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François Mauriac
1885-1970

   

Thérèse and the Doctor

by François Mauriac



   
 

"I HAVE already told you that the doctor will not be doing any more work this evening. You can go as soon as you like."

No sooner had Dr. Elisée Schwartz heard Catherine's words through the wall than he opened the door of his consulting room. Without so much as a glance at his wife, he said to his secretary:

"I will call you in a moment. Please remember that in this house it is I who give orders."

Catherine Schwartz did not quail beneath Mademoiselle Parpin's insolent stare. Instead, she smiled, took up a book, and walked over to the French window. The shutters had not been closed. The rain was pelting down on the balcony of their sixth-floor flat. The ceiling light in the doctor's consulting room illuminated the gleaming flagstones. For a moment Catherine followed with her eyes the distant vista of a street in Grenelle dwindling away between the shadowed mass of sleeping factories. Elisée, she thought, had yielded, as so often before during the last twenty years, to the pleasure of contradicting and humiliating her. But already, no doubt, he was paying the penalty. What was there, this evening, for him to dictate to Mademoiselle Parpin? . . . Three or four pages, perhaps. . . . His study of the Sexual Life of Blaise Pascal was making very slow progress. Ever since the great psychiatrist had indulged the whim of annotating a chapter in the history of literature he had become more and more bogged down in the difficulties of the undertaking.

The secretary had remained standing. Her eyes, fixed on the door of her employer's room, were those of a faithful dog. Catherine opened her book and tried to read. The lamp was set on a very low modern table, and, though the couch, too, was low, she had to sit on the floor in order to catch the light. The sound of the little girl upstairs practicing her piano in no wise drowned the noise of the radio next door. The "Death of Isolde" was suddenly cut short. In its place came the strains of a French music-hall song. The young couple in the apartment below were quarreling. A door slammed.

Maybe Catherine was dreaming of the silence that used to envelop her parents' big house in the Rue de Babylone, with its courtyard on one side and its garden on the other. By marrying, just before the war, a young, half-Jewish doctor from Alsace, Catherine de Borresch had not merely been yielding to the fascination of an intelligence in which, at that time, she could find no blemish, nor even to that physical appeal, that dominating force of character before which so many patients still felt themselves to be helpless. The truth of the matter was that between 1910 and 1913 the Baron de Borresch's daughter had reacted violently against her family. She had hated her awful-looking father, whose ugliness was almost a crime against society, the clockwork figure whom Dr. Elisée Schwartz came twice or three times a week to wind up. Her contempt for her mother's narrow existence was hardly less acute. In those days it was a pretty daring thing for a young woman of her social position to read for a degree and attend lectures at the Sorbonne. Her acquaintance with Schwartz had been limited to a few glances exchanged at hurried lunches, and to the sound of his voice booming away at the far end of the table when he was asked to formal dinner parties. But in her eyes he stood for progress and the sacred integrity of science. She had built up their marriage into a sort of wall between herself and that world from which she had fought free. As a matter of fact, this man who had already attained some degree of eminence, and was Secretary to the League of the Rights of Man, was only too glad to have the freedom of the great front door of the Borresch house. He would have liked dearly to make his peace with the family, and had almost succeeded in doing so. He had already placed his batteries in position for the final assault, and gave up the attempt only when he realized that his betrothed had fathomed his intentions. Their life together had begun in insincerity. Beneath Catherine's eagle eye, Schwartz had had to swallow his snobbish instincts and resume his role of the advanced and emancipated man of science.

He had taken his revenge by treating her, especially when other people were present, with an extraordinary lack of consideration. His language, when he addressed her, was carefully designed to wound. After twenty years, he had got so much into the habit of humiliating her on every possible occasion that he did so now, as on the evening with which we are concerned, quite automatically and without any deliberate intention.

He was fifty, and there was a look of nobility about his head with its shock of gray hair. His dark, tanned face, in which the blood showed warm, was of the type that stands up well to the ravages of time. He still had the supple skin of a young man, and his mouth told of health unimpaired. This it was, thought the world, that kept Catherine faithful to him (for the people from whom she had set herself to escape had gradually drifted back, attracted now by those very same Left Wing ideas which had once alienated them). It was said, too, that she enjoyed being "knocked about." But those who had known the Baroness were of the opinion that her daughter, for all her airs of emancipation, and though she probably did not know it, was remarkably like her mother. She had the same absentminded ways, alternating with periods of excessive friendliness and, in spite of changing fashions, the same severe taste in clothes.

