By Anatole France
Translated by William Patten.
Copyright, 1907, by P. F. Collier
Dedicated to Georges Brandes
This garden of our childhood, said Monsieur Bergeret, this garden that one
could pace off in twenty steps, was for us a whole world, full of smiles
"Lucien, do you recall Putois?" asked Zoe, smiling as usual, the lips
pressed, bending over her work.
"Do I recall Putois! Of all the faces I saw as a child that of Putois
remains the clearest in my remembrance. All the features of his face and
his character are fixed in my mind. He had a pointed cranium..."
"A low forehead," added Mademoiselle Zoe.
And the brother and sister recited alternately, in a monotonous voice,
with an odd gravity, the points in a sort of description:
"A low forehead."
"A shifty glance."
"Crow's-feet at the temples."
"The cheek-bones sharp, red and shining."
"His ears had no rims to them."
"The features were devoid of all expression."
"His hands, which were never still, alone expressed his meaning."
"Thin, somewhat bent, feeble in appearance..."
"In reality he was unusually strong."
"He easily bent a five-franc piece between the first finger and the
"Which was enormous."
"His voice was drawling..."
"And his speech mild."
Suddenly Monsieur Bergeret exclaimed: "Zoe! we have forgotten 'Yellow hair
and sparse beard.' Let us begin all over again."
Pauline, who had listened with astonishment to this strange recital, asked
her father and aunt how they had been able to learn by heart this bit of
prose, and why they recited it as if it were a litany.
Monsieur Bergeret gravely answered:
"Pauline, what you have heard is a text, I may say a liturgy, used by the
Bergeret family. It should be handed down to you so that it may not perish
with your aunt and me. Your grandfather, my daughter, your grandfather,
Eloi Bergeret, who was not amused with trifles, thought highly of this
bit, principally because of its origin. He called it 'The Anatomy of
Putois.' And he used to say that he preferred, in certain respects, the
anatomy of Putois to the anatomy of Quaresmeprenant. 'If the description
by Xenomanes,' he said, 'is more learned and richer in unusual and choice
expressions, the description of Putois greatly surpasses it in clarity and
simplicity of style.' He held this opinion because Doctor Ledouble, of
Tours, had not yet explained chapters thirty, thirty-one, and thirty-two
of the fourth book of Rabelais."
"I do not understand at all," said Pauline.
"That is because you did not know Putois, my daughter. You must understand
that Putois was the most familiar figure in my childhood and in that of
your Aunt Zoe. In the house of your grandfather Bergeret we constantly
spoke of Putois. Each believed that he had seen him."
"Who was this Putois?"
Instead of replying, Monsieur Bergeret commenced to laugh, and
Mademoiselle Bergeret also laughed, her lips pressed tight together.
Pauline looked from one to the other. She thought it strange that her aunt
should laugh so heartily, and more strange that she should laugh with and
in sympathy with her brother. It was indeed singular, as the brother and
sister were quite different in character.
"Papa, tell me what was Putois? Since you wish me to know, tell me."
"Putois, my daughter, was a gardener. The son of honest market-gardeners,
he set up for himself as nurseryman at Saint-Omer. But he did not satisfy
his customers and got in a bad way. Having given up business, he went out
by the day. Those who employed him could not always congratulate
At this, Mademoiselle Bergeret, laughing, rejoined;
"Do you recall, Lucien, when our father could not find his ink, his pens,
his sealing-wax, his scissors, he said: 'I suspect Putois has been here'?"
"Ah!" said Monsieur Bergeret, "Putois had not a good reputation."
"Is that all?" asked Pauline.
"No, my daughter, it is not all. Putois was remarkable in this, that while
we knew him and were familiar with him, nevertheless—"
"—He did not exist," said Zoe.
Monsieur Bergeret looked at his sister with an air of reproach.
"What a speech, Zoe! and why break the charm like that? Do you dare say
it, Zoe? Zoe, can you prove it? To maintain that Putois did not exist,
that Putois never was, have you sufficiently considered the conditions of
existence and the modes of being? Putois existed, my sister. But it is
true that his was a peculiar existence."
