The Counterfeiters XVIII : “The Strong Men”

It was only a month later that Boris heard of Bronja’s death from Madame Sophroniska, who came to see him at the pension. Since his friend’s last sad letter, Boris had been without news. Madame Sophroniska came into Madame Vedel’s drawing-room one day when he was sitting there, as was his habit during recreation hour, and as she was in deep mourning, he understood everything before she said a word. They were alone in the room. Sophroniska took Boris in her arms and they cried together. She could only repeat: “My poor little thing.… My poor little thing …” as if Boris was the person to be pitied, and as though she had forgotten her own maternal grief in the presence of the immense grief of the little boy.

Madame Vedel, who had been told of Madame Sophroniska’s arrival, came in, and Boris, still convulsed with sobs, drew aside to let the two ladies talk to each other. He would have liked them not to speak of Bronja. Madame Vedel, who had not known her, spoke of her as she would of any ordinary child. Even the questions which she asked seemed to Boris tactless and commonplace. He would have liked Sophroniska not to answer them and it hurt him to see her exhibiting her grief. He folded his away and hid it like a treasure.

It was certainly of him that Bronja was thinking when, a few days before her death, she said to her mother:

“Do tell me, Mamma.… What is meant exactly by an idyll?”

These words pierced Boris’s heart and he would have liked to be the only one to hear them.

Madame Vedel offered her guest tea. There was some for Boris, too; he swallowed it hastily as recreation was finishing; then he said good-bye to Sophroniska, who was leaving next day for Poland on business.

The whole world seemed a desert to him. His mother was too far away and always absent; his grandfather too old; even Bernard, with whom he was beginning to feel at home, had gone away.… His was a tender soul; he had need of someone at whose feet he could lay his nobility, his purity, as an offering. He was not proud enough to take pleasure in pride. He had loved Bronja too much to be able to hope that he would ever again find that reason for loving which he had lost in her. Without her, how could he believe in the angels he longed to see? Heaven itself was emptied.

Boris went back to the schoolroom as one might cast oneself into hell. No doubt he might have made a friend of Gontran de Passavant; Gontran is a good, kind boy, and they are both exactly the same age; but nothing distracts him from his work. There is not much harm in Philippe Adamanti either; he would be quite willing to be fond of Boris; but he is under Ghéridanisol’s thumb to such an extent that he does not dare have a single feeling of his own; he follows Ghéridanisol’s lead, and Ghéridanisol is always quickening his pace; and Ghéridanisol cannot endure Boris. His musical voice, his grace, his girlish look—everything about him exasperates him. The very sight of Boris seems to inspire him with that instinctive aversion which, in a herd, makes the strong fall ruthlessly upon the weak. It may be that he has listened to his cousin’s teaching and that his hatred is somewhat theoretical, for in his mind it assumes the shape of reprobation. He finds reasons for being proud of his hatred. He realizes and is amused by Boris’s sensitiveness to this contempt of his, and pretends to be plotting with George and Phiphi, merely in order to see Boris’s eyes grow wide with a kind of anxious interrogation.

“Oh, how inquisitive the fellow is!” says George then. “Shall we tell him?”

“Not worth while. He wouldn’t understand.”

“He wouldn’t understand.” “He wouldn’t dare.” “He wouldn’t know how.” They are constantly casting these phrases at him. He suffers horribly from being kept out of things. He cannot understand, indeed, why they give him the humiliating nick-name of “Wanting”; and is indignant when he understands. What would not he give to be able to prove that he is not such a coward as they think.

“I cannot endure Boris,” said Ghéridanisol one day to Strouvilhou. “Why did you tell me to let him alone? He doesn’t want to be let alone as much as all that. He is always looking in my direction.… The other day he made us all split with laughter because he thought that a woman togged out in her bearskin meant wearing her furs. George jeered at him, and when at last Boris took it in I thought he was going to howl.”

Then Ghéridanisol pressed his cousin with questions and finally Strouvilhou gave him Boris’s talisman and explained its use.

A few days later, when Boris went into the schoolroom, he saw this paper, whose existence he had almost forgotten, lying on his desk. He had put it out of his mind with everything else that related to the “magic” of his early childhood, of which he was now ashamed. He did not at first recognize it, for Ghéridanisol had taken pains to frame the words of the incantation



with a large red and black border adorned with obscene little imps, who, it must be owned, were not at all badly drawn. This decoration gave the paper a fantastic—an infernal appearance, thought Ghéridanisol—which he calculated would be likely to upset Boris.

