The Counterfeiters V : Vincent Meets Passavant at Lady Griffith’s

C’était une âme et un corps où n’entrait jamais l’aiguillon.


Lilian half sat up and put the tips of her fingers on Robert’s chestnut hair. “Take care, my dear. You are hardly thirty yet and you’re beginning to get thin on the top. Baldness wouldn’t be at all becoming to you. You take life too seriously.”

Robert raised his face and looked at her, smiling. “Not when I am with you, I assure you.”

“Did you tell Molinier to come?”

“Yes, as you asked me to.”

“And … you lent him money?”

“Five thousand francs, as I told you … and he’ll lose it, like the rest.”

“Why should he lose it?”

“He’s bound to. I saw him the first evening. He plays anyhow.”

“He’s had time to learn.… Will you make a bet that to-night he’ll win?”

“If you like.”

“Oh, please don’t take it as a penance. I like people to do what they do willingly.”

“Don’t be cross. Agreed then. If he wins, he’ll pay the money back to you. But if he loses, it’s you who’ll pay me. Is that all right?”

She pressed a bell.

“Bring a bottle of Tokay and three glasses, please.… And if he comes back with the five thousand and no more—he shall keep it, eh? If he neither loses nor wins.… ”

“That’s unheard of. It’s odd what an interest you take in him.”

“It’s odd that you don’t think him interesting.”

“You think him interesting because you’re in love with him.”

“Yes, my dear boy, that’s true. One doesn’t mind admitting that to you. But that’s not the reason he interests me. On the contrary—as a rule, when my head’s attracted, the rest of me turns cold.”

A servant came in with wine and glasses on a tray.

“First of all let’s seal our bet, and afterwards we’ll have another glass in honour of the winner.”

The servant poured out the wine and they drank to each other.

“Personally, I think your Vincent a bore.”

“Oh, ‘my Vincent’!… As if it hadn’t been you who brought him here! And then, I advise you not to go repeating everywhere that you think him a bore. Your reason for frequenting him would be too obvious.”

Robert turned a little to put his lips on Lilian’s bare foot; she drew it away quickly and covered it with her fan.

“Must I blush?” said he.

“It’s not worthwhile trying as far as I am concerned. You couldn’t succeed.”

She emptied her glass, and then:

“D’you know what, my dear friend? You have all the qualities of a man of letters—you are vain, hypocritical, fickle, selfish.… ”

“You are too flattering!”

“Yes; that’s all very charming—but you’ll never be a good novelist.”


“Because you don’t know how to listen.”

“It seems to me I’m listening admirably.”

“Pooh! He isn’t a writer and he listens a great deal better. But when we are together, I am the one to listen.”

“He hardly knows how to speak.”

“That’s because you never stop talking yourself.”

“I know everything he’s going to say beforehand.”

“You think so? Do you know the story of his affair with that woman?”

“Oh! Love affairs! The dullest things in the world!”

“And then I like it when he talks about natural history.”

“Natural history is even duller than love affairs. Does he give you lectures then?”

“If I could only repeat what he says.… It’s thrilling, my dear friend. He tells me all sorts of things about the deep seas. I’ve always been particularly curious about creatures that live in the sea. You know that in America they make boats with glass let into the sides, so that you can go to the bottom of the sea and look all round you. They say that the sights are simply marvellous—live coral and … and … what do you call them?… madrepores, and sponges, and sea-weeds, and great shoals of fish. Vincent says that there are certain kinds of fish which die according as the water becomes more salt or less, and that there are others, on the contrary, which can live in any degree of salt water; and that they swim about on the edge of the currents, where the water becomes less salt, so as to prey on the others when their strength fails them. You ought to get him to talk to you about it.… I assure you it’s most curious. When he talks about things like that, he becomes extraordinary. You wouldn’t recognize him.… But you don’t know how to get him to talk.… It’s like when he tells me about his affair with Laura Douviers—yes, that’s her name.… Do you know how he got to know her?”

“Did he tell you?”

“People tell me everything. You know they do, you shocking creature!” And she stroked his face with the feathers of her closed fan.

“Did you suspect that he had been to see me every single day since the evening you first brought him?”

“Every day? No, really! I didn’t suspect that.”

“On the fourth, he couldn’t resist any longer; he came out with the whole thing. But on every day following, he kept adding details.”

“And it didn’t bore you? You’re a wonder!”

“I told you, my dear, that I love him.” And she seized his arm emphatically.

“And he … loves the other woman?”

Lilian laughed.

