Born in France in 1917 Claude Seignolle, as far as I can tell, is still alive at the time of writing (2013). His major work, Malvenue, has been translated by Bernard Wall, along with a novella, Marie the Wolf, these published together as The Accursed; two diabolical tales. Malvenue, an outstanding novel of supernatural horror, has been undeservedly neglected by Anglo-American aficionados of the genre (it receives only a passing mention in Supernatural Literature of the World, and only a bibliographic listing elsewhere). Translations of Seignolle, though few, are not difficult to obtain. A volume of short stories, The Nightcharmer, is available, and a minor story, ‘The Ghoulbird’, is included in the Vandermeers’s anthology, The Weird.
The Accursed represents Seignolle at full strength, writing longer, realistically detailed supernatural or horror stories rooted in the brutalized, superstition-ridden lives of the Sologne peasantry (his novella, Le rond des sorciers, is another impressive example of his work in this territory). If these works carry particular conviction it’s no doubt because Seignolle doubled as a professional anthropologist who researched rural folklore. He was also reputed to be something of a magician himself and claimed an encounter with the devil.
Seignolle however, devoted much of his energies to writing shorter, more generic contes fantastiques, of which there are a considerable number. For the most part I find these disappointingly conventional in comparison with his longer regional fiction. A representative selection of the short fiction can be found in The Nightcharmer.
The story translated here, ‘The Matago’ (‘Le Matagot’) is one of his longer ones, and set in his home ground of Sologne in central France. Taken from the 1966 collection, Contes macabres, it’s the jewel of this particular collection, a true conte macabre with a dense accumulation of grue and horrid detail. Seignolle has a predilection for visceral horror but there’s more going on than just wanting to make our flesh creep. Although matters are for the most part presented seriously by the narrator, the story eventually reveals itself as an extended exercise in sardonic humour. The denouement involves a practical joke gone wrong, and, at a formal level, the narrative is modelled on the comedy of lucky or fateful happenstance. But it’s an inverted comedy that plays out in terms of grim irony.
On that warm autumnal close of day crimped with russet shadows, I’d stopped at the Green Oak inn, in the little town of S***, in Sologne.
For several days I’d been looking around for premises to rent. Cottage, town house or farm, it didn’t matter to me so long as solitude prevailed over the surroundings. That was something I needed more than any consideration of comfort, in order to recapture the gift of writing that had deserted me.
I was informed of the existence of the La Hardière farm, some twenty kilometers distant, by a humbug of a merchant, a collector of local knowledge with a voice and a manner that were beguiling, worse still, convincing.
The swine must have been a poet, or else on commission, for his description, whether in good faith or bad, was seductive to the point of transforming it into a sweetmeat wrapped in silver paper: nearly new buildings, solid and sound; warm in the winter, cool in the summer; cheerful; fertile soil; tranquil woods with game freely available, leaving one lost for choice; forty acres of rustic peace immersed in twenty thousand further acres of serene silence.
Just what I was looking for.
He knew the owner, someone called Cordassier. And, without further delay he wrote a warm word of recommendation, going so far as to offer guarantees of my reliability, this being the first time he’d set eyes on me.
All this was so well managed that, though I asked the innkeeper’s advice, already bedazzled and seduced, I paid no heed to his warning: namely that for a long time it was locally notorious that agricultural tenants taking on that farm never stayed for more than two or three months, fleeing it, abandoning the district, no matter how much sweat had been expended or costs incurred and lost in that puzzle of a place that ate up labour.
An enigma. For none of them revealed the reason for their departure. As for the climate of peace and serenity! The innkeeper indulged in a cynical smile.
The following morning, I took myself off to the village of P****.
Finding someone ready and willing to show me Cordassier’s house wasn’t easy. Nobody seemed to like the man and the fact that I was looking for him so eagerly earned me nothing but looks that were thick with suspicion.
But I was still brim-full of the strong and assured confidence of the city dweller, rashly unaware of the strength of country cunning.
In brief, my initial views were those of a sceptical outsider, something, perhaps, that earned me added goodwill from the aforementioned Cordassier when he learned of it later.
Isolated in a little woodland off to the side of the village, his house, with stonework fit for a château, looked prosperous, handsome and attractive. Much more so than the man himself; a greasy, odious-looking old man, his face constantly shining with sweat and so riddled with pimples that I imagined his body was like that of an enormous toad. Something like a transformation intended but not completed by a spiteful witchdoctor, with, however, more ambition than skill.
At that time I didn’t know that he himself passed for a sorcerer.
Cordassier looked me over, paying out a gaze sharpened by the screwed-up eye with which he weighed me up. He rubbed his chin for a good while and finally arrived at a decision that was as ambiguous as the smile that accompanied it.
He was happy to show me his farm. I must have met with his approval – after, no doubt, a certain fashion.
It wasn’t until after the tragedy in which I involuntarily participated that I understood just how much I appeared to him that day as the right man for his devious plans.
The six kilometers that he made us undertake on foot, there and back in an arid wilderness, walking fast but refusing any attempt at conversation, seemed to me three times as far, so much did I find the company of this phenomenon heavy going. And two silences side by side ended up being more onerous than continual small-talk, especially as Cordassier was feigning indifference while looking me over on the sly.
It seemed to me that he found himself in a state of animal cunning and that I was simmering away in his mind like a tasty tidbit. He had to be a diabolically crafty horse-trader.
And then his attempts at stopping himself from lurching all over the place, also his way of leaning his chest forward, breathing hoarsely, arms windmilling the air round about, moving as much as his legs, made me uneasy almost to the point of nausea.
The La Hardière farm looked worse than bad to me; in need of attention, soil and pallid buildings eaten away by relentless neglect. The surrounding land, unfolded like bad cloth in a fairground, was uncultivated, raddled with yellow-green marshes, all too visibly patched up with squares of tall, impenetrable jade fir trees.
But so much did the landscape strike me as propitiously mysterious, divine while at the same time bearing the marks of hell, that it was a case of love at first sight.
The main building was still firm on its foundations. A stout door effectively protected the big front room from the onslaughts of night that I guessed were a good deal more aggressive here than in most other places.
Cordassier opened it cautiously and showed me in first. Maliciously, he lowered the lid of his observant eye.
I walked in confidently. But once inside I recoiled in disgust. From floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, there was nothing but the veils, threads and cobwebs of spiders, all of them populated, all quivering with alarm at the sound of our sudden arrival.
Obeying a natural instinct of self-protection I beat a sharp retreat, turning back toward Cordassier.
He stood right in the doorway as if to block my way and chuckled with sick delight, so that his pitted jowls shook like jelly.
At that moment he seemed abject to me, akin to a batrachian monstrosity, for no doubt this was just a game for him; rubbing a city-dweller’s face in the realities of the countryside in order to relish his surprise and disgust made him seem worse to me than these filthy spiders.
I quickly looked round for a stone or a stick of some sort to bat him away with, just as I would have done on encountering some poisonous thing, to avoid the risk of harm.
He jumped smartly aside, no doubt guessing my intention, and let me get out.
He entered in his turn and I saw that first he gestured at these sordid tenants, then, so it seemed, he uttered words whose meaning escaped me and that were fatty as though smeared with grease. The fact remains that the spiders quit their webs and disappeared in fissures in walls that were nearly everywhere covered with cracks.
In spite of this rapid train of emotions come to serve a warning I remained too stunned to profit from the revelation of such powers.
What’s more, when on exiting he gave me a look that was so ferocious and with such an air of ironical bravado, I realised that he expected me to change my mind and abandon any desire to stay on at La Hardière. He already thought that he’d taught me a lesson and had some fun at my expense.
He was mistaken.
His little comedy seemed so ridiculous, no less my own response to a sight that that after all was only to be expected in an uninhabited location, that without blinking I asked him how much a year’s rent for the property was, starting right away.
He only just managed to hide his surprise and a little flame of greed lit up that, I thought, would bring his asking price to the boil. I also expected an oversized appetite.
No, he only wanted some hundreds of francs, “on principle,” he specified, suddenly becoming a thoroughly decent sort. But he laid down one formal condition; I must never bring a dog, whether on a leash or not, whether noisy or quiet. Besides, he added, his voice briefly curdled by spite, no-one stayed long at La Hardière; everyone either gave up on it or fled.
His price was so negligible and his condition so trifling that I ought to have mistrusted him there and then.
We shook hands and he didn’t stint on the goodwill gestures that usually accompany the euphoria of a good business deal, that’s to say he committed himself to carrying out various repairs at his own cost and without my having asked him.
How could I have guessed that what he was letting me was something different, and that I was to become the means of a terrible revenge, as cunning as it was subtle?
Back at the village, but steering clear of it, Cordassier suddenly left me, after a wink intended to seal a complicity going beyond anything I could have imagined at the time. He cut across a stubble-field and turned back to me two or three times, gesturing cordially.
What with his abrupt lurches, he looked more than ever like a batrachian dressed up as a man.
Afterward I remembered the piece of popular wisdom that prudently cautions the naïve or the overconfident against certain transactions that are concluded too rashly, so much the worse if the agreed price is deliberately set very low; if it’s almost a gift then the anticipated spell flourishes even better. Isn’t it said that help from the devil’s hand has no real value unless acquired for a mere centime? Alas, we don’t always know that afterwards we’re only able to get rid of it at half price – then not at all.
