The perspicacity of master scaufflaire
From the town-hall he betook himself to the extremity of the town, to a Fleming named Master Scaufflaer, French Scaufflaire, who let out "horses and cabriolets as desired."
In order to reach this Scaufflaire, the shortest way was to take the little-frequented street in which was situated the parsonage of the parish in which M. Madeleine resided. The cure was, it was said, a worthy, respectable, and sensible man. At the moment when M. Madeleine arrived in front of the parsonage there was but one passer-by in the street, and this person noticed this: After the mayor had passed the priest's house he halted, stood motionless, then turned about, and retraced his steps to the door of the parsonage, which had an iron knocker. He laid his hand quickly on the knocker and lifted it; then he paused again and stopped short, as though in thought, and after the lapse of a few seconds, instead of allowing the knocker to fall abruptly, he placed it gently, and resumed his way with a sort of haste which had not been apparent previously.
M. Madeleine found Master Scaufflaire at home, engaged in stitching a harness over.
"Master Scaufflaire," he inquired, "have you a good horse?"
"Mr. Mayor," said the Fleming, "all my horses are good. What do you mean by a good horse?"
"I mean a horse which can travel twenty leagues in a day."
"The deuce!" said the Fleming. "Twenty leagues!"
"Hitched to a cabriolet?"
"And how long can he rest at the end of his journey?"
"He must be able to set out again on the next day if necessary."
"To traverse the same road?"
"The deuce! the deuce! And it is twenty leagues?"
M. Madeleine drew from his pocket the paper on which he had pencilled some figures. He showed it to the Fleming. The figures were 5, 6, 8 1/2.
"You see," he said, "total, nineteen and a half; as well say twenty leagues."
"Mr. Mayor," returned the Fleming, "I have just what you want. My little white horse—you may have seen him pass occasionally; he is a small beast from Lower Boulonnais. He is full of fire. They wanted to make a saddle-horse of him at first. Bah! He reared, he kicked, he laid everybody flat on the ground. He was thought to be vicious, and no one knew what to do with him. I bought him. I harnessed him to a carriage. That is what he wanted, sir; he is as gentle as a girl; he goes like the wind. Ah! indeed he must not be mounted. It does not suit his ideas to be a saddle-horse. Every one has his ambition. `Draw? Yes. Carry? No.' We must suppose that is what he said to himself."
"And he will accomplish the trip?"
"Your twenty leagues all at a full trot, and in less than eight hours. But here are the conditions."
"In the first place. you will give him half an hour's breathing spell midway of the road; he will eat; and some one must be by while he is eating to prevent the stable boy of the inn from stealing his oats; for I have noticed that in inns the oats are more often drunk by the stable men than eaten by the horses."
"Some one will be by."
"In the second place—is the cabriolet for Monsieur le Maire?"
"Does Monsieur le Maire know how to drive?"
"Well, Monsieur le Maire will travel alone and without baggage, in order not to overload the horse?"
"But as Monsieur le Maire will have no one with him, he will be obliged to take the trouble himself of seeing that the oats are not stolen."
"That is understood."
"I am to have thirty francs a day. The days of rest to be paid for also—not a farthing less; and the beast's food to be at Monsieur le Maire's expense."
M. Madeleine drew three napoleons from his purse and laid them on the table.
"Here is the pay for two days in advance."
"Fourthly, for such a journey a cabriolet would be too heavy, and would fatigue the horse. Monsieur le Maire must consent to travel in a little tilbury that I own."
"I consent to that."
"It is light, but it has no cover."
"That makes no difference to me."
"Has Monsieur le Maire reflected that we are in the middle of winter?"
M. Madeleine did not reply. The Fleming resumed:—
"That it is very cold?"
M. Madeleine preserved silence.
Master Scaufflaire continued:—
"That it may rain?"
M. Madeleine raised his head and said:—
"The tilbury and the horse will be in front of my door to-morrow morning at half-past four o'clock."
