From Les Vierges
Someone had stolen the money from the armoire in which the mistress of the estate had placed it the day before: the proceeds from the sale of four pigs, a couple of thousand-franc notes that had lain all night under a pile of large yellow sheets.
“I made sure of the money myself yesterday, before going to bed, and again this morning,” the old woman told the policemen who came out to the farm to investigate. “Messieurs, this is an outrage. I’d gone to feed the animals. I had to send the girl off to town to fetch the bread. I come home, I open the armoire. I take another look. Nothing.”
The policemen were sitting in the great room at Malaret. Malaret is a château in ruins. Once it had belonged to the barons du Jeu,1 but when they could no longer afford either to live there or restore the property, they had leased it to tenant farmers. In time these tenants had grown rich enough to purchase the château and grounds, but through avarice or neglect, they never made any repairs. The hen houses and rabbit hutches were lodged in the grande cour d’honneur, the main courtyard, and the animals drank from the pond, which once upon a time had been the loveliest one around, abounding in fish, but was now half silted up. Out on the terrace, where the chestnut trees had fallen to the axe, laundry was hung up to dry. The people of Malaret were mistrustful and none too friendly, with a proud and primitive air. In the winter, they would go six to eight months without seeing another soul, for Malaret was surrounded by forests, far from town, and in those winter months the roads became impassable tracks. The walls rained down stones, while on windy days tiles plunged from the roof. The former guardroom had become a kitchen. In the other rooms, the floors sagged, windows were broken, and wool fleeces hung inside the chimneys. Fires were never lighted there; the fireplaces were so vast they would have devoured the entire winter’s supply of wood in just a few nights. In what had once been the library, lambs were raised. Apples were stored in the music room. Next to the kitchen there was a delightful little bedroom with a painted alcove and a round window. The alcove contained potatoes, and a rope of onions framed the window. Although there was no love lost for “them at Malaret,” folks in the small local market town spoke highly of them for continuing to live like peasants, despite their fortune, instead of like bourgeois. “And yet, they’re rich, they’re nicely well off,” people said of them approvingly. “But with the old woman, a sou is a sou.”
The old mistress was a tiny thin woman, imperious, who now stood before the policemen ramrod straight with both hands clasped in front of her belly. She had a terrible sunken mouth, almost lipless, with drooping and deeply creased corners. She was a widow and ran the whole estate. She had only one known weakness: she adored her granddaughter, a girl of twelve, the bastard child of her eldest son, who had died in a hunting accident. Everyone knew that before his death the boy—he was twenty—had confessed as much to his mother.
“I was the lover of Marguerite,” he told her, “our servant. Now she is going to have my child. Swear that you will raise it.”
His mother had promised. The child, a girl, Marcelle, was born. Little by little, the old woman had grown so attached to her granddaughter that she had adopted her and made the girl her heir. As for our Marguerite, she had taken a piece of jewelry, a golden brooch that belonged to the mistress, and been sent away when Marcelle was only a few months old. After leaving the farm, Marguerite had gone into service in Paris, where she died shortly thereafter without ever trying to reclaim her daughter. The grandmother spoiled Marcelle, giving her piano lessons in town and dressing her in white on holidays. The old woman said she would not send her into service but marry her off and leave her the estate. Marcelle was a lovely child, quite tall for her age, the best pupil in the school. While her grandmother and the policemen talked, she listened to their conversation. She wore a black pinafore and had her blond hair in braids tied at the ends with blue knots.
Standing next to her was an eighteen-year-old girl, big-boned, with red hair and a prominent white chin that made her look as jut-jawed as a cow. Her bare arms, rosy and covered with downy golden hair, gleamed in the sunshine. She had just fed the chickens and still had the handle of a bucket curved around her wrist. Two young fellows in work clothes shucked off their wooden clogs at the front door before coming over to the dining room table without a word. These boys and their sister were the nephews and niece of the old woman, who had taken them on as servants. She did not employ strangers on the farm; the family could take care of everything. It was March, a slack time, and outside help was hired only for major seasonal activities. It was a beautiful sunny day. The animals were going out into the countryside for the first time since the end of the long winter, and a wave of sheep flowed between the ruins of the chapel and the edge of the pond, filling the air with their bleating. The sky was a tender blue. After downing their little glass of marc brandy, the policemen longed to doze off, while around them rose the gentle hum of a farmyard in the spring: the murmur of snowmelt trickling between two stones; the cooing of pigeons on the roof; the joyful antics of the foals in the neighboring meadow; and the sleepy clucking of happy poultry pecking at their grain, as a single fluffy feather lightly took wing, white as snow, and drifted gently to earth. On such a day, what could be better than to stay sitting on a chair near the open door, head in the shade and feet in the sun, and think about nothing? But the policemen had to pursue their investigation. They lighted their pipes.