“He did love her. Oh, I had to pretend at first to be deeply interested in her. I even had to weep with him. And all the time I was horribly jealous. I’m not any more now. Just listen how it began. They were at Pau together in the same home—a sanatorium, where they had been sent because they were supposed to be tuberculous. In reality, they weren’t, either of them. But they thought they were very ill. They were strangers, and the first time they saw each other was on the terrace in the garden, where they were lying side by side on their deck chairs; and all round them were other patients, who spend the whole day lying out of doors in the sun to get cured. As they thought they were doomed to die an early death, they persuaded themselves that nothing they did would be of any consequence. He kept repeating all the time that they neither of them had more than a month to live—and it was the springtime. She was there all alone. Her husband is a little French professor in England. She left him to go to Pau. She had been married six months. He had to pinch and starve to send her there. He used to write to her every day. She’s a young woman of very good family—very well brought up—very reserved—very shy. But once there—I don’t exactly know what he can have said to her, but on the third day she confessed that though she lay with her husband and belonged to him, she did not know the meaning of the word pleasure.”

“And what did he say then?”

“He took her hand, as it hung down beside her chair, and pressed a long kiss upon it.”

“And when he told you that, what did you say?”

“I? Oh, frightful! Only fancy! I went off into a fou rire. I couldn’t prevent myself, and once I had begun, I couldn’t stop.… It’s not so much what he said that made me laugh—it was the air of interest and consternation which I thought it necessary to take, in order to encourage him to go on. I was afraid of seeming too much amused. And then, in reality, it was all very beautiful and touching. You can’t imagine how moved he was when he told me about it. He had never spoken of it to anyone before. Of course his parents know nothing about it.”

“You are the person who ought to write novels.”

“Parbleu, mon cher, if only I knew what language to write them in!… But what with Russian, English and French, I should never be able to choose—Well, the following night he went to his new friend’s room and there taught her what her husband had never been able to teach—and I expect he made a very good master. Only as they were convinced that they had only a short time to live, they naturally took no precautions, and, naturally, after a little while, with the help of love, they both began to get much better. When she realized she was enceinte, they were in a terrible state. It was last month. It was beginning to get hot. Pau in the summer is intolerable. They came back to Paris together. Her husband thinks she is with her parents, who have a boarding school near the Luxembourg; but she didn’t dare to go to them. Her parents, on the other hand, think she is still in Pau; but it must all come out soon. Vincent swore at first not to abandon her; he proposed going away with her—anywhere—to America—to the Pacific. But they had no money. It was just at that moment that he met you and began to play.”

“He didn’t tell me any of all this.”

“Whatever happens, don’t let him know that I’ve told you.”

She stopped and listened a moment.

“I thought I heard him.… He told me that, during the railway journey from Pau to Paris, he thought she was going mad. She had only just begun to realize she was going to have a child. She was sitting opposite him in the railway carriage; they were alone. She hadn’t spoken to him the whole morning; he had had to make all the arrangements for the journey by himself—she was absolutely inert—she seemed not to know what was going on. He took her hands, but she looked straight in front of her with haggard eyes, as if she didn’t see him, and her lips kept moving. He bent towards her. She was saying: ‘A lover! A lover! I’ve got a lover!’ She kept on repeating it in the same tone; and still the same word kept coming from her over and over again, as if it were the only one she remembered. I assure you, Robert, that when he told me that, I didn’t feel in the least inclined to laugh any more. I’ve never in my life heard anything more pathetic. But all the same, I felt that as he was speaking he was detaching himself more and more from the whole thing. It was as though his feeling were passing away in the same breath as his words; it was as though he were grateful to my emotion for coming to relay his own.”

“I don’t know how you would say it in Russian or English, but I assure you that, in French, you do it exceedingly well.”

“Thanks. I’m aware of it—It was after that, that he began to talk to me about natural history; and I tried to persuade him that it would be monstrous to sacrifice his career to his love.”

“In other words, you advised him to sacrifice his love. And is it your intention to take the place of that love?”

Lilian remained silent.

“This time, I think it really is he,” went on Robert, rising. “Quick! one word before he comes in. My father died this evening.”

“Ah!” she said simply.

“You haven’t a fancy to become Comtesse de Passavant, have you?”

At this Lilian flung herself back with a burst of laughter.

“Oh, oh, my dear friend! The fact is I have a vague recollection that I’ve mislaid a husband somewhere or other in England. What! I never told you?”

“Not that I remember.”

“You might have guessed it; as a rule a Lady’s accompanied by a Lord.”

