The Counterfeiters I : The Luxembourg Gardens

“The time has now come for me to hear a step in the passage,” said Bernard to himself. He raised his head and listened. Nothing! His father and elder brother were away at the law-courts; his mother paying visits; his sister at a concert; as for his small brother Caloub—the youngest—he was safely shut up for the whole afternoon in his day-school. Bernard Profitendieu had stayed at home to cram for his “bachot”;1 he had only three more weeks before him. His family respected his solitude—not so the demon! Although Bernard had stripped off his coat, he was stifling. The window that looked on to the street stood open, but it let in nothing but heat. His forehead was streaming. A drop of perspiration came dripping from his nose and fell on to the letter he was holding in his hand.

“Pretending to be a tear!” thought he. “But it’s better to sweat than to weep.”

Yes; the date was conclusive. No one could be in question but him, Bernard himself. Impossible to doubt it. The letter was addressed to his mother—a love-letter—seventeen years old, unsigned.

“What can this initial stand for? A ‘V’? It might just as well be an ‘N.’ … Would it be becoming to question my mother?… We must give her credit for good taste. I’m free to imagine he’s a prince. It wouldn’t advance matters much to know that I was the son of a rapscallion. There’s no better cure for the fear of taking after one’s father, than not to know who he is. The mere fact of enquiry binds one. The only thing to do is to welcome deliverance and not attempt to go any deeper. Besides which, I’ve had sufficient for the day.”

Bernard folded the letter up again. It was on paper of the same size and shape as the other twelve in the packet. They were tied up with pink ribbon which there had been no need for him to untie, and which he was easily able to slip round the bundle again to keep it tight. He put the bundle back into the casket and the casket back into the drawer of the console-table. The drawer was not open. It had yielded its secret from above. Bernard fitted together the pieces of wood which formed its top, and which were made to support a heavy slab of onyx, re-adjusted the slab carefully and gently, and put back in their places on the top, a pair of glass candelabra and a cumbersome clock, which he had been amusing himself by repairing.

The clock struck four. He had set it to the right time.

“His Honour the judge and his learned son the barrister will not be back before six. I shall have time. When His Honour comes in he must find a letter from me on his writing table, informing him in eloquent terms of my departure. But before I write it, I feel that it’s absolutely essential to air my mind a little. I must talk to my dear Olivier, and make certain of a perch—at any rate a temporary one. Olivier, my friend, the time has come for me to put your good-fellowship to the test, and for you to show your mettle. The fine thing about our friendship so far has been that we have never made any use of one another. Pooh! it can’t be unpleasant to ask a favour that’s amusing to grant. The tiresome thing is that Olivier won’t be alone. Never mind! I shall have to take him aside. I want to appal him by my calm. It’s when things are most extraordinary that I feel most at home.”

The street where Bernard Profitendieu had lived until then was quite close to the Luxembourg Gardens. There, in the path that overlooks the Medici fountains, some of his schoolfellows were in the habit of meeting every Wednesday afternoon, between four and six. The talk was of art, philosophy, sport, politics and literature. Bernard walked to the gardens quickly, but as soon as he caught sight of Olivier Molinier through the railings, he slackened his pace. The gathering that day was more numerous than usual—because of the fine weather, no doubt. Some of the boys who were there were newcomers, whom Bernard had never seen before. Every one of them, as soon as he was in company with the others, lost his naturalness and began to act a part.

Olivier blushed when he saw Bernard coming up. He left the side of a young woman to whom he had been talking and walked away a little abruptly. Bernard was his most intimate friend, so that he took great pains not to show that he liked being with him; sometimes he would even pretend not to see him.

Before joining him, Bernard had to run the gauntlet of several groups and, as he himself affected not to be looking for Olivier, he lingered among the others.

Four of his schoolfellows were surrounding a little fellow with a beard and a pince-nez, who was perceptibly older than the rest. This was Dhurmer. He was holding a book and addressing one boy in particular, though at the same time he was obviously delighted that the others were listening.

“I can’t help it,” he was saying, “I’ve got as far as page thirty without coming across a single colour or a single word that makes a picture. He speaks of a woman and I don’t know whether her dress was red or blue. As far as I’m concerned, if there are no colours, it’s useless, I can see nothing.” And feeling that the less he was taken in earnest, the more he must exaggerate, he repeated: “—absolutely nothing!”

Bernard stopped attending; he thought it would be ill-mannered to walk away too quickly, but he began to listen to some others who were quarrelling behind him and who had been joined by Olivier after he had left the young woman; one of them was sitting on a bench, reading L’Action Française.

