The Counterfeiters IV : The First Day of the Term

The day was very hot. Through the open windows of the Vedels’ school could be seen the tree-tops of the Gardens, over which there still floated an immense, unexhausted store of summer.

The first day of the term was an opportunity old Azaïs never missed of making a speech. He stood at the foot of the master’s desk, upright and facing the boys, as is proper. At the desk sat old La Pérouse. He had risen as the boys came in; but Azaïs, with a friendly gesture, signed to him to sit down again. His anxious eyes had gone straight to Boris, and this look of his embarrassed Boris all the more because Azaïs, in the speech in which he introduced the new master to his pupils, thought fit to allude to his relationship to one of them. La Pérouse, in the mean time was distressed at receiving no answering look from Boris—indifference, he thought, coldness.

“Oh!” thought Boris, “if only he would leave me alone! If only he wouldn’t make me ‘an object’!” His schoolfellows terrified him. On coming out of the lycée, he had had to join them, and as he walked with them from the lycée to the Vedels’, he had listened to their talk. He would have liked to fall in with it, for he had great need of sympathy, but he was of too fastidious and sensitive a nature, and he could not overcome his repugnance; the words froze on his lips; he reproached himself for his foolishness and tried hard not to let it show; tried hard even to laugh, so as not to be scoffed at; but it was no good; he looked like a girl among the others, and realized it sorrowfully.

They had broken up into groups almost immediately. A certain Léon Ghéridanisol was a central figure and was already beginning to take the lead. Rather older than the others, and more advanced in his studies, of a dark complexion, with black hair and black eyes, Ghéridanisol was neither very tall nor particularly strong—but he had what is called “lip.” Really infernal lip! Even young George Molinier admitted that Ghéridanisol had “made him sit up”; “and you know, it takes a good deal to make me sit up!” Hadn’t he seen him that very morning, with his own eyes, go up to a young woman who was carrying a child in her arms:

“Is that kid yours, Madam?” (This with a low bow.) “It’s jolly ugly, I must say. But don’t worry. It won’t live.”

George was still rocking.

“No? Honour bright?” said Philippe Adamanti, his friend, when George told him the story.

This piece of insolence filled them with rapture; impossible to imagine anything funnier. A stale enough joke. Léon had learnt it from his cousin Strouvilhou, but that was no business of George’s.

At school, Molinier and Adamanti got leave to sit on the same bench as Ghéridanisol—the fifth, so as not to be too near the usher. Molinier had Adamanti on his left hand and Ghéridanisol (Ghéri for short) on his right; at the end of the bench sat Boris. Behind him was Passavant.

Gontran de Passavant’s life has been a sad one since his father’s death—not that it had been very lively before it. He had long ago understood that he could expect no sympathy from his brother, no support. He had spent his holidays in Brittany, where his old nurse, the faithful Séraphine, had taken him to stay with her people. All his qualities are folded inwards; he devotes himself to his work. A secret desire spurs him on to prove to his brother that he is worth more than he. It is by his own choice that he is at school; out of a wish too not to go on living with his brother in the big house in the Rue de Babylone, which has nothing but melancholy recollections for him. Séraphine has taken a lodging in Paris so as not to leave him alone; she is able to do this with the little pension specially left her by the late Count’s will and served her by his two sons. Gontran has one of her rooms, and it is here that he spends his free time. He has furnished it to his own taste. He takes two meals a week with Séraphine; she looks after him and sees that he wants for nothing. When he is with her, Gontran chatters freely enough, though he can speak to her of hardly any of the things he has most at heart. At school he keeps his independence; he listens absent-mindedly to his schoolfellows’ nonsense, and often refuses to join in their games. He prefers reading to any but out-of-door games. He likes sports—all kinds of sports—but preferably those that are solitary. For he is proud and will not associate with everyone. On Sundays, according to the season, he skates or swims, or boats, or takes immense walks in the country. He has repugnances and does not try to overcome them; nor does he try to widen his mind so much as to strengthen it. He is perhaps not so simple as he thinks—as he tries to make himself become; we have seen him at his father’s death-bed; but he does not like mysteries and whenever he is unlike himself, he is disgusted. If he succeeds in remaining at the top of his class, it is through application, not through facility. Boris would find a protector in him, if he were only to look towards him, but it is his neighbour George who attracts him. As for George, he has eyes for no one but Ghéri, who has eyes for no one.

George had some important news to communicate to Philippe Adamanti, which he had judged it more prudent not to write.

That morning he had arrived at the lycée doors a quarter of an hour before the opening and had waited for him in vain. It was while he was waiting that he had heard Léon Ghéridanisol apostrophize the young woman so brilliantly, after which incident the two urchins had entered into conversation and had discovered to George’s great joy that they were going to be schoolfellows.

On coming out of the lycée, George and Phiphi had at last succeeded in meeting. They walked to the Pension Azaïs in company with the other boys, but a little apart, so as to be able to talk freely.

“You had better hide that thing,” George had begun, pointing to the yellow rosette which Phiphi was still sporting in his buttonhole.

