Typos p. 139: ambusqués [usually = embusqués]; p. 139: ambusqué [usually = embusqué]
A modern Delilah
Anthony M. Ludovici
Twenty Specially Selected New Stories of Crime, Mystery and Horror
no date [circa 1936]
- p. 133 -
Both had the same disquieting intensity. Both could be irresistibly charming and ferocious in turn. And both displayed that air of deep concern about their own affairs which chilled the superficial observer, and caused their friends to moralise about the need of altruism in the modern world.
Louise Rameau was really Marcelle's mother-in law.
This relationship, which is difficult to a proverb, was more acutely vexatious with them, because, in addition to the fierce heat of their passions, circumstances compelled them to live under the same roof. But there were compensations. Each knew herself to be a superior woman. Each looked down upon the rest of womankind with contempt and pity, and each knew where she must look if she wished for a woman worthy of her steel. Year in, year out, this constituted one of the deepest bonds between them. Their common object of worship Louise's son, Marcelle's husband involved them more often than either dared to acknowledge in mutual hate, in longings for mutual annihilation; but here too the source of bitterness was also the best check to its expression, for was not Fernand's peace of mind, Fernand's happiness, the supreme object of both their lives?
Louise had reared Fernand at the breast. In this respect she was the true peasant woman of France. His bones were her bones, his skin was her skin. If he cut a finger, it was her blood that flowed; if he
"They are not all bad people that look like that", said the village priest to Mlle. Gavé, when the two were discussing the peculiarly piercing eyes of the Rameau women, soon after the family had come to the village from the south.
"No, Father, I don't say they are," Mlle. Gavé replied, still only half-convinced that such dark liquid eyes and such piercing looks could ever be good. "I was only asking your opinion."
Mlle. Gavé was one of the magnates of the village of Douville-la-Rivière. Her father had been a coal merchant of Dieppe and had left her a comfortable fortune which, while it enabled her to live in luxury, also provided a sufficient surplus for the performance of many "good works".
The Rameaus had only recently come from the region of Marseilles. Fernand, an able mechanic, having found remunerative work at a local automobile factory, it had been worth their while to abandon their old home on the Mediterranean. But the straw-coloured hair of the surrounding population, the cider-pots and the marking of the cows still seemed distressingly unfamiliar as unfamiliar as the Rameaus' southern accent, swarthy skin and keen black eyes seemed to the cautious, reticent peasants of Douville.
"They will eat each other's noses off one of these days", observed Madame Varin, the Rameaus' right-hand neighbour to her other neighbour, Madame Ledoux. "I can hear them quarrelling when he is gone. They never stop."
Madame Ledoux laughed, and revealed the bad, discoloured teeth of the habitual cider drinker.
Father Depresle, a more than usually human and intelligent rustic divine, had found it an exceptionally operose task to defend the new additions to his flock
A confessor, moreover, may be scrupulously faithful to the seal of the confessional, and yet be unable to stifle secret misgivings when he recalls certain things. Such misgivings would infest Father Depresle's mind when he passed the Rameaus' cottage, for, although he may not have dreaded any particular act, the whole tenor of their spirits, as revealed in their confessions, made him vaguely apprehensive. Deep human passions pointing now to love almost superhuman, and anon to loathing that could cool itself only in blood this was ground that the sober Norman priest trod with the infirm footing of a child.
"Le gars" that is how Marcelle and Louise referred to Fernand. They never mentioned him by name.
On a certain Friday, late in July 1914, Marcelle Rameau poured out a long confession to the curé, in which she admitted having quarrelled bitterly with her mother-in law about "le gars", having secretly wished to kill the woman, and having even thought of means whereby to achieve this nefarious end.
A little later on the same day, Louise Rameau confessed that she had gone to the outhouse the day before, after a quarrel with Marcelle about "le gars", with the object of finding the mallet with which to kill her daughter-in-law, but that on the way back she had relented.
It is not difficult to see that with two such members in his flock, Father Depresle was entitled to question whether he was any longer truly a shepherd. It seemed to him that, through no fault of his own, he had become a bear leader.
Throughout the Saturday and Sunday following these confessions Marcelle was aghast at the length
On the Monday, however, their speculations on this head were brought to a sudden and tragic end when there spread through the village what was to the two women the blackest, most blood-curdling news that could possibly be heard: Germany had declared war upon France; France was already mobilising.
