Authors: Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt,Howard Curtis
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2012 by Albin Michel
First publication 2014 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis
Les deux messieurs de Bruxelles
Translation copyright Â© 2014 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover image: ReneÌ Magritte (1898-1967),
La reconnaissance infinie
Â© 2013. BI, ADAGP, Paris/Scala, Firenze
Translated from the French
by Howard Curtis
he day a thirty-year-old man in a blue suit rang at her door and asked her if she was the GeneviÃ¨ve Grenier, maiden name Piastre, who had married Ãdouard Grenier fifty-five years earlier, on the afternoon of April 13, in Sainte-Gudule Cathedral, her first impulse was to retort that she wasn't going to take part in any TV game show and slam the door in his face. But, as usual, she was reluctant to hurt anyone's feelings, and so she suppressed the thoughts that had crossed her mind and simply said, “Yes.”
Delighted with the answer, the man in the blue suit told her that his name was Demeulemeester, that he was a lawyer, and that he was here to inform her that she was the sole legal heir of Monsieur Jean Daemens.
“What?” she replied, her eyes wide with surprise.
The lawyer feared he might have committed a blunder. “Didn't you know that he was dead?”
It was worse than that: she didn't even know he had ever existed! Jean Daemens? The name rang no bells. Was her mind as impaired as her legs? Was nothing working anymore? Jean Daemens? Jean Daemens? In some vague way, she felt guilty.
“My .Â .Â . my memory isn't what it was. Tell me more. How old was this man?”
“You were born in the same year.”
“Monsieur Daemens lived here in Brussels, at 22 Avenue Lepoutre.”
“I never knew anyone in that neighborhood.”
“He had a jewelry store in the Galerie de la Reine for a long time.
, it was called.”
“Oh yes, I remember that shop. Very stylish.”
“He closed it down five years ago.”
“I often looked in the window, but I never went in.”
“It was far too expensive for me .Â .Â . No, I don't know the man.”
The lawyer scratched his head.
GeneviÃ¨ve Grenier thought it relevant to add, “Sorry.”
At this, he looked up and said, articulating his words clearly, “Your secrets are your business, madame. I'm not here to pass comment on your relationship with Monsieur Daemens but to carry out his final wishes. As I've said, he made you his sole heir.”
Stung by the insinuations in the lawyer's statement, GeneviÃ¨ve was about to defend herself when he went on, “My one question, Madame Grenier, is this: do you wish to claim the inheritance or not? Take a few days to think it over. Don't forget that, if you do claim it, you may inherit debts as well as assets.”
“According to law, once a legatee accepts the terms of a will, he is authorized to receive the assets but is also obliged to settle the debts if there are any.”
“And are there any?”
“There are sometimes.”
“But in this case?”
“The law forbids me from answering that question, madame.”
“You must know! Tell me!”
“It's the law, madame! I took an oath.”
“My dear monsieur, I'm old enough to be your mother. You wouldn't lure your poor old mother into a trap, would you?”
“I can't tell you, madame. Here's my card. Come to my office when you've made up your mind.”
The man clicked his heels and took his leave.
In the days that followed, GeneviÃ¨ve looked at the question from every angle.
When she phoned her friend Simone to ask her for advice, she presented the case as something that was happening to a neighbor.
“Before your neighbor makes up her mind,” Simone immediately said, “she needs to find out a bit more about this man. What work did he do?”
“He owned a jewelry store.”
“Doesn't mean anything. He might have been rich, but the place might just as easily have gone bust.”
“He closed it down five years ago.”
“You see! Bankrupt!”
“Come on, Simone, at our age people don't want to go on working.”
“He lived on Avenue Lepoutre.”
“Did he own his own apartment?”
“I think so.”
“Not enough. If his business was going downhill, he probably mortgaged the apartment.”
“If he did, who would know?”
“His bank, but they'd never give out the information. How did he die?”
“Well, if your neighbor's friend died of an illness, that's a good sign. If, on the other hand, he killed himself, I'd be worried. It'd mean he was up to his neck in debt.”
“Not necessarily, Simone. He might have killed himself because he'd had bad news. That he had cancer for example.”
“Mmm .Â .Â . ”
“Or that his children had died in a plane crash.”
“Did he have children?”
“No. They aren't mentioned in his will.”
“Mmm .Â .Â . You're not going to convince me a suicide isn't suspicious!”
“My neighbor never said anything about suicide.”
“Come to think of it, your neighbor might have bumped him off! He's her lover, she finds out he's put her in his will, so she kills him.”
“Simone, we don't even know how he died!”
“That shows how clever she is.”
“He wasn't her lover!”
“Oh, GeneviÃ¨ve, don't be so naive! He leaves her his entire fortune, and she wasn't his mistress? I find that hard to swallow!”
