The Counterfeiters IX : Olivier and Edouard

Armand has lain down in his clothes. He knows he will not be able to sleep. He waits for the night to come to an end. He meditates. He listens. The house is resting, the town, the whole of nature; not a sound.

As soon as a faint light, cast down by the reflector from the narrow strip of sky above, enables him to distinguish once more the hideous squalor of his room, he rises. He goes towards the door which he bolted the night before; opens it gently.…

The curtains of Sarah’s room are not drawn. The rising dawn whitens the window pane. Armand goes up to the bed where his sister and Bernard are resting. A sheet half hides them as they lie with limbs entwined. How beautiful they are! Armand gazes at them and gazes. He would like to be their sleep, their kisses. At first he smiles, then, at the foot of the bed, among the coverings they have flung aside, he suddenly kneels down. To what god can he be praying thus with folded hands? An unspeakable emotion shakes him. His lips are trembling … he rises.…

But on the threshold of the door, he turns. He wants to wake Bernard so that he may gain his own room before anyone in the house is awake. At the slight noise Armand makes, Bernard opens his eyes. Armand hurries away, leaving the door open. He leaves his room, goes downstairs; he will hide no matter where; his presence would embarrass Bernard; he does not want to meet him.

From a window in the class-room a few minutes later, he sees him go by, skirting the walls like a thief.…

Bernard has not slept much. But that night he has tasted a forgetfulness more restful than sleep—the exaltation at once and the annihilation of self. Strange to himself, ethereal, buoyant, calm and tense as a god, he glides into another day. He has left Sarah still asleep-disengaged himself furtively from her arms. What! without one more kiss? Without a last lover’s look? without a supreme embrace? Is it through insensibility that he leaves her in this way? I cannot tell. He cannot tell himself. He tries not to think; it is a difficult task to incorporate this unprecedented night with all the preceding nights of his history. No; it is an appendix, an annex, which can find no place in the body of the book—a book where the story of his life will continue, surely, will take up the thread again, as if nothing had happened.

He goes upstairs to the room he shares with little Boris. What a child! He is fast asleep. Bernard undoes his bed, rumples the bed-clothes, so as to give it the look of having been slept in. He sluices himself with water. But the sight of Boris takes him back to Saas-Fée. He recalls what Laura once said to him there: “I can only accept from you the devotion which you offer me. The rest will have its exigences and will have to be satisfied elsewhere.” This sentence had revolted him. He seems to hear it again. He had ceased to think of it, but this morning his memory is extraordinarily active. His mind works in spite of himself with marvellous alacrity. Bernard thrusts aside Laura’s image, tries to smother these recollections; and, to prevent himself from thinking, he seizes a lesson book and forces himself to read for his examination. But the room is stifling. He goes down to work in the garden. He would like to go out into the street, walk, run, get into the open, breathe the fresh air. He watches the street door; as soon as the porter opens it, he makes off.

He reaches the Luxembourg with his book, and sits down on a bench. He spins his thoughts like silk; but how fragile! If he pulls it, the thread breaks. As soon as he tries to work, indiscreet memories wander obtrusively between his book and him; and not the memories of the keenest moments of his joy, but ridiculous, trifling little details—so many thorns, which catch and scratch and mortify his vanity. Another time he will show himself less of a novice.

About nine o’clock, he gets up to go and fetch Lucien Bercail. Together they make their way to Edouard’s.

Edouard lived at Passy on the top floor of an apartment house. His room opened on to a vast studio. When, in the early dawn, Olivier had risen, Edouard at first had felt no anxiety.

“I’m going to lie down a little on the sofa,” Olivier had said. And as Edouard was afraid he might catch cold, he had told Olivier to take some blankets with him. A little later, Edouard in his turn had risen. He had certainly been asleep without being aware of it, for he was astonished to find that it was now broad daylight. He wanted to see whether Olivier was comfortable; he wanted to see him again; and perhaps an obscure presentiment guided him.…

The studio was empty. The blankets were lying at the foot of the couch unfolded. A horrible smell of gas gave him the alarm. Opening out of the studio, there was a little room which served as a bath-room. The smell no doubt came from there. He ran to the door; but at first was unable to push it open; there was some obstacle—it was Olivier’s body, sunk in a heap beside the bath, undressed, icy, livid and horribly soiled with vomiting.