Perhaps it was done in play, but it succeeded beyond expectation. Boris blushed crimson, said nothing, looked right and left, and failed to see Ghéridanisol, who was watching him from behind the door. Boris had no reason to suspect him, and could not understand how the talisman came to be there; it was as though it had fallen from heaven—or rather, risen up from hell. Boris was old enough to shrug his shoulders, no doubt, at these schoolboy bedevilments; but they stirred troubled waters. Boris took the talisman and slipped it into his pocket. All the rest of the day, the recollection of his “magic” practices haunted him. He struggled until evening with unholy solicitations and then, as there was no longer anything to support him in his struggle, he fell.

He felt that he was going to his ruin, sinking further and further away from Heaven; but he took pleasure in so falling—found in his very fall itself the stuff of his enjoyment.

And yet, in spite of his misery, in the depths of his dereliction, he kept such stores of tenderness, his companions’ contempt caused him suffering so keen, that he would have dared anything, however dangerous, however foolhardy, for the sake of a little consideration.

An opportunity soon offered.

After they had been obliged to give up their traffic in false coins, Ghéridanisol, George and Phiphi did not long remain unoccupied. The ridiculous pranks with which they amused themselves for the first few days were merely stop-gaps. Ghéridanisol’s imagination soon invented something with more stuff to it.

The chief point about The Brotherhood of Strong Men at first consisted in the pleasure of keeping Boris out of it. But it soon occurred to Ghéridanisol that it would be far more perversely effective to let him in; he could be brought in this way to enter into engagements, by means of which he might gradually be led on to the performance of some monstrous act. From that moment Ghéridanisol was possessed by this idea; and as often happens in all kinds of enterprises, he thought much less of the object itself, than of how to bring it about; this seems trifling, but is perhaps the explanation of a considerable number of crimes. For that matter Ghéridanisol was ferocious; but he felt it prudent to hide his ferocity, at any rate from Phiphi. There was nothing cruel about Phiphi; he was convinced up to the last minute that the whole thing was nothing but a joke.

Every brotherhood must have its motto. Ghéridanisol, who had his idea, proposed: “The strong man cares nothing for life.” The motto was adopted and attributed to Cicero. George proposed that, as a sign of fellowship, they should tattoo it on their right arms; but Phiphi, who was afraid of being hurt, declared that good tattooers could only be found in sea-ports. Besides which, Ghéridanisol objected that tattooing would leave an indelible mark which might be inconvenient later on. After all, the sign of fellowship was not an absolute necessity; the members would content themselves with taking a solemn vow.

At the moment of starting the traffic in false coins, there had been talk of pledges, and it was on this occasion that George had produced his father’s letters. But this idea had dropped. Such children as these, very fortunately, have not much consistency. As a matter of fact, they settled practically nothing, either as to “conditions of membership” or as to “necessary qualifications.” What was the use, when it was taken for granted that all three of them were “in it,” and that Boris was “out of it”? On the other hand they decreed that “the person who flinched should be considered as a traitor, and forever excluded from the brotherhood.” Ghéridanisol, who had determined to make Boris come in, laid great stress upon this point.

It had to be admitted that without Boris the game would have been dull and the virtue of the brotherhood without an object. George was better qualified to circumvent him than Ghéridanisol, who risked arousing his suspicions; as for Phiphi, he was not artful enough and had a dislike to compromising himself.

And in all this abominable story, what perhaps seems to me the most monstrous, is this comedy of friendship which George went through. He pretended to be seized with a sudden affection for Boris; until then, he had seemed never so much as to have set eyes on him. And I even wonder whether he was not himself influenced by his own acting, and whether the feelings he feigned were not on the point of becoming sincere—whether they did not actually become sincere as soon as Boris responded to them. George drew near him with an appearance of tenderness; in obedience to Ghéridanisol, he began to talk to him.… And, at the first words, Boris, who was panting for a little esteem and love, was conquered.

Then Ghéridanisol elaborated his plan, and disclosed it to Phiphi and George. His idea was to invent a “test” to which the member on whom the lot fell should be submitted; and in order to set Phiphi at ease, he let it be understood that things would be arranged in such a manner that the lot would be sure to fall on Boris. The object of the test would be to put his courage to the proof.

The exact nature of the test, Ghéridanisol did not at once divulge. He was afraid that Phiphi would offer some resistance.

And, in fact, when Ghéridanisol a little later began to insinuate that old La Pérouse’s pistol would come in handy, “No, no!” he cried, “I won’t agree to that.”

“What an ass you are! It’s only a joke,” retorted George, who was already persuaded.

“And then, you know,” added Ghéri, “if you want to play the fool, you have only got to say so. Nobody wants you.”