“So,” began one of them, “as I understand it, there was no one in the house, madame, on the morning of the theft?”
“Myself, I was dealing with the animals,” replied the old woman. “The two boys were mending fences. My niece Cécile was with me and our Marcelle was taking care of the lambs. We have some whose mothers died that need bottle-feeding. Our youngest handles that chore.”
“You were keeping an eye on all your people?”
“That’s my usual way,” said the woman with a thin smile.
“So everyone here is above suspicion?”
“Everyone here is family and cannot be suspected,” she replied, looking the policeman up and down. “I did not summon you regarding my household, but for outsiders. This morning, now, folks were going to the fair, in town. Some drovers came to our place, as they often do, asking for something to drink. Among these drovers was that Bracelet fellow just out of prison, and Ladre, who’s a drunkard would sell his mother for wine. You want my opinion, they came into the house, saw it empty, did what they did, and went out again to speak to me, stopping me in the yard as I was leaving the stable.”
“It’s possible,” said the policeman thoughtfully. “It was promptly after they left that you noticed the theft?”
“Yes, I watched them head back to the road, then remembered our lack of bread. I shouted to Marcelle to let the lambs be and fetch her bicycle. I went inside to give her the money. I lifted up the sheets. That’s when I saw.”
“Give us a look at this armoire.”
The old woman led them all into the neighboring room. The grandmother and granddaughter slept there in two big beds that faced one another, each covered with a pink eiderdown and a crocheted bedspread. The armoire was old, with deep shelves, and very handsome. Standing open, it revealed piles of towels, pillowslips, and sheets; here and there were a money box, a leather purse, a small metal casket, a jewelry case. The money was kept there. No bank, no post-office savings account for them at Malaret. A more thorough search would doubtless have turned up twenty-franc gold pieces from before the Great War, silverware purchased in Paris at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, along with the rings, necklaces, and watch chains of several generations.
“So you don’t keep your armoire locked?” asked the policeman.
The old woman shot him a withering glance.
“You think I’d have left all this out in the open? I locked it each time and kept the key here,” she replied, pointing to the drawer in a table. “Well hidden under my prayer book.”
“No one else knew that?”
“The family knew it.”
“But how could a stranger have found out?”
“You ask me, those fellows Bracelet and Ladre must have spied on me some time when they were here drinking my wine in the kitchen. They’d have seen me go into my room, take money from the armoire, lock it up again and hide the key there.”
“Nothing else was taken?”
“Nothing. Must not have had the time, seeing me come out of the stable.”
“That may be,” said the policeman, nodding.
He looked at the walls, which were whitewashed and adorned with a portrait of the pope, a calendar in color, and two framed photographs, one of which showed Marcelle at her First Communion, and the other, a young man of twenty, the girl’s father. The monumental fireplace bore a shield sculpted right in the stone, the arms of the barons du Jeu. A finch twittered in a cage hanging at the window.
“We’ll keep you informed,” said the policemen.
As they were about to leave, Marcelle, who had remained silent, standing very straight at her grandmother’s side, took a step forward.
“Messieurs, I would like to speak to you. It isn’t either of those young men Bracelet or Ladre who took the money. It’s me.”
She spoke in a cold and clear little voice. Her face was impassive.
“You?” cried a policeman.
Taking her chin in his hands, he looked into her eyes.
“You’re the one robbed your grandmother? What did you do with the money?”
Lifting a corner of the eiderdown that covered her bed, Marcelle brought it to her mouth, bit through one of the stitches in a seam and, thrusting a hand into the feathers, pulled out two crumpled thousand-franc notes she flung at the policemen.
“There they are. I’m the one who came in here while everyone thought I was tending to the lambs.”
