This is the story of a desperate man. A man who ended up compromising his own morality beyond all measure, while World War Two raged outside his front door. A man tormented - and destroyed - by a dark, terrible secret.
This sinister, mindbending roman noir was turned into a 1958 Hollywood classic, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock.
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By Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Geoffrey Sainsbury
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1954 Editions Denoel
All rights reserved.
'Look here!' said Gévigne. 'I want you to keep an eye on my wife.'
'The devil! ... Running off the rails, is she?'
'Not in the way you think.'
'What's the matter, then?'
'It isn't easy to explain. She's queer ... I'm worried about her.'
'What are you afraid of, exactly?'
Gévigne hesitated. He looked at Flavières, and the latter could see very well what was holding him back: Gévigne wasn't sure how much trust he could place in his friend.
Basically he was much the same as Flavières had known him fifteen years earlier at the Faculté de Droit — friendly and expansive on the surface, but just the reverse underneath, shy, unhappy, turned in upon himself. It was all very well to burst in with open arms, exclaiming:
'Roger, old boy! ... It's mighty good to see you again.'
Flavières had seen at once that the cordiality was slightly put on, as though the scene had been rehearsed beforehand and then just a little overplayed. Gévigne was fidgety, his laugh too loud. Not much. Oh no! If the note was wrong, it was only by a fraction of a semi-tone, yet Flavières could feel instinctively that the other was not altogether at ease. He wanted at a blow to wipe out the fifteen years that had passed, years which had changed them both physically. Gévigne was almost completely bald and his chin had lost its clean line. His eyebrows had turned rusty in colour, and there were now freckles at the side of his nose. As for Flavières, he was not only thinner, but, since his trouble, had acquired a stoop. And his hands went clammy at the thought that Gévigne might ask him why he was now practising as a lawyer, considering that he had studied law to go into the police.
'I'm not exactly afraid of anything,' answered Gévigne.
He held out a handsome case full of cigars. His clothes too bespoke wealth, and rings glittered on his fingers as he tore off a little pink match from a book of matches bearing the name of a smart restaurant. He hollowed his cheeks before slowly blowing out a cloud of smoke.
'It's really a question of atmosphere,' he said.
Yes, he had changed a lot. He had tasted power. One could see in him the man who took the chair at board meetings and had useful contacts in high places. Yet, with all that, his eyes were always on the move and only too ready to take refuge beneath those heavy drooping eyelids.
'Atmosphere?' asked Flavières, with just a touch of irony.
'I think it's the right word,' Gévigne insisted. 'My wife is perfectly happy. We've been married four years, or will have been in two months' time. We have everything we want; my factory at Le Havre has been working at full blast ever since the mobilization, which is, incidentally, the reason why I haven't been called up. So you see: under the circumstances we can count ourselves fortunate.'
'Children?' put in Flavières.
'I was saying that Madeleine had everything to make a woman happy. And yet there's something wrong. She has always had a rather strange character, a bit unstable — up one moment, down the next — but in the last few months she has become rapidly worse.'
'You've seen a doctor, I suppose?'
'Of course. Several. The very best. And there's nothing the matter with her, nothing whatever.'
'Physically, you mean — but psychologically?'
'Nothing on that side either. At least ...'
He fidgeted with his hands, and brushed away some ash that had fallen on his waistcoat.
'There is something all the same. I tell you, it's quite a case. At first I too thought there was something at the back of her mind troubling her — some unreasoning fear provoked by the war, for instance. She would suddenly relapse into silence and hardly hear what was said to her. Or she would stare at something — and I can't tell you what a queer impression it made. I know this sounds absurd, but it was as though she was seeing things invisible to the rest of us ... Then, when she came back to her normal self, she would have a slightly bewildered expression on her face, as though it took her a little time to recognize her surroundings, and even her own husband ...'
He relit the cigar, which he had allowed to go out. And he too stared vacantly in front of him with that baffled air that Flavières knew of old.
'If she's not ill, physically or mentally,' said Flavières with a touch of asperity, 'she's putting on an act. She's probably —'
Gévigne raised his hand to stop him.
'I thought of that, and I've been watching her discreetly. One day I followed her ... She went into the Bois de Boulogne, sat down in front of the lake, and stayed there without moving, contemplating the water.'
'There's nothing in that.'
'Oh yes there is ... though it's not so easy to explain. She was looking at the water with a quite extraordinary gravity and attention, as though it was of the utmost importance to her ... And then, that evening, she blandly told me she hadn't been out of the house. Of course, I didn't let on that I'd seen her.'
Flavières kept on finding, then losing again, the fellow-student he had known, and the game was getting on his nerves.
'Listen,' he said. 'Either your wife's ill or she's up to some game or other. There's no getting away from that. And, if it's the latter, there's probably a man in the background.'
