Returning from the factory in Billancourt with our replacement part, we wondered if this little doodad would really be able to start the car. Lemboîté, who is full of such wisdom, said that the best way to find out was to try. He took off his formal jacket and put on a work coat, and he set to work like he knew all about it, without wasting a minute or lifting his nose. He wasn't long at installing the new part in the motor. Then he put some gas in the tank, and put his hand on the crank. He said, "Open your eyes and ears. This is it, the moment of truth!"
"Don't turn it, m'sieur Lemboîté," I said. "This is something that the chief should see." I went to find him in the office. He came out, and Carmencita with him, which we could have just as easily done without. We surrounded the car, and, believe me if you please, there was a feeling as if this worthless jalopy were the secret weapon to end the war. The chief had a trembling voice when he ordered, "Crank it, I pray you, Monsieur Lemboîté." Lemboîté cranked it, but just a half-rotation ending with a flick of the wrist. But that was enough. The engine gave out a roar. I shouted, "It runs!" The others repeated, "It runs!"
The chief added, "A car of the Ralep that runs! On my life, I really believed I'd never see it." You could tell he was happy, but his wife was even happier yet. She stamped her feet for joy, capered and threw her arms in the air like a dancer. She yelled, "Bravo, car! Bravo Señor Lemboîté!" She even cried, "Bravo Bécassine!" And this began to reconcile me to her. I had the thought that deep down she wasn't a malicious woman, but only fierce and a little foolish. When she had finiched her gesticulations, she declared that it was time to celebrate, glass in hand, the grand success of the Ralep. She escorted us up to the dining room, where we drank a toast, and with champagne, too! That polished off the last of my grudge against the colonel.
She was full of smiles. Satisfaction made her almost pretty. Seeing her so changed, now completely amiable and kind, I said to myself that the Ralep had become a true paradise. I had no notion of the catastrophe hanging over us. As the saying goes: It's always at the moment of eating that the hair falls in the soup. You'll excuse me for citing that proverb, perhaps not the most distinguished. It was Maria, who cooks for Madame de Grand-Air, who told it to me. She says it all the time.
I was annoyed with Maria the other day, because she quoted that proverb as we were crossing the court of the chateau, just beside the statue of Louis XIV. I thought it wasn't the sort of thing to say within earshot of a great king. But luckily he and his horse are made of bronze, so there was no bad effect.
But rather than blather on about that, I'll get back to the catastrophe. During our celebration before, I noticed that Maubec was agitated and restless. He frequently looked out the window, seemingly watching out for someone or something. One time he muttered, "Here is my vengeance," so low that I was the only one who heard him. He left suddenly, and a few minutes later he returned, holding a letter. He handed it to the chief and said it was pressing and important, and that if there were any questions, the man who had brought it could answer them. The chief read it. His expression changed. You could tell he was taken aback, chagrined. Then his wife approached, and read over his shoulder. And then ...
Have you ever seen a tigress whose young ones have been snatched away? Probably you've never seen that. I haven't either, to get down to it. They say it's a terrible sight. But I don't think it can be any worse than the state Carmencita immediately entered. She roared, she foamed, she cried, "They drive me out! They force me to leave! It's an infamy! It's shameful! When he comes in, the man who wants to chase me away, I'll shoot!" Poor Agénor tried in vain to calm her. Me, I felt a little death in my veins. Maubec, however, had regained his calm. He even appeared satisfied, in a way I found uncharitable. He said, in his manner of laughing inside, "I'll go fetch the man, if Madame la Colonelle so desires."
Two minutes later, the man entered. It was the vagabond I've told you about before. It was strange to see a person so badly put together intervening in this affair. Ah well, regardless, I listened closely. I don't just have a flair, I also get presentiments.
He addressed the chief and Carmencita very properly. He told them, "I am sorry to have to report on a finding that will be disagreeable to you." I was struck by the contrast between his words and manners, which were those of the upper strata, and his shabby clothes.
He continued, "No doubt we should speak confidentially." I understood that Maubec and I were too many. I hastened to leave with my colleague, and I was happy to do so, because scenes of violence are not good for my nerves, they spoil my appetite, and trouble my sleep. And one one only had to see the bearing of the colonel to figure out that she wasn't going to trade pleasantries with the mystery vagabond.
I wanted to go downstairs to the office, but Maubec pretended that they were going to need us. So we stayed in the antechamber next to the dining room. We could barely hear anything through the door but outbursts of argument in the voice of the colonel, which went on for some time. Then a calm fell, followed by the sound of sobbing. My heart was so upset that I nearly burst into tears.
