The Counterfeiters XII : Edouard and Then Strouvilhou Visit Passavant

Bernard arrived early that morning. Olivier was still asleep. As on the preceding days, Bernard settled himself down at his friend’s bedside with a book, which allowed Edouard to go off guard, in order to call on the Comte de Passavant, as he had promised. At such an early hour he was sure to be in.

The sun was shining; a keen air was scouring the trees of their last leaves; everything seemed limpid, bathed in azure. Edouard had not been out for three days. His heart was dilated by an immense joy; and even his whole being, like an opened, empty wrapping, seemed floating on a shoreless sea, a divine ocean of loving-kindness. Love and fine weather have this power of boundlessly enlarging our contours.

Edouard knew that he would want a taxi to bring back Olivier’s things; but he was in no hurry to take one; he enjoyed walking. The state of benevolence in which he felt himself towards the whole world, was no good preparation for facing Passavant. He told himself that he ought to execrate him; he went over in his mind all his grievances—but they had ceased to sting. This rival, whom only yesterday he had so detested, he could detest no longer—he had ousted him too completely. At any rate he could not detest him that morning. And as, on the other hand, he thought it prudent that no trace of this reversal of feeling should appear, for fear of its betraying his happiness, he would have gladly evaded the interview. And indeed, why the dickens was he going to it? He! Edouard! Going to the Rue de Babylone, to ask for Olivier’s things—on what pretext? He had undertaken the commission very thoughtlessly, he told himself, as he walked along; it would imply that Olivier had chosen to take up his abode with him—exactly what he wanted to conceal.… Too late, however, to draw back; Olivier had his promise. At any rate, he must be very cold with Passavant, very firm. A taxi went by and he hailed it.

Edouard knew Passavant ill. He was ignorant of one of the chief traits of his character. No one had ever succeeded in catching Passavant out; it was unbearable to him to be worsted. In order not to acknowledge his defeats to himself, he always affected to have desired his fate, and whatever happened to him, he pretended that that was what he wished. As soon as he understood that Olivier was escaping him, his one care was to dissemble his rage. Far from attempting to run after him, and risk being ridiculous, he forced himself to keep a stiff lip and shrug his shoulders. His emotions were never too violent to keep under control. Some people congratulate themselves on this, and refuse to acknowledge that they owe their mastery over themselves less to their force of character than to a certain poverty of temperament. I don’t allow myself to generalize; let us suppose that what I have said applies only to Passavant. He did not therefore find much difficulty in persuading himself that he had had enough of Olivier; that during these two summer months he had exhausted the charm of an adventure which ran the risk of encumbering his life; that, for the rest, he had exaggerated the boy’s beauty, his grace and his intellectual resources; that, indeed, it was high time he should open his eyes to the inconveniences of confiding the management of a review to anyone so young and inexperienced. Taking everything into consideration, Strouvilhou would serve his purpose far better (as regards the review, that is). He had written to him and appointed him to come and see him that very morning.

Let us add too that Passavant was mistaken as to the cause of Olivier’s desertion. He thought he had made him jealous by his attentions to Sarah; he was pleased with this idea which flattered his self-conceit; his vexation was soothed by it.

He was expecting Strouvilhou; and as he had given orders that he was to be let in at once, Edouard benefited by the instructions and was shown in to Passavant without being announced.

Passavant gave no signs of his surprise. Fortunately for him, the part he had to play was suited to his temperament and he was easily able to switch his mind on to it. As soon as Edouard had explained the motive of his visit:

“I’m delighted to hear what you say. Then really? You’re willing to look after him? It doesn’t put you out too much?… Olivier is a charming boy, but he was beginning to be terribly in my way here. I didn’t like to let him feel it—he’s so nice.… And I knew he didn’t want to go back to his parents.… Once one has left one’s parents, you know— … Oh! but now I come to think of it, his mother is a half-sister of yours, isn’t she?… Or something of that kind? Olivier must have told me so, I expect. Then, nothing could be more natural than that he should stay with you. No one can possibly smile at it” (though he himself didn’t fail to do so as he said the words). “With me, you understand, it was rather more shady. In fact, that was one of the reasons that made me anxious for him to go.… Though I am by no means in the habit of minding public opinion. No; it was in his own interest rather.… ”

The conversation had not begun badly; but Passavant could not resist the pleasure of pouring a few drops of his poisonous perfidy on Edouard’s happiness. He always kept a supply on hand; one never knows what may happen.

