He was a tall man of forty or thereabout, this Jules Chicot, the innkeeper of Spreville, with a red face and a round stomach, and said by those who knew him to be a smart business man. He stopped his buggy in front of Mother Magloire's farmhouse, and, hitching the horse to the gatepost, went in at the gate.
Chicot owned some land adjoining that of the old woman, which he had been coveting for a long while, and had tried in vain to buy a score of times, but she had always obstinately refused to part with it.
"I was born here, and here I mean to die," was all she said.
He found her peeling potatoes outside the farmhouse door. She was a woman of about seventy-two, very thin, shriveled and wrinkled, almost dried up in fact and much bent but as active and untiring as a girl. Chicot patted her on the back in a friendly fashion and then sat down by her on a stool.
"Well mother, you are always pretty well and hearty, I am glad to see."
"Nothing to complain of, considering, thank you. And how are you, Monsieur Chicot?"
"Oh, pretty well, thank you, except a few rheumatic pains occasionally; otherwise I have nothing to complain of."
"So much the better."
And she said no more, while Chicot watched her going on with her work. Her crooked, knotted fingers, hard as a lobster's claws, seized the tubers, which were lying in a pail, as if they had been a pair of pincers, and she peeled them rapidly, cutting off long strips of skin with an old knife which she held in the other hand, throwing the potatoes into the water as they were done. Three daring fowls jumped one after the other into her lap, seized a bit of peel and then ran away as fast as their legs would carry them with it in their beak.
Chicot seemed embarrassed, anxious, with something on the tip of his tongue which he could not say. At last he said hurriedly:
"Listen, Mother Magloire—"
"Well, what is it?"
"You are quite sure that you do not want to sell your land?"
"Certainly not; you may make up your mind to that. What I have said I have said, so don't refer to it again."
"Very well; only I think I know of an arrangement that might suit us both very well."
"What is it?"
"Just this. You shall sell it to me and keep it all the same. You don't understand? Very well, then follow me in what I am going to say."
The old woman left off peeling potatoes and looked at the innkeeper attentively from under her heavy eyebrows, and he went on:
"Let me explain myself. Every month I will give you a hundred and fifty francs. You understand me! suppose! Every month I will come and bring you thirty crowns, and it will not make the slightest difference in your life—not the very slightest. You will have your own home just as you have now, need not trouble yourself about me, and will owe me nothing; all you will have to do will be to take my money. Will that arrangement suit you?"
He looked at her good-humoredly, one might almost have said benevolently, and the old woman returned his looks distrustfully, as if she suspected a trap, and said:
"It seems all right as far as I am concerned, but it will not give you the farm."
"Never mind about that," he said; "you may remain here as long as it pleases God Almighty to let you live; it will be your home. Only you will sign a deed before a lawyer making it over to me; after your death. You have no children, only nephews and nieces for whom you don't care a straw. Will that suit you? You will keep everything during your life, and I will give you the thirty crowns a month. It is pure gain as far as you are concerned."
The old woman was surprised, rather uneasy, but, nevertheless, very much tempted to agree, and answered:
"I don't say that I will not agree to it, but I must think about it. Come back in a week, and we will talk it over again, and I will then give you my definite answer."
And Chicot went off as happy as a king who had conquered an empire.
Mother Magloire was thoughtful, and did not sleep at all that night; in fact, for four days she was in a fever of hesitation. She suspected that there was something underneath the offer which was not to her advantage; but then the thought of thirty crowns a month, of all those coins clinking in her apron, falling to her, as it were, from the skies, without her doing anything for it, aroused her covetousness.
She went to the notary and told him about it. He advised her to accept Chicot's offer, but said she ought to ask for an annuity of fifty instead of thirty, as her farm was worth sixty thousand francs at the lowest calculation.
"If you live for fifteen years longer," he said, "even then he will only have paid forty-five thousand francs for it."
The old woman trembled with joy at this prospect of getting fifty crowns a month, but she was still suspicious, fearing some trick, and she remained a long time with the lawyer asking questions without being able to make up her mind to go. At last she gave him instructions to draw up the deed and returned home with her head in a whirl, just as if she had drunk four jugs of new cider.
When Chicot came again to receive her answer she declared, after a lot of persuading, that she could not make up her mind to agree to his proposal, though she was all the time trembling lest he should not consent to give the fifty crowns, but at last, when he grew urgent, she told him what she expected for her farm.
He looked surprised and disappointed and refused.
Then, in order to convince him, she began to talk about the probable duration of her life.
