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Authors: Daphne du Maurier

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The chauffeur said, ‘Monsieur le Comte has no great longing to go home?’

I looked down at his kind, honest face, sympathy in the depths of his brown eyes, and irony too, the gentle mockery of one who must surely love his master well, who would fight for him and die for him, yet dare to tell him when he strayed. It occurred to me that never before had I sensed devotion in anybody’s eyes. His warmth brought a smile from me in answer, until I remembered that it was not me he loved but Jean de Gué. I climbed back again into the car beside him.

‘It isn’t always easy’, I said, ‘to be a family man,’ echoing the words that had been spoken to me the night before.

‘Very true,’ replied the chauffeur with a shrug and a sigh. ‘There are always so many problems to solve in a household such as yours. Sometimes I wonder how Monsieur le Comte avoids disaster.’

A household such as mine … The road topped the brow of a hill and I saw the warning sign of the approaching village
of St Gilles. We passed an ancient church, a little sandy square flanked with a few worn houses and a solitary grocer’s shop, a tobacconist’s and a petrol pump, and swung left down an avenue of limes over a narrow bridge. And now the enormity of what I was doing, of what I had already done, hit me like a violent blow. A surging wave of apprehension, and indeed of terror, engulfed me totally. I knew the meaning of the word panic in its full sense. I had but one desire – to run, to hide, to be concealed anywhere in some ditch or hole, not to be carried forward fatefully and inevitably to the château I saw looming ahead of me behind ivy-covered walls, the small windows in its two foremost towers aflame with the last dying whisper of the sun. The car jolted over a wooden bridgeway spanning a moat that had once perhaps held water but was now gone to grass and nettles, and, passing swiftly through the open gate, circled the gravel approach and came to a standstill before the waiting château. A narrow terrace ran beneath the windows, which were already shuttered against the evening, giving a lost, dead look to the façade, and as I hesitated, still humped in the seat of the car, the figure of a man came out of the one dark door between the windows and stood there on the terrace, waiting.

‘There’s Monsieur Paul,’ said the chauffeur. ‘If he questions me later I shall say you had business in Le Mans, and that I picked you up from the Hôtel de Paris.’

He got out of the car and I followed slowly.

‘Gaston,’ called the man on the terrace, ‘don’t put the car away. I shall be using it. There’s something wrong with the Citroën.’ He looked down at me, leaning on the balustrade. ‘Well?’ he said. ‘You’ve taken your time.’ And he did not smile.

My own forced greeting died on my lips, and like a criminal, hunted, snatching at any cover, I retreated to the back of the car for refuge. But the chauffeur – his name was Gaston, then – already had the two valises in his hand and barred the way. I went up the steps to the terrace, lifting my eyes to meet
the first penetrating gaze, the man’s use of the familiar ‘
tu’
proving him, surely, to be a relative. I saw that he was shorter, thinner, probably younger than myself, yet with a haggard appearance as if he were tired or his health bad, and the lines around his mouth were pinched and dissatisfied. I stood beside him, waiting for his move.

‘You might have telephoned,’ he said. ‘They waited lunch. Françoise and Renée declared you had had an accident. I said it was extremely unlikely, and you were probably spending the day in the bar of the Hôtel de Paris. We tried to get you there, but they told us you hadn’t been seen. After that, of course, there were the usual lamentations.’

Surprise that I had passed his near inspection kept me silent. I was not sure what it was that I had expected. Doubt, perhaps, a closer stare, an intuition on his part that I was not the man he knew. He looked me up and down, then laughed, the laugh of someone who is irritated, not amused.

‘I tell you frankly, you look a wreck,’ he said.

When Gaston had smiled at me so short a while since, the unaccustomed warmth had been a benison unearned. Now, for the first time in my life, I recognized dislike. The effect was strange. I was angry for the sake of Jean de Gué. Whatever he might have done to incur hostility, I was on his side.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Your opinion doesn’t worry me. As a matter of fact, I feel extremely well.’

He turned on his heel, walking towards the door, and Gaston caught my eye and smiled. I realized with amazement that I had said what was expected of me, and the answering
‘tu’
, which I had never used before, had come naturally, without effort.

