by Emile Zola
CHAPTER I. THE SWINDLE
It was nine o'clock. The little town of Vauchamp, dark and silent,
had just retired to bed amid a chilly November rain. In the Rue des
Recollets, one of the narrowest and most deserted streets of the
district of Saint-Jean, a single window was still alight on the
third floor of an old house, from whose damaged gutters torrents of
water were falling into the street. Mme Burle was sitting up before
a meager fire of vine stocks, while her little grandson Charles
pored over his lessons by the pale light of a lamp.
The apartment, rented at one hundred and sixty francs per annum,
consisted of four large rooms which it was absolutely impossible to
keep warm during the winter. Mme Burle slept in the largest
chamber, her son Captain and Quartermaster Burle occupying a
somewhat smaller one overlooking the street, while little Charles
had his iron cot at the farther end of a spacious drawing room with
mildewed hangings, which was never used. The few pieces of
furniture belonging to the captain and his mother, furniture of the
massive style of the First Empire, dented and worn by continuous
transit from one garrison town to another, almost disappeared from
view beneath the lofty ceilings whence darkness fell. The flooring
of red-colored tiles was cold and hard to the feet; before the
chairs there were merely a few threadbare little rugs of poverty-
stricken aspect, and athwart this desert all the winds of heaven
blew through the disjointed doors and windows.
Near the fireplace sat Mme Burle, leaning back in her old yellow
velvet armchair and watching the last vine branch smoke, with that
stolid, blank stare of the aged who live within themselves. She
would sit thus for whole days together, with her tall figure, her
long stern face and her thin lips that never smiled. The widow of a
colonel who had died just as he was on the point of becoming a
general, the mother of a captain whom she had followed even in his
campaigns, she had acquired a military stiffness of bearing and
formed for herself a code of honor, duty and patriotism which kept
her rigid, desiccated, as it were, by the stern application of
discipline. She seldom, if ever, complained. When her son had
become a widower after five years of married life she had undertaken
the education of little Charles as a matter of course, performing
her duties with the severity of a sergeant drilling recruits. She
watched over the child, never tolerating the slightest waywardness
or irregularity, but compelling him to sit up till midnight when his
exercises were not finished, and sitting up herself until he had
completed them. Under such implacable despotism Charles, whose
constitution was delicate, grew up pale and thin, with beautiful
eyes, inordinately large and clear, shining in his white, pinched
During the long hours of silence Mme Burle dwelt continuously upon
one and the same idea: she had been disappointed in her son. This
thought sufficed to occupy her mind, and under its influence she
would live her whole life over again, from the birth of her son,
whom she had pictured rising amid glory to the highest rank, till
she came down to mean and narrow garrison life, the dull, monotonous
existence of nowadays, that stranding in the post of a
quartermaster, from which Burle would never rise and in which he
seemed to sink more and more heavily. And yet his first efforts had
filled her with pride, and she had hoped to see her dreams realized.
Burle had only just left Saint-Cyr when he distinguished himself at
the battle of Solferino, where he had captured a whole battery of
the enemy's artiliery with merely a handful of men. For this feat
he had won the cross; the papers had recorded his heroism, and he
had become known as one of the bravest soldiers in the army. But
gradually the hero had grown stout, embedded in flesh, timorous,
lazy and satisfied. In 1870, still a captain, he had been made a
prisoner in the first encounter, and he returned from Germany quite
furious, swearing that he would never be caught fighting again, for
it was too absurd. Being prevented from leaving the army, as he was
incapable of embracing any other profession, he applied for and
obtained the position of captain quartermaster, "a kennel," as he
called it, "in which he would be left to kick the bucket in peace."
That day Mme Burle experienced a great internal disruption. She
felt that it was all over, and she ever afterward preserved a rigid
attitude with tightened lips.
A blast of wind shook the Rue des Recollets and drove the rain
angrily against the windowpanes. The old lady lifted her eyes from
the smoking vine roots now dying out, to make sure that Charles was
not falling asleep over his Latin exercise. This lad, twelve years
of age, had become the old lady's supreme hope, the one human being
in whom she centered her obstinate yearning for glory. At first she
had hated him with all the loathing she had felt for his mother, a
weak and pretty young lacemaker whom the captain had been foolish
enough to marry when he found out that she would not listen to his
passionate addresses on any other condition. Later on, when the
mother had died and the father had begun to wallow in vice, Mme
Burle dreamed again in presence of that little ailing child whom she
found it so hard to rear. She wanted to see him robust, so that he
might grow into the hero that Burle had declined to be, and for all
her cold ruggedness she watched him anxiously, feeling his limbs and
instilling courage into his soul. By degrees, blinded by her
passionate desires, she imagined that she had at last found the man
of the family. The boy, whose temperament was of a gentle, dreamy
character, had a physical horror of soldiering, but as he lived in
mortal dread of his grandmother and was extremely shy and
submissive, he would echo all she said and resignedly express his
intention of entering the army when he grew up.
