hope in life.
That is all, madame. It is puerile, silly, stupid. But I am sure that since that day it would be impossible for me to love. And yet—who can tell?[The young man upon whom this letter was found was yesterday taken out of the Seine between Bougival and Marly. An obliging bargeman, who had searched the pockets in order to ascertain the name of the deceased, brought this paper to the author.]
Mademoiselle Source had adopted this boy under very sad circumstances. She was at the time thirty-six years old. Being disfigured through having as a child slipped off her nurse’s lap into the fireplace and burned her face shockingly, she had determined not to marry, for she did not want any man to marry her for her money.
A neighbor of hers, left a widow just before her child was born, died in giving birth, without leaving a sou. Mademoiselle Source took the new- born child, put him out to nurse, reared him, sent him to a boarding- school, then brought him home in his fourteenth year, in order to have in her empty house somebody who would love her, who would look after her, and make her old age pleasant.
She had a little country place four leagues from Rennes, and she now dispensed with a servant; her expenses having increased to more than double since this orphan’s arrival, her income of three thousand francs was no longer sufficient to support three persons.
She attended to the housekeeping and cooking herself, and sent out the boy on errands, letting him also occupy himself in cultivating the garden. He was gentle, timid, silent, and affectionate. And she experienced a deep happiness, a fresh happiness when he kissed her without surprise or horror at her disfigurement. He called her “Aunt,” and treated her as a mother.
In the evening they both sat down at the fireside, and she made nice little dainties for him. She heated some wine and toasted a slice of bread, and it made a charming little meal before going to bed. She often took him on her knees and covered him with kisses, murmuring tender words in his ear. She called him: “My little flower, my cherub, my adored angel, my divine jewel.” He softly accepted her caresses, hiding his head on the old maid’s shoulder. Although he was now nearly fifteen, he had remained small and weak, and had a rather sickly appearance.
Sometimes Mademoiselle Source took him to the city, to see two married female relatives of hers, distant cousins, who were living in the suburbs, and who were the only members of her family in existence. The two women had always found fault with her, for having adopted this boy, on account of the inheritance; but for all that, they gave her a cordial welcome, having still hopes of getting a share for themselves, a third, no doubt, if what she possessed were only equally divided.
She was happy, very happy, always occupied with her adopted child. She bought books for him to improve his mind, and he became passionately fond of reading.
He no longer climbed on her knee to pet her as he had formerly done; but, instead, would go and sit down in his little chair in the chimney- corner and open a volume. The lamp placed at the edge of the Tittle table above his head shone on his curly hair, and on a portion of his forehead; he did not move, he did not raise his eyes or make any gesture. He read on, interested, entirely absorbed in the story he was reading.
Seated opposite to him, she would gaze at him earnestly, astonished at his studiousness, often on the point of bursting into tears.
She said to him occasionally: “You will fatigue yourself, my treasure!” hoping that he would raise his head, and come across to embrace her; but he did not even answer her; he had not heard or understood what she was saying; he paid no attention to anything save what he read in those pages.
For two years he devoured an incalculable number of volumes. His character changed.
After this, he asked Mademoiselle Source several times for money, which she gave him. As he always wanted more, she ended by refusing, for she was both methodical and decided, and knew how to act rationally when it was necessary to do so. By dint of entreaties he obtained a large sum from her one night; but when he begged her for more a few days later, she showed herself inflexible, and did not give way to him further, in fact.
He appeared to be satisfied with her decision.
He again became quiet, as he had formerly been, remaining seated for entire hours, without moving, plunged in deep reverie. He now did not even talk to Madame Source, merely answering her remarks with short, formal words. Nevertheless, he was agreeable and attentive in his manner toward her; but he never embraced her now.
She had by this time grown slightly afraid of him when they sat facing one another at night on opposite sides of the fireplace. She wanted to wake him up, to make him say something, no matter what, that would break this dreadful silence, which was like the darkness of a wood. But he did not appear to listen to her, and she shuddered with the terror of a poor feeble woman when she had spoken to him five or six times successively without being able to get a word out of him.
What was the matter with him? What was going on in that closed-up head? When she had remained thus two or three hours opposite him, she felt as if she were going insane, and longed to rush away and to escape into the open country in order to avoid that mute, eternal companionship and also some vague danger, which she could not define, but of which she had a presentiment.
She frequently wept when she was alone. What was the matter with him? When she expressed a wish, he unmurmuringly carried it into execution. When she wanted anything brought from the city, he immediately went there to procure it. She had no complaint to make of him; no, indeed! And yet—
Another year flitted by, and it seemed to her that a fresh change had taken place in the mind of the young man. She perceived it; she felt it; she divined it. How? No matter! She was sure she was not mistaken; but she could not have explained in what manner the unknown thoughts of this strange youth had changed.
It seemed to her that, until now, he had been like a person in a hesitating frame of mind, who had suddenly arrived at a determination. This idea came to her one evening as she met his glance, a fixed, singular glance which she had not seen in his face before.
Then he commenced to watch her incessantly, and she wished she could hide herself in order to avoid that cold eye riveted on her.
He kept staring at her, evening after evening, for hours together, only averting his eyes when she said, utterly unnerved:
“Do not look at me like that, my child!”
Then he would lower his head.
But the moment her back was turned she once more felt that his eyes were upon her. Wherever she went, he pursued her with his persistent gaze.
Sometimes, when she was walking in her little garden, she suddenly noticed him hidden behind a bush, as if he were lying in wait for her; and, again, when she sat in front of the house mending stockings while he was digging some vegetable bed, he kept continually watching her in a surreptitious manner, as he worked.
It was in vain that she asked him:
“What’s the matter with you, my boy? For the last three years, you have become very different. I don’t recognize you. Do tell me what ails you, and what you are thinking of.”
He invariably replied, in a quiet, weary tone:
“Why, nothing ails me, aunt!”
And when she persisted:
“Ah! my child, answer me, answer me when I speak to you. If you knew what grief you caused me, you would always answer, and you would not look at me that way. Have you any trouble? Tell me! I’ll comfort you!”
He went away, with a tired air, murmuring:
“But there is nothing the matter with me, I assure you.”
He had not grown much, having always a childish look, although his features were those of a man. They were, however, hard and badly cut. He seemed incomplete, abortive, only half finished, and disquieting as a mystery. He was a self-contained, unapproachable being, in whom there seemed always to be some active, dangerous mental labor going on. Mademoiselle Source was quite conscious of all this, and she could not sleep at night, so great was her anxiety. Frightful terrors, dreadful nightmares assailed her. She shut herself up in her own room, and barricaded the door, tortured by fear.
What was she afraid of? She could not tell.
She feared everything, the night, the walls, the shadows thrown by the moon on the white curtains of the windows, and, above all, she feared him.
What had she to fear? Did she know what it was?
She could live this way no longer! She felt certain that a misfortune threatened her, a frightful misfortune.
She set forth secretly one morning, and went into the city to see her relatives. She told them about the matter in a gasping voice. The two women thought she was going mad and tried to reassure her.
“If you knew the way he looks at me from morning till night. He never takes his eyes off me! At times, I feel a longing to cry for help, to call in the neighbors, so much am I afraid. But what could I say to them? He does nothing but look at me.”
The two female cousins asked:
“Is he ever brutal to you? Does he give you sharp answers?”
“No, never; he does everything I wish; he works hard: he is steady; but I am so frightened that I care nothing for that. He is planning something, I am certain of that—quite certain. I don’t care to remain all alone like that with him in the country.”
The relatives, astonished at her words, declared that people would be amazed, would not understand; and they advised her to keep silent about her fears and her plans, without, however, dissuading her from coming to reside in the city, hoping in that way that the entire inheritance would eventually fall into their hands.
They even promised to assist her in selling her house, and in finding another, near them.
Mademoiselle Source returned home. But her mind was so much upset that she trembled at the slightest noise, and her hands shook whenever any trifling disturbance agitated her.
Twice she went again to consult her relatives, quite determined now not to remain any longer in this way in her lonely dwelling. At last, she found a little cottage in the suburbs, which suited her, and she privately bought it.
The signature of the contract took place on a Tuesday morning, and Mademoiselle Source devoted the rest of the day to the preparations for her change of residence.
At eight o’clock in the evening she got into the diligence which passed within a few hundred yards of her house, and she told the conductor to put her down in the place where she usually alighted. The man called out to her as he whipped his horses:
“Good evening, Mademoiselle Source—good night!”
She replied as she walked on:
“Good evening, Pere Joseph.” Next morning, at half-past seven, the postman who conveyed letters to the village noticed at the cross-road, not far from the high road, a large splash of blood not yet dry. He said to himself: “Hallo! some boozer must have had a nose bleed.”
But he perceived ten paces farther on a pocket handkerchief also stained with blood. He picked it up. The linen was fine, and the postman, in alarm, made his way over to the ditch, where he fancied he saw a strange object.
Mademoiselle Source was lying at the bottom on the grass, her throat cut with a knife.
An hour later, the gendarmes, the examining magistrate, and other authorities made an inquiry as to the cause of death.
The two female relatives, called as witnesses, told all about the old maid’s fears and her last plans.
The orphan was arrested. After the death of the woman who had adopted him, he wept from morning till night, plunged, at least to all appearance, in the most violent grief.
He proved that he had spent the evening up to eleven o’clock in a cafe. Ten persons had seen him, having remained there till his departure.
The driver of the diligence stated that he had set down the murdered woman on the road between half-past nine and ten o’clock.
The accused was acquitted. A will, drawn up a long time before, which had been left in the hands of a notary in Rennes, made him sole heir. So he inherited everything.
For a long time, the people of the country boycotted him, as they still suspected him. His house, that of the dead woman, was looked upon as accursed. People avoided him in the street.
But he showed himself so good-natured, so open, so familiar, that gradually these horrible doubts were forgotten. He was generous, obliging, ready to talk to the humblest about anything, as long as they cared to talk to him.
The notary, Maitre Rameau, was one of the first to take his part, attracted by his smiling loquacity. He said at a dinner, at the tax collector’s house:
“A man who speaks with such facility and who is always in good humor could not have such a crime on his conscience.”
Touched by his argument, the others who were present reflected, and they recalled to mind the long conversations with this man who would almost compel them to stop at the road corners to listen to his ideas, who insisted on their going into his house when they were passing by his garden, who could crack a joke better than the lieutenant of the gendarmes himself, and who possessed such contagious gaiety that, in spite of the repugnance with which he inspired them, they could not keep from always laughing in his company.
All doors were opened to him after a time.
He is to-day the mayor of his township.
THE BEGGAR He had seen better days, despite his present misery and infirmities.
At the age of fifteen both his legs had been crushed by a carriage on the Varville highway. From that time forth he begged, dragging himself along the roads and through the farmyards, supported by crutches which forced his shoulders up to his ears. His head looked as if it were squeezed in between two mountains.
A foundling, picked up out of a ditch by the priest of Les Billettes on the eve of All Saints’ Day and baptized, for that reason, Nicholas Toussaint, reared by charity, utterly without education, crippled in consequence of having drunk several glasses of brandy given him by the baker (such a funny story!) and a vagabond all his life afterward—the only thing he knew how to do was to hold out his hand for alms.
At one time the Baroness d’Avary allowed him to sleep in a kind of recess spread with straw, close to the poultry yard in the farm adjoining the chateau, and if he was in great need he was sure of getting a glass of cider and a crust of bread in the kitchen. Moreover, the old lady often threw him a few pennies from her window. But she was dead now.
In the villages people gave him scarcely anything—he was too well known. Everybody had grown tired of seeing him, day after day for forty years, dragging his deformed and tattered person from door to door on his wooden crutches. But he could not make up his mind to go elsewhere, because he knew no place on earth but this particular corner of the country, these three or four villages where he had spent the whole of his miserable existence. He had limited his begging operations and would not for worlds have passed his accustomed bounds.
He did not even know whether the world extended for any distance beyond the trees which had always bounded his vision. He did not ask himself the question. And when the peasants, tired of constantly meeting him in their fields or along their lanes, exclaimed: “Why don’t you go to other villages instead of always limping about here?” he did not answer, but slunk away, possessed with a vague dread of the unknown—the dread of a poor wretch who fears confusedly a thousand things—new faces, taunts, insults, the suspicious glances of people who do not know him and the policemen walking in couples on the roads. These last he always instinctively avoided, taking refuge in the bushes or behind heaps of stones when he saw them coming.
When he perceived them in the distance, ‘With uniforms gleaming in the sun, he was suddenly possessed with unwonted agility—the agility of a wild animal seeking its lair. He threw aside his crutches, fell to the ground like a limp rag, made himself as small as possible and crouched like a hare under cover, his tattered vestments blending in hue with the earth on which he cowered.
He had never had any trouble with the police, but the instinct to avoid them was in his blood. He seemed to have inherited it from the parents he had never known.
He had no refuge, no roof for his head, no shelter of any kind. In summer he slept out of doors and in winter he showed remarkable skill in slipping unperceived into barns and stables. He always decamped before his presence could be discovered. He knew all the holes through which one could creep into farm buildings, and the handling of his crutches having made his arms surprisingly muscular he often hauled himself up through sheer strength of wrist into hay-lofts, where he sometimes remained for four or five days at a time, provided he had collected a sufficient store of food beforehand.
He lived like the beasts of the field. He was in the midst of men, yet knew no one, loved no one, exciting in the breasts of the peasants only a sort of careless contempt and smoldering hostility. They nicknamed him “Bell,” because he hung between his two crutches like a church bell between its supports.
For two days he had eaten nothing. No one gave him anything now. Every one’s patience was exhausted. Women shouted to him from their doorsteps when they saw him coming:
“Be off with you, you good-for-nothing vagabond! Why, I gave you a piece of bread only three days ago!”
And he turned on his crutches to the next house, where he was received in the same fashion.
The women declared to one another as they stood at their doors:
“We can’t feed that lazy brute all the year round!”
And yet the “lazy brute” needed food every day.
He had exhausted Saint-Hilaire, Varville and Les Billettes without getting a single copper or so much as a dry crust. His only hope was in Tournolles, but to reach this place he would have to walk five miles along the highroad, and he felt so weary that he could hardly drag himself another yard. His stomach and his pocket were equally empty, but he started on his way.
It was December and a cold wind blew over the fields and whistled through the bare branches of the trees; the clouds careered madly across the black, threatening sky. The cripple dragged himself slowly along, raising one crutch after the other with a painful effort, propping himself on the one distorted leg which remained to him.
Now and then he sat down beside a ditch for a few moments’ rest. Hunger was gnawing his vitals, and in his confused, slow-working mind he had only one idea-to eat-but how this was to be accomplished he did not know. For three hours he continued his painful journey. Then at last the sight of the trees of the village inspired him with new energy.
The first peasant he met, and of whom he asked alms, replied:
“So it’s you again, is it, you old scamp? Shall I never be rid of you?”
And “Bell” went on his way. At every door he got nothing but hard words. He made the round of the whole village, but received not a halfpenny for his pains.
Then he visited the neighboring farms, toiling through the muddy land, so exhausted that he could hardly raise his crutches from the ground. He met with the same reception everywhere. It was one of those cold, bleak days, when the heart is frozen and the temper irritable, and hands do not open either to give money or food.
When he had visited all the houses he knew, “Bell” sank down in the corner of a ditch running across Chiquet’s farmyard. Letting his crutches slip to the ground, he remained motionless, tortured by hunger, but hardly intelligent enough to realize to the full his unutterable misery.
He awaited he knew not what, possessed with that vague hope which persists in the human heart in spite of everything. He awaited in the corner of the farmyard in the biting December wind, some mysterious aid from Heaven or from men, without the least idea whence it was to arrive. A number of black hens ran hither and thither, seeking their food in the earth which supports all living things. Ever now and then they snapped up in their beaks a grain of corn or a tiny insect; then they continued their slow, sure search for nutriment.
“Bell” watched them at first without thinking of anything. Then a thought occurred rather to his stomach than to his mind—the thought that one of those fowls would be good to eat if it were cooked over a fire of dead wood.
He did not reflect that he was going to commit a theft. He took up a stone which lay within reach, and, being of skillful aim, killed at the first shot the fowl nearest to him. The bird fell on its side, flapping its wings. The others fled wildly hither and thither, and “Bell,” picking up his crutches, limped across to where his victim lay.
Just as he reached the little black body with its crimsoned head he received a violent blow in his back which made him let go his hold of his crutches and sent him flying ten paces distant. And Farmer Chiquet, beside himself with rage, cuffed and kicked the marauder with all the fury of a plundered peasant as “Bell” lay defenceless before him.
The farm hands came up also and joined their master in cuffing the lame beggar. Then when they were tired of beating him they carried him off and shut him up in the woodshed, while they went to fetch the police.
“Bell,” half dead, bleeding and perishing with hunger, lay on the floor. Evening came—then night—then dawn. And still he had not eaten.
About midday the police arrived. They opened the door of the woodshed with the utmost precaution, fearing resistance on the beggar’s part, for Farmer Chiquet asserted that he had been attacked by him and had had great, difficulty in defending himself.
The sergeant cried:
“Come, get up!”
But “Bell” could not move. He did his best to raise himself on his crutches, but without success. The police, thinking his weakness feigned, pulled him up by main force and set him between the crutches.
Fear seized him—his native fear of a uniform, the fear of the game in presence of the sportsman, the fear of a mouse for a cat-and by the exercise of almost superhuman effort he succeeded in remaining upright.
“Forward!” said the sergeant. He walked. All the inmates of the farm watched his departure. The women shook their fists at him the men scoffed at and insulted him. He was taken at last! Good riddance! He went off between his two guards. He mustered sufficient energy—the energy of despair—to drag himself along until the evening, too dazed to know what was happening to him, too frightened to understand.
People whom he met on the road stopped to watch him go by and peasants muttered:
“It’s some thief or other.”
Toward evening he reached the country town. He had never been so far before. He did not realize in the least what he was there for or what was to become of him. All the terrible and unexpected events of the last two days, all these unfamiliar faces and houses struck dismay into his heart.
