The Counterfeiters II : Edouard’s Journal: At the Vedels’

Sept. 28th.—I found Rachel standing at the door of the big class-room on the ground floor. Two servants were washing the boards. She herself had a servant’s apron on and was holding a duster in her hand.

“I knew I could count on you,” she said, holding out her hand with a look on her face of tender, resigned sadness, and yet a look that was smiling too, and more touching than beauty itself. “If you aren’t in too great a hurry, the best thing would be for you first to go up and pay grandfather a little visit, and then Mamma. If they heard you had been here without seeing them, they would be hurt. But keep a little time for me; I simply must speak to you. You will find me here; you see, I am superintending the maids’ work.”

Out of a kind of modesty, she never says “my work.” Rachel has effaced herself all her life and nothing could be more discreet, more retiring than her virtue. Abnegation is so natural to her, that not one of her family is grateful to her for her perpetual self-sacrifice. She has the most beautiful woman’s nature that I know.

I went up to the second floor to see old Azaïs. He hardly ever leaves his arm-chair nowadays. He made me sit down beside him and began talking about La Pérouse almost at once.

“It makes me feel anxious to know that he is living all alone, and I should like to persuade him to come and stay here. We are old friends, you know. I went to see him the other day. I am afraid he has been very much affected by his dear wife’s leaving him to go to St. Périne. His maid told me he hardly eats anything. I consider that as a rule we eat too much; but there should be moderation in all things and we should avoid excess in both directions. He thinks it useless to have things cooked only for him; but if he took his meals with us, seeing others eat would encourage him to do the same. Moreover, he would be with his charming little grandson, whom he would otherwise see very little of; for Rue Vavin is quite a long journey away from the Faubourg St. Honoré. And moreover, I shouldn’t much care to let the child go out by himself in Paris. I have known Anatole de La Pérouse for a long time. He was always eccentric. I don’t mean it as a reproach, but he is a little proud by nature, and perhaps he wouldn’t accept my hospitality without wishing to make some return. So I thought I might propose that he should take school preparation; it wouldn’t be tiring, and moreover it would have the advantage of distracting him, of taking him out of himself a little. He is a good mathematician, and if necessary he might give algebra and geometry lessons. Now that he has no pupils left, his furniture and his piano are of no use to him; he ought to give notice; and as coming here would save his rent, I thought we might agree on a little sum for his board and lodging, to put him more at his ease, so that he shouldn’t feel himself too much under an obligation to me. You ought to try and persuade him—and without much delay, for with his poor style of living, I am afraid he may soon become too enfeebled. Moreover, the boys are coming back in two days; so it would be a good thing to know how the matter stands and whether we may count on him—as he may count on us.”

I promised to speak to La Pérouse the following day. As if relieved, he went on at once:

“Oh! by the bye, what a good fellow your young protégé Bernard is! He has kindly offered to make himself useful to us; he spoke of taking preparation in the lower school; but I’m afraid he’s rather young himself and perhaps he might not be able to keep order. I talked to him for a long time and found him most attractive. He is the metal out of which the best Christians are forged. It is assuredly to be regretted that an unfortunate early education has turned aside his soul from the true path. He confessed that he was without faith; but the tone in which he said so filled me with hope. I replied that I trusted I should find in him all the qualities that go to the making of a good little Christian soldier, and that he ought to devote himself to the increase of those talents which God had vouchsafed to grant him. We read the parable together and I think the seed has not fallen on bad ground. He seemed moved by my words and promised to reflect on them.”

Bernard had already given me an account of this interview; I knew what he thought of it, so that I felt the conversation becoming a little painful. I had already got up to go, but old Azaïs, keeping the hand I held out to him in both his, went on:

“Oh! by the bye. I have seen our Laura. I know the dear child passed a whole delightful month with you in the mountains; it seems to have done her a great deal of good. I am happy to think she is with her husband once more; he must have been beginning to suffer from her long absence. It is regrettable that his work would not allow of his joining you.”