Mme Burle observed that the exercise was not progressing. In fact,
little Charles, overcome by the deafening noise of the storm, was
dozing, albeit his pen was between his fingers and his eyes were
staring at the paper. The old lady at once struck the edge of the
table with her bony hand; whereupon the lad started, opened his
dictionary and hurriedly began to turn over the leaves. Then, still
preserving silence, his grandmother drew the vine roots together on
the hearth and unsuccessfully attempted to rekindle the fire.
At the time when she had still believed in her son she had
sacrificed her small income, which he had squandered in pursuits she
dared not investigate. Even now he drained the household; all its
resources went to the streets, and it was through him that she lived
in penury, with empty rooms and cold kitchen. She never spoke to
him of all those things, for with her sense of discipline he
remained the master. Only at times she shuddered at the sudden fear
that Burle might someday commit some foolish misdeed which would
prevent Charles from entering the army.
She was rising up to fetch a fresh piece of wood in the kitchen when
a fearful hurricane fell upon the house, making the doors rattle,
tearing off a shutter and whirling the water in the broken gutters
like a spout against the window. In the midst of the uproar a ring
at the bell startled the old lady. Who could it be at such an hour
and in such weather? Burle never returned till after midnight, if
he came home at all. However, she went to the door. An officer
stood before her, dripping with rain and swearing savagely.
"Hell and thunder!" he growled. "What cursed weather!"
It was Major Laguitte, a brave old soldier who had served under
Colonel Burle during Mme Burle's palmy days. He had started in life
as a drummer boy and, thanks to his courage rather than his
intellect, had attained to the command of a battalion, when a
painful infirmity--the contraction of the muscles of one of his
thighs, due to a wound--obliged him to accept the post of major. He
was slightly lame, but it would have been imprudent to tell him so,
as he refused to own it.
"What, you, Major?" said Mme Burle with growing astonishment.
"Yes, thunder," grumbled Laguitte, "and I must be confoundedly fond
of you to roam the streets on such a night as this. One would think
twice before sending even a parson out."
He shook himself, and little rivulets fell from his huge boots onto
the floor. Then he looked round him.
"I particularly want to see Burle. Is the lazy beggar already in
"No, he is not in yet," said the old woman in her harsh voice.
The major looked furious, and, raising his voice, he shouted: "What,
not at home? But in that case they hoaxed me at the cafe, Melanie's
establishment, you know. I went there, and a maid grinned at me,
saying that the captain had gone home to bed. Curse the girl! I
suspected as much and felt like pulling her ears!"
After this outburst he became somewhat calmer, stamping about the
room in an undecided way, withal seeming greatly disturbed. Mme
Burle looked at him attentively.
"Is it the captain personally whom you want to see?" she said at
"Yes," he answered.
"Can I not tell him what you have to say?"
She did not insist but remained standing without taking her eyes off
the major, who did not seem able to make up his mind to leave.
Finally in a fresh burst of rage he exclaimed with an oath: "It
can't be helped. As I am here yot may as well know--after all, it
is, perhaps, best."
He sat down before the chimney piece, stretching out his muddy boots
as if a bright fire had been burning. Mme Burle was about to resume
her own seat when she remarked that Charles, overcome by fatigue,
had dropped his head between the open pages of his dictionary. The
arrival of the major had at first interested him, but, seeing that
he remained unnoticed, he had been unable to struggle against his
sleepiness. His grandmother turned toward the table to slap his
frail little hands, whitening in the lamplight, when Laguitte
"No--no!" he said. "Let the poor little man sleep. I haven't got
anything funny to say. There's no need for him to hear me."
The old lady sat down in her armchair; deep silence reigned, and
they looked at one another.
"Well, yes," said the major at last, punctuating his words with an
angry motion of his chin, "he has been and done it; that hound Burle
has been and done it!"
Not a muscle of Mme Burle's face moved, but she became livid, and
her figure stiffened. Then the major continued: "I had my doubts.
I had intended mentioning the subject to you. Burle was spending
too much money, and he had an idiotic look which I did not fancy.
