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The Scapegoat, Page 2

Daphne Du Maurier

  Two black-shawled women argued beside an open cart, one of them holding by the feet a squawking hen, whose fluttering, protesting wings brushed the wide wicker basket, heaped with apples, on which the woman leant; while towards them came a great hulking fellow in a nut-brown velvet coat, his face purple with good cheer from a near-by bistro, his eyes blurred, his walk unsteady. He grumbled to himself as he peered down at the coins in his open hand, fewer than he had expected, too few - he must somehow have miscalculated in that vanished hour of heat and sweat and tobacco, whence he now came to quarrel with his mother and his wife. I could picture the farmstead which was his home and had been his father's before him, two kilometres from the road up a sand-track full of pot-holes, the low house a pale lemon wash, the roof tiled, the farm and outbuildings a smudge amidst the flat brown fields heaped now with line upon line of pumpkins, lime-green or salmon-pink, rounded and firm, left to dry before they were fed to the beasts for winter fodder or to the farm people themselves as soup.

  I walked past the lorry and across the Place to the brasserie at the corner; and suddenly the pale sun shone from the fitful sky, and the people thronging the Place, who had seemed black smudges in the rain, crow-like, bent, impersonal, became animated blobs of colour, smiling, gesticulating, strolling about their business with new leisure as the sky fell apart, turning the dull day to gold.

  The brasserie was crowded, the atmosphere thick with the good smell of food, soupy and pungent - of cheese upon sauce-tipped knives, spilt wine, the bitter dregs of coffee - and rank, too, with the wet cloth of coats heavily rained upon, now drying, the whole scene framed in a blue smoke-cloud of Gauloise cigarettes.

  I found a seat in the far corner near the service door, and as I ate my omelette, the herb juice splaying the plate, satisfying, warm, the swing door kept bursting backwards, forwards, pushed impatiently by waiters heavily laden with trays piled high with food. At first the sight was an aperitif to my own hunger, but later, when my meal was over, it became somehow a deterrent to digestion - too many fried potatoes, too many pork chops. The woman who ate beside me was still forking beans into her mouth as I called for coffee, and she expostulated to her sister upon the cost of living, ignoring the pallid little girl who sat on the husband's knee and demanded to be taken to the toilettes. The conversation never ceased, and as I listened - for this sort of thing was my one relaxation when preoccupation with history left me free - my former depression returned to nag beneath the surface of enjoyment. I was an alien, I was not one of them. Years of study, years of training, the fluency with which I spoke their language, taught their history, described their culture, had never brought me closer to the people themselves. I was too diffident, too conscious of my own reserve. My knowledge was library knowledge, and my day-by-day experience no deeper than a tourist's gleanings. The urge to know was with me, and the ache. The smell of the soil, the gleam of the wet roads, the faded paint of shutters masking windows through which I should never look, the grey faces of houses whose doors I should never enter, were to me an everlasting reproach, a reminder of distance, of nationality. Others could force an entrance and break the barrier down: not I. I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them.

  The family sitting beside me got up and left, the clatter ceased, the smoke thinned, and the patron and his wife sat down to eat behind the counter. I paid, and went out, and walked aimlessly along the streets, my lack of purpose, my shifting gaze, my very clothes - grey flannel bags, tweed jacket too well worn over a span of years - betraying me as an Englishman in this jostling crowd of provincials on market day, who sought bargains among the nailed boots hanging upon strings, the aprons spotted black and white, the plaited slippers, the saucepans and umbrellas. Young girls laughing with linked arms, their hair newly frizzed from the coiffeur; old women pausing, reckoning, shaking their heads at the price of checked tablecloths, moving on, not buying; youths with blue-grey chins and purple suits, eyeing the girls, nudging one another, the inevitable cigarette dangling from their lips: all of them, when the day was done, would return to some familiar plot they knew as home. The silent fields were theirs, and the lowing of cattle, the mist rising from the sodden ground, a fly-blown kitchen, a cat lapping milk beside a cradle, while the scolding voice of the old grandmother went on and on and her son clumped out into the muddy yard swinging a pail.

