The Piece of String
by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)
Approximate Word Count: 2530
Along all the roads around Goderville the peasants and their wives
were coming toward the burgh because it was market day. The men
were proceeding with slow steps, the whole body bent forward at
each movement of their long twisted legs; deformed by their hard
work, by the weight on the plow which, at the same time, raised the
left shoulder and swerved the figure, by the reaping of the wheat
which made the knees spread to make a firm "purchase," by all the
slow and painful labors of the country. Their blouses, blue,
"stiff-starched," shining as if varnished, ornamented with a little
design in white at the neck and wrists, puffed about their bony
bodies, seemed like balloons ready to carry them off. From each of
them two feet protruded.
Some led a cow or a calf by a cord, and their wives, walking behind
the animal, whipped its haunches with a leafy branch to hasten its
progress. They carried large baskets on their arms from which, in
some cases, chickens and, in others, ducks thrust out their heads.
And they walked with a quicker, livelier step than their husbands.
Their spare straight figures were wrapped in a scanty little shawl
pinned over their flat bosoms, and their heads were enveloped in a
white cloth glued to the hair and surmounted by a cap.
Then a wagon passed at the jerky trot of a nag, shaking strangely,
two men seated side by side and a woman in the bottom of the
vehicle, the latter holding onto the sides to lessen the hard
In the public square of Goderville there was a crowd, a throng of
human beings and animals mixed together. The horns of the cattle,
the tall hats, with long nap, of the rich peasant and the headgear
of the peasant women rose above the surface of the assembly. And
the clamorous, shrill, screaming voices made a continuous and
savage din which sometimes was dominated by the robust lungs of
some countryman's laugh or the long lowing of a cow tied to the
wall of a house.
All that smacked of the stable, the dairy and the dirt heap, hay
and sweat, giving forth that unpleasant odor, human and animal,
peculiar to the people of the field.
Maître Hauchecome of Breaute had just arrived at Goderville, and he
was directing his steps toward the public square when he perceived
upon the ground a little piece of string. Maître Hauchecome,
economical like a true Norman, thought that everything useful ought
to be picked up, and he bent painfully, for he suffered from
rheumatism. He took the bit of thin cord from the ground and began
to roll it carefully when he noticed Maître Malandain, the harness
maker, on the threshold of his door, looking at him. They had
heretofore had business together on the subject of a halter, and
they were on bad terms, both being good haters. Maître Hauchecome
was seized with a sort of shame to be seen thus by his enemy,
picking a bit of string out of the dirt. He
concealed his "find" quickly under his blouse, then in his
trousers' pocket; then he pretended to be still looking on the
ground for something which he did not find, and he went toward the
market, his head forward, bent double by his pains.
He was soon lost in the noisy and slowly moving crowd which was
busy with interminable bargainings. The peasants milked, went and
came, perplexed, always in fear of being cheated, not daring to
decide, watching the vender's eye, ever trying to find the trick in
the man and the flaw in the beast.
The women, having placed their great baskets at their feet, had
taken out the poultry which lay upon the ground, tied together by
the feet, with terrified eyes and scarlet crests.
They heard offers, stated their prices with a dry air and impassive
face, or perhaps, suddenly deciding on some proposed reduction,
shouted to the customer who was slowly going away: "All right,
Maître Authirne, I'll give it to you for that."
Then little by little the square was deserted, and the Angelus ringing
at noon, those who had stayed too long scattered to their shops.
At Jourdain's the great room was full of people eating, as the big
court was full of vehicles of all kinds, carts, gigs, wagons,
dumpcarts, yellow with dirt, mended and patched, raising their
shafts to the sky like two arms or perhaps with their shafts in the
ground and their backs in the air.
Just opposite the diners seated at the table the immense fireplace,
filled with bright flames, cast a lively heat on the backs of the
row on the right. Three spits were turning on which were chickens,
pigeons and legs of mutton, and an appetizing odor of roast beef
and gravy dripping over the nicely browned skin rose from the
hearth, increased the jovialness and made everybody's mouth water.
All the aristocracy of the plow ate there at Maître Jourdain's,
tavern keeper and horse dealer, a rascal who had money.
The dishes were passed and emptied, as were the jugs of yellow
cider. Everyone told his affairs, his purchases and sales. They
discussed the crops. The weather was favorable for the green things
but not for the wheat.
Suddenly the drum beat in the court before the house. Everybody
rose, except a few indifferent persons, and ran to the door or to
the windows, their mouths still full and napkins in their hands.
After the public crier had ceased his drumbeating he called out in
a jerky voice, speaking his phrases irregularly:
"It is hereby made known to the inhabitants of Goderville, and in
general to all persons present at the market, that there was lost
this morning on the road to Benzeville, between nine and ten
o'clock, a black leather pocketbook containing five hundred francs
and some business papers. The finder is requested to return same
with all haste to the mayor's office or to Maître Fortune
Houlbreque of Manneville; there will be twenty francs reward."
Then the man went away. The heavy roll of the drum and the crier's
voice were again heard at a distance.
Then they began to talk of this event, discussing the chances that
Maître Houlbreque had of finding or not finding his pocketbook.
And the meal concluded. They were finishing their coffee when a
chief of the gendarmes appeared upon the threshold.
"Is Maître Hauchecome of Breaute here?"
Maître Hauchecome, seated at the other end of the table, replied:
"Here I am."
And the officer resumed:
"Maître Hauchecome, will you have the goodness to accompany me to
the mayor's office? The mayor would like to talk to you."