"I am certainly not likely to live more than five or six years longer. I am nearly seventy-three, and far from strong, even considering my age. The other evening I thought I was going to die, and could hardly manage to crawl into bed."
But Chicot was not going to be taken in.
"Come, come, old lady, you are as strong as the church tower, and will live till you are a hundred at least; you will no doubt see me put under ground first."
The whole day was spent in discussing the money, and as the old woman would not give in, the innkeeper consented to give the fifty crowns, and she insisted upon having ten crowns over and above to strike the bargain.
Three years passed and the old dame did not seem to have grown a day older. Chicot was in despair, and it seemed to him as if he had been paying that annuity for fifty years, that he had been taken in, done, ruined. From time to time he went to see the old lady, just as one goes in July to see when the harvest is likely to begin. She always met him with a cunning look, and one might have supposed that she was congratulating herself on the trick she had played him. Seeing how well and hearty she seemed he very soon got into his buggy again, growling to himself:
"Will you never die, you old hag?"
He did not know what to do, and he felt inclined to strangle her when he saw her. He hated her with a ferocious, cunning hatred, the hatred of a peasant who has been robbed, and began to cast about for some means of getting rid of her.
One day he came to see her again, rubbing his hands as he did the first time he proposed the bargain, and, after having chatted for a few minutes, he said:
"Why do you never come and have a bit of dinner at my place when you are in Spreville? The people are talking about it, and saying we are not on friendly terms, and that pains me. You know it will cost you nothing if you come, for I don't look at the price of a dinner. Come whenever you feel inclined; I shall be very glad to see you."
Old Mother Magloire did not need to be asked twice, and the next day but one, as she had to go to the town in any case, it being market day, she let her man drive her to Chicot's place, where the buggy was put in the barn while she went into the house to get her dinner.
The innkeeper was delighted and treated her like a lady, giving her roast fowl, black pudding, leg of mutton and bacon and cabbage. But she ate next to nothing. She had always been a small eater, and had generally lived on a little soup and a crust of bread and butter.
Chicot was disappointed and pressed her to eat more, but she refused, and she would drink little, and declined coffee, so he asked her:
"But surely you will take a little drop of brandy or liqueur?"
"Well, as to that, I don't know that I will refuse." Whereupon he shouted out:
"Rosalie, bring the superfine brandy—the special—you know."
The servant appeared, carrying a long bottle ornamented with a paper vine-leaf, and he filled two liqueur glasses.
"Just try that; you will find it first rate."
The good woman drank it slowly in sips, so as to make the pleasure last all the longer, and when she had finished her glass, she said:
"Yes, that is first rate!"
Almost before she had said it Chicot had poured her out another glassful. She wished to refuse, but it was too late, and she drank it very slowly, as she had done the first, and he asked her to have a third. She objected, but he persisted.
"It is as mild as milk, you know; I can drink ten or a dozen glasses without any ill effects; it goes down like sugar and does not go to the head; one would think that it evaporated on the tongue: It is the most wholesome thing you can drink."
She took it, for she really enjoyed it, but she left half the glass.
Then Chicot, in an excess of generosity, said:
"Look here, as it is so much to your taste, I will give you a small keg of it, just to show that you and I are still excellent friends." So she took one away with her, feeling slightly overcome by the effects of what she had drunk.
The next day the innkeeper drove into her yard and took a little iron-hooped keg out of his gig. He insisted on her tasting the contents, to make sure it was the same delicious article, and, when they had each of them drunk three more glasses, he said as he was going away:
"Well, you know when it is all gone there is more left; don't be modest, for I shall not mind. The sooner it is finished the better pleased I shall be."
Four days later he came again. The old woman was outside her door cutting up the bread for her soup.
He went up to her and put his face close to hers, so that he might smell her breath; and when he smelt the alcohol he felt pleased.
"I suppose you will give me a glass of the Special?" he said. And they had three glasses each.
Soon, however, it began to be whispered abroad that Mother Magloire was in the habit of getting drunk all by herself. She was picked up in her kitchen, then in her yard, then in the roads in the neighborhood, and she was often brought home like a log.
The innkeeper did not go near her any more, and, when people spoke to him about her, he used to say, putting on a distressed look:
"It is a great pity that she should have taken to drink at her age, but when people get old there is no remedy. It will be the death of her in the long run."
And it certainly was the death of her. She died the next winter. About Christmas time she fell down, unconscious, in the snow, and was found dead the next morning.
And when Chicot came in for the farm, he said:
"It was very stupid of her; if she had not taken to drink she would probably have lived ten years longer."