Berthe and Christine understood exactly what the sozzled cider-seller alluded to with his talk of an ‘arrangement’. It was laughable – they looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Auguste could have no idea how high they had set their sights, and just how far short he fell. Before setting out on their adventure they had talked at length about their aspirations and how they might achieve them. Berthe had likened themselves to two firm, juicy peaches freshly picked and placed on the counter for sale. With each desirous hand that squeezed them, their value would fall. They must place themselves out of reach of grubby fingers, desired from afar, until their true value could be appreciated – and rewarded. Christine marvelled at how clear-sighted and stalwart Berthe was becoming now they’d left the stifling atmosphere of Yonville behind. One thing was certain: they had no intention of being taken advantage of by every Auguste who crossed their path.
“Oh, monsieur, an arrangement is the last thing we had in mind,” Christine laughed. “But how clever of you! Of course, a proposition that is mutually beneficial is more prized than 10 francs. Let me see, we would be happy to propose a business arrangement for your agreement whereby we travel to Barneville-Cateret at no cost.” Then as an afterthought she added, “and on reaching Jersey we will set up as your agents to sell your calvados, and any other wines or produce you wish, on commission to the local gentlefolk. Perhaps even further afield, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we.”
It sounded good on the spur of the moment, and Christine was pleased with herself. Perhaps it was good enough to wangle a couple of free rides, or at least half price. They’d never be back this way again, so there was nothing to lose.
Auguste was shaken by a coughing fit. He gasped for breath, his eyes wept into his nose, his nose dribbled into his mouth from where a generous swig of calvados had just spurted through the air and pooled on Henri’s boots.
“What? What’s that you say?” he spluttered when he was able. He couldn’t quite remember what he’d said, but he was sure his intentions ran along entirely different lines. He shook his head hoping to get things straight. Maybe this was a good idea that he’d come up with. He’d heard that sometimes in very intelligent people the brain just takes over. He didn’t think it had happened to him before, but why not now?
“Why, monsieur, you are a genius! This is a wonderful opportunity for you and for us. And the beauty of your plan is that there is no outlay by either party,” Berthe enthused, rather astonished at Christine’s quick thinking. “Oh, it is an honour to work with such a brilliant businessman.”
Berthe wondered if she’d laid it on a bit too thick, but Auguste seemed to be revelling in their praise and had readily accepted the whole idea as his own. He was already pouring drinks when Christine suggested they all show their good faith with a written contract. Auguste was happy to write it up as they drank a toast to the serendipity of their meeting and he kicked the hapless Henri in the ribs to wake him so he could witness their signatures.
With a couple more drinks under his belt, Auguste was well primed to offer his new associates some insights on the distillery and the way they did business. While Berthe and Christine had little interest in industry and commerce, they were shrewd enough to overlook Auguste’s patronising manner and find out as much as they could.
The sky was darkening and long shadows streaked the pavements by the time Berthe and Christine were finally able to make their departure after promising to be ready at 7 o’clock the next morning. Before they left, Berthe had wondered casually whether it might not be a fortuitous opportunity to offer a favour to the two wine merchants who were also travelling to Jersey. Auguste had picked up the idea, considered how helpful the contacts might be and within minutes had made it his own and was once more enjoying the beaming attention of the two young women he now considered his very astute protégées.
As they walked Berthe congratulated Christine on her plan and the way she’d led Auguste into the contract. “Now, we arrive in Jersey as women of standing, associated with a prosperous company. It will be the perfect entrée to Jersey society, and sure to give us an intriguing aura of mystique.” Christine was going to say that she just got carried away and was stringing Auguste along, but simply shrugged when she saw that Berthe was serious.
Returning to their lodgings exhausted, hungry and their feet hurting, Berthe and Christine were relieved to find the businessmen chatting with the landlord. The last thing they’d wanted to do was wait up for the men or to have to go looking for them. Judging by the raised voices and the frustration that was obvious on their faces, they’d had enough of Bayeux too. The women smiled.
“Good news, gentlemen,” called Christine. “We have managed to arrange four seats on a cart to Barneville-Cataret leaving early tomorrow morning. The seats were 10 francs each, and we were so sure you’d want to leave that we negotiated two seats for you too. It may not be the most luxurious transport, but we will soon be on our way.”