Edouard felt his patience giving way. But he suddenly thought of Vincent; Passavant would probably have news of him. He had indeed determined not to answer Douviers, should he question him; but he thought it would be a good thing to be himself acquainted with the facts, in order the better to avoid his enquiries. It would strengthen his resistance. He seized this pretext as a diversion.

“Vincent has not written to me,” said Passavant; “but I have had a letter from Lady Griffith—you know—the successor—in which she speaks of him at length. See, here it is.… After all, I don’t know why you shouldn’t read it.”

He handed him the letter, and Edouard read:

25th August

My dear,1

The prince’s yacht is leaving Dakar without us. Who knows where we shall be when you get this letter which it is taking with it? Perhaps on the banks of the Casamance, where Vincent wants to botanize, and I to shoot. I don’t exactly know whether it is I who am carrying him off, or he me; or whether it isn’t rather that we have both of us fallen into the clutches of the demon of adventure. He was introduced to us by the demon of boredom, whose acquaintance we made on board ship.… Ah, cher! one must live on a yacht to know what boredom is. In rough weather life is just bearable; one has one’s share of the vessel’s agitation. But after Teneriffe, not a breath; not a wrinkle on the sea.

“… grand miroir

De mon désespoir.”

And do you know what I have been engaged in doing ever since? In hating Vincent. Yes, my dear, love seemed too tasteless, so we have gone in for hating each other. In reality it began long before; really, as soon as we got on board; at first it was only irritation, a smouldering animosity, which didn’t prevent closer encounters. With the fine weather, it became ferocious. Oh! I know now what it is to feel passion for someone.…

The letter went on for some time longer.

“I don’t need to read any further,” said Edouard, giving it back to Passavant. “When is he coming back?”

“Lady Griffith doesn’t speak of returning.”

Passavant was mortified that Edouard showed so little appetite for this letter. Since he had allowed him to read it, such a lack of curiosity must be considered as an affront. He enjoyed rejecting other people’s offers, but could not endure to have his own disdained. Lillian’s letter had filled him with delight. He had a certain affection for her and Vincent; and had even proved to his own satisfaction that he was capable of being kind to them and helpful; but as soon as one got on without it, his affection dwindled. That his two friends should not have set sail for perfect bliss when they left him, tempted him to think: “Serves them right!”

As for Edouard, his early morning felicity was too genuine for him not to be made uncomfortable by the picture of such outrageous feelings. It was quite unaffectedly that he gave the letter back.

Passavant felt it essential to recover the lead at once:

“Oh! I wanted to say too—you know that I had thought of making Olivier editor of a review. Of course there’s no further question of that.”

“Of course not,” rejoined Edouard, whom Passavant had unwittingly relieved of a considerable anxiety. He understood by Edouard’s tone that he had played into his hand, and without even giving himself the time to bite his lips:

“Olivier’s things are in the room he was occupying. You have a taxi, I suppose? I’ll have them brought down to you. By the bye, how is he?”

“Very well.”

Passavant had risen. Edouard did the same. They parted with the coldest of bows.

The Comte de Passavant had been terribly put out by Edouard’s visit. He heaved a sigh of relief when Strouvilhou came into the room.

Although Strouvilhou, on his side, was perfectly able to hold his own, Passavant felt at ease with him—or, to be more accurate, treated him in a free and easy manner. No doubt his opponent was by no means despicable, but he considered himself his match, and piqued himself on proving it.

“My dear Strouvilhou, take a seat,” said he, pushing an armchair towards him. “I am really glad to see you again.”

“Monsieur le Comte sent for me. Here I am entirely at his service.”

Strouvilhou liked affecting a kind of flunkey’s insolence with Passavant, but Passavant knew him of old.

“Let’s get to the point; it’s time to come out into the open. You’ve already tried your hand at a good many trades.… I thought to-day of proposing you an actual dictatorship—only in the realms of literature, let us hasten to add.”

“A pity!” Then, as Passavant held out his cigarette case: “If you’ll allow me, I prefer …”

“I’ll allow nothing of the kind. Your horrid contraband cigars make the room stink. I can’t understand how anyone can smoke such stuff.”