Ghéridanisol knew that this argument always told with Phiphi; and as he had prepared the paper on which each member of the brotherhood was to sign his name, he went on: “Only you must say so at once; because once you’ve signed, it’ll be too late.”

“All right. Don’t be in a rage,” said Phiphi. “Pass me the paper.” And he signed.

“As for me, old chap, I’d be delighted,” said George, with his arm fondly wound round Boris’s neck; “it’s Ghéridanisol who won’t have you.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s afraid. He says you’ll funk.”

“What does he know about it?”

“That you’ll wriggle out of it at the first test.”

“We shall see.”

“Would you really dare to draw lots?”

“Wouldn’t I!”

“But do you know what you’re letting yourself in for?”

Boris didn’t know, but he wanted to. Then George explained. “The strong man cares nothing for life.” It remained to be seen.

Boris felt a great swimming in his head; but he nerved himself and, hiding his agitation, “Is it true you’ve signed?” he asked.

“Here! You can see for yourself.” And George held out the paper, so that Boris could read the three names on it.

“Have you …” he began timidly.

“Have we what? …” interrupted George, so brutally that Boris did not dare go on. What he wanted to ask, as George perfectly understood, was whether the others had bound themselves likewise, and whether one could be sure that they wouldn’t funk either.

“No, nothing,” said he; but from that moment he began to doubt them; he began to suspect they were saving themselves and not playing fair. “Well and good!” thought he then; “what do I care if they funk? I’ll show them that I’ve got more pluck than they have.” Then, looking George straight in the eyes: “Tell Ghéri he can count on me.”

“Then you’ll sign?”

Oh! there was no need now—he had given his word. He said simply: “As you please.” And, in a large painstaking hand, he inscribed his name on the accursed paper, underneath the signatures of the three Strong Men.

George brought the paper back in triumph to the two others. They agreed that Boris had behaved very pluckily. They took counsel together.

Of course, the pistol wouldn’t be loaded! For that matter there were no cartridges. Phiphi still had fears, because he had heard it said that sometimes a too violent emotion is sufficient in itself to cause death. His father, he declared, knew of a case when a pretence execution … But George shut him up:

“Your father’s a dago!”

No, Ghéridanisol would not load the pistol. There was no need to. The cartridge which La Pérouse had one day put into it, La Pérouse had not taken out. This is what Ghéridanisol had made sure of, though he took good care not to tell the others.

They put the names in a hat; four little pieces of paper all alike, and folded in the same manner. Ghéridanisol, who was “to draw,” had taken care to write Boris’s name a second time on a fifth, which he kept in his hand; and, as though by chance, his was the name to come out. Boris suspected they were cheating; but he said nothing. What was the use of protesting? He knew that he was lost. He would not have lifted a finger to defend himself; and even if the lot had fallen on one of the others, he would have offered to take his place—so great was his despair.

“Poor old boy! you’ve no luck,” George thought it his duty to say. The tone of his voice rang so false, that Boris looked at him sadly.

“It was bound to happen,” he said.

After that, it was agreed there should be a rehearsal. But as there was a risk of being caught, they settled not to make use of the pistol. They would only take it out of its case at the last moment, for the real performance. Every care must be taken not to give the alarm.

On that day, therefore, they contented themselves with fixing the hour, and the place, which they marked on the floor with a bit of chalk. It was in the class-room, on the right hand of the master’s desk, in a recess, formed by a disused door, which had formerly opened on to the entrance hall. As for the hour, it was to be during preparation. It was to take place in front of all the other boys; it would make them sit up.

They went through the rehearsal when the room was empty, the three conspirators being the only witnesses. But in reality there was not much point in this rehearsal. They simply established the fact that, from Boris’s seat to the spot marked with chalk, there were exactly twelve paces.

“If you aren’t in a panic, you’ll not take one more,” said George.

“I shan’t be in a panic,” said Boris, who was outraged by this incessant doubt. The little boy’s firmness began to impress the other three. Phiphi considered they ought to stop at that. But Ghéridanisol was determined to carry on the joke to the very end.

“Well! to-morrow,” he said, with a peculiar smile, which just curled the corner of his lip.

“Suppose we kissed him!” cried Phiphi, enthusiastically. He was thinking of the accolade of the knights of old; and he suddenly flung his arms round Boris’s neck. It was all Boris could do to keep back his tears when Phiphi planted two hearty, childish kisses on his cheeks. Neither George nor Ghéri followed Phiphi’s example; George thought his behaviour rather unmanly. As for Ghéri, what the devil did he care!…