- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
"Do you call that a proper behaviour? Is that the sort of trick to play a friend of thirty years' standing?"
Burle, who had fallen back in his chair, was livid; his limbs shook as if with ague. Meanwhile the major, striding up and down and striking the tables wildly with his fists, continued,
"So, you have become a thief like the veriest scribbling cur of a clerk, and all for the sake of that creature here! If at least you had stolen for your mother's sake it would have been honorable! But, curse it, to play tricks and bring the money into this shanty is what I cannot understand! Tell me – what are you made of at your age to go to the dogs as you are going all for the sake of a creature like a grenadier!"
"YOU gamble…" stammered the captain.
"Yes, I do – curse it!" thundered the major, lashed into still greater fury by this remark.
"And I am a pitiful rogue to do so, because it swallows up all my pay and doesn't redound to the honour of the French army. However, I don't steal. Kill yourself, if it pleases you; starve your mother and the boy, but respect the regimental cashbox and don't drag your friends down with you."
He stopped. Burle was sitting there with fixed eyes and a stupid air. Nothing was heard for a moment save the clatter of the major's heels.
"And not a single copper," he continued aggressively. "Can you picture yourself between two gendarmes, eh?"
He then grew a little calmer, caught hold of Burle's wrists and forced him to rise.
"Come!" he said gruffly.
"Something must be done at once, for I cannot go to bed with this affair on my mind – I have an idea."
In the front room Melanie and Phrosine were talking eagerly in low voices. When the widow saw the two men leaving the divan she moved toward Burle and said coaxingly,
"What, are you going already, Captain?"
"Yes, he's going," brutally answered Laguitte, "and I don't intend to let him set foot here again."
The little maid felt frightened and pulled her mistress back by the skirt of her dress; in doing so she imprudently murmured the word "drunkard" and thereby brought down the slap which the major's hand had been itching to deal for some time past. Both women having stooped, however, the blow only fell on Phrosine's back hair, flattening her cap and breaking her comb. The domino players were indignant.
"Let's cut it," shouted Laguitte, and he pushed Burle on the pavement. "If I remained I should smash everyone in the place."
To cross the square they had to wade up to their ankles in mud. The rain, driven by the wind, poured off their faces. The captain walked on in silence, while the major kept on reproaching him with his cowardice and its disastrous consequences. Wasn't it sweet weather for tramping the streets? If he hadn't been such an idiot, they would both be warmly tucked in bed instead of paddling about in the mud. Then he spoke of Gagneux – a stupid whose diseased meat had on three separate occasions made the whole regiment ill. In a week, however, the contract would come to an end, and the fiend himself would not get it renewed.
"It rests with me,"
the major grumbled.
"I can select whomsoever I choose, and I'd rather cut off my right arm than put that poisoner in the way of earning another copper."
Just then he slipped into a gutter and, half choked by a string of oaths, he gasped,
"You understand – I am going to rout up Gagneux. You must stop outside while I go in. I must know what the rascal is up to and if he'll dare to carry out his threat of informing the colonel tomorrow. A butcher – curse him! The idea of compromising oneself with a butcher! Ah, you aren't over-proud, and I shall never forgive you for all this."
They had now reached the Place aux Herbes. Gagneux's house was quite dark, but Laguitte knocked so loudly that he was eventually admitted. Burle remained alone in the dense obscurity and did not even attempt to seek any shelter. He stood at a corner of the market under the pelting rain, his head filled with a loud buzzing noise which prevented him from thinking. He did not feel impatient, for he was unconscious of the flight of time. He stood there looking at the house, which, with its closed door and windows, seemed quite lifeless. When at the end of an hour the major came out again it appeared to the captain as if he had only just gone in. Laguitte was so grimly mute that Burle did not venture to question him.
For a moment they sought each other, groping about in the dark; then they resumed their walk through the somber streets, where the water rolled as in the bed of a torrent. They moved on in silence side by side, the major being so abstracted that he even forgot to swear. However, as they again crossed the Place du Palais, at the sight of the Cafe de Paris, which was still lit up, he dropped his hand on Burle's shoulder and said,
"If you ever re-enter that hotel…"
"No fear!" answered the captain without letting his friend finish his sentence. Then he stretched out his hand.
"No, no," said Laguitte, "I'll see you home; I'll at least make sure that you'll sleep in your
They went on, and as they ascended the Rue des Recollets they slackened their pace. When the captain's door was reached and Burle had taken out his latchkey he ventured to ask,
"Well," answered the major gruffly, "I am as dirty a rogue as you are. Yes! I have done a scurrilous thing. The fiend takes you! Our soldiers will eat carrion for three months longer."
Then he explained that Gagneux, the disgusting Gagneux, had a horribly level head and that he had persuaded him – the major – to strike a bargain. He would refrain from informing the colonel, and he would even make a present of the two thousand francs and replace the forged receipts by genuine ones, on condition that the major bound himself to renew the meat contract. It was a settled thing.
