The Counterfeiters IV : Bernard and Laura

“I wanted to ask you, Laura,” said Bernard, “whether you think there exists anything in this world that mayn’t become a subject of doubt.… So much so, that I wonder whether one couldn’t take doubt itself as a starting point; for that, at any rate, will never fail us. I may doubt the reality of everything, but not the reality of my doubt. I should like … Forgive me if I express myself pedantically—I am not pedantic by nature, but I have just left the lycée, and you have no idea what a stamp is impressed on the mind by the philosophical training of our last year; I will get rid of it I promise you.”

“Why this parenthesis? You would like …?”

“I should like to write a story of a person who starts by listening to everyone, who consults everyone like Panurge, before deciding to do anything; after having discovered that the opinions of all these people are contradictory in every point, he makes up his mind to consult no one but himself, and thereupon becomes a person of great capacity.”

“It’s the idea of an old man,” said Laura.

“I am more mature than you think. A few days ago I began to keep a note-book, like Edouard; I write down an opinion on the right hand page, whenever I can write the opposite opinion, facing it, on the left hand page. For instance, the other evening Sophroniska told us that she made Bronja and Boris sleep with their windows open. Everything she said in support of this régime seemed to us perfectly reasonable and convincing, didn’t it? Well, yesterday in the smoking-room, I heard that German professor who has just arrived maintain the contrary theory, which seemed to me, I must admit, more reasonable still and better grounded. The important thing during sleep, said he, is to restrict as much as possible all expenditure and the traffic of exchanges in which life consists—carburation, he called it; it is only then that sleep becomes really restorative. He gave as example the birds who sleep with their heads under their wings, and the animals who snuggle down when they go to sleep, so as to be hardly able to breathe at all; in the same way, he said, the races that are nearest to nature, the peasants who are least cultivated, stuff themselves up at night in little closets; and Arabs, who are forced to sleep in the open, at any rate cover their faces up with the hood of their burnous. But to return to Sophroniska and the two children she is bringing up, I come round to thinking she is not wrong after all, and that what is good for others would be harmful for these two, because, if I understand rightly, they have the germs of tuberculosis in them. In short, I said to myself … But I’m boring you.”

“Never mind about that. You said to yourself …?”

“I’ve forgotten.”

“Now, now, that’s naughty. You mustn’t be ashamed of your thoughts.”

“I said to myself that nothing is good for everyone, but only relatively to some people; that nothing is true for everyone, but only relatively to the person who believes it is; that there is no method and no theory which can be applied indifferently to all alike; that if, in order to act, we must make a choice, at any rate we are free to choose; and that if we aren’t free to choose, the thing is simpler still; the belief that becomes truth for me (not absolutely, no doubt, but relatively to me) is that which allows me the best use of my strength, the best means of putting my virtues into action. For I can’t prevent myself from doubting, and at the same time I loathe indecision. The soft and comfortable pillow Montaigne talks of, is not for my head, for I’m not sleepy yet and I don’t want to rest. It’s a long way that leads from what I thought I was to what perhaps I really am. I am afraid sometimes that I got up too early in the morning.”


“No; I’m afraid of nothing. But, d’you know, I have already changed a great deal; that is, my mind’s landscape is not at all what it was the day I left home; since then I have met you. As soon as I did that I stopped putting my freedom first. Perhaps you haven’t realized that I am at your service.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, you know quite well. Why do you want to make me say it? Do you expect a declaration?… No, no; please don’t cloud your smile, or I shall catch cold.”

“Come now, my dear boy, you are not going to pretend that you are beginning to love me.”

“Oh, I’m not beginning,” said Bernard. “It’s you who are beginning to feel it, perhaps; but you can’t prevent me.”

“It was so delightful for me not to have to be on my guard with you. And now, if I’ve got to treat you like inflammable matter and not dare go near you without taking precautions … But think of the deformed, swollen creature I shall soon be. The mere look of me will be enough to cure you.”

“Yes, if it were only your looks that I loved. And then, in the first place, I’m not ill; or if it is being ill to love you, I prefer not to be cured.”

