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Authors: Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

Concerto to the Memory of an Angel

BOOK: Concerto to the Memory of an Angel
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Europa Editions
214 West 19th St.
New York NY 10011
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www.europaeditions.com
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2010 by Éditions Albin Michel
First publication 2011 by Europa Editions
Translation by Alison Anderson
Original Title:
Concerto à la mémoire d'un ange
Translation copyright © 2011 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
This work has been published thanks to the support from the
French Ministry of Culture – Centre National du Livre
Ouvrage publié avec le concours du
Ministère franc¸ais chargé de la Culture – Centre National du Livre
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
www.mekkanografici.com
Cover illustration by Marcelino Truong
ISBN 978-1-60945-940-6

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

CONCERTO TO THE MEMORY OF AN ANGEL

Translated from the French
by Alison Anderson

THE MURDERESS

 

L
ook out, here she comes, the murderess!”
The group of children stopped suddenly in their tracks, like a hand closing. They ran to take refuge at the far end of the washhouse, under the stone bench, a cool, shady spot that would allow them to see without being seen; and now, just to scare themselves further, they held their breath.

Marie Maurestier crossed the street under the noonday sun. She was a tall woman, seventy years of age, slow, stiff, wrinkled, neat about her person, and frequently irritable. Crisp in a black suit cinched tight around her waist, she took mincing steps, either because she feared the heat, or because her inflamed joints made it difficult to walk. She swayed from side to side with an awkward majesty that made her all the more impressive.

The children murmured, “Do you think she's seen us?”

“Come on, let's shout to scare her!”

“Don't be stupid. She's not afraid of anyone or anything. You're the one who ought to panic.”

“I'm not afraid.”

“If you do something she doesn't like, she'll do you in! Like the others.”

“I'm not afraid, I said . . . ”

“Sure, like her husbands were stronger and tougher than you are.”

“Go on! I'm not scared . . . ”

Sensibly, they let Marie Maurestier go by, avoiding any rude remarks or bad jokes.

Twenty years earlier, after two trials, the court had dismissed the case for lack of evidence and released Marie Maurestier from the prison where she had been held in custody. In Saint-Sorlin the majority of villagers believed Marie Maurestier was innocent, except for the children, who would rather cross paths with a murderess any day—it added danger and wonder to their lives. Still, the reason the adults gave for Marie Maurestier's innocence was hardly more rational: they refused to believe they could possibly have an assassin roaming free in their midst: how could they say hello, or share their streets, their shops, and their church with a killer? If they were to preserve their tranquility, she must be just as honest as they were.

No one really liked her, because she was a proud, reserved woman, known to make scathing remarks, and she aroused neither sympathy nor affection. But everyone enjoyed the notoriety she had brought to their town. “The Poisoner of Saint-Sorlin,” “The Devil of the Bugey,” “The Messalina of Saint-Sorlin-en-Bugey”: for a few seasons, these sensational titles had provided the headlines for all the newspapers and radio and television programs. All the fuss attracted curious onlookers, and although people knew their interest was unhealthy, Saint-Sorlin had become front page news. This sudden renown had even incited motorists to leave the autoroute in order to come into town and stop for a drink at the café, or have a bite at the inn, or buy some bread at the boulangerie, where they could casually leaf through a newspaper while hoping to catch a glimpse of Marie Maurestier. Such a pretty peaceful village, with its washhouses gathering water from the springs, their stone walls covered on fine summer days with thousands of roses or eglantines, this little settlement snuggled along a branch of the Rhone where trout and pike swam in abundance—how could it possibly be home to such a dark soul? What a paradoxical form of publicity! If this tiny town of a thousand inhabitants had had a tourist office, they could hardly have found better than Marie Maurestier for their self-promotion; hadn't the mayor, delighted with the crowds of tourists, declared to Marie Maurestier one day in a burst of enthusiasm that he was her “number one fan?” No need to point out that the lady had quickly made short shrift of his fervor with a chilly gaze and hostile silence.

With her wicker basket on her arm, Marie Maurestier walked by the inn without looking inside because she knew that customers were pressing their noses against the little green windowpanes to take a good look at her.

“There's the murderess!”

“Doesn't she look stuck up . . . ”

“Snootier than a chamberpot!”

“When you think there are men who died for that!”

