The Counterfeiters VI : Edouard’s Journal: Madame Molinier

Those novelists deceive us who show the individual’s development without taking into account the pressure of surroundings. The forest fashions the tree. To each one how small a place is given! How many buds are atrophied! One shoots one’s branches where one can. The mystic bough is due more often than not to stifling. The only escape is upwards. I cannot understand how Pauline manages not to grow a mystic bough, nor what further pressure she needs. She has talked to me more intimately than ever before. I did not suspect, I confess, the amount of disillusionment and resignation she hides beneath the appearance of happiness. But I recognize that she would have had to have a very vulgar nature not to have been disappointed in Molinier. In my conversation with her the day before yesterday, I was able to gauge his limits. How in the world could Pauline have married him?… Alas! the most lamentable lack of all—lack of character—is a hidden one, to be revealed only by time and usage.

Pauline puts all her efforts into palliating Oscar’s insufficiencies and weaknesses, into hiding them from everyone; and especially from his children. Her utmost ingenuity is employed in enabling them to respect their father; and she is really hard put to it; but she does it in such a way that I myself was deceived. She speaks of her husband without contempt, but with a kind of indulgence which is expressive enough. She deplores his want of authority over the boys; and, as I expressed my regrets at Olivier’s being with Passavant, I understood that if it had depended on her, the trip to Corsica would not have taken place.

“I didn’t approve of it,” she said, “and to tell you the truth, I don’t much care about that Monsieur Passavant. But what could I do? When I see that I can’t prevent a thing, I prefer granting it with a good grace. As for Oscar, he always gives in; he gives in to me, too. But when I think it’s my duty to oppose any plan of the children’s—stand out against them in any way, he never supports me in the least. On this occasion Vincent stepped in as well. After that, how could I oppose Olivier without risking the loss of his confidence? And it’s that I care about most.”

She was darning old socks—the socks, I said to myself, which were no longer good enough for Olivier. She stopped to thread her needle, and then went on again in a lower voice, more confidingly and more sadly:

“His confidence.… If I were only sure I still had it. But no; I’ve lost it.… ”

The protest I attempted—without conviction—made her smile. She dropped her work and went on:

“For instance, I know he is in Paris. George met him this morning; he mentioned it casually, and I pretended not to hear, for I don’t like him to tell tales about his brother. But still I know it. Olivier hides things from me. When I see him again, he will think himself obliged to lie to me, and I shall pretend to believe him, as I pretend to believe his father every time he hides things from me.”

“It’s for fear of paining you.”

“He pains me a great deal more as it is. I am not intolerant. There are a number of little shortcomings that I tolerate, that I shut my eyes to.”

“Of whom are you talking now?”

“Oh! of the father as well as the sons.”

“When you pretend not to see them, you are lying too.”

“But what am I to do? It’s enough not to complain. I really can’t approve! No, I say to myself that, sooner or later, one loses hold, that the tenderest affection is helpless. More than that. It’s in the way; it’s a nuisance. I have come to the pitch of hiding my love itself.”

“Now you are talking of your sons.”

“Why do you say that? Do you mean that I can’t love Oscar any more? Sometimes I think so, but I think too that it’s for fear of suffering too much that I don’t love him more. And … Yes, I suppose you are right—in Olivier’s case, I prefer to suffer.”

“And Vincent?”

“A few years ago everything I now say of Olivier would have been true of Vincent.”

“My poor friend.… Soon you will be saying the same of George.”

“But one becomes resigned, slowly. And yet one didn’t ask so much of life. One learns to ask less … less and less.” Then she added softly: “And of oneself, more and more.”

“With ideas of that kind, one is almost a Christian,” said I, smiling in my turn.

“I sometimes think so too. But having them isn’t enough to make one a Christian.”

“Any more than being a Christian is enough to make one have them.”

“I have often thought—will you let me say so?—that in their father’s default, you might speak to the boys.”

“Vincent is not here.”

“It is too late for him. I am thinking of Olivier. It’s with you that I should have liked him to go away.”

At these words, which gave me the sudden imagination of what might have been if I had not so thoughtlessly listened to the appeal of passing adventure, a dreadful emotion wrung my heart, and at first I could find nothing to say; then, as the tears started to my eyes, and wishing to give some appearance of a motive to my disturbance:

“Too late, I fear, for him too,” I sighed.

Pauline seized my hand:

“How good you are!” she cried.

Embarrassed at seeing her thus mistake me, and unable to undeceive her, I could only turn aside the conversation from a subject which put me too ill at my ease.

“And George?” I asked.

