Frédéric Boutet: Memory (conclusion)
And as to this word love, outside of conjugal duty, where was the sense of it?
But it had come.
To fall within this happiness, lasting now twenty years, this name: Melchior Bostelette. Melchior Bostelette had been a member of that rowdy Latin Quarter gang. Older and richer than the rest, a vivant already jaded, his pleasure was to be among young men; and towards their transient companions, he had showed himself full of gallantry.
“But perhaps this is not him,” murmured Mme Vardot, at last.
“Yes, yes, it is. There cannot be two men in the world named Melchior Bostelette.”
“Perhaps he won’t remember. I had red hair in those days. And then, why should he think…?”
She stopped herself, flushing once more. Vardot did not dare question the relationship she’d had with Bostelette. He sat, as did she, bitterly discomfited. A past that all around them were ignorant of; a past concerning two people they no longer were, one that rarely came to their recollection…
This twist felt to them a hideous comeuppance. The mire of it terrorized and menaced. The cruelty that could bring this Bostelette at the very hour of their triumph…it made them revolt inside. They felt a savage hatred of this witness resurfaced, who could cover them with opprobrium. They envisioned him telling all the city…
But Mme Vardot recovered herself.
“Listen. There’s every chance he won’t remember your name, or at any rate, make any connection. From what M. Terbil told you, he must be a wreck, senile almost. For that matter, the age he would be! And if he’s gone on carousing as he did… After all, you may be obligated because of Terbil to take him on…but in your manner you must show nothing. Act with the ease and authority of a businessman who for charity’s sake employs a nobody, and has no need of him. Only be careful. What exactly is this job?”
“To watch the buildings. And to note down the workers, as they arrive. He is given a room, and a small allowance… He runs the occasional errand, and keeps the address book for the catalogue. For all that, I pay by the month…obviously no life of luxury, but earnings. A sinecure.”
“Well, treat him as you treat old man May, exactly. And now, go. This evening, you’ll let me know.”
M. Vardot, in a state of nerves, went to his factory in the suburbs. When in the evening he came back, he seemed a little reassured.
“It’s him,” he said to his wife. “I recognized him, but I’m almost certain he hasn’t recognized me. This is a man wholly spent. He suspects nothing, he barely speaks. To all I say, he answers, yes, yes…with an air of stupidity. We do not have, I believe, anything to fear.”
“All to the good,” said Mme Vardot, triumphant. “If you knew the congratulations I’ve received from these women!”
She recounted the accolades to Vardot, whose chest expanded. He insisted for his own part on the dotage evident in the dandy Melchior Bostelette, and in the following days, Mme Vardot was able to convince herself by meeting her husband in the city. Hardly could she recognize in this ragged old man, stumbling and wasted, the elegant Bostelette of former nights. He passed her by without appearing to see her.
At the factory he led the dull life of an invalid, and did not even earn his small allowance, as M. Vardot remarked, tranquil in his scorn.
The surprise for this gentleman was great, therefore, when at the end of a month Bostelette presented him the accounts, written in a trembling hand, of his working expenses. Baffled by the total, M. Vardot glanced quickly through the details. The first items, errands run and copies made, appeared fair.
At the last, Vardot shuddered. It read: Monthly silence, 500 francs.
Vardot raised his eyes to the old man. And those, usually dulled by Melchior Bostelett, gleamed, lucid and mocking.
M. Vardot paid.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)