"Well, what?" Marcelle demanded hoarsely, her lips a little pale, and her fingers playing nervously with her child's locks. "Le gars will not have to go."
Louise Rameau drew back the curtain and gazed out into the village street, where children with coloured favours were parading and singing, and where adults were rushing to and fro with pointless feverish haste. She too was very pale, but endeavoured to master her emotion.
"I wonder whether he will be late today", she said, and then added, with more hope than conviction, "No, he won't have to go".
Madame Varin came in. She was excited, hilarious. "All the men are going", she cried. "They will want some beating, those Germans! Isn't it terrible? Mlle. Gavé is serving wine and brioches in her garden to the boys who are presenting themselves."
Suddenly a loud cheer drew all the women to the window. It was Monsieur le Curé going from the Presbytery to the Square to bless the first batch of mobilisés.
"Goodbye; I must go!" exclaimed Madame Varin, and she joined the throng outside.
"Fools!" cried Marcelle as she watched the crowds. "Soon they will be shouting on another note!"
The two women were speechless with fear. One bent down as if to adjust her child's dress, the other reached frantically for a tin on the lofty kitchen mantelpiece. Both wished to delay enlightenment.
"Well?" Fernand exclaimed, "What do you think of it?"
"But, you miserable creature", Marcelle cried, horrified that he should have had the cynicism to postpone his news to a second breath, "do you go too?"
"Mais non!" he replied. "My class is not yet called up. And M. Labourdette says that when it is called up he will have to make representations to the authorities, as he cannot spare me, and his is a key industry."
Both women fell on his neck and sobbed with joy.
"Ah, it is too good, too good!" they exclaimed in unison, while the child, looking on at this exhibition of adult tears and laughter, made curious composite grimaces sufficiently non-committal to allow him to adopt any mood his seniors settled upon.
Madame Varin was not so completely vicious as to feel disappointment at the good fortune of the Rameaus, but that the news was, to her, a setback, she could not deny. Ever since the Rameaus had become her neighbours, the women's concentration upon Fernand to the exclusion of all other interests had exasperated her. They seemed to be too happy in their obsession, too richly endowed in love. Madame Ledoux, on the other hand, who heard nothing of the quarrels between Louise and Marcelle, and saw only their bliss at a distance, as it manifested itself to a neighbour once-removed, regarded the immunity of Fernand Rameau as a national scandal.
"What is the good of that great bear", she would ask Madame Varin, "if he cannot defend his Patrie?"
Mlle. Gavé, who had not the faintest idea of Fernand's real age, and who took him to be much
"What do you want? Surely the state must know what it is about! When it needs Rameau it will take him."
Meanwhile the peril that had suddenly entered the lives of Louise and Marcelle strangely modified their relationship. As Madame Varin exclaimed to Madame Ledoux, "They no longer crimp each other's mops now".
Truth to tell, they felt themselves suddenly united by a bond that their previous life could never have forged. They were fighting side by side against the whole village for what they held most precious, for the meaning of their joint existence. Ever more impudently, week by week, hour by hour, the finger of envy and scorn, reproach and malice, was pointed at their cottage, in at their window aye, even at their man. The old men, the neighbours, the women who had lost their husbands everyone had become their common enemy.
"They are monsters!" hissed Marcelle.
"They call their envy patriotism, and their cruelty their sense of justice", observed the older woman.
"Sacrifice!" cried Marcelle, "how can she, that withered apple, that extinct volcano the Gavé dare to speak of young healthy men immolating themselves for her? Why, to kill even a toad in order to prolong her existence for one minute would be an outrage against humanity!"
"Don't upset yourself, Marcelle", her elder exclaimed, choking with rage herself. "They will not get him. M. Labourdette will see to that."
Meanwhile, the war went on and on. More and
"I think", remarked Mlle. Gavé to Father Depresle one autumn day in 1915, "you ought really to get your spiritual influence to bear both on Rameau and his chief. It is a disgrace that he should be skulking in those automobile works while others are making the supreme sacrifice."
"What do you want?" exclaimed the unfortunate curé. "The state surely knows what it is about! It will get him when it needs him."
Meanwhile, rumours spread through the village that the Rameau women were practising special devotions in order to preserve their man. As a counterblast to this, all the women responsible for this rumour repeated special prayers in which, though Rameau's name was not actually mentioned, it was made sufficiently plain to the meanest intelligence who precisely was meant. The Almighty was implored to arrange that all ambusqués in the village, even those who were doing useful engineering work, might go to defend their Patrie at the front.
