The Counterfeiters II : The Profitendieus

There is no trace in Poussin’s letters of any feeling of obligation towards his parents.

He never in later days showed any regret at having left them; transplanted to Rome of his own free will, he lost all desire to return to his home—and even, it would seem, all recollection of it.


Monsieur Profitendieu was in a hurry to get home and wished that his colleague Molinier, who was keeping him company up the Boulevard St. Germain, would walk a little faster. Albéric Profitendieu had just had an unusually heavy day at the law-courts; an uncomfortable sensation in his right side was causing him some uneasiness; fatigue in his case usually went to his liver, which was his weak point. He was thinking of his bath; nothing rested him better after the cares of the day than a good bath—with an eye to which he had taken no tea that afternoon, esteeming it imprudent to get into any sort of water—even warm—with a loaded stomach. Merely a prejudice, perhaps; but prejudices are the props of civilisation. Oscar Molinier walked as quickly as he could and made every effort to keep up with his companion; but he was much shorter than Profitendieu and his crural development was slighter; besides which there was a little fatty accumulation round his heart and he easily became short-winded. Profitendieu, who was still sound at the age of fifty-five, with a well-developed chest and a brisk gait, would have gladly given him the slip; but he was very particular as to the proprieties; his colleague was older than he and higher up in the career; respect was due to him. And besides, since the death of his wife’s parents, Profitendieu had a very considerable fortune to be forgiven him, whereas Monsieur Molinier, who was Président de chambre, had nothing but his salary—a derisory salary, utterly disproportionate to the high situation he filled with dignity, which was all the more imposing because of the mediocrity it cloaked. Profitendieu concealed his impatience; he turned to Molinier and looked at him mopping himself; for that matter, he was exceedingly interested by what Molinier was saying; but their point of view was not the same and the discussion was beginning to get warm.

“Have the house watched, by all means,” said Molinier. “Get the reports of the concierge and the sham maid-servant—very good! But mind, if you push the enquiry too far, the affair will be taken out of your hands.… I mean there’s a risk of your being led on much further than you bargained for.”

“Justice should have no such considerations.”

“Tut, tut, my dear sir; you and I know very well what justice ought to be and what it is. We’re all agreed that we act for the best, but, however we act, we never get nearer than an approximation. The case before us now is a particularly delicate one. Out of the fifteen accused persons—or persons who at a word from you will be accused to-morrow—nine are minors. And some of these boys, as you know, come of very honourable families. In such circumstances, I consider that to issue a warrant at all would be the greatest mistake. The newspapers will get hold of the affair and you open the door to every sort of blackmail and calumny. In spite of all your efforts you’ll not prevent names from coming out.… It’s no business of mine to give you advice—on the contrary—it’s much more my place to receive it. You’re well aware how highly I’ve always rated your lucidity and your fair-mindedness.… But if I were you, this is what I should do: I should try to put an end to this abominable scandal by laying hold of the four or five instigators.… Yes! I know they’re difficult to catch; but what the deuce, that’s part of our trade. I should have the flat—the scene of the orgies—closed, and I should take steps for the brazen young rascals’ parents to be informed of the affair—quietly and secretly; and merely in order to avoid any repetition of the scandal. Oh! as to the women, collar them by all means. I’m entirely with you there. We seem to be up against a set of creatures of unspeakable perversity, and society should be cleansed of them at all costs. But, let me repeat, leave the boys alone; content yourself with giving them a fright, and then hush the matter up with some vague term like ‘youthful indiscretion’. Their astonishment at having got off so cheaply will last them for a long time to come. Remember that three of them are not fourteen years old and that their parents no doubt consider them angels of purity and innocence. But really, my dear fellow, between ourselves, come now, did we think of women when we were that age?”

He came to a stop, breathless rather with talking than with walking, and forced Profitendieu, whose sleeve he was holding, to stop too.

“Or if we thought of them,” he went on, “it was ideally—mystically—religiously, if I may say so. The boys of to-day, don’t you think, have no ideals—no! no ideals … A propos, how are yours? Of course, I’m not alluding to them when I speak so. I know that with your careful bringing-up—with the education you’ve given them, there’s no fear of any such reprehensible follies.”

