The Counterfeiters VI : Bernard Awakens

We are all bastards;

And that most venerable man which I

Did call my father, was I know not where

When I was stamped.


Bernard has had an absurd dream. He doesn’t remember his dream. He doesn’t try to remember his dream, but to get out of it. He returns to the world of reality to feel Olivier’s body pressing heavily against him. Whilst they were asleep (or at any rate while Bernard was asleep) his friend had come close up to him—and, for that matter, the bed was too narrow to allow of much distance; he had turned over; he is sleeping on his side now and Bernard feels Olivier’s warm breath tickling his neck. Bernard has nothing on but his short day-shirt; one of Olivier’s arms is flung across him, weighing oppressively and indiscreetly on his flesh. For a moment Bernard is not sure that Olivier is really asleep. He frees himself gently. He gets up without waking Olivier, dresses and then lies down again on the bed. It is still too early to be going. Four o’clock. The night is only just beginning to dwindle. One more hour of rest, one more hour for gathering strength to start the coming day valiantly. But there is no more sleep for him. Bernard stares at the glimmering window pane, at the grey walls of the little room, at the iron bedstead where George is tossing in his dreams.

“In a moment,” he says to himself, “I shall be setting out to meet my fate. Adventure! What a splendid word! The advent of destiny! All the surprising unknown that awaits me! I don’t know if everyone is like me, but as soon as I am awake, I like despising the people who are asleep. Olivier, my friend, I shall go off without waiting for your good-bye. Up! valorous Bernard! The time has come!”

He rubs his face with the corner of a towel dipped in water, brushes his hair, puts on his shoes and leaves the room noiselessly. Out at last!

Ah! the morning air that has not yet been breathed, how life-giving it seems to body and soul! Bernard follows the railings of the Luxembourg Gardens, goes down the Rue Bonaparte, reaches the quays, crosses the Seine. He thinks of the new rule of life which he has only lately formulated: “If I don’t do it, who will? If I don’t do it at once, when shall I?” He thinks: “Great things to do!” He feels that he is going towards them. “Great things!” he repeats to himself, as he walks along. If only he knew what they were!… In the meantime he knows that he is hungry; here he is at the Halles. He has eight sous in his pocket—not a sou more! He goes into a public house and takes a roll and coffee, standing at the bar. Price, six sous. He has two sous left; he gallantly leaves one on the counter and holds out the other to a ragamuffin who is grubbing in a dustbin. Charity? Swagger? What does it matter? He feels as happy as a king. He has nothing left—and the whole world is his!

“I expect anything and everything from Providence,” thinks he. “If only it sets a handsome helping of roast beef before me at lunch time, I shall be willing to strike a bargain”—for last night he had gone without his dinner. The sun has risen long ago. Bernard is back again on the quays now. He feels all lightness. When he runs he feels as though he were flying. His thoughts leap through his brain with delicious ease. He thinks:

“The difficulty in life is to take the same thing seriously for long at a time. For instance, my mother’s love for the person I used to call my father—I believed in it for fifteen years. I still believed in it yesterday. She wasn’t able to take her love seriously, either. I wonder whether I despise her or esteem her the more for having made her son a bastard.… But in reality, I don’t wonder as much as all that. The feelings one has for one’s progenitors are among the things that it’s better not to go into too deeply. As for Mr. Cuckold, it’s perfectly simple—for as far back as I can remember, I’ve always hated him; I must admit now that I didn’t deserve much credit for it—and that’s the only thing I regret. To think that if I hadn’t broken open that drawer I might have gone on all my life believing that I harboured unnatural feelings in my breast towards a father! What a relief to know!… All the same I didn’t exactly break open the drawer; I never even thought of opening it.… And there were extenuating circumstances: first of all I was horribly bored that day. And that curiosity of mine—that: ‘fatal curiosity’ as FĂ©nelon calls it, it’s certainly the surest thing I’ve inherited from my real father, for the Profitendieus haven’t an ounce of it in their composition. I have never met anyone less curious than the gentleman who is my mother’s husband—unless perhaps it’s the children he has produced. I must think about them later on—after I have dined.… To lift up a marble slab off the top of a table and to see a drawer underneath is really not the same thing as picking a lock. I’m not a burglar. It might happen to anyone to lift the marble slab off a table. Theseus must have been about my age when he lifted the stone. The difficulty in the case of a table is the clock as a rule.… I shouldn’t have dreamt of lifting the marble slab off the table if I hadn’t wanted to mend the clock.… What doesn’t happen to everyone is to find arms underneath—or guilty love-letters. Pooh! The important thing was that I should learn the facts. It isn’t everyone who can indulge in the luxury of a ghost to reveal them, like Hamlet. Hamlet! It’s curious how one’s point of view changes according as one is the off-spring of crime or legitimacy. I’ll think about that later on—after I have dined.… Was it wrong of me to read those letters!… No, I should be feeling remorseful! And if I hadn’t read the letters, I should have had to go on living in ignorance and falsehood and submission. Oh, for a draught of air! Oh, for the open sea! ‘Bernard! Bernard, that green youth of yours …’ as Bossuet says. Seat your youth on that bench, Bernard. What a beautiful morning! There really are days when the sun seems to be kissing the earth. If I could get rid of myself for a little, there’s not a doubt but I should write poetry.”

And as he lay stretched on the bench, he got rid of himself so effectually that he fell asleep.