Gévigne stretched his hand out towards the ash-tray on the desk and with a flick of his finger knocked off a long cylinder of white ash. He smiled sadly.
'Your mind works exactly as mine did. But I'm absolutely certain Madeleine is not an unfaithful wife. On the other hand, Professor Lavarenne assures me she's absolutely normal. For the rest, why should she put on an act, as you call it? To gain what? After all, one doesn't build up a mountain of make-believe just for fun. One doesn't go and study the water in the Bois for two hours for nothing. And it isn't as if that was an isolated instance. There have been plenty of others.'
'Have you tried to have it out with her?'
'Yes, naturally ... I've asked her what it was took hold of her when she suddenly went off into a dream.'
'What did she say?'
'That I oughtn't to bother about it; that she didn't dream; that she worried like anyone else about the present state of the world.'
'Was she annoyed you asked her?'
'Yes, a bit. But still more embarrassed.'
'Did you get the impression she was lying?'
'Not at all. The impression I got was that she was afraid ...
Look here: do you remember — this'll make you smile — a German film called Jacob Boehme we saw at the Ursulines back in the 'twenties?'
'Do you remember the expression on the mystic's face when he was caught in a sort of visionary trance? And he tried to find excuses and hide the fact that he had visions ... Well, Madeleine's face looked like that German actor's. A bewildered, groping look; I might almost say a drunken look.'
'Come on! You're not trying to tell me your wife has visions, are you?'
'I knew that would be your reaction — just as it was mine. For a long time I held out, refusing to believe what I saw.'
'Does she go to church?'
'Like hundreds of others — because it's the thing to do.'
'Has she ever dabbled in fortune-telling or any of that psychic stuff?'
'Never. She's never taken up anything of that sort. This is quite different. Something seems to happen to her, and all of a sudden you realize she's somewhere else.'
'Do you think it's quite involuntary?'
'I'm sure of it. I've been watching her long enough now to know something about it. She feels the attack coming and she tries to ward it off, by talking or busying herself with something, by switching on the wireless. Sometimes she goes to the window and opens it as though she needed a breath of air ... If, at that moment, I come to the rescue, if I start joking or chatting of this or that, it seems to give her something to hold on to and she's able to keep on this side of the line ... I'm sorry to be so long-winded, but it isn't easy to make her condition intelligible to anyone else ... If, on the other hand, I pretend to be absorbed in my own thoughts, then over she goes — it never fails. She seems to go rigid and her eyes seem to be intently watching something which moves — at least I suppose it moves, since her eyes do — she heaves a sigh and passes the back of her hand across her forehead. Then for five minutes, ten perhaps, but rarely more, she's for all the world like a sleep-walker.'
'Are her movements jerky?'
'No ... At least ... It's difficult to say ... As a matter of fact I've never seen anyone walk in his sleep ... But you don't really get the impression she's asleep. She's absent-minded, as though her body no longer belonged to her, as though she had become someone else. Oh, I know it's ridiculous, but I can't put it better than that: she's someone else.'
Gévigne's eyes were genuinely troubled.
'Someone else!' growled Flavières. 'That doesn't mean anything.'
'You don't believe there can be certain ... certain influences which ...?'
But Gévigne gave it up. He put his cigar down on the edge of the ash-tray and wrung his hands.
'Since I've begun,' he went on presently, 'I'd better get it all off my chest ... Among Madeleine's ancestors was a strange woman whose name was Pauline Lagerlac. She was a great-grandmother. Not so very far away, you see ... When she was thirteen or fourteen she had a rather mysterious illness — I really don't know how to explain it — she had queer convulsions, and people heard strange sounds coming from her room ...'
'Tappings on the wall?'
'Scraping noises, as though furniture was being moved?'
'I know. They're symptoms often found in girls of that age, though I don't believe anybody's ever found an explanation for them. They generally don't last long.'
'I'm not very well up myself in these matters,' went on Gévigne, 'but it seems fairly certain that Pauline Lagerlac remained all her life a bit odd. She wanted to become a nun, then gave up the idea. Finally she married; then, after a few years, committed suicide ... for no reason at all.'
'What age was she then?'
Gévigne took out his handkerchief and dabbed his mouth.
'Twenty-five,' he murmured. 'Madeleine's age now.'
The two men were silent. Flavières turned the story over in his mind. Then he asked:
'Your wife knows, I suppose? ... About Pauline Lagerlac?'
'As a matter of fact she doesn't ... I got the story from my mother-in-law. She told me soon after our marriage. At the time I didn't attach any importance to it, listening merely out of politeness ... If I had known then! ... My mother-in-law's dead now, and there's no one I can turn to for any further information.'
'When she told you, do you think she had any idea at the back of her mind?'
'I don't think so. The subject cropped up quite accidentally. Only, I remember clearly her saying I was on no account to tell Madeleine. She wasn't at all proud herself of having a person of doubtful sanity in the family and thought it better her daughter shouldn't know.'
