Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
Foiral, having taken a load of cork to his market, is returning to his unnamed village, a tiny hamlet in the Pyrenees-Orientales district of France near the Spanish border. Along the roadside, he encounters a poorly dressed stranger whose mannerisms are eccentric; Foiral assumes that the stranger is a madman. The madman is striding aggressively down the road, but he stops, awestruck, at the top of a ridge as he first looks down on Foiral’s village.
On the spot, the madman decides to stay there, perceiving the village as “surrealism come to life.” The cork forests, he claims, look like “petrified ogres,” while the black clothes of the native villagers make them seem “holes in the light.” Foiral, bewildered, tries to remove himself from the vicinity of this lunatic, but the madman detains him, asking for a place to stay. When Foiral claims that there is no such place, the lunatic wanders through the village until he finds Foiral’s own vacant property. Forced to admit that the property is his, Foiral finds himself selling it to the stranger, who identifies himself as an American painter who has been living in Paris.
Despite the stranger’s appearance, he shows Foiral a wallet containing a number of thousand-franc notes. Having paid a deposit, the stranger returns to Paris for his possessions, while Foiral prepares the house for its new tenant. On his return to the village, the stranger offers Foiral the remainder of the sales price in the form of a check, but the villagers do not understand banking. Foiral recognizes the check only as a billet or note resembling a lottery ticket and is reluctant to take the scrap of paper in payment. Increasingly impatient, the artist refers him to the bank in Perpignan, the nearest city, where Foiral is astonished to learn that the billet can be converted into real cash—and that the bank makes a charge for this transaction. Foiral is indignant at the charge and believes that he has been cheated. Returning to the village, Foiral approaches the artist, hoping that the latter will make up the sum that the bank has charged. The artist, however, says that he, like Foiral, is a poor man. He cannot give Foiral any more money. Foiral assumes this to be a lie. After all, he has seen a little book containing many other billets. Because the one he took to the bank was worth thirty thousand francs, then each one of the others must be worth that amount. Not understanding that these are merely blank checks, Foiral is certain that, by the standards of the village, the artist is an extremely wealthy man.
Nursing his sense of injustice, Foiral speaks with the other village men, assuring them that the stranger admits to having no relatives and describing the little book with its many billets. As a result, these “very honest men” (a phrase not meant ironically) leave their homes late one night to visit the stranger. When they return, they possess the stranger’s little billets. They quickly forget the artist himself; even his “final yelp” is forgotten as they would forget “the rattle and flash of yesterday’s thunderstorm.” Only one man, Guis, who has befriended the stranger, is left out; his decency causes him to be ostracized by the village and berated by his wife.
The billets, or blank checks, which the villagers assume to represent actual cash gradually take control of the town. The community is transformed, but not for the better. Cork concessions and other properties are exchanged for the billets, and the property owners swell with pride and self-importance. Marriages are arranged on the basis of possession of the billets; aging women take young husbands, while young girls become the property of wealthy widowers. Corruption, including gambling and prostitution, flourishes.
Eventually, the villagers feel the need for ready cash. Foiral proposes to lead the village men back to Perpignan, where all expect to exchange their blank checks for money. They go to the city as if preparing for a festival, still unaware that the scraps of paper are worthless, and they mock Guis, who once again has been left behind. Still laughing at him, they enter the bank and are last seen “choking with laughter when the swing doors closed behind them.”
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