Nothing could have been less in the tone of her general "style" than to sit on the floor as she was doing this evening. Her short hair, touched with gray, left the back of her neck uncovered. Her face was small, and the way in which she wrinkled her brow gave her the appearance of a pug dog. Her lips lacked fullness and she suffered from a nervous tic which made people believe, quite wrongly, that she looked at the world with a mocking grin.

Mademoiselle Parpin, still on her feet, was turning over a pile of illustrated papers which lay on a side table. Their pages showed the finger marks of the doctor's patients. She was a shortish woman running to fat. She would have been well advised to wear stays. The telephone bell in the hall started to ring. She went to answer it, pointedly closing the door behind her as a hint to Madame Schwartz that she had no right to listen to what was being said. The precaution, however, was quite useless, because everything that happened in one room could be heard in the others, even when the piano upstairs and the radio next door were going full blast. Besides, the secretary's voice grew louder and louder as the conversation proceeded.

"Would you like me to make an appointment for you, Madame? . . . You want to see the doctor now, at once? . . . Quite out of the question. . . . It's really no good insisting. . . . I can't believe he ever promised any such thing. . . . You must have made a mistake, Madame: Dr. Elisée Schwartz is not in the habit of frequenting night clubs. . . . I can't stop you from coming, of course . . . but I warn you, you'll merely be wasting your time. . . ."

Mademoiselle Parpin entered the doctor's consulting room by a door which gave directly onto the hall. Catherine could hear every word without having to strain her ears.

"It was some mad creature, sir, who says that you promised to see her at any hour of the day or night she might like to come. . . . She says she met you two years ago in some bar or other. . . it sounded like Gerlis or Gernis. . . I couldn't quite hear."

"And I suppose you put her off, eh?" fumed the doctor. "Who gave you the right to make decisions for me? . . . I wish to goodness you'd mind your own business."

She stammered that it was after ten o'clock . . . that it had never occurred to her that he would consent to see a patient at that hour . . . to all of which he replied in a loud voice that he didn't care a damn what she thought. He knew all about the patient in question --a remarkably interesting case. . . . Another opportunity missed through her blundering idiocy. . . .

"But she said she'd be here in less than half an hour, sir."

"So she is coming, after all?"

He seemed to be both excited and put out. After a brief hesitation, he said:

"Show her in as soon as she turns up, and then you can go and catch your train."

At this moment Catherine entered the room. The doctor, who had resumed his seat at the table, half rose, and asked her roughly what she wanted.

"Elis, you're not going to see this woman?" She remained standing there in front of him, her body encased in a dark-red stockinet dress, angular, narrow hipped, holding her head high. Her eyes were devoid of lashes, and she blinked them in the glare that beat down from the ceiling. Her long, well-formed right hand was motionless at her throat, the fingers clutching at her coral necklace.

"So you've taken to listening at keyholes, have you?"

She smiled, as she might have done had he indulged in a joke.

"Short of having the door padded, the wall and the floor and the ceiling lined with felt . . . I must say you've chosen the oddest sort of place in which to hear the intimate confessions of the poor wretches who come to see you. . . ."

"All right . . . all right . . . and now let me get on with my work."

A bus came charging noisily down the Rue de Boulainvilliers. Catherine, her hand on the latch, turned towards him.

" Mademoiselle Parpin will tell this woman, of course, that you can't see her?"

He took a few steps towards her, his hands stuffed in his pockets, swaying his heavy shoulders: a great, hulking figure of a man. Was she, he inquired, often taken that way? Lighting a Caporal cigarette, he went on to say:

"I don't suppose you've got the slightest idea what's at issue, have you?"

Catherine, leaning against the radiator, replied that she knew perfectly well.

"I remember the evening clearly. It was in February or March three years ago, at a time when you were going about a good deal.

You told me all about it when you came home--about the woman with an obsession who had made you promise . . ."