He said not a word, having nothing to say because he understood nothing. Besides, he had spoken to no one for so many years past that he had almost lost the use of his tongue, and his thoughts were too indeterminate to be put into words.
He was shut up in the town jail. It did not occur to the police that he might need food, and he was left alone until the following day. But when in the early morning they came to examine him he was found dead on the floor. Such an astonishing thing!
Old Lecacheur appeared at the door of his house between five and a quarter past five in the morning, his usual hour, to watch his men going to work.
He was only half awake, his face was red, and with his right eye open and the left nearly closed, he was buttoning his braces over his fat stomach with some difficulty, at the same time looking into every corner of the farmyard with a searching glance. The sun darted its oblique rays through the beech trees by the side of the ditch and athwart the apple trees outside, and was making the cocks crow on the dunghill, and the pigeons coo on the roof. The smell of the cow stable came through the open door, and blended in the fresh morning air with the pungent odor of the stable, where the horses were neighing, with their heads turned toward the light.
As soon as his trousers were properly fastened, Lecacheur came out, and went, first of all, toward the hen house to count the morning’s eggs, for he had been afraid of thefts for some time; but the servant girl ran up to him with lifted arms and cried:
“Master! master! they have stolen a rabbit during the night.”
“Yes, master, the big gray rabbit, from the hutch on the left”; whereupon the farmer completely opened his left eye, and said, simply:
“I must see about that.”
And off he went to inspect it. The hutch had been broken open and the rabbit was gone. Then he became thoughtful, closed his right eye again, and scratched his nose, and after a little consideration, he said to the frightened girl, who was standing stupidly before her master:
“Go and fetch the gendarmes; say I expect them as soon as possible.”
Lecacheur was mayor of the village, Pavigny-le-Gras, and ruled it like a master, on account of his money and position, and as soon as the servant had disappeared in the direction of the village, which was only about five hundred yards off, he went into the house to have his morning coffee and to discuss the matter with his wife, whom he found on her knees in front of the fire, trying to make it burn quickly, and as soon as he got to the door, he said:
“Somebody has stolen the gray rabbit.”
She turned round so suddenly that she found herself sitting on the floor, and looking at her husband with distressed eyes, she said:
“What is it, Cacheux? Somebody has stolen a rabbit?”
“The big gray one.”
“What a shame! Who can have done it?”
She was a little, thin, active, neat woman, who knew all about farming. Lecacheur had his own ideas about the matter.
“It must be that fellow, Polyte.”
His wife got up suddenly and said in a furious voice:
“He did it! he did it! You need not look for any one else. He did it! You have said it, Cacheux!”
All her peasant’s fury, all her avarice, all her rage of a saving woman against the man of whom she had always been suspicious, and against the girl whom she had always suspected, showed themselves in the contraction of her mouth, and the wrinkles in the cheeks and forehead of her thin, exasperated face.
“And what have you done?” she asked.
“I have sent for the gendarmes.”
This Polyte was a laborer, who had been employed on the farm for a few days, and who had been dismissed by Lecacheur for an insolent answer. He was an old soldier, and was supposed to have retained his habits of * marauding and debauchery from his campaigns in Africa. He did anything for a livelihood, but whether he were a mason, a navvy, a reaper, whether he broke stones or lopped trees, he was always lazy, and so he remained nowhere for long, and had, at times, to change his neighborhood to obtain work.
From the first day that he came to the farm, Lecacheur’s wife had detested him, and now she was sure that he had committed the theft.
In about half an hour the two gendarmes arrived. Brigadier Senateur was very tall and thin, and Gendarme Lenient short and fat. Lecacheur made them sit down, and told them the affair, and then they went and saw the scene of the theft, in order to verify the fact that the hutch had been broken open, and to collect all the proofs they could. When they got back to the kitchen, the mistress brought in some wine, filled their glasses, and asked with a distrustful look:
“Shall you catch him?”
The brigadier, who had his sword between his legs, appeared thoughtful. Certainly, he was sure of taking him, if he was pointed out to him, but if not, he could not answer for being able to discover him, himself, and after reflecting for a long time, he put this simple question:
“Do you know the thief?”
And Lecacheur replied, with a look of Normandy slyness in his eyes:
“As for knowing him, I do not, as I did not see him commit the theft. If I had seen him, I should have made him eat it raw, skin and flesh, without a drop of cider to wash it down. But as for saying who it is, I cannot, although I believe it is that good-for-nothing Polyte.”
Then he related at length his troubles with Polyte, his leaving his service, his bad reputation, things which had been told him, accumulating insignificant and minute proofs, and then, the brigadier, who had been listening very attentively while he emptied his glass and filled it again with an indifferent air, turned to his gendarme and said:
“We must go and look in the cottage of Severin’s wife.” At which the gendarme smiled and nodded three times.
Then Madame Lecacheur came to them, and very quietly, with all a peasant’s cunning, questioned the brigadier in her turn. That shepherd Severin, a simpleton, a sort of brute who had been brought up and had grown up among his bleating flocks, and who knew scarcely anything besides them in the world, had nevertheless preserved the peasant’s instinct for saving, at the bottom of his heart. For years and years he must have hidden in hollow trees and crevices in the rocks all that he earned, either as a shepherd or by curing animals’ sprains—for the bonesetter’s secret had been handed down to him by the old shepherd whose place he took-by touch or word, and one day he bought a small property, consisting of a cottage and a field, for three thousand francs.
A few months later it became known that he was going to marry a servant, notorious for her bad morals, the innkeeper’s servant. The young fellows said that the girl, knowing that he was pretty well off, had been to his cottage every night, and had taken him, captured him, led him on to matrimony, little by little night by night.
And then, having been to the mayor’s office and to church, she now lived in the house which her man had bought, while he continued to tend his flocks, day and night, on the plains.
And the brigadier added:
“Polyte has been sleeping there for three weeks, for the thief has no place of his own to go to!”
The gendarme made a little joke:
“He takes the shepherd’s blankets.”
Madame Lecacheur, who was seized by a fresh access of rage, of rage increased by a married woman’s anger against debauchery, exclaimed:
“It is she, I am sure. Go there. Ah, the blackguard thieves!”
But the brigadier was quite unmoved.
“One minute,” he said. “Let us wait until twelve o’clock, as he goes and dines there every day. I shall catch them with it under their noses.”
The gendarme smiled, pleased at his chief’s idea, and Lecacheur also smiled now, for the affair of the shepherd struck him as very funny; deceived husbands are always a joke.
Twelve o’clock had just struck when the brigadier, followed by his man, knocked gently three times at the door of a little lonely house, situated at the corner of a wood, five hundred yards from the village.
They had been standing close against the wall, so as not to be seen from within, and they waited. As nobody answered, the brigadier knocked again in a minute or two. It was so quiet that the house seemed uninhabited; but Lenient, the gendarme, who had very quick ears, said that he heard somebody moving about inside, and then Senateur got angry. He would not allow any one to resist the authority of the law for a moment, and, knocking at the door with the hilt of his sword, he cried out:
“Open the door, in the name of the law.”
As this order had no effect, he roared out:
“If you do not obey, I shall smash the lock. I am the brigadier of the gendarmerie, by G—! Here, Lenient.”
He had not finished speaking when the door opened and Senateur saw before him a fat girl, with a very red, blowzy face, with drooping breasts, a big stomach and broad hips, a sort of animal, the wife of the shepherd Severin, and he went into the cottage.
“I have come to pay you a visit, as I want to make a little search,” he said, and he looked about him. On the table there was a plate, a jug of cider and a glass half full, which proved that a meal was in progress. Two knives were lying side by side, and the shrewd gendarme winked at his superior officer.
“It smells good,” the latter said.
“One might swear that it was stewed rabbit,” Lenient added, much amused.
“Will you have a glass of brandy?” the peasant woman asked.
“No, thank you; I only want the skin of the rabbit that you are eating.”
She pretended not to understand, but she was trembling.
The brigadier had taken a seat, and was calmly wiping his forehead.
“Come, come, you are not going to try and make us believe that you live on couch grass. What were you eating there all by yourself for your dinner?”
“I? Nothing whatever, I swear to you. A mite of butter on my bread.”
“You are a novice, my good woman. A mite of butter on your bread. You are mistaken; you ought to have said: a mite of butter on the rabbit. By G—, your butter smells good! It is special butter, extra good butter, butter fit for a wedding; certainly, not household butter!”
The gendarme was shaking with laughter, and repeated:
“Not household butter certainly.”
As Brigadier Senateur was a joker, all the gendarmes had grown facetious, and the officer continued:
“Where is your butter?”
“Yes, your butter.”
“In the jar.”
“Then where is the butter jar?”
“Here it is.”
She brought out an old cup, at the bottom of which there was a layer of rancid salt butter, and the brigadier smelled of it, and said, with a shake of his head:
“It is not the same. I want the butter that smells of the rabbit. Come, Lenient, open your eyes; look under the sideboard, my good fellow, and I will look under the bed.”
Having shut the door, he went up to the bed and tried to move it; but it was fixed to the wall, and had not been moved for more than half a century, apparently. Then the brigadier stooped, and made his uniform crack. A button had flown off.
“Lenient,” he said.
“Come here, my lad, and look under the bed; I am too tall. I will look after the sideboard.”
He got up and waited while his man executed his orders.
Lenient, who was short and stout, took off his kepi, laid himself on his stomach, and, putting his face on the floor, looked at the black cavity under the bed, and then, suddenly, he exclaimed:
“All right, here we are!”
“What have you got? The rabbit?”
“No, the thief.”
“The thief! Pull him out, pull him out!”
The gendarme had put his arms under the bed and laid hold of something, and he was pulling with all his might, and at last a foot, shod in a thick boot, appeared, which he was holding in his right hand. The brigadier took it, crying:
And Lenient, who was on his knees by that time, was pulling at the other leg. But it was a hard job, for the prisoner kicked out hard, and arched up his back under the bed.
“Courage! courage! pull! pull!” Senateur cried, and they pulled him with all their strength, so that the wooden slat gave way, and he came out as far as his head; but at last they got that out also, and they saw the terrified and furious face of Polyte, whose arms remained stretched out under the bed.
“Pull away!” the brigadier kept on exclaiming. Then they heard a strange noise, and as the arms followed the shoulders, and the hands the arms, they saw in the hands the handle of a saucepan, and at the end of the handle the saucepan itself, which contained stewed rabbit.
“Good Lord! good Lord!” the brigadier shouted in his delight, while Lenient took charge of the man; the rabbit’s skin, an overwhelming proof, was discovered under the mattress, and then the gendarmes returned in triumph to the village with their prisoner and their booty.
A week later, as the affair had made much stir, Lecacheur, on going into the mairie to consult the schoolmaster, was told that the shepherd Severin had been waiting for him for more than an hour, and he found him sitting on a chair in a corner, with his stick between his legs. When he saw the mayor, he got up, took off his cap, and said:
“Good-morning, Maitre Cacheux”; and then he remained standing, timid and embarrassed.
“What do you want?” the former said.
“This is it, monsieur. Is it true that somebody stole one of your rabbits last week?”
“Yes, it is quite true, Severin.”
“Who stole the rabbit?”
“Polyte Ancas, the laborer.”
“Right! right! And is it also true that it was found under my bed?”
“What do you mean, the rabbit?”
“The rabbit and then Polyte.”
“Yes, my poor Severin, quite true, but who told you?”
“Pretty well everybody. I understand! And I suppose you know all about marriages, as you marry people?”
“What about marriage?”
“With regard to one’s rights.”
“The husband’s rights and then the wife’s rights.”
“Of course I do.”
“Oh! Then just tell me, M’sieu Cacheux, has my wife the right to go to bed with Polyte?”
“What, to go to bed with Polyte?”
“Yes, has she any right before the law, and, seeing that she is my wife, to go to bed with Polyte?”
“Why, of course not, of course not.”
“If I catch him there again, shall I have the right to thrash him and her also?”
“Very well, then; I will tell you why I want to know. One night last week, as I had my suspicions, I came in suddenly, and they were not behaving properly. I chucked Polyte out, to go and sleep somewhere else; but that was all, as I did not know what my rights were. This time I did not see them; I only heard of it from others. That is over, and we will not say any more about it; but if I catch them again—by G—, if I catch them again, I will make them lose all taste for such nonsense, Maitre Cacheux, as sure as my name is Severin.”
When M. Antoine Leuillet married the widow, Madame Mathilde Souris, he had already been in love with her for ten years.
M. Souris has been his friend, his old college chum. Leuillet was very much attached to him, but thought he was somewhat of a simpleton. He would often remark: “That poor Souris who will never set the world on fire.”
When Souris married Miss Mathilde Duval, Leuillet was astonished and somewhat annoyed, as he was slightly devoted to her, himself. She was the daughter of a neighbor, a former proprietor of a draper’s establishment who had retired with quite a small fortune. She married Souris for his money.
Then Leuillet thought he would start a flirtation with his friend’s wife. He was a good-looking man, intelligent and also rich. He thought it would be all plain sailing, but he was mistaken. Then he really began to admire her with an admiration that his friendship for the husband obliged him to keep within the bounds of discretion, making him timid and embarrassed. Madame Souris believing that his presumptions had received a wholesome check now treated him as a good friend. This went on for nine years.
One morning a messenger brought Leuillet a distracted note from the poor woman. Souris had just died suddenly from the rupture of an aneurism. He was dreadfully shocked, for they were just the same age. But almost immediately a feeling of profound joy, of intense relief, of emancipation filled his being. Madame Souris was free.
He managed, however, to assume the sad, sympathetic expression that was appropriate, waited the required time, observed all social appearances. At the end of fifteen months he married the widow.
This was considered to be a very natural, and even a generous action. It was the act of a good friend of an upright man.
He was happy at last, perfectly happy.
They lived in the most cordial intimacy, having understood and appreciated each other from the first. They had no secrets from one another and even confided to each other their most secret thoughts. Leuillet loved his wife now with a quiet and trustful affection; he loved her as a tender, devoted companion who is an equal and a confidante. But there lingered in his mind a strange and inexplicable bitterness towards the defunct Souris, who had first been the husband of this woman, who had had the flower of her youth and of her soul, and had even robbed her of some of her poetry. The memory of the dead husband marred the happiness of the living husband, and this posthumous jealousy tormented his heart by day and by night.
The consequence was he talked incessantly of Souris, asked about a thousand personal and secret minutia, wanted to know all about his habits and his person. And he sneered at him even in his grave, recalling with self-satisfaction his whims, ridiculing his absurdities, dwelling on his faults.
He would call to his wife all over the house:
“Here I am, dear.”
“Come here a moment.”
She would come, always smiling, knowing well that he would say something about Souris and ready to flatter her new husband’s inoffensive mania.
“Tell me, do you remember one day how Souris insisted on explaining to me that little men always commanded more affection than big men?”
And he made some remarks that were disparaging to the deceased, who was a small man, and decidedly flattering to himself, Leuillet, who was a tall man.
Mme. Leuillet allowed him to think he was right, quite right, and she laughed heartily, gently ridiculing her former husband for the sake of pleasing the present one, who always ended by saying:
“All the same, what a ninny that Souris was!”
They were happy, quite happy, and Leuillet never ceased to show his devotion to his wife.
One night, however, as they lay awake, Leuillet said as he kissed his wife:
“See here, dearie.”
“Was Souris—I don’t exactly know how to say it—was Souris very loving?”
She gave him a kiss for reply and murmured “Not as loving as you are, mon chat.”
He was flattered in his self-love and continued:
“He must have been—a ninny—was he not?”
She did not reply. She only smiled slyly and hid her face in her husband’s neck.
“He must have been a ninny and not—not—not smart?”
She shook her head slightly to imply, “No—not at all smart.”
“He must have been an awful nuisance, eh?”
This time she was frank and replied:
He kissed her again for this avowal and said:
“What a brute he was! You were not happy with him?”
“No,” she replied. “It was not always pleasant.”
Leuillet was delighted, forming in his mind a comparison, much in his own favor, between his wife’s former and present position. He was silent for a time, and then with a burst of laughter he asked:
“Will you be frank, very frank with me?”
“Why yes, my dear.”
“Well then, tell me truly did you never feel tempted to—to—to deceive that imbecile Souris?”
Mme. Leuillet said: “Oh!” pretending to be shocked and hid her face again on her husband’s shoulder. But he saw that she was laughing.
“Come now, own up,” he persisted. “He looked like a ninny, that creature! It would be funny, so funny! Good old Souris! Come, come, dearie, you do not mind telling me, me, of all people.”
He insisted on the “me” thinking that if she had wished to deceive Souris she would have chosen him, and he was trembling in anticipation of her avowal, sure that if she had not been a virtuous woman she would have encouraged his own attentions.
But she did not answer, laughing still, as at the recollection of something exceedingly comical.
Leuillet, in his turn began to laugh, thinking he might have been the lucky man, and he muttered amid his mirth: “That poor Souris, that poor Souris, oh, yes, he looked like a fool!”
Mme. Leuillet was almost in spasms of laughter.
“Come, confess, be frank. You know I will not mind.”
Then she stammered out, almost choking with laughter: “Yes, yes.”
“Yes, what?” insisted her husband. “Come, tell all.”
She was quieter now and putting her mouth to her husband’s ear, she whispered: “Yes, I did deceive him.”
He felt a chill run down his back and to his very bones, and he stammered out, dumfounded: “You—you—deceived him—criminally?”
She still thought he was amused and replied: “Yes—yes, absolutely.”
He was obliged to sit up to recover his breath, he was so shocked and upset at what he had heard.
She had become serious, understanding too late what she had done.
“With whom?” said Leuillet at length.
She was silent seeking some excuse.
“A young man,” she replied at length.
He turned suddenly toward her and said drily:
“I did not suppose it was the cook. I want to know what young man, do you hear?”
She did not answer.
He snatched the covers from her face, repeating:
“I want to know what young man, do you hear?”
Then she said sorrowfully: “I was only in fun.” But he was trembling with rage. “What? How? You were only in fun? You were making fun of me, then? But I am not satisfied, do you hear? I want the name of the young man!”
