Frédéric Boutet: The Balance (complete)
Lunch finished, M. Buchêne was back to business, per custom smoking his tranquil cigar while in discussion with Mme Buchêne. This intimate hour in the middle of their day had been a delight to them since the start of their marriage. Often Mme Buchêne had left her place opposite to sit by her husband’s side, the cigar in those days extinguishing itself…as they kissed. These transports had grown stale. They had diminished…and storm clouds at times cast a pall over the serenity of the conversation.
“My dear Suzanne,” M. Buchêne said this day, exhaling the first puff of smoke, “I must speak to you about your brother Robert.”
Mme Buchêne’s face took on a pinched air. He failed to appreciate this, and went on, energetic, grave and sorrowing. The attitude was a fixture of his life, one that irritated Suzanne, though at first she’d admired it.
“Yes, he worries me. You know with what pleasure, six months now, for the sake of being agreeable to you…you and your parents…I’d brought him on to work closely with me, in my office?”
“That was entirely natural. Robert had finished his study at law, and here was a chance for an intelligent young man, of a distinguished, good family—your brother-in-law, besides—to render more service, to inspire more confidence than some other, more or less serious…”
“Serious! But that’s just what Robert is not at all…and what worries me. That he is light, negligent, inexact, my God! I’d anticipated it. But for some time he’s been wholly out of his mind… Oh! I don’t mean his little love affairs…in one his age that’s excusable. It’s another thing. He plays. He passes his nights at poker. He comes to me in the mornings pale, feverish, exhausted. As soon as he sits, he’s asleep. This morning when I asked him for a letter, he jumped awake and said: I have a full house of kings… And he plays a very big game, I am informed. Now this game, Suzanne…I don’t know if you know much about it…it is a grave peril. I would like a remonstrance on your part, to this younger brother who loves and respects you. Or, from your parents. Me, I will not intervene with all my authority unless he persists in this downhill slide…”
“Calm yourself, please,” said Suzanne…with a laugh meant to sound jesting. “Such a torrent of melodrama! And I’m perfectly sure these spies that have been giving you information on Robert exaggerate… If he plays from time to time…well, that’s possible. And completely innocent. I would play myself, if I were bored, and I had occasion. What do you want, we are not all like you, so thoughtful and solemn, everything having to be weighed and measured. Some of us are fanciful, sensitive, alive… And then, you see, Robert might have been a little more interested in your business if you’d shown him your full confidence, consulted him, made him your second-in-command, rather than treat him like a youth of no importance. He feels how you value him and has been wounded, I know it…”
M. Buchêne shrugged. “My God. My dear child, Robert is a charming boy, a clever dancer, he has his social accomplishments, I don’t disagree…but entrust him with my affairs…! Soon you could not pay your dressmaker! He would wholly ruin us with the best intentions in the world. He is as unrealistic as you. You take after your father, who launched a hundred crazy schemes, so that I always ask myself how he lost only half his fortune!”
Suzanne flushed with anger. “Papa is a superior man whom you are not capable of understanding.”
She held her husband’s eye and added: “In any case one does not permit oneself to criticize the family of another, when one has, as you do in your family, an Uncle Arsène, a bankrupt.”
M. Buchêne became red in his turn. “What…what are you saying?”
“I say what is. I keep myself informed. I’ve avoided for the sake of delicacy alluding to it, but since you force me, I’ll say it again. When you have a bankrupt in your family such as your Uncle Arsène, you do not criticize an honorable family which is also as luminous as mine. I will remind you of this if necessary.”
She went out and slammed the door.
M. Buchêne sat back dismayed. His Uncle Arsène was the black sheep of the family. Among this economical and virtuous clan he’d sprouted, fifty-five years earlier, turbulent from childhood. When barely at the age of manhood he’d showed a marked taste for debauchery and prodigality.
Two marriages, one scandalous, followed by a commercial venture closed by bankruptcy, though meant to have remade his fortune…such had been his career. It was vaguely known he was in the provinces, managing an ill-famed café.
M. Buchêne allowed his cigar to fall extinguished, thinking in bitterness of this story, which to his mind took on exaggerated importance. He was consternated his wife had known these things in detail. They made a powerful weapon, one she would use without mercy…he had no doubt of it. What would his life become if, at the least discussion, the infamous memory of his uncle must be thrown in his face?
But he judged Mme Buchêne after himself. This was not her way. She did not employ the direct attack, and did not pronounce the name of Arsène again, which her husband waited on edge to hear. She contented herself, when she was annoyed—a frequent occurrence—with issuing an elegy to her own family, of an honorability so brilliant nothing had tarnished it within the memory of mankind. Her talk abounded in examples drawn from the life of her parents, her grandparents…even noble anecdotes, stored within family tradition, of her farthest ancestors…
Mme Buchêne had routed M. Buchêne. He felt his dignity in tatters, as a husband and a man. He suffered and kept silence. If it might soften Mme Buchêne, who’d carried her triumph to abuse, he began to show the greatest benevolence towards Maxime. Not only did he bring him into his initiatives, and permit him the keys to the office, but gave him complete liberty to not arrive in the mornings, and counselled him, as would an indulgent elder, to amuse himself…
A few weeks passed. One evening M. and Mme Buchêne had just come from dining, when the chambermaid announced M. Robert.
“My God, what’s happened?” cried Mme Buchêne, alarmed at the pallor and distress of her brother’s face.
He checked that the chambermaid had gone off. With trembling hands and care he closed the door, then approached his brother-in-law.
“I have something to tell you,” he panted. “Something dreadful. I am…I am a wretch! No, Suzanne, be quiet! I have betrayed his confidence. I have made…I’ve made a mistake. I forged his signature on a bank draft… That I’d got hold of… That I’ve lost! A debt of honor, you see? I hoped to win it back…to retire the draft. Now I wish I were dead! I’ve searched for the money…I’ll never find it! Tomorrow they want it made good. And…there… How can I do it? My God!”
He collapsed, sobbing, at the feet of his brother-in-law. M. Buchêne, without haste or anger, pulled him up.
“The game is a great danger, I have always said.” He articulated slowly. “As to the draft, here it is. They had thought it looked suspect, and asked me if it was mine. I said yes, and I paid…”
He took his time, relighting his cigar, and with the same match burned the draft to ash. “We shall pass the sponge,” he pronounced, not perceiving the incompatibility of this image to the matter at hand. “Your despair, my boy, proves to me that you repent. Calm yourself. I forgive, and I will keep silent as to this fault of youth. What family, after all, has nothing to reproach themselves with? But when one is capable of delicacy, one does not proclaim the dishonor of one’s relatives everywhere.”
He finished by fixing on Mme Buchêne, who stood livid, a look of triumphant assurance.
Pass the sponge is a French expression: to let a thing go, or overlook it. But, Boutet is making a pun, that M. Robert has “sponged” off his brother-in-law, so it would take a complicated construction to find an equivalent English expression that works for both purposes.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)