Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant

Timbuctoo

The boulevard, that river of humanity, was alive with people in the golden light of the setting sun. The whole sky was red, blinding, and behind the Madeleine an immense bank of flaming clouds cast a shower of light the whole length of tile boulevard, vibrant as the heat from a brazier.

The gay, animated crowd went by in this golden mist and seemed to be glorified. Their faces were gilded, their black hats and clothes took on purple tints, the patent leather of their shoes cast bright reflections on the asphalt of the sidewalk.

Before the cafes a mass of men were drinking opalescent liquids that looked like precious stones dissolved in the glasses.

In the midst of the drinkers two officers in full uniform dazzled all eyes with their glittering gold lace. They chatted, happy without asking why, in this glory of life, in this radiant light of sunset, and they looked at the crowd, the leisurely men and the hurrying women who left a bewildering odor of perfume as they passed by.

All at once an enormous negro, dressed in black, with a paunch beneath his jean waistcoat, which was covered with charms, his face shining as if it had been polished, passed before them with a triumphant air. He laughed at the passers-by, at the news venders, at the dazzling sky, at the whole of Paris. He was so tall that he overtopped everyone else, and when he passed all the loungers turned round to look at his back.

But he suddenly perceived the officers and darted towards them, jostling the drinkers in his path. As soon as he reached their table he fixed his gleaming and delighted eyes upon them and the corners of his mouth expanded to his ears, showing his dazzling white teeth like a crescent moon in a black sky. The two men looked in astonishment at this ebony giant, unable to understand his delight.

With a voice that made all the guests laugh, he said:

“Good-day, my lieutenant.”

One of the officers was commander of a battalion, the other was a colonel. The former said:

“I do not know you, sir. I am at a loss to know what you want of me.”

“Me like you much, Lieutenant Vedie, siege of Bezi, much grapes, find me.”

The officer, utterly bewildered, looked at the man intently, trying to refresh his memory. Then he cried abruptly:

“Timbuctoo?”

The negro, radiant, slapped his thigh as he uttered a tremendous laugh and roared:

“Yes, yes, my lieutenant; you remember Timbuctoo, ya. How do you do?”

The commandant held out his hand, laughing heartily as he did so. Then Timbuctoo became serious. He seized the officer’s hand and, before the other could prevent it, he kissed it, according to negro and Arab custom. The officer embarrassed, said in a severe tone:

“Come now, Timbuctoo, we are not in Africa. Sit down there and tell me how it is I find you here.”

Timbuctoo swelled himself out and, his words falling over one another, replied hurriedly:

“Make much money, much, big restaurant, good food; Prussians, me, much steal, much, French cooking; Timbuctoo cook to the emperor; two thousand francs mine. Ha, ha, ha, ha!”

And he laughed, doubling himself up, roaring, with wild delight in his glances.

When the officer, who understood his strange manner of expressing himself, had questioned him he said:

“Well, au revoir, Timbuctoo. I will see you again.”

The negro rose, this time shaking the hand that was extended to him and, smiling still, cried:

“Good-day, good-day, my lieutenant!”

He went off so happy that he gesticulated as he walked, and people thought he was crazy.

“Who is that brute?” asked the colonel.

“A fine fellow and a brave soldier. I will tell you what I know about him. It is funny enough.

“You know that at the commencement of the war of 1870 I was shut up in Bezieres, that this negro calls Bezi. We were not besieged, but blockaded. The Prussian lines surrounded us on all sides, outside the reach of cannon, not firing on us, but slowly starving us out.

“I was then lieutenant. Our garrison consisted of soldier of all descriptions, fragments of slaughtered regiments, some that had run away, freebooters separated from the main army, etc. We had all kinds, in fact even eleven Turcos [Algerian soldiers in the service of France], who arrived one evening no one knew whence or how. They appeared at the gates of the city, exhausted, in rags, starving and dirty. They were handed over to me.

