The Piece of String by Guy de Maupassant
It was market-day, and from all the country round Goderville the peasants
and their wives were coming toward the town. The men walked slowly,
throwing the whole body forward at every step of their long, crooked
legs. They were deformed from pushing the plough which makes the
left-shoulder higher, and bends their figures side-ways; from reaping the
grain, when they have to spread their legs so as to keep on their feet.
Their starched blue blouses, glossy as though varnished, ornamented at
collar and cuffs with a little embroidered design and blown out around
their bony bodies, looked very much like balloons about to soar, whence
issued two arms and two feet.
Some of these fellows dragged a cow or a calf at the end of a rope. And
just behind the animal followed their wives beating it over the back with
a leaf-covered branch to hasten its pace, and carrying large baskets out
of which protruded the heads of chickens or ducks. These women walked
more quickly and energetically than the men, with their erect, dried-up
figures, adorned with scanty little shawls pinned over their flat bosoms,
and their heads wrapped round with a white cloth, enclosing the hair and
surmounted by a cap.
Now a char-a-banc passed by, jogging along behind a nag and shaking up
strangely the two men on the seat, and the woman at the bottom of the
cart who held fast to its sides to lessen the hard jolting.
In the market-place at Goderville was a great crowd, a mingled multitude
of men and beasts. The horns of cattle, the high, long-napped hats of
wealthy peasants, the head-dresses of the women came to the surface of
that sea. And the sharp, shrill, barking voices made a continuous, wild
din, while above it occasionally rose a huge burst of laughter from the
sturdy lungs of a merry peasant or a prolonged bellow from a cow tied
fast to the wall of a house.
It all smelled of the stable, of milk, of hay and of perspiration, giving
off that half-human, half-animal odor which is peculiar to country folks.
Maitre Hauchecorne, of Breaute, had just arrived at Goderville and was
making his way toward the square when he perceived on the ground a little
piece of string. Maitre Hauchecorne, economical as are all true Normans,
reflected that everything was worth picking up which could be of any use,
and he stooped down, but painfully, because he suffered from rheumatism.
He took the bit of thin string from the ground and was carefully
preparing to roll it up when he saw Maitre Malandain, the harness maker,
on his doorstep staring at him. They had once had a quarrel about a
halter, and they had borne each other malice ever since. Maitre
Hauchecorne was overcome with a sort of shame at being seen by his enemy
picking up a bit of string in the road. He quickly hid it beneath his
blouse and then slipped it into his breeches, pocket, then pretended to
be still looking for something on the ground which he did not discover
and finally went off toward the market-place, his head bent forward and
his body almost doubled in two by rheumatic pains.
He was at once lost in the crowd, which kept moving about slowly and
noisily as it chaffered and bargained. The peasants examined the cows,
went off, came back, always in doubt for fear of being cheated, never
quite daring to decide, looking the seller square in the eye in the
effort to discover the tricks of the man and the defect in the beast.
The women, having placed their great baskets at their feet, had taken out
the poultry, which lay upon the ground, their legs tied together, with
terrified eyes and scarlet combs.
They listened to propositions, maintaining their prices in a decided
manner with an impassive face or perhaps deciding to accept the smaller
price offered, suddenly calling out to the customer who was starting to
"All right, I'll let you have them, Mait' Anthime."
Then, little by little, the square became empty, and when the Angelus
struck midday those who lived at a distance poured into the inns.
At Jourdain's the great room was filled with eaters, just as the vast
court was filled with vehicles of every sort—wagons, gigs,
chars-a-bancs, tilburies, innumerable vehicles which have no name, yellow
with mud, misshapen, pieced together, raising their shafts to heaven like
two arms, or it may be with their nose on the ground and their rear in
Just opposite to where the diners were at table the huge fireplace, with
its bright flame, gave out a burning heat on the backs of those who sat
at the right. Three spits were turning, loaded with chickens, with
pigeons and with joints of mutton, and a delectable odor of roast meat
and of gravy flowing over crisp brown skin arose from the hearth, kindled
merriment, caused mouths to water.
All the aristocracy of the plough were eating there at Mait' Jourdain's,
the innkeeper's, a dealer in horses also and a sharp fellow who had made
a great deal of money in his day.
The dishes were passed round, were emptied, as were the jugs of yellow
cider. Every one told of his affairs, of his purchases and his sales.
They exchanged news about the crops. The weather was good for greens, but
too wet for grain.
Suddenly the drum began to beat in the courtyard before the house. Every
one, except some of the most indifferent, was on their feet at once and
ran to the door, to the windows, their mouths full and napkins in their
When the public crier had finished his tattoo he called forth in a jerky
voice, pausing in the wrong places:
"Be it known to the inhabitants of Goderville and in general to all
persons present at the market that there has been lost this morning on
the Beuzeville road, between nine and ten o'clock, a black leather
pocketbook containing five hundred francs and business papers. You are
requested to return it to the mayor's office at once or to Maitre Fortune
Houlbreque, of Manneville. There will be twenty francs reward."
Then the man went away. They heard once more at a distance the dull
beating of the drum and the faint voice of the crier. Then they all began
to talk of this incident, reckoning up the chances which Maitre
Houlbreque had of finding or of not finding his pocketbook again.
The meal went on. They were finishing their coffee when the corporal of
gendarmes appeared on the threshold.
"Is Maitre Hauchecorne, of Breaute, here?"
Maitre Hauchecorne, seated at the other end of the table answered:
"Here I am, here I am."
