The Counterfeiters I : Edouard’s Journal: Oscar Molinier

Son retour à Paris ne lui causa point de plaisir.

FLAUBERT: L’Education Sentimentale.

Sept. 22nd.—Hot; bored. Have come back to Paris a week too soon. My eagerness always makes me respond before I am summoned. Curiosity rather than zeal; desire to anticipate. I have never been able to come to terms with my thirst.

Took Boris to see his grandfather. Sophroniska, who had been the day before to prepare him, tells me that Madame de La Pérouse has gone into the home. Heavens! What a relief!

I left the little boy on the landing, after ringing the bell, thinking it would be more discreet not to be present at the first meeting; I was afraid of the old fellow’s thanks. Questioned the boy later on, but could get nothing out of him. Sophroniska, when I saw her later, told me he had not said anything to her either. When she went to fetch him after an hour’s interval, as had been arranged, a maid-servant opened the door; she found the old gentleman sitting in front of a game of draughts and the child sulking by himself in a corner at the other end of the room.

“It’s odd,” said La Pérouse, very much out of countenance, “he seemed to be amused, but all of a sudden he got tired of it. I am afraid he is a little wanting in patience.”

It was a mistake to leave them alone together too long.

Sept. 27th.—This morning met Molinier under the arcades of the Odéon. Pauline and George are not coming back till the day after to-morrow. If Molinier, who has been by himself in Paris since yesterday, was as bored as I am, it’s no wonder that he seemed enchanted to see me. We went and sat down in the Luxembourg, till it should be time for lunch, and agreed to take it together.

Molinier, when he is with me, affects a rather jocose—even, at times, a kind of rakish tone—which he no doubt thinks the correct thing to please an artist. A desire too to show that he is still full of beans.

“At heart,” he declared, “I am a passionate man.” I understand that what he really meant was that he was a libidinous one. I smiled, as one would if one heard a woman declare she had very fine legs—a smile which signifies “I never doubted it for a moment.” Until that day I had only seen the magistrate; the man at last threw aside his toga.

I waited till we were seated at table at Foyot’s before speaking to him of Olivier; I told him that I had recently had news of him through one of his schoolfellows, and that I had heard he was travelling in Corsica with the Comte de Passavant.

“Yes, he’s a friend of Vincent’s: he offered to take him with him. As Olivier had just passed his bachot rather brilliantly, his mother thought it would be hard to refuse him such a pleasure.… The Comte de Passavant is a writer. I expect you know him.”

I did not conceal that I had no great liking for either his books or his person.

“Amongst confrères one is sometimes apt to be a little severe in one’s judgments,” he retorted. “I tried to read his last novel; certain critics think very highly of it. I didn’t see much in it myself; but it’s not my line, you know.… ” Then as I expressed my fear as to the influence Passavant might have over Olivier:

“In reality,” he added in his rather woolly way, “I personally didn’t approve of this expedition. But it’s no good not realizing that when they get to a certain age our children escape from our control. It’s in the nature of things and there’s nothing to be done. Pauline would like to go on hanging over them for ever. She’s like all mothers. I sometimes say to her: ‘But you worry your sons to death. Leave them alone. It’s you who put things into their heads with all your questions.… ’ For my part I consider it does no good to watch over them too long. The important thing is that a few good principles should be inculcated into them during their early education. The important thing above all is that they should come of a good stock. Heredity, my dear friend, heredity triumphs over everything. There are certain bad lots whom nothing can improve—the predestined, we call them. Those must have a tight hand kept over them. But when one has to do with well-conditioned natures, one can let them go a bit easy.”

“But you were telling me,” I insisted, “that you didn’t approve of Olivier’s being carried off in this way.”

“Oh! approve … approve!” he said with his nose in his plate, “there’s no need for my approval. There are many households, you know—and those the most united—where it isn’t always the husband who settles things. But you aren’t married; such things don’t interest you.… ”

“Oh!” said I, laughing, “but I’m a novelist.”

“Then you have no doubt remarked that it isn’t always from weakness of character that a man allows himself to be led by his wife.”

“Yes,” I conceded by way of flattery, “there are strong and even dominating men whom one discovers to be of a lamb-like docility in their married life.”

“And do you know why?” he went on. “Nine times out of ten, when the husband submits to his wife, it is because he has something to be forgiven him. A virtuous woman, my dear fellow, takes advantage of everything. If the man stoops for a second, there she is sitting on his shoulders. Oh! we poor husbands are sometimes greatly to be pitied. When we are young, our one wish is to have chaste wives, without a thought of how much their virtue is going to cost us.”

I gazed at Molinier, sitting there with his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. The poor man little suspected how naturally his backbone fell into the stooping attitude of which he complained; he kept mopping his forehead, ate a great deal—not like a gourmet, but like a glutton—and seemed particularly to appreciate the old Burgundy which we had ordered. Happy to feel himself listened to, understood, and, no doubt he thought, approved, he overflowed in confessions.

