The Counterfeiters XVII : The Evening at Rambouillet

“I should take more interest in animals if I were less interested in men,” Robert had said. And Vincent had replied:

“Perhaps you think them too different. Every single one of the great discoveries in zoology has left its mark upon the study of man. The whole subject is interlinked and interdependent, and I believe that a novelist who also prides himself upon being a psychologist can never turn aside his eyes from the spectacle of nature and remain ignorant of her laws without paying for it. In the Goncourts’ Journal, which you gave me to read, I fell upon an account of a visit they paid to the Zoological houses in the Jardin des Plantes, in which your charming authors deplore Nature’s—or the Lord’s—lack of imagination. This paltry blasphemy merely serves to show up the stupidity and incomprehension of their small minds. On the contrary, what astonishing diversity! It seems as if Nature had essayed one after the other every possible manner of living and moving, as if she had taken adventage of every permission granted by matter and its laws. What a lesson can be read in the progressive abandonment of certain palæontological experiments which proved irrational and inelegant; the economy which has enabled some forms to survive explains why the others were abandoned. Botany is instructive, too. When I examine a plant, I observe that at the place where each leaf springs from the stem, a bud lies sheltered, which is capable in its turn of shooting into life the following year. When I remark that out of all these buds, two at most are destined to come to anything, and that by the very fact of their growth they condemn all the others to atrophy, I cannot help thinking that the case is the same with men. The buds which develop naturally are always the terminal buds—that is to say, those that are farthest away from the parent trunk. It is only by pruning or layering that the sap is driven back and so forced to give life to those germs which are nearest the trunk and which would otherwise have lain dormant. And in this manner, the most recalcitrant plants, which, if left to themselves, would no doubt have produced nothing but leaves, are induced to bear fruit. Oh! an orchard or a garden is an excellent school! and a horticulturist would often make the best of pedagogues! There is more to be learnt, if one can use one’s eyes, in a poultry-yard, or a kennel, or an aquarium, or a rabbit warren, or a stable, than in all your books, or even, believe me, in the society of men, where everything is more or less sophisticated.”

Then Vincent spoke of selection. He explained how in order to obtain the finest seedlings, the ordinary plan is to choose the most robust specimens; and then he told them of the fantastic experiment of one audacious horticulturist, who, out of a horror of routine—it really seemed almost like a challenge—took it into his head, on the contrary, to select the most weakly—with the result that he obtained blooms of incomparable beauty.

Robert, who had at first listened with only half an ear, like a person who merely expects to be bored, now made no attempt to interrupt. His attention delighted Lilian, who took it as a compliment to her lover.

“You ought to tell us,” said she, “of what you were saying the other day about fish and their power of accommodation to the different amounts of salt in the sea.… That was it, wasn’t it?”

“Except for certain regions,” went on Vincent, “the sea’s degree of saltness is pretty constant; and marine fauna as a rule tolerates only very slight variations of density. But the regions I was telling you about are nevertheless not uninhabited; the regions I mean are those which are subject to intense evaporation and in which, therefore, the proportion of water to salt is greatly reduced—or, on the contrary, those where the constant inflow of fresh water dilutes the salt and, so to speak, un-salts the sea—those that are near the mouths of great rivers, or such enormous currents as the Gulf Stream. In such regions the animals called stenohaline grow enfeebled to the point of perishing; and as they become incapable of defending themselves, they inevitably fall a prey to the animals called euryhaline, so that the euryhalines live by choice on the confines of the great currents, where the density of the water varies and where the stenohalines meet their death. You understand, don’t you, that the stenos are those which can exist only in water whose degree of saltness is unvarying; whilst the eurys …”

“Are the pickles,” interrupted Robert,1 who always referred everything back to himself, and only took an interest in that part of a theory which he could turn to account.

“Most of them are ferocious,” added Vincent gravely.

“I told you it was better than any novel!” cried Lilian, ecstatically.

