Frédéric Boutet: Memory (conclusion)
A Few Blackmails
And it had come, to fall within this happiness lasting now twenty years, this name: Melchior Bostelette. For Melchior Bostelette had been one of them, in his day, that rowdy gang of the Latin Quarter. Older and richer than the others, a vivant already jaded, his pleasure was to be among young men—and he’d showed himself full of gallantry towards their transient companions.
“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 was, as she, bitterly discomfited. This past, that all around them were ignorant of; this past concerning two people they no longer were, that barely came to their recollection…
It felt to them a hideous comeuppance. The mire of it terrorized and menaced. The cruelty of a fate that could bring this man at the very hour of their triumph…it made them revolt inside. They felt a savage hatred at the thought of this witness, suddenly resurfaced, who could cover them with opprobrium. They saw 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 the connection. From what M. Terbil told you, he must be a wreck, senile almost… For that matter, if it’s him, 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 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. Merely be careful. What exactly is this job?”
“He will watch the buildings. He must note the arrivals of the workers. He has for this a room, and a small allowance… He will occasionally run an errand, and keep the book of addresses for the catalogue. For that, I pay him something every month…obviously no life of luxury, but work. A sinecure.”
“Well, treat him as you treat old man May, exactly. And now, go. This evening, you’ll tell me.”
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 am almost certain he hasn’t recognized me, that he suspects nothing. This is a man spent…he barely speaks. To everything, 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, exultant. “If you knew the congratulations I’ve received from these women!”
She recounted the triumphs 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 going to meet him in the city. Barely 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 a hospice incurable, and did not even earn his small allowance, as M. Vardot said, tranquil in his scorn.
The surprise for this gentleman was therefore great, when at the end of a month Bostelette presented him the account, written in a trembling hand, of his working expenses. Baffled by the total, M. Vardot glanced quickly through the details. The first items, errands and copies, appeared fair. At the last, he shuddered.
It read: Monthly silence, 500 francs.
Vardot raised his eyes to the old man. And those, usually damped by Melchior Bostelette. gleamed, lucid and mocking.
M. Vardot paid.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)