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Authors: Hubert Aquin

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One o’clock sounded at the Coppet town hall. In spite of everything, a tremendous sense of well-being flooded me and
I filled my lungs with the cool air that a light breeze was wafting towards the vineyards in the back country. All around me a deep calm prevailed. The hazy high noon suggested sweetness and rest. A thin light bathed the valley of the Rhône and the raging architecture of the landscape that unfolds around Coppet in as many styles as there are eras, from the recent civilizations of the southern valley to the folds of high glacial antiquity. Stationed on this promontory, able to take in at a single glance the turbulent opening that, from the Furka to Viège, from Viège to Martigny by way of the steep corridor of the Haut-Valais, has impetuously carved the slopes, the ridges, and the granite walls that are constantly hacked to pieces on the heights, tangled in a calcareous embrace from the Haut de Cry to the Dent de Morcles, I gazed out at the incomparable script of this anonymous masterpiece that was written in the debris of avalanches, of morainal streaks and poorly carved splinters of an implacable genesis. I took a long look at this interrupted landscape that extends in a flared cirque from the foothills of the Bernese Alps to the glorious peaks of the Valais massifs and the Pennine Alps. Then I took a few steps on the promontory and sprinted down a small path that brought me to Coppet, to a small square bounded on the south by the awe-inspiring passage of the Rhône and that, imperceptible, of floating mountains. Around this tiny square, shops displayed themselves to the passerby. My appetite restored by the sight of the window of a fancy-food shop, I decided to treat myself to a good lunch. The clock on the town hall showed ten past one. In just a few minutes I was on the Grand-Rue heading for the centre of Coppet.

I stopped at the Auberge des Émigrés whose back gave onto the lake, its front on the Grand-Rue. I took a table for two by the window so that I was facing against the current of the Rhône and into the alluvial chasm set into its walls of spires and crystalline massifs. Delighted to be sitting down after so many hours of hunting and being hunted, I suddenly felt free
of any worry about H. de Heutz. I’ll have plenty of time to think effectively, I mused, when I have something in my stomach. First I ordered crêpes stuffed with ham and Emmenthal and a bottle of Réserve du Vidôme. Things were going well. The Auberge des Émigrés is a very pleasant place; I was practically alone. A couple at the back were speaking English. The fruity taste of the white wine from the hills of Yvorne finally convinced me that I’d been right to come to this restaurant; anyway, I had to eat, because I wouldn’t have been able to keep up the frightening tempo of this race with the hagiographer of Scipio Africanus much longer. Forgetting for a moment that the appearance seemingly by magic of a blonde woman at the wheel of a car had kept me from finishing off H. de Heutz, I tucked into the crêpes hungrily, stopping now and then for a sip of the well-chosen fruity white wine. I’d get my wits back after a good meal. And it was delicious! After the crêpes came sautéed chicken from Mont Noir in a thick sauce, with a fine vintage Château Puidoux. With no pressure of time, I succumbed to the pleasure of eating and drinking and to the no less intoxicating one of being on a balcony above the lake in this ancient landscape, where I was happy to stop and peer out at its smallest folds. Over more than forty-eight hours I’d lost my way a thousand times in this collage of mountains and an awe-inspiring valley, never breaking away from it. Only the axis had changed since the moment when I spotted the woman I love near Place de la Riponne.

And it was that same motionless lake, spied the next day at dawn, that flowed in us after a twelve-month separation, and that we returned to yesterday when we emerged from our caress at the hour when the sun slants towards the Dent du Chat and the Grand Chartreuse. In two days of slow travel from Place de la Riponne to the Hôtel d’Angleterre, from the Château d’Ouchy to the Tour de Peilz, from Clarens to Yvorne and Aigle, from Aigle to Château d’Oex by way of the Col des
Mosses, from Château d’Oex to Carouge, and then from Echandens to Geneva and Geneva to Coppet, I have only circumscribed the same inverted vault, thereby circling the great river bed that enthralls me even now as I abandon myself to the effusive course of words …

 

W
HEN I TURNED
my attention to the cheese, a Tomme de Savoie and a small portion of Vacherin, washed down with a Côtes du Rhône, it was already a quarter to two, and nearly five past when I tossed back a Williamine to revive myself before leaving this memorable restaurant. Outside on Coppet’s Grand-Rue, all was calm. A good tourist, I took a few steps along the sidewalk. Released from all obsessions and immunized against a certain H. de Heutz by the wines and the Williamine, I savoured the pure pleasure of ambling along as I liked to do in Leysin every morning, strolling to Trumpier to buy the Lausanne
Gazette
, then climbing up to the cog-railway station, where I could lean on the balustrade and gaze out at the network of the great Alps from the Pic Chaussy as far as the Grand Muveran and then, in the background just in front of me, the Tour Noir, the Chardonnets, the Aiguille du Druz and the Dents du Midi, and, on my right in a chain running south, the Crête de Linges, the Cornettes de Bise, the Jumelles and a sort of hazy screen whose condensation indicated Lac Léman. That same deformed cordillera still surrounded me when I was idling around Coppet’s Grand-Rue, carefree and happy.