“But her name was cleared . . . ”

“You can only be cleared if you've done some dark deed, my dear! I was trying to worm some information out of the innkeeper a while ago and he said there's never smoke without fire . . . ”

So while the inhabitants may have acquitted her, they let some uncertainty linger, because they weren't about to discourage their visitors by depriving them of this attraction. They were more than willing, while remaining discreet, to show their visitors the path that Marie Maurestier took to go home, or tell them how she spent her time and what her habits were, or point out her house at the top of the ridge . . . And when someone asked if they thought she was guilty, they would reply with a cautious “Who knows?”

Moreover, they were not the only ones who fueled the mystery: television programs regularly debated her fate, emphasizing the ambiguity and the gray areas; and although journalists were obliged to report the court's decision—otherwise Marie Maurestier's lawyer would force them to pay a stiff fine—they hinted that the dismissal was founded more on a “lack of sufficient evidence” than on proof of innocence.

Thirty feet further along, outside the decorator's shop, Marie Maurestier paused to see whether her worst enemy was there. And he was: Raymond Poussin, with his back to the shop window, samples of fabric in his hand, was holding forth for the benefit of a couple who had entrusted him with an armchair for reupholstering.

“That wretch is as fat as the tow he stuffs his chair backs with and as ugly as the horsehair he uses,” she grumbled. She could not hear what he was saying, but she stared hard at him and focused her hatred at the back of his neck.

“La Maurestier, you say? The greatest unpunished criminal in France. Three times over she married men who were richer and older than her. Three times they died only a few years after the wedding. Most unlucky, don't you think? And three times she inherited! Naturally, why should she change her good habits? But with the third one, Georges Jardin, a friend of mine, the suspicions of his five children triggered an inquiry: their father had been in perfect health but no sooner did he marry that monster than he began to decline, then he took to his bed, and two weeks before he died he disinherited the children in favor of that interloper. That was too much! The gendarmes dug up the corpses of the first two husbands, and the experts found suspicious traces of arsenic. They put her in jail while waiting for the trial but it was already too late both for the dead men and for the money. And what do you think she'd done with her fortune, the merry widow? She'd spent it all on a lover, Rudy, or Johnny, or Eddy, something like that, a Yank sort of name. Well, this last one was a young fellow for a change—not an old wreck like the previous ones—and he was good-looking, a surfer from Biarritz who used up all her money on clothes and cars and gambling. A right gigolo he was, a thug, an oyster has more brains. Well, let's not hold it against him, at least he was able to take back what she had nicked from the others. So you're about to tell me there is justice in the world after all? Not at all! She did him in too, the playboy. Not for his money, but because he dumped her. He was never seen again. Maurestier swears he went abroad. If you want my opinion, his corpse is rotting at the bottom of the ocean with a stone around his feet. Only one person must have known about the crimes she committed, and that was her sister Blanche. A simple sort of girl, pretty, and Marie Maurestier, her older sister, had always protected her. Which goes to show that even human trash can have sincere feelings, just like flowers growing out of a pile of dung. Yes, except that the sister died too! In the middle of the trial. Well in this case, obviously, they couldn't pin it on Maurestier because she was already in custody when her sister kicked the bucket, and besides it was in a plane crash that reduced one hundred and thirty-two passengers to ash in a second. The perfect alibi . . . damn lucky, all the same! It would seem there is a God who looks after villains! You see, as soon as her sister, the silly goose—she used to contradict herself the moment she was interrogated, so sometimes she was a witness for the prosecution, and sometimes for the defense—as soon as she disappeared, Maurestier and her lawyer began to feel more relaxed, things were looking good, and they found ways to put things so that the diabolical woman would be let off.”

Even from out in the street Marie Maurestier could tell from his reddening face and chaotic gestures that Raymond Poussin was talking about her. The customers were fascinated by the whole business and had not noticed that the woman they were talking about was right there behind them, behind this prosecutor who was vituperating against her.

“She didn't half put her sister's death to good use, did she now, that Maurestier woman! She wept like a fountain and kept saying that it was a good thing after all her younger sister died in that horrible plane crash, otherwise they would have accused her of killing her, too. Everyone thought she killed the people she loved—her husbands, her sister; even when there was no corpse they pinned it on her, the murder of Rudy, Johnny, Eddy—sounds like some rock musician—her so-called lover, whereas in fact the man had gone abroad in order to flee all the debts he'd run up and those bad business ventures of his, all the creditors were on his tail. They conducted the investigation with an eye to prosecution, they wanted to prove she was a criminal no matter what. That was the line her lawyer took and it paid off. Analyses proved that in the cemeteries in the region they used a weed killer that contained arsenic, and consequently any corpse that was disinterred after a few years had gone by would look as if it had been poisoned, particularly if it had rained a lot. She and her lawyer won both her trials. And mind my words, my good people, I do mean she and her lawyer. Neither truth nor justice was served.”