"Of course, Monsieur le Maire," replied Scaufflaire; then, scratching a speck in the wood of the table with his thumb-nail, he resumed with that careless air which the Flemings understand so well how to mingle with their shrewdness:—
"But this is what I am thinking of now: Monsieur le Maire has not told me where he is going. Where is Monsieur le Maire going?"
He had been thinking of nothing else since the beginning of the conversation, but he did not know why he had not dared to put the question.
"Are your horse's forelegs good?" said M. Madeleine.
"Yes, Monsieur le Maire. You must hold him in a little when going down hill. Are there many descends between here and the place whither you are going?"
"Do not forget to be at my door at precisely half-past four o'clock to-morrow morning," replied M. Madeleine; and he took his departure.
The Fleming remained "utterly stupid," as he himself said some time afterwards.
The mayor had been gone two or three minutes when the door opened again; it was the mayor once more.
He still wore the same impassive and preoccupied air.
"Monsieur Scaufflaire," said he, "at what sum do you estimate the value of the horse and tilbury which you are to let to me,— the one bearing the other?"
"The one dragging the other, Monsieur le Maire," said the Fleming, with a broad smile.
"So be it. Well?"
"Does Monsieur le Maire wish to purchase them or me?"
"No; but I wish to guarantee you in any case. You shall give me back the sum at my return. At what value do you estimate your horse and cabriolet?"
"Five hundred francs, Monsieur le Maire."
"Here it is."
M. Madeleine laid a bank-bill on the table, then left the room; and this time he did not return.
Master Scaufflaire experienced a frightful regret that he had not said a thousand francs. Besides the horse and tilbury together were worth but a hundred crowns.
The Fleming called his wife, and related the affair to her. "Where the devil could Monsieur le Maire be going?" They held counsel together. "He is going to Paris," said the wife. "I don't believe it," said the husband.
M. Madeleine had forgotten the paper with the figures on it, and it lay on the chimney-piece. The Fleming picked it up and studied it. "Five, six, eight and a half? That must designate the posting relays." He turned to his wife:—
"I have found out."
"It is five leagues from here to Hesdin, six from Hesdin to Saint-Pol, eight and a half from Saint-Pol to Arras. He is going to Arras."
Meanwhile, M. Madeleine had returned home. He had taken the longest way to return from Master Scaufflaire's, as though the parsonage door had been a temptation for him, and he had wished to avoid it. He ascended to his room, and there he shut himself up, which was a very simple act, since he liked to go to bed early. Nevertheless, the portress of the factory, who was, at the same time, M. Madeleine's only servant, noticed that the latter's light was extinguished at half-past eight, and she mentioned it to the cashier when he came home, adding:—
"Is Monsieur le Maire ill? I thought he had a rather singular air."
This cashier occupied a room situated directly under M. Madeleine's chamber. He paid no heed to the portress's words, but went to bed and to sleep. Towards midnight he woke up with a start; in his sleep he had heard a noise above his head. He listened; it was a footstep pacing back and forth, as though some one were walking in the room above him. He listened more attentively, and recognized M. Madeleine's step. This struck him as strange; usually, there was no noise in M. Madeleine's chamber until he rose in the morning. A moment later the cashier heard a noise which resembled that of a cupboard being opened, and then shut again; then a piece of furniture was disarranged; then a pause ensued; then the step began again. The cashier sat up in bed, quite awake now, and staring; and through his window-panes he saw the reddish gleam of a lighted window reflected on the opposite wall; from the direction of the rays, it could only come from the window of M. Madeleine's chamber. The reflection wavered, as though it came rather from a fire which had been lighted than from a candle. The shadow of the window-frame was not shown, which indicated that the window was wide open. The fact that this window was open in such cold weather was surprising. The cashier fell asleep again. An hour or two later he waked again. The same step was still passing slowly and regularly back and forth overhead.
The reflection was still visible on the wall, but now it was pale and peaceful, like the reflection of a lamp or of a candle. The window was still open.
This is what had taken place in M. Madeleine's room.