The Counterfeiters XVI : Vincent and Lilian

Vincent’s education, which had been materialistic in tendency, prevented him from believing in the supernatural—which gave the demon an immense advantage. The demon never made a frontal attack upon Vincent; he approached him crookedly and furtively. One of his cleverest manÅ“uvres consists in presenting us our defeats as if they were victories. What inclined Vincent to consider his behaviour to Laura as a victory of his will over his affections, was that, being naturally kind-hearted, he had been obliged to force himself, to steel himself to be hard to her.

Upon a closer examination of the evolution of Vincent’s character in this intrigue, I discover various stages, which I will point out for the reader’s edification:

1st.—The period of good motives. Probity. Conscientious need of repairing a wrong action. In actual fact: the moral obligation of devoting to Laura the money which his parents had laboriously saved to meet the initial expenses of his career. Is this not self-sacrifice? Is this motive not respectable, generous, charitable?

2nd.—The period of uneasiness. Scruples. Is not the fear that this sum may be insufficient, the first step towards yielding, when the demon dangles before Vincent’s eyes the possibility of increasing it?

3rd.—Constancy and fortitude. Need after the loss of this sum to feel himself “above adversity.” It is this “fortitude” which enables him to confess his loss at cards to Laura; and which enables him by the same occasion to break with her.

4th.—Renunciation of good motives, regarded as a cheat, in the light of the new ethic which Vincent finds himself obliged to invent in order to legitimize his conduct; for he continues to be a moral being, and the devil will only get the better of him by furnishing him with reasons for self-approval. Theory of immanence, of totality in the moment; of gratuitous, immediate and motiveless joy.

5th.—Intoxication of the winner. Contempt of the reserve in hand. Supremacy.

After which the demon has won the game.

After which the being who believes himself freest is nothing but a tool at his service. The demon will never rest now till Vincent has sold his brother to that creature of perdition—Passavant.

And yet Vincent is not bad. All this, do what he will, leaves him unsatisfied, uncomfortable. Let us add a few words more:

The name “exoticism” is, I believe, given to those of Maia’s iridescent folds which make the soul feel itself a stranger, which deprive it of points of contact. There are some whose virtue would resist, but that the devil, before attacking it, transplants them. No doubt, if Vincent and Laura had not been under other skies, far from their parents, from their past memories, from all that maintained them in consistency with themselves, she would not have yielded to him, nor he attempted to seduce her. No doubt it seemed to them out there that their act did not enter into the reckoning.… A great deal more might be said; but the above is enough as it is to explain Vincent to us better.

With Lilian too he felt himself in a foreign land.

“Don’t laugh at me, Lilian,” he said to her that same evening. “I know that you won’t understand, and yet I have to speak to you as if you would, for I’m unable now to get you out of my mind.”

Lilian was lying on the low divan, and he, half reclining at her feet, let his head rest, lover-like, on his mistress’s knees, while she, lover-like, caressed it.

“The thing that was on my mind this morning was … yes, I think it was fear. Can you keep serious for a moment? Can you try to understand me so far as to forget for a moment—not what you believe, for you believe in nothing—but just that very fact that you believe in nothing? I didn’t believe in anything either; I believed that I didn’t believe in anything—not in anything but ourselves, in you, in me, in what I am when I am with you, in what, thanks to you, I am going to become.… ”

“Robert will be here at seven,” interrupted Lilian. “I don’t want to hurry you; but if you don’t get on a little quicker, he’ll interrupt you just at the very moment you are beginning to get interesting. I don’t suppose you’ll want to go on when he’s here. It’s odd that you should think it necessary to take so many precautions to-day. You remind me of a blind man, who has first to feel every spot with his stick, before he puts his foot on it. And yet you can see I’m keeping quite serious. Why haven’t you more confidence?”

“Ever since I’ve known you, my confidence has become extraordinary,” went on Vincent. “I’m capable of great things, I feel it; and you see that everything I do turns out successful. But that’s exactly what terrifies me. No; be quiet.… All day long I’ve kept thinking of what you told me this morning about the wreck of the Bourgogne, and of the people who wanted to get into the boat having their hands cut off. It seems to me that something wants to get into my boat—I’m using your image, so that you may understand me—something that I want to prevent getting in.… ”

“And you want me to help you drown it.… You old coward!”

He went on without looking at her:

“Something I keep off, but whose voice I hear … a voice you have never heard, that I listened to in my childhood.… ”

“And what does your voice say? You don’t dare tell me. I’m not surprised. I bet there’s a dash of the catechism in it, isn’t there?”

“Oh, Lilian, try to understand; the only way for me to get rid of these thoughts is to tell them to you. If you laugh at them, I shall keep them to myself and they’ll poison me.”

“Tell away then,” said she with an air of resignation. Then, as he kept silent and hid his face like a child in Lilian’s skirts: “Well, what are you waiting for?”