  Meanwhile I, time no object, would check in at yet another strange hotel, and be accepted as one of them until I produced my British passport; then the bow, the smile, the genuine show of politeness, and the little shrug of regret. 'We have very few people at the moment. The season is over. Monsieur has the place to himself,' the implication being that surely I must want to plunge into a bunch of hearty compatriots, carrying Kodaks, exchanging snapshots, lending Penguins, borrowing each other's Daily Mail. Nor would they ever know, these people of the hotel where I passed a night, any more than those whom I now jostled in the street, that I wanted neither my compatriots nor my own company, but instead the happiness, which could never be mine, of feeling myself one of them, bred and schooled amongst them, bound by some tie of family and blood that they would recognize and understand; so that, living with them, I might share their laughter, fathom their sorrow, eat their bread, no longer stranger's bread but mine and theirs.

  I went on walking and the rain came spattering down again, sending the crowd to huddle in the shops, or to seek the shelter of cars and lorries. For no one promenades in the rain unless he is on business bent, like the serious men in broad-brimmed trilby hats who hurried into the Prefecture with brief-cases under their arms, while I stood uncertainly on the corner of the Place Aristide Briand. I went into Notre-Dame-de-la-Couture beside the Prefecture. It was empty, save for an old woman praying, tears like pearls in each corner of her wide staring eyes, and later a girl with high pattering heels came briskly up the hollow aisle to burn a candle before a blue-washed statue. Then, like a gulf of darkness swamping reason, I knew that later on I must get drunk, or die. How much did failure matter? Not, perhaps, to my small outside world, not to the few friends who thought they knew me well, not to the persons who employed me nor the students who listened to my lectures, not to the officials at the British Museum, who, benign and courteous, gave me good morning or good afternoon, not to the smooth, dull, kindly London shadows amongst whom I lived and breathed and had my being as a law-abiding, quiet, donnish individual of thirty-eight. But to the self who clamoured for release, the man within? How did my poor record seem to him?

  Who he was and whence he sprang, what urges and what longings he might possess, I could not tell. I was so used to denying him expression that his ways were unknown to me; but he might have had a mocking laugh, a casual heart, a swift-roused temper, and a ribald tongue. He did not inhabit a solitary book-lined apartment; he did not wake every morning to the certain knowledge of no family, no ties, no entanglements, no friends or interests infinitely precious to him, nothing to serve as goal and anchor save a preoccupation with French history and the French language which somehow, by good fortune, enabled him to earn his daily bread.

  Perhaps, if I had not kept him locked within me, he might have laughed, roistered, fought and lied. Perhaps he suffered, perhaps he hated, perhaps he lived by cruelty alone. He might have murdered, stolen - or spent himself in lost causes, loved humanity, embraced a faith that believed in the divinity of both God and Man. Whatever his nature, he always hovered beneath the insignificant facade of that pale self who now sat in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Couture waiting for the rain to cease, for the day to fold, for the holiday to come to its appointed end, for autumn to set in, for the day-by-day routine of his normal, uneventful London life to close upon him for another year, another span of time. The question was, how to unlock the door? What lever would set the other free? There was no answer - except, of course, the blurred and temporary ease which a bottle of wine at a cafe might bring me before I climbed into the car again and drove north. Here, in the empty church, prayer was th
e alternative; but prayer for what? To complete the half-formed decision in my mind to go to the Abbaye and hope to discover there what to do with failure? I watched the old woman gather herself together and depart, thrusting her rosary into her skirts. Her tears had gone, but whether from consolation or because they had dried upon her cheek I could not tell. I thought of my carte Michelin back in the car, and the blue circle with which I had marked the Abbaye de la Grande-Trappe. Why had I done so? What did I expect to gain from going there? Should I have the courage to ring the bell of the building where they lodged their guests? They might have my answer, and the answer to the man within ...

  I followed the old woman out of church. I had a sudden desire to ask her if she was ill, or lately widowed, or had a dying son, and whether she had new hope since she had prayed; but when I passed through the door and came upon her, still muttering, outside, she mistook my anxious glance for tourist charity, and with a sidelong glance held out her hand for alms. I gave her two hundred francs, despising my own mean spirit, and fled from her, disenchanted.