He was looking, now, at the floor. There was something slightly furtive in the expression of his face. Catherine sat down on the leather-covered couch which Elisée called his "Confessional." Stretched upon it, as thousands of poor sufferers had stammered out the stories of their lives, lying, hesitating, and striving to reveal secrets which they pretended not to know. . . . On the radio a juicy and aggressively stupid voice was recommending furniture bearing the label "Levikhan." There was an uninterrupted noise of cars sounding their horns at the street crossing below. Silence would set in only at midnight, and not even then if somebody in the block was giving a party. The doctor raised his eyes and saw Mademoiselle Parpin waiting by the little table on which the typewriter stood. He told her to go into the hall and stay there until the lady arrived. When she had left the room, Catherine said dryly:

"You won't let her come in?"

"We'll see about that."

"You won't let her come in because she's dangerous. . . ."

"It would be nearer the truth to say that you are jealous. . . ."

There was an unexpected spontaneity about the laugh with which she greeted this statement.

"Oh, come now . . . my poor dear . . . I, jealous?" For a brief moment she seemed to be thinking nostalgically of the time when she might have been jealous. Then, suddenly:

"You're not, presumably, any more attracted than I am by the idea of stopping a revolver bullet. . . . Such things don't happen, you say? . . . How about Pozzi? . . . You think I don't know her, have never set eyes on her? I could repeat, word for word, what you told me that evening. . . . I've got a frighteningly good memory where you are concerned. Nothing that you say in my hearing is ever lost--not a syllable. I may not actually have seen her, but I'm pretty sure I should recognize her at once: a woman with a Tartar face, the only one among all your naked little friends who was wearing a tailor-made suit, the only one with a hat pulled down over her eyes. . . . Later in the evening she took it off, revealing a superb forehead. . . . You were a bit drunk, you know, when you told me all that. Do you remember how you kept on saying, 'A marvelous forehead, like a tower.'. . . You can't have forgotten how you went on and on about it? And then you said, 'One can't be too careful with women of that Kalmuck type.' You're a bit frightened of her even now; you can't deny it. . . . You're longing to show her the door. If you do see her, it'll be only because you're ashamed not to. . . ."

Elisée made no attempt to insult her. Since there was no stranger present, he did not see any point in feigning heroism. He contented himself with saying in a low voice, "I gave her my word."

They both fell silent, listening with strained attention to a rumbling sound in the belly of the building which indicated that someone had started the elevator. The doctor muttered: "That can't be her --she said half an hour. . . ." Both husband and wife were busy with their secret thoughts, shut away from one another, remembering, perhaps, the time when he was trailing along after the notorious Zizi Bilaudel. It had been necessary to keep from the world what was really in the wind. Every day Catherine said, "People are laughing at you." Unknown to her, he had started taking private lessons in the tango. At the various night clubs haunted by Zizi and her faithful followers the youngsters laughed themselves sick at the sight of this great lump of a man dancing with a strained and concentrated look. He sweated like a pig, and was forever going to the lavatory to change his collar. At that time the painter Bilaudel had not yet married Zizi, though she already bore his name. She was not exactly "received," but had managed to pick up a number of acquaintances among the less fastidious members of the fashionable world. The plump, golden-haired creature, who passed for being so "terribly Renoir," thoroughly deserved her reputation for intelligence. She was one of those women who can live a life of the wildest debauchery without showing the slightest sign of it, and had amassed an amount of varied experience which would have brought ruin to anyone less skillful in her technique of exploration. But from what particular gutter she had collected the rag, tag, and bobtail who trailed behind her no one knew. Catherine let it be known that they furnished the doctor with admirable subjects for study, implying that he was getting a great deal of material out of this affair which would be useful to him in his scientific work. The lie was generally believed. As a matter of fact, it was perfectly true that one woman of the group did interest him to an exceptional degree. She alone could distract his attention when Zizi Bilaudel danced with younger men. This woman it was who had just telephoned: who, in a few minutes, would be actually in the flat. The doctor was making a pretense of reading. Catherine went across and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Listen to me. Do you remember what it was she told you that evening when you promised that you would see her whenever she liked to come?--that ever since she had tried to poison her husband she had been hagridden by the desire to commit murder that she had to fight tooth and nail against the temptation? That's the woman with whom you propose to shut yourself in a room at eleven o'clock at night!"

"If that had been the truth she would never have told it to me. She was putting on an act. But even supposing there were a risk, what do you take me for?"

Her eyes were as honest as the day. She spoke again in the same low, level tones:

"You're afraid, Elis: look at your hands."

