Book Review: ‘A Sale’ by Guy De Maupassant


Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    This is a unique and interesting story with a lot of tongue twisting French names. The story picks up only after the first half. It opens in the courtroom.

    There are two defendants, Cesaire-Isidore Brument and Prosper-Napoleon Cornu. They appear before the Court of Assizes of the Seine-Inferieure, on a charge of attempted murder, by drowning, of Mme (Madam)Brument, the lawful wife of Brument mentioned earlier.

    The two prisoners are seated side by side on a traditional bench. They are two peasants. The first one Brument is small and stout, with short arms, short legs, and a round head with a red pimply face, planted directly on his trunk, which is also round and short, and with apparently no neck. He is a raiser of pigs and lives somewhere in France at Cacheville-la-Goupil, in the district of Criquetot.

    On the other hand Cornu is thin, of medium height, with enormously long arms. His head was on crooked, his jaw awry, and he squinted. He wore a blue blouse, as long as a shirt that hung down to his knees, and his yellow hair, which was scanty and plastered down on his head, gave his face a worn-out, dirty look, a dilapidated look that is was frightful. He was nicknamed “the cure” because he could imitate to perfection the chanting in church, and even the sound of the serpent. This talent attracted people to his cafe — for he was a saloon keeper at Criquetot — a great many customers who preferred the “mass at Cornu” to the mass in church.

    The court scene begins with Mme. Brument. She is seated on the witness bench. She is a thin peasant woman who seems to be always asleep. She has been sitting there motionless, her hands crossed on her knees, gazing fixedly before her with a stupid expression.

    The judge continues with his interrogation.

    “Well, then, Mme. Brument, they came into your house and threw you into a barrel full of water. Tell us the details. Stand up.”

    She rose. She looked as tall as a flag pole with her cap that looked like a white skull cap. She said in a drawling tone:

    “I was shelling beans. Just then they came in. I said to myself, ‘What is the matter with them? They do not seem natural, they seem, up to some mischief.’ They watched me sideways, like this, especially Cornu, because he squints. I do not like to see them together, for the two collectively are good-for-nothing when they are in the company of each other. I said: ‘What do you want from me?’ They did not answer. And with that I had a sort of mistrust ——”

    The defendant Brument interrupted the witness hastily, saying:

    “I was full.” (Full means drunk here).

    Then Cornu, turned towards his accomplice and said in a deep tone … like the deep tone of an organ:

    “Say that we were both full, and you will be telling no lie.”

    The judge, intervened:

    “You mean by that that you were both drunk?”

    “There can be no question about it.” replied Brument.

    “That might happen to anyone.” said Cornu.

    The judge said to the victim: “Continue with your testimony, lady Brument.”

  Lady Brument continued, “Well, Mr Brument said to me, ‘Do you wish to earn a hundred sous?’ (French coins) ‘Yes,’ I replied. Then he said: ‘Open your eyes and do as I do,’ and he went to fetch the large empty barrel which was lying under the rain pipe in the corner, and he turned it over and brought it into my kitchen, and kept it in the middle of the floor, and then he said to me: ‘Go and fetch water until it is full.’

    “So I went to the pond with two pails and carried water, and still more water for an hour, seeing that the barrel was as large as a huge tank.

    “All this time Brument and Cornu were drinking, drinking and drinking—a glass, and then another glass, and then another. When they were finishing their drinks I said to them: ‘You are full, fuller than this barrel.’ Brument answered. ‘Do not worry, go on with your work, your turn will come, each one has his share.’ I paid no attention to what he said as he was full.

    “When the barrel was full to the brim, I said: ‘There, that’s done.’

    “And then Cornu gave me a hundred sous, and not Brument.

    Brument said: ‘Do you wish to earn a hundred sous more?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, for I am not accustomed to presents like that. Then he said: ‘Take off your clothes!

    ‘Take off my clothes?’ I reacted.

    ‘Yes,’ he said.

    ‘How many shall I take off?’

    ‘If it worries you at all, keep on your chemise on, that won’t bother us.’

    “A hundred sous is a hundred sous, even if I have to undress myself. But I did not fancy undressing before those two, good-for-nothings. I took off my cap, and then my jacket, and then my skirt, and then my sabots. Brument said, ‘Keep your stockings on, as we are good fellows.’

    “And Cornu added, ‘We are good fellows.’

    “So there I was, almost like mother Eve. And they got up from their chairs, but could not stand straight, they were so full, your honour.”

    “I said to myself: ‘What are they up to?’

    “Brument asked: ‘Are you ready?’

    “Cornu replied: ‘I’m ready!’

    “And then they lifted me, Brument by the head, and Cornu by the feet, as one might take, for instance, a sheet that has been washed. Then I began to bawl.

    “And Brument said: ‘Keep still, wretched creature!’

    “And they lifted me up in the air and put me into the barrel, which was full of water. I had a check of the circulation, a chill went to my very insides.

    “Brument said: ‘Is that all?’

    “Cornu said: ‘That is all.’

    “Brument said: ‘The head is not in, that will make a difference in the measure.’

    “Cornu said: ‘Put in her head.’

    “And then Brument pushed down my head down as if to drown me, so that the water ran into my nose. He pushed me down further and I disappeared.