Children began to tax the Rameau child with having an ambusqué for a father. This was too much.
"Tell me who said that! What was his name?" cried Marcelle.
So many had said it that the poor child was nonplussed. Very soon after this fruitless inquiry a neighbour's child received a sounding smack from Marcelle, just outside the Rameaus' gate, and went away howling.
"They want him to stay at home", protested Mlle. Gavé to Father Depresle in July 1916, just before the great Somme offensive. "They show no sign of wishing him to go to the front!"
"But I ask you", exclaimed the harassed curé, "is that not quite natural? Since when have women liked to see their husbands and sons sacrificed?"
"You defend them!" she cried.
"No, I explain them", replied the cautious priest.
Occasionally, over their evening meal, Fernand would hint darkly that he was meditating giving notice at the factory, M. Labourdette or no M. Labourdette. The last time he ventured to do this he created a distressing scene.
"What?" exclaimed his mother, "you ungrateful creature! This is how you propose to reward your master after he has been unscrewing his arms to retain you!"
"My class has been called up long ago", Fernand protested feebly.
"Oh, be quiet!" cried Marcelle, rising from the table and putting a hand on her chest. "Can't you see that you stop my swallowing when you speak like that?"
"It's all very well", Fernand growled. "I don't care what people say. I pay no heed to the voices in the village. But if a man hears in himself a voice what then?"
Marcelle walked into the kitchen and slammed the door.
"You see, you only upset her", said his mother, also on the verge of tears herself. "What is the good of it?"
A moment later, Marcelle's head appeared round the corner of the kitchen door.
"Are you going to be quiet about that?" she asked, looking at her husband through eyes slightly bedimmed.
"Well, yes", Fernand grunted reluctantly. "Come and sit down and finish your dinner."
The Somme battles had long ago come to an end. The Allied losses had been severe. Fernand asked for a private interview with M. Labourdette.
"Would monsieur understand", Fernand began, "if I asked monsieur to release me for the army?"
M. Labourdette dropped his paper, buried his face in his hands and thought for a moment.
"And what about the cars for Syria, the engines for Russia, my dear sir?" he asked in that grumbling, half-hearted tone by which a man betrays that he has already conceded the point at issue. For M. Labourdette had had previous interviews of the same kind with Fernand, and each time the resistance of the chief had weakened.
Fernand shrugged his shoulders. "The others will have to do a little more work", he replied.
"When do you want to go?"
"Today!" M. Labourdette repeated in alarm. "Tonight?"
M. Labourdette rose from his chair and rang a bell. A boy entered.
"Tell Mariette", he said, "to bring me two glasses and a bottle of the Château Margaux."
That day was the blackest perhaps in all Marcelle's existence. Fernand did not come back to lunch. When she called at the works to discover what had happened, she was told the truth, and by five o'clock a telegram arrived from Dieppe:
"I have enlisted am going to camp near Rouen will get leave soon. Love. Fernand.""But I tell you they do not feel it", sobbed Marcelle and Louise Rameau together, as Father Depresle, trying to console them that night, pointed to the bravery of the other women in the village. "You say they show fortitude, resignation. We say it is
"I can't say that", rejoined the unhappy divine.
"Well, then, if they are not all better and braver than we are, some of them at least must be indifferent; otherwise, how could they be so calm, so temperate, so cheerful?"
Father Depresle turned to go. He felt he had better not try further arguments.
"Goodbye, my children", he said. "I am very, very sorry for you."
"St Anthony to the wall!" exclaimed the mother-in-law as soon as he had gone, turning the saint's face in disgrace to the wall as she spoke. "That's the first thing!"
"St Michael as well to the wall!" added the daughter-in-law, copying Louise's treatment of St Anthony. "Ah yes, he deserves it too!"
"The Virgin also to the wall!" cried Louise, in an access of uncontrollable grief. "Yes, even the Holy Virgin!"
Marcelle suddenly stood stock still, her hand on the crucifix; then, dropping her arm, glanced guiltily at Louise.
"Yes, yes", assented the frantic woman. "Him too!" And she added, as she looked round her sitting-room with an air of great satisfaction, "After all, they are only in disgrace".
"You must not be too clever", urged Marcelle, as she walked across the fields with Fernand a month later. "Can't you be a fool and show yourself incapable of learning?"