“I saw very soon that they were absolutely undisciplined, always in the street and always drunk. I tried putting them in the police station, even in prison, but nothing was of any use. They would disappear, sometimes for days at a time, as if they had been swallowed up by the earth, and then come back staggering drunk. They had no money. Where did they buy drink and how and with what?

“This began to worry me greatly, all the more as these savages interested me with their everlasting laugh and their characteristics of overgrown frolicsome children.

“I then noticed that they blindly obeyed the largest among them, the one you have just seen. He made them do as he pleased, planned their mysterious expeditions with the all-powerful and undisputed authority of a leader. I sent for him and questioned him. Our conversation lasted fully three hours, for it was hard for me to understand his remarkable gibberish. As for him, poor devil, he made unheard-of efforts to make himself intelligible, invented words, gesticulated, perspired in his anxiety, mopping his forehead, puffing, stopping and abruptly beginning again when he thought he had found a new method of explaining what he wanted to say.

“I gathered finally that he was the son of a big chief, a sort of negro king of the region around Timbuctoo. I asked him his name. He repeated something like ‘Chavaharibouhalikranafotapolara.’ It seemed simpler to me to give him the name of his native place, ‘Timbuctoo.’ And a week later he was known by no other name in the garrison.

“But we were all wildly anxious to find out where this African ex-prince procured his drinks. I discovered it in a singular manner.

“I was on the ramparts one morning, watching the horizon, when I perceived something moving about in a vineyard. It was near the time of vintage, the grapes were ripe, but I was not thinking of that. I thought that a spy was approaching the town, and I organized a complete expedition to catch the prowler. I took command myself, after obtaining permission from the general.

“I sent out by three different gates three little companies, which were to meet at the suspected vineyard and form a cordon round it. In order to cut off the spy’s retreat, one of these detachments had to make at least an hour’s march. A watch on the walls signalled to me that the person I had seen had not left the place. We went along in profound silence, creeping, almost crawling, along the ditches. At last we reached the spot assigned.

“I abruptly disbanded my soldiers, who darted into the vineyard and found Timbuctoo on hands and knees travelling around among the vines and eating grapes, or rather devouring them as a dog eats his sop, snatching them in mouthfuls from the vine with his teeth.

“I wanted him to get up, but he could not think of it. I then understood why he was crawling on his hands and knees. As soon as we stood him on his feet he began to wabble, then stretched out his arms and fell down on his nose. He was more drunk than I have ever seen anyone.

“They brought him home on two poles. He never stopped laughing all the way back, gesticulating with his arms and legs.

“This explained the mystery. My men also drank the juice of the grapes, and when they were so intoxicated they could not stir they went to sleep in the vineyard. As for Timbuctoo, his love of the vineyard was beyond all belief and all bounds. He lived in it as did the thrushes, whom he hated with the jealous hate of a rival. He repeated incessantly: ‘The thrushes eat all the grapes, captain!’

“One evening I was sent for. Something had been seen on the plain coming in our direction. I had not brought my field-glass and I could not distinguish things clearly. It looked like a great serpent uncoiling itself — a convoy. How could I tell?

“I sent some men to meet this strange caravan, which presently made its triumphal entry. Timbuctoo and nine of his comrades were carrying on a sort of altar made of camp stools eight severed, grinning and bleeding heads. The African was dragging along a horse to whose tail another head was fastened, and six other animals followed, adorned in the same manner.

“This is what I learned: Having started out to the vineyard, my Africans had suddenly perceived a detachment of Prussians approaching a village. Instead of taking to their heels, they hid themselves, and as soon as the Prussian officers dismounted at an inn to refresh themselves, the eleven rascals rushed on them, put to flight the lancers, who thought they were being attacked by the main army, killed the two sentries, then the colonel and the five officers of his escort.

“That day I kissed Timbuctoo. I saw, however, that he walked with difficulty and thought he was wounded. He laughed and said:

“‘Me provisions for my country.’

