The Counterfeiters VIII : The Argonauts’ Dinner

It had been agreed then that Bernard and Edouard, after having dined together, should pick up Sarah a little before ten o’clock. She had delightedly accepted the proposal passed on to her by Armand. At about half past nine, she had gone up to her bedroom, accompanied by her mother. She had to pass through her parents’ room in order to reach hers; but another door, which was supposed to be kept shut, led from Sarah’s room to Armand’s, which in its turn opened, as we have seen, on to the backstairs.

Sarah, in her mother’s presence, made as though she were going to bed, and asked to be left to go to sleep; but as soon as she was alone, she went up to her dressing table to put an added touch of brilliancy to her lips and cheeks. The toilette table had been placed in front of the closed door, but it was not too heavy for Sarah to lift noiselessly. She opened the door.

Sarah was afraid of meeting her brother, whose sarcasms she dreaded. Armand, it is true, encouraged her most audacious exploits; it was as though he took pleasure in them—but only with a kind of temporary indulgence, for it was to judge them later on with all the greater severity; so that Sarah wondered whether his complaisance itself was not calculated to play the censor’s game.

Armand’s room was empty. Sarah sat down on a little low chair and, as she was waiting, meditated. She cultivated a facile contempt for all the domestic virtues as a kind of preventive protest. The constraint of family life had intensified her energies and exasperated her instinct for revolt. During her stay in England, she had worked herself up into a white heat of courage. Like Miss Aberdeen, the English girl boarder, she was resolved to conquer her liberty, to grant herself every license, to dare all. She felt ready to affront scorn and blame on every side, capable of every defiance. In the advances she had made to Olivier, she had already triumphed over natural modesty and many an instinctive reluctance. The example of her two sisters had taught her her lesson; she looked upon Rachel’s pious resignation as the delusion of a dupe, and saw in Laura’s marriage nothing but a lugubrious barter with slavery as its upshot. The education she had received, that which she had given herself, that which she had taken, inclined her very little to what she called “conjugal piety.” She did not see in what particular the man she might marry could be her superior. Hadn’t she passed her examinations like a man? Hadn’t she her opinions and ideas on any and every subject? On the equality of the sexes in particular; and it even seemed to her that in the conduct of life, and consequently of business, and even, if need were, of politics, women often gave proof of more sense than many men.…

Steps on the staircase. She listened and then opened the door gently.

Bernard and Sarah had never met. There was no light in the passage. They could hardly distinguish each other in the dark.

“Mademoiselle Sarah Vedel?” whispered Bernard. She took his arm without more ado.

“Edouard is waiting for us at the corner of the street in a taxi. He didn’t want to get down for fear of meeting your parents. It didn’t matter for me; you know I am staying in the house.”

Bernard had been careful to leave the door into the street ajar, so as not to attract the porter’s attention. A few minutes later, the taxi deposited them all three in front of the Taverne du Panthéon. As Edouard was paying the taxi, they heard a clock strike ten.

Dinner was finished. The table had been cleared, but it was still covered with coffee-cups, bottles and glasses. Everyone was smoking and the atmosphere was stifling. Madame des Brousses, the wife of the editor of the Argonauts, called for fresh air in a strident voice, which rang out shrilly above the hum of general talk. Someone opened a window. But Justinien, who wanted to put in a speech, had it shut almost immediately “for acoustics’ sake.” He rose to his feet and struck on his glass with a spoon, but failed to attract anyone’s attention. The editor of the Argonauts, whom people called the Président des Brousses, interposed, and having at last succeeded in obtaining a modicum of silence, Justinien’s voice gushed forth in a copious stream of dullness. A flood of metaphors covered the triteness of his ideas. He spoke with an emphasis which took the place of wit, and managed to ladle out to everyone in turn a handsome helping of grandiloquent flummery. At the first pause, and just as Edouard, Bernard and Sarah were making their entry, there was a loud burst of polite applause. Some of the company prolonged it, no doubt a little ironically, and as if hoping to put an end to the speech; but in vain—Justinien started off afresh; nothing could daunt his eloquence. At that moment it was the Comte de Passavant whom he was bestrewing with the flowers of his rhetoric. He spoke of The Horizontal Bar as of another Iliad. Passavant’s health was drunk. Edouard had no glass, neither had Bernard nor Sarah, so that they were dispensed from joining in the toast.

Justinien’s speech ended with a few heartfelt wishes for the prosperity of the new review and a few elegant compliments to its future editor—“the young and gifted Molinier—the darling of the Muses, whose pure and lofty brow would not long have to wait for its crown of laurels.”

