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Authors: Daphne du Maurier

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BOOK: The Scapegoat
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I was caught between two moods – the one of self-abasement for my deception, making me feel that every word of the Mass must surely be a solemn declaration of my fault; and the other of intense awareness of the discomforts suffered by those beside me – of the mother, groaning audibly as she shifted on her
knees, of Paul, with a smoker’s morning cough, of Renée, whose sallow face was pallid without powder, of Marie-Noel, slavishly imitating every action of her aunt Blanche, bowing lower and lower over her clasped hands. Never had the Mass seemed so long, so pregnant with inner meaning, yet heard with such lack of grace, and when it was over and we shuffled down the aisle, the comtesse leaning heavily on my arm, the first words she muttered were, ‘I suppose that fool Renée is going to doll herself up like a parrot because Françoise is in bed. I’ve a good mind to stay downstairs and spoil her fun.’

In the porch Blanche came to take her other arm, and the three of us went slowly down the hill back to the château. So we entered the domain, brother and sister mute on either side of the mother, who professed herself delighted to see the rain, for the day would be a failure, the guests soaked to the skin, Renée in popinjay feathers bedraggled if she put her head out of doors, while Paul, in charge of the
chasse
, would make a fool of himself from first to last. ‘And so,’ she said, squeezing my arm, ‘you’ll have the laugh of them after all.’

We were on the terrace by half past ten, standing in mizzling rain as the first cars drove through the gateway. Poor Renée, her innocent plan thwarted, was hidden from view by the massive figure of her mother-in-law, who, leaning on a stick, a great shawl covering her shoulders, stood in the place of honour at the entrance to the château, regally offering a word of welcome to each as he arrived. Because her appearance was so unexpected, even the burnt hand of the seigneur was passed off as a small mishap, and the absence of Françoise not even noticed. Madame la Comtesse was ‘receiving’; nothing else counted.

The transformation was complete. I could hardly believe that the woman who stood here holding court, surrounded by every sort of guest from the neighbouring estates, was the one I had seen crouching in her chair upstairs or lying grey and exhausted in the great double bed. Every remark she made held in its tail
a sting about the day’s proceedings. ‘Better pick chestnuts and leave your gun behind,’ to one, and to another, ‘If you want some exercise, take my terriers for a walk. They’ll give you more sport in ten minutes than Paul will in five hours.’

I stood apart, not wishing to be involved in her malice, but my silence was misconstrued and taken for irritation at my accident. My reiteration of ‘Don’t ask me anything – ask Paul’ was obviously thought to be mockery of his efforts, and I could see the impression spreading that the day would be a hit-and-miss affair, with nobody in charge and the whole thing slightly ridiculous. Paul, nervy and harassed, was looking at his watch, anxious to be off, his schedule already behindhand, when I felt someone touch my elbow. It was the man in overalls who lived in the cottage by the garage, and he had César by his side.

‘Here is César, Monsieur le Comte,’ he said. ‘You had forgotten him.’

‘I’m not shooting today,’ I said. ‘Take him to Monsieur Paul.’

The dog, excited to be loose and sensing the sport in store for him, roamed round searching for his master, and took no notice when Paul called him to heel. In his bewilderment he charged a rival, a well-trained retriever squatting sedately upon its haunches, and immediately there was an uproar, a fury of growling and snarling, the retriever’s elderly owner shouting at the top of his voice, and Paul, livid, calling to me, ‘Can’t you control your dog?’ The gardener Joseph and I hurled ourselves upon the unfortunate César, but I could do little with one hand. Somehow we controlled the dog at last and had him leashed, everyone laughing at the ridiculous affair – except the owner of the dog and Paul himself, who as he passed me said, ‘Another of your jokes, I suppose? It amuses you to start the whole day wrong by letting your half-trained dog run wild.’

There was nothing I could do. César’s total disregard of me did not look like disobedience on his part, but amused and cynical indifference on mine.

‘So you won’t bother to come with us?’ someone said.

‘Not immediately. I’ll follow later,’ I replied, and they began to move off in scattered groups, laughing and shrugging their shoulders, one or two glancing up at the heavy rain-clouds and grimacing as though to say, ‘The show’s a failure. We might as well all go home.’

As they disappeared I turned to the comtesse and said, ‘All right. You set out to ruin the day for Paul and Renée, and you’ve done it. I hope you’re proud of yourself.’