  It was no longer raining. Red ribbons spanned the sky and the wet streets glistened. People were going home from work on bicycles. The dark smoke from the factory chimneys of the industrial quarter looked black and sullen against the new-washed sky.

  I lost any sense of direction, walking away from the shops and boulevards along streets that seemed to lead nowhere, converging upon themselves, frowned upon by factory walls and tall grey buildings, and I knew that what I was doing was without reason: I should either go and fetch the car and book a room for the night in one of the hotels in the centre of the town, or leave Le Mans altogether and drive through Mortagne to la Grande-Trappe. I was surprised to see the station ahead of me, and I remembered that the car and the cathedral were at the other end of the town. The obvious thing to do was to take a taxi back, but first of all I would have a drink at the station buffet, and come to some decision about la Grande-Trappe. I crossed the road, and a car swerved to avoid me and then stopped. The driver leant out of the window and shouted in French, 'Hullo, Jean, when did you return?'

  The fact that my own name was John confused me. I thought for a moment that he must be someone I had met somewhere, whom I ought to recognize, and I called back, also in French, 'I'm only passing through - I go back tonight,' wondering who the devil he was.

  'A wasted visit, I suppose,' he said, 'but you'll bluff them all at home it's been a success.'

  The remark was offensive. What made him think my holiday had been wasted? And how on earth could he know about my own deep personal sense of failure?

  Then I realized he was a stranger. I had never seen him before. I bowed politely, excusing myself. 'I beg your pardon,' I said, 'I'm afraid we have both made a mistake.'

  To my astonishment he laughed, winked broadly, and said, 'All right, pretend I haven't seen you. But why do here in Le Mans what could be better done in Paris? I'll ask you when we meet again next Sunday.' He let in the clutch and, laughing, drove away.

  I watched his car disappear, and turned into the station buffet. If he was drunk, and in a mellow mood, I saw his point. I might follow his example. The buffet was full. People were either boarding trains or leaving them. Chattering travellers elbowed me from the counter. Luggage barked my shins. Whistles blew, the deafening screech of an approaching express merged into the choking gasp of a local train, dogs on leashes yapped, a child wailed. I thought longingly of my car parked beside the cathedral, and how I would sit there in peace, and open my Michelin map, and smoke a cigarette.

  Someone jolted my elbow as I drank and said, 'Je vous demande pardon,' and as I moved to give him space he turned and stared at me and I at him, and I realized, with a strange sense of shock and fear and nausea all combined, that his face and voice were known to me too well.

  I was looking at myself.


  We did not speak: we went on staring at one another. I had heard of these things happening, of people who meet casually and turn out to be long-lost cousins, or twins parted at birth; and the idea is amusing, or perhaps fraught with tragedy, like the Man in the Iron Mask.

  This was not funny: nor was it tragic. The resemblance made me slightly sick, reminding me of moments when, passing a shop window, I had suddenly seen my own reflection, and the man in the mirror had been a grotesque caricature of what, conceitedly, I had believed myself to be. Such incidents left me chastened, sore, with ego deflated, but they never gave me a chill down the spine, as this encounter did, nor the desire to turn and run.

  He was the first to break the silence. 'You don't happen to be the devil, by any chance?'

  'I might ask you the same question,' I replied.

  'Here a moment ...'

  He took me by the arm and pulled me closer to the counter, and although the mirror behind the bar was steamy, and partly hidden by glasses and bottles, and confusing because of the many reflections of the other heads, it showed us plainly enough to be standing together, straining, anxious, searching the mirrored surface as though our lives depended upon what it had to tell. And the answer was no chance resemblance, no superficial likeness to be confounded by the different colour of hair or eyes, by the dissimilarity of feature, expression, height, or breadth of shoulder: it was as though one man stood there.

  He said - and even the intonation sounded, in my ears, like my own - 'I make it a rule never to be surprised by anything in life; there is no reason to make an exception now. What will you drink?'