"I understand less and less," said Pauline, discouraged.
"The truth will be clear to you presently, my daughter. Know then that
Putois was born fully grown. I was still a child and your aunt was a
little girl. We lived in a little house, in a suburb of Saint-Omer. Our
parents led a peaceful, retired life, until they were discovered by an old
lady named Madame Cornouiller, who lived at the manor of Montplaisir,
twelve miles from town, and proved to be a great-aunt of my mother's. By
right of relationship she insisted that our father and mother come to dine
every Sunday at Montplaisir, where they were excessively bored. She said
that it was the proper thing to have a family dinner on Sunday and that
only people of common origin failed to observe this ancient custom. My
father was bored to the point of tears at Montplaisir. His desperation was
painful to contemplate. But Madame Cornouiller did not notice it. She saw
nothing, My mother was braver. She suffered as much as my father, and
perhaps more, but she smiled."
"Women are made to suffer," said Zoe.
"Zoe, every living thing is destined to suffer. In vain our parents
refused these fatal invitations. Madame Cornouiller came to take them each
Sunday afternoon. They had to go to Montplaisir; it was an obligation from
which there was absolutely no escape. It was an established order that
only a revolt could break. My father finally revolted and swore not to
accept another invitation from Madame Cornouiller, leaving it to my mother
to find decent pretexts and varied reasons for these refusals, for which
she was the least capable. Our mother did not know how to pretend."
"Say, Lucien, that she did not like to. She could tell a fib as well as
"It is true that when she had good reasons she gave them rather than
invent poor ones. Do you recall, my sister, that one day she said at
table: 'Fortunately, Zoe has the whooping-cough; we shall not have to go
to Montplaisir for some time'?"
"That was true!" said Zoe.
"You got over it, Zoe. And one day Madame Cornouiller said to my mother:
Dearest, I count on your coming with your husband to dine Sunday at
Montplaisir.' Our mother, expressly bidden by her husband to give Madame
Cornouiller a good reason for declining, invented, in this extremity, a
reason that was not the truth. 'I am extremely sorry, dear Madame, but
that will be impossible for us. Sunday I expect the gardener.'
"On hearing this, Madame Cornouiller looked through the glass door of the
salon at the little wild garden, where the prickwood and the lilies looked
as though they had never known the pruning-knife and were likely never to
know it. 'You expect the gardener! What for?'
"'To work in the garden.'
"And my mother, having involuntarily turned her eyes on this little square
of weeds and plants run wild, that she had called a garden, recognized
with dismay the improbability of her excuse.
"'This man,' said Madame Cornouiller, 'could just as well work in your
garden Monday or Tuesday. Moreover, that will be much better.' One should
not work on Sunday.'
"'He works all the week.'
"I have often noticed that the most absurd and ridiculous reasons are the
least disputed: they disconcert the adversary. Madame Cornouiller
insisted, less than one might expect of a person so little disposed to
give up. Rising from her armchair, she asked:
"'What do you call your gardener, dearest?'
"'Putois,' answered my mother without hesitation.
"Putois was named. From that time he existed. Madame Cornouiller took
herself off, murmuring: 'Putois! It seems to me that I know that name.
Putois! Putois! I must know him. But I do not recollect him. Where does he
"'He works by the day. When one wants him one leaves word with this one or
"'Ah! I thought so, a loafer and a vagabond—a good-for-nothing.
Don't trust him, dearest.'
"From that time Putois had a character.'"
Messieurs Goubin and Jean Marteau having arrived, Monsieur Bergeret put
them in touch with the conversation.
"We were speaking of him whom my mother caused to be born gardener at
Saint-Omer and whom she christened. He existed from that time on."
"Dear master, will you kindly repeat that?" said Monsieur Goubin, wiping
the glass of his monocle.
"Willingly," replied Monsieur Bergeret. "There was no gardener. The
gardener did not exist. My mother said: 'I am waiting for the gardener.'
