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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Piece of String
By Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
 
From ‘The Odd Number’: Translation of Jonathan Sturges

IT was market day, and over all the roads round Goderville the peasants and their wives were coming towards the town. The men walked easily, lurching the whole body forward at every step. Their long legs were twisted and deformed by the slow, painful labors of the country: by bending over to plow, which is what also makes their left shoulders too high and their figures crooked; and by reaping corn, which obliges them for steadiness’ sake to spread their knees too wide. Their starched blue blouses, shining as though varnished, ornamented at collar and cuffs with little patterns of white stitch-work, and blown up big around their bony bodies, seemed exactly like balloons about to soar, but putting forth a head, two arms, and two feet.  1
  Some of these fellows dragged a cow or a calf at the end of a rope. And just behind the animal, beating it over the back with a leaf-covered branch to hasten its pace, went their wives, carrying large baskets from which came forth the heads of chickens or of ducks. These women walked with steps far shorter and quicker than the men; their figures, withered and upright, were adorned with scanty little shawls pinned over their flat bosoms; and they enveloped their heads each in a white cloth, close fastened round the hair and surmounted by a cap.  2
  Now a char-à-banc passed by, drawn by a jerky-paced nag. It shook up strangely the two men on the seat. And the woman at the bottom of the cart held fast to its sides to lessen the hard joltings.  3
  In the market-place at Goderville was a great crowd, a mingled multitude of men and beasts. The horns of the cattle, the high and long-napped hats of wealthy peasants, the head-dresses of the women, came to the surface of that sea. And voices clamorous, sharp, shrill, made a continuous and savage din. Above it a huge burst of laughter from the sturdy lungs of a merry yokel would sometimes sound, and sometimes a long bellow from a cow tied fast to the wall of a house.  4
  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 the men of the fields.  5
  Maître Hauchecorne, of Bréauté, had just arrived at Goderville, and was taking his way towards the square, when he perceived on the ground a little piece of string. Maître Hauchecorne, economical like 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 with rheumatism. He took the bit of thin cord from the ground, and was carefully preparing to roll it up when he saw Maître Malandain the harness-maker on his doorstep, looking at him. They had once had a quarrel about a halter, and they had remained angry, bearing malice on both sides. Maître Hauchecorne was overcome with a sort of shame at being seen by his enemy looking in the dirt so for a bit of string. He quickly hid his find beneath his blouse; then in the pocket of his breeches; then pretended to be still looking for something on the ground which he did not discover; and at last went off towards the market-place, with his head bent forward, and a body almost doubled in two by rheumatic pains.  6
  He lost himself immediately in the crowd, which was clamorous, slow, and agitated by interminable bargains. The peasants examined the cows, went off, came back, always in great perplexity and fear of being cheated, never quite daring to decide, spying at the eye of the seller, trying ceaselessly to discover the tricks of the man and the defect in the beast.  7
  The women, having placed their great baskets at their feet, had pulled out the poultry, which lay upon the ground, tied by the legs, with eyes scared, with combs scarlet.  8
  They listened to propositions, maintaining their prices, with a dry manner, with an impassive face; or suddenly, perhaps, deciding to take the lower price which was offered, they cried out to the customer, who was departing slowly:—  9
  “All right: I’ll let you have them, Maît’ Anthime.”  10
  Then, little by little, the square became empty; and when the Angelus struck midday, those who lived at a distance poured into the inns.  11
  At Jourdain’s, the great room was filled with eaters, just as the vast court was filled with vehicles of every sort,—wagons, gigs, char-à-bancs, tilburies, tilt-carts 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 in the dirt and their rear in the air.  12
  Just opposite to where the diners were at table, the huge fireplace, full of clear flame, threw a lively heat on the backs of those who sat along 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 gushing over crisp brown skin, took wing from the hearth, kindled merriment, caused mouths to water.  13
  All the aristocracy of the plow were eating there, at Maït’ Jourdain’s, the innkeeper’s,—a dealer in horses also, and a sharp fellow who had made a pretty penny in his day.  14
  The dishes were passed round, were emptied, with jugs of yellow cider. Every one told of his affairs, of his purchases and his sales. They asked news about the crops. The weather was good for green stuffs, but a little wet for wheat.  15
  All of a sudden the drum rolled in the court before the house. Every one, except some of the most indifferent, was on his feet at once and ran to the door, to the windows, with his mouth still full, and his napkin in his hand.  16
  When the public crier had finished his tattoo, he called forth in a jerky voice, making his pauses out of time:—  17
  “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 pocket-book of black leather, containing five hundred francs and business papers. You are requested to return it—to the mayor’s office at once, or to Maître Fortuné Houlbrèque of Manneville. There will be fifty francs reward.”  18
  Then the man departed. They heard once more at a distance the dull beatings on the drum, and the faint voice of the crier.  19
  Then they began to talk of this event, reckoning up the chances which Maître Houlbrèque had of finding or of not finding his pocket-book again.  20
  And the meal went on.  21
  They were finishing their coffee when the corporal of gendarmes appeared on the threshold.  22
  He asked:—  23
  “Is Maître Hauchecorne, of Bréauté, here?”  24
  Maître Hauchecorne, seated at the other end of the table, answered:—  25
  “Here I am.”  26
  And the corporal resumed:—  27
  “Maître Hauchecorne, will you have the kindness to come with me to the mayor’s office? M. le Maire would like to speak to you.”  28
