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Authors: Daphne du Maurier

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The hall was empty. I listened at the other door, on the further side of the great cabinet, and could hear the distant sound of kitchen noises, running water, the clatter of plates. I decided to try the stairs. The first flight ended in a long corridor, leading left and right, and above me was a further flight to a second floor. I hesitated, then turned left along the corridor. It was dark, lighted by a single electric bulb without a shade. The boards creaked under my feet. I was seized with a furtive
excitement as I put out my hand and turned the handle of the door at the far end of the corridor. The room was dark. I felt for a switch. The light revealed a bleak high room, dark red curtains drawn across the windows, a high single bed also draped with red, above which hung a large reproduction of Guido Reni’s ‘Ecce Homo’. I could see by its shape that this was a room in one of the towers, for the windows were circular, forming as it were an alcove, and this had been adapted as a place for prayer, with a prie-dieu, a crucifix, even a stoup for Holy Water. This little cell was bare but for its sparse religious trimmings, and the rest of the room was furnished with a bureau, chairs, and a table, besides the heavy chest-of-drawers and wardrobe, suggesting its uncomfortable use as sitting-room and bedroom combined. Another religious picture faced the bed, a tortured reproduction of the Scourging of Christ, and on the wall by the door near which I stood there was a third, of Christ falling with the Cross. The room struck chill, as though it were never heated. It even smelt forbidding, a mixture of polish and heavy hangings.

I switched off the light and went out. As I did so I saw that I had been observed. A woman had come down to the corridor from the floor above, and now stood watching me before descending further.

‘Bonsoir
, Monsieur le Comte,’ she said. ‘Are you looking for Mademoiselle Blanche?’

‘Yes,’ I lied quickly, ‘she’s not in her room.’

I felt myself obliged to go towards her. She was small, thin and elderly, and from her dress and the way she spoke I judged her to be a servant.

‘Mademoiselle Blanche is with Madame la Comtesse,’ she said, and I wondered if she knew instinctively that there was something wrong, because the expression in her eyes was curious, even amazed, and she glanced over my shoulder towards the room I had just left.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘I can see her later.’

‘Is there anything wrong, Monsieur le Comte?’ she asked, and behind her small eyes I could see still greater curiosity. Her voice was intimate, confiding, as though possibly I had a secret that we might share.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Why should there be?’

She looked away from me again, down the corridor to the closed door.

‘I beg pardon, Monsieur le Comte,’ she said. ‘I only thought there must be something wrong for you to go to Mademoiselle Blanche’s room.’

Her eyes flickered away from me. I sensed no affection there, no warmth, none of the trust that I had seen in Gaston; yet there was at the same time a suggestion of long familiarity, bringing some understanding between us of an unpleasant kind.

‘I hope Monsieur le Comte’s visit to Paris was successful?’ she said, an inflection in her voice other than courtesy, as though she hinted that something might have gone amiss which would earn criticism.

‘Perfectly,’ I replied, and was about to pass her when she said, ‘Madame la Comtesse knows you are home. I was just going down to the salon to tell you. It would be best to come up and see her now, or I shall have no peace.’

Madame la Comtesse … The words were ominous. If I were Monsieur le Comte, then who was she? Doubt began to return to me, the first faint brush of panic.

‘I can go later,’ I said, ‘there’s no great hurry.’

‘You know very well she won’t wait, Monsieur le Comte,’ said the woman, her inquisitive black eyes fixed upon me. There was no escape.

‘Very well,’ I said.

The servant turned towards the stairs and I went after her up the long, twisting flight. We came to another corridor like the one we had left below, which branched to a third, running parallel, and I caught a glimpse of a service staircase through an open baize door, whence the smell of food came floating
from the depths. We passed through yet another door, and then stood before the last one in the corridor. The servant opened it, giving me first a little nod, like a signal, and as she went through she said to someone within, ‘I met Monsieur le Comte coming up the stairs. He was on his way to see you.’

There were three persons in the room, which was large but so filled with furniture that there was hardly space to move between the tables and the chairs. Dominating the whole was a great double bed with curtained hangings. A stove, burning brightly with open doors, gave out an intense heat, so that walking into the atmosphere was enough to stifle anyone coming from the cold rooms below. Two small fox-terriers, with bows and bells jangling from their collars, ran towards me barking shrilly.

