Frédéric Boutet: A Reputation (part one)
A Few Blackmails
“Monsieur, a gentleman has come on the part of the Philanthropic Society of Paris.”
“Well, let him in,” said M. Blestat. He folded his newspaper, shook his cigar ash into the fire, and rose from his armchair.
Ushered by the servant came a shabby person, tall and pale, grey-haired.
“Monsieur, I have the honor,” he said with ease, and took the seat shown him by M. Blestat. “Charming home you have here. One of the loveliest in the city. Your garden is a paradise, a true paradise; your parlor, which I have just crossed…”
“Be so good as to tell me the reason for your visit,” Blestat interrupted.
“Thank you for recalling this to me. You are well, are you not, M. Théodore Blestat? Merchant, widower, fifty-five years of age, father of a young man of twenty-eight, M. Philippe. No, don’t be impatient, you will understand me. The Philanthropic Society, shall we speak of it no more…? It was for the sake of being received; it will serve for another time. Give me five minutes, you’ll see. You’ll see! Your son, my dear monsieur, is affianced to Mlle Claire Verralive. The engagement dinner was yesterday. The wedding will soon take place. A beautiful alliance, very beautiful! A ravishing young woman, a fortune, good family, and overall such respectability! M. Verralive, the father, is a man of another age. He is pure of heart, rigid in his integrity, uncompromising. His life is clear as crystal, his name stands in example…”
M. Blestat said impatiently, “I know as well as anyone the merits and just reputation of M. Verralive…”
“Then, my dear monsieur, what do you think of your brother Auguste?”
Blestat started and grew livid.
“My dear monsieur, merely to see you at this moment erases all doubt.” The visitor spoke with satisfaction, paused, and added: “Let us have a quiet talk. My approach may seem a little delicate, but my goal is in your interest, the avoidance of disagreeable tales. I ask only to be treated as a friend, and note, I am no more than an intermediary. The people who have sent me…they do not live in this city, they live in Paris…oh, well! They know your brother. They know…yes, yes, they know all. His history in Nantes, in Paris, and then, Bordeaux, the worst…the fakery, the fraudulent scheme, the trial, the sentence… That’s an old affair, twenty years past.
“After so long a time, one could believe all has been forgotten, above all when one has had a change of address, as you, when quitting Nantes and coming here. And then, he died in that place, did poor Auguste…not yet released. Yes, we could have believed it all forgotten. What’s to be done, my dear monsieur? There are some who remember, who choose this moment to send me to you—to say to you, M. Blestat, does M. Verralive know your brother was in the hulks? Have you told him? This is the first point. Now, if M. Verralive knows this, does he allow his daughter to marry your son? Hence, the second point. My dear monsieur, I tell you this at once. Nothing is more unjust than these scandals so long hidden, that reassert themselves to taint the innocent. Of course, you are honest as well, a perfect life, nothing to reproach yourself with. Your son is a young man off-limits. He does not enter into it. This is between ourselves, men of business. You get what I’m saying…wait, don’t trouble to answer. The truth is written on your face; one has but to read it. So, my third and last point…what price silence? Tell me your sum, I will tell you mine…that is to say, the one they would have me give you. Since I am only an intermediary. “
There came a very long silence.
“Who are you?” demanded M. Blestat in a hollow voice.
“I was a witness, at the trial of poor Auguste. I even failed… In short, we were friends. He spoke to me of you, three or four times. Right or wrong, he felt you had abandoned him and he wanted you… By faith, I will tell you frankly I’d formed a bad opinion of you. It is understood…one is honorable, one does not wish to be compromised. But—devil take it!—a brother is a brother. Yes, you have a son you would like to shelter, I know. And poor Auguste was impractical. What do you want, he was a dreamer, like me. You…you are orderly, so much the better for you, my dear monsieur. My thoughts in recent days have returned to you. I find myself at a very bad pass. By chance in my researches I learned you were a big trader here. Friends I consulted advised a little syndicate, among ourselves, to exploit the idea. They found me the money…and here I arrived. I made a small investigation…this fell to my favor, just so. I waited for the suitable moment because of the marriage…and here I am. Now, since I see you won’t name your price, I will name ours: one hundred thousand! It is a round number, a sum unimportant to you. Unimportant, I say…you are very rich. No, I beg you, no discussion, my dear monsieur, only think! I will return to you tomorrow. You will tell me yes or no. If no, I will tell the little story of poor Auguste to M. Verralive. He will give me something for my trouble. And then, I will tell it in the town, as well. If it is yes, and I think it will be yes, as you love your son, and as you care what the world thinks, indeed…! If it is yes, I stop for a moment, and then I take my train. Everyone is content. The marriage is made, and you will never hear from me again. My dear monsieur, I give you my word of honor.”
He finished with a great air of seriousness. He waved easily, and left without waiting for an answer. His steps crunched on the gravel path and the gate of the garden rang as he closed it.
M. Blestat remained in his armchair. The cigar between his fingers extinguished itself. He was aghast.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)