It was after dinner, and we were talking about adventures and accidents which happened while out shooting.
An old friend, known to all of us, M. Boniface, a great sportsman and a connoisseur of wine, a man of wonderful physique, witty and gay, and endowed with an ironical and resigned philosophy, which manifested itself in caustic humor, and never in melancholy, suddenly exclaimed:
“I know a story, or rather a tragedy, which is somewhat peculiar. It is not at all like those which one hears of usually, and I have never told it, thinking that it would interest no one.
“It is not at all sympathetic. I mean by that, that it does not arouse the kind of interest which pleases or which moves one agreeably.
“Here is the story:
“I was then about thirty-five years of age, and a most enthusiastic sportsman.
“In those days I owned a lonely bit of property in the neighborhood of Jumieges, surrounded by forests and abounding in hares and rabbits. I was accustomed to spending four or five days alone there each year, there not being room enough to allow of my bringing a friend with me.
“I had placed there as gamekeeper, an old retired gendarme, a good man, hot-tempered, a severe disciplinarian, a terror to poachers and fearing nothing. He lived all alone, far from the village, in a little house, or rather hut, consisting of two rooms downstairs, with kitchen and store-room, and two upstairs. One of them, a kind of box just large enough to accommodate a bed, a cupboard and a chair, was reserved for my use.
“Old man Cavalier lived in the other one. When I said that he was alone in this place, I was wrong. He had taken his nephew with him, a young scamp about fourteen years old, who used to go to the village and run errands for the old man.
“This young scapegrace was long and lanky, with yellow hair, so light that it resembled the fluff of a plucked chicken, so thin that he seemed bald. Besides this, he had enormous feet and the hands of a giant.
“He was cross-eyed, and never looked at anyone. He struck me as being in the same relation to the human race as ill-smelling beasts are to the animal race. He reminded me of a polecat.
“He slept in a kind of hole at the top of the stairs which led to the two rooms.
“But during my short sojourns at the Pavilion—so I called the hut —Marius would give up his nook to an old woman from Ecorcheville, called Celeste, who used to come and cook for me, as old man Cavalier’s stews were not sufficient for my healthy appetite.
“You now know the characters and the locality. Here is the story:
“It was on the fifteenth of October, 1854—I shall remember that date as long as I live.
“I left Rouen on horseback, followed by my dog Bock, a big Dalmatian hound from Poitou, full-chested and with a heavy jaw, which could retrieve among the bushes like a Pont-Andemer spaniel.
“I was carrying my satchel slung across my back and my gun diagonally across my chest. It was a cold, windy, gloomy day, with clouds scurrying across the sky.
“As I went up the hill at Canteleu, I looked over the broad valley of the Seine, the river winding in and out along its course as far as the eye could see. To the right the towers of Rouen stood out against the sky, and to the left the landscape was bounded by the distant slopes covered with trees. Then I crossed the forest of Roumare and, toward five o’clock, reached the Pavilion, where Cavalier and Celeste were expecting me.
“For ten years I had appeared there at the same time, in the same manner; and for ten years the same faces had greeted me with the same words:
“‘Welcome, master! We hope your health is good.’
“Cavalier had hardly changed. He withstood time like an old tree; but Celeste, especially in the past four years, had become unrecognizable.
“She was bent almost double, and, although still active, when she walked her body was almost at right angles to her legs.
“The old woman, who was very devoted to me, always seemed affected at seeing me again, and each time, as I left, she would say:
“‘This may be the last time, master.’
“The sad, timid farewell of this old servant, this hopeless resignation to the inevitable fate which was not far off for her, moved me strangely each year.
“I dismounted, and while Cavalier, whom I had greeted, was leading my horse to the little shed which served as a stable, I entered the kitchen, which also served as dining-room, followed by Celeste.
“Here the gamekeeper joined us. I saw at first glance that something was the matter. He seemed preoccupied, ill at ease, worried.