He thrust them into his pockets, hunched his shoulders, and made a short, sharp gesture with his head towards the right-hand side of the room.

"Off with you--and don't let me set eyes on you again till tomorrow morning."

Very calmly she opened the door which led into the hall. The secretary was sitting on a bench. He called to her to show the lady in as soon as she arrived, and then to clear out.

On the other side of the closed door Catherine and Mademoiselle Parpin remained for a moment or two in darkness. Then the secretary switched on the light.

"Madame!"

Catherine, already halfway up the stairs leading to the bedrooms, turned her head and noticed that the plump young woman's cheeks were wet with tears.

"Madame, you won't be far off, will you?" Her voice had lost all hint of insolence. She spoke as one asking a favor.

"It is important that this woman should realize that she's being watched. She must be made to feel that there's somebody next door. Hadn't I better stay? It would be better if there were two of us. . . . But, no, I can't do that . . . he's forbidden it."

"He need never know."

The secretary shook her head. "I daren't do it!" she whispered. She suspected a trick to get her fired. Madame Schwartz would give her away. The doctor would never forgive the least movement of disobedience. For a moment or two neither woman spoke. This time there could be no doubt about it: the elevator really was coming up. In a low voice Catherine said:

"Show her in, and then go home. You can sleep in peace. I promise that nothing shall happen to the doctor tonight. I was his guardian angel for twenty years--long before you came on the scene, Mademoiselle."

She vanished up the dark staircase. But no sooner had she reached the landing than she turned and came a little way down again. She stood leaning on the banisters.

The gate of the elevator clanged. There was a quick ring at the bell. . . . It was impossible to see the visitor's face as Mademoiselle Parpin stood aside to let her pass. A quiet voice asked whether this was where Dr. Schwartz lived. The secretary took her dripping umbrella, and would have relieved her of her bag. But to that she clung fast.

Mademoiselle joined Catherine where she was sitting on the stairs. She whispered nervously that the stranger smelt of whisky. . . . They strained their ears, but could hear nothing beyond the booming of the doctor's voice. Catherine asked how the woman was dressed. She had on a dark coat, said the other, with a rather shabby chinchilla collar.

"It's the bag that worries me, Madame. She kept it tight under her arm. . . . We must try to get it from her. . . . She may have a revolver in it. . . ."

There was a burst of laughter from the stranger, followed by the sound of the doctor speaking again. Catherine told Mademoiselle Parpin not to get rattled, but to keep her head. The secretary seized her hand with a sudden little display of emotion, and could not keep herself from murmuring "Thank you"--though she realized how absurd the phrase must sound almost as soon as she had spoken it. From her post of vantage at the top of the stairs, Catherine, quite unmoved, watched the girl arranging her hat before the glass, and powdering her flushed cheeks. At last she went.

Once more Catherine squatted on the stairs. The sound of the two voices, her husband's and the woman's, reached her. They seemed to be talking very quietly. There were no sudden bursts of louder words. How odd it seemed to be listening to Elis unseen by him! She could have sworn that it was another man he had in there with him, some good-natured friend whom she did not know. She realized why it was that his patients so often said: "He's perfectly charming--so kind, so gentle."

The woman's voice was too high pitched for Catherine's taste. Maybe she had been drinking and was in an excited mood. Her rather unbalanced laugh reawakened the watching wife's anxiety.

She tiptoed down the stairs, slipped into the drawing room and, without switching on the light, sat down.

In front of her, through the muslin curtains, she could see the rain-drenched balcony shining like a lake. Beyond, the lights of Grenelle showed as scattered points of fire in the wet darkness. The doctor, in easy, conversational tones, was talking of Zizi Bilaudel, and asking what had happened to the "gang."

"Blown to the four winds, Doctor. . . . I'm beginning to know something about 'happy bands of brothers' . . . they have a way of breaking up pretty quickly. I've seen a goodish few in my time. Bilaudel and I are the only two left of the particular one in which you were caught up for a few weeks, Doctor. Palaisy--you remember him?--a fine figure of a man who drank like a fish (and the stuff just made him gayer and gayer) --well, he broke up altogether, and went off to live with his parents in Languedoc. Then there was the fierce little surrealist, the one who tried to scare us, like children who try to frighten each other by tying handkerchiefs round their heads and pretending to be brigands (he had a way of scowling and never brushing his hair, and generally doing all he could to seem like an escaped convict--but somehow, whatever he did, he always looked like an angel) . . . . We used to ask him whether his suicide was timed for the next morning . . . though personally I never treated it as a joke, because heroin's not like other drugs--it always ends up badly. . . . Yes, it happened last month, over the telephone. . . . Azévédo rang him up one night, just for fun-didn't let on who it was, but just said that Dora was playing fast and loose with Raymond . . . he meant it as a leg-pull, because he knew perfectly well that it was a lie. . . . He heard a quiet voice at the other end of the line saying, 'You're sure of that?' . . . and then a dull thud. . . ."

