Frédéric Boutet: A Thief (complete)
It was after midnight. M. Fallaire, wearing his mauve pajamas, stretched himself in his armchair by his bedroom window. He smoked a cigar. The blind was lowered and the lamp extinguished, and in the darkness he sat in a reverie, telling himself that life is good when you are young yet, in health, rich…
And single, but loved by an exquisite woman. His thoughts flew on wings of tender emotion, towards the neighboring villa. Soon he sank into a happy sleep.
Suddenly he started. Someone was knocking.
“Monsieur! Monsieur! Can you hear? Do not put on the light, monsieur. A thief is in the garden!”
M. Fallaire bounded to the door, not without striking painfully against a piece of furniture. On the landing he saw, dim under a staircase lamp, his servant, half-dressed and pale.
“There is a thief in the garden, monsieur. I heard something like a cry, and footsteps on the gravel.”
Galvanized, M. Fallaire groped back to his bedroom, donned a long raincoat over his pajamas, took his revolver and came out.
“Let’s go!” he said curtly.
“Yes, monsieur.” The servant, Justin, spoke without enthusiasm. “But I don’t have a gun. I’ll go get the hatchet from the storeroom.”
M. Fallaire, preferring companionship, waited for Justin’s return. Then for his opening of the door, half-way and noiselessly, that led to the garden. He heard a faint crunch of gravel, and glimpsed in the doubtful light a shadow emerge from one bush, making towards another. He rushed, revolver in hand. Justin brandished the hatchet.
Finding itself discovered, the shadow left the shrubbery.
“Stop, or I shoot! Seize him, Justin! Put up your hands, rascal!”
“Yes, monsieur! Yes, monsieur,” a voice choked out. The man’s arms were raised. Perceiving no danger, Justin caught him from behind. M. Fallaire trained the revolver on the man, and asked: “Do you have accomplices?”
“No, monsieur, I am not what you think. I want to explain.”
“Enough, thief! Hang on to him, Justin!”
‘Yes, monsieur. But monsieur must take care for his revolver. At times they go off when not expected, and I am just in front of it…”
“Monsieur,” said the prisoner. “My situation is suspect, I know it, but allow me a few minutes of conversation, and I will explain… To you alone. However, if you like, your servant may tie me up.”
“So be it.” M. Fallaire was seized by curiosity. “We’ll go in.”
Justin prodded the man forward.
“Gently, if you please,” he complained. “I have a bad foot.”
A few minutes later, M. Fallaire, his revolver on the dining room table, sat alone with the prisoner, whom Justin had tied by the hands. The lamplight showed full upon a young man of twenty-eight or thirty, brown-haired, and despite his present distress, distinguished and elegant of aspect.
M. Fallaire had the impression of having seen him. “I am waiting for your explanation…”
“Monsieur, I jumped through the window of the little summer house, that’s part of the neighboring property, and backs onto the bottom of your garden. Need I say more?”
“I should think so! I don’t understand you. The neighboring place belongs to M. and Mme Marrois, my friends…”
“As I know well. I dined there with you last winter, M. Fallaire. It was a formal affair, you probably didn’t notice me,,, My name is Paul Beuvron. My card is in my pocketbook.”
M. Fallaire seemed to contain a powerful emotion. “Again, I don’t understand you. What were you doing in the summer house? Why did you flee like a thief?”
“Because M. Marrois came back from Paris on a whim. Is it necessary to insist, monsieur? The summer house…I’d already been there a few times… Someone, you see, gets to the park by way of the greenhouse. Someone opens the little door to the drive…and I go off by that same route. This evening, at the noise of his car, someone left me at a trot, without thinking how I’d get out, not having a key… What to do? I waited until things had quieted down a little, then jumped from the window, to get to the road by crossing your garden… But I landed badly, and so I’ve hurt my foot.”
“Someone you meet often in this summer house, you say…? But…who…who do you meet?” asked M. Fallaire, in a stifled voice.
“Who? Oh, well! Monsieur, it is…it is Mme Lehallier, the cousin of M. Marrois. But that name you’ve forced from me…keep it to yourself.”
“Ha! Ha! It’s not possible!” cried M. Fallaire, in a convulsion of joy. “How? That fat widow, with no coquetry about her, who is only interested in her food? There’s a droll thing! Her passions can be sparked! Forgive me, monsieur, I joke. She is a charming woman and she is completely free. Now allow me to relieve you of that ridiculous rope. And accept a glass of good cognac…that will restore you.”
He removed his raincoat, which had begun to annoy, then eagerly freed the wrists of the young man and served him his cognac, laughing all the while.
“There, another little glass. Good?”
“Excellent. You are too kind.”
“I haven’t embarrassed you just now? Ha, ha! The lovely Mme Lehallier! And it’s for her that, like a romantic hero, you cross the countryside, you leap walls and risk revolver shots? Ha, ha, ha! Who would believe it?”
Suddenly he trembled, blanched, and set his glass down.
“Monsieur!” he said. “You lie! Yes, you lie! Mme Lehallier went off earlier today. I saw her when she left for the station. I just remembered, all at once. Then, as I can’t think you were meeting the cook, who is fifty, or the chambermaid, who began her work yesterday, it would have been… Speak! Answer! Was it Mme Marrois?”
“Monsieur,” said the young man with dignity. “Yes, I lied. I tried to put you off the scent. Fate would not have it…I hadn’t known of Mme Lehallier’s departure. You have got my secret…our secret, I must say. But I know it’s well placed. Many times Suzanne has spoken of you with the liveliest approval. I flatter myself that since you know all, you will consent to its being by your garden, from now on…”
“Enough!” cried M. Fallaire, thrown into a fury, which contrasted singularly with his mauve pajamas. “Enough! To me, the friend of M. Marrois, you dare make this demand, that I become your accomplice! And that of Suzanne, the wretch!”
“Monsieur, I cannot permit this. Mme Marrois is the most honest of women…but she loves me. Love is stronger than that bourgeois morality you so fiercely champion. You have forced my secret…I count at least on your honor as a gallant man. Will you show me to the door?”
Aloof, he moved to exit, limping. M. Fallaire, who without a word ushered him out, returned and collapsed into a chair, undone.
“So, it’s for that I’ve seen so little of her, lately,” he muttered.
He stood, and raged on: “The wretch! And that imbecile Marrois, her husband, who sees nothing, knows nothing, divines nothing, suspects nothing! Whose sleep is peaceful and contented…while I am the one who suffers! It’s not my job to play lookout for her!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)