Frédéric Boutet: The Peacock Feathers (complete, plus a bonus!)
The Peacock Feathers
“The Arthur Harris affair is one of the drollest I have ever seen.” (This was told us by the illustrious London detective Barnay.) “The police at first allowed themselves to be taken in, as did the rest of the world, but this could be of no profit to the young Harris…”
He was an actor by profession, without talent or hope…so that after a few months of studying declamation and acquiring only pretension, he had tried without success, first theater, then music hall, becoming at last one of those busking rascals of the lowest order, lest he die of famine.
That miserable existence weighed on him all the more, as extreme poverty told against his chances of love. He had a young sweetheart as virtuous as she was pretty, a private instructress called Edith. The young people, being without a ha’penny, could not marry, and despaired of ever doing so. They feared they must remain all their lives an engaged couple.
One day Arthur read in the newspaper of an American impresario who had offered to a celebrated murderer 500 dollars a week, on condition that if acquitted, he would allow himself to be displayed on the stage.
Arthur had an idea…one of genius, as he thought.
“Darling Edith…” he said to his love. It was the following Sunday, the only day they could pass a few moments together. “I have found the means to my fortune, the way to give my persona the fame injustice has refused it. My name wants some means of reaching the ears of the public. In our era, advertising is everything; without it, the flame of brilliance perishes, extinguished by the candle-snuffer of indifference. I have discovered the avenue for obtaining, free, a landslide of publicity. Let us go take a cup of tea, and along the way I’ll relate to you my plan…”
A week later, all the London papers were occupying themselves with an affair which had appeared as a sudden sensation—a young teacher, a Miss Edith Evans, twenty-three years of age, had three days before disappeared. It was a Friday. She had gone out, the children given leave for a family holiday. She did not return. The only clue being that she’d said to the chambermaid before leaving she expected to meet her fiancé.
The next day, the papers had the name and address of this fiancé: Arthur Harris. They had sketched out his biography. They mentioned that the police were looking for him…to provide them information. He had not been seen at his usual restaurant since the Friday morning, nor at his usual performing corner, where his fellows were amazed by his absence.
The day succeeding all that, the “Sensational Crime” was touted on the front page of every newspaper. The police had made investigation at the home of Arthur Harris. They had carried away a frightful discovery. The neighbors’ testimony was unequivocal: The young actor on that tragic Friday had come home at around four o’clock, in the company of a young woman whose description exactly matched that of Edith. A few minutes after closing their door, the neighbors had heard cries and pleas, but accustomed to Arthur’s histrionics when he practiced his roles, had sat unstirred.
The young man went downstairs at around seven, and a little after climbed again, with a can of methylated spirits. At around 2:00 a.m., he went down (the neighbor below, unable to sleep for her bad teeth, had recognized him from his step, and accompanied by no other). Since then, there had been not the least news of Arthur Harris, and none of the young woman who’d gone up with him.
The officers had forced the door of the fatal lodgings, where discoveries most sinister were made: drops of blood on the floor, showing themselves despite a recent cleaning, a rope suspended above the floor, a tub, a cleaver, a carving knife, and a handsaw, all freshly scrubbed—and most of all, in the iron stove, were partly carbonized bone fragments. It was obvious. Harris had lured his victim to his home and murdered her, motive unknown. Likeliest a crime of passion. He had then cut her to bits in hopes of disguising the evidence. The methylated spirits had served to burn a part of the corpse; the murderer had undoubtedly carried away the rest in his suitcase, which they hadn’t found.
The emotion caused by this affair, that the press dubbed, “The Case of the Teacher Chopped to Pieces”, was considerable. The ferocity of the crime, the sympathetic figure of the victim, the mystery offered by the flight of the murderer, sought for thus far in vain, made the matter famous, and impassioned the city of London, the English nation, and all the world. The cleverest policemen were dispatched after Harris, the most active inquiries carried out at the stations, consultations demanded of the masters of criminal science, all returning no clue. The description of the actor had been sped in every direction, his portrait reproduced by every journal. Arthur Harris, then, and for several days after, could have been said to preoccupy the civilized world. He was adopted as The Topic, and his celebrity—criminal, true—was universal.