She stared at me without comprehension, her eyes expressionless. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked. ‘I don’t understand you.’

‘You understand me very well,’ I said. ‘Here was the one chance for Paul and Renée to show some sort of authority, and you deliberately stood in their way, making a mockery of the whole thing. No one spoke to Renée, Paul was ignored, the day is as good as finished for them both. What sort of sport the rest will have, God only knows.’

Her face turned suddenly grey, whether from shock or anger I could not tell. I had thought we were alone, but Charlotte was waiting for her just inside the hall, and she came forward now and took her arm, and the pair of them turned and began to climb the stairs without a word. There was no sign of Renée, no sign of Blanche; only the child remained as second witness to the scene, and she looked away from me awkwardly, her face flushed, pretending she had not heard.

I had lost my temper playing another man’s part, and it was something he would never have done. He would have laughed with his mother, encouraging her, had he found himself in my position. I knew that what had angered me in truth was that the situation would never have arisen had Jean de Gué been there. If some accident had prevented him from taking an active part he would have directed the shoot just the same. It was not the mother’s fault that the day was ruined, but mine.

Marie-Noel stood first on one foot and then on the other. She was dressed in macintosh and hood for walking, and she
must have hoped that both of us were to follow the others and watch.

‘Is your hand hurting?’ she asked.

‘No.’

‘I thought it must be, and that was why you didn’t bother much with the guests. I suppose you’re sorry now not to be shooting?’

‘I’m not sorry. Only sick of the whole mess-up.’

‘Gran’mie will be ill now. She’ll have one of her bad turns. Why were you so cross with her? She only did it for you.’

It was no good. All our motives were false. I had tried to do the right thing in the wrong way, or the wrong thing in the right way – I did not know which. My plan had not worked, and neither had the mother’s. Even the dog was in disgrace because he had been given no directions.

‘Where’s your aunt Renée?’ I asked the child.

‘She went upstairs. Her hair was getting spoilt. She also looked as if she was going to cry.’

‘Tell her Gaston shall take us all in the car to join the
chasseurs.’

Her face brightened and she ran off.

I asked Gaston to bring round the car, and saw, to my relief, that he was putting a case of wine into the back. The best solution for the day, so far as everybody was concerned, seemed to be refuge in drink. I looked across the drive, and Renée and the child were walking towards us, and with them César, wagging his great tail.

‘We don’t want the dog,’ I called.

They stopped, surprised. ‘You’ll want César for the birds, Papa,’ cried Marie-Noel.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Since I’m not shooting there’s no need to bring him. I can’t manage him with one hand.’

‘You don’t have to,’ the child said. ‘He always obeys your command. He didn’t this morning because you never made him. Come on, César.’

‘Hasn’t he a lead?’ said Renée. ‘Where’s his lead?’

I gave in. I could not argue; the day was out of my control. I climbed into the back of the Renault, with the dog on one side of me and the child on the other, Renée in the front and Gaston driving. As we jolted over a rough cart track to the woods, and I swayed against César, a mutter rose in his throat, forerunner to a growl, and I wondered how long his natural dignity would keep him courteous, and how soon an affront to his comfort would make him turn.

‘What’s wrong with César?’ asked Renée, looking over her shoulder. ‘What does he keep growling for?’

‘Papa’s teasing him,’ said the child, ‘aren’t you, Papa?’

‘No, by God I’m not,’ I said.

‘Half-trained dogs get so excited,’ said Renée. ‘Don’t forget he’s only three.’

‘Joseph remarked on his behaviour two days ago,’ said Gaston. ‘He has growled at Monsieur le Comte several times.’

‘What shall we do if he goes mad?’ asked Marie-Noel.

‘He won’t go mad,’ I said, ‘but somebody’s got to see that he’s kept on his lead.’

Suddenly the car stopped, and we found ourselves quite near to the
chasseurs
, who were spread out in a thin line along the ride. We climbed out of the car, and I knew instinctively that it was a mistake for me to have come at all, for I hadn’t the faintest notion what I ought to do next. Worse still, I saw that my instructions about César had not been followed. He was loose, roaming around as he had done in the drive, in a vain search for his master.

‘Come here, César,’ I called. The dog took no notice. He was running along the line, his progress accompanied by angry shouts of ‘Catch that dog!’, bewildered not to be claimed, and Renée made a click of disapproval. ‘Really, Jean, you ought to control him better.’