Just then, the craftsman felt a sharp pain in the back of his neck. He raised his hand to it, fearful it might be an insect bite, then he turned around.

Marie Maurestier was glaring at him. The old man's heart started to pound wildly, and he could scarcely breathe.

They stared at each other for a few seconds; her gaze was hard, his was panicky. Raymond Poussin had always felt violent emotions whenever he was anywhere near the woman; in the old days he supposed it was love, so much so that he did try to woo her; nowadays he knew it was hatred.

After a good minute had gone by, Marie Maurestier decided to curtail the exchange of gazes with a shrug of her shoulders, and she went on her way as if nothing had happened.

Staid, upright, she walked past the terrace of the café where her appearance brought a temporary halt to conversations, then she entered the butcher's shop.

There, too, people stopped talking. Modestly, she joined the line behind the other customers until the boss, in what seemed like obedience to a tacit agreement, put aside the order he was preparing to indicate that he would serve her before the others.

No one protested. Not only did people accept that Marie Maurestier was granted a special status, they also became thoughtful, painfully thoughtful, the moment they found themselves in her presence. As they no longer dared converse in front of her, or even speak to her, her legend having so greatly surpassed her individual person, they waited for her to leave as soon as possible.

Why could no one forget her? Why, even when her name had been cleared, had she become a myth? Why did everyone still take such an interest in her case ten, twenty years later?

Because Marie Maurestier was in possession of that vital ambiguity that makes the public pause for thought, that duality that is the making of a star: her physical appearance did not coincide with her behavior. In everyday life, a nurse who marries one of her rich, elderly patients is generally a pretty, charming girl, who emphasizes her ample curves— in all the right places—by wearing sexy outfits. Marie Maurestier, however, even when she was young, had never looked young: her body seemed withered, as if she'd gone through menopause before her time; she was an ungainly horse with a gloomy face, who wore severe clothing—shirts with high collars, enormous glasses, shoes more sturdy than glamorous. This woman whom the gossip columnists described as a man-eater looked like nothing so much as a woman who knew nothing of desire or sexuality. What possible connection could there be between her virtuous features and her multiple marriages or her passion for Rudy, the tousle-haired lover, smoker of joints, sportsman with his shirt unbuttoned on his suntanned chest? Another contradiction: in the eyes of the common folk, a murderer who uses poison, in particular a murderer who's done it more than once, must have sharp, pointed features signaling vice, vengeance, and nastiness; but Marie Maurestier had more of the scrupulous schoolmarm about her, or even—she was very pious, and made a great show of her faith—a catechism teacher. In short, no matter what people said about her, her physical aspect never coincided: it matched neither her love affairs nor her crimes.

“There's no reason why I should go before everyone else,” murmured Marie Maurestier in a humble, moist voice, as if she were being granted this privilege for the first time.

“I do as I like in my own shop, Madame Maurestier,” answered the butcher, calmly. “These ladies and gentlemen don't mind, now, do they?”

The customers shook their heads.

“Well then, some calf's liver for me and some lung for my cat.”

The customers could not help but listen to her order as if it might be the formula for some sort of poison.

Was the problem not simply that Marie Maurestier looked inoffensive?

The moment you observed her, you could no longer be sure . . . her gray eyes flashed with an unbearably hard brilliance. During the trial, if looks could have killed, she would most certainly have made mincemeat of the judge, the prosecutor, and the witnesses for the prosecution. Whenever she spoke, her words were caustic, peremptory; she had called some people imbeciles, or cretins, or narcissists, then gone on to tear their testimonies apart, and she was all the more formidable in that she had not missed the mark. It became difficult, after that, to rehabilitate those she had destroyed; nothing would grow again in the earth she had scorched. The sheer intelligence of this woman who didn't even seem to be intelligent made her diabolical. No matter what attitude she adopted, she was disturbing. Guilty? Her strict face was not vicious enough. Innocent? Her face lacked tenderness. So she had sold her body to graybeards? No, her body would have had to be desirable, desired, or at least desiring. Did she sincerely love those decrepit husbands of hers? No one could see any love in her at all.

BOOK: Concerto to the Memory of an Angel
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