And he followed the corporal.
The mayor was waiting for him, seated in an armchair. He was the notary
of the place, a tall, grave man of pompous speech.
"Maitre Hauchecorne," said he, "this morning on the Beuzeville road, you
were seen to pick up the pocketbook lost by Maitre Houlbreque, of
The countryman looked at the mayor in amazement frightened already at
this suspicion which rested on him, he knew not why.
"I—I picked up that pocketbook?"
"I swear I don't even know anything about it."
"You were seen."
"I was seen—I? Who saw me?"
"M. Malandain, the harness-maker."
Then the old man remembered, understood, and, reddening with anger, said:
"Ah! he saw me, did he, the rascal? He saw me picking up this string
here, M'sieu le Maire."
And fumbling at the bottom of his pocket, he pulled out of it the little
end of string.
But the mayor incredulously shook his head:
"You will not make me believe, Maitre Hauchecorne, that M. Malandain, who
is a man whose word can be relied on, has mistaken this string for a
The peasant, furious, raised his hand and spat on the ground beside him
as if to attest his good faith, repeating:
"For all that, it is God's truth, M'sieu le Maire. There! On my soul's
salvation, I repeat it."
The mayor continued:
"After you picked up the object in question, you even looked about for
some time in the mud to see if a piece of money had not dropped out of
The good man was choking with indignation and fear.
"How can they tell—how can they tell such lies as that to slander
an honest man! How can they?"
His protestations were in vain; he was not believed.
He was confronted with M. Malandain, who repeated and sustained his
testimony. They railed at one another for an hour. At his own request
Maitre Hauchecorne was searched. Nothing was found on him.
At last the mayor, much perplexed, sent him away, warning him that he
would inform the public prosecutor and ask for orders.
The news had spread. When he left the mayor's office the old man was
surrounded, interrogated with a curiosity which was serious or mocking,
as the case might be, but into which no indignation entered. And he began
to tell the story of the string. They did not believe him. They laughed.
He passed on, buttonholed by every one, himself buttonholing his
acquaintances, beginning over and over again his tale and his
protestations, showing his pockets turned inside out to prove that he had
nothing in them.
They said to him:
"You old rogue!"
He grew more and more angry, feverish, in despair at not being believed,
and kept on telling his story.
The night came. It was time to go home. He left with three of his
neighbors, to whom he pointed out the place where he had picked up the
string, and all the way he talked of his adventure.
That evening he made the round of the village of Breaute for the purpose
of telling every one. He met only unbelievers.
He brooded over it all night long.
The next day, about one in the afternoon, Marius Paumelle, a farm hand of
Maitre Breton, the market gardener at Ymauville, returned the pocketbook
and its contents to Maitre Holbreque, of Manneville.
This man said, indeed, that he had found it on the road, but not knowing
how to read, he had carried it home and given it to his master.
The news spread to the environs. Maitre Hauchecorne was informed. He
started off at once and began to relate his story with the denoument. He
"What grieved me," said he, "was not the thing itself, do you understand,
but it was being accused of lying. Nothing does you so much harm as being
in disgrace for lying."
All day he talked of his adventure. He told it on the roads to the people
who passed, at the cabaret to the people who drank and next Sunday when
they came out of church. He even stopped strangers to tell them about it.
He was easy now, and yet something worried him without his knowing
exactly what it was. People had a joking manner while they listened. They
did not seem convinced. He seemed to feel their remarks behind his back.
On Tuesday of the following week he went to market at Goderville,
prompted solely by the need of telling his story.
Malandain, standing on his doorstep, began to laugh as he saw him pass.
He accosted a farmer of Criquetot, who did not let hire finish, and
giving him a punch in the pit of the stomach cried in his face: "Oh, you
great rogue!" Then he turned his heel upon him.
Maitre Hauchecorne remained speechless and grew more and more uneasy. Why
had they called him "great rogue"?
When seated at table in Jourdain's tavern he began again to explain the
A horse dealer of Montivilliers shouted at him:
"Get out, get out, you old scamp! I know all about your old string."
"But since they found it again, the pocketbook!"
But the other continued:
"Hold your tongue, daddy; there's one who finds it and there's another
who returns it. And no one the wiser."
The farmer was speechless. He understood at last. They accused him of
having had the pocketbook brought back by an accomplice, by a
He tried to protest. The whole table began to laugh.
He could not finish his dinner, and went away amid a chorus of jeers.
He went home indignant, choking with rage, with confusion, the more cast
down since with his Norman craftiness he was, perhaps, capable of having
done what they accused him of and even of boasting of it as a good trick.
He was dimly conscious that it was impossible to prove his innocence, his
craftiness being so well known. He felt himself struck to the heart by
the injustice of the suspicion.
He began anew to tell his tale, lengthening his recital every day, each
day adding new proofs, more energetic declarations and more sacred oaths,
which he thought of, which he prepared in his hours of solitude, for his
mind was entirely occupied with the story of the string. The more he
denied it, the more artful his arguments, the less he was believed.
"Those are liars proofs," they said behind his back.
He felt this. It preyed upon him and he exhausted himself in useless
He was visibly wasting away.
Jokers would make him tell the story of "the piece of string" to amuse
them, just as you make a soldier who has been on a campaign tell his
story of the battle. His mind kept growing weaker and about the end of
December he took to his bed.
He passed away early in January, and, in the ravings of death agony, he
protested his innocence, repeating:
"A little bit of string—a little bit of string. See, here it is,
M'sieu le Maire."