One morning it was learned that Harris had been arrested. The young man, rather than take refuge in a distant country as expected…as perchance he might have, with enough money, had simply retreated to an inn on the banks of the Thames, under a false name, and had passed his days fishing. One of his neighbors, mistrusting the actor, when one or two drunken confidences had escaped him, warned the local police. Delighted at such a chance, a crowd, informed by this amateur policeman, surrounded Harris and had him pummeled half-unconscious beforehand.
In a very poor state, Harris was carried to London, treated, and interrogated with all the respect due a murderer of his importance. But then this frightful mystery, which had excited everyone, burst in an instant like a soap bubble. The young man, formally presented with the accusation against him, seemed unable to comprehend it…he had shown a stupefied face under his bruises. He explained that there was not the least crime, that Edith had gone to the country to care for an elderly aunt. As for himself, in her absence, and being pursued by relentless creditors, he had taken a small loan and fled without a word to anyone, to tarry for a time by the water. He hadn’t read a single newspaper, nor had he notified anyone of his retirement.
When spoken to of the clues discovered during the inquiry, he answered that the cries heard were the result of a lesson, given to Edith, in the art of declamation. She had gone down with him at night, when the hour came for her taking her train. The rope hanging over the floor was not to suspend a corpse, but for his gymnastic exercises. He had bought the alcohol to cook his dinner, and the bones in the stove were from a rabbit. As to the blood on the floor, it came from—he showed them—a cut on his finger. All these statements corresponded with the proofs.
Edith, from the depths of the countryside, reported herself quite well, and said that if she had left her post without warning, it was to escape the unwelcome attentions of the children’s uncle!
And there you have it. Harris had dreamed up the lot to make himself famous, and had put it across to the world, and to myself, being in charge of the inquiry. Funnily enough, the young fellow, for the beating inflicted on him at the time of his arrest, and those few days he’d spent as prisoner, gained nothing. He received his liberty amidst public condemnation, and his fame ended with his captivity.
“You are innocent; you are of no interest,” an impresario he’d begged employment of told him, with disgust for his boast of renown. He was forced to quit London to avoid starving to death, and took refuge with the faithful Edith, in the house left her by the old aunt.
It pleased me to send him as souvenir, for the useless chore of investigating him, a translation of a fable by your great La Fontaine…you know, that of the jay who dons the feathers of a peacock…
I grew up with the stories of Saki—a collection of selected pieces, with a foreword written by Graham Greene. (The only Greene book we had in the house was Travels with My Aunt.) When I first began these translations, I found a biographical blurb on Boutet that compared him to Poe, and I put that in my introduction. Since then I haven’t found much resemblance between Poe and Boutet, at least in these stories from Imberger. Munro is the writer Boutet most reminds me of, and so, as this one is in the public domain, I include it for your comparison.
Broadly, a plot can go two ways: an atypical individual lands in a commonplace setting, as in stories of eccentric relatives and magical figures. Or, the opposite, a commonplace individual finds him/herself in a challenging, or wholly bizarre situation. Stories involving a young soldier who discovers what war really is, are of this type. Both plot trends make good foundations for either comedy or drama.
“The Peacock Feathers”, above, is the atypical-character sort, with a twist, in which an everyday situation is contrived to look bizarre. “The Reticence of Lady Anne”, below, is about a terribly mundane person, confronted with the mildly macabre…
The Reticence of Lady Anne
H. H. Munro (pen name, Saki)
Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality. The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forgo hostilities. Her pose in the arm-chair by the tea-table was rather elaborately rigid; in the gloom of a December afternoon Egbert’s pince-nez did not materially help him to discern the expression of her face.
By way of breaking whatever ice might be floating on the surface he made a remark about a dim religious light. He or Lady Anne were accustomed to make that remark between 4:30 and 6 on winter and late autumn evenings; it was part of their married life. There was no recognized rejoinder to it, and Lady Anne made none.
Don Tarquinio lay astretch on the Persian rug, basking in the firelight with superb indifference to the possible ill-humour of Lady Anne. His pedigree was as flawlessly Persian as the rug, and his ruff was coming into the glory of its second winter. The page-boy, who had Renaissance tendencies, had christened him Don Tarquinio. Left to themselves, Egbert and Lady Anne would unfailingly have called him Fluff, but they were not obstinate.
