The Counterfeiters II : Edouard’s Journal: Little Boris

I have had no difficulty in finding little Boris. The day after our arrival, he appeared on the hotel terrace and began looking at the mountains through a telescope which stands outside, mounted on a swivel for the use of the tourists. I recognized him at once. A little girl, rather older than Boris, joined him after a short time. I was sitting near by in the drawing-room, of which the French window was standing open, and I did not lose a word of their conversation. Though I wanted very much to speak to him, I thought it more prudent to wait till I could make the acquaintance of the little girl’s mother—a Polish woman doctor, who is in charge of Boris and keeps very careful watch over him. Little Bronja is an exquisite creature; she must be about fifteen. She wears her fair hair in two thick plaits, which reach to her waist; the expression of her eyes and the sound of her voice are more angelic than human. I write down the two children’s conversation:

“Boris, Mamma had rather we didn’t touch the telescope. Won’t you come for a walk?”

“Yes, I will. No, I won’t.”

The two contradictory sentences were uttered in the same breath. Bronja only answered the second:

“Why not?”

“Because it’s too hot, it’s too cold.” He had come away from the telescope.

“Oh, Boris, do be nice! You know Mamma would like us to go out. Where’s your hat?”

“Vibroskomenopatof. Blaf blaf.”

“What does that mean?”


“Then why do you say it?”

“So that you shouldn’t understand.”

“If it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t matter about not understanding it.”

“But if it did mean something, anyhow you wouldn’t be able to understand.”

“When one talks it’s in order to be understood.”

“Shall we play at making words in order to understand them only us?”

“First of all, try to speak good grammar.”

“My mamma can speak French, English, Roumanian, Turkish, Polish, Italoscope, Perroquese and Xixitou.”

All this was said very fast, in a kind of lyrical ecstasy. Bronja began to laugh.

“Oh, Boris, why are you always saying things that aren’t true?”

“Why do you never believe what I say?”

“I believe it when it’s true.”

“How do you know when it’s true? I believed you the other day when you told me about the angels. I say, Bronja, do you think that, if I were to pray very hard, I should see them too?”

“Perhaps you’ll see them if you get out of the habit of telling lies, and if God wants to show them to you; but God won’t show them to you if you pray to him only for that. There are heaps of beautiful things we should see if we weren’t too naughty.”

“Bronja, you aren’t naughty; that’s why you can see the angels. I shall always be naughty.”

“Why don’t you try not to be? Shall we go to—” some place whose name I didn’t know—“and pray together to God and the Blessèd Virgin to help you not to be naughty?”

“Yes. No; listen—let’s take a stick; you shall hold one end and I the other. I will shut my eyes, and I promise not to open them until we get to the place.”

They walked away, and as they were going down the terrace steps I heard Boris again:

“Yes, no, not that end. Wait till I’ve wiped it.”


“I’ve touched it.”

Mme. Sophroniska came up to me as I was sitting alone, just finishing my early breakfast and wondering how I could enter into conversation with her. I was surprised to see that she was holding my last book in her hand; she asked me with the most affable smile whether it was the author whom she had the pleasure of speaking to; then she immediately launched upon a long appreciation of my book. Her judgment—both praise and criticism—seemed to me more intelligent than what I am accustomed to hearing, though her point of view is anything but literary. She told me she was almost exclusively interested in questions of psychology and in anything that may shed a new light on the human soul. “But how rare it is,” she added, “to find a poet, or dramatist or novelist, who is not satisfied with a ready-made psychology—” the only kind, I told her, that satisfies their readers.

Little Boris has been confided to her for the holidays by his mother. I took care not to let her know my reasons for being interested in him.

“He is very delicate,” said Mme. Sophroniska. “His mother’s companionship is not at all good for him. She wanted to come to Saas-Fée with us, but I would only consent to look after the child on condition that she left him entirely to my care; otherwise it would be impossible to answer for his being cured. Just imagine,” she went on, “she keeps the poor little thing in a state of continual excitement—the very thing to develop the worst kind of nervous troubles in him. She has been obliged to earn her living since his father’s death. She used to be a pianist and, I must say, a marvellous performer; but her playing was too subtle to please the ordinary public. She decided to take to singing at concerts, at casinos—to go on the stage. She used to take Boris with her to her dressing-room; I believe the artificial atmosphere of the theatre greatly contributed to upset the child’s balance. His mother is very fond of him, but to tell the truth it is most desirable that he shouldn’t live with her.”

“What is the matter with him exactly?” I asked.

She began to laugh:

“Is it the name of his illness you want to know? Oh, you wouldn’t be much the wiser if I were to give you a fine scientific name for it.”

“Just tell me what he suffers from.”