However it may be, the following morning after a bracing autumn swim, the surroundings looking cheerful, thick, rough tufts of vegetation set aflame by the summer, and the intoxicating tang of sharp perfumes straying hither and thither, I arrived at La Hardière with luggage and plenty of nerve.
And nerve was needed to go into the room and clear it of its parasites.
On leaving behind the sunlight splashed around the threshold I felt for a moment the paralyzing sensation of a prehistoric man driven to confront the occupants of a hostile cave in order to chase them out, however powerful or whatever their nature, either to die there, a victim or to sleep there, victorious.
Armed with a scourge of supple, sappy broom I advanced on the shroud for flies, spun on a gigantic scale, the barely credible deployment of a ruse that was so evident that no fly had run the risk, something that I noticed without wondering to myself about the proliferation of these weavers, all of them big, fat beasts.
Fingers rigid, teeth gritted, I quivered at least as much as the big sheets of web that I swept down from ceiling to floor, chasing the fat, bad-tempered and combative creatures who tried to climb up on me and that I crushed underfoot willy-nilly.
Thankfully, they found themselves for the most part caught in their own traps, captured and crushed in their webs; infernal ears of corn, filthy rolls that I pushed outside, where, with a match, I torched them to nothing.
In doing this, I had a clear sense of risking a provocative act, one that no-one else in my situation there in Hardière-à-Cordassier would have dared.
Cleansed of spiders, the room breathed. There remained on the damp walls, a testament to my temerity, but a worse witness to their repulsive existence, large brown stains that on the following day I washed down with lime.
This massacre brought me some relief, but a few moment later a single instructive glance past the raised attic trapdoor forced me to immediately close it against further colonies of arachnids of every stamp that held sway there, in such quantities that the ceiling, though protected with stout beams, seemed to me a rather dubious defence against the possibility of their vengeful counterattacks.
I only just managed to accomplish this small-scale rural labour of Hercules; satisfied with having restored order to the local Augean stable, I decided to disinfect myself with the fresh and healthy air of the grounds outside.
The little garden, returned to a natural state of wasteland, drew me like a magnet.
I might have gone elsewhere; in the scalped hayfield, all its undergrowth cleared. But no, I wanted to tread this spot without delay.
I didn’t take the easy way in, which was a gate covered with chicken-wire grill, rather, with a calm and confident step, I crossed the surrounding high grassy bank.
The splendid knot of brilliantly crimson vipers against which I brushed no doubt thought they’d only dreamed about me, so rapid was the leap, like a shooting star, that carried me clear of them.
And I’ll only mention in passing the horrible sensation that I felt soon afterward when my flight ended and my unshod foot slipped naked on a huge, stationary stable-yard toad with a swollen back raised just above the sand, seemingly a purse filled with gold, actually a pus-filled trap for the foolish.
Amidst that less than welcoming arrival however the first of my acts of courage at least bore fruit.
Much later I learned by way of a friendly third party that just when I was chastising the little hairy monsters in their webs, that very same morning, Cordassier had to take to his bed, pains all over his body: “his flesh like it had been scourged all of a sudden, and covered with bruises…” according to the say-so of Mother Cordassier – but who’d believe that gossip! – who, although her husband disapproved, had risked confiding in a few people. But, debilitated by the strange illness that kept him in bed for two days, he wasn’t altogether able this time to sew her tongue to her lips with a needle of threats like he’d managed to do on the occasion of other similar afflictions that had cleared up as quickly as they’d arrived and hadn’t left the least trace on his body, if this wasn’t in fact the visible eruption of a secret rapture, though one that did little to improve his character.
I’ll tell you now about Jeanne Lehoux who came to la Hardière of her own accord and found herself tied subtly up in the same bundle of thorns as me.
I met her in the village the day after my arrival, at the baker’s, where she commented eloquently on reasons to be found in the stars for an autumn that was so rich in sunshine. It was her style as much as her argument that convinced me, so when she went out I didn’t think twice about catching her up to request two hours of her time, two hours every second day to help me with housework. But more than her help, I wanted her company which I guessed would be extremely interesting, and, as I soon found, I wasn’t mistaken … Lord, but she was curious to know about everything.
She could have said no; she wasn’t short of work, and she was fond of her freedom; what’s more La Hardière was kilometers there and back on bad roads with no end of treacherous ruts in wait for unwary ankles to twist; and time lost too at the cost of extra fatigue.
But the calculation of “two hours every second day” must have been magic and conclusive, for she accepted straight away, without worrying about what salary I could offer, she, however, who was worth ten times the least of her earnings.
As yet I didn’t know that for Jeanne Lehoux La Hardière was La Hardière; a feast that offered mouthwatering events flavoured to appeal to her gluttonous curiosity.
She arrived that same afternoon, at a smart pace, in no way hampered by her long black dress, her back bent under a shawl of the same mournful weight, but as fresh as a young girl dressed only in light muslin.
She was by no means as young as that. Her exact age? No good trying to guess what it was beneath her eternal outfit of deep mourning! But her advanced years were betrayed by the surreptitious rheumatism of old people, resulting in a creaking of various of her joints; also a torment inflicted by her bones reduced her to personal admissions, she who only acknowledged other people’s stories, for the good woman knew everything about everyone, and even more about the rest.
In fact she was a wise woman. An old-time shepherdess of the big flocks of yesteryear who by dint of divining secrets between silence and the bleating of sheep had ended up understanding more than a few of the stray mysteries that lie in the way of human contemplation.
It was said that she knew this and that, fables, legends, sayings, God knows what else. All this came to her inevitably, without her worrying where it came from; speaking suddenly in the words of a forgotten patois that she’d never learned, or minutely describing the interior of a château of marvels without having ever visited it.
Jeanne Lehoux knew how to plunge you irresistibly into the boiling or freezing water of the most outlandish adventures, always involving such and such people, she always assertive and you with no option but to splash about in there, whether willingly or not.
Right from the start, with her tongue polishing off confidences while her brush scoured the dirty table, I learned a lot about Cordassier’s peculiar life; everything that people blabbed about his outward behavior but nothing about the essence of his mystery, Jeanne’s reading of the runes being for once not very forthcoming.
For a long time the man had been the manager of a vast property in the surrounding territory. People said that by exploiting the owner’s trust in him, he’d been auble to take advantage of his duties by levying charges and surcharges from poachers no less than from licensed hunters. In this way a hunted rabbit, no matter who shot it, was transformed into a square foot of ground; a roe-deer into a little slice of forest, a wild boar into stretch of wall.
La Hardière represented an enduring hecatomb of every variety of game, whether snared or felled with buckshot.
But Cordassier, so went the rumour, was rich in another “thing,” but it wasn’t known what. What was it? Here people kept quiet, peering around themselves, not at all casually, because the hinted “thing” could suddenly come running right by your side, listening and threatening while remaining invisible.
And Jeanne Lehoux put her skinny finger to her pinched lips, while looking about the room to catch some kind of shadow by surprise.
Sssh!… Better to say as little as possible about it, above all here, in the man’s favourite property, thought to be a kind of ear made of stone that allowed him to know straight away anything thought or whispered against him.
Fearless she might be but I could clearly see that Jeanne reckoned she’d told me enough; she knew that if she went further there was a risk that her quiet vigilance could be wrong-footed and that in the space of an instant her spirit could be uprooted
thanks to the attentions of a well-informed and wrathful Cordassier.
On the other hand she told me in a rancorous voice everything bad there was to say about a man called Brûlemail, Cordassier’s sworn enemy. Given that La Hardière was Cordassier’s listening-post, did she do this, in order to ingratiate herself with him? Thinking back on it today, I’m not sure that this wasn’t the case.
This Brûlemail, half Cordassier’s age, worked in the woods. He wielded an almighty axe. But in spite of his strength and ability in felling trees, he was always short of money. And the little bit of magical knowledge that he’d acquired from a skilled uncle, the only inheritance he’d had to bequeath, gift-wrapped with his dying breath, hadn’t managed to secure for Brûlemail as much as he’d expected, which was plenty and then some.
With the power of his meagre stock of secrets exhausted, he wasn’t able to gain the upper hand over Cordassier, who blocked each of his designs, whether to enrich himself with gold or to impose himself on the village by force of personality.
Resentment had left Brûlemail’s overriding ambition with two masks; on the one hand everyone’s friend, warm, sympathetic, always ready to share a drink with whoever… in short, the attitude of a politician, making himself amenable so as to vote against the opposition, all the better to gobble up its sphere of interest once the vote had been won; on the other hand, a mask of malice toward Cordassier who, if he hadn’t had on his side, totally at service, the “thing” that he was reputed to have, no doubt wouldn’t have lasted long in the land of the living.
But, thanks to the Devil, the “thing” was effective in preserving the old estates manager and continued to yield him an income that mocked the woodchopper armed only with a leaden axe for striking at a rival who was hard as a granite rock. Which, according to Jeanne, was all to the good, for she thoroughly disliked this package of threadbare corduroy full of supple, duplicitous thorns.
And, in a barely audible murmur she predicted that all this would finish badly for both of them.
