The Counterfeiters XVI : Edouard Warns George

Edouard took care to arrive at the pension before the boys came in. He had not seen La Pérouse since the beginning of the term and it was to him that he wanted to speak first. The old music master carried out his new duties as well as he could—that is to say, very badly. He had at first tried to make himself liked, but he had no authority; the boys took advantage of him; his indulgence passed for weakness, and they began to take strange liberties. La Pérouse tried to be severe, but too late; his exhortations, his threats, his reprimands finally set the boys against him. If he raised his voice, they laughed; if he thumped his first resoundingly on his desk, they shrieked in pretended terror; they mimicked him; they called him by absurd nicknames; caricatures of him circulated from bench to bench; he—so kind and courteous—was portrayed armed with a pistol (the pistol which Ghéridanisol, George and Phiphi had found one day in the course of an indiscreet investigation of his room), ferociously massacring the boys; or else on his knees before them, with hands clasped, imploring, as he had done at first, for “a little quiet, for pity’s sake.” He was like a poor old stag at bay among a savage pack of hounds. Edouard knew nothing of all this.


La Pérouse received me in a small class-room on the ground floor, which I recognized as the most uncomfortable one in the school. Its only furniture consisted of four benches attached to four desks, a blackboard and a straw chair, on which La Pérouse forced me to sit down, while he screwed himself up slantwise on to one of the benches, after vain endeavours to get his long legs under the desk.

“No, no. I’m perfectly comfortable, I assure you,” he declared, while the tone of his voice and the expression of his face said:

“I am horribly uncomfortable, and I hope it’s obvious; but I prefer to be so; and the more uncomfortable I am, the less you will hear me complain.”

I tried to make a joke, but could not succeed in getting him to smile. His manner was ceremonious and stiff, as if he wished to keep me at a distance and imply: “I owe it to you that I am here.”

At the same time he declared himself perfectly satisfied with everything, though all the while eluding my questions and seeming vexed at my insisting. I asked him, however, where his room was.

“Rather too far from the kitchen,” he suddenly exclaimed; and as I expressed my astonishment: “Sometimes during the night, I want something to eat … when I can’t sleep.”

I was near him; I came nearer still and put my hand gently on his arm. He went on in a more natural tone:

“I must tell you that I sleep very badly. When I do go to sleep, I never lose the feeling that I am asleep. That’s not proper sleep, is it? A person who is properly asleep, doesn’t feel that he is asleep. When he wakes up, he just knows that he has been asleep.”

Then, leaning towards me, he went on with a kind of finicky insistence:

“Sometimes I’m inclined to think that it’s an illusion and that, all the same, I am properly asleep, when I think I’m not asleep. But the proof that I’m not properly asleep is that if I want to open my eyes, I open them. As a rule, I don’t want to. You understand, don’t you, that there’s no object in it? What’s the use of proving to myself that I’m not asleep? I always go on hoping that I shall go to sleep by persuading myself that I’m asleep already.… ”

He bent still nearer and went on in a whisper:

“And then there’s something that disturbs me. Don’t tell anyone.… I haven’t complained, because there’s nothing to do about it; and if a thing can’t be altered, there’s no good complaining, is there?… Well, just imagine, in the wall, right against my bed and exactly on a level with my head, there’s something that makes a noise.”

He had grown excited as he spoke. I suggested that he should take me to his room.

“Yes! Yes!” he said getting up suddenly. “You might be able to tell me what it is … I can’t succeed in making out. Come along.”

We went up two stories and then down a longish passage. I had never been into that part of the house before.

La Pérouse’s room looked on to the street. It was small but decent. On the bedside table, I noticed, next to a prayer book, the case of pistols, which he had insisted on taking with him. He seized me by the arm, and pushing aside the bed a little:

“There! Now!… Put your ear to the wall.… Can you hear it?”

I listened for a long time with the greatest attention. But notwithstanding the best will in the world, I could not succeed in hearing anything. La Pérouse grew vexed. Just then a van drove by, shaking the house and making the windows rattle.