Vincent seemed transfigured—indifferent to the impression he was making. He was extraordinarily grave and went on in a lower tone as if he were talking to himself:

“The most astonishing discovery of recent times—at any rate the one that has taught me most—is the discovery of the photogenic apparatus of deep-sea creatures.”

“Oh, tell us about it!” cried Lilian, letting her cigarette go out and her ice melt on her plate.

“You know, no doubt, that the light of day does not reach very far down into the sea. Its depths are dark … huge gulfs, which for a long time were thought to be uninhabited; then people began dragging them, and quantities of strange animals were brought up from these infernal regions—animals that were blind, it was thought. What use would the sense of sight be in the dark? Evidently they had no eyes; they wouldn’t, they couldn’t have eyes. Nevertheless, on examination it was found to people’s amazement that some of them had eyes; that they almost all had eyes, and sometimes antennæ of extraordinary sensibility into the bargain. Still people doubted and wondered: why eyes with no means of seeing? Eyes that are sensitive—but sensitive to what?… And at last it was discovered that each of these animals which people at first insisted were creatures of darkness, gives forth and projects before and around it its own light. Each of them shines, illuminates, irradiates. When they were brought up from the depths at night and turned out on to the ship’s deck, the darkness blazed. Moving, many-coloured fires, glowing, vibrating, changing—revolving beacon-lamps—sparkling of stars and jewels—a spectacle, say those who saw it, of unparalleled splendour.”

Vincent stopped. No one spoke for a long time.

“Let’s go home,” said Lilian suddenly; “I’m cold.”

Lady Lilian took her seat beside the chauffeur, so as to be sheltered by the glass screen. The two men at the back of the open carriage carried on their own conversation. Robert had hardly spoken during the whole of the dinner; he had listened to Vincent talking; now it was his turn.

“Fish like us, my dear boy, perish in calm waters,” said he to begin with, giving his friend a thump on the shoulder. He allowed himself a few familiarities with Vincent, but would not have suffered him to reciprocate them; for that matter, Vincent was not disposed to. “Do you know, I think you’re simply splendid! What a lecturer you’d make! Upon my word, you ought to quit doctoring. I really can’t see you prescribing laxatives and having no company but the sick. A chair of comparative biology, or something of that sort is what you want.”

“Yes,” said Vincent, “I have sometimes thought so.”

“Lilian ought to be able to manage it. She could get her friend the Prince of Monaco to interest himself in your researches. It’s his line, I believe. I must speak to her about it.”

“She has suggested it already.”

“Oh, so I see there’s no possibility of doing you a service,” said he, pretending to be vexed. “Just as I wanted to ask you one for myself, too.”

“It’s your turn to be in my debt. You think I’ve got a very short memory.”

“What? You’re still thinking of that five thousand francs? But you’ve paid it back, my dear fellow. You owe me nothing at all now—except a little friendship, perhaps.” He added these words in a voice that was almost tender, and with one hand on Vincent’s arm. “I want to appeal to it now.”

“I am listening,” said Vincent.

But at that, Passavant immediately protested, as if the impatience were Vincent’s, and not his own:

“Goodness me! What a hurry you’re in! Between this and Paris there’s time enough surely.”

Passavant was particularly skilful in the art of fathering his own words—and anything else he preferred to disown—on other people. He made a feint of dropping his subject, like an angler who, for fear of startling his trout, makes a long cast with his bait and then draws it in again by imperceptible degrees.

“A propos, thank you for sending me your brother. I was afraid you had forgotten.”

Vincent made a gesture and Robert went on:

“Have you seen him since?… Not had time, eh?… Then it’s odd you shouldn’t have asked me yet how the interview went off. At bottom, you don’t in the least care. You don’t take the faintest interest in your brother. What Olivier thinks and feels, what he is, what he wants to be, never concerns you in the least.… ”

“Reproaching me?” asked Vincent.