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” exclaimed the policeman indignantly. “You, who were given everything you wanted! What a wretched girl you are!”
“Yes,” she said calmly.
“A worthless child, a thief!”
“Do you realize you will go to prison?”
“Yes,” she said again.
“But what did you mean to do with those two thousand francs?”
“Buy myself things.”
Marcelle did not reply.
“And why have you confessed all of a sudden?”
The girl seemed troubled by the question. The blood drained from her face and her eyelids fluttered.
“You were afraid you’d be found out, hey?”
“Yes—that’s it,” she mumbled quickly.
“You know that your name will be in the newspapers, that the whole countryside will hear that the granddaughter of Mme. Malaret is a thief?”
“Yes!” she said defiantly.
The family had not said a word. Big Cécile was smiling with a look of jubilation. It must have been wonderful for her to see her little cousin—the grandmother’s pet, the bastard, the heiress—humiliated and scorned as a thief. Cécile simply beamed. The old woman raised her hand and slapped Marcelle’s cheek, twice, but the girl bore the blows in perfect silence, her eyes glistening.
“That is not enough, madame,” said the policeman. “She must be whipped to within an inch of her life. A child showered with your blessings! If you do not promise me to punish her, she will sleep in prison tonight,” he announced, making a show of placing his hand on the child’s shoulder.
Marcelle did not resist. The grandmother let out a sort of strangled sob.
“Leave her be, messieurs. I’ll punish her,” she promised. “Yes, I will punish her. But leave me, leave us now. This is a family affair, it concerns only the family. I withdraw my complaint.”
After the policemen had left, the old woman turned toward her niece and nephews, motioned for them to go, and locked the bedroom door behind them. As she went back to Marcelle, the girl lashed out at her savagely.
“Granny, you can beat me, kill me, but you’ll never be able to play the haughty lady again, because everyone around will know that me too—I am a thief!”
The old woman collapsed into a chair.
“Why did you do it?” she asked weakly.
The child, doubtless expecting screams and blows, seemed at a loss.
“You can beat me, kill me,” she repeated more softly.
“Why did you do it?” asked the grandmother again.
She looked at Marcelle. She made not the slightest movement toward her. She had raised her granddaughter without caresses or words of affection, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek for the New Year or for Prize Day at school, when the girl would come home laden with wreaths.
“Marcelle, look at me,” she said at last.
The girl, with an effort, looked up.
“For six months now you’ve been sulking at me. You don’t speak to me. You leave the house to get away from me. Why? You’re made of iron, Marcelle, iron. Nobody knows what’s going on in your head. Here at Malaret, no one has ever known what we’ve been up to until the day it’s good and done, but don’t you think I didn’t notice anything! It’s been going on since the summer. You’ve been plotting your move. Why are you angry with me?”
The child cried out: “Granny!” Then fell silent once more.
“You won’t speak? Stubborn as iron?”
Marcelle shook her head.
“When I hit you just now, it was stronger than I was, I was that ashamed of you. But I felt more pain than you did.”
“I know, Granny.”
“I work for you. I work hard. Everything that’s here, it’s not for our Cécile or anyone else. It’s for you alone. In taking my money, you were stealing from yourself. Was there something you wanted that badly? Some books? Or jewelry? Two thousand francs, that’s a tidy sum, but if you’d asked me for it to buy something reasonable, I’d have given it. You understand that?”
“Marcelle, you’re going to tell me why you did this.”
The child was now weeping her heart out. Abruptly, she began twisting her thin hands together and then—she burst out in despair: “You won’t understand! There’s no use in me trying to explain. You’ll never understand, no one will!”
Marcelle cried for a long time, simply standing there without a word.
“You remember,” she said at last, “when we were threshing the wheat?”
“Yes,” said the grandmother, all attention.
The girl searched for words. The two of them, grandmother and granddaughter, thought back to that September day when the wheat had been threshed at Malaret. It was the last of the season’s great agricultural labors, a day of work and celebration.
