Frédéric Boutet: An Investigation (complete)
A Few Blackmails
“Denise! What a nice surprise! You’ve come to spend the afternoon with me? As you see, I have been stitching virtuously… Heavens, what is it?”
Yvonne Vertel, who, to welcome Denise Cartier had laid aside her work…it was an ensemble of pink crepe de Chine, the hem being fixed with the most painstaking attention…stood amazed.
Denise, as soon as the ushering maid had vanished, burst into sobs.
“I’m so unhappy! You must give me your advice. It’s horrid! Gaston doesn’t love me anymore!”
“Your husband not love you! Go on, Denise, you’re a fool!”
“No, no, I tell you the truth. He doesn’t love me anymore. Oh, God! And I love him so much!”
She fell onto an armchair, hiding her lovely face in her hands.
“My little Denise…but go on, you are a fool,” repeated Yvonne. “Explain to me.”
“He neglects me,” stammered Denise, raising her head. “He is hiding something from me. Yes! Every afternoon he disappears, and I don’t know where he goes. He comes back in the evening absorbed, preoccupied… This has gone on since the beginning of the last month. And now he’s taken the habit of going out in the morning as well. Today he is not coming back for lunch! He told me over the telephone, and would make me no excuses. So, isn’t it plain? He’s having an affair. My God! What will I do?”
She cried still more, with the abandonment of a child. Yvonne took her hands. “My dear, before you despair, you must be sure of…of what you believe. I’m persuaded you’re in error. Your husband has his reasons…”
“What reasons? His company business has never stopped him having lunch with me, never kept him away from me the whole of an afternoon. He is in love with someone else and he dedicates all his time to her. When I ask him why he goes off like this, he laughs and answers me, ‘This is not an affair for children.’ He treats me like a little girl without a brain. Before, I could be amused…but now I understand I don’t count with him anymore. I have to know what he does. What he does! Give me advice…how will I learn? I can’t follow him myself. Who can I speak to?”
“Oh, Denise! Do you really want this?”
“Yes. I am too miserable… There are people, aren’t there, who can be hired? Where do I find them? Are they conscientious? Come, Yvonne, give me advice.”
“But…if you tried to question, delicately, your husband’s associates?”
“Herbin, for example? No. Gaston and he are too close-knit.”
“Then…let’s see, since you’ve made up your mind… Listen…I believe… Yes, I have an idea. Take yourself to an private investigator, it will be a little less embarrassing for you. But otherwise, someone safe… I believe I can point you the way. He is the relative of my husband…a vague cousin…a little Bohemian, but very amusing and very resourceful. We rarely have to do with him, as he is always without a sou, and wants to borrow money from my husband. But it’s not a crime to be poor, and your payment should compensate you with his discretion.”
“Perfect!” cried Denise. “Where can I see him?”
“Here, the day after tomorrow. I’ll ask him to come…”
“But will he accept?”
“Oh, yes! He is very accommodating.”
When Denise arrived that day at the house of Yvonne Vertel, it was Yvonne herself who opened the door, and led her guest, not without a certain air of mystery, into the salon.
Presented thus, Bettoneau rose from an armchair. He was of a good height; his appearance elegant, though shabby. His long blond hair was correctly parted in the center. His face had a fresh complexion; the eyes were lively; the beard luxuriant and falling to the middle of his broad chest. Overall, he was noble and courteous of manner.
Without hesitation he accepted the mission, that the two young women explained in ample detail, speaking either in succession or at once. Then, grasping all, he took his leave, and pledged to attach his steps from the very next morning to those of M. Gaston Cartier.
And of these steps, he was quick to inform himself.
“I believe I could not have found anyone better,” said Yvonne, when she was alone with her friend.
“Oh, thank you again! He’s the perfect man. My God…my God…I wish I knew already! But I’m so afraid! I’ll be so unhappy when I know beyond doubt.”
“Or so happy, to learn this is all a figment,” said Yvonne, embracing her.
M. Bettoneau reappeared on the fifth day. Denise, warned, met him as he crossed the threshold of Yvonne’s house. She trembled, tortured in her anguish, and asked:
“Ah, monsieur! What have you learned? Tell me at once!”
“Madame, be wholly reassured. M. Gaston Cartier, your husband, when away from you, works at his desk all day. He has just purchased a factory in the suburbs and is making it ready. I know everything. The matter to an outside observer does offer some interest…”
“My God! What good news, what good news!” Denise felt she’d awakened from a nightmare. “And you are certain of it, M. Bettoneau?”
Bettoneau smiled with a superior air. “Oh! Madame, certainly. Without any doubt. For no one, seeing you, could believe the too happy mortal loved by you might so much as dream of…”
He smiled again, gallantly this time. Denise flushed, and slipped him an envelope containing the promised recompense.
“This business M. Cartier prepares himself for is most interesting,” he said again. “I will be following it…” He studied Denise, and added: “The lovely ladies do not always understand these business affairs… I had thought of speaking to you, but on careful consideration, I’ve decided to consult with monsieur your husband. Be assured, dear madame, I shall not compromise you at all in his eyes. Count on the discretion of a man of honor.”
Majestically, he retired.
Denise did not understand his last words until a few days after. Her husband, by disposition cheerful, returned so visibly careworn one evening, that in anxiety she asked him what had happened.
“A disagreeable story, my little Denise.”
He tried vainly to smile. “I haven’t spoken to you about my affairs because they’re truly not of interest to you… My partner Herbin is a profiteer; he allows me to do all the work, and takes for himself all the gain. I want to leave him. I’ve been making arrangements to remove from his factory, set up another…that’s the reason I’ve been absent so often these last months.”
“It would have been better to explain to me,” said Denise.
“To what purpose, my dear? For you see, I didn’t want this to be known, and my little Denise is a bit talkative and cannot always keep a secret… In short, I’d taken great precautions to hide my intentions, and here someone has learned it all. A certain Bettoneau, a washed-up swindler. Not anyone I know…I don’t know how he got this notion of following me and making inquiries. But for discovering the factory and my projects in preparing it, he means purely and simply to blackmail me. He’s threatened to tell Herbin everything, which would do me considerable harm…”
“And then, what do you want? I must submit, do as Bettoneau likes, that is to say, engage him by contract as a supervisor… With an important salary, I promise you. It’s exasperating! Forced to house such a crook and unable to rid myself of him! How he got the idea of following me, I can only ask myself…”
“My God! How annoying for you!” said Denise. “All this is Yvonne’s fault…not that you’ll understand… Listen, never speak to me about this again, will you?”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)