The Counterfeiters XVIII : Edouard’s Journal: Second Visit to La Pérouse

Two o’clock. Lost my suit-case. Serves me right. There was nothing in it I cared about but my journal. But I cared about that too much. In reality, very much amused by the adventure. All the same, I should like to have my papers back again. Who will read them?… Perhaps now that I have lost them, I exaggerate their importance. The book I have lost came to an end with my journey to England. When I was over there, I used another one, which I shall give up writing in, now that I am back in France. I shall take good care not to lose this one, in which I am writing now. It is my pocket-mirror. I cannot feel that anything that happens to me has any real existence until I see it reflected here. But since my return I seem to be walking in a dream. What a miserable uphill affair my conversation with Olivier was! And I had been looking forward to it with such joy.… I hope it has left him as ill-satisfied as it has me—as ill-satisfied with himself as with me. I was no more able to talk than to get him to talk. Oh, how difficult the slightest word is, when it involves the whole assent of the whole being! When the heart comes into play, it numbs and paralyses the brain.

Seven o’clock. Found my suit-case; or at any rate the person who took it. The fact that he is Olivier’s most intimate friend makes a link between us which it rests only with me to tighten. The danger is that anything unexpected amuses me so intensely that I lose sight of my goal.

Seen Laura. My desire to oblige people becomes more acute if there is a difficulty to be encountered, if a struggle has to be waged with convention, banality and custom.

Visit to old La Pérouse. It was Madame de La Pérouse who opened the door to me. I have not seen her for more than two years; she recognized me, however, at once. (I don’t suppose they have many visitors.) She herself for that matter is very little changed; but (is it because I have a prejudice against her?) I thought her features harder, her expression sourer, her smile falser than ever.

“I am afraid Monsieur de La Pérouse is in no state to receive you,” said she at once, with the obvious desire of getting me to herself; then, taking advantage of her deafness in order to answer before I had questioned her:

“No, no; you’re not disturbing me in the least. Do come in.”

She showed me into the room where La Pérouse gives his music lessons, the two windows of which look on to the courtyard. And as soon as she had got me safely inside:

“I am particularly glad to have a word with you alone. Monsieur de La Pérouse—I know what an old and faithful friend of his you are—is in a state which causes me great anxiety. Couldn’t you persuade him to take more care of himself? He listens to you; as for me, I might as well talk to the winds.”

And thereupon she entered upon an endless series of recriminations: the old gentleman refuses to take care of himself, simply in order to annoy her; he does everything he oughtn’t to do and nothing that he ought; he goes out in all weathers and will never consent to put on a muffler; he refuses to eat at meals—“Monsieur isn’t hungry”—and nothing she can contrive tempts his appetite; but at night, he gets up and turns the kitchen upside down, cooking himself some mess or other.

I have no doubt the old lady didn’t invent anything; I could make out from her tale that it was her interpretation alone which gave an offensive meaning to the most innocent little facts and that reality had cast a monstrous shadow on the walls of her narrow brain. But does not her old husband on his side misinterpret all his wife’s attentions? She thinks herself a martyr, while he takes her for a torturer. As for judging them, understanding them, I give it up; or rather, as always happens, the better I understand them, the more tempered my judgment of them becomes. But this remains—that here are two beings tied to each other for life and causing each other abominable suffering. I have often noticed with married couples how intolerably irritating the slightest protuberance of character in the one may be to the other, because in the course of life in common it continually rubs up against the same place. And if the rub is reciprocal, married life is nothing but a hell.

Beneath her smoothly parted black wig, which makes the features of her chalky face look harder still, with her long black mittens, from which protrude little claw-like fingers, Madame de la Pérouse has the appearance of a harpy.

“He accuses me of spying on him,” she continued. “He has always needed a great deal of sleep; but at night he makes a show of going to bed, and then when he thinks I am fast asleep, he gets up again; he muddles about among his old papers, and sometimes stays up till morning reading his late brother’s letters and crying over them. And he wants me to bear it all without a word!”

Then she went on to complain that he wanted to make her go into a home; which would be all the more painful to her, she added, as he was quite incapable of living alone and doing without her care. This was said in a tearful tone, which was only too obviously hypocritical.