Thunder and lightning! What a fool a man must be to behave so
Then he thumped his knee furiously with his clenched fist and seemed
to choke with indignation. The old woman put the straightforward
"He has stolen?"
"You can't have an idea of it. You see, I never examined his
accounts; I approved and signed them. You know how those things are
managed. However, just before the inspection--as the colonel is a
crotchety old maniac--I said to Burle: 'I say, old man, look to your
accounts; I am answerable, you know,' and then I felt perfectly
secure. Well, about a month ago, as he seemed queer and some nasty
stories were circulating, I peered a little closer into the books
and pottered over the entries. I thought everything looked straight
and very well kept--"
At this point he stopped, convulsed by such a fit of rage that he
had to relieve himself by a volley of appalling oaths. Finally he
resumed: "It isn't the swindle that angers me; it is his disgusting
behavior to me. He has gammoned me, Madame Burle. By God! Does he
take me for an old fool?"
"So he stole?" the mother again questioned.
"This evening," continued the major more quietly, "I had just
finished my dinner when Gagneux came in--you know Gagneux, the
butcher at the corner of the Place aux Herbes? Another dirty beast
who got the meat contract and makes our men eat all the diseased cow
flesh in the neighborhood! 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. 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, 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
"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
"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:
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.
CHAPTER II. THE CAFE
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. Rumor 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 entertaining 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
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 women. In his regiment he had been nicknamed
"Petticoat Burle" on account of his constant philandering. Whenever
the officers, and even the privates, met some monstrous-looking
creature, some giantess puffed out with fat, whether she were in
velvet or in rags, they would invariably exclaim, "There goes one to
Petticoat 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 to vacuous imbecility. 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 masculine 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:
"Petticoat 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 grog 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; ain't it nice, you greedy piggy-
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
Burle shuddered, pushing the grog 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 pig!"
The captain, quite dazed, endeavored 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. Do you call that proper behavior? 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
"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 honor
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
"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,
"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
"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 scoundrel 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 hole I--"
"No fear!" answered the captain without letting his friend finish
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 bed tonight."
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 take 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
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: Petticoat 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.
"Absolutely nothing. Never away--in bed at nine--and looking quite
"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?" asked Burle. "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 scrutinize 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 intimacy 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. "What, eh? Oh yes--cheese. Hold the plate tight."
He cut a piece of Gruyere, the girl watching him the while with her
narrow eyes. Laguitte laughed; Rose's unparalleled ugliness amused
him immensely. He whispered in the captain's ear, "She is ripping!
There never was such a nose and such a mouth! You ought to send her
to the colonel's someday as a curiosity. It would amuse him to see
More and more struck by this phenomenal ugliness, the major felt a
paternal desire to examine the girl more closely.
"Come here," he said, "I want some cheese too."
She brought the plate, and Laguitte, sticking the knife in the
Gruyere, stared at her, grinning the while because he discovered
that she had one nostril broader than the other. Rose gravely
allowed herself to be looked at, waiting till the gentleman had done
She removed the cloth and disappeared. Burle immediately went to
sleep in the chimney corner while the major and Mme Burle began to
chat. Charles had returned to his exercises. Quietude fell from
the loft ceiling; the quietude of a middle-class household gathered
in concord around their fireside. At nine o'clock Burle woke up,
yawned and announced that he was going off to bed; he apologized but
declared that he could not keep his eyes open. Half an hour later,
when the major took his leave, Mme Burle vainly called for Rose to
light him downstairs; the girl must have gone up to her room; she
was, indeed, a regular hen, snoring the round of the clock without
"No need to disturb anybody," said Laguitte on the landing; "my legs
are not much better than yours, but if I get hold of the banisters I
shan't break any bones. Now, my dear lady, I leave you happy; your
troubles are ended at last. I watched Burle closely, and I'll take
my oath that he's guileless as a child. Dash it--after all, it was
high time for Petticoat Burle to reform; he was going downhill
The major went away fully satisfied with the house and its inmates;
the walls were of glass and could harbor no equivocal conduct. What
particularly delighted him in his friend's return to virtue was that
it absolved him from the obligation of verifying the accounts.
Nothing was more distasteful to him than the inspection of a number
of ledgers, and as long as Burle kept steady, he--Laguitte--could
smoke his pipe in peace and sign the books in all confidence.
