Frédéric Boutet: A Blackmail (conclusion)
Becoming once more obsequious, he took his leave, conducted off by the chambermaid. Mme d’Hauberive, alone, held herself immobile, still impassive to appearances, a corner of her mouth barely lifting to crease in bitterness. The distaste, the fear that tried her, the menace that weighed on her, were less cruel than the thought that he’d become this, her Jacques Piétry, the only memory of love in a life consecrated otherwise to fashion and décor. And this, the memory he had of her…a mere means to blackmail. She shuddered in anger and shame. On such a man she had once squandered the whole of her existence, sacrificed all her ambition…
Yet she had a burning curiosity to know him, as he was now.
She asked herself with anguish how she would find the enormous sum of money that would be, without doubt, demanded of her.
It was in a little street, winding and steep, in the neighborhood of the Panthéon…
Mme d’Hauberive, arriving at the doorstep of an ill-kept house, saw that M. Mathieu waited. He bowed to the ground and preceded her into a dark hallway. He descended three steps and opened a door. Without hesitation she entered the narrow room, bare of furnishings, where scarcely any of a greenish light filtered through a tiny window, giving onto a courtyard like the depths of a well.
In a corner more shadowed than the others sat a man behind a table. Mme d’Hauberive looked at him in horror and revulsion. Was he this ghost with sunken cheeks, balding head, grey and wild beard, who fixed on her—seeming not to see her—dull eyes, watery and without expression?
She thought he was drunk, and felt afraid, though she did not lose her disdainful hauteur.
“My dear friend,” said M. Mathieu, “you see we have not presumed too far, as to madame’s spirit of practicality. She understands, she comes, she will hear us. Madame, there are six letters, in that envelope on the table. No, no need to read them again, certainly you remember them. And as you seem a person of decision and bold initiative, permit me to place myself between the table and you. Madame, we reckon these letters at thirty thousand francs apiece. Six times thirty thousand is eighteen…but let us make it a round number, of two hundred thousand francs. There. You may receive these letters in exchange for two hundred thousand francs in bank notes. When must you make this purchase? We cannot wait a long while. Let us have it eight days from now.”
“You’re insane!” It needed all her energy to keep calm. “Where would you have me find such a sum, on such short notice, without anyone’s knowing it?”
“And you are joking. The fortune of your husband is considerable, you have rich parents…you have jewelry. You can borrow. I assure you that tomorrow M. d’Hauberive will pay far more.”
M. Mathieu smiled as he made these threats.
Mme d’Hauberive almost roused herself to leave, revolted to be there, discussing these things…
But her fear of humiliation was stronger, and subdued her pride. She would be left with no recourse but to disappear. For the first time, she climbed down from her height, tried bending to this fat old man, sinister and jovial.
“But only see, monsieur, it is in your interest as well as mine to allow me a longer time, and to lower your demands…”
“No, madame. What is said is said.” M. Mathieu rubbed his hands together. “Our stipulations are moderate. You will pay, or another will pay. That is your opinion too, is it not, my precious client? Come, dear madame, have you decided?”
Marie-Anne d’Hauberive suffocated with anguish. She could not find in a week such a sum of money without some explanation of what she would do with it. She felt she would rather die than make this confession to her husband. Breathing hard, she stood motionless, not weeping, but with her face wrenched in a horrible distress.
She trembled. The ghost, until that moment utterly still, not seeing or speaking, but the seated image of a brute, suddenly raised himself, took two wavering steps, and fell on M. Mathieu, seizing him in his arms.
“The letters!” he cried at the same time. “On the table, the envelope… Marie-Anne, burn them! I want no more. I want no more. Hurry, Marie-Anne, burn them… The matches are on the mantelpiece. I will hold him, burn them… Don’t run with them, he’ll escape and catch you on the street!”
She snatched the envelope, verified the six letters were inside, crumpled and set them alight, throwing them into the fireplace.
“Idiot! Thief! Imbecile! Let me go!” shouted M. Mathieu, who tried in vain to escape the embrace of his adversary. “Two hundred thousand francs! Idiot!”
They both by then were on the floor, rolling. Mme d’Hauberive, watching to see the letters wholly consumed, recoiled towards the door.
“Go, Marie-Anne!” cried Jacques Piétry, in a voice growing feeble. “Go! I can’t hold him! Go and don’t fear. Be at peace.”
(2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)