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Authors: Daphne du Maurier

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BOOK: The Scapegoat
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If he really intended to slip away himself and make me his scapegoat, then it clearly proved that he cared for no one at the château. The mother and the wife who loved him well counted for nothing. He did not mind what happened to them, or to any of the others: I could do with them as I pleased. Considered coldly, the masquerade was so cruel as to be inhuman. I turned off the dripping bath-tap and went back to the dressing-room. The elation and ease I had experienced when having dinner with the mother had changed to depression with her change of mood. Instead of dismissing the ravaged face as just another incident in a fantastic evening, I had wanted to placate her, to find the package quickly and hand it over to Charlotte. Now, with the realization that the complaining Françoise was de Gué’s wife, I wanted to placate her too: her tears distressed me. Downstairs in the salon they had been unreal to me, yet here, in the privacy of their rooms, these people were without defence, betraying me into emotion. The fact that they were unconscious victims of a practical joke was no longer funny. Besides, I was not so sure that it was a joke. In a curious way it was a trial of strength, a test of endurance, as though Jean de Gué had said to me, ‘Right. I have allowed myself to be possessed by my family. Could you do better in my place?’

I went to the table and picked up the package marked F. It had a fancy wrapping and was small and hard. I stood a moment, weighing it in my hand, then I went deliberately through the bathroom once again and opened the bedroom door. The room was in darkness.

‘Are you awake?’ I said.

I heard a movement from the bed, and then the light was switched on and she sat up, looking at me. The curlers were now concealed by a cap made of net, tied under the chin with
a pink bow, and the fluffy bed-jacket had been exchanged for a shawl. The effect was incongruous against the pale tired face. She yawned, and blinked at me.

‘What is it?’ she said.

I went over to her. ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘you must forgive me if I was abrupt just now. Maman seemed suddenly unwell, and I was worried. I would have come down earlier, but you know how she can be. Look, I bought you this in Paris.’

She stared doubtfully at the package which I put into her hand. She let it drop on the coverlet, and sighed. ‘I wouldn’t mind if it was just once in a while,’ she said, ‘but it happens so often, every day, always. Sometimes I think that Maman hates me, and not only Maman but all of you, Paul, Renée, Blanche. Even Marie-Noel has no feeling for me.’ She did not seem to expect an answer, and I was thankful, for I had no words. ‘When we were first married it was different,’ she went on. ‘We were both younger, the country was free again after the Occupation, life was full of hope. I felt so happy. Then little by little it all seemed to slip away, the happy feeling. I don’t know if it’s my fault or yours.’

The wan face under the ugly net cap stared up at me without hope.

‘It happens to everyone, sooner or later,’ I said slowly. ‘Married people become used to one another, take each other for granted. It’s inevitable. That’s no reason to be unhappy.’

‘Oh, it’s not that,’ she said. ‘I know we take each other for granted. I wouldn’t care if I had you to myself. But here everyone is on top of us. I have to share you with so many people, and the terrible thing about it is that you don’t notice, you don’t mind.’

The evening with the mother had been too easy. This was different. I did not know what to say to her.

‘Everything’s closing in on me,’ she said, ‘the château, the family, the whole countryside. It’s like being suffocated. I long ago gave up trying to do anything in the château, giving orders,
altering things: your family made it quite plain that they considered it interference. What happens here has always happened. Do you realize that the one interest I have had in the past months has been to order new stuff for the curtains here in the bedroom, and the flounce for the dressing-table, and even that was thought extravagant?’

She stared up at me, and I knew some sort of apology was expected of me.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but you must know how it is. In the country we get set in our ways. Everything is a matter of habit.’

‘Habit?’ she repeated. ‘That comes well from you, of all people. You go off whenever you feel like it on pretence of business. No question of you being set, or a man of routine, leading the same life day in, day out, as I have to do. Never for a moment have you suggested taking me with you. It’s always a question of “one of these days” or “next time”, and now I’m used to your excuses and don’t even ask. Besides, at this particular moment it wouldn’t be possible – I’ve been feeling too unwell.’

She fingered the package, which she had not opened, and I felt there must be something a husband should say under the circumstances, a word of comfort or sympathy, but her particular condition was one I knew little about.

