The Counterfeiters XIII : Edouard’s Journal:

First Visit to La Pérouse

On tire peu de service des vieillards.


Nov. 8th.—Old Monsieur and Madame de la Pérouse have changed houses again. Their new apartment, which I had never seen so far, is an entresol in the part of the Faubourg St. Honoré which makes a little recess before it cuts across the Boulevard Haussmann. I rang the bell. La Pérouse opened the door. He was in his shirt sleeves and was wearing a sort of yellowish whitish night-cap on his head, which I finally made out to be an old stocking (Madame de La Pérouse’s, no doubt) tied in a knot, so that the foot dangled on his cheek like a tassel. He was holding a bent poker in his hand. I had evidently caught him at some domestic job, and as he seemed rather confused:

“Would you like me to come back later?” I asked.

“No, no.… Come in here.” And he pushed me into a long, narrow room with two windows looking on to the street, just on a level with the street lamp. “I was expecting a pupil at this very moment” (it was six o’clock); “but she has telegraphed to say she can’t come. I am so glad to see you.”

He laid his poker down on a small table, and, as though apologizing for his appearance:

“Madame de La Pérouse’s maid-servant has let the stove go out. She only comes in the morning; I’ve been obliged to empty it.”

“Shall I help you light it?”

“No, no; it’s dirty work.… Will you excuse me while I go and put my coat on?”

He trotted out of the room and came back almost immediately dressed in an alpaca coat, with its buttons torn off, its elbows in holes, and its general appearance so threadbare, that one wouldn’t have dared give it to a beggar. We sat down.

“You think I’m changed, don’t you?”

I wanted to protest, but could hardly find anything to say, I was so painfully affected by the harassed expression of his face, which had once been so beautiful. He went on:

“Yes, I’ve grown very old lately. I’m beginning to lose my memory. When I want to go over one of Bach’s fugues, I am obliged to refer to the book.… ”

“There are many young people who would be glad to have a memory like yours.”

He replied with a shrug: “Oh, it’s not only my memory that’s failing. For instance, I think I still walk pretty quickly; but all the same everybody in the street passes me.”

“Oh,” said I, “people walk much quicker nowadays.”

“Yes, don’t they?… It’s the same with my lessons—my pupils think that my teaching keeps them back; they want to go quicker than I do. I’m losing them.… Everyone’s in a hurry nowadays.”

He added in a whisper so low that I could hardly hear him: “I’ve scarcely any left.”

I felt that he was in such great distress that I didn’t dare question him.

“Madame de La Pérouse won’t understand. She says I don’t set about it in the right way—that I don’t do anything to keep them and still less to get new ones.”

“The pupil you were expecting just now …” I asked awkwardly.

“Oh, she! I’m preparing her for the Conservatoire. She comes here to practise every day.”

“Which means she doesn’t pay you.”

“Madame de La Pérouse is always reproaching me with it. She can’t understand that those are the only lessons that interest me; yes, the only lessons I really care about … giving. I have taken to reflecting a great deal lately. Here! there’s something I should like to ask you. Why is it there is so little about old people in books?… I suppose it’s because old people aren’t able to write themselves and young ones don’t take any interest in them. No one’s interested in an old man.… And yet there are a great many curious things that might be said about them. For instance: there are certain acts in my past life which I’m only just beginning to understand. Yes, I’m just beginning to understand that they haven’t at all the meaning I attached to them in the old days when I did them.… I’ve only just begun to understand that I have been a dupe during the whole of my life. Madame de La Pérouse has fooled me; my son has fooled me; everybody has fooled me; God has fooled me.… ”

The evening was closing in. I could hardly make out my old master’s features; but suddenly the light of the street lamp flashed out and showed me his cheeks glittering with tears. I looked anxiously at first at an odd mark on his temple, like a dint, like a hole; but as he moved a little, the spot changed places and I saw that it was only a shadow cast by a knob of the balustrade. I put my hand on his scraggy arm; he shivered. “You’ll catch cold,” I said. “Really, shan’t we light the fire?… Come along.”

“No, no; one must harden oneself.”

“What? Stoicism?”

“Yes, a little. It’s because my throat was delicate that I never would wear a scarf. I have always struggled with myself.”

“That’s all very well as long as one is victorious; but if one’s body gives way …”

“That would be the real victory.”

He let go my hand and went on: “I was afraid you would go away without coming to see me.”