He was in uniform. He had been allowed three days leave in the middle of his training.
"The worst of it is I forget myself. Besides, they know I have done my service", Fernand objected.
"Surely they can't remember what you were like when you did your service! And certainly it would
"It is difficult", Fernand protested.
"Oh well, if you're so keen about being killed it can't be helped", Marcelle exclaimed angrily, her eyes flooding with tears.
A few days later, when Fernand had returned to camp, Madame Varin called to get a lungful of her neighbour's misery.
"Ah well, it is war, it is war", she cried, hugging her elbows smugly.
"Unfortunately", said the elder Madame Rameau bitterly, not troubling to look up, "the sort of people our young men are dying for scarcely justify the sacrifice."
"It is not the people, it is the country they are dying for", Madame Varin snapped.
"And pray what good would the country be without the people?" cried Marcelle, turning to her neighbour as if she were going to bite her. "Do you suppose it is for the map of France our Fernand will fight? That is a stupid thing to say!"
Madame Varin retreated. Her underhand Norman strategy in war was for the moment defeated by these women's demoniacal frankness.
"Of course", observed Marcelle, two or three days before Fernand was to come home on his final leave, "it is his health that ought ultimately to prevent the authorities, if they are rational, from keeping him in the line."
Both women knew perfectly well in their heart of hearts that it was precisely Fernand's perfect, fragrant health that constituted his most fascinating charm, but this did not deter them from wagging their heads gravely over this alarming aspect of the question.
"Nobody knows better than I do", said Louise very solemnly, "how delicate he is. When he was a
"And the trenches are of course very cold", added Marcelle, with the air of one reluctantly finding objections to something otherwise eminently desirable.
At last the day came. Owing to an alteration in his orders, Fernand was allowed only twenty-four hours in which to bid goodbye to his mother, his wife and child. Both the women were wonderfully calm unpleasantly so as the hour of his arrival approached. All the saints, the Holy Virgin and the Crucifix were made to face round the proper way.
"After all", said Louise, "they may have the best intentions. There is yet time for them to redeem their character."
Fernand arrived. It was a dull day. He fancied that his welcome was a cold one. M. Labourdette, feeling that he could not deprive the women of one minute of Fernand's time, came to wish him goodbye at the cottage. Father Depresle also came, as did the neighbours and Mlle. Gavé. The latter brought a silver charm, a fountain pen and a collapsible mug.
Fernand's health was drunk.
"When do you leave?" asked his chief, looking a little anxiously at the pale fierce faces of the Rameau women.
"Tomorrow morning at seven", replied Fernand.
"The station here at Douville."
"I shall be there", said Labourdette.
"So shall I", said Father Depresle.
Mlle Gavé and the neighbours also promised to be there, and the party of visitors left the cottage.
"She cannot feel it as much as I do", said Louise to herself, as she observed her daughter-in-law's calm demeanour throughout the day. "After all, mothers, I suppose, must suffer more than wives at such times."
" I should have thought", was Marcelle's secret comment that evening, "that she, being his mother,
They all went to bed. The day had been excruciatingly calm. Fernand slept as only tired soldiers sleep. The women did not sleep at all. The time went too quickly for that. The church clock seemed to be having fits, it chimed the hours so rapidly. At last, about five o'clock, half an hour before Fernand was to be called, Marcelle, unable to bear the suspense any longer, stole gently out of bed. It was all right. Fernand was sleeping like an ox, and she crept lightly downstairs to the kitchen. She could not bear it a minute longer. The thought of his going was driving her mad. Minute by minute she felt her craziness increasing. Something must be done. This man she adored, this flesh and blood, this precious skin that she worshipped, she must now injure. It was a maddening duty, a cruel ordeal to impose upon herself, but there was no other alternative. It could not be helped! She would know how to injure him. She would know where to strike. But could she trust a German bullet or bayonet to exercise the same prudent discrimination?
With feverish haste she searched the outhouse. The instrument she sought had been mislaid. She returned to the kitchen. Oh, it was terrible! But could she help it? Something must be done. She stole upstairs, a hammer in her hand. Would he still be asleep?
She reached the top of the stairs. She gently pushed open her bedroom door. At the same moment a deafening roar rent the air, and petrified with astonishment and horror, she beheld her mother-in-law upright beside Fernand's bed. Her hands clutched a mallet which she brought down again and again with all her weight upon his legs.