Her work finished, Jeanne Lehoux was already well down the road when she turned and came back. I saw her standing in the doorway with a worried look on her face. She’d come back to tell me that I should get a dog, for company and, just as much, for security… if I wanted one, she knew exactly…
I didn’t hide from her the formal condition laid down by Cordassier for renting La Hardière. I liked dogs, but I didn’t want to override his stipulation; the tone of his demands had left me in no doubt that he wasn’t joking.
The good woman, lips moving, was about to confirm the look I read in her eyes, but she stopped short and went away without another word.
We were of one and the same mind; better to respect Cordassier’s demands.
It wasn’t long before I had proof that dogs stood little chance at La Hardière. One of them at any rate, and as for others, who knows?
After the first bucket hauled up from the well I saw that I would need to order a regular delivery of mineral water from the grocer. The well provided the only source of water in the whole property; a thick green-stained liquid with a breath so foul it hurt my sense of smell.
I lost no time in throwing this poison back in its stone vessel before it could circulate on the outside and contaminate the pure air.
But if the thirsty man was nauseated, the poet found the well itself alluringly picturesque and mysterious. I don’t know how many stones I threw down as I walked past, just to measure the duration of their fall and hear the disturbance at bottom.
I continued throwing until, plock, resonance of another depths, one there was no hope of sounding, going who knows where? That query awoke in me the same question that I’d previously asked myself as a child, but with an immense reply, that’s to say the majestic cavern that I imagined there.
The water from the La Hardière well wasn’t at the bottom of an abyss and I could see the surface starred over with wild cress warning me that it was unhealthy; and the grown man, sadly wiser, knew that this wasn’t the entrance to a cavern overflowing with secrets.
And yet there it was!
On the fourth day, leaning over the rim, worn and smooth with age, I made out a dark tumescence on the surface of the water.
I went to fetch a long hay rake hanging in the barn and tried to hook what I could see.
The mass was so smooth that in spite of my efforts the teeth, rusted but still sharp, weren’t able to get a firm purchase.
At last I succeeded in snagging it by a less slippery part and lifted it up, driven by curiosity, without whose motive force I would have left that horror to its liquid inferno as soon as I saw it clear of the water.
Climbing onto the rim of the well I hauled it up and out. It was a carcass swollen like a goatskin bottle, plastered here and there with flame-coloured hair, but punctured, and falling to the ground with an inimical plop it squirted out its abject animal pestilence.
The four paws, broken in several places, were attached to the body by the skin; so too was the dreadful head of the gutted beast, the big jaws wide open, teeth protruding aggressively.
Was this a monstrous wolf-dog? A dog? A wolf? The last of the wolves? Another kind of wolf, under a nightly curse, one that I’d surprised as it rested by day between two living and murderous hunts and that I’d just hauled out of one of the toxic outlets of an actual legendary underground?
So what might be the consequence of my act?
But maybe this was nothing more than evidence of local animosity, flung down as a sullen act of revenge. A notice to get out of the place: Brûlemail? Someone else who I didn’t know about? An evil curse even! Who knows?
Stupid and impudent questions that the reawakened child in me, too curious by half about a well, asked without hearing the mute replies that, in a clear and distinct manner, it finally supplied.
I threw the monster into his cavern and, dragging a big, heavy stone, lifting it up, sliding it as well I could, I managed to cover and block the mouth of the damnable hole.
But I should, without a moment’s hesitation, have dug a deep hole far away from the farm, taken the dog that came from who knows where and buried it there.
My imagination had plenty to feed on; this dog obsessed me all day, and soon became something my mind was unable to digest. But, my gaze returning again and again to its well, I couldn’t stop myself from compulsively swallowing a vile mouthful of it. I should have gone, left La Hardière that same day; should have understood that this succession of nauseating flashpoints was assembling the elements of a drama to be avoided at all cost. But I didn’t for a moment feel the desire to leave, for I believed that the series of events was merely disagreeable, not ominous, the kinds of thing that happen as much by chance as by mischance. Unsuspecting, I was far from understanding that a tragic story little by little was being written around me, and that I was bound to read it right to the end without ever realising as much, not even when my turn would come to play a momentary role.
I scarcely ate anything and went to bed early without lighting the oil lamp. Immediately the night started peeping at me through the narrow, open and unshuttered window. A cosmetic powdering of stars gave it a faint light that made inroads on the thick darkness of my room. Its mellowness was reassuring and I sought to reason away my disquiet, something that finally gave me sufficient peace of mind for sleep.
Sleep kept me to itself till two in the morning. Then it departed, leaving me wide awake, so alert that I could hear the faint ticking of my watch hung on the wall beside the bed. I heard with new ears.
The night was less clear than before. No longer with me, it was drawn away elsewhere and held in thrall.
That feeling was quick in pressing down on me.
Suddenly a sound of heavy breathing from the yard caused me to break out in a fine sweat, my face as much as my thighs.
Someone was out there, not far from my window, and, I realized, judging by the hoarseness of his breath, that he was trying to keep quiet, but that the task in hand couldn’t help but betray him.
I immediately thought of the well; of the decaying dog. And my will was paralysed as I imagined potent images of the beast still decomposing but come back life to wander in pitiless damnation.
I thought that it was trying to get out, as it was bound to do on certain nights, if not indeed every night up to now, and I congratulated myself on having solidly blocked the mouth of its hiding hole with a heavy slab.
But I could smell no stench of a carcass, and a faint rasping noise coming from an altogether different direction quickly swept aside my speculations. This other sound freed me by attracting toward it the heavy breathing, which promptly moved away.
I got up and went to the window. The cool night air covered over my sweat with a layer of chill. But perhaps it was only fear making the surface of my flesh tingle.
Silence fell once more. Looking outside without sticking my head out I could see enough of the well to make out the mound, the stone, still in place.
Then I focused all my attention on the presumed location of the rasping sound. It was where the dried remains of an old dungheap were situated.
Nobody there, or anywhere else.
Then I was overtaken with unspeakable terror when the panting noise began again, coming from the dungheap. It slowly crossed the yard once more and went toward the village road, though I could see neither human being nor animal.
I have to confess that I wouldn’t have gone outside for all the gold in the world, because passing in front of the window where I was keeping watch, my teeth pressed on the brick ledge, lips and nose in the earthly dust, giving me a taste of the afterlife… because passing in front of me the panting came to a standstill and remained in place, turned in my direction as though to let me know that it knew that I was watching it.
It seemed to me then that the night, turning darker, acted as its accomplice. My eyes could no longer penetrate it, blinded as I was by terror.
For an eternity the panting remained turned toward my window, of which nothing could be seen but the hole in the wall, my face being hidden by the darkness and the window-frame.
It remained there, in a state of exertion, as though after a long run; as though before a sudden act of aggression.
Perhaps it would have waited until I was held spellbound and helpless with fear, if, once again, the rasp from the bottom of the yard hadn’t made it turn sharply in that direction – and there, as its breath faded, also on account of the relief that I felt, I realised that it was no longer interested in me.
It didn’t move toward the muted call that sounded like two pieces of rough cloth being rubbed hard against each other, but it made a speedy retreat from La Hardière and dispersed as though tossed up and blown apart by a sudden blast of wind.
One of Jeanne Lehoux’s two-hour visits was on the following day. I waited for her impatiently and if I hadn’t kept a grip on myself I would have hopped gratefully up and down right in front of her. But I didn’t want to let her see last night’s anguish, still lingering dully on in me.
No sooner had she stepped into the yard than her eyes fixed like leeches on the stone I’d placed over the mouth of the well.
She went up to it and walked slowly round the rim while, in a self-consciously casual tone of voice, I told her about the dog I’d found in there and, having finally decided, about the mysterious nocturnal panting sound.
I talked to her. She didn’t seem to be listening. It was only when she turned toward me that I saw from her face that she was glad that something had happened at La Hardière. I read there that I’d finally satisfied her by confirming the hearsay that attached to the place.
I hadn’t realised that from the first day I owed her assistance to the odd goings-on at the Cordassier farm. Quite simply, the old woman would never have come if nothing was happening.
By contrast she was so concerned not to miss out on the slightest development that from that morning on she came every day without my having asked her. The remark that Bourquin, the baker, made to me a little later shed a clear light on her all-engrossing curiosity: “…Why do you think Jeanne goes all that distance to you while she turns down my offer of easy, well-paid work here, right on her front doorstep!… God knows but you must be feeding her a hell of story!…”
It was still the case that the poor dislocated dog from the well surpassed anything imaginable, and played more of an accursed and frightening role than Jeanne, gravely and in all seriousness, attributed to it. So much so that I prepared myself for a further night still more terrifying than the previous.
“…You did well leaving it there where it is,” she concluded sagely; “it never does to interfere with spells you don’t understand…”
And she went to the nearby ruins of the bread furnace that had been dislodged by the roots of the neighbouring oak tree, a hefty thing that flaunted its vigour.
I saw her trying to shift a big millstone. She beckoned me over help her. We placed it, and others too, on top of the rim, in addition to the one I’d already put there.
“…We’ll have to see about cementing that,” she said, clapping her hands clear of cement powder.
I made no secret of the fact that I’d already thought of doing that.
In different circumstances that state of affairs would have seemed childish and ridiculous to me, but I have to admit that I was more than ready to lend a hand, secretly comforted by having insured myself with a seeming measure of security.