She did not reply, but lay there motionless.
He took her by the arm and squeezed it, saying: “Do you understand me, finally? I wish you to reply when I speak to you.”
“I think you are going crazy,” she said nervously, “let me alone!”
He was wild with rage, not knowing what to say, exasperated, and he shook her with all his might, repeating:
“Do you hear me, do you hear me?”
She made an abrupt effort to disengage herself and the tips of her fingers touched her husband’s nose. He was furious, thinking she had tried to hit him, and he sprang upon her holding her down; and boxing her ears with all his might, he cried: “Take that, and that, there, there, wretch!”
When he was out of breath and exhausted, he rose and went toward the dressing table to prepare a glass of eau sucree with orange flower, for he felt as if he should faint.
She was weeping in bed, sobbing bitterly, for she felt as if her happiness was over, through her own fault.
Then, amidst her tears, she stammered out:
“Listen, Antoine, come here, I told you a lie, you will understand, listen.”
And prepared to defend herself now, armed with excuses and artifice, she raised her disheveled head with its nightcap all awry.
Turning toward her, he approached, ashamed of having struck her, but feeling in the bottom of his heart as a husband, a relentless hatred toward this woman who had deceived the former husband, Souris.
MY UNCLE JULES
A white-haired old man begged us for alms. My companion, Joseph Davranche, gave him five francs. Noticing my surprised look, he said:
“That poor unfortunate reminds me of a story which I shall tell you, the memory of which continually pursues me. Here it is:
“My family, which came originally from Havre, was not rich. We just managed to make both ends meet. My father worked hard, came home late from the office, and earned very little. I had two sisters.
“My mother suffered a good deal from our reduced circumstances, and she often had harsh words for her husband, veiled and sly reproaches. The poor man then made a gesture which used to distress me. He would pass his open hand over his forehead, as if to wipe away perspiration which did not exist, and he would answer nothing. I felt his helpless suffering. We economized on everything, and never would accept an invitation to dinner, so as not to have to return the courtesy. All our provisions were bought at bargain sales. My sisters made their own gowns, and long discussions would arise on the price of a piece of braid worth fifteen centimes a yard. Our meals usually consisted of soup and beef, prepared with every kind of sauce.
“They say it is wholesome and nourishing, but I should have preferred a change.
“I used to go through terrible scenes on account of lost buttons and torn trousers.
“Every Sunday, dressed in our best, we would take our walk along the breakwater. My father, in a frock coat, high hat and kid gloves, would offer his arm to my mother, decked out and beribboned like a ship on a holiday. My sisters, who were always ready first, would await the signal for leaving; but at the last minute some one always found a spot on my father’s frock coat, and it had to be wiped away quickly with a rag moistened with benzine.
“My father, in his shirt sleeves, his silk hat on his head, would await the completion of the operation, while my mother, putting on her spectacles, and taking off her gloves in order not to spoil them, would make haste.
“Then we set out ceremoniously. My sisters marched on ahead, arm in arm. They were of marriageable age and had to be displayed. I walked on the left of my mother and my father on her right. I remember the pompous air of my poor parents in these Sunday walks, their stern expression, their stiff walk. They moved slowly, with a serious expression, their bodies straight, their legs stiff, as if something of extreme importance depended upon their appearance.
“Every Sunday, when the big steamers were returning from unknown and distant countries, my father would invariably utter the same words:
“’What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that one! Eh?’
“My Uncle Jules, my father’s brother, was the only hope of the family, after being its only fear. I had heard about him since childhood, and it seemed to me that I should recognize him immediately, knowing as much about him as I did. I knew every detail of his life up to the day of his departure for America, although this period of his life was spoken of only in hushed tones.
“It seems that he had led a bad life, that is to say, he had squandered a little money, which action, in a poor family, is one of the greatest crimes. With rich people a man who amuses himself only sows his wild oats. He is what is generally called a sport. But among needy families a boy who forces his parents to break into the capital becomes a good-for- nothing, a rascal, a scamp. And this distinction is just, although the action be the same, for consequences alone determine the seriousness of the act.
“Well, Uncle Jules had visibly diminished the inheritance on which my father had counted, after he had swallowed his own to the last penny. Then, according to the custom of the times, he had been shipped off to America on a freighter going from Havre to New York.
“Once there, my uncle began to sell something or other, and he soon wrote that he was making a little money and that he soon hoped to be able to indemnify my father for the harm he had done him. This letter caused a profound emotion in the family. Jules, who up to that time had not been worth his salt, suddenly became a good man, a kind-hearted fellow, true and honest like all the Davranches.
“One of the captains told us that he had rented a large shop and was doing an important business.
“Two years later a second letter came, saying: ‘My dear Philippe, I am writing to tell you not to worry about my health, which is excellent. Business is good. I leave to-morrow for a long trip to South America. I may be away for several years without sending you any news. If I shouldn’t write, don’t worry. When my fortune is made I shall return to Havre. I hope that it will not be too long and that we shall all live happily together . . . .’
“This letter became the gospel of the family. It was read on the slightest provocation, and it was shown to everybody.
“For ten years nothing was heard from Uncle Jules; but as time went on my father’s hope grew, and my mother, also, often said:
“’When that good Jules is here, our position will be different. There is one who knew how to get along!’
“And every Sunday, while watching the big steamers approaching from the horizon, pouring out a stream of smoke, my father would repeat his eternal question:
“’What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that one! Eh?’
“We almost expected to see him waving his handkerchief and crying:
“Thousands of schemes had been planned on the strength of this expected return; we were even to buy a little house with my uncle’s money—a little place in the country near Ingouville. In fact, I wouldn’t swear that my father had not already begun negotiations.
“The elder of my sisters was then twenty-eight, the other twenty-six. They were not yet married, and that was a great grief to every one.
“At last a suitor presented himself for the younger one. He was a clerk, not rich, but honorable. I have always been morally certain that Uncle Jules’ letter, which was shown him one evening, had swept away the young man’s hesitation and definitely decided him.
“He was accepted eagerly, and it was decided that after the wedding the whole family should take a trip to Jersey.
“Jersey is the ideal trip for poor people. It is not far; one crosses a strip of sea in a steamer and lands on foreign soil, as this little island belongs to England. Thus, a Frenchman, with a two hours’ sail, can observe a neighboring people at home and study their customs.
“This trip to Jersey completely absorbed our ideas, was our sole anticipation, the constant thought of our minds.
“At last we left. I see it as plainly as if it had happened yesterday. The boat was getting up steam against the quay at Granville; my father, bewildered, was superintending the loading of our three pieces of baggage; my mother, nervous, had taken the arm of my unmarried sister, who seemed lost since the departure of the other one, like the last chicken of a brood; behind us came the bride and groom, who always stayed behind, a thing that often made me turn round.
“The whistle sounded. We got on board, and the vessel, leaving the breakwater, forged ahead through a sea as flat as a marble table. We watched the coast disappear in the distance, happy and proud, like all who do not travel much.
“My father was swelling out his chest in the breeze, beneath his frock coat, which had that morning been very carefully cleaned; and he spread around him that odor of benzine which always made me recognize Sunday. Suddenly he noticed two elegantly dressed ladies to whom two gentlemen were offering oysters. An old, ragged sailor was opening them with his knife and passing them to the gentlemen, who would then offer them to the ladies. They ate them in a dainty manner, holding the shell on a fine handkerchief and advancing their mouths a little in order not to spot their dresses. Then they would drink the liquid with a rapid little motion and throw the shell overboard.
“My father was probably pleased with this delicate manner of eating oysters on a moving ship. He considered it good form, refined, and, going up to my mother and sisters, he asked:
“’Would you like me to offer you some oysters?’
“My mother hesitated on account of the expense, but my two sisters immediately accepted. My mother said in a provoked manner:
“’I am afraid that they will hurt my stomach. Offer the children some, but not too much, it would make them sick.’ Then, turning toward me, she added:
“’As for Joseph, he doesn’t need any. Boys shouldn’t be spoiled.’
“However, I remained beside my mother, finding this discrimination unjust. I watched my father as he pompously conducted my two sisters and his son-in-law toward the ragged old sailor.
“The two ladies had just left, and my father showed my sisters how to eat them without spilling the liquor. He even tried to give them an example, and seized an oyster. He attempted to imitate the ladies, and immediately spilled all the liquid over his coat. I heard my mother mutter:
“’He would do far better to keep quiet.’
“But, suddenly, my father appeared to be worried; he retreated a few steps, stared at his family gathered around the old shell opener, and quickly came toward us. He seemed very pale, with a peculiar look. In a low voice he said to my mother:
“’It’s extraordinary how that man opening the oysters looks like Jules.’
“Astonished, my mother asked:
“My father continued:
“’Why, my brother. If I did not know that he was well off in America, I should think it was he.’
“Bewildered, my mother stammered:
“’You are crazy! As long as you know that it is not he, why do you say such foolish things?’
“But my father insisted:
“’Go on over and see, Clarisse! I would rather have you see with your own eyes.’
“She arose and walked to her daughters. I, too, was watching the man. He was old, dirty, wrinkled, and did not lift his eyes from his work.
“My mother returned. I noticed that she was trembling. She exclaimed quickly:
“’I believe that it is he. Why don’t you ask the captain? But be very careful that we don’t have this rogue on our hands again!’
“My father walked away, but I followed him. I felt strangely moved.
“The captain, a tall, thin man, with blond whiskers, was walking along the bridge with an important air as if he were commanding the Indian mail steamer.
“My father addressed him ceremoniously, and questioned him about his profession, adding many compliments:
“’What might be the importance of Jersey? What did it produce? What was the population? The customs? The nature of the soil?’ etc., etc.
“’You have there an old shell opener who seems quite interesting. Do you know anything about him?’
“The captain, whom this conversation began to weary, answered dryly:
“’He is some old French tramp whom I found last year in America, and I brought him back. It seems that he has some relatives in Havre, but that he doesn’t wish to return to them because he owes them money. His name is Jules—Jules Darmanche or Darvanche or something like that. It seems that he was once rich over there, but you can see what’s left of him now.’
“My father turned ashy pale and muttered, his throat contracted, his eyes haggard.
“’Ah! ah! very well, very well. I’m not in the least surprised. Thank you very much, captain.’
“He went away, and the astonished sailor watched him disappear. He returned to my mother so upset that she said to him:
“’Sit down; some one will notice that something is the matter.’
“He sank down on a bench and stammered:
“’It’s he! It’s he!’
“Then he asked:
“’What are we going to do?’
“She answered quickly:
“’We must get the children out of the way. Since Joseph knows everything, he can go and get them. We must take good care that our son- in-law doesn’t find out.’
“My father seemed absolutely bewildered. He murmured:
“’What a catastrophe!’
“Suddenly growing furious, my mother exclaimed:
“’I always thought that that thief never would do anything, and that he would drop down on us again! As if one could expect anything from a Davranche!’
“My father passed his hand over his forehead, as he always did when his wife reproached him. She added:
“’Give Joseph some money so that he can pay for the oysters. All that it needed to cap the climax would be to be recognized by that beggar. That would be very pleasant! Let’s get down to the other end of the boat, and take care that that man doesn’t come near us!’
“They gave me five francs and walked away.
“Astonished, my sisters were awaiting their father. I said that mamma had felt a sudden attack of sea-sickness, and I asked the shell opener:
“’How much do we owe you, monsieur?’
“I felt like laughing: he was my uncle! He answered:
“’Two francs fifty.’
“I held out my five francs and he returned the change. I looked at his hand; it was a poor, wrinkled, sailor’s hand, and I looked at his face, an unhappy old face. I said to myself:
“’That is my uncle, the brother of my father, my uncle!’
“I gave him a ten-cent tip. He thanked me:
“’God bless you, my young sir!’
“He spoke like a poor man receiving alms. I couldn’t help thinking that he must have begged over there! My sisters looked at me, surprised at my generosity. When I returned the two francs to my father, my mother asked me in surprise:
“’Was there three francs’ worth? That is impossible.’
“I answered in a firm voice
“’I gave ten cents as a tip.’
“My mother started, and, staring at me, she exclaimed:
“’You must be crazy! Give ten cents to that man, to that vagabond—’
“She stopped at a look from my father, who was pointing at his son-in- law. Then everybody was silent.
“Before us, on the distant horizon, a purple shadow seemed to rise out of the sea. It was Jersey.
“As we approached the breakwater a violent desire seized me once more to see my Uncle Jules, to be near him, to say to him something consoling, something tender. But as no one was eating any more oysters, he had disappeared, having probably gone below to the dirty hold which was the home of the poor wretch.”
Curving like a crescent moon, the little town of Etretat, with its white cliffs, its white, shingly beach and its blue sea, lay in the sunlight at high noon one July day. At either extremity of this crescent its two “gates,” the smaller to the right, the larger one at the left, stretched forth—one a dwarf and the other a colossal limb—into the water, and the bell tower, almost as tall as the cliff, wide below, narrowing at the top, raised its pointed summit to the sky.
On the sands beside the water a crowd was seated watching the bathers. On the terrace of, the Casino another crowd, seated or walking, displayed beneath the brilliant sky a perfect flower patch of bright costumes, with red and blue parasols embroidered with large flowers in silk.
On the walk at the end of the terrace, other persons, the restful, quiet ones, were walking slowly, far from the dressy throng.
A young man, well known and celebrated as a painter, Jean Sumner, was walking with a dejected air beside a wheeled chair in which sat a young woman, his wife. A manservant was gently pushing the chair, and the crippled woman was gazing sadly at the brightness of the sky, the gladness of the day, and the happiness of others.
They did not speak. They did not look at each other.
“Let us stop a while,” said the young woman.
They stopped, and the painter sat down on a camp stool that the servant handed him.
Those who were passing behind the silent and motionless couple looked at them compassionately. A whole legend of devotion was attached to them. He had married her in spite of her infirmity, touched by her affection for him, it was said.
Not far from there, two young men were chatting, seated on a bench and looking out into the horizon.
“No, it is not true; I tell you that I am well acquainted with Jean Sumner.”
“But then, why did he marry her? For she was a cripple when she married, was she not?”
“Just so. He married her—he married her—just as every one marries, parbleu! because he was an idiot!”
“But why—but why, my friend? There is no why. People do stupid things just because they do stupid things. And, besides, you know very well that painters make a specialty of foolish marriages. They almost always marry models, former sweethearts, in fact, women of doubtful reputation, frequently. Why do they do this? Who can say? One would suppose that constant association with the general run of models would disgust them forever with that class of women. Not at all. After having posed them they marry them. Read that little book, so true, so cruel and so beautiful, by Alphonse Daudet: ‘Artists’ Wives.’
“In the case of the couple you see over there the accident occurred in a special and terrible manner. The little woman played a frightful comedy, or, rather, tragedy. She risked all to win all. Was she sincere? Did she love Jean? Shall we ever know? Who is able to determine precisely how much is put on and how much is real in the actions of a woman? They are always sincere in an eternal mobility of impressions. They are furious, criminal, devoted, admirable and base in obedience to intangible emotions. They tell lies incessantly without intention, without knowing or understanding why, and in spite of it all are absolutely frank in their feelings and sentiments, which they display by violent, unexpected, incomprehensible, foolish resolutions which overthrow our arguments, our customary poise and all our selfish plans. The unforeseenness and suddenness of their determinations will always render them undecipherable enigmas as far as we are concerned. We continually ask ourselves:
“’Are they sincere? Are they pretending?’
“But, my friend, they are sincere and insincere at one and the same time, because it is their nature to be extremists in both and to be neither one nor the other.
“See the methods that even the best of them employ to get what they desire. They are complex and simple, these methods. So complex that we can never guess at them beforehand, and so simple that after having been victimized we cannot help being astonished and exclaiming: ‘What! Did she make a fool of me so easily as that?’
“And they always succeed, old man, especially when it is a question of getting married.
“But this is Sumner’s story:
“The little woman was a model, of course. She posed for him. She was pretty, very stylish-looking, and had a divine figure, it seems. He fancied that he loved her with his whole soul. That is another strange thing. As soon as one likes a woman one sincerely believes that they could not get along without her for the rest of their life. One knows that one has felt the same way before and that disgust invariably succeeded gratification; that in order to pass one’s existence side by side with another there must be not a brutal, physical passion which soon dies out, but a sympathy of soul, temperament and temper. One should know how to determine in the enchantment to which one is subjected whether it proceeds from the physical, from a certain sensuous intoxication, or from a deep spiritual charm.
“Well, he believed himself in love; he made her no end of promises of fidelity, and was devoted to her.
“She was really attractive, gifted with that fashionable flippancy that little Parisians so readily affect. She chattered, babbled, made foolish remarks that sounded witty from the manner in which they were uttered. She used graceful gesture’s which were calculated to attract a painter’s eye. When she raised her arms, when she bent over, when she got into a carriage, when she held out her hand to you, her gestures were perfect and appropriate.
“For three months Jean never noticed that, in reality, she was like all other models.
“He rented a little house for her for the summer at Andresy.
“I was there one evening when for the first time doubts came into my friend’s mind.
“As it was a beautiful evening we thought we would take a stroll along the bank of the river. The moon poured a flood of light on the trembling water, scattering yellow gleams along its ripples in the currents and all along the course of the wide, slow river.
“We strolled along the bank, a little enthused by that vague exaltation that these dreamy evenings produce in us. We would have liked to undertake some wonderful task, to love some unknown, deliciously poetic being. We felt ourselves vibrating with raptures, longings, strange aspirations. And we were silent, our beings pervaded by the serene and living coolness of the beautiful night, the coolness of the moonlight, which seemed to penetrate one’s body, permeate it, soothe one’s spirit, fill it with fragrance and steep it in happiness.
“Suddenly Josephine (that is her name) uttered an exclamation:
“’Oh, did you see the big fish that jumped, over there?’
“He replied without looking, without thinking:
“She was angry.
“’No, you did not see it, for your back was turned.’
“’Yes, that’s true. It is so delightful that I am not thinking of anything.’
