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Authors: Daphne du Maurier

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‘Am I to understand there will be two trays here for dinner?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ rapped the mother. ‘It is more amusing for Jean to dine upstairs with me.’

‘Don’t you think you have had enough excitement as it is?’

‘I am not excited. I am perfectly calm, as you can see for yourself. You only say that because you want to spoil our fun.’

‘I don’t wish to spoil anything. I’m thinking of your good. If you become too excited you won’t sleep, and then you will have one of your bad days tomorrow.’

‘I shall have a worse day, and a worse night, if Jean does not stay with me now.’

‘Very well.’ The acceptance was calm, the matter shelved. The daughter proceeded to tidy books and papers about the room, and I was struck by the complete tonelessness and absence of emotion in her voice, and by the fact that she never looked in my direction. I might not have been there, for all the notice that she took of me. I guessed her age to be about forty-two or three, yet she could have been older or younger. The cross and chain which she wore over the dark jumper and skirt were her only concession to adornment. She brought a table beside her mother’s chair in preparation for dinner.

‘Has Charlotte given you your medicine?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ replied her mother.

The daughter sat down some distance from the roaring stove and took up knitting from a table. I could see a missal on the table, leather-bound prayer-books, and a Bible.

‘Why don’t you leave us?’ said her mother in sudden savagery.

‘I am waiting until Charlotte brings the trays,’ was the reply.

The passage of words between them had the immediate effect of making me a partisan of the mother. Why, I could not tell. Her manner was deplorable, and yet I found her sympathetic and the daughter the reverse. I wondered if I was drawn to the mother merely because of her likeness to myself.

‘Marie-Noel has been seeing visions again,’ said the comtesse.

Marie-Noel … Someone below had talked of Marie-Noel having a fever. Was she another religious sister? I felt some comment was required of me.

‘It’s probably due to her fever,’ I said.

‘She hasn’t a fever. There’s nothing wrong with her,’ said the comtesse. ‘She likes everyone to notice her, that’s all. What did you say to her before you went to Paris that upset her?’

‘I didn’t say anything,’ I answered.

‘You must have done. She kept telling Françoise and Renée that you were not coming back. It was not only you who told her, but the Sainte Vierge as well. Isn’t that so, Blanche?’

I glanced at the uncommunicative sister. She raised her pale eyes from the clicking needles, but to her mother, not to me.

‘If Marie-Noel has visions,’ she said, ‘and I for one believe her, then it is time that somebody in this house took them seriously. I have said so for a long time. The curé agrees with me.’

‘Nonsense,’ retorted the mother. ‘I was speaking to the curé about it this evening. He says it is a very common thing, especially among the poor. Marie-Noel has probably got ideas from Germaine. I will ask Charlotte. Charlotte knows everything.’

No emotion showed itself on Blanche’s face, but I saw her lips tighten. ‘We have to remember that the curé is getting old,’ she said. ‘He becomes forgetful when too many people talk to him at once. If these visions continue, I shall write to the bishop. He will know the best thing to advise, and I am very sure what his advice will be.’

‘What then?’ asked her mother.

‘That Marie-Noel should live amongst people where she cannot possibly be corrupted,’ came the answer, ‘and where she can offer her gifts to the greater glory of God.’

I expected an outburst from the comtesse, but instead she patted the dog on her knee, and fumbling at her side for a paper packet took a chocolate-coated sweet and thrust it between the dog’s teeth.

‘There,’ she said, ‘it’s good, isn’t it? Where’s Fifi? Fifi, do you want one too?’The other terrier scrambled from under the chair and leapt on to her lap, nosing at the paper-bag. ‘You are a fool, Blanche,’ she continued. ‘If we are to have a saint in the family, let us keep her at home. There are possibilities in the idea. We might turn St Gilles into a place of pilgrimage. Naturally, it would have to be done with the approval of the bishop and the Church, but it would be worth considering. Money might be found at last to repair the roof of the church. The Beaux-Arts will never do anything.’

‘Marie-Noel’s soul is of greater importance than the roof of the church,’ said Blanche. ‘If I had my way she would leave the château tomorrow.’

‘You’re jealous, that’s your trouble,’ said her mother, ‘jealous of her pretty face and her big eyes. One of these days Marie-Noel won’t bother about visions any more – she’ll want a husband.’ She dug her elbow in my side. I was not surprised that her daughter made no answer. ‘Isn’t that so, Jean?’ the mother persisted.

‘Probably,’ I said.