“He makes me more anxious than the other two put together,” she answered. “I can’t say that with him I am losing my hold, for he has never been either confiding or obedient.”

She hesitated a few moments. It obviously cost her a great deal to say what follows.

“This summer something very serious happened,” she went on at last, “something it’s a little painful for me to speak to you about, especially as I am still not very sure.… A hundred-franc note disappeared from a cupboard in which I was in the habit of keeping my money. The fear of being wrong in my suspicions prevented me from bringing any accusation; the maid who waited on us at the hotel was a very young girl and seemed to me honest. I said I had lost the note before George; I might as well admit that my suspicions fell upon him. He didn’t appear disturbed; he didn’t blush.… I felt ashamed of having suspected him; I tried to persuade myself I had made a mistake. I did my accounts over again; unfortunately there was no possibility of a doubt—a hundred francs were missing. I shrank from questioning him, and finally I didn’t. The fear of seeing him add a lie to a theft kept me back. Was I wrong?… Yes, I reproach myself now for not having insisted; perhaps it was out of a fear that I should have to be too severe—or that I shouldn’t be severe enough. Once again, I played the part of a person who knows nothing, but with a very anxious heart, I assure you. I had let the time go by, and I said to myself it was too late and that the punishment would come too long after the fault. And how punish him? I did nothing; I reproach myself for it … but what could I have done?

“I had thought of sending him to England; I even wanted to ask your advice about it, but I didn’t know where you were.… At any rate, I didn’t hide my trouble from him—my anxiety; I think he must have felt it, for, you know, he has a good heart. I count more on his own conscience to reproach him than on anything I could have said. He won’t do it again, I feel certain. He used to go about with a very rich boy at the sea-side, and he was no doubt led on to spend money. No doubt I must have left the cupboard open; and I repeat, I’m not really sure it was he. There were a great many people coming and going in the hotel.… ”

I admired the ingenious way in which she put forward every possible consideration that might exonerate her child.

“I should have liked him to put the money back,” I said.

“I hoped he would. And when he didn’t, I thought it must be a proof of his innocence. And then I said to myself that he was afraid to.”

“Did you tell his father?”

She hesitated a few moments:

“No,” she said at last, “I prefer him to know nothing about it.”

No doubt she thought she heard a noise in the next room; she went to make sure there was no one there; then she sat down again beside me.

“Oscar told me you lunched together the other day. He was so loud in your praise, that I suppose what you chiefly did was to listen to him.” (She smiled sadly, as she said these words.) “If he confided in you, I have no desire not to respect his confidences … though in reality I know a great deal more about his private life than he imagines. But since I got back, I can’t understand what has come over him. He is so gentle—I was almost going to say—so humble.… It’s almost embarrassing. He goes on as if he were afraid of me. He needn’t be. For a long time past I’ve been aware that he has been carrying on.… I even know with whom. He thinks I know nothing about it and takes enormous pains to hide it; but his precautions are so obvious, that the more he hides, the more he gives himself away. Every time he goes out with an affectation of being busy, worried, anxious, I know that he is off to his pleasure. I feel inclined to say to him: ‘But, my dear friend, I’m not keeping you; are you afraid I’m jealous?’ I should laugh if I had the heart to. My only fear is that the children may notice something; he’s so careless—so clumsy! Sometimes, without his suspecting it, I find myself forced to help him, as if I were playing his game. I assure you I end by being almost amused by it; I invent excuses for him; I put the letters he leaves lying about back in his coat pocket.”

“That’s just it,” I said; “he’s afraid you have discovered some letters.”

“Did he tell you so?”

“And that’s what’s making him so nervous.”

“Do you think I want to read them?”

A kind of wounded pride made her draw herself up. I was obliged to add:

“It’s not a question of the letters he may have mislaid inadvertently; but of some letters he had put in a drawer and which he says he can’t find. He thinks you have taken them.”

At these words, I saw Pauline turn pale, and the horrible suspicion which darted upon her, forced itself suddenly into my mind too. I regretted having spoken, but it was too late. She looked away from me and murmured:

“Would to Heaven it were I!”

She seemed overcome.

“What am I to do?” she repeated. “What am I to do?” Then raising her eyes to mine again: “You? Couldn’t you speak to him?”

Although she avoided, as I did, pronouncing George’s name, it was clear that she was thinking of him.

“I will try. I will think it over,” I said, rising. And as she accompanied me to the front door:

“Say nothing about it to Oscar, please. Let him go on suspecting me—thinking what he thinks.… It is better so. Come and see me again.”