Oliver was standing near the door, so as to welcome his friends as soon as they should arrive. Justinien’s blatant compliments obviously embarrassed him, but he was obliged to respond to the little ovation which followed them.

The three new arrivals had dined too soberly to feel in tune with the rest of the assembly. In this sort of gathering, late comers understand ill—or only too well—the others’ excitement. They judge, when they have no business to judge, and exercise, even though involuntarily, a criticism which is without indulgence; this was the case at any rate with Edouard and Bernard. As for Sarah, in this milieu, everything was new to her; her one idea was to learn what she could, her one anxiety to be up to the mark.

Bernard knew no one. Olivier, who had taken him by the arm, wanted to introduce him to Passavant and des Brousses. He refused. Passavant, however, forced the situation by coming up to him and holding out a hand, which he could not in decency refuse:

“I have heard you spoken of so often that I feel as if I knew you already.”

“The same with me,” said Bernard in such a tone that Passavant’s amenity froze. He at once turned to Edouard.

Though often abroad travelling, and keeping, even when he was in Paris, a great deal to himself, Edouard was nevertheless acquainted with several of the guests and feeling perfectly at his ease. Little liked, but at the same time esteemed, by his confrères, he did not object to being thought proud, when, in reality, he was only distant. He was more willing to listen than to speak.

“From what your nephew said, I was hoping you would come to-night,” began Passavant in a gentle voice that was almost a whisper. “I was delighted because …”

Edouard’s ironical look cut short the rest of his sentence. Skilful in the arts of pleasing and accustomed to please, Passavant, in order to shine, had need to feel himself confronted by a flattering mirror. He collected himself, however, for he was not the man to lose his self-possession for long or to let himself be easily snubbed. He raised his head, and his eyes were charged with insolence. If Edouard would not follow his lead with a good grace, he would find means to worst him.

“I was wanting to ask you …” he went on, as if he were continuing his first remark, “whether you had any news of your other nephew, Vincent? It was he who was my special friend.”

“No,” said Edouard dryly.

This “no” upset Passavant once more; he did not know whether to take it as a provocative contradiction, or as a simple answer to his question. His disturbance lasted only a second; it was Edouard who unintentionally restored him to his balance by adding almost at once:

“I have merely heard from his father that he was travelling with the Prince of Monaco.”

“Yes, I asked a lady, who is a friend of mine, to introduce him to the Prince. I was glad to hit upon this diversion to distract him a little from his unlucky affair with that Madame Douviers.… You know her, so Olivier told me. He was in danger of wrecking his whole life over it.”

Passavant handled disdain, contempt, condescension with marvellous skill; but he was satisfied with having won this bout and with keeping Edouard at sword’s length. Edouard indeed was racking his brains for some cutting answer. He was singularly lacking in presence of mind. That was no doubt the reason he cared so little for society—he had none of the qualities which are necessary to shine in it. His eyebrows however began to look frowningly. Passavant was quick to notice; when anything disagreeable was coming to him, he sniffed it in the air, and veered about. Without even stopping to take breath, and with a sudden change of tone:

“But who is that delightful girl who is with you?” he asked smiling.

“It is Mademoiselle Sarah Vedel, the sister of the very lady you were mentioning—my friend Madame Douviers.”

In default of any better repartee, he sharpened the words “my friend” like an arrow—but an arrow which fell short, and Passavant, letting it lie, went on:

“It would be very kind of you to introduce me.”

He had said these last words and the sentence which preceded them loud enough for Sarah to hear, and as she turned towards them, Edouard was unable to escape:

“Sarah, the Comte de Passavant desires the honour of your acquaintance,” said he with a forced smile.

Passavant had sent for three fresh glasses, which he filled with kummel. They all four drank Olivier’s health. The bottle was almost empty, and as Sarah was astonished to see the crystals remaining at the bottom, Passavant tried to dislodge them with a straw. A strange kind of clown, with a befloured face, a black beady eye, and hair plastered down on his head like a skullcap, came up.

“You won’t do it,” he said, munching out each one of his syllables with an effort which was obviously assumed. “Pass me the bottle. I’ll smash it.”

He seized it, broke it with a blow against the window ledge, and presenting the bottom of the bottle to Sarah:

“With a few of these little sharp-edged polyhedra, the charming young lady will easily induce a perforation of her gizzard.”

“Who is that pierrot?” she asked Passavant, who had made her sit down and was sitting beside her.

“It’s Alfred Jarry, the author of Ubu Roi. The Argonauts have dubbed him a genius because the public have just damned his play. All the same, it’s the most interesting thing that’s been put on the stage for a long time.”

