The Counterfeiters XI : Edouard’s Journal: Pauline

Visit from Pauline. I was a little puzzled how to let her know, and yet I could not keep her in ignorance of her son’s illness. I thought it useless to say anything about the incomprehensible attempt at suicide and spoke simply of a violent liver attack, which, as a matter of fact, remains the clearest result of the proceedings.

“I am reassured already by knowing Olivier is with you,” said Pauline. “I shouldn’t nurse him better myself, for I feel that you love him as much as I do.”

As she said these last words, she looked at me with an odd insistence. Did I imagine the meaning she seemed to put in her look? I was feeling what one is accustomed to call “a bad conscience” as regards Pauline, and was only able to stammer out something incoherent. I must also say that, sur-saturated as I have been with emotion for the last two days, I had entirely lost command of myself; my confusion must have been very apparent, for she added:

“Your blush is eloquent!… My poor dear friend, don’t expect reproaches from me. I should reproach you if you didn’t love him.… Can I see him?”

I took her in to Olivier. Bernard had left the room as he heard us coming.

“How beautiful he is!” she murmured, bending over the bed. Then, turning towards me: “You will kiss him from me. I am afraid of waking him.”

Pauline is decidedly an extraordinary woman. And to-day is not the first time that I have begun to think so. But I could not have hoped that she would push comprehension so far. And yet it seemed to me that behind the cordiality of her words and the pleasantness she put into her voice, I could distinguish a touch of constraint (perhaps because of the effort I myself made to hide my embarrassment); and I remembered a sentence of our last conversation—a sentence which seemed to me full of wisdom even then, when I was not interested in finding it so: “I prefer granting with a good grace what I know I shan’t be able to prevent.” Evidently Pauline was striving after good grace; and, as if in response to my secret thoughts, she went on again, as soon as we were back in the studio:

“By not being shocked just now, I am afraid it is I who have shocked you. There are certain liberties of thought of which men would like to keep the monopoly. And yet I can’t pretend to have more reprobation for you than I feel. Life has not left me ignorant. I know what a precarious thing boys’ purity is, even when it has the appearance of being most intact. And besides, I don’t think that the youths who are chastest turn into the best husbands—nor even, unfortunately, the most faithful!” she added, smiling sadly. “And then their father’s example made me wish other virtues for my sons. But I am afraid of their taking to debauchery or to degrading liaisons. Olivier is easily led astray. You will have it at heart to keep him straight. I think you will be able to do him good. It only rests with you.… ”

These words filled me with confusion.

“You make me out better than I am.”

That is all I could find to say, in the stupidest, stiffest way. She went on with exquisite delicacy:

“It is Olivier who will make you better. With love’s help what can one not obtain from oneself?”

“Does Oscar know he is with me?” I asked, to put a little air between us.

“He does not even know he is in Paris. I told you that he pays very little attention to his sons. That is why I counted on you to speak to George. Have you done so?”

“No—not yet.”

Pauline’s brow grew suddenly sombre.

“I am becoming more and more anxious. He has an air of assurance, which seems to me a combination of recklessness, cynicism, presumption. He works well. His masters are pleased with him; my anxiety has nothing to lay hold of.… ”

Then all of a sudden, throwing aside her calm and speaking with an excitement such that I barely recognized her:

“Do you realize what my life is?” she exclaimed. “I have restricted my happiness; year by year, I have been obliged to narrow it down; one by one, I have curtailed my hopes. I have given in; I have tolerated; I have pretended not to understand, not to see.… But all the same, one clings to something, however small; and when even that fails one!… In the evening he comes and works beside me under the lamp; when sometimes he raises his head from his book, it isn’t affection that I see in his look—it’s defiance. I haven’t deserved it.… Sometimes it seems to me suddenly that all my love for him is turned to hatred; and I wish that I had never had any children.”

Her voice trembled. I took her hand.

“Olivier will repay you, I vouch for it.”

She made an effort to recover herself.

