Mme. Oreille was a very economical woman; she knew the value of a centime, and possessed a whole storehouse of strict principles with regard to the multiplication of money, so that her cook found the greatest difficulty in making what the servants call their market-penny, and her husband was hardly allowed any pocket money at all. They were, however, very comfortably off, and had no children; but it really pained Mme. Oreille to see any money spent; it was like tearing at her heartstrings when she had to take any of those nice crown-pieces out of her pocket; and whenever she had to spend anything, no matter how necessary it might be, she slept badly the next night.
Oreille was continually saying to his wife:
"You really might be more liberal, as we have no children, and never spend our income."
"You don't know what may happen," she used to reply. "It is better to have too much than too little."
She was a little woman of about forty, very active, rather hasty, wrinkled, very neat and tidy, and with a very short temper.
Her husband frequently complained of all the privations she made him endure; some of them were particularly painful to him, as they touched his vanity.
He was one of the head clerks in the War Office, and only stayed on there in obedience to his wife's wish, to increase their income which they did not nearly spend.
For two years he had always come to the office with the same old patched umbrella, to the great amusement of his fellow clerks. At last he got tired of their jokes, and insisted upon his wife buying him a new one. She bought one for eight francs and a half, one of those cheap articles which large houses sell as an advertisement. When the men in the office saw the article, which was being sold in Paris by the thousand, they began their jokes again, and Oreille had a dreadful time of it. They even made a song about it, which he heard from morning till night all over the immense building.
Oreille was very angry, and peremptorily told his wife to get him a new one, a good silk one, for twenty francs, and to bring him the bill, so that he might see that it was all right.
She bought him one for eighteen francs, and said, getting red with anger as she gave it to her husband:
"This will last you for five years at least."
Oreille felt quite triumphant, and received a small ovation at the office with his new acquisition.
When he went home in the evening his wife said to him, looking at the umbrella uneasily:
"You should not leave it fastened up with the elastic; it will very likely cut the silk. You must take care of it, for I shall not buy you a new one in a hurry."
She took it, unfastened it, and remained dumfounded with astonishment and rage; in the middle of the silk there was a hole as big as a six-penny-piece; it had been made with the end of a cigar.
"What is that?" she screamed.
Her husband replied quietly, without looking at it:
"What is it? What do you mean?"
She was choking with rage, and could hardly get out a word.
"You—you—have—burned—your umbrella! Why—you must be—mad! Do you wish to ruin us outright?"
He turned round, and felt that he was growing pale.
"What are you talking about?"
"I say that you have burned your umbrella. Just look here."
And rushing at him, as if she were going to beat him, she violently thrust the little circular burned hole under his nose.
He was so utterly struck dumb at the sight of it that he could only stammer out:
"What-what is it? How should I know? I have done nothing, I will swear. I don't know what is the matter with the umbrella."
"You have been playing tricks with it at the office; you have been playing the fool and opening it, to show it off!" she screamed.
"I only opened it once, to let them see what a nice one it was, that is all, I swear."
But she shook with rage, and got up one of those conjugal scenes which make a peaceable man dread the domestic hearth more than a battlefield where bullets are raining.
She mended it with a piece of silk cut out of the old umbrella, which was of a different color, and the next day Oreille went off very humbly with the mended article in his hand. He put it into a cupboard, and thought no more of it than of some unpleasant recollection.
But he had scarcely got home that evening when his wife took the umbrella from him, opened it, and nearly had a fit when she saw what had befallen it, for the disaster was irreparable. It was covered with small holes, which evidently proceeded from burns, just as if some one had emptied the ashes from a lighted pipe on to it. It was done for utterly, irreparably.
She looked at it without a word, in too great a passion to be able to say anything. He, also, when he saw the damage, remained almost dumfounded, in a state of frightened consternation.
They looked at each other, then he looked at the floor; and the next moment she threw the useless article at his head, screaming out in a transport of the most violent rage, for she had recovered her voice by that time:
"Oh! you brute! you brute! You did it on purpose, but I will pay you out for it. You shall not have another."
And then the scene began again, and after the storm had raged for an hour, he at last was able to explain himself. He declared that he could not understand it at all, and that it could only proceed from malice or from vengeance.
A ring at the bell saved him; it was a friend whom they were expecting to dinner.
