Frédéric Boutet: The Edge (complete)
“Toto! Stay still while I wash your face! And you, Jules, will you hold your little sister properly, or else…that’s all I have to say! And Louise! Put on your stockings. Do not have your bare feet on the floor, or I’ll swat you! Christ Alive, and a father who can’t stir himself! He’s going to be late again for sure!”
Abandoning for a moment this hasty putting in order of her five children, Mme Arsin flung into the second room of the poor lodgings. There, in a bed with torn sheets, her meagre and lanky husband, grey of beard, opened a sleep-startled eye among disordered locks of hair.
“Eh? What! What time is it?”
His wife, her face sweaty, her russet hair badly combed, her hands on hips, herself looming large in her worn shift, castigated him.
“You aren’t up? Fine! Thank you, sir. You can take care of yourself! It’s two hours since I’ve been up…what time is it? Time for you to be late! If that’s not a shame!”
Without answering, he was up and quickly donning his ragged clothes.
His wife went on: “It’s no time to be lazy. You know very well you need your bonus at the end of the month. If you’re late, you won’t get it! And what do we do then? I don’t know how I manage going out myself. Louise and Toto have nothing to wear on their feet, the cobbler downstairs won’t fix their shoes anymore. He says you can’t sew together holes. They can’t walk on their naked feet, those children! And I have no shoes either…for two months I’ve waited to buy them. I go in stockings! That can’t go on. And the pharmacist has his bill. And Cecile is still coughing! We need the syrup for our little one! Oh, no, it’s not the time to lose bonuses over laziness! Go! Out! Hurry, swallow your soup and run! I’m off to the laundry. Here are your bread and sausage for lunch. And if, after you’ve eaten, you could economize on the coffee, that would suit me! Take a walk at your break, and if you’re thirsty, drink from a fountain. The water won’t give you anything worse… Go, run, I tell you!”
Towards the bank where he was employed, Arsin took himself along streets full of morning animation. His city was a large one, rich with commerce. He had lived there six years, and every morning he followed the same path. This time, as he walked, he thought about his life, in a disgust without hope. The past, his youth, the money and ambition he’d once had, seemed immeasurably distant, like the memories of some other self. He had lost it all, his young years on capricious flings leading nowhere, fruitless idleness. He had spent his money on pleasures and vanities, improvident daydreams. His ambition he had lost, overwhelmed by obstacles. He thought of this woman he had married to gratify the moment, for all she’d had no fortune and no education. How pretty she had been, how much she had changed. How she must punish him and estrange herself! And for every day onwards, for the length of their life, side by side.
He thought with horror of their misery. Their existence, while the vestiges of his small legacy masked what had become sordid, torturous, had been decent. A day arrived when a relative, well-to-do, passed through Paris on business, and with some contempt had offered—that they not starve to death—the mean place in the country Arsin occupied now.
He entered the bank, but as he reached his room, the door to the deputy director’s opened. “Is that you, Arsin?” cried this important man. “I’ve been waiting for you. Valou, the collector, is unwell, and the boss says you’ll replace him today. The rounds are essential, as it’s the end of the month. Come in, I’ll explain.”
He entered, and listened. To do one thing or another was to him an indifferent matter. A quarter of an hour later, he left the bank, armed with a large, locked briefcase. He must work the city that morning; in the afternoon, the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. He went without haste, guided by his list of addresses, and the money that passed through his hands was swallowed by the briefcase. The bread and sausage, wrapped in paper, Arsin drew from a pocket and ate at noon. He was in a square, a few steps from a bargain café…
He moved to pass a half-hour there, coffee his daily pleasure… But he recalled his wife’s orders. Crouching beside a public fountain, he contented himself with a sip. And having spared a few sous, left the square and continued his tour.
Hours went by. Arsin, from walking, grew fatigued, and those bundles of money that were not for him weighed heavily in the briefcase, stuffed as it had become.
“That is what a hundred thousand francs weighs,” he told himself. He imagined he had even a little more than that. He had gone to the last address marked on his list, received twelve thousand francs. His task was done. But he walked on, his steps slow. He was thirsty, but resisted the café.
A woman crossed his path, one who belonged to the streets, but was young and pretty. He saw her cover him with a professional eye, break off at seeing him so shabby. He smiled a little, thinking of the sum he carried…
A sudden vision made him tremble and blanch. Breathing hard, he walked still a few paces. He was near a rail station. A bench was at his side, and he fell onto it.
Time passed. Arsin reflected, sweat flowing from the hollows of his temples.
“That’s it,” he murmured, so low that not even he could hear his voice. “Yes, that’s it. I will buy a raincoat, a cap, get a shave… In another town, I’ll find other clothes. I’ll dye my hair. Papers…bah! I can arrange them. I will send word to the bank that I’ve been kept late, to my wife that I have to work this evening. And by evening I’ll be far away…there’s a train in an hour. I’ll have enough no matter what, to make my fortune. I have a small fortune already… To live! Live a little, while I have a few good years, before I’m too old… Live free, far from here…”
He made a movement to rise, but stopped. Then he curled himself over the stuffed briefcase and hugged it tight, put his head in his hands and remained that way…
He did not know for how long. At last he raised a distraught face, an older face, and said hoarsely: “I can’t.”
He stood, returned to the bank, deposited the money, and went home.
“I have our little girl’s medicine,” Mme Arsin called to him. Flushed and muss-haired, she stood among the mewling children, who busied themselves fighting with one another. “And for their shoes, I know what to do. I’ll go without and Louise and Toto will have them. Jules, if you hold your sister sideways, I’ll swat you! Get on, have your soup!”
She put the pot on the table; and suddenly irritated, turned to her husband.
“You come home at a fine hour! What have you done? What a life you lead us! Where have you been?”
“I’ve returned from far away,” said Arsin. And he sat, resigned, since it was for their sake he could not…
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)