“Timbuctoo was not fighting for glory, but for gain. Everything he found that seemed to him to be of the slightest value, especially anything that glistened, he put in his pocket. What a pocket! An abyss that began at his hips and reached to his ankles. He had retained an old term used by the troopers and called it his ‘profonde,’ and it was his ‘profonde’ in fact.

“He had taken the gold lace off the Prussian uniforms, the brass off their helmets, detached their buttons, etc., and had thrown them all into his ‘profonde,’ which was full to overflowing.

“Each day he pocketed every glistening object that came beneath his observation, pieces of tin or pieces of silver, and sometimes his contour was very comical.

“He intended to carry all that back to the land of ostriches, whose brother he might have been, this son of a king, tormented with the longing to gobble up all objects that glistened. If he had not had his ‘profonde’ what would he have done? He doubtless would have swallowed them.

“Each morning his pocket was empty. He had, then, some general store where his riches were piled up. But where? I could not discover it.

“The general, on being informed of Timbuctoo’s mighty act of valor, had the headless bodies that had been left in the neighboring village interred at once, that it might not be discovered that they were decapitated. The Prussians returned thither the following day. The mayor and seven prominent inhabitants were shot on the spot, by way of reprisal, as having denounced the Prussians.

“Winter was here. We were exhausted and desperate. There were skirmishes now every day. The famished men could no longer march. The eight ‘Turcos’ alone (three had been killed) remained fat and shiny, vigorous and always ready to fight. Timbuctoo was even getting fatter. He said to me one day:

“‘You much hungry; me good meat.’

“And he brought me an excellent filet. But of what? We had no more cattle, nor sheep, nor goats, nor donkeys, nor pigs. It was impossible to get a horse. I thought of all this after I had devoured my meat. Then a horrible idea came to me. These negroes were born close to a country where they eat human beings! And each day such a number of soldiers were killed around the town! I questioned Timbuctoo. He would not answer. I did not insist, but from that time on I declined his presents.

“He worshipped me. One night snow took us by surprise at the outposts. We were seated, on the ground. I looked with pity at those poor negroes shivering beneath this white frozen shower. I was very cold and began to cough. At once I felt something fall on me like a large warm quilt. It was Timbuctoo’s cape that he had thrown on my shoulders.

“I rose and returned his garment, saying:

“‘Keep it, my boy; you need it more than I do.’

“‘Non, my lieutenant, for you; me no need. Me hot, hot!’

“And he looked at me entreatingly.

“‘Come, obey orders. Keep your cape; I insist,’ I replied.

“He then stood up, drew his sword, which he had sharpened to an edge like a scythe, and holding in his other hand the large cape which I had refused, said:

“‘If you not keep cape, me cut. No one cape.’

“And he would have done it. So I yielded.

“Eight days later we capitulated. Some of us had been able to escape, the rest were to march out of the town and give themselves up to the conquerors.

“I went towards the exercising ground, where we were all to meet, when I was dumfounded at the sight of a gigantic negro dressed in white duck and wearing a straw hat. It was Timbuctoo. He was beaming and was walking with his hands in his pockets in front of a little shop where two plates and two glasses were displayed.

“‘What are you doing?’ I said.

“‘Me not go. Me good cook; me make food for Colonel Algeria. Me eat Prussians; much steal, much.’

“There were ten degrees of frost. I shivered at sight of this negro in white duck. He took me by the arm and made me go inside. I noticed an immense flag that he was going to place outside his door as soon as we had left, for he had some shame.”

I read this sign, traced by the hand of some accomplice

“‘Army Kitchen of M. Timbuctoo,
“‘Formerly Cook to H. M. the Emperor.
“‘A Parisian Artist. Moderate Prices.’

“In spite of the despair that was gnawing at my heart, I could not help laughing, and I left my negro to his new enterprise.

“Was not that better than taking him prisoner?

“You have just seen that he made a success of it, the rascal.

“Bezieres to-day belongs to the Germans. The ‘Restaurant Timbuctoo’ is the beginning of a retaliation.”

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