The Counterfeiters V : Olivier Meets Bernard

Il ne faut prendre, si je ne me trompe, que la fleur de chaque objet.…


Olivier, who had returned to Paris the day before, arose that morning fresh and rested. The air was warm, the sky pure. When he went out, after his shave and his shower-bath, elegantly dressed, conscious of his strength, his youth, his beauty, Passavant was still sleeping.

Olivier hastened to the Sorbonne. This was the morning that Bernard had to go up for his examination. How did Olivier know that? But perhaps he didn’t know it. He was going to find out.

He quickened his step. He had not seen his friend since the night that Bernard came to take refuge in his room. What changes since then! Who knows whether he was not more anxious to show himself to his friend than to see him. A pity that Bernard cared so little about elegance. But it’s a taste that sometimes comes with affluence. Olivier knew that by experience, thanks to the Comte de Passavant.

Bernard was doing his written examination this morning. He wouldn’t be out before twelve. Olivier waited for him in the quadrangle. He recognized a few of his school-fellows, shook a few hands. He felt slightly embarrassed by his clothes. He felt still more so when Bernard, free at last, came up to him in the quadrangle and exclaimed, with outstretched hand:

“Oh, dear! how lovely he is!”

Olivier, who had thought he would never blush again, blushed. He could not but feel the irony of these words, notwithstanding the cordiality of their tone. As for Bernard, he was still wearing the same suit he had on the evening of his flight. He had not been expecting to see Olivier. With his arm in his, he drew him along, questioning as they went. He felt a sudden shock of joy at seeing him. If at first he smiled a little at the refinement of his dress, it was with no malice; his heart was good; he was without bitterness.

“You’ll lunch with me, won’t you? Yes; I have got to go back at one thirty for Latin. This morning it was French.”


“I am, yes; but I don’t know whether the examiners will be. We had to discuss these lines from La Fontaine:

‘Papillon du Parnasse, et semblable aux abeilles

A qui le bon Platon compare nos merveilles,

Je suis chose légère et vole à tout sujet,

Je vais de fleur en fleur et d’objet en objet.’

How would you have done it?”

Olivier could not resist a desire to shine:

“I should have said that La Fontaine, in painting himself, had painted the portrait of the artist—of the man who consents to take merely the outside of things, their surface, their bloom. Then I should have contrasted with that the portrait of the scholar, the seeker, the man who goes deep into things, and I should have shown that while the scholar seeks, the artist finds; that the man who goes deep, gets stuck, the man who gets stuck, gets sunk—up to his eyes and over them; that the truth is the appearance of things, that their secret is their form and that what is deepest in man is his skin.”

This last phrase Olivier had stolen from Passavant, who himself had gathered it from the lips of Paul-Ambroise, as he was discoursing one day in a lady’s drawing-room. Everything that was not printed was fish for Passavant’s net; what he called “ideas in the air”—that is to say—other people’s.

Something or other in Olivier’s tone showed Bernard that this phrase was not his own. Olivier’s voice did not seem at home in it. Bernard was on the point of asking: “Whose?” But besides not wishing to hurt his friend, he was afraid of hearing Passavant’s name, which up till now had not been pronounced. Bernard contented himself with giving his friend a searching look; and Olivier, for the second time, blushed.

Bernard’s surprise at hearing the sentimental Olivier give voice to ideas which were entirely different from those which he had once known him to have, immediately gave place to violent indignation; he was overwhelmed by something as sudden and surprising and irresistible as a cyclone. And it was not precisely against the ideas themselves that he was angry—though they struck him as absurd. And even perhaps, after all, they were not as absurd as all that. In his collection of contradictory opinions, he might have written them down on the page facing his own. Had they been genuinely Olivier’s ideas, he would not have been angry either with him or with them; but he felt there was someone hidden behind them; it was with Passavant that he was angry.

“It’s with ideas like those that France is being poisoned!” he cried in a muffled, vehement voice. He took a high stand. He wished to outsoar Passavant. And he was himself surprised at what he said—as if his words had preceded his thoughts; and yet it was these very thoughts he had developed that morning in his essay; but he felt shamefaced at expressing what he called “fine sentiments,” particularly when he was talking to Olivier. As soon as they were put into words, they seemed to him less sincere. So that Olivier had never heard his friend speak of the interests of “France”; it was his turn to be surprised. He opened his eyes wide, without even thinking of smiling. Was it really Bernard? He repeated stupidly:

“France? …” Then, so as to disengage his responsibility—for Bernard was decidedly not joking:

“But, old boy, it isn’t I who think so, it’s La Fontaine.”