“Only 10 francs?” sighed the paunchier one, pulling notes from his wallet. “Ladies, how can we ever thank you?”
As Berthe and Christine retired to bed that night, they were cock-a-hoop about the day’s events. Berthe in particular was learning a-pace from Christine’s insouciance in the face of a formidable womaniser, and told Christine how perfectly she had converted a sow’s ear to a silk purse (as she remembered her father Charles Bovary saying once), by fending Monsieur Auguste away while offering to act as his sales agents for wine and spirits business in St Helier, and by coquettishly seducing him into committing “his” idea to writing.
Christine praised Berthe’s presence of mind in buttering up Auguste with flattery by calling him a genius and a brilliant businessman and by securing places with them in Auguste’s cart for their two travelling businessmen companions. So good to have some male protectors on the long journey to Barneville-Carteret and Berthe has extracted 20 francs into the bargain.
Bertha reflected how this mutual admiration society was so different from days not too long before when Christine constantly criticised her for her appearance and sloth. She felt a surge of satisfaction realising she was building confidence in herself. As she dropped off to sleep, she understood that she could be independent and never be as dependent as her mother Emma had allowed herself to be on lovers.
As arranged with Auguste the two young women and the two businessmen were ready at 8am when the cart pulled up outside their lodgings. They would obviously not have the comforts of a carriage such as the “Hirondelle” which was the regular provincial transport in her mother’s time. This cart was drawn by two stout draft-horses, and had a dray cabin on wheels, with a canvas cover over an iron framework with plank seats on each side, evidently for transporting workers. There was an open seat in front of the cabin for the horse driver with space for two other passengers beside him. The dray was packed tightly with barrels and timber crates of calvados, wine, absinthe and other spirits. The cabin reeked of alcoholic beverages. Fortunately, the rear cover was rolled up and tied to the framework to prevent asphyxiation by the fumes.
Pierre the slender businessman groaned at the sight and Francois the stouter one muttered “This is no bargain. 10 francs is too much for this”. Berthe looked at Christine who said “Alor! Let us be going. I have had enough of Bayeau. If I see that wretched tapestry again, I will go mad.” That stiffened the resolve of all, and they mounted up into the cabin and Auguste took off. Their destination was Cherbourg for that night and Barneville-Carteret the next.
The roads were corrugated and potholed. They had to prevail on Auguste to stop every two hours to walk off the stiffness of the jolting ride. Approaching Cherbourg in the gathering dusk, the cart went through a dense thicket of trees. As it approached the end of the thicket with open space ahead the four passengers heard a male voice shout “Stand and deliver!!” followed by Auguste shrieking “Sacre bleu” and whipping the horses forward. Pierre got up to position himself to see past the canvas-cover but Christine hissed “stay still and quiet. He can’t see us yet. This is a cart for carrying goods. He may not be interested in carrying off goods if he is alone on a horse. He wants money. Auguste may outrun him”
“Ha! Two draft horses outrun a highwayman on a sleek horse! Not likely” said Pierre. “Francois. It is time for urgent measures” They both reached into their brief cases and produced pistols. Christine’s and Berthe’s jaws dropped. These “businessmen” are armed to the teeth thought Berthe.
Noticing how disconcerted the two women were, Pierre whispered as the cart raced along “This is an American Colt Ranger with six bullets. Francois and I carry them because when we have sold our wines and spirits, we carry a large amount of cash, sometimes long distances to the bank. If the highwayman appears at the back, we will give him a warm welcome”.
“Pull up or you are dead” sang out the highwayman. Auguste obeyed.
“What have you got in back”. “Oh jjjjust some bbbarrels of wine for mmmarket” stuttered Auguste
“No use to me. Get down and empty your pockets” said the highwayman. The silent four heard Auguste get down from his driver’s perch. “I am just a poor driver. I don’t have much on me.”
“You’re useless. Let’s see what you have in back”
Footsteps crunched on the road gravel. Pierre held his finger to his lips. An extraordinary figure of a man dressed as an 18thcentury musketeer complete with long white feather springing cockily from his musketeer’s hat, appeared at the open rear. He had hardly begun to opine “What have we…..” when two bullets exploded in his chest and he fell with an amazed look on his face.