“I like Ubu Roi very much,” said Sarah, “and I’m delighted to see Jarry. I had heard he was always drunk.”

“I should think he must be to-night. I saw him drink two glasses of neat absinthe at dinner. He doesn’t seem any the worse for it. Won’t you have a cigarette? One has to smoke oneself so as not to be smothered by the other people’s smoke.”

He bent towards her to give her a light. She crunched a few of the crystals.

“Why! it’s nothing but sugar candy,” said she, a little disappointed. “I hoped it was going to be something strong.”

All the time she was talking to Passavant, she kept smiling at Bernard, who had stayed beside her. Her dancing eyes shone with an extraordinary brightness. Bernard, who had not been able to see her before because of the dark, was struck by her likeness to Laura. The same forehead, the same lips.… In her features, it is true, there breathed a less angelic grace, and her looks stirred he knew not what troubled depths in his heart. Feeling a little uncomfortable, he turned to Olivier:

“Introduce me to your friend Bercail.”

He had already met Bercail in the Luxembourg, but he had never spoken to him. Bercail was feeling rather out of it in this milieu into which Olivier had introduced him, and which he was too timid not to find distasteful, and every time Olivier presented him as one of the chief contributors to the Vanguard, he blushed. The fact is, that the allegorical poem of which he had spoken to Olivier at the beginning of our story, was to appear on the first page of the new review, immediately after the manifesto.

“In the place I had kept for you,” said Olivier to Bernard. “I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s by far the best thing in the number. And so original!”

Olivier took more pleasure in praising his friends than in hearing himself praised. At Bernard’s approach, Bercail rose; he was holding his cup of coffee in his hand so awkwardly, that in his agitation he spilled half of it down his waistcoat. At that moment, Jarry’s mechanical voice was heard close at hand:

“Little Bercail will be poisoned. I’ve put poison in his cup.”

Bercail’s timidity amused Jarry, and he liked putting him out of countenance. But Bercail was not afraid of Jarry. He shrugged his shoulders and finished his coffee calmly.

“Who is that?” asked Bernard.

“What! Don’t you know the author of Ubu Roi?”

“Not possible! That Jarry? I took him for a servant.”

“Oh, all the same,” said Olivier, a little vexed, for he took a pride in his great men. “Look at him more carefully. Don’t you think he’s extraordinary?”

“He does all he can to appear so,” said Bernard, who only esteemed what was natural, and who nevertheless was full of consideration for Ubu.

Everything about Jarry, who was got up to look like the traditional circus clown, smacked of affectation—his way of talking in particular; several of the Argonauts did their utmost to imitate it, snapping out their syllables, inventing odd words, and oddly mangling others; but it was only Jarry who could succeed in producing that toneless voice of his—a voice without warmth or intonation, or accent or emphasis.

“When one knows him, he is charming, really,” went on Olivier.

“I prefer not to know him. He looks ferocious.”

“Oh, that’s just the way he has. Passavant thinks that in reality he is the kindest of creatures. But he has drunk a terrible lot to-night; and not a drop of water, you may be sure—nor even of wine; nothing but absinthe and spirits. Passavant’s afraid he may do something eccentric.”

In spite of himself, Passavant’s name kept recurring to his lips, and all the more obstinately that he wanted to avoid it.

Exasperated at feeling so little able to control himself, and as if he were trying to escape from his own pursuit, he changed his ground:

“You should talk to Dhurmer a little. I’m afraid he bears me a deadly grudge for having stepped into his shoes at the Vanguard; but it really wasn’t my fault; I simply had to accept. You might try and make him see it and calm him down a bit. Pass … I’m told he’s fearfully worked up against me.”

He had tripped, but this time he had not fallen.

“I hope he has taken his copy with him. I don’t like what he writes,” said Bercail; then turning to Bernard: “But, you, Monsieur Profitendieu, I thought that you …”

“Oh, please don’t call me Monsieur … I know I’ve got a ridiculous mouthful of a name … I mean to take a pseudonym, if I write.”

“Why haven’t you contributed anything?”

“Because I hadn’t anything ready.”

Olivier, leaving his two friends to talk together, went up to Edouard.

“How nice of you to come! I was longing to see you again. But I would rather have met you anywhere but here.… This afternoon, I went and rang at your door. Did they tell you? I was so sorry not to find you; if I had known where you were …”

He was quite pleased to be able to express himself so easily, remembering a time when his emotion in Edouard’s presence kept him dumb. This ease of his was due, alas! to his potations and to the banality of his words.

Edouard realized it sadly.

“I was at your mother’s.” (And for the first time he said “you” to Olivier instead of “thou.”)