“In my capacity as magistrate,” he continued, “I have known women who only lent themselves to their husbands against the grain of their heart and senses … and who yet are indignant when the poor wretch who has been repulsed, seeks his provender elsewhere.”

The magistrate had begun his sentence in the past; the husband finished it in the present, with an unmistakable allusion to himself. He added sententiously between two mouthfuls:

“Other people’s appetites easily appear excessive when one doesn’t share them.” He drank a long draught of wine, then: “And this explains, my dear friend, how a husband loses the direction of his household.”

I understood, indeed—it was clear under the apparent incoherence of his talk—his desire to make the responsibility of his own shortcomings fall upon his wife’s virtue. Creatures as disjointed as this puppet, I said to myself, need every scrap of their egoism to bind together the disconnected elements of which they are formed. A moment’s self-forgetfulness, and they would fall to pieces. He was silent. I felt I must pour a few reflections over him, as one pours oil on an engine that has accomplished a bout of work; and to set him going again I remarked:

“Fortunately Pauline is intelligent.”

He prolonged his “ye-e-s” till it turned into a query; then:

“But still there are things she doesn’t understand. However intelligent a woman may be, you know … Still, I must admit that in the circumstances I didn’t manage very cleverly. I began telling her about a little affair of mine at a time when I thought—when I was absolutely convinced—that it wouldn’t go any further. It did go further … and Pauline’s suspicions too. It was a mistake to put her on the ‘qui vive,’ as people say. I have been obliged to hide things from her—to tell lies.… That’s what comes of not holding one’s tongue to begin with. It’s not my fault. I’m naturally confiding.… But Pauline’s jealousy is alarming. You can’t imagine how careful I have had to be.”

“Was it long ago?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s been going on for about five years now; and I flatter myself I had completely reassured her. But now the whole thing has to begin all over again. What do you think! When I got back home the day before yesterday … Suppose we order another bottle of Pommard, eh?”

“Not for me, please.”

“Perhaps I could have a half bottle. I’ll go home and take a little nap after lunch. I feel this heat so.… Well, I was telling you that the day before yesterday, when I got back, I went to my writing desk to put some papers away. I pulled open the drawer where I had hidden … the person in question’s letters. Imagine my stupefaction, my dear fellow; the drawer was empty! Deuce take it! I see exactly what has happened; about a fortnight ago, Pauline came up to Paris with George, to go to the wedding of the daughter of one of my colleagues. I wasn’t able to attend it myself; I was away in Holland.… And besides, functions of that kind are women’s business. Well, there she was, with nothing to do, in an empty flat; under pretence of putting things straight … you know what women are like—always rather curious … she began nosing about … oh! intending no ill—I’m not blaming her. But Pauline has always had a perfect mania for tidying.… Well, what on earth am I to say to her, now that she’s got all the proofs? If only the silly little thing didn’t call me by my Christian name! Such a united couple! When I think what I’m in for! …”

The poor man stuck in the slough of his confidences. He dabbed his forehead—fanned himself. I had drunk much less than he. The heart does not furnish compassion at command; I merely felt disgust for him. I could put up with him as the father of a family (though it was painful to me to think that he was Olivier’s father), as a respectable, honest, retired bourgeois; but as a man in love, I could only imagine him ridiculous. I was especially made uncomfortable by the clumsiness and triviality of his words, of his pantomime; neither his face nor his voice seemed suited to the feelings he expressed; it was like a double bass trying to produce the effects of an alto; his instrument brought out nothing but squeaks.

“You said that she had George with her.… ”

“Yes; she didn’t want to leave him at the sea-side alone. But naturally in Paris he wasn’t in her pocket the whole time.… Why, my dear fellow, in twenty-six years of married life I have never had the smallest scene, the slightest altercation.… When I think of what’s in store for me!… for Pauline’s coming back in two days.… Oh! I say, let’s talk of something else. Well, what do you think of Vincent? The Prince of Monaco—a cruise.… By Jove!… What! didn’t you know? … Yes; he has gone out in charge of soundings and deep-sea fishing near the Azores. Ah! there’s no need to be anxious about him, I assure you. He’ll make his way all right, without help from anyone.”

“His health?”

“Completely restored. With his intelligence, I think he is on the high road to becoming famous. The Comte de Passavant made no bones about saying that he considered him one of the most remarkable men he ever met. He even said ‘the most remarkable’ … but one must make allowances for exaggeration.”

The meal was finished; he lit a cigar.