I stopped to look at a bookstore window: there was a photo of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, surrounded by copies of
Derborence
and
La Beauté sur la Terre
. Out of curiosity, and probably because I wanted to postpone the moment when I’d have nothing to do but think about H. de Heutz, I stepped inside. The interior of the shop gave an impression of serenity. Books covered the walls: clearly organized and arranged by collection, they formed geometric spots of various colours and sizes. I was careful to let the bookseller know that I wasn’t looking for anything specific, and he kindly urged me to browse to my heart’s content. First, I took down the
Blue Guide
to Switzerland and opened it to Coppet. I expected to find a small-scale map of the town that would help me locate my position and that of the Opel, which was still at the edge of the woods, and also to reconstitute the route I’d taken through the little forest to the promontory. There was nothing of the sort though, only a host of information about the families of Necker and Madame de Staël, who’d been placed under surveillance in her own chateau. I replaced the
Guide
as if I’d changed my mind about doing more travelling in Switzerland. Aware that time was passing and that I seemed unaware of it, I wasn’t really interested in the titles that paraded past my eyes. Suddenly, I spoke to the bookseller:

“Excuse me, Monsieur … I’m looking for a historical work on Caesar and the Helvetians by a writer called H. de Heutz …”

“H. de Heutz … that sounds familiar.”

The bookseller began to search his shelves, systematic and diligent.

“Do you know who published it?”

“Sorry, I don’t.”

“The name Heutz does ring a bell …”

It was already half-past two when I resolved what my next move would be. I put my hand in my pocket, pretended I was combing through the history books, and counted my keys without showing them. I’d made my decision. Then, noting that the bookseller was having more trouble than I was to
locate something by H. de Heutz, I thanked him for his efforts. Out of courtesy, I picked up the first book that came to hand, Greene’s
Our Man in Havana
, and paid for it, already anxious to get outside and swing into action. On the sidewalk of the Grande-Rue, I looked in vain for a taxi. Then I set out resolutely towards the station. Before I even got there, I hailed a taxi, which stopped.

“To the chateau!”

Giving that order let me regain full possession of my strength. Slumped on the seat, I was thinking with salutary certainty that I was on my way to a positive result, at one masterstroke getting rid of H. de Heutz and then, free as the breeze, joining K on the terrace of the Hôtel d’Angleterre. A few minutes later the taxi stopped at the gate to the Necker estate. To allow the driver time to turn around and head back towards the village, I pretended to be studying the decrepit front of the chateau and the wrought-iron gate that kept people out. As soon as I could no longer see the taxi, I started walking like a solitary stroller along the narrow road that turns sharply to follow the edge of the forest. There was no one around. The rustling of leaves, the song of the birds and of the wind from the moraine filled the pastoral silence of nature. Then the small blue shape of the Opel came into sight through a clump of trees. I stopped briefly, alert for any strange rustling that would warn of an enemy presence. But there were no false notes in the smooth murmur of this beautiful summer day. Cautiously, I took a few steps in the forest and found myself back in the place that I’d fled just a few hours earlier. The trunk of the car was still open, the door was swaying feebly in the wind. I closed it, unable to do so silently. I had no trouble spotting the proper key, which I inserted in the ignition to get the little Opel on the road.

The key chain held four keys in all: now I’d just have to try the three others in the lock of the Château d’Echandens. One of them would surely give me access to the chateau, to
which I’d decided to return. A search, even a hasty one, would certainly tell me something and perhaps I’d make some discoveries that would help us unmask our enemies. Moreover, by gaining admittance to the chateau I would thwart all the expectations of H. de Heutz, who might suddenly materialize in my sights, a perfect target, paralyzed with stupor. I just had to take one precaution as I entered the grounds: conceal the blue Opel perfectly, preferably in the garage, since that was where the other person had got into the car that had escorted me to Geneva, following me at the very moment when I was going to kill H. de Heutz. Since then, H. de Heutz and his blonde associate must have been looking for me with something resembling rage. They’ll come back to their chateau for some peace and quiet eventually, with no idea that it’s in their stronghold that I’ve taken refuge. My strategy can only disconcert them: of its kind it’s a small masterpiece. The Prussian blue Opel cabriolet will serve as my Trojan horse to beleaguer the enemy citadel. I, revolutionary agent twice caught off guard, had in a sense disguised myself as H. de Heutz, arrayed in his blue cuirass, outfitted with his false identities, and bearing his heraldic keys. And in that guise I was about to gain admittance to the grand salon where I too will turn my back on the Dents du Midi that were illuminated this morning beyond the big French doors. One thing is certain, my plan is something of a challenge, for according to the current logic of our profession, it could strike one as a rash undertaking par excellence. This illogical appearance, however, is its most formidable quality: it’s a counter-disguise! Yes, I’m an innovator. I no longer disguise myself as a tree branch or an innocuous stroller or a bearded tourist weighed down with loaded cameras; my disguise is now that of a victim of the stunning murder I’m about to commit. I take his place behind the wheel of a blue Opel; soon I’ll be part of his furniture – indeed, I’m nearly inside his very skin …