Bernard became almost aggressive:

“By Jove, I know well enough it isn’t you who think so. But, my dear fellow, it isn’t La Fontaine either. If he had only had that lightness, which, for that matter, he regretted and apologized for at the end of his life, he would never have been the artist we admire. That’s just what I said in my essay this morning, and I brought a great many quotations in support of my theory—for you know I’ve a fairly good memory. But I soon left La Fontaine, and taking as my text the justification these lines might afford to a certain class of superficial minds, I just let myself go in a tirade against the spirit of carelessness, of flippancy, of irony, of what is called ‘French wit,’ which some people think is the spirit of France, and which sometimes gives us such a deplorable reputation among foreigners. I said that we ought not to consider all this as even the smile of France, but as her grimace; that the real spirit of France was a spirit of investigation, of logic, of devotedness, of patient thoroughness; and if La Fontaine had not been animated by that spirit, he might have written his tales, but never his fables nor the admirable epistle (I showed that I knew it) from which the line we had to comment upon were taken. Yes, old boy, a violent attack—perhaps I shall get ploughed for it. But I don’t care two straws; I had to say it.”

Olivier had not particularly meant what he had said just before. He had yielded to his desire to be brilliant and to bring out, as it were carelessly, a sentence which he thought would tremendously impress his friend. But now that Bernard took it in this way, there was nothing for him to do but to beat a retreat. But his great weakness lay in the fact that he was in much more need of Bernard’s affection than Bernard of his. Bernard’s speech had humiliated, mortified him. He was vexed with himself for having spoken too soon. It was too late now to go back on it—to agree with Bernard, as he certainly would have done if he had let him speak first. But how could he have foreseen that Bernard, whom he remembered so scathingly subversive, would set up as a defender of feelings and ideas which Passavant had taught him could not be considered without a smile? But he really had no desire to smile now; he was ashamed. And as he could neither retract nor contradict Bernard, whose genuine emotion he couldn’t help respecting, his one idea was to protect himself—to slip out of it.

“Oh! well, if you put that in your essay, it wasn’t against me that you were saying it.… I’m glad of that.”

He spoke as though he were vexed—not at all in the tone he would have liked.

“But it is against you that I am saying it now,” retorted Bernard.

These words cut straight at Olivier’s heart. Bernard had certainly not said them with a hostile intention, but how else could they be taken? Olivier was silent. Between Bernard and him a gulf was yawning. He tried to think of some question to fling from one side of the gulf to the other which might reestablish the contact. He tried, without much hope of succeeding. “Doesn’t he understand how miserable I am?” he said to himself, and he grew more miserable still. He did not have to force back his tears, perhaps, but he said to himself that it was enough to make anyone cry. It was his own fault, too; his meeting with Bernard would have seemed less sad if he had looked forward to it with less joy. When two months before he had hurried off to meet Edouard, it had been the same thing. It would always be the same thing, he said to himself. He wanted to go away—anywhere—by himself—to chuck Bernard—to forget Passavant, Edouard.… An unexpected meeting suddenly interrupted these melancholy thoughts.

A few steps in front of them, going up the Boulevard Saint-Michel, along which he and Bernard were walking, Olivier caught sight of his young brother George. He seized Bernard’s arm, and, turning sharply on his heel, drew him hurriedly along with him.

“Do you think he saw us?… My people don’t know I’m back.”

Young George was not alone. Léon Ghéridanisol and Philippe Adamanti were with him. The conversation of the three boys was exceedingly animated; but George’s interest in it did not prevent him from keeping “his eyes skinned,” as he said. In order to listen to the children’s talk we will leave Olivier and Bernard for a moment; especially since our two friends have gone into a restaurant, and are for the moment more occupied in eating than in talking—to Olivier’s great relief.

“Well then, you do it,” says Phiphi to George.

“Oh, he’s got the dithers! He’s got the dithers!” retorts George, putting what cold contempt he can into his voice, so as to goad Philippe to action. Then says Ghéridanisol with calm superiority:

“Look here, my lambs, if you aren’t game, you had better say so at once. I shan’t have any difficulty in finding fellows with a little more pluck than you. Here! Give it back!”

He turns to George, who is holding a small coin in his tight-shut hand.

