Han Ryner, “The Cheapskate” (1913)



By Han Ryner

When on the arm of her husband, Mme. Geneviève Serre promenaded along the Esplanade, tall, supple, and slow, her face dimly lit up by a smile, the young men of the small town followed with long looks that walking statue. They found her beautiful, despite the sobriety of her lines, and their dreams gave her an passionate escort.

She was unaware of the desires that followed her steps, and if she had sensed their accompaniment, she would have been angered and insulted. She had remained the blushing and irritable boarder who, never understanding with clarity, was angered by a word or a look.

She had a daughter. She loved her at first like a doll that she was allowed without anyone making fun of her.

As soon as the little one was two years old, Geneviève’s twenty years found a friend in her, someone not astonished by her folly and who could not be suspected of mockery. The two children passed their days babbling to one another, birds who have nothing to say and who sing.

However, Geneviève had one passion, avarice. A cold, narrow and childis passion, like everything that lived in that shivering heart, in that childish, narrow brain. Avarice without an impulse toward gain, all wrapped up in the fear of loss.

One day, a bold man—a lieutenant famous for his gallantryand his duels—exclaimed, seeing her pass with her irritating calm:

“I will wake you, sleeping beauty!”

Without understanding the words, but shocked by the tone, she leaned towards her husband:

“Paul, I think I have just been insulted,” she said.

The husband, returning, walked up to the man indicated by the gloved finger and, in the midst of the unsettled strollers, slapped Lieutenant Paul Bertral.

While the witnesses discussed the conditions of the meeting, Paul Serre led his wife to the station. He sent her to the country home of her parents, to spare her too many harsh emotions: now he believed that he could be moved, since she had seen her eyes light up with anger, for an instant.

She had already recovered her universal indifference. On the steps of the coach, while her husband embraced her with all the honor and tenderness of a possible farewell, the impeccable housewife qui, lost in grave reflections, had not spoken a word since the scene of violence, suddenly made, in her soft voice, this ultimate recommendation:

“Paul, you will find, hanging in the third hook of the coat-rack in your room, some gray pants. Wear them to the duel…. You know, the gray, it washes….

The opponents, swords and arms extended, observed by some seconds. Then, then with a hesitant movement, they walked towards one another. The points touched, trembling. The witnesses, necks craned, looked on, considered their responsibility. They all four paled, for Paul Bertral lunged with blistering speed. The thrust was parried just in time, and also the riposte, very dangerous. Now the swords clashed, crosses, came and went, nearly touching, relentlessly, without calculation, brutal, clumsy, like drunks….

A cloud which hid the sun blew away in the high winds. A sudden light struck and dazzled the eyes of the lieutenant. At that precise second, Paul Serre lunged. Paul Bertral was struck on the arm. All was for the best: the wound was insignificant and “honor was satisfied.”

While the statement was written, Geneviève’s husband rushed to the telegraph office and, in a fever of joy, wrote the following dispatch:

“Bertral blessé. T’embrasse mille fois. Paul.”

Unfortunately, one seldom telegraphs punctuation and the employee who transcribed the message turned two sentences into just one:

“Bertral blessé t’embrasse mille fois.”

The naïve Mme. Serre, furious with the familiar tone and kisses of the lieutenant, telegraphed her husband:

“Bertral sent me an insulting telegraph. Geneviève.”

You can imagine Serre’s anger. This yokel insulted his wife again! After a first affaire! And in public! The outrage was known to many employees who, in the offices, laughed slyly, and who, soon, in the city, would tell about it to people who respect a professional secret, with aggravating whispering, reticence and winks. But, no, they would not even have to speak. Bertral had committed the infamy only in order to brag about it. The coward! It was his way of taking his revenge! Well, Serre would kill him this time.

Just then, there he was, the lieutenant, on the terrace of the grand café on the Esplanade, in the midst of comrades and friends. He spoke loudly, and he laughed, how he laughed! … He had met the eyes of Serre who walked towards him, straight and quickly, and, suddenly, he stopped laughing.

Bertral demanded, astonished, what his adversary from this morning could want of him, as he advanced with a violent expression and tense features. He felt a hand strike him heavily in the face. He rose us, shouting, eyes filled with blood, his left fist clench. Someone through himself between them, and someone shoved Serre, who had become the object of universal indignation.

A doctor spoke of a sudden, inexplicable fit of madness.

“There is nothing to be explained, but to be avenged! said Bertral, teeth clenched.

A lawyer declared that they must bring the aggressor to justice.

“I would rather kill him!” growled the lieutenant.

It was difficult to find witnesses for the second duel, which was expected to be tragic. Some very young folks, driven by curiosity and vanity, offered themselves and were accepted, lacking others.

Bertral wanted to fightthe next day. His wound was shallow and, moreover, he used his left hand as well as the right hand. The combat would take place with pistols, at fifteen pace, firing at will.

The two black specters placed face to face with one another aimed with a single movement and fired at the same instant. Bertral was wounded in the shoulder. Serre took a ball in the head and fell down dead.

Before the court of assizes, where Bertral underwent a perfunctory hearing, Geneviève ended a nonchalant deposition with these words:

“This is perhaps a little bit my fault. But you understand, Mr. President, that an honest woman who believes herself insulted cannot reflect.

The president said indulgently:

“The real guilty party is the telegraphic style. It is regrettable that Mr. Serre did not write: “Bertral is wounded. I kiss you a thousand times.” In that way, there would have been no more ambiguity, no more apparent injury, no more misfortune.

The beautiful, cold Geneviève nodded her head approvingly. But then she was seen to count on her fingers. And finally she declared:

“You are right, Mr. President . . . but the dispatch had just ten words, and that would have cost two cents more!

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2274 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.