The Counterfeiters III : Bernard and Olivier

“Plenty and peace breeds coward; hardness ever

Of hardiness is mother.”


Olivier had got into bed to receive his mother, who was in the habit of coming every evening to kiss her two younger sons good-night before they went to sleep. He might have got up and dressed again to receive Bernard, but he was still uncertain whether he would come and was afraid of doing anything to rouse his younger brother’s suspicions. George as a rule went to sleep early and woke up late; perhaps he would never notice that anything unusual was going on. When he heard a gentle scratching outside, Olivier sprang from his bed, thrust his feet hastily into his bedroom slippers, and ran to open the door. He did not light a candle; the moon gave light enough; there was no need for any other. Olivier hugged Bernard in his arms:

“How I was longing for you! I couldn’t believe you would really come,” said Olivier, and in the dimness he saw Bernard shrug his shoulders. “Do your parents know you are not sleeping at home to-night?”

Bernard looked straight in front of him into the dark.

“You think I ought to have asked their leave, eh?”

His tone of voice was so coldly ironical that Olivier at once felt the absurdity of his question. He had not yet grasped that Bernard had left “for good”; he thought that he only meant to sleep out that one night and was a little perplexed as to the reason of this escapade. He began to question: When did Bernard think of going home?—Never!

Light began to dawn on Olivier. He was very anxious to be equal to the occasion and not to be surprised at anything; nevertheless an exclamation broke from him:

“What a tremendous decision!”

Bernard was by no means unwilling to astonish his friend a little; he was particularly flattered by the admiration which these words betrayed, but he shrugged his shoulders once more. Olivier took hold of his hand and asked very gravely and anxiously:

“But why are you leaving?”

“That, my dear fellow, is a family matter. I can’t tell you.” And in order not to seem too serious he amused himself by trying to jerk off with the tip of his shoe the slipper that Olivier was swinging on his bare toes—for they were sitting down now on the side of the bed. There! Off it goes!

“Then where do you mean to live?”

“I don’t know.”

“And how?”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Have you any money?”

“Enough for breakfast to-morrow.”

“And after that?”

“After that I shall look about me. Oh, I’m sure to find something. You’ll see. I’ll let you know.”

Olivier admires his friend with immense fervour. He knows him to be resolute; but he cannot help doubting; when he is at the end of his resources, and feeling, as soon he must, the pressure of want, won’t he be obliged to go back? Bernard reassures him—he will do anything in the world rather than return to his people. And as he repeats several times over more and more savagely—“anything in the world!”—Olivier’s heart is stabbed with a pang of terror. He wants to speak but dares not. At last with downcast head and unsteady voice, he begins:

“Bernard, all the same, you’re not thinking of …” but he stops. His friend raises his eyes and, though he cannot see him very distinctly, perceives his confusion.

“Of what?” he asks. “What do you mean? Tell me. Of stealing?”

Olivier shakes his head. No, that’s not it! Suddenly he bursts into tears and clasping Bernard convulsively in his arms:

“Promise me that you won’t …”

Bernard kisses him, then pushes him away laughing. He has understood.

“Oh! yes! I promise … But all the same you must admit it would be the easiest way out.” But Olivier feels reassured; he knows that these last words are an affectation of cynicism.

“Your exam?”

“Yes; that’s rather a bore. I don’t want to be ploughed. I think I’m ready all right. It’s more a question of feeling fit on the day. I must manage to get something fixed up very quickly. It’s touch and go; but I shall manage. You’ll see.”

They sit for a moment in silence. The second slipper has fallen.

Then Bernard: “You’ll catch cold. Get back into bed.”

“No; you must get into bed.”

“You’re joking. Come along! quick!” and he forces Olivier to get into the bed which he has already lain down in and which is all tumbled.

“But you? Where are you going to sleep?”

“Anywhere. On the floor. In a corner. I must get accustomed to roughing it.”

“No. Look here! I want to tell you something, but I shan’t be able to unless I feel you close to me. Get into my bed.” And when Bernard, after undressing himself in a twinkling, has got in beside him:

“You know … what I told you the other day … well, it’s come off. I went.”

There was no need to say more for Bernard to understand. He pressed up against his friend.

“Well! it’s disgusting … horrible … Afterwards I wanted to spit—to be sick—to tear my skin off—to kill myself.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“To kill her.”

“Who was it? You haven’t been imprudent, have you?”

“No; it’s some creature Dhurmer knows. He introduced me. It was her talk that was the most loathsome. She never once stopped jabbering. And oh! the deadly stupidity of it! Why can’t people hold their tongues at such moments, I wonder? I should have liked to strangle her—to gag her.”

“Poor old Olivier! You didn’t think that Dhurmer could get hold of anybody but an idiot, did you? Was she pretty, anyway?”

“D’you suppose I looked at her?”

“You’re a donkey! You’re a darling!… Let’s go to sleep.… But … did you bring it off all right?”