As for the panting and rasping noises, these left Jeanne perplexed. I showed her all the places where I’d heard them, but how could we have found our way to an explanation? What visible clues were there! Even the pile of dead waste couldn’t conceal anything that would have given rise to the moaning noise; it was nothing but a carpet of hardened dung that looked as though fossilised.
After Jeanne had gone I gazed for a long time at the shadow of a leaf there, as though the sun were playing it on a chessboard of mystery.
Had we broken a canine curse in muzzling the well? Had Jeanne succeeded in scalding some malignant demon when she asperged the yard with litres of holy water that, with due respect, she’d fetched in a cider barrel? I don’t know, but the following night, that I’d been in so much fear of, flowed like jet-black oil, without any foul ghostly breathing, even the slightest.
No perturbation, either that night or the following ones; so much so that after a week without any odd goings-on at La Hardière, Jeanne Lehoux started being unfaithful to me.
She only came every three days, and then only each fourth. Barely a month after the Night of the Dog I only saw her on Saturdays.
With La Hardière no longer holding Jeanne’s interest I lost a companion but acquired so much tranquility that my job of writing progressed in barrowloads of thirty pages a day, full of sap extracted from the quiet of nature and from my recovered inner calm.
November approached but the persistent sun, present each day, set itself against the unpredictable weather of that usually capricious season. You might have thought that it was still the scorching heat of August. Alas, the days, much to my regret, becoming shorter, wore away the burnished bullion amassed over the months by the ebb and tide of days, depriving me little by little of the sun’s golden hoard of guineas.
Then there was another hideous night.
That night back once more!
I was sleeping, my face wrapped up in a scarf of mild air, seasoned by a hint of coolness, when, in what seemed at first to be a bad dream, all of a sudden there was the grating sound of the sinister panting.
I only became aware of its reality when it sounded so loud and clear and with such insistence that it could have been taken for a summons.
Emerging from sleep but still keeping my eyelids shut as though that would defend me, my body rigid so as to control any movement that might have betrayed the fact of my wakefulness, I managed to master the brutal fear that pounded my heart at full strength.
The panting passed to and fro in the yard, brushed past my window, moaned and resumed at volume, as though intent on making itself heard, but I kept away from it as from a trap.
Now I could be in no doubt that it was human. Whoever it was who exhaled so heedlessly, with no attempt to keep quiet, must be panicked or terrified.
I was hearing the breath of despair, but its resonance was sometimes so macabre that it might easily have been a precise and terrifying menace come from beyond the grave.
So much so that I suddenly thought of the putrefied dog. But, with no carrion smell and not having seen any of the stones I had cemented over the mouth of the well broken, I managed to dispel the horrible image of that return from the dead.
Who was it then?
And everything that Jeanne Lehoux had told me about Brûlemail came once more to my mind. Then I was dragged still deeper into racking torment as the panting modulated from lament to snarl.
At last I opened my eyes and, imperceptibly, raised my head. I wanted to convey the impression that I was still sleeping or that I was – why not? – dead.
I looked in front of me.
The night was milky white with a full moon. That was all I could see, full of enchantment in the rectangle of the open window.
No face peering in at me could be seen there, though the “presence” could now be heard right at that very spot.
I lifted my body weighed down by nerves in thousands of tiny knots, an immense network of contradictory sensations that, above all, held me locked tight within myself.
With my muscles stiff as boards I went over to the window like an automaton that had been wound up by a force outside itself; as though I was bound to obey it.
But, whipped on by an atrocious fear, my terror progressed so fast that in no time at all, overintoxicated, I ceased to feel it. Courageous without courage.
As I moved toward it, so the panting moved away. It was as though it wanted to guide me, to take me somewhere. Its strength waned, as though its sufferings were so severe as to sometimes cut it short; but it resumed, keen and hurried, like a pulse paused for a moment then released, throbbing twice as fast.
When I reached the window the distance taken by the breathing made me bold and I gazed out, once more under the protection of the brick ledge.
The yard was empty. Thanks to the generous moon I could see in the distance and make out everything that was in front of me. But I could see absolutely no sign of the heavily breathing man.
Then I thought that if I couldn’t see him it was because he was back up against a wall.
I risked lifting my head and shoulders through the window and felt the palpitations of the condemned man placing his head in the lunette of a guillotine.
I didn’t see anything. The walls, rough-cast white, were bare and empty.
Suddenly I had the sensation that someone was suspended above me, body upside down, hanging from the gutter like a great bat with solid claws.
I beat a sharp retreat and have to admit that if my ears had been tickled by just a single sound coming from up there I would have fainted.
But at that very moment the other noise, the roar, surged up from the site of the dungheap and became such a keen caterwauling that it affected me like an invigorating bucket of ice-cold water flung in my face.
Simultaneously the panting resumed at full volume and launched toward it.
To get there it didn’t cross the yard, and ran alongside the wall of the barn.
Then the panting and the caterwauling, coming into contact, became, both of them together, so desperately sinister that they seemed to me engaged in a mortal combat.
Astounded, I listened to the atrocious music of this incomprehensible drama, following its terrifying denouement, unable to make sense of it without seeing the antagonists, who were nevertheless present, thirty metres away from me.
I had no doubt that what I was hearing was a ruthless occult tragedy that fell without respite on two invisible creatures and that there would be to end to making them suffer.
Dawn came as a surprise, slipping among us without my realizing that it was so near at hand. I thought it was midnight while in fact it was six in the morning.
As the sour early daylight eroded the surrounds of night, so the moans of interlocked suffering dwindled and died away.
At last silence freed me from the window, whose ledge had left its mark on my face.
I retreated and let myself collapse on my bed, as exhausted as though I too had spent all night moaning and groaning, wanting to bury myself there until I merged with it and disappeared.
So unwilling were my spirits to lend me the least bit of support that, stretched out on my back, I couldn’t even persuade myself that I’d suffered a nightmare.
All of a sudden a quick rustling in my hair, then crawling on my face.
No mistake about it: descending on a thread, it really was one of those fat, disgusting spiders that had abandoned the loft where until now it and the others had confined themselves.
Shaking with violent revulsion I came back to reality and leapt to my feet.
My flesh squirmed with disgust as I looked around; more spiders spun hasty threads, passing through cracks in the trapdoor; having descended, they were running madly in all directions. Then, finding the door, they slipped under it and disappeared outside.
They were fleeing!
My bed and the tile floor were soon completely covered. I fled in turn, crushing the horrible creatures, their cold, poisonous juices squirting under my bare feet.
In the yard, I stopped with my back to the dawn and looked in vain for smoke or flames coming from the roof; signalling a fire in the loft, this would explain the maddened exodus of the spiders.
I saw nothing that could have caused their alarm. On the other hand I saw that more of the filthy little things were also scuttling between cracks in the walls, creating no end of animated stains.
They grouped on the ground in hideous cohorts and headed for the rising sun, toward the wildest part of the woods, in the opposite direction from the village.
Half an hour later, not a single one was left in La Hardiére.
Then the two fat toads under the doorstep, who ordinarily took on the role of nightwatchmen, fled in turn in the same direction; horrid bags of flesh and pus on their rigid but quick legs, jolted hard by fear.
And, suddenly, the walls of the room, to which I had returned in an hallucinated state, vibrated as though caught up in an abrupt embrace, almost as though the whole building was gripped and squeezed in a gigantic vise.
The beams cracked; the doors grated and the floor vibrated so distinctly that I got out right away before the building collapsed on me.
But La Hardière remained standing solid, notwithstanding the pressure of that enormous power that sought to ruin or destroy it.
And I understood that there wasn’t any threat directed at me personally.
Then there was an incredible wave of tremors that arrived slowly from everywhere at the same time. I felt it pass under my feet, leaving me staggering; a concentric earthquake spreading back toward La Hardière, reaching it and hitting it like a battering ram.
The masonry cracked one last time. There was the enormous rumbling of a bolt of lightning striking home, but no trace of any gaping, powdery wounds.
Then, in the yard behind me, the phantom wailing arose, so aggressive and painful that it chilled me to the marrow.
The invisible animal had come back and someone was trying to strangle it.
With no doubts as to its existence I ran toward the remains of the dungheap from where the howls of fury seemed to be emanating.
They went quiet before I got there and I thought that I was mistaken regarding the exact spot from whence they had come. The animal was surely straying further afield, beyond, in those impenetrable giant nettles, another hostile growth that was at home in La Hardiere.
I abandoned my search at that point because I suddenly felt that a weight that I’d been obliged to carry was lifted from me. I felt relieved and freed, yes, liberated from all my terrors.
Soft and pliant plumes caressed La Hardière with utter serenity; a feathery down was spread like ointment over painfully nasty blows.
Whistling I don’t know what forgotten tune, I piped out gaily and for the first time since arriving at La Hardière I felt like going for a tumble in the vipers’ grassy embankment because I guessed that they too had now fled forever.
Though I wasn’t expecting her, Jeanne Lehoux arrived at about ten o’ clock. I was happy to see her because at last I again had something for her curiosity.
But she’d brought me something better still.
“Cordassier… Cordassier…” – emotions that hadn’t been calmed down by kilometers of rapid walking prevented her from spitting out what it was about the owner of La Hardière that she wanted to tell me.