And indeed, up to that time, Profitendieu had had every reason to be satisfied with his sons. But he was without illusions—the best education in the world was of no avail against bad instincts. God be praised, his children had no bad instincts—nor Molinier’s either, no doubt; they were their own protectors against bad companions and bad books. For of what use is it to forbid what we can’t prevent? If books are forbidden, children read them on the sly. His own plan was perfectly simple—he didn’t forbid bad books, but he so managed that his children had no desire to read them. As for the matter in question, he would think it over again, and in any case, he promised Molinier to do nothing without consulting him. He would simply give orders for a discreet watch to be kept, and as the thing had been going on for three months, it might just as well go on for another few days or weeks. Besides, the summer holidays were upon them and would necessarily disperse the delinquents. Au revoir!

At last Profitendieu was able to quicken his pace.

As soon as he got in, he hurried to his dressing-room and turned on the water for his bath. Antoine had been looking out for his master’s return and managed to come across him in the passage.

This faithful man-servant had been in the family for the last fifteen years; he had seen the children grow up. He had seen a great many things—and suspected a great many more; but he pretended not to notice anything his masters wished to keep hidden.

Bernard was not without affection for Antoine; he had not wanted to leave the house without saying good-bye to him. Perhaps it was out of irritation against his family that he made a point of confiding to a servant that he was going away, when none of his own people knew it; but, in excuse for Bernard, it must be pointed out that none of his own people were at that time in the house. And besides, Bernard could not have said good-bye to them without the risk of being detained. Whereas to Antoine, he could simply say: “I’m going away.” But as he said it, he put out his hand with such a solemn air that the old servant was astonished.

“Not coming back to dinner, Master Bernard?”

“Nor to sleep, Antoine.” And as Antoine hesitated, not knowing what he was expected to understand, nor whether he ought to ask any further questions, Bernard repeated still more meaningly: “I’m going away”; then he added: “I’ve left a letter for …” He couldn’t bring himself to say “Papa,” so he corrected his sentence to “on the study writing table. Good-bye.”

As he squeezed Antoine’s hand, he felt as moved as if he were then and there saying good-bye to all his past life. He repeated “good-bye” very quickly and then hurried off before the sob that was rising in his throat burst from him.

Antoine wondered whether it were not a heavy responsibility to let him go in this way—but how could he have prevented him?

That this departure of Bernard’s would be a blow to the whole family—an unexpected—a monstrous blow—Antoine indeed was well aware; but his business as a perfect servant was to pretend to take it as a matter of course. It was not for him to know what Monsieur Profitendieu was ignorant of. No doubt, he might simply have said to him: “Do you know, sir, that Master Bernard has gone away?” But by so saying, he would lose his advantage, and that was highly undesirable. If he awaited his master so impatiently, it was to drop out in a non-committal, deferential voice, and as if it were a simple message left by Bernard, this sentence, which he had elaborately prepared beforehand:

“Before going away, sir, Master Bernard left a letter for you in the study”—a sentence so simple that there was a risk of its passing unperceived; he had racked his brains in vain for something which would be more striking, and had found nothing which would be at the same time natural. But as Bernard never left home, Profitendieu, whom Antoine was watching out of the corner of his eye, could not repress a start.

“Before going …”

He pulled himself up at once; it was not for him to show his astonishment before a subordinate; the consciousness of his superiority never left him. His tone as he continued was very calm—really magisterial.

“Thank you.” And as he went towards his study: “Where did you say the letter was?”

“On the writing table, sir.”

And in fact, as Profitendieu entered the room, he saw an envelope placed conspicuously opposite the chair in which he usually sat when writing; but Antoine was not to be choked off so easily, and Monsieur Profitendieu had not read two lines of the letter, when he heard a knock at the door.

“I forgot to tell you, sir, that there are two persons waiting to see you in the back drawing-room.”

“Who are they?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Are they together?”

“They don’t seem to be, sir.”

“What do they want?”

“I don’t know. They want to see you, sir.”

Profitendieu felt his patience giving way.

“I have already said and repeated that I don’t want to be disturbed when I’m at home—especially at this time of day; I have my consulting room at the law-courts. Why did you let them in?”

“They both said they had something very urgent to say to you, sir.”

“Have they been here long?”

“Nearly an hour.”

Profitendieu took a few steps up and down the room, and passed one hand over his forehead; with the other he held Bernard’s letter. Antoine stood at the door, dignified and impassive. At last, he had the joy of seeing the judge lose his temper and of hearing him for the first time in his life stamp his foot and scold angrily.

