The Counterfeiters VI : From Olivier to Bernard

Il y a de certains défauts qui, bien mis en œuvre brillent plus que la vertu même.



I must first tell you that I have passed my bachot all right. But that’s of no importance. A unique opportunity came in my way of travelling for a bit. I was still hesitating; but after reading your letter, I jumped at it. My mother made some objections at first; but Vincent soon got over them. He has been nicer than I could have hoped. I cannot believe that in the circumstances you allude to, he can have behaved like a cad. At our age, we have an unfortunate tendency to judge people severely and condemn them without appeal. Many actions appear to us reprehensible—odious even—simply because we don’t enter sufficiently into their motives. Vincent didn’t … but this would take too long and I have too many things to say to you.

You must know that the writer of this letter is no less a person than the editor-in-chief of the new review, The Vanguard. After some reflection I agreed to take up this responsible position, as Comte Robert de Passavant considered I should fill it worthily. It is he who is financing the review, though he doesn’t care about its being known just yet, and my name is to figure alone on the cover. We shall come out in October; try to send me something for the first number; I should be heart-broken if your name didn’t adorn the first list of contents alongside of mine. Passavant would like the first number to contain something rather shocking and spicy, for he thinks the most appalling thing that can be said against a new review is that it is mealy-mouthed. I’m inclined to agree with him. We discuss it a great deal. He has asked me to write the thing in question and has provided me with a rather risky subject for a short story; it worries me a little because of my mother, who may be hurt by it. But it can’t be helped. As Passavant says, the younger one is, the less compromising the scandal.

I am writing this from Vizzavone. Vizzavone is a little place half way up one of the highest mountains in Corsica, buried in a thick forest. The hotel in which we are staying is some way off the village and is used by tourists as a starting place for their excursions. We have been here only a few days. We began by staying in an inn not far from the beautiful bay of Porto, where we bathed every morning; it is absolutely deserted and one can spend the whole day without a stitch on one. It was marvellous; but the weather turned too hot and we had to go up to the mountains.

Passavant is a delightful companion; he isn’t at all stuck up about his title; he likes me to call him Robert; and the name he has invented for me is Olive—isn’t it charming? He does all he can to make me forget his age and I assure you he does. My mother was rather alarmed at the idea of my going away with him, for she hardly knows him at all. I hesitated at first for fear of distressing her. Before your letter came I had almost given it up. Vincent persuaded her, however, and your letter suddenly gave me courage. We spent the last days before starting in doing a round of shops. Passavant is so generous that he is always wanting to give me things and I had to stop him all the time. But he thought my wretched rags frightful; shirts, ties, socks—nothing I had pleased him; he kept repeating that if we were to spend some time together, it would be too painful to him not to see me properly dressed—that is to say, as he likes. Naturally everything we bought was sent to his house, for fear of making my mother uncomfortable. He himself is exquisitely elegant; but above all his taste is very good, and a great many things which I used to think quite bearable now seem odious to me. You can’t imagine how amusing he was in the shops. He is really very witty. I should like to give you an idea of it. One day, we were at Brentano’s, where he was having a fountain pen mended. There was a huge Englishman just behind him who wanted to be served before his turn, and as Robert pushed him away rather roughly, he began to jabber something or other in his lingo; Robert turned round very calmly and said:

“It’s not a bit of use. I don’t understand English.”

The Englishman was in a rage and answered back in the purest French:

“Then you ought to.”

To which Robert answered with a polite smile:

“I told you it wasn’t a bit of use.”

The Englishman was boiling over, but he hadn’t another word to say. It was killing.

Another day we were at the Olympia. During the entr’acte we were in the promenade with a lot of prostitutes walking round. Two of them—rather decayed looking creatures—accosted him:

“Stand us a glass of beer, dearie?”

We sat down at a table with them.

“Waiter! A glass of beer for these ladies.”

“And for you and the young gentleman, sir?”

“Oh, for us? We’ll take champagne,” he said carelessly. He ordered a bottle of Moët, and we blew it all to ourselves. You should have seen the poor things’ faces!… I think he has a loathing for prostitutes. He confided to me that he has never been inside a brothel, and gave me to understand that he would be very angry with me if I ever went. So you see he’s perfectly all right in spite of his airs and his cynical talk—as, for instance, when he says he calls it a “dull day” if he hasn’t met at least five people before lunch, with whom he wants to go to bed. (I must tell you by the way, that I haven’t tried again … you know what.)

He has a particularly odd and amusing way of moralizing. The other day he said to me:

“You see, my dear boy, the important thing in life is not to step on to the downward path. One thing leads on to another and one never can tell how it will end. For instance, I once knew a very worthy young man who was engaged to marry my cook’s daughter. One night he chanced to go into a small jeweller’s shop; he killed the owner; then he robbed; after that he dissembled. You see where it leads. The last time I saw him he had taken to lying. So do be careful.”

“He’s like that the whole time. So there’s no chance of being bored. We left with the idea of getting through a lot of work, but so far we’ve done nothing but bathe, dry in the sun and talk. He has extremely original ideas and opinions about everything. I am trying to persuade him all I can to write about some new theories he has on deep-sea fishes and what he calls their “private lights,” which enables them to do without the light of the sun—which he compares to grace and revelation. Told baldly like that it doesn’t sound anything, but I assure you that when he talks about it, it’s as interesting as a novel. People don’t know that he’s extremely well up in natural history; but he kind of prides himself on hiding his knowledge—what he calls his secret jewels. He says it’s only snobs who like showing off all their possessions—especially if they’re imitation.

