Down to the home stretch of my 30 day short story reading challenge! Today I cover “Putois,” a humorous story about a gardener invented as an excuse to get out of lunch– a character who came to take on a mischievous and very real life of his own.
“Putois”* by Anatole France
*Note: the translation I read is different than the version I’m linking to. But the story remains.
“You remember, Lucien, when father couldn’t find his ink-pot, his pens, his sealing-wax or his scissors on his desk, how he used to say: ‘I think Putois must have been here.’”
“Ah!” said Monsieur Bergeret, “Putois had not a good reputation.”
“Is that all?” asked Pauline.
“No, my child, it is not all. There was something odd about Putois; we knew him, he was familiar to us and yet…”
… “He did not exist,” said Zoé.
Lucien and Zoé Bergeret, grown brother and sister, fondly recall a man by the name of Putois, and immediately launch into a description of him so flawless and coordinated that it could only have been rehearsed: low forehead; wall-eyed; furtive-looking; ragged ears; thin and weak in appearance, but in reality strong; had huge thumb; spoke with a drawl.
Lucien’s daughter, Pauline, asks what this recitation is. Monsieur replies that it is the sacred text—the liturgy of the Bergeret family.
“But who is Putois?” she presses, not understanding the long-winded and esoteric answer her father provides. Zoé laughs, remembering how their father used to blame things that went missing around the house on Putois, and Lucien elaborates further: they knew him, but did not know him, for—Zoé breaks in—Putois did not exist.
He was invented out of necessity by their mother to get the family out of lunch at Monplaisir, where her great-aunt Madame Cornouiller lived. Once Cornouiller discovered she had a relative living in the nearby town of Saint-Omer—their mother—she positively demanded their presence for lunch once weekly, one Sundays. Relatives do such things, she insisted. Their father didn’t care for these Sunday lunches and began refusing to go. Their mother would relay an excuse—sometimes true, sometimes fabrication—though she always tried to be as truthful as possible.
One day, when Madame Cornouiller began to notice and suspect something in the consecutive Sundays missed, she called around to the family home in Saint-Omer. She absolutely insisted that they come to lunch on Sunday. That was when their mother delivered the only excuse she could muster: “I’m extremely sorry, madame, but it will be impossible. On Sunday I expect the gardener.”
“Gardner?” Cornouiller looked around. The family did not have a garden, so much as spindle trees and rough grass. Their mother thought she’d been caught in the lie, but their aunt didn’t press the matter. She only asked, “What is his name?”
“Putois,” their mother replied.
From that day forth, says Monsieur Bergert, Putois existed. The aunt was sure she had heard the name somewhere, she knew it; Putois must be one of those laborers that works wherever people send for him. A vagabond.
Two other men—friends, perhaps neighbors—come in. Bergeret brings them (Monsieurs Goubin and Jean Marteau) up to speed in his telling of Putois.
Madame Cornouiller gets to thinking: if her niece, as poor as she is, can afford Putois’ gardening services, Putois must work for very little. Excellent, she thinks: here is a chance to makeover her gardens at Monplaisir inexpensively.
“Send Putois to me,” she instructed her niece. “I have work for him at Monplaisir.”
Their mother agreed, and promised to send him; but of course this was impossible. When Cornouiller visited again she asked why their mother had not sent him. He is erratic, their mother replied, and besides that wasn’t known to have a home, and she didn’t know where he lived. In fact, he seemed to have gone into hiding.
Madame Cornouiller was suspicious, and thought that their mother must not want to share the cheap labor. Determined, she sets about searching for him: she asked neighbors, servants, tradesman, friends and relations if they knew him. Only two or three replied that they’d never heard of him; the rest seemed convinced that they knew him from somewhere, or perhaps had employed him for a day’s labor at some point. But they couldn’t put a face to him, either.
One day, when visiting, Cornouiller came running in. “I have seen him!” she cried. She went on to describe a fifty-year bent man in a dirty blouse—some laboring loafer—creeping alongside the neighbor’s wall. She insisted that his ears were ragged, he was most dangerous, perhaps a murderer, and concluded that the Bergeret family would do well to have all their locks changed.
A few days after that three melons went missing from her kitchen garden. Though roaming groups of bandits were not uncommon in those days, the thief had left no footprint. This was the work of a mastermind. Naturally, Madame suspected Putois. She reported her account to the police and the sergeant affirmed that Putois had long been known to him, but evasive.
After that the local paper, the Journal de Saint-Omer, mentioned Madame’s stolen melons and Putois. The paper credited Putois with a long series of inexplicable and marvelous robberies, and soon he was the talk of the town. At one point the police locked up a man they thought must be him, but while he was in custody Madame endured another robbery, this time of three silver teaspoons. She knew it was Putois.
At this time it is ten o’clock in the evening. Pauline, who initially inquired about Putois, has retired to bed. Zoé reminds her brother—for he is still entertaining Jean Marteau and Goubin with the stories—to include the seduction of Cornouiller’s cook.
“Her name was Gudule,” says Zoé. Madame Cornouiller was long known to be a virtuous girl, but—at a point where she can hide it no longer—it became undeniably evident that she had not been virtuous. Madame demands to know who the father is. In tears, the cook replies: “Putois!”
Henceforth, as gossip spread, another characteristic was added to Putois’ unsavory reputation: in addition to being a thief and vagabond with the appearance of a murderer, he was now also a seducer of women. Five or six children born in Saint-Omer that year were credited to him.
Putois had become a local, even a regional legend. All from a tiny lie told to get out of a Sunday lunch. Although they knew he was an invention, the children (and indeed, all the townspeople) began to see him everywhere: in suspicious sounds at night, in footprints, in drunkards, in the small, mysterious things (such as moustaches drawn upon Zoé’s dolls) without explanation. Even the kids sort of believed in him.
Their father, knowing the truth, thought it his duty to remain silent. “The whole of Saint-Omer believes in the existence of Putois. Could I be a good citizen and deny it? One must think well before suppressing an article of universal belief.”
The mother had always felt a little guilty that her white lie had so proliferated. Or would have, except that one day a servant entered the room, and announced a man was there to see her: a man in a blouse who looked like a country laborer. “Did he give you his name?” The servant affirms that he did. “Well, what is it?”
By the time the servant guided her into the kitchen where he had left the man, the man was gone. The encounter had never been explained, and their mother began to think that perhaps she had not, after all, invented.
“And is not imaginary existence, existence?” exclaimed the Professor. “Are not mythical personages capable of influencing men? Think of mythology, Monsieur Goubin, and you will perceive that it is not the real characters, but rather the imaginary ones that exercise the profoundest and the most durable influence over our minds.”
Here was another story within a story. What I admire about the telling of this one is that the dialogue between characters in the present—the brother and sister Bergeret, and Pauline, and Goubin and Jean Marteau—allowed the tellers and company to commentate on the story: add maxims, philosophies, and even argue with one another. That’s where the message (above) about the power and influence of fictional characters comes in.
It is a crafty way of adding additional or more lucid meaning to one’s tale.
litany: a tedious recital/repetitive series
liturgy: an official list according to which religious worship is conducted
unctuous: excessively flattering; oily; anxious to please
enjoin: instruct or urge someone to do something
antiphonic: alternate singing by a choir in two parts
furtive: attempting to avoid notice or attention, typically due to guilt or fear of discovery; nervous for guilt
satyr: a man with strong sexual desires (origins in Greek lustful woodland gods)
compendium: a collection of things/information, systematically gathered
taradiddle: a petty lie
gendarme: an armed police officer in France and other French-speaking countries