“She was silent, but at the end of a minute she felt as if she must say something and asked:
“’Are you going to Paris to-morrow?’
“’I do not know,’ he replied.
“She was annoyed again.
“’Do you think it is very amusing to walk along without speaking? People talk when they are not stupid.’
“He did not reply. Then, feeling with her woman’s instinct that she was going to make him angry, she began to sing a popular air that had harassed our ears and our minds for two years:
“’Je regardais en fair.’
“’Please keep quiet.’
“She replied angrily:
“’Why do you wish me to keep quiet?’
“’You spoil the landscape for us!’ he said.
“Then followed a scene, a hateful, idiotic scene, with unexpected reproaches, unsuitable recriminations, then tears. Nothing was left unsaid. They went back to the house. He had allowed her to talk without replying, enervated by the beauty of the scene and dumfounded by this storm of abuse.
“Three months later he strove wildly to free himself from those invincible and invisible bonds with which such a friendship chains our lives. She kept him under her influence, tyrannizing over him, making his life a burden to him. They quarreled continually, vituperating and finally fighting each other.
“He wanted to break with her at any cost. He sold all his canvases, borrowed money from his friends, realizing twenty thousand francs (he was not well known then), and left them for her one morning with a note of farewell.
“He came and took refuge with me.
“About three o’clock that afternoon there was a ring at the bell. I went to the door. A woman sprang toward me, pushed me aside, came in and went into my atelier. It was she!
“He had risen when he saw her coming.’
“She threw the envelope containing the banknotes at his feet with a truly noble gesture and said in a quick tone:
“’There’s your money. I don’t want it!’
“She was very pale, trembling and ready undoubtedly to commit any folly. As for him, I saw him grow pale also, pale with rage and exasperation, ready also perhaps to commit any violence.
“’What do you want?’
“’I do not choose to be treated like a common woman. You implored me to accept you. I asked you for nothing. Keep me with you!’
“He stamped his foot.
“’No, that’s a little too much! If you think you are going—’
“I had seized his arm.
“’Keep still, Jean. . . Let me settle it.’
“I went toward her and quietly, little by little, I began to reason with her, exhausting all the arguments that are used under similar circumstances. She listened to me, motionless, with a fixed gaze, obstinate and silent.
“Finally, not knowing what more to say, and seeing that there would be a scene, I thought of a last resort and said:
“’He loves you still, my dear, but his family want him to marry some one, and you understand—’
“She gave a start and exclaimed:
“’Ah! Ah! Now I understand:
“And turning toward him, she said:
“’You are—you are going to get married?’
“He replied decidedly” ‘Yes.’
“She took a step forward.
“’If you marry, I will kill myself! Do you hear?’
“He shrugged his shoulders and replied:
“’Well, then kill yourself!’
“She stammered out, almost choking with her violent emotion:
“’What do you say? What do you say? What do you say? Say it again!’
“’Well, then kill yourself if you like!’
“With her face almost livid, she replied:
“’Do not dare me! I will throw myself from the window!’
“He began to laugh, walked toward the window, opened it, and bowing with the gesture of one who desires to let some one else precede him, he said:
“’This is the way. After you!’
“She looked at him for a second with terrible, wild, staring eyes. Then, taking a run as if she were going to jump a hedge in the country, she rushed past me and past him, jumped over the sill and disappeared.
“I shall never forget the impression made on me by that open window after I had seen that body pass through it to fall to the ground. It appeared to me in a second to be as large as the heavens and as hollow as space. And I drew back instinctively, not daring to look at it, as though I feared I might fall out myself.
“Jean, dumfounded, stood motionless.
“They brought the poor girl in with both legs broken. She will never walk again.
“Jean, wild with remorse and also possibly touched with gratitude, made up his mind to marry her.
“There you have it, old man.”
It was growing dusk. The young woman felt chilly and wanted to go home, and the servant wheeled the invalid chair in the direction of the village. The painter walked beside his wife, neither of them having exchanged a word for an hour.
This story appeared in Le Gaulois, December 17, 1883.
He was a journeyman carpenter, a good workman and a steady fellow, twenty-seven years old, but, although the eldest son, Jacques Randel had been forced to live on his family for two months, owing to the general lack of work. He had walked about seeking work for over a month and had left his native town, Ville-Avary, in La Manche, because he could find nothing to do and would no longer deprive his family of the bread they needed themselves, when he was the strongest of them all. His two sisters earned but little as charwomen. He went and inquired at the town hall, and the mayor’s secretary told him that he would find work at the Labor Agency, and so he started, well provided with papers and certificates, and carrying another pair of shoes, a pair of trousers and a shirt in a blue handkerchief at the end of his stick.
And he had walked almost without stopping, day and night, along interminable roads, in sun and rain, without ever reaching that mysterious country where workmen find work. At first he had the fixed idea that he must only work as a carpenter, but at every carpenter’s shop where he applied he was told that they had just dismissed men on account of work being so slack, and, finding himself at the end of his resources, he made up his mind to undertake any job that he might come across on the road. And so by turns he was a navvy, stableman, stonecutter; he split wood, lopped the branches of trees, dug wells, mixed mortar, tied up fagots, tended goats on a mountain, and all for a few pence, for he only obtained two or three days’ work occasionally by offering himself at a shamefully low price, in order to tempt the avarice of employers and peasants.
And now for a week he had found nothing, and had no money left, and nothing to eat but a piece of bread, thanks to the charity of some women from whom he had begged at house doors on the road. It was getting dark, and Jacques Randel, jaded, his legs failing him, his stomach empty, and with despair in his heart, was walking barefoot on the grass by the side of the road, for he was taking care of his last pair of shoes, as the other pair had already ceased to exist for a long time. It was a Saturday, toward the end of autumn. The heavy gray clouds were being driven rapidly through the sky by the gusts of wind which whistled among the trees, and one felt that it would rain soon. The country was deserted at that hour on the eve of Sunday. Here and there in the fields there rose up stacks of wheat straw, like huge yellow mushrooms, and the fields looked bare, as they had already been sown for the next year.
Randel was hungry, with the hunger of some wild animal, such a hunger as drives wolves to attack men. Worn out and weakened with fatigue, he took longer strides, so as not to take so many steps, and with heavy head, the blood throbbing in his temples, with red eyes and dry mouth, he grasped his stick tightly in his hand, with a longing to strike the first passerby who might be going home to supper.
He looked at the sides of the road, imagining he saw potatoes dug up and lying on the ground before his eyes; if he had found any he would have gathered some dead wood, made a fire in the ditch and have had a capital supper off the warm, round vegetables with which he would first of all have warmed his cold hands. But it was too late in the year, and he would have to gnaw a raw beetroot which he might pick up in a field as he had done the day before.
For the last two days he had talked to himself as he quickened his steps under the influence of his thoughts. He had never thought much hitherto, as he had given all his mind, all his simple faculties to his mechanical work. But now fatigue and this desperate search for work which he could not get, refusals and rebuffs, nights spent in the open air lying on the grass, long fasting, the contempt which he knew people with a settled abode felt for a vagabond, and that question which he was continually asked, “Why do you not remain at home?” distress at not being able to use his strong arms which he felt so full of vigor, the recollection of the relations he had left at home and who also had not a penny, filled him by degrees with rage, which had been accumulating every day, every hour, every minute, and which now escaped his lips in spite of himself in short, growling sentences.
As he stumbled over the stones which tripped his bare feet, he grumbled: “How wretched! how miserable! A set of hogs—to let a man die of hunger—a carpenter—a set of hogs—not two sous—not two sous—and now it is raining—a set of hogs!”
He was indignant at the injustice of fate, and cast the blame on men, on all men, because nature, that great, blind mother, is unjust, cruel and perfidious, and he repeated through his clenched teeth:
“A set of hogs” as he looked at the thin gray smoke which rose from the roofs, for it was the dinner hour. And, without considering that there is another injustice which is human, and which is called robbery and violence, he felt inclined to go into one of those houses to murder the inhabitants and to sit down to table in their stead.
He said to himself: “I have no right to live now, as they are letting me die of hunger, and yet I only ask for work—a set of hogs!” And the pain in his limbs, the gnawing in his heart rose to his head like terrible intoxication, and gave rise to this simple thought in his brain: “I have the right to live because I breathe and because the air is the common property of everybody. So nobody has the right to leave me without bread!”
A fine, thick, icy cold rain was coming down, and he stopped and murmured: “Oh, misery! Another month of walking before I get home.” He was indeed returning home then, for he saw that he should more easily find work in his native town, where he was known—and he did not mind what he did—than on the highroads, where everybody suspected him. As the carpentering business was not prosperous, he would turn day laborer, be a mason’s hodman, a ditcher, break stones on the road. If he only earned a franc a day, that would at any rate buy him something to eat.
He tied the remains of his last pocket handkerchief round his neck to prevent the cold rain from running down his back and chest, but he soon found that it was penetrating the thin material of which his clothes were made, and he glanced about him with the agonized look of a man who does not know where to hide his body and to rest his head, and has no place of shelter in the whole world.
Night came on and wrapped the country in obscurity, and in the distance, in a meadow, he saw a dark spot on the grass; it was a cow, and so he got over the ditch by the roadside and went up to her without exactly knowing what he was doing. When he got close to her she raised her great head to him, and he thought: “If I only had a jug I could get a little milk.” He looked at the cow and the cow looked at him and then, suddenly giving her a kick in the side, he said: “Get up!”
The animal got up slowly, letting her heavy udders bang down. Then the man lay down on his back between the animal’s legs and drank for a long time, squeezing her warm, swollen teats, which tasted of the cowstall, with both hands, and he drank as long as she gave any milk. But the icy rain began to fall more heavily, and he saw no place of shelter on the whole of that bare plain. He was cold, and he looked at a light which was shining among the trees in the window of a house.
The cow had lain down again heavily, and he sat down by her side and stroked her head, grateful for the nourishment she had given him. The animal’s strong, thick breath, which came out of her nostrils like two jets of steam in the evening air, blew on the workman’s face, and he said: “You are not cold inside there!” He put his hands on her chest and under her stomach to find some warmth there, and then the idea struck him that he might pass the night beside that large, warm animal. So he found a comfortable place and laid his head on her side, and then, as he was worn out with fatigue, fell asleep immediately.
He woke up, however, several times, with his back or his stomach half frozen, according as he put one or the other against the animal’s flank. Then he turned over to warm and dry that part of his body which had remained exposed to the night air, and soon went soundly to sleep again. The crowing of a cock woke him; the day was breaking, it was no longer raining, and the sky was bright. The cow was resting with her muzzle on the ground, and he stooped down, resting on his hands, to kiss those wide, moist nostrils, and said: “Good-by, my beauty, until next time. You are a nice animal. Good-by.” Then he put on his shoes and went off, and for two hours walked straight before him, always following the same road, and then he felt so tired that he sat down on the grass. It was broad daylight by that time, and the church bells were ringing; men in blue blouses, women in white caps, some on foot, some in carts, began to pass along the road, going to the neighboring villages to spend Sunday with friends or relations.
A stout peasant came in sight, driving before him a score of frightened, bleating sheep, with the help of an active dog. Randel got up, and raising his cap, said: “You do not happen to have any work for a man who is dying of hunger?” But the other, giving an angry look at the vagabond, replied: “I have no work for fellows whom I meet on the road.”
And the carpenter went back and sat down by the side of the ditch again. He waited there for a long time, watching the country people pass and looking for a kind, compassionate face before he renewed his request, and finally selected a man in an overcoat, whose stomach was adorned with a gold chain. “I have been looking for work,” he said, “for the last two months and cannot find any, and I have not a sou in my pocket.” But the would-be gentleman replied: “You should have read the notice which is stuck up at the entrance to the village: ‘Begging is prohibited within the boundaries of this parish.’ Let me tell you that I am the mayor, and if you do not get out of here pretty quickly I shall have you arrested.”
Randel, who was getting angry, replied: “Have me arrested if you like; I should prefer it, for, at any rate, I should not die of hunger.” And he went back and sat down by the side of his ditch again, and in about a quarter of an hour two gendarmes appeared on the road. They were walking slowly side by side, glittering in the sun with their shining hats, their yellow accoutrements and their metal buttons, as if to frighten evildoers, and to put them to flight at a distance. He knew that they were coming after him, but he did not move, for he was seized with a sudden desire to defy them, to be arrested by them, and to have his revenge later.
They came on without appearing to have seen him, walking heavily, with military step, and balancing themselves as if they were doing the goose step; and then, suddenly, as they passed him, appearing to have noticed him, they stopped and looked at him angrily and threateningly, and the brigadier came up to him and asked: “What are you doing here?” “I am resting,” the man replied calmly. “Where do you come from?” “If I had to tell you all the places I have been to it would take me more than an hour.” “Where are you going to?” “To Ville-Avary.” “Where is that?” “In La Manche.” “Is that where you belong?” “It is.” “Why did you leave it?” “To look for work.”
The brigadier turned to his gendarme and said in the angry voice of a man who is exasperated at last by an oft-repeated trick: “They all say that, these scamps. I know all about it.” And then he continued: “Have you any papers?” “Yes, I have some.” “Give them to me.”
Randel took his papers out of his pocket, his certificates, those poor, worn-out, dirty papers which were falling to pieces, and gave them to the soldier, who spelled them through, hemming and hawing, and then, having seen that they were all in order, he gave them back to Randel with the dissatisfied look of a man whom some one cleverer than himself has tricked.
After a few moments’ further reflection, he asked him: “Have you any money on you?” “No.” “None whatever?” “None.” “Not even a sou?” “Not even a son!” “How do you live then?” “On what people give me.” “Then you beg?” And Randel answered resolutely: “Yes, when I can.”
Then the gendarme said: “I have caught you on the highroad in the act of vagabondage and begging, without any resources or trade, and so I command you to come with me.” The carpenter got up and said: “Wherever you please.” And, placing himself between the two soldiers, even before he had received the order to do so, he added: “Well, lock me up; that will at any rate put a roof over my head when it rains.”
And they set off toward the village, the red tiles of which could be seen through the leafless trees, a quarter of a league off. Service was about to begin when they went through the village. The square was full of people, who immediately formed two lines to see the criminal pass. He was being followed by a crowd of excited children. Male and female peasants looked at the prisoner between the two gendarmes, with hatred in their eyes and a longing to throw stones at him, to tear his skin with their nails, to trample him under their feet. They asked each other whether he had committed murder or robbery. The butcher, who was an ex- ‘spahi’, declared that he was a deserter. The tobacconist thought that he recognized him as the man who had that very morning passed a bad half-franc piece off on him, and the ironmonger declared that he was the murderer of Widow Malet, whom the police had been looking for for six months.
In the municipal court, into which his custodians took him, Randel saw the mayor again, sitting on the magisterial bench, with the schoolmaster by his side. “Aha! aha!” the magistrate exclaimed, “so here you are again, my fine fellow. I told you I should have you locked up. Well, brigadier, what is he charged with?”
“He is a vagabond without house or home, Monsieur le Maire, without any resources or money, so he says, who was arrested in the act of begging, but he is provided with good testimonials, and his papers are all in order.”
“Show me his papers,” the mayor said. He took them, read them, reread, returned them and then said: “Search him.” So they searched him, but found nothing, and the mayor seemed perplexed, and asked the workman:
“What were you doing on the road this morning?” “I was looking for work.” “Work? On the highroad?” “How do you expect me to find any if I hide in the woods?”
They looked at each other with the hatred of two wild beasts which belong to different hostile species, and the magistrate continued: “I am going to have you set at liberty, but do not be brought up before me again.” To which the carpenter replied: “I would rather you locked me up; I have had enough running about the country.” But the magistrate replied severely: “be silent.” And then he said to the two gendarmes: “You will conduct this man two hundred yards from the village and let him continue his journey.”
“At any rate, give me something to eat,” the workman said, but the other grew indignant: “Have we nothing to do but to feed you? Ah! ah! ah! that is rather too much!” But Randel went on firmly: “If you let me nearly die of hunger again, you will force me to commit a crime, and then, so much the worse for you other fat fellows.”
The mayor had risen and he repeated: “Take him away immediately or I shall end by getting angry.”
The two gendarmes thereupon seized the carpenter by the arms and dragged him out. He allowed them to do it without resistance, passed through the village again and found himself on the highroad once more; and when the men had accompanied him two hundred yards beyond the village, the brigadier said: “Now off with you and do not let me catch you about here again, for if I do, you will know it.”
Randel went off without replying or knowing where he was going. He walked on for a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, so stupefied that he no longer thought of anything. But suddenly, as he was passing a small house, where the window was half open, the smell of the soup and boiled meat stopped him suddenly, and hunger, fierce, devouring, maddening hunger, seized him and almost drove him against the walls of the house like a wild beast.
He said aloud in a grumbling voice: “In Heaven’s name! they must give me some this time!” And he began to knock at the door vigorously with his stick, and as no one came he knocked louder and called out: “Hey! hey! you people in there, open the door!” And then, as nothing stirred, he went up to the window and pushed it wider open with his hand, and the close warm air of the kitchen, full of the smell of hot soup, meat and cabbage, escaped into the cold outer air, and with a bound the carpenter was in the house. Two places were set at the table, and no doubt the proprietors of the house, on going to church, had left their dinner on the fire, their nice Sunday boiled beef and vegetable soup, while there was a loaf of new bread on the chimney-piece, between two bottles which seemed full.
Randel seized the bread first of all and broke it with as much violence as if he were strangling a man, and then he began to eat voraciously, swallowing great mouthfuls quickly. But almost immediately the smell of the meat attracted him to the fireplace, and, having taken off the lid of the saucepan, he plunged a fork into it and brought out a large piece of beef tied with a string. Then he took more cabbage, carrots and onions until his plate was full, and, having put it on the table, he sat down before it, cut the meat into four pieces, and dined as if he had been at home. When he had eaten nearly all the meat, besides a quantity of vegetables, he felt thirsty and took one of the bottles off the mantelpiece.
