Frédéric Boutet: The Birthmark (complete)
A Few Blackmails
“Watch the road. See if anyone comes,” ordered the blind man, a meagre fellow without age, wrapped in a mackintosh the color of dust. Through a hole in the hedge where they’d hidden themselves, the youth who accompanied him put out his head, cautious.
“Yes. There is a car coming, up that way.”
The blind man swore between his teeth; then sneered. “Listen. I’ve waited five years, I can wait another five minutes.”
He lowered his voice. The rolling of the car could be heard.
“So, the villa is to the right? I will only have to follow the wall along the hedge…” He stopped, and sounding choked, said: “Is she there? Are you sure?”
“Who do you mean, she?” growled the youth.
“The young woman. This is her house…you’re sure?”
“Yes, as I say. I’ve seen her at the window within the hour.”
“And the servant?”
The youth gave a tired shrug. “Gone, I told you. Gone to town, and the gardener, too, and monsieur leaves every day for Paris at ten in the morning and comes home at six.”
The man, paling, drew a deep breath.
“Then she’s alone. Well, go on…do as I’ve told you. Put yourself in the doorway, and I’ll arrive…”
“And my pay?”
The blind man with impatience rummaged a pocket. “Here, here are the twenty francs, and you will get twenty more after.”
“And you’ll give me a hundred sous for the extra week. No joke… I’m willing to take you there, but the work I’ve given myself, eight days over this thing…don’t ask!”
“It’s done. It’s done now… Now I’ve found her.”
“You’re certain, only, she’s the one you’re looking for? Sometimes, we fool ourselves…”
“No, no, it’s her. I am well informed. And you’ve seen her. She is tall, thin, brown haired…yes? That’s her. Go! Go now.”
The boy raised himself and left their hiding place. He was ill-dressed, skinny and pale, with furtive, watchful eyes. His age seemed fourteen. The man followed, noiseless, pulling his hat low over his dead eyes, gliding along the hedge. At the road’s edge the villa sat isolated, white in the afternoon sun.
The youth climbed the steps and rang the bell. The door opened. A young woman, brown haired and pretty, dressed in white, appeared in the shade of the vestibule.
“Is it you again?” she said, smiling. “Every day, then! Yesterday, already, I gave you…”
The youth, his eyes tearing, his shoulders tucked, answered with a pitiful mien, seeming but a small boy. “I came back for the same…we eat every day, no? There are good people here. And you are so pretty, I think, because you are so good.”
She laughed. “Come along, I’ll give to you today as well… Ah, God help me!”
Along the house the blind man slipped. He threw himself past the open door, crowding the boy, and seized the young woman by the wrists, driving her to the end of the foyer, while she screamed and fought.
“Shut up!” he ordered. “Or I’ll kill you.”
He held her as in a vice, his face convulsed with a rage so menacing that she ceased her cries and waited breathless, her eyes dilated in fear.
The youth stood hands in pockets against the door, contemplating the scene with interest. The blind man, after a fearful silence, advanced his face to the one he held.
“It’s me. Do you know me?”
She drew back as far as she was able. “No, I don’t! Who are you? What do you want…money?”
Fear strangled her voice. The blind man laughed dryly.
“I am your husband and you know me. I am not as disfigured as all that! So, you believed it possible I would never come back again? Five years…eh? Five years. You were twenty-three, you are now twenty-eight… Are you still pretty? You must be even more so. How have you done for lovers since I shot myself in the head for you? Eh…what a deliverance, when you believed I had died! But I failed…though not quite, since I succeeded in blinding myself. Six months in the hospital, in agony. And you took the opportunity to run off. Yes, I know, I shot at you before I lost you…if you can call it losing. And since, I have searched and searched. I have searched for you.”
The young woman quivered in terror, as though she would faint, her wrists turning blue from the pitiless hands that held them. He shook her.
“What’s come over you? You had more nerve when you drove me mad telling me about your lovers, saying you didn’t love me anymore! You recollect yourself, eh? You remember!”
He convulsed with fury and went on in broken sentences:
“Look at me! I am an abortion, a cripple…a blind man! To be blind, do you know what that means? You…you! But I’ve found you. I have had an evil time, you know! But the hatred, the hatred… Only, perhaps, I still love you. I have paid people… From an old servant I learned you had been seen here. And then the boy helped me…and here I am! I have not failed today. You will never be with another.”
He ground his teeth; his hands traced her arms, climbing to the neck. In a burst of panic, she rallied, gasping:
“That’s not me! You’re wrong! I swear to you you’re wrong! I have never seen you! My name is Lucie Clarelle. I am twenty-four years old, I have been married for two years… This is a dreadful mistake! I swear to you you’re wrong!”
“It’s you,” said the blind man. “I’m certain of it. I recognize the smell of your skin. Your voice…a little changed…but that’s because you’re afraid.”
“It’s not me! After five years, you could not know a perfume, a voice… It’s not me! You’re going…” And she cried with sudden inspiration: “You’re going to kill me and the one who made you suffer will live, happy with her lover!”
The blind man gave out a low groan. With furious hands he felt the features and hair of his prisoner, leaned towards her face as though he tried, in a frightful effort, to see her.
“It is you. You! I’m certain… I can’t be wrong. Come here!” he cried to the youth. “Look at her! Are her eyes blue?”
“Yes…” But as the boy, indifferent, looked into the woman’s eyes, he read there such anguish and supplication he could not help himself adding: “Blue or green, between those two…”
“It’s her! I’m certain! Come here, you.” Having a sudden idea, the blind man spoke to the boy. “Lift her sleeve. The left sleeve. Hurry…tear it, idiot, if you can’t raise it. Look at her elbow, where the blood is up…there, near my hand. There is a spot on the skin, isn’t there? A little pale spot, like a violet? Look, I tell you!”
The youth gave a glance and saw the violet spot.
“Well?” shouted the blind man.
“Well, I’m looking…” Between his teeth, he added: “Idiot, yourself.”
He raised his deceitful eyes to the young woman’s, revived the imploring beggar’s face, and with an interrogatory glance, rubbed—the gesture of a rogue—his finger and thumb, asking for money. Her eyes acquiesced.
Tranquil, the youth said, “Nothing.”
“I do not! There is no spot. If there was one, I would tell you, I am not such a fool as that. Is a spot anything to me? What I’m telling you is, don’t do a crime for no reason.”
There was a silence. The woman had gone purple, then livid. The blind man hesitated in fear.
“Listen!” the youth cried suddenly. “Someone is coming!”
The blind man made a gesture of despairing doubt, letting go of the arms he held. He turned around, rushed for the door, and went fumbling towards the road, along which he took himself away.
The youth came near the woman, who lay immobile, pallid and trembling.
“This is worth three hundred francs,” he told her. “I’ll come looking for them tomorrow. And if not, I’ll bring him back.”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)