The Counterfeiters VII : Olivier and Armand

In the mean time Olivier, deeply disappointed at not having found his Uncle Edouard, and unable to bear his solitude, turned his thoughts towards Armand with a heart aching for friendship. He made his way to the Pension Vedel.

Armand received him in his bedroom. It was a small, narrow room, reached by the backstairs. Its window looked on to an inner courtyard, on to which the water-closets and kitchens of the next-door house opened also. The light came from a corrugated zinc reflector, which caught it from above and cast it down, pallid, leaden and dreary. The room was badly ventilated; an unpleasant odour pervaded it.

“But one gets accustomed to it,” said Armand. “My parents, you understand, keep the best rooms for the boarders who pay best. It’s only natural. I have given up the room I had last year to a Vicomte—the brother of your illustrious friend Passavant. A princely room—but under the observation of Rachel’s. There are heaps of rooms here, but not all of them are independent. For instance, poor Sarah, who came back from England this morning, is obliged to pass, either through our parents’ room (which doesn’t suit her at all) to get to her new abode, or else through mine, which, truth to tell, is really nothing but a dressing-room or box-room. At any rate, I have the advantage here of being able to go out and in as I please, without being spied upon by anyone. I prefer that to the attics, where the servants live. To tell the truth, I rather like being uncomfortably lodged; my father would call it the ‘love of maceration,’ and would explain that what is hurtful to the body leads to the salvation of the soul. For that matter, he has never been inside the place. He has other things to do, you understand, than worrying over his son’s habitat. My papa’s a wonderful fellow. He has by heart a number of consoling phrases for the principal events of life. It’s magnificent to hear him. A pity he never has any time for a little chat.… You’re looking at my picture gallery; one can enjoy it better in the morning. That is a colour print by a pupil of Paolo Ucelli’s—for the use of veterinarios. In an admirable attempt at synthesis, the artist has concentrated on a single horse all the ills by means of which Providence chastens the equine soul; you observe the spirituality of the look.… That is a symbolical picture of the ages of life from the cradle to the grave. As a drawing, not much can be said for it; its chief value lies in its intention. Further on you will note with admiration the photograph of one of Titian’s courtesans, which I have put over my bed in order to give myself libidinous thoughts. That is the door into Sarah’s room.”

The almost sordid aspect of the place made a melancholy impression on Olivier; the bed was not made and the basin on the wash-stand was not emptied.

“Yes, I fix up my room myself,” said Armand, in response to his anxious look. “Here, you see, is my writing table. You have no idea how the atmosphere of the room inspires me.… ‘L’atmosphère d’un cher réduit.…’ I even owe it the idea of my last poem—The Nocturnal Vase.”

Olivier had come to see Armand with the intention of speaking about his review and asking him to contribute to it; he no longer dared to. But Armand’s own conversation was coming round to the subject.

“The Nocturnal Vase—eh? What a magnificent title!… With this motto from Baudelaire:

‘Funereal vase, what tears awaitest thou?’ 1


“I take up once more the ancient (and ever young) comparison of the potter creator, who fashions every human being as a vase destined to hold—ah! what? And I compare myself in a lyrical outburst to the above-mentioned vase—an idea which, as I was telling you, came to me as the natural result of breathing the odour of this chamber. I am particularly pleased with the opening line:

‘Whoe’er at forty boasts no hemorrhoids …’

I had first of all written, in order to reassure the reader, ‘Whoe’er at fifty …’ but I should have missed the assonance. As for ‘hemorrhoids,’ it is undoubtedly the finest word in the French language—independently of its meaning,” he added with a saturnine laugh.

Olivier, a pain at his heart, kept silent. Armand went on:

“Needless to say, the night vase is particularly flattered when it receives a visit from a pot filled with aromatics like yourself.”

“And haven’t you written anything but that?” asked Olivier at last, desperately.

“I was going to offer my Nocturnal Vase to your great and glorious review, but from the tone in which you have just said ‘that,’ I see there isn’t much likelihood of its pleasing you. In such cases the poet always has the resource of arguing: ‘I don’t write to please,’ and of persuading himself that he has brought forth a masterpiece. But I cannot conceal from you that I consider my poem execrably bad. For that matter, I have so far only written the first line. And when I say written, it’s a figure of speech, for I have this very moment composed it in your honour.… No, really? were you thinking of publishing something of mine? You actually desired my collaboration? You judged me, then, not incapable of writing something decent? Can you have discerned on my pale brow the revealing stigmata of genius? I know the light here is not very favourable for looking at oneself in the glass, but when—like another Narcissus—I gaze at my reflection, I can see nothing but the features of a failure. After all, perhaps it’s an effect of chiaroscuro.… No, my dear Olivier, no; I have done nothing this summer, and if you are counting on me for your review, you may go to blazes. But that’s enough about me.… Did all go well in Corsica? Did you enjoy your trip? Did it do you good? Did you rest after your labours? Did you …”

Olivier could bear it no longer:

“Oh! do shut up, old boy. Stop playing the ass. If you imagine I think it’s funny …”

“And what about me?” cried Armand. “No, my dear fellow, no; all the same I’m not so stupid as all that. I’ve still intelligence enough to understand that everything I’ve been saying is idiotic.”

“Can’t you ever talk seriously?”