Ever since the morning of the previous day, the oven had been turning out huge golden tarts, and all week the children had been picking fruit to decorate them. The table was laden with big baskets of plums, their honey-colored skins bursting with sugary pearls of juice, their perfume irresistible to wasps and bees. Beneath the high farmyard roofs, the air trembled with a constant low thrumming both solemn and full of joy, which seemed like the very music of summer and made every heart rejoice. On that day, throughout the countryside, everyone strove to offer the finest feast to friends, workers, and neighbors. Fat fowls were prepared, good wine set out, with pies full of cherries and cream, and the flat round pastries called galettes, gleaming with butter. The mistress bustled about; the children pitted the fruit.
“You remember, Granny, that I was in the great room, alone with our Cécile? She has always been mean to me, that one. The blue sugar bowl that was broken two years ago, that she said I’d dropped, well, it wasn’t me: it was her.”
“Why did you not defend yourself?”
“You were too proud, hey, to fight back?” murmured the grandmother. And she nodded a few times, lost in thought.
“Well, we had words with each other. For a joke, and to make sport of her, I snuck some plums from a plate while she was off at the oven to check on the baking. She became angry and called me a thief. Me, I was laughing. It isn’t stealing, is it, Granny, to eat some fruit on threshing day? Seeing me laugh, she flew into a fury and yelled: ‘Yes, you’re a thief, like your mother, your mother who was a servant here, who took a golden brooch from your grandmother, a thief who was put out of the house and died in prison!’ I was shouting: ‘That’s not true!’ So she asked her brothers, who had just come in, if that was indeed the truth, and they said yes, that my mother was a thief who’d been driven from the estate. I knew I was a bastard, Granny, I’ve always known that but I didn’t care. I’m not the only one: at school, there’s Jeanne from Montmort who’s a bastard, and the Jeanne from Moulin-Neuf, and Marie the clog maker’s daughter, and in town there’s Hortense at the Hôtel des Voyageurs who had a little one without a father. I did have a father, and it was all the same to me that he was never married to Mama—but no one had ever told me that my mother was a thief!”
“So then I couldn’t forget that. I thought about it all the time. I was ashamed and I . . . I almost hated you for telling the world about it, for letting the whole country know that my own mama was a thief. Here at Malaret, we’re proud, we don’t owe anything to anybody and you always told me that we could hold our heads up high with people because we did no wrong to anyone. And I thought about the people who would always say, behind my back, my whole life long: ‘Her mother was a thief!’ There wasn’t a thing I could do to change that. Work hard in school, have pretty dresses, play the piano like a mademoiselle, and later, be the mistress of Malaret, that wouldn’t fix it one bit. And all that, because of you. My mother had already been wronged enough, since Papa hadn’t married her, but then her child was taken away and everyone was told she’d stolen. So I wanted to punish you. I decided: ‘Granny, she’ll learn too what it’s like to feel shame and to blush for her family. I’m the one she loves; it’s through me she’ll be punished.’ Also, I didn’t want to be happier than Mama, you understand? Her, she was sent packing, police were called in. Me, too—I thought you’d have them come, and would chase me out. I don’t care a fig about going to prison. Seeing you in town, people would say: ‘You know her granddaughter, that Marcelle, she’s a thief.’ And you’d have understood, you’d have felt it. . . . Then I took Papa’s gold baptismal medal from the armoire, and I hid it in the lambs’ straw bedding, but later, the same night, I don’t know why, I was scared and brought it back. But more and more, I thought about Mama. I saw her in dreams. It’s true she died in prison?”
“No, that isn’t true. She found herself a position in Paris, then died later on.”
“Well I used to see her in prison and wake up. ‘Were you crying in your dreams?’ you’d ask me. ‘Your cheeks are all tearstained.’ I’d go to town, I’d hear people talking: ‘Her mother wasn’t much of anything, but the girl! Her grandmother is that proud of her.’ I . . . I resented you more and more, Granny, and I took the money. Our Cécile is happy as a lark about it, but even that means nothing to me.”
Marcelle fell silent. The old woman, too, sat still and quiet. Her lips trembled, though, as if she wanted to speak but couldn’t summon the courage for it. Her lean face had turned ashen. Beckoning, she called Marcelle over to her.
“Your mother was no thief,” she whispered in a choked voice. “The brooch that was never found, it was I who hid it in the bedroom chimney, here, under a loose stone. It must still be there. I haven’t looked for twelve years.”
Then it was Marcelle’s turn to ask: “Why did you do it?”
