The Counterfeiters XIX : Boris

The next afternoon, the bell assembled all the boys in the classroom.

Boris, Ghéridanisol, George and Philippe were seated on the same bench. Ghéridanisol pulled out his watch and put it down between Boris and him. The hands marked five thirty-five. Preparation began at five o’clock and lasted till six. Five minutes to six was the moment fixed upon for Boris to put an end to himself, just before the boys dispersed; it was better so; it would be easier to escape immediately after. And soon Ghéridanisol said to Boris, in a half whisper, and without looking at him, which gave his words, he considered, a more fatal ring:

“Old boy, you’ve only got a quarter of an hour more.”

Boris remembered a story-book he had read long ago, in which, when the robbers were on the point of putting a woman to death, they told her to say her prayers, so as to convince her she must get ready to die. As a foreigner who, on arriving at the frontier of the country he is leaving, prepares his papers, so Boris searched his heart and head for prayers, and could find none; but he was at once so tired and so over-strung, that he did not trouble much. He tried to think, but could not. The pistol weighed in his pocket; he had no need to put his hand on it to feel it there.

“Only ten minutes more.”

George, sitting on Ghéridanisol’s left, watched the scene out of the corner of his eye, pretending all the while not to see. He was working feverishly. The class had never been so quiet. La Pérouse hardly knew his young rascals and for the first time was able to breathe. Philippe, however, was not at ease; Ghéridanisol frightened him; he was not very confident the game mightn’t turn out badly; his heart was bursting; it hurt him, and every now and then he heard himself heave a deep sigh. At last, he could bear it no longer, and tearing a half sheet of paper out of his copy-book (he was preparing an examination, but the lines danced before his eyes, and the facts and dates in his head) scribbled on it very quickly: “Are you quite sure the pistol isn’t loaded?”; then gave the note to George, who passed it to Ghéri. But Ghéri, after he had read it, raised his shoulders, without even glancing at Phiphi; then, screwing the note up into a ball, sent it rolling with a flick of his finger till it landed on the very spot which had been marked with chalk. After which, satisfied with the excellence of his aim, he smiled. This smile, which began by being deliberate, remained fixed till the end of the scene; it seemed to have been imprinted on his features.

“Five minutes more.”

He said it almost aloud. Even Philippe heard. He was overwhelmed by a sickening and intolerable anxiety, and though the hour was just coming to an end, he feigned an urgent need to leave the room—or was perhaps seized with perfectly genuine colic. He raised his hand and snapped his fingers, as boys do when they want to ask permission from the master; then, without waiting for La Pérouse to answer, he darted from his bench. In order to reach the door he had to pass in front of the master’s desk; he almost ran, tottering as he did so.

Almost immediately after Philippe had left the room, Boris rose in his turn. Young Passavant, who was sitting behind him, working diligently, raised his eyes. He told Séraphine afterwards that Boris was frightfully pale; but that is what is always said on these occasions. As a matter of fact, he stopped looking almost at once and plunged again into his work. He reproached himself for it bitterly later. If he had understood what was going on, he would certainly have been able to prevent it; so he said afterwards, weeping. But he had no suspicions.

So Boris stepped forward to the appointed place; he walked slowly, like an automaton—or rather like a somnambulist. He had grasped the pistol in his right hand, but still kept it in the pocket of his coat; he took it out only at the last moment. The fatal place was, as I have said, in the recess made by a disused door on the right of the master’s desk, so that the master could only see it by leaning forward.

La Pérouse leant forward. And at first he did not understand what his grandson was doing, though the strange solemnity of his actions was of a nature to alarm him. Speaking as loudly and as authoritatively as he could, he began:

“Master Boris, kindly return at once to your …”

But he suddenly recognized the pistol: Boris had just raised it to his temple. La Pérouse understood and immediately turned icy cold as if the blood were freezing in his veins. He tried to rise and run towards Boris—stop him—call to him.… A kind of hoarse rattle came from his throat; he remained rooted to the spot, paralytic, shaken by a violent trembling.

The shot went off. Boris did not drop at once. The body stayed upright for a moment, as though caught in the corner of the recess; then the head, falling on to the shoulder, bore it down; it collapsed.

When the police made their enquiry a little later, they were astonished not to find the pistol near Boris’s body—near the place, I mean, where he fell, for the little corpse was carried away almost immediately and laid upon a bed. In the confusion which followed, while Ghéridanisol had remained in his place, George had leapt over his bench and succeeded in making away with the weapon, without anyone’s noticing him; while the others were bending over Boris, he had first of all pushed it backwards with his foot, seized it with a rapid movement, hidden it under his coat, and then surreptitiously passed it to Ghéridanisol. Everyone’s attention being fixed on a single point, no one noticed Ghéridanisol either, and he was able to run unperceived to La Pérouse’s room and put the pistol back in the place from which he had taken it. When, in the course of a later investigation, the police discovered the pistol in its case, it might have seemed doubtful whether it had ever left it, or whether Boris had used it, had Ghéridanisol only remembered to remove the empty cartridge. He certainly lost his head a little—a passing weakness, for which, I regret to say, he reproached himself far more than for the crime itself. And yet it was this weakness which saved him. For when he came down and mixed with the others, at the sight of Boris’s dead body being carried away, he was seized with a fit of trembling, which was obvious to everyone—a kind of nervous attack—which Madame Vedel and Rachel, who had hurried to the spot, mistook for a sign of excessive emotion. One prefers to suppose anything, rather than the inhumanity of so young a creature; and when Ghéridanisol protested his innocence, he was believed. Phiphi’s little note, which George had passed him and which he had flicked away with his finger, was found later under a bench and also contributed to help him. True, he remained guilty, as did George and Phiphi, of having lent himself to a cruel game, but he would not have done so, he declared, if he had thought the weapon was loaded. George was the only one who remained convinced of his entire responsibility.

George was not so corrupted but that his admiration for Ghéridanisol yielded at last to horror. When he reached home that evening, he flung himself into his mother’s arms; and Pauline had a burst of gratitude to God, who by means of this dreadful tragedy had brought her son back to her.