However, he continued to keep one eye open for a little while longer
and found the receipts genuine, the entries correct, the columns
admirably balanced. A month later he contented himself with
glancing at the receipts and running his eye over the totals. Then
one morning, without the slightest suspicion of there being anything
wrong, simply because he had lit a second pipe and had nothing to
do, he carelessly added up a row of figures and fancied that he
detected an error of thirteen francs. The balance seemed perfectly
correct, and yet he was not mistaken; the total outlay was thirteen
francs more than the various sums for which receipts were furnished.
It looked queer, but he said nothing to Burle, just making up his
mind to examine the next accounts closely. On the following week he
detected a fresh error of nineteen francs, and then, suddenly
becoming alarmed, he shut himself up with the books and spent a
wretched morning poring over them, perspiring, swearing and feeling
as if his very skull were bursting with the figures. At every page
he discovered thefts of a few francs--the most miserable petty
thefts--ten, eight, eleven francs, latterly, three and four; and,
indeed, there was one column showing that Burle had pilfered just
one franc and a half. For two months, however, he had been steadily
robbing the cashbox, and by comparing dates the major found to his
disgust that the famous lesson respecting Gagneux had only kept him
straight for one week! This last discovery infuriated Laguitte, who
struck the books with his clenched fists, yelling through a shower
"This is more abominable still! At least there was some pluck about
those forged receipts of Gagneux. But this time he is as
contemptible as a cook charging twopence extra for her cabbages.
Powers of hell! To pilfer a franc and a half and clap it in his
pocket! Hasn't the brute got any pride then? Couldn't he run away
with the safe or play the fool with actresses?"
The pitiful meanness of these pilferings revolted the major, and,
moreover, he was enraged at having been duped a second time,
deceived by the simple, stupid dodge of falsified additions. He
rose at last and paced his office for a whole hour, growling aloud.
"This gives me his measure. Even if I were to thresh him to a jelly
every morning he would still drop a couple of coins into his pocket
every afternoon. But where can he spend it all? He is never seen
abroad; he goes to bed at nine, and everything looks so clean and
proper over there. Can the brute have vices that nobody knows of?"
He returned to the desk, added up the subtracted money and found a
total of five hundred and forty-five francs. Where was this
deficiency to come from? The inspection was close at hand, and if
the crotchety colonel should take it into his head to examine a
single page, the murder would be out and Burle would be done for.
This idea froze the major, who left off cursing, picturing Mme Burle
erect and despairing, and at the same time he felt his heart swell
with personal grief and shame.
"Well," he muttered, "I must first of all look into the rogue's
business; I will act afterward."
As he walked over to Burle's office he caught sight of a skirt
vanishing through the doorway. Fancying that he had a clue to the
mystery, he slipped up quietly and listened and speedily recognized
Melanie's shrill voice. She was complaining of the gentlemen of the
divan. She had signed a promissory note which she was unable to
meet; the bailiffs were in the house, and all her goods would be
sold. The captain, however, barely replied to her. He alleged that
he had no money, whereupon she burst into tears and began to coax
him. But her blandishments were apparently ineffectual, for Burle's
husky voice could be heard repeating, "Impossible! Impossible!"
And finally the widow withdrew in a towering passion. The major,
amazed at the turn affairs were taking, waited a few moments longer
before entering the office, where Burle had remained alone. He
found him very calm, and despite his furious inclination to call him
names he also remained calm, determined to begin by finding out the
The office certainly did not look like a swindler's den. A cane-
seated chair, covered with an honest leather cushion, stood before
the captain's desk, and in a corner there was the locked safe.
Summer was coming on, and the song of a canary sounded through the
open window. The apartment was very neat and tidy, redolent of old
papers, and altogether its appearance inspired one with confidence.
"Wasn't it Melanie who was leaving here as I came along?" asked
Burle shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes," he mumbled. "She has been dunning me for two hundred francs,
but she can't screw ten out of me--not even tenpence."
"Indeed!" said the major, just to try him. "I heard that you had
made up with her."
"I? Certainly not. I have done with the likes of her for good."
Laguitte went away, feeling greatly perplexed. Where had the five
hundred and forty-five francs gone? Had the idiot taken to drinking
or gambling? He decided to pay Burle a surprise visit that very
evening at his own house, and maybe by questioning his mother he
might learn something. However, during the afternoon his leg became
very painful; latterly he had been feeling in ill-health, and he had
to use a stick so as not to limp too outrageously. This stick
grieved him sorely, and he declared with angry despair that he was
now no better than a pensioner. However, toward the evening, making
a strong effort, he pulled himself out of his armchair and, leaning
heavily on his stick, dragged himself through the darkness to the
Rue des Recollets, which he reached about nine o'clock. The street
door was still unlocked, and on going up he stood panting on the
third landing, when he heard voices on the upper floor. One of
these voices was Burle's, so he fancied, and out of curiosity he
ascended another flight of stairs. Then at the end of a passage on
the left he saw a ray of light coming from a door which stood ajar.
