Captain Burle, by Émile Zola

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 been worried.

Of an evening five or six well-to-do citizens would enter the front room and play at dominoes there. Although Cartier was dead and the Cafe de Paris had got a queer name, they saw nothing and kept up their old habits. In course of time, the waiter having nothing to do, Melanie dismissed him and made Phrosine light the solitary gas burner in the corner where the domino players congregated. Occasionally a party of young men, attracted by the gossip that circulated through the town, would come in, wildly excited and laughing loudly and awkwardly. But they were received there with icy dignity. As a rule they did not even see the widow, and even if she happened to be present she treated them with withering disdain, so that they withdrew, stammering and confused. Melanie was too astute to indulge in any compromising whims. While the front room remained obscure, save in the corner where the few townsfolk rattled their dominoes, she personally waited on the gentlemen of the divan, showing herself amiable without being free, merely venturing in moments of familiarity to lean on the shoulder of one or another of them, the better to watch a skillfully played game of ecarte.

One evening the gentlemen of the divan, who had ended by tolerating each other’s presence, experienced a disagreeable surprise on finding Captain Burle at home there. He had casually entered the cafe that same morning to get a glass of vermouth, so it seemed, and he had found Melanie there. They had conversed, and in the evening when he returned Phrosine immediately showed him to the inner room.

Two days later Burle reigned there supreme; still he had not frightened the chemist, the vermicelli maker, the lawyer or the retired magistrate away. The captain, who was short and dumpy, worshiped tall, plump 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-wiggy?”

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

“Good heavens!” roared the major from the threshold. “You now play tricks on me, do you? I’m sent to the roundabout and told that you never came here, and yet all the while here you are, addling your silly brains.”

Burle shuddered, pushing the 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 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 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 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 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 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 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?”

“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 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!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06