“Deuce take it all! Can’t you leave me alone? Can’t you leave me alone? Tell them I’m busy. Tell them to come another day.”

Antoine had no sooner left the room than Profitendieu ran to the door.

“Antoine! Antoine! And then go and turn off my bath.”

Much inclined for a bath, truly! He went up to the window and read:


Owing to an accidental discovery I happened to make this afternoon, I have become aware that I must cease to regard you as my father. This is an immense relief to me. Realizing as I do how little affection I feel for you, I have for a long time past been thinking myself an unnatural son; I prefer knowing I am not your son at all. You will perhaps consider that I ought to be grateful to you for having treated me as if I were one of your own children; but, in the first place, I have always felt the difference between your behaviour to them and to me, and, secondly, I know you well enough to feel certain that you acted as you did because you were afraid of the scandal and because you wished to conceal a situation which did you no great honour—and, finally, because you could not have acted otherwise. I prefer to leave without seeing my mother again, because I am afraid that the emotion of bidding her a final good-bye might affect me too much and also because she might feel herself in a false position in my presence—which I should dislike. I doubt whether she has any very lively affection for me; as I was almost always away at school, she never had time to know much of me, and as the sight of me must have continually reminded her of an episode in her life which she would have liked to efface, I think my departure will be a relief and a pleasure to her. Tell her, if you have the courage to, that I bear her no grudge for having made a bastard of me; on the contrary, I prefer that to knowing I am your son. (Pray excuse me for writing in this way; it is not my object to insult you; but my words will give you an excuse for despising me and that will be a relief to you.)

If you wish me to keep silent as to the secret reasons which have induced me to leave your roof, I must beg you not to attempt to make me return to it. The decision I have taken is irrevocable. I do not know how much you may have spent on supporting me up till now; as long as I was ignorant of the truth I could accept living at your expense, but it is needless to say that I prefer to receive nothing from you for the future. The idea of owing you anything is intolerable to me and I think I had rather die of hunger than sit at your table again. Fortunately I seem to remember having heard that my mother was richer than you when she married you. I am free to think, therefore, that the burden of supporting me fell only on her. I thank her—consider her quit of anything else she may owe me—and beg her to forget me. You will have no difficulty in explaining my departure to those it may surprise. I give you free leave to put what blame you choose on me (though I know well enough that you will not wait for my leave to do this).

I sign this letter with that ridiculous name of yours, which I should like to fling back in your face, and which I am longing and hoping soon to dishonour.


P.S. I am leaving all my things behind me. They belong more legitimately to Caloub—at any rate I hope so, for your sake.

Monsieur Profitendieu totters to an arm-chair. He wants to reflect, but his mind is in a confused whirl. Moreover he feels a little stabbing pain in his right side, just below his ribs. There can be no question about it. It is a liver attack. Would there be any Vichy water in the house? If only his wife had not gone out! How is he to break the news of Bernard’s flight to her? Ought he to show her the letter? It is an unjust letter—abominably unjust. He ought to be angry. But it is not anger he feels—he wishes it were—it is sorrow. He breathes deeply and at each breath exhales an “Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” as swift and low as a sigh. The pain in his side becomes one with his other pain—proves it—localizes it. He feels as if his grief were in his liver. He drops into an arm-chair and re-reads Bernard’s letter. He shrugs his shoulders sadly. Yes, it is a cruel letter—but there is wounded vanity, defiance—bravado in it, too. Not one of his other children—his real children—would have been capable—any more than he would have been capable himself—of writing it. He knows this, for there is nothing in them which he does not recognize only too well in himself. It is true that he has always thought it his duty to blame Bernard for his rawness, his roughness, his unbroken temper, but he realizes that it is for those very things that he loved him as he had never loved any of the others.

In the next room, Cécile, who had come in from her concert, had begun to practise the piano and was obstinately going over and over again the same phrase in a barcarole. At last Albéric Profitendieu could bear it no longer. He opened the drawing-room door a little way and in a plaintive, half supplicating voice, for his liver was beginning to hurt him cruelly (and besides he had always been a little frightened of her):

“Cécile, my dear,” he asked, “would you mind seeing whether there’s any Vichy water in the house and if there isn’t, sending out to get some? and it would be very nice of you to stop playing for a little.”