I was pulling away my hand to leave, more and more embarrassed, for I didn’t know what Laura might have said, but with a sudden commanding gesture he drew me towards him, and bending forward, whispered in my ear:

“Laura confided her hopes to me; but hush!… She prefers it not to be known yet. I mention it to you because I know that you are in the secret and because we are both discreet. The poor child was quite abashed when she told me and blushed deeply; she is so reserved. As she had gone down on her knees before me, we thanked God together for having, in His goodness, blessed their union.”

I think that Laura might have put off this confidence, which her condition doesn’t as yet necessitate. Had she consulted me, I should have told her to wait until she had seen Douviers before saying anything. Azaïs can’t see an inch in front of his nose, but the rest of the family will not be taken in so easily.

The old fellow went on to execute a few further variations on diverse pastoral themes; then he told me his daughter would be happy to see me and I went downstairs to the Vedels’ floor.

Just re-read the above. In speaking so of Azaïs, it is myself that I render odious. I am fully aware of it, and add these few lines for Bernard’s sake, in case his charming indiscretion leads him to poke his nose again into this note-book. He has only to go on frequenting him a little longer in order to understand what I mean. I like the old fellow very much, and “moreover,” as he says, I respect him; but when I am with him I have the greatest difficulty in containing myself; this doesn’t tend to make me enjoy his society.

I like his daughter, the pastoress, very much. Madame Vedel is like Lamartine’s Elvire—an elderly Elvire. Her conversation is not without charm. She has a frequent habit of leaving her sentences unfinished, which gives her reflections a kind of poetic vagueness. She reaches the infinite by way of the indeterminate and the indefinite. She expects from a future life all that is lacking to her in this one; this enables her to enlarge her hopes boundlessly. The very narrowness of her taking-off ground adds strength to her impetus. Seeing Vedel so rarely enables her to imagine that she loves him. The worthy man is incessantly on the go, in request on all sides, taken up by a hundred and one different ploys—sermons, congresses, visits to the sick, visits to the poor. He can only shake your hand in passing, but it is with all the greater cordiality.

“Too busy to talk to-day.”

“Never mind; we shall meet again in Heaven,” say I; but he hasn’t had time to hear me.

“Not a moment to himself,” sighs Madame Vedel. “If you only knew the things he gets put on his shoulders now that … As people know that he never refuses anything, everyone … When he comes home at night, he is sometimes so tired that I hardly dare speak to him for fear of … He gives so much of himself to others that there’s nothing left for his own family.”

And while she was speaking I remembered some of Vedel’s home-comings at the time I was staying at the pension. I sometimes saw him take his head between his hands and pant aloud for a little respite. But even then I used to think he feared a respite even more than he longed for it, and that nothing more painful could have been accorded him than a little time in which to reflect.

“You’ll take a cup of tea, won’t you?” asked Madame Vedel, as a little maid brought in a loaded tray.

“There’s not enough sugar, Ma’am.”

“Haven’t I said that you must tell Miss Rachel about it? Quick!… Have you let the young gentlemen know tea’s ready?”

“Mr. Bernard and Mr. Boris have gone out.”

“Oh! And Mr. Armand?… Make haste.”

Then, without waiting for the maid to leave the room:

“The poor girl has just arrived from Strasbourg. She has no … She has to be told everything.… Well! What are you waiting for now?”

The maid-servant turned round like a serpent whose tail has been trodden on:

“The tutor’s downstairs; he wanted to come up. He says he won’t go till he’s been paid.”

Madame Vedel’s features assumed an air of tragic boredom:

“How many times must I repeat that I have nothing to do with settling accounts. Tell him to go to Miss Rachel. Go along.… Not a moment’s peace! What can Rachel be thinking of?”

“Aren’t we going to wait tea for her?”

