The Counterfeiters XVII : Armand and Olivier

That same evening, while Edouard was talking to his nephew George, Olivier, after Bernard had left him, received a visit from Armand.

Armand Vedel was unrecognizable; shaved, smiling, carrying his head high; he was dressed in a new suit, which was rather too smart and looked perhaps a trifle ridiculous; he felt it and showed that he felt it.

“I should have come to see you before, but I’ve had so much to do lately!… Do you know that I’ve actually become Passavant’s secretary? or, if you prefer it, the editor of his new review. I won’t ask you to contribute, because Passavant seems rather worked up against you. Besides, the review is decidedly going more and more to the left. That’s the reason it has begun by dropping Bercail and his pastorals.… ”

“I’m sorry for the review,” said Olivier.

“And that’s why, on the other hand, it has accepted my Nocturnal Vase, which, by the bye, is, without your permission, to be dedicated to you.”

“I’m sorry for me.”

“Passavant even wished my work of genius to open the first number; but my natural modesty, which was severely tried by his encomiums, was opposed to this. If I were not afraid of fatiguing a convalescent’s ears, I would give you an account of my first interview with the illustrious author of The Horizontal Bar, whom I had only known up till then through you.”

“I have nothing better to do than to listen.”

“You don’t mind smoke?”

“I’ll smoke myself to show you.”

“I must tell you,” began Armand, lighting a cigarette, “that your desertion left our beloved Count somewhat in a fix. Let it be said, without flattery, that it isn’t easy to replace such a bundle of gifts, virtues, qualities as are united in your …”

“Get on,” interrupted Olivier, exasperated by this heavy-footed irony.

“Well, to get on, Passavant wanted a secretary. He happened to know a certain Strouvilhou, whom I happen to know myself, because he is the uncle of a certain individual in the school, who happened to know Jean Cob-Lafleur, whom you know.”

“Whom I don’t know,” said Olivier.

“Well, my boy, you ought to know him. He’s an extraordinary fellow; a kind of faded, wrinkled, painted baby, who lives on cocktails and writes charming verses when he’s drunk. You’ll see some in our first number. So Strouvilhou had the brilliant idea of sending him to Passavant, to take your place. You can imagine his entry into the Rue de Babylone mansion. I must tell you that Cob-Lafleur’s clothes are covered with stains; that he has flowing flaxen locks, which fall upon his shoulders; and that he looks as if he hadn’t washed for a week. Passavant, who always wants to be master of the situation, declares that he took a great fancy to Cob-Lafleur. Cob-Lafleur has a gentle, smiling, timid way with him. When he chooses he can look like Banville’s Gringoire. In a word, Passavant was taken by him and was on the point of engaging him. I must tell you that Lafleur hasn’t got a penny piece.… So he gets up to take leave:—‘Before leaving, Monsieur le Comte, I think it’s only right to inform you that I have a few faults.’—‘Which of us has not?’—‘And a few vices. I smoke opium.’—‘Is that all?’ says Passavant, who isn’t to be put off by a little thing of that kind; ‘I’ve got some excellent stuff to offer you.’—‘Yes, but when I smoke it, I completely lose every notion of spelling.’ Passavant took this for a joke, forced a laugh and held out his hand. Lafleur goes on:—‘And then I take hasheesh.’—‘I have sometimes taken it myself,’ says Passavant.—‘Yes, but when I am under the influence of hasheesh, I can’t keep from stealing.’ Passavant began to see then that he was being made a fool of; and Lafleur, who was set going by now, rattled on, impulsively:—‘And besides, I drink ether; and then I tear everything to bits—I smash everything I can lay my hands on,’ and he seizes a glass vase and makes as if he were going to throw it into the fire. Passavant just had time to snatch it out of his hands.—‘Much obliged to you for warning me.’ ”

“And he chucked him out?”

“Yes; and watched out of the window to see Lafleur didn’t drop a bomb into the cellar as he left.”

“But why did Lafleur behave so? From what you say, he was really in need of the place.”

