Thursday, 6 March 2014

Old Boniface's Crime (Le Crime au père Boniface)

     That day, Boniface, the postman, upon leaving the post office, noticed that his round would be shorter than usual, and as a result felt a very light happiness. He was responsible for the area around the town of Vireville and, when he returned each evening, with his long and tired step, his legs had sometimes accumulated more than forty kilometres.
     So, the post round would be finished very quickly; he could even take his time on the way and get home three hours early. What luck!
     He left the town on the Sennemare path and began his work. It was June, the green and flourishing month, the true month for the plains.
     The man, dressed in his blue overalls and with a black kepi with a red stripe on his head, went across straight paths, the fields of oats, rape and wheat, and was nearly buried in the shoulder-high harvests. His head, just above the corn, seemed to be floating along a calm green sea that was undulating gently from a light breeze.
     He entered the farms through the wooden gate that was in the banks that were shaded by two rows of beech trees, greeting the peasant by his surname: "Hello, Monsieur Chicot!" he said, handing him his le Petit Normand newspaper. The farmer wiped his hand on his trousers, took the paper and slid it into his pocket, ready to read lazily after lunch. The dog, housed in a barrel at the foot of a tilting apple tree was yapping furiously, pulling on his chain; the pedestrian set off again at a military-march pace without turning round, stretching his long legs with his left hand over his bag full of papers and his right was managing his cane which was marching with a steady and hurried pace.
     He distributed the papers and letters in the hamlet of Sennemare then started his route again crossing fields to take the post to the tax-collecter who lived in a little isolated house about a kilometre from the village.
     He was the new tax collector. Monsieur Chapatis had arrived the week before and was recently married.
     He read the Paris newspaper and every now and then Boniface the postman would, when he had time, glance through his post before giving it to its owner.
     So, he opened his bag, took the sheet and pulled it from the other documents, unfolded it and started to read while still walking. The first page did not interest him at all; politics left him completely bored; he always skipped over the finances, but the different figures excited him.
     They were very full that day. He was so moved by the story of a crime carried out in the home of a gamekeeper that he had to stop in the middle of a clover field to re-read it at a slower pace. The events were terrible. A lumberjack had been passing by the house in the middle of a forest when he noticed some blood on the doorstep as if some one had had a nosebleed. "The gamekeeper must have killed a rabbit or something last night," he thought. But drawing nearer he noticed that the door was still slightly ajar and the lock had been broken. Then, terrified, he ran to the village to warn the mayor, and the latter had enlisted the constable and teacher for protection, and the four men went back to the house together. There the found the gamekeeper with a slit throat, his wife strangled on the bed and their little six year old girl suffocated between two mattresses.
    Boniface the postman was left so moved at the thought of this murder and its horrible circumstances that appeared fresh in his mind one after the other, that he felt a weakness of the knees and said out loud, "Good God, there are always some horrible people!"
     Then he put the paper back in its paper bag and started off again, with his head seeing vividly the scene of the crime. I soon came to the house of Monsieur Chapatis; he opened the little garden gate and walked up to the house. It was a low building, containing nothing more than a ground floor topped with a mansard roof. It was separated by around five hundred metres from the next house.
     The postman walked up the two steps to the entrance, put his hand on the lock and tried to open the door and found it was locked. Then, he saw that the blinds had not been opened at all, and that no one had left the house yet that day.
     He huge sentiment of worry came over him, because Monsieur Chapatis since his arrival had always got up fairly early. Boniface looked at his watch. It wasn't even ten past seven in the morning and he was therefore an hour early. It didn't matter, the tax-collecter should already be up.
     Then he examined the house, walking round it carefully, as if he was in some peril. He saw nothing to raise suspicion, apart from footsteps of a man in a patch of strawberries.
     But all of a sudden he stiffened, stock-still, crippled with fear, while passing in front of a window. Someone was groaning inside the house.
     He approached, stepping over a bed of thyme, pressed his ear to the window to hear better. There was definite groaning. He heard long and painful breaths, a sort of wheezing, fighting. Then the groaning became louder, more frequent, more acute, and became cries.
     So Boniface, who did not doubt that a crime was being committed at that very moment in the house of the tax-collecter, ran as fast as he could, going back through the garden and across the fields, through the crops, running flat-out, with his bag shaking and bumping into his waist, and arrived, exhausted, puffing, frantic, at the door of the police station.