The unknown visitor was talking fast and rather breathlessly. Catherine was so intent on listening to the doctor's grave, kindly tone (which he never used to her) that she did not fully grasp the purport of his reply. There, in the dark drawing room, her face turned towards the streaming panes, the drowned roof tops, the dwindling perspective of street lights, she sat brooding over the thought that only to her did this man make a deliberate display of brutality . . . only to her.

"Oh,"--a note of insistence had crept into the woman's voice-"please don't feel embarrassed. I don't in the least mind talking about Azévédo. . . . I can afford to laugh at all that now. . . . No, that's not quite true. . . . Love doesn't ever die altogether. I ought to hate him, but he still exercises a spell over my imagination, if for no other reason than that he hurt me so abominably. I know exactly what manner of man he is--the sort who can make money on the stock exchange on a rising market--but that doesn't alter the fact that he succeeded in dragging from my body every scrap of pain of which it was capable. No matter how petty a man may be, he can always attain a certain greatness by the sheer power of destruction. Because of his meanness I have sunk an inch or two deeper into the mud, have plunged farther into the mire, have reached the last door of all. . . ."

In honeyed tones the doctor said:

"But at least, dear lady, he has cured you of love, has he not?"

Catherine trembled. The peal of laughter with which the unknown greeted these words (it was like the sound of rending calico) must, she felt sure, have penetrated down through all seven floors of the building until it was audible even in the cellar.

"Should I be here at eleven o'clock at night? . . . Haven't you noticed that ever since I entered this room I have been on fire? What's the use of all your fine knowledge?"

He replied, in high good humor, that he did not claim to be a wizard.

"I take no notice of what you tell me. I am just a pair of ears-nothing more. . . . All I do is help you straighten your own tangled skein. . . ."

"One gives away only what one wants to. . . ."

"That is where you are profoundly wrong, Madame. . . . In this room people let the light in on what they most want to conceal. Let me correct what I said just now. I do take notice, but only of what they try to hide, of what leaks out in spite of themselves. It's my job to hold it out for their inspection. I give the little gnawing creature its true name . . . and then they are no longer afraid of it. . . ."

"The mistake you make is in believing what we say. . . . Love can turn us into terrible liars. For instance, when I broke with Azévédo, he sent me back all my letters. I spent one whole evening just sitting with the bundle in front of me. It seemed so light! I had always fondly imagined that I should need a suitcase, that nothing less would suffice to hold that vast mass of correspondence. But here it all was, just a few sheets that would go comfortably into an envelope. I laid them out on the table. When I thought of all the pain those letters contained--you'll think me an awful fool--I was filled with a feeling of respect and terror (that's made you laugh; I knew it would!) . . . So strong was the feeling that I couldn't pluck up courage to read a single one of them. And then, at last, I forced myself to open the most frightening of the whole collection. I remembered the agonies I had gone through when I wrote it, one day in August, at Cap Ferrat. It was mere chance that I had not killed myself then and there . . . and now, three years later, with all love dead in my heart, my hand still trembled at the touch of that piece of paper. Yet, would you believe it? when I did bring myself to look it over it seemed so mild, so harmless, that for a moment I thought I must have picked on the wrong one. . . . But no, there couldn't be any doubt about it. Those were the very lines I had scribbled within touching distance of death. They revealed nothing but a pitiful attempt at flippancy, nothing but my eagerness to hide the appalling pain I was suffering, as I might have concealed a physical wound--from a sense of shame, from a fear that the sight of it might disgust the man I loved, or move him to a show of pity. . . . Don't you think there's something rather comic, Doctor, about tricks like that which never, somehow, come off? I had believed, poor fool, that if I assumed an attitude of indifference, I might succeed in making Azévédo jealous. . . . The rest of the letters were all of the same kind. Nothing can well be less natural, less spontaneous, than love's double-dealing. . . . But I'm not telling you anything you don't know already. It's your job, and you know it better than anyone else. When I'm in love I'm forever plotting, planning, anticipating, but with a constant clumsiness which ought to touch the heart of him I love, instead of irritating him, as it always does. . . ."