I swung my eyes round the room to take in what I could, the dogs leaping at my legs, and I saw the tall, thin woman who had left the salon when I entered it, and close to her an ancient curé, white-haired, his small black cap on the back of his head, his pleasant round face pink and unlined. Beyond him, almost on top of the stove itself, seated in the depths of a great arm-chair, was a massive elderly woman, her flesh sagging in a hundred lines, but her eyes, her nose, her mouth so astonishingly and horribly like my own that for one wild moment I believed after all Jean de Gué had come up here before me and was masquerading as a final jest.

She held out her arms, and drawn to her like a magnet I went instinctively to kneel beside her chair, and was at once caught and smothered, lost in the mountain of flesh and woollen wraps, feeling momentarily like a fly trapped in a great spider’s web, yet at the same time fascinated because of the likeness, another facet of the self, but elderly, female, and grotesque. I thought of my own mother, dead long ago when I was a boy of ten, and she seemed dim and faded, lost to memory, bearing no resemblance to this swollen replica of all that might have been.

Her hands clung about me, reluctant to let me go yet pushing
me at the same time, murmuring in my ear, ‘There, there, be off with you, great baby, great brute. You’ve been amusing yourself, I know.’ I drew away from her and looked into her eyes, half-hidden by the heavy lids and the pouched skin beneath, and they were my own eyes, mocking, my own eyes buried and transformed.

‘Everyone is upset as usual with your goings on,’ she said. ‘Françoise in hysterics, Marie-Noel with a fever, Renée sulking, Paul ill-tempered. Ouf! They make me sick, the whole collection. I was the only one not to worry. I knew you would turn up when you were ready to come home, and not before.’ She dragged me down again, chuckling in her throat, and then patted me on the shoulder and thrust me away. ‘I am the only one with faith in this house, isn’t it true?’ she said, looking up at the curé, who smiled at her, nodding his head, and as the nod continued intermittently I realized it was a nervous trick, a sort of spasm, that he could not help, having nothing to do with assent. The effect was disconcerting and I withdrew my eyes from him, glancing instead at the thin woman, who had not once looked at me since I entered the room, but now closed the book she was holding.

‘You don’t wish me to go on reading any more, I suppose, Maman,’ she said, her voice dead, expressionless. I knew from what the servant had told me that she was the Mademoiselle Blanche in whose bedroom I had just trespassed, and guessed that she must therefore be an elder sister to my masquerading self. The countess turned to the curé.

‘Since Jean has come home, Monsieur le curé,’ she said, her voice altered from the chuckle in my ear when she embraced me to one of courtesy and respect, ‘would you think it very rude of me if I asked to be excused this evening from our usual little session? He will have so much to tell me.’

‘Naturally, Madame la Comtesse,’ said the curé, the smile and the nodding head giving him so great an appearance of benevolent acquiescence that surely a refusal or a denial, coming from
his lips, would never bring conviction. ‘I know very well how much you have missed him, even for so short a time, and it must be a great relief for you to have him back again. I hope,’ he went on, turning to me, ‘all went well for you in Paris? They tell me the traffic nowadays is quite impossible, and that it takes an hour to get to Notre-Dame from la Concorde. I should not care for it at all, but that does not worry you young people.’

‘It depends,’ I said, ‘whether one is in Paris for business or for pleasure.’ To engage him in conversation meant safety. I did not want to be left trapped with my supposed mother, who surely, instinctively, would know that something was amiss.

‘That is true,’ said the curé, ‘and I expect for you it was a little of both. Well, I won’t keep you any longer …’And without warning he slipped from his chair on to his knees, closed his eyes, folded his hands and began to pray with great rapidity, followed by Mademoiselle Blanche, while the mother, clasping her hands likewise, bowed her massive head upon her chest. I knelt also, shielding my eyes with my hands, and the two fox-terriers came sniffing and pawing at my pockets. I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw that the servant who had brought me to the room was also kneeling, eyes fast shut, echoing in sing-song fashion the responses to the curé’s prayers. He came to the end of his intercession, and, lifting his hands, made the sign of the Cross upon us all and scrambled to his feet.

