The Counterfeiters IV : Vincent and the Comte de Passavant

Mon père était une bête, mais ma mère avait de l’esprit; elle était quiétiste; c’était une petite femme douce qui me disait souvent: Mon fils, vous serez damné. Mais cela ne lui faisait pas de peine.


No, it was not to see his mistress that Vincent Molinier went out every evening. Quickly as he walks, let us follow him. He goes along the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, at the further end of which he lives, until he reaches the Rue Placide, which is its prolongation; then he turns down the Rue du Bac, where there are still a few belated passers-by. In the Rue de Babylone, he stops in front of a porte-cochère which swings open to let him in. The Comte de Passavant lives here. If Vincent were not in the habit of coming often, he would enter this sumptuous mansion with a less confident air. The footman who comes to the door knows well enough how much timidity this feigned assurance hides. Vincent, with a touch of affectation, instead of handing him his hat, tosses it onto an arm-chair.

It is only recently that Vincent has taken to coming here. Robert de Passavant, who now calls himself his friend, is the friend of a great many people. I am not very sure how he and Vincent became acquainted. At the lycée, I expect—though Robert de Passavant is perceptibly older than Vincent; they had lost sight of each other for several years and then, quite lately, had met again one evening when, by some unusual chance, Olivier had gone with his brother to the theatre; during the entr’acte Passavant had invited them both to take an ice with him; he had learnt that Vincent had just finished his last medical examinations and was undecided as to whether he should take a place as house physician in a hospital; science attracted him more than medicine, but the necessity of earning his living … in short, Vincent accepted with pleasure the very remunerative offer Robert de Passavant had made him a little later of coming every evening, to attend his old father, who had lately undergone a very serious operation; it was a matter of bandages, of injections, of soundings—in fact, of whatever delicate services you please, which necessitate the ministrations of an expert hand.

But, added to this, the Vicomte had secret reasons for wishing a nearer acquaintance with Vincent; and Vincent had still others for consenting. Robert’s secret reason we shall try to discover later on. As for Vincent’s—it was this: he was urgently in need of money. When your heart is in the right place and a wholesome education has early instilled into you a sense of your responsibilities, you don’t get a woman with child, without feeling yourself more or less bound to her—especially when the woman has left her husband to follow you.

Up till then, Vincent had lived on the whole virtuously. His adventure with Laura appeared to him alternately, according to the moment of the day in which he thought of it, as either monstrous or perfectly natural. It very often suffices to add together a quantity of little facts which, taken separately, are very simple and very natural, to arrive at a sum which is monstrous. He said all this to himself over and over again as he walked along, but it didn’t get him out of his difficulties. No doubt, he had never thought of taking this woman permanently under his protection—of marrying her after a divorce, or of living with her without marrying; he was obliged to confess to himself that he had no very violent passion for her; but he knew she was in Paris without means of subsistence; he was the cause of her distress; at the very least he owed her that first precarious aid which he felt himself less and less able to give her—less to-day than yesterday. For last week he still possessed the five thousand francs which his mother had patiently and laboriously saved to give him a start in his profession; those five thousand francs would have sufficed, no doubt, to pay for his mistress’s confinement, for her stay in a nursing home, for the child’s first necessaries. To what demon’s advice then had he listened? What demon had hinted to him one evening that this sum which he had as good as given to Laura, which he had laid by for her, pledged to her—that this sum would be insufficient? No, it was not Robert de Passavant; Robert had never said anything of the kind; but his proposal to take Vincent with him to a gambling club fell out precisely the same evening. And Vincent had accepted.

The hell in question was a particularly treacherous one, inasmuch as the habitués were all people in society and the whole thing took place on a friendly footing. Robert introduced his friend Vincent to one and another. Vincent, who was taken unawares, was not able to play high that first evening. He had hardly anything on him and refused the notes which the Vicomte offered to advance him. But as he began by winning, he regretted not being able to stake more and promised to go back the next night.

“Everybody knows you now; there’s no need for me to come with you again,” said Robert.

These meetings took place at Pierre de Brouville’s, commonly known as Pedro. After this first evening Robert de Passavant had put his car at his friend’s disposal. Vincent used to look in about eleven o’clock, smoke a cigarette with Robert, and after chatting for ten minutes or so, go upstairs. His stay there was more or less lengthy according to the Count’s patience, temper or requirements; after this he drove in the car to Pedro’s in the Rue St. Florentin, whence about an hour later the car took him back—not actually to his own door, for he was afraid of attracting attention, but to the nearest corner.