Amongst all these youths how grave Olivier Molinier looks! And yet he was one of the youngest. His face, his expression, which are still almost a child’s, reveal a mind older than his years. He blushes easily. There is something tender about him. But however gracious his manners, some kind of secret reserve, some kind of sensitive delicacy, keeps his schoolfellows at a distance. This is a grief to him. But for Bernard, it would be a greater grief still.

Molinier, like Bernard, had stayed a minute or two with each of the groups—out of a wish to be agreeable, not that anything he heard interested him. He leant over the reader’s shoulder, and Bernard, without turning round, heard him say:

“You shouldn’t read the papers—they’ll give you apoplexy.”

The other replied tartly: “As for you, the very name of Maurras makes you turn green.”

A third boy asked, deridingly: “Do Maurras’s articles amuse you?”

And the first answered: “They bore me bloody well stiff, but I think he’s right.”

Then a fourth, whose voice Bernard didn’t recognize: “Unless a thing bores you, you think there’s no depth in it.”

“You seem to think that one’s only got to be stupid to be funny.”

“Come along,” whispered Bernard, suddenly seizing Olivier by the arm and drawing him aside. “Answer quickly. I’m in a hurry. You told me you didn’t sleep on the same floor as your parents?”

“I’ve shown you the door of my room. It opens straight on to the staircase, half a floor below our flat.”

“Didn’t you say your brother slept with you?”

“George. Yes.”

“Are you two alone?”


“Can the youngster hold his tongue?”

“If necessary.”

“Listen. I’ve left home—or at any rate I’m going to this evening. I don’t know where to go yet. Can you take me in for one night?”

Olivier turned very pale. His emotion was so great that he was hardly able to look at Bernard.

“Yes,” said he, “but don’t come before eleven. Mamma comes down to say good-night to us and lock the door every evening.”

“But then …?”

Olivier smiled. “I’ve got another key. You must knock softly, so as not to wake George if he’s asleep.”

“Will the concierge let me in?”

“I’ll warn him. Oh, I’m on very good terms with him. It’s he who gives me the key. Good-bye! Till to-night!”

They parted without shaking hands. While Bernard was walking away, reflecting on the letter he meant to write for the magistrate to find when he came in, Olivier, not wishing it to be thought that Bernard was the only person he liked talking to in private, went up to Lucien Bercail, who was sitting by himself as usual, for he was generally left a little out of it by the others. Olivier would be very fond of him, if he didn’t prefer Bernard. Lucien is as timid as Bernard is spirited. He cannot hide his weakness; he seems to live only with his head and his heart. He hardly ever dares to make advances, but when he sees Olivier coming towards him, he is beside himself with joy; Lucien writes poetry—everyone suspects as much; but I am pretty sure that Olivier is the only person to whom Lucien talks of his ideas. They walked together to the edge of the terrace.

“What I should like,” said Lucien, “would be to tell the story—no, not of a person, but of a place—well, for instance, of a garden path, like this—just tell what happens in it from morning to evening. First of all, come the children’s nurses and the children, and the babies’ nurses with ribbons in their caps.… No, no … first of all, people who are grey all over and ageless and sexless and who come to sweep the path, and water the grass, and change the flowers—in fact, to set the stage and get ready the scenery before the opening of the gates. D’you see? Then the nurses come in … the kids make mud-pies and squabble; the nurses smack them. Then the little boys come out of school; then there are the workgirls; then the poor people who eat their scrap upon a bench, and later people come to meet each other, and others avoid each other, and others go by themselves—dreamers. And then when the band plays and the shops close, there’s the crowd.… Students, like us; in the evening, lovers who embrace—others who cry at parting. And at the end, when the day is over, there’s an old couple … And suddenly the drum beats. Closing time! Everyone goes off. The play is ended. Do you understand? Something which gives the impression of the end of everything—of death … but without mentioning death, of course.”

“Yes, I see it all perfectly,” said Olivier, who was thinking of Bernard and had not listened to a word.

“And that’s not all,” went on Lucien, enthusiastically; “I should like to have a kind of epilogue and show the same garden path at night, after everyone has gone, deserted and much more beautiful than in the day-time. In the deep silence; all the natural sounds intensified—the sound of the fountain, and the wind in the trees, and the song of a night-bird. First of all, I thought that I’d bring in some ghosts to wander about—or perhaps some statues—but I think that would be more commonplace. What do you say?”

“No, no! No statues, no statues!” said Olivier absent-mindedly; and then, seeing the other’s disappointed face: “Well, old fellow, if you bring it off, it’ll be splendid!” he exclaimed warmly.

1 Schoolboy’s slang for the baccalauréat examination.