“It’s Didier Robert” exclaimed Pierre. “He’s wanted dead or alive. There is a 2000-franc reward. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. You will have to claim the reward in Cherbourg. Say you found him shot dead on the highway. We will unroll the tail cover and roll him up in it until we can deliver him to the gendarmes.”
Berthe and Christine were dumbstruck as they observed the gory scene. They watched mutely as Pierre and François carefully wrapped the bloodstained corpse, tying it with rope to safeguard its unravelling. The two men slumped the body onto the cart. The dead man’s weapon and feathered hat were placed in an old sack and thrown down next to the grisly bundle. His horse had bolted into the darkness when the pistols were fired, and it was long gone. Dusk had given way to night prompting Auguste to light the two lamps hanging at the front of the cart. The two ladies grimaced as the journey got underway. They felt uneasy travelling with the concealed cadaver.
At the front of the cart Auguste began sniffling and muttering to himself, “Ma femme, mes enfants, ma famille.” His mind was locked in a state of turmoil as he contemplated how close he had come to “la mort d’Auguste” and how his family would have suffered without him. A stream of tears ran down his bristly cheeks. His distress turned to remorse as he recalled the way he had sought to take advantage of the two ladies. He felt ill at ease as he recollected his voracious appetite for the pleasures of the flesh. His mind was made up; he was resolved to be a better husband, a better father and a better citizen. His anxiety began to abate. At the rear of the cart there was silence. Pierre was the first to break the verbal drought.
“Ladies”, he softly ventured as he leaned towards them, “I had no choice …. I had to shoot …. he would have killed us all.”
“Monsieur Pierre,” said Christine reassuringly, “we understand.” Pierre took her hand and squeezed it gently; there was some admiration in his expression and Christine was acutely perceptive of it. He leant back and nudged François.
“My friend”, he said, “When we reach Cherbourg it will be too late to go to the Gendarmerie. We will find a stable for the horses and a barn where we can secure the cart. I know a place where no questions will be asked; I will take care of everything.”
The ladies and François raised no objections to Pierre’s bold offer. Auguste was not consulted; but given his state of mind he would have agreed to anything.
The cart finally rolled into Cherbourg. Pierre indicated to Auguste to take the Port Road and pull up at the inn at the top of the hill. As the cart came to a stop Berthe and Christine breathed a sigh of relief; both were glad to put some distance between themselves and the lifeless villain. Pierre took them inside the inn and made all the necessary arrangements for their comfort. He chivalrously guided them to an upstairs room, “Ladies, we will see you at breakfast tomorrow. Try to get some refreshing sleep; you have been through quite an ordeal this evening.” There was scant dialogue between Berthe and Christine as they settled into their beds. The shock of the evening’s events had quelled their appetites and their desire for conversation.
The morning sun came peeping through the curtains as Berthe woke up with a start. Christine was walking about the room in an agitated manner. “I was not hungry last night Berthe but now I am so famished I could eat one of Monsieur Auguste’s horses. Let’s get down to breakfast as soon as we can.” There was no dispute from Berthe on that score; she too had developed a ravenous appetite. The ladies dressed quickly and made their way to the breakfast parlour. Pierre and François were already there but Auguste was noticeably absent. They were heartily tucking into their morning repast when Auguste appeared carrying a small parcel under his arm. He was hardly recognisable, dressed in clean and tidy attire and the bristly stubble gone from his face. The ladies could not hide their amazement and the gentlemen looked stunned. Auguste took a seat next to the ladies. He started to tremble as he began his speech.
“My dear ladies, my conduct towards you when we first met is inexcusable and I offer you a thousand pardons for it. Last night my life was spared, and I thank my Lord that it was, so I attended the church this morning and my confession has been heard. I have a truly contrite heart and now beg for your forgiveness.”
“Monsieur Auguste,” exclaimed Pierre, “Confession? Surely you did not tell —-”, but Auguste interrupted him.
“No monsieur, I did not. I confessed only to my own vile desires.”
Auguste slowly unwrapped the parcel he had brought with him, it was a small bible. “Ladies, I am willing to vow on this bible that I am a changed man.”
