The Counterfeiters XIV : Bernard and Laura

Il arrive quelquefois des accidents dans la vie, d’où il faut être un peu fou pour se bien tirer.


It was with Laura’s letter, which Edouard had inserted into his journal, that Bernard’s reading came to an end. The truth flashed upon him; it was impossible to doubt that the woman whose words rang so beseechingly in this letter was the same despairing creature of whom Olivier had told him the night before—Vincent Molinier’s discarded mistress. And it became suddenly evident to Bernard that, thanks to this two-fold confidence, Olivier’s, and Edouard’s in his journal, he was as yet the only one to know the two sides of the intrigue. It was an advantage he could not keep long; he must play his cards quickly and skilfully. He made up his mind at once. Without forgetting, for that matter, any of the other things he had read, Bernard now fixed his attention upon Laura.

“This morning I was still uncertain as to what I ought to do; now I have no longer any doubt,” he said to himself, as he darted out of the room. “The imperative, as they say, is categorical. I must save Laura. It was not perhaps my duty to take the suit-case, but having taken it, I have certainly found in the suit-case a lively sense of my duty. The important thing is to come upon Laura before Edouard can get to her; to introduce myself and offer my services in such a way that she cannot take me for a swindler. The rest will be easy. At this moment I have enough in my pocket-book to come to the rescue of misfortune as magnificently as the most generous and the most compassionate of Edouards. The only thing which bothers me is how to do it. For Laura is a Vedel, and though she is about to become a mother in defiance of the code, she is no doubt a sensitive creature. I imagine her the kind of woman who stands on her dignity and flings her contempt in your face, as she tears up the bank-notes you offer her—with benevolence, but in too flimsy an envelope. How shall I present the notes? How shall I present myself? That’s the rub! As soon as one leaves the high road of legality, in what a tangle one finds oneself! I really am rather young to mix myself up in an intrigue as stiff as this. But, hang it all, youth’s my strong point. Let’s invent a candid confession—a touching and interesting story. The trouble is that it’s got to do for Edouard as well; the same one—and without giving myself away. Oh! I shall think of something. Let’s trust to the inspiration of the moment.… ”

He had reached the address given by Laura, in the Rue de Beaune. The hotel was exceedingly modest, but clean and respectable looking. Following the porter’s directions, he went up three floors. Outside the door of No. 16 he stopped, tried to prepare his entry, to find some words; he could think of nothing; then he made a dash for it and knocked. A gentle, sister-like voice, with, he thought, a touch of fear in it, answered:

“Come in!”

Laura was very simply dressed, all in black; she looked as if she were in mourning. During the few days she had been in Paris, she had been vaguely waiting for something or somebody to get her out of her straits. She had taken the wrong road, not a doubt of it; she felt completely lost. She had the unfortunate habit of counting on the event rather than on herself. She was not without virtue, but now that she had been abandoned she felt that all her strength had left her. At Bernard’s entrance, she raised one hand to her face, like someone who keeps back a cry or shades his eyes from too bright a light. She was standing, and took a step backwards; then, finding herself close to the window, with her other hand she caught hold of the curtain.

Bernard stopped, waiting for her to question him; but she too waited for him to speak. He looked at her; with a beating heart, he tried in vain to smile.

“Excuse me, Madame,” he said at last, “for disturbing you in this manner. Edouard X., whom I believe you know, arrived in Paris this morning. I have something urgent to say to him; I thought you might be able to give me his address and … forgive me for coming so unceremoniously to ask for it.”

Had Bernard not been so young, Laura would doubtless have been frightened. But he was still a child, with eyes so frank, so clear a brow, so timid a bearing, a voice so ill-assured, that fear yielded to curiosity, to interest, to that irresistible sympathy which a simple and beautiful being always arouses. Bernard’s voice gathered a little courage as he spoke.

“But I don’t know his address,” said Laura. “If he is in Paris, he will come to see me without delay, I hope. Tell me who you are. I will tell him.”

“Now’s the moment to risk everything,” thought Bernard. Something wild flashed across his eyes. He looked Laura steadily in the face.

“Who I am?… Olivier Molinier’s friend.… ” He hesitated, still uncertain; but seeing her turn pale at this name, he ventured further: “Olivier, Vincent’s brother—the brother of your lover, who has so vilely abandoned you.… ”

He had to stop. Laura was tottering. Her two hands, flung backwards, were anxiously searching for some support. But what upset Bernard more than anything was the moan she gave—a kind of wail which was scarcely human, more like that of some hunted, wounded animal (and the sportsman, suddenly filled with shame, feels himself an executioner); so odd a cry it was, so different from anything that Bernard expected, that he shuddered. He understood all of a sudden that this was a matter of real life, of veritable pain, and everything he had felt up till that moment seemed to him mere show and pretence. An emotion surged up in him so unfamiliar that he was unable to master it. It rose to his throat.… What! is he sobbing? Is it possible?… He, Bernard!… He rushes forward to hold her up, and kneels before her, and murmurs through his sobs:

“Oh, forgive me … forgive; I have hurt you.… I knew that you were in difficulties, and … I wanted to help you.”