    “And then he must have been frightened. He pulled me out and said: ‘Go and get dry, carcass.’

    “I took to my heels and ran to my father as far as M. le cure’s. He lent me a skirt belonging to his servant, for I was almost in a state of nature, and he went to fetch Maitre Chicot, the country watchman who in turn went to Criquetot to fetch the police who came to my house with me.

    “Then we found Brument and Cornu fighting each other like two rams.

    “Brument was bawling: ‘It isn’t true, I tell you that there is at least a cubic metre in it. It is the method that was no good.’

    “Cornu bawled: ‘Four pails that is almost half a cubic metre. You need not reply, that’s what it is.’

    “The police captain put them both under arrest. I have nothing more to tell.”

    She sat down. The audience in the court room laughed. The jurors looked at one another in astonishment. The judge said:

    “Defendant Cornu, you seem to have been the instigator of this infamous plot. What have you to say?” Cornu rose in his turn.

    “Your honour Judge,” he replied, “I was full.”

    The Judge answered gravely:

    “I know it. Proceed.”

    “I will. Well, Brument came to my place about nine o’clock, and ordered two drinks, and said: ‘There’s one for you, Cornu.’ I sat down opposite him and drank, and out of politeness, I offered him a glass. Then he returned the compliment and so did I, and so it went on from glass to glass until noon, when we were full.

    “Then Brument began to cry. That touched me. I asked him what was the matter. He said: ‘I must have a thousand francs by Thursday.’ That cooled me off a little, you understand. Then he said to me all at once:

    ‘I will sell you my wife.’

    “I was full, and I was a widower. That stirred me up. I did not know his wife, but she was a woman, wasn’t she? I asked him: ‘How much would you sell her for?’

    “He reflected, or pretended to reflect. When, one is full one is not very clear-headed, and he replied: ‘I will sell her by the cubic metre.’

    “That did not surprise me, for I was as drunk as he was, and I knew what a cubic metre is in my business. It is a thousand litres, and that suited me.

    “But the price remained to be settled. All depends on the quality. I said: ‘How much do you want for a cubic metre?’

    “He answered: ‘Two thousand francs.’

    “I jumped like a rabbit, and then reflected that a woman ought, not to measure more than three hundred litres. So I said: ‘That’s too dear.’

    “He answered: ‘I cannot do it for less, as I would lose.’

    “You understand, one is not a dealer in hogs for nothing. One understands one’s business. But, if he is smart, the seller of bacon, I am smarter, seeing that I sell them also. Ha, Ha, Ha! So I said to him: ‘If she were new, I would not say anything, but she has been married to you for some time, so she is not as fresh as she was. I will give you fifteen hundred francs a cubic metre, not a sou more. Will that suit you?’ said Cornu.

    “He answered: ‘That will do. That’s a bargain!’

    “I agreed, and we started out, arm in arm. We must help each other in times of need.”

    “But a thought came to me: ‘How can you measure her, unless you dip her in liquid?’

    “Then he explained his idea, not without difficulty for he was full. He said to me: ‘I’ll take a barrel, and fill it with water up to the brim. I’ll put her in it. All the water that comes out we will measure, that is the way to fix it.’

    “I said: ‘I see, I understand. But the water that overflows will run away; so how will you measure it? How will you gather it back?’

    “Then he began stuffing me and explained to me that all we will have to do would be to refill the barrel with the water his wife had displaced as soon as she comes out of it. All the water we pour in would be the measure. I supposed about ten pails; that would be a cubic metre.

    “We finally reached his house and I took a look at his wife. She was certainly not a beautiful woman. And anyone could see that, for there she is. I said to myself, ‘I am disappointed, but never mind, she will be off value handsome or ugly, it is all the same, is it not monsieur le president (your honour)?’ And then I saw that she was as thin as a rail. I said to myself: ‘She will not measure four hundred litres.’ I understand the matter better, being in liquor trade.

    “She has already told you about the proceeding your honour. I even let her keep on her chemise and stockings, to my own disadvantage.

    “When that was done she ran away. I said: ‘Look out, Brument! She is escaping.’

    “He replied: ‘Do not be afraid. I will catch her all right. She will have to come back to sleep, I will measure the deficit.’

    “We measured. It was not four bucket fulls. Ha, Ha, Ha!”

    At this Brument began to laugh so hysterically that a cop was obliged to punch him in the back. Having quieted down, he resumed:

    “In short, Brument exclaimed: ‘Nothing doing that is not enough.’ I shouted, and shouted and shouted again, he punched me, I hit back.

    That would have kept on till the Day of judgment, seeing we were both drunk.

    “Then came the gendarmes (policemen)! They stared at us, and took us off to prison.”

    Cornu finally He sat down after his long statement.

    Brument corroborated the statements of his accomplice. The jury, in consternation, retired to deliberate.

    At the end of an hour they returned a verdict of acquittal for the defendants, with some severe strictures on the dignity of marriage, and establishing the precise limitations of business transactions.

    Brument went home accompanied by his wife.

    Cornu went back to his business.

    I would give the story seven out of ten. As always if reflects how some perverted men get away with ghastly crime on women. And it happens even today.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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