The Counterfeiters XIV : Bernard and the Angel

Bernard was to experience that morning that for a nature as generous as his, there is no greater joy than to rejoice another being. This joy was denied him. He had just heard that he had passed his examination with honours, but finding no one near to whom he could communicate it, the news lost all its savour. Bernard knew well enough that the person who would have been most pleased to hear it, was his father. He even hesitated a moment whether he would not go there and then and tell him; but pride held him back. Edouard? Olivier? It was really giving too much importance to a certificate. He had passed his baccalauréat. Nothing to make a fuss about! It was now that the difficulties would begin.

In the Sorbonne quadrangle, he saw one of his schoolfellows, who had also been successful; but he had drawn apart from the others and was crying. The poor boy was in mourning. Bernard knew that he had just lost his mother. A great wave of sympathy drove him towards the orphan; then a feeling of absurd shyness made him pass on. The other boy, who had seen him come up and then go by, was ashamed of his tears; he esteemed Bernard and was hurt by what he took for contempt.

Bernard went into the Luxembourg gardens. He sat down on a bench in the same part of the gardens where he had gone to meet Olivier the evening he had sought shelter with him. The air was almost warm and the blue sky laughed down at him through the branches of the great trees, already stripped of their leaves. One could not believe that winter was really on the way; the cooing birds themselves were deceived. But Bernard did not look at the gardens; he saw the ocean of life spread out before him. People say there are paths on the sea, but they are not traced and Bernard did not know which one was his.

He had been meditating for some moments, when he saw coming towards him—gliding on so light a foot that one felt it might have rested on the waves—an angel. Bernard had never seen any angels, but he had not a moment’s doubt, and when the angel said: “Come!” he rose obediently and followed him. He was not more astonished than he would have been in a dream. He tried to remember afterwards if the angel had taken him by the hand; but in reality they did not touch each other and even kept a little apart. They returned together to the quadrangle where Bernard had left the orphan, firmly resolved to speak to him; but the quadrangle was empty.

Bernard walked, with the angel by his side, towards the church of the Sorbonne, into which the angel passed first—into which Bernard had never been before. Other angels were going to and fro in this place; but Bernard had not the eyes that were needed to see them. An unfamiliar peace enfolded him. The angel went up to the high altar, and Bernard, when he saw him kneel down, knelt down beside him. He did not believe in any god, so that he could not pray, but his heart was filled with a lover’s longing for dedication, for sacrifice; he offered himself. His emotion was so confused that no word could have expressed it; but suddenly the organ’s song arose.

“You offered yourself in the same way to Laura,” said the angel; and Bernard felt the tears streaming down his cheeks. “Come, follow me.”

As the angel drew him along, Bernard almost knocked up against one of his old schoolfellows, who had also just passed his viva voce. Bernard considered him a dunce and was astonished that he had got through. The dunce did not notice Bernard, who saw him slip some money for a candle into the beadle’s hand. Bernard shrugged his shoulders and went out.

When he found himself in the street again, he saw that the angel had left him. He went into a tobacco shop—the very same in which George, a week before, had risked his first false coin. He had passed a great many more since then. Bernard bought a packet of cigarettes and smoked. Why had the angel gone? Had Bernard and he then nothing to say to each other?… Noon struck. Bernard was hungry. Should he go back to the pension? Should he join Olivier and share with him Edouard’s lunch?… He made sure that he had enough money in his pocket and went into a restaurant. As he was finishing his lunch, a soft voice murmured in his ear:

“The time has come to do your accounts.”

Bernard turned his head. The angel was again beside him.

“You will have to make up your mind,” he said. “You have been living at haphazard. Do you mean to let chance dispose of your life? You want to be of service—but what do you wish to serve? That is the question.”

“Teach me; guide me,” said Bernard.

The angel led Bernard into a hall full of people. At the bottom of the hall was a platform and on the platform a table covered with a dark red cloth. A man, who was still young, was seated behind the table and was speaking.

“It is a very great folly,” he was saying, “to imagine that there is anything we can discover. What have we that we have not received? It is the duty of each one of us to understand while we are still young, that we derive from the past, that we are bound to this past by every kind of obligation, and that the whole of our future is marked out by it.”

When he had finished developing this theme, another orator took his place; he began by approving the former and then raised his voice against the presumption of the man who thinks he can live without a doctrine, or guide himself by his own lights.