“At this time of day,” I said, in the hopes of pacifying him, “the little noise that irritates you is drowned by the noise of the street.… ”

“Drowned for you, because you can’t distinguish it from the other noises,” he exclaimed with vehemence. “As for me, I hear it all the same. In spite of everything, I go on hearing it. Sometimes I am so exasperated by it that I make up my mind to speak to Azaïs or to the landlord.… Oh, I don’t suppose I shall get it to stop.… But, at any rate, I should like to know what it is.”

He seemed to reflect for a few moments, then went on: “It sounds something like a nibbling. I’ve done everything I can think of not to hear it. I pull my bed away from the wall. I put cotton wool in my ears. I hang my watch (you see, I’ve put a little nail there) just at the place where the pipe (I suppose) passes, so that its ticking may prevent my hearing the other noise.… But then it’s even more fatiguing, because I have to make an effort to distinguish it. Absurd, isn’t it? But I really prefer to hear it without any disguise, since I know it’s there all the same.… Oh! I oughtn’t to talk to you in this way. You see, I’m nothing but an old man now.”

He sat down on the edge of the bed, and stayed for some time, as though sunk in a kind of dull misery. The sinister degradation of age is not so much attacking La Pérouse’s intelligence as the innermost depths of his nature. The worm lodges itself in the fruit’s core, I thought, as I saw him give way to his childish despair, and remembered him as he used to be, so firm—so proud. I tried to rouse him by speaking of Boris.

“Yes, his room is near mine,” said he, raising his head. “I’ll show it to you. Come along.”

He preceded me along the passage and opened a neighbouring door.

“The other bed you see there is young Bernard Profitendieu’s.” (I judged it useless to tell him that Bernard had left that very day, and would not be coming back to sleep in it.) He went on: “Boris likes having him as a companion and I think he gets on with him. But, you know, he doesn’t talk to me much. He’s very reserved.… I am afraid the child is rather unfeeling.”

He said this so sadly that I took upon myself to protest and to say that I could answer for his grandson’s warmheartedness.

“In that case, he might show it a little more,” went on La Pérouse.

“For instance, in the mornings, when he goes off to the lycée with the others, I lean out of my window to see him go by. He knows I do.… Well, he never turns round.”

I wanted to explain to him that no doubt Boris was afraid of making a spectacle of himself before his schoolfellows and dreaded being laughed at; but at that moment a clamour arose from the courtyard below.

La Pérouse seized me by the arm and, in an altered, agitated voice:

“Listen! Listen!” he cried, “they are coming in.”

I looked at him. He had begun to tremble all over.

“Do the little wretches frighten you?” I asked.

“No, no,” he said in some confusion; “how could you think such a thing? …” Then, very quickly: “I must go down. Recreation only lasts a few minutes and you know I take preparation. Good-bye. Good-bye.”

He darted into the passage, without even shaking my hand. A moment later I heard him stumbling downstairs. I stayed for a few moments to listen, as I had no wish to go past the boys. I could hear them shouting, laughing and singing. Then a bell rang and silence was abruptly restored.

I went to see Azaïs and obtained permission for George to leave school in order to come and speak to me. He soon joined me in the same small room in which La Pérouse had received me a little while before.

As soon as he was in my presence, George thought fit to assume a jocular air. It was his way of concealing his embarrassment. But I wouldn’t swear that he was the more embarrassed of the two. He was on the defensive; for no doubt he expected to be sermonized. He seemed trying as hastily as possible to lay hold of anything he could use as a weapon against me, for, before I had opened my mouth, he enquired after Olivier, in such a bantering tone of voice, that I should have had the greatest pleasure in boxing his ears. He was in a position to score off me. His ironical eyes, the mocking curl of his lips all seemed to say: “I’m not afraid of you, you know.” I at once lost all my self-assurance and my one anxiety was to conceal the fact. The speech I had prepared suddenly struck me as inappropriate. I had not the prestige necessary to play the censor. At bottom, George amused me too much.