“God! That’s the most disgusting thing about it. I was able to, in spite of everything … just as if I’d desired her.”

“Well, it’s magnificent, my dear boy.”

“Oh, shut up! If that’s what they call love—I’m fed up with it.”

“What a baby you are!”

“What would you have been, pray?”

“Oh, you know, I’m not particularly keen; as I’ve told you before, I’m biding my time. In cold blood, like that, it doesn’t appeal to me. All the same if I—”

“If you …?”

“If she … Nothing! Let’s go to sleep.”

And abruptly he turns his back, drawing a little away so as not to touch Olivier’s body, which he feels uncomfortably warm. But Olivier, after a moment’s silence, begins again:

“I say, do you think Barrès will get in?”

“Heavens! does that worry you?”

“I don’t care a damn! I say, just listen to this a minute.” He presses on Bernard’s shoulder, so as to make him turn round—“My brother has got a mistress.”


The youngster, who is pretending to be asleep, but who has been listening with all his might in the dark, holds his breath when he hears his name.

“You’re crazy. I mean Vincent.” (Vincent is a few years older than Olivier and has just finished his medical training.)

“Did he tell you?”

“No. I found out without his suspecting. My parents know nothing about it.”

“What would they say if they knew?”

“I don’t know. Mamma would be in despair. Papa would say he must break it off or else marry her.”

“Of course. A worthy bourgeois can’t understand how one can be worthy in any other fashion than his own. How did you find out?”

“Well, for some time past Vincent has been going out at night after my parents have gone to bed. He goes downstairs as quietly as he can, but I recognize his step in the street. Last week—Tuesday, I think, the night was so hot I couldn’t stop in bed. I went to the window to get a breath of fresh air. I heard the door downstairs open and shut, so I leant out and, as he was passing under a lamp post, I recognized Vincent. It was past midnight. That was the first time—I mean the first time I noticed anything. But since then, I can’t help listening—oh! without meaning to—and nearly every night I hear him go out. He’s got a latchkey and our parents have arranged our old room—George’s and mine—as a consulting room for him when he has any patients. His room is by itself on the left of the entrance; the rest of our rooms are on the right. He can go out and come in without anyone knowing. As a rule I don’t hear him come in, but the day before yesterday—Monday night—I don’t know what was the matter with me—I was thinking of Dhurmer’s scheme for a review … I couldn’t go to sleep. I heard voices on the stairs. I thought it was Vincent.”

“What time was it?” asks Bernard, more to show that he is taking an interest than because he wants to know.

“Three in the morning, I think. I got up and put my ear to the door. Vincent was talking to a woman. Or rather, it was she who was talking.”

“Then how did you know it was he? All the people who live in the flat must pass by your door.”

“And a horrid nuisance it is, too. The later it is, the more row they make. They care no more about the people who are asleep than … It was certainly he. I heard the woman calling him by his name. She kept saying … Oh, I can’t bear repeating it. It makes me sick.… ”

“Go on.”

“She kept saying: ‘Vincent, my love—my lover … Oh, don’t leave me!’ ”

“Did she say you to him and not thou?”

“Yes; isn’t it odd?”

“Tell us some more.”

“ ‘You have no right to desert me now. What is to become of me? Where am I to go? Say something to me! Oh, speak to me!’ … And she called him again by his name, and went on repeating: ‘My lover! My lover!’ And her voice became sadder and sadder and lower and lower. And then I heard a noise (they must have been standing on the stairs), a noise like something falling. I think she must have flung herself on her knees.”

“And didn’t he answer anything? Nothing at all?”

“He must have gone up the last steps; I heard the door of the flat shut. And after that, she stayed a long time quite near—almost up against my door. I heard her sobbing.”

“You should have opened the door.”

“I didn’t dare. Vincent would be furious if he thought I knew anything about his affairs. And then I was afraid it might embarrass her to be found crying. I don’t know what I could have said to her.”

Bernard had turned towards Olivier:

“In your place I should have opened.”

“Oh, you! You’re never afraid of anything. You do everything that comes into your head.”

“Is that a reproach?”

“Oh, no. It’s envy.”

“Have you any idea who the woman is?”

“How on earth should I know? Good-night.”

“I say, are you sure George hasn’t heard us?” whispers Bernard in Olivier’s ear. They listen a moment with bated breath.

“No,” Olivier goes on in his ordinary voice. “He’s asleep. And besides, he wouldn’t understand. Do you know what he asked Papa the other day …?”

At this, George can contain himself no longer. He sits up in his bed and breaks into his brother’s sentence.

“You ass!” he cries. “Didn’t you see I was doing it on purpose?… Good Lord, yes! I’ve heard every word you’ve been saying. But you needn’t excite yourselves. I’ve known all about Vincent for ever so long. And now, my young friends, talk a little lower please, because I’m sleepy—or else hold your tongues.”