As the creaking of his boots resounded, this door was sharply
closed, and he found himself in the dark.
"Some cook going to bed!" he muttered angrily. "I'm a fool."
All the same he groped his way as gently as possible to the door and
listened. Two people were talking in the room, and he stood aghast,
for it was Burle and that fright Rose! Then he listened, and the
conversation he heard left him no doubt of the awful truth. For a
moment he lifted his stick as if to beat down the door. Then he
shuddered and, staggering back, leaned against the wall. His legs
were trembling under him, while in the darkness of the staircase he
brandished his stick as if it had been a saber.
What was to be done? After his first moment of passion there had
come thoughts of the poor old lady below. And these made him
hesitate. It was all over with the captain now; when a man sank as
low as that he was hardly worth the few shovelfuls of earth that are
thrown over carrion to prevent them from polluting the atmosphere.
Whatever might be said of Burle, however much one might try to shame
him, he would assuredly begin the next day. Ah, heavens, to think
of it! The money! The honor of the army! The name of Burle, that
respected name, dragged through the mire! By all that was holy this
could and should not be!
Presently the major softened. If he had only possessed five hundred
and forty-five francs! But he had not got such an amount. On the
previous day he had drunk too much cognac, just like a mere sub, and
had lost shockingly at cards. It served him right--he ought to have
known better! And if he was so lame he richly deserved it too; by
rights, in fact, his leg ought to be much worse.
At last he crept downstairs and rang at the bell of Mme Burle's
flat. Five minutes elapsed, and then the old lady appeared.
"I beg your pardon for keeping you waiting," she said; "I thought
that dormouse Rose was still about. I must go and shake her."
But the major detained her.
"Where is Burle?" he asked.
"Oh, he has been snoring since nine o'clock. Would you like to
knock at his door?"
"No, no, I only wanted to have a chat with you."
In the parlor Charles sat at his usual place, having just finished
his exercises. He looked terrified, and his poor little white hands
were tremulous. In point of fact, his grandmother, before sending
him to bed, was wont to read some martial stories aloud so as to
develop the latent family heroism in his bosom. That night she had
selected the episode of the Vengeur, the man-of-war freighted with
dying heroes and sinking into the sea. The child, while listening,
had become almost hysterical, and his head was racked as with some
Mme Burle asked the major to let her finish the perusal. "Long live
the republic!" She solemniy closed the volune. Charles was as
white as a sheet.
"You see," said the old lady, "the duty of every French soldier is
to die for his country."
Then the lad kissed her on the forehead and, shivering with fear,
went to bed in his big room, where the faintest creak of the
paneling threw him into a cold sweat.
The major had listened with a grave face. Yes, by heavens! Honor
was honor, and he would never permit that wretched Burle to disgrace
the old woman and the boy! As the lad was so devoted to the
military profession, it was necessary that he should be able to
enter Saint-Cyr with his head erect.
When Mme Burle took up the lamp to show the major out, she passed
the door of the captain's room, and stopped short, surprised to see
the key outside, which was a most unusual occurrence.
"Do go in," she said to Laguitte; "it is bad for him to sleep so
And before he could interpose she had opened the door and stood
transfixed on finding the room empty. Laguitte turned crimson and
looked so foolish that she suddenly understood everything,
enlightened by the sudden recollection of several little incidents
to which she had previously attached no importance.
"You knew it--you knew it!" she stanmered. "Why was I not told?
Oh, my God, to think of it! Ah, he has been stealing again--I feel
She remained erect, white and rigid. Then she added in a harsh
"Look you--I wish he were dead!"
Laguitte caught hold of both her hands, which for a moment he kept
tightly clasped in his own. Then he left her hurriedly, for he felt
a lump rising in his throat and tears coming to his eyes. Ah, by
all the powers, this time his mind was quite made up.
CHAPTER IV. INSPECTION
The regimental inspection was to take place at the end of the month.
