Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant

A Sale

The defendants, Cesaire-Isidore Brument and Prosper-Napoleon Cornu, appeared before the Court of Assizes of the Seine-Inferieure, on a charge of attempted murder, by drowning, of Mme. Brument, lawful wife of the first of the aforenamed.

The two prisoners sat side by side on the traditional bench. They were two peasants; the first was small and stout, with short arms, short legs, and a round head with a red pimply face, planted directly on his trunk, which was also round and short, and with apparently no neck. He was a raiser of pigs and lived at Cacheville-la-Goupil, in the district of Criquetot.

Cornu (Prosper-Napoleon) was thin, of medium height, with enormously long arms. His head was on crooked, his jaw awry, and he squinted. A blue blouse, as long as a shirt, hung down to his knees, and his yellow hair, which was scanty and plastered down on his head, gave his face a worn-out, dirty look, a dilapidated look that was frightful. He had been nicknamed “the cure” because he could imitate to perfection the chanting in church, and even the sound of the serpent. This talent attracted to his cafe — for he was a saloon keeper at Criquetot — a great many customers who preferred the “mass at Cornu” to the mass in church.

Mme. Brument, seated on the witness bench, was a thin peasant woman who seemed to be always asleep. She sat there motionless, her hands crossed on her knees, gazing fixedly before her with a stupid expression.

The judge continued his interrogation.

“Well, then, Mme. Brument, they came into your house and threw you into a barrel full of water. Tell us the details. Stand up.”

She rose. She looked as tall as a flag pole with her cap which looked like a white skull cap. She said in a drawling tone:

“I was shelling beans. Just then they came in. I said to myself, ‘What is the matter with them? They do not seem natural, they seem up to some mischief.’ They watched me sideways, like this, especially Cornu, because he squints. I do not like to see them together, for they are two good-for-nothings when they are in company. I said: ‘What do you want with me?’ They did not answer. I had a sort of mistrust ——”

The defendant Brument interrupted the witness hastily, saying:

“I was full.”

Then Cornu, turning towards his accomplice said in the deep tones of an organ:

“Say that we were both full, and you will be telling no lie.”

The judge, severely:

“You mean by that that you were both drunk?”

Brument: “There can be no question about it.”

Cornu: “That might happen to anyone.”

The judge to the victim: “Continue your testimony, woman Brument.”

“Well, Brument said to me, ‘Do you wish to earn a hundred sous?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, seeing that a hundred sous are not picked up in a horse’s tracks. Then he said: ‘Open your eyes and do as I do,’ and he went to fetch the large empty barrel which is under the rain pipe in the corner, and he turned it over and brought it into my kitchen, and stuck it down in the middle of the floor, and then he said to me: ‘Go and fetch water until it is full.’

“So I went to the pond with two pails and carried water, and still more water for an hour, seeing that the barrel was as large as a vat, saving your presence, m’sieu le president.

“All this time Brument and Cornu were drinking a glass, and then another glass, and then another. They were finishing their drinks when I said to them: ‘You are full, fuller than this barrel.’ And Brument answered me. ‘Do not worry, go on with your work, your turn will come, each one has his share.’ I paid no attention to what he said as he was full.

“When the barrel was full to the brim, I said: ‘There, that’s done.’

“And then Cornu gave me a hundred sous, not Brument, Cornu; it was Cornu gave them to me. And Brument said: ‘Do you wish to earn a hundred sous more?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, for I am not accustomed to presents like that. Then he said: ‘Take off your clothes!

“‘Take off my clothes?’

“‘Yes,’ he said.

“‘How many shall I take off?’

“‘If it worries you at all, keep on your chemise, that won’t bother us.’

“A hundred sous is a hundred sous, and I have to undress myself; but I did not fancy undressing before those two good-for-nothings. I took off my cap, and then my jacket, and then my skirt, and then my sabots. Brument said, ‘Keep on your stockings, also; we are good fellows.’

“And Cornu said, too, ‘We are good fellows.’

“So there I was, almost like mother Eve. And they got up from their chairs, but could not stand straight, they were so full, saving your presence, M’sieu le president.

“I said to myself: ‘What are they up to?’

“And Brument said: ‘Are you ready?’

“And Cornu said: ‘I’m ready!’

“And then they took me, Brument by the head, and Cornu by the feet, as one might take, for instance, a sheet that has been washed. Then I began to bawl.

“And Brument said: ‘Keep still, wretched creature!’

“And they lifted me up in the air and put me into the barrel, which was full of water, so that I had a check of the circulation, a chill to my very insides.

“And Brument said: ‘Is that all?’

“Cornu said: ‘That is all.’

“Brument said: ‘The head is not in, that will make a difference in the measure.’

“Cornu said: ‘Put in her head.’

“And then Brument pushed down my head as if to drown me, so that the water ran into my nose, so that I could already see Paradise. And he pushed it down, and I disappeared.

