Frédéric Boutet: Complicity (complete)
Having made a tour of two large department stores…and buying none of what tempted her; then of the elegant streets, where she felt herself still less elegant than on the modest ones, Germaine Leprez hesitated at the threshold of a tea shop. She was tired and a little cold. But no, it was a needless expense. Smothering annoyance, she went off to her underground station.
The heated and flowery declarations of an old gentleman’s pursuit calmed her a little, reminded her that at least she was pretty. But she pushed him away in the haughtiest silence; she lengthened her stride and the distance between them. She arrived without joy at a house devoid of luxury, climbed five flights of stairs, and found her own apartment. Each day on her return she felt more disgust for the three boring rooms, the ugly cheap furniture…here, where she’d lived since her marriage.
She wished, not knowing how to resign herself to the lack, but with an intensity near sorrow, for what she had not. What money could have given. Her fate horrified her.
Obscurity, mediocrity… A great weight of distress overwhelmed thought.
The thought had been that no change would ever come to her on this dreary road to old age.
She went to the kitchen to busy herself with dinner, since the housemaid came for two hours a morning, no more. In the dining room she laid the cloth. Her husband would be home. Thinking of him she made a movement of anger and broke a plate. She loved him, and found him exasperating. Soon she would see him: blond, pale, meagre…of aspect insignificant. And nearly below his class in his threadbare clothing.
He would try, as was his habit, to be cheerful and tender with her. By wont, she was hard and sarcastic in return, letting him know again how their flat existence weighed on her. Become sad, then, and meek putting away his dinner, he would apologize that he was only a bank employee with no future, condemned to the end of his life to dull labors and genteel poverty.
Add, in his timid way: “But you love me just the same… Say you do, my Gégé? I have no one but you…you’ll be reasonable? We love each other and should be happy as we are.”
She no longer answered. She could not forgive him for being so mediocre. He understood, without understanding, and for some while had been distressed by this.
Germaine was returning to the kitchen, when he arrived.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, surprised he hadn’t run to give her the customary kiss.
Without a word he hung up his overcoat in the sitting room, and kept to his feet, coming silent and grave to face the kitchen fireplace.
“But tell me, what’s happened?” she said again, worried.
“Nothing.” This, at last…and he sat at the table. He ate a few bites, put down his fork and drank a full glass of cognac, which he never did. Falling into a new absorption, he contracted his brow, over that unknown preoccupation…
“Albert! Tell me what’s happened! I want to know!”
He raised his eyes from the cloth, looked her in the face, and said hollowly:
“I have stolen.”
“What are you saying?”
“I tell you I’m a thief! Yes, for you… Don’t answer, listen. I’ve stolen for you, because I understand that you’ve had enough of poverty, this existence of ours since we were married. You say it to me every day, that I’m feckless, I’m mediocre, I will always be nothing. Well…! So! Now I’m a thief! That’s something. But it’s you who are guilty. You have pushed me to the limit. I love you, I love no one but you in all the world, you are my only good, and I make you unhappy, exasperated, envious of all you haven’t got. As many times as I’ve said we should be happy as we are, you wouldn’t have it. You wanted luxury, powders and perfumes, money. Money, I haven’t got. So I’ve stolen…the opportunity presented itself. I replaced a colleague, I made some transfers. It’s useless to explain this.…you wouldn’t understand. But, in short, I’ve stolen four hundred thousand francs. No one has suspicions at the moment, and it’s impossible they’ll notice before fifteen days, or even three weeks…in three weeks I’ll be far away…”
He hesitated, gave his wife a look more intense, and said: “We will be far away. You may well suppose that if I’ve stolen for you, it is not to live without you. We’ll go abroad. Naturally, we’ll be pursued, traced, but we must arrange our means of escape. With the sum I’ve taken, I could make a fortune…try to, at least. I am a criminal and you are my accomplice. But we’ll have no more of this mediocre life that horrifies you. You won’t reproach me anymore for being weak and passive. You’ve made me a thief, Germaine, you understand? I, whose family have always been of a spotless integrity, I who until now had always placed honor and character above all material things of life, I am a thief! I decided, I acted. I was pushed by despair, pushed by my love for you. I felt you’d stopped loving me and it made me crazy. Now the crime is committed, and I’m horrified.”
He dropped the hand that had underlined his words. His voice, although contained, had towards the end taken on a dramatic emphasis. Suddenly he put his head in both hands, as though stifling sobs.
There was a long silence. Germaine, pale, stared at her husband with dilated eyes. Then she stood, went to him, and put her hand on his shoulder.
“You have done this for me…” Her voice trembled. “Yes, for me, only for me! How you love me! My God, how you love me! And I had thought you weak, wrapped up in your selfish resignation, which could not worry itself over my sadness and boredom. Oh, Albert, I love you so much…I love you! I will go with you, you know that. I will be your accomplice. I will never abandon you. I am completely yours, as you’ve proven you are completely mine…”
She interrupted herself, reflective. She said in another tone, serious and measured:
“Listen, Albert, before everything, I must ask you something. Tell me honestly…can you give the money back? Yes, return, without anyone’s noticing, what you’ve taken? I ought to have said it at first, but I was carried away by emotion. And I’d wanted to comfort you at once that I was yours, that you’ve won me, yes… Especially not have you believe I would hesitate, when I ask if you can give it back. Not believe in any fear on my part. No! The risks are yours…it’s you, if it comes to it, who will pay. Pay for what you’ve done for me! And that I won’t have. I want you to give back the money if you can. Let’s return, side by side, to our quiet life…common, but safe. And we’ll be happy from now on, I swear it! Answer, can you give the money back?”
He raised a face with no trace of a tear; one that quickly grew animated.
“I knew it! I knew you loved me, that you wouldn’t allow me this sacrifice! I knew our little life was not as cruel for you as you’d told me. My Gégé, I have stolen nothing at all! How could you believe I had? You know me better than that! Me, a thief, ha, ha! I wanted to teach you a little lesson, that you’ll remember, show you the danger of dreaming too much of what you haven’t got. Come, my dear, kiss me and be happy!”
She stood before him, still and like ice. Her face convulsed. She looked near sobbing, but bent all at once in laughter, sharp, prolonged…where there’d been anger, contempt above all—contempt for herself that she could believe such a man capable of impassioned action, but so much more contempt for him, who had played her this low comedy, and confessed it—now she understood what he did not, that she could never love him.
“Why do you laugh?” he asked, smiling himself at the bright future his vanity had constructed.
She wanted to say to him: “I laugh because you’re an imbecile.”
But she gave him only this ambiguous phrase: “I laugh, because now I’m free.”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)