Monsieur and Madame Cargaux had owned Le Magasin de Chaussures since they married almost fifty years ago. Now they had decided to sell the business and retire.
They lived above the shop and so it was not just a well-established, reputable business that went on the market, but living accommodation too, consequently the property sold quickly.
At the shop there had been no garden, only a small yard where Madame had struggled to grow a few herbs; she was a good cook and wanted a kitchen garden, un potager, of her own.
They bought a house overlooking the valley of a tributary of the River Salin. The garden descended to the river in three great terraces, each about two metres high and held in place by thick stone walls each with a balustrade. A flight of steps descended from the house to the river bank where Monsieur intended to pursue his fishing,
On the top terrace there was a shaded, paved area for sitting. In front of this was the ground Madame had chosen for plantingwhich stretched the length of the balustrade. Monsieur had no interest in horticulture so the two lower terraces were left to grass. His own requirements were simple; he wanted to fish in the little river, read the newspaper, smoke cigarettes and take an occasional pastis.
Weary of responsibilities, the couple looked forward to a peaceful retirement.
Madame did not have grand expectations for her potager. She planted parsley, chervil, thyme and tarragon around young bushes of rosemary and lavender. Other herbs stood in decorative pots and there was an old bucket for the chives. Each evening she lovingly watered the plants and Monsieur would descend the steps to the river bank and sit smoking while his float bobbed on the water. Other evenings he found it restful to sit at the table on the terrace, smoking a cigarette and sipping a pastis, watching his wife busying herself in her potager.
One evening, as he smoked and read, he heard an unpleasant crunching sound followed by a little cry from Madame. He lowered his newspaper to see his wife gazing at the remains of a snail on which she had trodden.
Over the next weeks more snails appeared. As their numbers increased Madame began to lose some of the calm she had displayed in the shop. She gathered the snails briskly and asked Monsieur to throw them into the river. He would give a quiet sigh and, abandoning his pastis, do her bidding.
Still the numbers of snails increased. As soon as night fell Madame would shine the beam of her torch over the ground and harvest them into a bucket for disposal by her husband.
Then Monsieur had an idea. He packed the snails in wooden boxes, took them into town and sold them to the restaurant, Le Hélice; earning a little into the bargain. The chef, Monsieur Linas, was enthusiastic and regaled his clientèle with such delights as Charlotte de Boudin aux Escargots, and Cassolette d’Escargots au Vin Rouge et Oeuf Cassé .
His diners, however, after a month or two of relishing these dishes, had had a surfeit of snails and ordered them no more. Monsieur Linas removed them from the menu.
Madame explored all recommended methods to rid her potager of snails : spreading salt, crushed eggshells, wood ash, and coffee grounds. To no avail.
Monsieur purchased various poisonous powders and pellets but none were effective. The snails thrived in the mild, damp weather and appeared from the drains, from under the rims of plant pots, and from the mossy base of the walls.
By now Madame had become so disturbed that she would shout out each time she came across a snail. Monsieur could no longer sit peacefully. He was obliged to carry buckets filled with snails to the river below, where he longed to fish. As darkness fell he would stand holding the torch while she searched beneath rocks and leaves. He had no time to read his newspaper or to smoke and sip his pastis.
Late one evening he came to sit beside Madame who, for a rare moment, had ceased from battle to rest on the balustrade at the front of the terrace. He put his arm around her and turned to kiss her gently on the cheek; but she, having sighted a snail, pushed him brusquely away and, spoiling his tender moment, leapt to her feet with a shout.
At this Monsieur Cargaux gently but firmly pushed her backwards until the backs of her knees encountered the balustrade. As she began to topple Madame Cargaux reached out to him to save her. He moved swiftly away, allowing her to fall heavily onto the terrace below.