It was market-day, and from all the country round Goderville the peasants and their wives were coming toward the town. The men walked slowly, throwing the whole body forward at every step of their long, crooked legs. They were deformed from pushing the plough which makes the left-shoulder higher, and bends their figures side-ways; from reaping the grain, when they have to spread their legs so as to keep on their feet. Their starched blue blouses, glossy as though varnished, ornamented at collar and cuffs with a little embroidered design and blown out around their bony bodies, looked very much like balloons about to soar, whence issued two arms and two feet.
Some of these fellows dragged a cow or a calf at the end of a rope. And just behind the animal followed their wives beating it over the back with a leaf-covered branch to hasten its pace, and carrying large baskets out of which protruded the heads of chickens or ducks. These women walked more quickly and energetically than the men, with their erect, dried-up figures, adorned with scanty little shawls pinned over their flat bosoms, and their heads wrapped round with a white cloth, enclosing the hair and surmounted by a cap.
In the market-place at Goderville was a great crowd, a mingled multitude of men and beasts. The horns of cattle, the high, long-napped hats of wealthy peasants, the head-dresses of the women came to the surface of that sea. And the sharp, shrill, barking voices made a continuous, wild din, while above it occasionally rose a huge burst of laughter from the sturdy lungs of a merry peasant or a prolonged bellow from a cow tied fast to the wall of a house. It all smelled of the stable, of milk, of hay and of perspiration, giving off that half-human, half-animal odor which is peculiar to country folks.
Maitre Hauchecorne of Bréauté had just arrived at Goderville and was making his way toward the square when he perceived on the ground a little piece of string. Maitre Hauchecorne, economical as are all true Normans, reflected that everything was worth picking up which could be of any use, and he stooped down, but painfully, because he suffered from rheumatism. He took the bit of thin string from the ground and was carefully preparing to roll it up when he saw Maitre Malandain, the harness maker, on his doorstep staring at him. They had once had a quarrel about a halter, and they had borne each other malice ever since.
Maitre Hauchecorne was overcome with a sort of shame at being seen by his enemy picking up a bit of string in the road. He quickly hid it beneath his blouse and then slipped it into his breeches’ pocket, then pretended to be still looking for something on the ground which he did not discover and finally went off toward the market-place, his head bent forward and his body almost doubled in two by rheumatic pains. He was at once lost in the crowd, which kept moving about slowly and noisily as it chaffered and bargained.
The peasants examined the cows, went off, came back, always in doubt for fear of being cheated, never quite daring to decide, looking the seller square in the eye in the effort to discover the tricks of the man and the defect in the beast. The women, having placed their great baskets at their feet, had taken out the poultry, which lay upon the ground, their legs tied together, with terrified eyes and scarlet combs.
They listened to propositions, maintaining their prices in a decided manner with an impassive face or perhaps deciding to accept the smaller price offered, suddenly calling out to the customer who was starting to go away:
“All right, I’ll let you have them, Mait’ Anthime.”
At Jourdain’s the great room was filled with eaters, just as the vast court was filled with vehicles of every sort — wagons, gigs, chars-a-bancs, tilburies, innumerable vehicles which have no name, yellow with mud, misshapen, pieced together, raising their shafts to heaven like two arms, or it may be with their nose on the ground and their rear in the air. Just opposite to where the diners were at table the huge fireplace, with its bright flame, gave out a burning heat on the backs of those who sat at the right. Three spits were turning, loaded with chickens, with pigeons and with joints of mutton, and a delectable odor of roast meat and of gravy flowing over crisp brown skin arose from the hearth, kindled merriment, caused mouths to water.
All the aristocracy of the plough were eating there at Mait’ Jourdain’s, the innkeeper’s, a dealer in horses also and a sharp fellow who had made a great deal of money in his day. The dishes were passed round, were emptied, as were the jugs of yellow cider. Every one told of his affairs, of his purchases and his sales. They exchanged news about the crops. The weather was good for greens, but too wet for grain.
Suddenly the drum began to beat in the courtyard before the house. Every one, except some of the most indifferent, was on their feet at once and ran to the door, to the windows, their mouths full and napkins in their hand. When the public crier had finished his tattoo he called forth in a jerky voice, pausing in the wrong places:
“Be it known to the inhabitants of Goderville and in general to all persons present at the market that there has been lost this morning on the Beuzeville road, between nine and ten o’clock, a black leather pocketbook containing five hundred francs and business papers. You are requested to return it to the mayor’s office at once or to Maitre Fortune Houlbreque, of Manneville. There will be twenty francs reward.”
Then the man went away. They heard once more at a distance the dull beating of the drum and the faint voice of the crier. Then they all began to talk of this incident, reckoning up the chances which Maitre Houlbreque had of finding or of not finding his pocketbook again.
The meal went on. They were finishing their coffee when the corporal of gendarmes appeared on the threshold. He asked: “Is Maitre Hauchecorne, of Bréauté, here?”
Maitre Hauchecorne, seated at the other end of the table answered: “Here I am, here I am.”
And he followed the corporal.
The mayor was waiting for him, seated in an armchair. He was the notary of the place, a tall, grave man of pompous speech.
“Maitre Hauchecorne,” said he, “this morning on the Beuzeville road, you were seen to pick up the pocketbook lost by Maitre Houlbreque, of Manneville.”
