Frédéric Boutet: Good Counsel (complete)
After a bridge, and at the meeting of two roads before a house where the sign read: Café-Restaurant, M. Bridol stopped his car, a little automobile he drove himself, and alighted with bounce and elegance.
The house was new and decorated in style. Stands of trees and a beautiful orchard attended it. M. Bridol threw over these a tender glance; then with a glance more tender yet, entered the coffee room. An employee was putting the tables in order. At the back, behind the counter, a young woman with brown hair sat embroidering. She raised her head.
M. Bridol, armed with all his graces, crossed the room and leaned in a familiar way on the counter. A wall mirror reflected his royal blue cravat, his marceled hair, his sheep-like face, and curled mustaches. He smiled, and with the languor of a gallant spoke to her warmly.
He had a large winery in Versailles, and placed his vintages with success throughout the region. Here, he meant also to place his heart. For months he had wooed Mme May, the proprietress of the café. He was in love with her fresh beauty and zaftig shape, in love with her devilish gaiety, which, he said, drove him to desperation. He loved her practical character, her decisive mind; and that, in the six years since her widowhood, she had run the good little business so well, it brought in plenty of money.
Yet this was too heavy a task for a woman, when she might have the support of, and give heed to, a devoted man—a man who knew trade and also enjoyed position. M. Bridol held the conviction that he was fated to be that man. Unhappily, he tried in vain to make Mme May believe it.
Drawing all possible effect from his mustaches, his hair, his eyes, and his teeth, he mixed ardor with sentiment, and both with matters of business. He touted alternately the quality of his wines and of his love. Mme May, not greatly impressed, laughed, joked, and shook her head…she did not want to remarry. He knew this quite well! She had told him a thousand times.
M. Bridol, taken aback by this persistent lack of sensibility, which in the grandeur of his vanity, he could not explain to himself, touched upon another chord, one he’d already tried to pluck. Was it not frightening to her, to live so alone? In the evenings, when the servants and the gardeners were gone, did she not feel worried and threatened in this isolated house, where it was known there was no man?
She shrugged. No, she was not afraid. Her house was well-secured, the doors and shutters were sound. Besides, the country was quite safe.
He inclined his head, solicitous. He had seen, on the road, no more than an hour past, some criminal-looking figures, who surely searched for a job to do. And not for the first time! He had already warned her…she exposed herself to danger…
She laughed again. But with less conviction, it seemed to him. He repeated: “Ah! If you would, if you would…”
And with a great pathetic sigh, he squeezed her hand significantly and left her.
He had conceived a new idea, a magnificent, impressive idea, that must lead to success. He suspended his usual scheme.
Three days later, in the gloom of rainy weather, and a little before midnight, M. Bridol left Versailles in his car. Next to him a vagrant sat, hood thrown back, puffing, with a worldly air, a cigar.
“Do you understand, completely?” asked M. Bridol. “Do you know what you must do?”
The vagrant understood above all that this gentleman, who had picked him up by the wayside and paid for, stopping at a roadhouse, a generous dinner and many a dram, had promised him fifty francs for something…
What? This, to his mind, remained vague. “If you was to start up explaining again, that wouldn’t go amiss,” he said frankly.
“Well! I am going to take you near the house, behind which there is a garden. The wall is low, you climb it, you proceed through this garden, and you take a turn round the house, like someone searching for a way in. Then return to the bottom of the garden, where there is a chicken house. Twist the neck of two or three chickens—and use good care to let them squawk! Make a great deal of noise altogether, so that you must be heard, and throw out a couple or three whistles…”
The vagrant, using his dirty nails to scratch his overgrown beard, started. “If I make a racket, they’ll come out, and it’s me they’ll fall on, thank you.”
“No, no. Calm down. There is only one person, and she will not dare to stir. It is I who will arrive, as if I were passing by chance in my car, and then came to the rescue. You will save yourself by climbing the wall again, and I’ll fire a few shots from my revolver…”
“Never mind where! At the wall, at a tree…”
“Not at me, eh? Keep an eye out! Those things are tricky! And then…?”
“You run off wherever you like. Have no fear, I won’t chase you. What’s more, I’ll point them in a false direction, and if there’s an inquiry, I’ll give a false description. I repeat to you all this is of no consequence…it’s only a joke I’m playing on someone.”
“Doesn’t seem so hilarious,” muttered the vagrant. “Stunts like that, not my cup of tea. But each his own. And the fifty francs?”
“Twenty-five right now. Tomorrow evening, at the place where I met you, you will have another twenty-five, and even a hundred sous above, if I’m pleased.”
“I’ll do my best.”
They spoke no more. M. Bridol was in the heady grip of a powerful self-admiration. The plan, inspired by his vague recollection of something similar he had read or heard, appeared to him ingenious. Mme May, awakened and terrorized by bandits, delivered by his heroic bursting-in, could not fail to surrender him her hand…
Perhaps even, in the emotion and gratitude of the first moments…
He imagined her in her nightgown, palpitating and falling into his arms…
But, he stopped his car. They had arrived. The rain had ended and a glimpse of moonlight passed at intervals. M. Bridol showed the little wall to the vagrant. Taking a scruple, the vagrant asked if he could, in saving himself, carry off the chickens he’d killed. M. Bridol said yes, and saw the vagrant climb, maladroit. On the other side the man tumbled over some glass frames and the din was great. M. Bridol listened to him swear and struggle. Certain Mme May must be awake, he bounded in his turn to the wall’s top, and jumped into the garden. The dogs of the neighborhood barked with all their might. The vagrant, frightened, crossed the wall again in great haste.
M. Bridol brandished his revolver, preparing to fire, when, on the first floor of the house, a window flew open. A gunshot flared in the dark. The bullet fell to earth not far off.
“I see you, villain!” cried a strong voice. “Don’t try to escape, or I’ll flank you with my second shot! Hands in the air, and walk along the path up to the house. Obey or you’re dead!”
Terrified, sweat beading his forehead, and legs wobbling, M. Bridol obeyed. As he advanced he began his explanations, in a strangled voice: “I am Bridol! Don’t shoot! I am Bridol, the wine merchant! Mme May knows me…”
There came a little cry of surprise, then a whispering at the window. A moment later, before a M. Bridol paralyzed with fear, the door of the house swung back. A tall fellow, half-dressed, stood gun in hand. Behind his shoulder peeped Mme. May, charming in dishevelment, a lantern in her hand.
“That is M. Bridol,” she said.
“What’s going on? Why are you here?” asked the man with the gun.
Speechless with consternation, M. Bridol wished to pose the same question, but he deemed circumstance did not permit. He gave the story that he’d been making for Versailles in his car, when from a distance he had spotted malefactors scaling the garden wall. Consulting only his courage, in pursuit he had rushed to the defense of Mme May.
The other man offered his hand. “Now, there’s a man who has no fear! And I thank you, because I might not have been here…”
“This is my cousin, a gamekeeper,” explained Mme May, blushing a little. “You understand, M. Bridol, I had asked him to come stay, whenever he was free, for all your making me nervous with your stories of thieves. But I see that you were right!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)