At last I understood.
Cordassier had just died!
It was for Jeanne to tell, as the beads of a rosary, the story of his demise.
Listening to it left me stunned.
…Just before dawn, still sleeping, he’d started to groan with pain – these details came from his wife who passed them on to anyone interested, as though to unburden herself of them – he tossed and turned in the sheets while uttering moans that sounded more and more awful. At last he woke up and realised that his illness was no nightmare. He tried to get up but the pain he felt in his stomach threw him right back on the bed where he lay on his side, his knees pulled into his belly and his arms crossed on his chest in an attempt to contain his agony… And what nauseous clots of green saliva… and what a lot of delirious rambling about anything and everything, talking about a certain “Bezebut” accompanied by other words that were just as meaningless… Declaring that someone had entered the third crease of his stomach on the third bad night… Gasping that he felt a spiteful cadaver piercing him with rusted needles, any amount of jabbering and above all groaning, or yelling over and again in mortal agony… Along with that, his skin turning from green to black!… No potion was any use. He refused everything and complained and cursed and swore!… He lingered on like that between life and death for two endless hours and he shuffled off his mortal coil after a horrible gurgling of curses… Yes, Cordassier had died like a hurricane passing through.
I didn’t ask Jeanne Lehoux what time he’d parted company with his soul.
There and then I could have told her the exact time.
…The local doctor came at last, but too late. He didn’t hesitate for a second: Cordassier had well and truly met his death by poison. According to him it was the work of toadstools… but a particularly nasty variety that took its time; the worst kind, that took effect for hours and days without showing any traces in the first instance. So nasty that no sooner dead than the corpse was already rotting with a stench that defeated the strongest of deodorants… He was going to be buried as soon as possible… that same evening; still time enough for old Gauville, the gravedigger, to dig a hole that was deeper than for normal, clean-smelling corpses.
“…A toadstool involved,” said Jeanne emphatically, “… and Brûlemail too. Forest, toadstools and woodcutter, they all go well together. But who can point the finger at the sly swine; he got there in the end… Eh?”
I wasn’t listening to her any longer… The animal image of Cordassier that had immediately formed in my mind was justified and pulled me round and about La Hardière… A whirlwind of speculations occurred to me, but I didn’t want to think them through; better to reject the impossible possibility; Cordassier possessing a material double; sensitive soil and masonry reacting as he would! “Stone ears” Jeanne had once said in all seriousness… Yes, and I remembered more of these alleged instances of men doubled with vegetables and minerals. La Hardière, intimate secret of a man endowed with magical abilities where he could easily maintain the little beasts that he favoured and that were linked to him!… La Hardière sharing an identity with its master!… No, my imagination was running away with itself… No.
Without intending to, Jeanne Lehoux pulled me back down to earth.
“It just goes to show,” she grumbled, “Cordassier let himself be poisoned like a child that doesn’t know any better. Just goes to show, I thought he was stronger than that, and…”
… And “indestructible”, she wanted to say but couldn’t find the word.
Strong! Yes, he still was, even more so than when he was alive. And how!
Almost immediately I headed off with Jeanne. At the village, between doors and windows, there was the buzz of excitement that follows a death, whether a bad or a good one. As I passed by, people suddenly stopped talking and looked at me with suspicion, not as an outsider, rather as Cordassier’s tenant.
I went to the house of la Hardière’s master. At the entrance gate a table with a black cloth supported a bowl of holy water containing a branch of box-tree. A twisted candle that wept wax down one side counselled respect for the dead, whether or not they were faithful believers. Benediction was made from this spot. And just as well, for Cordassier’s acrid stink penetrated everywhere, from house to garden.
While I condoled with his widow, who still didn’t know whether or not to be happy about the departure of her peculiar husband, I heard a barely concealed comment that bothered me for a long time.
“…See, some no-good corpses can leave something like an ugly seed of nastiness behind with us who’re still alive, that takes root, grows and poisons our lives while the man who planted it is dead and gone… See, that one there has gone and done that to spite us!”
But at the start of that afternoon, just after having said a blessing for Cordassier’s remains from a safe distance, the visit I felt obliged to make to the premises of Albarède the carpenter was another unexpected event that was laden with consequence.
I’ll admit that I was driven as though pushed toward the uncouth and untalkative bag of bran-mash that was the local woodscraper.
I’ll tell his story that I had from Jeanne Lehoux elsewhere; this isn’t the time to upset the rhythm of the story currently in hand.
Suffice to say that following the tragic death of a loved one Albarède had stopped speaking, forever after cast down – bundled up in a gloomy bag of melancholy and cut off from the world.
Already dead to others, he only worked enough to keep himself barely alive, just enough to earn his daily bowl of soup. Silence had made itself a nest in him and slept there closed off from noise.
And if you wanted to wake him up for an urgent job, he had to be taken as found. That’s to say without a word spoken. Taking care not to make the slightest greeting, you went into his workshop and you sat down somewhere in plain view of Albarède, from which position you remained resolutely silent, all the while looking at him as he pottered about.
Little by little, your tantalising silence challenging his, the poor chap now flustered grunted out a glottal rasp at you, which was his way of enquiring. Then you asked if he could do this or that. He grunted a yes or a no and it was up to you to go away satisfied or not.
So what happened to me that day with him surprised me, and he must have been just as surprised. I don’t know why I took the grassy path that skirted his workshop. Having arrived outside I came to a sudden stop and waited with no reason for waiting – after what followed, the events now clear, I can confirm that this wasn’t a matter of chance, either for me or for Albarède, who, from his workshop, against which he leaned his hip while planing wood, suddenly called out to me in a loud voice…
Albarède, who hardly ever spoke, the living corpse becoming suddenly talkative without having been provoked by an outsider who wanted nothing from him and who he should have ignored!
I didn’t have the time to wonder about that unexpected familiarity. He hurried up to me and, no doubt a gesture of politeness, adjusted his useless spectacles, their lenses scratched beyond dimness, and carried on looking at me, lowering his head a little in order to see me over them.
“… Aren’t you the gentleman from La Hardière?” he asked me in a clear voice.
I acknowledged this with a friendly smile.
“Then…” he ventured with some trepidation, “That box, do you have it there?”
At which he gave me a knowing look.
I tried to remember the ones that were in the farm. No, to tell the truth, there had never been a single one.
“Really…” he insisted, his voice ingratiating, “a beechwood box with air-holes… not a very big box, with a chain for securing the lid.”
I was disconcerted. “No, really, you must be mistaken, I can’t imagine,” I said.
I saw that he thought I was hiding the truth from him and that I didn’t want to acknowledge the existence of his box while all the time knowing perfectly well about it.
“Come on,” he urged, “it was Cordassier himself, who’s died, who came to order it the day you arrived here in the district… He told me that he wanted to show his goodwill by giving you a handy gift… He even told me that nobody was ever worse off for taking precautions… He needed that box right away. I banged it together right in front of him and he took it away saying you’d be pleased with his good idea… but that perhaps you’d never need it…”
Cordassier giving me a handy gift, but one that was nowhere to be found!
“Don’t you remember…,” Albarède insisted, “… a beechwood box… big enough to hold… to hold?”
And, with me struck dumb, he tried to think what Cordassier could have put inside to make me happy.
Finally he exclaimed, “Yes! Yes!… I think I saw it was to hold … some breathing cat…”
I gave a start when I heard that word, as though I’d been violently clawed by the animal come there itself, proving to be tangible though invisible.
As for Albarède, he was suddenly cloaked in his customary mutism and, standing stiffly beside the path like a badly located statue, seemed to be asking himself why he was going to so much effort to tell me this banal story of a box with holes…
I left him straightaway.
Now I understood. I had to dig, and I knew where.
Half running, half walking, impatient to learn, I was exhausted when I arrived at La Hardière.
At last I was going to get to the bottom of at least one of the nocturnal noises.
I should, no doubt, have made myself put these baleful and inexplicable events out of mind; not think about them any more, just as I’d managed to do with the decayed dog, forgotten in his watery tomb, but, to repeat, the occult wheels of this story were always setting new events in motion, which then swept me irresistibly on in spite of myself.
So, my curiosity overcoming my tiredness, I grabbed a pickaxe and went directly over to the dungheap. I knew now that Alabarède’s box was buried there.
The big square of mingled dung and dried straw was spread out in a corner at the back of the yard like a thick moth-eaten carpet laid out while awaiting the carpetbeater that would clear it of dust and bugs.
But its crumbling surface showed no traces of a burial. Probably Cordassier had accomplished the miracle of lifting it and shifting it en bloc in order to dig a hole in the ground beneath to bury his box, and then put it back without leaving the slightest trace of his operation; the motive a secret that no-one would ever know.
I had no such scruples and stabbed at the dungheap with heavy blows of the pickaxe. But if my tool dug in it only managed to make a hole of its own without, as I wanted, being able to cut in and lift the slightest clod. I felt like I was striking at an enormous, compact sponge.
At last my efforts bore fruit. The edge of the pick awoke a dull sound. I enlarged my excavation; a peephole into the heart of the dungheap that was still a living nothing, breathing out its usual mild stench.
I soon made out the top of the box, perforated with air-holes just as Albarède had described it to me. Blocked up though, these looked useless to me!
