Frédéric Boutet: One Blackmail (part one)
A Few Blackmails
Tall and lithe, svelte in her perfect but simple tailoring, Marie-Anne d’Hauberive leant standing against the mantelpiece of her little sitting room. She had been going out for her morning walk, when the chambermaid presented the visiting card, of one who insisted he would wait.
Entered a small man, fat and old, whose face was shaven and whose eyes were sharp and chill under his round-lensed spectacles. He advanced smiling, obsequious, bowing at each step, much at his ease.
“Very honored I am, madame,” he began, when the chambermaid had closed the door.
With calm disdain Mme d’Hauberive interrupted.
“What do you have to say to me?” She stood aloof, holding his card between her fingers. “Who are you?”
“Read my card, madame. Take care. M. Mathieu, man of affairs. Yes, I permitted myself to indicate I had come for the good works of the rue Raynouard… I think I had no hope of being received otherwise, would you say? It is a little old, but we imagine you have not forgotten…”
No shadow passed over the beautiful, scornful face of Marie-Anne d’Hauberive.
“I do not understand you.”
“No. For if you understood me, you would not have me in your parlor. But I will come to the aid of your memory. I permit myself this, too. No one can hear us? Of course M. d’Hauberive will not dare enter your rooms without begging your leave. I put before you the confidential and delicate… It is a disobliging thing for a queen of beauty and high society, to be sure… But the reason, to be precise…shall we go back more than fifteen years? More than fifteen years, perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty… When you still called yourself Mlle Marie-Anne Belléve, daughter of President Belléve… Yes, you had frequented the rue Raynouard, you remember it yourself, now, don’t you? You’d had the misfortune in childhood to lose Madame your mother. Monsieur your father, occupied by the duties of his office, saw little of you. Your governess obeyed you without a word, because she dreaded you, because it was her living and you gave her generous gifts… And you, going out in the world, met Jacques Piétry, a young man, a colonial… He was very handsome, very interesting, energetic, strong…his explorations in Africa had made him a near celebrity… My God! The souls of young girls are enthusiastic, and yours, always so proud, so independent… So natural for you, meeting for the first time a man who seemed worthy… But, in short, for nearly a year you went to see him, in his little house on the rue de Raynouard… You remember, you had gone there almost every day…sometimes you arrived by the Passage des Eaux. You entered in secret, he had given you a key…
“All this is very moving, and proves the power of love. After all, you were planning to marry him. But he was almost in poverty…at least in consideration of your tastes, your habits, and your own wealth. And then, to call yourself Mme Piétry… You hesitated. He left again on a new mission, and you allowed him to go. And here it ended. Two years later, you married M. d’Hauberive, a diplomat very rich, very important, and who is now ambassador. M. d’Hauberive admires you, venerates you, madame. You are a model of elegance, dignity, breeding. No malicious talk has dared touch you. The past is known to no one, your governess is dead. Jacques Piétry is no doubt also dead…”
He broke off. Mme d’Hauberive, without taking the trouble to answer, had reached for the bell.
“One moment! Nothing imprudent, eh?” cried M. Mathieu, whose round face, gone pallid, was no longer jovial but menacing. “You forget, dear madame, that during the year you were mistress of Jacques Piétry, you wrote to him… Yes, when you spent a month at the château de Lavernière. And what letters, what letters. Intimate, tender, passionate, enflamed even. Precise, detailed… Ah! You loved him well. And completely. My word! I, who am an old man, have been impressed by these letters. There are six, of the most…emotional… The others Jacques Piétry has burned, he swore it to me. For he is not dead at all, only the colonies have been a failure for him… Yes, the voyage, the one that was known to you, from that voyage he did not return in all haste, because he understood you did not love him enough to marry him. And he loved you too much to accept something near…sharing… So he remained, I don’t know where, in a lost country, destroying himself with alcohol and opium. He did not come back until a year ago, a used-up, ruined man, without a sou. He lives in a little room in the house where I have my business office. It is by this means we have come to know each other. I am sociable. I take an interest in my fellow man. I have given him help. He makes copies for me, of accounts. Woman, he’d had nothing to eat for days! And on an evening when I offered him a dinner, he told me everything…you know a glass of alcohol loosens the tongue. In short, he asked me to take up his affairs. He has come to know me, and I have prevented his starving. And you, woman, he finds that you have broken his life. I answered him that you had acted in feminine practicality, which puts reason above sentiment, but he will hear no more. He poses a question: how much value will you put on these six letters?”
He had said all this calmly, with a natural ease.
Mme d’Hauberive allowed none of the feelings that agitated her to show on her face. She gave no answer.
M. Mathieu, at the end of a minute, went on:
“Business is business. These letters are for you…or shall we say, they are for my client and for me…like bank notes, since they come from you. So if you won’t buy them, we’ll make a proposition to your husband. You imagine he will pay what we ask, anything to prevent our sending, with explanations, typewritten copies to various people…you recall them, do you not, these letters? Truly they are intimate and detailed. There are certain words…evocations… Ah, by God, you were an ardent young girl!”
(2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)