“Why?” asked Philippe, noticing that George was no longer wearing his.

“You run the risk of getting collared. I wanted to tell you before school, my boy; why didn’t you turn up earlier? I was waiting outside the doors to warn you.”

“But I didn’t know,” Phiphi had answered.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know,” George repeated, mimicking him. “You might have guessed that there would be things to tell you when I didn’t see you again at Houlgate.”

The perpetual aim and object of these two boys is to get the better of each other. His father’s situation and fortune give Philippe certain advantages, but George is greatly superior in audacity and cynicism. Phiphi has to make an effort to keep up with him. He isn’t a bad boy; but lacking in back bone.

“Well then, out with your things!” he had said.

Léon Ghéridanisol, who had come up, was listening to them. George was not ill pleased that he should overhear him; if Ghéri had filled him with admiration just now, George had a little surprise in store for Ghéri; he therefore answered Phiphi quite calmly:

“That girl Praline has got run in.”

“Praline!” cried Phiphi, thunderstruck by George’s coolness. And Léon showed signs of being interested. Phiphi said to George:

“Can one tell him?”

“As you please,” said George, shrugging his shoulders. Then Phiphi, pointing to George:

“She’s his tart.” Then to George:

“How do you know?”

“I met Germaine and she told me.”

And he went on to tell Phiphi how, when he had come up to Paris a fortnight before, he had wanted to visit the apartment which the procureur Molinier had once called “the scene of the orgies,” and had found the doors closed; that a little later as he was strolling about the neighbourhood, he had met Germaine (Phiphi’s tart) and she had given him the news: the place had been raided by the police at the beginning of the holidays. What neither the women nor the boys knew, was that Profitendieu had taken good care to wait before taking this action until the younger delinquents should have left Paris, so that their parents might be spared the scandal of their being caught.

“Oh, Lord! …” repeated Phiphi without comments. “Oh Lord! …” It had been a narrow squeak, thought he, for George and him.

“Makes your marrow freeze, eh?” said George, with a grin. He considered it perfectly useless to confess—especially before Ghéridanisol, that he had himself been terrified.

From the dialogue here recorded, these children might be thought more depraved than they actually are. I feel convinced that it is chiefly to show off that they talk in this way. There is a good deal of bravado in their case. No matter: Ghéridanisol is listening to them. He listens and leads them on. His cousin Strouvilhou will be greatly amused when he reports the conversation to him this evening.

That same evening Bernard went to see Edouard.

“Well? Did the first day go off all right?”

“Pretty well.” And then as he said no more:

“Master Bernard, if you are not in the humour to talk of your own accord, don’t expect me to pump you. There’s nothing I dislike so much. But allow me to remind you that you offered me your services and that I have a right to expect a few stories.… ”

“What do you want to know?” rejoined Bernard, with no very good grace. “That old Azaïs made a solemn speech and exhorted the boys ‘to press forward in a common endeavour and with the impetuous ardour of youth …’? I remember those words because they occurred three times. Armand declares the old boy regularly puts them into all his pi-jaws. He and I were sitting on the last bench at the back of the class-room, watching the boys come into school—like Noah, watching the animals come into the Ark. There were every kind and sort—ruminants, pachiderms, molluscs and other invertebrates. When they began to talk to each other after the speech, Armand and I calculated that four sentences out of ten began with: ‘I bet you won’t.… ’ ”

“And the other six?”

“ ‘As for me, I …’ ”

“Not badly observed, I’m afraid. What else?”

“Some of them seem to me to have a fabricated personality.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Edouard.

“I am thinking particularly of a boy who sat beside young Passavant. (Passavant himself just seems to me a good boy.) His neighbour, whom I watched for a long time, appears to have adopted the ‘Ne quid nimis’ of the ancients as his rule of life. Doesn’t that strike you as an absurd device at his age? His clothes are meagre; his neck-tie exiguous; even his bootlaces are only just long enough to tie. In the course of a few moments, energies, and to repeat, like a refrain: ‘Let’s have no useless efforts!’ ”

“A plague upon the economical!” said Edouard. “In art they turn into the prolix.”


“Because they can’t bear to lose anything. What else? You have said nothing about Armand.”

“He’s an odd chap. To tell you the truth, I don’t much care for him. I don’t like contortionists. He’s by no means stupid; but he uses his intelligence for mere destruction; for that matter, it’s against himself that he’s the most ferocious; everything that’s good in him, that’s generous, or noble, or tender, he’s ashamed of. He ought to go in for sport—take the air. Being shut up indoors all day is turning him sour. He seems to like my company. I don’t avoid him; but I can’t get accustomed to his cast of mind.”

“Don’t you think that his sarcasm and his irony are the veil of excessive sensitiveness—and perhaps of great suffering? Olivier thinks so.”

“It may be. I have sometimes wondered. I don’t know him well enough to say yet. The rest of my reflections are not ripe. I must think them over. I’ll tell you about them—but later. This evening, forgive me if I leave you. I’ve got my examination in two days; and besides, I may as well own up to it … I’m feeling sad.”