“And then he must have been frightened. He pulled me out and said: ‘Go and get dry, carcass.’

“As for me, I took to my heels and ran as far as M. le cure’s. He lent me a skirt belonging to his servant, for I was almost in a state of nature, and he went to fetch Maitre Chicot, the country watchman who went to Criquetot to fetch the police who came to my house with me.

“Then we found Brument and Cornu fighting each other like two rams.

“Brument was bawling: ‘It isn’t true, I tell you that there is at least a cubic metre in it. It is the method that was no good.’

“Cornu bawled: ‘Four pails, that is almost half a cubic metre. You need not reply, that’s what it is.’

“The police captain put them both under arrest. I have no more to tell.”

She sat down. The audience in the court room laughed. The jurors looked at one another in astonishment. The judge said:

“Defendant Cornu, you seem to have been the instigator of this infamous plot. What have you to say?”

And Cornu rose in his turn.

“Judge,” he replied, “I was full.”

The Judge answered gravely:

“I know it. Proceed.”

“I will. Well, Brument came to my place about nine o’clock, and ordered two drinks, and said: ‘There’s one for you, Cornu.’ I sat down opposite him and drank, and out of politeness, I offered him a glass. Then he returned the compliment and so did I, and so it went on from glass to glass until noon, when we were full.

“Then Brument began to cry. That touched me. I asked him what was the matter. He said: ‘I must have a thousand francs by Thursday.’ That cooled me off a little, you understand. Then he said to me all at once: ‘I will sell you my wife.’

“I was full, and I was a widower. You understand, that stirred me up. I did not know his wife, but she was a woman, wasn’t she? I asked him: ‘How much would you sell her for?’

“He reflected, or pretended to reflect. When one is full one is not very clear-headed, and he replied: ‘I will sell her by the cubic metre.’

“That did not surprise me, for I was as drunk as he was, and I knew what a cubic metre is in my business. It is a thousand litres, that suited me.

“But the price remained to be settled. All depends on the quality. I said: ‘How much do you want a cubic metre?’

“He answered: ‘Two thousand francs.’

“I gave a bound like a rabbit, and then I reflected that a woman ought not to measure more than three hundred litres. So I said: ‘That’s too dear.’

“He answered: ‘I cannot do it for less. I should lose by it.’

“You understand, one is not a dealer in hogs for nothing. One understands one’s business. But, if he is smart, the seller of bacon, I am smarter, seeing that I sell them also. Ha, Ha, Ha! So I said to him: ‘If she were new, I would not say anything, but she has been married to you for some time, so she is not as fresh as she was. I will give you fifteen hundred francs a cubic metre, not a sou more. Will that suit you?’

“He answered: ‘That will do. That’s a bargain!’

“I agreed, and we started out, arm in arm. We must help each other in this world.

“But a fear came to me: ‘How can you measure her unless you put her into the liquid?’

“Then he explained his idea, not without difficulty for he was full. He said to me: ‘I take a barrel, and fill it with water to the brim. I put her in it. All the water that comes out we will measure, that is the way to fix it.’

“I said: ‘I see, I understand. But this water that overflows will run away; how are you going to gather it up?’

“Then he began stuffing me and explained to me that all we should have to do would be to refill the barrel with the water his wife had displaced as soon as she should have left. All the water we should pour in would be the measure. I supposed about ten pails; that would be a cubic metre. He isn’t a fool, all the same, when he is drunk, that old horse.

“To be brief, we reached his house and I took a look at its mistress. A beautiful woman she certainly was not. Anyone can see her, for there she is. I said to myself: ‘I am disappointed, but never mind, she will be of value; handsome or ugly, it is all the same, is it not, monsieur le president?’ And then I saw that she was as thin as a rail. I said to myself: ‘She will not measure four hundred litres.’ I understand the matter, it being in liquids.

“She told you about the proceeding. I even let her keep on her chemise and stockings, to my own disadvantage.

“When that was done she ran away. I said: ‘Look out, Brument! she is escaping.’

“He replied: ‘Do not be afraid. I will catch her all right. She will have to come back to sleep, I will measure the deficit.’

“We measured. Not four pailfuls. Ha, Ha, Ha!”

The witness began to laugh so persistently that a gendarme was obliged to punch him in the back. Having quieted down, he resumed:

“In short, Brument exclaimed: ‘Nothing doing, that is not enough.’ I bawled and bawled, and bawled again, he punched me, I hit back. That would have kept on till the Day of judgment, seeing we were both drunk.

“Then came the gendarmes! They swore at us, they took us off to prison. I want damages.”

He sat down.

Brument confirmed in every particular the statements of his accomplice. The jury, in consternation, retired to deliberate.

At the end of an hour they returned a verdict of acquittal for the defendants, with some severe strictures on the dignity of marriage, and establishing the precise limitations of business transactions.

Brument went home to the domestic roof accompanied by his wife.

Cornu went back to his business.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09