'You say this Pauline Lagerlac killed herself for no reason at all ... That doesn't sound very likely.'
'There was no reason that anyone could find out. She seemed happy. She had given birth to a son a few months before, and everybody expected that to be a stabilizing influence. And then, suddenly, one day —'
'Still, I don't see how this has anything to do with your wife.'
'You will,' said Gévigne with a heavy sigh. 'You will ... When her mother died, she naturally inherited a lot of family things, including some jewellery and ornaments that had come down from her great-grandmother, among them an amber necklace. And these beads seem to have a special meaning for her. She's always fiddling with them and gazing at them with ... with a sort of nostalgia. And we've got a portrait of Pauline Lagerlac at home, painted by herself — for, like Madeleine, she was an amateur painter. Madeleine has spent hours staring at that picture, as though fascinated. More than that: I once caught her with the picture propped up beside a mirror — she had the amber necklace on and was trying to do her hair like the woman in the portrait ...'
With obvious embarrassment, Gévigne went on:
'She's done it like that ever since — with a heavy bun on her neck.'
'Is there any resemblance between her and her great-grandmother?'
'A little perhaps ... a very vague one.'
'To come back to my first question: what are you afraid of, exactly?'
Gévigne picked up his cigar and studied it gloomily.
'I hardly like to tell you ... One thing's certain: Madeleine's no longer the same ... And ... and I can't help thinking sometimes —'
'That the woman living with me isn't Madeleine.'
Flavières got up from his chair with a strained laugh.
'Come on! If it isn't your wife, who is it? Pauline Lagerlac? ... My dear Paul, you're letting your mind run off the rails ... Have a drink. Port? Cinzano? Cap Corse?'
As Flavières went into the dining-room for a tray and some glasses, Gévigne called after him:
'And what about you? I haven't even asked you if you were married?'
'No,' answered Flavières dully, 'and I've no desire to be.'
'It was only by chance I heard you'd left the police.'
Silence in the dining-room.
'Can I give you a hand?'
Gévigne hoisted himself out of his armchair and went to the door leading to the next room. Flavières was uncorking a bottle. Gévigne leant against the door-post.
'Nice place you've got ... Sorry to be bothering you with my troubles ... Mighty glad to see you again ... I ought to have rung you up before coming, but I live in such a rush these days ...'
Flavières straightened himself and calmly took the cork off the corkscrew. The difficult moment was over.
'You said you were building ships now, didn't you?' he asked, filling two glasses.
'Small craft. But it's a very big contract ... At the Ministry they seem to be expecting some hard knocks ...'
'I should think they are! We can't go on with this phony war for ever. And we'll soon be in May ... Well, here's luck, Paul.'
'All the best, Roger.'
They looked into each other's eyes as they lifted their glasses. Standing up, Gévigne was short and square. The light from the window fell full on to his Roman features, fleshy ears, and truly noble forehead. Not that Gévigne had anything great in him: a little Provençal blood in his veins had sufficed to endow him with this deceptive profile of a proconsul. This war was going to make the fellow a millionaire ... Flavières banished the thought, ashamed of it. Was he not himself profiting from the absence of others who had been called up? It is true he had failed to pass a medical, but was that really a valid excuse? He put his glass back on the tray.
'I can see this business of yours is going to get under my skin ... Has your wife anyone at the front she might be worried about?'
'A few distant cousins we never see ... No one she really cares about.'
'How did you meet her?'
'Accidentally. It was quite romantic.'
Gévigne studied his glass. He was weighing his words. Always that fear of making himself ridiculous which had paralysed him as a student, making him fail in his vivas.
'I met her in Rome, where I was doing some business. We were staying in the same hotel.'
'What was she doing in Rome?'
'Studying painting. She had a real talent, or that's what they say. I'm not much of a judge of that sort of thing.'
'Was she studying with a view to teaching?'
'Good heavens, no! ... Just because she liked it. She never had to think about earning her living. Why, she had her own car at the age of eighteen. Her father was a big industrialist.'
Gévigne turned and walked back into the office. In the way he walked, at any rate, he showed real assurance now. Formerly he had had a hesitant step, a sort of stammer in his movements. His wife's money had transformed him.
'Does she still paint?'
'No. She gave it up little by little. Found she hadn't got the time. The life they lead, these Parisian women!'
'But ... these troubles you've been telling me about ... they must have had a cause. Can't you think of any incident that might have started the ball rolling? A quarrel, for instance, or a bit of bad news ... You must have thought of that.'
'Of course I've thought of it, and I've racked my brains to discover something ... Don't forget I spend half the week at Le Havre.'
Excerpted from Vertigo by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Geoffrey Sainsbury. Copyright © 1954 Editions Denoel. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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