‘I knew it was a mistake to bring him,’ I said. ‘Marie-Noel, run and fetch him.’

She was about to do so when there came shouts from within the wood, a whirring sound of flight, and the birds were over our heads. Suddenly the air was filled with the banging of guns, and the bodies of birds came rocketing down. I ducked instinctively, closing my eyes, a townsman out of his milieu, untrained to death in the field.

‘What’s the matter – are you faint?’ asked Renée, but even as I straightened myself César, forgetting all he had ever been taught, dashed forward unbidden to retrieve the nearest bird, which surely, so his dog mind must have told him, would be his absent master’s prey. As he did so, he ran headlong into his enemy of the terrace, the well-trained retriever belonging to the man on my right, whose bird it presumably was, and before the strangled summons ‘César!’ could rise in my throat the hideous battle between them started once again. The retriever’s master, a little old fellow in an out-at-elbows jacket and battered tweed hat, screamed at me, purple in the face, ‘Call off your dog!’, and the three of us, Renée, Marie-Noel and I, flung ourselves into the mêlée of infuriated animals, joined now by a third. The
chasseur
, hysterical with rage, whirled away from us to fire at a couple of late-comers who now winged their way above us, but in his wild emotion he missed them both so that they swerved and dipped to safety in some cover far behind.

He turned to us, pale as death and almost speechless with fury. ‘What are we invited here for?’ he yelled. ‘To be made fun of? That’s the second time you’ve set your dog on mine. I’m going home.’

César, secured at last, was dragged from the scene of action by Renée and the child, and now the other
chasseurs
, drawn by the sound of the barking dogs and the violent shouting of their neighbours, came flocking round to see what had occurred. Paul himself, appearing suddenly from the far end of the ride, ruffled, anxious, arrived in time to see his guest, still purple in the face, his gun under his arm and his dog limping behind, stalk off determinedly along the ride towards the road.

‘What’s wrong with the marquis?’ called Paul. ‘I placed him there on purpose. It’s the position he likes best. Wasn’t he pleased?’

Out of the sea of faces I saw one I recognized. It was the fellow I had seen driving a car near the station in Le Mans, the first to mistake my identity. He was grinning. The débâcle of the drive seemed to amuse him.

‘It was Jean playing the fool,’ he said. ‘I saw him as the birds came over. He dodged and ducked to amuse your wife, and then set César on to retrieve the marquis’s bird and to fight old Justin. I shouldn’t think the marquis will ever speak to either of you again.’

Paul turned to me, his face white. ‘What’s the idea?’ he asked. ‘Is it because you can’t have any fun yourself that you want to ruin the day for everyone else?’

Renée, mistakenly, spoke in my defence, ‘Don’t be so unfair,’ she stormed. ‘Of course Jean was not playing the fool. His hand was hurting him – he nearly fainted. As for the dog, he got completely out of control. There’s something the matter with him – he’s turning savage.’

‘Then he’d better be put down,’ said Paul. ‘And if Jean feels ill, why did he come out at all?’

The guests drifted away discreetly. Nobody wished to listen in on a family row. The man from Le Mans winked at me, and shrugged his shoulders. I could see Dr Lebrun hurrying down the ride in our direction.

‘What is it?’ I heard him say, his voice concerned. ‘Is it true that the Marquis de Plessis-Braye has shot himself through the foot?’

Paul uttered an exclamation and went off in pursuit of his outraged guest, whose stumpy figure was plodding steadily towards the distant lane.

‘I think we too had better go home,’ I said to Renée, but her face fell, and so did the child’s. Must I spoil their day also?

‘We’ve only watched one drive,’ said Renée. ‘Surely you’re not going to take any notice of Paul?’

‘You both stay,’ I said. ‘I’ve had enough. Here, give me the dog.’

I seized poor César’s leash, and the dog, aware of disgrace yet scenting heaven knows what wounded prey that had dragged itself into the woods to die, leapt forward in a sudden bound, nearly tearing my arm out of its socket, and we plunged on, the pair of us, into a copse as thick and black as a witch’s lair. I thought I heard a warning shout from Paul, but there was nothing I could do about it: my fate was linked to César’s and his to mine, and we went off together through the wood, until, breathless and exhausted, we collapsed together upon a heap of cones. He watched me with a canine grin, saliva dripping from his jaws, and then, seeing he was neither beaten nor sworn at, turned his back on me and began to lick the wounds sustained in battle.

BOOK: The Scapegoat
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