Suddenly she said quite simply, without complaint or grievance, ‘Jean, I’m frightened.’ I did not know how to answer her. I took the package from her and began to open it. ‘You know what Dr Lebrun said when I lost the last. It isn’t easy for me.’

I felt inadequate and useless. I undid the string and paper and drew out a box, and from the box a small velvet case which I opened. Inside was a locket, framed in pearls, which, when the release was sprung, revealed a miniature of myself, or rather him. It could be worn either as a clip or as a brooch, for there was a gold pin at the back to fix it. The workmanship was very fine, the idea ingenious, and it must have cost the purchaser no mean sum of money.

She uttered an exclamation of wonder and delight. ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ she said. ‘How very lovely! And how dear of you to think of it. I have been grumbling, complaining … and you bring me this. Forgive me.’ She put her hand up to my face. I forced a smile. ‘You are good to put up with me,’ she said. ‘Let’s hope it won’t be much longer, and then I shall feel more like myself again. When I talk to you I hear words coming out of my mouth that I don’t really mean, and I hate myself for it, but I can’t prevent it.’

She closed the locket, then opened it again two or three times, smiling at the trick of it. Then she pinned it on her shawl.

‘Look,’ she said, ‘I wear my husband on my heart. If anyone says to me in future, “Where is Jean?” I shall only have to open the locket. It’s a very good likeness, you know. It must have been copied from the photo in your old identity card that I used to like so much. Did you have it specially done for me in Paris?’

‘Yes,’ I said. It was probably true, yet my own lie sounded shabby to my ears.

‘Paul will never get over it when he sees it,’ she said. ‘But I suppose it means that everything was all right and the visit was successful after all. How exactly like you to celebrate by doing something extravagant. You know, I feel so helpless when I hear Paul talking about the impossibility of carrying on at the foundry, and I feel he is hinting at my own money all tied up in that ridiculous way. However, if we have a boy …’ She lay back, still touching the locket pinned on her shawl. ‘I shall sleep now,’ she said. ‘Don’t be long. You must be tired if you have been talking business to Maman all the evening.’

She switched off her light, and I heard her sigh and settle herself once more against the pillow.

I went back to the dressing-room, threw open the window, and leant out. It was a bright moonlit night, cold and clear. Beneath me was the tangled grass of the moat, and the rough
stone ivy-covered walls surrounding it, and beyond stretched what might once have been formal garden but was now given to grass too, where the cattle wandered, this in turn forming rides and avenues that became lost in the dusky trees. A small rounded building, like the twin towers guarding the bridgeway across the moat, stood isolated amid the grass in front of me, and I realized from its shape that it must be a
colombier –
an old dovecot for pigeons – and beside it was a child’s swing, with the rope broken.

An indefinable melancholy brooded upon the hushed scene, as though once there had been laughter here, and life, and now there was none, and the people who looked out of the château windows, as I did, gave themselves to regret and malcontent. The deep silence was broken now and then by a single plopping sound, like the drip of water from a well-head tumbling to the depths below, and I leant out and craned my head to try and trace it, but could not, for no water came from the grinning gargoyle face that stared down at me from the coping of the tower above.

The church clock in the village behind the château struck eleven, a high, reedy note which for all its lack of depth held the same warning as the Angelus bell from the cathedral in Le Mans, and when the last note had sounded and died away the feeling of oppression and distress increased within me, and the voice of reason seemed to say, ‘What are you doing in this place? Get out, before it’s too late.’

I opened the door to the corridor and listened. Everything was quiet. I wondered if the mother was now sleeping, pacified by the mysterious package I had given to Charlotte, or if she still sat huddled in her chair. Was the sister Blanche kneeling at her prie-dieu, or watching the scourged Christ facing her from her bed? I could not forget the intimate, touching words of Françoise, ‘Jean, I’m frightened.’ They were not meant for me. Nothing here was mine. I was an alien. I had no part in their life.

I went along the corridor and down the stairs. I had turned the handle of the door leading to the terrace, through which I had made my first entrance to the château, when I was aware of a footstep on the stair behind me, and looking up I saw the dark woman, Renée, in wrapper and slippers, with the hair which she had worn high now loose on her shoulders.

‘Where are you going?’ she whispered.