“Were you?” said Olivier, who was in a state of consternation at Edouard’s style of address. He hesitated whether he should not tell him so.

“Is it in this milieu that you mean to live for the future?” asked Edouard, looking at him fixedly.

“Oh, I don’t let it encroach on me.”

“Are you quite sure of that?”

These words were said in so grave, so tender, so fraternal a tone … Olivier felt his self-assurance tottering within him.

“You think I am wrong to frequent these people?”

“Not all of them, perhaps; but certainly some.”

Olivier took this as a direct allusion to Passavant, and in his inward sky a flash of blinding, painful light shot through the bank of clouds which ever since the morning had been thickening and darkening in his heart. He loved Bernard, he loved Edouard far too well to bear the loss of their esteem. Edouard’s presence exalted all that was best in him; Passavant’s all that was worst; he acknowledged it now; and indeed, had he not always known it? Had not his blindness as regards Passavant been deliberate? His gratitude for all that the count had done for him turned to loathing. With his whole soul, he cast him off. What he now saw put the finishing touch to his hatred.

Passavant, leaning towards Sarah, had passed his arm round her waist and was becoming more and more pressing. Aware of the unpleasant rumors which were rife concerning his relations with Olivier, he thought he would give them the lie. And to make his behaviour more public, he had determined to get Sarah to sit on his knees. Sarah had so far put up very little defence, but her eyes sought Bernard’s, and when they met them, her smile seemed to say:

“See how far a person may go with me!”

But Passavant was afraid of overdoing it; he was lacking in experience.

“If I can only get her to drink a little more, I’ll risk it,” he said to himself, putting out his free hand towards a bottle of curaçao.

Olivier, who was watching him, was beforehand with him; he snatched up the bottle, simply to prevent Passavant from getting it; but as soon as he took hold of it, it seemed to him that the liqueur would restore him a little of his courage—the courage he felt failing within him—the courage he needed to utter, loud enough for Edouard to hear, the complaint that was trembling on his lips:

“If only you had chosen …”

Olivier filled his glass and emptied it at a draught. Just at that moment, he heard Jarry, who was moving about from group to group, say in a half-whisper, as he passed behind Bercail:

“And now we’re going to ki-kill little Bercail.”

Bercail turned round sharply:

“Just say that again out loud.”

Jarry had already moved away. He waited until he had got round the table and then repeated in a falsetto voice:

“And now we’re going to ki-kill little Bercail”; then, taking out of his pocket a large pistol, with which the Argonauts had often seen him playing about, he raised it to his shoulder.

Jarry had acquired the reputation of being a good shot. Protests were heard. In the drunken state in which he now was, people were not very sure that he would confine himself to play-acting. But little Bercail was determined to show he was not afraid; he got on to a chair, and with his arms folded behind his back, took up a Napoleonic attitude. He was just a little ridiculous and some tittering was heard, but it was at once drowned by applause.

Passavant said to Sarah very quickly:

“It may end unpleasantly. He’s completely drunk. Get under the table.”

Des Brousses tried to catch hold of Jarry, but he shook him off and got on to a chair in his turn (Bernard noticed he was wearing patent leather pumps). Standing there straight opposite Bercail, he stretched out his arm and took aim.

“Put the light out! Put the light out!” cried des Brousses.

Edouard, who was still standing by the door, turned the switch.

Sarah had risen in obedience to Passavant’s injunction; and as soon as it was dark, she pressed up against Bernard, to pull him under the table with her.

The shot went off. The pistol was only loaded with a blank cartridge. But a cry of pain was heard. It came from Justinien, who had been hit in the eye by the wad.

And, when the light was turned on again, there, to everyone’s admiration, stood Bercail, still on his chair in the same attitude, motionless and barely a shade paler.

In the mean time the President’s lady was indulging in a fit of hysterics. Her friends crowded round her.

“Idiotic to give people such a turn.”

As there was no water on the table, Jarry, who had climbed down from his pedestal, dipped a handkerchief in brandy to rub her temples with, by way of apology.

Bernard had stayed only a second under the table, just long enough to feel Sarah’s two burning lips crushed voluptuously against his. Olivier had followed them; out of friendship, out of jealousy.… That horrible feeling which he knew so well, of being out of it, was exacerbated by his being drunk. When, in his turn, he came out from underneath the table, his head was swimming. He heard Dhurmer exclaim:

“Look at Molinier! He’s as funky as a girl!”

It was too much. Olivier, hardly knowing what he was doing, darted towards Dhurmer with his hand raised. He seemed to be moving in a dream. Dhurmer dodged the blow. As in a dream, Olivier’s hand met nothing but empty air.

