The Counterfeiters III : Edouard’s Journal: Third Visit to La Pérouse

Sept. 29th.—Visit to La Pérouse. The maid hesitated before letting me in. “Monsieur won’t see anyone.” I insisted so much that at last she showed me into the drawing-room. The shutters were shut; in the semi-obscurity I could hardly make out my old master, as he sat huddled up in a straight-backed arm-chair. He did not rise. He held out a limp hand, without looking at me, and let it fall again as soon as I had pressed it. I sat down beside him, so that I could see him only in profile. His features were hard and unbending. By moments his lips moved, but he said nothing. I actually doubted whether he recognized me. The clock struck four; then, as though he too were moved by clock-work, he slowly turned his head.

“Why,” he asked, and his voice was solemn and loud, but as toneless as though it came from beyond the grave, “why did they let you in? I told the maid to say if anyone came, that Monsieur de La Pérouse was dead.”

I was greatly distressed, not so much by these absurd words, as by their tone—a declamatory tone, unspeakably affected, to which I was unaccustomed in my old master—so natural with me, as a rule—so confiding.

“The girl didn’t want to tell a falsehood,” I said at last. “Don’t scold her for having let me in. I am happy to see you.”

He repeated stolidly: “Monsieur de La Pérouse is dead,” and then plunged back into silence. I had a moment’s ill temper and got up, meaning to leave, and put off till another day the task of finding a clue to this melancholy piece of acting. But at that moment the maid came back; she was carrying a cup of smoking chocolate:

“Make a little effort, sir; you haven’t tasted anything all day.”

La Pérouse made an impatient gesture, like an actor whose effect has been spoilt by a clumsy super.

“Later. When the gentleman has gone.”

But the maid had no sooner shut the door, when:

“Be kind, my dear friend. Get me a glass of water—plain water. I’m dying of thirst.”

I found a water bottle and a glass in the dining-room. He filled the glass, emptied it at a draught and wiped his lips on the sleeve of his old alpaca coat.

“Are you feverish?” I asked.

The words brought him back to the remembrance of the part he was playing.

“Monsieur de La Pérouse is not feverish. He is not anything. On Wednesday evening Monsieur de La Pérouse ceased to live.” I wondered whether it would not be best to humour him.

“Wasn’t Wednesday the very day little Boris came to see you?”

He turned his head towards me; a smile, the ghost of the one he used to have at Boris’s name, lighted up his features, and at last consenting to abandon his rôle:

“My friend,” he said, “I can at any rate talk to you about it. That Wednesday was the last day I had left.” Then he went on in a lower voice: “The very last day, in fact, which I had allowed myself before … putting an end to everything.”

It was with extreme pain that I heard La Pérouse revert to this sinister topic. I realized that I had never taken seriously what he had said about it before, for I had allowed it to slip from my memory; and now I reproached myself. Now I remembered everything clearly, but I was astonished, for he had at first mentioned a more distant date, and as I reminded him of this, he confessed, in a voice that had become natural again, and even a little ironical, that he had deceived me as to the date, in the fear that I should try and prevent him, or hasten my return from abroad; but that he had gone on his knees several nights running to pray God to allow him to see Boris before dying.

“And I had even agreed with Him,” added he, “that if needs were, I should delay my departure for a few days … because of the assurance you had given me that you would bring him back with you, do you remember?”

I had taken his hand; it was icy and I chafed it between mine. He continued in a monotonous voice:

“Then when I saw that you weren’t going to wait till the end of the holidays before coming back, and that I should be able to see the boy without putting off my departure, I thought … it seemed to me that God had heard my prayer. I thought that He approved me. Yes, I thought that. I didn’t understand at first that He was laughing at me, as usual.”

He took his hand from between mine and went on in a more animated voice:

“So it was on Wednesday evening that I had resolved to put an end to myself; and it was on Wednesday afternoon that you brought me Boris. I must admit that I did not feel the joy I had looked forward to on seeing him. I thought it over afterwards. Evidently I had no right to expect that the child would be glad to see me. His mother has never talked to him about me.”

He stopped; his lips trembled and I thought he was going to cry.

“Boris asks no better than to love you,” I ventured, “but give him time to know you.”

“After the boy had left me,” went on La Pérouse, without having heard me, “when I found myself alone again in the evening (for you know that Madame de La Pérouse is no longer here), I said to myself: ‘The moment has come! Now for it!’ You must know that my brother—the one I lost—left me a pair of pistols, which I always keep beside me, in a case, by my bedside. I went then to fetch the case. I sat down in an arm-chair; there, just as I am now. I loaded one of the pistols.… ”

He turned towards me and abruptly, brutally, repeated, as if I had doubted his word:

“Yes, I did load it. You can see for yourself. It still is loaded. What happened? I can’t succeed in understanding. I put the pistol to my forehead. I held it for a long time against my temple. And I didn’t fire. I couldn’t.… At the last moment—it’s shameful … I hadn’t the courage to fire.”

He had grown animated while speaking. His eye was livelier and his cheeks faintly flushed. He looked at me, nodding his head.