Scarcely had he poured the liquor into his glass when he saw it was brandy. So much the better; it was warming and would instill some fire into his veins, and that would be all right, after being so cold; and he drank some. He certainly enjoyed it, for he had grown unaccustomed to it, and he poured himself out another glassful, which he drank at two gulps. And then almost immediately he felt quite merry and light-hearted from the effects of the alcohol, just as if some great happiness filled his heart.
He continued to eat, but more slowly, and dipping his bread into the soup. His skin had become burning, and especially his forehead, where the veins were throbbing. But suddenly the church bells began to ring. Mass was over, and instinct rather than fear, the instinct of prudence, which guides all beings and makes them clear-sighted in danger, made the carpenter get up. He put the remains of the loaf into one pocket and the brandy bottle into the other, and he furtively went to the window and looked out into the road. It was still deserted, so he jumped out and set off walking again, but instead of following the highroad he ran across the fields toward a wood he saw a little way off.
He felt alert, strong, light-hearted, glad of what he had done, and so nimble that he sprang over the enclosure of the fields at a single bound, and as soon as he was under the trees he took the bottle out of his pocket again and began to drink once more, swallowing it down as he walked, and then his ideas began to get confused, his eyes grew dim, and his legs as elastic as springs, and he started singing the old popular song:
“Oh! what joy, what joy it is, To pick the sweet, wild strawberries.”
He was now walking on thick, damp, cool moss, and that soft carpet under his feet made him feel absurdly inclined to turn head over heels as he used to do when a child, so he took a run, turned a somersault, got up and began over again. And between each time he began to sing again:
“Oh! what joy, what joy it is, To pick the sweet, wild strawberries.”
Suddenly he found himself above a deep road, and in the road he saw a tall girl, a servant, who was returning to the village with two pails of milk. He watched, stooping down, and with his eyes as bright as those of a dog who scents a quail, but she saw him raised her head and said: “Was that you singing like that?” He did not reply, however, but jumped down into the road, although it was a fall of at least six feet and when she saw him suddenly standing in front of her, she exclaimed: “Oh! dear, how you frightened me!”
But he did not hear her, for he was drunk, he was mad, excited by another requirement which was more imperative than hunger, more feverish than alcohol; by the irresistible fury of the man who has been deprived of everything for two months, and who is drunk; who is young, ardent and inflamed by all the appetites which nature has implanted in the vigorous flesh of men.
The girl started back from him, frightened at his face, his eyes, his half-open mouth, his outstretched hands, but he seized her by the shoulders, and without a word, threw her down in the road.
She let her two pails fall, and they rolled over noisily, and all the milk was spilt, and then she screamed lustily, but it was of no avail in that lonely spot.
When she got up the thought of her overturned pails suddenly filled her with fury, and, taking off one of her wooden sabots, she threw it at the man to break his head if he did not pay her for her milk.
But he, mistaking the reason of this sudden violent attack, somewhat sobered, and frightened at what he had done, ran off as fast as he could, while she threw stones at him, some of which hit him in the back.
He ran for a long time, very long, until he felt more tired than he had ever been before. His legs were so weak that they could scarcely carry him; all his ideas were confused, he lost recollection of everything and could no longer think about anything, and so he sat down at the foot of a tree, and in five minutes was fast asleep. He was soon awakened, however, by a rough shake, and, on opening his eyes, he saw two cocked hats of shiny leather bending over him, and the two gendarmes of the morning, who were holding him and binding his arms.
“I knew I should catch you again,” said the brigadier jeeringly. But Randel got up without replying. The two men shook him, quite ready to ill treat him if he made a movement, for he was their prey now. He had become a jailbird, caught by those hunters of criminals who would not let him go again.
“Now, start!” the brigadier said, and they set off. It was late afternoon, and the autumn twilight was setting in over the land, and in half an hour they reached the village, where every door was open, for the people had heard what had happened. Peasants and peasant women and girls, excited with anger, as if every man had been robbed and every woman attacked, wished to see the wretch brought back, so that they might overwhelm him with abuse. They hooted him from the first house in the village until they reached the Hotel de Ville, where the mayor was waiting for him to be himself avenged on this vagabond, and as soon as he saw him approaching he cried:
“Ah! my fine fellow! here we are!” And he rubbed his hands, more pleased than he usually was, and continued: “I said so. I said so, the moment I saw him in the road.”
And then with increased satisfaction:
“Oh, you blackguard! Oh, you dirty blackguard! You will get your twenty years, my fine fellow!”
THE FISHING HOLE
“Cuts and wounds which caused death.” Such was the charge upon which Leopold Renard, upholsterer, was summoned before the Court of Assizes.
Round him were the principal witnesses, Madame Flameche, widow of the victim, and Louis Ladureau, cabinetmaker, and Jean Durdent, plumber.
Near the criminal was his wife, dressed in black, an ugly little woman, who looked like a monkey dressed as a lady.
This is how Renard (Leopold) recounted the drama.
“Good heavens, it is a misfortune of which I was the prime victim all the time, and with which my will has nothing to do. The facts are their own commentary, Monsieur le President. I am an honest man, a hard- working man, an upholsterer, living in the same street for the last sixteen years, known, liked, respected and esteemed by all, as my neighbors can testify, even the porter’s wife, who is not amiable every day. I am fond of work, I am fond of saving, I like honest men and respectable amusements. That is what has ruined me, so much the worse for me; but as my will had nothing to do with it, I continue to respect myself.
“Every Sunday for the last five years my wife and I have spent the day at Passy. We get fresh air, and, besides, we are fond of fishing. Oh! we are as fond of it as we are of little onions. Melie inspired me with that enthusiasm, the jade, and she is more enthusiastic than I am, the scold, seeing that all the mischief in this business is her fault, as you will see immediately.
“I am strong and mild tempered, without a pennyworth of malice in me. But she! oh! la! la! she looks like nothing; she is short and thin. Very well, she does more mischief than a weasel. I do not deny that she has some good qualities; she has some, and very important ones for a man in business. But her character! Just ask about it in the neighborhood, and even the porter’s wife, who has just sent me about my business—she will tell you something about it.
“Every day she used to find fault with my mild temper: ‘I would not put up with this! I would not put up with that.’ If I had listened to her, Monsieur le President, I should have had at least three hand-to-hand fights a month . . . .”
Madame Renard interrupted him: “And for good reasons, too; they laugh best who laugh last.”
He turned toward her frankly: “Well, I can’t blame you, since you were not the cause of it.”
Then, facing the President again, he said:
“I will continue. We used to go to Passy every Saturday evening, so as to begin fishing at daybreak the next morning. It is a habit which has become second nature with us, as the saying is. Three years ago this summer I discovered a place, oh! such a spot. Oh, dear, dear! In the shade, eight feet of water at least and perhaps ten, a hole with cavities under the bank, a regular nest for fish and a paradise for the fisherman. I might look upon that fishing hole as my property, Monsieur le President, as I was its Christopher Columbus. Everybody in the neighborhood knew it, without making any opposition. They would say: ‘That is Renard’s place’; and nobody would have gone there, not even Monsieur Plumeau, who is well known, be it said without any offense, for poaching on other people’s preserves.
“Well, I returned to this place of which I felt certain, just as if I had owned it. I had scarcely got there on Saturday, when I got into Delila, with my wife. Delila is my Norwegian boat, which I had built by Fournaire, and which is light and safe. Well, as I said, we got into the boat and we were going to set bait, and for setting bait there is none to be compared with me, and they all know it. You want to know with what I bait? I cannot answer that question; it has nothing to do with the accident. I cannot answer; that is my secret. There are more than three hundred people who have asked me; I have been offered glasses of brandy and liqueur, fried fish, matelotes, to make me tell. But just go and try whether the chub will come. Ah! they have tempted my stomach to get at my secret, my recipe. Only my wife knows, and she will not tell it any more than I will. Is not that so, Melie?”
The president of the court interrupted him.
“Just get to the facts as soon as you can,” and the accused continued: “I am getting to them, I am getting to them. Well, on Saturday, July 8, we left by the twenty-five past five train and before dinner we went to set bait as usual. The weather promised to keep fine and I said to Melie: ‘All right for tomorrow.’ And she replied: ‘If looks like it,’ We never talk more than that together.
“And then we returned to dinner. I was happy and thirsty, and that was the cause of everything. I said to Melie: ‘Look here, Melie, it is fine weather, suppose I drink a bottle of ‘Casque a meche’.’ That is a weak white wine which we have christened so, because if you drink too much of it it prevents you from sleeping and takes the place of a nightcap. Do you understand me?
“She replied: ‘You can do as you please, but you will be ill again and will not be able to get up tomorrow.’ That was true, sensible and prudent, clear-sighted, I must confess. Nevertheless I could not resist, and I drank my bottle. It all came from that.
“Well, I could not sleep. By Jove! it kept me awake till two o’clock in the morning, and then I went to sleep so soundly that I should not have heard the angel sounding his trump at the last judgment.
“In short, my wife woke me at six o’clock and I jumped out of bed, hastily put on my trousers and jersey, washed my face and jumped on board Delila. But it was too late, for when I arrived at my hole it was already occupied! Such a thing had never happened to me in three years, and it made me feel as if I were being robbed under my own eyes. I said to myself: ‘Confound it all! confound it!’ And then my wife began to nag at me. ‘Eh! what about your ‘Casque a meche’? Get along, you drunkard! Are you satisfied, you great fool?’ I could say nothing, because it was all true, but I landed all the same near the spot and tried to profit by what was left. Perhaps after all the fellow might catch nothing and go away.
“He was a little thin man in white linen coat and waistcoat and a large straw hat, and his wife, a fat woman, doing embroidery, sat behind him.
“When she saw us take up our position close to them she murmured: ‘Are there no other places on the river?’ My wife, who was furious, replied: ‘People who have any manners make inquiries about the habits of the neighborhood before occupying reserved spots.’
“As I did not want a fuss, I said to her: ‘Hold your tongue, Melie. Let them alone, let them alone; we shall see.’
“Well, we fastened Delila under the willows and had landed and were fishing side by side, Melie and I, close to the two others. But here, monsieur, I must enter into details.
“We had only been there about five minutes when our neighbor’s line began to jerk twice, thrice; and then he pulled out a chub as thick as my thigh; rather less, perhaps, but nearly as big! My heart beat, the perspiration stood on my forehead and Melie said to me: ‘Well, you sot, did you see that?’
“Just then Monsieur Bru, the grocer of Poissy, who is fond of gudgeon fishing, passed in a boat and called out to me: ‘So somebody has taken your usual place, Monsieur Renard?’ And I replied: ‘Yes, Monsieur Bru, there are some people in this world who do not know the rules of common politeness.’
“The little man in linen pretended not to hear, nor his fat lump of a wife, either.”
Here the president interrupted him a second time: “Take care, you are insulting the widow, Madame Flameche, who is present.”
Renard made his excuses: “I beg your pardon, I beg your pardon; my anger carried me away. Well, not a quarter of an hour had passed when the little man caught another chub, and another almost immediately, and another five minutes later.
“Tears were in my eyes, and I knew that Madame Renard was boiling with rage, for she kept on nagging at me: ‘Oh, how horrid! Don’t you see that he is robbing you of your fish? Do you think that you will catch anything? Not even a frog, nothing whatever. Why, my hands are tingling, just to think of it.’
“But I said to myself: ‘Let us wait until twelve o’clock. Then this poacher will go to lunch and I shall get my place again. As for me, Monsieur le President, I lunch on that spot every Sunday. We bring our provisions in Delila. But there! At noon the wretch produced a chicken in a newspaper, and while he was eating, he actually caught another chub!
“Melie and I had a morsel also, just a bite, a mere nothing, for our heart was not in it.
“Then I took up my newspaper to aid my digestion. Every Sunday I read the Gil Blas in the shade by the side of the water. It is Columbine’s day, you know; Columbine, who writes the articles in the Gil Blas. I generally put Madame Renard into a rage by pretending to know this Columbine. It is not true, for I do not know her and have never seen her, but that does not matter. She writes very well, and then she says things that are pretty plain for a woman. She suits me and there are not many of her sort.
“Well, I began to tease my wife, but she got angry immediately, and very angry, so I held my tongue. At that moment our two witnesses who are present here, Monsieur Ladureau and Monsieur Durdent, appeared on the other side of the river. We knew each other by sight. The little man began to fish again and he caught so many that I trembled with vexation and his wife said: ‘It is an uncommonly good spot, and we will come here always, Desire.’ As for me, a cold shiver ran down my back, and Madame Renard kept repeating: ‘You are not a man; you have the blood of a chicken in your veins’; and suddenly I said to her: ‘Look here, I would rather go away or I shall be doing something foolish.’
“And she whispered to me, as if she had put a red-hot iron under my nose: ‘You are not a man. Now you are going to run away and surrender your place! Go, then, Bazaine!’
“I felt hurt, but yet I did not move, while the other fellow pulled out a bream: Oh, I never saw such a large one before, never! And then my wife began to talk aloud, as if she were thinking, and you can see her tricks. She said: ‘That is what one might call stolen fish, seeing that we set the bait ourselves. At any rate, they ought to give us back the money we have spent on bait.’
“Then the fat woman in the cotton dress said in her turn: ‘Do you mean to call us thieves, madame?’ Explanations followed and compliments began to fly. Oh, Lord! those creatures know some good ones. They shouted so loud that our two witnesses, who were on the other bank, began to call out by way of a joke: ‘Less noise over there; you will interfere with your husbands’ fishing.’
“The fact is that neither the little man nor I moved any more than if we had been two tree stumps. We remained there, with our eyes fixed on the water, as if we had heard nothing; but, by Jove! we heard all the same. ‘You are a thief! You are nothing better than a tramp! You are a regular jade!’ and so on and so on. A sailor could not have said more.
“Suddenly I heard a noise behind me and turned round. It was the other one, the fat woman, who had attacked my wife with her parasol. Whack, whack! Melie got two of them. But she was furious, and she hits hard when she is in a rage. She caught the fat woman by the hair and then thump! thump! slaps in the face rained down like ripe plums. I should have let them fight it out: women together, men together. It does not do to mix the blows. But the little man in the linen jacket jumped up like a devil and was going to rush at my wife. Ah! no, no, not that, my friend! I caught the gentleman with the end of my fist, and crash! crash! One on the nose, the other in the stomach. He threw up his arms and legs and fell on his back into the river, just into the hole.
“I should have fished him out most certainly, Monsieur le President, if I had had time. But, to make matters worse, the fat woman had the upper hand and was pounding Melie for all she was worth. I know I ought not to have interfered while the man was in the water, but I never thought that he would drown and said to myself: ‘Bah, it will cool him.’
“I therefore ran up to the women to separate them and all I received was scratches and bites. Good Lord, what creatures! Well, it took me five minutes, and perhaps ten, to separate those two viragos. When I turned round there was nothing to be seen.
“The water was as smooth as a lake and the others yonder kept shouting: ‘Fish him out! fish him out!’ It was all very well to say that, but I cannot swim and still less dive.
“At last the man from the dam came and two gentlemen with boathooks, but over a quarter of an hour had passed. He was found at the bottom of the hole, in eight feet of water, as I have said. There he was, the poor little man, in his linen suit! Those are the facts such as I have sworn to. I am innocent, on my honor.”
The witnesses having given testimony to the same effect, the accused was acquitted.
The hotel guests slowly entered the dining-room and took their places. The waiters did not hurry themselves, in order to give the late comers a chance and thus avoid the trouble of bringing in the dishes a second time. The old bathers, the habitues, whose season was almost over, glanced, gazed toward the door whenever it opened, to see what new faces might appear.
This is the principal distraction of watering places. People look forward to the dinner hour in order to inspect each day’s new arrivals, to find out who they are, what they do, and what they think. We always have a vague desire to meet pleasant people, to make agreeable acquaintances, perhaps to meet with a love adventure. In this life of elbowings, unknown strangers assume an extreme importance. Curiosity is aroused, sympathy is ready to exhibit itself, and sociability is the order of the day.
We cherish antipathies for a week and friendships for a month; we see people with different eyes, when we view them through the medium of acquaintanceship at watering places. We discover in men suddenly, after an hour’s chat, in the evening after dinner, under the trees in the park where the healing spring bubbles up, a high intelligence and astonishing merits, and a month afterward we have completely forgotten these new friends, who were so fascinating when we first met them.
Permanent and serious ties are also formed here sooner than anywhere else. People see each other every day; they become acquainted very quickly, and their affection is tinged with the sweetness and unrestraint of long-standing intimacies. We cherish in after years the dear and tender memories of those first hours of friendship, the memory of those first conversations in which a soul was unveiled, of those first glances which interrogate and respond to questions and secret thoughts which the mouth has not as yet uttered, the memory of that first cordial confidence, the memory of that delightful sensation of opening our hearts to those who seem to open theirs to us in return.
And the melancholy of watering places, the monotony of days that are all alike, proves hourly an incentive to this heart expansion.
Well, this evening, as on every other evening, we awaited the appearance of strange faces.
Only two appeared, but they were very remarkable, a man and a woman —father and daughter. They immediately reminded me of some of Edgar Poe’s characters; and yet there was about them a charm, the charm associated with misfortune. I looked upon them as the victims of fate. The man was very tall and thin, rather stooped, with perfectly white hair, too white for his comparatively youthful physiognomy; and there was in his bearing and in his person that austerity peculiar to Protestants. The daughter, who was probably twenty-four or twenty-five, was small in stature, and was also very thin, very pale, and she had the air of one who was worn out with utter lassitude. We meet people like this from time to time, who seem too weak for the tasks and the needs of daily life, too weak to move about, to walk, to do all that we do every day. She was rather pretty; with a transparent, spiritual beauty. And she ate with extreme slowness, as if she were almost incapable of moving her arms.
It must have been she, assuredly, who had come to take the waters.
They sat facing me, on the opposite side of the table; and I at once noticed that the father had a very singular, nervous twitching.
Every time he wanted to reach an object, his hand described a sort of zigzag before it succeeded in reaching what it was in search of, and after a little while this movement annoyed me so that I turned aside my head in order not to see it.
I noticed, too, that the young girl, during meals, wore a glove on her left hand.