“I’ll do it!” cries George, in a sudden burst of courage. “Won’t I just! Come on!” (They are opposite a tobacco shop.)

“No,” says Léon; “we’ll wait for you at the corner. Come along, Phiphi.”

A moment later George comes out of the shop; he has a packet of so-called “de luxe” cigarettes in his hand and offers them to his friends.

“Well?” asks Phiphi anxiously.

“Well, what?” replies George with an air of affected indifference, as if what he has just done has suddenly become so natural that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

But Philippe insists:

“Did you pass it?”

“Good Lord! Didn’t I?”

“And nobody said anything?”

George shrugged his shoulders:

“What on earth should they say?”

“And they gave you back the change?”

This time George doesn’t even deign to answer. But as Philippe, still a little sceptical and fearful, insists again: “Show us,” George pulls the money out of his pocket. Philippe counts—the seven francs are there right enough. He feels inclined to ask: “Are you sure they aren’t false too?” But he refrains.

George had given one franc for the false coin. It had been agreed that the money should be divided between them. He holds out three francs to Ghéridanisol. As for Phiphi, he shan’t have a farthing; at the outside a cigarette; it’ll be a lesson to him.

Encouraged by this first success, Phiphi is now anxious to try for himself. He asks Léon to sell him another coin. But Léon considers Phiphi a muff, and in order to screw him up to the right pitch, he affects contempt for his former cowardice and pretends to hold back. He had only to make up his mind sooner; they could very well do without him. Besides which, Léon thinks it imprudent to risk another attempt to close upon the first. And then it’s too late now. His cousin Strouvilhou is expecting him to lunch.

Ghéridanisol is not such a duffer that he can’t pass his false coins by himself; but his big cousin’s instructions are that he is to get himself accomplices. He goes off now to give him an account of his successfully performed mission.

“The kids we want, you see, are those who come of good families, because then if rumours get about, their parents do all they can to stifle them.” (It is Cousin Strouvilhou who is talking in this way, while the two are having lunch together.) “Only with this system of selling the coins one by one, they get put into circulation too slowly. I’ve got fifty-two boxes containing twenty coins each, to dispose of. They must be sold for twenty francs a box; but not to anyone, you understand. The best thing would be to form an association to which no one should be admitted who didn’t furnish pledges. The kids must be made to compromise themselves, and hand over something or other which will give us a hold over their parents. Before letting them have the coins, they must be made to understand that—oh! without frightening them. One must never frighten children. You told me Molinier’s father was a magistrate? Good. And Adamanti’s father?”

“A senator.”

“Better still. You’re old enough now to grasp that there’s no family without some skeleton or other in the cupboard, which the people concerned are terrified of having discovered. The kids must be set hunting; it’ll give them something to do. Family life as a rule is so boring! And then it’ll teach them to observe, to look about them. It’s quite simple. Those who contribute nothing will get nothing. When certain parents understand that they are in our hands, they’ll pay a high price for our silence. What the deuce! we have no intention of blackmailing them; we are honest folk. We merely want to have a hold on them. Their silence for ours. Let them keep silent and make other people keep silent, and then we’ll keep silent too. Here’s a health to them!”

Strouvilhou filled two glasses. They drank to each other.

“It’s a good—it’s even an indispensable thing,” he went on, “to create ties of reciprocity between citizens; by so doing societies are solidly established. We all hold together, good Lord! We have a hold on the children, who have a hold on their parents, who have a hold on us. A perfect arrangement. Twig?”

Léon twigged admirably. He chuckled.

“That little George …” he began.

“Well, what about him? That little George …?”

“Molinier. I think he’s pretty well screwed up. He has laid his hands on some letters to his father from an Olympia chorus girl.”

“Have you seen them?”

“He showed them to me. I overheard him talking to Adamanti. I think they were pleased at my listening to them; at any rate they didn’t hide from me; I had already taken steps and treated them to a little entertainment in your style, to inspire them with confidence. George said to Phiphi (to give him a stunner): ‘My father’s got a mistress.’ Upon which, Phiphi, not to be outdone, answered: ‘My father’s got two.’ It was idiotic and really nothing to make a fuss about; but I went up to George and said: ‘How do you know?’ ‘I’ve seen some letters,” he answered. I pretended I didn’t believe him and said: ‘Rubbish!’ … Well, I went on at him, until at last he said he had got them with him; he pulled them out of a big lettercase and showed them to me.”