At once the gardener was. He lived."
"Dear master," said Monsieur Goubin, "how could he live since he did not
"He had a sort of existence," replied Monsieur Bergeret.
"You mean an imaginary existence," Monsieur Goubin replied, disdainfully.
"Is it nothing then, but an imaginary existence?" exclaimed the master.
"And have not mythical beings the power to influence men! Consider
mythology, Monsieur Goubin, and you will perceive that they are not real
beings but imaginary beings that exercise the most profound and lasting
influence on the mind. Everywhere and always, beings who have no more
reality than Putois have inspired nations with hatred and love, terror and
hope, have advised crimes, received offerings, made laws and customs.
Monsieur Goubin, think of the eternal mythology. Putois is a mythical
personage, the most obscure, I grant you, and of the lowest order. The
coarse satyr, who in olden times sat at the table with our peasants in the
North, was considered worthy of appearing in a picture by Jordaens and a
fable by La Fontaine. The hairy son of Sycorax appeared in the noble world
of Shakespeare. Putois, less fortunate, will be always neglected by
artists and poets. He lacks bigness and the unusual style and character.
He was conceived by minds too reasonable, among people who knew how to
read and write, and who had not that delightful imagination in which
fables take root. I think, Messieurs, that I have said enough to show you
the real nature of Putois."
"I understand it," said Monsieur Goubin. And Monsieur Bergeret continued
"Putois was. I can affirm it. He was. Consider it, gentlemen, and you will
admit that a state of being by no means implies substance, and means only
the bonds attributed to the subject, expresses only a relation."
"Undoubtedly," said Jean Marteau; "but a being without attributes is a
being less than nothing. I do not remember who at one time said, 'I am
that I am.' Pardon my lapse of memory. One cannot remember everything. But
the unknown who spoke in that fashion was very imprudent. In letting it be
understood by this thoughtless observation that he was deprived of
attributes and denied all relations, he proclaimed that he did not exist
and thoughtlessly suppressed himself. I wager that no one has heard of him
since."—"You have lost," answered Monsieur Bergeret.
"He corrected the bad effect of these egotistical expressions by employing
quantities of adjectives, and he is often spoken of, most often without
judgment."—"I do not understand," said Monsieur Goubin.—"It is
not necessary to understand," replied Jean Marteau. And he begged Monsieur
Bergeret to speak of Putois.—"It is very kind of you to ask me,"
said the master.—"Putois was born in the second half of the
nineteenth century, at Saint-Omer. He would have been better off if he had
been born some centuries before in the forest of Arden or in the forest of
Brocéliande. He would then have been a remarkably clever evil spirit."—"A
cup of tea, Monsieur Goubin," said Pauline.—"Was Putois, then, an
evil spirit?" said Jean Marteau.—"He was evil," replied Monsieur
Bergeret; "he was, in a way, but not absolutely. It was true of him as
with those devils that are called wicked, but in whom one discovers good
qualities when one associates with them. And I am disposed to think that
injustice has been done Putois. Madame Cornouiller, who, warned against
him, had at once suspected him of being a loafer, a drunkard, and a
robber, reflected that since my mother, who was not rich, employed him, it
was because he was satisfied with little, and asked herself if she would
not do well to have him work instead of her gardener, who had a better
reputation, but expected more. The time had come for trimming the yews.
She thought that if Madame Eloi Bergeret, who was poor, did not pay Putois
much, she herself, who was rich, would give him still less, for it is
customary for the rich to pay less than the poor. And she already saw her
yews trimmed in straight hedges, in balls and in pyramids, without her
having to pay much. 'I will keep an eye open,' she said, 'to see that
Putois does not loaf or rob me. I risk nothing, and it will be all profit.
These vagabonds sometimes do better work than honest laborers. She
resolved to make a trial, and said to my mother: 'Dearest, send me Putois.
