Captain Burle

  • 04 Jun - 10 Jun, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Another dirty beast who got the meat contract and makes our men eat all the diseased cow flesh in the neighbourhood!

Well, I received him like a dog, and then he let it all out – blurted out the whole thing, and a pretty mess it is!

It appears that Burle only paid him in driblets and had got himself into a muddle – a confusion of figures which the devil himself couldn't disentangle. In short, Burle owes the butcher two thousand francs, and Gagneux threatens that he'll inform the colonel if he is not paid on time.

To make matters worse, Burle, just to blind me, handed me every week a forged receipt which he had squarely signed with Gagneux's name. To think he did that to me, to his

old friend!

"Ah, curse him!"

With increasing profanity, the major rose to his feet, shook his fist at the ceiling and then fell back in his chair. Mme Burle again repeated,

"He has stolen.

It was inevitable."

Then without a word of judgment or condemnation she added simply,

"Two thousand francs – we have not got them. There are barely thirty francs in the house."

"I expected as much,"

said Laguitte.

"And do you know where all the money goes? Why, Melanie gets it – yes, Melanie, a creature who has turned Burle into a perfect fool. Ah, those women! Those fiendish women! I always said they would do for him! I cannot conceive what he is made of! He is only five years younger than I am, and yet he is as mad as ever. What a woman hunter he is!"

Another long silence followed. Outside the rain was increasing in violence, and throughout the sleepy little town one could hear the crashing of slates and chimney pots as they were dashed by the blast onto the pavements of the streets.

"Come," suddenly said the major, rising, "my stopping here won't mend matters. I have warned you – and now I'm off."

"What is to be done? To whom can we apply?" muttered the old woman drearily.

"Don't give way – we must consider. If I only had the two thousand francs – but you know that I am not rich."

The major stopped short in confusion. This old bachelor, wifeless and childless, spent his pay in drink and gambled away at ecarte whatever money his cognac and absinthe left in his pocket. Despite that, however, he was scrupulously honest from a sense of discipline.

"Never mind," he added as he reached the threshold.

"I'll begin by stirring him up. I shall move heaven and earth! What! Burle, Colonel Burle's son, condemned for theft! That cannot be! I would sooner burn down the town. Now, thunder and lightning, don't worry; it is far more annoying for me than for you."

He shook the old lady's hand roughly and vanished into the shadows of the staircase, while she held the lamp aloft to light the way. When she returned and replaced the lamp on the table she stood for a moment motionless in front of Charles, who was still asleep with his face lying on the dictionary. His pale cheeks and long fair hair made him look like a girl, and she gazed at him dreamily, a shade of tenderness passing over her harsh countenance.

But it was only a passing emotion; her features regained their look of cold, obstinate determination, and, giving the youngster a sharp rap on his little hand, she said,’

"Charles – your lessons."

The boy awoke, dazed and shivering, and again rapidly turned over the leaves. At the same moment Major Laguitte, slamming the house door behind him, received on his head a quantity of water falling from the gutters above, whereupon he began to swear in so loud a voice that he could be heard above the storm. And after that no sound broke upon the pelting downpour save the slight rustle of the boy's pen traveling over the paper.

Mme Burle had resumed her seat near the chimney piece, still rigid, with her eyes fixed on the dead embers, preserving, indeed, her habitual attitude and absorbed in her one idea.


The Cafe de Paris, kept by Melanie Cartier, a widow, was situated on the Place du Palais, a large irregular square planted with meager, dusty elm trees. The place was so well known in Vauchamp that it was customary to say,

"Are you coming to Melanie's?"

At the farther end of the first room, which was a spacious one, there was another called "the divan," a narrow apartment having sham leather benches placed against the walls, while at each corner there stood a marble topped table. The widow, deserting her seat in the front room, where she left her little servant Phrosine, spent her evenings in the inner apartment, ministering to a few customers, the usual frequenters of the place, those who were currently styled "the gentlemen of the divan."

When a man belonged to that set it was as if he had a label on his back; he was spoken of with smiles of mingled contempt and envy. Mme Cartier had become a widow when she was five and twenty. Her husband, a wheelwright, who on the death of an uncle had amazed Vauchamp by taking the Cafe de Paris, had one fine day brought her back with him from Montpellier, where he was wont to repair twice a year to purchase liqueurs. As he was stocking his establishment he selected, together with divers beverages, a woman of the sort he wanted – of an engaging aspect and apt to stimulate the trade of the house. It was never known where he had picked her up, but he married her after trying her in the cafe during six months or so.

Opinions were divided in Vauchamp as to her merits, some folks declaring that she was superb, while others asserted that she looked like a drum-major. She was a tall woman with large features and coarse hair falling low over her forehead. However, everyone agreed that she knew very well how to fool the sterner sex. She had fine eyes and was wont to fix them with a bold stare on the gentlemen of the divan, who colored and became like wax in her hands. She also had the reputation of possessing a wonderfully fine figure, and southerners appreciate a statuesque style of beauty.

