Frédéric Boutet: Berthe (complete)
He closed the store in haste and ran onto the rue de Rivoli, towards the boulevard de Sébastopol. She might be waiting.
Before turning at the corner, he stopped a minute, a habit of his, before a hairdresser’s glass. He put straight his cravat, noted vexedly that his clothes were no more elegant than yesterday’s, that his age looked no more than seventeen…for all he was nearly nineteen. But he was satisfied enough with his blue eyes, and the heavy forelock that graced his brow.
“You find yourself nice to look at! You are,” whispered a laughing voice in his ear.
He went purple. She seemed about twenty-four, was tall like himself, thin and well-made. She wore a simple black dress. Under her cloche hat, she had a pretty, pale face, blonde curls tumbling around ringed eyes, a large red mouth, bright teeth. He’d met her on the street ten days ago; he knew only that her name was Berthe, and that she worked.
“Hello, my little Georges,” she said, her voice low and secret.
“Hello…Berthe.” It took effort, answering, as he blushed all the more, and each time he saw her, he was at first badly intimidated.
She laughed. “Have you been in the sun? No, just that you’re such a boy! I can see it’s your first time…”
Mortified, saying nothing and redder than ever, he walked close to her. They crossed the bridge. Evening came on, and in the little streets they were already in shadow.
“Oh, well,” said Berthe at last. “Tell me, have you lost your tongue?”
“You make fun of me.” He spoke like a sulky child.
“No, silly, I’m joking.”
She took his arm. Content, he pressed against her, his mood ecstatic.
“How pretty you are! You don’t know…all day when I’m working, I can’t believe in the evening I’ll find you… When I think I’ll never meet you again…I leave the store and there you are, as though you waited for me. You look at me and laugh. We talk…I don’t know how. It’s the funniest thing!”
He lowered his voice, grew pale, and pleaded, “Kiss me?”
Gently, she pushed him back. “You’re crazy. Too many people!”
“You always put me off. You don’t love me, I know it! In half an hour we’ll have to leave each other… And tomorrow’s Sunday, so I can’t see you.”
He felt angry now, wanting to loose his arm from hers, but she held on.
“If I didn’t like you, why should I be here? It can’t be for your money!” She was impatient, a little rough, and soon went further: “Isn’t that it, your constant complaint…?”
“Yes, it’s true I haven’t a sou. When I was a child, we had money, but we were ruined when Papa died. That’s been two years now. And then, I’ve let my studies go… I have to be employed.”
“That’s a nuisance for you, is it?”
“Yes, naturally…especially now. I’d be free to see you more. I would like to give you gifts, take you out with me, travel… But I’ll get there. I’ll do anything for you, no matter what!”
A sidelong look. “Is that right…?”
“Yes! I’m so bored with it! I love you too much…I want… I want…”
“You’re not afraid? You would dare…go along with me, yes?”
“Afraid? Oh, no, not at all! Afraid of what? I’m not a child, I can decide…I have, long since! I would risk anything. Do you hear, anything!”
“Shush!” she whispered. “Lower your voice.”
They left the populous streets they’d climbed, turned towards the deserted ones in the neighborhood of the Panthéon. Night had fallen. Suddenly, in the shadow of a condemned doorway, the young woman stopped. Georges saw her, her eyes luminous, her lips parted, an expression of resolution on her pale face.
“Listen,” she breathed. “It’s the truth, I can count on you? You mean it?”
“Yes!” Energetically, he said this.
She took him by the neck, drew his face to hers and looked deep into his eyes. Then she folded against him and kissed him violently. She felt him shudder in her arms, moan almost in pain.
“Come,” she whispered.
He followed her. Undone, still trembling, he could not have known what street he was on, or what door she opened, but found himself in a little salesroom, a wine merchant’s, narrow, deserted. Behind the counter the owner was near invisible, and seemed asleep. One client in a corner, hands in pockets and hat over eyes, sat at a tiny table, an absinthe before him. He was young, with an athlete’s shoulders, a face hard and calculating.
“Good evening, Berthe. Is that your little friend?”
Georges, startled, found himself given a sharp look.
“Evening,” answered the young woman. She turned to Georges, told him, half-embarrassed and half-ironic: “That’s my brother.”
A sarcastic laugh. “Her brother, perfect! They call me M. Maurice. Let’s go, three sugars and the little cups, père Victor!”
The owner got up to serve, then discreetly made for the backroom.
Georges had gone white and shaky. “I don’t want…” he began.
“None of that! Don’t quibble!” interrupted the peremptory M. Maurice. “Now all together…to our success! So, are we finished with wages of fifty a month? We have ambition, we like putting on the dog! We like a bit of the ready, like cuddling the little ladies… Perfect…I love it, we’re off! Now look here, you’re going to give me the key that opens the door to the jeweler’s court. I know you’ve got it, since it’s you shuts up the store. I keep myself informed! It’s two months now, that Berthe and I have prepared for this. Today’s Saturday…your boss has gone to the country. We’ll do the job this evening. Your part is only to show me the cases where the fakes are kept, and the real stuff…I don’t trade in paste. No risk for you, lad! A key…say it lost itself…and you get your share. Word of honor, what’s to complain of?”
Georges was on his feet, disturbed, aghast. Horror and absinthe made havoc of his thoughts. He stared at M. Maurice. He stared at Berthe, who looked elsewhere.
“Then…then…it’s that!” A sob came out.
“Now what’s the meaning, Berthe?” M. Maurice gave a raw-edged laugh. “You’ve told him nothing? It’s like he’s fallen off the moon!”
She raised her eyes and looked at Georges. “I thought he was with us. I’d said enough for him to understand…”
Bewildered, Georges said, “I believed it was… I believed it was…”
“You believed it was your pretty face? You haven’t looked at yourself,” M. Maurice mocked. “She’s not my sister. She’s my wife. Get it? Now come on, give over the key. We’re done with talk. You have no choice, you’re in this…you’ll have to swallow it! You’re coming with us.”
He moved to block the street-door. Georges threw himself back.
“I can’t! Let me go! I won’t tell anyone, I swear! The jeweler is my uncle. It’s because he gave me his confidence…he would know. I would be found out. I live with my mother, she has no one but me. We’re poor. I can’t, I can’t…I beg you!”
“Shut up! It’s past time for yes or no. The key! Or, if not….”
The man took a menacing step, but the young woman jumped between them. “Let him go, he’s a goose! He won’t say anything. He knows you’d kill him sooner or later.”
“Better I do it now, then. What’s got into you?”
She flung her arms around him and held on with all her strength. “Get out!” she said, breathless, to Georges. “Quick! Save yourself!”
Cursing, the man squeezed her wrists. She cried out in pain. He shoved her at last, and she fell against the wall. But Georges had by then flown through the door, running as fast as he could.
“In the name of God, what’s got into you! Have you gone mad?” growled M. Maurice, going to Berthe, who was picking herself up.
“I don’t want you in trouble for a thing that’s not worth it,” she said, calmly arranging her dress. “It’s a lost cause, a lost cause. Settle down, that kid won’t say anything. He’s a bundle of nerves. Now goodnight, I’m going for a walk.”
She went out to the street.
M. Maurice stood dumbfounded.
Drawn by the noise, the cabaret owner came out, remarking: “Ladies. Sometimes the oddest ideas.”
“That is…so true,” said M. Maurice, and left to catch up with Berthe. “And at the best of times, you never know what they’ll do!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)