Frédéric Boutet: Madame Paul (complete)
“Two-thirty, dammit. I’ll have to get on with my rounds. Goodbye, Madame Paul.”
“Goodbye, Monsieur Morin.”
The customer, a traveling salesman who’d stopped to refresh himself, paid for his beer, returned to his car and drove off. Mme Paul, a woman of forty or forty-five, her face tired under faded brown hair, rinsed the glass and put it away. She crossed the deserted parlor of her little auberge, and reached the door. The day was hot. A heavy rain began, drops rolling paths in the dust of the thoroughfare.
A man appeared. He left the road that ran along the inn’s frontage then plunged into woodland. He was tall, dressed in a ragged suit, a dirty hat pulled low over hollow cheeks. His beard was a shaggy reddish-grey.
And seeing him approach, Mme Paul retreated. Two minutes after, he opened the door.
“What do you want?”
“I want to eat and drink.”
She felt a nervous thrill. He doffed his hat, and she saw his eyes.
“My God! It’s you!” Gasping for breath, she lowered herself onto a chair.
“There is no one else here, is that so?” he asked in a low voice
“No one. My God, it’s you! Why have you never given any sign of life? What have you done for twelve years, since you left? Why do you come back now?”
He answered her: “I waited in the woods until I was certain you were alone. But give me a meal first. We will talk after.”
She ran to find him some cold meat, bread and beer. Hungrily he ate without speaking. She watched him…tears she could not contain flowed down her cheeks. When he had finished, she poured him a cup of coffee, and a little glass of cognac.
“That’s good. I haven’t sat to a meal in more than eight days, and had my fill. Another little glass, eh?”
“You are in misery?” she asked.
He spread his arms to better show his rags. “You have only to look at me. But it’s all right. It’s my own fault. Why did I leave? Why did I give you up? It’s not the first time I’ve been sorry, not the first remorseful, there! When I think I’d had the luck to come across a woman like you, hardworking, honest, pretty, all that…and after ten years of marriage, of getting on well…”
Indignant, she jumped to her feet. “Ten years of getting on well? Stop it! You know how you made me suffer!”
“Nonsense! You were jealous for nothing…”
“Is it nothing, also, to go without a word, run out like that and leave me with three children…?”
“No! That was a mad itch come over me…a mad itch, there is no other word. But I’ve been punished, I’ve had enough to regret, enough of bad luck!”
He winced. They had been down this road. His face showed a disquieting thought. “Say! I should not be seen here like this, all of a sudden, eh? Should we go into the closet for our talk?”
Into a little chamber that gave onto the garden, she accompanied him. He carried the bottle of cognac.
“The business does well?” he asked.
“Yes, just about. At first when you left I didn’t know how I’d carry on by myself, no money, the children to raise. I thought I would die. Now, it’s not so bad.” She spoke without anger. Never had she stayed angry with this man she had loved so. She looked at him, despite his age, despite poverty, despite loss, and found in him the traces of what had been. But what vices and what faults marked his face? Why this fear, and these worried glances towards the door?
“What have you done?” she asked abruptly.
He started, and she thought she saw him flush. “I’ve done nothing! Do you even question it? When I left, it was a madness…”
“Please!” She cut him off. “You took the account-books of M. Deluize when you left!”
“Not true…that’s gossip! I’ll make it short…I had this mad itch, and I was trying to make my fortune, you understand? I meant to come back and ask your forgiveness. I failed…I made bad friends, I had to eat what money I had. And then, madame, I did not dare return. But now I’m old. I wanted to see you before I die.”
She gave him no answer.
“Where are the children?”
“Cécile has married Bernard, the valet. Emile is coachman, but he lives here. Eugénie is a seamstress, she spends her days at the manor house. The gamekeeper has proposed to her. They are going to be married this winter.”
“But…how old is she?”
“It’s true…she was five or six when… Surely, I won’t know her, or the others! Not any longer. Tell me, what do they think has become of me, their father? They think I’m dead, is that right? And it would be better for everyone…for me most of all…”
“What will you do?”
“I hardly know. There’s not much I can do… Just now, you understand, it’s best if I don’t show myself. I had a little trouble in Paris…oh, nothing much. To do with jewelry. Perhaps I could stay here, be your odd-job man, wait for things to clear up…”
She grew pale. “Listen,” she said after a moment. “If you want, you can stay. For all you did to me, I never told you to leave. But there are the children. You know you can’t hide here…everyone will find out in a day or two. The county police will recognize you, two of them were here before you left… Think, if you’ve returned, it will be talked of. They will be told, they’ll know. I would never say anything myself. But the children, for the sake of Eugénie, who is going to be married… They don’t deserve this.”
“This! What?” he asked, not daring to look at her.
“You, to be arrested here,” she whispered. “No! Don’t say anything. What’s the use? You must decide. Myself, I don’t know what you risk. Only you know…”
She went to her cash drawer, opened it and returned to him.
“Here, here is some money. It’s all I have. Decide. If you can stay, if there is no danger…very good, this is your home. Others can say what they like, I don’t care. You’re my husband, you’ve come home, that’s all. But if you can’t stay, if there’s a danger…then make up your mind! Think carefully. It’s more than I know, you understand…”
She tried to speak calmly, but her trembling was violent.
He stood in fear, holding the money in his fist. She left him in the little chamber and went into the other room. After a few minutes she heard the sound of steps, and the sound of a door. She went to the window, and saw him leave the garden. He passed into the green shadow of the road as it dipped into the woods.
When she could see him no more, she wiped her brimming eyes of tears.
“He was never a bad man,” she murmured.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)