The major had ten days before him. On the very next morning,
however, he crawled, limping, as far as the Cafe de Paris, where he
ordered some beer. Melanie grew pale when she saw him enter, and it
was with a lively recollection of a certain slap that Phrosine
hastened to serve him. The major seemed very calm, however; he
called for a second chair to rest his bad leg upon and drank his
beer quietly like any other thirsty man. He had sat there for about
an hour when he saw two officers crossing the Place du Palais--
Morandot, who commanded one of the battalions of the regiment, and
Captain Doucet. Thereupon he excitedly waved his cane and shouted:
"Come in and have a glass of beer with me!"
The officers dared not refuse, but when the maid had brought the
beer Morandot said to the major: "So you patronize this place now?"
"Yes--the beer is good."
Captain Doucet winked and asked archly: "Do you belong to the divan,
Laguitte chuckled but did not answer. Then the others began to
chaff him about Melanie, and he took their remarks good-naturedly,
simply shrugging his shoulders. The widow was undoubtedly a fine
woman, however much people might talk. Some of those who disparaged
her would, in reality, be only too pleased to win her good graces.
Then turning to the little counter and assuming an engaging air, he
"Three more glasses, madame."
Melanie was so taken aback that she rose and brought the beer
herself. The major detained her at the table and forgot himself so
far as to softly pat the hand which she had carelessly placed on the
back of a chair. Used as she was to alternate brutality and
flattery, she immediately became confident, believing in a sudden
whim of gallantry on the part of the "old wreck," as she was wont to
style the major when talking with Phrosine. Doucet and Morandot
looked at each other in surprise. Was the major actually stepping
into Petticoat Burle's shoes? The regiment would be convulsed if
that were the case.
Suddenly, however, Laguitte, who kept his eye on the square, gave a
"Hallo, there's Burle!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, it is his time," explained Phrosine. "The captain passes
every afternoon on his way from the office."
In spite of his lameness the major had risen to his feet, pushing
aside the chairs as he called out: "Burle! I say--come along and
have a glass."
The captain, quite aghast and unable to understand why Laguitte was
at the widow's, advanced mechanically. He was so perplexed that he
again hesitated at the door.
"Another glass of beer," ordered the major, and then turning to
Burle, he added, "What's the matter with you? Come in. Are you
afraid of being eaten alive?"
The captain took a seat, and an awkward pause followed. Melanie,
who brought the beer with trembling hands, dreaded some scene which
might result in the closing of her establishment. The major's
gallantry made her uneasy, and she endeavored to slip away, but he
invited her to drink with them, and before she could refuse he had
ordered Phrosine to bring a liqueur glass of anisette, doing so with
as much coolness as if he had been master of the house. Melanie was
thus compelled to sit down between the captain and Laguitte, who
exclaimed aggressively: "I WILL have ladies respected. We are
French officers! Let us drink Madame's health!"
Burle, with his eyes fixed on his glass, smiled in an embarrassed
way. The two officers, shocked at the proceedings, had already
tried to get off. Fortunately the cafe was deserted, save that the
domino players were having their afternoon game. At every fresh
oath which came from the major they glanced around, scandalized by
such an unusual accession of customers and ready to threaten Melanie
that they would leave her for the Cafe de la Gare if the soldiery
was going to invade her place like flies that buzzed about,
attracted by the stickiness of the tables which Phrosine scoured
only on Saturdays. She was now reclining behind the counter,
already reading a novel again.
"How's this--you are not drinking with Madame?" roughly said the
major to Burle. "Be civil at least!"
Then as Doucet and Morandot were again preparing to leave, he
"Why can't you wait? We'll go together. It is only this brute who
never knows how to behave himself."
The two officers looked surprised at the major's sudden bad temper.
Melanie attempted to restore peace and with a light laugh placed her
hands on the arms of both men. However, Laguitte disengaged
"No," he roared, "leave me alone. Why does he refuse to chink
glasses with you? I shall not allow you to be insulted--do you
hear? 1 am quite sick of him."
Burle, paling under the insult, turned slightly and said to
Morandot, "What does this mean? He calls me in here to insult me.
Is he drunk?"
With a wild oath the major rose on his trembling legs and struck the
captain's cheek with his open hand. Melanie dived and thus escaped
one half of the smack. An appalling uproar ensued. Phrosine
screamed behind the counter as if she herself had received the blow;
the domino players also entrenched themselves behind their table in
fear lest the soldiers should draw their swords and massacre them.
However, Doucet and Morandot pinioned the captain to prevent him
from springing at the major's throat and forcibly let him to the
door. When they got him outside they succeeded in quieting him a
little by repeating that Laguitte was quite in the wrong. They
would lay the affair before the colonel, having witnessed it, and
the colonel would give his decision. As soon as they had got Burle
away they returned to the cafe where they found Laguitte in reality
greatly disturbed, with tears in his eyes but affecting stolid
indifference and slowly finishing his beer.
