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.
Now a wagon passed by,
jogging along behind a nag and shaking up strangely the two men on the seat,
and the woman at the bottom of the cart who held fast to its sides to lessen
the hard jolting.
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
Breaute, 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.”
Then, little by little, the
square became empty, and when the Angelus struck midday those who lived at a
distance poured into the inns.
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
“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
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
The meal went on. They were
finishing their coffee when the corporal of gendarmes appeared on the
“Is Maitre Hauchecorne,
of Breaute, here?”
Maitre Hauchecorne, seated at
the other end of the table answered:
“Here I am, here I
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.
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
“I swear I don’t even
know anything about it.”
“You were seen.”
“I was seen—I? Who saw
“M. Malandain, the
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,
“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
That evening he made the
round of the village of Breaute for the purpose of telling every one. He met
He brooded over it all night
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
Holbreque, 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
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
Malandain, standing on his
doorstep, began to laugh as he saw him pass. Why?
He accosted a farmer of
Criquetot, who did not let hire 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
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.”
“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 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,
“A little bit of
string—a little bit of string. See, here it is, M’sieu le Maire.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK: How did this story from another land and a time gone by make you feel? And do you think it
holds any meaning for us today?