Some of them led a cow or a calf at the end of a rope. And their wives, walking behind the beast, lashed it with a branch still covered with leaves, to hasten its pace. They carried on their arms great baskets, from which heads of chickens or of ducks were thrust forth. And they walked with a shorter and quicker step than their men, their stiff, lean figures wrapped in scanty shawls pinned over their flat breasts, their heads enveloped in a white linen cloth close to the hair, with a cap over all.
Then a charabanc passed, drawn by a jerky-paced nag, with two men seated side by side shaking like jelly, and a woman behind, who clung to the side of the vehicle to lessen the rough jolting.
On the square at Goderville there was a crowd, a medley of men and beasts. The horns of the cattle, the high hats, with a long, hairy nap, of the wealthy peasants, and the head dresses of the peasant women, appeared on the surface of the throng. And the sharp, shrill, high-pitched voices formed an incessant, uncivilized uproar, over which soared at times a roar of laughter from the powerful chest of a sturdy yokel, or the prolonged bellow of a cow fastened to the wall of a house.
There was an all-pervading smell of the stable, of milk, of the dunghill, of hay, and of perspiration - that acrid, disgusting odor of man and beast peculiar to country people.
Master Hauchecorne, of Breaute, had just arrived at Goderville, and was walking toward the square, when he saw a bit of string on the ground. Master Hauchecorne, economical like every true Norman, thought that it was well to pick up everything that might be of use; and he stooped painfully, for he suffered with rheumatism. He took the piece of slender cord from the ground, and was about to roll it up carefully, when he saw Master Malandain, the harness-maker, standing in his doorway and looking at him. They had formerly had trouble on the subject of a halter, and had remained at odds, being both inclined to bear malice. Master Hauchecorne felt a sort of shame at being seen thus by his enemy, fumbling in the mud for a bit of string. He hurriedly concealed his treasure in his blouse, then in his breeches pocket; then he pretended to look on the ground for something else, which he did not find; and finally he went on toward the market, his head thrust forward, bent double by his pains.
He lost himself at once in the slow-moving, shouting crowd, kept in a state of excitement by the interminable bargaining. The peasants felt of the cows, went away, returned, sorely perplexed, always afraid of being cheated, never daring to make up their minds, watching the vendor's eye, striving incessantly to detect the tricks of the man and the defect in the beast.
The women, having placed their great baskets at their feet, took out their fowls, which lay on the ground, their legs tied together, with frightened eyes and scarlet combs.
They listened to offers, adhered to their prices, short of speech and impassive of face; or else, suddenly deciding to accept the lower price offered, they would call out to the customer as he walked slowly away:
"All right, Mast' Anthime. You can have it."
Then, little by little, the square became empty, and when the angelus struck midday those who lived too far away to go home betook themselves to the various inns.
At Jourdain's the common room was full of customers, as the great yard was full of vehicles of every sort - carts, cabriolets, charabancs, tilburys, unnamable carriages, shapeless, patched, with, their shafts reaching heavenward like arms, or with their noses in the ground and their tails in the air.
The vast fireplace, full of clear flame, cast an intense heat against the backs of the row on the right of the table. Three spits were revolving, laden with chickens, pigeons, and legs of mutton; and a delectable odor of roast meat, and of gravy dripping from the browned skin, came forth from the hearth, stirred the guests to merriment, and made their mouths water.
All the aristocracy of the plough ate there, at Mast' Jourdain's, the innkeeper and horse trader - a shrewd rascal who had money.
The dishes passed and were soon emptied, like the jugs of yellow cider. Every one told of his affairs, his sales and his purchases. They inquired about the crops. The weather was good for green stuffs, but a little wet for wheat.
Suddenly a drum rolled in the yard, in front of the house. In an instant everybody was on his feet, save a few indifferent ones; and they all ran to the door and windows with their mouths still full and napkins in hand.
Having finished his long tattoo, the public crier shouted in a jerky voice, making his pauses in the wrong places:
"The people of Goderville, and all those present at the market are informed that between nine and ten o'clock this morning on the Beuzeville road, a black leather wallet was lost, containing five hundred francs, and business papers. The finder is requested to carry it to the mayor's at once, or to Master Fortune Huelbreque of Manneville. A reward of twenty francs will be paid."
Then he went away. They heard once more in the distance the muffled roll of the drum and the indistinct voice of the crier.
Then they began to talk about the incident, reckoning Master Houlbreque's chance of finding or not finding his wallet.
And the meal went on.
They were finishing their coffee when the corporal of gendarmes appeared in the doorway.
"Is Master Hauchecorne of Breaute here?"
Master Hauchecorne, who was seated at the farther end of the table, answered:
"Here I am."
And the corporal added:
"Master Hauchecorne, will you be kind enough to go to the mayor's office with me? Monsieur the mayor would like to speak to you."
The peasant, surprised and disturbed, drank his little glass at one swallow, rose, and even more bent than in the morning, for the first steps after each rest were particularly painful, he started off, repeating:
"Here I am, here I am."
And he followed the brigadier.
The mayor was waiting for him, seated in his arm-chair. He was the local notary, a stout, solemn-faced man, given to pompous speeches.
"Master Hauchecorne," he said, "you were seen this morning, on the Beuzeville road, to pick up the wallet lost by Master Huelbreque of Manneville."