Egbert poured himself out some tea. As the silence gave no sign of breaking on Lady Anne’s initiative, he braced himself for another Yermak effort.
‘My remark at lunch had a purely academic application,’ he announced; ‘you seem to put an unnecessarily personal significance into it.’
Lady Anne maintained her defensive barrier of silence. The bullfinch lazily filled in the interval with an air from Iphigénie en Tauride. Egbert recognized it immediately, because it was the only air the bullfinch whistled, and he had come to them with the reputation for whistling it. Both Egbert and Lady Anne would have preferred something from the Yeoman of the Guard, which was their favourite opera. In matters artistic they had a similarity of taste. They leaned towards the honest and explicit in art, a picture, for instance, that told its own story, with generous assistance from its title. A riderless warhorse with harness in obvious disarray, staggering into a courtyard of pale, swooning women, and marginally noted ‘Bad News’, suggested to their minds a distinct interpretation of some military catastrophe. They could see what it was meant to convey, and explain it to friends of duller intelligence.
The silence continued. As a rule, Lady Anne’s displeasure became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of introductory muteness. Egbert seized the milk-jug and poured some of its contents into Don Tarquinio’s saucer; as the saucer was already full to the brim an unsightly overflow was the result. Don Tarquinio looked on with a surprised interest that evanesced into elaborate unconsciousness when he was appealed to by Egbert to come and drink up some of the spilt matter. Don Tarquinio was prepared to play many rôles in life, but a vacuum carpet-cleaner was not one of them.
‘Don’t you think we’re being rather foolish?’ said Egbert cheerfully.
If Lady Anne thought so she didn’t say so.
‘I daresay the fault has been partly on my side,’ continued Egbert, with evaporating cheerfulness. ‘After all, I’m only human, you know. You seem to forget that I’m only human.’
He insisted on the point, as if there had been unfounded suggestions that he was built on Satyr lines, with goat continuations where the human left off.
The bullfinch recommenced its air from Iphigénie en Tauride. Egbert began to feel depressed. Lady Anne was not drinking her tea. Perhaps she was feeling unwell. But when Lady Anne was feeling unwell she was not wont to be reticent on the subject. ‘No one knows what I suffer from indigestion’, was one of her favourite statements; but the lack of knowledge could only have been caused by defective listening; the amount of information available on the subject would have supplied material for a monograph.
Evidently Lady Anne was not feeling unwell.
Egbert began to think he was being unreasonably dealt with; naturally he began to make concessions.
‘I daresay,’ he observed, taking as central a position on the hearthrug as Don Tarquinio could be persuaded to concede him, ‘I may have been to blame. I am willing, if I can thereby restore things to a happier standpoint, to undertake to lead a better life.’
He wondered vaguely how it would be possible. Temptations came to him, in middle age, tentatively and without insistence, like a neglected butcher-boy who asks for a Christmas box in February for no more hopeful reason than that he didn’t get one in December. He had no more idea of succumbing to them than he had of purchasing the fish-knives and fur boas that ladies are impelled to sacrifice through the medium of advertising columns during twelve months of the year. Still, there was something impressive in this unasked-for renunciation of possibly latent enormities.
Lady Anne showed no sign of being impressed.
Egbert looked at her nervously through his glasses. To get the worst of an argument with her was no new experience. To get the worst of a monologue was a humiliating novelty.
‘I shall go and dress for dinner,’ he announced, in a voice in which he intended some shade of sternness to creep.
At the door a final access of weakness impelled him to make a further appeal.
‘Aren’t we being very silly?’
‘A fool,’ was Don Tarquinio’s mental comment as the door closed on Egbert’s retreat. Then he lifted his velvet forepaws in the air and leapt lightly onto a bookshelf immediately under the bullfinch’s cage. It was the first time he had seemed to notice the bird’s existence, but he was carrying out a long-formed theory of action with the precision of mature deliberation. The bullfinch, who had fancied himself something of a despot, depressed himself of a sudden into a third of his normal displacement; then he fell to a helpless wing-beating and shrill cheeping. He had cost twenty-seven shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne made no sign of interfering. She had been dead for two hours.
The Peacock Feathers
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)