‘Pray God I live long enough to see the wedding. He’ll have to be rich …’

Charlotte came in with a tray, closely followed by a little red-cheeked
femme de chambre
of about eighteen, who at sight of me blushed and giggled and said,
‘Bonsoir
, Monsieur le Comte.’ I wished her good evening, and she arranged a tray for me on another table. Blanche rose to her feet and put aside her knitting.

‘Do you want to see Françoise or Renée before you settle for the night?’ she asked.

‘No,’ replied her mother. ‘I saw them both for tea. I shall sleep well tonight, now that Jean is home, and I don’t want to be bothered by anyone else, least of all by you.’

Blanche crossed to her chair and kissed her mother, bidding her good night. Then she left the room, without having once spoken to me or looked at me. I wondered what Jean de Gué had done to offend her. I uncovered the bowl of soup on the tray beside me. It smelt good and I was hungry. The little
femme de chambre
, whom Charlotte addressed as Germaine, followed Blanche from the room, but Charlotte still hovered in the background, watching us eat.

Curiosity made me venture a question to the mother. ‘What was the matter with Blanche?’ I asked.

‘Nothing particular,’ she answered. ‘If anything, she’s irritated me less than usual. Did you notice, she didn’t jump on me when I said that having a saint in the family opened up possibilities?’

‘She was shocked, wasn’t she?’ I asked.

‘Shocked? You mean delighted. You watch – she’ll work on the idea. If Marie-Noel seeing visions could bring some reflected glory to herself and to St Gilles, no one would be better pleased than Blanche. She’d have something to live for. Charlotte, are you there? Take this away, I’ve had enough. And give Monsieur Jean his wine. Why don’t you tell me more about Paris? You have told me nothing yet.’

I searched my imagination. I had not been to Paris during my past holiday, and what I knew and loved of it was too full of museums and historical buildings for her ear. I talked of eating, which she understood, and the expense, which pleased her even better, and with sudden inspiration invented visits to the theatre, a meeting with war-time friends – she even supplied their names for me, which helped. By the time we had finished eating – and we had eaten well – and the trays had been
removed, I felt more at my ease with her than I had ever done with anyone in my life. The reason for this was simple: there was no reserve on her part. She accepted me, believed me, loved me, trusted me; I held a position that had never been mine before. Had she encountered me as a stranger we should have had nothing to say to one another. As her son I risked no disapproval in anything I said. I laughed, I joked, I chatted, and the unaccustomed ease was a delight to me – until suddenly, when Charlotte had left the room, and she said to me, ‘Jean, you didn’t really forget my little present, did you? You were joking.’

Once again the sagging mouth, the pleading eyes. The change in her was startling. Gone was the wicked humour, the twinkle in the eye, the rollicking impression of warmth and savagery combined. She had changed into a pitiable, trembling creature, hands clawing at mine. I did not know what to do or what to say. I rose and went to the door and called, ‘Charlotte, are you there?’ The terriers, wakened by my voice, jumped from her knee to the ground and barked furiously.

Charlotte came quickly from some room nearby, and I said, ‘Madame le Comtesse is unwell. You had better go to her.’ She looked at me and asked, ‘Haven’t you brought it?’ ‘Brought what?’ I asked, and the woman stared at me, eyes narrowing. ‘You know, Monsieur le Comte, what you promised to bring from Paris.’

I tried to think of the contents of the valise, and remembered the packages that looked like presents. What they were I did not know, nor where the things had been unpacked.

Charlotte said to me swiftly, ‘Go and find it at once, Monsieur le Comte. She will suffer if you don’t.’

I went down the corridor and the first flight of stairs, and then hesitated again, not knowing which way to turn. I heard bath water running from some room to the left of the first-floor corridor, and I went along it, uncertain, until I saw a half-open door next to the one which must be a bathroom. I paused
in the doorway, but there was someone moving inside it, so I went on again past the bathroom to the room beyond. The door was wide open and the room empty. I threw a quick glance round it, and to my relief I had struck lucky. It was a small dressing-room, and I recognized the brushes on the table and a dressing-gown thrown over one of the chairs. Someone had unpacked for me and the two valises had been removed, but there on the table were the packages I had seen in one of the valises, neatly piled alongside each other like presents on a Christmas tree. I remembered how there had been notes thrust through the string of each one, which had conveyed nothing when I looked at them in the hotel room, but now they made sense, with F, and R, and B, and P, and M-N, and, thank God, here was one addressed to ‘Maman’, with no fancy wrapping but in strong brown paper, sealed. I took it and went out of the room, and up the stairs again.