Catherine Schwartz, sitting in the darkness, heard every word. The woman was talking in an odd, jerky way. Her phrases followed no ordinary speech rhythm. It was as though her voice had suddenly got out of control. Why had she come to Elis?--why chosen him, of all men, as the repository of her confidences? Catherine felt a sudden desire to fling open the door of the consulting room, to cry to the unknown woman within, "He has nothing to give you: all he can do is tread you still deeper into the mud. I don't know to whom you ought to go, but certainly not to him--no, certainly not to him!"

"I wouldn't mind betting, dear lady, that you couldn't talk so eloquently of love if you hadn't let yourself be caught a second time. . . . I'm right, am I not?"

There was something paternal, gentle, calm, kindly, in the way he spoke. But the tone in which the visitor broke in upon his words was vulgar, almost coarse.

"Of course I have--any fool could see that. . . . You don't have to work hard to make me talk--why else do you think I have come here? If you leave the room I shall still go on talking--to the leg of the table, if need be, or the wall."

It was borne in sharply on Catherine how atrociously she was behaving--a doctor's wife listening at doors and overhearing the secrets confided to her husband. . . . Her cheeks felt on fire. She got up, went into the hall and up the short flight of stairs to her own room, which was brilliantly illuminated by a single hanging light. She crossed to the mirror and looked long and hard at the unattractive face which must be her constant companion through life. The light, the familiar objects, all reassured her. Why had she been frightened? What danger was there? Besides, that woman down there was no casual stranger. . . .

At that moment a sound of raised voices set her trembling. The door of the room was only half closed. She pushed it open and went part way down the stairs--though not far enough to enable her to hear what the visitor was shouting (for shouting she was). A few steps farther and she would hear everything. The secret of the Confessional . . . yes, but perhaps Elis's life was at stake. . . . Once again she yielded to temptation, and sat down on the couch in the hall. For a moment the noise of the elevator prevented her from hearing. Then:

"You do understand, don't you, Doctor? . . . I had spent the whole summer away from Phili. I have never needed anyone, not even Azévédo, as I need Phili. When he's not there I feel as though I am suffocating. He had been avoiding me--oh, on all sorts of pretexts--business, visits. . . . What was really happening was that he was hunting for a rich wife . . . but that's not so easy to find these days . . . besides, he's already been divorced once, even though he is only twenty-four. . . . I just couldn't stay still anywhere. I can't begin to describe the kind of life I was leading. I wanted only one thing--letters. In every town where I stopped only one object held any interest for me--the counter of general delivery. That's what traveling always means to me, general delivery."

Catherine knew perfectly well that she was not listening now merely from a sense of duty. She was no longer concerned to help her husband in case of attack. No, she was a prey to irresistible curiosity--she, who had always been so scrupulously discreet that discretion had become almost a mania with her. This unknown voice fascinated her. But even while she felt the lure of it, she could not bear to think of the disappointment lying in wait for its wretched owner. Elis was quite incapable of understanding her, even of feeling compassion for her. All he would do, as he had done with other victims, was to urge her to find relief--to free her emotions through the gratification of the body. That was what his method amounted to. The same filthy key served him whether it was heroism, crime, sanctity, or renunciation that he had to interpret. . . . These thoughts passed confusedly through her mind, though they did not prevent her from hearing all that was going on in the consulting room.

". . . Imagine my surprise when I began to notice that Phili's letters were getting longer and longer, that he seemed to be writing them with considerable care, that he seemed to want to console me, to make me happy. They became increasingly frequent as the summer wore away, until at last they were coming daily.