“I could not bear to see her, Marcelle,” said the grandmother, and her face convulsed in a bitter grimace of rage. “You say I’m proud. Yes, I was so for my son. He might have taken to wife the best this land could offer, and that less-than-nothing was the mother of my granddaughter! She could raise you as she saw fit, I ask you! Make of you whatever she wished! She had as much right to you as I had—more, even. I wanted to be rid of her. I offered her money to go away and leave you here, but no! She’d have none of it. So . . . I said she was a thief and I sent her away. She defended herself, but no one believed her. She never dared try to reclaim you. Marcelle, go look inside the fireplace. You’ll find a stone that wobbles. Bring back what you find.”
The child obeyed and returned with a golden brooch of an old-fashioned design, a heart decorated with tiny pearls. The old woman studied it a moment in silence.
“I am not proud, my girl,” she said finally, “because here I am telling you all this.”
“I’m letting myself be judged severely by you, when you owe me respect. It’s so that you will no longer feel ashamed of your mother, who was innocent, that I tell you this, and so that you will not believe me more proud than I am. With regard to others, yes. . . . We are born proud, it’s our blood that demands this, but before the Good Lord, we see ourselves as we are, Marcelle.”
“Granny, you hurt my mother badly!” wailed the child in tears.
“Marcelle, you hurt me badly today. In the eyes of the world,” continued the old woman, “I must punish you. I will place you at Chauffailles, with my sister, as a servant. You will leave tomorrow.”
“I’ll come back after the harvest work is done?” asked Marcelle anxiously.
The grandmother shook her head.
“No, it’s impossible. People would say I’d forgiven you too quickly, you see? It must be known that you have been properly punished and that matters of honor are something sacred to us. They will respect me and you, too, later on. You understand?”
“I understand, Granny.”
“Come along now.”
They went back out into the empty great room. The grandmother prepared the evening meal; the granddaughter sat near the window with a book. Her heart was breaking; she had never left Malaret. How she would miss it, this proud, wild land! Now and again her eyes dimmed with tears, but she did not let them escape down her cheeks. She pressed her lips fiercely together and the tears seemed to retreat back inside her, as if drawn by an inner fire.
At suppertime her cousins appeared in the doorway, glancing at her curiously but saying nothing. They each took off their wooden clogs, washed their hands at the copper spigot, and sat down at the table. The young men kept their caps on, as was the custom. Everyone ate in silence. Then the grandmother pushed back her plate and crossed her hard, chapped hands in her lap.
“Tomorrow, our Marcelle will leave the estate. She is going off to Chauffailles, to my sister’s place, as a servant. This is in punishment for her bad behavior. She has confessed everything to me. She wanted to play a mean trick by taking the money, and although it was not stealing, she deserves to be chastised so that she may learn how to respect matters of honor.”
She paused. The child watched her fixedly. Her cousins, forks poised in midair, waited. The grandmother then spoke in a strong voice.
“Out of misfortune, something good may come! While I looked high and low for that accursed money, I chanced upon that brooch that was lost twelve years ago. So it was not our Marguerite at all who took it, as I had believed. I am sorry that she died, and I will ask her forgiveness for having wronged her.”
“The brooch?” exclaimed Cécile with a gasp.
The grandmother opened her fingers and the brooch dropped onto the table. No one spoke. In the stillness, everyone heard Marcelle heave a deep sigh before she burst into tears. The grandmother seemed not to notice. She rose, cleared her place at the table, folded her napkin, and set water to heat for the washing up. She gave her orders in a firm and steady voice.
“Go shut up the animals for the night. You, Marcelle, off you go to your packing, my girl.”
And the child replied:
[Translated by Linda Coverdale]
1 In the Annales de l’Académie de Mâcon, in the section discussing the genealogy of the house of Sercy, a family with its roots in the region of Bourgogne in central France, mention is made of the senior branches of the family, one of which sprang from “Jacques, squire, lord of Bar and of Origny; wed to Jeanne d’Estrées in 1464 and to Alix de Saint-Amour in 1496, who carried on the line.” This branch was still represented in the region at the end of the eighteenth century by “the lords of Arconcey, barons of Jeu and of Lavaux,” whose coat of arms “bore argent, a cross gules, charged with 4 wild roses; overall argent, 3 fesses wavy azure, which is of Sercy.”