The night before last, Laura Douviers, seated on the steps which led to the Moliniers’ flat, had waited for Vincent till three o’clock in the morning; it was not till then that he had come in. As a matter of fact, Vincent had not been at Pedro’s that night. Two days had gone by since he had lost every penny of the five thousand francs. He had informed Laura of this; he had written that he could do nothing more for her; that he advised her to go back to her husband or her father—to confess everything. But things had gone so far, that confession seemed impossible to Laura and she could not contemplate it with any sort of calm. Her lover’s objurgations merely aroused indignation in her—an indignation which only subsided to leave her a prey to despair. This was the state in which Vincent had found her. She had tried to keep him; he had torn himself from her grasp. Doubtless, he had to steel himself to do it, for he had a tender heart; but he was more of a pleasure-seeker than a lover and he had easily persuaded himself that duty itself demanded harshness. He had answered nothing to all her entreaties and lamentations, and as Olivier, who had heard them, told Bernard afterwards, when Vincent shut the door against her, she had sunk down on the steps and remained for a long time sobbing in the dark.

More than forty hours had gone by since that night. The day before, Vincent had not gone to Robert de Passavant’s, whose father seemed to be recovering; but that evening a telegram had summoned him. Robert wished to see him. When Vincent entered the room in which Robert usually sat—a room which he used as his study and smoking-room and which he had been at some pains to decorate and fit up in his own fashion—Robert carelessly held out his hand to him over his shoulder, without rising.

Robert is writing. He is sitting at a bureau littered with books. Facing him the French window which gives on to the garden, stands wide open in the moonlight. He speaks without turning round.

“Do you know what I am writing? But you won’t mention it, will you? You promise, eh?—a manifesto for the opening number of Dhurmer’s review. I shan’t sign it, of course—especially as I puff myself in it.… And then as it’ll certainly come out in the long run that I’m financing it, I don’t want it known too soon that I write for it. So mum’s the word! But it’s just occurred to me—didn’t you say that young brother of yours wrote? What’s his name again?”

“Olivier,” says Vincent.

“Olivier! Yes; I had forgotten. Don’t stay standing there like that! Sit down in that arm-chair. You’re not cold? Shall I shut the window?… It’s poetry he writes, isn’t it? He ought to bring me something to see. Of course, I don’t promise to take it.… But, all the same, I should be surprised if it were bad. He looks an intelligent boy. And then he’s obviously au courant. I should like to talk to him. Tell him to come and see me, eh? Mind, I count on it. A cigarette?” And he holds out his silver cigarette-case.

“With pleasure.”

“Now then, Vincent, listen to me. I must speak to you very seriously. You behaved like a child the other evening … so did I, for that matter. I don’t say it was wrong of me to take you to Pedro’s, but I feel responsible, a little, for the money you’ve lost. I don’t know if that’s what’s meant by remorse, but, upon my word, it’s beginning to disturb my sleep and my digestion. And then, when I think of that unhappy woman you told me about … But that’s another story. We won’t speak of that. It’s sacred. What I want to say is this—that I wish—yes, I’m absolutely determined to put at your disposal a sum of money equivalent to what you’ve lost. It was five thousand francs, wasn’t it? And you’re to risk it again. Once more, I repeat, I consider myself the cause of your losing this money—I owe it to you—there’s no need to thank me. You’ll pay me back if you win. If not—worse luck! We shall be quits. Go back to Pedro’s this evening, as if nothing had happened. The car will take you there; then it’ll come back here to take me to Lady Griffith’s, where I’ll ask you to join me later on. I count upon it, eh? The car will fetch you from Pedro’s.”

He opens a drawer and takes out five notes which he hands to Vincent.

“Be off with you, now.”

“But your father?”

“Oh, yes; I forgot to tell you: he died about …” He pulls out his watch and exclaims: “By Jove! how late it is! Nearly midnight.… You must make haste. Yes, about four hours ago.”

All this is said without any quickening of his voice, on the contrary, with a kind of nonchalance.

“And aren’t you going to stay to …”

“To watch by the body?” interrupts Robert. “No, that’s my young brother’s business. He is up there with his old nurse, who was on better terms with the deceased than I was.”

Then as Vincent remains motionless, he goes on:

“Look here, my dear fellow, I don’t want to appear cynical, but I have a horror of reach-me-down sentiments. In my early days I cut out my filial love according to the pattern I had in my heart; but I soon saw that my measurements had been too ample, and I was obliged to take it in. The old man never in his life occasioned me anything but trouble and vexation and constraint. If he had any tenderness left, it was certainly not to me that he showed it. My first impulses of affection towards him, in the days before I knew how to behave, brought me nothing but snubs—and I learnt my lesson. You must have seen for yourself when you were attending him … Did he ever thank you? Did you ever get the slightest look, the smallest smile from him? He always thought everything his due. Oh, he was what people call a character! I think he must have made my mother very unhappy, and yet he loved her—that is, if he ever really loved anyone. I think he made everyone who came near him suffer—his servants, his dogs, his horses, his mistresses; not his friends, for he had none. A general sigh of relief will go up at his death. He was, I believe, a man of great distinction in ‘his line,’ as people say; but I have never been able to discover what it was. He was very intelligent, undoubtedly. At heart, I had—I still have—a certain admiration for him—but as for making play with a handkerchief—as for wringing tears out … no, thank you, I’m no longer child enough for that, Be off with you now! And join me in an hour’s time at Lilian’s. What! you’re not dressed? Absurd! What does it matter? But if it’ll make you more comfortable, I’ll promise not to change either. Agreed! Light a cigar before you go and send the car back quickly—it’ll fetch you again afterwards.”