“I said to him:
“‘Well, Cavalier, is everything all right?’
“‘Yes and no. There are things I don’t like.’
“‘What? Tell me about it.’
“But he shook his head.
“‘No, not yet, monsieur. I do not wish to bother you with my little troubles so soon after your arrival.’
“I insisted, but he absolutely refused to give me any information before dinner. From his expression, I could tell that it was something very serious.
“Not knowing what to say to him, I asked:
“‘How about game? Much of it this year?’
“‘Oh, yes! You’ll find all you want. Thank heaven, I looked out for that.’
“He said this with so much seriousness, with such sad solemnity, that it was really almost funny. His big gray mustache seemed almost ready to drop from his lips.
“Suddenly I remembered that I had not yet seen his nephew.
“‘Where is Marius? Why does he not show himself?’
“The gamekeeper started, looking me suddenly in the face:
“Well, monsieur, I had rather tell you the whole business right away; it’s on account of him that I am worrying.’
“‘Ah! Well, where is he?’
“‘Over in the stable, monsieur. I was waiting for the right time to bring him out.’
“‘What has he done?’
“The gamekeeper, however, hesitated, his voice altered and shaky, his face suddenly furrowed by the deep lines of an old man.
“He continued slowly:
“‘Well, I found out, last winter, that someone was poaching in the woods of Roseraies, but I couldn’t seem to catch the man. I spent night after night on the lookout for him. In vain. During that time they began poaching over by Ecorcheville. I was growing thin from vexation. But as for catching the trespasser, impossible! One might have thought that the rascal was forewarned of my plans.
“‘But one day, while I was brushing Marius’ Sunday trousers, I found forty cents in his pocket. Where did he get it?
“‘I thought the matter over for about a week, and I noticed that he used to go out; he would leave the house just as I was coming home to go to bed—yes, monsieur.
“‘Then I started to watch him, without the slightest suspicion of the real facts. One morning, just after I had gone to bed before him, I got right up again, and followed him. For shadowing a man, there is nobody like me, monsieur.
“‘And I caught him, Marius, poaching on your land, monsieur; he my nephew, I your keeper!
“‘The blood rushed to my head, and I almost killed him on the spot, I hit him so hard. Oh! yes, I thrashed him all right. And I promised him that he would get another beating from my hand, in your presence, as an example.
“‘There! I have grown thin from sorrow. You know how it is when one is worried like that. But tell me, what would you have done? The boy has no father or mother, and I am the last one of his blood; I kept him, I couldn’t drive him out, could I?
“‘I told him that if it happened again I would have no more pity for him, all would be over. There! Did I do right, monsieur?’
“I answered, holding out my hand:
“‘You did well, Cavalier; you are an honest man.’
“‘Thank you, monsieur. Now I am going to fetch him. I must give him his thrashing, as an example.’
“I knew that it was hopeless to try and turn the old man from his idea. I therefore let him have his own way.
“He got the rascal and brought him back by the ear.
“I was seated on a cane chair, with the solemn expression of a judge.
“Marius seemed to have grown; he was homelier even than the year before, with his evil, sneaking expression.
“His big hands seemed gigantic.
“His uncle pushed him up to me, and, in his soldierly voice, said:
“‘Beg the gentleman’s pardon.’
“The boy didn’t say a word.
“Then putting one arm round him, the former gendarme lifted him right off the ground, and began to whack him with such force that I rose to stop the blows.
“The boy was now howling: ‘Mercy! mercy! mercy! I promise——’
“Cavalier put him back on the ground and forced him to his knees:
“‘Beg for pardon,’ he said.
“With eyes lowered, the scamp murmured:
“‘I ask for pardon!’
“Then his uncle lifted him to his feet, and dismissed him with a cuff which almost knocked him down again.
“He made his escape, and I did not see him again that evening.
“Cavalier appeared overwhelmed.’
“‘He is a bad egg,’ he said.