‘Bonsoir
, Madame la Comtesse,
bonsoir
, Monsieur le Comte,
bonsoir
, Mademoiselle Blanche,
bonsoir
, Charlotte,’ he said, bowing and nodding in turn, his pink face wreathed in smiles. There was a little commotion by the door as he and the daughter of the house each held back for the other, neither yielding in courtesy, until finally the curé passed first, closely followed by Mademoiselle Blanche, head bent low like an acolyte.

The servant Charlotte began mixing something from a bottle in the corner of the room, and as she came towards us with a medicine glass she said, ‘Monsieur le Comte will have a tray up here as well?’

‘Naturally, idiot,’ said the comtesse, ‘and I’m not going to take any of that stuff. Throw it away. Go and fetch the trays. Get out!’ Impatiently she gestured with her hand to the door, the flesh on her face puckering to annoyance. ‘Come here, come close,’ she said, beckoning me to sit beside her, while the two fox-terriers leapt upon her lap and settled there. ‘Well now, did you do it, did you settle with Carvalet?’

It was the first direct question put to me since I had come to the château which I could not evade with some jest or careless remark.

I swallowed. ‘Did I do what?’ I asked.

‘Renew the contract,’ she said.

Jean de Gué had gone to Paris, then, on business. I remembered there had been envelopes and folders in the writing-case in the valise. His friend outside the station had suggested the visit was wasted. The matter was evidently important, and the expression in her eyes brought back to me once again those words of Jean de Gué about human greed. ‘Minister to it … give people what they want …’ This being his creed, doubtless he would satisfy his mother now. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told her, ‘everything is arranged.’

‘Ah!’ She gave a little grunt of satisfaction. ‘You actually came to terms with them after all?’

‘I did.’

‘Paul is such a fool,’ she said, relaxing in her chair, ‘always grumbling, always looking upon the worst. Anyone would think we were completely ruined from the way he talks, and obliged to close down tomorrow. You have seen him already?’

‘He was just going out,’ I said, ‘when I arrived home.’

‘But you told him your news?’

‘No. No, there wasn’t time.’

‘I should have thought he would have waited long enough to hear that at least,’ she said. ‘What’s the matter with you? You look ill.’

‘I drank too much in Le Mans.’

‘In Le Mans? Why drink in Le Mans? Couldn’t you have stayed in Paris if you wanted to celebrate?’

‘I did the same in Paris.’

‘Ah …!’ This time the exclamation was not a grunt, but a sigh of sympathy. ‘Poor boy,’ she said. ‘It’s difficult for you, isn’t it? You should have stayed longer for your fun. Come, kiss me again.’ She pulled me to her, and once more I was buried in the massive folds of her flesh. ‘You amused yourself well, I hope,’ she murmured. ‘Did you, did you?’

The insinuation in her voice was unmistakable. Instead of being repelled I found myself amused, intrigued even, that this great creature, with her monstrous likeness to myself, who had just been praying with the curé, should wish to share the secrets of her son.

‘Naturally I amused myself, Maman,’ I said, realizing, as I drew away from her, that I had called her maman without effort. Oddly, this shocked me more than anything that she herself had said.

‘Then you brought me the little present you promised?’ Her eyes went small, her body stiff with expectation. The atmosphere suddenly became taut and strange. I did not know how to answer her.

‘Did I promise you a present?’ I asked.

Her great mouth sagged. Her eyes pleaded with a tense, frightened look I would not have believed possible a moment ago.

‘You didn’t forget?’ she said.

I was spared the impossibility of replying by the reappearance of Blanche. A change of expression came like a mask over the mother’s face. She bent to the terriers on her lap and began to pet them. ‘There, there, Jou-Jou, stop biting your tail, will you, and behave. Give him some room, Fifi, you take up the whole of my lap. Here, go to your uncle.’ She forced the dog, which I did not want, into my hands, and it wriggled and squirmed until it was free, and then ran and hid under her
chair. ‘What is the matter with Fifi?’ she said, astonished. ‘She has never run away from you before. Has she gone mad?’

‘Let her alone,’ I said. ‘She smells the train on me.’

The animal was not deceived. The point was interesting. In what did my physical difference from Jean de Gué lie? His mother had sunk back in her chair, and was staring morosely at her daughter. Blanche stood stiff and straight, her hands resting on the back of a chair, her eyes fixed upon her mother.

BOOK: The Scapegoat
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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