“Did you read them?”

“I didn’t have time to. I only saw they were all in the same handwriting; one of them began: ‘My darling old ducky.’ ”

“And signed?”

“ ‘Your little white mousie.’ I asked George how he had got hold of them. He grinned and pulled out of his trouser pocket an enormous bunch of keys.… ‘To fit every drawer in the universe,’ said he.”

“And what did Master Phiphi say?”

“Nothing. I think he was jealous.”

“Would George give you the letters?”

“If necessary I’ll get him to. I don’t want to take them from him. He’ll give them if Phiphi joins in, too. They each of them egg the other on.”

“That’s what goes by the name of emulation. And you don’t see anyone else at the school?”

“I’ll look about.”

“One thing more I wanted to say.… I think there must be a little boy called Boris amongst the boarders. You’re to leave him alone”; he paused a moment and then added in a whisper: “for the moment.”

Olivier and Bernard are seated at a table in one of the Boulevard restaurants. Olivier’s unhappiness melts like hoarfrost in the warmth of his friend’s smile. Bernard avoids pronouncing Passavant’s name; Olivier feels it; a secret instinct warns him; but the name is on the tip of his tongue; he must speak, come what may.

“Yes; I didn’t let my people know we were coming back so soon. This evening the Argonauts are giving a dinner. Passavant particularly wants me to be present. He wishes our new review to be on good terms with its elder and not to set up as a rival.… You ought to come; and I tell you what … you ought to bring Edouard.… Perhaps not to dinner, because one’s got to be invited, but immediately after. It’s to be in the upstairs room of the Taverne du Panthéon. The principal members of the Argonaut staff will be there and a good many of our own Vanguard contributors. Our first number is nearly ready; but, I say, why didn’t you send me anything?”

“Because I hadn’t anything ready,” he answers rather curtly.

Olivier’s voice becomes almost imploring:

“I put your name down next to mine in the list of contents.… We could wait a little, if necessary … no matter what; anything.… You had almost promised.”

It grieves Bernard to hurt his friend; but he hardens himself:

“Look here, old boy, I had better tell you at once—I’m afraid I shouldn’t hit it off with Passavant very well.”

“But it’s I who am the editor. He leaves me perfectly free.”

“And then I dislike the idea of sending you no matter what; I don’t want to write no matter what.”

“I said no matter what, because I knew that no matter what you wrote would be good … that it would never really be no matter what.”

He doesn’t know what to say. He is just floundering. If he cannot feel his friend beside him, all his interest in the review vanishes. It had been such a delightful dream, this of making their début together.

“And then, old fellow, if I’m beginning to know what I don’t want to do. I don’t know yet what I do want to do. I don’t even know whether I shall write.”

This declaration fills Olivier with consternation. But Bernard goes on:

“Nothing that I could write easily tempts me. It’s because I can turn my sentences easily that I have a detestation of well-turned sentences. Not that I like difficulty for its own sake; but I really do think that writers of the present time take things a bit too easy. I don’t know enough about other people’s lives to write a novel; and I haven’t yet had a life of my own. Poetry bores me. The alexandrine is worn threadbare; the vers libre is formless. The only poet who satisfies me nowadays is Rimbaud.”

“That’s exactly what I say in our manifesto.”

“Then it’s not worth while my repeating it. No, old boy; no; I don’t know whether I shall write. It sometimes seems to me that writing prevents one from living, and that one can express oneself better by acts than by words.”

“Works of art are acts that endure,” ventured Olivier timidly; but Bernard was not listening.

“That’s what I admire most of all in Rimbaud—to have preferred life.”

“He made a mess of his own.”

“What do you know about it?”

“Oh! really, old boy! …”

“One can’t judge other people’s lives from the outside. But anyhow, let’s grant he was a failure; with ill-luck, poverty, illness to bear.… Even so, I envy him his life; yes, I envy it more—even with its sordid ending—more than the life of …”

Bernard did not finish his sentence; on the point of naming an illustrious contemporary, he hesitated between too many of them. He shrugged his shoulders and went on:

“I have a confused feeling in myself of extraordinary aspirations, surgings, stirrings, incomprehensible agitations, which I don’t want to understand—which I don’t even want to observe, for fear of preventing them. Not so long ago, I was constantly talking to myself. Now, even if I wanted to, I shouldn’t be able to. It was a mania that come to an end suddenly, without my even being aware of it. I think that this habit of soliloquizing—of inward dialogue, as our professor used to call it—necessitated a kind of division of the personality, which I ceased to be capable of, the day that I began to love someone else better than myself.”

