The Counterfeiters XI : Edouard’s Journal: George Molinier

Nov. 1st.—A fortnight ago …

—it was a mistake not to have noted it down at once. It was not so much that I hadn’t time as that my heart was still full of Laura—or, to be more accurate, I did not wish to distract my thoughts from her; moreover, I do not care to note anything here that is casual or fortuitous, and at that time I did not think that what I am going to relate could lead to anything, or be, as people say, of any consequence; at any rate, I would not admit it to myself and it was, in a way, to prove the unimportance of this incident that I refrained from mentioning it in my journal. But I feel more and more—it would be vain to deny it—that it is Olivier’s figure that has now become the magnet of my thoughts, that their current sets towards him and that without taking him into account I shall be able neither to explain nor to understand myself properly.

I was coming back that morning from Perrin’s, the publisher’s, where I had been seeing about the press copies of the fresh edition of my old book. As the weather was fine, I was dawdling back along the quays until it should be time for lunch.

A little before getting to Vanier’s, I stopped in front of a second-hand bookseller’s. It was not so much the books that interested me as a small schoolboy, about thirteen years old, who was rummaging the outside shelves under the placid eye of a shop assistant, who sat watching on a rush-bottomed chair in the door-way. I pretended to be examining the bookstall, but I too kept a watch on the youngster out of the corner of my eye. He was dressed in a threadbare overcoat, the sleeves of which were too short and showed his other sleeves below them. Its side pocket was gaping, though it was obviously empty; a corner of the stuff had given way. I reflected that this coat must have already seen service with several elder brothers and that his brothers and he must have been in the habit of stuffing a great many, too many, things into their pockets. I reflected too that his mother must be either very neglectful or very busy not to have mended it. But just then the youngster turned round a little and I saw that the pocket on the other side was coarsely darned with stout black thread. And I seemed to hear the maternal exhortations: “Don’t put two books at a time into your pocket; you’ll ruin your overcoat. Your pocket’s all torn again. Next time, I warn you, I shan’t darn it. Just look what a sight you are! …” Things which my own poor mother used to say to me, too, and to which I paid no more attention than he. The overcoat was unbuttoned and my eye was attracted by a kind of decoration, a bit of ribbon, or rather a yellow rosette which he was wearing in the button hole of his inside coat. I put all this down for the sake of discipline and for the very reason that it bores me to put it down.

At a certain moment the man on the chair was called into the shop; he did not stay more than a second and came back to his chair at once, but that second was enough to allow the boy to slip the book he was holding into his pocket; then he immediately began scanning the shelves again as if nothing had happened. At the same time he was uneasy; he raised his head, caught me looking at him and understood that I had seen him. At any rate, he said to himself that I might have seen him; he was probably not quite certain; but in his uncertainty he lost all his assurance, blushed and started a little performance in which he tried to appear quite at his ease, but which, on the contrary, showed extreme embarrassment. I did not take my eyes off him. He took the purloined book out of his pocket, thrust it back again, walked away a few steps, pulled out of his inside pocket a wretched little pocket-book, in which he pretended to look for some imaginary money; made a face, a kind of theatrical grimace, aimed at me, and signifying, “Drat! Not enough!” and with a little shade of surprise in it as well, “Odd! I thought I had enough!” The whole thing slightly exaggerated, slightly overdone, as when an actor is afraid of not being understood. Finally, under the pressure of my look, I might almost say, he went back to the shelf, pulled the book, this time decidedly, out of his pocket and put it back in its place. It was done so naturally that the assistant noticed nothing. Then the boy raised his head again, hoping that at last he would be rid of me. But not at all; my look was still upon him, like the eye that watched Cain—only my eye was a smiling one. I determined to speak to him and waited until he should have left the bookstall before going up to him; but he didn’t budge and still stood planted in front of the books, and I understood that he wouldn’t budge as long as I kept gazing at him. So, as at Puss in the Corner, when one tries to entice the pretence quarry to change places, I moved a little away as if I had seen enough and he started off at once in his own direction; but he had no sooner got into the open than I caught him up.

“What was that book?” I asked him out of the blue, at the same time putting as much amenity as I could into my voice and expression.

He looked me full in the face and I felt all his suspicions drop from him. He was not exactly handsome, perhaps, but what charming eyes he had! I saw every kind of feeling wavering in their depths like water weeds at the bottom of a stream.

“It’s a guide-book for Algeria. But it’s too dear. I’m not rich enough.”

“How much?”

“Two francs fifty.”