     Brigadier Malautour was fixing a broken chair, using hammer and nails. Officer Rautier was holding the broken item between his legs and was fixing a nail around the broken area; then the brigadier, chewing his moustache, with his round and wet eyes from the effort, hit his subordinate's fingers with the hammer.
     The postman, as soon as he saw them, shouted, "Come quick, someone's killing the tax collecter! Hurry, hurry!"
     The two men stopped their work and raised their head, those stunned heads of people whom one has just surprised and disturbed.
     Boniface, seeing that they were more surprised than in a hurry, and repeated, "Quickly, quickly! The thieves are in the house, I heard shouting, there's no time."
     The brigadier put down his hammer and asked, "How do you know about all this?"
     The postman replied, "I was delivering his paper with two letters when I saw that his door was locked and he wasn't up yet. I walked round the house to confirm and I heard groaning inside as if someone was being strangled or having their throat slit. It was then that I left as quickly as possible to get you. We're running out of time."
     The brigadier, standing up, said, "And you didn't try to aid yourself?"
     The postman, alarmed, replied, "I feared that I'd be outnumbered."
     Then the policeman, convinced, announced, "Let me get dressed and I'll follow your lead." He went into the police station followed by his soldier who brought the chair.
     They reappeared almost immediately, and all three started to walk at a tremendous pace towards the scene of the crime.
     Approaching the house, they slowed their pace as a precaution and the brigadier pulled out his gun, then they stealthily entered the garden and came up to the wall. There was nothing to suggest that the criminals had left; the door was still locked and the windows closed.
     "We've got them," murmured the brigadier.
     Old Boniface, his heart beating against his ribs with excitement, made him go round the other side and said, pointing at the canopy, "It's in there."
     And the brigadier went forward alone, and put his ear next to the board. The other two waited, ready for anything, with their eyes fixed on him.
     He stayed there immobile for a long time, listening. To get his head closer to the wooden shutter, he'd taken off his three-cornered hat and was holding it in his right hand.
     "What could he hear? His impassable body gave nothing away, but suddenly his moustache twitched and his cheeks wrinkled as if he were laughing silently, and stepping over the thyme bed once more he came back to the two men, who were looking at him baffled.
     Then he signalled for them to follow him on tip-toes, and coming before the front door once more he told Boniface to slide the post under the door.
     The postman, stupefied, did so in a docile way. "And now, off we go," said the brigadier.
     But as soon as they had passed the gate, he turned to the postman and mockingly said with his sardonic tone and his eyes shining with joy, "You're a sly one!"
     The old man asked, "How do you mean? I heard it all, I swear I heard it." But the officer, unable to hold it in any longer, and burst out laughing. He couldn't breathe he was laughing so hard, doubled up, with both his hands clutching is stomach, his eyes full of tears, with horrible grimaces around his nose. The other two, watching him, panicked.
     But since he couldn't even speak, or stop laughing, or make them understand what he was laughing at, he made a licentious hand gesture.
     Because they still didn't understand, he did it again, several times in a row, nodding his head back towards the house who's door was still closed.
     And the soldier, all of a sudden understanding as well, burst into laughter.
     The old man remained ignorant between the two men who were twisted with laughter.
     The brigadier eventually calmed down and playfully punched the old man in the stomach and shouted, "Oh you joker! I'll remember this as old Boniface's crime."
     The postman opened his enormous eyes and repeated, "I swear to you that I heard it."
     The brigadier began to laugh again. His soldier had sat down on the grass of the ditch to writhe at his own will. "Oh you heard it! And your wife, do you kill her in that way too eh? You old joker."
     "My wife...?" And he began to think for a long while, and then said, "My wife... yeah, she shouts when I hit her... Bur she shouts, shouting, like. Was Monsieur Chapatis hitting his one then?"
     Then the brigadier, in a delirious happiness, took him by the shoulders and turned him round like a puppet, and whispered in his ear something that stupefied the old man.
     Then, the postman murmured pensively, "No... not like that... not like that... not like that... she doesn't say anything, mine. I never would have thought, if it's possible... I would have sworn to God."
     Confused and disorientated, embarrassed, he went on his way through the fields while the policeman and the brigadier - still laughing - shouted crude jokes from afar, and watched his black kepi disappear on the tranquil harvest sea.

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