While I was thus airing my opinion about certain practical concerns pertaining to the murder of H. de Heutz, alias Carl von Ryndt, alias François-Marc de Saugy, the road from Coppet to Rolle was giving me a quick look at the far shore of the lake, a veritable archipelago of rocks and fields of black ice. On the other side, immobile France was running towards the mouth of a river as I drove along at a good clip. As soon as the road cleared a little, I pushed it as hard as I could, making the internal revolutions scream. From Rolle to Aubonne, from Aubonne to Renens, I drove like a sensible adult. Then, shortly after leaving Renens en route to Echandens, I spied across the fields the jagged shape of the chateau, half-hidden by a clump of trees: a dark mass, disproportionate with the little village of Echandens huddled around that enigmatic monster. Discreetly, I parked the car on the shoulder; I even turned off the ignition. To tell the truth, I had the jitters. Suddenly, even before I went on stage, I was uncontrollably agitated. It was dread that was keeping me inside the Opel, even if this was a danger zone where any of the locals could identify the little blue car and would be surprised that its owner wasn’t at the wheel. The Trojan horse galloped by night, and I dreamed of realizing the same exploit in daylight under this beautiful sun. Sheer madness! Echandens is small: the whole village would know if a stranger was inside its walls. My scheme bore an odd resemblance to Russian roulette.

I lingered at this spot close to the chateau and even closer to the first houses of the village. An emotion that I couldn’t name, unless it was fear, was keeping me there, so close to the danger, in a somnolent state: that, of course, was more a result of the heat and my fatigue than a symptom of my jitters. I stood there, unable to hurry matters, lacking the blinding certainty that urges one to act. I was sinking into debility as into a comfortable bed without putting up the slightest resistance to this generalized bliss. Thus positioned on the outskirts of a battlefield, I ignored everything except my developing
numbness and my drift into a fluid and hypnotic respite. I sat there motionless under a roof overheated by the sun, my gaze lost in this elevated plain that could be a slope of the Jura or of the Pre-Alps. I was no longer determined to stay on this road that turns sharply on its way into Echandens; I could fit my spirit to nothing but the paralysis that was gaining on it.

I’ve stopped moving. To tell the truth, the disturbance no longer affects me: its very impact breaks down into an infinite number of interruptions whose amplitude grows as their frequency increases. Lethargy settles into me solemnly and vigorously in the form of an ecstatic fall. Inside my steel shell I’m as motionless as a Vedic priest; I linger religiously along the way as I approach the stage I’m to appear on. I don’t hesitate, rather I feel as if I’m on my last legs, as if I’ve been injected with a dark cantharis. Nothing more appears on the horizon: neither the Fribourg Alps nor the domes of the Jura nor any hope of getting out of this unscathed. Nothing, not even the surety that in a certain number of days I’ll be able to circulate at will, to stroll aimlessly among crowds of people between the windows of Morgan’s department store and the stores on Peel Street. No, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to lounge around for a few hours or days when I’m in the mood, or do nothing and improvise my idleness, choosing my own procedures and place: to hesitate between Café Martin and the Beaver Club, to linger at the bar of the Holiday Inn between a Cutty Sark and the darkly shadowed eyes of the woman I love. Hesitation itself would be a form of movement. But I’m not stirring, I am gliding, motionless, gorged with memories and uncertainties, through poisonous water. Nothing files past now as on the day of our
fête nationale
: my windshield still opens onto the same slice of the Vaudois plateau where a chateau is located that I’m not going to. And between it and me I maintain a distance equal to that separating me from our bedroom on that June 24. This evening it’s as hot inside me as in the stifling countryside around
Echandens and on the bed strewn with cushions where we ushered in a tragic season. It’s as hot inside me as it was that night when a secret upheaval made the entire town shudder with the convulsions that shook our bodies. Unmoving, I watch my own nothingness pass by; unmoving, I’m like the chateau of Echandens I see now, solid as the snow that buried our first kiss. The reality around and within me is outstripping me: a thousand dazzled crystals stand in for the passing of time. I am stopped in my race. Nothing moves forward except my hypocritical hand across the paper. And from this lingering residuary movement I infer the brain activity that controls it, the embryonic waves that survive imperceptibly during a coma and contradict it since it contains the very principle of its opposite. My cursive handwriting bears witness to a second genesis that, though reduced to zero, is not altogether stopped, simply because my hand doesn’t stop racing. And so my torpor is merely a sudden and transient death. From my hand’s vibratory course, I deduce that a manic river is discharging into my cephalic vein, its tumult displacing my names, all my childhoods, my failures, and whatever is left of my nights of love. This polluted trickle that gushes onto the page transports me utterly into the confusion of a flight. An uncertain Nile seeking its mouth, this driving current writes to me on the sand along the pages that still separate me from the lugubrious delta. Before me stand unprecedented acts: chateaus, women, hours, centuries. Awaiting me, too, are entire chapters on guerrilla tactics in the heart of Montreal and the record, suicide by suicide, of our unwilling revolution.

BOOK: Next Episode
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