“I have not come to scold you,” I said at last; “I only want to warn you.” (And, in spite of myself, my whole face was smiling.)

“Tell me first whether it’s Mamma who has sent you?”

“Yes and no. I have spoken about you to your mother; but that was some days ago. Yesterday I had a very important conversation about you with a very important person, whom you don’t know. He came to see me on purpose to talk about you. A juge d’instruction. It’s from him I’ve come. Do you know what a juge d’instruction is?”

George had turned suddenly pale, and no doubt his heart had stopped beating for a moment. He shrugged his shoulders, it is true, but his voice trembled a little:

“Oh! all right! Out with it! What did old Profitendieu say?”

The youngster’s coolness took me aback. No doubt it would have been simpler to go straight to the point; but going straight to the point is a thing particularly foreign to my nature, whose irresistible bent is towards moving obliquely. In order to explain my conduct, which, though it afterwards appeared absurd to me, was quite spontaneous at the time, I must say that my last conversation with Pauline had greatly exercised me. I had immediately inserted the reflections it had suggested to me into my novel, putting them into the form of a dialogue, which exactly fitted in with certain of my characters. It very rarely happens that I make direct use of what occurs to me in real life, but for once I was able to take advantage of this affair of George’s; it was as though my book had been waiting for it, it came in so pat; I hardly had to alter one or two details.

But I did not give a direct account of this affair (I mean his stealing). I merely showed it—with its consequences—by glimpses, in the course of conversations. I had put down some of these in a note-book, which I had at that very moment in my pocket. On the contrary, the story of the false coins, as related by Profitendieu, did not seem to me capable of being turned to account. And no doubt that is why, instead of making immediately for this particular point, which was the main object of my visit, I tacked about.

“I first want you to read these few lines,” I said. “You will see why.” And I held him out my note-book, which I had opened at the page I thought might interest him.

I repeat it—this behaviour of mine now seems to me absurd. But in my novel, it is precisely by a similar reading that I thought of giving the youngest of my heroes a warning. I wanted to know what George’s reaction would be; I hoped it might instruct me … and even as to the value of what I had written.

I transcribe the passage in question:

There was a whole obscure region in the boy’s character which attracted Audibert’s affectionate curiosity. It was not enough for him to know that young Eudolfe had committed thefts; he would have liked Eudolfe to tell him what had made him begin, and what he had felt on the occasion of his first theft. But the boy, even if he had been willing to confide in him, would no doubt have been incapable of explaining. And Audibert did not dare question him, for fear of inducing him to tell lies in self-defence.

One evening when Audibert was dining with Hildebrant, he spoke to him about Eudolfe—without naming him and altering the circumstances so that Hildebrant should not recognize him.

“Have you ever observed,” said Hildebrant, “that the most decisive actions of our life—I mean those that are most likely to decide the whole course of our future—are, more often than not, unconsidered?”

“I easily believe it,” replied Audibert. “Like a train into which one jumps without thinking, and without asking oneself where it is going. And more often than not, one does not even realize that the train is carrying one off, till it is too late to get down.”

“But perhaps the boy you are talking of has no wish to get down?”

“Not so far, doubtless. For the moment he is being carried along unresisting. The scenery amuses him, and he cares very little where he is going.”

“Do you mean to talk morals to him?”

“No indeed! It would be useless. He has been overdosed with morals till he is sick.”

“Why did he steal?”

“I don’t exactly know. Certainly not from real need. But to get certain advantages—not to be outdone by his wealthier companions—Heaven knows what all! Innate propensity—sheer pleasure of stealing.”

“That’s the worst.”

“Of course! Because he’ll begin again.”

“Is he intelligent?”

“I thought for a long time that he was less so than his brothers. But I wonder now whether I wasn’t mistaken, and whether my unfavourable impression was not caused by the fact that he does not as yet understand what his capabilities are. His curiosity has gone off the tracks—or rather, it is still in the embryonic state—still at the stage of indiscretion.”

“Will you speak to him?”