After dinner I went for a stroll in the park of the bathing establishment. This led toward the little Auvergnese station of Chatel- Guyon, hidden in a gorge at the foot of the high mountain, from which flowed so many boiling springs, arising from the deep bed of extinct volcanoes. Over yonder, above our heads, the domes of extinct craters lifted their ragged peaks above the rest in the long mountain chain. For Chatel-Guyon is situated at the entrance to the land of mountain domes.
Beyond it stretches out the region of peaks, and, farther on again the region of precipitous summits.
The “Puy de Dome” is the highest of the domes, the Peak of Sancy is the loftiest of the peaks, and Cantal is the most precipitous of these mountain heights.
It was a very warm evening, and I was walking up and down a shady path, listening to the opening, strains of the Casino band, which was playing on an elevation overlooking the park.
And I saw the father and the daughter advancing slowly in my direction. I bowed as one bows to one’s hotel companions at a watering place; and the man, coming to a sudden halt, said to me:
“Could you not, monsieur, tell us of a nice walk to take, short, pretty, and not steep; and pardon my troubling you?”
I offered to show them the way toward the valley through which the little river flowed, a deep valley forming a gorge between two tall, craggy, wooded slopes.
They gladly accepted my offer.
And we talked, naturally, about the virtue of the waters.
“Oh,” he said, “my daughter has a strange malady, the seat of which is unknown. She suffers from incomprehensible nervous attacks. At one time the doctors think she has an attack of heart disease, at another time they imagine it is some affection of the liver, and at another they declare it to be a disease of the spine. To-day this protean malady, that assumes a thousand forms and a thousand modes of attack, is attributed to the stomach, which is the great caldron and regulator of the body. This is why we have come here. For my part, I am rather inclined to think it is the nerves. In any case it is very sad.”
Immediately the remembrance of the violent spasmodic movement of his hand came back to my mind, and I asked him:
“But is this not the result of heredity? Are not your own nerves somewhat affected?”
He replied calmly:
“Mine? Oh, no-my nerves have always been very steady.”
Then, suddenly, after a pause, he went on:
“Ah! You were alluding to the jerking movement of my hand every time I try to reach for anything? This arises from a terrible experience which I had. Just imagine, this daughter of mine was actually buried alive!”
I could only utter, “Ah!” so great were my astonishment and emotion.
“Here is the story. It is simple. Juliette had been subject for some time to serious attacks of the heart. We believed that she had disease of that organ, and were prepared for the worst.
“One day she was carried into the house cold, lifeless, dead. She had fallen down unconscious in the garden. The doctor certified that life was extinct. I watched by her side for a day and two nights. I laid her with my own hands in the coffin, which I accompanied to the cemetery, where she was deposited in the family vault. It is situated in the very heart of Lorraine.
“I wished to have her interred with her jewels, bracelets, necklaces, rings, all presents which she had received from me, and wearing her first ball dress.
“You may easily imagine my state of mind when I re-entered our home. She was the only one I had, for my wife had been dead for many years. I found my way to my own apartment in a half-distracted condition, utterly exhausted, and sank into my easy-chair, without the capacity to think or the strength to move. I was nothing better now than a suffering, vibrating machine, a human being who had, as it were, been flayed alive; my soul was like an open wound.
“My old valet, Prosper, who had assisted me in placing Juliette in her coffin, and aided me in preparing her for her last sleep, entered the room noiselessly, and asked:
“’Does monsieur want anything?’
“I merely shook my head in reply.
“’Monsieur is wrong,’ he urged. ‘He will injure his health. Would monsieur like me to put him to bed?’
“I answered: ‘No, let me alone!’
“And he left the room.
“I know not how many hours slipped away. Oh, what a night, what a night! It was cold. My fire had died out in the huge grate; and the wind, the winter wind, an icy wind, a winter hurricane, blew with a regular, sinister noise against the windows.
“How many hours slipped away? There I was without sleeping, powerless, crushed, my eyes wide open, my legs stretched out, my body limp, inanimate, and my mind torpid with despair. Suddenly the great doorbell, the great bell of the vestibule, rang out.
“I started so that my chair cracked under me. The solemn, ponderous sound vibrated through the empty country house as through a vault. I turned round to see what the hour was by the clock. It was just two in the morning. Who could be coming at such an hour?
“And, abruptly, the bell again rang twice. The servants, without doubt, were afraid to get up. I took a wax candle and descended the stairs. I was on the point of asking: ‘Who is there?’
“Then I felt ashamed of my weakness, and I slowly drew back the heavy bolts. My heart was throbbing wildly. I was frightened. I opened the door brusquely, and in the darkness I distinguished a white figure, standing erect, something that resembled an apparition.
“I recoiled petrified with horror, faltering:
“’Who-who-who are you?’
“A voice replied:
“’It is I, father.’
“It was my daughter.
“I really thought I must be mad, and I retreated backward before this advancing spectre. I kept moving away, making a sign with my hand,’ as if to drive the phantom away, that gesture which you have noticed—that gesture which has remained with me ever since.
“’Do not be afraid, papa,’ said the apparition. ‘I was not dead. Somebody tried to steal my rings and cut one of my fingers; the blood began to flow, and that restored me to life.’
“And, in fact, I could see that her hand was covered with blood.
“I fell on my knees, choking with sobs and with a rattling in my throat.
“Then, when I had somewhat collected my thoughts, though I was still so bewildered that I scarcely realized the awesome happiness that had befallen me, I made her go up to my room and sit dawn in my easy-chair; then I rang excitedly for Prosper to get him to rekindle the fire and to bring some wine, and to summon assistance.
“The man entered, stared at my daughter, opened his mouth with a gasp of alarm and stupefaction, and then fell back dead.
“It was he who had opened the vault, who had mutilated and then abandoned my daughter; for he could not efface the traces of the theft. He had not even taken the trouble to put back the coffin into its place, feeling sure, besides, that he would not be suspected by me, as I trusted him absolutely.
“You see, monsieur, that we are very unfortunate people.”
He was silent.
The night had fallen, casting its shadows over the desolate, mournful vale, and a sort of mysterious fear possessed me at finding myself by the side of those strange beings, of this young girl who had come back from the tomb, and this father with his uncanny spasm.
I found it impossible to make any comment on this dreadful story. I only murmured:
“What a horrible thing!”
Then, after a minute’s silence, I added:
“Let us go indoors. I think it is growing cool.”
And we made our way back to the hotel.
IN THE WOOD
As the mayor was about to sit down to breakfast, word was brought to him that the rural policeman, with two prisoners, was awaiting him at the Hotel de Ville. He went there at once and found old Hochedur standing guard before a middle-class couple whom he was regarding with a severe expression on his face.
The man, a fat old fellow with a red nose and white hair, seemed utterly dejected; while the woman, a little roundabout individual with shining cheeks, looked at the official who had arrested them, with defiant eyes.
“What is it? What is it, Hochedur?”
The rural policeman made his deposition: He had gone out that morning at his usual time, in order to patrol his beat from the forest of Champioux as far as the boundaries of Argenteuil. He had not noticed anything unusual in the country except that it was a fine day, and that the wheat was doing well, when the son of old Bredel, who was going over his vines, called out to him: “Here, Daddy Hochedur, go and have a look at the outskirts of the wood. In the first thicket you will find a pair of pigeons who must be a hundred and thirty years old between them!”
He went in the direction indicated, entered the thicket, and there he heard words which made him suspect a flagrant breach of morality. Advancing, therefore, on his hands and knees as if to surprise a poacher, he had arrested the couple whom he found there.
The mayor looked at the culprits in astonishment, for the man was certainly sixty, and the woman fifty-five at least, and he began to question them, beginning with the man, who replied in such a weak voice that he could scarcely be heard.
“What is your name?”
“Haberdasher, in the Rue des Martyrs, in Paris.”
“What were you doing in the wood?”
The haberdasher remained silent, with his eyes on his fat paunch, and his hands hanging at his sides, and the mayor continued:
“Do you deny what the officer of the municipal authorities states?”
“So you confess it?”
“What have you to say in your defence?”
“Where did you meet the partner in your misdemeanor?”
“She is my wife, monsieur.”
“Then—then—you do not live together-in Paris?”
“I beg your pardon, monsieur, but we are living together!”
“But in that case—you must be mad, altogether mad, my dear sir, to get caught playing lovers in the country at ten o’clock in the morning.”
The haberdasher seemed ready to cry with shame, and he muttered: “It was she who enticed me! I told her it was very stupid, but when a woman once gets a thing into her head—you know—you cannot get it out.”
The mayor, who liked a joke, smiled and replied: “In your case, the contrary ought to have happened. You would not be here, if she had had the idea only in her head.”
Then Monsieur Beauain was seized with rage and turning to his wife, he said: “Do you see to what you have brought us with your poetry? And now we shall have to go before the courts at our age, for a breach of morals! And we shall have to shut up the shop, sell our good will, and go to some other neighborhood! That’s what it has come to.”
Madame Beaurain got up, and without looking at her husband, she explained herself without embarrassment, without useless modesty, and almost without hesitation.
“Of course, monsieur, I know that we have made ourselves ridiculous. Will you allow me to plead my cause like an advocate, or rather like a poor woman? And I hope that you will be kind enough to send us home, and to spare us the disgrace of a prosecution.
“Years ago, when I was young, I made Monsieur Beaurain’s acquaintance one Sunday in this neighborhood. He was employed in a draper’s shop, and I was a saleswoman in a ready-made clothing establishment. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I used to come and spend Sundays here occasionally with a friend of mine, Rose Leveque, with whom I lived in the Rue Pigalle, and Rose had a sweetheart, while I had none. He used to bring us here, and one Saturday he told me laughing that he should bring a friend with him the next day. I quite understood what he meant, but I replied that it would be no good; for I was virtuous, monsieur.
“The next day we met Monsieur Beaurain at the railway station, and in those days he was good-looking, but I had made up my mind not to encourage him, and I did not. Well, we arrived at Bezons. It was a lovely day, the sort of day that touches your heart. When it is fine even now, just as it used to be formerly, I grow quite foolish, and when I am in the country I utterly lose my head. The green grass, the swallows flying so swiftly, the smell of the grass, the scarlet poppies, the daisies, all that makes me crazy. It is like champagne when one is not accustomed to it!
“Well, it was lovely weather, warm and bright, and it seemed to penetrate your body through your eyes when you looked and through your mouth when you breathed. Rose and Simon hugged and kissed each other every minute, and that gave me a queer feeling! Monsieur Beaurain and I walked behind them, without speaking much, for when people do not know each other, they do not find anything to talk about. He looked timid, and I liked to see his embarrassment. At last we got to the little wood; it was as cool as in a bath there, and we four sat down. Rose and her lover teased me because I looked rather stern, but you will understand that I could not be otherwise. And then they began to kiss and hug again, without putting any more restraint upon themselves than if we had not been there; and then they whispered together, and got up and went off among the trees, without saying a word. You may fancy what I looked like, alone with this young fellow whom I saw for the first time. I felt so confused at seeing them go that it gave me courage, and I began to talk. I asked him what his business was, and he said he was a linen draper’s assistant, as I told you just now. We talked for a few minutes, and that made him bold, and he wanted to take liberties with me, but I told him sharply to keep his place. Is not that true, Monsieur Beaurain?”
Monsieur Beaurain, who was looking at his feet in confusion, did not reply, and she continued: “Then he saw that I was virtuous, and he began to make love to me nicely, like an honorable man, and from that time he came every Sunday, for he was very much in love with me. I was very fond of him also, very fond of him! He was a good-looking fellow, formerly, and in short he married me the next September, and we started in business in the Rue des Martyrs.
“It was a hard struggle for some years, monsieur. Business did not prosper, and we could not afford many country excursions, and, besides, we had got out of the way of them. One has other things in one’s head, and thinks more of the cash box than of pretty speeches, when one is in business. We were growing old by degrees without perceiving it, like quiet people who do not think much about love. One does not regret anything as long as one does not notice what one has lost.
“And then, monsieur, business became better, and we were tranquil as to the future! Then, you see, I do not exactly know what went on in my mind, no, I really do not know, but I began to dream like a little boarding-school girl. The sight of the little carts full of flowers which are drawn about the streets made me cry; the smell of violets sought me out in my easy-chair, behind my cash box, and made my heart beat! Then I would get up and go out on the doorstep to look at the blue sky between the roofs. When one looks up at the sky from the street, it looks like a river which is descending on Paris, winding as it flows, and the swallows pass to and fro in it like fish. These ideas are very stupid at my age! But how can one help it, monsieur, when one has worked all one’s life? A moment comes in which one perceives that one could have done something else, and that one regrets, oh! yes, one feels intense regret! Just think, for twenty years I might have gone and had kisses in the woods, like other women. I used to think how delightful it would be to lie under the trees and be in love with some one! And I thought of it every day and every night! I dreamed of the moonlight on the water, until I felt inclined to drown myself.
“I did not venture to speak to Monsieur Beaurain about this at first. I knew that he would make fun of me, and send me back to sell my needles and cotton! And then, to speak the truth, Monsieur Beaurain never said much to me, but when I looked in the glass, I also understood quite well that I no longer appealed to any one!
“Well, I made up my mind, and I proposed to him an excursion into the country, to the place where we had first become acquainted. He agreed without mistrusting anything, and we arrived here this morning, about nine o’clock.
“I felt quite young again when I got among the wheat, for a woman’s heart never grows old! And really, I no longer saw my husband as he is at present, but just as he was formerly! That I will swear to you, monsieur. As true as I am standing here I was crazy. I began to kiss him, and he was more surprised than if I had tried to murder him. He kept saying to me: ‘Why, you must be mad! You are mad this morning! What is the matter with you?’ I did not listen to him, I only listened to my own heart, and I made him come into the wood with me. That is all. I have spoken the truth, Monsieur le Maire, the whole truth.”
The mayor was a sensible man. He rose from his chair, smiled, and said: “Go in peace, madame, and when you again visit our forests, be more discreet.”
It came to him one Sunday after mass. He was walking home from church along the by-road that led to his house when he saw ahead of him Martine, who was also going home.
Her father walked beside his daughter with the important gait of a rich farmer. Discarding the smock, he wore a short coat of gray cloth and on his head a round-topped hat with wide brim.
She, laced up in a corset which she wore only once a week, walked along erect, with her squeezed-in waist, her broad shoulders and prominent hips, swinging herself a little. She wore a hat trimmed with flowers, made by a milliner at Yvetot, and displayed the back of her full, round, supple neck, reddened by the sun and air, on which fluttered little stray locks of hair.
Benoist saw only her back; but he knew well the face he loved, without, however, having ever noticed it more closely than he did now.
Suddenly he said: “Nom d’un nom, she is a fine girl, all the same, that Martine.” He watched her as she walked, admiring her hastily, feeling a desire taking possession of him. He did not long to see her face again, no. He kept gazing at her figure, repeating to himself: “Nom d’un nom, she is a fine girl.”
Martine turned to the right to enter “La Martiniere,” the farm of her father, Jean Martin, and she cast a glance behind her as she turned round. She saw Benoist, who looked to her very comical. She called out: “Good-morning, Benoist.” He replied: “Good-morning, Martine; good- morning, mait Martin,” and went on his way.
When he reached home the soup was on the table. He sat down opposite his mother beside the farm hand and the hired man, while the maid servant went to draw some cider.
He ate a few spoonfuls, then pushed away his plate. His mother said:
“Don’t you feel well?”
“No. I feel as if I had some pap in my stomach and that takes away my appetite.”
He watched the others eating, as he cut himself a piece of bread from time to time and carried it lazily to his mouth, masticating it slowly. He thought of Martine. “She is a fine girl, all the same.” And to think that he had not noticed it before, and that it came to him, just like that, all at once, and with such force that he could not eat.
He did not touch the stew. His mother said:
“Come, Benoist, try and eat a little; it is loin of mutton, it will do you good. When one has no appetite, they should force themselves to eat.”
He swallowed a few morsels, then, pushing away his plate, said:
“No. I can’t go that, positively.”
When they rose from table he walked round the farm, telling the farm hand he might go home and that he would drive up the animals as he passed by them.
The country was deserted, as it was the day of rest. Here and there in a field of clover cows were moving along heavily, with full bellies, chewing their cud under a blazing sun. Unharnessed plows were standing at the end of a furrow; and the upturned earth ready for the seed showed broad brown patches of stubble of wheat and oats that had lately been harvested.
A rather dry autumn wind blew across the plain, promising a cool evening after the sun had set. Benoist sat down on a ditch, placed his hat on his knees as if he needed to cool off his head, and said aloud in the stillness of the country: “If you want a fine girl, she is a fine girl.”
He thought of it again at night, in his bed, and in the morning when he awoke.
He was not sad, he was not discontented, he could not have told what ailed him. It was something that had hold of him, something fastened in his mind, an idea that would not leave him and that produced a sort of tickling sensation in his heart.
Sometimes a big fly is shut up in a room. You hear it flying about, buzzing, and the noise haunts you, irritates you. Suddenly it stops; you forget it; but all at once it begins again, obliging you to look up. You cannot catch it, nor drive it away, nor kill it, nor make it keep still. As soon as it settles for a second, it starts off buzzing again.
The recollection of Martine disturbed Benoist’s mind like an imprisoned fly.
Then he longed to see her again and walked past the Martiniere several times. He saw her, at last, hanging out some clothes on a line stretched between two apple trees.
It was a warm day. She had on only a short skirt and her chemise, showing the curves of her figure as she hung up the towels. He remained there, concealed by the hedge, for more than an hour, even after she had left. He returned home more obsessed with her image than ever.
For a month his mind was full of her, he trembled when her name was mentioned in his presence. He could not eat, he had night sweats that kept him from sleeping.
On Sunday, at mass, he never took his eyes off her. She noticed it and smiled at him, flattered at his appreciation.
One evening, he suddenly met her in the road. She stopped short when she saw him coming. Then he walked right up to her, choking with fear and emotion, but determined to speak to her. He began falteringly:
“See here, Martine, this cannot go on like this any longer.”
