The Counterfeiters IX : Edouard and Olivier

We should have nothing to deplore of all that happened later if only Edouard’s and Olivier’s joy at meeting had been more demonstrative; but they both had a singular incapacity for gauging their credit in other people’s hearts and minds; this now paralysed them; so that each, believing his emotion to be unshared, absorbed in his own joy, and half ashamed at finding it so great, was completely preoccupied by trying to hide its intensity from the other.

It was for this reason that Olivier, far from helping Edouard’s joy by telling him with what eagerness he had come to meet him, thought fit to speak of some job or other which he had had to do in the neighbourhood that very morning, as if to excuse himself for having come. His conscience, scrupulous to excess, cunningly set about persuading him that he was perhaps in Edouard’s way. The lie was hardly out of his mouth when he blushed. Edouard surprised the blush, and as he had at first seized Olivier’s arm and passionately pressed it, he thought (scrupulous he, too) that it was this that had made him blush.

He had begun by saying:

“I tried to force myself to believe that you wouldn’t come, but in reality I was certain that you would.”

Then it came over him that Olivier thought these words presumptuous. When he heard him answer in an off-hand way: “I had a job to do in this very neighbourhood,” he dropped Olivier’s arm and his spirits fell from their heights. He would have liked to ask Olivier whether he had understood that the post-card which he had addressed to his parents, had been really intended for him; as he was on the point of putting the question, his heart failed him. Olivier, who was afraid of boring Edouard or of being misunderstood if he spoke of himself, kept silent. He looked at Edouard and was astonished at the trembling of his lip; then he dropped his eyes at once. Edouard was both longing for the look and afraid that Olivier would think him too old. He kept rolling a bit of paper nervously between his fingers. It was the ticket he had just been given at the cloak-room, but he did not think of that.

“If it was his cloak-room ticket,” thought Olivier, as he watched him crumple it up and throw it absent-mindedly away, “he wouldn’t throw it away like that.” And he glanced round for a second to see the wind carry it off along the pavement far behind them. If he had looked longer he might have seen a young man pick it up. It was Bernard, who had been following them ever since they had left the station.… In the mean while Olivier was in despair at finding nothing to say to Edouard, and the silence between them became intolerable.

“When we get opposite Condorcet,” he kept repeating to himself, “I shall say, ‘I must go home now; good-bye.’ ”

Then, when they got opposite the Lycée, he gave himself till as far as the corner of the Rue de Provence. But Edouard, on whom the silence was weighing quite as heavily, could not endure that they should part in this way. He drew his companion into a café. Perhaps the port wine which he ordered would help them to get the better of their embarrassment.

They drank to each other.

“Good luck to you!” said Edouard, raising his glass. “When is the examination?”

“In ten days.”

“Do you feel ready?”

Olivier shrugged his shoulders. “One never knows. If one doesn’t happen to be in good form on the day …”

He didn’t dare answer “yes,” for fear of seeming conceited. He was embarrassed, too, because he wanted and yet was afraid to say “thou” to Edouard. He contented himself by giving his sentences an impersonal turn, so as to avoid at any rate saying “you”; and by so doing he deprived Edouard of the opportunity of begging him to say “thou”—which Edouard longed for him to do and which he remembered well enough he had done a few days before his leaving for England.

“Have you been working?”

“Pretty well, but not as well as I might have.”

“People who work well always think they might work better,” said Edouard rather pompously.

He said it in spite of himself and then thought his sentence ridiculous.

“Do you still write poetry?”

“Sometimes … I badly want a little advice.” He raised his eyes to Edouard. “Your advice,” he wanted to say—“thy advice.” And his look, in default of his voice, said it so plainly that Edouard thought he was saying it out of deference—out of amiability. But why should he have answered—and so brusquely too …?

“Oh, one must go to oneself for advice, or to companions of one’s own age. One’s elders are no use.”

Olivier thought: “I didn’t ask him. Why is he protesting?”

Each of them was vexed with himself for not being able to utter a word that didn’t sound curt and stiff; and each of them, feeling the other’s embarrassment and irritation, thought himself the cause and object of them. Such interviews lead to no good unless something comes to the rescue. Nothing came.

Olivier had begun the morning badly. When, on waking up, he had found that Bernard was no longer beside him, that he had left him without saying good-bye, his heart had been filled with unhappiness; though he had forgotten it for an instant in the joy of seeing Edouard, it now surged up in him anew like a black wave and submerged every other thought in his mind. He would have liked to talk about Bernard, to tell Edouard everything and anything, to make him interested in his friend.

But Edouard’s slightest smile would have wounded him; and as the passionate and tumultuous feelings which were shaking him could not have been expressed without the risk of seeming exaggerated, he kept silence. He felt his features harden; he would have liked to fling himself into Edouard’s arms and cry. Edouard misunderstood this silence of Olivier’s and the look of sternness on his face; he loved him far too much to be able to behave with any ease. He hardly dared look at Olivier, whom he longed to take in his arms and fondle like a child, and when he met his eyes and saw their dull and lifeless expression:

“Of course!” he said to himself. “I bore him—I bore him to death. Poor child! He’s just waiting for a word from me to escape.” And irresistibly Edouard said the word—out of sheer pity: “You’d better be off now. Your people are expecting you for lunch, I’m sure.”

Olivier, who was thinking the same things, misunderstood in the same way. He got up in a desperate hurry and held out his hand. At least he wanted to say to Edouard: “Shall I see you—thee—again soon? Shall we see each other again soon?” … Edouard was waiting for these words. Nothing came but a commonplace “Good-bye!”