Whilst she was continuing her grievances, the drawing-room door opened gently behind her and La Pérouse came in, without her hearing him. At his wife’s last words he smiled at me ironically, and touched his head with his hand to signify she was mad. Then, with an impatience—a brutality even—of which I should not have thought him capable, and which seemed to justify the old woman’s accusations (but it was due too to his having to raise his voice to a shout in order to make himself heard):

“Come, Madam,” he cried, “you ought to understand that you are tiring this gentleman with your talk. He didn’t come to see you. Leave the room.”

The old lady protested that the arm-chair she was sitting in was her own and that she was not going to quit it.

“In that case,” went on La Pérouse with a grim chuckle, “we will leave you.” Then, turning to me, he repeated in gentler tones, “come, let us leave her.”

I made a sketchy and embarrassed bow, and followed him into the next room—the same one in which I had paid him my last visit.

“I am glad you heard her,” he said; “that’s what it’s like the whole day long.”

He shut the window.

“There’s such a noise in the street, one can’t hear oneself speak. I spend my time shutting the windows and Madame de La Pérouse spends hers opening them again. She declares she’s stifling. She always exaggerates. She refuses to realize that it’s hotter out of doors than in. And yet I’ve got a little thermometer; but when I show it to her, she says that figures prove nothing. She wants to be right even when she knows she’s wrong. Her main object in life is to annoy me.”

He himself, while he was speaking, seemed to me a little off his balance; he went on with growing excite a grievance against me. All her judgments are warped. I’ll just explain to you how it is: You know our impressions of outside images come to us reversed and that there’s an apparatus in our brains which sets them right again. Well, Madame de La Pérouse has no such apparatus for setting them right. In her brain they remain upside down. You can see for yourself how painful it is.”

It was certainly a great relief to him to explain himself and I took care not to interrupt him. He went on:

“Madame de la Pérouse has always eaten much too much. Well, now she makes out that it’s I who eat too much. If she sees me presently with a bit of chocolate (it’s my chief nourishment) she’ll be certain to mutter, ‘Munching again! …’ She spies on me. She accuses me of getting up in the night to eat on the sly, because she once surprised me making myself a cup of chocolate in the kitchen.… What am I to do? When I see her opposite me at table, falling ravenously upon her food, as she does, it takes away my appetite entirely. Then she declares I’m pretending to be fastidious just to torment her.”

He paused, and then in a sort of lyrical outburst:

“Her reproaches amaze me!… For instance, when she is suffering from her sciatica, I condole with her. Then she stops me, shrugs her shoulders and says: ‘Don’t pretend you have a heart.’ Everything I do or say is in order to give her pain.”

We had seated ourselves, but all the time he was speaking, he kept getting up and sitting down again, in a state of morbid restlessness.

“Would you believe that in each of these rooms there are some pieces of furniture which belong to her and others to me? You saw her just now with her armchair. She says to the charwoman, when she’s doing the room, “No, that’s Monsieur’s chair; don’t touch that.” And the other day, when by mistake I put a bound music-book on a little table which belongs to her, Madame knocked it on to the ground. Its corners were broken.… Oh, it can’t last much longer.… But, listen …”

He seized me by the arm, and lowering his voice:

“I have taken steps. She is continually threatening me if I ‘go on!’ to take refuge in a home. I have set aside a certain sum of money which ought to be enough to pay for her at Sainte-Périne’s; I hear it’s an excellent place. The few lessons I still give, bring me in hardly anything. In a little time I shall be at the end of my resources; I should be forced to break into this sum—and I’m determined not to. So I have made a resolution.… It will be in a little over three months. Yes; I have fixed the date. If you only knew what a relief it is to think that every hour it draws nearer.”

He had bent towards me; he bent closer still:

“And I have put aside a Government bond. Oh, it’s not much. But I couldn’t do more. Madame de La Pérouse doesn’t know about it. It’s in my bureau in an envelope directed to you, with the necessary instructions. I know nothing about business, but a solicitor whom I consulted, told me that the interest could be paid directly to my grandson, until he is of age, and that then he would have the security. I thought it wouldn’t be too great a tax on your friendship to ask you to see that this is done. I have so little confidence in solicitors!… And even, if you wished to make me quite easy, you would take charge of the envelope at once.… You will, won’t you?… I’ll go and fetch it.”

He trotted out in his usual fashion and came back with a large envelope in his hand.

“You’ll excuse me for having sealed it; for form’s sake,” said he. “Take it.”