“She never takes tea.… Oh! the beginning of term is a troublesome time for us. The tutors who apply ask exorbitant fees, or when their fees are possible, they themselves aren’t. Papa was not at all pleased with the last; he was a great deal too weak with him; and now he comes threatening. You heard what the maid said. All these people think of nothing but money.… As if there were nothing more important than that in the world.… In the mean time we don’t know how to replace him. Prosper always thinks one has nothing to do but to pray to God for everything to go right.… ”

The maid came back with the sugar.

“Have you told Mr. Armand?”

“Yes, Ma’am; he’s coming directly.”

“And Sarah?” I asked.

“She won’t be back for another two days. She’s staying with friends in England; with the parents of the girl you saw here before the holidays. They have been very kind, and I’m glad that Sarah was able to … And Laura. I thought she was looking much better. The stay in Switzerland coming after the South has done her a great deal of good, and it was very kind of you to persuade her to it. It’s only poor Armand who hasn’t left Paris all the holidays.”

“And Rachel?”

“Yes, of course; Rachel too. She had a great many invitations, but she preferred to stop in Paris. And then Grandfather needed her. Besides one doesn’t always do what one wants in this life—as I am obliged to repeat to the children now and then. One must think of other people. Do you suppose I shouldn’t have enjoyed going away for a change to Switzerland too? And Prosper? When he travels, do you suppose it’s for his pleasure?… Armand, you know I don’t like you to come in here without a collar on,” she added, as she saw her son enter the room.

“My dear mother, you religiously taught me to attach no importance to my personal appearance,” said he, offering me his hand; “and with eminent à propos too, as the wash doesn’t come home till Tuesday and all the rest of my collars are in rags.”

I remembered what Olivier had told me about his schoolfellow, and it seemed to me that he was right and that an expression of profound anxiety lay hidden beneath the spiteful irony he affected. Armand’s face had fined down; his nose was pinched; it curved hawk-like over lips which had grown thin and colourless. He went on:

“Have you informed your noble visitor that we have made several additions to our usual company of performers and engaged a few sensational stars for the opening of the winter season? The son of a distinguished senator and the Vicomte de Passavant, brother to the illustrious writer—without counting two recruits whom you know already, but who are all the more honourable on that account—Prince Boris and the Marquis de Profitendieu—besides some others whose titles and virtues remain to be discovered.”

“You see he hasn’t changed,” said the poor mother, smiling at these witticisms.

I was so terribly afraid that he would begin to talk about Laura that I cut short my visit and went downstairs as fast as I could to find Rachel.

She had turned up her sleeves to help in the arrangement of the class-room; but she hastily pulled them down again as she saw me come up.

“It is extremely painful to me to have recourse to you,” she began, drawing me into a small room adjoining, which is used for private lessons. “I meant to apply to Felix Douviers—he asked me to; but now that I have seen Laura, I understand it’s impossible.… ”

She was very pale, and as she said these last words, her chin and lips quivered so convulsively that for some moments she was unable to speak. I looked away from her, in the fear of adding to her discomfort. She had shut the door and was leaning against it. I tried to take her hand, but she tore it away from between mine. At last she went on again in a voice that seemed strangled by the immensity of her effort:

“Can you lend me ten thousand francs? The term promises to be fairly good and I hope to be able to pay you back soon.”

“When do you want it?”

She made no answer.

“I happen to have a little over a thousand francs on me,” I went on. “I can complete the sum to-morrow morning—this evening, if necessary.”

“No; to-morrow will do. But if you can let me have a thousand francs at once without inconvenience …”

I took out my pocket-book and handed them to her.

“Would you like fourteen hundred?”

She lowered her head and uttered a “yes” so faint that I could hardly hear it, then she tottered to a school bench, dropped down on it, and with her elbows leaning on the desk in front of her, stayed for a few moments, her face hidden in her hands. I thought she was crying, but when I put my hand on her shoulder, she raised her head and I saw that her eyes were dry.

“Rachel,” I said, “don’t mind having had to ask me this; I am glad to be able to oblige you.”