I will set him to work at Mont-plaisir.' My mother would have done so
willingly. But really it was impossible. Madame Cornouiller waited for
Putois at Montplaisir, and waited in vain. She followed up her ideas and
did not abandon her plans. When she saw my mother again, she complained of
not having any news of Putois. 'Dearest, didn't you tell him that I was
expecting him?'—'Yes! but he is strange, odd.'—'Oh, I know
that kind. I know your Putois by heart. But there is no workman so crazy
as to refuse to come to work at Montplaisir. My house is known, I think.
Putois must obey my orders, and quickly, dearest. It will be sufficient to
tell me where he lives; I will go and find him myself.' My mother answered
that she did not know where Putois lived, that no one knew his house, that
he was without hearth or home. 'I have not seen him again, Madame. I
believe he is hiding.' What better could she say?"
Madame Cornouiller heard her distrustfully; she suspected her of
misleading, of removing Putois from inquiry, for fear of losing him or
making him ask more. And she thought her too selfish. "Many judgments
accepted by the world that history has sanctioned are as well founded as
that."—"That is true," said Pauline.—"What is true?" asked
Zoe, half asleep.—"That the judgments of history are often false. I
remember, papa, that you said one day: 'Madame Roland was very ingenuous
to appeal to the impartiality of posterity, and not perceive that, if her
contemporaries were ill-natured monkeys, their posterity would be also
composed of ill-natured monkeys.'"—"Pauline," said Mademoiselle Zoe
severely, "what connection is there between the story of Putois and this
that you are telling us?"—"A very great one, my aunt."—"I do
not grasp it."—Monsieur Bergeret, who was not opposed to
digressions, answered his daughter: "If all injustices were finally
redressed in the world, one would never have imagined another for these
adjustments. How do you expect posterity to pass righteous judgment on the
dead? How question them in the shades to which they have taken flight? As
soon as we are able to be just to them we forget them. But can one ever be
just? And what is justice? Madame Cornouiller, at least, was finally
obliged to recognize that my mother had not deceived her and that Putois
was not to be found. However, she did not give up trying to find him. She
asked all her relatives, friends, neighbors, servants, and tradesmen if
they knew Putois, Only two or three answered that they had never heard of
him. For the most part they believed they had seen him. 'I have heard that
name,' said the cook, 'but I cannot recall his face.'—'Putois! I
must know him,' said the street-sweeper, scratching his ear. 'But I cannot
tell you who it is.' The most precise description came from Monsieur
Blaise, receiver of taxes, who said that he had employed Putois to cut
wood in his yard, from the 19th to the 28d of October, the year of the
comet. One morning, Madame Cornouiller, out of breath, dropped into my
father's office. 'I have seen Putois. Ah! I have seen him.'—'You
believe it?'—'I am sure. He was passing close by Monsieur Tenchant's
wall. Then he turned into the Rue des Abbesses, walking quickly. I lost
him.'—'Was it really he?'—'Without a doubt. A man of fifty,
thin, bent, the air of a vagabond, a dirty blouse.'—'It is true,'"
said my father, "'that this description could apply to Putois.'—'You
see! Besides, I called him. I cried: "Putois!" and he turned around.'—'That
is the method,' said my father, 'that they employ to assure themselves of
the identity of evil-doers that they are hunting for.'—'I told you
that it was he! I know how to find him, your Putois. Very well! He has a
bad face. You had been very careless, you and your wife, to employ him. I
understand physiognomy, and though I only saw his back, I could swear that
he is a robber, and perhaps an assassin. The rims of his ears are flat,
and that is a sign that never fails.'—'Ah! you noticed that the rims
of his ears were flat?'—'Nothing escapes me. My dear Monsieur
Bergeret, if you do not wish to be assassinated with your wife and your
children, do not let Putois come into your house again. Take my advice:
have all your locks changed.'—Well, a few days afterward, it
happened that Madame Cornouiller had three melons stolen from her
vegetable garden. The robber not having been found, she suspected Putois.