“Oh! I don’t pretend that I rave about them. But they’re a nuisance to one’s neighbours.”

“Playful as ever?”

“Not altogether an idiot, you know.”

And without replying directly to Passavant’s proposal, Strouvilhou thought proper to establish his positions; afterwards he would see. He went on:

“Philanthropy was never one of my strong points.”

“I know, I know,” said Passavant.

“Nor egoism either. That’s what you don’t know.… People want to make us believe that man’s single escape from egoism is a still more disgusting altruism! As for me, I maintain that if there’s anything more contemptible and more abject than a man, it’s a lot of men. No reasoning will ever persuade me that the addition of a number of sordid units can result in an enchanting total. I never happen to get into a tram or a train without hoping that a good old accident will reduce the whole pack of living garbage to a pulp; yes, good Lord! and myself into the bargain. I never enter a theatre without praying that the chandelier may come crashing down, or that a bomb may go off; and even if I had to be blown up too, I’d be only too glad to bring it along in my coat pocket—if I weren’t reserving myself for something better. You were saying? …”

“No, nothing; go on, I’m listening. You’re not one of those orators who need the stimulus of contradiction to keep them going.”

“The fact is, I thought I heard you offer me some of your incomparable port.”

Passavant smiled.

“Keep the bottle beside you,” he said, as he passed it to him. “Empty it if you like, but talk.”

Strouvilhou filled his glass, sat comfortably back in his big arm-chair and began:

“I don’t know if I’ve got what people call a hard heart; in my opinion, I’ve got too much indignation, too much disgust in my composition—not that I care. It is true that for a long time past I have repressed in that particular organ of mine everything which ran the risk of softening it. But I am not incapable of admiration, and of a sort of absurd devotion; for, in so far as I am a man, I despise and hate myself as much as I do my neighbours. I hear it repeated everywhere and constantly that literature, art and science work together in the long run for the good of mankind; and that’s enough to make me loathe them. But there’s nothing to prevent me from turning the proposition round, and then I breathe again. Yes, what for my part I like to imagine is, on the contrary, a servile humanity working towards the production of some cruel master-piece; a Bernard Palissy (how they have deaved us with that fellow!) burning his wife and children to get a varnish for a fine plate. I like turning problems round; I can’t help it, my mind is so constructed that they keep steadier when they are standing on their heads. And if I can’t endure the thought of a Christ sacrificing himself for the thankless salvation of all the frightful people I knock up against daily, I imagine with some satisfaction, and indeed a kind of serenity, the rotting of that vile mob in order to produce a Christ … though, in reality, I should prefer something else; for all His teaching has only served to plunge us deeper into the mire. The trouble comes from the selfishness of the ferocious. Imagine what magnificent things an unselfish ferocity would produce! When we take care of the poor, the feeble, the rickety, the injured, we are making a great mistake; and that is why I hate religion—because it teaches us to. That deep peace, which philanthropists themselves pretend they derive from the contemplation of nature, and its fauna and flora, comes from this—that in the savage state, it is only robust creatures that flourish; all the rest is refuse and serves as manure. But people won’t see it; won’t admit it.”

“Yes, yes; I admit it willingly. Go on.”

“And tell me whether it isn’t shameful, wretched … that men have done so much to get superb breeds of horses, cattle, poultry, cereals, flowers, and that they themselves are still seeking a relief for their sufferings in medicine, a palliative in charity, a consolation in religion, and oblivion in drink. What we ought to work at is the amelioration of the breed. But all selection implies the suppression of failures, and this is what our fool of a Christianized society cannot consent to. It will not even take upon itself to castrate degenerates—and those are the most prolific. What we want is not hospitals, but stud farms.”

“Upon my soul, Strouvilhou, I like you when you talk so.”

“I am afraid, Monsieur le Comte, that you have misunderstood me. You thought me a sceptic, and in reality I am an idealist, a mystic. Scepticism has never been any good. One knows for that matter where it leads—to tolerance! I consider sceptics people without imagination, without ideals—fools.… And I am not ignorant of all the delicacies, the sentimental subtleties which would be suppressed by the production of this robust humanity; but no one would be there to regret the delicacies, since the people capable of appreciating them would be suppressed too. Don’t make any mistake—I am not without what is called culture, and I know that certain among the Greeks had caught a glimpse of my ideal; at any rate, I like imagining it, and remembering that Coré, daughter of Ceres, went down to Hades full of pity for the shades; but that after she had become queen, and Pluto’s wife, Homer never calls her anything but ‘implacable Proserpine.’ See Odyssey, Bk. VI. ‘Implacable’—that’s what every man who pretends to be virtuous owes it to himself to be.”