I glanced at it and saw under my name the words “To be opened after my death” written in printed letters.

“Put it in your pocket quick, so that I may know it’s safe. Thank you.… Oh, I was so longing for you to come! …”

I have often experienced that, in moments as solemn as this, all human emotion is transformed into an almost mystic ecstasy, into a kind of enthusiasm, in which my whole being is magnified, or rather liberated from all selfishness, as though dispossessed of itself and depersonalized. Those who have never experienced this will certainly not understand me. But I felt that La Pérouse understood. Any protestation on my part would have been superfluous, would have seemed unbecoming, I thought, and I contented myself with pressing the hand which he gave me. His eyes were shining with a strange brightness. In his free hand, in which he had at first been holding the envelope, was another piece of paper.

“I have written his address down here. For I know now where he is. At Saas-Fée. Do you know it? It’s in Switzerland. I looked for it on the map, but I couldn’t find it.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a little village near the Matterhorn.”

“Is it very far?”

“Not so far but that I might perhaps go there.”

“Really? Would you really?… Oh, how good you are!” said he. “As for me, I’m too old. And besides, I can’t because of his mother.… All the same, I think …” He hesitated for a word, then went on: “that I should depart more easily, if only I had been able to see him.”

“My poor friend.… Everything that is humanly possible to do to bring him to you, I will do. You shall see little Boris, I promise you.”

“Thank you!… Thank you!”

He pressed me convulsively in his arms.

“But promise me that you won’t think of …”

“Oh, that’s another matter,” said he, interrupting me abruptly. Then immediately and as if he were trying to prevent me from going on by distracting my attention:

“What do you think, the other day, the mother of one of my pupils insisted on taking me to the theatre! About a month ago. It was a matinée at the Théâtre Français. I hadn’t been inside a theatre for more than twenty years. They were giving Hernani by Victor Hugo. You know it? It seems that it was very well acted. Everybody was in raptures. As for me, I suffered indescribably. If politeness hadn’t kept me there, I shouldn’t have been able to stay it out.… We were in a box. My friends did their best to calm me. I wanted to apostrophize the audience. Oh! how can people? How can people? …”

Not understanding at first what it was he objected to, I asked:

“You thought the actors very bad?”

“Of course. But how can people represent such abominations on the stage?… And the audience applauded. And there were children in the theatre—children, brought there by their parents, who knew the play.… Monstrous! And that, in a theatre subsidized by the State!”

The worthy man’s indignation amused me. By now I was almost laughing. I protested that there could be no dramatic art without a portrayal of the passions. In his turn, he declared that the portrayal of the passions must necessarily be an undesirable example. The discussion continued in this way for some time; and as I was comparing this portrayal of the passions to the effect of letting loose the brass instruments in an orchestra:

“For instance, the entry of the trombones in such and such a symphony of Beethoven’s which you admire.… ”

“But I don’t, I don’t admire the entry of the trombones,” cried he, with extraordinary violence. “Why do you want to make me admire what disturbs me?”

His whole body was trembling. The indignant—the almost hostile tone of his voice surprised me and seemed to astonish even himself, for he went on more calmly:

“Have you observed that the whole effect of modern music is to make bearable, and even agreeable, certain harmonies which we used to consider discords?”

“Exactly,” I rejoined. “Everything must finally resolve into—be reduced to harmony.”

“Harmony!” he repeated, shrugging his shoulders. “All that I can see in it is familiarization with evil—with sin. Sensibility is blunted; purity is tarnished; reactions are less vivid; one tolerates; one accepts.… ”

“To listen to you, one would never dare wean a child.”

But he went on without hearing me: “If one could recover the uncompromising spirit of one’s youth, one’s greatest indignation would be for what one has become.”

It was impossible to start on a teleological argument; I tried to bring him back to his own ground:

“But you don’t pretend to restrict music to the mere expression of serenity, do you? In that case, a single chord would suffice—a perfect and continuous chord.”

He took both my hands in his, and in a burst of ecstasy, his eyes rapt in adoration, he repeated several times over:

“A perfect and continuous chord; yes, yes; a perfect and continuous chord.… But our whole universe is a prey to discord,” he added sadly.

I took my leave. He accompanied me to the door and as he embraced me, murmured again:

“Oh! How long shall we have to wait for the resolution of the chord?”