“All the same, my dear fellow, you must admit that there are people who feel impelled to act against their interest. And then, if you want to know, Lafleur … well, Passavant’s luxury disgusted him—his elegance, his amiable manners, his condescension, his affectation of superiority. Yes; it turned his stomach. And I add that I perfectly understand him.… At bottom, your Passavant makes one’s gorge rise.”

“Why do you say ‘your Passavant’? You know quite well that I’ve given him up. And then why have you accepted his place, if you think him so disgusting?”

“For the very reason that I like things that disgust me … to start with my own delightful—or disgusting—self. And then, in reality, Cob-Lafleur suffers from shyness; he wouldn’t have said any of all that if he hadn’t felt ill at ease.”

“Oh! come now!”

“Certainly. He was ill at ease, and he was furious at being made to feel ill at ease by someone he really despises. It was to conceal his shyness that he bluffed.”

“I call it stupid.”

“My dear fellow, everyone can’t be as intelligent as you are.”

“You said that last time, too.”

“What a memory!”

Olivier was determined to hold his ground.

“I try,” said he, “to forget your jokes. But last time you did at last talk to me seriously. You said things I can’t forget.”

Armand’s eyes grew troubled. He went off into a forced laugh.

“Oh, old fellow, last time I talked to you as you wanted to be talked to. You called for something in a minor key, so, in order to please you, I played my lament, with a soul like a corkscrew and anguish à la Pascal.… It can’t be helped, you know. I’m only sincere when I’m cracking jokes.”

“You’ll never make me believe that you weren’t sincere when you talked to me as you did that day. It’s now that you are playing a part.”

“Oh, simplicity! What a pure angelic soul you possess! As if we weren’t all playing parts more or less sincerely and consciously. Life, my dear fellow, is nothing but a comedy. But the difference between you and me is that I know I am playing a part, whilst …”

“Whilst …” repeated Olivier aggressively.

“Whilst my father, for instance, not to speak of you, is completely taken in when he plays at being a pastor. Whatever I say or do, there’s always one part of myself which stays behind, and watches the other part compromise itself, which laughs at and hisses it, or applauds it. When one is divided in that way, how is it possible to be sincere? I have got to the point of ceasing to understand what the word means. It can’t be helped; when I’m sad, I seem so grotesque to myself that it makes me laugh; when I’m cheerful, I make such idiotic jokes that I feel inclined to cry.”

“You make me feel inclined to cry too, my dear boy. I didn’t think you were in such a bad way.”

Armand shrugged his shoulders and went on in a totally different tone of voice:

“To console you, should you like to know the contents of our first number? Well, there’s my Nocturnal Vase; four songs by Cob-Lafleur; a dialogue by Jarry; some prose poems by young Ghéridanisol, one of our boarders; and then The Flat Iron, a vast essay in general criticism, in which the tendencies of the review will be more or less definitely laid down. Several of us have combined together to produce this chef-d’œuvre.”

Olivier, not knowing what to say, objected clumsily:

“No chef-d’œuvre was ever produced by several people together.”

Armand burst out laughing:

“But, my dear fellow, I said it was a chef-d’œuvre as a joke. It isn’t a chef-d’œuvre; it isn’t anything at all. And, for that matter, what does one mean by chef-d’œuvre? That’s just what The Flat Iron tries to get to the bottom of. There are heaps of works one admires on faith, just because everyone else does, and because no one so far has thought of saying—or dared to say—that they were stupid. For instance, on the first page of this number, we are going to give a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, with a pair of moustaches stuck on to her face. You’ll see! The effect is simply staggering.”

“Does that mean you consider the Mona Lisa a stupidity?”

“Not at all, my dear fellow. (Though I don’t think it as marvellous as all that.) You don’t understand me. The thing that’s stupid is people’s admiration for it. It’s the habit they have got of speaking of what are called chefs-d’œuvre with bated breath. The object of The Flat Iron (it’s to be the name of the review too) is to make this reverence appear grotesque—to discredit it.… Another good plan is to hold up to the reader’s admiration something absolutely idiotic (my Nocturnal Vase for instance) by an author who is absolutely senseless.”