"It all happened during the week I was spending, as I do every year, with my daughter. She's eleven now. Her governess takes her to some place that I have fixed on in advance, somewhere that must always be at least five hundred kilometers from Bordeaux-my husband insists on that. It's always a terrible time for me. You see, I don't know whether the child knows of the horrible charge hanging over me, and, in any case, she is frightened of me. The governess always arranges things so that I never pour out her drinking water. I'm the sort of woman, you see, who would stop at nothing--which is what my husband said the evening of the day on which my case was dismissed. (I can still hear that country drawl of his: 'You don't really think I'd leave the child to your tender mercies. She, too, must be kept at a safe distance from your drugs. If I'm poisoned, the estate will go to her when she's twentyone . . . first the father, then the child! You wouldn't hesitate two seconds about liquidating her!') All the same, he lets me have her for one week in every year. I take her to restaurants, the circus . . . but that's all by the way. . . . As I've told you, Phili's letters had made me happy. I wasn't suffering any more. He couldn't wait to see me. He was more impatient even than I was. I was happy and at peace. It must have shown in my face. Marie was less frightened of me than usual. One evening at Versailles, on a bench near the Petit Trianon, I stroked her hair. . . . Poor fool!--I was thinking, hoping . . . I had reached a stage at which I even felt gratitude to God. I was ready to bless life. . . ."

Once more Catherine got up and started to climb the stairs that led to her room. Her cheeks were aflame. Listening there, behind the door, she had felt like a criminal engaged in a particularly low form of theft. What was Elis going to do with that poor creature emptying her heart of all its secrets at his feet? No sooner had she sat down than she got up again, and a moment later was at her post of observation on the stairs. The unknown was still talking:

"He was waiting for me at the station exit. It was seven o'clock in the morning. I was in Heaven, as you can imagine. I saw his poor, worn, hunted face. There always comes one brief moment, when one sees the man one loves for the first time after a long absence, in which he stands before us as he really is and not as our infatuation has painted him. Don't you agree, Doctor?--one tiny second in which we can take the squalid tricks of passion unaware. But we are too much in love with suffering to seize such opportunities to the full. He took me along to the Café d'Orsay. We chatted casually of this and that, joining up loose ends. . . . He asked me about the resin, the trees, the pit props (at that time I was still getting an income from my property). I laughed and told him that we should have to tighten our belts. The bottom had fallen out of the resin market. The Americans had found a substitute for turpentine. It was quite impossible to sell timber. The Argelouse sawmills were working on imported lumber from Poland, and the pines growing at their very doors were left to rot where they stood. I was faced with ruin . . . like everybody else. . . . I rattled on, and Phili grew paler and paler. He kept on asking whether the trees couldn't be sold even at a loss, and when I protested that to take such a step would be to court disaster, I could feel that his attention was beginning to wander. Whatever value I had for him diminished in strict ratio with that of my Argelouse property. You do understand what I'm talking about, don't you, Doctor? I didn't cry. I actually laughed-laughed at myself, as no doubt you realize. And all the time he was utterly withdrawn from me: he might have been a thousand miles away. He no longer even saw me. Only those who have suffered as I did then can possibly know what such an experience is like. Not so much as to exist in the eyes of the man who is the only living creature in one's world. I would have done anything, no matter how mad, to recapture his attention. . . . But you'll never guess what I did do."

"The puzzle is not insoluble. . . . You told him about your past, about the crime with which you had been charged. . . ."

"How on earth did you know that? . . . Yes, that is precisely what I did do. . . . I didn't know then that there was someone who had a hold over Phili, someone who was blackmailing him and could have had him arrested (but I won't go into all that). I just told him about my own troubles. . . ."

"And he was interested?"

"You'd never guess how much. He listened with a terrible sort of concentration. In a vague kind of way I was frightened. I began to feel that I had been a fool to give myself away so completely. Oh yes, he was interested now all right, much too interested, if you see what I mean. At first I thought that he was planning to use what I had said to get something out of me. But it wasn't that. . . . Besides, he couldn't. . . . That particular danger, so far as I was concerned, had long passed. My case had been shelved. No: his mind was working along quite different lines. . . . He thought I might be able to help him."

"Help him--but how?"

"Aren't you being a bit slow, Doctor?--help him, of course, to commit a deed from which his conscience recoiled. He swore that once it was all over he would marry me, that we should be irretrievably bound to one another, because I should have a hold on him and he on me. He had got a plan all worked out. He gave me his word that I should run no risk whatever. What I had done once I could do again. . . . I must tell you that his enemy, the man who held his life in his hands, lived in the country. He was a small landowner, scarcely better than a peasant, somewhere in the Southwest--a vine grower. I had been to see him once with the idea of buying some of his wine. Nowadays, you know, there is no job a woman can't take on, even to selling on commission. I had put through one or two deals for him, quite successfully. He showed me round his cellars; we sampled his vintages. . . . Do you see what I'm getting at? We drank out of the same glass. He was known to be a tippler . . . and had already had more than one stroke, though nothing very serious. . . . It wouldn't cause the slightest surprise . . . and, you know, they don't go in for post-mortems in the country. . . . The chances of anything ever coming out were nil. . . ."

