Frédéric Boutet: Hippolyte (complete)
After dinner, they passed into the smoking room. It was still light outside. Through windows that opened onto densest parkland, entered a fresh evening smell. Little Mme Livoy, determinedly poetic (as suited her befogged demeanor), sighed that the hour was exquisite. Her husband, moved by an excellent dinner, put his soul into affirming this. Both, invited for a fortnight, had arrived in the afternoon.
Their hosts the Vervages, an elderly and amiable pair, looked on with satisfaction. They were happy to have offered good hospitality; they were happy especially to have their daughter Simone… This young woman, at the moment, was pouring coffee. Her husband was a large bearded fellow, digesting and smoking in an armchair. Also there was Mlle Honoré, a poor cousin, angular of build, invited for charity’s sake. Tranquility reigned.
Then came a noise of footsteps from outdoors.
“Hippolyte is back,” said M. Vervage. “He has gone to carry his bags to the garage. I’m permitting him to sleep here this evening.”
“You’ve dismissed Hippolyte?” said Livoy.
“Absolutely. I gave him his eight-days’ notice last week. I’ve had enough of the little feckless imbecile, that I’ll bear the price for a real domestic who knows his work. I accept the higher wages, but I want to be well-served.”
The women nodded approval and began telling household anecdotes.
The door opened. A skinny adolescent entered.
“Well, Hippolyte, what?”
M. Vervage gaped. Hippolyte had fallen to his knees.
“Pardon!” he bellowed. “Pardon, monsieur and madame, and everyone! I must speak, I cannot hold it in! Unjustly I have been dismissed, and I should not! But I repent! I must speak! It’s this evening they mean to come… I’m very sorry!”
He pounded his chest. The women, a little shocked, recoiled in their seats.
“But what? What is this! Explain yourself!” cried M. Vervage.
“Yes! It’s what I’m doing…I’m very sorry, hold off! It’s this evening! A gang of malefactors! They come from Paris! They were the robbers at the Bernière in April! They prepare their jobs in advance…there’s one, Patch, in town since last week. He talked to me and got me drunk. And then he threatened me, and I’ve been afraid! And then I was mad for having been fired unjustly… So I listened to him. I said yes, I explained all about the gap in the wall at the bottom of the park, and the silver we keep here. And the key I lost, it was so he could have it. I told him there were guests, and he said, That! Who cares? It’s a lonely spot, far from the city, and we can silence them! The thieves have masks, and they have a car for carrying off what they steal. They promised me a share, but I don’t want it! I’m too ashamed…I’ve done what I ought not!”
He left off, choking. M. Vervage, grown pale, lifted his fist. “Little wretch!”
His son-in-law, pale himself, intervened. “Calm yourself. We must raise the alarm, put a stop to this danger.”
“We must alert the gendarmerie!” stammered Mme Vervage, trembling.
“That’s it, hurry to the city in your car,” suggested Livoy.
“The car is being repaired,” said Vervage in agitation. “No, someone must go on foot.” He looked at his son-in-law. “You know, Paul, it’s not very far. For a good walker like yourself…a hunter…”
“Hunter! No more hunter than you…a shot or two at the opening of the season, that’s all. And when you say not far… Four kilometers through the forest, where certainly these bandits… Besides, my feet hurt. I’ve been limping.”
M. Vervage turned his eyes to Livoy, but that guest was absorbed in caring for his wife, who seemed to be fainting.
“Stand up! Speak! How many of these bandits are there?”
Hippolyte, so ordered by Vervage, moaned, “Eight or nine. They told me half-past midnight…that I should wait for them. That they’d kill me if they doubted my story…”
“And we are only three men,” said M. Vervage, in dismay.
“The more reason none of us should go away,” said Paul. “We must organize a defense.”
The men took counsel. Decisions were arrived at and executed at once, the windows and doors made snug, then barricaded. They carried the silverware and assorted bibelots to the largest room on the floor above. They blocked the stairs with chairs and sofas. When the work was finished, everyone, including the cook, the chambermaid, and Hippolyte, now weeping and prostrate, gathered again in the large room.
They had laid to hand all the weapons in the house—the hunting rifle of M. Vervage, a revolver that worked, another revolver that did not work, two fireplace pokers, the kitchen knives and the billiard cues, improvised clubs. The darkness was now complete…but on deliberation they lit no lamps, lest they attract gunfire.
M. Vervage, his rifle in his arms, mounted guard near Hippolyte. His son-in-law, who’d armed himself with the working revolver, trained his eyes on the shadowy park. Livoy, reduced to a poker, told himself with bitterness that one did not invite people to expose them thus. The women formed a pitiful cluster, shivering and starting at the least noise. The dark countryside, heretofore so poetic, became a cutthroat’s hideaway, where death stalked.
The hours passed. Midnight chimed.
“It must soon begin, what Patch told me,” Hippolyte whispered, in a strangled voice. “Can you hear them moving at the bottom of the park?”
“Yes!” said Paul. “From the side of the chicken-house!”
“I don’t care about the chicken-house,” murmured M. Vervage, whose face in the shadows showed livid.
If there’d been any noise in the park, it ended. Simone then had an attack of nerves. Her mother, Mme Livoy, and the chambermaid, gathered around her. A few minutes after, the cousin Honoré, in imitation, flung about and giggled, in the midst of a general indifference.
One o’clock…two o’clock, sounded.
“The day…my God…when will the day come?” moaned little Mme Livoy. “I’m freezing!”
“Me too,” said Livoy. And between his teeth: “Charming evening!”
They were all very cold. They crawled off to take the covers from the beds. Hippolyte did not…crouched in a corner, he slept. At last a pale light at the horizon became pink, verdant…
The radiance of the sun; then the sun itself.
On faces white from fatigue and anguish, an immense joy dawned with the day. The day! They were still alive! M. Vervage straightened his aching back imperiously.
“Someone prepare the chocolate! Paul, you come with me…we’ll tour the park and see what’s happened. Livoy, you keep close to the women. This little wretch will accompany us!”
It was necessary, for going down and out, to demolish the barricades. M. Vervage and his son-in-law, armed, and bringing Hippolyte, crept into the park. Nothing…so it seemed…had happened at all. The chicken-house was intact. They came to the breach. Around the fallen stones, they could make out no trace of footprints.
“Well, imbecile, the thieves?” M. Vervage asked, his belligerence rising.
Hippolyte scampered up the broken wall.
“The thieves, there never were any. That was a joke for your education…because you’d sent me away. Not a bad invention, eh?”
He jumped to the other side and was gone.
Vervage, red-faced, sketched a movement with his gun. Rage maddened him.
“Scoundrel! Wretch! I’m going to…”
“Now, now…” His son-in-law put a hand on his arm.
The two looked at each other. They quivered in a storm of feeling.
“Let’s go back,” Paul said at last. He tried a smile. “If you’ll believe me, my dear father-in-law, we should keep this from the ladies. We must allow them the pleasure of gossiping on the dangers they’ve been through…”
Vervage walked on in silence. Then he shrugged, smiled too, and said, scornfully: “Really! The little imbecile imagined he could scare us!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)