He said all this gravely, almost sadly; he looked at her more tenderly than ever Edouard had done, or Douyiers, but so respectfully that she could not take umbrage. She was holding an English book they had been reading, on her lap, and was turning over its pages absently; she seemed not to be listening, so that Bernard went on without too much embarrassment:

“I used to imagine love as something volcanic—at all events the love I was destined to feel. Yes; I really thought I should only be able to love in a savage, devastating way, à la Byron. How ill I knew myself! It was you, Laura, who taught me to know myself; so different from what I thought I was! I was playing the part of a dreadful person and making desperate efforts to resemble him. When I think of the letter I wrote my supposed father before I left home, I feel very much ashamed, I assure you. I took myself for a rebel, an outlaw, who tramples underfoot everything that opposes his desire; and now here I find that when I am with you I have no desires. I longed for liberty as the supreme good, and no sooner was I free, than I bowed myself to your … Oh, if you only knew how maddening it is to have in one’s head quantities of phrases from great authors, which come irresistibly to one’s lips when one wants to express a sincere feeling. This feeling of mine is so new to me that I haven’t yet been able to invent a language for it. Let’s say it isn’t love, since you dislike that word; let’s call it devotion. It’s as though this liberty which seemed to me so infinite, had had limits set to it by your laws. It’s as though all the turbulent and unformed things that were stirring within me, were dancing an harmonious round, with you for their centre. If one of my thoughts happens to stray from you, I leave it … Laura, I don’t ask you to love me—I’m nothing but a schoolboy; I’m not worth your notice; but everything I want to do now is in order to deserve your … (oh! the word is frightful!) … your esteem.… ”

He had gone down on his knees before her, and though she had at first drawn her chair away a little, Bernard’s forehead was on her dress, and his arms thrown back behind him, in sign of adoration; but when he felt Laura’s hand laid upon his forehead, he seized the hand and pressed his lips to it.

“What a child you are, Bernard! I am not free either,” she said, taking away her hand. “Here! Read this.”

She took from her bodice a crumpled piece of paper, which she held out to Bernard.

Bernard saw the signature first of all. As he feared, is was Felix Douviers’. One moment he kept the letter in his hand without reading it; he raised his eyes to look at Laura. She was crying. Then Bernard felt one more bond burst in his heart—one of the secret ties which bind each one of us to himself, to his selfish past. Then he read:


In the name of the little child who is to be born, and whom I swear to love as if I were its father, I beseech you to come back. Don’t think that any reproaches will meet you here. Don’t blame yourself too much—that is what hurts me most. Don’t delay. My whole soul awaits you, adores you, is laid humbly at your feet.

Bernard was sitting on the floor in front of Laura, but it was without looking at her that he asked:

“When did you get this?”

“This morning.”

“I thought he knew nothing about it. Did you write and tell him?”

“Yes; I told him everything.”

“Does Edouard know this?”

“He knows nothing about it.”

Bernard remained silent a little while with downcast head; then turning towards her once more:

“And … what do you mean to do now?”

“Do you really ask?… Return to him. It is with him that my place is—with him that I ought to live. You know it.”

“Yes,” said Bernard.

There was a very long silence. Bernard broke it:

“Do you believe one can love someone else’s child as much as one’s own, really?”

“I don’t know if I believe it, but I hope it.”

“For my part, I believe one can. And, on the contrary, I don’t believe in what people call so foolishly ‘the blood speaking.’ I believe this idea that the blood speaks is a mere myth. I have read somewhere that among certain tribes of South Sea Islanders, it is the custom to adopt other people’s children, and that these adopted children are often preferred to the others. The book said—I remember it quite well—‘made more of.’ Do you know what I think now?… I think that my supposed father, who stood in my father’s place, never said or did anything that could let it be suspected that I was not his real son; that in writing to him as I did, that I had always felt the difference, I was lying; that, on the contrary, he showed a kind of predilection for me, which I felt perfectly, so that my ingratitude towards him was all the more abominable; and that I behaved very ill to him. Laura, my friend, I should like to ask you … Do you think I ought to beg his pardon and go back to him?”

“No,” said Laura.

“Why not? Since you are going back to Douviers?”

“You were telling me just now, that what was true for one is not true for another. I feel I am weak; you are strong. Monsieur Profitendieu may love you; but from what you have told me, you are not of the kind to understand each other.… Or, at any rate, wait a little. Don’t go back to him worsted. Do you want to know what I really think?—that it is for me and not for him that you are proposing it—to get what you called ‘my esteem.’ You will only get it, Bernard, if I feel you are not seeking for it. I can only care for you as you are naturally. Leave repentance to me. It is not for you, Bernard.”