The Comte de Passavant, who had never had much faith in the authenticity of his friend’s title, smiled. She went on: “Is it to cloak your own life, that you’ve taken it into your head to propose such a thing to me? No, my dear friend, no. Let’s stay as we are. Friends, eh?” And she held out her hand, which he kissed.

“Ah! Ah! I thought as much,” cried Vincent, as he came into the room. “The traitor! He has dressed!”

“Yes, I had promised not to change, so as to keep him in countenance,” said Robert. “I’m sorry, my dear fellow, but I suddenly remembered I was in mourning.”

Vincent held his head high. An air of triumph and of joy breathed from his whole person. At his arrival, Lilian had sprung to her feet. She looked him up and down for a moment, then rushed joyously at Robert and began belabouring his back with her fists, jumping, dancing and exclaiming as she did so. (Lilian irritates me rather when she puts on this affectation of childishness.)

“He has lost his bet! He has lost his bet!”

“What bet?” asked Vincent.

“He had bet that you would lose your money again to-night. Tell us! Quickly! You’ve won. How much?”

“I have had the extraordinary courage—and virtue—to leave off at fifty thousand and come away.”

Lilian gave a roar of delight.

“Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” she cried. Then she flung her arms round Vincent’s neck. From head to foot, he felt her glowing, lissom body, with its strange perfume of sandal-wood, pressed against his own; and Lilian kissed him on the forehead, on the cheeks, on the lips. Vincent staggered and freed himself. He took a bundle of bank-notes out of his pocket.

“Here! take back what you advanced me,” he said, holding out five of them to Robert.

“No,” answered Robert. “It is to Lady Lilian that you owe them now.” And he handed her the notes, which she flung on to the divan. She was panting. She went out on the terrace to breathe. It was that ambiguous hour when night is drawing to an end, and the devil casts up his accounts. Outside not a sound was to be heard. Vincent had seated himself on the divan. Lilian turned towards him:

“And now, what do you mean to do?” she asked; and for the first time she called him “thou.”

He put his head between his hands and said with a kind of sob:

“I don’t know.”

Lilian went up to him and put her hand on his forehead; he raised it and his eyes were dry and burning.

“In the meantime, we’ll drink each other’s health,” said she, and she filled the three glasses with Tokay. After they had drunk:

“Now you must go. It’s late and I’m tired out.” She accompanied them into the antechamber and then, as Robert went out first, she slipped a little metal object into Vincent’s hand. “Go out with him,” she whispered, “and come back in a quarter of an hour.”

In the antechamber a footman was dozing. She shook him by the arm.

“Light these gentlemen downstairs,” she said.

The staircase was dark. It would have been a simple matter, no doubt, to make use of electric light, but she made it a point that her visitors should always be shown out by a servant.

The footman lighted the candles in a big candelabra, which he held high above him and preceded Robert and Vincent downstairs. Robert’s car was waiting outside the door, which the footman shut behind them.

“I think I shall walk home. I need a little exercise to steady my nerves,” said Vincent, as the other opened the door of the motor and signed to him to get in.

“Don’t you really want me to take you home?” And Robert suddenly seized Vincent’s left hand, which he was holding shut. “Open your hand! Come! Show us what you’ve got there!”

Vincent was simpleton enough to be afraid of Robert’s jealousy. He blushed as he loosened his fingers and a little key fell on to the pavement. Robert picked it up at once, looked at it and gave it back to Vincent with a laugh.

“Ho! Ho!” he said and shrugged his shoulders. Then as he was getting into his car, he turned back to Vincent, who was standing there looking a little foolish:

“It’s Thursday morning. Tell your brother that I expect him this afternoon at four o’clock.” And he shut the door of the carriage quickly without giving Vincent time to answer.

The car went off. Vincent walked a few paces along the quay, crossed the Seine, and went on till he reached the part of the Tuileries which lies outside the railings; going up to the little fountain, he soaked his handkerchief in the water and pressed it on to his forehead and his temples. Then, slowly, he walked back towards Lilian’s house. There let us leave him, while the devil watches him with amusement as he noiselessly slips the little key into the keyhole.…

It is at this same hour that Laura, his yesterday’s mistress, is at last dropping off to sleep in her gloomy little hotel room, after having long wept, long bemoaned herself. On the deck of the ship which is bringing him back to France, Edouard, in the first light of the dawn, is re-reading her letter—the plaintive letter in which she appeals for help. The gentle shores of his native land are already in sight, though scarcely visible through the morning mist to any but a practised eye. Not a cloud is in the heavens, where the glance of God will soon be smiling. The horizon is already lifting a rosy eyelid. How hot it is going to be in Paris! It is time to return to Bernard. Here he is, just awaking in Olivier’s bed.