"Ah," continued Laguitte, "calculate what profits the brute must make out of the meat to part with such a sum as two thousand francs."
Burle, choking with emotion, grasped his old friend's hands, stammering confused words of thanks. The vileness of the action committed for his sake brought tears into his eyes.
"I never did such a thing before," growled Laguitte, "but I was driven to it. Curse it, to think that I haven't those two thousand francs in my drawer! It is enough to make one hate cards. It is my own fault. I am not worth much; only, mark my words, don't begin again, for, curse it – I shan't."
The captain embraced him, and when he had entered the house the major stood a moment before the closed door to make certain that he had gone upstairs to bed. Then as midnight was striking and the rain was still belaboring the dark town, he slowly turned homeward. The thought of his men almost broke his heart, and, stopping short, he said aloud in a voice full of compassion,
"Poor devils! what a lot of cow beef they'll have to swallow for those two thousand francs!"
CHAPTER III AGAIN?
The regiment was altogether nonplused: Burle had quarreled with Melanie. When a week had elapsed it became a proved and undeniable fact; the captain no longer set foot inside the Cafe de Paris, where the chemist, it was averred, once more reigned in his stead, to the profound sorrow of the retired magistrate. An even more incredible statement was that Captain Burle led the life of a recluse in the Rue des Recollets. He was becoming a reformed character; he spent his evenings at his own fireside, hearing little Charles repeat his lessons. His mother, who had never breathed a word to him of his manipulations with Gagneux, maintained her old severity of demeanor as she sat opposite to him in her armchair, but her looks seemed to imply that she believed him reclaimed.
A fortnight later Major Laguitte came one evening to invite himself to dinner. He felt some awkwardness at the prospect of meeting Burle again, not on his own account but because he dreaded awakening painful memories. However, as the captain was mending his ways he wished to shake hands and break a crust with him. He thought this would please his old friend. When Laguitte arrived Burle was in his room, so it was the old lady who received the major. The latter, after announcing that he had come to have a plate of soup with them, added,
lowering his voice,
"Well, how goes it?"
"It is all right," answered the old lady. "Nothing queer?"
"Absolutely nothing. Never away – in bed at nine – and looking quite happy."
"Ah, confound it," replied the major, "I knew very well he only wanted a shaking. He has some heart left, the dog!"
When Burle appeared he almost crushed the major's hands in his grasp, and standing before the fire, waiting for the dinner, they conversed peacefully, honestly, together, extolling the charms of home life. The captain vowed he wouldn't exchange his home for a kingdom and declared that when he had removed his braces, put on his slippers and settled himself in his armchair, no king was fit to hold a candle to him. The major assented and examined him. At all events his virtuous conduct had not made him any thinner; he still looked bloated; his eyes were bleared, and his mouth was heavy. He seemed to be half asleep as he repeated mechanically,
"Home life! There's nothing like home life, nothing in the world!"
"No doubt," said the major; "still, one mustn't exaggerate – take a little exercise and come to the cafe now and then."
"To the cafe, why?"
"Do I lack anything here? No, no, I remain at home."
When Charles had laid his books aside Laguitte was surprised to see a maid come in to lay the cloth.
"So you keep a servant now," he remarked to Mme Burle.
"I had to get one," she answered with a sigh.
"My legs are not what they used to be, and the household was going to rack and ruin. Fortunately, Cabrol let me have his daughter. You know old Cabrol, who sweeps the market? He did not know what to do with Rose – I am teaching her how to work."
Just then the girl left the room.
"How old is she?"
asked the major.
"Barely seventeen. She is stupid and dirty, but I only give her ten francs a month, and she eats nothing but soup."
When Rose returned with an armful of plates Laguitte, though he did not care about women, began to scrutinise her and was amazed at seeing so ugly a creature. She was very short, very dark and slightly deformed, with a face like an ape's: a flat nose, a huge mouth and narrow greenish eyes. Her broad back and long arms gave her an appearance of great strength.
"What a snout!" said Laguitte, laughing, when the maid had again left the room to fetch the cruets.
"Never mind," said Burle carelessly, "she is very obliging and does all one asks her. She suits us well enough as a scullion."
The dinner was very pleasant. It consisted of boiled beef and mutton hash. Charles was encouraged to relate some stories of his school, and Mme Burle repeatedly asked him the same question,
"Don't you want to be a soldier?"
A faint smile hovered over the child's wan lips as he answered with the frightened obedience of a trained dog, "Oh yes, Grandmother."
Captain Burle, with his elbows on the table, was masticating slowly with an absent-minded expression. The big room was getting warmer; the single lamp placed on the table left the corners in vague gloom.
There was a certain amount of heavy comfort, the familiar understanding of penurious people who do not change their plates at every course but become joyously excited at the unexpected appearance of a bowl of whipped egg cream at the close of the meal. Rose, whose heavy tread shook the floor as she paced round the table, had not yet opened her mouth.
At last she stopped behind the captain's chair and asked in a gruff voice,
"Cheese, sir?" Burle started.