Charlotte was waiting for me at the head of the stairs. ‘Have you got it?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘Does she want me to give it to her?’

She stared at me and answered, ‘No, no …’ as though shocked, outraged even. Taking the package from me, she said, ‘Good night, Monsieur le Comte.’ Then she walked quickly away along the corridor.

The dismissal must mean that I was not needed any more, and I went slowly down again to the dressing-room, wondering what to make of the abrupt end to the evening. It must have been some sort of seizure, some mental disturbance, understood by the
femme de chambre
and Jean de Gué but not necessarily by the rest of the family. I hoped that whatever was in the package from Paris would bring relief. She had seemed so sane, so perfectly in control, apart from temper. She had not given me the impression of someone mentally sick.

I went and stood in the dressing-room, suddenly tired and depressed. I could not forget the change in the mother’s face. As I stood there, wondering what to do, I heard a voice calling
to me from the bathroom, ‘Have you said good night to Maman?’

I recognized it as the voice of Françoise, the fair, faded woman, and I noticed for the first time that leading into the bathroom was a door which had been screened from me by a large wardrobe. She must have heard me come into the dressing-room. A new thought struck me. There was no bed in the dressing-room. Where did Jean de Gué sleep?

‘Are you there, Jean?’ the voice called again. ‘I thought you might want a bath, so I ran the water for you.’ The voice sounded more distant now, as though she had passed into the further room.

I went to the bathroom. It had all the signs of being used by two persons. Sponges, tooth-powders, towels … I recognized the shaving-kit, but there was a bathing-cap, too, and a pair of woman’s slippers, and a woman’s bathrobe hanging on the door.

I stood quite still, fearing I might be heard from the room beyond. I heard the click of a light, and a sigh, and then the voice called, complaining, ‘Why don’t you answer me when I speak to you?’ I braced myself for the effort and went through the door. I was looking into a large bedroom, the same shape and size as the one belonging to the sister Blanche, but brighter, with lightly-figured wallpaper and no religious pictures. The tower alcove here held no prie-dieu, but a dressing-table, lights, and a looking-glass. A large double-bed, without hangings, faced the alcove. The woman called Françoise was sitting up in it, her hair pinned in curlers, a fluffy pink bed-jacket round her shoulders. She seemed suddenly shrunken, and smaller than she had appeared downstairs.

She said to me, still plaintive, still aggrieved, ‘Of course you had to stay the whole evening upstairs with Maman. Don’t you ever for one moment stop to consider me? Even Renée, who is generally on your side, said you are becoming quite impossible.’

I glanced away from her weary, complaining face to the
empty pillow on the other side. I recognized the travelling clock on the small table, and a carton of cigarettes. Even the striped pyjamas that I had worn at the hotel were folded neatly on the turned-down sheet.

I had thought, in my stupidity, that Françoise was married to Paul, and was the sister of Jean de Gué. I realized, with a sinking heart, that on the contrary she was his wife.

5

M
y first instinct, absurd and automatic, was to retrieve the pyjamas from the bed, and I went and fetched them, not glancing at Françoise, and turned back again towards the bathroom. To my dismay she started to cry, saying something about not caring for her, and being miserable, and how Maman had always come between us. I waited in the bathroom for the sounds to cease. Presently there was a blowing of the nose, and those little sniffs and coughs that accompany the aftermath of crying and the attempt at self-control. The idea that she might get out of bed and follow me to the bathroom unnerved me, and I slammed the door and locked it, realizing, as I did so, that I was probably playing my character aright. This would be the action of Jean de Gué if he was ashamed or bored or both. Once again I became angry, as I had been in the hotel when I was forced to put on his clothes. How he would laugh if he could see me now, a farcical figure with the pyjamas over my arm, hiding in a bathroom, with his wife in bed in the room next door. This was a situation that evoked screams of delight in the theatre, and I thought how very close to humour must disgust and horror always be. We laugh to stave off fear, or we are attracted because we are repulsed; in a bedoom farce it is disgust at what might happen – disgust mingled with a furtive excitement – that makes the audience scream. I wondered if Jean de Gué had foreseen this moment, or whether he had thought, as I had in the car driving to the château, that after an hour or two the game would be played out, the masquerade be over. It might be that never for an instant had he considered I would do what I had done. And
yet, how definite our conversation of the preceding night, my wail at the emptiness of life, the lack of ties. What a chance for him to laugh and say, ‘Try mine!’

BOOK: The Scapegoat
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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