“Are you ill?”

“No, no, not at all. I’ve just got something that needs thinking over a little before dinner, and your music disturbs me.”

And then a kindly feeling—for he was softened by suffering—made him add:

“That’s a very pretty thing you’re playing. What is it?”

But he went away without waiting for the answer. For that matter, his daughter, who was aware that he knew nothing whatever about music and could not distinguish between “Viens Poupoule” and the “March in Tannhäuser” (at least, so she used to say), had no intention of answering.

But there he was at the door again!

“Has your mother come in?”

“No, not yet.”

Absurd! she would be coming in so late that he would have no time to speak to her before dinner. What could he invent to explain Bernard’s absence? He really couldn’t tell the truth—let the children into the secret of their mother’s temporary lapse. Ah! all had been forgotten, forgiven, made up. The birth of their last son had cemented their reconciliation. And now, suddenly this avenging spectre had re-risen from the past—this corpse had been washed up again by the tide.

Good! Another interruption! As the study door noiselessly opens, he slips the letter into the inside pocket of his coat; the portière is gently raised—Caloub!

“Oh, Papa, please tell me what this Latin sentence means. I can’t make head or tail of it.… ”

“I’ve already told you not to come in here without knocking. You mustn’t disturb me like this for anything and everything. You are getting too much into the habit of relying on other people instead of making an effort yourself. Yesterday it was your geometry problem, and now to-day it’s … by whom is your sentence?”

Caloub holds out his copy-book.

“He didn’t tell us; but just look at it; you’ll know all right. He dictated it to us. But perhaps I took it down wrong. You might at any rate tell me if it’s correct?”

Monsieur Profitendieu took the copy-book, but he was in too much pain. He gently pushed the child away.

“Later on. It’s just dinner time. Has Charles come in?”

“He went down to his consulting room.” (The barrister receives his clients in a room on the ground floor.)

“Go and tell him I want to speak to him. Quick!”

A ring at the door bell! Madame Profitendieu at last! She apologizes for being late. She had a great many visits to pay. She is sorry to see her husband so poorly. What can be done for him? He certainly looks very unwell. He won’t be able to eat anything. They must sit down without him, but after dinner, will she come to his study with the children?—Bernard?—Oh, yes; his friend … you know—the one he is reading mathematics with—came and took him out to dinner.

Profitendieu felt better. He had at first been afraid he would be too ill to speak. And yet it was necessary to give an explanation of Bernard’s disappearance. He knew now what he must say—however painful it might be. He felt firm and determined. His only fear was that his wife might interrupt him by crying—that she might exclaim—that she might faint.…

An hour later she comes into the room with the three children. He makes her sit down beside him, close against his armchair.

“Try to control yourself,” he whispers, but in a tone of command; “and don’t speak a word. We will talk together afterwards.”

And all the time he is speaking, he holds one of her hands in both his.

“Come, my children, sit down. I don’t like to see you standing there as if you were in front of an examiner. I have something very sad to say to you. Bernard has left us and we shall not see him again … for some time to come. I must now tell you what I at first concealed from you, because I wanted you to love Bernard like a brother; your mother and I loved him like our own child. But he was not our child … and one of his uncles—a brother of his real mother, who confided him to us on her death bed—came and fetched him away this evening.”

A painful silence follows these words and Caloub sniffles. They all wait, expecting him to go on. But he dismisses them with a wave of his hand.

“You can go now, my dears. I must speak to your mother.”

After they have left the room, Monsieur Profitendieu remains silent for a long time. The hand which Madame Profitendieu had left in his seems like a dead thing; with the other she presses a handkerchief to her eyes. Leaning on the writing table, she turns her head away to cry. Through the sobs which shake her, Monsieur Profitendieu hears her murmur:

“Oh, how cruel of you!… Oh! You have turned him out.… ”

A moment ago, he had resolved to speak to her without showing her Bernard’s letter; but at this unjust accusation, he holds it out:

“Here! Read this.”

“I can’t.”

“You must read it.”

He has forgotten his pain. He follows her with his eyes all through the letter, line by line. Just now when he was speaking, he could hardly keep back his tears; but now all emotion has left him; he watches his wife. What is she thinking? In the same plaintive voice, broken by the same sobs, she murmurs again:

“Oh! why did you tell him?… You shouldn’t have told him.”