I followed the man named Paul into the house. The hall was small and surprisingly narrow, leading to another, wider passage whence I could see a twisting stairway going to the floors above. There was the clean, cold smell of polish, bearing no relation to the faded deck-chairs stacked against the wall in odd juxtaposition to the Louis Seize chairs beside them. At the
far end of the wider passage hall there was a great cabinet between two doors, the sort of graceful, fluted thing one sees roped off from the public in museums, and facing it, upon a stuccoed wall, a tortured, blackened picture of Christ crucified. The murmur of voices came from one of the half-open doors.

Paul crossed the passage and called through the first of them, ‘Here is Jean arrived at last,’ his voice betraying the exasperation he had already shown to me. ‘I’m off, I’m late already,’ he went on, and glancing at me once again, ‘I can see you are in no fit state to tell me anything tonight. We can discuss things in the morning.’ He turned, and went out again by the door leading to the terrace.

Gaston, the two valises in his hand, was mounting the stairs. I wondered if I should follow him, when a woman’s voice called from the room beyond, ‘Are you there, Jean?’, the note in the voice high, complaining, and once again the chauffeur glanced down at me in sympathy. Slowly, with lagging steps, I passed through the open door into the room. I had one swift impression of vastness, heavy curtains, papered walls. Standard lamps, masked by ugly shades with beaded fringes, dimmed the light. An exquisite chandelier, glittering through a veil of dust, the candles broken, swung unlit from the high ceiling. One long window, still unshuttered, betrayed acres of tangled grassway disappearing into alleyways of trees, and cropping grass, almost beneath the window itself, were black-and-white cattle, their shapes ghostly in the falling light.

Three women were sitting in the room. As I entered they looked up, and one of them, tall as myself, with hard, clear-cut features and a narrow mouth, her hair strained back and twisted in a bun, immediately rose to her feet and left the room. A second, with dark hair and eyes, handsome, almost beautiful, yet marred by a sallow skin and a sullen mouth, watched me without expression from the sofa where she sat, some sewing or embroidery beside her, and when the first woman left the room she called over her shoulder without turning round, ‘If
you must go, Blanche, please shut the door. I mind draughts, if nobody else does.’

The third woman had faded, rather colourless blonde hair. She might have been pretty once, and perhaps was still, with small, delicate features and blue eyes, but her expression of defeat, of petulance, destroyed the first impression of charm. She did not smile. She gave a little laugh of exasperation, as the man Paul had done, and then, rising to her feet, came towards me across the polished floor.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘aren’t you going to kiss either of us?’

4

I
bent my head and kissed her on both cheeks, and, still saying nothing, crossed the floor and kissed the other woman in the same fashion. The first, the fair, blue-eyed one – it was she who had called when I was in the hall, for I recognized the voice – then came and took my arm, leading me to the open hearth on which one log smouldered.

‘You may well look ashamed of yourself,’ she said, using the familiar
‘tu’
just as Paul had done. ‘We have been worried sick that you might have had an accident, but as usual you didn’t give that a thought. What have you been doing all day, and why didn’t you go to the Hôtel de Paris? They told Paul on the telephone that they hadn’t seen you at all. I begin to think you do this sort of thing on purpose, just to frighten us and make us imagine the worst.’

‘And what would that be, the worst?’ I asked her.

My retort, coming so quickly, gave me confidence. The dream, or rather nightmare, was something completely out of my experience. I felt that it did not matter what I said or did: however outrageous, these people would have to accept it.

‘You knew perfectly well we must have been anxious,’ the woman said, dropping my arm, giving me a little push. ‘When you are away from home you are capable of anything, and you never think of anybody but yourself. You talk too much, you drink too much, you drive too fast …’

‘I do everything, in fact, to excess?’ I interrupted.

‘You do everything you can to make us miserable,’ she said.

‘Oh, leave him alone,’ called the other woman. ‘It is obvious
from his manner that he isn’t going to tell you anything. You are just wasting your time.’

‘Thank you,’ I said.

She looked up from her work, flashing me a look of understanding. We were allies, perhaps? I wondered who she was. She bore no resemblance to Paul, though both were dark. The other woman sat down again and sighed. I realized now, from her figure, that she must be expecting a child.

