The Counterfeiters VII : The Author Reviews His Characters

The traveller, having reached the top of the hill, sits down and looks about him before continuing his journey, which henceforward lies all downhill. He seeks to distinguish in the darkness—for night is falling—where the winding path he has chosen is leading him. So the undiscerning author stops awhile to regain his breath, and wonders with some anxiety where his tale will take him.

I am afraid that Edouard, in confiding little Boris to Azaïs’s care, is committing an imprudence. Every creature acts according to his own law and Edouard’s leads him to constant experimentalizing. He has a kind heart, no doubt, but for the sake of others I should prefer to see him act out of self-interest; for the generosity which impels him is often merely the accompaniment of a curiosity which is liable to turn into cruelty. He knows Azaïs’s school; he knows the poisonous air that reigns in it, under the stifling cover of morality and religion. He knows Boris—how tender he is—how fragile. He ought to foresee the rubs to which he is exposing him. But he refuses to consider anything but the protection, the help, the support, which old Azaïs’s austerity will afford the little boy’s precarious purity. To what sophisms does he not lend an ear? They must be the promptings of the devil, for if they came from anyone else, he would not listen to them.

Edouard has irritated me more than once (when he speaks of Douviers, for instance)—enraged me even; I hope I haven’t shown it too much; but now I may be allowed to say so. His behaviour to Laura—at times so generous—has at times seemed to me revolting.

What I dislike about Edouard are the reasons he gives himself. Why does he try and persuade himself that he is conspiring for Boris’s good? Does the torrent which drowns a child pretend that it is giving him drink?… I do not deny that there are actions in the world that are noble, generous and even disinterested; I only say that there often lies hidden behind the good motive a devil who is clever enough to find his profit in the very thing one thought one was wresting from him.

Let us make use of this summer season which disperses our characters to examine them at leisure. And besides, we have reached that middle point of our story, when its pace seems to slacken, in order to gather a new impetus and rush on again with swifter speed to its end. Bernard is assuredly much too young to take direction of an intrigue. He is convinced he will be able to guard Boris; but the very utmost he will be able to do is to observe him. We have already seen Bernard change; passions may come which will modify him still more. I find in a note-book a sentence or two in which I have written down what I thought of him some time ago:

“I ought to have been mistrustful of behaviour as excessive as Bernard’s at the beginning of his story. It seems to me, to judge by his subsequent state, that this behaviour exhausted all his reserves of anarchy, which would no doubt have been kept replenished if he had continued to vegetate, as is fitting, in the midst of his family’s oppression. And from that time onwards his life was, so to speak, a reaction and a protest against this original action. The habit he had formed of rebellion and opposition incited him to rebel against his very rebellion. Without a doubt not one of my heroes has disappointed me more than he, for perhaps there was not one who had given me greater hopes. Perhaps he gave way too early to his own bent.”

But this does not seem very true to me any longer. I think we ought to allow him a little more credit. There is a great deal of generosity in him; virility too and strength; he is capable of indignation. He enjoys hearing himself talk a little too much; but it’s a fact that he talks well. I mistrust feelings that find their expression too quickly. He is very good at his studies, but new feelings do not easily fill forms that have been learnt by heart. A little invention would make him stammer. He has already read too much, remembered too much, and learnt a great deal more from books than from life.

I cannot console myself for the turn of chance which made him take Olivier’s place beside Edouard. Events fell out badly. It was Olivier that Edouard loved. With what care he would have ripened him! With what lover-like respect he would have guided, supported, raised him to his own level! Passavant will ruin him to a certainty. Nothing could be more pernicious for him than to be enveloped in so unscrupulous an atmosphere. I had hoped that Olivier would have defended himself a little better; but his is a tender nature and sensitive to flattery. Everything goes to his head. Moreover I seem to gather from certain accents in his letter to Bernard that he is a little vain. Sensuality, pique, vanity—to what does not all this lay him open? When Edouard finds him again, I very much fear it will be too late. But he is still young and one has the right to hope.

Passavant …? best not speak of him, I think. Nothing spreads more ruin or receives more applause than men of his stamp—unless it be women like Lady Griffith. At the beginning, I must confess, she rather took me in. But I soon recognized my mistake. People like her are cut out of a cloth which has no thickness. America exports a great many of them, but is not the only country to breed them. Fortune, intelligence, beauty—they seem to possess everything, except a soul. Vincent, we may be sure, will soon find it out. No past weighs upon them—no constraint; they have neither laws, nor masters, nor scruples; by their freedom and spontaneity, they make the novelist’s despair; he can get nothing from them but worthless reactions. I hope not to see Lady Griffith again for a long time to come. I am sorry she has carried off Vincent, who interested me more, but who becomes commonplace by frequenting her. Rolling in her wake, he loses his angles. It’s a pity; he had rather fine ones.

If it ever happens to me to invent another story, I shall allow only well-tempered characters to inhabit it—characters that life, instead of blunting, sharpens. Laura, Douviers, La Pérouse, Azaïs … what is to be done with such people as these? It was not I who sought them out; while following Bernard and Olivier I found them in my path. So much the worse for me; henceforth it is my duty to attend them.