The Counterfeiters VII : Lilian and Vincent

The sun, already high in the heavens, caresses Vincent’s bare foot on the wide bed, where he is lying beside Lilian. She sits up and looks at him, not knowing that he is awake, and is astonished to see a look of anxiety on his face.

It is possible that Lady Griffith loved Vincent; but what she loved in him was success. Vincent was tall, handsome, slim, but he did not know how to hold himself, how to sit down or get up. He had an expressive face, but he did his hair badly. Above all she admired the boldness and robustness of his intellect; he was certainly highly educated, but she thought him uncultivated. With the instinct of a mistress and a mother, she hung over this big boy of hers and made it her task to form him. He was her creation—her statue. She taught him to polish his nails, to part his hair on one side instead of brushing it back, so that his brow, when it was half hidden by a stray lock, looked all the whiter and loftier. And then instead of the modest little ready-made bows he used to wear, she gave him really becoming neck-ties. Decidedly Lady Griffith loved Vincent; but she could not put up with him when he was silent or “moody,” as she called it.

She gently passes a finger over Vincent’s forehead, as though to efface a wrinkle—those two deep vertical furrows which start from his eyebrows, and give his face a look almost of suffering.

“If you are going to bring me regrets, anxieties, remorse,” she murmurs, as she leans over him, “it would be better never to come back.”

Vincent shuts his eyes as though to shut out too bright a light. The jubilation in Lilian’s face dazzles him.

“You must treat this as if it were a mosque—take your shoes off before you come in, so as not to bring in any mud from the outside. Do you suppose I don’t know what you are thinking of?” Then, as Vincent tries to put his hand on her mouth, she defends herself with the grace of a naughty child.

“No! Let me speak to you seriously. I have reflected a great deal about what you said the other day. People always think that women aren’t capable of reflection, but you know, it depends upon the woman.… That thing you said the other day about the products of crossbreeding … and that it isn’t by crossing that one gets satisfactory results so much as by selection.… Have I remembered your lesson, eh? Well, this morning I think you have bred a monster—a perfectly ridiculous creature—you’ll never rear it! A cross between a bacchante and the Holy Ghost! Haven’t you now?… You’re disgusted with yourself for having chucked Laura. I can tell it from the lines on your forehead. If you want to go back to her, say so at once and leave me; I shall have been mistaken in you and I shan’t mind in the least. But if you mean to stay with me, then get rid of that funereal countenance. You remind me of certain English people—the more emancipated their opinions, the more they cling to their morality; so that there are no severer Puritans than their free-thinkers.… You think I’m heartless? You’re wrong. I understand perfectly that you are sorry for Laura. But then, what are you doing here?”

Then, as Vincent turned his head away:

“Look here! You must go to the bath-room now and try and wash your regrets off in the shower-bath. I shall ring for breakfast, eh? And when you come back, I’ll explain something that you don’t seem to understand.”

He had got up. She sprang after him.

“Don’t dress just yet. In the cupboard on the right hand side of the bath, you’ll find a collection of burnouses and haiks and pyjamas. Take anything you like.”

Vincent appeared twenty minutes later dressed in a pistachio-coloured silk jellabah.

“Oh, wait a minute—wait! Let me arrange you!” cried Lilian in delight. She pulled out of an oriental chest two wide purple scarves; wound the darker of the two as a sash round Vincent’s waist, and the other as a turban round his head.

“My thoughts are always the same colour as my clothes,” she said. (She had put on crimson and silver lamé pyjamas.) “I remember once, when I was quite a little girl at San Francisco, I was put into black because a sister of my mother’s had died—an old aunt whom I had never seen. I cried the whole day long. I was terribly, terribly sad; I thought that I was very unhappy and that I was grieving deeply for my aunt’s death—all because I was in black. Nowadays, if men are more serious than women, it’s because their clothes are darker. I’ll wager that your thoughts are quite different from what they were a little while ago. Sit down there on the bed; and when you’ve drunk a glass of vodka and a cup of tea and eaten two or three sandwiches, I’ll tell you a story. Say when I’m to begin.… ”

She settled down on the rug beside the bed, crouching between Vincent’s legs like an Egyptian statue, with her chin resting on her knees. When she had eaten and drunk, she began:

“I was on the Bourgogne, you know, on the day of the wreck. I was seventeen, so now you know how old I am. I was a very good swimmer, and to show you that I’m not hard-hearted, I’ll tell you that if my first thought was to save myself, my second was to save someone else. I’m not quite sure even whether it wasn’t my first. Or rather, I don’t think I thought of anything; but nothing disgusts me so much in such moments as the people who only think of themselves—oh, yes—the women who scream. There was a first boatload, chiefly of women and children, and some of them yelled to such an extent that it was enough to make anyone lose his head. The boat was so badly handled that instead of dropping down onto the sea straight, it dived nose foremost and everyone in it was flung out before it even had time to fill with water. The whole scene took place by the light of torches and lanterns and searchlights. You can’t imagine how ghastly it was. The waves were very big and everything that was not in the light was lost in darkness on the other side of the hill of water.

