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 He had seen better days, despite his present misery1 and infirmities. At the age of fifteen both his legs had been crushed by a carriage on the Varville highway. From that time forth2 he begged, dragging himself along the roads and through the farmyards, supported by crutches4 which forced his shoulders up to his ears. His head looked as if it were squeezed in between two mountains.
A foundling, picked up out of a ditch by the priest of Les Billettes on the eve of All Saints' Day and baptized, for that reason, Nicholas Toussaint, reared by charity, utterly5 without education, crippled in consequence of having drunk several glasses of brandy given him by the baker6 (such a funny story!) and a vagabond all his life afterward—the only thing he knew how to do was to hold out his hand for alms.
At one time the Baroness7 d'Avary allowed him to sleep in a kind of recess8 spread with straw, close to the poultry9 yard in the farm adjoining the chateau10, and if he was in great need he was sure of getting a glass of cider and a crust of bread in the kitchen. Moreover, the old lady often threw him a few pennies from her window. But she was dead now.
In the villages people gave him scarcely anything—he was too well known. Everybody had grown tired of seeing him, day after day for forty years, dragging his deformed11 and tattered12 person from door to door on his wooden crutches. But he could not make up his mind to go elsewhere, because he knew no place on earth but this particular corner of the country, these three or four villages where he had spent the whole of his miserable13 existence. He had limited his begging operations and would not for worlds have passed his accustomed bounds.
He did not even know whether the world extended for any distance beyond the trees which had always bounded his vision. He did not ask himself the question. And when the peasants, tired of constantly meeting him in their fields or along their lanes, exclaimed: “Why don't you go to other villages instead of always limping about here?” he did not answer, but slunk away, possessed14 with a vague dread15 of the unknown—the dread of a poor wretch16 who fears confusedly a thousand things—new faces, taunts17, insults, the suspicious glances of people who do not know him and the policemen walking in couples on the roads. These last he always instinctively18 avoided, taking refuge in the bushes or behind heaps of stones when he saw them coming.
When he perceived them in the distance, 'With uniforms gleaming in the sun, he was suddenly possessed with unwonted agility19—the agility of a wild animal seeking its lair20. He threw aside his crutches, fell to the ground like a limp rag, made himself as small as possible and crouched21 like a are under cover, his tattered vestments blending in hue22 with the earth on which he cowered23.
He had never had any trouble with the police, but the instinct to avoid them was in his blood. He seemed to have inherited it from the parents he had never known.
He had no refuge, no roof for his head, no shelter of any kind. In summer he slept out of doors and in winter he showed remarkable24 skill in slipping unperceived into barns and stables. He always decamped before his presence could be discovered. He knew all the holes through which one could creep into farm buildings, and the handling of his crutches having made his arms surprisingly muscular he often hauled himself up through sheer strength of wrist into hay-lofts, where he sometimes remained for four or five days at a time, provided he had collected a sufficient store of food beforehand.
He lived like the beasts of the field. He was in the midst of men, yet knew no one, loved no one, exciting in the breasts of the peasants only a sort of careless contempt and smoldering25 hostility26. They nicknamed him “Bell,” because he hung between his two crutches like a church bell between its supports.
For two days he had eaten nothing. No one gave him anything now. Every one's patience was exhausted27. Women shouted to him from their doorsteps when they saw him coming:
“Be off with you, you good-for-nothing vagabond! Why, I gave you a piece of bread only three days ago!”
And he turned on his crutches to the next house, where he was received in the same fashion.
The women declared to one another as they stood at their doors:
“We can't feed that lazy brute28 all the year round!”
And yet the “lazy brute” needed food every day.
He had exhausted Saint-Hilaire, Varville and Les Billettes without getting a single copper29 or so much as a dry crust. His only hope was in Tournolles, but to reach this place he would have to walk five miles along the highroad, and he felt so weary that he could hardly drag himself another yard. His stomach and his pocket were equally empty, but he started on his way.
It was December and a cold wind blew over t............
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