“Does Passavant approve of all this?”

“He’s very much amused by it.”

“I see I did well to retire.”

“Retire!… Sooner or later, old man, willynilly, one always has to end by retiring. This wise reflection naturally leads me to take my leave.”

“Stop a moment, you old clown.… What made you say just now that your father played the part of pastor? Don’t you think he is in earnest?”

“My revered father has so arranged his life that he hasn’t the right now—or even the power—not to be in earnest. Yes, it’s his profession to be in earnest. He’s a professor of earnestness. He inculcates faith; it’s his raison d’être; it’s the rôle he has chosen and he must go through with it to the very end. But as for knowing what goes on in what he calls his ‘inner consciousness’ … It would be indiscreet to enquire. And I don’t think he ever enquires himself. He manages in such a way that he never has time to. He has crammed his life full of a lot of obligations which would lose all meaning if his conviction failed; so that in a manner they necessitate his conviction and at the same time keep it going. He imagines he believes, because he continues to act as if he did. If his faith failed, my dear fellow, why, it would be a catastrophic collapse! And reflect, that at the same time my family would cease to have anything to live on. That’s a fact that must be taken into consideration, old boy. Papa’s faith is our means of subsistence. So that to come and ask me if Papa’s faith is genuine, is not, you must admit, a very tactful proceeding on your part.”

“I thought you lived chiefly on what the school brings in.”

“Yes; there’s some truth in that. But that’s not very tactful either—to cut me short in my lyrical flights.”

“And you then? Don’t you believe in anything?” asked Olivier sadly, for he was fond of Armand, and his ugliness pained him.

“Jubes renovare dolorem … You seem to forget, my dear friend, that my parents wanted to make a pastor of me. They nourished me on pious precepts—fed me up with them, if I may say so.… But finally they were obliged to recognize that I hadn’t the vocation. It’s a pity. I might have made a first-class preacher. But my vocation was to write The Nocturnal Vase.”

“You poor old thing! If you knew how sorry I am for you!”

“You have always had what my father calls ‘a heart of gold’ … I won’t trespass on it any longer.”

He took up his hat. He had almost left the room, when he suddenly turned round:

“You haven’t asked after Sarah?”

“Because you could tell me nothing that I haven’t heard from Bernard.”

“Did he tell you that he had left the pension?”

“He told me that your sister Rachel had requested him to leave.”

Armand had one hand on the door handle; with his walking-stick in the other, he pushed up the portière. The stick went into a hole in the portière and made it bigger.

“Account for it how you will,” said he, and his face became very grave. “Rachel is, I believe, the only person in the world I love and respect. I respect her because she is virtuous. And I always behave in such a way as to offend her virtue. As for Bernard and Sarah, she had no suspicions. It was I who told her the whole thing.… And the oculist said she wasn’t to cry! It’s comic!”

“Am I to think you sincere now?”

“Yes, I think the most sincere thing about me is a horror—a hatred of everything people call Virtue. Don’t try to understand. You have no idea what a Puritan bringing-up can do to one. It leaves one with an incurable resentment in one’s heart … to judge by myself,” he added, with a jarring laugh.

He put down his hat and went up to the window. “Just look here; on the inside of my lip?”

He stooped towards Olivier and lifted up his lip with his finger.

“I can’t see anything.”

“Yes, you can; there; in the corner.”

Olivier saw a whitish spot near the corner. A little uneasily: “It’s a gum-boil,” he said to reassure Armand.

But Armand shrugged his shoulders.

“Don’t talk nonsense—such a serious fellow as you! A gum-boil’s soft and it goes away. This is hard and gets larger every week. And it gives me a kind of bad taste in my mouth.”

“Have you had it long?”

“It’s more than a month since I first noticed it. But as the chef-d’œuvre says: ‘Mon mal vient de plus loin.… ’ ”

“Well, old boy, if you’re anxious about it, you had better consult a doctor.”