“How do you explain that? A thing I had resolved on; a thing I hadn’t ceased thinking of for months.… Perhaps that’s the very reason. Perhaps I had exhausted all my courage in thought beforehand.”

“As before Boris’s arrival, you had exhausted the joy of seeing him,” said I; but he continued:

“I stayed a long time with the pistol to my temple. My finger was on the trigger. I pressed it a little; but not hard enough. I said to myself: ‘In another moment I shall press harder and it will go off.’ I felt the cold of the metal and I said to myself: ‘In another moment I shall not feel anything. But before that I shall hear a terrible noise.’ … Just think! So near to one’s ear!… That’s the chief thing that prevented me—the fear of the noise.… It’s absurd, for as soon as one’s dead … Yes, but I hope for death as a sleep; and a detonation doesn’t send one to sleep—it wakes one up.… Yes; certainly that was what I was afraid of. I was afraid that instead of going to sleep I should suddenly wake up.”

He seemed to be collecting himself, and for some moments his lips again moved without making a sound.

“I only said all that to myself,” he went on, “afterwards. In reality, the reason I didn’t kill myself is that I wasn’t free. I say now that I was afraid; but no; it wasn’t that. Something completely foreign to my will held me back. As if God didn’t want to let me go. Imagine a marionette who should want to leave the stage before the end of the play.… Halt! You’re wanted for the finale. Ah! Ah! you thought you would be able to go off whenever you liked!… I understood that what we call our will is merely the threads which work the marionette, and which God pulls. Don’t you see? Well, I’ll explain. For instance, I say to myself: ‘Now I’m going to raise my right arm’; and I raise it.” (And he did raise it.) “But it’s because the string had already been pulled which made me think and say: ‘I’m going to raise my right arm.’ … And the proof that I’m not free is that if it had been my left arm that I had had to raise, I should have said to you: ‘Now I’m going to raise my left arm.’ … No; I see you don’t understand.… You are not free to understand.… Oh! I realize now that God is playing with us. It amuses him to let us think that what he makes us do is what we wanted to do. That’s his horrible game.… Do you think I’m going mad? A propos—Madame de La Pérouse … you know she has gone into a home?… Well, what do you think? She is convinced that it’s a lunatic asylum and that I have had her shut up to get rid of her—that I am passing her off for mad.… You must grant that it’s rather a curious thing that the first passer-by in the street would understand one better than the woman one has given one’s life to.… At first I went to see her every day. But as soon as she caught sight of me, she used to call out: ‘Ah! there you are again! come to spy on me! …’ I had to give up my visits, as they only irritated her. How can you expect one to care about life, when one’s of no good to anyone?”

His voice was stifled by sobs. He dropped his head and I thought he was going to relapse again into his dejection. But with a sudden start:

“Do you know what she did before she left? She broke open my drawer and burnt all my late brother’s letters. She has always been jealous of my brother; especially since he died. She used to make scenes when she found me reading his letters at night. She used to cry out: ‘Ah! you wanted me to go to bed! You do things on the sly!’ Or else: ‘You had far better go to bed and sleep. You’re tiring your eyes.’ One would have said she was full of attentions; but I know her; it was jealousy. She didn’t want to leave me alone with him.”

“Because she loved you. There’s no jealousy without love.”

“Well, you must allow it’s a melancholy business when love, instead of making the happiness of life, becomes its calamity.… That’s no doubt the way God loves us.”

He had become excited while he was speaking and all of a sudden he exclaimed:

“I’m hungry. When I want to eat, that servant always brings me chocolate. I suppose Madame de La Pérouse must have told her that I never took anything else. It would be very kind of you to go to the kitchen … the second door on the right in the passage … and see whether there aren’t any eggs. I think she told me there were some …”

“Would you like her to get you a poached egg?”

“I think I could eat two. Will you be so kind? I can’t make myself understood.”

“My dear friend,” said I when I came back, “your eggs will be ready in a moment. If you’ll allow me I’ll stay and see you eat them; yes; it will be a pleasure. I was very much distressed just now to hear you say that you were of no good to anyone. You seem to forget your grandson. Your friend, Monsieur Azaïs, proposes that you should go and live with him, at the school. He commissioned me to tell you so. He thinks that now that Madame de La Pérouse is no longer here, there’s nothing to keep you.”

I expected some resistance, but he hardly enquired the conditions of the new existence which was offered him.

“Though I didn’t kill myself, I am none the less dead. Here or there, it doesn’t matter to me. You can take me away.”

It was settled I should come and fetch him the next day but one; and that before then I should put at his disposal two trunks, for him to pack his clothes in and anything else he might want to take with him.

“And besides,” I added, “as you will keep this apartment on till the expiration of your lease, you will always be able to come and fetch anything you need.”

The maid brought in the eggs, which he devoured hungrily. I ordered dinner for him, greatly relieved to see that nature at last was getting the upper hand.

“I give you a great deal of trouble,” he kept repeating. “You are very kind.”

I should have liked him to hand over his pistols to me, and I told him he had no use for them now; but he would not consent to part with them.

“There’s nothing to fear. What I didn’t do that day, I know I shall never be able to do. But they are the only remembrances I have left of my brother—and I need them too to remind me that I am nothing but a plaything in God’s hands.”