The rustic, dumfounded, stared at the mayor, already alarmed by this suspicion which had fallen upon him, although he failed to understand it.
"I, I - I picked up that wallet?"
"On my word of honor, I didn't even so much as see it."
"You were seen."
"They saw me, me? Who was it saw me?"
"Monsieur Malandain, the harness-maker."
Thereupon the old man remembered and understood; and flushing with anger, he cried-
"Ah! he saw me, did he, that sneak? He saw me pick up this string, look, m'sieu' mayor."
And fumbling in the depths of his pocket, he produced the little piece of cord.
But the mayor was incredulous and shook his head.
"You won't make me believe, Master Hauchecorne, that Monsieur Malandain, who is a man deserving of credit, mistook this string for a wallet."
The peasant, in a rage, raised his hand, spit to one side to pledge his honor, and said:
"It's God's own truth, the sacred truth, all the same, m'sieu' mayor. I say it again, by my soul and my salvation."
"After picking it up," rejoined the mayor, "you hunted a long while in the mud, to see if some piece of money hadn't fallen out."
The good man was suffocated with wrath and fear.
"If any one can tell - if any one can tell lies like that to ruin an honest man! If any one can say..."
To no purpose did he protest; he was not believed.
He was confronted with Monsieur Malandain, who repeated and maintained his declaration. They insulted each other for a whole hour. At his own request, Master Hauchecorne was searched. They found nothing on him. At last the mayor, being sorely perplexed, discharged him, but warned him that he proposed to inform the prosecuting attorney's office and to ask for orders.
The news had spread. On leaving the mayor's office, the old man was surrounded and questioned with serious or bantering curiosity, in which, however, there was no trace of indignation. And he began to tell the story of the string. They did not believe him. They laughed.
He went his way, stopping his acquaintances, repeating again and again his story and his protestations, showing his pockets turned inside out, to prove that he had nothing.
They said to him:
"You old rogue, va!"
And he lost his temper, lashing himself into a rage, feverish with excitement, desperate because he was not believed, at a loss what to do, and still telling his story. Night came. He must needs go home. He started with three neighbors, to whom he pointed out the place where he had picked up the bit of string: and all the way he talked of his misadventure.
During the evening he made a circuit of the village of Breaute, in order to tell everybody about it. He found none but incredulous listeners.
He was ill over it all night.
The next afternoon, about one o'clock, Marius Paumelle, a farmhand employed by Master Breton, a farmer of Ymauville, restored the wallet and its contents to Master Huelbreque of Manneville.
The man claimed that he had found it on the road; but, being unable to read, had carried it home and given it to his employer.
The news soon became known in the neighborhood; Master Hauchecorne was informed of it. He started out again at once, and began to tell his story, now made complete by the denouement. He was triumphant.
"What made me feel bad," he said, "wasn't so much the thing itself, you understand, but the lying. There's nothing hurts you so much as being blamed for lying."
All day long he talked of his adventure; he told it on the roads to people who passed; at the wine-shop to people who were drinking; and after church on the following Sunday. He even stopped strangers to tell them about it. His mind was at rest now, and yet something embarrassed him, although he could not say just what it was. People seemed to laugh while they listened to him. They did not seem convinced. He felt as if remarks were made behind his back.
On Tuesday of the next week, he went to market at Goderville, impelled solely by the longing to tell his story.
Malandain, standing in his doorway, began to laugh when he saw him coming. Why?
He accosted a farmer from Criquetot, who did not let him finish, but poked him in the pit of his stomach, and shouted in his face: "Go on, you old fox!" Then he turned on his heel.
Master Hauchecorne was speechless, and more and more disturbed. Why did he call him "old fox"?
When he was seated at the table, in Jourdain's Inn, he set about explaining the affair once more.
A horse-trader from Montvilliers called out to him:
"Nonsense, nonsense, you old dodger! I know all about your string!"
"But they've found the wallet!" faltered Hauchecorne.
"None of that, old boy; there's one who finds it, and there's one who carries it back. I don't know just how you did it, but I understand you."
The peasant was fairly stunned. He understood at last. He was accused of having sent the wallet back by a confederate, an accomplice.
He tried to protest. The whole table began to laugh.
He could not finish his dinner, but left the inn amid a chorus of jeers.
He returned home, shamefaced and indignant, suffocated by wrath, by confusion, and all the more cast down because, with his Norman cunning, he was quite capable of doing the thing with which he was charged, and even of boasting of it as a shrewd trick. He had a confused idea that his innocence was impossible to establish, his craftiness being so well known. And he was cut to the heart by the injustice of the suspicion.
Thereupon he began once more to tell of the adventure, making the story longer each day, adding each time new arguments, more forcible protestations, more solemn oaths, which he devised and prepared in his hours of solitude, his mind being wholly engrossed by the story of the string. The more complicated his defence and the more subtle his reasoning, the less he was believed.
"Those are a liar's reasons," people said behind his back.
He realized it: he gnawed his nails, and exhausted himself in vain efforts.
He grew perceptibly thinner.
Now the jokers asked him to tell the story of "The Piece of String" for their amusement, as a soldier who has seen service is asked to tell about his battles. His mind, attacked at its source, grew feebler.
Late in December he took to his bed.
In the first days of January he died, and in his delirium, of the death agony, he protested his innocence, repeating:
"A little piece of string - a little piece of string - see, here it is, m'sieu' mayor."