  I was too shaken to care. He asked for two fines, and we moved with one accord to the further end of the counter, where the mirror was less steamy and the pushing crowd less dense.

  We might have been two actors studying our make-up as we glanced from the looking-glass back to one another. He smiled and I smiled too; and then he frowned and I copied him, or rather copied myself; and he arranged his tie and I arranged mine; and we both drank our brandy at one gulp to see what we looked like drinking.

  'Are you a man of fortune?' he asked.

  'No,' I said. 'Why?'

  'We might do an act at a circus, or make a million in a cabaret. If you haven't got to take a train immediately, I suggest we go on drinking.' He ordered two more fines. Nobody seemed surprised at the resemblance. 'They think you're my twin brother here at the station to meet me,' he said. 'Perhaps you are. Where are you from?'

  'London,' I told him.

  'Are you in business there?'

  'No, I live there. And I work there too.'

  'What I mean is, where is your home, what part of France do you come from?'

  I realized then that he had taken me for a Frenchman like himself. 'I'm English,' I said. 'I happen to have made a study of your language.'

  He raised his eyebrows. 'My compliments,' he said. 'I wouldn't have known you for a foreigner. What are you doing in Le Mans?'

  I explained that I was in the last few days of holiday, and gave him a brief account of my tour. I told him I was a historian and gave lectures in England about his country and its past.

  He looked amused. 'Is that how you earn a living?'


  'Incredible,' he said, and offered me a cigarette.

  'You have historians over here doing the same thing,' I argued. 'In fact, your country takes learning much more seriously than mine. There are thousands of professors giving lectures on history all over France.'

  'Naturally,' he said, 'but they are all Frenchmen talking about France. They are not Frenchmen who cross the Channel to spend their holidays, and then return here to talk about England. I don't understand why you should be so interested in my country. Are you well paid?'

  'Not particularly.'


  'No. I have no family at all. I live alone.'

  'You're lucky.' He spoke with emphasis, and raised his glass. 'To your most fortunate freedom,' he said. 'Long may it last.'

  'What about you?' I asked.

  'Me?' he said. 'Oh, I can call myself a family ma
n. Very much so, in fact. I was caught long ago. I might even say I have never escaped. Except during the war.'

  'Are you a man of business too?'

  'I own some property. I live about thirty kilometres from here. Do you know Sarthe?'

  'I know the country better south of the Loire. I should like to explore Sarthe too, but I'm on my way north. I'll have to leave it for another time.'

  'A pity. It might have been amusing ...' He did not finish his sentence, but stared at his glass. 'You have a car?'

  'Yes, I left it at the cathedral. I lost my bearings, walking, that's why I'm here at the station.'

  'Are you stopping in Le Mans overnight?'

  'I don't know. I haven't planned. As a matter of fact ...' I paused. The brandy had given me a comfortable glow inside, and I had the impression that it would not matter what I said to this man; it would be like talking to myself. 'As a matter of fact, I was thinking of spending a few days in la Grande-Trappe.'

  'La Grande-Trappe?' he said. 'Do you mean the Cistercian monastery near Mortagne?'

  'Yes,' I said. 'It can't be much more than eighty kilometres from here.'

  'For the love of God, why do you want to go there?'

  His phrase was apt. The reason why men went to la Grande-Trappe was to find the love of God. Or so I supposed.

  'I thought if I went,' I said, 'and stayed there before returning to England, I might find the courage to go on living.'

  He looked at me thoughtfully as he drank his fine.

  'What's the trouble?' he asked. 'A woman?'

  'No,' I said.



  'You are in some sort of scrape?'


  'You have cancer?'


  He shrugged his shoulders. 'Perhaps you're a drunkard,' he said, 'or a homosexual. Or enjoy discomfort for its own sake. There must be something seriously wrong if you want to go to la Grande-Trappe.'

  I glanced beyond him to the mirror once again. And now, for the first time, I could see the difference between us. It was not the clothes, his dark travelling suit and my tweed jacket, which distinguished us; it was his ease of manner that made a contrast to my sober mood. He looked, and spoke, and smiled as I had never done.