He knows admirably well how to make use of ideas, images, people, things; that is, he gets something out of everything. He says the great art of life is not so much to enjoy things as to make the most of them.

I have written a few verses, but I don’t care enough about them to send them to you.

Good-bye, old boy. Till October. You will find me changed, too. Every day I get a little more self-confidence. I am glad to hear you are in Switzerland, but you see that I have no cause to envy you.


Bernard held this letter out to Edouard, who read it without showing any sign of the feelings that agitated him.

Everything that Olivier said of Robert with such complacency filled him with indignation and put the final touch to his detestation. What hurt him more than anything was that Olivier had not even mentioned him in his letter and seemed to have forgotten him. He tried in vain to decipher three lines of postscript, which had been heavily inked over and which had run as follows:

“Tell Uncle E. that I think of him constantly; that I cannot forgive him for having chucked me and that my heart has been mortally wounded.”

These lines were the only sincere ones in a letter which had been written for show and inspired by pique. Olivier had crossed them out.

Edouard gave the horrible letter back to Bernard without breathing a word; without breathing a word, Bernard took it. I have said before that they didn’t speak to each other much—a kind of strange, inexplicable constraint weighed upon them when they were alone together. (I confess I don’t like the word “inexplicable” and use it only because I am momentarily at a loss.) But that evening, when they were alone in their room and getting ready to go to bed, Bernard, with a great effort and the words sticking in his throat a little, asked:

“I suppose Laura has shown you Douviers’ letter?”

“I never doubted that Douviers would take it properly,” said Edouard, getting into bed. “He’s an excellent fellow—a little weak, perhaps, but still excellent. He’ll adore the child, I’m sure. And it’ll certainly be more robust than if it were his own. For he doesn’t strike me as being much of a Hercules.”

Bernard was much too fond of Laura not to be shocked by Edouard’s cool way of talking; but he did not let it be seen.

“So!” went on Edouard, putting out his candle, “I am glad to see that after all there is to be a satisfactory ending to this affair, which at one time seemed as if it could only lead to despair. Anybody may make a false start; the important thing is not to persist in …”

“Evidently,” interrupted Bernard, who wanted to change the subject.

“I must confess, Bernard, that I am afraid I have made one with you.”

“A false start?”

“Yes; I’m afraid so. In spite of all the affection I have for you, I have been thinking for the last few days that we aren’t the sort to understand each other and that …” (he hesitated a few seconds to find his words) “… staying with me longer would set you on the wrong track.”

Bernard had been thinking the same till Edouard spoke; but Edouard could certainly have said nothing more likely to bring Bernard back. The instinct of contradiction carried the day and he protested.

“You don’t know me yet, and I don’t know myself. You haven’t put me to the test. If you have no complaint against me, mayn’t I ask you to wait a little longer? I admit that we aren’t at all like each other: but my idea was precisely that it was better for each of us that we shouldn’t be too much alike. I think that if I can help you, it’ll be above all by being different and by the new things I may be able to bring you. If I am wrong, it will be always time enough to tell me so. I am not the kind of person to complain or recriminate. See here—this is what I propose—it may be idiotic.… Little Boris, I understand, is to go to the Vedel-Azaïs school. Wasn’t Sophroniska telling you that she was afraid he would feel a little lost there? Supposing I were to go there myself, with a recommendation from Laura; couldn’t I get some kind of place—under-master—usher—something or other? I have got to earn my living. I shouldn’t ask much—just my board and lodging.… Sophroniska seems to trust me and I get on very well with Boris. I would look after him, help him, tutor him, be his friend and protector. But at the same time I should remain at your disposition, work for you in the intervals and be at hand at your smallest sign. Tell me what you say to that?”

And as if to give “that” greater weight, he added:

“I have been thinking of it for the last two days.”

Which wasn’t true. If he hadn’t invented it on the spur of the moment, he would have already spoken to Laura about it. But what was true, and what he didn’t say, was that ever since his indiscreet reading of Edouard’s journal, and since his meeting with Laura, his thoughts often turned to the Vedels’ boarding school; he wanted to know Armand, Olivier’s friend, of whom he never spoke; he wanted still more to know Sarah, the younger sister; but his curiosity remained a secret one; out of consideration for Laura, he did not even own it to himself.

Edouard said nothing; and yet Bernard’s plan in so far as it provided him with a domicile, pleased him. He didn’t at all care for the idea of taking him in himself. Bernard blew out his candle, and then went on:

“Don’t think that I didn’t understand what you said about your book and about the conflict you imagine between brute reality and …”

“I don’t imagine it,” said Edouard, “it exists.”

“But for that very reason, wouldn’t it be a good thing if I were to beat in a few facts for you, so as to give you something to fight with? I could do your observing for you.”

Edouard had a suspicion that he was laughing at him a little. The truth is he felt humiliated by Bernard. He expressed himself too well.…

“We’ll think it over,” said Edouard.

A long time went by. Bernard tried in vain to sleep. Olivier’s letter kept tormenting him. Finally, unable to hold out any longer, and hearing Edouard tossing in his bed, he murmured:

“If you aren’t asleep, I should like to ask you one thing more.… What do you think of the Comte de Passavant?”

“I should think you could pretty well imagine,” said Edouard. Then, after a moment: “And you?”

“I?” said Bernard savagely, “… I could kill him.”