She looked at me gravely:

“What is painful to me is to have to ask you not to mention it either to Grandfather or to Mamma. Since they gave the accounts of the school over to me, I have let them think that … well, they don’t know. Don’t say anything, I beg you. Grandfather is old and Mamma takes so much trouble.”

“Rachel, it’s not your mother who takes trouble.… It’s you.”

“She has taken trouble. She’s tired now. It’s my turn. I have nothing else to do.”

It was quite simply that she said these simple words. I felt no bitterness in her resignation—on the contrary, a kind of serenity.

“But don’t imagine that things are worse than they are. It’s just a difficult moment to tide over, because some of the creditors are getting impatient.”

“I heard the maid just now mention a tutor who was asking to be paid.”

“Yes; he came and had a very painful scene with Grandfather, which unfortunately I was unable to prevent. He’s a brutal, vulgar man. I must go and pay him.”

“Would you like me to do it for you?”

She hesitated a moment, trying in vain to force a smile.

“Thank you. No; I had better do it myself.… But come with me, will you? I’m rather frightened of him. If he sees you, he won’t dare say anything.”

The school courtyard is separated from the garden by two or three steps and a balustrade, against which the tutor was leaning with his elbows thrust behind him. He had on an enormous soft felt hat and was smoking a pipe. While Rachel was engaging him, Armand came up to me.

“Rachel has been bleeding you,” he said cynically. “You have come in the nick of time to save her from a horrid anxiety. It’s Alexander—my beast of a brother, who has been getting into debt again in the colonies. She wants to hide it from my parents. She has already given up half her ‘dot’ to make Laura’s a little larger; but this time all the rest of it has gone. She didn’t tell you anything about that, I bet. Her modesty exasperates me. It’s one of the most sinister jokes in this world below that every time anyone sacrifices himself for others, one may be perfectly certain he is worth more than they.… Just look at all she has done for Laura! And how she has rewarded her! The slut! …”

“Armand!” I cried indignantly. “You have no right to judge your sister.”

But he continued in a jerky, hissing voice:

“On the contrary, it’s because I am no better than she that I am able to judge her. I know all about it. Rachel doesn’t judge us. Rachel never judges anyone.… Yes, the slut! the slut!… I didn’t beat about the bush to tell her what I thought of her, I promise you. And you! To have covered it all up, to have protected it! You who knew!… Grandfather is as blind as a bat. Mamma tries all she can to understand nothing. As for Papa, he trusts in the Lord; it’s the most convenient thing to do. Whenever there’s a difficulty, he falls to praying and leaves Rachel to get out of it. All he asks is to remain in the dark. He rushes about like a lunatic; he’s hardly ever at home. I’m not surprised he finds it stifling here. As for me, it’s smothering me to death. He tries to stupefy himself, by Jove. In the mean time Mamma writes verses. Oh! I’m not blaming her; I write them myself. But at any rate, I know I’m nothing but a blackguard; and I’ve never pretended to be anything else. But, I say, isn’t it disgusting—Grandfather setting up to do the charitable by La Pérouse, because he’s in need of a tutor? …” Then, suddenly: “What’s that beast there daring to say to my sister? If he doesn’t take his hat off to her when he goes, I’ll black his bloody eyes for him.… ”

He darted towards the Bohemian, and I thought for a moment he was going to hit him. But at Armand’s approach, the man made a theatrical and ironical flourish with his hat and disappeared under the archway. At that moment the door into the street opened to let in the pastor. He was dressed in a frock coat, chimney-pot hat and black gloves, like a person on his way back from a christening or a wedding. The ex-tutor and he exchanged a ceremonious bow.

Rachel and Armand came towards me; when Vedel joined them:

“It’s all arranged,” said Rachel to her father.

He kissed her on the forehead.

“Didn’t I tell you so, my child? God never abandons those who put their trust in Him.”

Then, holding out his hand to me:

“Going already?… Well, we shall see you again one of these days, shan’t we?”