But Laura, gasping for breath, felt that she was fainting. She cast round with her eyes for somewhere to sit down. Bernard, whose gaze was fixed upon her, understood her look. He sprang towards a small arm-chair at the foot of the bed, with a rapid movement pushed it towards her, and she dropped heavily into it.

At this moment there occurred a grotesque incident which I hesitate to relate, but it was decisive of Laura’s and Bernard’s relationship, by unexpectedly relieving them of their embarrassment. I shall therefore not attempt to embellish the scene by any artifices.

For the price which Laura paid for her room (I mean, which the hotel-keeper asked her) one could not have expected the furniture to be elegant, but one might have hoped it would be solid. Now the small arm-chair, which Bernard pushed towards Laura, was somewhat unsteady on its feet; that is to say, it had a great propensity to fold back one of its legs, as a bird does under its wing—which is natural enough in a bird, but unusual and regrettable in an arm-chair; this one, moreover, hid its infirmity as best it could beneath a thick fringe. Laura was well acquainted with her arm-chair, and knew that it must be handled with extreme precaution, but in her agitation she forgot this and only remembered it when she felt the chair giving way beneath her. She suddenly gave a little cry—quite different from the long moan she had uttered just before, slipped to one side, and a moment later found herself sitting on the floor, between the arms of Bernard, who had hurried to the rescue. Bashful, but amused, he had been obliged to put one knee on the ground. Laura’s face therefore happened to be quite close to his; he watched her blush. She made an effort to get up; he helped her.

“You’ve not hurt yourself?”

“No; thanks to you. This arm-chair is ridiculous; it has been mended once already.… I think if the leg is put quite straight, it will hold.”

“I’ll arrange it,” said Bernard. “There!… Will you try it?” Then, thinking better of it: “No; allow me. It would be safer for me to try it first. Look! It’s all right now. I can move my legs” (which he did, laughing). Then, as he rose: “Sit down now, and if you’ll allow me to stay a moment or two longer, I’ll take this chair. I’ll sit near you, so that I shall be able to prevent you from falling. Don’t be frightened.… I wish I could do more for you.”

There was so much ardour in his voice, so much reserve in his manners, and in his movements so much grace, that Laura could not forbear a smile.

“You haven’t told me your name yet.”


“Yes. But your family name?”

“I have no family.”

“Well, your parents’ name.”

“I have no parents. That is, I am what the child you are expecting will be—a bastard.”

The smile vanished from Laura’s face; she was outraged by this insistent determination to force an entrance into her intimacy and to violate the secret of her life.

“But how do you know?… Who told you?… You have no right to know.… ”

Bernard was launched now; he spoke loudly and boldly:

“I know both what my friend Olivier knows and what your friend Edouard knows. Only each of them as yet knows only half your secret. I am probably the only person besides yourself to know the whole of it.… So you see,” he added more gently, “it’s essential that I should be your friend.”

“Oh, how can people be so indiscreet?” murmured Laura sadly. “But … if you haven’t seen Edouard, he can’t have spoken to you. Has he written to you?… Is it he who has sent you?” …

Bernard had given himself away; he had spoken too quickly and had not been able to resist bragging a little. He shook his head. Laura’s face grew still darker. At that moment a knock was heard at the door.

Whether they will or no, a link is created between two creatures who experience a common emotion. Bernard felt himself trapped; Laura was vexed at being surprised in company. They looked at each other like two accomplices. Another knock was heard. Both together said:

“Come in.”

For some minutes Edouard had been listening outside the door, astonished at hearing voices in Laura’s room. Bernard’s last sentences had explained everything. He could not doubt their meaning; he could not doubt that the speaker was the stealer of his suit-case. His mind was immediately made up. For Edouard is one of those beings whose faculties, which seem benumbed in the ordinary routine of daily life, spring into activity at the call of the unexpected. He opened the door therefore, but remained on the threshold, smiling and looking alternately at Laura and Bernard, who had both risen.

“Allow me, my dear Laura,” said he, with a gesture as though to put off any effusions till later. “I must first say a word or two to this gentleman, if he will be so good as to step into the passage for a moment.”

His smile became more ironical when Bernard joined him.

“I thought I should find you here.”

Bernard understood that the game was up. There was nothing for him to do but to put a bold face on it, which he did with the feeling that he was playing his last card:

“I hoped I should meet you.”

“In the first place—if you haven’t done so already (for I’ll do you the credit of believing that that is what you came for), you will go downstairs to the bureau and settle Madame Douviers’ bill with the money you found in my suit-case and which you must have on you. Don’t come up again for ten minutes.”