“Go where?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You travel so much. There’s something I wanted to say to you.… I expect to be going away myself soon.”

“What! are you thinking of travelling?” I asked clumsily, pretending not to understand him, notwithstanding the mysterious solemnity of his voice. He shook his head.

“You know very well what I mean.… Yes, yes. I know it will soon be time. I am beginning to earn less than my keep; and I can’t endure it. There’s a certain point beyond which I have promised myself not to go.”

He spoke in an emotional tone which alarmed me.

“Do you think it is wrong? I have never been able to understand why it was forbidden by religion. I have reflected a great deal latterly. When I was young, I led a very austere life; I used to congratulate myself on my force of character every time I refused a solicitation in the street. I didn’t understand, that when I thought I was freeing myself, in reality I was becoming more and more the slave of my own pride. Every one of these triumphs over myself was another turn of the key in the door of my prison. That’s what I meant just now by saying that God had fooled me. He made me take my pride for virtue. He was laughing at me. It amuses him. I think he plays with us as a cat does with a mouse. He sends us temptations which he knows we shan’t be able to resist; but when we do resist he revenges himself still worse. Why does he hate us so? And why … But I’m boring you with these old man’s questions.”

He took his head in his hands like a moping child and remained silent so long that I began to wonder whether he had not forgotten my presence. I sat motionless in front of him, afraid of disturbing his meditations. Notwithstanding the noise of the street which was so close, the calm of the little room seemed to me extraordinary, and notwithstanding the glimmer of the street lamp, which shed its fantastic light upon us from down below, like footlights at the theatre, the shadow on each side of the window seemed to broaden, and the darkness round us to thicken, as in icy weather the water of a quiet pool thickens into immobility—till my heart itself thickened into ice too. At last, shaking myself free from the clutch that held me, I breathed loudly and, preparatory to taking my leave, I asked out of politeness and in order to break the spell:

“How is Madame de La Pérouse?”

The old man seemed to wake up out of a dream. He repeated:

“Madame de La Pérouse …?” interrogatively, as if the words were syllables which had lost all meaning for him; then he suddenly leant towards me:

“Madame de la Pérouse is in a terrible state … most painful to me.”

“What kind of state?” I asked.

“Oh, no kind,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, as if there were nothing to explain. “She is completely out of her mind. She doesn’t know what to be up to next.”

I had long suspected that the old couple were in profound disagreement, but without any hope of knowing anything more definite.

“My poor friend,” I said pityingly, “and since when?”

He reflected a moment, as if he had not understood my question.

“Oh, for a long time … ever since I’ve known her.” Then, correcting himself almost immediately: “No; in reality it was over my son’s bringing up that things went wrong.”

I made a gesture of surprise, for I had always thought that the La Pérouses had no children. He raised his head, which he had been holding in his hands, and went on more calmly:

“I never mentioned my son to you, eh?… Well, I’ll tell you everything. You must know all about it now. There’s no one else I can tell.… Yes, it was over my son’s bringing up. As you see, it’s a long time ago. The first years of our married life had been delightful. I was very pure when I married Madame de La Pérouse. I loved her with innocence … yes, that’s the best word for it, and I refused to allow that she had any faults. But we hadn’t the same ideas about bringing up children. Every time that I wanted to reprove my son, Madame de La Pérouse took his side against me; according to her, he was to be allowed to do anything he liked. They were in league together against me. She taught him to lie.… When he was barely twenty he took a mistress. She was a pupil of mine—a Russian girl, with a great talent for music, to whom I was very much attached. Madame de La Pérouse knew all about it; but of course, as usual, everything was kept from me. And of course I didn’t notice she was going to have a baby. Not a thing—I tell you; I never suspected a thing. One fine day, I am informed that my pupil is unwell, that she won’t be able to come for some time. When I speak about going to see her, I am told that she has changed her address—that she is travelling.… It was not till long after that I learnt that she had gone to Poland for her confinement. My son joined her there.… They lived together for several years, but he died before marrying her.”

“And … she? did you ever see her again?”

He seemed to be butting with his head against some obstacle:

“I couldn’t forgive her for deceiving me. Madame de La Pérouse still corresponds with her. When I learnt she was in great poverty, I sent her some money for the child’s sake. But Madame de La Pérouse knows nothing about that. No more does she … she doesn’t know the money came from me.”

“And your grandson?”

A strange smile flitted over his face; he got up.