“I propose making him put in the scales, on the one hand the little profit his thefts bring him, and on the other what his dishonesty loses him: the confidence of his friends and relations, their esteem, mine amongst others … things which can’t be measured and the value of which can be calculated only by the enormousness of the effort needed later to regain them. There are men who have spent their whole lives over it. I shall tell him, what he is still too young to realize—that henceforth if anything doubtful or unpleasant happens in his neighbourhood, it will always be laid to his door. He may find himself accused wrongfully of serious misdeeds and be unable to defend himself. His past actions point to him. He is marked. And lastly what I should like to say … But I am afraid of his protestations.”

“You would like to say? …”

“That what he has done has created a precedent, and that if some resolution is required for a first theft, for the ensuing ones nothing is needed but to drift with the current. All that follows is mere laisser aller.… What I should like to say is, that a first movement, which one makes almost without thinking, often begins to trace a line which irrevocably draws our figure, and which our after effort will never be able to efface. I should like … but no, I shan’t know how to speak to him.”

“Why don’t you write down our conversation of this evening? You could give it him to read.”

“That’s an idea,” said Audibert. “Why not?”

I did not take my eyes off George while he was reading; but his face showed no signs of what he was thinking.

“Am I to go on?” he asked, preparing to turn the page.

“There’s no need. The conversation ends there.”

“A great pity.”

He gave me back the note-book, and in a tone of voice that was almost playful:

“I should have liked to know what Eudolfe says when he has read the note-book.”

“Exactly. I want to know myself.”

“Eudolfe is a ridiculous name. Couldn’t you have christened him something else?”

“It’s of no importance.”

“Nor what he answers either. And what becomes of him afterwards?”

“I don’t know yet. It depends upon you. We shall see.”

“Then if I understand right, I am to help you go on with your book. No, really, you must admit that …”

He stopped as if he had some difficulty in expressing his ideas.

“That what?” I said to encourage him.

“You must admit that you’d be pretty well sold,” he went on, “if Eudolfe …”

He stopped again. I thought I understood what he meant and finished his sentence for him:

“If he became an honest boy?… No, my dear.” And suddenly the tears rose to my eyes. I put my hand on his shoulder. But he shook it off:

“For after all, if he hadn’t been a thief, you wouldn’t have written all that.”

It was only then that I understood my mistake. In reality, George was flattered at having occupied my thoughts for so long. He felt interesting. I had forgotten Profitendieu; it was George who reminded me of him.

“And what did your juge d’instruction say to you?”

“He commissioned me to warn you that he knew you were circulating false coins.… ”

George changed colour again. He understood denials would be useless, but he muttered indistinctly:

“I’m not the only one.”

“… and that if you and your pals don’t stop your traffickings at once, he’ll be obliged to arrest you.”

George had begun by turning very pale. Now his cheeks were burning. He stared fixedly in front of him and his knitted brows drew two deep wrinkles on his forehead.

“Good-bye,” I said, holding out my hand. “I advise you to warn your companions as well. As for you, you won’t be offered a second chance.”

He shook my hand silently and left the room without looking round.

On re-reading the pages of The Counterfeiters which I showed George, I thought them on the whole rather bad. I transcribe them as George read them, but all this chapter must be rewritten. It would be better decidedly to speak to the child. I must discover how to touch him. Certainly, at the point he has reached, it would be difficult to bring Eudolfe (George is right; I must change his name) back into the path of honesty. But I mean to bring him back; and whatever George may think, this is what is most interesting, because it is most difficult. (Here am I reasoning like Douviers!) Let us leave realistic novelists to deal with the stories of those who drift.

As soon as he got back to the class-room, George told his two friends of Edouard’s warnings. Everything his uncle had said about his pilferings slipped off the child’s mind, without causing him the slightest emotion; but, when it came to the false coins, which ran the risk of getting them into trouble, he saw the importance of getting rid of them as quickly as possible. Each of the three boys had on him a certain number which he intended disposing of the next free afternoon. Ghéridanisol collected them and hurried off to throw them down the drains. That same evening he warned Strouvilhou, who immediately took his precautions.