“But you can see for yourself that I never told him anything. Read his letter more carefully.”

“I did read it.… But how did he find out? Who told him then?”

So that is what she is thinking! Those are the accents of her grief!

This sorrow should bring them together, but, alas! Profitendieu feels obscurely that their thoughts are travelling by divergent ways. And while she laments and accuses and recriminates, he endeavours to bend her unruly spirit and to bring her to a more pious frame of mind.

“This is the expiation,” he says.

He has risen, from an instinctive desire to dominate; he stands there before her upright—forgetful or regardless of his physical pain—and lays his hand gravely, tenderly, authoritatively on Marguerite’s shoulder. He is well aware that her repentance for what he chooses to consider a passing weakness, has never been more than half-hearted; he would like to tell her now that this sorrow, this trial, may serve to redeem her; but he can find no formula to satisfy him—none that he can hope she will listen to. Marguerite’s shoulder resists the gentle pressure of his hand. She knows so well that from every event of life—even the smallest—he invariably, intolerably, extracts, as with a forceps, some moral teaching—he interprets and twists everything to suit his own dogmas. He bends over her. This is what he would like to say:

“You see, my dear, no good thing can be born of sin. It was no use covering up your fault. Alas! I did what I could for the child. I treated him as my own. God shows us to-day that it was an error to try …”

But at the first sentence he stops.

No doubt she understands these words, heavy with meaning as they are; they have struck home to her heart, for though she had stopped crying some moments before, her sobs break out afresh, more violently than ever: then she bows herself, as though she were going to kneel before him, but he stoops over her and holds her up. What is it she is saying through her tears? He stoops his ear almost to her lips and hears:

“You see … You see … Oh! why did you forgive me? Oh! I shouldn’t have come back.”

He is almost obliged to divine her words. Then she stops. She too can say no more. How can she tell him that she feels imprisoned in this virtue which he exacts from her … that she is stifling … that it is not so much her fault that she regrets now, as having repented of it? Profitendieu raises himself.

“My poor Marguerite,” he says with dignity and severity, “I am afraid you are a little stubborn to-night. It is late. We had better go to bed.”

He helps her up, leads her to her room, puts his lips to her forehead, then returns to his study and flings himself into an armchair. It is a curious thing that his liver attack has subsided—but he feels shattered. He sits with his head in his hands, too sad to cry.… He does not hear a knock at the door, but at the noise the door makes in opening, he raises his head—his son Charles!

“I came to say good-night to you.”

He comes up. He wants to convey to his father that he has understood everything. He would like to manifest his pity, his tenderness, his devotion, but—who would think it of an advocate?—he is extraordinarily awkward at expressing himself—or perhaps he becomes awkward precisely when his feelings are sincere. He kisses his father. The way in which he lays his head upon his shoulder, and leans and lingers there, convinces Profitendieu that his son has understood. He has understood so thoroughly that, raising his head a little, he asks in his usual clumsy fashion—but his heart is so anxious that he cannot refrain from asking:

“And Caloub?”

The question is absurd, for Caloub’s looks are as strikingly like his family’s as Bernard’s are different.

Profitendieu pats Charles on the shoulder:

“No, no; it’s all right. Only Bernard.”

Then Charles begins pompously:

“God has driven the intruder away …”

But Profitendieu stops him. He has no need of such words.


Father and son have no more to say to each other. Let us leave them. It is nearly eleven o’clock. Let us leave Madame Profitendieu in her room, seated on a small, straight, uncomfortable chair. She is not crying; she is not thinking. She too would like to run away. But she will not. When she was with her lover—Bernard’s father (we need not concern ourselves with him)—she said to herself: “No, no; try as I may I shall never be anything but an honest woman.” She was afraid of liberty, of crime, of ease—so that after ten days, she returned repentant to her home. Her parents were right when they said to her: “You never know your own mind.” Let us leave her. Cécile is already asleep. Caloub is gazing in despair at his candle; it will never last long enough for him to finish the story-book, with which he is distracting himself from thoughts of Bernard. I should be curious to know what Antoine can have told his friend the cook. But it is impossible to listen to everything. This is the hour appointed for Bernard to go to Olivier. I am not sure where he dined that evening—or even whether he dined at all. He has passed the porter’s room without hindrance; he gropes his way stealthily up the stairs.…