“Wait a moment. I’ll show you his photograph.” And again he trotted quickly out of the room, poking his head out in front of him. When he came back, his fingers trembled as he looked for the picture in a large letter-case. He held it towards me and, bending forward, whispered in a low voice:

“I took it from Madame de La Pérouse without her noticing. She thinks she has lost it.”

“How old is he?” I asked.

“Thirteen. He looks older, doesn’t he? He is very delicate.”

His eyes filled with tears once more; he held out his hand for the photograph, as if he were anxious to get it back again as quickly as possible. I leant forward to look at it in the dim light of the street lamp; I thought the child was like him; I recognized old La Pérouse’s high, prominent forehead and dreamy eyes. I thought I should please him by saying so; he protested:

“No, no; it’s my brother he’s like—a brother I lost.… ”

The child was oddly dressed in a Russian embroidered blouse.

“Where does he live?”

“How can I tell?” cried La Pérouse, in a kind of despair. “They keep everything from me, I tell you.”

He had taken the photograph, and after having looked at it a moment, he put it back in the letter-case, which he slipped into his pocket.

“When his mother comes to Paris, she only sees Madame de La Pérouse; if I question her, she always answers: ‘You had better ask her yourself.’ She says that, but at heart she would hate me to see her. She has always been jealous. She has always tried to take away everything I care for.… Little Boris is being educated in Poland—at Warsaw, I believe. But he often travels with his mother.” Then, in great excitement: “Oh, would you have thought it possible to love someone one has never seen?… Well, this child is what I care for most in the world.… And he doesn’t know!”

His words were broken by great sobs. He rose from his chair and threw himself—fell almost—into my arms. I would have done anything to give him some comfort—but what could I do? I got up, for I felt his poor shrunken form slipping to the ground and I thought he was going to fall on his knees. I held him up, embraced him, rocked him like a child. He mastered himself. Madame de La Pérouse was calling in the next room.

“She’s coming.… You don’t want to see her, do you?… Besides, she’s stone deaf. Go quickly.” And as he saw me out on to the landing:

“Don’t be too long without coming again.” (There was entreaty in his voice.) “Good-bye; good-bye.”

Nov. 9th.—There is a kind of tragedy, it seems to me, which has hitherto almost entirely eluded literature. The novel has dealt with the contrariness of fate, good or evil fortune, social relationships, the conflicts of passions and of characters—but not with the very essence of man’s being.

And yet, the whole effect of Christianity was to transfer the drama on to the moral plane. But properly speaking there are no Christian novels. There are novels whose purpose is edification; but that has nothing to do with what I mean. Moral tragedy—the tragedy, for instance, which gives such terrific meaning to the Gospel text: “If the salt have lost his flavour wherewith shall it be salted?”—that is the tragedy with which I am concerned.

Nov. 10th.—Olivier’s examination is coming on shortly. Pauline wants him to try for the École Normale afterwards. His career is all mapped out.… If only he had no parents, no connections! I would have made him my secretary. But the thought of me never occurs to him; he has not even noticed my interest in him, and I should embarrass him if I showed it. It is because I don’t want to embarrass him that I affect a kind of indifference in his presence, a kind of detachment. It is only when he does not see me that I dare look my full at him. Sometimes I follow him in the street without his knowing it. Yesterday I was walking behind him in this way, when he turned suddenly round before I had time to hide.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” I asked him.

“Oh, nowhere particular. I always seem most in a hurry when I have nothing to do.”

We took a few steps together, but without finding anything to say to each other. He was certainly put out at having been met.

Nov. 12th.—He has parents, an elder brother, school friends.… I keep repeating this to myself all day long—and that there is no room for me. I should no doubt be able to make up anything that might be lacking to him, but nothing is. He needs nothing; and if his sweetness delights me, there is nothing in it that allows me for a moment to deceive myself.… Oh, foolish words, which I write in spite of myself and which discover the duplicity of my heart.… I am leaving for London to-morrow. I have suddenly made up my mind to go away. It is time.

To go away because one is too anxious to stay!… A certain love of the arduous—a horror of indulgence (towards oneself, I mean) is perhaps the part of my Puritan up-bringing which I find it hardest to free myself from.

Yesterday, at Smith’s, bought a copy-book (English already) in which to continue my diary. I will write nothing more in this one. A new copy-book!…

Ah! if it were myself I could leave behind!