“Yes, I am mad to speak so; as if I hadn’t three sons. When I think of one, I forget the others.… You’ll think me very unreasonable, but there are really moments when reason isn’t enough.”

“And yet what I admire most about you is your reasonableness,” said I baldly, in the hopes of calming her. “The other day, you talked about Oscar so wisely.… ”

Pauline drew herself up abruptly. She looked at me and shrugged her shoulders.

“It’s always when a woman appears most resigned that she seems the most reasonable,” she cried, almost vindictively.

This reflection irritated me, by reason of its very justice. In order not to show it, I asked:

“Anything new about the letters?”

“New? New?… What on earth that’s new can happen between Oscar and me?”

“He was expecting an explanation.”

“So was I. I was expecting an explanation. All one’s life long one expects explanations.”

“Well, but,” I continued, rather annoyed, “Oscar felt that he was in a false situation.”

“But, my dear friend, you know well enough that nothing lasts more eternally than a false situation. It’s the business of you novelists to try to solve them. In real life nothing is solved; everything continues. We remain in our uncertainty; and we shall remain to the very end without knowing what to make of things. In the mean time life goes on and on, the same as ever. And one gets resigned to that too; as one does to everything else … as one does to everything. Well, well, good-bye.”

I was painfully affected by a new note in the sound of her voice, which I had never heard before; a kind of aggressiveness, which forced me to think (not at the actual moment, perhaps, but when I recalled our conversation) that Pauline accepted my relations with Olivier much less easily than she said; less easily than all the rest. I am willing to believe that she does not exactly reprobate them, that from some points of view she is glad of them, as she lets me understand; but, perhaps without owning it to herself, she is none the less jealous of them.

This is the only explanation I can discover for her sudden outburst of revolt, so soon after, and on a subject which, on the whole, she had much less at heart. It was as though by granting me at first what cost her more, she had exhausted her whole stock of benignity and suddenly found herself with none left. Hence her intemperate, her almost extravagant language, which must have astonished her herself, when she came to recall it, and in which her jealousy unconsciously betrayed itself.

In reality, I ask myself, what can be the state of mind of a woman who is not resigned? An “honest woman,” I mean.… As if what is called “honesty” in woman did not always imply resignation!

This evening Olivier is perceptibly better. But returning life brings anxiety along with it. I reassure him by every device in my power.

“His duel?”—Dhurmer has run away into the country. One really can’t run after him.

“The review?”—Bercail is in charge of it.

“The things he had left at Passavant’s?”—This is the thorniest point. I had to admit that George had been unable to get possession of them; but I have promised to go and fetch them myself to-morrow. He is afraid, from what I can gather, that Passavant may keep them as a hostage; inadmissible for a single moment!

Yesterday, I was sitting up late in the studio, after having written this, when I heard Olivier call me. In a moment I was by his side.

“I should have come myself, only I was too weak,” he said. “I tried to get up, but when I stand, my head turns round and I was afraid of falling. No, no, I’m not feeling worse; on the contrary. But I had to speak to you.

“You must promise me something.… Never to try and find out why I wanted to kill myself the other night. I don’t think I know myself. I can’t remember. Even if I tried to tell you, upon my honour, I shouldn’t be able to.… But you mustn’t think that it’s because of anything mysterious in my life, anything you don’t know about.” Then, in a whisper: “And don’t imagine either that it was because I was ashamed.… ”

Although we were in the dark, he hid his face in my shoulder.

“Or if I am ashamed, it is of the dinner the other evening; of being drunk, of losing my temper, of crying; and of this summer … and of having waited for you so badly.”

Then he protested that none of all that was part of him any more; that it was all that that he had wanted to kill—that he had killed—that he had wiped out of his life.

I felt, in his very agitation, how weak he still was, and rocked him in my arms, like a child, without saying anything. He was in need of rest; his silence made me hope he was asleep; but at last I heard him murmur:

“When I am with you, I am too happy to sleep.”

He did not let me leave him till morning.