The gendarmes were called to Montplaisir, and their report confirmed the
suspicions of Madame Cornouiller. Bands of marauders were ravaging the
gardens of the countryside. But this time the robbery seemed to have been
committed by one man, and with singular dexterity. No trace of anything
broken, no footprints in the damp earth. The robber could be no one but
Putois. That was the opinion of the corporal, who knew all about Putois,
and had tried hard to put his hand on that bird. The 'Journal of
Saint-Omer' devoted an article to the three melons of Madame Cornouiller,
and published a portrait of Putois from descriptions furnished by the
town. 'He has,' said the paper, 'a low forehead, squinting eyes, a shifty
glance, crow's-feet, sharp cheek-bones, red and shining. No rims to the
ears. Thin, somewhat bent, feeble in appearance, in reality he is
unusually strong. He easily bends a five-franc piece between the first
finger and the thumb.' There were good reasons for attributing to him a
long series of robberies committed with surprising dexterity. The whole
town was talking of Putois. One day it was learned that he had been
arrested and locked up in prison. But it was soon recognized that the man
that had been taken for him was an almanac seller named Rigobert. As no
charge could be brought against him, he was discharged after fourteen
months of detention on suspicion. And Putois remained undiscoverable.
Madame Cornouiller was the victim of another robbery, more audacious than
the first. Three small silver spoons were taken from her sideboard. She
recognized in this the hand of Putois, had a chain put on the door of her
bedroom, and was unable to sleep....
About ten o'clock in the evening, Pauline having gone to her room,
Mademoiselle Bergeret said to her brother: "Do not forget to relate how
Putois betrayed Madame Cornouiller's cook."—"I was thinking of it,
my sister," answered Monsieur Bergeret. "To omit it would be to lose the
best of the story. But everything must be done in order. Putois was
carefully searched for by the police, who could not find him. When it was
known that he could not be found, each one considered it his duty to find
him; the shrewd ones succeeded. And as there were many shrewd ones at
Saint-Omer and in the suburbs, Putois was seen simultaneously in the
streets, in the fields, and in the woods. Another trait was thus added to
his character. He was accorded the gift of ubiquity, the attribute of many
popular heroes. A being capable of leaping long distances in a moment, and
suddenly showing himself at the place where he was least expected, was
honestly frightening. Putois was the terror of Saint-Omer. Madame
Cornouiller, convinced that Putois had stolen from her three melons and
three little spoons, lived in a state of fear, barricaded at Montplaisir.
Bolts, bars, and locks did not reassure her. Putois was for her a
frightfully subtle being who could pass through doors. Trouble with her
servants redoubled her fear. Her cook having been betrayed, the time came
when she could no longer hide her misfortune. But she obstinately refused
to name her betrayer."—"Her name was Gudule," said Mademoiselle Zoe.—"Her
name was Gudule, and she believed that she was protected from danger by a
long, forked bead that she wore on her chin. The sudden appearance of a
beard protected the innocence of that holy daughter of the king that
Prague venerates. A beard, no longer youthful, did not suffice to protect
the virtue of Gudule. Madame Cornouiller urged Gudule to tell her the man.
Gudule burst into tears, but kept silent. Prayers and menaces had no
effect. Madame Cornouiller made a long and circumstantial inquiry. She
adroitly questioned her neighbors and tradespeople, the gardener, the
street-sweeper, the gendarmes; nothing put her on the track of the
culprit. She tried again to obtain from Gudule a complete confession. 'In
your own interest, Gudule, tell me who it is.' Gudule remained mute. All
at once a ray of light flashed through the mind of Madame Cornouiller: 'It
is Putois!' The cook cried, but did not answer. 'It is Putois! Why did I
not guess it sooner? It is Putois! Miserable! miserable! miserable!' and
Madame Cornouiller remained convinced that it was Putois. Everybody at
Saint-Omer, from the judge to the lamplighter's dog, knew Gudule and her
basket At the news that Putois had betrayed Gudule, the town was filled
with surprise, wonder, and merriment....