The confusion became general, and while some of the guests were fussing over the President’s lady, who was still gesticulating wildly and uttering shrill little yelps as she did so, others crowded round Dhurmer, who called out: “He didn’t touch me! He didn’t touch me!” … and others round Olivier, who, with a scarlet face, wanted to rush at him again, and was with great difficulty restrained.

Touched or not, Dhurmer must consider that he had had his ears boxed; so Justinien, as he dabbed his eye, endeavoured to make him understand. It was a question of dignity. But Dhurmer was not in the least inclined to receive lessons in dignity from Justinien. He kept on repeating obstinately:

“Didn’t touch me!… Didn’t touch me!”

“Can’t you leave him alone?” said des Brousses. “One can’t force a fellow to fight if he doesn’t want to.”

Olivier, however, declared in a loud voice, that if Dhurmer wasn’t satisfied, he was ready to box his ears again; and, determined to force a duel, asked Bernard and Bercail to be his seconds. Neither of them knew anything about so-called “affairs of honour”; but Olivier didn’t dare apply to Edouard. His neck-tie had come undone; his hair had fallen over his forehead, which was dank with sweat; his hands trembled convulsively.

Edouard took him by the arm:

“Come and bathe your face a little. You look like a lunatic.”

He led him away to a lavatory.

As soon as he was out of the room, Olivier understood how drunk he was. When he had felt Edouard’s hand laid upon his arm, he thought he was going to faint, and let himself be led away unresisting. Of all that Edouard had said to him, he only understood that he had called him “thou.” As a storm-cloud bursts into rain, he felt his heart suddenly dissolve in tears. A damp towel which Edouard put to his forehead brought him finally to his sober senses again. What had happened? He was vaguely conscious of having behaved like a child, like a brute. He felt himself ridiculous, abject.… Then, quivering with distress and tenderness, he flung himself towards Edouard, pressed up against him and sobbed out:

“Take me away!”

Edouard was extremely moved himself:

“Your parents?” he asked.

“They don’t know I’m back.”

As they were going through the café downstairs on the way out, Olivier said to his companion that he had a line to write.

“If I post it to-night it’ll get there to-morrow morning.”

Seated at a table in the café he wrote as follows:

My dear George,

Yes, this letter is from me, and it’s to ask you to do something for me. I don’t suppose it’s news to you to hear I am back in Paris, for I think you saw me this morning near the Sorbonne. I was staying with the Comte de Passavant (Rue de Babylone); my things are still there. For reasons it would be too long to explain and which wouldn’t interest you, I prefer not to go back to him. You are the only person I can ask to go and fetch them away—my things, I mean. You’ll do this for me, won’t you? I’ll remember it when it’s your turn. There’s a locked trunk. As for the things in the room, put them yourself into my suitcase, and bring the lot to Uncle Edouard’s. I’ll pay for the taxi. To-morrow’s Sunday fortunately; you’ll be able to do it as soon as you get this line. I can count upon you, can’t I?

Your affectionate brother


P.S.—I know you’re sharp enough and you’ll be able to manage all right. But mind, that if you have any direct dealings with Passavant, you are to be very distant with him.

Those who had not heard Dhurmer’s insulting words could not understand the reason of Olivier’s sudden assault. He seemed to have lost his head. If he had kept cool, Bernard would have approved him; he didn’t like Dhurmer; but he had to admit that Olivier had behaved like a madman and put himself entirely in the wrong. It pained Bernard to hear him judged severely. He went up to Bercail and made an appointment with him. However absurd the affair was, they were both anxious to conduct it correctly. They agreed to go and call on their client at nine o’clock the next morning.

When his two friends had gone, Bernard had neither reason nor inclination to stay. He looked round the room in search of Sarah and his heart swelled with a kind of rage to see her sitting on Passavant’s knee. They both seemed drunk; Sarah, however, rose when she saw Bernard coming up.

“Let’s go,” she said, taking his arm.

She wanted to walk home. It was not far. They spoke not a word on the way. At the pension all the lights were out. Fearful of attracting attention, they groped their way to the backstairs, and there struck matches. Armand was waiting for them. When he heard them coming upstairs, he went out on to the landing with a lamp in his hand.

“Take the lamp,” said he to Bernard. “Light Sarah; there’s no candle in her room … and give me your matches so that I can light mine.” Bernard accompanied Sarah into the inner room. They were no sooner inside than Armand, leaning over from behind them, blew the lamp out at a single breath, then, with a chuckle:

“Good-night!” said he. “But don’t make a row. The parents are sleeping next door.”

Then, suddenly stepping back, he shut the door on them, and bolted it.