Frédéric Boutet: Memory (part one)
A Few Blackmails
“Yes, my dear Vardot, I saw these men this morning, and I tell you the thing is done. You will be named mayor. No candidate will oppose you. Which is only fair, eh? Isn’t the factory, that you direct with such command, a source of prosperity to our city? And when your father was dead, had you hesitated to leave the pleasures and opportunities of Paris? No, but here you arrived to continue his work. You have won recognition everywhere, shared in great part by Mme Vardot. Now…another thing, my dear friend… I am going to be indiscreet! In Paris, last week, on finding myself at the ministry, I learned of an official testament to the high esteem in which they hold you… That’s it! The red ribbon for your buttonhole.”
At once, Vardot fumbled his cup of coffee. His large face, engulfed in a grey, wiry beard, grew empurpled. He stood, to stammer: “Monsieur le deputy! My gratitude…my dear friend… It is you, it is your influence…”
“Yes, yes, it is you he must thank, I’m sure of it,” said Mme Vardot.
“Ah. It is none of my duty as a deputy to call attention… However, the merits of M. Vardot declare themselves. Goodness! Two-thirty already! In your house, madame, one commits the sins of gluttony and overstaying…very agreeably! I have, unfortunately, my train.”
He rose to take his leave. Then, suddenly:
“My dear Vardot, I forget. This fellow of mine, for whom you’ve had the goodwill to promise employment as a supervisor in your factory, has arrived. I saw him this morning. He will present himself with a note from me at your office this day, at around four o’clock. Here is his name, which, I believe, I haven’t even told you…you have welcomed my request with such alacrity! I thank you again.”
The deputy wrote two words on a piece of paper and handed this to Vardot, who protested: “Thank me, go on! As you see, I am entirely at your service, and very happy…”
When he’d escorted his visitor to the garden gate, Vardot came back to his wife. She was standing in the middle of their grand salon, a space all green and gold, the admiration of the city.
“Well, there it is,” she said to her husband.
“Yes, there it is. The mayor’s post, the decoration. All that we could wish.”
They exalted. Their importance would wax large, become definitive. They would rule in this little city, which for them was the world.
“It’s Tuesday tomorrow…my day,” said Mme Vardot. “Am I to announce it to these women?”
“Of the appointment, you may speak to them, certainly. You will say that I have a mandate of my fellow citizens.”
“And as for the Legion of Honor, I will content myself with clever allusions.”
“Just so. Now, I’m off to the factory. I have orders to give. And then I will have to receive this protégé of M. Terbil. He asked me the other day to find work for him, some sort of job not difficult to fill, as this was an old man past his prime, who was dying of hunger, gone to ruin in Paris. And if you’re thinking I haven’t got a place free, I am going to create one, just to please Terbil, but only when old May takes his retirement. I will give his place to this fellow.”
He unfolded the paper given him by Terbil, and read the name.
“What is it?” asked his wife.
He had gone white, then red. Hesitant, trembling, he handed across the note.
She read aloud: “Melchior Bostelette.”
“Well?” said Vardot, in a strangled voice. “You don’t remember? That time…?”
She flushed as well. Yes, at this moment, and with a shock, she did. “Oh… Oh!”
Between them fell a cruel silence. Mme Vardot, who under the halo of majestic virtue sat enthroned in authority among the women of her city; whom the tax collector, a well-read and waggish old man, had for many years compared to the chaste Juno…had at another time—that time evoked by Vardot—been called La Grande Caro. She has sought her fortune painted and plumed, taking chairs at tables in the cafés of the boulevard Saint-Michel.
Vardot had come to know her on a Carnival night, dragged along by a band of his comrades. After a dull adolescence, sitting bottom of his class at a provincial college, he had found a little freedom in Paris, and finished his studies there on a meagre allowance, from a father severe and economical. Ugly, coarse, and timid, Vardot dreaded women and ignored them, but Caro inexplicably had picked him out. It pleased her that this one presented difficulties—first to conquer, then to keep.
For Vardot’s part, he had never in the world had a woman but her, perhaps because he had never dared speak to another. After a few years of a liaison grown more and more attached, he had finally married her, hoping to have her all to himself…without the distaste of her knowing other clients. To his few friends, rarely seen now, he declared she was a victim of fate, and more than the equal of better respected, higher-born persons.
Around this time, old Vardot, who had known nothing of this adventure, died. At once the son and his wife left Paris, with no mind to return. They would establish themselves in the little city, their careers falling into a peaceful slumber, their horizons wide, their days regularly arranged, and not a care for M. Vardot but the directing of an enterprise capable of going by itself.
Mme Vardot was drunk with joy at realizing what, during her years of hazardous dalliance, had been her secret dream—to be a respectable bourgeoise, managing her own household, closed in a circle of public approbation…
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(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)