The Counterfeiters XIII : Edouard’s Journal: Douviers. Profitendieu

Brought back Olivier’s things from Passavant’s. As soon as I got home, set to work on The Counterfeiters. My exaltation is calm and lucid. My joy is such as I have never known before. Wrote thirty pages without hesitation, without a single erasure. The whole drama, like a nocturnal landscape suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning, emerges out of the darkness, very different from what I had been trying to invent. The books which I have hitherto written seem to me like the ornamental pools in public gardens—their contours are defined—perfect perhaps, but the water they contain is captive and lifeless. I wish it now to run freely, according to its bent, sometimes swift, sometimes slow; I choose not to foresee its windings.

X. maintains that a good novelist, before he begins to write his book, ought to know how it is going to finish. As for me, who let mine flow where it will, I consider that life never presents us with anything which may not be looked upon as a fresh starting point, no less than as a termination. “Might be continued”—these are the words with which I should like to finish my Counterfeiters.

Visit from Douviers. He is certainly an excellent fellow.

As I exaggerated my sympathy for him, I was obliged to submit to his effusions, which were rather embarrassing. All the time I was talking to him, I kept repeating to myself La Rochefoucauld’s words: “I am very little susceptible to pity; and should like not to be so at all … I consider that one ought to content oneself with showing it and carefully refrain from feeling it.” And yet my sympathy was real, undeniable, and I was moved to tears. Truth to tell, my tears seemed to console him better than my words. I almost believe that he gave up being unhappy as soon as he saw me cry.

I was firmly resolved not to tell him the name of the seducer; but to my surprise he did not ask it. I think his jealousy dies down as soon as he no longer feels Laura’s eyes upon him. In any case, its energy had been somewhat diminished by the act of coming to see me.

There is something illogical in his case; he is indignant that the other man should have deserted Laura. I pointed out that if it had not been for his desertion, Laura would not have come back to him. He is resolved to love the child as if it were his own. Who knows whether he would ever have tasted the joys of paternity without the seducer? I took good care not to point this out to him, for at the recollection of his insufficiencies, his jealousy becomes more acute. But then it belongs to the domain of vanity and ceases to interest me.

That an Othello should be jealous is comprehensible; the image of his wife’s pleasure obsesses him. But when a Douviers becomes jealous it can only be because he imagines he ought to be.

And no doubt he nurses this passion from a secret need to give body to his somewhat unsubstantial personage. Happiness would be natural to him; but he has to admire himself and he esteems only what is acquired, not what is natural. I did all I could therefore to persuade him that simple happiness was more meritorious than torments and very difficult to attain. I did not let him go till he was calm again.

Inconsistency. Characters in a novel or a play who act all the way through exactly as one expects them to.… This consistency of theirs, which is held up to our admiration, is on the contrary the very thing which makes us recognize that they are artificially composed.

Not that I pretend that inconsistency is a sure indication of naturalness, for one often meets, especially among women, affected inconsistencies; and on the other hand, in some few instances, there is reason to admire what is known as esprit de suite; but, as a rule, such consecutiveness is obtained only by vain and obstinate perseverance, and at the expense of all naturalness. The more fundamentally generous an individual is, and the more fertile in possibilities, the more liable he is to change, and the less willing to allow his future to be decided by his past. The “justum et tenacem propositi virum,” who is held up to us as a model, more often than not offers a stony soil and is refractory to culture.

I have known some of yet another sort: these assiduously fabricate for themselves a self-conscious originality, and after having made a choice of certain practices, their principal preoccupation is never to depart from them, to remain for ever on their guard and allow themselves not a moment’s relaxation. (I remember X., who refused to let me fill his glass with Montrachet 1904, saying: “I don’t like anything but Bordeaux.” As soon as I pretended it was a Bordeaux, he thought the Montrachet delectable.)

When I was younger, I used to make resolutions, which I imagined were virtuous. I was less anxious to be what I was, than to become what I wished to be. Now, I am not far from thinking that in irresolution lies the secret of not growing old.

Olivier has asked me what I am working at. I let myself be carried away into talking of my book, and even—he seemed so much interested—into reading him the pages I had just written. I was afraid of what he would say, knowing how sweeping young people’s judgments are and how difficult they find it to admit another point of view from their own. But the few remarks which he diffidently offered, seemed to me most judicious, and I immediately turned them to account.

My breath, my life comes to me from him—through him.