“Very well; we’ll talk seriously, since seriousness is the style you favour. Rachel, my eldest sister, is going blind. Her sight has been getting very bad lately. For the last two years, she hasn’t been able to read without glasses. I thought at first it would be all right if she were to change them. But it wasn’t. At my request, she went to see an oculist. It seems the sensitiveness of the retina is failing. You understand there are two very different things—on the one hand, a defective power of accommodation of the crystalline, which can be remedied by glasses. But even after they have brought the visual image to the proper focus, that image may make an insufficient impression on the retina and be only dimly transmitted to the brain. Do I make myself clear? You hardly know Rachel, so don’t imagine that I am trying to arouse your pity for her. Then why am I telling you all this?… Because, reflecting on my own case, I became aware that not only images but ideas may strike the brain with more or less clearness. A person with a dull mind receives only confused perceptions; but for that very reason he cannot realize clearly that he is dull. He would only begin to suffer from his stupidity if he were conscious of it; and in order to be conscious of it, he would have to become intelligent. Now imagine for a moment such a monster—an imbecile who is intelligent enough to understand that he is stupid.”

“Why, he would cease to be an imbecile.”

“No, my dear fellow; you may believe me, because as a matter of fact, I am that very imbecile.”

Olivier shrugged his shoulders. Armand went on:

“A real imbecile has no consciousness of any idea beyond his own. I am conscious of the beyond. But all the same I’m an imbecile, because I know that I shall never be able to attain that ‘beyond’ !…”

“But, old fellow,” said Olivier, in a burst of sympathy, “we are all made so that we might be better, and I think the greatest intelligence is precisely the one that suffers most from its own limitations.”

Armand shook off the hand that Olivier had placed affectionately on his arm.

“Others,” said he, “have the feeling of what they possess; I have only the feeling of what I lack. Lack of money, lack of strength, lack of intelligence, lack of love—an everlasting deficit. I shall never be anything but below the mark.”

He went up to the toilette table, dipped a hairbrush in the dirty water in the basin and plastered his hair down in hideous fashion over his forehead.

“I told you I hadn’t written anything; but a few days ago, I did have an idea for an essay, which I should have called: On Incapacity. But of course I was incapable of writing it. I should have said … But I’m boring you.”

“No; go on; you bore me when you make jokes; you’re interesting me very much now.”

“I should have tried to find throughout nature the dividing line, below which nothing exists. An example will show you what I mean. The newspapers the other day had an account of a workman who was electrocuted. He was handling some live wires carelessly; the voltage was not very high; but it seems his body was in a state of perspiration. His death is attributed to the layer of humidity which enabled the current to envelop his body. If his body had been drier, the accident wouldn’t have taken place. But now let’s imagine the perspiration added drop by drop.… One more drop—there you are!”

“I don’t understand,” said Olivier.

“Because my example is badly chosen. I always choose my examples badly. Here’s another: Six shipwrecked persons are picked up in a boat. They have been adrift for ten days in the storm. Three are dead; two are saved. The sixth is expiring. It was hoped he might be restored to life; but his organism had reached the extreme limit.”

“Yes, I understand,” said Olivier. “An hour sooner and he might have been saved.”

“An hour! How you go it! I am calculating the extremest point. It is possible. It is still possible.… It is no longer possible! My mind walks along that narrow ridge. That dividing line between existence and nonexistence is the one I keep trying to trace everywhere. The limit of resistance to—well, for instance, to what my father would call temptation. One holds out; the cord on which the devil pulls is stretched to breaking.… A tiny bit more, the cord snaps—one is damned. Do you understand now? A tiny bit less—non-existence. God would not have created the world. Nothing would have been. ‘The face of the world would have been changed,’ says Pascal. But it’s not enough for me to think—‘if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter.’ I insist. I ask: shorter, by how much? For it might have been a tiny bit shorter, mightn’t it?… Gradation; gradation; and then a sudden leap.… Natura non fecit saltus. What absurd rubbish! As for me, I am like the Arab in the desert who is dying of thirst. I am at that precise point, you see, when a drop of water might still save him … or a tear.… ”

His voice trailed away; there had come into it a note of pathos which surprised Olivier and disturbed him. He went on more gently—almost tenderly:

“You remember: ‘I shed that very tear for thee …’ ”

Olivier remembered Pascal’s words; he was even a little put out that his friend had not quoted them exactly. He could not refrain from correcting: “ ‘I shed that very drop of blood for thee …’ ”

Armand’s emotion dropped at once. He shrugged his shoulders:

“What can we do? There are some who get through with more than enough and to spare.… Do you understand now what it is to feel that one is always ‘on the border line’? As for me, I shall always have one mark too little.”

He had begun to laugh again. Olivier thought that it was for fear of crying. He would have liked to speak in his turn, to tell Armand how much his words had moved him, and how he felt all the sickness of heart that lay beneath his exasperating irony. But the time for his rendezvous with Passavant was pressing him; he pulled out his watch.

“I must go now. Are you free this evening?”

“What for?”

“To come and meet me at the Taverne du Panthéon. The Argonauts are giving a dinner. You might look in afterwards. There’ll be a lot of fellows there—some of them more or less well known—and most of them rather drunk. Bernard Profitendieu has promised to come. It might be funny.”

“I’m not shaved,” said Armand a little crossly. “And then what should I do among a lot of celebrities? But, I say—why don’t you ask Sarah? She got back from England this very morning. I’m sure it would amuse her. Shall I invite her from you? Bernard could take her.”

“All right, old chap,” said Olivier.

1 Es-tu vase funèbre attendant quelques pleurs?