“A doctrine has been bequeathed us,” he said. “It has already traversed many centuries. It is assuredly the best—the only one. The duty of each one of us is to prove this truth. It has been handed down to us by our masters. It is our country’s and every time she repudiates it, she has to pay for her error dearly. No one can be a good Frenchman without holding it, nor succeed in anything good without conforming to it.”

To this second orator succeeded a third, who thanked the other two for having so ably traced what he called the theory of their programme; then he set forth that this programme consisted in nothing less than the regeneration of France, which was to be brought about by the united efforts of each single member of their party. He himself, he declared, was a man of action; he affirmed that the end and proof of every theory is in its practice, and that the duty of every good Frenchman is to be a combatant.

“But, alas!” he added, “how many isolated efforts are wasted! Our country would be far greater, our activity would be far more wide-spread, all that is best in us would be brought forward, if every effort were co-ordinated, if every act contributed to the glory of law and order, if everyone were willing to serve in the ranks.”

And while he was speaking, a number of young men went round the audience, distributing printed forms of membership, which had only to be signed.

“You wanted to offer yourself,” said the angel then. “What are you waiting for?”

Bernard took one of the papers which were handed him; it began with these words: “I solemnly pledge myself to …” He read it, then looked at the angel and saw that he was smiling; then he looked at the meeting and recognized among the young men present, the schoolfellow whom he had seen just before in the church, burning a candle in gratitude for having passed his examination; and suddenly, further on, he caught sight of his eldest brother, whom he had not seen since he had left home. Bernard did not like him and was a little jealous of the consideration with which their father seemed to treat him. He crumpled the paper nervously in his hand.

“Do you think I ought to sign?”

“Yes,” said the angel, “certainly—if you have doubts of yourself.”

“I doubt no longer,” said Bernard, flinging the paper from him.

In the mean time the orator was still speaking. When Bernard began to listen to him again, he was teaching an infallible method for never making a mistake, which was to give up ever forming a judgment for oneself and always to defer to the judgments of one’s superiors.

“And who are these superiors?” asked Bernard; and suddenly a great indignation seized him.

“If you went on to the platform,” he said to the angel, “and grappled with him, you would be sure to throw him.… ”

“It is with you I will wrestle. This evening. Do you agree …?”

“Yes,” said Bernard.

They went out. They reached the boulevards. The crowds that were thronging them seemed entirely composed of rich people; each of them seemed sure of himself, indifferent to the others, but anxious.

“Is that the image of happiness?” asked Bernard, who felt the tears rising in his heart.

Then the angel took Bernard into the poor quarters of the town, whose wretchedness Bernard had never suspected. Evening was falling. They wandered for a long time among tall, sordid houses, inhabited by disease, prostitution, shame, crime and hunger. It was only then that Bernard took the angel’s hand, and the angel turned aside to weep.

Bernard did not dine that evening; and when he went back to the pension he did not attempt to join Sarah, as he had done the other evenings, but went straight upstairs to the room he shared with Boris.

Boris was already in bed but not asleep. He was re-reading, by the light of his candle, the letter he had received that very morning from Bronja.

“I am afraid,” wrote his friend, “that I shall never see you again. I caught cold when we got back to Poland. I have a cough; and though the doctor hides it from me, I feel I cannot live much longer.”

When he heard Bernard coming up, Boris hid the letter under his pillow, and blew the candle out hurriedly.

Bernard came in in the dark. The angel was with him, but, although the night was not very dark, Boris saw only Bernard.

“Are you asleep?” asked Bernard in a whisper. And as Boris did not answer, he concluded he was sleeping.

“Then, now,” said Bernard to the angel, “we’ll have it out.”

And all that night, until the breaking of the day, they wrestled.

Boris dimly perceived that Bernard was struggling. He thought it was his way of praying and took care not to disturb him. And yet he would have liked to speak to him, for his unhappiness was very great. He got up and knelt down at the foot of his bed. He would have liked to pray, but he could only sob:

“Oh, Bronja! You who can see angels, you who were to have opened my eyes, you are leaving me! Without you, Bronja, what will become of me? What will become of me?”

Bernard and the angel were too busy to hear him. They wrestled together till daybreak. The angel departed without either of them having vanquished the other.

When, a little later, Bernard himself left the room, he met Rachel in the passage.

“I want to speak to you,” she said. Her voice was so sad that Bernard understood at once what it was she had to say to him. He answered nothing, bowed his head, and in his great pity for Rachel suddenly began to hate Sarah and to loathe the pleasure he took with her.