He is still anxious about the review he was going to edit, and particularly about the story which he wrote at Passavant’s request and which he now repudiates. I told him that Passavant’s new arrangements will necessitate the re-casting of the first number; he will be able to get his MS. back.

Just received a very unexpected visit from M. le juge d’instruction Profitendieu. He was mopping his forehead and breathing heavily, not so much, it seemed to me, from having come up my six flights of stairs, as from embarrassment. He kept his hat in his hand and did not sit down till I pressed him to. He is a handsome man, with a fine figure and considerable presence.

“I think you are President Molinier’s brother-in-law,” he said. “It is about his son George that I have taken the liberty of coming to see you. I feel sure you will excuse a step which at first sight may seem indiscreet, but which the affection and esteem I have for my colleague will, I hope, sufficiently explain.”

He paused. I got up and went to let down a portière, for fear the charwoman, who is very inquisitive, and who was, I knew, in the next room, should overhear. Profitendieu approved me with a smile.

“In my capacity as juge d’instruction, I have an affair on my hands which is causing me extreme embarrassment. Your young nephew has already been mixed up in a most compromising manner in a … this is quite between ourselves, I beg … in a somewhat scandalous adventure. I am willing to believe, considering his extreme youth, that he was taken by surprise, owing to his simplicity—his innocence; but I may say that it has required some skill on my part to … ahem … circumscribe this affair, without injuring the interests of justice. In the face of a second breach—of quite another kind, I hasten to add—I cannot answer for it that young George will get off so easily. I even doubt whether it is in the boy’s own interest to try to get him off, notwithstanding all my desire as a friend to spare your brother-in-law such a scandal. Nevertheless I will try; but I have officers, you understand, who are zealous, and whom I am not always able to restrain. Or, if you prefer it, I am still able to keep them in hand to-day, but to-morrow I shall be unable to. And I thought you might speak to your young nephew and warn him of the risk he is running.”

Profitendieu’s visit (I might as well admit it) had at first alarmed me horribly; but as soon as I understood that he had come neither as an enemy nor as a judge, I began to be amused. I was a great deal more so when he went on:

“For some time past a certain number of counterfeit coins have been put into circulation. So far I am informed. But I have not yet succeeded in discovering their origin. I know, however, that young George—quite innocently, I am willing to believe—is one of those who circulate them. A few young boys of your nephew’s age are lending themselves to this shameful traffic. I don’t doubt that their simplicity is being abused and that these foolish children are tools in the hands of one or two unscrupulous elders. We should have had no difficulty in taking up the younger delinquents and making them confess the origin of the coins; but I am only too well aware that after a certain point a case escapes our control, so to speak; that is to say, we cannot go back on the police court proceedings, and we sometimes find ourselves forced to become acquainted with things we should prefer to ignore. Upon this occasion, I have no doubt I shall discover the real culprits without having recourse to the minors’ evidence. I have given orders therefore not to alarm them. But my orders are only provisional. I don’t want your nephew to force me to countermand them. He had better be told that the authorities’ eyes are open. It wouldn’t be a bad thing indeed to frighten him a little; he is on a downward course.… ”

I declared I would do my best to warn him, but Profitendieu seemed not to hear me. His eyes became vague. He repeated twice: “on what is called a downward course,” and then was silent.

I do not know how long his silence lasted. Without his having to formulate his thoughts, I seemed to see them forming in his mind, and before he spoke, I already heard his words:

“I am a father myself, sir.… ”

Everything he had been saying disappeared; there was nothing left between us but Bernard. The rest was only a pretext; it was to talk of him that he had come.

If effusions make me feel uncomfortable, if exaggerated feelings irritate me, nothing, on the contrary, could have been more calculated to touch me than this restrained emotion. He kept it back as best he could, but with so great an effort that his lips and hands trembled. He was unable to continue. He suddenly hid his face in his hands, and the upper part of his body was shaken with sobs:

“You see,” he stammered, “you see how miserable a child can make us.”

What was the good of pretending? Extremely moved myself, “If Bernard were to see you,” I cried, “his heart would melt; I can vouch for it.”

At the same time I felt in rather an awkward situation. Bernard had hardly ever mentioned his father to me. I had morally accepted his having left his family, ready as I am to consider such desertions natural, and disposed to see in them nothing but what will be to the child’s greatest advantage. In Bernard’s case, there was the additional factor of his bastardy.… But here was his false father discovering feelings which were all the stronger, no doubt, that they were beyond control, and all the more sincere that they were in no way obligatory. In the face of this love, this grief, I was forced to ask myself whether Bernard had done right to leave. I had no longer the heart to approve him.