The countryman looked at the mayor in amazement frightened already at this suspicion which rested on him, he knew not why.
“I — I picked up that pocketbook?”
“I swear I don’t even know anything about it.”
“You were seen.”
“I was seen — I? Who saw me?”
“M. Malandain, the harness-maker.”
Then the old man remembered, understood, and, reddening with anger, said: “Ah! he saw me, did he, the rascal? He saw me picking up this string here, M’sieu le Maire.” And fumbling at the bottom of his pocket, he pulled out of it the little end of string. But the mayor incredulously shook his head: “You will not make me believe, Maitre Hauchecorne, that M. Malandain, who is a man whose word can be relied on, has mistaken this string for a pocketbook.”
The peasant, furious, raised his hand and spat on the ground beside him as if to attest his good faith, repeating: “For all that, it is God’s truth, M’sieu le Maire. There! On my soul’s salvation, I repeat it.” The mayor continued: “After you picked up the object in question, you even looked about for some time in the mud to see if a piece of money had not dropped out of it.”
The good man was choking with indignation and fear. “How can they tell — how can they tell such lies as that to slander an honest man! How can they?”
His protestations were in vain; he was not believed. He was confronted with M. Malandain, who repeated and sustained his testimony. They railed at one another for an hour. At his own request Maitre Hauchecorne was searched. Nothing was found on him. At last the mayor, much perplexed, sent him away, warning him that he would inform the public prosecutor and ask for orders.
The news had spread. When he left the mayor’s office the old man was surrounded, interrogated with a curiosity which was serious or mocking, as the case might be, but into which no indignation entered. And he began to tell the story of the string. They did not believe him. They laughed.
He passed on, buttonholed by every one, himself buttonholing his acquaintances, beginning over and over again his tale and his protestations, showing his pockets turned inside out to prove that he had nothing in them. They said to him: “You old rogue!”
He grew more and more angry, feverish, in despair at not being believed, and kept on telling his story.
The night came. It was time to go home. He left with three of his neighbors, to whom he pointed out the place where he had picked up the string, and all the way he talked of his adventure. That evening he made the round of the village of Bréauté for the purpose of telling every one. He met only unbelievers. He brooded over it all night long.
The next day, about one in the afternoon, Marius Paumelle, a farm hand of Maitre Breton, the market gardener at Ymauville, returned the pocketbook and its contents to Maitre Houlbreque, of Manneville. This man said, indeed, that he had found it on the road, but not knowing how to read, he had carried it home and given it to his master.
The news spread to the environs. Maitre Hauchecorne was informed. He started off at once and began to relate his story with the denoument. He was triumphant. “What grieved me,” said he, “was not the thing itself, do you understand, but it was being accused of lying. Nothing does you so much harm as being in disgrace for lying.”
All day he talked of his adventure. He told it on the roads to the people who passed, at the cabaret to the people who drank and next Sunday when they came out of church. He even stopped strangers to tell them about it. He was easy now, and yet something worried him without his knowing exactly what it was. People had a joking manner while they listened. They did not seem convinced. He seemed to feel their remarks behind his back.
On Tuesday of the following week he went to market at Goderville, prompted solely by the need of telling his story. Malandain, standing on his doorstep, began to laugh as he saw him pass. Why?
He accosted a farmer of Criquetot, who did not let him finish, and giving him a punch in the pit of the stomach cried in his face: “Oh, you great rogue!” Then he turned his heel upon him. Maitre Hauchecorne remained speechless and grew more and more uneasy. Why had they called him “great rogue”?
When seated at table in Jourdain’s tavern he began again to explain the whole affair.
A horse dealer of Montivilliers shouted at him: “Get out, get out, you old scamp! I know all about your old string.”
Hauchecorne stammered: “But since they found it again, the pocketbook!”
But the other continued: “Hold your tongue, daddy; there’s one who finds it and there’s another who returns it. And no one the wiser.”
The farmer was speechless. He understood at last. They accused him of having had the pocketbook brought back by an accomplice, by a confederate. He tried to protest. The whole table began to laugh. He could not finish his dinner, and went away amid a chorus of jeers.
He went home indignant, choking with rage, with confusion, the more cast down since with his Norman craftiness he was, perhaps, capable of having done what they accused him of and even of boasting of it as a good trick. He was dimly conscious that it was impossible to prove his innocence, his craftiness being so well known. He felt himself struck to the heart by the injustice of the suspicion.
He began anew to tell his tale, lengthening his recital every day, each day adding new proofs, more energetic declarations and more sacred oaths, which he thought of, which he prepared in his hours of solitude, for his mind was entirely occupied with the story of the string. The more he denied it, the more artful his arguments, the less he was believed. “Those are liars proofs,” they said behind his back.
He felt this. It preyed upon him and he exhausted himself in useless efforts. He was visibly wasting away. Jokers would make him tell the story of “the piece of string” to amuse them, just as you make a soldier who has been on a campaign tell his story of the battle. His mind kept growing weaker and about the end of December he took to his bed.
He passed away early in January, and, in the ravings of death agony, he protested his innocence, repeating:
“A little bit of string — a little bit of string. See, here it is, M’sieu le Maire.”