Berthe felt a little sorry for him and sought to sooth his distress, “Monsieur Auguste, we are partners are we not? Let us begin our acquaintance afresh.” Christine cleared her throat and glared at Berthe, but no words crossed her lips.
Pierre seized this opportune moment, “We must all make a pledge on this bible. Let us agree to a pact; we will never tell anyone what really happened to Didier Robert. If you agree to this plan, I propose that we make haste to the Gendarmerie this morning with our proof of his demise. When we collect the reward, we will divide it between us.”
Everyone agreed. The pact was made and each of the party held the holy book in turn and made a vow to keep the secret.
As they climbed the stairs to their room, Christine sensed an air of doom.
“Blast that accursed Pierre with his pact on the Bible”, she thought “the three men and, especially Berthe, would have little knowledge of the ramifications of such an act.” She alone, because of her strict Catholic upbringing, would know the desperate darkness of what they had agreed.
Auguste, probably in an act of reparation, had thrust the Bible in her hand and she looked at it in dismay as they reached their room.
With Christine so keen to be away from this place, she was quickly packed and sought a quiet moment, alone, by the window while she waited for Berthe. She opened the Bible seeking solace and it opened at Isaiah 28:15, “We have entered into a league with death; we have made a covenant with hell.”
A shiver ran up her spine as she reread the words “….a covenant with hell”. “God almighty”, she thought as she crossed herself in stealth lest Berthe catch her in the act – Christine knew only too well how scornful she could be of matters of religiosity.
Christine had heard stories of the emergence of Satanism in France and the destructive nature of pacts with the Devil. “Thank God it’s daylight now”, she thought “at night I would have been really freaked out”. She couldn’t get out of her mind the various guises the Devil could reveal himself incarnate and she quickly scanned the shadows of the room.
“Are you ready to meet your maker?” cackled Berthe, sensing a moment to have fun with her friend. Christine sharply pinched her on the arm – part in payback, part to test her for an incarnation. Berthe showed no pain and just smiled sweetly. “Let’s go” said Berthe breezily and Christine froze with fear. “It’s a sign” she thought “he’s invaded her body.”
“Come on, we must see the Gendarmes.”
As the group of five gathered outside the inn to board the cart with its mordant cargo, Berthe’s chirpiness was not representative of all. For the majority, and especially Christine, there was a deep sense of foreboding as they headed towards the Gendarmerie.
Pierre was first to speak: “Let me do the talking”, he said laying down the law, “all you need to do is agree – no elaborations!”
On this bright sunny morning, all of Cherbourg was abuzz. Next week, they would receive a visit from the Emperor, Napoleon III, as well as the Queen of England, no less. It was the culmination of years of prosperity for Cherbourg with the building of the new port, and the new railway station to service the new rail line from Paris. The dignitaries would be there for the official opening and it was uppermost in the minds of the Gendarmes, not the arrival of a shrouded dead body.
Accordingly, the receipt of the body was handled by a minor clerical officer who, by his rush to deal with the cadaver, obviously felt he was missing out on the main game.
The officer, Charles Cheminer, took brief notes as Pierre detailed the story of how they found the dead body on the road and how they were here to collect their reward. Charles exposed the head of the corpse and, despite its frozen look of surprise; he was able to match the features with the Wanted, Dead or Alive poster.
Having completed that part of the paperwork, he then reached for the reward release document penning just Pierre’s name in the slot provided.
“Take this to the Treasury on Rue de Cavalières and you can get your money and be on your way,” said Charles with his mind already on next week.
Pierre looked at the document for 2000 francs with his name on it and his mind started whirring.
Their cart pulled up outside the Treasury and they all piled out to stand in front of the Cashier’s desk.
Pierre presented the reward release document and the cashier rolled his eyes. “Do you know how much next week’s event is costing us? Already my budget is blown for the month. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back next month.”
With long experience of dealing with the French bureaucracy, Pierre realised that a bit of sympathy was needed here. “Monsieur, we understand your situation, it must be very difficult to finance an event of such importance. But, 2000 francs is such a small portion of your budget. Surely there’s a way to honour the payment now.”