“Make use of me, if you think I can be of any use,” I said, “if you think that I ought to speak to him. He has a good heart.”

“I know. I know.… Yes, you can do a great deal. I know he was with you this summer. My police work is well done.… I know too that he is going up for his viva voce this very day. I chose the moment I knew he would be at the Sorbonne to come and see you. I was afraid of meeting him.”

For some minutes, my emotion had been dwindling, for I had just noticed that the verb “to know” figured in nearly all his sentences. I immediately became less interested in what he was saying than in this trick of speech, which was perhaps professional.

He told me also that he “knew” that Bernard had passed his written examination brilliantly. An obliging examiner, who happened to be a friend of his, had enabled him to see his son’s French essay, which it appears was most remarkable. He spoke of Bernard with a kind of restrained admiration, which made me wonder whether after all he did not believe he was really his father.

“Heavens!” added he, “whatever you do, don’t tell him what I have just been saying. He is so proud by nature, so easily offended!… If he suspected that ever since he left I have never ceased thinking of him, following him … But all the same, you can tell him that you have seen me.” (He breathed painfully after each sentence.) “You can tell him, what no one else can, that I am not angry with him”; then with a voice that grew fainter: “that I have never ceased to love him … like a son. Yes, I know that you know.… You can tell him too …” and without looking at me, with difficulty, in a state of extreme confusion “that his mother left me … yes, for good, this summer; and that if he … would come back, I …”

He was unable to finish.

When a big, strong, matter-of-fact man, who has made his way in life and is firmly established in his career, suddenly throws aside all decorum and pours out his heart before a stranger, he affords him (in this case it was I) a most singular spectacle. I was able once more to verify, as I have often done before, that I am more easily moved by the effusions of an outsider than by those of a familiar acquaintance. (Will examine into the reason of this another time.)

Profitendieu did not conceal that he had at first been prejudiced against me, not having understood, and still not understanding, why Bernard had left his home to join me. This was what had prevented him from coming to see me in the first place. I did not dare tell him the story of the suit-case, and merely spoke of his son’s friendship for Olivier, which had quickly led to our becoming intimate in our turn.

“These young men,” went on Profitendieu, “start off in life without knowing to what they are exposed. No doubt their ignorance of danger makes their strength. But we who know, we, their fathers, tremble for them. Our solicitude irritates them, and the best thing is to let them see it as little as possible. I know that it is sometimes very troublesome and clumsy. Rather than incessantly repeat to a child that fire burns, let us consent to his burning his fingers. Experience is a better instructor than advice. I always allowed Bernard the greatest possible liberty—so much so, that he fancied, I grieve to say, that I was indifferent to him. I am afraid that was his mistake and the reason of his running away. Even then, I thought it was better to let him be; though I kept a watch on him all the time without his suspecting it. Thank God, I had the means!” (Evidently the organization of his police was Profitendieu’s special pride—this was the third time he had alluded to it.) “I thought I must take care not to belittle the risks of his initiative in the boy’s eyes. Shall I own to you that his rebellious conduct, notwithstanding the pain it gave me, has only made me fonder of him than ever? It seemed to me a proof of courage, of valour.… ”

Now that he felt himself on confidential terms, the worthy man would have gone on for ever. I tried to bring the conversation back to what interested me more and, cutting him short, asked him if he had ever seen one of the counterfeit coins of which he had spoken. I was curious to know whether they were like the little glass piece which Bernard had shown us. I had no sooner mentioned this, than Profitendieu’s whole countenance changed; his eyelids half closed and a curious light burned in his eyes; crow’s feet appeared upon his temples, his lips tightened, his features were all drawn upwards in his effort at attention. There was no further question of anything that had passed before. The judge ousted the father and nothing existed for him but his profession. He pressed me with questions, took notes and spoke of sending a police officer to Saas-Fée to take the names of the visitors in the hotel books.

“Though in all likelihood,” he added, “the coin you saw was given to the grocer by an adventurer who was merely passing through the place.”

To which I replied that Saas-Fée was at the further end of an impasse and that it was not easy to go there and back from it in the same day. He appeared particularly pleased with this piece of information, and after having thanked me warmly, left me, with an absorbed, delighted look on his face, and without having once recurred either to George or to Bernard.