“All the same, if you hadn’t seen me, you’d have made off with the book in your pocket.”

The little fellow made a movement of indignation. He expostulated in a tone of extreme vulgarity:

“Well, I never! What d’you take me for? A thief?” But he said it with such conviction that I almost began to doubt my own eyes. I felt that I should lose my hold over him if I went on. I took three coins out of my pocket:

“All right! Go and buy it. I’ll wait for you.”

Two minutes later he came back turning over the pages of the coveted work. I took it out of his hands. It was an old guide-book of the year 1871.

“What’s the good of that?” I said as I handed it back to him. “It’s too old. It’s of no use.”

He protested that it was—that, besides, recent guide-books were much too dear, and that for all he should do with it the maps of this one were good enough. I don’t attempt to quote his words, which would lose their savour without the extraordinarily vulgar accent with which he said them and which was all the more amusing because his sentences were not turned without a certain elegance.

This episode must be very much shortened. Precision in the reader’s imagination should be obtained not by accumulating details but by two or three touches put in exactly the right places. I expect for that matter that it would be a better plan to make the boy tell the story himself; his point of view is of more signification than mine. He is flattered and at the same time made uncomfortable by the attention I pay him. But the weight of my look makes him deviate a little from his own real direction. A personality which is over-tender and still too young to be conscious of itself takes shelter behind an attitude. Nothing is more difficult to observe than creatures in the period of formation. One ought to look at them only sideways—in profile.

The youngster suddenly declared that what he liked best was geography! I suspected that an instinct for vagabonding was concealed behind this liking.

“You’d like to go to those parts?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t I?” he answered, shrugging his shoulders.

The idea crossed my mind that he was unhappy at home. I asked him if he lived with his parents. “Yes.” Didn’t he get on with them? He protested rather lukewarmly that he did. He seemed afraid that he had given himself away by what he had just said. He added:

“Why do you ask that?”

“Oh, for nothing,” I answered, and then, touching the yellow ribbon in his buttonhole, “What’s that?”

“It’s a ribbon. Can’t you see?”

My questions evidently annoyed him. He turned towards me abruptly and almost vindictively, and in a jeering, insolent voice of which I should never have thought him capable and which absolutely turned me sick:

“I say … do you often go about picking up schoolboys?”

Then as I was stammering out some kind of a confused answer, he opened the satchel he was carrying under his arm to slip his purchase into it. It held his lesson books and one or two copy-books, all covered with blue paper. I took one out; it was a history note-book. Its small owner had written his name on it in large letters. My heart gave a jump as I recognized that it was my nephew’s:


(Bernard’s heart gave a jump too as he read these lines and the whole story began to interest him prodigiously.)

It will be difficult to get it accepted that the character who stands for me in The Counterfeiters can have kept on good terms with his sister and yet not have known her children. I have always had the greatest difficulty in tampering with real facts. Even to alter the colour of a person’s hair seems to me a piece of cheating which must lessen the verisimilitude of the truth. Everything hangs together and I always feel such a subtle interdependence between all the facts life offers me, that it seems to me impossible to change a single one without modifying the whole. And yet I can hardly explain that this boy’s mother is only my half-sister by a first marriage of my father’s; that I never saw her during the whole time my parents were alive; that we were brought into contact by business relating to the property they left.… All this is indispensable, however, and I don’t see what else I can invent in order to avoid being indiscreet. I knew that my half-sister had three sons; I had met the eldest—a medical student—but I had caught only a sight even of him, as he has been obliged to interrupt his studies on account of a threatening of tuberculosis and has gone to some place in the South for treatment. The two others were never there when I went to see Pauline; the one who was now before me was certainly the youngest. I showed no trace of astonishment, but, taking an abrupt leave of young George after learning that he was going home to lunch, I jumped into a taxi in order to get to Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs before him. I expected that at this hour of the morning Pauline would keep me to lunch—which was exactly what happened; I had brought away a copy of my book from Perrin’s, and made up my mind to present it to her as an excuse for my unexpected visit.

It was the first time I had taken a meal at Pauline’s. I was wrong to fight shy of my brother-in-law. I can hardly believe that he is a very remarkable jurist, but when we are together he has the sense to keep off his shop as much as I off mine, so that we get on very well.

Naturally when I got there that morning I did not breathe a word of my recent meeting:

“It will give me an opportunity, I hope, of making my nephews’ acquaintance,” I said, when Pauline asked me to stay to lunch. “For, you know, there are two of them I have never met.”