“I almost get to like my name when I hear it on your lips. Do you know what my chief horror was at home? The luxury. So much comfort, so many facilities … I felt myself becoming an anarchist. Now, on the contrary, I think I’m veering toward conservatism. I realized that the other day because of the indignation that seized me when I heard the tourist at the frontier speak of his pleasure in cheating the customs. ‘Robbing the State is robbing no one,’ he said. My feeling of antagonism made me suddenly understand what the State was. And I began to have an affection for it, simply because it was being injured. I had never thought about it before. ‘The State is nothing but a convention,’ he said, too. What a fine thing a convention would be that rested on the bona fides of every individual!… if only there were nothing but honest folk. Why, if anyone were to ask me to-day what virtue I considered the finest, I should answer without hesitation—honesty. Oh, Laura! I should like all my life long, at the very smallest shock, to ring true, with a pure, authentic sound. Nearly all the people I have known ring false. To be worth exactly what one seems to be worth—not to try to seem to be worth more.… One wants to deceive people, and one is so much occupied with seeming, that one ends by not knowing what one really is.… Forgive me for talking like this. They are my last night’s reflections.”

“You were thinking of the little coin you showed us yesterday. When I go away …”

She could not finish her sentence; the tears rose to her eyes and in the effort she made to keep them back, Bernard saw her lips tremble.

“Then you are going away, Laura …” he went on sadly. “I am afraid that when I no longer feel you near me, I shall be worth nothing at all—or hardly anything.… But, tell me—I should like to ask you … would you be going away—would you have made this confession, if Edouard … I don’t know how to say it …” (and as Laura blushed), “if Edouard had been worth more? Oh, don’t protest. I know so well what you think of him.”

“You say that, because yesterday you caught me smiling at what he said; you immediately jumped to the conclusion that we were judging him in the same way. But it’s not so. Don’t deceive yourself. In reality I don’t know what I think of him. He is never the same for long together. He is attached to nothing, but nothing is more attractive than his elusiveness. He is perpetually forming, unforming, re-forming himself. One thinks one has grasped him.… Proteus! He takes the shape of what he loves, and oneself must love him to understand him.”

“You love him. Oh, Laura! it’s not of Douviers I feel jealous, nor of Vincent; it’s of Edouard.”

“Why jealous? I love Douviers; I love Edouard, but differently. If I am to love you, it must be with yet another love.”

“Laura, Laura, you don’t love Douviers. You feel affection for him, pity, esteem; but that’s not love. I think the secret of your sadness (for you are sad, Laura) is that life has divided you; love has only consented to take you, incomplete; you distribute among several what you would have liked to give to one only. As for me, I feel I am indivisible; I can only give the whole of myself.”

“You are too young to speak so. You cannot tell yet whether life will not ‘divide’ you too, as you call it. I can only accept from you the … devotion which you offer me. The rest will have its exigencies and will have to be satisfied elsewhere.”

“Can it be true? Do you want to disgust me before hand with myself and with life, too?”

“You know nothing of life. Everything is before you. Do you know what my mistake was? To think there was nothing more for me. It was when I thought, alas! that there was nothing more for me, that I let myself go. I lived that last spring at Pau as if I were never to see another—as if nothing mattered any more. I can tell you now, Bernard, now that I’ve been punished for it— Never despair of life!”

Of what use is it to speak so to a young creature full of fire? And indeed Laura was hardly speaking to Bernard. Touched by his sympathy, and almost in spite of herself, she was thinking aloud in his presence. She was unapt at feigning, unapt at self-control. As she had yielded a moment ago to the impulsive feeling which carried her away whenever she thought of Edouard, and which betrayed her love for him, so now she had given way to a certain tendency to sermonize, which she had no doubt inherited from her father. But Bernard had a horror of recommendations and advice, even if they should come from Laura; his smile told her as much and she went on more calmly:

“Are you thinking of keeping on as Edouard’s secretary when you go back to Paris?”

“Yes, if he is willing to employ me; but he gives me nothing to do. Do you know what would amuse me? To write that book of his with him; for he’ll never write it alone; you told him so yesterday. That method of working he described to us seemed to me absurd. A good novel gets itself written more naively than that. And first of all, one must believe in one’s own story—don’t you think so—and tell it quite simply? I thought at one time I might help him. If he had wanted a detective, I might perhaps have done the job. He could have worked on the facts that my police work would have furnished him.… But with an idea-monger there’s nothing doing. When I’m with him, I feel that I have the soul of a reporter. If he sticks to his mistaken ways, I shall work on my own account. I must earn my living. I shall offer my services to a newspaper. Between times I shall write verses.”

“For when you are with reporters, you’ll certainly feel yourself the soul of a poet.”

“Oh! don’t laugh at me. I know I’m ridiculous. Don’t rub it in too much.”

“Stay with Edouard; you’ll help him; and let him help you. He is very good.”

The luncheon bell rang. Bernard rose. Laura took his hand:

“Just one thing—that little coin you showed us yesterday … in remembrance of you, when I go away”—she pulled herself together and this time was able to finish her sentence—“would you give it me?”

“Here it is,” said Bernard, “take it.”