Abruptly the door opened. Carmencita appeared, a Carmencita unrecognizable: dishevelled, eyes swollen with tears, despondent, pitiful. She cried, "Come! I must make my confession to you. I am a great culprit."
We entered the room. She was like a madwoman. She beat her breast. She threw herself at the feet of Agénor and begged his pardon. Then, suddenly, she seized a burnt log from the fireplace and ran it through her hair, saying, "I will cover my head in cinders, as we do in my country, as a sign of penitence." This was so bizarre that, despite my feelings, I found it hard not to laugh. But the desire to laugh ended when I saw Agénor. He was overwhelmed, the poor dear man. He squeezed the hands of his wife, and said, "Be calm. You are not guilty of anything more than a little exageration. That's not a crime. You'll return to out home in Piton-le-Causse. I'll hand in my notice and rejoin you soon." She cried, "Thank you! I misjudged you, generous man!"
And she dissolved into tears. I had not expected to do the same. But I had better explain to you the motive behind all that scene. The letter delivered by Maubec was simply the notification of a new rule forbidding women of foreign birth from living in areas where war work was going on. In consequence, Carmencita would have to leave the Ralep. Instead of bowing, she went into a rage. She insulted the man who had brought the note. He, in turn, became angry.
He being, as I later found out, an agent of the secret police concerned with inquiries about foreigners, he knew the whole story of our chiefess and her first husband, and he recounted it. It seems that the famous colonel was a colonel of the light cavalry for all of two hours, appointed by the leaders of a revolution that had broken out in Patagonia. After two hours another revolution triumphed and Gonzalès returned to what he had been before: a waiter in a restaurant. It was this revelation that put his widow to shame.
To finish off her story, because I well believe I won't get another chance to talk to you about it, a letter from her maid informed me that, once back in Piton-le-Causse, she lived there in tears and repentance. Surely, that's no wicked woman. The maid added that Carmencita continued to heap cinders on her head, constantly obliging her to sweep up the floor behind her. That is an exageration which, as a domestic, from the point of view of propriety and household management, I cannot approve.
A few days after the departure of his wife, the chief paid us his adieus in turn. His resignation had been accepted and, what's more, the Ralep was abolished. It had finally dawned on the ministry that it didn't actually do anything. Over the course of one year of operation, it had repaired only one auto. That's a pretty expensive motorization.
After all these events, I found myself without a job. I wrote a nice letter to Monsieur Bile, to see if he could find me something somewhere. I wrote another to my friend Zidore, in hope that he might come up with an idea. He's good at that.
But, while waiting, I had nothing to do but accompany my good mistress on walks through the park, which have become quite sad, since, for fear of airplanes, they packed the beautiful statues in bales of wood. The idleness and lack of adventure weighed on me.
One day, as I was bringing Madame her tea, I found her in conversation with, can you guess who? With my vagabond. I was very surprised to see my mistress, who knows nothing but the beau monde, engaged in friendly conversation with this ragged man. At my entrance, he said, "Here is our young girl!" He came over to me and asked, "Do you not recognize me? Nevertheless, you have seen me often, and you have frequently spoken of me, in Bécassine Pendant le Guerre, and Bécassine Chez les Allies. Think back: the man you took to Paris in August 1914; the fellow whom you sent to England last year, and who adopted your dog." "Monsieur Proey-Minans!" And at once I removed my lace cap so that he could examine the prominences on my head, as he used to do. He stopped me, and gently helped me to put it back on, at the same time explaining, "I no longer practice phrenology. I do secret police work, surveillance of foreigners and suspects, research into spies. That is why you see me in this unattractive garb. My missions are fascinating, and you can assist me." Then, turning to Madame, he said, "Consent, dear friend, that Bécassine become my secretary. She has a flair, and a flair is everything in police work."
Madame was hesitant. I was, too. At that moment Maria came calling me because the postman had brought two letters for me on which were written: very important. I read them. They were the responses of Monsieur Bile and Zidore. They said, the one, that he had a lead on a job for me, and the other, that he had some good ideas and, coming on leave in a few days, he would would speak to me about them then. So I returned to the salon and asked Monsieur Proey-Minans for a small delay to think about it.
What will I do? Again I don't know. But I'm certain I won't be short of things to do, and my presentiments guarantee that I will have lots of stories and adventures to tell you. We will be apart for a while, mes bonnes petites chéries, but I don't say adieu to you, I say au revoir.