Frédéric Boutet: The Legacy (complete)
It was evening, Mme Lefertin at her sewing, next to the table set for dinner. M. Lefertin appeared, looking so pale and distraught that she stood, her work falling from her hands…
“Octave! My God! Are you ill?”
“No one can hear us?”
“No. Uncle Blaise is in his room, the children are in theirs, and the maid is in the kitchen. But, what is it?”
M. Lefertin leaned towards her; then he breathed, in tragic manner: “He is ruined.”
“Who? Who is ruined? Explain!”
“Uncle Blaise! I learned today by chance, at the office. His banker…you know him? The excellent Deveuse, that noble old man, that eminent financier. That childhood friend, who had all our uncle’s confidence, the one he is always praising to us, pushing at us…that twenty times he’s insisted we invite to dinner, and treat like a prince! This phoenix has made a mess of his affairs, he has gambled, he has…well! Let me tell you, he has flown the coop. He has left a huge debt, sunk all the capital Uncle Blaise entrusted to him despite my advice. He is flat broke…what our uncle has left for a pension would barely buy bread in an asylum.”
“Goodness, are you certain?”
Certain! M. Lefertin shrugged like a man overwhelmed, and fell into a chair.
“My God! It’s terrible! Then we ourselves must be brought down. Condemned for the rest of our lives to commonness! And the children, for whom we’ve endured all, for six years, in hopes of assuring their fortune…”
“There is no fortune!”
The two exchanged a mournful look. The catastrophe had devastated them. The only bright spot in their dull lives was crushed. The inheritance Uncle Blaise would leave, the expectation of which gave them courage in their difficult hours, and prestige in the eyes of relatives, was no more. They thought, at this, of the old man himself, and a sort of fury seized them.
“There is no money,” said M. Lefertin in a stifled voice. “But there is still our uncle…”
“He doesn’t know, naturally, since for three days the gout has kept him from going out. And he hasn’t received any letters. Will you warn him?”
He laughed. “Not at all! Probably they’ll speak of it in the papers, or he may be summoned…who knows? In whatever case, I want him obliged to tell us himself. He may be a little less arrogant and surly than usual. Until then, you understand, we know nothing.”
“When I think of what we’ve tolerated since his coming to live with us! When I think of his demands, his vulgarities… He has placed us lower than dirt! He has dishonored us before our friends! Well and good to say he is old, and we keep him for charity…no, it’s too much! The most beautiful room, the fuss every day over menus, the way he treats the children… It makes me weep! And pretending anything goes when it’s family, behaving here as he would not dare in a boarding house! And to me, no less, to me he speaks as I would not speak to my servant!”
“And the senile old men he calls his friends, and forces on us! And that time I’d asked him for five hundred francs, remember, what a long story he gave!”
They went on reminiscing, with rising exasperation, upon their grievances. The cantankerous, selfish, authoritarian, querulous Uncle Blaise had tyrannized them for six years. But until now, dreaming of inheritance, the two had done their best not to notice. Now they amazed themselves, to have so many complaints; they wallowed in the memory of a thousand wounds borne patiently for the sake of money. They marveled at their good faith…at their having had such tolerance…
“Well! It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” concluded Mme Lefertin. “We can be rid of him, at last.”
“Oh, count on it! When he learns he’s been ruined, he won’t have the audacity, surely, to impose himself further. I’ll send him packing without regret or remorse, I promise. He threatens to leave often enough, to live someplace else… At present, however, we don’t know anything. Not you nor I…not he! This evening I’ll let him have what’s coming. Yes, perfect, the pleasure is mine. I’ll say what I think. Oh! Quite calm and gentle I’ll be…he is an old man! Quite peaceful, but I’ll have my revenge. Shh…here he comes!”
The old man appeared. He was bony, his jowls bristling with a short grey beard, his eyes lively under tufting brows. He wore a black frockcoat, coming apart; house slippers, faded—and around his neck a scarf, dirty.
“I see again you are sewing next to the tablecloth, sticking your pins into the seat cushions,” he scolded Mme Lefertin. “Can it be dinner time at last? Seven-thirty! I don’t like waiting! Jacques! Paul!” He shouted, turning to the door. “Are you coming, you clods?”
Summoned thus, two boys, of eight and ten years, flew in and seated themselves.
Uncle Blaise was the meal’s only speaker. He put forth despotic political axioms hostile to M. Lefertin’s convictions. For Mme Lefertin, he had hurtful words on the theme of veal stew with a lumpy sauce. He chivvied the servant who wasn’t quick enough with the bread.
Mme Lefertin remained calm. M. Lefertin contented himself, supported by thoughts of the coming vengeance.
“Go to your room to finish your homework before bedtime,” he said to his sons when, after dessert, the maid had brought Uncle Blaise his chamomile tea.
Uncle Blaise lit a short pipe whose odor powerfully filled the room. Mme Lefertin coughed.
“What now?” he said. “And making faces! The smoke makes you cough, does it!”
“I will ask you not to speak to my wife in that tone,” M. Lefertin cut him off, drily.
Uncle Blaise started. “What! What’s that you say?”
“I say that we’ve had enough! I say that for too long my wife and I have borne with your despotism. Money gives no one the right to be impolite. We’ve had patience because of your age, hoping you would come to realize, one day or another, that to act as you do is cowardice on your part… Yes, monsieur, cowardice! I stand by the word!”
“Yes! It’s a shame,” put in Mme Lefertin, trembling with pique. “A shame, you hear, Uncle? Further, I repudiate you, and I beg my husband’s forgiveness for having to endure you! But the tipping point has come…we must say goodbye. Too bad, we’ve had enough!”
Uncle Blaise seemed at first shaken by this new attitude of the Lefertins. But suddenly, with a blow of his fist, he made the table rock. “Bravo! I love it! Knock me sideways…that was good! Very good! It disgusted me seeing you swallow my abuses without a peep, just because I’m rich. Now you rebel, you have dignity…you pour it on, consequences be damned, that’s telling me! That’s the style! I say, well done! Now be at peace, I’ll stay. No, I shan’t go, and I’ll be as kind and polite as I would have been from the first, if I hadn’t taken it in my head you humbled yourselves before my money, and would kick at nothing! Have no fear, I leave you everything. No later than tomorrow I’ll make my will. I tell you frankly, I’d hesitated. Now…for this, my dear friends…I leave you all!”
With an expansive cordiality they had never witnessed, he extended his hands. Abashed and furious, they looked at each other, while their uncle, who had nothing left, repeated his effusive:
“My dear friends, I leave you everything. I leave you everything.”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)