She replied as if she wanted to tease him:
“What cannot go on any longer, Benoist?”
“My thinking of you as many hours as there are in the day,” he answered.
She put her hands on her hips.
“I do not oblige you to do so.”
“Yes, it is you,” he stammered; “I cannot sleep, nor rest, nor eat, nor anything.”
“What do you need to cure you of all that?” she asked.
He stood there in dismay, his arms swinging, his eyes staring, his mouth agape.
She hit him a punch in the stomach and ran off.
From that day they met each other along the roadside, in by-roads or else at twilight on the edge of a field, when he was going home with his horses and she was driving her cows home to the stable.
He felt himself carried, cast toward her by a strong impulse of his heart and body. He would have liked to squeeze her, strangle her, eat her, make her part of himself. And he trembled with impotence, impatience, rage, to think she did not belong to him entirely, as if they were one being.
People gossiped about it in the countryside. They said they were engaged. He had, besides, asked her if she would be his wife, and she had answered “Yes.”
They, were waiting for an opportunity to talk to their parents about it.
But, all at once, she stopped coming to meet him at the usual hour. He did not even see her as he wandered round the farm. He could only catch a glimpse of her at mass on Sunday. And one Sunday, after the sermon, the priest actually published the banns of marriage between Victoire- Adelaide Martin and Josephin-Isidore Vallin.
Benoist felt a sensation in his hands as if the blood had been drained off. He had a buzzing in the ears; and could hear nothing; and presently he perceived that his tears were falling on his prayer book.
For a month he stayed in his room. Then he went back to his work.
But he was not cured, and it was always in his mind. He avoided the roads that led past her home, so that he might not even see the trees in the yard, and this obliged him to make a great circuit morning and evening.
She was now married to Vallin, the richest farmer in the district. Benoist and he did not speak now, though they had been comrades from childhood.
One evening, as Benoist was passing the town hall, he heard that she was enceinte. Instead of experiencing a feeling of sorrow, he experienced, on the contrary, a feeling of relief. It was over, now, all over. They were more separated by that than by her marriage. He really preferred that it should be so.
Months passed, and more months. He caught sight of her, occasionally, going to the village with a heavier step than usual. She blushed as she saw him, lowered her head and quickened her pace. And he turned out of his way so as not to pass her and meet her glance.
He dreaded the thought that he might one morning meet her face to face, and be obliged to speak to her. What could he say to her now, after all he had said formerly, when he held her hands as he kissed her hair beside her cheeks? He often thought of those meetings along the roadside. She had acted horridly after all her promises.
By degrees his grief diminished, leaving only sadness behind. And one day he took the old road that led past the farm where she now lived. He looked at the roof from a distance. It was there, in there, that she lived with another! The apple trees were in bloom, the cocks crowed on the dung hill. The whole dwelling seemed empty, the farm hands had gone to the fields to their spring toil. He stopped near the gate and looked into the yard. The dog was asleep outside his kennel, three calves were walking slowly, one behind the other, towards the pond. A big turkey was strutting before the door, parading before the turkey hens like a singer at the opera.
Benoist leaned against the gate post and was suddenly seized with a desire to weep. But suddenly, he heard a cry, a loud cry for help coming from the house. He was struck with dismay, his hands grasping the wooden bars of the gate, and listened attentively. Another cry, a prolonged, heartrending cry, reached his ears, his soul, his flesh. It was she who was crying like that! He darted inside, crossed the grass patch, pushed open the door, and saw her lying on the floor, her body drawn up, her face livid, her eyes haggard, in the throes of childbirth.
He stood there, trembling and paler than she was, and stammered:
“Here I am, here I am, Martine!”
She replied in gasps:
“Oh, do not leave me, do not leave me, Benoist!”
He looked at her, not knowing what to say, what to do. She began to cry out again:
“Oh, oh, it is killing me. Oh, Benoist!”
She writhed frightfully.
Benoist was suddenly seized with a frantic longing to help her, to quiet her, to remove her pain. He leaned over, lifted her up and laid her on her bed; and while she kept on moaning he began to take off her clothes, her jacket, her skirt and her petticoat. She bit her fists to keep from crying out. Then he did as he was accustomed to doing for cows, ewes, and mares: he assisted in delivering her and found in his hands a large infant who was moaning.
He wiped it off and wrapped it up in a towel that was drying in front of the fire, and laid it on a bundle of clothes ready for ironing that was on the table. Then he went back to the mother.
He took her up and placed her on the floor again, then he changed the bedclothes and put her back into bed. She faltered:
“Thank you, Benoist, you have a noble heart.” And then she wept a little as if she felt regretful.
He did not love her any longer, not the least bit. It was all over. Why? How? He could not have said. What had happened had cured him better than ten years of absence.
She asked, exhausted and trembling:
“What is it?”
He replied calmly:
“It is a very fine girl.”
Then they were silent again. At the end of a few moments, the mother, in a weak voice, said:
“Show her to me, Benoist.”
He took up the little one and was showing it to her as if he were holding the consecrated wafer, when the door opened, and Isidore Vallin appeared.
He did not understand at first, then all at once he guessed.
Benoist, in consternation, stammered out:
“I was passing, I was just passing by when I heard her crying out, and I came—there is your child, Vallin!”
Then the husband, his eyes full of tears, stepped forward, took the little mite of humanity that he held out to him, kissed it, unable to speak from emotion for a few seconds; then placing the child on the bed, he held out both hands to Benoist, saying:
“Your hand upon it, Benoist. From now on we understand each other. If you are willing, we will be a pair of friends, a pair of friends!” And Benoist replied: “Indeed I will, certainly, indeed I will.”
Compte de Lormerin had just finished dressing. He cast a parting glance at the large mirror which occupied an entire panel in his dressing-room and smiled.
He was really a fine-looking man still, although quite gray. Tall, slight, elegant, with no sign of a paunch, with a small mustache of doubtful shade, which might be called fair, he had a walk, a nobility, a “chic,” in short, that indescribable something which establishes a greater difference between two men than would millions of money. He murmured:
“Lormerin is still alive!”
And he went into the drawing-room where his correspondence awaited him.
On his table, where everything had its place, the work table of the gentleman who never works, there were a dozen letters lying beside three newspapers of different opinions. With a single touch he spread out all these letters, like a gambler giving the choice of a card; and he scanned the handwriting, a thing he did each morning before opening the envelopes.
It was for him a moment of delightful expectancy, of inquiry and vague anxiety. What did these sealed mysterious letters bring him? What did they contain of pleasure, of happiness, or of grief? He surveyed them with a rapid sweep of the eye, recognizing the writing, selecting them, making two or three lots, according to what he expected from them. Here, friends; there, persons to whom he was indifferent; further on, strangers. The last kind always gave him a little uneasiness. What did they want from him? What hand had traced those curious characters full of thoughts, promises, or threats?
This day one letter in particular caught his eye. It was simple, nevertheless, without seeming to reveal anything; but he looked at it uneasily, with a sort of chill at his heart. He thought: “From whom can it be? I certainly know this writing, and yet I can’t identify it.”
He raised it to a level with his face, holding it delicately between two fingers, striving to read through the envelope, without making up his mind to open it.
Then he smelled it, and snatched up from the table a little magnifying glass which he used in studying all the niceties of handwriting. He suddenly felt unnerved. “Whom is it from? This hand is familiar to me, very familiar. I must have often read its tracings, yes, very often. But this must have been a long, long time ago. Whom the deuce can it be from? Pooh! it’s only somebody asking for money.”
And he tore open the letter. Then he read:
MY DEAR FRIEND: You have, without doubt, forgotten me, for it is now twenty-five years since we saw each other. I was young; I am old. When I bade you farewell, I left Paris in order to follow into the provinces my husband, my old husband, whom you used to call “my hospital.” Do you remember him? He died five years ago, and now I am returning to Paris to get my daughter married, for I have a daughter, a beautiful girl of eighteen, whom you have never seen. I informed you of her birth, but you certainly did not pay much attention to so trifling an event.
You are still the handsome Lormerin; so I have been told. Well, if you still recollect little Lise, whom you used to call Lison, come and dine with her this evening, with the elderly Baronne de Vance your ever faithful friend, who, with some emotion, although happy, reaches out to you a devoted hand, which you must clasp, but no longer kiss, my poor Jaquelet. LISE DE VANCE.
Lormerin’s heart began to throb. He remained sunk in his armchair with the letter on his knees, staring straight before him, overcome by a poignant emotion that made the tears mount up to his eyes!
If he had ever loved a woman in his life it was this one, little Lise, Lise de Vance, whom he called “Ashflower,” on account of the strange color of her hair and the pale gray of her eyes. Oh! what a dainty, pretty, charming creature she was, this frail baronne, the wife of that gouty, pimply baron, who had abruptly carried her off to the provinces, shut her up, kept her in seclusion through jealousy, jealousy of the handsome Lormerin.
Yes, he had loved her, and he believed that he too, had been truly loved. She familiarly gave him, the name of Jaquelet, and would pronounce that word in a delicious fashion.
A thousand forgotten memories came back to him, far, off and sweet and melancholy now. One evening she had called on him on her way home from a ball, and they went for a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne, she in evening dress, he in his dressing-jacket. It was springtime; the weather was beautiful. The fragrance from her bodice embalmed the warm air-the odor of her bodice, and perhaps, too, the fragrance of her skin. What a divine night! When they reached the lake, as the moon’s rays fell across the branches into the water, she began to weep. A little surprised, he asked her why.
“I don’t know. The moon and the water have affected me. Every time I see poetic things I have a tightening at the heart, and I have to cry.”
He smiled, affected himself, considering her feminine emotion charming —the unaffected emotion of a poor little woman, whom every sensation overwhelms. And he embraced her passionately, stammering:
“My little Lise, you are exquisite.”
What a charming love affair, short-lived and dainty, it had been and over all too quickly, cut short in the midst of its ardor by this old brute of a baron, who had carried off his wife, and never let any one see her afterward.
Lormerin had forgotten, in fact, at the end of two or three months. One woman drives out another so quickly in Paris, when one is a bachelor! No matter; he had kept a little altar for her in his heart, for he had loved her alone! He assured himself now that this was so.
He rose, and said aloud: “Certainly, I will go and dine with her this evening!”
And instinctively he turned toward the mirror to inspect himself from head to foot. He reflected: “She must look very old, older than I look.” And he felt gratified at the thought of showing himself to her still handsome, still fresh, of astonishing her, perhaps of filling her with emotion, and making her regret those bygone days so far, far distant!
He turned his attention to the other letters. They were of no importance.
The whole day he kept thinking of this ghost of other days. What was she like now? How strange it was to meet in this way after twenty-five years! But would he recognize her?
He made his toilet with feminine coquetry, put on a white waistcoat, which suited him better with the coat than a black one, sent for the hairdresser to give him a finishing touch with the curling iron, for he had preserved his hair, and started very early in order to show his eagerness to see her.
The first thing he saw on entering a pretty drawing-room newly furnished was his own portrait, an old faded photograph, dating from the days when he was a beau, hanging on the wall in an antique silk frame.
He sat down and waited. A door opened behind him. He rose up abruptly, and, turning round, beheld an old woman with white hair who extended both hands toward him.
He seized them, kissed them one after the other several times; then, lifting up his head, he gazed at the woman he had loved.
Yes, it was an old lady, an old lady whom he did not recognize, and who, while she smiled, seemed ready to weep.
He could not abstain from murmuring:
“Is it you, Lise?”
“Yes, it is I; it is I, indeed. You would not have known me, would you? I have had so much sorrow—so much sorrow. Sorrow has consumed my life. Look at me now—or, rather, don’t look at me! But how handsome you have kept—and young! If I had by chance met you in the street I would have exclaimed: ‘Jaquelet!’. Now, sit down and let us, first of all, have a chat. And then I will call my daughter, my grown-up daughter. You’ll see how she resembles me—or, rather, how I resembled her—no, it is not quite that; she is just like the ‘me’ of former days—you shall see! But I wanted to be alone with you first. I feared that there would be some emotion on my side, at the first moment. Now it is all over; it is past. Pray be seated, my friend.”
He sat down beside her, holding her hand; but he did not know what to say; he did not know this woman—it seemed to him that he had never seen her before. Why had he come to this house? What could he talk about? Of the long ago? What was there in common between him and her? He could no longer recall anything in presence of this grandmotherly face. He could no longer recall all the nice, tender things, so sweet, so bitter, that had come to his mind that morning when he thought of the other, of little Lise, of the dainty Ashflower. What, then, had become of her, the former one, the one he had loved? That woman of far-off dreams, the blonde with gray eyes, the young girl who used to call him “Jaquelet” so prettily?
They remained side by side, motionless, both constrained, troubled, profoundly ill at ease.
As they talked only commonplaces, awkwardly and spasmodically and slowly, she rose and pressed the button of the bell.
“I am going to call Renee,” she said.
There was a tap at the door, then the rustle of a dress; then a young voice exclaimed:
“Here I am, mamma!”
Lormerin remained bewildered as at the sight of an apparition.
Then, turning toward the mother:
“Oh! it is you!”
In fact, it was she, she whom he had known in bygone days, the Lise who had vanished and come back! In her he found the woman he had won twenty- five years before. This one was even younger, fresher, more childlike.
He felt a wild desire to open his arms, to clasp her to his heart again, murmuring in her ear:
A man-servant announced:
“Dinner is ready, madame.”
And they proceeded toward the dining-room.
What passed at this dinner? What did they say to him, and what could he say in reply? He found himself plunged in one of those strange dreams which border on insanity. He gazed at the two women with a fixed idea in his mind, a morbid, self-contradictory idea:
“Which is the real one?”
The mother smiled again repeating over and over:
“Do you remember?” And it was in the bright eyes of the young girl that he found again his memories of the past. Twenty times he opened his mouth to say to her: “Do you remember, Lison?” forgetting this white- haired lady who was looking at him tenderly.
And yet, there were moments when, he no longer felt sure, when he lost his head. He could see that the woman of to-day was not exactly the woman of long ago. The other one, the former one, had in her voice, in her glances, in her entire being, something which he did not find again. And he made prodigious efforts of mind to recall his lady love, to seize again what had escaped from her, what this resuscitated one did not possess.
The baronne said:
“You have lost your old vivacity, my poor friend.”
“There are many other things that I have lost!”
But in his heart, touched with emotion, he felt his old love springing to life once more, like an awakened wild beast ready to bite him.
The young girl went on chattering, and every now and then some familiar intonation, some expression of her mother’s, a certain style of speaking and thinking, that resemblance of mind and manner which people acquire by living together, shook Lormerin from head to foot. All these things penetrated him, making the reopened wound of his passion bleed anew.
He got away early, and took a turn along the boulevard. But the image of this young girl pursued him, haunted him, quickened his heart, inflamed his blood. Apart from the two women, he now saw only one, a young one, the old one come back out of the past, and he loved her as he had loved her in bygone years. He loved her with greater ardor, after an interval of twenty-five years.
He went home to reflect on this strange and terrible thing, and to think what he should do.
But, as he was passing, with a wax candle in his hand, before the glass, the large glass in which he had contemplated himself and admired himself before he started, he saw reflected there an elderly, gray-haired man; and suddenly he recollected what he had been in olden days, in the days of little Lise. He saw himself charming and handsome, as he had been when he was loved! Then, drawing the light nearer, he looked at himself more closely, as one inspects a strange thing with a magnifying glass, tracing the wrinkles, discovering those frightful ravages, which he had not perceived till now.
And he sat down, crushed at the sight of himself, at the sight of his lamentable image, murmuring:
“All over, Lormerin!”
THE PARROT I
Everybody in Fecamp knew Mother Patin’s story. She had certainly been unfortunate with her husband, for in his lifetime he used to beat her, just as wheat is threshed in the barn.
He was master of a fishing bark and had married her, formerly, because she was pretty, although poor.
Patin was a good sailor, but brutal. He used to frequent Father Auban’s inn, where he would usually drink four or five glasses of brandy, on lucky days eight or ten glasses and even more, according to his mood. The brandy was served to the customers by Father Auban’s daughter, a pleasing brunette, who attracted people to the house only by her pretty face, for nothing had ever been gossiped about her.
Patin, when he entered the inn, would be satisfied to look at her and to compliment her politely and respectfully. After he had had his first glass of brandy he would already find her much nicer; at the second he would wink; at the third he would say. “If you were only willing, Mam’zelle Desiree——” without ever finishing his sentence; at the fourth he would try to hold her back by her skirt in order to kiss her; and when he went as high as ten it was Father Auban who brought him the remaining drinks.
The old innkeeper, who knew all the tricks of the trade, made Desiree walk about between the tables in order to increase the consumption of drinks; and Desiree, who was a worthy daughter of Father Auban, flitted around among the benches and joked with them, her lips smiling and her eyes sparkling.
Patin got so well accustomed to Desiree’s face that he thought of it even while at sea, when throwing out his nets, in storms or in calms, on moonlit or dark evenings. He thought of her while holding the tiller in the stern of his boat, while his four companions were slumbering with their heads on their arms. He always saw her, smiling, pouring out the yellow brandy with a peculiar shoulder movement and then exclaiming as she turned away: “There, now; are you satisfied?”
He saw her so much in his mind’s eye that he was overcome by an irresistible desire to marry her, and, not being able to hold out any longer, he asked for her hand.
He was rich, owned his own vessel, his nets and a little house at the foot of the hill on the Retenue, whereas Father Auban had nothing. The marriage was therefore eagerly agreed upon and the wedding took place as soon as possible, as both parties were desirous for the affair to be concluded as early as convenient.
Three days after the wedding Patin could no longer understand how he had ever imagined Desiree to be different from other women. What a fool he had been to encumber himself with a penniless creature, who had undoubtedly inveigled him with some drug which she had put in his brandy!
He would curse all day lung, break his pipe with his teeth and maul his crew. After he had sworn by every known term at everything that came his way he would rid himself of his remaining anger on the fish and lobsters, which he pulled from the nets and threw into the baskets amid oaths and foul language. When he returned home he would find his wife, Father Auban’s daughter, within reach of his mouth and hand, and it was not long before he treated her like the lowest creature in the world. As she listened calmly, accustomed to paternal violence, he grew exasperated at her quiet, and one evening he beat her. Then life at his home became unbearable.