She broke off. The doctor said nothing. Catherine, in the darkness of the staircase, felt her heart thumping. Then the woman's voice began again, but a change had come into it.

"Save me, Doctor! . . . He gives me no peace. . . . I shall end by doing what he wants. He looks as innocent as a child, I know, but there's something about him that terrifies me. . . . What is this awful power that you sometimes find in people with angel faces? One feels it was only yesterday that they were schoolboys. . . . Do you believe in a Devil, Doctor? Do you think that Evil can take on human form?"

Catherine could not bear the sound of her husband's laughter. She shut the door of her room behind her, sank to her knees beside the bed, put her fingers in her ears, and so remained for a long while, utterly prostrated, shattered, thinking of nothing. . . . And then, suddenly, she heard her name cried aloud on a note of terror. She rushed downstairs and burst into the consulting room. At first she could not see her husband and thought he must be dead. But a moment later she heard him.

"She's got nothing against you. . . but be careful all the same. . . . Quick! get it away from her! . . . She's armed!" She realized then that he was crouching behind his desk. The stranger was leaning against the wall. Her right hand was concealed in her half-open bag, and she was staring fixedly in front of her. Quite calmly, Catherine took hold of her wrist. The woman made no attempt to resist. She let her bag fall to the ground. Her hand had closed about something, but it was not a revolver. The doctor had emerged now. He was pale, and took no trouble to conceal the fact that his hands, as he leaned forward on the desk, were trembling. Catherine, still holding the other's wrist, forced her to loosen her grasp. A packet wrapped in white paper dropped to the carpet.

The unknown looked at Catherine. She took off her close-fitting hat and revealed her forehead. It was much too massive. Her drab, sparse hair was going gray. There was neither rouge nor powder on her thin face, her roughened lips, her cheekbones. The yellow skin was marked with blotches of purple beneath the eyes.

She did nothing to prevent Catherine from picking up the packet and reading what was written on the label--an ordinary chemist's label. She opened the door, still holding her hat. In the hall she said that she had an umbrella. Catherine spoke gently to her.

"Would you like me to ring for a cab? It's raining hard."

The woman shook her small head. Catherine led the way to the stairs, switching on the self-extinguishing light as she went.

"Aren't you going to put on your hat?"

Getting no answer, she herself put the hat upon the stranger's head, buttoned her coat for her, turned up the chinchilla collar. She wanted to smile, to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. . . . She watched her disappear down the staircase, hesitated a moment, and then went back into the apartment.

The doctor was standing in the middle of the room, his hands in his pockets. He did not look at Catherine.

"You were quite right--the most dangerous kind of lunatic. In future I shall be more careful. She pretended she'd got a revolver. . . . Anyone would have been taken in. . . . Let me tell you what happened. It was like this. After she'd told me her wretched story she said I'd got to cure her. . . . It was when I explained that I'd already done more than enough by letting her sort out her troubles that she lost her temper. I pointed out that she'd be able to see her way more clearly now, that she would. be mistress of the situation, that she'd manage to get all she wanted from this man without falling in with his plans. . . . Didn't you hear her scream? She said I was a thief. . . .'You pretend you want to cure the soul,' she shouted 'and all the time you don't believe in the soul. Psychiatrist . . . that means a soul doctor, but you say there's no such thing as the soul. . . .' The same old story, of course . . . a familiar tendency to indulge in the crudest form of superstition. . . . She'd been bad enough earlier on, but nothing to what she was then. . . . Why are you laughing, Catherine? Have I said anything comic?"

He looked at his wife in amazement. Never before had he seen such a glow of happiness on her face. She stood there, her arms hanging at her sides, her hands held slightly away from her skirt.

"It's taken twenty years. . . . But it's all over now . . . I'm a free woman at last. You see, Elis, I realize now that I don't love you any more."

--Translated by Gerard Hopkins

 
           

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