“Olivier will be a little late,” she said; “he has a lesson; we will begin lunch without him. But I’ve just heard George come in, I’ll call him.” And going to the door of the adjoining room, “George,” she said, “come and say ‘how-do-you-do’ to your uncle.”

The boy came up and held out his hand. I kissed him … children’s power of dissembling fills me with amazement—he showed no surprise; one would have supposed he did not recognize me. He simply blushed deeply; but his mother must have thought it was from shyness. I suspected he was embarrassed at this meeting with the morning’s ‘tec,’ for he left us almost immediately and went back to the next room—the dining-room, which I understood is used by the boys as a schoolroom between meals. He reappeared, however, shortly after, when his father came into the room, and took advantage of the moment when we were going into the dining-room, to come up to me and seize hold of my hand without his parents’ seeing. At first I thought it was a sign of good fellowship which amused me, but no! He opened my hand as I was clasping his, slipped into it a little note which he had obviously just written, then closed my fingers over it and gave them a tight squeeze. Needless to say I played up to him; I hid the little note in my pocket and it was not till after lunch that I was able to take it out. This is what I read:

“If you tell my parents the story of the book, I shall” (he had crossed out “detest you”) “say that you solicited me.”

And at the bottom of the page:

“I come out of school every morning at 10 o’clock.”

Interrupted yesterday by a visit from X. His conversation upset me considerably.

Have been reflecting a great deal on what X. said. He knows nothing about my life, but I gave him a long account of the plan of my Counterfeiters. His advice is always salutary, because his point of view is different from mine. He is afraid that my work may be too factitious, that I am in danger of letting go the real subject for the shadow of the subject in my brain. What makes me uneasy is to feel that life (my life) at this juncture is parting company from my work, and my work moving away from my life. But I couldn’t say that to him. Up till now—as is right—my tastes, my feelings, my personal experiences have all gone to feed my writings; in my best contrived phrases I still felt the beating of my heart. But henceforth the link is broken between what I think and what I feel. And I wonder whether this impediment which prevents my heart from speaking is not the real cause that is driving my work into abstraction and artificiality. As I was reflecting on this, the meaning of the fable of Apollo and Daphne suddenly flashed upon me: happy, thought I, the man who can clasp in one and the same embrace the laurel and the object of his love.

I related my meeting with George at such length that I was obliged to stop at the moment when Olivier came on the scene. I began this tale only to speak of him and I have managed to speak only of George. But now that the moment has come to speak of Olivier I understand that it was desire to defer that moment which was the cause of all my slowness. As soon as I saw him that first day, as soon as he sat down to the family meal, at my first look—or rather at his first look—I felt that look of his take possession of me wholly, and that my life was no longer mine to dispose of.

Pauline presses me to go and see her oftener. She begs me urgently to interest myself in her boys. She gives me to understand that their father knows very little about them. The more I talk to her, the more charming I think her. I cannot understand how I can have been so long without seeing more of her. The children have been brought up as Catholics; but she remembers her early Protestant training, and though she left our father’s home at the time my mother entered it, I discover many points of resemblance between her and me. She sends her boys to school with Laura’s parents, with whom I myself boarded for so long. This school (half a school and half a boarding house) was founded by old Monsieur Azaïs (a friend of my father’s), who is still the head of it. Though he started life as a pastor, he prides himself on keeping his school free from any denominational tendency—in my time there were even Turks there.

Pauline says she has good news from the sanatorium where Vincent is staying; he has almost completely recovered. She tells me that she writes to him about me and that she wishes I knew him better; for I have barely seen him. She builds great hopes on her eldest son; the family is stinting itself in order to enable him to set up for himself shortly—that is, to have rooms of his own where he can receive his patients. In the meantime she has managed to set aside a part of their small apartment for him, by putting Olivier and George on the floor below in a room that happened to be vacant. The great question is whether the state of Vincent’s health will oblige him to give up being house-physician.

To tell the truth I take very little interest in Vincent, and if I talk to his mother about him, it is really to please her and so that we can then go on to talk about Olivier at greater length. As for George, he fights shy of me, hardly answers when I speak to him, and gives me a look of indescribable suspicion when we happen to pass each other. He seems unable to forgive me for not having gone to meet him outside the lycée—or to forgive himself for his advances to me.

I don’t see much of Olivier either. When I visit his mother, I don’t dare go into the room where I know he is at work; if I meet him by chance, I am so awkward and shy that I find nothing to say to him, and that makes me so unhappy that I prefer to call on his mother at the times when I know he will be out.