The cashier responded with a Gallic shrug and a “pfff”. “Je suis désolé Monsieur Pierre, it is not possible.”
The look of hopelessness passed around the group and then, without warning, and not knowing what had got into her, Berthe reached towards the cashier and grabbed him by the shirtfront. “Look, you trumped up bean counter,” she said with a wild-eyed viciousness, “we want our money and we want it now!”
The previous day the cashier had been reprimanded by his boss for being incompetent, dilatory and inefficient, and he did not want to shine a spotlight on to any dramatic incident in which he would appear to be deficient in any way. With his brain going into overdrive he blurted out “Calm down madam and we will see what we can do about this” as he reluctantly reached for the key to the cash-drawer under the counter. Firstly he produced a large receipt book which he opened and handed to Pierre. “Fill in your name, address, details of the claim and sign it and I will give you the cash”. Pierre quickly wrote down all the required information, signed it, and then watched the cashier count out twenty 100 franc notes which Pierre took, folded, and put into a pocket inside his jacket, saying “Merci beaucoup monsieur” before turning and briskly headed out the door followed closely by Berthe, Christine, Auguste and Francois. Christine was amused to remember that only the previous day Pierre wanted herself and Berthe to claim the reward but was now so eager to get his hands on the money that he gave away his own name and address.
When they arrived back at the cart Pierre said that he would look after the money until they arrived and were settled in Jersey, which made Berthe burst out laughing. “You would not have the money if I had not grabbed the cashier by the shirtfront, so share out the money now. Business is business.” The others all eagerly nodded their agreement so Pierre had no choice but to count out 400 francs to each of them.
“Well, Barneville-Cateret here we come. All aboard.” said Auguste as he swung up onto the driver’s seat. “We should be there before nightfall,”
Pierre and Francois gallantly waited and helped Berthe and Christine up into the cabin before climbing up after. Everyone was in a good mood and even Christine seemed to have overcome her fears and foreboding although she could not help looking at Pierre and thinking “how could he be such a cold-blooded killer and not be affected in any way by the brutality?” She was sure that his soul had been blemished and that he would go to hell. He did not look as though he was in the least bit repentant.”
Pierre was physically attracted to Christine but could not understand why the feelings were obviously not reciprocated. After all, he was a clean handsome man, used cologne, was wealthy and surely should be regarded well by the opposite sex. He considered that he may have just saved the lives of these two beautiful ladies and yet instead of gratitude, all he perceived was a look of distain. What had he done wrong? He was truly mystified.
Francois, on the other hand, who reluctantly carried a pistol which he had never used, was deemed to be charming and chatted amiably with the two ladies. Christine especially was quite eager to chat and laugh with him and they talked non-stop as the cart lumbered and lurched its way along the long rough gravel road.
Auguste was an expert horseman and rarely used a whip because he had the knack of talking and whistling to his two horses and encouraging them to tackle the steepest of hills without complaint. Their names were Hercule and Jupiter and they were big strong Ardennais draft-horses who were used to hard work and pulling heavy loads. For some unknow reason Hercule did not like water and especially crossing rivers and so it was no surprise, when the road came to a ford across a small muddy stream, the big horse refused to enter the water. No matter what Auguste did, Hercule would not budge. In the end Auguste dismounted and tested the muddy water with a long stick and was dismayed to find that there was a huge hidden hole on the bottom of the stream. If they had entered the stream at that point the cart would have surely tipped over with subsequent disaster. Auguste tested the water upstream and found a solid gravel base which could be used to cross, and then gently took the reins and led both horses and cart across while getting his boots and the bottom of his trousers thoroughly wet. After they were safely across the other side Auguste crossed himself and whispered his gratitude into Hercule’s ear before swinging up into the driver’s seat and taking off his sodden boots to dry alongside him in the mid-day sun.
It was now lunchtime and Auguste, who was very hungry and thirsty by this time, was pleased to see the small village of Benoitville come into sight with flags flying outside the old stone-walled hotel. He stopped the cart near a horse trough and pulling on his still damp boots he dismounted and opened the door of the cabin. The four cramped passengers were equally pleased to stop and they all clambered out quickly and stretched before entering the old hotel for lunch.