“He suffers from a number of little troubles, tics, manias, which are the sign of what people call a ‘nervous child,’ and which are usually treated by rest, open air and hygiene. It is certain that a robust organism would not allow these disturbances to show themselves. But if debility favours them, it does not exactly cause them. I think their origin can always be traced to some early shock, brought about by a circumstance it is important to discover. The sufferer, as soon as he becomes conscious of this cause, is half cured. But this cause, more often than not, escapes his memory, as if it were concealing itself in the shadow of his illness; it is in this refuge that I look for it, so as to bring it out into the daylight—into the field of vision, I mean. I believe that the look of a clear-sighted eye cleanses the mind, as a ray of light purifies infected water.”

I repeated to Sophroniska the conversation I had overheard the day before, from which it appeared to me that Boris was very far from being cured.

“It’s because I am far from knowing all that I need to know of Boris’s past. It’s only a short while ago that I began my treatment.”

“Of what does it consist?”

“Oh, simply in letting him talk. Every day I spend one or two hours with him. I question him, but very little. The important thing is to gain his confidence. I know a good many things already. I divine a good many others. But the child is still on the defensive; he is ashamed; if I insisted too strongly, tried to force his confidence too quickly, I should be going against the very thing I want to arrive at—a complete surrender. It would set his back up. So long as I shall not have vanquished his reserve, his modesty …”

An inquisition of this kind seemed to me so much in the nature of an assault that it was with difficulty I refrained from protesting; but my curiosity carried the day.

“Do you mean that you expect the child to make you any shameful revelations?”

It was she who protested.

“Oh, shameful? There’s no more shame in it than allowing oneself to be sounded. I need to know everything and particularly what is most carefully hidden. I must bring Boris to make a complete confession; until I can do that, I shall not be able to cure him.”

“You suspect then that he has a confession to make? Are you quite sure—forgive me—that you won’t yourself suggest what you want him to confess?”

“That is a preoccupation which must never leave me, and it is for that reason I work so slowly. I have seen clumsy magistrates who have unintentionally prompted a child to give evidence that was pure invention from beginning to end, and the child, under the pressure of the magistrate’s examination, tells lies in perfect good faith and makes people believe in entirely imaginary misdeeds. My part is to suggest nothing. Extraordinary patience is needed.”

“It seems to me that in such cases the value of the method depends upon the value of the operator.”

“I shouldn’t have dared say so. I assure you that after a little practice one gets extraordinarily clever at it; it’s a kind of divination—intuition, if you prefer. However, one sometimes goes off on a wrong track; the important thing is not to persist in it. Do you know how all our conversations begin? Boris starts by telling me what he has dreamt the night before.”

“How do you know he doesn’t invent?”

“And even if he did invent!… All the inventions of a diseased imagination reveal something.”

She was silent for a moment or two, and then: “ ‘Invention,’ ‘diseased imagination’ … no, no, that’s not it. Words betray one’s meaning. Boris dreams aloud in my presence. Every morning he consents to remain during one hour in that state of semi-somnolence in which the images which present themselves to us escape from the control of our reason. They no longer group and associate themselves according to ordinary logic, but according to unforeseen affinities; above all, they answer to a mysterious inward compulsion—which is the very thing I want to discover; and the ramblings of this child are far more instructive than the most intelligent analysis of the most conscious of minds could be. Many things escape the reason, and a person who should attempt to understand life by merely using his reason would be like a man trying to take hold of a flame with the tongs. Nothing remains but a bit of charred wood, which immediately stops flaming.”

She was again silent and began to turn over the pages of my book.

“How very little you penetrate into the human soul!” she cried; then she laughed and added abruptly:

“Oh, I don’t mean you in particular; when I say you, I mean novelists in general. Most of your characters seem to be built on piles; they have neither foundations nor sub-soil. I really think there’s more truth to be found in the poets; everything which is created by the intelligence alone is false. But now I am talking of what isn’t my business.… Do you know what puzzles me in Boris? I believe him to be exceedingly pure.”

“Why should that puzzle you?”

“Because I don’t know where to look for the source of the evil. Nine times out of ten a derangement like his has its origin in some sort of ugly secret.”

“Such a one exists in every one of us, perhaps,” said I, “but it doesn’t make us all ill, thank Heaven!”

At that Mme. Sophroniska rose; she had just seen Bronja pass by the window.

“Look!” said she, pointing her out to me; “there is Boris’s real doctor. She is looking for me; I must leave you; but I shall see you again, shan’t I?”

For that matter, I understand what Sophroniska reproaches the novel for not giving her; but in this case, certain reasons of art escape her—higher reasons, which make me think that a good novelist will never be made out of a good naturalist.

I have introduced Laura to Mme. Sophroniska. They seem to take to each other, and I am glad of it. I have fewer scruples about keeping to myself when I know they are chatting together. I am sorry that Bernard has no companion of his own age; but at any rate the preparation for his examination keeps him occupied for several hours a day. I have been able to start work again on my novel.