I prised it out. It was nearly a metre long, sixty centimetres wide and forty high.
In picking it up, I shook it. Something shifted inside like a nut in its shell.
I put it down and sprang the lid open with sharp blows of the pickaxe.
No sooner that done than I jumped back, so much was I mistaken in what I first saw, a skinny and horrible black cat which, though lying on one side, was aggressively positioned, paws rigid, claws extended, ready to rip whoever came close; back arched, hair bristling and gums retracted on the fury of long sharp fangs, mouth still biting…
A snarling feline that, thankfully – I finally realized – was inoffensive, dead, eyes glazed over but still diabolically sulphurous, tongue dangling, corpse stiffened.
I was stunned by that conclusive evidence, for there could be no doubt: the caterwaulings I had once more heard on the previous night came from exactly this spot. And right there I’d just found a cat that, judging from the smell of decay, had been a long time dead.
How could it have mewled and wailed? Had it been living or dead when put into the box?
I didn’t spend long wondering. What I now knew for sure was that at anything was possible at La Hardière.
This black cat, hideous and fascinating, sprung from an animal apocalypse, made such an impression on me that I decided to get rid of it before it was resurrected by contact with the air or by some kind of magic prepared in advance for this purpose.
I hurried in search of a can of petrol that I poured in its coffin. That way the flames would destroy this beast which, though dead, still spread a malignant effluent that directly affected me.
Having soaked it on one side, I dared to turn it over with the metal of the pickaxe in order to empty the contents of the can on its other side.
As a result the cat that had died in fury suddenly found itself standing up on its four stiff paws… it looked so much then like it wanted to spring out at me that I really thought that I’d provoked it. But my gaze shifted away from it and was magnetically drawn to the bottom of the box where I saw a large, small-barrelled regulation revolver, gleaming with a meticulously spread layer of fine oil.
A weapon! It was just the firepower that I needed at La Hardiere. Whoever had hidden it there couldn’t have had a happier notion.
I didn’t hesitate. Striking a match, I made a quick and infernal swap: I grabbed the proffered revolver and wasted no time in casting a flame of destruction on its defunct guardian.
That same evening, come twilight, Cordassier’s carrion remains, packed in his precarious timbers of Eternity, were carried in a rush to the cemetery and buried with no less dispatch in a hole so deep that the cords weren’t long enough to lower it.
The coffin, a hasty casket with poorly finished planks, was still sprinkled with thick and dubious granules of sawdust which, abetted by their smell, gave me the impression of eggs laid in extremis by some heedless flies, and about to become maggots.
Of course the widow was there, so too were some of God’s indefatigable followers, old ladies with no thought for Cordassier but keen to earn a little more of Paradise by pleading with their presence the cause of one of the devil’s reprobates.
Cordassier’s tenant, I had come as a temporary relative by way of La Hardière, but above all in sympathy with what I knew of his terrible death. In fact Cordassier had never done me any harm. Of course I didn’t yet know that the revolver was part of the bequest he had left me in his own particular way, for me to make use of in accordance with his plan.
If only I’d known!…
Jeanne Lehoux, who never missed any heartbeat of communal life, stood alongside the women, one eye on the grave that Gauville, the village jack-of-all-trades, for once looking lively, filled by shovelling as much soil as fading daylight into the hole; the other eye on a big chap whose fingers were busy with his flapped cap. And I saw that she was chewing hard with nervous little tics of her lips at what had to be, for sure, the pressure exerted on the tip of her tongue by the words in her mind.
At last Jeanne turned her head in my direction and, from the intensity of her gaze, her eyes shifting between the lad and me without her body budging from its reverential rigidity, I understood that this was Brûlemail.
Discreetly, I examined the attitude of Cordassier’s suspect rival. Right away I disliked it and felt myself at one with Jeanne Lehoux’s doubts; the man must have enjoyed fooling everyone, though here his ruddy face failed to act the part of sadness and his head, much though it might nod and bow a little, wasn’t weighed down. He put on too much of a show for someone who meant nothing to the deceased. There was no doubt that Brûlemail had drunk a deep cup of joy.
When finally, after about six or seven spadefuls, Gauville had completely refilled Cordassier’s hole, it remained for the curé who, it seemed, lost no opportunity to harm Satan, whether directly or indirectly, to put on a disobligingly generous show with an abundant splashing of holy water.
Everyone went away, escorting and consoling the widow, her head in a daze through having followed each spadeful as though she wanted to count them exactly so as not to have pay the gravedigger extra. Small and scurrying, she seemed like a black doll in the middle of all these people, stolen and then shared out in rough and ready fashion between her captors, who consoled her with the big gestures of those who haven’t lost anything.
I remained alone with the curé who was still praying, my thoughts repeatedly returning to the lower depths of the grave, frightened by the effortless impunity of this obvious crime, disgusted though I was by the repulsive corpse of the rotting victim, painted all the worse in my imagination for not having seen it.
“Come on, let’s go,” the priest said abruptly, having finally drained dry his holy water sprinkler… “Come, let’s not stay here… I’ve prayed and blessed as best I can. I hope that man in there won’t come back to harass us; he led a questionable life…”
With his hard profile, nose and lips suggesting a beak, the curé bolstered his reputation as God’s Raptor, in the sense to be sure that he served God with relentless tenacity. For him one dead man out of two once under the ground in this land of Satan ran a good chance of ending up damned. He distrusted the dead as he would a cunning and malignant plague, for he knew that the dead take on a different mentality, wicked and jealous, something that the living never realise, and even if they did could only entertain the vaguest of notions.
“Come on,” he urged me. “They don’t like to feel us above them, coming and going just as we like, with a wealth of air and chances for pleasure… Come on… Let’s go.”
I looked at him, amazed then gripped by the conviction in his voice.
What reply could I make to him?
No doubt my silence was read as agreement.
Once outside the tenement of the dead, enriched by yet another, this disquieting servant of God slammed shut the big gate, so well maintained that it looked almost new to me though visibly belonging to an older era. He turned the key several times, and, having extracted it, pocketed it with the gesture of a jailer who gave his prisoners a tough time.
Then with his chin he showed me the square black placard fastened to the bars, and on which was painted in big, white, clean and neat capitals:
What you are we have been
what we are you will become
While I was reading he winked with a knowing air and, dare I say, a thoughtless vulgarity that bothered and almost annoyed me. Then a flame of exaltation gleamed in his eyes. But maybe this, quite simply, was a hint of madness!
“Out here,” he then told me in a hard voice, “I’m stronger than them, we can speak freely, and that message that maybe you found offensive, if I’ve put it there in full view, it was as a kind of concession… I voiced their deepest desire in order to gain their trust… But I keep an eye on them, even when my back’s turned… I can guess when they want to come back among the living to hurt or torment them… Damn it! Some dead men don’t make things easy, and this last one, Cordassier, the devil’s very own, he can give me a lousy time, … Believe me, his type isn’t going to rest easy down there… No way!”
I risked an attempt at irony. “But how can you stop them from passing through the walls or the gate of the cemetery, and how see them since they they’re supposed to be invisible?”
God’s Raptor burst out in a harsh laugh.
“So you think that’s how it happens, you too!… No, they’re stronger than that. They come back different, so that you can see them, as a tramp passing through, as a labourer for hire, an outsider like you, or, more often, as an animal… And tell me then who’s going to suspect that that tramp, that labourer, that outsider or that dog is a dead man coming back for mischief… Eh?”
Then his words, recoiling back tenfold, suddenly rang with a mad, instantly liberated fanaticism.
“… But I hold ‘the spade’… and everyone down below knows it, including Cordassier who already knew it when he was alive… Yes sir, I have what it takes…”
And, both hands making the gesture of grabbing an invisible handle, he raised it high in front of him, then, scything the air, struck it violently to the ground, repeating once more between his teeth:
“…I have the spade… and I know where to dig…”
At that he left me. I saw him going into the fallow garden of his parson’s house which, attached to the rustic church by a short passage, looked like its miscarried foetus.
Returning to La Hardière at nightfall I felt disturbed, bothered by the spade-wielding curé’s fierce, grimacing faces that multiplied horribly the more I sought for the mild goodness of God all too well served there in this scarred village.
The final words of the priest, jailer and executioner of the damned, insinuated themselves like a slow-moving snake nesting in my head, leaving me with a lingering uneasiness.
As I heard it, it was One. Which was it, that miraculous One, belonging to God’s Cloister, or the infallible spade of fire that he wrenched from the Garden of Hell? After all, why not serve the might of God with one stolen from the Devil’s collection of trophies!
He’d said the spade. But which one?
Perhaps this was nothing but the benefit of an ancient peasant magic into which he’d been initiated, a mere commonplace tool bewitched and presented as one of those magical rustic wonders, a picturesque fire that seemed to be extinguished but that, notwithstanding the grime that had coated it for so long, remained ready to break into flame again.
At last I stopped teasing my imagination, and my journey and the evening ended in the company of God, who is sometimes a support.
I awoke with a start in the middle of the night. And this time I was more afraid than ever, for I couldn’t imagine that Cordassier, dead and buried, could continue to come into the La Hardiére yard breathing heavily as I was now hearing him, determined and regular.