For ten years the principal topic of conversation on the Retenue was about the beatings that Patin gave his wife and his manner of cursing at her for the least thing. He could, indeed, curse with a richness of vocabulary in a roundness of tone unequalled by any other man in Fecamp. As soon as his ship was sighted at the entrance of the harbor, returning from the fishing expedition, every one awaited the first volley he would hurl from the bridge as soon as he perceived his wife’s white cap.
Standing at the stern he would steer, his eye fixed on the bows and on the sail, and, notwithstanding the difficulty of the narrow passage and the height of the turbulent waves, he would search among the watching women and try to recognize his wife, Father Auban’s daughter, the wretch!
Then, as soon as he saw her, notwithstanding the noise of the wind and waves, he would let loose upon her with such power and volubility that every one would laugh, although they pitied her greatly. When he arrived at the dock he would relieve his mind, while unloading the fish, in such an expressive manner that he attracted around him all the loafers of the neighborhood. The words left his mouth sometimes like shots from a cannon, short and terrible, sometimes like peals of thunder, which roll and rumble for five minutes, such a hurricane of oaths that he seemed to have in his lungs one of the storms of the Eternal Father.
When he left his ship and found himself face to face with her, surrounded by all the gossips of the neighborhood, he would bring up a new cargo of insults and bring her back to their dwelling, she in front, he behind, she weeping, he yelling at her.
At last, when alone with her behind closed doors, he would thrash her on the slightest pretext. The least thing was sufficient to make him raise his hand, and when he had once begun he did not stop, but he would throw into her face the true motive for his anger. At each blow he would roar: “There, you beggar! There, you wretch! There, you pauper! What a bright thing I did when I rinsed my mouth with your rascal of a father’s apology for brandy.”
The poor woman lived in continual fear, in a ceaseless trembling of body and soul, in everlasting expectation of outrageous thrashings.
This lasted ten years. She was so timorous that she would grow pale whenever she spoke to any one, and she thought of nothing but the blows with which she was threatened; and she became thinner, more yellow and drier than a smoked fish.
One night, when her husband was at sea, she was suddenly awakened by the wild roaring of the wind!
She sat up in her bed, trembling, but, as she hear nothing more, she lay down again; almost immediately there was a roar in the chimney which shook the entire house; it seemed to cross the heavens like a pack of furious animals snorting and roaring.
Then she arose and rushed to the harbor. Other women were arriving from all sides, carrying lanterns. The men also were gathering, and all were watching the foaming crests of the breaking wave.
The storm lasted fifteen hours. Eleven sailors never returned; Patin was among them.
In the neighborhood of Dieppe the wreck of his bark, the Jeune-Amelie, was found. The bodies of his sailors were found near Saint-Valery, but his body was never recovered. As his vessel seemed to have been cut in two, his wife expected and feared his return for a long time, for if there had been a collision he alone might have been picked up and carried afar off.
Little by little she grew accustomed to the thought that she was rid of him, although she would start every time that a neighbor, a beggar or a peddler would enter suddenly.
One afternoon, about four years after the disappearance of her husband, while she was walking along the Rue aux Juifs, she stopped before the house of an old sea captain who had recently died and whose furniture was for sale. Just at that moment a parrot was at auction. He had green feathers and a blue head and was watching everybody with a displeased look. “Three francs!” cried the auctioneer. “A bird that can talk like a lawyer, three francs!”
A friend of the Patin woman nudged her and said:
“You ought to buy that, you who are rich. It would be good company for you. That bird is worth more than thirty francs. Anyhow, you can always sell it for twenty or twenty-five!”
Patin’s widow added fifty centimes, and the bird was given her in a little cage, which she carried away. She took it home, and, as she was opening the wire door in order to give it something to drink, he bit her finger and drew blood.
“Oh, how naughty he is!” she said.
Nevertheless she gave it some hemp-seed and corn and watched it pruning its feathers as it glanced warily at its new home and its new mistress. On the following morning, just as day was breaking, the Patin woman distinctly heard a loud, deep, roaring voice calling: “Are you going to get up, carrion?”
Her fear was so great that she hid her head under the sheets, for when Patin was with her as soon as he would open his eyes he would shout those well-known words into her ears.
Trembling, rolled into a ball, her back prepared for the thrashing which she already expected, her face buried in the pillows, she murmured: “Good Lord! he is here! Good Lord! he is here! Good Lord! he has come back!”
Minutes passed; no noise disturbed the quiet room. Then, trembling, she stuck her head out of the bed, sure that he was there, watching, ready to beat her. Except for a ray of sun shining through the window, she saw nothing, and she said to her self: “He must be hidden.”
She waited a long time and then, gaining courage, she said to herself: “I must have dreamed it, seeing there is nobody here.”
A little reassured, she closed her eyes, when from quite near a furious voice, the thunderous voice of the drowned man, could be heard crying: “Say! when in the name of all that’s holy are you going to get up, you b——?”
She jumped out of bed, moved by obedience, by the passive obedience of a woman accustomed to blows and who still remembers and always will remember that voice! She said: “Here I am, Patin; what do you want?”
Put Patin did not answer. Then, at a complete loss, she looked around her, then in the chimney and under the bed and finally sank into a chair, wild with anxiety, convinced that Patin’s soul alone was there, near her, and that he had returned in order to torture her.
Suddenly she remembered the loft, in order to reach which one had to take a ladder. Surely he must have hidden there in order to surprise her. He must have been held by savages on some distant shore, unable to escape until now, and he had returned, worse that ever. There was no doubting the quality of that voice. She raised her head and asked: “Are you up there, Patin?”
Patin did not answer. Then, with a terrible fear which made her heart tremble, she climbed the ladder, opened the skylight, looked, saw nothing, entered, looked about and found nothing. Sitting on some straw, she began to cry, but while she was weeping, overcome by a poignant and supernatural terror, she heard Patin talking in the room below.
He seemed less angry and he was saying: “Nasty weather! Fierce wind! Nasty weather! I haven’t eaten, damn it!”
She cried through the ceiling: “Here I am, Patin; I am getting your meal ready. Don’t get angry.”
She ran down again. There was no one in the room. She felt herself growing weak, as if death were touching her, and she tried to run and get help from the neighbors, when a voice near her cried out: “I haven’t had my breakfast, by G—!”
And the parrot in his cage watched her with his round, knowing, wicked eye. She, too, looked at him wildly, murmuring: “Ah! so it’s you!”
He shook his head and continued: “Just you wait! I’ll teach you how to loaf.”
What happened within her? She felt, she understood that it was he, the dead man, who had come back, who had disguised himself in the feathers of this bird in order to continue to torment her; that he would curse, as formerly, all day long, and bite her, and swear at her, in order to attract the neighbors and make them laugh. Then she rushed for the cage and seized the bird, which scratched and tore her flesh with its claws and beak. But she held it with all her strength between her hands. She threw it on the ground and rolled over it with the frenzy of one possessed. She crushed it and finally made of it nothing but a little green, flabby lump which no longer moved or spoke. Then she wrapped it in a cloth, as in a shroud, and she went out in her nightgown, barefoot; she crossed the dock, against which the choppy waves of the sea were beating, and she shook the cloth and let drop this little, dead thing, which looked like so much grass. Then she returned, threw herself on her knees before the empty cage, and, overcome by what she had done, kneeled and prayed for forgiveness, as if she had committed some heinous crime.
THE PIECE OF STRING
It was market-day, and from all the country round Goderville the peasants and their wives were coming toward the town. The men walked slowly, throwing the whole body forward at every step of their long, crooked legs. They were deformed from pushing the plough which makes the left-shoulder higher, and bends their figures side-ways; from reaping the grain, when they have to spread their legs so as to keep on their feet. Their starched blue blouses, glossy as though varnished, ornamented at collar and cuffs with a little embroidered design and blown out around their bony bodies, looked very much like balloons about to soar, whence issued two arms and two feet.
Some of these fellows dragged a cow or a calf at the end of a rope. And just behind the animal followed their wives beating it over the back with a leaf-covered branch to hasten its pace, and carrying large baskets out of which protruded the heads of chickens or ducks. These women walked more quickly and energetically than the men, with their erect, dried-up figures, adorned with scanty little shawls pinned over their flat bosoms, and their heads wrapped round with a white cloth, enclosing the hair and surmounted by a cap.
Now a char-a-banc passed by, jogging along behind a nag and shaking up strangely the two men on the seat, and the woman at the bottom of the cart who held fast to its sides to lessen the hard jolting.
In the market-place at Goderville was a great crowd, a mingled multitude of men and beasts. The horns of cattle, the high, long-napped hats of wealthy peasants, the head-dresses of the women came to the surface of that sea. And the sharp, shrill, barking voices made a continuous, wild din, while above it occasionally rose a huge burst of laughter from the sturdy lungs of a merry peasant or a prolonged bellow from a cow tied fast to the wall of a house.
It all smelled of the stable, of milk, of hay and of perspiration, giving off that half-human, half-animal odor which is peculiar to country folks.
Maitre Hauchecorne, of Breaute, had just arrived at Goderville and was making his way toward the square when he perceived on the ground a little piece of string. Maitre Hauchecorne, economical as are all true Normans, reflected that everything was worth picking up which could be of any use, and he stooped down, but painfully, because he suffered from rheumatism. He took the bit of thin string from the ground and was carefully preparing to roll it up when he saw Maitre Malandain, the harness maker, on his doorstep staring at him. They had once had a quarrel about a halter, and they had borne each other malice ever since. Maitre Hauchecorne was overcome with a sort of shame at being seen by his enemy picking up a bit of string in the road. He quickly hid it beneath his blouse and then slipped it into his breeches, pocket, then pretended to be still looking for something on the ground which he did not discover and finally went off toward the market-place, his head bent forward and his body almost doubled in two by rheumatic pains.
He was at once lost in the crowd, which kept moving about slowly and noisily as it chaffered and bargained. The peasants examined the cows, went off, came back, always in doubt for fear of being cheated, never quite daring to decide, looking the seller square in the eye in the effort to discover the tricks of the man and the defect in the beast.
The women, having placed their great baskets at their feet, had taken out the poultry, which lay upon the ground, their legs tied together, with terrified eyes and scarlet combs.
They listened to propositions, maintaining their prices in a decided manner with an impassive face or perhaps deciding to accept the smaller price offered, suddenly calling out to the customer who was starting to go away:
“All right, I’ll let you have them, Mait’ Anthime.”
Then, little by little, the square became empty, and when the Angelus struck midday those who lived at a distance poured into the inns.
At Jourdain’s the great room was filled with eaters, just as the vast court was filled with vehicles of every sort—wagons, gigs, chars-a- bancs, tilburies, innumerable vehicles which have no name, yellow with mud, misshapen, pieced together, raising their shafts to heaven like two arms, or it may be with their nose on the ground and their rear in the air.
Just opposite to where the diners were at table the huge fireplace, with its bright flame, gave out a burning heat on the backs of those who sat at the right. Three spits were turning, loaded with chickens, with pigeons and with joints of mutton, and a delectable odor of roast meat and of gravy flowing over crisp brown skin arose from the hearth, kindled merriment, caused mouths to water.
All the aristocracy of the plough were eating there at Mait’ Jourdain’s, the innkeeper’s, a dealer in horses also and a sharp fellow who had made a great deal of money in his day.
The dishes were passed round, were emptied, as were the jugs of yellow cider. Every one told of his affairs, of his purchases and his sales. They exchanged news about the crops. The weather was good for greens, but too wet for grain.
Suddenly the drum began to beat in the courtyard before the house. Every one, except some of the most indifferent, was on their feet at once and ran to the door, to the windows, their mouths full and napkins in their hand.
When the public crier had finished his tattoo he called forth in a jerky voice, pausing in the wrong places:
“Be it known to the inhabitants of Goderville and in general to all persons present at the market that there has been lost this morning on the Beuzeville road, between nine and ten o’clock, a black leather pocketbook containing five hundred francs and business papers. You are requested to return it to the mayor’s office at once or to Maitre Fortune Houlbreque, of Manneville. There will be twenty francs reward.”
Then the man went away. They heard once more at a distance the dull beating of the drum and the faint voice of the crier. Then they all began to talk of this incident, reckoning up the chances which Maitre Houlbreque had of finding or of not finding his pocketbook again.
The meal went on. They were finishing their coffee when the corporal of gendarmes appeared on the threshold.
“Is Maitre Hauchecorne, of Breaute, here?”
Maitre Hauchecorne, seated at the other end of the table answered:
“Here I am, here I am.”
And he followed the corporal.
The mayor was waiting for him, seated in an armchair. He was the notary of the place, a tall, grave man of pompous speech.
“Maitre Hauchecorne,” said he, “this morning on the Beuzeville road, you were seen to pick up the pocketbook lost by Maitre Houlbreque, of Manneville.”
The countryman looked at the mayor in amazement frightened already at this suspicion which rested on him, he knew not why.
“I—I picked up that pocketbook?”
“I swear I don’t even know anything about it.”
“You were seen.”
“I was seen—I? Who saw me?”
“M. Malandain, the harness-maker.”
Then the old man remembered, understood, and, reddening with anger, said:
“Ah! he saw me, did he, the rascal? He saw me picking up this string here, M’sieu le Maire.”
And fumbling at the bottom of his pocket, he pulled out of it the little end of string.
But the mayor incredulously shook his head:
“You will not make me believe, Maitre Hauchecorne, that M. Malandain, who is a man whose word can be relied on, has mistaken this string for a pocketbook.”
The peasant, furious, raised his hand and spat on the ground beside him as if to attest his good faith, repeating:
“For all that, it is God’s truth, M’sieu le Maire. There! On my soul’s salvation, I repeat it.”
The mayor continued:
“After you picked up the object in question, you even looked about for some time in the mud to see if a piece of money had not dropped out of it.”
The good man was choking with indignation and fear.
“How can they tell—how can they tell such lies as that to slander an honest man! How can they?”
His protestations were in vain; he was not believed.
He was confronted with M. Malandain, who repeated and sustained his testimony. They railed at one another for an hour. At his own request Maitre Hauchecorne was searched. Nothing was found on him.
At last the mayor, much perplexed, sent him away, warning him that he would inform the public prosecutor and ask for orders.
The news had spread. When he left the mayor’s office the old man was surrounded, interrogated with a curiosity which was serious or mocking, as the case might be, but into which no indignation entered. And he began to tell the story of the string. They did not believe him. They laughed.
He passed on, buttonholed by every one, himself buttonholing his acquaintances, beginning over and over again his tale and his protestations, showing his pockets turned inside out to prove that he had nothing in them.
They said to him:
“You old rogue!”
He grew more and more angry, feverish, in despair at not being believed, and kept on telling his story.
The night came. It was time to go home. He left with three of his neighbors, to whom he pointed out the place where he had picked up the string, and all the way he talked of his adventure.
That evening he made the round of the village of Breaute for the purpose of telling every one. He met only unbelievers.
He brooded over it all night long.
The next day, about one in the afternoon, Marius Paumelle, a farm hand of Maitre Breton, the market gardener at Ymauville, returned the pocketbook and its contents to Maitre Holbreque, of Manneville.
This man said, indeed, that he had found it on the road, but not knowing how to read, he had carried it home and given it to his master.
The news spread to the environs. Maitre Hauchecorne was informed. He started off at once and began to relate his story with the denoument. He was triumphant.
“What grieved me,” said he, “was not the thing itself, do you understand, but it was being accused of lying. Nothing does you so much harm as being in disgrace for lying.”
All day he talked of his adventure. He told it on the roads to the people who passed, at the cabaret to the people who drank and next Sunday when they came out of church. He even stopped strangers to tell them about it. He was easy now, and yet something worried him without his knowing exactly what it was. People had a joking manner while they listened. They did not seem convinced. He seemed to feel their remarks behind his back.
On Tuesday of the following week he went to market at Goderville, prompted solely by the need of telling his story.
Malandain, standing on his doorstep, began to laugh as he saw him pass. Why?
He accosted a farmer of Criquetot, who did not let him finish, and giving him a punch in the pit of the stomach cried in his face: “Oh, you great rogue!” Then he turned his heel upon him.
Maitre Hauchecorne remained speechless and grew more and more uneasy. Why had they called him “great rogue”?
When seated at table in Jourdain’s tavern he began again to explain the whole affair.
A horse dealer of Montivilliers shouted at him:
“Get out, get out, you old scamp! I know all about your old string.”
“But since they found it again, the pocketbook!”
But the other continued:
“Hold your tongue, daddy; there’s one who finds it and there’s another who returns it. And no one the wiser.”
The farmer was speechless. He understood at last. They accused him of having had the pocketbook brought back by an accomplice, by a confederate.
He tried to protest. The whole table began to laugh.
He could not finish his dinner, and went away amid a chorus of jeers.
He went home indignant, choking with rage, with confusion, the more cast down since with his Norman craftiness he was, perhaps, capable of having done what they accused him of and even of boasting of it as a good trick. He was dimly conscious that it was impossible to prove his innocence, his craftiness being so well known. He felt himself struck to the heart by the injustice of the suspicion.
He began anew to tell his tale, lengthening his recital every day, each day adding new proofs, more energetic declarations and more sacred oaths, which he thought of, which he prepared in his hours of solitude, for his mind was entirely occupied with the story of the string. The more he denied it, the more artful his arguments, the less he was believed.
“Those are liars proofs,” they said behind his back.
He felt this. It preyed upon him and he exhausted himself in useless efforts.
He was visibly wasting away.
Jokers would make him tell the story of “the piece of string” to amuse them, just as you make a soldier who has been on a campaign tell his story of the battle. His mind kept growing weaker and about the end of December he took to his bed.
He passed away early in January, and, in the ravings of death agony, he protested his innocence, repeating:
“A little bit of string—a little bit of string. See, here it is, M’sieu le Maire.”