Frédéric Boutet: A Reputation (conclusion)
A Few Blackmails
Better even than his impudent visitor, he knew the effect such a revelation would produce, and the disrepute, unjust but inevitable, it would reflect on himself. He thought of his friends and his enemies, of the prudish society, the rigid wealthy of his provincial city. These people were all known to one another, and the place of importance he held was his universe. He thought of M. Verralive, the uncontested leader of this society, with whom he’d been so proud to have made the alliance. He thought of his son Philippe, who adored Claire Verralive…
Amidst all of which, the shadow of the convict reared in menace, evoked by that scoundrel now emerged, whose blackmail, if paid, would beyond doubt renew itself through eternity.
Long did M. Blestat reflect. Many changes of decision passed, before he rested definitely on one. He stood, took up his overcoat and hat, but on the point of going out still hesitated, his suffering cruel. At last he went striding off.
A quarter of an hour later, he was in the presence of M. Verralive, and he, with his imposing carriage, long grey hair and noble visage, his unchanging smile, grave and pacific at once, listened and leant against the mantelpiece in his work office.
M. Blestat had come to tell the truth, and did. He revealed summarily the history of his brother: his follies, his evils, his crime, his condemnation, his death in prison. Then he told of the visitor he’d received, and the tendering of his blackmail scheme. He spoke in a strained voice, choked by shame. After some conventional remarks on the injustice of extending to an entire family the opprobrium of one member, he added some emotional words on the love between Philippe and Claire. Then he waited with a lowered head, as miserable as the day his brother was condemned.
M. Verralive had listened with less than his usual smile, but still unstirred. He said nothing, while long minutes passed. His face grew little by little lighter.
“Why have you not given this man one hundred thousand francs?” he asked at last.
“As I say, because he would continue to blackmail me, because it would be a constant threat hanging over me…over my son…and because I would be at great fault, if I were to hide this from you.”
“It is not for the sum itself?”
“No. The sum is not important. I would rather give three times the amount…”
He did not finish with: “To avoid the humiliation of this moment.”
“One sees that you are rich,” said M. Verralive. “You did very well to refuse. One does not allow oneself to be plucked in this way. I will not hide from you that the story is most annoying. But, I esteem you, and I esteem your son. Neither you, nor he, is guilty. When this master singer returns tomorrow, flank him round at the door and threaten him with the police. If he dares come here, I will make the cause my own. We will not allow his crying tales about the city. Who will believe him, when I, Hippolyte Verralive, forcefully deny it?”
M. Blestat felt reborn. A tremendous gratitude uplifted him. “Thank you! From the bottom of my heart, thank you!”
“Not at all, not at all! We will speak of it no more. As to the wedding…that’s for next month. But on this subject, my dear friend, I have a little thing to say to you. We are men of business, the two of us, and I will explain frankly. It concerns the dowry of Claire. Due to unpreventable circumstances, I find myself a bit embarrassed, as to disposable funds. I cannot give all I would like…but why should the young people suffer for my fault? I will count on you, my dear friend, to make up the difference. This is hardly of importance to you, after all, only one hundred thousand francs… Naturally, you will permit no difficulties?”
“But none, naturally, none,” stammered M. Blestat, managing to smile despite his astonishment.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)