He watched Vincent go out, shrugged his shoulders, then went into his dressing-room to change into his dress suit, which was ready laid out for him on a sofa.

In a room on the first floor, the old count is lying on his death-bed. Someone has placed a crucifix on his breast, but has omitted to fold his hands over it. A beard of some days’ growth softens the stubborn angle of his chin. Beneath his grey hair, which is brushed up en brosse, the wrinkles that line his forehead seem less deeply graven, as though they were relaxed. His eye is sunk beneath the arch of the brow and the shaggy growth of the eyebrow. I know that we shall never see him again, and that is the reason that I take a long look at him. Beside the head of the bed is an arm-chair, in which is seated the old nurse Séraphine. But she has risen. She goes up to a table where an old-fashioned lamp is dimly lighting the room; it needs turning up. A lamp-shade casts the light on to the book young Gontran is reading.…

“You’re tired, Master Gontran. You had better go to bed.”

The glance that Gontran raises from his book to rest upon Séraphine is very gentle. His fair hair, a lock of which he pushes back from his forehead, waves loosely over his temples. He is fifteen years old, and his face, which is still almost girlish, expresses nothing as yet but tenderness and love.

“And you?” he says. “It is you who ought to go to bed, you poor old Fine. Last night, you were on your feet nearly the whole time.”

“Oh, I’m accustomed to sitting up. And besides, I slept during the daytime—but you …”

“No, I’m all right. I don’t feel tired; and it does me good to stay here thinking and reading. I knew Papa so little; I think I should forget him altogether if I didn’t take a good look at him now. I will sit beside him till daylight. How long is it, Fine, since you came to us?”

“I came the year before you were born, and you’re nearly sixteen.”

“Do you remember Mamma quite well?”

“Do I remember your Mamma? What a question! You might as well ask me if I remember my own name. To be sure, I remember your Mamma.”

“I remember her too—a little.… But not very well.… I was only five when she died. Used Papa to talk to her much?”

“It depended on his mood. Your Papa was never a one to talk much, and he didn’t care to be spoken to first. All the same in those days he was a little more talkative than he has been of late.… But there now! What’s past is past, and it’s better not to stir it up again. There’s One above who’s a better judge of these things than we are.”

“Do you really think that He concerns Himself about such things, dear Fine?”

“Why, if He doesn’t, who should then?”

Gontran puts his lips on Séraphine’s red, roughened hand. “You really ought to go to bed now. I promise to wake you as soon as it is light, and then I’ll take my turn to rest. Please!”

As soon as Séraphine has left him, Gontran falls upon his knees at the foot of the bed; he buries his head in the sheets, but he cannot succeed in weeping. No emotion stirs his heart; his eyes remain despairingly dry. Then he gets up and looks at the impassive face on the bed. At this solemn moment, he would like to have some rare, sublime experience—hear a message from the world beyond—send his thought flying into ethereal regions, inaccessible to mortal senses. But no! his thought remains obstinately grovelling on the earth; he looks at the dead man’s bloodless hands and wonders for how much longer the nails will go on growing. The sight of the unclasped hands grates on him. He would like to join them, to make them hold the crucifix. What a good idea! He thinks of Séraphine’s astonishment when she sees the dead hands folded together; the thought of Séraphine’s astonishment amuses him; and then he despises himself for being amused. Nevertheless he stoops over the bed. He seizes the arm which is farthest from him. The arm is stiff and will not bend. Gontran tries to force it, but the whole body moves with it. He seizes the other arm, which seems a little less rigid. Gontran almost succeeds in putting the hand in the proper place. He takes the crucifix and tries to slip it between the fingers and the thumb, but the contact of the cold flesh turns him sick. He thinks he is going to faint. He has a mind to call Séraphine back. He gives up everything—the crucifix, which drops aslant on the tumbled sheet, and the lifeless arm, which falls back again into its first position; then, through the depths of the funereal silence, he suddenly hears a rough and brutal “God damn!” which fills him with terror, as if someone else … He turns round—but no! he is alone. It was from his own lips, from his own heart, that that resounding curse broke forth—his, who until to-day has never uttered an oath! Then he sits down and plunges again into his reading.