But I didn’t recognize in this panting any connection with the invisible presences of previous nights. No, it was shorter and hoarser, accompanied by a distinct cracking of branches and, no less, the precise sound of earth being scraped.
It was real. A living creature was prowling in the yard.
So I calmed my wildly racing breath, physically subduing it, and, feeling myself an equal match, I was ready to defend or attack.
And this last word had scarcely passed through my mind than I opened the drawer of my bedside table, already on my feet.
My hand seized the revolver I’d found under the dead cat.
The oily butt slid away from my palm and fingers, but I grasped it firmly and it was at my disposal.
Whatever the scare, I was fully determined not to be intimidated; dead Cordassier or living Brûlemail; the rotting dog or even the curé and his spade… No-one was going to go freely strolling about La Hardière any longer at the cost of my peace of mind. Now I felt myself empowered by a providential weapon that assured me of my right to a peaceful night.
I went straight to the kitchen door and opened it slowly.
So doing, my eye straight off scanned everywhere in the yard, and… and I saw it!
I saw a massive animal, black against the dark.
But it wasn’t the dog from the well.
I was finally able to make out a huge, foraging boar.
In quest of food it scraped the ground some twenty metres away from me. In the surrounding night its unmoving mass formed the central point of a target that was ready and waiting.
I cocked the trigger calmly and raised the gun steadily, knowing already that I wouldn’t miss. How to explain? No doubt because, in contact with this weapon, I had the clear sensation that my hand was suddenly and miraculously adept…. A little as though… I hesitate to say it!… as though I had a ‘glory hand’ at my disposal.
Not in the least bit impatient, I fired about six bullets at the wild animal that, at the first impact, stood up, wanting to break into flight, but it collapsed, already demolished.
Come morning I went to ask Vorbec, the butcher, to come and cut and carve my boar, promising him three quarters of the meat for his trouble – and that was still a bargain for me.
He accepted before I’d finished my request, closed the door of his shop in the face of his customers, harnessed his trap right away and threw in a bag clinking with his tools.
We came back to La Hardière together, with Jeanne Lehoux on board too, the good woman having known, who knows how, about my visit to the butcher and having turned up there just as we were leaving, going into ecstasies about the feat I laid claim to. But she wanted to see with her own eyes.
Vorbec was thin as a rake with a sunburned face that you might have taken for a kettle disguised as a pillow; with eyes on him that ferreted about and uprooted everywhere; two avian pupils each caged in an eyesocket. Nothing escaped him. Generally speaking he wasn’t talkative, but what with his lips forever opening and closing it seemed as though he kept up a kind of constant monologue, not a syllable of which could be heard, something that hardly mattered since his gaze spoke volumes and managed to communicate the sense of words he didn’t utter.
He was said to be skilful, and he was cunning too, cunning and aware of his own strength, something that could be seen in the constantly flexing and twitching muscles of his arms. He knew how to use his hands like no-one else; it was thought that he left them soaked in bowls full of juice extracted from amulets every night – and to dispel any doubt on the matter you only had to see his agile fingers squeeze here, grip there, thrust themselves inside or twist up above.
Then too, while I’m speaking of magic, Vorbec, who balked at it but was still felt its attraction, was the only person in the village who openly showed any consideration for the late Cordassier; a kind of admiration so he gave us to understand, while his trap shook all three of us about like three sacks of beetroot wrapped in the same package, yielding to the brutal whim of wheels jolted by the potholes in the road.
Vorbec didn’t hide from us the fact that if he’d immediately agreed to come to La Hardière for this job that he didn’t need, it was in order to “please Cordassier.” And he left me in no doubt that he would have turned it down had it been for me alone. But at last, seeing my chagrin, he relented, saying he would have come anyway, if only to see how well I’d done.
What’s more, once arrived and introduced to my victim, a heavy, shaggy sack already surrounded by nuzzling blowflies, Vorbec, speaking as an expert, confirmed my skill; I had really accomplished the feat of felling the boar six time over. Six bullets right in the skull, none of them going astray.
And judging by the number and variety of whistles of admiration that signalled his appreciation I understood that he, who was a canny huntsman himself, had a high opinion of me.
As for Jeanne Lehoux, she tried to work out in her head the trajectory of the bullets. She also lifted the heavy bloody head of the boar by its ears and gazed at the bullet entry points. You might have thought that she mistrusted her own eyes. In a moment the thought came to my mind that she was imagining trickery on my part, the boar actually dead of a single bullet, but that I then put the muzzle of the revolver in place and fired five more projectiles without missing, to give the impression of a prodigious feat.
But if she didn’t express any doubts on that score, she was all the more astonished that I’d thought to bring a revolver to La Hardière; something she admitted that she was unaware of, so betraying the fact that she’d long since been driven by curiosity to check through my suitcases as well as the drawers.
I didn’t have the time to explain to her the buried chest, the cat I’d found there and consequently the regulation revolver, for Vorbec asked for our help in hauling the boar up against a ladder that he propped against a wall.
That was a damned heavy job of work. The animal weighed as much as a rock and was as stiff as a clenched muscle. At last it was hung head down. Vorbec planted a sharpened knife in the skin of its gut and, fliss, sliced down in a single cut.
The intestines fell out en bloc, like a roll of oiled rope carefully coiled there. That and a sweetish smell of two already decaying fingers made us step several paces back, Jeanne and me.
But the meat was still fine.
“The skin first,” Vorbec suddenly grunted in a changed tone of voice, so odd that it seemed to us that it came from a different, secretive and unsavoury Vorbec who carelessly let himself be seen.
I stared at him as he worked then, surprised by the amount of care that he took in stripping the boar of its pelt. This had scarcely any value, and yet he treated it with respect, as though it was wild ermine intended to clothe a pagan lord among his customers.
It was clear that he brought all his skill and attention to the task, and in so doing his face creased up with a ferocious greed that eventually left me wondering about the actual value of a boarskin.
But, having no wish to keep the pelt at La Hardière I didn’t spoil his pleasure by pointlessly haggling on principle, being only too happy that he’d agreed to come and salvage the meat, which was otherwise destined to be buried and go to rot, being myself a hopelessly inept butcher.
He it was who avidly, violently, threw it down between us.
“This filthy skin that’s going to be ridden with pests, what will you do if I leave it with you?” He pleaded so that I would abandon any claim to it.
And I could clearly see from his eyes, as though fascinated by that pelt, that it wasn’t a piece of rubbish for him – far from it! Perhaps it was to satisfy a long-cherished desire! He wanted it whatever the cost, and the barely restrained impulses of his hands betrayed his violent desire to possess it.
“Give it to me…” he demanded at last, impatient because he thought I was hesitant about giving it to him, seeing as I didn’t reply right away.
He was only just able to restrain the words that his eyes shouted out: “I need it.”
Then Jeanne, her brow furrowed a moment earlier, signalled with some brief and discreet movements of her eyebrows not to give it to him.
But what else could I have done?
I gave it to him.
His features relaxed joyfully, and, all happiness, he rounded out my share of the welcome beast in a ragoût of roasted haunch.
When Vorbec had gone, carrying with him the bigger share of the boar whose blood dripped from the ledge of his creaking trap, Jeanne Lehoux scolded me for having given him the pelt.
But when I asked her why not, she didn’t know what to reply. She had a “feeling” that I should have kept it and destroyed it there, on the spot.
She soon put it out of her mind. Instead she wanted to know where I’d managed to hide the revolver so well till now.
I told about where it came from, the box and, of course, the buried cat.
“A cat!” she cried, her complexion suddenly flushed by a rush of blood.
Then, her words shimmering with emotion, “A cat, put in a box by… by Cordassier!… And you found nothing odd about that!… But… but don’t you at least know what this cat could have been… might possibly be!”
“Yes,” I replied calmly, “a great big black cat and nothing else…”
“But…! But…!” She choked.
She couldn’t say another word and I thought I was going to lose her there and then to an attack of apoplexy.
But she was in rude health and her arteries were equal to the flood of her emotions. She wanted to see the remains of the cat without a moment’s delay. We went to the dungheap, now torn into a little crater of straw, wood and calcinated bones.
Jeanne Lehoux, evidently fearful, leaned over from a safe distance.
“So that was it!” she repeated, clutching her throat with both hands… “So that was it!… He had it…”
I urged Jeanne to explain herself.
Turning toward me, she waved her two fists about and in a sour voice she launched out as though addressing an ignoramus who can never be made to understand anything useful: “… That cat can only be a Matago… an occult cat… Cordassier’s ‘thing’… the source of his cash… That’s why he didn’t want a dog here, sniffing out the right spot!… Ha, I should have thought of that a long time ago… A cunning Mayday cat… A powerful animal with seven lives to spare and seven temporary deaths… Even when it’s dead one of these dead Matagos is never really dead… And, as a result, whoever’s got one can afford to be dead himself seeing as his Matago carries on serving him; its purpose was to draw your attention to it in order to pass this revolver on to you for a particular reason … and you’ve swallowed the bait by taking it right off without seeing further than the edge of your own fear…”
Jeanne calmed down as little by little she realized the significance of what she was saying, but she remained stern.