Olivier turns toward the wall. Bernard, who cannot sleep, looks out into the room. It seems bigger in the moonlight. As a matter of fact, he hardly knows it. Olivier was never there during the daytime; the few times that Bernard had been to see him, it was in the flat upstairs. But it was after school hours, when they came out of the lycée, that the two friends usually met. The moonlight has reached the foot of the bed in which George has at last gone to sleep; he has heard almost everything that his brother has said. He has matter for his dreams. Above George’s bed Bernard can just make out a little bookcase with two shelves full of schoolbooks. On a table near Olivier’s bed, he sees a larger-sized book; he puts out his hand and takes it to look at the title—Tocqueville; but as he is putting it back on the table, he drops it and the noise wakes Olivier up.

“Are you reading Tocqueville now?”

“Dubac lent it me.”

“Do you like it?”

“It’s rather boring, but some of it’s very good.”

“I say, what are you doing to-morrow?”

To-morrow is Thursday and there is no school. Bernard thinks he may meet his friend somewhere. He does not mean to go back to the lycée; he thinks he can do without the last lectures and finish preparing for his examination by himself.

“To-morrow,” says Olivier, “I’m going to St. Lazare railway station at 11:30 to meet my Uncle Edouard, who is arriving from Le Havre, on his way from England. In the afternoon, I’m engaged to go to the Louvre with Dhurmer. The rest of the time I’ve got to work.”

“Your Uncle Edouard?”

“Yes. He’s a half brother of Mamma’s. He’s been away for six months and I hardly know him; but I like him very much. He doesn’t know I’m going to meet him and I’m rather afraid I mayn’t recognize him. He’s not in the least like the rest of the family; he’s somebody quite out of the common.”

“What does he do?”

“He writes. I’ve read nearly all his books; but he hasn’t published anything for a long time.”


“Yes; kind of novels.”

“Why have you never told me about them?”

“Because you’d have wanted to read them; and if you hadn’t liked them …”

“Well, finish your sentence.”

“Well, I should have hated it. There!”

“What makes you say that he’s out of the common?”

“I don’t exactly know. I told you I hardly know him. It’s more of a presentiment. I feel that he’s interested in all sorts of things that don’t interest my parents and that there’s nothing that one couldn’t talk to him about. One day—it was just before he went away—he had been to lunch with us; all the time he was talking to Papa I felt he kept looking at me and it began to make me uncomfortable; I was going to leave the room—it was the dining-room—where we had stayed on after coffee, but then he began to question Papa about me, which made me more uncomfortable than ever; and suddenly Papa got up and went to fetch some verses I had written and which I had been idiotic enough to show him.”

“Verses of yours?”

“Yes; you know—that poem you said you thought was like Le Balcon. I knew it wasn’t any good—or hardly any—and I was furious with Papa for bringing it out. For a minute or two, while Papa was fetching the poem, we were alone together, Uncle Edouard and I, and I felt myself blushing horribly. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. I looked away—so did he, for that matter; he began by rolling a cigarette and lighting it and then to put me at my ease, no doubt, for he certainly saw I was blushing, he got up and went and looked out of the window. He was whistling. Then he suddenly said, ‘I feel far more embarrassed than you do, you know.’ But I think it was just kindness. At last Papa came back again; he handed my verses to Uncle Edouard, and he began to read them. I was in such a state that I think if he had paid me compliments, I should have insulted him. Evidently Papa expected him to—pay me compliments—and as my uncle said nothing, he asked him what he thought of them. But Uncle Edouard answered him, laughing, ‘I can’t speak to him comfortably about them before you.’ Then Papa laughed too and went out. And when we were alone again, he said he thought my verses were very bad, but I liked hearing him say so; and what I liked still more was that suddenly he put his finger down on two lines—the only two I cared for in the whole thing; he looked at me and said, ‘That’s good!’ Wasn’t it nice? And if you only knew the tone in which he said it! I could have hugged him. Then he said my mistake was to start from an idea, and that I didn’t allow myself to be guided sufficiently by the words. I didn’t understand very well at first; but I think I see now what he meant—and that he was right. I’ll explain it to you another time.”

“I understand now why you want to go and meet him.”

“Oh, all that’s nothing and I don’t know why I’ve told you about it. We said a great deal more to one another.”

“At 11:30 did you say? How do you know he’s coming by that train?”

“Because he wrote and told Mamma on a post-card; and then I looked it up in the time-table.”

“Will you have lunch with him?”

“Oh, no. I must be back here by twelve. I shall just have time to shake hands with him. But that’s enough for me.… Oh, one thing more before I go to sleep. When shall I see you again?”

“Not for some days. Not before I’ve got something fixed up.”

“All the same … Couldn’t I help you somehow …?”

“You? Help me? No. It wouldn’t be fair play. I should feel as if I were cheating. Good-night.”