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 happy.”
“Ah, confound it,” replied the major, “I knew very well he only wanted a shaking. He has some heart left, the dog!”
When Burle appeared he almost crushed the major’s hands in his grasp, and standing before the fire, waiting for the dinner, they conversed peacefully, honestly, together, extolling the charms of home life. The captain vowed he wouldn’t exchange his home for a kingdom and declared that when he had removed his braces, put on his slippers and settled himself in his armchair, no king was fit to hold a candle to him. The major assented and examined him. At all events his virtuous conduct had not made him any thinner; he still looked bloated; his eyes were bleared, and his mouth was heavy. He seemed to be half asleep as he repeated mechanically: “Home life! There’s nothing like home life, nothing in the world!”
“No doubt,” said the major; “still, one mustn’t exaggerate — take a little exercise and come to the cafe now and then.”
“To the cafe, why?” 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 her.”
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 laughing.
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 waking.
“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 fast.”
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 of oaths:
“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 exact truth.
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 Laguitte.
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 ghastly nightmare.
Mme Burle asked the major to let her finish the perusal. “Long live the republic!” She solemnly closed the volume. 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 much.”
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 stammered. “Why was I not told? Oh, my God, to think of it! Ah, he has been stealing again — I feel it!”
She remained erect, white and rigid. Then she added in a harsh voice:
“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.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02