Frédéric Boutet: The Bargain (complete)
On the fifth floor, at an old, forbidding door that made her wish only to leave, rang a young visitor, frail in her worn dress, her black hat…her heart beating.
“Is he there? I want to speak to him.” She whispered this to the fat aproned woman who’d opened to her.
“Child, is it you again? But you know he doesn’t want to see you.”
“Yes, yes, but I have only one thing to say. My husband is making his rounds, so I’ve come myself…”
“Is it your chit?” The fat woman let her into the narrow foyer. “Come, what good is that? He’ll say no, just no.”
“But my husband is going to have work. We’ll pay so much by the month… Think, it’s only 350 francs he’s lent us, and the cost has become 865 from renewals and fees… The bailiff will arrest us tomorrow if we can’t pay at least half. Where would we get a sum like that? It’s mad. While so much per month… My husband will surely find work. You must tell him, explain to him…”
The large woman drew back. “Me? Me say something! Child, are you tipsy?”
She threw a look behind her, at a closed door, and said, lower: “But me, I’m like you. My story is the same. He loaned me a hundred francs when mine, who’s gone, had his attack, and worse, he stitched me along and doubled it. Since I’m his neighbor across the landing, he would take me on as housekeeper… Twelve sous an hour for all I do! All the rest is interest, so he says. He sleeps there at the back, and the wall of his bedroom is attached to mine, so…what else?…when he wants anything in the night, he raps and I send my eldest, Victor.”
The visitor, caught up in her anguish, could not listen.
“I don’t care. I want to see him. I’ll tell him…”
“You’ll tell him nothing. You know it yourself, he’s not a man, he’s granite. You can’t miss what’s right here in this neighborhood to be seen…what he’ll take and sell. Even if it’s his loss. I’ve seen them all pass by here, old and young, men and women, everyone come crying to him… And the young things, fresh as daisies, whose parents send them with ideas, you know? Oh, they’re done over well enough, the girls and the criers, both. Worse, no joke, he’s been sick for three days…”
“What does he have, then? You say it because he doesn’t want to see me.”
“Not at all. It’s true he won’t see anyone, but also, he’s truly sick. Truth of truths! Maybe it’s his age, you know, he’s hardly a youngster. He tries to lift himself, he gasps, he eats a little… All the time I’m ready for him to die.”
“Really! But…if so…”
A light of joy brightened the young woman’s face, a hope she dared not wholly form. She was ashamed of it and blushed. But a voice surprised them both, making them jump.
“No! It’s not so. I am not dead yet. What you’d wished for, eh? So much for you!”
Tall, emaciated, naked under his white cotton nightshirt, that allowed them to see his chest and hairy legs, he propped himself on the frame of the door just opened. His grey beard frizzed, and his eyes blazed at them through his glasses.
“That’s how it is, eh? When they want my help, they cajole me, they plead with me, I am God. And when the bill comes due, I am less than a dog. What good riddance if I collapsed…! The debts, the bills, they’d float away into the blue. Never seen or heard of. Convenient! But it isn’t time…wait and see! If, after tomorrow before noon, I do not have the four hundred and thirty francs, I’ll sell you out, the two of you. That will teach you I’m not down yet. Now get out of my sight…I’ve had enough!”
Swaying on his trembling legs, he advanced towards the women. They fled, terrified, and the door of his room slammed shut at their backs.
The rest of the day, the old man gave no sign of life. When his housekeeper wanted to go in, at the dinner hour, he cried through the door that he wanted nothing. But around one in the morning, the knocks redoubled, rattling the wall, waking her with a start.
“Good God, he’s still at it! Victor, it’s the old man! Victor, are you going?”
Victor, aged fourteen, got himself up, cursing. He lit a candle-end, pulled on his pants, took the key, and went to the neighboring door.
At the back of the room, cold and empty as the others, the old man, seen by a night-lamp on his mantelpiece, sat up in his bed. Victor, asleep on his feet, did not see him. He set the candle on a chair and yawned hugely, asked in a groggy voice: “What do you want?”
“Approach!” breathed the old man.
Victor took two unenthusiastic steps on a floor that chilled his feet.
“Listen!” The old man seemed to search for words, and his voice was harder than usual. “Listen! Tell me something, and above all, be honest. You detest me, eh?”
Eyes heavy with sleep opened astonished under Victor’s tousled mop. “What?”
“Have no fear. Say what you think, and be truthful. That above all. You’ll have a hundred sous if you tell the truth. You detest me, yes?”
Victor reflected and made his decision. “Oh, yes! As you say, really, I detest you. What is it you were wanting, now?”
The old man gave a convulsive sigh. “You hate me, why? You should pity me. Look, I am very old, I am very ill…I’m alone, I have no one who loves me. Abandoned…”
This was quite different from his usual way. A distress, coming near to supplication trembled in his voice, None of this did Victor recognize; he was too close to sleep… And the old man had been for too long a tyrant.
“You’re not abandoned, I am here…”
Under his breath he finished: “Nuisance enough for me.”
But the old man insisted. “Yes, yes, I’m abandoned…alone with my sorrows. All the world detests me. All the world welcomes my death. All the world…”
He looked around him with a frightened air. Suddenly he cried to Victor: “Why do you hate me? I’ve done nothing to you!”
Victor shook his head. “Yes, you’ve done a lot to me. And worse to my mother. And worse to everyone else. Just ask in the neighborhood. They owe you money, they’re afraid of you…they hate you, why not? I have to tell the truth for a hundred sous! Too bad, why can’t I go to bed? I work, you know. I have to get up soon.”
“Wait…wait a little. You hate me, eh? Like they all do. You wish I would die. Well…if I were to give you, as long as I live, a hundred sous a day… Yes, a hundred sous a day…”
“A hundred sous a day? Are you insane?” Victor recoiled in alarm. “What would I have to do?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.” The old man’s voice trembled. “Just to please you. Just so you won’t hate me.”
“All that sounds dodgy, thanks. I’m not falling for it.”
“No, imbecile! It’s nothing underhand… It is… It is…so there will be one person in the world who does not welcome my death. You don’t realize!” He yelled this, haggard. “It’s not for you to do anything. Every day you have a hundred sous, and you have nothing to do but to hope for it, come and take it. When I die, you’ll have no more.”
He searched under his pillow. “Look! Yours! Take it!” He held out the money.
Victor, not reassured, hesitated. But all at once the old man flung himself back in a convulsion. He opened his mouth and no cry came; he fell inert, while the money tumbled onto the floor.
Victor stooped, gathered the coins, looked at the old man lying motionless, eyes fixed, mouth slack.
“I still hate you,” he told him, putting five francs in his pocket. And he left, shouting to wake the house.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)