“You mean Laura,” said Olivier. “Do you still love her as much as ever?”

“No,” said Bernard; “more than ever. I think it’s the special quality of love not to be able to remain stationary, to be obliged to increase under pain of diminishing; and that’s what distinguishes it from friendship.”

“Friendship, too, can grow less,” said Olivier sadly.

“I think that the margins of friendship aren’t so wide.”

“I say … you won’t be angry if I ask you something?”


“I don’t want to make you angry.”

“If you keep your questions to yourself, you’ll make me more angry still.”

“I want to know whether you feel … desire for Laura.”

Bernard suddenly became very grave.

“If it weren’t you …” he began. “Well, old boy, it’s a curious thing that’s happened to me: ever since I have come to know her, all my desires have gone; I have none left at all. You remember in the old days how I used to be all fire and flame for twenty women at once whom I happened to pass by in the street (and that’s the very thing that prevented me from choosing any one of them); well, now it seems to me that I shall never be touched again by any other form of beauty than hers; that I shall never be able to love any other forehead than hers; her lips, her eyes. But what I feel for her is veneration; when I am with her every carnal thought seems an impiety. I think I was mistaken about myself, and that in reality I am very chaste by nature. Thanks to Laura, my instincts have been sublimated. I feel I have within me great unemployed forces. I should like to make them take up service. I envy the Carthusian who bends his pride to the rule of his order; the person to whom one says: “I count upon you.” I envy the soldier.… Or rather, no; I envy no one; but the turbulence I feel within me oppresses me and my aspiration is to discipline it. It’s like steam inside me; it may whistle as it escapes (that’s poetry), put in motion wheels and pistons; or even burst the engine. Do you know the act which I sometimes think would express me best? It’s … Oh! I know well enough I shan’t kill myself; but I understand Dmitri Karamazof perfectly when he asks his brother if he understands a person killing himself out of enthusiasm, out of sheer excess of life … just bursting.”

An extraordinary radiance shone from his whole being. How well he expressed himself! Olivier gazed at him in a kind of ecstasy.

“So do I,” he murmured timidly, “I understand killing oneself too; but it would be after having tasted a joy so great, that all one’s life to come would seem pale beside it; a joy so great, that it would make one feel: ‘I have had enough. I am content; never again shall I …’ ”

But Bernard was not listening. He stopped. What was the use of talking to empty air? All his sky clouded over again. Bernard took out his watch:

“I must be off. Well then, this evening, you say?… What time?”

“Oh, I should think ten would be early enough. Will you come?”

“Yes. I’ll try to bring Edouard, too. But you know he doesn’t much care for Passavant; and literary gatherings bore him. It would only be to see you. I say, can’t we meet somewhere after my Latin paper?” Olivier did not immediately answer. He reflected with despair that he had promised to meet Passavant that afternoon at the printer’s to talk over the printing of the Vanguard. What would he not have given to be free?

“I should like to, but I’m engaged.”

No trace of his unhappiness was apparent; and Bernard answered:

“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter.”

And at that the two friends parted.

Olivier had said nothing to Bernard of all he had meant and hoped to say. He was afraid Bernard had taken a dislike to him. He took a dislike to himself. He, so gay, so smart that morning, walked now with lowered head. Passavant’s friendship, of which at first he had been so proud, began to be irksome to him; for he felt Bernard’s reprobation weighing upon it. Even if he were to meet his friend at the dinner that evening, he would be unable to speak to him in front of all those people. He would be unable to enjoy the dinner if they had not come to an understanding beforehand. And what an unfortunate idea his vanity had suggested to him of trying to get Uncle Edouard to come too! There, in the presence of Passavant, surrounded by elder men, by other writers, by the future contributors to the Vanguard, he would be obliged to show off. Edouard would misjudge him still more—misjudge him no doubt irrevocably.… If only he could see him before this evening!… see him at once; he would fling his arms round his neck; he would cry perhaps; he would tell all his troubles.… From now till four o’clock, he has the time. Quick! a taxi.

He gives the address to the chauffeur. He reaches the door with a beating heart; he rings.… Edouard is out.

Poor Olivier! Instead of hiding from his parents, why did he not simply return home? He would have found his Uncle Edouard sitting with his mother.