"Listen, Major," began Morandot, "that was very wrong on your part.
The captain is your inferior in rank, and you know that he won't be
allowed to fight you."
"That remains to be seen," answered the major.
"But how has he offended you? He never uttered a word. Two old
cornrades too; it is absurd."
The major made a vague gesture. "No matter. He annoyed me."
He could never be made to say anything else. Nothing more as to his
motive was ever known. All the same, the scandal was a terrible
one. The regiment was inclined to believe that Melanie, incensed by
the captain's defection, had contrived to entrap the major, telling
him some aboininable stories and prevailing upon him to insult and
strike Burle publicly. Who would have thought it of that old fogy
Laguitte, who professed to be a woman hater? they said. So he, too,
had been caught at last. Despite the general indignation against
Melanie, this adventure made her very conspicuous, and her
establishment soon drove a flourishing business.
On the following day the colonel summoned the major and the captain
into his presence. He censured them sternly, accusing them of
disgracing their uniform by frequenting unseemly haunts. What
resolution had they come to, he asked, as he could not authorize
them to fight? This same question had occupied the whole regiment
for the last twenty-four hours. Apologies were unacceptable on
account of the blow, but as Laguitte was almost unable to stand, it
was hoped that, should the colonel insist upon it, some
reconciliation might be patched up.
"Come," said the colonel, "will you accept me as arbitrator?"
"I beg your pardon, Colonel," interrupted the major; "I have brought
you my resignation. Here it is. That settles everything. Please
name the day for the duel."
Burle looked at Laguitte in amazement, and the colonel thought it
his duty to protest.
"This is a most serious step, Major," he began. "Two years more and
you would be entitled to your full pension."
But again did Laguitte cut him short, saying gruffly, "That is my
"Oh, certainly! Well, I will send in your resignation, and as soon
as it is accepted I will fix a day for the duel."
The unexpected turn that events had taken startled the regiment.
What possessed that lunatic major to persist in cutting the throat
of his old comrade Burle? The officers again discussed Melanie;
they even began to dream of her. There must surely be something
wonderful about her since she had completely fascinated two such
tough old veterans and brought them to a deadly feud. Morandot,
having met Laguitte, did not disguise his concern. If he--the
major--was not killed, what would he live upon? He had no fortune,
and the pension to which his cross of the Legion of Honor entitled
him, with the half of a full regimental pension which he would
obtain on resigning, would barely find him in bread. While Morandot
was thus speaking Laguitte simply stared before him with his round
eyes, persevering in the dumb obstinacy born of his narrow mind; and
when his companion tried to question him regarding his hatred for
Burle, he simply made the same vague gesture as before and once
"He annoyed me; so much the worse."
Every morning at mess and at the canteen the first words were: "Has
the acceptance of the major's resignation arrived?" The duel was
impatiently expected and ardently discussed. The majority believed
that Laguitte would be run through the body in three seconds, for it
was madness for a man to fight with a paralyzed leg which did not
even allow him to stand upright. A few, however, shook their heads.
Laguitte had never been a marvel of intellect, that was true; for
the last twenty years, indeed, he had been held up as an example of
stupidity, but there had been a time when he was known as the best
fencer of the regiment, and although he had begun as a drummer he
had won his epaulets as the commander of a battalion by the sanguine
bravery of a man who is quite unconscious of danger. On the other
hand, Burle fenced indifferently and passed for a poltroon.
However, they would soon know what to think.
Meanwhile the excitement became more and more intense as the
acceptance of Laguitte's resignation was so long in coming. The
major was unmistakably the most anxious and upset of everybody. A
week had passed by, and the general inspection would commence two
days later. Nothing, however, had come as yet. He shuddered at the
thought that he had, perhaps, struck his old friend and sent in his
resignation all in vain, without delaying the exposure for a single
minute. He had in reality reasoned thus: If he himself were killed
he would not have the worry of witnessing the scandal, and if he
killed Burle, as he expected to do, the affair would undoubtedly be
hushed up. Thus he would save the honor of the army, and the little
chap would be able to get in at Saint-Cyr. Ah, why wouldn't those
wretched scribblers at the War Office hurry up a bit? The major
could not keep still but was forever wandering about before the post
office, stopping the estafettes and questioning the colonel's
orderly to find out if the acceptance had arrived. He lost his
sleep and, careless as to people's remarks, he leaned more and more
heavily on his stick, hobbling about with no attempt to steady his
On the day before that fixed for the inspection he was, as usual, on
his way to the colonel's quarters when he paused, startled, to see
Mme Burle (who was taking Charles to school) a few paces ahead of
him. He had not met her since the scene at the Cafe de Paris, for
she had remained in seclusion at home. Unmanned at thus meeting
her, he stepped down to leave the whole sidewalk free. Neither he
nor the old lady bowed, and the little boy lifted his large
inquisitive eyes in mute surprise. Mme Burle, cold and erect,
brushed past the major without the least sign of emotion or
recognition. When she had passed he looked after her with an
expression of stupefied compassion.