“Upon my soul, yes. I can’t understand—I can’t swallow your indifference. When you were ill at Pau, it might pass; you could only think of yourself; selfishness was part of the cure. But now … What! you have growing up beside you a young nature quivering with life, a budding intelligence, full of promise, only waiting for a word of advice, of encouragement.… ”

He forgot as he spoke that he too had a brother.

Vincent, however, was no fool; the very exaggeration of this attack showed him that it was not sincere and that his companion’s indignation was merely brought forward to pave the way for something else. He waited in silence. But Robert stopped short suddenly; he had just surprised in the glimmer of Vincent’s cigarette a curious curl of his lip, which he took for irony; now there was nothing in the world he was more afraid of than being laughed at. And yet, was it really that which made him change his tone? I wonder whether the sudden intuition of a kind of connivance between Vincent and himself … He assumed an air of perfect naturalness and started again in the tone of “there’s no need of any pretence with you”:

“Well, I had a most delightful conversation with young Olivier. I like the boy exceedingly.”

Passavant tried to catch Vincent’s expression (the night was not very dark); but he was looking fixedly in front of him.

“And now, my dear Molinier, the service I wished to ask you …”

But, here again, he felt the need of marking time, something like an actor who drops his part for a moment with the assurance that he has his audience well in hand, and wishes to prove that he has, both to himself and to them. He bent forward therefore to Lilian, and speaking in a loud voice as if to accentuate the confidential character of what he had been saying, and of what he was going to say:

“Are you sure, dear lady, that you aren’t catching cold? We have a rug here that’s doing nothing.… ”

Then, without waiting for an answer, he sank back into the corner of the carriage beside Vincent, and lowering his voice once more:

“This is what it is. I want to take your brother away with me this summer. Yes; I tell you so frankly; what’s the use of beating about the bush between us two?… I haven’t the honour of being acquainted with your parents and of course they wouldn’t allow Olivier to come away with me unless you were to intervene on my behalf. No doubt you’ll find a way of disposing them in my favour. You know what they’re like, I suppose, and you’ll be able to get round them. You’ll do this for me, won’t you?”

He waited a moment, and then, as Vincent kept silent, went on:

“Look here, Vincent … I’m leaving Paris soon … I don’t know for where as yet. I absolutely must have a secretary.… You know I’m founding a review. I have spoken about it to Olivier. He seems to me to have all the necessary qualities.… But I don’t want to look at it merely from my own selfish point of view: I also think that this will be an opportunity for him to show all his qualities. I have offered him the place of editor.… Editor of a review at his age!… You must admit that it’s unusual.”

“So very unusual, that I’m afraid my parents may be rather alarmed by it,” said Vincent at last, turning his eyes on him and looking at him fixedly.

“Yes; you’re no doubt right. Perhaps it would be better not to mention that. You might just put forward the interest and advantage it would be for him to go travelling with me, eh? Your parents must understand that at his age one wants to see the world a bit. At any rate, you’ll arrange it with me, won’t you?”

He took a breath, lighted another cigarette, and went on without changing his tone:

“And since you’re going to be so nice, I’ll try and do something for you. I think I can put you on to a thing which promises to turn out quite exceptionally.… A friend of mine in the highest banking circles is keeping it open for a few privileged persons. But please don’t mention it; not a word to Lilian. In any case I can only dispose of a very limited number of shares; I can’t offer them both to her and you … Your last night’s fifty thousand francs? …”

“I have already disposed of them,” answered Vincent rather shortly, for he remembered Lilian’s warning.

“All right, all right.… ” rejoined Robert quickly, as though he were a little piqued; “I’m not insisting.” Then with the air of saying: “I can’t be offended with you,” he added: “If you change your mind, send me word at once … because after five o’clock to-morrow evening, it’ll be too late.”

Vincent’s admiration for the Comte de Passavant had become much greater since he had ceased to take him seriously.

1 Robert here makes a pun impossible to translate. Dessalé (literally unsalted) is a slang expression meaning something like unscrupulous.

—Translator’s note.