With this reputation in the town and its environs he remained attached to
our house by a thousand subtle ties. He passed before our door, and it was
believed that he sometimes climbed the wall of our garden. He was never
seen face to face. At any moment we would recognize his shadow, his voice,
his footsteps. More than once we thought we saw his back in the twilight,
at the corner of a road. To my sister and me he gradually changed in
character. He remained mischievous and malevolent, but he became childlike
and very ingenuous. He became less real and, I dare say, more poetical. He
entered in the artless Cycle of childish traditions. He became more like
Croquemitaine,* like Père Fouettard, or the sand man who closes the
children's eyes when evening comes.
*The national "bugaboo" or "bogy man."
It was not that imp that tangled the colts' tails at night in the stable.
Less rustic and less charming, but equally and frankly roguish, he made
ink mustaches on my sister's dolls. In our bed, before going to sleep, we
listened; he cried on the roofs with the cats, he howled with the dogs, he
filled the mill hopper with groans, and imitated the songs of belated
drunkards in the streets. What made Putois ever-present and familiar to
us, what interested us in him, was that the remembrance of him was
associated with all the objects about us. Zoe's dolls, my school books, in
which he had many times rumpled and besmeared the pages; the garden wall,
over which we had seen his red eyes gleam in the shadow; the blue
porcelain jar that he cracked one winter's night, unless it was the frost;
the trees, the streets, the benches—everything recalled Putois, the
children's Putois, a local and mythical being. He did not equal in grace
and poetry the dullest satyr, the stoutest fawn of Sicily or Thessaly. But
he was still a demigod. He had quite a different character for our father;
he was symbolical and philosophical. Our father had great compassion for
men. He did not think them altogether rational; their mistakes, when they
were not cruel, amused him and made him smile. The belief in Putois
interested him as an epitome and a summary of all human beliefs. As he was
ironical and a joker, he spoke of Putois as if he were a real being. He
spoke with so much insistence sometimes, and detailed the circumstances
with such exactness, that my mother was quite surprised and said to him in
her open-hearted way: 'One would say that you spoke seriously, my friend:
you know well, however...' He replied gravely: 'All Saint-Omer believes in
the existence of Putois. Would I be a good citizen if I deny him? One
should look twice before setting aside an article of common faith.' Only a
perfectly honest soul has such scruples. At heart my father was a
Gassendiste.* He keyed his own particular sentiment with the public
sentiment, believing, like the countryside, in the existence of Putois,
but not admitting his direct responsibility for the theft of the melons
and the betrayal of the cook. Finally, he professed faith in the existence
of a Putois, to be a good citizen; and he eliminated Putois in his
explanations of the events that took place in the town. By doing so in
this instance, as in all others, he was an honorable and a sensible man.
* A follower of Gassendi (d. 1655), an exponent of Epicurus.
"As for our mother, she reproached herself somewhat for the birth of
Putois, and not without reason. Because, after all, Putois was the child
of our mother's invention, as Caliban was the poet's invention. Without
doubt the faults were not equal, and my mother was more innocent than
Shakespeare. However, she was frightened and confused to see her little
falsehood grow inordinately, and her slight imposture achieve such a
prodigious success, that, without stopping, extended all over town and
threatened to extend over the world. One day she even turned pale,
believing that she would see her falsehood rise up before her. That day, a
servant she had, new to the house and the town, came to say to her that a
man wished to see her. He wished to speak to Madame. 'What man is it?'—'A
man in a blouse. He looks like a laborer.'—'Did he give his name?'—'Yes,
Madame.'—'Well! what is his name?'—'Putois.'—'He told
you that was his name?'—'Putois, yes, Madame.'—'He is here?'—'Yes,
Madame. He is waiting in the kitchen.'—'You saw him?'—'Yes,
Madame.'—'What does he want?'—'He did not say. He will only
tell Madame.'—'Go ask him.'
"When the servant returned to the kitchen Putois was gone. This meeting of
the new servant with Putois was never cleared up. But from that day I
think my mother commenced to believe that Putois might well exist and that
she had not told a falsehood after all."