“It may be good luck after all…,” she acknowledged, “that this boar had the good idea of coming here… You offered it all the bullets that Cordassier had planned for someone else… If it wasn’t for that you might already have killed a man in spite of yourself… Lucky for you that you’ve been warned in advance and that there aren’t any more bullets in that damned gun. If not for that!…”
I suddenly understood, and Jeanne was right. If a man had come here that night instead of the boar, I have to admit that I would have fired just as readily, without the least hesitation.
Thanks be to God and to Jeanne, I was now forewarned and no longer ran the risk of playing a criminal role in a mission planned by crafty Cordassier from beyond the grave.
But yes I would! And that came to stare us right in the face.
The evident and surprising interest that Vorbec took in the hide of my boar struck Jeanne far more than it struck me. For her there was something disturbing in his desire and she was determined to explain it; the butcher wasn’t in the habit of keeping or maintaining those of any of the beasts that he regularly slaughtered.
And so, of course, Jeanne Lehoux managed to bring the talk round to pelts that same evening, at the Envaux farm, whose room was the biggest – and, it must be said, the most welcoming in the village – where the second of the three successive wakes that followed each burial was observed as a matter of custom in the region, whatever the deceased person’s faults, as though to show the departed that they hadn’t been immediately forgotten.
Eventually, with everyone listening, her tongue excavated layer after layer of tales of fur that her memory had carefully retained, and talked about clothing made from powerful skins in which you found the strength to undertake heavy or impossible tasks; about airy skins that made you light as a feather and quick as the wind; skins of wealth that every morning laid their weight in heavy coins for you… and lots more besides! But she emphasized the accursed ones, those that made you as wicked as Satan, all this with the intention of making Vorbec, who was there in the room, understand that she wouldn’t be fooled about whatever he expected to get from the skin of the La Hardière boar.
But it seemed that the butcher didn’t take in a word and behaved as though he wasn’t in her sights.
In short, Jeanne pulled out all the stops and did a fine job of flannelling her listeners’ ears, until the moment when…
I didn’t want to take part in that gossipy post mortem wake and it was Gauville, still dumbfounded, who told me the following morning how the drama, stirred and heated, had unfolded.
Jeanne was reaching the end of her store of hairy tales, and some people were already yawning or dozing when, suddenly, the door was brutally banged and shaken.
This was so violent and unexpected that little Denise Envaux, drowsing in the arms of her mother, who was getting ready to put her to bed, awoke, gave a hard cough of surprise and cried shrilly at the thought that the noise came from smacks on her bare flesh.
Someone rushed to open up to whoever outside was banging on the door again and again, no doubt clumsy and scared out of their wits, and all the while unable to unhook the latch.
It was Bretêche, the baker’s apprentice. But it was a nearly unrecognizable Bretêche, his face, his hair and his clothes were so disordered by panic, and by fear too.
He staggered in breathless and didn’t try to hide the fact that he was terror-stricken and trembling all over his flour-sprinkled carcass.
He was promptly helped to a seat before he collapsed, overcome by what he’d seen that had lit a fire in his pants. Quite docile, he let himself be seated in a chair without even using his own considerable muscles to help himself, this man who could handle fifty pounds of pâté for you as easily as anyone else would a simple crêpe.
He must have come back from having laid an eye on something really terrible: but what?
At last, tapped smartly on the cheeks by some of the company in a hurry to know what he’d seen, Bretêche finally got a grip on himself and went on to talk with so much recovered energy that his sudden revival must have seemed all the more surprising.
And, Bretêche, letting them know them that on leaving his kneading board to go and sleep for the night at his grandmother’s house at the other end of the village, he’d taken a short-cut through the cemetery, and once there, he’d heard some kind of groaning noise coming from the mausoleum enclosure… Disturbed but curious, he’d hidden behind one of the fir trees in the alley. The laments kept on going round and round… He stayed listening a long time, trying to understand what it was saying, thinking in the end that a courageous widow had come to weep by moonlight, an outpouring of sorrow on the grave of her late loved one…
But all around Bretêche people were starting to think that he was taking too long to get to the root cause of his terror; so much so that Jeanne Lehoux who, after staring at him doubtingly for a moment, eyelids squinting judgementally, came over to the apprentice baker and, with accelerating taps on his shoulder, spoke urgently to spur him on.
“So, my boy, are you going to tell us what you saw, yes or no? Eh!”
“Okay, okay,” Bretêche said defensively, uncomfortable to the point of carrying on with his head bent down – above all in order to avoid the inquisitorial stare of Jeanne Lehoux, fastened on to him like a vise – “… okay, so after a good long while like that, what do I see!… a head rising up above the wall bit by bit… A funny kind of animal head with a muzzle and great big ears… Phew! Not really an animal because I saw next that it had a man’s arms… a kind of werewolf with hairs all over its back. It climbed up the inside wall and once it reached the top it jumped outside… There it stopped dead, reared up on its hind legs, moaning and looking straight ahead… Me, I barely had the strength to get away, running all the way here to tell you to do something right away… It might come here… it could come here…”
One of the women gulped out her fear so loudly and Jeanne mimed the movement of slapping her, so sharply that the other one immediately shut up, as though she’d really received it.
Then everyone, caught between truth and lies, looked at Jeanne, trying to find out whether they should believe Bretêche or laugh at him, seeing as the outcries of the big booby were becoming less and less convincing. But in that case to laugh damned hard, for funnily enough everyone felt the need to.
Only Murlin, the village idiot, the simpleton, who went about wherever he could loiter and ape other people’s intelligence, was frozen with fear, teeth openly chattering, as soon as the word “werewolf” had been uttered, a word that terrified his scanty brain; a fearful image of snorting nostrils and ferocious fangs.
And, jammed into his corner, he asked why the great big men didn’t rush out to the cemetery with shotguns or long forks to kill the hellish beast before it went around causing lots of harm in the village.”
Now that one of them had come out in the open, why hesitate in destroying it!
What’s more, his primitive instincts alerted he suddenly sought for a weapon capable of crushing the skull of the monstrous menace.
He found in the corner of the fireplace a big spade handle and to everyone’s astonishment, headed resolutely out for the cemetery, shouting out loud like another beast; shouts that were so dismal and in tones that were so barbarous that people wondered if he too wasn’t a hidden tool of the Devil.
Nobody made any effort to hold him back.
Bretêche then lifted his head, revealing a face full of fresh glee, and all at once everyone burst into the same laugh, starting with Jeanne Lehoux.
On the very point of failure, at the moment when the leading strings were about to show through, the joke had found its victim; no matter that he was a simpleton.
The apprentice baker then explained that Murlin’s courage was going to cost him and there would be no end of him stupidly swearing that wolfmen existed because he’d really seen one…
And Bretêche told how, coming late to the Envaux house with Brûlemail to take part in Cordassier’s wake, there, along with everyone, they’d heard through an open window Jeanne Lehoux telling her tales. That had given them the idea creating a false panic, seeing as they’d just seen a boarskin hanging out to dry on the grates of Vorbec’s butcher shop; a pelt that provided a tempting sight, even prompting the thought that it had been put there expressly for them.
Now Brûlemail, afraid of nothing and as full of bravado as ever, disguised as a beast with the legs of a man, was waiting to get his share of fun, well-deserved fun because he must be starting to find the time hanging heavy.
As for Vorbec, the loser, the big veins on his forehead swelled with indignation, but he was easily consoled: after all his pelt wasn’t gone forever…
When Murlin the village idiot came running back to the Envaux farm a quarter of an hour later he found the gathering anxiously awaiting him.
“What had happened?”… “Had he seen the Hellhound?” “What had he done?”
So many questions hurled at him, taking care not to reveal the laughter that lurked behind every syllable.
Murlin stood unmoving on the doorstep and held his arms behind him to hide something. He smiled uneasily and didn’t want to come in right away. Perhaps hoping to make himself wanted.
Finally he spoke in his own way, so that everyone, in their own way, was able to follow him and, little by little, putting his scattered words together, people were able to piece together what had happened. And as everything became clear, so a feeling of dread seeped through the onlookers, soon to be scalded by a real tragedy.
Though sweating with fear, Murlin, the village idiot, had seen the monster from a distance, covered all over with hair, just like Bretêche had said. Yes, it looked more like a beast than a man. It was just like what had been said of it. It stood in front of the cemetery wall, in clear view, grunting menacingly. And suddenly he, Murlin, wasn’t at all afraid any more because, coming out from a corner where he’d been hiding, the curé had launched himself toward the back of the evil beast.
Wielding a spade whose metal glinted in the moonlight, the priest had struck hard and hit the neck. The monster had dropped like a stone, without the least outcry. Then the curé, straddling its body, had boldly decapitated it with heavy, slicing blows, shouting all the while. “I was on the lookout out for you… I was waiting for you, damned wizard… But I guard my territory… I’m stronger than you… Now you’re finished and done with forever…”
Then, dragging the body by its feet, he’d pulled it to the gate, leaving the head on the ground.
And, just as Murlin was at last going to show what it was that he was holding behind his back and that would confirm his adventure, Jeanne Lehoux found the strength to rush over and close the door, casting Murlin, the village idiot, and the horrid remains of Brûlemail back into the night.
So it was that by means of the Matago I had fired Cordassier’s bullets at the boar that, diabolically, ricocheted from its pelt to the cutting edge of the vengeful spade!