Laguitte was so grimly mute that Burle did not venture to question him. For a moment they sought each other, groping about in the dark; then they resumed their walk through the somber streets, where the water rolled as in the bed of a torrent. They moved on in silence side by side, the major being so abstracted that he even forgot to swear. However, as they again crossed the Place du Palais, at the sight of the Cafe de Paris, which was still lit up, he dropped his hand on Burle’s shoulder and said, “If you ever re-enter that hole I—”
“No fear!” answered the captain without letting his friend finish his sentence.
Then he stretched out his hand.
“No, no,” said Laguitte, “I’ll see you home; I’ll at least make sure that you’ll sleep in your bed tonight.”
They went on, and as they ascended the Rue des Recollets they slackened their pace. When the captain’s door was reached and Burle had taken out his latchkey he ventured to ask:
“Well,” answered the major gruffly, “I am as dirty a rogue as you are. Yes! I have done a scurrilous thing. The fiend take you! Our soldiers will eat carrion for three months longer.”
Then he explained that Gagneux, the disgusting Gagneux, had a horribly level head and that he had persuaded him—the major—to strike a bargain. He would refrain from informing the colonel, and he would even make a present of the two thousand francs and replace the forged receipts by genuine ones, on condition that the major bound himself to renew the meat contract. It was a settled thing.
“Ah,” continued Laguitte, “calculate what profits the brute must make out of the meat to part with such a sum as two thousand francs.”
Burle, choking with emotion, grasped his old friend’s hands, stammering confused words of thanks. The vileness of the action committed for his sake brought tears into his eyes.
“I never did such a thing before,” growled Laguitte, “but I was driven to it. Curse it, to think that I haven’t those two thousand francs in my drawer! It is enough to make one hate cards. It is my own fault. I am not worth much; only, mark my words, don’t begin again, for, curse it—I shan’t.”
The captain embraced him, and when he had entered the house the major stood a moment before the closed door to make certain that he had gone upstairs to bed. Then as midnight was striking and the rain was still belaboring the dark town, he slowly turned homeward. The thought of his men almost broke his heart, and, stopping short, he said aloud in a voice full of compassion:
“Poor devils! what a lot of cow beef they’ll have to swallow for those two thousand francs!”