‘Outside, for some air,’ I lied swiftly. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’

‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘I knew you weren’t really tired or sick – that was just an excuse for Françoise. I heard you come down from Maman, and then I waited for you, leaving my door open. Didn’t you notice it?’

‘No,’ I said.

She looked incredulous. ‘You must have realized I urged Paul to go out to the dinner on purpose, as soon as I knew you would be home. Now the evening is wasted. He’ll be back any moment.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Maman had a lot to say to me – it was impossible to get away. Surely we can talk tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow?’ she echoed, her manner abrupt and queer. ‘Tomorrow is soon enough for you, is it, after ten days in Paris? I might have known it. I suppose that’s why you didn’t bother to answer my letters.’

I wondered if I looked as dumb and ineffectual as I felt, standing there with my hand on the door. Earlier in the evening this woman had seemed an ally and a friend. Now she was a confidante turned sour, and I had the feeling that in some way she was deeply angered. I wished uneasily that I knew her relationship to the rest of the family, and what the matter was that she had wanted to discuss with Jean so privately and urgently.

‘I can only say I am sorry,’ I repeated. ‘I hadn’t understood that you wanted to see me especially. Why didn’t you send word upstairs, when I was with Maman? I would have come down.’

‘Is that meant for sarcasm,’ she said, ‘or are you truly drunk?’

Her anger irritated me. The mother’s mood had touched
me, and the wife’s too, for a different reason. I had no time for this one, who so suddenly thrust herself between me and escape.

‘You’ll catch cold,’ I said to her. ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’

She stared at me, and then, catching her breath, she said,
‘Mon Dieu
, how I hate you at times!’ Turning her back on me, she went away upstairs.

I opened the door to the terrace and stepped outside. The air felt clean and good after the atmosphere within, musty yet chill behind the fastened shutters. The gravel terrace crunched under my feet, and I walked softly down the steps and on to the driveway where the car had turned. I was making my way to the left of this, towards outbuildings in the thickness of the wall beside the moat, which I judged to be stables and a garage, when the lights of a car flashed in the lime avenue descending the hill, and came straight towards the bridge and the gateway to the château. It must be Paul returning. I took cover under the dark cedar-tree close beside me, wondering if his lights had picked me up, and in a moment he was over the bridge and through the gate and had swung right, making for the outbuildings. I heard him slam the door of the Renault, and this was followed by the dragging noise of garage doors sliding in a groove. In a moment or two there was the sound of footsteps, and he came towards the terrace, passing close to my hiding-place. He went up the steps and into the château, closing the door behind him.

I waited a few minutes. Then I came out of my shelter and walked softly towards the wall of the moat. I was within a few feet of the archway through which Paul had come when I heard a muttered growl. I saw then that beside the archway was an enclosure, and within it a great retriever, who at sight of me barked furiously. I murmured to him, but it was useless. The sound of my voice drove him to greater fury, and I turned back to the shelter of the cedar, where he could not see me, and waited for him to quieten before deciding upon my further move. The barking continued intermittently, then settled to a
muttering, and finally to silence, and once again I ventured forth and looked about me, and up at the massive walls of the château, forbidding, pale, yet strangely beautiful in the clear light beneath the moon. A door in the terraced wall led to the grounds beyond, and some impulse made me pass through it, and stand looking over the sunken moat to the verdure where the cattle had wandered, to the ghostly alleyways bordering the forest, and the silent dovecot, and the broken swing.

Somewhere the author of the joke in which we were both involved lay sleeping, or laughing, perhaps, at my perplexity. He believed himself to be free, now he wore my clothes. They were his people who suffered here, and it meant nothing to him how lost they might become, how cruelly they might be hurt.

Once again the little plopping thud that had disturbed me in the dressing-room sounded, close by, and I saw that it was the chestnuts falling from the trees on to the gravel path beyond the moat. No rising mist, no falling leaf, no pattering rain could have marked with such finality the end of summer. There was the whole of autumn in the sound. I looked up at the shuttered windows of the château, and wondered which was the round tower where the mother slept, and which the prayer cell of the daughter. Above me was the dressing-room where I had stood so short a while before, and beside it the long windows of the bedroom.

BOOK: The Scapegoat
8.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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