The peasant, surprised and disturbed, swallowed at a draught his
tiny glass of brandy, rose and, even more bent than in the morning,
for the first steps after each rest were specially difficult, set
out, repeating: "Here I am, here I am."
The mayor was awaiting him, seated on an armchair. He was the
notary of the vicinity, a stout, serious man with pompous phrases.
"Maître Hauchecome," said he, "you were seen this morning to pick
up, on the road to Benzeville, the pocketbook lost by Maître
Houlbreque of Manneville."
The countryman, astounded, looked at the mayor, already terrified
by this suspicion resting on him without his knowing why.
"Me? Me? Me pick up the pocketbook?"
"Yes, you yourself."
"Word of honor, I never heard of it."
"But you were seen."
"I was seen, me? Who says he saw me?"
"Monsieur Malandain, the harness maker."
The old man remembered, understood and flushed with anger.
"Ah, he saw me, the clodhopper, he saw me pick up this string here,
M'sieu the Mayor." And rummaging in his pocket, he drew out the
little piece of string.
But the mayor, incredulous, shook his head.
"You will not make me believe, Maître Hauchecome, that Monsieur
Malandain, who is a man worthy of credence, mistook this cord for
The peasant, furious, lifted his hand, spat at one side to attest
his honor, repeating:
"It is nevertheless the truth of the good God, the sacred truth,
M'sieu the Mayor. I repeat it on my soul and my salvation."
The mayor resumed:
"After picking up the object you stood like a stilt, looking a long
while in the mud to see if any piece of money had fallen out."
The good old man choked with indignation and fear.
"How anyone can tell--how anyone can tell--such lies to take away
an honest man's reputation! How can anyone---"
There was no use in his protesting; nobody believed him. He was
fronted with Monsieur Malandain, who repeated and maintained his
affirmation. They abused each other for an hour. At his own request
Maître Hauchecome was searched; nothing was found on him.
Finally the mayor, very much perplexed, discharged him with the
warning that he would consult the public prosecutor and ask for
The news had spread. As he left the mayor's office the old man was
sun rounded and questioned with a serious or bantering curiosity in
which there was no indignation. He began to tell the story of the
string. No one believed him. They laughed at him.
He went along, stopping his friends, beginning endlessly his
statement and his protestations, showing his pockets turned inside
out to prove that he had nothing.
"Old rascal, get out!"
And he grew angry, becoming exasperated, hot and distressed at not
being believed, not knowing what to do and always repeating
Night came. He must depart. He started on his way with three
neighbors to whom he pointed out the place where he had picked up
the bit of string, and all along the road he spoke of his
In the evening he took a turn in the village of Breaute in order to
tell it to everybody. He only met with incredulity.
It made him ill at night.
The next day about one o'clock in the afternoon Marius Paumelle, a
hired man in the employ of Maître Breton, husbandman at Ymanville,
returned the pocketbook and its contents to Maître Houlbreque of
This man claimed to have found the object in the road, but not
knowing how to read, he had carried it to the house and given it to
The news spread through the neighborhood. Maître Hauchecome was
informed of it. He immediately went the circuit and began to
recount his story completed by the happy climax. He was in triumph.
"What grieved me so much was not the thing itself as the lying.
There is nothing so shameful as to be placed under a cloud on
account of a lie."
He talked of his adventure all day long; he told it on the highway
to people who were passing by, in the wineshop to people who were
drinking there and to persons coming out of church the following
Sunday. He stopped strangers to tell them about it. He was calm
now, and yet something disturbed him without his knowing exactly
what it was. People had the air of joking while they listened. They
did not seem convinced. He seemed to feel that remarks were being
made behind his back.
On Tuesday of the next week he went to the market at Goderville,
urged solely by the necessity he felt of discussing the case.
Malandain, standing at his door, began to laugh on seeing him pass.
He approached a farmer from Crequetot who did not let him finish
and, giving him a thump in the stomach, said to his face:
"You big rascal."
Then he turned his back on him.
Maître Hauchecome was confused; why was he called a big rascal?
When he was seated at the table in Jourdain's tavern he commenced
to explain "the affair."
A horse dealer from Monvilliers called to him:
"Come, come, old sharper, that's an old trick; I know all about
your piece of string!"
"But since the pocketbook was found."
But the other man replied:
"Shut up, papa, there is one that finds and there is one that
reports. At any rate you are mixed with it."
The peasant stood choking. He understood. They accused him of
having had the pocketbook returned by a confederate, by an
He tried to protest. All the table began to laugh.
He could not finish his dinner and went away in the midst of jeers.
He went home ashamed and indignant, choking with anger and
confusion, the more dejected that he was capable, with his Norman
cunning, of doing what they had accused him of and ever boasting of
it as of a good turn. His innocence to him, in a confused way, was
impossible to prove, as his sharpness was known. And he was
stricken to the heart by the injustice of the suspicion.
Then he began to recount the adventures again, prolonging his
history every day, adding each time new reasons, more energetic
protestations, more solemn oaths which he imagined and prepared in
his hours of solitude, his whole mind given up to the story of the
string. He was believed so much the less as his defense was more
complicated and his arguing more subtile.
"Those are lying excuses," they said behind his back.
He felt it, consumed his heart over it and wore himself out with
useless efforts. He wasted away before their very eyes.
The wags now made him tell about the string to amuse them, as they
make a soldier who has been on a campaign tell about his battles.
His mind, touched to the depth, began to weaken.
Toward the end of December he took to his bed.
He died in the first days of January, and in the delirium of his
death struggles he kept claiming his innocence, reiterating:
"A piece of string, a piece of string--look--here it is, M'sieu the Mayor."