All this was said gravely but with nothing comminatory in the tone. In the mean time Bernard had recovered his self-possession.

“I did in fact come for that. You are not wrong. And I am beginning to think that I was not wrong either.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“That you really are the person I hoped you would be.”

Edouard was trying in vain to look severe. He was immensely entertained. He made a kind of slight mocking bow:

“Much obliged. It remains to be seen whether I shall be able to return the compliment. I suppose, since you are here, that you have read my papers?”

Bernard, who had endured without flinching the brunt of Edouard’s gaze, smiled in his turn with boldness, amusement, impertinence; and bowing low, “Don’t doubt it,” he said. “I am here to serve you.”

Then, quick as an elf, he darted downstairs.

When Edouard went back into the room, Laura was sobbing. He went up to her. She put her forehead down on his shoulder. Any manifestation of emotion embarrassed him almost unbearably. He found himself gently patting her on the back as one does a choking child:

“My poor Laura,” said he; “come, come, be sensible.”

“Oh, let me cry a little; it does me good.”

“All the same we’ve got to consider what you are to do.”

“What is there I can do? Where can I go? To whom can I speak?”

“Your parents.… ”

“You know what they are. It would plunge them in despair. And they did everything they could to make me happy.”

“Douviers? …”

“I shall never dare face him again. He is so good. You mustn’t think I don’t love him.… If you only knew … If you only knew … Oh, say you don’t despise me too much.”

“On the contrary, my dear; on the contrary. How can you imagine such a thing?” And he began patting her on the back again.

“Yes; I don’t feel ashamed any more, when I am with you.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I can’t remember. I have only been living in the hopes that you would come. There were times when I thought I couldn’t bear it. I feel now as if I couldn’t stay here another day.”

Her sobs redoubled and she almost screamed out, though in a choking voice:

“Take me away! Take me away!”

Edouard felt more and more uncomfortable.

“Now Laura … You must be calm. That … that … I don’t even know his name.… ”

“Bernard,” murmured Laura.

“Bernard will be back in a moment. Come now; pull yourself together. He mustn’t see you in this state. Courage! We’ll think of something, I promise you. Come, come! Dry your eyes. Crying does no good. Look at yourself in the glass. Your face is all swollen. You must bathe it. When I see you crying I can’t think of anything.… There! Here he is! I can hear him.”

He went to the door and opened it to let in Bernard, while Laura, with her back turned at the dressing-table, set about restoring a semblance of calm to her features.

“And now, sir, may I ask when I shall be allowed to get possession of my belongings again?”

He looked Bernard full in the face as he spoke, with the same ironical smile on his lips as before.

“As soon as you please, sir; but at the same time, I feel obliged to confess that I shall certainly feel the loss of your belongings a good deal more than you do. I am sure you would understand if you only knew my story. But I’ll just say this, that since this morning I am without a roof, without a family and with nothing better to do than throw myself into the river, if I hadn’t met you. I followed you this morning for a long time while you were talking to my friend Olivier. He has spoken to me about you such a lot! I should have liked to go up to you. I was casting about for some excuse to do so, by hook or by crook.… When you threw your luggage ticket away, I blessed my stars. Oh, don’t take me for a thief. If I lifted your suit-case, it was more than anything so as to get into touch with you.”

Bernard brought all this out almost in a single breath. An extraordinary animation fired his words and features—as though they were aflame with kindness. Edouard, to judge by his smile, thought him charming.

“And now …?” asked he.

Bernard understood that he was gaining ground.

“And now, weren’t you in need of a secretary? I can’t believe I should fill the post badly—it would be with such joy.”

This time Edouard laughed outright. Laura watched them both with amusement.

“Ho! Ho!… We must think about that. Come and see me to-morrow at the same time, and here—if Madame Douviers will allow it—for I have a great many things to settle with her too. You’re staying at a hotel, I suppose? Oh, I don’t want to know where. It doesn’t matter in the least. Till tomorrow.”

He held out his hand.

“Sir, before I leave you,” said Bernard, “will you allow me to remind you that there is a poor old music-master, called La Pérouse, I think, who is living in the Faubourg St. Honoré, and who would be made very happy by a visit from you?”

“Upon my word, that’s not a bad beginning. You have a very fair notion of your future duties.”

“Then … Really? You consent?”

“We’ll see about it to-morrow. Good-bye.”

Edouard, after having stayed a few moments longer with Laura, went to the Moliniers’. He hoped to see Olivier again; he wanted to speak to him about Bernard. He saw only Pauline, though he stayed on and on in desperation.

Olivier, that very afternoon, yielding to the pressing invitation passed on to him by his brother, had gone to visit the author of The Horizontal Bar, the Comte de Passavant.