The question of whether to accept or decline always led to others: Who was this man? What connection was there between them? So, after getting a second negative opinion from a cousin in the insurance business, GeneviÃ¨ve decided to give up asking for advice.
From morning to evening, she leaned first in one direction and then in the other. Accept or decline? It was a big gamble! Even though she was losing sleep, she was rather enjoying this mental agitation: at last something adventurous was happening in her life .Â .Â . She couldn't stop weighing the pros and cons.
After seventy-two hours, she made up her mind.
The woman who appeared at the office of the lawyer Demeulemeester had decided to be a gambler. Since the cautious thing to do would be to refuse the offer, she was going to accept it! She hated moderation, having spent too much of her life being moderate and restrained. And anyway, at the age of eighty, she was hardly running any risks. Even if she did inherit debts, she'd never be able to pay them off, since all she had was the tiny allowance from the state that a senior citizen was expected to live on. Even if she owed several million, nobody would dream of reducing her meager pension. But she preferred not to develop this line of thought, afraid she might discover that her supposed recklessness would prove to be her cleverest move, that in taking a risk she wasn't actually taking any risks at all .Â .Â .
As it turned out, she had made the right decision! What she was inheriting was, in a word, a fortune: a lot of money in the bank, three apartments in Brussels, two of them rented out to tenants, all the furniture, paintings and works of art in storage at 22 Avenue Lepoutre, and, last but not least, a house in the south of France. As testimony to her newfound status, the lawyer offered to manage her inheritance for her.
“I'll think about it, monsieur. Wasn't there a letter with the will?”
“Any document for me?”
“What on earth possessed this man to choose me?”
“He didn't have any family.”
“All right, but why me?”
The lawyer stared at her in silence. He was starting to have his doubts. Either, as he had supposed, she had been the man's mistress and preferred to be discreet about it, or she was telling the truth, and he was dealing with the strangest case he had ever come across .Â .Â .
“You must have known him well,” GeneviÃ¨ve insisted.
“No, my predecessor dealt with him. He was already on our files when I took over this practice.”
“Where is he buried?”
Realizing that, if he wanted to keep GeneviÃ¨ve as his client, he had to show that he was willing to please, the lawyer disappeared, gave some orders to his clerks, and returned five minutes later, carrying a square sheet of paper.
“Ixelles Cemetery, Avenue 1, Block 2, fifth plot on the left.”
GeneviÃ¨ve made her way there that very day.
The weather was foul. A murky light poured down from the overcast sky, emphasizing the grayness of the concrete walls and making the faces of the pedestrians look sullen. Even though it wasn't raining, the streets were wet, a threat more than a memory .Â .Â .
The bus dropped GeneviÃ¨ve in front of the three cafÃ©s that framed the entrance to the cemetery. Behind the windows, nobody was sitting at the tables, and the waiters were yawning glumly. No funerals today .Â .Â . Drawing her scarf more tightly around her neck, GeneviÃ¨ve shivered at the thought of those waiters' tasks: making comments on death, serving herb tea to widows and lemonades to orphans, pouring beer for men thirsty for forgetfulness. The table napkins were probably used more for brushing away tears than wiping mouths .Â .Â .
Since the monumental wrought iron gate would not deign to open for her, GeneviÃ¨ve went in through the small gate on the left, nodded to the municipal employee in his green uniform, and came to a circular space surrounded by oaks. The gravel crunched as she turned onto the avenue. “Leave, stranger,” it seemed to cry, “go back where you came from.” Yes, they were right, she had no place in this city of the rich. Even though the houses of this city were vaults or mausoleums, their luxury, their pretentious statuary, their solemn obelisks reminded her that, being an insignificant, penniless woman, she had never known any of the residents. Some of the family monuments along the row of blue cedars were two hundred years old. GeneviÃ¨ve wondered why only the rich made so much of their family trees. Didn't the poor have ancestors?
Keeping her head down, she kept walking, telling herself that she could never afford a plot here.
Except that now she could .Â .Â .
Horrified by these calculations, she shivered and made the sign of the cross to protect herself both from the place and from her wandering mind.
“1 .Â .Â . 2 .Â .Â . 3 .Â .Â . 4 .Â .Â . 5. Here it is!”
The grave, its dark granite so polished that the leaning trees were reflected in it, bore the name Jean Daemens in gold lettering. To the right of the name, a photograph set into the gravestone showed its owner at the age of forty, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with open, clear-cut, virile features and full lips, smiling happily.
“What a handsome man!”
She didn't know him. She had never had any dealings with him. Definitely not. And yet there was something familiar about his face .Â .Â . But what? It must be something to do with his physical type .Â .Â . So many dark-haired males had those Mediterranean features, you think you've met them before. Maybe she'd come across him without noticing him .Â .Â . Once, maybe even twice .Â .Â . Where? In any case, she had never spoken to him: she was sure of that!
She continued gazing at the photograph. Why had he chosen her? What lay behind his generosity?