Mme. Oreille submitted the case to him. As for buying a new umbrella, that was out of the question; her husband should not have another. The friend very sensibly said that in that case his clothes would be spoiled, and they were certainly worth more than the umbrella. But the little woman, who was still in a rage, replied:
"Very well, then, when it rains he may have the kitchen umbrella, for I will not give him a new silk one."
Oreille utterly rebelled at such an idea.
"All right," he said; "then I shall resign my post. I am not going to the office with the kitchen umbrella."
The friend interposed.
"Have this one re-covered; it will not cost much."
But Mme. Oreille, being in the temper that she was, said:
"It will cost at least eight francs to re-cover it. Eight and eighteen are twenty-six. Just fancy, twenty-six francs for an umbrella! It is utter madness!"
The friend, who was only a poor man of the middle classes, had an inspiration:
"Make your fire assurance pay for it. The companies pay for all articles that are burned, as long as the damage has been done in your own house."
On hearing this advice the little woman calmed down immediately, and then, after a moment's reflection, she said to her husband:
"To-morrow, before going to your office, you will go to the Maternelle Assurance Company, show them the state your umbrella is in, and make them pay for the damage."
M. Oreille fairly jumped, he was so startled at the proposal.
"I would not do it for my life! It is eighteen francs lost, that is all. It will not ruin us."
The next morning he took a walking-stick when he went out, and, luckily, it was a fine day.
Left at home alone, Mme. Oreille could not get over the loss of her eighteen francs by any means. She had put the umbrella on the dining-room table, and she looked at it without being able to come to any determination.
Every moment she thought of the assurance company, but she did not dare to encounter the quizzical looks of the gentlemen who might receive her, for she was very timid before people, and blushed at a mere nothing, and was embarrassed when she had to speak to strangers.
But the regret at the loss of the eighteen francs pained her as if she had been wounded. She tried not to think of it any more, and yet every moment the recollection of the loss struck her painfully. What was she to do, however? Time went on, and she could not decide; but suddenly, like all cowards, on making a resolve, she became determined.
"I will go, and we will see what will happen."
But first of all she was obliged to prepare the umbrella so that the disaster might be complete, and the reason of it quite evident. She took a match from the mantelpiece, and between the ribs she burned a hole as big as the palm of her hand; then she delicately rolled it up, fastened it with the elastic band, put on her bonnet and shawl, and went quickly toward the Rue de Rivoli, where the assurance office was.
But the nearer she got, the slower she walked. What was she going to say, and what reply would she get?
She looked at the numbers of the houses; there were still twenty-eight. That was all right, so she had time to consider, and she walked slower and slower. Suddenly she saw a door on which was a large brass plate with "La Maternelle Fire Assurance Office" engraved on it. Already! She waited a moment, for she felt nervous and almost ashamed; then she walked past, came back, walked past again, and came back again.
At last she said to herself:
"I must go in, however, so I may as well do it sooner as later."
She could not help noticing, however, how her heart beat as she entered. She went into an enormous room with grated doors all round it, and above them little openings at which a man's head appeared, and as a gentleman carrying a number of papers passed her, she stopped him and said timidly: "I beg your pardon, monsieur, but can you tell me where I must apply for payment for anything that has been accidentally burned?"
He replied in a sonorous voice:
"The first door on the left; that is the department you want."
This frightened her still more, and she felt inclined to run away, to put in no claim, to sacrifice her eighteen francs. But the idea of that sum revived her courage, and she went upstairs, out of breath, stopping at almost every other step.
She knocked at a door which she saw on the first landing, and a clear voice said, in answer:
She obeyed mechanically, and found herself in a large room where three solemn gentlemen, all with a decoration in their buttonholes, were standing talking.
One of them asked her: "What do you want, madame?"
She could hardly get out her words, but stammered: "I have come—I have come on account of an accident, something—".
He very politely pointed out a seat to her,
"If you will kindly sit down I will attend to you in a moment."
And, returning to the other two, he went on with the conversation.
"The company, gentlemen, does not consider that it is under any obligation to you for more than four hundred thousand francs, and we can pay no attention to your claim to the further sum of a hundred thousand, which you wish to make us pay. Besides that, the surveyor's valuation—"
One of the others interrupted him:
"That is quite enough, monsieur; the law courts will decide between us, and we have nothing further to do than to take our leave." And they went out after mutual ceremonious bows.
Oh! if she could only have gone away with them, how gladly she would have done it; she would have run away and given up everything. But it was too late, for the gentleman came back, and said, bowing:
"What can I do for you, madame?"