Cartier had died in a singular way. Rumour hinted at a conjugal quarrel, a kick, producing some internal tumor. Whatever may have been the truth, Melanie found herself encumbered with the cafe, which was far from doing a prosperous business. Her husband had wasted his uncle's inheritance in drinking his own absinthe and wearing out the cloth of his own billiard table. For a while it was believed that the widow would have to sell out, but she liked the life and the establishment just as it was. If she could secure a few customers the bigger room might remain deserted. So she limited herself to repapering the divan in white and gold and recovering the benches. She began by serving a chemist. Then a vermicelli maker, a lawyer and a retired magistrate put in an appearance; and thus it was that the cafe remained open, although the waiter did not receive twenty orders a day.

No objections were raised by the authorities, as appearances were kept up; and, indeed, it was not deemed advisable to interfere, for some respectable folks might have been worried. Of an evening five or six well-to-do citizens would enter the front room and play at dominoes there. Although Cartier was dead and the Cafe de Paris had got a queer name, they saw nothing and kept up their old habits.

In course of time, the waiter having nothing to do, Melanie dismissed him and made Phrosine light the solitary gas burner in the corner where the domino players congregated. Occasionally a party of young men, attracted by the gossip that circulated through the town, would come in, wildly excited and laughing loudly and awkwardly. But they were received there with icy dignity. As a rule, they did not even see the widow, and even if she happened to be present she treated them with withering disdain, so that they withdrew, stammering and confused.

Melanie was too astute to indulge in any compromising whims. While the front room remained obscure, save in the corner where the few townsfolk rattled their dominoes, she personally waited on the gentlemen of the divan, showing herself amiable without being free, merely venturing in moments of familiarity to lean on the shoulder of one or another of them, the better to watch a skillfully played game of ecarte. One evening the gentlemen of the divan, who had ended by tolerating each other's presence, experienced a disagreeable surprise on finding Captain Burle at home there. He had casually entered the cafe that same morning to get a glass of vermouth, so it seemed, and he had found Melanie there. They had conversed, and in the evening when he returned Phrosine immediately showed him to the inner room.

Two days later, Burle reigned there supreme; still he had not frightened the chemist, the vermicelli maker, the lawyer or the retired magistrate away. The captain, who was short and dumpy, worshiped tall, plump skinned women. In his regiment he had been nicknamed "Flirt Burle" on account of his constant fliting with women. Whenever the officers, and even the privates, met some monstrous-looking creature, some giantess puffed out with fat, whether she was in velvet or in rags, they would invariably exclaim, "There goes one to Flirt Burle's taste!"

Thus Melanie, with her opulent presence, quite conquered him. He was lost – quite wrecked. In less than a fortnight he had fallen for her. With much the expression of a whipped hound in the tiny sunken eyes which lighted up his bloated face, he was incessantly watching the widow in mute adoration before her pretty features and stubby hair. For fear that he might be dismissed, he put up with the presence of the other gentlemen of the divan and spent his pay in the place down to the last copper. A sergeant reviewed the situation in one sentence,

"Flirt Burle is done for; he's a buried man!"

It was nearly ten o'clock when Major Laguitte furiously flung the door of the cafe open. For a moment, those inside could see the deluged square transformed into a dark sea of liquid mud, bubbling under the terrible downpour. The major, now soaked to the skin and leaving a stream behind

him, strode up to the small counter where Phrosine was reading a novel.

"You little wretch," he yelled, "you have dared to gammon an officer; you deserve…"

And then he lifted his hand as if to deal a blow such as would have felled an ox. The little maid shrank back, terrified, while the amazed domino players looked, openmouthed. However, the major did not linger there – he pushed the divan door open and appeared before Melanie and Burle just as the widow was playfully making the captain sip his drink in small spoonfuls, as if she were feeding a pet canary. Only the ex-magistrate and the chemist had come that evening, and they had retired early in a melancholy frame of mind.

Then Melanie, being in want of three hundred francs for the morrow, had taken advantage of the opportunity to cajole the captain.

"Come." she said, "open your mouth; isn’t it nice,

you hungry man?"

Burle, flushing scarlet, with glazed eyes and sunken figure, was sucking the spoon with an air of intense enjoyment.

"Good heavens!" roared the major from the threshold.

"You now play tricks on me,

do you? I'm sent to the roundabout and told that you never came here, and yet all the while here you are, addling your silly brains."

Burle shuddered, pushing the drink away, while Melanie stepped angrily in front of him as if to shield him with her portly figure, but Laguitte looked at her with that quiet, resolute expression well known to women who are familiar with bodily chastisement.

"Leave us," he said curtly.

She hesitated for the space of a second. She almost felt the gust of the expected blow, and then, white with rage,

she joined Phrosine in the outer room. When the two men were alone Major Laguitte walked up to Burle, looked at him and, slightly stooping,

yelled into his face these two words,

"You animal!"

The captain, quite dazed, endeavoured to retort, but he had not time to do so.

"Silence!" resumed the major.

"You have bamboozled a friend. You palmed off on me a lot of forged receipts which might have sent both of us to the gallows…"

to be continued...