“May I ask you,” he went on, “who the friend is who gave you news of Olivier? I must tell you that I attach particular importance to the company my children keep. I consider that it’s a thing it’s impossible to pay too much attention to. My sons fortunately have a natural tendency to make friends with only the best people. Vincent, you see, with his prince; Olivier with the Comte de Passavant.… As for George, he has been going about at Houlgate with one of his schoolfellows—a young Adamanti—he’s to be at the Vedel-Azaïs school next term too; a boy in whom one can have complete confidence; his father is senator for Corsica. But just see how prudent one has to be! Olivier had a friend who seemed to belong to an excellent family—a certain Bernard Profitendieu. I must tell you that old Profitendieu is a colleague of mine; a most distinguished man. I have particular esteem for him. But … (between ourselves) … it has just come to my knowledge that he is not the father of the boy who bears his name! What do you say to that?”

“Young Bernard Profitendieu is the very person who spoke to me about Olivier,” I said.

Molinier drew a few deep puffs from his cigar and raised his eyebrows very high, so that his forehead was covered with wrinkles:

“I had rather Olivier saw as little as possible of that young fellow. I have heard the most deplorable things about him—not that I’m much astonished at that. We must admit that there’s no grounds for expecting any good from a boy who has been born in such unfortunate conditions. I don’t mean to say that a natural child mayn’t have great qualities—and even virtues; but the fruit of lawlessness and insubordination must necessarily be tainted with the germs of anarchy. Yes, my dear friend, what was bound to happen has happened. Young Bernard has suddenly left the shelter of the family which he ought never to have entered. He has gone “to live his life,” as Emile Augier says; live Heaven knows how or where. Poor Profitendieu, when he told me about this extravagant behaviour, seemed exceedingly upset about it. I made him understand that he ought not to take it so much to heart. In reality the boy’s departure puts everything to rights again.”

I protested that I knew Bernard well enough to vouch for his being a charming, well-behaved boy. (Needless to say I took good care not to mention the affair of the suit-case.) But Molinier only went on all the more vigorously.

“So! So! I see I must tell you more.”

Then, leaning forward and speaking in a whisper:

“My colleague Profitendieu has recently had to investigate an exceedingly shady and disagreeable affair, both on its own account and because of the scandalous consequences it may entail. It’s a preposterous story and one would be only too glad if one could disbelieve it.… Imagine, my dear fellow, a regular concern of organized prostitution, in fact of a … no, I don’t want to use bad words; let’s say a tea-shop, with this particularly scandalous feature, that its habitués are mostly, almost exclusively, very young schoolboys. I tell you it’s incredible. The children certainly don’t realize the gravity of their acts, for they hardly attempt to conceal themselves. It takes place when they come out of school. They take tea, they talk, they amuse themselves with the ladies; and the play is carried further in the rooms which adjoin the tea rooms. Of course not everyone is allowed in. One has to be introduced, initiated. Who stands the expense of these orgies? Who pays the rent? It wouldn’t have been very difficult to find out; but the investigations had to be conducted with extreme prudence, for fear of learning too much, of being carried further than one meant, of being forced to prosecute and compromise the respectable families whose children are suspected of being the principal clients of the affair. I did what I could therefore to moderate Profitendieu’s zeal. He charged into the business like a bull, without suspecting that with the first stroke of his horns … (oh! I’m sorry; I didn’t say it on purpose; ha! ha! ha! how funny! It came out quite unintentionally) … he ran the risk of sticking his own son. Fortunately the holidays broke everything up. The schoolboys were scattered and I hope the whole business will peter out, be hushed up after a warning or so and a few descreet penalties.”

“Are you quite sure Bernard Profitendieu was mixed up in it?”

“Not absolutely, but …”

“What makes you think so?”

“First, the fact that he is a natural child. You don’t suppose that a boy of his age runs away from home without having touched the lowest depths?… And then I have an idea that Profitendieu was seized with some suspicions, for his zeal suddenly cooled down; more than that, he seemed to be backing out, and the last time I asked him how the affair was going on he seemed embarrassed: ‘I think, after all that nothing will come of it,’ he said and hastily changed the subject. Poor Profitendieu! I must say he doesn’t deserve it. He’s an honest man, and what’s rarer perhaps, a good fellow. By the way, his daughter has just married exceedingly well. I wasn’t able to go to the wedding because I was in Holland, but Pauline and George came back on purpose. Did I tell you that before? It’s time I went and had my nap.… What! really? You want to pay it all? No, no! You mustn’t. Bachelors—old friends—go shares.… No use? Well! well! Good-bye! Don’t forget that Pauline is coming back in two days. Come and see us. And don’t call me Molinier. Won’t you say Oscar?… I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time.”

This evening a note from Rachel, Laura’s sister:

“I have something very serious to say to you. Could you, without inconvenience, look in at the school tomorrow afternoon? It would be doing me a great service.”

If she had wanted to speak about Laura, she wouldn’t have waited so long. This is the first time she has written to me.