‘You could at least tell us what happened in Paris,’ she said. ‘Or is that to remain a mystery too?’

‘I have no idea what happened in Paris,’ I said carelessly. ‘I’m suffering from loss of memory.’

‘You are suffering from too much to drink,’ she answered. ‘I can smell it on your breath. It would be a good idea if you went up to bed and slept it off. Don’t go near Marie-Noel – she has some fever, and it might be catching. They had a case of measles in the village, and if I were to get that …’ she paused and looked at both of us significantly, ‘you can imagine what might happen.’

I went on standing with my back to the hearth, wondering how I could escape and find the right room. I should recognize the valises, of course, unless they had been unpacked. Even so, in one of the rooms I should be able to find the hairbrushes with the initials J. de G. Bed was at least a refuge, a place to think and plan. Or did I no longer want to think or plan? Laughter, uncontrolled, rose in my throat.

‘What is it now?’ asked the fair woman, resentful, complaining.

‘It’s an extraordinary situation,’ I said. ‘You neither of you know how extraordinary.’

The freedom of saying this acted like a charm on my own lingering consciousness of self. It was like being invisible, or possessing a ventriloquist’s voice.

‘I see nothing funny in infection,’ said the fair woman, ‘and certainly not at the present moment. I have no desire to bring
a blind or perhaps crippled child into the world, which can happen to someone in my condition who catches measles. Or do you mean the situation in Paris was extraordinary? I hope, for everyone’s sake, that you came to some agreement, though I can hardly believe it.’

I turned from her questioning, reproachful eyes to those of the other woman, but her expression had changed. A wave of colour had come into her sallow complexion, adding to her beauty, but she looked wary, and before she dropped her eyes again to her work she shook her head, imperceptibly, as if in warning. She and de Gué were undoubtedly allies, but in what cause? And in what relationship were the three of them, one to the other? I decided suddenly to tell the truth as a test of my courage, and also because I was no longer sure of my own sanity.

‘Actually,’ I said, ‘I am not Jean de Gué at all. I am someone else. We met in Le Mans last night, and changed clothes, and he has disappeared in my car, heaven knows where, and I am here in his place. You must admit it’s an extraordinary situation.’

I expected an outburst from the fair woman, but instead she sighed again, gazing a moment at the single smouldering log on the hearth. Ignoring me she yawned, and turning towards the other woman said, ‘Was Paul going to be late this evening? He did not tell me.’

‘After a rotary club dinner of course he’ll be late,’ the dark one replied. ‘Have you ever known Paul back early on those occasions?’

‘He was not in much of a mood to enjoy himself,’ said the other, ‘and seeing Jean come home in this sort of condition won’t have improved his temper.’

Neither of them glanced in my direction. My remark, which they must have interpreted as some tasteless joke, had fallen so flat that they had not even thought it worthwhile to make a crushing retort. This surely proved that deception was complete.
I could behave as I pleased, say anything, do anything: they would merely believe me to be drunk or mad. The sensation was indescribable. Driving the Renault had been the first moment of intoxication, but now that I had passed the test of speaking to de Gué’s family, embracing them, even, and still they had sensed nothing unusual, the feeling of power was overwhelming. I could, if I chose, do incalculable harm to these people whom I did not know – injure them, upset their lives, put them at odds one with another – and it would not matter to me because they were dummies, strangers, they had nothing to do with my life. When Jean de Gué left me sleeping in the hotel in Le Mans, did he realize the danger? Was his action not the wild prank it appeared, but a deliberate desire that I might wreck the home which he said possessed him?

I was aware of the dark woman’s eyes upon me, brooding, suspicious. ‘Why don’t you go upstairs as Françoise suggests?’ she said. Her manner was peculiar. It was as though she wanted to get me out of the room, afraid that I might say something out of place.

‘Very well, I will,’ I said, and then I added, ‘You were both right. I drank much too much in Le Mans. I spent the day there senseless in a hotel.’

The fact that it was true added flavour to deception. Both women stared. Neither said anything. I crossed the floor and went out of the half-open door into the hall beyond. I heard the one called Françoise break into a torrent of words as soon as I left the room.

BOOK: The Scapegoat
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