  The peasant, surprised and uneasy, gulped down his little glass of cognac, got up, and—even worse bent over than in the morning, since the first steps after a rest were always particularly difficult—started off, repeating:—  29
  “Here I am, here I am.”  30
  And he followed the corporal.  31
  The mayor was waiting for him, seated in an arm-chair. He was the notary of the place, a tall, grave man of pompous speech.  32
  “Maître Hauchecorne,” said he, “this morning, on the Beuzeville road, you were seen to pick up the pocket-book lost by Maître Houlbrèque of Manneville.”  33
  The countryman, speechless, gazed at the mayor; frightened already by this suspicion, which rested on him he knew not why.  34
  “I—I picked up that pocket-book?”  35
  “Yes, you.”  36
  “I swear I didn’t even know nothing about it at all.”  37
  “You were seen.”  38
  “They saw me—me? Who is that who saw me?”  39
  “M. Malandain, the harness-maker.”  40
  Then the old man remembered, understood, and reddening with anger:—  41
  “Ah! he saw me, did he, the rascal? He saw me picking up this string here, M’sieu’ le Maire.”  42
  And fumbling at the bottom of his pocket, he pulled out of it the little end of string.  43
  But the mayor incredulously shook his head:—  44
  “You will not make me believe, Maître Hauchecorne, that M. Malandain, who is a man worthy of credit, has mistaken this string for a pocket-book.”  45
  The peasant, furious, raised his hand and spit as if to attest his good faith, repeating:—  46
  “For all that, it is the truth of the good God, the blessed truth, M’sieu’ le Maire. There! on my soul and my salvation I repeat it.”  47
  The mayor continued:—  48
  “After picking up the thing in question, you even looked for some time in the mud to see if a piece of money had not dropped out of it.”  49
  The good man was suffocated with indignation and with fear.  50
  “If they can say—! If they can say such lies as that to slander an honest man! If they can say—!”  51
  He might protest, he was not believed.  52
  He was confronted with M. Malandain, who repeated and sustained his testimony. They abused one another for an hour. At his own request, Maître Hauchecorne was searched. Nothing was found on him.  53
  At last the mayor, much perplexed, sent him away, warning him that he would inform the public prosecutor and ask for orders.  54
  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.  55
  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.  56
  They said to him:—  57
  “You old rogue, va!”  58
  And he grew angry, exasperated, feverish, in despair at not being believed; and always telling his story.  59
  The night came. It was time to go home. He set out with three of his neighbors, to whom he pointed out the place where he had picked up the end of string; and all the way he talked of his adventure.  60
  That evening he made the round in the village of Bréauté, so as to tell every one. He met only unbelievers.  61
  He was ill of it all night long.  62
  The next day, about one in the afternoon, Marius Paumelle, a farm hand of Maître Breton, the market-gardener at Ymauville, returned the pocket-book and its contents to Maître Houlbrèque of Manneville.  63
  This man said that he had indeed found it on the road; but not knowing how to read, he had carried it home and given it to his master.  64
  The news spread to the environs. Maître Hauchecorne was informed. He put himself at once upon the go, and began to relate his story as completed by the dénouement. He triumphed.  65
  “What grieved me,” said he, “was not the thing itself, do you understand; but it was the lies. There’s nothing does you so much harm as being in disgrace for lying.”  66
  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 the 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 tittle-tattle behind his back.  67
  On Tuesday of the next week he went to market at Goderville, prompted entirely by the need of telling his story.  68
  Malandain, standing on his door-step, began to laugh as he saw him pass. Why?  69
  He accosted a farmer of Criquetot, who did not let him finish, and giving him a punch in the pit of his stomach, cried in his face:—  70
  “Oh you great rogue, va!” Then turned his heel upon him.  71
  Maître Hauchecorne remained speechless, and grew more and more uneasy. Why had they called him “great rogue”?  72
  When seated at table in Jourdain’s tavern he began again to explain the whole affair.  73
  A horse-dealer of Montivilliers shouted at him:—  74
  “Get out, get out, you old scamp: I know all about your string!”  75
  Hauchecorne stammered:—  76
  “But since they found it again, the pocket-book—!”  77
  But the other continued:—  78
  “Hold your tongue, daddy: there’s one who finds it and there’s another who returns it. And no one the wiser.”  79
  The peasant was choked. He understood at last. They accused him of having had the pocket-book brought back by an accomplice, by a confederate.  80
  He tried to protest. The whole table began to laugh.  81
  He could not finish his dinner, and went away amid a chorus of jeers.  82
  He went home ashamed and indignant, choked with rage, with confusion; the more cast down since from his Norman cunning, he was perhaps capable of having done what they accused him of, and even of boasting of it as a good trick. His innocence dimly seemed to him impossible to prove, his craftiness being so well known. And he felt himself struck to the heart by the injustice of the suspicion.  83
  Then he began anew to tell of his adventure, lengthening his recital every day, each time adding new proofs, more energetic protestations, and more solemn oaths which he thought of, which he prepared in his hours of solitude, his mind being entirely occupied by the story of the string. The more complicated his defense, the more artful his arguments, the less he was believed.  84
  “Those are liars’ proofs,” they said behind his back.  85
  He felt this; it preyed upon his heart. He exhausted himself in useless efforts.  86
  He was visibly wasting away.  87
  The jokers now made 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, struck at the root, grew weak.  88
  About the end of December he took to his bed.  89
  He died early in January, and in the delirium of the death agony he protested his innocence, repeating:—  90
  “A little bit of string—a little bit of string—see, here it is, M’sieu’ le Maire.”  91
 
 
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