Edouard turned off the gas which was coming from the jet. What had happened? An accident? A stroke?… He could not believe it. The bath was empty. He took the dying boy in his arms, carried him into the studio, laid him on the carpet, in front of the wide open window. On his knees, stooping tenderly, he put his ear to his chest. Olivier was still breathing, but faintly. Then Edouard, desperately, set all his ingenuity to work to rekindle the little spark of life so near extinction; he moved the limp arms rhythmically up and down, pressed the flanks, rubbed the thorax, tried everything he had heard should be done in a case of suffocation, in despair that he could not do everything at once. Olivier’s eyes remained shut. Edouard raised his eyelids with his fingers, but they dropped at once over lifeless eyes. But yet his heart was beating. He searched in vain for brandy, for smelling salts. He heated some water, washed the upper part of the body and the face. Then he laid this inanimate body on the couch and covered it with blankets. He wanted to send for a doctor, but was afraid to absent himself. A charwoman was in the habit of coming every morning to do the house-work; but not before nine o’clock. As soon as he heard her, he sent her off at once to fetch the nearest doctor; then he called her back, fearing he might be exposed to an enquiry.

Olivier, in the mean time, was slowly coming back to life. Edouard sat beside his couch. He gazed at the shut book of his face, baffled by its riddle. Why? Why? One may act thoughtlessly at night in the heat of intoxication, but the resolutions of early morning carry with them their full weight of virtue. He gave up trying to understand, until at last the moment should come when Olivier would be able to speak. Until that moment came he would not leave him. He had taken one of his hands in his and concentrated his interrogation, his thoughts, his whole life into that contact. At last it seemed to him that he felt Olivier’s hand responding feebly to his clasp.… Then he bent down, and set his lips on the forehead, where an immense and mysterious suffering had drawn its lines.

A ring was heard at the door. Edouard rose to open it. It was Bernard and Lucien Bercail. Edouard kept them in the hall and told them what had happened; then, taking Bernard aside, he asked if he knew whether Olivier was subject to attacks of giddiness, to fits of any kind?… Bernard suddenly remembered their conversation of the day before, and, in particular, some words of Olivier’s which he had hardly listened to at the time, but which came back to him now, as distinctly as if he heard them over again.

“It was I who began to speak of suicide,” said he to Edouard. “I asked him if he understood a person’s killing himself out of mere excess of life, ‘out of enthusiasm,’ as Dmitri Karamazof says. I was absorbed in my thought and at the time I paid no attention to anything but my own words; but I remember now what he answered.”

“What did he answer?” insisted Edouard, for Bernard stopped as though he were reluctant to say anything more.

“That he understood killing oneself, but only after having reached such heights of joy, that anything afterwards must be a descent.”

They both looked at each other and added nothing further. Light was beginning to dawn on them. Edouard at last turned away his eyes; and Bernard was angry with himself for having spoken. They went up to Bercail.

“The tiresome thing is,” said he, “that people may think he has tried to kill himself in order to avoid fighting.”

Edouard had forgotten all about the duel.

“Behave as if nothing had happened,” said he. “Go and find Dhurmer, and ask him to tell you who his seconds are. It is to them that you must explain matters, if the idiotic business doesn’t settle itself. Dhurmer didn’t seem particularly keen.”

“We will tell him nothing,” said Lucien, “and leave him all the shame of retreating. For he will shuffle out of it, I’m certain.”

Bernard asked if he might see Olivier. But Edouard thought he had better be kept quiet.

Bernard and Lucien were just leaving, when young George arrived. He came from Passavant’s, but had not been able to get hold of his brother’s things.

“Monsieur le Comte is not at home,” he had been told. “He has left no orders.”

And the servant had shut the door in his face.

A certain gravity in Edouard’s tone, in the bearing of the two others, alarmed George. He scented something out of the way—made enquiries. Edouard was obliged to tell him.

“But say nothing about it to your parents.”

George was delighted to be let into a secret.

“A fellow can hold his tongue,” said he. And as he had nothing to do that morning, he proposed to accompany Bernard and Lucien on their way to Dhurmer’s.

After his three visitors had left him, Edouard called the charwoman. Next to his own room was a spare room, which he told her to get ready, so that Olivier might be put into it. Then he went noiselessly back to the studio. Olivier was resting. Edouard sat down again beside him. He had taken a book, but he soon threw it aside without having opened it, and watched his friend sleeping.