“You don’t suppose I needed your advice for that.”

“What did he say?”

“I didn’t need your advice to say to myself that I ought to consult a doctor. But all the same, I didn’t consult one, because if it’s what I think, I prefer not to know it.”

“It’s idiotic.”

“Isn’t it stupid? But so human, my friend, so human.… ”

“The idiotic thing is not to be treated for it.”

“So that when one is treated, one can always say: ‘Too late!’ That’s what Cob-Lafleur expresses so well in one of his poems which you’ll see in the review:

‘Il faut se rendre à l’évidence;

Car, dans ce bas monde, la danse

Précède souvent la chanson.’ ”

“One can make literature out of anything.”

“Just so; out of anything. But, dear friend, it’s not so easy as all that. Well, good-bye.… Oh! there’s one thing more I wanted to tell you. I’ve heard from Alexandre.… Yes, you know—my eldest brother, who ran away to Africa. He began by coming to grief over his business and running through all the money Rachel sent him. He’s settled now on the banks of the Casamance; and he has written to say that things are doing well and that he’ll soon be able to pay everything back.”

“What kind of a business?”

“Heaven knows! Rubber, ivory, Negroes perhaps … a lot of odds and ends.… He has asked me to go out to him.”

“Will you go?”

“I would to-morrow, if it weren’t for my military service. Alexandre is a kind of donkey, something in my style. I think I should get on with him very well.… Here! would you like to see? I’ve got his letter with me.”

He took an envelope out of his pocket, and several sheets of note-paper out of the envelope; he chose one, and held it out to Olivier.

“There’s no need to read it all. Begin here.”

Olivier read:

“ ‘For the last fortnight, I have been living in company with a singular individual whom I have taken into my hut. The sum of these parts seems to have touched him in the upper story. I thought at first it was delirium, but there’s no doubt it’s just plain madness. This curious young man is about thirty years old, tall, strong, good-looking, and certainly “a gentleman,” to judge from his manners, his language, and his hands, which are too delicate ever to have done any rough work. The strange thing about him is that he thinks himself possessed by the devil—or rather, as far as I can make out, he thinks he is the devil. He must have had some odd adventure or other, for when he is dreaming or half dozing, a state into which he often falls (and then he talks to himself as if I weren’t there), he continually speaks of hands being cut off, and as at those times he gets extremely excited and rolls his eyes in an alarming manner, I take care that there shall be no weapons within reach. The rest of the time, he is a good fellow and an agreeable companion—which I appreciate, as you can imagine, after months of solitude. Besides which, he is of great assistance to me in my work. He never speaks of his past life, so that I can’t succeed in discovering who he can be. He is particularly interested in plants and insects, and sometimes in his talk shows signs of being remarkably well educated. He seems to like staying with me and doesn’t speak of leaving; I have decided to let him stay as long as he likes. I was wanting a help; all things considered, he has come just in the nick of time.

“ ‘A hideous Negro who came up the Casamance with him, and to whom I have talked a little, speaks of a woman who was with him, and who, I gather, must have been drowned in the river one day when their boat upset. I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that my companion had had a finger in the accident. In this country, if one wants to get rid of anyone, there is a great choice of means, and no one ever asks a question. If one day I learn anything more, I’ll write it to you—or rather I’ll tell you about it when you come out. Yes, I know, there’s your service.… Well, I’ll wait. For you may be sure that if ever you want to see me again, you will have to make up your mind to come out. As for me, I want to come back less and less. I lead a life here which I like and which suits me down to the ground. My business is flourishing, and that badge of civilization—the starched collar—appears to me a strait waistcoat which I shall never be able to endure again.

“ ‘I enclose a money order which you can do what you like with. The last was for Rachel. Keep this for yourself.… ’ ”

“The rest isn’t interesting,” said Armand.

Olivier gave the letter back without saying anything. It never occurred to him that the murderer it spoke of was his brother. Vincent had given no news of himself for a long time; his parents thought he was in America. To tell the truth, Olivier did not trouble much about him.