She seized him by the hair and forced him to raise his head:

“Upon my word, he’s really taking it seriously! Just look at him! He’s quite pale. Now, listen to me, my dear boy; if you mean to behave like a child, it’s not my affair at all. One must have the strength of one’s convictions. And, besides, you know I don’t like people who cheat. When you try on the sly to pull things into your boat which oughtn’t to be there, you’re cheating. I’m willing to play the game with you, but it must be above board; and I warn you my object is to make you succeed. I think you’re capable of becoming somebody important—really important; I feel great intelligence in you, and great strength. I want to help you. There are quite enough women who spoil the careers of the men they fall in love with; I want to do the contrary. You’ve already told me you wanted to give up doctoring in order to work at science and that you were sorry you hadn’t enough money.… Now you have just won fifty thousand francs, which isn’t bad to begin with. But you must promise me not to play any more. I’ll put as much money as is necessary at your disposition, on condition that if people say you are being kept, you’ll be strong-minded enough to shrug your shoulders.”

Vincent had risen. He went up to the window. Lilian went on:

“To begin with, I think one might as well finish up with Laura and send her the five thousand francs you promised her. Now that you’ve got the money, why don’t you keep your word? I don’t like it at all. I detest caddishness. You don’t know how to cut hands off decently. When that’s done, we’ll go and spend the summer where it’ll be most profitable for your work.… You mentioned Roskoff; personally, I should prefer Monaco, because I know the Prince, and he might take us for a cruise and perhaps give you a job in his laboratory.”

Vincent kept silent. He felt disinclined to say to Lilian (he only told her later) that before coming to see her, he had gone to the hotel, where Laura had waited for him in such despair. Anxious to be at last quit of his debt, he had slipped the notes, on which she no longer counted, into an envelope. He had entrusted the envelope to a waiter, and then waited in the hall until he should hear it had been delivered to her personally. A few moments later the waiter had come downstairs bringing with him the envelope, across which Laura had written:

“Too late.”

Lilian rang and asked for her cloak. When the maid had left the room:

“Oh, I wanted to say to you, before Robert arrives, that if he proposes an investment for your fifty thousand francs—be careful. He is very rich, but he is always in want of money. There! look and see. I think I hear his horn. He’s half an hour before the time; but so much the better.… For all we were saying! …”

“I’m early,” said Robert as he came into the room, “because I thought it would be amusing to go and dine at Versailles. Do you agree?”

“No,” said Lady Griffith; “the fountains bore me. I had rather go to Rambouillet; there’s time. We shan’t have such a good dinner, but we shall be able to talk more easily. I want Vincent to tell you his fish stories. He knows some marvellous ones. I don’t know if what he says is true, but it’s more amusing than the best novel in the world.”

“That’s not perhaps what a novelist will think,” said Vincent.

Robert de Passavant held an evening paper in his hand:

“D’you know that Brugnard has just been made assistant-secretary at the Ministry of Justice? Now’s the moment to get your father decorated,” said he, turning to Vincent. Vincent shrugged his shoulders.

“My dear Vincent,” went on Passavant, “allow me to say that you’ll very much offend him by not asking this little favour—which he’ll be so delighted to refuse.”

“Suppose you were to start by asking it for yourself,” Vincent replied.

Robert made an affected little grimace:

“No; for my part, my vanity consists in never blushing—not even in my buttonhole.” Then, turning to Lilian:

“Do you know it’s rare nowadays to find a man who has reached forty without either the syph or the legion of honour?”

Lilian smiled and shrugged her shoulders:

“For the sake of a bon-mot he actually consents to make himself out older than he is! I say, is it a quotation from your next book? It’ll be tasty.… Go on downstairs. I’ll get my cloak and follow you.”

“I thought you had given up seeing him,” said Vincent to Robert on the staircase.

“Who? Brugnard?”

“You said he was so stupid.… ”

“My dear friend,” replied Passavant, pausing on a step and holding up Molinier, for he saw Lady Griffith coming and wanted her to hear: “you must know there’s not a single one of my friends whom I’ve known a certain time, that hasn’t given me unmistakable proofs of imbecility. I assure you that Brugnard resisted the test longer than a great many others.”

“Than I, perhaps?” asked Vincent.

“Which doesn’t prevent me from being your best friend … as you see.”

“And that’s what’s called wit in Paris,” said Lilian, who had joined them. “Take care, Robert; there’s nothing fades quicker.”

“Don’t be alarmed, dear lady; words only fade when they’re printed.”

They took their places in the car and drove off. As their conversation continued to be very witty, it is useless to record it here. They sat down to table on the terrace of a hotel overlooking a garden where the shades of night were gathering. Under cover of the evening, their talk grew slower and graver; urged on by Lilian and Robert, Vincent found himself at last the only speaker.