Frédéric Boutet: The Amateur (part one)
A Few Blackmails
Marcel Chambrun returned from an evening gathering at around two a.m.
In the comfortable little townhouse he shared with his mother, he made his noiseless way, taking care not to wake anyone. He reached his bedroom and hastily made his preparations. Tuxedo and overcoat he kept on, but slipped into a pair of rubber-soled shoes. Opening a locked secretary, he took from it a little electric torch, a mask of black silk, a number of precision tools of the lock-jimmying type, or false keys, that he divided among his pockets. He equipped himself also with a large rectangular box, wrapping it in a Turkish towel. Then, with caution, he went out again in the direction of the jewelry shop he’d resolved to burgle.
It took five minutes reaching this. The iron curtain seemed to prevent access, but Marcel had an admirable knowledge of the house, and his plan was well-studied. It was Saturday, and the jeweler, he knew, had gone to stay at his father’s house in the suburbs. The young man rang at the porte cochère, muttering the name of a lodger to a concierge old and deaf, then gliding to the end of the vestibule.
For a moment, he felt violently perturbed…his heart raced. “This is truly stupid, what you’re doing,” he told himself. But quivering with excitement, Marcel launched into his crime.
First, he donned his mask, which was perfectly useless. Then with his lamp he reconnoitered the entryway of the jeweler: a single door, a lock and a bolt. For the lock, the false keys gave satisfaction at the first try. The bolt offered difficulties, but Marcel was a practitioner of the scientific school. Taking the box from the towel, he extracted a burning-iron and heated it. To disperse the smokey odor, he opened the door of the vestibule onto the interior court. With the lambent end and without much noise or time spent, yet undisturbed by anyone (the lodgers being serious people who never came home so late), he cut an opening sufficient to pass his arm.
By that means he was able to reach the bolt and turn it.
In no time he’d put away his instruments and stuck on a bit of brown paper, concealing the hole. He entered the jeweler’s, shut the door, and heaved a sigh of satisfaction.
“How easy it is,” he said to himself, moving left towards the store proper. In the light of his torch showcases glittered. He popped the lid of the first he came to, and put his hand on some watch chains that hung exactly doubled.
“Move again, and I shoot!” a voice behind him ordered.
He vaulted into the air, spinning round. The jeweler was there, dressed only in a nightshirt and drawers, blond hair tumbling over his white face. In his left hand he held a candlestick, in his right a huge revolver, antique of model…to Marcel a kind of cannon, leveled at him.
“Put up your hands,” he ordered again. “Why, in costume! Nothing but the chicest for you!” He laughed. “But…but… Take off your mask! Take it off or I shoot!”
In terror Marcel obeyed.
“That’s right,” the jeweler said, pleased with himself. “You are Marcel Chambrun, my landlady’s son. Don’t move, or I shoot!”
But already Marcel had sunk to his knees, sobbing, explaining that he was not a real thief, that he had more money than he needed, that he had been enraptured from childhood with sensational adventures of thieves and policemen, which the feuilleton and the cinema made all the fashion…and for that he’d only wanted to learn if he was himself capable of carrying out a daring enterprise, perilous and criminal…
If he had the initiative of a criminal!
A whole history, believable in its naivety, of a grown child whose youthful passion was larger-than-life heroes and their impossible exploits, the dream of imitating them…of finding his own too-happy life dull. Little by little he’d moved towards the realization, without grasping its gravity. He had prepared his act, as a small boy prepares an expedition against Indians; he had at last, for love of adventure and inflated pride, stupidly tried it, without believing events could become serious!
He choked in an anguish of shame. He offered reparations, spoke of his mother…so rigid…
Of his sister, married to an important man…
Of the spotless family name, the insupportable dishonor…
“Let me go!” he pleaded. “I will give you anything! I believed you’d gone to the countryside. Tomorrow, I would have sent you your chains, and money to pay for the damage… I beg you, let me go!”
He rifled his pockets, offered his watch, his pocketbook.
“Do not approach,” ordered the jeweler. “Place those on the table.”
He had seated himself in a chair before the door, not letting go either the revolver or the candle. He regarded Marcel, heaving breath below him. He understood the situation as well as one could, and it filled him with an indescribable glee.
“This idiot is sent to me by Heaven. It is not yet time for me to go bankrupt.”
He said this to himself, mindful he hadn’t gone to the countryside that day, for not knowing how he would meet a deadline of October 15, which could be extended no further.
“This is an unfortunate thing to see!” he said aloud. “So young, so respectable, so well educated… Gallivanting in cars while honest people are toiling, burning holes in doors to rob poor men… And when he’s pinched, he plays the comedian. He writhes and weeps!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)