“Glad to see you come back to literature—that is, if we may be said ever to have left it. Well then, virtuous Strouvilhou, I want to know whether you’ll consent to become the implacable editor of a review?”

“To tell the truth, my dear count, I must own that of all nauseating human emanations, literature is one of those which disgust me most. I can see nothing in it but compromise and flattery. And I go so far as to doubt whether it can be anything else—at any rate until it has made a clean sweep of the past. We live upon nothing but feelings which have been taken for granted once for all and which the reader imagines he experiences, because he believes everything he sees in print; the author builds on this as he does on the conventions which he believes to be the foundations of his art. These feelings ring as false as counters, but they pass current. And as everyone knows that ‘bad money drives out good,’ a man who should offer the public real coins would seem to be defrauding us. In a world in which everyone cheats, it’s the honest man who passes for a charlatan. I give you fair warning—if I edit a review, it will be in order to prick bladders—in order to demonetize fine feelings, and those promissary notes which go by the name of words.”

“Upon my soul, I should very much like to know how you’ll set about it.”

“Let me alone and you’ll soon see … I have often thought it over.”

“No one will understand what you’re after; no one will follow you.”

“Oh, come now! The cleverest young men of the present day are already on their guard against poetical inflation. They perfectly recognize a gas bag when they see one—even in the disguise of scientifically elaborate metre, and trimmed up with all the hackneyed effusions of high-sounding lyrical verse. One can always find hands for a work of destruction. Shall we found a school with no other object but to pull things down?… Would you be afraid?”

“No.… So long as my garden isn’t trampled on.”

“There’s enough to be done elsewhere … en attendant. The moment is propitious. I know many a young man who is only waiting for the rallying cry; quite young ones.… Oh, yes, I know! That’s what you like; but I warn you they aren’t taking any.… I have often wondered by what miracle painting has gone so far ahead, and how it happens that literature has let itself be outdistanced. In painting to-day, just see how the ‘motif,’ as it used to be called, has fallen into discredit. A fine subject! It makes one laugh. Painters don’t even dare venture on a portrait unless they can be sure of avoiding every trace of resemblance. If we manage our affairs well, and leave me alone for that, I don’t ask for more than two years before a future poet will think himself dishonoured if anyone can understand a word of what he says. Yes, Monsieur le Comte, will you wager? All sense, all meaning will be considered anti-poetical. Illogicality shall be our guiding star. What a fine title for a review—The Scavengers!”

Passavant had listened without turning a hair.

“Do you count your young nephew among your acolytes?” he asked after a pause.

“Young Léon is one of the elect; he doesn’t let the flies settle on him, either. Really, it’s a pleasure teaching him. Last term he thought it would be a joke to cut out the swotters in his form and carry off all the prizes. Since he came back from the holidays he has let his work go to the deuce; I haven’t the least idea what he’s hatching; but I have every confidence in him, and I wouldn’t for the world interfere.”

“Will you bring him to see me?”

“Monsieur le Comte is joking, no doubt.… Well, then, this review?”

“We’ll see about it later. I must have time to let your plans mature in my mind. In the mean time, you might really find me a secretary. I’m not satisfied with the one I had.”

“I’ll send you little Cob-Lafleur to-morrow. I shall be seeing him this afternoon, and I make no doubt he’ll suit you.”

“Scavenger style?”

“A little.”

“Ex uno …”

“Oh, no; don’t judge them all from him. He is one of the moderate ones. Just right for you.”

Strouvilhou rose.

“A propos,” said Passavant, “I haven’t given you my book, I think. I’m sorry not to have a first edition left.… ”

“As I don’t mean to sell it, it isn’t of the slightest importance.”

“It’s only because the print’s better.”

“Oh! as I don’t mean to read it either … Au revoir. And if the spirit moves you, I’m at your service. I wish you good morning.”

1 In English in the original.