She could scarcely speak, but at last she managed to say:
"I have come-for this."
The manager looked at the object which she held out to him in mute astonishment.
With trembling fingers she tried to undo the elastic, and succeeding, after several attempts, she hastily opened the damaged remains of the umbrella.
"It looks to me to be in a very bad state of health," he said compassionately.
"It cost me twenty francs," she said, with some hesitation.
He seemed astonished. "Really! As much as that?"
"Yes, it was a capital article, and I wanted you to see the condition it is in."
"Yes, yes, I see; very well. But I really do not understand what it can have to do with me."
She began to feel uncomfortable; perhaps this company did not pay for such small articles, and she said:
"But—it is burned."
He could not deny it.
"I see that very well," he replied.
She remained open-mouthed, not knowing what to say next; then, suddenly recollecting that she had left out the main thing, she said hastily:
"I am Mme. Oreille; we are assured in La Maternelle, and I have come to claim the value of this damage."
"I only want you to have it re-covered," she added quickly, fearing a positive refusal.
The manager was rather embarrassed, and said: "But, really, madame, we do not sell umbrellas; we cannot undertake such kinds of repairs."
The little woman felt her courage reviving; she was not going to give up without a struggle; she was not even afraid any more, and said:
"I only want you to pay me the cost of repairing it; I can quite well get it done myself."
The gentleman seemed rather confused.
"Really, madame, it is such a very small matter! We are never asked to give compensation for such trivial losses. You must allow that we cannot make good pocket-handkerchiefs, gloves, brooms, slippers, all the small articles which are every day exposed to the chances of being burned."
She got red in the face, and felt inclined to fly into a rage.
"But, monsieur, last December one of our chimneys caught fire, and caused at least five hundred francs' damage; M. Oreille made no claim on the company, and so it is only just that it should pay for my umbrella now."
The manager, guessing that she was telling a lie, said, with a smile:
"You must acknowledge, madame, that it is very surprising that M. Oreille should have asked no compensation for damages amounting to five hundred francs, and should now claim five or six francs for mending an umbrella."
She was not the least put out, and replied:
"I beg your pardon, monsieur, the five hundred francs affected M. Oreille's pocket, whereas this damage, amounting to eighteen francs, concerns Mme. Oreille's pocket only, which is a totally different matter."
As he saw that he had no chance of getting rid of her, and that he would only be wasting his time, he said resignedly:
"Will you kindly tell me how the damage was done?"
She felt that she had won the victory, and said:
"This is how it happened, monsieur: In our hall there is a bronze stick and umbrella stand, and the other day, when I came in, I put my umbrella into it. I must tell you that just above there is a shelf for the candlesticks and matches. I put out my hand, took three or four matches, and struck one, but it missed fire, so I struck another, which ignited, but went out immediately, and a third did the same."
The manager interrupted her to make a joke.
"I suppose they were government matches, then?"
She did not understand him, and went on:
"Very likely. At any rate, the fourth caught fire, and I lit my candle, and went into my room to go to bed; but in a quarter of an hour I fancied that I smelt something burning, and I have always been terribly afraid of fire. If ever we have an accident it will not be my fault, I assure you. I am terribly nervous since our chimney was on fire, as I told you; so I got up, and hunted about everywhere, sniffing like a dog after game, and at last I noticed that my umbrella was burning. Most likely a match had fallen between the folds and burned it. You can see how it has damaged it."
The manager had taken his cue, and asked her: "What do you estimate the damage at?"
She did not know what to say, as she was not certain what value to put on it, but at last she replied:
"Perhaps you had better get it done yourself. I will leave it to you."
He, however, naturally refused.
"No, madame, I cannot do that. Tell me the amount of your claim, that is all I want to know."
"Well, I think that—Look here, monsieur, I do not want to make any money out of you, so I will tell you what we will do. I will take my umbrella to the maker, who will re-cover it in good, durable silk, and I will bring the bill to you. Will that suit you, monsieur?"
"Perfectly, madame; we will settle it so. Here is a note for the cashier, who will repay you whatever it costs you."
He gave Mme. Oreille a slip of paper, who took it, got up and went out, thanking him, for she was in a hurry to escape lest he should change his mind.
She went briskly through the streets, looking out for a really good umbrella maker, and when she found a shop which appeared to be a first-class one, she went in, and said, confidently:
"I want this umbrella re-covered in silk, good silk. Use the very best and strongest you have; I don't mind what it costs."