“I have never lived more intensely; but I was as incapable of reflection as a Newfoundland dog, I suppose, when he jumps into the water. I can’t even understand now what happened; I only know that I had noticed a little girl in the boat—a darling thing of about five or six; and when I saw the boat overturn, I immediately made up my mind that it was her I would save. She was with her mother, but the poor woman was a bad swimmer; and as usual in such cases, her skirts hampered her. As for me, I expect I undressed mechanically; I was called to take my place in the second boatload. I must have got in; and then I no doubt jumped straight into the sea out of the boat; all I can remember is swimming about for a long time with the child clinging to my neck. It was terrified and clutched me so tight that I couldn’t breathe. Luckily the people in the boat saw us and either waited for us or rowed towards us. But that’s not why I’m telling you this story. The recollection which remains most vividly with me and which nothing will ever efface from my mind and my heart is this— There were about forty or so of us in the boat, all crowded together, for a number of swimmers had been picked up at the last gasp like me. The water was almost on a level with the edge of the boat. I was in the stern and I was holding the little girl I had just saved tightly pressed against me to warm her—and to prevent her from seeing what I couldn’t help seeing myself—two sailors, one armed with a hatchet and the other with a kitchen chopper. And what do you think they were doing?… They were hacking off the fingers and hands of the swimmers who were trying to get into our boat. One of these two sailors (the other was a Negro) turned to me, as I sat there, my teeth chattering with cold and fright and horror, and said, ‘If another single one gets in we shall be bloody well done for. The boat’s full.’ And he added that it was a thing that had to be done in all shipwrecks, but that naturally one didn’t mention it.

“I think I fainted then; at any rate, I can’t remember anything more, just as one remains deaf for a long time after a noise that has been too tremendous.

“And when I came to myself on board the X., which picked us up, I realized that I was no longer the same, that I never could again be the same sentimental young girl I had been before; I realized that a part of myself had gone down with the Bourgogne; that henceforth there would be a whole heap of delicate feelings whose fingers and hands I should hack away to prevent them from climbing into my heart and wrecking it.”

She looked at Vincent out of the corner of her eye and, with a backward twist of her body, went on: “It’s a habit one must get into.”

Then, as her hair, which she had pinned up loosely, was coming down and falling over her shoulders, she rose, went up to a mirror and began to re-arrange it, talking as she did so:

“When I left America a little later, I felt as if I were the golden fleece starting off in search of a conqueror. I may sometimes have been foolish … I may sometimes have made mistakes—perhaps I am making one now in talking to you like this—but you, on your side, don’t imagine that because I have given myself to you, you have won me. Make certain of this—I abominate mediocrity and I can love no one who isn’t a conqueror. If you want me, it must be to help you to victory; if it’s only to be pitied and consoled and made much of … no, my dear boy—I’d better say so at once—I’m not the person you need—it’s Laura.”

She said all this without turning round and while she was continuing to arrange her rebellious locks, but Vincent caught her eye in the glass.

“May I give you my answer this evening?” he said, getting up and taking off his oriental garments to get into his day clothes. “I must go home quickly now so as to catch my brother Olivier before he goes out. I’ve got something to say to him.”

He said it by way of apology, to give colour to his departure; but when he went up to Lilian, she turned round to him smiling, and so lovely that he hesitated.

“Unless I leave a line for him to get at lunch time,” he added.

“Do you see a great deal of him?”

“Hardly anything. No, it’s an invitation for this afternoon, which I’ve got to pass on to him.”

“From Robert?… Oh! I see!1 …” she said, smiling oddly. “That’s a person, too, I must talk to you about.… All right! Go at once. But come back at six o’clock, because at seven his car is coming to take us out to dinner in the Bois.”

Vincent walks home, meditating as he goes; he realizes that from the satisfaction of desire there may arise, accompanying joy and as it were sheltering behind it, something not unlike despair.

1 In English in the original.