"Confound it, I am no longer a man," he growled, dashing away a
When he arrived at the colonel's quarters a captain in attendance
greeted him with the words: "It's all right at last. The papers
"Ah!" murmured Laguitte, growing very pale.
And again he beheld the old lady walking on, relentlessly rigid and
holding the little boy's hand. What! He had longed so eagerly for
those papers for eight days past, and now when the scraps had come
he felt his brain on fire and his heart lacerated.
The duel took place on the morrow, in the barrack yard behind a low
wall. The air was keen, the sun shining brightly. Laguitte had
almost to be carried to the ground; one of his seconds supported him
on one side, while on the other he leaned heavily, on his stick.
Burle looked half asleep; his face was puffy with unhealthy fat, as
if he had spent a night of debauchery. Not a word was spoken. They
were all anxious to have it over.
Captain Doucet crossed the swords of the two adversaries and then
drew back, saying: "Set to, gentlemen."
Burle was the first to attack; he wanted to test Laguitte's strength
and ascertain what he had to expect. For the last ten days the
encounter had seemed to him a ghastly nightmare which he could not
fathom. At times a hideous suspicion assailed him, but he put it
aside with terror, for it meant death, and he refused to believe
that a friend could play him such a trick, even to set things right.
Besides, Laguitte's leg reasssured him; he would prick the major on
the shoulder, and then all would be over.
During well-nigh a couple of minutes the swords clashed, and then
the captain lunged, but the major, recovering his old suppleness of
wrist, parried in a masterly style, and if he had returned the
attack Burle would have been pierced through. The captain now fell
back; he was livid, for he felt that he was at the mercy of the man
who had just spared him. At last he understood that this was an
Laguitte, squarely poised on his infirm legs and seemingly turned to
stone, stood waiting. The two men looked at each other fixedly. In
Burle's blurred eyes there arose a supplication--a prayer for
pardon. He knew why he was going to die, and like a child he
promised not to transgress again. But the major's eyes remained
implacable; honor had spoken, and he silenced his emotion and his
"Let it end," he muttered between his teeth.
Then it was he who attacked. Like a flash of lightning his sword
flamed, flying from right to left, and then with a resistless thrust
it pierced the breast of the captain, who fell like a log without
even a groan.
Laguitte had released his hold upon his sword and stood gazing at
that poor old rascal Burle, who was stretched upon his back with his
fat stomach bulging out.
"Oh, my God! My God!" repeated the major furiously and
despairingly, and then he began to swear.
They led him away, and, both his legs failing him, he had to be
supported on either side, for he could not even use his stick.
Two months later the ex-major was crawling slowly along in the
sunlight down a lonely street of Vauchamp, when he again found
himself face to face with Mme Burle and little Charles. They were
both in deep mourning. He tried to avoid them, but he now only
walked with difficulty, and they advanced straight upon him without
hurrying or slackening their steps. Charles still had the same
gentle, girlish, frightened face, and Mme Burle retained her stern,
rigid demeanor, looking even harsher than ever.
As Laguitte shrank into the corner of a doorway to leave the whole
street to them, she abruptly stopped in front of him and stretched
out her hand. He hesitated and then took it and pressed it, but he
trembled so violently that he made the old lady's arm shake. They
exchanged glances in silence.
"Charles," said the boy's grandmother at last, "shake hands with the
major." The boy obeyed without understanding. The major, who was
very pale, barely ventured to touch the child's frail fingers; then,
feeling that he ought to speak, he stammered out: "You still intend
to send him to Saint-Cyr?"
"Of course, when he is old enough," answered Mme Burle.
But during the following week Charles was carried off by typhoid
fever. One evening his grandmother had again read him the story of
the Vengeur to make him bold, and in the night he had become
delirious. The poor little fellow died of fright.