“And throughout the whole dinner, he kept repeating:
“‘Oh! that worries me, monsieur, that worries me.’
“I tried to comfort him, but in vain.
“I went to bed early, so that I might start out at daybreak.
“My dog was already asleep on the floor, at the foot of my bed, when I put out the light.
“I was awakened toward midnight by the furious barking of my dog Bock. I immediately noticed that my room was full of smoke. I jumped out of bed, struck a light, ran to the door and opened it. A cloud of flames burst in. The house was on fire.
“I quickly closed the heavy oak door and, drawing on my trousers, I first lowered the dog through the window, by means of a rope made of my sheets; then, having thrown out the rest of my clothes, my game-bag and my gun, I in turn escaped the same way.
“I began to shout with all my might: ‘Cavalier! Cavalier! Cavalier!’
“But the gamekeeper did not wake up. He slept soundly like an old gendarme.
“However, I could see through the lower windows that the whole ground-floor was nothing but a roaring furnace; I also noticed that it had been filled with straw to make it burn readily.
“Somebody must purposely have set fire to the place!
“I continued shrieking wildly: ‘Cavalier!’
“Then the thought struck me that the smoke might be suffocating him. An idea came to me. I slipped two cartridges into my gun, and shot straight at his window.
“The six panes of glass shattered into the room in a cloud of glass. This time the old man had heard me, and he appeared, dazed, in his nightshirt, bewildered by the glare which illumined the whole front of his ‘house.
“I cried to him:
“‘Your house is on fire! Escape through the window! Quick! Quick!’
“The flames were coming out through all the cracks downstairs, were licking along the wall, were creeping toward him and going to surround him. He jumped and landed on his feet, like a cat.
“It was none too soon. The thatched roof cracked in the middle, right over the staircase, which formed a kind of flue for the fire downstairs; and an immense red jet jumped up into the air, spreading like a stream of water and sprinkling a shower of sparks around the hut. In a few seconds it was nothing but a pool of flames.
“Cavalier, thunderstruck, asked:
“‘How did the fire start?’
“‘Somebody lit it in the kitchen.’
“‘Who could have started the fire?’
“And I, suddenly guessing, answered:
“The old man understood. He stammered:
“‘Good God! That is why he didn’t return.’
“A terrible thought flashed through my mind. I cried:
“‘And Celeste! Celeste!’
“He did not answer. The house caved in before us, forming only an enormous, bright, blinding brazier, an awe-inspiring funeral-pile, where the poor woman could no longer be anything but a glowing ember, a glowing ember of human flesh.
“We had not heard a single cry.
“As the fire crept toward the shed, I suddenly bethought me of my horse, and Cavalier ran to free it.
“Hardly had he opened the door of the stable, when a supple, nimble body darted between his legs, and threw him on his face. It was Marius, running for all he was worth.
“The man was up in a second. He tried to run after the wretch, but, seeing that he could not catch him, and maddened by an irresistible anger, yielding to one of those thoughtless impulses which we cannot foresee or prevent, he picked up my gun, which was lying on the ground. near him, put it to his shoulder, and, before I could make a motion, he pulled the trigger without even noticing whether or not the weapon was loaded.
“One of the cartridges which I had put in to announce the fire was still intact, and the charge caught the fugitive right in the back,—throwing him forward on the ground, bleeding profusely. He immediately began to claw the earth with his hands and with his knees, as though trying to run on all fours like a rabbit who has been mortally wounded, and sees the hunter approaching.
“I rushed forward to the boy, but I could already hear the death-rattle. He passed away before the fire was extinguished, without having said a word.
“Cavalier, still in his shirt, his legs bare, was standing near us, motionless, dazed.
“When the people from the village arrived, my gamekeeper was taken away, like an insane man.
“I appeared at the trial as witness, and related the facts in detail, without changing a thing. Cavalier was acquitted. He disappeared that very day, leaving the country.
“I have never seen him since.
“There, gentlemen, that is my story.”